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A Cold December Night, 2004-Chennai
The subway connecting Park station and Chennai central was unusually crowded that weekend. Preetha rushed ahead, making way through the river of population obstructing her progress.
“Excuse me… sorry there…excuse…excuse me…Opps sorry…” She kept apologizing and pleading excuses throughout her singular stampede towards the Central railway station.
As soon as she came out of the subway she ran towards platform number one. It was 8:10 PM and Chennai-Allapey was bound to start at 8:20. Her faced gleamed with perspiration as she rushed past the security checks holding her hand bag and a backpack. Preetha was wearing an elegant pink top and blue jeans. As she walked ahead fast, she took the ticket from her pocket to confirm her seat and coach number:
“S3, 52…damn it…” she increased her pace as she cursed, pocketing the ticket again.
S6…S5…S4…and the train honked its departure. That’s when she heard a familiar voice:
She was in too much of a hurry even to realize that someone was calling her name. She almost got into the train when that voice called her again.
She stood still. She doubted if she was dreaming. No. It was all too real. She turned her head and the first thing she noticed was the push cart of Higgin Bothams mobile bookstall. She looked quizzically at the handsome guy with a beard beaming at her. He was wearing a red shirt with white checks and black boot cut jeans to complement them. He was standing in front of a stacked up pile of books and magazines of every kind. It was none other than Vinay. She did not know how to respond or what she was supposed to say. She felt as if her tongue was missing. They were both in the same city and they did not know that till now.
“Preetha!!! What a surprise… how are you…?” there was so much happiness in his voice.
Somehow she regained her senses along with her posture.
“I’m fine… “
“What are you doing here in Chennai…? How is Sathyabhama teacher?”
“I’m working in Infosys Vinu… at Chengalpet…Amma is fine…What about you?” She smiled as she spoke to him. And as they kept looking at each other, Vinay noticed that train had started. He directed Preetha to get into the train before it was too late. She turned around, walked a few paces and comfortably boarded the train. Then she looked at him. But the scene shattered her. Preetha saw him push the book- cart and follow her along with the train. Her eyes welled up and she bit her lips. Vinay looked deep in her eyes as he pushed hard to keep up with the train that was gradually picking up speed.
“Where do you stay…?” Preetha shouted at him.
“You remember Jayram, our senior? He is working here in ICICI Bank near Koyambedu. I’m staying with him… Tell teacher I asked for her….”
“OK…” The train accelerating quickly now, but Vinay kept pushing hard. And he tried jostling his attention between Preetha and people on the platform.
“Will meet Ok… I will come to Chengalpet one day…” he shouted at her.
“It is my engagement this Sunday….come if you happen to be in Palakkad” and the last part she said was eaten up by the gushing wind and speeding train. Preetha regretted uttering those words even though those were true.
Vinay pulled the book-cart to a stop as if he had collided against a mountain. He stood there behind the wheels and watched Preetha moving away from him. He felt his heart being torn into bits by some kind of unknown pain. She was waving at him with a big smile on her face. He too pretended to return that smile and waved back at her. Little did he see the tears streaming down her cheeks…credits to the dim lit platforms of Indian Railway.
Preetha could not sleep that night in the train. Like a robot she kept playing Snake Xenxia again and again in her Nokia 1110. Memories of her past kept rampaging in her brain. She cursed the cruel fate for bringing Vinay in front of her, just hours before such a crucial event in her life. She melted down into a fatigued sleep only when the train reached Coimbatore. That too it was involuntary.
Same was the case with Vinay. He pushed book cart carelessly around the platform. The sales were poor these days. People were totally alienated from reading and very few men or women lingered around bookstalls. The owner, a burly old man with shining bald head, used to say that before TV came, their bookstall attracted the same rush as that of Adayar Ananda Bhavan. A good section of the population depended on books as their only source of entertainment other than Cinema. Now things were different. With every passing day people were gradually losing their touch with books. But Vinay did not buy that theory.
“You write good books and good stories, there would always be takers sir” He used to debate and the owner used to look at him as if he was kidding.
After finishing his shift at around 2:00 AM, Vinay went to their one BHK flat in Koyambedu riding an old ram-shackled Hero Honda Splendour. As he drove through the wee hour traffic, Preetha’s words seemed to echo inside his skull. She was getting engaged the next day to some lucky, rich, handsome guy. She was working in Infosys… so probably she would have done engineering. He remembered her saying it was her dream to study in NSS Engineering College. He felt happy for her, but fatefully sad for himself who had nothing but troubles. He had to take care of his brother’s education. His mother was not well, but thank god his Uncle was kind enough to take care of them both. Life seemed to hang in front of him like a looming question mark, to which he had no answer. Lost in these thoughts, it was almost 3:00AM by the time he reached there. Jayaram was snoring heavily after a good days work. Without making a noise he went to the kitchen and took the bundle of cheap papers bundled up in polythene cover. He carefully pulled out the sheets. He skimmed through those dull pages and gazed in amazement at his own neatly written words. He looked at the bundle of refills used up by his Stick Easy pen, which was then worth 2 rupees a piece.
The image of Arundati Roy was still fresh in Vinay’s mind. Her face was the real motivation behind leaving his job at his Uncle’s coffee shop in Shornur and coming to Chennai. Whenever someone asked what you are doing in Chennai, he would simply tell that he was working in a big press. In real, he used the meagre salary he earned as a bookseller not only to dive into the world of books, but write a book on his own. He believed that anybody who had a story to tell needed just a pen and paper to write it down. Now that was theory, in practice it was a lot difficult. But he survived. Three long years with Higgin Bothams helped him love and appreciate literature from an intimate perspective. All this and more for free!!! That was the best part. When there were no trains, he would spend time in the stall, reading pulps and classics alike.
He regretted the way he went to the owner when he was done with the first draft and put the pile in front of the old man.
“What is this boy” he had asked.
“Sir my book…”
The old man looked as if he would spit on his face. But instead he smiled….then he laughed….and laughed till he had his heart and intestine out on the floor. Then he said:
“Poda dey… take the book cart to the third platform. Idiot. First go and pass matriculation, then will see.”
Latter he understood that publishers not only looked for grammar, but also quality literature. And what more, they take into consideration the qualifications of the author as well. Vinay was sure he had none of these. His spellings were pathetic and grammar was awful. All he had was a great story to tell and nobody seemed to be bothered about that. Moreover, if the old man had laughed at him, then there was no hope elsewhere.
But there was this great unrest in Vinay’s mind and he knew it would haunt him as long as the printed copy of his first book was not in his hand. So he set out in search of a printer instead of a publisher. And printers were expensive. Most of them asked him to write the stuff in Tamil or bring a type written copy of the draft. None of which he was capable of doing. Jayaram, his lean, intelligent looking friend saw him writing under the 100 watt bulb in the kitchen and was moved. He offered to help him but Vinay did not want to be a burden to his friend who was already working his ass out. Finally he hit bull’s eye with a Printer called ‘Nag & Sons Offset Printers’. The owner was a thin, dark young man with long curly hair, wearing spectacles. His name was Adhinarayanan Nagarajan. He had taken over the press after the demise of his father. Unlike some other printers in T-Nagar, this fellow seemed educated, sensible and most compassionate. He agreed to run an initial print of 500 copies in the cheapest possible paper, with the lightest possible ink. And for that Vinay agreed to pay him 10,000 bucks. He had no clue how to raise that kind of money. But then some his friends especially Jayaram and Nirmal (who was by now working in Canada) helped. So bit by bit he gathered enough money to make his dream come true.
“Today the sun will rise to realize my dream….today is THE day” He smiled at the thought. Vinay carefully folded back the sheets of paper back in the polythene bag, then carefully kept it over the rack. He jumped in to Jayaram’s bed and hugged him to grab a few hours of sleep.
When Preetha woke up, she had crossed Palakkad. Luckily for her, the train had a stop at Ottapalam and she got down there. She cursed herself for being so careless. Sitting in that station, sipping hot coffee and waiting for her father to come and pick her, she once again cherished the romantic hangover of seeing Vinay. Every time they met she felt it was so damn thrilling. Something that she generally seemed to lack in her routine life was suddenly rekindled. But she also felt sad about the fact that she was in a way the reason for his current plight. But he looked so happy. Preetha was really puzzled when she recollected his happy face.
“How can someone with a sick mother and dependent brother look so happy selling books on the railway platform…?” she scrambled her brain thinking about this over and over again. By the time she sipped the last drop of the coffee, her father had come to pick her in his blue Maruti 800.
He scolded her for sleeping off and causing trouble for him. Preetha turned a deaf ear towards whatever her father was saying. She looked out of the car’s window and gaped at the rising sun. Bharathapuzha(river) looked all but a dazzling beauty glowing under the orange sun. But Preetha somehow felt that the river was sad…like her. She wondered why she was disturbed all of a sudden. And as it turned out, it was the worst Saturday of her life.
Nothing she did or said went right. She was angry at everything. The engagement costume was missing the perfection, there was a pimple on her left cheek, the beautician was out of town. And finally when the beautician arrived, the Maruti 800’s tire got punctured on the way to beauty parlour. The day was bad and so was her mood. She felt so cooked up like she would burst anytime.
Meanwhile in Chennai, Nagrajan & Sons Offset printers began the type setting process of a strange book, by a strange guy with a strange title. Maari Sami, a man in his late forties wearing a torn lungi and shirt, with gray hair and semi drunkard eyes moved his dark hands with a working perfection of robot. He set the alphabet grid for the front page:
THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF BOOKER
Written By Vinay Chandran
Nag Printers T-Nagar
Little did Maari Sami realize that he was typesetting history.
Elsewhere it was 5:00 AM GMT and London was still cuddling under the cosy blanket of snow. Nandan Kishore and Anusha Gowda, a British born, newly wed Indian couple boarded a British Airways Jet-liner from Heathrow to Chennai. It was their first trip to India and they wanted to make it a really memorable one. Nandan was once an influential literary agent turned businessman and Anusha was working as Chief Program Manager of Intel- UK and Ireland. Away from their hectic schedule and far from the London snow, they wanted to spend some quality time in India.
Oblivious to everything, Vinay and Jayaram sat under the December sun enjoying the crowd and counting the waves in the Marina beach.
2 more episodes to go…
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