The window was open.
Sneha sat at her desk by the window. A neat stack of blank pages lay in front of her, held together by a tattered clipboard. Her favorite fountain pen with its blue- gray ink lay unopened on top of the virginal sheets. The sheets fluttered once in a while in the balmy air of a warm- cool February mid- morning. She felt swamped by the state she called lukewarm- neither hot nor cold. It made rebellion rise in her throat in bucolic bitterness. This antiseptic, lifeless, in- between state was intolerable.
The vista beyond the window was soothing- but not quite. She looked up at the huge neem tree which cast its shadow over the house. Dappled sunshine danced under the tree as the wind rustled the yellowing leaves. Once in a while a leaf would let go and ride the winds languidly to settle finally on the ground. The tree was shedding its foliage early this year, but not really. It’s indeterminate shedding matched the general vagueness. Sneha stirred restlessly in her chair.
The neem tree stood alone majestically at one corner of a grassy knoll. In the mid- distance beyond it, a stone’s throw from the house, a pond glinted in the sunlight. It was not really a real pond- just a depression in which rain water collected for a few months. Come summer, it will disappear. The pond too, wished to remain unfixed and uncertain. Sneha bit her lip in annoyance.
The black, serpentine thread of the highway ran along the pond for a few meters and then turned away. A narrow dirt road branched out from the highway and led to her house. The house stood in solitary, unapproachable aloofness. There were no other houses for miles around. Her late father had a strong distaste for his fellow humans. Over the years since his passing away, she had become accustomed to the solitude. Though she had no dislike for people, she had cherished her self- sufficient existence for years. Not anymore.
For the past few months, her loneliness had begun to irk her. She craved for the warmth that only sharing can bring. But she knew of no way to bring it into her life. The world swished past her on the highway. It didn’t notice her house, sitting demurely on a grassy patch. That’s when she had begun writing stories, weaving people and events that she wanted to live herself.
She pulled the clipboard towards her, uncapped the pen and began to write a new story. She let it spill out of her in untrammelled passion; the colors of her discontent painting the pristine white pages in their violent hues. This would be the last story she will ever write, one way or the other. She had promised herself this a few days ago.
Brows knotted together with concentrated intensity, she began to write.
The window was closed.
Pranav stood at the window of his office housed in a landmark high rise building in the busiest section of the commercial district. The air- conditioner hummed softly somewhere behind him, creating a pool of cool, air around him. Ten minutes ago he was engrossed in work; simultaneously reading mails and talking to irate customers on the phone while jotting down his to- do list for the day.
For Pranav this kind of multitasking was a way of life. He never wondered at his ability to focus on three or four things at the same instant. It was a survival tool for him. They didn’t give him this swank office for his tall- dark- handsome looks, after all. He earned every privilege of his phenomenal pay package.
Ten minutes ago, he had abruptly dropped everything he was working with and strolled over to the window. He didn’t know why he did it. He had never before cut a client off in midsentence and hung up on him. A part of him was horrified. For ten minutes, the phones had been jangling; his unfinished to-do list was glaring at him accusingly. He had turned his back on all the demands of his plush office and stared at the faded blue sky over the tops of buildings. Somewhere in the distance, he knew, there was the sea.
He had a strange feeling- as if he was a puppet at the end of a string. Someone commanded him to move; someone pulled a string and he moved, not only physically but also inside. He was amazed at himself. He had never ignored a phone bell in his life. Their strident call was an imperative he had always honored. An unanswered phone ring got on his nerves; he could never bear it. Yet, here he was, standing placidly in the vortex of ringing phone bells, as if he had gone stone deaf. What on earth was wrong with him? He shrugged his shoulders and kept standing at the window, ignoring the noise around him.
In the past few months, there were times when Pranav had felt as if the reins of his life had slipped from his fingers and he was being carried away on a strong current, unable to resist. He had felt like a puppet just as he was feeling today but the intensity was far muted then. Those times stood out clearly in his memory. The feeling of having lost control was intolerable to a man like him. It made him grind his teeth in rage.
He relived those periods of his life as he stood looking out of the window. Today too he got the uncanny feeling that he was being directed, as if he was just following a script with no power to change a single comma. He felt rebellion rise within him in a furious tide. This was ridiculous! He was a man not a toy train that could be shunted to any track by a manipulative despatcher pulling levers! He was the master of his life not a character in a play who has no idea or control on which role he would be cast in and when! This has got to stop, he declared to himself vehemently!
With a semblance of control wrested back from the unseen usurper, he felt a tad bit calmer. Turning crisply on his heels, he grabbed his car keys from his desk and walked out of his office leaving his cellphone, laptop and briefcase behind. He had no idea where he was going or why. All he knew was the fury that roiled within him. He would put it rest today, once and for all. Enough was enough.
At that hour of the day, traffic was light. He thanked God for it. He had no patience to deal with heavy traffic right now. Driving fast and surely, he found himself racing down the near deserted highway within a few minutes. He still had no idea where he was going but he was in a mighty hurry to get there. He floored the pedal and the car flew.
A couple of villages whizzed past the gleaming black hood of his car. He had entered undulating, hilly terrain. Driving through the winding roads was exhilarating to him. As he topped yet another hill, he could see the whole valley spread out. A small pond glistened by the road. When a narrow dirt road popped up on the right, he naturally and unhesitatingly swung into it. He stopped in front of the lonely house in a flurry of dust.
Why on earth are you stopping here?- a part of him asked himself. Shut up!- the other part said rudely. Don’t say a word!- it commanded imperiously.
He sat silent in the car, looking around him. He saw the neem tree, half- heartedly shedding its yellowed leaves. The house looked lived- in but he saw nobody around. He got out of the car and went up the few steps that led to the veranda before the front door. He pushed the door and found it unbolted.
Surprised, he walked in- at once hesitating and sure. His instinct led him to the only occupied room in the house. When he parted the curtains of the room and stepped in, he saw a woman. She was sitting at a desk in front of the open window, writing. She was so engrossed in her writing that she had no idea he was standing a few feet away from her.
His sharp intake of breath broke the spell for her. She stiffened. As she turned her head around, he walked closer to her. There was neither fear nor astonishment in her eyes. She wasn’t startled to find a stranger in her house. She looked at him without surprise. But her delight shone out of her eyes like the light from a hundred suns. With child- like wonder Sneha clasped her hands together and said, “You’re exactly as I expected you to be! And you’re here!”
“You!” exclaimed Pranav his intuition driving his words. “You are the one who’s been turning my life topsy turvy all this while! Here you sit, making protagonists like me live and die in your stories. I am fed up with your whimsical manipulation. I came to tell you, my creator, that I will not be bullied by you any longer. As of this moment, I rid myself of your story. Go create another character to play with. I am done with your tampering.
“And to make sure you don’t mess with me again, I will watch you day and night. We will get married and that will be that”, he finished with a flourish.
“I will never write another story again”, Sneha said. “Now that you have come to life, I don’t need to. We’ll get married? Really?!”
“Yes, we will. Wait a minute! Was that your plan all along?!” Understanding dawned slowly in Pranav’s eyes.
Sneha smiled radiantly and fell head over heels in love with her own creation all over again. They lived happily ever after, wrapped up in her story.
This was indeed the last story she ever wrote.
Note: This story is my tribute to the master story teller O Henry whose penchant with incorporating an unexpected ‘twist’ in the end became his signature style.
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