A bright, clean space : by Unni R.
Vritthiyum velichavumulla oridam : Short Story in Malayalam.
(All mistakes of translation are mine. Certain stories have to be translated. I am so proud of the rich literary tradition of my mother tongue. )
Two female vagrants, drunk to the hilt, were chattering raucously. They disregarded the other customers and the modest, unassuming ambience of the café. Most of the intellectuals and writers knew one of the women; the one who had carried on with her body selling when Verlaine lay dead in a room right opposite to hers. Her favourite pastimes included making obscene gestures at strangers while gabbling forever. The other woman was a gypsy singer; an acquaintance the former had made recently. Nowadays the police and the night walkers were familiar with the duo, singing loudly at night standing on the street, foyers of houses or the café steps.
‘I knew that the damned grey beard would cheat us!’ The sex-worker spat out.
Though the singer friend tried to soothe her, she continued to fume. After gulping down more than the usual, and having clenched her fingers and gestured mockingly at the faces of the onlookers, the woman moved away from the café.
When the crowd abated, the young waiter approached his older colleague.
‘Grey beard? Who on earth is that?’
The older man did not reply, and instead went to serve liquor to the man seated in a corner.
The customer was deaf and doddering. When the miasma of liquor reached him from behind, he raised his head. The waiter, familiar with the snuffling prowess of the old fellow, poured a drink into the empty glass, with a half-smile. After sending him a grateful look, the customer lowered his gaze back to the same spot on the table.
‘Sometimes I feel that the old gaffer has conked off! Damn it!’ The young waiter frowned. ‘What do you think?’
‘It will rain,’ the reply from the older colleague was simple.
The young man stared at the darkness outside.
‘How do you know that?’
‘My father taught me in my childhood.’
‘Was he a weather man?’
‘No, a humble farmer.’
On hearing the word ‘farmer’, the young man looked disdainfully at him.
‘Now you have started spouting gibberish too…no doubt due to senescence.’
At that moment, the café’ door creaked half open making the grunting noise of an animal, its life on the edge of guttering away. A well-built man, grey beard. The two waiters looked at each other. The new guest approached the seat by the window.
‘Is he the bearded man they were yammering about?’ The young man asked in a whisper.
The old waiter was focused on observing the new guest.
‘God’s spy on earth,’ he muttered.
‘What did you say?’ The young man interjected.
‘Nothing. Ask him what he wants.’
The youth went near the guest. He stood cowering nearby, as if he was petrified of surrendering to the man’s gaze.
The guest wanted the St.Jude liquor.
As he poured the drink, the young man murmured, ‘That’s the favourite of American sailors! He must be a captain!’
The older man simply smiled.
The aged customer by the corner raised his hand again for a drink.
‘That senile fool will drink himself to death…right on that wretched table!’ The young waiter spoke as if to nobody, as he returned from serving the guest by the window.
‘The man is in his declining years. Do not speak like that about him.’
‘Well, look at the other man! He is also aging, but how youthful he looks! One is terrified to gaze into his eyes!’ The young man’s voice was high pitched.
The new guest retrieved a small note book and pencil from his bag. He sharpened the pencil. The gills of the pencil, he dumped into the ash-tray.
‘He must be writing down his memoirs,’ the young waiter remarked. ‘From every shore, what splendid experiences!’
‘He is not a sailor.’
‘Then what is he?’
‘He might be a writer.’
The young man grinned. He was remembering the weak forms and gazes of the writers and artists who frequented the café.
‘How can a bull of a man like him be a writer? Has your father taught you to read such stuff too?’
The wind buffeted around. The open window panes, furiously moved close and with a grating noise, stood facing one another. The man near the window, as serene as the umpire among wrestlers, separated them and sent them back to their places. It started raining.
Without waiting to watch the astonishment springing up on the young man’s face, the old waiter moved towards the elderly customer by the café corner.
The man near the window beckoned for another drink. As he served liquor, the young man tried to slyly catch a glimpse of what he was writing. The script was in English.
‘Told you, didn’t I? He is a captain!’
His senior colleague did not deign to correct him.
When the café’s door made a squeak rising above the rain, all the three men, except the aged customer, looked towards it.
A beautiful young woman. She sat by the table in the middle of the room.
The young man suddenly nudged the older waiter, ‘Look! The bull has stopped writing! Now he is staring at her ankles!’
The elder waiter smiled and went towards the young lady.
‘Even though I am no farmer’s son, I can prophesy certain matters! And I won’t be wrong either! His look makes it evident that he is a lewd old captain!’
As he made his way to the woman with liquor, the elderly waiter had noticed the guest’s eyes: those were like a cat curling up near the girl’s feet. Hence, without disturbing it, he carefully stood on a side and poured the drink.
‘And I am sure of another thing too!’ The young man was adamant. ‘The whores had come searching for this bearded man!’
The old waiter looked at the guest by the window. The face brimming with memories had dived inside the papers again. He could divine a spine which transformed from a feline sprawl to a gigantic roar. That man went on writing, sharpening his pencil and raising his hand for more liquor.
‘What on earth is he greedily scribbling down?’ The young man wondered.
‘He is writing a story for everybody.’
‘Never! He is writing about all the women he had met! That’s why he is boozing so joyfully!’
The deaf customer knocked on the table with his empty glass. Both the waiters turned to look at him. The girl turned her head too.
‘Did you see? He is intoxicated with his writing! Did not even hear that sound! Lucky mongrel! Must have slept with countless women!’
The older waiter watched the quickness of the writer’s hand.
The enormous man was no longer there. He seemed to have acquired great lightness. The table seemed to be tottering under the weight of the words that were gathering life with every breath of his.
‘Well, looks like he is tired of drinking now,’ the young man griped.
The elder colleague stopped him from saying more, with a finger over his own lips. Never in his umpteen years of service in the café had he felt the presence of such a clean, bright space! The rasping sound when the tip of the pencil met the paper was redolent of the blowing of air by a goldsmith.
The young woman and the deaf old man left the café. The rain abated. The man by the window was still writing.
‘You are right,’ the old waiter murmured. ‘He is a captain. Someone who makes his way alone.’
The youngster smirked; his guess getting validated.
The giant of a man handed over a handsome tip, and thanked them both before leaving the café.
Staring at the firm footsteps of the receding man, and in the boldness wrought by his guess, the young man observed, ‘He will live past a hundred! The confidence in those eyes! Nobody can beat him ever! Comes from sleeping exclusively with young women!’
‘May he live long!’
‘Why, do you doubt it?’
As he shut the door, the old waiter said, ‘Those who determine how they live, also determine how they die.’
The young man did not understand a word. He simply said, ‘Lucky captain!’
Years passed by.
The old waiter stopped working after sometime. The youngster became middle aged. One day he saw a news in the papers. The face looked familiar to him.
‘I was wrong,’ he mumbled, staring at the news.
‘What?’ His son asked.
‘He shot himself.’
The man’s son looked askance at him.
‘My old colleague was right.’
The son scolded him for spouting gibberish.
‘Did you know this grey beard?’
His old colleague must be working in a farm somewhere, telling his children and grandchildren about rains and humans. Since he was busy ruminating, the man did not hear his son’s question.
Author’s Note: Hail Hemingway!