Ritwik sat in the foyer, tapping his feet nervously. The praetorian sitting guard over the desk looked up from her keyboard and arched an eyebrow at him. Ritwik gave her an uneasy smile; the receptionist responded with a twitch of her blood-red lips before turning her attention back to her computer screen. With nothing more to do, he pulled out his phone and browsed through it for the umpteenth time; Vaishali still seemed to be offline, her best wishes in the morning having been the last messages that he’d received from her. He contemplated calling her up, before discarding the idea; she had been overloaded with work the last they met. Ritwik slid the phone back in his pocket and browsed through the document in his hand again. It felt very heavy, but he knew the weight came not from the sheets of paper, but from the significance this document held as something that could make or break his fledgling career. He’d been anxious when he told Vaishali what he was going to do; his anxiousness did not improve with the seemingly endless wait he’d had to endure. Tired of waiting, he got up from the couch and approached the front desk.
“How much longer would I have to wait?” he asked.
“Your query has been forwarded to the relevant department, and will be addressed as soon as possible.” came the reply.
Ritwik was unimpressed. “Can you not give me an approximate timeframe?”
“Wish I could, honey.” The receptionist shrugged, sending ripples down her ample body from bun to bum. “Please take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly.” She turned her attention back to her computer; the blue homepage of a famous online networking website was clearly visible in the mirror behind her, with several chat windows open.
“I’ve been waiting for the past,” he made an exaggerated show of checking his watch, “two hours. I’d expect someone to have responded by now. Is the submissions team free?”
She shook her head; half her makeup seemed to shake with the motion. “The submissions team is busy.”
There was a brief ping, followed by another chat window opening. Ritwik could make out the name Zaheer in the mirror.
“When will they be free?” he queried, his impatience growing.
“I don’t know.”
“Can I know your name?”
“Thank you, Farah. Is the editor free?”
“No.” The woman was still busy typing away with merry abandon and smiling ever so often. Ritwik took a deep breath to hold his temper in check.
“Will he ever be free?” He asked in a deceptively soft voice.
“I don’t know.” She replied with all the pragmatism of sky-diving without a parachute, her eyes still fixed on her computer screen.
“You should; it’s your job.” Ritwik replied sweetly, in a tone that could have cut through diamonds. “Could you arrange a meeting with the publishing head now, honey, if halting your extremely busy online social life in order isn’t too much to ask?”
That caught her attention, he noticed with grim satisfaction. Hastily minimising a window where Zaheer was asking her what she did in her free time, she picked up the receiver and dialled a number. The phone was picked up after two rings; introductions were made, followed by a brief nod.
“The publishing head would see you now.” The relief in her tone was apparent; Ritwik noticed her wrinkles relax behind the facade of cosmetics. “You can wait in the conference room.”
“Thank you so much.” he replied, picking up the document and entering the conference room.
Within a minute, he was joined by a tall, balding, bespectacled man with a face resembling a disgruntled Australian pig. The man was shabbily dressed; his shirt was half un-tucked with betel stains all over. Optimism and sheer bloody-mindedness seemed to have played more of a part in his trousers betraying the temptations of gravity than the faded, chipped belt that he wore. His shirt was grotesquely extended by his potbelly; if capable of feeling, the buttons would have screamed in agony. His mismatched coat hung loosely over his shoulders as his small, squinty eyes appraised Ritwik.
“Sit down.” he ordered Ritwik, who complied without a question. “I am the publishing head, Vinod. Farah told me you wanted to meet me.”
“Yes sir,” Ritwik replied, “I have a manuscript that I’d like you to look at.”
“I only look at manuscripts that are going to be published. Is your manuscript going to be published?” Vinod deposited his ample bulk in a chair, slouching like a sack of potatoes.
“I do hope so.” Ritwik replied earnestly.
“Hope? Hope has nothing to do with it.” Vinod fumbled in his trouser pockets, pulling out car keys, mobile phone, a packet of tobacco, a soiled handkerchief, another set of keys, a notepad and a pen; he zeroed in on the notepad, flipping it open. “What’s your name, young man?”
“Ritwik, Ritwik, Ritwik...” Vinod browsed through the notepad, flipping page after page with his tobacco stained fingers. “There’s no Ritwik, but there is a Ridam here. Are you Ridam?”
“No sir. I am Ritwik.”
“Are you sure?” The permanent scowl on Vinod’s face seemed to be deepening.
“Absolutely positive sir.”
“Hmm, a pity; we could have used a Ridam. We’re supposed to publish his book but I don’t have a clue what it’s all about. He’s well overdue a visit anyway for the final round of editing. Are you sure you’re not Ridam?”
“I am Ritwik, sir.” Ritwik replied, exasperated.
“Yes yes, you’ve already told me that a thousand times. Why do you have to be so repetitive?” Vinod snapped irritably. Ritwik wisely chose to keep his mouth shut, pushing the manuscript towards him instead. Vinod glared at it suspiciously, as if he’d been passed a ticking time bomb.
“What is it?” He asked warily.
“The manuscript, sir.”
“Ridam’s?” Vinod asked hopefully.
“No, sir. It is mine.”
“And who are you again?”
“Ritwik Kargeti, sir.”
Vinod flipped through a couple of pages on his notepad.
“I don’t know any Ritwik.” He said finally, slamming his notepad down on the table. “Do I?” He added hesitantly, browsing through his notepad again just to be certain.
“I don’t see any Ritwik, but I do have a Ridam here. Are you Ridam?”
Ritwik felt the publisher’s beady eyes watching him expectantly as the world around him started to spin. He felt like banging his head on the table, and promptly did so; the spinning universe seemed to be back in order after a few bangs.
“What did you do that for?” Vinod queried, seemingly both shocked and curious. Ritwik got up from his seat and walked towards him.
“It helps me put things in perspective. You must give it a try someday.” Ritwik grounded out the words through his teeth, all semblance of deference now vanished. “I want you to listen, Vinod, and I want you to listen very carefully, because I will not repeat it.” He paused to ensure he had the publisher’s complete attention. “I am Ritwik Kargeti. I am neither Ridam nor any representative of his, and I do not want to hear his name from your mouth again. If I do, I will make you regret the day you started maintaining a notepad. I am an author, and you do not want to test my imagination. It will be very painful for you.”
A small gulp from Vinod told him his vague threat had shaken the scatter-brained publisher. Encouraged by the impact of his words and spurred onwards by his frustration, he continued in a louder tone.
“I want your publishing house to represent me in publishing a series of high-fantasy novels, the manuscript for which has been submitted to you three times to no avail. I have been led and misled by your team over and over again. My manuscript seems to have been the only one burned in a fire, or chewed upon by rats in your basement. The latest excuse was that their copy of the manuscript had been lost while moving office, which I don’t really believe has changed its location. Now they want me to resubmit. Resubmit! That’s three more months to have another excuse ready!” His voice shook with passion as he slammed his palm down in front of Vinod. “No more resubmissions! This ends now!”
A bead of sweat dribbled down the curve of Ritwik’s oval face. He was breathing heavily, and his face was red with anger and frustration. Vinod was looking askance at him.
“Do you have to shout?” he asked, mild irritation showing on his face. Ritwik sighed and slumped on a chair.
“No. I’m sorry.” Suddenly, he felt deflated. “I just wanted someone to look at the manuscript.”
Vinod brightened up. “Why didn’t you say so before? Let me have a look.”
He snatched Ritwik’s manuscript out of his hands and peered at the cover page. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about the fight between good and evil. It draws heavily from Indian mythology, which has been restructured to fit a mythical world. It is a story about honour, duty, sacrifice...”
“Basically, all the things that no one gives a crap about.” Vinod threw down the manuscript on the table. “Listen, kid, I’ve read what you’ve written,” he motioned dismissively as Ritwik glanced at the unopened document, “and it simply won’t cut it. Nothing to do with you, you understand; it’s about what public wants. People don’t want to know about honour and glory and all that claptrap – no! They want entertainment. They want what Sunny can offer them.”
“No, the other Sunny.”
“Ah. Strawberry condoms?”
“Close, but no.”
“An erection?” Ritwik ventured hesitantly. The conversation was threatening to unravel once again.
“Yes!” Vinod exclaimed. “They want sex, they want entertainment. They want their protagonist to be like them – greedy, needy, desperate. Look at your most famous Indian authors today. All they’ve done is repackage sex into stories. But their stories sell like garamagaram chai because of one ingredient - masala.” He flung his hands up dramatically. “People don’t want all this nonsense about honour and duty and whatnot. It’ll just make them feel worse about their pathetic lives.”
Vinod settled back in his chair with arms folded across his chest; his face lit with a beatific smile and his benedictory gaze settled on Ritwik. Ritwik felt a response was expected of him, but words failed him. He reached for the manuscript, still unopened, still unmarked.
“So you think this won’t work?” he said finally, in a very disappointed voice.
Vinod shook his head. “Sadly, no. We won’t be publishing that one. What was your name again?”
“Ritwik.” The voice was a whisper, nothing more.
“Ritwik? But I see no Ritwik here.” Vinod was flipping through his notepad again.
“You won’t.” Ritwik turned and walked towards the door. Farah gave him a reproachful look as he walked out of the conference hall, but swiftly resumed her online socialising. Ritwik didn’t care; he was too far through to care anymore. All the hard work felt wasted – all those painstaking hours spent completing, editing, rewriting and reediting the manuscript seemed inconsequential. He had staked his professional career, his relationship, his entire future for this one break. And now he could see everything tumbling down the drain. His phone vibrated as he walked out on the street.
“Hey.” Vaishali’s voice on the other end was chirpy and full of life as usual.
“Hi.” he replied tonelessly.
“What happened in the meeting?”
“They rejected it without even giving it a read. They wanted something which appeals to the masses, something with masala!” his vision blurred; tears threatened to overwhelm him. “They say there isn’t any scope for what I’ve written.”
“That’s not true. You’ve written it very well, and people would want to read it.” Vaishali tried to encourage him. “You can send it somewhere else, you know.”
“No, I won’t. I’m done trying.” his voice broke. A tear rolled down his cheek. “I’m done.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that.” Vaishali chastened him. “You’ve had the imagination to think of something remarkable, the ingenuity to put it on paper and the courage to follow your dream. How many people can do that?”
Ritwik remained silent, tears streaking down his face.
“They said they wanted masala, something to appeal to the masses?” Vaishali continued when Ritwik did not respond. “How about your college memoirs? It made for a good read, and gods know there was plenty of masala in it. That could get their attention.”
Ritwik stood dumbstruck for a moment. Of course, the college novel! It would require major rework, but it would make for a good read. He might have had the manuscript somewhere on his laptop.
“Thanks a ton.” Ritwik hailed a cab. “I’ll call you later.”
Upon reaching his place, Ritwik quickly switched on his laptop and searched all his files. Over and over again, he patiently trawled through. The manuscript was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t have it.” He informed Vaishali over the phone. For the second time in the day he cursed his luck. “I guess it got deleted when I formatted it.”
“Don’t you have it in your email?”
“Nope.” Ritwik replied, deflated. He had browsed through his emails, and found only bits and pieces. “There are a few chapters in the mail, but not the complete thing.”
“Don’t lose hope.” Vaishali consoled him, her tone soothing. “Why don’t you rewrite it?”
“Rewrite?” he said incredulously. “So much has happened since I last wrote it, especially with Naina...”
His voice trailed off. Like everything else about Naina, even the barest mention of her name could still cast a shadow between them.
“Include everything in it then. You’ll do a splendid job, I’m sure of it.” Vaishali’s tone was cheerful; only a momentary silence preceding her reply betrayed her hurt. “Where would you start it from?”
“Where everything starts.” Ritwik started typing, apprehensions of moments ago forgotten. “From the very beginning.”