POINTING to a rickety old typewriter with its spools and springs agape, Nirmal said to me with quiet pride, "I've got all my stories out of this." Nirmal was alluding to his literary creations, the nine novels he has written in the last 25 years.
When I first heard of Nirmal's proclivity for the pen, the fact had struck me as highly incongruous. Wouldn't his humdrum job as the keeper of the storeroom of the museum where we work serve to keep the muses away? It was hard for me to imagine how one's daily preoccupation with managing provisions and handling raw stock could facilitate the conception of plots and characters. But then this was before I became friends with Nirmal.
Nirmal writes his stories in Hindi, the native language of north India. Describing situations and relationships with sensitivity and candor, he mainly explores themes from pastoral life. I guess this is his way of staying in touch with the rural ethos. I make this presumption because I know that Nirmal grew up in a small village by the side of the Ganges river. My friend often speaks to me of his childhood home, painting word-pictures of bright blue skies and golden harvests and dancing fireflies that I,
a city-dweller, can only perceive from afar, like a moviegoer enjoying the sparkling seas washing upon exotic palm-fringed beaches on screen.
Like any hard-working author who hopes to get published, Nirmal has been trying to get his break in the Hindi literary circuit, which is a small and fledgling market for novelists. "It's like this," Nirmal explains, "There has been a serious erosion of the home readership because of the coming of video and cable television. The growth of popular Hindi magazines has also contributed to narrow the market for novels. The travel segment is where I've pinned my hopes. More and more people seem to be browsing railroad bookshops for the kind of stories I write."
Haven't the dry, unfruitful years of endeavor blunted his enthusiasm? I asked my friend this once while we shared lunch inside the cool, cavernous shed that serves as his storeroom. Nirmal was quiet for some moments, looking thoughtfully at the leafy tamarind tree outside the window. His answer, when it came, was deep and clear as fresh spring water. "Yes, I do want to see my manuscripts in the press. But I guess I couldn't have carried on for so long if it had been my sole concern."
Strangely, it is Nirmal's attitude toward his other concern, his "humdrum" storeroom chores, that gives me an insight into how he's able to handle his literary aspirations with such maturity. I find Nirmal's absorption with the nitty-gritty of his daily work - be it ordering a new batch of furniture, getting a faulty air conditioner repaired, or issuing me stationery - as complete as the concentration with which he clacks out a story idea on his vintage typewriter. Nirmal loves his storeroom, its unrulin ess, its smells of machine oil and paper and packets of washing soap.
Walk into Nirmal's storeroom any day, and you'll be confronted with bags and cartons filling the vast groundspace around his table. A cyclostyle perches atop a large wooden crate. Half a dozen fans lie huddled together in one corner. Metal racks rise up to the ceiling. Nirmal's table, with its ping-pong-size surface, is home to numerous unwanted utilities such as old locks, brass doorknobs gone out of fashion, an assortment of burnt-out electrical switches, and other discards periodically phased out of t he museum.
NIRMAL is forever trying to retrieve useful bits and pieces from the motley collection on his table. So I know that the unaffected copper screws and pins will be assiduously removed from the fused switches and put away in little plastic packets for future use, and the rusted locks will be cajoled with oil in the hope of getting the levers to move again. Meanwhile, the doorknobs serve as convenient paperweights.
My friend's obsession with resuscitating scrap surprises me to no end. How does it mix, I wonder, with his other passion? Nirmal, of course, is quite bemused by my incomprehension. In fact, he tells me that his dual preoccupations are not as different as they seem. He says, "Isn't it a little like writing, working at all this jumble? Either way you've got to make sense out of confusion."
Now, I've known my friend long enough to be sure that his lighthearted explanation is no mere play of wit. Somewhere along the way, he has discovered the secret of reconciling the incompatibles of literature and trivia.
And I have come to further believe that Nirmal's "secret" is bound up with a deeper conciliation, where thoughts of future rewards have been subsumed by small everyday joys, such as twisting a vagrant piece of wire into a candlestand or describing the graceful dance of peacocks after the rains.