Culture

Blue Pencil – A Short Story

As the news from Ayodhya throws a newsroom into turmoil, an editor uses his pen like a chisel. We reproduce here the much-acclaimed story Blue Pencil by N.S Madhavan, translated from Malayalam by the author himself.

Credit: Salam Khan

Credit: Salam Khan

Twenty five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, The Wire, through a series of articles and videos captures how the act of destruction changed India forever.


N.S. Madhavan, considered a pioneer of post-modern trends in the Malayalam short story, is known for his impeccable craft and minimalist style. Some of his stories like Thiruthu (Blue Pencil), Higuita,Van Marangal Veezhumpol (When Big Trees Fall, on the 1984 anti-Sikh violence), Naalam Lokam (The Fourth World, on the collapse of the Soviet Union), Muyal Vetta (Rabit Hunt, on the Emergency) have been widely read and discussed for their sharp political content and literary finesse. 

§

The view from Chulliat’s office window looked into a road which that night wore a different look. At ten in the night the traffic was already taking a curtain call. The light of roadside sodium lamps looked more zestful than usual; laced with an unearthly sheen, it reminded Chulliat of his childhood evenings, especially at that yellow hour when shadows lengthened to ten feet.

Chulliat gave up the window to rest his pipe on the table. Though long put out, he had been persisting at it, sucking the hard tip absently, which was emitting the viscously bitter saliva of fever. Whenever history was at a fork Chulliat always felt a fever coming on. On the night of August 14, 1947, when the Union Jack came down for the last time, it was malaria. Gandhi died with the thin red line in the thermometer touching 103.

“Mullik, I am done for the day. A touch of, ah well, more than a touch of fever,” Chulliat spoke into the intercom.

“Then the editorial?” Mullik asked.

“Editorial? I thought it was Viswanathan’s job.”

“But, today?”

“Viswanathan is fine,” Chulliat raised his voice in feverish impatience.

“All of us at the desk were wondering about a front page signed edit by you.”

“God’s sake, no. By Viswanathan, at the usual place.”

Mullik put the phone down and looked vacantly at the sub-editor’s seated around his half-moon table. All evening they sat there, like a frieze of a moving trail of refugees with their heads down. Not all of them, Zuhra stuck to the computer on her table.

“I can’t believe my ears,” Mullik addressed no one in particular: “K.K. Chulliat’s got to go home. Fever.”

“Today?” Chitra Ramakrishnan asked.

“Yes, today,” Mullik said.

“What’s the fuss about today? A couple of domes came crashing down in Ayodhya,” said Abhijit Sanyal, the oldest hand among the subs, “that’s all today is to Chulliat.” He checked himself when he heard a sharp pitter-patter over a computer keyboard; Zuhra was punching it like an old typewriter.

“Tortoise,” Vijayan said lazily.

“Tortoise?” asked Chitra Ramakrishnan, a fresh recruit, yet to be initiated into the news room argot.

“Believe me, no one here has seen Chulliat’s body.” He sticks out his bald head through his cabin door. That’s it, like a tortoise,” explained Nakul Kelkar.

News Editor Mullik picked up the phone: “Viswanathan, the Chief is asking you to go ahead with the edit.” Mullik then proceeded to put on Chulliat’s Oxford accent: “Ah yes, no need to get emotional. Mark it with a gentle beat of considered opinion. And, do not write today is the darkest day in Indian history.”

Mullik kept the phone down and almost immediately Vijayan asked: “What made Tortoise say a thing like that?”

“Tomorrow you will read this line in every paper,” Mullik said.

“Must be a rub off from his Oxford days – Tortoise’s ability to preempt a cliché,” Nakul said admiringly.

“Shh… Tortoise,” Vijayan cautioned when Chulliat showed his head through the door. He and Nakul kept their eyes down, reading patterns in scattered bits of newsprint on the floor. Chitra cupped her mouth to suppress a giggle. Abhijit looked at Chulliat; his eyes cold.

“Mullik, get on with the lead story. I’ll see it before I go,” said Chulliat and quickly withdrew his head. He homed straight on to his window. A couple of army trucks passed by, followed by a police jeep with an angry Shiva’s third eye on its forehead. The road was emptying when a fire tender rushed past, its bells tolling in frenzy.

Chulliat breathed into his palm in an effort to measure his fever. He walked over to the bathroom and took out a couple of tablets from the cupboard. Standing near the pot to urinate, he could not help leaning against the wall; all of his seventy years chose to visit him in these vulnerable moments.

On his way back to the window Chulliat paused before the computer. Alphabets were streaming in trickles. He looked back as he felt another presence in the room. An office boy was stalking back after carefully placing the lead story’s printout on the table. Chulliat went through it quickly.

“Get the car please, I am leaving,: he spoke to his secretary through the intercom.

“Chulliat has flown,” Mullik informed the sub-editors around his table.

“Anyone for tea?” Abhijit Sanyal asked. Vijayan, Nakul and Chitra got up immediately. Chitra went over to Zuhra and patted her shoulder: “Coming for a cup of tea?” Zuhra surprised them into silence by getting up. Suddenly finding himself alone, Mullik panicked. He hurried to the sports desk.

Abhijit and the others felt the layers of cold air thickening as they went down the stairs to the basement canteen. Tea stains and pock marks left by stubbed-out cigarettes lay scattered over its grey cement floor; some stale samosas were pitifully stacked in the glass case. Four of them sat on the chairs around a portable steel table; Chitra drew in a chair and sat next to Zuhra. Abhijit knocked on the table with the pepper pot and soon Phool Chand came in.

“Phool Chand, five cups of tea, quickly,” Abhijit said. “No help today, Sir, everyone has gone home to stock up on things.”

“Why?” Chitra asked.

“If and when there is a curfew it hits us the hardest.”

“Then why didn’t you go?” asked Chitra again.

“I borrowed some money and asked Mewaram of the Cash Section to get my stuff – twenty kilos of wheat flour and half a bag of potatoes. Where will you go for tea if I shut down? The roadside stalls are all closed.”

Phool Chand went back to the kitchen. Soon the buzz of the paraffin stove pervaded the canteen. Abhijit ran his fingers nervously through his greying curly hair. He stared at Zuhra and asked: “Why are you so quiet today?”

§

Zuhra raised her head and looked at Abhijit with uncompromising fierceness. Vijayan conjured up a smile and said: “When Phool Chand and his friends were scurrying about to buy groceries, know what Abhijit was up to? He scooted off to buy three bottles of rum. Suppose the shops are closed tomorrow?”

Chitra smiled charitably. Abhijit held the pepper pot in his hand and played with it. Then he spoke: “I am a midnight child. Like Rushdie, I was born in 1947. In Calcutta. A Nehruvian childhood, you know, not much religion, but plenty of reason. I got from my mother love for Rabeendra Sangeet. But sometime in the Sixties tagore gave way to the Beatles.”

“The Beatles? Abhijit you must be ancient,” Chitra said, “for my generation the Beatles is classical music.”

“Chitra, before you were born, in Vietnam there was someone who answered to the name of Ho Chi Minh. Sartre held forth at Sorbonne. So did Tariq Ali in London. Here, in Bengal, we had Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal. When I first met Charu Mazumdar he was lying on a string bed, struggling to breathe from an oxygen cylinder. From there he baptised me. I was studying in IIT, at Kharagpur, near the forests of Bihar. So I didn’t have to go far to ferret out class struggles. Oh yes, with the customary sling bag over my shoulder. A season, a terrible season, of retaliation followed. Many disappeared. Those who surfaced feigned not to recognise you. Madness claimed some. I kept suicide and madness at bay with a bit of self-deception and er, an occasional drink did help. It all ended when I caught the Kalka Mail to leave Calcutta for Delhi.”

“My childhood was less intricate,” Nakul said, “in Bombay’s Shivaji Park, we wanted to grow up to be Gavaskar.”

All eyes were trained on Vijayan. He hung his head down and said: “I have nothing to say. Remember those people who shut themselves up in an inn against the plague? Should we also tell stories like them – the Decameron tales?”

§

Chulliat lowered the car’s window by a crack. At first he felt refreshed by the rush of cold wind, but soon he began to feel dizzy with the vicissitudes in temperature. Chulliat tapped the driver’s shoulder: “Bahadur, you know Dr Iqbal’s house? Take me there, I am not feeling good.”

Iqbal always brought in him the memories of the day Masood, his father and Chulliat’s friend from England days, first took him to meet his first-born. Chulliat found an embarrassed little boy lying under a small white tent; freshly circumcised.

Iqbal’s house was dark from the outside. When Farah heard Chulliat opening the cast iron gate, she came out and put on the portico light.

“Iqbal at home, dear?”

Farah went in without a word. Soon Iqbal came out in a light blue salwar suit – a true pathan, in his father’s mould.

“Iqbal, I feel feverish.”

The thermometer, as usual, tasted of metal. Chulliat felt tired deep inside his bones when Iqbal relentlessly pumped air into the B.P. apparatus strapped around his arm. Iqbal went inside and came back with a syringe. At the moment the needle pierced, Chulliat could not help shutting his eyes.

“By tomorrow you’ll be all right,” said Iqbal. Then Farah and Iqbal relapsed into what Chulliat feared would be an eternal silence. He got up to leave.

“Thanks, Uncle,” Farah said.

“For what?”

“You were our only Hindu friend who did not mention what happened today. We got a lot of calls. Some people even dropped in. Like death visits.”

Chulliat turned around and looked into their eyes: “Children, when did I become a Hindu to you?”

The car was stuttering in wintry reluctance. Iqbal opened its door. Chulliat got in and hurriedly waved at the couple. “Bahadur,” Chulliat told the driver, “back to the office.”

The newsroom, shaken out of sleepiness, was getting ready for the final burst before bringing out the next day’s edition. Mullik made several trips down to the press. The sub-editors, except for Zuhra, stood before the telex and fax machines, soaking in the last bits of news.

“Viswanathan did not pack much punch in his edit,” Vijayan remarked.

“Tortoise wanted it this way. Remember, the gentle beat of considered opinion,” Abhijit said.

“Tortoise must be sleeping by now,” Chitra said.

“Mullik,” suddenly Chulliat’s voice boomed in the newsroom. Chitra could not believe her eyes that this pipe-smoking old man in a dark-coloured suit, rapidly striding across the newsroom, was Chulliat himself. The first sight of the Chief Editor in the newsroom brought the sports editor and financial correspondent to their feet. The bleary-eyed cartoonist finally gave up his day’s efforts to draw a congruous cartoon and ambled to Mullik’s table, making his way through the crumpled balls of India-ink stained paper. Mullik gazed at Chulliat zooming on to his table. Zuhra did not move from her place. Downstairs, the machines of the press rumbled like the north eastern monsoon over distant hills.

“Mullik, who did the headline for the lead story?” Chulliat put the printout he was holding on Mullik’s table. Slowly, the subs started moving towards Mullik’s table, but Zuhra remained where she was.

“Mullik, I am speaking to you. Who wrote the headline? If you choose to remain silent, I wish to tell you that he can quit this paper now.” Chulliat’s lips betrayed an angry quiver. By then, all the employees in the newsroom, including Zuhra, were crowding around Mullik’s table.

“Sir, I did,” Zuhra said softly.

Chulliat drew deeply on his pipe. He gestured to Vijayan to pick up the printout from the table. Chulliat then walked to Zuhra and patted her on her head: “Dear, fetch me a pencil.”

Mullik handed over a ball-point pen from the table. Chulliat addressed all of them: “When I started my career at the Manchester Guardian, my old Welsh editor used to say that blue pencils are an editor’s weapons. Blue pencils are now extinct, but that shouldn’t stop me from using this pen.”

Chulliat leaned over the printout on the table and with the pen gripped like a chisel in his shaking hands, scored off the first two words of Zuhra’s headline: ‘Disputed structure destroyed’. Above these words he wrote in bold, each alphabet painfully undulating with tremors of Parkinsonism: ‘Babri Masjid’.

Tears trickled down from Zuhra’s large eyes, like sap from a freshly wounded tree. She looked at Chulliat and said: “Thank you, Sir.”

Chulliat walked back bowing down to another lunar pull of fever. No one stirred in the newsroom till he went into his office and the door closed shut behind him.

Apart from his literary writings, Kochi-based N.S. Madhavan’s columns and non-fiction writing on football and travel have a wide readership. He tweets @NSMlive.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Nice.
    This was particularly moving: “Children, when did I become a Hindu to you?”