|The night desk|
Midnight crept into the news bureau. Shadows of ceiling fans spun on empty tables like winged termites fallen to earth. Scattered pieces of paper stirred into motion by fans dodged their shadows. Troubled scraps of news wandered aimlessly on the floor. They hugged table-legs, raced up walls, skulked under shelves and stood shivering in nooks and corners. When one of them wrapped itself around Mrityunjayan’s leg, he shook it off with a start, kicked it away and sprang up. As he watched the bit of news crawl under the teleprinter, Mrityunjayan said, "It came from the teleprinter; it has gone back to the teleprinter. May it not be born again, dear God!"
Settling back into his chair, Mrityunjayan stretched comfortably. Somewhere in the distance, the clock struck twelve. Coming in through an impenetrably dark window, the tolling of the bell of time pained him. The teleprinter, silent all this while, began to spit out news again. It sounded remarkably like machine-gun fire. Mrityunjayan strained his ears, but the chimes of the midnight bell were drowned out by the clamour. The clamour of the birth of news, Mrityunjayan thought; the clamour of the news of births. The human race has an insatiable appetite for news of its own births. In all the din of hearing, the soft rhythms of time are drowned.
Bits of news wriggled on tabletops. They crawled on the floor, ran about, wandered like refugees. "The news is strangely restless today," Mrityunjayan said to himself. The ceiling fan’s draught drew a bit of news up to it. Up in the air, it beat against the wings of the fan for a while before finally flying out of the window. "Where are you going?" Mrityunjayan asked. "There is no deliverance anywhere." Then, through the darkness beyond the open window, the canteen cat said: "Meow."
In all his time on the night desk, Mrityunjayan had never seen news get this restless. Every night on the desk, he watched over the panting rush that made up the short lives of news stories. He lengthened or shortened their lives, shifted stress and sense or discarded them altogether.
Through the night, the teleprinter, like a garrulous madman, excreted rolls of paper as it kept up its announcements of world news. Like the henchman of some merciless power, Mrityunjayan cut, trimmed and shaped the news stories. He watched them scurrying and scuttling across the floor.
The rest of the time, he wondered about his previous births. He meditated upon the numerous journeys he had made through millions and millions of years as snake, worm, tree, doe, woman and microbe. He marvelled at the dilapidated tombs and termite-eaten tree-stumps he had left behind to mark these journeys. He was filled with dismay and wonder at the thought of his numerous skeletons and fossils, in various shapes and sizes; all tucked away frozen in the womb of the earth.
The teleprinter, meanwhile, occupied itself with spitting out news of the present. Mrityunjayan would select news items, reselect them, rewrite them, cut them short, crumple them up and throw them away. This done, he would try to sleep — and fail. Every time he closed his eyes, the memory of children he passed on the streets was imprinted on the back of his eyelids, a picture of pain. Children who wandered the streets, exhausted with hunger and thirst. Bitter, salty teardrops rose in his eyes and drowned sleep. Oh God, bring their world and mine to an end, Mrityunjayan whispered. Halt the cruel wheels of time that crush tender lives. Dry up the oceans of children’s tears. Break the chain of tombs rising endlessly upon this earth.
The teleprinter roared out the news of several births. News dashed about, looking for space to set up home. Mrityunjayan awaited the end of the world.
Mrityunjayan got up from the chair to look for the canteen cat. Suddenly, the tube-lights went out. The fans slowed down and stopped. The scraps of news stopped scurrying about. The teleprinter fell silent. From outside the window, the cat said: "Meow."
"Come, you who wake with me," said Mrityunjayan in the darkness. "Let’s keep vigil together." He lit a candle, put it on the table and sat down again. Outside the unsteady circle of candlelight, the darkness was completely silent.
As he peered into the dancing boundaries of the candlelight, Mrityunjayan was lost in thought again. I, who crave for the end of the world, the end of the misery of children and the end of births, had once wept for my unborn child. Why? Was I someone different then? Mrityunjayan was amazed.
p. 1 p. 2
Paul Zacharia is one of the best-known short story writers in Malayalam,
who has preserved his niche through various movements in Malayalam fiction
over more than three decades. He lives in Trivandrum