Fed up with his tedious desk job, a young man decides to quit on an impulse. He wants to write a novel, but doesn’t think he has a story to tell. So the would-be writer, who was raised in a kotha, sets out to travel, hoping to arrive somewhere: at a destination, at a story.
Manish Gaekwad’s ‘Lean Days’ is the story of an artist’s voyage through the country, mixing history with imagination, and finding people and places whose stories he can tell along with his own. It is a book of journeys without an end in sight, about the yearning for romance and succumbing to the temptations of the flesh.
The following excerpt is reproduced here with permission from HarperCollins India
The thick drawl of Madras is so attractive, I am almost tempted to approach the loud-speaking, bespectacled boy at the coffee shop: ‘Please lower your tone, you are exciting my loins.’
He is in conversation with a man. The two of them are discussing the intricate details of a computer program, injecting just the right amount of geek in the room to send the gaydar of the desperate into a tizzy. Young women at another table look on indifferently, even past his good looks. I find him looking in my direction as he keeps talking, without pausing to breathe during his monologue. He raises an eyebrow over the thick rims of his glasses in the smooth arc of a Magritte pipe, making him look like a piece of art I am presently doodling hastily in my head.
His concentration does not threaten my imagination. ‘Excuse me, you remind me of the bland wit of a surrealistic painting.’
If I said that to him, he would scan me for a fool. Because it is quite a corny thing to say, as one fumbles in front of the admired.
The circumference of his open mouth is exactly the size of his wide eyes. I imagine his response before I walk over to say hello.
In search of love, I want to travel across the country. I am starting this expedition by going down south first. Dive deep. Somewhere it will find me.
The two men slurp their cold coffees, making primordial sounds to win the attention of the three women who have sauntered in to occupy the table next to theirs. The teaspoon I am twirling in my cup, to curl out a tendril of chamomile scent, rattles.
Ceci n’est pas une cuillere (This is not a spoon).
The dishy geek boy approaches the table of persnickety girls reading their menus aloud indecisively. He shakes hands with one of them and she stands to introduce her friends. Who knew? They are friends! Is this how it is done around here? In tag teams?
He looks at me, asserting himself, seeming pleased to show off. He walks out of the door with his colleague, turning one last time to see if my eyes are following him.
The boy-meets-girl scenario in Madras takes place under the smug smile of a benevolent Amma or another unsightly politician watching their every move through giant cut-outs, posters, and hoardings put up around the city. Amma’s looming presence is a protective layer against the brazenness that Mumbai’s public display of affection allows.
What’s a good cruising spot for a writer in a city he knows nothing about? A public library is a safe location to tarry. I am soon looking for a man at the Anna Library, where I guess there will be plenty of single lads willing to be my muse. Poorly managed, the library also has a warning sign at the entrance, ‘Bring your own book to read’, to which I am delighted to make a mental note: ‘plus booze.’ Every seat in the house is taken, the place looks like a sitting terracotta army of readers with not a single soul to fix my eyes on. A library without the distraction of a few handsome men and women is a library to avoid. If there is no respite from reading, to vacuously rest one’s tired eyes on them — what else is a library for, then? I visit libraries for distractions, way past the history section, and into the poetry corner, where the gentle souls gather.
The library scoured, I move on to the Chennai museum where the muses might be free and available. Artist KK Hebbar’s Construction catches my eye. I want to take a picture of it on my phone. Where is the docent to seek permission? I walk towards
three guards lounging on a bench, and what I can deduce from their savoir faire to the museum problem is that they will reproach me for asking. I ask, nevertheless.
‘May I take a picture?’ I use my softest timbre.
An old woman, preparing for lunch by unscrewing the lids on steel boxes, garrulous in her operation, looks up at me and states bluntly, ‘No.’ Around us, people are flouting rules, left, right and centre. No one has sought her approval, but she cannot be bothered to chase the unlawful. Not at her age, as she immediately begins to complain.
‘What we care? Little money we get, working hour long time, no bonus.’ I can hear a long list of troubles coming my way.
‘Okay,’ I bow and walk away from tiffin-time gossip. The intermingling scents of spicy rasamand steamed rice are thickening the air.
The Kangra paintings of Krishna take some getting used to — the foliage, for one, my god! Each leaf tickles my senses. The Raja Ravi Varma painting The Lady with a Mirror radiates under the arc lights. As I bend over it, about to click my faux-French tongue in praise, an old fauji guard standing behind me, his arms akimbo, booms, ‘Take it,’ as if I can unhook the tall frame and walk out of the museum as the coolest art thief ever.
So, when you take a picture of a painting, are you not stealing from it? Its right of ownership, to belong to its gilded frame? A fuzzy camera image on a mobile phone is a smear campaign to deface the beauty of the painting. My emotions echo in a wistful look Shakuntala gives me from a frame in one corner. I defer to a Van Gogh print of Gypsy Caravan. His name is misspelt. Van Gough. An earful.
Past the library, past the museum, the beach must be a cruising spot?
I head towards Kottivakkam Beach, where I spend the evening as a flaneur. The beach feels like an extension of the shores I have left behind in Juhu and Versova. The Kottivakkam sand is much cleaner, though, or the lack of litter-friendly people does it.
Walking barefoot, the beach puts me in the shoes of The Monk by the Sea. German author Clemens Brentano had said of the Caspar David Friedrich painting:
How wonderful it is to sit completely alone by the sea under an overcast sky, gazing out over the endless
expanse of water. It is essential that one has come there just for this reason, and that one must return. That one would like to go over the sea but cannot; that one misses any sign of life, and yet one senses the voice of life in the rush of the water, in the blowing of the wind, in the drifting of the clouds, in the lonely cry of the birds. No situation in the world could be more sad and eerie than
this — as the only spark of life in the wide realm of death, a lonely centre in a lonely circle.
Goethe had called it an ‘upside down’ painting. Kottivakkam offers me that solace this evening, where I could be floating in the sky if I decide to drown myself.
Manish Gaekwad is a Mumbai-based journalist. Lean Days is his first novel