In the apartment downstairs on the ground floor, Ajja existed in the outermost room with the bookshelves and the windows, except when he was summoned into the kitchen for meals. In the kitchen, twice everyday he sat cross-legged on the slate-tiled floor in front of a stainless steel plate piled high with rice and lentils. His grandchildren called him Ajja so he became Ajja to all the children in the building.
Ajja bathed early and spent his days in a cane armchair, dressed meticulously in white dhoti, white sacred thread nestled against white chest hairs, and three lines of white ash smeared across his forehead, his unfocused gaze regarding the flurry of human activity outside the open window. Abruptly agitated, he would jump up to yell at kids, real or imagined, playing cricket in the street, shattering windows with errant balls or recklessly climbing mango trees ‘risking life and limb’ he used to say.
Books were his passion and snuff his vice. The back wall of the room was lined ceiling to floor with books – much loved paperbacks, timeworn, dog-eared, yellow tinged with age. I spent a few summer vacations reading his entire library.
I would head downstairs most days after lunch while an eerie quiet descended upon the building as people lay themselves down on beds or mats or the cool floor, succumbing to the soporific heat. Seeing me arrive, my arms laden with books, Ajja would jump up from the armchair, pull out his silver snuffbox, tap it a few times, and talk excitedly about the books I was returning and those I ought to read next. In the middle of his monologue, he would open the silver box, grab a pinch full of the dark brown powder between thumb and forefinger and take a deep snort – one through each nostril. Then he would pull out a large white handkerchief with two blue lines along the edges, wipe his hands, and run it across his nose, occasionally sneezing violently into it. Overcome, he would dab away tears and gaze mournfully out the window for a long time or doze off. A comfortable silence would settle between us interrupted only by the rustling of pages as I leafed through books.
Noticing my presence again as I gathered my collection of books for the day, he would turn from the window, put away his stained handkerchief and loudly regale us both with an anecdote about this author or that. Maugham or Tolstoy, Christie or Chesterton. Once or twice, he launched into a long and convoluted plot about spies and secrets and international intrigue. Suddenly interrupting himself mid-plot, he got quiet for a few moments and stared out of the window. Then, brushing aside some unseen irritant he said ruefully that it was the plot to the story he would have written, if it weren’t for the slow poisoning. Assuming he meant the snuff to which he was addicted, I nodded half listening, distracted by a book I had begun reading. “It dulls my senses. Slows the mind, you know?” he said in a voice always a few decibels louder than it needed to be, perhaps because he was a bit deaf. “What to do?” he said shaking his head and smiling wistfully, tapping the small box in his hand. “What to do?” It was a common refrain for Ajja. I smiled back and nodded.
I was sorry when, as time passed, life quickened her pace and I outgrew this summer habit. I had read all the books in Ajja’s apartment and mine, and libraries in distant universities beckoned. It was in adulthood that I learned the details of Ajja’s condition, which had begun with mild behavioral changes gradually developing into full-blown psychosis. I learned also about his initial violent resistance to being medicated and the surreptitious administration of the pills powdered and mixed in his rice at mealtimes. Thus was Ajja’s condition carefully regimented and rarely discussed, because of the stigma attached to such things. Ajja sank into a kind of stupor, his buoyant personality emerging only in occasional bursts, but life in the building resumed a semblance of normalcy. The arrangement seemed to serve everyone’s needs.
Returning several years later on my first and frenetic book tour, I stopped by impulsively, on my way to the airport, to reminisce with Ajja about afternoons spent together with books. It was dinnertime and he sat frail before his steaming mound of rice. He did not recognize me at first until his wife told him who I was. His face lit up: “Ah, the prodigal writer returns,” he said. He enjoyed my book; his grandson had read it to him. We recalled anecdotes about his favorite authors and laughed at their idiosyncratic ways. Soon it was time to head to the airport if I was to catch my flight. I got up to go reluctantly. He said, “I would come to see you to the door but I must stay and eat the rest of today’s poison.” Holding up in his fingers a bolus of lentil-soaked rice, which he had been about to put in his mouth, he said mournfully, “They rob me of my stories, you know, these pills they mix in my rice. We could have been famous together – you and I. Ah, the stories I would have written!”
Ajja’s eyes smiled as I bade him farewell. He had known all along. Yet, he had eaten his rice at every meal, like a docile child. I replayed snippets of our long-ago conversations when I ought to have understood that he knew and was grieving over the stories he would never write. I chided myself for the carefree way I had treated those lazy summer afternoons. As I was leaving his wife said he was proud of me and told everyone who would listen about my book and that he had known me as a child. She also said that it had meant so much to him – those summer vacations we had both whiled away poring over books. She bestowed her blessings on me and said she knew he would be waiting eagerly for my next book but Ajja passed away peacefully in his sleep before the end of that summer.
I have been spending long hours at my desk working on a new book, which I would like to dedicate to Ajja. I sit bleary-eyed on a brisk fall evening, wrestling with a particularly recalcitrant character and look out of my window for inspiration or distraction. I know that the character will continue to fight me unless I learn to let go but that knowledge hasn’t made it any easier to let go. An orange-brown senescent leaf begins to make its slow, final journey earthwards. I get up from my desk and stand at the window, my nose touching the cool glass, so I can watch it reach the ground. In the stillness after it settles on the grass sprinkled with other similar leaves, the scene before my eyes slowly loses its focus. I imagine Ajja standing at his window, light-blue paint chips peeling off the wooden frame. In the hazy distance of a hot afternoon, we watch together as wildly unkempt boys from nearby slums dangle from the sprawling branches of a mango tree. Risking life and limb. Now we see them, now we don’t. I know he wants to shout: “Get down, you rascals! You want to break your bones? Hooligans!” But he knows it is no use. They will only mock him and continue their antics. Or a family member will scold him for tilting at windmills, again. Instead, grinning mischievously, he turns to me with a shrug of his shoulders, saying without words: “What to do?”
Mynah Noisel does research on conservation biology and climate change, and teaches at a university in Michigan. Mynas or mynahs are described as bluish-black or dark brown starlings of southeast Asia, certain species of which are known for their mimicry of human speech. Some species have become invasives or pests outside their native range. She writes under the anagram Mynah Noisel because the name ironically captures the struggle to write well and serves as a reminder not to simply add to the chorus of noises out there.
© 2010, Mynah Noisel