Sep-Oct 2011: Short Story - Matters of Principle

by pali tripathi

Pali is an HR consultant and enjoys writing in her spare time.

I would like to believe that I have the makings of a star in the world of all things literary. Each word I put to paper fulfills its goal of existence before breathing its last and proving futile for further usage. If I peer a little harder into this reality, I can see faces crumbling, smiles dazzling and hands, well – clapping, at the mere mention of my name. I believe that my writing has that deep dark sort of flavour, potent enough to put even chocolates to shame. I love chocolates. I think they are one of the five most useful creations of the Universe. The others are: nail cutter, disposable razors, coffee and books. I attribute books with such usefulness because they make even the most dumb witted amongst us appear interesting. I call dimwits with books ‘showcase’ intellectuals.

It had been twenty one days, 10 hours and thirty minutes since I completed the novel. I thought it was rather, as the Brits put it - fetch. Why do they call it fetch? If one has to use the word in that sense of optimism, one could just say ‘fetching’ instead of implying a meaning meant for dogs when one says to them – ‘go fetch the ball Brownie’. And Brownie or Blackie are very racist as names. Ever heard of a dog named Whitey? I am not a dog person at all, just in case it crossed your mind that I am. I am also not a cat person. I am clarifying this because the world seems to be divided between dog and cat persons.That feels a little unfair to the rest of the animal kingdom. I think I am a cow person. It’s docile, comes in all colours and makes itself useful unlike its more popular cousins who only follow you around or laze under the sofa.

Now, before you think I have forgotten all about my novel due to my digressions on Brits and Cows, I will get back to the story. The story has me, my novel, a man named Richard Monteiro and a woman named Paula. I need no introduction and my novel is yet to hit the stands. Also, since this novel is my first completed piece of work, I wouldn’t want the word to get out and thrifty publishers making a beeline in the hope of taking advantage of a ‘nouvel écrivain’ – a new writer.  I am not new to writing, and neither is writing new to me. The only things new in the scheme of things are Mr. Monteiro and Paula.

I was to meet Richard on the morning of the twenty second day of my completion of the novel. A friend, who frequents the publishing circles, recommended him to me. According to him, Richard is a critic and a literary agent whose opinions have launched and bombed many a career. Richard stopped working with a leading daily on matters of principle and started out on his own six months ago. Now, I have always been wary of men with principles.  Not that I have a thing for unprincipled men, but men with principles do pose a challenge for a free spirited woman like me. I once went on date with this guy who had quit his job because his boss asked him to misrepresent some information. It was a highly rewarding job – house, car, servants and the works. I questioned his sense of ‘practicality’ in matters like these and he answered saying, “I am a man of principles. I am alright not being able to afford this dinner we are having, but I will not exchange my scruples for a pay-cheque”. The restaurant we were dining in was of a rather expensive variety. Since I wasn’t and am not successful monetarily, I saw his scruples standing in my way to surviving the month without any beg, borrow or steal involved.

I had used my friend’s reference and written a mail to Richard a week back. I am producing it here verbatim so nothing is lost in translation. I quite like that movie. I am fond of the part where Charlotte says, ‘I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre. I guess every girl goes through a photography phase. You know, horses... taking pictures of your feet’. I went through that phase too, when for a whole month I only clicked my toes. I had thought they were potential exhibition material. After all, anything sells in the name of art these days. Paintings with a square and a hole in them, movies with octagonal love stories and books in which vampires don’t do their thing but go for humans minus the sex and the blood. This brings me to the mail I wrote to Richard, for an appointment about my novel.

To: Richard Monteiro

Cc: Shipra Mishra, Mishra Shipra, Shipra100, Mishra500, MishraShipra5000

Sub: About the next bestseller

Dear Richard,

 I got your reference from Rafeeq, who is a good friend of your ex-girlfriend Paula. Paula and he are dating now. I met them last week. They didn’t look terribly happy or sad. Paula mentioned your name and said that you knew a thing or two about books. I looked you up on Google. You definitely seem to know more than a thing or two about everyone. I saw you being quoted on so many authors. Most of the quotes are not to my liking, though I do understand that one has to be pragmatic about these things. Some of your words about supportiveness to new writers did strike a chord. I am unable to remember other things

I’m 28 and a freelance writer opinionating mainly on health, psychology, nonprofit management, and, lately, excelling in fiction. I practice yoga and meditation pretty regularly, love to hike, cook, eat, travel, listen to music, read and learn about people (despite a shy streak) and why we do what we do. If I had to choose a few adjectives to describe myself, they would be curious, sensitive/intuitive, compassionate, independent but loyal, passionate, unconventional and, I’m told, courageous. I’ve talked my way out of a police station in Dubai (expired visa, nothing too terribly illicit), and watched a shaman do a smoke clearing (uninvited) in a bungalow in Delhi. My achievements include, writing a book that will be the nest bestseller, starting two businesses (shut down one) and mending a couple of important relationships with relatives.

There have been plenty of humble moments too – so many that I’m now flushed just thinking about the first one or two that came to mind. The stacks of guilt-inducing bedside reading include Dojo Wisdom for Writers, a few books from the library about psychology, a couple of self-help titles and an embarrassing number of unread magazines – from Reader’s Digest to Cooking Light, and Natural Health.

Now that I’ve rambled, for all I know I could have deciphered your email address incorrectly (someone’s probably getting a big kick out of this if that’s the case), or you may have moved to Timbuktu – and forgotten to change your id. I am told all ID’s in Timbuktu must have timbuktu.in at the end.

I am writing to know if we could meet to discuss the various paths to success for my new book?  I can make myself available next Friday.

-Shipra

p.s. I have marked Cc to all my i’ds just in case I forget your name and would like to trace this mail to send it to another agent.

Richard replied within an hour. His mail was rather short for a guy with a new business.

To: Shipra Mishra

Sub: Re: About the next bestseller

Dear Shipra,

Did Paula give you my personal id?

As for your book, please send the manuscript of the first three chapters to my assistant. We can discuss further, should I see any merit in the same.

-Richard

I wrote again and was rather short for myself.

To: Richard Monteiro

Cc: Shipra Mishra, Mishra Shipra, Shipra100, Mishra500, MishraShipra5000

Sub: Re: Re: About the next bestseller

Dear Richard,

Do you really want to sacrifice your next big opportunity at the altar of bureaucracy and a rude assistant? I know that this could be your first big break.

-Shipra

p.s. Could you please hit a reply to all, so am able to save this for other correspondences?

I did not hear from Richard again. On the mail that is. Post that, I got rather pally with Paula. Paula is the kind of woman who loves to talk, walk and buy fashion. She could rattle off brands like a pro and that earned her a fan in me. Not that I am obsessive about brands. But my novel is about a woman who divorces her husband because he doesn’t understand her. Understand her preference for shoes over him that is. When Paula heard about this, she was completely taken in by the idea and even empathetic. That’s when she started talking about Richard and how he cared two hoots about her new Jimmy Choos or the new Prada that she had sold her engagement ring for.

When I did not hear from Richard till the next day, I rang Paula to take her opinion on a future course of action. Paula was agitated on my behalf and assured me that she would get Richard to meet me, even if it meant taking him to court. I was rather curious about this piece of information. I really wanted to know about the ammo she had on Richard that could send him to court. I decided to save it for another day.

The very next day, I got a call from Richard’s assistant, informing me that Richard would meet me at Costa Coffee at 10:30 A.M on Friday. Needless to say, I was overjoyed. While I knew that my book would occupy the shelf of fame in all libraries and bookstores in the future, for now I needed Richard’s help in getting it up on any shelf.

I called up Paula to thank her for the help, but it was answered by an annoying couple’s voicemail, wherein Rafeeq with his nasal twang and she in her shrilly voice were saying, “We decided to go on a holiday in the middle of the night. We will call when back. Ciao.”

On Friday, the alarm on the phone did not ring but my mother did. She was calling in to suggest a meeting with a nice, homely Brahmin boy. Hence, you will not judge me when I say that I prefer alarms to my mother in the morning. I find it difficult to put my mother on snooze once she has started on the quintessential eligible bachelor. I put the phone on speaker and rushed for a shower. It was ten thirty already, by the time I was ready to leave my house.

When I reached the coffee shop at eleven, I saw three haggard looking men sitting on their own. I knew Richard had to be one of them. I am intuitively right about these things but I decided to use my cell phone to give my intuition a pat on the back. That’s when I realized that my phone and my mother on it were left home alone and I had no other way but to randomly pick a Richard. I loved Home Alone part one, but the others were very unoriginal.

Just then, a waiter walked to me and asked if I was Shipra. When I acknowledged my name, he pointed to haggard looking man number two and said that he was waiting for me. I fixed my brightest smile on and walked towards Richard, and said a very loud hello. I am not sure but I think he flinched a little. I introduced myself and occupied the chair opposite him. I started to take out the manuscript from my bag, when he waved his hand and said, “No need for that. It will be done. I have these papers for you to sign the contract with the publisher.” He looked a little intimidated and I did not want to hand over the script to a scaredy cat. I wondered if the contract was a fake. I pursed my lips, traced the three lines on my forehead that mean danger and began, “Richard, now you see – am here only on the insistence of Paula...” Before I could even finish the sentence, Richard pleaded, “Please Ma’m. Don’t tell Paula anything about this. I promise that I will do the best I can for your book. Give me one chance.” The man of principles looked well intentioned and so I handed over the 780 pages of my manuscript, made him promise that not a page could be modified or deleted and that I will need the first cheque within a month. Richard agreed only too willingly and almost ran away.

I learnt from Paula later that Richard had been charged with faking identities and asked to resign. That is why the previous company had sacked him. Paula had threatened that she would go public if he did not publish my book. I asked Paula, what was the stolen identity about and she, in her usual ‘toss the hair, look at the nail-paint, narrow the eyes’ style said, “He relied on me to write all those critiques dearie. And you know me, I never read a book. I always judge it by the cover. Obviously they found out.”

For once, I had no words to put to use. I only heaved a sigh of relief that I was dealing with a man definitely devoid of principles.

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