By ADREYO SEN
In the early seventies, Peter Gupta was in his third year of college — and hating it heartily. In the evenings, he would retire to the coffee house, being a fairly predictable intellectual of the Kafka-loving variety. There, he would gaze bitterly into cup after cup of coffee, before setting his constitution straight with a cutlet.
Peter Gupta was a literature student. A mediocre one, given too much to daydreaming. Bewildered by scansion and iambic pentameter, Peter Gupta longed to write, to feel the muse chew with fury at the already chewed-up end of his pen.
All that Peter Gupta had imbibed from the Dickens texts taught at Presidency was an appreciation for the immense scope of the novels, the huge and intricately populated canvas the irascible novelist had created from a vacuum. Peter Gupta, too, longed to imagine into reality a universe of his own, a Kolkata transformed into the playground of demons and gargoyles and precocious children with the faces of Egyptian gods.
In fact, he had expended many cheap notebooks on his attempts to flesh out his ideas. But he was held back by a hole in his imagination, a hole the approximate size and shape of Professor Banerjee’s posterior, a posterior which seemed to quiver with indignation when the good Banerjee fulminated against the values of the youth. The problem was this. Every story — and in this, Victorian sentimentality collided with Peter’s beloved Bollywood movies — needs a hero. Peter wanted his to be larger-than-life, to be the sort of person whose fair (Peter couldn’t imagine a dark-skinned hero) face radiated authority and goodness, whose virtue was imprinted into every lineament of his countenance. Peter couldn’t start his novel without fixing his hero with his mind’s eye.
Inspiration came to him via the muse so often found rubbing her seductive shoulders against Old Monk and Haywards 5000. Only, this time it took a circuitous route. Peter had been confiding his troubles to a bottle of rum, when his stomach sternly reminded him of the need for solid sustenance. He essayed forth in the direction of sinfully fried things.
“What’s all this?” said a stern voice, as he meandered down a street that seemed to dance up and down.
It was the voice of the Law. The officer grabbed our skinny protagonist by his polyester collar and hauled him to the Park Street police station.
“I suggest you cool your ardor,” said the desk sergeant, looking tiredly at him.
Peter sat on a wooden block, thankful that he hadn’t been thrown into one of the cells. He looked around. And then his eyes fell on the man sitting opposite him, a handsome man, a fair man, a man with laughing, wise eyes and a firm chin, the sort of man who could lead thousands into battle, or bully a smile back onto the lips of a child who had just dropped her ice cream. In short, the perfect man. His protagonist. His Superman, that is a Superman who owed less to Nietzsche than to two American malcontents.
“Everything all right, friend?” said the man, laughing. Peter nearly swooned at the warm friendliness of the voice.
The rest, of course, is history.
Peter Gupta didn’t eschew alcohol. If anything, he drank more frequently. But he was always sure to keep a goodly supply of chicken egg rolls nearby. More importantly, and more to the point, Peter Gupta finished his magnum opus a year later. His great first novel, about a savior who springs out of the litter of clay tea pots at a busy intersection to become the symbol of hope for a charcoal city hounded by desperate criminals and even more desperate apathy. It ran to over a thousand pages and was made into a trilogy starring an angry young actor with a powerful baritone.
Very soon, Peter Gupta acquired an expensive fountain pen. And then the first color television in his neighborhood. And then a wife with a fondness for gold jewelry. Sitting in the little terrace room in his new house in Ballygunge, Peter wrote novel after novel, reaching the productivity of the sidekick of a certain fictional detective. Each of the novels featured the same protagonist, modeled on the wonderful creature Peter had seen at the Park Street police station.
In one novel, this Alo foiled the dastardly attempts of a trio of desperate criminals to steal the smile of Mona Lisa, a luscious house maid. In a much more recent novel, Alo shattered the dark plot to adulterate the exotic and faintly ridiculous nature of a termagant firebrand with an infusion of a sensayuma, whatever that might be. In yet another, in the midst of a fabric crisis, Alo brought much comfort to a chapter of geriatric astronomers by flying to Sweden and returning with a year’s supply of diapers.
By 2014, Peter Gupta was rather tired. He had written over eighty novels, each of which had been roundly condemned by the British Guardian for facileness of plot and praised by India Today for freshness. He had been given a permanent seat at Flury’s and received daily visitations from floppy-haired young men who were absolutely convinced that he needed a secretary. His wife now resembled a chandelier. He was a rich man, but he didn’t like to travel. In fact, he’d never stepped out of Kolkata.
And he was especially tired of Alo. Dratted man! He wished he had never come up with him. Now, how to end him?
And this was when Peter Gupta envisaged the dark shadow that would emerge in the very last Alo novel, the shadow that would extinguish his tiresome protagonist. The Shadow. The most evil, vicious criminal there ever was. A depraved, vicious psychopath. Yes, much like the Joker. Peter was a fan of the Batman movies, the new ones that is, having reached them via his worship of the leggy Anne Hathaway.
Of course, Peter was a man of influence now. Which was how, on a Friday morning, the Commissioner of Police undertook to take him from his house to the same Park Street police station that had midwifed his literary success.
“An honor, sir,” wheezed the commissioner, “an honor.” “Yes,” said Peter absently, his eyes arrested by the man lolling vulgarly in rags on the bench opposite the duty desk, his filthy hands cuffed to the wall. Never had he seen a more disagreeable face, pitted and discolored, with a fierce scar bisected by a red and malevolent eye.
The lips seemed distorted permanently into the sort of terrible sneer with which Wodehousian aunts greeted the impecunious suitors of their invariably short daughters.
The man looked up and caught Peter’s eyes. He smiled. He spat, catching the tip of Peter’s shoes.
“What, friend?” he laughed. “Everything all right? Long time, no see.”
A few weeks later, Peter finished the manuscript for a children’s book featuring talking dolls and a discarded paper cup. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to prevent irony from seeping into the story. You could say he finally had the seepage problems that plagued most homeowners in his city. Even more unfortunately, his wife, infuriated at her husband’s vacillation, sent off his manuscript to his publisher. It fetched a good price and the book sold rather well, if to a niche audience comprised of sarcastic twenty-something women who slept with teddy bears and worshiped Tina Fey.
Peter, so long a writer, is unable to stop writing. He continues to write about the dolls and the cup and, now, a discarded chapstick. His new fans are rabid and very determined. He is afraid to step out of his house. Fortunately, he can play Pokemon Go on his phone.