Countdown

Countdown

11 mins 32.8K 11 mins 32.8K

“I knew you always had it in you,” he said.
I’d heard that line so often I no longer felt a thing.
“Ratan, sorry but I have to go now,” I said.
“Of course. The celebrity. No time for...”
I tried not to get worked up.
He went on, “My wife admired your novel. She says you kept her on tenterhooks all the time.”
“Really?” I was bored.
“Yes. She said she loved the ending most.”
I nodded absently.
“You haven’t met Neeta. But she’d love to meet you.”
“Look Ratan, I have to go.”
“Okay. Okay.”
I felt relieved when he left. I brushed aside a twinge of guilt. We’d been good pals at school.
The novel had been a bestseller. And the acclaim and publicity? Who could deny I hadn’t revelled in it. Those words in the reviews. Original. Brilliant. Page-turner. It gave me a high. I liked original. The high from that had lasted really long.
But after a year of being a celebrity I felt a weariness settle over me. I remembered the words of a tennis world champion who’d been a celebrity. And it wasn’t arrogance that made her say it.
“I’m tired of winning,” she had said.
Though I couldn’t match her credentials, the words seemed to ring so true.
Suddenly my cell-phone rang. The caller was not on my contact list.
I swiped to receive the call.
“Arman Singhvi?” It was a woman.
“Tell me,” I said, not too attentive. Another fan.
There was a long silence at the other end. After a while, I was forced to break it.
“Do I know you? Are you a fan or something?”
“Well, well, Mr. Singhvi. It’s obvious that your vanity has gone up quite a notch.” The voice had a harsh quality to it.
“What do you mean? So you’re not a fan.”
“No.”
“No big deal.”
“But I read your novel. It’s very, very mediocre. In some places it’s really bad.”
“Oh. You’re the first one to criticize my work. Surprising.”
“Maybe your admirers like to indulge in unrealistic fantasies about themselves. Anyway, there’s no substance in your novel at all.”
I was getting annoyed.
“I’ll call you at 9:17 in the morning on Thursday,” she said and hung up.
Mediocre? After a year of being a celebrated writer? Who did she think she was? Some high-brow literary critic?
Soon I’d forgotten about it. But on Thursday morning I casually looked at my watch. It was 9 am. After a while I found my eyes glancing at my watch again.
9:15. I shook my head. What’s got into me? But my eyes kept straying to my watch.
Exactly 9:17.
I was already holding the phone to my ear when it rang.
“Hello Mr. Singhvi. I wanted to tell you. Your novel was too sentimental. A real tear-jerker. Very mushy.”
“Look,” I said, “Are you saying that all those people are wrong? They read it and loved it.”
“So write some more of that stuff. Good for you.”
“Sure. But people do need some relief from reality—
“So you feed them what they want. And you make it big.”
“You’re nuts.”
“I’ll call again on Monday in the evening at 6:37.”
“Look, hold on. I want to—” But she’d hung up.
The next few days I just couldn’t concentrate. I was trying out some ideas for my second novel. But it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I had a generous advance for the novel and a contract signed by a reputed publishing house. I had a deadline of six months. From what I’d written so far it didn’t look as if I’d make it. No semblance of a theme had crystallized in my mind. I kept rejecting everything that came.
As I sat frustrated in my flat I became preoccupied with this mysterious caller. What got me most was that she’d said things about my novel which so far no one else had. Of course, I didn’t really agree with her. She seemed too fastidious. One of those readers, I told myself. Besides, she might just be another failed writer, envious of my success. But however much I tried, I couldn’t shake off my uneasiness.
Another thing that was intriguing was her precision about time. On both occasions she’d called exactly when she said she would. Even to the minute. I wondered if it was deliberate. If it was to get me more worked up in anticipating her calls, she’d definitely succeeded.
On Monday, after a whole afternoon trying to concentrate I shut off my laptop in sheer futility. Looking out of the window, I waited restlessly, watching the evening shadows closing in. I could hear my heart skipping beats as the time drew near.
6:30...6:36...
6:37.
My cell-phone exploded with the sound in my ears.
‘Hello Hello” I yelled into it.
“You seem to be really anxious to hear my voice.”
“I am. I’ve been waiting to hear...” I stopped.
“So you agree with all I said about your novel?”
“No. No, not really. But I still want to hear—
“Your novel is too predictable. Life has its own twists and turns. Its surprises.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You might one day.”
“I’ll call you again on Friday, in the afternoon at 3:13,” she said.
“Hey, hang on. Please—” But she’d hung up.
The stress was really getting to me. I know myself well enough to admit I am a control freak. I hated any kind of disruption to my schedule. And waiting for those calls of hers had disrupted all control over my daily activities, particularly my writing.
I thought I’d never have an idea again. I’d suffered bouts of writer’s block, but this was something else. Her harsh criticism of my work left my fingers numb, frozen over the keyboard. All I did was stare blankly at the laptop screen, overwhelmed by my sense of helplessness.
I know maybe you feel I’m crazy but I couldn’t sleep very well the next few days. I tossed and turned in an attempt to sleep. My writing career seemed to have come to a standstill. It was as if my lifeblood as a writer was being slowly drained out of me.
By the time Friday came I was dog-tired. I waited. This time I waited exactly for 3:13 p.m. Sure enough, the phone rang.
“Hello,” I said hopelessly.
“How have you been?” It was almost as if she knew.
“Not too good.”
“That’s the way reality is. It’s not always feel-good.”
“Is there anything left to say about my novel?”
“Of course.”
“What?”
“Your leading lady. Your heroine. She did have to be a flawless beauty, didn’t she?”
“What d’you mean?”
“Well Mr. Singhvi. Has it ever struck you that there are millions of ordinary women who don’t look like your heroine? They’re also part of God’s creation. They have their stories too, don’t they?”
“But who would want to read about—
“Exactly. If you portrayed a real woman your story wouldn’t sell.”
“Look, can you spare me the sermon. I’m sick of—
“I’ll call again. On Wednesday at 3:49 am early morning.”
“Hey. What kind of a time is that?”
But she’d hung up.
I felt like a man being tried in public for a heinous crime. And going by the evidence, it looked as if the prosecution was winning.
I waited with a restless desperation. On Tuesday night I anxiously adjusted the alarm for 3:45 am before I went to bed. But she had me so rattled I couldn’t sleep a wink. I just waited on and on interminably, eyes open, nervously snatching glances at my watch. The alarm sounded.
4 more minutes, I told myself.
There it rang again. Bang on at 3:49.
“Mr. Singhvi?”
“Okay. Get it over with, will you?”I was drowsy and irritable.
“The ending in your novel. It’s too neat. You tie up all the loose ends. It could have ended on a note of mystery. Real life has more mystery than you seem to think.”
“Oh, I see. And now am I supposed to thank you for all these words of wisdom?” I said sarcastically.
“Not at all. It’s possible you might benefit from it, though. Next time you might write about something real.”
I thought she’d hang up. But she went on. “I wonder if you are man enough to meet me. Face to face.”
I couldn’t hide my surprise. “What...? You want to meet me?”
“Why not? That’s if you have the courage.” She added “I just have to make one final point about your novel. But this time it’ll have to be face to face.”
I felt humiliated and intimidated at the same time.
“When...where d’you want to meet?” I asked.
“On Friday. At Skylark Hotel. First Floor. Room 17. Book it in advance. Be there in the room latest by 11:10 am. I’ll come in at 11:12. And no funny business with me, Mr. Singhvi. I can more than take care of myself. Remember, to be on time.”
Before I could say anything, she added, “But I wonder if you have the courage to face a real woman.”
She hung up.
My God. This could be dangerous. What if it was all a setup? And she came armed with a gun or something? That she was some kind of crazy women’s activist with a psychopathic hatred towards men, willing to kill if need be.
But there was another subconscious fear lurking in me, something I’d been trying to suppress. Her scathingly ruthless evaluation of me as a writer had fuelled in me an obsessive self-doubt which had already crippled me.
Confronting my nemesis in person was something I was not ready for.
But after much anxious deliberation, I don’t know what prompted my decision in the end, my manhood or my reputation as a writer. I decided to go.
I managed to book the room, though it took me superhuman effort to make it through to Friday.
On Friday morning I nicked myself twice while shaving. I dressed absent-mindedly. Then drove in my car to the hotel. I picked up the key to the hotel room from the reception desk.
Making my way to the first floor, I entered Room no. 17. It was sparsely furnished, with a T.V set, a single bed and a wardrobe and desk. I had absolutely no intention to spend much time there.
A real woman. I would make sure the door remained open while we talked. I sat on a chair and waited. I had kept the other chair in the room at a respectable distance from me, where she could be seated.
It was exactly 11 am. From past experience, I knew she would be there, dead on time.
It was 11:05.
I sat with bated breath, trying to contain my rising anxiety. My heart began to pound. Suddenly the foolishness of what I was doing seized me. I wanted to just rush out and end this once and for all. Never mind my reputation or manhood.
I quickly glanced at my watch. It was 11:07a.m.
There was a knock on the door.
Too late.
I looked at my watch again, surprised. She was 5 minutes early. I opened the door.
I almost jumped out of my skin.
It was Ratan.
“Hey, what the...?”I was stunned.
“Hi Arman.”
“You? What’re you...?”
Before I could say anything he had barged into the room. He came and sat on the bed.
“I came to see a friend of mine,” he said, excitedly. “He’s on the ground floor. I saw you at the reception desk. I called after you. You didn’t hear. So I asked at the desk and they told me you were here.”
“Ratan, do you mind going at once? Immediately?”
“Wh...Why?”
“Something very urgent. I’m already late. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m finished.”
“Always the celebrity,” he smirked.
“Yes!” I screamed at him.
“Okay. Okay.” He got up, alarmed. I glanced at my watch. It was 11:11.
I just hope he doesn’t run into her. Disturbed as I was, I didn’t want a complication like that to heighten my rising agitation.
But it was probably too late...
As if watching a slow motion movie scene I saw him move forward, fearing the inevitable...
I heard the door close behind him. Thank God.
Sound of footfalls receding in the corridor...
I looked at my watch.
11:12
Nothing. Except for the swishing sound of a text message being received on my phone.
I closed my eyes, trying to control my hoarse breathing. After sometime I looked at my watch again. 11:13.
It was one minute past time.
Another minute passed. I waited five minutes more. I went to the door. There was nobody there. Not in the corridor or anywhere else.
I came back into the room. I sat there for another fifteen minutes.
Then I got up and went out and locked the door to the room. I made my way towards the ground floor and stopped at the reception desk. I deposited the key, and paid up the balance. Then I signed off and walked out of the hotel.
She hadn’t come. She was the one who’d chickened out.
I felt a wave of confidence sweep over me.
Then I suddenly remembered. The text message. I grabbed hold of my cell-phone.
There it was. Exactly at 11:12. I read it.
Discussion closed. You do have the courage. All the best for your next novel.
I knew it would probably be the last I’d hear from her.
Though I felt relieved, I couldn’t help acknowledging a grudging respect and gratefulness.
I decided to walk around for a while before I went back to the hotel and picked up my car to go home. I needed some time to reflect. It was one of those moments that only a writer knows.
The seed of an idea was already beckoning me, waiting for a signal to germinate, to take form in my head. I embraced it, exploring the possibilities, stretching space in my imagination for it to grow. Soon, as I walked on I felt a rising sense of excitement.
This time I knew I had it. My next novel. What it would be about.
Something real.
About a celebrity writer.
Who had become weary and dead in spirit.
And who’d been shaken up and stirred to life.
By a mysterious caller. 


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