Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The professor

‘Why have you come here?’, his bloodshot eyes bore into me from behind the bush of unruly half-hennaed beard spewing out of the brown monkey-cap, donned even in this airless heat. He sits across the cluttered desk, half turned, a hand crossed across the chest and tucked under the armpit, the other holding an open book close to his half-moon Dumbledore glasses. ‘First time since you left?’

‘Yes.’

‘You did not come before because you thought that I would ask you what you have done with your life – and you would have no answers.’ I remain silent. ‘What do you do?’

‘I am a project manager.’

‘You’re not planning to embark on a campus caper?’, he waves the fresh copy of the bestseller at me, ‘He was your batch-mate, right?’

‘No, senior.’ I noticed the parcel it must have arrived on, a gutted yellow-brown affair embossed with the name of the publisher, scraping on the floor with the occasional wind.

He flips the pages with a coarse thumb, ‘How is it – crappy or awful?’

‘There is a generous reference to your character.’

He scoffs and starts to cough, ‘Hah! I – cough – wish – cough cough – he’d spared me the ignominy!’ His coughing eases and he throws the book on the littered desk upsetting a few files, pages fall from them onto the floor in muted shuffle but he doesn’t glance at them. ‘Do you still paint?’

‘No.’

‘Pity’, he raises himself with some effort from the old armchair, ‘You had some talent there with colours.’ He shambles to a corner, soot stain rising like volcanic ash, and places a kettle on a stove. The battered copper kettle with the turned wood handle on the Primus spattered with years of rust and burnt tea; I look around – everything in the clutter the same, only timeworn. The stove rests on the TV trolley instead of the shaky tripod I remember. He catches me looking.

‘I stopped that bloody film society after one of the girls complained of pornography to the dean.’ He mentions the name of the movie – ‘Used to be your favourite’. He turns to add water to the kettle from a jug. Behind the greasy panes of the lower shelf, I can still make the out the old Akai VCR and the stacks of VHS tapes we watched, their tapes mouldy and crumbling now I’m sure. I imagine the old television finally kicked the bucket one day, beyond any more resuscitation by generous thumps at its side, and he threw it from the window.

The afternoon sun streaming from the window behind his desk, arrested by the grime of the panes and the hanging dust, tints the room in sepia. Only a burning slit of it sneaks from the crack between the sash and the sill and saws one of the bookcases. The weather-bound books I had reverently perused through once now gather dust on them. Dust pervades – spinning under the slow creaking blades of the begrimed fan, gathered in the corners in balls and stirring under his shuffling feet, sitting in a film on the books on the shelves, the reams of files and sketch sheets tossed on the desk and the side table, only sparing a rectangular patch on the desk, and on the mildewy paintings scattered on the walls. The domineering abundance of paper in the room, in books and notes and lines, piled on the groaning bookcases, their shelves buckling under their weight, lends this tableau an air of fragile weightiness.

He complains as he adds the tea – the usual problems with the authority, the ever-increasing stupidity of the students, curtailed budgets, the times – pausing only to sniff at the milk in the packet. The moment, tentative and unsure, in the gentle blurry haze of the dust, comes as a mirage – the steady hum of the mini-fridge the singing sands –a world at its brink, doubting itself. The tenuous dusky shadow of a world already disappeared.


He limps to a book shelf, shuffling violently through piles of scrapbooks neatly stencilled with a name and a batch on the bottom right corner of their cover – diaries of our everyday experience with art around us – a newspaper cutting, a dead flower, a photograph, a sketch, a scroll, a muse. He pulls out a term book – that’s what we called it – and tosses it at me without looking at me, rising with a grunt and shuffling back to the kettle nearing boil. I flip through a few pages.

‘What do you make of them?’

I say something about the violence of the strokes and the overabundance of yellow.

‘What would you say about the artist?’

My eyes pause on a painting – the last of them. ‘Deeply disturbed.’

‘His name was Mukund Sachdeva. Tiny bastard with owl-eyed specs. He committed suicide shortly after this painting’, he turns and nods in the direction of the page spread between my hands, ‘Perhaps the last thing he did. I later got to know that he had dropped from every class but this. Perfect attendance – quite a thing for my classes. And I hardly ever noticed him there.’ He sieves the tea sloppily, spilling much of it in the floor, and thrusts a chipped mug at me. ‘What’s he written about me, your friend? Am I one of those endearing professorial buffoons, or an eccentric? I remember the bastard well enough – beamed at me like an idiot sitting over there’, he jabs a finger at the chair adjacent to me, ‘Trying to suck up to me, spoke straight from the notes but knew as much about art as a machine’, he settles back against the backrest, ‘Or perhaps, I am the villain in this junk – I did give him the only B out here, after all. Broke his perfect ten – and his heart too, I guess.’ His broken-toothed grin is a weak attempt at wicked levity. I leaf through Mukund’s sketches again. Despite the honesty, there is nothing in them but desperation; a doomed Icarus jump into the empty air. Any value there is to them now is in the fact of his death.

‘Is the company you work for big?’

‘No, quite small.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘You wouldn’t have heard of it.’

‘Hah!’

I offer the term-book back to him but he careless tosses it away to the same corner of the desk where he tossed the bestseller; it falls away taking a bundle of files with it.

‘That’s what I do now – to all of them – just throw them away at the end of the term and let my TA grade them.’ Another noisy slurp. ‘Every year, I put the same questions as the last year – they all know it now – How does the impressionist connect with his subjects? Discuss the inspiration and significance of Picasso’s Guernica in less than five hundred words? – my faithful TA tells me that even the answers are the same every year.’

‘I should have done this long time ago. I shouldn’t have wasted my breath on you slimy bastards – just taught from the text and let you waste the night mugging and be spared from sifting through your puke. Pity’, he points to the best-seller, ‘he would have scored a perfect ten if he had been here now.’

He stares at a spot on the desk, ‘It was a mistake coming back here. A mistake. You boys want to become what these places make you become. What crap you guys write about yourself these days! How unashamedly you crown yourself. Crème de la crème! The best! The brightest! What do you know of genius – you yellow-hearted runts! Afraid to struggle, to stand and fail for an idea!’

I light a cigarette unflinchingly like old times. The smoke trails lazily across the desk and a strand reaches his nose; he coughs. I stub and throw the cigarette away.

‘Are you married? ‘

‘No.’

‘Some rich pathetic kid I don’t even remember now sent me a snap from somewhere once – New York, I think. And all I can remember now is that I wanted to do his wife real bad. Why did you come to see me this time?’

‘I heard that you were sick.’

‘You thought I was dying!’


For a while, I had stood in this empty room deciding whether I should wait for him or check him out at his quarter – retiring for the day leaving the door to his office open would not be unusual from him. A faint rustling sound and I cocked my ear. I moved to the door, leading to the inner room where once he would secretly paint, and knocked. I heard something stir, a creak and a thin croak that I decided meant to summon me inside. I pushed the door. He sat at the edge of the folding bed, his body slumped forward, the blanket crossing a shoulder and tumbling from his lap like the robe of a Greek god in a painting, his hands clutching the edge of the bed. I remember his eyes, big and frightened as they took me in with the jaw hanging loose in a half-gape, the sparse hair on his head in disarray, the sunken cheeks – he looked around with the same befuddled terror – it was not me alone he was trying to place but the room and himself.


‘Are you?’


It took him a few seconds to recover before he was smothering his hair with a hand and scowling at me as if I had disturbed him in some deep thought.


‘Hah, it would take a hell lot more than this to kill me.’ I smile, and so does he, for a brief moment. ‘Why did you turn it down?’, his eyes soften with pain. I lower my head – I cannot look him in the eyes. I had been desperate when I wrote to him – I never really expected him to do anything about it – with his reputation for fights and my grades, what chance could have been there? And yet, against all odds, he had pulled it off. And I had failed him then.

‘Because of a girl’, I mutter.

‘Are you still with her?’

I shake my head.

‘Good. The canteen would be open now. This tea tastes like shit!’, he barks at me like I was the one who’d made it.

6 comments:

aparna said...

mmmmnnnnnnn>>>>>wish I had a cup of coffee to go with it

Pankaj said...

This seems autobiographical. I don't remember every having a brilliant-quirky professor. I would have loved to have one.

Tangled up in blue... said...

You know how I decide that a story was really really good..when I read it and begin to wonder if it hasnt really happened and then, convince myself that it has. Becoz it was written with such conviction that its not simply a story, its something that cud happen or did. Thats how I know that I really really liked it.

Bland Spice said...

thanks tangled. i think you're right - good stories make you crawl under the skin of the characters.

this is pure fiction - like pankaj, I never had such a prof. Perhaps it's come from that very lacuna.

It's part of the bigger story I'm penning. A minor subplot but for some reason I feel very essential to understand the protagonist.

ramya sriram said...

real real.

Nothing Spectacular said...

very good hai