by Gargi Mehra



My uncle, on one of his annual visits from America to Kolkata, gifted me a typewriter when I was eleven. He taught me to coax stories out of the clattering keys. I pressed down hard on each key when I learnt to type in the beginning but soon mastered the art of what people now call touch-typing. From an aesthetic perspective, a designer or even a casual onlooker might have declared the typewriter ugly. Its black keys and green borders rendered it a hideous contraption, a device that might have served time travellers in the decades gone by. I pounced on it every evening after my classes, eager to unravel the tragic tales that swirled in my mind.

The typewriter came encased in a hard plastic box, which I used to shield it from dust. I stowed a yellow cloth beside the device and patted out even the tiniest bits of grime from it before starting my work. I loved to slide a paper down the roller and rotate it such that the blank page confronted me, daring me to throw words at it.

It served me well for over forty years until it sputtered and died one morning, just as my nephew had done.

My cousin’s younger son had succumbed to Von Hippel-Lindau’s disease. On my return from the funeral, I typed out the story that would become my twenty-fourth novella.

The memorial service tested my patience. The claustrophobic living room of his bungalow swelled and burgeoned with relatives of all hues. The mother sat cross-legged in the centre of all the grief, her face and lips matching her white saree. She stayed quiet and numb, the tears having dried in her eyes. The father, my cousin, clung to my sleeve throughout. His elder son had departed this world the same way last year. The doctors warned that it was a genetic defect – future offspring would meet the same fate.

Towards the end of my story, the ‘r’ key stuck to the base, refusing to spring back into its upright position. I pressed another letter and the ribbon coughed and left a trail of ink on the paper. I rolled out the sheet and inscribed the remaining two paragraphs by hand.

The heat from the late-afternoon sun scorched my skin as I lumbered along the pot-holed roads to the post office. The bespectacled clerk at the first counter rose to his feet when he saw me. Without a word, he scooped up the manuscript, weighed it, and tossed it in the pile of envelopes in the corner. Tomorrow afternoon, by this time, my package would land at the desk of Mr. Chatterjee, the editor of Nagar Patrika.

At the corner of New Market Road, I bought the latest issue of Nagar Patrika and then stopped by the garage where I used to service my Fiat many years ago. One of the boys there who knew me agreed to accompany me home to attempt to fix the typewriter.

I entered the house expecting to find Anjali mopping the tiles on all fours, but she wasn’t there. Like most residents, I too had surrendered one set of keys to her so she could let herself in any time to clean up, even when I was out meeting my editor or drinking tea with my cousins.

The mechanic inspected the typewriter while I filled a steel vessel and placed it on the stove. When it bubbled over, I threw a few leaves of Darjeeling into it and turned the knob off.

I carried the cup into the living room, picked up my magazine, and rested my feet on the table.

The mechanic entered holding up my typewriter. “It needs some parts I might have in the garage. I’ll have to take it there and fix it.”

A dull ache filled my heart as he left, clasping his arms around the box, the grease from his fingers staining the off-white cover.

I turned the pages of the magazine, which featured my stories in serialized form almost every week. Tales of jilted lovers and their sorry attempts to win over their loved ones constituted the bulk of its fiction. One passage in particular caught my eye.

‘The Writer wore his finest expression of sympathy and trooped down to the police station to assist the investigating officers with their enquiries into the death of Mr. and Mrs. Das. He answered their queries and supplied the names and addresses of their kinsfolks. No one could accuse him of harbouring secrets. His interest in the incident was not mercenary. He only craved to rush home so he could scribble down the poetic phrases churning in his brain.

The Writer reached home, gulped down his pressure pills and a glass of warm milk, and headed straight for his typewriter. His writing aid was not as gothic as his friends might have imagined. His parsimonious ways did not prevent him from investing in an electronic Brother typewriter. He covered it using a golden cloth, which had now turned a murky brown because of the dust accumulating on it.’

The bell rang. I let out a yell of frustration. “Who is it?”

Anjali stood at the entrance, draped as usual in a well-worn sari. Most people wilted under my gaze, but she simply swept past my scowl, her thick plait swinging behind her.

I resumed my place on the couch and flipped to the end of the story. “The Writer,” it said, earned millions by selling his cousin’s tragic tale and ended with a moral: Unethical people never met a happy ending in their own life.

I slackened my grip on the magazine, staring into the distance. My last novella that hit the shelves featured my cousin, Chandan Kumar Roy and his wife, Krishna. The Roys lived in a rambling house in the then-undeveloped Salt Lake area, where shrubbery and vegetation consumed all the miles around. Their sons implored them to leave the bungalow and move in with them, but they paid scant attention to this sound advice.

One morning, the milkman arrived at their doorstep bearing his usual delivery. The previous day’s packet lay just as he had left it. When no one answered his vigorous knocks, he raised an alarm, and within the hour, policemen broke down the door and stormed into the house to find the aged couple in a pool of their own blood. A cursory search revealed that all cash, jewellery, and expensive crystal showpieces had disappeared. The police apprehended a servant who worked for the Roys and questioned him but found no evidence to tie him to the crime scene. Despite extensive investigations, the culprits remained at large.

I flicked the pages to the table of contents. It listed the author of the story as Anonymous.

Anjali entered the room bearing my lunch on a tray – rice, dal, and a bland curry of beans.

“Have you taken your medicine?” she asked.

“Aren’t you supposed to serve it to me?” I said, countering her honey-sweet tone with a sarcastic imitation.

She fetched the strip of tablets and set it beside my glass. My appetite had disappeared into an abyss today. Nevertheless, I heaped four servings of rice onto my plate (three servings was considered inauspicious), poured dal over the rice, and added the beans to the mix. I polished off the rice mixture in minutes and swallowed my pills. I gathered my wallet and walking stick and left the house.

At the corner outside my apartment complex, one enterprising businessman still maintained an old-style phone booth. I huddled into it and dialled Mr. Chatterjee.

“I read a wonderful story in the latest issue today. There was no by-line of the author.”

Mr Chatterjee said, “The one about the writer, you mean? Yes, we just received it in the mail, and the package bore no name. The editorial board approved it so we published it anyway. Did you like it?”

“Yes, very good, but –” 

“Tough job to track the author and pay him, but maybe he is not interested in payment. Anyway, I’m happy you enjoyed it. I will talk to you later, Biren. There’s someone on the other line.”

I plodded my weary way home, my mind wrapped in twice the turmoil than when I set out. To become the subject of someone else’s fiction discomfited me. It had not sunk in yet that someone had concocted a comprehensive account of my life. Of course, many people resented my success. Even close family members attempted to discredit my accomplishments, envious that in a whole lifetime they had acquired but a few scraps of happiness. The rest of their insipid lives amounted to heartache and disappointment.

The next week, Nagar Patrika published my story – a thinly veiled version of the misfortune that had befallen my cousin’s sons.  Around the same time, the mechanic brought home my typewriter. He could not fix it, he said. It required parts that were unavailable in Kolkata or even in India. He hoisted it on the bookshelf at my request.

I brought it down after a few weeks. The offending key remained stuck. I might have resorted to penning entire novels without using any instances of that letter, but it was never my ambition to compose lipogrammatic novels. I climbed atop a stool and returned the typewriter to the shelf.

Six weeks later a story appeared, noted in the contents as a sequel. The plot unravelled how “The Writer” had stooped to writing real-life tragedies starring his nieces and nephews.

I read it over and over, devouring each word until it stayed etched in my mind. This story, like the previous one, magnified every detail of my life as though the author had shadowed me the whole day.

The culprit did not realise that writing fiction was not so simple. It mattered little if I scrounged stories from the heartbreaks that my people suffered. The task of embellishment, transposing, adapting, and fictionalising was non-trivial.

I dithered only a little before leaving the house. The four walls of the phone booth beckoned.

“That’s terrible. I wish you would reconsider,” Mr. Chatterjee said when I told him my news.

“No, no, it’s time I retired. Anyway, it’s good to sign off at a high, rather than waiting until my name has disappeared from the public consciousness.”

“Well, I am quite disappointed to lose my star, but let’s hope I find a replacement.”

When I reached home, I uncovered my writing aid. The hard plastic body of the typewriter shone. Its edges remained spotless. I wiped it one last time with the cloth, then packed it in the box in which it had arrived. Next time I visited my cousin in Rajarhat, I would present it to his elder daughter who had chosen a college across the Atlantic for her higher studies. Perhaps she could fix it when she arrived in America.


Gargi Mehra writes fiction and humor in a determined effort to unite the two sides of the brain in cerebral harmony. Her fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes and Liquid Imagination among other online avenues. She blogs at


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