[Issue 2 / August 2012]
The little man with the lisp was told to shift his table a bit to make place for the new editor. A published author, they said. When the ill-tempered and tyrannical Head of English wasn’t looking, he carried out a quick Internet search. Ah, here she was Nilima Mathur. A published author sitting next to him! He couldn’t believe his luck. He looked quickly towards Shyla madam, the tyrant. She’d not noticed of course. Surfing the Internet during office hours! If she had, she would have clomped over, stood over his head and in the full hearing of the entire office ticked him off as if he’d been a schoolboy. He loved the office and somewhere his little person masochistically liked the attention he received from Shyla Madam for his ‘misdemeanours’. Hunterwali, he called her in his mind, as she stalked up and down in her boots, squirrel-faced and large-bottomed.
He ran his palm over his balding head and his tongue over his dry lips before resuming his work. Appreciation? That wasn’t a valid word in this children’s publishing house. It thrived on intrigue and editorial games of catch-as-catch-can. He relished it too—catching out the senior editors: the manuscripts came to him last, for proofing and editing of small errors. Ah, what delight it was to point out the oversights of the ladies who thought no end of themselves. Who lunched together without ever inviting him. Who treated him as lower class…who never addressed him except as Waliajeeee! When they wanted some work out of him. Waliajeeee! This! Waliajeeeeee! That!
The worst was when the Senior Head came down to visit each morning. Veera Sabnani. She floated in à la Morticia Addams, a mixture of Cruella de Ville and Cookie Monster, her curly salt-and-pepper hair growing on too low a forehead, her lower lip stuck out , her baleful eyes unblinking , her witchy, hairy, chin knobs wobbling as she went from desk to desk…Waliajeeeee! trembled inwardly. He began to stammer and stutter in vain attempts to dissimulate his unending imaginary transgressions …and Veera Sabnani would loom and loom over his tiny person, the orthopedic collar around her neck making her look like the syphilitic French monarch, François II.
Once every few days he was expected to go up to her room, to give a full report on all the editors. Even when they were sitting, Veera Sabnani loomed over him. She asked the questions, he gave the answers, lisping and stuttering and stammering. Who was talking and laughing too much? Who seemed to shirk? Who befriended whom? Who criticized her work pattern? Who complained to the Publisher? The little informer gave it all. When she was satisfied, he left the room, mopping his brow in relief. His job was safe.
Then she came..Nilima Mathur, the author…and smiled at him as thought he’d been an equal…and addressed him as Mister Walia. She offered him goodies from her tiffin box. She accepted his small offers of Alpen Liebe and Cadbury’s éclairs. Each morning she greeted him with a cheery “Good Morning Mister Walia!”And to his utter delight, she discussed editorial points with him! She asked for his opinion! His opinion! Waliajeee! turned into Mister Walia in her presence. He discussed John Buchan and Julio Iglesias and Jim Reeves. He hummed Reeves’ famous Adios, amigo. He surfed the Internet more boldly.
But the turning into Mister Walia from Waliajeeee! was a dangerous thing. He wanted more equality. He felt restless. He felt critical. He no longer enjoyed Shyla Madam’s rebukes or Veera Madam’s barbs. He complained when Radha Madam dropped her files all over his desk and talked across his head in her affected way as though he hadn’t been there at all! No, no, Mister Walia wasn’t to be treated like that!
Veera Sabnani must have noticed the change. He was slipping out of her grasp. At one meeting in her room he praised Nilima Mathur to high heaven, her knowledge and her kindness. He saw Veera Madam’s face colour, her baleful, jealous eyes arrested on his perspiring countenance. He knew he’d made a fatal mistake—he had no escape, he knew that too—his life would be spent in perpetual subordination…to these self-styled Divas of editing mediocre children’s text books…he knew Mister Walia was an ephemeral character that existed in his mind and in his mirror, and perhaps in the eyes of Nilima Mathur who was a creator of fictitious characters herself; but not in the real world of Other People. In the world of these upwardly mobile petit bourgeois peri-menopausal women…there was only Waliajeeeeee!
And he made his choice…
The next morning Waliajeeee! did not turn into Mister Walia when Nilima Madam came into the room. He remained determinedly Waliajeeee! He picked up the hard copy of the manuscript Nilima Madam was working on and said in a very Waliajeeeee!ish tone,: “ Now you please complete this work, Veera Madam has said, and give it to me as quickly as you can….you see I have my work to do too! Remember what you leave out, is done by me.”
“Certainly, Waliajeee!” she replied.
And Mister Walia crumpled inside Waliajeee! like the paper figure that he was, and the strains of Jim Reeves’ Adios Amigo filled his ears as he faded away, killed by the weird and unlikely morph of Cruella deVille, Cookie Monster and the syphilitic French monarch.
Mariam Karim-Ahlawat received her education at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and at the Sorbonne in Paris. She writes fiction for children and adults. Her novels and plays have been nominated for various Indian as well as international awards. Her children’s books are available in English and several Indian languages.