Rabin wasn’t a favourite in our circle. And he couldn’t write for toffee. So, when he went off on one of his trips to uncharted islands in the Sunderbans, nobody missed him. He followed a policy of “Rule or Sulk”. And most of the time he sulked.
We had decided, all of us, to go for a week to Almora up in Kumaon to stay at a place which during the Raj had been the residence of a Brit called Campion. He returned to England, however, after his wife had died of cholera during an epidemic and put the fully furnished bungalow up for sale. It was turned into a holiday home for visitors to the hills.
It was a charming old place but what recommended it the most to us was the library – rows and rows of priceless books, some in first and second editions, beautifully bound in vellum and bordered in gold and silver. It would have been a treat for anyone with even the slightest inclination to reading. For us it was a feast for we were published authors and poets, and some of us had even won prizes. ‘The New Alipore Writers Circle’- that was the name we went by. And we were in Almora on a writing holiday.
A satisfying first day it was when all one heard was the scribbling of pens on notepads, the clackety-clack of typewriters, and low voices in discussion. At dinnertime everyone sat around the long dining table and shared accounts of their day’s efforts, over plates piled high with delicate mutton stew, long-grained rice and julienne potato chips.
We were so absorbed that it took us about a minute to notice the heavy, brooding figure in the doorway.
It was the traveller, back from his excursion.
“Looks like you’re having a grand time without me.” Rabin carried bad weather with him wherever he went.
But we welcomed him, gave him a chair at the head of the table and a warm plate, and massaged his ego for the duration of the meal:
“Hi there, Rabin! Good to see you, old chap!”
“Delighted to have you join us! And of course, you are included; it’s just that we didn’t know you were back!!”
“Tell us all about your trip, Rabin! Intrepid adventurer! You put us all to shame!”
“Oh yes, Rabin, tell us all about it! Do!”
Shadows fell away from his face; his fingers grew animated. He told us about his expedition to a remote island on the frontiers of bhatir desh, tide country, in the Bay of Bengal; about a recluse who had lived there for well-nigh thirty years. He described the man as possessing ‘powers’ and ‘spells’.
“You make him sound like a sorcerer!” I exclaimed.
Rabin turned cinnamon-coloured eyes upon me. Somewhere in the hills, the night glittered.
Meghnad opened a bottle of Goan wine. “Words are all we have. All we have are words. Here’s to our words”, he said, raising his fine-stemmed wine glass and swirling its contents to release a faint bouquet of roses.
“Here’s to our words,” Haldar repeated, “What would we be without them? Or where?”
“In the darkness? And not writers, anyway!” Parinitha ventured.
“Hanging back with the anthropoids, more likely. Give me the prison house of language any day”, Gannie was more voluble than necessary, “And when I die, bury me beneath a pile of words. But, for heaven’s sake – no adjectives and adverbs!”
Then Rabin raised his glass and muttered something.
“What was that you said?” someone asked.
“Raise a toast to the last of them, all of you…” he repeated. He got up and walked to the hearth, crooning to himself. His voice was soft and sing-song.
We looked at each other.
A log in the fireplace glowed brighter, snapped its spine and fell.
“That’s odd. How could it have escaped the editors?”
My friend Parinitha looked up from where she was seated on a sofa near heavily curtained windows, “What’s odd?”
I explained, “This copy of Moby Dick. The first line – it’s missing.”
“Sure? It might have faded – they’re pretty old tomes here.”
I shrugged and spent the next half hour making notes on the journal of an English memsaab who had spent the summer of 1857 up in the hills before fleeing the country as the First War of Independence broke out.
An hour of squeaking lead pencil on notepad. Then a short shriek interrupted me. It was Parinitha.
“Aanya”, she said, “There was something here just now, scurrying about. It touched me. A mouse, perhaps, or some other small creature? I can’t stand mice! But now…now take a look at this!”
I hastened to her side. This is what I saw: the first line of a poem she had composed was erasing itself. The words, their edges ragged, disappeared in slow sequence before our eyes.
“It’s as though they are being gnawed at, you know, bit by bit by bit!” I whispered.
“What do you make of it?” Her voice, the whole of her, quivered.
“I…don’t know. Never seen anything like it before. The ink you’re using – is it the vanishing kind that we fooled around with as kids?”
“Most definitely not! And look! Look – I’ve lost a whole stanza now! And the next is beginning to ….”
Something struck me and I ran to the bookshelf and pulled Moby Dick out of its place between White Fang and The Call of the Wild. I opened it on the first page.
It was blank.
Someone was at the library door. It was Haldar. “I say, you girls, may I join you? I’ve had something bizarre happening to me. I just can’t seem to get all the words I need for my novel. It’s as though they’re being vacuum-cleaned out of my mind…my brain, whatever. And I promise you, I’m not drunk.”
From the corner of my eye I caught a furtive movement behind the heavy woollen drapes and decided to investigate. As I drew them aside something plopped softly onto the sofa and then, the floor. I only guessed at what it might be. “Ugh! It’s a rodent of some sort, I bet. It was lurking there behind the curtains! There you are – your mouse, Parinitha.”
Haldar directed a long silence at us. Then he said, “Something else happened to me last night that I haven’t told you about. I was drifting off to sleep when I became aware of a creature of some kind under my pillow. I reached out for it in the darkness. It had teeth all right but was not a mouse. Then I shone a torch hoping to discover the nature of the thing. There was nothing to be seen…”
The stillness was so thick at the table that night; you could have cut it with a knife. Only one place was unoccupied – Rabin’s.
“Where’s Rabin? He ought…ought to be…” Gannie groped for words which I’d never known him to do before.
I volunteered, “I’ll go and see. He’s probably asleep. He’s travelled pretty far to catch up with all of us.”
The one room available to Rabin was in the attic and now I climbed the wanly lit and winding staircase that led to the top of the bungalow. The only sound was that of my slippered feet on old carpeting.
Or was it?
I was suddenly sure that something undulated behind me – or rather, some things. They moved along the floor leaving behind a snail’s wetness. They went ahead of me: some light-footed, some heavy, from the sound of them. They pushed open the door of Rabin’s room and entered – whatever they were.
I stood in the doorway.
Rabin was in an easy chair, his chin sharp in silhouette. He smoked one of his foul cigars. “Oh, so you’ve come”, he said, “I was wondering how long it would take for somebody to figure it out. I guessed you’d be the one. You’re brighter than the rest of them, though that’s not saying much.”
He poured out a mug of brew for himself, “It’s been a long time in coming. And it was even longer for the recluse of Kaliban Island at the remote end of tide country. Thirty years he had lived there – awaiting the Chosen One. Then one day I arrived at sundown and he recognized me at once. Do you know that blood can call to blood?” Rabin’s voice was low now. “Our blood, his and mine, communed. And he embraced me, so to speak. He taught me things and said I had aptitude. He called me his son and named me his successor.” Rabin reflected for a moment, then raised his arms, “The upshot of all this is that I Am Now Heir to the Enchanter!”
I had always doubted his sanity. But this confirmed my suspicions. All I said was, “I don’t get you…?”
He smiled. Handsome never looked so unpleasant. “You’re unlikely to with your limited understanding.” He raised his mug, “Here’s to the Last Word that all of you will ever read, write, use or comprehend. So, you’d better get to your room immediately and record what’s happened here today because on the stroke of the mid-night hour the last word ever available to you will be consumed; eaten up forever. And when I’ve finished with the lot of you, I’ll do the same to Almora, to India, to the sub-continent and the Rest of the World. And I shall be Rabin, Supreme Lord of the Word! The last member of Homo sapiens. The Last True Man on Earth! Words are all we have, eh?” He chuckled and turned up a table lamp.
“Bastard. You are nothing but a bastard.”
“You won’t even be able to use invective, my dear Aanya. Think of the pain! The delicious frustration! Oh yes, by the way, to put your narrative down you will have to record it in blood, human blood. Your own. Or anyone else’s….Some writer in your circle, perhaps?”
He waved me away like I was a stray kitten.
A suggestion of movement made me look around his room. And then I saw them – clustering together by his feet, climbing onto his four-poster bed, huddling by the fireplace, scrambling onto his lap: mouths, mouths, greedy mouths; all filled with sharp and tiny teeth. They chewed and spat incessantly, disdainfully. I looked again: strewn all over the rug on the floor were words, mangled words – hundreds and hundreds of them, bleeding as only words can….
Rabin snapped his fingers. Something snaked through the ill-lit room.
Thereafter, all that met my eyes were an old rug, a rumpled bed, and Rabin grinning at me.
And nothing, but nothing, else.
I’m back in Rabin’s room dipping my nib into the warm red seeping out of him and scribbling down my story as quick as I can. It was so easy to sneak in, a fender in my hand and him half-asleep in his easy chair with a smile on his face.
I can hear them on the staircase – my friends in search of me. The gibbering, grunting, mewling tell me that they approach. Hysteria is rising in my throat and I’m choking. Words are getting harder to come by or command.
I am looking at my wristwatch now: it shows fifteen seconds to mid-night….