Word Sanctuary by Menakshi Jauhari Chawla

I peer at the address: 8, Qila Road, Ganesh Nagar.


I know the place – on the other side of town. Seedy. Chaotic. I remember the houses, huddled together on both sides of narrow streets full of people. Smelly. Suffocating.


Now I have second thoughts. As I drift into sleep, my mind continues working through my dilemma.


I have decided. I will go. To that seedy other world. Brave the traffic, the drive, the crowds.


It is just past nine am. A mishmash of smells overpowers me as I get out of my leather upholstered car. The milling mass. The needy-looking houses growing out of one another’s sides, and stretching their weather-beaten feet into the narrow lanes in front of them. It is another planet, only forty-five kilometres from mine.


5 … 6 … 7…. Where was number 8? I walked quickly. I could not see it. I went round the corner, and cut between a veering rickshaw and an out-of-control cyclist. There it was! Number 8.


It was a little house, quite unlike the others. Neat. It had a tiny garden, more a large flower-bed, nearly square, with real flowers turned up to a little square sky.


Before I could knock, the door opened, and a small oldish woman stood there. She saw me, stopped short.


‘May I help you?’ Soft. Educated.


I lost my assurance and almost turned on my heel. I looked at her again. She was in her fifties perhaps.


‘Yes?’ she asked again, softly.


‘Madhu Jain?’ I replied hesitantly.


‘Yes, that’s me,’ she answered. Her tone was patient.


‘Please, could I come in?’ My voice did not sound like mine. I waved the magazine from which I had got her address. An empty gesture. And loud.


Now she hesitated. Her eyes took in my waving hand, me. Then she stood back and motioned for me to come in.


I entered a small room, sparsely furnished with a shabby aged couch, and a desk with a straight-backed chair. Two well-worn cane chairs sat opposite the couch. A rectangular reddish-brown floor rug tried to fill the emptiness of the room.


She stood by the desk, waiting. She did not ask me to sit.


‘Mrs Jain,’ I began uncertainly, ‘I read your story in this magazine…’


Her eyes went again to the dog-eared magazine in my hand. Slowly she pointed to a chair. She continued to stand. ‘Please … please…,’ I was almost pleading, ‘Won’t you sit? It seems so rude that I should be seated and you…’


She lowered herself into the straight-backed chair at the desk. I was sweating. It was a warm day.


‘You were saying,’ she began. I noticed her voice was soft, like velvet.


‘Yes, yes,’ my words came in a rush, ‘I think this story is very good. Do you write a lot?’


‘Yes, it is my whole life,’ she waited, then asked, abruptly, ‘Are you a publisher or … agent?’ Her eyes never left my face.


I paused again. (Anxiety has no sense of time or place). Then I took the plunge.


As I fell out into the sunlight half an hour later, I found my clothes sticking to my body. I was uncomfortable and walked back quickly to my car beneath a tree some distance away. I could not have driven all the way to the house; that would have looked bad. Besides the roads were just too narrow. And there were too many people.




‘Mr Narang, letters for you,’ trills my first-floor student-tenant. She is audible from my study. That’s her, plunking my mail in the chair. Now she’s humming. Too loud! Those are her horrible high-heeled shoes clumping up the stairs. Oh, those shoes … Why can’t she wear ordinary shoes like other boys and girls?


I groan. Like a fragile strand of warm sugar syrup, the feeble thread of my idea has collapsed upon itself.


I can’t blame the girl on the first floor for another unproductive day. She has no way of knowing that words are tough customers, and writing isn’t easy. That I’m always struggling with some part or the other of the work at hand. That stories are difficult to construct. They are difficult in the beginning, more difficult in the middle and totally impossible to end – right, and at the right point. And how can she know the dilemma of giving a story a name? A name that tells and holds back. That is clever, but only so much. The nuances of getting it all together – just so.


Oh, it’s not as if I don’t get inspired. Everywhere I go, a story brushes past. Girls running behind a kite trailing a bit of thread, an old man sitting on a curb staring at his hands … everything turns into a tale in my head.


The trouble starts when I sit at my desk and try to inscribe the story in my head onto the screen before me. Then words slip through my grasp. The idea that came to me gleaming like an inlaid ring minimises into maudlin make-believe. I struggle to imbue my stories with an inner glow. I try to give them a superfine talcum-lustre of perfection. I try hard. I want publishers clamouring at my door. But I have to admit my work is only mediocre. I manage bands of shining word play in some paragraphs, but I know those are incapable of catapulting me into the paradise of letters.


Publishers accept my stories for many reasons. On most days I don’t mind that. But nowadays, it’s begun to bother me. Social status, connections, family – all have a hollow feel to them (like the characters I give birth to).


My grandfather had been a respected Urdu poet who read poetry at the court of the Nawab of Rampur. My mother was a gifted writer who wrote as easily as she cooked. I don’t remember her ruminating, fumbling at a desk. Her life revolved around children and the aromas of a rasoi. Her stories rose from the broth she stirred on the fire that winked at her with its thousand glowing eyes. Our house was the meeting place for grandfather’s friends and fellow poets. My mother was the ever-smiling hostess, cook, connoisseur. Amidst the countless plates of pakoras that went in and out of the black-faced rasoi, words, tamed by her mesmerising gaze and the wooden spoon, danced to her tune.


I sit at my desk designed for maximum seclusion and comfort. My words scoff at the formality of my vocation. They seem to be on permanent vacation. It’s my little joke for myself. How did my mother write in that mad merry-go-round?


I need a walk. A break.


I have distinguished genes, yes, I do. Words should be in awe of me, at the very least, they should obey my thoughts. But no, words mock me. They pretend to say what I want them to, then rear their heads up after my pen has gone on ahead. Sometimes, they frighten me. Words with feet, even wings. Words with spite.


I have always wanted to write short stories. Novels, those miles of streaming words winding their way through a torturously-conceived plot, are too much effort. A short story is petite, and side-steps flab, with a smartly executed turn or a surprise act of levitation. I like the nimbleness of a short story. The only problem is that I cannot write one like that. My stories reject the trail of my thought.




One day, I picked up a magazine from an airport bookstore. In it, I found a story that spoke to me. Elegant. Poetic. With agility of thought and phrase. The story, borne on clever word-wings, soared to perfection.


I could not sleep that night. The story chimed like a clear-throated bell. It laughed at me. It pinched my cheeks until they were red. ‘You poor chap!’


It danced brightly, pitilessly.


It made me look stupid. Ugly.


An idea took shape beside those dancing words. Irresistible. Hopeful.


The next day I awoke early. I was restless. I downed a million cups of tea. I decided to go for it. What seemed audacious at night seemed like a smart move when the sun shone upon it.


I carefully rescued the magazine from beneath my bed, turned to the story and recorded the author’s name and address in my diary: Madhu Jain, 8, Qila Road, Ganesh Nagar.




Nine months have passed since I met Madhu Jain. During the last six months, I have been invited to three writers’ conventions, and many dinners with publishers and agents. My stories are being commented upon in a favourable way. I savour the attention.


‘Your latest story, ‘Wooden Boy’ affected me immensely,’ the woman says wandering up to me.


Her eyes are dark, sexy, and the eye-liner is running at the corners. It elongates her eyes and makes them darker, deeper. Her blue silk sari is trailing on the ground and my attention is drawn to the muddied tassles at its end. She sways towards me.


Instinctively I take a step back.


It is late. I am at a dinner hosted by the President of the Contemporary Writers Guild. Uppity. Exclusive. Oddly, I feel a sense of detachment. Does my presence here this evening signal that I have been admitted to the ranks of real writers?


The woman is waiting. ‘Oh yes, it is a rare idea…’ I answer lamely.


Desperately, I try to remember how the story ends.


She persists, ‘You know,’ and her words are slurring in the most attractive way, ‘when I was young, I too wanted to be a writer. But then I got married. Are you married?’


‘No, I’m not. Luckily!’ I bite my tongue. They are at it again – my words, mocking me.


The woman is only half listening to me. Her eyes are focused behind me and almost to herself, she continues, ‘The part where he stumbles and a car hits him as he is blinded by the headlamps…. Why…?’ Her voice trails away sadly.


Her eyes come to rest on my face. Large. Limpid. Shining with a perception of my genius. I cannot look away. Abruptly, I am conscious of her sari pallu slipping lower, her dark midnight eyes, all smoky.


A little tipsy, and overcome, I stumble back towards the house. She is the second wife of my host. And she has been showering the petals of her attention on me all evening.


As I hurry back, I hear her slurring words, ‘You poor bastard… what do you know…’


My head is pounding now.




‘Dear Sir…
Madhu Jain passed away last week … Returning your cheques… .’


Inside the envelope, along with the terse note, are two cheques. I look closely. Is this my signature? This sweeping flourish, mine?


The same evening I receive another letter, a familiar brown envelope. Thin, word-filled sheets spill out of it. There are several of them, all neatly numbered. I am familiar with her style by now. They carry a date earlier than the date on the note accompanying my returned cheques. Ah! The postal network. No sense of chronology!


I go through the sheets haphazardly, stopping to read a paragraph here, two lines there.


Then I begin again, slower, beginning at the first page. I settle down to read the stories one by one. The first is entitled, ‘Ganesh – Elephant God’.


From another convolution, I register, ‘Yellow Days’, and I climb back into the pages.


I put the sheets on my desk. I think. Long. A forgotten fragrance drifts to me from somewhere. Pakoras. A plate full. I’m a child again…


Late at night, when the window is a mass of dark confusing shadows, I write.


My latest stories … submissions for the Blue Peacock Prize….’



Meenakshi Jauhari Chawla trained as a computer engineer, and writes fiction and poetry. Her fiction has been published in Out of Print, The Little Magazine and Sahitya Akademi's, Indian Literature. She lives in Gurgaon, a chaotic and interesting suburb of Delhi.