In my final year at the Prix, we were told that literary critic Eric Blair had agreed to part with fifty-three minutes of his time on the first Saturday of February in an effort to make us understand how a real writer writes. Blair was the sort of a gentlemen whose pen would routinely rip apart some of the finest names in the literary community without any concern how many Nobels, Pulitzers, Academy Awards or Bookers adorned their walls. The silent joke that went through the Khaz was that you hadn’t made it till two of your books were banned and the other three got a one star bilge review from him.
Our dean had personally greeted Blair with the air of two friends meeting after being separated by war. He had worn the maroon suit that was dry cleaned only for Christmas and the annual graduation after party. After delivering a ten minute monologue, Blair seemed only moderately convinced that the students in front had a capacity for knowledge larger than a Russian living in Minsk for a Moscow Mule; which if you didn’t know is a lifting concoction of Vodka and sugarcane.
As the rules demanded, we were sitting in perfect formation, our uniforms in impeccable condition. The classroom had windows facing east, and the sun had shamelessly illuminated my side of classroom leaving my lot cleanly visible to the eye. Blair looked, behaved, walked, dressed and even lishped like Sean Connery. I had been told to never trust an Englishman who behaves like a Scot, but the effortless air of ease he spoke with forced one to reconsider.
As it turned out, the subject for the half hour was the short story. Blair went straight for the mains, and he dove into what he thought were some of the most prized possessions of the world of letters. Names like Vladimir Nabokov and Kafka were given the honour of a smile. Shirley Jackson’s Lottery was given a approving tongue click for its unneeded violent end. A quaint Indian author who only Swami had read (R.K Narayan, the name sounded like) brought out an affectionate laugh. Kane, who dared to ask what Mr.Blair thought of Jeffery Archer was told that he and the author were better suited to grilling hot-dogs. Words such as ‘existentialism’, ‘metamorphosis’ and ‘subconscious’ were hurled at Ishmail, who I can vouch had been thinking images of ‘sex’, ‘sex’ and ‘sex’ till he found himself in the middle of this unnecessary conversation.
In the last ten minutes of the class Blair decided to make a case study out of a short story called the ‘The Hangman’s Murder’, which had been written by a cult internet author who wrote under the name Blue V. The story was well known to everyone in the literary community. It was a chilling account of a nameless hangman in a fictional town who went through a spiritual transformation as he was forced to execute innocent citizens convicted falsely to boost public morale. The ambiguous ending had been a topic of huge debate lately, and the professor told us that his column in the oncoming edition of the Sunday Herald Tribune was a sentence by sentence breakdown of what he was sure the story meant.
After going through the original text, Blair offered us the rare chance of being given an insight into his review of the story a complete week before it was published. He dismantled the story from the first word and illustrated how the second paragraph was the key to understanding what it truly meant. The author was obviously using the conflict of the protagonist to describe the failing Government, which was bound to collapse in the next ninety days. The murders were a metaphor for the economic crisis and the dark ending was a silent shout to the voter to elect a better candidate as prime minister. It was at its heart, about politics. The class oooohhhh’d and ahhhhh’d at this revelation. No one had considered this eventuality.
For a man like Blair, the point when he usually asked if anyone had a question was accompanied by silence. Asking a question invited two distinct possibilities. The first, that you would be looked on by extreme admiration at having the courage to ask a possibly confounding question. That rarely happened. The second, that your query would be dealt with a huge dose of incredulity and you’d spend the rest of the day under a blanket mostly wishing you’d never have been born. That happened a lot. Omar was told with as much iced English sarcasm that he would have led a better life as an Iguana.
I raised my hand, “Professor, I think the dripping blood from the jugular vein is more direct. It means the death of a family member, or something on those lines…”
I’m a silent person. I don’t usually speak in classes. I’m one of those backbenchers who prefers listening. I had gone through this story a lot of times and I knew what I was saying.
It was the confidence in my voice that drew first blood, I’m guessing. Blair coughed sarcastically, and said that he could expect an opinion this obvious only at the Prix. He dismissively told me that while it was a brave attempt on my part, the fluidity of the the blogger was a distinctive trait among writers who have a huge knowledge base in politics. The individual elements, such as the dog being poisoned, the ancient references to the Mahabharat (A Hindu mythology classic) and lastly, the positioning of the final execution was a clear pointer to the political genre.
“Professor, it’s a good point, I would have agreed with you. It’s just that –
“No one, in the last eight years of my experience has dared to use the phrase ‘would have agreed’ with me.”
The class was deathly quiet now. I hadn’t been rude in any way, but I had obviously touched a nerve. Blair mockingly tore apart what he thought the remainder of my explanation would have been. He told the class that someone who sits in a literature course with a thought process as obtuse as mine should leave for the remainder of the semester willingly. He had great intuition, mind you, as he guessed the rest of my explanation to word, and spent a good 7 minutes dissing it down. I kept my composure till he finished, and in a voice as polite as I could muster I slowly and clearly stated the words that made him blaze.
“I’m sorry, Professor. You’re wrong!”
“Get out of my class. Don’t bother coming back”
I quietly got up. Thirty sets of eyes followed me get up from my seat and make my way to the door. Thirty-one, if you count him. As I walked, he looked at me and as a parting line, added, “To think of what the author would have said. The horror…”
I stopped and smiled just as I was about to leave,
“I don’t think so, Sir. You see, I wrote the story”