The Poster Seller
I was still in school, maybe in the sixth grade. My sister was three years my senior. At the time we were living in Trivandrum, in this two-storeyed house just off a narrow street.
Right from when I could first remember, there would come to our place a man who sold posters for a living. He was a tall, wiry man usually clad in a shirt and white lungi. He had large thick, square glasses, and a brush-like moustache. He spoke with a thick booming voice.
On his shoulders, he carried a heavy bundle of rolled up posters covered in blue tarpaulin, and tied with a string.
Every two months or so, he would turn up and ring the doorbell. Then he would sit at our front door, untie the strings and proudly spread out his posters on the floor. He would then display them one by one – making a rapid swishing sound as he slid each one off the top. If I remember correctly, they cost about 15 Indian rupees for the smaller ones, while the large ones cost about thirty.
There were posters of waterfalls and rivers; of bowls of succulent fruits and tables laden with feasts. There were pictures of gardens and colourful flowers. Of little smiling girls wearing hats and holding sunflowers, of dew drops on red roses. There were joyous birds and baskets of kittens; candles and oil lamps, and monuments and ocean waves.
Quite unnecessarily, the posters would often have some words written on them. Stupid verses about love, or memories or nostalgia. Often, it would be a misguided attempt at an inspirational quote.
There were also posters of the gods. Of Krishna and Ganesh and Jesus – posters, I imagine, that would silently stare back as people repeated their futile prayers for divine intervention in their mundane lives.
There were also the gods of the silver screen. Bollywood actors and Malayalam superstars like Mohan Lal and Mammooty. (Just in case you ever forgot whose picture you had framed up on your living room wall, it also helpfully spelled out their names on the bottom or side, in fancy fonts that only people who dabbled with MS Word on Windows 95 can remember)
Some posters had Qur’anic verses and Islamic calligraphy; the names of ‘Allah’ and “Mohamed’ spelled in Arabic. There were panoramic images of thousands of faithful pilgrims gathered around the Ka’aba.
As a child, I sometimes wondered if it was sacrilege to have all these posters from different faiths tied up in the same bundle. But then, knowing his Maldivian customers well, he never really lingered on the God posters.
Instead, in his booming sound, he would announce that he had “new” and “beautiful” posters. We would stop him as he swished the posters one after the other, and the pick ones we liked. These, he immediately set aside.
This was the routine.
The Girl with the Golden Hair
One day, while he was showing us his new posters, my sister suddenly spotted one that she wanted. It was a poster of a ghostly fair maiden with long golden hair and flowing robes, riding an elegant horse and looking forlornly off into the distance.
In the background was a side profile of her face, with her long golden, lustrous hair filling up most of it. Blue eyes. Red lips. An emotionless gaze.
And, I thought, a rather unsettling, inexplicable presence.
But it wasn’t an ugly poster.
One day, after we had moved to another house, my sister decided to put up the poster in her bedroom.
In what I have since come to believe was not an unrelated incident, the fluorescent tube light in her room died soon afterwards.
The female in the poster had looked haunting even under the fluorescent white light, her mysterious gaze trained sharply on some point far off the left edge. But under the yellow, incandescent lights that now lit my sister’s room, her lustrous eyes came shockingly alive, and her scintillating, golden hair took on a more fiery, menacing, burning intensity.
That’s when reality began to act a little funny.
The Red Card
Mom hated it when we played Monopoly during exam season. Each game would last for hours and we were wasting precious time when we should, in fact, be studying.
But we loved it back then. We had saved up money and bought ourselves the board game from a local toy store. If I remember correctly, it didn’t come with the iconic Monopoly pieces like the Hat, the Iron and battleship. Instead, it had cheap-looking plastic cars. We had also somehow ended up losing one of the title deed cards – White Chapel, I think – for which my sister and I traded accusations, blaming each other for being careless.
We searched everywhere and couldn’t find the missing card, so I made a replacement out of a piece of cardboard that I cut from a carton. The card was conveniently red on the back. On the front of it, I wrote the property name with a marker pen.
One afternoon, we were engaged in one of those forbidden games of Monopoly, when the doorbell rang, announcing that mom was back home. In a panic, we paused the game immediately. Cards, money, houses and tokens all hastily went back into the box. The box slid under the bed. We rushed downstairs.
Next I think we had lunch, and came back upstairs to resume the game.
We slid the box out from under the bed. To each player, I gave back their title deeds and money – and replaced all the tokens and Chance cards back on the playing board.
Then I took my own properties and began arranging them under the edge of the board. It so happened that I owned the White Chapel property, with the hand-made card to show for it.
Except, right under the handmade red card, there was now a worn out old card that read ‘White Chapel’. It was the original card. The one that had gone missing months ago.
We gasped in surprise and looked at each other – and then, for some reason, we looked at the poster that hung on the wall.
The lady on the horse wasn’t looking at us, but was calmly scanning the horizon far off into the distance.
A Sheet of Paper
One night, my sister was sitting up late trying to complete some assignment when she ran out of bond paper. It was already past nine thirty, and the stationery shops usually closed around eight.
She had to turn in the assignment early in the morning.
She reused some paper from old assignments, erasing the previous pencil diagrams on them. But despite that, in the end, she still needed one more sheet. I helped her look for one everywhere – inside old record books, school bags, bookshelves – but we didn’t find any.
Frustrated and close to tears, she then went to mom, who only scolded her for not having done her assignment earlier.
Feeling defeated, she went back into her room. I followed right behind.
What happened next took a moment to register.
It was impossible.
There, lying right at the center of her table – on top of her books and the assignment that she had been working on – was a carefully placed single, white, brand new sheet of crisp bond paper.
We both exclaimed loudly and looked at each other in astonishment. And then we turned around uneasily and looked at the poster on the wall.
Her hair still shone with golden brilliance. She still wasn’t looking at us.
But her averted eyes were a dead giveaway. The overpowering golden hair, the lustrous curls that seemed to burn and radiate brilliant, shining waves of energy into the room, were all a dead giveaway. It was a generous and helpful, but rather obvious miracle.
We ripped her off the wall. We tore her into pieces.
We threw her away.