This poignant short story by Siddhartha Gigoo explores the eccentricity of human nature and relationships.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading till a week)
Dear Professor A,
I have been writing you a letter for years now. But I would rather send you a blank page. You very well know why.
A lot has happened in these years. At the same time, nothing has happened, too.
I’m keen to hear more from you. Write to me about your academic pursuits, teaching experiences, and life inside and outside the university classroom. You must have won more awards for your teaching and research work. I’m sorry for not writing to you earlier. I know you understand the necessity of staying silent. I send you my warmest wishes.
M was my student at the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Delhi. It was the time when only those undergraduates who had no idea of what to do with their lives opted for Literature. It was the time when people wrote letters and sent postcards to one another. Everyone carried a pen, a notebook, and a book or two.
M possessed a spark, but none of us recognized it those days. There were days she didn’t turn up for the lectures. She wouldn’t come out of her hostel room. She wouldn’t be seen in the dining hall or the cafes outside the campus. None of us knew what she was up to. Not many cared. I was too caught up with my research work to ask or inquire.
Towards the end of the last semester, M vanished without a trace, without even bothering to show up for the convocation the following year. For years, her Master’s degree remained with the university administration in a cabinet labeled: Unclaimed Things. M didn’t care. Some time ago, the degree was yet again posted to the address mentioned in her record file. But once again it was sent back to the university from the post office of the town in the outskirts of Chennai. The university is still in the custody of the unclaimed degree. The clerk is still hopeful. After all, the cabinet contains only one degree now. All others have been accounted for. The solitary confinement of this degree will end soon, the registrar still says.
M received the highest grades, and her academic record stood out with several distinctions. Her term papers and seminars were well-received and commended. Except for poor attendance, everything about her was unblemished. After she vanished, I lost all hope of seeing her. Thereafter, I began guiding research scholars pursuing Ph.D. A few showed promise. None of them were as bright as M though. But, at least, they were sure about being awarded doctorate degrees. Such was their confidence.
Seven years ago, when M was to be bestowed with an award held to honour the alumni who had made a mark in their lives and brought laurels to the university, my interest in her rekindled. The selection committee, of which I was a member, had unanimously chosen M for the award. Hers was a unique accomplishment. But we hadn’t informed her about her selection for the award. We knew she wouldn’t even respond to our emails. Therefore, we had extended an invite to her, requesting her participation in the award ceremony. I’d sent her a personal note, too, begging her to come.
She was to land in Delhi on the day of the ceremony and come straight to the university guesthouse. That morning, I went to the airport to receive her. The flight landed, but M wasn’t there. I waited till noon. Many other flights landed. M was nowhere. I returned to the university campus hoping she would arrive later in the day. The ceremony was to begin in the evening. Some of my colleagues spoke in hushed whispers.
You really believe she will come, scoffed a colleague. I didn’t want my fears to come true. My hope dwindled. I imagined the act to unfold somewhat differently. She would walk into the auditorium, her name would be announced, we would rise and look at her, she would walk up to the dais, accept the award, give a short speech, and then sit next to me without saying a word. I’d thought of welcoming her with flowers and taking her out for dinner later in the evening although a gala banquet had already been arranged at the guesthouse. I knew this would be my last chance at spending some quiet moments with her. Just she and I! Like the old times! I was the only one permitted an unannounced entry in her hostel room when she was a student. On my lucky days, we would stroll around the ridge leading up to the deer park by the forest. I wondered if I still had the right over her.
I carried her book, The Golden Swan. She had disassociated herself with it ever since its publication. She had disowned it. Of course, she had been forced to get it published. It’s not my poetry, she had maintained throughout. It is the poetry of Lalit Das, who lived in the pre-independence era. The poem is his.
The truth was that there was no Lalit Das. He simply didn’t exist. M had steadfastly contested our awareness and knowledge of underground and lesser-known poets. She had rejected our belief that she was the author of the poem, The Golden Swan. I’ve read it during my school days, she would go on and on. It was in our textbook.
We had dug up almost everything and shown her. We had even consulted experts outside the university. Reputed poets, authors, teachers, and critics. No one had heard of the poem. Maybe it was taken off the syllabus was her reply to our clarifications. Maybe it was erased. Maybe Lalit Das was a pseudonym. Maybe he died without leaving a trace. Maybe he never wanted to be discovered. There were a lot of maybes—maybe this, maybe that—uttered out of pity or annoyance or to avoid any further debates on the matter. Not a single yes from anyone from the whole world of arts and letters.
This trouble began one day when M was in the third semester. She barged into the classroom and recited a few lines of a poem none of us had heard of or read. Does anyone know the name of the poet, she said. Would you remember the whole poem, Professor? Later, she revealed the name of the poet but was unable to remember the entire poem. It is a famous poem by Lalit Das, she proclaimed. We were intrigued. The lines were mesmerizing. I was ashamed of my ignorance. Some students in the class even pretended to have a faint recollection of the poem. But I knew their claims were lies. Beautiful, sublime, exquisite, elevating… Except, praise for the lines, we had nothing to say. Until one day we ran out of superlatives. We fell silent.
I spent days digging up texts and asking experts from various colleges and universities. Everybody commended the lines but cut a sorry figure for not being able to associate them with any of the dead or living poets and writers.
Maybe she is delusional, said some scholars. Maybe the lines came to her in a dream though, I know, she never believed in dreams. She always relied on memory. Maybe she chanced upon the lines fortuitously. However, none of our opinions mattered to her.
Not even for a moment did anyone doubt the brilliance of the lines she recited to us every single day. All M aimed for was to discover more about the poet and get hold of the rest of the text. Her obsession took her to worlds unseen. A world so distant that she could neither locate nor inhabit. Consequently, she began looking at her own creation from different shores. Some of those shores didn’t even exist. She spent nights and days in libraries trying to trace the origin of the poem or locate a reference. She wrote to writers and academicians and librarians and lecturers and literary critics and historians and retired professors and research scholars and publishing houses and editors of big and small literary magazines for clues. Their response—we are sorry, we don’t know—didn’t dishearten her. She thought everyone else was either ignorant or too lazy to delve deep into the mystery and come up with a good hint about the real author of the poem, The Golden Swan.
As days went by, M remembered more and more lines. She came to the classroom and recited them for us. In a matter of days, she produced the entire poem. She read it aloud before us. Now do you remember the poem, she asked. Do you believe me now, Professor? This is a famous poem. How can you not remember? Days after our collective and continued disagreement with her, she said maybe it is a lost poem of a forgotten poet or a forgotten poem of a lost poet.
The poem in its entirety was stunning. M’s passionate recitation gave it life. We saw the unending flight of the golden swan across ancient civilizations. You got to hear the poem in her voice. Sheer beauty. It rose and ebbed like music that’s played upon the birth of a prince or a princess. An incantation that is whispered into the ears of the diseased to cure them of terrible illnesses. It illuminated the coming together of two worlds. A merger of two mighty rivers that have journeyed for ages and seen the ravages of war, the rise, and fall of civilizations and cultures, the birth and death of kings and queens, cycles of plague, disease, drought. The swan with golden wings keeps the hope alive in the rivers and in the hearts of those who come to quench their thirst and wash their wounds with the waters. The swan sings of an eternal spring.
The Golden Swan is a deathbed poem. I won’t say anything more. I’m not even qualified to explain or paraphrase it. The text defies all explanation and criticism.
Years later, when the poem got published after the connivance of some of us, M’s well-wishers I mean, the literary world woke up to a bold new voice. Many established poets and writers were shaken up. M’s admirers multiplied. The Golden Swan was nominated for several literary awards. It won and kept winning. M was invited to award ceremonies, literature festivals, readings, lectures, conferences, and book fairs. But she didn’t show up anywhere. Journalists went insane trying to locate her. Yet, they still write about her. They still chase people like me who, they think, were close to M once. Just to know more about her. A habit, a trait, a like, a dislike is all they are after. I decline all such requests. I feign ignorance because deep within I’m conscious of having been an integral part of M’s life. Having seen M intimately, known her madness, her innocence, her passion, and innate goodness makes me supremely aware of my own countless deficiencies. That I can’t and will never be able to do anything about them is unsettling.
I still feel guilty of having tricked M into the whole publishing thing. The truth is that I wanted M’s name plastered all over the world of arts and letters. Consumed by madness, M gave up the only thing that gave purpose to her life. She held on to nothing.
Even today, none of us are able to teach The Golden Swan properly, although many research scholars have attempted papers on it. Mostly, we fumble when students ask us questions. I don’t shy away from admitting my limitations these days. Earlier, I wouldn’t be so candid about my inadequacies as a tutor of literature. The Golden Swan has taught me a thing or two about art, life, and human nature. It has opened a passageway into an unknown world full of mysteries and marvels. It has shown me my own condition. To come face to face with reality is horrifying. To see the hollowness within can be suicidal. I don’t have the courage to face my own truth. I have got to believe in a truth that is untrue. Mine is a fabricated truth. It is bereft of any meaning and purpose. It is empty. But it makes me go on, day after day, night after night. When you’re afraid of the world, you hide behind words. Empty words. You leap from one false hope to another.
At least, I have something to cling on to, even if that something is made up of false reflections.
It’s a boon that the real story of the birth of the golden swan will always remain a mystery.
After reading M’s letter, my feelings for her revived. The feelings I had thought were dead still have a heartbeat. I can’t hide them or shun them anymore. Even after years, my fondness for M remains undiminished. The desire to see her is still aflame in my heart. What would I not give to sit beside her and glimpse a timeless world in her eyes?
With that tremulous hope, I emailed her, hoping to be granted one last favor.
I read your letter over and over again. It has given my life a new meaning once again. Your thoughtfulness has made me fearful and fearless at the same time. Fearful in the sense that I haven’t seen you in ages! Fearless in a sense that I have decided to seek your forgiveness and confess! There’s a reason I am telling you this now.
I always thought you were imperfect, but your imperfection is and will always remain superior to the collective perfection of the whole of humankind. The Golden Swan is a perfect gift to humanity. I believe you. Maybe someone else wrote it and abandoned it just for your reading and no one else’s. And then you sacrificed everything to trace the creator who never wished to be discovered. Or maybe a swan with golden wings flew from afar, sat on your windowsill, and sang for you when no one else was listening.
I wish to open my heart to the swan. I wish to hear her song.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a New Delhi-based novelist and short story writer. He is the recipient of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Some of his stories have been longlisted for Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize (2018), the Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize (2018), and Seán O’Faoláin Short Story Prize (2019). In 2021, his short story ‘Elephant’s Tusk’ won the New Asian Short Story Prize 2021.