How I got to writing captions to earn myself a living is another story in itself. During college, the time when I wasted myself on drugs and ensured that my future would not be what those oblivious of my present thought it would be like, I used to scribble funky lines for the college magazine, the deterioration of my grey cells prevents me from remembering the name of which, initially and later smeared the walls of the college with, though the authorities did not see them as such, very cool graffiti. I was expelled from college for the later act.
My parents, and consequently me, are Kashmiris and they belong to the “Holocaust generation” as they put it. The ghosts of the exodus still haunt them and so they live under clouds of paranoia, fearing death, of anyone they give two hoots about, lurking at every corner. The second generation, to which I belong, is what they pin their hopes of a stable life on and as far as they knew it till the time I was expelled, I was headed for one- brilliant at studies, clearing top exams, and landing and going well at the best college in the country. What they were oblivious of was what was going wrong: happenings inside the college hostel walls and my journey towards disillusionment.
Though I consciously avoided the bad things, I guess there was always in me a predilection to fall for the evil side of things, the alluring evils at least. I remember having forced tears into my eyes to avoid drinking beer during ragging and then, three months and a paradigm shift later, buying my first can. I still can’t hide a proud grin when I’m reminded of the fact that I took cannabis before alcohol. So, even though the overuse of drugs has made my past hazy and anachronistic, I know that it was not more than two months since I’d been granted freedom from my overprotective parentage that I first took marijuana, in the form of a ‘bhang ka laddu’ (I didn’t smoke then). The rest of the evils followed.
For the first two semesters, I wrote for the college magazine the naïve but funny stuff that a stoned philosopher would write. After a banal summer at home I decided to make the next year count- I was out to have fun. My hedonism reached heights- I gave up academics, I gave up all organized activity, I started spending day after day, week after week, simply getting high in my room, which had a bed, a computer that played the usual songs to create a psychedelic atmosphere other than Pink Floyd which I hated then, an almirah which had not a single piece of fabric for all my clothes were strewn on the floor and the bed, and a table in the drawer of which lay my new staple diet- pot.
I found friends, like moths find near light-bulbs, and we smoked together, caring not for the light of the sun, caring not for the light of the moon, nor for our grades, nor for, I think the treacherous smoke of the holy grass must’ve blinded us for we could not see it, our future. Admonitory letters from the professors changed into official letters of warning and finally, an academic probation. That was at the end of my second year and it was that time that I found an unguarded box full of spray cans at the Fine Arts Club.
Rahul Roy, son of a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother who insisted that they adopt her surname for the child to which the acquiescent father agreed, was one of my fellow hedonists who believed that Deep Thought should have said POT instead of 42. He and I decided to use that box of colours to create ‘real art’, not the fake outside-art the Fine Arts Club was so fond of creating, by colouring the grey, depressive walls of the institute with the colours of truth. And colour them one night we did!
When your heart is full of rebellion, your head full of alcohol, freedom, the euphemism for Satan, finds a way into your mind. Though we’d initially decided to not write any obscenities, but truth was free that night, no censor could stand in its way, and naked truth (like truth, our graffiti hardly made any sense) rained on the walls. We exhausted nearly twenty cans of spray paint among us two that night, coloured the academic buildings, hostels, roads, roadsides, water tanks, and whatever we could find, and exhausted we slept on the roof of the Dean’s Office, sore-thumbed, bare-chested and blue-nippled. With dawn revealing the extent of our carnage a gloomy premonition dawned on us: we were going to get expelled.
We’d definitely changed the institute, but what we’d actually done was to disturb a sleeping demon. We were both going to get expelled, confirmed the rumours that were running amok about the punks who’d coloured the lair of the dragon. The rumours found feet a week later when the fact-finding committee asked me and Roy for our names and roll numbers. I was squarely in danger, following a not-so-brilliant academic record, and now the act, which I regretted as one regrets having sex with a school-girl. I decided to save Roy’s degree, and claimed sole responsibility for the act. The authorities accepted my confession, lauded me for saving Roy’s ass, and kicked me out.
I will avoid the details of what happened next, for time will not allow me to. In short, I did not, for I could not, break the news of my expulsion to my parents. I stayed in Roy’s room, he owed me this bit, looking for options. I submitted my resume to various sites that promised me some future: as a freelancer, website designer, call-centre operator, etc. I had to support myself now, I was in dire need of employment somewhere away from home- I’d already decided to never go back there. The expulsion had already shaken me out of my pot-heady haze and cured my myopia as far as my future was concerned: I was going to be a writer, for stories to fill books I had enough.
During the immortally long summer holidays, which I was going to survive in Roy’s room, and on mess food, (the mess workers still considered me a brilliant student of the institute) I started reading newspapers looking for some opportunities in the vicinity. And it was then that I first saw the picture that was going to change my life.
Under the big bold letters saying CAPTAIN COOK CAPTION CONTEST, the unique name because it was sponsored by Captain Cook table salt, was a picture of a leaky, rusty tap and drops falling off it onto a rupee coin on the ground. It was a beautiful picture: the wet edges of the rusty tap, the dusty brown background, two drops caught in mid-air, one crashing on the shiny rupee coin- a circle of silver in a bad red and brown world- all that remained was a name for it. Fortunately, you could e-mail them your caption, so I was not prevented by laziness from sending an entry. The contest was a daily contest, with a first prize of five hundred rupees. On the right side of the picture was a column carrying the name of yesterday’s contest winners with the thumbnail of that picture on top.
The next day’s newspaper carried in the same corner another picture to the right of which was a column with yesterday’s picture and the winning captions below it. The first prize had gone to Rohit Bhat, for the caption ‘The Penny Drops’. I had won.
The other captions lacked imagination, and I pitied the poor souls with average IQ, for I now knew that I was going to win every contest from then on- I hadn’t been expelled for nothing. I mentally calculated my monthly income, assuming correctly, that I’d win every day, and it was a sum enough for a lone hoodlum like me to live off on. I began sending entries regularly, winning as regularly, though I was disappointed that the Sunday newspaper didn’t carry the contest. By the end of the three-month long summer vacations, I’d earned myself money enough to move out of Roy’s room into a rented accommodation in the city. I looked for similar contests in other newspapers, and now had myself earning a decent income, saving some, spending some. I took Sundays off.
It was now three months that I’d left Roy’s room, and the picture that had changed my life once was going to change my life once again.
I was bouncing between random web-pages when I stumbled upon a familiar picture of a leaky rusty tap and a penny wet from the leak. It was titled, suitably enough, The Penny Drops. This was the icing on the cake. The cake was that it had won the Picture of the Year contest, in the ‘A Message to Deliver’ category. The prize amount was a hundred thousand US dollars, the amount of money that if translated into rupees could fill my bureau, requiring, possibly, another one. I wanted a piece of the cake, the piece that was rightfully mine, the piece with the cherry that you get because you’ve named the picture. I decided to sue the winner, a man that went by the name of Lucky Pant.
The legalities were not easy, and if I had to have a decent chance of winning the case I needed to have a lawyer. With the money that I’d saved for the past half year, I hired a man to be my voice in the court of law. The wily resourceful man named Laxman persuaded me to write a speech to be said in the court showing the importance of a title. He asked the court for a whopping twenty percent of the prize money, and was very sure that I’ll get it and kept on chaffing me with irritating names like kismatwala, chaapu, Lucky Singh (he was no poet, he didn’t even notice the pun the name was carrying) et al. I wrote my best essay, on my most favourite part in any essay, all the while going unabashedly against Shakespeare crying out ‘what’s in a name’.
Now that I am down to doing all this stuff, I’ve lost track of the caption-writing contests that are going on, and thus, my income has dropped drastically. My savings are almost exhausted by now, and the case has been running for six months. The next hearing is scheduled for the next month. Laxman assures me that he can pull off a result (‘It will be a win, sirji, definitely,’ he says) at the next hearing, but that he needs his fee. So, I’m in a desperate need of money, and since I’m emancipated from my family I cannot ask them for it.
This memoir, other than acting as a remedy for the imminent depression, is written with a hope that it’ll earn me some money quickly, by selling it to some magazine. Yeah! you’re right, it’s as inane an idea as my idea of colouring the walls, but writing is the only thing I’m good at, or even if I’m not good (some humility would not be inappropriate for someone who is literally begging) at it, it’s the only thing I can do.
Treat it with an indifferent derision if you want, but on the kinder, more humane side, if you liked this piece and happen to know a publisher, and perhaps be credited as the discoverer of the Tobias Wolff of India, I advise you help this text go into print, and help me with some money for it.