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The Mask
by Sutapa Basu (Prose - Short Story) | Published On: 13-Jun-2014

It was late evening. Dark, wet, swollen clouds hung on a clothesline strung across the sky, layer upon layer. The bus trundled along, half empty at that time. Sonia opened her tired eyes and peered through the dirty windowpane to check whether it had started raining. There were two more stops before she would get down and walk about six hundred yards to reach her building. “Please, don’t let it rain till I reach,” she beseeched silently, glancing upwards. 
“Relax. I will make sure that it won’t,” distinctly said a voice into her ear. Sonia turned her head sharply. There was nobody beside her; only an old man dozing far away across the aisle.
This had happened before. In fact, it had been happening for some time now. The haze of grey fatigue in Sonia’s mind only thickened as she tried to force a tunnel of clarity through it. Eventually she gave up and closed her eyes. Their corners pricked with lack of sleep.
When the bus finally swayed onto her stop, she tumbled out. The heavy clouds closed in ready to let fall their burden. Sonia hurried home. Home — a single room on the roof. She stepped into the front portico of her building and a majestic thunderclap heralded the heavy downpour.
The rain fell in opaque sheets with large drops spraying her shoes and Sonia silently mouthed a thanks to... to… whoever... She shook her head. Whom was she thanking?
To pull herself back to more prosaic facts, she tried to recollect what was left from last night’s dinner in her tiny fridge. “Oh no! The beef rice finished last night.” So it was either takeaway or bread with gulps of water. She had no energy left to cook. Climbing the stairs to her third floor rooftop room, she decided, definitely bread and butter and water. The local dhaba takeaway gave her dyspepsia. She didn’t want her burps next day to become the office teatime topic! She stepped onto her landing and suddenly the fatigue hit her and she didn’t care. Just wanted to fall into bed.
Sonia was a 27-years-old girl from Manipur. Her almond-shaped eyes in the pale heart-shaped face were striking as was the straight, long, lustrous hair hanging down her back. She was slim and graceful as all girls from her region are. After her schooling near Imphal, she had come to the city to continue her studies and had finished her Masters in English Literature. Essentially, she was a simple girl from a small village where cane-thatched houses surrounded ponds filled with blue lotuses. Each academic break, she went back home and told her mother, “I am just waiting for the studies to get over to be back with all of you.”
But her mother did not agree. Insurgency was gnawing at pristine Manipur and corruption spreading like gangrene from village to village. 
“Sonia, it’s better that you take a job there. The militants don’t let anyone work here. Look at your father. Ever since they shut his school, his health has been steadily going downhill. I will be at peace, dear, if you stay in the city.”
Sonia didn’t want to break her mother’s heart by telling her about the heartless city. The cries of “Chinky, Chinky!” trailing her in the streets. The city men, from autorickshaw drivers to landlords to the teaching faculty, all believed she was easy game and kept trying their luck with overt, lewd suggestions. Sonia was no prude. She was quite friendly with a number of young men, mostly from the northeastern states, both at home and in the city. But she hated the chauvinistic city men. Constantly alert for their unwanted overtures, Sonia was always tense whenever outside. An introvert, she liked being by herself. She had avoided invitations to share her tiny room and so cut expenses. Her solitude was too precious.
Her father being out of work and her brothers still in school made it difficult for her mother to make ends meet. Eager to send money to her mother, Sonia had job hunted even before her thesis was submitted. After a few false starts, Sonia had been hired as a junior editor in a small publishing company. And had been relieved to find most of her colleagues as well as the Chief Editor were women.
The Chief Editor, who ruled the editorial roost with an iron hand, was a person of much repute in the publishing world. She had been a fixture for nearly 24 years by the sheer dint of hard work mixed with convenient politicking, peppered with judicious sycophancy with the high and mighty of the industry. After having tasted the waters of various workplaces in a variety of positions, she had finally begun her reign at the publishing company, in which Sonia worked, some ten years ago. In her late forties, her girth commanded most of her glass-enclosed cubicle. Small, beady eyes magnified by thick spectacle lenses and set off by a large nose that curved into a hook pointing down at lips perpetually pursud in disapproval made her look more like a hawk. Sonia’s colleagues would have accepted her definition if she had referred to the Chief Editor as a harpy or Medusa but certainly not a woman! Not her gender rather it was her species that raised a query in the minds of all who had come across her.
Yet Sonia was relieved when she had joined her job. Whatever the gossip, she preferred the daily diet of taunts and snubs of the Chief Editor to the leers and lecherous looks that had been on her menu until then. “At least, at my workplace I won’t have to swat the men off,” Sonia had told her friends. They had laughed at her compulsive desire to be a wallflower.

Next morning, Sonia woke, drenched in sweat, with a parched throat. Her windowless room was suffocating and Sonia had kept tossing and turning through the night while her stomach growled in hunger. Sleep had come only by 3 am. She had dreamt of her village. Of running with her brothers through the jade green rice fields that rolled like a carpet to the foot of the cool, misty hills overlooking the tiny hamlet.
Swinging her legs down, she rushed to open the mesh door to the terrace. Stepping out she took gulps of the air cooled somewhat by the thunderstorm. A breezeless dawn was breaking overhead promising yet another hot, humid day. Sonia had never got used to the heat, dust, and pollution of the city in all the nine years spent here. 
“Today it will be different,” somebody said.
Again, that voice! 
Sonia ignored it.
Later stirring a cup of tea Sonia tried to remember when she had first heard the voice. She couldn’t. All she recalled was, a few months ago while editing the proofs of a manuscript she had been uncertain whether she ought to hyphenate a word, and then a voice said, “No. Hyphenating the word would put it in the American style. This book is to be edited in the British style.”
Instead of doing as the voice suggested, Sonia looked up the correct version in the style manual and was amazed to find the voice was right! Consequently and specially, when she was too pressed for time, she just followed the voice’s advice. Not that it spoke every time she had an editing doubt. In fact, it spoke up at the most unexpected moments. And surprisingly it was a male voice!
But for the last few days, the voice had been intervening in situations that were definitely non-editorial. As Sonia dressed hurriedly, she continued to wonder about the source of the voice. Was it the voice of conscience or her inner consciousness? And was its male tenor a reaction to counter her antipathy towards the opposite sex? No answer seemed to fit!
“ Can’t be my consciousness.” She argued, “It knows things I don’t.”
Then what or who is it? And how did it know so much? Even about events in the future — it knew that Sonia would not get wet in the rain last evening!
Picking up her bag and locking the door, Sonia ran down the stairs. She sprinted to the stop and swung herself up onto the bus just it had started lumbering off. Finding a vacant seat, she fell into it, panting. Wiping the sweat off her forehead, she focussed on the workday ahead of her.

Her initial euphoria about the job, two years ago, had long dissipated. Gradually the realisation dawned that if the Chief Editor’s attitude was a constant irritant, there was a tow of under currents that she needed to swim against. All the subtle snubs, the feline claws, the penalising silences, which are aspects of sharing space with the fairer sex, had put Sonia’s defences up. She encased herself in a shell and retreated into it whenever she felt vulnerable. But she couldn’t always avoid the snaps of the Chief Editor.
The Chief Editor made Sonia feel like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Sonia’s position was in the lowest echelon of the editorial team that reported to the Chief Editor. The rumour was that even the owner reported to her, as Chief partly owned the company. Right from the first time, her nose had fascinated Sonia. Shaped like a beak, it tended to tremble at the tip whenever she was assailed by anger, irritation or similar intense emotions. Her thin lips wrinkled into the permanent pout of disapproval, were always coated with bright red lipstick, her thin greying hair pulled back in a knot. Altogether, she gave a bird-of-prey appearance and walked with the upper half of her body bent forward, balancing on the tall heels she preferred wearing.
Chief had a number of personal unwritten rules, which were discovered by the uninitiated, one by one, as you infringed upon each. All edited proofs going through her table would be marked heavily in red — a message to editors that the job done was inadequate. On closer scrutiny, editors would realise that their own pencilled remarks had been repeated in red ink. Commas were a sore point with her, a copy could have too many or too little, depending on her moods, and not the grammar of the text. And her pet peeve was tardiness and that is where Sonia was caught every other day.

That day Chief sat at her vantage point in the sheer glass cubicle. As each editor entered the workroom, as unobtrusively as possible, she would glance at the Cartier watch on her wrist. Once the hands crossed the entry time, her beak of a nose would dip each time a latecomer appeared, mentally jotting the penalty against the hapless soul to be handed out as retribution at an opportune moment. Sonia ran into the room and nearly fell over an open umbrella that somebody had kept near the door. She looked at the Chief Editor in trepidation. Sure enough, the nose dip was now accompanied by a slight smile. With the kind of record Sonia had chalked up in this specific area, Chief just couldn’t resist revealing her glee!
The chastisement was, as usual, public. Sonia had just picked up her pencil and opened the proofs, when she felt a tingling sensation across her back. Instantly she knew that everybody in the room was looking expectantly at her. That would be only because the Chief Editor was behind her, ready to attack. 
“So what is the excuse today, my dear?” came the burned sugar query, “Bus late? Traffic jam? Helped an old lady across the road?” Today she was rubbing it in.
Sonia cringed and was about to blurt out one of her meek excuses. 
“No. I just got up late and then felt like relaxing in bed a little.” The words were out before Sonia knew it. She couldn’t believe that she had said them. She bit her tongue. But the words couldn’t be taken back — they hung in air buzzing and crackling like angry bees!
The Chief Editor’s thin eyebrows peaked. Her eyes goggled behind the thick lenses. She even half turned to look behind her, as though not Sonia but somebody else had spoken. Her red lips opened to give vent, when a hushed giggle was heard. Distracted she turned on her heel, scouting the source, but everyone was looking at their papers diligently. Except Sonia. She held her breath mortified. She wanted to crawl under the table — anywhere — to hide from the explosive rage and the ensuing wave of humiliation about to break over her! But Chief, unsure now about holding on to the vestiges of her torn dignity, decided to let go her victim. At least for the time being. With a loud sniff of her beak, she swept off to the relative safety of her cubicle.
Sonia took a deep breath of gratitude at the averted disaster but was puzzled. She was essentially a polite and soft-spoken girl and could never combat rudeness with a similar retort. Never in her wildest dreams could Sonia have found the courage to say these words. Even thinking about such a crass response was unthinkable. To anyone! And certainly not to the indomitable Chief Editor! Then what happened today!
“I told you, it would be different today,” she heard it clearly. She looked up and around slowly. She didn’t want to attract any more attention. There was nobody there other than the usual editors. My voice!
Silently she asked, “Who are you?”
Silence.
Then Sonia caught hold of herself. “What utter, utter rubbish!” She was talking to a Voice!
She gave herself a mental pinch, “Wake up. This is not a dream. And you have a job to do.” She settled her proofs and concentrated on reading them.
For a long time the workroom was silent, other than sounds of rustling paper or the ping of arriving emails. Soon Sonia’s eyelids started getting heavy and the letters on the paper danced and blurred. She got herself some coffee. It woke her up somewhat and she continued marking the copy but again the sleepless night caught up with her.
Her eyelids drooped and she thought, “I will close them for just five minutes.” Folding her arms on the table, Sonia rested her head on them. 

“Hey! Wake up!” quipped Kanchan, “You are dribbling all over my papers!”
Sonia jerked up her head and looked groggily at her. Kanchan was the editor who sat next to her and they shared the table. 
“Sorry”, she said picking up her pencil.
She looked at the page in front of her. The last line of page 68 had editorial markings. Sonia was about to start on the next page, when she remembered that she had been on page 67 before falling asleep. So who turned the page? She looked at Kanchan but she was busy editing and anyway would never stoop to doing Sonia’s work. Kanchan was aspiring to climb into the Chief Editor’s favours and was wary of any competitors on that route. Sonia was puzzled. Then she stared...
The last sentence that had been marked on page 68 had lost both its verb and its object. As her eyes travelled up the page, another sentence had been replaced with, “It’s a joke!” A full stop had been replaced with a smiley! Who had done all this? Sonia turned the pages forward and backward and checked all the markings carefully. No, the earlier pages were marked correctly and in her hand. Only page 68 had these errors marked in and in handwriting quite unlike her own! Sonia was aghast! What if she hadn’t noticed and this proof with errors had been moved to the typesetters to set?
Her mind was whirling with…. how? How? How? Did she mark it in her sleep? Or was there some supernatural action going on? Some paranormal activity!
It jolted her wide awake. She read and marked the rest of the proof with care. In the afternoon, she was meeting an illustrator, her project being a children’s book about a dinosaur. The meeting began with Sonia and the artist hitting it off immediately. They decided that rather than write illustration briefs in text, Sonia would sketch them in. Sketches would be good leads as to the size and perspective of the illustrations. The meeting over, Sonia went back to her desk and the day dragged on. It was dark by the time she finally left office to face the downtown traffic.
Later, in bed, Sonia kept trying to search for a logical cause of the morning’s mystery. Her tired mind was still going round in circles when sleep overpowered it.
Next morning, Sonia reached just just in time and received only a sniff of disapproval from Chief’s beak on which her gold-rimmed spectacles balanced precariously. Her red lips twisted up regretful of the opportunity lost.
As Sonia settled in and opened her proof, she found a marker on page 120. Sonia was sure she had only marked until page 100. She went through the twenty marked pages and sure enough, there were serious errors. “Who is marking my copy?” Sonia asked herself silently. 
“Me”, was the ungrammatical response. 
“You? And why have you done that?” asked Sonia. She was whispering, as Kanchan had still not arrived. She couldn’t believe the incredibility of it all. She was having a conversation with a disembodied Voice!
“Just playing a game with you.”
“A game!” spluttered Sonia (if it is possible to splutter silently). She could feel an unfamiliar emotion surging through her. Her anger made her face flush. She whispered, “This is my work not a game. I can lose my job if Chief saw the errors you marked in. This is NOT a game. Will you stay out of my life? Please!”
“I was only trying to help,” came the sulky reply, “Just giving you the spine you don’t seem to be born with! And anyway I can’t go out of your life.”
“I HAVE a spine. But I will decide when and how I use it NOT you. Anyway, who ARE you? Why can’t you leave me? I don’t need you or your help.”
There was no answer. Maybe he was smarting at her rudeness. Sonia didn’t care.

She started working with the illustration sketches for each page and was soon absorbed. Sonia was imaginative and had an instinct about what could appeal to children. Combined with her talent for sketching this was one aspect of her job that she enjoyed and was good at.
With no more interference from the Voice, Sonia felt a sense of satisfaction when she reached the last page of the proof, by evening. With just four lines of text on that page, Sonia had ample space to conclude the story with a flourish through a large illustration of the friendly dinosaur. Sketching in Dino surrounded by his friends, the children in the story, she gave the most space to a big, beaming dinosaur face. With a few bold strokes, Sonia filled in tiny buzzing dinosaur ears and wide open nostrils emitting excited puffs of smoke matching a large toothy smile. The children were also in various postures of adulation for their huge prehistoric pal. Drawing in a tail that wagged back and forth, as he sat up on his forelegs, Sonia looked at her handiwork feeling a warm, affectionate glow for the cute dinosaur.
She jumped at Chief’s voice behind her shoulder. “Is it finished? I would like to take a look at your illustration briefs.”
The Chief Editor usually chose the victims whose work she wanted to examine. The scrutiny was nothing but an excuse to give vent to the ire that she had built up against these unfortunates. Her aim was to find faults and make her prey squirm with malicious and sarcastically cutting remarks. This, she felt put them back in their places if they had dared to step out of it. In Chief’s opinion, this cub editor was ready for a dose. Sonia, on the other hand, was confident of the illustration briefs that she had sketched in. Though hardly expecting appreciation, this evening at least, her work would not be a cynosure of Chief’s spite.
Everyone had left by the time Sonia placed the sketches on the table for Chief’s inspection. Slowly, the woman turned the pages, her face expressionless. When the Chief Editor could not point out errors, she preferred to retain an impassive demeanour that she believed would slowly but surely erode her victims’ self-confidence. Sonia stood across the table unable to take her eyes away from the beak of a nose that trembled slightly at the tip. 
“It seems okay,” Chief admitted grudgingly, “but you should have not made such thick lines and so many details. You are leaving nothing to the imagination of the illustrator.” Sonia nodded, thinking about the last time when Chief had commented on too little details. Impossible to please!
Finally, Chief came to the last page. As she turned the page, Sonia held her breath. 
“She can’t criticise this one!” she thought.
There was a sharp intake of breath from the Chief Editor. Her beak trembled even more as a deep crimson spread across her face. Her eyes stared fixedly at the sketch and spit gathered at the edges of the red lips. Mounting rage rendered her speechless.
Sonia was nonplussed at this reaction. She craned her neck from across the table, to see the sketch. And then a lightning bolt sizzled through her, leaving her numb. The lines on the white surface were different. Dino’s large face was no longer beaming. It had a nose shaped like a beak, eyes goggling through gold-rimmed spectacles, and red lips drawn back in a frightening grimace. The page reflected a mirror image of the furious face staring down at the sketch!

Sonia started gasping as the gathering storm sucked all the air from the room. A kind of shivering haze obstructed her gaze. Suddenly an electric bolt sizzled up from her toes flashing to the top of her head. Then another, and another, and another — endless, uncurbed, fierce. Sonia felt she was being fried. She lifted her head stretching her neck. Instantly the heat eased off, replaced by a bewildering rush of energy that infused her entire being. Her lungs revived expanding with new life. Sonia was disconcerted. A baffling vitality sped through her veins. She felt alive, powerful and ready to tackle anything... anybody. There was a chanting in her head, “You must... You must...You must....” The same rhythm echoed with urgency in her depths. Each second it was growing louder until wave after wave assailed her ears. It hammered at her, in her blood, in her heart, in her muscles, in her very soul.
Like the monstrous dinosaur, Chief slowly lifted her head, her eyes still locked on the offending sketch. Eventually the flaming red eyes swivelled towards the culprit. And then they widened, became larger, magnified by the lenses… transfixed by the strange sight in front of her.
And then tinkle! The penny dropped!
Frantically she struggled to escape the restrictions of her desk and chair. The thin red lips curved into a silent scream. Her eyes frozen on the figure looming above, a wave of panic washed over her. An upraised arm viciously lunged down. The Chief Editor fell back, her eyes unfocused, staring straight ahead. The hairline oozed a thin, red trickle that meandered lazily down to meet the red gash of her mouth.

* Dyspepsia - A disorder of digestive function characterized by discomfort, heartburn or nausea

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