Content warning: self-harm and suicide
Much to his numbed astonishment, Natwar Rai awoke in his neatly made, perfumed bed after having overdosed on sleeping pills the night before. He had wolfed them down with a mind that had made peace with itself and had ceased to be enamored with the quiet desperation of existence. The decision had been calculated, and he was at a stage in life that felt just like one large sleeping pill slowly taking effect. He woke up seventy-seven years old and, for the first time in his life, began to feel like he was a writer, gripped by the savage urge to take up his pen and spare nobody—least of all himself.
Natwar had written many books, several stage plays, a few screenplays, numerous short stories, and countless poems. Every phase of his life had brought with it a new written medium, yet he had failed to develop any sort of craft with any one of them. Eventually, he had had to tweak his screenplays to suit the downtown theatres, where bottles were flung at the big screen and women drifted like phantoms between seats. He perpetually hated himself, of course, and he had spent much time and money in monasteries, ashrams, nightclubs, opium dens, and alpine forests, attempting to find the invisible something that would imbue his written words with panache.
But there was something in the air that morning that had commanded him back to life. The sun was yet to show itself, and Natwar found his ears blessed by the five o’clock azan as he rose from his bed as if mummified. All he could think of was the collection of pens strewn across his writing table. He took the stairs down from his studio apartment, rushed to a corner store he knew would be open at this hour, and bought three notebooks without having put on any decent clothes. The air was moist and he was sweating profusely. He would sweat this way for the next three months, as he began working on a manuscript he believed would be the greatest ever written.
His was a small apartment. Natwar had filled his creative void by organizing and aestheticizing his life. The kitchen counter was clean and quaint, the furniture minimal. It was inhabited by a motley population of potted plants, each one placed with great visual consideration. There were signs on the walls and ceiling that this was a very old building, which Natwar had never noticed until now. His window looked out over a park that, in autumn, seemed like flames painted over his windowpane. In the spring, the park was blue and white, and green and pink. It was, in truth, a lovely apartment that would have inspired even the dullest of minds. Natwar moved his table so that his face might tingle under the sunlight, the only gift of life delivered to a house that would soon become rank with the smell of death. Natwar hardly left his studio, and the bed that once exuded the smell of lemongrass now reeked of a corpse that could have only been his.
It was the finest three months of his life. Every day, an infectious wave of joy beat against the rock that his heart had become—the joy that a gardener might feel upon waking up in Babylon. A very pointless infection, for there were no others that might contract it. Natwar was content. He was not usually an emotional man, nor was he much of a romantic, but he could not help his face twisting in passion as his hand frantically crafted beautiful and dangerous passages on its own. Sometimes his neighbors would hear him weep; there was too much he needed to pen down, and it had eluded him for all of seventy-seven years.
As the last of his pens was emptied of ink, the book, titled Propositions for the Living, was finished. He had ruthlessly edited the manuscript, chipping away parts of his soul with a pragmatism that chilled him to the bone. For a few days, he gazed upon it with wonder, sobbing and laughing like an aghori possessed by the smell of burning flesh.
But the hold of obsession weakened, and Natwar felt his elated state begin to falter. When he awoke on a chilly winter day, the trees in the park were dead and his book seemed as mundane and insipid as anything he had ever written. Even reading it disgusted him. There was no escaping the mediocrity of his work in his own apartment, so he ran down the steps of his building and onto the street.
He ran and ran, the smell of rotting meat trailing him. But no one objected—all around him were faces of exhaustion, too occupied to do anything about his stench. Their vacant looks highlighted the wildness in his eyes, red-and-brown palettes of desecration that spooked the thugs on the street. Natwar himself was terrified; it felt like years since people had come this close to him. His craze was even more pronounced in the dulled moaning of the crowds. The city felt more fetid, yet it was always hideous, and the only beauty in it was the handful of women who laughed while walking fearlessly through its streets. The night was calm and full of lovers, and among them raced the panting figure of Natwar Rai. He made it through the city in a straight line, took a turn on the city bypass, and returned to take endless laps of the park outside his window.
When he was certain he could not possibly exhaust himself further, he lay down in the park, wearing the same clothes he had been on his seventy-seventh birthday, and screamed for anyone who would hear him.
Nobody did. Nobody dared. Why would they, when the night was calm and lovers let out titters that gave pleasure to the most loveless ears?
Having already felt the metallic embrace of death once, he was not prepared to face it again; his mind lacked the vigor to make peace with itself a second time. There was but one option—the course that his ancestors, upon reaching his years, had taken willingly into the deep and hot jungles of Hindustan.
There was little left to be done. The next morning, Natwar packed up the only rucksack he owned, dropped a package at the post office, and walked out of the city. No airplanes, trains, or taxis for him. He would merely find the largest patch of trees that he could and continue walking. For most of his life, he had worn a look of coffee with an accidental splash of milk, but now he bore the complexion of birchwood. His face had no need for color, or at least that was how he saw it. Pots and pans clanked behind him as he trod. Before leaving for the woods, he stopped to buy out all the biscuits in his local corner store.
That was the last anyone in the city saw of Natwar Rai.
The parcel he had sent was addressed to a failing publisher, in the dying hope that the book would entertain some small, unsophisticated readership. The publisher, Joshua Daniels, ran his business from home with the help of his indulgent and patient wife, in the absence of any kind of affordable office space. He lived in a steadily deteriorating but recently painted house in the suburbs, and his career had taken the steep descent into publishing the autobiographies of evangelists, though few manuscripts came his way now. He mistook the latest, titled Propositions for the Living, for one such manuscript, and sat down to flip its pages with the same cynical melancholy with which he had read the others.
What he found instead was the last book he would ever read.
The words were tinged with the spectre of death, and the pages’ corners seemed to be withering as he read. Joshua had to periodically pull his fingers away, so that nothing could creep up his arms and around his tightening throat. There was true power in this writing, and it seeped into his skin, his soul, his whole being. It took him little over three hours to finish all six hundred and fifty-two pages, perhaps the quickest he had ever taken to read a book. The writing was languid, yet filled with hope. There were didactic segments that compelled the reader into action, yet anecdotes that provoked a love for isolation and apathy.
Reading it at home was perhaps the worst mistake of his life, though he could not possibly have known this beforehand. He filed for divorce the following day, and visited church that Sunday with the kind of devotion that even his staunchly Catholic family had been unable to instil in him.
The manuscript bore the mark of great literature: there was no one way to interpret it. But no, Joshua knew it went further: every page could be read and analyzed to death, yet the author’s message would remain ambiguous. It was not the kind of ambiguity that made eyes roll, but the kind that sparked thought, that compelled the reader to jump up and question the essence of existence itself. Each word was placed carefully after the next—music written in ink. The magnificence of it was unquestionable, enough to forever put off Joshua from any other text, for he was certain that reading anything else would evoke a kind of dread in him that he wished not to see.
It had to be published, there was no doubt about it. But the parcel had explicitly instructed him not to attempt contact with the author—one Natwar Rai—and there was no mention of royalties. Joshua rushed to bring the book to the presses, and very soon, it lined the shelves of mid-tier bookstores. He was living alone by the time it was released, and read the book furiously every night, until he remembered most of it by heart. Two months passed, and there was no sign of successful sales. Of whatever little money came his way, he subtracted the royalties, which he faithfully sent to the return address on the parcel he had received.
And then it exploded into the literary world, making Joshua the richest publisher to have ever lived. He gave press conferences, attended the launches of different editions, even took calls from eminent authors—yet he could not answer questions about the enigmatic Natwar Rai. The public devoured the book, and soon, Propositions for the Living was the topic of discussion, not just among bibliophiles, but almost anyone anywhere. It brought in millions for the once-struggling publisher.
In the end, Joshua gave it all away. He was convinced there was more to the words that he had memorized like scripture. They led him to the frozen trails of the Himalayas, and he found his place in monkhood and in lifelong service to the Mei-Mei of Tsomang.
But the book, the book! Blessed with a longer life than any creature could dream of. Declared the most read book of all time and commended as a work of art that united millions, if not billions, in its consumption. Translated into every written language, and no small part of its reputation was the inability for any reader, critic or otherwise, to pin down its message. The mystery of its author provoked equal fascination. There were reports of people vomiting after having read it and of people cured of melancholia forever. From the favelas of São Paulo to the barren stretches of Siberia, a household that lacked Propositions was looked upon with contemptuous bewilderment. Indeed, it was single-handedly responsible for creating bibliophiles among a generation that had forgotten how to read. The only problem was that people who read Propositions never read anything else. Many impersonators of Natwar Rai came forward, but each was easily identified as unworthy of writing a text so elegant yet so ruthless.
Everyone seemed to find pleasure and pain in the book. There was a page in it for everyone, from the primary school student to the old war veteran. Some replaced their holy books with it. Others taught and studied it in practically every educational institution. Many found a secret of life in its pages. It unravelled families, emptied metropolises, uplifted the downtrodden. Husbands stopped trying to satisfy their wives—if they had ever truly tried. Men in suits left Wall Street and the City to paint houses. Nobody regretted reading it; its publication was no less than an era-defining world event.
As if the overburdened economy and the caprice of nature were not enough, humanity faced its newest challenge: nobody could agree on what the book meant. It soon came to pass that election campaigns began to win or lose solely by their stance on the book. It was not long before the first Propositions murders occurred. Protests swept the largest cities in the world as the politics of the book divided humankind better than borders ever had. There were those who believed it to be a life guide, those who believed it was simply a work of art, and those who considered it a religious text sent down by their one true God. There were rumors of Qur’ans and Bibles being replaced in holy places, of men and women using the book to cure fatal diseases. There was even resistance against the so-called book-lovers, as rival gun-lovers formed militias to keep their people safe. But they could not stop this surge of literary obsessions and the violence that came with them. Mobs laid entire cities to waste while the mighty and powerful hid in their penthouses.
Politicians and leaders of all sorts brandished it onstage, citing its pages to an audience that had read it many times over. Seditious students and union leaders did the same, except that they cited different pages. Farmers abandoned their fields to fight for their ideals and food stores dwindled, but nobody noticed and nobody cared. When its words were allegedly misinterpreted at the United Nations, military intervention was called for by countries that knew better. Soldiers shot up households that saw Propositions differently. At first, the sensible and calm of mind were stunned at this outbreak of mass violence. But the hypnotic rhythm of dropped bombs made them forget that there had ever been peace. When the bullets were spent, they killed each other in the streets. Torn pages fluttered in the air, above the maimed and bleeding faithful who clawed at each other still. To many, the pages were like buzzards, waiting to find a corpse to rest on. But to many more, they were like snowflakes that brought joy to a cold and dying world.
Paper became scarce, so people turned to leather to reproduce copies of the book. Soon, they turned to just about anything that lasted, no matter the cost. Then came the self-flagellators. Newspapers crowded their pages with stories of cultists inspired by Saddam Hussein, inscribing Natwar’s words in their own blood. Many who died fighting for the ideals of Propositions wished their skin to be used as binding. Human-bound editions were sold by the thousands, and the nobler the skin, the higher the price. Old, frail men and women would see maddened crowds swarm stalls and shops for copies, and they were reminded of the decaying, hungry nation-states of their youth. Soon, the book was no longer a thing to be worshipped, but a thing to become. Bleary-eyed believers gazed at it late into the night and saw the truth unfold before them. They would take up the needle and sew its pages onto themselves, shedding tears of joy as they did so. It was said to give great power. Those seen in public with paper and leather skin were feared, even revered. Some took the place of kings and queens, and fought and ruled with the blessing of the book behind them.
The mind proved to be the most perilous fortress to besiege. Famine and faith and war steamrolled over the world and millions died in their wake, yet millions more lived in their shadow, as they had for millennia. But despite the carnage that was wrought and could perhaps have been unwrought, it was when heads began to throb with a fever that could not be cured that the pillars of society were toppled like bowling pins. They never understood, really, that the book was one and they were the many. Instead, they pushed on like tired engines running on fumes, long after the greatest cities had fallen and all manner of vile creatures had emerged from the bowels of the Earth.
In time, people forgot the book, and it crumbled into dust in their homes. Newly born babies heard little of Propositions for the Living. When they did, it was from deranged men who crawled on the street. A weary humanity rose each day and saw nothing of the past nor of the future. It fixed its eyes on the present. Theirs was a broken world, sculpted like the aftermath of a storm. On most days, they wandered this way and that, and it took no genius to see that their only allegiance was to the dull agony of a shared wretchedness.
Into this world reappeared a bewildered and seemingly unaged Natwar Rai. He had tried to wither his body away by walking to the ends of the Earth, but the pure woodland air had instilled in him abnormally long life. He could not remember his own age, yet his health had never been better. He could jog fifty miles in a single day without breaking a sweat. Natwar had accrued, year upon year, the wisdom that silently emanates from trees and mountains and riverbeds. It was enough wisdom to know that he was not a wise man, nor was anybody else, nor would anybody ever be. Yet, after having found his way through the wilds of the Earth, Natwar would still wake from his sleep, haunted by the failure of his last book. Wanderlust was a demanding mistress, and had left the bittersweet taste of discontent in his mouth. He reasoned that the only tranquillity for him was left in the old studio apartment where he had once lived.
Natwar had a blurred memory of society, and did not notice that it was far sparser than when he had left it. He walked past empty roads, craters larger than he had ever seen, and a strange new style of architecture that unabashedly left the insides of buildings exposed. His city seemed the same medley of ugly and broken-down structures that it had been before. When he glanced up, the sky was a dangerous shade of red, held aloft by pillars of smoke. Natwar’s nostrils withstood the terrible stench of death only because it had never truly left him. He found the park outside his home, which was somehow untouched. The stairwell was crumbling, and Natwar played hopscotch on it as he whistled a tune that the magpies had taught him. The entrance to his door was flooded with envelopes and parcels, a lifetime’s worth of junk mail, he supposed—all of which was strangely dispatched by one Mr. Daniels—but he managed his way through it and burst through his front door. Apart from a pristine coat of dust, the apartment wore the same habit as when he had left it.
It took him a few days to soak it all in, as he touched each and every inch of his rediscovered home like an infant. When he squinted through his stained window, the miniature figures of his own species pulled his heart into his throat. Eventually, he summoned the courage to walk outside and talk to people. It was no small feat—the stretch of isolation had left him incapable of communicating almost anything. Thought and speech sounded one and the same, and he had forgotten the sound of his own voice. The lovers had left the city, but the same exhausted, albeit thinned, crowds greeted him as before. At first, Natwar sustained simple greetings, but soon worked his way up to more complex sentences. Strangers were not as friendly as he remembered, and they were certainly gloomier.
After a few days of this business, Natwar arrived at the two questions that were burning in his mind ever since he had returned: What books were people reading now? Was Propositions for the Living among them?
Every answer was the same, each preceded by a fleeting, puzzled glance. Nobody was reading books. In fact, nobody knew how they themselves had ever come to this city, or where it was, or how it came to be. All they knew was that they were here now. Nobody had heard of Propositions for the Living, yet the mention of this book sent a chill down every spine for reasons unknown.
So it was true. His writing truly had been unable to make a mark on the world. Somehow, this knowledge set him free after years of speculation. He had no need of anything else, and so he returned home. The apartment seemed to have a newfound beauty to it. Natwar began to feel the beginnings of the same inspiration that had once possessed him on his seventy-seventh birthday. But he had learned enough from his mistakes to ignore it this time. He made himself a cup of coffee and spent the rest of his day gazing out of the window, as decaying men often do when they are visited by their past. At nine o’clock, he went to bed, knowing that he had failed as a writer. There was no saving him or his work. He knew this now, truly, but it did not bother him. Contentment. This was real self-knowledge. As Natwar Rai fell asleep for the last time, the bed began to smell of lemongrass.