The Manuscript / Naima Rashid

Saala, how the hell do we find a manuscript in this junkyard?’

‘Are they all this messy, these writers and creative types. How does he even get anything done in this stable?’

‘Let’s hunt. The boss is mad as a bulldog.

‘Did you get anything out of the writer fella? Are we even sure it’s here? Did he tell you anything himself?’

‘Yes. He said a copy was under the writing desk.’

‘Under the desk. That certainly helps! There is half the world’s paper junk in here.’

‘He was among the most stubborn ones we’ve done so far. Bugger wouldn’t say a word. Skinny as a stick, but his soul was made of concrete. Twenty lashes on that bony torso, and nothing. Boss told him we’d pull his nails out if he didn’t speak up. Held a pair of tongs before him. Snapped them like a gator’s jaws. Then, he mumbled something about it being under his writing desk here.’

‘Where does the publisher come in all this? The chap whose kids you followed to and from school?’

‘He was the one we investigated in the first place. He said the work was scheduled to go into print in six months. He was easy to handle. Middle class guy. All values, no clout. Leftist type, you know. Ideals, values, all that bullshit. ‘

‘What did you tell him?

‘Called his wife to harass her. Followed her on her way back from uni one day. Poor thing. Was shit scared. Hung outside her house until her kids came home from school. A boy and a girl. They saw us standing outside the house. Made a phone call as soon as they were inside. Bitch answered. Told her we knew what time her kids went to and came back from school. She better tell her husband not to publish it. She said nothing. Probably scared the hell outta her.’

‘Did the kids go to school after that?’

‘Yes. For two days. We followed them for two days. After that, they didn’t go. By the time we broke into the publisher’s office, he was wobbly like jelly. I could tell by the terror in his eyes that he had been expecting us. I saw him urinate in his pants. Saw a wet patch form at his crotch, it grew bigger like a rain cloud. Poor chap, I just showed him the nozzle of the gun. Didn’t want to make a scene or anything. Didn’t want too much noise. We’d worked hard to soften him for three days by harassing the family. He was shaking like goat liver.’

‘Isn’t this the same guy boss said he’d sent to prison ten years ago.’

‘Yes.’

‘Didn’t he learn his lesson?’

‘No. You know the sort. They don’t stop. Bloody buggers stick it out.’

‘Kinda like us.’

‘ Yah. If I didn’t hate them, I would almost respect them for sticking to their guns. They don’t know fear. Can’t be bought, can’t be sold.’

‘Every man has a price. Boss says.’

‘Yes. It was easier to get him this time round. He was weak because of the children now. And that wife of his. Smokin’ hot, I tell ya. Three days I followed her coming out of the uni. Best assignment ever. I almost wished the boss would tell us to frisk her.’

‘No wonder the poor guy was scared to death.’

‘Stop looking so dreamy. Let’s get to work.’

‘Why don’t we just burn up everything?’

‘Boss said we hafta find the particular one and burn it.’

‘What does it say? I don’t even know how to read English very well.’

‘It is called The Leader. You can read that much, can’t you.’

‘Right. Like he put it out for us, all set, with the frigging title page and everything in order.’

‘What do we do if we can’t find it?’

‘We lie and tell the boss we burnt it anyways. Did you see how he was fuming? Do you want to mess with that?’

‘He’ll rip our heads off if the real one gets out.’

‘There’s no guarantee anyways. You know how these things work. Maybe there’s more than copy. We can’t know how many he made, and whom he sent out to.’

‘But if the publisher promised not to publish it, doesn’t it settle the matter?’

‘No. The boss is murderous. Foaming with rage. This hunt is a symbol. We are doing it not because it makes any sense, it’s just that the sucker will kill us if we don’t calm him. He’s like a grown-up crying baby with his finger on a trigger. You gotta give him what he asks for. Think of this as an empty feeder to shut a baby up.’

‘Tantrums.’

‘Call it what you will. Move your ass now.’

‘That’s the boss calling. (Into the phone) Hello. Yes, we reached. Not yet. We’re looking. Yes, we found the place…..The papers are here…..We will find it……Yes, we will burn it…..We will call you.’

‘Sheesh. He sounded like he was going to explode.’

‘He will, if we don’t tell him soon. Look through that pile.’

‘Lots of rubbish. Papers and more papers. How do you tell anything apart? The Leader….don’t see nothing. Loose papers…..ah, there’s something bound….let’s see what it is….the decree…bloke doesn’t know how to spell degree….put a ‘c’ instead of a ‘g’.’

‘Maybe he should send all manuscripts to you to edit. Where’s that paper the publisher gave you when he was scared witless? What was it?’

‘Concept. He said. Book concept. Does that mean idea?’

‘Yah, what the book is about. Show me, you stuffed it in your pocket. Show me.’

‘Here. It’s all crumpled now. How will it help? It’s not like it’s a picture with a location map.’

‘It’s some sort of clue. Let’s see (Reads) Book blurb. A biting satire …’

‘What’s satire?’

‘I don’t know. I’m just reading. A biting satire that portrays the rulers of the day as en … ti…ties part…demon part …clown. Written in the style of absurd…ist literature, the story echoes ‘Waiting for …. Go…dot’ where  two … tramps wait for a promised entity to …’

‘Slow down. I don’t understand anything.’

‘You don’t have to. You are not going to. Where was I ?  … a promised en..ti…ty to show up but he never does. At the end of the work, one questions the pre…mise of their belief. The Leader goes a step further in its ha…rro…wing port….rayal of a nation whom the heavens have been joking with for long. A brilliant and poi..g…nant novella by one of the most promising writers from the region.’

‘You read well.’

‘Thanks. I dropped out after F.A. I always enjoyed English. What did you understand?’

‘Nothing. What did you understand? You were the one who enjoyed English.’

‘It says the novel makes fun of the leaders. Probably shows them for the goons they are.’

‘Why do they have to go all fancy and say it like that?’

‘It won’t sell otherwise.’

‘Do they name the boss?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. They don’t usually name names in fancy literature. It’s supposed to be universal, and timeless, all that. You know, classic.’

‘Why is he so scared if they don’t name him?’

‘Even if they don’t name him, everyone will know they’re talking about him. Him and the likes.’

‘The boss doesn’t read. How would he have found out?’

‘He pays others to read. He would find out sooner or later. He keeps track of things, you know. He’s suspicious of everything.’

‘Time’s running out. Let’s burn this pile under the table and call the boss before he calls us again. We just say we saw it with our own eyes, that it’s all burnt to ashes here. We’ll use my lighter. Here. And leave the ashes here as proof.’

‘What if the real one gets out and gets published?’

‘It probably will. But that’s not our problem. We are paid for this task. This isn’t the last writer, nor the last manuscript. There will always be somebody speaking up.’

‘Good. Let the papers catch fire slowly. There we go.’

‘Don’t the papers look like lots of devils’ tongues burning?’

‘Shut up, Shakespeare. (Into the phone) Boss. The deed is done. The manuscript is destroyed.’



Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019) was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes.

Image courtery: Aanoosh Fatima, graduate in fine arts, her forte is abstract art, where she envisages in colours what she experiences visually. She loves music and good food besides her colour palette.

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