Staring at the blank word doc, as Debbie racked her brains trying to think of a story idea, all she could think up was a 'no idea'. This had been the case all her life.
As a student, she marveled at how her classmates would start writing the moment they got the language paper. The first question was always the Essay; one had to choose from five topics categorized under descriptive, narrative or imaginative compositions and one story-writing. Normally there were two topics of the descriptive or narrative category to make life easier for most teenagers for whom a story-writing was tantamount to suicide and their existence rewarding if the descriptive composition stretched to, ‘I went to the market with my mother and saw many shops there’.
Deborah, even at that tender age, was a thinker, and a slow one at that, as she would later confess in an interview. She would sit with her blank answer sheet for the first twenty minutes of a two-hour paper, much to the concern of the kindly invigilators at Auckland House, Shimla. Some would urge her to ‘hurry up and start writing’ while a discerning teacher waited to see when she did. Her favorite, of course, was her English teacher, Ms. Sonawane, a soft-spoken head-turner who was equally popular with the boys and the girls. Barring a few girls who envied Miss S because the boys they liked, liked the teacher more than they liked their girl, she was the unanimous school-sweetheart and held the knowledge with dignity.
Debbie wanted to grow up to be like Miss one day, to be so articulate as if she were made for the stage, so sharp that nobody edged too close and so warm that nobody could move far. Miss knew that despite the late start, Debbie’s composition would be an ace and she would read it out in class for the benefit of the collective non-creative.
The latter would then go wow and leave Debbie blushing like a bride; she had to learn how to cope with a compliment, the way she presently did was awkward, rustic. The sharp ones asked for the second sheet as Deb sat with her blank paper thinking up a fitting start to A House on Fire. Should the firemen dousing the flames be the introductory line as the essay traveled back in time or should she do it the regular way and talk about how she saw this house, any house, on fire as she was walking back from school one lazy afternoon. The picturesque Shimla would make for dreamy descriptions and she could give Miss a mental tour with her words and her knowledge of the thriving hill-town, the summer capital of British India. She was born here, unlike many of her peer who had come to stay and study in a boarding school.
Mr Lawrence, Deborah’s father, owned a beer shop in the Mall Road, just off the old Church. He loved his family much like his God-fearing parents loved theirs, till he found his wife, Deb’s mother, naked, in the arms of his own brother. His heart stopped and he could not breathe for the next ten minutes till his darling daughter came flying in from the school and threw her satchel for him to catch. Deb never told her father that this was not the first time she had seen mother with uncle. She had seen more and had looked away, not arousing the slightest suspicion in that slut of a woman who could betray her saintly husband with his own brother.
At the twenty-first minute, she picked up her pen and started writing her masterpiece. The House on Fire fetched her the highest marks in class and made her classmates wonder how someone their age could write like that, with such force that the fire seemed to singe their skin and made the odor of the charred bodies waft through the classroom into their nostrils as the flames engulfed the two bodies caught unaware in their throes of unbridled passion.
They sat listening, with parched throats, the light-brown hair on their arms bristling in awe, as Ms Sonawane read out Deborah’s composition to the class, her words transporting them to an adult world of passion and purgatory. The spell of the haunted house going up in flames was broken when, in an unexpected twist, the author made an ashen but alive father and daughter emerge out of the burnt Gothic doorway, clinging to each other, choking in the thick black smoke, limp towards the misty grey hills.
Miss S discussed the rich vocabulary, the impeccable grammar and the appropriate use of punctuation that the paper boasted, as Deborah sat, lady-like, basking in the warm glow that the fire brought to her face.
For catharsis, she said, when they asked her why she wrote and she was the happiest when she put the final full stop to her piece. A thunderous applause rent the auditorium as the graceful Deborah Lawrence, keynote speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival, descended from the stage and smilingly waved to a cheering audience.