Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by David Pennington
The pen hadn’t been worth stealing.
The ink pen wrote well. Its body was the shade of dull green that reminded him of the olives he stole last week. Mani thought he’d weave a story, say the pen belonged to a political leader, or that the Constitution had been written with it, or that it was the first pen to have been made. He’d weave a story and some foolish person would believe him and buy it. He clutched the pen hard. He had never been more certain about selling away something before and the one time he was, he was deceived by his own mind.
Brown and sandal trains terminated at the Tambaram station, honked their departure and chugged away at intervals. Porters and almond milk vendors stood scattered across the platform, singing their chants. Mani stood at an ideal position, beside the State Map and in the eyesight of those who’d descend from the train. And yet, he hadn’t been able to sell the pen away.
The storytelling was his favourite part of the job. In all thirteen years of his experience, not once had his stories ever been questioned. He’d weave a story, whatever came to him upon looking at the artefact at hand, and he’d lose himself in it taking the listeners along with him. A guaranteed purchase. He prided himself over the fact that he hadn’t once been captured by the police either.
Other than that, he knew how to read and write having attended school for a few years and had profound respect among the other thieves. They stole jewellery and ornaments while he aimed for mundane objects that may sell as an antique with an eloquently told story. He wasn’t a thief; he was a mastermind. He’d steal things off the people who wore rich suits and sell them to anyone that bought his stories first.
A shrill whistle asked the train to leave and the train honked in approval. Upon seeing a man walking towards him, Mani straightened and was ready to begin when the man moved to observe the State Map behind. Mani didn’t bother trying since the man looked as though he’d buy the story but not the ink pen. A girl with two braids came next and the moment their eyes met, she looked at her shoes and scampered away. Another fail. He wiped his moist hands on his white shirt and decided it was time to get down to action.
“Hi, hello, and welcome!” he announced. “After B.R. Ambedkar wrote the constitution, he gave this pen to me.”
He grabbed their attention with that. Trying not to smirk at their immediate reaction, he continued.
“I worked for him when younger,” he said, bringing his hand to his heart. “I asked for a pen to write my school exam and forgot to return it.”
“Come here,” he called out when he saw a couple slip away from the group. “Come and have a look!”
Everyone huddled closer and some whispered to each other. The air wasn’t filled with the usual excitement his stories were met with.
“I’m giving it away!” he announced as he broke through their conversation and a few people gasped. “I’m giving it away for only three thousand rupees.”
“Three thousand!” the crowd exclaimed before they all returned to wherever they were going before.
“Of course, Sir and Madam. It belonged to the Great B.R. Ambedkar!”
“I was here just to have a look,” said one woman to the man next to her, who nodded. “I wouldn’t have bought it anyway.”
“I’ve taken a picture,” said a man to no one in particular. “That’s sufficient for me.”
The remainder of the crowd dispersed and Mani called out a deduction in price too. He walked a few feet forward behind a man who looked rich enough to buy it but the man waved as though shooing a dog away. No one bothered about antiques in this place. He returned to his original spot by the State Map only to see an old man looking at him with his head tilted.
“Sir!” said Mani with a wide smile, unable to contain his excitement. “Would you like to hold this ink pen in your own hands before you consider buying it?”
“I’ve seen you before,” the man said, stroking the white hairs of his beard. “You sold me a walking stick three years ago. Told me they belonged to Gandhi.”
“Oh, yes Sir,” Mani replied immediately. “I remember. I remember. How’ve you been sir?”
“Do you know how to write?” he asked instead of answering.
“Ah yes,” Mani drew on, unsure of what to say. “Know the occasional few sentences, yes Sir. Like I mentioned, got this pen from the Great B.R. Ambedkar when I—”
“Good,” he said. He perked up and clapped. “I want you to find paper somewhere and write. Write about that day. Surely you didn’t just walk up to him and demand a pen, did you? Write it all and if I can believe that story, I’ll pay you then. Double the amount you’re asking for. Can you?”
“Uh,” he began, unsure of what to say. The man took a step back and turned. So, Mani said the only sensible word he could think of.
Six years later, Mani hadn’t changed significantly. He didn’t sport any grey hairs, still wore a white shirt, and he still did the same job. He still sold stories. He was still at Tambaram station with a crowd in front of him. Except, the ink pen was in his coat pocket and he wasn’t selling anything.
“Sir,” began a man, notepad in hand, breaking through the police line. “You prefer to take the train to your book launches. Why is that?”
“I’ll make sure to tell you,” said Mani as he walked through the crowd with the help of his assistants. “—in my next book.”