Friday, December 18, 2009

The Humorist
Barnali Saha

The man was sitting in front of the fireplace in his study throwing little balls of paper into it and was watching them burn. An almost tattered sheet of paper was sitting on his lap and he was tearing small bits from it and balling them. A leather bounded notebook lay open on the table next to the fireplace. The paper lacked even a single scratch from the pen, which the man was holding in is fist like some lethal weapon. It seemed that he had nothing to say or just that he didn’t know how to say it. The white sheet seemed to echo all the unspoken thoughts ringing in Miller Travis's mind, and he seemed not interested in marring its virgin beauty.

He was sitting upright in his chair, his head lost in thoughts and his mind consoling him that may be he would come up with something before the deadline. A few scraps of paper were lying on the ground; he had just torn away the three pages of pedestrian humor he had written. It lacked in compression and objectivity and was a no good article. Unsatisfied and beleaguered, he was trying his best to find out a streak of humor. There were deep wrinkles in his forehead; it was obvious that he had aged a lot more that he should have. At thirty-two he looked close to fifty with almost bald head and gray hair in the temples, the patina of wrinkles covering his face and his sunken eyes all accentuating his older age. Once upon a time Travis was a humorist who used to regularly write a humor column of great repute in the New York Times

Miller Travis was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a not so well to do family of big tradition and small riches. His father, Robert Miller was a poet, his grandfather was a failed actor, and his great grand father, who was long dead by the time our protagonist was born, was a first class doctor who had amassed much wealth and tradition in his time. And that noble man had failed to expend his wealth in one lifetime left a part of it, rather a small part of it, to his future generations. One must agree that great grandfather Travis was one great man, for he had left such an enormous amount of money that the future generations almost had to demote their occupational levels to relatively nominal posts at the fringes of the fortune they had in hand.

Early in his life Miller's father introduced him to the al fresco. On several hot Sunday afternoons, father and son would head down to the bank of the little stream and sit there for hours until evening dawned and the biting gnats disturbed their sojourn.  On such lazy trips he would recite the sonnets of Shakespeare or the odes of Keats and his eyes would be swelled with deep seated imagination as his voice would touch on his favorite lines. Young Miller loved their trips and even though his father seldom published the poems he wrote after their excursions, he was forever enthusiastic to catch the charm of nature. On one such trip as his father recited, with bathetic emotionalism Keats's Ode to Autumn, Miller felt a stroke of humor inside him. And when his father had ended his monologue and stared at Miller with a questionable glance, Miller discovered that he wanted to be a humorist. And with that thought the bright prospect of another diminutive profession dawned on the Miller family.

Now, there are several humorists readily available in town, but Miller never wanted to be a stand-up comedian in a play or a joker in circus. He wanted to make skillful use of humor in the form of writing, and thereby create literature of exquisite value with his magic words. However, the transition from dream to reality is a big leap, and Miller realized the significance of this Brobdingnagian task of making dreams come true when several of his humorous articles and prose pieces were returned by the local newspapers with comments like "not up to the mark" that they "have decided to pass on." And that even though "there were some moments of extraordinary and lovely humor" they had found the voice of the writer a bit distracting. Criticisms as it is are hard to digest, they are the stale, rotten eggs you never wish to smell in your life, but inevitably, at some point of your mortal existence, those rotten eggs of cynicism are thrown at you.  And when Miller Travis faced the stinky weapon of mass destruction, he revolted back with great spirit.  For several months he burnt the midnight oil and read the great pieces of humorous literature. From P.G Wodehouse to Nikolai Gogol, re read it all with laborious cogitation. And after years of reading and pages of writing and a MFA degree from Columbia University, Miller finally managed to grab a job as a weekly columnist in The Daily Star, a local newspaper. His journalistic abilities flourished with time. After working at the Daily Star for almost five years, Miller applied for a job at the New York Times. He presented some of his best humorous articles about politics and social norms at the interview and managed to get a weekly column at the newspaper which paid him $1 for a word. But Miller was happy; it was exactly what he had wanted from his life, a job at the prestigious NY Times. He toasted to his success and joined his new vocation with enthusiasm.

In the beginning, everything was working just fabulous for him. People appreciated his creativity and he received rave reviews for his marvelous write-ups which combined the wide-eyed imagination of a rustic with a mordant city dweller's social criticisms. He made friends with great intellectuals and drank with some of the brightest men in New York. Travis attended book parties, discussions and interviews, in short he did all those things a literary luminary should do. But then everything turned upside down when he decided to volunteer for the Iraq war. His urge to see the action first-hand took him to the crux of the battlefield. Travis served as a supply truck driver and while delivering the supplies he imbibed with the exciting first-hand action the macabre side of a war. He saw dead and injured shoulders, civilians with their limbs broken and twisted like twigs; he saw bodies of children lying around, dead and burnt. His friends back home who had thought that a humorist like Travis who successfully derived humor from all aspects of life might be able to have a column or two of his Iraq experience. But their ideas proved utterly long when two months later Travis retuned home with PTSD. The war sight came as a shock to his senses and he began suffering from irritability, hyper-vigilance and hyper tension.  The condition worsened over time and Travis began having horrific nightmares. With PTSD haunting his life, Miller's ability to concoct humorous articles steadily worsened. His new articles were drab and unexciting; the humor was seemed put-on and stupid in some cases. The disheartened readers emailed The New York Times about the wild and irrational articles of Miller Travis. The directors of the paper contacted Travis with an ultimatum that if he failed to write a truly humorous article up to the taste of The New York Times for the weekender, he would lose his job. And since the time he had received the email, Miller had locked himself in his study trying to write something.

After almost twenty hours of forces incarceration, Miller Travis had no luck working. He just failed to get anything going and rejected all the drafts. He sat on his chair, his hands cupping his drooping head, the nerves pulsating rapidly in his temples. HE felt like a failure. For twenty hours he had been trying fruitlessly to discover a dollop of humor in his drab, whitewashed study. There were no true sentence, no real wit in him. All his creative abilities seemed to have died a sudden and horrific death. Travis looked at the clock in the mantelpiece. It was four thirty, but he didn’t know whether it was the beginning or the end of a day. Travis stood up and tied his gown, put on his sleepers and walked out of the room.

Travis lived in the top floor of a six storied apartment building with a small enclosed terrace which looked across the Manhattan luxury. He went to the terrace and soaked in the sights and sounds of the city. It was almost daybreak; the sky was a vast canvas of some unknown artist who had put several shades of red, orange and pink with care. The diffused lights from the sky brought out the soft beauty of the sepia tinted city that lay before Travis's eye.  His eyes suddenly fell down at the small green field surrounding the apartment building. The field was covered with thousands of dried fall leaves that the tree next to the apartment building had shed. The leaves looked so sad, so withered. They seemed to be staring at the vast sky with their listless eyes. They were like a sea of silent corpses lying in a battlefield after the war was over. Travis stared at them wondering how much life the leaves had only a few months back when spring was in full swing. The tree next to the building which was verdant with leaves stood specter thin, its bare branches screaming disgust. As Travis looked at the sight underneath his apartment, he realized the futility of existence. That everything in this world ends up in a big lump of nothingness to a sea of fruitlessness and hopeless exhilaration. It is strange that every year, everyday, with the march of seasons, with the end of days, with the movement of time, nature fills our staring eyes with false hopes of perfection. Travis understood that every year at that particular time the battered field would look the same only to be turned green and juicy in spring and then reduced again to a sea of fallen, dead leaves with the advent of winter. There was so much humorousness in nature; it is always fooling you with its sleight of hands. It was a manipulative necromancer ever challenging us with its deceptive devices, but we always fail to understand its illusive strategies, its unspoken challenges or winks. Travis could feel the invisible and illusive hand of nature tickling his body. He suddenly began to laugh. After a futile day, he had managed to find the humor he was looking for, it was indeed the truest sense of humor--the humor of nature, the humor of life. Travis's laughs echoed in the corners of the sky and then died down to a wave of nothingness.