The newspaper came to life. Lying on the bed in my room, its edges caught the wind that slipped in through the window. Its pages fluttered, their pace quickened, from a rustle at first to a noisy flapping, almost like the sound of birds in flight, the pages began to move, turn, fold over.
I held the paper down with one hand, pressed it flat against the bed but that didn’t help, it moved more furiously, its pages slapped me hard. With one free hand, I dragged a pillow and put it on top of the paper on which I then sat, pushing down my entire weight, trying to calm it down. But this, instead of restraining its movement, seemed to give the newspaper a renewed, almost manic, burst of vigour and energy.
Strong and agile, the paper was fighting back, wrestling with me, trying to topple the pillow, to fling it away. I pushed harder with both my hands, I pushed with all that I had, with both my knees, every muscle, every blood-drop, but I fell, face first, into the pages, my fists clenched hard, my heart racing, and, all of a sudden, it seemed I was in Ma’s arms.
She was holding me.
Gone was the smell and texture of freshly printed newsprint, crisp and rough at the same time, the dry brush of paper, the metallic odour of ink. In its place, the soft supple yield of Ma’s skin and bone. Of her nerves moving just below the surface. Ink from the letters on the page, black and gleaming, smudged my fingers but they smelled exactly like the shampoo in Ma’s hair mixing with the fragrance of her clothes, freshly ironed. Of the black jacket and cream-coloured shirt, the black leggings and the red scarf she wore when she left for work that morning, the scarf over which her hair fell, the smell of wool, her makeup, the Maybelline powder, the leather bag, soft and worn, its steel buckles that had rusted grey, Dove cream, Revlon lipstick, Number 354, pale pink.
My face pressed against the paper now, I felt the corner of a page against my mouth, its sharp edge scraped my lips. I tasted the ink. It was freezing in the room and yet I was drenched with sweat, streaming in rivulets across my back, my heart beating as if I had burst into a sprint and was running for my life.
Then, as suddenly as it had started to move, the newspaper became still.
It lay on the bed exactly like it was when it had been slipped into the house, silent and lifeless, a giant white bug which had ended its life-cycle. And just when my breathing began to return to almost normal, when I was about to push the paper away, I felt someone touch me on the shoulder, someone I could not see.
I froze still, my hands couldn’t move.
The newspaper began to turn its pages again.
But this time, in marked contrast.
Gone was the furious flapping, the newspaper’s frenzied twitch I had fought so hard to subdue. Without the slightest disturbance to the stillness in the room, it began to turn its pages. Like someone invisible had slipped in, someone kind and patient standing behind me, who wanted me to turn the pages, read the newspaper, because it was the one Ma had worked on before she went missing.
To read without any physical effort on my part and that’s why I had been, effectively, rendered motionless as the paper flipped its pages on its own.
Beginning with the front page, one by one, all the way up to the last, Page 26, in two sections of twenty and six pages each, the turning of each page calibrated with utmost care. To match the speed or, rather, the slowness of my own reading.
Because, to be honest, I hardly read the newspaper even though Ma worked there. There was nothing in it of any interest to me. Sometimes, Ma would share a picture with me, a headline, but it was always about things happening to other people, mostly those who lived and died in The Sea. Perhaps that’s why whoever it was who had entered my room had worked out the best possible combination, using a mixture of fear and calm, to get me to read.
Events that had happened the same day as the one Ma had gone missing.
Excerpted with permission from The City and the Sea, Raj Kamal Jha, Hamish Hamilton.