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Friday, March 24, 2006

Cafe Mondegar

3

Café Mondegar

1992 - 1993

What happened that day after the morning incident at Insight was mad, irrational, and confusing. I was totally disoriented. I had tried to kill a man; I had resigned. The maddeningly surprising thing was I wasn’t feeling anything. Nothing. Just a little, sort of, confused and dazed. In crowded trains I had felt the urge to kill the man who had leaned against me. Murder seemed as mundane as brushing one’s teeth.
Suddenly, I had too much time on my hands, too much freaking time. What a difference from having too little, rushing madly about, into trains and buses to complete fifteen, no, at least, five sales calls a day! I was now jobless in a city that worshipped a position, not the person. I had walked out of Insight, every part of me trembling with outrage, and found myself staring at the marquee of the Regal cinema. I liked the Regal, owned and managed by the Farshis.
Like everything these one-time refugees from Persia managed, all was spic and shining. The shiny, near-sighted, and bald booking clerk, Dinshaw, had gel in his hair. He looked the typical Cusrow Baug Farshi boy who religiously wears his Sadra. I know old Dinshaw for a reason. Somebody had given me a fake five hundred rupee note once, one of the many circulating surreptitiously. Innocently I had bought a ticket from the tall Dinshaw crouching inside the small booking room. He with his congenital smartness looked up at me through his soda-bottle-thick glasses and said in his Farshi accent, “Dikra, this looks fake, son.” I said he could check it with somebody and if were fake he could catch me inside. He noted my seat number.
Inside I saw two lovelorn youngsters necking beside me. I offered them my “love seat.” (Padma, you, of course, know that the corner seats touching the wall in Bombay theatres are called “love seats.”) Midway through the movie who do I see looming over us shining his torch fully at my neighbors and querulously demanding that they accompany him, than Dinshaw? As the two lovers, thinking they had broken some morality law, were escorted down, I quietly made my getaway through the other door of the theatre. As I was scampering out I saw policemen entering the theatre. That was my only brush with the police. I dreaded them. Yes, don’t they beat you up first and then ask questions? Joke was that sometimes they make five people confess to the same crime within minutes of it being committed. If Satish Behl had gone to the police they would have been looking for me. I looked around if I could spot any of humanity’s dreaded conscience keepers. No, I was safe.
A crowd milled around restlessly in the lobby of the Regal. The interiors smelled a rich indefinable odor that made me want — so crazily — to see movies again and again. I am such a movie maniac. I was not due at Vikraman’s computer class until 7 p.m. So I had time, lots of it.
The marquee was inviting. The movie Aliens was playing in the matinee show. The Regal had a definite colonial aura, still has. It just reveled in its antiquity, like an old woman still sporting styles that had gone out of fashion. I remember the cool hard feel of the wooden doors, the etched glass panes, the hum of people waiting to see the movie, the honking of traffic outside, and the inscrutable ushers basking in their self-importance. The garish posters of the stars made them look like exotic creatures brought into the word of mere mortals, like good old me.
It was an unsettling experience, the knowledge that now I would wake up and have nothing to do, no monthly pay, no waking up to terror. Whatever little money I had would only last a few more days. Every rupee would be important. So how could I go in and watch the movie? A movie would mean having expensive samosas and popcorn and coffee, at atrocious prices! Why do they price their food at such rates? Not fair. Not fair, at all.
But I was drawn inside the cool interiors. There were photos of stars of yesteryears. Humphrey Bogart was the only one I could identify, and Gregory Peck. I liked them and their old-world solidity. They were solid actors and not spoilt celebrities and playboys.
The movie, Aliens, starred Sigourney Weaver. I liked her, still do. She is a solid actor in the old mould. She is all determination and resolve and concern so subtly expressed by her mobile face. There’s a scene of hers cradling the little girl, Newt, so much feminine nurture in that scene. I loved it. Then there is the fight to regain Newt from the horrible alien creatures. Ah, I relished every minute of the movie. No matter how much I see it, I am drawn to see it again.
As I came out of the movie a man accosted me. I hadn’t seen him in the theatre. He had materialized out of nowhere. Pfffft. There were many pretty girls around me, little blossoms, little pubescent adolescents with the well-defined curves of their age. They had boyfriends, families, friends, societies they belonged to, little princesses of little kingdoms. In short, they belonged and I didn’t. Princesses don’t like toads like me, even a future prince.
A man accosted me with three words, “You look like you need company.”
I was shocked. “Aaiyo,” I exclaimed under my breath, for there was such sweet concern in his voice.
Those were the only six genuine words anyone spoke to me that day.
He was nondescript except for a band around his temple. I don’t remember anything about him except the band. His skin was white, or an Indian light brown with pinkish overtones that had turned sallow with drinking.
“Your eyes are searching something only dreams can give. Come to people who really belong to you, your community, your refuge.”
“Who are you?”
“I make human relationships. I make heart meet heart. I run a club for lonely hearts like you.”
That description appealed to me. Here was my own Sergeant Pepper.
“You are looking for company, right? I see that searching look in your eyes.”
I said, “Yes,” without thinking.
“Follow me.”
I followed the shabby, shuffling man past Lion Gate to the Great Western Building. Now, Great Western Building is besides Scottish Church and the Docks. This building, in those days, housed several advertising agencies. I used to be a regular visitor there. Perhaps, I would run into Renuka. Is she a member of the lonely-hearts club run by this man? This Sergeant Pepper?
I felt pangs.
I followed the man up the steep stairs.
“Good girls. Homely girls, y’know, they are like my sisters. Give me two hundred rupees membership fees. It is an exclusive club by invitation only. We are choosy y’know. I guarantee your membership will be accepted.”
What are two hundred rupees for a passport to a magical lonely hearts club? Surely there would be a lot of dancing and singing in this paradise. At last, I am into something big. He guaranteed my membership.
He took the money and disappeared up the stairs to heaven.
I stood in the landing at the ground floor.
Several agency acquaintances passed me. Some said “hi” and asked me what I was doing there. Each time I blanched.
I said I was waiting for a friend. I didn’t tell them about anything that happened that morning at Insight, or, about the lonely hearts heaven soon to unfold.
About an hour passed and the man didn’t materialize. Pfffft, he had vanished as smoothly as he had come, out of nowhere into nowhere. I was conned.
The lonely heart club, my ersatz heaven didn’t exist!
I went up the stairs to investigate and saw a row of doors all tightly locked with dirt-stained curtains billowing against them. Which one was Sergeant Pepper’s? None of them looked remotely like a lonely-hearts club to me. I had been had.
Panic, disappointment, disillusionment, gripped me as each second passed.
Then I slinked down the stairs towards Regal, wanting to die than be seen.

I sat down in Mondegar and drank a bottle of beer, a London Pilsner. The beer helps, sometimes. The alcohol made me contrite. All of a sudden I felt the immensity of what I had done. What I had done to Satish Behl was unforgivable – murder, the most foul of crimes. The deprivation of another man’s right to live. How did it happen? In my immense guilt I had become disoriented and was committing one serious blunder after the other.
It was a little too much for me, the crowded bus, Renuka, the trauma at the office and now this. I gulped big mouthfuls of the sweet, viscous liquid. My head buzzed with alcohol. It ached. How could I be so stupid? But I did many dense things that day. I looked at the papers. Nothing there for me. No jobs, no interesting news. Big headlines, “Police commissioner jailed in the same jail he had once supervised.” Ah, what irony, some police commissioner who was caught in a corruption case. Imagine his horror when he was put in the jail he had supervised as commissioner of prisons. Just think, the loss of face, the disgrace, the meeting of convicts he had lectured about morality. He... he... shocking news! The press liked to play up such stories, splash it on the front page, and take the breath out of you.
“Met department predicts forty-eight hours of rain.” Now that was news. It would be another one of those all-night-and-day ritual when life, traffic, everything would come to a standstill. Rainwater would pour... and pour... and pour... till there would be waist-high water everywhere, and Bombay would look like a sinking Atlantis. But there was still time.
I sat and drank and ate groundnuts and potato chips.
The world had a purpose. I had none. Where will I go tomorrow? What will I think?
Here I was, jobless, directionless, and drinking my scarce resources away.
I felt angry. Great waves of anger swept through me. It was raining and everything was washed in grays, solid grays. Such deep grays meant only one thing. There were layers and layers of clouds up there waiting to unload. All colors, including the colorful umbrellas women held aloft like some royal battle standards were washed with a heavy gray. Life looked bleak and threatening. I must go somewhere, I must, I must....

Then I remember landing up in La Danza, of all the places. I don’t know how, I just landed up there. I was still too dazed and sleepy. I remember faintly manipulating between mounts of garbage and a staircase stuffed with discarded cartons. The heat was searing in through the fabric of my shirt, plastering my armpits with patches of sweat. After the beer everything seemed a blur of gray, a damning thick curtain of solid gray. My eyes ached, my head hurt, my throat felt parched and I was ready to die.
La Danza was almost deserted. The crowds hadn’t come in. I was early. A beautiful siren of a woman in a sari asked me if I wanted to dance. Oh, what perfect curves she had bulging from under her sari! She was like a blast of fresh air in the decrepit surroundings of the small office that served as a screening and entry collection desk. I said yes.
She led me into a room with a floor-to-ceiling mirror on one side. I was shocked to realize how dreary Colaba’s happening place looked without people dancing. The regulars hadn’t come in yet and the room was dark, too dark. I thought I would be dancing with my siren escort, but another woman, emerged from the shadows and switched on the lights. She wore a pink frock, clean, threads worn thin by too many striking against stone. Her bra straps peeped out around the neck and her slip hung lower than the hem. The siren was just a hook, like they have hooks in novels and stories. The woman was too thin to be called pretty, or for that matter, anything. She looked disheveled and tired. People like me do exist. I am not alone.
“Hi, don’t you remember me? I am Clara Furtado, remember?”
“Oh you were dancing with Johnnie DaCosta yesterday? Innside Story?”
“Yes, men, the Lambda.”
“Ah, yes, the Lambda. I didn’t know you worked here. Can you teach me the Lambda?” I asked.
“Yes of course, that’s why I am here, no?”
There was a mock incredulous expression on her face as she said this, very mannered, maybe, something she had picked up from trashy movies.
She put on a scratchy record on the HMV gramophone record player in the corner, the old vinyl kind. I danced. I danced a crazy, riotous dance — no, not the Lambda — in which I flailed my limbs and kept a safe distance from Clara. I danced though I felt eviscerated, sleep deprived, and suicidal.
I danced my pain and disillusionment away. In the screechy rhythm of the music I found solace and peace. Here I was ready with a death wish and dancing as if nothing mattered any more. This was going to be better than any lonely hearts club of a certain sallow Sergeant Pepper. I imagined what had gone between her and Johnnie the previous night from her dishevelment and the almost-purple pouches under her eyes.
“I can feel something stirring in your pants, mister!” She sang.
“What?”
“Down there? Feel something?”
She laughed showing a tongue tinged with black and pink gums.
Such overt sexuality? Could anyone be so... so... tawdry and floozy-like?
I cringed in my wet clothes and shoes. Was it because of the Lambda? Or, was it because she reminded me of myself?
Suddenly all the dancing, the Latin beats issuing from the scratchy record sounded so hollow. No, I didn’t feel a thing for Clara Furtado. How loutish can people get? I left La Danza with restlessness growing inside me. I could have thrown myself under a BEST bus and killed myself. I was desperate, jobless.

Cringing and suicidal, I found myself in Systematic Computer Academy after La Danza. The rain hadn’t stopped. It seemed both the rain god and wind god were fighting for the beautiful earth goddess. Their war was fluctuating wildly between victory and defeat. I was tired and sick of the rain, and wished it would go away. I remember wafting with the gusts of wind and rain towards my various destinations that day. I was wet and frightened. I walked with an awful slouch, one without purpose, and my chin hung on my chest as a jackfruit on a tree in the harsh Kerala summer. I was so fragile, so tender; one blow would have killed me.
I had enrolled for a computer education at my friend Vikraman’s so-called Academy for an alternate career. I knew my job at Insight would not last long. Looking back now, from the detachment of a few years, Padma, I feel tremendous contrition at my attempt on Satish Behl’s life. I should have left him and walked away and not attempted to kill him. How could I, a pacifist, a man who would walk away from trouble, kill a man? But now I believe in circumstances, and temporary madness caused by sleep deprivation. The memory of Behl’s terrified face, and, the snot, the gooey stuff that came from his nose still haunts me.

Apathy was rife in the un-swept interiors of the Systematic Computer Academy, in the dusty curtains, and in cobwebs slowly descending from the walls in insidious, and unstoppable patterns. Ah, I vaguely remember the dust and cobwebs. In every right-angled corner, every protuberance and crevice hung the ingenious creations of arachnids. Amidst all this, Vikraman’s virus-infested computers existed in a state of digital disintegration.
Computer programmer, code writer, author of complex algorithms, provider of nuggets of wisdom, “Do you think all they print in newspapers, and show on television are the truth? Far from it, they are lies perpetrated to sell advertising space.” It was as if the uncontrollable licentiousness of his life had spilled over into his work. The faded keyboards of the Systematic Computer Academy had accumulated dirt from several novitiate fingers and the computer mouse moved as real mice do, furtively, in all unpredictable directions, except the one you wanted it to go. But somehow he did make a living out of it didn’t he? I don’t know how. He retained students of previous academic batches as instructors so that he could pay them very little sometimes, mostly nothing.
When I think of those hazy days, Padma, through the obscure veil of events, pausing after every few depressions of my keyboard, distracted, I remember being conscious of an urgency that was forcing me to do something fast before it was too late. Computers? “The best courses I offer, C, C++, Oracle, you would be writing code in weeks,” Vikraman had said. The computer course at Systematic would wing me abroad on a metal bird to those golden lands of the Persian Gulf.
Something about Bombay’s claustrophobic trains and buses was making me die. I felt suicidal in them. I was tired of the filth, the sweat and the dust, sandstorms of it, swirling, over the city. Is there no hope for me? I wanted to escape to another place, another city, another country, any place would do. Shaken after my several soul-killing encounters of the day, with Satish Behl, with the sallow Sergeant Pepper, with Clara Furtado; I was trying, hoping desperately to salvage something from that disappointingly disastrous day. The land of richness and plenty across the Arabian Sea waited. Hmmm, what did I know about the trauma that awaited me there.

Elsie, sluggish, with the plumpness of a beefeater, was one of the many girls Vikraman employed in his Academy. She was a product of the privatized education in my native palm-strewn, green-bedecked Kerala (how else can I think of my native land?), a state that prided in having the highest level of literacy in India. However, Elsie’s education was, in the most part, patchy and incomplete. She couldn’t understand what the students wanted and could not talk or make herself understood. On occasions, I had seen Vikraman touch her, run his trembling paws over her. Then I realized with numbing shock: they were lovers. Well, that was when I caught them kissing behind the doors of a classroom.
That suicidal, desperate day, when the rain seemed like a permanent curse on the city, I sat inside the Academy’s computer laboratory working on a software programming assignment. The programming was going wrong. It kept throwing several error messages. What was wrong with me? A job is a dangerous thing. It turns an individual into a slave, but it keeps him safe in the security of a salary. Finding a job wasn’t easy in Bombay, it would take days. No, I am going abroad I had decided, away from madness to the golden land of palms and oil. There wouldn’t be any Satish Behl, or, Sergeant Pepper, or, Clara Furtado there.
The computer laboratory was deserted except for Vikraman, me, Mala, a rather attractive-looking girl in a red salwar-kameez, and Elsie.
“Did you think over Goggle-sanyasi’s advice?” Vikraman asked me.
“The Attaining Moksha Module? I did. Sounds dubious to me.”
“This world is an illusion. As if I didn’t know it already,” he said teasingly.
I was surprised that the Virus should speak thus about somebody he had held in high esteem the previous night. He had given the Sanyasi all respect due to a god.
“I am no follower of cults. Mother warned me against the likes of him.”
Vikraman became unsteady, agitated, “Can’t you see? It is not a cult. He is an incarnation of god.”
His eyes have an unsteady glow when he is angry.
I suspected then that he had taken me along thinking I would be fool enough to pay for Goggle-sanyasi’s Attaining Moksha Module and he could pocket a commission. It made sense. I knew everything in the world, after all, ended in money, even deliverance, touted by the Sanyasi. They, like corporations, have targets, deadlines. In business even a sale of Rupees five is a sale, an achievement, a precursor of more wealth, and profits. It is when there is no sale that businessmen cringe. The Sanyasi was no different.
“But I don’t buy that thing about the world being an illusion. No, how can you believe the world in which you live and breathe is an illusion, not reality?” I said.
“Leave it for the god-men like the Sanyasi, my dear man.”
“I find it hard to digest.”
“How is your search for a Gulf job going on?”
Vikraman was standing behind Mala and typing on the keyboard over her shoulders, touching her as he did so.
“I have an interview tomorrow,” my lips began to twitch; I couldn’t keep my face straight.
Mala started giggling as he cupped her breasts and winked looking at me. Two mesmeric dimples cut grooves down his cheeks.
Oh God! I sat there rigid with embarrassment, wishing the moments would pass. Was it the two grooves that made him so irresistible to women? Damn! Why didn’t I have them then?
“Sir, what are you doing?” Elsie asked in Malayalam.
Vikraman, Mala and I had forgotten that Elsie was in the room. I looked at her; her face had shrunk with hurt and embarrassment.
“What do you lose? You do your work,” Vikraman said.
“There are people,” she said peevishly indicating me with her eyes.
“He is a friend, no harm.”
There I was like a cornered animal. After Satish Behl’s murder attempt against the staccato beat of rain against windowpanes, the lonely heart episode with Sergeant Pepper, and the advances of Clara Furtado, what was this happening before me? Another drama? I sank lower in my chair, earlobes burning. I wanted no part in their lovers’ quarrel.
“See, he doesn’t mind. What is it to you, then?”
“I mind,” she was despondent.
“Do your work,” biting his lips, chewing it in anger.
“What if I don’t?”
“You won’t?”
“I won’t, if you behave like this before me,” a spate of tears coursing down her cheeks.
“Ah, now you are trying to control me, eh?” He fumed, his face a dark mask.
“I don’t like this. Why are you doing this to me?” head down, sobbing, wiping tears.
“You bitch, what were you before I gave you a job?”
“Better than what you have made me, what I have become.”
My heart slammed against my ribs. I hated scenes.
The rain sloshed and splattered the trees outside. Myriad drops pummeled playful leaves into submission.
The angular buildings were lost in a watery haze.
“Shut your mouth. Don’t say a word,” Vikraman was snarling as an animal.
“I will, I will...” the drum roll of errant droplets against glass swept her words away.
With that Elsie began to weep — a shrill ululating sound — thumping her chest in a primeval show of grief.
Vikraman lunged across the room, raised a hand, and slapped her hard as I watched horrified.
I froze.
I wanted to stop him but my hands and feet felt leaden. I couldn’t bring myself to get up after the incident at Insight. I sat there wet, frightened, and paralyzed. Who was I to interfere in their lovers’ fight? The guilt of the incident with Behl lingered in my mind like a freshly sutured wound.
Will the rain and the violence never end? I guess I was fed up with both.
Blood dripped from Elsie’s nose as Vikraman’s outburst subsided. He looked spent. Her eyes became black and puffed. The room was silent except for her muffled sobs and the hum of the air-conditioner.
Outside the leaves chattered playfully in the rain.
“Don’t ever say such things to me, understand? Come,” Vikraman beckoned Mala and stormed out of the room.
“I’ll see you later,” he said in my direction in Malayalam.
Mala, the girl in the red Salwar, got up and followed him out of the computer room. Leaving the receptionist to attend to Elsie, I followed Vikraman down the rickety flight of stairs of the art deco mansion down to where the filthy sidewalks of Colaba Causeway began. I was curious to know where he, a teacher, was going with Mala, his student, a girl half his age.

I followed Vikraman’s and Mala’s bobbing heads in a sea of heads moving down Colaba Causeway. Offices were shutting and the exodus had begun. It was drizzling, a smooth blanket of wetness. The Causeway once connected the Fort area of Bombay with the island of Colaba in the days of the British rule. But today all traces of a Causeway had disappeared. The strip of road then transformed into a posh residential area for the British and upper crust Anglo-Indians and Farshis. Then — with the residential areas still intact — it had slowly gone to seed, pullulating with cheap hotels, hippie joints, Arab harems, La Danza, and pimps like Cajetan Ferrao. The swish set of Bombay often frequented epicurean and bacchanalian pleasure spots in dim lanes that radiated decadently from the Causeway.
“Pleasure district...everything for sale,” Mosquito had said.
Beside a seller of lurid goggles a group of African men was trying on glasses, staring at each other and smiling broadly.
I passed several wrinkled and emaciated beggars motioning their bunched fingers to their mouths. They cried plaintively, desperation on their faces.
“God will keep your children happy... your tarrying work will be done... mother-father give rupee to this poor... I have not eaten for three days....”
I dropped a coin into an extended aluminum vessel thrust towards me, and immediately regretted it. Here charity doesn’t merit “Thank You” but invites harassment. Immediately the rest of the mendicants swarmed around jostling and pulling at my shirtsleeves. They were whining and droning their bitter wretchedness. “God, these people,” I exclaimed as I disengaged myself and hurried towards Vikraman’s and Mala’s heads weaving through the crowd.
Some derelicts, probably drug addicts, were half-lying on the Causeway exhausted by the intermittent heat and rain. Hawkers were screaming as if the world would end if their knick-knacks (small drums, wooden candelabras, brass compasses and telescopes, several record players with their grotesque yawning speakers and crankpins) were not sold.
“Rasthe ka maal sasthe mein.
Dekho aur Paisa Fekho.”
It rhymed. “Street stuff is cheap stuff. See it and throw money.”
I passed establishments that had survived centuries of monsoons, their beams, and lintels rotten and hanging precariously over the sidewalk. Near Regal cinema, I could see them crossing the road towards the gracious old Majestic Hotel building (now turned into a business-like co-operative store, the hotel’s erstwhile teak-wood dance floor now piled high with bath towels and bed sheets). Has this city no use for its history? History lies coiled in the skeins of the Majestic dance floor. Many a colonial romance had waltzed here.
The blazing lights from the Regal marquee merged into the smooth phosphorescence of the SP Mukherjee intersection lights in a cinematic dissolve. The night was creeping into the niches and crevices of the colonial buildings. The traffic was deafeningly loud, roaring all around me. I stood and watched their heads disappear into the fast food eatery in the corner — Nikita.
Nikita sold sodden, oily burgers on the ground level and on the mezzanine were the infamous narrow cubicles euphemistically called “family rooms.” Family rooms were purported to be a family dining area but were soon corrupted to a place of sexual adventure. The Bombay I remember was so prudish then that the vigilant middle-class thought police wouldn’t allow lovers to hold hands, kiss, or even cuddle in parks and public places. Padma, I don’t know how it is now.
In those days, lovers slinked to the narrow cubicles such as the one above Nikita to make love. In its dark, claustrophobic rooms smelling of scandalous love, amid the anxiety of lovers waiting for their turn, could be heard screams of coital passion. Oh, city of dark obsessions, is this the way you treat your lovers? I watched in shock as the much-married Vikraman, my friend and teacher, disappeared up its cramped, narrow stairs to make reckless love to pubescent Mala, his student, a girl only half his age.
I had discovered what he had meant by saying he was out of control.
The man was a fanatic... a blooming sex maniac.
I walked a few paces back and stood undecided as several pimps standing at the corner of Apollo street approached me offering “college-going girls,” “foreign chicks, fair-skinned,” “out-of-job television actresses,” “movie extras,” “merwana,” “anything you want,” etc. “Sir, you just come. Enjoy, make fun, only if you are interested. No compulsion, please!”
No, no, no, my insides screamed at them, not another Sergeant Pepper!
As I walked towards my favorite pub, Mondegar, the peddlers of instant nirvana followed me. The drizzle continued. A few thunderclaps sounded distantly above the traffic. I raised my face and felt the raindrops pelt me, tickling my face as it caressed and then dripped down.
I felt cold. I felt liberated.
From where I stood I could see the steep walls of the Taj Mahal hotel – mighty Emperor Shah Jehan’s memorial to his beloved queen Mumtaz, a legendary beauty — a shadow of the Taj Mahal at Agra. I couldn’t but whistle in awe looking at it. There was such beauty in its lines, a happy blending of history and comfort. If I become rich I would definitely make love in it, I decided.
Beyond it were the lights of ships waiting to dock in the Bombay harbor, glimmering hazily in the drizzle. I had had a hard day – the row with Satish Behl, the misadventure with Sergeant Pepper and his non-existent lonely hearts club, Clara Furtado and her calculated advances, and then the savagery of my friend Vikraman — would the night be any better, would it?

“Hi!”
There beside me, in the sparkling artificial pool of neonic, halogenic, and mercuric fluorescence stood Renuka, as fresh as a smiling lotus in a shimmering pond, the serene ingénue in person. My heart lurched. She held a parasol, which she raised to cover me. Then my sweet enchantress smiled a tranquil smile. What goes on behind that smile, beautiful woman? I wanted to ask, but the words froze on my lips. Could you love this distraught, desperate man? Her face and eyes had the distracted and endearing “I-may-have-sold-my-heart-to-your-job-but-not-my-soul” look that made advertising agency women so appealing.
Padma, my muse, I must confess I had forgotten all about her after the bus incident.
“Hi,” I said, not sure that she was speaking to me, not meeting her steady gaze.
She seemed so unattainably attractive that I had the urge to touch her to see if she was real. But I restrained that urge. I also had to shop shaking.
“Been here long?” She asked.
“No, just passing by. I am sorry for this morning.” The shaking barely stopped.
“Ah, no, not at all. Don’t be such a prude.”
“Oh! Really?” Then I had hope.
“In fact I forgot to give you the money for the tickets,” She dimpled again.
The smile spread ever so slowly around her face, to her dimples, cheeks, eyes, as the receding ringlets of a pebble-tossed lake.
“No need. Maybe, next time you can buy mine.”
“That’s okay. How was your day?”
The day? My eyes misted. My lips twitched. To fit my misfortunes into a few words was impossible, so I told her that I had lost my job. I didn’t tell her about Sergeant Pepper though. That would have been suicide. I also didn’t tell her about Vikraman’s cruelty in Systematic Computer Academy. As future events would show, I should have. There I was, tired, teary-eyed, exhausted and on the brink.
“Can we sit down somewhere? Chat. Drink something? Get away from these people,” she said pointing to the hovering pimps.
“Yes, yes, yes. Would Mondegar do?” I jumped at the offer.
“Why not?”

We walked like lovers do, under an umbrella, crossed Lansdowne Road, my hand thrown around her protectively. Oh, rain many are your mischief. She felt so... so... so... warm and vulnerable. But for a few moments the touch of her delicate body tossed my poor soul into a storm of passion, a virtual typhoon of emotions. Oh god, make time stop right here and let me die holding her! What a noble end to my wasted life.
After we found decent seats in Mondegar, not always easy considering the flotsam that drifted in. We sat facing each other, a suffusion of lights stroking her delicate features. The place was a chiaroscuro people – brown, white, black, yellow.
The rain drummed its cadences outside like a million unsynchronized drumbeats. I sat and listened to its lazy rhythm.
There followed an uncomfortable silence that seemed to stretch on for an eternity through the blaring of car horns and the noisy engine of a Taj Mahal hotel supply truck waiting to clear traffic. The Café buzzed with chatter, but silence sat solemnly on our table in the corner.
I dared not take my eyes away from hers.
“Finished?” She asked.
“Finished what?”
“Staring at me?”
“Sorry, I didn’t know I was staring.”
“Let me guess, you are thinking, ‘Oh God. This girl is so un-cool. Inviting me for a chat and not saying anything’.”
For the first time that day I let out an explosive guffaw, the tension melting from me like ice in the heat of Bombay’s torrid summer.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh God! This girl is so beautiful’.”
“Flatterer,” she said affectedly lowering her head, “As if I feel great joy in being called that. If I felt beautiful for a moment a thousand eyes would accuse, ‘Oh, what does she imagine herself to be, a film star or what?’”
“Yes. I think that is one of beauty’s great conundrums.”
“One what?”
“Conundrum, I mean, puzzle. When we see a strikingly beautiful woman, we immediately raise her on a pedestal of beauty.”
“Such as?”
“You know, film stars, celebrities, media stars. We aren’t prepared to believe that there is a normal, living, breathing woman behind the façade, um, add insecure to that.”
“Oh, very intuitive,” she said after a pause, “I think you must be some kind of writer.”
“Yes. I try to write, sometimes, when I am deluded that I am the only surviving sane person in this world and must do something about it, or, when I want to leave this fractious world for the galaxy of my fantasies. But it’s all raw stuff, too wretched, too gruesome, awesomely degenerate.”
“Hahn? Want to try me? What do you write?”
“Poems, short stories, limericks, anything. None of them are published.”
“Doesn’t matter. I would like to read them,” she said.
She would be thinking I am one of those crazy, bearded, and longhaired men who write to satisfy their souls.
“I can show you some of them, provided we meet again.”
“I am sure we will,” she looked at me with that slow-motion smile of hers and a face as though cracking with a smile.
“Two beers,” I said to the waistcoat-ed waiter. He had, at last, condescended to acknowledge our presence. Outside the crowd had got thinner, the vehicles less teeming. The rain played a thousand duets, its susurration soothing my nerves like a lullaby.
She opened her leather purse and slid me her snazzy visiting card on the glass-topped table. I studied its extravagant design — embossed letters, expensive stationery — and placed it inside my wallet. I couldn’t offer her mine for I didn’t have a job.
“What does an ‘account co-coordinator’ do?”
“Many things, in fact all the dirty work, I search in the rubbish bin for forgotten advertisement transparencies and art works. I sit for hours to get artworks approved by clients. It’s slavery.”
“Sounds interesting.”
“Come on, don’t be a hypocrite like the rest. Slavery is not interesting. I came to Bombay to be a model. I landed on Maya Advertising’s doorstep as a model for the Shine Soap advertisement campaign. I failed their audition. Look what they gave me instead.”
“Oh! Were you a model? I didn’t know that!”
I looked at her. Yes she had the looks of a model, though, short. But a lot of models are short.
“Cool down. We start our lives with a lot of plans, we know our destinies. None of them happen. We lose sight of our destinies. After some time we cease to care. Imagine, just freaking imagine, soon you would be fifty years old and you wouldn’t know how you lived your life. This life is empty, uniform, dull, and meaningless. But make the most of it, for it’s the only one you will ever have.”
Vikraman’s frustrated refrain, delivered in the same hopeless tone of voice.
Was the world going crazy, or was I? She looked dreamy as if she was letting my words sink in.
Through the distance of events now past, Padma, was this some inner voice giving me a premonition of what would happen? What should I have done then?
I was thinking of my own life. The choices I had made and the blind alleys I have had to cross and the chasm that was slowly opening up before me. It seemed as if we were two hunted and frightened animals cowering inside one of Bombay’s popular dating spots.
“You told me you lost your job, what happened?”
I told her in detail about the attempt I had made on Behl’s life and that I was contrite and wished it hadn’t happened. Twice, or, thrice during the narration my voice broke down completely. She listened patiently, head cocked to one side, nodding occasionally.
“I don’t blame you,” she said when I had finished.
“I am afraid he might go to the police, have me arrested.”
“No, I know him. He has no guts. He won’t do that.”
The beers arrived. The waiter banged the bottles and tumblers on the glass-topped table. He was mad at somebody. We were the only two people in the world to whom he could vent his irritation. So be it. We sipped slowly, the frothy liquid making my head light. Her assurance had made me more confident.
“I feel guilty. I shouldn’t have lost control.”
She reached across and cupped my hands in her delicately smooth ones.
The feeling of the morning, her wet body pressing against mine, the desire growing within me, instinctively sent bolts of lightning through me and crowded Mondegar and the rain-splattered, slippery road outside swam before my eyes. Surely she was an angel sent to rescue me from my utter hopelessness.
My eyes misted with tears. Everything blurred, the dim lights, the harsh rain.
“It’s not your fault. You were provoked.”
“Thank you; Renuka,” my voice broke above the splashing of water outside, “You are wonderful, just awesome.”
I remember looking into those angel eyes shining at me as if sucking me in with some kind of raw divine power. Her touch, her spirant breath, the dim light in the corner we sat, the events of that day, the intermittent heat, the ceaseless rain, the noisy pub all seemed to have affected me so much that I can still shut my eyes and recall it clearly, Padma. All I wanted then was for my darkness to fade into the lightness of her skin, my hardness into her softness, and my ordinariness into her beauty. In the darkness I noticed, for the first time, a gold chain glittering on her neck.
“That’s okay. I have my own problems.”
“Han, haan,” I nodded.
What problems could a princess living in a castle on a hill have? I was thinking.
“You don’t believe me do you?” She probably read my thoughts.
“I do, Renu –”
“– No you don’t,” she sounded angry, “you think having a face and body like mine is the ultimate that any man or woman would want.”
She withdrew her hands that cupped mine.
“No. No. No.”
“Then listen! I don’t have money to pay the rent. I send money to my mother and sister. Sometimes I don’t eat even when I am hungry. My male colleagues sexually harass me. I do nothing. I can’t. Everywhere I go these famished eyes stare at me, people prospect me, and do you know what they do when I reject them?”
“No.”
“They try to touch me, slam their manhood against me. Don’t look so guilty, I don’t mean you. That incident inside the bus was an accident. This is deliberate touching I am talking about. Not a single day goes without me being violated and humiliated. People treat me as some cheap commodity. I hate it. Not a day, not one day passes without me wishing I was different — ordinary, I mean — look at that girl there, she has a steady relationship, is in command, and before long would be changing nappies. Why can’t I be like that, just plain ordinary?”
“Enough. Calm down. I didn’t mean all that,” I said turning to look at the girl she had pointed out. Though not ordinary she had an intelligent face, and eyes sharp like x-rays that could look through a person in seconds.
A shudder passed through me.
Then I reached out and held her hands as tenderly as I could. They felt comfortingly warm like woolen gloves.
“Then?”
“I am sorry if I made you feel that I am insensitive,” she made no move to withdraw her soft and supple hands, I continued, “listen, believe me, I have never spoken intimately to a woman for so long in this city. I don’t belong. I am an alien here. Can’t you see? Women look at me as if I am some fly or insect, really. You know how it is to belong nowhere and to no one and see all those beautiful people who belong, meet, laugh, and look at each other with knowing, trusting looks? Do you know how it feels?”
“How does it feel?” She asked eyebrows arching delicately above shining eyes.
“You feel odd and left out, ostracized, as if you have no right to exist.”
“I feel that way too.”
“You do? I thought you belonged to that charming world, a world that didn’t include me, that of a princess in a castle up on a hill,” I said smiling.
“Not funny.”
“Want to know something?”
“What?”
“I have never dated a girl. You are my first.”
“Never dated a girl... ha... ha... ha....”
Her laughter rang out like tinkling glass, happy and abrupt, shattering the gloomy wetness. I didn’t mind peoples’ stares. I was happy, content, and with the woman I loved.
“No. I am a migrant like you. We would like to belong where people laugh all the time. Have you seen pictures of them in the papers laughing with mouths open? Yes, I want to be like them. But, sadly, I cannot. They don’t accept us. I know that world, I am not in it, I am in the outer periphery, the outer edge. Goggle-sanyasi says they are all weeping inside them, I don’t know. There is jealousy, betrayal, and bitter competition there; things I can’t handle. No, I don’t belong there,” she said.
“Why don’t you try and belong there? You are beautiful. I mean, there are men who could take you there.”
“And be in debt to them for life?” She shook her head.
“May be. What’s the harm in that? Our ideals of perfect relationships don’t exist. It’s sort of… like... if you can’t beat them join them. You can belong to the charmed crowd, be a part of their slick assed coterie, and attend their moronic parties.”
“No I would be lost, not for me,” she said.
“I see.” I wasn’t sure I saw or understood. I didn’t understand the rain either. It hadn’t stopped. We could be stranded the whole night in the city. Vehicles had started piling outside, moving in a slow bumper-grinding crawl.
“It seems I put you off,” she said withdrawing her hand, “look, I had to be honest. I may have been brutal; at least, you know being beautiful isn’t everything, Mr. Luke Varkey.”
She said this with her slowly spreading smile, two maddening sweet dimples forming and fading away from her cheeks. Her rich voice sprinkled unspoken desires in my heart.
Oh! Only if I could tell her how desirable she looked! If only I could take her in my arms and whisk her away to a magical land where fairies, elves, and gnomes lived.
“Seems as if we are two lost souls in this sinking city,” I said point to the incessant rain outside, “we would need boats to get home.”
Laughter sputtered in her throat and broke out like glass tinkling, breaking, and piercing me. The effect in the narrow pub was sudden and explosive!
Again people stared.
Then they returned to droning like houseflies over jackfruit. Life has a seeming grim purpose and meaning in beer bars. The alcohol was floating in circles in our brains, softening harsh sounds, deadening sorrows.
“Come, let’s finish our drinks and go home. The trains may stop. The rain is getting worse,” she said.
“Only a little beer is left in my bottle. If we don’t get a train we will sleep in Victoria Terminus station,” I said looking at the little lager in the amber bottle.
“Have you done that?”
“Yes, many times. They have spacious waiting rooms. You can even buy a long-distance ticket and then rent a dormitory bed and sleep comfortably.”
“You devil, you know all these tricks!”
“You know a dog demarcates his territory by pissing on it. I guess I have pissed in almost all toilets around the city, doing sales calls. So this is my territory.”
She laughed. It was easy to make her laugh. I liked her sense of fun.
“Have you thought about the future? What you want to do? Where you want to be?” This was a hook. I thought probably, like all women, she was thinking of marriage and settling down.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what lies ahead. I only realize that I don’t want to grow old. I wish to remain young. It’s my desire to live like this for ever.”
“Never thought about marriage? You know, raising your own team.” I tossed the bait, I had to, but she didn’t nibble.
Again shattering-glass laughter, it was a good sign that I could make her laugh.
“I hardly know you,” she chuckled drawing rings on the glass table top with her fingers, “besides, they will crucify us. You are a Christian and, me, I am Hindu.”
“Who are these ‘they’? Besides, I thought we are a secular country.”
“You know, the culture vultures, the moral brigade; the hawks that inhabit drab suburban housing estates. We won’t get flats to rent; our children would be outcasts. We won’t get the support of the great Indian extended family. We would be lost.”
“Really? How do you know all these?”
“I am a woman, I know these things,” she looked dreamily at the people around her, a typical woman-like look, “My family is very conservative. My father died when I was two years old. My mother, sister and I, we had a tough life. It’s a miracle that we survived the indignities we went through. We never had a man in our house for as long as I can remember.”
“Even I am without a father. He died in the Persian Gulf. It’s only me and my mother, and she is in Kerala.”
It was remarkable how our lives coincided, I thought as I downed the last bit of lager. She did the same. My head felt very light and she seemed to have taken away all my worries and traumas of the day. I seemed to inhabit a different world altogether then. If only, oh, if only I could persuade her.
“We must go, we must go, the rain isn’t stopping, I can’t swim, and getting all wet isn’t my idea of a date,” she said in her alcohol-softened voice.
“Oh, and, thanks for the date, my first in the city, no, my first ever. Hope I didn’t bore you too much.”
“Bore me? I had fun.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
I paid the waiter, and left a big tip, at least, to cheer him for the rest of his gloomy and disastrous day. No matter how bad the situation, I do such things. If happiness for him meant a twenty-rupee tip, I would give it willingly, just to surprise him. He gave me a surprised look and thanked me.
But what was running through my mind as I stepped out into the sticky, soggy humidity was how to convince her that I wanted her as I had wanted no one else in my life? How could I tell her the urgency of my love?
The air was uncomfortably moist and carried the putrid smell of wetness. The relentless rain had completely destroyed what the municipality had worked to create for over one year. The road was a mess. There were craters that punctured the Colaba Causeway and the MG Road that ran past Flora Fountain. Vehicles careened over it swaying like boats through storm, some turned turtle and lay exposing their underbelly.
Renuka opened her umbrella and tried desperately to shield me against the rain. It was no use. I was drenched immediately. She and I ran from one taxi to the other in the crawling traffic and begged, implored, charmed, and threatened the drivers to take us to Victoria Terminus. Though she had the charm and beauty to make a corpse smile, they stoically refused. Like eagles feeding on carrion they wanted to earn an obscene sum ferrying people to the suburbs.
“No they won’t come let us walk,” I said.
“In this rain?”
“Yes.”
“In this water?” The water had come up to her ankles. The rain was relentless.
“Desperate situation, desperate measures,” I said.
She smiled and started walking beside me, holding her umbrella over my head. I held her around her waist. She didn’t object. It felt as if we were lovers.
It was pitch dark and raining as we left behind the glitter of Colaba and crossed towards the National Gallery of Modern Art. The area was gloomy. We passed Kala Ghoda where in the shadows of the ancient buildings of the British Raj (Elphinston College, David Sassoon Library, Prince of Wales Museum, old Watson Hotel) slept tired bhel-puri sellers; tender coconut vendors and drug addicts who were migrants to the city like me. They lay curled in the dampness, in sleep and in wakefulness, like motionless corpses awaiting burial, covered tightly from head to feet, unconscious, numb to the rain’s perennial scream.
Intermittent gusts of wind kept pushing the umbrella as we crossed the road in front of Bombay University. The area was very dark and the rain had made walking difficult. The rain dripped down from the edges of the umbrella and down the center, and along the rod. I held Renuka close to me so that we could be warm against the chill of the cold water. My fingers throbbed against her moist skin.
Suddenly she screamed.
Her thin voice cut through the roar of the rain.
The umbrella turned upside down.
“My chain... my gold chain,” she was screaming.
I lunged at the youth running away from us. I got a hold of his raincoat material, black and slippery. The rainwear had a hood, so I couldn’t see him. He freed himself with a jerk and ran. I ran after him, my bag flapping heavily against me, slowing me down.
“Mother sleeper, you, abuser of a corpse....” the profanities issued from my mouth without my knowing.
I tried to hit him, using all my force, as I had seen in the movies. But the “dish, dishoom” sounds that usually accompanies such efforts in the movies didn’t come. I didn’t connect. Try hitting him in his chest. That didn’t connect too.
Then I remembered my shoes. They were floppy shoes but were made of rock solid leather from the Dharavi slums.
My kick landed straight in his groin. He yelped like a dog. I kicked again.
“Watch out Luke... he’s got a knife, he’s got a knife....” Renuka was screaming and pulling my shirt from behind.
The man slashed crazily and ran.
I evaded the wide arc of his knife coming at me, lost balance, and fell and she fell with me.
The black hooded form disappeared into the darkness and the rain.
The rain was drumming around our ears now. Water was streaming down her face, mingling with her tears.
I drew her near, the water hitting our faces, and kissed her, her mouth, her eyes.
Her tears tasted salty. I looked at her in the eerie light of a sodium vapor lamp.
“Oh, it was my mother’s chain. What would I tell her?” Her voice shook with sobs.
“No matter. It’s gone, over. It’s dead.” I held her trying to keep my voice calm.
A few cars nearly hit us huddling on the road, swerved, and sped away horns screaming above the roar of the rain.
We sat there in the rain, the irate drivers cursing us, locked our lips and kissed like we were going to die.
We were holding each other, weeping and kissing as if nothing else in this world mattered.

Renu, Renuka, Renuka Barua, will you love me like this all my life? Let us capture this moment store it in a bottle and live like this all our lives, cutting out the world from our private heaven, shall we? These questions kept playing on my lips, though I never had the courage to ask her. To me, she looked like one of the millions who came to Bombay to find work in the glamorous worlds of films, modeling, and television only to find their dreams taken away by the heat, the noise, the rain, and the impossibility of finding a foothold in the dying city.
That day the rain pounded us, pulverized us, gushed over us, turned concrete and mortar to slush and debris. It rained as never before. It killed nearly a hundred people. Five building collapsed under its force. It felled mighty trees that had withstood years of thunderstorms. It flooded slums with foul-smelling sewage. It’s force bent and twisted metal, overran the gutters, flooded roads, housing estates, and slums; and in its savage and unrelenting onslaught we held to each other and walked and waded all the way to Victoria Terminus.

2 comments:

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