It had been raining, now, for three days consecutively, drenching every human, animal, plant and insect with its ceaseless pitter-patter or water drops. At times it was mild, a mere drizzle that could be weathered without recourse to an umbrella; there were times when it was a steady downpour, the solid, respectable rain that, though it made everything wet, made no threat of submerging things in its outpour of duty; then there were times when the wind could not be heard over the furious thump of the rain drops, their fierce fall both murderous and powerful, blows that beat back – crazed and agitated and irritated by these foolish mortals, far below their homes – rain that was the rage and wrath and fury of the gods, unleashed and unchained, free to wreak havoc and hell upon the miserably, miserably dry land.
He admired it. How could he not? He loved the rain, its endless fall, the steady constancy of its flow, the way the sky turned benevolent gray, lost in thought – the mind of a great man, frowning as he peered at the Earth. Rain at its very best, at its most beautiful, made everything dark shadows upon the earth, transforming the soil, the sand, the mud, the trees, the plants – no longer carefree, content green, but questioning, now, and thankful, grateful to the water that pummelled them from every direction, that drowned their unquenched thirst in a sea and tide of water. There was a sweetness to the air, a tangy, melodious scent, that sang of flowers in bloom, of great rivers, flung in motion by the force of a million tiny pellets of rainwater. The beat of the raindrops on his skin, the smell, the sight, the taste – this was what paradise would look like, in its most majestic form: beauty and beauty incarnate.
Yet tonight he closed his windows and locked the door, put out the candles and drowned his house in darkness. He would not ruin the second, the moment, this instant that had to be treasured at all costs, by all means.
He was in love.
But was he? He was not sure, could not be sure; she was only a customer, after all, who’d smiled at him and shyly looked away at his approach , who was beautiful and pretty, her hair done in the latest styles, her clothes the most recent fashion. It was the height of folly to draw conclusions on such scanty evidence, but he was sure he had seen a glimpse of something other than friendliness, something deeper than mere politeness, in her eyes – so pretty – as she looked away...
In the darkness, he wondered if she would come again.
He hoped she would; he had never seen someone like her, this daring, wonderful, vivacious girl who had no problem breaking social taboos, who was every inch the New Age, post-liberalism girl, the kind of person he could not be, he who had grown up in the small confines of a town, and never the glorious, hedonistic revelry of the city...
The next day, he approached the barber, sopping wet, sodden and soaked to the very bones.
The barber eyed him strangely.
“Did you take a bath with your clothes on?” the man enquired in his native Hindi, looking at his dripping clothes.
“No, no, ji,” he laughed it off. “I was in the mall buying clothes. The rains came suddenly. I had to protect this.”
And he held out the polythene bag in his hand, filled with deliciously liberal contraband, the kind of clothes rich city creatures often wore; he would make sure to fold back the sleeves and leave the first two buttons open, wear no vest and wear his collar like a vicar’s ruff when he, too, would saunter around, in their clothes – he had to develop that peculiar staggering walk, too...
The barber looked at him for a minute more, then looked away and shrugged.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, the transformation from curious bystander to businessman complete.
And he told him.
“I want the latest styles. I want to look like -” - names of Bollywood heroes fought tooth and claw in his mind – “ like, like ... I don’t know,” he cried in frustration. “Just make me look handsome.”
Another odd look from the barber. He was sure he had never heard such a request before, not here, in this small, traditional town.
“What do you mean?” the barber asked, a thin current of conservative outrage underneath his tone.
He flushed, embarrassed, debating for a moment, two – haltingly, he stammered, “P-Please, naiji, there is this ci-city girl, and – ”
He stopped, aware of the twinkle in the barber’s eyes, the slowly spreading grin on his features.
“Ah,” the man said knowingly. “Then you come to the right place. In ten minutes, I will make you look like John Abraham in Dhoom, but – ” he winked conspiratorially - “ it will cost you. I will tell no one if you don’t want me to, as long as you tell any interested ... friends – ” again, the conspiratorial smile, the hugely satisfied twinkle in his eyes – “of yours who made your hair. Agreed?”
In ten minutes, he walked out, one hundred rupees lighter, but his hair done up, spiky and in style. The rain had slowed to its more gentle form, now, the dim pitter-patter of half-hearted raindrops not worrying him in the least. He was anxious to get to a mirror, to see his new avatar, conscious of the hair that hung innocently on his head, feeling the weight of every blade of hair on his naked scalp, a tremendous weight on his naked form.
Quickly, taking care not to disturb a single strand, he hurried back home. He was aware of the street people’s stares all the way home.
He did not dare wear his hairstyle
the next day – he would probably have been hauled up in assembly
before the school
. But he thought about it, swearing quietly to learn the barber’s technique so he could do it himself, no matter if it cost a thousand
rupees. He had not tried out his clothes
, either – he would not court controversy
, he decided, but ask the barber instead for a place to change.
The barber’s grin was less wide now, conditioned now by familiarity.
“Very well,” he said simply.
The man looked at him critically as he emerged, the shirt upon his chest flung wide open, his sleeves deliberately folded to his elbows, vest conspicuously absent.
“No,” he commented dispassionately. “You need better glasses. Try – ” and he rummaged around in a drawer beneath the sink – “these.”
Sunglasses rammed on to his face, his normal glasses gone; he blinked, unused to seeing the world in shades so dark.
“And a shave,” the barber added, already reaching for the cream. “Free of cost. And something to whiten that skin of yours...”
“There,” he said happily, an hour later. “Now you look like a Bombayite.”
He had been monstrously transformed. Gone was his nascent stubble, ripped to shreds upon the floor; gone the characteristic darkness of the Indian, his swarthy skin, his old, studious glasses. What he saw in the mirror was not a person he knew, though he recognised him from every Bollywood movie the silver screen had ever known. This was the man who could kill two men with a single bullet, this was the hero who got the girl, this was the end product of every teenagers’ fantasies. He radiated coolness from every pore of his body; he was no longer the silent, studious teenager, but the kind that was guaranteed instant popularity – the rebel, and not afraid of it.
“Remember, walk with your back straight, like a raja. And your speech –” the barber said urgently – “make it full of English words, like the city people. You know English, yes?”
“Yes,” he mumbled, still staring, in shock and awe, at his reflection.
“Excellent. Then you will have no problem at all.”
He tore his gaze away, long enough to look at the barber, look at him with something close to gratefulness and pure, shining, unadulterated hope in his eyes. He found his voice, and it spoke, in tones that the rain did best to hide, the whispering, hushed tone of the convert before his righteous god:
“Thank you. Thank you very, very much.”
The barber nodded gruffly, unused to such displays of emotion.
He found his voice again, though this time it did not bother to hide:
“Why – why are you doing this? Why are you helping me? We only met a day ago, and –”
The barber smiled.
“Romance is best left to those who are romantic, no? Now it is getting late, and I usually close my shop by this hour, and someone is waiting, I daresay, no?”
“It’s only six –”
The barber spread his arms wide.
And he was hustled off, out into the open; behind him, the doors closed with a bang. The rain was back in full force now, its divine armies already waging a futile battle against the stubbornly rigid rooftops of the town, each frenzied raindrop leaping to its death from the dark clouds above, a watery suicide that established nothing for no purpose.
He ran, not wanting to get wet.
His uncle’s shop was huge and wide, a vast expanse, a sacred tribute to the gods of cinema, a silent testament to the popularity of movies. There were aisles and aisles of DVDs and video disks. Racks of tape cassettes and video tapes, lines of movies stacked neatly in order, name by name, year by year. His uncle himself never came to the shop. There was only an assistant – a second cousin twice removed, or some such thing – who minded the shop and sales, and himself occasionally, when he felt like it. It was never busy here – at most, there would be six customers at a time, looking suspiciously at the CDs, half expecting them to be pirated merchandise and hence not worth their money – not on principle, of course, but merely because one could get the same material for half the price elsewhere. Nevertheless, the shop thrived, in ways he did not understand nor care to.
The assistant raised his eyebrows as he came in, but held his tongue – they were not friends, merely acquaintances, and there was not intimacy enough to guarantee answers to his questions.
“Nice clothes,” he chose to remark instead, turning away; if his cousin chose to tread the conservative opinions of the town, on his own head be it – he could not be bothered by something so trivial.
He did not hear him; he was scanning the aisles for a snatch of brown hair, for a hint of her beautiful eyes, hoping beyond hope that she had come again. There! He started forward, only to stop in frustration; it was an old woman who emerged from the aisle, who glared fiercely at him and clutched her handbag protectively.
The assistant looked quizzically at him as he returned to the counter. Then he smirked; the gesture did not go unnoticed.
“What are you laughing at?” he demanded, feeling hot under his collar; if this getup made him look ridiculous...
The assistant just shook his head, barely concealing a laugh. “Just the girl behind you – you should have seen her face...”
“Who -” he began, wheeling around. Then his breath caught in his throat.
It was her, and wonderfully so. He saw her again, in his mind’s eye, and decided, once and for all, that he was in love. Never had he seen a creature so pure, so perfect; his eyes traced the shape of an innocent hair that fell upon her cheek, imagined he could smell the sweet perfume that hung to her like mist and mildew, upon the scent of the fragrance of orchids and roses in full bloom. He heard her voice in his head, rich and exotic, though he had never heard her speak; her laughter echoed in his mind.
As if on cue, she looked up, from the back of the DVD she had been perusing – Mughal-e-Azam, a small voice said in the back of his mind – and met his eyes, clear and boldfaced, waiting for him to respond.
He felt his lips stretch horribly into a wide grin, giving him a demented smile upon his face, the wide, happy glow of a lunatic who had just killed eight random strangers on the street. It was too late to stop it –she saw it; a nervous, slightly wary smile flitted across her face – she turned back to the DVD cover.
He was prodded in the back.
“If you’re going to dress like that, you might as well put it to good use. Go up to her,” the assistant hissed, then turned back to the old woman’s purchase.
He took a nervous step forward, and another.
Suddenly, he was no longer sure about this. How would she respond, to this stranger so fully bedecked in modern paraphernalia? How would he come across? What if his breath reeked of the chicken he had consumed only that afternoon? What if – but he was there now, in front of her, and nowhere to run.
She looked up again.
“Hi,” he said, summoning a normal smile.
“Hi,” she replied, and her voice was everything he had ever imagined, rich, pure, beauty upon beauty replete, a queen of melody –
He blinked; she was looking at him, waiting for his reply, curiosity flickering in her eyes, uncertain about this demented maniac who had smiled at her by way of introduction – he forced himself to stop thinking about that.
“So, you, um, like –,” he motioned to the disk still in her hands -, “like, like, um, Mughal-e-Azam, huh?” He hoped to God his tone was casual; he wouldn’t know, he was already dead with nervous fear.
She glanced down at it.
“Yeah, it’s good,” she said in English, an accent to the words that rolled from her tongue.
“I see,” he replied, mentally cursing himself for responding so clumsily, for asking a foolish question, feeling like an idiot, keenly aware that he had not imagined their first conversation would be like this, would be anything as clumsy and ridiculous as this...
“I’m sorry, who are you again?”
“Oh,” he said suddenly. “Oh, oh, um, I-I work here.”
He gesticulated wildly at the counter; the assistant gave him a thumbs up.
A short silence fell.
“Hey!” a girl yelled from the entrance; she looked away – her face lit up delightfully. Like friends, she moved towards her, leaving him where he stood, rooted to the spot.
He moved back, turned around the and made to move to the counter. It hadn’t been that bad, he consoled himself, hopeful that he was not deluding himself –
“Who was that?” he heard her friend ask.
“I don’t know, just some weirdo. How about you?”
His world had ended on ‘weirdo’.
He looked up, at the lights that suddenly seemed too dim, too dark for this darkness that was creeping up his heart, choking him in its folds, blinking desperately at the sudden tears that welled up in his eyes – he would not cry, he had not cried for years – wanting this nightmare to fade away, to wake up from this illusory pain that felt only too real.
He did not know how he left the store, if he staggered through or walked naturally out, did not know how the street suddenly came to greet him, the sky rent apart by thousands of millions of billions of kamikaze soldiers, tearing away at the ground, as rain and earth clashed, with furore and intensity. He wanted to run, to run and never look back, back at this cold, cruel, torturous, treacherous world; he longed to be one of the raindrops, whose only fate was death, but wasn’t everyone’s fate death? He was sure he was dead, but how could he be, when his chest was squeezed so tight it heart, when he could hear his heartbeat thump, loud and fierce in his ears, proof that he was well and alive, living and real, in this horror of horrors...
The wind blew louder and louder, its howl as chilling as the wolves, its roar as proud as the lions; it ripped at the soul, clawed it mercilessly, as rain and wind made storm and thunder quake the very earth. It had not rained so fiercely in the last five days; by the end of the night, corpses would float upon the floodwaters.
He staggered through the doorway to his house, noting his father seated, reading a magazine, his mother standing, arranging the dinner plates on the table. The father looked at the son.
“What are you wearing?” he cried, shocked and amazed, the magazine forgotten, thrown to the floor as he jumped up, more astonished than angry, more surprised than seething.
His son looked him dead in the eye.
“Nothing I shall ever wear again.”
His mother found his clothes in the dust bin the next day.
Another grey day dawned, its crimson hue blotted out by the masses of dark clouds that crackled ominously, promising more than the mere drizzle it had to offer.
He got up. He brushed, bathed, dressed in his school clothes. He wore the same hairstyle he had worn everyday for the last several years of his existence.
Was there a difference? He slouched, a grey cloud above his head, a thin pallor cast over his features. His eyes had lost any sign of cheer, any flicker of joy; now they were dull and black, bleaker than the future his dreams had threatened him with. He ate slowly, and little; he walked slowly all the way to school, his normal glasses wedged on to his nose, twin mirrors that formed a barrier between him and the world: a sad, little man on a rainy day.
It was over, he thought numbly. It was over.
The memories of the night before horrified him, mortified him; he could not think of it even now, the morning after, without cringing in fear and shame and embarrassment. He was close to suicide now, close to joining these little drops on a final plunge to eternity, to being one with the clouds. She would never think of him again without associating him with lunacy; she would think him crazed or mad or worse. There was no point dreaming of her, or thinking about her; it was over, now that she would never want him.
He paid no interest to the lectures in his classroom, no attention to the shenanigans of his classmates. Everything in the room made him think of her, her hair, her eyes, her luscious lips, her scent, her voice – it threatened to drown him, in a sea of memories of her, and there was no lifeboat in sight.
He did not know what made him go back to the store again – or perhaps he did. He wanted one last glimpse of her before he left, a final wound upon the body, before the corpse. He did not bother changing, into those foreign, outlandish clothes, that fancy, tasteless hairdo; he had thrown them both away, when it became clear, really, that there was no point to them.
He nodded a greeting in response to the assistant’s cheery welcome, and took his place. Mechanically, he took credit cards and cash, took money and gave back movies. Once or twice, he raised his head and looked for her; she was not found.
He went back to his work, disappointed and yet certain this was only right. He did not deserve to see her, he thought, not when he had ruined every chance he had –
He froze. It could not be.
“H-Hi,” he said, hardly daring to believe.
“I’d like to buy this,” she said, extending her arm to reveal the slim cover of Mughal-e-Azam in her hand.
He nodded slowly, staring at it. He did not bother resulting in the fierce, rushing joy that had coursed through him with her voice, had rushed through him with the realisation that she was willing to talk to him. It was cruel fate, this; she was forced to come to him, now, when the assistant was busy elsewhere – she would not give him the time of day otherwise. The fact remained the same: she thought he was a weirdo.
She watched him scan the DVD with the barcode scanner, slide it carefully within the polythene bag the store had to offer, a smile, slightly nervous, on her lips.
“I have a confession to make,” she said when he was done. “I didn’t really want to buy that DVD.”
She smiled, a sudden, secret, embarrassed smile.
“Oh?” he said, apathy and curiosity waging a gruesome war in his head.
She nodded, still embarrassed.
“Yeah,” she said in English, her accent pronounced. “Actually, I just wanted an excuse to talk to you.”
He paused in the action of sliding her credit card.
“Oh?” he delayed for time, heart beating a violent tattoo on his chest, a glorious feeling spreading up his torso, crawling up his throat.
She nodded once more, the lines around her eyes crinkled with embarrassment. She leaned forward, and he caught a whiff of her perfume.
“I have a secret to tell you,” she continued. “I’ve been coming to this store for a few days now, hoping to see you her. In fact -,” and here she blushed, and he could feel it from the heat of her cheeks, though her skin did not permit any trace of it to show –“I rather like you.”
“Don’t you remember me?” he blurted, torn and confused, battling glorious ecstasy and limitless nihilism, in the no man’s land of borderless confusion. “From the night before?”
A frown creased her lovely features.
“No. You never came. The only person I remember was this weirdo, you know, one of the ‘cool’ kind of people?”
She said cool with distaste, an expression of disgust across her face; she shuddered.
“You don’t like those kind of people?” he probed gently.
“Are you kidding? I hate them. I know their kind. They’re fakes, the whole lot of them. They’re mean. They’re cruel. Arrogant. I hate them,” she repeated, a vehemence to her words, contempt marked in her tone, her otherwise even tone. “You know, I think that’s why I like you. You’re not like them. You’re not like them at all.”
She flashed him a bright, white smile.
He smiled back. The battle was over. Ecstasy had won.
“You know, I wonder if we might, you know, go –”, he tried –
“Absolutely,” she winked. “Let’s go”.
The exited the shop together. The rains had ended, the clouds moved on, and the clear sun lit up every part of the city on this beautiful, beautiful day, with her by his side, and him soaring on the clouds, on wings born of happiness and joy and delight, and infinite relief, in this, the purest of all emotions, the greatest of all heady feelings: love.
I was wrong, he thought, as they wandered down the street, to the coffee shop he knew was nearby, her hand firmly in his, dizzying and overwhelming him, with all its enormous tenderness.
I was wrong, he thought again, as they paused for a moment; a motorcycle came careening by, and she moved closer to him, away from the vehicle. She looked up, he looked down – their lips met in a delicious kiss.
This was paradise.