Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Step Back

It felt like home. At last. He caressed the guitar like the body of his lover; the touch slight, the anticipation real, the tremor mounting as he awaited her response. It had been so long, too long. Why had he left it, and what for? What had he achieved so great it warranted his giving up playing?

He clenched his fist and let the emotion wash over him. Those days of obliviousness of the big, bad world. Just khadi kurtas, torn jeans, guitar and the gang. The man of the hour, the master of his world, those hours of fame.... everyday for four years. And then came the promise.

"I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have given in. I should have listened to Aditya and opted out of it."

He cursed softly. It was too late. Surya was dead, Mridul in another country, Gem still refused to talk about it.

"We grew up, that's what happened." He laughed bitterly. "We grew up in one fuckin' day." He drew blood. He absently looked at the lone drop on the white carpet and then at the string he had run his finger on.

Each drop seered through him. He stumbled back and fell against the wooden chair. Like the splatter of an inkpen on a Monday morning shirt, red drew a pattern on his otherwise bland shirt- dark, real and final. He felt the heat on his face, the warmth on his eyelid as the drop trickled down his nose.

The man fell limp in a second. They scrambled out, skipped the stairs, in a hurry to resume their boring existence with blood on their hands.

He looked at Surya. He looked at the unconscious man beside him. Someone uttered a wail. Mridul clutched his hand, then moved forward. She calmly took out her phone. "Mein Jamshed College se bol raheein hoon. Mere dost ko kuch logon ne mar dala. Ek aur aadmi zakhmi hai. Science Wing, Classroom 27."

Gem fell on her knees, grabbed Surya's shirt in her hands and let the anguish engulf her as she felt his lifeless body. "Aaaaaaaaaaah!! Aaaaaaah!" Sobs racked her frame and she let her head drop on the chest that had been her sanctuary, her safe haven till five minutes ago.

The stranger groaned. Mridul moved to towards him as if in a daze, put his head on her lap and pressed down on the gaping wound with her jacket.

He stood watching. Aditya had told him. If only. If only he had stayed away, stayed in class. Not rounded them up. Not convinced them to make up his audience for the new song.

The riots had started two days ago. In the melting pot of culture that Bombay was, anger and hate had been slowly brewing…simmering, and had now scalded those had tried vainly to reduce the flame. Maharashtra seemed to jar against the frame of the country, metamorphosing 'us' into 'you and me'.

College was different. Emphatically, vainly they denied it. Not college, not our college. Maharashtrians vs North Indians! Now, that was laughable. Liberals, free-thinkers, philosophers, modernists, those are how distinctions were made. Faint lines are drawn between free trade supporters and protectionists, between Pink Floyd and Beatles fans- lines easily drawn and easily erased. Not this time though. This time dots were connected discreetly between groups.

“Dragging Amitabh into the mess is a hoot man!” Surya laughed as he read the day’s headlines. “Seriously! Bollywood practically revolves around the man, but of course the man needs to do MORE for the fuckin’ state!”

“I don’t know, u know.” Gem was scribbling with chalk on the blackboard already filled with physics lecture notes. “I mean I agree with you, but there are tons of people who would disagree. Heard someone today say Maharashtrians should be given preference for certain jobs atleast. Quota system of some sorts.”

“Right of course! Then why have soldiers fight for the country? Why not have Gujarati soldiers for Gujarat, Bengali soldiers for West Bengal, Tamil soldiers for Tamil Nadu?” Mridul quivered with emotion. “Stupid shit. Can’t believe people are beating each other over this crap.”

Fly by me with all you got
I ain’t gonna leave you just yet
Took the strength of David to see me through
Took the mind of the Devil to get me back
You said you cared, you said you loved me
I ain’t gonna leave you just yet

He barely heard them at all. Needed to complete his song. “This verse needs to fit better.” He was muttering to himself.

“He’s lost again!” Surya threw a piece of chalk at him.

“Hey, piece of shit,” he was laughing now.

“Your half Maharashtrian aren’t you? Any two cents worth? Or is music all you choose to talk about?”

Things hadn’t been going too good on that front. There had been an ugly debate over the issue just last night over dinner. As usual conversation steered towards the day’s news and dad who usually busied himself with eating and throwing compliments in mom’s direction, this time calmly stated Raj Thackeray was right in supporting his people. He was flabbergasted. “Hell no. No way dad supported that mad man.” “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Dad looked up, the rice ball still balancing on his fingers. “Well, he’s a leader. He’ll do what’s best for his people, that’s all,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “But he’s segregating dad! Creating unnecessary animosity, all for popularity, for bloody MNS votes!” Dad laughed, in that patronizing way he does when he’s about to embark on a long speech. “Of course he’s doing it for the votes! I’m not denying that at all. But if you keep that aside for the time-being, his decision to focus on the Marathi manus.....

He knew he was clutching at straws. Guilt gnawed at him and threatened to leave a permanent scar. It was so many years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

"Goddammit. It's over. This is me now. A new man, a new life." His jawline jutted out, like it always does when he grinds his teeth in resolve. He rang the bell, little knowing that the whimsical hand of fate had brought him back to history's doorstep.

“Ma, an uncle has come. He says he wants to meet you”. The pattering of footsteps and he sees shiny black shoes of a ten year old disappear into the dark interiors of the house. Impatiently, he taps his feet. This shouldn’t take more than half an hour. He had the money, he needed the place for exactly six months and then he was a free man.

Footsteps again, heavier, lazier, and then a searing pain. The pain of seeing a familiar face you intended to forget. The pain of many years of anguish and denial being sucked into a single glance.

Gem’s hand stopped in midair. Her crumpled pallu still in her hand, two inches from her forehead, from the beads of sweat she had intended to wipe away. They now luxuriously traced a path down her temple. Two feet away, another halt in motion, this time just off the ground, because his foot had to abruptly stop its impatient dance. It stood there, as though waiting for a cue, balancing precariously on its heel, toes itching to touch the ground again. How long did the clock tick before child comes between two adults struggling to forget?

“Ma, can I go to play? I’ve finished my homework. I promise, right hand swear!”

Tugging of the pallu, and the spell is broken. Shock reroutes into maternal duty.

“Come back in half an hour ok? Dinner will be ready”.

“I didn’t know. I was told there was a vacant room in plot number 27. You have a son.” Toes touch the ground, pallu reaches face.

“Yes, Neil. He’s 8.” She gestures, he follows her inside.

The smell of old wood, garnished with the whiff of brewing curry plays havoc with his mind. God, it had been so long since he’d been back. Back to the neighborhood he had once known so well.

“You need a place to rent? When did you come back? How long are you..?” So many questions…so many questions. Where to begin?

“I’m a guest lecturer at National College. I teach Anthropology. I’m in India for 6 months, working on my thesis. I was looking for a place to rent…..” Again a pause.

“How are you Gem?"

“As I should be. Neil keeps me occupied. I meet the others, not as often as I would like. Ajit and Kavita are bankers now. Aditya works with Times Of India. I haven't met Mridul in 5 years.”

“Where's your husband?”

“Neil’s father. He died. 8 years ago.”

8 years ago. 8 years ago. 8 years ago. A hollow echo reverberates inside him. An echo that had its roots 8 years ago when the walls of a classroom shook as a bullet found a better home in someone's pulsating heart.
(...still a work in progesss)