Dedicated to and inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Lean and Fat and Siddharth Chowdhary’s Damsel in Distress.
You had to admit it. Sitting astride the weather-beaten and woebegone LML Vespa, the immense figure of Mohit Singh had looked comical that evening. From the vantage point of my terrace, it seemed as if a caricature was negotiating its way through the traffic, its head bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box every time the scooter hit one of the numerous potholes on the road leading up to my house. Although he could very easily afford a more user-friendly means of transportation, Mohit Singh had for some reason decided that riding that sputtering, soot-spewing relic meant staying true to his roots. He was a tad old fashioned and slightly sentimental.
Here, I must tell you something about Mohit Singh. If I was the hump of the bell curve, he probably made up its rear end. If I was unrefined, he could be best described as tribal. And if I had a thing for breasts, he probably had a fetish. He was the friendly mawali from my school days who now studied law at Lucknow University during the day and popped the cherry of hapless university hostel inmates at night. Once, while visiting home during my semester break, I had seen his photograph in the local edition of The Times of India. He had been accused of forcibly evicting some girls from Kailash Hostel because they wouldn’t vote for him. Mindful of the repercussions, I had made sure that the newspaper disappeared before my parents could get hold of it. Later, over a plate of mutton kebabs, Mohit Singh told me he had been appointed the secretary of the Lucknow chapter of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad in recognition of his achievements. I had winced perceptibly.
The city plays a significant role in shaping the characters of people like Mohit Singh. People with vague ambitions who make the mistake of staying put for far too long. It seeps into their person and makes itself comfortable, like the soggy, musty smell of winter clothes. And like all benevolent mothers, the city also begins to mirror the stunted desires of its children. When you realise the inevitable, it is probably several years too late.
Seeped in culture and heritage that are steadily losing ground to the western ideal of conformity, Lucknow is, for the most part, a sleepy town. If Beijing has a bunch of CEOs riding their bicycles to work in order to cut down on pollution, I am sure Avadh has its fair share of environmentally conscious babus who paddle leisurely on deserted roads so they have an excuse for reaching office late. Hardened veterans like me aren’t so easily fooled by misleading names, like Shiraz-e Hind or Constantinople of the East, which have been made popular by glossy tourist magazines found in airport lounges. Bhai, Lucknow is Lucknow. What is this Constantinople business? I don’t know what they are supposed to imply now anyway. Some long lost connection with the Ottoman Empire that even the Turks have forgotten – that is my guess.
This lethargy is contagious and spreads its evil wings most conspicuously during the interminable summer afternoons. Unpardonably efficient management executives in black suits, such as the ones found behind the glass facades of Delhi conference rooms, would probably drag their feet along the empty corridors while drinking bael juice, were they to find themselves in Lucknow on such afternoons.
You will probably say: To see is to believe. Well, I think I am too lazy to argue otherwise. But I do know of a particular vegetable vendor who is too indolent to even bargain with his patrons. So much so that his stall at the weekly Chinhat Bazaar has developed something along the lines of a cult following. Even though his wares are second rate at best, I make it a point to buy my tomatoes and baingan from him. No matter what people say, I do play a key role in preserving the city’s culture.
As if this pathological defect were not enough, the famed tehzeeb of the erstwhile Nawabs still clings to its denizens like a burr. Only yesterday, mother was boxing a kid’s ears for addressing his elder brother a tad disrespectfully. “Let his mother pull out his ears,” I protested. “Kids, these days, I tell you,” was all she offered in response, leaving me to wonder whether the sarcasm was intended for me or the poor brat who was still nursing his ear. I have also heard of katta-toting university lafangas from Habibullah Hostel at Lucknow University who put a bullet in some poor guy’s ass just because he was a “tu-tadaka” person. I agree – such extreme measures might seem unwarranted. But though the influx of uncouth elements from the East has done little to harm the town’s consolidated reputation, the younger generation no longer considers it fashionable to be either modest or ‘cultured’. It dresses up in fluorescent Adidas sweatshirts bought at half-price from the footpath vendors at Janpath and does not give two hoots about the “pehle aap” routine. Bhai, this is their definition of culture. I must admit, Mirza Sajjad Ali is probably turning over in his grave right now.
It has been some time since I moved back home. My mother had suddenly been taken sick and unwittingly provided me with an excuse to shy away from responsibilities that really mattered. To avoid wasting my precious time, I took up a provisional teaching position at a local university and the monotony of the tedious routine served well its purpose of distracting me from other existential dilemmas in my life. The girls, well versed in fashion advice from their siblings or friends in Delhi and Bombay, were an added attraction. With time, my mother recovered and my services were no longer required. But no one asked me to leave, either out of Lakhnavi courtesy or plain indifference, and so I stuck around, under the pretext of trying to find the answers to the proverbial questions. Every now and then, though, a memory or voice breaks through the barriers and shatters the world that I have constructed with such care and precision.
That evening was one such assault on my patience. By the time I had climbed downstairs, Mohit Singh had burst into my house like his dick was on fire. He offered my mother his greetings, touched her feet after a moment’s hesitation, earned her approving smile as a reward, and closed the door to my room before describing in explicit detail the cleavage of a girl he had seen on the street outside.
“Bhai, you got awesome babes in this locality. I must get a plot here.”
“I think so,” I tried sounding reasonably interested in his plans. “That is not why you’ve come, is it?”
“Arey, no. I was passing by and thought of picking you up. Samar aaya hua hai. Milne chaloge?” he asked.
“Huh? Samar. From school? Wasn’t he studying somewhere abroad?” I replied, feigning ignorance.
“So? I think he is doing his PhD. Some stupid subject like Urdu literature under the Nawabs. I talked to him on the phone. Come here for field work, he tells me. He’s brought along a firang too. Field work, you know,” Mohit Singh wrapped up the evening news bulletin with a suggestive wink.
Growing up in the backwaters of Vikas Nagar, Samar Chowdhary and I had been inseparable, like the proverbial peas in a pod. It was Samar who had introduced me to the enigmatic world of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie one fine Tuesday morning. I had, in turn, got him hooked to Sweety Supari and Big Fun bubble gum. Had we been a little more effeminate, we would have probably come up with a “Best Friends Forever” pact. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. Just when I was on the verge of buying us matching friendship bands, Mohit Singh barged into my life. His world of dadagiri, blue films and bhang made an impression on me that was rivalled only by Sherlock Holmes himself. By the time the drugs had run their course, I was too far gone.
“Is he here long?”
“How the hell would I know?” he said, disappointed that I was not too interested in Samar’s firang.
“I have papers to grade this week,” I lied apprehensively. “These fachchas in college are so stupid. It gives me a migraine correcting their papers. Tumhe maloom hai kya situation hai,” I added as an afterthought.
Now Mohit Singh had the uncanny ability of seeing through lies. A long time ago, while I was still young and civilised, I had made an excuse to avoid sharing Akanksha’s phone number with him because he wanted to “have fun at night by leaving her blank calls”. Under the comforting shade of a neem tree in the football field of our school, he had stood silently and watched my ass getting beaten to a pulp by some seniors over another mindless act of mine. He had come to my aid only when the hooligans had had their fill. His Godfather-like silence had made things crystal clear to me. Ek haath de, ek haath le. That was partly the reason I was still stuck with him, for better or worse. He was a good person to have on speed-dial if you were in a sticky spot on a cold winter night. That and because he was one of my last remaining ties with sanity. As long as he was there, I had hope. And hope so often proves to be a weapon more potent than fear. It was indeed pathetic that I, heir to the legacy of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, found it acceptable to find solace in someone else’s misery.
“Filhaal, he is in town for a month”, Mohit said, scarcely interested in the IQ of myfachchas and still unsure if I was making up an excuse or was indeed tied up in work. “There’s lot of time to fuck around. Talking about fucking, I am taking him and his firangto a bar tonight. One of the few in Lucknow. Chalo bey, sahi rahega! But if you are not coming, I must get going. Your loss.”
“I’ll catch up with him some other time. We have a lot to talk about,” I lied again.
With another suggestive wink, he was off, leaving me to wonder about my long and eventful association with Samar Chowdhary. Samar, the obedient student and son, had disapproved of my new acquaintances but stuck by me anyway. I was a lost sheep and he considered himself to be my shepherd. Discovering the pleasures of life later in college, he would joke about his scruples with his beer buddies and tell them tales about our ever lasting friendship every time the mood became a little too sombre because somebody had cussed Che Guevara. He even got to know Mohit Singh better and insisted that all three of us ‘hang out’ together every time he visited Lucknow.
Samar’s prudence, though, served him in good stead for it prevented him from losing his way during the most crucial period in his life. So while Samar became the star who had lain dormant far too long, the ship of my glory languished in the doldrums where no wind caught its sail and no storm threatened to capsize it. Ah, the cloying sentimentality of nostalgia.
To his credit, Samar wrote to me often, waxing eloquent about his exploits in several parts of the world. He would tell me how he had met a Ghanian-Dutch person on one of his trips to the ‘continent’ who had taught him how to catch fish with his bare hands. And how he had slept with a Czech girl because she had that quaint eastern European accent he hadalways found to be intolerably arousing. I even have a postcard from when he attended some god-forsaken music festival and listened to Gilmour play Learning To Fly live. To compound my agony, frequent updates on agents of social evil, such as Facebook, kept me on my toes. I have been a busy man these past few years.
Bhai, what was I supposed to respond with? Not that I was jealous or anything. My outings were limited to thrice a month film screenings by GNKS, short for the Gomti Nagar Kalyan Samiti, where I found men coming from work in their windswept and defeated shirts and cursing the heat under their breath while they saw Trois Couleurs. It was frighteningly incongruous to watch these men attend the Kubrick or Kiéslowski screenings so devotedly and then go back to their humdrum jobs and tedious lives which had little to do with the world of movies they so enthusiastically discussed over a bowl of peanuts. It seemed as if these outings had become something they had to do, like eating chicken curry on Saturday nights. “Boss, cinema by Wong Kar-wai has to be slow. They are ‘slice of life’ movies. If you want masala, go see something by Farah Khan. These movies give you a sense of culture,” Mr. Tewari had recently been found admonishing Anmol Pandey when he had complained about Chungking Express.
As I sat in my room, my fictional papers waiting to be graded, a few lines came to mind: ‘Faced with such mature experience of the world, such casual yet intimate knowingness, I felt the fragility of my own personality, my lack of opinions and taste.’
While I was deep in thought, contemplating their poignancy, I heard my mother shout. Samar had finally called. “That rascal Mohit,” I muttered, before picking up the receiver.
“Hi, Samar. I had been expecting your call. Mohit told me you were visiting.”
“Of course, he told you. He doesn’t seem to have changed one bit. What a character, isn’t he?”
“He is rather prone to scrutiny. But that is one of the perks, I guess.”
“Yes, yes. We are planning to go out sometime this week. He told me you had some pending work. It would be nice if you could manage to find some time.”
“I will try, though I am afraid I cannot promise anything,”
“Ah, still as afraid of committing to things, I see. Never mind, we have time. But tell me. How have you been? It’s been ages since you wrote back to me. I was under the impression you liked writing letters.”
He knew I hated the question and I hated him more for putting me in a tight spot. Now more than ever. But I tried being polite.
“Oh, things just kept slipping past my mind. There were studies. Then Mom’s illness took us all by surprise. I have been rather occupied since then. Fortunately. Teaching, grading, getting frustrated. I am trying to get by. But how about you? I got your postcard from Bruges. That must have been nice.”
“Oh, I have been great! Nothing to complain about, really. Bruges was quite spectacular. Just like one would imagine it to be. The thesis should be wrapped up this year… you know about the PhD, right? Seems like it has gone on forever. Oh, yes. Natasha, this exchange student from my university, wanted to see the real India. Imagine that happening. So I asked her to tag along. The university is paying for it all anyway. You should meet her. You guys will get along well.”
All this was said with the air of composure of someone who knew he could get on people’s nerves and still get away with it. So my irritation was not entirely unwarranted.
“Yeah, what makes you think that?” I tried hiding the sarcasm in my voice.
“Just the fact that you guys have so many similar interests. She is a big fan of Holmes, by the way. That reminds me. We went to 221B Baker Street last fall. It was quite an experience. Listen, we should get together sometime. Can you score some pot in this place? We could listen to Floyd, reminisce about the old days. It will be great. I try never to be too busy with the thesis. Does that work for you?”
“I don’t smoke pot anymore, Samar. I live with my parents, remember? Anyway, I have papers to grade. These fachchas in my college are so stupid. It gives me a migraine correcting their papers. Tumhe maloom hai kya situation hai.“
I could probably recite those lines by heart.
“Tell me about it. I had this pseudo-communist grad student last semester who insisted that Che was wrong in starting the revolution in Bolivia. Her ignorance really bothered me. She would say…”
“Listen, I will call you. Mom’s calling me for dinner. We will catch up sometime.”
I cut short our conversation that had shown all signs of becoming tedious very soon. Bhai, even Freud said that we draw several aspects of our personality from a ‘cauldron full of seething excitations.’ Who am I to deny them that right? I was just trying to look after my peace of mind. You don’t have to be so judgmental.
Like the town I belonged to, my understanding of culture and intellect had come to be confined by the kind of people that surrounded me. For the most part, characters like Mohit Singh constituted the majority faction. Everything else seemed distant and alien. I despised those incandescent sweatshirts that were tailored by Ijaz Miya in Kaiserbagh. Yet, I had gradually lost my identity to the crowd that insisted on sporting them everywhere it went. But while they had accepted their reality and revelled in it with a certain heart-warming honesty, I was hell bent on being crippled by my pipe-dreams that would most probably never be realised. I was gradually becoming one of those disaffected people who have high flung idealistic notions about culture and sophistication that have little to do with the realities of their lives. People whose ideals had come to naught because of too much thinking and not enough action.
I’ll admit, Lucknow still has a lot to teach me.
Boss, that is the long version of why I dreaded meeting Samar. Yes, I lied. But what would we talk about? We had long outgrown the Sweety Supari phase. There was little in common now. He had been part of a larger world whose rough edges and fine nuances I could not even begin to fathom. Meeting old friends, with their new and varied accomplishments, had somehow become a chore. People like Mohit Singh and places like Lucknow had silently slid into this void and consolidated their presence with their simplistic experiences and needs. Besides, Samar had met Fidel Castro, that living relic of the Cuban Revolution. How could I ever live with that?
One night after dinner, my mother thought it wise to engage me in some small talk.
“How is Samar, Shanu?” she enquired.
She was not feeling too well so I thought to humour her. “Fine. He’s here because of his dissertation. Some field work thing. He is planning to wrap it up this year.”
“Achha? Badhiya hai. He has made something of his life, hasn’t he?
I could see where this conversation was going. But I turned a blind eye anyway.
“He has done well for himself. If that is what he wants.”
The ambiguity of answer served its purpose well for she stayed silent for a few minutes before embarking on her assault again.
“So is he planning to get married soon?”
All conversations with my mother in the last few months had somehow come to be punctuated by this question. Usually, I’d make up some weird story about true love being lost or brides being burnt because of inadequate dowry, and speak in great detail about the cruel injustice of it all until her sense of righteousness had been reasonably wounded by the grotesque things people were doing to each other. But that night, my mind was wandering somewhere else.
“I don’t know. Didn’t get the chance to ask him.”
“He wouldn’t have any trouble finding anyone,” my mother began. “I mean, he has travelled. He has a PhD in literature. He’s had a lot of experience. I suppose you could say he is an intellectual…”
I promptly made a beeline for my room and proceeded to humour the ever-faithful Gold Flake in order to cloud my insecurities. Lucknow would so disapprove.