• hashtagkalakar

A Dark place

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</script>By Phani Vasantarao



It begins, as always, in a dark place. Dark, but not just in the literal sense: silent while being loud, empty while being full, dead while throbbing with life. There is, also, the literal darkness, which makes it all worse – or better? I don't know. On the glass surface of the table, I can see blurry, distorted reflections of the dull lights above, fading from one colour to another. Purple and velvet glow on Leena's face. She is smiling now as she lights a cigarette. Five seconds later, she looks to her left, goes heeyyyyyyyy, jumps up from her seat, and hugs a friend who has just arrived. They squeal like teenagers, call each other by their nicknames, and laugh. After this, there are handshakes all around. Sneha, meet Ajay. Mani. Suri. Me.



I have never spaced out in the middle of a handshake before. I do it now. I stand up, hear a name yelled over the loud music, barely register it, smile and offer my hand, repeat my own name twice, wonder if her name is Sneha or Neha, decide not to ask, slink back into my seat and drink more beer. Jokes and conversation follow. I cannot hear most of it because of the loud music. I do not like the music either. I stare at people and faces, space out some more. Leena catches me doing this. She raises her eyebrows and smiles at me, lazily stirring her drink with a slack wrist. She looks fat, I think. I can see the scars on her face. I can see the facial hair she has to get rid of every month, now illuminated by the lights above the table.


At this moment, I'm in the middle of it – this questioning of what my senses sense, this numbness that fills my skull, this detachment from the body, this seeming lack of emotion, this disbelief in all reality outside my cranium. Night, for some reason, always triggers this. Images of the day come back to me, bright and colourful, but reduced to ghostly meaninglessness. I am in the dark now, and it always begins in a dark place.


I excuse myself and head to the rest room, still in a daze. As I piss, I note through my bleary eyes the following: grey-and-blue pebble tiles running along the floor and the lower half of the walls, wood panelling over the rest of the bathroom, a silvery, ornate frame for the oval mirror, relatively bright lighting, and muffled music from outside. I examine myself under the mirror: my tired face, my long messy hair that hasn't been trimmed in a month, my wispy beard. My brain begins to bully me: what's with the beard, man? You think you're some kind of intellectual? You think you're artistic, sensitive? You think you're better than everyone else? You're full of shit. You're a selfish, self-absorbed asshole. You don't know jack. You can't fucking think. You're fucking dumb. You have no talent. You're useless. End it now.


I mechanically consider suicide methods as I wash my hands. I know I won't do it. Not now, not for long. Maybe never. But I can't stop my brain from bringing up suicide. As I finish drying my hands, the phone begins to ring. It is Harish – I haven't spoken to him in years. I wait, considering whether to take the call, whether to fake the enthusiasm and interest in what was going on in Harish's life. I decide it would be rude not to answer.


“Hey da!” I begin with the stock enthusiastic response. “How are you? Long time we haven't spoken no?”


“Yeah, man. I'm good da. How are you?”


“Fine, man, pretty good,” I say, and pause, not sure of what to offer next.


“Actually da,” Harish volunteers. “I have some news. Bad news actually.”


“What happened?”


“Rohit committed suicide, da. He's gone. I just found out.”


The moment he says the words, I grope around within myself for some kind of emotional response. Rohit was a dear friend, I remind myself. I feel only the most attenuated grief and shock. I ask the sort of questions that I think would be normal at this time, say the sort of things I think are right. When? Was he depressed? What happened? (I don't know). Harish's voice is shaking by the end of it. He tells me when and where the cremation is going to be. Many minutes of shocked silence later, we end the call. Someone is knocking on the rest room door.


I walk back to the table, call Leena aside, tell her what happened, run my hand through my hair, tell her I don't feel like being here, and excuse myself without saying my goodbyes to the others. I go back home and call to offer my condolences to Rohit's boyfriend. He cries and complains about not being able to attend the cremation because of Rohit's family. I call Rohit's family, find no one home, leave a message.


Unable to fall asleep, I absent-mindedly watch nonsense on TV and finish a quarter of a bottle of vodka. After a while, bored, I turn off the TV. I turn the music system on, plug my phone into it, play a mix of Chopin and Monteverdi. I take the vodka out to the balcony, and sit down on the cushion-filled cane chair. I note how I normally find this chair uncomfortable, but because of the alcohol, I cannot feel a thing. I cannot enjoy the music, the same music that would send me into ecstasy just a month ago. I alternate between staring at the lake across the street, and staring blankly at the neighbour's clothesline, staring at its clothes fluttering in the night wind. I am not waiting for any tears. I do not expect them to come. I fall asleep at dawn.


Several weeks later, I am driving to work, staring out my wind-shield from under my sunglasses, staring at the dusty, crowded streets and the mad traffic, staring at the people staring back at me from the windows of buses. I have turned on the radio. The station is playing a Hindi movie song - some silly, cheesy, sad song about heartbreak. Because I know no other kind of music will please me any more or any less than this, I do not change the station.


Unexpectedly, some turn of music, some done-to-death cliché in the words induces a lump in my throat. Why not, I think. So I let go. My eyes begin to water, my mouth contorts, my lips part, my throat begins to hurt, and hot tears begin to flow down my cheeks. I control this process, make sure I make no sound. All the time, a part of my brain fails to understand. Why are you crying, it asks. It notes the practical details: we must shift to third gear now; it is a rather hot day and the air-conditioning isn't working too well, we must get it checked up; our toe hurts from driving so long; we have that meeting today, we really should have shaved.


----------------------


At age fourteen, I tried to kill myself. Many years later, I began telling people the story because I found it funny. People found it funny too. It is one of the few funny stories I can tell.


At age fourteen, I went through what I then believed to be my first break-up. A new year, a new girl in class – I do not remember her name now. She was pretty, though a little fat. On the first day of the year, she sat down next to me, tried to chat me up. I was very shy then, but we soon became friends, and within weeks I was infatuated with her. I thought she liked me too, so I asked her out. She said yes, but stood me up. I remember crying alone at the chat/ice-cream place where we were supposed to meet. I remember the smell of the pav bhaji, the humming of the mixers, the stares of a little girl eating vanilla ice-cream with strawberries in it. Soon enough, a fat, bearded guy who worked there came to me and asked me what was wrong. I shook my head first, but he insisted, and an old man waiting for his order joined in. Feeling stupid and embarrassed, I told them. They laughed it off, said I should go home and rest, which I did. I walked off as the old man and the bearded guy talked about the stupid things these stupid kids did these days.


I became depressed for weeks, so thought I should kill myself. It wasn't some kind of mad despair, some inability to face everyday life that drove me to try. I was often lost and unhappy, and smiled and laughed less often, but it was nothing I had never experienced before. But for the first time, the thought came to me: you are sad, you should kill yourself. I imagined the reactions of others, especially the girl who had upset me. I liked the idea of everyone feeling sorry for me. So I tried to kill myself one day, when my parents were both at work and my older sister would be out late.


I did not want it to be too painful, so bleeding myself to death was out of the question. Nor did I want to rely on anything poisonous – what if I took too little? What if I simply puked it out?. I did find a skipping rope, but did not know how to make a noose. So I wrapped the rope around my neck several times, as tightly as I could. Then I wrapped the ends of the rope around each other, and then begin to twist them tighter and tighter together using the handles. I thought I was choking myself, so I kept doing it. When I found that I could twist no tighter, I held the position and waited, certain that I would die soon enough.


I must have been lying on my bed for about twenty minutes, wanting to pee and shit and eat and drink water and do everything but die. Then I heard the door open – my sister was home early. She came into my room and gave me a quizzical look, asked me what I was doing. Nothing, I said, and began to unwrap the rope. She yawned and went into the bathroom, shaking her head at my weirdness. And that is what I find funny about this story: she could not even tell that I was trying to kill myself. I imagine myself now, lying on the bed with that skipping rope tied around my neck. I must have looked completely hilarious.


I told Rohit the story about ten or twelve years after it happened. I ran into him at the Heathrow airport, while waiting for a delayed flight. Coincidentally, we were both waiting for the same flight back to India. So we decided to wait it catching up over beer and cold, tasteless sandwiches in a restaurant overlooking the taxiways. It was an early winter evening, and pleasantly, the restaurant was not very crowded. We chatted till well past sunset, and almost missed our flight.


It had been maybe five years – the last year of college - since we had met each other in person. We had stayed in touch, but barely: through e-mail forwards, orkut and facebook, and the occasional chats online. So when we ran out of the hello-how-are-you-it's-been-so-long type of conversation, the how's-so-and-so questions, the oh-yes-of-course-I-agree-completely political opinions, criticisms of movies we both disliked and praises of books we both loved, we sat in silence for a few minutes, wondering what to say next. To fill in the awkwardness, I told him my suicide story. He laughed through most of it, and asked me if I had ever told my sister the story.


“Actually, no,” I replied. “That's funny, I never thought about it.”


“How about that girl?” Rohit asked.


“Don't you think that would freak her out? Anyway, I haven't seen her since the end of that year. I can't even remember her name now, though I had her phone number memorised for almost six months.”


“That's funny. Hmmm.”


“Hmmm.”


“You know,” Rohit said after a while. “Back in school I used to have this huge crush on a senior.”


“He stood you up and you tried suicide too?”


“No,” Rohit said with a snort. “I never asked him out. That was a hard phase for me. I was still... coming out to myself? If you know I mean?”


“Yeah..”


“And besides, he had a girlfriend. Well.. sort of.”


“As in?”


“As in it was that kind of school na... kinda conservative. People went out with each other but nobody really gave it a label? I mean, within the school at least?”


“Yeah, sounds familiar.”


“I mean, people would say 'Oh, she's that guy's girlfriend' or whatever, but if you asked the couple they'd deny it.”


“Yeah!” I laughed. “Completely familiar!”


“So, they were best friends, boyfriend-girlfriend, who really knows? And besides, I think he was sort of... pretending?”


“Oh”


“Yeah, he was gay. Or bi, at least. I ran into him a few years later, and we went out a few times.”


“So...” I said with a grin. “Your high school fantasy came true!”


“Not quite, not quite,” Rohit said, smiling. “It didn't work out. He had... issues. He could never really accept himself as a... he could never really accept his sexuality.”


“So, arranged marriage?”


“Yeah, but first he went to a shrink who told him homosexuality was 'curable', and gave him some pills that never worked, obviously.”


“Obviously.”


“Then he went to some baba who 'cured' him with some kind of magic meditation or some crap like that.”


“Really? They have that on the market now? What do they do, play straight porno in the background and ask you to take deep breaths?”


“I don't know,” Rohit said, laughing. “But maybe he's bisexual, and could never really overcome his.... heteronormative conditioning? So he learnt to ignore his leanings towards men? I don't know.”


“Hmmm,” I said after a while. “It's amazing... I mean, even someone gay or bisexual could not undo their conditioning? I had no trouble undoing it, and I was only a teenager then.”


“Yeah, you were always ahead of the curve.”


“But remember college, and how people thought I was gay?” I asked, shaking my head. Rohit laughed.


Rohit had only come out to a few people in college, and though he thought he had opened himself up to trustworthy people, rumours still floated around. For a while I became part of the rumours, simply because I hung out a lot with Rohit. After college, most people grew into the socially acceptable position that homophobia was a bad thing. But these people used to be homophobes themselves.


Rohit never fit the gay stereotype, but he was instantly labelled “weird”. I remember a conversation during one of the annual fests in college. It had been a long night of performances, speeches and competitions. Six of us – all girls except me – were in the “committee” responsible for this or that, and somehow ended up being the last to have dinner. Across the college lawns, dusty red carpets had been laid and giant tents had been erected. A stage had been built at one end. At the end of the day, blue plastic chairs, some broken, lay strewn all over the venue. We arranged a few chairs in a loose circle for our dinner. The girls kept up their ceaseless chatter during the meal, their voices and laughter ringing into the night. They looked overdressed and childish in their silk saris and their loud make-up. I found myself bored, and spaced out during much of the conversation and focussed on the food, until they started talking about Rohit.


“You know that guy Rohit,” one of the girls began. “Only person in class nothing he done for fest.”


“Why?”


“Attitude appa, what else? Thinks he's some big hero or something.”


“Someone asked him it seems, and he said don't worry, I'll watch the fest on TV it seems.”


“TV aa? Where we'll show this on TV and all?”


“Aey he must have meant the TV screens here.”


“I don't know appa, that fellow is so weird..”


“Aey but he's so cute no?”


“Cute aa? What's wrong with you?”


“Yappa this girl no, every guy in a kurta she'll find cute. And that fellow will never wear anything else.”


“And you know, he'll only hang out with those BBA people. God knows why he's doing engineering instead of BBA.”


I said nothing until one of the girls prodded me: “Aey, but you're with him every time no? What is his problem?”


“Nothing,” I said after a pause. “He's actually a pretty nice guy, once you get to know him. He just has a hard shell.”


“Shell aa? What he's a turtle or something for you?”


------------------------


A few days after returning to India, I ran into Rohit online. After making small talk, we said our goodbyes and got on with respective wasteful browsing. Half an hour later though, Rohit pinged me again, asking me what I was doing for the weekend. He was throwing a party – his boyfriend's birthday. Having nothing better to do, I decided to go.


An hour of painful searching around in auto later, I found myself waiting at his door. I could hear the voices of people inside, hear the muffled music coming through the door. It made me nervous for some reason. After I rang the bell several times, a somewhat plump girl with short hair opened the door. I asked for Rohit, causing her to turn around, yell Rohiiiitt, and disappear into the house.


I walked in and stood in a corner, unsure of myself. It was dark, crowded and noisy. People made eye contact with me but did not acknowledge me. No one seemed to be sure whose responsibility it was to welcome me. Aey somebody close the door yaar, one of the guests said, prompting me to do the same. After what seemed like an eternity, a tall lanky person came up to me. He stood a foot taller than me, had a thick beard and a ponytail.


Shaking my hand warmly, he introduced himself as Harish, and asked if I was a friend of Rohit's. Yes, I replied, and introduced myself. He couldn't hear my name over the music, so leant over and offered his left ear. This time I said my name too loud, causing him to start back and laugh. He patted my back and asked me to make myself home. I sat down on a cream-coloured couch and introduced myself to various people. I remember a very pretty girl who sat with her legs folded up, a beer can in one hand. Next to her sat a fat, bald guy, with silver rings on all his fingers. I made small talk with them while Harish fetched me a beer. So how do you know Rohit? Where do you stay? What do you do? Do you have a girlfriend (no)? Boyfriend (haha, no, I'm straight)? Aey where is this Rohit?


Rohit showed up about fifteen minutes later with a few other people, looking a little drunk. As soon as he saw me he went heyyyyyy and gave me a big hug. He introduced Harish as his boyfriend and the birthday boy, so I duly wished Harish. He then introduced me to everyone else as one of his best friends from college. I was surprised by this given our drifting apart over the years, but I felt excited about such an introduction. I had always admired Rohit for some reason, always sought his approval.


I had not always felt this way about Rohit. In fact, I had disliked him at first. For the first few weeks in college, I had not spoken to him. I had thought of him as arrogant and hot-headed. He would make sarcastic comments during class, talk to almost no one, and I had heard rumours of him smoking Marijuana (which, in my naiveté, I used to disapprove of). Then, we were asked to work on an assignment together.


Rohit had asked me to wait for him in the library. He turned up about fifteen minutes late, and had brought a friend along. As he introduced her to me, I wondered if she was his girlfriend. They both had paper cups of coffee with them. Rohit seemed unusually friendly today, and began to joke around. I threw in one or two jokes myself, and was thrilled to have Rohit and his friend amused by them. But our chatter infuriated the librarian, who came up to us yelling.


“No talking!!” she screamed in an impossibly shrill voice. “Aey what is all this men? You think this is café coffee day aa? You are bringing your girlfriend here for dating or something? I won't tolerate all this nonsense. Go finish your coffee outside, then come and chup-chaap read what you want, understand? Why you're creating disturbance for others? What are you thin...”


“She's not my girlfriend,” Rohit said irritably, losing his patience. “And what on Earth is wrong with drinking coffee in the library? And you're making much more noise than the three of us put together.”


I was never the confrontational kind, and by now I had my heart in my throat, though I could not help but agree with Rohit. The librarian began to threaten Rohit with complaints to the principal and so on. The girl put a hand on Rohit's arm, asked him to calm down. Rohit got up and silently left. I could not help but follow him. The three of us could not enter the library again until we had submitted written apologies to the librarian and principal. But the image of that confrontation stayed with me: Rohit in a turquoise kurta, short hair running all over his head, getting up, turning around and leaving in a huff. That was how I remembered Rohit: incapable of giving a shit.





At the party, I recounted the incident for Rohit. He didn't remember it. He sounded surprised by it, said he couldn't imagine himself doing such a thing. He then joked that he must have been smoked up, and pulled out a few freshly prepared joints. That is what he had been out doing: rolling up joints as a surprise for Harish. As he lit one and began to pass it around, I noted the changes in Rohit since college: he wore his hair long now, had lost some weight, done away with kurtas, and his eyes seemed more tired, as though his accumulated wisdom through the years had simply amounted to greater resignation.


I tried to connect this Rohit with the person I knew in college, and did not fail: essentially, he had remained the same. But it was as though I had plucked him out of a dream. The memory of college seemed so distant now, so ancient, so residual. Rohit was unreal simply because I had known him for so long, and his unreality induced an unease in me. As if on cue, someone handed me a joint.


I refused, saying I had never managed to get the inhalation technique right. The joints never did a thing for me. Still, Rohit insisted, saying it was the easiest thing in the world to learn. So I tried, several times: I sucked hard on the joints, held my breath. I sucked long and I sucked short. I tried every technique everyone suggested. No, no, hold it, it has to go inside you. Don't let it out, swallow it. Feel anything (no)?


After one attempt made me cough too hard, I gave up, excused myself, and picked up another beer. Now I stood and watched as the others tried. Not everyone got high. Someone said it was bad stuff. Shut up I'm very high, said someone else. I watched enviously, unhappy that I could never experience the ganja high. As the night wore on though, I got more and more drunk.


After a few beers, someone called for tequila shots. I remember vodka, more beer. I remember explaining my love of Chopin to someone. I remember crying over Ghulam Ali's ghazals. I remember puking, someone rubbing my back. I remember heated arguments over whether arranged marriage was better than the alternatives. The last thing I remember is dancing with people I didn't know.


I woke up shortly after dawn next day, and was initially unsure where I was. I found myself on a bed with my shoes still on, the fat guy from the night before lying asleep next to me, snoring in an almost inaudible whistle. Surprisingly, I had no headache or hangover. I tiptoed around the mess the flat had turned into overnight, and walked into the bathroom to take a piss. From here, I could hear voices from the balcony. After I was done, I walked out there to find Rohit and a few others smoking.


“Hey, here comes Mohammed Sinatra Ali!” someone shouted, causing everyone to break into laughter and applause. Quizzical looks induced and explanation: I had spent a good part of last night singing everything from Rafi to Frank Sinatra. Everyone insisted I was quite the singer. I could not remember, but was very amused.


“When did you guys wake up?” I asked


“Never fell asleep, man,” Rohit said.


After this we drove to a darshini nearby for breakfast. Here we had idlis and coffee. The others chatted happily, but I began to space out again. I enjoyed the taste of chutney with the soft idli, and stared at two street puppies playing next to a cardboard box that was being used as a trash can. I noted that the traffic was unusually thin for this time of day, possibly because it was Saturday. I heard the morning prayers of a nearby temple being drowned out by the roar of the occasional vehicle that passed by. A few years ago, I would have found nothing better than this exact state of being: a quiet morning after a loud, enjoyable night. But now I felt empty and listless. I could not wait to be driven back home, could not wait to get enough rest, could not wait to be alone again.


-------------------


We were climbing stairs. Harish turned to me began explaining something in Malayalam. I did not understand Malayalam, but my brain soon compensated and translated into Sanskrit. Harish was saying we had too many flights of stairs to climb, and we would never make it unless we flew. So we began to fly, and soon we were flying next to a beach. We descended and found the beach to be impossibly clean and beautiful: a clear blue sky, mountains into the distance, white sand, and no one there but us. We sat down and drank beer, but I began to puke again. Now a giant tidal wave began to tower over the beach, and Harish disappeared. I walked away, unable to fly now, and found myself in the neighbourhood I grew up in. I was in a hurry to get somewhere, and there was simply not enough time. My phone began to ring, but I could find it. I asked everyone on the street, and then woke up.


It was Rohit.


“Hey, did I wake you up?” he asked. “Should I call later?”


“No no, it's about time I woke up anyway,” I said. I looked around realized that it was dark already, that I had slept through most of Saturday, and that unlike in the dream, I did not really understand Sanskrit.


“OK, the reason I called is... remember you said you were looking for a 1 BHK near my place?”


“Yeah, it's close to work and everything, so...”


“How about sharing my flat? It'll work out cheaper.”


“What about Harish?”


“He'll be abroad for six months, starting next month.”


“I don't know Rohit,” I said sleepily. “I'll have to think about it.”


“Yeah, yeah, no problem, let me know.”


I fell asleep again and woke up after midnight. Now I walked about the house, looking for something to eat, and realizing I had not been awake when the cook had coming knocking. I hunted around in the kitchen, and found an opened packet of instant noodles with tiny cockroaches inside it. Disgusted, I pulled out everything from all the kitchen cabinets. Dozens of the disgusting little creatures, and one or two big ones were soon all over my kitchen. Thankfully, a broom was handy and I thrashed most of them to death with it. I washed every dish, glass and cup in the kitchen, unmindful of the cold and my growing hunger. I threw out almost my entire stock of groceries. I scraped the remains of the insects off the floor with a plastic paper-knife I never used, and then mopped the floor several times. After this, I took a long shower, dressed, and headed out to one of the few 24-hour restaurants in the city. It was past three by now.


Here I stumbled upon what was almost a private party. It must have been ten or twelve of them. There were a few pretty girls in tank tops, one dark-skinned guy with a beaky nose and gelled, swept-back hair, and some others I don't remember. They had lined up three or four tables and were all pretty drunk. Waiters stood at a respectful distance and watched curiously, making what seemed like sarcastic comments to each other. I wondered how they kept the alcohol flowing at this time of night. Bribes, I decided. These kids must have powerful parents.


It was an oppressively luxurious place – white china plates, wine glasses on every table with napkins neatly tucked into them, chandeliers all around. Apart from me, there was just one couple there, seemingly upset about their ruined date. A waiter walked over to my table and handed me a menu. I went through it several times, taking about twenty minutes to decide upon seeming that seemed the least unfamiliar.


It took half an hour for my food to arrive. I waited it over a beer, alternatively staring at the party at the other end of the restaurant and the occasional vehicle to pass by on the street below. Before my order could arrive, the couple left, the woman seemingly upset with the man. When my food did arrive, I found that I could not eat it. It was a very brown leg of chicken with a side of mashed potatoes and some fries. There was a dull buzz in my brain, an existential white noise, an unhappy restlessness. I found the fries unsalted, the chicken leg too greasy, the mashed potatoes too bland. I took a few bites and asked for it to be taken away. I asked for sandwich instead, which was not on the menu, but was arranged for. By the time I finished, the birthday group was dancing.


I was just about to leave when the man with the beaky nose came up to me, very drunk. He said that even though he didn't know who the fuck I was, he didn't want me to feel left out. He took me by the arm, insisting I should dance. It was so-and-so's birthday, and so-and-so was one of his best friends, so everyone should celebrate. I refused at first, but a few others came up to me and pulled me into the group.


I danced artlessly. One of the girls came up to me, trying to chat me up. She was short, had rough dark hair with purple streaks in it, and very clear, dark skin. I began to imagine sex, a one-night stand. I could not make much conversation over the music, and the girl soon drifted away into the group. In a few minutes I tired of the fake dancing, and stood still while everyone else danced. No one noticed. In between the sleeplessness of the night, the cockroach genocide, and the dancing-not-dancing with strangers, I felt a sense of delusion creeping up on me again. How can it be real, my brain wanted to know. I wanted to leave. I identified the birthday girl, wished her, shook the hands of the others, and left.


I still did not want to go home, so I drove around the city. A policeman pulled me over and asked whether I had been drinking, where I was headed, what I was doing out so late and so on. I made up suitable lies. He checked my license and papers, and finding them in order, let me go. I kept driving, and at close to dawn, I found myself on a six-lane highway headed out of town. I had no idea where I was going, but I kept driving till my toe began to hurt.


I stopped at a highway idli stall for coffee. My fellow customers were mostly lungi-clad truck drivers. The stared at me as they gobbled up their breakfasts of idli, dosa or omelette. They drank water from foot-long steel jugs, ensuring a good six inches of sunlight between their lips and the mouths of the jugs. Then they stood around with their coffee or tea, smoking bidis and chatting idly. A North Indian family pulled up, and a fat woman took a little boy out of the car, carrying him to a corner so that he could pee. Stray dogs barked at a malnourished cow that had wandered into their garbage pile. More vehicles zoomed by as the sun rose over the hills into the distance, I took a shaky photograph and headed back towards the city.


On the way back, I found a newly-built mall and entered it on impulse. It was open early and had a couple of movie screens. I walked up to the lifts but found that they were not yet functioning. The escalators too had been shut down till the crowds began to come in. I climbed two floors, and then somebody turned on the escalator for the third. I bought a ticket for a show that did not begin until an hour later, and wished I had a book with me. I walked around the mall and found most of the stores closed. I went out, hoping to find something there. A little kid walked up to me, selling newspapers. I bought one, walked back to the entrance of the mall and sat on the steps there, reading distractedly till the movie was about to begin.


I found a supermarket open inside the mall and bought myself a bottle of water. I slowly made my way upstairs, and missed the start of the movie. But it was the sort of thing I usually avoided anyway – sorcerers, flying beasts, great armies and the like. Here, surrounded by the shuddering and thuddering that would soon become an inescapable part of the movie-going experience, I finally fell asleep again.


-----------------------------


I drifted out of sleep. With my eyes shut, in the darkness, it took me a moment to place myself. In which corner of the room was my bed? What was the orientation of my body as I slept? Where was the door? I felt for a wall with my right hand, and found it. In a few seconds, my mind recollected everything. I woke up and sat on my bed, pondering on why moving to a new place had made the delusion go away, rather than reinforcing it. I felt tired, and lay down to sleep again, dreaming.


I dreamt that I was driving to the top of a hill, to visit a temple. My sister sat next to me, yelling instructions. Watch out! Slow down here, there's a hairpin bend ahead. But I did not slow down in time. We slid off the edge of the road and fell, but somehow ended up fine. I kept driving. The car had changed from an open-air Jeep to a sedan. But now it was too late. We had to get there in five minutes, three, two. There wasn't enough time.


Later, we were in a cabin somewhere with wooden walls and glass windows. My sister sat across the table from me, listing my faults, telling me how much the sedan had cost, how I almost got us killed. You're an idiot, she said. You've always been an idiot. Shit-for-brains. In anger, I got up from my chair, walked towards the windows and began punching them. But my punches were weak, pathetic, laughable. My sister watched impassively, as if she expected such stupidity from me. Defeated, I sank to the floor crying, but even that did not move her.


I woke up again to the sound of Rohit talking on the phone. Must be Harish, I thought. It was usually Harish at this hour. I was used to it now, but their long telephone conversations used to induce a pang of jealousy in me. I had told Rohit this when I told him about my few abortive attempts at relationships. Don't be stupid da, he had said. It's just timepass. Rohit was as tired of relationships as I was of being single. Or maybe he was trying to cheer me up.


I got up, determined to shake off the negativity of the horrid dream. I poured myself a stiff drink, thankful that tomorrow was a Saturday. I put my earphones in and began to compose a playlist on my phone, wanting to give Rohit some privacy. I yawned and stared at Rohit's blurry shadow falling across the length of the living room. The curtains moved with the night breeze, and their shadows changed shape with them.


I pulled out the newspaper and began to read it. I read mechanically, registering nothing. So I pulled out the magazine section, turned to page 3, and stared at the photographs of people I didn't know. I was looking mostly for pretty women, as if I could walk into the photographs and ask them out. I found one of the girls pretty. I noted that there were a lot of fat people, a bunch of Africans, and an old woman in sari. I wondered why anyone would take such photographs, why a newspaper would publish them. Then I reminded myself that I was going through them.


Suddenly, my left earphone was yanked out, and I looked up to find Rohit exclaiming over muffled Beethoven that Cheryl was coming over. Cheryl and Rohit went back a long way, though I never figured out how they had met. Rohit seemed excited about Cheryl coming over. Cheryl lived with her boyfriend in Chennai, and they would often visit us. I braced myself for another night of drunken revelry. I liked Cheryl well enough, but we were distant somehow.


When Cheryl arrived, it turned out that she had arrived not just with Suman, her boyfriend, but a few more friends. As soon as she was through the door, she raised her arms up in the air and exclaimed I'm ennnn-gaaaa-gggeeedd!!! She gave Rohit a big hug and gave me a perfunctory one. I shook hands with Suman and congratulated him. He was nice but tall and muscular, and had always intimidated me.


“Sorry to bust in on you like this guys,” Cheryl said, clumsily setting her bag down on her dining table, almost knocking my drink over with an oops. “But as you knowwwwww, my boyfriend and I have no thikhana in this city right now, so we will have to celebrate at your place.”


“Yeah, yeah, Cheryl, you are more than welcome,” I said, smiling. No one responded to that. There was too much conversation going around, too much excitement. It transpired that Cheryl was visiting for work, and was to leave on the same day, but Suman surprised her by following her here and proposed to her. She said yes, but missed her bus back. And now neither of them had anywhere to spend the night. Besides, she was too close to Rohit to celebrate without him.


Rohit decided that it would not do to celebrate with just five or six people, and so began calling up all our common friends. Half of them were awake and out, and all others were forced awake. Soon people began coming in. Someone managed to bring in a lot of beer, and Rohit produced half a bottle of tequila that we had left over after our last party.


The party went on till late into the night. I worked my way slowly through six beers, determined not to get drunk. I did not want to, for some reason. I noted that I did not feel an ounce of happiness for Cheryl and Suman, even though I liked both of them. I sat around faking interest in conversations, helping guests out. Rohit and Cheryl went on to get fairly drunk, as did many of the guests. Two or three people puked, and someone passed out. Suman and I stayed fairly sober.


By 4 AM, most people were asleep. Rohit, Cheryl, Suman and I were the only ones awake. I wished Suman and Cheryl once again, and went to bed. I did not sleep very well, and woke up just before noon. I found everyone else asleep now. I took a shower, got dressed, and decided to get everyone some brunch. I drove to the nearest darshini, making a mental list of what I should get: two dozen idlis and vadas, half a dozen masala dosas, tea and coffee. I cursed myself for forgetting the flasks for tea and coffee.


It took me more than an hour at the darshini. There was the usual Saturday morning crowd. The guys behind the counter yelled out people's orders, packing food in banana leaves and plastic sheets, then wrapping them up with newspaper and string. They took more than half an hour to even get started on my order. By the time I got back, all the guests had left. This surprised me – I had not expected any of them to even be awake yet.


I placed the food on the dining table and looked around the house for Rohit. I found him with Cheryl and Suman in the balcony. Rohit and Cheryl sat huddled together in a large bean bag, Rohit's head on Cheryl's shoulder. Suman sat with his back to the French windows, hands clasped behind one folded leg. All of them had their backs to me. I found it amusing that Cheryl was cuddling with Rohit instead of Suman. I thought it sweet of Suman to not mind. I walked into the balcony, sat down next to Suman, and pointing to Rohit and Cheryl, asked: “Don't you ever get jealous?”


Cheryl and Suman turned to me and gestured for me to stay quiet. It was then that I noticed that Rohit hadn't moved at all, and that he had been crying. He still had his head on Cheryl's shoulder, and his eyes were still teary, which was the only sign of life left in them.


Every now and then, something happens that makes me feel like a complete idiot.


---------------------


After Harish broke up with Rohit, I lived with him for almost two more years. We grew to be good friends. And Rohit told me about the four years he had known Harish, how it had slowly withered away and how he had seen it coming. At such times, Rohit surprised me. I had never expected him to drop his guard so much. He eventually got over Harish and dated two other men while I lived with him.


After I changed jobs and moved to another location because of the commute, Rohit and I stayed in touch. Harish returned to India after three years, and we would all meet up occasionally. Eventually though, we all began to drift away from each other. We had to face the reality of our lives - that we are largely friends with the people we work with, our only choice being which of them we wanted to be friends with.


After a point though, it began to seem that Rohit was avoiding me. He would never return my calls, nor reply to my emails. He would hardly turn up for events we had both been invited to, and when he did, he would not make much conversation with me. There had never been an argument or a fight with him, so I could not understand why this was happening. I wondered if I was just imagining it, but it only kept getting worse. He did not even tell me when he moved to another city. I often wondered if he was just angry about the general drifting apart, or if it had something to do with Kapil.


Kapil was a friend of mine from my new job. Although he didn't think this of himself, he was mildly homophobic. He had no bias, but neither did he care about other people's biases. He found homophobic jokes funny. I told him this a few times, but he would laugh it off, cussing like a truck-driver from Bihar and asking me to not be such a fucking politically correct pain-in-the-ass.


I invited him to the few parties I threw now and then. Rohit was also present at one of these – it was a pre-Diwali teen patti night or something. Kapil had been growing a moustache for a month for some reason. He turned up in a red kurta and with a long tilak on his forehead. He played with gusto, cussing when the girls were out of earshot, bluffing his way to a couple of big wins.


I had cleaned up my place for Diwali, put up candles and diyas everywhere. Rohit stood in a corner, his usual reticent self. Almost everyone else was playing. It was a fun night, and I was enjoying my alcohol after a long time. I began to cuss in Hindi, much to the amusement of the others present. In between games, I noticed that some of the candles had been put out, and I got up to light them.


“Let it be, man,” Kapil yelled, by now quite drunk. “Bhenchod, as it is, this place looks like a gay brothel.”


I was drunk enough to laugh at anything at that point, and I found this joke incredibly funny, as did some of the others. Later, I could tell from Rohit's silence that he was offended. Somehow, it hadn't occurred to me that the joke could have been directed at Rohit or my other gay friends present there. Kapil had apologized mechanically for “any offence caused”, but he said this so lightly, still laughing, that it was obviously not a sincere apology. Rohit must have been infuriated.


Rohit and I continued to be meet up and be friendly for some time after that incident, so I have never been sure if it was Kapil that drove a wedge between us. We drifted away so slowly, so imperceptibly, that I could never do anything about it until it was too late. By the time I took it upon myself to call Rohit and talk to him about this, he had changed his number, changed his friends, changed his life.


-----------------------


I sat cross-legged on my bed and stared at the monitor of my laptop. Pornography was a cottage industry more full of clichés than any other. I stared at endless images of women kissing each other, caressing their oversized, artificial breasts, images of women with penises stuffed into their mouths, eyes looking up submissively at the faces of the men they were pleasuring. The captions for the videos too familiar and tiring: “latina slut loves to get double-penetrated”; “young amateur gets creampie”; “asian lesbians have fun with dildos”.


I wondered how it worked with gay porn, which was aimed at a different audience. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the gay section and looked at the captions: “from straight to cocksucker”; “young punk loves getting down”; “fat dick meets its match”. I laughed at it, closed the browser, and decided to go and shower instead of wasting my time on such nonsense. Pornography is not for a thirty-two-year-old.


In the shower I let the warm water comfort me, felt my hair and brushed it back several times. I closed my eyes. A dreadful song the neighbour played too loud was been looping in my head. Pornographic images flashed before me. These were not women I had ever seen before, I was sure of that. My brain somehow stitched up this fantasy with that, put her into this lingerie, gave her those breasts and those nipples, put that smile on her, those eyes on her face, all in an instant, without the need for any conscious thought. I felt irritated. I wondered why I felt the need for pornography today. It had been years. But then, the answer was obvious.


I thought of the times I had sex with Gita, the times it felt warm and wonderful and lived up to all those clichés about true love. I remember a night when she was up working late from home. She sat on the sofa, still dressed for work, staring conscientiously at her laptop, looking beautiful with her long hair, and despite her dark circles. I was tired, so I kissed on her on the forehead and went into the bedroom. I was reading myself to sleep when she came in smiling, brushing her long hair back. After we had sex, we lay cuddled for about half an hour, even though she still had work to do. I thought of how sadness had brought us together, and then disappeared and left us happy.


Then I stood still, warm water still running over me. I thought of the times when I noticed her dark circles, her hair looking messy. I remember feeling unhappy when she was sick. I remember the silent drives to work when we had run out of things to say to each other. I remember not being able to understand her any more, not being able to understand why she was growing sadder every day, not being able to understand why I was doing the same. I remember when having sex with her felt no different from masturbation – joyless, loveless. I remember crying shamelessly the day she left. I wanted to cry now, but the tears would not come.


My head buzzed with tiredness and lethargy as I looked around the bathroom – the tiles were filthy, I hadn't cleaned them in months. Seepage was leaving black splotches along the ceiling, but I couldn't care less. I looked for soap in the soapbox and found it reduced to an unusable sliver. I had forgotten to replace it again. I wrapped a towel around me and walked out to fetch another bar of soap from the closet I kept the toiletries in. Then the phone began to ring. It was Leena. I let it ring – I was in no mood to talk. I could call later – pretend I was in the shower when she called.


I tried to hide my depression from people, but Leena could easily see through the subterfuge. She had tried to get me to talk, and succeeded. But when I told her about my sense of delusion, how reality seemed surreal to me, she simply laughed. Dude, you're just bored, she said, as if it was that simple. But maybe it was?


Tired, I sat on the bed and unwrapped the bar of soap. Then, the phone began to ring again. It was Leena again. I sighed, picked up and answered. A new place, she really wants to go there, nice “ambience” and so on. I sighed.



By Phani Vasantarao




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