Friend with a Question Mark

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“This doesn’t feel right” he says.

“It doesn’t have to”

You want to say more and your face does that twitchy thing it does when you’re lying but it doesn’t matter because you’ve just switched off the lights in your roof garden, it’s well past midnight and he’s looking away and it isn’t until he lights the joint that you would meet his eyes.

Weed doesn’t work its magic on you but you didn’t smoke much either. He had to pluck it out of your hand after you coughed hysterically, collapsing on the ground beside a cactus pot. You are surprised by your theatricality, you’ve put worse things in your mouth out of sheer curiosity. You’re afraid your curiosity is merely a euphemism for something dark and twisted. He doesn’t need to know any of that and neither should you need to know anything about his life. Life is long and complicated and you feel lucky for being in this moment.

It was only yesterday though, when you were anything but delighted – you were pissed that you’d reach home to find someone in there already, a pair of eyes, a pair of limbs, a pair of ears, someone breathing in the same space as you. You have to learn to be live with people, your mom had said on the phone, stressing every word, but she’d corrected herself soon enough, cautioning you not to do any drugs-wugs and you were angry about that as well, or at least you wanted to be.

But on your way home through that night, you felt a pang of thrill knowing that you were headed towards something, that you were not hurtling with your eyes closed into a cold dead space as always, that someone was waiting for you in your house, walking around and breathing and touching objects that have known no human but you.

You’re relieved to discover that you can be silent around him and he can be silent around you but you try to be funny when you can and he tries to laugh and you both pretend not to take anything seriously. You’ve never learnt your lessons in intimacy but he looks broken too – why would he be here, otherwise?

Three nights through and you’re convinced he smokes for a good night’s sleep. He asks you whether you’ve watched that movie that you’d played for him that night four years ago when he was too high and you forced him to sleep over at your place. You tell yourself that he lives in the moment but truly, you’re swept by a wave of sadness, and a crumbling bitterness for you have, on a good number of nights, reminisced about that night you’d watched that movie together. It used to be a memory worth revisiting but only for you.

There comes another night, and he’s used to sharing his joint with you. You’re on the roof garden again, with your back on the floor, lying next to each other and he’s whispering his recurrent epiphany about the chasm between the phenomenal world and the ‘actual’ world.

“It isn’t about building more houses and raising children and slogging for months in cubicles and grocery shopping and sex and obesity and hero worship and politics and… ”

You yawn in the minute it takes for him to choose the next word. “Reality TV.”

Reality is starkly different, he says, and you cannot disagree.

What to make of the presence of an old friend in your life occupies your mind to and fro from work. You were happy to have had to call him up from work, asking him to be available when the delivery boy comes with groceries you’d ordered before you left for work, not because of the convenience of it but because it made you sound like everyone else who had a life. You are twenty five and insecure and hopeful and afraid and silly and lustful.

You’re sad he’s taken away your depressing omegle hours, that you can’t croon Adele’s ‘Don’t You Remember’ in the shower anymore, that you can’t sleep only in your coffee-beans boxers and nude-dance to Katy Perry’s ‘This is How We Do It’ in the kitchen. You’re glad though, that you have a reason now to stop imagining bringing that hot guy who stays 898 meters away from you overnight. His nickname is ‘Soulmate’ with a question mark and he blocked you when you refused to send your ‘pic’ to him citing the oft-cited ‘I can’t chat with faceless profiles’ excuse but you’re convinced something gave away your ugliness and desperation before he could take a look at your sloppy pimply face. It probably broke your heart but you couldn’t stop fantasizing about him. You wonder sometimes whether his prompt refusal relieved you of a greater pain that you might have had to endure had he taken interest in what some like to call your little ‘quirks’ (which tend to be either cute or annoying, depending on things out of your control). You can fantasize about him now because it’s all in your head and it’s all within your reach.

You’re at the Corner House three blocks away from your house. You chose your apartment over a swankier option because it was two blocks away from Gold’s Gym and for once in your life, you wanted to make healthy lifestyle choices. Three months after having moved here, you’re still a treadmill-virgin and the last time you probably broke a sweat was when you ate an entire tub of mango ice-cream. You visit Corner House every weekend and they know your order (it’s not mango anymore) before you state it and are now probably surprised to find you have company today.

A voice in your head tells you that maybe it’s all in your head. Maybe you’re lonely only in your head, and no one actually sees you as a lonely person, because although they don’t have reasons to believe otherwise, they barely notice you or think about you. You look happy, you always do or at least you don’t look sad or have the words to talk about your sadness because it isn’t sadness or happiness but just a gaping absence of either. They don’t know, as they watch you eat your Caramel Cashew Delight, that you watched ‘Toy Story-3’ again last night because you knew it would make you weep uncontrollably and that it did.

He asks you if you’ve any plans that he’s coming in the way of. It’s Saturday. You sense that he’s not looking for a yes as an answer, that this is a cruel inquiry into your abject loneliness and lack of social life. You tell him your friends are all abroad, that it was more ‘fun’ years ago when you were all just out of college and stayed together. You’ve never stayed with friends even when you were pretty sure you had at least one acquaintance whom you could reasonably call a friend. You have had friends in childhood, which is a different life altogether, when the criteria for friendship was proximity and availability to play the same sport as you but lately, the plural of ‘friend’ gives you a funny jolt in your stomach. You tell him your friends are at ASU, UCLA, Illinois, Penn State. You’re fabricating a social life in real-time, re-visiting Instagram feeds of your classmates, preparing yourself for pointed questions about their life and your time together. You do have a friend at ASU but it miffs you that you are the kind of person who questions whether he’s still friends with someone who chats with him at 3 AM about what he did over the weekend. Gladly, he does not implore further.

He has been at your place for a week now and you’re running out of reasons to stay away. You don’t know why and you don’t want to question your motives. You work long hours. You take longer walks in supermarkets. You even visit the once if only to enquire about their plans (that you may as well have perused online at your leisure) and whether they have an in-house qualified nutritionist consultant and whether they host Zumba and aerobics sessions. You spend hours with coffee cups and ghee roast dosas. You hop from restaurant to restaurant and there’s no dearth of food that makes you more fat and miserable and keeps even the lesser Soulmate-with-Question-Marks out of your reach. When you reach home, you tell him you’ve had dinner. You feel the guilt every night but he appears unconcerned and maybe you deserved to find this out the hard way – that he doesn’t mind not having your company, that he merely needs a place to crash until an actual friend comes by to replace your clumsy attempts at intimacy.

You call your mom and tell her how pissed you are at not having any ‘personal space’. He’s your friend, she tells you and you feel reassured. She reminds you again, not to do any drugs-wugs.

It’s 8 PM when he texts you that he’s leaving. It’d take you an hour to reach and he can’t wait that long. He says he’d keep the keys with the neighbor aunty.

You knew this day would come. You knew you’d be on your way home one night to find it empty. You wish you could lie on your back on the cold floor of your roof garden. He’d be by your side, reluctantly offering you a joint, saying how it doesn’t feel right. He’d see you as he saw you a decade or more ago when you were a different person. You would one day come to rank this fantasy over the one about meeting Soulmate with a question mark.

 

Funerals are the new raves

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Tanya is browsing through the swimwear collection on nile.com her favorite shopping website. It’s true that father has said she cannot go to Goa and there is no way he will let her buy a swimsuit, but Tanya is sure she will figure it out, she always does. Her phone rings, it’s Manju, her best friend for the season. Tanya takes the call, “So I was wondering, what would be a better shade for my swimsuit? Should I go with the turquoise one or the peacock blue one? The peacock blue on makes my skin look…”

“Tanya, babe…” the urgency in her voice gives Tanya pause, “it’s Ananya…she’s…just check the college website…”

Tanya opens the website to the image of a glowing lamp and ‘shraddhanjali’ written in a somber font besides an old photo of Ananya. There is a second where Tanya feels a sensation of transition, as if a dying sputtering candle in a large dark room was finally snuffed out. Then she gathers herself with remarkable ease, “what has the nerd gone and done now?” she asks with mock contempt. Continue reading

Cluck Cluck Cluck…

“Now where did I keep the damn stick.” I muttered to myself as I trudged along my cottage, feeling the cold damp walls for a long wooden appendage that I needed to walk.

“cluck cluck cluck.” Mathilda walked with her tiny feet beside me, smelling of grains, dirt and fresh leaves. Her matchstick thin feet made slight scraping noises as they scuffed along the old creaky wooden floor.

“Yeah, I know. I kept it beside the fireplace.” I told Mathilda. Continue reading

Hide and Seek

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September 1999

We’re crouched in a hollow by a bush. The air is abuzz with mosquitoes. My grimy ankles touch Ankur’s grimy toes. Ankur is hitting Akash. He’s an idiot.

“Shhhhh”

“What’s your problem, supandi?”

“Can you be quiet for one minute?” I whisper as loudly as I can.

Ankur is a second grader and he’s not serious enough to play with us. He ignores me completely and tightens his fist for another assault on Akash’s hand. The fist lands squarely on his arm. Even in the darkness, I can feel it redden. Ankur cannot control his laughter and I cannot stop myself from slapping him. Akash steps between us. The turbulence gives us away. We’ve lost the game.

Ankur pinches Akash again. “Why do you let me do this?” Continue reading

“Chotu, chai lana…”

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The sun was setting on another sultry hot summer day in Chikkadpally. The main street came alive with the squeals and shouts of the evening rush hour traffic. The Bismillah Irani chai house was beginning to buzz with its evening clientele. Imran the middle aged proprietor, his face framed by a smartly trimmed beard and his round taut belly barely hidden under his slim cut kurta sat behind the counter. He was lost watching the cricket match on the old tv set that sat on the wall opposite him.

“Oye chotu, char chai aur aght osmania biscuit lana..” one of the college kids shouted from the table that was stuffed with six of them. One small looking kid scurried into the kitchen. Continue reading

Cold War

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I’m licking the last bit of cappuccino-almond tiramisu when she says, ‘When was the last time you had a good time?’ and I’m thrown off-kilter. What could she possibly mean by that? But I don’t bite at it immediately because that’d piss her off. I want her to try a little harder.

I say, ‘Umm… this is delicious’

I glance at her briefly, casually, with only a slight emergent doubt. Her eyes are lost in her long slender fingernails dyed a deep shade of red.

She says, ‘How’s that friend of yours?’

‘Who?’

She snorts. ‘The one who sleep-talked’

‘Not been in touch with her…’ Continue reading