Livinghigh: A particular man
It doesn't take hydrogen gas. Or riding a shuttle.
Or snorting on the whitest, finest powder this side of La-la-land.
(It might take an extra spoonful of sugar, but maybe that's just me.)
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Fiction, I write
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Once Upon A Time
Monday, January 10, 2005
Short story. Ho hum.
A particular man
The boy out on the ledge next door stared back at the man in the window. The man in the window was contemplating that, contemplating the wide-eyed look of curiosity that gazed unabashedly at this strange new creature that had moved into the building. The man at the window was ordinary enough, the kind you saw strolling down G D Ambedkar Marg everyday, peering at the factory shops of the expensive brands, entering a couple of times, looking furtively at price tags and then walking out of the store within ten minutes to enter the shop next door. Not that he was cheap, he liked to think himself particular. I'm particular, thought the man in the window, sipping his coffee, looking at the boy out on the next-door ledge.
The radio was playing Downtown and he could almost nod his head in tune to that sappy, silly song that was so endearing to him. It seemed thoroughly out of place here, in this Parel colony building, the sounds of disquietingly loud English music, decidedly retro, blaring forth from the radio. A louder strain of Marathi film song would not have seemed so out-of-place, he mused, adjusting a book on the window shelf and sitting down on the seat beside the ledge. Not that he was a snob, not that he looked down upon Marathi film songs, he was simply new, with the curiously indifferent contempt that the new has for the established. He was reading a book about romance, about strangely found love among strange people, and he found that he couldn't really concentrate. He found that the little boy on the ledge simply would not let him, and so he let his open book remain on his lap and the music waft around him, but he looked out at the window, meeting the boy's eyes with his own.
They were exchanging notes that way, some sort of a grave confidence. He could hear the boy's mother busying herself in the background, not as if she was somewhere unseen in the next flat and he was on the other side of the building, but rather, as if he was standing next to the boy and the mother was clattering, crashing, cursing just a little way behind him, a little indistinct but so, so near. He almost thought it disquieting, because he knew that what he could sense about the boy, the boy could sense about him. He wasn't really sure whether it was a game, but he knew that they could both play it.
The man in the window seemed oddly familiar like that strange creature you see at 12 pm at night in front of the mewad ice cream man's stall, eating a faluda, which was fancy because it came in a glass mug and cost Rs 10, while everyone else merely wolfed down their Rs 5 kulfi cones. He would take his mug and his faluda and sit on the brick fence that was constructed over the flyover, so that he could eat while watching the cars whiz by. They were mostly taxis, because this was an out-of-the way area. Only if you were going towards Byculla, and there was a traffic jam over B A Ambedkar Marg, would you want to go through this road. They were building some skyscrapers on the other side, towards the main road, G D Ambedkar, and the man in the window, with his glass mug in his hand, would sometimes look up at the looming skeletons and probably wish he could live there. He would always have earphones attached, and you could hear the loud music from the little grey Walkman attached to his belt, as if he had lugged a heavy stereo with him out on the road. For the most part, he was ignored, but the boy on the ledge would never fail to gaze at him and wonder about him.
He never fails to wonder about me, the man with the book on his lap thought. The RJ was talking now and the music was interrupted. They were collecting funds for some orphans and wanted people to contribute. The man in the window smiled tightly and went back to his book, but he looked up again when the doorbell chimed.
"O, hullo, what are you doing here?" and he wondered whether what he had just said seemed rude to her.
The girl at the door smiled at him, however, so he supposed that she hadn't thought he was rude, and so he was glad. "I was just passing through, and thought I'd come in to say hi. Where's Tushar?"
"Ok, you were passing through? Ummm... Tushar's not here, though." Her eyebrows moved upwards, and so he smiled with a sigh and said, "He had some work at the office. I think, and after that, they'll have to run down for some interviews."
"Office? On a Saturday?"
"Yea - "
"Man, those bastards make you guys slog!"
"Yea - " Was she going to come in, was she going to come in, was she going to come in, was she going to come in - "Anyway, why don't you come in?"
"Alright - " Her bright eyes flashed now, and she smiled that grin he knew so well. She pulled her handbag closer to herself for some reason and stepped into the flat with a somewhat longer step than was necessary, and brightened with a somewhat greater degree of animation than was necessary - "Alright, I will step in - for a moment... So this is the place, is it?"
He closed the door, it closed smoothly without a noise, and showed her the window seat. She sat. "Yes, this is the place. You've been here before, haven't you?" Of course you have, I know you have. I discovered your little spotted hanky here on the window seat one night when I came back home, and when I looked again five minutes later, he had quietly slipped it inside his pant pockets. I know you've been here. I know you've sat there by the window, and I wonder whether you know that I sit here all the time myself.
"No, no. No. I've never been to your place. Tushar never brought me here. This is my first place. Nice place, though."
"So, what can I get you?" he rose and bustled towards the fridge. The radio was still on their Golden Oldies hour and Lynn Anderson was begging pardon about promising any rose gardens to unsuspecting and mistaken dolts, or something like that. The light from the fridge lamp seemed to warm his foot when it fell upon him, but that was ridiculous, of course. "We have Coke, and some sort of juice - " he squinted his eyes - "Orange juice. And of course there's coffee. I'm having coffee. Do you want coffee?"
He popped his head out from behind the fridge door with a comical quizzical look on his face. So she laughed and uncrossed, re-crossed her legs. "What - the 'boys' don't have anything stronger than coffee, is it?"
She was trying to make a joke. He hated the uneasy edge behind her humour, and tried to dissolve it by trying to appear as vulnerable and simple as he could. "No, babe. We're good little boys. It's you bad mommas who rob us from the cradles, remember?"
Squint. Bad joke.
But she still laughed. She was getting desperate. "No coffee for me, thank you. I'll go to the office now and catch your flatmate. I'm sure he'll take me out for coffee. Too much of that stuff and I'll become a nervous giggly wreck. I'll have some juice, thanks."
"Suit yourself. One juice coming up."
Tall glass. He would have liked to provide some sort of embellishment to it, but had no idea how. He was the strange man in the window, he remembered, and as he looked out of the kitchen window, he realized that the boy on the ledge was still there. The boy was nearer, it seemed, nearer even than the strains of Que Sera Sera floating in from the living room. He was gazing now at the pretty woman sitting on the window seat, and the man thought - how many other times has he sat there on the ledge, watching her sit on that seat, or perhaps lying down, with Tushar in the window. The idea was strangely voyeuristic, strangely thrilling, partly morbid and partly depressing. In the end, he was relieved. It was a link, a tenuous link, but a link nonetheless, between him and what he missed when he was not there and the two of them were together.
"I love this song," she said, when he handed her the juice. "It's one of my favourites."
He laughed easily now. It stirred a memory within him. "O my god, yea. Do you remember those evenings at the hostel?" and he laughed again, half afraid that she would say no and snub him, half afraid of a million other things, but then laughing all the same.
She squealed and licked her lips. "I always thought that Seema had this thing for you. As soon as she heard you sing Only You, she was gone for a toss! And you were like this major snake-in-the grass! You had such a major thing for her!"
She was pulling his leg, but he laughed along, content to let her believe in her own fiction. Seema was miles away now, and he hadn't thought about her since that last email where she had informed everyone grandly that she was going trekking in Gulmarg. He had no idea how good or bad the trek was and had never asked anyone about it. There were times Tushar tried to draw him out like this, too, but he never reacted. He always grinned, like this, and sipped a drink or looked at the wall clock for signs of Seema the Spider crawling up behind him.
Coffee was the ambrosia of the gods, at times like this. Billy Joel started singing Uptown Girl now, but the moment of easy humour and easy memories had passed. "So, were you guys supposed to go out today, you and Tushar?"
"Not really... this juice is divine. Dad was going into Marine Drive and I got down at Siddhi Vinayak. Hopped on a cab to surprise him." So she wasn't "in the neighbourhood" at all. "I thought he'd be home. It's a Saturday, for God's sake! I forgot that you guys are owned by a behemoth monster!" She grinned that lopsided thing that Tushar was crazy about, but which he found mildly patronising. "How come you're not at work too, by the way?"
"Different departments - " and he switched the radio off, because Golden Oldies was over and they would start making stupid jokes and handing out passes for movies soon, in return for silly antics on your part. He had done that himself once, and won two tickets to a play, for which had to sing a crass line from a crass Hindi song in a packed train. He imagined the boy on the ledge dancing wildly to that song, careening with laughter, wild and happy. Not on the ledge, where he still was, gazing fixedly at them.
"So what do you think about the flat?"
"O. O... it's - nice." He grinned. The stairs always took everyone by surprise. The flat was paradise, once you came inside the door and left the pan-stained stairs out of your life. But he was used to that now, and certainly, the children of the neighbouring flats who played in excitedly loud tones every evening on the landing barely noticed them. They would yell and scream and hide under the stairs as you climbed up and fumbled at the door with your keys, making you an unwitting and perhaps unwilling participant in the glorious drama of fairyland kings and queens that was being enacted there. The one of the ledge was always someone important in the game. He would be the king or the Superhero who had been waylaid, ambushed, trapped, betrayed, bamboozled by the evil minister of alien, whom he always managed to defeat in the end. It was fascinating, in a way, and sometimes he would purposely stand at the door, pretending to get his keys wrong, jangling them again and again, ears keenly waiting for the war cry that he knew would come and the bugle toots from the child designated the Imperial Footman.
"The crowd's pretty low-class, but the flat's cool. I like that. It came furnished. TV, Fridge, beds, chairs, tables, cupboards, gas stove, geyser. We hardly spent anything on that. Only shopped for food and supplies." He had no idea why he was talking to her like this. It wasn't as if she was interested. Her juice was finished and the empty glass was on the floor. He thought - do you want to see the bedroom? And then stopped with the thought, you've seen it already, I'm sure! And then he bit his lip. It hurt. He wondered if the little boy on the ledge could feel that too.
"Anyway, I have to leave," she got up now, gathering her silly little bag that was done up in absurd tufts of cloth and mirrors. "I want to catch Tushar at the office."
"O. Ok, then. Great to see you. Do stop by more often."
"I will. Bye. Love the flat. And the crowd's not that bad, at all - for Bombay" she smiled and he hated her when she did that. There was no music in the background now as they hugged and he thought there was something sad about that. There should be some grand finale to this meeting, he thought. There should be something that rent the air with some beautiful sad notes of a song that people died for in the days when they were young and remembered now only for their lost passions. "Goodbye," she said, and patted his hand fondly, and opened the door. A yell from the Superhero adventure filled the hall, and he gave an apologetic grin -
"It's like that, sometimes. Take care."
She stepped over the Imperial Trumpeter, all of two years old, sitting precariously on the top step with his silver paper clarinet, and hurried down the stairs.
The man in the window stepped away from the door and walked into the kitchen with a tall glass in his hand. The kitchen window was small and circular, and the little boy on the ledge could not see much through it. But he could hear the angry hiss of the opened tap, as if a volley of gnashing snakes had been let loose upon the man in the window, and he saw his hands furiously rubbing something, and so he imagined that he was washing something. His face was cold and passive, and especially so when he turned around to see him through the circular connection between them. They watched each other through wide eyes for a second, two, three, four, that dragged onto maybe a whole minute, and then he smiled, shook his head and walked away. Not in the living room, where the boy on the ledge could see him, but inside his cavern, his room, perhaps. He was a strange, particular man, the boy mused, who had strange particular desires on another strange particular man.
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