A Page from History

The Little Magazine, Volume IV, Issue 4, 2003

This is the first page of my first published story, STARDUST. It has been a long time since I wrote another... Funny how today, the last day of 2008, I suddenly felt nostalgic about my life as a fiction writer.

Here's the full text of Startdust, uncut!!


IT WAS ALMOST as if the refrigerator was part of Vidisha’s sack race. It shook. It rumbled and cleared its chilled windpipes. Made threats, as if it was going to explode. But Vidisha was too far gone to notice. She was thresholding in raw unworded screams, like someone gagged on unbearable pain. Her coming drowned the refrigerator’s chilly wind-piped noise for that half inexact minute. But the refrigerator went on alone. Unbothered.

“Is it coming too?” she said laughing, so hard that she felt herself choke and her stomach tighten like a fist. Saurabh bobbed his head in the direction of the refrigerator to check for outward signs of pleasure—or pain—causing it to stop, suddenly as if his eyes were a remote control. It stood in the corner interrupted and chastised, panting its last moments of ecstasy into some soundproofed hole in the wall.

She entered sleep like a half-taught swimmer, tentatively wading into the depths and crosscurrents of new waters. She waded some and looked back to regard the newness of Saurabh’s hairy body, the clean-shaven knob of his neck and the purplish marks that covered it like a smile. She thought the smile had been her doing. It made her happy. She felt like an artist who had just signed a masterpiece. She wanted to hold him but felt hesitant. She didn’t know him any better than when she first laid eyes on him.

In a way he had been the strangest of her strangers. His passion had had the hint of ritual. She felt worshipped and restored. His body seemed cold beneath his sweaty skin. Like her favourite fried ice cream, he’d felt warm and soft on the outside but cold and solid within. She liked to feel the two dessert sensations melt and tease the inside of her mouth. But with Saurabh there had been no melting and teasing.

Yet Vidisha was thrilled to have met him. Got him. And have him added to her list. He had made her feel things she had only read about in women’s magazines. She slept dreaming of bruising him again. And of sex like she had on her last night at home.

They had met in the morning at Sapna Lodge. The few times Vidisha didn’t have a place she came to Sapna. Sapna was a dream she visited whenever she felt lonely. She felt safe at Sapna, because the staff there didn’t raise eyebrows when she checked in with different men.

In a way Sapna was like Vidisha’s architectural double. She liked the way Sapna was built. Three storeys tall, neon-announced, brick naked and covered in loud magenta bougainvillea, Sapna was like an Amazon amid Sundar Nagar’s corset pygmies with French windows and grilled gardens. Like Vidisha Sapna was her own woman. She had guests but that was the limit of her attachment.

Vidisha was visiting India after three ‘long’ years. Long was her way of laundering the oily innocence of a girlhood she had loathed. She had hated the rules of belonging. Hated being forced to be good because she wasn’t born fair and rosy-tempered in a family that was pink and polite.

She’d gone to New York to study international merchandising at a heavy-duty fashion school because her family could afford it. But the fashion school was just an aside. An excuse. Her real study began after school hours. Among the other things Vidisha had lost in New York was the way her mouth moved to use words. She now said “Mur-see” and “What-eva” when she was frustrated or disinclined to argue. She also slurred her ‘r’s, yawned her ‘a’s and limned ‘i’s into words like ‘can’t’ and ‘man’.

She met Saurabh at Sapna’s wood and stone reception. He was hiding behind a shock of yellow roses with lips the colour of healing wounds. Three brass-rimmed Roman dials kept an eye on him. And on the time in London, New York and Moscow. Delhi's time was trapped in the bright red dots of a digital timepiece below the roses.

Vidisha had wondered why the receptionist had seemed so officious and distant. In her long absence from her country she had become unused to the ways of men like Saurabh. Their reserve, their gruff friendliness and their roundabout ways of showing interest. But Vidisha hadn’t totally forgotten her Delhi days.

Though Delhi wasn’t exactly New York there was lots to study by way of variety and numbers. The study was for a dictionary of male sexual behaviour. Vidisha thought of herself as an authority on the subject. Not that she was ever inaccurate in putting her studies into boxes of imaginary cardboard.

But her dictionary had a serious flaw. It had just one point of reference. Herself. Saurabh had interested her because he'd seemed unboxable. Not so much in the way he looked but the way he held himself. There was something odd and serious about him. It was as if his hands were tied to extremes of caution and urgency on two different posts behind his back.

He had avoided looking at her when he’d asked for her passport. His smile had been weary as if he was Atlas holding the world on his back. The fat steel dial on his left hand showed another time. "How long will you be at Sapna?" was the only full sentence he’d spoken to her.

The rest of their meeting had been like a dream. She had produced her Master Card on which she smiled, thumbnailed and abbreviated, signed the Lodge register and accepted the plastic keytag from Saurabh gingerly brushing against the generous fuzz of his hands. On her way to her room she had dazzled him with her smile as she bid him "Adios amigo".

Vidisha was from Panipat. She hated it when her fashionable classmates in Delhi said, 'But you don't look like you're from whassitcalled'. In her heart she had never felt like a towny. Even when she first came to Delhi as a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, she hadn't felt small because of her towniness. It was in Delhi that she first felt the urge to begin work on her dictionary. She was soaked in freedom like Delhi's winter fog. She could do as she pleased, with whosoever she pleased and no one would bother.

Now she was back in Delhi for a week to re-live her first taste of freedom. And Sapna was her natural choice. This was her last week of doing as she pleased before she took a taxi home. Home was a family that took marriage seriously. Like serious business. Her parents, her brothers, their wives had all married for money. And now it was her turn. They awaited her homecoming with a list of good matches one of whom would ignite their family business some more.

Vidisha’s friends in New York had wondered how she could settle for an arrangement so soulless. But she had smiled her dazzling smile at their disapproving innocence and said nothing to dam the floods of mush and sympathy.

Her week in Delhi was in a way a finale to her freedom as a dictionary compiler. Because in the list at home was squeezed in a sentence of good family life. Her six years and a week had been her barter for this life sentence. Not that she was heavy with regret. She had lived her freedom well, almost to a fault. Besides, she had no intention of giving up her dictionary work. But she knew marriage was sure to cramp her style.

Getting Saurabh's attention hadn't been difficult. There was knock at her door the moment she woke up to switch off the AC's heavy breathing. Saurabh stood waving a piece of paper masted with thin curvy letters. It was a 'Guest-Relations Form'. He said he'd forgotten to give it to her at the time of check in. He looked pale and apologetic. Vidisha smiled at him and invited him in for some shots of American bourbon that she'd purchased duty-free to celebrate her final week in Delhi.

"I have no one to share it with," she said as she stood away from the door to let him in. If he was surprised he didn't show it as Vidisha welcomed him with her dazzling smile. She had been jetlagged but the five hours of air-conditioned sleep had washed away the half-moon stains below her eyes. She was still wearing the prickly white bathrobe that she had got into after her long and detailed shower. She smelled of green apples, peaches and the faint spirit of nail polish. Her hair seemed longer and shinier than the plait she had brought it in.

"Ice?" she asked Saurabh as he sat struggling with his pinstriped tie and collar. "Lots, no water, thanks." He spoke like a whisky man, she liked that.

Vidisha didn't like small talk but with Saurabh she felt compelled to use it. "You surprised I called you in?" she asked looking at him meaningfully as if what was to follow would hold their conversation like a coloured weft.

"No," he said and creased his eyebrows. "But I was surprised you offered me bourbon, I really love whisky," he said to soothe the sting of his unexpected vanity.

"I am glad I have some surprises," Vidisha said feeling a strange pull towards the thin, pale and hairy stranger in a grey suit sitting facing her. It was surprising because he had hardly said anything to make her feel that way. It was as if he was telling her things with his shiny boiled egg eyes. His pupils were golden brown and impervious like thumb pins on a noticeboard. The inscrutable eyes of a user, said a voice inside her head.

But she disregarded the impulse to box him. She just kept staring at him, at his big boiled egg eyes, at the unassuming neatness of his grey suit and the black of his leathered feet. She felt as if his body circulated some liquid charm instead of blood. She felt the space around him teeming with Saturn rings. His body emanated light and star dust and his eyes were like a remote control. She felt small and lost before him.

For the first time in her life Vidisha felt unsure of herself as a dictionary compiler. For the first time in her life she felt the tiny hair on her skin goose up in anticipation of sex.

"I am sorry," he said intruding her sizing up of him.

"Why sorry?" she asked surprised.

"Because… because… I’m really not what you expected..." he seemed tied again to caution and urgency. "I'm Saurabh by the way."

This made her laugh and cause the spell to break and thin out like dust from a rag. Unlike her dazzling smile her laughter was natural and didn't precede an intent or a scheme. But she rarely laughed with strangers. Especially strangers she meant to strip and study and classify without guilt or remorse.

Rarely did she cross the fine line between observer and observed.

She was tempted to lie but couldn't. She felt the rings regroup; the light and star dust around him return, and his eyes turn back into a remote control. She felt her bathrobe turn threadbare and slide off her body.

"You are different, Saurabh," she said, "in a very nice way". She felt the ‘very’ necessary. But there was also some truth in it. He was nice in ways she could not expand and put into a box of imaginary cardboard. His niceness was like the finely woven grey of his suit.

"But let me tell you, I don't usually do this... especially with strangers," she lied suddenly looking very firm and honest.

"You are probably right," he said without sarcasm or humour, looking deep into the frosted hollow of his ice and bourbon as if his eyes could see her lie refract in his glass.

"What do you mean, probably?" His casual smugness had irritated her; she wanted to know his mind.

"Er... I mean the part about strangers," he said as he tenniseyed her: head to toe, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, thigh to thigh. He seemed to be frisking her with his eyes.

He was different and nice, she thought, as the first mouthful of icy bourbon warmed and tingled the sides of Vidisha’s face. She felt herself relax. This wasn’t just another dictionary entry.

"Tell me what you thought of me when we first met?" She always liked to know what her specimens thought of her. But with Saurabh this question had come out without warning. She didn't want to know whether he thought of her as lonely or confused or downright sluttish. With him she didn't want to get answers in wordy elaborations. The sensations he was causing were enough.

Saurabh smiled and slid deeper into the foam-backed bracket of the sofa chair that had been his perch since he came in.

"That maybe… maybe… you could help me," he seemed sure, without sounding so.

"Are you on something?" she asked feeling a sour taste rise up the base of her mouth. Saurabh just gave her wan smile as if her question had unlocked something inside him.

"I'm sorry... I.. I.. didn't mean to sound rude." She cursed herself, smiled her dazzling smile and asked him for a refill.

Somewhere around the second bourbon their lazy conversation taxied like a braking airbus. All the warm feelings queued up inside her braking taxi were banging to be let out. She needed the urgent stepladders of touch and Saurabh's buzzing body to land, touchdown and celebrate.

She placed herself on the arm of his sofa chair and began playing with his cool, black, longish hair. He moaned and cupped the soft handles of her bathrobed shoulders and drew her face close to his. In his eyes Vidisha could see herself split and made tiny like images on reversed binoculars. The kiss that followed evapourated the six years of sweat and study that had gone into the making of Vidisha’s dictionary.

In her deep narcotic sleep she hadn't heard the refrigerator's second coming or her soft dreamless moaning. When she woke up the late-setting August sun had gone leaving behind a weak twilight. The falling darkness was luminous both outside and inside her refrigerated room.

She wondered what was causing the chill and looked towards Saurabh, waiting for him to say something. But he just lay there half dressed and propped against the headboard, regarding Vidisha’s nakedness with his big eyes.

"Shouldn't we order something to eat?" she asked to ease the discomfort of his gaze.

He shook his head and groped below the bed for his shirt. "I have to go," he said rising from the bed as if their sack race had been just a diversion.

There were things that she wanted to say to him but could not. She felt her mouth zipped like a space suit. She wanted him to stay, and let her look into his eyes and see whether her split selves had changed. But he was almost ready.

Her eyes were beginning to brim and overflow but she didn't want to sob and let him know what his leaving was doing to her.

She wanted to fight, weep and do all the things she'd hated some of her specimens for. But her body was beyond obeying. "Is that it?" she asked when she heard the click of his steel watch buckle. He turned around and looked in her direction forming difficult words of goodbye. But somehow the words never left him.

His footfall was soft like a cat's and the only sound he left behind was the greaseless whistle of the door's hinges.

Vidisha's mind was racing. It went back to her first dictionary experience. The first time she had lured a man: a boy, a smitten classmate, into her lab. The sex had been awkward and somewhat painful. The parting more so but only for the smitten boy, who had expected a romance to follow their first encounter. She had shut him out from her life after the first time. He had begged her, cried on the phone, called her names and then spread stories about her among the other students. But Vidisha had moved on to other specimens. There was a visiting lecturer, then a fashion designer, then a model, then a stranger she met a party, then another stranger and another and another.

There was something nice about strangers, they didn't follow her like abandoned puppies. Didn't bark and whine outside her door demanding love. They took the experience in their stride and moved on. Like her. Some strangers had called and wanted to keep in touch but she never showed any enthusiasm.

Her US stint had been like Delhi replayed at high speed. The freedom was delirious and the variety mind-boggling. She had done most nationalities, most races, and most body types. But they had all been studies. In her heart she desired nothing more than the experience, the sensation, the insights, the tales, the twists but only once.

When her friends talked love she'd turn coy and reticent and said it was a personal matter. But it was a personal matter that she'd turned into an art form, like graffiti. Her only fear was AIDS. She always carried protection in her shoulderbag. She lugged it around like a Santa Claus of safe sex.

With Saurabh the Santa bag remain untouched.

But never had a dictionary entry been so abrupt. Saurabh had been different like no one else she'd studied. She wanted to tear out those eyes. Keep them in a petridish and watch them rot. Yet she wasn't sure of her reaction if she met him again. She couldn't say what she'd do if she saw herself split and made tiny in those eyes again.


She decided to check out of Sapna. Cut short her finale. Saurabh had changed her in ways she'd never imagined. She had friends with whom she could stay. But she didn't want to meet anyone. At the reception there was another grey suit who called her Miss Vidisha. She smiled at him and lied about her leaving Sapna early.

"There's been an emergency at home," she told him as she dropped the keytag on the counter. "Can you please arrange for a taxi? I’ve gotta go to Panipat right way. I don't mind paying more," she said coolly.

She wanted to ask him about Saurabh but didn't know where to begin. What's his full name? Is he married?

An Ambassador came. Vidisha’s two suitcases were loaded into its back pocket. She sat hugging herself in the emptiness of the stone and wood reception.

"Miss Vidisha your taxi is ready," said the receptionist. "Hunh?" she looked at him as if his voice had thwacked her back into the palm of a giant hand, like a yoyo. "Yes, thank you," she inhaled deeply to push out the words she’d been dying to get out of her. "Saurabh..." she said, her voice thin and brittle, "When do you think he’ll be back?"

The receptionist's looked shocked, as if she'd casually enquired about his sex life. "Who?" he asked surprised. "Sau-rabh," she repeated irritated.

"You mean Saurabh Doshi?"

"Yes. The guy who was here before you."

"Ma'am but it's not possible..."

"Just tell me who was the guy who checked me in. The guy with those big eyes." She was beginning to feel an angry vein burst inside her head. She hated Saurabh Doshi or whatever he was called for putting her through these explanations. For making her leave Sapna early and hate herself for it.

"You are right, Miss Vidisha. The guy with big eyes is Saurabh Doshi, but it's not possible..."

"Am I making this up then? Or is this some sick game the two of you play? Okay just fuck it... " It seemed hopeless. She was beginning to have grave doubts about her judgement, her integrity as a dictionary compiler. Why was it that she'd fallen the one time she'd strayed from her path.

"Ma'am I could say the same about you," said the receptionist mildly angered.

"What the fuck do you mean?" She had never used that word on someone she didn't know.

"I am sorry. Please. I am sorry," Vidisha said as she struggled to find a tissue in the depths of her Santa bag. It was as if all her anger had suddenly liquefied and found an exit through her eyes.

"No, no, it's okay," he said as he went behind the counter and disappeared below the wounded yellow roses.

"I am sorry, I didn't mean to shout at you," Vidisha said drying her eyes. "Please don't mention all this to him."

The receptionist came back with a loose leaf of newspaper and laid it on the table before her.

From its folded page stared Saurabh Doshi, clean-shaven and pale faced, in a blue background passport mug. He was smiling like he had been when she'd asked him if he was on something. But his eyes looked smaller. Beneath him was a column of fine print news whose lines kept flying off the page. It's headline first blurred and then leapt out at Vidisha. With some difficulty she ordered them back on the page. They said 'Jilted lover hangs himself'. Then the words lifted off the page again, like some black insects. They encircled Vidisha for a few seconds then entered her spine and travelled all the way up to her head.

She wanted to keep her eyes open and read on but her lids got too heavy. The wood and stone reception began to melt like a snipped movie scene. And from the corner of her crumbling reality she could hear the receptionist asking her if she was okay.


Comments

  1. Wow,

    That was actually, really good! I was definitely captivated by it. It was very sexy, yet awkward..exposed. If that makes any sense.

    Very cool!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is exciting and very well written -- a weird and sexy thriller with great characterization. You definitely need to be spending more time in Fiction Writer mode. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. wow brilliant gave me goosebumps!

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  5. That’s where the money is. (Response of famous bank robber Willie Sutton (1901-1980), when asked why he robbed banks).

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