The date was 27 June. Or it may have been 28th. I’m not sure. But this took place at a time when I was still young enough to go out on drives for no rhyme or reason, young enough to discover drinking dens during weekends without the fear of nursing a hangover the following morning. Drink is a great provocateur of urine, Shakespeare made someone say in Macbeth. This was a time when I could hold my drink as well as my piss. I had tiptoed into my 30s, still smoking half-dozen cigarettes a day, still had some years to go before I would move naturally north along the age-ladder and could safely be classified as a pathetic and petulant also-ran. I was a combination of callowness and precocity, dishonesty and generosity, with an arsenal of attributes at once charming and revolting. This was a time when my mind and metabolism often blended to produce a buffet of ideas and activities that smacked of genuine creativity immediately accompanied by the arrogance and laziness typical of a bum who still fooled himself into believing he had great years ahead of him. This was the time I could still think I could make it big as a writer, a little later, that I could wait for a little bit longer. Consequently, I rarely wrote any real thing. This was before my neural nosedive steadily set in.
I was living in the state of S in India, teaching and pretending to research in philosophy in a small and sleepy college with a quiet campus flanked by grave-looking hills and a moody river. The city, or whatever passed off as one, was about twenty miles away. I didn’t have a lot to do, except acting clever in classrooms and showcasing a shallow scholarship before semi-serious students. When I didn’t know much about something asked, which happened fairly frequently, I tried to appropriate a pseudo-cynical stance that mostly worked. My colleagues were mostly nice, except for an evil and ugly old cow who pretended to teach subaltern studies while boasting of her Brahman son-in-law and making laughably serious statements about Ayurveda and Eastern medicine in student seminars. I had a small second-hand car that was a scandal in terms of the racket but it got the job done. I was dating M, a charming painter who handled admin affairs during the day in a management institute near the airport. M lived by herself in a cosy apartment in the city, one of the posh pockets where alcohol was abundantly available along with frozen sausages and lambchops. M was in her early 20s, brilliant, graceful and witty, with an effortless elegance that, combined with her sensitivity and keen attention to details, made her impossibly irresistible. We had met at a friend’s place in the city where, after an evening of boring bouts of chatting and drinking, I had stolen out for a smoke in the terrace that offered a surreal silver view of the river under a full moon. M was standing in a corner, like a lonely figure in a landscape painting, looking beautiful and bored. Before long we were chatting and sharing a cigarette, having immediately agreed on the disagreeable nature of the party. I didn’t have much of a social life in the city, having joined my job seven months ago. It didn’t take much for me to ask M out, hoping for the miracle that she would be free. She was, having just broken up with someone. We first dated at a downtown café, spending a charming afternoon talking about Monet’s Impressionism and Joseph Conrad’s novels among other things before heading to a bar in the evening. A month later, I tried to kiss her. It was at M’s place in the city. She stopped me midway and said she isn’t ready for a relationship. I was too scared to ask. She said it had something to do with her previous breakups.
This is a story about what took place on an evening of a dry day, a disgusting description of those damning days each month when sale of alcohol was declared officially illegal by government legislation in the state of S. Naturally, I hated dry days, not least as the first and last days of every month were the days of prohibition due to some preposterous principle. My most biologically immediate impulse on receiving the salary-credit text in my phone was to rush to the nearest alcohol shop and buy bottles of beer and rum. After being flustered and frustrated the first couple of months, I had decided to stock my fridge with alcohol in advance in order to survive the sadism of prohibition. My fridge those days contained very little freshly cooked food but substantial quantities of beer and rum. My two-room campus apartment had a small study marked with coffee stains, cigarette stubs and beer bottles; a pretty picture of the arty bohemianism that I aspired to appropriate.
When M phoned me first that afternoon, I was in class, rattling off a done-to-death discourse on ideological and repressive state apparatus, one of my many phoney ways to kill time in a classroom when I had nothing really substantial to say. To my annoyance, a smart-alecky student had been pestering me with questions – normally I expected the students to nod off as I dished out high-theory rhetoric – and some of those were pretty difficult to handle. I may have botched up something conceptually while lecturing. I was in the middle of a pretentious response when M first called. I received it without thinking – normally I switched off my phone in class but it was a Friday 4PM affair and I was in an autopilot mode already looking forward to the weekend – and continued my rigmarole on the repressive apparatus appropriated by the state to control dissenting subjects and convert them into castrated citizens. When I actually said Hello to M she said Smart to me, having heard me beautifully bullshitting about Louis Althusser for about ten seconds. I promised to call back and continued my shallow showmanship for the students’ satisfaction. About a minute later, the bell rang, announcing the end of class, freeing us all from the fetters of Friday. There was always a happy murmur when the 5PM bell rang on Friday, with the weekend announcing its arrival electrically.
When I swerved my speeding 11-year old second hand Fiat in the nick of time in order to avoid running over a cat on the NH37 motorway, I didn’t have much in mind, except a lazy longing to get merry with M. She wanted to go out for drink and that sounded marvellous to me after a long Friday. Normally M had to be wooed out of her apartment on Friday evenings as that was her favourite time to paint, usually with a glass of wine which she seldom finished. She rarely met me or let me in on Fridays. She was the classy kind and I was already having anxieties about matching up to her tastes, growing up as I did in the hideous hooligan town of H in the state of B. So I was happy and excited after the phonecall, speeding my car for all it was worth, looking forward to going out with M. I was due to receive a raise the following month and had little responsibility beyond sounding sexy in classrooms and meetings.
M emerged from her apartment building in a red top and a grey skirt that made her look taller than she actually was. She always managed to make herself look taller with the ways she dressed up, a complete contrast to what she looked like in shorts and slips when inside. I waved and smiled immediately but she did not wave back. She tried a half-smile but wasn’t very spontaneous or successful. M could never fake anything, under any circumstances. The cause of her discomfort was soon visible. For a few meters behind her, wobbling with his wooden walking stick that had a curved silver crown as hand-grip, was M’s maternal uncle R, her only relative in the city who also happened to be a royal pain. R had been to Cambridge, had been a historian and had held various venerable positions in Indian academia, mostly due to his solid scholarship that was substantial enough to negate the nastiness of the person. Even by my pedestrian playful standards, R was quite easily one of the most offensive and sexist persons to have historically inhabited the planet earth, with the unique gift to insult and intimidate simultaneously. With a perverse sense of entitlement that stemmed from his blue-blood academic background in red-brick British buildings, R was crabby and rude with occasional gusts of good-humoured generosity that were thinly disguised forms of patronizing highhandedness. I had only met him thrice earlier, each occasion being more painful than the previous one. On being introduced to me and on knowing that I teach philosophy, R had immediately and imperiously inquired if I had read the complete works of Spinoza. When I told him I had very little interest in pre-Nietzschean affairs, he brushed me away and asked me to get him a pack of cigarettes of a particular brand from the shop opposite M’s place. I had walked out of the room instead and stood in the balcony lighting up a stick. Ours was a classic case of hate at first sight.
M made a short sprint to me in order to get away from the earshot of R and muttered that she never knew he would spring this surprise visit on a Friday evening. Apparently, she was just getting ready to leave when the doorbell rang and R appeared with his walking stick. When told she had dinner plans, R invited himself as a tag along with his typical mix of entitlement and genuine loneliness that was almost impossible to ignore. It had begun to drizzle with the light wafts of wind typical of the city eveningair where twilight twirled in with the riverbreeze. The late summer evening was settling down, with smell of fried fish in narrow passageways. It was about 6 o’clock and the smoky day was beginning to burn itself out. I stood savouring the smell of fish that blended with the sound of M’s voice in my brain, without registering the resentment she packed in. So I smiled like an idiot who half-understands whatever is said to him, till I was woken up by M’s angry whisper. R had walked up quite close by then.
As soon as he got in the backseat with his regal walking stick, R announced imperiously that he had been re-reading Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, adding acidly that I may not have even heard of it. I quietly suffered the volley that followed, ranging from R’s tax returns (he was a millionaire with three divorces without any children, having inherited an enormous fortune and having worked half his life in British universities) to the sorry state of the United Kingdom (unsurprisingly, R was all for England recovering her sovereignty by booting out the bloody refugees without the intervention of Belgian idiots). I suffered it all and drove silently, sometimes stealing a glance at M who sat with sorry eyes that made it all slightly more bearable. We were heading to a lounge-bar near M’s place as R announced he wanted some good Scotch after a long day of reading French. He also wanted to watch Wimbledon.
When the bartender said it was a dry day, I thought my brain was hearing voices having suffered R for the last fifteen minutes. So I asked again for rum with Diet Coke, repeating that I need a lot of ice. The guy stood silently for a few seconds and repeated, more slowly this time, that it was a dry day, the occasion being the birth of a 15th-Century religious reformer revered throughout the state of S. When I eventually registered it, I wanted to cry. For this meant I would have to endure an entire evening with R without the assuagement of alcohol. R was aghast as well, the prospect of his sipping Scotch clinically killed. None of us had anticipated this situation. I wouldn’t have stepped out on the usual dry days anyway. The alcoholless lounge suddenly looked long and lonely, like an airport abandoned abruptly due to a bomb-scare. The lights around suddenly seemed depressingly dimmer, as if someone rationed the voltage too to make prohibition days darker. I dreaded the prospect of a long evening of listening to R and his discourses on tax returns, football hooliganism and French realism. This was quickly becoming a crisis. A sinking ship. And I frantically tried to figure how to get out of it.
M was not much of a drinker. She mostly stuck to breezers in bars or sweet-smelling mango-flavoured cocktails and only sipped wine while painting. So there was nothing at her place that we could go back and drink. R said he had run out of alcohol entirely and that’s why he had taken the trouble to leave home in the first place. For once he and I were in some sort of comradeship. Connected by a common crisis, we were talking, actually addressing each other, discussing ways to procure alcohol on the damning dry day that had appeared unannounced. No wine shop in the city would be open as that wouldn’t be legal. We didn’t know anyone who could get us bootlegged stuff and my flat back in campus had just a half bottle of rum which wouldn’t be worth driving back thirty miles for. In any case, I wouldn’t dream of taking R to my campus apartment. We were almost at the point of giving up with me deciding to settle for the rum on returning when M, who had largely been quiet all the while, proposed a plan.
We could drive off to the state of X where there is no legislation of dry days, a state that shared its borders with S just 20 miles further from where we were, a place where shops across the same street are notionally located in two different states. One side will still have closed bars, inhabiting the depressing dry day zone of S, while the other side will be the more sensible state of X, with shops that have the charms of beer, spirits and rum. The area would be dodgy, perhaps even unsafe at night, like many state borders, peopled predominantly by drunken truck drivers and corrupt cops. But it was indeed our only shot.
Ten minutes later we were driving up NH37 in my rackety second-hand fiat heading towards a place named K-para that contained the states of X and S on each side. We were moving further away from the city and I was beginning to wonder if it was a good idea to go to an inter-state border with an attractive young woman and a semi-invalid semi-senile Cambridge-bred prick. R was back being his imperious best, discussing their disgusting relatives with M who answered largely in monosyllables as my mind wandered off to my experiences in the super-dodgy yet surreally charming bar named Chchota Bristol in the dockyards of the city of K that I found myself frequenting in my younger less-moneyed student days. Many years after this incident I went to Chchota Bristol again and was involved in a drunken brawl that almost got me arrested. Then I remembered R’s diatribe against football hooliganism and wondered how he would have reacted on seeing me fight and being beaten up. R was long since dead then, the news of his death being ironically the final thing M having said to me, in her final phonecall, before heading off to Berlin to do a course on design. M and I had continued to be friends while moving increasingly away but I would never hear from her again. I was older and fatter by then, quick to lose breath, doing a different job in a smaller college, tricking a different set of students with increasingly enervated élan and with the final knowledge that I will never be able to do anything else. I was all by myself then, as I am now, alienated, abandoned and deservingly distrusted, quietly ticking with no hope for change, not smoking or drinking anymore due to several health reasons, painfully waiting to end.
We were in K-para in 30 minutes and the prospect of walking into a bar grew stronger with each turn. But the place looked dodgier than ever with frequent signs of rabble and rabble-rousing behaviour. It was one of those places that are a combination of colourful character and downright despair, visibly high in crime rate and inhabited largely by troublemaking travellers. I slowed my car hoping to find a semi-decent place where we could possibly sneak in inconspicuously, get a quick drink or two and quietly leave. We crawled for about fifteen minutes and I had half a mind to turn back and leave when R craned his neck out of the car window suddenly and said Yes, Boss. I slowed and saw a bar named Boss with a blue electric board that had electric beer mugs and the letters of Budweiser waltzing on wires. Three big men stood near the brown bar door hurling expletives at each other that could be heard from about ten meters away where we were in our car. Diagonally left behind the men was a backyard with a slight slope of garbage bins along which a group of badly parked cars and small trucks huddled together like naughty schoolboys made to kneel outside a classroom. A strong smell of cheap frying oil mixed with the wafts of winds that were beginning to blow with a few fat drops of rain. Boss beckoned with all its seediness and electric signs and before we even exchanged any words, the three of us had stepped out of my Fiat that was now parked beside a kidney-shaped bin that looked like a plastic monster slightly smashed.
Through its blue glassdoor Boss revealed itself inside as a combination of cheap furniture, smelly sofas and orange wallpapers depicting daffodils and mermaids in an assortment of artwork absurd enough to make M stare for a few seconds. An invisible and slightly squeaky music system belted out 1990s Bollywood numbers from films such as Raja Hindustani, Rangeela and Auzaar that I remembered and recognized from my schooldays. Further in I savoured the smell of freshly fried peanuts that reminded me immediately of the first bar I ever went to in my hometown H as a 16-year old, a dingy den called Dimple with long rickety tables shared by noisy men where waiters would bring fried peanuts in pancreas-shaped plates only when specially ordered. Inside Boss, R seemed stunned, visibly unsettled by the philistine quality of the whole affair. His crisis was perhaps compounded by the knowledge that the people in Boss wouldn’t give a rodent’s behind about his Cambridge lineage, love for Wimbledon and neo-classical French literature. M looked more relaxed, drinking in the whole ambience with the curiosity of an artist who puts all experiences in a blissful brain that connects colours with stories. Observing the two inside the dark blue belly of Boss, I could immediately spot the difference between the closed quality of an arrogant scholar and the creative plasticity of the imaginative mind. Through a maze of men and iron chairs, we found an empty sofa in a corner right under a cheap air-conditioning machine whose fan almost drowned the sound of music that was meant to please.
Through the whirring AC above and the collective clamour of men around, we heard a waiter ask us what we’d want. There was no Scotch for R or breezers for M and the only alcoholic drinks Boss offered were strong beers and mercifully for me, rum. Instead of the tennis match, the flat-screen TV on the wall above the bar counter was showing a Bollywood film from the 1990s, one that I immediately recognized: Phool Aur Kaante, an astonishing action-drama I had seen as an eight-year old and had been thrilled by, my special memory being that of the surreal entrance of Ajay Devgan in the film as he stretched across the seats of two moving motorbikes running driverless parallel to each other by some sublime logic of motion. This was a situation where R didn’t dare to ask for a channel-change to watch Wimbledon, possibly guessing that such a request would be immediately shot down, perhaps violently. Neither did he dare bring up his afternoon of reading Stendhal anymore. Instead he sat by his wooden walking stick looking spectacularly stumped, his usual sting of cynicism and highbrow arrogance having visibly deserted him, a state I thoroughly enjoyed seeing. The silver crown on his stick didn’t shine so much in the dark blue belly of Boss. After much deliberation with the bored and increasingly impatient waiter during which he almost stuck his nose against the menu card in the darkness by turning on the thin torchlight of his medieval mobile phone, R looked up helplessly, ordering a Haywards 5000, stating feebly that he had never had it before and might not be able to finish it. M looked entirely at ease, looking around, nodding to the music, savouring the strange sights and sounds, having ordered a Fanta for herself, seemingly enjoying the attention she received from the many men who half-stared and whispered about her awkwardly. I ordered rum for myself and fishfingers for the table, my mind divided between memories of dodgy drinking dens in my hometown H and the pretty little earrings M was wearing that glistened under the blue light like sharp stones.
After the awkwardness of a few minutes during which we overheard loud conversations about petrol prices, truck tyres and Bollywood blockbusters, M and I began to exchange smiles and started to speak as R shrunk into a shadowy something in his corner of the sofa. We were chatting, drinking in the ambience that was increasingly enjoyable, with the men having accepted M as the only female member in their brawny drinking den. Soon, I was sipping my rum, describing my drinking escapades to M, stuff I wouldn’t dream of sharing with her normally. I was travelling back and across time in my mind, savouring the present that opened me up to the pockets of my past that were quickly converting into stories. Our chat was increasingly in-sync with the content of the conversations around and I was pleasantly surprised with the way M responded and rejoiced in it all, without any shock or discomfort. There was something light and liberating in the air that hung inside Boss, one that mixed cigarettesmoke with the smell of strong beer and seemed to level away differences in taste, temperament and social standing. R sat silently, too stunned to start a story or cut me in, slowly sipping his beer and nervously nibbling at the sausage-shaped fishfingers that were perfectly done. Soon, I persuaded M to sip some rum, a first for her. I mixed it with some Coke and she loved it instantly, waving at the waiter and signalling a 30ml for herself by lifting my glass and getting her order across without any exchange of words, much to the approval and appreciation of the male gaze. A little later, R buoyed himself up a bit with his wooden stick and tried to start a story about some scholars’ shindig during his graduate days in Cambridge. He was barely midway through with his tale and was just about to describe the climax of festive fornication when a waiter cut him in coarsely by inquiring if we wanted repeats. M and I did. R hadn’t even finished a quarter of his beer so he nodded a no, having lost his plot, sliding back limply beside his stick that didn’t look so imperious anymore. I was sadistically savouring his helplessness by then. Cut off from the comforts of his Scotch, Wimbledon and Stendhal, R was indeed a sorry figure, a pathetic prick suddenly sad and voiceless.
After she finished her third 30ml of rum, M stopped saying what she was saying, then softly broke down into a light laughter that slowly turned into muffled words and then strange sounding sentences.
There’s a reason why I haven’t let you kiss me or do anything else. There’s a reason why I never will.
M didn’t seem bothered by the presence of R who was shifting in the shadowy corner of his sofa above which the massive AC machine purred away.
You don’t need to tell me now.
I was pointing at R surreptitiously, trying to be civil for all I was worth, going against my grain although I was dying to know.
R was beginning to cough, slowly first and then with increasing amplitude, his beer perhaps having gone the wrong way.
The truth is, I can never love any man. Not in the common sense of the term. The truth is, I am gay. Or should I say lesbian.
Someone else coughed from the table behind ours and I distinctly remember the sound of a breaking glass somewhere close. I stole a quick glance at R who wasn’t quite visible beside his wooden stick that now looked like a pathetic piece of forsaken furniture. A new Bollywood song had begun. Jo haal dil ka, ab ho raha re. I recognized the film immediately again. A pompous Amir Khan starrer, a tedious take on terrorism I had seen as a schoolboy. Sarfarosh.
I think we should make a move. This place is not very safe. And the beer’s too bitter for my taste. She’s not feeling very well I am sure. She’s saying things she doesn’t mean to say.
R tried not to witness her niece’s coming out, weakly trying to intervene. He had some shreds of fried fish on his beard. He looked like a circus clown in pain.
Please just shut up and let me speak. I am not a pervert. You are. The whole pack of you. Perverse, greedy hypocrites. With that fucked up sense of entitlement and elitism that sticks like a skin disease on your fat faces. Half of you tried to molest me by the time I was thirteen. I am the way I feel and love. And I’m glad I have said it now. Don’t know why I hadn’t earlier. I never cared for the fudged up family prestige you drummed about all your lives. I couldn’t care less. I wish I never knew, let alone was related to, any one of you.
M sounded increasingly steady and strong. Climbing on top of the male voices and the Sarfarosh song.
These men around us now, men you fear and hate because they don’t have your tastes. I feel safer with them around than I ever did with any of you while I was growing up. They swear, they scream, they belch but they look what they are. They’ll put you on your guard if need be. Unlike your super-refined manners meant to manipulate. I probably don’t have any clue about these people and I’m probably patronizing them with all this but they couldn’t care less I’m sure. I’m simply speaking from the position of my feelings. I’m so bloody glad I came here. And I sure am glad I came out. Say how I feel and who I am. I’m a lesbian. I’ll have one more glass of rum.
When M stopped, I felt the flow of one of those weird windows of stillness that kill all words and attempts to speak. In that strange stretch of time, I spotted a spider trying to crawl up to the silver crown on R’s walking stick. I saw it grow under my blurring eyes. The bright orange wallpaper around suddenly seemed merrier and meaningful. The men around us had stopped and the Bollywood number had also dimmed. Someone seemed to have suddenly lowered the volume of all organic and inorganic noises around us. Everyone seemed to have heard M’s story and the only sound that swirled was that of a faint rustle of rain on Boss’s roof. Like the patter of pigeonfeet on a high church window. At the end of what seemed like a long slice of slow motion during which some tired truck drivers got up to go while others cleared their throats and switched to new conversations, M looked up and stared at his Cambridge-bred uncle who was then a sad shadow beside his wooden walking stick stuck at the corner of the sofa. M looked taller as well stronger. She spoke again after about five seconds, in a voice that was a mix between a schoolgirl and a middle-aged woman.
I never said this to anyone before. Except to the person I have been in love with for some time now. She is the one I’m painting now. I don’t know why I blurted it out suddenly tonight. In the society of all you manly men. Maybe it’s the air inside this place. Maybe it’s the colours and the sound waves. Maybe it’s the rum and the rain.
Then she looked at me.
So you now know you’ll be pissing in the wind if you harbour hopes for a lay with me. You’re a small and sad man. And like all small men, you think you’re sexy and strong. You’re also completely useless. You will never do or write anything real or substantial. But you can be sweet sometimes. I like you and we can stay friends.
I stared at M’s face, I drank it what she said. I must have been in love with her then.
As I drove back from the borderland of Boss towards the heart of the city along the slippery NH37 with its sawdust smell and wafts of rain, I saw a silver full-moon that grew bigger and dropped lower as the lights from my car leapt towards it, until it seemed to flow gently before my eyes like the mauve mouth of a misty river. I stared at the magic in what seemed a suspension of everything I knew, with M sleeping like a free child beside me and R shifting about soundlessly with his wooden walking stick in the backseat. As the moon mixed with my mind and my speeding car became a wave that seemed to step out of the seconds in the dashboard clock, I experienced an epiphany that would stay. For the first time in my life, I experienced the truth of my hollowness that emerged as a biological and physical fact about me. Bizarrely, the knowledge of my nothingness before the silver moon and the misty highway seemed to make me fuller, a rare instance when I savoured the beauty of an honest feeling generated out of me. I thought about whatever M said about me while being blissfully drunk inside Boss and realized I will indeed never be able to write anything real or anything that will move or stay. I looked at M who was asleep beside me, her face flushed with the light of the moving moon that seemed to fall on her alone. I admired her. I wanted to thank her. For saying what she did inside the dark blue bar. The words about her and the words about me. A statement of her true self and a perfect prophecy.
Meanwhile, the car slid like a sledge, a grey capsule on a silver ledge. I brooded for all I was worth and then began to laugh. Quietly at first and then so loudly that it almost woke M up. I was laughing even as I cried, feeling fearful and funny with the knowledge of my nothingness that was dwindling away with the moonlight and the memory of rum. Soon we leapt out of the dark highway into the streets of the city and the capsule became my car again. The time to return to time had come.
Shortly afterwards, the familiar corners reappeared and M woke up beside me, commenting on the sorry state of the city and seemingly oblivious to what happened twenty miles away inside the dark den. R too slowly emerged from the backseat shadow and started to speak. Becoming big again with his knowledge of French and his wooden walking stick. I heard him talk to his niece. About the bad beer in Boss and the missed Wimbledon game. My dashboard clock flashed11:45PM by the time I returned to my flat after having dropped R and M. On my way back I almost killed a cat again. I snuggled to sleep hoping to write about the evening someday. A shallow story with a semi-sad end.