Life is a strange animal. Full of surprises. One minute I am snoozing in my tattoo parlour in Hauz Khas the next thing I know my blog goes viral and all these crazy chicks and whiny dudes are chasing after me for advice on how to fix their love lives.
“Taking advice from you!” my mother sounded so shocked I thought she was going to have a heart attack.
She was a doubter by nature, but then again I had given my parents reason to doubt me. My grades at school were a constant disappointment to the family. The one-and-a-half years I spent at college were no success either. I dropped out when people my age were chasing after engineering degrees and MBAs and dreaming of six figure salaries. Three of my cousins, all computer engineers, moved to Silicon Valley to live the great Indian dream. Then there was my mother’s best friend’s daughter who got a job at Citibank the week she graduated. My parents were bombarded by such success stories. And what was I doing? Abhay Singh, 25, only son of the Singhs was stuck in Delhi, wallowing in a dead end job and saddled with a hopeless future.
Atleast this is how my parents saw it. My gig at the tattoo parlour was not all that bad. I was my own boss. How many people in the world can say that? All these fat cats dressed in fancy suits and driving swanky cars are under someone’s thumb. A bossman is always breathing down their necks. He pulls the strings, gives orders, jerks them around like puppets. Bow and scrape, bow and scrape, that’s what they do nine to five.
Me, I’m a free man. I open my parlour at 11. Lock up by 9. Customers who come to shop at Hauz Khas Market drift into my joint. The Market is a favourite haunt of locals and tourists. The stores are crammed with all sorts of stuff – handmade puppets, hippie jewellery, designer clothes, antiques, vintage posters, leather bags…Hauz Khas is a treasure trove of surprises. The restaurants in the Market serve everything from Thai to Lebanese to unpronounceable French food. Every hour is happy hour in the pubs out here.
All this is good news for my parlour. The more people the market attracts, the higher the chances of customers walking into “The Line”. Some people come here looking for me. They march into “The Line” full of purpose, brandishing their reasons for wanting a tattoo. They know exactly what they will etch on their skin: the sun, a half-moon, a dragon, a serpent, butterflies, flying cranes, falling leaves, the fork-tailed devil, fire-breathing dragons. Their tattoos are pinned down by reasons; they come with specific emotions attached. Then there are the accidental seekers, the customers who discover me by chance. They walk past “The Line” and realize that the moment to turn their yearning for a tattoo into reality has finally arrived. Time to ink it in blood and flesh. Time to chomp down on the bite.
Planned or unplanned, purposeful or dreamy, I welcome them all into “The Line”.
Some days are rushed, some slow. All businesses have their ups and downs. A fisherman doesn’t get a bumper catch every time he sails to sea. A stockbroker doesn’t break the bank all week. Try telling my parents that! My father freaks out about the slow days every chance he gets. “The Line” is his worst investment. A doomed enterprise, he says. He scripts a dark end-of-days scenario any Hollywood screenwriter would love to copy. I ignore his prophecies and carry on. If I took him seriously I’d be curled up in bed all day with the covers drawn over my face.
Slow days at “The Line” have their silver linings. My blog was born on a slow day. No customers in sight that Friday. No one to keep me company and save me from boredom. My friends were too busy to drop in. Every one of them had something urgent to do. Even Manjeet (my oldest pal) was not to be found. His phone was switched off. His voice mail was full. He was probably sleeping off a hangover on his girlfriend’s couch. I gave up on him and went online. Because I had nothing better to do and because I’d been thinking about blogging (about everything and nothing) for some time, I set up my blog that evening.
I didn’t have any secrets to spill or sexy scoops to share. So I wrote about my day at the parlour and my friends and our plans to go on a road trip to Goa in the summer. Biking to Goa was our dream. We talked about it all the time. We had mapped out our route and sorted out how much money we needed for fuel and supplies. We were almost there; summer was just a few months away. All of us were ready to take off except Manjeet. He was nervous about leaving town without his girlfriend.
This is nothing new. Manjeet always hooks up with girls who are way out of his league and then lives a life of agony and doubt till his insecurity wrecks the relationship. Currently he was seeing Andrea, a Latvian model who had moved to Delhi in search of work. Andrea speaks very little English and her grasp of Hindi is limited to stock phrases (namaste, shukriya, aap ka naam kya hein). Manjeet doesn’t mind. He says love has nothing to do with language. Who needs words when two hearts beat as one? Forget syntax and grammar. Forget the stupid rules of Latvian and Hindi and English. He understands Andrea perfectly. Words be damned!
I threw in some witty comments about Manjeet’s love life on my blog. I didn’t use his real name. My blog was not going to embarrass my friend and put his heart on display. My comments were about love in general and what a nutty business it is. Manjeet was only one among millions to be bitten by the bug.
I posted the piece and locked up the parlour earlier than usual. The day had not brought me a single customer. I was tired of waiting, tired of being cooped up behind the counter on my own. The pub next door was starting to fill up. I walked in there and ordered a beer. A couple of girls said hello to me at the bar. They were dressed in black and were wearing the same shade of pink lipstick. They sounded thrilled about the fact that they had sneaked out of office and hit the pub early. I said hello to them and got out of there before the Friday night crowd mowed me down.
Random acts change your life in ways you cannot imagine. My blog is a perfect example. I had just keyed in a few lines to save me from death by boredom on Friday. Twelve hours later when the sun came up, the comments section on the site was filled with remarks from people across the world. Agreement, disagreement, argument, observation – loads and loads of it. There was also some crosstalk going on among the commentators. A bunch of readers argued among themselves about my right to have an opinion. “Abhay makes perfect sense to me”. “Nope. He’s a moron”. “He knows the human heart inside out. How dare you call him a moron?” They went back and forth. Then there were questions, questions about love addressed to me. The world is so full of desperate people searching for answers.
I answered them all in my regular, everyday voice. I didn’t want to sound like a know-all or a guru talking down to his flock. My answers were witty, my tone casual. Keep it light; take it easy – my message to one and all. My readers seemed to thrive on it. They came back for more. Every time I posted a piece, they came running to read it. Word of mouth notched up my popularity. My readership grew with every new post. I had to stay up at nights to answer the barrage of questions from my readers. Some of them were dizzily in love and eager to share their delight. Some were broken hearted and bitter, others just curious. Every one of them had a question for me. I needed an extra pair of hands to key in the answers they were clamouring for.
“Dude, how come you’re giving advice on love?” Manjeet asked. “What is the longest relationship you’ve had?”
“That’s not the point,” I said, offering him a chair. He was six foot tall and built like a football player. His head almost touched the ceiling when he walked into “The Line”.
“You’re a total stranger and they share all their problems with you! I don’t get it,” he said, frowning at my computer like it was the enemy.
“The world is a strange place, my friend. And the internet is even stranger,” I said, tapping away at the keys. I had readers waiting in line to hear from me.
“You always break up with girls when things start to get serious,” he said. “Remember Sheela? She was in love with you”
“You back off when they take a step forward. Sheela, Sarah, Simran…should I go on?”
“What’s your point?”
“I’m saying that it is pretty fucked up,” he said, scratching his chin. “You’re handing out advice to others? Sorting out their problems?”
I stopped typing and focused on my confused friend. “Listen,” I said, giving his chair a friendly kick. “I break up with women because I want to keep things light. That’s not a problem, that’s my choice. When I want things to get serious, I’ll know what to do.”
“Ok,” Manjeet stared at me from behind his glasses like a lost child.
“I’m not asking these people to come running to me. I never said I’m an expert on love. I’m just a random blogger chucking my thoughts into cyberspace. If people ask me questions that’s their choice. They’re free not to read my blog. Free not to dump their problems on me and ask for advice”
“Right,” Manjeet shook his head. “Got it. You want to go get a beer?”
So we left it at that and headed out to the pub next door. The bartender was happy to see us. He greeted us like an old friend and gave us the best seats in the house.
My parents started to treat me with a grudging sort of admiration after a local journalist wrote about my blog in a magazine. The article was called “Outsourcing Love” and it was all about how popular my blog had become and how I fielded questions from the lovelorn in Sydney and Houston and London and Paris. It painted me as a wizard, an exotic magician sitting in a tattoo parlour in Delhi dishing out advice to the rest of the world. I was the voice of wisdom. The bright star of the east. No one could set a price on my expertise on matters of the heart.
Once the article appeared in print, journalists from other magazines and newspapers jumped into the fray to interview me. TV interviews followed. “What’s your superpower, Abhay?” all of them asked. “How do you work your magic?”
I tried not to let all the adulation go to my head. The popularity thing was a game of chance. The dice had rolled in my favour for reasons beyond my understanding. It was thrilling to know that so many people out there were hanging on to every word I said. But why I had earned their trust was a mystery to me.
My friends didn’t take my celebrity status seriously. They joked about it and call me the “love guru”. I liked it that they were pulling my leg. It eased the pressure and made me feel less self- conscious about my new position as advisor to the world’s lovelorn.
The blog made huge demands on my time. I spent as much energy on it as on my tattoo parlour. I posted pieces two or three times a week and answered my readers’ questions as promptly as possible. Any delay on my part upset them. They seemed to want to hear my voice the minute they shot their questions at me.
They were all in a hurry, but Howard from Austin, Texas was the most impatient of the lot. He got abusive at the slightest excuse. If I didn’t answer him fast enough he exploded. If someone posted a comment he didn’t agree with, he would pick a fight and make it ugly and personal. I warned him a few times. Asked him to tone it down. He came back with apologies and promises of better online behaviour. He had broken up with his girlfriend recently and the wound was still raw. They had been in a relationship for five years. Howard was convinced she was the one. He was all set to propose to her when she dropped the bomb. Her dream of becoming an actress had died a quiet death in Austin and she had decided it was time to move to New York to revive it. Austin, and Howard, had held her back for years. She needed to be free of both and start afresh.
Howard complained about her all the time. He hated the way she had sprung her decision on him. The breakup was a shock, he hadn’t seen it coming. He felt like he had been run over by a bulldozer and left on the wayside to bleed out. The man had a hard time letting go. He saw the world through the lens of his broken relationship and blamed everyone around him for his misery. His responses to my blog posts always ended up steering the conversation towards his conniving girlfriend. She was all he talked about. The breakup was betrayal of the worst kind. He swore he would make her suffer in return.
I tried to calm him down. He wasn’t in the mood for advice, he said. This was total bullshit. Advice was exactly what he wanted. The need for advice was what kept him hooked to my blog. Anyway, I let him be and moved on to deal with other readers. Howard was not the only one around with a troubled love life.
Manjeet and I talked about Howard sometimes.
“The dude’s crazy,” Manjeet said, browsing through Howard’s rants. “No one can help him. He’s out of control”
“Give it time,” I said. “He’s angry at his girlfriend but he’ll cool off”
“He’s dangerous. Sounds like he’s going to blow up the whole world,” Manjeet warned me.
I laughed it off and told him not to worry so much about the crazy dude from Texas.
I hate to admit it, but Manjeet was right. I should have done something the day he sounded the warning. I could have called the cops in Austin and alerted them about Howard. A phone call or an email from me could have saved a life. A timely word of caution, a hint to the authorities, and Howard could have been locked up before he shot his girlfriend at point blank range. Her neighbour had found her lying in a pool of blood on her driveway. Howard had driven away from the scene in his SUV. The cops caught up with him and arrested him a few hours later.
I got a call from the cyber crime department in Delhi the day after the shooting. The officer asked me a lot of questions about Howard. How well did I know him? Had I met him? Talked to him on the phone? Was he in the habit of sharing his plans with me? Had he ever told me that murder was on his mind?
I was in shock. Answers were hard to come by. Guilt made me fumble for words. I felt terrible for not having read the warning signs. It was no use saying I had no clue Howard was a killer. I should have known. I should have seen it coming. I swore to the officer that my interactions with Howard had been strictly online. I had never met the guy or talked to him. He was a stranger in that sense. A stranger in a faraway town who had shown up online to share his pain and confusion with me for a while.
The official grilled me for a few more minutes and let me off with a warning. He said that giving advice to strangers was a dangerous business. Why did I have to meddle in people’s private affairs? Who had appointed me messiah of the lovelorn?
I promised to shut down my blog right away. It seemed tainted, bloodstained, a sordid reminder of my failure to prevent a murder. I was done with dispensing advice. The human heart was unknown territory. It was not mine to read, it never was within my reach. I would confess my ignorance to my readers and make a quiet exit.