July 13, 2006

The Key

Posted in Fiction at 11:44 pm by falstaff

He was clearing out the desk in the study one Sunday afternoon when he found it. A small, silver key with an oval base and the letters JF8421 etched on it. It was lying in the middle drawer, hidden under the brown paper he’d used to line the bottom. He held it in the palm of his hand and stared at it. He couldn’t think what it was a key to.

Was it the key to the drawer itself? No, it didn’t fit. He tried the other drawers, then the bookshelf, then the closet in the study. No. He went around the house trying it in all the other cupboards that he never locked. It didn’t belong to any of them. He took out all the keys in the house and compared it to them, thinking it might be a duplicate of something. It wasn’t. He remembered that the refrigerator had a lock too and tried that. No. He pulled out his old bicycle lock from the back of his supply cupboard. No luck there.

What could it be the key to? Could someone else have left it there? Some visitor? He remembered how his friend Rajeev had come over and spent the night in his study once because his wife had thrown him out of the house. Had it really been six months ago? Could it be his? But surely he would have said something by now. They hadn’t spoken in a while though. No harm checking.

Rajeev and his wife, it seemed, had settled their differences. Their son had been really ill. No, he was fine now. Quite recovered. Was spending the summer vacations with his grandparents. Rajeev and his wife were organising a picnic next weekend. Would he like to come? Great, they looked forward to seeing him. It had been a long time. What’s that – a key? No, no, he hadn’t left any keys behind. The whole point of that night was that his wife had taken even the keys to his own house away from him. Ha ha.

So it wasn’t Rajeev’s. Where did it come from then? He stared at the key again. It wasn’t big enough to be the key to something important. It looked more like the key to a locker. Yes, that’s what it was, a locker key. But the lockers in his gym didn’t have keys. And he didn’t have a locker at work. But wait, what about his old office? He used to have a locker there. Could this be the key to that locker? Had he simply forgotten to hand it in when he quit? He never used that locker anyway. He tried to remember what the key looked like.

Next day he took off early for lunch and went down to his old office (it was just a block away, after all). The receptionist was new and didn’t know him. He was just trying to explain to her who he was and what he wanted there when his old boss showed up. He was even balder than he remembered, and still had that irritating accent. But he seemed less intimidating somehow. Pretty soon all his old colleagues had gathered around, telling him how he hadn’t changed a bit, how he looked completely different, how he’d lost weight. It felt good. His friend Gautam, the one who’d been swearing he was going to quit for as long as he could remember, was still there. They decided to go out for lunch. Gautam updated him on all the office gossip. It seemed strange, like peering through a window into another world.

The key didn’t fit though. Once he actually got there he remembered that the keys to the lockers looked completely different. He didn’t know how he could have forgotten. Now what? He spent an hour in his cubicle thinking over where else that key could have come from. It was beginning to annoy him now, not knowing what the key was for. Could it be from his earlier apartment? No, he’d given all the keys to that back to the landlord, even the spares. But maybe a duplicate to the mailbox? Yes, yes, it could be.

That night he stopped by his old apartment. Or rather, where his old apartment used to be. They had torn the building down. They were building some new high rise. The entire site was surrounded by a high asbestos fence. He was shocked to see it. All his fondness for the old house came flooding back. His first apartment. All the good times he’d had there, all the memories.

He stopped by the paan walla at the corner to get a cigarette. The old man recognised him, welcomed him back with the kind of eagerness one reserves for a favourite customer. Wanted to know how he was, what he was doing these days, why he never came by the shop anymore. He told him that he’d moved out, that he lived far away now, that he’d only stopped by to see his old place – he didn’t know it had been torn down. Yes, the old man nodded sagely, three months ago they started. Such a nuisance, sir, all these trucks with their dust and cement going up and down all the time. Constant traffic jams. Ruining the place, really. All the best people (like yourself, sir) moving out. Which reminds me sir, what happened to that friend of yours, the one who was always coming here with you, woh chashme walleh? Nikhil. He’s in the States now, he told him. He’s working there. In the i-shtates? Wah, wah, must be making lots of money no? Yes, he nodded, he was. How long since he had had contact with Nikhil? He must e-mail him once he got home.

But what to do about the key though? Could it have been the key to tha mailbox that had now been destroyed? A key without a lock, then, of no use to anyone. Somehow, the more he thought about it that night, the more he doubted it. No, this was the key to something else. He just knew it.

Finally, reluctantly, he decided to call her. They hadn’t spoken since the break-up. A part of him said it was a stupid reason to call – some unidentified key – she would think he was making an excuse, that he was checking up on her, or maybe even that he wanted to get back together with her.There was bound to be misunderstanding. Better not to call. But the riddle of the key just wouldn’t go away. He’d tried putting it back in the drawer where it came from and forgetting about it, he’d tried watching TV, reading the new Roth, listening to music. But he couldn’t get it out of his mind.

He called her. She recognised his voice instantly. Some things hadn’t changed. There were the awkward ‘how are you’s’ to begin with. The innocuous little ‘so, what’s new?’ like a bridge thrown over a seething river of questions, all desperate to be asked. She was fine. She was seeing someone new. He was a banker too, it seemed – some habits die hard. He told her how he’d been travelling. Slowly, the conversation thawed. Yes, she’d been to see the new play too. Alyque Padamsee HAD seriously lost it. Had he heard about the poetry reading at the British Council? She was thinking about going for it. Did she remember the last reading they’d been for, the one where the poet described the countryside as being the place where cows moo? She laughed. Of course she did. And how about that interminable poem of hers, the one about making mango pickle as a metaphor for memory. Like that hadn’t been done before. What was she reading? Yes, Carver was amazing, wasn’t he?….

It felt like old times, talking to her this way. He had that warm, singing sensation inside him again. Not that he was still in love with her or anything. No, no, that was all over. Still, that didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends. He wondered why he’d been hesitating to call her.

Towards the end of the conversation he brought up the key. Explained how he’d found it, how he couldn’t figure out where it belonged, how he thought maybe it was hers, something she’d left behind when she moved out. She said she didn’t think so. It wasn’t likely was it – she’d never kept any of her stuff in that drawer. Still, maybe a duplicate. She’d check. Would call him back later in the week to let him know.

So that was that. Somehow he didn’t think the key would turn out to be hers after all. He suspected she’d just said she’d check to give her an excuse to call back. Where did that leave him? He couldn’t think of anyone elsethe key could belong to. Could it have been the previous occupant’s? Maybe they’d just left it in the drawer and he’d put the brown paper over it without noticing? No, he remembered going through the house opening every drawer to make sure there was nothing in them. He would have found it then. This key was definitely his.

Staring at it long after midnight, it began to seem to him that this was no ordinary key, but something supernatural – an apparition, a metaphor. Perhaps the secret of the key was that there was no lock to it, perhaps in every universe there was a key that was just a key, in and for itself, that would open nothing. The opposite of a skeleton key – a key that would fit no lock. But why should it magically appear to him? And why now?

He was being silly. This was just an everyday key with a lock of its own. He was actually fairly sure he knew what it was a key to, he just couldn’t seem to remember. Was there a reason he couldn’t remember? Was he repressing the memory of what that key opened? Was he afraid of what lay behind what the key kept locked? Somewhere out there was a lock that this key fit into and he had to find it. What had he forgotten? What was he missing?

July 5, 2006

The Fantasy

Posted in Fiction at 11:25 am by falstaff

Rajesh had a fantasy. It wasn’t lewd or vulgar or anything. In fact, you could say it was almost genteel. Rajesh’s dream was that one day he would wake up to the sound of a woman crying in the next room. He would go over to investigate and find a beautiful stranger, lying in bed, crying her eyes out. Seeing her distraught, he would take her in his arms, console her, lull her gently to sleep. They would lie together through the night, she breathing calmly by his side, he watching over her while she slept. Then, when the night was over, he would slip away.

And that was it. There would be no words spoken, no communication of any kind. They would never see each other again. And there certainly would be no sex – no, not even a harmless little kiss. It would be a night of absolute intimacy with a total stranger.

Rajesh was very fond of this fantasy. He thought it demonstrated maturity and refinement. Not for him the lurid porn-inspired threesomes of his classmates. Never mind that they laughed at him when he told them about his dream. They were just hormonal, over-sexed teenagers, that was all. What would they know about sensitivity, about the meeting of souls? A woman would understand. A woman would appreciate the spiritual fragility of Rajesh’s dream. After all, weren’t all the magazines always saying how much women wanted to be held?

The trouble, it turned out, was that very few women want to be held by total strangers. As time passed, Rajesh began to see the flaw in his fantasy. How do you get a strange woman to let you sleep in the room next to her, ready to come to her rescue should she suddenly start crying in the night? The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to get into a relationship. Sooner or later the opportunity to hold her through the night would doubtless come up. And after all, wasn’t that how all his other male friends were getting their fantasies fulfilled? Getting into a relationship with a girl and then cajoling her to cooperate in whatever obscene scenario they had in mind?

Except that the whole point of Rajesh’s fantasy was that it had to be with a stranger. In his head he could already hear the things his fantasy woman would tell her girlfriends the next morning. About how kind he’d been, how generous, how protective. Like a true knight-errant. No, she would tell her amazed listeners, he never tried to make a pass at me, not once. Her friends wouldn’t believe it. Were there still guys like that? He would be a legend.

It wouldn’t work if the girl wasn’t a stranger though. What was the big deal about comforting your steady girlfriend through the night? She’d probably just take it for granted.

At first he tried hanging out in singles bars, trying to spot women who looked particularly miserable. Like they’d just got some bad news and were trying to drown their sorrows in drink. This didn’t go well. Either the women were convinced he was just trying to take advantage of their unhappiness (which he was, though not in the way they thought), and turned away from him in scorn. Or they actually took to him, in which case they cheered up and soon became animated and flirtatious without any signs of the depression that had drawn him to them in the first place.

Rajesh was a good looking guy, he was intelligent, he was a good talker. He sensed instinctively that he could have taken a number of these women to bed. But what was the point? That wasn’t what he was looking for. A couple of times he tried explaining to the women he hooked up with that he emphatically did NOT want to have sex with them. One woman told him to get lost, wanted to know what he was doing in a straight bar anyway. The other slapped him.

Who would have thought it would be so difficult not to have sex with a woman? In desperation, Rajesh decided to compromise and tried going the relationship route. After all, it wasn’t every boyfriend who was that tender, that supportive. His first girlfriend couldn’t sleep if someone was watching her. His second girlfriend, whom he first met at a party sitting by the pool and crying, turned out to be a surprisingly positive and optimistic person (her grandmother had died the night he met her) and after six months of waiting for her to have another breakdown of some sort he dumped her. His third girlfriend he tried taking into his confidence – explaining to her, at the end of their third date, what he wanted. She immediately wanted to know why he didn’t want to sleep with her. Was she that unattractive? He finally had to have sex with her just to convince her that he didn’t think she was ugly.

By this point, Rajesh was starting to lose hope. Gradually, as the years passed, and an endless lifetime of unconsoling nights stretched out in front of him, he decided that his fantasy was just that – an idle dream. It was never going to come true. At 30, defeated, he got married. The first few times his wife cried in bed he held very tenderly, kissed away her tears. It felt good. After a while, though, her tears were mostly about things he had done (or hadn’t done) and he started to get irritated. What the hell was her problem anyway? Everyone had troubles. Didn’t he go through hell at work? Why was she always carrying on like this? Weeping away over the smallest thing?

He decided that his trying to console her was only encouraging her. Maybe if he ignored her when she cried she would stop doing it. So now when he felt her sobbing in the bed next to him he simply turned his back to her, pulled a pillow over his head, and dreamt again of that perfect stranger, the one he’d never managed to meet, the one who’d have a real reason to cry and would deserve to be comforted.

Decades passed. Rajesh got divorced and his wife got the kids so he went back to living alone. He never remarried. Sometimes in the night he would wake up thinking he heard someone cry. But there was no one. He told himself it was all those years when the children were young that had done this to him. But in his heart of hearts he knew it was her, his fantasy woman, whom he was listening for.

Then, one day, at a conference in London, it happened. It was late – a little past one in the morning. He was walking down the corridor to his hotel room, a little drunk, when he heard the sound of someone crying. It was coming from Room no 462. He listened for a while to see if he could make out any other voices. There were none. There was just the heartbreaking sound of a woman weeping alone. It was exactly what he’d always dreamed of. Gathering his courage, he knocked. A minute later the door opened a crack and a tear-stained face peeped out. God, she was gorgeous. Or would have been, except for the tears. Couldn’t be a day over 25. He felt strangely elated, and also terribly frightened. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just passing by and I heard…that is to say…I just thought…look, are you all right?”.

Five minutes later, he was inside the room, listening patiently as she told him the old, familiar story – a boyfriend, high school sweetheart, getting married in three months, just called to say goodnight, a woman answered, been going on for months, she didn’t know, never going to forgive him – and he saying, “there, there” and helping her get her shoes off and tucking her into bed and putting his arm around her and leaning her head against his shoulder and plying her with tissues. And then, when she was finally asleep, easing her gently onto the pillow, turning off the lights, and sitting in a chair by her side watching her, the soft fall and swell of her breathing.

He waited till it was 6:30 by his watch, and then slipped away to his room. Too excited to even think about sleep, he shaved, showered, packed. He was catching the noon flight back home. He felt elated. He felt like singing. Finally! After all those years of waiting, his fantasy had come true. He wondered who he could tell about it, who would understand. There must be someone.

He ran into her in the lobby. She looked much better now – more composed, and infinitely more beautiful. But the meeting was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He shrugged aside her embarassed thanks. It was nothing, he said. Any gentleman would have done it. Only too glad to help. Hurriedly brushing her off he turned back to the reception counter to finish checking out.

Behind him, he could hear her talking to a friend. They had come down to breakfast together. They were talking about him! His ears pricked up. “And he never tried to come on to you? You’re sure? Didn’t try to feel you up or ANYTHING? Maybe when you were asleep? These lecherous old men are the worst, you know”. Good. Good. “No, no, nothing like that”. Here it comes. “Just look at him – he’s clearly past all that. I doubt even Viagra would help him now.”

At the counter, Rajesh cried out in shock and dropped his pen to the floor.

April 27, 2006

Tangos

Posted in Fiction at 9:17 pm by falstaff

“The sound of the tango is the sound of a rose weeping in the sunset”, he writes. “It is a carnal wound, one that requires all the agility of our youth to stitch it up again. All dance is ephemeral, but the tango, for all its dramatic frenzy, is doubly so, because underlying it is the eternal languor of violins. The tango is a flimsy fabric, flung proudly about, to hide the nakedness of the evening’s despair.”

He looks up from his typewriter. In the time it has taken him to write this paragraph, the light has got worse. The sound of his wife washing up in the kitchen fills the room with its clanging. Far away the traffic of the city sighs like an abandoned mistress.

“Have you noticed how no one ever smiles when they’re dancing a tango? This is because the very idea of pleasure is anathema to the dance. Laughter is the enemy, because it could detract from and destroy the sexual seriousness involved. If the tango is not to collapse into the ridiculous, it must maintain at all times its air of being in deadly earnest. As with all true art, absolute authenticity alone makes the illusion possible. A well danced tango is a ritual, a sacrifice. To laugh during it, would be like laughing in the middle of a sacred rite. “

He reaches for another cigarette, discovers it’s the last one in the pack. He’ll have to go down to get more. He tries to remember how long the shop stays open. He had better go soon.

“There is a sense in which every tango is a battle, fought between a man and a woman, with the dance floor for a battlefield and sex their only weapon. That is what all this flashing of limbs, all this feint and parry of gestures adds up to. Who wins in this battle is unimportant – surrender can be as much a victory as control – what matters is only the racing rhythm of the heartbeat that it leaves you with. It’s as though the dance were practise, as though the dancers were merely sharpening themselves against each other – like knives rubbed together until the sparks fly from their blades – preparing themselves for other, more desperate battles to come. Precision is everything in the tango, its fundamental grammar is that of stab and thrust and plunge, because it is the only way to puncture the swelling roundness of the music, its ripening sorrow.”

Is he being a little too over the top here? He reads over what he has written. It does seem a bit, well, florid. He shrugs. It’s probably what they’re looking for. The true Latin spirit. He grimaces, then writes on.

“Many people have accused the tango of being too grandoise, too exaggerated. ‘Why do we need all this fussy play-acting’, one North American critic writes, ‘when we can savour instead the simple yet sublime grace of the ballet’. To think this is to miss the very point of the tango. The ballet is founded on an idea of transcendence that the more down to earth tango simply does not believe in. At its heart, the philosophy of the tango is a faith in the overt and the overdone. If we live our life in these grand gestures, the tango seems to say, then surely the end, when it comes, shall arrive with a flourish. If we cannot hope for salvation, we can at least ensure that we go out with a bang.”

In the apartment, the radio coughs like an old radiator. A quick burst of static announces that the news is next. As the dusk gathers, he pushes his chair back, takes one last drag on his cigarette, stares unseeing at the scarred surface of his writing desk. He is remembering a time when the curfews were still a daily feature, when it was still possible to get shot going down to the corner store for a loaf of bread.

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