Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

       "This Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Dayanandji for his novel -----"
the baritone voice of the speaker cut across the hall, startling awake the said achiever of the honor….
       The author in question was bored to death by the endless item songs, dances, gibs n poor attempts of the hosts to keep the attention of the audience rooted. As everyone who knew him in person turned to see, he contorted his face into a grin n got up from his seat in the second row.
       That such an honor should be bestowed upon him was something he had been proud of, but he expected it to be a typical government affair presided over by white-haired men and women in khaddar sarees and achkans….However he was pleasantly surprised to see that the function was taken over by a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters jostling each other in their efforts to take the spotlight.


       Now as he shuffled across to the podium, his dhoti in the danger of being undone by the various kinds of personal contact being made with the people around him by way of congratulations, the audience clapped and some of his contemporaries even stood up. Embarrassed as usual with such overtures of familiarity, Dayanand touched his chest with his hand and waved to the crowd. Onstage, the presenter handed over the award and then thrusting the mike onto his face, requested him to speak two words…(this being a direct translation of the Hindi phrase – do shabd).
       Having no choice but to do so, Dayanand spoke thus:
       'To all of you seated here, the eminent scholars, critics, writers, poets, n readers….I accept this award with a token of gratitude and heartfelt thanks…However to say that I do not deserve it would be considered an effort on my part to play being humble, yet I insist that this honor is to be given to my soulmate and muse, Urvashi who inspired me, encouraged me to write. To you, Urvi'


       Dayanand paused, shutting his eyes against the glaring lights and clicking shutters, to bring forth from the darkroom of his aged mind, the image of Urvashi. Beautiful Urvi, the goddess of love and desire. He smiled slightly and in a burst of applause and and yet another round of resplendent hugs from the presenter and the hosts, he exited the stage.


       Dayanand wanted to get out of this place, but then the announcement came for the dinner to begin. He was soon surrounded by admirers, fans and well-wishers…not to mention the media-persons with their cameras and mikes thrust into his face for a ‘sound-byte'. they all asked him the same questions - Who was Urvashi? Was she his Love? Were they together now? Why is your wife not here? Does she know of your involvement with Urvashi?'....He shrugged them all away with a smile, leaving them to lead their own conclusions. The Chief Minister came as did the other wannabe politicians, MLAs, MPs. They would not have read a single page of my book, yet they all act like they have written the book, grumpled Dayanad to his secretary Saroj. Other novelists came too, and Dayanand chit-chatted with them about things in general and future works and the state of affairs in the Literary world etcetera.
       Soon he was tired and bored, and with the excitement of meeting Urvi, tearing to eat him up, he put his arm around Saroj’s waist and whispered in her ear..
       ”I am leaving. Manage them in my absence”.
       “Where are you off to? Delhi?” she enquired with raised eyebrows, curious and suspicious as only a woman can.
       “Will tell you later” mumbled Dayanand as he made his way out of the room.
       "You need to be back in Delhi tomorrow, the newspapers will be full of titillating stories about u, now that u have given them something to chew on" she whispered back.
       But he was already on his way.
       
       Calicut took him into her arms as she had thirty years ago. He bought some black ‘aluva’ on the way out of the airport. Hailing an auto-rickshaw, he leaned back and allowed himself to be pulled by his train of reminisces. What had changed were the roads and the buildings, what had not were the air and the sky and the soul of the city. Calicut suddenly looked older, more wrinkled. 
       So would Urvi. After thirty years, would he be able to recognize her? Of course, why not, he shook his head and smiled to himself, closing his eyes.
       The taxi took him to the address he asked for. It was the same building, the same lane. Kerala changes slowly, resisting the advances of civilization, so that for generations together, the shops, the houses, the streets look the same as they did years ago. The teashop below the building had changed hands. ‘Urvashiji ka ghar kaunsa hain?’ he asked a group of customers. ‘We don't know about any Urvashi living here. But there is a lady upstairs who has been here for about thirty-forty years now. Maybe you can try your luck there. She refuses to give up the rooms. Just take the stairs at the back of this teashop.' one man answered.
       
       Thirty two steps in all, he had counted these steps everytime he had been here. His heart leaped as he caught sight of a woman, standing with her back to him, unaware of the footsteps. ‘Minnie?’, he called out. The cascading curtain of once raven black, now grey, whirled around at the sound, ‘She does not stay here anymore, if you want to…….’she blinked her eyes at him, twice, thrice, and then the slow smile of recognition spread on her face, Urvashi’s face, wrinkled, old, n yet retaining the same ethereal beauty.
‘So you are alive, after all? And you came!!’….she touched his arm in affection, took his suitcase and attaché and ushered him in.
He walked in to her room half expecting to see the same bedsheets, the same curtains, as thirty years ago. But of course how can that be possible? He smiled to himself, and settled down on the armchair next to the window. The street sounds weren’t the same. Instead of lilting notes of classical music sung by others like Urvashi, he could hear sounds of kids playing, auto-rickshaws screeching, some of the noises of the market in the next lane. Where had the solitude, the quietness gone? Urvashi returned with the tea, and placed it on the table in front of him. She sat next to him on the bed, looking out of the same window.


       "Times have changed. This street used to be crowded with my admirers. I used to spend my waking hours gazing out at this street. If I got bored I would walk out to the beach, only to be stalked by you."
       She put out her arm on his shoulders. For a long time they basked in the glow of their re-union, stifling their excitement to find out about each other in these years gone by.
       "So what made u come Dayanandji?, she finally asked, unable to contain her curiosity any longer. ‘Today I was awarded the ------ for my novel. The same novel that I promised I would write one day. This Lifetime Achievement Award is because of u, Urvi. Because u encouraged me to take up writing as a career. Do you recall that day?"
       "Yes I remember…..we were at the beach, it was the day u were asked by your father to return home, to marry the girl he had selected for u. I wanted so much to stop u from going, but I did not have the courage to do so."
       'Urvi, If u had only told me so, we would have been together.'
       "No Dayanandji, we could not have been together for long. My past would have always haunted u. Would u have lain with me, not thinking about the nights I had been with the other men. At some point, that issue would have come up. I know u only too well. Its allright for u to visit me in my havel, but not in ur bedroom. I'm a woman of the streets. I could never be anyone's wife, Dayanandji. I fell in love with you, but I could not leave this place. Everytime Ganesh announced a custome for the night, I would pray it would be you.        It has been fifteen years since I stopped entertaining, but that does not take away my past, does it?"
       He knew it was true. For a long time they looked out of the window, biding their time.
       "Have u informed ur wife that u are here?"
       "No, I plan to call her tomorrow. Its too late now. She must have slept"


       Deena paced to and fro in the living room. Worry lines creased her face. Her eyes had dark circles under them. Its been four days since he had gone to Mumbai for the function.. She was in constant touch with Saroj, but neither women had any clue where he was. Saroj was suggesting that Deena lodge a missing person's report. She would have to now, otherwise the police would make trouble for her.
       She opened the door to his study. She was never allowed into his study. He left explicit instructions that he was not to be disturbed whilst he was in there. The smell of cigarettes and whiskey hit her. Riling his his habits, she opened up the windows and rooms. A gust of wind blew in, making the loose papers on his table fly. She caught them, picked the ones lying on the floor and started sorting through them. Mostly they were about the new book he was working on. But there could be more. She sat and thought. Could it be that he would have...? No, that is not possible...But he could have.......She shook her head, suddenly weary. She knew there was a woman her husband was attached to in Calicut. He had refused to divulge any more details except that he would never love Deena as he had loved Purvi.....Was it Purvi? Deena was not sure. She emptied the contents of his bookshelf, the drawers, his files, onto the floor. Rummaging through the considerable pile, Deena chanced upon an old torn diary which had fallen out, its pages spread-eagled. There were entries by Dayanand, but mostly his musings to some unknown woman. He had not mentioned her name anywhere, but Deena knew these were written keeping Purvi in mind. She threw it in disgust. All these years, she had stifled her frustration, knowing that Dayanand was a writer.
The wives of his writer friends always tried to console her saying 'Every writer is the same. They have to have inspiration for their works, Deena. He still comes back to you, no?' But now, Dayanand was with that woman. How could he, after thirty years of their marriage? Maybe she died and he has just gone there to pay his last 'respects'...That thought brought some solace to Deena. If the bitch died, it would be ok. 
       That is when she saw it.
       An old photograph. Dog-eared, cracked. Black and White. A woman in a floral sari. Big Bindi on her forehead. Long thick hair, loosely plaited in the style of those days. Pearls for teeth. Doe-eyed, she seemed to reach out to the photographer, trying to snatch the camera from his eyes. In the middle of her palm was a formidable mole. But her fingers were long, tapered. Perhaps artistic. Unlike Deena's own short, pudgy ones. She turned it over.
       'Urvi n I below her Rooms - Calicut 1981.'
       She snorted. 'So it is Urvi, not Purvi. I was close.'
       She scanned the background for any signs of a landmark. Since the photo was really old, she had trouble finding out, but there, weren't those letters?
       'Abul's photo studio, Abdullah street, Calicut.'
       There was a pincode too but she couldn't read it.
       The address was too vague, n who knows if the studio still stood? But armed with some information, Deena found her mind analysing, planning. She switched on the computer, and logged onto the net. After some time, she found the directions to the place. Thank god for these small Google-Map miracles. Online, she booked a flight to Calicut. N since, it was too late to call Saroj, sent her a mail instead informing her decision.


       Meanwhile Urvashi was filling Dayanand's glass with more whiskey. At his request, she had dressed up in a red sari, pinned jasmine garlands into her hair. Though shy at first, at his persistent urging, she drew her eyes with Kohl, n painted her lips red. The last addition of jewellery took them back to their night, the night they were to be together for the last time. She laughed n teased him mercilessly.
       "I'm old now, what do'u see in me? Why do make me dress up like a fool?"
       "U r never too old, Urvi. Even now I see u as the young gal that u were"
       For a long time, they lay there in each other's arms, pure love mingling with mutual affection, then drifted off to sleep in the middle of a conversation.
       It was afternoon by the time Deena reached Calicut. She caught a taxi to Abdullah street. There was no studio on the whole damned street. Anywhere. Not even a new studio. Hot tears of frustration welled in her eyes. She spotted a tea-shop some distance away. There were some men drinking tea. She decided to ask there.
       "Bhaiyya, do you know of some studio that used to be here about thirty-forty years ago? Abul studios?"
       The owner shook his head, then asked something to his customers in Malayalam. None of the knew or had heard about it.
       As she turned to go, one of the men suddenly said, "No I remember, it used to be there, between those two shops. But who are you looking for? "
       "Urvashi, Do you know her?"
       The old man nodded "Are you looking for Urvashi, the prostitute?"
       "Y...Ye...Yes...."
       "Well, the teashop owner is her best friend. Ask him"...the other men guffawed loudly while the owner looked embarrassed.
       "Take the stairs at the back of this place. This is the second time in a week that people have started asking for that old hag. Is she back into business or what? And whit women?" - he mumbled.
       Ignoring all the riff-raff, Deena ran up the steps and came to the door.
       Her heart beating loudly, she knocked on the door twice.
       Urvashi opened the door. There was no doubting the resemblance to the photo. She was beautiful even with her grey hair and wrinkles.
       "Are you Urvashi?"
       "Yes, who are...." Urvashi's question remained unasked. The women recognized each other.
       A male voice asked from inside "Who was it, Urvi?"
       Dayanand's voice.
       Deena ran in. Past the living room. Past the kitchen. Into the bedroom.
       Her husband was sprawled on the bed. Writing something in a book.
       He looked up at her. Surprised. Then stood up. Calmly. Deliberately.
       While Deena stood there breathing hard. Angry. Betrayed.
       "Deena, I meant to tell you today. I cannot live with you anymore. I have given you everything that a wife could ask for. But I'm afraid, I cannot stay with you under the same roof anymore. I love Urvashi. I have pined for her for three decades. I refused to have any physical relations with you because I could not bear the thought of anyone other than Urvashi touching me. Since you insisted on having kids, I went and got a vasectomy done."
       The silence around them roared and shrieked like a banshee.
       For ages they stood there, looking at each other. 
       Deena crumbled. She tottered. Swayed. 
       She gasped for air.
       Then, with her spine straight, with all the dignity that a woman could ever muster, she turned on her heels and walked out.  


       Dayanand turned towards the window, and took up his writing from where he had left off.

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