A change in the air
The soundtrack: You handsome devil by The Smiths
Scientific data show that the amount of colours daubed on your body during Holi is proportionate to the size of your body. Jamshi Narimanpointwalla, scrubbing away the purple patches on her face with soap and pumice in her bathroom mirror certainly seemed to attest that theory. She had been daubed with various hues, not all shampooable coloured gulal, first by her South Delhi neighbours and then by her friends from the workplace who went from one part of town to another spreading menace.
Every Holi, Jamshi realised that Delhi was much less inhibited than the city she had come from and where members of her family continued to speaking in a lilt that ensured that they would always be more comfortable with perfume than with cologne, with quietness than with noise, with Kabir Bedi than to Rishi Kapoor, with English than with Hindi. That day, for the duration she engaged in faux fisticuffs that felt more primal than colourless fisticuffs and when men who never met women’s eyes were allowed via tradition and titters to have a go at ‘having a go’ by smearing powder on women’s faces (and thereby not missing contact with the shoulders, the neck, the fingers, the shadow of breasts moving at incredible speeds), Jamshi forgot about how stressful she was the last 11 days.
Inderjeet had not picked up his phone even once. They had spoken last the day after they came back from Bangkok. Jamshi and Inder both had been in a good mood, on the checkpost of where flirtation moves into a less temperate climate. For Jamshi, it had been a delightful trip. She had had fun with a new friend, her opthalmologist friend, her ticket to finally planting her flag in this city. They had spoken about showing each other what they had bought in Thailand, Inder careful not to underplay his heavy, brimming-with-things suitcase that actually flew in the airplane’s cargo hold as Jamshi’s.
“You better show me the stuff you have there,” she had told him as he picked up the suitcase from the conveyor belt with unadulterated enthusiasm. “Looks like you’ve got a whole lot of goodies. Any sex dolls?” she kidded, even as she saw Inder redden like a Bt tomato.
But as she (unsucessfully) tried to remove the purple map of Maharashtra (with a bit of Gujarat attached on the top) that was there on her face, running down her ample forehead down her button nose to her formidable chin, she decided that after work, she would drop by at Inder’s to see what was up. He had visited the Shroff Eye Centre twice in the last week where the receptionist said that Inder had not yet come back.
“He was supposed to have been back here last week, but he hasn’t.”
“Did he leave any message about when he would be back?” asked Jamshi, whose lazy eye had been acting up again because of the tension.
The lady behind the counter just shrugged, pressed a few buttons on the switchboard in front of her as if a secret gate would open, and shook her head laterally while chewing a non-existent chewing gum just to show that she didn’t really care.
Another person who was concerned about the sudden silence from Inder was the Haitian Rick Frangine. He had got a text message from Inder almost a fortnight ago that he was back in the country and that it was a good meeting with the three travel company guys he had meetings with.
“Wl c u on Wednsday. Gt smthng fr u. ” was the last message on his mobile from Inder.
The one person who was absolutely sure that Inder was in trouble was Amar Singh, his friend who was the only person barring Inder himself who knew what he had really gone to Thailand for. After Inder had failed to turn up at the lobby of the Taj Hotel on Mansingh Road, Amar had called his number more than a dozen times that day. Ultimately, at around 8.15 pm, after packing a sizeable quantity of kakodi kababs and sheermal (with extra packets of that erotically charged green chutney) from Aap ki Khatir on Nizamuddin (that was, a la Bruce Wayne-Batman, a tyre-repair shop by day and a kabab joint by night) he went to Inder’s house.
Amar avoided the lift and told his driver to come up to the flat (B 213) if he didn’t hear from him in the next ten minutes. Knowing the kind of people that he knew were operating these days, he wasn’t taking any chances. After ringing the door didn’t amount to anything, he looked around to see whether there were any pesky neighbours watching him. Clearly, the door was locked from inside as the metal door that wrapped itself around the wooden one was ajar and no lock hung from the former.
Placing the boxes filled with the delectable in a plastic bag on the floor, Amar gave a banging heave to the door. He didn’t want too much noise. So once again, he focused all his energy on to his left shoulder just as he had been taught by his uncle, a former wrestler, and rammed it on the wood. In between the dull thud, he heard a creak that was really a high-pitched groan. One more time and he was in.
An overwhelming smell hung in the air the moment Amar walked in. He could hear the television. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was the voice of Prannoy Roy of NDTV, that well-scrubbed tone of the mature elocutionist wafting from the other room as the voice mentioned something about how for the special occasion of the 21st anniversary of the new channel A.R. Rehman had composed the tune in five minutes over the phone “with Radhika”. Amar flinched, more at what the TV was saying than the smell getting stronger as he moved towards it.
He flipped one of the piano switches to get some light going in the darkness. The colours being thrown on the wall from the TV screen in an adjoining room told Amar that Inder was there. Was he unconscious? There certainly seemed to be some gas that had erupted in the flat. Strange that he hadn’t smelt it from outside the house.
“Inder? You there? It’s Amar,” he said, trying to breathe in as little as possible.
“Yes. I’m here. But…”
Amar walked in to the television room. Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan were both sharing a stage, it seemed with the great Prannoy Roy, and everyone was talking about everyone on the stage was an icon.
Amar saw Inder in the semi-darkness. He seemed to sound perfectly all right, just a tad nervous.
“Where the hell were you? Why haven’t you been picking up my calls?” he asked the seated Inder while flicking on a switch to turn a light on the wall on. He then realised that Inder’s face was what it was not because of a hardcore bout of Holi the previous day. Even with the drama of Inder’s totally disgured face, Amar’s eyes went to a plate on the side table still layered with what clearly were wet, dribbly cold cuts.
“Amar, I have a problem,” said Inder as he looked up to show a face that seemed to have been gnawed away by a gang of rodents and with a bunch of worms emerging from where his right eye should have been.
Amar let out a soundless shout at what he saw before him. But what turned that stream into a full-blown cry of almost physical terror was the fact that despite his condition, Inder was speaking to him as if nothing had happened.
Not too far away, almost across the street below, Jamshi had just stepped out of an auto in which she had been listening to a song whose words went: “All the streets are crammed with things/ Eager to be held/ I know what hands are for/ And I’d like to help myself./ You ask me the time/ But I sense something more/ And I would like to give you/ What I think you’re asking for/ You handsome devil/ Oh, you handsome devil.”
As she entered the lift and pressed the button to the second floor, even in her worry that Inder hadn’t got back all this while, she let out a smile to herself.
Next week: The epidermic epidemic