Back in the days before we had Pepsi and cable television and imported chocolates in our corner stores, the only way to get these coveted items was to go to Park Street, where the shacks at the edge of the road were filled with all sorts of things we only saw in the American movies we rented from the video stores. On a very special Sunday, my father would drive us there so we could buy a box of stale Kit Kat which had somehow reached the poor vendor’s hands via Dubai and Thailand. They tasted of an arduous journey as well – battered and bruised with expiration dates we ignored by virtue of our mirth. The vendors kept imported cigarettes, aftershaves, lighters, electronic goods – all of America, what we later learned was really the Middle East, under one plastic shack.
One year, during Diwali, when our dining table was filled with trousseaus of sweets, cakes and candles, the new Consulate General of Germany, perhaps in trying to make a statement, sent us something quite unique – cases of Coca-Cola cans.
We had cola in India – our domestic version, called Thums Up, which had a red-and-white drawing of a fist with the thumb sticking out. But Coke – the thing of films and rock stars’ posters – was something we knew existed in a faraway, parallel world. It was akin to having Disneyland be brought to your doorstep, for your, and yours only, private use.
My parents, who never touched fast food, measured the soup and salad they ate for dinner, had no interest in such things, which meant I usurped all of it – all 36 cans.
I rationed them carefully. I never mentioned to visiting friends that there was anything so magnificent in my house. I let them ogle on at my enormous toy collection, the miniature houses, the plastic horses with synthetic hair, never letting on that there was something more physical, more corporeal to the larger world we only theoretically knew existed, in my possession. I would consume one as a reward after completing my schoolwork. Sometimes, on a Sunday, as a special treat.
I saved the cans afterwards, crushed them to give them what I thought was an “authentic” look, the kind I aligned with the teen magazines I used to buy from the roadsides on Park Street, and used them as pencil holders. Years later, when my habits became more exploratory, they turned intoashtrays hidden in the nooks of my desk. One day, at the edge of the afternoon, when time whirled and stirred lazily through the day’s absence, while the door crack of my mother’s room was still dark, news came via Magan that Dinky had arrived and was downstairs in the living room. She had obviously been informed by the guards at the gate and the workers inside that I was at home and there was no point in trying to hide in the ocean of jasmine pots my mother grew on the terrace, craning my neck to watch her go back out through the gate. Reluctantly, I headed down, dragging myself over each step in submission.
Dinky was sitting erect on the sofa, looking nowhere in particular, one hand resting on the other across her lap, her hair swept back dutifully with a plastic hairband, glistening of oil her mother must have applied on her.
“Hi,” she said, as she saw me emerge through the shadows of respite. I wondered how to entertain her that day. Should I bring out the dolls? The colouring books? Should we play around the house so I could hide in obscure corners till it was time for her to leave?
There was nothing as sorrowful and sweet as the fullness of solitude and Dinky had interrupted mine. Magan lingered around annoyingly.
“Does Didi want a drink?” he asked.
I looked at her.
“Sure,” she said.
“Is there any Thums Up in the house?” I asked him.
“Dekhchhi,” he said.
I wondered how and when Dinky would leave that day. I had no control of her departure, to decide when it was enough, my freedom contingent on someone else’s mercy.
Magan still lingered annoyingly. Then he said something – so simple and innocent you’d think he truly had my best interest in mind. “Didi,” he said, “oi Coca-Cola ta acchey.” Didi, we have that Coca-Cola.
I had a great talent – in moments of extreme calamity or shock – I never screamed or cried out loud. Instead, I went inside myself. I hid all my emotions behind the stone of my spine and could make my face look as plain as a wall, even though all the while my heart might have been trying to push itself out.
To my greatest relief, Dinky shook her pristine, oiled head and with remarkable poise said, “That’s okay, a Thums Up will do.”
The metal object which had risen up to my throat now dissolved into a light ball of air into my stomach. We turned around and walked towards my bedroom, where I would now have to entertain her till the world came to an end.
She walked behind me, in her white kameez with yellow printed flowers, the cotton of the fabric clinging to the folds of her sides, her mounded stomach, her courteous footsteps following me towards whatever it was that I would decide would be our mission for the evening. Suddenly, she stopped and turned around.
“Actually, if it’s such a huge problem, I wouldn’t mind a Coca-Cola either.”
I stopped too.
She looked at me as though it was nothing at all, as though it were she who was doing me a favour – relieving me of a burden. Through the gauze of civility she had bestowed on me a kind of authority I didn’t want. Because, of course, now it was up to me to do the correct thing. Truth was, it was I who was powerless in this situation, having been cornered against the wall of liability and obligation. How could I say “No”?
Something hot rose up my spine but I didn’t let it show. This wasn’t about Dinky or even the imported cans. She could have simply said she really wanted a Coke. I would have acquiesced even though I might not have wanted to. She could have widened her eyes, restless with questions, and vomited out her feelings – that she too wanted a taste of America, that she’d like to take back a crushed can of her own. But she didn’t. Instead, she, using frailty as her weapon, left me with the duty to change the world.
I looked as plainly at her as she had at me. Her eyes were shining and full of begging and that made me feel more defenceless.
Between her and me and the shrapnel of her good manners, I could say anything. I was in that position. I had never wanted that power, that kind of responsibility.
“Of course not, it’s no problem at all. There’s plenty of Thums Up in the house,” I said.
I turned around and headed to my bedroom full of things, all kinds of miracles in my visitor’s eyes.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
The words so meagre. She uttered them as though she knew what they meant.
Nothing is more natural than wanting things. Nothing sillier and more desolate.
Back in my room, I took out my large collection of dolls – mangled and twisted into a large shopping bag, white-and-blue. Dinky drank her Thums Up with timid sips. She didn’t complain when I gave her the doll with a malfunctioning arm. The problem with Dinky was that she never complained at all. You almost wanted to shake her, tell her to say it, let it out like a man’s red spittle on the roadside – all the pride that we grit between our breath.
All evening and the night beyond seemed to have gone by before my mother’s voice was heard, forceful yet soft, like July rain, announcing that Magan was ready to escort Dinky back. My companion got up – all of her shiny, excessive self. She brushed out her kameez. A scent of soap and powder falling from its folds. On her chin, a light-brown stain. The spoils of her aspirations.
I didn’t point it out.
“Bye,” she called out from the staircase. Her cheeks abundant with gratitude.
I returned to my room, breathing as though someone had just unplugged my ribcage.
“I don’t mind.”
Whatever is invisible is never really absent.
Outside, you could hear the evening birds start their call. The azaan from the mosque nearby. Window shutters closed their heavy eyelids.
Everything went about its way, its rules, its everyday ordinariness.
Excerpted with permission from Not Quite a Disaster after All, Buku Sarkar, Harper Collins.