BOOK EXCERPT

Sex, drugs and death: was your teenage like this?

An excerpt from 'The Sibius Knot', an edgy new novel that explores blood, semen and sweat in 1990s Delhi.

What Seema says…

Every morning, you can spot me, staring fixedly at the sky, lips moving, praying for salvation. For six months I do all right and then the depression hits, gale force. I’m miserable, unable to focus on anything besides putting one bloody foot in front of another, doing my time. The wave of grey descends and I don’t know how to cope, being more used to the black rages, which always spelled trouble, but here I am on my own, left high and dry, with the meds having run out. Yes, there are generics at hand and I don’t even need a prescription, but for those I need permission, official sanction to get the meds in, and I’d rather die than let the matron know my real needs. “No weakness, none for me, thank you very much,” I write in my diary.

I chronicle it all. Few of those entries remain, I ripped up the lot years ago, on one of them bad days. So yeah, that whole mood thing is shot to shit and I’m so far under, death is looking awful good. I just can’t really figure out how, and trust me, I spend hours thinking about it. And then, just like that, when I need him most, the life-saver. Maybe those prayers worked, after all.

Mario, with his tales of a magical Knot, bursts on the scene. ’Shrooms, he introduces me to. Straight from Kodaikanal, he says, just for a tiny circle. Mario, his stepsister Amy, who is a complete weirdo but one class below me in school, Mario’s school friend Sid and I. We break all the rules, Mario takes over my entire being . . . and almost gets me expelled. Nothing like your teenage years for a little drama.

•••

17 January 1997. The first time Mario comes over, he smiles and holds my arm—it feels familiar. We walk off and he speaks to me of the big battles in life, the little battles too, how it’s all just stage one because the big one is coming, he warns me, and I just smile up at him, awestruck, because he is so Aragorn-like and me with my love of epics and the battle of good and evil, and he is so warm and talking to me, Seema, gallant-like, talking of things bigger than us both. And all of a sudden the universe crinkles, and I have someone. No longer alone, Seema. At least for a while.

It is only much later, after he dies, that I realize I have to tell the world what we were getting up to. Fighting for all your souls, and you didn’t even realize. I hit college when Mario takes his battle to the Darkness, itself. Getting inside the drug haze, fighting inside out—sure, you could say that’s what killed him, an overdose, that’s what the doctors say, but I know different.

I looked into its eyes, dammit. Death killed him. Just like that.

•••

But wait, wait, walk softly. We’re still in high school and things aren’t so grey-black, straight lines, walls pressing in, with him around. Time flies by—I don’t remember much else, I do fairly well in exams, I stop zoning out in class, which does the trick. This boy, he is always there at hand, magically. As soon as I realize I have some time free, he’s there. We sneak off into some corner to just talk up a storm. Whenever I manage to fake the gate pass, we go up to Mussoorie and he introduces me to his friends and classmates at the American school on the hill.

Even back then, even as a sixteen-year-old, he has the magic in him, the kind you read about or see in the movies. Think Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise. (Not that they allowed us girls to go to the movies without a chaperone. God knows they have some poky little local theatres with stale popcorn around here.) Mario’s always breaking bounds, melting into the shadows, never getting caught. But you know when you know, and I totally know he is special from the get-go—he is sparkly light and laughter and . . . I will tell you this, I write, He is the first person to actually see me, he looked straight into my eyes (fuck, my soul!).

Of course I love him even then, I just don’t know how to tell him. After all, he is way too cool to restrict himself. He introduces me to his inner group, and we drink and smoke and talk music. Nothing hard-core, except for the first time we all do mushrooms together. The things we see, the rainbow, the unity, what he calls the Sibius Knot. He sits me down later to tell me it will prove crucial in the fight against the Darkness. He feels it, but he can’t explain it all at once. Something insane about all the inter-connections.

“All of us, part of this web,” he tells me. I can’t grasp it then, I’m not ready for the trip but it is strange and something kind of wonderful all at once. I see him as a colour. White. What was that, his aura? Insane . . . Just way intense.

He waits for me to come back. Before he explains, that is. Gentle-like.

“It’s like the snakes and ladders in this grand cosmological scheme,” he says. “We’re all connected, right? But as soon as you see the Knot, you realize that if you tip in even just a little bit of the Infinite Evil, it discolours everything.”

He looks at me. “That’s where the Devil comes in, Seema, that’s why we need an army.”

“An army?” I think, with a start, but I don’t say anything. The Devil—how the hell to fight the Devil? “Who’s the Devil?”

But he’s taken off again. “That’s why I need you, with your witch’s whip. You’re like a Good Witch, you see?”

I don’t see, no I don’t, but I don’t let on. I so want him to keep looking at me the way he is, with this great overarching need, in just this light.

“You got a chance to see the Knot, right?” he asks, and seems satisfied as I go along with it, nodding away. It’s only later I understand the theoretics.

“An army?” I eventually muster up the courage to ask, hoping he doesn’t think it’s a stupid question.

“Just a select few,” he says, telling me I’ll meet them by and by. Even his friends don’t know the Plan, he tells me, they’ve not been chosen. Not even his aunt, whom he barely talks about, except to say she’s the Gypsy and part of the Plan. He says I’ll meet them all by and by. I’m happy to listen, to believe. In a cause, a Quest, Him.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “Everyone doesn’t see it. The problem is, Seema, he’s seen us. He’s seen me, that’s for damn sure. And now we’re all tangled up in his web. You have to look out, make sure you don’t sell your soul, not you. Not on my watch.”

I smile at him adoringly; he’s already looking out for me. Lancelot. Everyone calls me “crack-pot”, he calls me quirky. “Screwed up,” they say, “look at screwed-up Seema, can’t even keep her temper.” He reassures me, I’m just eccentric, powerful even. “Strange-looking girl, what a dork”, “can’t even tell she’s come from abroad, doesn’t look properly from there,” they say.

All those voices silenced with one look, two words. “Gorgeous,” he says. “Stunning.” This on graduation night. Mine. He’s already graduated high school but he comes back just to be with me. How he holds my hand! I flush. The sigh. The only time I get the scent of any longing. I’d have been all over it too, I was so hot for him, Mario, Mario, but he’s always the gentleman.

“Not like this,” he tells me after we can’t help but kiss, inhibitions finally lowered courtesy the Heinekens we nick from someone’s house. With all the other boys, I’m a hard- ass. All he has to do is look at me and I’m a puddle. That’s an epic kiss, right there, twenty-five minutes, no one else ever comes close, and as I’m kissing him my soul is skipping away, frolicking in meadows and waterfalls and . . . and . . . But then he pulls away, crushing my heart. ‘Not yet,’ he says, patting my arm. He gives me a tight hug and a cigarette to walk and talk the night away.

I don’t get it then, just figure that he isn’t into me. A slow crushing into myself. The quintessential ugly duckling. Not fitting, not a swan nor a goose, nothing—just plain old knobby- kneed Seema, as I write to myself, a tear-stained entry.

•••

And yet, I fit with him, it’s all I really need to know. If he thinks I have a mystical whip, why, I’ll get one. I start thinking deeply, focusing more intently, and finally it happens—I start seeing the Darkness too, everywhere, pretty much. “Of course, it all makes sense,” I say, nodding at him. “Of course we’re all connected,” I agree, and with all the good, how could there not be the bad.

My black days, I finally understand, are not just my own, they are sort of like Mario’s intense mood swings, sort of like the voices he hears sometimes. The Devil. Using our brains against us. But we finally have a way to deal with it all—a buffer, each other.

I don’t go to my aunt’s in the holidays, I make up some crap about a summer project. I even pre-empt the call I know she’ll make to check up, getting someone to call the family to say, “Seema has worked out a fascinating sociological proposal that will no doubt help with college applications.”

No one could have been more delighted.

Excerpted with permission from The Sibius Knot, Amrita Tripathi, Harper-Collins India.

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