The party was in full swing when Hari walked in. He felt uncomfortable and nervous as he looked around and realised that he knew no one. AB was the only familiar face. But he was deep in animated conversation with a group of friends and did not notice Hari for a while. When he finally did, he welcomed him with a bear hug and made a quick round of introductions. Hari picked up a drink and slunk into one corner. His instinct told him that the evening would be a bummer.
But there were those who seemed to relish the idea of holding centre stage. Tara of the fringe theatre was on her second vodka and third joint of the day. It was now time for her to make a statement.
“You know, folks,” she announced, “I am pregnant and I don’t even know who the father is.”
Heads turned and her husband Vivek of the art for art’s sake circle yawned. All too often did his wife say the most outrageous things to attract attention. Unfortunately, of late people had stopped taking her seriously. Since no one even raised an eyebrow when she said things like “I had four vodkas and snorted coke with an American friend this afternoon,” she had now resorted to announcing that she was in the family way.
Eyes turned. People were naturally curious and concerned. “If you are pregnant then you ought not to drink and smoke, dear,” came by way of advice from Ila Bhatnagar, the wife of a former tobacco company executive who dropped out of his high profile job to improve his golfing skills. Ila, incidentally, had snuffed out fears of further motherhood by being extremely careful after her third daughter’s birth.
The infant, much to the chagrin of her husband and his family, refused to be born a male. Those were the days when sonography had not become popular and one had to wait till the child was delivered to determine its sex. “Nitin and I would have gone in for an abortion if we had known it was a girl,” she had confided to a friend who came to visit her at the hospital. But now that political correctness dictated that one should not speak ill of the girl child, she waxed eloquent about her 20-year-old daughter.
“No fucking drink, no fucking smoke! I wonder if I will even be able to fucking act,” Tara exclaimed. She had first started peppering her speech with “fuck” while she was in college. At that time it was only the cool who resorted to the four-letter word as a mode of forceful expression. It had become a habit with Tara since. “Should we go in for a fucking abortion?” she shouted across the room to her husband.
Vivek did not answer. For one, he knew that his wife was not in the family way and then he was busy winning over a young impressionable thing showing a keenness for contemporary Indian art. And Vivek Anand, who wrote fervent SOS notes to his rich industrialist father for a living, was in an enviable position to claim that he did not paint for money. And was the girl impressed? “But, what about your wife? Won’t you need money now that you are going to have a child?” she asked.
“It does not trouble me one bit. Anyway, I don’t think I am the father.”
“But…you mean…,” the girl was incredulous.
“Yeah, as far as I am concerned Tara can have a fling with whoever she pleases,” Vivek used this stock line whenever he ran into young impressionable women who showed a fondness for contemporary Indian art and artists.
“Hey, Vivek how is your series on national integration working out?” a documentary filmmaker who was frequently quoted in Sunday supplements for his views on promiscuity, asked.
“Getting along, getting along. You can’t do justice to a subject like that overnight,” Vivek hated being asked about the integration series. He had been talking about it for the last five years. But with easy money coming from his workaholic father who ran a successful pesticide company in Bhopal, he could never bring himself to put brush to easel.
“It’s like my film on the subaltern view of the Kamasutra – fucking difficult topic. It needs a lot of research,” said the documentary filmmaker whose name Vivek could never remember. Hari had seen his photographs in magazines at the fancy saloon where he used to get his hair cut when he was still with John & Price. He was Arvind Subramaniam, and his last film was made ten years ago on the tribals of Bastar.
Since then he had moved to making PR promos without his name in the credits. But by donning designer khadi kurtas and sporting long wavy hair and a beard he had managed to keep up his progressive filmmaker status. He also talked about deconstruction, dialectic materialism and post modernism and was a big hit at parties where he passed off as an intellectual. Among his former comrades he was known as a “turncoat” and a “capitalist pig”.
It was at parties like this one that Subramaniam became expansive. He talked about helping the poor, feeding the orphaned, housing the homeless, treating the sick, comforting the hurt, bandaging the injured, guiding the misguided, teaching the illiterate, damning the dams, building the bridges and fucking the unfucked.
The last, thought Hari, was to prove that even saints are sinners.
It also fitted in well with Subramaniam’s theory that sex was an emotion and one shouldn’t suppress nature’s gift to humankind. His former comrades had often reminded him that if sex was an emotion, then so were anger, frustration and hate. And that sleeping with the wives of fellow comrades could lead to the husbands giving vent to their anger through physical assault.
“But that’s a base emotion,” Subramaniam protested before storming out of the discussion. He stopped his visits to the trade union office where he was a “visiting activist” and instead rushed to the nearest advertising agency to shoot a commercial for a soft drink manufacturer.
“Hey Subramaniam, can you record Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes for me?” It was the host, who wanted to desperately be part of the conversation….
“All fucking frauds – each as regressive as the other but pretending to be progressive,” Hari told no one in particular.
“I couldn’t but agree,” this came from a female voice that Hari could not recognise. He turned around to see a wispy woman in her early twenties dressed in a faded pair of jeans and a red T-shirt.
“Hi, I’m Vandana. But friends call me Vandy,” she had a soft pleasant voice and a glazed look in her eye. She was smoking a cigarette.
Hari introduced himself. Like him, Vandy too had chucked her job in a travel and tour agency. “I got fed up planning vacations for others. So I decided to go on a long holiday,” she said by way of explanation. Hari could understand her predicament.
“So when do you plan to get back to the real world?” he asked not out of curiosity, but for lack of anything better to say. Vandy was not sure but said she would be out of action for another six months. She had to rid her mind of all the crappy toxins she had acquired from ten months of sitting behind a desk.
Hari instinctively liked her and asked her if she cared to take a breath of fresh air in the balcony. Once there he rolled a joint and lit it. Vandy took a few deep drags. “This is real cool stuff. Where did you score it from?” she enquired. Hari told her all about Dr Moon and his frequent trips to Colaba. Vandy was a patient listener and seemed quite interested in hearing all about his meanderings through the city.
The two spent the better part of the evening together. But there were long gaps when Vandy would excuse herself and head for the toilet. In between she told Hari all about her heady college days when smoking Bombay Black was seen as being more instructive than attending lectures. “We were just tripped out,” is how Vandy put it in a nutshell.
Meanwhile, with Johnnie Walker, Black Label and vodka in plenty the conversation dragged on and on. Ranjit Mehra’s guests talked about the cultural invasion from the West. Of multinational companies and their warped plans for the Indian market. Of voluntary organisations which worked and those that did not.
They emoted on the trauma of being poor.
Being denied two square meals a day. They lit cigarettes, rolled joints and drank. Materialism, Buddhism, darkness after a grim day… air crashes, indifferent politicians. Lack of political will. Pink Floyd being the hottest rock act ever. The decadent British Raj. Imperialism. Post nationalism. Neo-feminism. Hugh Hefner and the dying porno fads. Tripping as defined by Timothy Leary. Divorce as practised by Siddhartha Gautama. Dublin as deconstructed by Joyce. Pulp as refined by Sidney Sheldon. Haves and have-nots. Defence preparedness. Eugene O’Neil and great American theatre. Politicians and scams. Nudes on the beaches of Goa. Whores in Bangkok and Kamatipura. The state of the nation and the nation state. Point and counter point.
The Bata sale – buy one shoe and get the other one free. Advertising and the art of persuasion. Media and the art of distortion. Will India lose the cricket series? Should we win, there will be a bumper harvest, if we lose a famine. Amitabh Bachchan, is he still a force? Will he sing his father’s poems and call it pop music? Hey, wasn’t that a good one? Never lost my sense of humour, chaps.
You know there is a jeans sale on – fifty per cent off. Want to increase your savings? Then don’t miss out on a single sale. The more you buy on discount the more you save although you may run out of your money. Hey, that’s a good one too! Whatever you say, only if you go to America can you become a success in India. These Indian colleges are useless.
That’s why Tinku, Binku, Chinku, Appu, Narayan, Mukul, Ali, Swarna, Swarnalatha and all my nephews and nieces and uncles and aunts have gone to America to learn how to manage the family business in India. I tell you this nation is going to the dogs. How can we have fast bowlers if they are hard boiled vegetarians and don’t even eat eggs? By the way, I hope you are doing some exercise. Yes man, me jog six kilometres a day.
Oh, by the way, the other day I was in Paris and I met this gorgeous French woman in…what’s that restaurant? Gosh, what’sthenameoftheplace! I am just too bad at remembering names of places. I tell you, the best cheese you get in Denmark, the best maize and wheat are grown in America, the best trout can be found in Wales, the best whales in the Pacific.
What is our country coming to and what is the finance ministry doing?
You know, my maid does not even have money to buy a good colour TV. That’s cruel. How can one go through life without watching Chitrahaar? I tell you that we need some good newsreaders. Professionals like in the BBC. They are articulate and know how to present news…
Cut this depressing talk. Do you know the latest media gossip? I met this journalist who told me that Murdoch is taking over the Indian media in a few years and that he will hire white men as editors. A new colonisation. The sun will not set on the Australian empire. Mark my words the 90s will belong to Murdoch. Ha! Ha! Ha! These journos are funny people. One chap I met at Mark Tully’s talked about how he plans to walk to China. He believes some Yankee shoe manufacturer will sponsor him. Fuck you, that’s pure bullshit.
Anyway, what do you think about the new play at the Tata Theatre? Oh darling! I just can’t take these Indian plays once you have seen what they do on Broadway. Is this a real Ray Ban? Is this a genuine Sony? Is this an Indian refrigerator…? If you ask me only the Germans and British know how to make good washing machines. You know, I met this intelligence bureau chap at a party and he told me that Rajiv Gandhi will have to sit in the Opposition after the next election. Is it true? But that’s a few years away.
Do you still buy your Darjeeling from London? You can’t get anything of any quality here. At times aren’t you ashamed to be an Indian? I say, have you heard that Australia is welcoming Indian immigrants. And in Iceland one can start an ice cream business without investing in a deep freeze…Heard the new ghazal album by that chap what’shisname?
My daughter and her boyfriend listen to it all day. I have told her she can marry anyone provided the guy has lots of money. Who’d want his daughter married to some government clerk?
Frankly, I think Manmohan Desai is better than Satyajit Ray. Who wants to watch these films which portray reality? Reality is people relieving themselves next to railway tracks. Hey, have you found the Italian tiles you were looking for? How’s the swimming pool coming along? Hey, give me a refill – every writer needs a refill…
“Well, well, grab your last drink because dinner has been served.” It was the host bringing some order to the chaos. “I have an excellent cook. He used to work for a Brit tea plantation manager in Kerala. So he is just tops with continental food.”
Soon the guests began to leave with their “What a lovely meal” said at the door. The host was visibly pleased. “What a great evening,” he said aloud for the nth time. “What a meeting of great minds. What exchange of ideas. If there were more people like us then our country would not be in the state it is in now…”
Excerpted with permission from Junkland Journeys, Ajith Pillai, Published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.