In the car, they held hands beneath the driver’s line of vision in the rear-view mirror. If he had been Ilango, it wouldn’t have been necessary to show such propriety.
She had, in fact, shouted twice for Ilango that morning, while waiting for her coffee, and then wondered why this other man hovered sheepishly at the doorway.
“Ah, sorry, Pazhani,” she had said to him, feeling such grief, as though a friend had died, when she should be so happy.
But Pazhani said, “It’s no problem, madam. I’ll get the car ready.”
He was a good man. And already, she was a “madam’. Not “baby” any more.
Her life was hinging on a new phase. PKB and Ilango were gone, as if dead, the way Pinky and her school friends had gone. They had been ever-present in her life. Now, she thought, sitting at the vanity, there was Shekar. As she thought of him, he appeared and kissed her on the forehead, as though she were a child, or at least a child in the English films she so rarely saw nowadays.
Here in the car, she felt positive about the press conference. She couldn’t start her new life, her honeymoon, without putting a full stop to her old one. You couldn’t begin a new sentence without putting a full stop after the old sentence. The press conference was the full stop.
“You know,” said Shekar, examining her fingers, “I understood, a bit, what you and your mother were talking about. My Tamil isn’t so bad.”
“I know it isn’t,” she said.
He was sweet and pure and miraculously innocent in spite of the whole corrupting influence of the cinema world. She adored him.
“How did we meet?” she said. “In a dream.”
“No, we met on set.”
She laughed. “Both times I was meeting you for the first time.”
“You were, yes. You had forgotten me completely.” Brazenly, he put her fingers in his mouth.
The name that had seemed oddly familiar when the director mentioned it connected with his face. It all came back to her: their first film, White Sari, the embarrassing real-life bedroom scene.
She didn’t know where to look except at him, and he was looking at her as though he had expected her, at that very moment, to walk through the door. To her knowledge he had never made another Tamil film after White Sari. She remembered their thwarted romance as she went to him, and she couldn’t help feeling joy, for he wore his heart on his sleeve.
He said, “Kalai Arasi, I’d been hoping you and I would meet again.”
“Then why didn’t you do something about it before now?”
He raised and dropped a shoulder. “I hoped,” he said, “and we meet.”
She pulled her hand from Shekar’s when the first question was asked. It was the old hound from Kalki. “How does it feel to be married, Miss Kalai? I mean, Mrs Shekar.”
How did she feel? There was a mike in front of them, and a big vase of Ooty roses. Kalai pulled on her sari to improve modesty. It was white, with a green and silver border. She had chosen white to give herself an aura of just-married bliss. Shekar wore white too, to match her.
“It feels wonderful,” she said. “I am now complete. Admittedly, one has to become used to the change of name.”
And so on. Banal, but necessary questions and answers, to establish her new life. Comments on the wedding sari, the jewellery. Was there any dowry? Certainly not. Will she look after her in-laws? No. The in-laws will remain in Bangalore. She wondered when they would get around to PKB, her only hero for nearly ten years. They didn’t.
When for the third time there was a question about the mixed Tamil and Kannada traditions in the ceremonies, she said, “Don’t you want to ask something more interesting than that? Don’t you want to know how we met? Where we are going for our honeymoon?”
“So tell us, tell us,” they said.
But they did not want to know. Fuddy-duddy Tamils, she thought. They would vivisect the silly, superstitious rituals, but not really care about the heart of things.
What did she and Shekar see in each other? What were their ideas for the future? Was there great love, great passion, great tenderness?
Finally, almost reluctantly, someone asked the jackpot question. “Will you stop acting after your marriage, Miss Kalai?”
Mrs Shekar didn’t stick even till the end of the press meet. She knew then that she’d always be Miss Kalai to them. She looked at Shekar, crisp and handsome in his white shirt, and smiled, as though to soothe him.
“Yes,” she told them.
No one reacted. They just sat scribbling under the noisy fans. They had expected a “yes”. It was de rigueur. They would never give leading roles to a married woman anyway. Even if she was only twenty-five, they would give her mother-of-the-hero roles, and that too only if they took pity on her. They would even cast her as the mother of a hero she had paired with. There was that actress, Angamma, who was not yet thirty, and already she was the favourite movie mother of PKB. Kalai would never degrade herself that way.
“I will finish any outstanding commitments,” she said, although she had finished the final dubbing work on her last movie weeks ago. “And I will then dedicate myself to my marriage.”
Her triumph. Her dream. Having dinner every day with her hero. Waving goodbye each morning, stethoscope around her shoulders.
Well, there wouldn’t be a stethoscope. Handbag and bun, instead. Off to the ladies’ club for some charity work. Kitty parties. Card games. Cutting ribbons.
“And I,” said Shekar, in a soft, false voice, “will continue making films after my marriage.”
They warmed to him. This Kannada usurper of their Tamil princess. They asked him questions about his move to Madras. He flattered them.
“Madras,” he said, “is the centre of the country’s film industry. Even Hindi movies are mostly shot in Madras studios. So, of course, it makes sense to move here.”
There were one or two claps from the reporters.
“Besides,” he continued, “they don’t make masala dosais like they do in Madras. Not to mention jasmine idlis.”
There was a good round of applause for such sentiment. He was forgiven for marrying Kalai.
The conference wound down. The news of their going to Switzerland was noted and there was no comment. Eyes wandered towards the side tables where rows of sweets and souvenirs waited.
“OK,” said Kalai. “Thank you all very much for coming. Do not forget the little mementoes before you go.”
“One last question, madam,” piped a voice. It was a new young face. The old hands knew that you called leading ladies “miss’, not “madam’. He was scribbling in his notepad even as he put the question. “There is a rumour that your assistant, Ilango, wasn’t too happy with the situation. Your marriage. Could you enlighten us?”
“Did he tell you he wasn’t happy?”
“They say he left his job and is now nowhere to be found.”
This was not the kind of bombshell Kalai was expecting.
She thought there would be questions about her falling out with PKB. It was as though they were all dampened in enthusiasm by some gagging order. Only this untrained cub had the lack of wisdom to posit wild speculations about someone of no account (to anyone but herself ) like Ilango.
“Where did you hear this?” asked Shekar.
The boy moved his feet, looking uneasy. “As I said, there is a rumour.”
“I have to disappoint you,” said Kalai, “but the simple fact is, Ilango has jaundice. I’m sure you know what kind of illness that is. He has gone to his native village to rest and recover.”
The balloon that was the young reporter punctured with her reply. His chubby, irritating face deflated.
That wasn’t the end of it. Someone else piped up: “One last question, Miss Kalai.” And here it is, she thought. PKB.
“Whom will you vote for in the coming legislative elections?”
She realised why the questions were so tame. PKB was a saint. They wouldn’t ask a single question that cast aspersions on his moral character. All the reporters, like all the masses, worshipped PKB.
The man repeated his question.
She had nothing to hide. She was all truth and plainspeak. “For the incumbent CM,” she said, and got up to thank them once again.
Excerpted with permission from The Queen, Anita Sivakumaran, Juggernaut.