The drumming – a raucous, catatonic beat – ran throughout; it was the same thing they played at weddings and pujas and everywhere else, a sound which made my spirits sink with a strange despair.
For it was only so long that I could maintain my humour, or brush aside the continual physical and sensory assaults. Retreating into a roadside dairy, whose thick milky smells came buffeting me at once, I stopped and stared at the figures dancing in front of my eyes. It was astonishing to me how easily they danced, how uniform their smiles and their laughter was, how, from the glitter-spangled child chortling in the back of the tempo, with his feet dangling out, to the men in their untucked shirts and pants and the women in saris – everyone was simply “enjoying” themselves.
Even as I watched, my resentment grew. It was not just that they were enthused by the occasion, and I was not – I was always vicariously happy to see people dancing in nightclubs, though I did not dance, or by other people making fools of themselves on alcohol, supposing that I was sober – it was the way in which they were moved that troubled and alienated me. In all their whooping faces, I caught not a glimpse of irony. And that note was not merely absent, but savagely, defiantly absent.
Further down the road, I came across another stall; this was like a vortex in the crowd, attracting hordes. A long table had been set up on the pavement, right in front of an ice-cream parlour, which was still open for business, though impossible to access. (Behind the stall, beyond the shop-windows and on the other side of the counter within, I saw uniformed employees beholding impassively their total barricading.) At the table there moved about a number of women, handing out vada pavs, chana and something else I couldn’t spot, for the throngs that queued and milled. It was free food.
Suddenly, I discovered the man who was shouting.
He had been bothering me for almost my entire walk. His cry of “garam garam vada pav aur thanda thanda paani,” uttered with an inflection so lascivious as to suggest unthinkable pleasures, was growing maddening in my ears.
Now I saw him, mike in hand, standing by a pole hoisted with loudspeakers. He was massive and sweaty, in a bursting white shirt, with eyes made small by burgeoning fat. And again he lifted the mike to his mouth and repeated with oppressive energy the same, infuriating lure.
I stood aside and watched him, struggling to damn him with my scorn. How could a lowly vada pav and water be talked up so unashamedly? How could they fetch such crowds? The queue for the food was endless. People continually broke off the road to lengthen it. In my eyes the whole panorama was wretched and petty, debasing to everyone involved (even though I was aware my ill-temper itself was beginning to ring absurd).
Turning with an exclamation, I walked on, fast on my feet, though heavy-hearted. But some minutes later, when I could sight in the near distance the way to the beach, and a large Ganesha covered in golden threads, about to be driven down it, there suddenly stepped aside from the pedestrian-traffic the very person I was hurrying to see.
Ahishor was smiling, his long locks fell peacefully about gently creased cheeks, and he bowed before me, full of humour.
“Adaab janaab. On your way to conduct a visarjan?”
“Are you kidding?” I cried excitedly. “I would blow this all to hell if I could!”
At once I remembered that his mother was Marathi, and he might be tremendously offended. My sudden horror must have showed, for he looked at me and chuckled.
“Said millions of frustrated Mumbaikars – under their breath! Come this way, we can’t stand like this.”
Just then, I noticed he was not alone. Malik was staggering up behind him, in a faded red T-shirt and cargo shorts, his perspiring face full of animal vigour. Ahishor turned, dodging the other’s heaving frame, and began to march purposefully. I followed along with Malik, a pace or two behind, while I wondered briefly why they were meeting. They were not friends, at any rate.
As for me, I was going to Ahishor on urgent business. For many weeks after my trip to Delhi, I had heard nothing from him. My messages went unanswered. I was told he was still in Shimla; later, I heard he was back in Mumbai, but not back in the office. I heard various things from various people. He was reading a great deal, busy with “research”, and meeting very few people. He was making short trips to Matheran and Karjat. He was shifting house from Bandra to Versova, to a new flat close to his mother’s.
By and by, I stopped inquiring after him. When he finally did call, at eight o’clock one Saturday morning, I was, firstly, startled out of sleep and then completely unprepared for the enthusiasm and energy radiating down the line. With scarcely a nod to the intervening lull, Ahishor informed me that he was about to start shooting. We met the same afternoon. Soon, I was rushing down JP Road to Aram Nagar every evening.
A circle of grinning faces came bobbing into our path. Up ahead, I saw Ahishor darting towards the awning of a grocery store. Malik and I waited for the dancing men to pass.
“Good fun na?” said Malik suddenly. I stared at his slack-jawed grin.
“It’s chaotic and meaningless,” I said.
“Ehehehe! I don’t know.”
His whole body was quivering with nervous energy. By contrast, I felt myself growing very still.
“Are you guys coming from the office?” I asked politely (though our voices were raised above the nearby drumming).
“Haan? No no. I just had to talk to him – had to talk to Ahishor...This film festival thing re. We guys are trying to raise some money.”
“Okay, but did you meet at the office?” I continued pointlessly, as he plunged forward.
We joined Ahishor among the cartons of potatoes and onions, and stacks of chips, at the front of the shop. He was grinning as we approached, with his eyes travelling up and down Malik in particular.
“This is all very cinematic, right Malik? Malik is the ultimate man of cinema! He judges everything in terms of how dramatic a visual it is. Rat-infested, crumbling courtyard in Zohra Aghadi? Yes, okay! Let’s live there! Relatively clean apartment building? NG (this was film editor’s lingo, meaning “no good”). Only I wish you weren’t so biased in favour of grunginess…and disorder. There are other kinds of beauty too.”
“I don’t have money re!” cried Malik. “That’s why I live in Zohra Aghadi!”
“It’s a vicious circle, my friend,” said Ahishor. His face had suddenly turned serious, “It’s a trap. First they force you to live in confusion and then they tell you to love it and celebrate it, so you’re never going to leave it... Remember what we talked about today.”
Excerpted with permission from The Outraged: Times of Ferment, Aditya Sudarshan, Rupa Publications.