A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.
- Chinese Proverb
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There are chiefly two kinds of dreams:
The first kind of dream leaves a fleeting impression, a perfunctory kiss goodbye. It is light like floral perfume and deftly executed like Fantaisie Impromptu by the fingertips of a concert pianist. You wake up with a faint recollection of being ensconced in arms other than your own, but you shake off the feeling and attend to the halitosis you think you acquired from your grandmother.
The second kind of dream is chaotic, a waterboarding of the senses. It is a thousand ceramic plates shattering in G-sharp. It is racing to catch a storyline that doesn’t exist in a world where flower pots metamorphose into samurai swords at the slightest brush of a pale, dismembered hand. When Kabir quit smoking for the first time, he would often dream of being attacked by super-sized Marlboro Reds and would wake up to find himself putting out his lighter on his arm.
Sheafs of handmade paper, bleak as a necropolis at nightfall, seemed to mock Kabir as he callously knocked over his alarm clock and rubbed the crystals out of his eyes.
He had dreamt of following a dark, stout man with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder and a bald head that shined in the pale autumn sun as if polished. The man, he later realised, was Kamal Singh—gardener to the Grovers’ estate. As Kamal Singh waded his way through a temporary brook, Kabir trudged through a beige ocean of indignantly waving wheat stalks in his leather shoes. A few minutes’ walk led to a clearing where about a dozen peasants, clad in mill-spun loi and clutching bottles of hooch, sat around a motley bonfire of kerosene-soaked branches and dry leaves. Kamal Singh untied his bag to reveal steel tiffin boxes, a bottle of water, hooch, a box of matchsticks, glasses, and a small piece of Dhaka muslin. Each tiffin box contained more than a dozen dried poppy-seed pods in various stages of pulverisation: blue-black seeds peeked out from under broken starfish-crowned heads. All the crushed pods were added to boiling water in a big kettle held over the bonfire by a leafy appendage. After a few minutes, the tea was passed through the muslin into glasses and topped with a generous amount of hooch. A familiar warmth, marred by the ghastly flavour of a suppurating sore, was punctuated by the opiate currents of ease that coursed through Kabir’s body. What followed was a time-lapse sequence of chaos: Grown-up Kabir kissed Kamal Singh on both cheeks, serenaded an old woman complaining to a tree about the shortcomings of the menfolk, hallucinated losing at chess to Meera—Meera wearing a bridal trousseau, and finally collapsed on a jute cot.
The doorbell rang. Bloody hell, he mouthed, through a mouthful of minty foam. Spit, rinse, repeat, comb hair, use cologne, splash water on mottled face.
The moment Kabir opened the door, Saniya leapt into his arms, waving a manila envelope as bright as a eunuch’s lipstick.
“I meant to call, Kabir, but I was too excited. I’m getting married in two weeks!”
“Getting married? Whatever for?”
“For whatever reason people marry, Kabir.”
“Shut up, Kabir.”
“Poor chap. Doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
“Say congratulations, shed a couple of tears, offer me a drink, look excited.”
“I congratulated you months ago. You know where the liquor cabinet is.”
Saniya pouted on her way to the cabinet and took out a bottle of Bourbon. Holding it by the neck to show off her ring to the greatest benefit, she tossed it gently onto the soft settee, took out two glasses, and emptied half an ice-cube tray’s worth of ice into both glasses.
“Bourbon at 9 am. Gautam has completely corrupted you.”
Saniya stuck her tongue out at him. Kabir smiled. They sat together on the settee, discussing wedding invitation colour-schemes and politics. Saniya regaled Kabir with a tale of how she returned home early from Yoga after stretching a hamstring and caught the maid fast asleep in her bed with both the AC and fan on ‘full-blast’. She mimicked the way she snored, mentioned that the room smelled of amla hair oil and dried-up sweat, and stated that she simply had to fire her— she commanded a hefty pay, Saniya incentivised her deference, and she had proven untrustworthy. She was halfway through expounding her theory of the maid really being a Maoist on-the-run— she hailed from Chattisgarh, refused to relinquish her ID for police verification, and blankly stated that she’d rather leave than provide Saniya with a relative’s contact number—when she realised that her baby brother was asleep. After executing a strategic punch in the ribs, Saniya was unceremoniously chucked out of the apartment with her glass of Bourbon and a gigantic cruelty-free faux leather bag that Kabir never remembered her carrying.
Kabir finished his Bourbon, opened the envelope, and went back to sleep on the couch. Woke up a hollow terracotta man with—mysteriously—cottonmouth. He began packing for the fortnight he had to spend in Punjab to watch his elder sister marry that son-of-a-bitch lawyer. When Saniya announced the engagement, Kabir read Saniya’s face intently for signs of coercion— it was unfathomable that she would choose to spend the rest of her life with a man so bland that he spoke of romantic love as a “feminist encumberance” after a few beers. But what his sister looked for in a man wasn’t a soulmate, those don’t exist at all; it was a blank canvas that would faithfully reflect anything thrown at it, and weak-tea Gautam fit the bill. No one marries for happiness, remarked Saniya, as she gazed into the depths of her sangria. That’s more a happy accident than a premeditated outcome.
Kabir prayed that Meera was invited as he packed his bags. Her eyes would laugh as the pallu of her orange saree danced in the October breeze. Her green-eyed children would touch her face with their crayon-scented hands. Her husband would place his hand on the small of her back during the couples’ waltz; the sight of that and a simple rose-gold band on the crucial finger would sear Kabir like the descent of wayward embers on exposed toes. Her sweet smile would cause a coup de foudre that would leave him flush with wanting and despair in equal measure—and the night would end with him thinking of the significantly older French woman who initiated him to the games of tongue and spittle with a special hatred.
Why would anyone want to be the first to open that Pandora’s box at all?
Meera was the most beautiful girl the villages on both sides of the railway line had seen in two generations. The daughter of a wealthy silk-brocade exporter, she was one of the few girls to go to a convent, instead of the government-run institution that catered to the villages on her side of the line. Kabir still remembered the colonial-style convent school building vividly: it had a perpetual frown for a facade, a large vestibule, manicured lawns and a silk-cotton tree next to the main wrought-iron gate. One look at that celadon-eyed sylph, her pale moon face framed with burnt-sienna curls that knew no master; her small rosebud lips and delicately shaped eyebrows—and love hit Kabir like a thunderclap and Meera after years of consistent wooing.
As the pre-wedding celebrations were under full swing, Kabir thought of how much he yearned to admire Meera’s silhouette from the wrong side of a billowing valance.
Young women wearing uncut-diamond teekas, copious amounts of French perfume, and smokey eyes critiqued flower arrangements, checked out attractive men, and fussed over Saniya. Middle-aged women gossiped while rubbing their fingernails together to stave off premature greying. Men in Western formals helped settle the band by yelling at turbaned men carrying an assortment of musical instruments and accoutrements, who in turn yelled at little boys tinkering with the nagaadas and tablas. Uniformed waiters served multiple variegations of tikkas and fruit juices, teenagers pilfered liquor from the unmanned bar, and old women supervised the vattna mixture: too much turmeric, and Saniya would look jaundiced; too little, and it wouldn’t cleanse the skin as effectively. Saniya sat on a divan, dressed in a drab turquoise salwar-kameez, as Kabir sat at her feet.
“Your tie’s lopsided.”
“San, do you remember Meera?”
“Daughter of Malik sahab; the one with the Sikh wife. Exporter. Meera used to go to Magdalene’s with Shahana, I think. Pale, green eyes, curly hair?”
“No, Kabir. I don’t remember anyone of that description. And I know no Malik sahab.”
“Are you joking?”
“Did you ask Shahana?”
“She said she doesn’t remember.”
“Is she important?”
Kabir walked to where he thought her house was after the vattna ceremony—he asked many men at the wedding party about the Maliks, but to no avail, and on the way he asked a group of young women emerging from the neighbouring street for directions to an address. They pointed to a corner-plot protected by a low brick wall and a “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign and claimed that there was never any construction there; it was part of the farmland held by a prominent minister. He could feel their eyes bore into his back appreciatively as he walked past them: Kabir looked incongruous but dapper in his steel-grey suit, leather shoes and indigo tie. In the short time Kabir spent in Europe, he had perfected the Italian art of Sprezzatura: out of habit, he made sure to look every woman deep in the eyes but break eye contact first, casually run a hand through his thick jet-black hair, blurt out an elegant compliment and then backtrack, greatly ashamed— and intersperse his speech with pauses not bereft of implication.
Desperate, he walked for the better part of an hour to the tehsildar’s office, believing that the land records would vindicate his stance: but all that transpired afterwards was a bureaucratic push-and-shove, general ineptitude, a hot-tempered outburst, and the retrieval of an inquiry form after three hours and several pairs of greased hands.
By the time he got to the farmhouse, dinner was being served, but Kabir was content with a heady cocktail of Pinot Noir and ibuprofen
Night before the wedding. Saniya had a panic attack during the Ladies’ Sangeet that took place on the terrace and shouted the house down looking for Kabir, but he was at the tehsildar’s, studying the speckles of ink on the clumsily-painted wall. The women were right—that plot of land had seen no construction, let alone the white house from his memories; and there was no record of a Malik sahab within the time-frame Kabir specified. From the corner of his eye, he thought he detected a subtle movement of the speckles, but he brushed it off as warped perception brought on by moist orbs and sleep deprivation.
Had he known Meera at all?
He went back to the farmhouse to hear Saniya crying her eyes out in his room, and a bunch of inquisitive women huddled next to his door—some were audacious enough to use glasses to eavesdrop. They scurried away guiltily as he approached the door, but when he walked into the room—no Saniya. He walked around the house and found Saniya fast asleep in her room, her hair changing colours faster the longer he watched her.
Wedding day. Kabir wiped an errant tear with his plaid handkerchief as he watched Saniya and Gautam take the requisite four rounds of the Guru Granth Sahib through a prefatory haze. His eyes widened as he realised that Saniya wore the same trousseau as Meera during that ill-fated chess match. His cotton-mouth had returned, and he simply had to excuse himself from the gladioli-filled banquet hall to get some air and rearrange his thoughts.
By evening-time, Saniya led a cavalcade of revellers in search of Kabir. The ones that remained decided to dunk their hands (and heads) into the chocolate fountain.
Epic love stories airbrush the human experience into an inhuman, stifling perfection. Former loves don’t exist, erstwhile infatuations are irrelevant, blind trust is a given, practicality is bourgeois, and dying for love is glorified rather than pathologised. Celibacy is alluded to, yet further probing is met with upturned noses and self-conscious coughing. But their love is so pure, they say. One isolated instance of genital herpes couldn’t possibly blight it. He’s a man, goes the worn-out adage. Physiologically incapable of abstinence: the unspoken addendum. Yet Kabir’s love came close to the ideal— he began loving Meera when his desire could muster only the vestiges of an insipid firmness— and he stayed celibate for several years after he squeezed Meera’s hand in farewell. Their courtship had consisted of the muskmelon sweetness of feelings unexpressed, of clandestine chit-passing, of gifts of litchis, temple-flowers and rings of twine—and a tepid closure granted by the exchange of rosaries and tear-soaked platitudes. And as the years passed, love ensured Kabir a familiar ache that would reverberate through all four chambers at the sight of loose brown hair. What he once perceived as an amorphous discontent had, through the years, taken the stark shape of her absence.
Old, wizened Kamal Singh splashed water on Kabir’s face as he rapidly blinked. The jute cot creaked as Kabir rolled onto his side and moaned in pain. The peasants grinned amongst themselves and muttered something out of earshot about inexperience and spiked doda. Saniya—and half of the wedding party—heaved a collective sigh of relief. Saniya extricated herself from Gautam’s hold, walked towards Kabir, loosened his tie and slapped Kabir hard on the face.
“I get married and you decide to celebrate by drugging yourself? Who the hell is Meera Malik?”