GRIEF

Like a single piece of sugar cane if chewed repeatedly is sapped dry , and mouth is filled with dry flaky strands , that image with no promise for the future was dry, it would not suffice any more. Like a beautiful silver photo frame with an absent photograph.  She longed for the freedom of madness, like screaming in a silent concentrating classroom, or dancing to a sexy song inside a chapel or slitting her veins in a buddhist monastery, or sleeping on the lap of a stern monk. She could not even cry, it was like wetness was taken out of water.

She heard commands like “Don’t forget, remember this, never do this, always do this, Don’t do that, don’t ever do that” so many mnemonics to remember, always remember, no one had taught her to forget , there had to be a school to teach that.She remembered her third standard friend’s phone number why , she did not know. She had collected greeting cards meant for a boyfriend, lover, husband over a span of several years, each purchase a part of the script, half truth, some day it had to be in right hands, and become a full truth.She did not pity the dead, she pitied the dying. She could sleep only after dreaming, it was a habit of sleep hygiene, practiced from childhood. Now to reverse the order, was hard, she needed a teacher, she sang some lullaby to her self. But one had to be awake to sing! Her mother stirred “Why are you awake? You will look ghastly in the camera”Damn, all the gods, and their wives, some with a harem like Krishna.

She picked up the pepper bottle on the table, tore one small part of the calendar paper wrote the date and wrote an emergency novena of infant Jesus in it, made a cross with toothpicks tied in a loose thread from her petticoat and opened the window of the hotel and threw the bottle out, hoping that the bottle flew to some wandering angel, he better hold it, her sleep was in it, and his dream would slowly reach her eyes. May be she had packed the dream in it, sleep descended on her,like a Christmas gift, through the chimney, stealthily, like her lost love.

A dreamless sleep, silent like a prayer hall.

REJECTED

She went to the college office to find his postings. The clerks were smiling at her, asking about the “experience” she mumbled some response, walked up to Victoria hospital, looking for him in Paediatric wards.He was trying to find the vein of a small infant, repeated pinching of the skin and slapping of the muscles making the baby cry. He saw her leaning on the railings outside; he continued his work with a wooden face.He knew that she was waiting for him, finding the vein was a more difficult task now. She stood there hopelessly, like a victim. She knew they had to talk, she had to explain. She kept rehearsing arguments, her love for him etc. in her mind. This was like a viva-voce` in her exams. She silently chanted her prayers. She waited for an eternity, when he did emerge he was running down the stairs to find a quick exit. She ran behind him“Can we talk?”He looked at her like one looks at a dangerous insect, fear and disdain mingled in equal measure. “I have nothing to say to you” Madhu did not know that it would be so difficult, but it was her goddamn life, it was her precious love,  “ You have to listen to me, this can’t be resolved without that” He continued to walk briskly “There is nothing to resolve” Madhu stood her ground beneath the Gulmohar tree full of pink flowers.He stopped. She said haltingly, “You see I really did not know what I wanted, when I signed that film.I was only looking at fame, fulfilling my mother’s dream. I thought my father made his father famous and I am making my mother famous, doing what she could not do, achieving her ambitions, now I know it is not at all what I thought it to be, I won’t be proud of this film, or my identity as an actress. I did not know you well enough, I could not have asked you what to do, could I?  It happened too fast, now I can’t walk out in the middle, but I will not continue in that field, I don’t want to”

“You are wasting your time. I haven’t the foggiest idea what you are talking about, I am engaged” He sounded cool, superior, completely in control. So who was the actor? What about all those yearning looks, that burning possessiveness, those protective gestures, that band aid? But to calculate, or sum up there was not even a single act, or evidence or proof of his love, none at all. It was just powerful suggestion, a pleasant implication; she had allowed herself the luxury of living in a world of dreams based on such shaky foundations. To build an entire life only in her head, with him as the centre of her universe, then to be told it would never become real, it was just a lovely silly fantasy, where would she go from here? Perhaps to a burial ground where there was ash, burnt dry earth or a chain of manholes. The sky was falling on her, there was no cover. Anand almost always wanted to win, hated her brilliance, her guts, his need to upstage her could not be satisfied by her , he invited  for an honest game, as she won every game she lost most of her heart.She was helpless  here she wanted to hug him, kiss his angry mouth, drop to her knees and cry saying “ Don’t do this, don’t hurt me”. That baby she had imagined with his eyes and her smile, cried along with her in the womb of fertile imagery. “Please write your address, so that I can send you my wedding invitation card”he said.

BARBIE OR BHABHI (?!)

AD was softened by the enactment of romance, all this body contact of holding hands, cheek to cheek poses for the camera, affected his body. Madhu coped with the proximity with effort, occasionally she liked the touch, but it scandalized her that she could like it, it tormented her when she did not like it. “Touch” by itself, had not much impact on her, the implications of tolerating a male touch , getting used to a stranger touching her intimately, destroyed her spirit, crumbling her self-respect. Splitting the touch from the man, treating it like the caress of a shawl, or the brush of a broom, depersonalizing a highly personal experience, destabilized her perception of human intercourse.

Was it not what sluts did?  The degree of self deceit varied, but it really was the diluted, glorified, version of the same.  She had a tendency to generalize lessons to similar situations, when it happened with mental operations it was useful, but her body was learning insensitivity to the tenderness, of human body contact. Precursor to the most beautiful experience of mankind, the act mothered humanity, fathered the desire to live.AD said he was not serious about any of the girls in his life, hinting at a big number. He thought a Casanova image would appeal. To him girls existed to provide pleasure to a man, it cost money. 36-26-36 was the ideal measure, clad in designer labels, color of the skin did not matter, long legs would be ideal. Any face without a cleft palate, or squinted eyes would do.The philosophy was “ cover the face and see the base”. If he and his gang flirted with a girl, she was at least a girl, if they did not she was as dull as ditch water. When  they respected a girl it was usually someone their friend had decided to tie the knot with, then she became their “Bhabi”( sister-in-law). So to be a Barbie or Bhabhi that was all the choice a girl had there, it was a different universe.

So AD  had no clue how to deal with Madhu. If they were to be in the same college , to him she would have been a nerd. She was a hybrid variety, sometimes, she could pass off for a bomb. If it confused the audience, how much more confused the model must be! No one sympathized with confusions, if you chose to inhabit several worlds, you could forget about a companion Members of each world thought she belonged to another. She became elusive to her own self. But AD was a decent chap, although some touches became squeezes, some hugs were meant to crush, he did not meddle her mind, so she was safe with him. He did not look for her weak spots, or target her vulnerabilities. Her flesh was not susceptible, like eating a squid, or drinking bacardi to enjoy such pleasures required a certain type of cultivation and a degree of stupidity or the need to impress the peers in a clique, Madhu lacked that initiation. Madhu was a solitary walker listening to the rhythm of an unknown drummer, who smiled at her from behind the clouds on rainy nights, no one else saw him, no one else heard him, he was her private delusion, a secret Christ, an embodiment of all her madness , and sanity , a teacher , a  student who kissed her eyes safely containing her tides.

 

FEELING SORRY FOR LESS THAN HANDSOME

While Sirish abhorred the vulnerability,  he was condemned to see, because of his refinement, Rakesh saw it as an opportunity, “The camera man spent less time behind the camera and more time behind the bathroom door, so what happened? Soapy touches slip you know?” The fact that her mother was disenchanted with the silver screen, even before the completion of the project, stripped Madhu of her star status, even before she achieved it. So this heroic act assumed the absurdity inherent in tragedies. Losing Anand had hurt her, now Sirish seemed to be callous. She had thought of him as an older friend, some one who treated her as a person, not as a woman. In that world of glamour, woman was not a person, sometimes she was more than a person, goddess of eros, sometimes less than a person. Vulnerability was a feminine quality. It did not occur to Madhu that perhaps Sirish was also vulnerable. “Listen Rakesh, what is the problem with you? Why are you after me? What do you want, can you be straight?” “I want you, baby now what next? You can spill, yes or no”

Madhu looked at his weird appearance, crazy manners, general attitude meant to show off. She had expected some vague joke, not this, definitely not this. As though he read her face he burst out laughing, “ Stop looking like someone shot you dead, I was trying to get fresh, I try this often, I succeed often” Madhu once again felt sorry for him . It felt awful to look like omenpart2 or vampire some times. For years after the abuse, she had thought it was because she was so ugly that he had abused her. No one would believe that this ugly girl could provoke any man, so he had done that, she thought it was her precocious female body that caused it, she had learnt to achieve beauty with so much pain, she thought nothing is impossible. There was nothing she could do about the female body, she would swing between pride and shame and a placid acceptance had emerged, except when the spotlight was on her, the old conflicts resurfaced aching to be resolved.

FLIRTING

Madhu was aware of Rakesh as a man, now, because of his perseverant attention to her, camouflaged as superficial flirtation. It never occurred to her that attention might be the pretense, flirtation was genuinely just that. Flirting was after all arousing the attention of the opposite sex, with no intention of commitment .Flirting was self-love, projected on to the other. It often exposed the kernel of a man.

Madhu had seen the exchange of looks between a construction worker, and a mason, the ribald jokes with double meanings, female feigning sportive anger, knives and gloves as partners in the Operation Theatres, designer’s measuring tape caressing the waist of a dress, songs flirting with the rhythm, rhythm flirting with the dance, it was a mating game, a sort of foreplay of words, in a civilized society.  Words created loneliness to Madhu; she used them as a shield from experience. As she searched for a word to express what she felt, she distanced herself from that feeling, like preserving the wings of a dead butterfly. All language was memory.  Naming a feeling put it behind her, unlike naming a person pet name or nickname, branded him in her mind. But the word appeared in a newspaper, an advertisement pamphlet, or even a billboard innocuously, and caught her unaware restoring the original feeling with a pang.

She concluded long ago that she was incapable of that art of flirting, she took the other always too seriously and cared too little to pretend a lack of interest. All or none phenomenon.

 

BATH ROOM SCENE

Madhu was directed by the assistant director for the bathroom scene where she had to call out to Asha, they did not bother to tell the costume, when Madhu politely enquired there was a general laughter, “Absence of costumes is bath”.It was just the formula, when we have a fresh heroine, we show her off by a bath, romance, first night scene, etc. Sirish came marching from behind the camera  called Madhu to follow him to the bathroom, he ran the tap over liquid soap , bubbles formed rainbow colours shining over the silver white foam, he said firmly “ Smear it on your head, on your face , leave out the eyes, close your eyes when the camera is rolling” Madhu just looked down at her jeans, he  continued “The costume is just fine, I am not looking at your body , damnit, just put your face out , peep out, hide behind the door” as Madhu smeared the soap over her face and head, some soap got into her eyes, but she kept a straight face, Sirish was behind the camera by then, the shot was over in a minute.

He did not allow the assistant director to think at all, by then Madhu‘s lack of ambition was common knowledge, they did not want an incomplete film, so they did not coerce her. After the shot Sirish severely ignored her, did not even meet eyes with her, he made her feel guilty for her naivete. Saviours died many more times than those who got saved, they seldom claimed medals.

 

FIRST NIGHT SCENE

The rustic folk song of an older couple familiar with each other, but who played the man wooing the woman act with many children around them, were shot at first, then Madhu wore the black nightie. She pinned it so that there was no skin show. But the black lace did expose her skin in holes, letting the cold air of Coorg in to her dress, causing a shiver. Madhu never wore any nightie and walked in front of strangers, the costume itself was an invasion of her privacy. Varadraj allowed only Madhu’s mother inside the room for the scene.Shanthala felt acutely uncomfortable, morally responsible for the scene before her. She sat on the edge of the sofa, holding her self stiffly, her pretty face looked guilty, and scared, Madhu understood that look; she was seeing it in the mirror everyday . She was secretly relieved; she knew her mother was cured of the longing for limelight. She held her mother’s hand just before the lights were set, “It is only an act, it is not real, I can handle this”

The intensity, on the threshold of  consummation of a marriage was displayed by averted glances, clasping a fist opening into a hand, that tilt of the head moving back suggesting an offer of the body, then rolling on the bed careful not to touch him,  Madhu ascertaining that nightie should not move up by the motion , were shot. AD did not touch her unnecessarily, he was also uncomfortable.He was a chivalrous gentleman basking in the arc lights. There were a few retakes of some gestures; Varada raj was politely deferential towards her discomfort, gently directing the novice.

Everyone on the sets were pointedly kind to her, as if she was a victim except Jnanesh, he enjoyed looking at her discomfiture. He disliked virtue as if it was a rare illness, that  had to be cured by some aggressive interventions.To him virtue was a luxury of the rich or the elite…Madhu thought of the million brides in the Indian arranged marriage in bed with a stranger who married them being grateful to the gentleness with which a man dealt with their bodies. Even though her hesitancy was pampered, a crew mostly consisting of men, looking at her as a woman submitting to a man her body, in a bedroom, made her feel violated. At some primordial animal plane, the experience outraged her, like being shown her place in the world of men. Her actions in the scene, making every man who watched that scene think of her as a sexual object.  No one thought of being gracious to AD afterwards, the man was supposed to be in control in such situations.

PRESERVED LIQUID SCAR

There was a scene where Madhu had to climb on to the top of a car with the frills of her long skirt fanning out, and a herd of sheep passing the car. Sheep herd, with their white fluffy bodies, plaintive bleating, and a collective movement, somewhat directionless only aimed at getting out of her way, made her feel lost. Now she needed someone to live in her mind, the corridors of her mind echoed the silence of his absence. The poems linked him to her.

In temples of  ‘Ram” lonely , hurt women, suffering infidelities of their spouses often made garlands of small papers each paper contained “ Sri Rama jayam” written 108 times. Earlier, when Madhu visited the temples, she would think of those lonely hands writing the fixed number of prayers, that furious resolve to be faithful to an unfaithful man, glorified as virtue, chastity. In Indian mythologies,chastity of a woman was tested by Gods.  In these temples an occasional Anna Karenina*, crying before Lord Hanuman, to whisk her away. Some madame Bovaries*, in the Maramma temple, feeling energised to destroy the demons of their lives.

Between the romantic scenes shot in the early morning sun rays, Madhu wrote her poems in small scraps of paper. She was happy to be awake in those hours, awake or asleep dreams haunted that hour.She usually heard the chirping of birds, in her half awake state, from her bed “Gosh, it is morning and I still did not sleep”.  So when her wakefulness was legitimate, it was peace. She watched the birds leave their nests, chirping was like loud good byes. Birds slept with one eye open, when threatened or on the edge of a herd, she had read somewhere. When they closed both eyes, they dreamt like humans, what did they dream about? After all they were free to fly, may be they dreamt of the distant skies over  kinder earth.  She imagined Anand’s smug, self righteous anger, if he were to read her poems, she wanted to discard the woolen , let the cold bite in to her flesh, she wished she were in a colder place, than this. Some mountains filled with icebergs, she wanted to freeze the loneliness, take it out of her, and preserve it in formalin bottles, safe reminder of pain, like a liquid scar.

 

GROSSLY IMPERFECT RESCUE

Scenes of rock climbing were shot without a dupe, Madhu felt like a spider hanging from the ropes. She recalled her fond childhood ambition to work in a circus, wanting to jump from the ropes to be caught in a net, that strange desire to grow wings while falling, and escape the net. To flout the gravity of the earth, to hold on to the hands of angels, be a speck in the milky way. Somehow she just could not summon anxiety when AD saved her, to her it was funny. She was too young to fear death, too sad to really love life. A savior had to make her love him and then she may love herself and life in that order.

Rescue operations were holy, she romanticized, ambulance driver, fireman, lifeguard on the beach, parachute on the flight, but she would not be a passive recipient of generosity, she knew in death like in life she was her worst enemy. She   did  not  want to be saved by anybody else and carry a cross of gratitude. AD held her in his arms like a gentle lover, the passivity of her role to accept it like a grateful flower, was unacceptable to the woman inside so the hysterical incongruous laughter ensued when she should have shown mortal fear.

Sirish was exasperated, they were shooting at an altitude, every person in the frame was doing his bit, Madhu was unprofessional to a fault, embarrassing with her imbecile laughter, and the shot remained grossly imperfect. Saving her could not be done perfectly, on or off the screen, her role was to save, not be saved. She would laugh while she died, enjoying death more than life, making the savior role look ludicrous. She could not see others die, it terrified her. Like a flower which tells the day please don’t fade, the reality of her own end was not even a remote possibility it was the relativity to another that defined her, she simply could not exist for herself.

 

 

ASH TRAY OF FLOWERS

Madhu left the doll in Asha’s room did not want to give it to anyone else. Later in the evening she wanted to take it back and since that room adjoined theirs in the hotel she opened the door , switched on the light to see Rakesh sitting on the cot  smoking,  the flowers gifted by the schoolkids to Asha  were arranged in the ashtray, the gift was not to be found. “Now for what good deed of mine I am graced with this visit?” Madhu simply stood at the entrance, repulsed by the sight of flowers in the ash tray. He followed her glance, “Once they wither, they are used to make bonfire” Madhu removed the flowers from the puja* room at home and they became the organic manure for the tulsi plant. She never put flowers around a burning lamp, the sight of a flower burning  was like seeing  her mother’s sari burn ,  a careless accident, to see it done intentionally was unacceptable.

Her silent disapproval, irked him he upturned the tray, ash spilt on the bed sheets along with the yellow sunflowers, he had never cleaned an ashtray, it was apparent.  The burning end of the cigarette touched his fingers “ouch” he threw the bud it burnt the sheet, made a hole. She wanted to leave; it would humiliate her to say that she came to retrieve a gift that was not accepted.  “So how are things with that imaginary boyfriend?” He knew to irritate a response out of her.“ It is  off , he is engaged” She told herself that it did not make her feel as sad as it did on the first day. It sounded like a common event, everybody’s hurt. He looked at her for a long time and said “ So wait for six months, he will be bored with that wife then you can have an affair”. She got the joke , the implication was not funny “ I imagined marrying him, having his children, not a sleazy affair, why would anyone want to marry if they only want to sleep with that person?”  “I can give you two options or may be even three, come and get drunk with me, flirt with Sirish or AD or tickle me to death”

Now she was upset enough to sink on the sofa. How dare he suggest that she was flirting with Sirish or AD, he was a nobody in her life why should his opinions matter ? “I don’t drink” it would be foolish to explain anything else.