You have not a solitary thought. You sit around your laptop and get high. That’s your day every day, in a sentence. Or should I say ‘a day you have sentenced yourself to’.
What am I doing? I asked myself.
I sighed. The pep talk did not help.
I was going through one of my dark phases again. My half-baked career in advertising had quietly drawn to a close. I had quit the job to pursue what I’d presumed to be my life’s purpose—to write a novel but as days turned to months, the first line of my eponymous book escaped me.
I tried to think of something happy.
I pictured myself working hard at the typewriter (which I did not own because this is 2019 and people use laptops). Jabbing away at the keys with abandon, lost to the world, present only to my beloved characters. I would live for them, gnawing at the seams of their lives, feeding on their happiness and despair. It would be a great saga about the heroic life of a fool whose fate rested between the lines I typed with such ferocity.
It would be a great book. ‘2020 Booker Prize Winner Sahil Mukherjee’. People would talk about me, remark at my ingenuity, laud me for the mighty feat. How I wish I’d already written that book. How I wish I was already famous. A celebrity, a genius, a young model exemplar.
What a phenomenal life awaited me. It made me giddy to the toes. I needed more. I needed to get out of this room. Yes, that would fix me right. I needed to go out and wrench that story from life itself.
Before I could change my mind, I quickly googled ‘quaint bars in Mumbai.’ There were a thousand results. All very fancy and no doubt equally expensive. I googled again, ‘cheap bars in Mumbai’. I settled on a cinema instead which would cost significantly lesser.
It was an old black and white Western being screened by fresh-faced enthusiasts at a rundown theatre in Colaba. I was bored from the opening scene. All I gathered was that a philandering gunslinger with a misplaced sense of justice killed mafia goons. But largely his conquests landed him in bed with beautiful women. I was watching a kissing scene, it was no different from kissing scenes in other black-and-white movies, but for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate I was seized with a fearsome wish. I found myself longing to press my lips against the lips of a woman just like that. The urge was so strong I feared I might choke on my misery.
Kissing, and I mean the romantic kind, seems not a great matter these days. And yet it eloquently expresses feelings that no words can articulate. Just as no two people are alike, no two kisses are the same. There is the soft kiss, the fleeting kiss, the vacuous kiss and then there are those that cannot be explained but only experienced.
That deeply private realm behind the lips—that moist cavity that no one but the dentist enters dispassionately. Where one tongue reigns supreme over a silent microcosm – prepares to open itself up to another. The tongue, unused to company, gingerly approaches a fellow member of its species, advancing with reserve and curiosity. And there the tongues engage each other in a tentative dance.
That was how it was with Mira. I now know how far along the relationship we were by the way we kissed. At first the kisses were stolen—in cabs and parks and elevators between floors. Like a rising crescendo our passion inflated till we began kissing all the time, unabashed—in front of friends, in movie theatres, in restaurants like dessert after a meal.
To kiss each other became a habit at hello, goodbye and for no particular reason in between. By then, we lost track of when or where we kissed. Till one day, we didn’t. The kisses became old but I remained terribly in love even after love lost its lustre. It almost goes without saying that she didn’t love me the way I loved her. Instantly and eternally. Two years to be precise.
I left the theatre before the end of the film. Trembling with impatience, I told myself that there must be some woman somewhere in the city who would want me to kiss her. I looked hopelessly across the five-way crossing in front of Regal Cinema—a cacophony of cars, busses, motorbikes and people—searching for an image of a woman I might kiss.
I had no likely candidate among my friends and no hope of finding a lover, nor did I have money to buy me a kiss. There I was in the middle of a crowded city feeling desperately alone, craving that little caress of warmth. Just one kiss to acknowledge my existence.
Now if only I could kiss a novel into existence, it would solve my life’s crisis—two stones with one bird or however that saying goes. Yes it would be a story about a fool in search of a kiss.
But where does one even begin to look for a kiss?
I made my way to Gokul, a ramshackle bar that played host to all kinds of rodents in Bombay. Though the establishment was in a posh locality the interiors belied its geographical superiority. It was poorly lit to its advantage and the netherworld stayed comfortably hidden. Once in a while a cockroach would land on a table and we’d hear a shriek from one end but then drunk people tend to do stupid things so no one paid any attention to them.
I made a beeline for my usual spot on the upper mezzanine floor. There were no windows here and its low-roofed box-like structure made one feel somewhat untethered from the world outside. No matter what time of the day one walked in, it was always night inside.
There was the usual after-office crowd, pre-gamers, lovers necking in the dark and married couples who came for the fried fish but stayed for the gin, friends celebrating birthdays and promotions or crying over a breakup, students sneaking their first drinks; there were loners, losers and intellectuals who were a bit of both; people who looked like they belonged to the mafia and those who belonged to government offices; loud people, quiet people and creepy people – the only thing they all had in common was the alcohol that Gokul served by the bottle. I scanned the tables for an interesting face but no one stood out in particular.
Mira and I used to come here all the time.
I tried to remember what had led to the break-up but even after a year of hashing it over in my head—I came up blank. It annoyed me that I had no insight into my relationship—which was unbecoming of the writer I was going to be one day.
Mira had proved to be a poor source of information since she’d stopped returning my calls. I wondered if I should talk to her friends but decided none of them could have possibly known Mira better than I did. But ironically, it turned out there was a version of her I hadn’t known all along. Namely the Mira who had dumped me so suddenly over the phone.
Maybe it was the two quarters of Old Monk that I had downed or just plain stupidity, but I felt invincible – I decided to pay Mira a visit and demand a kiss. Even a fool deserves closure.
The night had ceased to be boring in that single whim. In my haste, I nearly knocked down a couple on their way out. Apologising I held the door open and they waltzed right through. No eye contact, no thank you. Before I knew it, there followed a stream of people coming through and I was left standing, holding the door open for everybody.
Now seems to be a good time to point out that our narrator, a self-proclaimed writer, has gotten himself stupendously drunk and by sheer dumb luck he stumbles onto a story worth telling. But the next morning he would all but forget the best parts.
It would be a shame if we too suffered Sahil’s fate and were robbed of the drama—so it is best we keep the narrative away from his fractured mind to a third person. Where we may be able to piece together the events of the night from the vantage point of sobriety.
What is it about Bombay that makes it so much more romantic at night? Is it because the darkness hides the swathes of sewage floating on the Arabian Sea? Is it because the skyline is bejewelled with shimmering lights from high-rise offices? Sahil decided it was the traffic, rather the absence of it. Suddenly the city’s serpentine highways were no longer clogged with fumes, so he stuck his head out of the kaali-peeli cab to catch the wind.
Perhaps it was the rum or the reminiscing to blame, but Sahil remained oblivious to certain details that would have otherwise alarmed him. For instance, the taxi driver was clutching his chest with one hand and wincing for a while. It was only when the driver braked unceremoniously did Sahil look in front to find him prostrate across the gearshift, moaning and gasping for breath.
He leaned over from the backseat and squealed, “Are you ok?” even though it was amply clear that he was anything but.
Sahil tried to sit him up but the man screamed in agony. He finally stepped out of the car and looked around helplessly. He spotted another taxi parked nearby.
“Bhaiya! Help! Help!”
Alarmed, the driver leapt out but once he saw the man who had stopped moving altogether – he started shaking his head. He waved a finger under his nose and concluded, “Saab… yeh toh off ho gaya…”
“No no… What do you mean off ho gaya?”
Somewhere between an extremely short person and a dwarf, this driver was a balding man with a bovine face. But he was strong for his small stature. He effortlessly lifted the driver’s body out of the front seat and carried him to his rundown Omni. He spoke in quick gasps and his movements were pierced with tiny jerks.
“Hospital paas mein hi hai…par mara hua aadmi ka doctor bhi kya karey…inko toh ab bhagwan hi bacha sakta hai” he said as he jammed the accelerator.
It occurred to Sahil that he too could play a part in saving the man’s life. He would have to administer a mouth-to-mouth CPR. Not much unlike a kiss.
The sheer idea of it was revolting but how does one refuse to save a life on account of disgust. As the Omni lurched ahead flying over potholes, Sahil gripped the man’s grisly face between his sweaty palms and leaned down for a kiss. He could feel the bitter bile rise to the base of his throat, threatening to spill out every time their lips touched. He tried not to think of the accidental exchange of saliva or the dried spittle that had left a trail down the corner of the driver’s lips. Instead, he concentrated on the counting, thumping his chest rhythmically. Sahil was perfectly aware of the absurdity of the moment but he was incapable of changing it.
It was indeed a short drive to the hospital. He watched the dwarfish man run into the emergency room and usher out two attendants with a stretcher. A nurse rushed out behind them. She checked for a pulse and declared the man alive. The bovine-faced driver hoorayed and held up Sahil’s hand, announcing to everyone that it was him who had administered CPR without a second thought. If only they knew…. The small crowd of nurses and attendants reluctantly congratulated a visibly drunk Sahil swaying under the emergency room’s garish white light.
Mira’s place wasn’t too far from the hospital, so he decided to walk. He tried to memorize the events of the night but his fractured mind was already losing its grasp on the details and instead jumped straight to the kiss. No, no, that cannot be a kiss, he shook his head in despair. Some would say he had kissed compassionately, breathing life into another person, but honestly, it was just vile.
Sahil stumbled to Mira’s apartment at the end of Hill Road. He spotted the little bakery on the way that opened at six in the morning where he’d pick up fresh bread and chicken puffs after one of those parties that ended with the sun rising. The dry cleaner who rented the ground floor of Mira’s building was replaced by a grocery shop. With a tinge of guilt, Sahil remembered that he owed the poor man money. His contempt towards Mira had extended to the old man as though what he owed the dry cleaner somehow correlated to Mira owing him an explanation for breaking up.
As the elevator ferried Sahil to the third floor, he could hear the unmistakable voice of Robert Plant crooning ‘Babe I’m gonna leave you’ get louder. The door was ajar and Sahil walked into semi-darkness with one lone lamp facing a wall and a room full of shadows swaying to Led Zeppelin behind a thick cloud of smoke. There was something primitive about the way people moved—a deep barbaric instinct, lulled asleep in the sobriety of daylight, sending the bodies madly whirling across the room. Oblivious to everything save to the eddies and swirls of the electric guitar—it was as though a swift current waxed and waned across the room—in and out, round and round. Sahil took a deep breath, closed his eyes and went under in search of Mira.
His arms moved of their own accord, his torso swayed along with other torsos and his feet fell in step with the rest. The smell of sweat, smoke and alcohol, was so thick it singed his lungs. Sahil opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by a sea of lips. Red, pink, brown luscious lips; lips lined with sweat, lips lined with a beard, lips held between teeth; parted lips, pouting lips, thirsty lips with tips of tongues trailing along the edge – lips singing along, lips hooting and squealing – the promise of a kiss lay inches from his face and all Sahil had to do was take a dip. Dare he be mad for just this one night. Dare he take a drink from this forbidden ocean. If there was such a thing as a sign, it couldn’t possibly be more conspicuous. And so, he wet his lips in anticipation, closed his eyes again and leaned forward into the sea of lips, blindly searching for a compatriot in the dark and moist forest of the dance floor.
Had his eyes been open, Sahil would have spied the look of horror that spread like a ripple. He only felt his legs levitate off the ground and his centre of gravity shift forward. His lips came in contact with the hard floor, hopes flattened between his teeth. He heard a woman shriek ‘dude, chill’ and someone unceremoniously turned him over. The crowd parted and made a circle around him, looking down at the cretin of a man who had dared destroy the sanctity of their primitive forest.
“Who is he…. Does anyone know him…. Did he just walk in?”
People erupted and Sahil watched with horror as the lights were switched on and the music came to a pause. He saw himself mirrored on their faces – a drunk, a pervert with bloodshot eyes and a bloody lip.
Someone shouted, “Should we call the police…”, another refuted, “let’s teach him a lesson ourselves”, to which a third excitedly added, “yes, yes find Big Mike” and the lot seemed to agree on that.
Big Mike, it turned out wasn’t big enough to have earned him that moniker, nonetheless there was a general sense of animality about him. He was short and had the kind of athleticism that comes from lifting weights and drinking too much protein powder. He moved menacingly towards Sahil, lifting him by the scruff of his neck. As people urged Big Mike to teach him a lesson, Sahil fought to say something to prevent the impending blow from the beast.
Sahil’s feeble mutterings were drowned in the din of voices egging Big Mike to throw a punch or kick him in the groin or at least flatten his nose. Sahil, limp like a wet rag, gave himself completely to his fate because he knew he deserved it. More importantly, he also sensed that Big Mike, irrespective of his girth and musculature, was in no mood to flex those bulging muscles. Sahil’s situation was positively bad but not without hope.
The two did an awkward waltz in the middle of the room as Big Mike swung him around by the collar, confused between all the different suggestions coming at him. The ones leading the persecution had already blocked the door, agreeing that at the very least the pervert needed to be dealt with a fate worse than banishment. Someone added dramatically, “who’s to say he won’t prey on another!” The women were beginning to lose interest and were slowly moving towards the balcony from where they would have a clear view of the spectacle without being embroiled in it.
Big Mike made a final heave towards the toilet at the corner of the living room and threw Sahil inside, locking the door behind him. Sahil pinned his ear to the door as the crowd gathered outside. Someone had brought along a spliff and the group set about discussing all options short of murder. Someone suggested torture by hotboxing the bathroom through the keyhole which they concluded would be rather serendipitous. There were other less creative suggestions like calling the building guard. There was some chatter about playing Russian roulette with a nerf gun which seemed to amuse them all, till someone suggested that they force him to undress and leave naked. It was Big Mike who came to his rescue—he pointed out that indecent exposure was a public offence and they would be abetting a crime. Both the victim and the perpetrators across the door let out a collective sigh of relief, after all they were all educated, well-adjusted men of society and none were too comfortable with the real consequences of a crime. Sahil thanked a nameless god for Big Mike, the peacekeeper.
Sahil hoped that eventually they would tire of hatching plans and disband. Someone would need to use the toilet and that’s when he’d manage his escape. He prayed lady luck was done playing tricksy. It would seem she had other plans.
When the door did open – it was Big Mike again, blocking the doorway like a Greek god with mischief in his eyes.
“Thank you for….” Sahil mumbled.
“Don’t thank me yet. I came to give you these”, Big Mike held up a sparkly green halter dress. “It seems your only way out of this mess is in this rather sexy dress.”
“I don’t understand…”, Sahil took a minute to grasp what was expected of him. “What! Be real now!”
“Like you were being real? Assuming all those women are dying to throw themselves at you. It’s beyond disgusting.”
The weight of his actions finally landed on Sahil with Big Mike’s words. It didn’t matter that he was a good guy—no in the end it was his actions that spoke louder and everything good that came before was washed away. He sat down in despair on the closed toilet seat with his head between his hands. Big Mike rolled his eyes.
“It’s only a harmless dress bro. I had to talk people out of some really insane ideas”, Big Mike sat on his haunches next to the toilet seat.
Sahil wailed, “I’m n-n-not what you think. I know I was stupid…. But I’m n-n-not a p-p-perrrvaaart”. Fresh tears flowed at the word ‘pervert’.
“But who are you?” Big Mike asked.
“I’m…I’m not a bad person. That’s who I am…believe me”
“No dude…I meant your name.”
“Oh uh…I’m Sahil. I actually used to date the person who lives here,” Sahil replied.
“I live here,” Big Mike laughed out. “And you sure aren’t my type.”
“No… I meant Mira… Mira Deshpande.”
“Oh, you mean the last tenant. Yes, the name does ring a bell. But I’m sorry dude, she left a long time ago.”
Sahil felt as if a sack of cement had been poured on him and it was hardening very quickly. He could barely move. Mira had detached herself from Sahil and very likely from the memory of Sahil, and he could not do anything about it. He felt hopeless.
He began to recount the events of the night to a bored Big Mike. The story did not take long because Sahil remembered it only in bits and pieces. He told him about the novel that won’t write itself, his sudden yearning for a kiss and his search for a final confrontation with Mira. “One day she dumped my ass and ghosted me…. No explanation, no nothing.”
Big Mike too was reaching the end of his patience.
“I hear you. But self-pity can’t save you tonight. This dress can. So man up and put on the goddamn dress already.” Big Mike stood up and took the dress off the hanger, offering it to Sahil.
It really was a beautiful dress. The glitter dazzled with a velvety sheen that caught the light in a magnificent green, like fresh Colocasia leaves washed in the rain. It had a scalloped neckline made of thin gold brocade and a lavish skirt with a discreet silk belt that went around the waist. The dress demanded its wearer to be bold – to move through the world knowing and revelling in the derision it was sure to draw.
Sahil stood up and stepped out of his dirty clothes. Big Mike gently slid the dress over his head. He smoothed the soft velvet down his front as Sahil wiped his tears and tied the halter strings. Their fingers worked in perfect concert to a soundless orchestra – twisting the silk belt, pulling a crease, straightening the delicate gold lace. They turned to the mirror, marvelling at the beautiful creature that had emerged from the soft folds of green velvet. It was uncanny how glamourous he looked – a waist made narrower by the thin belt, collarbones framed by delicate lace trimmings, the flirtatious velvet hugging the bodice only to flare out into a noble swirl around his legs – commanding one’s gaze to trace the curves the dress accentuated. Sahil’s clean-shaven, soft features worked in perfect contrast to the bold shimmer of the fabric.
The transformation was far from the intended ridicule of the practical joke. As an afterthought, Big Mike left to smuggle a bottle of whatever-I-can-find – a touch of liquid courage.
He returned with a nearly empty bottle and a packet of smokes.
Sahil lit a cigarette and pouted his lips to the mirror. Watching him, Big Mike fished out his phone, framing their reflection. Each took turns to pass the bottle and the cigarette between them, all the while clicking pictures and making faces.
Time stopped, alcohol flowed, and the thick swirls of smoke spun a dream-like cocoon around the strangers, friends, intended foes or whatever label befits this oddly satisfying connection between two fools locked in a toilet in the dead of night.
Sahil came into the room like a glowing gazelle. He walked across, very shyly towards the long windows at the opposite end of the room, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful.
Waves of surprise, awe (or was it contempt?) swept across the room – eyes transfixed as they tried to wrap their minds around this sartorial twist their joke had taken. Sahil felt nervous but strangely he also felt comfortable. He squared his bare shoulders in resolve and looked back directly into the eyes of the people as though mocking them – his gaze challenging them. Vain trifles as they seem, clothes sometimes change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. But in Sahil’s case, the dress wore the man and not him the dress – it did take the mould of his chest and waist, but it moulded his heart and gaze to its liking.
Sahil felt a sharp tug. Big Mike had quietly moved to his side and whispered urgently, “Dude you have a death wish or what! This is your getaway dress and I don’t see you getting AWAY?”
Sahil realised his folly and made his way across the clear passage that he had left behind him – taking a sharp turn at the end towards the door.
Sahil bolted down the three floors. He was still catching his breath in front of the laundromat (now the grocery store) when Big Mike came out of the building.
“Here… You forgot these.” Big Mike handed him the denim and shirt stained with blood, sweat and saliva – all proof of the night’s pursuits.
The two shook hands, “Sahil…” Big Mike hesitated.
“We should hang out sometimes. I know I’m no Mira…. But I have a feeling it’ll be fun.”
Sahil walked to the end of the road towards Bandstand, a stretch of cobbled path that ran parallel to the Arabian Sea.
Bandstand was littered with lovers of all kinds – the would-be lovers and the old flames, the long-time lovers and the one-night stands, the lone unrequited lovers and the jealous lovers with a possessive hand slung around their paramour. At every hundred or so metres, men with bicycles carrying large canisters of milk sold hot Milo in styrofoam cups and cigarettes at inflated rates. Everyone stared at Sahil but the night is kind to the strange and absurd, and so eventually they all walked away quietly. A few took pictures on their phones – but Sahil paid no heed.
That’s the thing about life; you can try as you want but certain things remain stubbornly out of your control. You can call it fate, providence or sheer dumb luck – but either way, you can’t calculate for that stuff. People have theories that there is this reason or that reason behind what happens – but life doesn’t need a reason to exist. It just does. And in the end, it all works out fine, even if it’s something you didn’t expect.
The sky was beginning to lose its inkiness and a dull light spread across the end of the horizon, casting the sea in dramatic grey silhouettes. Sahil walked towards the long row of taxis parked at the end of Bandstand when he saw a man bounding up the path with six big slobbering Labradors. It was really the dogs that walked the man. Sahil envied their unbridled enthusiasm. He bent down on the pavement, ready to receive them into his arms. And he wasn’t disappointed – they knocked him down, planting wet sloppy kisses in ecstatic hurry. Sahil presented his face, closed his eyes and sank into the soul-warming bath.
He had dreamed of a kiss with all the fire and passion of a poet and a caveman – and yet these kisses filled him with the same joy and tenderness he had hoped to find. His knees, shoulders, face – everything felt heavy with sleep. But it was worth it because now he had a story to fill those empty pages sitting at home. If only he could recall how he’d managed to get into this dress. His mind was cotton wool.
Madhusre Das is a freelance writer. She has previously worked as an Associate Creative Director at an advertising agency in Mumbai. Read more of her works at MADTROTTER.