Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee

Tags: #Fiction


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I stared at the page as my insides churned. So that is what a ‘homo’ was. Amit was a ‘homo’ because he had written a love letter to another boy. What Ranjan had said finally made sense. But I still did not understand why everyone was so upset about it. It must be considered to be really bad. Maybe I was one too. But I had not intended to do anything bad, only write a letter—I did not want to be different from others. Maybe I wasn’t really a ‘homo’.

As I lay in bed that night, staring at the shadows on the wall, my doubts returned. What if I was not normal? Was there something wrong with me? Something that could only be cured by shock therapy? At least Mallika was normal, even though she had broken the rules. She was in love and wrote love letters to a boy. But she too would get into a lot of trouble if anyone found out. Of all the things she could have done, having a love affair with a Muslim man was absolutely the worst. I slept fitfully that night, anxious for
myself, worried about how I would be punished if I did not fare well in the examinations and anxious for Mallika who would surely be in trouble if her secret got out.

May 1973. Hyderabad.

On the day of the last exam, I hunched over my desk, holding a pen between my slippery fingers. The classroom was hot and airless. I looked up at the clock, feeling the tension in my gut as I calculated that I had only half an hour to answer the essay question. I looked around the classroom. It was empty except for a few students and Ranjan Bose, who was chewing on his pen. He wiped the sweat from his glasses with his shirt-tails and looked at me with a strange expression.

I turned to my paper, feeling uneasy. We all wrote as fast as we could. I finally finished and flexed my stiff and aching fingers. ‘Time is up,’ Mr Swaminathan snapped and snatched the paper from my hand. There had been no time to double-check my answers.

Outside, in the afternoon glare, I squinted in relief. The last two weeks had been hard and they were finally over.

‘Rahul, how did you do?’ Ranjan asked. ‘Did you think the exam was easy?’

‘No, not too easy. But I answered all the questions.’

‘Did you know the answer to the question about how many seats there are in the State Legislature?’

‘Yes, I answered that correctly.’

Ranjan’s face went dark and his lips tightened. ‘I hate this,’ he muttered. ‘Mum and Dad will be so upset if I don’t get full marks.’

I reached out to him, to reassure him that, regardless of the score, I was still his friend and wanted to see him over
the summer vacations. He roughly pushed my hand away. I felt a rush of guilt.

‘You never know. Maybe you got it right,’ I said. He scowled, turning away.

And that is when I saw the first man I fell madly in love with.

‘Ranjan …’ A handsome young man with a deep voice approached us, his strides long and graceful. His deep, tanned skin glowed from the heat of summer and drops of sweat clustered on his forehead and smooth upper lip. His lips were pursed, giving his jaw a determined look—I was keenly aware of their berry-redness. Then they curved in a friendly smile, showing white even teeth. The half-sleeved shirt he wore was open at the chest, displaying more smooth skin, and his forearms were finely muscled, the veins outlined in iridescent blue by the sheen of perspiration that covered them. His hair was dark and matted against his temples and neck.

I stared at him as the cacophony of voices receded and time slowed down.

‘Rahul’—I heard Ranjan’s voice, coming to me from far away—‘this is Shubho dada, my brother. Do you remember him? He just came back from a student exchange programme in Spain.’

‘Hello, Shubho dada …’ Shubho had been a shadowy figure for me. Three years older than us, he was always busy with his own friends and had been a stranger to Ranjan’s friends. Now, his face had thinned out and he looked more like a man than a boy, he was much taller and athletic. Shubho had been the new star of the football team before he left for Spain, having scored more goals for our house team than any other player in the history of the school.

I liked the change in him in the months he was gone. He seemed so confident, strong and dashing. How I wished that I was grown up and manly too—not so skinny! And yet, unbelievably, right in front of me was Shubho, shaking my hand vigorously, patting me on my back and tousling my hair as he said, ‘Rahul, you are growing up to be such a handsome boy! Watch out for those girls, they will get you!’ He laughed.

I was speechless. My eyes were glued to the skin showing at his neck. I forced myself to look away. I hoped to God that Ranjan had not noticed my mortification. But he was chatting casually with his brother, slinging his satchel of books on his shoulder and preparing to leave.

They made a fine pair. Ranjan was tall just like his brother, but he wore glasses and was thin. Not particularly athletic like Shubho, he was generally easy-going and good-natured. Except when put off—then he had his mother Dr Bose’s peevish personality. But he had befriended me when I joined Hyderabad Royal Academy and felt completely out of place and had been my best friend for over a year. Lately, though, he seemed to be more irritable than usual, especially during the exams.

As they waved and left, my mouth tasted funny—metallic and salty. I slowly unclenched my jaws and picked up my school box and walked to the bus. My mind was a flurry of crazy thoughts, nothing made sense. But of one thing I was certain—I had never felt this way before, not for Amit Puri, not even for Rajesh Khanna. My scalp and skin still tingled where Shubho had touched me.

The bus wheezed and groaned all the way to my stop. I jumped out, barely waiting for it to stop moving.

‘Happy hols!’ my friends yelled at me.

‘Happy hols!’ I yelled back.

My father was home early that day. I walked in, an extra spring in my step, ready for the holidays.

‘So how did you fare today? Will you come first this year?’ my father asked.

‘Very well,’ I replied, feeling my euphoria drain.

‘Come, eat. The food is getting cold. I have made your favourite tuar dal,’ Mother said, and I realized I was very hungry.

‘Maybe you will grow taller if you eat lots of dal,’ Rani teased.

I smiled back at her. I had not felt so good in a while—I was thinking of Shubho, his warm smile.

‘So when are we going to watch
?’ I asked, my mind turning to Rajesh Khanna films as usual. I had watched it once already, but I wanted to watch that scene again, where he serenades Sharmila Tagore as the little mountain train winds its way up towards the top of the range. Rajesh Khanna hangs perilously from the side of the jeep, mouth organ in hand singing: ‘
Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu
…’ Queen of my dreams, when will you come to me?

‘Why go for it again? We just watched it,’ my father said.

‘Well … because …’ I was stumped. Here was that complication again. I did not want to tell him that I thought about Rajesh Khanna all the time. The memory of my punishment at the hands of Mr Swaminathan was still fresh in my mind and I would rather die than talk about my fantasies. It wasn’t fair, I thought. I yearned to be older so that I would not need my father’s permission to do anything! As soon as I could, I ran to the garden and to my
special hiding place, wishing I could run away altogether and forget about school and rules.

I heard Rani calling me from the swings. ‘Rahul, I have a surprise for you.’

I climbed down from the tree and crawled out from behind the thick underbrush, breathless and covered with twigs. But I knew that my secret hiding place was still safe.

‘What is it, Rani?’ I asked suspiciously.

‘Go get me some nimbu pani from the fridge first,’ Rani ordered. ‘Then I will tell you. It is a surprise.’ She sat down on the stone bench.

Carrying a glass carefully from the palace, I walked out to the lawn where Rani was waiting, tapping her foot impatiently.

‘Good, I am glad you are back. The surprise is that Mallika Didi is coming here and we can all go watch a film together,’ Rani finally said. ‘Binesh Kaku has to go out for some business and he can drop us off at the theatre. He just called Baba to set it up.’

I set the tray down on the bench and said excitedly, ‘When is Mallika Didi coming?’

‘Right now. Now let me finish my drink in peace. You can go get dressed.’

I ran back to the palace, thrilled. I hoped it would be a film showing at the festival showcasing all of Rajesh Khanna’s hits from the very beginning of his career, starting with the film
Aakhri Khat
. Each film was showing for a full week.

Binesh Kaku arrived shortly after. We all piled into the car, Shyamala, Rani and I sitting together in the back.

‘Oh, I am so excited about going to see
Kati Patang
at Roxie!’ Mallika exclaimed, turning around and leaning towards us through the gap between the front seats. Roxie
was one of the new film theatres in Hyderabad and the location where the Rajesh Khanna Film Festival was being held.

‘Oh, that’s the Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh film from 1970!’ I beamed. ‘I never got to watch it then because Baba said I was too young to go. But I love the songs so much!’

‘Of course. The music is by R.D. Burman. It has to be good,’ Rani said in a superior tone.

Binesh Kaku, as usual, did not speak much. The rest of us chattered about the film. As we drove past Tank Bund, the lake looked like blue ice in the golden afternoon sunshine, and I felt supremely happy.

The name Roxie Cinema was written across the front of the bright yellow theatre in English and Telugu and could be seen from far away. There were giant billboards showing Rajesh Khanna, perfectly groomed, his complexion too light and his lips too pink. Asha Parekh looked fair and pretty, her large, dark eyes dominating her face. Bindu was depicted with lots of make-up on her face and showing ample bosom. My heart quickened in excitement at the sight of the actors’ paintings.

Binesh Kaku pulled the car up to the theatre and let us out. ‘Be right here after the film ends. I will be here to pick you up.’ The words barely out of his mouth, he pulled away, leaving us in a cloud of exhaust smoke. We turned and went into the theatre, Mallika’s arm entwined with mine. Behind us, Rani and Shyamala whispered conspiratorially.

We quickly got some potato chips and Coca Cola and found our seats. Rani and I sat on each side of Mallika, wanting to be close to her. Shyamala sat next to Rani. We had barely started munching on the chips and sipping the Coca Cola when the scalloped curtains rose. A black-
and-white screen appeared and the numbers flashing on it counted down, signalling the start of the newsreel.

‘Oh God! Now we have to sit through the news documentary,’ Rani groaned. After the news documentary, the trailers began. I wished they would hurry up and start the show. Mallika kept looking at her watch. I had never seen her so impatient.

The film started off on a romantic note. I watched in rapture as Rajesh Khanna, devastatingly handsome, sang a drunken love song to Asha Parekh in the rain. I could not understand why she turned away from him—I would have run straight into his arms! Soon after, Prem Chopra, the villain, made his appearance, showing off his hairy chest. He was accompanied by his moll Bindu.

A few minutes after the start of the movie, however, Mallika got up from her seat. ‘I will be right back,’ she whispered to me.

‘Where are you going?’ I asked in surprise, but she left without answering, pushing me firmly back into my seat.

I wondered where Mallika had gone, but the movie soon picked up pace and I was engrossed. I was completely caught up in the plot before I realized with a start that Mallika had been gone for a while.

I leaned across the empty seat and asked Rani in a low voice, ‘Do you know where Mallika Didi went? Should I go look for her?’

‘No, don’t. Stay here. Be quiet,’ Rani snapped.

‘Shhh!’ an annoyed patron admonished from behind us.

Rani grimaced and held her finger to her lips. Just then, Mallika returned. Was she crying? I wanted to ask her what had happened.

As the actress Bindu danced seductively on the screen,
‘Mera naam hai Shabnam, pyar se log mujhe Shabbo kehte hain …
’ someone sitting in front made a catcall. More whistles of appreciation followed. I thought about the boys in my class. They would have whistled too. But the sight of Bindu stirred no such reaction in me.

‘Such roadside Romeos!’ Rani muttered. ‘What can you expect from the peanut gallery?’

I felt vindicated. This kind of behaviour was just not acceptable in decent society—there was nothing wrong with me not finding Bindu attractive.

In contrast to Bindu, the heroine, Asha Parekh, was a demure and beautiful woman—a victim of circumstances and destiny. And I knew that Rajesh Khanna would surely save her. But when he sang to her and proclaimed his love for her, the catcalls started again. I realized then that I had no interest in Asha Parekh either and my heart sank. A wave of loneliness swept through me—I was incapable of feeling for the lovely heroine what Rajesh Khanna, my hero, felt for her.

When the intermission came, people reluctantly got up to restock their snacks and returned to the show after quickly stretching their legs. Rani chatted with Mallika while I waited to ask her where she had gone and tell her about the parts she had missed.

‘Mallika Didi, where did you go?’ I asked her at last.

‘Oh, I had to meet a college friend. We are collaborating on a paper. She was supposed to meet me, but did not show up. The paper is due tomorrow and I need to finish it.’ With that, she got up again. ‘Maybe she is there now. Let me go and check. I will be right back.’

‘Let me go with you, Mallika Didi.’ I jumped up from my seat as the lights dimmed.

‘No, stay here with Rani and Shyamala. I will be back soon, I promise.’ She patted me on the cheek and left swiftly.

Mallika clearly did not want me to go with her and I wanted to know what she was hiding from me. Could she be meeting Salim?

I waited for a few minutes and then walked out into the foyer, blinking in the watery afternoon light. There was no sign of Mallika, so I went upstairs to the balcony to check. When I saw them, I ducked back behind the curve of the stairs. There they were, standing together. Even from where I stood, I could see that Salim was very handsome. Dark sideburns outlined his jaw and he was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans with canvas shoes. I admired the curve of his athletic legs and the way his jeans stretched around his thighs. He and Mallika were staring into each other’s eyes and he was saying something to her in a low voice. I slowly went downstairs and returned to my seat.

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