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Authors: Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla

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BOOK: The Two Krishnas
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But Rahul, though corporeally present with his wife and son, his ears flooded with melodies and applause, his eyes accosted with the colorful lights and stage spectacle, was, unbeknownst to any of them and to his own consternation, holding Atif in his arms.

During intermission, a disgruntled Ajay, who couldn’t understand how after a solid two hours of the show there was still another half to follow, found some solace in his cell phone and eager American girlfriends who sympathized with his entrapment. The rain also took a break; people swarmed out of the hall and into the cold night for air, cigarettes, food and calls.

Rahul and Pooja drank hot chai and snacked on doughy samosas, which he remarked with a tender smile, were comparatively inedible to hers. She became coquettish and said: “Samosas you appreciate, but what about the one that makes the samosas?” to which he put his arm around her and gave her a kiss on the forehead, inches away from her bindi.

Startled when her name was called out in high pitch, they turned to find Sonali Patel aggressively weaving through the crowd, throwing nettled glances at the women and seductive smiles at their lascivious husbands.
“Ei,
Pooja, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you,” she called out, waving to them excitedly. “I’m coming. You stay right there.”

“Smile,” Rahul said, “it’s too late to run.”

Sonali was wearing an opulent parrot green sari bordered in gold and was decked out in blinding jewelry. On her wrist dangled an impracticably small purse studded with rhinestones. Her short hair had been freshly colored to an impossible jet-black and crowned her caked and recently-pulled face in great contrast.

Behind her trailed a gaggle of her much younger girlfriends, carrying on raucously with their mélange of gossip, gasps and giggles.
“Ei!
Be careful!” she flitted around, ready to give someone two tight slaps. “Make sure you don’t step on my sari!” They shrunk back momentarily but continued to follow her timidly as she switched back into an elated expression for the Kapoors.

“Did you see the show?
Hai hai!
Did you see? Did you see how vulgar that Suman Shetty looked? She doesn’t even look like a film star.” Sonali didn’t pause for breath. “Oh, and what a terrible dancer. You know, I hear she’s quite a boozer. She almost fell down on the stage. Did you see that? Oh, probably not. My seats are so close that I can see everything!” She made it sound like a terrible disadvantage and screwed her face up into a nauseated expression.

Sonali shot a look at her friends who instantly responded with vehement approvals: “Yes, yes, she was definitely drunk. Most definitely.”

“Oh-ho, but that Karan Singh.
Hai me marjava!
Nobody can measure up to him. So-o-o handsome!” She shook her head and fanned herself with a diamond-bedecked hand.

Wedged between the front of Sonali’s teeth was what looked like a dark patch of cilantro, probably from the snacks she had just devoured. Nobody said anything about it. When Rahul and a nervous Pooja exchanged a glance and laughed, Sonali grew delighted, thinking they were appreciating her humor.

Ajay appeared, pocketing his cell phone, and Sonali’s gang grew visibly coquettish. To Pooja’s annoyance, even Sonali started batting her eyes. “Oh, hello, Ajay. What a surprise!” she cooed.

“Hey, Sonali aunty. Always a pleasure.”

“Aunty?
Yeh aunty, aunty kya hai?
Oh! Why must you call me that?” she said with an indulgent tone of reproach.

Ajay almost pointed to his own teeth to alert Sonali but Rahul threw him a sharp look.

“Soni! Just call me Soni! How many times do I have to say it? You must stop with this aunty-banty nonsense! Soni’s not really that old, you know.”

“True,” said Rahul. “What’s a few decades?
Achar
has a long shelf life.”

The disciples gasped audibly. Sonali shot Rahul a look and then proceeded to make light of his comment with forced laughter. “Your father gets so much pleasure out of troubling me. Sanjay was the same way, always teasing me and annoying me, but deep inside, there was nothing but love in my husband’s poor, weak heart. Poor Sanju,” she acted sad, blinking back invisible tears. “Oh, how I miss him. But you know, that reminds me, the promoter—he was such a good friend of Sanjay’s. He’s promised to take me backstage so that Karan Singh can meet me, so, you know, I can’t just stay here and idle away. We must go now,” she announced to her party. “But Pooja, I will call you tomorrow and fill you in on my rendezvous with Karan.”

Sonali smiled at Ajay, half a tooth obscured, and Ajay winked at her. She ignored Rahul and walked away with her minions, all of whom had to tear their gaze away from a grinning Ajay.

“Why must you be so rude to her?”

“Oh, Poo,” groaned Rahul. “You know you can’t stand her either.”

“She’s just lonely.”

“Lonely? With that flock she herds around everywhere?”

Ajay was looking in their direction, rubbing his chin. “Maybe I could provide some distraction.”

Pooja slapped his arm playfully.
“Besharam!”

“I’m just trying to help, Mom. Although I’m convinced it’s really Papa she’s got the hots for,” he said, nudging his father.

The house lights flickered and people began to shuffle back into the auditorium. Ajay groaned and Pooja said, “Come on, now. Can’t you do this much for your Ma?”

“I swear. This is for your birthday, your Diwali, everything in one shot, Mom.”

She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, revealing the mole on her lobe that Rahul found cute. She then intertwined her left arm into her son’s and her right arm into her husband’s and with a smile that made her look radiant, walked back in with the two most important men in her life, protected, never happier.

And for a while, Rahul seemed to return to his life, comforted by the presence of his wife and son, but somewhere during the second half of the show, he felt the snake of restlessness uncoiling inside him again and excused himself to go to the bathroom. As he edged his way out through the row of miffed fans dodging this way and that so they wouldn’t lose sight of their beloved stars even for a second, an otherwise benevolent-looking grandmother-type with a bindi the size of a quarter grumbled in Gujarati: “
O-ho-ho!
Does this one have to do toilet right now? Now I can’t see anything! My evening is ruined!”

He stepped outside, gulping the night air into his lungs as if he had been underwater. The cold winter air on his face, Rahul looked up at a sky devoid of stars but sensed them there anyway. A veiled moon looked down at him impassively. There wasn’t a soul in sight, as if the auditorium was a giant vacuum that had sucked everyone into its sack.

Taking deep breaths, he asked himself with a little more courage:
why can’t I get him out of my mind? Can I really be feeling
this
strongly for another man? Why now? How do I stop it?
The answers, like a face appearing from under a sheet of ice, filled him with panic. But his body followed a different rhythm, defying his fear, and he lifted out the business card from his breast pocket, noted the perfectly executed letters that slanted to the right, a tendency he remembered from somewhere symbolized a sense of pessimism in the writer, as if leaning from the sheer weight of life itself.

It was then, after the third time Rahul had looked at Atif Rahman’s name, that he turned the card over, read the numbers written down on the back, one for his home and another for his cell, and again he felt the roiling sensation in the pit of his stomach.

His other hand gripped the cell phone in his pocket. The urge to see him again, to hear his voice, filled Rahul with an alien vernacular of pain—burning and freezing simultaneously, throbbing, liquefying, electric. I must be going crazy, he thought, loosening his grip on the phone, a grenade relinquished. I must fight this. Keep it under, where nobody can see. Even to think of it is to give it life, bring it to the surface.

What he needed was cover, more insulation from such feelings.

He pictured his wife and son sitting inside the auditorium, wondering where he must be, and dredging himself out from the marsh of emotion, he walked back in.

* * *

A few days later, when Atif came home to the blinking red light of three hang-ups on his answering machine, he wondered about the caller. It amazed him that after years of futilely bartered telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, the heart could still dare to hope, as if a last breath, some atom of life, may still be left to reanimate a future.

Nona Nguyen, who had overstayed her visit and was still holding on to the roll of toilet paper she had come for, planted herself cross-legged on his sofa and sympathized. “Fucking telemarketers, man. They’re relentless.”

He pressed the “play” button again, hoping that somehow a breath, some voice, anything that could confirm his suspicion, had been captured by his automated substitute. But there was nothing except the notification of three blocked calls on the caller I.D. He was momentarily reminded of the painful, feckless period in which he had waited for his parents to call. Every ring, every missed call, had become them. Until the day that something in him hardened and he stopped waiting. Now it was Rahul.

He turned around to find Nona lost, still holding on to the double roll like a consolation prize, her eyes on the floor, her thoughts a million miles away. He knew at once that she was disappointed over the latest blind date and needed to talk.
Different playing fields, but maybe we’re not so different after all,
he thought.

“Some chai?” he asked, moving to the kitchen.

“Oh, God no,” she said. “Your chai keeps me up all night!”

He pulled out a jar of loose black tea, a container of powdered spice, some brown sugar and a new can of evaporated milk.

“Oh, what the hell,” he heard her say. “If you’re making some, why not? I’ll stay for a cup.”

As he punctured the can of milk, he felt the urge to tell her about Rahul building up in him, constricting his chest. But he resisted, knowing on some level how ridiculous it would sound, how unexceptional. So he remained silent, continued the ritual of making chai. He couldn’t be sure if it had been Rahul calling so he imagined it so, prayed that he would try to call him again. He tried to conjure Rahul’s face in his mind, knowing with some frustration, that it was only the faces he tried desperately to remember that his mind had a cruel tendency of wiping away.

* * *

By the time Sonali Patel finally landed an appointment with Dr. Goldstein, she was significantly agitated but managed to act obsequious as the tiny pricks of transformative poison were fed into her furrowed brows and crow’s feet.

She felt that she would have been perfectly justified if, after the coveted “derm” had ministered the increased dosage she had pleaded for, she had turned the syringe on him and jabbed him a few times in his ample buttocks for having made her wait so long before coming back in. She was still miffed about his refusal to minister the new Intense Pulsed Light treatment she had read about. “Mrs. Patel, you must understand, IPL is just not suitable for your skin type,” he had tried to explain. “Colored skin is too sensitive for it.” She hated the way he called it “colored skin” like she was some
kalu,
a customer service operator in Bombay who was only suitable for tubes of mercury-laden skin-bleaching ointments.

The trick to appearing ageless, Sonali knew, was in being in a state of constant restoration, in never being caught in the startling periods in-between when the crinkles and lines came back and you caught your reflection in a mirror. Dr. Goldstein, preoccupied with his celebrity following, all of which she followed in the various fashion magazines, had become increasingly elusive to her. But now she felt rescued from the ravages of time at least for a few months and this mitigated the anger she had lugged in with her. Now if she could only find a way to make him see her more frequently and agree to minister the treatment he seemed determined to save for his
gora
patients so that she could look more like the Hollywood icons deified on the walls of the medical spa.

After he had pricked her sufficiently, Dr. Goldstein handed her an ice pack and asked with notable discomfort, “Mrs. Patel, you are Hindu, are you not?” to which Sonali looked at him strangely and nodded with some hesitation, wondering if this too could be used to keep her from receiving some kind of treatment.

He seemed agitated, and started asking lots of questions about Hinduism—the tenets, customs, traditions—and Sonali grew irritated again. She preferred to be thought of as a sophisticate, someone who was above cast or creed. Personally, she had no need for religion and while she had never gone out of her way to repudiate it, she cared nothing to discuss it. God had never been there for Sonali or her loved ones and she had little patience for people who romanticized life with religion, like her neighbor Pooja.

But then it occurred to her that maybe Dr. Goldstein was interested in converting and she became visibly excited, her mind filling with visions of becoming a kind of mentor to the coveted doctor. It was the latest trend after all. Gullible Americans couldn’t get enough of yoga and meditation and self-help books, so if Deepak Chopra could do it for Demi Moore and Madonna with all his hocus-pocus about the Upanishads and quantum theories, why couldn’t she do it for the dermatologist to the stars?

BOOK: The Two Krishnas
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