|ORIGINAL FICTIONS 4: ROMANCE
The Absence of God
By AKSHAT VERMA
Illustration: Rishabh Arora
AS FETISHES go, I guess it’s more your regular garden-variety deviance. Is there a Fetishist’s Anonymous in Bombay? I don’t know. But if there is and I was arranged in a circle with a clutch of strangers, owning up to my sins, real and perceived, I might even hesitate before making peace.
No leather, no violence, no unnatural exchange of fluids. Not animals, not plants, not car crashes.
When the circle stops at me, I’d probably be looking at the floor. As usual.
In this game of one-upmanship, in this gallery of freaks, was I going to be the most boring freak of all? A non-existent room of a non-existent organisation, I begin to speak and I feel the expectations in the room gently sink to the floor like a balloon with a slow leak.
But whatever it is that makes your heart race is the truth. There is no arguing with the pouring of hormones into the bloodstream, no doubting the authenticity of a chemical reaction. No matter what the room wants or expects, you’re helpless before this truth.
My manager was by the printer. Actually, he was by the coffee machine, next to the printer, stirring sugar into his beverage with chubby, ring-encased fingers, a desi Green Lantern keeping all manner of evil at bay and himself safe as a baby in the eye of the storm.
“You’re one of those people,” he said.
It was Wednesday. I had started work on Monday, spoken to this guy maybe three times, and two times out
Of three had been ‘Good Morning’. I didn’t know how to decode this pronouncement.
I smiled, because calling him a douchebag was out of the question. Maybe in a week.
I sorted through the pile of printouts, found mine — annual statements for the past two years for Mr Nishit Parekh, on the eve of his departure to the Garden State, New Jersey, where the grass is always greener. I wanted to ask him what life was like in America, named as he was, if the constant depredations had not been impetus enough just yet for scrambling back to the warm embrace of the motherland.
It was the same question I had wanted to ask my exgirlfriend Titli Banerjee, and a year later, hapless South Korean exchange student He Suk Dong, at Delhi University for three months, both headed in their futures to the far more promising shores of America.
Charged by their impending adventure, gnashing at the bit to hurl themselves at the land of the brave, the free and the 50 percent off, I felt Titli and He Suk were going to have a bit of a difficult time settling in, no matter how welcoming the marketing and infectious the optimism. I saw legal name changes in their future, notices in the newspaper as proof of their capitulation to the collective weight of the American nation.
Titli suffered me with the patience of someone with a get-out-of-jail-free card.
“You have a bad attitude, that’s your problem. That, and you’re a bastard. It’s not your fault. You’re just built like that.”
Indifferent sex ensued. I knew it, she knew it, she was going to fly off and it would be the end. We were going through the motions, no pun intended, because it was the path of least resistance.
Illustration: Rishabh Arora
WHEN I spoke to He Suk, in a suitably roundabout way, he just looked at me, blank. He Suk was still wrapping his head around the English language. If I told him he’d won the lottery, he’d look the same.
He lit the cigarette dangling from him mouth, went back to strumming his guitar.
What did I care, I’d done my duty.
“There are two kinds of people.”
The manager had unearthed a gem after a lifetime of digging. I was going to have to carry it home. Mr Parekh would just have a wait, our brilliant customer service, vaunted in our latest advertising campaign across multiple media, notwithstanding.
“Those who walk with their heads up.”
Okay, now I was hooked.
“And those who look down.”
Any doubts I had about having accepted this job vanished in that instant. There is nothing more reassuring than to discover that the establishment where you’re going to spend approximately 80 percent of your life is staffed by nothing less than true, genuine, bona-fide Mensans.
I added a head nod to the smile pasted on my face. Don’t clench your teeth, I told myself, that only looks like you’re saying ‘moron’ with a smile.
I look down because I don’t want to step into an open manhole, you idiot, I wanted to say. Because I don’t want to step into a random mountain of dung.
And because I love feet.
Flip-flopped, high-heeled, thonged, painted, unpainted, fair, dark and every shade in-between, the treasure of the world dragging through the Bombay mud.
But I didn’t, of course. The first would’ve been too defensive, the second none of his business.
“Guess who gets to the top?” This was this guy’s secret path to corporate domination? Headed to the top of the money pile with shit-smeared shoes and the occasional drop into open sewers.
I was sure he had a future predicting parrot stashed away somewhere in his office, perhaps in a guano-laced drawer. “That’s —interesting.” I turned, headed back to my desk. I didn’t care about the top. It was the bottom I found fascinating.
By my desk, fidgety Mr Parekh was turned in his chair, his eyes seeking me, lips pursed in displeasure.
I sat down, stamped the printouts with the bank seal, these were now authentic true copies, signed them, handed them to him.
“Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
Mr Parekh stashed the statements in his briefcase.
“No, thank you.” He was irate.
“Have a safe flight, sir.”
LATE NIGHT, middle of the week, Zenzi was a wasteland. I’d expected it, but I was still here. I took a large slug of my fourth mojito. Or fifth, I wasn’t counting, the guy from Uttar Pradesh whose dad owned a cement factory, he was paying. The bartender already knew to keep them coming, all night if necessary.
There was a girl by the bar, deep in conversation, she was either hooking up or breaking up —from a distance it sometimes all looks the same. I looked down before I looked up, skinny jeans, red All-Stars wrapped around the barstool. Nothing to see. I turned back to the table.
Illustration: Rishabh Arora
The maker of obscure films from New York was saying something to the cement factory scion. It was a doomed conversation, like intercourse between a hyena and a hummingbird, one talking mumblecore, the other Akshay Kumar.
I glanced over at my friend, the upcoming producer. He had been upcoming for the past five years. He was the reason I was here.
“Come hang out, putting a project together, pretty cool. Exciting,” he had said.
I couldn’t pretend in time I had other, better, things to do. Because, you know, I didn’t. Upset with myself for showing up, I had decided to pay myself for my time in mojitos. If I put enough booze away, at least it wouldn’t be a complete waste. I was trying to assert control over an evening that had slipped out of my grasp from the moment of its conception. My disdain had by now turned to drunkenness.
A director. A financier. A producer. Or trying to be. And me, bank slave, musician, sucker of toes.
What a bunch we were. What the hell was I doing here? I signalled the bartender for another drink.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, I fished it out. It was a text from Nandu, a second-rung Bollywood composer, also clawing his way upward, slowly. He called me whenever he needed to lay down guitar parts, for which I was thankful. But he was cursed with an abysmal lack of talent, which made it a mixed blessing, at best.
Could I swing by for a session tomorrow?
I pondered. After I was done with my workday, I was supposed to work on my own music. Every evening. Weekdays and weekends. That’s what I had told myself. I did not want to become the bitter guy who resented everyone who did their work and did none himself. But I suspected I already was.
Sure, I typed. What time?
I WAS about to hit send when the most perfect feet in the history of the universe stepped into my circle of vision. Silver thongs. Pink painted nails, cut close and square, the toes long, symmetrical, the skin flawless.
She said hi to everyone at the table — except me, because I never looked up. From what I could gather, she knew my friend, the producer. She gave him her new number and on autopilot, I punched it into my phone as well, first name Zenzi, last name, Feet.
Zenzi Feet. And then she was gone. I hadn’t looked up once. I didn’t even know what she looked like.
On my way to the cubicle, I crossed my manager in the corridor. I had brought my guitar to work, I was going to head to my studio session right after.
He stopped, coffee cup in hand.
I nodded. He took a sip.
Oh, dear lord.
“You should come home. I’ll call friends. We’ll have a mehfil.”
“I’d love to.”
“Okay, good.” He nodded, raised his coffee cup as if dismissing me.
Head nod. Smile. I had a feeling I was going to be doing this a lot over the coming days.
I don’t know if he felt we had connected in some way, as fellow musicians, but come lunchtime, he was hovering behind my back.
I was faint from hunger. I told him I had already eaten. By the time evening came around I think my stomach acid had dissolved my intestines, my kidneys and for good measure, my spleen.
Why do I do this to myself? Because I’m spineless.
Nandu’s studio is walking distance from the bank, there’s a shawerma shop halfway there and during rush hour, a chooch would take too long. Too long in my current state anyway.
With the strap of my guitar case digging into my shoulder, I walked, with the taste of chicken and that garlic sauce on my tongue every step of the way. I called ahead and ordered two rolls, so I wouldn’t have to wait when I got there. The waiters knew me and before I even sat down, there was water on the table, a moment later, my rolls.
I think I inhaled the first one. The sharp edge of my hunger dulled at last, I leaned back from the table, unwrapped the second one. There’s a small clothing store next to Lebanese Point and every week, 10 days, they have a new poster in their display window. I didn’t know the girl on their latest poster, but her feet — I’d know them anywhere, for the rest of my life. Zenzi Feet.
AT THE session, it was business as usual. A generic sounding tune, a niggling doubt I’d perhaps heard this somewhere before, indifferent lyrics and around the composer, a general air of self-satisfaction.
I couldn’t pretend in time I had other, better, things to do. Because, you know, I didn’t
I’d been to many of these, done my bit, submitted my invoice and never thought of it again. So I don’t know why I spoke up. Maybe because I’d been listening to The Meters the last few days, funky, groovy, tight, not a note unnecessary.
“Nandu, isn’t it getting too busy? It’ll be better if we strip it down.”
“No. Just give it to me the way I told you.”
I should be home, working on my own stuff. I took a second to calm myself, then gave him what he wanted.
On my way back, I stopped in front of the poster and stared at those feet. The shop finally shut down for the evening, rolled down its shutters and as the bolts clanged into place, they seemed to say to me ‘Clafuckoff- ng.’
I dialled Zenzi Feet.
“Who is this?”
She had the voice to go with those toes.
“We met at Zenzi the other day — I’m Amit’s friend.” It was a stretch, but it was all I had. If only I’d looked up and said hello.
I was like an unwelcome salesman — if I could only keep extending this conversation, sliver upon sliver, it might not end so badly.
“What’re you doing? Right now?”
“Oh, you know, nothing, I was just…”
“You want to get a cup of coffee?”
“Actually I’m in the middle of…”
“You know drinking a cup of coffee is the same as running two miles? It’ll be your workout, minus the sweat.”
“No, I just made that up.”
She laughed. Better.
“You should come out. I’m scintillating company. One cup of coffee.”
I was a little amazed at myself. I’d never done anything like this before, I prefer to hang back instead of going after them. It was the feet, they had somehow altered the chemistry of my brain.
“And then you never have to see me again. Deal?”
Silence. She wasn’t sure of what to make of me.
“Come on, you’re making me beg for one cup of coffee? One cup, then we’ll just carry on with our lives. Like it never even happened.”
She was still thinking. It was up to her now. I didn’t want to seem desperate. Even though I was.
“Okay. Not too long, I have to do some stuff.”
“Sure, no problem. Text me your address.”
“I’ll come and pick you up.”
AS IT happened, we never even stepped out. Her flat was a sparsely furnished one BHK, the living room had two overstuffed leather chairs in front of a TV. I sat in one, she in the other and we talked. It was the easiest thing I’d ever done. After a while, she asked me to play something for her.
I took out my hollow-body electric, played her one song, then another.
“Whose songs are those?” she asked.
When I got to the next one, she put up her left foot on the armrest of my chair, closed her eyes, tapped along to the beat.
I could barely concentrate, the adrenaline coursing through my veins, my heart thumping in my ears, certain it was so loud that she could hear it.
I finished the song, put my plectrum between my lips, and not really sure of what I was doing, put my hand on her foot. The moment I touched her, her skin cool, dry to the touch, I felt like I’d fallen off the edge of a cliff.
She opened her eyes, looked at me even as I slowly rubbed her foot, my fingers dancing between her toes, then feeling the pulse below her ankle, the skin harder under her heel.
She kept looking, but she didn’t pull her foot back.
Without taking my hand away, I put my guitar down on the floor, took the plectrum from my mouth, tossed it, slid off the chair to my knees. I was shivering.
She watched me as I leaned forward, slow, slipped her second toe into my mouth, I could smell the acetone of her nail paint, taste its chemical tang on my tongue.
She put her hands up behind her head and moved her hips, pushing her foot deeper into my mouth.
I held her with both hands, kissing her ankle, running my tongue across her heel, her sole, biting the island of hard skin under her pinky toe.
The touch tickled her, she writhed, but I held her, the muscles of her calf contracting under my hand — then, stretched out like this, her foot pointed, like a ballerina, her head tucked into her armpit, she slid down to the floor, her long hair trailing after her like a comet’s tail.
Outside, the sun was gone. We were two dark shadows on the floor. I felt her other foot on my forehead, caressing my cheek, seeking out my mouth. I looked up as she undid the button of her jeans, slipped her hand in, moving against her fingers in gentle waves.
An unrequited fetish is the sound of one hand clapping.
In all these years, I had never yet found anyone who found as much joy in receiving as I did in giving.
WHEN DAWN broke with the new day, the whole universe had shifted, every moment now rife with possibilities that had never before existed.
She said hi to everyone at the table — except me, because I never looked up
As I walked through the streets, I felt apart from the crowd, floating above this world caught up in the trite and the mundane.
Is this what love is? I was well familiar with lust, but to feel invincible, this was new, it was heady.
Why had I been chosen for this happiness? What had I done to deserve it? I didn’t want to question it too much, should cracks suddenly appear in my newly acquired armour.
The phone rang. It was Nandu.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“Yeah, I know.” The concept of caller ID was wasted on Nandu. He did this every time.
“Can you come in tonight? Sooner the better, actually. Lot of work.”
“Then when? Tomorrow? Horrible deadline, I won’t be able to push it any more.”
“No, no. I’m not coming in. Not today. Not tomorrow. Never. Ever.”
What was I doing? I didn’t understand these words coming out of my mouth. I was a little amazed by them.
“I don’t want to play your songs. They’re horrible. If I want to waste my life, I’ll play my own crappy songs.”
“What? What did you say? What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you drunk? Do you know who this is? It’s Nandu.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I gave you a chance, when nobody even... you ungrateful bastard.”
“Call me when you stop stealing.” I hung up. I didn’t know this person in my skin, but I liked him.
We spent Saturday and Sunday locked away from the world, barely surfacing to eat. Soon, it was every weekend, every week, every day, every spare moment. Somewhere along the way, there was a mehfil that I never showed up for.
I left my guitar at her place. I was with her every evening, either making love or music. I hadn’t known, but this is what I wanted from life.
She told me her father was going to be in town for a day the next week. Would I come out with her, meet him for dinner?
“Do you want me to?”
“Yes,” she said.
BY THE time we got to Pali Village Café, her father was already there, at a corner table in the inner section, where it’s a little quieter.
He rose when he saw us, hugged his daughter, shook my hand. He was tall, elegant in his kurta and jeans and you could see the resemblance. She was so much his daughter.
I sat on his right, she on his left. She was glowing. There were times I looked at her, disbelieving that she loved me.
The waiter appeared with the drinks menu.
“Sorry, I already started.” Her father had a glass of red wine in front him.
“No, no, we should’ve been here sooner. In Bombay, sometimes it’s just quicker to walk. I’m good with whatever you’re having.”
I turned to the waiter. “Another glass of the red, please.”
“Me too”, she said.
I pushed my chair back to get comfortable, looked down, saw their feet, father and daughter, next to each other, his feet in kolhapuris, hers in the silver thongs I loved so much.
Her feet were shaped exactly like her father’s. Sure, his were broader, more masculine, but in their essence, these two pairs were the same.
I must’ve frozen, because I felt her hand on my arm. I looked up.
The waiter glided in, placed the two glasses of wine and disappeared.
I felt sick. I probably looked it too, she was scanning my face, worry creeping into her eyes.
I looked at her. I was sinking, I wanted to hold on to her and never let go.
“It’s nothing, I’m okay. I’ll be fine.”
But I knew I never would be.
AKSHAT VERMA is a vichitra veena player who also writes, sporadically, in Bandra, Long Beach and multiple airport lounges along the way.
Original Fictions 1
Original Fictions 2
Original Fictions 3