Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ear Piercing

When I came home that day, he was in an advanced state of self-grooming. It was obvious that he trimmed his hair sometime during the day and it was now dripping with scented oil. He oiled his entire body too and was giving it some air before jumping into the shower to scrub it all off with the coarse herbal bath powder he prepared for himself. The Roadie had only a flimsy old towel wrapped around his hips and looked like a wrestler getting ready for a bout of Kushti in the Akhara. If you lived in the tropics, you wouldn't flinch at someone like that walking around in your home. Forget it, he just returned from Africa, and was probably better attired than some of the Kings there!

I got used to his grooming rituals over time. He carries them out diligently every time he returns from his trips, being a creature of habit that he is. Understandably, he returned a few shades darker from Africa and brought back all the sand and dust his long locks could hold. More prominently, he returned with a small piercing in his left ear lobe with a tiny sanitised bone fragment sticking through it. He went into the shower as soon as I arrived, so I decided to get curious about the bone at a later hour.

He emerged after a long and noisy stint inside the bathroom, by which time I changed into my evening clothes and was getting ready for my stroll on the beach.

'I'll join you,' he said. 'And we'll talk about the bone. I know you are dying to know all about it!' he winked. I laughed out loud. Fifteen minutes later we were walking bare feet on the rocky part of the beach. The sun sank into the eager waters a little while ago, but there was still some light in the sky. Enough to see the odd couple canoodling behind the stray rocks jutting out of the sea. We were watching out for them, only to avoid disturbing their privacy ofcourse. We almost walked into a couple tight in embrace and in the middle of a rather compromising act. Naturally, we had to get a bit wary after that. 'Bombay is a strange city,' the Roadie remarked. 'Privacy comes at a price here. And the least price is Rs.300/- per hour in the cheap love hotels along the highway!'

'Long time ago,' he continued, 'I drove around endlessly in the bylanes of Andheri to find a solitary spot to enjoy a few private moments with a girl. It was past 2 AM and whatever place we stopped at, there was someone walking past every five minutes or an auto rickshaw glaring in its headlight straight at us. The girl was a bit shy and was getting conscious to even touch me when someone was watching. Both of us were staying with our respective families those days, so we couldn't crash at a place for the night.'

'Must have been disappointing' I chuckled.

'Hmm..' he paused, turning over his memories a bit. 'We never got around to do anything even later. You don't know that girl. I'm not sure now if it was disappointing!'

We walked along the wet borders marked on the sand by receding waves. Beaches get new sand from the sea every day. Fresh sand and fresh garbage with it. You would think you are walking on the same beach and looking into the same water. But every day the whole setup changes all over. Imagine, if you have to return every day to a new house. You go to office and a tide changes every brick of your house before you return. You go to sleep and everything gets moved around before you wake up. Everyday! I looked up at the Roadie and wondered what it must be like for him. To wake up in a new bed almost each morning. Sure, he comes down to my place when he's in Bombay. Or to some other friend's. But that's still a part of the journey he's making. The fading light silhouetted his profile and the breeze was gently waving his freshly washed locks of hair. In his white kurta and the beard, he looked like a Guru singing bhajans on the devotional channels. Except for the bone earring and the faded jeans ofcourse.

'So what's the story with the bone?' I enquired.

He smiled indulgently. 'You know that's one question I've not got tired of answering yet. The day I don't feel like answering, I'll take it off.'

'This bone is from the Congo Basin,' he continued. 'The cradle of human cannibalism!'

My eyes opened wide. 'Don't tell me it's a human bone!' I exclaimed.

He laughed aloud and flashed a mischievous twinkle in the eye. Obviously, he was expecting that question. 'Don't get so excited!' he said. 'It isn't. Some smaller animal's smallest digit. Totally sanitised. The original owner of this bone was related to your ancestors I'm sure! It was long overdue, the ear piercing. No big shakes about the piercing, ofcourse. I'm sure you are excited more about the bone than the hole in ear. The story of the bone is really simple. I made a bet with a girl once, that I'd put a bone through my nose. I remembered that when I went to Africa this time. Couldn't go that far as to put a hole in my nose though. So I put one through my ear.'

'So you are going to claim a win in the bet all the same?'

'No. The bet doesn't stand anymore. This happened long ago. She was on her first long trip of her life. I dared her to get a tattoo on her back. She took the bet and I lost. She made another bet later, daring me to get a septum piercing done and put a bone through it. Like the African slaves in those Asterix cartoons. The bet was, if I did that, she'd have to get an eyebrow pierced. I was almost sure she would never go through with the eyebrow piercing. The tiny tattoo itself was the biggest thing she had ever done all her life!'

'I was wrong' he continued. 'She got an eyebrow pierced within that year, not out of my bet but because she felt like proving a diffferent point to me one sunny afternoon. I was surprised, though I could see the transformation she was going through.'

'Like most Indian girls on the domestic travel circuit, she came from a very traditional family that had a long history of suppressing its female members. Yes, I know. That's stereotyping. Believe me, I met quite a few in my life and I know what I'm talking about! Even if I drop the generalisation, S_____ did come from a family that had only one girl - herself - study beyond the age of fifteen. Ever. And she was the only one who didn't marry to bear kids before the age of twenty.'

'She came along with a friend of mine to a house party in Shimla. There was a huge gathering of Tibetan supporters that year during the come-back of Charas in the mountains and she came along with a group of former schoolmates. We spent quite a long time talking that day. Two days later, I met her at a tattoo shop accompanying a girl and I jokingly dared her to get a small tattoo on the back. She took the bet, but by the time she finished screaming with pain and came out with the tattoo, she decided not to talk to me for the rest of her life. It took an enormous effort to convince her that I wasn't a psychopath who paid the tattoo-maker to try and kill her. When she finally softened, the tattoo healed and she started getting a lot of compliments for the ancient Egyptian heliography on her back. For several days after that we invented pretexts to bump into each other. One of those days, we were reading an Asterix book in a lazy cafe and came across the African cartoon with the bone in the nose. That was when we made this bone-through-the-nose bet. After three weeks in the hill station, we returned to Mumbai together and once we were here, we didn't need any pretexts to meet.'

It was a moonless night and was growing dark very fast. We started our walk back home at a brisker pace than we set out. The Roadie was obviously walking down another lane in his mind and mechanically followed my lead.

'Those days,' he continued, 'I didn't do much to earn a living though she went back to her full time job. We used to meet as often as possible. My only memories of that time now are the places we had gone to and the conversations we had. I used to fill the emptiness between the meetings by sleepwalking through my life. I don't even remember what else I was doing those days. We got very intimate in the process and I told her one day that I wanted to see her everyday from then. So that those unbearable separations would come to an end and I could smell her hair on my pillow every day.'

'Less than a month later, she moved in to the one BHK that I used to rent those days. It was a very bold decision for her, given her background and even today I wonder where she found the will to do that. Whatever the reason, we came to live together and we filled the days with the company of each other for two months on the trot. One day, she came back late from work with a ring through her eyebrow! She said she wanted to show me that she's not the same shy and scared girl anymore. Frankly, I remember being a bit upset about it that day. Not for the piercing, but for the pain she put herself through to show me that she changed. May be that's because I didn't want her to change!'

'When I first met her, she was a shy girl from a small town up north. She was well read and earned well at a day job that she took up in Mumbai after college. Travelling was just a hobby she was developing and not an occupation, like it is for me. I found a refreshing change in her from the friends I had then. And obviously, we developed a very passionate attraction for each other. Her feelings, however, seemed ambivalent at times to me. When we were not intimate, she seemed very distant. I felt something was bothering her secretly, but could never get it out of her.'

We reached home by then and sat down in the balcony overlooking the small nana-nani garden readying to shut its gates for the evening. The Roadie picked up a nail file and started smoothing his nail edges as he spoke.

'Then came a time for separation. I had planned for a three month long trip through Indo-China that year with some old friends and it was long time in the offing. We had booked tickets and made plans a long time ago. I tried to get her to join me, but her job forced her to stay back. And when I tried to back out of it myself, my friends were on the verge of breaking off our decades long association. I had no choice but to proceed with the trip leaving her behind. I don't know what I was thinking, getting into an attachment with her like that. It was clear from day one that this moment would come soon. Travelling was fast becoming my way of life then and she knew that too.'

'Anyway, I went ahead with my trip as planned. We communicated as frequently as possible. Cell phones and Internet were just entering India those days. So we relied on home telephone and postcards. Staying away from her didn't seem as difficult as I thought it would be. Once in a while I would get an irrepressible urge to be with her, but it grew faint in less than two weeks into the trip. After that, it was much easier.'

'Towards the end of the second month, something happened that changed my life later on. I got strangely attracted to an Ossetian girl who joined us for a brief period through Vietnam. She was surprisingly like S_____ in attitude and in mind. It was like the same soul trapped in another body born in another world. I spent a lot of time with her against my own will. And one night, in a burst of spontaneous impulse, we had unrestrained, passionate sex for an entire night. I had experienced that kind of passion only with S_____ so far in my life, so I fell willingly into the deep abyss of familiar darkness. Ofcourse, the darkness also blinded me to the fact that I was breaking an unspoken contract, but it didn't bother me much then.'

'Next day too, I didn't wake up with any greater sense of guilt than that of spilling water on some one's shirt. It was a strange feeling. I justified it to myself as a natural impulse of the body. I was stressed out from the travel and was away from the one I loved. I reasoned that I just needed an outlet. I made a pact with the Ossetian girl to keep the incident a secret and not get back to doing it again. I even resolved to keep my mouth shut about it and not blurt it out to her like everything else with my life. The girl went away another way two days later, and I dismissed the incident from my mind.'

'The next month passed without event. As the days come to a close, my urge to get back home to her grew stronger and there was a point when I was counting hours in each day. Four days before the scheduled return, one of my mates had to suddenly leave as his wife gave birth prematurely. He managed to change the ticket dates and I accompanied him. I didn't inform S_____ that I was coming, planning to surprise her early in the morning. All through the short flight, I could picture her screaming with surprise and jumping on to me. I kept chuckling to myself!'

The Roadie paused to examine the shape of his nails for a long time. He was staring at his fingers as if he were minutely examining the contours a rather tiny but beautifully crafted diamond. The humid air formed small beads of perspiration on his forehead and there was a visible tightness around his mouth. He was silently fighting back his urge to continue the story. And when he finally opened his mouth, the voice came out baser than his usual baritone.

'I reached Mumbai just before dawn and quickly got to my flat. I entered, taking care to not make any noise and tiptoed to the bedroom. I was planning to sneak into the bed silently and begin a tender caress making up for the three months lost in a foolish pursuit. The morning light was streaking through the open window and I caught a sight that made my nerves freeze. There were two people in the bed. I stood there for a moment, looking at her face through the scattered tresses and a stranger's face next to it. A sudden panic shot through my spine and travelled up my face. I could feel it in my breath and in the thousand needles that pricked my brain an instant later. Two seconds into it, an unfamiliar calm relaxed my body and the panic deserted me. I lost all the impulse to bellow with anger and declare my presence. Any tempestuous desire to tear down the mask from her face, that immediately rose in me with my panic already seemed distant. It was like, the man who stood there a second ago summoning primitive rage to avenge a wound vaporised and was replaced with an impassionate countenance indifferently surveying a fleeting vision of two strangers sleeping.'

'I closed the door behind me as I came out and went straight to the kitchen. I set out to make coffee for myself. I felt like drinking black coffee that day after several years of abstinence induced by a minor caffeine addiction in the past. I sat at the little kitchen table and stared into the sky through the little kitchen window. Some time later, I could sense someone stirring in the bedroom and coming out before stopping dead in the living room, seeing me with my back towards the door. I could make out from the sound of the step that it wasn't her. I continued sipping the coffee and staring out of the window. The stranger sleeping in my bed evidently saw me and went back into the bedroom. Moments later, the front door opened and shut swiftly and the intruder was gone.'

'At that time I was thinking of what to say to her when she wakes up. I remembered the Ossetian girl and what I told myself that day. And in a flash, I began thinking clearly. I could see then where I went wrong so far in my life. All the while I was with her, I was only in love with myself. And she was a mere extension of me, that enormous self-image of me. As if she was filling those little gaps I always felt in myself. Sitting at the kitchen table that day, I became aware of her as a full-blooded individual with her own thoughts and her own little world. I realised that she had a mind of her own that had its own desires and fears. And she succumbed to temptations as much as I did. That it was entirely possible that she can exist on her own. That a three month separation at the heights of a passionate relationship could do things to her too.'

'I wanted to wake her up then and tell her that I unconditionally understood what she had done. That I wanted to talk to her about it only if she wanted to or we could get back to our life just as before without a word said. I wanted to tell her how I had a revelation about her individuality that day and what a fool I had been until that moment, loving myself and not her at all. I could have written a nine hundred word essay right then if I had a pen and paper ready!', he chuckled.

'So I went into the bedroom again.' He paused again. I waited for him to continue. 'I should have guessed it ofcourse. She had always been an early riser. The stranger was still sleeping in the bed and she was gone. I woke him up and had to explain who I was. The rage was already rising in me again, and I told him to grab his clothes and get out, which he promptly did.'

I smiled, but didn't know what to say. Obviously, the situation was funny and seeing that so many years passed after the incident, the Roadie himself sounded almost third-party-like, telling me that absurd turn his story had taken. He silently continued examining the nails for a long time. I too didn't say anything for the fear of making the baritone deeper. He always slipped into this tone that vibrated metal when he launched his long monologues. It was always better to let him explore those moments alone. But I couldn't bear the silence after a while.

So I ended up asking him, 'So did you ever deliver your nine hundred word essay to her?'

'No,' he said. 'She came back for her stuff when I wasn't home and left the key in the mail box downstairs. And even though I knew where she went to live, I never saw her or met her after that. That guy was obviously a passing phase because I never heard of him later, even though I kept track of her through common friends. No one knew the depth of our feelings for each other while it lasted, so they all thought that it was a small fling we had which quickly passed.'

'So was it really just that?' I asked.

'Was it really just what?'

'A small fling that quickly passed?'

He continued his intent examination of the clean and well shaped nails. After a while I got up and brought the food out from the kitchen that the kaamwali bai prepares in the evenings.

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