Life on Mars
I spent this Diwali in a dingy cell. My first Diwali away from home. My first in jail. What can I say? My life is like the rocket the geniuses at ISRO sent to Mars on Diwali eve. Built to take off in unexplored directions. I must have inherited my restlessness from a distant relative. My father is a quiet, mousy man who drives Rajan saab, principal secretary, Planning Commission, across the streets of Delhi. Baba has been saab's driver for years. Rajan Bansal is our kuldevta -- my family's very own personal god. Ma and Baba worship him. My sister Neeti touches his feet when we go to his bungalow. My parents used to be shocked when I didn't follow her example. Shock has ossified into disappointment over time. They sigh and bear it when I behave like an infidel in front of Bansal.
When we were children, the Bansals used to invite Neeti and me to their house for their daughter's birthday parties. In my list of miserable social situations, those parties bag first place. Neeti and I would stand out like a pair of Martians in the Bansals' living room. Our clothes were not cool, our hairstyles were a joke, the Hindi we spoke clashed with the English phrases the other kids bandied around. Everybody else in the room went to elite schools. We were alumni of a dysfunctional school in Lodi Colony where classes had to be suspended on rainy days because of a leaky roof. Our classrooms had broken windowpanes and walls covered with peeling plaster. The teacher student ratio was a joke. Timetables were followed on good days; a subject was taught if a teacher was on hand to teach it. All arrangements were makeshift. School life as we knew it was a precarious affair.
The kids at the party scowled at us when we mentioned these details. They thought we were making things up just to confuse them. Our school was not a part of the real world. Neither were we. We didn't understand the words smoothly sliding off their tongues, their jokes and laughter stayed out of our reach. Priya was the only person in the room who tried to draw us in. Dressed in her birthday finery, she looked like a princess who had stepped out of a fairy tale. Mrs Bansal pinned a tiara on her daughter's head to make sure the birthday girl stood out in the crowd. The attention her parents showered on her had not turned her into a spoilt brat. I remember her tagging after Neeti and me, fussing over our empty plates, asking us if we were having a good time.
Priya is at Columbia -- the university, not Escobar's notorious playground - these days. We met a month ago when she flew down to Delhi to spend her summer break at home. She was dressed in a spaghetti top and skin tight jeans that evening. Her hair hung over her shoulders like a glossy veil. When she got off the porch and walked down the lawn towards me, I noticed a new confidence in the way she moved. She held her head a different way; her laughter had an unfamiliar note to it. She glowed like the sun; warm, inviting, resplendent. I felt dizzy with happiness to see her.
We stood next to her father's steel-blue car at the edge of the lawn, chatting about her life in New York. She was swept away by the city's charms, impressed by her professors, thrilled she had made friends on campus.
"You should come visit me, Govind," she said, tugging at my sleeve. "That'll be fun"
Bansal glared at us from the porch like a displeased god. His eyebrows shot up when Priya smiled at me; he flinched when her hand rested on my arm. I looked at Priya's luminous face and wished I could want her less. The Buddha was right in a way. The road to misery is paved with desire. Water down the intensity of your longing. Want nothing, stay safe. If my heart didn't hurt like a wound in Priya's absence, the days wouldn't be such a burden to bear. Without this love, I wouldn't burn, wouldn't bleed. But who would I be if I let go of her? What did the Buddha - renegade husband and father -- know of heartache?
Without desire, we are nothing but the walking dead. The whole fucking universe marches to desire's beat. Want keeps the wheels of the world turning. For better or worse. For better or worse.
Ma calls this crazy talk. Bhoot sawaar hua hein, she says, chanting a hymn under her breath to exorcise my demons. Married off to Baba at twenty, she had moved from her village in eastern Uttar Pradesh to Delhi three decades ago. In spite of the years, the city is still a feverish dream to her. She doesn't understand its madness. Nor does she try to. Her head is filled with stories of Haripur - her village dotted with sugarcane fields and meandering streams where life flows on at a different pace. "Things were simpler at home," she says, staring at the sooty sky overhead. "I was happy there."
Baba remembers it differently. The village was held at ransom by the weather gods. Crops withered away. Hunger claimed its share of victims every summer. There was no electricity in their homes, no school for miles. Baba and his cousins would wake up at first light and trek all the way to the nearest town to attend classes. They couldn't wait to grow up and move away. The city -- and the promise of a better life - shone before them like a beacon. They didn't worry about what kind of jobs they would find or where they would live. The details didn't matter as long as the dream held them close in its embrace.
This city punishes Ma and Baba in different ways. Baba has been sentenced to a lifetime of ferrying Bansal through Delhi's chaos. Ma spends her days in a one-room house, seeking refuge in dreams of the emerald fields of Haripur. Their only comfort is the fact that Neeti has found a job at a call centre. Baba is in awe of her for mastering English and perfecting the art of rolling her 'r' s. Ma boasts to the neighbours that the Americans call up Neeti when they are in trouble. I admire my sister for putting up with such mind numbing drudgery. Her threshold of pain is much higher than mine.
Ma nags me about taking up a full-time job like Neeti. "Beta, get your head out of the clouds," she says. "Stop dreaming about Bombay. Script writing is no way to make a living. Stay here. Find a real job."
"Be patient, Ma. You'll change your mind when your son becomes famous"
"Have you forgotten the story of Krishna and his nephew Shishupala?"
"Neeti remembers it"
"I'm sorry. Her memory's better than mine"
"It was your favorite story when you were a boy"
"My memory is a sieve"
"What does that mean?"
"Ma, just tell me the story"
"Lord Krishna promised Shishupala's mother he would forgive her son a hundred times. A hundred chances and no more"
"Shishupala crossed the limit. He used up the hundred chances and Krishna killed him"
"Are you going to kill me?"
"No" she says, wiping away tears with the back of her hand. "But your father might"
"He knows I'm working on my script"
"He's going to run out of patience…"
"I can't give up on my script. I won't"
She covers her face with her pallu and wails like a mourner at a funeral. I desperately search for the right words to reassure her.
Baba never loses his temper. This is the founding principle of our family life, a truth Neeti and I have trusted since we were toddlers. Other beliefs crumbled before us when we stepped into the murky waters of adulthood. Other gods have showed us their feet of clay. But Baba never loses his temper. This we count on just as we trust the sun to rise in the east. In spite of Ma's hints and her apocryphal story about lord Krishna's killer instincts, I wasn't prepared for Baba's outburst. He stormed into the house on Diwali eve and exploded like the firecrackers my neighbours had been setting off all day. "No more script writing," he screamed, sweeping the papers off my desk. They drifted in the air like confetti. I opened my mouth to defend myself. But Baba wouldn't let me speak. My laptop - a gift from Priya before she left town - sat between us like a mute spectator. I put my arm around it in case Baba decided to target it. Baba wagged his finger under my nose. "I won't listen to your stupid excuses". My chances had run out. An old crony of Bansal's was looking for a driver and Baba had persuaded saab to recommend me for the job. He wanted me to start right away. Baba had it all planned out: I would have to join work on Diwali. My first stop in the morning would be Bansal's bungalow. After thanking Bansal for his recommendation, I was to head to my employer's house, clean his car, and take my rightful place at the driver's seat.
"I'm not a kid. You can't order me around"
"You are my son," Baba said. "You have to…"
"I don't want to be a saab's driver all my life. That's your dream. Not mine"
A bunch of crackers went off next door like canons in a war. The stray dogs on the streets howled in sync.
"Govind, I've never asked you for anything," Ma said, stepping in between Baba and me. "If you care about me, take this job. If my happiness means anything to you, take it."
My mother is a petite woman who doesn't come up to my shoulders even when she stands on tiptoe. Sometimes she looks like a hopeful child in spite of her wrinkles.
"My life is…"
"You don't have to keep the job for life," she said. "Just give it a shot. That's all I'm asking"
Ma leaned forward and placed her right hand on my shoulder. I felt drained. Swimming against the current was exhausting. May be it was time to stop struggling, let go, sink to the bottom like a stone. Let the tide wash over me.
"Tomorrow," I promised. "I'll join work tomorrow"
Ma gave me a hug. Her smile lit up the room like the lamps she had lined up at the threshold to celebrate the festival of lights.
The sun shimmied behind fluffy clouds on Diwali morning. Neeti had just come home from a graveyard shift. She lived in a different time zone, spending her nights at work and sleeping through the day. When she was awake, she was tired and not in the mood to talk. I missed our chats. I missed the easy camaraderie we used to share. Ma was up early, rolling ladoos and frying gulab jamuns in honour of Diwali. Baba had returned to his calm self. There was no trace of the frenzied man from the previous evening to be seen while he sipped a cup of tea. We had a stilted conversation: when was I leaving for Bansal's? Had I written down my employer's address and cell number? Finding his house shouldn't be a problem since he lived a few blocks away from Bansal. In case I needed help, Bansal would point me the right way.
A scream was welling up inside me, a wild beast of a cry that would shatter the walls if I let it out. I got dressed in a hurry and left the house before Ma served breakfast. She was slaving over ghee-soaked puris, spicy aloos, sweets of different kinds. The sight of food made me gag. A hand was clamped at my throat, choking me. I couldn't keep anything down if I tried.
Bansal's bungalow was not far. A bus dumped me a couple of blocks away from his house. The weather was perfect - the streets were bathed in honeyed sunshine and a pleasant hint of a chill hung in the air. But nature's perfection was wasted on me. I forced myself to walk to Bansal's gate while every fibre of my being revolted against the prospect of meeting him. Bansal was holding court on his porch, surrounded by a circle of hangers on. Gift-wrapped packages were piled up on a table. He was handing them out, one at a time, to the crowd.
I walked down the lawn, past the rose bushes and a long row of Priya's favorite carnations. She used to water them everyday before she flew away to America. Bansal's car was parked at the edge of the lawn. Sunlight bounced off its glazed surface and a set of golf clubs leaned against it at an angle. Had Bansal forgotten to put his clubs away? Was he airing them on Diwali for some demented reason?
"There you are!" he said, looking up at me from his throne. He was all dressed up: red silk kurta and pyjamas, dapper Nehru jacket, a rose at his buttonhole to channel the dead prime minister's cosmopolitan spirit. His hair was slicked back, a smile was pasted on his lips like a shiny accessory. He smiled at me without a glimmer of warmth. I mumbled my thanks for the job recommendation.
"No problem," he smirked.
"I'm starting work today"
"I should leave. Don't want to be late"
"Would you mind fetching my golf clubs before you go?" he pointed at the clubs angled against his car. "I forgot to bring them in after this morning's game"
"Did your father teach you to drive?"
"He's an excellent driver. So if he's your teacher, you should be the best. You know what they say…"
"Like father like son. That's the truth, Govind"
I turned around and walked towards his car. The sun exploded into a flaming ball of fire; the light was too bright and it hurt my eyes. Bansal shouted out something from behind my back. I couldn't make sense of what he was saying because there was a roar in my ears, a sound louder than the churning oceans that drowned out every other noise in the world. I bent down and picked up a golf club. It felt smooth to the touch. I straightened up, raised my right hand, and brought the club down on the car's windshield. There was a satisfying crunch, the sound of glass cracking, shards raining down. A second blow shattered the windshield to bits. Bansal howled like a dog in pain and came bounding down the porch steps, holding his phone to his ear.
"The police are coming," he shouted, baring his teeth at me. "Stop it. Stop it right now"
I managed to break the windows too before they got to the house. Bansal told the cops that I had smashed his car and tried to kill him. I pleaded guilty to the first charge. The second was the man's paranoid fantasy. The cops ignored everything I said, apologized to Bansal for letting assassins run amuck, and bundled me into a jeep, which reeked of cheap perfume. I couldn't tell which of the two cops was wearing it.
"Who attacks people on Diwali?" The moon-faced cop shook his head. He was sitting in the front seat with his eyes glued to the mirror. He did not turn around when he threw the question at me. His partner kept his mouth shut and his hands on the steering wheel.
"I should have picked another day?" I asked, breathing in the jeep's awful perfume.
"Shut your mouth," moon face barked. "You want to rot in jail for the rest of your life?"
No, I didn't. But I didn't want to spend it fetching Bansal's golf clubs or ferrying his friends around town either. The cops locked me up with a bunch of pickpockets and petty thieves. We were holed up in a chicken coop. Nobody there showed any interest in me. They were used to a floating population of inmates. Introductions were superfluous. Conversations redundant. We kept up our silent vigil till a constable came around to the cell with a box of sweets. "This is a double dhamaka," the constable said, handing out ladoos to everyone. We were celebrating Diwali and the launch of India's mission to Mars. The inspector in charge of the station was a big fan of the space programme. The mission to Mars was his dream. He had waited for this day all his life.
I bit into a ladoo and asked the constable for a second. The sugar rush was good for my sagging morale. The constable was a friendly guy. Not your standard cop with an attitude problem.
"Have one more," he said, holding out the box of sweets.
"It's funny," I said.
"The timing of this mission to Mars. I'm writing a script about two people who meet on Mars. It's a love story"
"Set on Mars!" He rolled his beady eyes.
"This astronaut lands on Mars and she meets a man there. It just happens. Not part of a plan or anything"
"She falls for a Martian?"
"You can fall in love with anyone"
The constable nodded. "Does it have a happy ending?" he asked, chewing on his lower lip. "Will they get married on Mars? Will he move to earth with her?"
"That's not the point"
"Life is tough. What planet they choose won't make a difference"
"I hope they stay together. I like a film with a happy end"
"I'm working on it," I said, biting into a sickly sweet ladoo. "You'll be the first to know when I finish"
Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of the collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins, April 2014). Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal; The Missing Slate; Cha: an Asian Literary Journal and the anthology of contemporary writing "Why We Don't Talk'. Her first novel is in the pipeline.