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July 10, 2020
Jul 10, 2020
38 Min read time
I asked Karan Kapoor out on a date only because Dhruv had told me that he loved me, found me sweet, but didn’t like me the way I wanted him to. Which meant, he loved me and wanted to hang out with me, watch movies with me, hug me, but never be in a romantic relationship with me. Dhruv was a colleague of mine. I saw him in the office every day, and it didn’t help in any way.
Sarfaraz suggested that I should join Grindr, but I was averse because I didn’t like the sound of the word. It reminded me of the noisy juicer my mother had used throughout my childhood.
I was heartbroken. All I wanted to do after that was prove to him that I could get anyone like him, or better: anyone who could dance well like him, read books, and also date me. Minti and Sarfaraz—my emotional cushions in the city and experienced in the matters of love and promiscuity—came over to my apartment with wine, cheese, and kebabs to console me. Since they were staying over that night, Sarfaraz changed into a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and Minti into something very loose and shapeless that looked like a bed sheet that was folded and stitched on two sides. After that, we drank wine and cheese and kebabs for a long time. We ordered tandoori roti and mixed vegetables for dinner from the nearest vegetarian dhaba—the only place in the world I bought vegetarian meals.
“That Dhruv is just a loser,” they said, sounding like a poorly timed chorus.
“Please don’t say that, please. He isn’t,” I said, sitting on a dining chair staring out the window—my favorite spot in the apartment.
My apartment was on the fifth floor, and I loved the view of the Ridge Forests from my dining table. Almost half of the table was full of books and papers since I liked to work here instead of the study. With wall-mounted bookshelves and a large window that overlooked a football field, the study was cozy, but this spot was nicer. The cars looked small, and the highway looked like a black ribbon from where I sat, giving me a sense of control, security, and, perhaps, superiority, too.
“I don’t want you guys badmouthing him,” I said, still looking out the window. I didn’t turn my face to look at the two of them because I knew they were giving me exaggerated horrified looks.
“What a loser,” Minti-ba said, completely ignoring my request. “And how come you are supporting him?”
“Look at me, Rohit!” Sarfaraz shouted near my left ear.
“Sarfaraz—are you trying to make me deaf!”
“What? You are behaving as if someone has died.”
“Failure in a relationship is like death,” I said, scanning their faces. I was surprised by my deadpan tone. Minti was trying to open another wine bottle. “I don’t see any sadness for me on your faces.”
“Get lost! Why should you see the sadness on our faces? Hain?” Minti sounded shocked. “Do you have another corkscrew? I am not going to be sad because Dhruv refused to date you.”
“We are here to support you. Can’t you see? We are happy that you didn’t end up with that horrible Dhruv,” she said.
Sarfaraz added, “He is so full of himself, isn’t it? He thinks he is like a supermodel. He doesn’t deserve a guy like you. You are just far—you are above his league.”
“Nobody wants to date me. No one even has a crush on me.”
“Rohit stop underestimating yourself! Khali ulta-pulta kotha!” Minti had finally opened the wine bottle after locating the corkscrew on her own in one of the kitchen drawers.
“Everybody wants to date you,” Sarfaraz said, “You just change your status on Facebook to ‘single’ and there will be a queue or men and women outside your apartment, wanting to date you.”
“You guys can go to Pride and hold hands and be rebellious in Modi’s India—and you know what? I follow him on Facebook. He always shares stuff from the Guardian, which means he is liberal: just the kind of man you are attracted to.”
Since I was in a foul mood, I replied in a nasty tone, “Says the person who used to work as a model.” Started at the age of eighteen, Sarfaraz had been a model in the Assamese media industry, appearing in music videos and commercials. But he said he quit because all the photographers and directors had just wanted to fuck him and weren’t really interested in his talent. Also, he was short for the industry—five-five—and, at twenty-four, realized he wasn’t going to grow any taller. So last year he moved to Delhi and started attending coaching classes so he could take the competitive exams for the Indian Administrative Service, the Assam Public Service Commission, the Judicial Services (he had a law degree; open university, distant learning), and exams for bank officers, insurance agents, etc. He was ready for a stable job.
He didn’t like to be reminded of his modeling past. So he said, making a face, “You are now referring to my sad failed past as a model—this is below the belt, but I will let it go since you are hurting. I was talking about love. Real love. People who are going to be in love with you. Awesome people.”
“Thank you. I haven’t seen that happening so far.”
Minti poured more wine for herself. “And many people have a crush on you. You just don’t know them.”
My apartment was also close to my workplace. It was a small two-bedroom, with a hall, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. The bathroom fittings were new. In fact, so new that Sarfaraz often remarked it was an excellent bathroom to have sex in the shower and had threatened to bring a date to try it out. Minti—who enjoyed calling herself “Rohit’s Queer Sister”—offered to put me in touch with new men and women. She rattled off a list of people who she believed would kill someone to date me.
I drank more wine and spoke in a resolute but deadpan tone. “I will date them if they are hotter than Dhruv. He should know that I am desirable and regret not dating me.”
Sarfaraz suggested that I should join Grindr, but I was averse to the idea because I didn’t like the sound of the word. It reminded me of the noisy juicer my mother had used throughout my childhood until I bought her a new one last year. Then, he said, with great excitement, “You should date Karan Kapoor.”
His tone was so conclusive that it sounded like the solution to all my agony. He had my full attention. Sarfaraz straightened his back and spoke, looking very proud of his discovery. “He is probably single; he is sweet, teaches at Delhi University—which means you will be able to chat about books—forgive him if he doesn’t know about Alan Hollinghurst, OK? You guys can go together for the Pride and openly hold hands and be rebellious in Modi’s India—and you know what? I follow him on Facebook. He always shares stuff from The Guardian, which means he is liberal: just the kind of man you are attracted to.”
“Or woman,” Minti corrected him. It’s true: I had so far only dated women.
“Dhruv will never be jealous if he dates a woman. It has to be a hot guy.”
I took his point very seriously. Minti also agreed, a little grudgingly, though. At that point, it didn’t even occur to me the stupidity of the plan. We didn’t care to think that it might not have any effect on Dhruv. That Dhruv may never find out. That even if we made sure that he found out, he would likely just congratulate. It was Sarfaraz Logic—it worked mainly when you were drunk.
“So what should I do now? Ask him out?”
“Yes! Let’s call him before going to bed!”
“I am going to sleep,” Minti announced. “I am leaving the two of you to decide. Rohit, anyone would want to date you. You are awesome,” she said before heading to the guest bedroom.
“I will date them if they are hotter than Dhruv. He should know that I am desirable and regret not dating me.”
I had met Karan Kapoor six months ago at a conference on homoeroticism in Bollywood cinema. His paper was on a ’70s blockbuster. He had tried to argue that the two male leads were actually in love with each other, but since they lived in a repressed society, they diverted their sexual energies to the female leads. Somewhere during the talk, he said emphatically that heterosexual identity was possible because of the queer movement, which drew thunderous applause. Later I told him that his paper was excellent, which was a lie because he said predictable things that even my undergraduates could have deduced after watching the movie. I was just trying to be close to him. He had blushed before asking if I was also heading toward the high-tea area.
We walked across a long corridor and a large lawn to the high-tea place under the shade of deodar and neem trees that were at least seventy years old. Sipping tea, we agreed that it was nice to be outdoors because the seminar room was bitterly cold like windy desert nights. It was during the peak of summer, but like many government buildings in Delhi it was freezing cold inside. Women had taken out their stoles, and elderly men had tightened the buttons of their Nehru jackets.
I remembered all that, but I couldn’t remember the title of my paper. I hated academic conferences—they were chores I had to do so that I could file for a promotion. I didn’t care much about that either, but promotion would mean more money and fewer responsibilities. I had always wanted to be a singer. I never wanted to be an academic.
Sarfaraz poured himself some more wine in his coffee mug and suggested we should go on Facebook and stalk Karan Kapoor. We “critically analyzed” his photos and concluded that he was single. No traces of a boyfriend but lots of pictures with women. They all looked thrilled and were always eating something. I was Facebook friends with some of them. In their feeds, they seethed about the Hindu right and liked each other’s comments. They pounced on people who disagreed with them, and immediately whipped up five-hundred-word replies that used words such as patriarchal, heteronormative, repression, oppression, hegemonic, fundamentalist, the oppressed subject, the queer subject, and gender performativity. I also used those words but in my academic papers that I sent for peer review; I had never used them in real life.
Sarfaraz and I drank more wine, and when we were drunk, we decided we should go to bed. But before making it inside my bedroom, I told Sarfaraz, “We should call Karan Kapoor and fix.”
“Oh my god, I totally agree,” he started giggling.
I don’t want to talk about that drunken call. Karan Kapoor agreed to go on a date with me. In twenty-four hours, I would be regretting that decision and cursing Sarfaraz.
• • •
Going to the café was like participating in an obstacle race. First, a narrow, dark staircase with dim blue lights on the ceiling, which took me to a dark elevator. It opened on the third floor to a thick red-carpeted hallway. After that, I had to walk about twenty steps, and take a dirty, dark, but very broad staircase that looked so old that I thought it was perhaps made by the British. Two flights of a broad, possibly British-built staircase led me to another elevator, which took me two more floors above, and opened to a broad, square space. I exited through the revolving door on the right and finally found the café. How would people get out of this place if there were a fire? I thought as I entered the huge café: almost 150 people could sit at any time. Open tables and booths. Low light. Large bar. The perfect place for romance. For shady dealings. For unruly hands of passionate lovers. I did not think something like that would happen with Karan, so I asked for a seat on the terrace—their open-air section that also had live music and large pots with tall, bright green plants. In the middle of Delhi, on the terrace, they had created a mini forest.
During the talk, he said emphatically that heterosexual identity was possible because of the queer movement, which drew thunderous applause. Later I told him that his paper was excellent, which was a lie.
This was Connaught Place, the busiest commercial area in Delhi, former headquarters of the British colonizers whose presence was now evidenced only by massive white pillars, tall ceilings, and arched entrances. This was where Karan wanted to meet. He asked me to choose the café and let him know. In our Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp’s text conversations, he was warm, slightly funny, and remotely flirtatious. He called me “famous” because I just won a grant from the Centre for Developing Societies to conduct some research that would fund my travels to the New York Public Library for a book project. I was excited because it meant I would be able to see my friends from graduate school.
I had spent nine years in the city before moving back to New Delhi. I missed the autonomy and anonymity of the West, but I also cherished the social comfort here: the way we could call up people without making an appointment; the way people visited each other in the evenings suddenly, and stayed for dinner. I loved New York, but it was this level of informality that I always found missing. I wasn’t the kind of person who could live a life dominated by an Excel spreadsheet. After nine years away, I was sure I wanted a job in India. I was happy to accept the first job I was offered and defended my dissertation in May 2014. I wasn’t prepared for the landslide victory of the right wing two days after I landed in India. As saffron-clad men ran amuck on the streets threatening Muslim areas, I spent the day drinking vodka with Sarfaraz and Minti. “We will think about this tomorrow,” we said repeatedly. “Why the fuck did you come back: Hilary Clinton is going to run, and you could just stay there, happily,” Minti said, insisting it was a foolish decision to return. Honestly, I had nothing to say. I was shocked that so many people in my country could support a Hindu fundamentalist party.
I wondered if Karan would have praised me the same way if the grant gave me funding to go to a small town in India or a country that was less glamorous in the Indian popular imagination. I told him it didn’t mean people would mob me on the streets. He said, but people in the “circuit” would recognize, isn’t it—as if the goal of a fellowship was to gain fame, not get research support. I didn’t want to disagree with him. I wanted him to agree to come to meet me for dinner in a restaurant and then sleep with me.
He was late. Until he arrived, I had enjoyed waiting, looking at the lush green treetops of the neem trees, at the slow-moving traffic in serpentine queues, at the people who were walking, buying clothes, eating, buying junk jewelry and upholsteries from the overpriced vendors who sold them on the roadside. From the rooftop, everything looked slower. It was mid-April. Winter hadn’t yet taken her leave but was reluctantly lingering around, occasionally sprinkling some mist, some fog, over the city.
I should have been upset with Karan for being late, but it didn’t bother me. I should have also been upset because he turned out to be a vegetarian and a nearly carnivorous person like me had to eat veg kebabs, soybean tikka, and mock duck with him. It was painful, and I decided to order some meat, maybe beef, for home so that I could have it the next day for breakfast—otherwise, what was the point of coming for a meal to a restaurant?
He drank alcohol, but only one drink because he had to drive through the “horrible traffic of Delhi.”
Finally, after talking about work and family and the state of the nation, he said, “I am sorry, I should have told you. I am in a complicated open relationship with an older guy.” He went on to say that the man worked at the British Council, on Kasturba Gandhi Road. I should have been annoyed, but I just found it funny. Perhaps it was the drink. Probably I was surprised by my bad luck. I was rather curious and amused about everything. Suddenly, the goal of taking him home to finish more bottles of wine seemed mundane.
When he said his relationship was complicated because “even he is in the closet.” I asked: “Even?”
“My previous boyfriend,” he sighed. “I think I’m attracted to straight-passing men, and I guess that’s why I end up attracting closeted men.”
“You could date openly gay straight-acting men.”
I wasn’t prepared for the landslide victory of the right two days after I landed in India. As saffron-clad men ran amuck threatening Muslims, I spent the day drinking vodka with Sarfaraz and Minti. “We will think about this tomorrow,” we said repeatedly.
“I know,” he said slowly. “But you know, you get attracted to the person you get attracted to.”
“That’s right. Who would have thought . . .” I stopped. He burst out laughing.
“You know, when you had asked me to come for dinner with you, I was so confused. I asked Neeraj if you too like men. He said, no.”
“Oh, that’s because Neeraj has always seen me with girls. He is an old friend. He saw my straight, young, confused phase before I went to graduate school.”
“That’s hot, you know,” he smiled and raised only one eyebrow.
“Then why don’t you come over and finish the bottle of wine?”
“So, in America, you came out?”
“I wouldn’t give the country so much credit,” we laughed. “And the answer is: no.”
“I will visit you someday—maybe to have tea.” I was thinking: No, never; you aren’t coming over if you don’t want to sleep with me. “Let me sort out the mess in my life. I want to give the current relationship a shot, though it is complicated—actually, I don’t even know if this is a relationship. Until he gets married, I am not leaving him.”
“He is going to get married? And you are going to attend this wedding with a gift? What will you wear?”
“Don’t be mean, Rohit. How did you survive in America with this mean streak?”
“I am mean only with Indians. We have thicker skin. And our idea of meanness is different from ideas of meanness in other countries.” We both laughed again; at least we are laughing. I was surprised that this date was turning out to be a futile exercise or a bromance, and I was curious to know about Karan’s closeted boyfriend. “Are you guys very different from each other?”
He paused before answering.
“Actually, he is a rabid supporter of our current government—the Hindu brigade. He has been a longtime member of a Hindu religious organization, very militant and—we are so different from each other . . . He was dancing on the day of the elections and distributed sweets in his neighborhood. I had locked myself in my bathroom and cried.”
I coughed. I sipped some water, placed my drink on the table, and said, “Seriously? And you are such a leftist! I see your Facebook posts, how on earth . . . I mean, you might as well let a torn satchel hang from your shoulders like those leftist students.”
Finally, after talking about work and family and the state of the nation, he said, “I am sorry, I should have told you. I am in a complicated open relationship with an older guy.”
Karan didn’t let me finish. “Please don’t tell Neeraj, he will just kill me. My friends don’t know. They will just kill me and never let me meet him again.”
I shrugged and agreed not to tell anyone. I was still surprised, displeased by his dual life, his dishonesty. After a few moments, Karan asked, “Are you—like—judging me?”
Was I? I took a while to reply. I was perhaps judging him. His poor choice. The way he forsook the greater good for the pleasures of the bed, or something like that. I was sleepy. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. It was getting dark, and the restaurant management had switched on the lights. Strange insects hovered around them. I said, “I don’t think I am judging—more thinking: How does one date a religious fundamentalist who thinks all Muslims should go to some other country and leave this one for the Hindus?”
Karan was giving me a pained helpless look. “He isn’t participating in a riot, he isn’t running around lynching people like others are.”
“But he supports them? Isn’t it? Tell me he isn’t posting on social media and spreading hatred that has led to the death of people? All those people who have been killed in small towns and villages for buying and carrying beef home? Or even on suspicion of carrying beef home when some of them were actually carrying goat meat.” I felt exhausted. Should I call him out more? I wondered. Instead, I said in a resigned tone, “People are complicated. I am sure he is affectionate toward you and you like that.”
He stared at me for a few seconds and then reclined in the chair. He sat like that for a long time, watching the sky that was full of broad strokes of red, orange, and dark gray. We were ready to leave. I called the waiter and asked for the bill and also ordered another item to take home. “One plate beef fry, OK? Packed.” Karan looked at the packet of beef as if I was carrying a bomb. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to carry it because people were getting lynched for carrying beef. I said that such things wouldn’t happen in the middle of the city. In rural areas, where there was almost no law and order. He didn’t seem convinced.
• • •
Karan drove me home since we both lived in the Delhi University Enclave: the same place where I had spent the best years of my life after moving to Delhi to study at the university. As I sat in his car and watched the city through the windows, I remembered how I used to marvel at those neem trees when I first arrived in the city as an undergraduate, at those red brick buildings and how much I now missed those happy and carefree days. I wasn’t unhappy now. Yes, Dhruv refused to date me, and I had spent the last several months loving him, from across a border I didn’t have the passport to cross; had spent the past few weeks going to a therapist, and trying to be comfortable in my skin and also accept his rejection. Not that I had never known about myself, but I wasn’t prepared for such intense feelings. I was writing poems. Bad poems. And I had never written poems about anything—not even a flower.
“How does one date a religious fundamentalist who thinks all Muslims should go to some other country and leave this one for the Hindus?”
The happiness of Delhi University’s undergraduate days had a different kind of joy. A sort of joy that came with the ability to ignore responsibilities, a sort of pleasure that you felt because you didn’t have to give yourself an “A” in everything you did. The kind of joy that could be easily bought after a long stressful day with ten bucks in exchange for a plate of Maggi and egg bhurji and if you had six more, you could buy a bunta: a very sweet lemon and soda, with chaat masala. There was enough room for slipping. And falling. But now, I couldn’t slip or fall. I had a job that paid me well. I didn’t care about the state of literature in the world, but I wrote book reviews and long-form essays anyway that added some money every month to my current income. I couldn’t miss the deadlines. I couldn’t wake up in the morning and sleep late missing a lecture because now I was the lecture. We were so happy when we could allow ourselves to fail.
It was around nine at night, and we were suddenly, to our surprise, stuck in traffic in Chandni Chowk, a market where people had been buying silver and eating parathas since the days of the Mughals. I am not from Delhi and every time I pass through a historic location, information like this comes to my mind even now, after all these years. I am still filled to the brim with wonder. People say the market initially had more than a thousand shops around a beautiful fountain that reflected the moonlight. Now, it was a congested area with structures built by the Mughal rulers and the British colonizers alongside people’s residences. KFC and McDonald’s competed with century-old biryani, dry fruit, and sweets shops for the attention of customers. Horse-drawn carriages carried people to the underground subway system built by the Delhi government—a rail system that was exponentially better, cleaner, and technologically more advanced than the New York subway, I often thought. It was one of those many locations in the city where several centuries existed simultaneously, blending into each other like the sweat of two lovers on a bed after lovemaking.
On our right side stood the Red Fort—the residence of several emperors of Delhi, made of red sandstone. I was looking outside until I realized Karan was staring at me.
“Why are you staring at me? You don’t even want to come home with me to finish a bottle of wine,” I said, trying to be funny. I wanted to tease him for dating a Hindu fundamentalist. Actually, my feelings about that were complicated. I was judging him, too. At the same time, I didn’t want to come across as judgmental. I wanted to seem tolerant.
“I’m sorry, when you called out of the blue I should have mentioned I’m in a fucked-up secret relationship.” He released the brakes, and the car moved an inch. There was a lot of traffic on the road. A young boy carrying a bunch of magazines tapped on the glass. Do you want one—the boy asked—it is cheap, he said, flashing an issue of Reader’s Digest. We didn’t respond. Karan said, “I never thought that you might be interested in me in that way.”
“Then why did you agree to meet me? To discuss queer theory?”
He looked at me for a while. There was a strange curiosity on his face and a little guilt. “I had never met someone who is bisexual. I wanted to hang out with a bisexual.”
“OK, I think I should be offended at this point?” It was both an expression of my irritation as well as a question to myself because I didn’t know if I should be offended or amused or feel sorry for him. I was speaking fast.
“Oh God, I didn’t mean to . . .” Karan stopped speaking to concentrate on driving. “One sec, I will explain in a bit—please don’t be offended!”
The traffic had cleared. I looked at the Hanuman Temple in the middle of the market, on the left side of the road. Even at 9:40 pm, there were hundreds of people. A little ahead, there was a market famous for used books where I used to buy books priced by weight. Every Sunday, vendors from all over Delhi would spread their loot on the pavement for miles. It was here I had bought a used copy of Allen Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty for just forty rupees. It belonged to someone called Alice. In neat handwriting, written in blue, it had been inscribed, “Happy Birthday to my dear Alice. Yours, Ronald. London, 2006.”
“Don’t be mean, Rohit. How did you survive in America with this mean streak?”
Suddenly, from the thick crowd of people, a group of young men in Om-print saffron shorts and shirts emerged. With tridents in their hands and sandalwood paste or vermilion powder smeared on their foreheads, they moved like a giant wave looking for a shore to disperse.
A chill ran through my body. I knew them. These were kawariyas—they claimed to be devotees of Lord Shiva. These men roamed the streets shouting chants in praise of Shiva, often stoned. I never liked them. Their leopard or Om-print pants, their noisy nature, their propensity to scream chants for the God, the swastika flags—I detested all of it.
But that night, I felt a sense of fear. It had been less than a year since the Hindu right had come to power for the first time in the entirety of India. Churches were getting vandalized one after another by “unknown people.” If you questioned any policy or action of the government on social media, hundreds of paid trolls working around the clock in internet army centers abused you, sent death threats, rape threats, and demanded that you go to Pakistan.
Was that the reason the Kawariyas looked so emboldened today? As they crossed to the other side, casting mean eyes at people in the cars, they brought the traffic on the road to a standstill. Why are they on the streets so early? Usually, they start these processions in May. But anything could happen in a country that was ruled by the Hindu right.
“Karan, you work on queer theory. How can you even say such things?”
He seemed flustered. “I am just trying to understand. I don’t know any bisexual guy.” Then, observing the kawariyas, he added, “I hate them.”
“I can’t be your introduction to bisexuality, Karan.” I said it with a sense of finality, like shutting the laptop after a long day at work. It ended the night for us and I was ready to go home; he wasn’t charming for me anymore.
“I am sorry,” he said.
“It is alright,” I said, out of habit of living in the United States for many years.
Now that the road was clear, he drove on. But after five minutes, when we stopped at a traffic signal, he asked again, “So, you like both men and women, right? How does it work for you? Like 40 percent attraction toward men and 60 percent women?”
I was about to say something nasty, but it was then I heard the commotion in the right lane. A driver carrying a family had honked at the procession, annoying the men in saffron. Four of them had surrounded the car with wooden clubs in their hands and had started to break the windows. The women inside the vehicle had begun to scream for help, but the police watched, rubbing tobacco in their palms with their thumbs. Karan screamed in horror, “How can this happen, look. Look, the cops aren’t doing anything!”
A driver carrying a family had honked at the procession, annoying the men in saffron. Four of them had surrounded the car with wooden clubs in their hands and had started to break the windows.
One woman, with a baby in her arms, emerged out of the car with a bleeding face. It didn’t stop the men in the procession from climbing up the car and jumping on it, causing dents on the metal roof. A middle-aged woman in a sari grabbed the feet of one of the four men with the clubs, while the driver remained frozen inside, his hands gripping the wheel, terrified. The kawariyas were close to us. They could attack us at any time.
“Karan, don’t look toward this side—just make sure the engine is on, and drive when you get the first chance,” I said.
But I continued to look—they dragged out the driver. His white shirt was bloodied, and they clubbed him on his head and body. Hundreds of people watched in horror but didn’t step up to help, just like us. I had never seen anything like that before except in movies.
Suddenly, someone’s cheeks pressed on our car’s window, blocking my view of the altercation with the family—it was one of those saffron-colored adolescent boys. Perhaps he was just nineteen or twenty. He gestured that I roll down the window, but Karan said, without any expression, “Don’t,” and I murmured, “Karan—we don’t have a choice; they will attack us, too.”
As I rolled down the glass, I could hear my heartbeat, my breathing, Karan’s breaths and heartbeat. I wanted to scratch my back where a bead of sweat scuttled down my spine—similar to the sensation of an ant crawling on the skin. My legs started to shake when I remembered the beef fry on the backseat. A few weeks before, Hindu fanatics had beaten a man to death in a village near Delhi on suspicion of storing beef in his fridge. When the news was widely covered, the police sent the meat collected from the dead man’s fridge to the forensic lab for testing but arrested none. In another case, a mob killed two people who worked at a tannery. The episode was recorded on mobile phones, gleefully shared on YouTube, and no one was arrested so far. I was telling myself, it wasn’t going to happen here, this won’t happen to us, but nothing seemed to make sense anymore. The car had a bomb in it.
I switched on the lights, looked at the red eyes of the boy, observed the streaks drawn with red and white powder on his forehead, the fake plastic snake around his neck, the long unwashed hair that reached his neck, and wondered if he was high. He raised a saffron leopard-print cloth to ask if I wanted one, too; I said, yes, sure. He was so young. He should be watching Bollywood movies. Planning his life. Writing love letters. Stealing fruits from gardens. Dreaming of becoming rich. What was he doing here?
“Bole Boum,” he screamed.
I raised the flag repeating after him in a much lower, awkward voice. It was a cheap piece of polyester.
“Bole Boum! Hail Jai Shiv Shanker.”
“You are a good man,” he grinned. Then he looked at Karan, “Why didn’t you chant with us?”
“Oh, he will,” I said. “He was just waiting to get this cloth from me.”
I passed the leopard skin printed cloth to Karan, who muttered, raising the cloth like a flag, “Hail Lord Shiva! Bole Boum-Boum!”
The young man now stretched his hands inside the car. I didn’t know if he wanted us to get out or to touch our cheeks. Instead, he reached for the small statue of Shiva on the dashboard and said, “You guys are religious—I like it.”
The young man now stretched his hands inside the car. I didn’t know if he wanted us to get out or to touch our cheeks. Karan was taking heavy breaths. I didn’t want to get out of the car. I didn’t want him to touch us. Instead, he reached for the small statue of Shiva on the dashboard, rubbed his forehead, and said, “You guys are religious—I like it.”
“We believe in God,” I said quickly.
“Do you have a radio inside this car? Can you play it? After that you can go—the traffic should clear soon. We have taught that family a lesson. How dare they honk at us? Have you seen how daring these Muslims have become?”
I didn’t get time to answer. The young man stretched his hand once again and started pressing the buttons. In a quivering voice, Karan asked him to wait, before switching on the radio. The volume was loud, and a local station was playing a song from the film Delhi Belly: I hate you like I love you / I hate you, like I love you, love you, love you, love you.
I thought it was a hilarious song, sung in the highest pitch, in a shrill female voice. The video was equally funny, with Aamir Khan making exaggerated pelvic thrusts. I hate you like I love you/ I hate you, like I love you, love you, love you, love you / Tere pyar ne kar diya deewana.
“You should play devotional songs,” the guy said with a stern face and then burst out laughing. “I love this song.”
I hate you like I love you / I hate you, like I love you, love you, love you, love you.
I laughed, too. Karan made a strange sound from his face that didn’t reach his eyes. It was an attempt; a feeble attempt to laugh, so his lips stretched on one side. It made him look unsure. As if he wanted to laugh, but was in severe pain. Drops of sweat had gathered on his forehead and upper lip.
“I have lots of devotional songs in my home,” I assured the guy.
“Good! Good! Have a good night!” he said and scanned our faces as if to confirm a suspicion. His hand was on the window. “Wait—I smell something. Do you have some food packed here?”
“Food?” Karan tried to say something but he started to cough. I passed him a bottle of water.
“Give me some water, too,” the young boy said. Karan took a sip and gave him the bottle.
Forcing myself to smile, I said, “You can keep the bottle. The traffic has cleared. The cars will start honking at us.”
Heartbeats were now faster, back itching so bad. Completely wet in cold sweat.
“Sahi hain—but what is that smell? What did you guys pack? Don’t worry, they won’t dare to honk at you guys as long as I am talking to you. Haven’t you seen what we did to that family for honking at us? It is our government now. No one can stop us.”
“Chili—chili paneer,” Karan said, but even before he could finish, I interrupted, “No no no Karan, it is mutton fry.”
Karan made a strange sound from his face that didn’t reach his eyes. It was an attempt; a feeble attempt to laugh, so his lips stretched on one side. It made him look unsure. As if he wanted to laugh, but was in severe pain.
“Oh yes, sorry, mutton fry, with lots of chilies.”
“You guys eat mutton? We are all vegetarian,” he said in a horrified tone; his eyes jumped and reached his forehead.
“Arrey, we got it from CR Park—the temple of Goddess Kali. We went to worship there but couldn’t have dinner, so we—we,” I forgot what I was about to say. Thorns were piercing my throat. I remembered all the news reports I had read about lynching because of beef. They were crystal clear in my mind. I looked around—there were hundreds of them, all in saffron, all in print pants, all with tridents. We would never be able to protect ourselves from this mob.
“Mother Kali, the Mother Supreme—Jai Mata di!” Karan said. “She is your Lord Shiva’s wife. When she gets angry, she stands on him and becomes the scary Mother Goddess Kali—Masakali, I mean—I mean Jai Mata di! . . . Then only mutton can make her happy.”
There was a long silence. He didn’t seem to believe us, or it was my imagination. Perhaps it was just a few seconds. It seemed long. There was so much noise outside, but everything seemed to have quieted down though it hadn’t. My brain was perhaps only processing what the young boy was about to say. It had quieted down everything else, all the noise, the din.
“You guys went to good schools. I wish I could study in such a school, too. I know nothing about Mother Kali. I mean, I have watched the television serial.” Cars were overtaking us now. “So nice to meet you. You guys go—you will get late. Very nice to meet you very nice.” He high-fived me, crossed the road, and climbed up on the broken car before starting to dance on it. The cops were still looking, rubbing tobacco on their palms with their thumbs and the family now seemed listless. They sat on the divider, watching the man who had been driving, bleeding from his head, and their car getting destroyed. They had stopped crying or begging for help. Among hundreds of people, they looked alone. Everyone abandoned them—even us.
The road had cleared. At first, Karan drove slowly, wheezing, but when he was away from the sound of the waves that were looking for a shore to disperse and destroy, he increased his speed, then raised it more, more, more until I asked him to stop.
The car screeched to a halt on the shoulder of the road. On both sides, there were thick trees, no resident buildings. Rolling down the car windows, I said, “We are safe. Take a deep breath, Karan.” He placed his head on the wheel and tried to speak but couldn’t. He kept making gestures with his hands. “Take a deep breath, easy.”
He started to weep. “Oooohsss. . . We are safe—oh my God—we are safe.”
“We are safe,” I gasped, leaning on the car seat.
Karan started to wheeze, and occasionally said that he was sorry. I said there was nothing to be sorry for. Cars drove past us at high speed, and I could see that we were attracting the attention of passersby. I asked Karan if he wanted me to drive, but he didn’t let me. He said he was fine and would still drop me home. When he tried to switch on the air conditioner, I asked him if it would be okay to get some fresh air instead. He said that he would be fine but requested that I didn’t tell his friends about the incident. “They will just worry, and the news would reach my parents.”
“I am going to break up with my boyfriend. You know, I could see him beating up that family today. I could really see him as one of them—standing on the car or breaking the windows with clubs just because the car honked. He can do this.”
I nodded. Half an hour later, when his car entered my colony, he said, “I am going to break up with my boyfriend. You know, I could see him beating up that family today. I could really see him as one of them—standing on the car or breaking the windows with clubs just because the car honked. He can do this. He can also lynch anyone who eats beef. I could—I could see him do this.”
Karan was upset. I should have been kind to him. But for a second, I wanted to ask: “How could you?” or “How could anyone in their right mind vote for this party?” and “How could you date such a person?” But I just said, “Seems like he shows all the traits of the supporters of our current government. Don’t forget to tell your boyfriend what the supporters of his party did today.”
He shook his head, and in the faint yellow halogen light that was entering the car, I noticed that he looked tired and old. There were laugh lines on his face, and his hair was parted in the middle. A good man but I was angry with him—as if what happened in the evening was his fault. It was a bad decision to ask him out. I was angry with Sarfaraz. Maybe that’s why I was merciless.
“I will leave him,” he whispered. “Rohit, I promise. Please don’t tell anyone—none of our friends—they will. . .”
“Goodnight, Karan. We will remember this night and not speak about it ever again.”
He was surprised that I cut him off, but he whispered “Deal,” and I unlocked the car door.
When people say “deal” at the end of a conversation, it is usually cheerful and triumphant. I didn’t hear his car start. I didn’t look back, but I knew his car was waiting while I took more steps, unlocked the wrought iron gate of my building, and started climbing the stairs. But I didn’t turn to look at him. I had a strong feeling he was watching my back—my straight back. When I reached my door, I looked down from the balcony. I held my keys and saw that he was staring at nothing, his hands on the wheel. I looked at him for a few minutes before rushing back down the stairs.
“Hey,” he said. His windows were still rolled down.
“You know—we don’t have to finish that bottle of wine, but if you care for a cup of tea, I could make you one. You know—to new friendships. And I will eat my beef.”
“What changed your mind?” I smiled and then started laughing and he joined me too. We didn’t know why we were laughing. Locking the car, climbing the narrow staircase with me, staring at the cobwebs and asking when was the last time those corners were cleaned, he laughed more, and he looked nice when he was happy. I said it was perhaps fifty years ago, and we laughed even more. Before letting him in, I said, “We should remain together.” Yes, together: people like us, people who like the same things and want a similar world, impurely. Thank you, he said, thank you, I am glad you think that way. He pressed the warm cup on his cheek and murmured—to new friendships. I stabbed a piece of beef fry and asked—now tell me, how do you date a Hindu fundamentalist when you are a liberal? How does one do that? Help me understand.
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July 10, 2020
38 Min read time
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