The food court in Maxima World Business Park was a large space, bathed in the cold, white light of progress. Neon beams careened off the furniture and countertops. Backlit menus glowed with glossy photographs of food. On one end, a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows framed a view of the rest of the office complex: steel and glass behemoths rose from the ground, their sharp corners twinkling in the afternoon sun.
It was nearly lunch-time, and spindly men with brilliant grins, their badges and caps and t-shirts with slogans rattled off greetings in rapid jumbles: HellomayIhelpyoutodaywouldyouliktotryournewbutterscotchmoussecakeforonly75rupees?
‘Can I suggest you a Pepsi?’ asked one of the counter boys expectantly.
‘No, thank you,’ replied Hari. He forgave the faulty grammar, and found solace in the boy's high, angular cheekbones. His eyes slanted a touch upwards. Orissa, decided Hari, definitely from Orissa. The boy looked as though he would burst with optimism.
‘Just the burger, please, no mayo.’
Hari took his tray of food across to where his colleagues sat in their identical business shirts, company ID lanyards slung around their necks. He listened to their banter, picked idly at a flaccid lettuce leaf, and pressed his chicken burger. The soggy bread slumped in the middle without regaining shape, like a seat that has just been vacated.
Yadav had the software engineers giggling at his analysis of female colleagues’ posteriors. He was shaping his hands into a pair of parentheses to complete his description of the particularly luscious behind of one of several Nehas at the office. ‘These girls, they speak like airhostesses. And that hair, that fair skin uffff! I tho got fed up of those dark Madrasi types. Delhi mein hariyaali hai, hariyaali!’
Yadav was a stocky man in his mid-twenties who dyed his bristly, prematurely greying hair with henna in deference to his mother’s instructions. His father, a wealthy doctor in Bihar, had dispatched him to an engineering college in Bangalore. Yadav had wasted no time in starting a marijuana reselling business. However, he produced excellent false grade cards, and remained for his parents the compulsive overachiever.
After Yadav graduated and got a job, he decided to pay a surprise visit to his home in Samastipur. He arrived at his parents’ house to find them in a discussion about what they were calling the I-net. From the doorway, he could see straight across the drawing room and its decades-old teak furniture, and into the kitchen. His mother Urmil stood over the stove manoeuvring discs of dough on a hot pan. Rolls of fat bulged out from her saree blouse, and formed a theatrical canopy above her lower back. Satyendra, his father, was pacing around the drawing room in a torn pair of pyjamas and a slate-grey kurta. His old leather Batas slapped rhythmically on the mosaic stone floor.
‘We will get I-net,’ Satyendra was saying forcefully in English, ‘we will see him every day on the computer!’ Yadav got broadband internet installed in their house the very next day – a small measure to alleviate the heavy punch of guilt in his gut.
Discotheques and clubs made Hari uncomfortable, and he also disliked the city’s megamalls, crawling with women with burgundy streaked-hair and gargantuan sunglasses. Even the dark gay spas of posh Army Colony, offering up a sumptuous tribe of anonymous lovers, made him queasy. As for farm house orgies – he had neither the social capital nor the hipster credibility to scrounge an invitation.
Besides, Hari Vijayraghavan felt way too guilty to have sex.
So he spent most evenings at home, reading P.G. Wodehouse novels, or watching Tamil movies (he had a major man crush on Vikram, and thought his turn in Anniyan was by far the best example of his oeuvre). He thought often of his doting family in Chennai: His mother who still insisted on encircling his neck in a tight grip as they crossed RK Salai; his father’s showered, Brylcreemed head behind the newspaper on a Sunday morning; weekends on which he would wake up to wafts of velvety upma and the sound of crackling dosa batter.
One evening, however, after a difficult day with a Finnish client, Hari wandered nervously into one of the city’s feisty gay-friendly establishments. It was a Friday – Gay Night – but really that was synonymous with ‘anything goes’. Summoning up his confidence, he looked the bouncer in the eye as the muscle-mary branded Hari’s arm with a glow-in-the-dark stamp. Once inside, Hari crossed the empty dance floor, climbed up the steps to the mezzanine level, and ordered a large Old Monk.
On the next table sat a troupe of transsexual prostitutes. They seemed bored, looking at themselves in the wall mirror periodically, twirling their hair. Now and then, men would come and peruse the trannies, and sit down next to one of them. The scene changed quickly from a fun night out for a gang of faux-girls – to a heavy atmosphere of commerce – soft whispers, coy nods, and wads of notes travelling from wallets to bras. Once the transaction was made, the transient couple disappeared, swallowed by the sea of dancers in the room below, where they would gyrate and grind against each other and others to the latest Bollywood number.
That night, Hari remembered, they played Tu Mera Hero eight times.
Some of the trannies tried to engage Hari with fake smiles, but he stared hard at his drink and tried not to think of his father’s bushy eyebrows sewn together in disapproval. When a rat rubbed against his trousers, Hari grabbed his drink and went downstairs to the bar. The room sighed under the desire of a hundred horny men. And then he saw Yadav, his hirsute, bulbous arms emerging from a short-sleeved checked shirt, one elbow resting on the sticky bar laminate. From his lewd discourses on the female anatomy, the gigabytes of porn he shared with colleagues and his earnest profile on www.communitymatrimony.com, Hari would never have guessed that Yadav, like him, was a homosexual.
Yadav was apparently four whiskies down. His arm snaked around the waist of a young boy with a gap between his middle teeth. The boy was wearing a tight, electric blue short-sleeved spandex top, had a beer in one hand, and was playing with Yadav’s hennaed hair with the other. He looked like a professional cyclist gone wild.
Yadav saw Hari, and acknowledged him with his trademark wink. He raised his glass towards Hari – as if in a toast to gayness – and suddenly, they were inextricably bound. Automatic allies forever.
When they got back to the office from the food court that day, Yadav came over to Hari’s workstation. He opened a drawer and surreptitiously slid a magazine in. Hari looked down. A topless white man with curacao-blue eyes and dull blonde hair stared out intensely from the cover, in miniature swimming yellow briefs with a discernible bulge, against a background of gleaming sun’n’sand. ‘His behind is a masterpiece. You can keep it for a few days,’ Yadav said conspiratorially. ‘My friend sends them to me from Australia. Solid scene there is in Sydney. We’ll go after you give your CAT-SHAT exam.’
Over the past three months, Hari had consistently scored 100 percentile in the Aspire Tutorials practice tests for the CAT exams. He wanted very badly to get into one of the Indian Institutes of Management, not because it was the next logical step for his life and career, but because he longed for campus life again. He loved the bare, basic college hostels, and thrived on their raunchy rituals and male camaraderie. He found comfort in the dour, windowless rooms, the dark corridors and shared bathrooms brought alive by the unmistakeable sound of men.
‘Hello? Hero, don’t worry. You will get through to whichever IIM you want!’ said Yadav, puncturing Hari’s thoughts.
‘Ya, sorry. Thanks. I’ll give the mag back to you tomorrow.’
‘Oho. Chill yaar. Achha, now read this. It’s dynamite. Matlab yeh tho bilkul hi phodhu hai!’, Yadav repeated in Hindi.
Then he opened a folded newspaper and placed it on the desk, flattening the creases out expertly, like a house keeping maid making the bed at a 5-star hotel.
‘What is it?’ asked Hari.
‘Remember that Sardaar we met 2 months back?
Akhil I think his name was?’
'Ya I remember. Akhil only. He was gorgeous. And you took him home to your Bihari adda after we’d been connecting for an hour!’
Yadav rolled his eyes and clicked his lips. ‘Machchaaaaan!' he said, completely missing the nasal pronunciation of the Tamil word for mate. 'You weren't connecting. He was stirring his girly cocktail, Mojeeto or something, and you were talking about how you took a year off after school to prepare for the IIT-JEE.’
‘Okay. Mo-HEE-tho. Anyway, he was psycho. Read the article. You’ll thank me for taking him off your hands. I tho feel really dirty.’ Yadav rapped his knuckles on the newspaper, and strolled back to his desk, adjusting his belt lower to accommodate abdominal overhang.
SIKH MAN COMMITS SUICIDE IN WOMAN’S ATTIRE:
Akhil Singh Saini looked like he could have been in a Bollywood film as a rough-and-ready Indian Army lieutenant, or a migrant to Canada with a foreign wife, or in Bhangra music videos, dancing with moody girls.
The newspaper article defined him as a 30-year-old Sikh male. But when they had met, Hari remembered thinking that he was the same age as him, not more than 23-years-old. The offensive combination of Akhil's powder blue turban and brown pants had ruffled Hari’s aesthetic sense. But hubristic North Indian types had always created a circus in Hari’s pants and this one was no exception.
He raced through the article, mouthing the words as he went. He is survived by his wife Surleen and 2 children. Hari shifted forward in his chair, opened an Excel sheet and tried to concentrate on writing a macro code.
Hari had seen programs on foreign crime channels, with fabricated footage of homicides and unsolved cases. He went over and over the scene of the suicide, and took a perverse, almost auteurist pleasure in creating an animated diorama in his mind.
Akhil’s wife Surleen, plump and buxom, dressed in a mustard cotton Lucknowi salwaar kameez, comes home that grizzly evening from work. She has been to the local beauty salon on her way home, and her fair complexion is clean but slightly red and sore from the threading. Stray, black hairs stick to her skin and she is perspiring heavily.
The humidity hangs over the fading sunlight like a wet blanket. She has dabbed lacto calamine lotion on her upper lip and eyebrows and it stings on her warm skin.
Her mind is flush with a battery of decisions: Karela or bhindi for dinner? Mathematics homework for Manmeet or Social Studies poster for Tushar? She passes her children playing with the other kids in the compound outside their home, and screeches at them to come inside within 30 minutes for dinner.
She climbs the steps to the third floor of the building; panting unashamedly as she goes. She unlatches the light mesh screen, and then she pushes her weight against the main door. As Surleen walks into apartment, she glances quickly at the hexagonal wall clock: it is 7:00 pm.
She tosses the keys on the dining table, and they clatter against the cheap wood. Her worn heels click-clack noisily and she calls out to Akhil. She grabs a handful of okra, and lets the water from the sink run over the vegetables and her fingers. She cannot find her chopping board and grunts in exasperation.
Over the tak-tak-tak of the knife slicing through the vegetable and hitting the counter top, she calls out again, this time more urgently, ‘Will you eat roti or rice?’ Surleen scrapes the okra off the counter top and tosses it into an old cooking pan that is peeling at the edges, revealing a silvery underskin.
She gathers her hair in her hands and ties it up in a bun above her head. The dull gold of the necklace her mother gave her during her wedding catches the kitchen light and flashes momentarily. Frustrated by what she thinks is her husband’s characteristic inertia in front of the TV, she walks purposefully to their bedroom, and turns the faux brass handle.
Dangling from the ceiling, in her tomato-red Benarasi georgette saree, his eyes thickly racooned with kajal, and his lips coloured sloppily with her favourite Lakme lipstick shade (Plum Pout), is her husband.
Suspended there, limp and primped, he looks like a transvestite puppet. Surleen ululates wildly, doubles over, and vomits near the bedroom’s synthetic carpet. She holds her stomach and stays in the aircraft emergency position, inspecting her expulsions, almost as if searching for an answer in the patterns the colloidal substance makes on the floor.
The answer you are looking for hangs in the musty air, Hari wants to tell her. He feels sorry for her, and wants her to know that her husband was like those effeminate fashion designers, with their lisps and diamante encrusted clothes and waif-like fag hags and televised parades. They are the glamorised representatives of our invisible constituency, our elected elite. But the rest of us, he wants to tell her, your husband and Yadav and me, we live under a grimy rainbow.
Mansha Tandon is an Australian-Indian brought up in Cairo, Sydney, and New Delhi. An alumna of IIM Calcutta, she works in an FMCG MNC as a sales professional. Her interest in female politicians led her to intern with the Trinamul Congress ahead of the assembly elections in 2011. Currently, she is enamoured of the tenacity of the Indian kiraana shop owner.