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SOME DICKS


“What’s it?” asked a friend seeing me smiling when everyone else was busy glued to their smartphone screens. I smiled and thought it best to let it pass.
“You aren’t getting away this easily,” she said quite insistently.
“All right,” I said with a wide smile, “a friend who had been recently engaged was talking about how he felt this mixed feeling of not knowing what he was feeling,” I paused and took a sip of the wine, “he was in love with another woman and was getting married to someone else at the behest of his family.”
“What an arse!”
I chuckled, “You could say that because the man was worth a hell lot in his personal capacity, and yet he was leaving his girlfriend of eight years simply because his parents had said that if he had married her then they would strip him off their entire wealth.”
“What a loser!”
I smiled, “In a jolly mood that night, another friend and I made digs at our friend asking him to show us his engagement ring. When he did, I pointed to his groin and said that the circle round his finger was only symbolic, though marriage was a ring that a woman clamps around the appendage that hangs between our legs.”
“Ouch!”
“My friend’s face had scrunched up with anger as he went in his crisp and stern drawl – Bro, I really don’t appreciate you making fun of my dick.”
“You must be kidding me!”  
I shook my head. “He took such offence to our banter that night four years ago that he stopped meeting our bunch of buddies since.”
“Some dicks,” she said shaking her head with hilarity asking me if I wanted some more wine.  



THE BLOW JOB


We were each lost in our own thoughts. In thinking about a rather naïve, but utterly dear friend, I remarked (as I stared at the burning cigarette sandwiched betwixt my fingers) - “I wonder what he’d say if he were to clutch the barrel of this cigarette in his hand?”

The friend who was with me chuckled (as smoke bellowed out of his lungs), “Ah, he,” he uttered with a tad of animation, mischief etched all over his countenance, “he’d probably just say in his uptight voice: No, bro, I don’t blow. That’s not my job.”

We burst out laughing, completed our cigarettes and ambled along, my friend to his yoga session, and I to my shoulder workout.



WORD


Leo left the St Louis crystal goblet on the ivory-inlaid table. I watched him silently as I could establish that there was something solemn scuttling in his mind. “We made love all afternoon,” he said just like that.
“Was it any good?”
“Oh, she’s a wild one,” he revealed with radiant eyes, “asked me to shove my head inside her cunt and work it up, rather than riding her unexcitingly like any other man can.”
I grinned with amusement.
“Post orgasm, she was lying on my chest playing with my limp cock, and I was dissolved in thinking that sometimes nothing ever speaks to you, except maybe the antiques that stare at you from every corner of the room. It’s as if they are watching and taking notes. As if they are even whispering, trying to tell you everything that they’ve heard and absorbed over the last three hundred years.”
“If only they had a voice,” I said, “I would have asked them the details of how they made love back then.”
“Look at the glint in your eyes you voyeuristic horny buck,” said Leo unhurriedly, emphasising on every syllable.
I laughed. “Nurture whatever you want, but nature remains the same.”
He nodded. “I met a blind woman at a party once. She told me that men usually made propositions to fuck her while convincing themselves that they were doing it out of pity, except the hard truth was that they only wanted a cunt to stick their cocks inside.”
“Nature, nurture,” I chorused.
He rolled his eyes and ignored my remark. “As she was speaking with me, a man in a white linen shirt and mustard corduroys passed us by. She took in a deep breath and described his face to me. I looked at him and found her description nearly close.”
“Fuck you!” I reacted with disbelief.
“Fragrance, she said, had an uncanny way to tell more about a person than what the eyes could see.”
I was not entirely convinced, but I was listening.
“Next she asked me if he had chest hair. I go – What? She chuckles and calmly asks me to study his clavicle. I take a gander and tell her that indeed he does have a healthy growth of chest hair. ‘Body hair is a sign of intelligence’ she tells me, ‘a man who keeps it is a man to keep’.”
I laugh. “Some kink.”
He laughs too. “While I am admiring her ravishing dress and marvelling at her svelte figure, she smiles and says that men tell her that she listens to them differently. That pleasure is another form of the truth, and that the hands of the blind are equipped to understand the hidden particulars about the yearning of the flesh.” I take a larger dram. “She says that men think with their cocks, and not that women don’t love that, just that the cock doesn’t maketh the man, the mind does.”
I smile.
“So I walk up to the man in the white shirt and point out to her. In no time they begin to talk, and I begin to see meaning in her eyes. A meaning I have seldom seen in the eyes of the women I have dated or fucked. When we meet again at dinner time she tells me that a man fucks hard when he hates a woman, every thrust of his is an act of control, an ego high to tell a woman: I am the supremacist and you only a receptacle. However, she raised her finger gently, a man makes love when he loves womankind. He touches her for her. To feel her, and makes her feel feelings she has never felt before by his tenderness.”
“Do you have her number on you by any chance?” I ask light-heartedly.  
Leo grins, “And then she goes on to tell me that this bloke is the ‘making love’ sort of a bloke. You just know? I asked her. Of course, silly, she said in her ebullient tone, you don’t need eyes to see things, the sense of touch, the resonance of words, the way you mouth those words can say more about a person than a beautiful face can.”
“I guess supressing one sense heightens another.”
“I guess.”
“I also think that the magnetism that the eyes emanate gets transferred to their body, and the body emanates it differently to those around them.”
“I envy her,” said Leo, “even though I doubt if such a condition is ever possible.”
“I envy her too,” I added, “and I do believe that such a condition can exist.”
“Truly?”
“Truly.”
He closed his eyes, sighed, and opened one eye, “Girls like to be spanked more than being fucked, you know.”
“Ah,” I chuckled, “are you a supremacist, or a lover of womankind now?”
“Arsehole,” said Leo, laughing.
“And was that acquired wisdom from recent encounters, or is it experience that speaks?”
“The only experience I’ve had is from my marriage,” he lifted his glass and gulped what was left of the whiskey in it, “we were madly in love, but we were never happy, and I don’t know why that happens.”
“What?”
“You want something so fucking badly, and when you get it, you realise that it’s suffocating you so badly that you want out.”
I was quiet, nursing my own drink and lost in my own thoughts, letting what he was sharing sink into me.  
“We never spoke about divorce, and neither did I entertain such thoughts, although the very hearts and minds that had entwined us had separated us.”
“What tells you that what you are feeling are the right feelings?”
“When she was living in our house in London, and I was living in our house in Bangalore, we wrote each other letters of deep affection. We did not email or text each other, it somehow murders the romance, but we talked on the phone most frequently.”
“I think both of you were so happy being free from each other that it might have felt like love.”
He poured himself some more whiskey, “She suddenly said she wanted to be close to me. That she wanted to feel my warmth and wallow in the taste of my semen, whatever that means.”
“Reviving the first rush of love, eh.”
“We loved each other even before knowing the real meaning of love I think. It was as if it was decided by providence that we were meant to be together, and mind you, all of this was going on since our fifth grade.”
“I know,” I said, “I know how we adored you both, and how we hoped that we found partners like you both had found each other.”
“So she came down to Bangalore, and in no time things turned ugly, and she returned to London,” he waited and looked about here and there restlessly, “and then we both began to fuck other people, and that’s when I knew that the marriage was over.”
“Why does everyone want to have that perfect married life then?” I asked.  
“I wonder,” he said raising his glass, “perhaps the next time I am born, I want to be born blind,” he concluded, falling silent.




[AZADI]


If that was not enough of immaturity to deal with from a man of his intellectual rank, he enquired whether I was unafraid of the consequences considering that I avow such infinite love for my family. This is where I sensed my patience wearing thin, yet propriety kept me from reacting roughly.
“They are each a part of me, sir,” I replied calmly.
He seemed irked. “So you will not kill their people if they invaded us?”
“They will not invade us, sir.”
“Say they do.”
“I will not kill for the sake of killing even if they were to invade us, sir.”
“So you will not defend your motherland?”
“Is that even a question to be asked, sir?”
“Will you kill your—” he trailed off.
“I will die for them, sir.”
“What if they wanted to kill you?”
“I will die for them, sir.”
“What if your natives ask you to kill them?”
“I will kill myself, sir.”


This one dedicated to my
[A]li and Asim
[Z]ain
[A]yesha
[D]anyal
[I]mran


THE APPLE OF MY EYES

The crickets chirruped in the garden. The trees swayed with the heavy wind. The air was filled with the sweet scent of flowers blooming outside in the portico. The brothers, Rufus and Augustus had returned from a dinner that had begun with great promise but ended up being a dampener. The younger one Augustus was undoing his shoelaces as a dragonfly was gliding languidly on its wafer thin gauzelike wings in the passageway.
“What was the sudden flutter at the table about?” asked Rufus.
“The bloke in front of me,” said Augustus, putting his tan shoes away in the wooden shoe rack and shutting the doors, “read something awfully distressing on Twitter.” Rufus looked puzzled. “Twelve people were killed and close to fifty-eight wounded at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado. The gunman was twenty-four. My age,” went on Augustus as Rufus rinsed his hands at the powder room and strode into the kitchen. He reached for an apple and polished it with a serviette, offering Augustus the apple as he embarked on reading the news on his iPhone. “It’s surprising that the man did not kill himself.” Augustus stashed the apple away, washed a pear and mined his teeth into its juicy interiors. “Why do you say that?”
“It would give psychologists a better understanding of the insights, the circumstances, and the factors that could lead someone towards conducting such a heinous act.”
“What difference would it make? Not that the barbarism would stop.”
“It is so unlike you to speak with such cynicism.”
“It is a fact, not cynicism,” said Augustus, “human nature is only spiralling downwards. It is sad how a soul can so easily be brainwashed and manipulated to the verge of killing mindlessly.”
“I agree, but we must be hopeful,” said Rufus, still glued to the screen of his phone, “it says here that he was a PhD student.”
“This is the result when there’s an absence of education, or even a cohesive family bonding,” said Augustus. Rufus looked up at his younger brother as he felt a pleasant sensation engulf him — his baby brother had grown into this absorbing and artful young man. “Have you thought about how easily we blame particular creeds for being the wielders of crime and terrorism?” questioned Augustus, “why are we so blind to the notion that black sheep exist in every community? One clan alone cannot be responsible for everything that has gone amiss in the society, right. Everybody has played a part in the decay.”
Rufus stayed quiet.
“Come to think of it, only when suppressed beyond a tolerable point does one resort to extremities, unless of course there is a mass madness in the air.”
“You think so?”
“We humans push each other against the wall. We derive pleasure in tormenting people. And when somebody who is cornered and helpless acts or reacts to protect their skin, the world cries foul. That is also terrorism, is it not?”
Rufus rubbed his hands and shivered a little. The brothers moved to the living room that sported a double ceiling and teakwood-panelled walls. The Italian marble was adorned with classy silk rugs from Turkey. On the fireplace ledge stood two Ming Dynasty vases arranged in the corners. An enchanting antique porcelain French clock sat at the centre and two silver candelabras stood guard on either side of the clock. “Life has kept me so busy that I’ve missed out on the years of watching you grow,” said Rufus, viewing the invigorating luminescence of the moon streaming inside from the large glass windows. Augustus laughed his trademark laugh, a handsome combination of charm and innocence, as he sank into the chair next to him, “I have taken good care of myself for all of you, and isn’t that enough?” he said to comfort him. Rufus had no clue what warmed him more, the fire from the fireplace, or the warmth of his brother’s words. “That I can see,” consented Rufus, dissolving swiftly into thought. “What’s running in your mind?” asked Augustus. “About whether the people who are on their dead bed must think to themselves when was the last time that they had had sex.”
Augustus laughed, his eyes following the dragonfly outside, “How in a time of death can you conceivably think of sex?”
“Isn’t it something to think about?” asked Rufus.
Augustus’s eyes opened in amazement as he ran his fingers along the rounded handles of the heirloom rosewood furniture, “A book often used is rarely dusty, and that which is dusty would get thrust under the mountain of other books and eventually turn useless.”
Rufus smiled, “I love the analogy,” he noted, “I also like how we are now friends. The transition has been gradual I daresay, but lovely nonetheless.”
Augustus laughed heartily, “To get and beget, those are a man’s natural passions, don’t you think?”
Rufus pulled him out of the chair, forcing him on the floor rug and wrestling with him jocularly, observing that no sooner had they dropped back to their respective seats from the recent merriment, Augustus had tumbled into a labyrinth of reflection. Leaving him to his thoughts, Rufus was reading an update on the killing when Augustus half-turned to him, “Big brother,” he said in a rather serious tone, “say I end up killing someone, accidentally obviously, what would you do?”
“I would make certain that I engineer the truth so practically air-tight that I’d take the blame on me.”
“That was not only cliché, but also grotesque,” said Augustus looking at Rufus straight in the face.”
“Clichés are clichés because they have worked in the past and will do so in the future.”
“What if there’s supportive video, photographic or voice evidence?”
“There’s a price to everything.”
“But what if it weren’t accidental and I really did end up murdering somebody?”
“You know the answer to that,” answered Rufus promptly.
“Why would you save me even if I were a monster?”
“Give me a reason as to why I shouldn’t?”
Augustus gulped, “Why do you make life so difficult for me?” he asked, an appearance of bewilderment coming over his face.
“You shouldn’t be asking me that, my little brother,” echoed Rufus ruffling his hair, “you shouldn’t be asking me that.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. 
“What if I ill-treated a woman?”
“I’ll have no recourse than to skin you alive,” said Rufus instantly.
“You couldn’t hurt me,” said Augustus laughing, a placid expression on his countenance.
“Well, that is also true,” said Rufus as he opened the upper buttonhole of his shirt.
“You are crazy, you know.”
Rufus smiled.
“I can see the million questions hovering all over your mind,” said Augustus, “go on, shoot.”
Rufus’s eyes were on the floor, “Did any of that actually cross your mind?” he asked, not lifting them up.
“Look at me,” said Augustus as he nodded his head affirmatively when Rufus looked up at him. Rufus grew pale at once. He stretched his arm towards the glass of water and drank it up quickly. A long silence ensued and then Augustus said, “You know I wish for you to get married, right?”
“You think I don’t,” said Rufus explaining to him that he was yet to find a woman who could retain his attention beyond a certain point.
“How easily you lie,” remonstrated Augustus.
“You are the last person on earth who should be grilling me about matrimony.”
“Why? Because I am not entitled to want from you?”
“No, because you are one of the only few who knows me.”
Augustus frowned, “What are you really running away from?”
“Augustus,” said Rufus strongly, “do you know you are beginning to sound quite like mum and dad.”
There was an awkward tension in the air and then Augustus cleared his throat, “What makes you think that marriage would change anything between us?”
“Sarcasm doesn’t humour me,” growled Rufus.
“At times I wish I weren’t born at all,” said Augustus with inflated nostrils. Rufus leaned over towards him and held his face that nestled safely in his palms. “Why would you even think that?”
“I feel that I am ruining your life,” he said looking helplessly into Rufus’s eyes, “that I am the root of your fear.”
“That’s not true the apple of my eyes,” murmured Rufus affectionately, “if it’s sex that you are concerned about, then Luella and I have been together for,” he took a lungful of air, appeared as if he were calculating and resumed, “for five years now.”
“You barely even meet,” said Augustus with agitated apprehension, his Adam’s apple moving up and down.
“So what’s the fuss? Some of us don’t think of sex as a drug.”
“I think that’s something we tell ourselves when we know we have no access to it.”
“Really? No access to it? Me? And sex?”
Augustus laughed.
“Although lately I’ve begun to find sex almost irrelevant.”
“See that’s what I was saying. Boners are known to stand up for what they believe in but because you aren’t having enough of it, your interest in it has dwindled,” he said.
Rufus smiled. He treasured the notion that the young boy who once used to steal glances when sex was discussed before him was now offering guidance on it.
“I also feel that you aren’t spending as much time in suitable company,” he recounted with slim sobriety, “had you, then this whole unease of ‘I think sex irrelevant’ would not have crept into you.”
Rufus peered at the moon out of the window.
“I think that an inanimate object might be indulging in an activity of pleasure even though it cannot vent its sexual longings in a language of our understanding,” said Augustus, “and you are still made of meat and mandible.”
“Stop reading books on philosophy or whatever else that you are reading,” said Rufus playfully, “otherwise you’ll soon find yourself joining the ranks for those who’ve been left insane while interpreting to no inventive degree such postulates of human or non-human existence.”
Augustus eyed him quizzically. “Where are we on Luella?”
“Her days are numbered.”
“You’ve been together for eight years now and you know that relationships linger in us for a long time to come, right. Mostly all our lives.”
Rufus looked at him, “What do you want from me?”
“You know exactly what I want from you,” replied Augustus plainly, “and if you don’t act on it before it’s too late, then I shall be that someone who will wallop your arse.”
Rufus began laughing in slow spurts, and then uncontrollably as he went on between gasps, “The woman is hideously after our money, and yet you turn a blind eye to her avariciousness.”
“We each have our vices, there is a way to work around them.”
Rufus stopped laughing and told Augustus that she had asked him only a week ago whether he had considered signing away a house to her as a security before their marriage.
Augustus wrung his hands.
“I know, I know,” said Rufus, “but she’s the only one I think of when I climax.”
“You disgust me,” said Augustus with a wry face.
“Disgust is a nice feeling to feel,” said Rufus, disguising his smile by keeping his gaze on the floor and unfastening the silver-foil on a slab of dark chocolate that was lying on the side table and holding it before his brother. “Thank you,” said Augustus helping himself to a square. There was no sound in the room than the ticking of the clock; the occasional music that the wood emitted and what could be heard of the crickets from the lawn outside. The dragonfly might have died. It was not flapping around.
“Augustus,” said Rufus poking him affectionately on his back with his index finger and biting into the second piece of the chocolate.
“What?”
“When you know that her intentions aren’t noble, why then do you bring her up timely and advise me to marry her?”
“I know you won’t move on after her, so despite her wretchedness, I think it best that you charter a future with her.”
“This isn’t one of those business plans at our office,” said Rufus with some annoyance, “and if it were temperamental differences then one could have ignored them, or even found a solution to overcome them, but she wishes financial control of things that would have been hers if she were to be my wife. As I see it she is not in it for me but for what I have, and I am surprised, regardless of whether I move on or not that you want me to leap into a whirlpool.”
“You always say she gives you an erection and you climax thinking of her, so…”
“That was the most childish thing you have said in the longest,” said Rufus, “and I might climax and have an erection thinking of many other women too, do I go marrying all of them?”
Augustus glanced at him with sobriety, “Would you marry if I died?”
“Let’s not start again,” said Rufus, growing red.
“How am I to make you understand that what’s between us will die with us, but you have to deal with your shortcomings and conquer them,” muttered Augustus.
“What shortcomings?”
“That I am so important to you that everyone else finds that a threat.”
“Possibly,” said Rufus listlessly, “and it is time that you accept the truth which is your greatest shortcoming.”
“Don’t give me grief, please,” beseeched Augustus.
“Mum and dad often recount how that after you were born I would always sit by your side looking at you for hours on end: sometimes all night. I believe that I would say that I would never have my own babies because you were my own baby.”
“You know how much that distresses me,” uttered Augustus with immense ache in his voice.
“Certainly, not as much as it hurts me,” said Rufus solemnly, pointing to his heart, “when you talk the way that you talk.”
Augustus rolled his eyes.
“Why don’t you understand,” pleaded Rufus, “that each one has their own place in our lives. No one is a threat to anyone. We adjust and co-exist peacefully. Yes, I don’t need anyone else of the opposite sex in my life for now, especially with the uncertain drift of things and you also know how impatient I am with regards to kids. I simply cannot tolerate them and the entire nonsense of you’ll learn to be tolerant if you have your own child is utter rubbish. I feel rather complete so long as I take care of you. So let’s leave it at that.”
Augustus moved his hands in despair, “I don’t want you to take care of me,” he snapped back, “and how do you think the dynamics would change if I were to become adamant like you are by refusing to get married or have children?”
“You won’t,” said Rufus.
“Why not? Aren’t we made of the same flesh?”
Frightened, drops of perspiration popped up on Rufus’s forehead.
“Don’t you aspire to see our legacy taken forward?”
“My legacy stands right before me,” declared Rufus calmly but firmly, wiping the sweat off with a paper handkerchief. 
Augustus shook his head, “Your own flesh and blood I meant.”
“Isn’t it you who declared just a moment ago that we are made of the same flesh?”
“What if I choose not to succeed you?”
“I never said you have to succeed me. You are a free man who can do as he so wills.”
“You just threatened me,” exploded Augustus, “and that’s not fair!”
“I’m purely familiarising you with the truth,” conveyed Rufus with nonchalance.
“You just want to be the hero, don’t you?” shot back Augustus, raising his voice.
“Strike me with whatever object you find at arm’s length, my boy,” proposed Rufus majestically, “perhaps your anger will then subside a little, but nothing you say or do will make me change my mind.”
“I know my manners well not to transgress them under provocation.”
“Clever as ever,” said Rufus smiling at his diligence.
Augustus stayed stubbornly still.
“You are smarter than me, Augustus. You always have been.”
“The relevance,” asked Augustus politely, staring at Rufus with deducing eyes.
“When you begin to speak in that ‘I care a fuck tone’ you mean that you’ve heard me loud and clear, but you don’t care because you think of me as an idiot.”
Augustus laughed from the bottom of his heart, “You are not as lame as I assume you to be.”
“Rascal,” said Rufus, “when someone would applaud me for what I excelled at, and if I felt that it would overshadow you even in the remotest fashion, I would quietly slaughter that flair in me.”
“You think I was ignorant that you deliberately got into brawls or meddled with people’s minds just so that in comparison people would like me and call you names? It used to upset me, but it made you happy, and that’s the only reason I played along.”
“Whenever you were the topic of any discussion, I would delight in it. I wanted you to be the real hero, and you never disappointed me,” said Rufus with impressive earnestness in his eyes. 
“That used to be immensely pressurising.”
“I can imagine, but you came out fine, so all’s well that end’s well.”
“So am I supposed to sit around feeling like an arsehole all my life?” demanded Augustus.
Rufus shrugged his shoulders, “If you wish to, yes,” he said minus any emotion.
“I wanted to discuss something important with you,” said Augustus retrieving his mobile phone and staring at his brother.
“Go on then.”
“Problem is I am not sure where to start.”
“Then why don’t you make sure and then come back,” said Rufus. Augustus shook his head and left the living room.

Rufus found Augustus reading Lust For Life by Irving Stone on the divan after dinner the following night. He stood wordlessly on the threshold of the door and watched how absorbed he was in the book. When Augustus looked up, Rufus apologised for his artless behaviour. Augustus scanned his brother with his mesmerising eyes.
“For the ‘then why don’t you make sure and then come back’ behaviour,” repeated Rufus with much repentance.
“Rewind, and you’ll see that I am the one who stormed out like an arsehole,” said Augustus putting the book away. “Come and sit here,” he patted the seat next to him on the divan, “and tell me what’s troubling you.”
“I sometimes crave to break out from this self-imposed control,” began Rufus, “I feel like drinking until my head becomes numb. I want to devour drugs. Call on prostitutes. I want to shout on the streets. I want to break free,” he proclaimed impatiently getting up from the divan and looking out of the window at the spiralling clouds that kept playing hide and seek with the moon.
“I’ve been meaning very much to wallow in the rash as well,” said Augustus. Rufus walked back to Augustus and perched himself at the corner of the divan, “I adore the approach you employ in controlling life with a stick than letting it control you with one.” Augustus sighed sombrely, “I don’t know what you just meant, but, yes, we must not study ourselves while wanting to have an experience. It would be nice to forget the sights, the sounds, the smells, and just about everything for a while.”
“Oh, yes,” said Rufus, “I find myself straying away in these little journeys where I often connect with myself better when I am alone.”
Augustus watched Rufus keenly, kept his hand over his brother’s hand and spoke in his soothing voice, “I know what you mean. It’s as if we’ve been creating this life of ours to suit the expectations of others around us all the time. We are not ourselves, but a character in the storyboard of their lives,” he halted as his chest swelled up, “I find it unsettling to lie, and to please others simply because the truth can sometimes be devastating. I have begun to express what I feel irrespective of how hurtful or even scandalous in certain instances it could get. We have to be harsh in order to save someone just like I feel we lie because we are afraid of being alone.”
Rufus kept staring at his brother, “Where does all this spring from my little baby?” he asked.
Augustus laughed cheerfully, “Stop it.”
“Did you finally try MDMA?”
Augustus looked at Rufus with strong scepticism.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“You didn’t permit me,” said Augustus most innocently.
“Oh, come on,” said Rufus, “I distinctly recall telling you that you can try it when you are with your regular group of friends.”
“I didn’t believe you then, and I don’t believe you now,” he said with dismay. 
“Don’t be nasty, Augustus,” said Rufus jocularly with clenched teeth.
Augustus smiled.
“Anyway, what was it that you wanted to speak with me yesterday?” asked Rufus, his face once again moulded with misgiving. Augustus reclined on the divan. “Women,” he said with dreaminess, “why is it so difficult to decipher them?”
“Ha,” laughed Rufus generously, “they are perhaps the sole faculty of life not meant to be understood, my boy!”
“That was tactless,” said Augustus sharply.
“Why tactless?” asked Rufus narrowing his eyes, “Doesn’t it depress you that men see women mainly for decorative purposes.” Augustus shook his head. “All said and done, a man is a slave of a woman merely because she gives him that one thing that no one else can. You think he would otherwise waste his time on her if not for that?”
Augustus chuckled.
“You don’t agree with me?” asked Rufus, discerning from his chuckle that it revealed half admittance and half dispute.
Augustus smiled mysteriously, “Why do I feel that there aren’t too many women I can relate to? And the ones that I can identify with are not those I can bring along home?”
“I’ve been asking myself that question for as long as I can remember,” said Rufus, deep in deliberation, “so welcome to the club.”
Augustus was quiet for a few seconds, “I am sorry if I’ve let you down unknowingly my big brother.”
Rufus ruffled his hair, “Has this anything to do with the message I sent you about Nikita my little fellow?”
Augustus nodded. “I knew you were not supportive of our union. I remembered the last time how you had cautioned me to play sufficiently with the idea before deciding on anything.”
“What made you change your mind then?” asked Rufus, his eyes slimming.
“I don’t know.”
“You are well-acquainted with the truth that marriage seems to have lost its very meaning these days,” said Rufus.
“On occasion, yes,” replied Augustus, his eyes fixed on Rufus.
“Despite her lack of social graces, I found that she is someone whom you are quite in sync with.”
Augustus did not react.
“It’s no secret to you that in times of such uncertainties where one is not certain of oneself, she’s still someone who would remain loyal to you, right.”
“I agree that she’s full of surprises. That she’s respectful. Her capacity to love is rather commendable.”
“But…”
“It’s the little things,” added Augustus, “they keep niggling me.”
Rufus’s eyebrows rose.
“Demanding my email passwords repeatedly and creating a ruckus when I tell her that I am not comfortable in sharing them. Wanting to check my phone messages often…not that I have anything to hide, but that’s the not way it is,” he paused, “I don’t suppose I am obligated to be renewing my trust with the one woman whose trust I have earned time and time again, right?”
Rufus was listening in silence.
“Her wanting a continuous proof of that love and trust makes me uneasy.”
“You understand that your mind is saying something and your heart just the contrary, don’t you?”
Augustus laughed, “No relationship can flourish on loose soil big bro,” he said with significance, held back, and after a lapse of a moment, included, “you have always maintained, haven’t you, that you want someone to be my soul’s keeper and not someone who would merely complement me?”
Rufus nodded in compliance.
“Someone who would keep us all together.”
“Yes.”
“You agree that you see those traits absent in her, don’t you?”
“You cannot steer your life based on theories your elders plaster on you, my Augustus,” he said getting up and taking a sip of water.
“Careful with your words,” said Augustus with an element of alarm, “they are known to come back and bite you in the arse.”
Rufus put the glass down on the silver engraved tray and smiled.
“Even if one might not be in harmony with everything our elders say, the least one should do is consider their word,” said Augustus deferentially, “Mum and you alerted me, and at first I felt that you were being over-protective, and a bit judgemental too, but in time I began to study her carefully, and majority of what both of you had highlighted started to surface in her.”
“It was always present, only that you were looking at it with newer eyes.”
“You should have been forceful.”
“Don’t take any decision in a hurry.”
Augustus eyes flicked with mischief, “I have come to realise that a man can be happy with any woman so long as there exists no love between them.”
Rufus laughed, “No man escapes the wisdom that when you screw a woman she loves you, and when you love a woman, she screws you.”
Augustus laughed, “What was the actual cause of your objection though?”
“I imagined her lack of social graces could be worked around, but what unnerved me was her fancying your attention all the time.”
“Really,” said Augustus, a probing tone entering his voice.
“For example I disliked her insensitiveness specifically when you were having a good time with your friends and she’d want you to drop her home in the middle of it all. If this were a whim I could understand, but it was a pattern. Everyone was unhappy by the control she exercised on you only to show what she could, and what she could not do.”
Augustus studied him gravely, “Did you have a problem with that or was it just my friends?”
Rufus said nothing.
“Please answer me.”
“Not always,” stammered Rufus, “my primary concern being that I didn’t want your friendship to suffer due to her inconsiderate tantrums.”
“That’s exactly why I never wanted her to meet the boys,” said Augustus.
“Yes, that was something I made clear to some of your friends.”
Augustus smiled the – ‘you always know what to do in order to keep everything around me error free, don’t you’ smile.
“I was not prepared to have you compromise your joy for what we thought was right for you.”
Augustus closed his fingers round Rufus’s knee, “You are my brother, you are supposed to know what is right for me.”
“Why are you so sure of me, my little one?” asked Rufus, an upsurge of gooseflesh sprinting via his body.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Augustus squinting.
“I am only human right.”
Augustus smiled affectionately, “I might not say it as often as you might want to hear it, but you are my life my big brother, and not simply because we are brothers, but because I respect you unaffectedly.”
Rufus was overtaken by emotions. Words failed him. He gave his baby brother a hug.
“I haven’t forgotten how you grinned from ear to ear when she wore a dress from Gucci for the film we watched at the theatre.”
Rufus giggled, “Perhaps she assumed that she was being picturesque.”
Augustus laughed heartily.
“I don’t know what it is about their minds, Augustus,” said Rufus gently, “in any case, people come in all packages. However, if you are utterly fond of her, please don’t let that sentiment diminish with time.”
Augustus smacked Rufus on his shoulder. This was something he did when he felt an abrupt gush of love for his brother.
“Not that it would alter anything between her and me, but that’s all she has place for in my life now, as a close friend,” he whispered.
Rufus kissed him on his forehead feeling thoroughly relieved.
“Now don’t you start,” said Augustus sensing what was to come, “I did what was right.”
Rufus laughed and adjusted the cushion to brace his sore back from the workout at the gym that morning, “How has she taken it?” he asked.
“Not too kindly, but time is the finest healer,” he answered with impetus. Rufus agreed. “Do you remember our conversation from London?” asked Augustus cautiously. Rufus examined him attentively; his manner divulged more than his eyes were masquerading. “The one where you said you fucked her so hard that your dick came out of her arse.”
Augustus stiffened slightly. “This isn’t the time to joke,” he reacted stoically. Rufus titled his head away from him, trying his best to veil his smile knowing there was more to follow. A subdued excitement overcame Augustus and he said with gleaming eyes, “I met Sameera there.”
“Ah, I see,” said Rufus with liveliness, “wasn’t she the one with whom you lost your virginity?”
Augustus nodded with a subtle smile, got up from the divan and advanced towards the bar.
“I presume she does well.”
Augustus held up a bottle of whiskey and orange juice. Rufus favoured the juice. Pouring them both a glass each, he handed one over to his brother. “She does well, yes,” he replied.
“What does she do in London?”
Augustus’s eyes wore a radiant glint as he leaned against the wall with the glass in hand. “She owns a charming little café.”
“That’s lovely.”
“She refers to it as cosy, but I think it is artistic.” 
“So did you?” asked Rufus, coughing in jest, approaching and slamming his brother on his shoulder.
“Don’t be silly,” responded Augustus, “she’s married now.”
“It’s the married ones who are licensed to drift,” said Rufus, “no one notices, and even if one does, no one cares.”
“I don’t appreciate you talking like that about her,” objected Augustus.
“Ooh,” chorused Rufus unconsciously smoothening his brother’s well-formed eyebrows, “I see she still has the ability to fill blood into you where it matters.”
“Please,” said Augustus, turning a shade of crimson, “she asked me to—” he stopped short and dropped his gaze. Rufus tried to pacify his racing heart from escaping into melodrama and barely reacted, circling over and over, the rim of the glass with his index finger.
“She even introduced me to her husband,” said Augustus, slowly raising his eyes, “and before your mind wanders to a threesome, let me tell you it’s not what you are thinking,” expressed he with a fragile smile. “I would have chopped your cock and fed it to the crocodiles had you been naked with another man in the room,” said Rufus, his eyebrows elevated.
“There’s nothing wrong in helping a friend who is not able to bear a child,” he apprised with a delicate undertone.
Rufus stared at him stonily.
“He fancies I help her conceive naturally.”
Rufus gaped at his brother. “I am not allowing this!” he bellowed.
“I understand it is a bit too much to grasp, but stop being a drama queen and take a deep breath,” recommended Augustus.
“I know you are stubborn and will do what you want to do.”
“That I am.”
“What they think is immaterial to me.”
“I know that.”
“I just want to know if you are ready for something like this?”
Augustus left the glass on a side table and clasped his hands around the back of his head.
“I don’t know,” he said, his expressions betraying nothing.
“What do you mean by I don’t know?” asked Rufus angrily, “Say you help her have the child and then what if they end up claiming our property based on paternity rights.”
“Three days after we die our nails start to fall off. Four days and the hair begins to decay. Five days and the brain dissolves, the same brain we are so proud of. Six days into death our stomach melts and escapes quite literally from our mouths and our private parts. In sixty days the flesh is so acidic that it separates from the bones. No animal comes anywhere near our graves due to the stench of our putrefying bodies and here you are bothered about preserving your brick and mortar?”
“Fine,” said Rufus, “but I don’t want her husband to be a spectator in case you do what you have to do.”
“Relax,” said Augustus with a smile, winking at his elder brother and running his fingers in his silky hair, “although I wouldn’t mind if he watched. Who knows he might learn a trick or two.”
Rufus smiled. “About us.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Augustus, “I know I get into these phases and I apologise for the grief I give you at such times.”
“Hear me out, please.”
He sat down and faced Rufus.
“You were right that you are a threat to a woman who comes into my life, but instead of victimising yourself why don’t you look at it from my perspective.”
“And what would that be?”
“If a woman is secure about herself, and about me, then there is no reason for her to be jealous or doubtful.”
“You know finding someone like that is tough right?”
“I agree, but if someone cannot embrace and adjust with the people who mean the world to the person who means the world to her, then do you think she is worth the risk?”
Augustus said nothing.
“Similarly, if I do not give her the same space and respect as I would expect from her, then she has the right to react in a similar manner.”
“Agreed.”
“So can we stop victimising ourselves? What we are to each other cannot change. As overused as it may sound I can get another girlfriend or a wife, but not another brother. That said the world is not devoid of great people. We only have to keep our eyes open.”
Augustus listened quietly. “Those veins you want on your arms like mine,” he said coolly, “you can get them only if you wank off more regularly than you currently do.”
Rufus laughed heartily. “I didn’t see that coming,” he said, “shall I maintain a wank roster from now on?”
Augustus grinned and after a few seconds asked, “What really happened between you and Luella?”
“I was in London for two weeks, and was supposed to return on a Wednesday, and she was supposed to be in Singapore and was scheduled to return to Bangalore on a Friday. I advanced my fight in order to surprise her and landed here on a Monday. The boys wanted to meet. We met at Koshy’s. We were outside the main door chatting after dinner when Michael nudged me and brought my attention to her kissing a young man on the road.”
“Anyone you knew?”
“Nope.”
“That’s awful.”
Rufus puckered his lips, “She froze upon spotting me and offered all sorts of explanations, but something in me said that that was the end of us.” 
Augustus wrapped his arm round his brother’s shoulders. “I am sorry that I have been pushy.”
“It’s all right. You were just being protective,” he said as the brother’s clinked knuckles and gave each other a hug as Rufus went to play tennis and Augustus, football.




COFFEE AND CAKE ARE ALSO AVAILABLE


It was Ganesh Chaturti. After attending the puja at a friend’s house Ali, Rahul and Mervin reached The Leela. Saturday evenings at The Leela was a ritual that Ali, Rahul and Mervin had been following close to a year. The regularity had earned them the closeness of Amit and Raghu, the waiters at the coffee shop. Amit, who was stationed at the cash counter, caught a glimpse of them through the large glass windows held by the thick wooden frames and bobbed his head in greeting. Ali whispered a low hello, Mervin smiled and waved, and Rahul nodded in acknowledgment. As they sat at their usual table, Raghu came towards them. “You are looking nice with the tilak, sir,” he said looking at Ali as he shook hands with Rahul and Mervin. Ali thanked him as Rahul and Mervin excused themselves for a visit to the restroom. As Raghu watched them fade away at the end of the corridor, he faced Ali, “You also keep Ganesha at home, sir?”
Ali nodded.
“Oh, good, sir, even I keep Ganesha at home,” he said beaming with a smile.
Ali smiled back.
“We must lose not our culture, sir.”
“Absolutely,” said Ali.
“Shall I get you usual green tea, sir?”
“Thank you,” said Ali and had barely opened the magazine on watches that he had brought along when he caught Raghu taking an order from two elegant women nearby who looked like Lebanese or even Arab. He smiled to himself upon observing how Raghu’s smiles were in full impetus when Amit trotted to his table.
“See, sir, how he flatters them,” said Amit, his eyes fixed on the women, “if it was to be Indian woman then he would not bother only.”
Ali smiled. “You like them, don’t you?” he asked, as Amit’s eyes were still unmoved from Raghu’s table.  
“Ayyo, no, sir, no time for women,” exclaimed Amit as he came closer to him and spoke in a mellow tone, “Me last girlfriend, sir, me and she seeing each another for six months. Then suddenly she wanted me and she to get married,” he paused, netted his eyebrows and rolled his eyeballs, “I don’t know what had happened to her. Whaaat big problem it had become for me, sir. With so much difficulty me have come out of that situation. That’s why no more girls for some more time, sir. Me want to be freeeeeee,” he concluded with a touch of relief to his words. 
“A woman’s imagination is very quick, Amit. In no time it hops from admiration to love and from love to marriage,” said Ali.
“Ayyo, sir, don’t remind me. Me was like my parents are forcing. They telling they dying with heart attack and sugar if me no getting married. But me didn’t know what to do, sir. Me was not sleeping and eating also, not because me was in love, but because me wanted to be out of love. In my level no understanding time, only father mother say this girl good for me and me has to say yes if me like or no also. Me life not like you life, sir.”
“Nearly every person faces the same, my friend, it is only a difference of degrees,” said Ali chuckling and saw that Rahul and Mervin were on their way back to the table. They sat down and ordered a green tea each when Raghu strolled up to them.
“You were all smiles there, champion,” said Ali with some mischief, “you like both of them I see.”
“Nooo, sir,” said Raghu, “they are regular guests, but I don’t like them little also.”
“Why is that?”
“They are Muslim, sir,” said Raghu, “and I no liking Muslims.”
Ali scrutinised him enquiringly as Rahul and Mervin looked on curiously.
“You like Muslims, sir?” asked Raghu before Ali could say anything.
“Are they any different from you or I?” asked Ali.
“Ayyo, yes, sir, they are,” added Amit.
“How are they different?” asked Ali.
“Before I answer what you asked Amit, I want to ask sir you something.”
“Please do.”
“Sir, do I look like a Muslim to you?” asked Raghu, appearing a bit hassled.
“What does a Muslim look like?” asked Rahul.  
“I don’t know, like a Muslim, sir,” replied Raghu calmly, “many customers here thinking I am Muslim, and I don’t like when they say like that, so I started wearing tilak,” he said bowing a little and showing the boys a tiny vermillion dot barely noticeable on his dark-skinned forehead.
“He has on his forehead that and me wear this Ganesha in my neck, sir. When people see Ganesha they know me is a Hindu,” said Amit, stroking his Ganesha pendant that sat proudly on his upper chest.
Mervin looked at Raghu, “Why don’t you like them?” he asked.
“Don’t know, sir. I don’t have reason. They are nice to me, all of them Muslims, they give good tips also, but I don’t like them.”
“I see,” said Ali.
“Also my cousin married Muslim. I will never talk to her in my life,” he confessed, hurt and violation so very evident in him.
Rahul raised his eyebrows thoughtfully.
“She wears burqa also. I am so angry.”
The boys were quiet.
“Sir,” said Raghu cheerfully, “the tilak looks verrrry good on you!”
“Thank you,” said Ali.
“And you are too cool. I like you too much, Rahul, sir.”
Ali smiled, “Thank you.”
Raghu was about to say something when somebody called out and asked him to fetch a sachet of sugar.
Mervin looked at Ali, “What was all that about?”
Ali laughed, “They don’t know.”
“I don’t get it,” continued Mervin with surprise.
“When we came here for the first time there was a huge rush. They told me I could leave my name at the counter and that the coffee would be delivered at my table. When I gave them my name, the guy at the counter couldn’t get it, so I repeated my name again, and yet he drew a blank. Since Rahul was an easy name on the tongue, I gave them that name. Ever since then I’ve remained Rahul for all of them here.”
“Ah,” said Mervin with a smile, “and what if they find out?”

Ali smiled and shrugged his shoulders, “They’ll probably add salt in my next coffee.”





THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN DARKNESS


Taylor stared at Theo with searching eyes. “I haven’t done this before,” he conveyed in a voice that reflected a balance of fun and fear, “but I’m willing to risk it if you allow me to let you enter my mind so that we could take the journey together.” She raised the bottle of whiskey to her mouth, downed it in a quick gulp as she made a face, and flung the bottle.
“Careful,” he exclaimed as the wind was howling.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, shuddering just a little. 
He touched her cheeks lightly, “What makes you think I would not?”
“I don’t know,” she said feeling goose bumps.
“Are you afraid of letting yourself wander in my mind, or afraid to let me look into yours?”
“I don’t know,” she chuckled nervously, “and,” she stammered, “you say we do this just like that?”
“Yes,” he replied without an iota of hesitation. They inched a bit forward and peeped down. He felt his feet waver as he held onto her hand tightly. They loved each other like magnet and iron, like train and tracks, like bat and ball. They loved each other to madness. 
“Afraid of heights I see,” she said clasping her fingers round his fingers for reassurance. He faced her, his face pale, as the breeze was pushing them forward while they tried to keep themselves from falling by spreading their hands.
“Not when I don’t look,” he answered as the gale ate away some words. She tightened her grip on his hand and smiled at him encouragingly. He grinned at her with love and nodded once as they both jumped off the bridge and plunged right into the water with such ferocity that the impact hurt them more than thrill them. Upon surfacing, she searched for him, and when he popped his head out of the water she asked loudly, “Wasn’t that lovely?”
“Isn’t it in human nature to love that which we know we cannot entirely possess,” he said taking a breath. She swam towards him, grabbed his head and pushed it into the water, holding it inside. He wriggled his way out of her grasp and rose to the surface struggling for air. She laughed loudly and when he had rebounded from the shock he called her a devil and began swimming towards the shore as she followed him.
Their backs on the sand, and eyes on the sky, they lay quietly when she called out his name.
“Umm hmm,” said Theo softly.
“Coming to think of it I’ve never asked you Theo what?”
“Theodore Peter James,” answered Theo softly.
“Who keeps names like that these days?”
He smiled and dusted away the grains of sand from his arms that had clung onto his wet skin.
“Never mind,” she smiled feebly, knowing she had been foolish and changed the topic by asking him how he felt about the jump while dusting some sand off his back.
“Acutely invigorating!” he answered, feeling nice as her fingers touched his body.
“You know the strangest thing about you is that you might be afraid of heights but aren’t afraid of dying, which makes it difficult to rescue you.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I wish I could tell you why,” she said trailing her fingers over the contours of his chest and pinching his nipples.
“No,” he insisted, looking vacantly into her eyes, “you must tell me why you said that.”
“So what are you afraid of?” she asked, pouting and rubbing some sand on his chest.
“That’s not fair,” he lamented, “tell me why you said that.”
She laughed and asked him the same question again.
“I don’t know,” he responded with a grumpy face.  
“Everyone’s afraid of something,” she said planting a kiss on his palms.
“Maybe, but for now, if you don’t stop that, then I am afraid I am going to have to kiss you—hard…” he said in a cool, prolonged intonation.
She giggled. “You know you hate yourself because people hate you for who you are.”
He folded his hands and rested his palms beneath his head and smiled noncommittally as he found himself lost in watching the clouds pass by so swiftly.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“Whether you can ever keep your mouth shut for a minute. Like a minute!” he said with a smile.
“Do you think we’ll reach a point where we’ll get past a day without fighting or getting onto one’s nerves?”
“I don’t know,” he said ruminatively. 
“How can you be this pessimistic, huh?” she hit back with an element of despair.
“I don’t even know what might happen to us the next moment from now,” remarked Theo most collectedly.
“Fear messes with people,” she said with a grimace, “while it annihilates most, it enlivens you.”
He felt a chill race through his body.
“Why,” she asked gravely, “you think I’m not getting into your head enough?”
He grinned without giving anything away and then looked towards her, “Life is very short,” he expressed with deep emotion, “and for some shorter.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“I want to live,” he paused, thought, and continued with sonorousness, “I want to live with integrity and compassion. I want to be dauntless, unselfish and insightful, and I wish I have enough time to be all of that.”
“How about wishing to being a bit better endowed,” she suggested mischievously. He rested his face on a side and stared at her inaudibly. She inched forward and buried her face in his chest, his soft hair brushing against her nose.

Taylor and Theo had met one afternoon as she was leaving the café and he was entering it. Both of them stopped and exchanged a hello as they passed each other at the threshold. He had had a bad day and was in a foul mood. She was granted a divorce and was not in a frame of mind to make conversation with people, and certainly not new people. “Would you like to get a coffee?” she asked him not knowing what made her do that. “Surely,” he answered not knowing why he had volunteered. He ended up telling her much of his life between two cups of coffee, just as she emptied her heart over two croissants. They made love and parted knowing that there was no necessity to share co-ordinates: they knew they would meet, except that there was a small problem, he was in urgent need of a heart and there was a scarcity of such donors.

Theo wrapped his hands around the cup of hot coffee and immersed himself in listening to records by Ali Zafar. The comfort that Ali’s lyrics provided him reminded him of the times he would feel secure in the arms of his father and mother who had passed away when he was in high school. He was reminiscing when his phone began to ring. “How are you feeling, champ?” asked his brother John, trying to sound cheery. Theo lowered the volume, “I am good,” he replied calmly, taking a sip of coffee.
John was silent for a few seconds.
“Vomit it,” shot Theo curtly.
“Did you get my email?”
Theo had taken a printout of the email but hadn’t read it.
“Ah, you haven’t read it,” said John with iciness as he admonished him that he was not supportive of his decision to keep her in the dark. Theo was aware that John was not wrong, but he had no choice. When John had learnt of his condition, it had upset him to the brink of a breakdown, and he could not imagine ruining Taylor’s peace of mind as well.
“Why are you being stubborn?” asked John when he obtained no acknowledgment from Theo.
“Why don’t you understand that I don’t want to mess her up,” he said taking a deep breath, “and I—I,” he stopped short, pressing his lips and leaving the cup on the table.
“Theo,” said John gently, “take care, man.”
“Goodbye,” said Theo quietly and hung up. It was a cold night. Theo turned on the air conditioner and sat still for a long time, absorbing Ali’s haunting voice, the only strength that he could find in a moment when he was unsure of what was sure in his life. On the way home, he sank into the luxury of his car and commenced reading Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. The passage he read professed in words an uncanny resemblance to what was exactly going on in his mind. It said:

Going out, doing things, bringing up to date were not ideas calculated to help him get to sleep. To bring up to date: what an expression. To do. To do something, to do good, to make water, to make time, action in all of its possibilities. But behind all action there was a protest, because all doing meant leaving from in order to arrive at, or moving something so that it would be here and not there, or going into a house instead of not going in or instead of going into the one next door; in other words, every act entailed the admission of a lack, of something not yet done and which could have been done, the tacit protest in the face of continuous evidence of a lack, of a reduction, of the inadequacy of the present moment. To believe that action could crown something, or that the sum total of actions could really be a life worthy of the name was the illusion of a moralist. It was better to withdraw, because withdrawal from action was the protest itself and not its mask. Oliveira lit another cigarette and this little action made him smile ironically and tease himself about the act itself. He was not too worried about superficial analyses, almost always perverted by distraction and linguistic traps. The only thing certain was the weight in the pit of his stomach, the physical suspicion that something was not going well and that perhaps it never had gone well. It was not even a problem, but rather the early denial of both collective lies and that grumpy solitude of one who sets out to study radioactive isotopes or the presidency of Bartolomé Mitre.

He slammed the book and hurled it on the seat. Looking out of the window, he watched the plethora of vehicles. The restlessness and impatience on the faces of people amused him. He wondered why they could not find content with what they had. Why everybody was in this rush to do, to outdo, to make, and want, and want more and he recalled Ali’s tweet, “U want fame. U want money. U want power. U want ... U want ... U want... How about a gold-plated grave also? People would dig it!” And the tweet that he followed it up with, “Reality. Illusion. Perception of reality. Reality of perception. Illusion of reality. Really?”
When he landed up at home the front door was ajar. He pushed it open and peeped inside as he tossed his leather bag on the sofa and went looking for Taylor. He caught fragments of humming in the air as he was climbing the stairs and found Taylor in the bathtub. She gestured with her index finger that he join her in the tub too. He peeled off his clothes and dropped into the water with her.

They would walk the streets, hand in hand. At frequent intervals she would tousle his hair and laugh boisterously, drawing the attention of the people passing by. “You love to do that, don’t you?” Theo would ask with ruckled lips. She would nod her head with bright eyes like a child who has just been given her favourite lollipop and wink at somebody walking past evoking a whole lot of reactions in them. They would spend time at antique stores buying a vase in one, a wall plate at the other, or figurine in another. “One must never think that these are lifeless forms of art,” she’d say stroking the skin of the figurine or passing her fingers over the contours of the hand-painted platter, “contrary to what we think they would have heard and seen enough in their lives, and if one tried, one could listen to them or see what they would have seen too.” In such instances, Theo would be rendered speechless and upon her prodding utter something like, “People would think you a sorceress if you speak such absurdly.” She would brush his comment away with nonchalance and pick a figurine and hold it before his face and speak in a puppetry tone by making something up that the piece might have been witness to in the house that it was displayed in. Their other favourite pass-time was frequenting old bookshops. While flipping books, she would pull him behind a rack and grab his crotch until she felt it swell inside his jeans. An old couple once saw him track his tongue down her cleavage. The woman dissolved into a smile, while the man seemed scandalised at their expression of openness. “Wisdom and sex are the same,” she would state, “the more you get, the more you want.” Over coffee and croissants she would recount her days of growing up, and how matters turned ugly in her marriage. He pretended like he was listening to her, but felt sorry about not being able to be any more involved than merely nodding a disinterested head due to his own concerns. That said, he loved how zestfully she could rattle for hours and find mystery even in the mundane. How she would suddenly open gates and trot into gardens, losing herself in observing the beauty in the sculptures or the moss on the stairs, the blooms in the pots, or the lawns lining the landscapes. How she would randomly ring any doorbell and chat with the owners on life and the mechanics of the soul. How she would admire their interiors at a store, and make digs at some others at the wrong choice of wallpaper and recommend how altering things could double up their sales. “How could you be this weird?” Theo would ask. “People love to talk, my dear,” she would say mussing his hair, “give them time and see how lovely sharing time with people would make your own even lovelier.” He would shake his head and saunter away following the lights in the evening, or the crowds during the day, and treat himself to a coffee, contemplating about why somebody was not dying soon enough in order for him to live, until she put in an appearance, whacked his head in a whirl of sprightly exuberance and jostled him to turn around his gloom into ebullience.

Taylor placed her hands over her breasts one morning and walked about the room dreamily, not aware that Theo was watching her. She stood before the mirror, her eyes caressing her body in admiration. Theo cleared his throat. She turned towards him and smiled, “Good morning, handsome,” she said merrily. He cast his coverlet aside and trotted up to her. Enfolding his naked front to her naked back he could feel their warmth intertwine as the scent of her skin drove him crazy. He locked his hands on her flat tummy and fondled her ears with his lips. “Love you to bits,” she whispered. “Love these more than bits,” muttered Theo tracing his fingers over her tummy and resting them on her breasts. She smacked them as he kissed her on her neck. “Not now, you ass, I have a flight to catch to London in two hours and haven’t even packed yet,” said Taylor. He whined with utter disappointment. “I am off for a month or even more, so keep that fellow safe for me,” she winked, patting his hands twice quickly and freeing herself from his grip. He touched his heart and dipped his head with immense forlornness. 

Theo was explaining something seriously to a client when John barged into the office and disconnected the call.
“Fuck you, John!” hissed Theo irritably.
“The hospital has found a donor!” exclaimed John.
Unable to contain his joy, Theo felt his throat dry as he stood up. He tried to talk, but his voice failed him. He sat down and recovered slowly from the news enquiring whether John had told Taylor.
“She would be on the flight, bum,” said John as he asked his brother to hurry up.

After the transplant, everybody was thrilled that his body had taken favourably to the procedure. He found himself lost without Taylor. Just hearing her voice infused life into him. He enquired with John on several occasions whether she had called. “Taylor is beating right there,” said John every time, pointing to his heart. “That she is,” said Theo with confidence. Mrs Blythe, Taylor’s mother, paid Theo a visit once he had returned home. When she broke the news that Taylor was in an accident on the way to the airport and the heart that was beating in him was her heart, Theo went numb. He felt this excruciating pain in his heart, as if somebody had taken hold of it and was squeezing it without mercy. “I lost my daughter and I cannot afford to lose you,” said Mrs Blythe kindly, wiping her tears. He clasped her hands as his eyes welled up, “I cannot offer you anything but an apology for your loss, ma’am,” said he. Mrs Blythe hugged Theo and they both wept like children. “I am sorry,” murmured Theo again, collecting himself and pacifying her that in time the hurt would heal, but he knew just as much as she did that nothing ever heals, not until the end of time.



THE SECRET


He first noticed her when she was on the other side of the weathered teakwood shelves at the bookstore. Dressed in a casual weathered jeans and an elegant linen tee shirt sprinkled with tiny little colourful flowers, the perfume she was wearing drifted about, adding to the air a great energy of liveliness. As she moved a step leftwards while scanning the spines of titles, he moved along too, absorbing as much of her between the gaps in the books, and when they came face-to-face, she dipped her head gracefully and bestowed a delicate smile. “Good day, sir,” she said with her eyes downcast. “Good day, ma’am,” he replied as he spotted in her book basket volumes by Borges and Neruda. He most inconspicuously tailed her like a lamb as she retired into the vacant chair in a corner of the bookstore, leafing most intently through the pages of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. He occupied the chair parallel to her and watched her with enormous devotion. On occasion she would stop reading, think about something and then smiling to herself, return to the passages, while she used, at the same time her right hand to block the sun blazing on her face through the large window. He loved the way the beams escaping through her fingers made an artistic outline on her cheeks, and once again, when for a moment their eyes met, he stared into them and realised that she wasn’t even aware that he was watching her. He trailed her out of the shop to some distance, and gathered much to his surprise that she had entered the same building in which there sat the office of the publisher who was publishing his new book. He tiptoed behind her and watched as she greeted people with restrained cheer and then she withdrew to a corner of the hallway reserved mostly for the book editors at the firm. Going up to the receptionist, he pointed to her. “Oh, Annabel Rupert!” said the receptionist loudly, “She’s joined us only couple of days ago.”
“Softly, for gods sake,” he hushed with a thin smile, jutting his head out in her direction and trying to figure whether she had overheard them. Relieved to see that she hadn’t, he quizzed the receptionist some more about her.

Mr Mervyn D’Sa, the owner of the publishing house, who was in the vicinity, upon being informed of Albert’s visit to the office, had the staff extend his invitation for a coffee and have Albert wait for him in his chambers. He had also sent for Annabel unbeknownst to Albert. The men were relishing their coffee and chitchatting about the current political situation when Annabel entered the office. Albert put his cup of coffee on the Formica table at once and stood up. He felt like he was fortunate to be present in the same room with a celebrity he had been pining to meet and that his prayer had been answered. 
“This is Annabel, our new chief editor,” stated Mr D’Sa, requesting her to be seated.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” said Albert, going beetroot red in his ears.
Mr D’Sa suppressed a grin, “I’m assigning her as your supervising editor,” he said.
Annabel glanced at Albert and narrowed her eyes, “I think we’ve met,” she said, in her pleasantly husky voice.
“Have we?” asked Albert nervously, knowing full well that he was a pathetic actor.
“At the bookstore,” she smiled light-heartedly, “unless you are one of those struck with selective amnesia,” she continued with a harmless bright smile, as she extended her hand for a handshake. The moment Albert gave his hand in her hand he was faced with a situation he had never been struck with – he felt his member turning stiff. He smiled shyly, picked up a pen and began twirling it between his fingers to distract himself from open embarrassment.
“Oh lovely,” said Mr D’Sa, “it makes it even more easy.”
Albert grinned, going red again.
“Might I daresay that one must keep control on one’s nerves,” he said winking at Albert. Albert knew at once that the shrewd man had noticed the awkward situation he had found himself in a few minutes ago. Mr D’Sa arose from his chair, “I quite enjoyed the coffee in your company, Albert, but I am afraid I have to be somewhere for a meeting,” he said collecting his Louis Vuitton calfskin folder and pacing up to the door. “Don’t be naughty,” he said reaching for the door handle.
“Am I getting what I am getting when he advised you to keep your nerves in control and not to get naughty?” she asked rather directly. Albert nodded his head with a little smile. “Man,” she mouthed as both of them sat quiet for a few seconds and then she suggested that they move to her cabin. Albert followed her and liked what he was seeing; her buttocks were immensely shapely from close quarters. “Stop staring at them,” she said. Albert laughed. “A man can admire, can he not?” Upon reaching her cabin, he watched as she rummaged through a stack of papers on her writing table and looked at him, “You’re a bit too reserved for a writer, aren’t you?” she said looking up at him briefly, “besides sizing up a woman of course, which is a common trait of your species, so I won’t hold you responsible for it.”
“That you say so,” he answered diffidently.   
“How long have you been writing?” she asked, typing away on her Apple keyboard at the same time.
“For a long time.”
She inched closer to her screen, and gazing into it she said, “I see your work has been lapped up rather favourably.”
“I take it you’re not in support of that,” he asked directly.
“Criticism helps keep your thoughts in constant repair,” she said. 
He smiled and made no attempt to reply, his eyes riveted on her bosom.
“You are utterly and unapologetically shameful aren’t you?”
He laughed.   
“I wonder how I haven’t read anything by you,” she said with a slightly straight face, looking away from the laptop screen and up at him.
“Perhaps you haven’t been looking in the right section at the bookstore then.”
She reached out for him and gave him a pat on his shoulder, “Oh, really and what would that be,” she said in her husky voice.
“I understand you have a fondness for heavy literature, while my work, I am told is termed realist,” he said in a manner so as not to offend her since he was yet unacquainted with her ego.  
“May I?” she asked as she flipped through his manuscript.
“Certainly,” he said and studied her attentively for a long time and yet nothing in her face gave away what she felt about what she was reading. Nearly forty-five minutes later she closed the manuscript and looked at him keenly, “You’re not dazzled by the opposite sex I see.”
He was thrilled at last to hear a word of analysis from her and simply nodded.  
She pointed to a paragraph with her finger, “You know what I infer from this,” she said.
He looked at her with anticipation.
“That you need women in life merely to provide you nothing else but good food and a good fuck.”
He looked at her and didn’t speak a word.
“And what about the rest?” she said, her eyes flicking between his eyes and the page that was open before her.
“For that I have my friends and my family,” he responded with diligence.
She nodded, “I love a man who has the honesty to speak his mind out without mincing his words.”
“Did you just propose we do dinner, or was I only imagining it?” he asked.
“Never mind that, tell me where does love figure in your scheme of things?”
“And you ask because?”
“I ask because I didn’t find a mention of it in any of the pages I’ve read.”
“Aah,” he said with a half-smile.
“Do you think that love exists, and if it does, what according to you is love?” she asked seriously as she brushed the edge of the pen on her chin.
“I think its more like we are incomplete when a book in two volumes of which the first volume has been lost,” he said, excusing himself and trotting up to the vending machine, picking up a cup of coffee and sipping on it. She waited for him to come back to the chair and when he did, she asked, “Is what you just said something you feel or something that you just imagined?”
“I sometimes imagine, yes, love to be an incompleteness in absence,” he said, as he felt, most oddly, and most forcefully, that Annabel was finally the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, “And today, I think I’m beginning to understand what love must be, if it exists.”
She said nothing for close to a minute and seemed engrossed in his manuscript, and then not looking up she said, “Now that our rendezvous is over with, it is time for you to leave, don’t you think?”
“Really?”
“Yes,” she said with parted lips, her superb eyes still fixed on the pages. He raised his eyebrows and stared at her with an appearance that said, I don’t want to leave.
“You aren’t the only writer I deal with you know,” she exclaimed, looking up at him with a laugh so pure and innocent that he found himself utterly in love with her.
“So dinner then?” 
She laughed heartily, put away his work, opened the door and indicated he leave.

Over the month they met frequently and worked on the book. With the passing of each day it became more than clear that he was entirely besotted by her bright and breezy nature. He loved the fact that both their souls spoke to each other in a language far deeper than words could convey. One evening, when they were sitting aimlessly after editing several pages of the manuscript, she attempted to lock lips with him.
“I can’t. I’m sorry,” muttered Albert, moving away from her at once.
“Why?” she asked, with longing in her voice.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You don’t know or you don’t want to?” she asked, coming close to him. 
“When the time is right, yes,” he whispered, his heart racing as he could feel her breath on his skin.
“There is nothing like that,” she said, tracing her fingers along the lining of his chiselled chest and stopping short of his nipples.
“Annabel, please,” he said, taking away her hands from his chest and holding them in his hands.
“Let us leave the bed a memory it would never forget,” she went on with craving in her eyes.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
“Why?” she asked, agitation now superseding her serenity.
“As a matter of principle I would not trivialise physicality with the woman with whom I am thinking permanence,” he said with composure.
“Are you for real?” she asked with poise, staring at him with great love. 

When he told his friends about her, they were worried at his unexpected jump of actions, because he was someone who had sworn never to marry and was now suddenly advertising it with such ardour. That he was unsuccessful in convincing his friends, his next gargantuan task was to convince his younger brother Ethan. Albert saw Ethan more like his own child, than a sibling. He loved him immeasurably, but Ethan was not someone simple to win over. Albert mentally prepared himself and telephoned Ethan. “What’s the matter, brother?” asked Ethan, “you sound unusually thrilled. Got lucky, did you?” Albert chuckled, “That’s what we have to talk about,” he said most solemnly, without wasting any time. “Meaning?” asked Ethan, amusement fading and seriousness entering his voice. “You always wanted me to settle down, right?” Ethan remained silent on the other side of the line. “Ethan,” said Albert with immense caution. “I get free in an hour,” said Ethan, calmly, “let’s meet at the café, shall we?”   

Albert picked Ethan up from his office and pulled his car up before Annabel’s office. When they reached her floor the receptionist informed them that she was not in her cabin and was expected to return shortly. Albert sat fidgeting with the paperweight in her cabin. Ethan observed Albert and knew that this was not just a passing fad. He was about to ask him something about her when he recognised the perfume that was filling the air. When Annabel arrived, Albert greeted her most warmly and introduced both of them. Ethan barged out of the office. Albert looked at her. She stood pale, as if she had seen a ghost. He went rushing out and found his brother sitting in the car. “What on earth happened there?” asked Albert, confused.
“What do you like about her?”
“What did you find repulsive in her?” asked Albert, his voice scared and shaky.
“Where did you meet her?”
“What’s the matter? Tell me,” he asked, pleadingly.
“What do you like about her?” he asked again.
“The fact that she makes life even more beautiful than it already is.”
“If I were to tell you that I don’t quite approve of you and her,” Ethan stopped and looked at him enquiringly.
“What’s happening? Tell me, please,” he urged.
Ethan stared coldly into his fine eyes.
“I love her,” said Albert, as he ran his hands in his hair and looked at the sky and then looked at Ethan.
“You are free to do as you please but you don’t have my approval here,” said Ethan. Albert felt a sense of loss and bent his head with hurt. Crestfallen, he wanted to scream and howl, but despite his best effort, the tears seemed stubborn enough not to emerge. Ethan proposed to drive and there ensued between them a long silence until they had reached home. All night he lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling with the uncomforting gloom of disenchantment, his eyes moist and his ears running over and over the words he had heard his friends and his brother articulate so heartlessly without stopping to think that there was also a thinking and beating heart within his chest. Unable to contain his angst, he visited her at home the following day. She answered the door and didn’t ask him inside. Standing in the doorway, he stared at her silently. Tears began to roll down her reddish pink cheeks.
“Will someone tell me what’s happening?” he asked.
“You have to make a choice, Albert,” she mumbled, timidly, “and that’s what’s happening?”
He wiped the tears off her cheeks, “Choice between what?” he asked tenderly. 
“Please don’t try to meet me again,” she cried, and closed the door firmly on his face. 

Frustrated at the turn of events, he sat by the fireplace for hours that night and wondered why the very people whom he loved the most in this world had all turned against him.

Ten Years Later

Paris

Albert found inspiration in Paris. He felt that the spirited streets, the marvellous monuments, the love-filled air, the appealing art, the vivacious people, the unquenchable energy, all of it produced a humanising effect on him and helped him in etching his characters with deeper nuances. Sitting at a café and struggling to unearth a reasonable outlet to an outburst of one of a more complex character of a woman in his new novel, he decided to get himself the fifth coffee of the morning. After relishing it and chatting up some youngsters at the café on their idea of life, he went by his favourite bookshop, The Shakespeare. Browsing through the heaps of books on art and literature, he felt his knees go weak just as they had when he had set his eyes upon her for the very first time at the bookshop in Bangalore. Despite the passage of time, he found that she had maintained herself most magnificently well. Leafing through the pages of a volume on the paintings of Salvador Dali, he saw her shielding her face from the harsh shaft of the sun with one hand and holding the book in the other.
“Some things don’t change,” said Albert, as he held a book to guard her skin from being affected by the brutality of the suns rays.
“Jesus,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand and looking at him with her brilliant eyes.
“Likewise,” said Albert as she set aside the book on the small round table and stepped closer to him, thrill so very eminent in her eyes.
“I always loved that fragrance,” he said.
She smiled gleefully, “It must be something special to remain in the market this long.”
“Just like the woman wearing it,” he said with a boyish charm.
“I read your book,” she said, changing the subject and blushing.
He said nothing, his expressions conveying instead that he was expecting more from her.
“You’re so predictable,” she said laughing.
“At least you haven’t forgotten something about me,” he said breaking into a shy smile, becoming aware that she was even more beautiful today than she was ten years ago.
“It was an engaging book.”
“Thank you,” he said politely.
“But then you were rather ruthless in not letting it all end on a happy note though.”
“Life doesn’t award one a happy ending, does it?”
“Heard of a little something called literary liberties?” she giggled.
He laughed modestly, “We can fool ourselves into believing what we want, but then, it would only be that – we fooling ourselves,” he said looking out the door of the bookshop when he saw this young chap on a bicycle speed past, manoeuvring smoothly through the people on the street and vanishing from sight. This is how he had wished he had wanted to ride into her heart and make it his home.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She thought for an instant and agreed. He was pleased to learn over the cup of coffee that she was settled in Paris, while he was disheartened to know that she was no longer involved with editing of books, and what added to the misery of the overall guilt was her statement that his book was the last that she had edited. Upon exchanging addresses and numbers, he saw her off to her car.

Humming the song Always On My Mind by Michael Bublé that was playing in the background, Annabel shut the glass windowpanes and busied herself in chopping vegetables, while she occasionally stirred the pasta that was boiling on the hob nearby. Just when she was emptying the sliced vegetables in a large plate, the doorbell chimed. By the time she could rinse her hands, wipe them dry and reach the intercom, it tinkled another time. Hurrying, she unlocked the main door, and before her stood Ethan.
“I’m not here to make amends,” he said curtly, “if that’s what you think. I only want to know what new plans are up your sleeve?”
She let out a sarcastic laugh, “Plans up my sleeve?”
“My brother has never been able to get over you.”
“Neither have I.”
“Oh, stop this bullshit.”
“Why don’t you stop your bullshit?”
“He married once, if you don’t already know.”
She shook her head inaudibly, slightly surprised.
“It lasted less than a week. When we asked him why he had left his wife, he had said that he was unable to find you in her.”
“I am sorry,” said Annabel, repentance most obvious in her eyes and tone. 
“What about the open wound you’ve left him?”
“I never wanted it to be that way,” she said, “please come in.”
“Why did you?” asked Ethan rather dryly, as he entered her house and sat at the edge of the sofa, clutching the purple velvet cushion in his arms. 
“When you came as a volunteer to the prison, I was serving a life sentence because my uncle and aunt had implicated me falsely of murdering my foster parents,” she halted briefly and gazed at him with empty eyes, “the property was what they were after. Although having no family was a curse, I fought back,” she stopped, arose from the leather chair and unlocked a safe and handed him over a file.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Take a look,” she answered. He scrutinised the pages scrupulously and returned the file to her. They sat silent for a while, and then he thought of the fateful night, which made him want never to see her again. “Do people who grieve generally use sex as a means to slash their sorrow?” he said bluntly, not knowing of any other approach to address the concern. 
“People make mistakes,” she added, feeling this heat in her nerves from head to toe.
“They do?” said Ethan with disdain, “How enlightening, really.”
Sitting with her head in her slender hands, her elbows resting on her thighs, she fell silent for a long time and then she finally spoke, “My friends persuaded me that doing something entirely out of line would be like redemption. Going through all that I was going through alone, I was screwed in the head and I was ridiculously vulnerable too and therefore I succumbed,” she made for the window and looked at the trees swaying with the wind that was blowing wildly, “when you came to the room that night, and I caught sight of that hesitation in your eyes, I hated myself.”  
“I’m not here to judge you. I’m only here because you had no right to create such an upheaval in my brother’s life back then, and I certainly won’t sit and watch you repeat the performance once again.”
“Your dear brother isn’t a saint,” she lashed out irritably, “that he hasn’t moved on isn’t my fault.”
Ethan was quiet.
“And before interrogating me any further I could also well ask what you were doing that night?”
“While I’m not obliged to answer that, I shall still let you in on the fact that I had no idea what my friends were up to. I was made to believe that it was time I made a man of myself. I tagged along purely out of curiosity to see what man they wanted to make of me, and when I saw you lying there on the bed, all clothed, I recognised at once that something was amiss, and left since I hadn’t come there anyway to prove to anyone my manliness.” After listening to him she got up most abruptly, as if wilted by the salvo of the accusations, and then she sat down on a single sofa upholstered in a lovely pattern of large flowers, “I never slept with any man after that night,” she revealed faintly and repeated, “never.” He turned his face away from her and stared at the superfine knots in the exquisite floor carpet that had an intricate geometric design. “Well, I think that all of it was only a cruel co-incidence that fate played on us,” she said, offering him a glass of wine. “I don’t think that anything in life is a co-incidence, its all a matter of perspective,” said Ethan, as he obtained the glass from her hands, thanked her for it, left it on her large mahogany dinner table and walked out of her house.

Two days later, Albert barged into Annabel’s office, “We have to talk,” he demanded, panting. She took her glasses off and looked at him keenly as his influential eyes were fixed on her countenance.
“I don’t think so,” she said, searching to see whether his face meant to give away anything that he might have been concealing.
“All right,” said Albert as he crossed the threshold of the room and closed the door gently behind him. Unmoving, she stared at her antique rosewood desk when the door opened and the maid entered asking her whether she cared for a cup of tea or a tumbler of buttermilk.
“Tea,” she said almost in a sigh and walked up to the window as she stared at the beautiful sky while she felt this hideous heaviness in her heart. Her back to the door, she heard it click. Not looking back she instructed her maid to leave the tea on the table.
“Certainly, ma’am,” said Ethan.
She turned round and froze. Striding towards her writing desk very slowly, she looked at Albert who had now appeared behind his younger brother. Erupting into the most wondrous smile, she was controlling the tears that were only waiting to roll down her cheeks. Ethan stared at her silently. She took a deep breath, “I am sorry,” she said benignly in a voice choked with tears and cheer. “He told me all about it,” said Albert with a wide smile as he coiled his right arm around her and his left arm around Ethan and looked up at the sky thanking providence for not letting his life end up unhappy like the ending of his novel.




96 MINUTES


Imran sauntered into the first class cabin of the British Airways flight. He removed his tweed jacket and hung it in his personal closet. Leaving his duffel on the leather seat, he was looking out of the large rectangular window when a flight attendant arrived. “May I help you with the portfolio, sir?” she said in a routinely pleasant manner. Imran smiled and stepped away as he scanned the area in a swift glance. Other than a young man with sharp features and a dark complexion, there was no one else for company. The man was wearing a white pair of trousers, a red tee and yellow canvas slip-ons. “Whatever has happened to fashion these days,” he murmured and rolled his eyes, “and why aren’t any hot women on board.” With the flight attendant gone, he slunk into his seat and regulated the slant to his specification by turning the dial. He reached out for his iPad and hadn’t turned it on as yet when he heard a voice, “Sir, I know I’m being shameless, but I’ve wanted to talk to you, and I see no better opportunity than now.”
“I’m sorry?” said Imran, reclined comfortably as the quaintly dressed young man he had seen minutes ago had emerged before him, “I’ve read some of your books, sir,” he said cordially, “and I found them very different from what I usually read.”
“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but thank you nonetheless,” added Imran without any enthusiasm.
“May I?” he asked indicating with his hand if he could perch on the edge of the armrest.
Imran did not answer.
“I wouldn’t have approached anybody just like that but since I know you through your work I thought I’d take my chance.”
“That I see,” said Imran without emotion.
“I’ve found your writing to be fearless, and I hope you are unflinching in your understanding of life as well.”
Imran said nothing, his countenance stony.
“I know you creative people are peculiar, and I already see that you seem to think of my approaching you as an intrusion,” said the man somewhat peeved.
“You are most appropriate in your summation,” said Imran with crispness.
“Are you usually this curt?”
Imran didn’t think it necessary to respond.
“By the way the name’s Joe,” he said leaning a bit forward and extending his hand. Imran acknowledged his introduction with a quick incline of his head, brought his seat back to the upright position and shook hands with Joe. 
“Perhaps you might think that I am trying hard to impress you,” said Joe, “although I have no such intention, only that I seriously feel that artistry is missing in many writers today.”
Imran studied him with caution, and upon unearthing an element of genuineness to his pushy approach, he asked with a sense of thoroughness, “Would you care to elaborate?”
“Money being their focus, I feel that they play to the gallery.”
Imran was listening.
“There aren’t many writing for the love of the craft. The ones, who write, write lifelessly, and this is where I find your work stark and strong. I feel that you are not afraid to call a spade a spade, and you write in a voice that once used to be the norm in the intellectual and artistic world.”
Imran drew his eyebrows together, “While you think rather high of me, which is untrue, I merely write about what I believe in,” he paused, “oh, yes, and flattery is something the creative people loathe entirely.”
Joe chuckled, “I shall discount the latter part of your statement, you people are known to be moody and ill-mannered.” Imran was quiet. “But, yes, you possess this uncanny ability of seeing people from the inside. You see the complexities of their thoughts, the quirks in their behaviour, and make us feel that we can identify with some of them.” Imran was still quiet. “And in doing so you tell us that we are not alone in feeling so.”
Imran forced a smile. “How exactly did you think that this would impress me?” he asked. Joe hooted with a drop of mortification, and intertwined his fingers in a womanlike manner, “I am not aware of your relationship with your father and mother, but I’ve observed in nearly all of your work a clear absence of a parent.”
“Please take your seat,” enunciated Imran clearing his throat, “it is not merely a matter of writers lacking artistry, sadly the readers seem to have lost their way as well.” The man sat down. “They want something easy. Something that’s politically correct. Offer them something original, and they struggle to digest it simply because they are used to a certain kind of sameness in everything around them.”
“Oh, yes, the human mind is such, isn’t it? It finds it hard to break away from what it has been used to.”
Imran gave nothing away through his expressions.
“You still haven’t responded to me, sir,” said Joe.
“While I have immense respect for those who are responsible to bring me into this world, let’s just say that I consider my other relationships slightly more important,” Imran said stiffly. 
“I have more to tell you about you from your writing, if you’d care to listen,” Joe said, tilting his head to his left and then to his right. 
“Please,” conveyed Imran, growing inquisitive now by Joe’s intonation.
“I admire how the male as a friend, or a brother, is so revered in your work and at the same time I see that you are rather disapproving of–” Joe ceased to speak, rubbed his forehead twice and resumed, “why are you afraid of people like me?” he asked staring intensely into Imran’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said Imran as he found himself taken aback by the sudden question.
“I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I am homosexual, haven’t you?”
Imran looked at him questioningly and presented no reaction.
“Why is it that people like you hate people like us?” he asked again, with a touch of taunt.
“I don’t recall ever admitting publicly that I am for, or against any type of sexuality,” said Imran rather dryly, “however, I am curious to know what made you feel that I might harbour any resentment to your type?”
“It is evident!” exclaimed Joe with animation.
Imran smiled disapprovingly.
“Then I take it that you’ve had an unpleasant experience, or that you are plainly homophobic.”
Drawing from the information that was swiftly being excavated from the archive of his mind as Joe was speaking, Imran replied with terseness, “There is nothing quite like homophobic, just as there is nothing like purely heterosexual and homosexual.”
Joe pursed his lips, “You honestly believe that no one’s purely at the end of this spectrum, or at the end of the other?”
“Like life, human sexuality is in a constant flux. Some live the feelings that seem to strike them by focusing objectively on them, while some others place inhibitions on themselves due to fear.”
“I see,” said Joe, “and what do you believe?”
“I believe, quite frankly, in letting nature process her course in these matters. She knows her business best.”
“Going by your own admittance, how much heterosexual or how much homosexual are you if I may ask?”
“Ha,” let out Imran, “purely heterosexual I would say,” he affirmed with a pompous air.
“That’s just so unfair,” protested Joe.
“Sorry for the disappointment,” answered Imran with humorous definiteness.
“Say we keep aside what has been ingrained in us by society, do you still think you are purely heterosexual?”
“I don’t know,” said Imran coolly.
“You mean to say you are open to, you know,” squinted Joe staring squarely into Imran’s powerful eyes.
“No,” blurted out Imran at once, “I meant to say that I know that I never would.”
“You are a gutless man then,” suggested Joe with cynicism.
“I am afraid I am no good at playing mind games,” avowed Imran severely hoping that the manufactured intimidation would keep Joe at bay from wasting his time with infantile inanities.
“I am not playing mind games,” said Joe firmly, “I only wanted to see whether your balls were made of steel or marshmallows, and I see that you are no different from the rest.”
Imran gaped defiantly at Joe, “That’s what I loathe,” he stopped short and looked about with mild displeasure.
“Complete it,” said Joe as if to challenge him.
“A dare directed at me is like pouring water over a ducks back, my good fellow,” said Imran, and before Joe could respond, the in-flight crew put in an appearance and requested Joe to return to his seat since they would be taking off in a short while.

Once they were up in the air, Imran retired deeper into his seat and began browsing through the tweets he had saved earlier that morning on his iPad.
“I’m sorry to have offended you,” he heard Joe say again.
“You are only human,” said Imran sharply, raising his eyes from the iPad screen. Joe stood before him, “In general people are not what they seem to be. You, on the other hand, always came across as someone who wears your opinion on your sleeve, and it’s nice to experience that in the flesh.”
Imran smiled and pronounced nothing.
“We have a long flight from Bangalore to London,” announced Joe as he examined his wristwatch, “and we have at least two hours to sleep. Add to that I see the entire first class holds only the two of us.”
Imran merely smiled.
“I’m just curious to know whether you’ve ever bonked a woman on the flight?” asked Joe in a single breath.
Imran’s features instantly creased with resentment.
“I apologise,” chorused Joe and retreated to his seat.
Putting away his iPad, Imran retrieved the book Power, Politics and Culture by Edward Said from his leather portfolio. He had barely finished reading the introduction when he heard Joe’s voice again, “You still haven’t told me why people like you dislike people like us.”
“Everything is subject to interpretation,” said Imran, not taking his eyes off the book, “and since it’s triggered mostly by natural factors beyond one’s control, I respect you for the path you have chosen despite the resistance of society.”
“You know you are being careful, sir.”
Imran glanced up at him for a fraction of a second and smiled non-committedly.
“Is it true that you are shagging the other girl on the sly even though you are in a steady relationship with your girlfriend?”
Imran smirked, “I took the liberty of looking you up on the Internet,” he made known most steely, “and it tells me that you write regularly for some tabloids.”
“I’m not on an assignment here,” said Joe, “just that I didn’t get an opportunity beforehand to tell you more about myself. I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“Fair enough,” said Imran.
“So we are easy, then, aren’t we?” asked Joe.
Imran smiled, “Find me a single man who would willingly want to remain loyal to his woman,” he said with an air of certainty, “and everybody is interesting in his or her own special way, more like a new door to a different world.”
Joe covered his mouth like a girl and giggled.
“Why do you dress so atrociously?” asked Imran, unable to contain that in him any longer.
Joe’s giggle now turned into a loud laugh.
“I’m sorry,” said Imran, smiling thinly, turning a shade of crimson.
“I love wearing striking colours.”
“Drawing mechanism or defence mechanism?”
Joe continued to laugh, “May I ask you something personal?” he said trying to sound casual.
“Would you stop if I were to turn down your request,” quizzed Imran with a heavy sigh.
“I doubt it,” said Joe, winking.
“Go on then,” said Imran, flipping aimlessly through the pages of the book.
“Have you ever been tempted by a man?”
Imran put away the book and breathed, “Have you ever thought of it with a woman?”
“I can if I want to,” said Joe with confidence.
Imran grimaced and shook his head. “No, I haven’t found myself being tempted by a man.”
“I want to ask you another question, an uncomfortable one,” said Joe.
“Is there any inhibition left for you to surpass that you ask for my permission?”
“I love the way writers speak,” remarked Joe, “and coming to my question, say you are watching porn with your friends, and it is obvious that all of you would be aroused, and say some of them begin to, you know,” he made a male masturbatory gesture, “would you have a problem with that?”
“I have no problem with what one is doing around me with themselves, so long as the sexual intent isn’t directed towards me.”
Joe seemed thrilled, “I’m amazed that you think so liberally.”
“What’s amazing? It’s just my opinion,” said Imran, his accent icy.
“Hmm,” said Joe contemplatively, “have you ever wanted to know how it feels like to hold it?”
I hold it daily like every other man would too.”
“Not your own, silly,” said Joe putting on a child’s voice, “but as a writer you ought to experience everything at least once, don’t you think, or are you afraid of what the society might think?”
“Social norms, or what biology has led me to believe, make no difference to me. I’ve never felt the urge and therefore I haven’t acted on it.”
“Revolutionary,” asserted Joe.
“I don’t believe in curbing ones feelings, sexual or not.”
“Then that would make you curious in a way too, don’t you think?”
“According to me anything that happens between two people, consensually, is not something one can fix a label on.”
“You know what I feel,” said Joe, arms firmly closed to his chest, “men who keep screaming at the top of their voices that they are ‘real men’ are all closeted homosexuals.”
Imran laughed heartily, “That’s being plain ridiculous.”
“If they think that they cannot see another man naked, then watching a man on screen, even if it were in a porn flick, would have to make them queer.”
Imran was quiet, reflecting on what he was hearing.
“Besides, I feel that being naked before your best friend, or brother, or cousin, or colleague, doesn’t make you homosexual. It only means that you are comfortable.”
Imran nodded in agreement.
“And women, sir, I think they are mad,” said Joe with some thrust.
“Whatever makes you say so?” asked Imran as his eyes dipped to Joe’s shoes and he rolled his eyeballs at its terrible yellow tint.
“Women are eternally preoccupied with enlarging their breasts, and then they cheekily reproach men of being obsessed with their penis,” said Joe.
“You’re too funny,” laughed Imran.
“You straight men love watching two women making love, but at the same time you’ll scoff at the hint of two men making out. Isn’t that hypocrisy?”
“Like I said, it’s all subject to one’s individual interpretation.”
“I see,” said Joe, as Imran observed how he was trying to figure what next to ask. Leaving Joe to his thoughts, Imran probed after some deliberation, “Did you always know?”
“If I tell you how I discovered my fondness for men, you’ll think me insane,” replied Joe, running his hand in his messy black hair.
“There exists a candy for every man that he simply cannot resist consuming,” said Imran.
Joe cut in, “Wait until you hear me out.”
Imran inspected him with interest.
“You must first promise me that you won’t judge me,” whispered Joe.
“To be who you are, you must not have the faintest idea of who you are, and care less of what people think of you,” uttered Imran.
“I don’t know where to begin,” communicated Joe, as Imran sensed this feeling of faint hesitation engulfing him.
“From the beginning,” said Imran.
“OK,” said Joe feebly, “soon after my graduation my father and mother decided to divorce. My mother was furious that my father had had another wife even before he had married her, and had never let her in on the secret.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Imran.
“Oh, that’s fine, because by then I was busy with my own life.”
Imran’s disquietude evaporated and he smiled.
“Not chasing men, if that’s what you’re thinking when I said I was busy.”
Remaining mute, Imran’s smile lasted.
“It all started innocently enough on that day when he showed up at the court during the divorce proceedings. Even before learning that he was my stepbrother, I felt attracted to him the moment I set my eyes on him. He called me the same night and told me that he loved me. You don’t know how ecstatic I was, and yet I was unable to believe what I was hearing. I asked him why he loved me, and you know he told me, he told me that he loved me because I needed the love, and that he was mine in the same way like I was his, and this he felt the instant he had set his eyes on me too,” Joe scratched his head fretfully, “perhaps you must think me absurd to fall in love with my own half-brother, right?”
Imran was quiet.
Joe appeared a tad embarrassed, “My mother accepted me, but my father was outraged. Most of my friends were supportive. People stopped talking to me, but for the first time in my life I showed my middle finger to the world. My stepbrother was my hero. He made me feel like a man that no other man had made me feel. My life had turned into heaven right here on earth. And when he touched me, I was like—” Joe halted and appeared to search for the apt word when Imran held his hand before Joe’s face and said, “If you please, that would be enough.”
Joe’s eyes thinned, “I don’t know why what we love the most, is what makes us most uncomfortable to talk about.”
“I’m not sure if I want to hear about the specifics of sex with the same sex.”
“I’m appalled at your narrow-mindedness,” Joe shot back.
“I suppose certain things that are private, need to be kept private.”
“The whole world is open about it these days,” said Joe, lowering his face.
“Maybe, but I prefer not to know about a random person’s sex life.”
“I thought we knew each other pretty well.”
“We’ve met only about an hour ago,” said Imran, registering astonishment.
“You are saying that if I knew you longer, you would be fine hearing about my sex life?”
“Dear god,” exclaimed Imran.
“This is what I detest in you people,” said Joe, his ears red, “You can talk about current affairs, politics, rape, art, refugees, cars or even claiming that you are most liberal when it comes to the orientation of people like us, but the truth is that you care less. You are each self-absorbed. You are each beautifully wrapped boxes of shit.”
“Oh, come on!” said Imran.
“The thing with sex is this,” said Joe, “talking about it with someone you don’t know is a lot like getting in touch with your inner self.”
Imran eyed him with a blank expression.
“You agree that each of us have a face we project to the world, and a face we wear for ourselves, right?”
“Some, yes,” said Imran.
“When you talk about such things with the people you know, you always project a part of you that you know the other person wants to hear, while when you talk about it with someone you don’t know, you get in touch with the part of you that you always wanted to be.”
“So why does it trouble you so much that people have to accept you the way you want them to accept you?”
“I didn’t get that,” said Joe, confused.
“Problem arises when you are struck by the desire to seem, rather than to be,” said Imran with genuine sympathy.
“It’s easy to talk, isn’t it? For you it’s a straight world out there. Straight books, straight films, straight talk, but the moment you see two men sharing affection, you people go – Oh, god, he’s a faggot! He’s sick! He should be treated! Or he must go to hell for who he is! Why can’t you accept two men who stand up before you and declare that they love one another as normal instead of labelling them? I might have had it easy, but I’m sure the others would be traumatised by the stigma you straight people stamp on people like us. How would it be if the roles were reversed and we looked upon all of you with sheer disdain?”
“That’s awful,” said Imran sounding disappointed, “I don’t think one needs anyone else’s sanction to live the life they wish to live.”
“There you go again with your tall claims, when only moments ago you were not even bothered to hear me out.”
“At least I was honest, young man,” lashed out Imran steadfastly.
“That I agree,” mumbled Joe, cooling down, “it’s just that I’ve seen so many ruin their lives and it hurts.”
“I understand,” said Imran patting him on his shoulders, “but life’s not fair now, is it.”
“So when are you both getting married?” asked Joe.
“She doesn’t quite believe in marriage,” said Imran.
Joe’s large round eyes were fixed on Imran, “You love her, don’t you?” he asked.
Imran’s deep brown eyes gleamed, “Over my life!”
“You very well know that what we send into the lives of others, comes back into our own someday, right?”
Imran’s eyes twinkled, “I do, but she wonders why people get married at all in the first place. She thinks that it has no point in today’s time and age. That it is unrealistic.”
Joe flashed him a stroppy look, “Maybe you haven’t asked her convincingly. Maybe you’ve only told her what you want. Maybe she wants to, but is afraid to tell you because she’s afraid of losing you.”
“Maybe,” said Imran shrugging the statements away, “but like I said I am not someone who presses my beliefs on others.”
“What if the connection that you both now swear by suddenly snaps?”
“If it is something beyond repair, it would simply mean that it is time to move on to someone else then.”
“I don’t get how you can be this casual about such serious matters.”
“Preserve your energy. It’s not your life.”
There was silence in the cabin for a while. Imran was drawing up some notes for a character for his new novella when Joe cleared his throat.
“Yes,” said Imran consulting the time and looking up at him.  
“Why is sex always the core for you creative types?”
“I think that’s because your bird deserves more than a mere shelter to live in,” Imran said generously.
“Smart,” said Joe in a tone higher than before, “real smart.”
Imran delivered an empty laugh.
“By the way do you know what is the lightest object on earth?” asked Joe.
“I am not an adolescent,” rebuffed Imran.
“Come on, humour me!”
Imran attempted to think and gave up.
“Your penis,” said Joe with a wide grin.
“Jesus,” blurted out Imran.
“It is,” insisted Joe, “just a mere thought can lift it.”
Imran laughed, “Do you know what would literally be a pain in the arse?” 
“A guy with a monster tool,” said Joe promptly.
“Couldn’t you have thought of anything else?” asked Imran smiling. 
Joe stared at him with clueless embarrassment.
“A world without women,” adjoined Imran.
Joe chuckled, “Smart. Very smart,” he said.
A few minutes passed and then Imran asked, “Is this how you usually try and befriend people; by stepping on the wrong toes?”
“When you make a person uncomfortable they tend to open up more,” revealed Joe, “but there are exceptions to every rule. Let’s take you for instance, as much as you were civil with me, you and I know that we would not be parting as friends.”
Imran smiled knowingly.
“Take my advice,” said Joe nicely, “taste the sweat of a man and see how it will change your life forever.”
“Thank you,” said Imran as a heavy bearing of yearning entered his tone, “but I must confess how I wished that my woman would love me with the similar fervour as your man loves you.”
Joe didn’t make an effort to mask his excitement, “A woman can never love you the way a man would,” he said with a mischievous grin.
Imran moved his hand in negation, “Too bad I am left with no choice then,” he said with sureness.
“For now you mean?” Joe asked, winking.
“I have never been attracted to men, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it were to happen,” said Imran coolly.
“Really.”
“Presumably.”
“You aren’t as bad a rascal I thought you to be,” said Joe with a big smile.
“Thank you for your time,” said Imran, picked up the book by Edward Said and began reading it as if Joe were non-existent.



THE CLUB


The sun was shining bright on the thirteenth floor of the prestigious club reserved for the elite of Bangalore. Fardeen showered after a nice long swim and retired into the recliner with a glass of wine by his side. While gazing about lazily, his vision dropped on this lovely young lady who was dressed in a bikini. Her appearance was clearly of honour and refinement, and yet, what caught his attention first was how her outfit revealed her graceful breasts and striking buttocks. Smiling to himself, he closed his eyes and pondered at length about how lovely it would have been had they be transported to some faraway island with no one but them on it, and while occupied in rejoicing within his gratifying thoughts, he heard somebody call out his name. He opened his eyes and spotted Mr Agarwal, a regular at the club, had settled into the recliner that was on Fardeen’s right. The man sported a wide grin and said cheerfully in his raspy voice, “I don’t think you heard what I called you.”
Fardeen offered him a blank look.
“I called you Fedayeen!” he exclaimed.
The skin on Fardeen’s forehead crinkled only a little.
“Fardeen or Fedayeen, it’s all the same, right?” questioned Mister Agarwal, in a jubilant tone.
“Why may I ask?” said Fardeen, his voice betraying no surprise or wonderment although he knew the man was being condescending.
“Nothing personal, but you see all Muslims are terrorists,” said Mister Agarwal loudly, as he paused and smirked with a twinge of accomplishment, “and since your name is Fardeen I thought I’ll call you Fedayeen.”
Fardeen said nothing but merely inclined his body to a side, lifted the glass of wine, took a sip and put it back on the woven cane table. Agarwal arose from his recliner and informed Fardeen that he was off for a swim. Once he was gone, Fardeen resumed his travel to the contemplations about the young lass he was fantasising about when he heard someone call out his name again. The voice, he figured originated from his left, so he turned towards his left and unshut his eyes.
“I’m apologise to butt in like this,” said a man in a pleasant voice, whom Fardeen studied seemed of high rank and was soaking himself in the sun, “my name is Rao.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” said Fardeen politely as he extended his hand. While they shook hands Fardeen noted the firmness in the handshake and figured that the man was of remarkable character and strength.
“I know it is none of my business but I couldn’t help but overhear what the man just said and I don’t think you should have let him off that easily,” uttered Mr Rao, a caring smile breaking onto his gentle features.
Fardeen returned his smile in like manner, “He is known to annoy people with his meaningless garble.”
“I’m new to the club so I wouldn’t know,” admitted Mr Rao, “but I still felt you let him off too easily.”
“I could have responded in a befitting manner, sir, but–” he stopped short and had scarcely attempted to speak again when Mr Rao rejoined, “did you see the indignation in his eyes when he was calling you a terrorist?”
Fardeen chuckled, “I did, sir, yes.”
“And yet you laugh, son?”
“What purpose would anything else serve, sir?”
“See, son, people don’t have the right to ill-treat you just as you are not obligated to get treated such,” said Mr Rao with animated concern.
“I understand your point, sir, but one can reason with someone who has the capability to accept or absorb what is being expressed, unfortunately, this gentleman has no manners to begin with in the first place so it would be like pouring water over a ducks back.”
“Indeed, his lack of sensitivity I have been a witness to,” said Mr Rao resolutely, “and please don’t feel bad I said all this,” he added kind-heartedly, “and by the way, nice to meet you.”
“God sees the truth, sir, and he waits,” said Fardeen with utmost respect, “and thank you for the concern, though,” he concluded and was only returning to the island where he had been magically transported with the lassie when Mr Rao reached out and tapped him on his shoulder. Fardeen turned to face him, “Yes, sir?”
“The girl whom you are dreaming about is Mythri, my daughter,” he said coolly, a mild smile now covering his entire countenance. Fardeen suddenly found himself turning pale: as pale as a sheet of white paper.
“Oh, fear not, in a moment I shall introduce you both,” said Mr Rao merrily as he called out to his daughter who was now emerging out of the pool as Fardeen’s thrilling heart went thumping so very fast and so very loud that he could actually feel that it would perhaps jump out of his body at any given moment.