Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Six weeks to happiness?

"What do you want?" the shopkeeper asked him a little harshly. He had been standing there in the shop for a few minutes now without saying a word and looked quite uncomfortable. The irate shopkeeper was eyeing him suspiciously. There had been an increase in the number of crime committed by young men and needless to say, the presence of a silent youngster in the shop was not very comforting, unaware that it was the young man who was more nervous than he was.
"I... ", he began and he was at once seized by the familiar dread of embarrassing himself which had the effect of drying up the words that he had formed in his head for this occasion. A whirlpool of feelings raged in his breast and he was caught between the contrasting emotions of shame and desire, each pulling him in opposite directions. Caught between contradicting emotions, he could neither speak out his query nor could he direct his feet towards the door.
He tried to firm up his resolve and took a deep breath with which his determination returned temporarily. He used the moment to speak again. "Do you..", he began but the effort of speaking those two words deflated his lungs and in its flow the rest of words got dissolved without a trace left of them. The effect of another unsuccessful effort on him was too much and his ears reddened along with a distinct rise in temperature of his face. By this time, the shopkeeper was also looking at him as if he were some lunatic from the streets. He looked up again but now it had become more difficult for say anything and he walked out of the shop with his face red and eyes bent down with shame.
This was the second time he had tried to get what he desired, each time it was a different shop and a different day but the sequence of events that you witnessed just now was the same. Who was this young man and what did he want? I would tell you but it would sound too ridiculous without proper introduction of him and his story.
His name is Ravi and he studied at the nearby college. The road to a decent education had not been easy for him and he had struggled to score in his school exams. It was mainly his mother's fervent desire to see him educated that had motivated him this far. When he had finally gotten admission and a fee waiver at a well-known college in the city, his mother got very excited and had distributed sweets to all their neighbours. Her over-enthusiastic response to what he considered to be a relatively mediocre achievement embarrassed him slightly but her enthusiasm had been genuine and the sweets she had bought had come at the cost of her modest savings. Her gesture touched him deeply and he made up his mind to make the best of college education and placate his family's economic hardships. So, with tears in the eyes of mother and son, they had bid adieu as Ravi moved into the city to continue his education.
Ravi was very apprehensive of the city but he wasn’t prepared for what the city offered. He had lived all his life in one of the satellite towns of the city but yet the city culture was new to him. This was not the first time he had been to the city but all his other forays had been short-term visits usually to get something that his small town did not offer. The mannerism of the city dwellers was at once interesting and at the same time, alienating. It seemed that it was a whole new world that he had entered. He was understandably apprehensive of the city and its people.
So, when he entered the college gates, clutching his satchel that contained his first year books, his demeanour made it easy for his seniors to identify him as a fresher. He was soon accosted by a friendly guy who took him towards a bunch of people who at first asked him a lot of questions. He answered them in monosyllables as he was not used to being interrogated by strangers.

“What is your name?” “Ravi”
“Where are you from?” “Shivajipuram”
“Can you sing?” “No”
“dance?” “No”

They laughed and said that they will teach him to do all that even if it takes the entire day. There was something in the way they looked at him - like hyenas around a carcass - that unnerved him and sent a shiver down his spine. He did not know then but it was the beginning of his torments that would extend not just for the day as his new-found “friends” said but for days and weeks together.
Nobody had ever told him that people in the city would be so mean and at first, he thought that he was being targeted for his rural look and feel. But soon he realized that it was not the case and often, he would not be the only ‘bakra’ surrounded by a gang. A day spent appeasing one bunch of people followed by another was tiring, both physically and mentally, and often, he thought of chucking college but his family’s condition and the promise he had made when he left home stopped him from doing something silly.
Ragging was easy for people who had cultivated such talents like singing or dancing. One beautifully sung song or a well-executed moon-walk was sure to evoke “wah-wah”s and “hurrah”s and sometimes a treat from an enthusiastic member of the clan of seniors. Others had to entertain in other ways. Some would tell rapacious jokes and others would mimic filmstars. And there was this one guy who had a peculiar way of speaking that was hilarious to everyone who heard it but for himself. Sometimes, he would smile; a meek, embarrassed smile that told more about the hurt he felt than his happiness.
Sadly for the subject of this story, he was not very interesting and he ended up doing the most demeaning tasks that were tailored to make fun of him. This experience with inconsiderate and insensitive people made him more of a recluse than he already was and he would avoid people, in general, as much as he could but he could not escape them…
Here, even the girls ragged. He had seldom been in contact with girls, and his few encounters with them had never exceeded the cordial, and the girls were shy and taciturn in front of him. But the situation was quite the inverse here. The girls were brash and had no qualms in heckling him. Once, he was even made to “propose” to another freshie by them. It was quite an embarrassing situation for him as he said those words with the customary rose that goes along with in these kind of situations. His chocolate brown skin hid much of his feelings but his mannerisms did not. He was after all a simple boy from a conservative family. On the other hand, the girl to whom he presented the rose was unconcerned and accepted the rose mechanically as if it were a daily chore for her. “And why shouldn’t it be?” he thought, “she is so lovely.” She is the kind of girl who would have boys hovering around her like bees around the last flower of the spring. (Narrator’s note – I do think the pun was intended)
Tired of the constant ragging, he sometimes hid himself in secluded and well-covered parts of the campus to give himself a little bit of peace. Once, when he went to one of his usual hiding places to have a quick lunch (rather than eat in the cafeteria), he surprised someone who was already there. The readers would recognize him as the boy whose accent we got acquainted with earlier.

“Hi, I am Ravi.” “Vivek”

They did not need much explanation. They both knew instinctively why the other was there.

“You must be hungry. I have some fruits for lunch which I am willing to share with you.”

And thus, he managed to make a friend. College is the time where one makes the thickest of friendships and the bonds that you form last for quite a long time and are created so easily. All that was required to form this friendship was a common feeling of persecution. Soon, the duo became a trio with the addition of Veeru, the son of a middle-class Government servant. Their diverse background served only to cement their friendship than hamper it in any way. Within a few weeks, they became very close. They knew eachother’s likes and dislikes and shared their ideas.
Veeru had a fetish for Bollywood movies. The glitzy stories and fantastic settings captivated him and very soon, he managed to hook the other two to the films too. A “chalo yaar” during the weekends and they would go see the latest film showing in the nearby theatre. The effect of these stories was noticeable in their attires, walk, and talk. They would spend endless hours chatting about their favourite scenes and the stars on screen.

He saw her often. As first year students, they shared a number of classes and she would usually hang out in the cafeteria with her friends. He never had the courage to speak to her, much less when she was surrounded by a number of strangers. He remembered the first time he had met her and was still embarrassed by the words he had been made to say to her. That remained the only expression exchanged between the two of them. And even though their paths crossed often, she never seemed to recognize him, while he tried his best to say ‘Hello’.
He gathered information about her from secondary sources.
“She is a pahaadi. Studied all her life in a boarding school in Dehradoon.” And he would be filled with romantic notions of the hills and its enchanting fair-skinned people.
“Arjun. That’s who she is with these days.” And he would curse poor Arjun a thousand oaths.
“She dumped him in the cafeteria.” And he would feel a little sympathy for Arjun for his public humiliation.
His crush did not go unnoticed amongst his friends. They would tease him when they found him in a reflective mood and a shy smile on his face. Even though he was a little peeved by this, he did not take it to heart as he knew that it was in jest.

“Where is Ravi?”
“Where else? In the library, pretending to study!”
“Oh no! Not again, yaar. I wish he would stop obsessing about her. But I also wonder wonder what he thinks about so much. Childish fantasies, I guess”
But what was really going on in Ravi;s mind was how best to enunciate the word ‘Hi’ so that it would seem to be just friendly and not as a love-struck stalker for she was standing at about an arms length from him in an empty elevator. Their eyes met momentarily when she had entered the claustrophobic box but there was no flash of recognition in her eyes. Ho ‘Hi’s. No “aren’t you the guy who …” Nothing! It hurt him a little that she did not notice him and while he was still contemplating on how to make his first move, the doors opened and she stepped out taking along with her all his hopes.
As the elevator doors close, so did the doors to his happiness. He hoped for a tonic that would give him the confidence and self-belief of the heroes he had seen on screen, who would pursue the one they loved with single-minded determination and finally win them over by teaching them a lesson on how to be an Indian woman. He believed in the veracity of these fantastic stories that are but a narrow representative of human behaviour.
A desperate mind always finds a solution – not always a right one. And he did find one! The ad promised results in a few weeks. He thought that the product would make him more presentable and didn’t the ad show how the product gave a person the confidence to nail the interview and succeed? He built his dreams on these false premises promised by the ad.
It was this product that we saw him trying to buy at the start of this story. He had been unsuccessful so far but his desire to get it had not diminished. He devised a plan. He realized that the more time he spent in uncertainty, the more difficult would it be to pull it off. The best way to remove a band-aid is to do it quickly. And so he tried again. He walked into the shop and blurted out, “Fair & Lovely.” The shopkeeper gave him a tube and named a price which he gladly paid. There were no looks, no laughs; nothing embarrassing happened. He would later come to know he was not the first guy to buy the cream, and that it was used by both men and women equally, though it is seemingly marketed for women. He felt a little foolish for making such a big deal out of it. But as he walked out of the store all that was in his mind was the thought, “Six weeks to happiness.” I wonder, I really wonder.

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