Sunday afternoon is my favourite part of the week - a time when the indefatigable sunshine and the absolute cheer in every home obliterate the mere thought that shadows could exist. I considered it symbolic that Shayan made himself known to me during that time of the week. As I led the way to the couch, I felt the warmth of the sun straight on my skin through the casual white dress I wore. The rays set my nude curtains aglow and somehow, made the tiny hall appear just a little bigger. “Wow, your hall is bigger than mine,” Shayan remarked. “Well I’m sure yours has a bigger something else,” I replied, smiling. “I was just about to have brunch. Would you like to join me?” “Depends on how good a cook you are!” My jaw dropped open and I turned to look at him, arms on my hips, mock insult lifting my eyebrows. “Whoa! That was actually rude!” Shayan held up his hands, laughing. “I’m sorry, brunch sounds totally awesome, considering that I have a completely empty kitchen!” “There are some really good takeout places around here,” I remarked, piling food on a couple of plates so we could take them into the veranda. Oh yes, I had the luxury of a veranda – the only luxury if I may say so. In fact, I could see my neighbour’s veranda from mine and until now, it had been incredibly creepy catching a glimpse into that empty house, collecting dust and lying there, sad and neglected. But now, I found myself appreciating the architecture of the building and even sending a mental nod of approval to the designer, whoever he or she might be.
Shayan offered to carry the plates into the verandah while I got the jug of juice ready. I watched him stride out of the kitchen, admiring that easy gait that still seemed to hide a certain self-assurance. During the course of our sumptuous brunch, I learnt that Shayan was a commercial artist who liked to paint portraits in his spare time. "I'm sure everyone asks you this but do you think you could draw mine?" I asked teasingly. "I don't know yet," he replied cryptically. "What does that mean?" "Making portraits isn't just about replicating someone's features. There needs to be a story to tell. Look at all the famous portraits you know - Mona Lisa, Joan of Arc, Vincent Van Gogh or just visit any art gallery and you'll know. Those aren't just faces you see. Those are countless mysteries hidden behind the best veil known to mankind - one's face." "So are you saying I don't have a story to tell?" I challenged. "I'm saying I don't know yet," Shayan smiled. Human beings can never be completely rational. While the normal me would have asked to see his portrait collection, the emotional me whose ego hadn't liked hearing Shayan's logical yet negative reply chose not to. So I simply changed the subject. "I take it that you're not spooked at the thought of living in a house that played host to a teenage suicide?" Shayan's nonplussed expression confirmed what I had intuitively sensed all along. He had no idea about the history of flat number 13. If he had, he couldn't have possibly looked and sounded the way he did when he knocked on my door - happy, carefree and content. "Come on, don't you read the newspapers?" I asked, my tone holding an almost imperceptible hint of mockery. "Actually I don't," Shayan said, surprising me yet again. To be honest, I do know quite a few people who never read the newspapers. In fact, apart from people in the media fraternity and senior citizens who cannot do without the morning tea and newspaper ritual, I don't know who does anymore. "Her name was Suvarna," I began. My story continued well into the last rays of dusk and the onset of a balmy, rain-starved night. I'm guessing that you'd like to know as well so here goes:
Even though this story is about Suvarna, I'll have to begin with the day I moved into Sunview Apartments. The name was sadly in complete contrast to the dreary dark holes in the walls masquerading as premium dwelling places. I was new in the city and typically full of stars in my eyes - a glamorous new job at a leading television channel, a glamorous new city known for its intoxicating effect on unsuspecting new entrants and the prospect of new friends and perhaps even a new romance. What I hadn't expected was the near cruelty with which people fought for cabs, a tiny inch of space on a train or even the window of opportunity to be the first to cross a busy street. I also hadn't expected the squalor which people seemed to accept as some sort of cosmic punishment for being fortunate enough to have the sort of opportunities most of the country couldn't even hope for. And finally, the nearly intolerable levels of noise and suffocating malodorous air left me with a permanent headache, one that I couldn't shake off even with long warm showers and soft, rejuvenating music. The strange part in all of this was that I still ended up falling in love with the city. Mumbai left me emotional in a way that dear old Pune never had. Where Pune left you feeling content but vaguely bored, Mumbai made you insanely furious and insanely happy. Mumbai made you unbearably frustrated and unimaginably elated. Mumbai made you who you were meant to be - alive and passionate.
One Sunday evening I decided to explore the neighbourhood when I ran into a young girl who looked to be around 14. She was small for her age and her long dark hair didn't really befit her tiny, scared face. I attempted a smile but the girl nearly ran off, leaving me confused and a little insulted. Some of the joy I had experienced when the bright early evening sunshine touched my skin and made the green treetops glitter like emeralds receded. I glimpsed Suvarna several times after that and over time, I learnt to stop smiling the way a pet learns that bad behaviour means no rewards. Human beings aren't really that different from other animals. In fact, the similarity is almost overwhelming but we'd rather have our whole race in denial than admit that unsavoury truth. I spoke to Suvarna's parents sometimes when I ended up on their doorstep to collect a courier I had missed or Mrs. Ganguly turned up to borrow some pins. They seemed like nice people - one a doctor and the other an academician - a picture-perfect Indian couple. For me, the perfect balance of interaction with people I'm not really close to is an occasional friendly exchange with no obligation for long awkward conversations. And that's exactly what I had with the Gangulys. Well, all of them except Suvarna of course. The only exchange I ever had with her was the day she forgot her key.
It was one of those rare days when I had taken an off from work. I never took an off when I was truly unwell. I would drag myself to work and manage to accomplish the most essential tasks even in my sub-productive state. I only took holidays on those days when my moods played havoc and all I wanted was to curl up at home with my favourite television show reruns and a pile of unhealthy snacks that I otherwise avoided. I groaned in impatience when the doorbell rang. There she was - Suvarna. Looking absolutely discomfited and shifting from one foot to the other. I just stared at her, having long given up any hope of interaction. "I...uh," she began and gulped. Oh for god's sake! I thought inwardly. What was it about me that scared her so much?! "I forgot my key at home. So I need the spare," the girl finally managed. I nodded curtly and left her standing on my doorstep while I went in and looked for the key her parents had left with me for emergencies. I waited while Suvarna opened the door and then dropped the key back into my palm, careful not to make any contact. I heaved a sigh of relief when her door shut and this time, I switched my doorbell off before curling up back on my couch. And that was the sum total of my interaction with the late Suvarna Ganguly.
--To be continued--