Look, this had to happen someday or the other; I’m just glad we had all the time we could together,” said Zameer in a tremulous voice. “Even an eternity with you would not suffice,” said Sheila, tears streaming down her face in mad torrents.
Zameer looked out at the blue grey horizon of sea and sky, watching the waves roll in inexorably toward the shore with easy, powerful confidence of the kind that accrues from deep unshakeable conviction; conviction that manifests itself in the form of insouciance, bordering on the annoying. Dark tenebrous clouds loomed in the horizon – they just hung there, as if for artistic relief. A streak of dazzling lightning lit up the beach for a moment, rendering the scene frighteningly beautiful. The strong sea breeze which blew in ruffled Sheila’s hair boisterously, sending a lock down her forehead, across her face, making her look breathtakingly beautiful, notwithstanding her teary eyes.
“Hah, isn’t that a wish! But I really think you’d be bored of my company. Imagine having to bear the discourses I torture you with, for ‘eternity’!” said Zameer, smiling.
“Variety is the veritable spice of life, my love. You should try someone else – someone more interesting than me.”
“Must you always talk that way?” retorted Sheila, querulously. “You know very well there’s no one else for me.”
“Aw, poor, poor girl! No one else at all… no one except uninteresting old Zameer.”
Sheila nuzzled up to Zameer, and he took her in his arms and held her tight.
“You’re the most interesting person I’ve had the good fortune of ever meeting,” said Sheila. “I love you so Zameer! Now don’t start off with that – not today. Don’t ask me the meaning of love. Don’t ask me to ‘explain’ to you what love feels like.”
“Did I ask you? Hmm, but now that you’ve brought it up, do tell me Sheila, what do you really imply by that four-lettered word?” said Zameer, with a twinkle in his eye.
Sheila and he had in the past had several discussions on this most all encompassing of emotions. She thought she knew the meaning and context in which she viewed it; he on the other hand, was quite aware of the impossibility of defining the term. Did it mean sacrifice? Empathy? Sympathy? Revenge? Vengeance? Hatred? Or was it a combination of all this and much more? But he knew for sure what Sheila meant when she said she loved him – for it was precisely the same way he felt about her. It was only his wont to launch into philosophical discussions with her. And he got a kick out of seeing her agitated, trying hard to justify her stand in their arguments – the sweet innocence of her beliefs and her eagerness to provide him with an answer.
* * *
Two boys, one chasing the other, wove their way through the crowd of people perambulating on the beach. This had been one of Sheila and Zameer’s favourite spots, and they often sat here for hours on end, lost in each other’s love. Zameer’s Rolex, which he wore on his right wrist, showed seven-thirty, which was actually four-thirty in the real world.
“It breaks my heart so Zameer! I don’t think I’ll be able to go on without you,” said Sheila.
“Oh yeah? And what other option, might I ask, do you happen to have at your disposal, my queen?” retorted Zameer. “I mean, it’s not like we’ve got the freedom to end our own lives, do we? And even if we did, I’d hate it, if I could, to see you take a step in that direction.”
Sheila laughed out bitterly. Wiping her tears away, she said, “I know… we don’t have that other alternative available to us. We’re brought into existence through their inception, and we’re summarily obliterated when they die. We don’t have the liberty to end our own existence, like they do.”
Another streak of lightening illuminated the surroundings, and for a brief moment, everything took on a purplish hue.
Sheila’s utter despondency and despair were on account of the simple fact that she and Zameer and countless others along with them were residents, rather inmates, of that other world so often and so widely taken for granted as a mere reflection of the real world – a world separated from the quotidian by a slip of a plane glass coated on one side with Silver Nitrate. They were privileged as well as accursed in being the residents of the mirror world. They were privileged in that they were not subject to the strife of survival – they required no food for their sustenance, no shelter for their protection. Also, apart from the desultory appearances that they had to make from time to time – when their counterparts from the real world were taken up by the urge to examine themselves in the mirror – they were quite free to do as they pleased.
“There’s no point mulling over such sordid thoughts,” said Zameer. “Have I told you, you look more beautiful than ever?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, you have. You told me this morning, by which do you mean to imply that I wasn’t as good looking as I am now when we first met?” said Sheila.
“Now, don’t try to put me in a spot,” replied Zameer. “You know you’re quite a looker, don’t you?”
Sheila and Zameer had met at this very same beach, five years ago. Zameer had been flying a kite on a lonely stretch of the beach and when he had seen Sheila, he – taken in by her exquisite beauty – released the kite from its stringed attachment while his heart was captivated. And when he smiled his dazzling, enchanted smile, she was done for. They knew that they were meant to be together, as if by design, some incomprehensible divine diktat. But theirs, as was the case with all residents of the mirror world, was a transcendental love, an attachment not bound to culminate in carnal gratification, a love so elevated that they felt as if each had found self in the other. They had been together ever since, revelling in each other’s company. It was the kind of love that folks from the real world could not even contemplate; a transcendental emotion so intense and so pure that it bordered on the divine. In this particular feature, they were superior to their counterparts from the real world. The term ‘unconditional’, though engineered in the real world, found its true significance in the mirror world.
In the mirror world, there was no crime, no good or evil, no wars, no virtuous or corrupted people. The mirror world was the land of the IS – everything just as is. It was an enchanted place in which the reflected counterpart of the most ruthless criminal was an innocent saint; in which the members of the Congress party canvassed for the BJP; in which the Crusade had happened only as long as glimpses of it were to be seen in the reflection of shields; in which India was never partitioned; in which there was no religion; in which deer fawn were kept company by lionesses; in which crime was never known due to the lack of strife; in which the carnal gave way to the transcendental; in which Israel was Palestine, and Palestine Israel; in which right was left and left was right; in which white was black and black was white; in which Korea remained intact; in which Genghis Khan was a Buddhist monk; in which Julius Caesar’s only love was astronomy; in which Alexander and Darius used to meet at Gaugamela only to ascertain which one of them could throw the discus farther – the wager being an Isfahani rug; in which Hitler was a celebrated painter and the Jews didn’t know the odour of hydrogen cyanide.
In which… in which… in which.
“I wonder what it is that’s made him take this drastic decision,” said Zameer.
“Why didn’t you ask him that?” retorted Sheila, the bitterness quite palpable in her voice. “At least he’s got the privilege to take that decision. What about us?”
“Ending one’s life is no privilege.”
“Maybe you should’ve told him that, too,” said Sheila, knowing full well the futility and impracticality of her suggestion, for reflections could not converse with their progenitors across the mirror.
“I don’t know him well at all,” said Zameer. “In fact, it’s only recently that he’s started talking into the mirror. I didn’t even know his name until recently. He’s in a bad shape, I can tell you that. He’s going through such emotional turmoil as you’d never know! It must be pretty bad if he’s decided to commit suicide.”
The ‘him’ that Zameer referred to was none other than his counterpart from the real world, one Mr Deepak Chopra, thirty three years of age – tall, lean, exceptionally wide in the shoulders and pinched at the waist, with a jaw line as sharp as a sabre, and a natural fold of the left cheek, which began near his left nostril and went down to just below his lip, which had driven and continued to drive many a woman crazy as she set eyes upon him, and, which gave him a perpetually bemused expression, as if he were all the time amused at the goings on of this world.
* * *
Deepak had been quite indifferent to girls, forging relationships with them only of the physical kind, until after a while he got bored of even that. He had never been emotionally involved with women, for he never could experience that emotion that most of his friends seemed to be preoccupied with most of the time – the emotion that went by the popular name of ‘love’. He laughed at his friends when they confided their innermost feelings in him, with that expression on their faces that invariably gives the confessor an inexplicably stupid appearance. It was as if the person declaring their love for his beloved was not quite sure of its veracity, and yet would like to persist with that belief, for the heck of it. He would ridicule them and call them fools. For a while, people surmised that he’d been disappointed in love at some point in his life, but they soon realised the fact that he’d never been in any sort of emotional relationship. So as a natural consequence, his friends stopped sharing this aspect of their lives with him, though they still maintained their association, for he was a fine person indeed – easy to get along with, honest to a fault, altruistically selfless, the heart of every party he attended. And it was at one of these parties that he laid eyes on the one woman who could stir those inexplicable feelings aforementioned – ones that make one look like a fool, an imbecile, an idiot – it was as if love had taken it upon itself not only to enter his life and make its presence felt, but to also proselytise this once-hardened cynic into one of its most ardent disciples who begin to worship the object of their love.
The party was thrown by his best friend and business partner, that self-made renowned businessman, Rohit Fernandez. Rohit had made his initial fortune in the transport business, getting together just enough capital to buy his maiden truck – which he at times drove himself – and through his shrewd business sense and willingness and ability to use unorthodox methods to get ahead, he had in no time amassed himself a veritable fortune. As is quite often the case, the bitterest rivalries unexpectedly transform into lasting friendships – friendships that stand the test of time and human fickleness. Rohit and Deepak had been to school together, and the antagonism between the two was mutual; they just couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Things soon came to a head and the huge magnitude of their hatred culminated in a painful fight, which both fought admirably, valiantly even, and at the end of it found that each had inflicted as much pain as the other. And all of a sudden they both had simultaneously realised their mutual admiration for each other, as they lay there battered and bruised, and no words of reconciliation were spoken; it was as if they’d been as thick as thieves all their lives. Friendships and associations which germinate out of such contradictory and antagonistic beginnings go a long, long way, because each has shown the other their worst, which upon retrospection doesn’t seem to the other that bad at all.
These days Rohit was into producing Bollywood movies, with the leading directors of the industry at his beck and call. He’d wanted Deepak to come on board, but the latter had refused the offer, very graciously, citing a total lack of interest in the movie business. Another venture that the two had lined up was the furniture market, and they’d managed to collaborate with one of the world’s leading furniture manufacturers, the Swedish giant IKEA, in their foreign direct investment in India. If everything went according to plan, they stood to gain a windfall and augment their already burgeoning bank balance. Life was indeed looking good for the two of them. That is, until the night of the party.
The evening had begun to warm up, and a convivial atmosphere was spreading its warm charm all over. It was the stellar success of the latest movie that had been financed by Rohit Fernandez that was being celebrated. All the bigwigs from the movie world had been invited.
“Hey Mr De Niro!” shouted Deepak Chopra across the hall, as he caught sight of Rohit.
“Congratulations, buddy. That’s the way to go!”
Deepak always referred to Rohit as either ‘Mr De Niro’ or ‘Bobby’ on account of the strong resemblance that Rohit Fernandez bore to the great Hollywood actor. He even had the same build. Rohit always protested, but Deepak knew he secretly liked the comparison.
“Thank you so much, brother!” said Rohit. “Listen, there’s this movie that’s in the pipeline…”
“Not for me, Bobby,” retorted Deepak, cutting him off mid-sentence. “This movie business is for shrewd Mangaloreans such as you who’ve got the head for the stuff. It’s in your blood!”
“All right, all right, have it your own way, but don’t tell me I didn’t offer you a partnership,” said Rohit. “By the way, Shalini Mehta’s coming to the party.”
“So? So indeed! She’s a dream isn’t she? The movie did well only because of those swimsuit scenes, I can tell you that much,” said Rohit.
“You know very well I’m not into women anymore,” said Deepak, making a bored face.
“Ha! You will want to get ‘into’ women after you’ve seen her,” said Rohit, as he made a lewd gesture with his hand depicting the reciprocating motion that is instrumental in the propagation of any species.
“Khanna sahib, where have you been all these days?” shouted Rohit across the room, as he spotted a corpulent man making his way toward the bar. “Deepak, I’ll be back with you in a minute. Fatso Khanna is going to be instrumental in my next project,” he whispered to Deepak in conspiratorial tones.
“Take your time, Bobby. Just tell him you’re Veto Andolini from the town of Corleone, and that you’re going to make him an offer he’s not going to be able to refuse!” said Deepak with a twinkle in his eye. He walked over to the balcony, with the intention of lighting up a soothing cigarette. As he leaned over, blowing the smoke out into the still night air his gaze took in the depth of twenty-three stories. He laughed to himself, as if at an inside joke. Rohit was such a prurient bastard, he said to himself – always chasing skirt, but a gem of a chap nevertheless. Just then his phone rang, and as he took it out of his pocket he turned around to face the room and his world turned upside down. The voice on the phone made useless enquiries, “Sir, can you hear me? The money transfer was confirmed this afternoon. I tried to reach you earlier, but couldn’t get through. Sir? Hello? Sir, are you there?”
But as mentioned earlier, all these questions were doomed to go unanswered because what Deepak Chopra beheld, was, to him, the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. His heart raced like a cornered gazelle – prancing hitherto in its green pastures, picking a mouthful here and there – but which now found its throat in the vice-like grip of the lioness, with its life slowly but surely ebbing away, and there was a certain resigned look in its eyes, saying, “It’s over now, finally. It wasn’t that bad after all, was it? We’ve been captured and done to death, that’s all.”
But the object of Deepak’s observation was as far away in resemblance from a lioness as possible. She was the epitome of gentleness; her beauty had none of that garish harshness which is so often to be encountered, rather, it was soft and gentle and diffused. She stood there for a minute, looking around, obviously not accustomed to the opulence of the surroundings, but confidently graceful in her curiosity, quite oblivious to Deepak’s transfixed gaze. She wore an off-white coloured gown which shimmered in the light, and her throat was adorned by simple pearl necklace. A steward happened by and she picked a glass of pomegranate juice off the tray, and brought it to her full red lips. She had a full figure – a figure that promised stability.
Deepak stood almost lifeless on that balcony, quite unable to move as he looked at this veritable goddess. For the first time in his life the emotions that he had ridiculed others for having evinced were stirring in him. His mouth was quite dry and there was a painful lump in his throat as he tried to swallow. He was filled with veneration as he looked at this unearthly, unsurpassed beauty. And what stirred in him was not the urge for carnal gratification, consummation of lust; it was rather the devotion of a worshipper; of a mendicant driven insane by his devotion for the divine; all he wanted to do was lay his head before her feet and worship her. Love had after all proved to be too superior a force to make an adversary of.
True to symptoms, his first reaction was denial. He dared not acknowledge it to even himself – how could he be such a weakened sissy? Love? Bah! Well ok, maybe she was pretty; so what? You don’t even know her, you fool! Have you heard her speak, have you spoken to her? And after two weeks of further denial in soliloquy – ok, just this once, but you mustn’t make a habit of stopping by at her office in the evening. What if you’re found out? Could you really be this pathetic? – Two months on – you let Bobby in on it; now why, I wonder, should you do such a thing? You should’ve kept your weakness, your failing under wraps. Do us a favour, will you? Don’t go bandying your tale about town. You’ve got to get yourself together; what if she’s already noticed you stalking her? – Six months on – why the hell did we have to be at that party in the first place, Deepak sahib? If only we’d skipped Bobby’s party and gone to watch Federer beat Nadal, our path wouldn’t have crossed with that beautiful, delectable angel. Ah! Such exquisite beauty! Such perfection; such grace! To see her smile is a veritable privilege. How could one be so beautiful? Eight months on – Deepak sahib, I’m in the death throes of despair! Why did it have to be so? I thought I’d collapse when we saw her at the park. She was with her son, you remember? And she looked up straight at us and smiled and waved in our direction? Our fist, which had hitherto been clenched tightly, had begun to unfurl to acknowledge that salutation when we checked ourselves. We turned around ever so slightly and beheld a pleasant looking young man walking jauntily toward her. It was only so much I could do to drag us back home. Fortunate man, her husband, undoubtedly!
* * *
And so it was that Mr Deepak Chopra, successful entrepreneur, who had hitherto been living life to the lees, who was reduced to a mere vassal – a helpless slave. It seemed all those authors and poets who wrote odes to lovers and their ardours – whom Deepak used to scoff at – were vindicated – they had got it right on the money – the sleepless nights, the loss of appetite; the inability to concentrate, the sinking feeling that renders one disconsolate; the living nightmare of unrequited love, the cruel games played by the gentlemen above; the vacillation between hopeless hope and despair, the excruciating pain that proves impossible to bear; etc etc.
And after he’d confided his feelings in Rohit Fernandez aka Bobby aka Mr De Niro, he didn’t feel much better for it, for Rohit belonged to the school of thought whose motto was ‘slam bam, thank you ma’am’, and he was quite unable to comprehend Deepak’s predicament.
“Dude,” he had exclaimed in absolute incredulity, as he turned away from the French window looking out onto the lawn. “Why you would reduce yourself to this miserable state is more than I can understand. I mean, granted she’s pretty – though personally I think she’s way too old – it’s not as if there ain’t any other fish in the sea!”
Daylight was fast diminishing, and a strong yet pleasant breeze blew into the room. This was the day after Deepak Chopra had all but made up his mind to end his life; after he had looked into the mirror at his dresser and declared to his unsuspecting reflection, Zameer, across the silver nitrate coated sheet of glass, his plans of committing suicide. Rohit Fernandez had that excited, passionate gleam in his eyes. James, Deepak’s major domo stepped in, “Would you like anything else, sir?”
“No, thank you, James, not at the moment. I’ll ring for you in some time. Bobby will be dining here tonight.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll get things ready.”
“Do you think this is easy for me Bobby?” said Deepak. “Do you think I’m enjoying being enslaved by this emotion? And please! Don’t even for a moment think I’m in it for the physical gratification – I don’t even want to touch her! All I want to do is worship her! Sometimes I feel I’m sullying her angelic countenance by my gaze! I feel miserable, but try as I might, there’s just no help for it!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, buddy boy!” exclaimed Rohit. “There is after all remedy for this malady. History will bear testimony to its palliative effects – it soothed all – from pauper to prince; from emperor to philosopher. It’s called ‘therapeutic debauchery,’ and I, Rohit Walter Fernandez, happen to hold a doctorate in the field. It’s quite simple, really – all you’ve got to do is just relax, and let your dear friend work the magic of this exquisite science. I’m going to get in touch with my man and we’re going to line up seven beauties – one for each day of the week. Ha-ha! We’ll see if you’ll still be able to mull on this, this – what did you say her name was? Ah! Supriya Nath. We’ll see if you’ll still be singing paeans to Supriyaji after you’ve allowed yourself to be treated by Dr Fernandez! Bye, Supriya Nath! You will soon be forgotten!”
“Damn it, Rohit!” shouted Deepak; Rohit was stunned, because this had been the first time in several years that he had called Rohit by his actual name. “Don’t you get it? I love this woman! Much as I would like to, I just can’t get her out of my head. And keep one more thing in mind,” he went on in the same tone, “I will not let you defile her by taking her name.”
Recovering his equanimity, and trying to assume a humorous tone – which wasn’t at all convincing – Rohit said, “Look, buddy boy, here I am, trying to line up Bar Rafaelis for you, and you refuse to get over a local Chameli…”
At this comparison Deepak looked at Rohit in an openly incredulous way. He was subjected to a tussle between two very strong emotions – rage and despair. He just kept looking at Rohit, not being able to decide which emotion to give expression to. And after a few interminable minutes, despair won over.
Deepak broke down in tears, silently at first, looking down at the marbled floor, trying to trace familiar patterns on it. And then all the pent up despair came gushing out in unrestrained fashion. He began to sob uncontrollably – the harder he tried to restrain himself, the more helplessly he cried. He couldn’t remember the last time he had given vent to his emotions in this manner – probably never. He covered his face with his hands in order to hide what he felt was his shame.
A low howl emanated from near the bar, interrupted by the sound of ice clanking against glass. The howl turned into a mirthful fit of laughter. Rohit was barely able to control himself as he made his way from the bar to where Deepak was seated. He split some of the whisky on the floor in traversing the distance, on account of the paroxysms of laughter that went like waves through his body.
“Hahaha! Could it be true…” Rohit exclaimed, “that the great Deepak Chopra is actually howling like a little girl does when her pet dies! Look at yourself! Aren’t you ashamed of your behaviour? I mean, it wasn’t enough for you to wreak the IKEA deal on account of your Romeo mode, you’ve also got to display your emasculated state with such openness. When was the last time you went to the office, you fool? Do you know the extent of the loss you’ve caused to yourself? And all for what – some old dame who’s married and has a kid, who catches your fancy? You crazy, man?”
“Please stop, Bobby,” begged Deepak. “Don’t go on in the same vein. Can’t you see I’m dying from the inside?”
“Oh man!” said Rohit mockingly. “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you Mr Deepak Chopra, Romeo of Romeos.” And as he said this, he addressed an imaginary audience and waved his hand in a theatrical gesture toward Deepak. “‘Dying from the inside’ indeed! Where did you learn such pretty words, buddy? Don’t tell me you’ve been reading Somesh Agarwal! Hahaha! Have you, have you, really?”
Somesh Agarwal was the latest sensation on the Indian literary scene on account of the unprecedented success of his books. An engineer by qualification, he began writing love stories which had managed to enrapture all ages of women – right from school girls to middle-aged housewives. He had them misty-eyed by the time they reached the blurb, and several of them had confessed to have read his books multiple times. Perhaps his stories reminded them of their own magical moments – moments which stood out in the path traced by time, but the potential of which remained unfulfilled; the promise concealed in them condemned to remain unrealised, the reminiscing of which elicited excitement at first and invariably culminated in sorrow; the unrequited gratification which the moment carried reminding the reader of ‘things that could have been’.
Somesh Agarwal was known to both Deepak and Rohit, the three of them having gone to school together. When Somesh’s books had first hit the stalls, and people were going gaga over his work, Deepak and Rohit used to read excerpts from his books and laugh at what they found to have been juvenile. Somesh’s stories had provided them with constant entertainment when they were not busy chasing money.
Somesh’s popularity had scaled such unimaginable summits that even men began reading his books and confessed to having done so, unabashedly. People used to camp outside book stores on the eve of his latest release, just to ensure that they were the first few who got to lay hands on his story.
Deepak continued to sob, the tears which fell off his face making insignificant stains on the floor. His eyes had been rendered red. He didn’t answer Rohit’s query if he had been guilty of having been a sissy.
“You want to do her, don’t you?” Rohit went on, with a gleam in his eyes. “Do you want me to try and arrange it for you? I know her husband – what’s his name now, ah! Anand Nath! He’s a very ambitious man; I knew the day I hired him. He’d do anything to get ahead.”
“No,” Deepak said, as he wiped the tears off his face, making an attempt at a jovial, devil-may-care smile, but being successful only in painting a really painful picture. “Now that I’ve been treated by doctor De Niro himself, I think I’ve gotten over her. I mean, it’s not as if I’ve known her for years! Hell, I haven’t even spoken to her once! Hahaha! And to think I told you I was in love with her! What unsurpassable stupidity!”
Rohit Fernandez was a little surprised at this sudden change in Deepak’s demeanour. After all, here he was sobbing inconsolably, lamenting the fact that his love would always remain unrequited, and the next moment he changed tack and was subscribing to views which were diametrically opposite.
Deepak went on, “What an ass I’ve been making of myself all this while. You remember that great debate we had the other night, when we speculated on the existence of unconditional love, and you said that it was all a pack of lies? That no matter how transcendental one may think one’s affection for the other might be, there’s always a contract involved…that one must ‘read the offer document carefully before investing’ and like a fool I kept insisting that there could be the possibility of someone evincing such an affection… You were bang on target, Bobby! There is no such unconditional love; it’s all a heap of crap! I mean, I surely wouldn’t want to go out with Supriya – assuming the hypothetical possibility of her being unmarried, if she were to be badly disfigured in an acid attack! Or a car crash!”
“The Gods must be praised!” shouted Rohit, with an exalted air, and his arms outstretched with face upward toward the ceiling. “Finally…finally old buddy boy has come back to his senses. Hahaha! Here’s another psychological twister for you: if you got to know that Supriya Nath had a twin sister, identical to her in every respect, you would go out with her, wouldn’t you? And in the bargain, forsake poor Supriyaji, without whom, might I remind you, just a moment ago, you said you couldn’t go on!”
“Hm, Bobby, it’s very difficult to argue with you,” said Deepak, wiping away the tears from his face. “That’s a very difficult question to answer indeed!”
“Difficult my foot!” retorted Rohit Fernandez. “It’s the easiest question to answer, buddy boy! And the answer is an emphatic yes! And would you like to know why? It’s because at the end of the day you’re still a man, and all you’re in it for is the action you can get! It’s got to be physical in the end! And if I were to be asked that question, I’d go in for both – twins can be great fun. Believe me, I’m speaking from experience!”
“Right you are, sir! Right you are!” said Deepak Chopra. “Now, how about that ‘therapeutic debauchery’ you were planning on treating me with?”
Rohit jumped up on the sofa in his excitement. He said, “I can see you’re already on your way to making a speedy recovery! Buddy boy, you just wait until tomorrow! I’m going to get things ready. I want them to be absolutely perfect. Wait till you see this one; is she a specialist, or is she a specialist!” and as he said this, he puckered his lips and kissed his fingers with a loud smack, after which he traced an imaginary figure in the air with his hands.
“This calls for a drink, Mr De Niro!” said Deepak. “I’ll ring for James!”
* * *
“Wipe those tear off your face missy Sheils, lest them wonderfully red apples be stained permanently!” said Zameer, holding Sheila close, with his right arm around her shoulder. He rubbed her right arm. They were still at the beach – their favourite stretch of land.
“I don’t think these tears will ever stop, Zameer,” said Sheila, looking up at him. Their eyes remained locked for what seemed an eternity, each trying to make the moment last forever, absorbing visually as much of the other as possible, being most aware of the limited time left. Zameer gently moved the strand of silky black hair that fell across Sheila’s face and tucked it behind her ear.
“Everything’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” said Zameer, casting a glance filled with wonder. It was as if he were taking in his surroundings for the first time. They were sitting on an elevated rock outcrop, which through the effect of various agents of denudation over interminable years had been shaped in the form of a basket.
Sheila didn’t reply to Zameer’s observational question. An involuntary spasm of grief passed over her.
“So tell me something about your counterpart from that other world,” said Zameer. “I know she looks absolutely, divinely beautiful; and that she could easily be mistaken for an angel upon earth; and that all she ever needed to do was just be, because she would be perfection itself….”
“Seems to me,” Sheila protested through her tears, trying to make light of her protest by forcing a smile, “As if you like her more than you do me. The compliments you’re paying her!”
“Hahaha! Could it ever be possible Sheils? Could it ever?” replied Zameer. “The compliments were directed at you, really. She may resemble you in appearance, but you’re the transcendental; the essence of her being; the superior other! We are all the better of ourselves from the other world. We’re their conscience. But anyway, tell me about her, do you know her name?”
“No, can’t say I do. She does like observing herself in the mirror from time to time, but she’s not obsessed like some other people that we’ve heard of, which is just as well, cause I get to spend that much more time with you,” said Sheila.
“Hm. What about men…do you think she’s in a relationship?” queried Zameer.
“I don’t know if she’s in a relationship or if she’s ever been in one, but once, well, the guy she was with, he wanted to do it in front of the mirror so he could watch them both while they were at it; seemed to give him immense satisfaction,” said Sheila.
“Hahaha! I wonder what’s up with our counterparts from the other side!” said Zameer. “They seem always to be so obsessed with gratifying their carnal impulses. What do you think they get out of it?”
“I wouldn’t know,” replied Sheila. “Your guess is as good mine. I guess it’s all about the physical being as far as they’re concerned.”
“What about this chap you had to do it with, what did he have to say?” said Zameer.
“Nothing really,” said Sheila. “He began by tickling me, so I had to laugh even though I didn’t want to, and then all I did was make funny noises, while he was compelled to grunt. We were locked in some weird positions for a while, and when I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, I was compelled to whine and moan because she was doing so. They moved away after they were done, so we were free to go our separate ways. Never saw the chap since.”
“Hm. Funny people these counterparts of ours. But, that’s just the way things are. There’s not much anybody can do about it,” said Zameer.
They looked out onto the horizon. The sea had turned quite boisterous now, and the waves quite forceful as they rolled to the shore. Bluish grey light pervaded the entire landscape, rendering it awe inspiringly beautiful.
“So, why do you think Deepak would want to end his life,” said Sheila, the tremor stealing back into her voice. She was on the verge of breaking down again.
“Like I told you earlier, Sheils, I have no clear idea at all,” said Zameer. “But during one of his recent soliloquies in the mirror with me, he did happen to mention the fact that he was miserable on account of the irredeemable nature of his situation. If I remember correctly, one of the things he said was ‘What can I do, my love? I can’t attain you, and I can’t live without you! Why did I ever have to see you! Why did you have to come into my life to wreak havoc?’”
“Oh! Seems to me your counterpart from the real world is madly in love with someone!” said Sheila. “What else has he spoken into the mirror?”
“Well, this and that. I hadn’t really paid much attention until he spoke of that ultimatum. And he seems determined to carry it out,” said Zameer. “I too, like him, wish that he’d never laid eyes on whomever he seems to be so troubled about. We’d have had a lot more time together.”
“How do you know he’s going to go through with it? How can you be so sure?” asked Sheila. “Wiser counsel may still prevail and he might after all refrain from taking that step.”
“How I wish he would!” said Zameer. “How I really wish he would!” and no sooner did he finish the sentence than he vanished all of a sudden, just like that! On any other occasion, this disappearance of Zameer’s wouldn’t have perturbed Sheila in the least, for all the residents of the mirror world were quite accustomed to being called summarily, without having any inkling whatsoever, to the performance of their duties of portraying their counterparts from the real world across the mirror. But this time, being aware of what she and Zameer were talking about – his counterpart Deepak Chopra and his unfortunate decision to take his own life – she was overcome with profound despair. She just stared vacantly by her side, at the space which but a moment earlier had been occupied by her beloved Zameer. She found she couldn’t cry; there was no lachrymal response. She felt as if this great force were wrenching her apart. And then, just as suddenly as he had vanished, Zameer manifested himself before her. He seemed visibly happy. He held Sheila’s exquisitely shaped chin ever so slightly and raised it.
“I think we have reason to hope,” he told her. “He seemed visibly buoyed when I just saw him. He wanted to shave, which is just as well, since I was growing quite tired of that thick stubble I was compelled to bear.” And as he said this, he ran his palm over his freshly shaved face, and then went on,“He actually smiled and laughed as he shaved – something I haven’t seen him doing too often in the recent past. There was another man, though. He just kept flitting in and out of view. At one point he came and put his arm around my counterpart, and shook him by the neck and they got into a friendly tussle. They seemed pretty thick by the looks of it. I wonder if this other person’s got anything to do with the improvement.”
“Oh really?” cried Sheila. “You mean he’s not going to be foolish enough to commit suicide? And you say it’s on account of this friend of his that this transformation has occurred?”
“Now, I really don’t know for sure, but his mood certainly seemed elevated,” replied Zameer. “They spoke about some party or the other that they were heading to. Also, the other man – my counterpart kept calling him Bobby – was really excited about something that he’s planned for tomorrow, though I couldn’t at all decipher what it was.”
“Oh Zameer! I’m so relieved!” said Sheila. “I just hope it turns out to be true; that whatever happens, this person, Deepak – he refrains from taking that horrible step. Zameer? Zameer?” Sheila called out in alarm as Zameer yet again disappeared, but this time, having being given some succour to grasp, she wasn’t as apprehensive as she was at Zameer’s earlier disappearance a short while back. She waited with pitiable patience and anticipation.
Zameer had been called to the mirror again – this time Deepak Chopra wanted to put the finishing touches to his already carefully arranged hair. Rohit Fernandez was doing some grooming of his own in the other mirror at the cupboard.
“All right already, Mr De Niro! You look presentable enough!” said Deepak. “Are we going or what?”
“Yup! It’s time to head out and get inebriated, buddy boy!” said Rohit. “And what a night we have ahead of us! And tomorrow – you’d better be ready for it tomorrow – your treatment begins. I’ve spoken to my man; he’s working overtime to get things ready at such short notice. But anything for my buddy boy, anything!”
Rohit’s chauffeur had the car ready, waiting at the porch. And he drove them to different destinations- all the hot spots in town, where the rich and beautiful conglomerate. They revelled in their wealth – at the ease with which they could consummate their desires. But they were also left with that most terrible and unforgiving questions of all – what next? So they found new ways to amuse themselves and when they ran out of alternatives, they entered sanatoriums to get treated for depression.
After a while Rohit Fernandez got so drunk that he had to be dragged out by Deepak with the aid of the chauffeur. On the way back to Deepak’s home, Rohit kept mumbling something inaudible, which he found irresistibly hilarious, for he kept breaking into spasms of laughter at short intervals.
The car pulled up at Deepak’s porch, and after having given instructions to the chauffeur to make sure that Rohit didn’t drink anymore that night, no matter how much he insisted, Deepak got off and waved him by. He stood there till he saw the lights disappear beyond the bend, and then uttered into the still night air, “Goodbye, my friend. Do forgive me if possible.” And he turned and climbed the steps to the front door.
* * *
“So I guess that’s it, Sheila,” said Zameer, trying to put up a brave face and control his wavering voice. “It’s curtains. I just want you to know that I’ve loved you with all my being. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me.”
Sheila looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. Both felt almost numb with pain, and at the same time they were awake to every possible perception. The proximity of the dreaded end made them experience emotions at break neck speed. They knew the end was near, on account of the fact that Deepak – who had only been feigning gaiety to lull Rohit into believing that all was well with him, that he’d recovered completely from his juvenile infatuation with a married woman, that he was ready to put this minor disappointment behind him and start fresh – had actually never really changed his mind about Supriya Nath. He was still quite hopelessly, irredeemably in love with her. Despite Rohit’s lengthy discourse on the virtues of never getting ‘emotionally entangled’ with women, he remained faithfully devoted to that goddess of his. And throughout the evening he made pretence of subscribing to Rohit’s views, doing a convincing job of it, for the latter had not an iota of suspicion.
After having seen Rohit’s chauffeur drive away after dropping him off, he climbed the steps to his front door and let himself quietly in. A resolute calmness had permeated his countenance. He went about in a clinical manner. After having taken a shower, he sat down in his study, and stared for a while at the wall before him. An innocent smile played upon his lips as he seemed lost in reverie. Apparently his thoughts pleased him. After a while, he got up and walked up to his desk and pulled out from the drawer an exquisitely ornate, bejewelled dagger. It was an heirloom that had been in his family for four generations. His great-grandfather, the story went, had been gifted this dagger by a soldier from the Ottoman army while he had served the British army during the First World War. Having spotted the grievously injured Turk, his great-grandfather ran across the trenches, thinking nothing at all of the bullet that grazed his right shoulder –all that evinced was a mere wince. He hoisted the dying man on his shoulders and ran back to his own side. The doctor at the camp shook his head straight away when he saw the injured man. A table was cleared on which he was laid as delicately as one would a newborn. Everybody around was aghast and taken aback when the Turk took out this very dagger from his inside his jacket as Deepak Chopra’s great-grandfather bent lower to be able to better discern what was being said by the Turk. But the Turk turned the dagger around so the hilt was away from him – which was just as well, since one lieutenant standing by had already pulled out his service pistol. In broken English he expressed his thanks and offered the dagger as a token of gratitude to the ancestor, and passed on.
Deepak pulled the dagger out of its sheath and examined the beauty of the weapon. How could something so deadly exhibit such beauty, he thought. He ran his thumb along the blade and smiled as he examined the skin – it was decorated by a red line.
He got up, took off all his clothes and walked to the mirror at the dresser and examined himself. It was as if he wanted to know himself completely – to establish a connection with the self before he finally pulled the plug. He raised his right wrist, with the fist clenched tight, and was just about slash across it violently when the phone rang. He was tempted to let it go on ringing and die in due course, but then the thought struck him that it would be advisable to project things to be as normal as possible. So he reached out and answered it. It was Rohit. “Buddy boy,” his voice screamed at Rohit through the phone, “you best be getting some sleep for you’ve got to be rested for… Hahaha! You know what?” and he abruptly broke off. He was still in a drunken stupor. It was in this interim that Zameer had seen a chance to rush back to Sheila and apprise her of the imminent end. He hugged her tight and wanted just a moment longer but that wish of his was doomed to remain unfulfilled as he was summoned to the mirror, Deepak Chopra having hung up the phone with Rohit.
They both stood there – Zameer and Rohit – separated by a sheet of glass coated with silver nitrate, the former compelled to ape the latter when found in such a position, and they both once again raised their wrist – Deepak his right, Zameer his left – fists clenched so hard that their knuckles turned white, and with a decisive stroke made a deep gash where but a short while back healthy prominent veins had run. Blood welled from the wound and oozed out all over the floor, but they didn’t notice it – they just kept looking at each other, at life slowly ebbing away from the other.
* * *
Anand Nath, that ‘ambitious’ employee who worked at one of Rohit Fernandez’s establishments, devoured his wife Supriya with his eyes as he looked at her bending over to untie her shoes – she had just come in after her morning walk. She wore tight black slacks and a blue check full shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Anand always found his wife irresistible when she wore checks – he called her his chick-in-check.
Walking up to her he put his arms around her waist and whispered in her ear, “Sohan’s gone to school, darling.”
“So?” Supriya turned around and asked him, with a mischievous smile on her lips.
He pulled her closer. “So I thought we could get some exercise. You’ve got your morning walk; what about the poor husband?”
“Oh, so is that it? All that Mr Anand Nath is concerned about is his health!” said Supriya, pushing him away, feigning displeasure by evincing a pout. Anand chased her.
“Oh! You know how irresistible you are in checks, don’t you?” said Anand. “Come on already! We’re running out of time!”
Supriya laughed at his desperation as she led him upstairs. “Tell me one thing, dear husband,” she said, “Why do you like to do it in front of the mirror?”
“I don’t know,” stammered Anand. “But it really turns me on! Oh, o look at you in the mirror while we’re at it!”
Supriya giggled and pranced upstairs into their bedroom. Anand followed her in to find her standing before their big wall-to-wall mirror, looking at herself with deep concentration.
* * *
Though Sheila had known that those precious moments were her last with Zameer – she had traced the cut that the dagger’s edge had left on Zameer’s thumb as he broke the terrible news to her – she somehow hoped against hope that Zameer’s counterpart from the real world would reconsider his decision. One moment she was overcome with despair, while the very next she allowed herself to hope – albeit just a little – that any moment now Zameer would be by her side again. She was being subjected to this alternating wave of emotions, when all of a sudden she too was summoned.
Sheila found herself staring at her other self, while she felt someone steal up behind her. Hands which felt alien to her began to unbutton the blue check shirt that she’d been wearing. Then Anand’s reflection disrobed her completely and began tickling her. All she wanted to do was to collapse on to the floor and cry her heart out at having lost her soul mate – her beloved Zameer – but she was compelled to giggle and writhe, because her counterpart from the real world, Supriya Nath, giggled and writhed as her husband tickled her.
Diwakar Ralph has written a few other short stories. Writers whose work he holds in great esteem include Maupassant, Hector Hugh Monroe, Rushdie, Thomas Hardy, Wodehouse and Charles Dickens, among many others.