Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind | Updated on January 19, 2018

Illustration Dipankar

Illustration Dipankar

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind

He lives in the heart of the material world, renounces nothing, denounces everybody and yet he is called Yogi. You wait for him in near-bridal finery, a meticulously draped red sari, its many folds coerced into perfection with a safety pin, your shiny hair braided in an elaborate fishtail pattern, your lips coloured in bright fuchsia, your eyes smeared with kajal, henna for your hands and silver anklets for your feet, the ones with the little bells that jingle when you walk.

Your friend Savita tells you not to wait for him. It’s been a month since he showed up, she reminds you. Instead you tell her that you’re going to find him.

“No,” she says, “It’s not good for you.”

You dismiss her with a silent wave of your hand and continue to fuss over your appearance. You adjust your nose ring, your earring, the many rings on your fingers, your nails. You check if your teeth are white enough, if your breath is fresh, if the flowers in your hair are still in place, strategically pinned to your fishtail braid the way Nutan, the parlour-wali fixed it. Savita grumbles. What does she know? She’s been in a bad mood all morning, ever since the neighbour’s son called her Savita bhabhi for the whole street to hear. As a joke. There’s been much sniggering in the basti since then. The mechanic boys who zoom around on the bikes they’ve repaired are the worst. If you get too close they grope your breasts. And how far can you get away from them in the thoroughfare of the basti? They give her the creeps. And you too but you’ve got other things on your mind.

“I must go,” you tell her, “It’s time.”

You don’t tell Savita why you need to go, why it’s important to see Yogi. You can’t tell Savita before you tell him.

Savita speaks. He’s not even a nice person. He doesn’t have a regular job. He squanders away his father’s limited wealth. He spends his entire day with the mechanic boys, borrowing clients’ bikes and going god-knows-where, smoking beedis and god-knows-what, laughing too loudly, drinking toddy at night and the other day he had to be brought to his chawl on a handcart. And then there’s that other girl, the light-eyed one. Didn’t you know? You do know. You know everything about him. And, there’s NO light-eyed girl.

You can’t explain why you’re with him. It’s a wordless feeling right in the centre of your chest. You can’t name it. It’s like asking an illiterate person to read. You can only see the squiggles. You can’t say what it is. But it feels good.

Even as you begin to walk towards where you think he is, Savita mouths platitudes.

If it has to be a secret, if you need to keep it in the dark, if nobody should know, blah, blah, blah, then is it right? And what has he ever bought you, the wealth-squandering bastard?

She rolls her eyes when you say that it isn’t about what he has bought you but what he has brought you. You tell her that darkness has a quiet, evil dignity that light can never achieve. It’s a place where you make secrets, keep them and bury them and that’s a good thing because everybody has secrets. When she rolls her eyes at you after your over-the-top mini-speech you tell her that you’re meeting him to bring it all into the light. She makes a sound of dismissal, a cluck of the tongue.

You’re walking right into the heart of the basti, past mounds of garbage and dog shit, past train tracks, past street hawkers selling channa and peanuts in tall paper cones, past half-naked toddlers playing with mud and old rubber tubes.

Savita is following you. She’s talking in a high-pitched voice. You’re not listening. She can’t shriek her way to appeal to your devious mind. A shriek has that comic, ignorable quality. And your mind has been made up. You’re looking for him. It has been a while since you saw him, since you ran your fingers on his cheek, grazing his stubble with the back of your hand, kissing his lips as his moustache pricks and tickles. Ever since he left, you’ve been having vile nightmares of headless horsemen and dark wood-nymphs in black cornfields. And there’s that thing you need to tell him.

Somebody is calling your name. You turn around. It’s one of the mechanic boys, a short, lanky lad with a mop of rough curls. He’s Yogi’s friend. When he’s not looking at your breasts he treats you with something that resembles respect.

“Yogi’s there,” he says pointing to a large crowd. You look closely and you see it.

Where, you ask, although you know where exactly because your heart begins to sink. Savita has been reduced to an extra, a prop in the background. You are the tragic heroine of this story. The Meena Kumari. It’s your birth right now to talk to Yogi and get your heart shattered and cry about it; you know that Savita will fuss over you with the usual I-told-you-so dialogue, and just to spite her you might tell her, enough, Savita bhabhi. How could you forget what day it was? How could you forget that today is Lord Krishna’s birthday and that people would gather, thousands of them in festive wear, cheering, singing and dancing, all to recreate the lord’s favourite childhood antic? How could you forget that Yogi nursed this secret ambition to get to the very top of the human pyramid to break a coveted earthen pot of yoghurt strung at the very top. How could you forget that Yogi wanted that kind of glory? The kind that has crowds chanting his name even as he’s doing something only for himself. He could have so easily been a politician.

You look at the pyramid, at Yogi’s many friends standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle, their knees slightly bent, their arms entwined and you watch as Yogi puts one foot after another on shoulders, forearms, even heads of the people forming the pyramid. You are an idiot to trust the sure-footedness of a drunkard. But, wait. You look again and you realise that he is good. Man, he is good. He’s steady. He knows what he’s doing. He’s hauling himself up, one foot after another, an expression of utmost focus plastered on his face. And then it strikes you. He was here all along, in the city, practising for the climb. He had not gone to his village to “settle matters related to property.” The lying piece of goat shit.

Worst of all how could Yogi forget his promise? He knew that your brother died this way, plummeting down from the top of the pyramid just as he was about to strike the pot, just as he had steadied himself on the shoulders of two of his comrades and when he had raised a hand to strike the pot, something happened, somebody from below moved, coughed and your brother was falling rapidly, toppling and tumbling, his feet pointing skywards and then the crash came and ended it all. Those screams, those terrible screams, still haunt you.

And Yogi? After he saw you weep for months, after he saw you wither away little by little and diminish into a shadow of a previous self he told you that he’d never ever be the climber, the Govinda who must get to the very top of the human pyramid.

“He promised,” Savita tells you in a loud whisper.

“This year the height is only 18 feet,” says Yogi’s friend and the voice seems to come from somewhere very far away although he’s standing right next to you.

Enough to die, you think.

You can’t take your eyes off him. In a minute there’s cheering. He’s completed the task. He’s broken the pot. He’ll receive a lakh of rupees. He comes down slowly, the sure-footed drunkard, his arms in the air celebrating his victory. Once he’s on solid ground he’s hauled up again on to the shoulders of his friends. There’s more cheering.

He sees you. He asks to be brought down. He walks to you. He smiles. You don’t smile back. He knows you are angry. You look at each other for a minute, him smiling even as you are still angry. He hasn’t noticed your sari or the henna or your hair in the elaborate fish-tail pattern. You take his hand and place it on your stomach. His hand touches your bare skin. You nod. He doesn’t stop smiling. It’s not a smile for you. He’s smiling for himself, for his victory.

Somebody calls his name. He turns away from you. It’s the light-eyed girl. Yes, she exists. He tells you he’ll be back. You don’t know what to say.

Savita starts the I-told-you-so song. You don’t have the heart to insult her.

You think about him. He never gave you his heart, only its blueprint. You saw the empty spaces there and made grandiose plans for moving day. From here, he will love you like this. From there, he will love you like that.

But all those spaces, all of those were already filled much before by something else, other dark things. A blueprint is not certainty. Only certainty is certainty.

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind’s debut novel The Heavens We Chase will be published by Roli Books later this year

Published on January 22, 2016

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