“this is funny, isn’t it,” he said staring at her, his voice low, almost inaudible.
she looked at him trying not to avert her gaze.
“what’s funny?” she had to ask the question. the silence had to be contained, or else… she frowned. or else what, why was she so disconcerted? so… afraid? was she afraid?
“all the while… all the things we said. you said. i…” he paused and took a sip from his glass. it was whisky, she wondered how she knew it was whisky. diplomat, he’d bring along a bottle on weekends. he hated rum. the rest drank only that. even she, usually with a coke.
“i was so sure…” he paused again and searched for words, “did you ever think…? swati… you’re one of the stars, right?” he laughed slightly.
“stop changing the subject… say what you want to say, mahesh,” swati almost snapped, she almost forgot they were at a friend’s place or that they had met here, by chance, after nearly seventeen years.
“your voice still goes cold and hot when you’re angry…” he took a long gulp of his drink, “viren… do you remember viren… ever?”
swati felt a jolt in the pit of her stomach, or perhaps it was right at the centre of her chest. she reached for her glass. he watched her without saying anything. in the late evening light his brown eyes shone, they hadn’t changed at all, the same crazy brightness in them. he was thinner. so much thinner than she remembered. she could see lines beginning to etch around his mouth… his lips were firm, they were always sure, they felt good on her cheek. swati bade her thoughts to focus. she would get through this one, she promised herself.
“is the old house still there, mahesh? do you and anna go there often?” she asked, making sure she sounded like her usual swati narayan self. swati narayan, head of the drama department, oakridge high. wife of dr prem narayan, well established heart specialist in atlanta, mother of sara and siddharth, her fifteen year old twins; sara a tennis champ in school, sid just selected for a coveted science programme. swati narayan, forty five, married nearly eighteen years now, living in america for close to sixteen of those, completely comfortable with who and what she was today… that swati narayan. herself.
“you looked lovely sitting on the edge of the long corridor, laughing, your legs swinging wildly… barefoot…” he replied, “no… we don’t have the old place any more. the usual story… developers. it’s gone, become a six storey apartment building. no one in the family was going to stay in calcutta anyway, there was no point in hanging on.”
swati swallowed, an intense sense of loss passed through her. that long corridor, more a verandah, open on one side, rooms along the other; the tall doors with shutters, some in a wild shade of green, some in dull brown; the high ceilings with lacy decorations in plaster; and the little room at the end of the quaint row of smallish rooms, the outhouse near the entrance of the massive old home. they had gone there for a long weekend. most of them were actors, there were a couple of writers, and a very young assistant director. shooting had been hectic and nonstop for many days. finally, a break had come and about ten of them had decided to visit mahesh’s home. though he and his wife anupama lived in a flat in bombay because of his work, he went back to calcutta as often as shooting schedules would allow. not that a daily soap lead actor could get away much… but whenever he could. prem hadn’t been able to come with them, he didn’t have any leave.
mahesh’s mother and aunts had gone out of the way with the cooking and looking after… and after working as hard as they had for almost two months now, none of them was going to refuse all the good food and royal treatment. swati wondered why that tiny room had come to mind.
she’d been sitting there that afternoon, alone, they’d just had a large lunch. anupama had cooked a great mutton curry, everyone was full of praise… she remembered mahesh looking at his wife indulgently and enjoying her flustered but pleased look at all the compliments. anupama was a nice girl. swati had felt intensely out of sorts for some reason, she’d wanted to be alone for a while. picking up a copy of crime and punishment from the library room, as it was called by mahesh’s family, she’d strolled across to that room in the outhouse.
it must have been just a few square feet in size. yellow ochre walls, a diwan with a cream raw cotton spread at one end with circular cushions covered in casement of five different colours, the pink was really bright. on the opposite wall was a single bed with a dark blue cover, no cushions; an old book case sat by the window, some books and an ash tray on it; two alcoves were cut into the wall, an oil lamp in each, since the power still went off at times. the floor was covered with a coir mat. the single light had a shade made of fake mother of pearl. a low table in black was kept right in the centre of the room. mahesh’s mother had said, it used to be a stool on which you sat and cooked once, but now that the kitchen had been renovated, it had found a new life as a table. anupama was a smart girl, she had thought of the idea.
swati hadn’t switched on the light. the low branches of the tree outside blocked out most of the sunlight but even so a little came in through the lacy white curtains. that was enough.
she had been sitting in a corner of the divan, trying to read her book, shake off that feeling. the door had burst open suddenly. it was mahesh. he was smoking, the sweet smell of tobacco had stirred her. she had breathed in without thinking.
mahesh had looked at her through a swirl of smoke, a faint smile on his lips. for almost nine months now, she and mahesh had played the lead roles in a television drama series. a hindi serial. it had become quite popular, ratings in fact said, extremely popular. it was a romance as many of these things tended to be. they’d met on the set and become friends.
swati was about to reply when she’d felt tongue tied, an awkwardness had started to filter in. mahesh had grinned and murmured, “tum agar meri ore aise hi dekhti rahi, toh main samjhoonga tumhe shayad mujh se…”
(if you keep staring at me like that, then i’d think you have a…)
he’d paused, an innuendo in it, “paise chahiye, puja singh chauhan, bahut saare paise!”
(plan to get money out of me, puja singh chauhan, lots of money!)
for a second swati had not known what he’d meant at all.
then clutching her book tightly, she’d shot back, “aap apne aap ko samjhte kya hain, viren thakur! agar aapke paas paise hain toh mere paas yeh… dekhiye… dostoevsky hain, do you understand!”
(who do you think you are, viren thakur! if you have money, then i have… see… dostoevsky, do you understand!)
it had taken her a moment to realise he was quoting a dialogue from their show. she’d improvised quickly. they’d laughed. her ears were going hot she’d noted but hadn’t wanted to bother with it too much.
“when did i sit on the edge of that corridor?” the question was out before she could check herself.
“it was at night, the second night… way after everyone had gone to bed. you couldn’t sleep… you and girish sat drinking… i was sleepy but trying to be a good host i think,” mahesh was looking into his glass. girish was the show’s dialogue writer.
swati could feel goosebumps on the sole of her feet… a memory began to surface.
“you ran out and started dancing. girish was worried. then you went and sat down by a pillar, kicked off your chappal and sang a beautiful long song… in punjabi. i couldn’t understand a word of it… nor girish…” mahesh looked up at her, “your hair was open, you were wearing a skirt and a lose tee shirt… i didn’t want to…”
swati waited for him to complete his sentence. he didn’t. instead he sipped his drink slowly.
it had been a heer, she now recalled quite clearly, her favourite songs at that time, even now she hummed them. there was something so ridiculously heady about the thought of singing a heer in an inebriated state in the middle of the night sitting in that old house from another time, her hair open, her legs swinging, and mahesh and girish watching her, swati began to giggle.
“really, didn’t understand a word of the damn song!” mahesh shook his head as he said that, laughing as well.
she poured a little coke into her glass.
“swati…” mahesh’s voice had a question in it she knew. she knew him well… she knew the inflections in his voice, she knew what they meant, she knew what they wanted, she knew when he was into the scene, she knew when he was tired and she had to carry it a little for him just like he did for her, she knew his breathing patterns, she knew the smell of his sweat, she knew when he was hungry, she knew when he’d let his voice break or fade or float away, she knew him in ways only she could know him… and he knew her. it hadn’t happened by design. there had been no premeditation. it was work and they had done it in the only way they both knew. two actors who loved their craft, the only thing they’d ever wanted to do, who were willing to do everything they could to make their characters live, breathe, laugh, play, dance, cry, fight, cheat, betray… love.
“i had told girish, viren would never be able to say it like that… viren couldn’t… wasn’t him…” mahesh said after a while.
she remembered the scene without him having to tell her. viren and puja were standing outside, it was night, thunder and lightning in the sky. viren had just rescued her from a tussle with the villain. both of them had found it all too overdone. as she shivered uncontrollably, hair disheveled, clothes torn, he’d held her tight in his arms and whispered, “mujhe chhorke mat jaao, puja… i love you, puja, i love you!”
(don’t leave me, puja… i love you, puja, i love you!)
how hard they had laughed after the take. they’d needed only one.
“girish had insisted, ‘people want to hear it!’… he had then admitted, lead writer wanted it… channel was worried about ratings, something was needed… and so… confession!” mahesh shook his head.
“crazy game, isn’t it, mahesh…” swati looked at him amused, “but we pulled it off, kyun!”
“hmm!” mahesh sat back and fell silent.
“what was funny?” she asked after a while. mahesh said nothing.
“viren could never say it… you’re right,” she said.
“puja would know, she would not need to hear it…” mahesh looked up, “but maybe… sometimes i wonder…”
somewhere between taking the next sip and looking at the moon as clouds shifted away and hearing his words, she knew exactly what he wondered about. and she at last understood why her mother had asked her so many times if she were sure she wanted to marry prem. why it bothered her when the media hinted at an affair between mahesh and herself. why when she got married, she had avoided speaking to mahesh too much, even though the whole unit had come along for the wedding. why when prem had said he wanted to go back to the states she had felt so relieved.
swati let the silence linger. she didn’t want to say anything. she knew she loved prem. she always would. and yet sometimes some things happen.
he laughed out loud suddenly, “ever heard the term out of syllabus, ma’am?”
she felt him struggling with things. his voice was too flippant, yet that arch “ma’am” had dropped to a tender pitch… almost touching her skin.
he had always known anupama, ever since they were children. she lived in the neighbourhood. they were friends and then the relationship grew into something else as it happens at times. when he finally gave up his job at a bank and started his career in acting, he was already married to her.
“wasn’t supposed to be part of the script, not in the course… a question you had no idea you’d be asked to answer! out of syllabus,” mahesh took out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and flipped open the top.
“still smoking?” swati tried not to sound concerned.
“viren was a good boy, a perfect gentleman, in fact. mahesh isn’t,” he lit his cigarette and inhaled.
swati listened to his breath, she used to do that often when they did a scene together, especially the ones where they fought…
“you inhaled with me… did you notice?” mahesh said as he exhaled slowly, letting the smoke come out. it formed wispy curls and rings and rose up, slipping away into the darkness of the balcony where they sat. everyone else had gone inside a short while ago.
swati felt something sting the back of her eyes.
“perhaps girish did right, perhaps puja did need to hear it…” she said.
i hope you enjoyed the story. “out of syllabus,” if you are a calcuttan or have ever lived in the city, i don’t think i’ll have to explain the meaning to you. most likely starting with an obsession about studies and exams, and panic at getting questions one wasn’t prepared for, the phrase has passed into everyday language and is used in jest in other contexts too. it means something that was not supposed to happen, but did… or even something that is not part of a plan or course… outside the normal range in essence. a house my great grandfather built and which was part of my life for many years has started appearing in my stories. i don’t look for any particular tales from there but if anything comes along, i let it. thanks so much for reading.