Espresso Shots

one of those things… a short story

 

his wife was not feeling well and when she felt out of sorts, he really couldn’t concentrate on anything. he had taken her to the hospital close to their hotel the moment she had complained of that nagging thing again.

it was the feeling she always spoke of, a feeling that her chest was bursting, her head was tense and the roots of her hair pulled, she had to untie her hair and let it hang loose. her hair fell to her waist, a mass of shiny kohl black curls. he never could stop himself from touching the springy strands.

for three years now it was always this same ailment and every time it happened, he feared for her. he stopped everything… he had to get rosa to a doctor first. nothing must happen to rosa.

he loved her, he always knew that… he’d said that to himself so steadily and with such conviction, it was a knowledge ever spoken in him, ever present. like her. rosa. he had loved her forever. well at least from the time she had looked at him with that funny smile when he couldn’t solve the sums miss vettykat had set for the friday test in class six.

he had been completely confused by the numbers, nothing in them made sense. he had got seven out of thirty, rosa had got twenty nine. she had looked unhappy, he had taken his exercise book over to her during lunch time and let her see the strikes of red, the dismal marks.

she had stared at one of the sums aghast and then accosted him, “babloo, you couldn’t do that? you’re so stupid!”

he was about to answer when he saw her small secret little smile. it had not quite reached her lips, but it was there in her dark slate grey eyes. he had felt as though someone kicked a football straight at his heart. that’s when it had become clear to him, he loved rosa.

he had taken that book to her hoping to heal her in some way. she hated not getting full marks. she wanted to be the best always. he wanted to tell her she need not try, she was the best. but she was so hard on herself.

he’d known that massacre of miss vettykat’s angry red ink would make rosa feel better.

just as he had known he loved her always.

he called avi, he couldn’t come for the shoot he said distractedly, pulling on his socks, slipping his feet into his running shoes.

“but, kabir, you’ve cancelled shoot every day for the past three days! yaar, we are in london to make a film… you know how costly this place is… yaar, don’t worry, i’ll get sheena to take rosa to st mary’s… you come for the shoot. jass is almost ready…”

kabir malik took a deep breath, he had to remain calm. avi was a decent executive producer, a dear friend of his, but he had to do what had to be done. rosa wouldn’t hear of going to the hospital with sheena, though they were close and sheena was one of the finest assistants in the unit. and beside, he could not let anyone else take rosa.

it wasn’t her fault she had been unwell these past few days. she loved london, the shopping and the partying, she often said there was no place on earth that could possibly rival london in these. three months back when he’d signed for the film, he had been delighted with the uk schedule, rosa would have a such a good time.

alas. kabir malik shrugged and stood up, disconnecting the call. he glanced absentmindedly at the mirror, lifting his chin to see if he had shaved properly. a faint greenness hung around his jaws and the upper part of his neck. he ran a finger through his hair, trying to give it some shape. it was unruly and thick and dark. rosa liked him to keep it long, just short of ponytail length.

every time a role demanded he cut his hair, she was upset. he hated doing that to her.

thankfully, ahran taraporewallah wears his hair long, a slight smile lifted the corner of kabir’s lips as his mind strayed to the character he was playing. he would be spared a sulky rosa during this movie.

he leaned over and picked up his jacket, shrugging it on.

“rosa, let’s go…” he called out coming to the sitting room of the suite. it was not a fancy hotel in mayfair or park lane, but it had spacious suites.

rosa was lying back on the sofa. she looked wan. her skin seemed paler than usual, there was no make up on her face. she opened her eyes slowly and said, “why can’t they put you up in a better hotel? you are the star, after all!” then she grimaced and started to get up.

he ran forward and caught hold of her even as she stood up. “you okay, baby?” he murmured.

“oh, kabs, stop fussing…” rosa said casually. some time soon after he had started modelling she’d dropped the babloo and he had become kabs. he loved the fact that she had given him a name. just as he had given her. she was always rosa to him, had she ever had any other name?

at the hospital, rosa looked even more fragile. the young intern at the a&e checked her thoroughly but couldn’t ascertain the cause of this strange feeling. two days before, the same thing had happened, that time a brisk efficient sri lankan doctor was on duty. she had asked a few simple questions, examined rosa and said, perhaps all that was needed was a few doses of antacid and all would be well.

rosa had fumed for hours after that. the doctor was obviously not very good at what she did and connected everything back to food, just like pammi aunty, his mother. kabir almost wished he could ask rosa not to speak like that about his mother, but then he knew she didn’t mean to be hurtful. not really. just to pacify her, kabir had decided to take the day off and spend time with her, take her to her favourite places, help her feel better.

but today, the doctor was good. he was solicitous and sombre right through his long examination of the patient. then he prescribed tranqilizers. rosa looked pleased, in fact she almost smiled. kabir was relieved.

“doc, i think I’d feel better if i spent a couple of days in the hospital,” rosa said looking pensively at her perfectly manicured finger nails. there were tiny pale ivory butterflies on each dainty nail painted black and pale pink. the butterflies scratched kabir’s lips when he kissed her fingers.

the doctor promptly agreed. yes, two or three days in hospital might be good.

in the hospital room, rosa lay supine on her bed, looking at the tv screen hanging from the ceiling. kabir sat by her bed on the armchair with its maroon faux leather upholstery. he hated hospitals…

why must they hang a tv up there like that, he wondered, irritated. it was like that in all hospitals these days. he would have to call avi again. he would not be in for at least three days now. he wondered how this would go.

twice in the previous year he had been finally replaced by other actors. the producer and director on the only other project he was working on had been more understanding. unfortunately, the project was delayed.

kabir missed the sets. all he had ever really wanted to become was an actor. but you never say that growing up. you say you are thinking about taking up commerce since your science is not that strong, you could become a ca then. or maybe you’d study management, or law. something. you never even by mistake mentioned acting. it was not a career really as far as most people he knew were concerned. but he loved it. and he had found his way to it. he had given everything he had to the roles that came his way. it hadn’t been either simple or easy. the territory was such. he knew he had no one to “recommend” him and had taken up whatever had come his way initially, grasping the opportunities with all his might… even now his first role brought a smile to his face.

anish madhwani, smuggler. in a daily serial with really loud characters, and a very high trp.

rosa had seen a couple of scenes, smiled and said, “lovely, kabs…”

she had sat through the episode without saying anything else. he had sat by her side, his arm slung around her shoulder, eating popcorn and feeling tense. would rosa like his very first appearance on a screen as an actor?

“very nice,” she had said, “so good of you to help out a friend and take this small role, baby! you’re the best… how are the job applications coming along?”

kabir started remembering her voice, his reverie broke. she had sounded curt.

“would you like some coffee, mr malik?” said a voice from behind him.

he frowned and looked back. who was that?

it was the nurse. she was wearing starched white and a prim little cap stood on her dark hair neatly tied in a bun. his frown grew deeper. had he met her somewhere?

the name tag on her uniform said radha sharma. but her voice had nothing indian about it. it had the clipped sound of education and the “l”of malik sounded absolutely brit. kabir had taught himself several accents and ways of delivering words over the years. he liked the astonishing range of pronunciations and modulation people had. the play of sound absorbed him.

he wondered if he should put on his almost impossible to fault upper class british accent. but he found himself smiling at her instead.

radha sharma was standing there quietly observing him, her eyes held an expression he couldn’t quite decipher, but they made him feel welcome. she was, for the want of a better word, dumpy. she was quite short and her looks were definitely nondescript, but her eyes had a story he felt.

a story. how he longed for a good one. so he could go right in and find its spaces within, its unspoken hollows and crevices, its real swing… hidden always in the layers beyond words, description, even character.

she must be in her late forties he thought.

“thank you, sister,” he said using the address his mother always preferred while spending long spans of time in hospitals with his sister. madhu had a rare defect in her arteries that she was born with. and maybe all those visits to hospitals ever since he was a boy had put him off them for life.

“i wouldn’t mind a hot black coffee, tell me where can i get it, is there a machine on this floor…” he asked.

“i’ll get you a cup, not to worry,” replied radha sharma and made her way out of the room.

“baby, i think the old lady is your fan,” rosa said with a giggle. he couldn’t not detect the slight sneer beneath the laugh.

“rosa, she’s just a kind and caring nurse!” he said shrugging and picked up the phone to call avi.

“no avi, i understand… but you must realise…” he spoke softly so she would not be disturbed.

“three days, kabir! c’mon man! what am i going to tell hafiz and don’t forget, anita! she has had three flops in a row, now she’s cast you taking a huge risk… man, you’ve been out of the circuit for so long… yaar… i really don’t know…” avi was almost incoherent with anxiety.

kabir knew every word he said was true.

and he really wanted to go to work… he wanted to slip into the mind of ahran taraporewallah, find what else was there beside what the writer had written. hafiz was a fine director. he didn’t work for money alone, always looking for something more in the story, the nub of it all. a young new writer had come to him with this one, hafiz had convinced anita to buy it. they were keen to cast a good actor for the central role. kabir malik had not been top of their list of course.

nowadays, very rarely was he on top of anyone’s list. yet something had worked in his favour. seems none of the actors they wanted was available. he had bumped into hafiz at avi’s place and the offer was made. hafiz had directed kabir a few years ago for a beautiful short telefilm. he liked kabir’s work and they’d got along well.

dilip gogoi… kabir still felt close to the character he had portrayed. a young energetic chemical engineer who is abducted for ransom and ends up becoming a murderer himself. kabir had enjoyed seeping into the transformation, understanding it, detailing it.

“so…!” avi exclaimed, “kabir, i don’t know how they’ll take this… i hear ajay saroor suddenly has dates…” ajay was one of the actors anita liked.

kabir felt a jolt of anger.

“look, avi… i don’t give a damn! if they want ajay, they can have him…” he switched off the phone and swivelled around, his eyes dark and angry. he wanted to go out for a walk.

radha sharma was standing before him with black coffee in a white paper cup.

he halted in his tracks and tried to calm down.

“thank you, sister…” he said as evenly as he could.

she smiled slightly and turned to leave.

he had no idea what it was that made him say what he did next.

“sister… do you know who i am?” the words were out and he wished they didn’t sound as pompous as they did.

radha sharma stopped and after a little pause, turned back.

“if you mean do i know you are an actor, mr malik… then yes, i do,” she replied in a matter of fact voice.

kabir was wondering what he should say next. he was feeling a little foolish at his impetuous question.

she unexpectedly broke into a smile. kabir was startled at the change, she looked impish and curiously alive.

“i think you were a smashing anish madhwani!” she said and for a moment longer stood there smiling at him. then she turned and took rosa’s temperature, her pressure, settled the sheets, logged her notes and left the room.

***

radha sharma walked out of the room in a slight daze.

she had dreamt of him the previous night.

the dream still clung to her eyes and a corner of her mind. there was a warmth, no, a heat, almost measurable temperature, in it. and it was gossamer… floating swirling calling. it drew her away to another world.

she had first seen him on television. he was a bungling, crass smuggler in one of the many daily soaps her mother in law watched. radha neither had the time nor the interest to see the slew of indian and pakistani serials that inundated their homes via tv. it felt like an endless conveyor belt of melodrama, tears, archaic ideas and garish colours to her.

when she had left india almost thirty years ago and come to work here in england, she had hardly any inclination to watch soaps. she had always wanted to be a nurse and she’d also always wanted to see the world. it had seemed to her all her dreams were set to come true.

as the years passed, life had taken over and she had gone along happily. marriage, two children, sure and steady promotions at work, parents in law who lived with them and were always at hand to take care of the kids, a couple of holidays a year. one really couldn’t complain.

so what had made her want to go and watch a really bad hindi serial after that first time she saw him?

in the past six years, radha had asked herself that question often. and never really found a very good answer. that afternoon when she’d seen the episode by chance, she remembered she had laughed loudly at many antics, she had told her mother in law whom she was fond of that she would surely lose all her brain if she continued watching this nonsense.

she had even offered to take her to the opera.

yet, just before she had dropped off to sleep that night, she’d wondered what had happened to that silly smuggler. she had noticed the actor was extremely handsome. maybe it was just that she had told herself and fallen asleep.

soon she was keeping track of the show’s timings and watching it regularly. sometimes all three telecasts of the same episode.

since then she had never missed any of kabir malik’s shows. he was the protagonist in two soaps, both of which she had watched, of course. after that, he started doing films and telefilms.

radha checked her thoughts here. he had acted in three movies, all of which were great hits and he had done that telefilm where he made her want to cry for a man struggling to stay himself while nothing would allow him to. he had been marvelous in that one really.

but since then, for some reason, kabir malik had hardly appeared anywhere. yes, there had been a few small parts. in the sort of films she didn’t enjoy at all. yet she had seen them. there was no question of not doing so.

her daughter always teased her about her “thing” for this young actor. radha just smiled good humouredly at that. she neither contradicted anyone who felt she was overly immersed in this actor nor explained her feelings to anyone.

she connected with something she couldn’t find words for when she watched him on the screen. she enjoyed the way he approached his role. she liked what he did with his body and his mind to get to that character. she felt his sincerity. and maybe she felt in those moments when she was lost to the world many other things. perhaps he nudged places and feelings in her long buried.

radha rarely dreamt. when she lost her mother she had often hoped ma would come to her in a dream. it never happened.

she had woken up that morning with his voice still ringing in her ears. “have you brought the oranges?’ he had asked her just before her eyes opened. oranges? what was happening in her dream? she had tried to catch the story even as it melted away in wisps… he had been there as himself, not in a role. and he was there with his wife, he had looked upset, he wanted to make sure something went right, radha couldn’t remember what. he was rushing around, every once in a way pushing his hair back with his fingers. radha remembered thinking she missed him.

usually dreams don’t stay with you for too long once you wake up. but today it lingered in her thoughts, and every now and then in a woolly feeling in her mouth.

radha saw the patient’s name and knew who it was, but she hadn’t expected to see him sitting in the room when she walked in.

even now she was astonished. and yet, it had seemed like the most normal thing in the world to see him there. she recalled when he walked into her dream too, it had felt quite natural.

***

“kabir, i am sorry, anita absolutely refuses to lose so many days of shoot and jass has no dates really after this… so please come today. we’ll do second shift…” avi sounded desperate.

“avi…” kabir hesitated.

“you go, baby,” rosa’s voice came, small and plaintive from the bed, “i’ll be okay.”

“let me call you back,” kabir said and hung up.

he needed to go for a walk so he pulled on his jacket and left the room after kissing rosa tenderly on the cheek. the poor girl was not looking well at all.

***

he was walking in the park with tall old trees just outside the hospital when he saw radha sharma. she was sitting on a bench staring out at the traffic.

“hello, sister,” he said stopping beside her.

“mr malik, is everything alright with mrs malik?” radha asked pleasantly.

“yes… yes… she’s not been keeping too well, but i am sure it’ll be fine…” he replied sounding very urbane and sure of himself, had a little bit of that brit accent got into his words?

“sister…” he hesitated.

“radha, please call me radha,” radha couldn’t stop herself from saying.

“radha… ” he seemed to search for words, “did you really like anish?… i mean…”

“you know, mr malik, anish may have given me things many wonderful fabulously written characters never may…” radha replied truthfully.

the dream had no deceit or distance in it.

they had met there first. or perhaps in a place way beyond dreams even. where an actor and his viewer meet… a place quite hard to pinpoint, yet you know it is there.

kabir smiled at that. he had never thought anish might smuggle out precious things to his viewers. all he had wanted to do was be anish… not just with his sindhi accent and obvious bungling and love of cheap perfumes and thick silver bracelets, but all of him, everything that made anish anish.

“radha, this may sound corny, but really, anish gave me a lot too and i never thought he might…” kabir said sitting down beside radha.

“you love acting, don’t you,” radha said.

“yes,” he nodded looking at the traffic, the red london buses always made him want to jump into one, “i always wanted to be an actor.”

“really? i always wanted to be a nurse!” radha laughed.

they sat for a while without saying anything.

“how do you feel when a patient dies?” kabir asked all of a sudden.

radha’s eyes closed involuntarily. a child had gone in the pediatric cancer ward that morning.

“terrible. even after all these years. we just lost a little girl this morning. but that is what my job would bring me to… often… regularly… i guess i always knew that. yet, mr malik… i thought i could take care of a person, make her or him feel better… meant a lot to me… so…” radha trailed off.

“would you ever want to play a doctor?” she asked trying to lighten the mood.

“of course i would… a villainous one maybe!” kabir replied grinning.

“okay, then st mary’s would not be a good place to do research,” she quipped.

“were you close to the child?” he asked a moment later.

“i was not in her ward… but i do go over and see the children every once in a while, anna was twelve, she had leukemia and she did fight as long as she could…” radha could still feel anna’s soft hands on hers the last time she had seen her. just two days ago.

“it’s funny how many things kill us, isn’t it, radha…?” he said with an enigmatic smile.

“mr malik…” she started.

“kabir,” he interrupted her.

“kabir, it’s equally strange… the things that make us live. even when you really think you can’t…” radha replied.

“and kabir, i just wanted to say, thank you… anish, dilip, ratan singh rathore, aryan kapoor, jagat saxena…”

“you remember jagat? he was such an insignificant character,” kabir cut in.

“well, you made him give me something…!” radha said simply.

***

“avi, okay… i’ll be there for the second shift,” kabir said and disconnected the phone, then he pushed the door open and walked into the room.

rosa was watching tv. he went to the bed and climbed up and lay down beside her holding her in his arms.

“kabs, stop disturbing me,” rosa muttered, but she wriggled against him in a way he liked. she knew that.

“okay, i’ll do as you say, sweetheart…” kabir snuggled closer.

he wondered how he would tell her about the decision he had made. he would go for second shift today. he would not be missing shoots from now on. he wanted to go back to what he loved doing. he couldn’t imagine how he had come to a point where he was being replaced.

he wanted to be an actor, heck, he was an actor. and an actor had to act. otherwise nothing really was left of him.

he was sure she would not understand. he didn’t mind that. he loved her anyway. he’d do something to make her happy, though she was prone to being unhappy and seemed to like that. he knew she would rather have him be a producer if he wanted to be in this industry at all. but he couldn’t be that.

not really.

not while ahran taraporewallah waited to be found.

as he dozed off hugging her he was almost sure he had met radha sharma somewhere else before.

***

radha still couldn’t believe she had just met kabir malik. delayed shock, she thought to herself. he had said his next film should release by the end of the year. she was so happy to hear it was the protagonist’s role. she wondered how many times she’d end up seeing it.

really, her “thing” for this young actor.

a dream got through and roamed in her mind. cloudy ephemeral strangely real. why had he asked for oranges? she must ask him in the next dream, she thought.

 

 

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2 Comments

  • ladkikijhy@gmail.com'
    Reply
    Ladki Kijhy
    April 6, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Lovely, a paean for all of us?

  • Reply
    indrani robbins
    April 6, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    bhelcomes, ladki kizhy, so you saw yourself in that wonderful sister? thing that makes me wonder now, why did i choose a “sister”. phroid ji might like to elaborate. hee hee. thanks, sir.

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