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  Afterword — 2  

  Vox
  Vol I : issue 5

  Nirmal Verma
  N.S. Madhavan
  Lal Singh Dil
  Betty LaDuke
  
Arun Kolatkar
  Ashis Nandy

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N.S. Madhavan

The drama troupe of this occasional actor — the Delhi Natak Factory — put up a play every year. The last play they performed was in Kamani Auditorium. After the inaugural show, I went backstage as usual to congratulate him. I saw Mukundan among half-naked men who wandered about, the sweat on their bodies scattering the light. He was still under the spell of the performance, his eyes dazzled by the long hours under the spotlights. Mukundan said through half closed eyes, "Here are the car keys. You go home."

"And you?"

"Everyone says the premiere was grand. The newspapers will give us a good review. We are going to the disco at the Maurya Hotel to celebrate. I’ll be late getting home." I looked around and saw other women coming up to join their men.

As I drove home I wound up all the windows, took the first cassette that came to hand and began to play it loudly, a strategy I had used from childhood to shut out unpleasant thoughts. If all the other men of the troupe could take their women to the disco, why this aetham [4] for me alone? The realisation that there would have been no thought of deliberately excluding me in Mukundan’s untainted mind denied me even the comfort of hating him.

To avoid crying before the children, I parked the car on the side of the road where it was dark, put down my head on the steering wheel and wept, like people who take a swig or two on the sly. Mukundan returned at three in the morning. He kissed me as I lay asleep. When I opened my eyes I saw a bewildered look on his face. The salty taste of tears on my cheek was unexpected.

"On my way, I bought an orchid for you from Khan Market." He placed a long-stemmed flower wrapped in cellophane paper on my breast. The long, sharp-edged yellow and red curves of the buds were unfamiliar to me. Suddenly a primal urge conquered me. I looped my arm around his neck and frantically kissed his whisky lips that tasted like old oak.

Like an athlete or a trapeze artist, Mukundan the actor used his body like an instrument. So he was an expert lover. Yet somewhere I experienced a distance. I felt that someone prompted every gesture and every word of his, as in a play. I was a spectator who watched his performance from the dress circle. Whenever the two of us were together, I was either alone, or else there was this invisible third person who directed the play.

After Mukundan’s death I surreptitiously watched the faces of all those who came to express their condolences. In the lines on their forehead, in the corners of their eyes, in their gestures, there was less of affection for Mukundan than a disappointment; the chagrin of an entertaining spectacle, a performance come to an unexpected end. A small, very small parlour version of the mass grief that accompanied the death of MGR, of John Lennon or Elvis Presley. Many admired the dead artist but none of them seemed to have any great attachment to him. In my memory, I heard only one voice that proclaimed its allegiance to Mukundan: the fair, tall girl who spread like vine in a black salwar kameez.

At first I thought I would ask Mukundan’s childhood friend Preman about her. But they had drifted apart in the last few years. After running on for some time, even such relationships come to a panting stop. So I rang up the journalist Anil Saxena, whom Mukundan had met frequently in recent years. He must have been alone because he picked up the receiver at the first ring.

"Anil," I asked. "Do you know that tall girl who wept loudly at the cremation?"

"No, I had thought of asking you."

"Haven’t you met her anywhere?"

"Someone from his office? A steno?"

"No, no. I know everyone there."

"Mukundan’s troupe? The Delhi Natak Factory?"

"No she’s not one of them. I know everyone there."

Next I rang up Ravi Minhas, who regularly directed Mukundan’s plays. Ravi knew the girl. The name was Nalini Nair. She taught at the National School of Drama; couldn’t be more than twenty-five, one of the 1993 batch of students of the National School of Drama. Occasionally, she used to bring her students to watch the rehearsals of Mukundan’s plays. Unmarried. She lived in a one-room apartment in College Lane in Bengali Market.

One final rite remained to be performed. Mukundan’s photograph had to be enlarged and hung on the wall. The photograph that Amma, the children and I chose was that of a handsome but mellowed thirty-five-year-old.

As I drove towards Rama Studio in Bengali Market to collect the enlarged and laminated photograph I suddenly felt an urge to meet Nalini. As soon as she opened the door she said in a matter-of-fact manner, "I knew you would come."

The room was large, but the sunlight that sifted in through the thick handloom curtains made it look small. The cane chairs and mattresses scattered about the room accentuated the smallness. In a corner of the room she had placed antique bronze vessels and lamps brought from her ancestral home: arranged dramatically under a single spotlight. A round cactus plant in a flowerpot and a photograph of Mukundan and Nalini taken on a drama set stood on a table. On the wall, stuck on wood were Mukundan’s photographs of Tibetan refugees’ faces, alternately in light and shade, like the squares of a chessboard.

"Why did you think I would come?"

"Shouldn’t you come?"

"I don’t understand."

"Hadn’t Mukundan told you?"

"What?"

"Nothing."

"What?" my raised voice sounded like someone else’s.

"Shall I make tea?" Nalini asked calmly.

I blocked her way as she moved towards the kitchen and asked, "What? What did Mukundan not tell me?"

"Nothing," said Nalini lowering her eyes.

"What is it?" I asked, shaking her. Suddenly Nalini became indifferent. She said, "We… we were lovers."

"It’s a lie!" I started to cry. Nalini gathered up some clothes and walked towards the bathroom, leaving me alone. She returned wearing a peacock-green gown. I could see her smooth, hairless legs through its slits. She stood before the mirror and put some dark, shiny stuff on her lips and lashes. She said: "I’ve to go to a party."

Weeping had become a habit with me. So I continued to sob, almost without realising it. Nalini opened the almirah and took out an old nagapada necklace. The green stones enhanced the green of her gown. Its old-world charm clashed with her western dress to create a strange beauty. As I began to see her through Mukundan’s eyes — he had a habit of crinkling his left eye while running his fingers through his hair — my weeping grew louder. This time I wept out of jealousy, which I felt after a very long time.

"Mukundan taught me to dress like this," she said as though sharing gossip. "How?" I asked, seizing a chance to stop crying.

"Like this — grandmother’s nagapada necklace with a modern western dress. He used to call it the Shakespeare style."

"Shakespeare style?" I asked. I realised that they even had a private vocabulary of their own.

"Yes. As Mukundan used to say, Shakespeare would string up a lot of words with Latin roots. In between, like a thunderclap, a purely English word: grandmother’s nagapada necklace." Nalini said this with Mukundan’s expression and gestures. This proof of their intimacy — I hated her. Intensely, like some people love.

"For you, the nagapada necklace; for me, widow’s weeds."

For me an occasional husband, for you a lover; for me someone I asked for money to pay the newspaper man, the grocer, the electricity bill; for you one who explained Shakespeare. For me someone whose attention had to be drawn to a new dress or perfume to wrest a compliment. For you… someone to dress you up.

For you… for me… For you… for me… I kept murmuring as I drove the car to Bengali Market. While searching for space to park in front of Rama Studio, I suddenly turned the car around. I savagely shifted gears one after the other like climbing stairs. The car jerked violently once or twice and then gathered speed. I swiftly turned the car along the huge circle in front of Mandi House. The tyres screamed, the rubber leaving long marks on the road.

 


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N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam. A senior civil servant, he lives in Patna