Short Story: Chikna by Vikram Shah

Today, on this glorious Friday morning, twenty six year old Nitin was expecting a letter. Not any ordinary letter. It was a letter that would arrive from the stables of, wait for it, the Limca Book of World Records. This was the day Nitin would receive official confirmation of the fact that he was the only man in the world not to have a single strand of hair on his face.

Thank goodness for that Kamble, Nitin thought gleefully as he leisurely opened the pages of the Navbharat Times to scan the headlines. If it weren’t for him, he wouldn’t be sitting here in his pyjamas, having taken a day off from work, waiting for a letter that would change his life. It was Kamble, a peon at the office of the courier company where Nitin worked, who had goaded him into sending his application to the Limca Book of World Records. His daughter had won the latest edition of the book as a prize in an inter-school essay writing competition. He had been flipping through its pages when he came across a glossy picture of two men with hair all over their faces. Kamble had summoned his daughter to read what was written about these two bhaloos. Turns out they were a pair of brothers from some far off country, Mekshiko or something like that.

At once, Kamble had thought of Nitin, the courier boy who had absolutely no hair on his face. If there could be a world record for having the most hair on one’s face, then why couldn’t there be one for not having any? The young man could do with some cheer in his life, Kamble had thought, thinking about all the times Nitin had been made fun of for not being able to grow a moustache or a beard.

Nitin had been apprehensive when Kamble first suggested the idea to him. He was unsure if those jibes about his manliness, or rather the lack of it, would stop once he would be recognized in the book as a record-holder, but it would not matter. He would become famous, and fame would bring with it a one-bedroom apartment in Byculla, a loving woman who would make tea for him before he left for work, and of course, the respect and admiration of those who could appreciate what a big thing it was to be holder of a world record.

As he sauntered to the kitchen to make himself a strong cup of tea, he thought about the past. When he had been growing up, he had asked his mother why bits of hair had not started appearing on his face, like they did for all the other boys at school. His mother had asked him to be patient. Soon he would have a moustache as glorious as the ones the thakurs in their village sported. He did not want to have anything that was like the thakurs, he had thundered in the judgmental rage of childhood, look how they had treated his father and other members of their community.

In the summer breaks when he would come home from the town where he attended university, his mother always told him that women had a weakness for clean-shaven men. She would gaze adoringly at the old black and white photograph of her late husband, and say, “Look at your father. See how handsome he looks clean-shaven.” But Nitin dismissed his mother as old-fashioned. He had spent enough time at the university in town to know that the ways of the world had changed. His classmates had told him that all the girls, even the family types, preferred men with at least some hair on their face.

In his first six months at the university, he was convinced that his lack of female company had more to do with his caste and his village bumpkin ways, for he felt that purely on the basis of physical attributes (not counting the lack of facial hair, of course) he was not a bad prospect for a young woman yearning for masculine company and the security it would consequently provide. Of course, he was not as roguishly charming as some of the town boys, but his mother had taught him to be satisfied with whatever he had. But soon, he saw that his classmates had been right all along. Since his mannerisms had begun to match those of his classmates who had lived in that dusty town, he would have to put down his dismal failure in the companionship and courtship stakes to the absence of facial hair.

In his last year at the university, he gathered enough courage to go up to Dr. Sharma’s Dispensary in the lane off Main Bazaar Road. He had decided that his problem was not serious enough to merit a visit to the General Hospital. After all, when there was diphtheria and tuberculosis to contend with, why should doctors take time out to look into his problem? Furtively, he had ducked into Dr. Sharma’s dispensary and waited for his turn to enter the little room behind the dirty curtains with the flower imprints. He went inside when his turn came and narrated with all honesty the cause of his worries. Dr. Sharma, rotund and with rotting teeth, took him by the hand and laughed like a madman while recounting Nitin’s problem to those waiting there. Then, they all pointed at him and laughed till they had to clutch their sides. A middle-aged man in a torn shirt laughed so much that he began spitting blood on the tiles in the waiting room. It was at this point that everyone forgot about Nitin and gathered around the bedraggled man.

Nitin, shoulders drooping and eyes welling up with the compressed fury of one whose misfortunes the world scoffed at with derision, walked out of the dispensary and kicked the red dust that had settled like a film on everything in that wretched town.
Enough is enough, he had said through clenched teeth, the town and its people were too limited in their approach. At that moment, he decided that he would venture out to the one place which he knew had all the answers: the storied city by the sea. Bombay was the wondrous place where knowledge and wisdom seamlessly converted themselves into business and commerce. With his degree from the university, he would get a respectable job in the town and earn enough money to go to Bombay soon. So what if his degree was in history? A degree from a university was a degree from a university and it did not matter whether it was in history or botany or anything else for that matter. He felt vindicated when he got a job as a clerk in the town post office.

After nine months, he purchased a train ticket to Bombay. As the train sped through the hinterland with a terrific clanging, Nitin felt a slight wistfulness for the life he was leaving behind. But he checked himself then, sternly reminding himself that if he was to become a man of the world, he would have to become less sentimental, he would have to let go of the past in the same manner as he would release the colorful kites when his accomplices would call out that the string was ready. But the kite would soar only as long as the string was taut, intact. The shredding of the string meant the end of the kite’s journey. He remembered the sensation of the string loosening between his fingers and falling in a heap at his feet, like the limp body of a snake coiling on itself after being vanquished by a mongoose. The kite would fall through the air, like a wobbly drunk, and finally lie at rest, caught in the spokes of the antennae on the terrace of one of the Thakurs’ mansions or some forgotten alley in the town which even the kiterunners had chosen to ignore. Nitin became despondent again and as shadows began to fall on lives that for him were at once coveted and wretched, he dozed off while searching for an analogy more appropriate than the one with the kites, his tongue lolling out like a fatigued canine and catching the musty air of the night.

In the new light of day, Nitin walked out of the station with the stately columns, took the subway stairs, emerged on the other side, and took in the shot he had seen in the scratchy prints of the movies that the city was prodigious for churning out. The image would stay on the screen for less than a second but how definitive that shot was, how conclusive. It indicated that this was where all the action was, where all the grand dramas of life are played out. Now that he was here, the movie of his life would soon see a kahaani mein twist, he thought happily as he struggled to make his way through the teeming masses to catch a local train to the distant northern suburbs.

He had almost forgotten about why he came to the city in the first place, so caught up was he in finding suitable accommodation and vocation. He was finally been able to rent a ramshackle room in a crumbling old two-storied structure (he could not even call it a building) in an area where city looked like town. There was the same jumble of electricity poles and the same red dust that settled over everything. It was only during the monsoon that it began to look like something else, when the base of the structures turned a vicious brown-black, a grimy amalgamation of sludge, sewage, bits of corroded iron from the exposed pipes and god knows what else. He found a job with the courier company, spending his days with a tote bag slung around his shoulders, delivering letters, bills, parcels, invitation cards, and financial reports of companies whose promoters lived and worked in that part of the city that looked and felt like the city.

Yes, he had gone through a lot in the past. It had not been smooth sailing.

And then Kamble came along with his brilliant suggestion. Two days after Nitin posted his application attached with pictures of himself to the address on the back flap of Kamble’s daughter’s book, he received a reply on an official letterhead. It was signed by the Records Assistant and read,

Dear Sir,
We have received your application, and we will get back to you within fifteen days.
Thank you
Nitin had jumped with joy when he had seen the letter. He had read and re-read each word of it several times. Today was the fourteenth day, the day that the confirmation would finally arrive, for there was no way that the Limca Book of World Records could renege on its solemn promise of getting back to him within fifteen days. Sure enough, at half past two in the afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was a courier boy with an envelope that was stamped with the familiar green-and-red logo of the Limca Book of World Records. As Nitin signed on a sheet to acknowledge receipt of the envelope, he could barely stop his fingers from shivering with excitement. Already, his luck was changing. Every day, for two years now, he had been handing over a pen and asking for a signature. Today, it was he who was signing, he who was finally receiving, after all that giving. Indeed, God was kind.
He carefully sliced the top of the envelope carefully and his heart leapt at the sign of the letterhead on top of the cream-colored sheet. Dizzy headed, he read the contents of the document that he saw as his passport to eternal happiness:

Dear Sir,
We regret to inform you that your application has been rejected. We at the Limca Book of World Records are committed to promoting a culture of unique feats and astounding occurrences. We have previously received, and continue to receive, applications from several men, especially men from China, Japan and South East Asia, claiming precisely the same record you have sought to claim in your application. With this in mind, we are certain that a complete lack of facial hair is not something that is astounding or unique enough to be entered as a record in the Limca Book of World Records.
Nevertheless, we would like to thank you for your enthusiasm and would encourage you to visit our website for ideas on “How to become a world record holder”.
Yours Faithfully,
Records Controller
Years of putting up with ridicule and humiliation had not prepared Nitin for this moment. This moment when he felt his stomach, his intestines, his heart even, drop down like a bird that had been shot at. There was a lurch somewhere around his ribs, and they all sank, sank as would a man thrown over the bridge with a boulder chained to his feet.

Later, at the time of the day when evening turned to night, when the men and women who had made money during the day came out to spend it, Nitin found himself sitting on the parapet that rose a foot above the promenade, watching the waters gently moistening those funny looking pointed cylinders that had been placed just below. He felt a light bobbing on the back of his shirt, and turned around to see a wide-eyed little girl with a bright blue balloon. Her eyes widened, and in the rustic Hindi that was characteristic of the hinterland, from where he had come, she asked, “Uncle, where is your moustache?”

Vikram Shah was born in Bombay and is a final year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. His fiction has been previously published in the Open Road Review. He also contributes

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