Short Story: Art and Artifice
by Amrita De
Anita Ahluwalia, along with her husband, diamond merchant Aditya Ahluwalia was the co-founder of Magic Moments. When I walked into their Colaba office in South Mumbai a month back— about a hundred feet from the iconic Taj Mahal Palace, which had been in the news two years earlier in 2008 for being the epicentre of a deadly terrorist attack — I had the distinct feeling of having arrived somewhere important.
When I was walking alongside the seaside promenade that day, looking away from the lovers and their interlocked fingers, away from the balloon sellers and the haggling street children, away from the midday office goers by the tea stalls, I felt invisible and completely at peace. I remembered my father in the afternoon sun back in Kolkata, weaving grand tales about how, when he was in Bombay, he had met superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who’d promised to hear his script. Of course, that never happened, and my father had never written a complete script in his life. Yet here I was, hoping to read my own script to art-house directors, who I had heard, believed in the edgy rawness that came from unpolished manuscripts written by amateurs.
I remind myself every day why this job is a necessary stop gap situation. While updating my LinkedIn bio, I listed my role in Anita’s company as a sort of a facilitator. My primary responsibility was to manage the scheduling of events and the paparazzi that hounded celebrity clients. Anita says that the paparazzi are the ultimate index of celebrity stature. She had once narrated a story about a celebrity couple, who had forgotten to smile for their public appearance wedding pictures—because there were no paparazzi waiting for them outside the gates. It was one of the saddest stories she had heard in her decade old career as a wedding planner. “Always look out for the paps— make sure they are there at least two hours before. It is your responsibility to ensure they are not too close but close enough to get a smiling picture of the couple,” she stressed.
When Anita was interviewing me for the position, she insisted for the fifth time in a forty-minute time slot that the company only catered to celebrity clients. I was mentally prepared for the cue, switching to my practised deferential pretend act, “I promise, celebrity is king”— which is what I should have said but instead I had blurted out, “content is king”. It was nothing clever but Anita had seen the humour in it; “I see why you are here, buying your time, till you make contacts— but here we don’t care about the content.” She then introduced me to Aritra, saying, “Another one of your type— winging it, till he gets a better gig.”
At six feet, Aritra towered over my diminutive, barely five frame, giving the general impression that he was the one in charge. A part of the gravity had to do with his authoritative vibrato and sartorial performance: perfectly brushed side-parted hair and full-length Fab India khadi kurta completed his everyday ‘look’.
When he first heard I was from Kolkata, and a graduate of Jadavpur University, English, he marked me within a familiar hackneyed construct. “So, the old Marxist revolution never settled the ledgers and you find yourself genuflecting to the zeitgeist—everyone needs a piece of the old dough, after all,” he said.
I was momentarily distracted by his usage of the word, dough— what an odd combination of sensibilities, not Brit, not American enough—sentimental Bengali gentleman perhaps, I had thought. My estimation had been confirmed in the next hour. His father was a recently retired bureaucrat. Till eighteen years, he had lived in five different places; mostly semi-suburban towns in the western part of India, growing up without a permanent sense of home, inheriting his parent’s despondent nostalgia for a lost time and place—Calcutta of the ’70s. He personally did not seem taken by it, “All that raw, heady intellect and such crass violence— you expect them to come up with better aesthetics; not enough art you see…only muscle.”
Aritra is “all about the art” in his own words. Soon after, he mentioned that he was trained in classical music; a professional sitarist for over a decade now; but then he is only an accompaniment: far from centre stage. “What is your poison? What is your speciality?” he had asked me. “Nothing much. I am just fitting in.” I had bluntly replied. “I am good at making lists,” I’d added, a minute later to make sure I was there for a reason.
Truth be told, I do not have any special skills or even if I do, I am hopelessly lazy. In between snatches of tangential overtures; an unpaid internship in a fashion technology firm first, then at an event management company specializing in catering and now, at a wedding planning company— I am always writing my grand Bollywood love story. Aritra was right, there was an old school Marxist sell out hiding somewhere because Neera, the protagonist of my script burnt with vigorous radical idealism that somehow seemed lost in translation when mapped onto my real life. In my head, Neera always spoke without being addressed, in anticipation of the questions that might be later thrown at her, while I was the silent one, letting her do the talking.
Recently, at the company, I’d been offered my first big project. In the previous two weddings, there was another trainee working alongside. Anita conveyed with a matter of fact nonchalance, or maybe disguised anxiety. “You will be learning a lot from this assignment. I need daily reports on every segment, and I will ask Aritra to chip in too. You will like the Kapoors, our client— they appreciate your kind.” “My kind”, I had uncertainly replied, as her raspy voice trailed off, leaving a trail of unexplained clues that I was supposed to figure out myself. The Kapoors were notoriously known in the film fraternity for their desperate bravado and stunning bloopers that made for instant viral content, so I wasn’t sure where Anita’s judicious assessment stemmed from.
Shalini Kapoor, the bride I found out later was an aspiring filmmaker herself. A little research and subsequent personal interactions over IM and long phone calls distinctly illuminated her type; she had the affected stage voice of an amateur performer and the sturdy confidence of a seasoned thespian, who had been unconsciously performing all her life for an imaginary audience.
Earlier this month, on the raging topic of nepotism in Bollywood, Shalini Kapoor had unabashedly remarked, “I don’t understand it, because you know superior genes get transferred down the family line. Now, you can’t blame an actor’s son for acting well.” Our conversations were predictably peppered by hashtags and emojis that appeared nonsensical to me but clearly served a strategic syntactic purpose in uber-cool cliques that I wasn’t privy to.
Her pitch to me was brief and delightfully vague. “Nila, I looked you up on Insta and came across recent stories that you have written. You get my vibe. I want an artsy vibe for my wedding, but not too artsy, you know… I don’t want people to think I am pretentious. Some cool Urdu songs perhaps for the tehzeeb and definitely Bollywood chartbusters for the vibe. I want my wedding to have a mix of everything—intimate but artsy.”
Aritra was tuning his sitar when I approached him a little after twelve in the afternoon two days back to talk about the logistics and content of Shalini’s intimate but artsy pre-wedding celebrations.
“Look at us, what are we— bungling idiots, destined to a life of mediocrity. Not brave enough, not complying enough; we who never tire ourselves from waiting, from twiddling our thumbs, always in preparation for take-off, but never quite, ever there….” I impatiently cut him off mid-monologue.
I had come to ignore his constant invocation of a metaphorical dislocation as the reigning placeholder in every dogged exchange that transpired between us. Like an overused sponge, wrung dry and now in tatters, dislocation barely served its purpose, glumly sitting on the sink rack, ready to be disposed of. For all I knew, he was waiting to take off to a graduate program in music ethnology in the US; I did not have the luxury of such acute dislocation.
Aritra, who was all about the art sniggered when I gave him Shalini’s pitch, “What pretentious humbug— recite Urdu poetry, maybe? Keep a Bollywood night too. Get some out of work actors to do the gig. They should be affordable for this kind of budget.”
“What Urdu poetry do you suggest?”, I tentatively asked.
“You know the usual diet, Faiz, Ludhianvi, Ghalib, little bit of Bashir Badr perhaps. Go with the famous ones.”
“And won’t these poets look out of place in a setting like this?” I said. “Last I heard, Swamy that damned politician who recently tweeted in favour of the Kashmiri girl’s rapists would be there. And two other cronies from the ethno-nationalist brigade.”
“I see what you mean Nila. But a dead poet’s politics is dead beast—the kind you have to keep flogging to elicit a response— Or else, risk oblivion. The art matters, even if the setting isn’t ideal.” he answered uncertainly.
“And what about the purpose of art?”, I quietly added.
“You feeling jaded about the recent political situation Nila? You feel like you know what will work. Do you have any remedy for that except collective nostalgia for a time, when people read poets for their social commentary? That time does not exist anymore.”
“But Faiz wrote with a sense of purpose— Aaj Bazaar Mein Pa-Ba Joulaan Chalo (Today you must walk the marketplace in chains, he writes)— what delightful irony.”
Aritra emphatically recited the last two lines from Faiz’s poem in English stressing on every syllabic enunciation— cutting the figure of the blue-blooded gentlemanly Bengali, right down to the last pitch. “O, bleeding heart, gather your things?? Walk on/ Walk on comrades(?)”. He stalled at the last word. I could see the look in his sunken eyes: the metaphorical dislocation was back.
“And you see this being recited at a wedding, where everyone explicitly panders to majoritarian nationalist agenda— and rape apologists frequent?”
“It is not for us to decide Nila. We are mercenaries. The true value of art lies in its ability to transcend everything; yes, even politics.”
He could have very well said, “Politics is a dirty word Nila. Art and aesthetics are above that.” He, who was slated to leave the country, the coming fall. And me? Saddled with a family, where a recently retired public servant father had just found out that he would not be receiving the complete sum of the pension he had been promised all these years due to changing laws and a homemaker mother, who had given her life to the education of a dream that promised renewed dividends— I did not have much choice.
I remember being at the frontline of the fee hike student protests at the public University, where I studied during my undergrad years because I was rooted in that inexplicable cusp, where the public imagination seemed to have run dry. This was a newly declared defunct well of impossible desires and possible remunerations that barely made the cut in an inflated economy, where hope was the top layer of a festering wound that refused to congeal. Aritra and I had our own coherent versions of the truths we believed in and both, revelled in a sense of decrepit purpose that moved none except our embittered selves.
When I arrived at the pre-wedding venue two days later, at the seven-star boutique resort, I was prepared for the elaborate set piece, executed with great detail by seasoned professionals. An elaborate bamboo gate wrapped in pinkish fronds of delicate chiffon like cloth, with curtains of fairy lights and numerous floral accents greeted me at the entrance. A heart shaped sign in gilded font screamed, SHALINI WEDS AKSHAY.
The paparazzi was stationed outside like patient sentinels, waiting for approaching foot soldiers. The field outside Kaveri Bhavan was filled to the brim by a milling crowd. Some patiently waited for Shalini Kapoor to appear, like commoners waiting for a glimpse of the princess. Some thought there was a football match in progress down the road and an under nineteen football sensation Bhatia was scheduled to play in a friendly match later in the afternoon. Others were there to act as fillers for a political demonstration, like cardboard cut-out stick figures that are added to a frame to give the illusion of volume. Bollywood songs charged the air with a simmering energy that activated the stick figure like fillers into an unremarkable crescendo of badly choreographed missteps.
I was not prepared for this amount of audience for a show where the star cast was hardly memorable. But then in India, everyone has it in them to be a minor celebrity as long as you can sell your product to the lowest common denominator.
A little after noon, Shalini Kapoor stepped out of her million-dollar BMW, and the crowd started buzzing around her like parched moths, drawn to the last flicker of flame. The paparazzi went berserk. Cameras and flashlights snapped into action in a jerky synchronized rhythm, mimicking hundreds of excited xerox machines working overtime to reproduce the same sliver of the unrestrained immediacy of that moment, ad infinitum.The moth like crowd pushed and shoved, visibly stunned, craning their necks, straining the limits of the lengths of manned dividers— to get a closer look at this minor celebrity figure.
Shalini stepped onto the red carpet laid down minutes before her arrival; her pedicured toes peeking out of diamond studded pointy stilettos. She flashed a winning smile at the multitude of photographers gathered at the entrance before darting inside the luxury seven-star boutique hotel.
The energy momentarily subsided as soon as she disappeared inside but was soon replaced by chants from the political demonstration. The parched moths now transmuted into a swarm of crazed locusts, who under these special circumstances seemed to have inherited the gregarious energy of a stage thumping metal band, where everyone headbangs and snarls incomprehensible syllables with remarkable confidence. Hundreds of posters with sickening fonts appeared out of nowhere. Fevered sloganeering offset the greyish brooding skies above.
Chants of Jai Shree Ram (Long Live Lord Ram, a popular right-wing nationalist slogan) sectioned the milling crowd into the Compliants, the Renegades and the most treacherous of them all—the Ignorants. These were the people who had steady means of livelihood and were prone to saying in almost stylistically composed, synced messaging, “What a waste of time yaar, why bother.”
I was stationed outside the resort venue, keeping an eye on the paparazzi, as I had been previously instructed. I also had to ensure there was no commotion outside that could momentarily disrupt the otherworldly festivities inside. Matters with the political demonstration, as is routine soon got out of hand when the Compliants doubled, blocking out the Renegades with full force. The Ignorants had by then disbanded— their unity was short-lived and ephemeral as is their presence in the greater scheme of things.
Just then, Aritra in his trademark crisp bottle green kurta and side draped shawl with intricate flower applique came outside for a smoke. I told him, “There are some who don’t care at all about anything. Such hideous cop-outs.”
“Look, who we have here, aren’t you quite the contrarian yourself, Nila? You are schooling folks in ignorance, while bartending at a million-dollar fancy-schmancy gig, dressed in designer lehenga. Why don’t you join the demonstrations outside? Go and get your hands dirty.”
Aritra had unknowingly made a sensitive point here. While my head reeled from a sense of clearly defined purpose as to why I was present here (I needed the money badly)— my body felt inexorably alienated. I had no real business being in Mumbai. I had not even made any real contacts after coming to Mumbai. I was perhaps destined to become a greater failure than my father. Aritra at least knew when he would be out of here; I could be stuck in this rut for the next five years.
Both our phones started buzzing simultaneously. Anita’s text read, “Urgent. Come to the 17th floor ASAP.”
We were wanted in the control room. A hassled Anita opened the door, appearing on the verge of tears. “Aruna Mahadevan, the vocalist, will not be able to make it today evening. She fell sick at the last moment. I tried calling for backup singers but there is none available at such short notice. Shalini is still adamant on the Urdu poetry.”
“I saw that she publicized it on her Instagram as the highlight of the evening. Does she have any suggestions?” I nervously asked.
I recalled the conversation with Aritra where we made clear our differing views on the inclusion of Faiz, Ludhianvi, Ghalib. In the end, it did not matter; Shalini had chosen only romantic ghazals. A cardboard cut-out Faiz had been stripped off the political; in a different time and place, you could perhaps hear his verses blaring from loudspeakers in a traffic jam.
“Shalini suggested you do it Nila if we can’t find any professional,” Anita said.
I looked at her baffled. “But I cannot sing to save my life. How do you expect me to perform a classical song for a live audience?”
Aritra looked aghast.
“Then recite. Shalini said that when she looked you up, she found a YouTube clip of you reciting something in the midst of some student demonstration.”
As an afterthought, Anita added, “I had no idea you were involved in student politics.”
“That was five years back. I don’t remember anything from that time.”
“I need you to step up, if you want me to pass your script around to my contacts,” Anita tantalizingly held out a window of opportunity.
It was raining incessantly that day. Five years back. Slanting shards of silvered glass dissolved into the patchy swampy campus ground. I was sure, not even twenty-five people would turn up for the protest march. The orange of the marigolds dotting the university campus appeared brighter under the refracted light of the dimly lit sky, still shrouded in July columbus clouds; like a Cubist’s wet dream.
When the reporters arrived on campus, students started gathering. There was active sloganeering and energized momentum. I had recited two lines from Faiz’s Chand Roz for a sound byte:
‘Chand Roz aur Mirī Jaan Faqat Chand hī Roz
Zulm Kī Chhāñv meñ Dam lene pe Majbūr Haiñ Ham’
(A little longer my love, a little longer/ I am forced to breathe under the tyranny of this oppression).
Wispy and light with an unbearable heaviness, my eyes had momentarily glazed. Hair and consciousness in disarray, I had averted my gaze away from the glare of the reporter’s camera, away from the thrall of the students, brimming with shared gusto— concentrating on the orange of the marigolds dotting the footpath.
That evening, against the backdrop of swiftly falling dusk and the glowing embers from thousands of floating Chinese lanterns, in a light mauve pinkish room with the smell of roasted pistachios wafting in the air, I took to the stage. Shalini and her soon to be husband were seated on a raised pedestal with a stunning brocade canopy above it, about a hundred feet away from where I stood. She looked ethereal in a maroon zardozi sari— so close, yet so far. Aritra wished me luck; looking a little concerned.
I wanted to recite a love poem by Faiz but I could not remember the words. So, I ventured into familiar territory. As I started reciting Chand Roz, I could tangibly feel the shifting mood in the room. How incongruous for the mood and the setting. There were hushed whispers and some nervous sniggers; I felt oddly vindicated to see that Faiz’s words still mattered, that his spoken word rendered art visible in its most grotesque nakedness.
Soon disco lights started upstaging my fraught bravado, but I soldiered on as the DJ started belting peppy Bollywood dance numbers. I could hear muffled voices and uncertain feet on the dance floor— like clockwork mice, set out of turn, out of rhythm, against the shifting insanity of time, place, setting— melding into a revolutionary poet’s shattered utopia. But I continued my recitation, long after the music had ceased. It was not me but my protagonist Neera on stage that day. Neera who did know any other way to be. Neera, who spoke in anticipation of questions that would be eventually thrown at her; Neera, who always wanted to have the last word and was acutely aware of the sense of discomfort that accompanied her as she entered the room. There were two marriages in the room that day; one between Shalini and her husband and the other, between Art and Artifice.
Amrita De is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at SUNY Binghamton, where she is writing her dissertation on heteronormative Indian masculinities. She is also in the process of writing her first novel, the outline of which was shortlisted for iWRITE at Jaipur Literature Festival (2020). This is an excerpt from the novel in progress. Her works have appeared in Aaduna,Café Dissensus,Muse India, Cerebrations and is currently forthcoming in other literary magazines. To escape the tedium of academic life, she also sometimes vents her philosophical musings at her Medium page.
Featuring images sourced from Unsplash.com