The sun was blaring as we finished practicing for our play. Even the pieces of overpainted furniture and overused props looked tired. Far too much Nescafe Iced Tea had been consumed to evade the heat. Amidst all this, Falak still glistened.
I mean, yes, she was sweating, one had to have superpowers to not perspire in an August Delhi afternoon. But it was as if the sun kissed her body and sprinkled golden water on it, while the rest of us got the commonplace – fiery – treatment. If I scratched my arms after a day like this, the sweat and dust would probably mix to create a marshy lowland, pokey hairs as vegetation.
Everyone scurried around, picking the second-hand chairs and tables up, collecting DIY props and things, that comprised our Set, and quickly dumping it back into the Audi Lobby. Four hours of practice in this heat was enough to make them irritable and desperate to head home. Not me; I took my bag from the Audi Lobby steps and waited.
She emerged from the Lobby, and smiled at me, ‘Don’t tell me you’re too tired for a smoke.’
We headed out of the familiar lobby of the college; our home for two more years, with a name too grand to suit its compact area – Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Sri Venkateswara College. Or just, Venky.
The scene outside the college gate, is an image that will be imprinted onto my mind forever. Maybe it’s the emotional merit of the experiences of college, those that make one grow up. Or maybe it’s because I have spent my whole life on this street. I saw it all, the empty and the chaos. I went to Springdales, Dhaula Kaun; which lay further down this street, for twelve fucking years and then, just when I thought I had had enough of Satya-freaking-Niketan, it just so happened that I missed the North Campus cut-offs by 0.25%. What were the chances? So there we were, walking down Benito Juarez Marg, which held my entire fragile existence in its haphazardly parked cars and ever-changing restaurants. Though the landscape remained stagnant, the colours changed. Summer, winter, autumn, spring…it was always the same but never really. I had seen small restaurants and businesses open and close as frequently as a finicky South Delhi girl changes her clothes before a Saturday Night at Keya. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sick of this road.
When college happened, I met her. I thanked God, for that 0.25%.
She walked ahead of me, in her white kurta and printed palazzos. Her long, smooth, black hair was tied in a bun. The back of her silver jhumkas dangled as she jumped through puddles of sewage, asserting, ‘We live in a fucking cesspool, Tara. What the HELL is this? Ew, I think some keechad just landed on my chappals.’
It was true. Just when I had thanked God for this road, God put it right into the hands of Satan. The Delhi Government decided to tear apart the entire region of South West Delhi and bury it under construction. If I were to die and the proverbial ‘life flashing before my eyes’ thing were to happen to me, I’m certain I’ll mostly see massive blue barricades saying Delhi Metro. Also, my mom yelling at my dad for never taking responsibility while usually being totally inebriated herself.
But that’s besides the point. Satyaniketan was broken down for questionable Capitalism, dressed as an Underpass, a tunneled passageway underneath the street for cars and trucks to roll by smoothly. But all that remained was a ginormous chasm: a gaping hole in the centre of the street. Everything that used to be there — the eating joints, the shops, the cars, the people; were pushed towards the margins. Sewage now ran from everywhere to everywhere and as it so often was with margins, the lack of space squeezed life together like eggs slammed into a sandwich, leaving room only for resigned acceptance.
The only way to get from one side to the other was through this makeshift, dirty bridge which looked like it would break apart any moment. But just the way she had become the elastic thread which held her family together, the bridge held on. Some days, looking at it felt like staring at my own reflection, its frailty a testimony to my exhausted self. You look like how I feel – said Zadie Smith in The White Teeth.
Things were better on the other side. There was more shade than sun. The smell of street food wafted through the air, leaving the stench of the sewage behind. Small vendors made Maggi and bread-omelette while students filled into Cafeteria & Co., one of the newer additions, it was brought straight from the North Campus of DU.
Subway, Café Coffee Day and Jain Book Store were the three pillars of the locality that wouldn’t give away. Everything else came and went. Canteen till I Die was replaced by The Chai Story but Woodbox stayed put, even though it had been getting the eyeballs. JP was taken over by Burgrill; Falak, Karan and I loved that one. Now it housed some new Laping place.
Streets gave way to more streets, to more intimate streets and that’s what Falak and I were all about. Entering the Satya lane, our mouths would already be salivating because of Chowinghee’s sinful rolls Bhaiya, 1 chicken tikka aur chicken malai tikka roll please.
Falak had entered my life and changed a lot of things. She didn’t know that, of course. I mean, we were best friends. I’d spent enough time watching rom-coms to know that I couldn’t just go up to her and tell her that I was convinced she was my soulmate, that all I wanted to do, was lie down on the bed with her, play with her really long silky hair, and tell her all the ways in which she made me feel like time itself would stop to celebrate the explosion that our cosmic bond would create in the universe.
That would get me nowhere.
Those movies were mushy but they always seemed to work. Love needed an arc. The climax couldn’t happen at the introductory montage. Plus, we had plot lines to get past: her long-term, now long-distance, super cishet boyfriend from childhood. Not to forget, my own droopy-eyed, hilarious pothead boyfriend.
Falak went to get a bottle of Pepsi as I went to the cigarette thela.
‘1 Ice-burst aur 1 Marlboro Light.’
And further down, ‘Bhaiya, 1 plate chicken gravy momos.’
I lit my cigarette and took a drag. We did this almost everyday. It was actually the best part of my day.
It reminded me of the times in school, when I would develop a crush in the school bus and spend the whole day in class just waiting to get back into the bus. I was reminded of the senile family therapist’s advice to the entire family. Try to unlearn, your pattern.
After blowing smoke into the Delhi air, already heavily polluted, I felt a little better. These days, I’d been feeling utterly hopeless. It wasn’t that the Chandra family was in shambles – when had it not been – because Dad hadn’t been home in a week and Mom’s crying bursts were reaching a hysterical pitch. It was that I was fixating on Falak. All I could do was think about her. About being with her. About running away with her. Upon another drag, I repeated what the therapist had told me in a private session, If you obsess, you cause stress. He loved working with rhymes.
But then I would see her walking toward me, and my cheeks would go red.
She lit her cigarette and exhaled. ‘I can’t believe the mid-sem break is right here. I’m so not ready to go home.’
Falak lived in Lucknow. The Naqvi’s were a big deal there. They had a lot of money, almost aristocratic, but she tended to dismiss it. She spoke about her family all the time, though. All the ways they differed from, didn’t get her—‘Tara, before I came here, it was like I couldn’t see any of it clearly. Now, every time I go back, the cracks become more and more visible. Their money makes them so ignorant…I mean I just cannot believe Abbu is alright with, like, the status quo, that he doesn’t care about things changing for our community. I mean, I’ve ranted enough about the diabolical ways of oppression to him. He doesn’t get it, how fast it’s all happening, and even if he does get it, his societal privilege keeps his discontent subdued. People are being slaughtered…openly, the judiciary is ridiculously biased and do not even get me started on the media—’ her voice trailed off for a moment. She took a drag.
‘Fuck it, I’m going to get too pissed. Just…when Abbu tells me it’s not that bad, Fali and I bark at him saying that yes, it is, it’s so bad that it’s no longer safe to even rent a place all I get in return is silence.
Later, he tries to calm me down by saying he’ll take care of me regardless… I’m like it’s not just about that! It’s always the same when I go back…don’t go around protesting so much, we care about your safety, blah blah blah. I can’t. Are you even listening to me? Am I ranting again? Just tell me, I start and then I just don’t stop—’
The truth was, I never wanted her to stop. I had heard her speak about her doting — ridiculously protective — father many times. Initially, I was quite jealous. The constant calls, the sweet warmth of worry that escaped through his words, all of it. I knew their relationship was turbulent sometimes, they believed in doing things differently, but I’d pick a nagging presence over total absence any day.
I was used to Falak’s voice going on.. But now, I’d started to focus on her tonalities, the peaks and troughs of her voice, so I could play it in my mind later. It was a personal cassette which I would plug into my head. It helped me sleep. I looked at her as she went on— ‘I’m excited for you to meet my parents though, when they come for the play. I’m going to miss everything at practice when I’m gone, ugh! Keep updating me!’
‘It’s only for a week, Falak. Plus, they’re not even focusing on your scenes right now.’
‘Yeah, but I mean like, still.’
‘How’s Saleem? You must be excited to see him?’ I slid that in as nonchalantly as I could. But I instantly regretted it. Slowly, everything I said to her felt like it was loaded with a sub-text.
‘I don’t know. Am I? Truth be told, I think I’m just…bored of him.’
I wanted to stop myself from thinking that meant anything more than it did. The body, however, works differently. I felt my palpitations rise. I wanted to tell her how I felt.
I took another drag— ‘1 Chicken gravy momos.’
Falak reached towards the vendor, taking a drag. She was one of those gorgeous women who made you want to smoke. The kind seen on the side of the street or in movies, the ones who hold the cigarette as an extension of their delicate hands. The ones who collect hearts like ashtrays.
‘Well, maybe you should leave him.’ I said, stabbing a momo with the toothpick. That made me wonder, is the singular of momos, momo? I made a mental note to check it out. Anyway, that seemed like a sound advice any friend would give to their best friend if she was bored of her boyfriend.
‘I think I want to. But… I don’t know. We just have so much history. Do I want to uproot that? And we fit so well. He gets me, you know? I mean, he’s known me forever. But, do I feel like I’m limiting myself? Like I’m missing out on what’s out there, yes. I do.’
‘You’re just 19, Falak. You’ve just about stepped out of Lucknow. It would make sense if you wanted to take a break. Explore things. People. Relationships are complex.’
She stared at me for a moment. Then she almost said something but stopped. Is she nervous about something? My heart skipped a beat. As I watched her gasp and exhale, she brought her tongue in and out, after gobbling a steaming momo and then snorting.
I wanted to say it. I love you. So much. But I was scared. Too scared of losing her. So I just stuck with making her laugh as much as I could. I knew that someday I would tell Falak I loved her. I had to wait it out. She would get bored of Saleem and we would go out drinking and spend nights in my house or in her flat and perform our play and make memories and she would love me back. She already loved me, so much, yes. I just had to make her love me that way.
‘By the way, how are things with Karan? Are you guys okay?’
Maybe I was reading things, but her question seemed loaded with a sub-text too. Who knows? Maybe the universe, for once, was on my side and she was totally in love with me too.
‘I think he’s slowly, just burning away like the hash he keeps smoking. Maybe it’s time I stub him.’
She laughed. She threw the paper plate into the already overflowing bin. I got up as well. It was time to go home. At the end of this lane, she would go left and I would go right.
As we walked, something happened. On the dusty lanes of Satyaniketan, where Mom Hand Momos took over Grill Masters, where the wires — crisscrossing at loose, messy, unstructured junctures — told stories, where even the stairs that led to matchbox houses were drowning with memories; Falak held my hand. She entwined her long fingers into mine and squeezed them. I looked at her.
Nervousness took over me.
It seemed like it was the perfect time to tell her.
We reached the end of the lane. I turned to her. She hugged me.
Oh. My. God. She’s in love with me too.
She looked at me and I could sense her mustering a ton of courage per arm.
We stood at the beginning of the street. Or the end.
‘I think I’m leaving Saleem. I’m in love with someone else.’
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I nodded ferociously. I knew exactly what she was going to say.
‘And I know you’ll understand because there’s no one in the world who loves me more than you do. I wouldn’t do anything if I thought you cared. But you’ve made it so clear that you don’t.’
‘Karan. I think I’m in love with him. And I think he may love me too, Tara.’
Rishika Kaushik, 21, is currently pursuing her Masters in English from the University of Hyderabad. Writer, Actor and Activist (in progress, of course), she aspires to explore the complex, flawed, inside patterns of human life. Based in Delhi, India, she finished her Bachelors from Sri Venkateswara College, DU and is now looking at higher education after finishing Masters in other parts of the globe. Published work can be found here.
One thought on “Fiction | ‘A Collection of Hearts and Ashtrays’ by Rishika Kaushik | Creative Writing Workshop”
A wonderful story, I loved reading it Rishika. Loved the metaphors, especially of the drains and the margins. Keep writing.