‘Nobody makes tea like you, Damayanti.’
The man sitting on the log of wood, in the garden, mumbled these words. He had refused to come into the house and she had not insisted. One look at him had been enough. She recoiled as if she had seen a millipede curled up under a rock that had been upturned.
Sameer looked up at her as she brought him some tea and samosas. His hand shook while he held the glass of tea, and Damayanti held the plate of samosas while he reached out for one, and then another, wolfing them down. He gulped down the kadak chai, chai that had been boiled with ginger and heavily sweetened.
‘Let me get you a napkin…’
He wiped his hands and mouth on his sleeve, got up unsteadily to his feet and shuffled into her home.
She looked around at the walls, the photographs, at anything but him.
Such a far cry from what Sameer had quoted, from Ghalib, when she had first entered his home.
Twenty-five years ago.
‘Wo aaye dar par hamare khuda ki kudrat hai,
Kabhi hum unko, kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain…!’
She came over to my home, this is the grace of God, I glance at her, sometimes, in wonderment, and then at my home, immensely graced by her presence.
Sameer had looked at her as if she were the most beautiful woman in the world, had spoken to her, as if there had been nobody in the world, but she. He made her feel she was the only one.
And now, Sameer lay lifeless, on the low ‘divan’ and closed his eyes. Damayanti, thankfully, had gone into the kitchen. He could not bear to look at her. How could anybody change so much? Not a smile on her face. She looked shocked when she saw him at the gate. Was about to call for help, when he croaked feebly, ‘Damayanti.’
Why had she been crying? Her eyes were red-rimmed when she had brought him those samosas, and that tea, it was to die for. Why didn’t she apply kohl to her eyes anymore? Those eyes. That kohl. It was the stuff dreams were made of.
Ah, how many days had it been, since he lay on a mattress. Years?
Years ago, Sameer had it all.
Sameer could weave magic with his words. He spun incredible couplets, in Urdu, that made his friends exclaim, ‘Wah! Wah!’ in delight. He was a poet and dressed in the way his favourite matinee idol, the evergreen Dev Anand would, on the silver screen. Humming the popular tunes from Dev Anand’s movies, he walked with a swagger that was the envy of all the young people in his college and neighbourhood. He dressed in the same debonair fashion and his mannerisms were uncannily alike.
One day as he had been sauntering by the houses that lined the road that lead to his college, talking animatedly to his friends about his latest poem, the strains of a rajasthani song sung incredibly out of tune, assaulted his ears.
‘Resham ka rumaal gale pe daaaal ke
tu aa jana dildar mere main-
delhi ka surma laga ke arrey
kab se khadi hoon darwajje pe…’
‘Oy, Sameer, she is asking you to wrap a silk scarf around your neck!’
‘Since when have you arranged this rendezvous with your beloved? You actually got somebody to call you, ‘beloved’?
‘Poor thing she has applied the kohl she got from Delhi and is waiting, by the door, a long, long time for you!’
Sameer, annoyed by this banter, curtly told his friends to cut it out, when they, encouraged by Sameer’s apparent discomfort, egged him on, with talk of the invisible ‘Bhabi-jaan’, Sister-in-law, waiting for him. They were obviously ready to forge new relationships with the atrocious singer.
Cold water rained down on them and they turned to behold a very angry young lady with an empty bucket in her hand, mouthing the choicest invective in Hindi, which would have made even the boys blush if they had not been so cold and wet.
Mirza Ghalib, poet extraordinaire, suddenly made sense to Sameer.
He watched, as she turned to return indoors. His friends recovered enough to shout ‘Ladki, yeh kyaa badtammeezi hai…’when Sameer raised his hand and said that she was not the ill-mannered one, but they were, standing there and discussing her song. The boys hooted with delight and more references were made to Bhabi-jaan, kohl-lined eyes, silk scarves and weddings. Sameer found all this deliciously wonderful, and he turned repeatedly, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved, with her dark tresses and kohl-lined eyes, glinting in anger.
Sameer found out that she went to the same college as he did. Before long, he managed to run into her at every convenient moment. She wasn’t shy and coy like the others but spoke in an easy manner to everybody, including Sameer. She laughed openly at the jokes he cracked loudly in her presence. She loved a joke and when she laughed, Sameer felt his heart would burst with happiness.
The first time she came home, for his Hindi notebook, with her mother, he quoted Ghalib to her,
‘Wo aaye dar par hamare khuda ki kudrat hai,
Kabhi hum unko, kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain…!’
She blushed suddenly and walked into the kitchen where the mothers were having a conversation while the tea was boiling on the stove.
And then there was Rakesh. The successful Rakesh. The ambitious Rakesh. The practical Rakesh.
Perfect marriage material.
Unlike Sameer, the dreamer.
Rakesh walked in after parking his car in the garage and found this gorgeous, bewitching creature sitting in the living room talking to his mother and listening to Sameer who was laughing and quoting Urdu poetry.
The mothers got along very well, Rakesh noticed. That was a good thing.
He sat down holding his cup of Angrezi, weak, English, tea, munched on crisp ‘Marie’ biscuits, while everyone else, sipped on Kadak Chai, the Indian version of tea that had been boiled hard, with ginger till it took on a muddy, earthy flavour, the perfect accompaniment to the kachoris and samosas Sameer had brought home from the neighbouring Mithaiwala.
They settled down to an evening of shaayiri, urdu poetry, and smiled indulgently while Sameer entertained them. Sameer was delirious with joy. He was at his best. Inspired by Damayanti’s presence, he quoted Ghalib and revelled in her attention.
Damayanti revelled in all the attention too. But it wasn’t Sameer’s attention that occupied her mind anymore. Rakesh stepped in. Suave, sophisticated Rakesh. Worldly wise Rakesh, who had a good job, who knew how to treat a lady.
Rakesh turned on the charm and Damayanti, who had never met a gentleman before, finally knew what it was to be treated like royalty. Rakesh hovered by Damayanti’s mother, offering her Kachoris and diamond shaped- slabs of cashewnut burfee, a delicious sweet, till she protested she could not eat anymore. He refilled Damayanti’s cup with more tea and when the evening drew to a close, he offered to drop the ladies home. They protested but he would not hear of it. Sameer went into the garden and brought roses for Damayanti and her mother. He waved goodbye and watched till the car was out of sight. Then he walked in with his mother chattering excitedly about what a wonderful girl Damayanti was. He agreed wholeheartedly.
The Hindi notebook had been left behind along with the roses, on the coffee table.
Dev Anand did not work for him anymore. Too dashing, too sophisticated to be real, despite his unrequited love for Suraiya. Sameer had read in a ‘filmi’ magazine that Dev Anand had affected Gregory Peck’s gestures because Suraiya was his fan.
It was Dilip Kumar now. Full of pathos, his ‘Devdas’ was an epic touching the depths of unrequited love. The thespian portrayed, on screen, the despair only Sameer could understand, when all of them went for an ‘outing’ with the engaged couple.
Sameer left halfway through the movie.
Only Damayanti did.
She noticed a lot. The change in Sameer. How he avoided her after that evening. How he became formal with her, saying ‘Aap’ instead of the affectionate ‘Tum’.
She knew the boy liked her. Who wouldn’t? But then, she knew what her priorities were. A stable marriage. Poetry was all very nice, but she wanted to settle down with somebody who would take care of her.
And Rakesh was ready. He had everything. The next step was marriage. Damayanti was perfect, she fit into his scheme of things, his masterplan of life.
Damayanti was very happy with the turn of events. She would now have a husband who would cherish her and provide for her. She could always be ‘friends’ with Sameer. She missed his jokes and missed laughing with him.
But where had that Sameer disappeared? He withdrew into a shell and she never heard him laugh again. No smile either. She did not see why Sameer had to ruin it with his sulking. But she turned her attention to Rakesh.
Zindagi ban gayi, yaar! Life was ‘made’. She would be ‘well-settled’.
Sameer was soon forgotten.
Even by Damayanti.
Sameer’s friends rallied around him.
After the wedding Rakesh and Damayanti moved away to the city.
Sameer never got over Damayanti. Rakesh understood more than he would let on. He never spoke to Sameer about it but ensured he had no access to his home or wife. Damayanti, did she feel anything? Nobody knew, or cared. Sameer did, but he wasn’t getting any answers. He died a little every day.
Damayanti looked up when he stirred on the divan. Sameer got up and propped himself up against the wall and took a swig from a bottle he unearthed from his bag. Damayanti looked at him with distaste. Sameer noticed but pretended not to. They watched a complicated soap opera on television till Rakesh walked in. How complacent he looked, with his briefcase and perfectly matched shirt and trousers, thought Sameer. He noticed that Damayanti hastily got up to switch the television off and hurried into the kitchen to get Rakesh his tea.
‘Wohi Angrezi chai peetey ho kya?’ drawled Sameer. He had great contempt for people who could not bear strong stuff, including tea.
Rakesh made no answer. He shut the door to the kitchen. Then he strode to Sameer and hit him hard on the cheek. Sameer’s head banged against the wall and he uttered a cry that brought Damayanti to the kitchen door. She threw herself against it, to no avail.
She waited by the stove, warming her cold palms and stood for a long time. She heard the gate creak open and close. The bolt shot open and she carried the tea tray to Rakesh.
The next morning, when Kamalabai, the maid swept the floor, she found a little pocketbook behind the divan.
Damayanti opened it eagerly.
‘Zindagi to yun bhi basar ho hi rahi hai,
Tum mil jaate to aur acha tha…!’
Life had been going on well, if I had you, it would have been better.
Damayanti threw the pocket book away, after the pages were rendered illegible because of her tears.
‘Maze jahaan ke apnee nazar mein khaak naheen
Siwaa e khoon-e-jigar, so jigar mein khaak naheen…’
The happiness of the world is nothing for me
for my heart is left with no feeling but that of blood rushing through it.
Then she went about her life, perfecting the art of merely existing.