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"In Bloated Delhi" A Work of Prose

from Sunil Sharma

 

 


The first thing noticed is the belly.

 “It has ballooned out. Juts out so badly. Spoils the appearance,” declares the host gleefully. 
That is how you receive guests? Welcome or an attack?
His voice is like a cutter. I grab a chair. 
His smile continues to be mocking. I feel I am in Siberia. Frosty winds buffet me.
I should not have come.
The ensuing silence hangs heavy.
 A lion is attacking a deer in an African jungle on the TV.
HD TV can re-define the viewing experience! I recall the ad-line. The lion first crouches in the grass, then bursts upon the startled herd of the beautiful deer, and then pounces on the weakest.  And kills the innocent-eyed deer…slow-motion.
All the details, the contours are vivid, enabling you to feel the tension of the kill.
The host comes on suddenly. He is relentless, “You should watch your belly. It changes image.”
“Is it so bad?” I ask. 
Your face is bloated and your tummy is bigger.
“Bad? It is worst! It hangs over the leather belt like a sagging sack of potatoes. Leather belt… a faux Gucci, I guess.”
I smile. My eyes involuntarily travelling to the screen inside the deep cavern of the drawing-room of the huge bungalow where two obese kids sit glued to TV on this chilly late morning of a lazy Sunday.
I am into another locale.
The lion twists the thin neck its victim. The deer starts bleeding fast; broken neck drooping lifeless in death’s powerful jaws. Life starts ebbing out…
…Host’s chasing voice pulls me back.
“Go for the branded ones, dear. The look changes. The brand announces a person.” His croaking voice jars.
I refuse the bait.
He deliberately places his right hand over the left. A fat hand full of gold. Five rings glittering in the anemic sun of December 2011. Pale light playing on the pale metal! He is a mobile brand-store. Dark aviators, jeans, jacket, T-shirt, shoes, cigar, and, I suspect, innerwear also…all branded. So is his cognac and French fries from the Mac outlet.
“You do not exercise.” He is magisterial. A German shepherd is lolling by his feet encased in a foreign brand of running shoes. It is chilly. He takes a sip and lights up.
I steal a look. His eyes are drooping. The side-effect of a Botox injection? His face is, surprisingly, without any lines. No double chin, either. But an ugly belly protrudes. The face and trunk do not match. 
Smooth, wrinkle-free face but heavy torso!
Perhaps, liposuction is still to be done.
He belches and resumes his interrogation. “Yaar, you look bloated. Face has become fleshy and full. Belly is hanging. Please, do work out. Care for your body. It is an age of fitness. Remain fit.”
I do not reply. Just smile. 
“I daily walk for an hour and a half,” he says.
“It does not show,” I retort, anger rising.
“It will. It will…soon. I am on strict diet. I want to be fit.”
I look at the cognac glass. He understands. “Saturdays and Sundays are exceptions. Hard work. Harder partying. Rest of the weekdays, burning out of the extra calories through gymming, aerobics and cardio-vascular exercises. Have already shed five Kilograms in last three months.” His tone is triumphal. Expects no answer from me.
“Body Beautiful.” He says. “Indians are becoming conscious of this principle that has animated Europe and America for centuries. We were the other-worldly people. Now coming back to the terra firma…finally.”
I am a captive audience.
“Indians, especially the urban ones, are exercising a lot these days. The typical Indian male is no longer like YOU. I mean he is not indifferent to health. He does not suffer from central obesity. He enjoys good things but also works out in a top gym and watches his calories carefully. Things have changed. We are all Americans in our attitude.”
I nodded. Fashion and lifestyle magazines are everywhere and celebrate this lifestyle called hedonism by our elders and consumerism by sociologists.
“My friends, in their late 40s, regularly go out to beauty parlors. They undergo facials, pedicures and manicures, like their wives,” says host, laughing loudly. The German shepherd looks up startled at its master and then resumes its sad vigil. “My dad would have laughed at this bunch of men and called them sissies. But that perspective is dated. Older Indians are out-of-sync with the realities of a globalised world.”
I smile.
“This lot works hard, spends a lot. They are not ashamed of spending. The previous generation felt guilty. We do not feel guilty in blowing couple of grands on good food, wine and women. We indulge.”  He gulped his remaining cognac and lit up.
It was a Havana cigar.
“We spend a lot. I mean the upper crust.”
I nodded.
“Heard of Versace?”
I said, No. But there were many things that I have not heard also. For example, Majid Majidi. Or, Roberto Benigni. 

In a party by a Mumbai socialite, many years ago, I was asked by a jhola-carrying, jean -and -kurta wearing, bearded and spectacled JNU University-alumnus, already high on his fifth Scotch, in that vast elegant chandeliered hall of the Arabian Sea-facing flat at the Marine Drive, Do you know Majid Majidi? A no drew another question, Roberto Bengini? Another no, another question: Stavros Melissinos? I was becoming desperate at this cultural inquisition. I asked him, Do you know John Craig Venter? He was totally unprepared. His face---whatever was visible above the facial hair---flushed. Any idea about the great Panini? Or, Mir Taqui Mir? He was totally flabbergasted by my sudden scholarship and new-found confidence in that high place on that delectable muggy night. Naw! He drawled. I smiled and said, Mr. Brown Sahib, please go and find out about them. The world is full of great souls. If our lists do not tally, it does not mean that either of us a fool. His face became ashen and he excused himself. For the rest of my stay, I was left in peace. Luckily, there were no other cultural interrogators.

He found my no very intoxicating. He rattled off the names of many top brands. He was getting a high out of my ignorance. And proving his superiority.
“Do you plan to open a multi-brand outlet?” I asked, amused. 
He got the point and was saved by a call on his phone that was predictably a BlackBerry. This time, loud and irritating, he was discussing oversea deals worth crores…

Delhi has put on weight.  Become terrifyingly obese. Reminds me of an unwieldy giant lumbering up. Vehicles crawl on every inch. Traffic snarls choke the roads.
It is unmanageable. Has become bloated.
 The city lacks in soul. Once the Moguls lived in it. They enriched it. The new moguls are brazenly uncouth. Their flashy cars arrogantly over speed and even kill; bungalows are monstrosities of the Italian marble and glass; designer clothes are obscenely costly; satiety eludes. The men exist for food, liquor and sex; women, for clothes, jewellery and fashion. The whole city is bristling with the cars. Exhaust fumes choke. It is gasping. The crowds overwhelm. Food courts, street food stalls, malls, multiplexes have fast replaced the Mughlai and Luteyns’ Delhi. The famous coffee houses of the 1980s have vanished. Book shops are stocked with management and computer books. The after-meals discussion inevitably is about new sensations. Everybody dreams of a bigger apartment, high-paying job and powerful connections. The quiet and charming Delhi of my childhood is lost.

It has become hedonistic haven in last decade or so…like the other mega cities of India.

People talk of good things, looks, pay-packages, holiday-destinations, liquor and food. 
And of skin colour.
It happened yesterday only.
An old woman exclaimed, “You have become very dark!” 
I got nonplussed by the remark. Seeing me dumb, she said, “I am talking about you. Earlier you were very fair. Now, you have become dark.”
I could not believe my ears!
“Since when Delhi has become colour-conscious about males?” I asked.
She smiled. “I do not know. What I know is that you were very fair in your younger days. Now, you are dark.”
I did not react.
“You looked like an Englishman…then.”
I smiled, “Does it matter, now? I am about to retire.”
“No, no. It matters…a lot. You were very white. Flawless skin. It has blotched.”
I wanted to scream. Look at your skin, lady.
I refused the bait.
You cannot show light to those who enjoy darkness.

Last night, it was all money- power.
 Food and drinks flowed. In the late-evening pre-wedding ceremony, the men in designer suits and clipped beards got stuck to the drinks- counter. Surviving such social occasions is challenging for a teetotaler.
Alone, isolated, I was standing in the outer lawn of the sprawling club in South Delhi club, savoring the strong breeze, when I was accosted by this Gargantuan.
He popped out from behind a decorated carved column. A small rotund figure with fleshy cheeks and double chin, nursing his glass.
“Bitter cold,” he said.
“Hum,” I said. “December is cold.”
“Unusually cold night.” He said and took a sip. “You not drinking?”
“No. I do not drink.”
“WHAT?” His mouth fell open in genuine wonder. “Are you from some other planet?” His friendliness was infectious. I smiled, relieved to get a company.
“Why?” I asked, more friendly.
“You must be a saint in a sinning city,” he said and laughed loudly, in real merriment. “An anachronistic piece! A monk in a whorehouse!” His ha-ha-ha resounded in the open lawn and merged with the howling wind.
“Interesting!” I remarked. “You have a way with words.”
“Chaudhery. Manas Chaudhery.” He said and proffered his hand. It was heavy and short. “You a guest?” He asked, jovially.
“Obviously,” I said. “You?”
“Obviously,” he replied and dissolved in laughter, his belly bunching up. We both laughed. I felt lighter. Even I have got a friend in a place where nobody seems to be interested in me.
“Interesting guy,” I said.
“No. You are more interesting to me for being an exception to the rule,” he said.
“What is the rule?” I asked, whiling away my time.
“Well, simple. Eat a lot, drink a lot…”
“And be merry a lot…” I completed.
“No.” He said, eyes smiling.
“Then?” I was curious.
“And never be satiated in life…” He said and laughed again.
“Wow! You are our new Prophet,” I said.
“Can call me that. I am the New Gargantuan,” he observed, a tad serious and gulped down the amber contents of his glass. “I can devour lot of things. Greedy for newer sensations. I am an energy guzzler. Can destroy forests and fossils both.”
“My Gawd! You are terrific!” 
“People often say that. My greed, hunger and thrust are beyond satiety. They are enormous. For them, I, as the New Gargantuan, can easily, shamelessly, gobble up the globe and future be damned. In fact, I do not care what happens to this globe---as long as my enormous appetites are satisfied on purely ad-hoc basis. ”
“Marvellous!” I exclaimed. “You are very honest guy! Nice to meet you.”
“I am perpetually hungry. Always want to eat something or the other. God cursed me with a huge appetite. This craving never leaves me. My soul is in the kitchen.”
“Is it?”
“Yes. I eat throughout the day. Yet, feel unfulfilled. Is it not a curse?”
“Yes. But it is strange!”
He smiled and said, “Let me fill up my glass from the counter.”
And he quickly went towards the far-off counter where drinks were being served. I looked at the retreating round figure. It was getting colder. A fog was developing. The lights glowed in the lawns like some inviting beacons. The men were busy with drinking in that far-off corner; women were eating chaats, noodles, pizzas, dosas, selecting the menu along with the excited kids. A band was playing in another corner, belting out some soulful music that nobody listened.
Then a melee broke out at the drinks counter.
My hosts were arguing with Gargantuan. One of them gestured towards me. I strode rapidly towards the small group of the agitated drunks.
“What happened?” I asked.
“This man has gate-crashed into our private party,” said my senior host, annoyed.
“But he told me he is the guest,” I said.
“When I saw him, I could not place him. So, I asked the bride family. They also could not place him. So I confronted him. He said he knows you,” said the host, eyes blazing. “Do you know this man?”
All the time the Gargantuan stood composed and kept on smiling, drinking his large peg.
“Yes. Just a few minutes ago,” I said.
“I told you. He is a serial gate-crasher. I have seen him earlier being kicked out from some other south-Delhi parties,” said a drunk young man.
The host lost his cool. “How dare you barge into a private party? Call the cops N-O-W.’
The man in question remained unperturbed. Kept on smiling as ever. And spoke in clipped English, “Yes. Please do. I am not a trespasser. I am a member of this exclusive club that rents out part of the premises for weddings and other functions.”
The host taunted, “If you are not a trespasser, then who you are? President of USA?”
He smiled and said, “It is a function going on. I joined the revelry. In our community and village, everybody is welcome to join the festivities. Even rank strangers also. Athithi devo bhava.”
It left the host speechless.
“I am not an intruder. Nor a tramp. I am ready to pay for my drinks and food. Only a little bit I have taken. The rest is going to be wasted anyway.”
The men were confused by this logic.
“I am not a thief. Not taken anything or destroyed anything here. I joined the party thinking that it belongs to Ramesh Kumar…” He said.
“Yes. It belongs to Ramesh Kumar,” I said, the only sober.
“Then I am not in the wrong place!” said the intruder.
“Which Ramesh Kumar?” The host asked, angrily.
“Ramesh Kumar is Ramesh Kumar only,”  the man answered smiling sweetly.
“I mean there are hundreds of Ramesh Kumars going in this city…”
“Not all the hundreds can host the party in this upscale club,” said the man-intruder genially. By then another drunk moved over and said, “Let us stop this stupid interrogation. It is a party. Let us celebrate. The more, the merrier.” 
The host was unimpressed by the generosity that the drunks are capable of. “Should we then welcome every gate-crasher? There will be no limit to the expenses.”
This hurt the peace-maker. “You do not think of expenses, at least now. He is not a trespasser.”
“Is he your friend?” Asked the angry host.
“NO,” said the generous drunk. “But, now, he becomes my friend.” 
And he slid beside the intruder, holding the latter’s hand. “He has become a friend. Now, he is my pal. Would you eject him from this party?”
Suddenly the host smiled and gave up. “OK. I give up. Enjoy.”
They all laughed. The drunk embraced his new friend. Both started moving towards the drinks-counter, talking like some lost brothers united again, leaving me stranded again on that small patch of artificial grass that the faded red carpet was unable to hide…

 

 

Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, a college principal, is also widely-published literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has already published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited six books so far. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award---2012. Recently his poems were published in the UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree.

 

He edits the online journal Episteme:

http://www.episteme.net.in/