"My name is Arun D'Silva. I am from Bombay. Can I fall in love with you?"
This was how he introduced himself to every girl. And it wasn't true. Though his name was Arun D'Silva, he wasn't from Bombay, but from Goa, and he didn't particularly want to fall in love. But whenever he saw any girl, whenever he gazed into a pair of large black eyes, he could think of nothing but love.
This time, he was on the crossover bridge at Church Gate Station, straddling the cement parapet and his legs swung on either side. Looking down, he spotted a woman on platform three, waiting for the train. She carried an orange leather handbag and the heel of her shoe tapped the platform. She hadn't heard his introduction, so he shouted again as loudly as he could. Her train arrived and the tapping stopped. He never saw her again, but felt the steam of the departing train against the soles of his feet.
The only woman Arun D'Silva saw on a regular basis but never addressed his question to was Mrs. Mathur, his landlady. He lived in a small off-shoot of the Dharavi slum, where people who had managed to partially pull themselves out of the Bombay muck had set up a community housing system. He occupied a closet-sized room, which used to be the store of Mrs. Mathur's 2-bedroom, ground-floor flat. But when Mrs. Mathur had found her mother dead, slumped on the ground, clutching a glass bottle of puffed rice, she immediately pronounced the room inauspicious and rented it out. Arun paid part of his rent by sweeping and mopping the open-air landing outside the house everyday by dawn, did some odd chores, and also paid a part in cash. He entered and exited his room through a small door that had once been a ventilation gap. Sometimes, when Mrs. Mathur knew that Arun hadn't eaten a square meal a day owing to lack of funds, she left him a plate of rice and dhal outside the door, and Arun showed his gratitude by buying with his own money a sheet of tin and fixed it as a door so as to give her some privacy. He was also very meticulous with his chores; he woke at dawn to complete the sweeping and mopping, fetched milk from the milkman, and ran to the corner shop for groceries before shutting his door and leaving for work.
Arun didn't have any close relatives, except for a great-aunt in Calcutta who he didn't think he had ever seen. Nevertheless, she sent him a parcel of home-made sweets every month. She owned two voluptuous, over-lactating cows that were housed in her garage. She was wealthy enough to own a car, but not a second garage, so the car had to stay parked out on the street. The cows together produced ten litres of milk a day, and the milk couldn't be thrown away as the cows were sacred, so milk sweets were constantly being prepared and distributed to various family members through out India, sometimes even to distant third cousins in London and Melbourne .
Arun kept the sweets, along with his other precious possessions, locked in a trunk and close to his bed pile. He ate one every three days, so the box lasted through the month. The sweets were for him something so distant from Mrs. Mathur's dahl and rice, from his daily routine, and they were an extravagance he would hardly ever indulge in. But most of the time, when he didn't have enough money for lunch, they simply served to relieve hunger.
"Watch, purse, fresh new combs!" "Ma'am, beautiful comb for your hair, please?" "Sir, Italian purse, genuine, for your wife?"
Arun D'Silva wasn't a peddler. He was a contractor. Every Thursday, Mr. Deshpande brought Arun a cardboard box full of knick knacks to sell. Every night, he sent his rowdy ten-year-old boys to bang on Arun's ad hoc tin door and collect the day's earnings. The boys teased Arun and called him names like bastard and fucker. But he let them, though he was two years older and even a little bigger than they were.
He was paid 200 rupees a week with a 15 per cent commission, and also was required to garner at least 300 rupees a day, "or else…" Mr. Deshpande repeated every week, staring at Arun and bringing his eyebrows so close together they touched. Arun was sure to produce his quota every day. On days when he didn't make enough, he would scrape from his own savings so as to avoid finding out what the "or else" entailed.
It was hardly a problem in Bombay to make an extra hundred a day. He would take his red cap with the plastic visor, stick a pen in his shirt collar, and carry a little notepad to wait at the Gateway of India. "Sir, Ma'am, experienced guide. See beautiful caves. You heard of Ajanta . Ellora. Beautiful paintings." The truth was that most of the frescos in Ajanta and Ellora had been washed away by centuries of men urinating against the cave walls; therefore, people came to see the sculptures instead. The caves, dating from even before the reign of Chandragupta I, bore sculptures, friezes, bas-reliefs, and pillars depicting the story of Buddha. But Arun couldn't memorize all that the caves had to offer. The other guides laughed at him when he yelled "Beautiful statues," so he stuck to "Beautiful paintings."
Arun loved looking at women tourists – he loved that they all wore t-shirts, khaki shorts, and money-belts like uniforms. Their white skin looked so delicate that their veins were blue, not green like his, and he felt annoyed at Bombay humidity for making them sweat so much. Whenever he saw a particularly pretty woman, he couldn't help but shout his usual introduction, "My name is Arun D'Silva. I am from Bombay. Can I fall in love with you?" Yet, he was sure to say it in Hindi so she wouldn't understand and develop an unfavourable impression of Indian boys.
One day, a tourist holding the 10th edition of Lonely Planet India paid him nearly 500 rupees to be shown around the caves. Arun detested the half-hour ferry ride from The Gateway to the islands. In the canopied part of the deck, he saw women with shawl-covered heads clutching their husbands' arms whenever the boat swayed. He wanted to sit with them, but the tourist led him right to the bow so that the shit-coloured water sprayed their faces every time the boat dipped. To distract himself, he stared at the picture of the Taj Mahal on the cover of the Lonely Planet. Arun had never seen the mausoleum, but knew all the related poems. He knew that it was a monument built for love by a grieving lover (Shah Jahan was, in Arun's mind, a lover more than a king). He imagined himself, Arun D'Silva, another lover, broken-hearted and pining for a lost love. He would build her something more fabulous than the Taj Mahal, something that would not only require countless hours of incessant labour, but also pure genius that would irrevocably coil his heart and his history with hers. But he couldn't think -- the dipping and rising of the ferry and sprays of the Arabian Sea jumbled his plans and set his mind raving.
One dusty Sunday evening, as was customary, he made his way to a bleached playground to play cricket with other boys. As he was waiting his turn to bat, he spied a girl walking across. He wanted immediately to introduce himself, but the presence of the other boys and the bare playground made him self-conscious. He started practicing his leg spin while watching her. Walking swiftly across the caked pitch, she grabbed a small boy by his ear and started dragging him screeching across the field. She crossed the playground to exit through a gap in the white-washed compound wall, all the while scolding the boy about his homework. She was wearing navy-blue school ribbons on her hair although it was a Sunday. Her small hands maintained a firm grip on the boy, who was struggling to return to his game. For the first time since his adolescent years, Arun didn't feel the need to complete his usual introduction. But after she had left, just for good measure, he muttered under his breath, "My name is Arun D'Silva…"
That night, Arun walked home with his gaze fixed ahead. He almost got run over a few more times than usual. Sitting on his cot-less bed, a bunch of old sheets and a scratchy blanket thrown on top of newspapers, he started to think.
"People have died for love. It is said to be the greatest feeling – a light and happy perfection." He kept feeling against his lips swishes of plaits tied with blue school ribbon and sensed a soft romantic song being played in his head, but didn't realise it was the muffled sound of a neighbour's television. He finally fell asleep.
Arun D'Silva was not a stalker, nor was he obsessed. He had a chance to be in love, and he told himself that in his condition, he had the license to do anything. It was permissible to keep going back to the playground and walking along the streets in that area like a prowler. In due time, he saw the girl, this time with white instead of blue ribbons at the bottom of her two plaits. She was carrying an over-stuffed schoolbag and held her brother's hand. He wasn't going to waste time. Without even thinking about what he was going to say, Arun ran to her. "Would you like to buy a comb, miss? For your beautiful hair?" He looked at the little boy while he talked. Then he realised that he didn't even have his bundle of merchandise and couldn't offer her anything. He blushed at his mistake.
"What is your name?" He was surprised to hear her address him. Her gold nose-ring dipped to touch her upper-lip as she spoke. He saw that she wasn't quite old enough to have breasts, that her black kohl had melted from the heat and was smudging the outer-corner of her eyes.
"My name is Arun D'Silva." He didn't mention the Bombay part or the rest. He knew he was in love.
Arun met Nooria once a week. They would meet on Sundays at the playground. She came to fetch her brother for lunch, and then stayed to talk to Arun for half-an-hour before returning home. Arun wanted to see her more often. He suggested meeting at the train station or going for popsicles at Juhu beach after he finished with work, but she always refused. "A girl doesn't travel alone," she said. Eventually, they stopped meeting at the playground and spent time at her terrace. Arun brought cream sodas to every rendezvous to lessen the effect of mid-day heat, and she her school books to teach him how to spell apple, explain the function of chlorophyll, and list the countries in Asia.
Arun learned more about Nooria. She was from a village and moved to the city with her father and mother. She told Arun, when they sat on the terrace parapet gazing at the hazy skyline, how much she disliked the smells and sounds and crowds of Bombay. She would finish her studies, get a degree in Chemistry, and move to the north-east, where she would teach university students in some lush, shady campus. "The trees here don't give shadows," she complained to Arun. She loved evenings at the terrace, unlike other girls who spent their free time walking up and down Marine Drive, praying to catch glimpses of their Bollywood heartthrob. When Arun told her that his building had no terrace, but a roof instead, she was shocked. She told him that the terrace is the best place to be when it drizzles. "The rain is fresher here. You know with acid rain and all."
Arun didn't understand much of what she talked about. He had heard of chemistry – it was a something they taught at school, but he didn't know about acid rain. He resolved to study harder so at the next meeting, he could at least write her name without looking.
He hardly visited the Gateway of India anymore, even when he fell short of his daily quota. He couldn't concentrate, couldn't explain to each camera-totting tourist what each sculpture, each urine-streaked fresco, signified. He was determined to learn everything that Nooria brought to the terrace and to understand what her dreams meant. He spread his bundle on the streets or beach each morning, sporadically shouting the day's wares, also spelling to himself the letters of objects he saw. "P-i-n-e-a-p-p-l-e" he said, as one customer inquired about the price of a fake Lacoste wallet. A little girl peeled off the purple and gold covering of a Cadbury's c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. "N-o-o-r-i-a," he tried once and then again and again until he felt he couldn't wait to see her.
Arun unearthed the small aluminium box that he had received from Calcutta three weeks ago. Extracting one silver-foil coated sweet, he wrapped it with a piece of clean note paper and tied it with string. "Can I fall in love with you?" he said, as he inhaled the smell of the sweets before closing and putting away the aluminium box, and breathed it back on the small white parcel.
Early next day, before setting up his purses, watches and combs on some crowded pavement, he went to stand by the brick wall near the playground, waiting for Nooria to walk by. School students with neat-pressed uniforms, bending under their bulging backpacks passed, but there was no sign of her that day. He waited, watching maids sweep house verandas and women venturing out with plastic baskets for vegetable shopping. He waited two hours. "She had promised to see me." He squatted by the pavement and used his shirt tail to wipe sweat from the back of his neck. He worried that he hadn't practiced his studies enough, and he worried that he had brought only the sweet and nothing else for her. Finally, he worried that she wasn't coming.
Before dragging away his sack of merchandise to open shop in the corner of Linkin Road, he untied the string of his white parcel, opened the paper and popped the sweet in his mouth. It melted warmly on his tongue and the dissolving sugar crystals left a pungent after-taste. He felt a sudden change in his body, as prickly bumps formed on his skin, and shivered because of the rise in his blood sugar level. He blamed it on her though, and on his disappointed heart.
That day, he sold only a pocket mirror and a black fine-tooth comb. He even stood with his make-shift bazaar by Juhu beach from for two hours in the evening, but either he didn't shout "Watch, purse, fresh new combs!" loud enough or his morning's dejection was keeping away potential customers. He returned home dreading to face Mr. Deshpande's rowdy sons when he would have to give them only a fourth of their accustomed amount. He didn't even greet Mrs. Mathur, but wedged the tin door tightly.
Mr. Deshpande's sons arrived promptly and started banging on the ventilator door at the building's rear. They never knocked, but pounded the already-dilapidated sheet of tin. "How much have you got?" one demanded. When Arun produced some tattered ten rupee notes in answer, they strip-searched him, pinched the flesh of his stomach and socked his face, "You work on a quota, sister-fucker." Arun was worried that Mrs. Mathur would hear their obscenities and cried in a high-pitched voice to drown out the racket. The boys finally left when he appeased them with some Calcutta sweets and the promise to garner more money the next day.
Arun D'Silva was not a loafer; nor was he imprudent. He was distracted. The next morning, the bundle of watches, purses, and combs looked uninviting. He wrapped four sweets into bags of two, left them with Mrs. Mathur for the Deshpande boys, and went to Victoria Terminus. Just as how, five years ago, he had come to Bombay from Goa, he went back the same way – train-hopping, running along the tracks to catch hold of the window bars, and letting go before the train pulled into a station so the station master wouldn't see him. In this manner, he made it all the way to his birthplace. This was his chance; he wanted to do something, find a token of love to be worthy of such a great feeling.
He walked along the streets of Goa, feeling strange without his bundle of merchandise, and had to stop himself from yelling, "Watch, purse, fresh new combs!" out of habit. He walked to a beach, and didn't even pause to stare at tourists lounging on plastic chairs in their bikinis. Squatting on the sand, he slowly started drawing circles and building small mountains. "Why can't I think? What ought I to do? Should I go back to Bombay and wait for her tomorrow too?"
Little did he realize that a crowd was slowly accumulating around him, but he kept playing with the sand and even ran into the waves now and then to wet his tired feet. He thought of Nooria at times, felt that he was sad, and paused to stare at the shadows of palm trees along the fringe of the beach. But he kept working, deepening the circles, patting the sides of the mounds, making crevices in the sand, sometimes with one finger and levelling away, sometimes with a whole fist and leaving knuckle marks here and there. His hand would suddenly cup and sweep upwards gently. He would spit here and there, mixing saliva with sand and smoothing the sticky mixture. Here a moat formed, there a latticed window, and rising on four sides, minarets. A little girl provided foraged twigs that came to rest atop domes, and a woman brought water cupped in her hands to fill up the moat.
He had finished it. It was not big or made of marble. But it was Arun D'Silva's creation. He had built something, accomplished something for the sake of love, and could now officially be admitted to the status of a lover. He imagined Nooria welcoming him back to Bombay, noticing the sand on his shorts and knowing that something stood on a beach in Goa that was built by him. He finally became aware of the throng of people around him. He gazed deep into the black eyes of the stick-foraging girl; marvelled at the pale skin of the ladies who were busy taking pictures of his Taj Mahal. Then, he did something he felt that he never would be able to do. Running into the waves of the Arabian Sea , he shouted, "My name is Arun D'Silva. I am from Goa. I fell in love."
©2006 by Vidya Ravi