Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Reluctant Prince - Part IV

Gyanendra Singh was pacing up and down in the one room studio apartment. A couple of apartments away he could hear a girl practising bhajans. She did have a good voice, but Gyan was not interested. Everything was going wrong. The man said he would come but he did not. Plus he was afraid that he would be recognised. Plus that girl was truly annoying. What if she'd found out? A fake name like Vijay Singh doesn't go very far. Well it's a good thing that she isn't from some royal family, or else she would have surely suspected him, he said to himself.
I wonder if mother suspects. I don't really care, said Gyan. What really annoys me is the way they're keeping us apart. I can't really tell them that this is not what I want. If only Aditya wanted to take all this up. I would willingly give all my undeserving laurels up.
The sun had risen as far as it could but there was no sign of the agent. His phone rang.
Hi. I am Asavari.
Oh no! It's her! She knows I am staying at a guest house. I have to check out.
Can you call me back in an hour? I am expecting a very important call and don't want to keep the line busy.
Oh okay. Don't worry. I am waiting downstairs. I thought we could catch up for coffee.
Downstairs! Okay, that was too quick.
I will be down in a bit.

Truth be told, Asavari had fallen quite in love with this strange looking man she'd met in the bus more than two weeks ago. But she had no idea who he was and had to find out before matters became worse. So she'd followed him to his motel, found out that he'd booked a car for the festival and which room he lived in. She had to know if he was an honest man. And then, she could perhaps make friends.
Hi. You look really tired. Haven't you slept much? she asked as soon as she saw him. Hanging loose from his gawky shoulders was a deep red kurta. He looked very handsome in it. But in a unkempt way. She wanted to reach out and push a slight lock off his forehead but resisted her temptations.
Why are you here? he asked.
I thought we could go get some coffee? pat came the reply.
I can't go anywhere now. I am expecting a call. I thought I already told you that.
Fine. I'll wait.
Gyan turned around and went back to his room. That stupid girl would be the death of me, he thought. Little did he know that a few weeks later, his foresight would stand by him.
The phone didn't ring for two hours. He was beginning to get hungry. As he walked down to the lobby to go to the restaurant, he saw Asavari waiting patiently on a sofa.
All right, come along, he beckoned her.
She sprung up and followed him. Today, I will make him talk.
What's your name? came the first question.
Vijay Singh, said Gyan. I am 32 years old. Unmarried. I live in Pune. Am here to meet someone for work. That guy never turned up or called back and right now I am so angry that I could kill someone. Will that be enough?
Good lord! You're on a roll, said Asavari and burst out into a laugh.
And in that terse moment, everything changed. Gyan actually looked up at her. She was beautiful. In a very non-conformist way. Her dark eyes would flash occasionally and her mouth had a perpetual upturn that he liked instantly. Her laugh was like the slow tinkling of a thousand bells. And her unruly hair fell on her shoulders without care.
He liked her. Instantly.

My aunt lives in Pune. I often go see her, she said, breaking his reverie. Maybe when I go next I will come and meet you. Would you write your address down for me please?
Not in a million years had Gyan thought that a fake address (belonging to an old school friend) would set off a chain of events that even he and at least 10 others would not be able to control or repair. Nor had he imagined that as he wrote down the address on a piece of tissue paper from the restaurant that someone would be watching them closely from a distance and that Asavari, a girl with the laughter of bells, would actually come looking for him.
For the next few hours, Gyan wove a tale that was nothing short of ordinary. A tale that Asavari was quite content with. He was a small time businessman who was looking to open a shop in Jaipur and the man who promised to show him some properties never turned up. She liked the middle-class Vijay Singh with three sisters who were yet to be married, an ailing father and a dead mother and that he had to be financially stable for the sake of the family. She admired the 32-year old thin, handsome fellow who was willing to put the happiness of others before his own. After all, isn't this what real life was all about?
Yes, this could work.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Reluctant Prince - Part III

Finding a liberal boyfriend in a place like Udaipur was worse than finding a a cheap and yet comfortable flat in Mumbai. Asavari had dated briefly in Behrampur, when she went home for vacations, but none of the affairs lasted beyond a few weeks. Tired of searching for the right man, Asavari had actually almost given up. Till she met Vijay Singh. He was a bit clumsy on the bus they first laid eyes on each other. He was fumbling for money in his pocket, she remembered. And she was suppressing a silly grin. He's never really been on a bus has he? she wondered.
Truthfully, Vijay Singh had never been on a bus. So much so, he'd never been to a bus station before this day. But circumstances forced to him to get on this rickety tin vehicle that looked like it would explode at the seams. Very much like Radhika maasi, he thought, smiling to himself.
The girl, standing three seats away holding the railing, is staring at me. Do I know her? Or most importantly, does she know me? he questioned, his arched eyebrows becoming obvious with query. She is pretty though.
Asavari was trying her best to conceal her tattoo with her dupatta. People here aren't really used to forward-thinking women, unless of course they were tourists. A tattoo is an obvious statement of a fallen women, especially the one she was hiding. Finely crafted on her upper arm was the image of a mermaid, one of Asavari's favourite motifs. She was naked of course, except for a few golden locks that fell gently on her breasts, covering them, but not quite. She'd gotten it when she was went to Amsterdam to visit a long-lost aunt. That of course was a completely different story.
Asavari's life was pretty much scattered all over and each tale was complexly ridden with secrets that were either kept from her or she kept from the rest.
Vijay Singh was leaning over his co-passenger to check if his station was near. He found the roads vaguely familiar, not quite used to the topography, something his mother was quite ashamed of.
Incidentally, Asavari and Vijay got off near the main bus station and as their eyes met briefly, she smiled at him.
She must be a hooker, he confirmed to himself, without even bothering to think twice. And almost as if she'd read his mind, Asavari walked up to Vijay Singh and said, I am not that sort of a girl. I smiled because your discomfort back in the bus was rather amusing.
A prostitute with good English. Must be a girl from Bombay, he thought without responding to her.
I don't bite, said Asavari and walked away.
They met again, almost by accident, two weeks later at the Jaipur Literature Festival. It's such a pseudo-place. Fancy, nose-in-the-air writers who don't really write that well but can sell, thanks to their selling skills. Although, Asavari was quite taken in by Jeet Thayil's poetry. They're so beautiful that they're almost lifeless, she'd thought.
Vijay was of course there for a completely different reason. He was meeting a real estate agent at Diggi Palace who had obviously no clue about the festival. And Vijay had forgotten about it. Too much was going on in his head for him to remember.
It's the same girl. Oh lord! Now she'll think I am following her, he thought as soon as he'd spotted Asavari.
Hello there! She said, walking up to the young lanky fellow. There was something charming about the way his hair looked perpetually unkempt.
Umm... Hello, said Vijay Singh, without really looking at her.
Are you here for the festival? she asked.
Yes. And no. Okay goodbye, said the nervous youth and walked away.
Okay, he is really strange.
They met each other on the second day again. And this time around, he avoided her completely. It would not look good if the agent saw them talking and reported any thing back home.
So now you'll avoid me completely, said Asavari, walking up to him. I don't bite you know. Plus I think you need a cup of coffee.
Vijay Singh nodded at her and the two of them walked towards the cafe. Can we get two cups of coffee please and a cucumber sandwich as well. Would you like something to eat? Asavari asked Vijay.
No. I have already had breakfast. It is okay. Thank you, he said uncomfortably.
The two of them talked a bit. Asavari told him about how she'd come to Jaipur to meet an old friend who might have a job for her and how she hated living in Udaipur and so on.
Vijay Singh said nothing. Is she going to ask me questions about my past? She is from Udaipur. That's not very safe. She might know me, or know of me. Has she actually recognised me and is just playing, Vijay wondered.
The sun was setting. The second day of the festival was coming to an end. Vijay would be leaving the next day and so would Asavari. She was heading out to Delhi for an assignment. I wonder if she will ever run into me again. I hope not, he thought.
Can I have your email address? she asked.
Email? I have a number....

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Reluctant Prince - Part II

Aditya woke up with a slight headache. Did I really drink so much last night? he wondered. The melancholic musical night led to a rather obnoxious dinner and the only way to get through was to stop counting the goblets of wine.
What should I do this morning? he asked to no one in particular. I could perhaps jump off the ledge, climb down the roof and then make a run for the airport. My ticket is valid for another month, the next-in-throne Aditya Vikram Singh contemplated.
Hukum. Mandar was back.
Rajmata is calling you. There are some people here to meet you.
Blimey! Already? Getting out of bed, Aditya walked towards his bathroom. He reappeared at the so-called courtroom after twenty minutes. The people were waiting patiently.
Ah son! mother beckoned him, lovingly. Please meet our guests. This is Rampal Singh and his wife Madhumati. And they are here to talk about their daughter's hand for you.
WHAT! was the only word that came out of Aditya's brains, but they didn't reach the tip of his tongue. He was completely taken aback. I am going out mother, we will talk about this later. Nice meeting you. Do have lunch and go, saying that, Aditya walked out towards the stables. I need a horse, he said, again, to no one particular.
Gyanendra was an idiot, thought Aditya of his older brother. I thought he loved playing prince and would eventually become the king. What is this all about him going and dying? It's just not fair. I want the froth lining of beer back on my upper lip, with Amy in tow. That is what I want.
Getting the stableboy to saddle up one of the royal horses, Aditya decided to ride around. It's a lovely day, he decided. Thanks to his training back as a child, he could get on and off a horse with ease, learn how to fence and drink gallons of beer without a hangover, a quality he'd picked up later in college.
How far to the nearest village? Aditya asked the stableboy.
About 25 minutes on horseback hukum, pat came the reply.
Aditya rode off, not really wanting to go to the nearest village.

Back in the palace, the queen's guests were readying themselves to leave. Lunch was not an option, especially since they hadn't brought any gift for the queen as such, not even a token of appreciation. Rajmata was very worried. Frowns had formed on her forehead and took various shapes as she paced up and down the landing of the staircase. Has he become insane? she wondered. At 29, I'd have thought him to be slightly more mature. All these years of 'foreign' education hadn't really worked. Inspector Ghanshyam will soon have to solve the case. Aditya needs to wear the crown by then.
I will have to have a word with him. Only if the king were alive.

Riding downhill through the hilly roads, Aditya stopped his horse for a minute to take a look at the landscape. All this? Mine? Bloody hell. I wonder if this horse will make it all the way to the Udaipur airport.
He found himself a clearing by the side of the road and parked the horse. Getting off, he sat under an unfamiliar tree, lighting another cigarette. I need to send for some more, he thought.
I cannot do this. I don't know why I agreed to even come. I haven't seen mother in the last seven years. I am not even sure if she is my mother. I didn't see my father's dead body and Gyan was gone by the time I was called back. How can they even expect to fill in so many shoes. I don't know the first thing about administration. Why can I not live with my Keats and Byron instead? I should have never come back.
But no one heard Aditya Vikram Singh, next-in-throne, the crown prince, the would-be king, the handsome man who hated wearing anything beyond his jeans, a man who hadn't told a soul of his royal lineage back in London. No one came to his rescue. I am doomed, declared Aditya, loudly. No one was listening to him anyway.

150 kilometres away in Udaipur, she was wondering if she should make a trip to Bombay to meet her agent. He promised to call me sometime during the week. And 'the' week was two weeks ago. What if he took the money and ran, she thought.
Asavari Sinha was sitting in front of her computer and searching for a mail that had actually never arrived. Do they call people for auditions over email? she wondered.
Moving to Udaipur was a really stupid decision. But she had found work, thanks to the various jewellery houses that constantly needed the 'Indian-looking girl' to pose in their jewels. She made enough money to get by. Maybe I should consider a job in Radha's advertising agency. She could pass off as an account executive and then find enough clients who'd make her a model. Lousy option, she counteracted.
It was time for tea. She walked to her miniscule kitchen and put on a kettle. Her mother had promised her a bit of help but that never came and Asavari was too proud to ask. I don't even have a fucking boyfriend, she said. At least the movies would be sponsored.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Reluctant Prince - Part I

He stood near the terrace ledge that was sort of hidden away from everyone else. It was his secret spot and no one was allowed to come there. Smoking one of the last cigarettes from his pack of imported B&Hs, Aditya Vikram Singh sighed. Not in relief but in resignation. Two more months and he would be declared the administrator of state. His mother was retiring as the last queen of Mithila. What have I gotten myself into? he asked himself. But no one was around to help him with answers. At 28, Aditya Vikram Singh returned to his hometown after his older brother died under rather mysterious circumstances. I am sure he himself had hired a henchman to do the job, he thought. Being the escapist Aditya knew his older brother to be, it wouldn't come as a surprise. Inspector Ghanshyam Singh had made at least 10 visits to the palace. But they hadn't found the guy. Quite possible, if it was a royal setup.
I wonder what Amy is up to? She would probably be going to the library just about now? he thought. He missed the smell of the campus. The busy streets of London and the non-intrusive life that he had so carefully built over the last 10 years.
Below, people were scurrying around the household, getting ready for the royal dinner. There were to have guests that evening. Ashokaditya Singh, Maan Singh and Virendra Singh and their respective wives. Uncles and cousins from different family tree offshoots. None of them spoke much English and Aditya's Rajasthani was unpolished. Damn, those bloody pretentious blood-sucking dogs, he said aloud.
Hukum. Mandar whispered.
Turning around, Aditya saw their faithful servant standing behind him, at a distance. His head was lowered in obeisance. His hand folded near his chest.
What is it Mandar?
Rajmata is calling you. The guests have arrived. And you are not yet ready.
Aditya looked down at himself. He had draped one of the royal robes that were in his wardrobe. Underneath, his favourite pair of Calvin Kleins.
Go on ahead, he said. I will be there in a minute.
Mandar nodded and left.
Aditya lit up another cigarette and bent over the ledge to look down. The sun was just about setting and its flames licked the hem of the sky in greed. He took to the stairs, not so ready to meet the guests.

Downstairs a mehfil was all about to begin. The musicians were setting up their instruments and tying their turbans, pretty much at the same time. Ragini Devi would soon be here. She used to be Aditya's father's favourite court singer. After his death, the queen would send a monthly stipend to the girl to further her lessons in music and urdu. She knew that the king looked at Ragini as her daughter, which was not a very uncommon practice. There was no cheating or jealousy there, so it made it easier for her to support the girl's endeavours.
Aditya changed into a royal dress. Churidaar, bunched up neatly near his ankle. A long kurta, delicately embroidered in gold and black and a robe that made him feel a few pounds heavier. He was not obliged to wear a turban and decided to skip it. Strapping his Rolex onto his wrist, he took a look at himself in the mirror. Amy would die laughing if she were to see him like this now.
Hukum. They're waiting for you. Mandar whispered near his ear, without being too informal.
Yes. Let's go.

The royal rituals had changed quite a bit over the years. Aditya's father, Aditya Vikram Singh I, was quite a liberal ruler. He believed in education, trade, slight modernisation that wouldn't harm his subjects and above all, had done away with false and ancient traditions.
Unless it was a large and formal gathering, he didn't think a king needed to be announced in all glory. Everyone can see that I've just walked in, he would say. Ironically, that was one of the last things Aditya remembered his father telling him.

Walking down the winding staircase of the rather worn out palace that needed desperate attention, Aditya saw that a bunch of men and women were huddling down on the low divans, waiting for the music to begin. His mother, was on a chair, nearby, looking up anxiously at her younger son. I do hope he gets used to this. His disdain is so apparent, she said to herself.

Namaste chachaji. Namaste tauji. Namaste Maan Singh. Namaste. he wished everyone and then found his spot and sat down. Ragini Devi was clearing her throat to begin her first ghazal of the night. Under the dim ceiling lights made of etched glass and through a fine embroidered veil, Aditya noticed Ragini's nose ring glimmer like a star.