Damet hadn’t changed since last year.
I got out at the small train station, pulling my bag and guitar along with me. The station was a tiny affair, with neat little benches and a small coffee shop and rows of flower-pots overflowing to capacity with flowers hanging from the roof. As the train passed in a blue blur, I could see the white-topped mountains on the other side. I took a deep breath. The last time I’d been here, it had been the middle of the night; I was catching the last train and fleeing from the frightening stability and restrictions of the Roy’s home.
I wasn’t going to get used to any kind of stability, ever. It was a sad thing, yes…but it was a thing. It was as though Saaya Roy needed a dysfunctional life all the time, moving from place to place, dwelling on the present without any idea of future. With Mukesh and Anita, I had experienced the peace and routine of a normal family life. I couldn’t take the security it brought, it was alien to me.
And I definitely wasn’t going to get used to a curfew time or going to school or whatever else the Roy’s wanted me to do. But maybe, just for a few days, I wanted someone to take care of me.
After that…it would be the last train into some hell-gone city or the other…and a new start that would do neither me nor the family much good. I’d got rid of Valhalla’s Saaya Roy on the train. I’d thrown away all her makeup and eye-glitter and the band-name emblazoned T-shirts. I’d deleted my mobile contact book, keeping only Tara’s number still saved in it. If I needed to speak to Royce, I could just get it from Tara. I felt a strange satisfaction deleting Jai’s number, and Nishan’s. A sort of you won’t catch me now feeling.
I took my time sauntering out of the railway station. It was nearly evening…Damet was a lot of hours and two connection trains from Mumbai. I felt sticky and unwashed, and a little over-hyped from all the Coke I had consumed in the train.
And also a little spaced-out…I was out of my band. I was out of the big city. I was back in Damet, with Mukesh and Anita Roy, and their house full of children they had adopted.
Children like me.
I wasn’t technically a child anymore, but try telling that to them. I nearly smiled, and lugged my guitar and my bag behind me as I walked to the taxi stand.
‘Upper Tilak Marg, House 72’ I told the first and only taxi driver I could find.
I pushed my luggage inside the dickey of the car and slid into my seat. The taxi driver was a burly man with a white beard and a blue turban he kept wrapped around his head and half his forehead. He looked at me curiously.
‘You going to Mukesh’s house’
I nodded. ‘I am’
He shrugged a little and then opened the door to climb in. I jumped, startled as someone tapped my window.
I looked up, trying to calm my thudding heart. ‘You scared me!’ I snapped, then blinked, feeling bulldozed into silence at the sight of him.
He was dressed stylishly in a black silk shirt and a faded denim jacket, wavy dark hair brushed sideways in a messy-boy style that hinted at a really good hairdresser. I peered closer, trying to recognize him. There were soft brown highlights in his jet black hair. He had sharp features…a long straight nose…a thin scar on his cheek…dark eyebrows that seemed to have a tendency to be expressive…softly smiling lips. In the thin light of the evening, he looked oddly pale, even slightly luminous.
He pushed thick dark sunglasses into his wavy hair and stared at me with eyes so black and sharp that I scrambled to find a name for the color. Obsidian.
I gaped at him for a moment. At his eyes. He had eyes like nothing else in the world. I didn’t know what was stunning about them. Deep black, with rings of an almost ash-grey in his irises, and an outer ring so black it appeared to be indigo blue. They were exotic irises, brought about my mixed parentage, I was sure. Most people who had been born in Damet or Kazah as the children of people who had been born and brought up in Damet and Kazah had brownish colored eyes, like mine.
I hadn’t seen eyes like his…but I had seen that indigo in someone else…
He smiled at me silkily, and his eyes flashed, reflecting light into a million piercing shards. Contact lenses? But no, they couldn’t be.
‘Hi, I’m going up to House 73, Tilak Marg…right next door, we could share the taxi’
I blinked a few times, feeling lost. ‘Huh…? Are you Evan Romano’s son?’ I blurted out quickly. Evan Romano, the reclusive Anglo-Indian whose wife had simply disappeared once their son- this guy, probably- was born three years before I was born in Kazah, another small town in the same area. Wasn’t his son a big artist or something?
He smiled a sweet but entirely heart-stopping grin. ‘Yeah. My name is Dayan. So…can I share the taxi?’
I swallowed a couple of times. ‘You are that big hotshot artist, right?’
He cocked his head lightly to the side to stare at me harder. ‘You seem to know me. Or at least, you seem to know what my Dad brags about me’ his lips quirked into a half-smile of amusement.
‘Evan keeps going on about you’
‘Dad’s a little crazy that way’ he said, and moved slightly to the side so I could see the cylindrical rolled-up canvasses of his artwork over two very large red duffel bags.
‘Gee. That’s a lot of stuff. Guess you can come with me…if you want to save the trouble of hauling all that to the next taxi available’
This could be in a few minutes or never for the rest of forever.
He shrugged slightly. ‘Thanks. I had an exhibition in Mumbai’ he said, sliding into the seat and indicating the driver to put his stuff into the dickey too.
‘I’m coming from Mumbai too.’
‘You’re a guitarist’
‘Yeah, I’m not very good’
He watched me with a sharp intensity to his gaze. Something about his poise, the lazy elegance of his stillness felt distracting.
‘You play in a band or something?’
I smirked. ‘Used to’
‘What happened?’ his voice was quiet, with a strange dark, magical quality. He must probably have girls queuing to get his phone number.
‘Ex-boyfriend messed up everything, and I didn’t want to look weak and frail and womanish’ I said in an aloof voice.
I was right about his eyebrows: they were expressive. As I finished speaking, they curved up into perfect half moons, and he laughed. ‘Trust me, when I saw your face just now you appeared everything but frail and womanly’
I grinned. ‘I’m practicing’
‘Scaring away boys’ I replied, in a mock-grim tone.
He laughed again, in his quiet, dark voice. Then he fell silent, his night and obsidian eyes moving away from me and to the passing scenery outside. The roads hadn’t changed much either. G.D. Marg Mall Road was to the left of the post-office and to the right of the big bank headquarters, the temple flags fluttered and danced in the breeze on the other side of the lake opposite to the Anjaneya Hospital. I could see the road to the golf course snaking away behind the Damet Public School and the school bus-stop amidst lush green lawns. The Damet Golf Course: every town citizen’s prize and glory. (Although all Mukesh and Anita could say about it concerned deforestation and human apathy to nature)
I watched his eyes take it all in, becoming arrested on a large chrome and glass affair of a building with a neon board saying KORDC.
‘Seen that before?’ he asked, in a gentle voice that somehow reminded me of all the vampires in the movies.
I shook my head, trying to see through the nasty glare the building’s windows were throwing into my eyes. It felt as though shards of sunlight were piercing through my eyes.
‘Kumar Ojha Rural Development Corporation’ I read the rest of the board. ‘, We aren’t really rural. I mean, Damet is a town, not a village’
‘Yeah, but we are a wee bit backward, especially when it comes to courses that make people here employable. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m a graduate in graphic art and design, and they’re starting computer classes. I’ll be teaching’
‘Teaching computerized art?’ I asked, dubiously.
Dayan smiled, his eyes lighting up from inside. ‘Yeah. Graphic designing is easy and had great job prospects’
‘You think people will be interested in computerized art?’
Dayan shrugged. ‘I tend to be followed and people sign up to look at me. The girls, I mean. I don’t mind, as long as it benefits them too’
I smiled at my fingers, interlocked on my lap. ‘You have no illusions about yourself’
Dayan laughed, and made an apologetic face. ‘Hey, I wasn’t being vain and self-glorifying…just facts’
I shook my head, grinning.
‘What’s your plan? College?’
I made a non-committal movement. ‘Maybe…I want to learn more music, maybe teach’
He nodded, seriously, his indigo and obsidian eyes muted in contemplation. ‘You should drop in at the KORDC. They teach all kinds of stuff there. Anything that could make you employable, according to the present marketing trend…maybe you could get a teaching post’
Something about the way he spoke screamed business guy, very manipulative.
Anyway, I didn’t really want to teach or anything right then. I wasn’t all that good, and in any event, I was only eighteen. Okay, I hadn’t even properly finished school. Did Mr. Hotshot Artist know that?
‘I am utterly unemployable already’ I mumbled to myself.
Dayan caught that and his eyebrows disappeared into the dark tangle of his hair.
They were so damn expressive. Who needs expressive eyes when they had expressive eyebrows? I tried to hide a smirk brought on by the direction my thoughts were taking.
‘You aren’t, as long as you passed tenth standard’ he assured me, in what he probably thought was a reassuring voice.
I swallowed. ‘Tenth, yeah. Twelfth, no’
His expression was strictly neutral, trying not to be too inquisitive. ‘You can still go to school and get it, right? You’re only eighteen or nineteen, hmm?’
‘Eighteen’ I whispered, edging to the other side of the car, away from his subdued gaze and pseudo-incurious expression. I didn’t want to go back to any of the previous chapters of my life with this person who was practically a stranger to me; I didn’t want anyone’s sympathy or leer or sneer or whatever this girl is going to the ruins expression they always came up with on hearing my story.
‘There’ he said, smiling warmly. ‘, You can go to school, it’ll be fine’
I made a face. ‘It isn’t that easy’
‘I’m not exactly fit for school. You don’t want to know, trust me’
He shrugged, turning away from me, his expression remaining impassive. Somehow, I preferred impassivity to curiosity. He seemed to know that, or at least he knew how to deal with me.
If he had started asking questions…maybe I’d have jumped out of the car, I don’t know.
I looked out too, at the grey stone building that was Mukesh and Anita’s home, at the pink flowers that was creeping all over the walls, at the green door with the old-fashioned brass knocker. Dayan’s house was as I remembered it: commonplace and white, square in shape with hanging blue wisteria over the walls of the second floor. A black sleek car I didn’t recognize was in the shed. Probably his, I thought, as the car came to a stop.
‘And I shall pay’ said Dayan, matter-of-factly.
I glared at him. ‘We’ll share’
Dayan shrugged. ‘Nah, I’ll pay. You can just repay me later’ he said, as I got out of the car.
Something about the way he said it implied he wasn’t going to really ask money in return. Probably that I should go to school or something. Everything seemed to be defined in black and white for this guy. The way to live life, the right things to do…black and white and very clear.
Too bad. I’m all obscure grey.
I watched him trying to balance his duffel bags and his artwork as he disappeared through the white gate of his house with a smile in my direction. When he was gone, I grabbed my bag and my guitar and walked to the Roy’s doorstep, through the driveway with the well-groomed lawns on the side, and rang the bell.
I looked sideways, into the house to my right, where Dayan was leaning against a white pillar with a casual air of abandon to himself and to the bags and artwork spread all around him. Probably waiting for his xenophobic father to peek through the keyhole and decide it wasn’t a terrorist calling.
The next moment, a whirlwind with intensely curly black hair had immersed me in a hug.
‘Anita!’ I gasped, trying to catch my breath, going red when I saw Dayan turn to stare.
Didn’t he have anywhere else to look?
Anita was smothering me. ‘I knew you’d come! I knew it! Mukesh…!’
I made a grimace for Dayan’s sake, flipping him off, trying to make him look somewhere else because in the next moment, a whole bunch of little kids (some of them only as tall as my knee) had surrounded me, and he looked as if he was having a hard time not laughing.
‘Ah, Saaya…we hoped you’d come, we’re so glad, sweetie…come in!’ said Mukesh, his face beaming and his voice exuberant. He gave me a small hug, and as he pulled away, and the kids began to pull at me, I saw Dayan’s front door open and his father peer out, his face lighting up when he saw who it was.
Good for that old guy.
‘Hey…’ I told one of the younger ones, ruffling his hair. ‘, I missed you, little Abhas…and there’s Joy…and there’s Nila. You wrote the note this time, didn’t you? I kept all your notes, and Joy paints, don’t you, honey? I’ve got your little heart drawing’
Joy, the shy six year old squirmed a little and blushed profusely.
Nila grinned at me. ‘You’ll read us stories?’
Anita laughed, her brown eyes sparkling. ‘Later, Nila. Right now, she has to rest and all that…have you had anything to eat? Come on!’
I followed her into the kitchen, leaving behind the living room full of chaotic kids and plastic toys and drawn-upon walls and crayons. The kitchen smelled of warm food and Anita’s classic spicy noodles. Sure beats the plastic-covered hotel issued stuff I had been gorging.
Anita leaned against the counter, fixing me with her gaze.
‘You’ve grown thinner. Have you been drinking?’ she asked, in the most non-nagging way it was possible to ask such a question. Like that was going to work with me.
I stared at her, already feeling the restrictions and fear of being a disappointment to them that had made me run the first time.
Anita shook her head. ‘It’s all right. I’m not going to bug you’
‘A little’ I confessed, sort of defensively.
She chewed on her lip, and I wondered if Anita had ever touched a hard drink in her life. Probably not.
‘What else were you up to? Singing?’ she asked, in a show of cheeriness, fluttering as she moved from one end of the kitchen to another, masking her feelings about my confession.
‘Yeah, I was in a band’ I said in a half-zombie voice.
‘Explains why you couldn’t come sooner’ she said as she took out plates, as though I was just some kid who had put off taking a vacation with her parents for too long. ‘,Was it awesome? Did everyone love you? Of course they did…’ she chattered, touching the top of my head once as she moved around, taking out glasses and spoons.
I played with a cup in the shape of a rabbit with the tail as the handle.
‘Valhalla’ I blurted, trying to fill the silence she’d thrown my way to make me start talking. ‘, That was the band’s name’
‘The hall in which the souls of heroes slain in battle were received by Odin, according to Norse mythology…a name for the gateway to heaven, or Asgard. Commonly also the name of Norse heaven. Who picked the name?’ asked Mukesh, striding in; sipping a cup of what I thought must be coffee.
I shrugged and grinned at him. ‘Another band picked Elysium. So Jai…’ my words faltered for a too-long second. ‘…uh, Jai picked Valhalla. There’s some kinda old-mythology fad nowadays’
Mukesh grinned. He was a cultural anthropologist, and looked into rites and ceremonies and kinship systems of various tribes and religions.
I pressed myself against the wall, trying not to let on the fact that I couldn’t look into their eyes. It had been too long since I’d been here, and I should have returned their kindness sooner than this. I should have held onto some of the nicer things the last year with them had bought me and not gone back to Mumbai and that lifestyle.
Already I was regretting all the bottles and all the strutting around and all the law-breaking.
‘So…did you complete school?’
I shook my head. ‘I was being very irresponsible’
Mukesh and Anita exchanged glances, and then smiled. ‘We figured.’
I tried not to grimace. ‘You…figured?’
‘That you’d go back to doing whatever you want…no compromises, no adjustments. I mean, when you ran away the last time, we asked ourselves why…’
I gulped. Okay, this was the conversation I had dreaded having.
‘Listen, guys…I just…’
‘Couldn’t take the smothering, or the food-on-the-table-at-exactly-seven-o-clock, school-everyday, homework-everyday kind of thing’
I nodded, casting my eyes downwards. They had caught on pretty quickly.
‘We understand that. We think we know you…how hard you find to adjust to stability and family…we’ve got another head case here now too…’ smiled Anita and Mukesh nodded. ‘, only he’s a little more forthcoming than you. He just yelled us to- what was it, Mukesh? – “stuff your family shit, I don’t believe in all that, you’ll just ditch me later”…and we figured maybe that was the problem with you too. We pushed you too hard’
I just watched them. The head case was a lot like me, that had been my thoughts too, when I had decided to flee from them the first time.
‘You didn’t push me too hard; I just wasn’t ready to live with you. I just couldn’t…I needed to be in risk, to know I might get in trouble’
The other kind of trouble, the one that came and grabbed you from behind without your knowledge, the kind of trouble I might get in while living the fairy tale with these people was too frightening. Huh. Maybe I just wanted to be in control all the time, maybe I just didn’t ever want to be surprised.
Anita sighed. ‘She just arrived and we’re already scaring her’
Mukesh nodded agreeably. ‘Listen, Saaya. Go get changed, and then we’ll have dinner…and talk’
Not looking forward to the talk, but the food’s fine with me. I thought but didn’t say out loud.
‘Right’ I said instead, leaning down to pick my bag off the floor.
Mukesh looked out of the kitchen door just as a shadow passed by. ‘Hey, Pavan, a little help please’
I looked up…and up.
The guy was a full head taller than six foot three Mukesh. I, at five feet four, was puny next to him. He looked down; his eyes a bright brown so light that it could hardly be called brown rather than pale gold, with a hint of orange. They reminded me of the color of good champagne.
Not every day an eighteen year old thinks of that decadent comparison.
They were slightly alarming eyes; suddenly reminding me of my intense desire to stare at the floor-tiles instead of him. To stare at anything instead of him. Pavan stepped out into the light and his eyes caught the glow…and shone, like flames. I watched, fascinated, at those eyes and the cold, ruthless smile on his lips. He had long hair he had pulled back into a small and spiky ponytail. Everything about him, from the hair to the raw coolness of his gaze reminded me of Jai.
Not something I wanted to be reminded of.
‘Pavan, this is Saaya. Saaya…our new addition to the household, Pavan. You can call him Pavi, for short.’
Pavan frowned angrily at the nickname. ‘No, she can’t’
Mukesh opened his mouth to speak, then went quiet and shook his head. ‘Listen; just help her take her bag upstairs. I threw my back doing the gardening’
The champagne eyes glinted, and he leaned forward, grabbing my bag roughly and making me jump back. He smiled a chilly half-smile of amusement. I looked over my shoulder at Anita and mouthed ‘Head case?’
She nodded vexedly, her curls bobbing up and down with a crazed rhythm.
I followed Pavan-the-head-case out into the corridor and up the stairs, my guitar case slung over my shoulder, watching the beams above the stairs almost brush his head. Must be nice, to be that tall.
‘Saaya, isn’t it? These people go on about you all the time.’
‘Probably that I’m a carouser, a runaway and the most difficult child they have ever seen’
Pavan stopped for a moment and turned to stare at me. ‘If that’s what you are, then these people are intensely nice’ he said, in a rough voice that bordered on mockery.
I looked away, mumbling nonsense. Okay, so Mukesh and Anita haven’t told him the Saaya-chronicles.
I shadowed him all the way to my small room on the third floor, the one I shared with Abhas and the thirteen year old Malini, who was probably in school.
I felt a small sad ping of joy. They hadn’t changed my part of the room at all. The part of the room I had painted black and stuck pictures of crazy Goth rock-stars, none of whom who had their shirt on. Someone had taken away my scary copy of The Scream though. The bed was as I had left it too, covered with my old patchwork quilt that went everywhere with me.
Except to Mumbai…maybe I’d always known I’d come back some day.
Pavan dumped the bag unceremoniously onto the bed and turned around. His shirt was buttoned all wrong, although I could perceive an air of looseness about him which made it probable that he had done it deliberately.
He had a Goth looking tattoo where his collarbones showed beneath his skin. Pierced eyebrows, decorated with a silver rod on the left one and a silver ring on the right.
Another I want to be in control type, then.
He followed my gaze with his fingers, touching the ring callously.
‘Does having it make you feel better? Doesn’t it hurt?’ I asked, trying not to let on that I was a little intimidated by six-feet-three-and-a-little-more Pavan.
He laughed derisively. ‘I’m a little masochistic. Pain in return for some peace of mind, some feeling of being in control’
‘I know what masochism is’
‘You didn’t look it’
I bristled. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He raised a shoulder in a careless half-shrug. ‘Just what it does. You’re like those crazy teens who want to rebel just because you think the world revolves around you’
I nodded, calmly. ‘Hi and merry meet to you too. Would be nice if you took yourself and your masochistic mind out of my room’
‘If I don’t?’
He really was a head case, wasn’t he? I walked to my bed and sat down on it, unlacing my shoes and flexing my toes.
‘If you don’t I’ll get angry. Then things will break. Probably your nose. Sometimes your tooth’
He looked down at me, his eyes catching light and looking fiery again. I watched him calmly, knowing he’d crack and take himself out of the door. Not because he was afraid I’d hurt him, but because he hadn’t really been in a situation where a girl had ever threatened him physically. Most guys haven’t, so the trick worked most of the times. When it didn’t…I broke things, just to drive home my point. Not noses or teeth, but mirrors. And tables. Once, a painting (that one had got me kicked out of that particular foster home).
Champagne-eyed-headcase-Pavan rolled his shoulders thoughtfully, and then smiled another icy mocking smile. ‘Black walls, half-clothed rock stars and threats. You’re such a fake rebel’
‘Oh, I have had plenty of cause to turn rebel. What about you? Probably that you have the worst life on the planet. Believe me, all rebels think the same’ I drawled, fluffing my pillow.
He glared. ‘I don’t have the worst life on the planet. I just know things I wish I didn’t. Things that’ll make you climb in a hole’
I looked up at him balefully, knowing that my eyes were enough to let him know I had seen and done and knew things I wish I hadn’t, too.
‘Bring it on, boyo. Surprise me. I bet you I know everything’
He smiled jeeringly, then shook his head and sauntered out.
I bit my lip to stop myself, trying to tell myself that it just wasn’t worth it. Then I shook my head and called out, just as his back turned the corridor and almost disappeared.
‘Hey, boyo…you’ve got your buttons all wrong’
He retraced his steps to glower at me and mouth something that would make Nishan proud, again.
What a pleasant homecoming. Hotshot artists and half-crazed headcases. I took my pillow and fluffed it absently. Just as long as none of the others came anywhere near me, I’d be fine.