SHORT STORY: WORDWEAVERS/LOVE IN THE PARK
Love in the park
Diya found love in the park down the road from her house. Admittedly, she was very impressionable, the type who looked for love in the most probable and improbable places. She believed in God, the inimitable power of Sunidhi Chauhan’s voice and days of wine and roses, though actually she didn’t like wine too much. This last fact dismayed her a bit; she had read that the city’s cognoscenti all drank wine and she so badly wanted to be one of them, a minor cognoscente at least.
In actual fact, Diya was the original sucker the ad men dreamed of, the metaphorical pin-up girl of copywriters who laboured over witty/profound/arresting/romantic prose to sell instant dhokla packets and bracelets of zirconium stones set in plated silver. Diya would buy the dhokla and the bracelet. She tried every new lipstick she saw featured in glossy ads, she wore frilled skirts all of the last season despite it doing nothing for her small and round frame. Now she was saving for a small Prada clutch which she had seen and immediately lost her heart to, and refused to listen to Maya, her BFF, who told her in some exasperation: “But Diya, you only carry large handbags. You always carry your whole world in your handbag.“ What did Maya know about her secret desire to be an It girl? Diya’s neighbour, the Mirchandani girl, was apparently one of Bangalore’s It girls. Miss Mirchandani carried a blue-and-red Prada clutch, Diya had seen the label. And Diya was an aspirational girl with aspirational dreams. Carrying an It handbag would be a good start.
Well, anyway, there she was, walking round and round, and then doing some more rounds of the paved walking path that hedged the manicured lawn of the Defence Colony park. The park was a thing of beauty, trees forming a symmetrical border, beds of seasonal flowers that bloomed and faded and bloomed again, all year round. There were stone benches scattered about, invariably occupied by tacky lovers in tacky clothes, making plans for a dreary future. At least, that is what Diya thought every time her eyes fell on girls in mustard-coloured, ill-fitting salwar suits cozying up to the most shifty-eyed, greasy-haired Lotharios ever.
The park was the creation of the resident eccentric, old Mrs. Chinappa. Well, Mrs. Chinappa wasn’t that old, but her quaint manner of enunciation and denunciation, her wardrobe of gray cotton saris that matched the thick strands of gray that she tied back in a painfully tight chignon, made her look older than she was. Mrs. Chinappa was justifiably proud of the park, her park; she had galvanized the preternaturally moribund Society into action on the empty plot, she’d raised funds, she’d called General Somanna to lay the foundation stone, she’d interviewed a hundred maalis and set them to work. Now she felt the compulsive need to inform the people that they enjoyed the fruits of her labour. And indeed, who could blame her?
For a while, Mrs. Chinappa even kept the keys to the lock of the park gates till outraged Society members protested. Deprived of the title of Keykeeper, now she policed the park aggressively, vociferously, relentlessly. No dogs, no beggars, no- children- on- the- lawns, no- picking- of- flowers, no prams, no cycles, no transistors…the list went on and on.
Diya had become a regular at the park, ever since her friend Sonia’s doctor brother-in-law had said the panacea for all weight and health problems lay in doing eight rounds in the park. Any park, that is. But Diya being Diya, she first ran off to the nearest sports store and stocked up on a set — three, actually— of the garments most suitable for a soon- to –be- It girl to walk in. Her walking shoes matched her outfits, she had invested in four pairs, and that was not counting her many pairs of coloured Keds and her leopard-print Converse sneakers. A few months down the line, she saw a couple of girls walking with the spiffiest of iPod attachments and of course, Diya got that, too. Last week, she’d e-mailed her brother in Los Angeles to get her purple fluorescent hair bands to hold her lush hair in place.
“Mad or what?“ Deepak had mailed back. He was an idiot, an unfashionable geek but he did have a soft spot for her and he would get her the hair bands. If he understood just what it was she wanted, that is. And then her gang of girls could and would exclaim over the bands for days. Happy days lay ahead for Diya.
There were gangs galore walking in the park. Gangs of elderly men, strangely enough mostly Malayali, all seemingly denouncing the shenanigans of the PM, the CM and the MM. A (mildly) curious Diya had walked just behind them and well within earshot, till she had unlocked that last code: MM stood for Mad Missus. One lot consisted of five thin balding men who all insisted on crowding together, literally sitting in half- assed fashion on a bench that could hold only three people. Every time one of them gestured wildly to emphasise how he could easily set the inflation rate or something right, someone would slip off the end of the bench. This sight afforded Diya no little amusement. Our Diya was easily pleased.
The gang of elderly women was a kitty party of waddlers, almost all of them Punjabi, waddling along at snail’s pace, discussing the iniquities of their evil daughters- in- law, the bad behaviour of their grandchildren (“what do you expect, with a mother like her?“) and the impossibility of finding good saag in the south. This lot had no time for Mrs. Saxena with her stiffly lacquered hair framing a wrinkled face, her Ritu Kumar crepe salwars and clumsy whiter- than- white sneakers; Mrs. Saxena walked alone, walked slowly and said her prayers in a semi-audible hiss that put the other old women off. Mrs. Saxena was their walking intimation of mortality.
The middle- aged gang, they walked at a brisker pace, the cheeks of their well- padded buttocks moving up and down, up and down, like spherical pistons. This lot was largely local and frequently made very obviously denigrating comments on the north Indians all about them, which comments then cracked them all up. This happened on every round, so it was a mirthful walk in the park for them. They were not serious walkers, though, every two rounds or so, they would all go sit on available benches and swap recipes. Strangely, Diya noticed, the recipes were almost all north Indian dishes. Well, whatever.
Diya- Sonia- Maya were the young lot. The Giggly Gang, they called themselves. Everything was grist for their giggle mill. They laughed about the other gangs. They chattered like so many garrulous magpies, often earning angry glares from a passing Mrs Chinappa…maybe they were breaking the no-chattering-in-the-park rule. They chortled over the doings and sayings of their common circle of friends. They chuckled over the last Sajid Khan debacle. They jeered at Aishwarya Rai, cocked a snook at Katrina Kaif, loathed Salman Khan and were absolutely fida over SRK.
In fact, when Diya first laid eyes on the man who was soon to become the object of her affection, (she refused to call it lust, even to herself) she immediately recalled Shah Rukh Khan telling some magazine that he had first fallen in love with Gauri’s behind. “It was a pert rear,“ he had said. Diya’s interest, in turn, was caught by the taut muscled rear of the man walking in front of her, one evening in the park. The man was lean, so his rear was lean, too, lean and loping. There was the suggestion of power, sexy power in that rear.
The rest of the (rear-view) picture was just as pleasing. He was always well dressed, in slim-cut track pants and tee shirts that fit subtly, though not skin-tight like how Hrithik Roshan’s tees fit that seriously ripped actor. This man was a classy dresser, no bling, no outfits that shouted; what’s more, this was a serious walker. He walked with purpose, his steps swift and graceful. Why, he was a gazelle in motion, Diya thought dreamily to herself. She had watched a National Geographic (or was it Discovery, Diya could barely tell the difference) programme on gazelles the day she’d gone to pick Sonia up for that candlelight march (it was for a good cause though what exactly the cause was had now slipped Diya’s mind) and Sonia had taken ages to get ready and had kept Diya waiting.
The gazelle-man sported a serious watch on a leather strap; it was seriously expensive, Diya knew that much because she knew her Jaeger Le-Coultre from her Piaget, even though she wasn’t sure how both those words were pronounced. Some evenings, he’d walk in shorts (not too short, though) and she’d do the eight rounds or so like she was floating. His thigh muscles, shapely calves, the indentation behind his knees all gave her thrill after thrill.
This was about the time she realised the fates were conspiring against her; she was always behind the man, walking fast- faster- faster still but just not able to catch up with him. The immediate future looked bleak. Was she going to forever trail, desolately if swiftly and purposefully, behind this man, always admiring his rear view, never able to catch a glimpse of his face, his biceps, his sure-to-be flat stomach, his definite-to-be manly chest? It didn’t help that he was not a park regular; when he did walk in the park, it was always on some erratic timeline. Some days he would be walking just as dusk fell, other evenings, he’d be walking in the gloaming. A few times, he did come up silently, thrillingly, behind Diya and overtake her but it was always dark and she couldn’t make out his features. One couldn’t really blame her antipathy to cruel fate.
Of course, Diya could always park herself on a bench and wait for the man to pass by. Dear reader, don’t mistake Diya for a fool; she did just that, not once but twice. And both times, the man came walking towards her thrilling-with-anticipation self… and coolly walked out the park gates that stood a few feet before Diya’s bench.
Diya just couldn’t bring herself to tell her gang about the man. You may recall they were The Gigglers and Diya couldn’t bear for him to become the subject of their unbridled merriment. He was her delicious secret. Besides, she was a practical girl, our Diya, and needed to see his face before fully committing her heart. But all said and done, she had already lost that fickle heart to the man’s behind. All it needed was one glimpse of his broad shoulders — seen from the back, of course — moving under his white (or deep green or navy or moss green, as the case may be) T-shirt and Diya would immediately be suffused with excitement.
Then one bright sunlit evening, Diya was walking flush with the gates of the park, it was her fourth round, and the man walked in. “My god, he is gorgeous, “ she thought on the frill of a thrill. He was youngish. Dark hair sprang luxuriously away from a defined brow. He was lean, he had a flat stomach, defined biceps and a chest that could only be described as manly. He had piercing eyes set below well- defined eyebrows, a slim and straight nose (Diya was a nose woman, men with bulbous noses put her off) and a lovely mouth. The mouth reminded her of Farhan Akhtar’s; it was not too wide, not too small and it had a sexy lift to it. Their eyes met and she forgot to breathe. Then he looked away and the connection broke; as always, he loped ahead, a picture of grace with his long-limbed gait.
This was love, Diya wrote that night in her diary. (Yes, she kept a diary). She saw the future and it held many walks on the leaf- strewn stone pathway of the verdant park, much low- voiced intimate conversation, occasional trills of laughter issuing from her, melding with his deeper throaty chuckles. After which, they would graduate to holding hands. At this point, the angry glare of Mrs. Chinappa intruded and tore a rip in Divya’s roseate haze. She couldn’t quite remember but she was sure no- holding- hands- in- the- park was one of Mrs. C’s rules.
Well, anyway, what started in the park could and would be taken to coffee bars, restaurants, resto- lounges and who knew where else. Diya shivered in delight at the prospect. She could almost feel his touch on her. His fingers would not be soft, they would be firm, lightly callused. His kisses would not be wet or slobbery. She would be rendered a dizzy blonde by the time he’d lift his mouth from hers. Well, not a dizzy blonde but maybe a dizzy brunette, Diya’s au courant hair colour was Iced Brunette. “Baby, baby,“ he would murmur to her in the throes of passion, during their hot and heavy (but never sweaty) sessions.
She had never ever been turned on by any man in this fashion. This, then, was really love.
Her friends started to comment on her devotion to her walking regime. “Lose more weight and you’ll be a sukhdi,“ Sonia warned, forgetting to giggle for once. Luckily for Diya, the gang was not too serious about walking in the park, (or walking anywhere, for that matter) now that they had sussed it out and seen its total lack of potential. Most evenings took them to malls, multiplexes and suchlike. Meanwhile, Diya walked. She walked behind the man most times, almost burning a passionate hole between his shoulder blades. The rare times she walked in front of him, she tried her level best to walk like she’d seen Malaika Arora walk in some film or the other, pert bottom bouncing, thighs going shlick-shlick in the softest suggestive whisper, hair bouncing, lush and well- conditioned, literally cascading down her back. She wasn’t too sure about her bottom or her thighs but she was sure her hair was something he could feast his eyes on. Something he was probably feasting his eyes on.
Of course, dear reader, there was a serpent in this Eden (no, it was not Mrs Chinappa) and she made her appearance soon. She was one smooth snake, with a lissom figure, glossy curls balanced artfully atop her head and skewered to her shapely skull with what looked like a cocktail stick. What was more unfair, she dressed in a positively madcap fashion, nothing It girl about this one. Her track suit bottoms were lurid yellow or red, her tees never matched. But Diya saw the woman’s breasts bouncing in those tees and understood.
Because the man saw those bouncing breasts, too. And while Diya could not see any undue fascination on his part, he did seem quite taken. One thing, though, they seemed to be old friends. They talked in low tones as they walked, fast- faster- faster still, side by side, an occasional laugh escaping both of them. The woman tossed her curly head flirtatiously at him, and he grinned in appreciation. Once when Diya drew abreast, she heard them talk of socks. She didn’t actually catch anything of their low-voiced conversation but she did catch the word `socks.` Two words actually: smelly socks. Were they married? To each other? Otherwise, why would they be talking about smelly socks of all things? Divya’s mystification deepened. This unhappy state of affairs continued for more than two months. It was indeed the winter of Diya’s discontent.
In (mild) desperation, Diya turned to her friend Maya. Maya had a guru who she said performed (discreet) black magic on Maya’s enemies. Right now, Maya was considering naming and shaming her mother- in- law as an enemy and leaving that hapless woman’s fate in the guru’s capable hands. Diya was tempted. Very tempted. The snake in the park could perhaps break a leg, break it badly and in compound fashion, so that she’d never walk again. No, Diya hastily if silently amended, of course she would walk again, but not in this park. This park would always hold bad memories for the woman. (Diya was not a malicious or seriously evil person, dear reader. She was just a self-centred individual. Very self-centred.)
However, when push came to shove, Diya did not go to Maya’s guruji. The woman did not break a leg. She just slithered away, she did not appear in the park again. Maybe she had emigrated abroad, Diya thought on a wave of relief. If they had indeed been married, the man did not seem to miss or grieve for the woman, at all. In fact, Diya noticed a new josh to his step.
And now, every time their eyes met, he’d smile. At Diya. “Be still, dil,“ she’d tell her beating heart and smile back. She took to practicing different smiles: the slow seductive one, the million-rupee one, the flashbulb, the enigmatic one, the subtle come-hither one. And she expended all those smiles on the man, and he seemed most appreciative.
Diya knew she was on the fast track when she noticed the man slowing his pace down whenever she was in the vicinity. When they drew abreast, he’d smile a greeting and walk alongside her. For a bit, but even that was significant. Okay, things were moving now.
The man made the first move, just like men should in Diya’s book. It was an autumn evening, the air was spiked with a sharp chill. The trees were swaying like a gale was stirring things up amidst them. The golden rods glowed a bright orange. The mahua tree in the park suffused the air with a heady sweetness. The man spoke. “You,“ he told Diya. “You are amazing. I’ve watched you walk all your weight away. What willpower! We should enter the Walkathon, what do you say? “
Or at least, that’s what Diya imagined he was saying. Tragically, Diya’s English just wasn’t up to an answer, any kind of answer.