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Damodar, aka Damo, and I had finished two bottles of strong beer apiece and were now slumped in our chairs in his living room cluttered with books. Main tera boyfriend, tu meri girlfriend, woh mainu kehndi na na na na went the song on the Bluetooth speaker, offending my sensibilities.More songs of a similar kind followed. Then we downed a number of Old Monks between us; now, utterly confused, we were glaring at the weird speckled patterns of the floor tiles. Darling, aakhon se aakhen char… Suddenly, no more background noise. The speaker had run out of battery power; it dawned on me gradually that silence had replaced the contemporary Hindi film music that Damo favoured in a self-mocking way and that I could not stand.
I didn’t know the time, but I registered the chirps of the bats outside the window overlooking the garden, which was obscured by darkness and my brain haze. I also recall looking out of the window, then up at the ceiling, thinking that was somehow significant. The ceiling fan was off, as the December night was cool by Bombay standards. There was an oval halo of cigarette smoke like an afro and a beard growing into each other, around the white fluorescent bulb – an image that made me chuckle. Then, for some reason, I grew bothered by the marks left by Damo’s sweating glass on the polished top of the wooden table. This feeling, which too was hazy, did not make me want to do anything about it either. I slumped in my chair, vegetating.
Across the room from me, Damo sat with an elbow on the glass top of the table. He’d told me once that this was the usual spot where he wrote scripts for the quirky, edgy, indie movies he directed for multiplex audiences. He’d said he wrote initial drafts in longhand with a ballpoint pen, then used his MacBook to finish his scripts. I loved that table. I wished Damo would treat it with reverence, as I did.
Of late, Damo, who was developing the premise for his latest script, was feeling blocked. In the morning he’d called me on my office landline and said the block made him feel ineffectual, set him on edge. To help loosen him up, he’d asked me to come over with booze. “We’ll shoot the breeze, yaar. We’ll let off steam,” he’d said. Though Damo hadn’t mentioned mulling over his premise with my help, I had felt glad that tonight, for the first time, he’d trusted me enough to involve me, however peripherally, in his ideation. And so I had Ubered over with Old Monk and Coke, his drink of choice. He had provided the beers.
“Cock-blocked by my own damn premise, Mahesh,” he repeated as soon as he opened the door, and I grunted half-formed platitudes. I could do no more, as he had not told me what the premise was. I knew this much: the script would fictionalise, in a more or less thin way, the actual experiences of Damo. He had told me so, when we first met.
Damo had disrupted both the traditional Hindi movie with its over-the-top villains and candyfloss romances, and the newer swell of violent or small-town-based cinema. Damo’s films were urbane, soft but unsentimental, and informed as much by world cinema as Indian cinema. I called them ‘Tomorrow’s movies, today’.
I had written a glowing review of his first film for The Bombay Tabloid, which was where I worked as a film journalist. That is how Damo had come into contact with me– he sent me his compliments on my email id mentioned under my byline in the paper. In that email, he invited me for an exclusive interview on the set of his next film, which would begin filming in a few weeks. I had gone along with my recorder and notebook, and his heartfelt and candid quotes about his cinematic sensibilities and his reading of what the multiplex audience wanted, had landed my interview of him on the front page of the entertainment section. He said later it was his best interview yet, and that I had made him talk freely yet made him feel safe. I had enjoyed the interview too. It had been a conversation between two new acquaintances who liked the same kind of movies and had the same sort of antipathy to fundamentalism, whether saffron or another. But there was more, an unspoken feeling of camaraderie. That conversation, I realised, had stirred a tide of friendship in me, a tide that originated not from the commonality of my opinions with Damo’s, but from something unconscious in me.
So, a few days later, when Damo – by now he was insisting I call him that, instead of Damodar – invited me over to his place for dinner and drinks with him and his wife Pranita, I had accepted with alacrity. I had felt that even having written about him I could still be friends with him, so long as our fraternising didn’t skew my assessment of his work.
That night we talked movies (I had become disenchanted with the so-called new wave in Hindi cinema, which I now disparaged as old wine in a new bottle; he liked my opinion), politics (he, who used to work in an ad agency before becoming a film maker, was intrigued by my leftist leanings even after twenty years of Liberalization), and in particular my spotty and eventful love life (I was single in my late thirties, while he had been married for five years). We talked poetry, which I had begun to write at that time, and which was getting published in online literary magazines. I read out a couple of poems that he said he liked. We discussed novels that I adored; he took it upon himself to make me read his favourite works (Murakami, Kundera, chiefly). I was flattered by his attention. I did not realise, at the time, that mostly we spoke about my past, seldom about his. If at times this bothered me, I suppressed the feeling.
More than once that night, I marvelled at my good fortune. I had never hung out with anyone like Damo before; my usual companions were fellow journalists, or PR people working angles for their actors, and occasionally an actor or actress. Most of these I found to be vacuous as well as aggressive. Damo, though, was self-assured, unhurried, and appeared noncompetitive. This, although he still had some of the enthusiasm of the beginner, the amateur, while operating at high levels of professional excellence. It inspired me. That first night we drank together, it was three am when I booked an Uber and went home. I still remember being slumped in the back seat of the car, smiling with the conviction that I had finally made a friend. Still, to be cautious, I explained away Damo’s first invitation as a way of thanking me for writing about him.
But he kept calling me over for drinks. I felt too warm and secure in our friendship to ask why a man like him was spending time with me. Surely he had no shortage of friends from his industry. I delighted myself with the thought that maybe I was more intellectual than his film-maker friends, or differed enough from them to be interesting. There came a time when I grew secure in the notion that we were friends for the sake of friendship itself. So I kept landing up at his place with a large bottle of Old Monk and a pack or two of Gold Flake Lights.
Earlier this evening, as always, his wife Pranita, who was the leading lady in his first film and also in his forthcoming one, joined us for a while. If I was in awe of Damo, I was impressed with Pranita – an alumna of the National School of Drama, a theatre star in her own right, whose superb cinematic debut in Damo’s first film had made a splash. Pranita could dazzle me with a glance, a fact of which I felt she was aware.
Today, as always, I had the feeling Pranita approved of me. But tonight she was being extra friendly, pressing me to eat more and to pace my drinking. She had a polite glass of sangria with us. Around eleven, when Damo and I were getting into the rum, Pranita excused herself and went to bed. Her words and beautiful appearance had left me with a warm glow in my chest.
Before the silence had grown oppressive that was left by Pranita’s absence, Damo grinned at me, and said, “Any developments in your love life?”
I was used to the question. I got the impression that Damo, the committed husband, was living vicariously through me; besides, didn’t friends discuss intimate stuff?
I said, “There is a cloud in a corner of the sky.”
Damo said, “Cough it up, Neruda. There is someone?”
“There might be. Someone who’s joined our paper. A senior designer. She’s from Delhi. She’s moved to Bombay recently.”
“I guess she is lonely in the new city. She saw a few photos I had put up on my Instagram and wants to go on a photo walk at Bandra. I am not sure it’s a date.”
“But you’re hoping it is.”
“I sure am. It’s been years since I went on a date.”
Damo asked, “How old is she?”
“Oh, thirties, same as me. Single people at my age have hang-ups and baggage, though. Maybe she has some. Certainly, I do.”
Damo nodded. “To say nothing of battle scars, yeah?”
“To say nothing of those.”
I spoke awkwardly of my failed relationships. Damo listened intently. We kept drinking. The evening became more and more blurry.
I had long lost track of the time. Damo and I were hazily staring at the strange arrangements of the material reality around us – the speckling on the tiles, the patterns and relative darkness of the shadows on the ceiling. That was when it happened.
Apropos of nothing and without preamble, Damo looked at me with some effort and made the proposition to me. I was by then quite ready to leave; I have always had a smaller capacity for liquor than Damo, who was only swaying slightly. Damo suggested that I sleep with Pranita. He said it out of the blue, flatly and bluntly, a single sentence after a spell of drunken silence. His suggestion outraged and titillated me, much to my alarm.
I protested, throwing up my hands, “Do you know what you are saying?”
Damo tilted his head and said, “Are you denying you are attracted to her?”
I covered my face with my palms for an instant, then brought them down. I said, “Damo, Pranita is your wife, she’s my friend. Nothing more.”
Damo smiled with a corner of his mouth. He said, “I have seen the way you glance at her, then you look away as if startled. You avoid eye contact with her as much as possible, so as not to blush. If her fingers brush yours when she gives you a plate of food, you freeze for an instant. I have seen the signs.”
“Damo, where is this coming from, man? This suspicion? Too much drink? Or is your marriage in trouble?”
Damo shook his head reassuringly. “Nothing wrong with our marriage. But life is life, you know, what is, is. I am saying to you, it’s all good.”
“What the fuck are you saying?”
“I am saying, I won’t stand in the way.”
A vivid image of my hands undressing Pranita’s beautiful body. I shook my head to clear it.
“There’s no question of standing in the way. I have no feelings for Pranita, and even if I did, would not act on them.” My head hurt with the effort of stringing together grammatically correct and logically consistent sentences. I wanted to leave. But leaving abruptly, I felt, would confirm Damo’s suspicions.
“Good night. I am going to sleep. Pranita is in the guest bedroom right now.”
He lurched inside, holding with both hands his glass of rum, and I was alone in the room. For a moment, I sat up in my chair, in utter shock at what had transpired. Moreover, I felt ashamed and did not know why. I mentally prepared to leave.
I was about to put my hand into my pocket to fish out my phone in order to book a car ride home. Then there was a slight rustle of fabric, and I looked towards the passage. It was Pranita, dressed in a long, thin white T-shirt that betrayed the lines of her black panties underneath.
“Mahesh, where’s Damo?”
I struggled to speak. “He went inside,” I said.
“Is something the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. Nothing,” I blurted, too hastily to be convincing.
“Are you sure, M.?”
“Pranita, I…am going to leave.” I looked down at the floor.
“What for?” Pranita said in a lower, sexily husky pitch. Startled, I swallowed painfully, as I looked at her face. She came and sat on my lap. I got an erection.
I sighed, embarrassed out of my wits. “Pranita… Please, get up and let me go.”
“Aren’t you at least a bit attracted to me?” Pranita said softly; her tone caressed me as if she were stroking her fingers down my spine. “Am I ugly? Is my age showing?”
I replied, “You are among the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. But it doesn’t matter. You’re my friend’s wife. I won’t act on my feelings.” I wiped with my fingers the dampness at the corners of my mouth.
She smiled slightly. “So you do have feelings for me.”
I shook my head, my mouth opened for a while until I could get words out. “You’re very attractive, and I am a man. We’re hypersexual, humans, aren’t we? You turn me on. So what?”
She smiled. I couldn’t tell whether she was mocking me. She said, “I don’t feel there’s anything wrong in pursuing our feelings. We’re consenting adults, you know.” She traced my jawline with her finger.
I felt the ground slipping away, my resolve weakening. I tried to regroup by saying, “And what about Damo?”
She replied, softly, “Damo and I have an understanding about this.” Her hand explored the top of my pectorals under my shirt.
“I don’t know about this, Pranita,” I said. I won’t say I had scruples or anything, but something about it didn’t feel right to me – it felt as though I were entering a game, which was a game of snares within snares, with myself being player and prize. My gut feeling, call it a radar, was acting up. I pursed my lips.
At this, fear sparked in Pranita’s eyes. “Please, you must,” she whispered. “You must sleep with me. I want it. I’ve had my eye on you since you befriended Damo. You’re an itch I must scratch. And you want me, too, you’ve just said so. Besides, if you don’t sleep with me, Damo will be cruel to me. He’ll withhold affection from me and the walls will eat me alive when he is away on a shoot. Maybe he’ll drop me from the cast of the new film.”
I sensed Pranita’s panic, and felt compassion for her welling up in my chest. “What’s going on?” I asked her. “You can tell me, I’ll help you.”
The expression on Pranita’s face changed suddenly, as she probably realised the spell she was trying to weave was ineffectual. Her eyes flashed. She laughed, once – it was an ugly sound – and rose from my lap. She called out, “Darling! It’s no use. He won’t bite.”
I was taken aback to the extent of feeling dizzy. “Damo is awake? He knows what you were doing?”
“Of course he does,” she said matter-of-factly.
“He was listening to us speaking? He knew what was happening?”
Pranita laughed. “He coached my every action, every word.”
Damo came out, with what appeared to be rum and Coke in his glass. He sneered at me. He said, “All you had to do was succumb to her. But you didn’t. What use are you?”
I was scandalised. I said, “What do you mean? What’s happening?”
Damo said nothing.
I was still chewing over the implications of Damo’s last few words, when Pranita addressed him in what was almost a baby voice. “Darling, you’d have stopped us before anything happened? Darling? Darling? Please answer.”
I looked at Pranita. She was looking down at the floor, crying.
I turned to Damo and said, “You mean you’d have let us…What’s this, a sexual game? You guys testing your relationship at my expense? Or testing me?”
He showed no sign of having heard me. Instead, he walked to the table and wrote something down in his diary.
My voice rose. “What the fuck are you doing? What are you…taking notes?”
Damo turned around with a sigh, as if he’d been forced to acknowledge my presence. He pointed to the door. He said, “Look, if you’re about to make a scene, you might as well leave.”
“Damn right I will, sickos.” I walked out, slamming the door behind me. I dimly recall catching an Uber; the next thing I remember, I was waking up in my bed, but with my feet on the pillow.
I was so spooked that I deleted Damo’s number and Pranita’s, and blocked them on social media, and fortunately they never contacted me again.
A few months after the happenings at Damo’s house, one morning, I was scanning as a matter of routine the Daily Press, the paper that competed with the one I worked for. The Press had carried an exclusive interview with Damo, in which he had revealed the theme of his next film.
I learned that Damo’s next film was about a journalist who interviews a film director, makes friends with him, and then tries to seduce his wife. The film, Damo told the interviewer, was a character study. I knew that when the film would release, I wouldn’t watch or review it – that the character of the journalist would be all too familiar. For Damo had no powers of imagination.