Shashank's souped-up motorcycle, usually sluggish due to the additional and unnecessary weight of the extra silencer fitted on the left side, seemed to be going at a good clip that afternoon. Symmetry was the motive behind that product enhancement exercise which had cost him fifteen hundred rupees and three visits to the mechanic the previous summer. Money well spent to get a bike that looked the same from all sides, he had rationalized.
But on his way home that afternoon, Shashank wasn't thinking about the mechanically improvised looks of his bike. Instead, it was the unwitting symmetry of Reema's face that tantalized his mind and made the hundred cc bike under him feel like a racehorse.
Reema wasn't the hottest looking girl in that first year class of the Management institute they went to. But they had hit off famously right after the orientation on day one. Within weeks they were sharing notes, discussing business policy and hanging out regularly at the chai stall outside the institute between lectures. And having fallen for that benign little prank nature plays on humans where physical attraction develops just on account of sheer frequency of interaction between people of opposite genders, Shashank now wondered how on earth he hadn't noticed Reema's well-proportioned beauty earlier.
'Shall we study for the Organizational Behavior quiz at my place this Sunday morning?' Shashank had asked her nervously fidgeting with his key-ring just an hour back, after the last lecture of the week. They had never met outside the campus before and he worried that she would read a little too much in his invitation and turn it down outright. After all, wasn't it just a month ago that they had first met? Was he coming on a little too strongly? But then wasn't it necessary to explore, while there was still opportunity, if their fledgling relationship could go a step further before it got too late and they locked themselves into a pigeonhole labeled 'good friends?'
'Yes, why not?' she had retorted and the readiness of her answer had made him wonder for a moment if they were already in that pigeonhole. A little hesitation on her part would have been reassuring but what the heck, she had agreed! Nothing was official between them yet, the word 'official' being used rather loosely here. A quick little peck on her flawless cheek would make it official Shashank thought, as he parked his bike under the stilted parking lot of his building. He wanted to make it official.
Shashank also wanted to make it big in the FMCG market. His education had gone off fairly well up till then thanks to his father's regular remittances from Muscat. A degree in mechanical engineering after school was quickly followed up with admission into a full-time MBA program in the top B-School in the state. The toughest part ' surviving education ' was more or less behind him now. It was only a matter of time before he'd secure his MBA and then a high-paying job in one of the FMCG behemoths would be a breezy campus interview away. His future was laid out before him like a chessboard without black pieces. And he was game.
The going hadn't been too tough for Reema either. The daughter of the Vice President of a private-sector bank, she had stepped into Business Management after graduation to get a quick break into advertising. She had been fascinated with TV ads ever since, as a little girl, she had seen the Kelvinator 'It's the coolest one!' spot on Doordarshan. Her eye for flaws and nose for potential controversy in any new commercial on air were simply astonishing.
'Do you want me to open the window, Reema?' Shashank asked as soon as Reema entered his room. It helped that his mother wasn't home that Sunday morning. The awkward job of introducing his new friend to her could wait for another day.
'Yes, that would be nice,' she said little knowing that he was hoping she'd decline the offer. Shashank opened the louvered double shutters of his window, the only one in the room. About four feet wide in all, the wood shutters had translucent green glass panels in the top half and brass handles at the bottom. The study table, a 5 ft x 4 ft platform of higher learning was placed by the window and came up just a few inches short of the sill. Shashank occupied a chair next to the window and offered Reema the one facing it. A gentleman always gave a lady the seat with the view. And he was happy he did for the bright late morning sunlight only emphasized the uncompromising symmetry of Reema's visage.
Her dark brown eyes seemed to him like a pair of Paradisefish closing in for a kiss. And those gracefully-arched eyebrows were as if the Thai Airways logo was opened out horizontally. Her small elegant nose remained thankfully unmarred by the very in, very ubiquitous nose-ring. The lips, not too thin, not too thick and shaped like a bow placed over a half-moon. Even her hair seemed to respect the regimented contours of her face and fell in a disciplined cascade down both sides onto her bony shoulders like a silky double curtain tethered with straps at the two sides of a window. It was as if an earnest little angel had, with a soft lead pencil, drawn one side of a lovely face on a piece of paper, folded it in half and rubbed it with the butt of the pencil to fashion a cute little gift for Reema. Ah! And wasn't dusky complexion all the rage nowadays?
Shashank was glad he had spent the greater part of the morning making his room presentable. For a young man yet to earn his first salary, it was in any case a very well-appointed room. A designer plywood bed having chrome-plated legs and a five inch thick mattress with a fresh blue and yellow cover on top was laid with its short side along one of the walls. Two matching side tables were placed on the two sides of the bed, the right side one having a Philips CD player on it and an eclectic collection of Indian and Western music CDs in the metallic rack built underneath it. The CD player was wired to two fancy speakers bolted six feet high and an equal distance apart on the wall behind the bed. Against the wall on the left of the bed stood a four-door wooden wardrobe that contained Shashank's clothes, books and assorted paraphernalia. He kept his certificates and testimonials ' Class 10 up to BE (Mech.) ' in meticulously labeled files stored in the lockable safe inside the wardrobe. Pieces of paper with red and gold ornate lettering that would assure prospective employers that the youngster had done great things in the past and there was a good chance he would do the same in the future if they hired him. A shining Yamaha acoustic guitar hung from a hook on the right wall. A white Crompton Greaves ceiling fan whirred overhead.
'Okay, let's begin with the easiest topic first,' Shashank began without preamble and opened the Organizational Behavior textbook to page 75.
'Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs',' Reema read the title aloud leaning a little towards Shashank so that the letters appeared a little more upright to her. 'I think I had missed Prof. Mehta's lecture on this subject.'
'Yes, but you didn't miss much,' Shashank waved a deprecating hand over the page. 'I'll give you a quick summary.'
'Um-hmm,' Reema nodded, sitting upright and pulling her bottle-green Lycra blouse down to smooth the creases it made at her waist.
'This dude, Abraham Maslow, proposed his theory in 1943. Basically, he says that as humans meet their fundamental needs, they go on to satisfy successively higher needs. These needs can be represented in the form of this pyramid you see here. The more primitive needs are at the bottom while the refined ones are higher up.' Shashank pointed to the diagram of the pyramid with five labeled horizontal sections from bottom to the top, the top section being a triangle.
Her back resting comfortably against the chair, Reema was nodding and making unabashed eye-contact with Shashank now and he couldn't help dwelling once again, for a nanosecond, on the immaculate uniformity of her face.
'The higher needs in this pyramid only get priority once all the lower needs are satisfied,' he continued without looking into the book anymore. 'However, if a lower need is unmet for some time, the guy will temporarily put the higher ones on the back-burner and concentrate on satisfying the lower need. Easy so far?'
'Good. Now let's see what these needs are. The lowest set is physiological needs such as the need to breathe, drink water, eat, sleep etcetera. Next come the safety needs and they include need for physical security, family security, security of personal property and so on.'
Shashank was almost singing now. Reema was in rapt attention.
'Then come the Social needs such as friendship, family support blah blah. Esteem need comes fourth from the bottom. It's the need to be respected, to have self-respect, and to respect others. Mind well, you have to fulfill the lower needs before reaching here. Lastly',' he broke off as Reema seemed to be looking at something outside.
'Halloo!' He summoned her attention and she quickly reverted back to the subject matter. 'Lastly, on top of the pyramid is the self-actualization need and I'll first read it out to you.' He placed a finger at the start of a paragraph and began reading, 'Self-actualization is the instinctual need of humans to...'
Reema's eyes had once again wandered outside the window but this time she spoke almost absentmindedly, 'Right and all humans always move up the pyramid, one presumes.'
'Well, that depends on'
'Shashank, there's something weird about that man there, isn't it?' she said with minor amusement and pointed a long slim finger towards the flat right opposite Shashank's study.
The balcony of the flat in the opposite building, about fifteen meters away, faced Shashank's room. It led into what could only have been the living room of the house. An old boxy TV set, its screen bulging out like a sack of rice, was visible through the door. There was also an open window next to the door which showed that apart from the TV, the only other furniture in the room was a couple of steel chairs and a splintered wooden showcase sporting kitschy little knick-knacks. A large cardboard calendar with the picture of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, hung from a nail on the wall that faced Reema. A jet spray of gold coins emanated from the center of the deity's open palm and stopped abruptly at the border of the picture. A wad of flimsy paper strips each bearing a date in large heavy stylized font was sewed to the bottom of the cardboard with a red string, the topmost strip showing the previous day's date. There was a mirror on the wall that stood at right angles to Shashank's room with a small faded green wooden shelf below it. A pony-tail with a loop of red ribbon occasionally bobbed behind the window sill.
It was in front of this mirror that the man Reema was referring to stood combing his hair. It was parted in the middle from his forehead all the way up to the very back of his head, the parting over four inches wide throughout. The side of his face that was visible from Shashank's room looked puffed and patchy and she could clearly see his grotesque pot-belly pulling ahead of the torso like a bulldog straining at its leash. The dark sunshades on his eyes suggested he was about to leave the house. But curiously, as Reema had been observing, the man had been combing what remained of his hair for well over three minutes. Shashank turned to look at him.
'Oh him. He's' The self-assured fluidity of the man's actions caught Shashank's attention like it often did and he stopped himself mid-sentence. Some things are better explained through history.
How much at ease Vinod seemed to be with himself and his home. Sure it had been three years now but still, what dramatic progress! Vinod extended his right hand and with a single confident swoop picked up the blue plastic bottle of Parachute coconut oil from the shelf below the mirror. Gently he poured some ' not too much, not too little, just the right quantity ' into his left palm and placed the bottle back in its place. Slowly, deliberately, he rubbed his right palm over his left and swiped both sides of his head with the gleaming hands. Then he picked up the comb once again.
'Something about that man seems odd, but it could be my imagination,' Reema said a tad apologetically.
Shashank turned towards her and smiled the smile of one who knows and also knows that the other does not.
'He's Vinod. He's a man who slipped down Maslow's pyramid,' Shashank said, deftly inserting the pyramid remark for topical effect.
'How do you mean?' asked Reema, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head gently. Ah! She looks so classy when she does that, thought Shashank.
'Reema, would you believe that that man is my age?' he asked.
'What? But he looks'tch.' She frowned. Her classy 'how do you mean' expression had disappeared as if behind the power window of a sedan and driven off.
Vinod was now saying something to the little pony-tail behind the window sill and Reema could see his complete face now. There was no symmetry in it to speak of. Not even a pretence of it. The right side of his face was large and bloated. The other side was pulled tight over his jawbone. As if a plastic surgeon had started a face lift operation on him as a charitable gesture but was called away mid-way through it to attend to other matters. Together, the two sides struggled to comprise a human face but fell way short of even average performance. And the dark sunshades only made their abject failure seem like some sinister secret.
'We used to play cricket together when we were young,' Shashank began.
'Was he like this then too?' Reema asked.
'Oh no, he wasn't. Quite presentable actually. Plus, he grew up faster than us and was the tallest guy in the group at one time.'
Reema shifted her posture a little to turn towards Shashank. She was hooked and Shashank wondered how she'd take the story. Would she be disgusted? Could a person so pampered and coddled by life be able to digest a first-person account of what life sometimes does to others?
'So what happened to him?'
'As I said we played cricket together ' Vinod, I and a dozen other kids from this neighborhood. For the record, they are all studying or working in different cities now, some even abroad. But anyways. Vinod was rather good at the game. He batted with a straight bat, bowled a consistent line and fielded without fear of injury. Around the time we were fourteen, Vinod came up with the idea that we should stop hitting the silly green tennis balls around and start playing with a leather ball instead. 'Like real cricketers,' he said. He was tall and the de facto captain of our group. There were no protests when he asked us to contribute ten rupees each towards the leather ball.'
Shashank pointed to a dark triangular depression in the skin just off the corner of his left eye. 'See this? This is where Vinod's bouncer hit me one Saturday afternoon when I was at the crease. I was lucky not to lose my left eye. But bled like a halaaled goat, I did.'
'Shhh'I can imagine it, okay,' Reema scolded gently, indulgently, but couldn't stop herself from feeling the tiny scar with the tip of a soft warm finger. Things were going well.
'Anyways,' Shashank continued after she had exhausted her concern at the seven-year-old injury. 'After that day my mom never allowed me to play cricket with the boys if Vinod was playing too ' which was like always ' and so I ended up being a score-keeper for both sides whenever cricket was played.' (Here he forgot to mention that he had also developed a mortal fear of hard leather cricket balls following that accident).
'Vinod quickly improved his game to the extent that he felt he had a good chance to make the national team. He joined a local cricket academy run by an obscure Ranji Trophy player and immediately began referring to Mohammad Azharuddin as Ajju and Sachin Tendulkar as Sacchu.'
'Anyways, I got a lot more time to spend with my books and eventually aced both the board exams ' you know that already,' he smiled. 'I began to see less and less of Vinod. We used to speak briefly from our balconies sometimes but that was all. By the time I cleared class twelve, Vinod had lost all interest in academics. After three half-hearted attempts at his class ten boards, he gave up studies altogether.'
'Tch, tch, tch.'
'Okay, I forgot to tell you this. Vinod's father by the way is a factory worker. His mother is a housewi'homemaker. He also has an elder sister who's married to a clerk in the excise department. That little girl you see there is her daughter Chiki. She's probably come to visit for a couple of days. Anyways, Vinod's father had a colleague whose brother Jagdishbhai ran a small two-wheeler repair shop near that old passport office and the anxious father thought it would be a good idea to get Vinod to start working at his garage. He'd learn a marketable skill, keep himself busy and stay away from bad company. The additional income wouldn't hurt either. So after a week of arguments and make-ups between father and son, the son started working. He continued to chase his cricketing dreams though and went to play at the academy religiously every evening after washing his greasy hands vigorously with Lifebouy soap. He was almost chucked out of the academy once when someone complained that he used grease to put the shine back on the ball, an unfair advantage for any bowler.'
'How silly'but whatever...'
'Right. Now for the interesting part.' Shashank got up from his chair and sat on the edge of his bed. He leaned back a little supporting his upper body weight on his arms. Reema turned ninety degrees to face him. She threw her right arm over the back of the chair, her pointy elbow aimed directly at Shashank's heart, her right cheek resting on her fist. Her sinuous bare upper arm glowed with health and even the upward displacement of her cheek by the fist couldn't completely bury her supermodel-like cheekbone. He was the angler, she the fish at the end of his line. So he hoped.
'This Jagdishbhai character had a young sister. Must have been around sixteen-seventeen at that time. She used to visit the garage off and on during the day ' sometimes getting Jagdishbhai's lunch, sometimes bringing him some papers to sign, sometimes just like that. At times when Jagdisdbhai used to be gone to deliver a vehicle to a customer or buy spare parts from the accessories market, she passed the time talking with Vinod and the two other guys who worked there, but mostly with Vinod. She'd probably dropped out of school too but nobody knows for sure. Nobody even knows her name.'
'Hey, I can guess what happened next.' Reema smiled a mischievous smile.
'Good, you've saved me the embarrassment of describing the mushy details,' Shashank laughed.
'No no, you can tell me the details. As long as you had no part to play in them.' She actually winked. The fish too was tugging playfully on the line now even though the hook was good and proper in its flesh.
'I assure you I had no part to play in any of this but we are digressing.'
'Oh okay Mr. Narrator. Please continue.'
'So this Jagdishbhai chap found out one day and gave Vinod a stiff warning. He would have fired Vinod but for his father's pleas for leniency that he delivered through Jagdishbhai's brother. But the girl stopped visiting the garage and our hero was heart-broken. He continued to work there but began to disappear from work off and on which might have irritated Jagdishbhai a little but not too much. Seems like one day Jagdishbhai's mother told him that a young boy was seen hanging around their house quite frequently and had tried to speak to his sister a couple of times. So that was it. Vinod was fired immediately and threatened him with dire consequences if he was ever spotted near Jagdishbhai's home or business establishment. So what do you think a rational guy would do in such a situation?'
'As in Vinod or this Jagdish creep?'
Shashank rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in mock frustration. Reema threw a quick glance outside the window. Vinod was tearing off yesterday's date strip from the Goddess Laxmi calendar with his right hand, using the left to hold it against the wall. She wondered where Shashank was going with his story. Apart from his unfortunate facial features and premature baldness, there didn't seem anything seriously wrong with Vinod. He was going about his domestic chores as any normal person would. Was Shashank making all this up? Why?
'Well, presuming that you are talking about Vinod,' she said turning back to Shashank, 'I think if he was serious about this girl, he should have had an honest discussion with her brother.'
'Oh yeah? And about what? About wanting to marry his sister despite his being a school dropout? His ability to keep her in good humour all her life despite his measly job?' Shashank got up from the bed and took his chair again.
'So what did he do? Tried to elope with the girl?' Reema asked and her Thai Airways logo soared higher.
'Not quite. But he was hurt and angry and frustrated big time. He wanted to prove himself as they say. Make it big. And the only way he thought he could was through cricket. His net practice at the local academy was taking him nowhere. He had to go to Mumbai and find a real coach and get into a serious cricket academy. Those would be his passports to the zonal matches, then the Ranji Trophy matches, and then the national team. After that, ha! ha! International acclaim. Tons of cash. Dozens of endorsements. Fans, admirers, girls. Who cared about Jagdishbhai's semi-literate sister when so much more was waiting for him if he only dared to take the plunge?' The note of mocking sarcasm in Shashank's voice jarred on Reema's ears like a raga being sung in falsetto.
'There was one little problem though.' Shashank clasped his hands together in an authoritative gesture. 'Money!'
'Hmmm.' Reema understood. 'So he did something stupid, did he?'
'Talk of killing two birds with one stone. One night, our hero quietly went to Jagdishbhai's garage. Normally these small time mechanics keep the work-in-progress vehicles out in the open because they don't have enough space inside. And Vinod's brief experience with motorcycles had taught him the fine art of unlocking bikes that don't belong to you.'
'Tch, tch, tch'
'It was a two-year old Hero Honda that he took. Hit the highway straightaway thinking nobody had seen him. What he didn't know was that an old Maruti Zen was immediately tailing him. Jagdishbhai and two or three other men were inside. No one knows who they were. But all had been in the vicinity of the garage and had seen Vinod doing it. They could have caught him then and there if they liked but they wanted him alone. And he went straight for the highway, the fool. They let him go up to 35 km from the city and then caught up with him.'
'Shhh'he's in the balcony now facing us,' Reema whispered as if Vinod could actually hear them from that distance. Shashank turned towards the window and winced as at that very moment Vinod stole his thunder. Reema gasped but the gasp choked in her throat midway and her face contorted into a very symmetrical grimace. Vinod had removed his dark glasses and was wiping them.
'The guy hasn't stepped out of that house in three years,' Shashank turned and said to Reema. 'When they found him lying unconscious in a tobacco field two days later both his eyeballs were hanging out of their sockets and the infected mess of nerves and arteries was beyond repair. He does not remove those glasses inside the house when Chiki is around.'
The story was over, the moment had come. Shashank got up, leaned over the corner of the table towards Reema's stunned hot cheek and (smack) made it official between them ' in full view of the blind man who had robbed him of his climactic revelation. As he drew back, his nose caught the whiff of feminine perfume peeping shyly from behind Reema's ear like a child and he wished he had lingered a little more. Then he pulled the window shut (blunk) and Reema snapped back from her daze.
'Halloo,' Shashank said pointing towards the textbook in front of them, 'we have to move up Maslow's Pyramid, don't we?'
Reema blushed a very belated blush. He would call her home again next weekend.