The Performers

“Hello, there” he drawled over the phone. She detected a faintly exaggerated formalcy in his voice and sat up. He was on show, for someone watching him at the other end. Certainly not the time for a conversation of any kind, she decided. It was better she listened. She could tell, he was telling her things that sounded nice for whoever was with him. Things like the day being sultry, not a leaf stirring, thinking of taking off to the beaches, mountains etc. But all on a sudden by way of an authentic conversation, he asked her for her profound views on the play she had been to the other day. Now she was positive that he was fully into it. The Great Performer’s Role. Today’s cast was He, the Other One and She. Whether in that order, singly or in combination, she couldn’t tell. The evening could. But right now, she wasn’t going to air her views on a play for him to pick on and turn it inside out for a generous flaunting of his erudition in Theatre, Production, Cast. All for the sake of Some One there. Some pretentious stuff, he’d finally dismiss it off as. Of course, as always by Broadway standards. Nothing existed in isolation anymore except in relation to or in comparison with something. People, places, events. He was constantly on a comparison high, starting off with, “These Indians can’t do a thing right, mess up everything……” Almost as if he weren’t one either by race, birth, nationality or intention. She wouldn’t be surprised if some day- could be today – he criticized an Indian sunset as being a too flashy orange splash, the skies a sub-standard blue and the lusty rains by far too diabolical. All by Western standards, of course. The censure covered wider topics and reached frenzied heights with a sizable audience and when it trickled down to an unimpressive solitary one-such as she- he made it sound almost personal. That is, a thoroughbred Indian like her was personally responsible for the mess the Indians were in and had better do something about it. He by virtue of possessing a card that turned everybody green was absolved of any kind of responsibility whatsoever except of course, criticize. It was Narayan in Malaysia who had once told her, “Never perform.” He was on a stricture on parenting. “Lots of parents do it all the time. For effect and not out of conviction. And children get the wrong message. The message of insincerity and being used. Narayan was a successful parent always minus the performance. That was Narayan anyway. Passionate about everything. Parenting in particular.

Now what was this one upto?

She had noticed way back that whenever he mentioned his Long Island friend, he tried to make it sound casual. Too casual for comfort, that is. It was not really what he said but the way he said it that made her pretend to be totally uninterested. For instance, he tried to slip in this bit of information in a seemingly irrelevant manner when with a flourish he swung his left arm forward to flick the ash off from his cigarette into the ash tray and then studied its tip for a fraction of a second more than was really necessary. Or when she was just about warmed up with his brilliant statements on human nature and the games people played and was settling down to a purring contentment, her gaze in diffused focus on a cluster of African masks on the wall, he threw it in tactfully with a sleight of the tongue as it were, so that she had to bring into sharp focus the larger mask in the centre and let her gaze linger on it a fraction of a second longer than was really necessary and then meet his eyes. Forewarned and forearmed with her predictable reaction he had scored a minor tactical victory of a breather to arrange his features into a near perfect picture of guilt free innocence.

Earlier in the week in the same casual way over the telephone he had said he was going to be busy the next two days attending to a visiting friend. This time he sounded like a child trying to slip out of the house saying., “ I’ll be right back,” and you knew it was just a truce to get away and be gone for hours maybe.

It was not as if he and she were committed in any boundary marked, cornerstone laid relationship. To begin with they had started out like solitary wayfarers through a lonely long road minus milestones and after a while realized it was just the two of them travelling to nowhere and developed a kinship in their nowhereness. As though both had decided to engage each other with travel tales till they arrived at nowhere. Much like travellers in transit exchanging telephone numbers or addresses knowing fully well that neither would call or write.

She had never been a performer in life at least not the way he was. Or so she assumed in her self-righteous way. But now she felt the need to think up a scenario, rehearse a dialogue, the opening lines in particular to strike a matching kind of formalcy when he brought her over.

When calling on someone, he got turned off if deferential neutral people ushered him in. But with a little personal touch, over coffee and snacks, he unwound himself to flirtation or philosophy on an up-swing or down swing. But today she decided to let her young son usher them in to neutralize or nullify any kind of a semblance of intimacy she might have exuded were she at the door herself and thus spare him of any possible trace of embarrassment.

Fifty minutes to go…

She hooked on to the Typing Tutor in her computer. The screen read with an enforced cheerfulness:

Welcome Back to Typing Tutor 6

To reach your weekly practice goal, another 7.0 hrs. of practice are needed.

Keep it up !

Sufficiently cheered at knowing what she needed she set about clawing at the keys with a certain ferocity that was totally uncalled for. There wasn’t any need to get passionate about typing!

Practice…That was it. Practice….

Entry. Exit. Gestures. Pauses. The beginning, middle or the end of dialogues? She had to stop midway through her lessons to answer a call from her publisher and midway through the call, she heard the door bell. That he hadn’t walked up right into her study or wherever she was – as he often did set the tone and temper for the rest of the evening’s performance. He had chosen his usual corner on the large sofa that faced a painting across the wall, of seagulls in a disarray of flight, ascent and descent. The girl sat cross-legged diagonally across, in her favourite seat. She had started out by being one and lost out on it, pleasantly though. The boy sat at an angle, across, watching all the three, but longer at the girl, being the novelty of the three. He looked straight ahead studying the ascent-descent of the sea gulls, his left arm slung across the back of the sofa and the slim fingers occasionally drumming on the curve of it. Now she gave her full attention to the girl who talked on and on as though she felt confident that as long as she talked on and on, she remained centre-stage. She at once gauged in the girl, the power of words and a lack of the power of silence. People who undermined the power of pauses, silences lost out in her esteem. But he compensated for her word power with an absolute, awkward silence he attempted to cover up by engaging the boy in a contrived conversation. The young can be hard and difficult when you most need them. The boy, his eyes glued to the girl refused to be distracted, but lent his ear more out of a forced deference than any consuming interest in the speaker.

She alone was left with a silence in which she saw, sensed and heard above the drone of the talk.

In between inane questions to the boy-the answers to which he never paid attention to-he studied the fresh flowers in the vase, the ash tray, the curios on the low centre table, the long peacock feathers in the corner jar swaying in the breeze and the carved figurines, all with a keenness that betrayed a state of unpreparedness at locking eyes with her. A certain intentness that betrayed that he was straining to flush out from these very objects a certain fragrance of an intimacy or any trace of it whatever, left from those countless tea-and talk- times in that very drawing room. In that very drawing room, they had slashed out at pretences-obliquely and directly-and laid bare Truth in all its hurting, repugnant nakedness till it hurt no more. But now truth lay trapped in between words, objects and silences. Nothing but truth yielding to every thing but the truth. But objects in rooms, mute witnesses of words and deeds have a curious way of absorbing and exuding a near human warmth, an intimacy that often fades away from people. Or else why would old discarded toys in attics ring out with a riotous laughter of childhood or outgrown clothes fill out with a certain forgotten form and familiar odour? A sweat-dried shirt for instance?

The fiery, red roses in the vase over which his eyes paused now-many a time he had thumb-tested their texture with, “Real?” – looked accusingly real in contrast with the faintly unreal smile he now sported….

What was the girl talking about?

Yes, about the usual things Indian-born-American-raised-educated-exposed talked about. Student days with speeding cars, mixed midnight drives through freeways, highways, ticketing, or near narrow escapes from ticketing, smart talking the cop etc. etc. Then the usual patronizing tips that great travellers give to non-travellers as they assume.

“If you ever get a chance to go East, especially Africa, don’t miss the stark blue skies in Tanzania. Amazing! Exceptional! The West is a total blank..”

No matter how many shades of bizarre blue skies, emerald green seas or volumes of crystal drops of rain you’ve enjoyed in your land, it’s nothing like the ones you’ve never seen or the ones somebody else has seen elsewhere!

The seagulls hovered in the blue sky over the blue ocean. The painting like “If travellers s est No or The anzania. stark t miss nothing volumes is you matter the seagulls blue a the total ones ever Amazing! skies give how blank..” of get you’ve hovered crystal to in many a non-T chance Exceptional! never in shades drops travellers the to seen blue of go of rain or East, bizarre The as sky the they you’ve W over especially ones blue assume. the somebody enjoyed skies, blue Africa, ocean. emerald in else your don’ The has green land, seen painting it’ seas elsewhere! was a gift from Ganesh, an electrical engineer whose first love, she suspected was aerodynamics. Tall and lean, he had delicate, wing like hands with reed like fingers, the index reed finger always pushing back his glasses. Words were an outrage in his presence. Loose limbed and fluid in his movements, he looked as though he lacked something, a pair of wings with which to ride the waves, winds, glide and dip as a seagull may be.

Where had he seen such blue skies and blue waters? In East Africa? Not that she knew of. She should ask him some day.

When she stood stunned at the fluttering seagulls, he had remarked quietly, smiling into her eyes, “Each one a Jonathan Livingston Seagull!” Dozens of them against the sea and the sky. Moving house through different cities with different colours and smells, the painting always remained stark blue in the living dining space so that the gulls seemed to spill over into them.
In fact, many a silent evening she had sat lost in the blue-liquid frozen motions of the wings between the sky and the water. Sometimes she thought she heard the wash of the waves against their webbed feet and the whisper of the wind in their ruffled wings….

“I travel a lot, am on my own most of the time,” the girl bubbled on.

Travel, freedom – pet themes of the young and the restless. Travel to where and freedom from what were moot points. As long as one kept moving, talking, one felt a sense of power, exhilaration, though to the exclusion of others. She chose waiting, watching and listening, for in it lay the possibility of multiple experiences, to the inclusion of others, of the animate and inanimate kind.

“ I speak fluent Spanish! That helps in my work and travel,” she frothed.

Now breathless and out of topic, for the time being that is, she took stock of the surroundings expressing mild dismay at and familiarity with the art objects strewn around. Objects picked up on wild travels across continents.

It amused her to observe that he wasn’t ready yet. She was more than ready. Just when he let his eyes travel down the dark, brooding gaze of the dusky, fisher woman on the canvas to his right, he could have cast in her direction an unhurried, unintimate glance, being directly in line with that canvas. But his eyes, missing her eyes, feather-touched the length of her curly hair and got entangled in the webby ochre feet of the descending seagulls on the waves across. A faint smile of embarrassment and annoyance played about his chiselled, Pharaoh lips for a fleeting while. She realized he suspected, she was at her favourite sport. Of dissecting unsuspecting people, not unkindly of course, as she claimed, but in that cold, detached way that he detested so much. A fascination for human nature justified a non-judgmental dissection, she had argued. The girl had played right into her hands. She hadn’t even noticed a willing suspension of words from her listener’s side. He wished the girl would pause if only to catch her breath before she bit lustily into the sensational and dramatic topic of Driving in New York.

“ I drive pretty fast. I nearly got nabbed once….”

Fast cars, fast wars, fast everything that defied the laws of nature, motions of planets….

How many evenings they had marveled at slow motion sunsets that silenced and stilled the birds and wedged in a silent darkness among trees under the stars….

He tried giving his undivided attention to the boy who sat watching the girl’s solo. This one was a deserter. Fast cars and ticketing had him floored and fascinated. As a last ditch effort, he made an attempt at joking. Better than having to look her way and acknowledge that in some way he had let her down. Or wasn’t it the other way? He’ll have to figure that out for himself. Having set and demanded exacting standards of perfection in people, places, interactions and relationships, in anything and everything, it was like having to stand up and admit that it was one big hoax, a sham, a cover up for all the imperfections and inadequacies in his own being. A fear of darkness conquered through keeping awake all night ! From freedom at midnight through fast cars the girl sped relentlessly through a gratuitous offering of her likes and dislikes in cuisine, at dinner time. The ‘I’ never veered round to ‘You’. Other people existed out there jostling for room to watch your talk show. She exuded an exuberance the young flaunted in the presence of the aging, as though her youth itself was an excuse to blow her own trumpet. As for her, she was one of those who eternally listened and aged not only with her own experiences, but with those of others who touched her life. To be uninterested in anyone or anything and be ungiving was to maintain an illusion of youth. To withhold was to conserve, to give was to deplete. The aged always spoke of their children, rarely of themselves. The young, or those striving to be young, referred only to themselves.

“I could never stand papayas or bitter gourds for that matter,” she exulted in a declaration that made even her commonplace oddities sound exclusive or extraordinary for someone interested in her. Like a mole on the face that is either becoming or unbecoming purely from the point of view of the observer.

The girl’s ramblings gave her ample thinking space to cocoon herself from betraying an indefinable something that had not shaped itself out between her and him. Only once did she make a wrong move in offering him a drink he enjoyed or pretended to enjoy once in a while. Wasn’t it last week he had suggested one himself and found no takers?

The girl, amazed, struck out. “Well, I’m not aware of this…. this alcoholic trait.” Disapproval and accusation in her eyes and then a moment of startled silence at an unpalatable discovery of someone undercutting her of being privy to a first hand exclusive knowledge of everything about him. Steadying herself, she took refuge in a cliché.

“Oh, I know it thrills but it also kills.”

She then pampered herself with a self-congratulatory smile at what she thought was an ingenuity in coining words or phrases that bore her individual stamp like some exclusively patented and marketed stuff.

The next mistake she made when she raised her eyes questioningly to meet his. For confirmation, that is. Annoyance and denial. When did he say that?

At the Rendezvous. Remember, Chetan was there too!
“Oh! You’ve met Chetan?” She wasn’t thrilled with territorial intrusions.
What was the New Image he had carved out for himself?
Save-the-children-Save the Universe-Passive-Activist?

She had been through it all, but not the distancing and almost hostile look in his eyes. The ambivalence of the evening shed, he was showing an open tilt now. She had missed the cue and messed up the performance. Her Great Revelation smacked of marking boundaries and fencing them off. Friendship admitted larger numbers, intimacy just two. She held no territory. Like a river widening and narrowing with a replenishing or depletion of waters, she had gone on with a rhythm and flow, undisturbed and natural. Now someone had felled a giant tree across, forcing her into a twisted path to unwind and trickle on in a different direction altogether.

Rest of the evening she withheld her lines, lest a word, an unfinished sentence, a laughter in gay abandon, a flutter of her lashes, a wanton, wispy strand of hair-anything, anything at all-might give a colouring of an unwarranted closeness, the residue of all those sunset walks through tree lined paths that echoed the raucous cries of roosting peacocks.

Between them they gave their full, undivided attention to the boy, competing with inane jokes and enforced laughter.

His studied aloofness bordering on hostility amused her.

Outside the wind whistled through the swathes of darkness and raked up the leaves. A single bat knifed though the night on its webbed black wings. His hostile eyes knifed through her. It was as if the choice lay with her to make or mar the evening. She felt elevated with a sense of power, triumph. Everything fell into place. Everybody had a part to play. A great truth struck her. She knew what the girl didn’t know. She also knew what the man didn’t know. And neither knew what she knew. Among other things she knew contempt was just a hair’s breadth away from pity. Also that her evenings were once again going to be vibrant and colourful like the peacock feathers that danced out from the earthen jar beneath the flying seagulls.

. Teaches in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Delhi. Has published two collections of poems, Bonsai and Reeds in the Wind. Also writes short stories. Many of her poems have appeared in journals and magazines.

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Teaches in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Delhi. Has published two collections of poems, Bonsai and Reeds in the Wind. Also writes short stories. Many of her poems have appeared in journals and magazines.

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