The Mehra villa was bathed in golden lights like a newlywed bride. Guests with shimmering faces bustled about the tented courtyard like Japanese Koi gliding in shallow summer waters. Bollywood music poured out from wedding speakers. The night air gurgled with laughter and spurious chatter.
Away from the clamour, on the second floor, Jai hunched over on the floor in his father’s study. He was twenty-one, but looked older, with his lips dark and flaky from all the cigarettes and naked slurs. His hands worked intently as he stuffed damp cannabis onto a cardboard strip and rolled it into a perfect joint.
Was it a good idea to smoke marijuana while you should be supervising the kebab counters at your sister’s wedding? Probably not. But that's alright; Jai was supposed to be the hopeless bum – the worm-eaten apple of the Brady Bunch. Everyone knew it; his neighbour D’Souza, the family doctor Ahuja, and even his father’s mistress Ms Kabra. He was merely living up to his name.
He breathed in a long drag and exhaled slowly, watching the smoke thin out against the ghostly glow of the window. He felt like a dying prince; his vision dissolving like inseparable colours on a palette.
Chasing addictions like summer clouds had left him somewhere between awake and asleep; tired and enraptured. After dropping out of college, he had been a philanderer of sorts – with women, with narcotics, with day jobs. Some days he would be a studio RJ, some days an underdog blogger; and the other days he would wake up with the familiar salty taste at the back of his mouth, not knowing who he was at all. He would instantly reach out for the rolled paper and powder by the bedstead, desperate to feel the comforting rasp down his lungs again.
He was almost surprised when he received the invitation to his sister's wedding. Could it really be that his parents wanted him there, after the nuisance he’d been? Had he not convinced the world to hate him yet? Or perhaps his act was pervious; embarrassing; like an unnerved kid in his first school play.
He went to the wedding anyway; but nonetheless, he was a man with a plan.
Jai staggered a little as he got off the floor and made his way into his parents' bedroom. Digging out the keys from beneath the bedding, he creaked open the deodar almirah, and unloaded a wooden box – his mother's wedding jewellery. No one had worn them in ages, and they'd help him to clear out his rent and acquire fresher dope. He stuffed his pockets with gold chains and pendants; gleaming against the dark like shark teeth.
A strange shuffling noise came from the veranda, and he froze. In measured footsteps, Jai edged towards the veranda and peered in. His eyes widened.
“Charu!” He exclaimed, “What are you doing?”
It was his sister, draped in Irani silk and a fluttering veil, one leg poised on the railing, as if ready to hoist herself over the railing and down the pipes on the other side; a nylon rucksack on her back. She looked at him, and shock washed over her whitened bridal face.
Charu quickly hopped down from the railing onto the veranda, and faced him sheepishly, “Please don’t call anyone.”
“You were running away, weren’t you?” Jai forgot to keep his voice low, “You were running away on your wedding night!”
“Shut up!” She hissed. After a while she said, “I don’t want to marry Mukesh.”
“Why couldn’t you tell Mom and Dad like a normal person? Where would you run off alone at night anyway?”
“I don’t know!” She nervously ran her hand over her face. Her kohl got smudged, making her look like a streaked raccoon. She flopped down on the floor and Jai sat down beside her.
“What’s that smell?” She asked pointedly, “Were you smoking weed again?”
“I don’t think my problems are a priority right now.”
“Really, Jai? After three months of rehab, you still don’t know better? Why are you so intent on ruining your life?”
“You’re the one who agreed to marry the NRI parcel Dad brought in a few weeks ago. You don’t even know the guy, for God’s sake. Don’t lecture me about ruining my life.”
“At least I don’t let Mom and Dad down,” she defended.
“At what cost?”
“What option do I have?” she glared at Jai, “You were always the screw-up. That left Mom and Dad looking down at me with expectant eyes to save their world, make them proud, fill the empty walls with trophies. To undo the damage you’ve done.”
That’s the last thing Jai had intended to do. The memory of a summer night swam through his head. He had been sixteen. Powder had throbbed in his veins. A warm breeze, and the tight smell of blood; voices and faces ringing in his brain in a psychedelic daze. When he'd returned from the hospital, he had found the kitchen drawers stuffed shut and his dad’s razors removed from the cabinet.
Jai pulled his sleeve over his wrist, although it wasn’t cold.
“You have no idea what I was going through,” he said, “You belong to the same phony world as Mom and Dad.”
“It’s better than spiralling into desolation.”
“You’re caught up in the same spiral as I am and you don’t even realise.”
Charu’s life painfully flashed before her eyes. Somewhere along the way, she had made it her job to make her parents happy, and had uprooted her own life bit by bit for its sake.
Charu looked down at her hands; dwindling wildflowers etched in Mehendi. All she’d ever wanted was to own a small studio, with a large window, some canvases, and a brush between these fingers. But she knew her paintings didn’t make her parents happy. So one day, she found herself taking the paintings off the walls and replacing them with science charts. She found herself applying for engineering colleges instead of art colleges.
She remembered the particular summer when she had realised, she liked how her friend Anika looked with freshly showered hair wetting the back of her dress. She remembered them kissing that night in her room; but the next day she buried the taste off her lips down the deep gullets of her unruly shelves, along with the old paintings. She had to be the good girl, like her mother would always say; and good girls didn’t like girls.
“Sometimes I feel I’ve given away too much of myself to everyone,” Charu said, “And nothing remains.”
“So stop,” said Jai.
Something glinted in Jai’s pocket and it caught Charu’s eye. She grabbed the gold chain and yanked it out. Her eyes widened in horror.
“Mom’s chain,” she said, “Were you planning on stealing her jewellery?”
Jai didn’t meet her eye. He had a lot of excuses, like how he had lost his job again, or how he hadn’t paid rent in three months now; but he stayed silent. It was like finally wiping the fog off the mirror and staring at your own reflection. He could clearly see what he had become; and he didn’t like it one bit.
“You must keep it back,” Charu said, “Promise me you’ll quit drugs. Or at least try.”
“Fine,” said Jai, after a while, “But only if you walk downstairs and tell them you won’t marry Mukesh.”
Charu’s eyes glazed with unspoken fear. Fear of letting go of a perfectly familiar blanket of misery and edging into the dangerous world of possibilities. Fear of flying out of a metal cage onto an open sky with shaky wings.
Perhaps the path to ruination was easier than grasping for what you've desire the most – the perilous freefall called freedom.
She thought remorsefully of the wasted years when she had paraded to be someone else. She had been ruining her life for as long as she could remember by snipping the edges and moulding herself into a stranger. Perhaps the biggest monster gnawing at her lived inside of her; and was the most important one she needed to defeat.
“I will,” Charu said decisively, then cast a small wicked smile at Jai before getting up and leaving the room. Jai sat on the floor and stared at the gold chain in his hands. He decided that he too, would keep the jewellery back, and burn the packet of cannabis on his bedstead.
In the ephemeral quiet before all hell would break loose downstairs, an odd calm rested on him. The trees outside his house swayed like they always used to in the earlier summers, and it reminded him of old photographs. The night air smelled sweeter, as if carrying the scent of tangled wildflowers from somewhere far away; and in that impossible fleeting moment, he felt like a little boy once again.