Two excerpts from a forthcoming debut collection of short stories, Bombay Wali and other stories, by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions, 2013. The book will be launched in April of 2013. Printed with the kind permission of Guernica Editions.
Excerpt from Bombay Wali
by Veena Gokhale
Renuka, a young journalist eking out an interesting but meagre living in Bombay, finds herself embroiled in a desperate scheme hatched by her best friend.
After saying goodbye to her friends, Renuka walked briskly towards the State Bank of India, which was just down the road. She wanted to cash the money order her father had sent. Then she would pay the fees for her GRE Preparatory Course. The rest of the money would go to the American Express Bank for a dollar cheque, which she would mail to the U.S. to register for the GRE.
Go to China, Renuka thought. How impractical. Just the sort of thing Gulnar would think of, and Tanya could always be persuaded. Or it could work the other way around; the crazier the idea the better. How had she ever got involved with these two?
Despite their silliness, she was lucky to have them for friends. They were family to her here, in Bombay. Tanya’s mother invited them for dinner from time to time and so did Gulnar’s aunt, Kusum Vaid-Chopra.
Renuka recalled the first time she had gone to Kusum Vaid-Chopra’s penthouse apartment at Kemp’s Corner. The table had been laden with dishes and she was tempted to stash away some of the delectable batata wadas for lunch the next day. Her craving humiliated her. It would have made no difference to Gulnar’s aunt. She had served a French wine at dinner, and Cointreau and imported chocolate mints on a silver tray, afterwards, in the spacious living room with its huge glass windows that looked down on the glittering city. The only other time Renuka had sampled such treats was at the French Food Festival at the Oberoi Grand when Gulnar had bagged the assignment to review it for a glossy weekend supplement.
Renuka had been impressed by Bombay’s glamorous façade when she had come here on a school trip as a teenager. She had insisted on studying outside Madras, even though her mother had been opposed to the idea. If she must go away, why far-off Bombay? Renuka had worked to get her father onside. Finally, their collective will had prevailed.
Exciting, quirky, dynamic – that was Bombay during her Bachelors. She had lived downtown then, where both her hostel and her college were located. But the picture had gone from a flaming technicolour to a greying black and white when she had started working and moved to Mahim. Commuting every day in the overcrowded, second class compartment of the local train, living in the hot, musty PG which cost her an arm and a leg, the high price of everything, the cheap, restaurant food which tended to upset her system had all started taking their toll. Renuka’s mother commented on how haggard she looked every time she went home. It was time she came back to Madras and got married.
Renuka’s father did not comment. He expected Renuka to be in the U.S. by the following year. He hoped that she would find a job there after she finished her Masters. Then they would find her a good husband with a Green Card. There was no dearth of well placed, Tamilian Brahmin boys in the U.S.
Renuka walked into the State Bank of India. After taking a token from the clerk, she took a seat, waiting for the digital sign board to display her number with a loud ping.
Banks. Banks were grey, silent places with bland- faced people behind glass panels and gloomy, somewhat anxious customers waiting on the other side.
It’s like a morgue, thought Renuka, perhaps because so much money lies inert in the vaults. She had a vague notion that the money circulated, was lent out, invested. But she did not understand financial transactions beyond the simplest exchange of money: getting and depositing a cheque, paying rent, buying something. Dullness descended over her when she entered a bank, as if she had left her brain outside the door. She glanced at the other customers. Their posture was slack, introspective. It would be easy to enter a place like this and hold it up. People would react like zombies and do what they were told. Renuka bit her lip at the errant thought. How could she let herself be influenced by Gulnar’s nonsense?
Renuka’s next stop was the old, decrepit building that housed Bright Future Classes. The lift was not working, so she climbed an ill-lit staircase with chipped steps, to the third floor. There were two people already in the queue. She unzipped her purse, wanting to be ready with her neatly filled out application form and the money. Her fingers searched the pocket where she kept her money and encountered a thin slit at the bottom. No! The newly painted, light blue walls of the room receded into the distance. The girl ahead of her was staring.
She showed the girl the bottom of her purse. The slit was straight, precise – the work of a pro.
“Someone stole her money!” said the girl excitedly. Everyone looked at Renuka.
Renuka looked at the clerk who was in charge of registration. “What’s the latest I can register?” She was surprised that her voice sounded plaintive rather than panicky.
“You can come next week,” said the woman, her tone gentle. “Write your name and address down on a piece of paper. I’ll keep a place for you.”
Excerpt from Middle Age Jazz and Blues
by Veena Gokhale
At an innocuous jazz concert, Feroza, a middle-aged professor and caregiver, comes face to face with a painful aspect of her past.
A few hours later Feroza is seated amongst a well-dressed, perfumed crowd, in the second row at the Jazz Yatra. She’s all jazzed up too. She not only followed Piya’s advice, she added her own touches as well – a light coat of blue eye shadow, a faint line of kohl pencil, some blush on and lip gloss – all presented to her a couple of years ago by a niece who lives abroad. She has applied perfume to the hollow in her neck, behind her ears and on the inside of her wrists. And as the final touch, she has put her thick-rimmed glasses into their case and tucked it in her little black purse. She can do without them today.
The silence that met her declaration at lunch that she was going out late that evening is a distant memory. Feroza feels unlike herself as she sits before the large, open-air, brightly lit stage that pushes back the dark, creating its own radiant, little universe. Large banners announce that a major tobacco company is sponsoring the event. The most striking image is that of Jazz Yatra ‘85, written in gigantic gold letters, on the velvety, black backdrop. In the middle, somewhat dwarfed by the size of the stage, the galaxy of lights, the large number of speakers, all stacked up, are five men, with various instruments – a guitar, another larger guitar or guitar-like instrument, a bass perhaps, a drum set, a flute, and what is that – a saxophone? She wishes she knew jazz better.
She decides against asking Piya, whom she has pleased so well by dressing up. There are bound to be programs somewhere. She will find one during the interval.
After a welcome speech and many acknowledgements from a perky MC, dressed in a smart blue suit, the band swings into action. At first they seem to produce only disconnected sounds. Rather strange, Feroza thinks. Nevertheless, she finds herself waiting expectantly for the next blast on the sax, or the next drum roll. Everyone seems to hold their breath during the pauses and the very air appears to tremble in anticipation. Soon the weird, almost discordant notes start to blend into something larger and more compelling, and waves of irresistible sound enfold Feroza in their embrace.
Pervez! Suddenly she is transported to a dark, plush auditorium with an orchestra playing a Brahms symphony. She is sitting beside Pervez, feeling him listening to the music with his whole being, the way he always does with classical music. Pervez. Pervez! Feroza’s heart, gripped by a great, grinding, swirling pain, is as frenetic as the music.
And now the other musicians have stopped playing and the saxophonist is going it alone. He raises his instrument to the sky and blows as if his life depends on it. The sax bleats like a demented creature. It howls, whines, growls, producing the most alarming sounds Feroza has ever heard. She is so scared that she wants to block her ears; instead she sits transfixed in her chair.
Pervez. Pervez Mistry, Visiting Scholar, had walked into the Professor’s Common Room at Elphinstone College five years ago, and turned Feroza’s life upside down.
The other musicians join in again and the music mercifully mellows and smoothens. Soon, the band is playing their last number, displaying more riveting tricks. But this time Feroza knows what to expect and remains relatively calm.
“Encore, encore,” screams the crowd, and the band ends with a restrained number.
Piya turns towards her, her face flushed. “That was really something!”
“You look … I don’t know. Are you okay?” Feroza nods again, unable to speak just then.
Someone a couple of rows over calls out to Piya, and she turns away.
The next band is a 10-person swing ensemble making the kind of music Feroza has heard before. The melodious sounds free her mind and her thoughts turn towards Pervez. She should have known that she would be compelled to think about him at the Yatra! She shouldn’t have come. She should have just stayed at home. But …
“You have to go on living. You have to. You must.” She remembers Arnaz’s emphatic words at the hospital, and how she had held on tightly to her hand, everyday, for many days.
She would think of him. She would allow herself to think of him now, even though she usually denies herself that. She would think of him, even though it still hurt very much.