Jun 27 ● BY Kinjal Sheth
Tonight, you sit in another muggy bar-slash-nightclub you have little recollection of walking into.
You are alone.
You squirm on the leather barstool; it gives off the same ‘make yourself temporarily comfortable’ vibe as your car seats and, clearly, you have overstayed your welcome. Snatches of laughter and drunken banter swell across the room but do not swell enough to include you. A tired-looking barman, his shirt half-hanging out of his trousers, brings you a negroni. He puts his hand out for cash. You slam a tenner on the counter with more violence than you’d intended. You feel his glare as he walks away. You ignore it and sip your negroni, allowing the citrusy acridity to rest on your tongue.
Recently, you read that negronis are the drink of the year, and as much as you are disgusted by the bitter aftertaste, you are more than accustomed to doing things for social currency. She would have called you out on it. The thought enters your mind and you swat it away. Who cares? You aren’t even together anymore.
The strobe lights above you start pulsating, a half-beat behind the music.
Saturated Red Mint Blue Saturated Red
As the song segues into loud, hypnotic rap, the red and blue lights converge and the room is bathed in an electric purple. You squeeze your eyes shut, trying to block it out. And yet, somehow it seeps in – this purple you associate with memories you wish you’d never had. A purple you wish a frenzy of selective colour blindness would blot out.
When you finally reopen your eyes, the strobe lights have been replaced by soft overhead lighting and a maelstrom whirls on the dance floor – faces suspended in expressions of exhilaration that will only last until the bar closes. You see a familiar form moving among them. You let that thought go, sure it is a negroni-induced mirage. But you notice the way it taps its foot against the floor. Slowly. Out of time with the music.
It is her.
Your heartbeat intensifies until all you can hear is blood rushing through your body, to your ears and your temples. You notice a man clinging to her arm with all the gracelessness of a lost child, whispering something in her ear. You watch as she grins at him. Acid pools in your throat. You get up and try to get as far away as possible. You wade through blurry forms until you make it to the bathroom.
You retch into a fancy granite sink, whose shiny grains blur, then come into focus, then blur again. A voice, floating somewhere near your head, asks if you’re alright, mate, and you say yes again and again until the word ceases to mean anything and a door slams in your periphery. Your mind wrenches you to another time, another nightclub.
Purple lights blazing and shimmering, and the song playing is about an endless ocean, and all the lights pool on her skin so she looks like some kind of ethereal purple being and you walk to her, fighting against a wall of people, and ask her to dance, and she giggles when she says yes.
The acid is now in your mouth.
You vomit an amber torrent.
On your first date, two years ago, you tell her to meet you at a restaurant in Southwark that food critics have touted for its “gastronomic disruption.” You are not sure how food can be disruptive. You eat dinner before you go in case “disruptive” translates to inedible, topped with microgreens.
Your aim tonight, however, is to impress. You have booked this restaurant not because of its culinary accomplishments, but because of its reputation as the place to be seen.
You haven’t dated anyone in seven years and you are determined to break that pattern. For seven years, you have told your friends and co-workers that Valentine’s Day and weddings are mere excuses for commercial exploitation – cunning economic stimuli that society falls for year in, year out. For seven years, you have avoided any situation that even hints at love. You told your cousin, Vijay, that you couldn’t make his wedding last year because of an impromptu business trip to Singapore. Instead, you spent the day huddled in front of your PlayStation, blowing orcs to smithereens. To assuage your guilt, you bought the most expensive item on his fiancée’s registry and sent it to their home with a ‘Thousand Apologies’ note you copied from the internet.
You have deleted Facebook and Instagram because you are tired of seeing feeds littered with nearly identical photos of cousins and friends and distant relatives clad in red and gold. You still wonder how most of your cousins found wives in the first place. They couldn’t hold a conversation with their reflection in the first place – let alone a woman.
Any happiness you have ever felt for them is coated in envy.
Today, though, as you get off the rush-hour Jubilee line tube, you feel absurdly blissful. You are young, you are attractive, you are wanted. In an act of magnanimity, you give a lost tourist directions to his platform instead of plugging in your earphones and pretending he doesn’t exist. You even stop to put pound coins into two buskers’ hats. You still arrive at the restaurant before she does.
Located on the twentieth floor of a skyscraper owned by some Middle Eastern royal family – you can’t remember which one – the restaurant has views of the city that photographers would kill for. At this height, the city’s pollution, its ceaseless torrents of people, fade away and only the grandeur is left.
The sun is bleeding pink by the time she arrives. You order cocktails that look better than they taste. Hers, a Moscow mule with butterfly pea powder, is bright purple. As she sips on it, she tells you in a hushed voice that she can’t get over the view. That from up here, the city looks softer somehow, its hard edges burnished by the light. You are pleased by this. You glance surreptitiously at her as she takes photos, trying out different placements of her cocktail against the sky for the ’gram. Her eyes are flecks of caramel in the last light , her hair reminds you of the wheat fields you saw once, somewhere in Punjab. You notice a choker glinting on her neck. It has a cross pendant on it. You feel the words on your tongue and sense they are premature. You say them anyway.
You know you’re so beautiful, right?
Her eyes crinkle at the corners and she beams at you.
You’re not too bad yourself.
You shrug, not really believing her. You wonder if she is messing with you or saying it just for the sake of it. Not wanting to ruin the atmosphere of the night by asking, you mumble a quiet thank you and ask what she’d like to eat.
When the food arrives – cacio e pepe smothered in pecorino and a large salad ribboned with carrots and kale – she raves about how gorgeous it all looks, how delicious it all tastes. You graciously accept her thanks, her compliment that you’ve picked such a lovely place. You feel vindicated. Superior, even.
Later that night, you walk along the embankment, her arm latched in yours.
Nothing, you think, could ruin this moment.
In the river, you see a reflected tapestry of lights and stars undulating to create a blurry cityscape. You hum an old Bollywood tune under your breath, something about how the universe conspires to bring two people together.
For your second date, she suggests a farmers’ market. You are loath to spend your Sunday morning weighing the merits of one dirt-covered vegetable over another or sampling chutneys in absurd flavours like “apple gooseberry.” And yet, you go. The aroma of freshly dug earth competes with wafts of body odour as you follow her around the crowded lanes.
Claustrophobia threatens to overwhelm you as you bump into people and their vegetables. You watch from a distance as she haggles with a farmer who gives up and offers her a three-pound discount. Your mother would be proud of her, you think briefly. Then, you remind yourself that this is not the kind of woman your mother would approve of.
And still, not wanting the date to end, you take her to the park. Like children, you queue up to go pedal-boating on a lake that is a drab, khaki colour. Rays of afternoon sun bounce erratically off the water, blinding you as you step into a swan-shaped boat. You notice her hair is almost golden. You realise you are staring and you wrench your eyes away.
When I was a kid, my dad would take me pedal-boating all the time, she says, as you begin to pedal. It was one of our traditions. And then, we’d go for ice cream at this little hole-in- the-wall gelateria and he’d get the weirdest combinations. Like pistachio and bubble gum.
Her forehead wrinkles at the thought. She giggles.
Her laughter warms something inside you. It calms you. You beam at her without intending to. That sounds so lovely, you say.
It was! What about you, Kabir? she asks. Did you have any traditions with your dad? Or your mum?
You pretend not to hear her. Instead, you stare intently at the water lilies clustering around your boat, the leaves riddled with holes browning at the edges. Bullet-wounds that let the murky green water seep above them. You wonder if the leaves have some kind of disease eating them from within. And yet, perfectly formed lotuses lie above, their translucent pink colours interrupting the greenness of everything.
Kabir! Did you hear what I said?
Sorry … got distracted. Well, my dad wasn’t really one for quirky traditions. He was more the serious type.
You contort your facial muscles into a nonchalant smile. You ask her more about her parents to avoid having to talk about yours. You learn that they run a successful therapy clinic in Kensington, that they balance listening to their patients’ problems during the day with listening to her problems in the evening. She says this with a wink and bursts into laughter again.
You smile. Internally, you feel a hollowness you haven’t felt in years. You wonder what life would have been like if your parents were therapists, if they had listened to you … even for a moment. Would they have handled your “troubled” childhood better?
You remember when Mrs.Warner called Papa to school because your temper had ‘gotten out of hand,’ and you had slapped another student and called him things Mrs. Warner ‘wouldn’t deign to repeat’ in front of Papa. She didn’t say that the other student had bullied you relentlessly and told you to go back to where you came from every time you saw him over the school year. That he had called you names that still haunt you. Mrs. Warner then told Papa that you weren’t a good fit for the school and that he was better off switching you to another school in the area, a school with a “more multicultural outlook.”
Papa had then asked her what anxiety meant. She had given him a look that you now recognise as pity. She had told him that this was a common problem with immigrants. You had expected that Papa would take your side and tell her the truth – that you weren’t to blame, that it was the other boy’s fault for bullying you. He had seen how many times you cried after coming home from school. Instead, Papa had told Mrs. Warner he would “get it sorted,” that he was sorry for your troublesome behaviour, that you would do better in the future, that he would be very much obliged if she would let you stay at the school.
When Papa dragged you to the car after, your wrist shackled in his hand, you asked him what “immigrants” meant. He didn’t answer. Instead, he pressed your wrist harder, as if he was trying to strangle it. You realised you had done something very bad. You would find a strawberry-red bruise there the next day. It would stay strawberry-red for weeks.
In the car, Papa had called you a coward. He told you he hadn’t come all this way, left his desh, for his son to be thrown out of school. His voice was strangely quiet, and you were more frightened than if it had been loud. It quivered with the kind of serrated anger you feel welling up in you sometimes.
You inherited your own bullet-wounds.
Every time you visit your parents now, you talk about cricket and the economy – the only two interests you have in common. Everything else lies shrouded under layers of the past. And just when you think things are going well and you are somehow getting along, your mother advises that you join a matrimonial site for youngsters in the Indian diaspora. Every time, your father agrees and tells you that you are getting old. Every time, you drain whatever beverage your mother has given you – depending on the season, a scalding mug of chai or cold rose sherbet – and tell her you need to be somewhere else.
A year after your first date, she suggests you move in together.
It only makes sense, Kabir, she says, we spend most of our time together anyway.
Each word rings with conviction in the space between the two of you. You say yes because you do not know how to say no; you possess no reason for refusing.
She moves in the next Sunday, bringing suitcases in nauseating shades of yellow and boxes with Miss Stacey Bain-Henderson calligraphed on them.
Her things start to encroach on your space slowly at first, and then with jarring immediacy. Rows of perfume flacons with names like “Shalimar” and “Arabian Oud” take over your shelves so that your bathroom begins to smell increasingly like a duty-free store. You take to opening your window when the scent becomes overpowering, even in the cold.
Her clothes – in shades like chartreuse (her favourite) and rust (her second favourite) – relegate your navy and black shirts to a corner of your wardrobe. You become resentful of the ease with which she occupies your home. It unnerves you – how quickly she fits in. How quickly she makes it hers. The vases that suddenly crop up on every surface filled with arrays of shrubs that make you itch, the magazine subscriptions that pile up in your letterbox, collecting dust. You do not tell her anything, nor do you mention her to your parents. When your mother calls and asks who is with you, you tell her she is just hearing the wind against the windows.
On days you cook together, you play the same Bollywood playlist again and again, letting the melodies fill your home. You feel a sense of relief that she cannot understand the words, that this is a part of you that no questions or answers can fully reveal.
When she does ask you what the songs mean, you tell her that the nuances are lost in English, that multiple layers of meaning are present in each line, even though your own Hindi is weak and you barely understand the songs yourself. Her knife hits the chopping board harder when you say that, its serrated sound jagging into the melody of the song, a fugue of difference.
What is being Indian like? she asks later one night, when you are sitting on the sofa watching a documentary on Mumbai’s dabbawalas.
You are taken aback by the straightforwardness of her question, the sincerity of her tone.
I don’t really know, you say finally. I’ve never lived in India … I was born here, remember?
That’s not what I meant, she says quietly, turning her attention back to the television.
Slightly irritated, you want to ask what she did mean, but you refrain. In the fluorescent light cast by the screen, you watch as she mindlessly pinches strands of her hair at the bottom, splitting them into two. Sometimes, her split ends have more split ends, and she repeats the process, whittling her hair down until it tugs away from her scalp. Golden strands of all lengths gather on her sweatshirt and on the sofa cushion she has on her lap. Shards split until nothing remains. Until roots, too, are wrenched out.
On Christmas Day, she takes you to her parents’ home for their annual party. As you look through your wardrobe for something to wear, you decide you want to be the kind of person that lingers in their mind. That leaves an impression. You do not want their approval – no, that is not it; you want them to be in awe of the man their daughter is dating. In the end, you pick a beige kurta dotted with glinting mirrors; you will play the part of the Indian boyfriend and you will play it with charm.
Her parents’ home is everything you wish your own home could be. The last light of day streams in from the huge bay windows, bathing everything in a deep orange glow. Everything is enveloped in the velvety, too-sweet scent of tuberose. The floors are done in a herringbone pattern that reminds you of a Viennese coffee house you once visited on holiday. Several large canvases, splotched with grey and beige paint, deck the walls. She tells you they were all commissioned by her mother to correspond with the house’s colour scheme.
Despite your confidence, you feel immediately out of place.
Come, let me introduce you to my parents! she says as she hands you a cocktail consisting only of coconut liqueur and coconut flesh. Hand in hand, you walk to a lady that looks strikingly like her, barring the few effects that age has had on her face. Three strands of pearls snake around her neck. A man stands next to her, wearing a creased shirt and the kind of elephant-patterned harem pants tourists buy in Thailand. And still, somehow, he exudes an aura of sophistication that unnerves you.
These are my parents, Lilliana and Charles, she says to you, her eyes sparkling. This is Kabir – my boyfriend, she says to them.
Hello, you say, you have such a lovely home.
Thank you, Kabir. It’s a pleasure to meet you, her parents say simultaneously. Their accents make it sound like they are saying ka-beer. You try not to react to the mispronunciation as the two of them laugh at their timing. You take another sip of your coconut cocktail and bite into a piece of hard, flavourless shell that lodges in your molar.
So, Kabir, tell us, her mother pipes up, where in India are you from?
You are startled. You wonder if they think you have lived in India your whole life. You want to tell her that they are mistaken, that you’re not “from” anywhere in India. That, like their daughter, you were born in London. That you are a tourist when you do visit India, and that you have only seen one of twenty-eight states. That you have visited twice in your thirty years and what you remember are merely snatches of colour – the cracked blue walls of your ancestral home, the saturated ochre strips on black rickshaws that make them look like bees, the mustard fields at the edge of your parents’ hometown.
Instead, you tell her that your ancestors come from a small town in Punjab, that they must visit because it is beautiful there, that if they need recommendations, they are more than welcome to ask you. You suffuse your voice with a tone of ownership that you do not possess, as if the country belongs to you, as if you belong to it.
How wonderful, her father says, beaming at you. You sense he admires you and you stand a little bit straighter. We actually have artwork by an up-and-coming Punjabi artist in our collection, he continues. His name is er, Karanveer Singh. He does these huge mixed media pieces and incorporates marvellous phulkari motifs in them. You’ve probably heard of him, I’m sure?
No, sorry … I haven’t.
Ah, I just thought, being from The Punjab and all …
You don’t know how to reply to that. You shake your head.
Hold on, let me show it to you! her father says. You follow the three of them to another corner of the vast room. Hanging on a wall is a large canvas with diamond and floral motifs stitched over and over again to make a pattern. Your eyes are momentarily jarred by the colours that are too bright for the rest of the space. Canary yellow and fuchsia and vermillion and accents of gold clashing with everything around them.
The first word that comes to your mind is “gaudy”.
Do you like it? her mother asks, smiling at you. It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s very intricate, you say, your voice simmering with false admiration. Her parents look at you as if they are waiting for you to say more. You take a long swig of your cocktail to avoid having to lie further. Another piece of coconut shell lodges in your teeth.
Her mother clears her throat. Well, Kabir, by any chance, would you happen to know of any other Punjabi artists? We’re desperate for some more pieces in this style!
Three caramel pairs of eyes focus on you. Your throat feels arid and you take another sip.
Finally, you say, I don’t know … I know nothing about Punjabi art. Sorry.
Two pairs of eyes raise. Her parents glance at each other, then they give you a confused expression that activates the same muscles on each face so that they look somewhat like replicas of each other.
Well, of course, not to worry…, her mother says after a too-long pause. She gives you a lukewarm smile. Stace honey, she says, I’m afraid we’ll have to leave you two to it now – we’ve got to make our rounds.
Lovely meeting you, Kabir, her father says, patting you on the shoulder before he walks away. Her mother gives you a limp half-hug and says that she hopes to see you again soon. You can tell by her rushed way of speaking that she is saying this just for the sake of it. You can tell that somehow, somewhere, you have disappointed her parents.
An unfamiliar emotion, clotted in anger, courses through you: raw, putrid embarrassment.
Come on, Kabir, she says, dragging you away from the painting and its ugliness, come meet my old friends, you’re going to love them!
You spend the remainder of the night making small talk with her friends, one of whom calls you “exotic” then spends the rest of the night apologising, his face distorting into new expressions of shame every time he says the word “sorry.” You want to tell him to please shut up and leave you alone but you refrain; this is not the time or place to make a scene.
So … what did you think of the party? she asks as you drive home hours later, exhausted.
It was nice, you say. Your parents have a lovely home, you add, caressing her wrist with your free hand. By the way … why did they keep asking me about the Punjabi art?
Well, I guess they just thought with you being Punjabi and all, she chirps.
You take a deep breath.
But they know I’ve never lived in Punjab, right? you probe. I’m not “from” there. Did you never tell them that?
Of course I did, Kabir, she says, glancing sideways at you. You can tell your tone is making her uncomfortable. She squirms in her seat. Her hand is suddenly clammy in yours.
Your parents made me feel really awkward, you say finally, not knowing how else to make her understand. You didn’t even say anything.
What? she asks, shock etched all over her face. Kabir, don’t be so silly! They just thought it would be a good way to bond with you.
Silly? I’m being silly? you laugh then, a hard, mirthless sound that rings around the car. I just told you your parents made me feel awkward, like I didn’t belong at their fancy party, and you’re calling me silly.
You hear a sharp intake of breath, as if she is a swimmer emerging for air after a length.
Kabir, she says quietly, you’re making way too big of a deal out of nothing. We’ll talk about it tomorrow when you’re in a better state of mind.
The resignation in her voice makes your head throb. No, let’s talk now, you say, slowing the car so that you are barely moving. Is it the fact that I’m not as privileged as you that bothers them? Or is it that I’m not “authentic” enough?
Are you crazy, Kabir? Seriously, what’s happened to you today? Her voice shrivels up into something caustic.
You tighten your grip on her hand. You are seeing everything in red.
Let me go, Kabir, she says in a voice that sounds like she’s holding back tears. You’re hurting me.
She struggles to detach her wrist from your grip. You let go.
In the glare of the traffic lights in front of you, you see you have left a bruise on her wrist.
Except on her skin, it is not strawberry-red, but a dark, lifeless purple.
Back at the bar, you ask the waiter for another negroni. He raises his eyebrows at you. You ignore his look of disdain and glance around. You do not see her or the man anywhere in the throngs of people who are pressing closer. Relieved, you turn back to the bar, catching sight of yourself in the glass shelf across you. You take in your greying hair, the pockmarks on your cheeks, your bloodshot eyes and the bags under them. A surge of regret–you aren’t sure what for –overwhelms you. You quash it.
The waiter hands you your negroni and you weakly nod your thanks this time. You take a long swig, fighting against the acridity that is building up again.
Excuse me, hi, can I please get a menu? a familiar voice pipes up to your right.
At this proximity, you can hear her and the man flirting with each other. Then, her laughter. The sound rings with unfiltered glee; it is a sound you have tried unsuccessfully to blot out from your memories for months. From the corner of your eye, you notice that she has cut her hair short, in a choppy style, and dyed the ends a vivid blue. She wears a sweater you hated, a coarse knit, with ripped jeans. You notice she is wearing the same choker she wore on your first date. The cross glints softly as the strobe lights start to flicker again, repeating their torturous cycle.
Mint Blue Saturated Red Mint Blue
You look right at her as the music stops for a moment and everyone is waiting for the beat to drop – a collective bated breath. She still hasn’t seen you. The lights converge and you are all trapped again in that uniform, hideous purple. You look at her purple face, you hear her purple laughter reverberating in the momentary silence. The beat drops. The frenzy resumes. You rise from your seat unsteadily and put your hand out. She still does not see you. You lean forward to tap her shoulder. Her name teeters on your lips.
Then, with your heartbeat throbbing in your temples and her name lost somewhere in the music, you walk out of the purple.