He walked down the plaza in Barcelona, conscious of every single step that he was taking. It’s impossible to be spotted somewhere around this town, he thought to himself ,as made his way towards Gaudi’s masterpiece.
He moved into the open road while making sure that his cap and his shades were well in place, and momentarily let his gaze flutter as hew saw a gold Maybach pass him by on the road. He had always liked the car, and never made a secret of his desire to own one.
But the irony is that he could now afford a Maybach, yet all he does is look at it and wish he could have it. He pretended like he didn’t have a pocket. Like he didn’t have a bank reserve that could easily dip his hands into.
To his utter horror, the Maybach suddenly reversed. Several cars that were tailing the luxury make stalled and started honking in sheer displeasure. Some bothered to stick their heads out of their windscreens, and admired the car.
It’s okay if a Maybach were to break the traffic rules, because it is, afterall, a Maybach. The traffic police wouldn’t make too much of a fuss about it. Not even in Barcelona. Not in London, Moscow, or even Beijing. It’s the same everywhere. And he knew the same treatment won’t be afforded to a Ford Fiesta should the driver be doing the same thing.
The car halted right in front of him, and for a moment he regretted for not having walked on. He shouldn’t have stayed put and starred at the car. The windscreen rolled down, albeit slowly, and he saw a dark figure with a mismatched shades and a brimming smile. He did not like what he saw.
He smiled and nodded back. There was no point in walking away now that he has been recognized. Bloody hell, Indians are all over the world. He looked around to see if he sees any other Indians around. There were none in sight. But nevermind the Indians, the Spaniards, Catalans, and Americans were already starring at him. When a Maybach stops for you, no matter where you are or how unknown you are, you immediately become a somebody, at least for that five minutes.
The politician and actor got wouldn’t get down from his car. That will be too much of a work for this 55-year-old man who still duets with actresses half his age. He was wearing a bright red color shirt. Kumar resisted his temptation to pass a comment on this matter. He was a junior and has been told to keep his mouth shut when it comes to criticizing the seniors. Even the costume designers in the industry won’t have much to say about the dressing choices that some of these senior, and even junior actors make. If they want pink, pink goes. And the audiences suffer.
Yet the audiences won’t ask questions, for when they exit the theater the actor’s default TV channel will be there to extract the best comments from them, and they need head straight to their ‘fan club’ and rally behind their favorite film start, someone whom they call as their ‘leader’.
“No, I’m fine, thanks sir,” he tried his best to match the man’s native Tamil- as he was invited into the Maybach.
“Just bought it, isn’t it nice?” the man asked. Kumar smiled and nodded. He was a soft-spoken person, at least in front of his seniors. Either he speaks in their favor and sucks up to everything they do, or he pretends to be a humble, soft-spoken star that respects his seniors. He chose the latter. After some brief enquiries, the man took off gliding in his Maybach again. Kumar sighed in relief. That was, of course, not the name he uses in his profession. The name Kumar would displease his director, producers, and everyone in his family. Kumar was nowhere near stylish enough to befit a film star. But he felt like he has never been any other person than this Kumar- a young man slightly lost in his tracks, someone who’s never been completely satisfied with his life.
He plugged in his earphones and switched on his iPod. At least this would distract him from the people around him, and he wouldn’t bother knowing even if some Indian dude was watching him curiously.
He walked towards Sagrada Familia and planted himself at a corner outside the building. He wasn’t there to visit Sagrada per se, but instead to ogle at the people who are visiting Barcelona’s international symbol. He has been to Sagrada many times before. Two of his directors have already found it appealing to shoot Kumar’s duets here in Barcelona. And being a Catholic himself, a fact many of his fans are unaware of, he has personally visited Sagrada two more times on his own.
Something caught his attention. The face that had caught his attention was lost somewhere in the crowd, but Kumar knew with an amount of certainty that he had laid his eyes on someone. Whether it was someone he knew or just someone whom he’s attracted to, he didn’t know. With the sunlight almost blinding, a svelte yet petite Indian woman emerged among the bustling crowd.
Kumar now knew why she had caught his eye. Because he had apparently caught hers. She seemed to abruptly halt in her steps and instinctively looked directly at Kumar. She seemed to be taking ages figuring out whether he is who she thinks he is.
“Don’t be a baboon, please,” he muttered under his breath, looking in the opposite direction.
She let loose a wry smile. In a manner similar to Kumar, she was dressed in all black, and was of dark complexion. A dark legging accompanied dark shoes, skirt and a top. She looked like she’s jumped straight out of the 12th floor of a corporate building.
But instead of an evening coffee, she was holding Barcelona’s travel brochure in her left hands. He could not figure out if she belongs in Barcelona at all or if she is a tourist who is not dressed like one. Compared to the hoards of other tourists who were wearing tops, loose T-shirts, and shorts that screamed relaxation, she seemed very much out of place.
And after a fluttering gaze and a familiar smile that seemed to linger forever, she continued her way into Sagrada. Kumar sighed- she was a civilized woman.
And he decided to do something that he logically shouldn’t do at that point in time. He stopped trying to hide himself. He unzipped his blazer, casually tucked it atop his sling bag, and walked into Sagrada. There was some sort of attraction that he had felt with this woman in black.
He walked casually, all the while keeping his eye on the woman, who was pretty much behaving like a tourist. She managed to steal a couple of glances at his direction. She knew that he was watching. And he knew she was watching. There was some sort of understanding- some sort of chemistry- some sort of innocence in this little game.
And then she halted as he was walking closer to her. With a feet as quick as a ballet dancer, she rotated around, readily wearing a warm smile on her face, and faced him eye to eye.
“The Junior Superstar,” she may have called him by his on-screen moniker, but the way she had opened her conversation with him could fool anyone into thinking she’s a long-lost friend of his. Her legs were still crossing each other, and her maneuvers told him something about her that made her choice of dress even more puzzling. This woman is a dancer.
He hesitated and felt an awkward moment hanging up in the air, but it disappeared soon after as her smile made him feel at home.
“I don’t know your name,” he said, returning her warm smile and summoning courage to take a step closer to her. As words came few and far between, he took time to notice her in better detail.
Kumar always wondered why producers salivated at the prospect of seeing a milk-colored navel. Every single actress he’s been paired with, every single actress he has seen in and around the industry, donned the same color. Even the odd dark-colored actresses he happens to meet from time to time, have their heads dipped into a dung of make-up just to make them look fairer. He pitied them. And he never understood why being fair was considered as a part of being beautiful.
What Kumar was seeing in front of him right now in Sagrada Familia in Barcelona on a hot summer evening- is what he considers to be real beauty. She was not hot, nor gorgeous, nor sensual. Yet she was beautiful, elegant, and above all, confident. He could still remember how fair-skinned North Indian girls would jump nuts and peanuts wherever they see him, and battle each other in a queue. When they do come close to him, all he could hear were squeals, shrieks, and excited voices. By the time the girls could calm down, their five-second date with the star will be long gone by.
“Parineeta,” she said. His eyes lit up. “Wow,” he said. “I know, that’s not a moniker though. You have to credit my parents for that.”
She offered a handshake. He took it without hesitation, though he knew sometime very soon, this day will end, and her participation in his life will also end.
“What does it mean?”
It came to the tip of his lips, but he stopped himself. She does look like an angel, but he doesn’t want to be mistaken for a flirt. Because he is not one.
“Nice,” he said instead.
She leaned against the lamppost and looked at him from hardly inches away. The manner with which she looked unsettled him. For the first time, he felt that the evening’s innocence was waning away. They had now spent two hours together. They had taken the TMB Metro around the city, and even paid a visit to the Camp Nou stadium.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked. The question stripped off the entire freshness that he was feeling that evening. There’s something more to this woman in black.
He shook his head, perplexed. His summoned the deepest reserves of his memory but could find a grain of memory that made him remember her. It’s not entirely surprising that he forgets some of the women he meets because he meets way too many of them anyway to remember, but if he did actually meet Parineeta before, it would impossible to have forgotten her.
Either he was blind back then or she was not the same Parineeta that she is today.
“Of course, I expected a tad too much,” she said, sighing for the first time since he had met her. Her smile waned a little.
“I danced for you. With you actually. Three years ago, your debut film,” she said. A slow realization seeped into him.
“You didn’t know, but you changed my life. And I had to meet you today. Sometimes fate can be cruel.”
He felt like he was trapped in an accused’s cell without ever being guilty of anything. His only mistake here, as he could deduce, was the fact that he was such a huge star that he could notice all the details around him.
“We were shooting a song in Mauritius. I followed you almost everywhere. That was a habit. I worked with several leading choreographers back then. Whether it was you or any other actor, I just followed them around to get a peek into their personal life.”
“If you ever wished that there was a person who would notice the smallest, tiniest habits you had in your life, that person was me.”
He looked with a mixture of amazement and embarrassment.
“You had qualities, you know. And I’m not comparing you with other actors alone, I’m comparing you with all the guys I’ve met in my life. And you stand tall.”
He wanted to say thanks. But she is not saying this to compliment him. He knew that much. This time, he wasn’t about to miss anything.
“I fell in love with you.”
He knew this was about a romantic feeling, but still hearing those words shook him. God knows how many times he has heard women yell those words at him, even attempting to kiss him in some instances. There were even some nutcases who cried while professing their love for him, wanting him to accept them as a part of their lives. They were those who named their kids after him, and threatened to commit suicide under the name of their love for him. It all seemed fake.
But something was different about this confession. This was true. She was in love with him. He felt genuinely flattered.
“I was helplessly in love with you. We I returned to India I couldn’t concentrate on my job. It didn’t actually dawn on me that I love you until I started dancing with other actors. I was even promoted by my master to be a first-line dancer. But something was missing. Why should I fall for you when I had zero chances of being with you?”
“I didn’t want to be the typical girl who falls at your feet and drools over you. But no matter what I said, to my friends or to you, I was always going to be categorized as another one among those who are crazy over you.”
“I don’t even drool over you. I always thought you are over-rated, both in terms of your star status and looks. But the person you are,” she stalled.
He didn’t need her to complete the sentence. He felt like he was the best person in the world. For a moment, he didn’t feel like a lost soul, like how he always did.
“I quit dancing. I never felt complete. Plus being in the industry meant that I came across you from time to time. But I always was, and will be, anonymous for you.”
He realized how much insecurity lay hidden beneath that exuding confidence.
“I just joined an accounting firm here in Pamplona. I have an aunt here. The next best thing for me in life after dancing is Mathematics,” there was a hint of regret in her voice.
“I came to Barcelona for a small day trip as my firm has a meeting here.”
Now he knew the full story.
“How long since you quit?”
“Two months,” she almost laughed.
“And I just had to meet you. And you just had to follow me.”
“What made you follow me? What made you spend this evening with me?”
He couldn’t answer that question.
“I think I know why. But I know it’s pointless.”
She knew that he knew, and vice versa. He was attracted to her. He didn’t need to tell her, but he felt like he owed her the verbal confession.
“I was attracted to you. Guess you caught my attention afterall,” he said, smiling. He was hoping his positive undertone would completely erase the negativity that is surrounding their conversation right now.
He looked at his watch. He had less than two hours left. He simply did not have enough time to console her, though he badly wishes he could be there for her. He felt like this woman definitely deserves better than this.
She needn’t be the girl who loves a guy that every other Indian girl is crazy about. She deserves better than that.
But life doesn’t work that way. Kumar knew that a long time ago.
She afforded a smile. “Now what?” she asked, looking him straight in his eyes. He felt unsettled again. It was a look that was expecting some sort of returns from him. Kumar had nothing to give Parineeta.
He shook his head. He had no idea what’s next. He knew what’s next for him. He in fact knew his whole itinerary for the rest of his stay in Barcelona, but telling that to Parineeta will resemble ignorance of the highest order.
She reached out for his hands. He gave in. She clenched his right hand in her palms.
“Stay with me. Let’s be together. Make it all worth it.”
He hated saying no. He liked her. He would have loved to have her as a friend, but now she has left him with no choice but to ensure that this evening will their last one together. He was very sure she would opt to stay away from him completely after his rejection, now that she has even proposed.
“Pari, you know that I’m married, right?” he asked.
She nodded. Of course she knew.
“Remember what you were busy doing in Mauritius?”
Now he remembered, and he realized why he probably never noticed Pari following him around. Back then, nothing mattered. Not even the director. Meera was everything for him.
“It was a getaway I had with Meera. I spent all my spare time with her. We were getting to know each other,” he said.
Meera was introduced to him by his father, and a few other family friends. After rejecting two other girls that were suggested by his parents, Kumar found Meera to be independent and appealing enough, and thus gave it a shot. Mauritius was where everything fell into place. Few months later, she became his wife in a grand Catholic ceremony. He glanced at his ring.
“One of the reasons why I fell in love with you. The way you treated her. I knew how tricky it was for you. But the way you would treat her in front of the crew, and the way you rejected all the extra attention she got but still treated her respectfully. I don’t know, I just haven’t seen it in a man.”
He felt flattered again.
“And yet you are asking me to be with you even though I’m a married man?”
“There’s no other man better than you out there. And you know, you got attracted to me. That means something I guess.”
For the first time during the conversation, his voice wasn’t muffled anymore. He knew what to say next.
“No, that means nothing. I grew up pretty much in a box. Do you know that this has never happened before in my life? This whole instant spark and attraction thing? I have acted out these scenes so many times but yet it never really happened to me. Yes, it happened with you, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I didn’t touch you. I didn’t want to even talk with you. If you hadn’t turned around, I would have just watched away and went back home.”
She looked disappointed, and he understood exactly how she felt.
“I don’t have a filmy love story with Meera, but we know each other. There are many things in my life that I wished would be slightly different. I do wish my father hadn’t decided almost every aspect of my life, but there’s one thing I’m very clear about- I do love Meera. That was never a mistake. I’m with her because I chose her.”
He turned away from her and looked intently at the crowd of people in front of him. He summoned a little courage, and placed his hands firmly against either side of her cheeks. It was his way of showing solidarity. She allowed herself to cry a little. He knew these tears were hiding in her.
“Pari.” She looked at him. He had her full attention. “You loved me for the guy I am all this while. If I take your hand right now, I’ll stop becoming the guy you have always loved. You will be just as unhappy with me around even if I hold your hands right now. I want to be selfish. I want you to love me the way you have always done.”
Slowly, she stopped crying. “You are wrong. There are guys like me, why, there are even those who are better than me. Just open your eyes. Love should not close your view of the world. Let it open your views wider. Let it be an instrument of more freedom. Dance again, you are good at it. I can tell just by looking at your mannerisms. Someday, you’ll find a worthy guy. And he’ll be all yours. But for that you need to open your heart. Stop saying I’m the best there is.”
“I might be the best so far, but you have not seen enough. I can tell. Because when you have seen enough, you will very well know who you want to be with. You want to be with me just because you think I’m the best. Be with someone in order to be with someone, including for their flaws. Not just because you think they are the best.”
“I have my insecurities too, but only Meera knows about these. And she’s there throughout my lapses.”
She proceeded to hug him. But she wasn’t crying. It was a warm, cordial hug.
It was later after dinner, and Kumar trotted slowly to bed. He wasn’t intending to tidy anything up. He just wants to drop dead on the bed. “Idiot!” Meera slapped his shoulders. “Ouch!”
She held his hands like an authoritarian and dragged him over to the dining table in their rented villa. She took the cross necklace from her neck and dangled it neatly on the stool.
“Kneel,” she pinched his hands. He was slightly sober. She never does this, she was hardly religious. This must have been a special occasion. “What’s special?”
“We are going to pray.” He kneeled lazily. “For whom?”
“Parineeta.” He eyes opened widely. His sleep was just stolen away by an invisible fairy deep into the stars hovering above the Barcelona sky.
“So that she finds love that makes her laugh next time.”
He smiled. Now he realized why he had always pretended not to have enough money for a Maybach. His Volkswagen was enough. That was all he needed.
“Let’s rent someother place for tomorrow?” he asked. “Maybe a smaller apartment?”
He had that small insecurity. She married a rising film star. He can’t blame her for wanting to go bigger, and not smaller. “I was about to tell you this is too bog for us,” she retorted in her stern note, before she began peeling her away her prayer for Parineeta.
But his thoughts were elsewhere. When he sleeps later, he will feel as if as he had lived this life well, so far. There’s no struggle that needs to wait until tomorrow. He didn’t need a Maybach. He had Meera. When it comes to her, he never felt like a lost soul.
And compared to the mismatched senior star that just bought a Maybach, his soul is still pretty much at the right place.
As for Parineeta, the sincere prayer of a woman who doesn’t know the definition of jealousy should take care of her.