Authors: Karan Mahajan
Deepa, in the drawing room, propped her head against him and cried.
Afterwards, she said, “I made a mistake. There's nothing we can do. We can never catch the people who did this. They're a thousand kilometers away.”
“Deepu, darling, you can't believe just one newspaper report.”
“But it's the
“It's put together by people like me,” he said. “Look at me. Of course it lies.” As he said this, he cast his eye around the drawing room. What a decrepit room it was. A sideboard stood next to the dining table, full of generic award plates you see in doctors' officesâprizes from meaningless
film associations, trophies won by the boys on sports day, medals from galas at the Friends Club. Closer, past the cheap, laminated fake wood surface of the dining table, wood the color of dark ale, eagerly foaming up any white impurity or dirt, lay the centerpiece of the shabby sofas pushed against the windows, windows that faced the adjacent building and were alive with dust, birds, chirping, the horrible guttural fever of sunlight. A maroon, moth-eaten, uneven carpet covered the floor. Somewhere, out of view, hiding behind a book on the sideboard, a clock ticked. Deepa was on her knees before Vikas now, crying. He had an erectionânot from desire, but from a kind of excess vividness, the noises of the complex (the birds, the projecting hawkers, the grumbling servants, the hammering of new construction in the neighbor's plot), building symphonically around the central instrument of the crying woman: he wanted to fuck the house, to fuck every little particle he could see.
The house changed shape and color with passing clouds, like a woman angrily putting on and taking off clothes in a changing room. “Don't cry,” he told his wife, inhaling the smell of cakes from her hair, and then he cried too.
The trucks came every day at eleven, emptying their bricks and cement pipes and the load of construction workers before the snazzy gates of the neighbor. Vikas watched it from the window, drinking tea, tending to a fire in his stomach. Since the day of the blast, he had eaten very littleâhad come to subsist, like so much of the starving subcontinent, on tea; he loved tea, loved caffeine, felt naked without a cup at the end of his long fingers, giving him a reason to drop from his height and drink; he felt there was no harm now in indulging his worst habitsâwhat was the worst that could happen, you'd fall sick? Tear away your stomach lining like the great French writer Balzac, so that you'd have to snort lines of coffee, chew tobacco? Bad things were going to happen to you anyway. Humans, especially bourgeois humans, were not meant to handle this kind of stress.
He had not worked on his film project since the day of the bombingâ
Scenes from a Marriage
, a documentary about divorce in India, so named in
tribute to his favorite auteur, Ingmar Bergman (how would Bergman's sharp bourgeois melodramas hold up against a bomb? he wondered). He couldn't bring himself to do it, couldn't tear himself from this window, which was like a portal into heat, death, futility, irritationâand also a stage. What had happened to him was so real, he couldn't reenter the world of make-believeâyes, that was the work of a documentary filmmaker too: make-believe. It was artificial as anything else. You found a location, staged a scene or an interview, blocked out your story beforehand (after months of pleasant research on the subject), and then edited and reshot for effect. But all this seemed now to Vikas like a kind of tedium. He couldn't look at the footage from
Scenes from a Marriage
, listen to the complaints of married women, try to carve a meaningful narrative from their frayed individual stories. To make a documentary out of many stories was to make a family out of inmates in different cells of a jail. It wouldn't work. Or it would, but it would have the same sickly futile simultaneity of jail.
“I just want to be here with you,” he told his wife when she expressed concern about him. “And how will it matter if I don't work for one or two months? It's not like I make any money. You make a lot more money than meâin fact, I should be your assistant.”
“You'll get more depressed being home,” she said.
“I'll read,” he said with a smile. “I'll catch up on various things.” But there was something off and light and overly optimistic about his tone and he knew it too.
When Deepa started crying again, he said, “What's the matter, Deepu?”
Throughout their marriage, he had marveled at how little she cried, how she never used tears to blackmail him, and in the past few weeks, there had been something particularly awful about watching this lovely, tough woman reduced to a shivering mess. But now, strange as it was, he was getting tired of it. He only had enough space for his own grief.
“I've lost not just Tushar and Nakul but you too,” she said.
Vikas hugged her and made a savage mental note that they shouldn't be left alone like this, that there should be a relative present at all times to
diffuse their grief into politeness. But he couldn't argue with her. He was growing distant from
, floating away above his body. Sometimes he felt, when he was in front of the window, that he wasn't standing there but was looking down at the entire city from a blimp in the stratosphere, seeing the blackened roofs and the water tanks and the trees and the roads as one sees them on architectural plans: not dirty and ruined, as in reality, but clean and serene, occupied by no one.
He started going again for his evening walk, his heart murmuring, his legs wobbly; it was his attempt to get back in touch with his body. But his mouth would be dry by the time he'd walked to the T-junction, and he'd turn back and go home. Each time he saw a neighbor, he bolted into the safety of his flat. He'd become a proper recluse. At the same time, since his wife had planted the seed, the idea of work was in his head. How to make a documentary about terror?
The thing was, he didn't want to make a film about the aftermath; he was living the aftermath. Noâhe wanted to make a film about the moment itself, when there was a hush as the bomb shut off humans and machines in the vicinity and then viciously rearranged everything. Yes, he wanted to film the moment itself, slow it down, open it up like a flower over time, like the ultraviolent bomb dreams that filled his nights.
The dreams had been growing. At first he had seen the eye, bloody and syncopated and concocted, opening. Then the visions had become stereoscopic, his mind racing out in many directions to places like Sadar Bazaar, Faridabad, Indranagar, Rohini, Gurgaon, Sabzi Mandiâplaces where the news of the bomb turned into muddy rumor, as if his mind wished to establish a circumference for his grieving, come back with all the places that didn't know about it, that certified its smallness.
And yet there was something these dreams couldn't approach. How to be present, he wondered, for the moment itself? How to know when a bomb was about to go off? A few years ago, during a lull between documentaries and commercials, he had become interested in the functioning of futures markets, and he wondered now: Was it possible to put together
a futures market for bombs? Surely there were people with information about terrorism that a market would happily sponge up. No, Khurana, don't dream. He'd have to be more specific than that, more practical. Surely there were times of the year and markets (real markets, not the abstract entities of economics textbooks) in which blasts were concentrated. Crowds attracted bombs. So did festivals and political rallies. There were festivals almost every day in Delhiâfestivals of life, death, birth, benediction, and general sorrow and repentance, staged by obscure sects of Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Christians.
At home, unlacing his shoes, dumping out the sand that collected on the soles, feeling his stubble like a proof of advancing life, he did not sit down to calculate the odds of walking into a bomb. He knew enough about mathematics to understand it would only disappoint him. “I suppose I could speak to the police and to journalists about where they think bombs might be set off,” he thought, the old documentarian instinct asserting itself.
He saw Delhi as a city vibrant and roiling with possibility, with bombs as pockets of heat, geysers that sprayed up naturally.
He started visiting these markets at rush hour with his camera. There was the one limiting rule he set for himself, so that he not bore of the project, or simply go mad from the heat: he would film only at or around the time the boys had been killed in Lajpat Nagar. If this foreshortened the odds, so be it. As for filming, the act itself, he made sure he was inconspicuous; he did not want to scare away potential terrorists with his equipment. (He did not think, in his half-cracked state, that this way of
was extremely odd.)
His first visit was to Lajpat Nagar. Armed with a Betacam, entering the square, he set up a tripod in the ruined park in the middle. Immediately urchins and shopkeepers came up to him, asking what he was doingâpeople wild-eyed with the rushed newfound suspicion of bomb victims. When he told them he was the father of two victims, they quieted down, but they were obviously not pleased. Having suffered so much, they did not want to be filmed within the broken cages of their shops, shacks with the distended lips of shutters and fragmented beams.
From the park, Vikas took in the market in cinematic gulps, saw people traipsing over rubble, over blasted loops of cloth, old shoesâsigns of the bomb that hadn't been cleared away but were being compacted into the deep archaeology of the city. He thought of Tushar and Nakul, the parts of them that had been left behind here, merging with the earth.
After a while, he began to spread out. He went to GK, South Ex, Karol Bagh, Chandini Chowk, Sadar Bazaar, INAâplaces even denser than Lajpat Nagar, more eager to be blown up. He became a fixture in these markets, setting up his camera in the shacks of paanwallahs and tea sellers, buying their loyalty and canceling their grumbling with payments. He was making a movie about the bazaars of India, he explained. No, he was not with the police. To put them at ease, he described his other documentaries and exaggerated acquaintanceships with Bollywood stars.
“So why are you here if you know Raveena so well, sir?” one chaiwallah asked, referring to Raveena Tandon.
“Abe, what do you think, we can all sleep with her?” Vikas said.
There was a contradiction within Vikas, an open wound: though he was fascinated by the poor, good at joshing with them, he was afraid, thanks to his bourgeois background, of being perceived as poor. Poverty equaled failure.
And at these moments of light banter, it was possible to see a different Vikas emerge, one who had little do, at least externally, with the man who spent hours glued to his window as if it were a TV, looking for his boys out of powerful habit, his heart wrenched in place.
“It'll be a tribute to the children,” he explained to his wife one day. “And one thing no one mentions is how brave the shopkeepers were,” he said. “After all, they have to go back to work right where the blast happened.” Though the record, in the case of Lajpat Nagar, at least in terms of bravery, had been mixed. Some shopkeepers had immediately leapt after their burning cars or their things, ignoring their injured assistants. The owner of the framing shop, a young macho Punju fellow with a lippy twenty-five-year-old wife and two young kids, had actually escaped the initial explosion and rolled into the alley between shops; then, overcome by greed, he had
climbed through the burning tarpaulin to retrieve the cash from his box, only to be crushed by the falling A/C he'd had installed the week before.
But there were also instances of out-and-out heroism in this capitalist scramble. One of the shopkeepers, half his face blown off, had picked up a megaphone and warned customers to keep away. The assistants risked their lives to pull other assistants from the rubble. Mansoor ran away in fright but someone, some kind person, never to be named or found out, had taken the boys to the hospital; auto drivers, god bless their souls, had lined up outside the market, transporting victims to Moolchand and AIIMS for free. “I should make a separate documentary about them,” Vikas said.
He expected his wife to pick out holes but she said, “Don't get killed in a bomb yourself.” Which, of course, was exactly what he wanted.
Deepa had not been idle during this period. Vikas came from a politically well-connected familyâhis grandfather had been an ICS officer and the chief commissioner of Chandigarh and a chacha had served as a cabinet secretary under Indira Gandhi; another cousin, Mukesh, was a friend of Venkaiah Naidu, the spokesperson of the BJP party.
Deepa, who had previously kept away from these family members on account of Vikas's distaste for them (he hated anyone who didn't flatter him about his art, who asked how he made money), now began approaching them for favors.
They were helpful. One of the more surprising moments at the chautha had been the appearance of Venkaiah Naiduâpresent at Mukesh's behestâand now Mukesh said he would be happy to talk to Naidu again. “He's not in power but I'm sure he'll know the right person to talk to,” he said. Then, putting his paw on Deepa's handâhe was a notorious groper of women, widely recognized as the colony's lecherâhe said, “Are you sure you want to meet the terrorists?”
She nodded. “Who knows how many years the trial will go on? Just once, I want to talk to one of them, to understand why they did this.”
“They wanted to disrupt the election in Kashmir,” Mukesh said, his eyes sympathetically grazing her grief-shattered face. “Will you have some tea?”
They sat in his officeâhe ran a construction business from a building across the street from the family complexâand drank tea. He reflected that it was the first time they'd ever sat together like this.
He'd always thought Deepa an exceptionally attractive woman, her exoticism enhanced somewhat by the fact that she was Christian and from the South, with sweater-gray eyes that seemed only a few nicks of color removed from her grayish-brown skin, a peculiar color that didn't appear in Delhi, where the shades seemed to swing between black and white, Dravidian and Aryan (Mukesh himself was dark and hated the world for it).