The address was 15, Wallers Road, Madras, India. The people around the mofussil lived their daily life much out of discomfort. They imagined what it would feel like to be independent, to be in control of their life, to indulge in a little fantasy, and to enjoy the company of loved ones. But such moments occur only in dreams and dreams rarely come true.
Such is the tale of this young woman who lived on the first floor of a ramshackle complex. She took lonely walks, existed quietly, avoided office get-togethers, listened to Boney M and Eruption, read books by Kalki, and watched movies with her neighbor, an Anglo-Indian, who introduced her to Roberto Rossellini. She was known by few, cared for by less. She was a stranger in her own body, unyielding to truth and scared of expression. But it was all going to change because she would soon fall in love.
The landlord, intoxicated, had been waiting for more than half a minute at her doorstep with a bottle in one hand and a receipt in another. She quickly stepped out, paid the rent, grabbed the receipt, and took off. She was late for work.
As she ran down the flight of stairs, the landlord yelled, “A most wonderful day to you Madam!”
That morning, she took the double-decker and drifted towards work. It was 1998 and Madras had become Chennai but no one cared much about it.
She was a stenographer in a government office. The main hall was full of men making callous noises, answering phone calls, and exchanging advice on bank loans.
Most of her work meant being on the run alongside officers, turning their oral mumblings into the written word and we all know, it is the written word that truly wins the heart.
She liked the job. She was not the type who complained. In fact, she loved the job. As a transcriber, she was assigned to high-ranking policy-making officials. She felt important being among them.
Memos filled with the seal of the Head Engineer made rounds – Proposal to raise wages by ten percent for all and promotions/transfers for a select few.
By noon, competent (mostly nepotistic) co-workers were informed through individual letters. She too hoped for a little bit of recognition.
She looked at her watch. It was already half-past three and the letters had stopped. Dejected, she got up from her desk to leave. And just like that, a memo arrived from the Manager. She had been assigned to the Public Works Department, the oldest government organization in the State, where she would take on a new role as PA to the Chief Community Development Officer.
A new sense of pride engulfed her. It was a very wonderful day indeed!
In the evening, she wanted to celebrate. And she did, by treating herself to ice cream(s), that’s right, two ice creams!
As she strolled towards the bus stop, she came across the most wonderful sight. There are things in the world that pull you up by your neck and demand to be seen. And then some naturally receive attention.
She spotted a beautiful woman in a plaid pattern saree.
The two stood on opposite sides of the road waiting for their bus. Her eyes pried open like an owl. She felt she could casually crossover and tell the woman how pretty she looked. The woman would then smile, maybe even laugh and ask her about things no one could. And if the crowd grew larger at the bus stop, they would move closer to each other. The woman would then whisper something in her ear in a voice that would make a nightingale envious. And they would talk all night as buses swept past them.
While waiting for the bus, she kept her sight on the woman who every so often made a slight wrinkle as her lips adjusted to the cold evening air. She stood there clasping her elbows, her shoulders stiff, her soul secluded.
The woman in the saree gazed at her for a brief second; it was so electrifying she had to look away. It was nothing like she had felt before. Sure, she had fallen in love, in primary school, with a boy who had the most magnificent hair. But that was nothing.
She watched the woman board a PTC bus. “Should I follow her?” She was ready to do it. Instead, she took her own respective bus home.
On the bus ride home, questions tormented her. Why had this woman she never spoke to consume her? Was it because she was lonely or was it because she looked so beautiful and ethereal? Maybe, it was how the dress fit her body; something about her physique felt athletic. She had missed her stop and had to walk back to her place. She moved past multiple housing colonies and watched kids play cricket in the evening. Music and dance lessons had taken over every household. She went home to her apartment and collapsed on the bed.
For two days, the woman at the bus stop occupied her mind. She imagined how it would feel to hold her hands and plan romantic getaways. She even gave the woman a name: Z. She believed that there were very few names in the world that start with a Z. The sound of the alphabet had a mysterious vibe to it, much like the woman in the plaid saree. And for two days, she waited at the bus stop, hoping to see her again, but had not. At times, she felt unpleasant because she was infatuated with a woman. But she soon realized, there are no rules to falling in love.
One morning, a week after encountering Z, the doorbell rang. She had just woken up and did not look the least bit presentable. It was the housekeeper. He had a habit of knocking at the wrong door. Given his inebriated state, it came as no surprise.
“Oh, apologizes Madam! I was looking for the English lady.” The landlord grinned. He was enamored with the Anglo-Indian, her embroidery clothes, and her half-Tamil. He would spend minutes talking to her on the pretext of collecting dues. He usually carried something or other in hand. This time around, he was delivering pamphlets. She picked one from the pack and perused it. As she held it up to her eyes, that last bit of morning drowsiness jumped out of her body. It was as if fate was directing her.
“Sangam: A night of Indian magic,” read the advertisement. And there she was, Z, the woman in the plaid saree, in the background, among a Bharatanatyam ensemble.
The woman, the possible love of her life was a dancer!
She thanked the landlord and sent him on his way. Collapsing onto the couch, she took a deeper look at the pamphlet, which took her to a distant place, towards her father, his love for sensory music, Moog synthesizers, and Shammi Kapoor. She hated classical rhythms much like her father. He was a man who preferred synth music and afrobeat. In 1984, her father lost his cool when he missed Osibisa’s performance at IIT-Madras. And with all those memories, she stood up from the couch knowing her next move. She knew what she was and what she was about to do and it frightened her.
She stepped inside her bedroom and looked in the mirror, as she always did, like clockwork before the office and before bed. But never had she felt like this. For the first time in many years, she felt alive. Clutching the pamphlet, she glanced at the mirror – her hair splintered, her body gamine, and her face like Juno.
That weekend, before the show, she had sweet-talked the landlord into getting an admission pass for the event, he nodded, his face exercised a form of childish annoyance. But within hours, he managed to get the tickets, and on a packed Friday evening, she found herself among music aficionados in Mylapore. The hall was reverberating with Carnatic music.
She was just in time for the concert dance. Z stood in the middle, elegant and heavy with all that makeup and ridiculous getup. She was wearing purple and kept gazing at the dancer’s hands beside her as they molded into weird physical manifestations. Mudra, they called it.
It did not matter to her if the performance was 60 minutes long or if the septuagenarian sitting nearby had croaked. What she felt for Z must be love. Was she ever in love with a woman before? No. But, she decided to embrace it. For her, this could be real, a moment in time that could shape her life.
The dance ensemble broke into groups of two with Z on the right-hand side of the stage directly facing her. She chirped with enthusiasm. A million thoughts flooded her mind and they all pointed to how after the performance, she would search for Z. But what would she say? I think I like you? Very much in fact. I’d like to get to know you. Something corny like that.
Her past, current, and future thoughts went discursive when Z spun on her toes in a perfect pirouette and glanced directly at her. She was star-struck!
Applause poured in from all sides. People stood, threw roses, and gave exuberant cries of commendation.
After the show, she flew past the crowd inside the auditorium only to realize she had missed Z again. She passed through multiple rooms of the cultural center, searching for Z. Her plight felt like a re-enactment of Stromboli’s final scene. Pausing a moment for a sip of water, she inspected the setting. In the back, the announcer was going on about a light music event. The atmosphere was pretty dour despite so much happening. And there, in a distance behind the third layer of red velvet curtains off to the right of the stage, stood Z away from the limelight. Alone she stood, her back to her, peeking glances through the spaces between the drapes, looking out into the infinite crowd.
She began walking towards Z, feeling as if she was willing to die a thousand times for love, but the embarrassment of rejection lurked with every step she took.
When Z finally turned, their eyes met in an instant. They never looked away.
Mohammed Hidhayat is a freelance journalist/video editor based in Chennai, India. Instagram @zmhsrk