I emerge from the theatre box office and walk out towards the open-air cafeteria. It is a quaint place surrounded by bright orange lanterns that hang low from the trees. There are strings of tiny bulbs blinking from branch to branch against the back drop of dark blue sky. Ten stone tables spread over the place and many small bamboo stools dot the floor. All the tables are occupied. One group of four youngsters sit huddled at one such table sipping Suleman chai, the specialty drink of this cafeteria, spread in front of them are large sized black and white photographs, and it seems like they are discussing and critiquing the photographs that they must have clicked earlier during the day. At another table sits lone youth, scratching his beard, lost in the own world, surfing the net on his laptop. All the tables are full with different type of groups. I look for empty stool and glance all around the place and then I see him, that same glowing face, the same charming eyes.
I had seen him many times during my monthly visits to ‘Open Mike Poetry Slam’ at Prithvis. He sat there, on a wheel chair, his body stiff and still and his over-weight body filling the whole seating space, hands hung loosely over his lap, lower limbs rested on the foot stand, his eyes listless, staring into the space as if, filled with sense of disquiet and utter isolation. Many a times I was tempted to capture his image in my camera, but then again, I remained undecided. Was it right to click pictures of the helpless people? Would it look good to go closer to him and blind him with the flash? Would he approve it if he saw it? Even though he sat there so limply, he still imposed proud personality. People noticed him and many people greeted him.
He waves at me as if in recognition and beckons me to come and sit next to him. There is an empty stool next to his wheel chair. At first I am uncertain. Then I think, just as well. I walk closer, smile and sit down next to him.
‘Would you like to have coffee?” he asks softly, smiling a little and there is a faint twinkle in his eyes.
“No, thank you” I say, although my throat is parched.
“How are you?” I try to make a conversation
“Fine” he says his voice barely audible. He tries to shift in his wheelchair but with great effort he makes a slight movement.
I don’t know what else to say to him. What do they discuss with a person who has been a super star in his youth and now sits paralyzed and so helpless in his wheel chair?
Would he talk about his happy days on Bollywood screen or will he talk about his health. I can feel his pain and I am aware that he must be feeling miserable in his present helpless condition, I don’t wish to show him any pity, what is the safe topic to discuss? I sit quietly, next to him, my mind drifts back to thirty years.
In an airy room, I sit facing my sisters. Having the difference of opinions on every issue, they spend lot of their time in having unnecessary arguments. I am amused by yet another pointless discussion
“I love Manoj Kumar” says my elder sister,” he is the bestest actor in the Bollywood industry, so very good looking”
“”You have a very bad taste, what you like Manoj Kumar? He is always covering his face with his hands, if he is good looking then why does he need to do that? Nobody in this universe is as charming as my Shashi Kapoor” says my other sister.
“Rah! Shashi Kapoor? What acting he does? Huh? Just jumping around like a frog,”
The discussion and abuses goes on for next ten minutes, with each one belittling the other’s choice and finding faults in the superstar’s acting. There is a heated argument and then sisters part in opposite direction, resolving never to speak to each other until they learn to show some respect to each other’s superstar idol.
I want to tell him about the fight my sisters had over him some thirty years ago.
I searched for words to begin the conversation. I try to remember the names of the movies that I had seen him in. Jab, Jab phool khiley, Deewar, Sharmilee, Aa gale lag ja, Abhinetri, like a slide show, the images play in my head. He had a boyish charm, charming smile, and his unique style of dancing made him stand apart from others. He was also quite vain though, I remember, I had read during those days about his comment on film star Rekha saying “How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?”
His attendant brings the coffee and sandwich and places it in front of him on a small stool. Balancing his stiff hand, he places the sandwich between his fingers and waits next to him. His foot falls off the foot rest, hanging limply on the side, stiff, the attendant bends down and places his paralyzed foot back on the foot rest.
He bites into the sandwich and noisily chews the food and suddenly a loud burp. Our superstar idols that we see in movies never burp so freely in public places unless in jest. This superstar whom my sister adored so much just burped loudly now without any embarrassment, without excusing himself. I look at the attendant’s face but see blank expressions, not even a moustache moved. Well, what can an old man do? Burpinging and snoring is the common trait in senior people, why must I be offended?
“Are you going to watch the play?” I ask pretending as if I never heard it.
“Yes” he says “I am looking forward to it”
At that moment one couple approaches us. The man joins his hand in greeting while woman bends down and touches his feet, and then slides her hand over her forehead.
“My wife is your greatest fan. We are so glad to see you” says the man. The woman just smiles,nods her head in agreement, teeth filling her face, the adoration writ on her eyes.
He nods his head acknowledging them.
They stand there, opposite him saying nothing and then look at me, greeting me. Finding no words to continue the conversation, the couple walks away.
I bend and bury my head into my mobile to read my mail.
It’s show time, I take his leave and walk back to the box office to ask for tickets. There is a tune running in my head, one old Hindi Bollywood tune that runs into loop
“Yahan mein ajanabi hoo, Mei jo hoon bas wahi hoon” (I am a stranger here, I am what I am)