The Sardarji is falling asleep over his accounts. It’s barely 8pm by the feel in my fins and already the Sardarji is dozey. His iron ring catches the light. He looks ready for bed.
The oldest waiter (as old as I) is ushering them in two by two, four by four. They whisper their choices to him. He pretends none of what they ask for is available. For a few unhappy seconds they wonder whether it was worth coming all this way.
The solitary Japanese is smiling at the bird on his beer bottle. He is wishing he had seaweed to eat instead of chicken. He is too polite to mention it, even to himself. He bows at the waiter, orders another plate.
The black man is eating a vast bowl of Veg Hakka Noodles with Gobi Manchurian. He comes every single night. He has eaten his way through the entire menu, and is now back again at the beginning.
Tonight the golden dragon will appear.
No one knows when, but the word is out. Why else would the tables fill up so fast, the sofas taken, even the smelly corner near the toilets, why else the mural shielded by a moveable screen.
There are dramas that will be enacted. Clumsy and strident. No one will know how to deal with their own projections. They will leave, satiated and enraged.
Drinks like a fish, these humans say. What do they know!
I have been watching their floundering forever.
Flounder: a distant (very distant) relative once cast in a fairy tale.
I, too, am from foreign. Which is why they haven’t eaten me yet. I grow and grow, and live and live. The oldest waiter feeds me with a wink. There’s a reason he hasn’t fished me out to feed me to the sharks.
The only sharks in the room tonight are the ones wearing suits. They have just made a few millions on a shady deal and are trying to hide their elation by coming here, the site of their humble beginnings.
The girls are drinking Moonlight Gouramis and Neon Tetras. The guys are drinking Piranha.
The solitary Japanese has been joined by three countrymen. Their table is groaning under the weight of the food. Dumplings, Peking duck, pork ribs. They are all drinking the Indian bird-beer which none of the Indian beer-drinkers are drinking. The Indians are drinking Chinese, Australian, Danish, American.
The four Japanese in checked shirts are the exact opposite of the four Indians in dark suits.
That is how I know they have arranged to meet here.
Their elation is linked.
Or should I say: there is a relation to their elation.
Forgive me. Old age is making me silly.
Nobody in this room is below thirty. Not even the ‘girls’ kissing their Gourami glasses.
Anyone younger is discreetly turned away by Mandeep, at the door. He is slight, and unthreatening, he looks like he’s fifteen, and he sends the youngsters away with promises of better, cheaper places where the action will suit their style. Mandeep is the only one who looks at me with a faraway eye. He glides and drifts with me, and then he snaps out and turns himself into a flick-knife.
Mandeep almost became a pop-star. His imitations of Lady Gaga were so good, he made it to the finals of a nationwide music show. I know, those were the days the Sardarji never allowed anyone to change the channel during the replays at 2. Mandeep, with the red bandanna and gentle eyes, losing out because he had no range, no one apart from Lady Gaga in his voice. Here, he is valued for his soft skills, his loud transformations. After a point, he won’t be needed at the door. That is the moment he lives for, each night.
The Japanese have been drinking steadily. They get happier as they drink, shinier as they eat. If they were home, they would sing. Here, that will be culturally inappropriate. Their politeness is impregnable, even in the midst of alcohol.
The Suits have begun raising their voices. There is an unfamiliar family here that looks terrified each time a shout from the Suits punctures the gentle buzz of conversation. They came at 7.30 and should have left by now, but the man has been drinking his Blender’s with pride and wilful viciousness, while his wife has been feeding and hushing and soothing her fractious son and daughter. Chale? I keep hearing her thin voice saying. No answer from her man. If they don’t leave soon, Mandeep might have to exercise his charms to evict them. This is a family place, not a sleazy bar, but even a family place runs out of patience, eventually. It’s only when the man gets a call on his mobile that he calls for the bill with a grunt and the woman hurries her offspring away even before he has his wallet out.
An unconscious sigh of relief washes over the customers. Mandeep, who has escorted the lady and her children out and grinned at the man who would knock him to the ground if he had his way, now locks the door and turns the Closed sign. By the feel in my fins, it’s 10pm.
Time for the slow to begin.
I don’t slur even when I’ve had one too many.
I do mean ‘slow’.
The slow is what brings them here.
All the thirty-pluses, tired of speed. I am doing the youngsters a favour. They’d die of shame, admitting themselves to the slow.
Already they are unwinding. How loosely that term is used! Not here. Here, the unwinding is real, so real you need to be high to not go mad with it.
The black man, my favourite, his name is Nijji, which means my own in this part of the world, not his, has begun his unwinding. As he unwinds, layer after layer of what appears is not smaller than him, for he is a big man, but larger. The regulars never know what his unwinding might lead to, which is why they come again and again. It is like a shedding of skins, not to reveal nakedness but another being, clad and constructed out of a new set of possibilities. Tonight Nijji is…
But why should I give it away, blurt it out.
You need to come here, be here, you need to see it for yourself.
Him and it and me.
You need to see me unwinding into my momentous moment.
I have learned to speak like this. It speaks like me, and me like it.
There is no slowness sexier than me unwinding into the diva, diving into the deep pool of the voice that is her-mine, my voice-void, so cool with ice, so hot with sudden swallowing, like the single malt they gave me, once, a single sip enough to scorch me forever.
I unwind into my thing, rewind into my song, who can sing it better, no one but her and me.
I have learnt to let new hers into me. That was one of the conditions. My employability (see how well I pick up the B-schoolspeak of the girls and the guys) soared when I permitted promiscuity. My heart stays faithful, only my body and my voice strays from one diva to the next. I have conquered the flaw that failed me on the stage. And now I don’t care that they who judged me will never know my true scope, my soar, now that I am here, hidden except to these eyes.
The girls can’t stop looking at me. They are learning their true selves from me. Slowly, one of them will rise. They are still amateurs at unwinding. Speed has clung to them for too long, they will take time to unlearn its lure.
I teach them things they will never dare ask.
The black man is a god. Mandeep is a goddess. All is as it should be. Everyone loves everyone, washed by waves of goodwill.
Except for the Japanese, poor fish out of water, directed here by the Suits, no prior knowledge of what happens here, after 10pm.
The Suits shout their approval of every move that the boy-man diva makes in his throaty avatar. They are high on more than elation. When they visited this dive (that’s what they call it these days, having progressed to glitzier bars) in their down and dirty days, this kind of thing didn’t happen. How could it, those days were different, less urgent. They would have been just as out of their element as the Japanese but for their fearsome natural adaptability. Besides, they were buzzed on substances other than alcohol. If customers and doorboys decided to suddenly rise and unwind, that was fine by them.
They have their eyes on the girl who had risen so abruptly from her sofa Mandeep almost choked, and are watching lasciviously as she turns herself inside out. This is her first time, and the others in her gang are appraising her, ticking and crossing imaginary boxes, faulting her for being too fast, approving for being so inventive. Who would have guessed she had it in her?
The Japanese are alarmed. Why this sudden eruption? Who are these people? Why have they been summoned to a place that lacks discretion, the first and only virtue? For the first time since they have entered the premises they look directly at the four men in suits. This was not part of the plan. They were to arrive separately, and to leave separately. In between—the vital piece of information would be handed over, unobtrusively. This was the understanding.
Now comprehension has swum away towards the most dangerous coral reefs, where everything will be tattered and shredded.
The Suits are jumping up. The Suits are beginning to unwind.
Before their flabbergasted Japanese eyes the Suits are no longer…
This is a colossal breach of faith.
The Suits have no notion of the damage they are wreaking on the four Japanese who are stone-sober now, unsmiling. If anyone apart from me were looking at them instead of the unwinders, they’d feel a sharp slicing, as if they’d stepped on the edge of a sword. This is who they are, unsheathed. Dangerous.
The Suits look like fluff-balls in comparison. All their macho aggression, their grunts of verbal assertion are kittenish mewlings before the silence of the Japs.
I need Mandeep to come and stand before me so I can think this into his mind, his capacity for defusing and disarming every ‘situation’.
But Mandeep is still inside his moment. He, the girl, the black man, the four suits have the floor. Something slippery like an eel crosses the space between the tables and the unwinders.
I dart a glance at the Japanese table. There are only three of them there.
The eel is enormous. No one sees it. Mandeep has shifted again and the change is so breathtaking no one is looking anywhere but at him.
If they don’t watch out there will be carnage here.
There was a girl who loved and studied perfumes. She made them, she thought about their effect on human consciousness, she wrote books about the flowers they came from, she wore her fearless scent like a woman.
And so they raped and killed her.
Tonight, I, Mandeep, am singing her into me—singing her smell into the room, singing my sorrow and my guilt at being born a man, because it was a man who vanished her from the planet, stark as the day she was born, with the brutal marks on her neck and between her legs, today I am you Monika and I am sorry so sorry that you are gone.
The enormous unseen electric eel has stunned one of the four suits with all the force of the 650 volts in its tail. The girl on her maiden unwinding thinks the Suit that was ogling her so unattractively has unwound into this nine-foot-long predator and is laughing because even such a monster cannot swallow her in one gulp, not in her current form! Her laughter is so triumphant all eyes turn to her and in that moment of inattention everything happens at once.
The red lionfish punctures a wound into the second Suit with its dorsal spines. A giant manta ray whips the third with its tail. There is blood in the water. Deep-bodied, blunt-headed, saw-edged caribe leave scissor-like bites in their wake. Sharp-spined dagger-toothed goliaths stir and stripe the water. Smooth, scale-less, wide jaws open. Where did they come from?
There has been a terrible inversion. Outside the circle of fish is where the rest are, people, breathing air. Inside are the fish, and the Suits—caught halfway and powerless—gashed, wounded, poisoned both by toxins and lack of air. We are pushed to the edges of available space, the centre is taken by this enormous overwhelming where water is bound inside glass and yet seems boundless, where the fish and the Suits are fighting.
One Suit is outside, alert, and escaped. One Japanese is outside too, the one who had arrived first, the solitary who had yearned for seaweed. There is a sound that no one can identify the source of. Two words, three syllables, in a loop.
Hanako koi Hanako koi Hanako koi
The fourth Japanese becomes a stunning scarlet carp. The koi fish, Hanako, meaning flowergirl in their part of the world, not ours, koi meaning where and anyone in two parts of our world, not theirs.
Now both worlds are colliding and contained inside the water, as if all that stood between them and the rest was this chant, looping into trance.
Older than all of them, each of her two hundred and twenty-six years enlarging and eroding their puny efforts at hostility, the koi called Hanako slips out of her mountain pond and turns the thrashing water icy and calm.
Is it Mandeep who is singing ice and calm into their midst though the four-syllabic two-word loop? Someone is chanting through him, this was not his choice, he is spoken for, taken away from his own private mourning into this other insistence.
Where is Hanako?
Where is the word for fish coming from? Which language? What province?
Mino. Deep in the mountains where Hanako lived her two hundred and twenty-six years.
What is being told?
Mandeep is moaning the word over and over again. As he moans, the beautiful olden carp flicks its light into our eyes, and we lose our vision for a second.
There is water everywhere. A terrible spillage. No glass has been broken.
And then we blink and it is over.
There are places we can never go. Even when we know where they are.
The Sardarji has woken up. The takings have been no better than usual. There is an overwhelming smell of fish even after sweeping up and swabbing down. And some traces of blood, which he prefers not to remember. You have to turn a blind eye, sometimes. This is not an ordinary bar. He has always known that.
Before he left, he could not help but notice that the ancient fish in the aquarium was no longer alone. An orange or was it gold-coloured fish (not a goldfish, that much even he knew, ignorant as he was) was swimming lazily alongside.
There was room enough for both.
Besides, he was only in charge of the accounts.
This story was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.