"Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!"
-Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The whole town of Kaasi is here, outside the church, though it’s a weekday. People of Kaasipura would go to great lengths for free food——leave ones father at deathbed. In the crowd I know at least a few people who will kill me if they get an opportunity, just for fun; such a depressing lot. The prime reason for organizing an event on a weekday is to avoid the working people, school children, and teachers. The plan has backfired. Weekday or not, the whole Kaasi gang is here——except Iris. Many have come just to see Iris.
Prior to Iris, ours was a quiet town. Nothing much happened here. The entire timeline could be divided in two parts: Kaasi before Iris, and Kaasi after she made her presence.
Maggi-Teacher came to me and said: “Are you sure she is coming? People notoriously vanish on your big day.” Being retired, she thinks she doesn’t need any sophistication. I ignored the old crone.
I still remember the day I saw Iris first time, at my DVD shop. My Father’s in fact.
Our ancestors were all farmers; even grandfather farmed all his life. I don’t know what went into Father’s mind. Farming was not his thing. He opened the first VHS rental shop of Kaasi, in spite of relentless begging from Mother, not to invest money in such a doomed venture. Father had never listened to anyone and he was not going to change himself now. Being a cinema buff himself, in the initial days, he was the biggest customer of his new business.
Along with renting VHS cassettes, he also booked the tickets for Mumbai buses that traveled via Kaasi. Ticketing flourished for some time, and promised the potential to replace the cassette renting business. But the Konkan Railway project put a stop to that. People not only preferred the faster train but also learned quickly to book the train-tickets online.
When I took over the business, ticketing had completely stopped. I didn’t make any changes in the business model, except replaced all those VHS cassettes with DVDs. VHS cassettes were bulky and non-reliable; they caught fungus if not used regularly. Business never really flourished. Days were dull; often, I longed for anyone to show up at the shop——just to kill the time.
Then one day a Jaguar stopped in front of the shop; It was one of the last models of Ford before they got rid of the business. A well dressed middle-aged man got out of it. There was a young woman on the front seat; she didn’t get down. The man was bald, and smoked a pipe. I remember him clearly since no one else in Kaasi smoked a pipe.
He came inside, gave me a nod, and started browsing the DVDs stacked up against the wall. A very sophisticated gentleman, I thought. I helped another customer. As soon as the last customer left, the bald-man turned towards me.
“Got any Triple X movies?”
Mother of…I had created such a nice impression about this man. I restrained a deep desire to lurch for his bald-head to bang it on the table.
“This is a respectable place,” I controlled myself, pointed him to the framed picture of Mother Mary on the wall, “We don’t carry such things here.”
The fool ignored me and blew a kiss to the woman outside in the car. She didn’t respond. She looked occupied with something else.
“Iris,” he opened the door to call her. “Iris, come over here.” The woman reluctantly obeyed.
“Do you want to watch anything? Pick something nice. They don’t have any classic horror movies.” The man winked at me. ‘Classic Horror' being his cue for porn. The woman idly looked around, nothing in particular. She wore a turtleneck and a skirt. Her hair was wavy——stopped at the shoulders. She had big curious eyes.
I took, The Passion of the Christ, off the ‘devotional’ section and offered it to the woman: “You might like this ma’am,” I said politely. The bald-geezer grabbed it before the woman could. A smirk came over his face. “Too much blood,” he said, and tossed the DVD right back to me. I caught it promptly, “careful mister,” I said.
“Let’s go honey.”
The bald-man planted a kiss on her cheek. In Kaasi, no one ever had kissed a wife (or anyone) in public——in broad daylight. Postman Inas who had just entered the shop to deliver mail, saw this peck in horror.
The couple left. Inas gaped till the Jaguar vanished at the corner. He idled at the shop now and then. After the internet boom people resorted to emails——there were not many Inland Letters to deliver.
“Who are they?” he let out a lewd whistle, the one often heard in the cinema halls after the lights went off.
“I don’t know. They just stopped by.”
“I tell you Tonya, either she has been kidnapped or he is a very rich man.”
Inas has no work but to spread such rumors. I was sure the whole Kaasi would talk about kidnapping in a few hours. “Mark my words,” his voice came from a deep well, “everything here is going to change.” The dramatist. He had once played the part of Jesus in our annual church festival.
“I need to go—”
I knew where he was heading. He would run to the tea-shop where the regular gang met. He would be restless till he talked about the event with at least ten people. Once Inas got something, it’s like publishing on our local paper Daily Alarm——only faster.
The bald-man and Iris lived at the old dilapidated bungalow at the far end of Kaasi. For years only a caretaker lived there. I had heard that the owners of the bungalow were murdered long back. Their bodies were found in the abandoned well in the farm. The only son had fled. The bald-man could be the son. There were so many rumors flying, you never really knew what’s real and what’s unreal.
Inas proved to be right though; things did change afterwards. The buses stopped in front of the bungalow; although, there was not a stop. Iris took the bus to market once in a while. On such days, men fought to offer her a seat. Bus conductors, who raised hell if correct change was not produced, didn’t squirm for her notes of large sum. The things she touched were treasured as mementos, and some times were secretly auctioned for outrageous price. All hell broke.
Before Iris, auto drivers demanded one-and-half fare for a ride towards the bungalow——now offered discounts.
The Sunday masses, which were almost empty in the past, ran house-full once Iris started attending them. Even our old vicar, who never liked or disliked Kaasi, noticed the change. In the past, he had seldom looked at the congregation from the altar. And, he had nothing to say about the declining numbers at the Sunday masses. His sermons were shortest, not much different from one another.
Such a man stopped the mass briefly, one fine day, to observe the surprisingly large assemblage. He softly asked the altar-boy Ijju, if it was the annual church festival. I had never seen Ijju in the church, before Iris. Often he was seen at the cricket ground or outside the cinema theatre. But nowadays he attended mass like a religious zealot. From the altar he got an elevated view of Iris. The young fool was only in seventh standard, but he had already developed a crush on Iris.
The bald-man accompanied Iris for the mass; else, the men of Kaasi would have pounced on her like a pack of wolves, ignoring they were inside a holy establishment.
Some times Iris graced one of the middle pews. On those days, the benches ahead of her remained empty. And, the ones behind her were full; devotees of Iris (and Jesus of course) preferred the inconvenience of standing in the back instead of occupying the empty benches ahead of her.
One day I was returning from the neighboring town in an auto, when I saw Iris waiting for the bus. I tapped on the driver’s shoulder to stop the auto. Iris looked up from the book.
“Do you need a ride?” I asked.
“Do I know you?” she said.
She then promptly returned to her book. I waited in silence. Rotten people. You just can’t offer help.
“If you don’t have anything to say, let’s go,” said the auto driver.
“You are in a great hurry.”
“I am telling for your own benefit. Meter is running…”
I wanted to strangle the idiot right there. Kaasi is full of such over-smart people. If only they had used their smartness in a constructive way.
The next day old Maggi-Teacher stopped at the shop. “You never gave me a ride.” She complained.
“What do you want?”
“But for a characterless woman, you’ll not only stop the auto, but get down and earnestly beg to accept your offer.”
I should have wrenched the auto driver. And, now this worthless Maggi-Teacher is demanding justice. If only I had a sharp object handy.
Soon I’ll lose my mind, I thought; I’ll become like our vicar. He was a man with a vision in his initial days. But Kaasi killed his spirit, distorted his vision——made him a robot.
“Tell me, why you never give me a ride?”
“You are not my type.” I said in frustration.
“What do you mean?”
“If you were younger, I would have——”
“Stop your blasphemous talk. I am ashamed to call you my student. See what you have become. I knew your Father and Grandfather. Such great men. And, look at you. A low life drooling over an amoral woman.”
Everyone talked about Iris. Women hated her. Men loved her. Bitch. This place was so quiet and serene before her.
In the tea stall usual gang had surrounded Inas. He always had some interesting story to tell. I ordered a tea and joined the gang.
“…and right then the man put a hand round her waist and pulled her. Their lips joined. Her one hand clutched the table for support. Her nails made an impression on the tabletop. All along, she didn’t make one single move of resistance, instead moaned in ecstasy.”
I had no doubt who the person was. But I wondered when and where this incident happened.
“…then they accidentally leaned against the DVD rack, and a whole stack of DVDs fell over them.”
Mother of…the fool was narrating the first-day incident!
“You have a great imagination,” said retired Narayanan.
“You think I am lying,” challenged Inas.
“I didn’t say that. I just said you have a great imagination.”
“You think…well Tony is here. It all happened in his shop. Tonya, tell them the truth.”
Everyone looked at me.
“Something like that had happened.” I walked away from the gang.
“Say Tony,” someone called out. I stopped. “Looks like you have started offering rides for strangers.”
A loud laughter broke out. I came out in a hurry. Iris Iris Iris! If only she had accepted the ride. I just tried to help a fellow human being; A gesture of a noble citizen. Such things occur in Mangalore everyday, no one cares. But in Kaasi it’s a big deal——national event. People talk about such things for days. I decided to stay away from Iris.
I didn’t know how long people would pester me this time. Last time the talks had dragged well over a year. Three years ago, on my wedding day, the bride eloped with her lover. We all waited and waited at the church. Eventually someone got the wind of it. People started talking in hushed voices. Photographer Mark was the best-man; he called me aside to break the sad news. I didn’t feel much for losing a wife. Instead, I felt glad that she left before the wedding. Kaasi was merciless though. It was waiting for something like this. Some even smelled my hand in the bride’s eloping. Some concluded I had sexual problems. All sorts of rumors broke out.
The bald-man often vanished for days. No one knew where he went or what he did. There were rumors of him mistreating Iris. Some people had heard loud noises coming from the bungalow. But I don’t believe this. No one is dependable in Kaasi anymore. In the bald-man’s absence, Inas had tried to gain access to the old bungalow with the excuse of delivering mails. But only the caretaker entertained him at the gate.
One day, on hearing Sastri-Sir had been admitted to the hospital, I went to pay him a visit. He was quite close to Father. While returning, I saw Iris at the reception. She was waiting for her turn, reading a book: One Hundred Years of…something. Who wants to live for hundred years? I clearly saw a blue patch under one eye. She looked up from the book.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Mind your own business,” she said.
Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! I decided never to talk to her again.
The next day Maggi-Teacher stopped at the shop. She had a smirk on her face.
“What?” I said.
“You are a very sympathetic person,” she said, “In your heart you care for beaten woman. Never mind she is a lady or a characterless woman. Everyone is equal in your eyes. You have the qualities of Jesus. And yet, last year, I was lying in the hospital for well over a month, you didn’t pay me a single visit.”
How can anyone not lose his mind in Kaasi?
In the subsequent days, I remained low, and observed the events with detached interest. Business was down. I wished Father had done some thing with the land. I had tried a few options: planted coconut trees; later tried to raise a cashew orchard, but nothing worked. The land lay barren. Ijju and the gang played cricket on it in the weekends.
A couple of times, I asked our Vicar if he is interested in the land next to the graveyard; it was not strictly a business proposal. I was not trying to make money from the God’s man. Of course, I was not giving it away too; I was expecting whatever minimum the church could afford. My proposal didn’t interest the old crone.
“No need for graveyard extension,” he said, “Not many people die here.”
The fool! He’s not interested in anything, except painting the church for Christmas. Every year he shows up with a few altar boys for church-painting collection. Church is the brightest thing in Kaasi, with the exception of sun! If a foreigner were to land in Kaasi, he would certainly take pictures of the colorful church building.
Many days I didn’t hear anything about Iris. Mainly because I stopped going to the tea stall; I ordered tea at the shop. Then one day Inas came in the early morning, which was not his usual time.
“I am not interested in Iris. Don’t tell me anything.”
“Watchdog is dead,” he said.
“The bald-man is dead; his body was found in the dry well.”
When I reached the place, there was already a sizable crowd. Police had not yet come. Whatever evidence that could have helped the police, was already trampled by the curious lot. The body was still in the well; only because of the shining head one could conclude whom it belonged to.
I saw Maggi-Teacher coming out of the front door of the bungalow. People wandered inside the house like they were in a temple. Till then such an access was denied to them. They had seen the bungalow in awe, only from a distance. Kaasi had waited like a vulture to the fall of the high and mighty.
I didn’t enter the house. From the window, I could see a few people inside the bedroom. They had entered the house with the inquisitiveness of the little boy, who tears up the toy to understand its working; like the child, people in the bedroom, too got disappointed not to find anything amusing.
While I was at the gate, I turned to look at the bungalow one last time. And then I saw her. She was on the terrace, indifferent to all the events unfolding on the ground. Our eyes crossed for a brief moment. Then she looked away.
Many rumors started. Some thought Iris was the murderess. But it was evident that the bald-man was involved with the wrong kind of people; guilty or not, Iris had to make several visits to the police station. The bald-man was in debt till his nose. The bungalow was seized by the debtors, and Iris was given a notice to vacate.
She moved to a one-room rental place, on the other end of Kaasi, where she kept to herself for many weeks.
The buzz stopped.
One day Sastri-sir came to the shop. He was a friend of my Father, and along with Mother he had begged Father not to invest in the VHS business.
“Your Father never listened to me,” he said fondly. “But I hope you are not like him.”
“I am always open for good advice, sir,” I said. I was once his student.
“Do you know Kaasi is going to be a part of Special Economic Zone?”
I didn’t know what that meant.
“The whole place is going to be an industrial area.”
“More business. More customers,” I gaped. “I need to buy a new DVD collection.”
“You are your Father’s son; like him you too have a tunnel vision,” Sastri-sir smiled. “Forget the DVD shop. The land price is going to sky rocket. Wait for the right moment. Sell off some of your land. If you do the right move you’ll become the richest man of Kaasi.”
Mother of…It’s a beggar’s dream. I held Sastri-sir’s hand in anxiety. He shook my hand, wished me good luck, and left me alone to float in my imagination.
Unlike my Father, I listened to my well wishers. I now have a boy at the DVD shop. I don’t need to be at the shop everyday. I have plans to buy the old bungalow.
One day, a pseudo baba with a bowl of fuming camphor came to the shop. With a bunch of peacock feathers, he directed the fumes to four corners. These days such sadhus are numerous. I offered a 2 rupee note.
“Master, one cannot buy peppermint in such a small amount——”
“Stop the nonsense. Take it or leave it.”
“Master is upset,” the fool gave an all-knowing smile, but pocketed the money anyway before leaving the shop.
And, then I saw her. With all the smoke baba had raised I could not notice her sooner. In the clearing smoke she looked like a goddess. Goddess?! What an imagination I have developed. Iris. Oh, Iris! I have only words to play with.
“Tony,” she said. She knew my name! “Do you have The Sound of Music in your collection?”
I smiled inside. If only Kaasi had such an exotic taste for cinema. Of course, I had not seen that movie; And, I can assure you, no one in Kaasi had seen that movie either. And, yet, I croaked: “It’s gone out. It’ll come back tomorrow.”
“I’ll come tomorrow then,” she said.
“No Need. I’ll send someone.”
As soon as she left, I asked the boy to manage the shop, and drove to Mangalore in my Jaguar to buy, The Sound of Music.
Here we are outside the church waiting. The whole Kaasi is here, though it’s a weekday. I am not very comfortable in a suit wearing a tie. Inside I am very nervous.
Maggi-Teacher came to me and said: “Are you sure she is coming? People notoriously vanish on your big day.” She doesn’t have a positive thing to say, though this time I did send a car to her house to pick her up.
Photographer Mark was next to me; Once again in the same role of the best-man. “Don’t worry, nothing will go wrong this time,” he said.
Local MLA Shakti Shetty gave me a hug. “Tony Saab, always a pleasure to attend your functions,” he said. Though I had never met him before.
“Hey Tonya,” Inas shook my hands. “Stay away from waterless wells.” He winked with an understanding smile.
I stared him, silently.
“Call me Tony,” I said.
“My friends call me Tony. I don’t have any other man.”
He looked nervous. “Relax Tony. I am your friend. Anything you want. You don’t want to get upset on your big day.”
Then a commotion started in the crowd. We all saw the decorated white car making an entry at the front gate. It came in majestically and stopped at the door. Mark went ahead to open the door. I followed him. And, out came the most gorgeous woman, Iris. In the white gown she really looked like an angel.
“Iris my love, what took you so long?” I took her hand. This was a Hollywood line I had practiced. I gave her the bouquet and planted a kiss on her cheek; the kiss lasted for a few deliberate seconds. Kaasi will burn tomorrow. We all entered the church, for the vicar had already started the wedding mass.
You sir, ask, how can I do such a ghastly thing: marry the woman whom I hated so much, who ignored me all the time, and who is responsible for all the confusion. If only you had seen Iris once. I assure you, sir, you would do the same thing if you were in my shoes. In that we men are same. We do strange things.
Note: If you liked this short story, you might like my other short stories as well. Click here for more.
This story was published on Daiji.