Stolen kisses in the chapel and bad Chinese in the canteen. Showdowns in the woods and making up in the arches. An excerpt from Papermoon by Rehana Munir

 

The rainy July afternoon demanded sleep, and the professor wasn’t helping matters. Fiza looked out of the covered terrace classroom and saw the famed St. Xavier’s College quadrangle transformed into a hazy watercolour, all blurred lines and dripping corners. The Indo-Gothic architecture made for a nice anachronism in a city that was fast giving itself over to haphazard newness. The lecture was interminable – political satire in Dryden’s 1681 biblical poem Absalom and Achitophel – and all she could think about was getting into a semi-dry compartment at Churchgate station. Would the 1.13 p.m. slow train to Andheri from Platform 1 be a reasonable hope? But even the thought was squelchy. And there was one more thing to do before the college day ended. Something that she didn’t let her thoughts drift towards for fear of it taking over.

When the electric bell sounded after fifty wasted minutes, Fiza finally allowed herself the luxury of excitement. Down the stairs, past the reference library and further down, turning left for the lending library. It was, as was usual for that time of day, empty. Nothing more than a stray studious sort finding comfort in musty aisles. But, generally speaking, the lending library was less a place for the wise than the wayward. Dim lighting. Hidden corners. Friendly chairs. Sleepy librarian. If you were labouring over an assignment or cramming before an exam, the solemn reference library was your hangout. This was a hideout for hurried embraces and long-drawn sighs.

‘You’re late,’ a voice softly accused from the poetry aisle. Fiza moved quietly in the direction of the war poets, towards a tall figure wearing too much aftershave. Clasping his wristwatch with the glow-in-the-dark markings, she countered, ‘What, by a minute?’ ‘By a heartbeat,’ he whispered. Fiza rolled her eyes in her usual manner – romantic declarations were a strict no-no, unless they were wry or ironic, and this one was decidedly cheesy. He knew this about her and used it to get under her skin. It was all he was allowed to get under. And it had been what, two months since they’d been ‘borrowing books’? He slid the Wilfred Owen he had picked up back into its slot between Kipling and Sassoon.

A sudden shuffle of feet from the next aisle made Fiza and Dhruv look up. Fiza’s French teacher, the charming Ms Mirza, cast a glance at the two. ‘Bonjour, comment ça va?’ she asked breezily. ‘Ça va très bien,’ Fiza blurted out, glad of the six-inch distance from the wearer of the aftershave. Having exhausted her French, and her powers of repressing a blush, Fiza moved to the next aisle – Elizabethan Drama – followed by her lanky Romeo. ‘God, did you empty the bottle out?’ she complained when they were out of the mademoiselle’s earshot. ‘And I can still smell the smoke on your shirt.’ ‘And on my breath?’ he said, grabbing her close under the watchful gaze of Marlowe’s Faustus.

 

That library scene of 1996 replayed itself with slight and dramatic variations over the next five years. Stolen kisses in the chapel and bad Chinese in the canteen. Showdowns in the woods and making up in the arches. Romance flowed out of the gargoyles on the roof and broadcast itself in the multimedia room. Scratched itself onto desks and scrambled itself in the hostel mess. The days were packed with little pleasures and exaggerated pains straight out of an ancient manual of young love, recast with debutant actors.

This charmed life was contained within the few kilometres in and around St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, where Fiza Khalid and Dhruv Banerjee went through time like it was in endless supply. An Arts degree made few demands on them, and so they escaped as many lectures as they could, while avoiding the dreaded blacklist. Matinee shows at Sterling cinema and peanut-crunching evenings at Marine Drive. Nawabi chicken pizza at Intermission Restaurant in Metro cinema and blazing afternoons at Azad Maidan.

Dhruv had always been serious about his cricket and so Fiza joined him at the ground for the odd match or net session. She liked seeing him in his muddied whites, smiling proudly at her from a distance. She had once seen him struggle against Anjuman-i-Islam’s famed bowling in a tournament decider and said earnestly in private, ‘Perhaps you could look at moving your feet a bit more?’ Dhruv had laughed derisively. ‘Riiight. Anything else, coach? Grip okay?’ ‘Ass,’ she’d said and walked off. He’d taken on the advice, though, he admitted in a soft moment. After the cricket, there was pav bhaji at Khao Gully. And that bizarre neembu paani, blitzed with ice, chaat masala and industrial amounts of sugar.

At Strand Book House at Fort, the old Mr Shanbhag presided over affairs, a smiling angel in a business suit. Famous for his remaindered books sold at studently prices, he found good profits in big volumes, and everybody won. Always on a tight budget, Fiza had developed a nose for libraries, sniffing her way around yellowing books. At Strand, she could never afford much more than the Great Artist series, `25 per ragged copy, which she would pore over for days. Renoir and van Gogh, Rembrandt and Monet – a buffet of artistic appetizers that left her hungry for more. For the main course, there were the trusty pavement bookstalls at Fort with their dog-eared treats.

Fiza had picked up most of her college texts here, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr. And Dhruv had gifted her innumerable books off the street, too. In the early days, he tried to impress her with Schopenhauer and Naipaul. When the relationship had reached a level of comfort, Harry Potter and Tintin made an appearance. When comfort had turned to confidence, he’d advanced to science fiction. She protested but he persisted. The books remained untouched.

Now there was one bookshelf on her wall that was filled with books gifted by Dhruv. The inscriptions told the story of their romance. From short, scratchy addressals to flowing tributes. From ‘Fiza’ to ‘Fizzy’ to ‘Fez’. On their second Valentine’s Day together, he’d gifted her a sentimental greeting card and a giant pink teddy bear, just to get a rise out of her. Those last two she’d done away with. But the little flower that accompanied them, she had kept quietly pressed between the pages of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. The last thing she’d want to be accused of was sentimentality. Especially by Dhruv.

 

Most weekdays, Fiza would return home from college and walk straight into the kitchen of her mosaic-tiled Bandra flat. She’d make two cups of adrak chai and knock at her mother’s door through which strains of music and smoke would invariably be sneaking out. Growing up, Fiza had been in awe of Noor, the way she owned any room she walked into. She’d spent twenty-five years singing jazz and the blues, till the heavy smoking had taken its toll. In her glory days, she could slip from Nina Simone to Farida Khanum in one gulp of single malt. It’s what Fiza’s father had fallen for when he’d first met Noor.

Years ago, in one of her rare forthcoming moments, Noor had told Fiza all about those heady first days with him. It all began at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, a short distance from the Gateway of India, at a mutual friend’s engagement. Noor had agonized over which sari she should wear that evening. Struggling to find hotel gigs, she would spend every spare rupee on records and often find herself without presentable clothes for the performances that did spring up.

‘It was a deep purple and gold Benarasi I’d swiped from your nani. But when I got up, the pallu got caught in a nail between two wooden seats of the second-class compartment. My heart stopped. But I could do nothing. Bharti had warned me about reaching late – even said she’d pay for my cab, but it was my socialist phase, don’t ask. She had boasted to all of Mahesh’s friends about my singing,’ Noor recalled with remarkable clarity.

‘So then?’ Fiza asked, horrified. She tried to soak it all in – the room, the people, even the smell of the flowers. There was so little she knew about her father; she couldn’t afford to miss any detail.

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