The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs, a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store.

He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.

“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits.

The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.

“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy.

He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back.

……….

But he couldn’t. The drizzle had given way to a heavy downpour.

” Come inside Baba.Stay here till the rain subsides”

The shop owner called out to him.

He nodded in appreciation and obliged. The little puppy followed his master. It was comfortable inside, as the fireplace kept the room warm.

About forty years back, when he had moved to this neighborhood along with his possessions; a couple of flutes and a sack full of old books, this shop had just opened. It gradually acquired a loyal customer base

Babaji, as the old man was referred to as by the residents of the neighbourhood, would sit leisurely all day on the footpath and play the tunes of Bollywood songs on his flutes. When tired, he would retire to the stone bench in the small park adjacent to the footpath. Nobody knew his actual name or his origins. Yet he was no more a stranger to the neighborhood. He won’t beg but people would voluntarily donate a coin or two to him. The money thus collected was enough to sustain him.What were his needs anyways!

Two square meals and few cups of tea a day.

The downpour was getting heavier.The street ahead wore a deserted look.

Quite rare for a city like Mumbai.

The shop owners’s radio played an old Bollywood song.

” Wo shaam kuchh Ajeeb thi

     Ye shaam bhi Ajeeb hain

Wo Kal bhi paas paas thi

       Wo aaj bhi Kareeb he”

Despite the bitter cold, the shiver and the discomfort, a vague smile escaped his cracked lips.

Yes, alike this one, there was something unusual about that evening too.

That evening when two people who needed each other, loved each other set out on different directions after sailing together awhile.

*****

Bombay; the city that boasts of a million success stories, of thousands of empires built and thousands of masterpieces created. But what gets lost behind the glitz of those stories are the many stories of failure, of dreams lost and hearts broken; billions of them.

Theirs was one such story.

It was the decade of the seventies.

The Mumbai film industry was transformed by the magic wand of glamour.

It had seen the ascendance of many new artists who went on to be labeled as “stars”. Some of them were admired to the extent of being worshipped. Young girls idolized the enchantingly beautiful actresses and were infatuated with the handsome actors.

Rajni was one such girl. Originally from a typical middle class family in Bhopal, all her parents wanted for her was to complete her education and then get married to a nice boy with a good job.

But Rajni lived in her own fairytale world. She knew she was beautiful. Anybody who met her said so. She would stand in front of the life size mirror in her mother’s room and admire the reflection. The long, thick mane of hair, the translucent complexion, a pair of beautiful and expressive eyes guarded by the perfectly arched brows, the pretty nose,the lissome body.

“Only if you were born in Bombay, Rajni, all the so-called heroines are pale in front of you” Radha, her best friend would often say.Rajni herself was deeply fascinated by the glamour world. She would steal from her father’s pocket to buy the filmfare or the Stardust magazine. Admiring the glossy pictures of the reigning heroines she’d imagine herself at their place.It was from one such magazines that she came to know of a talent hunt competition to be held in Bombay. Knowing it was her golden ticket to the world of dreams she hesitatingly sought her parent’s approval which was denied.

It was here that Radha came to her rescue. One of her aunts worked in Bombay as a junior film artist .Through a trunk call, she convinced her to accommodate Rajni for a few days.

Meanwhile, Shashikant, a young lady from Lucknow had been staying in Bombay since the last five years, struggling for an opportunity as a lyricist in the industry. But despite all his efforts, he hasn’t been successful. The film industry had undergone a complete metamorphosis. With an exponential rise in the number of people desperate to join it, networking has become an important prerequisite for an entry ticket, an aspect where Shashikant lacked completely. So when he learnt about the upcoming talent hunt event, he knew it could be an opportunity to come in contact with some of the influential people of the industry. And the only way to do that was to pose as a contestant.

The scheduled day arrived and passed smoothly. The winners and the runners up were declared.

And no, neither Rajni nor Shashikant were among them.Rajni was totally broken.With the kind of praise she had received back home, she’d  thought it would be a cakewalk to win the contest. But the girls here were so used to the stage.They all looked pretty and had parental support.Many of them were studying at reputed schools or colleges and were trained in classical dance forms.And she couldn’t even stand properly on the stage. She couldn’t go home now, not did she have any back up plan to survive in the city. Out of the comfort and security of home, life had hit her hard. Shashikant on the other hand was content with being able to make some contacts.Before leaving, he walked to the area where snacks were being distributed. Having managed to grab two packets, he was about to leave when her eyes sighted a weeping Rajni at one corner.

A young girl, hardly sixteen or so. A charming face wet with tears.

Reason behind those tears was obvious.

He had seen her performance at the competition. The poor girl was trembling and couldn’t utter a single word. His conscience didn’t allow him to leave her alone. Reluctantly, he approached her and offered a packet. She stopped weeping and looked up. There was something about his eyes, his demeanor that comforted her, made her feel a little secure. She gradually opened up to him.That evening turned two strangers into freinds. Freinds in a city full of greed and lust, and artificiality and materialism.

Rajni gradually accepted the reality. That her beauty alone was not a ticket to her dream world. There were a lot of other things that mattered; Skills, smartness, contacts, work experience and a strong background to name a few.Yet she kept trying. Aunty would sometimes take her to shoots and she’d observe the environment there. Gradually, she started appearing for auditions. Every rejection bought her closer to the realization that she had made a mistake. She was left with nothing; no family, no qualification, no money. Aunty had started dropping hints that she should start fending for herself. During those days of crisis and hopelessness, Shashikant was her only solace. They’d meet at the beach, talk their hearts out over cups of tea. Rajni would break down often and Shashikant sensed she was in the verge of a severe breakdown. But he was helpless too.

Then, something good happened. A couple of his songs were shortlisted for a movie project. A medium budget film it was, but definitely his stepping stone to the world of cinema.

He was happy and so was Rajni. The movie was released and his work was appreciated. He bagged another couple of good projects. The taste of Financial security after a decade of struggle and frustration was incredible. Having seen the world of Bollywood, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Rajni. He didn’t want her  to go through the same pain that he had to. He proposed marriage to Rajni. And Rajni, also in love with him, agreed.

They got married soon .Rajni had given up her job hunt for sometime in order to set up her new home, a new one bedroom rented apartment.

Those days were beautiful. They had a home, money to feed themselves, time and love.

Rajni would spend the day looking after the household, grooming herself, cooking their favorite food or sitting by their small balcony overlooking the road, waiting for Shashikant. Sometimes she would chat with the neighboring women over cups of tea.They relished the gossips about the film world that Rajni shared with them.

In the evening they would have their tea together, go out to the beach or eat at roadside stalls, and talked their hearts out. Sitting in a park, gorging on chaats and golas, they would observe people and laugh on their attires and mannerisms. They had created a separate little world of themselves which was kept warm by numerous moments of simple joys.

Then comes the day much awaited. Shashikant’s second film was released.

Dressed in their best, they attended the premiere show. By this time, Rajni had learnt the nuances of contemporary fashion and beautification. She wore the pink kanjeevaram saree that she had worn for her wedding. Barely nineteen, her flawless beauty stood out effortlessly with the glory of youth. Surrounded by the people she had seen only in magazines, she could feel many a pairs of those popular eyes stealing glances at her ; eyes of the people she had once aspired to become like.

She loved the subtle attention.

The day however, didn’t turn out to be as pleasant as they had wished. During the screening, Shashikant’s name didn’t appear in the credits. Instead, the credits were given to Hemenji, who was working with the producer in a few of his other projects and had casually attended the music team’s meeting only twice. He was heartbroken.

 

“You should be grateful that your songs are being heard by people. Otherwise hundreds of people, far more talented than you don’t even get a chance in their entire lifetime. Instead, you  should have been thankful to Hemenji that he owned the work of a novice like you. Success doesn’t come easy, young man. Price needs to be paid.Keep working with us.Very soon, you’ll be famous too.Go home happy now.Your songs have received fairly good response”

The director told him when confronted.

Angry and cheated, yet short of options, he could do nothing but to head back.

Though dejected, deep down he had a strange sense of fulfilment.Perhaps the acceptance by the audience had given him the hint that he was on the right track.A little luck, and he’s almost there!

As he had signed a three film contract with the company, Shashikant continued working with them for the next project. It bought him decent money and helped him to establish contacts with some influential people in the industry.

Life went on. They had saved a little more money and would often go out for shopping or eat at restaurants.

Having tasted the charm of attention once, Rajni ‘s long subdued craving for becoming a part of the entertainment industry and having an identity of her own started increasing.

 

An evening, one of Shashikant ‘s acquaintances told him that a producer who had sighted Rajni at the premiere wished to cast her in his  next film.It was quite a low budget film and an absolutely hero-centric one. The directors sole aim was to grab some critical acclaim. No popular or even moderately successful actress would want to work in such a low benefit project and hence they were looking for a fresh, suitable face. Rajni seemed to suit the bill.

Rajni was elated at the offer.She won’t be getting much of screen time and her dialogues would be few too.But the producer thought her freshness and beauty would attract people towards the otherwise low budget film as they won’t be spending much on publicity.

“Oh Shashi!How,how proud baba and maa would be”

All the people who might have taunted and bullied them after I fled will now see that I wasn’t wrong.I will work hard, really hard so that more and more people know me one day. I will make them proud,I will make you proud, Shashi.I promise I will”

Rajni cried in happiness, and so did Shashikant.

How he loved this girl!

They celebrated the evening.Rajni cooked pulao and chicken curry and Shashikant prepared his signature dish; kheer.They ate and laughed, sang and danced,and talked till late into the night, till they fell asleep.

*******

An appetising aroma of kheer floated inside Rajni ‘s large, luxurious bedroom from somewhere.A divine smell embracing the warmth of rice being slow cooked in milk and Ghee.She inhaled it deep inside.Its been long that she hasn’t eaten kheer, Forty two ;no, forty four years to be precise; She calculated.

 A sudden thunderstorm had woken her up from a deep slumber.She felt an unusual chill.She lived alone in this beautiful bunglow in the heart of Mumbai with a full time maid.Her husband, Nandlal Taneja, a rich businessman had died long back, and her step children lived abroad. She didn’t have any biological child. Slowly and cautiously, she walked up to the window and looked outside. There was a fierce storm.

The tall coconut trees swayed to and fro like a pendulum.

The fury of nature!

‘Mother earth has enough for everyone’s need but nothing for anyone’s greed .If you crave for more than you should, your desire is sure to backfire..”

Somebody had told her when she was young.

“Did I too, desire more than what I should’ve had?”

A question that often crossed her mind. 

Her film was released about forty four years ago. Her first and the last film.It was an average film and didn’t receive much response. The hero somehow sustained in the industry but nobody really took her seriously.Not that she had much to do in the film, but during whatever screen space she was allotted, she was an average performer. During the first film itself she realised she was not made to act. In the meantime, her husband Shashikant had discovered  that Hemen Bhatt, the reputed and much respected lyricist he was working under had  stolen several of his compositions which he had casually narrated during their meetings and used them in the movies he was working with. Hemenji was nominated for almost all the major awards. 

Shashi had collapsed like never before. Those songs had cost him thousands of sleepless nights.Dreams of his future with Rajni and their unborn children were built on those. He was cheated and robbed.

Because of  her work commitments, Rajni couldn’t be with him during those turbulent times. Broken beyond repair, he took solace in alcohol. Whatever little time Rajni could manage at home, they’d only fight. Shashikant had developed strong hatred towards the industry and insisted that Rajni should too, leave the project. But Rajni was helpless. The contract was already signed and if she backed out midway, she would be sued for sure. Shashikant had lost his reasoning capacity to consider these things. Rajni was helpless.Work pressure, Shashi’s tantrums, the regular fights and Shashi’s uncertain future -all these were too much to handle for a young girl of her age.

She would break down frequently at the sets.

Perhaps after receiving some complaint from the director, the producer, Nandlal Taneja visited the sets one day. He was a handsome man in his early forties. Rajni had heard about his fondness for women and his separation from his wife.

Nevertheless, during the hour long meeting, the young, emotionally vulnerable Rajni blurted out her frustration.

Considering the tough times she was going through, Rajni found some solace in his company. It felt nice that somebody was actually listening to her, making her feel important.

A celebrated businessman, successful film producer, an immaculately dressed  man who could kill with his looks, was listening patiently, eagerly to her woes.  She knew she was slowly succumbing to his charm.Despite knowing it was wrong, she was unable to fight her feelings.

“You don’t deserve this, Rajni. Look at yourself. You’re so young and promising. I have never seen a face as pretty; eyes as innocent as yours. You are created for a better life, my dear”.

Rajni could sense that things are taking a different turn.A part of her wanted to escape the scene yet something compelled her to stay back..

Pausing for a few moments, Nandlal continued.

“Leave him, leave Shashikant, Rajni. He might not be a bad man but for a successful marriage, money is the foundation.From my experience in the field of money making, I bet he’ll never be able to give you a decent life. Besides, a man who cannot control his temper when drunk doesn’t deserve a gem of a lady like you. Rajni,I want to confess that I had developed an admiration for you the very first day I saw you in a premiere show. But knowing you were married, kept my feelings to myself. But if this is the life you’re living, dear lady, trust me, I have not the slightest guilt for what I’m going to say now .I beg your hand in marriage,Rajni.Give me one chance and I will prove it to be the best decision of your life.”

Rajni was in a conundrum.She never wanted to live a life of misery, she didn’t leave her home for it. But she loved Shashi too.

After an overnight shoot, she returned home. Shashi was asleep.His childlike sleeping face evoked a feeling of guilt in her. 

She looked around.She had spent many a days in setting up this house. It has stood witness to many of their laughters, sorrows, struggles and achievements. Tears rolled down her cheeks.She  decided to turn down the producer’s offer.Feeling relieved, she headed towards the kitchen to cook.After sometime, Shashikant woke up too.They had breakfast together and Shashi announced that he wished to move to Lucknow and try his luck there.Rajni insisted they should wait till her commitment is over.

A fight broke out.In a fit of rage, Rajni announced that her film producer had proposed to her and if she wished she could easily lead a far better life.After that,she left the house.

When she returned that evening, Shashi was nowhere to be found.Nor were his flute and his books.Rajni did all she could to find his whereabouts, but it seemed he had vanished into thin air.

After a few months Rajni’s film was released.She was declared a mediocre actress by the critics.She had no work or money to sustain in the outrageously expensive city. Left with no other choice she decided to give in to the producer’s offer. They got married.

Nandlal Taneja’s stepchildren lived with their mother.His family was courteous to Rajni but she knew from the beginning that they would never accept her as one of them. She had all the luxuries in life, but alas! Something was amiss.

Nandlal was in awe of her beauty.He would praise her openly and generously. At the beginning,she loved it.But gradually,it started to scare her.Beauty,she knew was a depreciating asset.She craved for the assurance of irreplaceablity in Nandlal’s life.Instead, she was always expected to look gorgeous. Everything from her hair to the toenails needed to be perfect .Her hosting skills, table manners had to be impeccable. Nandlal took immense pride in her beauty which was even more accuncated by the exclusive sarees and jewellery. 

While dining with Nandlal in the finest of the city’s restaurants, her heart craved for those evenings with Shashi in Juhu Chowpatty where they would laugh aloud and eat chaat to their heart’s content.As Nandlal scrutinized her meticulously from head to toe before going out just to ensure there was no flaw in her appearance, her heart craved for the kiss Shashi planted on  her forehead as soon as they woke up in the morning, with her eyes still swollen and traces of dried saliva around her mouth.

Nandlal died after about a decade of their marriage, leaving behind a fortune and a big house full of servants, gadgets, comfort and most importantly,a lifetime of loneliness for Rajni.In that big house, Rajni’s mind would often travel to a small apartment,with chipped wall paints cleverly hidden behind a flower vase, a tiny balcony where clothes were hung to dry and a congested kitchen where a young couple laughed and cooked and ate.

“Would I have  been happy if I stayed with Shashi?” She would sometimes ask herself.

“Perhaps yes;or perhaps no.”

She would answer herself too.

But there has not been one day in the last forty three years when she had not prayed for Shashi.

**********

But Shashikant was lost long back.

Betrayed by everyone he had loved and trusted , he had disowned the world of materialism.

But in one of the uncountable neighborhoods of Mumbai, there roamed an old man who doesn’t have any name,but is referred to as “Babaji”, who hated everybody.He hated the rich people with  money.He hated the people with happy families.He even hated the people who managed to laugh out loud.

But for some reasons,he couldn’t hate one person; Rajni. Just like the way he couldn’t hate the puppy that accompanied him every time .Despite the fact that he had to give it most of the food he got to eat.

 

The next day, Babaji woke up to the sound of a commotion in the road. A small funeral procession it was. His eyes felt extremely heavy and the  body felt unusually warm.He realised he had fever,and a heavy one. The previous evening ,before leaving the shop , the owner had asked him to spend the night inside.A very heavy storm was forecasted for that night.He did stay back and hence was saved from the wrath of the storm.But the cold was too much to bear for his old, malnourished body. He looked around for the puppy but couldn’t see it.His heart skipped a bit.Gathering all his energy, he sat up.

“Ah! he’s there”

He breathed a sigh of relief as he sighted him napping at one corner.

Babaji himself was shivering from cold.

The tea shop had just opened.The store-boy kept a cup of black tea before him.He desperately wanted to have a sip, but couldn’t gather energy to lift the cup.

A group of people from the procession group entered the shop and asked for a cigarette lighter.

“Who’s funeral?”

Asked the shopkeeper.

“An old lady who lived alone a couple of blocks away.Had to take this route  because the other roads are waterlogged.She apparently died due to a heart stroke .A nurse used to attend to her but was probably on leave  yesterday.The housekeeper was stuck in the storm too.”

The man lit the cigarette and kept the lighter on the counter, and then continued.

“Heard she had also acted in a film long back, but the film had flopped.Then she dumped her husband and married the rich producer” He said with a grin.

“Whatever, may she rest in peace” said the shopkeeper.

“You know her name?”

Babaji asked with his frail voice.People in the shop were surprised.They had seldom seen this man talk.

“Rajni Devi Taneja or something like that.”

said one of them.

“Okay” 

The old man said.

He was feeling increasingly weak.He lovingly looked at the puppy.Then, pulling the old, torn rag slowly over his head, he laid down to sleep with a calm mind.

He knew he wasn’t going to wake up.

The radio played the same song as yesterday.

” Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi,yeh shaam bhi ajeeb hain..

Woh kal bhi paas pass this.woh aaj bhi kareeb hain”

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