Indian Nights

Sameer’s shoulders sag and his stomach hangs loose
over his trouser line when he sits. Puffs of flesh
surround his eyes, which are a watery black, filmy and
unclear, shot through with snakes of red. As he lights
yet another Dunhill Red, his hand shakes slightly. He
looks at his watch, an old silver Rolex with a
yellowing face. It is five o’clock in the evening.

“Time for a drink,” he beams, bounding up from his
deck chair.

The Bacardi bottles are lined up in a small cupboard
under the kitchen sink. Three rows of them. Sameer
grabs one eagerly, deftly uncaps it with one hand,
pours rum into two glasses and covers it with coke. He
pushes my drink towards me and gulps his own down. He
pours himself a second. A third. He starts to relax,
laugh, slur a word or two, and a pinkish hue
highlights his cheek bones. He opens the Bacardi
bottle again. And a fifth time.

Something has happened to Sameer since I last saw him
three years ago. It isn’t just that he drinks without
tasting: It’s that he seems to have lost himself
somewhere in time and is unaware of its passage.

He is telling me about his Rum and Coke days in India
and his eyes sparkle. He speaks as though the years
have not moved, as if he is still the swinger he was
back then. He talks about parties, picnics, gin and
tonic Sunday afternoons at the race-course. He tells
me of glossy-haired beauties with almond shaped eyes,
called Neeta, Aruna, Leela, and how they used to fight
for his attentions.

“All the women there were after me,” he boasts, “I
could have had whichever one I wanted.”

He gets up to fix himself another drink, but pauses
first to preen in front of a blurred mirror. I am sure
he sees himself as he was with all those women, young,
handsome, charming – not 20 years later as he is now,
bloated with Bacardi in a nondescript Midwestern town.
It is almost as though he doesn’t want to remember
that he is here, as if he wants to forget his teenage
daughters, his ex-wife, his corporate job that offers
neither material nor intellectual reward. No, all that
has evaporated into drunken oblivion. In his mind, he
is still the darling of Indian society, a hot-shot on
the rise with the world to conquer.

I do not know what to think. One part of me wants to
shake him up, tell him to let go of his delusions, to
take stock of himself as he is now and to do something
about it. I want to yell at him to dust his furniture,
load the dishwasher, and do the laundry. To think
about his children and how they’re getting along, to
find out if they need him. More than anything, I want
him to stop living the days out with Bacardi and
dreams of times long by.

But I hold myself in check – because I am remotely
aware of the disillusionment that can come of living a
life that doesn’t turn out the way one thought it
would. The complete sadness of missing out on other
lives in other worlds, of thinking that they could
have been better than the present one is still
intangible to me, but I know that it could be lurking
somewhere in my future, too.

So I do not say anything. I just sit there and choke
on the emotions of a house cloaked with dust and an
aging man I once admired so rotting within its
confines, trying to escape into a world that has long
since ceased to exist.

Night has fallen and one large bottle of rum is
already empty. Sameer is poking around in a
junk-filled compartment under the television, looking
for something. His hands rummage around inside it and
he cuts one of them on something sharp. He doesn’t
seem to feel any pain, and when he sits up, he hits
his head on the TV screen. He laughs.

He wants to show me a documentary about India, he
says, something he taped off the TV a couple of years
ago. It features a street scene during a religious
festival, and people are singing and speaking in
Hindi. Sameer knows every word they say by heart, as
if he has watched them speak on screen night after
night. He laughs at their jokes, sings along with an
old movie song that is playing in the background.
The camera zooms in on the crowd parading through the
streets of a city we know well, singing and dancing to
the beat of drums and tambourines. We recognize
buildings, parks and gardens. And then we see the
night sky, velvet-black as only the night sky in India
can be, full of stars and fireworks.
That’s when I hear his tears, and as I catch them from
the corner of my eye, I know that Sameer isn’t only
crying for the rum and coke days, the endless parties,
the beautiful women. He isn’t even crying for wrong
choices made in life or for another life that could
have been. He is crying for a country and a culture
worlds and worlds away from present day reality, for a
kind of belonging that he cannot express in words nor
hope to find around him again, but that he needs
desperately and searches for every night without ever
finding at the bottom of a bottle of Bacardi.
People who voluntarily leave their native lands
usually do so because they want a better life and they
believe that they will get it elsewhere. Few realize,
however, that once the years have passed, the glow
dies out and the fierce hunger of return that ensues
can never be satisfied.

The videotape is wound fully to the end and I get up
to turn things off. I hear a gentle snore from Sameer,
who has gone to sleep in his chair, his chin resting
on his torso. The empty glass is still clenched in his
hand. The last drop of liquid from it has fallen onto
the carpet, making a small, wet spot.

Gently, I pry the glass from Sameer’s sleeping hand
and place it in the overflowing sink. I put the light
out and go upstairs, leaving him where he is.

Meena Afsari is a writer with a keen interest in the
quest for identity and belonging.

© 2005 Underground Voices