Praniti often came to my room, poured herself a glass of vodka, and sat for long hours, sinking deep in my armchair. Most of the times, she made small talks and stared at the walls, as if searching for something meaningful to say. But, twice or thrice, she talked—a lot. By a lot, I mean, all day long. Nonstop.
Only after that I found out that she was a great talker. Born and bred in Kathmandu, well … almost, she loved this city and talked a great deal about it. She knew many people here, and she was often seen at the social gatherings, always holding a glass of exquisite French wine, and talking in her sweet but fake British accent. And she was quite cautious about her accent—she had already mastered it in about six months, and she paid special attention to the flamboyancy of the language. She paused where it was expected, raised her eyebrows at precise moments, and laughed a short little laugh whenever needed. Thus, she had mastered the elitism of Kathmanduities.
I always looked forward to her visits because she had nothing nice to say about anyone. So together we trashed the reputations of everyone known and unknown to us with glassful of vodkas. With each gulp, we talked bitterly and harshly about the mutual friends first—mostly they were the writers of some kind, or the kind of people who loved calling themselves ‘writers’. We would trash their books in a minute, given the fact that most of the times we had not even read a single line of their works. She’d begin stigmatizing from the book cover, and she’d end up telling that the writer was frigid as most of the writers were supposed to be. We hyped the stereotypes and enjoyed it immensely. Because of this nasty nature, we were often called arrogant brats, gasbags, posers, name-droppers and old-school hypocrites by our fellow writers. But that was okay. We didn’t care much about other people’s criticisms anyway. We only cared about our own views about others.
She would usually come by 11’o clock every day, and our meeting would start in much the same manner. Breezing in and saying ‘Hello Bibek!’ in a loud voice, she’d plant a kiss on each of my cheeks, and put her handbag on the table, and reach for the bottle of vodka. “Please help yourself.” I would say, and she would pour a large peg in a crystal glass. “Haven’t you got a better brand? Something international?” She’d say after gulping down three or four large pegs. “Nope.” I’d reply back. “Running out of cash lately.” I’d add. “Why? Don’t you get money from your newspaper columns?” She’d snap back, and we’d go on talking about the low pay of media for hours. But, sometimes, when her mood was a little bright, she’d bring some packets of salted peanuts and Rice Krispies. Then she’d go to the fridge, and fetch some cranberry juice, and make cocktails for both of us. After quaffing down a peg or two, she’d open her hand bag and fish out a book. “Have you read this?” She’d ask, and we’d go on criticizing the book and the author for several hours.
As a matter of fact, she was seen in most of the literary festivals. While I rarely visited them. I didn’t even need to. Because she was always there to fetch me some hot guff gaff. People said that she’d walk like a rooster in a hen-house in those parties. She would first take a brief tour round the whole venue and come back and sit in the first row. But the main point was she never bought the books. She would occasionally go up to the desk where a heap of books were kept, and take out one of the hardcovers, flip the pages in a hurry, read a couple of paragraphs, close the book, and keep it on its rightful place, which was the wooden table as always. Later, when the journo asked her about the book, she’d quite proudly say that it was a complete nonsense, that it was only intended to be a comic caper, and that nothing merry would come out of its sumptuous launch. The newspaper columnists always quoted her words, and soon she was a big shot in the city.
Since she was so famous, she also paid special attention to her dress up. She always wore velvet and fine set of jewelries. When asked how she bought such an expensive set, she always answered nonchalantly that it was her family jewelry, and that she had a great history behind her. And when she told her history to the elites of Kathmandu, their heart started rapidly beating and sunk an inch in their chests.
Once she was even asked to speak in a book launch program. A debut novelist was going to launch his thriller; and it was supposed to be a grand ceremony. There were people from every walk of life. And there were the big shots: ministers, armies, businessmen, and writers. She was nervous first, but then there was a perfect flurry of words, only occasionally interrupted by her train of thoughts. The audience listened to the particular sound of her words, without even understanding the meaning of it. She used too many heavy words; and some of the people in the front row were flipping through the pages of pocket dictionaries in frenzy. There was a great dismay in the audience, especially of the people who understood nothing but only heard the sounds they would never forget. It was like a movie speech, full of snapping, and feather-pillow sounds. And the accent was too delicate and too yummy. The audience screamed in joy and rose up and applauded.
Then in the book launch party, she drank too much. Way above the social level of acceptance. Partly because the drinks were for free. And partly because she thought after a great speech people expected her to drink much. And she was retching all over the place. Tomorrow whoever cleaned the place would find vomit drying on the floor, and even on one of the walls decorated with murals. And to the artists the vomit on the mural looked more refined, and there were some poets composing poesy—both interesting and uninteresting—on the vomit. A short story writer found his hook: The Lady with the Vomit. When she had read the story in the weekly magazine a couple of days later, she exclaimed: “Now, what would happen to the old Chekhov?”
“Nothing, but he could kill all of us.” I interfered by answering.
She was saying something, but she lost the track of her words.
The debut novelist clenched his fists and promised himself that he’d not offer any free drinks during his next book launch. Needless to say, his next book was going to be a super flop. But the debut one was already working wonders.
She was still retching, when a throb of journalists came in, and flashed their digital cameras. Then she had fallen into one of the toilets, and her face was submerged in the commode with her legs spread and her dress up, just like one of the many amateur porn actresses. The debut novelist grabbed her by the shoulder and started to ask her if she was okay. She said she was doing fine. Overnight she was a sensation in page 3. Everyone in the city started talking about her. She was called ‘the queen of queens’—the Maharani—of Kathmandu by the gossip magazines. Many male writers invited her to their villas and farmhouses and rented rooms. And by and by she was a candy cane.
One day she was heavily depressed. Well, that was one of the days she talked a lot. “You know that womanizer of a writer?” She began, pouring herself a glass of vodka.
“Which one?” I asked. I knew many womanizers of the city and many of them were invariably writers of some kind.
“That werewolf who earned the big bucks by selling chick-lits and turned back into the inoffensive job of a college professor, with a specialty in twentieth century American poets and novelists.” She said and gulped down a mouthful of vodka.
“Hmm. What about him?”
“You won’t believe me when I tell you this: he’s going to write a book on the menstrual rites of the women of far-western region.”
I spilled half of the vodka on my trousers and kept gawking at her foolishly.
“Told you that you won’t believe me.” She said in her nonchalant way and smiled sheepishly.
“Who would do a thing like that?” I asked, and added, “Maybe he was a woman in his previous life.”
“A crazy person, that would.”
She laughed a little and fell silent. Then, after a while, she resumed her blithering. Outside the day wind rustled through the avocado trees, unaware of our gossip mongering.
From that day she was often seen in the book launches of womanizer writers. She in a way started to adore them. “Don’t you think they are so good with prose?” She would say, and fluster.
“More than their prose, I think, you adore their boners.” I said and laughed inwardly. There was a slap, followed by a thump, a muffled scoff afterwards. I realized that I had made a mistake, and then I was listening to the unremarkable sounds of abuse. I could actually feel the red hand shape on my cheek, and my head started spinning. She got up, hurled the vodka glass, which as if by magic bounced off the wall of beige tile. She cried a little, maybe. I don’t know, but she was biting her lower lip.
“I’m not a fucking whore.”
She screamed, and it felt like a supreme pronouncement. Her voice was not shrill, but flat, declamatory. Hard to tell whether she could be drunk because each word was sharp and distinct. I wanted to say something but was too scared. The writer of the flowery prose in me had already tucked its tail between the legs and walked away. A gust of day breeze swirled inside, and she stood at the door for a moment, and then she was there no more. Only her eyes like dangerous black slits occupied my mind. There was no sound, just sharp silence. I felt the wind rushing around my hot ears. The words of some country-music singer came to my mind, nonsensical and pretentious.
“And if she asks you why, you can tell her that I told you that I am tired of castles in the air; I’ve got a dream I want the world to share and castles wall just leave me to despair.”
There was another heavy smack and another cry, but it wasn’t her; she was already gone; it was self-infliction. Then, there was a beat of silence, and then the soft rustling of avocado leaves.
It was the first time we quarreled. I told everyone about what had happened. As I feared, no one sympathized with me. In fact, everyone were outraged. They blamed me for being impolite and even uneducated. They told me that I was an immodest drunk; it was because of the way I used sexual innuendos in most of my writings. They rubbed salt in my wounded ego, and they said that she was a fine lady, who knew all sorts of things, and that I should feel sorry and beg for an honest apology.
Apology, my foot! My ego bloomed, and most of the days I sat in the nearby park, brought a dozens of miniature bottles of vodkas and whiskeys and drank like Bukowski. One night I even slept in the park bench, freezing all night long. I had freckles; I sunburned easily; and I was sneezing all the time. I thought I was going to die of pneumonia. The sunburn made me look like I was always mad, and after she left, usually I was mad.
Apologize. A voice said. Stop that, I snapped back. I can’t. Said the voice. My heart sank even lower. Soon it was beating in my belly. It began to blat rhythmically, spoiling my mood, taking me out of my mind and leaving me there in the belly.
For two weeks we did not meet or bother to ring each other. She said nasty things about me, and in turn, I said nasty things about her. These nasty sayings were conveyed by our few mutual acquaintances. I thought our little friendship was over, but one day, she called me and said: “I am coming over to talk. We need to sort out the misunderstandings.” Her voice was calm, and I wasn’t much scared.
So on a fine Saturday morning, she came to my room, gave me a double-kiss on both the cheeks, reached for the bottle of vodka, poured herself a glassful, and commented on the brand. This time she had brought some goat cheese and a packet of Indian namkeen. “You know, Bibek, friendship is sacred.” She said and raised her glass, and in turn, I raised mine. “To our ever-lasting and unaltered friendship. Let all be forgiven and forgotten.” We cheered and drank merrily.
After a while, she said: “You know that womanizer of a writer?”
“He’s going to publish another book. This time on ‘celibacy’.”
“Well, he seems like an expert in every topic.”
I said and was glad that I had not read anything by him.
“Well, why don’t you write a novel?” She asked. Her eyes were beaming, and her voice, pleading.
My heart started hurrying in my chest, thudding along at a rapid jog-trot. I felt a hard thump inside and let out a silent cry. But, I knew that silence was golden. That silence would always be better. That silence would be safer for a man. That silence was like a deep meditation, a vipasana of sorts. I wasn’t going to say anything, because if I said anything, it would be bitter for her, and then I would have to apologize again, and sleep on the freezing park bench. Maybe I’d reply on some other day, but not today. Today I was going to drink vodka and enjoy myself. Hail vodka, and hail the Maharani of Kathmandu, and help me enjoy these precious moments of life! I prayed silently.
I raised my glass once again and said: “To our priceless friendship.”