Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Amitabh Bachchan. Haji Ali. A perfume maker and his son. A talisman. They all come together in a story of hope, prayer and unexpected miracles.

Read my latest short story in Spark


The red thread was an innocuous-looking object.
“The object doesn’t matter”, his grandmother said. “It is just a vehicle to carry your prayer”
“No, no, it does. Why do you think I went all the way to Ahmedabad to get the right one?” argued his father Salim, who believed that the quality of that vessel was critical to the transference of the appeal.
“Look at Rafiq”, he said, “Didn’t you see his new Maruti? How do you think that came about?”
In the corner, Iqbal sat on his haunches, his back gently touching the wall which was adorned with framed pictures of his family. There was one enlarged close up of his late grandfather looking soullessly into the camera. There was one of his parents, stern, yet resplendent on the day of their wedding. And then there was him riding a bike with Taj Mahal in the backdrop. This was taken when he was three and they had gone to the fair and a photo booth using India’s most famous mausoleum proved too much of a temptation to resist.
“But isn’t there another way? Why send the boy all the way to Bombay by himself?” His mother Sultana’s voice, dripping with concern, floated into the conversation.
Arre, the boy is 22 years old. Don’t you think he can go there by himself?” Salim said, irritated by Sultana’s petition.
The 22-year-old had resigned himself to the fact that he had no say in this matter. How did it come to this, he asked himself? Everyone wanted a solution out of this mess and everyone had their solutions for it.
You see, Iqbal was in the possession of a completely ordinary fate. He was failing again and again to clear his B. Com. By making himself the first person in that family to have made it to a college, he had set up some rather false expectations from his family. There were visions of great successes that everyone from Salim to Sultana to his girlfriend Meher had claimed. Yet, Iqbal did not seem to be blessed with any penchant for education or enterprise.
Iqbal’s father had a shop handed to him by his father who in turn had received the key from his father and so on. They were dispensers of Ittar, the perfumes that were bottled up in the smallest of flasks. It was a business that spanned generations but in the age of deodorants and bottled perfumes from various companies, this was a dying art. Their fortunes had shrunk, mirrored by the smallness of the bottles in which they poured their art. There had to be another way forward and Iqbal was going to lead the charge into a new future for the family.
Salim, was an optimistic man. He was once pragmatic too. But dire times call for dire solutions. Having hedged his bets that Iqbal would change their fortunes, he was now shackled by his son’s lack of progress. Salim resorted to the one thing he would have labelled as superstition in his heydays when he had youth and money at his disposal and a reputation as a wild stallion in his circle of friends. His remedy was a prayer.
And not being of the religious dispensation, he sought to seek inspiration in the only higher power he believed in. Amitabh Bachchan. You see, Salim had little faith in the conventional Gods. He had instead decided to place his loyalties at the feet of the superstar. Lost in the wilderness of faithlessness, Salim had turned to the one true hero in his life. He never missed a release of his, and so inspired was he by the actor’s turn in the movie Coolie, he even named his son Iqbal after Amitabh’s name in the movie. In fact, Coolie had more than a fleeting influence on him. When Amitabh was injured during the shoot of the movie, Salim had, in a state of extreme delirium and desperation, gone to Bombay to stand outside the hospital where he was admitted. To make things right, he went up to the Haji Ali dargah and tied a thread in hope of a speedy recovery for AB.
That tide passed and as he grew older and got married and suffered the consequences of running a household, Salim never revisited that state of mind again. Until now. His favourite actor might not have been dying, but his family’s future was. So, Iqbal was sent to Mumbai, red thread in hand to the Haji Ali dargah.
Iqbal did not believe in his father’s fantasy. What possible powers could that little thread, which was ready to unspool into its constituent parts, hold? And yet, the lure of visiting Mumbai on his own was too much to resist. So, off Iqbal went, by bus to the station, by train to Mumbai, and by his own two feet onto the railway station where thousands milled around him minding their business. Once he got out of the station, he caught a taxi and went straight to the home of his maternal uncle in the suburb of Borivali where he enjoyed food and rest. Without any consideration for his exhaustion, he disinterestedly set off straight to Haji Ali in a local transport bus.
He had visited Mumbai twice in his life but this independence was a revelation to him. He kept admiring the chaos, star struck, until the bus came to a grinding halt. A film shooting was being set up. Iqbal got off the bus on a whim. Surely, Haji Ali could wait. The pull of curiosity was too much to resist.
“Who is the actor?” someone asked.
“Not sure, bhai.
“Bachchan sahib!
Pakka. I heard someone else say that!”
The rumour spread like wildfire and sure enough, the crowd grew exponentially in the next fifteen minutes. Iqbal found himself being absorbed in it, blown like a feather in the wind.
A Mercedes Benz appeared from the corner of the street.
“Bachchan,” whispered the whispers, loud enough to be a collective voice.
The crowd started pushing and shoving, trying to get a glimpse of the star.
Iqbal leaned forward too. The masses were being held back by a few security men and a frivolous rope. They should have known better. As the car hurried through the road, Iqbal felt the hand of fate on his back propelling him forward. He fell. He stumbled. He rolled on the road. The car came and hit him.
Bleeding from cuts to his forehead and scrapes on his arm, he looked up with a flash of anger, and had he paid attention to Coolie with any amount of diligence, he would have known that the passion of his namesake in that movie was evident in his face.
The car stopped, a towering man looked from the back seat, and in a baritone asked his driver to take Iqbal in. The next few moments were surreal for Iqbal as the man his father idolized took him into his trailer, had him patched up, spoke a few kind words of inquiry and got him a seat to watch the shooting.
The hours rolled on and the mission to go to Haji Ali faded in the distance. The shooting packed up.
“Take care of yourself,” said that baritone again and started to walk towards his car.
Iqbal had a vague recollection of having nodded and then the car became a blip in the distance.
He took out the red thread from his pocket and took a good look at it. That little object had borne the weight of his father’s hopes and had decided to reward him in the most unusual of manners. Iqbal’s destiny would not be fixed for the prayer had been answered with an unexpected blessing. A smile the size of a half-moon crossed his face and he hailed a taxicab.
Kahan?” asked the taxi cab driver.
Still grinning, Iqbal replied, “Haji Ali!”

No comments: