J J School of Art, Mumbai.
Taking a charcoal pencil, Akash Saigal started drawing the wood-and-stone structure, popularly known as ‘Kipling Bungalow’. He was sketching sitting on a bench on which, in another era, K K Hebbar, M F Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Sadanand Bakre, V S Gaitonde, even Dadasaheb Phalke had sat with their sketchbooks, sketching the house where the author of The Jungle Book was born.
Ganpat Gupte appeared along with two of his gang. Gupte was the nephew of a minister, or so he claimed, and had the arrogance that comes with power.
Akash looked up at the trio and said, “Nothing much. Just a drawing.”
“Okay. What is the day today?”
“I should have known.Tere ko blue shirt hai na?”
Akash didn’t get the connection, but Gupte’s chamchas laughed knowingly.
The three boys sang in unison, “Monday, blue shirt. Tuesday, black shirt. Wednesday, blue shirt. Thursday black shirt. Friday, blue shirt. Saturday, black shirt. Sunday…laundry!”
If Akash was hurt, he didn’t show it. He laughed sheepishly and continued sketching the bungalow.
But he would never forget this.
The elevator zoomed up, taking Akash directly to the penthouse on the 60th floor of Apollo Towers, and stopped with stomach-curdling smoothness. The door slid open to reveal his luxuriously done-up lounge.
He came out of the lift, turned down the passage, and walked over the deep-pile rug to the lounge.
He had returned from the salon.
He felt cleaner and fresher after his bimonthly facial – only Tanveer could give him a satisfactory shave – and pedicure. He liked to have his moustaches- like John Lennon’s – done like in the Sixties, and he liked sideburns.
His head was still heavy from drinking until the late hours, but he looked much better than he felt. His studio was to the right, almost hidden behind the lavish bar facing him as he entered.
Perched 550 feet above the city of Mumbai, he could see the Queen’s Necklace and the World Trade Centre. From Zenobia’s bedroom, the Gateway of India and the high dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel.
Akash returned the smile, picked up the bottle of Blue Label and poured himself a stiff drink.
“Isn’t it a little early for a drink?”
Without saying anything, Akash smiled, and switched on the TV.
The TV screen flashed a story over a video shot of Zenobia with him in happier times, followed by a shot of the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s heritage Gothic-style building and a subtitle: ‘Mumbai Police give clean chit to Akash Saigal.’
“Based on the findings of the forensic department and investigation, the Mumbai Police has declared the death of noted artist and socialite Zenobia Taraporevala suicide. It may be recalled that a year ago, Zenobia died from a fall from her 60th-floor penthouse. There were questions about her death. Was it a suicide, or an accident, or was she pushed to her death? Her husband, the famous artist Akash Saigal, was under a cloud all these months. It has now been established that tired of being confined to a wheel chair after a car accident, a depressed Zenobia committed suicide.”
Pran jumped out of his seat, still listening to the newsreader with open-mouthed amazement. He shouted: “Wow!”
A shot of Prime Minister Narendra Modi now flashed on the screen, as the newsreader continued, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Singapore….”
Akash smiled tiredly at Pran.
“You already knew about it?”
Akash nodded and absent-mindedly picked up an envelope. He took out the card, glanced at it, and pushed it back. It was an invitation to his own function.
“Boss, when do we leave?” Pran asked.
“We have lots of time. The inauguration is after three hours, and the ministers never come on time. Agar aa bhi gaya toh hamari woh Fareeda baithi hai. Sambhal legi. Dad will take care of it. Chal baith, tu bhi le.”
“No, not me. I’m driving,” Pran said solemnly.
Akash knew that this was not the time to drink. He shouldn’t appear sloshed in front of the entire world and the prying media. He took another sip, and changed the news channel.
And found himself staring at a picture of Zenobia on the screen. The still picture changed to a video shot of Zenobia and he at a party.
The newsreader was ranting:
“In India, the law mandates that the husband be questioned for cases involving the death of a woman within seven years of marriage. Akash and Zenobia had been married for barely two-and-a-half years. And Zenobia had died under mysterious circumstances, falling from the French window of her penthouse! The police always look for ‘the other woman’ in a case like this.”
The TV showed a shot of Suma, followed by a video shot of Suma and Akash emerging from the JW Marriott in Juhu. The newsreader went on: “And they found her in Suma. Suma Malkani, the beautiful ghazal singer.”
The State Minister for Cultural Affairs, Nanasaheb Palekar, was to launch the art school, named after Zenobia Taraporevala-Saigal, that evening at Powai. There had been several protests because of the controversy over her death, but the minister ignored them all.
A protest was planned for the same day by Kapila Khandelval’s NGO. It was unclear whether the NGO would go ahead with the protest or cancel it in view of the clean chit given to Akash by the police.
This project had been his baby and Zenobia’s dream. The government had given the land and the Taraporevalas had put in the money. Fareeda had inserted a business angle even in this dream project of Zenobia’s. The Zenobia-Akash Saigal School of Art had become the Zenobia-Akash Saigal School of Art and Business Management. She also had plans for a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in an annex. The minister had given the nod for that, too.
He looked at the screen and let it ring.
Taking a sip of his drink, he moved towards his den. He stepped into his room, and before he could shut the door, the phone near the bar table rang.
“Boss?” Pran said. “Fareeda is on the line.”
Fareeda would be having kittens without him. Akash’s association with the project had given it respectability and even a cultural cause, and got the plot at one-eighth its market value, and all the permissions.
“Fuck her!” Akash said, but he answered the phone anyway.
“The media will be here in three hours. And the minister, too.”
Akash said, “Fuck the media!” and hung up.
The TV newsreader went on:
“Before Akash Saigal hit the big time, he lived in a small apartment in Adarsh Nagar, in the western suburbs. His paintings didn’t earn him enough to buy a decent vehicle. He travelled by buses and cabs. While Zenobia almost took a sabbatical, Akash shot to fame with his mixed media and three-dimensional installations after marrying her.”
Leaning against the soft, cool leather of a luxurious sofa, Akash said, “Cigarettes?”
Pran was already sliding open the glass door of a cabinet. A carton of Marlboros had just one packet left. He gave the packet to Akash, grinned, and threw the carton in the trash box.
They might have been sharing the same flashback, the same past.