"Maaey," he smiles, and hugs her. It is always easier to hug her and comfort her that he's not turning into a son-shaped version of her husband, a man they'd been only too happy to leave behind. This time, though, she isn't assured.
"I'll make friends, Ma, it's college! There's bound to be people who want to be friends with me," he says and she swats him on his shoulder, doing her peculiar frown-while-smiling, the one he's tried so many times to capture on canvas. He can't possibly capture this -- the worry in her eyes easing at his confidence, the wonder of her hand reaching up to cup his cheek, like she still can't believe he's so tall now, "mera beta going to college!", rising to the balls of her feet to press a kiss to his forehead.)
Sid meets his first friend at the freshers party, when the guy stumbles past him and spills a drink on him, mumbles, "Sorry yaar," before rushing off behind some girl. Sid closes his eyes and resolves to not care, to just get through the party somehow -- but then the guy comes back later, apologetic.
"I'm really sorry man, can I do something about your shoe --" he looks down, only to realise -- "Dude, you wore chappals to the party?"
"Yeah," Sid shrugs. The last thing he wants is for his footwear to be judged by some drunk jerk.
"I'm Sameer," he says, and Sid shakes his offered hand, surprised.
Sameer even greets him the next Monday, in class, and draws him into his orbit around Akaash, a prickly, sardonic sort of guy who startles Sid into laughter. Two weeks later, Sid is even more surprised to find himself part of a college routine -- meet up every morning, vadapav at the canteen for him and Akaash, Pepsi for Sameer ("Honestly, Sameer, do you need that sugar rush right in the morning?" Akaash bitches), grab the last bench in class, bunk college sometimes to be whisked away in Akaash's car for a movie, evenings out doing whatever, usually with Sameer's latest fling, nights of movie marathons or Age of Empire tournaments.
On Akaash's birthday, Sid is conscious of the fact that he can't afford an extravagant gift. He sits up one night, charcoal dust lodging itself under his fingernails and in the lines on his palm, and wraps the sheet in newspaper when he's finished.
The party is at a high-end disco, flashing lights and pounding music and expensive drinks. For a guy who's frankly as anti-social as Akaash, it is quite a crowded party. Sid tugs at the hem of his shirt -- it's blue and its decent enough for a club, he'd imagined, not so apparently -- until Sameer bearhugs him in relief. "Yaar tu aa gaya! Save me from his foreign university dostlog yaar, dimaag chaat rahe hain! Oye," he exclaims, looking down, "you wore shoes! Kya baat hai, Sid."
"Only for you, Uncle Sam," Sid replies and Sameer's answering grin eases a knot in his chest. These are his friends above everything, and there's nothing to worry about.
He ends up giving the sketch to Akaash the next morning, after they've been served hangover-cures. Akaash looks at it for a long time, studies it impassively enough to make Sid nervous, (though Sameer takes one look at it and declares, "WOW, shit, Sid! That is so good yaar! Tu kitna talented hai!") before one corner of his mouth quirks up and his eyes snap up to Sid's, holding the gaze in a way that burns somewhere, inside; before a smile blooms and Akaash envelops in one of his surprising, full-bodied, past the five-second rule hugs. "Thanks, yaar," he says, "I'll get it framed and put it up somewhere..."
"Great, now look what you've done," Sameer throws up his hands, "Feed his egomaniacal majesty some more, man!" and dodges the pillow Akaash throws at him.
Deepa is sitting alone on the beach when Sid drops down beside her. Akaash's actions are callous but excusable -- it's Akaash and he's kind of a bastard; and like Sameer says, Deepa knows that and she still acts like a sucker for punishment. (In some strange way, Sid approves of Sameer's approach to love. Sameer anticipates its fickle and unpredictable nature, not least because he suffers for it quite a bit.)
But Deepa looks crushed, and Sid, in his duty as the non-bastard friend of the bastard, offers up platitudes with sand trickling between his fingers; and lets her tangle her fingers in his, later. They don't convince Sid himself, but they've kept him going for three long years of sitting next to Akaash and breathing in his cologne, waking up with Akaash's nose pressed to his neck, feeling Akaash's laughter vibrate through him when he rolls around in abandon and crashes into Sid.
Sid remembers thinking he will paint her like this, yellow and brown and grey, mouth turned down, knobs of her spine standing out on her neck, a mole on the pale skin of her cheek. The memory comes back to him out of nowhere months later, palm still stinging from its contact with Akaash's face, and he wishes he had painted her for himself, as a reminder of how easily Akaash crushes hearts that are offered up to him.
Loving Tara is easy, in the way loving his old economics teacher had been easy. The fact that he mostly can't do anything about it frees him from the obligation of having to do something about it, no limits, no barriers. He likes it, likes being in love from a distance like this, how everything seems to come alive -- the happy lightness with which he walks to Tara's house, the hum in his fingertips when he thinks of painting her, his euphoria when she finally agrees.
He paints till his hand cramps, and has to smoothe red across her lips with his thumb because he can't bear to leave her; and when he wakes up to her portrait in the attic, dusty sunlight falling on it for five minutes before the angle changes through the half-open skylight, she has never looked more beautiful to him.
But she is real, and Sid can never forget -- the ever-refilling glass on her table, the photographs she can't stop talking about, her fits of temper when she screams herself hoarse. He aches for her, and gathers her up in his arms; and when she tells him, teary, "Sid, you're such a good friend," rasping the words around a thick, medicated tongue, clutching at his hand feebly, breathing to the beep-beep-beep of the monitor, that's all the reward he needs.
Akaash's wedding promises to be lavish and opulent, and this time Sid is proud to wrap one of his own paintings for the gift (valued at rupees fifty thousand upwards, says the gallery's introduction to his exhibition, and it still boggles his mind). Gratifyingly enough, Shalini and Akaash's parents are in raptures when she finally opens it in the peace of Akaash's room, everyone gathered to unwind after all the ceremonies are finally done.
Akaash grins too, handsome in his white and gold sherwani, subdued like the events of the past year have rubbed away at his sharp edges. He still needles Sameer, who runs around coordinating events, and stresses about the wedding like a good brother would. But Sid can sense how things between Akaash and him have changed too, a new balance of distance and warmth, which Sid likes to think shows how much they've changed, accepted their differences and only respect each other more.
Shalini's dimple deepens in excitement when Sid tells her there's another present, just for her. She quirks an eyebrow at Akaash triumphantly, an echo of her playful argument with him that Sid is her friend now, who appreciates good movies and talks with her endlessly about books and paintings and isn't a jerk.
When Sid hands her the squarish card, she looks puzzled as she folds up the butter paper covering it. Sid finds himself watching Akaash as he peers over Shalini's shoulder, eyes widening in recognition at the old paper napkin stuck to it, a pub logo faintly visible in the corner and a rough pencil sketch of Shalini on it.
"Yeh -- kya --" Shalini turns to Sid for explanation, but it is Akaash who speaks up, eyes crinkling at Sid. "It's from that night, that disastrous graduation party," he chuckles.
"The night you and I met," Shalini says, hushed in realisation, looking up at Akaash.
"Haan," Akaash says, and takes the card from her with a flourish, animated all of a sudden. "Mere dost Siddharth ne tujhe mere se pehle dekha, par phir bhi idiot ki tarah tujhe draw karne baith gaya. Aur jab maine yeh sketch dekha, tab -- " he grins, and pauses, and Sameer cuts in, "Tab Akaash aa gaya tumhare paas, flirt karne aur Rohit ka mukka khaane."
They laugh and laugh at this, the perfect wedding day anecdote, and Shalini reaches up to hug Sid once again.
"Isse seekho tum kuch, Akaash," she says, leaning her head against Sid's shoulder, "sentimentality can be a good thing!"
Akaash pulls a face at her, and she scrunches her nose right back at him, bright and adorable and just the person to keep Akaash in line, and in love.
Later still, when people have stopped milling about and Sameer has fallen asleep on the plush armchair, snoring in a most undignified manner, and Shalini is talking to her mother on the phone, low and serious; Akaash says, out of nowhere, "I can't believe you kept it all these years."
Sid shrugs and leans his head on the edge of the couch, sitting on the floor. "Thank you, Sid," he hears Akaash sigh, and feels Akaash's fingers stroke through his hair, sleepy and clumsy; and Sid grits his teeth against the sudden racing of his pulse.
Sameer and Pooja's beach wedding in Goa is a riotous celebration, and this time Sid can find it in himself to be caught up in the hurly burly of it; Pooja's bunch of friends mounting a spirited challenge to Sameer's gaggle of cousins adapting Punjabi marriage challenges to the sandy location. Sid, on the ladkewala side, gets conned out of a lot of money by the girls and doesn't realise it until much later, shrugging it off bemusedly. (The thing is, Sameer getting married doesn't quite sting like the way it did in Akaash's case; it doesn't feel like so much of a loss. They had figured, after all, that Sameer would be the first amongst them to go; and that's as much as Sid is willing to think about this.)
He gifts them a painting which is somewhat more cheerful than the rest of his works, and Pooja promptly declares she'll coordinate their living room palette around this painting. Sameer grins dopily, and Sid raises his eyebrows at Akaash, which clearly makes Akaash bite down on what would have been a sardonic reply.
The party stretches over a weekend, and at the end of it, Sameer drags the two of them away to their little rocky refuge in the harbour.
"So," Akaash says and turns to Sameer, who turns to Sid, and says, "Ab teri baari hai, Sid."
Sid lets out a laugh and watches the boats on the horizon, tastes salt on his lips. "Don't you wish we'd never had to grow up..."
The silence stretches a moment too long, before -- "Kisne kaha Sameer's grown up?" Akaash deadpans, and laughs as Sameer squawks, "Abey! Meri shaadi ho gayi hai, ok?"
His paintings and sculptures have been selling for nearly five years, and he's been the Next Big Thing for atleast three of them. He's had exhibitions all over the country, and he was even part of a collection that went abroad. Sid wonders, sometimes, if he was ever this ambitious and if he even deserves all of this.
The art magazines speculate about his absence for two months -- his phone buzzes itself off the edges of tables and his emails start bouncing -- before they forget. Sid hasn't painted since Ma died.
He spends days wandering about Kasauli and throwing crushed paper balls of unfinished sketches back into his bag; once over the edge of a cliff and feeling guilty for littering. Shankaran picks him up on his scooter in the evenings when it starts to get cold, and the thin shawl Sid throws over his kurta not enough protection against the chill. He takes Sid to a small cafe and they drink cups of hot, sweet adrak-elaichi chai, before heading back to the farmhouse for the night.
"You can't shut yourself away, Siddharth," Shankaran keeps telling him, in his faintly musical English; as if he wasn't the one who'd first brought him to this place up in the hills, to annual workshops where he was surrounded by people like him, who forgot to eat or bathe or talk to each other, and splashed their clothes with paint. "You have to be with people again."
He doesn't think he's depressed, not really, but Sid wakes up when he hears himself say, "What's the point... Everyone leaves, anyway," and Shankaran looks at him, worried, and shakes his head.
After fantasising about it all week, trying to draw the swoop of his nose and his languid, heavy-lidded eyes, Sid finally kisses him one night. Shankaran draws away, slow but firm, and whispers, "This is probably not the solution, you know..."
He belies his words, drawing Sid close into his arms, and it gives Sid hope.
"I know," Sid breathes into the warm, hill scented air between them, and feels a tremble pass through him, scared at the leap he is taking. Shankaran answers by kissing him hot and fierce, pressing him down on to the floor.
It's not a long term thing, they know, and Shankaran is gentle about it, like he has been about everything else -- about being Sid's first male lover, about being Sid's refuge, supporting Sid at a time when none of his friends have had time away from their own lives to care about Sid.
"Go back to Bombay, Siddharth," he says to the skin of Sid's temple one morning, cradling him close in bed. "Go home, and start painting again, please. For your sake..."
I might start again, sometime, Sid thinks. Sometime soon, maybe.
Sid goes for the parade alone.
I'm queer, he thinks, I've always been, and I've even slept with a man, I'm a big flaming queer! he thinks and laughs to himself. It's that sort of atmosphere -- happy and excited and vibrant. It's 2008 and people have gathered on the streets of Bombay for the first time with a banner that proclaims them to be gay! lesbian! bisexual! transgender! The chants rise into the air, and the big rainbow flag in the middle ripples with the motion of dancing bodies that carry it. A masked woman, wearing a violently pink shirt that says Love Is My Religion grabs his hand and leads him to the flag -- they'd been calling for people to hold it up, as the parade paused at a road intersection to cheer some more. Sid grins as someone starts singing pyaar ka dushman HAYE HAYE! and joins in.
He holds up a rainbow paper flag for as long as he can, and lets a passerby brush swirls of paint on his cheeks, across his nose. He forgets about it, and wakes up the next day to a pillow full of little specks of red, orange and purple.
In the mirror, his face is dotted with dried crusts of colour. It makes Sid laugh, and decide he'd like to know this new, paint-flecked person.
(Akaash lives in Australia with Shalini now, happily ensconced in yuppiedom. His annual visits to Bombay are quite the event, where Sameer escapes his henpecked-husband life for a week and the three drive down to Goa and watch boats out of a sense of ritual. They regularly bug him about being alone, and amuse themselves by pointing out girls to him on Goa roads.
"Is she the muse?" Sameer says, "she's nice looking. Or could she be the muse? Yaar, kisi ko toh muse bana le!"
Akaash cuts in, "Bana le, bana le Sid, nahi toh meri jagah tu ban jayega Bachelor, tere toh baal bhi nahi bache," He nudges Sameer and they cackle.
Sid smiles, and points to a surfer peeling himself out of his wetsuit on the beach. "Woh chalega?"
They gape in silence for a minute, before Sameer leaps on him. "I knew it! I knew it! Sid plays for both teams!"
"Kya baat hai yaar," says Akaash, and Sid realises, like he does every visit, he will never stop feeling a little differently for Akaash, never be able to stop a thrill when those big expressive eyes are completely focussed on him. "Were you ever going to tell us?"
Sameer pipes up, excitedly, "Is there someone? Right now, in your life?"
Sid shakes his head, savouring that moment before they start demanding verbal answers, and pushes them to walk on.)