I should never have brought him here, Aslam thinks to himself, standing in the courtyard of Ghalib’s haveli. It had been his own idea to visit Ballimaran, of course, fool for poetry that he is.
Laxman’s presence in the group is no longer an uncommon sight on a typical show-Sue-around-the-capital day. But now they’re on Aslam’s turf, in Ghalib’s mohalla, barely two streets away from where Aslam lives with his family. Instead of having the home advantage, all he’s been able to feel that day is a curiously detached alienation from his own friends, as though Laxman being there is colouring everything with motley hues that strip familiarity away from known faces, flavouring words with unknown meanings that Aslam-the-poet, Aslam-the-thinker, Aslam-the-fucking-dreamer, cannot hope to decipher.
‘Sukhi, stop staring at my crotch,’ he says wearily, flicking a finger against Sukhi’s forehead. Beside them, Karan snorts softly and sends a cloud of cigarette smoke curling into the rain-damp air. Ever since they’d shot the scene in which Ashfaq was tortured in prison, stripped and tied to a block of ice, Sukhi hasn’t desisted from his barrage of questions about circumcised cocks: Did it hurt? When they cut the skin off? You really don’t remember? How do you, you know, jerk off, if there’s no skin there to help you along?
Laxman hadn’t participated in the ribbing about the scene, even though Aslam had glanced up at one point during the filming—the ice had hurt, despite the padded insulation beneath his bare torso—and caught him looking as though he wanted to flee to Bismil’s cell and start reciting his prayers. Later, when Aslam had put on his jeans and kurta again, and Sonia had swaddled him in a mountainous razai, it had been Laxman who had thrust a steaming glass of tea into his cold hands.
Aslam had thought they’d broken the ice a bit, at that point; he’d even said it out loud, smiling at the horrible pun, and Laxman had given him a ghost of a smile in return.
Today, however, it’s been raining intermittently all morning, and Laxman’s mood seems greyer than the clouds. He’s close by when Aslam makes the remark to Sukhi, and Aslam can’t help but notice how his back stiffens and he pretends to be far too interested in the framed couplets he’s standing in front of, a remarkable feat considering that none of them, except for Aslam, can actually read Urdu.
Detaching himself from Karan and Sukhi, Aslam goes to stand beside Laxman. ‘I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Sorry. We’re just—it’s just a bit of fooling around. Don’t take offence. Please.’ The apology is unwarranted, pushing Aslam even further away from everything he knows, but Laxman’s arm seeps warmth into Aslam’s as their shoulders touch, and neither moves. Aslam almost wishes there were space between them, something to inscribe words on, air to breathe.
Laxman says nothing for a few moments, his hands clasped behind his back, his posture deeply regimented. In the glass over Ghalib’s handwriting, their reflections are faint, fogged by condensation and neglect.
The laughter of the others ebbs away as the group moves down the corridor, leaving them alone with their reflections, Aslam’s apology drifting around them like a wisp of smoke. Feeling like a fool, he turns to follow the rest.
Laxman’s fingers curl around his wrist, warm, sure of themselves. ‘You won’t wait for my reply?’
‘I didn’t think there was going to be one.’ Aslam lets his wrist go slack in Laxman’s grip. Hope swells inside his chest like a tiny tide, foolish and brave, struggling against stronger currents.
Laxman leans closer, his lips against Aslam’s hair, his breath warm on Aslam’s earlobe. ‘What would you like me to say?’ To an observer, Aslam imagines, Laxman’s stance would appear menacing: his hand almost painfully tight around Aslam’s wrist, the echoes of his words like whispered threats.
The clatter of footfalls pushes them apart, breaking the fragile, synchronised rhythm of their combined breaths.
Lying in a half-doze, he almost doesn’t hear the knock on his door. ‘Who is it?’ he calls.
The door squeaks open, and Laxman is standing there, a notebook in his hand. ‘You left this in the studio the other day.’ They’d spent fourteen hours doing ADR for some of the scenes preceding Bismil and Ashfaq’s executions.
‘God, thanks, I thought I’d lost it.’
Placing the notebook on Aslam’s desk, Laxman glances down at him, frowning. ‘Why are you in bed in the middle of the day? Why haven’t you been to rehearsals in two days?’
‘Caught a cold in the rain,’ Aslam says ruefully. He’s unprepared for Laxman’s hand on his brow, brushing his hair aside to touch his temple. ‘You’ve a fever.’
‘I’ll live,’ Aslam smiles.
‘You’d better,’ Laxman says grimly, pulling up a chair. ‘Another day of having Karan standing in for you and I’ll go insane.’
Aslam laughs. ‘Hey, I’m not coughing when I laugh. You must be good for me.’
Laxman makes a non-committal sound, his gaze wandering around Aslam’s tiny room. ‘I met your father at the door. He said he was surprised that I was so polite. For a Hindu.’
Aslam winces. ‘I’m sorry.’
Laxman shakes his head. ‘Not your fault.’
Something tight that Aslam’s been carrying around in his chest unravels a little, and he lets himself look at Laxman unabashedly. There are raindrops clinging to his hair, damp spots on the khadi of his soft-lavender kurta. ‘You should carry an umbrella. There’s a towel on the hook over there.’
Laxman retrieves the towel and vigorously rubs the rain out of his short hair. Aslam glances at the mirror behind Laxman, watches the way the muscles move at his shoulders and back. Wonders what they’ll feel like if his hands were to slip beneath Laxman’s kurta, mapping the skin there, tracing the lines of his body, rivering his skin with want.
‘Stop staring,’ Laxman mutters, swatting at Aslam's face with the towel. Unthinking, Aslam catches the end of it and tugs, pulling Laxman closer.
Laxman steadies himself with a hand on Aslam’s pillow. ‘Aslam, I—this wasn’t what I came here for.’
‘Shut up, Laxman, for god’s sake, for once in your life, just shut up,’ Aslam groans, cupping Laxman’s face in both his hands, his thumbs mapping Laxman’s cheekbones.
Laxman huffs out a laugh against his shoulder, his fingers scrunching Aslam’s t-shirt. Aslam tugs him closer still, just for a moment, knowing they can’t risk much here, under his father’s roof.
‘Let me go,’ Laxman murmurs, lips against Aslam’s throat. His hand slides from the pillow into Aslam’s hair, fingers tangling in his curls. ‘You’re not well. Someone could come in.’
‘Excuses, excuses.’ Aslam loosens his grip, letting his hands slip off Laxman’s shoulders and slide down the length of his arms.
‘When you’re better,’ Laxman says matter-of-factly. Their fingers entwine briefly, palms mirroring each other, pressing together, as if the lines on their hands were trying to overlap.
‘Hand me that notebook,’ Aslam says, fluffing up his pillow and sitting up straight. ‘And get us some tea from downstairs, will you? Elaichi.’
‘Are you giving me orders?’ Laxman says, amusement flickering in his eyes. He picks up Aslam’s notebook, making as if to fling it at him, but then presses it gently into his hands.
‘Can’t write poetry without tea,’ Aslam says, already beginning to scribble with his pencil. And you, now, apparently, he adds silently to himself, smiling at the sound of Laxman’s sandals slapping against the stairs.