People are fucked up; Shonali doesn't know where this whole manufactured competition between her and Meghna came from. Petty gossip-mongers? Bored media execs? Who knows? The tabloids are filled with pages and pages of mindless drivel, dissecting and bisecting how and why Shonali and Meghna are getting into cat-fights backstage, snubbing each other at posh galas, and calling each other names behind closed doors.
It's not true, not one single bit of it. Meghna is focused on herself and no one else. She doesn't have time to bring down the woman she has replaced. Shonali knows this, understands the all-consuming bubble Meghna is living in, because she was in the same place once upon a time.
And as for herself? Shonali doesn't feel a single drop of bitterness or contempt towards Meghna. Hell, she doesn't feel much of anything these days. When she walks out of that bathroom stall, the world is bathed in blue-green ocean waves and Meghna fits right in, camouflaged somehow. The coke fuels her blood and Shonali feels like strutting right out of the other model's sight, but then Meghna speaks.
So naive, so hopeful, so innocent... all the more to be crushed and twisted into something she is not. Shonali tries to warn her, but Meghna doesn't listen. Of course not; I wouldn't have either, if someone had told me how people would use me and leave me.
Shonali sits outside the restaurant, ass on the curb and ignoring the looks she's getting. She doesn't give a fuck. She watches the auto-rickshaws go by and waits. Her boyfriend calls her and the bloody bastard demands that she come to some boring party she has no intention of showing up to. Shonali paces back and forth, yelling into her mobile before hanging up on him. Useless idiot. An icy glare sends a nosy couple watching her packing.
Finally, she sees Meghna walk out the door, waving goodbye to her friends before hailing an auto. Shonali springs to life and marches over to Meghna. There's a flash of fear on Meghna's face but it's instantly replaced with cool detachment.
Shonali grabs Meghna by the wrist. "I know you didn't believe me so I'm telling you again. If you want any sort of happiness in this fucked up world of ours, be careful."
Meghan doesn't reply, silently examines Shonali instead, dissecting and bisecting the woman who was once everything she wanted to be. Shonali blinks several times, keeping the fears and insecurities at bay. Her last hit is starting to fade. The shadows are deeper, the night is darker, and she swears she can see disgust in Meghna's eyes.
The world falters around her. Shonali's grip loosens and Meghna takes the opportunity to pull her wrist free. She slowly gets into the auto, not even sparing a second glance her. Shonali notices that she is trembling, standing there alone on the curb.
- - -
Nothing is the same after her last show. Her agent won't return her calls, her friends avoid her, even her boyfriend makes himself scarce. She is like poison to to everyone around her. On the streets, the morality police call for her head, demanding that she pay for her sins; oh, if only they knew exactly how many sins she has committed.
Why has this happened to her? After all she has suffered, fate saw it fit to publicly humiliate her in front of millions? Shonali has always believed in fate. It was what drove her to succeed in the industry to begin with, that feeling that she was born to own that catwalk, to strut and pose and feel the flashes of a hundred cameras adoring her.
She clings to fate, even now. Relishes in the idea that it is her lot in life to suffer. Her suffering, after all, needs reason. Suffering is far harder to bear when it is meaningless as well.
Shonali can hear Meghna's voice on the TV. Her mind, tormented and panicked, screams for an end. I don't want to answer to anyone's judgement. I don't want to answer to anyone.
There's a needle, the prick against her skin, and then nothing but delicious euphoria. Dark euphoria...
The days blur into one. She visits the sleaziest clubs, sniffing out her next score. Then one night, she blinks her eyes in confusion. Meghna? The other girl is sinuously swaying to the music, a drink in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth as countless friends and sycophants surround her.
At one point, Meghna wanders off towards the washroom but Shonali intercepts her. Meghna is drunk and Shonali is high and it's a miracle neither stumbles over the other when Shonali pushes her towards a dark corner. "Well, what have we here? Where did naive little Meghna go?"
"Shonali, so nice to see you." There is no sincerity in Meghna's greeting and her eyes are full of pity. But she still wraps her arms around Shonali's neck, acting as if this is nothing, as if a night with the biggest competitor she ever had is not a big deal at all. "Join us for a couple of rounds, my treat."
"I told you this would happen. You're well on your way." Shonali snaps back, hastily wrenching herself out of Meghna's embrace. She'd rather not deal with how it feels to have Meghna's graceful frame pressed against her. Too much sensation, too much feeling...
"Oh please, you and your drama." Meghna rolls her eyes and leans back against the wall, stretches like a cat. There is a lazy look in her eyes. "I guess I shouldn't expect anything more from a washed out junkie."
Without thinking, Shonali slaps Meghna across the face. Why did I do that? She's right, after all. But she can't take back her actions. She can't even put together the words to apologize. The world is a meaningless haze of colour and sound. And amongst that haze is Meghna, livid.
"You worthless bitch, how dare you!"
Shonali thinks she laughs as Meghna shoves her backwards. There's more noise, people shouting, arms grabbing her. It's all too much, too much, and as the bass pumps through her body she closes her eyes and lets it all fade to black.
- - -
She wakes up in a hospital. Shonali snaps her eyes back shut almost as soon as she opens them, the harsh ceiling lights searing her retinas. It feels as if her body's made of lead; she couldn't move her arms or legs even if she wanted to.
The nurses put her in a rehab program. It's agonizing and every waking moment makes Shonali cry and scream. The doctors try to tell her that she will be fine, that physical withdrawal and detoxification will help her get better. Who are they to tell her what she feels? Who is anyone? No one understands what she has gone through, the trials she has borne and the people who threw her away like garbage.
Shonali is consumed by self-loathing and anguish. And yet, she never contemplates taking her own life. There is a part of her that refuses to go silently into the night, a weeping and pathetic mess. She was once loved and coveted by millions. No fucking way is she going to take the coward's way out.
She actually gets better for a while. The doctors praise her calm demeanor and the nurses smile happily as she talks in group sessions, cautiously optimistic about the future. They release her from the rehab program, telling her that she can always contact them when she's feeling uncertain or pressured to lapse back into her old ways.
Shonali never speaks to them again.
Because she comes to a realization. About how sheltered the rehab facility was, about who she has become, about the temptations and villainy of the world. There is no room for a happy, healthy Shonali in this universe. Out here in the real world, everything grinds her down; the heat, the noise, the endless drumming rhythm of her loneliness. Mumbai has no mercy and she does not have the strength to cope anymore. Within a fortnight she makes her way to her old haunts, dark parking garages and shady parks, begging for another score. She lives like a dog. It doesn't matter where she is or where she's going. She is nothing, merely a shell of a person whose only purpose is to take up space. Only the coke can save her now. Only the coke keeps her alive, brings back her spark.
But it's not the same this time; perhaps rehab really did change her. The high is painful, terrifying. She sees monsters in mirrors, threats in her shadow. I can't live like this. And yet, without the cocaine, she can't live at all.
And that's when she knows her life is over.
She wanders the city after that last hit, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap vodka, weaving through crowds that refuse to acknowledge her existence. It's all a blur of bodies, the sun glinting off shiny cars, shouting and smoke and chaos...
Shonali feels her mind shutting down. Her skin is too tight and the noises are too loud. Greedy cameras and heartless voices. Why won't they leave her alone?
- - -
People come, people go. They cry, they plead, life moves on. Life moved far too fast for Shonali to deal with, she knows this now. Mistakes have been made and there's no reversing her bad decisions, her lack of experience, her defiant arrogance. Might as well fade away in some gutter somewhere. No one gives a shit whether I live or die.
Someone takes her hand and when Shonali turns mechanically towards that someone, she cannot believe her eyes. It's Meghna. At least, she thinks it's Meghna. She can't be sure, it's been so very long. But Meghna is gentle and there's a complexity of emotions running across her face. Fear. Tenderness. Purpose. Shonali isn't even quite sure what's going on, doesn't understand what Meghna tells the police officers. All she knows is that in end, Meghna smooths her palm over Shonali's frizzed hair and smiles tentatively.
"Come on, I'll take you some place safe."
- - -
The drugs and alcohol have shot her personality, her mental capacities, her ability to reason and make sense of the world. Meghna is patient with her, so patient, so kind, and sometimes Meghna is the only thing Shonali can recognize in the world that swims around her. She treats Shonali like a human being, like the woman she used to be, all flair and fire. Shonali falls asleep at the salon while her hair is washed and her nails are filed and painted. It's been so long since someone gave a fuck about her well-being.
Talking with Meghna is better than any group session she ever took part in during her stint in rehab. When the other woman comes home after hours and hours of trying to rebuild her contacts, she still takes out time to ask Shonali how her day was, how she's feeling. She listens as Shonali puts together her thoughts in stilted words, tired from her long day but stubbornly unwilling to show how much effort it costs her to care for Shonali. The moment Meghna's head hits the pillow, she's gone, her breathing slow and even.
Shonali lies next to her in bed and watches, not daring to move a single inch. Meghna is still beautiful and Shonali has always appreciated beauty. For so long, it was her own beauty, her own power, that she appreciated the most. She knows Meghna used to be the same. But harsh realities and the passage of time has changed them both. Shonali sees the woman lying next to her and her mind wanders to moments passed. Opportunities wasted. A slap to the face in a club. Oh, how the past wrings her heart so.
When Shonali finally reaches across the gap and takes Meghna's hand, Meghna murmurs something unintelligible and scoots closer to Shonali. Only then, safe in Meghna's arms, can Shonali quiet the dark thoughts racing through her mind and fall asleep.
- - -
Shonali wishes she wasn't so useless, such a dead weight. Maybe then, things would be okay between Meghna and Janet.
She sees the way Janet looks at her. She's not as trusting as Meghna. Shonali cannot blame her; only Meghna understands what kind of trials she has gone through. Shonali does not expect someone with a successful life like Janet to understand the pain and anger that still threatens to rip her mind apart when she's feeling desperate and claustrophobic.
One afternoon, Meghna is out with Rohit and it happens again. The sensation ripples across Shonali's skin and she crouches in the corner of their bed, willing the temptation to go away. I won't go back to my old ways. I won't let Meghna down, not when she believes in me. If I fall, it'll break her heart.
When she usually feels this way, it's late at night and Meghna is there to comfort her. But it's been getting worse lately. Shonali needs to talk to someone, anyone.
She creeps out of the room, feeling awkward and invisible in her t-shirt and leggings. Janet is sitting on the couch and Shonali sits down next to her without invitation. But Janet does not frown or object. Instead, her forehead creases with worry.
"Shonali? Are you okay?" Janet is wearing a green tunic with black capris. The tunic is adorned with silver thread that weaves across the collar like shining rivers across the deepest jungle.
Shonali stares at the shirt. "When I was a kid, I used to write poetry. I was good too."
Janet seems startled, unable to respond. "You? A poet?"
"Yes." She replies simply. "I can't anymore. If I could, I'd write something for Meghna."
Janet looks at her strangely but Shonali doesn't care. There's a bird sitting in the tree outside the window, bright yellow and hopping from one branch to another.
Janet's voice is quiet. "She means a lot to you, doesn't she?" When Shonali doesn't reply, Janet continues. "I still remember that toast you gave at my wedding."
Shonali turns back to Janet, a blank look on her face. "What toast?"
"Pagali, you were so drunk you forgot my name." Janet shakes her head and laughs indulgently; Shonali feels suddenly at ease, the sharp pain of temptation seeping out of her pores. There is nothing but forgiveness in Janet's tone.
"I'm sorry if I ruined your wedding." Shonali musters every bit of sincerity she can find, wondering how her dull words could ever atone for all the wrongs she's committed.
"It's okay. That was a long time ago." Janet innocently brushes a curl of Shonali's hair back, but Shonali knows the gesture is anything but innocent.
"You were right, Janet. Meghna means a lot to me." Shonali wills herself to look Janet in the eye, unwavering, grasping at the woman she used to be.
Janet's smile is understanding as she runs her thumb across Shonali's cheek. "She means a lot to me too."
Meghna comes home that night to find Shonali sleeping, but there's a familiar perfume in the air. Janet's perfume. She never says anything but there's a quiet understanding between the three of them now. The poor girl is married to man who will never satisfy her needs, after all. What kind of justice is that?
- - -
The roads stretch on forever, twisted and dizzying. They dance across her eyes and taunt her. What is she doing here? Is this what she really wanted?
Will Meghna and Janet ever forgive her?
Shonali sees the darkness creeping closer, anxious to suffocate and shut her down. Shame courses through her veins, mingling with the cocaine. I'm such a horrible person, I'm a fucking failure of a human being. She had held out so long without her temptation, holding fast to her desire to make Meghna proud. I'm the one who told her to the show too. She's doing it for me at this very moment. And yet, it was not enough. Even Janet's trust and Meghna's love was not enough to save Shonali when the familiar sensation returned, crawling through her skin and shaking her bones, clamouring for one last taste, one final hit.
It's been so long and she's forgotten what it felt like. But it's not the same anymore and the sensation scares her. Where is she? What is she doing here? Shonali runs through hollow streets where her gasps for help go unanswered. The world spins and she spins with it, a final pirouette before it all comes crashing down.
Shonali clutches at the ground, her heart racing and eyes drawing shut without protest. A nightingale sings in the distance, solitary and proud, and as her heart begins to slow Shonali writes poetry in her mind.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - end - - - - - - - - - - - - - -