I don’t usually talk about Ali, except for to say, “Oh, I used to know a guy who went to the Delhi British School,” or “Your name is Mohammad too?” His name was Mohammad- Mohammad Saqawat Akhtar. “It’s a very rare name,” he had said. But Jahaan kept calling him “Abdullah,” I don’t know why. He said he’d rather be called “Ali Baba.” I might have missed the sarcasm there, but forever afterward, Ali he was.
“Don’t call me Mohammad,” he would say, “I get scared when you do. It means you’re serious.”
The first time I saw him, I uttered a distracted “Hi,” to him because I was too caught up in telling Jahaan how Anushree had slapped and dumped her boyfriend standing smack in the middle of Forum Mall. “Are you Adiba’s cousin?” I had asked him disinterestedly. “Ya,” he had replied. He didn’t even know who Adiba was. “Emni boledilo,” as Jahaan had commented.
Ali could do many “weird” things. That was the word he had used, “What other weird things can you do?” he had asked me. He could frown with one eyebrow, twitch his ears, dislocate his thumb from the socket, roll his tongue and cry at will.
It’s not like he hadn’t done it before the time he did it in the Atrium. Jahaan would not finish her chocolate fudge, he said he would make her regret it. Tears glistened down. “See, I’m a selfish bitch. I won’t feel guilty for not eating it if you cry, ok!” Jahaan had asserted. She had surreptitiously slipped the last piece of fudge into her mouth before we left and stated in the elevator, “Just for the records, I wouldn’t have regretted it.”
“I know how you do it,” Jenna, Jahaan’s younger sister, had chirped in the car, “You just stare at bright light without blinking, don’t you?”
“No, that only makes your eyes red, it doesn’t bring out the tears,” Ali had said quietly.
I guess it had seemed so devastating because Ali had said it so matter of factly, in the middle of a story of a school fight, “I used to have a sister. She died of spinal cancer, and so this guy decided to play a joke about how she was a cripple. And he was asking for the punch…” like someone would say, “I used to have a teddy bear when I was five.” A teddy bear- an unimportant non-living entity, yet around which a five year old world revolves.
“Ali? How tall is he? Does he have abs? Bolo na!” Tanya, my sister, cribbed. Not her fault. She was used to me telling her about all the guys in my life- describing their physical stature and actions in great detail, until she became infatuated with them without ever having seen them even. But Ali wasn’t a guy in my life. He was Jahaan’s. I feared that by talking about Ali would categorise him with the Aryans and the Amans ; that he would somehow cease being magical.
We were sitting in Barista, laughing over a cheesy article in Cosmopolitan, “45 Magical Ways to Cuddle.” “Ok, listen to this, listen to this,” Ali said excitedly, then recited, “Put your tongue inside your partner’s nose and…” (dramatic silence) “…wiggle it!” I laughed so hard I had tears squeezing out of my eyes. Wiping them away I asked, “How old was she when she died?”
Wiping away his own tears, he stated, “Eight.”
“Four years ago?” He nodded. He had a three year old brother, “Kochi,” Ali called him. Ali was pretending to read the rest of the Cosmo article, staring at the butterflies in the border. Only his parents had gotten over it with Kochi.
It wasn’t that Ali didn’t love Kochi. He loved Kochi enough to make him worldly wise, “Kochi, say ‘fuck off’ to bhaiya there. F-u-c-k o-f-f.” Kochi refused. “Too difficult? Ok, then say ‘shit.’ Yeah! That’s right! Sh-ee-t!”
“Shit Trina! Listen to me!” Dr. Nandan said, chucking a piece of chalk that hit bull’s eye on my head drooping onto the desk. “Yes, as I was saying, we are socially programmed beings. The smell of soya-sauce means Chinese food to us because coincidentally at some point in history the Chinese decided to use soya-sauce in their culinary. If, as a matter of chance, the Indians had chosen to use soya-sauce, its smell would mean Indian food to us. There’s nothing ‘Chinese’ about the smell of soya-sauce itself. It’s like,” he hesitated, searching for a more personal example, “I always associate the smell of ghee melting n dal with my mother. Similarly we associate colours like red…” And my mind wandered off again.
“Oh shit,” he mumbled embarrassedly when the deodorant can had fallen out if his pocket while getting out of the car- my first exposure to the smell that would always means ‘Ali.’ Whoever used it: Papa (no, he’s too spoilt to use Park Avenue), maybe Shom or Gaurav or the other million indiscriminate guy, men… that smell would always mean ‘Ali.’
Jahaan got to keep his deo when he left. She traded it for her painting- a replica out of Picasso’s Blue Period. Jahaan would smell it and burst into tears. I never understood why. It always made me smile.
With a telling smile I quenched my sister’s curiosity, “He used Park Avenue deo.”
“And…?” And I was quiet.. “What? That’s it? Park Avenue. Fine, whatever!” she said exasperatedly, dismissing Ali’s identity as an insignificant detail.
“Ali, you have a horrendous sense of dressing!” I had screamed at him.
“He has NO sense of dressing,” Jahaan grunted, giving disapproving looks to his royal blue shirt with a brown dragon on it.
“Probably why Malvika chose to go out with my best friend over me,” Ali said, making a joke out of it and moving on. “You know, I probably looked good just once in my life,” he continued in the car. “On my twelfth birthday when my sister picked my clothes for me. Maybe if she’d been around I wouldn’t have worn an orange tie with Bugs Bunny on it to my Prom night!” We burst out laughing so hard that Bhaiya screeched the brakes on out of fright.
He had been in love with Malvika for three years. How much love is that? How much hurt? How much pain?
No, I don’t usually talk about Ali. But Tanya is doing method acting in her drama classes and she wants to know how to cry at will. I will tell her that staring unblinkingly at bright light doesn’t make you cry. It just makes your eyes red. “Think about a sad memory, something so painful that even its distant memory aches,” I tell Tanya.
“Yes, I just think about a painful memory,” Ali had said. “I have that many.”