A: Aunty Missives, Arch Rivals and Aches
Paula wondered at how genuine stupidity could be couched in so many veneers and layers. She cowered in a corner not wanting any more wishing missives coming her way, silently invoking all the gods on the pantheon, cutt ing across various religious lines, hoping that the lift wouldn’t stop till it hit the ground.
It didn’t! ‘Oh yes! It is indeed my lucky day. For once the daily rags have predicted my immediate future correctly. All I need to do is to send my fervent wishes out there into the universe.’ Paula preened.
But gods could never be counted upon to be in your team, ever! You cannot be too sure if they are not having fun at your expense, putt ing you through the ringer and watching the show, 70mm, from the pristine worlds above.
Before she could heave a sigh of relief, Paula saw Mrs. Meddlesome rolling in purposefully. Everyone quickly bolted seeing her, except Paula, no thanks to her sky-high
heels. Mrs. Meddlesome seemed to have discovered the colour fuchsia, with a veritable vengeance. The various hues of that vivid purplish-red colour seemed to cohabit,
in conjunction and in collision, all at the same time, on her very vast canvas. Mrs. Meddlesome overfl owed the tiny lift cubicle and a heady concoction of roasted garlic
and fake Davidoff emanated from her gigantic, bulbous biceps as she crowded Paula.
The unwritten rule of that land was, when Mrs. Meddlesome talked, one stayed put and listened. There was no way of any wriggling out ever!
Oh yes! Mrs. Meddlesome made sure of that.
‘Oh Padma Luxmi! So good to see you! Thank God for these lifts! At least this way, we bump into fellow residents. But we hardly see you around these days. Must be coming back very late in the night, no? Naughty, naughty! These are the perks to be enjoyed to the fullest, when there is no one around to control, eh? What is this by the way? Still all by yourself? Really dear? Oh oh! On the flip side, that means we can disturb you, whenever we want to, right? But seriously, you have to do something about
that Being-All-Alone situation of yours, honey! You aren’t exactly a spring chicken, are you? Bio-clock is ticking! Tick tock tick tock.’
‘OMG! OMG! What have I done to deserve this! Dear Lord, do have mercy on me. For once please. . . .’ Paula prayed as she feared she might burst a vein in pain.
Mrs. Meddlesome continued unabated. It was obvious she was in love with her shrilly solid sermons, whether one welcomed it or not!
‘Anyway, I wanted to come over to your house. I had to invite you for this Shani pooja. This Saturday, you know! You must come. I don’t know how you will manage
though. We have the aarti scheduled at 8 am. That must be early morning for you, no? What to do? Gods are happy at those hours. And we have to milk that hoping
for indulgence. But I am not taking a “No” for an answer. You know me! Wait! Are you going for a party? Now? Isn’t it too late? That too like this? Aren’t you inviting trouble
unnecessarily? Don’t you read the papers, screaming blue murder? By God! I must say, the girls are wearing real short these days, aren’t they? My Nammo doesn’t wear
all this. . .you know. . .we hate this overflowing skin show. We brought her up real decent. It is all about respecting and following our sanskaars, you see! We must not put everything out there for display! Something should be left for imagination, you know. . .’ Mrs. Meddlesome
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, do I look like the puja-prashad types? What ridiculous rambling is that? And that horrible name—Padma Luxmi! I thought that was history! Who still calls me that anymore? This weird woman is an uncontrollable monster, bull-dozing into my personal space. She needs to be locked up ASAP...in the name of public service.’
Paula’s train of thought was rudely broken by the attendant’s meek butting in.
‘Ma’am, we are on the ground floor.’
‘So?’ Paula growled at the poor unwitting fellow.
‘Nothing! I thought you wanted to go out. Many people are waiting already to use the lift. So, you both can step out and continue talking.’
The attendant, though the saviour, it was obvious, was pretty slow on the uptake.
Paula waved a hurried goodbye and walked out swiftly before that nosey parker Mrs. Meddlesome could press ahead about her pooja and all the assorted, festering
sanskaari issues thanks to her rather limited mental horizons.
‘Must remember to give that bloody lift fellow a negative rating in his next review. Silly goose, getting too big for his boots! Imagine advising me!’ Paula muttered angrily as
she signalled to the driver to get the car, told him the destination and immediately updated her social media status.
‘No one is going to spoil my awesome mood today. Anger brings out the unwanted wrinkles!’ She then did quick rounds of inhale and exhale, to get the good oxygen in and settled into her seat.
‘On my way! Ah the good life! Feeling very, very excited!’ She added a few double hashtags for good measure. Oh, this heady, happening, online life!
Paula was the head event manager in a publicity company. She was incharge of the launch of the latest magic potion—a one-stop solution for all niggling facial issues, to keep those hideous wrinkles away—at a hip, trendy downtown party. The party was at a suburban five-star hotel, in a banquet hall, by the pool and its surrounding lawns. A leading light of the marquee, Reva, was expected to be the guest of honour. They were supposed to circulate, look pretty and do lots of happy-snappies. Page-three
was ready and waiting.
As is usual, Paula did a quick retina scan before she stepped out. Not that she liked doing that but she could never stop herself from doing so. Who knows, what last
minute touch-ups were needed?
‘Don’t be nervous, honey! You look smashing. Isn’t that what everyone says?’
This day, she was satisfied with what she saw, but still had a silent prayer on her lips.
‘But what is new in looking good really? As true as sunrise, isn’t it? Don’t fret. You are going to rock this show.’ Paula pumped herself.
Oh-oh! Did she catch that driver smirking at her again?
‘Bloody, leering lech! Definitely no Diwali bonus for him too, this year for sure! Must fire him, as soon as I find a better one.’
Paula stepped out gingerly but the confident mask was back, bang on, in a split second. A veteran was at work. She strutted in like a diva and bumped into Reah
A vexed sigh escaped her lips. ‘I work so hard at the gym, trying to knock off the ever increasing cellulite. I literally live on air. I haven’t had carbs for a week.’
Paula became jittery and extremely unsure for a second.
‘I rummage through glossies and keep myself abreast with the latest jargons and trends. It is getting increasingly difficult for me to do this every single day.’
Paula gave a withering look to the young lady while Reah tucked in an errant lock behind her ear.
‘Yet, in here, they get these younger, leaner, meaner staff by the minute. Oh Lord, she looks so divine, I could kill her. I could kill her now....’
Reah had worn a red, clingy gown with a plunging neckline, which accentuated her comely figure. An emerald neckpiece was her statement jewellery. She had pinned her
hair into a chignon and done her face up in a dramatic fashion.
‘. . .with my piercing looks, definitely, oh hell, just maybe! If only my thoughts could become actions!’
Reah’s ravishing looks had stumped Paula, upset her rhythm.
Paula’s mojo or her USP was her soaring self-confidence which Reah had punctured big time, in a split second.
But pretty Paula had an ace up her sleeve. The guest of the day was an old friend of hers—Reva—a jumpy, scatterbrained screen scorcher. She would definitely need Paula’s deft handling and calming presence to get through the stressful, starlit evening ahead. Reah was a babe in the woods really when it came to handling supernovas. Paula was the master of this game. She did this daily and with dozens.
Reah half-smiled at her senior, hoping to get a favourable response. Paula gave an acidic smile and waved her waxed hand across the length of Reah’s petite frame.
‘Highly relieved that you have managed to get all cleaned up, Reah! Else the promoters would have questioned our firm’s veracity and our ability to push their tepid stuff, down the consumers’ throat. You know, “if you can’t keep your own minions in line or in shape, what good are you to us” wala questions that pop into the paying heads?’
Reah let that snub ride. ‘Thank you, Paulaji. You are the perfect example really, of the fashion faux pas the golden oldies commit, just to pass off as the younger versions.
I can easily tell my mom now, what not to do.’
‘Oh grow up, midget! Literally and figuratively! Before you can look me in the eye and utter a single syllable. Do give your mom my heartfelt commiserations on the
terrible job she has done with you!’ Paula was at her sarcastic best.
Reah wasn’t going to stop. ‘Okay Paulaji! But don’t you know all great things come in small packages? Do you want to stretch the matter? I’m game!’
‘You are a small “case”, honey! Unlike you, I have better things to do. By the way, do make sure, you give your hundred percent attention as the events unfold. Who
knows? You may end up learning something! Wonders never cease! Also don’t let your juvenile friends gatecrash! The entrance into the party is by invite only. So there!’
Paula then ignored a huffing Reah brutally and walked ahead into the party.
The Head of Operations, Dushyant Sharma, who was popularly known as Ditto, spotted Paula, waved heartily and then almost immediately gave the two-finger signal,
to meet him.
Paula, who was happily waving back, froze at the two-finger signal.
‘Oh that scary two-finger signal! This means a sanctimonious sermon is on the anvil. Each time, he signalled so, he had something terrible to say. Very ominous! Definitely no glad tidings here! Oh Paula, what are you going to do now? Breathe, Paula, breathe! Na! He wouldn’t do anything silly. Not in public!’
Paula smoothened her dress and started moving towards Ditto.
Ditto, it was obvious, disliked any sort of facial hair. He was clean-shaven. His round, bald pate shone brilliantly in the strobe lights like a giant dome. With his white suit,
shining tan slip-ons, thick chain and huge golden watch, he made a dashing contrast to Reah.
‘Looking great, Paula! All things are in place too, shipshape. Listen, there is a slight change in the way this evening will pan out. Reah will do the introductions, all the talking, the PR. You look after the food, the music. Make sure that the drinks are flowing. Drown the people who matter, in their favourite poison. We want great reviews in the rags tomorrow, remember? That’s what the brand is paying us big monies for. The eyeballs! Yeah, one more thing! Reah will also be doing photos with Reva.’
‘Whoa! Whoa! Wha. . .what? Did I just hear that correct? Did you just say Reah? But why in heaven’s name, Ditto?
Reah is a newbie, still wet behind the ears. She will botch this up for sure, in her eagerness to please you! Do we need or want that, having worked so hard on this
campaign for so long? We need class not crass. Finesse is the keyword here. I have done this routine always and Reva is an old friend. She will need me and will be far
more comfortable with me around. And. . .’
Ditto cut her short.
‘It was Reva who had requested for Reah! Rather insisted. Pretty strongly, I might add!’
‘I don’t believe it. You are just pushing your favourite Reah, that raw kid on the block, down everyone’s throat. Just because you have the hots for her, don’t expect others
to feel the same way! I think you. . .’
‘Listen, Paula! That’s enough. That is an unfair allegation and you know that. You are pushing on in years and you aren’t definitely getting any younger. This fancy hairdo, this patina of pancake, the body shapers or the clingy dress might have knocked years off you. But up close, your eyes and the crow’s feet around them, give away the truth. There is no novelty left! Half the time, the cameraman is wondering about your good angles and searching for soft lights so that the end picture doesn’t get the unwanted focus.’
Ditto paused for a minute. Maybe he felt he was being too harsh on Paula. After all, they did go a long way, having worked together for so many years.
‘Paula, younger Reah photographs better and you look. . .so tired. Plus the brand needed a fresh face and interface. Nothing personal here, you know! It is all about
better business sense, honey! I have to look after my end of the deal too. Can’t have the board of directors taking my case for pitching in for you again, can I? Not when
there is a younger and better option available!’
Ditto stopped his tirade for a second to take a gigantic swig of his drink. Paula felt she could faint any moment.
‘Huh!. . .Reah photographs better, Ditto? Eh? Gosh, now I have heard everything! I don’t agree to your ludicrous notion, not even a bit, Ditto. Ouch, that really hurt! You
are mean! How can you even compare this face and this visage to that? Who looks like something that a stray cat has brought in? Whoa! Bro! Maybe new prescription glasses are in the offing, for you! I think your new favourite is giving you a jaundiced vision! And the board of directors? Ah! They love me, really! Don’t they? Why are you
shaking your head like that? Why this frown, Ditto? Tell me they do!’
‘Wake up and smell the coffee, Babes! This is happening and you need to get used to it. You have to understand that Reah knows the pulse and has always kept the audience in splits. Your acts, your jokes are kind of getting stale and repetitive, Doll! They were once novel. Not any longer. Most often you barely manage to get a chuckle out. Reah plays around with the audience. They are like this soft putty in her hands. You had that magic, Hon! Once upon a time. You have lost it. That makes you a has-been. This ship has sailed. A while back. Only you haven’t realised it yet, while the rest of us have! Already!’
Ditto was flailing his arms like a panicky flapping penguin to get his point across. Paula wanted to laugh at this ghastly yet amusing sight but really, this terrible joke was on her.
Teary eyed, Paula slumped into the nearest chair.
After dishing it out so disdainfully, Ditto then chose to hug Paula. Maybe to redeem the awful situation.
‘You are getting soft, Sweets. Toughen up. Take a break. Figure out stuff. Ramp up your act. See how the young guns are doing it. There will be many more events.
You know that, don’t you, honey? Come back with a bang, for the next one or the one after that may be. But definitely not this one! Not happening! Get that clear,
Paula could feel the tears welling up, real quick. She quickly gulped down a glass of ‘Whatever’ from the tray proffered by the passing waiter and turned away from
Ditto as she did not want him to see her tears.
She still had her pride. Very much, thank you.
It didn’t matter what she felt or thought. Dagger-Man Ditto had forgotten all about her and was already at the dance floor doing the happy dance with the grooving ladies. ‘The downhill—had it started? What I had done to others, has it come to haunt me already? Is karma really a bitch, coming back to bite your butt? That too when you least
expect it to?’
Paula covered her face with her hands, muffling her sobs.
‘How many times had I upstaged the reigning queen bees, stealing the thunder from right under their unsuspecting noses? I was all over them, demanding my right to be counted.’
Paula grabbed a tissue, dabbed at her starkly kohled eyes, taking care not to smudge her mascara.
‘Some protested, some didn’t. Some challenged, some threatened and some meekly acquiesced. But they all walked quietly into sunset, alright! I made them!’
The memorable evening that Paula was hoping for, was soon turning into a scarring nightmare.
‘Now is it my turn? A raw, greenhorn that I had taken under my wing, tutored and mentored, now threatens, to upstage ME! The mentee wants to be the new mentor! Cannot even count on the referee to play fair. Imagine that!’
The sobs turned to pure anger now as Paula tore up the tissues with vengeance and threw them around. A waiter came running to clean up the debris and give Paula fresh stock of tissues.
She thought she was amongst friends but the hideous freeloaders, the fake-smilers, the air-kissers—everyone and everything seemed to be closing in on Paula, nauseating her, suffocating her.
Her head was spinning with debilitating thoughts.
‘Has life turned turtle viciously and vengefully? Has life come full circle? Maybe, as Ditto points out, I’m a has-been, a spent force! I am finished. I am finished! I am finished?’
Trying to gather her wits, she looked at the star of the day, Reva and Ditto’s brand new protégé, Reah.
Reah and Reva looked like they were joined at the hips with a Fevicol bond and everyone loved it. Shutterbugs were having a field day, concentrating on their juvenile antics—pouting, preening, duck-facing, hugging and silly dancing—heck, those were her trademark tools. The ones that made her, the adorable darling of the fawning audience. She could show those infants, how it is really done. They could learn a trick or two from a pro. Bloody social wannabes!
Brushing her self-respect aside, Paula got up and walked up to the freshly minted bosom buddies and tried to horse around with them. Made some inane jokes, did
‘Reah! Reva! My two dear friends! Look at you both shimmy. You forgot all about me. But I haven’t! Not for nothing, they call me Ms Elephantine Memory! Now, let
us together, set this floor on fire.’
Reva got busy examining her fiery red toe-nails while Reah cough-laughed.
Paula was stung by their pointed snubs. ‘Oops. . . I get it. I get it! Guess what Reah, you are now the star of this. . .this. . . jhingalala. I know, Reva wants you. She has
all but discarded her old friend, the one without whom, she couldn’t get by in the past, even for a second! Now she pretends, she doesn’t even know me. You may be the
queen of the moment, honey, but remember, the sluttish time does scar us all. No one remembers the insane hours you put in, the great work you did! Only, “Being Young”
matters! Time! Can you hold on to that illusion? Can you remain the same, forever? Youthful and beautiful? Huh? Mark my words, dear! Cruel time will do the same to you
too, I promise! A has-been! So, make the most of it, right now! While you still have the ephemeral bloom! Take it from an old pro. One more bit of priceless but free advice.
Write it down somewhere, lest you forget, giddy as you are with blinding starlight!’
Reah and Reva deigned to indulge Paula’s pathetic efforts at rebonding.
‘Paula, I think you had one too many. Maybe it is time you head home, before you say something real nasty and burn all the bridges.’ Reva tried to be gentle while
Reah smirked. Paula put her cold hands on Reva’s bare shoulders.
‘Nasty? No, darling, I will just indulge in plain-speak. Just as everyone around here is doing. Nopes, the party has just started. Stop smirking, Reah, show me what
you’ve got! And nobody, I repeat, nobody tells me when and where to go? Get it?’ Paula tried to drag the visibly reluctant ladies onto the floor. The nosey shutterbugs
arrived. Both Reah and Reva tried to look sufficiently stricken but couldn’t help sniggering when the moron of a photographer said in a tone loud enough to drown that
yo-yoish chartbuster to Paula:
‘Behenji, please move to the side. My pictures are getting spoilt. I need these two beautiful, young ladies in the same frame.’
Paula hoped the ground beneath her would split open and swallow her. It was horrifying, this fall from grace. Acquaintances and juniors started giving her those pitiful,
knowing, tch-tch-tried-too-hard-and-failed-miserably type looks.
Some quickly sensed the power shift and stuck to Reah (who spelt her name that way, yeah?). Same was the story with that Yes-Man Ditto. He pretended Paula
didn’t exist anymore.
She wanted to run away.
From a Queen Bee to a Has-Been, in a matter of minutes.
Didn’t Ditto realise that, once she fell off that lofty pedestal, there was no coming back? She could never be the star again as she was demoted so very publicly.
Or could she?
What hope did she have?
Paula moved away with her chin touching the round.
‘Maybe I need to kick-start my game. It is time I went totally radical by ditching that Done-to-Death darzi and that fuddy-duddy hairstylist! I should spend some time info-trawling and actually reading and assimilating.’
As Paula moved away from the hall, to the lawns in turmoil, she never noticed a wet patch of earth, right in front. The pointed tips of her stilettos sank deep. As she
staggered, out of balance, someone held on to her, not letting her fall.
The same well-dressed someone took her hand and walked her to the open bar. She meekly followed while she sorted her conflicting thoughts. Paula sat on an empty
stool, unable to register much. The bartender offered her a tall glass of a cocktail drink. Paula, on a whim, emptied the contents on the grass, looked at the empty glass intently, threw it down with venom, and cursed loudly.
‘But is this all really worth the effort? I cannot compete with that bimbo Reah. Cannot stoop to her level. I am way above! Why did you do this to me, Ditto? After all I did for you! I gave my best years to you! I thought you were my pal. Not this dagger-man!’
Before the angry bartender could say something nasty to Paula, the same gentleman slipped a note. The bartender pocketed it quickly and went back grinning. The same
man offered a fresh lime soda to a tearful and oblivious Paula and followed it with some fresh tissues.
‘No! No way, am I giving up this fight so easily. I’m not a walkover. Ditto, you don’t know me! I’m not finished yet. Not until I say so. Not until I give up. I’m steel! A steel magnolia! And steel doesn’t break so easily. I will be back and how! Just you wait!’
Paula banged the counter to pump herself. She waved to the bartender and asked for tequila shots. She quickly downed a couple of them to soothe herself and decided
to head home to recoup, rethink and revise her battle strategy. For, a correct strategy is everything—to find the silver linings on dark clouds. She got up with an angry
jerk, demanded a glass of red wine from the unwilling bartender, raised a toast to herself and walked ahead gingerly, muttering expletives. . .only to bump into the
same well-dressed gentleman and dropping the wine all over.
‘Bloody hell! This is Coco Chanel for God’s sake! Can’t you see where you are headed? Oh good Lord! My Jimmy Choos are ruined too. Do you have any idea of how much these cost?’
The gentleman began to apologise.
‘Forget it!’ Paula hissed. ‘See a lonely, good-looking girl, every bloke worth half a dime wants to try his luck! Sorry Mister Clumsy! You think you are a smooth
charmer, eh? Just not interested. And I will be sending you the dry-cleaners’ bill. Might cost you a month’s salary. Start fasting. Get used to the hunger! Mind you, hunger
and death are the only constants!’
The gentleman offered tissues to tab at the wine spots.
Paula continued to whine. ‘There is no justice in this world. Did I deserve this, huh? Here I am, dabbing at this wine stain, giving you free gyaan, whereas I should have
been the one being chased for pictures! The queen of this silly evening! Roll of dice, really! One day you have it all, the other day you are zilch! By the way, why am I even
talking to you? Give me your address. You will pay for this, mister! You will all pay for this. I promise you that much.’ Paula was waving her hands, snapping her fingers,
dropping the tissues, all to make a spectacular point!
In her agitated state, Paula never noticed that her dress had a tiny blotch whereas she had managed to completely spoil the gentleman’s ash-blue, dapper jacket. She then staggered to the exit gates, brushing away the man who offered to walk her till her car.
Her full-of-effort, ‘cheerful’ goodbyes were hardly returned.
Nobody minded that she was leaving. Hardly anyone noticed, in fact.
Except for one person who had seen it all, the same one who held her to steady her gait, walked her to the bar and gave Paula her drinks. Who held her when she
was about to fall. Who listened to her rant against all, without saying a word.
And just like that it was all over.
Fame is indeed a fickle friend.
Muffling a sob, Paula quickly exited and kept at the dial button, calling the driver.
The driver summoned ultra urgently thus, had to forego his free booze and biryani. He showed his displeasure on the hapless co-travellers on the road, drove like a maniac, somehow managing to bring Paula home safely in a single, unmangled piece. Definitely off her gift list from now on, Paula thought indignantly as she waved him away and staggered to her pad.
Cursing Ditto, who didn’t even give her the courtesy of a private demotion, after all those glorious and profitable years together, she raided her refrigerator almost viciously
as she needed some fuel to think straight. Plucked out whatever her hands touched, microwaved the said grub and plonked into a beanbag and started attacking her
A spoonful and she grimaced.
‘Mango dal? Again? Really! Gimme a break!’
She pushed the plate away and started sobbing bitterly.
Mango dal had always been synonymous with Amma, her bitter-sweet relationship with her parents, her naïve childhood.
How simplistic life was once, compared to the shenanigans she faced now, on a daily basis!
Yet, all she wanted to do while she grew up, was to break the mould, never did she want to fit in.
Paula was Padma Luxmi then.
Mango dal and Amma always resulted in battles plenty.
Mango dal for lunch was de rigueur.
The old, familiar, picky yet comforting memories came in buzzing, lulling Paula into deep slumber. . . .