fiction by Meera Nair
First published in the Tishman Review, October 2019 issue
Shah Rukh Khan, surely the greatest actor in the world, is dying. His white kurta-clad body arranged on pristine sheets, his ex-girlfriend, and now best friend’s wife, bereft and broken beside him. He’s been dying for a while. Cancer, that villain, is metaphorically laughing in a loud, boastful way, shooting off celebratory bullets and strutting around the room, but Khan will fight on for minutes more — thirty brave, beautiful minutes more to be precise.
In the audience, Vijay closed his eyes. He had seen the film 45 times.
He knew the rhythm of Khan’s breathing, the soft, regretful expression that will soon well up in the actor’s eyes, every word in the sentences that Khan will haltingly deliver.
Goodbye, goodbye, exquisite world!
Every shining inch of Khan’s smooth handsome face radiates love toward the mourners gathered around his bed, their faces wet and doughy with grief. There’s Khan’s ex-girlfriend (bloody bitch!) and his best friend. Also the widowed aunty, the precocious lisping eight-year-old girl holding a rose, the thin neighbor-lady Khan has teasingly named Sexy (not!), bit actors all. Soon Khan will lift his splendid chin up slowly, so slowly, so that his vast forgiving love can beam past the gathered mourners around his bed and out into the wide world until eventually that love beacon will find even him―Vijay, part-time cleaner, samosa+chai seller, ticket booth attendant, bathroom checker, and general run-around fellow, sitting in the dark in Eagle Cinema, Jackson Heights, Queens, 7000 miles away from Mumbai and Bollywood, with his face raised to the screen’s holy light.
Around him the matinee crowd sipped chai and crunched the samosas that Vijay, doing double duty as cafe-operator, had sold earlier in the lobby along with their tickets. He hated that in America audiences eat right through the film. Still, the smell of fried potatoes and sweet brewed tea made Vijay ‘s eyes prickle in anticipation, his throat tighten with that delicious familiar ache. He would like to sink down into the seat and let the movie play to its heartbreaking finale.
Had Shah Rukh Khan ever talked about this film to Ashok? He imagined one night after a long shoot, the star turning away from his own face in the mirror: “I loved shooting the scenes set in New York. That city’s da bomb!” he’d have said, to Ashok hovering in the background. Or something cool like that. Vijay wished he could email Ashok to ask if Shah Rukh had ever mentioned the film. But Ashok didn’t exist on the internet –Vijay’s searches had come up with nothing.
A guy, squat and wide, brushed past Vijay’s knees headed for the restroom. The soft contact irritated him, reminded him that here in America there was no civilized ritual called intermission. A three-hour movie, and it had to be played straight through! Why make patrons choose between peeing and forfeiting minutes of the film they paid fourteen dollars to see?
Back home, the film paused at the height of the crisis, at the absolute zenith of tension, and everyone spilled out into the harsh light of the lobby still reeling, blinking and disoriented in line at the bathroom. The men, even the gay ones, made loud, obscene jokes about the heroine. What a piece, they said, what a piece!
There was always the next show.
Vijay bounded out of his chair and said excuse me excuse me pair hatao, move your feet sir, and bolted out the exit door into the cool emptiness of the corridors. He checked on the bathroom sinks. No one had spat tobacco juice on to the porcelain, at least not yet. It was the desis who were fresh off the boat and didn’t know better, who did it every time. He should be used to his countrymen by now, but the stains still felt like an insult, a sullying.
“What’ll you do now?” the cleaner, Pat, emerged out of the shadows making him jump. His hand closed over the matchbox in his pocket in nervous reaction. “Go home? Back to India?” The old Irish woman bobbled her head, unsmiling, her exaggerated Indian accent hammier and more grating than ever.
Go home. Go back. The shape and sound of the words fell into his stomach like stones.
“You can go home after the matinee lets out. No need for you to stay,” he told Pat. “I’ll close up after the late show crowd,” he said. He planned to clean the theater one last time, leave it sparkling.
He’d never made the mistake of telling Pat that he had no papers, not even that lonely Christmas eve, when she let him smoke her weed and lay his head on her rock-hard breasts.
“More like the last show crowd!” she crowed sourly at her own joke. She was enormous, broad-shouldered and thick-thighed.
Three days ago, when their boss, Hari Kumar, had told her the news that he was closing down Eagle Cinema, Pat’s face had flushed red. Vijay could hear the breath she drew, the air wheezing into her chest. “15 years. I gave you 15 years,” she said. “You bastard.”
“No, no. I’m helpless. What to do?” Hari tried to soothe her. Perhaps he too had heard the rumors that Pat had once been in prison for beating her husband. Vijay’s heart had sped up in anticipation of Pat taking a swing at their boss’s oily face. He stepped back behind a pillar so the boss wouldn’t be humiliated in front of his ticket-seller.
“All that fried chicken I brought you.” Pat’s big red chin creased and jittered.
Hari shrugged. “No profit, nothing. No people coming to see fillums, no money. No money means no salary. What I can do? God bless you, Patricia.” Hari spoke loudly as if Pat was the one who didn’t understand English. He was a short, perpetually sweaty guy, once upon a time from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. The fact that he could hardly string five words of English together hadn’t stopped him from acquiring three buildings in Jackson Heights, a curvy Hispanic wife, and a giant house in Hicksville, Queens, filled with calendars of every possible Hindu God.
The music swelled out of the open doors of the theater now. The naked bulbs, tucked up under the high roof, threw distorting shadows around Vijay and there was that feeling again, as if the dead white walls were drawing in, squeezing him out. He left Pat to her mutterings and slipped out the side door to go up to the roof, up the stairs and past the projection room, where a new projectionist, a black man with a struggling goatee, a college student perhaps, sat with his sockless Vans propped onto the table, munching carrot sticks from a bag.
“You like the movie?” Vijay asked him. “It was a mega hit in India. In Mumbai, some theaters play it every day for last 6 years.”
The projectionist shrugged. “Meh. I don’t get it, man. Just a bunch of melodrama. Love, death, betrayal…it’s all too much.” He shook his shaved head.
Vijay felt offended. He should have never asked this fool. “We Indians, we like to cry, okay. This film is what they call a three hanky movie. It’s very good.”
“Hey, so I just heard. What’s going to happen now to this place? I thought I’d found a gig that would last — this sucks ass, man.”
“Ask the boss.” Vijay said. “Also, he doesn’t like shoes on the table,” he lied. The projectionist, dejected, went back to his carrots. Vijay lingered in the projection room until the guy dropped his feet off with a soft thud. The reel spun around inching the viewers closer to the end.
Hari had informed Vijay that the theater was losing money two years ago. It would have to be sold soon, he said, but Vijay had pushed the threat out of his mind. Lying in the tiny basement bedroom he shared with a Hispanic guy who worked nights washing dishes at a famous restaurant in Manhattan, Vijay imagined a miracle buyer. A stranger who loved Hindi movies, careening expertly through the blinding rain in his red Audi, and (even as Hari, his hand shaking, slowly, excruciatingly, unscrewed the cap of the special gold fountain pen his secretary kept for such desperate signings) burst through the door with thousands of bills upon bills neatly stacked in his suitcase. “Stop,” the stranger would bellow, and launch into an oration about the sacredness of this cinema outpost and how the wide screen brought Indian values of family, love, sacrifice, the lush images of mothers cooking for their sons and daughters touching their in-laws’ feet, brother taking a bullet for brother — all that stuff, straight to the immigrant Indian masses, an intravenous infusion that kept them from growing thin and pale and their souls from disappearing under these alien gray skies. Hari would look ashamed and fall at the stranger’s feet and gratefully raise up in a trembling palm: the keys to Eagle Cinema.
In the real world there were rumors that the theater was going to turn into a Wendy’s.
Vijay thought of the smell of sizzling hamburger and ketchup permeating the orange walls, the screen being taken down, the marquee carted away. Soon there would be nothing left to show that Shah Rukh Khan’s most famous films had played here.
There had been days when sitting there in the dark with India clean and shiny on screen, and his countrymen around him laughing at the same familiar jokes and sniffling at the same sad scenes, Vijay forgot that he was stuck in this fucked-up lonely country. He felt a bursting love and pride, feelings that seeped out and let him forgive everyone, and everything, even Ashok, for letting him leave Mumbai by himself eight years ago.
The last part of the film flickered on the screen: Shah Rukh dying in a generic hospital room for the longest time. A set, stripped down to a bed, a door. Somewhere behind all that plywood and paint, would have been Ashok and his crew. Bringing the star his food, a cold towel, coming and going like efficient shadows.
He imagined an alternative film: Shah Rukh cancerless, happily married to the love of his life, settled in a house in Queens, like the big ones on 86th and 34th with the little garden in front. Happiness and more happiness. Who would want to watch that?
Vijay left the projection room and stepped out into the corridor. He loved being on the top floor under the building’s vaulted roof. The shiny orange paint on the angular columns set into the walls was peeling, but they still felt grand, as if he was in a palace. When he turned the lights off after a show, a pale square of sky welled up inside the skylight. He liked to stand under it and look up, and think of the sky above his village, his Raichura, and the stars that would crowd the glass if this theater and its skylight was somehow transported there.
The corridor led to the roof. He pushed open a heavy door and went out and peered over the low wall at the street below.
Outside Premier Internet Cafe, its proprietor, Kazi Muhammad, ignored the great evening stampede of people rushing past him. He stared into the glass of chai in his hand, like a poet into his wine, like Shah Rukh Khan in the film Devdas, a man forced to confront his shredded dreams every day. Kazi used to be a bank manager in Karachi and still had the bearing and the mustache of a man who made others grovel for money. As Vijay watched, Kazi set his glass down on a ledge, fumbled for a cigarette and flipped open his lighter. The flame sprang up, unwavering in Kazi’s hand. Vijay fingered the box of matches in his pocket, longing in empathy for a smoke, not a cigarette, but a rolled beedi. The day he taught Vijay how to smoke the mini-cigar, Ashok had snipped off the thread on the pack with his teeth and slipped the end, still damp from his mouth, between Vijay’s lips.
Vijay had emailed Shah Rukh Khan several times from Premier Internet Cafe. When he didn’t receive a reply, he had written an actual pen and ink letter to the most famous address in Mumbai: the film star’s home, the one Ashok reported to every morning. He had imagined Ashok’s fingers lightly resting on the envelope as he delivered the mail with Shah Rukh’s morning tea.
Ashok was from Raichura, Vijay’s village, situated a train ride away from Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus station. A place so dry and full of rocks and despair that the young people left as soon as they could for the city that whirled in the distance like a giant centrifuge, sucking able-bodied men and pretty women into its heart.
Ashok had been one of the first to be pulled away. Still, he’d come back to the village during the planting season to help his father with the farm, the style and stink of the city in his hair and clothes. Vijay had lived for the moment when Ashok stepped off the train.
One year Ashok had come back and said an actor called Shah Rukh Khan had hired him. Khan was younger then, starting out, just plain old Shahrukh without the fashionable space dividing his name. Stick-thin, with skin as smooth as a baby’s bottom, big eyes and big hair, and dimples any girl would kill for, the actor was in several TV serials, including one in which he’d played an earnest military commando full of camaraderie and nationalistic fervor.
That was before he started playing the ideal Non-Resident Indian, a winner no matter what he did. No windowless basement room with generations of cockroaches colonizing the sink for him. He was the kind of Indian-in-America who was always the boss at a glittering Manhattan ad agency or hedge fund, where he made enough money to drive a Lamborghini. Or he was the world’s most dutiful son, singing religious songs with his beloved aging mother at the ancient family temple back home in India, before eating his dal and roti flawlessly with his hands, then driving to the airport, a single tear slipping down his cheek. That’s how he had finally become King Khan, delivering hit after super-duper hit, a worldwide star worshipped from Berlin to Nairobi to Iraq.
In those first years, Ashok’s job was to serve the actor: tea, juice, the rotis that Khan’s wife, Gauri, in a rush of fresh honeymoon love, sent from home. Ashok polished the actor’s shoes, made sure the face towel, the Pepto Bismol, the umbrella, the clove to freshen his breath before a love scene, was ready at once, fatafat, no misses, no mishaps, no dropped sandwiches or appointments. Ashok’s job was to be invisible, a useful shadow, so that he would know, even before the actor stretched out his palm, what to place in it.
“I’ve become SRK’s mind, I’ve learned to know what he wants before he even thinks of it,” Ashok would boast, drunk on cheap rum that Vijay scored from a guy he knew who worked in a liquor store. Ashok had taken Vijay with him to Mumbai, found him a job, and let him stay in the room he shared with four others in far away Borivilli. When Vijay went to his night shift at the bucket factory, another man rented his bed.
On weekends, Ashok and Vijay found a quiet place outside the city at the end of the local Thane train line. They clambered up the rocks, still warm from the day’s heat, and sat up on the hill, looking down at the city’s softened silhouette steaming in the distance. Hardly anyone would be about, except maybe a goatherd or two, herding their scrawny, bleating animals off on the slopes.
They’d watch the city’s lights come on. One evening, Ashok raised his arm and held it up against the haze that was the night sky, and said: “See now even you can’t see me…I’m like vapor, transparent, you can see the stars through my skin.”
His arm fell on to Vijay’ s shoulders and because Ashok sounded particularly lonely Vijay let it move lower and sideways and under, out there under the indifferent sky. Later, when Ashok disappeared into work for the week, Vijay thought of how Ashok would hand Shah Rukh whatever it was that the star needed before he even knew he wanted it, with the hands that had ground his, Vijay’s, thighs down so gently into the ground.
Outside Premier Internet now, Kazi looked up and raised a hand in Vijay’s direction, his morose expression unchanged. It was Kazi who had suggested Vijay write an old fashioned pen and ink letter to Shah Rukh Khan. Vijay had received an envelope in return, a manila square that he had rushed over to Kazi’s so that they could open it together. Shah Rukh Khan’s picture had fallen out when they carefully slit through the top flap; his signature scrawled across it, the S looped like a lasso. Love, it said. Love, yours, SRK.
Vijay had stuck his nose inside the envelope to breathe in the pungent scent Mumbai’s streets, but after a while the smell had disappeared. He knew it was useless but every day for the last two years he’d gone to Kazi’s cafe, waited until after Kazi’s desperate customers had taken their resumes home, converted the keyboard to Hindi, and wrote the same email subject line: Shah Rukh Khan save Eagle Cinema. He’d done it every day except for the days when Kazi closed for Eid. As a ritual Vijay knew it was a futile one, but it was something to hold on to, a defiant gesture against the rock that was hurtling down upon him. By now, he thought, even such a busy film star as SRK (although now that he was older, the hits were farther in-between), must wonder what this Eagle Cinema was and why it should be saved.
Kazi had taught him other things, how to Google, how to type in Shah Rukh Khan’s name and watch the pages and pages cascade down; pages that showed what the papers were saying about his latest film, the box office collections around the world, what he ate for lunch, and why some of the bhakts, the right wing Hindu extremists, were calling the star a traitor Muslim and asking him to go to Pakistan.
Vijay had typed in Ashok Dhonde a few times, but nothing had ever come up. Sometimes, Vijay wondered if he’d made it all up — his relationship with Ashok, the memories he had.
Ashok making love to him late at night on the roof of a building where they knew the doorman, his body pressing Vijay against a metal water tank, the city lights below scattered at their feet like faraway jewels. Then the walk back home through the emptying streets to slip chastely into separate beds still warm from the worker who had recently vacated it.
They’d made a funny pair. He with his glittery shirts open to the belly button, and his hair styled like Shah Rukh’s, but slicked back with coconut oil because he couldn’t get over his country ways, and Ashok, thin and lanky, in his inevitable long sleeved blue shirt, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously as he talked. Vijay smiled at the memory.
The second-to-last show had ended and Vijay looked down at the small crowd streaming out of the theater. There were hours to kill before the 9:00 PM show began. Vijay climbed down from the roof, locked up his booth and left the lobby.
There was a computer free at Premier and Vijay handed Kazi his five dollars for an hour of internet. Next to him a girl, headphones tucked behind her hijab, was watching some American serial that she was forbidden to watch at home.
“May Allah help you, brother.” Kazi said as he handed him the change. “I’ve put in a word for you with a few people I know. Something will come up soon, Inshallah.”
Vijay nodded. “Who knows, I may just go back home, to Mumbai,” he lied. Just saying the words felt good.
Ashok had borrowed a friend’s taxi to drive Vijay to the Sahar International airport. As they unloaded the luggage in the walkway crowded with foreigners and Indians returning to America, Vijay clutched his arm, frantic to reassure him. “One year, two years tops. Then I’ll be back, god promise.”
He had bent down to touch Ashok’s feet, not knowing what else to do in that airport full of people. It was what a younger relative would do. Or a wife. Seek blessings from a beloved husband for the journey ahead.
“Get up,” Ashok said, looking around. “What are you doing?” His hands gripped Vijay’s shoulders, drew them up. He handed Vijay the black and white scarf he always had around his neck. “Here, wipe your face. You can’t get on the plane all sweaty.” He patted him on the arm over and over. “Okay, see you soon. See you.”
Now, in the cafe, Vijay opened up Google and typed in Ashok Dhonde and there he was for the first time in all these years. Vijay peered closer at the screen not sure what he was looking at. His Ashok on the computer screen was a mound covered in garlands of orange marigolds.
Vijay stared at the photograph, then got up and grabbed Kazi. “Read this,” he said.
Kazi glanced at Vijay’s face. “What is it? Bad news from home?” He grasped Vijay’s arm, forced him gently into the chair. “Sit down. Take a deep breath.”
Kazi bent down to peer shortsightedly at the screen. He was vain and refused to wear glasses. “Shah Rukh Khan’s wife Gauri and son Aryan at actor’s assistant’s funeral,” he read aloud. He clicked his tongue. “What, yaar? Why are you bothered by this nonsense Bollywood stuff? Somebody working with your hero died.”
Aryan, in jeans and a white shirt, was standing with his eyes closed beside his mother, the perfect star-kid, aware that the cameras were recording his prayers for the soul of Ashok to rest in peace. Standing next to him was Gauri Khan, Shah Rukh’s wife, in a white tunic and enormous dark glasses as if to hide all the tears she’d shed for her husband’s faithful assistant.
“Just read it.” Vijay said.
Kazi read the article to Vijay. The assistant, Ashok Donde had been hit by a truck backing out of the studio. He read all the way down to the comments. “OMG this photo needs to go viral! Retweet!” someone called AryanSuperFan23 had written.
Shah Rukh Khan, the article said, could not attend the funeral because he was on a shoot in Kashmir. His schedule was too tight. The star had sent condolences and announced a scholarship of 10 thousand rupees for two poor high school students in Ashok’s name.
“Stop.” Vijay said. Kazi gave him a surprised look, but Vijay reached past him and closed the browser, clicking the X carefully. The picture disappeared. He laid his head on the table and closed his eyes. After a while, he drank the water in the glass Kazi had placed beside him.
“You okay, brother?” Kazi asked as Vijay got up to leave.
“He was always there for Shah Rukh Khan and that bastard didn’t even come back when he died.”
“Who?” Kazi said. “Who was always there? ?”
When Vijay stepped out of the cafe it was dark and there were few people about, except for the reeking homeless guy snoring outside the subway entrance.
For all those years Ashok had shadowed Shah Rukh Khan, quietly walking one half step behind, anticipating every muscle twitch, every expression, every turn of that famous head; he had known how to disappear when the spot boys turned the lights on or when the curtains rose, had learned how to wait for hours in hot parked cars, how to stay awake outside a closed door or a trailer, or curl up and sleep outside a tent at a rough shoot in some remote desert.
Vijay had tired of it all. The stink of too many men living in one tiny room. The underwear strung in lines across the bunks in the monsoons.
“Who do I know in America?” Ashok said when Vijay had begged him to get a tourist visa and get on that plane with him. “Go, go. Make some money then come back.” Ashok had chosen Shah Rukh, smoothed out Shah Rukh’s life so he could become King Khan, the mega-star that everyone worshipped.
The theater was filling again for the last show and Vijay walked across the lobby and shut himself into the little booth. It was time to sell tickets again. It was only him in the theater now, him and the 32 people who showed up for the last three hours of Eagle Cinema’s existence. He went up the stairs, that were once grand and sweeping, but now the faded wood showed through the varnish in patches and there were cracks in the banisters. The projectionist, the same black kid in tight pants, set up the film at his signal. Vijay went inside the theater and sat down. When the titles came on he felt his heart pounding as if he was watching the film for the first time.
First came the happy scenes: Shah Rukh simpering and dancing with his love in big shiny restaurants in Manhattan, the whole first half where the aunty, the widow and the eight-year-old, then the entire neighborhood falls in love with this wonderful fool straight out of India.
Then the disappointments, the cancer, the betrayal. Through it all, Shah Rukh smiling and rueful, sloshing empathy, now the lover who sacrifices the love of his life to his best friend, now the caring son, now the playful uncle; completely, unbelievably perfect in every way, but always, always, with the same expressions, the same unsurprising repertoire of gestures that made him Shah Rukh Khan, superstar.
At last he was dying again among the pristine sheets.
Goodbye, I love you, the little girl said. The ex-girlfriend left the room, overcome.
“Smile, you bastard, I have loaned you my lover for this one lifetime,” Shah Rukh says chucking his best friend under the chin. “She’s mine for the next seven incarnations,” he says. In the dark, Vijay whispered the dialogue along with Shah Rukh, teeth and fists clenched, the tears now flowing freely.
He had watched Shah Rukh’s movies over and over, but it was Ashok he had been looking for. Somewhere just outside the frame of each shot that framed the star, was Ashok’s outstretched hand, his long shadow falling on a wall, his body slipping like a ghost through a crowd of extras. That’s why Vijay had watched all the way to the very end until the silly outtakes came on, craning to see if the blooper reel would suddenly catch Ashok scurrying off set, a second too late to duck out when the director shouted action.
Ashok had been present in the background of every shot the actor took. Shah Rukh had been given a chance to make Ashok known, discoverable by the Googles of this world. Shah Rukh could have made Ashok visible for that one moment, he could have spotlit his faithful assistant by showing up at his funeral — but he hadn’t cared. Not enough to come back, anyway.
Any minute now, the credits will come on. Soon Vijay will get up and walk through the theater one last time. First to the bathrooms, to make sure the sinks are still spotless, and Pat safely home. Then upstairs to lock all the doors and say goodbye to the projectionist who will saunter out with his bicycle slung over his shoulder like a giant metal bag. Next he will put off the lights in the corridor, one by one and stand in the dark and look up at the far away sky through the skylight one last time, before he makes his way back through the empty seats, and takes the steps of the central aisle down to that beloved screen that has held Shah Rukh Khan’s image for so long. There he’ll stop.
Slowly, he will pull out the matchbox from his pocket, strike a match and throw it down. Then he will walk away and join all the other gaping neighbors who have gathered outside Kazi’s store, and watch Eagle Cinema burn the hell down to the ground.
Last Day, First published in the Tishman Review, October 2019 issue