Drama Fantasy

“Escaping again, Zohra?” Sunny Gehlot called out to me as I almost closed the door behind. It was my mother’s memorial service and I was determined not to stay. He wasn’t entirely wrong, this was my last attempt at finding some peace away from the clicks, the microphones and the media ruckus that accompanied my mother, Purvi Mistry. Instead, I swivelled about and thrust the door open, reentering the usually empty house, which teemed with staffers dressed in white. 

Good children do not talk back.

My mother popped up in my head as usual. 

“I’ll come back just before things get awkward, I promise." He paused his phone call, turning a pair of beady, black eyes to me. "Disappointed?” I asked with a smile and slipped out of the doorway, without waiting for an answer.

My mother’s PR manager and her partner for the last 5 years, Sunny was a tormented man. He had come into her life assuming she was a damsel in distress, a lonely jaded actress, tired of a rebellious daughter who did not understand her. Poor man, he didn't get a drop of the drama he wanted.

With some satisfaction, I jogged to the garage, eager to make an escape into the mental void I desperately needed before facing the press. Taking the car out would not be easy--the first batch of press had started mushrooming on the periphery of the house. Unfortunately fame and its shenanigans did not come easily to me as to my mother, I understood her reasons but realised that could never be my life.

“Madam, madam! Photo, madam.” Instinctively, I turned around and smiled. It was conditional training, my mother's hand in mine, turning me around, both of us learning how to mime happiness. But there was no one outside the garage. 

“Up here, on the wall.” A journalist had dangled himself from the glassy green boundary wall, balancing himself precariously. 

“Get down from there, you will hurt yourself,” I jingled my car keys at him frantically. 

“One photo Ma’am, one photo please.” He thought I was covering my face, in a hurry to catch a glimpse he lunged forwards both hands on his camera, removing the supporting hand as well. I saw him tumble and ran out to catch hold of him.

 A blinding flash of light, white heat surging through me, and all I could do was fall. Into a bottomless emptiness, nothing to hold on to. My limp arms flailed around before giving up. And I kept falling.

Then a bell rang--faintly at first, steadily becoming louder. ‘That is a horrible ringtone’ I thought, as my eyes opened to the dark, damp garage ceiling. I could feel the cold, wet floor against my back and saw that I was sprawled on the ground, close to my car.

'What just happened?' I sat up straight and looked around the empty garage. Where did that journalist go and who closed the shutters? Ma would be so upset that I misbehaved with a media person, although in my defense, I was trying to save him from falling. Ma. Her memorial service.

I jolted up and brushed off my pants. It was 10:00 a.m. by my watch and the service had probably begun by now. No time for drama, I would have to enter the house from the backyard avoiding the press and acting normal.

Loose limbs, relaxed gait--act like you don't have a care.

Years of practice had not made this any easier, but I still kept trying. Ma had that effect on people, the reason she was a camera favourite--she was very convincing. I once asked her what acid rain was, she told me it was rainwater in the sewages that started smelling of acid. And I told my science teacher that, in front of an army of savage 11 year olds.

Two of the paps were sitting on my childhood swing set in the backyard, too lazy to join the circus in the front yard. They were probably going to settle down for second hand information.

“People like her are like leeches. They fail in their own lives and drag everybody down with them.”  One of them viciously told her colleague, a lanky man, who was almost falling out of the swings.

“Celebrities take us for granted, they think we will forever be trailing them if they ignore us.” He gave a wise nod as his kneecaps brushed the wet mud, “This Mistry woman was a real nightmare, but we have had our fair share of fun, creating stories around her." He shrugged defiantly, "She never confirmed or denied anything."

I closed the door on their conversation and sprinted on tiptoes into the house. But something about the conversation rattled me as I smoothed out my white kurta and tried to settle down my frizzy hair. Who was this fringe media group that Purvi Mistry had refused to give an interview to? They must have had really bad karma to be snubbed by her. 

As the sun-lit living room came into view, the sandalwood incense and the sweet, strong scent of jasmine cleared up my mind. I could see the dying afternoon light beaming in through the large french windows onto the assembly of mourners. 

With a bowed head, I made my way to the row directly in front of Ma, who was wrapped in a white sheet and criss-crossed with rose and jasmine garlands.

“Remember what she did at her mother’s funeral?” One of the women sitting near my mother spoke up in a low voice that still managed to be shrill and annoying, despite its speaker trying very hard to maintain the hushed atmosphere of a memorial service. I felt a jolt of anger, but calmed down thinking about how my mother would be probably enjoying this weird afterlife in gossip circles.

 The droning nonsense of the social butterflies did not die down even when I sat down in plain view of everyone. But 30 years of my life with a media icon had armed me with the skill of zoning out of meaningless chatter. Today I had my mother’s smiling face in front of me and a lifetime of memories to help with the zoning out as well. 

Purvi Mistry was a media darling, if there can ever be one. She was not someone who gave media interviews because she was an actor. She was an actor because she was a permanent fixture in any kind of press. 

Out of sight, out of mind.

The mantra she lived by and the reason she had an opinion on everything and anything on this planet. the driving force behind an unapologetic public life and the motivation for relaunching her acting career at 60. And she would have very successfully done so, had her weak heart not given away in a sudden stroke.

But the more I paid attention to her instantly recognizable face, the more it felt different. The smile wasn’t carefully measured out, the eyes weren’t basking in the glory of a camera flash and there were way more wrinkles and age spots on her picture-perfect face.

It wasn’t her face at all, it was mine.

I snapped out of my memory bubble and paid attention to the living room and the attendees of the memorial service. Where were my mother’s friends? They were like Macbeth’s three witches, a combo deal. The house was different too, it did not have the garish painting of a village woman my mother had purchased from the black market and passed off as an M. F. Hussain. 

“Excuse me, how do you know the deceased?” I turned to a middle-aged man on my left--he nodded his head. “Sorry?” I did not get the meaning of his answer--but he wasn’t looking at me at all, he was looking through me.

“Good thing she had her mother’s money, she never had any acting skills anyways,” he said.

“What?" No one had ever said this of my mother. "Who are you talking-”

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Zohra Mistry’s memorial service.” Sunny Gehlot, walked into the middle of the assembly, brandishing a microphone. His waist was several inches broader than I last saw him and his face looked like stretched tarpaulin. His wrinkled hands with crooked fingers, were the only indication of his real age. 

“Zohra was a difficult girl,” he said, with a flick of an incongruous jet black wig. “I always told Purvi that Zohra cannot be even half the person you are. But she was adamant on seeing some worth in her.” I pinched myself, this was a horrible dream. I yelped but nobody took notice and Sunny’s speech continued. “Her mother was an icon but unfortunately Zohra couldn’t even sit in front of a camera. It’s not like we gave up on her--Purvi had tried to train her from childhood to be outgoing, to be normal. Even I did my best at arranging interviews for her, and getting her into Purvi’s social circle." With a shake of his head, he continued, "Unfortunately, none of our efforts paid off.”

“I disagree.” I stood up, knowing that I will not be heard, just like I wasn’t seen. “Anyone outside the showbiz will tell a different story, anyone who doesn’t put on a facade, the moment a lens focuses on them. Normal people, if you will.”

Sunny continued, “But every life, no matter how aimless, no matter how damaged, deserves to be remembered and cherished. I will end my service with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote.” 

“Can somebody stop this nonsense, please?” I whirled around imploring and pleading now. I waved frantically in front of eyes that saw past me and shouted into ears where my voice was just silence.

“If a man has not discovered something he can die for, he is not fit to live.” Sunny Gehlot finished with a final triumph. Before handing out the mic to the next speaker, he popped in a joke, “Hopefully that applies to women as well,” and the entire assembly burst into jovial laughter. 

“Enough! Each and everyone of you, GET THE EFF OUT of my house.” I screamed and roared in desperation and yet had as little effect as the flies buzzing in and out. At least those insects were not ghosts of a forgotten past.

“Of course, I am not Purvi Mistry--I never wanted to be her, in the first place.” I turned to the woman holding the mic, now. She looked familiar. I knew that shifty gaze and the way she fiddled with her emerald ring whenever she was nervous. I recognized my business partner’s middle aged face without any difficulty. 

“Arya, you’d better not lie.” I walked up to her and shook my fist in a futile attempt at intimidation.

She smoothed out a folded white sheet and began reading. “Zohra Mistry was an invaluable asset at Leo Advertisements Inc. During her 2 decades long career, she…”

Nobody was listening as Arya droned on and on about my career. The audience had broken up into small epicentres of juicy gossip, and I saw Sunny hopping from one to the other, like someone distributing alms to the needy. What had I done to be remembered like this? 

Using my phantom presence, I moved in closer to assembly of mourners, sitting down in devastation, unsure of what exactly was happening. I did not bother to mind my way around them--wishing instead that I could kick a couple of shins. 

"We all remember the incident when she attacked a journalist at her mother's funeral. That was such a horrible thing to do." The woman with the banshee voice spoke up and I recognised her as one of my mother's 'media friends'--friends only till they sustained each other's publicity loops. 

Where were my childhood friends? I knew for a fact that they were going to turn up at my mother's memorial service without me needing to ask them. Where was my boyfriend? We might have broken up, but I ended up alone? And why was I sitting in my own memorial service instead of my mother's?

I thought my mother had suffered in her life because she was too visible, but here I was 20 years later, suffering a worse fate, despite trying my level best to be invisible. What had gone wrong?

"From that incident onwards, her life took a downward spiral," Sunny sat down on the carpeted floor, like a giant spider spinning a web of lies. "The more I tried to make her clarify her position, the more reclusive she became. Zohra did not have her mother's charm but atleast she could have listened to me. She took after her father." 

Now I wanted to punch his smooth, flabby face. My father was an off-limits topic, even my attention-seeking mother refused to talk about him. He wanted peace in his life and she respected that. He was not controversy, just a bitter-sweet memory for the both of us.

"Why did the media continue creating scandals around her?" A bald man sitting nearby, asked. 

'Good question,' I thought.

He continued, "And you were her PR manager, you could not do anything to bury the issue? Much graver issues have been forgotten with far greater ease." 

Who was this intelligent man? I looked carefully into his face. No, didn't ring a bell. I wish I knew his name.

Sunny was visibly nettled. "She never officially appointed me as her PR manager. In fact after Purvi's death, she never renewed the contract. There is only so much I can do for free."

If this was what Sunny had done for free, I thanked my 30 year old self for having the good sense to not sign him on. I had never wanted to be remembered like my mother, cast in a flimsy cashmere cloak of fame and vanity. I had never wanted throngs of shutterbugs and media bytes to be my legacy. Just a handful of people whom I loved and they loved me back in equal measure, not because I was Purvi Mistry's daughter but for who I am. 

And yet, if this was my future, my reticence and discretion had cast me into a more miserable infamy. For all her spotlight love, my mother had kept a few things sacred like my father and this house, in which they had raised me before my father moved away to Italy.

I had failed in that as well, with every corner of my childhood home now, infested with journalists clicking away at my paintings, our family photographs, the kitchen that Ma and I had painted together.

"Sir, there is a shadow on your face, can you move closer to the balcony?" One of the journalists pointed out to Sunny, indicating the spot where I was standing. Before I could move away, there was an eruption of white light.

A familiar heat scorched into me, dissolving the ground beneath my feet and I fell into the time abyss again. Where would I land and what difference would it make? I did not even try to stop the endless fall this time. 

"Madam, madam are you all right?" When I finally opened my eyes, a woman my age was sitting on her haunches in front of me. But she was closer to 20 than 50, so how old was I now?

"She is not speaking." She turned to a blurred crowd behind her. Before I could utter a syllable, she splashed a handful of water onto my face which burned down to my lungs.

After a severe bout of coughing, I finally managed to speak. "30. I am 30 again." The garage door was open and the sunlight was streaming in. The cameraman who had tumbled down, looked a bit shaken but was standing at the back, poised to strike again with his camera. 

"Move, let me in." A bossy, irritated voice cut through the general murmur and the middle aged Sunny Gehlot jostled his way in. "Are you all right? Wait, I will kick these people out first." He turned and I saw two of his trusted bodyguards manhandling the press. 

"No, wait." My voice cracked in the effort. Smoothening it out, I spoke up, "I am Zohra Mistry and I cordially invite all of you to my mother's memorial service." I turned to the woman who had splashed water on my face. "Can you interview me after that, I have so much to tell, about my mother." A thousand watt smile lit up on her haggled, worn face as she nodded with glee.

Being Purvi Mistry's daughter was both a boon and a bane. And I wasn't going to accept that in silence. If there was going to be any word about me, it had better be my own.

September 05, 2020 03:16

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