Gupta was the ugliest member of the wedding band- not that it mattered; his face was always hidden by the massive flute he carried.
Now, as Gupta set out to play the flute for a wedding, he wondered who would play it in his own. His father, who had been playing it in Gupta’s first wedding, had fainted of shock when the bride eloped before the wedding. During his second wedding, the bride saw something she wasn’t supposed to before the wedding (which was Gupta’s face). The bride screamed so shrilly that even the bats of the attic were surprised, and flew out to peck her face. Along with bearing the full cost of the wedding cancelled in indignation, Gupta also had to pay for her plastic surgery. Last week, in the third wedding (the last his father was able to fix without outright begging), the bride ran away with the priest. Abject humiliation of his son led to his father’s immediate cardiac arrest and gradual death. Now, there was no one left to play the flute in his wedding. He could ask one of his colleagues to do it, but he was afraid that his future bride might find them more attractive.
His father had once explained: ‘There are people with bad luck, and people with worse luck. And then there are people like you, my son.’ It was a dreadful jibe, coming from the man who had tied the knot five times in fifty years (Apparently, running away screaming from their house was something potential brides frequently did- both his and his father’s).
In retrospect, he was a little glad for what his third bride had done.
A flute player with asthma was practically worthless, and would end up wheezing rather than playing, so his father had been thrown out of a choir, and became an inebriate, consumed with grief and alcohol. He believed that it was more because of the wine his father had consumed than the shock of the night that his father’s heart had refused to work, like a labourer dissatisfied with his thankless employer and wages.
His father had said something to him, the night he died: ‘People in life are like the air breathed through the flute: requiring more effort to take in than push away.’
He remembered thinking that it was the wine talking.
The one thing he failed to understand was something that perturbed many unfortunates at least once in their lives: Why would nobody marry him? Not everyone was as good-looking as a film actor, so why could ugly people not accept it and move on to better pursuits, instead of rubbing beauty-enhancing creams faithfully every night (not that Gupta did)? It made sense that no beautiful girl in her senses would marry him, but why would an ugly girl not? After all, he had some of the things that every girl wanted in her groom: a sufficient amount of hair (though a little too less for his liking), a mouth with at least half the teeth intact, a half- torn wallet always full of something (not necessarily money), all facial features present, and the like. However, when forced to think about it, he had to admit that the bizarre accent in which he spoke a smattering of English, and the raisin- shaped gap in his grin where his second mother had once thrown a slipper at him, might have made potential brides wrinkle their noses( quite literally; his odor was about as charming as the rest of him). However, he reasoned, what was the good in looking like everybody else? There was something certainly unique about him (something which made three docile women run away on their wedding day).
His real name was Raj Sharma, but the person he had replaced in the band was called Gupta, and somehow, the band never seemed to notice the difference. His identity became Gupta, and the wage record, too, stated his name as that. (Not that he could have proved them wrong- his real, illiterate mother had once used his birth certificate to dry off the oil from the snacks prepared on his birthday. He imagined her thinking: ‘I just finished off the only proof that you are my blood son. Happy birthday!’)
He blamed his real mother for the way he looked- not because of genetics (he didn’t know what that meant), but because of the way she brought him up. A mother was supposed to generate confidence in physical appearance, not to proportionally increase it by constantly refraining, ‘My son’s useless, but he’s handsome.’ Eventually, he started to believe it too. But when he learnt the truth , there was nothing left for him to hold on to- like standing on the edge of a cliff despite repeating continuously to yourself that you didn’t want to. When you finally took a deep breath and learned to rely on the ground below you, you fell on your face.
He tried to extract a tissue paper to wipe away the smoke of the streets and the sweat pooling everywhere, but a chunk of chewed tobacco fell out instead. Even his pocket knew what life had in store for him.
He returned into the painful present when his phone buzzed. ‘The bride’s family has come to see you,’ his stepmother shrieked into the phone.
He sighed to summon nonexistent patience. There was no point in telling her to lower her voice. She still believed that if they had ten miles between them, her voice had to overcompensate to reach him.
Right now, the potential bride was probably seeing the faded photograph taped gingerly to the crumbling plaster, in which the entire family was smiling through their teeth and possibly horrifying her.
His stepmother was probably offering the bride’s relatives the Biscuits (putrid, unbaked pieces of dough which the street dogs smartly left on the threshold whenever she tried to make them eat the stinking, inedible material). He would not even have to tell them what his salary was; their snack budget showed it clearly. If the relatives were courteous and hungry enough to eat them, it would be followed by trips to the bathroom and to the police station, a complaint about food poisoning in both the places.
‘Are you listening, or did you manage to ruin your ears with that awful trumpet?’ A high- pitched squeal followed. Why didn’t the bats have the sense to include her in their colony? She would kill the prey just by screaming.
‘It’s a flute.’ He knew that the word was a sore spot, a reminder of her newly established social status as a widow, but he was avenging himself for her constant taunts when his first bride had run away. (‘Send your bride here, son! Oh, that’s right, she ran away.’)
All he heard in reply was a dial tone.
It was in the process of pocketing his phone that he noticed the girl.
She had an ordinary face, the sort of girl you might pass on the street without turning back. But by his standards, she was beautiful. She was looking at him with true emotion in her eyes.
Could it be? Dare he hope?
She approached him as he played the flute with renewed passion. He wiped his face subtly, unknowingly spreading more dirt across his face.
He smiled, and she looked at him with the same look again.
Not attraction, he realized belatedly.
It was pity.
His playing stopped with a start, and his heart did too.
It turned out that he had inherited his father’s weak heart, along with his terrible nuptial luck.