This was the third time Sameer was walking to the store. He tried to appear nonchalant, and his eyes wandered deliberately around the intersection. The pigeons were already crowding the road outside the rice shops. So were some sparrows. They were rarer now, he thought. He was a student at the Lady Emerson Medical School not too far off. But he had never come to this part of the town before. He looked at the small grocery shop at the corner. The one next to it was a chemist’s. He could see it from the corner of his eye. The board above read ‘Ramraj’s Medical Store’. He saw a spectacled old man sitting behind the desk at the counter. Was he Ramraj? Sameer tried to deduce the man’s hometown from his name and looks. Was he from his own place? Or a nearby one? In case it was so, he might have seen him before.
Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself.
Was he a pharmacist? A medical store had to have a pharmacist. That was the law now. Sameer’s father was also a pharmacist. He ran a similar shop. That was worrying. But that shop was at least five hundred miles away. Still, this Ramraj and his father might have met at some pharmacists’ conference. He might say to his father when they met for the next one, “Hey, I met your son. He came to my shop for a…”
Stupid! Sameer scolded himself. Imaginative fool. How would the fellow recognize him? And did pharmacists have conferences?
Even if they had, his father never left his shop. He would not go to any meeting. He didn’t believe in luxuries, or travelling for pleasure. Sameer was the excuse. The man behind the counter in this shop looked exactly the same type. He was obviously serious about his work. He was sitting bent over the counter, counting the money.
“Life is a serious business,” his father said once. He felt inexplicable resentment rise within.
Uh, oh. The man was looking at him now. He seemed slightly suspicious. He might be thinking that he was a junkie looking for drugs. He must have surely noticed him pass by before. He had to go in now. There was no other option. He strode purposefully towards the shop, and tried to feign the confidence he did not feel. He remembered a television advertisement from his school days, and wished he could barge in, bang his fist lightly on the counter, and say, ‘A condom, please.’
Instead, he faltered. He felt a sudden pain in his chest. Was it a heart attack now? He might faint. Would Mr Ramraj take him to a hospital?
“Yes sir?” The man looked at him enquiringly.
“A – a strip of Crocin,” he mumbled.
Sameer sat in his hostel room clutching his chest. The pain was hardly there now. He had taken an auto to the hostel. Walking was not safe. What if the palpitation worsened? No. He realized it was only a panic attack. He hadn’t had one for years. It felt so real: the tightness in the chest, the feeling of unreality. He breathed in and out in an effort to relax, as Dr Narendra had taught him. Then he caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror attached to the almirah. His face looked scared and gaunt. He had become thinner recently. Could excessive masturbation have drained his –?
Sameer smiled. He was a medical student. Now he knew what Nawaz had told him in the tenth standard was all bullshit. He had always been struck by the ease with which one’s mind transported one back to an earlier period in one’s life. It was effortless and instantaneous, like a time machine. Memories were not like facts recorded in a book, or visuals stored on a computer. All one’s feelings, fears, insecurities, and hopes were intact when one reminisced. Roger Penfield, the pioneer neurosurgeon, Sameer remembered, had been the first to notice this. He was used to operating on the brain under local anaesthesia on conscious patients. This was possible because the brain as such was insensitive to pain. He noted that stimulating parts of the brain with an electrode instantaneously evoked past memories with visuals and emotions. It was as if the patient was re-experiencing the entire episode once more. Even the smells.
Yes, Sameer could smell the earth just after the rains on a ground near his house where he, Nawaz, and a few other friends, played football. In the background he could hear his mother yelling shrilly, “Sameer, back in the house this instant! Stop playing with those loafers! It is time to study.”
Crestfallen, Sameer walked slowly back to the house, head lowered, shoulders hunched. Anger burnt dully inside him. These were the mid-term holidays. What was he? A mugging machine?
Noticing his face, his mother dropped her sternness and took on a conciliatory tone. “Son, you are a good boy. You said you wanted to be a doctor. Think about your aim, Sameer. I told you about Arjun, and how he saw only the bird’s eye.”
Sameer felt sorry he had ever said anything about his ambitions to his family. But nothing could be done now. Everybody had heard him. He was apparently four years old when he said it. Ma said that Papa had been working extra hard since that day.
“But it is holiday time, Ma. I want to play like everyone else. Arjun, too, must have played during the holidays?”
She resorted to her effective weapon. It was her perennial favourite, and it never failed with Sameer, she knew. “Think about your poor Papa who is forced to work from dawn to dusk. You are our only hope.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to be anything.”
Ma thought it was time Papa had a word with his son.
That night Papa came to his room. “Never waver, son,” he said. “You are destined for great things. You are the best student for miles around. And you are my son. I am proud of you. But, you must persist. You can do it.”
The same night Sameer suffered the first panic attack. All the doctors said he was all right. Nobody could find anything wrong with him. Ma attributed it to the physical exertion of the football game. That was how he stopped playing football. He did not play any other game after that. He concentrated on his studies, and did not think about anything else.
At medical school, Sameer finally allowed his defences to be lowered a bit. That was when Sumithra entered his life through the gaps. A dull ache in his heart attested to the truth of Roger Penfield’s findings. Her sweet fragrance mingled with his pain. His first experience with love. She had large brown eyes and smooth brown skin. Her hands were soft. The lips were sweet and sensuous, if only in his imagination.
Was the attraction mutual? He didn’t know. It was nothing much more than friendship to an outside observer, and it ended quite abruptly. Sumithra had called him at his home. He was on study leave that week. His father had picked up the phone.
Later, he asked him, “Who was she?”
“A friend from college.”
“Why did she call?”
“Just like that.”
“Girls don’t call up just like that in this house. You should know that.”
“What is it to you?” Sameer’s anger showed. “She’s a classmate. Why can’t she call if she wants to?”
“I am just an old man. You are going to be a doctor. You’d better be careful. I have no say in your life, but you should know better.”
Sameer had walked out with his hand on his chest.
Life in college was all he had. He would have to simmer silently in the kitchen of expectations. He tasted his first glass of liquor after this incident. It was meant to be an act of defiance. The porn movie clips he saw in Rajesh’s room fascinated him, but they also made him feel guilty. He felt angry at himself. Virginity was a curse. He knew with certainty that a ‘suitable girl’ of his parent’s choice waited for him at the end of the corridor. It would be defeat not to know a woman before that. But two years passed without any progress on that front.
Finally, Rajesh told him that Deepa was easy. He could tell; he was an expert. Mustering up all his courage Sameer asked her out. Twice they went to the coffee shop.
“Tomorrow, I will ask her out to the movies,” he informed Rajesh.
“Be ready. She might come to your room after that.”
“Listen to the master, man. Be ready with the square packet.”
“What square packet?”
That was how he had ended up at the medical shop. He felt partly relieved. He could forget Deepa now. The fact remained that he had never even touched a girl properly. His frustration mounted as he hurried to the Surgery unit chief’s room. He wondered why he had been called. It was the surgical posting now. Though not particularly fond of Surgery, Sameer was a favourite with the chief. He was serious about his studies, and always eager to please.
When Sameer reached the office, he was surprised to see a white foreigner standing with the boss. And she was rather beautiful. Though he had seen many of them on television and in Hollywood movies, they usually did not strike him as attractive. Most of them were too tall and too thin, and their faces too lean and angular. But this one was fairly well built, and had curves in all the right places. She had an oval face with full lips, and a nose that was not too big. The alabaster skin, light brown hair and striking blue eyes, made her look exotic. She wore tight jeans and a figure-hugging T-shirt.
“Hi,” she smiled, showing a perfect set of teeth, and extended her hand towards him. Sameer shook it in a daze. It was warm and soft. She was a medical student from Germany. The unit chief informed him they had to have six months of elective clinical posting outside their country, as a part of their course requirement. She was to spend two months in Surgery in their hospital.
What an idea! These Westerners were serious about their work. They didn’t just study something to find a job and earn a livelihood, as Indians did. They had passion. They wanted ‘self-actualization’ and ‘self-realization’ and had often had nebulous goals. They strove to create new paths in their chosen territories and contribute to the world.
This one was an attractive girl. But the whites were rich. Presumably, her father did not have to work doubly hard to see her through medical school. She had, most likely, come to this government institute to see how Indians managed to care for their teeming millions under abominable conditions.
“I am Christina. You what?” she asked, as they walked down side by side.
Sameer noticed she had a heavy accent.
“I am Sameer.”
“My English not very good, Sa-meer. We study only in German.” Christina smiled apologetically.
It was a revelation to him that not all whites were fluent in English. He felt a bit superior. And he could afford to be protective now. It was his responsibility to see that she was comfortable, and benefited from her two month stint here.
The chief, Dr Sundar, said, “Sameer, show her the wards, the theatre, and help her with the formalities.”
Sameer took her to the office to enrol her as an observer student, and decided to accompany her to the hostel room she had been allotted.
“You can show me the way, Sameer?”
“Of course, I will come with you.”
“Danke,” she thanked him in German.
They were crossing the school grounds on the way to the hostel. It had started to rain. Sameer opened his umbrella, and Christina snuggled close to him. He could feel the warmth of her body slowly soaking into him. He glanced furtively at the top halves of the buttery twin globes through her low-necked T-shirt. No bra? He couldn’t be sure. The view stopped just short of the nipples. He could feel the heat rise to his cheeks. And somewhere else.
The rain pattered on the umbrella. They were very close now. He felt her shoulder brush against the left side of his body, and he could read all her contours like a blind man reading Braille. He tried to shrink himself, but it was no use. The umbrella was too small. She turned and smiled up at him. Her body seemed to radiate heat like the fire they used to make at his village during the winter nights. He was sorry when they reached the portico at the women’s hostel. He had to be careful. He had to be in control. German culture was different. They were casual about this kind of physical contact. He had read a lot of popular English novels that had told him so.
“Bye. See you in department, tomorrow,” Christina waved.
Sameer wanted her. She was so … desirable. But Dr Sundar had put his faith in him. He had entrusted him with her care. Besides, it was easy to misunderstand Western girls. He found out that she had been in India for almost four months, working at two other centres.
“Do you like India?” he asked her.
“Yeah. The people nice. But too many.”
“Am I nice?”
“Very nice.” She smiled, as if remembering something. “Indian men have sex only in their minds.”
Be extra careful, Sameer, he thought.
They had become good friends by the end of the first week.
“Lucky bastard.” Rajesh gave him an obnoxious wink. “What are you doing with her, man?”
“I am just showing her around, and making her comfortable,” Sameer replied.
His friends cracked their men-only jokes. It was good Christina couldn’t hear these animals, he thought. What would she think about Indians? It was his duty to see that she carried only good memories of this country when she went back.
Sameer laboured to maintain an emotional distance in the following days. He had heard stories of Indian boys who mistook the ways of Western girls for romantic interest. He did not want a painful rebuff.
“Sameer, you have girlfriend?” she asked him.
“No. Do you? Have a boyfriend, I mean.”
He stared at her, fascinated for a moment, and then averted his gaze.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Your eyelashes are brown,” he replied.
Sameer was relaxing in his room when there was a knock. He opened it and found Christina standing outside with a shy smile. While it was not really taboo for girls to come to the men’s hostel in the afternoon, it was not exactly common. She walked in, and placed a liquor bottle on the table. Sameer knew it wasn’t a big deal. He took out two glasses, and they shared the German wine. Alcohol was one thing Sameer did not decline. Once in six months, he had a drink or two.
Christina was in a sleeveless top and a skirt that reached her knees. Usually, she was in jeans. Sameer could see her bare legs. They were startlingly white and smooth, as if made of tube light. He had to watch out. He had had almost two glasses. Christina had had more. She got up from the chair, the only one in the room, and sat down by his side on the bed. They talked non-stop. He did not remember what they talked about. He only recalled that they never ran out of things to say. He also remembered that they laughed a lot.
She nestled close. It was a hot afternoon. The warmth of the room, and her presence, combined with the pleasant effect of the wine and tickled him between his legs. She looked at him and smiled. He saw her golden hair, slightly dishevelled, and wondered whether the hair was the same colour all over her body. She always wore the same perfume with which he was familiar. But now he noticed the sweet smell of her body. He had an irresistible urge to bend down and inhale it. He checked himself at the last minute.
After an hour, Christina’s eyelids were drooping from drinking. He leaned forward to hold her. And kiss her. But then the familiar pain rose in his chest. He felt hot. The palpitation returned. He stood up abruptly.
“Come, I will walk you to your room,” he said.
It was a good thing, he realized. He remembered what she had said about Indian men.
During Christina’s last week in India, she was a little distant. Was she sad that she was leaving?
“Why should I be sad, Sameer?” she answered when he put the question to her. “I love my place. I have to go back.”
Their conversation, so effortless and fluent in the beginning, began to dry up like the river months after the monsoon. Silences, pregnant with something Sameer found incomprehensible, punctuated their meetings.
The day she had to leave, he dropped her at the airport on a borrowed bike. He was proud of himself, even if he felt a bit heavy in the heart. He had conducted himself like a true gentleman. Christina would have a good opinion of Indian men. She would be impressed with his dignity and chivalry. He had masturbated like a madman during the last few weeks, fantasizing about her.
He helped her check in her luggage. Her flight was announced. He shook her hand rather stiffly. A strong desire to step forward and hug her came to him. He wanted to hold her close, feel her body with his hands, bite those soft red lips gently with his teeth. Instead, he said, “Goodbye. I will miss you, Christina.”
“Goodbye, Sameer.” She quickly reached into her pocket and took out a small packet. It had German writing on it. She held it out to him. “This is a small gift to remember me by. A condom. A German condom. Keep it carefully. Someday, it may be of use to you.”
She waved, turned, and was gone from his life.