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The Magician of Mashobra

IT TOOK ONLY SIX WEEKS AFTER THEY HAD moved into their new home for Ajit and Reema to throw their first dinner party.

“Come sharp at seven, not the Indian standard arrival time of 9pm,” Reema had said when she rang up to invite me; her warm voluptuous tone had saved her words from sounding peremptory. “The apartment is on the second floor. I suggest you take the steps, good for your figure.”

Apartment was hardly what I would have called the palatial, sprawling space on Malcha Marg that I entered the following Saturday. A large reception area opened onto a balcony that seemed to be resting on the treetops. The build­ing was tucked in between two ambassadorial residences; across the sweeping avenue stood the brooding darkness of the keekar forests of Delhi’s Ridge. Inside, everything was smart elegance: silent air-conditioning, subdued lighting spreading from the false ceiling, remote controlled blinds, smooth jazz from tiny powerful speakers, Persian carpets, Tanjore paintings lit by cleverly focussed bulbs. Waiters wearing white shirts and black bow ties floated around carrying silver salvers with drinks and canapes and periodi­cally vanished down a corridor with walls painted a deep forest green and embellished with wildlife engravings. This effortless elegance was, I knew, the result of Reema’s unre­lenting attention to detail: she had worked with the build­ers and decorators for over a year, closely monitoring each and every detail, the flooring, the plumbing, the lighting, the door handles and latches, down to the exact location of every switch and socket. This was to be their own home, the home they were to move into when Ajit finally retired from a long banking career, the last six years of which had been spent as a successful CEO of a major private sector bank.

“Of course, I have to do it myself,” Reema had em­phasised when she had joined us at the club a couple of months earlier, just as Ajit and I were sitting down to a cup of tea after our occasional tennis game on the grass courts. “If I leave it to those dimwits, they will take the same amount of cash and do a slapdash job. They will cut every corner and build,” she had continued, making quotation marks with her fingers in the fresh morning air, “a post-retirement home, a home for two old retired fogeys who would be expected to entertain only once in a while, and that too other similar has-beens. But retirement does not mean retirement from life. I want our second innings to be as good, if not better, than the first. Same quality of life, same standard of living, same influence, same power.”

Ajit hadn’t said a word. He had held his cup of tea closely poised near his lips and had continued to intently watch a mixed doubles game as if he was not sitting on the side-lines but was there at the net, waiting to volley any weak passing shot.

At that first dinner, it really did seem that nothing much had changed in their life, except the address and the fact that they now lived in their own home and not one provided by the bank. The address, if anything, was only better, and the home certainly as big as the earlier one. A look around the room as I picked up a glass of prosecco showed that nothing much had changed too in the kind of people who had been invited. A Member of Parliament in silken khadi who had recently made some courageous statements against the ruling party was holding forth in one corner to a former Chief Election Commissioner. A recently retired diplomat was telling the Argentinian ambassador, a portly man elegantly swirling a glass of red wine, that he was soon going to be heading a new think-tank that would report only to the Prime Minister.

“But you will be independent, of course?” asked the ambassador, effortlessly straight-faced.

“Goes without saying,” was the immediate response “the reporting is only personal, an old association you see, a matter of trust.”

A couple of top corporate executives—actually one was a budding tycoon—were debating the recent budget with an economist known for his pro-American views.

“But at least it is growth-oriented, bold in its fundamentals.”

“Not much relief in corporate tax, but I suppose we have to live with that.”

“Actually, I’m just happy that the awful years of social­ism are finally over, the rest will follow. Just leave it to the market forces.”

“It’s going to be interesting to watch how we balance this self-reliance stuff with foreign investment. There needs to be more clarity….”

Yes, nothing much had changed. I felt privileged to be invited. I was after all only a writer, even if I was mildly famous. True that I had known Reema and Ajit for more than thirty years and at some level had the trust of both, together and separately. We had remained close even if we had inhabited different worlds. My bond with Ajit went back to our college days of the seventies. On long walks on the Ridge we had watched the setting sun bleed against the thorny keekar branches and had discussed poetry and novels, dreams and reason. Before we parted ways—he to go to the new business school in Bangalore, and I to a few years of drifting from one magazine job to the other, training myself to write—we had spent a fortnight in the Himachal hills, walking across high passes and sleeping by gurgling streams, listening to Leonard Cohen from a small tape-recorder, and nursing the perpetual heart­breaks of youth under the low-hanging stars. That was a bond that needed no effort to sustain it; it came alive instantly even if we did not meet for months.

Now I watched him admiringly as he drifted effort­lessly between the conversations, keeping a practised eye on the room to see that people were comfortable. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and this was not surprising. At one level, Delhi was a very small town. At that level, commonalities of college, service, club, or just wealth took care of many things. At that level, as in that drawing room, people had watched each grow older, heavier, slower, richer. Everyone knew the journeys the others had taken and the deals, the compro­mises that each one had made on the way. At that level there would be few surprises. There was comfort in that predictability, a genuine affable camaraderie; the days of competition and rivalry were behind them. And as for political differences and loyalties, people usually left them at the door when they came for Delhi parties; the idea was to have a good time.

Reema, in a black sequined sari, was the throbbing heart of the evening. Solicitous and vivacious at the same time, she was the perfect hostess, finding a few special moments for each guest. Every once in a while, she would vanish towards the dining room, presumably to make sure that the food was being laid out properly on the dining table.

I knew the story of that table. Ajit had missed a tennis date the day it was being delivered from the furniture bou­tique on MG Road. It had been made to order for Reema: large enough for a sit-down dinner for sixteen, made of rare Burma teak and with legs that were banded together with curls and swirls of green wrought iron. From Ajit’s tone when he called me to cancel our game, I had gathered that he did not like the idea, or the table.

“I mean, who wants sit-downs now?” was his way of telling me how he felt. The table had been too large and too heavy to come up the stairs and had to be winched up to the balcony. “Wretched thing shouldn’t chip the bal­cony, everything’s just been painted,” was how he had rung off.

I could see what Reema had in mind. Though this was not a sit-down dinner, the buffet was lavish. There was an arc of vegetarian dishes and on the other side, matching non-vegetarian ones. The cuisine was a mix of Mediterranean and Turkish: kebabs, salads, egg plant in two different prepa­rations and much more.

Only when the coffee and herbal tea had been served to the guests and the mood in the room had turned warm and mellow did Ajit begin to perform his magic. As he sat quietly, a mysterious smile playing around his lips, things began to happen around him. He opened a palm to reveal a ring which had suddenly gone missing from the hand of the tycoon’s wife. The coffee spoon in the Argentinian am­bassador’s hand bent by itself at a tantalizing right angle as Ajit stared at it. Then he asked the Member of Parliament why he wasn’t wearing a watch and proceeded to produce it from his own breast pocket. These were tricks that I had watched Ajit perform earlier, though not too often.

“It’s a power that cannot be frittered away,” he had told me once. “Things have to be right and the mind has to be able to concentrate.”

When I left that evening, I carried with me the wistful fragrance of the Oriental lilies that had been brought by some guest and now festooned the room in tall crystal vases. The question that lingered in my mind was if they would last till the next party; I had no doubt that now that Reema had got going, there wouldn’t be too much of a gap.

I wasn’t wrong. In about six weeks, there was another invitation to dinner which I politely declined. In a desper­ate attempt to finish a book, I had decided to lock myself in: going out to dinner effectively killed my next day. But when another invitation turned up a month later, I ac­cepted. They would have found it odd if I had refused two in a row and to be quite honest, I didn’t want to be dropped from their lists as an ageing eccentric oddball.

The guest list this time was different, but not dissimi­lar. The UN Resident Representative was the mandatory diplomatic presence without which I now felt no dinner of Reema’s would be complete. But I sensed, more than saw, a difference in Ajit’s behaviour. Unlike during the first dinner, he appeared detached, as if he was watching the proceed­ings at an arm’s length, while still going through the motions. At one stage, just before dinner had been served, I felt him gently tap me on the elbow and indicate that we should sit down in the alcove of the drawing room, a cosy corner with two comfortable single seaters, a low bookshelf and a music speaker. He sank back into the sofa, his whisky glass held in both hands like a protective shield against the rest of the room. I had a sudden realisation that I was the only one in the room with whom he felt totally comfort­able. I also noticed that he had not really bothered to dress for dinner. He was in his thick-wale black corduroys and soft black suede shoes and didn’t seem to care.

“All OK?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Hmm yes,” he said softly, his face still retaining the po­lite smile for the rest of the room. “Good you could come today, otherwise these dinners can get a bit too much.”

“I thought you liked them.”

“Reema certainly does…and I, to be fair, have done a lot of them, and quite happily, while I was at the Bank. But then it all had a purpose; it was part of a give and take. Actually,” he said quickly, almost as if was afraid he would stop himself from saying it, “somewhere I don’t think Reema has accepted that I have retired.”

We didn’t have time to talk anymore. Reema was announcing dinner and with a barely discernible sigh, Ajit moved back into the role of a host. It was only when I reached home that I realised he had not shown any of his post-dinner magic tricks.

AS THE WINTER TURNED TO SPRING, I got busy with the book’s publication, the launch event and the initial interviews. A couple of literary festivals took me out of Delhi and I allowed myself to flow along with the heady feeling that comes with a new book, an ela­tion that allows a writer to forget for a while the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties and doubts, quite simply, the headaches of writing. In all that I didn’t notice at first that there were no invitations to dinner from Reema and Ajit. He had come alone to my book launch at the India International Centre, hugged me warmly and had quietly slipped off after whispering that he would get his copy of the book signed at some more peaceful moment. I didn’t see either of them for a longish while after that.

Then I got Reema’s call.

“Are you very busy?” she asked “Or do you have time to come and see me? Coffee or something?”

I found her tone odd; her uncertainty was uncharacter­istic. I was used to a Reema who was commanding, almost brusque.

“Sure,” I said, “whenever it suits you and Ajit.”

“No, not Ajit. Just me. There’s something I need to discuss with you alone. In any case he is not in town and I’m not sure when he will be back.”

The house, when I reached it a couple of days later, was quiet and subdued, unlike what I had got used to during the dinners. A fresh feeling hung about the rooms as if the morning routine of sweeping, mopping and dusting had just been completed. Reema, dressed in black yoga pants and a loose white T-shirt, was sitting in the alcove where Ajit and I had briefly chatted during the last dinner. Her long hair, still black but for a narrow streak of grey on one side, was brushed back. If I didn’t have the background of our phone conversation, I would have thought she looked very well and relaxed.

As I settled down, she asked for the coffee to be brought in.

“You’re going to have it just like I do, okay? French press, dark roast, crispy French hearts to take off the bitter edge. You do have the choice of adding milk, and I know you don’t take sugar.”

I smiled and played along. She was trying to recover her usual confident manner. It was only after we had finished our first cup of coffee and she had spoken about my book and some of the reviews that she had seen that she turned to what had been troubling her.

Only when the coffee and herbal tea had been served to the guests and the mood in the room had turned warm and mellow did Ajit begin to perform his magic

“You must be wondering what this is all about,” she began, resting her chin on her hand and letting her shoulders slump, as if she had suddenly decided that keeping up a posture of strength was not worth it.

I kept quiet, letting her choose her direction.

“You have known Ajit longer than anyone else I know,” she continued. “In fact, you knew him years before I met him.”

I still didn’t want to say anything. But I knew that I had to speak to make her go on.

“Well, yes, even though as you know, we have led very different lives for decades.”

“That’s true, but old friends have an instinctive under­standing. Perhaps you can help me understand what’s happening to him. He’s been behaving very strangely for the last few weeks.”

“In the sense?”

“Well, very quiet for one…as if he’s in a world of his own. Nothing shared with me. Then there are these mysterious trips to strange places and he insists on going alone. Now he has gone to Kohima… I mean, Kohima? When I said I wanted to go with him we had an almighty fight and he just walked out.”

I found it all very surprising. I had always thought that they were two different personalities bound in a relation­ship but had managed to weld themselves successfully into a team, an efficient team that had powered him to the top of his profession and put them at the centre of Delhi’s charmed social circle.

Reema carried on, as if reading my thoughts.

“Yes, it’s all very strange. He even refused two Board offers. Very good companies at that. Just with those two, we could have carried on as if nothing had changed after his retirement. It’s as if I suddenly have no hold on him. I mean, for years I’ve told him what to do, how best to move on. I used to even tell him which colour tie to wear on which day, and he believed in my instincts and went along…and we didn’t do too badly, did we?” Involuntarily she waved her hand to take in the entire house, the com­fort, the opulence. “And now, it’s almost, almost as if he is under someone else’s influence.”

For a quick moment her large, dark eyes flashed penetratingly at my face, as if searching for some tell-tale sign that would reveal that I knew something she did not. But I knew nothing more and soon I left, making a vague promise that I would try to talk to Ajit and would see her again whenever she wanted.

Over the next few weeks, I called Ajit a couple of times and finally we met up for tennis. I couldn’t make out any change in him. If anything, he seemed more relaxed and it showed in his tennis; he made me feel flat-footed. After our game, he didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to return home. We ordered tea and buttered toast and sat on the lawn for a while. Without my asking, he mentioned his travels.

“Been in and out a bit, so couldn’t meet up or play as much as I should have.”

“Anything in particular?”

“No, just some places that I’ve been wanting to see.”


His “Hmm” and his non-committal expression did not encourage me to mention my conversation with Reema.

After that I let things drift. At sixty-six one is not so involved in the daily affairs of friends. More immedi­ate things—blood pressure, yoga, tax returns and the insistent need for an afternoon nap tend to come in the way. But a frantic call from Reema shook me out of my self-obsession. She wanted to see me immediately and was coming over right away.

When she came, she was in a state. Oversized dark glasses, her hair piled up in a messy bun, track pants and top. She flung her car keys and phone on the peg table and didn’t wait for me to ask any questions.

“Your friend,” she spoke through clenched teeth, “is a bastard.”

I stopped midway while putting on the kettle. This I had not expected.

“No, no, don’t you dare say anything in his defence. I know he’s a bastard because only a bastard does some­thing like this after thirty-two years of marriage.”

“But what happened?”

“What happened?! I will tell you what happened. A younger woman happened. That’s what happened. At his age, he decided to lose his freaking mind. No, no milk for me please. That’s what has been keeping him away, vanishing on those trips, to all the places she wanted to see. I bet he hasn’t been seeing anything beyond a pair of large….” She stopped, undid her bun and ran her fingers through her hair, while searching for a comb in her bag. She had pushed her dark glasses up on her forehead and I could see that she had been crying.

Frankly, I was shocked. I’d seen differences in tempera­ment and personality cast their shadow between them earlier but I had never seen any tendency in either of them to wander. Besides, I thought—perhaps going by my own standards—it was a bit late for that sort of thing. On the other hand, sometimes people waited for retirement to follow their heart when something like this would not im­pact their careers. I recalled the case of a diplomat friend— a man who had actually been at university with me and Ajit—who left his wife of thirty-six years two months after retirement and went off to live with an old girlfriend in Portugal. But Ajit…I’d never thought that he could have another person tucked away.

“But how do you know?” I knew that it was a stupid question even as the words left my mouth.

“A woman knows… a few days ago he moved into another room, with his clothes and books. Yesterday when I started to plan a dinner, he threw a fit. In fact, he threw a chair and broke a window. Have to fix the bloody thing now and my carpenter is in Orissa! He said he did not want to live with me anymore, he said…. he said that he wanted to live with someone else.

“No,” she continued, seeing the question in my eyes, “I don’t know who it is and frankly I don’t even care. As far as I am concerned, he can go and live with the devil herself. But if he thinks I’m going to give him a divorce, set him free to philander after giving him my best years, he is sorely mis­taken. I will remain his wife for the rest of his years, and this, this woman will remain only a mistress, a bloody slut.”

I found it all very surprising. I had always thought that they were two different personalities bound in a relationship but had managed to weld themselves successfully into a team, an efficient team

There wasn’t much for me to say and she sat quietly for a while after finishing her coffee. When she left, I was overcome with anger at Ajit, at his selfishness, his child­ishness and his stupidity.

I was in fact so angry that I stopped trying to call him up for tennis. But one day I saw him parking his car at the club and walking towards the courts, his tennis bag slung over his shoulder.

“Hullo, stranger,” he called, smiling broadly.

I greeted him civilly enough but it was clear that my anger was coming in the way.

“I know, I know,” he said, still smiling. “Reema has been talking to you. In our last argument the other day she said that even you, one of my dearest and oldest friends, thought that I am the biggest fool on earth.”

“Hardly the place to talk about these things,” I said, walking towards an open court.

“Yes, hardly and not enough time. I am moving to the hills for a while. You are always welcome to come and have a chat. For now, truce? And a game?”

Three months after that last game, I got a message from Ajit that he was in Mashobra and would be delighted if I came. Another message a few days later was accompanied by a photograph of a spreading valley and receding hills, a view from his balcony. But it was only when he called that I felt it was a serious invitation. I also realised that I had just been waiting for that call, my curiosity having long overcome my anger. I did not tell Reema that I was going up to see him: she might have seen it as a betrayal of the confidences she had shared with me. Besides, it would have validated what she always said, that in such situa­tions men always stuck together.

It took me longer than it should have to reach Mashobra that day. A section of the road was being four-laned. Ugly yellow machines were ruthlessly gouging out the silent protesting mountains and the traffic had to slow down for miles. But finally, nine hours after leaving Delhi, I drove up to the sinuous bazaar.

Ajit stayed in a set of low blocks with green roofs, each a set of four apartments, that scrambled down the moun­tainside. He greeted me warmly at the gate and together we went down a winding paved path, still wet from the afternoon rain. It was a pretty place, fresh and faintly cool. Ajit looked well, dressed in his trademark black corduroys, which I suppose he could wear in the hills all the year round if he wanted, and a soft black cardigan with large pockets.

‘And these four years,’ he said, ‘I want to spend the way I like, doing the things I want to do, not have to do. These are the things I am doing here. Walking in these forests, quiet evenings with my books’

The apartment was lit by the warm glow of the late evening sun. Beyond the large glass windows was a nar­row balcony running the entire length of the apartment. I recognised the view that he had sent me in the message. The last light was leaving the deep valley that lay below the Mashobra ridge. On the left a single peak dominated the view and right at its top I could see a white structure, possibly a temple, where a light had already come on. A dusky haze lightly covered the far peaks and across the hills the narrow roads curving away to distant villages could still be seen, faintly.

The kettle was already on the boil in what appeared to be a make-do kitchen: a shelf or two, a washbasin, a small fridge and a cooking plate. Ajit brought two mugs of tea and some cookies to the large table that stood at the centre of the room. It seemed to be a table for all purposes. It had his laptop, a Bluetooth speaker, piles of books and several yellow legal pads with scribbled notes. There was nothing much else in the room, a couple of armchairs, two dark green peg tables and a well-stocked bookshelf. I could see two more chairs out on the balcony. There was no hint of a feminine presence, no plants or flowers, no flowery cushions matching the curtains.

“It’s small, but just what I need. You’ll have a room all to yourself, small but hopefully cosy. If you feel cold, as you may on the first night, I’ll give you a hot water bottle. The bathroom is in the passage, I’m afraid. Why not stretch your legs for a bit and then we can have a drink. The food is coming from next door today; there’s a chap who rustles up some inventive stuff if you give him three hours’ notice; I already ordered, knowing what you like and what you don’t. Don’t worry, there’s no pumpkin.”

We both laughed at my old aversion to certain vegetables and for a minute it was old times.

When we sat on the balcony, the whisky between us, the wind chimes had begun to sing. A single bright star had appeared overhead and distant lights twinkled in surpris­ing numbers as far as one could see. There were more villages on those hills than I had thought. Occasionally, a snatch of music or a burst of laughter came from the bazaar above. For a while we spoke of inconsequential things—my journey, my next book, the people who stayed during the summer months in the other apartments, the proliferation of homestays in the area, the growing shortage of water…

It was only when he had poured our second drinks that Ajit turned to me squarely, reading the question in my eyes.

“I thought we would talk tomorrow, somewhere on a nice long hike, but you don’t seem too tired from the journey, so perhaps good to begin now.”

I kept quiet, waiting for him to go on.

“I have about four years to live, give or take a month or two,” he said, speaking evenly, staring out all the time into the valley.

“What nonsense!” I responded “How do you know? How does anyone know these things?”

“I know. I think I know. It’s the same power—gift, or curse—that enables me to bend forks and knives and remove bracelets. Just believe me that I know.

“And these four years,” he carried on, “I want to spend the way I like, doing the things I want to do, not have to do. These are the things I am doing here. Walking in these forests, quiet evenings with my books, writing when the mood takes me—nothing serious, just some stories that I may not care enough about to even have published…”

There was silence for a bit, just the sounds of the night.

Then I asked: “Presuming for a moment that you are right about this four-year nonsense, can’t you do all this in Delhi, at home, with Reema?”

He shook his head.

“I can no longer live that life. Reema wanted me to carry on as if we have forever. She wanted me to continue to waste my evenings in dinners, networking, pushing and shoving, earning more money. I have done that for three decades, and more. We don’t need anything. No more houses, cars, money; we have it all. There’s no way to make her understand or change. You see, all that actually makes her happy. Essentially nothing has changed. She is still my wife, and I’ve made sure that she will be very comfort­able. It’s just that now I live my life, spend the time I have in my way. Just look at that.”

He waved a hand to indicate the valley, the etched silhouettes of the mountains, the many more stars in the clear night.

“Would you not give up Board meetings for this, would you rather have this or dinners with people you can no longer stand, and don’t need to?”

Again, we sat in silence and I let my mind absorb all that he had said. Then I asked the question that still remained.

“Clearly you live alone here?”


“Then what about….?”

“The other woman?” He smiled, sighed deeply and shook his head. “There is no other woman. I had to give the impression that there was… I knew that was one thing Reema would not take, one thing that would set me free.”

A sudden gust of wind rose from the depths of the val­ley and the wind chimes went joyously mad. There was no need for any more conversation.

“Let’s go inside,” Ajit said “and have something to eat. But take this first.” And he handed me back the wristwatch that had somehow magically gone from my wrist to his.


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