1st Edition published in India by Vishwakarma Publications in December 2021
ISBN – 978-93-90869-19-0
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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I’D NEARLY GIVEN up on this book – and my writing career along with it. Nothing had panned out as expected and I was so done with the struggle, I decided to quit everything. It was time to give my life a new direction – find myself a proper job, to start with. I was announcing my decision to a close friend when I received a direct message on Twitter; it was from one of my wonderful readers, an African-American woman from Oklahoma called Avis. She wrote:
‘You should continue writing. Words are powerful. They have the power to change lives. They live on and I believe artists have unique opportunities to share their gifts with other members of the society. Know you will be in God’s hands and my prayers. – Avis’
I was a little surprised at the timing of the message, yes, but I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. My life is a series of such miracles and one thing I know for sure is that the divine never lets me quit. So I want to begin by thanking this loving energy for always having my back.
Next only to that I want to give a shout out to my stupendous tribe. Let me begin by thanking my friends at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, Bhubaneshwar: Dr. Achyuta Samanta, Iti Samanta, Dwiti Chandragupta Vikramaditya and Suraj Roy. Suraj especially helped me to understand the nuances of the Odia culture which features prominently in the book. I’d also like to thank Anu Choudhury for trusting me with her experiences of the Odia film industry.
Before I started writing this book, I knew nothing about the Parsi community. If it wasn’t for Jehangir Karkaria, three of my main characters would have been a ginormous mess. Thanks is also due to Cyrus Broacha for helping me to understand the other side of fame. Moreover, if I could write with any authenticity about the TV industry, the credit goes to Richa Sehgal, panel producer at a news channel, who took out the time to explain everything to me. I’d also like to thank Amit Kaushal for his football tips and Sonika Sharma for my uber-cool website.
Friends like Deepak Raja, Richard Cogan, Arnaud ‘Leo’ Pelletier, Paramjit Ghumaan, Gurinder Pal Singh, Elizabeth Pike, Elizabeth ‘Lizo’ Shahenian, and all of my old classmates from Bhavan Vidyalaya are a treasure for me! My life is full of bliss because of besties like Ava Suri, who’s ever ready to pamper me, even lose some weight for my events – and Sukhdeep Kaur, who’s always there for me. Some friends are god sent– I’d count Susann Sontag as one!
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to my literary agency, The Book Bakers, for all their hard work behind the scenes – and for designing an absolutely delightful book cover for me. My literary agent, Suhail Mathur is a rock star. He is every author’s dream!
I’d also like to thank the amazing team at Vishwakarma Publications for their solid support. It’s been a pleasure to work with them, especially as they make it all look so effortless.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family. I have my set of quirks and eccentricities and they happily put up with all of it, giving in to my endless requests for tea and what not. I dedicate this book to them: my loving parents, the five V’s who are all the centre of my life – Varun, Vandana, Vrinda, Veer, Vaayoni, and in the end, Manju, who’s just like my sister.
Most of all, I want to thank this one human being whose unwavering faith in me has carried me through the worst and the best of times. He is my Rock of Gibraltar, my go-to person for all things ‘life’ and the reason why I’m still doing what I love best. This book is to you, Jay!
My gratitude list will be incomplete without thanking my amazing readers. This book wanted to be written. I’m glad I was chosen for it. If it delights you, and speaks to you in any way, if you find its plot intriguing and its characters relatable, I’d have fulfilled my purpose. My only intention is to entertain as many of you as I can and I’d be happy to read your reviews of this book online. I’m a part of several communities of readers and writers on popular social media platforms and would love to connect with you all there. You could also share your views with me on: email@example.com. I thank you all once again. Sending you so much love, Vani!
ANDHERI, MUMBAI, INDIA
NIKI WALKS THROUGH the glass door of her office looking like a diva. She’s wearing a navy-blue flowing dress – the same one I’d gifted her yesterday. Is this a sign? Perhaps. The way she has tied her hair on top of her head in a ponytail, she reminds me of the Kardashians. I hate the Kardashians. I’m fidgeting with my hands, fighting the urge to remove her hair band, but it doesn’t help much. I place my hands underneath my thighs and focus on her eyes, instead. Her beautiful doe-shaped eyes. They look bleary. Maybe she didn’t sleep last night. Maybe she was thinking about me. The very thought makes me go red in the cheeks. That, and the way she waves at me. There is a lightness in her steps as she walks towards me. I notice her hips. They sway like a pendulum. I catch myself in time and shift my gaze to her face. Her lips are thin. Mere pencil lines. They curl into a smile the moment I stand up to greet her.
‘Hi,’ I say to her, pulling her in an embrace.
‘My, my, you smell wonderful!’ she responds in a husky voice, giving me a peck on the cheek. ‘Seems like you’re ready to roll, mister.’
I’m so lost in the feeling of that kiss that I can barely muster a word. ‘Yes,’ I finally mutter.
‘Good. Let me sort out my makeup and then we are on – you and me.’
‘Niki,’ I interrupt, ‘you look beautiful just the way you are. You don’t need makeup.’
‘You know what,’ she says, and covering her mouth with her hand, she rises on her toes and whispers, ‘you don’t look too bad yourself. I quite like that stubble of yours.’ She giggles like a child and proceeds to the dressing room, leaving me at the reception of 7TV network where I take my place next to three girls on the sofa who are all staring at me.
‘Do you like my jacket?’ I ask them. They don’t reply. Maybe they are shy. Maybe they don’t understand my accent. Who knows? I spend the next few minutes looking around the office. Niki’s office. It looks swanky like her. Next to the entrance on the right, there’s a door that opens into a hall with several cubicles. From where I’m sitting, I can see that the workstations are sleek, furniture is contemporary, and all the walls are covered in musical murals – staff, treble clef and bass clef. Behind me, there is a suite of rooms with their doors bearing different metallic plates – Dressing Room, Studio, Production Control Room, Master Control Room and so on. In front of me, there’s a long, unlit corridor that leads up to the bathrooms.
I’m thinking about Niki and how she must love this place when someone shakes my shoulder and says ‘tea’ in a hoarse voice. As I turn around, my hand knocks over the Styrofoam cup spilling its contents on the floor, leaving brown stains on my beige trousers. The old, stodgy man, probably the office helper, is still bleating apologies as I spring to my feet and grab his collar. However, before I’ve said a word, I notice the security guards. They look alarmed. There are five of those guarding this place as if it were a freaking fortress.
I swallow my anger, pick up the cup, toss it in the bin and send the man away. The moment he leaves, I find myself pacing the floor. My breathing is fast and I’m breaking out in cold sweat. Did I take my medication today? No. Yesterday? No. How many doses have I missed so far? Two, no, three, I guess. Cursing myself internally, I walk towards the receptionist.
‘Do you’ve a…’ I say to her and stop. What am I going to ask her? ‘Hello! I’m a guest on Niki’s TV show this evening. Do you’ve a…a…something to calm my nerves?’
‘Nervous, eh?’ she says, pulling out a strip of tablets from her purse. ‘Try Alprax. I use it whenever I get stressed or –’
I snatch the strip from her, peel the wrapper off and swallow two tablets at a time. ‘Don’t care why you use it, as long as it works, it’s fine by me,’ I tell her, in a sudden gush of confidence.
Fifteen minutes later, my hands are still ice cold, but that maybe because I’m nervous. I haven’t proposed to anyone before this. I wasn’t even planning to, until Niki came along. She’s different. She has an effect on people. When you’re around her, you want to touch her, cuddle her and listen to her. I’d have loved to date her, take her out on long drives, make love to her in my new Mustang, but she’s not girlfriend material, she’s marriage material.
Niki emerges from the dressing room wearing a black crop top and a pair of ripped jeans. Her eyes are laden with thick eye-liner and mascara. Her lips are painted red. She looks hideous as a witch, a close match to Annabelle, the haunted doll. My dream girl, the girl I’m going to propose to this evening looks as hateful as the Bride of Chucky. Joker from The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, before I’ve had the time to calm down, I find Niki waving at me.
‘I need to use the bathroom,’ I tell her, hobbling down the long, unlit corridor.
‘Hey, be quick,’ I hear her shout, ‘we’ll be on air in a few minutes.’ I pretend as if I haven’t heard her. Once inside the bathroom, I punch the large mirror on the wall, delighting in the mess that I’ve created. Then I wash my face, pat it dry with a tissue and remind myself why I came here, to India, to Niki’s office. I check the diamond ring in my pocket and walk outside to find a man with spiked hair waiting for me.
‘Do you mind hopping into the dressing room?’ he asks me. ‘I need to touch-up your face.’
Aha! It looks like I’ve found the person who put all that makeup on Niki’s face. I nod and fall in step behind this man. He’s half my height, quarter my weight, and no match to me. Even otherwise, I’m a rich man’s kid. I’d never “touch-up” anyone’s face for a million pounds. This man probably lives in a dingy Mumbai chawl and has several mouths to feed. I pity all those mouths. They might go hungry for a few days.
Bolting the door of the dressing room, I tackle the man’s right leg with my left, and elbow him in the face. No blood shed. No broken bones. He slumps to the floor like a popped party balloon and passes out. If I were on a football pitch, my aggression would have earned me a suspension. I don’t know what this man is going to do when he comes to. Call the security guards? Report me to the police? Seems plausible. I empty out a cupboard, stuff his tiny frame inside it and exit the room pretending as if nothing ever happened here.
Niki’s waiting for me at the door of the studio, and the way she looks at me, I melt. I keep staring at her eyes trying to imagine how she will react when I propose to her. Will she be happy? Well, she better be. After all, I’m playing it out exactly the way she tweeted a couple of days ago:
‘What fun will it be to be proposed on live TV… #wishing #PrinceCharming’
My chain of thoughts is suddenly interrupted by Niki. She tugs at my hand and drags me inside the studio where a lanky man in a thin moustache, probably the camera assistant, is waiting for us. The latter gives her an earphone so she can take instructions from the production control room and adjusts lapel mics on the collar of her crop top and on my jacket.
‘How do you like my set?’ Niki asks me, her eyes brimming with excitement.
I look around and find myself surrounded by several cameras and plasma screens. We’re going to stand on a raised, circular platform in the centre of the studio which has blue curtains in the background and large umbrella lights flanking it on both sides.
‘A curtain for a background? That’s awful!’ I say to her in all earnestness. ‘It’s worse than being at a photo booth in Sainsbury’s. I thought we’d have a nice scenery or a waterfall – ’
‘Hold on,’ Niki says. ‘Have you heard about the Chroma keying technique?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No problem,’ she says. ‘The production team will digitally switch this blue curtain into a nice background Chroma they have prepared for my show. It’s quite simple.’
As we take our positions on the platform and face the camera, I finally get to see our image popping up on the plasma screen. Albeit, in place of the curtain, there is a cream-coloured background with I Feel You! written on its top left, alongside the logo of 7TV network. I was unnecessarily worried. Niki and I look lovely as a couple. This is how we’re going to look in our wedding pictures, too. Except, I’ll have none of that garish makeup.
‘Your lipstick is all over your teeth, Niki,’ I say to her.
‘Is it?’ she says, and cries into the lapel mic to send someone from the dressing room.
‘I can help you, if you want.’ Then without waiting for an answer, I pull out my handkerchief and wipe her face with it. She does not resist, which means she trusts me. Her lips are wet and I want to kiss her full on, but the camera assistant is looking at me. I’ve got to get rid of him.
‘Niki,’ I whisper, ‘I’m slightly nervous, you know. Does this happen to people?’
‘Yeah, yeah, all the time. Take a deep breath and relax,’ she says, calling out to her camera assistant. ‘Kale, could you get me a bottle of water? Need it badly here.’ The man has no sooner left the studio than she takes a selfie with me and tweets it to her followers on Twitter:
‘Shout out to all #IFeelYou lovers. Your fav VJ Niki D is here to rock the episode with a special guest this evening. Catch me live in a few secs. xoxo’
She’s taking instructions from someone on the earphone when I slide away from the range of the camera and lock the door of the studio so no one can enter it. I switch on my phone, and I’m placing it over the roof of the teleprompter when I hear Niki’s voice ring in my ears.
‘Stop fidgeting with the machines, Sam, and standby. We’ll be going live in forty seconds,’ she says. ‘Wouldn’t be long before we take a break and then you can have some water.’
‘Sure,’ I reply, checking my image on the plasma screen once again. When I was a child, I liked being compared to Cristiano Ronaldo: we both have razor-sharp cheekbones and dark eyes and hair. Not so now. I love my face and I’m glad it doesn’t look like Ronaldo’s. As I smoothen the creases of my leather jacket, I realise that it is making me look over-clothed. Shall I remove it? There’s no time for that, I guess.
‘6…5…4,’ Niki is saying when I check the box of ring in my pocket for the umpteenth time, ‘3…2…and cue.’
I’m still struggling to believe that this is happening when Niki takes off at full throttle.
‘Hello, and a big hug to all you guys out there. This is your favourite VJ, anchor and host, Niki D, and I welcome you all to today’s episode of I Feel You!, sponsored by Cakes and Mocha – the perfect coffee place in the whole wide world,’ she says and pauses to let the applause track die down. ‘Cheers to all my viewers for making IFY! the number one teen phone-in show, across five countries of the world. Here’s wishing us many more exciting episodes of great music and spicy chats. For all those of you wanting to talk to me about love, hate, breakups, betrayals and relationships, my number just popped up on your screen.’ She smiles into the camera making a call me gesture. ‘This evening, I want you all to say hello to Sameer who has flown all the way from London to be here. He watches all our episodes and if there’s anything else he loves more than this show, it is football, right, Sameer?’
‘Yes. That’s correct.’
‘However, just as we talk, I do remember you telling me something about being a United fan as well. What is that?’
‘Manchester United…’ ‘…which is?’
‘…one of the most famous football clubs in the world. I thought you knew.’
‘Na! never heard of it,’ she replies with a sheepish grin. ‘Honestly, I know nothing about football. But, but, I do know about a lot of other things, and we could talk about those.’
I give her an enthusiastic nod and maybe that’s all the encouragement she needs.
‘Would you like to say something to our viewers before we take a commercial break?’ she asks me – and well, this is the exact moment I was waiting for. Time to act.
‘I’d like to say something to you, not to your viewers, Niki,’ I say to her and disregarding the look of confusion on her face, I pluck the ring out of my pocket, bend my left knee and stretch my right leg out in front of her. ‘You wanted to be proposed on live TV, didn’t you?’
Her voice falters as she says, ‘y-yes.’
‘This is it, then, Niki. I love you and I want you to be mine forever.’ I’m looking deep into her eyes hoping to see love, but she looks terrified as if I just sucker-punched her. She shakes her head as if in response to a question and it is then that I’m reminded of her earphone. Better to have no one disturb us while we’re at it, so I stand up, pluck the ridiculous, skin-coloured device out of her right ear and hear a woman’s voice boom from the other side.
‘…keep calm, Niki…we’re going to switch to a song…’ she is telling her.
‘You’ll do nothing of the sort, woman! This was Niki’s dream. No one dare mess with it!’ I say to her, looking at the camera. ‘And by the way, just in case you think you can distract your viewers by playing a song, I’m live streaming this event on YouTube via my phone. So whether you air it or not, at least a few YouTubers will ensure that this video goes viral.’
Niki tries to run but I clasp her wrist and pull her back. I’m about to start again when I hear a voice from some overhead speaker in the studio. It is way up and out of my reach.
‘You dare not harm, Nikita!’ it says. ‘Let her go!’
I recognise this voice and laugh. ‘It seems your ex-boyfriend is getting all mushy about you.’
Niki’s face looks ashen. Why is she not smiling now? I’m fulfilling her fantasy, after all. The least she could do is lift her hands up in the air and wave kisses to everyone who’s watching us. Maybe her ex-boyfriend is distracting her.
‘Nikita, he’s armed,’ Cyrus shouts from the production control room.
‘No, he’s not,’ she says into her lapel mic.
‘We didn’t screen his prosthesis,’ Cyrus replies, ‘he might be hiding a weapon in that.’
I remove my prosthesis and the small rusted knife I’d placed inside its socket falls onto the floor. ‘Listen, Mr. Cyrus Daruwalla,’ I say, pointing my weapon at the camera, ‘if you don’t shut up, I’m going to kill both of us, and I mean it.’
My threat has the desired effect. The cacophony stops.
I bend my left knee and this time when I stretch the stump of my right leg out in front of Niki, it hurts. Is that a good sign? No. I’m jabbing my ring at Niki’s chest when she slaps me hard on the face. My head swings from left to right. I’m facing the plasma screen now and we’re not a pleasant sight.
‘Let’s do this once again, Niki,’ I say to her calmly. ‘All you need to do is say yes.’
‘Please let me go,’ she says, and starts running towards the door of the studio. She’s dragging a chair to open the bolt when I hop towards her. She slaps me again, crying she repeats, ‘I hate you; I hate you; I hate you.’
I can’t believe my ears. Why does Niki hate me? I didn’t do anything to her. In fact, I came all the way from London to meet her. Hell, I sold a Monet belonging to my father to buy this diamond ring for her. She can’t reject me. She better not. A strange madness is taking control of me. There’s only one thought playing in my mind: If Niki can’t belong to me, she can’t belong to anyone else. This must end here. For me. For her. For both of us.
Niki is standing on the chair, fidgeting with the bolt when I stab her with my knife. Blood comes spurting out of her back and she falls on the floor squealing in pain. I ignore all the shouting and screaming from the production control room, hold the grip of the knife and pull it out. Niki is squirming on the floor, tears rolling down her beautiful brown eyes. I wait for her to stop moving. Then I drag her body to the raised platform in the centre of the studio. We’re both visible on the plasma screen, though this is not quite the way I imagined it to be. I remove the soft strands of hair covering her face and kiss her lips. They are mine now. I can feel tears of love welling up in my eyes as I hug her for the last time. Wiping her blood from the knife on my leather jacket, I place it on my stomach and plunge it inside with full force. Blood comes gushing out of my body. The pain is excruciating. Before I close my eyes, I slip the diamond ring onto Niki’s finger and kiss it.
Seconds later, I find her sliding her hand away from me. Is she still alive? No…this can’t be…I need to stab her again…slash her throat…but…I can’t get up…I am feeling a shortness of breath…I can’t see…and then… ‘Niki, you’re mine,’ I cry out and speak no more.
I cough up blood and start breathing. For a moment, I feel such dizzying pain in my head that I’m unable to see a thing. Then I see him: Sameer Seth. He’s lying in a pool of our blood, holding my ring finger. I slide my hand from underneath his. He clutches me, then loosens his grip. I dare not check his pulse. What if he wakes up and stabs me again?
I can hear loud noises from outside the studio. Someone is trying to kick, hammer and saw the door all at the same time. I don’t recognise these voices, except one: Cyrus. He’s yelling my name in a loop, telling me how much he loves me and that I shouldn’t give up. ‘Silly!’ I mutter, and that too is an effort. A spasm of pain cruises through my body and makes me shudder. There’s blood all over me. I don’t know how many times this psycho has stabbed me. I can barely remember what happened.
I can’t run, so I drag myself to the door and keep staring at the bolt, faintly registering the kicks. I can’t hear very clearly now. I think I’m dying, even though I never wanted to die like this. For all my sweetness and charm, I deserved a much more glamourous death. Think Marilyn Monroe. Think Princess Diana. Think Michael Jackson. I should have had a choice in matters of death. God is unfair is all I can say at this moment.
I try to smile through my pain because that looks like the only reasonable thing to do, then I give up. I can’t play-act anymore. Niki D, VJ, anchor and host of a TV show is dead. She’ll never stand on the studio floor again facing the cameras, flashing her showgirl smile. She’ll never take phone-in requests from her teen viewers. Nikita Dash is all that remains now. That nineteen-year-old girl who ran away from her house in Bhubaneshwar and came to Mumbai. And by the looks of it, even she won’t survive very long. A couple of minutes at the max.
I ignore the throbbing pain in my chest and rub my eyes. Something is wrong with this room. Why else would the umbrella lights and the plasma screens be whirling in the air? Once again, I catch myself looking at the door bolt. Then I ask myself: ‘You are moments away from your death, Nikita, do you really want your last thoughts to be about a door bolt?’
I take a deep breath and try to think about my family. My father nearly disowned me when I told him I wanted to be a VJ. Had it not been for my mother, I wouldn’t have done any of the things I did and met any of the interesting people I met, especially Cyrus. I wasn’t fair to him and I wish I could apologise to him. There’s so much that I want to tell him, but I don’t think I’ve the time for a full-on chat session now. I’d be lucky if I get my next breath.
I hold my stomach and rest my head against the wall, trying my best to ignore the yells from outside the studio door. The pain is growing, and all of a sudden, I start to think about the person who gave it to me. I thought he was my biggest fan, at least that’s what he said to me. I almost thought we could be best friends, go out for coffee together, but I never realised he wanted to propose to me. Surprising as he didn’t even know me, nor I him. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he stab me?