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The Valentine day programme started off with the obligatory distribution of the eclairs, single roses and cards amid cheering and whistling from the boys’ side.
Who thought being beautiful could be a curse? Anamika thought so. She should know- born with utterly beautiful skin, hair and the most delicate features, she was what most people would consider conventionally good-looking.
From the time she was a pretty baby she was bestowed with special attention. People coochie-cooed over her prettiness and remarked how exquisite she was. They fawned over her during her childhood years and were mesmerized by her increasingly breathtaking beauty as she turned into a teenager. Relatives advised her mother to ward off the evil eye, the buri nazar. So her mother used a dot of kajal under her jawline- always. Everyone assumed that Anamika would have no trouble finding a suitable boy in an arranged marriage, that is if she hadn’t already found a boyfriend by then.
Anamika was not Anamika’s real name. But this was the name she gave prospective suitors, of which there were many. In fact, friends teased that there was a queue of boys pursuing her. Anyone else who was in Anamika’s position would probably be very pleased with their life- who wouldn’t be? The world was falling at her feet. Compliments, attention, the head turning second looks. The lead role in plays offered to her on a platter although she had stage fright- the perks of being beautiful were too many.
Then of course there was the queue of boys which deserves further description.
The queue consisted of boys in her class, uncles in her colony, watchmen in her coaching class, professors in her college and the nameless roadside Romeos in the college canteen, at the train station and even third cousins at wedding who all lined up like salivating wolves behind her.
It’s not that Anamika did not like attention. She did. It’s just that along with being pretty she also happened to have the IQ of a rocket scientist, although she nurtured dreams of becoming a forensic scientist. She much rather preferred a game of chess than checking herself out in the mirror. Of course the mirror on the wall loved her.
But it did not take Anamika long to realize that the burden of being beautiful could lie so heavy on her pretty shoulders. She had to prove to people that she actually had a brain inside the thick, flowing mane of hair and that brain was sharper and faster than most people she met. Just as most boys fell hopelessly in love with Anamika at first sight, most girls hated her at first sight. They would also viciously assume she was dumb and then if she happened to ace a test, they would spread rumours that the professor was partial to her.
“Arey, she doesn’t have to study, her face is enough”
It was another story that although professors lusted after her, she did not give them any attention. On the contrary, she went to great extents to ward off attention for how she looked. In fact, during face to face examinations, Anamika made it a point to look as unattractive as possible. She would take some of the kajal from the dot that her mother still painstakingly applied under her jawline and rub it under her eyes to make fake dark circles. She also emptied nearly half a bottle of coconut oil on her hair and tied tight plaits. Despite her efforts, much to her dismay, she still looked nearly as beautiful. However, the professors would find it hard to concentrate on her looks when she started talking and spouting knowledge that they had to later, double check in textbooks. They would nod in disbelief as if one so beautiful wasn’t meant to have a brain this clever.
If there was one day in the year that Anamika loathed, it was Valentine’s day. As if all year- round attention wasn’t enough, here was a special day created for boys brimming with testosterone to unleash their romantic potential. The day that the Romeos could give vent to their creativity and enterprise. Was it going to roses or chocolates? Bouquets or a single stem? Individual eclairs or a whole box? Was it going to be a proposal or was it simply going to be an extension of ‘frandship’ to someone who did not even know of their existence. Then there was another was another dilemma- Woo one girl or several girls? It was like a lottery after all- the more tickets you buy the greater your chance of winning. These gleeful thoughts ran in the minds of the many boys in the queue, all through the month of January. By the time February arrived, their modus operandi was ready.
Anamika had seen much action in her short life. By now, the roses bored her and the chocolates made her yawn. That year there was much excitement in her college. Some enterprising boys decided that eclairs and roses were passè and that something more exciting was needed to spice up Valentines day. After all, how many romantic messages could be written in the 2 Rupees card that was popular every year. The boys on a shoestring budget would write in their two-bit poetry on a coloured card paper bought in college and sign off. The anonymous Romeo would sign off in illegible writing- the thrill of writing was enough, it required too much courage to reveal one’s identity- That’s it and off went the card by hand-delivery to the lady love who would either accept it or more often, toss it in the garbage bin after a few giggles. The eclair stood a better chance of being accepted as it was eaten up straightaway but the accompanying card discarded in the same bin which overflowed on V-day.
Anamika had one notorious suitor, Laalmani who was at the front of the queue. At the front, because he was a much-feared character who had shoved and muscled his way to the front of others. Over the years, he had failed his exams several times and at an age when he should be a professor was still rubbing shoulders with students. That itself filled most people with dread and the boys in the queue let him go ahead of them.
Now, it was one thing giving out roses, cards and eclairs innocently on one day of the year. But Laalmani, being Laalmani crossed the line too many times well before the day he officially got a chance to exhibit his sleaze. Before V-day arrived, he honed his romantic skills by singing a recent release ‘Jumma Chumma de de’ to any girl who passed by. It gave vent to his frothy, bubbling masculinity. There was no shame in asking for a kiss publicly if a Bollywood hero had given it the stamp of approval! It was another thing that nobody in their right mind would ever want to have anything to do with his filthy, gutkha-stained mouth which saw a toothbrush only three times a week. He usually hung around with his cronies who were also at an age where they could be escorting kids to kindergarten. The cronies were nameless and shameless, known only as Laalmani’s yaars. They hung on each other with locked arms as if they would fall if unsupported. If Laalmani grew in confidence it was largely his yaars who were responsible. They applauded his singing, patting him on his back as he smoothed down his oily, middle-parted hair. Laalmani’s vocal chords were every bit as badly behaved as him. They screeched, howled, and sank lower each time. His loyal yaars tried to provide a chorus to his off-key singing, but failed miserably. The cronies also hissed “Kiss me, kiss me” to unsuspecting girls as they passed by. They also encouraged Laalmani’s literary pass-times which mainly included writing filthy graffiti on the walls of the girls’ hostel. Laalmani began to believe that he could achieve anything at least in the romance department.
Among the many activities planned for Valentine’s day in college was a new enterprise called Valentine Bouquet auction. Not many people knew what an auction was except the organizing final year students.
The students gathered in the main hall of college. Of course there was a choice of not attending such events. But most did as there was little else by way of entertainment in college for a long time during the year. The annual day was not until November.
The girls gathered in their groups, sitting on one side of the aisle, while the boys hung separately with their coteries on the other side. A few couples hung shyly at the back in the dark. In those days, public display of affection was blasphemous, let alone acceptable. Just in front of the couples, sat Laalmani and his yaars.
A huge bouquet of luscious red roses had been bought for Rs.20 at the phoolwala outside college. It sat in a wicker basket, covered by a glittery cellophane paper, making it look more expensive than it was worth. The bouquet took centre stage and stood on a stand like a trophy ready for the finale.
The Valentine’s day programme started off with the obligatory distribution of the eclairs, single roses and cards amid cheering and whistling from the boys’ side.
Girls dreaded the moment their name was called and reluctantly went forward to receive their Valentine present. Some rejoiced inwardly. Some cringed on reading the name on the card. Some were just grateful to receive something but refused to divulge the name of the suitor.
It wasn’t surprising that there were no cards, roses or eclairs for the boys. They were simply content to see the surprise on the face of their loved one or loved ones.
That year, Laalmani had lecherous eyes only for Anamika although he did sometimes wonder if he should have a back-up. He had planned on giving Anamika seven roses. One for each letter in her fictitious name. But the deadline for sending the roses had passed and his roses did not get sent. He was already furious at this yaars for not reminding him and even kicked one of his yaars, so he could remind him next year.
The hall filled with the fragrance of roses and eclairs. Eclairs wrappers and torn cards littered the aisle. It was now time for the bouquet auction. For Laalmani and his cronies, this was a new experience. They thought they had seen it all in their many years in college. Checking the dictionary meaning of the word ‘auction’ was out of question because the library was unknown territory for them despite knowing the college inside out.
The organizing students were led by the student leader who armed himself with a microphone and screamed to the crowd who was already on a sugar rush.
‘Ok, now it’s time for the grand Valentine day auction. Are you with me”
The boys cheered. The girls looked on nervously.
“Alright, we are going to start with bidding at 25 Rupees”
“Do we have anyone for 25?” the student leader cried out, worried that this was not going too well. He signaled to one of his cronies to start the bid. The crony lifted his hand.
“Ok we have 25.” The crowd cheered not really understanding much
“Do we have a higher bid? 30 anyone?”
The crowd was just puzzled. What happens now?
“Any dashing boys who would like to bid higher?” the leader screamed.
One boy from 2nd year put his hand up.
“Ok we have 30 from the gentleman in 2nd year”. The crowd cheered, warming up to this.
Laalmani and his yaars looked around wondering why the crowd was cheering.
“Ok anyone for 35?” the leader tried his luck. He was already fed up shouting his lungs out over the mic trying to convince people how popular this game was. He longed to go out for his cigarette and wished it would get over soon. 10 Rupees profit was enough- he could buy a few more cigarettes with it.
“Anyone bidding for more than 30. C’mon guys you can do better than this” he roared enthusiastically.
Laalmani and his yaars had finally cottoned on to this auction thing. He raised his hand lazily.
“Ok we have Mr Laalmani Sir at the back. How much do you bid Sir?”
The yaars whispered among themselves.
“50 bol” Laalmani commanded. He needed some thrills today. He looked at the giggling girls on the other side of the aisle, trying to spot Anamika.
“Ok we have 50. Fantastic, things are heating up now”
“Anyone more than 50?”
A boy from final year lifted his hand up.
“70” he said, sacrificing nearly all his pocket money for one month.
The crowd in the hall cheered lustily. It wasn’t every day that an auction took place.
Laalmani was not one to be outdone. His yaars poked and prodded him and he decided if he should kick them or get a kick by upping his ante. He decided on the latter.
“90 Rupees” he screamed hoarsely, excited by the number. He knew he would never score 90 in his tests but this 90 was definitely doable.
“90 from Laalmani Sir”
“Anyone for higher? 100 anyone?”
A wannabe Laalmani in first year decided he would risk it.
“100” he screamed. The crowd went crazy and roared. Here was a new hero and that too from first year.
The girls restrained themselves. They laughed, but into their hankies or dupatta ends and craned their necks to see who this daredevil was. Anamika debated if she should leave the hall and go to the library, but her friends pulled her back. The action was just heating up.
“Anyone for more than 100? Do we have a new challenge?”
Laalmani’s yaars provoked him further. They could not allow a new competitor on the scene. It was a question of their reputation. Laalmani was getting a bit irritated now. He just wanted to get out of the hall for a dose of gutkha.
Without thinking he lifted his hand.
“How much do you bid Sir?
“150” said Laalmani lazily.
The yaars were shocked by this sudden jump in the stakes. But Laalmani was nonplussed.
“Anyone for 150?”
Laalmani’s competitor who was equally crazy shouted immediately “200” knowing he could never afford 200 unless he took a loan from his buddies.. The crowd cheered lustily.
“More than 200 anyone?” The senior screamed with delight. He was busy making plans with the profits for his own Valentine’s night at a special restaurant.
Laalmani was incensed by this sudden increase in stakes. Could he afford 200 Rupees? It was his gutkha allowance and bus money for a week. Just then he spotted Anamika’s pretty face in the crowd and to his sheer thrill, she happened to look in his direction. She happened to have a small smile on her face or at least he imagined it. Laalmani did not need any further coaxing. It was a small sacrifice he told himself. He wouldn’t eat gutkha for a month and he would walk to college.
“300” he bellowed with pleasure.
The hall fell silent. An astronomical sum of 300 Rupees for that bouquet? Was Laalmani out of his mind?
The first year student fell silent. He could no longer muster the courage to go further. Laalmani looked around and expected applause. But the students just whispered among themselves. Then someone giggled and then some more giggles and then more, until the hall reverberated with laughter. Laalmani did not know if he should laugh or cry. He tried to be brave thinking of the bouquet he had won. He reminded himself that he had never won anything in his life.
The organizer was afraid of being beaten up by Laalmani and his cronies. Instead of joining the laughter of the crowd, he invited Laalmani to come up on stage to receive the bouquet.
“I now declare Mr Laalmani Sir the Valentine King”.
This wasn’t Laalmani’s first time on stage, He had broken up many functions with his rowdy behaviour in the past. But it was his first time being honoured. The epithet of Valentine King was his. It had come at a price but was worth it.
The crowd decided to humour him and were rapturous in their applause. Laalmani greedily grabbed the bouquet, a bit annoyed that he couldn’t smell the roses through the cellophane paper. He waved at the crowd as if he had won an Olympics gold medal.
“Sir who do you dedicate this bouquet to?” the organizer asked in feigned innocence.
There was only person he could think of.
“Anamika” he squeaked. And then finding his voice roared, “ANAMIKA”
“Who is Anamika?” the organizer asked the crowd. The crowd fell silent.
There was no one by that name. But the crowd knew who he was referring to.
“Can I request Anamika to come up on stage?” the organizer demanded.
Anamika did not have to go on stage. That was not even her real name. But she decided she must.
There was pin- drop silence as she walked slowly and purposefully up the steps. She looked at the crowd in the hall and then at Laalmani.
“I will accept the bouquet only on one condition” she announced.
“Yes sure” the organizer nodded, as Laalmani stood, tapping his feet, impatiently. The trophy was his and the bigger trophy was about to be his too. His cronies sat at the edge of their seats ready to break into a dance.
“I want you to sing a song for me- Jumma Chumma De De is my favourite” she said sweetly into the microphone. The crowd erupted with excitement and then fell quiet. All eyes and ears focused on Laalmani.
The chorus group of yaars sitting in the audience became dumb statues. The time for singing a solo number had come. They had to let him do it alone.
A sudden spasm erupted within Laalmani’s vocal chords which matched the sudden contraction of his bladder.The excitement of being Valentine King was too much. He stood mute, motionless and blank. All he saw was darkness explode in front of his eyes.
Check and mate.
Image source: a still from the film Tere Naam
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