The Rich and Almost Famous

I stood in the yielding mud with my best shoes on. As my heels dug in with every step, my heart sank a little. I was just a regular girl in the middle of the horse stable in all my finery (floral, fitting dress and fancy shoes) and an irregular heart. But I sucked in my breath (and my tummy) and hurried behind Maanan - my host for the evening. He pointed at Blue Moon, a handsome guy with a shining coat and profound eyes, and declared him his favourite. I stopped before Blue Moon and made eye contact. If the favourite horse of the richest man in Uganda can wallow in the mud then so can your shoes, he breathed. I straightened my back, corrected my gait, and weighed on my heels. The awkward light-toed walk instantly disappeared. All was well in la-la land again.

Later that night as the guest sat by the sparkling pool in the teasing winds of Jinja, I relaxed with a glass of pinot-noir in my hand. Olga, Jill, Emily and I were staying in a nearby resort and had just missed the first ever organized polo match in the history of Uganda. As the sky above sparkled and the wine flowed, our excuses for missing the match became more animated. Emily arrived late from Entebbe. No, Jill was getting us fresh bagels. Actually, Ishita took forever with her hair dryer. You know what, Olga drove Jill’s car like a maniac and that’s why it smoked and smoked and we screamed and screamed. Amidst the lazy banter and the cheerful company, I etched in my memory my first brush with the rich and almost famous of Uganda.

After dinner, as we were driving towards the local lounge Jill’s car smoked and smoked and spluttered something indecipherable and finally died. Luckily I managed to pull over to the side of the road, Jill congratulated herself. The cars whizzed by, vaguely conscious of our bright parking lights and Olga made a quick call to Maanan. Damsels in distress, she SOSed. Minutes later, he was by our side taking complete control of the situation. He knew some people, he said. He left Jill’s car at the closest petrol station (it miraculously made the 50 meter journey) and shook hands with the owner in a significant way. Yes, Maanan knew some petrol station owners and car mechanics too. The distressed damsels piled into his SUV and made it to the local lounge.

The night ended uneventfully after a round of drinks and a repaired car. Jill drove it back to our resort with steely determination. We had breakfast the next day and sunbathed for a while and I didn’t think this particular weekend needed a special post. Because, it still hadn’t sunk in that the rich family in Uganda was really the richest family in Uganda. Or that the polo match was the first ever in Ugandan history. Or that it would make Tuesday’s national daily. All I understood at that point was that I had vacationed at a rather lovely resort and dined with some affluent people. Nothing significant.

But things changed that weekend when the half English-half Japanese beautiful man fell in love with me at the sunglass party. You know, he whispered over the din, and this may sound very cheesy but you have the most genuine smile I have ever seen. I widened my smile at him and nodded vigorously. Yes, you are right, that was cheesy. My lower teeth appeared and joined in the gambit to flash a full blast of sparkling pearlies. The beautiful man staggered a little and leaned over to plant a kiss on my cheek. My jaw began to ache.

As the night wore on, we kept exchanging small talk. We also exchanged our sunglasses. The beautiful man told me that he had found his red pair in Tanzania. When a boda driver appeared out of nowhere and almost killed him, the beautiful man had asked for his fanciful shades. It is the least he owed me, he explained. I kept smiling my genuine smile.

But he didn’t forget his glasses. When it was finally time to leave at the magic hour, Olga and I said our goodbyes and started walking away. The beautiful man came running after me. My glasses! He shrieked. You know how precious they are. I nodded solemnly, remembering the barter of life and death. We exchanged sunglasses. And that was that.

But I never would have been invited to the private dinner party at Maanan’s house again had it not been for the beautiful man. And I never would have realized that Maanan was related to the who’s who of Bollywood. You mean, you are Mumtaz’s nephew, I asked. He laughed and whipped out his fancy cellphone with photographic evidence (not of Mumtaz, but Zayed Khan and Fardeen Khan). My red sunglasses and the boda driver, the beautiful man sniveled in the background. But I paid no attention. After all, are the stories of the lives equivalent to fake plastic glasses really significant?

And as I lay in my own bedroom in Maanan’s mansion that night, far away from the cheery conversations in the pool bar, I realized I was out of my element. Only minutes ago, Maanan had offered us a ride back to Kampala on his private plane. I pinched myself hard and realized that there was no way back. I now hobnobbed with jet owners and mansion masters. I now woke up to dancing peacocks outside my window. I now was on first-name terms with handsome horses. I now understood the rich and almost famous.
And I now effectively greeted and bid adieu to my fellow inmates with sprightly kisses on both cheeks.

But you just kissed me on one cheek, I had said to the beautiful man when we were saying our goodbyes.

Because I want to remain significant, he had replied. Two cheeks mean nothing special.

I gave him a sidelong look and continued to kiss the rest goodbye.

Yes, he murmured softly. Two cheeks is just one too many.

Here comes the President.

In the middle of Katwe our jeep sputters some and over. Traffic around closes in, the air becomes thicker and blacker. The heat does little to help. Why does everyone look dead? The humming flies zone in. Oh dear.

Suddenly Rashid springs to life. "There!" he raves, "There goes the president!"
Olga and I turn instinctively. A president sighting? I crane my neck some more to snatch a glimpse of majesty, magnificence or money. Or even a retinue of screeching sirens. But all I see is a newspaper seller staring back at me. Rashid's animated gesticulations stir something viral in him. He begins to move faster.

"That?" wonders Olga aloud, "That is your president?"
"Yes. He was president for a year." Gesticulate. Animate.
"Did people love him? Was he a good president?"
"Yes. Yes."
Olga and I look at each other. The newspaper seller/erstwhile adored president was now standing right next to our car now. We look at him and wonder.

"Well, at least he is flexible with his jobs?" Olga ventures.
I mumble. The heat seems unbearable now. The country feels hotter somehow. No, dear.

Rashid points at the newspaperman/ex-president who is no more adored, "He is dead. May his soul rest in peace."

Olga and I turn slowly, scared and stare at Binaisa's face on the newspaper. The air clears up and the airconditioning is working now.

Right, dear.

That night many years ago

The cruise had docked for the night and the air was balmy, but boisterous. There were lights and people a short distance away - melody and mirth coming together in a mad frenzy that could only be a bride in white and a groom in black surrounded by colour and chaos. I was just a hop, skip and swim away from an Egyptian wedding. And it all started when my mother came dashing through my door.

“There is a wedding a little distance away. I know two girls who are going. Quickly! Get ready!”

“What do you mean, get ready? I am in bed. On the Nile. I am in bed on the Nile! Do you realize what a rare luxury that is?”

“Stop being so boring! Get ready and go!”

Truth was I didn’t just want to walk into a wedding in Egypt without an invitation. I wondered how we would be received? Unsolicited wedding entrances was just something I hadn’t bothered to look up before I boarded that flight from New Delhi. But my mother stood at the door, waiting. Suddenly, I could feel her excitement begin to seep into my bones. I got out of bed and into my ensemble for the evening – jeans and a t-shirt. I grabbed some lip gloss, ran my fingers through my hair and stared at myself in the mirror. There was no danger of the bride turning purple with jealousy.

Irresolutely, I walked towards my partners-in-crime. They were French. And spoke just enough English. Which did away with eclectic starts to small talk, given that our short journey to the sewan was peppered with various phrases explaining where we would be sailing to yesterday. I blinked. They consulted. “We mean tomorrow. We will be sailing to Philae tomorrow.”

By this time we were standing before the entrance to the sewan. I took a deep breath and hurried after my co-wedding crashers, and walked right into the middle of the celebrations. There was music and dance and many, many people. Some of them noticed us right away and came to greet us with warm, wide arms. “You Indian?” “You French?” “You blonde?” “You Amitabh Bachchan?”

“I mean, do you know Amitabh Bachchan?”

“Not really. He moves in glitzier circles.”

“Well, we Egyptians love him!”

And with that he grabbed my hand and pulled me in to dance. Everyone had formed a circle around the bride and groom who were holding hands and dancing. But not for long, because they had to be informed about the foreign, exotic trespassers. The French and I went ahead to congratulate them. The groom was most excited to see us, but the bride (and I remember her face all these years down) had eyes only for him. She held onto him and gently swayed. I smiled. They were beautiful.

I will remember that night for more than one reason. I was being welcomed into an intimate celebration of love, welcomed amongst family and friends, welcomed with such adoration in a land where I had arrived only days ago. It was also a night where the French and I received our first marriage proposals. My suitor took me straight to meet his mother. She kissed my forehead and told me I should marry her son. I was worth every camel she could lay her hands on. I smiled apologetically.

Before we left, tired and content with our fill of an authentic Egyptian wedding, my suitor walked up to me. He handed me a coin. “This is for good luck. And because, I always want you to remember me.” I took it, thanked him and turned away.

But I had only taken a few steps towards the cruise, when I turned. I stood under the stars, surrounded by the calm of the night and the secrets of the river. I looked at the coin in my hand. And wondered.

My Man

Why do I love the man that I love? Because, he ran after that Sikh man clad in a half-sleeve shirt in the foggy, foggy nights of the wintry season that was. While I swerved the car into a calmer and lonely spot, my man, he navigated the honking cars and the twinkling headlights to find that Sikh man. I lost my man in the rear-view mirror. But I had lost that Sikh man five minutes before.

As that Sikh man with his trove of incense sticks had approached us, I had whipped out a tenner in a chronic demonstration of magnanimity. But that Sikh man had thwarted my gesture in a sweeping statement that made me stop breathing for a second, but only for a second. He said but didi, I will not accept your charity, buy instead some of my incense sticks. But how could I part with my bunch of tenners when I had others to hand them out to? I needed a second to think! But that Sikh man had handed over a box of sticks, taken the tenner and moved on swiftly while the signal stayed a searing scarlet. My face crumpled.

And amidst my heaving sobs that had eyes from without fixated within (but could they really see into me?) my man, he took a deep breath, asked me to wait for him at the corner, turned, opened the door, and walked out purposefully. I turned and waited in my calm, lonely spot. Headlights whizzed by, and the night sky pressed heavy onto my heart. I waited in anticipation. What might happen? Were more incense sticks destined to exchange hands? Or were they to stay firm in search of a more wanting home? What would I do with them anyway? Maybe part with them as an exotic souvenir? Maybe never light them and forget their purpose entirely? Or was the night sky in favour of that Sikh man? Was he going to end the day with a bolt from the vault? Was he finally going to buy himself some warmth? Or was he too far away already to be found in the crowded, chaotic confusion that surrounded?

My heart was beating, it was impatient. I peered into the rear-view mirror again and I spotted him, my man. He was walking towards my parking lights, he had seen me. But I couldn’t understand what his gait possibly communicated. Incense sticks? That Sikh man? Who won? Who lost? Was any of this really about that?

He opened the car door and slipped in. Handed me packs and packs of incense sticks. Rubbed his hands, it was freezing. I smiled. It was really about this. This very moment that melted my heavy, beating heart in a sweeping show of serendipity. I had my man beside me, and I wanted to stay just a while longer. Forever ,if possible with this kind, loving man that he is. I started the car.

The night sky was on my side.