THE RICH may live very differently from the poor, but they don't die differently. A bullet does not discriminate between a king and a pauper, a tycoon and his worker. Standing in front of the wrought-iron gates of Number Six, looking at the glittering lights of the farmhouse, watching expensive imported cars enter the elegant driveway, I envy the conceit of the gun. One bullet is all it will take to end Vicky Rai's pomp and show. One bullet and khallas!
I see policemen with walkie-talkies standing behind a barricade and quicken my steps. There is a big crowd of curious onlookers on the road, straining to catch a glimpse of the celebrity guests. There is a rumour going around that Shabnam Saxena is expected any minute.
I turn left into the side lane and lurk by the service entrance, waiting for Ritu to come out. Compared to the hustle and bustle on the main road, the side lane is peaceful and quiet, though it is full of parked cars.
At five to eleven the metal gate creaks ajar and Ritu emerges, clad in a red salwar kameez and lugging a blue bag. Her injuries have still not healed fully, and her eyes are red and swollen. It seems she has been crying. We embrace silently. I take the precaution of keeping my left hand hidden inside the Benetton jacket I am wearing.
'Let's go, Munna.' She clutches my arm and begins to pull me towards the main road when I gently stop her.
'I have to tell you something, Ritu.'
'Whatever you have to say, you can tell me at the railway station. We don't have time to lose.'
'I am not going to the railway station.'
'That is what I came to tell you. I am not going to Mumbai.'
'Let's go inside the farmhouse and I will tell you.'
She gives me a baffled look and retraces her steps to the service gate. She peeks in furtively before pushing it open and pulling me inside.
I see a manicured lawn in the distance with people laughing and chatting. There is even a swimming pool in which some girls are frolicking. Waiters in red-and-black uniforms hover around a gazebo.
Ritu propels me behind a huge jamun tree, its leafy foliage acting as a natural screen from the people on the lawn. Further to our right is a makeshift tent where the cooks are busy cooking.
'You'd better have a good explanation, Munna, for this aboutface. You have no idea of the risk I took in sneaking out of the house,' she upbraids me. 'If Vicky finds out, he will kill me.'
I am prepared for her outburst. 'I know, Ritu. I have come to liberate you from fear.'
'What do you mean?'
'You will find out soon enough.'
'You have started speaking in riddles again. Tell me clearly why you are refusing to come to Mumbai. Is something wrong?'
'Everything is wrong, Ritu.' I look down at my feet, unable to look her in the eye. 'I have found another girl. I am going to marry her.'
She gives me a stricken look. 'Why are you saying this, Munna? Don't I have enough troubles already?'
'Every word of what I am saying is true.'
'So now you tell me that you don't love me any more?'
'Yes.' I nod and launch into my parting monologue. 'Bole toh, love is a real bitch. It shows people like us dreams which can never become real. Perhaps the poor shouldn't even be allowed the right to love. I now realize that you were right, our love is a prohibited one. We can run away from here, but we cannot run away from that reality. So forget that you ever met me, Ritu. From this moment, erase me from your life for ever.'
She listens to me quietly and when I have finished, flashes me an accusing look. 'So this is it, eh? You think I can just erase you from my life like a teacher erases chalk marks from a blackboard? As if nothing has happened between us?' She draws closer to me. 'Do you know, Munna, why love is considered the greatest gift? Because it makes two people into one. They become joined in body and soul. I have become you and you have become me. And now I know you better than you know yourself. I can say from the bottom of my heart that what you are telling me is not true.'
I try to evade her eyes again. 'You and I can never be one. There is too big a chasm between us.'
'You are still lying. Look into my eyes, Munna, and swear on my life that you don't love me,' she says with sudden vehemence. When I don't reply she pulls my left hand from inside my jacket. In the process the plaster on my wrist gets exposed.
'What is this?' She immediately becomes concerned. 'How did you get hurt?'
'It is nothing… I fell down,' I dissemble, but Ritu remains unconvinced. Her hands fly to my face, looking for hidden injuries, and her fingers graze the bandage at the back of my head.
'Ahhhh!' I cry out in pain.
'Oh my God, what have they done to you?' she cries.
'Believe me, it is not serious. There is nothing to worry about.'
'It was my brother, wasn't it?' she asks. 'He wasn't content with hitting me. He had to do this to you as well. Now I understand why you came to break off with me.' I detect a hardening in her voice. Her sorrow is giving way to anger.
'Don't jump to conclusions, Ritu. I honestly don't know who they were.'
'But I know very well. And I will never forgive my brother for hurting you. Now no power on earth can keep me away from you,' she declares and I see a new look in her eyes, a look of utter fearlessness. 'Come with me, Munna. In front of this entire assembly I will announce that I am going to marry you.'
'And you think everyone will applaud you for marrying a sweeper's son? This is not a film, Ritu, this is life. And life does not have happy endings like films do.'
'But this is my life. And from today I will live it on my terms. I refuse to be cowed by two criminals who claim to be my father and brother.'
'Then let us make a pact here and now. Promise me that you won't do anything rash. And I promise to take you from here as soon as my injuries have healed.'
'I will wait for that day, Munna.'
A light wind begins blowing across the lawn. It ruffles Ritu's hair, pushing a few dark strands over her face. At that moment I feel as if standing in front of me is an angel who has come down from heaven to bless me and touch my sordid life with her purity and innocence. And I know that, try as I might, I cannot live without her. But perhaps I can die for her.
I sense a commotion on the lawn. 'Oh, it looks like Shabnam Saxena has arrived,' says Ritu.
'Can I see her?'
'Don't be silly. You must leave before someone spots you. Take good care of yourself, Munna. I love you.' She gives me a quick kiss on the lips and walks back towards the house. I creep deeper into the gloom and take out the gun. I need to feel its power once again, to stiffen my resolve to kill Vicky Rai.
'If I were you, I wouldn't use that gun,' a voice speaks up behind me.
I am so startled, the gun drops from my hand.
A tall man with a straggly black beard steps forward. He is dressed in off-white kurta pyjamas and has a fawn-coloured shawl draped over his shoulders.
'Don't worry, my dear fellow, I am not a policeman. But I couldn't help overhearing your conversation with the lovely Ritu.'
I hastily pick up the gun and put it back into my jacket pocket.
'I have never heard such moving dialogue in my life,' he continues, fingering his straggly beard. 'You are a born actor. Let me take another look at you. Can you move a little into the light? Yes, that's perfect. Oh my God, you are magnificent. I have finally found my hero.'
'Who are you?'
'I am Jay Chatterjee, the film director. And I have decided to cast you as the hero in my next film, without any screen test. For the heroine's role I was thinking of Shabnam Saxena, but she will look too old against you. Now I think I will have to discover a new heroine as well.'
'Shabnam Saxena? Hero? What are you talking about? Is this one of those candid-camera pranks?'
'Jay Chatterjee does not believe in pranks,' the man says sternly. 'Get ready for instant stardom. Your life is made. But you will need a new name.'
'A name like Munna won't take you far in our industry. From today, you shall be known as… Chirag. The Lamp. I love it!' He takes out his wallet and extracts some notes. 'Here's twenty thousand. Consider this your signing amount, Chirag.'
I accept the money with trembling hands. 'I… I still find all this hard to believe.'
'This is what life is all about. You never know what's round the corner.'
'But I am just a sweeper's son.'
'So what? Johnny Walker was a bus conductor. Raaj Kumar was a sub-inspector. Mehmood was a driver. When Lady Luck knocks, she only sees a door. She doesn't see who's behind it.'
Jay Chatterjee notes down my mobile number and strolls back to the lawn, his fingers playing an imaginary piano. I remain standing under the tree for a long time, shivering with excitement.
My brain begins dreaming up new scenarios for me. I see myself in Mumbai, sitting with Ritu in a Mercedes, surrounded by thousands of screaming fans, mostly girls. They beg for my autograph and profess their undying love as the police charge them with lathis. I step out of the car and raise my hand. The policemen back off. 'Chirag! Chirag! Chirag!' a loud chant goes up and fifteen rockets scream into the sky all at once.
I open my eyes and discover that I am still in Delhi. But there are real rockets shooting over my head.
Are they for Vicky Rai, or for me? What do you say? Kya bole?