Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Lost Star

He slid into my cab, on a still summer night looking hot and sweaty when I picked him past midnight in Brunswick Street, from the old pub that’s opposite the Den adult shop. At least he wasn’t drunk and reeking of alcohol. It was the start of my cab driving shift on Friday night. It was that time when the weekend starts and the city parties hard while the cabbies turn into diplomats ferrying passengers who are more talkative, wittier (so they think) than other days. They are also more violent and throw up more than other days, but for part timers like me the weekend is a good time to work and a lot better than staying in cramped shared digs.

“Finally a cab” he said “I got so tired of waiting at the Tivoli for a cab that I decided to walk from Costin Street to Brunswick Street. It’s so hot tonight that I am totally drenched in sweat.”

“So where do you want go to sir?” I asked.

He looked at me and switched from a glance to a stare. “Oye! You Indian?”

That was a remarkable bit of deduction from someone who was indisputably my fellow countryman. Should I give an Indian head waggle to confirm Sherlock’s deduction? Though there was something about that voice that sounded vaguely familiar. That lanky frame and that face, I couldn’t put a finger on it. But I had no time to waste on sleuthing, it was better to find out my man’s destination.

“That’s right sir I am from India. Now where can I take you?”

“Which part of India?”

“I am from Delhi sir. Can I please have the address?”

Oye bhootni dey,behn-day-takke you are my brother from Dilli”. It was probably the first time I had been sworn at in Hindi, in a cab in Brisbane, but this was more of the affectionate kind of swearing. The swearing without rancour, the type that mates indulge in, the swearing without malice where the uglier the swearword the more love being expressed. It’s a boy thing, though to fair the women who get into my cab on the weekend probably outdo the men now.

“Thank you praji, ab bata to do kahan jana hai” as I lapsed in Hindi seeking the destination.

“I am hungry yaar, this bloody city of yours doesn’t have a place where I can eat late at night. I can drink all I want but I need khana – food.”

“There are actually few spots that are open late if you want a bite. All the cabbies stop at the takeaway on Petrie Terrace. Or we can go to New York pizza on Edward Street in the city. But tell me, once you have eaten, where do you want to go to?”

He still didn’t tell me the address but carried on talking in a nostalgic tone, as if lost in the memory of an old favourite. “You know what I miss about Delhi? It’s those dhabas yaar. Those bloody roadside stalls have chefs with magic in their hands. A kebab doesn’t have the same flavour unless cooked over a clay tandoor by a chef with dirt under his fingernails”.

I knew what he meant for I remembered those times too, when as young revellers, my friends and I used to seek out our old favourites. The vendors and their carts lined up in a lane, piled high with deep-fried offerings of savoury parcels filled with green peas and hot chapattis or spicy chaat all conjured up on a smoky wok on those old kerosene burning primus stoves.

“I miss those places too but shall we go to the Pizza place?” that was my suggestion for I just had a hankering for a greasy slice of pizza.

And he agreed with me, “OK then take me to Pizza dhaba my good man.”

Finally this cab was going somewhere. I drove down the Brunswick Street marvelling at how crowded the streets were on weekends after midnight. I still remember the first time when I drove past it on a Saturday night. I was on my way from the Airport to drop a passenger to Kenmore and seeing crowds of young people on Ann Street while driving past the Valley Mall. I had never seen so many young people partying in groups in all my time in Brisbane. While I had seen plenty of men urinating on the streets back home, never before had I seen rowdy young men openly urinating on the roads in a Western country.

“Don’t you have any music in this chariot of yours my good man?”

“I’ll put on the radio”, I said fiddling with the knobs on the dashboard, as the music from B105 filled the cab.

Angrezi music? My brother don’t you listen to Hindi stuff? Not even when you are alone?”

“Anything for the customer”, I grinned as I switched over to Radio Brisvani, the 24 hour Indian radio station that I always put on while waiting for customers on the graveyard shift. The song that came on was from a major hit from a few years back. And that’s when I realized where I had heard that deep resonant voice, I was so excited that I nearly ran through the red light on Upper Edward Street.

“Oye! Easy does it buddy I am not so hungry” said that voice behind me.

It had to be him. As strange as it seemed I was sure that I knew who he was. It was just a matter of time before I got my chance to ask him. But first I needed to stop for the food and at one am at night it is not too hard getting a parking spot on Edward Street, which I did as I pulled up next to the New York Pizza place.

“We are here? Great, now I am not going to eat alone, so come along and have a bite with me. Don’t worry about your cab charge my biradar, I’ll pay the waiting charges, or the surcharge, flag fall, squeeze the passenger’s wallet or whatever you guys call it.”

I was OK with that, heck I would have paid out of my own pocket to talk with-who-I-think-I-was-going-to-talk-with. We ordered the food, pulled up a seat to sit in the no-frills eating area.

“There is something about you,” I boldly said, “that is very familiar. I have heard your voice before. I am sure I have seen you somewhere before.”

“You must have probably picked me up in your cab before. I must have been too drunk to remember. Hota hai yaar, it happens.”

No, that had not happened. Not in my cab, not here in Brisbane, I just had to press ahead. “You know you have such a very deep and distinctive baritone; it’s the kind of voice that stays with you. The kind of voice that would be an asset to, oh say, maybe an actor?”

There it was, out in the open now. Not very direct question but a hinting at - I think I know who you are – kind of challenge.

He looked up sharply and then his expression changed as he grinned.

“Are you doing a TAFE course from Southbank for becoming a detective? DET101?”

“Surely you must have had people come up to you and comment on your resemblance to Archit Kumar?”, I said boldly.

“Archit Kumar!” he said in a mocking tone, “to be Archit or not to be, that is the question; Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous cabbies. You want to know who I am but you haven’t told me your name yet. Why don’t we start with your name then I’ll tell you mine.”

I could do that, heck I could even recite my family tree if he was going to confirm my suspicion. 

“Well that’s fair enough. My name is Sachin Khosla, I am from New Delhi, and I am doing my Masters in Information Technology from University of Queensland. I stay in shared digs in Toowong and my Aussie mates rib me by calling me Tendulkar. And I drive a cab on the weekends. I could tell you more but I don’t think my life is that exciting.”

“I am going to have another slice of pizza, what about you?”

I really couldn’t eat now, the sheer excitement of getting an answer was getting to me and I declined the offer.

“No more for me thanks.”

“Well I am getting some more” he said and he walked away to the counter. So that was the end of the conversation then. What was that word that Larry used – ‘Bummer’. Bummer indeed! I had made a fool of myself chasing an ex-Bollywood star in Brisbane. Then I smiled to myself thinking how much more my friends now knew about India’s movie industry after getting acquainted with me. Going out to learn Bollywood Dancing in the Metro Arts Building in Edward Street, picking up DVDs of Hindi movies from Geeta down at the McWhirter’s in the valley and watching the Hindi movies that were now being shown not just at Regents in Queen Street Mall but also at the Garden City. Funny I never really watched too many Hindi movies in Delhi but here in Brisbane I had a craving for them just like I sometimes craved a spicy vindaloo. The kind that hits you with the spices and you know the moment you start that you’ve got to control yourself from overeating it but you can’t stop yourself from doing so. And now maybe I was in the presence of my favourite actor from the silver screen.

“So now you want to know who I am?” he was back with another slice of pizza. The funny part is that he seemed to get livelier as the night went on.

“My name is Nikhil Tokas, I come from the Rangpuri village in Delhi”, he looked at me with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

There went my Bollywood theory, wait hang on, wasn’t Archit Kumar’s real name Nikhil. And wasn’t he discovered by the famous director Subhash Bhai in the men’s room in the Taj hotel, as the story goes. Well you know, he didn’t actually go looking for actors in the men’s room, just happened to be there at the same time and the rest is a piss of history. Under Subhash Bhai ‘s supervision Nikhil Tokas was transformed into a star Archit Kumar.

“It’s you”, I said really excited now, “It really is you. The star, that vanished into thin air, without a leaving a trace behind. It was the biggest news story of the year. You walked away from a glittering film career, leaving a brief statement with your Secretary that you had opted out of the movies, the glamour and were joining an ashram. I remember how there was media frenzy around various ashrams whenever there was a rumoured sighting. Then they got tired of waiting and the memory of presence just faded away. Why did you get away from it all?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Because I could”.

“But why would you do it? Do you mean to say that you walked away from all that fame as a Bollywood star to becoming an unknown entity in Australia on a whim? Do the people you know here have any idea of who you are? Do they even know that you had won three national awards for acting in your short film career? Do they know that your movie, Zulm aur Zalim, is still the biggest box-office hit of all time in India? That you won the MTV-India, and the MTV-Asia award for the best recording artiste. That your duet with Beyonce was nominated for the Grammy.” And I raved like an obsessed fan, which I was, reeling off highlights from the brief but bright career of Archit Kumar.

He smiled again. “Sachin have you ever been to the Ekka?”

“I have” I said wondering what the link was, “Well only once actually. There was this girl I knew who said it was the best thing to happen in Brisbane. She wanted to go to the Ekka and I just wanted to go with her, but what’s your point?”

“I absolutely love it”.

I raised an eyebrow quizzically, this was a man who had partied hard with the best of them at the best night spots in the world and now he wanted to tell me how he loved the annual show of Queensland, which was still organised by the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland.

He must have seen the expression on my face as he hastened to add, “Really I do. Tell me this, would you not agree that you never see crowds of that nature anytime during the year out here in Brisbane?”
I was thinking more about the crowd at Cannes but I reluctantly agreed, “Yeeaas. I think they had around 700000 people for this year.”

“Ding! That’s correct my statistically minded young friend. You win the prize for the correct answer. You know the very first time I went to the Ekka, it was an unbelievable experience for me and not just because of the Strawberry Ice creams. It was probably the first time in years that I could walk in a crowd and no one knew who I was. Think I could ever do that in Mumbai?”

“I guess in Mumbai you would probably spark a mini stampede if people found out that you were in the crowd. So is that why you left? You couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised and felt a need to run away?”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Tell me about my last movie. What was the story? Where was it set? You should know it, being such a fan, refresh my memory”.

Aha! Movie trivia about my favourite star, this was such an easy question so I told him the answer. “I do indeed. It called ‘Premi - The Lovers’ and was a love story set in New York. It was the poor boy meets rich girl story with a twist. Except that it was not really shot in New York” I said with my voice tapering off.

“And you want to tell me where this New York was situated then?”

“It was shot here in Brisbane. The New York skyline was shot across the river from Southbank, the Story Bridge was palmed off as the Brooklyn Bridge and that park in New York where the lovers met was the New Farm Park.”

“Perfect”, he said with a grin, “Though you missed out on the Macy’s department store in Queen Street Mall, which the shoppers here call Myer.”

“Well you also shot it in parts of California that are in Gold Coast. But what does have to do with you leaving?” I said as I tried to figure out a connection.

“I met someone in Brisbane and who made me realise that it was time for me to be honest about myself and about who I was”.

Wow a scandal on my hand, this was even better than reading the New Idea. Imagine Britney talking to you, giving you the low down on Kevin, it was something like that for me. Man if I was a movie journalist in India this would have made my career right now. Bugger that, even a camera phone video would have done right now. Put it on record and then upload to YouTube.

“You found someone in Brisbane? Who was she? And how did the media not find out about this woman you left that actress for? Because you were engaged weren’t you? I was there in India when it happened. I remember how all the TV channels had nothing else on except ‘exclusive’ stories on your engagement. She was the ex Miss Universe who stole your heart. You did those interviews together and talked about the union of souls and love that comes once in a lifetime. After that came the three movie deal with Spielberg’s production house in India.”

“She knew what she was getting into. I never fooled her about my motives and nor was I in any doubt about hers,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

I watched his face as the words came out and then I knew then that his ‘relationship’ had been a publicity stunt but we, the gullible public, had taken it all in.

“So the engagement was nothing but a career enhancing move then? And then you came to Australia for a shoot, met this girl in Brisbane and didn’t want to live a lie anymore? But you didn’t have to make such a dramatic getaway?”

“True, but who said it was a girl.”

I gaped with my with my mouth open. Had this been a garden in a riverfront house in Fig Tree Pocket, my mouth would have been filled with midges and mozzies by now, in a fairly substantial number.

“But you were the poster boy for affairs before you got engaged. People lost count of the number of women you were linked with.”

“So do you really believe all that you read in the papers and magazines?” he asked in a sardonic tone.

“Oh alright, not everything I read. But you know what they say - no smoke without a fire. How did you go all those years without even a wisp of a scandal? And coming out now to a stranger like me. Aren’t you afraid I will go and blab it all out to some tabloid journalist?”

“I don’t really care,” he said “When I walked away I was confused about who I was. You know when I got an offer to act in the movies I was just a boy from a village near Delhi. Like every other star struck twenty year old, I dreamt of being in the movies. When this stranger came and offered me a role I thought he was kidding me. When I found out that he was serious, I grabbed the chance that I got to fly away from the family coop. To my family I was being foolish and vain. But to me it was an escape route from a stifling future in the family business. I had no desire sitting in a shop selling plumbing equipment.

There was grumbling about my decision. ‘Is he getting above himself that he doesn’t want to work in the family business anymore?’ I heard a lot of comments like that and some were quite hurtful. If it wasn’t a family member then it could be the employees gossiping amongst themselves. ‘What makes the boy think that he can be a star in an industry where millions of dreams get shattered daily?’

But I was adamant on going, and nothing they could say or do could budge me. I put in a lot of hard work in making that first movie. But hard work counts for nothing in this industry. How do you predict what makes one movie a hit and what makes another a flop? I was lucky to start with a hit on my hands. Having a hit spared me from being a victim to the casting couches. Yes you heard that right. It’s not just the women. Within the industry it’s no more a secret that there are gay celebrities. There are gay Indian actors who live an openly gay lifestyle but media still considers it a taboo to bring out this gay Bollywood parade of actors, models, producers, directors, etc to light. Haven’t you heard that that saying ‘Duniya ek mayajaal hai’ – ‘the world is an illusion’. The women you saw me with were just a diversion, a smoke screen, and because they were my friends they were happy to be photographed with me. Nothing comes for free in this world, being with me got them enough publicity to remain in the limelight.”

“And then you came to Brisbane for the movie shoot that changed your life.”

“You make it sound so dramatic, maybe you can write a script about it,” he grinned. “Maybe we can get a retired actor to work in it.”

“The movie was shot in Brisbane but we came very close to not shooting it. The original had the crew landing here a week before the cast and preparing for the shoot. The first thing that went wrong was at the ticketing end and actors landed here a week before the crew. You should have heard the oaths as Mohandas our producer could probably be heard swearing all the way to Mumbai. And then the equipment got misplaced in transit and we ended up with this two week delay before the movie could actually be shot. So we had all this free time to ourselves. If there were any engagements, then most of them involved invitations to the Indian restaurants in Brisbane, some good, some bad, with the obligatory photograph. They put us up in the Hilton. So I made the best use of my time by getting up early and exploring Brisbane. Walked to the Botanical Gardens in the morning, took a round, went and sat in QUT pretending to be a student. Or I would get out of the Hotel and go the other way down Albert Street, walk past King George Square and get on to Wickham Terrace and onto Roma Parklands.

It was on the fifth day of our stay in Brisbane. Unlike the rest of the crew I was up early and walking down Edward Street, as I reached the end of the street I decided to walk along Alice Street, instead of getting into the Botanical Gardens right away. If you get in from the main entrance off Alice Street you come across the Weeping Fig Avenue. It’s funny how calm and tranquil one can become when in the presence of a tree. I found myself being drawn inside. Just trees and patches of early morning sunlight, it is almost like being in the company of ancient and wise sages. At the end of the avenue of wise sages, to the right, was what looked to me like a large Peepul tree. I went towards it and found that I was correct in thinking so. It was indeed a Peepul tree, ‘highly regarded as the tree of wisdom in its native India’, as the Council written blurb went. I knew that and I also knew that the Bodhi tree is named so because Gautam Siddhartha meditated under it as he achieved bodhi or enlightenment, as he became the Buddha. Maybe I needed to be enlightened too, so I sat down under the tree assuming the padmasana, the lotus position. Can you imagine, me, Archit Kumar, meditating under a tree far away from the glare of an intrusive media. And when I opened my eyes there he was. Sitting opposite me looking at me with questioning eyes that sparkled with life.”

Here comes the scoop I thought, so I asked, “Was that the person, you left everything for?”

“I didn’t leave my past life because of any person”, he countered.

Now I was confused. Here I thought I was going to hear about how a Bollywood star chucked his career and left everything for his Australian love, but that wasn’t it?

“I thought you left your past life for someone you met.”

“No I left it because I met someone who asked me if I was honest with myself.”

“So what happened in the Botanical Gardens? Did you experience an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way you viewed yourself?”

“When I opened my eyes after meditating I found this young man looking at me. ‘You looked really serene there,’ he told me, ‘I couldn’t help being drawn towards you.’

He was right for there was peacefulness within me that I hadn’t felt in a long while. ‘It is first time in years when I have had an opportunity to sit and meditate like this’ I told him.

‘Why haven’t you had the opportunity?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know, been very busy with my career I guess’.

‘Is running after your career the most important object of your life?’

‘Isn’t that the case with every person making a career? Are we not judged by our success in our field of work?’

‘So out of the twenty four hours in a day you don’t have a spare moment for yourself?’

‘I have people who depend on what I do.’

‘And who do you depend upon?’

‘No one.’

‘Not even yourself?

‘I am who I am.’

‘I had gone to India,’ he told me ‘seeking out the meaning of my life. I spent it wandering from Ashram to Ashram, searching for a Guru. There I was, expending my energy in seeking peace that eluded me, until I came across the works of a very wise man.’

‘And who was that?’

‘Have you heard of a wise Guru by the name of Yogiraj?’

‘I have heard about him. He had followers in the Film Industry. But I never bothered to read him. So what did Yogiraj say that gave you peace?’

‘He wrote about living in the moment. I loved those words so much that they are part of me now. Shall I tell you what they are?’

‘Please do’

And then under the Bodhi Tree in Brisbane, I heard the words of a wise man from India, retold to me by an Aussie. These are the words he said.
You live life as it happens, just live naturally at each moment. If you do that the next moment will come out of it on its own. It’s how we grow in our journey of life, from childhood to old age – there is no need to plan for it, one simply becomes old; it is natural, it happens.
As a river flows and comes to the ocean – the same way – you flow and you come to the end, to the ocean. But one should remain natural, floating and in the moment.
You will lose the moment if you start thinking about the future and ambition and desire.
What is the future but the projection of the past; when you think of the past it is nothing but trying to plan for the future – they are together.
A voyager in the journey of life who lives in the moment now and here is not cluttered with the past and not cluttered with the future, he remains unburdened. He has no burden to carry, he moves without weight

When he said that it hit me like a ton of bricks, I realised that I had been running away from myself for a long time. Immersing myself in work, taking on new projects, having my dates booked out for shooting had all been a part of that running away. Being busy meant that I did not have to face that I was living a lie by hiding my gay identity. That’s when I decided to walk away from it all.”

We sat there in silence for a while and then I said, “It’s a long way to run away leaving everyone behind.”

He replied with a smile, “You are right on that one. It’s a long way from Rangpuri village near Delhi to Brisbane in Australia. Actually it’s around 6332 miles or 10190 kilometres, if you are interested in that kind of trivia my statistical friend. That’s a long way to live on the other side of the hemisphere. But I had made up my mind and I had the money to achieve my objective. I may not have joined the family business when they expected me to, but I had the means to start a business of my own in Australia. Getting my loyal Secretary to issue a statement about joining an Ashram was enough to send the Media on a wild goose chase while Nikhil Tokas took the flight out to Brisbane.”

With that he got up and said “Well ‘Tendulkar’ maybe it’s time that you dropped me off to this address in Clayfield” as he handed me a business card.

“Any time you get stressed and overworked, give me a call. I might get you a booking in my Yoga retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland. It’s the least I can do for a fan.”