Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's second novel, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, explores the lives of four middle-to-upper-class Mumbaikars. The first excerpt introduced us to one of the novel's leading ladies, South Mumbai housewife Rhea Dala.
This second excerpt introduces our protagonist, Indian Chronicle photographer Karan Seth. In this scene, he's on an assignment, to shoot photos of a once famous child pianist, Samar Arora, who has since given up music. But before they can finish the shoot, Sama's friend Zaira -- a top Bollywood actress -- rushes into Samar's flat to share a horrific episode she's just had with her stalker, Malik Prasad, whose father is a powerful minister in Delhi.
Just when Karan was about to ask Samar if he was ready to recommence the shoot, he heard the French doors of the living room being thrown open and saw a woman running toward Samar, her red gypsy skirt flaring about her, green glass bangles jostling the length of her arms.
Samar jumped to his feet and walked forward briskly to receive her. She embraced him with such force that he almost lost his balance. He wrapped his arms around her and ran his hands gently down the length of her back. Then he led her away from the pool to the shade of a towering, leafy almond tree in the far corner of the lawn, where they stood as one in a tight embrace, lost even to themselves.
Taking a closer look, Karan was astonished to see that the woman in Samar's arms was his best friend, Zaira. He was tempted to click them right away, in that ineluctable moment of fragile affinity, but he knew that certain kinds of photographs were best not taken; they were a violation not of subject but of sentiment.
'Don't worry... everything will be fine.'
Zaira, breathing in gasps through her mouth, gripped Samar tightly. 'You can't even begin to imagine what I've been through.'
'Well, tell me then.'
'It was awful . . .' A sob caught in her throat.
'You'll be fine. You're here now. I'm with you, Zaira.' He felt her heart pulsating against his chest.
'He tried to kill me today!'
'What!' 'He went for me, Samar . . . he really did . . .'
'Are you talking about Malik?' Zaira's wracking sobs came in the way of her reply, and Samar just held her in his arms. He found it difficult to believe that Zaira's stalker could have gone to such gruesome lengths. In the past when they had discussed Malik's mad love for her they had done so in jest; he had been for them the crazed cliché hanging on to the train of her gown. After all, what actress in Bollywood did not endure the undesirable privilege of being the object of a stalker's tainted attention?
'I never thought he could get down and dirty, Zaira.'
'Hasn't he flashed all the signs before?'
'I suppose you're right, but I think he's got a lot crazier after his father's landslide victory.'
Malik Prasad, the man in question, was the son of Shri Chander Prasad, Hon'ble Minister of State for Labour and Employment, a top-ticket politician with the Hindu People's Party. Malik ran an event management company, Tiranga Inc., which specialized in taking Bollywood stars for dance performances to Canada. Many moons ago, when approached by Malik, Zaira had rejected his offer to participate in a show in Toronto and had believed, naively enough, that her demurral would end their communication. But this was not to be. Malik started calling her at odd hours of the night; she found him present at every restaurant she went to eat at; every now and again she received love poems by Ghalib, scribbled in his illegible, hick writing, tucked into the folds of her fan mail. Polite pleas, blatant disregard, rude rebuffs -- nothing seemed to drive the message home.
But when Zaira found blood stains on the door of her Juhu apartment one morning, after Malik had spent the entire night rapping incessantly on the door, she knew the situation was hurtling out of hand. Sure enough, the following week, Malik got plastered and called her early one morning, spitting abuses and threatening to thrash her to an inch of her life. She appealed to the court for a restraining order. However, Malik's father was too well connected to break into sweat over a measly police complaint. The case went to trial, but Zaira lost.
The judge's dismissal of her case -- on grounds of insufficient evidence -- emboldened Malik. Certain that his father would cover his ass no matter what he did, Malik now went after Zaira with every card in the whacko book.
On the day Karan was at Samar's cottage for the photo shoot, Malik had scaled new heights of lunacy. For much of the day, Zaira had been filming with the sumptuous leading man of the day, Shah Rukh. The director was wrapping up the last scene for the day: Shah Rukh and Zaira were to roll around in a bed, making out to a raunchy A R Rahman number. Just as the two of them had got into position on the bed, and the director was issuing his final instructions, Malik had stormed on to the set. He looked like a bull on the rampage, his eyes watery and red, his hands lunging out at whoever was in his way. He was calling out for Zaira and shouting invectives at Shah Rukh. Before long, he was caught by three security guards and deposited outside the film set. But Malik was not to be outdone. He got into his jeep and stepped on the pedal. He wanted to total the sets from which he had been so insultingly banished.
Within an hour, a full report of Malik's sinister spree emerged: The gaffer who had tried to stop Malik had broken his wrist in the effort. The director's chair had been flattened like filo pastry. The dummy doors had been split in half. A gramophone, having fallen off the ledge of the coffee table on which it had been placed, lay on the ground like a plucked honeysuckle. A make-up artist had stumbled over the rubble and tangles of wires and hit her head against a broken beam.
Fortunately, Shah Rukh had lost no time in dragging his leading lady into his trailer, refusing to let her be alone while Malik was on the loose. The stars were undoubtedly in Zaira's favour, as it was later discovered that Malik had rammed her trailer so many times with the rear end of his jeep that it was left worthy only of scrap. When the director surveyed the wrecked trailer and remarked rather coarsely that 'Zaira could have become sandwich stuffing', she had fled the set and headed straight for Samar's house.
Now, in Samar's presence and in familiar surroundings, Zaira's composure was restored, and the two of them walked toward the pool hand in hand.
But Zaira stopped in her tracks when she spotted Karan.
'Who's he?' she whispered agitatedly. '
A sweet kid who works for the India Chronicle,' Samar explained, turning to her.
'The same one who took those snaps of you tap dancing?'
Samar nodded in affirmation. 'Relax. Don't go off and have kittens, doll.'
'He's got his camera, Samar! And I've just had a crying jag . . .' She swiped her cheeks with her palms to clean the dirty mascara stains.
'He's not going to tell on you.'
'He'll read about Malik and me tomorrow morning. D'you think he took a picture of us? Will he babble to the magazine? I'd hate for anyone to know that I came here and cried and . . .' A jangled light shone from her eyes.
Samar stood, arms akimbo. 'Just look at him, Zaira. Does he look like he gives a shit?'
She glanced over Samar's shoulder: Karan was busy goofing around with Mr Ward-Davies. 'Maybe not,' she had to admit. 'But you never know when someone will squeal on you.'
'You're being paranoid because too many journalists have given you the short end of the stick; believe me, this boy is not one of them.'
'You talk like you've known him for years.' She frowned.
'Trust my instinct, and be quiet now because we're close enough for him to hear us.'
Karan looked up to find Zaira standing next to him, her hand extended. 'Hi, I'm Zaira.'
Karan continued to kneel beside the dog even as he introduced himself; he was sure if he stood up to shake hands with her he would betray how starstruck he was.
'I'm so sorry . . . I botched up your shoot, didn't I?' Karan nodded, now forced to get to his feet. Deserted by language, he was smiling foolishly at her. In her flare-hem gypsy skirt and appliqué camisole, she looked like a runaway princess. 'Something awful happened earlier on and I..."
But it's all under control now,' Samar cut in.
'I'm glad for that.' Karan lifted his camera, as if to remind Samar that he was here on an assignment. Samar gave Karan a brief, discounted account of Malik's latest act of insanity.
'I'm sorry you had to go through that.' Karan turned to give her a sympathetic look. Zaira examined his face, tidy and focussed. A touch of asceticism ran through his solid good looks like a vein in marble. Her heart, in his presence, felt like a dark, beautiful box whose mysterious, troubling contents she wanted to upend at his feet.
'I suppose you would like to get on with the shoot?' Samar said.
'Only if you want.'
'If we don't shoot now you won't make your deadline.'
Karan nodded. He looked at the sky; dusk giving in to night would soon leave them with little light. 'Yes.'
'Then we should get on with the job,' Samar said.
'Sooner rather than later. The light's perfect and won't be around too long.' He panicked suddenly, remembering Samar's pictures from Gatsby, rendered useless because of the lack of proper light; for these photos to suffer the same fate would be criminal.
'Yes,' Zaira said. 'I have been guilty of interrupting already. Why don't I go in and wait for you until...' She turned toward the cottage but Samar caught her elbow.
'How about the two of us?' he asked Karan. 'Would it work?'
'Are you mad!' Zaira cried. 'Why would Mr Seth want to photograph me with you?'
'You're playing hard to get because your goop's a goner. Stop being a diva!'
Zaira could not help blushing. 'If I'm a diva, what does that make you?' 'Oh, go on, Zaira!' Samar cajoled. 'Say yes. If you do, I'll get us some fizzy water and make it all better.' He kissed her shoulder. 'Mr Seth won't mind at all...'
Karan grinned as he loaded more film into his camera. 'I really don't mind at all.'
Excerpted The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Penguin Books India, with permission from the publishers