The Awards Function
December 23, 2012
Next day, after the campus visit, we thronged the convention center for the awards-giving ceremony. Important dignitaries were on the stage, and VIPs occupied the seats in the front row. Microphones were being tested. Now was the time for the achievers of our batch to be honored, the scientists, scholars, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, etc. TV cameramen jockeyed for position near the stage. Muthu had earlier called Ganesan, saying he was preoccupied with certain urgent matters that had suddenly come up and regretfully would be unable to attend. Ashwin had conveyed much the same message when he returned for his shoes.
I thought about what I had to show for the past 25 years. All I could boast of were a few gray hairs and a neurosis or two. And a secret avocation that had made me a lot of money but that I could not share with the rest of the world — not with even my batch mates. Feeling disconsolate, I looked around for someone to chat up, and noticed something strange: most of the audience was made up of elegantly dressed girls and women. I’d never seen them before. And more of them were pouring in from outside even as I watched. I was going to ask someone who they were when the function began.
As usual, there were long-winded speeches before the awards distribution itself could begin. At long last, Ganesan stood up on the stage and announced that the achiever awards for our batch would now be presented. For each achiever, a brief career synopsis preceded the award presentation, after which the achiever delivered a speech. We listened in rapt attention.
After the last award was distributed, Ganesan addressed the audience again. “We have a special surprise award today for a batch mate who has labored unrecognized in secrecy, but is a leader in his field. Today, I have decided to blow his cover, so that he can enjoy the recognition and fame that is his just due. I hope he will forgive me this liberty, but I think he will see that it is for his own good. Ladies and gentlemen, the final achiever award goes to an anonymous best-selling novelist in the field of romantic fiction! Anonymous, that is, until today.” And here Ganesan asked me to come up to the stage. Thunderous applause filled the hall.
I was in a daze. This was something I’d kept a well-guarded secret. How had Ganesan come to know? Just then an organizer slipped a note from Ganesan to me. It read as follows: “Sorry, but your success should be public knowledge. I came to know about your secret thanks to a business associate who is employed by your publisher. Now stop sulking and enjoy your hour of fame.” I later learned that Ganesan had put up posters in all the local colleges announcing that the best-selling anonymous author of the Purple Hearts series of romantic novels would be in town to give a talk, with the result that all my faithful readers had packed the auditorium that day.
Did I have a choice but to go up and accept my award? I made my way to the stage, accepted my award, and said something I no longer recall. Then followed the question-and-answer session with the audience. A girl with eyes that glinted dangerously behind her glasses asked if I was married. I said no. She asked if I didn’t see a contradiction there: a bachelor writing romantic novels. I said I saw no contradiction whatsoever. The purest form of romance is anticipation, adoration from a distance, and reality will never measure up to the touchstone of desire. I preferred to stay uncommitted and let my undomesticated imagination roam free and wild. I then quoted extempore from Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss: “Could fulfilment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfilment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.” There were no more questions.
As I descended from the stage, I was met with a long line of girls and women holding copies of my books to autograph. At the head of the line was an elderly woman who was seventy years old if she was a day. She threw her arms around me, kissed me, and sobbed, “You make life worth living! Your books remind me of my youth. They take me away to a better world.” I patted her a couple of times on the back, pried her arms off me, and autographed her book.
Next in line was a beauty with magnificent tresses, hazel eyes, and an exquisitely sculpted figure that would have turned every head at a bishop’s conclave. My knees buckled. She held out her open book, flashed a smile that would have melted an assassin’s heart, and said, “Hi, I’m Gitanjali, I’ve been waiting so long for this moment!” I melted. I’m not used to the society of beautiful women, or I’d have known what to say. I muttered something perfunctory and bent down to scribble something on the open page. I then had to steady myself against the wall, for on the page was written “Be my husband” and below that, a mobile number. I froze. My bachelorhood, never this directly tested before, hung in the balance. I had just finished writing “I can hear the bells pealing” very slowly and deliberately so as to memorize the phone number when I became aware of a commotion near my feet.
Looking down, I saw an unkempt man on his knees at my feet, tugging at my shoes and crying out “Appa! Appa!” I tried to take a few steps back, but he clung to me, blabbering something in Tamil. I estimated that he was in his thirties. I looked around for Ganesan. Thank God! He was hovering around, and now firmly pulled the man from me and began talking to him. From the expression on Ganesan’s face, it wasn’t going well. I also became aware of people looking at me with outright hostility. I was stunned. What on earth was happening? The mystery man now took a faded identity card from his pocket and showed it to Ganesan, who took it in his hands and peered at it closely. Then he looked at me, looked at the card, looked at me, looked at the card. The man now tried to embrace me, but I fobbed him off.
Identity card in hand, Ganesan came up to me and said, “This looks bad for you. This man is Senthil, Jagadambika’s son, and claims you are his father. He has been haunting reunions every year in search of his father. I told him Jagadambika left the campus well before you entered the college, but he refuses to take no for an answer. He showed me the identity card of his father, which Jagadambika had “borrowed” from his hostel room. Here, take a look.” I was stunned. There was no writing left on the faded college identity card, but the person in the photo was the spitting image of myself as a youth. Not only that, Senthil himself resembled me closely! Our noses, for example, were practically identical. I was speechless. It was at this point that Gitanjali transfixed me with blazing eyes, hissed “So! Goodbye, creep!” and stalked off.
Now two men stepped forward, one a policeman. The other man introduced himself as a lawyer, and said he wanted me to undergo a paternity test. The policeman said if I did not comply, I’d have to accompany him to the police station. They wanted to take me to the testing center and get the test done that day itself. The hisses in the background became louder, slogans were shouted, and a few high-heel shoes came whizzing in my direction. A well-built woman in her sixties snatched angrily at my shirt, and a piece of it came away in her hands. The TV cameramen were lapping it all up. The ripping sound of my shirt tearing galvanized me into action. I ran out with the lawyer and policeman and tumbled into the waiting car.
For me, the reunion was over.