“A model”, I first thought when I walked in at 10pm after a long day at the office and found him sharing a beer and a cigarette with my host. He had that deadly combination so carefully cultivated by models and film stars, simultaneously projecting both oomph and vulnerability.
His hair was jet black and shoulder length, gelled firmly into straight-lined good behaviour. A manicured goatee hung off an angular face that reminded me of a filled-out Johnny Depp. But it was when he stood to greet me that I really got a good look at him. He wore a thin frilly peach shirt that was transparent enough to display formidable biceps and the most perfect six-pack I’ve ever seen. The abs tapered to a slim waist which disappeared into carefully well-worn jeans that hung easily, almost happy to associate with such a body.
The shoes made me stifle a laugh though. Brown leather, polished shiny, they were long and narrowed to a pointy tip. I empathized with his toes. However, shoes, goatee and slightly overdone biceps apart, I’ve never seen a more outstanding example of my gender. By comparison, there I stood in T-shirt, faded jeans and sandals, (Yes, I used to wear that to work), stubbly, paunchy and badly needing a haircut.
We shook hands and sat down. I’ll call him Vinod. My host disappeared to fetch me a beer, leaving the two of us not knowing what to say. We obviously existed in totally different worlds. The usual small talk happened: where you from, what you do. He was from Indore and, to my surprise, a final-year Economics student. So that put him at, what? 20? 21? He looked at least 5 years older.
My host returned. Vinod stubbed out his cigarette and began saying his goodbyes. My host gave him taxi money to get from the suburbs to his downtown destination. He picked up the package he had come for and left.
Then I heard the story. My host has a good friend who is a doctor and gay. I’ll call him Henry. Henry is a lifelong Mumbaikar, in his late forties, wealthy, sophisticated, and somewhat arty. Every time Henry gets horny but is too lazy to cruise, he calls a pimp and gets a professional sent over. On one occasion, Vinod showed up. He was 18 or 19 at the time, new to Bombay, naïve, poor, slightly crude and didn’t speak much English. But Henry took a liking to Vinod and asked for him specifically the next time. Then Vinod made a clever suggestion. Of the Rs. 1000 he makes with each client, he has to give Rs. 400 to the pimp. So how about Henry calling him directly from then on? Henry agreed.
In a couple of months, the improbable happened. Henry and Vinod fell in love. Henry took the unsophisticated 19-year-old under his wing and started to groom him. Vinod pumped iron, improved his English and etiquette, brushed up on culture, and is now clearly eyeing a career in modelling or even in Bollywood. Today, two years later, Vinod is living with Henry.
They make a happy couple. If this was a movie, the story would end here, at this happily-ever-after fairy-tale climax. The down-on-his-luck gigolo finds a patron, stops selling himself, and begins climbing the social ladder. Perhaps the movie would even end with a ’10 years later’ montage in which Vinod is a movie star.
And perhaps he will be. Perhaps ten years from now Vinod will be a movie star, specializing in action flicks. Perhaps he will be dating his gorgeous, well-educated, city-bred, upper class female co-star. If so, he’d have probably changed his name to something like Bobby Khan and transformed his small-town origins into his USP, embodying a rags-to-riches, mofussil-to-metropolis, example of how Mumbai is the city of dreams.
But as the soulful Peter Starsdet song goes,
“Where do you go to, my lovely,
When you’re alone in your bed?
Tell me the thoughts that surround you,
I want to look inside your head, yes I do.”
Will a rapidly rising Bobby Khan ever re-visit Vinod? What will he then make of the boy from Indore who came to the Big City with stars in his eyes but no money in his pocket? Will he shudder when he remembers how he made that decision to sell himself to ageing queens?
And what of Henry? Will he then be a gracious old friend or merely a rung on a ladder that had to be stepped on in order to ascend higher?
Mumbai, as so many believe, is India’s city of dreams, our very own Land of Opportunity. There are those who pursue their dreams by day, standing sardine-packed in trains and working long hours, constructing daily the building blocks of future success. And then there are those who chase their dreams at night. Having moved from town to metropolis and from hostel to rich man’s bedroom, they have finally ‘made it’. They have gained entry to that top rung of the ladder occupied by the ultra-rich and powerful, where they can look out upon a seductively welcoming world that is their playground. It’s not only women who walk this murky road to fame and fortune.
And for the rest of us, do we ever consider what it must have taken to make such a decision, whether it be to gain entry to elite parties or simply for pocket money to sample some of what Bombay offers to the well-heeled? How did this process happen? Did Vinod arrive in Mumbai already hardened and, as the song goes, “touched with a burning ambition/to shake off those lowly-born tags”? Or was it the slow death of youthful innocence as he became aware of just what it would take to become a star, and will therefore “still bear the scars/deep inside”?
But maybe these are thoughts best left to Vinod. When he’s alone in his bed.
Note: Names and an occupation have been changed to give privacy to the individuals speculated about