Authors: Suleikha Snyder
To Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, who told me, “This is a big story,” and helped it get there, and to my South Asian romance sisterhood. May we all find our literary happily ever afters.
“God, it’s Rocky Varma. Can you believe it?”
“Who does she think she is,
“Better question: who did she do to get here?”
ne kharid kiya, nahin
? Her father bought her career.
She could barely hear herself over the thumping bass of the techno-
music that was at least five years out of date. But still, somehow, she heard
. Ananya. Leela. Mira. Urvasi. They looked like a flock of brightly colored birds—if birds wore spandex and glitter—and it was almost dizzying. Sensory overload on top of the noise and the strobe lights.
There was only tonic in her glass, but it felt stronger. She wobbled on her stiletto heels—the nude Louboutins, her mom had insisted—as though she were drunk.
, she wished she were drunk. A little Dutch courage would go a long way as the birds swooped in and started pecking. As they closed in, trapping Rocky between the bar and a clutch of tables, the vicious whispers turned into
-sweet smiles, dripping with honey.
“Hi, Rocky! How
you?” Urvasi, the clear leader of the collective, was a bombshell who’d started out in south Indian films and anted up. She was gorgeous. They were
gorgeous—dark eyes made up with kohl, perfectly smooth brown skin like something out of an ad for bronzer. Rocky felt gawky in comparison, washed out and mousy, playing dress-up in expensive shoes and a sedate cocktail dress that buttoned all the way up to her throat.
She sipped at her tonic, murmuring something to the effect of “I’m fine.” They didn’t care about the answer anyway. They just wanted to look, to catalogue her and see for themselves that she couldn’t speak Hindi and wouldn’t play ball. The past fourteen months had taught her that all she could do was give them the least amount of ammunition possible.
Sure enough, Leela rattled off something in Hindi before stopping with a theatrical widening of her eyes and a saccharine, “So sorry!” Ananya squeezed her arm as if to chide her. Had they scripted this beforehand? Marathoned
? Rocky didn’t think Bollywood actresses did much in the way of improv, but if this was off the cuff, they were practically worthy of the Second City main stage.
“You have the role in Arijit Chatterjee’s Delhi picture,
?” Leela started again in English, grinning so wide it was a miracle the dimple in her cheek didn’t burst. “That was mine. But I had a better offer.”
“Harsh Mathur,” Mira put in knowingly. “Who wants to play with Ashraf—” she shuddered as if the idea was distasteful, “—when you can play with
? He’s so beautiful,
“I’m not playing. I’m acting. Doing a job.” Rocky enunciated the last part, glad it was too dark in the club for them to notice her knuckles whitening around her sloshing tumbler of tonic. A night out once in a while could only be good for her career, her dad had advised. She had to mingle, to be part of the industry community…even if they didn’t want her.
Don’t let them think they’re better than you
, Mom liked to tell her.
You’re worth a thousand of them
. It probably wasn’t the best tack to take, since it made her seem snobby and unapproachable, but right now that cloak of superiority was all Rocky had. She clung to it, wrapped it tight. “My dad didn’t buy my career. I earned it. With my work.”
If they were the least bit embarrassed that she’d heard them—after all, they’d intended her to—it didn’t show. Urvasi just cocked her head like a hawk sizing up its prey. “Work?
, Rocky.” She clicked her tongue, mockingly. “If it is work, you are not ready for it.”
“Leave it to the big girls,” Leela added. Leela, who couldn’t be more than a handful of years older than her. “This is our world,
“No. No, it’s not.” Where the strength to just flat-out say it came from, she didn’t know. Theater classes on voice and expression? Her mother ordering around porters and drivers? Telling off guys who got a little too grabby on the first date? “It’s my world, too.” She took one sure step, the Louboutins obeying her silent plea to follow her command, and tilted the remnants of her tonic down the front of Leela’s bright pink minidress. “So sorry!” she trilled before sliding past the sputtering starlet and making her escape.
The shoes were the first thing to go, spinning across the suite and, price tag be damned, thwacking into the opposing wall. “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!”
Screaming was juvenile. Beyond her. She hadn’t thrown a tantrum in…well,
. But she couldn’t help herself. She smelled like smoke, tasted like defeat, and her feet were killing her.
“Next time, wear Ferragamos,” suggested her mom, knowing full well she didn’t really mean the damn high heels.
“Funny. Very funny.” Rocky scowled, yanking off her dangly earrings next. She knew better than to throw them, forcing herself to breathe as she returned the diamond teardrops to the jewelry box on the dresser.
“I’m not laughing.” And indeed, her mother was perfectly composed. Probably because laughing would cause wrinkles. Caroline Varma
wrinkles. “You have nothing to prove, sweetheart. Especially not to the likes of those silly little brats.”
to prove, Mom. Because to them…to half of Bombay,
the silly little brat.” And the only thing she was willing to cop to was the “little” part. That was genetic, and no fault of her own.
Her mom made a dismissive noise, setting aside the fashion magazine she’d probably only been pretending to read as she waited up for her. It was “her turn” to play hall monitor. Dad was in their suite, hopefully fast asleep instead of on a business call to Chicago or New York. “You knew this wasn’t going to be easy.”
Mom was the queen of stating the obvious. Subtlety just took up effort that could be applied to self-maintenance. But she was right. Rocky hadn’t just woken up one day thinking, “Today I’m going to be a Bollywood star!” Hell, she was supposed to be applying to graduate programs and memorizing Chekhov plays. She’d intended to make a grand debut as a character named Masha, not Asha.
The carpeted floor was plush beneath her bare feet, comforting to the toes she curled in for purchase. She undid the first seven buttons of her chic black dress before shrugging it off the rest of the way. Shooing her mom out as she changed was pointless, as was responding to the obligatory critical comments about how her stomach looked a little too round and her butt was sagging. She was only twenty-one and she spent an hour at the hotel gym every morning; there was no
her butt was sagging.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” was all she said as she pulled a faded Northwestern T-shirt over her head and tugged it down her much-maligned belly. “I was just hoping it would be…I don’t know…
This time, Caroline
laugh. Offending lines be damned. “Oh, baby. You are in the wrong business for that. This is no fairy tale.”
Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons…? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered.
You are not ready for it.
She had to be.
She had no other choice.
The blades of the pruning shears closed with a satisfying swoosh, leaving browned buds and broken twigs in their wake. Soon the wheels of his outdoor chair crunched over a vast carpet of detritus spanning the length of the aisle of rose bushes. It was appropriate. For he’d always left destruction behind him in the futile hope that new growth lay ahead.
“Once upon a time” the stories all began. But Taj Ali Khan’s began and ended with a far more specific timetable. Nine years, four months and sixteen days. That was when his own flower had stopped blooming. That was how long it had been since a woman besides the servants had set foot in his house.
, to be accurate, the woman’s footsteps had led
from his house, beating a hasty retreat as if the devil were on her heels—the devil in question being him.
He thought of Archana still. Sometimes. When the darkness was particularly dark, when his roses didn’t cave to his will, when Usha and his grandmother’s laughter echoed through the house and then abruptly stopped, as if he would catch the sound and lock it away in a tower.
He barely remembered her face, though surely he could watch one of their films to recall it in picture-perfect clarity, but he remembered her dark eyes widening in fear and then disgust. He remembered the sharp tang of her expensive perfume—she’d hoarded the tiny bottle like it held drops of liquid gold, and that day it had smelled like death. Like charred flesh and broken bone. He could still hear the clatter of her engagement ring hitting the floor even as he struggled to reach for her but failed, bound by the leather restraints Kamal had fastened to his bed.
Kamal, who was still here when so many others had fled.
He could hardly blame Archana for running, could he? Even if he bore bitterness in his heart of hearts. For he’d built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid. No strangers gained entrance to the freak show. Workmen who came to repair the phone lines or cable wires were never allowed inside. His man of business only made contact via mobile or e-mail. Usha sifted through the daily post, tossing aside any correspondence that might stoke his fury. Ashraf, his dearest baby brother, only rang on holy days that neither of them bothered to celebrate. They saw more of each other on film than they did in person. And that was fine. It was expected. Why would Ashu rearrange his busy life to suit Taj when Taj had no desire to do the same for him? His life was ordered precisely how
liked—how he’d been slowly trained to accept it. Everything in its proper place, distant and dust-ridden, save for his ugly façade.
But someone had to feed and care for the monster,
Someone had to remind him that he was alive, not just a
, rolling and stumbling through this oversized crypt like the walking dead.
Someone had to remind him that he was Taj Ali Khan, famous film star. Because nine years, four months and sixteen days had nearly made him forget…and his willful ignorance was the only bliss he knew.
The shears slipped in his grip, the hissing scythe accidentally taking the head of one perfect blood-red bloom. It didn’t flutter, didn’t fall gently. No, its tether to life snapped, it dropped swiftly dead. He rolled over it, crushing it with something that might have been regret…or perhaps just a complete lack of surprise. After all, nothing truly grew here anymore. Certainly not the creature he’d become.
Rocky didn’t know she was crashing and burning until eight minutes into the segment. It was one of those surprise head-on collisions…really only a surprise to the driver because everyone else saw the swerve into the wrong lane.
The studio lights were too hot, she would tell herself later. The hostess was on the attack—except that everyone knew Sunita Khanna was a consummate professional, a lovely, funny interviewer who never made her guests feel unwelcome.
Rocky picked up speed all on her own. “You know they dubbed my voice in my first movie and didn’t tell me?” she said, leaning forward even though she was imparting a secret everybody already knew. “I had to find out at the premiere, sitting there with my parents, the rest of the cast and the crew. It was so embarrassing that I almost left before the intermission.
. But I stuck it out. Because I’m not in this to give up…to let anyone see me break.”
Sunny leaned forward, too. “What
you in this for?” No one bothered to ask Rocky that anymore. Maybe that was why she wandered off course. Or maybe it was just residual rage at the bird bitches from the discotheque two nights before.
Growing up in a well-to-do Chicago suburb with a lot of other South Asian kids, Rocky had never felt out of place. The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly. It worked out pretty well, aside from a few
Rocky Horror Picture Show
jokes and an ex-boyfriend who told everyone he “drove Rocky Road”.