Sunday, February 25

“Afternoon”: Nidhi Dalmia’s novel dives into several unexplored aspects of life and relationships

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The book “Afternoon” by Nidhi Dalmia is written in a voice that is honest and compelling, and has a touching portrayal of human emotions.
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York, Kashmir and Delhi in the late ’60s, intertwined with the significant cultural, student, sexual and intellectual revolutions taking place around that time, this is the story of a young student finding the love of his life and two young women whose lives intersect with his at different points of time.
It is also the story of a Kashmiri Muslim girl who carried memories and impressions of her home state but grew up in Delhi.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
‘Noooo! You didn’t! I wasn’t aware of anyone noticing anything. Least of all you.’

She gave a knowing smile and then an enigmatic one. She pulled up the elastic band of Rajiv’s underwear and peeked in. ‘Gosh! That’s really blooming,’ she said.

‘Hey, who asked you to peek?’ he said, taken aback.

‘C’mon! I’m many years older than you,’ she said, pulling down his underwear. Joe had been his class teacher since the previous year.

The school had decided to have the same teacher in the last two years of school, since these were such critical years and results of the School Leaving Exams were so important in shaping each pupil’s future, especially in those days, not to mention the school’s own image. For the very same reason, Rajiv’s parents had decided to hire her for private tuition as well some months before the Board exams.

Rajiv’s was a boys’ school and there wasn’t much exposure to girls, except for the occasional Social with a neighbouring Convent. However, there were friends of friends in nearby Man Nagar who went to co-ed schools and through whom Rajiv had started going to dance parties in the last year of school. Fox Trot, Samba, Tango, Waltz, Twisting and Jiving were the order of the day and both the boys and the girls were quite skilled.

The light grew more intense as the sun went over the horizon. Unconstrained, it really swayed gigantically like a mad elephant.

‘See what I mean?’ she laughed again. He felt a soft hand on his hot, burning erection. It became even stiffer with her touch. As it bloomed and swayed like an oak tree, Joe stared at it in fascination.

‘I didn’t know it could get as huge as this,’ she laughed again. ‘I saw it bulging inside your underwear.’

‘Did you never see it like that?’

‘Well, once. Some afternoons ago. My God! What were you thinking just before the lesson? How come it was big then?’

Rajiv smiled mysteriously, actually not remembering the incident at all.

‘I wasn’t thinking anything sexy. These things just happen sometimes, come sometimes. No reason.’

‘Strange, you guys are.’

‘What’s so strange about it? Sometimes there just are erections. Who knows why? Haven’t you heard of morning erections? Maybe it needs to get bigger to hold back the susu which builds up, as another control mechanism.’

‘Morning erections is one thing …’

She bent down and peered at it curiously some more. She ran her hand up and down, getting a feel of it. She examined it from various angles. She moved her hand under his testicles. Such strange and curious things these are, her expression unmistakably said. Her hand felt so cool.

‘Joe?’

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

She went on with her Geography lesson. The latitude of the temperate zone in Siberia, its produce, how it differed from the temperate zone in the West. There were a lot of facts to absorb and remember. The lesson ended before the light totally faded.

‘What are you doing being big again, pray?’

‘It’s automatic. Am not even aware of it.’

The song ‘Teacher’s Pet’, which would be broadcast often on All India Radio’s A Date With You on Friday nights, played in his head. There was a kiss on the inside cover, of Rock Hudson kissing a very pretty star. Her chin completely rested on his. They were fully into it. ‘Why is she enjoying it so much?’ he thought. ‘Do girls also like it? Openly?’ It really turned him on. Just like the kiss on the cover of From Here to Eternity—lying on the beach, kissing at an angle, mouth fully covering the other’s, skin against skin.

In another one, the sky was dark in a friendly, enveloping sort of way; maybe it was dawn or dusk. No one was around. A couple were sitting in the middle of the beach, on their knees on the yellowish sand. They had wet, clinging swimming clothes. Their lean, taut bodies, which seemed dark and attractive in that light, were tightly clasped. They were kissing passionately. It was as if the camera was zooming in on the panorama from far away. It was a black and white photograph and heightened the portrayal.

Of such imagery were born fantasies and sleepless nights, before Joe had come into Rajiv’s sheltered life.

He had wanted to try everything, he told Joe. He had read about loggers. Mighty men. He was still not strong. His arms were thin. But he wanted to try it. There was a thin tree, maybe as young as himself or maybe only slightly older. He decided to try it, one day. He found an axe in the tool shed and started cutting it. He had to keep axing at the same place to make an impression. Gradually, it began to form and the green of the young tree began to show. Why was he doing it? He wanted to experience it. Was he hurting the tree? Was the tree crying out? It was only a tree. Wasn’t an animal. He looked around. None of the malis came. They were lost in the haze of the afternoon. Yet, something was happening. He kept doing it. He had to succeed. He hadn’t picked a giant tree with a big, thick trunk. He was killing an innocent tree. It had done nothing. He kept feeling uneasy at the same time. ‘But why?’ he thought. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was accomplishing something. Adding that experience. Proving to himself that he could do it. No family member interrupted him. It was taking longer than he had expected. The dent in the tree kept getting deeper. He had done it. The tree fell. The large mango tree next to it, with its many branches, was a silent witness to what had happened to the little tree.

He described some of his childhood to her.

‘When I was a little boy, at times I wanted to be a girl. Sometimes I longed for it. I must have been seven or eight then. I was ashamed of these thoughts. I hid them from everyone but not from myself. Boys seemed so rough and tough, so competitive. I didn’t want to jump into that fray. Girls were so soft and gentle, dainty and gracious, sensitive, and altogether desirable. I liked their pastel-coloured frocks, the way they laughed and giggled and flirted even then. I wanted to hold them, be held by them.

‘On the other hand, I didn’t at all want to be a girl. Imagine being attracted to boys! Imagine kissing them! Yuck! I didn’t want to be a girlish boy either. I’d be considered a sissy. And girls may not be attracted to me. They might want a manly type. If I liked them so much, for that reason alone I had to develop my masculine qualities. But they were so needlessly aggressive. I had to be that? So insensitive sometimes. That’s why I liked women.

‘Professor Higgins was right—in his own context, I agreed with him when I saw the movie. But he got it wrong as well—isn’t that the nature of everything—why couldn’t boys be more like girls? Attributes like empathy, gracefulness, flexibility; qualities like softness, gentleness, kindness. Degrees did matter. How can you be so fond of a whole sex? Attracted to a whole gender? Was there something wrong with me?

‘In our main hall, on a set of sofas sat a group of ladies, as I wandered by innocently. I must have been no more than three then. One of them, in the corner nearest me, pouted her lips and beckoned to me. She was very fair, with sharp features. She must have been in her 20s but seemed so grown up to me then. I hesitated but didn’t show it. Did she sense it? She pouted her lips in an even more pronounced fashion. It was clear that she was inviting me to come and get a kiss on the lips. There was something very attractive about her. She was wearing a red sleeveless blouse which showed off her glistening rounded shoulders and smooth, fair arms. She invited me again, her lips protruding together. I wanted very much to be kissed by her.

 

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