The crowd is slowly building up. Looking at the size of the hall, you realise that this is bigger than what you were told. Even the walls have soundproofing, and the stage a little too lit up. Limelight is always bright light, you tell yourself. There’s just one aspect of the whole scene that you are not surprised about, the large number of women. Do all of them write, you wonder, looking at how decked up they are, and how clueless they look, or maybe it’s just you. But of course you are clueless, you have always been. You shake off the women and get back to assessing the stage. It seems to be wincing under the light, like you would do if you were to stand there and speak. The thought itself makes you queasy, and you would have winced too if it wasn’t for the soothing, calming sight of the woman walking on it, the only person in the whole arena that seems to have a purpose in there.
You snap back from watching her because someone has asked you a question, you stare at the enquirer for some time till he gives up. Your thoughts are back on the stage. Public speaking is as terrifying as speaking to the woman who you have been ogling openly for the last ten mins, more so when you find that she is one of the organizers and to add to your woes, she puts on specs with one of those chic looking frames and looks very similar to the one who occupies your fantasies lately. But the dream is broken, slowly, as you realise that she is indeed walking towards you, and not in slow motion. You try to act cool and look past her only to find the stage staring back at you, mocking you maybe. This was always a bad idea, there is a reason why they say you shouldn’t listen to friends, especially the ones who act like they are your well wishers.
So what do you do now. Your mind takes pace throwing the usual ideas at you – running away, acting as if you are someone else, or just being yourself, that is dumbstruck, all seem to be wise choices. Stepping down and chickening out are things that have been berated throughout history, but not because of the fact that lack of courage is looked down upon, but because these acts of disgrace deprived people of entertainment. There is self humiliation and there is public humiliation, but today you decide to take the chances with bespectacled humiliation. After all no one would know, and it will be yet another failed attempt involving you and a female with an overtly intellectual disposition.
The conversation is surprisingly smooth, but circles back to why you won’t go on the stage, after all you had enrolled yourself. It is not a bad idea to start tonight, she says, given that your writing is better than others, definitely better than the rest of the speakers tonight. You discover that she really loves your writing, and she has no qualms in admitting that with a coy smile. Maybe she does that with everyone, but one doesn’t get the opportunity to be gullible to someone beautiful very often. You feel all pumped up. You start believing that it might not be a bad idea after all. She tells you things like how success these days demands things beyond writing, it’s your appearance, presentation, oratory skills, and you agree, mostly because you lose the thread everytime the strand of hair falls on her face and she swipes it out. From the way she has tied her hair, it’s evident this strand was left out for the purpose it is serving now.
You end up saying yes. She ticks off your name in the list and walks away with a winning smile. You watch her walking away, and how mesmerizingly non-intellectual she looks from this side. You would have continued watching if your senses were not assaulted by something sensually strong, flowery, yet strangely spicy smell that you wouldn’t forget for a long while. It feels like you have had a bite of a forbidden smell and it has gotten stuck in your throat. The woman wearing a saree who has passed by leaving this overwhelming trail walks up to the stage and starts introducing herself to a big applause. You don’t know her but you clap with limp hands so as to blend in as you are feeling a little out of place. The feeling grows when she starts reading her poetry, with elaborate gestures, the next speaker talks about how the surreal themes are exploited these days to produce absolute nonsense. He then proceeds to read one of his own, thus proving his point.
After three more, you feel uneasy and not just out of place, but out of the times these people are living in. The recurring subject of pain seeps into you in the form of a headache. You search for coffee, your bespectacled beauty, or even the woman in saree only to make sure she doesn’t come anywhere near. The current speaker talks in a droning voice, as if her mind is elsewhere, maybe she has been assaulted by perfumes too, maybe she is surreal. You realise your thoughts are losing shape, and then someone at the back starts coughing. As if on cue, someone on my left joins in with a tentative cough, there’s someone clearing her throat now, it seems to be spreading, and people get restless thanks to all the coronavirus news and related whatsapp forwards. The guy sitting in front gets up and leaves, and you follow him, all the way out of the auditorium.
The filter coffee and the smoke feeds your ailing soul, like raindrops on a toad. You take your time relishing the rejuvenation. But then you realise it’s getting late and your turn to speak must be drawing close, but so is the dusk. You choose to appreciate the evening sky for a while, not because you are feeling poetic, but you are back in your senses and scared of the stage all over again.
The woman in specs is frowning at you when you go to find out, you have missed your slot she says in a voice mixed with accusation and sadness. Your heart melts. She called your name five times, she says, and you can’t help rejoicing that your name was announced five times among budding writers and such a big crowd. She sees your face, and probably the celebration going on beyond the face and walks away. You feel sorry for her, for yourself, and for your heart that’s broken because of her exit, but wait it just melted and is probably still liquid. You reassure yourself on the heart front and remember that you have forgotten to ask for her number, like you planned over the coffee. But she is walking away and you don’t want to stop her, because you would rather watch her walk away.