Within two minutes, Armaan Ali makes his grand entrance by jumping down from a blue-and-white helicopter. Salim's eyes light up. I see the same innocent excitement on his face as when he first saw Armaan, a year ago. In person.
Salim comes running through the door and collapses facedown on the bed.
I am alarmed. "Salim!...Salim!" I shout. "What's happened to you? How come you are back so early?" I turn him on his back. He is laughing.
"The most amazing thing has happened today. This is the happiest day of my life," he declares.
"What is it? Have you won a lottery?"
"No. Something even better than winning a lottery. I have seen Armaan Ali."
Bit by breathless bit, the whole story comes out. How Salim caught a glimpse of Armaan Ali while doing his daily round in Ghatkopar. The star was alighting from his Mercedes-Benz to enter a five-star hotel. Salim was traveling on a bus to deliver his last tiffin box to a customer. The moment he spotted Armaan, he jumped down from the speeding vehicle, narrowly missing being run down by a car, and ran toward the actor, who was passing through the hotel's revolving door. He was stopped by the tall, strapping uniformed guard and prevented from entering the hotel. "Armaan!" Salim called, trying desperately to catch the star's attention. Armaan heard the cry, stopped in his tracks, and turned around. His eyes made contact with Salim's. He gave a faint smile, a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment, and continued walking into the lobby. Salim forgot all about the tiffin and came racing home to give me the news of his dream having come true. A customer of Gawli Tiffin Carriers went hungry that afternoon.
"Does Armaan look different from the way he appears on-screen?" I ask.
"No. He is even better in real life," says Salim. "He is taller and more handsome. My ambition in life is to shake his hand, at least once. I probably won't wash it for a month after that."
I reflect on how good it is to have simple, uncomplicated ambitions. Like shaking a film star's hand.
Meanwhile, on-screen, that hand is holding a gun and pointing it at a group of three policemen. Armaan plays a gangster in this movie. A gangster with a good heart. He loots the rich and distributes money to the poor. In between he falls in love with the heroine, Priya Kapoor, an up-and-coming actress, sings six songs, and fulfills his beloved mother's wish by taking her on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Vaishno Devi. At least, that's the story till the interval.
Priya Kapoor's entry in the film is greeted with catcalls from the stalls. She is a tall, good-looking actress who won the Miss World title a few years ago. Her body is sculpted like that of a classical beauty, with heavy breasts and a slim waist. She is my favorite actress these days. She pouts a lot in the film and keeps on saying "Shut up" to the comedian. We laugh.
"Your ambition is to shake Armaan's hand," I say to Salim. "But what do you think is Armaan's ambition in life? He seems to have it all -- face, fame, and fortune."
"You are wrong," Salim replies solemnly. "He does not have Urvashi."
The papers are full of the Armaan-Urvashi breakup, after a whirlwind romance lasting nine months. There is speculation that Armaan is completely heartbroken. That he has stopped eating and drinking. That he might be suicidal. Urvashi Randhawa has returned to her modeling career.
I see Salim crying. His eyes are red and wet with tears. He has not eaten all day. The heart-shaped glass frame containing a picture of Armaan and Urvashi, on which he had spent almost half his meager salary, lies on the ground, shattered into a hundred pieces.
"Look, Salim, you are being childish. There is nothing you can do about it," I tell him.
"If only I could meet Armaan. I want to comfort him. To hold his hand and let him cry on my shoulder. They say crying makes the heart lighter."
Copyright © 2005 by Vikas Swarup
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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