At the bus stop on his way to work each morning, he found himself darting glances at the young men from the neighborhood who were on their way to college. Most of them, he noticed, had perfectly sculpted stubbles, like those fiery, bronzed foreign men he had seen on the travel and lifestyle shows on television. When he had been growing up, he had asked his mother why bits of hair had not started appearing on his face, like all the other boys at school. His mother had asked him to be patient, and said that soon he would have a moustache as glorious as the ones the thakurs in their village sported. He did not want to have anything that was like the thakurs, he had replied in the judgmental rage of childhood, never would he have anything to do with them, given how they had treated his father and other members of their community.
Later, when he would come home from the town where he attended university in the summer break, his mother would tell him that women have always had a weakness for clean-shaven men. And that he was lucky that he didn't have to spend time in front of the mirror every morning with a razor and cream. She would gaze adoringly at the old black and white photograph of her late husband, and say, "Look at your father. See how handsome he looks clean-shaven. Just like a man in the big city working in an office." But, Nitin had dismissed his mother as old-fashioned. He had spent enough time at the university in town to know that the ways of the world had changed. His classmates had told him that all the girls, even the family types, preferred men with at least some hair on their face.
In his first six months at the university, he had been convinced that his lack of female company had more to do with his caste and his village bumpkin ways, for he felt that, purely on the basis of physical attributes (not counting the lack of facial hair, of course) he was not at all a bad prospect for a young woman yearning for masculine company and the security it would consequently provide her. Of course, he was not as roguishly charming as some of the boys from the towns, but his mother had taught him to be satisfied with whatever he had. But soon, he saw that his classmates had been correct all along. In the town, they did not bother so much about caste as they did in the village. Also, his mannerisms had begun to match those of his classmates who had lived in that dusty town, with its jumble of electricity poles and two storied buildings, all their lives. Yes, he would have to put down his dismal failure in the companionship and courtship stakes to the absence of facial hair.
In his last year at the university, he had gathered enough courage to go up to Dr. Sharma's Dispensary (Dr. Anil Kumar Sharma, M.B.B.S, G.P. Services Offered Here!) in the lane off Main Bazaar Road. He had decided not to go to the General Hospital because he thought that the doctors there would not take his problem seriously enough, and with good reason. After all, when there was diphtheria and tuberculosis to contend with, why would the doctors take time out to look into his problem? It was not killing him, right? Furtively, he had taken that second left turn, the one between the big store for readymade garments and the Shanti Priya Vegetarian Restaurant. He had ducked into Dr. Sharma's dispensary and waited for his turn to enter the little room behind the dirty curtains with the flower imprints. He had gone inside the room when his turn had come, and narrated, with all honesty, the cause of his worries. Dr. Sharma, rotund and with rotting teeth, had taken him by the hand and led him to the other side of the curtain, the side from which he had just entered to seek a remedy to his problem, and laughed like a madman while recounting Nitin's problem to those waiting there. Then, they had all pointed at him and laughed so much that many of them had begun to clutch their sides. A middle-aged man in a torn shirt (and a shaggy salt-and-pepper beard, Nitin was quick to note, that reminded him of the unwanted reeds that used to grow clumsily on the banks of the village canal) laughed so much that he began spitting blood on the cheap-quality tiles in the waiting room. It was at this point that everyone had forgotten about Nitin, and gathered around the bedraggled man. Nitin, shoulders drooping and eyes welling up with the compressed fury of one whose misfortunes the world (including but not limited to men who spewed red droplets from their unfortunate gullets) scoffed at with derision, had walked out of the dispensary and kicked the red dust that had settled like a film on everything in that wretched town.
Enough is enough, he had said through clenched teeth, the town and its people were too limited in their approach. Instead of admitting that their ignorance came in the way of suggesting a remedy for him, they pointed their fingers and laughed at him. Yes, even the town was incapable of providing answers. At that moment, he had decided that he would venture out to the one place which he knew had all the answers for all the problems in the world: that storied city by the sea, Bombay. If there was one thing that both the town-dwellers and the village bumpkins saw eye to eye on, it was their shared admiration for Bombay. On any other matter, there would be pompous denouncements from both sides. But on the matter of Bombay, both sides would agree that it was the wondrous place where knowledge and wisdom seamlessly converted themselves into business and commerce. With his degree from the university, he would get a respectable job in the town, and earn enough money to go to Bombay in six to twelve months. So what if his degree was in history? A degree from a university was a degree from a university, and it did not matter whether it was in history or botany or anything else for that matter. He had felt vindicated when he got a job as a clerk in the town post office.
After nine months, when he had felt that he had saved enough money to go to Bombay, he had purchased a train ticket. As the train had sped through the hinterland with a terrific clanging, Nitin had felt a slight wistfulness for the life he had left behind. But he had checked himself then, sternly reminded himself that if he was to become a man of the world, he would have to become less sentimental, he would have to let go off the past like he would let go off the colorful kites when his accomplices would call out that the string was ready. But then he had remembered that the kite would soar only as long as the string was taut, intact. The shredding of the string meant that the kite's journey had ended. He had remembered the sensation of the string loosening between his fingers, and falling in a heap at his feet, like the limp body of a snake coiling on itself after it had been finally vanquished by a mongoose, unable to keep up the fight any longer. All this time, the kite would be falling through the air, like a wobbly drunk, or a rickety table with spindles for legs, legs that shook every time it had to bear a burden, and would finally lie at rest, caught in the spokes of the antennae on the terrace of one of the Thakurs' mansions, or some forgotten alley in the town which even the kiterunners had chosen to ignore. Nitin had become despondent again, and outside the train window, as shadows had begun to fall on lives that for Nitin were at once coveted and wretched, he had dozed off while searching for an analogy more appropriate than the one with the kites, his tongue lolling out, like a fatigued canine, catching the musty air of the night.
In the new light of day, the train had rolled into that station with the stately Gothic columns. Nitin had walked out of the station, taken the subway stairs, emerged on the other side, looked across, taken in the sight he had seen in the scratchy prints of the movies that the city was prodigious for churning out, and which used to be screened once a month in the village square. Of course, he would always be seated at the back, far from the cloth screen, but he had seen this facade numerous times. Mostly, the shot would stay on the screen for less than a second. But, how definitive that shot was, Nitin had thought, how conclusive. It indicated that this was where all the action was, where all the grand dramas of life are played out. Now that he was here, the movie of his life would soon see a kahaani mein twist, he had thought happily as he struggled to make his way through the teeming masses, who seemed to be charging at him from the opposite side, to catch a local train to the distant northern suburbs, as suggested by one of his university professors, who had spent some years of his hoary youth in this mayanagari.
He had almost forgotten about why he had come to the city in the first place, so caught up he had been in finding suitable accommodation and vocation. He had finally been able to rent a ramshackle room in a crumbling old two-storied structure (he could not even call it a building) in an area where city looked like town. There was the same jumble of electricity poles, and the same red dust that settled over everything. It was only during the monsoon that it had begun to look like something other than the town he had left, when the base of the structures turned a vicious brown-black, a grimy amalgamation of sludge, sewage, bits of corroded iron from the exposed pipes, and god knows what else. He had found a job with a courier company, spending his days with a tote bag slung around his shoulders, delivering letters, bills, parcels, invitation cards, and financial reports of companies whose promoters lived and worked in that part of the city that looked and felt like the city.
But today, on this glorious Friday morning, he was expecting a letter himself. Not any ordinary letter. It was a letter that would arrive from the stables of, wait for it, the Limca Book of World Records! Yes, you heard it right. Today, Nitin would receive official confirmation of the fact that he is a holder of a world record, that he is the only man in the world not to have a single strand of hair on his face. Thank goodness for that Kamble, Nitin thought gleefully as he leisurely opened the pages of the Navbharat Times to scan the headlines. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be sitting here in my pyjamas, having taken a day off from work, waiting for a letter that would confirm my name going down as the holder of a world record. It was Kamble, a peon at the courier company's office, who had goaded Nitin into sending his application to the Limca Book of World Records. His daughter had won the latest edition of the book as a prize in an inter-school essay writing competition. He had been flipping through its pages, when he had come across a glossy picture of two men with hair all over the faces. Every inch of their faces was covered with hair, leaving only two pairs of slits, which turned out to be their eyes! Kamble, wanting to know more, had summoned his daughter, to read what was written about these two bhaloos. Turns out that they were a pair of brothers from some far off country, Mekshiko or something like that she'd said, who were in the book because they were the two people who had more hair on their faces than anyone in the entire world.
At once, Kamble had thought of Nitin, the courier boy who had absolutely no hair on his face. If there can be a world record for having the most hair on one's face, then why can't there be a world record for not having any hair on one's face? The young man could do with some cheer in his life, Kamble had thought, thinking about all the times Nitin had been made fun of for not being able to grow a moustache or a beard. Nitin had been apprehensive when Kamble first suggested the idea to him, but the thrill of having his name and photograph printed and seen by millions was too tempting to resist. He was not sure if those jibes about his manliness, or rather the lack of it, would stop once he would be recognized in the book as a record-holder, but it would not matter. He would become famous, and fame would bring with it a one-bedroom apartment in Byculla, a loving woman who would make tea for him before he left for work, and of course, the respect and admiration of those who can appreciate what a big thing it is to be holder of a world record.
Two days after he had posted his application with pictures of himself for evidential value, to the address on the back flap of Kamble's daughter's book, he had received a reply on an official letterhead. It had been signed by the Records Assistant and had read,
We have received your application, and we will get back to you within fifteen days.
Nitin had jumped with joy when he had seen the letter. He had read and re-read each word of the letter several times. He was not worried when there was no correspondence from them for thirteen days. He had crossed out the days in his calendar without once considering the possibility of failure, of rejection. Today was the fourteenth day, the day that the letter would finally arrive, for there was no way that the Limca Book of World Records could renege on its solemn promise of getting back to him within fifteen days. Sure enough, at half past two in the afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was a courier boy with an envelope with the familiar green-and-red logo of the Limca Book of World Records. Nitin could barely stop his fingers from shivering with excitement as he signed on a sheet to acknowledge receipt of the envelope. Already, his luck had started changing, Nitin thought as he handed the pen and the sheet back to the courier boy. Every day, for two years now, he had been handing over a pen and asking for a signature on the sheet. Today, it was he who was signing, he who was finally receiving, after all that giving. Indeed, God was kind.
He carefully sliced the top of the envelope open with a knife, and his heart leapt at the sign of the letterhead on top of the cream-colored sheet. Dizzy headed, he read the contents of the document that he saw as his passport to eternal happiness:
We regret to inform you that your application has been rejected We at the Limca Book of World Records are committed to promoting a culture of unique feats and astounding occurrences. We have previously received, and continue to receive, applications from several men, especially men from China, Japan and South East Asia, claiming precisely the same record you have sought to claim in your application, viz. a complete absence of facial hair. In this background, we think that a complete lack of facial hair is not something that is astounding or unique enough to enter the Limca Book of World Records.
Nevertheless, we would like to thank you for your enthusiastic application, and would encourage you to keep doing those things that will aid you in your quest to be listed as a record holder on the pages of our esteemed publication.
Years of putting up with ridicule and humiliation hadn't prepared Nitin for this moment. This moment, when the felt his stomach, his intestines, his heart even, drop down like a bird that had been hit with a stone. There was a lurch somewhere in his ribs, and they all sank, sank as would a man thrown over the bridge, with a boulder chained to his feet.
Later, at the time of the day when evening turned to night, when the men and women who had made money during the day came out to spend it, Nitin found himself sitting on the parapet that rose a foot above the promenade, watching the waters gently moistening those funny looking, pointed cylinders that had been placed just below. He felt a light bobbing on the back of his shirt, and turned around to see a little girl prodding at him with a bright blue balloon. Her eyes widened, and in the rustic Hindi that was characteristic of the hinterland, from where he had come, she asked, "Uncle, where is your moustache?"