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TAKE THE STAIRS

ZIA ZAMAN
'Now, I knew I had gotten myself into a misunderstanding but I wasn’t clamoring for a way out. Besides, how often does a banker get to fulfill his wish to be someone totally different? So I lied'.

What could have been yet another short business trip to India, took an unexpected turn. Installed inside tastefully appointed Room 236 of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, I plopped down on the bed and surfed to Channel V. Usually a good place to chill out, the segment was an interview with an Indian model with an unforgettable face. The sound was turned down, practically inaudible, so I just watched the pretty pictures until a video came on. Music up, I accidentally sat on the remote and changed the channel. There was a runway and a big crowd watching three sirens parade the catwalk. Behind was a big poster which read Lakme India Fashion Week.

I watched for a while before finally falling asleep. The next morning, on my way to my first meeting, I rushed out of my room and into the stairwell of the Old Wing of the Taj. I looked down and saw a familiar white poster. Fashion Week. The thought pricked at my mind occasionally throughout the busy morning; but there was really no reason to dwell. The proximity of models to me did not mean my drought was about to end in heroic fashion. Hopeless, I did not feel lucky; there was no need to work out, no need to get my messy hair cut, no need to wonder.
 
At four p.m. in the afternoon, I stepped through the main lobby of the Taj and towards the Old Wing when three lanky women with regal necks walked past. As cool as I could be, I offered a perfunctory glance and strode onwards when a couple of steps later, a button-cute girl with skin-tight blue pants looked me straight in the eye and smiled. 

I caught a glimpse of my suit in the mirror and realized that its French cut suddenly looked distinctive and debonair even if the body inside it was a bit rakish. The swinging glass doors leading to the stairwell were suddenly guarded by seemingly identical men in blue with the same bushy moustache. Just as I went to take my first step, my arm was grabbed.  
“Pass?” the guard was looking for the laminate which I obviously didn’t sport like a badge of honour.  Confidently, I reached in to my pocket and pulled out the gaudy gold keychain engraved with a 2, 3, and a 6. 
“Lift,” he said ushering me towards the boring old elevator. 
I pressed forward and said, “I’m just going to take the stairs, thanks.” 
A bit flustered, he gave me a wobbly salute and I proceeded. The first-floor landing was indeed the site of the show. Booths to the left, runway stage to the right, schmoozing fashion types crammed in between. I took a peripatetic route that maximized my view and wondered if I could find enough excuses to walk from the lobby to my room and back again.  More blue drones lurked near the sensitive areas where surely inside were scenes of such concentrated and spectacular beauty that to see it might burn a man’s eyes.  Back in my room, the message light was blinking. My colleague was able to meet me for drinks and dinner after all. “See you in the lobby at seven,” his American-accented voice said.
 
I purposely got down a little late so that George could see the stream of talent that emanated from the show. When I caught his eye, I thought I could spot a tear. I announced, “Fashion Week. At the Taj.” 
He looked around, lost. I pressed my hand against his back and led him as though he were a lost sheep.  “Wanna take a look?” I asked. Silent, he stepped forward. When faced with Saint Peter, I produced the magical key all while conducting a conversation with George in as loud an American voice as I could dare. He wasn’t listening of course. 
Upstairs, we circumnavigated the first floor. Booths, displays, models, mobilephones. Even the business people in the fashion industry were pretty. And of course, all the guys were gay so we had the pick of the harem. 
“She’s so cute,” he said, referring to anyone. 
I was busy myself with the earlier girl in blue pants who now was wearing a brown top that showed off her perfect brown midriff. Smiling without leering, I shot over a glance. The fact that it was returned was about as improbable as me returning one of Sampras’s serves. Stuck to the floor, I so wanted to go to the tiny space in front of her. Finally, I moved to within striking distance.  
“Hi, there,” my voice quivered.
 “Hi,” a cute accent emerged.
 “Not a bad turnout, eh?”
 “No. Quite good,” she said, letting her eyes wander. 
“Do you…” my voice trailed off. 
“Model?” she filled in. “Yes.”
 “What?” I asked.
 “Make-up. Clothes. Shoes. That sort of thing.” 
“And you’ve been…” I was shaking.
 “Abroad? Yes, but only once. Elle in Paris. It was fantastic.” 
“Must have been,” I muttered looking down, seeing the midriff. 
She was a dragon, scorching my miserable eyes. I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t say a thing. “You in the business?” she asked. 
“In the industry.” I spoke in a declaratory tone for no particular reason.
 “Oh, you’re in media. Film, print, or TV?” 

Now, I knew I had gotten myself into a misunderstanding but I wasn’t clamoring for a way out. Besides, how often does a banker get to fulfill his wish to be someone totally different? So I lied. 
“Cable.”
 “In the States!” she perked up. There was no ‘cable’ in India, really. It’s an American concept meaning non-Network and therefore it pinpointed me precisely. “Production. CBS News.” I spun a story to myself before I launched it on her. “What’s your…”
 “Name is Adithi.” She didn’t extend a hand; she just smiled sheepishly. 
“Would you be interested in getting a drink?” I asked, actually finishing my sentence. My eyebrows pointed to the Sea Lounge which was obviously one of the guarded places. She nodded happily. I could have tried to ignore the gawking George but that would have been rude, besides I needed witnesses, a chronicler of sorts. 

I walked ridiculously close to Adithi past the guard and whispered, “He’s with us,” to preempt the laminate question. 

We were in, covering ourselves with the aura of coolness. We were players. Heroes.  Another good thing about having George with us was that we had to squeeze into a small booth, forcing me to be completely in contact with Adithi from hip to knee. At some point in the scintillating oratory that George was giving on the National Enquirer, Adithi gently took my hand in between hers. Later, I released and placed my arm around her, eventually allowing my fingers to drape inconspicuously over the midriff I may have neglected to mention. It was an uncalled-for act of generosity on God’s part. 
Two drinks later, I suggested food. We slipped out for rare tuna and Absolut at Indigo and then more Absolut at Athena. Indigo was warm and blue at the same time, if that’s at all possible. Athena was spacious and hip, like a Philip Glass house. Everywhere I walked with Adithi in my grasp. George, usually a pace or two behind, started to believe that anything was possible. He tried for a while to work some magic of his own, but after a few crash-and-burns, he retired to the solace of the vodka.  “It’s funny,” she said when George was away. “It can get awfully lonely in this lifestyle.”
 At that moment, my restrained, sober existence hit me and I felt trapped in a tired cliché.  I was, by no means, a hero.  “Yes, I imagine it can,” I replied. 

© Zia Zaman 2001

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