The crowds tire me.
Always, the fans.
Always, the admirers.
Always, the autographs.
Sometimes, I crave anonymity so much it feels like a dark sick desire. Just being among strangers. In a place where nobody knows me.
A face among faces.
No sooner had I stepped out of the car when it began. First, one person would see me, exclaim, come to shake hands, ask for an autograph. Ask for a selfie. They had those ridiculous sticks these days. The selfie sticks, they call them. Before you know it, there is a throng calling out from all sides. No matter what age they are, they become a child in that moment of adulation. Grown men and women, grandparents, they squeal like fan boys and fan girls. They call you their star, their beloved celebrity. You give your life in service to your art, and you get this in return. Big, boundless love. Free as the sea. Heavy as a wall of bricks. Here’s a young girl asking for an autograph on the back of her dog-eared school planner. I bend down to pat her head and sign it for her.
Those days of youth are gone, when all this would be a delightful exercise. I could go on doing it for hours, and the body would give of its endless reserve of energy. I worked out by a strict regimen every day. This body was fit as an athlete’s. The love I got from the public, I poured into the next performance. It was a sacred, virtuous cycle.
The letters I would get!
The way they would stop me every time I walked into a mall or a grocery shop.
‘You act out our own stories for us. You are a mirror we see ourselves in. All the faces you wear, all the names you call yourself, they are people from our own homes and our own lives. You make us understand ourselves better.’ Those letters, those heart-felt words were the real trophies, not the statues that lined the shelves behind the television in my living room.
A woman walking with her daughter stops short when she sees me, and tells her daughter about me. What would the girl know of me, this mere slip of a girl? She was too young in the era of my stardom. She grew up watching those mediocrity fests churned out in the name of drama. Forgettable, high-budget, glamour shows. You couldn’t tell one from the other. The plays from our times, though, they were another thing altogether. You could count them on your fingertips. Every single one a gem.
I was losing count now. What was it, my tenth autograph, my tenth selfie with a fan? My heels were hurting with the walk. My ageing frame could barely keep up. Why couldn’t I have an ordinary day in a shop?
The sun was beating down on me. I sat down on a bench and took a sip from the bottle. My hands were trembling as I took the bottle out of my bag and sipped. Right before me, were the smiling faces of admirers, waiting for me to acknowledge them, waiting for me to smile back.
Always the fans.
Always the worshippers.
But I was tired.
It was impossible not to look at her as she stepped down from the rickshaw, stately and striking, a head-turner despite her age. Slim as a reed, her body was held erect and upright, despite her peep-toe heels, a steadiness in the gait that betrayed years of practice. Even in the crowded Sunday market, her air was magnetic.
The looks had begun to be exchanged by the time she had visited the third stall. A murmur of curiosity and suspicion shot like a ripple, snaking its way over the heads of the buyers, meandering through the throng, making its way through any blank space between the shifting bodies of buyers as they shuffled unhurriedly the way they do on a Sunday. Vendor’s eye catching vendor’s eye, exchanging a hint, meaning becoming certain swiftly, it charted a zigzag path.
She was smiling at the heads of cabbages, conversing with the produce, looking at displayed wares in a bizarre way, not the way one looks at inert objects, but at something that one expects would gaze back. Her only purchase was a kilo of red apples. I thought I caught the hint of a brief curtsey as she accepted, as if the object bestowed was not a bag of apples but a medal of honour.
Close-up, her air was slightly sad, the certain aura of glamour built up by the forgiving distance coming somewhat undone in the unsparing glare of midday sun. Her hair was thinning; wispy tufts of burgundy dotted her head and blew in the air like grass patches in a savannah. At the roots, they were white, at the tips, an insecure taint that howled. In the wrinkles on her face, the foundation had coagulated like overfill of ceramic. Her thickly worked-on lashes, and a lipstick that matched the shade of her hair lent her the air of a sad, over-aged clown. As her eyes flitted through the wares displayed in the boxes laid out between us, the smile, delusional, never left her face.
Basking in an invisible glow, in a light other than the Sunday sun, it seemed, she walked steadily on. At the end, reaching the marble benches, she settled down for a drink, casting a glance back at the market she had just traversed.
The whisper made its way around the market to me. Someone had put the pieces together. While no one could recall her real name, the nation had christened her Raani – queen of the silver screen, queen, once upon a time, of people’s hearts.
The asylum had released her a week ago.
Meet the Author!
Naima Rashid is an author, poet, and literary translator. Her first book was Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019), a translation of selected works by Pakistani poet, Perveen Shakir, into English. Her work has appeared in Asymptote Journal, The Scores, Newsline magazine and other places.