December 11, 2022
The late hours of a November night were pregnant with anticipation. An invitation to a perception-altering gateway awaited Maryam and Esha, with Esha’s hesitation towards it being the only hurdle in the way.
“I promise you, nothing bad will happen,” said Maryam confidently, with a glimmer in her eye.
‘How legitimate is this…uh, ritual?’ asked Esha, her scepticism bubbling on her countenance.
“It’s just for fun!” exclaimed Maryam. “Look, you make this tea with the ingredients from this recipe I found, wait for the tea to steep for about fifteen minutes, and then begins the uh…adventure. We can even contact spirits, and -”
‘WHAT makes you think I want spirits lurking around in my room?’ asked an annoyed Esha. ‘And where did you find this sketchy recipe?’
“There’s this influencer I follow – she’s super into this stuff. But she promised it changed her whole outlook on life. What do you even have to lose, Esha?”
‘My sanity, for one – something you don’t seem too concerned about, Maryam.’
Maryam rolled her eyes. She could not let Esha know that she had already tried the recipe beforehand, and it had worked. The setting had been different, though.
When packing for a trip up north, Maryam had chucked the perfectly legal ingredients in her backpack, to make a concoction for which laws seemed to be hazy on. What ensued next, upon the consumption of this fascinating cocktail, was between her and the mountains.
She knew she could not replicate the journey she had been on, but a part of her wanted to try. Chasing that high, she decided that the best place to do this would be somewhere safe and with someone who was the embodiment of a safe space as well – her best friend, Esha.
“Look,” Maryam said, slightly exasperated. “I won’t pressurise you into doing this. It won’t work that way. All I can do is ensure you that we’re safe, and that it will be worth your while. Besides, the recipe gives you ways to exit the trip.”
‘Trip?’ came the panicked response. ‘Define trip?’
“It’s supposed to be an out-of-body, trippy experience of sorts.”
‘Maryam, are you literally asking me to do drugs with my parents five footsteps away?’
“No, no. Not drugs. Natural ingredients. I promise, it’s nothing shady.”
As Esha contemplated what the right thing to do would be, she quietly examined Maryam. Maryam was known to be chaotic. She could be impulsive and irrational, and more often than not, she made decisions she later regretted. That’s what made Esha believe this could, perhaps, work. There was no regret in Maryam’s eyes. Only excitement. That was dangerous, too, but the conversation had piqued Esha’s interest.
What had Maryam seen?
‘If this is going to work, you’re going to have to be honest with me every step of the way,’ said Esha hesitantly. ‘Walk me through the process.’
As Maryam explained what they’d need to make what essentially sounded like a perfectly harmless herbal tea, Esha began to relax.
She liked tea. Tea sounded safe.
Her friend, though, sounded a tad bit unhinged as she walked her through certain drawings that she referred to as ‘sigils’, and Esha wondered if Maryam was using this as a distraction. Regardless, it’s not like Esha could have articulated that. As chaotic as Maryam was, she was a self-contained implosion. She made messes, but she cleaned them up herself.
‘We’re not doing this in my room, though,’ said Esha, as Maryam finished explaining the whole nine yards of preparation. ‘I don’t want us getting out of control and breaking something. Or making a mess, either. We can do this in my bathroom.’
“We will quite literally pass away from the heat,” retorted Maryam, irritated at all the conditions Esha was laying down.
‘It’s the middle of winter,’ replied Esha, half-amused, half-irked. ‘You’re wearing a shawl, and we don’t even have the fan on right now.’
Maryam glanced at her phone. It was already past one in the morning. Time was slipping away, and she wanted to get in a few hours of sleep after the trip. She caved, rushing to the kitchen to whip up two cups of tea.
She brought the steaming cups to the bathroom and handed one to Esha as both the girls settled on the bathroom floor. Esha was already slouching down and leaning back comfortably on her rug which was shaped like a dog. She peered into the cups and was disappointed at its meagre contents.
‘Is…this it?’ asked a confused Esha. ‘I was expecting more.’
“Well, this is safe. I want to start small and see where it goes.”
‘See where it goes? What do you mea-’
And with that, Maryam had quickly gulped down her tea, wincing as the hot liquid burned her throat on its way down. She loved to be dramatic, but even flair comes at a cost.
Esha shook her head and carefully sipped her tea. She could feel the weight of nagging worry bubbling over, and she took a few deep breaths to calm herself down.
“Do you want to watch some videos?” asked Maryam.
Esha looked at her with a puzzled expression.
‘We’re just going to watch videos on our phones?’ she asked. ‘That’s what we do every time you come over. Why did you hype this up?’
“Why don’t you wait, and watch videos with me?”
Esha watched as Maryam opened YouTube on her phone, and pulled up videos of white people getting sloshed while playing drinking games. Esha wondered if she should protest, but decided to go along with whatever Maryam said for now. Afterall, the whole process being uneventful was a much better outcome than her not knowing what would happen next. The hint of worry that she had been feeling earlier slowly left her as the video began to calm her down.
About fifteen minutes in, Esha was giggling, regardless of what video they watched. Maryam looked at her, and it provoked Esha further, with her bursting into snorts of laughter. Maryam joined in, and the more they looked at each other, the more they laughed. Soon their eyes were tearing up from mirth.
‘Why am I so happy?’ a euphoric Esha asked, through short bursts of laughter.
“Look at the stupid panda,” Maryam said in return, pointing to the phone screen. “It just keeps falling.”
A loud eruption of laughter ensued, and as the two young girls struggled to catch their breath. Esha leaned back on the rug again, with Maryam leaning back against a bathroom wall.
‘I wish I was a panda,’ said Esha.
“Yeah, why is that?” asked Maryam.
‘Man, if I were a panda, I wouldn’t have to worry about the future, you know? Grades, tests, submitting my university applications – I’m so over it.’
“And, if you’re a panda in the zoo, you’re taken care of, fed, and people come and look at you, thinking you’re cute.”
‘Yeah, true – but then you’re away from your family. I don’t want to be away from my family.’
“I’d give anything to be away from mine.”
‘I don’t know, we have very different relationships with our families. But – do you ever stop, and think about your parents getting old?’
Maryam, the oldest of her siblings and who had shared a tumultuous relationship with her parents, did thought about this plenty of times. Despite being married, she lived with her family on weekdays. Her younger siblings had left the country to study – something she still felt bitter about. Her parents had never given her that option, and she had never forgiven them for it.
There were a lot of things she had not forgiven her parents for, but as she watched them age – growing sadder, more fatigued with age, less concerned with what she did, and more forgetful – she found herself in a strange limbo between resentment and empathy.
“I think about it. I mean, I see it every day that I’m there.”
‘I would be devastated if anything happened to my parents.’
“I would too, but it’s more complicated than that.”
‘What do you mean?’
Maryam sighed. She had often thought about discussing this with Esha but she didn’t know why she had always hesitated and held back in the past.
“It’s not always been easy with them, you know? They made a lot of decisions for me that held me back. They basically treated me as an experiment when I was growing up. When I was younger I would even wish…”
Maryam trailed off and stared into her empty cup.
“You know what bothers me?” she continued. “Shah Rukh Khan aging. I can’t live in a world where he doesn’t exist anymore.”
‘Let’s play some SRK music, ok?’ asked Esha, grabbing her phone to open Spotify. As she pressed play on Mitwa, she let out a soft, ‘Woah.’
“What?” inquired Maryam.
‘My phone is…uh, I don’t know. It’s…coming alive? Like, it’s breathing?’
Maryam looked at her own phone. Surely enough, the alphabets, numbers, and artwork danced in place ever-so-slightly, in quick shimmies.
“That’s normal, don’t worry,” said Maryam.
‘I’m not worried, I feel pretty calm actually,’ replied Esha, with dilated eyes that seemed ready to find solace as she snuggled further down onto her rug. The shaggy fur seemed to be even more comforting right now.
“You know what bothers me about Shah Rukh Khan eventually kicking it?” said an animated Maryam. “The fact that he will never know how much I love him.”
‘How much we love him,’ corrected Esha.
“Right, how much we love him. He’ll never know that we’ve loved him since we were children. That we grew up on so many of his teachings, even if they made no sense.”
‘Yeah, he’s done some problematic stuff.’
“Yeah, and we’ve been forgiving, have we not? And now, I’m watching him age, in this post-fame era of him simultaneously being a legend while putting out mediocre content, and I can’t talk to him about it. He’ll never know what he meant to me growing up. He’ll never know that I imbibed his idea of love and made it a stencil against which I drew all my relationships. He’ll never know how much the problematic stuff hurt. And, he’ll never know that I love him to bits regardless, and I’d be shattered if anything happened to him.”
Esha and Maryam quietly looked at each other for a few minutes. Both girls knew they were no longer talking about the Bollywood legend anymore. The air was heavy with heat, despite the fact that both the young women had goosebumps on their arms.
‘You know,’ began Esha, breaking the silence, ‘I think, on some level, he knows. When you’re someone who has that kind of power, you’re aware of your influence, no? And you’re probably aware of when you hurt someone, or make them feel unheard – telepathically, perhaps?’
Maryam looked at Esha, slightly frazzled.
“I obviously went off on a tangent, Esha.”
‘Let me finish, Maryam.’
An uneasiness settled in. Maryam and Esha had never spoken like this before. Esha always knew that Maryam shared an uncomfortable relationship with her parents, but she had never said anything to her about it before. She figured that if Maryam ever wanted to talk about it, she would do so herself. What she had not anticipated, in all her wildest worries about this ‘trip’ was having a difficult conversation.
“I, uh, yeah – I get what you’re saying,” said Maryam.
‘If you could,’ prodded Esha further, ‘what would you say to him?’
Sighing deeply, Maryam grabbed her phone and began typing furiously. Esha, thinking she had offended her friend, leaned back and watched.
Five minutes passed. Spotify shuffled between different Shah Rukh Khan tracks.
Fifteen minutes passed. The Om Shanti Om soundtrack began in the background.
A grand total of twenty minutes later – as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan melodiously sang Jag Soona Soona Lagey, Maryam broke her silence.
“I wrote what I’d say to him. Can I read it out loud?”
“Hey, Shah Rukh. You don’t know me – you could, but you don’t – but I wanted to write this to you nonetheless. I think you’re pretty great overall. Growing up, you were my North Star. I got my humor from you. I learned how to love – albeit problematically – from you. So much of what you taught me harmed me, but I loved you anyway. Even when things seemed one-sided – when other fans would get to meet you and take pictures with you where you were hugging them – I continued to love you.”
“It always seemed like you had love to give to everyone but me. I adored you, but your characters always seemed to tell me I wasn’t good enough. Like Anjali, in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, you know? Like I had to cellularly change who I was to get affection.”
“I love you, but I resent you as well.”
“You were the cause of a lot of pain. I can’t get into it, because this is not how I want to get into it; in a letter, that you will never read. I want us to talk, face-to-face, with you putting aside the fact that, in this equation, you’re Shah Rukh Khan. I want us to converse as friends. I want you to apologise. I want you to know that your apology is too little to late.”
“None of this takes away from the fact that if anything were to happen to you, it would break me. But it’s too late, too awkward, too uncomfortable for me to tell you this. I wish you already knew. I wish you felt the same way.”
“I love you, and sometimes, I’m angry that I do. But that’s a conversation I will have with myself. I want us to talk, man. I’m begging you – time is running out. We need to talk. We need to hash this out so that I can hug you and tell you that all I’ve wanted my whole life is for you to love me back – for you to say it – and for you to understand that everything I do, despite the voices in my head that keep convincing me of my independence, I do it for you. I beg you -”
Maryam stopped abruptly, as vehement sobs escaped from deep inside her. Esha lurched forward, wrapping her arms around her chaotic, impulsive, irrational friend, empathy replacing all bouts of annoyance or concern.
‘He loves you too, Maryam – I promise you,’ consoled Esha. ‘They love you.’
“Wouldn’t kill them to say it,” said Maryam, pulling back – snot covering her face – as she let out a slight laugh.
The two girls looked at each other, feeling safe in one another’s arms, and the bathroom walls around them seem to be breathing in sync with their own synchronised heartbeats.
‘This…was…enlightening,’ said Esha. ‘But I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster ride. Do you?’
“It’s the tea – it’ll wear off in a bit,” responded Maryam. “Ten, fifteen minutes – tops.”
‘Do you want to watch some Shah Rukh Khan stuff?’ inquired Esha.
“I think I’m ready to put the Shah Rukh Khan matter to rest for now. In the best possible way. I feel lighter. Thanks, Esha.”
‘Hey, anything for a fellow SRK fan. What do you want to do?’
“We’ve got ten minutes before we’ll be ready to crash. What do you suggest?”
‘You know,” said Esha, ‘We could talk about Sallu bhai. No analogies, just concerns. I mean, what is his deal? How is he still relevant in 2022?’
“I KNOW!” came Maryam’s enthusiastic response.
As the two girls dove into a discussion about Salman Khan, the cold November night began making its way to morning. Shah Rukh Khan’s Dard-e-Disco played ambiently as the warm rays of dawn broke up the bathroom trip, inviting Esha and Maryam to make their way to bed. As they did so, they felt the presence of a mutual acknowledgment of the fact that they had opened a gateway to possible, terrifyingly powerful healing, lingering behind them in the bathroom air.