On a late November evening in Moscow, Idaho, my boyfriend and I are on our way to dinner. I have requested that it be at our local Thai restaurant because that’s the closest thing I can get to Indian food in our tiny university town. I can already taste the explosion of fish sauce, duck meat, peppers, pineapple, and basil. The anticipation makes me optimistic, even though the evening is the color of ash and peat, and the skeletal limbs of the trees around me are signaling the imminent arrival of unrelenting snow.
Inside the car, I press play on my iPhone, and a rhythmic Sanskrit chant bursts open accompanied by heady beats of the dhol. The robust and powerful song, as majestic as a lion, is the title track of Singham, a Bollywood movie about an honest cop and the obstacles he must overcome in his quest for justice. The summer I last visited India, I heard this song everywhere — on radio stations and cell phones, at grocery stores and Punjabi restaurants, inside people’s homes and even at the local gym where elderly housewives sprinted to it in billowy salwar kameezes.
I close my eyes, lean back against the seat, and Singham blurs it all: this university town where I arrived eight years ago but stayed on to teach, the piles of essays I must grade by tonight, the skeletal trees lining the sidewalk, and even my yearning for Thai food. Effortlessly, the song transports me back to New Delhi, particularly to its winters, and I taste the wood smoke and fog, those barely visible skies, and scalding-hot chai accompanied by spicy cauliflower pakoras.
Five minutes later, when we pull into the restaurant’s parking lot, I murmur quietly, “I miss Ajay Devgan. I really do.”
My boyfriend narrows his eyes but doesn’t say anything. He is American and the name Ajay Devgan means nothing to him. I imagine his mind sifting through names he has heard from me, of friends, relatives, ex-boyfriends. Finally, he gives up. “Who is this Ajay whatever? And why are you missing him?”
Two motorbikes; one red, the other blue. Their well-oiled bodies, taut like racehorses, gleam under the bright sunlight. Their helmetless riders vroom down the asphalt, setting off swirling clouds of dust. You imagine the engines bellowing like monsters, even though you cannot hear anything over the loud, guitar riff in the background.
You ignore the riders and focus instead on a third man. Dressed in black jeans, black t-shirt and a tan jacket, he has firmly planted one foot on each of the motorbike’s seats. His broad shoulders, aviator sunglasses and proud bearing confirm what you already suspect: he is a badass.
The road is flanked on both sides by boys and girls, his adoring friends and fans. The boys cheer and wave, and the girls — in shiny, oversized skirts, typical of 1990s Indian fashion — blow him kisses. He jauntily acknowledges the love, then balances himself atop the motorbikes via a well-executed split, accentuating his badass-ness.
This epic hero is none other than the actor Ajay Devgan essaying the role of an angry, young man in his debut-making Bollywood blockbuster Phool aur Kaante (Flowers and Thorns). Released in 1991, the motorbike scene in particular highlighted his height, fitness, and obvious machismo, leaving many women across India weak-kneed and breathless, thus setting the stage for several decades of Devgan’s enduring popularity.
That same year I got myself my very first boyfriend, D. He and I were both twelve, and we met one afternoon when I was doing lazy figure-eights with my bicycle on a narrow stretch of concrete and he, standing a few feet away, was tossing a lime-green tennis ball against a brick wall.
Although it had been a year since my family had moved into this neighborhood, I was still very much the new kid. I kept mostly to myself, opting for long solo bike rides or walks with my brother to avoid appearing in desperate need of friends. The few kids my age I knew I didn’t care for, such as the girl next door whose favorite pastime involved cataloguing and re-cataloguing her enormous collection of hair clips and earrings.
That first afternoon when D initiated conversation, I noticed he wore a brown t-shirt over blue jeans, and his thick, shaggy hair hung in an arc over his face. He was not the best-looking boy, but he was tall for his age and had wide shoulders, a sharp nose and a strong jawline. He reminded me of Ajay Devgan.
D pursued me, in the most romantic sense possible, for nearly a month. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. Flattered by the attention, I began dating him. But in secret. Because back in 1991, good Indian girls didn’t date. And certainly not at age twelve.
I was too young to realize it then but 1991 was a year of change, not just for me but for the country as a whole. Only recently, India had opened its shores to economic liberalization and we were on our way to golden-arched restaurants selling happy meals and cola giants fighting to quench our thirst. Inside our homes, though, we were still being raised with “wholesome Indian values,” one of which was no dating, at least not until college.
The first few dates are still fresh in my memory. It was October and D and I we found alibis to cover for us while we utilized the surrounding urban sprawl — empty garages, abandoned stores, and parks long after the sun had set and the children had gone home. That’s where we learned to kiss; clumsily and with fear, knowing with every breath how angry our parents would be if they found out, and how much of a scandal it would cause in our neighborhood. But we didn’t stop. The thrill alone was enough to sustain us.
Soon, however, an unexpected problem reared its head. What came after the kissing and the making out? I felt confused, torn between the duty of staying Indian while desiring to become American and accept the very different standards of its coolness now beaming into my home. I didn’t have an older sibling to lay down the law or discuss protocol and talking to parents was out of the question.
So for better or worse, I turned to Bollywood. Surely something in there would teach me the rules. But that turned out to be far less than satisfactory. For one, the characters were all older and routinely broke into impossible songs and dances. Sure the girls wore Western clothes on screen, but because they were all good and virtuous they always upheld Indian values and tripped over themselves to serve as sacrificial lambs for any cause they deemed suitable, whether it benefited their families, their beloveds or best friends — basically anything requiring even a touch of sentiment. The bad girls were another extreme, identifiable by their almost biological need to smoke, drink, show cleavage and steal boyfriends.
I understood that I was on my own. Which is perhaps why, once routine settled in, my great romance fizzled out. It had lasted only three months, simply because beyond a point, I didn’t know what to do with a boyfriend.
A lot has changed in the last twenty years since Ajay Devgan straddled those two motorbikes and roared into my life and India’s collective consciousness with panache. I have migrated to America, and this new landscape has seeped into me in unexpected ways: I know the difference between a venti and a grande at Starbucks, I fiendishly protect my “personal bubble,” I greet people with “how’s it going” and tell them “have a good one” without breaking my stride.
My family doesn’t live in that neighborhood anymore, so it has been decades since I last saw D, the boy who once reminded me of Ajay Devgan. I wonder if he still bears that resemblance, and what he remembers of our time together. Was it just another hormone-crazed winter? Like me, did he also look at Bollywood for inspiration? Does he realize now that we were on the brink of change, not just in our own puny lives but in the ways our country changed from the one we were born into?
I am not addicted to Ajay Devgan’s movies. I never was. Yet, these days when I chance upon one or hear its music, it’s as comforting as going home, as thrilling as meeting an old love, someone with whom I can share a half-smile, a quick kiss, an inside joke that we can’t and won’t tell others. It reminds me of that rush of adrenaline, of how my heart thumped when I returned home every evening, fearful my secret had been found out. And it makes me ache not just for New Delhi and its winters, but for that twelve-year-old girl who sneaked out every evening, desperate to be bad.
Sayantani Dasgupta’s writing has appeared in journals such as Gulf Stream, Yellow Medicine Review and SN Review, among others. Her essay "On Seeking Answers" received a 2010 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and the essay "Oscillation" was the first runner-up for Phoebe magazine’s 2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest. She teaches at the University of Idaho and serves as the nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review.