The gun goes off and I jump out of the box. The gun is an unnecessary touch, if you ask me. I know it’s supposed to inject urgency, but the first couple of times I peed myself. Unfortunately, one of the event managers read about Pavlov in a magazine (it was an old issue of Reader’s Digest. She was waiting for her dentist.) “This movement you make must become like a reflex," she barked, during one of her Motivational Rebriefing Sessions, which happen once a week. Her motivation consists mostly of shouting. She’s a big fan of Steve Jobs.
She’s not here right now, but she’s not the only one who barks at me. The trainer is livid. He is a former Olympic gymnastics coach who does not seem to like his current assignment. His lack of gratitude is shocking. I am so proud to be playing a part in this. “Your landing was bad and your posture was terrible," he says. “Now jump back into the box and do it again."
I flex my knees and feel a twinge, but climb back into the box. I crouch down, take a deep breath, and assume the first position. I’m not giving up. I want to make this perfect.
When they arrested me, I remember feeling nervous. The police were firm, but cordial. When I asked them why I was being arrested, they said, “Your income tax officer has ordered it. Nowadays, they can do anything." I felt a chill run down my spine. When I put off paying my advance tax, my father encouraged me, saying don’t worry beti, no one will notice. Nowadays they have too much work. Even they can’t figure out GST. Nevertheless, some sixth sense told me I was playing with fire. I was not surprised when they arrested me.
They took me straight to the income tax office. The officer was also very kind. “All these years you have been regular," he said, “but this time you made a mistake. As per a new directive from the Finance Ministry, you are required to provide ninety days of service, the details of which will soon be revealed. You will be taken immediately to a training centre for Olympic athletes. Your bus is waiting downstairs. But first we need a pint of your blood."
The blood donation process was surprisingly quick. They had everything arranged in the conference room. Soon after, I found myself in the training facility for Olympic hopefuls. The arrangements were poor. The room had no bed, and the toilet was horrible. But when we assembled in the mess hall next morning, and a junior officer from the Finance Ministry told us what our assignment was, my heart leaped for joy. What a rare opportunity! Since then, for the last six weeks, I have been jumping in and out of the box.
We practice our jumping in the open air, surrounded by guards. Not everyone here is as cooperative as I am. Many are unable to see the bigger picture. Just yesterday, the girl in the box to my left, originally from Dibrugarh, tried to make a break for it. She almost reached the main gate before they brought her down with a tranquillizer dart. Members of the forest service are also here to provide assistance. They seem quite cheerful. Conditions at the camp are poor, but it must be better than living in the jungle. They haul her off to the medical centre, which is a table and a nurse with no chin, whistling a popular tune.
The one thing that bothers me is that they took away my phone, to prevent me from revealing anything. The security here is astounding. As a result, I am unable to get any news. What is happening in the world outside? One of the guards is sympathetic. Sometimes he feeds me tit bits. Just the other day, he leaned closer as I lay on the ground, panting, recovering from my jump. “Yesterday, she was wearing Chandbali earrings and a beige Sabyasachi A-line kurta with wide-legged pants," he whispers. “While the kurta was plain and simple, her dupatta had detailed thread work."
I go for recitation to the Recitation Room twice a day, morning and evening, after which we go straight into weight training. I no longer forget my lines. Our voice coach, a renowned theatre artist, works on our delivery. “More passion," she says, “more warmth. Make it come from the depth of your heart. Make them feel it." The poem is so beautiful. It’s written by one of our greatest poets. How much he must have been paid for it!
Just as well I’ve started practising in a sari. There’s barely a month to go. The first day was a disaster. My sari came off in the middle of the second jump. Next day, they assign me a sari draper. Manu is friendly, and her fingers are quick. She seems a bit stressed about something.
As I do my regulation three hundred sit ups per day, I remember scenes from the past. Shah Rukh Khan performing with wife! Aamir Khan performing with Shah Rukh Khan! Karan performing with Isha. Beyoncé’s blouse! As I relive the moments, the pain in my legs fades away. That night, I sleep in my rickety cot with a smile on my face. I hardly notice the bed bugs.
I enjoy TV weddings too. I’m not a snob. It was so cute how during the varmala, Drashti and Rahul were seen teasing Additi. Later, Jeena shared a picture snapped with her friends Rahul, Krystle, Pooja, Anita, Rahul, Diva Sana and captioned it as ‘Ladki Wale.’
All these wonderful memories have given me the strength to persevere. I have perfected the art of jumping out of the box in a sari. In the last three days, my sari did not come off once, and Manu was satisfied with the draping. She manages to muster a smile. “Tomorrow, you’ll start wearing jewellery," she says. Once I do, the security is much tighter. I get frisked at least three times today. The guards now are foreigners in dark blue uniforms, reminding me of the occasion when Priyanka donned a dark blue off-shoulder brocade anarkali, embellished with heavy work, crafted by none other than ace designer Sabyasachi.
The friendly old guard is still here, so I sometimes get news from outside. “Confirming speculations, Ralph Lauren tweeted a throwback image of the lovebirds along with a congratulatory message," he says, walking past me as I adjust my choker.
I slipped and fell twice today. They scrubbed and waxed the floors. The Deputy Secretary is coming for a visit. Just two weeks to go. He’s coming to boost morale. My own morale is excellent, but some of the others look a bit poorly. They could do with his healing touch.
He does not come to heal. He comes with Compulsory Consent Forms. But first, he gives us a pep talk. Everyone is constantly giving us pep talks. “Fellow citizens!" he says, “all of you are guilty. You forgot to pay your taxes on time. In the old days, you would have been punished, but this is an era of innovative governance. Taxpayers have a duty to support the economy, and to ensure that the governance is never under-funded. But over time we have been thinking, why stop at money? You are fit and able-bodied, there are other ways in which you can contribute to economic development. Bollywood and industry are drivers of development. It is our duty to ensure that their weddings go well, so that they remain happy and focused on nation building. Plus as a result of their union, children will be born, who will produce more Bollywood and more industry. In this way, our economy will endure. Accordingly, as per an order passed by the Finance Ministry, the government has agreed to provide 500 taxpayers to every Bollywood or industrialist wedding, for use as the recipient sees fit. In order to receive their taxpayers, all the applicant has to do is fill Form 62C in triplicate, get it attested by a gazetted officer, and submit it, along with two passport photos, to the Ministry of Finance. As a result of this landmark initiative, taxpayers are getting the rare opportunity to contribute directly to the growth of the economy. We thank you for your service. We would just like you to sign this voluntary consent letter, which is compulsory." I read the letter. It says I have to undertake, for a period of 90 days, whatever wedding related tasks are assigned to me, as per instructions of the Competent Authority. Seems fair. I sign and hand it over.
Three days to go. I am so excited. I lie in my cot, fantasising about my own wedding. I want film stars to serve food at it. In my dreams, Amitabh is my ladkiwala, serving food to all my aunties. Except that most of them then have heart attacks from the excitement. He would wipe out half my family.
The big day is here. I am dressed and ready. The coach flicks a speck of dust off my blouse, which is gorgeous. He is helping out in the absence of Manu, who has run away. He’s a nice man once you get to know him. He’s from Czechoslovakia. He’s just sad that he no longer has a country. He adjusts my nose ring and pats my cheek. “You look beautiful," he says. “Whoever gets you will be very lucky. Have you gone to the toilet once?" I nod my head. “Do you remember your lines?" “Every single word," I tell him, smiling. “Remember to enunciate clearly," he says, turning away to hide a tear. I feel sorry for him. He must go through this so often.
They arrange all the items in the box. I walk into it, careful not to get sawdust or confetti on my pretty sandals. It’s very cramped. They close the box. I feel them lift it. Soon we are in the van. The ride is long and bumpy. I’m glad I visited the toilet. Eventually we stop. They lift the box onto the doorstep, leaving me with the box man. The box man rings the bell. We wait. “Are they here yet?" I whisper. “Not yet," he says. After what seems like forever, I hear footsteps outside, and a young female voice shouting “Camera! Camera!" The box man raps on the box with his knuckles, once, sharply and steps back. I take a deep breath. I reach up and release the clasp. The box flaps swing open, like the gull wing doors on Nickyanka’s Lamborghini. I leap out of the box in one fluid motion. My landing is poetry. I am facing a small, plump family of four, their mouths agape as they look at the many gifts in the box. I hold my head high. I want to exude royalty, like Virushka. Or failing that, Kiara Advani. I say what I have come to say.
Your most esteemed presence
To bless our holy Union
In the manner we desire.
Please accept these minor tokens
As a mark of our respect
If anything is broken
Futures will be wrecked
The biscuits are from Belgium
The wine is from Peru
The cupcakes are all eggless
The cheese is Danish blue.
It’s just our way of saying
We want to see you there
The only thing, we beg of you
Be careful what you wear
The dress code is designer
The food will overflow
If you see a wedding finer
Be sure to let us know.
We hope you like this wedding card
We trained her for three months.
She failed to pay her tax on time
A mistake she’ll make just once
I felt every line. I really did. The crowd, although small, went wild. My jewellery was gone in less than a minute, the gifts in around two. They were so excited, one of them almost tipped me, but he managed to stop himself just in time. The box man led me back to the van, and gave me his seat. On the ride back, the mood was joyous.
This is so awesome. When I reached the training camp, they refused to let me go. I am thrilled. My work as a human invitation is not yet over. Apparently, each guest is also going to receive welcome gifts at the wedding. Once more, I’ll be wearing some of them. Really looking forward. I just hope that this time, the box is a little bigger.
Shovon Chowdhury is a slightly disturbed Delhi-based novelist. Due to a massive failure in quality control, his first novel, The Competent Authority (Aleph Book Company), was shortlisted for a variety of awards. His second, Murder With Bengali Characteristics (Aleph Book Company), is set in a near-future Calcutta under Chinese rule.