An Intelligent Filament
Ved Ved sat at the bar in the busy executive lounge and sipped his peppermint tea. With a sigh, a slender girl appeared. She dropped her satchel on the bar and followed it with a canvas bag, a book, four magazines, a glass of champagne, and a plate holding girl-sized amounts of salad, salmon, cheese, and chocolate pudding. She sat down, sighed again, crossed her legs, and took off her hat to shake out long black hair. What was she wearing? Some sort of jumpsuit? She smiled at the huge window, beyond which, in the dark, planes were taxiing, landing, or allowing passengers to embark.
No, said Ved Ved to himself. He’d had enough of executive lounge hipsters, trust fund kids, with their rising inflections and their perfect skin. He looked younger than he was. People talked to him. Don’t look, he thought.
Artwork credit: Anjali Joseph
She lifted thin arms to coil her hair, and speared it with what seemed to be a single blue chopstick. Ved saw some armpit fuzz, and wasn’t put off. He felt a pain in his navel. He stared at her cheekbone, and one long, slightly upward-slanting eye. She looked round, smiled at him amicably, and sipped her drink.
She wasn’t going to talk to him. He was going to have to talk to her.
He’d just begun to contemplate this when he heard some idiot blurt, ‘Where are you travelling to?’
It was him. She looked up, glass in hand.
‘Where are you going?’ he said, and smiled. She was looking at him. He wanted to die.
‘I’m flying to Bombay,’ she said. Her voice was clear and light.
‘So am I,’ he said. ‘Nine o’clock?’
‘Are you studying? Is that where you live? Bombay, Mum-bye,’ he went on desperately.
She remained calm and open.
‘Do you live in Mumbai?’
‘No. I’m going back to Assam. But first I’m spending a few days in Bombay to catch up with friends.’
‘You live in Assam? I’m sorry,’ he stopped himself. ‘I’m interrupting your drink. My name’s Ved.’ He pulled himself together and put out his hand, went back to the old approach: boyish, frank, etc.
‘Keteki,’ she said, not taking the hand, but smiling, less from pleasure, he noted, than as a gesture, a glass of cool water given to a guest.
‘That’s a beautiful name,’ Ved said. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It’s the name of a bird,’ she said.
Ved smiled, looked at her full mouth. ‘It must be a beautiful bird.’
‘Not especially. But it’s a trickster.’
‘A trickster. It leaves its babies in other people’s nests to bring up, and it looks and tries to sound like a bird of prey so other birds leave it alone.’
‘Oh,’ Ved said.
She had a few white hairs that did decorative things near her ear. Her eyeliner had made a blob near the inner corner of her eye. He had never before realised how appealing any of those things was: armpit fuzz, smudged eyeliner, white hairs. Secretly, for years, he must have been infatuated with them all.
‘But the keteki bird has a sweet voice.’ She smiled again. ‘Excuse me. I just want to go and… before we board.’
‘Oh! That won’t be for a… Do you want me to keep an eye on your stuff?’
‘Oh, sweet of you.’ She smiled at him, and glowing, he guarded her plate, bags, magazines, and champagne flute.
‘Oh look,’ Keteki said. ‘They’ve written your name twice.’
Ved Ved, said the piece of paper the driver was holding. Ved wiped his face. ‘Er, no,’ he said. ‘That’s my name.’
‘They’re not actually the same name,’ he said when they were in the car. ‘Can you put the air conditioning on please? Excuse me?’
In better Hindi she asked the driver to put on the air conditioning. He laughed and said it was on. They swung under a flyover.
‘But they’re spelt the same and they sound the same,’ Keteki said.
‘One means a doctor,’ Ved said. ‘The other means knowledge.’
‘Isn’t it the same etymology?’ she said. ‘Knowledge knowledge. Clever-clever, like you say in England.’
In his suite at eleven in the morning, Ved sipped a gin and tonic and looked across the Arabian Sea, which was dirty. What a coincidence. So was he. Very soon, he’d do something about that. The bathroom here was nice. He would avail of it, as Indians say, in no time at all. He wished he could avail of Keteki. A remark she’d made in the car as he was dropping her off at her friend’s house – where? Somewhere after the Sealink – had stayed with him.
‘Venture capital,’ she said. ‘Okay. So you’re going to meet this man who wants to reboot his lightbulb company. With the bulb that lasts a long time. Good name, by the way. But, Ved, what do you do for joy?’
‘For–?’ said Ved.
‘Joy,’ she repeated in that clear voice. Long fingers pushed back her hair. Now the air conditioning was definitely on. Ved could smell himself, and he’d smelled better.
‘You mean fun?’ Ved said.
‘No. Joy. What makes you feel joyful, like a child?’
He’d looked in her eyes, a lighter brown than his, a trace of eyeliner under them like smoke.
‘Um,’ he said.
In the last few years, Ved had more or less given up on having girlfriends. He’d started having sex with women and being slightly dismissive before he left or got them to leave. Just a callous remark, a joke, something that implied he didn’t quite remember who they were or didn’t think all that highly of them. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it, and when he noticed, he’d compensate by being nicer before he fled.
In some peculiar way, the more he might have liked the girl, whoever she was, the more he felt relief after the final moment of being a shit, almost more than after sex. He’d feel unburdened, and take a long shower, wander round his house in fresh, soft cotton clothes.
At four thirty he went downstairs, feeling calm and cool. He had on a clean suit, a new shirt. He carried nothing except his phone and the folder.
Ganesh Appaiah was waiting in the Sea Lounge.
‘Ved,’ said Ved, shaking Ganesh’s hand. He noticed the other man was very still.
‘Hi Ved,’ said Ganesh.
‘Hi. What’ll you have?’
Ganesh had a table with a sea view. They ordered tea. Ved felt more relaxed than he had in a long time. Usually, he drank coffee, and talked fast. Here he was, with tea and waiters in absurd white uniforms with turbans, and air conditioning, and outside was the soothingly brown sea.
‘I like it here,’ Ved said.
Ganesh smiled. Everyone, Ved noticed, was treating him as though he was a child. And he didn’t mind at all.
‘My parents are from India,’ Ved said. ‘Or were.’
Ganesh smiled again.
Tea, thought Ved, sipping his cup of Assam. It smelled fragrant, of fermentation, sweat, armpits, reality. It was growing on him. This place was having an odd effect, a bouquet of small assaults on his emotions. He felt buoyant, but reminded himself to stay in control. ‘I’ve had a look at the documentation,’ he said. ‘The product looks very interesting. It’s not exactly a CFL, it’s not an incandescent, it’s not an LED. What are you terming it?’ Ved got distracted by a shortcakey biscuit, and ate it. He heard Keteki’s clear voice: ‘Filament is a lovely word.’
‘We haven’t come up with a generic name yet,’ Ganesh said. ‘You have the literature, and our engineer will explain it further. He’s the best person to do that. But we’re calling it an intelligent filament. It learns to shine, and holds its radiance the more it’s used. We’re reviving the Lucifer brand. This one’s called the Everlasting Lucifer, as you’ve seen.’
Ved laughed. ‘Yes, about that, I wonder if that’s going to be a problem in Europe.’
‘I don’t know,’ Ganesh said. ‘Originally, Lucifer means the morning star, the bringer of light. My grandfather ran the firm when it was still British-owned and I remember he told me that Lucifer is a Latin word used in the Bible for Jesus too. Have you seen the old ads?’
‘Yes.’ Ved opened the folder to colour reproductions: a cute devil assisting a small child to study in the evening. Lucifer brand: Let there be light.
The next day Ved would visit the office with Ganesh. ‘I wanted you to come home for dinner today, Ved. But my wife’s out, and I thought, You’ll just have reached, you’ll be tired. Do you have plans though?’
Ved waved a hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to meet someone this evening.’
In the lift, Ved wondered if part of the reason he’d agreed to this trip was so that he could visit Rupal Madam. As he aged he noticed himself becoming both more brutal and more sentimental. The idea of falling in love seemed absurd when applied to him. Occasionally he saw a couple somewhere and felt an ache; most recently, he’d felt it, he thought, when Keteki Sharma had raised her thin arms to put up her hair in the airport. But he had systems for managing his life. He missed his childhood, or sometimes thought he did, though it was preferable not to think about his parents. Why upset himself? But the feeling of being a child, being loved, indulged, safe, a feeling he rarely remembered having when actually a child, still pulled him. In India, a place he’d spent a few early, barely remembered years, the feeling became general, floating: here, people were in and out of their childhood, no matter their age.
Anyway, it was silly not to do more work here. Growth was still good, and the new Hindu nationalist government seemed business-focused; everyone spoke English. What was his problem?
The process of getting a date with Rupal Madam had been streamlined. There should be an app for it. He’d called the old cellphone number as soon as he’d agreed to this job, and instead he’d been told to email her assistant. He’d been sent a confirmation and order number, a list of preferences to update, and a secure form for payment.
Adding the title ‘luxury consultant’ to her name and address was a nice touch. Presumably that was so that even if one got one’s secretary to make the booking, there was no awkwardness.
‘You’re… mnemogenic,’ he’d said to Keteki before she got out of the car the previous night. ‘I really hope we see each other again.’
She nodded. ‘You’ve read your Nabokov, huh.’
Now, as the lift approached the 17th floor, Ved felt himself getting half a hard-on.
The flat had been redecorated. It was light and airy, not a world away from his hotel suite. The sofa was upholstered in raw silk; a large golden Buddha sat against one wall.
‘So you’re back, beta?’
At the sound of Rupal Madam, Ved’s hard on became emphatic. Her voice was grating, insistent, her accent slightly off when she spoke English. He turned. Her eyes flashed anger. ‘I never thought I’d see someone from this family in service, in a job, working for other people. And what is it you think you do? You think the world owes you a living. When your father gets home he will speak to you. But first I will explain. Bend over.’
Gratefully, aware from the corner of one eye of the Buddha’s golden gleam, he undid his flies and bent over the table. He heard her approach and knew she was holding a hairbrush, large, wooden, paddle, as specified on the form.
Ved had phoned Keteki five times. It was not cool behaviour. On his third day in Mumbai she sent him a WhatsApp message. ‘Sorry Ved!! I’ve been catching up with old friends. Have you got time for a bite this evening? Would be great to see you!’
Ved had been meditating, using the app on his phone. He saw her message and told himself to be cool. A minute later she called, and he dropped the phone, picked it up, and yelped, ‘Hi? Hello? Keteki?’
For a second or two there was silence of a second or two, as when, in the past, a trunk call was connected. ‘Ved,’ she said, her voice husky.
‘Yes,’ he said, instantly and wholly present.
‘Ved, I have a favour to ask. I was supposed to say with another friend this evening, but she has to go out of town, so I’m free, but also, I wondered… obviously say no if it’s not convenient, but otherwise – is there any possibility I could crash in your hotel room? I’ve got an early flight the next morning so I wouldn’t be in your hair too long. Say no if it’s annoying.’ Her voice was light as ever, but higher, vibrating more.
Ved said, ‘It’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?’
Above them, the bulb shone in the socket. Ved stood back from the standard lamp. The more Keteki looked at the Lucifer, the more it seemed to brighten, though its glow remained soft and pure.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Yes.’
‘It looks like the light from an incandescent,’ Ved said.
‘Yes, it doesn’t distort colour,’ she said. ‘But… oh. Oh, I see.’
‘What?’ said Ved, touching her elbow. Her face brightened, but she didn’t answer.
They were in his room, and they left the bulb in the lamp and Keteki’s three small bags on a marble inlay side table, and went out to dinner. Ved had asked the concierge to get a reservation somewhere nice, and nearby.
As he and Keteki sat down in the black-painted, dimly lit, slightly colonial surroundings, all wooden shutters and a gentle fan whirring, he smiled. ‘You look really beautiful,’ he said. ‘I love that dress. It’s simple, but so elegant.’
‘First of all,’ he went on. ‘What brought you to Heathrow, and to the lounge?’
‘Could I have the wine list, please?’ Ved asked the waiter. ‘The wine – oh. This one? Great, we’ll have a bottle of the – this one. Is that fine for you?’
‘What a treat,’ Keteki said, ‘I love this place. How did you get a reservation? Oh, the hotel I guess.’
‘So you were going to tell – oh yes. I will try it. Mm, that’s nice. Thanks.’ He waited till both their glasses had been filled and took a larger sip. ‘You were going to tell me what took you to England.’
‘I was helping a friend curate an exhibition. That’s one of the things I do freelance. I–’ She put down her glass, looked away to one side. ‘I– oh well.’
‘What was the exhibition?’ said Ved. ‘I might have–’
‘I don’t think so. Domestic artifacts and interior decoration from the Arts and Crafts era. There was a milk jug I particularly liked,’ she murmured.
‘A milk jug?’ Ved smiled. He’d decided what to order. ‘What was it like?’
She looked at him. After a pause, she said, ‘Simple.’
‘I like this steak,’ Ved said a little later. ‘You hardly ever get a proper steak in India. The wine’s not bad either. Though I don’t know if they’ve stored it at – anyway.’
He said, ‘I don’t know why, but something always happens to me when I’m in India. Smells do things to me. I don’t want to be vulnerable to it but I am. Like the smell of the rain now outside.’ For it had begun to rain, a soft curtain muffling the sound of a car horn in the quiet lane.
‘I don’t normally talk this much,’ Ved said. ‘I don’t know what’s happening. You’re so– Normally there’s something, something that turns me off. But you–’
‘Oh, sweet of you Ved,’ Keteki said.
He laughed. ‘I guess people say things like that to you a lot?’
Keteki smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling almost secretively. ‘People are so kind,’ she murmured. ‘Especially given that it’s so hard to remember details. Names, that sort of thing. Not yours though Ved. Ved Ved – there can’t be too many of them in the telephone directory.’
As they walked the short distance back to the hotel along the sea front he mused, ‘When I’m in India in the monsoon I feel nothing can ever really be clean. Do you know what I mean? Like something’s being wiped away but there’ll always be something. One of those tiny green leaves, or an insect.’
Back in his room, he said, ‘Let’s see what’s in this mini bar. I feel like a brandy. Shall we have a brandy?’
‘Ved,’ said Keteki, ‘I’m turning the main light off.’
They sat on the couch in the turret window, in the glamour of the single Everlasting Lucifer.
‘The sea,’ Ved said. ‘It looks – more beautiful in the dark.’
Keteki’s voice, remote, said, ‘You can hear it slapping the wall when you walk on Strand Road.’
He reached out for her. Not long after, in the dark, he was saying, ‘Wow. Mmf. Your nipples taste of cigarette smoke. Or tea, I don’t know.’
Afterwards, Keteki slept. Ved didn’t, not till after the dawn. He kept having the feeling she’d leave. And yet she was sleeping peacefully. Of course she was going to leave. He must do something, make a plan to visit her; make an arrangement.
‘Ved,’ she was saying. ‘It’s six-thirty. I’m making a cup of tea.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Don’t get up.’ But she was already up. Her small bags were packed. She wore jeans, and a cotton top. Her hair was tied up, no doubt with a pencil.
‘Give me a minute,’ he said. He went to the bathroom. When he came out, she was in front of the standard lamp, gingerly removing the Everlasting Lucifer.
‘It’s so lovely,’ she said. ‘When it’s on there almost seems to be something dancing inside.’ She put the bulb on a side table. Ved came up to stroke her shoulder and arm. Instead she handed him a cup of tea.
‘I’ll come to visit you,’ he said. ‘Or come to London. I’ll send you a ticket.’
‘I don’t usually travel business class,’ she said. ‘I got upgraded.’
‘When are we going to see each other again?’ Ved said.
She smiled. The daylight, after the glow of the Everlasting Lucifer, was oddly disappointing. ‘Does the bulb really last forever?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Ved said. ‘We might have to think about the name. An incandescent lasts about a thousand hours. Maybe that’s six months. An energy saving bulb lasts ten times as long, maybe five years. An LED lasts fifteen years. The Everlasting should last between seventy and eighty-five years, apparently. It lasts as long as any of us can expect to last.’ Suddenly he missed smoking. It had been years. ‘You didn’t answer the question. Let’s set a date,’ he said. ‘Even provisionally.’ He put down the cup. ‘I’ve never been to Assam.’
She sat in the silk chair, holding her cup and saucer, folded up her long legs and crossed them. ‘You know, Ved,’ she said, ‘people like being lied to. And I’m good at it, I won’t deny that. But,’ and she stared at the standard lamp, melancholic, ‘I’m getting a little tired of doing it.’
Ved Ved sat down on a loveseat. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘You haven’t even got home yet. You’re in transit. We can talk about this in a few days. Or whenever.’ He sipped the tea, and smelled her on his fingers.
At Mumbai airport, so pleasantly redone and so appealingly lit, Ved Ved had an attack of sadness and nostalgia, the fear of the end of the world, the sense that his stomach was falling out of his trunk, slowly, endlessly. He wanted to talk to Keteki. Her phone was off. He wanted to tell her what he felt, and he didn’t want to use words. He sent her a message on WhatsApp with the following emoticons: an Easter Island stone head, a sailing boat, a comedy and tragedy mask, a postcard, an aeroplane in flight, seen from above, an aeroplane seat, a building that might have been a church, with a pink heart above it, the picture of a dark-haired girl with a star on her brow, a monkey hiding its mouth, two oriental matrioshka dolls side by side, a crystal ball, a red telephone set with push buttons, and a syringe from whose tip dripped two red drops.
Two days later, after he’d got home, paid the cleaner, opened his post, dealt with his email, gone back to work, written a report on the Everlasting Lucifer, and gone out with a girl he met online to a few different bars in St James’s where all the men were very closely shaven and dressed in bespoke Souster and Hicks, he was walking home at three a.m. when Keteki replied.
‘Oh Ved,’ said the message. ‘Don’t you think everlasting might just be a little too long?’
Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay. She is the author of Saraswati Park (Betty Trask Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize, Crossword Book Award, nominated for The Hindu Literary Prize), Another Country and The Living. Her fourth novel Everlasting Lucifer is forthcoming.