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 fish sauce, duck meat, peppers, pineapple and basil. The anticipation makes me optimistic, even though the evening is the colour of ash and peat and the limbs of the trees around me are signalling the imminent arrival of unrelenting snow.
Inside the car, I press play on my iPhone, and a rhythmic Sanskrit chant bursts open accompanied by the 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 their billowing salwar kameezes.
I close my eyes, lean back against the seat and let Singham blur it all: the 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 the scalding-hot chai accompanied by spicy cauliflower pakoras.
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 Indian-American. His parents arrived here years before his birth. He watched Hindi films growing up but the name Ajay Devgan does not mean to him what it means to me. I imagine his mind sifting through Devgan's films that we've watched together. Finally, he gives up. "Why?", he asks.
Two motorbikes: one red, the other blue. Their well-oiled bodies, taut as racehorses, gleam under the bright sunlight. Their helmetless riders roar down the asphalt, engulfing the road in 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 them then balances himself atop the motorbikes via a well-executed split, showing just how very badass a badass can be.
This epic hero is none other than the actor Ajay Devgan essaying the role of an angry young man in his debut 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 neighbourhood, 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 favourite pastime involved cataloguing and re-cataloguing her enormous collection of hair clips and earrings.
That first afternoon, when D initiated the conversation, I noticed that he wore a brown T-shirt over blue jeans, and that 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 sharply chiselled nose and a strong jawline. He reminded me of Ajay Devgan.
D pursued me. 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 the age of twelve. We learned to kiss; clumsily and with fear, knowing exactly how angry our parents would be if they found out, and how much of a scandal it would cause in our neighbourhood. 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? I felt confused, torn between the duty of staying Indian while desiring to become American. 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 it would teach me the rules. But that turned out to be a mistake. The characters were all older and they routinely broke into songs and did impossible dances. Sure, the girls wore Western clothes, but because they were good and virtuous they always upheld Indian values and were perfectly happy to serve as sacrificial lambs, whether it was for their families, their loved ones or best friends. The bad girls lived at the other extreme. They were identifiable by their almost biological need to smoke, drink, display their cleavage and steal other people's 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 certain point, I didn't know what to do with a boy.
A lot has changed in the last twenty years since Ajay Devgan straddled those two motorbikes and roared into my life. 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 neighbourhood any more, so I don't know what's happened to 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. Did he also look towards Bollywood for inspiration? 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 or an inside joke. It reminds me of that rush of adrenaline, of how my heart thumped when I returned home every evening, fearful that my secret had been discovered. 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 is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between – a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction – and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her writing has appeared in over 50 literary journals, including The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain and The Hindu. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy and Mexico.