The Masterpiece (07.14.1997)

8 min readNov 3, 2023

The evening before I met Ana, I noticed a large cut on my left hand that had been oozing blood. My only problem was that I did not remember exactly what caused the wound. I was at a temple in Pune, a place probably a hundred miles west of Bombay, where patrons came to offer their prayers for their dead, pay through the nose for expensive flowers, and take home the delectable offerings once the priests performed the prayers.

I was barely out of my teens and yet I didn’t exactly know what I was doing here. I would have rather been just about anywhere else. Since Hetali’s death, my life had become unrecognizable to me, and in so many ways, I had slid slowly into this state the way one might wade into an icy lake, dipping a toe in at first, then wincing, pushing past all resistance until the body is submerged, numb to the cold.

Deciding to ignore the bleeding wound, I walked out of the temple and onto the West end until the sky began to fade. An hour later I found myself on the dust-ridden east street, near the place I had been a couple of years ago. I plopped myself on a stoop and felt through my jacket pockets for my loose change. Some kids were playing kickball in the street. The ball rolled near my foot, and I kicked it back to them. They stared at my hand and I glared back as they scampered away. I had to reduce it all to rubble in my mind and build something from scratch. I didn’t know where to begin.

Back home, the priest’s daughter Arnavaz looked at my bleeding hand and stepped back a couple of paces with a horrified look on her face. I started to rub the open wound quickly hoping to mask all the bloody semi-dry mess that it was making. I excused myself, saying I was going to the men’s room, and instead stopped at the kitchen to eat a leftover roti and kebab. When I was stuffed enough, numbed against my own numbness, we headed upstairs for a dressing.

I was arranging flowers for the next day’s prayers at the temple when I finally met the girl who would end up changing the trajectory of my life. My cousin Hormaz seeing me eyeing her with some degree of curiosity and interest, introduced me to her. She was a petite girl sitting in a brown dress with a blue scarf wrapped around her head as is the custom with Parsi girls. There was absolutely nothing eye-popping about her. She was arranging flowers in the vase with such precise movements that I had been watching her fascinated wondering who this girl was. I had watched her with quiet attention as she went about doing her work, unaware that I was starting openly.

“Hi, I am Ana”, she said looking at me when she finally caught me looking at her.

There in that moment was this feeling of warm familiarity that came through in an instant. She was soft-spoken with a quiet shy voice and yet there was something very soothing about her. I quickly put my bandaged left hand behind my back as I shook her hand with my right. She never noticed. It would become a harbinger of things to come — Me keeping my past firmly where it belonged instead of tainting our future with it.

This is how I remembered her. The rain beating down on the windows just behind, the dark blue scarf, and those beautiful kind eyes that bore into my soul. I found myself fidgeting nervously for a second wondering what I should say. What I wanted to say was that she was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen.

“Of course you are,” I said softly. “Of course.”

She glanced up at me and smiled.

When the flower arrangements were done, we stood beneath the humming of a streetlight lamp in the temple courtyard. Timidly, I asked if she stayed close by and she pointed out directions that I could not really comprehend.

Nine days later, when it was almost time to go back to Bombay, I listlessly roamed the Pune streets late evening hoping to get away from the usual crowd. A girl drove by on a scooter and then stopped on the side looking back.


My heart leaped at the sound of her voice as I looked up.

“Hi, it’s me.”

I recognized her immediately and smiled. Despite our shared roster of friends, we had hardly ever spoken more than a few words to each other after that meeting. But there in the back alley of Dastoor Meher Road that night, weighed down with summer heat, something had shifted. Right there, standing on the corner of a crowded street, she still straddling her scooter, we talked for an hour. I knew I should have told her I couldn’t ever see her again, that nothing good comes out of being associated with me, but somehow it already seemed too late.

The next day as I was about to head back to Bombay for the Parsi New Year, I sat in the corner room of the temple writing out a greeting card. I don’t remember what it actually said, but I did have a feeling that it aptly captured my sentiment. I hung the small plastic bag with some chocolates she liked and that card outside her apartment door, touched my fingers to the silver horseshoe on the outside door frame, and then lifted my fingers to my lips: Bless this family I remember saying. Then I turned around and left to take the next bus to Bombay.

Fast-forward two months. A lot of things had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with my life. I didn’t, in fact, think of my life as “my life,” but rather as a series of random events that had no logical connection. I was no longer a student at AV College. I had dropped out of the martial arts class, supposedly to focus on finding a job. And I was actually doing a pretty good imitation of someone actively trying to find one.

Yet between all that turmoil, when I was with her, I was the very picture of contentedness. The kind of warmth that floods your eyes with sun flares and fills your chest with salt air. Sometimes we’d go out for a drive and talk for hours. Other times, we’d not meet for days. When we did meet, we would drive back home after watching the sun melt over the horizon, turning the town we knew well into blackened silhouettes against the sky — She driving like a maniac while I chastely held on to the metal guardrails on my side.

As the days melted into months, it began to feel as though we had a secret that was shared just between us — Something that only we both understood. As though we had discovered a loophole we weren’t supposed to find. The more time we spent together, the more I felt myself slipping from that silhouetted world I had grown up in. I felt, very suddenly, like a visitor in the places I’d called home. An imposter in the conversations I’d once conducted.

I had spent the summer watching a rat race world from the confines of her quiet and generous company, subconsciously documenting the kind of life I didn’t want. I didn’t want the job in a densely packed city and the cars and the kids in top branded schools and the clubs and the tennis lessons and the air-conditioned chauffeur-driven cars. I didn’t want flashy women anymore. These were dreams that belonged to someone else, but I did not feel like that was my calling. These were dreams someone else dreamed for me before I even knew who I was.

“What on earth do you have against chauffeur-driven cars?” my friend once asked. In retrospect, it wasn’t too terrible of a question. But it was never the chauffeur-driven cars themselves that bothered me; it was the competitive display they represented. Beyond the shiny exteriors and the white pristine cooled interiors were overworked fathers and dead-behind-the-eyes, daytime-Chardonnay mommies, and little brats like myself demanding nicer phones, fancier clothes, more extravagant birthday parties. Nobody wanted to talk about the shadowy parts of this life that seemed so blindingly obvious to me.

I was away at college when I read the news about a man from back home. The tax agency folks were coming for his fortune. The opulent life his wife and children had grown accustomed to was about to be gone. So, one evening he came home from work, loaded his handgun, and shot his entire family one by one before turning the gun on himself.

In fact, when the stock market crashed in 1929, men all over the tri-state area started blowing their heads off, swallowing bottles of pills, and flinging themselves from fourth-story windows onto the pristine pavement of Wall Street. Better dead than poor.

Now, who’s to say there weren’t extensive underlying circumstances in each of these cases, but as an impressionable twenty-two-year-old, it was staggering. There were so many people who believed life was no longer worth living without wealth . . . that plummeting to your death in a three-thousand-dollar suit was better than applying for food stamps or taking a BEST bus back home. As a young adult, I stashed this away in my subconscious until I found myself reaching exclusively for the things money couldn’t buy. Vada pav (Indian Burger), old books bought from street vendors, even Ana — these were the best things in my life, and each of them came to me at a very low cost monetarily. I’d lived through my young years in what I was supposed to believe was the scariest thing — life without money, security, and comfort — and I had found it wasn’t so scary after all. I had scared myself right into the kind of life I wanted.

Something about being with Ana felt more real, more human and I hadn’t felt that way in a really long time. We had spent just seven months of our lives existing in the way millions of people do for the entirety of theirs. No excess. No negotiations. No drama. I had even stopped thinking if she was the one that I wanted to be with — I just knew she was, simply by the fact that I had lost all appetite to hunt around or be with other women. It had just evaporated. I looked inside me to see if this was replaced by the usual fear of being devastated when she would leave me someday and found that there was none of that either.

And yet, alongside this invigorating new desire for a life of quiet, I also became acutely aware of the inherent privilege in choosing to live this way. In choosing to stay put in a world full of people charging ahead in their careers and lives. Even at this young age, I had a clarity of realization that we’re all born somewhere along the assembly line with the same shining goalposts at the end. Wealth and success and beauty and opulence and things. Lots of things. Being born in middle-class Bombay in a Parsi family, I just so happened to have the advantage of being closer down the line toward those goalposts than most. Surrounded by people who were “born on third base and thinking they hit a home run,” as someone used to say.

And it was there when I was reasonably within reach of all that, that I came to realize that I wanted none of it.

The closer to the masterpiece that I got, the more cracks I saw in the paint.




Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.