The wooden floorboards of the staircase are strewn with photographs. Even though they are sepia-toned, that is just a new Instagram filter. I am perusing a file in the room we call the “sun” room: it’s the room where R Cube used to read moth-eaten cookbooks and come up with unique recipes for jams and pickles. I open a file. “War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” I am taken aback by the Orwellian reference. Since when did R Cube (I am told that she refers to herself as R3 these days), with her mismatched ornaments and a penchant for alcohol and grief, write a journal? There is so much that I still don’t know about her.
“What do you mean?” I can almost hear her cackling, her slight hands clasping a glass of home-brewed mulled wine. Her mirthless laughter would always be followed by tears. I feel selfish for saying so, but with her glistening eyes, she looked the most beautiful. I did not like to see her cry, but I was always startled by how ethereal she looked.
It’s been 389 days since R Cube disappeared. The timing of it coincided with my plummeting bank balance. “That really isn’t a good look,” some well-intentioned friends chided me. Just thinking about her makes me want to shed angry, bitter tears. I am not angry with her. Just angry about how everything has turned out. The timing of it all. I was a struggling actor when I met her, not even sure if I respected my craft. I was going to five auditions a month, standing outside Mehboob Studios and waiting. When is it going to be my turn? I’d find myself thinking, as I’d sit on Marine Drive, watching seagulls fly past. Don’t people come to Bombay with nothing but a suitcase and big dreams? I’ve done that, too. And none of my dreams had come true. Until an Iranian director cast me in his film. The film did the festival rounds, won a BAFTA award and is now nominated for the Oscars. I have even signed with The Creative Artists’ Agency.
These days, I run in L.A. circles, where mystic godmen, who I think of as vile imposters, are purporting to teach fragile souls the “art of meditation”. I’m a fragile soul, too, but not in the ways you’d imagine. Enough about myself. Let’s get back to talking about R Cube.
Not many people have met R Cube. She mostly kept to herself, leading some folks to describe her as timid or docile. R Cube is neither. She was not effusive, but she had a quiet and fiery resilience. That is probably what attracted me to her in the first place. Neither was she reconciliatory. She didn’t have to be. After every argument, her sultry eyes would take pleasure in the rising colour of my cheeks. If I had to pick a totem for her, she would be a leopard — glorious, mysterious and almost unattainable. Even in the throes of desire, I was deeply aware of a part of her that was completely cordoned off.
R Cube was never one for pleasantries or small talk. “Do you think hydrangeas don’t like labelling their sexuality?” She would often ask me. “I cannot understand why people would ever like vanilla ice-cream.” “Can we run across a field of sunflowers one day?” “I wonder what parents are called in my world?” “Do you think I even have a world?” “Can I go back one day?”
R Cube moved exclusively in intellectual and bohemian circles, and as her partner, I benefitted immensely. She was friendly with everyone but did not reveal her polarising viewpoints in social settings. “Contextual Intelligence, meri jaan,” she would say to me. “How did you…?” My voice tapers off. “Who wrote those codes?”
“I can do that myself these days,” she whispered to me. “But I won’t tell you how.”
After R Cube’s disappearance, there is no one to light candles or agarbatti for me. There is no one to lay food on the table. Humans assume that dead people do not eat because the food offerings lie there as is. I don’t have to actually eat the food, but sniffing it is a must. That’s how I gain the energy to be a working actor all day.
I am not really sure how I died. I have no past memories or even friends that can help me piece together the past. The face I have invented for myself is also not the face I was born with, so I am not easily recognizable. And it takes a very rare human to master the art of soul recognition — where you can see a person’s soul, without having to rely on their physical attributes.
I need R Cube. Not only because I love her, but because she was the one who promised me that she would help me discover the reason I died. To other ghosts, she might seem like a programmed robot, but to me, she is my partner. And no human being can tell that she is a robot. She is more emotionally intelligent than most humans I have met.
We’ve been having arguments of late. R Cube is now sentient, which means she can act according to her will. The feeling of being human is very new to her, so she is overwhelmed all the time. She’s used to a certain way of life — being programmed to behave a certain way. Suddenly, she has to make all of the decisions on her own. The other day we argued about something as innocuous as what flowers she should put on her hair. In this instance, I take full responsibility. I am so used to making decisions for her that I did it out of habit. R Cube was furious and did not exchange a word with me for two whole days. Until I apologised. Could this have been the reason she left? That I am too interfering? That I don’t give her space? That I make certain decisions for her?
Can you really die of a broken heart if you are already dead? This is probably the definition of irony. A ghost was ghosted. And I cannot even fathom why. I have so many questions for her.
To be perfectly honest, I haven’t slept very well for the past few months. I have an appointment with my hairstylist and make-up artist this morning. I am doing a magazine shoot with an up-and-coming rapper, and we are interviewing each other about our respective crafts. To be honest with you, I don’t enjoy these photo sessions at all. But more magazine covers mean more visibility, and my manager insists that being “out there” is good for me. He doesn’t understand why I disappear every Wednesday, but I’ve convinced him it’s a family matter I’d rather not discuss, and told him to light agarbattis for me on that day. He does that without fail, and I am able to go on with my day as usual.
I miss R Cube. I wonder to myself, “Wouldn’t a love story between a ghost and a robot make a perfect plot for a film?” Humans would probably laugh at our love and not deem it real or valid.
Suddenly at a distance, I see a silhouette walking past me, and I inhale the familiar smell of jasmine flowers and musty books.
R Cube is panting and she has a letter close to her chest. “Arjun,” she says. “Your name is Arjun”. I look at her quizzically. “Huh?” “I went through every archive in the world, and located your handwriting from when you were”…. “from when you were human,” she wants to say, but does not say it. She holds me very close to her, so close that I can hardly breathe. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she says, “I finally know the cause of your death. You were in so much pain that you took your own life. I understand, my love. I will never question your motives.” A feeling of relief washes over me. I finally have the answer to one part of my past, but that rakes up so many more questions.
But R Cube is back. And together, we will discover our respective truths. Neither of us says anything to each other. I flash a crooked smile at her. “Welcome home,” I say to her. “Home is wherever you are with me,” she says, her eyes like a crescent moon and her smile like the fluorescent lights that light up the darkest nights.
Jonaki is the pseudonym of Reeti Roy.