The brief life of Veronique
Veronique was a strange woman. Whenever she talked of anything interesting, her eyebrows would arch up like twin animals, mimicking each other. She spoke eloquently, often with a long thin menthol cigarette in between her fingers, her voice sharp and able to cut through crowds like a knife. At parties, she commanded attention, her tall stature visible from every corner. Her Czech heritage was apparent in her high cheekbones, her angular face full of sharp planes and long lines and her eyes of brightest blue. But still, she was a strange girl. She liked to get into arguments. Not quiet discussions among a crowd of pseudo-intellectual pretentious rich folk but the kind where both parties ended up yelling at each other, neck thick and pulsing with veins and face red with blood. At these times, she liked to yell obscenities, hurl epithets like rocks, one after the other, an endless stream of foul, vulgar four letter words, but often punctuated by the occasional intelligent remark, just so no one could dismiss her as a foulmouthed blowhard.
When I first met her, she was having one of these discussions with a young Indian over the topic of Bollywood. This young man, an ardent fan of the glitz and glamour of Mumbai cinema, was spluttering, clearly cowed by this tall beautiful intimidating woman who spoke Hindi with a slight accent and Nepali with almost none.
“Absolute filth,” she spat out. “Those soul sucking dimwits in Mumbai think they’re getting away with knocking off those cheap Hollywood bastardisations of cinema, but they’re not. Anyone with half a brain could see that cinema is an artform, not a vulgar parade of tits and ass. I mean, those actresses just need to be fucked long and hard. All they need is a big long cock. Most of those high and mighty princesses are so frigid, they don’t let a dick near them. And I’m sure just as many of them are fucking carpetmunchers. I tell you, they can’t act worth shit. A steaming pile of shit has more character than some of those actors. Hell, at least a fresh pile of shit is hot.”
As I watched, the Indian got purple in the face, his eyes started to protrude from his face, the hand clutching the wine glass whitened as his grip tightened. He stuttered, stopped and tried again.
“You are out of your mind. There is nothing that is more Indian than Bollywood. It is life itself, it is cinema that celebrates the very fact that you’re alive. Sure, it might not be the high-minded artsy fartsy shit that you claim to love, but its the cinema of the working man. It helps the normal man to forget his own hardship filled life and escape to a world where bad guys sport ugly scars and spout one-liners, heroes still look good and the women are beautiful, seductive and sexy,” he said triumphantly, adding, “And I’ve never met a woman more foul mouthed than you.”
“Being crass has nothing to do with it, darling,” drawled Veronique.”Defend Bollywood’s originality, if there is any. I don’t see any. It’s this dick and that pussy, other than that, there are no other characteristics. Each new actor is a cock for the horny middle-aged housewives to drool over and each new actress is a cumrag for sweating hormonal labourers jacking off in the filthy toilets of cinema halls, right next to that mound of piss, shit and vomit that’s been festering there for days.”
The man started to say something, but stopped himself. He gulped down the last of his wine, spun smartly on his heel like a soldier and marched off. I secretly applauded his strength of will. In a situation like that, I might’ve chucked my glass at that infuriatingly beautiful face.
Boris introduced me to Veronique later that night. She dismissed me after about five minutes, not deeming me important, or interesting enough, for a conversation. She looked down at me and I looked up at her, her ample cleavage a formidable barrier between the two of us. But she sauntered away before I got to say anything interesting.
It was during the wee hours of the morning that she came up to me again. I had spied her earlier, locked in a heated debate with a woman wearing an impressive set of diamonds, glinting like fireflies in the intentionally gloomy lighting. Judging by her husband’s red face, I assumed Veronique had said something none too polite about the woman. I was telling Boris about an interesting new writer that I had just discovered. He has since disappeared into obscurity so his name is not important, but suffice it to say that he had taken the world quite by storm back then. His novel set in the middle-east explored the tumultuous relationship between a future assassination victim and his assassinator. I was spouting some nonsense, seizing the opportunity to introduce Boris to something new, a role which he usually assumed. I didn’t notice Veronique come up and it was only when she tacitly agreed with me that I turned around to find her intently listening. Her eyes were heavily lidded with the wine, but they rather added to her allure, those bright eyes now clouded by alcohol.
“I’ve never heard her agree so completely,” whispered Boris into my ear. “She must really like you.”
With that, Boris walked away, leaving me with this strange Veronique of a person. She whipped out a cigarette and I hurriedly lit it for her with my Zippo. For a minute or two, she didn’t say anything, an amused half-smile on her lips, her rouged cheeks flushed with wine. I stared back at her, a little afraid. I was 23 then, too young for her to even feign interest in me, I thought. I didn’t know Veronique herself was 26, only her overbearing manner and European chic made her seem older somehow.
“What do you do?” She asked.
“Make sense of things,” I said. It wasn’t a witty reply, not even a funny one. But she laughed.
“What do you think of Ayn Rand?” She asked again.
“Capitalist bitch,” I replied without thinking. Ever since high school, I hated Ayn Rand. Her glorification of the capitalist and her belittling of the idealist, the populist and the working man infuriated me.
But Veronique laughed.
“There’s something about a one-night stand,” she said. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “I don’t know if it’s the allure of the unknown or just the fact that it is a fleeting taste of what could be if you let it. But sometimes a girl just needs a good hard fucking you know?” She said the last staring straight into my eyes.
I stared back, her eyes unflinching and unblinking. I was too stunned to say anything.
“The Japanese have a practice called enjo-kosai, where older businessmen offer expensive gifts to younger women for a date, their companionship and possibly sexual favours. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not offering you anything, except the possibility of my companionship. This just seemed like an inappropriate time to bring it up, so I did.” She threw back her head and gulped down the last of her wine. “So are you in?” Her fingers toyed with the stem of her wine glass, teasing it, pushing it, and as I watched, I couldn’t say no.
We exited quickly, much to Boris’ chagrin. His mouth hanging open in disbelief, he followed us out. Veronique led me to her car. She didn’t run or walk fast, she sauntered, as if she owned the world. Even in her advanced stage of inebriation, she had presence. We got into her white Mercedes and I quickly debated the prudency of letting her drive. And since I couldn’t drive and didn’t own a car, my ardour won. Fortunately, luck was on my side.
Her house was small and wooded. On the outskirts of the city, it sat nestled among a copse of trees, I couldn’t tell which kind. When we entered through the side door, she didn’t bother to turn on the lights. She made her way around quickly, with the ease of familiarity. I followed hesitantly, bumping into table corners and objects lying on the ground. Her bedroom was painted a deep luscious red, the carpeting too, blood crimson and lush. A queensize bed dominated the centre, plush pillows and a comforter half turned down. She sat on the bed and crossed her legs, her dress hiking up. She motioned for me to sit as she pulled out another cigarette. I lighted it for her once again.
“Do you know what Voltaire’s last words were?” She asked suddenly. “The story goes that a priest tried to get him to denounce Satan on his death bed. To that, he replied, ‘Now, now, this is no time to make enemies.’” She faced me, smoke escaping from her mouth like little tendrils of steam. “Now you tell me something.”
I thought for a while. “Jean-Paul Sartre was part of a group of influential Europeans who formed a tribunal to expose US warcrimes during the Vietnam War. I like Sartre because he places blame, responsibility, whatever you call it, solely on man’s own shoulders. He denounces outside forces: God, society, anything. This is my major complaint with postmodernism. Postmodernism sees man as the confluence of thousands of different forces, ultimately meaning that man is not responsible for his actions. For Sartre, there was no other. Man was truly free, to do what he wanted, to make the decisions he wanted to, and there was no way to eschew responsibility. But he also argued that man’s choices needed to be humanistic. That each man’s freedom to make choices also accords to him the responsibility of taking care of his fellow man. So existentialism, at least Sartre’s version, is humanistic at its most basic.”
“How naive,” she said. I should’ve expected that. I was too eager, I gave her an opening, and she seized it. “Responsibility and humanism, if only that went hand in hand. Another existentialist, Albert Camus, so close to your Sartre, wrote The Stranger, a story about a man who lacks any morality. His reasons for killing another person are that ‘the sun was too hot.’ Camus presents a world where absurdity runs rampant over responsibility. No matter what a man tries to do, how much one tries to be responsible and make the decisions that one desires, the random, arbitrary absurdity of life prevails. There are no moral people, only sane people in a fucking insane world.”
From that close, I could see the lines on her face, the creases in her forehead etched there by constant worrying. I reached out and brushed her hair away from her face. She looked down, and for the first time that night, she looked defeated. Like a balloon with its air let out, she looks deflated, as if the life had left her. She reached out and held my hand, cradling it as if it were a fragile object.
“I’m tired,” she said. Her voice was low. She wasn’t challenging anyone, and she wasn’t putting up a facade. The shades were down, and Veronique was defeated. But I didn’t know what had felled the giant.
“You pretend so long,” her voice was waif-like, small and broken. “You get so used to being someone else that you begin to wonder what happened to the real you. In school they used to tease me for my blue eyes. Kids tease but they don’t know what they’re doing. And yet, they can also be so cruel. For so long I never had any friends, no one liked me, no one played with me. My parents didn’t care. Dad was too busy building his business empire and Mom had retreated into herself so much that she barely even recognised me as her daughter anymore. Later, my eyes became my strength. Boys were attracted to me because they wanted to go out with a kuirey. I lost my virginity when I was 14 to a guy who was 18. I bled onto my sheets while my parents watched television in the next room. I don’t know why my parents even got married, or why they never got a divorce. They were two of the most miserable people I knew. And they made each other miserable. They fed off each other like parasites, living for the hate, the bile they spewed at each other, hissing like snakes and fighting like dogs. Dad died of a stroke, Mom slowly wasted away. But why am I telling you all this? You came to copulate frequently, spill your seed in me or on me, whichever you prefer, and then vanish in the morning. And then, whenever I see you at parties, you’ll shun me at first, pretend like you didn’t see me but then once you have a few drinks in you, you’ll pump up the nerve to approach me again. And presume in your drunken stupor that since I slept with you once, I’ll do it again. For what is a woman but a gratification toy for a man. An object which he ejaculates into and discards like a used condom.”
Then, she took off her dress. It slid to the floor like a snake, shimmering in the gloom. She stood naked in front of me, breasts thrust out like twin spears. I stood up and hugged her. I made no move to touch her body, just held her close, feeling the warmth from her flesh. She stood rigid at first, maybe expecting me to make advances. But I had no desire. I didn’t want anything, except to see through this flawed broken girl’s stone wall. She had given me a window and I saw everything all too clearly.
She collapsed after sometime. Veronique’s body hung limp against mine like a rag. She sobbed into my shoulder like a wanton child; her beautiful blue eyes leaking tears into my rough shirt. I held her throughout and it took a long time for her to stop. It was as if a glacier had melted and the dam doors been thrown wide open. But stop she did, wiping her eyes and smearing the makeup that had begun to run down her face. Her face now looked like a five-year old’s easel, spotted and stained. She put her dress back on and proceeded to talk once again.
“Are you a Hindu?” She asked.
I shook my head. I had eschewed religion when I was young, vowing to myself that I would never fall into the mindless worship of a being that did not exist. I was an atheist, just like Sartre.
“At its most basic, one of Hinduism’s basic tenets is that life is a lie. This life we live is the result of thousands of years of reincarnations, constantly being cast into a new body, time and again, rising up into a human from a lowly insect. Our actions in this life determine what incarnation we shall take next. A good life, following one’s dharma will eventually lead to salvation – moksha, escape from the web of lies that is maya, this life.”
“Life is but a dream,” I said. “Like the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzhi dreaming he was a butterfly.”
“Exactly,” she said, and smiled a little. “Did Zhuangzhi dream he was a butterfly or did a butterfly just begin to dream that it was Zhuangzhi? That nuanced problem is at the centre of our lives. If all life is an illusion, a dream, then what can we make of responsibility?”
“In dreams begins responsibility, says Yeats.”
“It’s true. When we start to dream, to hold ambition, that responsibility must begin. But I’m no idealist, unlike you. I don’t believe in the inherent responsibility of man to each other. I have seen what man does to one another. It’s a man eat dog world out there, people will do anything to get ahead. Lie, cheat, steal, kill, rape, anything. Who are we to be any different? In the film Waking Life, philosophy professor Louis Mackay argues that the gap between the average man and someone like Plato or Nietzsche is greater than the gap between the average man and a chimpanzee. I agree. And whenever we talk of progress and advancements, we say “we,” implying that we as individuals had something to do with progress. ‘We’ had nothing to do with it. It was Aryabhatta who first discovered heliocentricity in medieval India, Newton who first discovered the laws of gravity, Tesla who invented the alternating current, the fluorescent lightbulb, the radio, and so much more, Einstein who theorized that time wasn’t constant, Nietzsche who proclaimed the death of god, and Tim Berners-Lee who invented the internet. The human race as a whole didn’t invent shit. A few people did, and the names of those people would barely fill up a page. Yet the human race takes credit for progress.”
Veronique fumbles around for a cigarette and lights up, puffing profoundly. Her composure is back. That old haughty look is back in her eyes. I wonder what happened to the girl who cried on my shoulder, but I know she is buried deep deep inside Veronique. My feeble mind will not be able to drag her out again. But she’s right. Veronique, for all her pretention and obnoxiousness, is right. Her intelligence far outweighs mine, which is why I decided then, to leave. She didn’t try to stop me. She stood in silhouetted in her doorway as I called a cab. When it arrived, she gave me a quick hug and a lingering kiss on the mouth.
“For dreams dashed,” she said in my ear, her breath warm.
I went home and thought long and hard about this person. Veronique intrigued me then and still does. I never understood her, her passion for argument, her unnecessarily foul mouth and that night, where she allowed me in. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was Sartre. But I like to think it was me.
I saw her a couple of times after too, mostly at socialite parties. I always made it a point to walk over and give her a quick hello. Each time she seemed genuinely happy to see me, for her eyes flashed and she never picked an argument. Once, at a party at a friend’s place, on the roof of the darkened building, drunk on expensive whiskey, I kissed her long and hard. She kissed me back too, but that was that. She disappeared after.
It was only recently that I found out she had killed herself. She shot herself in the right temple. I heard the bullet demolished half her face and the wall next to her was painted bright red with her brains. That same brain that held so much intelligence, so much fire and so much ire. I would’ve liked to have had one last conversation with her, maybe a conversation on death, or even suicide. I felt a little sad when I heard, but my sadness was fleeting, for my only real moment with her had been that first night, and sure, I will never forget that moment. But I think I saw it coming, even then, that death would come early for her. She lived too fast, too brash to have lived any longer. She was a strange girl, a nice girl, but a strange one nonetheless.
I also heard she left a note, a single word scrawled hurriedly on a scrap of paper: moksh. I wonder if she was thinking of our conversation when she put that cold gun next to her head. I wonder if she was still smoking a cigarette. And I wonder if she thought of responsibility.
Good night Veronique, whatever you may be.
15th June 2009
Pranaya SJB Rana