Two days before Labour Day, Cat lost his connection to the universe and started smoking again. He sat out on his terrace, chugging his fifth cigarette, staring at the smoggy night sky and desperately attempting to will the stars to move like he was able to only days ago. He'd been up there now for an hour and a half, uneasy and restless, but the stars refused to budge. And he kept smoking, hoping to emotionally blackmail them into doing as he wished.
Six years ago when Cat had stopped smoking, it was because he had woken up one morning with his chin digging into a congealed pool of blood on his pillow. His girlfriend at the time delivered a hysterical ultimatum. ‘Stop freaking me out like this or I'll leave!’ she'd squealed. So he threw away his last pack of Kings later that day on a reckless drunken drive to Mahabalipuram, convincing himself that it was his respect for mortality and not his fear of being single that made him quit. A month later the bitch left him anyway. But he was young and arrogant enough not to give in to the urge to light up again. And it didn't matter so much, because he had the stars.
You were probably taught in school that stars are gigantic balls of gas and fire with planets orbiting around them, and, yessirreebob, backed by charts and photographs and models and things, it can be a rather persuasive explanation for the universe. If you're into that sort of thing. Cat never took anything he learnt in school at face value though, because he'd learnt even as a child that the cosmos was far too temperamental to be compartmentalised into cubby holes. When he first emerged from his mother's womb, he didn't cry, like all other children, with the shock of existence. He cried with the glee of self-righteousness, because everything he'd come to understand as he gestated had suddenly been affirmed. He cried because he was a star child, a quantum node. When he moved his arms, the galaxies reconfigured themselves.
It required no special effort: the stars were part of his very fibre, networked with his nervous system. When he was creative or inebriated or in love, they threatened to reach down and engulf the world with pure white light. When he was bored or lonely or disheartened, they tore away from the earth, pulling the sky along with them like telescopic tent-poles. They empathised with him, they were an extension of his senses.
On the terrace, that night as he chain-smoked, Cat theorised long and hard about why his cosmic connection had been lost. ‘An undiscovered consequence of being in love?’ he said aloud. His soulmate had a boy's name – Krishna – mischievous, all-encompassing, flirty and blue-skinned. A rare obsession had come up from behind and bludgeoned him one day as he worked up the courage to steal a kiss from her while exploring the back shelves of a second-hand bookshop off Church Street. For days afterwards he could think of nothing and no one else, constantly calling her at work. Krishna didn't seem to mind Cat's neediness, and his usual misanthropy slowly unravelled with the rolling of the month, finally exposing in him a tender core of uncertainty. If anything, love should have deepened his bond with the universe. But he'd grown so numb to it, so very numb. No, it had to be something else.
The blanket of smog grew thick and grey, wrapping around the sky until the stars were fully obliterated. ‘It's my cigarette. My cigarette's doing it.’ A soft tendril of smoke escaped his nostrils and floated upwards into the sky to join the undulating grey mothercloud of pollution and malice. He'd bought a pack of Classics a few hours ago. A whim, only. People all around him had been smoking, friends and relatives and familiar strangers, and that had been his official excuse for retrieving the habit. But people and their petty habits had never mattered to him much. People and their petty habits were, at best, only excuse-fodder. No, the universe was his fix. Was.
‘My father smokes Classics too, did you know that? He does, yeah. I've often told him to quit. He never does.’
But the stars were all gone, and no one else was listening. ‘Is it me? Oh god. It's me. I'm doing it!’ He grew afraid for the universe. ‘What now? I'm losing it. It's losing me.’ He reached for his cell phone and dialled Krishna's number. Krishna would know what to do.
Ring, ring, ring-a-ling-ding-dong-damn. Krishna was asleep. Sixteenth cigarette in as many minutes, lungs searing.
‘What to do?’
When he was in the fourth grade, he'd tried to explain to his friends that magic was magic only if you doubted its provenance. They'd slapped him on the back good-naturedly and forgotten what he'd said before the lunch bell rang.
‘Fuck it. Why fight it? I give up.’ He felt like flying, vrooming up on a large vacuum cleaner, a 21st century warlock. He'd fly up on his Eureka Forbes and de-dirt the air.
And as he squinted at the sky, imagining his triumph, a short wind blew, thinning out the smoke. Sirius cut through the mist, that dirty rascal, stood on his hind legs and wagged his tail at him.
‘Hullo there, old friend,’ Cat rasped, coughing and sputtering and flashing his teeth. He reached out, beckoning for the star to come closer. ‘Whoooo's a good boy? Who's a good boy? Hahaha! Ohh! Hahaha! Stop it! Stop it! Hahaha!’
Vinayak Varma is the editor and art director of Brainwave, an upcoming science magazine for children. He has written articles, reviews and essays for The Indian Express, The Hindu, Sunday Herald and DNA, and has illustrated books for Hachette, Scholastic, Tulika, Penguin and Harper Collins. He lives in Bangalore.
Vinayak would like to dedicate this short story to Yamini, who inspired it.