Dream Come True

Dream Come True

Grant Road, Mumbai. Present day.

The steam from the cutting chai moistened the lower margin of the newspaper, as Salim pored over a page. The man at the scrap shop watched Salim’s intense expression and rolled his eyes.

“1956 to March 6th, 2022.” Salim whistled as he exhaled over his half-filled tea cup. He jotted the date on a crumpled slip of paper.

“What joy do you get in reading obituaries of unknown people? And that, in newspapers in languages you cannot read?”

Salim narrowed his eyes to focus better on the image of the septuagenarian in the photograph. 

Almost perfect. Even the slightly raised scar at the angle of his right eyebrow had a striking resemblance.

He placed the folded paper back in his stack and moved on to the next pile. Kannada bhaskar. His wizened face scanned only one page in each newspaper. He dismissed one paper after the other, till a photograph in the obituary in the last paper in the stack caught his eye. Hithashree Gowda, 1991- April 22nd,2022. You too, young one? A tear gently slipped from Salim’s left eye and buried itself in one of the numerous wrinkles on his hollowed cheek. 

He thanked the scrap dealer for his time and tea. They were friends. He had been visiting the scrap shop for close to three decades. Each time he left the shop, he had the same feeling. Of knowing something he knew nothing about.

He sighed and turned around the corner, entering a dingy lane. At the dead-end, his shanty stood alone in the crowd of humble dwellings. He had finished half of his three-monthly ritual, skimming through obituaries. With his shoulders slumped and his salt-and-pepper beard waving in the wind, Salim entered his cramped home to complete the second half of the ritual. 

He pushed the pile of clothes on the sole stool in his room. Climbing onto it, he retrieved a large cloth bag lying on the rusted almirah. With habitual ease, he sifted through the neatly filed pages. Each page had a portrait drawn in charcoal. The recent ones were drawn in graphite pencil since he could not afford anything above that. 

He stopped to pick one leaf out. The portrait showed a man in his sites, with a scar over his brow. He checked the date scribbled in a corner of the paper- Jan 5, 2022. An exact match.

Another page lay by his side, a portrait of a young girl. Salim read out the date- April 21, 2022. His last portrait. He carefully retrieved the crumpled paper slip from his pocket, to tally the date. An exact fit. The date in the obituary was one day before the date mentioned on the portrait.

Salim sat with his head held in his hands. His temples throbbed from the stress. He shut his eyes to think clearly. He knew from experience, that it never helped.

And he wondered as he had for three decades, what was the use of his gift? Of knowing something he knew nothing about.


Agra, 1962

“What is the use of this dimwit loafing around in the house?” Bilaal, Salim’s stepbrother, shook him by the shoulder. 

Their father had passed away of lung disease, after toiling away at a tannery all his life. He departed with the simplistic contentment of a daily wager, that one of his two sons was clever enough to be a supervisor in the same tannery he had contracted a few acid burns in. His daughter was married into a village near Luckhnow. His wife was relatively happy, after having survived tuberculosis. As for his son from his first wife, well he painted all day. But that could easily be set right, with a few hunger pangs, the old man had presumed.

But Salim, mild-mannered as he was, turned out to be surprisingly obstinate for a seventeen-year-old boy. He refused to join the tannery, insisting on earning his bread by painting. But in his small village of seventy houses, painting was a talent used to gift your benefactors. No one paid for such trivial things. 

After haggling with the young painter for over a year, Bilaal did what he had always intended to do.

On a dusty afternoon in August, Salim was thrown out of the house he had spent his childhood in. He picked up his brushes and his belongings in a bundle, leaving behind the scattered remains of whatever little affiliation he had with his stepmother’s family. 

Not one of the silent onlookers peeping over their compound walls could imagine that one day, the puny lad would be the most sought-after painter in the cinema poster making industry in Mumbai. 


Grant Road, Mumbai. Present day.
1:00 AM

Salim woke up with a start. His breath was quickening every moment. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead, as he pushed back the crooked spectacles on his nose. He knew what was coming, and he knew there was no point resisting.

For the next couple of hours, he worked frenziedly on a plain sheet of paper. His right hand moved like that of a magician, leaving behind confident strokes on the paper with every flourish of his hand. Unlike the king-size portraits of film stars that he was once famous for, this portrait progressed in a haphazard manner. Had someone cared to peep from the window into the single room dwelling of the lonely old man, they would have gasped in disbelief.

For there sat Salim, frail and meek, furiously making strokes on paper, with his eyes shut tight. His bushy eyebrows were knitted, his forehead furrowed in rapt attention. His form swayed rhythmically in the dim light, making it impossible for anyone to decipher the art in the making.

Then just like the end of a storm, he stopped moving. His eyelids fluttered, like the paper that lay on the floor. He opened them gradually, taking time to get used to the dim light. Had he been looking into very bright light, he wondered after each of his episodes. But he could remember nothing.

And over three decades, he had had several of these episodes. They often came in flocks, nudging him in his sleep every other night. And then there would be a dry spell for months at end. Whenever they came, they left with a portrait. And no memories of the event. There had been fifty-nine of these when he counted last. And then, one more today.

Salim placed the paper upside down on the floor, with a paperweight on top. He walked over to the water can in the corner. As he drank hurriedly, the sequence ran in his mind, by habit. He would examine the picture, bewildered again at having drawn a stranger. And then he would scribble today’s date in the right lower corner, under his name. And after three odd months, he would look at the old obituaries in the scrap newspapers. And he would jot down the dates, which would invariably be a day after he had drawn the portrait. That was the pattern. A pattern that did not trouble him anymore. 

He was perplexed the first few times when he had the ‘fit’. He was shocked the first time he accidentally saw an obituary displaying one of the faces he had drawn in his ‘episode’. But thirty years was a long time. Enough to make a star artist of a village simpleton. And a haggard old man of a celebrated artist, he smiled. An old man the police remembered when they needed to sketch a suspect. Nothing surprised him anymore.

Salim sat cross-legged and turned the page over. And he stared agape.

There would be no need to visit the scrap dealer for this one. For the second time in his life, Salim recognized the subject in the portrait. Memories rushed in a deluge, smothering him with emotion.


Dadar( East), Mumbai, 1971

A grid was drawn on the Markan cloth, stretched over a wooden frame. Several artists were working with their heads bent, kneeling over the 30ft x 17ft frame. One of them was touching up the title of the hoarding- Haathi Mere Saathi. While a team of artists worked on the elephant drawings, Salim solely gave finishing touches to Rajesh Khanna’s face. It was the unspoken rule back then. While a team of 40 artists worked on the hoarding, painter Salim alone handled the charisma of Rajesh Khanna, the mischief of Shammi Kapoor and the beauty of Hema Malini.

I think I am foolish; I do not know anything. Hameeda, his dear step-sister, and the only person who cared for him in his family, often wrote letters. She always said she was happy. But Salim would invariably find a clue that suggested otherwise.

The magical city of Mumbai had given him his mentor, who had taught him the ‘Bollywood art’ of painting hoardings. Far away, in Luckhnow, Hameeda had learnt to keep house, to keep family.

I feel tired all the time. What work do I have as a housewife anyway? Salim had frowned on reading it. He himself, on the other hand, had done well under his master’s tutelage. He was working night and day to meet the ever-increasing flow of professional commitments.

I am unable to walk. Must have sprained my knee. Salim had been alarmed when he read it. But when he spoke to her over their annual trunk call on Eid, she had dismissed it. Her husband seemed to be hollering in the background, while she coughed inconsolably to hush him.

Salim continued to climb the rung of stardom in his painter’s world. He was thrilled to watch his name in the credits of Kati Patang.

Hameeda got accidentally burned when a fire erupted from the primus stove. Her husband and sons are safe. An acquaintance from his village informed him months after his sister died.

He was shattered by the news. But he was shaken when he heard the date his sister died on. One day after he had his first ‘episode’. One day after he had feverishly woken up from sleep, to sketch a portrait. He had been thrilled to look into Hameeda’s eyes staring at him from the portrait.  But why did those eyes have tears, he had wondered?

Over the next thirty years, he had sketched portraits of strangers, who only seemed familiar in their obituaries. 


Grant Road, Mumbai. Present day.

Salim adjusted his spectacles, but they could only be balanced crookedly. He let them be. Just as he had let a lot of unanswered questions be, all his life.

He clutched at the cloth bag, with a neatly tied folder of his portraits. He patted his pocket, which had a small wad of notes. All of his life’s savings. 

He had often questioned the worth of his existence. When he was unceremoniously dumped by his family. When he sat alone on rainy nights, devoid of a life partner. When he saw the kids play hopscotch in the neighbourhood. When at the turn of the century, he saw hand-painted hoardings being replaced by digital prints. And when he thought of Hameeda and his helplessness.

And in his weakest moments, his doubts had been quelled by the biggest question in his life. Why did he dream of those portraits? Why only a day before their death? Why were there tears in Hameeda’s eyes? Why did none of his subjects smile with their eyes? A fear here, a tear there. Innocence and guilt, together sometimes.

Salim shrugged his head. He opened the rolled up page with his latest portrait. The beautiful girl with a million dollar smile. He knew what he had to do.

He would have to meet a superstar after a long time.


‘Anokha’ Bungalow, JVPD scheme, Mumbai. Present day. 11 AM



The shutterbugs waiting at the entrance of the bungalow clicked lazily. The gates opened to a black limousine. The paparazzi was relaxed today. With her movie releasing this month, they knew Aslesha Das would pose willingly for their hungry cameras. 

And sure enough, the cameras tried devouring her in every frame, as she posed in her powder blue bodycon dress. Everything about her spelt power- the bold eyeliner, the mahogany lip colour, the poise and the slight wave of her hand.  With a spate of four back-to-back hits, all in the sci-fi action flick genre, she was the ultimate gamechanger in Bollywood. While her peers were called demure, coy and charming, Aslesha Das AKA Agent Zora was synonymous with adventure, daredevilry and rebel. The actress who produced her own films had a towering presence in person.

Saurin Virani, her handsome husband cum manager stood next to her, his hand around her waist. With his teal eyes and chiselled jaw-line, he had often invited acting offers. But he stuck to his job behind the scenes diligently. The quintessential power couple that had the youngsters swooning over their palpable chemistry.

Saurin got into the car, winking at the crowd.As she yielded to another round of posing for the shutterbugs, Aslesha heard the hind door of the limousine open. A hand grabbed hers tightly, as she was yanked into the car. Just as her stiletto sporting feet buckled onto the seat, she blew a flying kiss to the crowd. The car sped away.

“How many times have I told you not to grin widely like a monkey on amphetamines?” Saurins’s voice was raspy, nothing like the honeyed voice heard in their broadcasted interviews.

“I, I was just…”

“You do remember you are aiming at being the femme fatale of Bollywood, right? Not the dumb girl-next-door.”

Aslesha nodded. The conversation sounded familiar, almost habitual. She glanced out of the window, at the sliver-like strip of the sea visible at a distance. Why did a sense of longing engulf her every time she saw the sea?

“Now if you are done with your window shopping, we have papers to sign.”

Aslesha grabbed a pen and began signing at the marked places. 

“What about your parents’ accommodation? Will a five star do or is a seven-star hotel mandatory?” Saurin smirked.

“Saurin, can’t they live with us? It is only a couple of days.”

“Of course. And invite the imbecile sitting on the bench outside the bungalow as well. Let them all live with us! As it is, they would be mistaken for house help!” Saurin gritted his teeth, highlighting his razor-sharp jawline.

“They are my parents, Saurin!” Aslesha’s voice trailed off, as she saw her husband’s gaze harden.

“So, invite them in. And spare me the trouble of living with you. Get yourself someone to run your life. To bag you those endorsements. And to put up with your imbecility.”

“Saurin, please. Don’t get upset. I did not mean to insult you…” 

“Yeah, right. Gather yourself for the press conference tomorrow. And I’m throwing a party at the screening tonight. Don’t forget to act surprised.”

The car dropped Aslesha for her promotional event at the studio, as Saurin sped away.

She walked in with her bodyguard, an epitome of grace and beauty.


12 hours later, Juhu, Mumbai

Salim sat facing the sea, his calloused feet buried in the soft sand. He recalled the events of the night. He had tried to pull strings with his contacts from his hoarding painter days. He even managed to sneak into the private screening of the movie. And he watched Aslesha, the subject in his latest portrait, with fascination. The only thing that captivated him was her eyes. While her histrionics were admirable, there was no escaping the melancholy, the longing and the fear in those hypnotising eyes. 

But try as he might, he could not secure dialogue with the actress. The guests soon made their way to the surprise party thrown by Aslesha’s husband. Salim had bitten his lip. Because he had seen a pure emotion in his eyes. Coldhearted, undiluted deceit. For some reason, he was reminded of Hameeda’s husband. Calculating, inflicting, menacing.

“They speak a lot, don’t they- these ebbs and tides?” A melodious voice mumbled.

Salim turned to see Aslesha staring at those waters, her hair flying wildly in the wind.

She smiled as he gawked at her in confusion. 

“I needed some fresh air.” The dark waters of the night sky made the sea look ominously calm.

He fumbled in his bag, looking for the portrait. 

She glanced at him guardedly, sideways. And then continued staring at the waves. 

Salim looked at her eyes. Tonight, there was a disturbance in them. An emotion other than the fear he had seen a couple of hours back.

Salim cleared his throat, “Ahem.”

“No pictures, please.” Aslesha spoke, still staring at the sea.

“Your eyes have tears.” Salim rolled out the portrait, pointing at it like a man possessed.

Aslesha picked up her slippers, preparing to run from the madman.

As she trudged along the sand towards the building with the party, a sudden gush of wind stalled her. The papers flew out of Salim’s hands, scattering themselves on the sand.

But one portrait caught her fancy. She smiled, as she stared down in her own eyes.

“Why would I draw you? Are you in trouble? Watch out!” Salim wondered aloud, more to himself than to the subject of his portrait. “The sea cannot be scared that the sand would consume it.”

Aslesha turned to smile at him. He realized; he had perhaps not done justice to her smile.

2:00 AM

The shutterbugs went crazy as Aslesha Das addressed the media in an urgently called meeting.

Every television channel ran the short video clip a million times that night. 

The headlines flashed:

Superstar Aslesha Das sues husband Saurin Virani for an attempt to murder. Video clip showing him poisoning his wife’s drink at a self-hosted party goes viral.”


Six months later, Mumbai

Salim sat looking at the sea. Ebbs and tides seemed to carry meaning. He had not had another ‘episode’ ever since he saved the girl with a million-dollar smile.

He sat sipping tea, watching his students draw portraits in charcoal.

He looked at the letter pad on his desk. It read- Hameeda Art studio.

In another part of the city, the patron of Salim’s chain of art studios smiled into the cameras.

“I want to explore other characters now. I am done playing the tough guy,” she said.
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