I heard about him all the time. It was difficult not to. Sitting around in the old Computer Science building on Thayer Street in Providence, taking a break from working on our programs, it was always likely that someone would rattle off one more story—listened to, guffawed at, but forever disbelieved—about him. There was the girl who came home to find her roommate in bed with him; as she tiptoed to her room, the roommate held up a fist, triumphant through her passion. The girl who swore she found a line of women outside his dorm room, waiting their turn to sleep with him. Yeah right, lady, and did you join the line? “No way!” Of course not, and yeah right again.
And there were always whispers about this drinking binge in a snooty bar, that rocking party that writhed carnally as it welcomed the rising sun. We disbelieved them all, sure. But somehow that didn’t matter. Even the stories we ridiculed added to the legend. After all, none of us had tales like these, true or not, told and retold and discussed about us.
The man had that kind of mythic stature. Two decades after his father clutched his throat and died in a convertible in Dallas in arguably the best-known murder of his century, the son trailed three famous initials all over the American campus I found myself at, a green Indian student chasing a master’s degree. Sure, many other famous offspring passed through, too, while I was there: a Ferraro, a Cuomo, a Carter. But none managed the aura, the sheer sex appeal, of this one. Not even close. His was a combination of wealth, power, looks, name—but above all, a way that tragedy misted around him.
Royalty. Once before, at home in Delhi in the 1970s, I had run into an Indian strain. But it was with this man in Providence that I began to understand how it goes. Especially in how I had never seen him, but even so was conscious of his presence. Had he lunched in this cafeteria before me? Does he figure on the wall of candid shots at the diner down the street? Like it or not, thoughts like these strayed through my mind, and I know I was not the only one. The man, as I said, had that kind of mythic stature.
And then I actually saw him. Not a story, the real thing. Driving off out of town, I stopped at a gas station near campus to fill up. Stood there, hose in hand, looking around idly. At the next bank of pumps, the man doing the same to his shiny car—years newer than my rusting Dodge Colt—looked up, just as idly. Over the roofs of our cars, our eyes met. It’s him, I told myself, fighting to keep my face as placidly blank as it always is, as it had been till that moment. Did he think the same? Was that a faintly inquiring crease on his brow, or did I merely want to imagine that it was?
Was royalty as curious about me as I was about him?
I can’t explain it: our gaze held just that fraction of a second longer than comfortable or necessary. Then, as if on cue, we both looked away, down at our hoses. I finished first, paid and rattle-trapped out of the station. Never saw him again. Never made up my mind about our exchanged glance, nor about whether a question about me did flit through that celebrity mind, and if so, why.
But my thoughts wandered back to that evening in Delhi. Wearing a loud African shirt and tight Levis, the then-pilot son of a woman prime minister strode in. He had come to pick up a woman who had had an accident outside our home. He was absolutely the last person we expected to see.
She wasn’t hurt in the collision, but had fainted from the shock. We brought her in to recover, gave her some water. Then one of the others who had been in the car with her asked to use our phone because, he said bewilderingly, he was going to inform the prime minister. The PM? We asked in wonder. Isn’t that a mite excessive for a minor accident? Won’t the police do?
We had our answer soon. Turned out the lady was related in some way to what passed, in those days, for Indian royalty. So the pilot arrived, complete with a wedding trousseau of hangers-on. He helped the victim into another car, thanked us politely, and was off.
But not before one hanger-on blew his nose so that, decades later, we still remember. Mother had noticed the lady was perspiring. So she ran into the house and brought a hanky. Handed it to the man sitting beside the victim in the car, motioning for him to use it. Use it on the woman’s brow, she meant. He looked quizzically at my ma. Snorted into the hanky. And they were on their way.
Never saw the pilot again, either.
Only a few years later, the tragedy of his mother’s assassination misting around his oval face, he became prime minister himself. Another seven years to 1991, and he was dead, blown to pieces in an obscure southern town. No longer obscure.
And then it was 1999, and a small plane, another pilot, went down off Martha’s Vineyard. Royalty and tragedy, the tango plays on.
Now, I don’t often have brushes with celebrity, nor particularly crave them. I never knew the man with the initials, never knew nor much respected the then-pilot. But there are times when I think idly of the threads that draw together these small memories. And the threads tell me two things.
One, they spell a price: of fame and the public eye, of royalty. Today, as the fourth generation of the then-pilot’s family boards the wagon of political ambition, the family sheen long-faded but still reliable, still the hope of countless politicians—yes, as the wagon creaks into motion, I want to shout: Enough! Spare us! Spare yourselves! Have you not had enough tragedy? Have you not given us enough tragedy, yours and ours? And yet royalty must be like this too, in the irresistibility of its appeal, the compulsions of its legacy.
Two, the threads are woven from an inevitable, unshakeable, always wispy sadness.
Now that sadness, I think, I once glimpsed. Over the roofs of two cars in a gas station. Linked forever to a half-second-too-long gaze.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.