“Do you know of Hari Xanto?”
An inexplicably bubbly woman with a smile as wide as her face directed the question to me. I should answer, I guess.
“Hari Xanto! You don’t know Hari Xanto?”
“I guess not”
“Well, my boy, you are missing out on knowing one of the most wonderful characters in this story called life.”
I was about to say that I already know too many characters and one more wouldn’t make any difference. There were too many characters in this highfalutin party for my liking and I was aching to get out. I don’t know how I got roped into this. Correction, I do know how I got roped into this. One of the characters, who is also supposed to be my ‘best friend’, dragged me into this quagmire of pretentiousness, declaring ‘You’ll meet so many people!’
I haven’t met any people yet, all I’ve met are characters.
“Hari Xanto is one of the main guys we have working for our people,” The bubbly lady continued, derailing my train of thought. “He fights for the lower class and their rights. You know his story, don’t you?”
She added to her build-up without waiting for my response.
“He was born a brick layer’s son, lost his mother during the birth of his blind sister and lost his father in a construction accident a few years later. Such tragedy I tell you. He strives to do good by the society even though he was dealt such a rough hand by fate. Hari Xanto is a hero, I tell you and he’ll be here tonight they say. Aren’t you excited?”
She waited for a breath or two and left before I could respond, to a pair of more attentive ears. I scanned the crowd for my friend when I heard a familiar, annoying yelp behind me.
“Koni? Koni! It is you!”
I turned around hoping to God it wasn’t Ned Alluri.
“Remember me? Alluri! Ned Alluri! How are you Koni?”
I always hate it when people address me by my last name, especially this guy, Annoying Alluri. Appropriately nicknamed by our classmates. The only sound I could muster out sounded mostly like ‘Fine’.
“What are you doing here Koni? Mr. FancyPants, ladies and gents! Moving up in the world eh? My boss sent me here on the company’s invite. Perks of corporate eh? You know Xanto is going to be here? Hari Xanto!”
“Uh, I’ve heard.”
Man, I did not think social activists got this much attention.
“You know Hari Xanto? Big man here, ladies and gentlemen. He’s my boss’s golfing partner or something like that. Major player in the offshore financing game. Most of his money is, umm should I say, not of the white color, if you know what I mean eh?”
That rhetoric was promptly followed by a poke to my sides. Some things never change.
“Financing? I thought he was a social activist”, I blurted out.
“What? No, no! Your old sense of humor hasn’t gone anywhere Koni! He’s nowhere near those loss-making causes leave a few for-show CSR activities. Tragic life too he had.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that.”
“You know of his inheritance loss? His father cut him off completely when he was eighteen. Poor guy had to build everything from the ground up and that too in a city like London. Sad Story. Well, I don’t envy him. Fantastic to see you again Koni! Next time, I think I’ll need an appointment. Eh? Eh?”
This was again followed by a couple of pokes to my sides. At least, that signified an end to this conversation. I think he mistook Xanto for someone else or, I guess Bubbly lady had way too many of those bubblies.
I sauntered to the bar to get myself some.
“Whiskey. 30. Coke. Ice,” I ordered, picked up the drink and moved my head around to eavesdrop something interesting when I picked up a familiar name.
“… with Xanto right? He’s supposed to come here. We’ll finally get to see what he looks like. Swell guy I hear. I’m trying to get him to direct the movie I’m producing.”
Two guys were talking at the other end of the bar.
“What?” the other guy said, “I am poaching him to produce the next radio sensation chartbuster. I’ve heard he’s the secret behind Bieber’s success.”
“Could be, could be. The guy’s multitalented, you know. I’ll even get him to score the movie. The story is actually based on his life, you know. Poor guy grew up in a hostile orphanage. He beat up the molesting caretaker there to a pulp, which led to his arrest and then his juvie reformation. Fascinating life!”
“I heard he was institutionalized when his wife died in an avalanche.”
“Could be, could be. Good art comes out of tragedy, right?”
Is everyone drunk this early in the evening? Who is this guy? I turned my attention over to the old guy who was tending the bar.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called out to him, “Do you know who Hari Xanto is?”
“Sure, Sure. I practically raised the kid.”
“You know him? Like really know him?”
“Poor guy sauntered into my bar late one night. Coked out of his mind. Too young for that he was, maybe fourteen-fifteen. I made him something to eat and he slept on my couch that night and didn’t leave for five years when one day he just vanished. Didn’t hear nothing about him until I saw him on TV. Tragic what happened to him.”
“You didn’t hear? They say he died in a drug overdose in Tokyo. Can you believe that? A billionaire succumbing to his old habits. Twenty years sober and now this. Tragic.”
“He’s, um, dead?”
“What they say is true, you know? Money cannot buy happiness. That’s what I kept telling Michael.”
I was now sucked into the bartender’s stream of consciousness. Xanto’s dead AND he’s showing up to this party!
“Michael who?” I asked
“Michael Jackson, of course. I remember one night he sauntered into my bar. Coked out of his… ”
I guessed the remainder of the story. Seems like the rule of getting high off your own supply doesn’t apply to bartenders.
Dead or alive, I have to know who or what this Hari Xanto fellow is. I started scanning the crowd again.
“Looking for someone?”
I turned around to face the face that brought me into this weird party.
“Anita! Where were you?”
“Around. Working. What’ve you been up to?”
“I had a weird evening this. Have you heard of this guy? Hari…”
“Xanto? In a way. Why? You heard anything?”
“I think I heard everything and then some more.”
“It’s working then.”
“Shh, there’s going to be an announcement.”
“Announce what? What kind of party is this? And…” I spied something in her hand, “Anita, why are you holding a tiger mask?”
“It’s a lioness actually. I’ll explain everything.”
A feedback screech from the speakers echoed around the party lawn. Someone tapped on the mic.
“Check. Check. One two, one two. Hello, ladies and gentlemen. So good of all of you to join us this evening. We’ve got a wonderful audience and the music was great thanks to the Steves. Thank you, Steve, Steve, Steve, and Rohan. You have been fabulous. Now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time.”
There was a visible shift in the entire vibe of the party. No sound was made as people stood up straight, rapt in attention. The next moment was even weirder. Everyone took out an animal mask and covered their faces with it. There were dogs, pigs, monkeys all around. My jaw was dropped the whole time. I turned to face Anita. She was wearing her mask and was holding another one, a lion this time, and was inching it towards my face.
“Wear this Ramil. I’ll explain everything later,” She snapped the rubber band of the mask behind my head, “Just wear this for now.”
I obliged for I did not know what else to do. I stood there with the mask on my face, looking through my eye-holes for an explanation and hoping to God this doesn’t turn into a violent orgy.
“And now we welcome our founders to the dais,” the announcer blared, “Mr. and Mrs. Hari Xanto!”
Finally, I get to see this bastard.
Anita turned towards me, “Come, that’s us.”
I was beyond stunned. She held my hand and pulled my stunned body towards the stage. I climbed the stairs in her tow and walked onto the dais. All the animal faces and their eye-holes were on me.
I stood there, still stunned, while Anita edged herself towards the mic.
“Good evening everybody!” She began, “Welcome to the Inner Circle, where together, we learn the purpose of life and the universe. Our enigmatic leader, my husband, Mr. Hari Xanto,” she gestured towards me, “is making his first public appearance ever today, so give him a cheer!”
The herd of animals blared and bleated and crowed and roared until Anita held up a fist, and the ruckus subsided and they stood still again.
“But, alas,” she continued, “He chooses to preserve his voice for future occasions, so I will be his voice today. He wants me to thank each and every one of you for your contributions towards the cause of discovering the Answer and believe you me, each and every penny counts towards the deliverance of the great Truth. A heartfelt thank you to all of you and thank you to the Steves for the music. Let’s get this party started, ladies and gents. Hit it!”
The scene shifted yet again as the music changed to high-beat techno sounds. Every animal faced character started gyrating vigorously. Anita held my hand and pulled me away from the crowd towards the exit of the party where a cab was waiting.
She nudged me inside and climbed in. She took off her mask and let out a huge sigh of relief.
I threw mine on the floor of the cab.
“What the hell was that? Did I just ‘Fight Club’ myself? Have I started a cult that I know nothing of? Are we married? Do I have multiple personalities? I do have multiple personalities, don’t I? Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt comfortable with myself. Oh, holy shit! I’m Hari Xanto? I’m that guy! What’s with the masks? Are they having a violent orgy right now? Do I…”
My questions were halted by the loud slap I received on my face. That made me feel better somehow.
“Hold on a sec,” she said as she fumbled around in her purse, took out a lighter, lit a cigarette, took in a heavy puff and let out the smoke.
“You can choose to believe all that. You can choose to believe that you have multiple personalities, that you are the elusive Hari Xanto, the guy without a story and that you have unknowingly started a cult or…”
She dragged in another puff.
“Or u can choose to believe that I have been conning rich sods for months, forming a cult under a fictional leader, spreading out absurd stories that can’t obviously be confirmed, so I can convince all of them to give their money for what is, quite clearly a ridiculous cause. It’s your choice, Ramil.”
“Oh! Oh! Ooooooh!”
It finally dawned on me on what had transpired tonight. I was a bit-part player in her twisted game. Of the many questions I still had, one bugged me the most.
“Why the masks though?”
“Why not?” She said as she dragged on another one and I kept staring at her.
Suave. Mysterious. Cunning. Smart.
She was Hari Xanto.
But I still choose to believe the first version, it makes me sound much cooler.