Butirub27 min read
I don’t remember which year it was when I met Rokky the first time. It was during that phase when producers all over Bollywood were trying to make the Ramayan but like Lord of the Rings, and before the time when everyone was trying to make the Ramayan but like Harry Potter, so around 15 years ago, one of my first wave of Bollywood meetings. I was hot stuff then, a young and happening writer with two films in development, five more in the ether, and an unusual backstory: superhero comics, which wasn’t a thing in India at that point, and a notorious pop culture blog where I’d trashed traditional Bollywood films and their shallow establishment critic-fan-groupies until I’d gone viral, before going viral was a thing and edgelord was a common term. I’d had lots of ideas, lots of opinions, and Bollywood had noticed me enough to shuffle slightly and shut me up by absorbing me into its sweaty embrace.
Rokky was a mid-level producer with a shiny pink face, bulging biceps, gemstone-loaded rings on every finger, and a big film-dynasty surname, which meant that it didn’t matter how many flops he produced, and he’d produced a fair number. He’d found me using the traditional Bollywood scouting method, which involved bribing the assistants and drivers of more successful producers for the numbers of everyone they were meeting. I found out, years later, that my number had been circulated around town with no information except the saved name, Blog Comics Idiot, which certainly explains the first few minutes of a lot of meetings where people loved my blog and my comics and found innovative ways to get me to say my name.
We open with a wide shot of Rokky’s office: I enter, and am offered a variety of beverages: I choose black coffee, because global writer aesthetics. I’m also carrying a MacBook Pro that I use only for email and writing. On Rokky’s shelves, a range of trophies he’s bought down the years, some religious icons, some superhero figurines and Tarantino memorabilia to indicate cutting-edge taste, a scattering of books, mostly Syd Field screenplay guides and Eric Yasuo’s Creative Masterclass workbooks, all shiny and unread. I already feel like I’ve been in this meeting before.
Coffee sipped and pleasantries about weather done, we get into it, and Rokky and I find we’re absolutely meant to be. Formulaic Bollywood movies? We hate them. Amazing new stories that match global trends but also uniquely Indian, classic and timeless but also original and edgy? We love them. Every film I say is great is his all-time favourite, including the titles I make up and say are Iranian. He wants to hear all my film and TV pitches, I pour my heart out, and he loves all of them, though he does warn me that the country isn’t ready for some of them, too clever, so we’ll have to save them for later, maybe next year. But others are just what he’s been waiting for, it’s like the gods themselves decided we would meet today and embark upon an epic journey to transform first Bollywood, then the world.
I found out many years and many unmade amazing projects later that producers like Rokky would do meetings like this one when they didn’t have any real work, fill up empty slots with a revolving door of new-in-town writers, hear all their ideas, and in the unlikely event they had any good ones hand them over to some inhouse minion to write out. Rokky, and many others like him, were always attached to a few thousand writers, draining them slowly, sometimes for years. During my first few years in Mumbai, there were sometimes moments when I would look out of whatever mobile furnace autorickshaw I was in and see hoardings for new shows that looked a lot like something I had pitched to the same producer a while ago. Sometimes the characters would have the same names. Sometimes they’d even say lines I’d written in trailers. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, even though I was one of the privileged ones, protected by my internet fame, my social connections, the way I spoke English, my Macbook Pro. I knew so many people who had it far worse.
Cut back to Rokky’s office, where he and I lean back on our white luxury chairs (his is supervillain-level huge) and gaze into the middle distance, exhausted by our limitless creativity and immediate chemistry. Rokky gets a call and invites someone in, saying this was perfect, there was a writer he wanted him to meet.
Enter director Mohit Kumar, who’d made some sleazy horror films over the last few years. I hadn’t seen them—no one had, to be fair—and didn’t pretend to have because directors often ask you what scene you found the most amazing. Mohit is lean, gaunt, aggressive-looking, long-sideburned, and wears a floral shirt unbuttoned to his navel revealing a forest of grey chest hair. There’s a shark tooth on a white thread around his neck.
‘You’re the guy Rokky says is perfect to write an Indian vampire movie,’ he says.
‘I am,’ I say, though all of this is new information. But this is Bollywood, all is chaos, you adapt to the situation you’re in. Vampire movies are hot right now, the first Twilight novel has already taken the world by storm.
‘I’m not convinced you’re good enough,’ he says. ‘Pitch me, let’s see.’
Obvious bait and I have zero desire to work with Mohit Kumar. But he’s annoyed me, so I spend the next few minutes pulling a Bollywood vampire movie out of my ass.
I see it quite clearly: it’s set in a hill station anywhere near the Himalayas, rolling fog, dark mountains in the distance, loneliness, isolation, harsh and beautiful country, the works. Abandoned colonial mansions, ancient tombs, vampire in question from an Indian minority that is never in the news: Armenians or Central European, plenty of opportunities for a Transylvanian family link. Story’s about the relationship of this vampire, abandoned by history, finding a place for himself when he falls in love with a local Hindu schoolteacher, and teaches her the value of not fitting in. Also an interesting metaphor for—
‘We want it in Goa,’ Rokky says.
I can see this clearly too, it turns out: The mansion is just as derelict, but now on a hill, in a forest, just as ancient, but Portuguese. What sets it apart from your normal vampire movie is that now it’s just as intense as the last one, but sweaty, lush, tropical, brimming with desire and tension. Heat, the ocean breaking on cliffs, ice cubes tinkling into glasses, fruits, sexual tension throbbing all over the place. The vampire now lives near a church, feeding on tourists lost in the night, sundowner parties turning into nightmares. Our vampire is torn apart by his lust for a local Catholic schoolteacher, married, hotter than the Goa sun, who believes he’s a reclusive painter and wants him to help out with local charities. Their relationship—
‘Bikini,’ Mohit Kumar says.
‘Forget all this Catholic stuff bro. Very ’70s feel. Today’s audience is youth. In your face. Bikini.’
‘I think the sundowner parties and tourists are a mind-blowing idea,’ Rokky says to be encouraging.
‘Whites,’ Mohit adds. ‘Bikini.’
‘Why do you keep saying bikini?’ I ask, genuinely confused. ‘You want shots of tourists in bikinis?’
‘Yeah, bro, tax cuts we can get in other states also. But in Goa, we can put vampires in bikinis. Why one? Lots of bikini vampires. I told Xavita, she said she’ll do topless also, from the back, if we can get an A-list hero.’
I digest this in silence.
‘So what do you think?’ Rokky asks.
‘There’s a bit of a problem,’ I say. ‘You know that vampires die in sunlight, right? Blood drinking, stake through heart, work by night, fangs, darkness, garlic. That’s vampire essentials.’
‘No, no,’ Mohit says. ‘I need my beach songs. Also, garlic is okay but we can’t show it negatively. And hero can’t have steaks, I need Hindi audience.’
‘Songs,’ I whisper, shattered.
‘Got to have songs,’ Rokky says. ‘Look, just pitch us the vampire story, mansion near the beach, we need some day bikini shots but we can do night also, what’s there? Schoolteacher isn’t sexy, we’ll make her a rave DJ, tattoos. Come on, man, you’re the best.’
‘Vampires do not do daylight,’ I say.
‘You’ll find a solution,’ Rokky says. ‘I know you can.’
I still don’t remember exactly which year this meeting was, but clearly it was before the Twilight movie came and made Mohit’s dreams come true by just having vampires sparkle in the sun.
‘Sure, I can find a solution,’ I say, now clear that I didn’t want to work on this film or be anywhere near it. ‘I mean, vampires don’t exist anyway, so why can’t they be in the sun, right? So they could just be, I don’t know, covered in sunblock or something. Some magic ointment, made by Indian herbal yoga types.’
Mohit’s eyes light up. ‘Massage scene,’ he says. ‘Yes, yes. Rokky, bro, got to appreciate you.’
‘See, I know what I’m talking about,’ Rokky says. ‘Eye for talent, yeah? Tell us more about the ointment?’
‘Just use Butirub on the vampires,’ I say, getting into it. ‘Cover them head to toe, solution found.’
‘Booty rub!’ Mohit shouts. ‘I love it!’
‘No, no, Butirub,’ I say. ‘It’s an actual balm thing that used to exist in Calcutta a century ago or so. I’m … I can’t believe I remembered the name. Use it, okay? It’s historical, I know that’s not important to you, but—’
‘Now let’s do a quick story brainstorm,’ Mohit says.
‘Yes, Deepan,’ Rokky says. ‘Tell me more.’
I was then and am now a sucker at some level, but this was a level of get-all-the-work-out-of-this-dude-today-for-free that was unacceptable for even me, especially on a trash project like this one.
‘Story brainstorms and all are after the contract, Rokky,’ I say, with a smile.
‘Of course, of course,’ Rokky says, exchanging a glance with Mohit. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow and we’ll sort out the commercials.’
He doesn’t call, of course. But I find myself thinking over the next few days not of Rokky and Mohit and their bikini daywalkers but Butirub. The mention of vampires had drawn it out of my mouth so smoothly, but my memories of Butirub had always been complicated.
Butirub. A wonder balm invented by the great Bengali chemist Sharandindu Mitter, one of the mad scientists Calcutta used to produce with surprising regularity at the end of the 19th century when it was the capital of British India and the second city of the Empire. Mitter was an assistant of the legendary scientist Jagadishchandra Bose, the actual inventor of the radio, and was even present on the day Bose used microwaves and gunpowder to ring a bell at a distance in Calcutta Town Hall. Mitter helped Bose test his crescograph, which was something to do with plants, I’ll have to look it up, but bottom line is Mitter was into science and herbs and had access to money thanks to some eccentric religious-nut zamindar whose name I’ve also forgotten. In the 1890s, he launched Butirub, which he claimed was a miracle cure, a balm made from the Sanjivani Buti herbs that the monkey god Hanuman had used to cure his master Ram’s brother Laxman when Laxman had been taken out by the very badass son of the rakshas king Ravan in the Ramayan. But this isn’t that story. So. Butirub origins.
Like every other possibly fraudulent religion-linked miracle cure in India, it had sold like crazy, making Mitter a fortune. He’d fought with both the zamindar patron and Bose and built his business empire with great speed. And lost it soon after because his son, in classic Calcutta useless-heir way, had been terrible at running the business, and Butirub had been demolished in the marketplace by the boric-acid-zinc-oxide-lanoline elixir named Boroline, which became so much a part of Bengali culture that it’s still used a century later. Many Bengalis believe in Boroline so strongly they’d try it as a cure to a guillotine.
None of this is common knowledge: most of Indian history has been abandoned except the few bits of it that get rewritten so vigorously and so regularly they make American comics-universe retcons look half-hearted. I know next to nothing about Calcutta, the city I was born in, or Mumbai, where I’ve lived all my adult life, and I know Mitter’s story only because his great-great-granddaughter Tarini went to college with me, was spiky and cruel and hilarious and beautiful and was for a brief and life-altering three years my girlfriend.
She’d told me the story of her ancestor one steamy afternoon after I’d chanced upon an old box containing crumbling papers with the formula to Butirub in an ancient teak cupboard in her crumbling north Kolkata home. I’d been rooting around for condoms and so hadn’t really been in the mood for ancient documents at the time because Tarini had been in bed next to the cupboard, naked and laughing and glistening impatiently under a creaking fan. But after we were done and she’d rolled away and stretched out to let the breeze cool her and looked at me with her huge, shiny eyes because she got very vulnerable after sex and liked to hear me tell her I loved her, I’d asked her what Butirub was and watched her feelings for me fade away a little bit more.
I’d been disappointed to learn that Tarini wasn’t secretly immensely wealthy, that the Butirub fortune was long gone, and the only thing Saradindu might have left her is a family tradition of mental illness—apparently, the inventor had gone completely batty in his later years, raving about vampires working for the British Raj stalking him, coming for his magical herbs, about the endodermis of the world being cracked beyond repair. He’d insisted that his children change their names and go into hiding and never mention him or the Butirub formula ever again, but he’d given them a copy of the formula each to avenge his approaching death. Poor fellow had died by suicide not long after this: Tarini’s voice had shaken as she told this bit.
I’d loved the story, and I’d written it out and gotten it published in the college magazine. It wasn’t online or anything and no one read the magazine, but Tarini had been furious when I’d showed her the story, even though I’d changed the names (except Butirub, which was too juicy to not use). She’d said that it was private family history. And I had no right to attach myself to it, like a vampire, and feed on her life and her story for my own thing. I’d liked the idea of myself as a writer-vampire, bloated on the stories of people more interesting than myself, but I’d been less enthusiastic when Tarini broke up with me and announced her intention to go off to the US to do a masters, and never come back.
We’d had a truly epic fight. She’d said I was too selfish, lacking in empathy, obsessed with my own wants and ambitions. I was shallow, not concerned about improving society, helping the less fortunate, making the world a better place in some real way. All correct, but I’d tried to explain that I just thought my only shot at making the world different, better, was through my art, that if I ever found the right moment to do anything really important, change the world in any way, I would sink my fangs and claws into it, and that if she’d just believe in me a little bit, we could make it work. Besides, the world was doing okay! Our country was a rapidly evolving, globalising, complex, diverse democracy, plus an economic powerhouse destined to become a superpower, and it was time for people like us to dream and do things that previous generations couldn’t. My parents couldn’t have dreamed of doing jobs they liked: thanks to their efforts, I could dream of being a writer, and I owed it to them to try.
But she’d had a problem with that as well: she didn’t want me to even try to be a writer. Writing, especially fiction wasn’t a relevant profession in today’s world. She liked men of action, daring, who lived life instead of observing it. She’d said all this New India global superpower in waiting bullshit was just propaganda, and I was a fool to believe in it: the country had always been and would always be a nightmare.
Anyway, we’d disagreed about a whole range of things, and it’s not like she’s saving the world at all: I sometimes go to look at her Instagram and she seems to spend most of her time lounging around in LA pools with friends just a little less gorgeous than her, or in shiny saris to weddings and strange American-Bengali Rabindrasangeet gatherings being Authentic and Cultured. I got used to living without her years ago, have had longer relationships since, and don’t secretly yearn to get back with her at all, though I still remember my rom-comy attempt to win her back: I’d rushed to the airport to try to stop her from leaving. This is why they don’t set romcoms in Kolkata traffic.
Let’s cut back to the slightly less distant past: Rokky and Mohit make their bikini vampire movie about three years after our meeting. Audience apathy stakes it through the heart: the film releases and disappears almost immediately into the night. I appreciate the numerologist-influenced name, Dracoola: Party Vampirrre, but I have films and comics coming out and fifteen ongoing work crises to handle and don’t even have time to watch it or feel bad about it: it doesn’t make my top 20 list of bad Bollywood experiences. Even at that point, I’d written entire screenplays without pay, been dropped from the credits because the director of a thing wanted to Kickstart his girlfriend’s IMDB page, been yelled at in public by absolute idiots for mistakes I’d had nothing to do with. I’d lost count of how many things I’d worked on. Every writer in Bollywood carries these scars, and I was doing well enough. I’d managed to get some work produced without pledging servitude to any of the cliques or camps, and without having to face either the creepy behaviour the women I knew had to deal with or the everyday harassment borne by Muslim or exploited-caste acquaintances both at work and in things like finding a place to rent. My old friends envied me for the life they imagined I had, knee-deep in hot women and drugs and, I don’t know, yachts.
I never bothered to correct them, of course: what was the point? We’d already reached the years when projecting success and popularity on social media while living a fairly mediocre and isolated life was quite normal. I had no online presence by then, which was quite common in Bollywood, which functions in tight circles of clan allegiances and privacy circles. I’d had to kill my old blog, the one that got me into the industry in the first place because a sacrifice was necessary to placate the many powers I’d pissed off and now worked for. If I ran into people who asked me what was going on I’d say vague things about non-disclosure arrangements and contracts. But I was selling work, and I was still able to turn down, as the years passed, invitations to write Mahabharat or Ramayan meet Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Game of Thrones, then the Star Wars sequels. It became a bit of a joke in the circuit—Deepan has a problem with the Hindu epics. I don’t, I really don’t, as I had to explain a hundred times. A+ epics, the East loves them, the West is curious about them, we seem to define ourselves by them, by their multiplicity and diversity in good times, their violence and rigidity in bad. It’s just that the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, however great, however immortal, are so popular among the audience and culture police that they’ve defined the borders of our imagination and over the years they’ve eaten their own offspring, their hundreds of fascinating interpretations, and I don’t want to spend my life working on their millionth conformist monoculture retelling. I want to make something new, not be yet another parasite.
Another decade passes. The work stays fun, the process stays exhausting. The corporate studio wave that ate into the family/clan wave now gives way to the streaming wave. Suddenly my ‘global type’ storytelling is an asset, not an obstacle, though still completely irrelevant to the behemoths of mass culture. I see the industry more clearly now, observe each ripple of change, move in swiftly and do whatever’s possible before the same old faces and values take control of every new wave and wrestle things back to the way they’ve always been. Through all of this, the country only gets worse, like Tarini had said it would. I regret not leaving when I could have: I could have found a way, somehow, to follow her to the US, maybe I’d be in those pools with her now. I think of the conversation we had at the airport, before she left, and how it changed my life. I don’t know if she’s stayed true to the plan we made, but I certainly have. I’ve given up so much in the process: her, for a start.
I don’t know how much I’ve changed myself, in the years that have passed. Most of the people I started out with have turned from prey into predator, many have run out of creative fire and now occupy management positions in development hell. I think I’ve managed to stay a person, and have gained, in whatever nebulous sense, market value. As for my other dreams, my secret visions about changing the world, they’ll probably never come true, but they’re around somewhere, in some long-unopened folder in my mind.
So as a Present Day caption floats across my mind’s eye and my phone beeps, and I see a message from someone claiming to be the assistant of AK, who’s easily among Bollywood’s top three powerful producers, on it, I’m surprised, but not stunned. I am invited to a meeting with AK, a privilege usually reserved only for top stars and directors: the man is a famous recluse, absent from all celebrity parties, weddings, photos. A meeting with AK is not an experience even the most successful actors or directors I know have had. I’ve heard bizarre stories third-hand. But you hear those about everyone. It’s the kind of message that could be life-changing, and though I stay calm, something tells me it will be for me. It’s what I’ve been waiting for all these years.
First, I send a message of my own, one I never thought I would have to. I write to Tarini to her secret email, telling her about this invitation, and that it might be what we’ve been waiting for.
Then I accept the meeting with gratitude and asked what it’s about: in response, the minion tells me a time and date and that a car will be sent to my flat to pick me up. I say I’m out of town for another week but will check in when I’m back: they say they know I’m in the city. So I insist that I need a week to gather all my pitches together because I want to make the best possible impression. They accept.
In these situations directors usually reach out to their richest friends and ask to borrow their cars: the bigger your car, the higher the budget of the film you get to make. Writers don’t have these problems: they don’t get to do meetings at this level and are expected to be starry-eyed suckers. AK has my address and knows I’m in town, it seems. My own mother has to ask every time she couriers me anything.
I check with everyone I know, but nobody can tell me where AK lives: he has many large houses all over town, but is never in them.
The day arrives, and so does the car, an SUV the size of a helicopter containing a driver who could have been immediately cast as a high-end assassin who brought his own weapons and suit. We drive north and east, outside Mumbai, beyond the suburban studio neighbourhoods. Two hours later, we leave the highway, bounce around a muddy track by an endless tall wall until we swerve drive through a massive gate, then through a little forest, past a couple of broken buildings, a village with a pond where goats and geese frolic but I can’t see any people, and then to a mansion that looks like Buckingham Palace on the outside but is like a futuristic supervillain’s lair on the inside, metal and stone and black statues, cones and cylinders and spheres that look vaguely like stick figures of athletes. I don’t know what I should be feeling as I’m led through a sequence of halls into a lift, and then to a large all-white room that’s empty except for two black chairs, face to face about twelve feet apart. No windows, an air-conditioning vent on the ceiling pumping in ice-cold air. No one offers me coffee. After all this buildup, I need to get some sort of Illuminati invitation: even a massive film deal would be a letdown.
I sit in one of the chairs, wondering how long he’s going to make me wait to demonstrate how busy and important he is: the standard Bollywood time is twenty minutes, but the more power-mad producers sometimes decide to break writers with six-hour lobby sentences, and I can’t even walk away from this room like I sometimes do in the city.
AK enters two minutes later, clad in a very ordinary beige shirt, black trousers, and disappointingly tattered open sandals. The few pictures I’d managed to find online were from a decade ago but he looks the same, which is extraordinarily young-looking for someone who’s been producing megahits since the 90s, but he’s probably rich enough to buy immortality. AK is tall, very fair, thick eyebrows, jet-black hair. He has a pleasant, angular face and a vague but kind air, like an uncle you don’t see too often who travels a lot and has brought you the same Ferrero Rocher chocolates for the last three decades. So much more normcore than anything I was imagining, which was somewhere between a full-fledged Vlad the Impaler outfit or some kind of Punjabi rap MC version in a velvet tiger-pattern tracksuit and lots of gold chains.
I shiver, but only from the cold, as he floats in through the door, not bothering to take strides. I’m ready for this. I wish I could have, at this point, even considered pulling a stake out of my ass and stabbing him through the heart with it, but I never was an action hero and in any case, the guards had felt me up thoroughly on the way in.
‘You’re the writer of the beach vampire movie,’ he says, cutting past the small talk.
‘No,’ I say. ‘Aren’t you even going to pretend not to be a vampire? I’d like to pretend you’re not one.’
‘Don’t ramble, child. The idea for Rokky’s film, then. It came from you.’
‘No,’ I say.
‘In the film, they used that scammer yogi’s fraud Ayurvedic healing ointment. He promised them money for in-film ads, but didn’t pay.’
I shrug. ‘Never saw the film.’
AK smiles: no fangs. I remember to breathe.
‘I wish I hadn’t seen it either,’ he says. ‘It was torture. I only saw it last month to indulge dear Xavita, because it came to Netflix in a bulk deal. But an Indian daywalker vampire movie … how could I resist? And though it was called something else, when I saw it I knew someone at its inception was aware of Butirub.’
I flinch, despite myself. The fear’s beginning to sink in only now. No one has any idea how many people this man has killed.
‘I have nothing to do with the film,’ I say.
‘Do you know, Rokky had forgotten all about Butirub? The director had put it down as a song title but didn’t remember where it came from, even when I asked vigorously. But Rokky used to secretly record all his meetings, to protect himself from allegations of sexual harassment, he said. Strange, considering he had another hidden camera in the hideous bedroom next door to make secret sex tapes.’
I don’t know what to say. It’s a lot. I find I’m really not prepared for this at all.
‘That film really seems cursed,’ AK continues. ‘So many of the cast and crew disappeared. But people in this industry vanish all the time, don’t they? And no one notices.’
‘Did you—did you kill them?’ I ask.
‘Me? What do you think? I turned up at their windows in bat form and tricked them into letting me in?’ AK giggles and floats upwards, hovering two feet above the ground. He flaps his arms and giggles again and drops into the chair.
‘I saw you try to get Butirub into that film on video,’ he says. ‘And then I had my people look up everything you’ve ever done, and found that you’ve found ways to insert Butirub into seven films and two streaming shows over the last fifteen years, though very few of them even credit you as a writer. Admirable persistence, I have to say, in a challenging industry.’
He’s right. And it’s nice to finally feel seen.
Okay, flashback time.
I reach the airport, despite traffic and rain, and lurk outside till Tarini shows up, complete with huge suitcases and a puzzled father. I’m a mess: I start sobbing as soon as I see her and beg her to give me a few minutes to change her mind.
‘I’m sorry, but I love you. And I’m not shallow,’ I say. ‘I’m not selfish. I need to prove that to you. Tell me how.’
‘I believe you,’ she says. ‘But this isn’t the time, Deepan. Go home. We’ll talk later. We have the rest of our lives.’
I consider making more of a fool of myself, but people are starting to give us weird looks, and her father’s building up towards yelling. It starts raining harder, and it doesn’t help, I know it makes my head look like a cabbage.
Tarini steps up to me and kisses me, in full public view, and our slowly gathering audience gasps.
‘I love you, too,’ she says. ‘I can’t be with you now because you broke a rule, and I have to leave. But one day … look, if you tell me, here and now, that you want to be part of something bigger than yourself, bigger than anything you’ve ever thought about, then there’s something you can do for me.’
‘It will mean sacrifice. It will mean danger. It could even mean death. So I can’t ask you.’
I almost make a promise, but this is beginning to sound like Tarini’s in some sort of terrorist cult. Which is beyond ridiculous.
‘If you’re in danger, I want to help,’ I say.
‘Good,’ she says. ‘Now go away. I have a plane to catch.’
‘Putting mentions of Butirub in shows and films doomed to failure and obscurity is a remarkably inefficient way of attracting the attention of some of the busiest people in the world,’ the vampire says. ‘But, of course, you had no idea who you were looking for.’
‘Right? It’s not like I could put out targeted ads or build a list of suspects from the 1890s. There are many powerful people in the world who are never seen at all,’ I say. ‘Half of elderly Bollywood, for a start. I suppose many of them could be vampires, but it was hard to investigate.’
‘Understandable. I assume the Mitter family could not find anyone else willing to bear the risk, and you proved quite bad at building yourself to a position of prominence.’
Harsh, but fair. I clear my throat.
‘The Mitter family is long gone,’ I say. ‘I represent the current owners of the Butirub wonder balm. I am here only as a messenger and present no danger to you.’
AK snorts. ‘Yes, I did not think you were an assassin,’ he says. ‘Well, you have my attention. What is your message?’
‘Am I speaking to the vampire responsible for the death of Sharadindu Mitter, and everything that happened to his family afterwards?’
AK shrugs. ‘Maybe,’ he says. ‘It has been many years since a Mitter tried to kill one of us. I look forward to discovering whatever inept trap this is.’
‘It’s not a trap, it’s a negotiation,’ I say. ‘It has been many years, as you say since the Mitters changed their names and went into hiding to escape you. And yes, they wanted revenge, but I suppose it became less important to each generation and now they no longer control the remaining supplies of the herbs required to make Butirub or the formula to build the balm itself.’
‘Oh, we have the formula,’ AK says. ‘But we are interested in a supply of the herb.’
‘And I am here to offer a pragmatic solution that will give you access to the Sanjivani Buti without putting my employers at risk. They have no interest in a feud with vampires and don’t have the resources to carry one out in the first place. So I come in peace.’
‘I am going to reveal to you the location of a small bottle of Butirub, which has been sent to Mumbai. You will no doubt test it, see that it lets you walk in daylight, and use it for as long as it lasts.’
AK’s smile is gone: for a moment, I see fangs flash out of his mouth, and then retract.
‘Is this an attempt to poison me?’
‘Not at all. But don’t take my word for it: test it yourself.’
‘I will. And what do the Mitter descendants, or whatever you want to call them, want in return? How much?’
‘They want a better world.’
‘Meaning, there is a list of people they think the world would be better off without. And removing them would ensure a steady supply of Butirub for you.’
‘Who are these people?’
I reel off a list of names. I’d spent some time building it: mostly regional mass murderers and oligarchs for the first batch.
AK looks genuinely amused.
‘Social justice warriors,’ he murmurs. ‘Oh, this is tragic.’
‘I’m aware some of these people might be friends of yours, or perhaps vampires themselves,’ I say. ‘And, of course, we couldn’t expect you to murder your friends. But if there are any people here that you wouldn’t mind … disappearing, that would be great. We know you get along just fine without Butirub. But clearly, you’d enjoy being out in the sun more as well. So it’s really up to you.’
‘I see,’ AK says. ‘This is … acceptable. But now that the Mitters have my address, am I really supposed to believe there will be no attempt at revenge?’
‘You have many houses and an army of guards … and maybe half the government in your pocket?’
‘And I would really like to stay alive. If you kill me, the Butirub gets destroyed, by the way. Likewise, if you find any of the places where it’s hidden or kill anyone else who knows about it.’
AK sits in silence for a while, nodding to himself and muttering.
‘I will not be controlled by humans,’ he says. ‘To be used as an attack dog like this … it is insulting.’
‘No one’s controlling you at all. It’s just a pitch, a flexible arrangement. And you’d be doing a lot to improve the world, and you do live in the world, you know. Look at the people you’d be killing! Think of it as something between doing social work and playing Pokemon Go and all that nice sun, as well.’
‘The names are tempting, yes. Some are former friends who have broken the terms of our agreements as humans allowed too much power often do. So many of the last century’s promises have been broken. Perhaps it is time for things to change.’
‘There you go! Who should I give the location of your first Butirub batch?’
He sighs. ‘Very well. It is acceptable.’
‘But I am, after all, a producer, and you did say it was a negotiation. I can’t simply accept all your terms.’
‘What do you propose?’
He hovers towards me. ‘What’s in this for you, writer? You are a creature of the shadows yourself, likely to die in the light. Why do you put yourself at risk? You must know you can never tell this story. You must know you’re being used by the Mitters as a very expendable pawn.’
‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ I say. ‘Love?’
AK smiles. ‘I see. I suppose that is the only possible explanation. In my own way, I am happy to see love win, then.’
‘You’re welcome. Look up.’
I look up and scream an instant later as I feel his fangs in my throat. He drinks from me, and I feel so much: a burst of colour in my eyes, a sense of utter timelessness, a swirl of indescribable, terrifying pleasure, and when he lets go and I fall to the floor, dizzy, I’m embarrassed to find I’ve managed to come as well. There’s a throbbing in my throat and my head feels like a stone.
‘Why?’ I moan.
‘Consider it a contract,’ he says. ‘You may become my familiar. You are still human, but now you are mine, body and soul, and if you serve me well, I will make you a vampire one day. You will want nothing else more than to please me. You will gather for me all the Butirub in the world and find me a way to grow more myself. You will find a way to betray and destroy the Mitters for daring to challenge me.’
I lie on the floor, sobbing, ashamed of myself for still being vaguely aroused. But I pull myself together eventually and even sit up. Call this a contract? Work now, reward later, impossible job, credit on a whim, no IP?
‘Yes, master,’ I say. He nods, approving.
‘Now you will lead me to the first shipment.’
I’m still me. For now. I can still win this. Maybe. I can still have Tarini. One day. He’ll still have to kill the world’s worst people. I think.
What if I could get him to turn me into a vampire?
I can see it clearly now. It’s Bollywood. You adapt as you go.
‘Will we go in your car, AK, sir?’ I ask, in my best minion voice.
‘Then can I pitch you a great idea? I think it could be a superhit.’
‘If you must.’
‘What if we made the Ramayan,’ I say, ‘But like Korean shows?’
He looks at me with something approaching interest. ‘Tell me more,’ he says.
But wait, there's more to read!
when I was fifteen my younger brother slapped me hard in the face to prove to us both that he was the stronger faster meaner