In the bed, like every day, under an unceremonious compulsion, Mr. Biswas began to count.
It was by 137 he had to stop. Mrs. Biswas opened her eyes to see Mr. Biswas was crying.
Her husband was a sensitive fellow, she knew. Who had written a love poem on her last birthday and bought her The Selected Poems by Jibanananda Das, an old Bengali poet. She didn’t care to read the book but was thrilled to find her name on the second blank page.
“In the lotus hands of darling Nirmala” handwritten in cursive by the husband and that was enough for her.
“What happened? What happened?” she asked Mr. Biswas with furrowed brows. The hollow of her eyes had sunken further in mild anxiety. The loose end of her sari was spread across the Mickey Mouse bed cover.
“I was smart once, Nirmala. My IQ was 137, once.” Mr. Biswas said, crying.
Mrs. Biswas got up in the bed, coaxed her unruly hair back with her fingers and sighed.
It was an old story fashioned by her husband, but an every day one. That when Mr. Biswas was young, he was a brilliant student; particularly good in mathematics and geography; as much as when a psychologist from Kolkata had visited the school, he had found him in possession of an abnormally high IQ, higher than everyone in the class.
That only should have settled his future, ensuring him a rewarding life. The unbridled enthusiasm in the teachers’ room at the event and the extra affection that had been showered upon him aftermath were tremendous. So much so that Mr. Biswas would end up being a private tutor of English, in this small sub-divisional town, for a small monthly sum, was nobody’s prediction.
The meanhearted among the relatives who had followed Mr. Biswas’s career path eagerly went as far as calling it a psychological disaster.
Mr. Biswas, himself, believed the psychologist though. He had believed in his lucid explanation of the esoteric theories, his seemingly strict science. Moreover, he still felt a great surge of emotion just below the rib cage that sometimes felt like a violent thud of a hammer that he fondly named inspiration that called to wake him up time to time.
Those moments were magical. The day then would suddenly seem colourful and cheery. Every town folk would seem capable and overtly friendly. The town itself would look like preparing for Diwali. Even the unkempt shrubs at the front garden would seem at ease and in wait for a benevolent sun.
Those moments didn’t last. He would wake up in the morning to hear the old mother mumbling- pungent curses- for him not buying her a tout medicine for running stomach: for receiving a son’s brazen disobedience, instead of careful service by his dead father. His friends- acquiring permanent jobs- of peonship, teachership- by bribing, political canvassing- making Mr. Biswas feel incapable and jealous. The god-fearing wife (His marriage was well below his intellectual stature and lack of faith), with a slivered face and buxom legs applying Fair & Lovely to her skin before going to bed and coaxing him to join her; not with words but with a befuddling elbow nudge. The spell of the magic long broken, Mr. Biswas found an escape from the ignominy of hopelessness, by alienating and hating the world, especially her.
He had devised, in fact, a silent but elaborate torture. He had decided he would remain aloof when he entered her. It was a difficult plan for him to execute. Thinking about other unrelated topics during the intercourse, for example, geography- all the wonderful places in the world – invariably took him to pleasure. Pondering upon art took him to the memories of his favourite actresses; those imaginary faces of the movie starlets made him hurry up. Many trials and tribulations later, his old studious pride came to his rescue. He began to count his thrusts.
As the act progressed, he became more and more engulfed in a cloud of supremacy and, with every increase of the count imperiously separated from her.
That he broke down today was surprising, even to himself. The obvious emotional surrender to his wife made him violently distraught.
Mrs. Biswas could sense her husband and begged, “You were smart. You are smart. You will always be. No one can take that from you. But enough about yourself, now that you have a daughter, think about her.”
Mr. Biswas sneered, “Don’t talk about daughter. She is only like you. An idiot. Doesn’t even know the capital of Mongolia.”
Mrs. Biswas said, “But she passes her exams.”
“Everyone passes exams!” he said, in a fury.
Mrs. Biswas was obstinate. She said, “She passes her exams and she studies everyday. She tries and tries, but never complains. Probably she will go far because she doesn’t carry any of your burdens- ”
That made Mr. Biswas calm.
Mrs. Biswas- God knows how- making sense.
He said, “We will teach her English well, Nirmala. We will send her to Kolkata and thereafter to Norway- that’s in Europe if you don’t know- for higher studies. The education is free and they speak English there.”
The mood lifted, as the moments passed, and as he became more and more satisfied with the plan, Mr. Biswas strode upon Mrs. Biswas again, and penetrated her.
This time he chose not to count the thrusts, but instead, secretly submitted himself to the pleasure.
“Ripped my foot, ripped jeans my foot,’ Madhumita pounced. In a second she was upon Krishna, tickling, giggling, scratching his blue jeans with her vinyl nails, the manner of a slithery cat etched on her body. Ajay stood watching, laughing, gurgling, not even two feet away; his cheerful eyes unknowingly measuring the emotions between the colliding two. Best friends. We are best friends. He thought as he began to feel jealous.
The mock fight ended in minutes, leaving Krishna flabbergasted and Madhumita thereafter chose to go to the bathroom. That was the only time alone between those two men.
“What is the meaning of this?” Krishna asked.
“She loves you.” Ajay said.
“Really?” Krishna asked.
“Um-hum” Ajay nodded his head, rued.
“I don’t love her.” Krishna declared.
“I know.” Ajay said.
Probably Krishna didn’t hear him or didn’t care to stop.
“I just need some fashion tips, that’s all.” he said.
“I know.” Ajay said that again.
“I will go for Garima, you know. Any day. That’s decided.”
“I know. I know.” Ajay kept nodding.
“You know everything, wise man!” Krishna left the room making an ugly face and without waiting for any of them.
The memory of two female hands was still feeling up his legs; wiggling around and warmly coaxing his newly bought jeans.
Forty years later, as an old man, lying alone, Krishna would imagine and reimagine the scene again and again. He wore a lungi now, but in his old soul fancy he would imagine a shy tigress on heat had crawled upon his legs, her face glowing and keen in expectation. Before, of course, he would put his forbidding palm on her forehead stopping her sly advance- commandingly- and forcing her on his crotch in an uninhibited spectacle of dominance.
Penis in his hand, not horny yet, not hopeless yet, this thought would suddenly hit Krishna like an unknown trepidation. The almost forgotten memory of Garima was the witness- she died young; married but without children- that he couldn’t love her. But she was never spurned while wanting sex per se.
But an unattractive woman, restricted further in the garb of a friend if ever wished sex and was refused summarily by a man where would she hide her face?
There was no hope he would come today- Krishna thought to himself before rising up in the bed- yawning and stretching and resigning to another dull lonely day- while wishing for a moment to think something more extravagant to lift himself. Lifting his lungi around his saggy, hopeless legs he chose to visit the bathroom again.
Abe drew his knife. “Is he looking?”, the boy whispered.
“I hope so”, the father said.
2. Kindness at Zombie town
Blood trickling down. The old man lent his umbrella.
They don’t eat what they don’t see.
3. Long Journey
“Goodness needs no intent.’ The co-passenger said waving my purse at me.
‘Next time, I buy.”
Upon hearing Mary said, “John ain’t my son, Isaiah. You are. Come down…look after me.”
5. World Cruise
My penis envy was not apparent till I married a Filipino girl on a world cruise.
6. Gravity of a Romance
Without looking away from the apple, Issac said, “Could you wait, Kathy, till I solve this?”
7. Royal Affair
Kalpurnia sobbed, “Big breasts?”
“No, no”, Caesar said.
“No freaking way.”
8. Broken Roof
When Mt. Everest melted, Kalki was at Pamir. Water poured in to fill up the roof.
9. Laughing Matter
‘Haha,’ thought the mother hyena. One thing to kill the woman.
The baby would be another.
10. Sixteen and Counting
“What you counting?”
“Words in my novel.”
“Really? How far could you go?”
D’Qar bound, R2-D2 bleeped, ‘It’s not that I don’t feel regret. Just that regret repairs nothing.’
12. Dear Santa
When the children are asleep, I stay awake.
For my gift.
– A good father
13. A Poet’s Sexuality
‘A poet’s sexuality is a strange thing’: Neruda wrote in the morning and snored all night.
14. Time Pass
“Kiss me.’ the dragon nudged the princess. ‘There isn’t much to do till the prince arrives.”
15. Bad Dreams
Putting children asleep, Mrs. Goebbles had a terrible vision. That she had crept inside their dreams.
16. Blind Lane
One lane. One house. One tree. The tree jumps. The house giggles. The lane turns blind.
“What do you think about that ship?”, Gulu Rao asked. His eyes were so squeezed, in the coming darkness of dusk, I was afraid, his eye lenses would bend permanently and stretch forward to make a telescope. I forgave him. He had a penchant for asking inappropriate questions at a most inappropriate time. Like now. The Bay of Bengal was in front. The waves were savage and furious. The wet black crows on the beach were scavenging leftovers with such a sad concentration that it seemed that they were on a scholarly mission. Plastic wrappers. Coconut shells. Beer bottles. ‘Not eatable, this sir; not breakable, this sir; ugh what’s this? How the humans eat this?’
And the tired seagulls. Because it was at the end of the day and because they were presumably coming home; their wings were flapping in such a tired way, with such a slow wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e, wh-e-e-e sound that I was afraid that at any moment they would give up and flop on the ground and sleep on the sand, till they found strength to fly again. Then, there, everything around that great moving water and the surrounding blackness turned so sad and drawn out and mysterious that it seemed almost perfect to be there. Before, of course, Gulu Rao came up with that unnecessary ship question.
“O ma, O ma, hear what our Gulu says. Tell it to your class, Gulu, tell it again.” Tribeni Miss had been the epitome of encouragement. With a mischievous green brightening up her face.
I had already nodded my head to say that I had not wanted to.
“Gulu says,’ – Tribeni Miss couldn’t hold the suspense any longer and had taken the responsibility to announce it to the class herself, mischievous green turning into a full scale smile-pity in her beautiful face- ‘Ships are carried by tall demons on their heads. The demons who can breathe underwater and grow their legs as the depth of the water grows. Understand?”
A roar of laughter had erupted in the class. Everyone had laughed, even the boys who had not ever seen a ship. Who had not even seen a sea. Or a river or a steamer or a boat or anything. The boys whose approval yet I had dearly sought. The good looking boys. The boys from the well to do families. Nirjhar. Probal. Ananta. And Abhishek. Whose hand I had secretly wished to hold and whose cheeks I had secretly wished to kiss. Everyday. He laughed too.
“I think more of a naked man named Archimedes running down the street like a madman when I see ships floating in the water.”, Tribeni Miss had winked and giggled to the another benevolent roar of the nine year olds, who would somehow get a joke every time it had appeared before them.
“But, I will think of you, Abhi, I will think only of you’, I had muttered to myself, ‘Whenever I see a ship in the water.”
When I reached the beach, I was tense. Boddo Babu had told clearly, “Nilamadhab, paancha hazaar tanka. This night. Tumar target.” I was speechless. Collecting five thousand rupees as a fine from the beach at one evening was not a joke. The tourists were getting more and more well behaved, and the locals were not be touched, even if they were selling Tadi on the beach. Then whose father was going to come and hand me over five thousand rupees this night, tell me?
But that was not the main thing. I was tense because of my Devjani. You understand, I wanted to marry her. But her Nauna disagreed. He said, “You don’t earn enough.” Understood? He said, “You are not even a Habildar. You are not even permanent.” Understood? Horrible. So I told him that ‘I earn extra.’ But he cut me short and replied, “My Devjani is not any…” So I had to cut him even shorter and reply, “She is my Devjani too.” That made her Nauna so angry that he drove me out of his house.
Now, I didn’t see any other purpose in life other than roaming around the beach alone with a baton in my hand and my Devjani in my heart. And a rate card. In my head.
‘Caught with a beer bottle: one hundred rupees.
Caught kissing a girl: two hundred rupees.
Caught putting hand in a girl’s blouse: I would see how much I could extract; negotiable.’
But the only tourists I found on the beach were two men sitting near the water, one short and pockmarked and another tall and well dressed. No girls, no half filled beer bottles standing by. Were they so afraid to enjoy life that they had come to the beach only to stare at the water? Pelei Puo tourists! Did they anyway care about my target?
Then I saw the ship.
Glowing like a palace in the mid water. Bright light appearing from the windows after windows. Like a garland of pearls. The garland my Devjani could wear on our wedding night if only I would have some money. And assuming, I already had the money, I would have taken her on that ship and had our wedding then and there, and our flower bed, never to set foot on this wet and rotten beach again.
But then I was distracted by some strange movements ahead of me. The two men who sat in front staring at the sea had shuffled awkwardly. The tall one in one small motion had put his right fingers at the back of the neck of the short one and started caressing him. O-ho-ho-ho, Gandi Mara Sankara! They didn’t know what awaited them.
My phone rang. Devjani.
She poured even before I could speak, “Nauna has agreed Nilamadhab. He has told me, ‘If you love him so much, go ahead then. I will not stop you.’ Do you hear?”
I wanted to.
But the tall man now had cradled the short man with his right hand and picked up his cleft chin with his left hand to bring his mouth close to his lips. They were going to kiss! Like a husband and wife!
Devjani drove me on the phone. “Why don’t you say something? Aren’t you happy?”
Of course, I was happy. This behaviour was completely unacceptable, illegal in this country, a punishable offense. O-ho-ho-ho, my tonight’s target. In one quick swoop.
But the moment I walked towards them the ship went dark. It didn’t vanish. It just switched off its lights. I could hear the sound of the sea all around. And I could feel the movement of the water all around. The sudden splash of the salt water. Only the ship stood calm and far and nonchalant, moving slightly with the rhythm of the dark water. Like Panigrahi’s bhajan.
Devjani called, “Nilamadhab. Nilamadhab.”
Please understand, I was not a sentimental man. That I was not being impractical. I knew very well that my employment was still not permanent and I had to earn to live, to marry, to have children and to look after them. I had to do my duty. But I couldn’t help but foolishly remembered the blind Panigrahi singing bhajan at the courtyard of the temple that I had visited every evening as a little boy.
“ Jaga tar nath-a/
E prithibi tumoro/
Sobu prem tumoro/
Kete daya tumoro/
Mor bhakti tumoro he- ”
The Lord of the World, oh, the Lord of the World, this world is yours, the love is yours, so is all kindness and my devotion towards you.
I said, “O-ho-ho-ho, Devjani. I am happy. I am very happy. We are getting married. No?”
My world had turned. I turned around with it and began to run towards Devjani’s house, leaving behind the sea and the dark ship and two men with an improper behaviour on a unsupervised beach.
Tomorrow morning Boddo Babu would be surprised. He would ask how I could become so lazy, so incapable, so fruitless; not earning a single rupee at the evening’s round. Did I hate my Police friends? Did I not like my extra income? Had I planted a money tree at my veranda? I would keep quite and keep my head down for the whole time and let him scold me for… as long as he wished. Then when he would be silent and tired, I would fold my hands in front of him and say in my most polite voice, “It’s all God’s miracle, Das Babu. Because, whoever were there at the beach yesterday night, I couldn’t find fault in any of them.
Silly boy, as we meet, as I speak, as you stare at me, this old self, without comprehension, with disbelief and doubt, let me introduce myself as your ‘swaja’, I was born of you.
I was born of you, as you were born one score years ago, of your mother’s womb and grew, so I grew, swifter than you, to be old and bitter, brittle boned and crinkled skinned, having more means and a few extra titles attached to my name, dissatisfied and doubtful yet. Call me your wiser self, just a nomenclature, probably untrue. Otherwise, how do I impress upon a boy, a silly boy, who goes on with his life without an iota of comprehension and the burden of failures invariably intertwined with it? That you look and talk and dream silly, boy! In this world, cruel or otherwise, in this state of people, selfish or otherwise, you are really nothing. As you build nothing, create nothing, sell and buy nothing, without purpose, without gravity, being entirely dependent on the affection, money and positions of your parents, kind neighbors and relatives. Useless. That’s what you are. How do I tell you that I will prove myself useful for you?
I have travelled across multitudes of physical and extra-physical realms, piercing the space-time continuum, unproving the laws of Physics to warn you. And, if I may, steer you gently. Towards the right path. Before your concentration wavers, this fleeting dream breaks and you hearken me no more.
Stay away from death, boy. A ‘nobody’, after death, goes beyond the rhetoric and truly becomes nobody. Resist that. Learn swimming. Climbing. Clubbing, sawing, sowing, reaping, and starving. Learn free arm combat. Learn light arm combat. Learn heavy arm combat. Eat flesh daily and grow muscular. Eat minuscule poison daily and vary the poison. Hence, you know, the path to immortality is, but not without risk.
Embrace a tree, boy, today, now. Embrace that is green and blue and yellow around you. The flowers and the birds and the bees that go about with their ancient purposes yet seemed to exist solely for your own amusement. Bees sting. Still. They will be much gone when you are all grown up. People with fat belly and fatter purse will ask you to dream about concrete roads, dish TV and constant noise that comes from having high definition music stacks, mobile rings and honking SUVs. You are, my child, someday going to buy distraction as entertainment.
Stay away from distraction, boy. The chatter of foolish meanness will sound like the ramblings of ambition in the time of drip dozed love. No amount of Candy Crush Saga will bring you fulfillment that usually came after holding a pretty girl’s hand who drooped her eyes in shyness, kissing her, telling her not be afraid, since you were already there for her.
Embrace old theories, boy. Like Darwin’s and Pavlov’s and John von Neumann’s. If you don’t quite grasp, ask your father to explain them to you. In simple language, without the mathematics, but with the implications, what they really mean and how you can wield them to get unusual advantages in a society of self-serving men.
Stay away from the experts, boy, as much as you can, and the expert systems. Like the system that discovers merit and intelligence of a ten-year-old boy by asking two hundred multiple-choice questions. 10th Board, 12th Board, CAT, GRE, GMAT, and those sorts of nonsense. And the people who set them. This universe won’t ask you multiple-choice questions. Ever. Neither the HIV epidemic, nor the sudden earthquake nor the immortal cancerous cells. Your journey is and will be in an uncertain meaninglessness, in a wondrous vacuum, without the guidance of a map, without the knowledge of a destination harbor.
Embrace the uncertainty, boy. The not-knowingness. The people who love you will stop loving you soon, for reasons known only to them. And new people will come, to love you, in hordes, entirely for their own reasons, unknown to you. No love being worse than the other. And the fear and the anxiety of it will remain, any way, so will the hope and courage, in you, and the desperation to survive, to thrive and to go on no matter what.
And love. Oh, sweet love. That slow oozing pain at the left of your breast, the heavy heart thumping, the earth and the moon and the entire families of planets and stars revolving, around that strange sweet girl who was in a new dress and fantastic perfume, floating around your grand father’s old house, the grand father long dead; the cordial neighbor’s jolly grand daughter. That’s love. Not puppy love, not infatuation, not a teenybopper’s sporadic heart melt. That’s a clarion call to make love, to start a family, to be a father. It may not be legal now, but true. As the circle continues. As the circle will continue. With or without you. Till exists this silly human life.
Your eyes are fluttering, boy! Could you contemplate what I just have said? Would you commit them, pray, to the memory, to a plan, as a discipline, these jewel wisecracks, even if they are not so. Unlike the long verses of the great bearded poet, of your grandfather’s time and instead. Or, would you, fancy, stare into the naught believing this is naught but a dream, in a childish fervor or in a quasi-adult fantasy. Being plain silly. Hark, boy, this is true, now and for the all the time to come, from here to eternity, this life, will remain a wonderful futility. Thus, boy, it steals or so, eternally, the shame from your silliness.
Paltan came to whisper at Vishnu’s ear. Ari had come. Worry oozing from Paltan’s furrowed brow, Vishnu could see, could drip anytime into his malt whiskey. Yakkies! He pushed the glass away and kept it covered with his bloated palm. Paltan was an inferior man, an old bar manager, a wall fly, not worthy of any response, definitely not worthy of making Vishnu’s drink go salty with his scumbag sweat.
Vishnu remembered then, a long time ago, Pratima, Arihant’s wife, had pushed her four year old son aside, away from him like this, with her palm sheltering the boy’s tiny head. Like a funny cap. Like her palm would shield a .44mm Magnum fire. Like any one- with a dose of good intention- could. She had been, Vishnu thought with a sneer, a funny woman.
Now, Ari- Arihant- with the penchant for a drama and bloody ambush had appeared at the doorstep of this god forsaken, ugly bar at three in the morning- for what?
‘To have an ass fucking drink! Oh, yeah, yeah. The son of a bitch has finally realized. After seven freaking years. The bastard, the mother fucker, the dick head, has finally realized that he’s got no one. He has come here to make friends. Behen-chod!’
“Ha-ha-ha!” Vishnu gave out a belly laugh and slapped the table in a sudden splat that scared Paltan a little. Paltan twitched his thumb, but kept his head bowed as if in humble supplication, before a regal lord. Then he craned stealthily on his left to have a glimpse of the famed Colt Anaconda, usually tucked proudly behind Vishnu’s back. For reassurance. He couldn’t find any.
“Bhai, what do we do, Bhai? Tell me, Bhai?” Paltan crooned. The wall fly seemed to be on Vishnu’s side. Actually, he was on his owner’s side. But who gave a hoot about integrity in his line of business?
“How many men out there?” Vishnu asked. Nonchalantly.
“Don’t know, Bhai. Bahadur came inside and said, ‘Ari-Bhai is waiting outside for Vishnu-Bhai. Please send him out quickly.’”
“It’s dark outside. Let it be morning first. We will see then.”
“He has given only one minute of time, Bhai.”
“Ari-Bhai.” Paltan’s face reddened at the faux-pas. He dearly hoped Vishnu would be a lesser man without his pet Anaconda.
Vishnu bored into him with a cold stare and felt the violence pent up in his belly, in his breast, just below his throat, “Let it be morning first. We will see then.”
A volley of bullets came splitting the glass windows, piercing the dirty draperies, spattering the glass, wood chunks and plastics utensils. Making the whole room noisy and unruly- completely out of control- liquor and water splattering against the roof, iron splinters scattering across the room in search of soft flesh.
“I will count to three, Vishnu,’ a hoarse voice shouted from the outside darkness, ‘get out, else, you will be responsible for the death of everyone.”
Then almost without a pause, he called, “One!”
“Harami, saala, brought an automatic rifle to a baraat.” Vishnu muttered under his breath. He was on the floor, lying beside Paltan who was red in the head: could be a gun shot, or an impact wound.
To think about it: Vishnu and Arihant had long been in a fickle business. The channel of communication between them had always been frail, ambiguous, often broken. Backstabbing and betrayal had occurred in their trade, as they had come to know, as frequently as strangers becoming friends over liquors and cheap dancing girls. It had not been Arihant’s fault to become Vishnu’s partner- in crime. It had not surely been Vishnu’s fault to suspect Arihant had betrayed him to the Meenar gang.
When Vishnu had decided to take care of Arihant, he had not been happy. Things would turn messy; he would lose a partner, most probably his place in the gang. But then, this stupid broad, Pratima, would pretend she could stop a .44 Magnum bullet. Yedi thi, saali, yedi.
It was seven years ago. Arihant had disappeared. Vishnu had to draw him out. He camped himself with three more guys at Arihant’s two room house with his pet Anaconda, hoping someday or sometime, Ari would appear. The coward had not. Ari’s four year old boy who had been always friendly to him couldn’t have understood the bearing Vishnu uncle had brought with himself. The mother had been most uncooperative. Enough to test Vishnu’s worn thin patience.
“Uska namak khaya hai, tu, Vishnu. Sharam nahi aati, namak haraam!” the woman had shrieked.
“Uska khaya, uske beta ka to nahi?” Vishnu had rubbed the cold muzzle against the puffed cheek of the boy, greening. What had he supposed to do? Explain the futility of the indebtedness to the fucking broad?
The mother had pushed the boy aside while keeping her palm on his head as if the boy had been wearing a ridiculous crown.
“Goli kya haat se rukayegi tu?”
“Uske diye banduk se uske beta ko hi marega tu? Haan? Vishnu?”
Vishnu. Vishnu. Vishnu. The pathetic high pitch calling of his name would amuse him. He would figure, quite cleverly, it had been the helpless woman’s appeal to his goodness. Her begging. It would be futile.
He would pinch her cheek and said, “Bol, bol, aur ek baar bol, naam kya hai mera?”
The boy would jump and clap his hand and say, “Vishnu!”
“Nahi,’ Vishnu would lay his Anaconda carefully on the kitchen platform and take out a hammer from an open overhead cabinet.
‘Gadadhar. Gadadhar naam hai mera.”
He would crack open the boy’s skull.
“Vishnu ka hi aur ek naam samjho.”
Seven years later, Vishnu couldn’t remember how many nights he dreamt of this moment, when finally Ari and he would meet, for the face off, for their final ‘faisala‘. ‘Darpuk, saala, brings an automatic to a baraat.’
Look at Vishnu now. He had pawned his Colt revolver this morning, for fifteen thousand rupees. Why not? Even the most virginal bride wouldn’t wait for her absent groom after seven years.
He stood up slowly and kicked the still body of Paltan, just to stir him up. Then he staggered across the floor, stepping over the debris, following the barely seen red cement path in a lucky unbroken green light. Two more guys were lying on the floor. Three guys were crouching in the corner.
Vishnu reached the kitchen to find the cook and the waiters hiding there. He walked all the way up to the coal pile that was heaped beside the tandur oven. He found his weapon there.
“Three!” the hoarse voice called up outside.
A hiding waiter came running to stop Vishnu. “Mat jao, Vishnu-Bhai. Woh log aap ko maar da-lenge.” Vishnu laughed hoarsely and pushed the man aside so hard he fell crashing on the floor.
Was it the first time someone tried to kill Vishnu? Was it? Was it not, he, Vishnu, still alive? And, was it not everyone he had decided to kill, had died?
He bent his head to accommodate the meager height of the bar door and stood erect being just outside of it looking at the unknown darkness, a cold coal hammer shining in his hand.
At the end the boy was sobbing like a girl and the girl couldn’t care less, like a boy. After the coffee was over, and Whitney Houston sang, “And I-hi-hi-hi, hi-hi-hi will all-waysss love you-hu-hu, hu-hu.” Twice! If it could have waited a little more, the solemn pious gang, she would have obliged the patrons with another encore soon.
Audibly, the coffee shop didn’t own many tracks and the manager worried so much about the billing he lacked variety in musical taste. The din and the hustle bustle that drowned sorrows and day to day loneliness floated like pink heart shaped balloons, provided solace when the music was not sufficient.
Even then, everything would turn pleasantly for better. The boy and the girl, desperately in love, would exchange cards showing a checkered capped, bare breasted boy toddler kissing a willing and rosy girl toddler dressed in a frilly frock. They would exchange gifts wrapped in red and golden paper and say ‘I love you’ to each other. The sound of that in that crowded place would instantly turn into noise.
‘What did you say?’
‘You know what I said.’ The girl blushed.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You know-o.’ The girl blushed again.
‘I don’t know, I swear.’ The boy was serious like hell.
‘I said what you said.’
‘What did I say?’
It went on. Not a terribly interesting piece of conversation. If you were a little practical- say, ‘you do what you got to do’ kind of practical- you would see it was meaningless. Get a room, boy. Take her home. You could barely stop yourself hollering across the coffee shop.
Home? The boy was from Akola. A Banjara boy. He stayed in the city with five other clueless, ‘all dying to have a girl friend’ friends in a one BHK. A trainee graphic designer. There was obviously no money. There was, of course, no room.
How about the girl? Why, hadn’t she had one? Oh, she had. But, it belonged to her City Corporator father. Bolstered by the Maratha votes, he had amassed what one man generally wished to amass in a life time. Power, prestige, a BMW. Seven flats and row houses. And several farm houses. Ninety acres of land. Big property, nothing hers.
For those hapless lovers, there was nowhere to go, the noise of the coffee house being their privacy and the noise being the memory of their early disappointments.
It was not always like this. When the boy had come to the city, he had been alone. Unattached. Fearless. He had come here to make money, woo the city girls and leave his mark. As an artist. As we all knew the art conquered the world.
It was difficult to get interviews though. More difficult for him was to impress the interviewers. To be recruited permanently with a steady salary seemed then utterly impossible. When he was coaxing his mother at night on the phone-“Don’t worry, Aai, I will find a job soon.”- he was coaxing himself too. The mother was apprehensive and it was not because she was familiar with the city job market. The father was in debt. “Sahukar came again today, Bala. Your father hid in the jungle. We have nobody else to ask. Do something.” the mother said.
The best he could do was to get a trainee position with a minuscule stipend and impress a fellow trainee designer with his utter silence during the office hours and an inherent gloominess that came naturally to him.
“Look at us, sir-ji, talk sometimes.” the girl teased. The entire helplessness of him was a safe playground for her. The more he went into silence, the more she danced around it with a gleeful abundance, a good natured girl, having no pride in being a daughter of a rich and powerful man.
“But the money, how to find money? I shouldn’t be distracted.” the boy thought.
“What does he think? Does he think of me? What does he think of me?” the girl thought.
“If we get married, her father will give us enough money and the debt will be paid.” he thought again, wistfully. That made him smile. Made him a little bold, may be. That’s when he felt like falling for her.
“Will he ever raise voice upon me? No, he won’t. He is so nice. Can’t the world see how nice he is? We will be happy together.” the girl thought. She- what’s the phrase?- blissfully followed his suit.
Then those days of whirlwind romance, as whirlwindy it could be in a caste conscious city. Holding hands in the darkness of the movie house, touching legs below the restaurant tables, brushing the breasts against his back while he was driving her Scooty. The boy had to almost close his eyes.
Her breasts were so soft they felt like pigeons. How illegal it might be, the Banjaras still hunted pigeons. He wouldn’t hunt them though. He would protect them, look after them and make them his own.
And that lingering warm feeling, blood being shot everywhere in the body, the heart pumping extra fast. The boy could not look into her eyes. The girl winced at him and understood immediately. They were so in love, they were horny. One day, someday, they would get married, make love, have children- they were so made for each other. Today, regrettably, was not that day. So they waited till the coffee was over.
Then they heard the commotion. Did you hear the commotion?
You would hear it now. After the erudition.
After the liberalization, as the market opened up, the practice of American rituals in our country became extremely popular. Now, that was about to happen. Following (blindly?) the greatest civilization (!) in the world in itself is quite inspiring. But retaliation came surprisingly from some of the prominent political groups. Their leaders, not entirely against the market economy- a few of them benefitted immensely because of it- were worried, justifiably so, being the descendent of an ancient civilization, about the protection and the purity of the culture.
Let’s call them the solemn pious gang. Shall we? Today being the Valentine’s Day, they were untiringly hard at work.
If you had heard the commotion already that was they were climbing up the stairs, eager, passionate, dedicated to a cause. To the first floor, where the coffee house was located, where there was noise already, in which our boy and girl hid themselves from the world in a way only a romantic couple could.
“No, Dada, no!” the girl cried and rushed forward. The boy was still in a haze.
“Go home, Gauri, leave this to us.” the man in a white kurta pajama and a brown goatee gasped. Manhandling a twenty two year old boy would tire him later. Thank God, the boy immediately cowered on the floor and was cooperating. It also seemed like the man, the leader, was somehow known to the girl. A brother, probably.
In our country, it was the brothers’ responsibility, in absence of or in coordination with the fathers, to protect the dignity of the daughters of the house. This brother was dutiful. His gang of young men cordoned off, the best way they could, to protect the girl, without touching her, without looking at her secretly.
The man held the boy by his hair, shook his head a few times as if to give him clarity of thought. He didn’t bring the superiority of his caste into conversation. That would be tactless. He was there only to put a show to his naive sister, how unworthy, how cowardly this son of a pig was. Things would have been easier if he could prove the boy as he actually was: greedy. That generally broke a young lover’s heart. If he could only make the boy confess…
He kept shaking the boy’s head. ‘Tell, tell’, he was shouting, ‘why you hang around my sister? Why?’ He slapped. ‘Money?’. He slapped again. ‘Money? Bad motive? What? What?’
The boy could remember about his mother, despite the violence, and his father, a tenacious Sahukar and some unborn children he imagined not so long ago. A silent boy he was, a trapped child himself, he could see they would not come and help him now. He was evidently in danger at a far way place, without a known way out. He would lose many things hereafter, his job, this girl, her city, he would see if he could save his life. Before losing consciousness, he shook his head.
He shook his head.
He lowered his head, as if in shame, and shook again.
Would you blame a twenty two year old girl for believing what she saw that evening, that ashamed nod, after being thoroughly talked to by her mother, grand mother, girl friends and her affectionate father? That would be harsh. You see, she had loved him too.
So the boy was laid unconscious, completely in discretion of the coffee house management, littered with blood and cash that would barely cover his hospital cost.
Years later the boy would be woken up and asked for money again.
“I need money dad. It’s for the business. Trust me when I say this one will make money. Every dad helps. Every Dad. Can’t you understand? Too old for that? I will pay back. Charge interest if you wish… You don’t love me, pay some cash at least.” A young man with a hope of making big stomped his foot in front of the boy.
The boy who looked like an old man now looked at his son and hated him. For his insolence, for his carelessness. ‘If I would have been married to Gauri’, he thought, ‘I could have had a son like this. I would have hated him too.’
That brought him peace. Despite the onslaught of senility he could begin to understand that it didn’t matter who he loved, who he slept with, with whom he spent his entire life hoping for better things to come.
Tears came trickling to him. Nothing was nothing.
But, that was at the end.
In the beginning it was a love story.