Chiranth took shelter at a bus stop and waited for the rain to stop. It was pouring buckets and the city was throttled with cold wet chill. Half an hour passed, but the rain didn't stop. He waited a few more minutes, and when the clouds didn't part, he decided to walk in the rain. His cellphone rang again. He didn't pick up. He knew who it was, though.
He turned into the road and went up to the grocery store at the far end of the road. The store owner motioned him to come and take shelter. Chiranth smiled and waved at him and went around the store. He dashed through the torrential rain and the orange of the streetlights. About twenty yards from Swami's place he stepped into a half-a-feet deep pit and stumbled. He cursed as he took his leg out of the muddy water and noticed a tiny round object floating on the surface of the water. The rain drops were pricking the small pool of water, making the object bounce up and down. He bent down and picked it up. It was a 10-paisa coin.
He jogged the last of the distance and reached the gate. Swami's room was on the third floor. He ran up the stairs, his rubber slippers making an annoying splich-splach all along. Chiranth was about to knock on the door when the door opened.
'What took you so long?' Swami asked.
Chiranth wiped his face with his shirt sleeve and gave his friend a look.
'Never mind,' Swami said. 'Come in.'
Chiranth kicked off his slippers by the door and stepped inside. He went into the bathroom, took off his shirt and pants and tossed them in a red plastic basket. When he came out, Swami cried, 'You sick sicko, how many times have I told you not to walk around in your underwear in front of me!'
Chiranth went up to the bureau, opened it, rummaged through the heap of clothes, and took a towel, a pair of blue Bermuda shorts, and a yellow t-shirt. He toweled himself dry, tossed the towel back in the bureau, and closed the door. He wore Swami's t-shirt and shorts in silence and came and sat on the floor in front of Swami.
Swami creased his brows and stared at him.
'What?' Chiranth asked.
'Sorry to trouble you, Your Royal Anus. But could you please get up, get a newspaper, and spread it on the floor?'
‘Oh, right,’ Chiranth said, getting up. He went up to the table and came back with a newspaper. He sat on his haunches and spread the newspaper on the floor. ‘Anything else?’ he asked.
‘Nothing. Everything’s right here,’ Swami said, touching the bag on his lap.
Swami opened the bag and took out a bottle.
‘Jack Daniels?! Seriously?’
‘Yeah,’ Swami said, without looking at his friend, and went about his business. He took out two plastic glasses, two packs of chips, and placed them by the side of the bottle.
Chiranth opened the bottle and poured a copious amount for both. Swami kept the bag aside and picked up his glass. They were about to say cheers when the power went out. They looked up at the CFL lamp as if to confirm. It turned to a hazy green, lingered for a few seconds and died. Outside it was still raining and they sat inside, getting drenched in darkness. None of them spoke a word. It wasn’t in Swami’s nature to keep calm, but he kept mum, anyway.
‘Let’s drink,’ Chiranth said at last.
They touched their glasses and drank.
‘How much did it cost? The Scotch?’ Chiranth asked.
‘Five thousand,’ Swami said.
‘Didn’t know you were rich.’
‘I was saving for the occasion.’
Chiranth took his time before he answered, ‘The occasion that never came.’
‘Just drink, you pig.’
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
They drank in silence for a while. Chiranth took the bottle and poured each another round.
‘This is nice,’ Chiranth said. ‘Never tasted Scotch before.’
‘It is, isn’t it? Smooth as honey.’
‘Yes,’ Chiranth said as he opened the chips packet. Swami took a few slices and stuffed them into his mouth. The crunchy sound of chips mixed with the sound of pattering rain outside filled the room.
Swami tried to say something with his mouth full and spat a few crumbs of chips on Chiranth’s face. ‘Take it easy, you sick bastard. How many times have I told you not to speak with your mouth full!’
Swami munched, swallowed and took a draught from his glass, spilling a few drops on his shirt as he did. He said, ‘Manners, huh? Who’s here to judge me?’
‘Forget it. You were saying?’
‘Yes, yes. Remember that night when we got drunk and walked the streets, dancing to Satya Harishchandra’s song?’
‘Oh yes. It was nice sleeping in the police station for a change.’
Both broke into a hysterical laughter, Swami kicking the chips packets as he stretched his legs and leaned sideways.
‘Careful with the bottle, you idiot,’ Chiranth said, still laughing.
‘What was that Avi said when the police caught us? “Saar saar please saar. We have license saar. RC book, insurance, we have everything saar.”’
They laughed. Arms and legs stretched. Kicking chips packets. Spilling drinks. They were careful with the bottle, though.
Swami continued, ‘And when the police asked us what we did and where we stayed, he goes, “We do computer saar … oh … look at that sky, look at those stars. Isss this … heaven? I bet my dick it is. But what is a policeman doing here? Don’t you have enough people to trouble on earth? Oh … you have come searching for apsaras …? Go to Hebbal in Bangalore. After eleven in the night, all sorts of chicks will line up there by the side of the road … what are you staring at? You think you are Sai Kumar? Tell me his famous ‘Gaandu’ dialogue from Agni IPS then, let me … see …”’
Chiranth went into a fit of laughter, almost knocking over the bottle. That affected Swami and he cackled like a Hyena.
‘The inspector lost it then, remember?’ Chiranth said after sometime. ‘The next thing we know, Avi is lying on the floor, laughing for reasons known only to him. That was one hell of a slap, no?’
‘The inspector slapped him? Really?’
‘You don’t remember it?’
‘I’m not surprised. You two had had almost two quarters each. I was the only one who was quite sober.’
‘Oh god. It became worse when the inspector dragged us to the police station. That I remember.’
‘He started dancing in the cell, didn’t he? All Gangnam Style steps. The best part was he wasn’t singing the tunes or anything. Neither was there any music. It was a dead night and the police station was silent as a grave.’
Swami poured a small amount of whiskey into his glass and gulped it down. ‘Even the policemen started laughing.’
They grew silent for a while. Chiranth poured for himself and drank. ‘It was some birthday, after all,’ he said.
‘Whose birthday?’ Swami asked.
‘Avi’s, of course,’ Chiranth said.
‘It wasn’t his birthday, silly. He had got a promotion.’
‘No, no. It was his birthday.’
‘No, his birthday was on 27th March.’
‘Exactly. It was 27th March that day.’
‘You shitbag, we were celebrating his promotion.’
‘That was a month later. We rode to the new Airport that night. We were drunk again. We bought cupcakes in the Airport, had coffee, remember? Then Avi tried to flirt with that cute female security guard and we almost got into some serious trouble?’
‘Yes, yes, I remember. That was his birthday.’
‘What the hell is wrong with you, you shit-eating Monkey King? How could you forget?’
‘It’s you who is forgetting everything. You eat cake on your birthday. You drink when you have other things to celebrate. That’s the rule.’
‘Who made the rules? Your granny? We spent the night in the police station on his birthday and we rode to the Airport when he got promoted.’
‘You forget everything. You are an asshole,’ Swami almost screamed.
Chiranth said something but a rattling peal of thunder muffled his words. That shut them up for a while. Each poured himself another round and drank. Swami continued to munch chips once in a while. Chiranth drank in silence.
‘Hey, know what I found while coming?’ Chiranth said, reaching into his pocket.
‘What, you found your missing balls?’
‘Look here. A 10-paisa coin.’
Swami couldn’t see in the dark, but he felt the dull surface of the coin with his fingers. He tossed it back to Chiranth and drank without uttering a word.
‘Avi used to collect these, didn’t he?’ Chiranth said, pocketing the coin. ‘Coins, stamps, all sorts of stupid things. He even kept all those movie tickets and bus tickets. Said he was creating memories.’
Swami didn’t respond.
‘You listening?’ Chiranth said.
‘Then say some shit.’
They kept quiet for a while, without drinking, without munching chips, without moving a muscle. The rain continued to pour outside.
‘Funny how things change,’ Swami said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Ever wondered, if Avi hadn’t gone to that stupid antiques’ shop, none of it would have happened.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What I mean is,’ Swami said, his tone getting harsher with each word, ‘the tiniest things have the potential to change the course of one’s life.’
‘You are drunk.’
‘Of course I’m drunk, you rat fucker. But I know what I’m talking about. Him and his godforsaken hobbies! Who the hell collects coins these days? And which guy in his right mind goes to Cauvery Emporium? If only he hadn’t gone there, he would never have met that bitch, and none of it had happened.’
‘But he was happy for a couple of weeks,’ Chiranth said. ‘You can’t take that away from him.’
‘What’s wrong with you? A couple of weeks’ happiness was worth it? Really?’
Chiranth kept mum. Swami didn’t probe further. Silence continued to sing in the air, the sound of rain acting as an accompanying instrument.
‘I met my surprise today,’ Chiranth said after sometime.
‘That’s what he said to us when he returned from the antiques’ shop. “I met my surprise today.”’
‘Yes, that Ashcharya bitch. By the way, who names their kid Ashcharya, I say? Her parents must have been really surprised when she was born. “Hey, we wanted a boy or a girl, but look what we’ve got here. A bitch. We are incredibly surprised. So let’s name her Ashcharya.” And see how that worked out.’
Chiranth took his time before answering, not because he was weighing his words, but because the booze had slowed him down. He said, ‘It’s not her fault he fell for her.’
Unlike in Chiranth’s case, booze had the reverse effect on Swami. He was quick to retort, ‘Do you want me to punch you in the face?’
When Chiranth didn’t respond, Swami continued, ‘It was her fault. She misled him. She gave him all sorts of mixed signals. He felt trapped.’
‘Trapped?’ Chiranth managed to ask.
‘Yes. You know, when a boy tells a girl that he likes her and if the girl is not interested, the decent thing she can do is tell him she isn’t interested. That’s perfectly okay. Getting rejected is okay. But that’s not what she did. What she did was she didn’t let him get close; neither did she push him away. She kept him stranded in the middle and suffocated him. What she wanted was a back-up guy. That silly bastard never realized it.’
‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s sleep.’
‘You don’t have to talk. I will. You just listen. Besides, there’s still some booze left.’
‘I don’t want to listen to your shit either. I want to sleep.’
‘There is so much darkness in this world,’ Swami continued, as if he hadn’t heard Chiranth. ‘There is so much evil. But darkness is not a problem. A good amount of it should be there in the world. Lots of thrilling stories come out of it. So what you do, you observe it from a distance and have a good show. That is all. Don’t go near it or try to touch it. Else, it will touch you back. And when that happens, you are done. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Even if you try to stay away, it will come chasing you. All you have to do then is run. Wear a nice pair of shoes and run like a dog. You’ve got to have a good pair of shoes to run, you know. Like the ones I bought last summer, remember? I wanted to run that 10K marathon, remember? You do remember, right? Yes? Those Reebok shoes? Yes, those were a good pair. They were nice … You crazy son of a bitch! Why the hell do you want to talk about my shoes now? You tell me you want to sleep and start asking about my shoes …’
‘Only a few drops left in the bottle. You want?’ Chiranth asked.
‘Sure. Pour it down my glass already.’
Chiranth poured the last remaining whiskey into Swami’s glass. Swami gulped it down and said, ‘Mmmm. It’s nice, isn’t it? Smooth as honey.’
‘You already said that.’
‘That it’s smooth as honey.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘Good. We should drink this often. It’s classy. Know what I mean? The kind of booze that doesn’t make you a bastard after drinking. You don’t talk nonsense or anything. Just drink and go to sleep like a gentleman. Know what I mean?’
‘No, I don’t know.’
‘Avi always wanted to try Jack Daniels once. Kept postponing because it was too expensive. If he hadn’t run behind that bitch, spending money on movies and coffees and dinners, he would have had enough money to buy a truck load of booze. The loser never understood any of that. Said he was in love with her. Love, my ass.'
‘Easy there, Anand Swaminath K S.’
‘What are you full-naming me for?’
‘You should shut up now.’
‘No, you shut up.
‘Stop it, Swami.’
‘No, you stop.’
Chiranth threw his empty plastic glass on Swami’s face and almost shouted, ‘Stop it, you rabid dog’s shit. I don’t want to listen to any of it anymore, all right. So stop it. Just stop.’
Chiranth cut him short and continued, ‘Listen to me. Whatever happened was not her fault. It was all Avi’s fault. He should have been careful. Besides, we were there with him every step of the way. He knew that, too; yet he screwed up. The sooner you understand this, the better. Sometimes people hurt us, and sometimes we hurt others. But you don’t get stuck with it. You understand the situation and move on. Do whatever it takes and move on. Change your hairstyle, or shave your head, do whatever it takes to bring about a change, and move on. Okay? Get what I’m saying? No? I don’t care. Now let’s stop this, okay.’
Swami didn’t say anything and they both sat in silence for a long time. Swami cleared his throat at last and said, ‘Calm down, O King. Are you drunk or something?’
The power came on and the white light pricked their eyes. When they looked at each other they realized for the first time what a blessing power cut was. They averted their eyes and Chiranth said, ‘I’ll clear out this mess and you sweep the floor.’
Chiranth picked up the bottle, plastic glasses, chips packets and the newspaper. Swami swept the floor, slipping and falling twice as he did so. Chiranth switched off the light and hit the sack. Swami kicked him in the leg and said, ‘Move over, move over. That’s my spot.’ Chiranth grunted and rolled to the other side. Swami kept a pillow between them and lay down on the bed.
Two minutes later, Swami got up, made a bolt to the bathroom and vomited. He returned to the bed a while later and asked Chiranth, ‘Are you asleep?’
‘Yes,’ Chiranth said.
A minute passed in silence. Swami said, ‘Shall I tell you something?’
‘That Ashcharya is a bitch.’
Chiranth didn’t reply. Swami waited a few seconds, gave his friend a nudge in the stomach and repeated, ‘Ashcharya is a bitch.’
Chiranth took a deep breath.
‘You hear me?’
‘Ashcharya is a –,’
Swami kept silent for another minute and said again, ‘And Avi was a moron.’
‘I know that, too,’ Chiranth said.
By the time Swami woke up in the morning, Chiranth was standing in front of the mirror, combing his hair. ‘You are leaving?’ Swami asked, getting up from the bed.
‘Yes. Have some work pending. Need to finish it by evening. Or else my lead won’t sanction my leave.’
They both reached the door. Chiranth wore his slippers and said, ‘Throw that bottle away and save auntie from getting a heart-attack.’
‘No, I won’t throw it away. I won’t ever. Will hide it somewhere, though. Mom won’t know about it, don’t worry.’
They regarded each other in silence for several seconds, and then hugged.
‘See you,’ Chiranth said, and left.
Swami came back inside and closed the door. He climbed up a stool and lowered an old iron trunk from the ledge. ‘This is where you store all your memories,’ he could hear his late grandfather saying. He picked up the empty whiskey bottle, wrapped it in an old piece of cloth and kept it in the trunk, below a few broken toys and articles.
Copyright © Karthik 2014
'So I go home tired as hell, all right. And there she is, watching a filthy TV serial about three women ganging up and teaching a lesson to the man who cheated them. That is all okay. Watch whatever you want, but say something nice to your tired husband when he comes home. But no. She just sits there, eyes glued to TV. Doesn't even look at me or anything. Fine, I said, and went in to change. I changed and freshened up and came back to the hall. She hasn't moved an inch. It's ten o'clock in the night and elephants are having sex in my stomach. I ask her to serve me. She says half an hour. I couldn't have waited for half an hour, so I went into the kitchen to do it myself. And guess what. There is only a little Uppit left. I had to eat that shit and hit the bed. One hour later the queen comes to bed. I put an arm around her and she says, 'I'm tired.' Now what do you say about that? No food and no dhishum-dhishum either!'
'Oh, you are still young. You won't understand. Take my advice. Never get married.'
'I'll think about it.'
It was a dewy morning and the empty parking lot was stuffy with the smell of fuel and dust. The two men in gray clothes were sweeping the floor. Their friends would join them in a while. The older man coughed and said, 'My life's miserable.' The younger one continued to sweep in silence. He knew if he said anything he would have to listen to more 'miserable' things. And he had no intention of listening to the old man's – what's that he said – unsuccessful dhishum-dhishum story early in the morning.
The older man stopped his work, looked up at his protege, one hand dangling from the top of the big broomstick, and said, 'You know what? The things that happen at home are far more worse than what happens here.'
The younger man who hadn't even lifted his head until now stopped sweeping and asked. 'Is it true, Rajanna? You believe it?'
'Of course I do,' Rajanna said, and smiled in a way that people do when they pass on some secret knowledge, all the while reveling in the feeling that they knew about it first.
'What exactly happens here?' the younger man asked, looking around the parking lot.
'What have you heard?'
'That's it. Everything happens.'
The curious young man was about to probe further when they heard the sounds of people chattering and laughing. In the next minute, their colleagues joined them.
'The boy wants to know,' Rajanna addressed the others.
'About what?' one of them asked. A moment later, as if realizing what it was all about, he said, 'Oh that. You are new here, aren't you? Don't bother. It's just silly.'
'Silly?' Rajanna said, getting a bit serious, his brows all crinkled.
'Don't mess with his head,' he said, and then, turning to the boy, 'Just do your job and go home, okay. If you want to be curious, be curious about something else. Maybe why all those girls get their arms and necks inked. Find out why and tell me.'
The others laughed, and so did the boy. Then the topic changed to women and their women at home and politics and cricket. None of them brought up the topic of the parking lot again. They would, however, talk about it the following day. And they would continue to discuss it for a long time.
A floor above, the mall was waking up from its slumber. A few women in gray saris were already mopping the floors and the escalators. A man in light-blue uniform opened the main doors and welcomed the sunlight. When the golden sunshine tickled his eyes and the cool morning breeze caressed his face, he smiled and wished himself a good morning.
At about nine thirty the mall opened to the public. The first set of customers poured in; most of them college students who had missed their classes for morning-show movies. Twenty minutes later a middle-aged man in white shirt and blue pants entered the mall. The taste of filter coffee still lingered on his tongue. He smacked his lips and went in the direction of the changing room. He changed into his liftman's attire – dark-blue shirt and pants – and walked towards the lift. It was still cold and the air conditioner inside the mall made it worse. He rubbed his hands together as he walked on. 'Such a beautiful morning,' he said to himself. And on that beautiful morning he had no idea that that night would take away his sanity.
Loneliness is probably the only thing that one should never hope to achieve. Some people embrace it, confusing it with solitude. Some embrace it, because they want to. But I'm not talking about them; I don't belong to one of those pseudo-intellectuals who believe, in order to create art, to create a masterpiece, one must first suffer. And what better weapon can there be other than loneliness? Oh no, not me. I do, however, suffer from loneliness, not by indulging in it, not by romanticizing it, but by constantly thinking about it. Believe it or not, this is worse.
It all begins with appreciating the present moment I live in. It all begins with, 'God, this is the best time ever.' But the next thought, when the best time is over, will be, 'Wonder if this is the last of it.' The time you spend in a local coffee shop with no intention of going home, those endless minutes of staring into emptiness when you have reached the top of a hill, then climbing down and indulging in activities that our forefathers would have called a cardinal sin; talking about the future and the past (the change in order is not a typing error) whilst enjoying the present with a delicious cup of coffee, planning the next trip … well, the list is quite big, as is the case with everyone my age and those who have crossed my age, and those who are yet to reach my age (my baby brother, for instance). But at the end of all that merriment, there is only one question that haunts me: 'How long can this all go?' And the answer is not fascinating: 'Just a little while, bugger. All this will come to an end soon.'
Although I'm still having fun, I still have the same friends, I'm still swimming in an eternal bliss, the after-effects, which only stay for a short time, scare me more than that sick cat from Pet Sematary. I don't know if this is normal, I don't know if everyone feels the same way, but it's frightening to me. Maybe there is a specific term for this kind of phobia, I don't know. And now that some of my friends are coming to Bangalore for the weekend, the scare factor is on an all time high. It's going to be one helluva weekend, I'm sure, but then, dealing with the memories on Monday will take their toll.
Having said this, I'm not naive. Neither am I an abject fool to think that this is all going to last forever. The memories will, of course. The process of making them will not. The knowledge of that fact will lead to nostalgia. But feeling nostalgic when you are still having a good time with the same friends is kind of silly, isn't it? I know. I can't help it. You know your friends and family are only a phone call away, or better, they are only a weekend away, yet when a profound emotion of losing them all soon slumps down on your heart, there is no way you can deal with it. Also the fact that you still haven't written the book you promised yourself you would helps a great deal.
We always believe that our best days are always in the past. Mainly because all our “first-times” are in the past: the first crush, the first kiss, the first time you tasted beer, the first time someone broke your heart, the first time you went on a trek, the first time you went on a lengthy motorbike ride with your friends in the middle of the night, the first time you got that red line under your subject score, the first time someone said you were good at nothing, the first time someone said you were brilliant at something, the first time you started a new story and managed to finish it, the first time you knew what you really wanted to do, that new spark in your heart, the first time you decided to follow your heart ... the first of everything you've done in your life.
The fear of losing the people you love, the fear of losing the present, the fear of being lonely in the future ... dealing with the odious nature of this fear is damn too hard. Maybe there are better times ahead, as most people say and believe. Maybe there are interesting things waiting to happen, interesting people waiting to meet you, interesting stories waiting to be written. Then again, the uncertainty of it all festers in your mind and gives rise to a fickle demon called desolation. Be hopeful, some might say. But hope is just an emotional response to many current disappointments and failures. Some things could've, should've happened by now. They haven't.
It is always better to live in the present moment, enjoy it to the hilt, and suffer in an imagined loneliness of the dystopian future, than to fall in love with an evil witch called hope. Live now while you are still alive. Be in the now. This is the only absolute. Everything else is a sham.
Copyright © Karthik 2014