Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Immortal


they cremated Him,
His dark glasses,
His yellow shawl,
His golden ring, and His pen.

that lowly thing
survived
the cleansing Flame
the Rituals
the crowds.
someone
separated it from The Holy Ash
and disposed it
with other plastic
on The Beach.

a ragpicker
sold it to The Bhai
who knew a scam
when He saw one.

The Bhai sold it
as The pen.

but The Scam
turned into The Snake
that bit Its Tail
and The Bhai
went to The Beach
set sail on a paper-boat
to a foreign paradise.

the pen was just a pen
but The Stuff it wrote
oh It could Write.

The Ruler heard about it.
"yeh kalam (this pen)!" he growled with displeasure.
a nip-n-tuck artiste gave his blind support.
"pottikkoo ee kalam (break this pot)!"

if this was a fabulous myth
to be heard from era to era
pens would be born
from a pen and so on but
"a pen is a pen is,"
a freud did repress.

what became of a pen
is irrelevant, though
not The Holy Ghost
it released.

how They chased
That Idea
across deserts, badlands, cowdung pits,
palaces, slums,
radio towers, bits, bytes, clouds,
They caught It,
Thrashed It,
Lynched It,
Shaved It,
Stripped It,
Raped It,
in that order.
"Conform or die!"
They orgasmed.

The Immortal died.

not the first not the last.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Spilled Blood



The police arrived around dawn. They looked a tired bunch. In the last 48 hours, they had dealt with: a VVIP’s visit (and related black-flag protests); the death of an interfaith living-together couple (and protests about whether it was suicide or murder, money-or-sex-problems or communal issue); and, an on-going transport strike (and unrelated violence).
The newspaper boy (the nice boy who drops the paper on the doorstep and not the other guy who throws it somewhere from the gate) had “found the door open and there was blood on the floor.”
The boy had reported it to the man next-door (back from a morning walk and stretching outside). The man “rang the bell, entered the house when there was no response. I followed the blood to the kitchen. Oh God! What I saw there!”
He (and the boy) had rushed back to his house, and rushed back with his wife. “She is used to such stuff…the stuff she watches on TV.” The wife had examined the kitchen (she had called the police after that) and her study revealed, “There was a chicken head right opposite the door and the decapitated chicken diametrically opposite. Looked like one of those black magic mantra-shantra scenes. There was human blood too.”
“How did you figure that out?” the young lady-constable asked. She was known to her colleagues as Nurse (she had quit a nursing course midway to join the police force, pleasant and always smiling, more a Florence Nightingale than a rough-neck police figure).
“There was part of a finger next to the chicken head,” the neighbour-lady had responded. “Definitely black magic…”
“Tell me about the couple,” Nurse said.
“They are new-comers, quite friendly and all that but not really our type. I think the man used to be a head-load worker and she used to be a maid. We could hear prayers and such stuff all the time. I think they came into new money through that,” the neighbour said.
The lady seemed to want to say more but not in the presence of the male sub-Inspector. The man nodded at Nurse and moved away.
The lady took Nurse’s hand and led her to the house opposite hers where a middle-aged lady was waiting expectantly. The two ladies, in turns, briefed Nurse.
“It must be that old man on the other side. My maid works there too. She told me that he is really bad. Once she offered to sponge the old man, he had a stroke recently. And dirty man…no wonder he had a stroke. His wife had an argument with the missing woman, you know. About coconut or clothes or keeping bedroom windows open or something…”
“You should check out the young man in the opposite house too. He is always on his computer. What all they do on that these days? My daughter has put a lock on her computer, to prevent her kids and hubby. The woman talks to the men too much, a bit too friendly, if you ask me. The man has had arguments with everyone. They even called the police once, to remove some car parked in front of their gate, as if they just can’t ask politely.”
Meanwhile, the male constable had interviewed the other neighbours.
“I think they are the other type, you know, the lot with multiple ID cards, shady stuff, black money and all that,” one said.
“Oh yes, from where did they get all the money?” another added.
“They look young but they have a grown-up daughter.”
“Even she seems to be into shady stuff. Not at all like the girls here.”
“There was a loud crash last night. That was before the reality show.”
“I heard that, just before I went to sleep. I heard a scream too.”
“Oh, I thought that was from some TV.”
Nurse returned to her team. She muttered to her colleagues, “Those ladies need to be put on the bench and rolled.”
“All of them,” the male-constable seconded her motion.
“Just make sure you tell that to the media,” their boss the sub-Inspector said with a tired wry grin. “When will the forensic team get here?”
“Their vehicle’s tires were ripped by those transport protesters,” the male constable said.
“Great,” the sub-Inspector said. “So, what do we know?”
“There was a crash around 9.”
“A scream around 10...”
“Two possible perverts on this side.”
“Neighbours all around who did not like the newcomers.”
“And such a friendly middle-class neighbourhood it seems.”
One of the neighbours brought cups of tea (black, no milk because of strike) and biscuits for the police team. Sipping the tea and trying hard not to nod off, they watched a couple walk slowly to the house with the blood on the floor.
They too seemed tired and in desperate need of a comfortable bed. They hardly noticed the police outside their house.
They turned out to be the missing couple. The man had tried to cook and ended up with a chopped finger. They had rushed to a government hospital. They had spent the night there.
The sub-inspector thanked everyone for the tea and their time and co-operation. A journalist turned up just as they were leaving. Asked for a comment, the men shrugged. Nurse replied, “Nursing case, slightly mental, palliative care recommended.”

Monday, August 6, 2018

Ajit's Wife


My batch has been married for about 25 years. We have been having regular get-togethers the last few years, thanks to mid-life crisis or worries about mortality. We rarely talk about the good old days when we were still eligible and quite a catch, in love or in the arranged way which is what most of us chose. Ajit’s wife is another topic we avoid. Given the non-stop gossip on our chat-lines, it is surprising there are such lines of control.
Ajit was the last one in our batch to get married. None of us were invited for his wedding and no one has seen his wife till date. From what we know of his very active social life, she is there in every function that does not involve us. It is rather amazing how he has managed to keep those two life-spaces separate in the non-virtual world.
That should not give the impression we meet the other spouses regularly. My best friend Shekhar’s wife hates and avoids us. She thinks we are ‘a bunch of right-wing egomaniacal nincompoops’ which is rather unfair, we are not all three all the time. Gopal’s wife is the group’s favourite and officially called ‘pla-tonic-mate’. My own is rather noncommittal and attends only the get-together before New Year, as if she could think of no excuse in that season of good cheer.
In the good old days that we rarely talk about, Ajit used to be the group’s go-to guy about girls. He knew the girls that: ‘went around a bit too much’; ‘his famous Casanova cousin had bedded’; ‘were just not right in our society’; ‘had something wrong somewhere’; and so on. Most of us actually used him to vet our spouses. We just had to know back then.
It is not that it really mattered. Like every microcosm of society, we fit most statistics on: happiness, depressed, suspicious, well-adjusted, divorced, sexual-preferences, sexual-orientation, pre-marital, extra-marital, children, IVF/C-section/natural, alcoholics, mentally-deranged, etc.
We are not sure what Ajit is trying to hide. Maybe, there is nothing to hide. Maybe, he thinks he/she would not meet our expectations.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

the storyteller

Early this morning, he was hanged. For five years, the whole country had been waiting for it.

Even last week, I thought of meeting him. To let him know what I thought of what he had done.

A month back, a mob in court had a chance to lynch him. They thought the courts would fail them.

Three months back, the media stopped printing his claims of innocence.

Social media had hounded out the bleeding hearts more than six months back. A few activists had to be charged.

She would have been twelve this year. On her birthday last November, there were candlelight vigils everywhere.

For five years, he was fed and cared for by the state. There were couple of attempts on his life.

I went near the court once, in the early trial stage. I thought he saw me. Maybe not.

He was raped in jail. The papers used to report everything then. Someone had tried to blind him with a shiv.

The country boiled with rage five years back. Everyone had a picture of that sweet seven year old.

How could he, a teacher, do it? Didn't he see her big eyes? Why was he so brutal? Everywhere there were questions.

He was always good with kids, good in luring them, like the Pied Piper, not with a tune, with stories.

Even when he was a kid, just a few years older than me. We used to sit around him listening to his tales.

My best friend chose his company instead of mine. I loved her. She laughed when I told her.

We are just kids, she told me with her very-adult voice.

Anyway, you can't tell stories like him, she teased me then with her childish voice.

Why haven't you grown up, she asked me recently.

I still remember how she laughed and cried and danced around him. He and his stories had that effect.

She left us. I never left him. I followed him and his tales. He had his crowd everywhere, kids, adults too.

Five years back, I lived in the apartment opposite his. I watched him day in and day out.

The kid and her family were his neighbours. They visited him often, listened to him, clapped their hands.

They used to leave the kid with him, for tuition, or when the mother had to go shopping, or when the parents went out. 

I saw them leave the kid with him that day.

I knew his phone number. I called him.

He was glad to hear my voice. I asked for money. Or did I say some medical emergency?

He told me he couldn't leave the kid. I told him it would take only a few minutes.

I had a copy of his front-door key too. It is not tough to get all that if you really want it.

I saw him leave his apartment. No one saw him leave.

No one saw me enter. It actually took only a few minutes.

I left the phone and SIM I had used at his place. It was in his name anyway. I left the key too.

He must have told the police about my call. They never bothered to ask me if I had called.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Reunion



They reached the resort just before noon. Sreekumar stopped the rented car at the gate for the security guards’ inspection.
‘Am I going to regret this?’ he muttered, more to himself than to Deepa. She noticed the dread that flickered across his tired-looking eyes. The crease between his eyebrows deepened.
‘Welcome to Fantasy Island,’ she said with a grim smile.
Both were in their forties, medium height, lean going flabby, presentable. They could be mistaken for siblings, hair more white than pepper, nose slightly large and fleshy, dimple on the right cheek, strong forearms and straight back. Their eyes were different; his black, deep-set, expressive, with long lashes and creases at the side; hers smaller, brown, feline. His lips were full, hers thin. His khaki pants, denim shirt and sneakers were a bit frayed; her white cotton blouse, blue jeans and sandals looked new.
The guards gave them the go-ahead.
The resort was on a forty-acre peninsula projecting onto a backwater. Near the gate, huge banyan trees gave a natural touch but that ended there. The place was green and landscaped, on the whole as comforting as a Japanese garden in the middle of a rain forest. The cottages, well-hidden by the vegetation, exuded faux rustic charm and rural closeness.
‘Why is it always the same?’ Deepa read aloud the signboards along the way, ‘Massage, spa, infinity pool, special discounts for enema, purgation and vomiting, spiritual and physical rejuvenation, bring out the old you, become the new you.’
‘The company might produce that effect,’ Sreekumar said.
He stopped the car in front of a three-storeyed modern building. That used to be the hotel before conversion to ethnic resort.
‘If they give me any grief, I will scoot,’ he said.
‘Don’t forget about me,’ she said. ‘Come on, it’s just for twenty four hours…we’ll survive…as long as the bathroom isn’t some public affair.’

x

Check-in was quick. A stout jovial guy with name-tag saying Alexander was there to greet them. He walked with them and the bell-boy to their cottage.
‘Let us know if you need anything…we have captured the whole resort,’ he said. ‘You are just in time for the inauguration…at half past twelve.’
‘Long speeches…?’ Sreekumar asked.
‘Lunch will start at one. That, if not the booze, should stop the speakers.’
‘Liquor that early…?’
‘Have you forgotten the old crowd?’
‘Trying to…’
Alexander laughed. ‘You remember me, don’t you?’
‘Memory isn’t what it used to be,’ Sreekumar said.
‘Nothing is what it used to be,’ Alexander said with an exaggerated wink. ‘That’s why everyone’s supposed to wear a name-tag at all times,’ he paused, ‘even to bed…old goofies like us wake up in the morning and say, darling, what’s your name,’ he guffawed and slapped Sreekumar on the back.  ‘God, how I talk…surely you remember me now.’
‘Loose Alex,’ Sreekumar said.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ Alexander laughed. ‘Guess what...people have placed bets on whether you would turn up…and if you would bring your girl.’ He turned to Deepa, ‘Jolly good of you to drag this guy here, Deepa.’
He left them at the cottage.
The bell-boy opened the door and placed their bags inside. For all the rustic charm displayed outside, the inside was tastefully done with modern amenities.
Sreekumar sat on the King-size bed. It creaked loudly. He asked the bell-boy, ‘Any problem with the bed?’
‘Sleeping no problem, sir,’ the bell-boy said with a dead-pan expression. Sreekumar gave him a generous tip.
‘Use door-chain,’ the bell-boy said.
‘Thieves…?’ Deepa asked.
‘Wrong customer wrong cottage,’ he replied and left.
‘Very comforting chap.’ She inspected the bathroom. ‘Ooh la la…bath tub! Darling, care to hop in?’ She washed her face and hands. A little later, she said, ‘Loose Alex reminds me of an Agatha Christie character…what’s that book…something mirror…’
Mirror Crack’d…?’
‘Yupp…remember the garrulous victim in that?’ She smiled. ‘A murder here would be interesting.’

x

Lunch was in a banquet hall in the main building. Old boys and girls sat with their respective partners and kids. Their old Principal was the chief guest. Couple of teachers were on stage looking like old relics placed there for charm.
Deepa leaned towards Sreekumar and whispered, ‘That Principal seems to be in the best shape compared to you guys…quite tasty I say…not a celibate priest, I hope.’
Sreekumar nodded, grinning.
‘So, he wasn’t the molester?’ she asked.
He raised an eyebrow.
‘Surely, there must have been a few of those in those days.’
‘They are all dead.’
‘Murdered?’
‘Hush, Deeps,’ Sreekumar whispered. A few heads had turned towards them.
‘Deeps, huh…? Hmmm…’ She sat back with a smile.
The speeches were full of old memories dredged up for the occasion, like going through old family albums, nice and sentimental but irrelevant.
The lunch buffet was good, not only as an excuse to delay the ritual of mingling and reminiscing. The teachers were given a quick farewell after lunch. Some families retired for siesta; some headed to the spa; a few opted for a boat-ride. A group of men went to a cottage to resume their binge-drinking. Another moved to a conference room to discuss crowd-funding of a start-up. Sreekumar and Deepa followed the rest to the large shady lawn by the backwater.
It had rained the previous night, a light monsoon downpour, the ground was already dry, the humidity low and the sun mild. The resort-staff laid thick rugs on the lawn. There were also hammocks tied to coconut trees. 
Old classmates gravitated towards each other. They talked less about the old days and more about what they were up to. Deepa joined a group of wives and chatted for a while.  Then, she strolled alone around the embankment studying the plants and the backwater. Sreekumar stood near the water, with his back to the group.   
Alexander and a tall, attractive lady joined him.
‘Remember me?’ she asked. She had beautiful smiling eyes.
‘Hi Shweta,’ Sreekumar said.
‘When did you land?’ she asked.
‘This morning…’
‘Where are you these days?’
‘Hereabouts…’
‘Sreekumar, we are not going to visit and spoil your peace.’
‘No fixed place…really…’
‘How long are you in town?’ Alexander asked.
‘A week…’
‘Back to whereabouts…?’
‘After a few days in Hyderabad…’
‘Is she from Hyd.?’
‘Hmmm…’
‘Where did you two meet?’
Sreekumar’s eyes followed Deepa.
Alexander said, ‘I am a bored bureaucrat.’ ‘Bored but right at the top,’ Shweta added. ‘My two kids are in our old school,’ he said. ‘Mine are studying in US, oh I feel so old with such old kids,’ she said. Turning to Alexander, she asked, ‘Are you involved in that start-up?’ ‘Us bureaucrats are too poor,’ he said. ‘Yeah, right, stingy fellow…they have roped in hubby,’ she said. ‘I left academic life,’ she told Sreekumar. ‘Her hubby owns a medical college and a chain of hospitals,’ Alexander said. ‘I work part-time with a NGO…helping the abused, women-empowerment and such,’ she said.
‘What are you up to these days?’ Shweta asked.
‘Still retired,’ Sreekumar said.
Deepa was about fifty meters away from them. She was bouncing pebbles off the water. She turned, waved and walked towards them.
‘I thought you didn’t like the birdie types,’ Shweta said.
‘Birdie types?’ Sreekumar asked.
‘That’s what you used to call them--the serious ones interested in the actual birds and the bees, your words, not mine.’
Sreekumar smiled. They remained silent till Deepa reached them.
‘I hope I am not interrupting your discussion,’ Deepa said. She slipped her hand around Sreekumar’s arm.
‘Shweta was saying that you are not his type,’ Alexander said.
‘Alex! You are definitely loose, man!’ Shweta protested with a laugh. The couple too laughed.
‘She was searching for Karl Marx and got Groucho,’ Sreekumar said. ‘And, I was looking for Edwige Fenech and got Greta Garbo.’
‘Who’s Edwige Fenech?’ Shweta asked.
‘She used to act in serious Italian movies.’
‘Oh…’
‘And Groucho was Karl’s younger brother.’
‘Yeah, right, I am not that dumb…’ Shweta said.
Alexander introduced the ladies, ‘Shweta, this is Deepa, Sreekumar’s current partner. Deepa, this is Shweta, Sreekumar’s first love.’
Shweta scowled at Alexander with mock anger. ‘I swear, Alex, one of these days, someone will kill you.’
‘We too were talking about that,’ Deepa said.
Alexander laughed.
‘Sree was hoping to meet you here,’ Deepa told the other lady. Shweta tried to look confused. Deepa added, ‘He told me about you on our second date.’
‘What all we did in the past,’ Shweta said.
‘And still do in the present and future,’ Deepa said.
‘Not us boring family lot,’ Shweta said. Alexander nodded vigorously.
A group of six men and women joined them. The men introduced themselves to Deepa, ‘We were in Sreekumar’s inner gang.’
They moved to sit on a rug. Hotel staff came around with tea and snacks.
Sreekumar and Deepa did not have to talk. The others’ non-stop chatter shifted from work and kids to travel and struggles in the gym. Most of them looked fit and attractive.
‘He used to be our star athlete,’ a guy told Deepa. He turned to Sreekumar, ‘Man, is that a pot belly? Gross!’
They touched upon the classmates who had not made it to the reunion. ‘The ones in bad shape medically, financially and emotionally,’ one said. ‘Aren’t we all?’ They laughed. ‘Quite depressing,’ another laid that to rest. They did not forget the four dead classmates. ‘We invited their parents for the last get-together.’ ‘I didn’t know them…the dead ones. You knew them, didn’t you, Sreekumar? You knew everyone. The parents would have liked to meet you.’
‘Man, you shouldn’t have gone into your shell. You were such an inspiration for some of us.’
Deepa laid her hand on Sreekumar’s thigh. He did not look at her or anyone. The others continued.
‘Come on, Sreekumar, break-ups and other shit happens. Look at me, my wife died and I recovered, didn’t I? Now I am remarried, with lovely kids from that too. Shit happens!’
‘You didn’t have to chuck your job too. What was that all about…power struggle, pay not enough? If only there was the perfect job.’
‘You were always too obsessive.’
‘From what I heard, it was an ego issue. I know she slept with another guy, but it was all about ego.’
‘Man, I knew that beautiful one would give you grief.’
‘I tried to reach you. Her folks contacted me. We could have helped.’
‘We are so happy you have Deepa now.’
Deepa leaned towards Sreekumar.  ‘Sree, I need to go to the cottage. Could you come with me?’ Deepa said. To the others, ‘Excuse us, please.’
Sreekumar did not move. She patted his thigh.
‘What?’ he snarled.
‘Come with me,’ she said again.
His lips quivered with anger. The eyes stared, unblinking, drained of all expression, just a black depth. The others kept quiet. She stood up and walked towards their cottage. He followed her. The group shouted to the couple, ‘Hey, fun starts at seven, see you then.’

x

Back in the cottage, Sreekumar stood by the French windows and stared outside. Deepa stretched out on the sofa. After a while, she got up and filled the kettle. While the water was boiling, she opened the fridge.
‘That’s strange,’ she said. ‘Why is the mini-bar empty?’ 
She prepared tea and placed the complimentary cookies on a plate.
‘Come, have tea,’ she said.
He joined her on the sofa. ‘I don’t have tea.’
‘Throw it away then.’
He picked up his cup and sipped, ‘I prefer it black.’
‘Sree, you are going to get it from me.’
‘Oh yeah…?’
‘If anyone mentions gym once more, I will stick a dumbbell up theirs,’ she muttered. ‘Surely, they don’t have to rub it in.’ She looked at him, from top to toe. ‘But, seriously, you need a bit of time in a gym.’
He scowled at her, ‘Oye, no personal comments.’
She grinned widely. ‘Shit happens.’
‘Tell me about it.’
They finished off the tea and cookies.
‘Sree…’
‘Hmmm…’
‘What would you have done if I had not airlifted you out of there?’
‘When did you start calling me Sree?’
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘Me Sree, you Deeps...’
‘Don’t schmooze, old man. Answer my question.’
‘What would I have done?’ he said. ‘Oh, just the usual…’
‘Which being…?’
He shrugged.
‘Physical…?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘Verbal…hard-core…you would pack your bags and leave if you saw…heard that me…’
‘Fancy yourself as incredible Hulk, huh?’ she said. She pinched his arm. He smiled.
She asked, ‘Have you tried counselling…anger management or something?’
‘I can handle it on my own,’ he said.
‘Famous last words…’
‘I just have low tolerance levels…at times…’
‘Best to stay away from such triggers,’ she said.
‘I don’t need triggers,’ he said. ‘That’s the problem.’
They stared at each other. Their heads moved closer as if for a kiss. They sat back a little embarrassed.
‘To be fair, an outburst could be justified in that scenario…’ she said.
‘You are not supposed to encourage me,’ he said.
They slipped into a long silence.
‘Have you tried all those things?’ Sreekumar asked.
‘What things?’
‘Counselling, whatever management…?’
She nodded.
‘Worked?’ he asked.
‘I haven’t murdered you yet.’ She paused. ‘I could have murdered them. All that gym talk…made me feel like a bean bag.’
‘One bean bag calling another: do you want to scoot?’
‘Oye, no personal comments…you are supposed to say I look svelte or curvaceous or whatever.’
He rolled his eyes. She threw a cushion at him.
‘Well…?’ he asked.
‘I love this room. You have already paid for it, haven’t you?’
He nodded.
‘I am going to soak in that tub for a while,’ she said. ‘Want to join me?’
‘Oh yes…oh yes…’
‘Dream on, lover boy. Now, be a good boy and watch some movie while mommy pampers herself.’
‘Mommy, there’s no Edwige movie now.’
‘You and your Edwige…’ They laughed.
She moved to the bathroom. She left the door open. While adjusting the taps, she said, ‘She seems the nice sort…’
‘Who…?’
‘Shweta…’
‘Hmmm…’
‘You sure you don’t want to be honest with her.’
‘In the past, I might have…not in the present or the future.’
‘Story of your life…’
After she had settled in the tub, she said, ‘Sree…’
‘Huh…’
‘Those wives wanted to know if we are trying for babies. A gynaecologist offered to help with IVF. Some were curious about live-in affairs. One asked me if there’s more fun in that.’
Sreekumar did not respond.

x

A little after seven, they joined the others on the lawn. The hotel had set up a stage. The lawn was lit up like a Christmas tree.
Deepa whispered to Sreekumar, ‘I am going to have fun.’
‘I will catch you after you hit the ground,’ he said.
‘Oh promises, promises.’
The evening’s programme began with song-and-dance sequences from the kids. The adults responded with polite applause and occasional whoops and cheers. Then, it was the turn of the adults. That received a more honest response with boos and loud comments. Everyone, including the kids, looked relieved when a professional band took over. Some tried to dance. Sreekumar and Deepa impressed the crowd with a parody of the dance scene in Pulp Fiction.
‘Definitely Thurman and Travolta with four left feet,’ Alexander told the couple after the dance. His wife and kids, Shweta and her handsome husband were also there. They all laughed.
Sreekumar went to get a round of drinks.
Deepa told Alexander, ‘Sree noticed something strange in our room…the mini-bar is empty.’
‘That’s funny…has he forgotten he told me to keep the mini-bar empty?’ Alexander said.
‘Did he?’ Deepa said.
Food was served. The parents fed the kids. Adults concentrated on the hors d’oeuvre which was very good. They also made frequent visits to the bar and the restroom. Sreekumar nursed a can of beer. Deepa stuck to lime juice. Shweta asked her, ‘Do you drink?’ and got a noncommittal shrug along with a laugh. Shweta waited to be asked the same but Deepa did not oblige.
After dinner, there were three distinct groups. The largest with parents and kids, another revolved around the bar and the bushes.
‘It’s getting quite messy,’ Alexander said to the third group at the back. ‘Let them get it out of their system,’ someone said. ‘That is their system,’ Alexander said.
His group consisted of “the big shots”: a high-ranking policewoman, two senior bureaucrats including Alexander, a politician’s personal secretary, couple of doctors and engineers in high government posts, Shweta’s husband who was considered as one of them, an entrepreneur regarded as the financial whiz-kid of the batch, three from abroad, a military guy with soft hands and two others who claimed to be poor farmers but looked like rich sheikhs who had never been in the sun.
Deepa moved towards them. Sreekumar stood a little away with the spouses of the group.
Alexander made space for Deepa in the circle. ‘General pow-wow,’ he whispered. Deepa listened without saying much. They treated her like an understudy. A few took to explaining to her current affairs and controversies.
When they replenished their drinks, someone offered to get her one. She nodded and then shook her head soon after. Her hands clenched and unclenched. She searched her shoulder-bag, took out a napkin and wiped her eyes and lips. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She turned and looked at Sreekumar. He winked at her. She smiled and winked back. He moved his hand across his throat, head lolled to a side with tongue stuck out, as if his throat was cut. She pursed her lips, held back a laugh and nodded.
The policewoman talked about ‘the dangerous menace of conversion for marriage’.
‘If religion isn’t dangerous, how is conversion dangerous?’ Deepa asked.
‘Don’t be na├»ve,’ the policewoman said. ‘Only the wrong lot do that or make others do that. Trust me…I have come across lots of cases lately.’
‘People have the right,’ Deepa said.
‘On paper,’ the policewoman let out a bark of a laugh. ‘Let me be frank, I despise people who even think of conversion.’
‘Despise? I spit, shit and piss on them,’ the entrepreneur said.
‘Our parents used to say the same about inter-caste marriages,’ Deepa said.
‘If you had kids of your own, you would think differently,’ the policewoman said.
The entrepreneur said, ‘My Great Dane tries to mount the neighbour’s Labrador. Bad idea for a fuck, bad for animals, worse for humans…’
‘Bad for you only because the good ones, in any group, won’t come near you,’ Deepa said. ‘You might not even get a half-decent fuck, if people in your group searched elsewhere.’
 ‘I bet you play by the same rules,’ the entrepreneur said. ‘Sreekumar didn’t go out of his group when he tried to get married. Don’t know about you. I mean, before him.’
 ‘Any chip on your shoulder?’ the policewoman asked.
‘Such as…?’ Deepa asked.
‘Someone ditched you…as in Sreekumar’s case?’ the policewoman said.
‘What if someone did…?’
‘Such losers turn liberal to screw up others’ lives too,’ the policewoman said.
‘Real stinking turds they are,’ the entrepreneur said.
‘What depresses me most is when a person with good education turns out to be a right-wing prick,’ Deepa said.
Alexander tried to pacify, ‘Oh, come on, no one’s right-wing here, just capitalists, that’s all.’
‘Nazi collaborators used that excuse…’ Deepa said. ‘But then, you could be right, it’s usually just economics. That and insecurity.’
‘Race and religion, what would scum-bag politicians do without that?’ one of the farmers said.
‘It helps to maintain order,’ the military guy said.
‘Fascist order, you mean,’ Deepa said.
‘No, proper democracy,’ Alexander’s bureaucrat-colleague said. ‘A good democracy needs a strong majority. Their rules might seem odd but they will be a good parent to the minorities.’
‘Wow, I didn’t know democracy was supposed to serve only the majority and not all,’ Deepa said.
‘That’s practical democracy, get off your armchair.’
‘What a democracy needs are people who will do their job instead of kissing the ass of politicians?’ Someone tried to protest but Deepa cut him short, ‘When people have no faith in any institution, do you think free and fair voting will make a democracy?’
Sreekumar moved closer to Deepa.
She said, ‘Do you know the problem with most of you? You are scared to change. Or admit past mistakes.’
‘What about you?’ someone challenged her.
‘Me…? My middle name is blunder…only constant in my life has been change.’
Alexander said, ‘Hey, Sreekumar, you won’t last long.’ The group laughed.
‘Let me correct a mistake…’ she said, ‘what depresses me most is the fact we will be friends in spite of such differences.’ She let out a mirthless laugh.
‘That laugh reminds me of Shoshamma Madam…remember her, guys?’ the entrepreneur said.
‘Who can forget her?’ another guy said.
‘Who was it who peed in his shorts in front of her? Was it you, Alexander?’
‘Not me…that was Nagaraj…good that he’s not here…’ Alexander said.
The entrepreneur said, ‘He did something else too in her class…’ The men laughed.
The policewoman asked, ‘What?’ There was a chorus from the ladies, ‘What did he do?’
The men sniggered, ‘Not for dainty ears.’
‘Did he jerk off in her class?’ Deepa asked.
‘Sreekumar, you told her!’ Alexander accused Sreekumar.
‘He did not,’ Deepa said, ‘isn’t there at least one wanker in every batch?’

x

It was close to ten by then. The band and the bar closed shop. The kids were packed off to bed. The organizers announced that an ‘informal bar’ had been set up in one of the bigger suite-cum-cottages and that another had a ‘mini-casino’.
One of the farmers, who seemed more enthralled than intimidated by Deepa, asked her, ‘Do you gamble? Care to join?’
Deepa looked at Sreekumar. He mouthed silently, go ahead. She made a gesture with her eyes asking if he would join. He shook his head.
‘He was always like that,’ the farmer said, ‘we were never sure when he would be a live wire or a wet blanket.’
‘With that, I agree,’ Deepa said with a soft laugh. She held Sreekumar’s arm and they followed the farmer to the ‘casino’.
There were couple of tables for bridge and rummy in the drawing room. In one bedroom, there was poker; and in the other, blackjack. Deepa chose the latter. The other players there were Alexander, the farmer, their wives, Shweta’s husband, the policewoman and the entrepreneur. The players sat cross-legged on the double-bed. Shweta and Sreekumar sat on chairs behind their respective partners.
The players took on the role of dealer by rotation. Someone produced a shoe for the deck of cards. Sreekumar offered to shuffle the cards. The others whistled enthusiastically when he showed off his skill in that. 
‘The minimum bet is ten, maximum is hundred,’ Alexander announced.
‘Ten what…?’ Deepa asked.
‘Rupees, idiot…’
‘Chicken…’
‘Then, how much…?’
‘Minimum five hundred, maximum ten thousand…’
There was a pause in the proceedings before everyone agreed. The policewoman wiped her forehead without realizing what she was doing. Though everyone seemed more tense and attentive, no one lost their cool. They played with good spirit, always remaining courteous.
Deepa was not an expert in the game. If she knew that percentages played a part in the game, she did not show it. During a break, Alexander offered to bring drinks for the group. She asked for a ‘double scotch neat’. She kept the glass next to her. While she played, her finger kept circling the rim of the glass. She seemed to be preserving it for a winning streak.
Sreekumar shifted from the chair and sat behind her on the bed. She nudged his legs with her elbow. He raised his legs so that she could lean against him. Sreekumar lost his balance and knocked her glass to the floor.
‘What the…?’ she growled.
Her lips shrunk to a line, clenched jaws bulged. She concentrated on her cards. By half past eleven, she had busted her twenty thousand. She made a move as if to quit.
‘Giving up so fast?’ the entrepreneur asked. ‘Maybe, you need a change after all.’ No one else joined in his poke.
‘Not so fast,’ Sreekumar said, ‘she is not even half done.’ He shelled out thirty thousand from his wallet. Deepa stared at him.
‘Shall I get you a drink?’ he asked.
‘Lime juice, please,’ Deepa replied.
‘Let me get it for you,’ Shweta offered.
The entrepreneur lost his pile soon after and decided to sit out and watch. By the end of play, around one, Deepa had a profit of ten thousand. Shweta’s husband had lost the most and Alexander’s wife was the biggest winner.
‘Wow, that was fun,’ Alexander said. The others agreed, even the entrepreneur.
‘Deepa, you are definitely a wild card,’ Shweta said, appreciatively.
Deepa gave a small bow. The others applauded.
Then, they dispersed to their respective cottages.
‘Do you know why I love the company of gamblers and drunkards?’ Deepa said on the way to their cottage.
‘You sound drunk,’ Sreekumar said.
‘There are no pretensions with that crowd,’ she said.
‘Time for bed, Ms Philosopher…’
‘Lead the way, Angry Old Man.’

x

Deepa paid back what she had borrowed plus half of the gains. Sreekumar tried to refuse but she insisted.
‘You could have lost it all,’ she said.
‘Every loan goes with such expectation. It was for a good cause,’ he said with a grin.
‘You didn’t have to knock down my drink,’ she said.
He did not respond.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
They were standing in front of the King-size bed.
‘Deeps, which side do you want?’ Sreekumar asked.
‘Excuse me…’
‘Which side of the bed?’
‘I don’t care as long as I get a half,’ Deepa said
‘Ok, you take the left.’
After they had switched off the lights, Deepa said, ‘Sree…’
‘Huh…?’
‘Why left?’
‘What left?’
‘Left side of the bed, idiot…’
‘I usually sleep on my left side.’
‘So…’
‘If I slept on the left side, I would be facing you all night…won’t you feel funny?’
‘We will be sleeping, right?’
‘Still…’
‘Duh…’
They settled down for the night. Deepa stared at the ceiling. Sreekumar slipped his head under the blanket. For a while, there was no sound apart from the creaking of the bed and her regular breathing. Then, in the semi-darkness, she could make out that his side was tenting up. 
‘Sreekumar!’ she said sternly.
He poked his head out. ‘What?’
‘I hope you are not doing what I think you are doing.’
His head went back under the blanket. He giggled. ‘Join me.’
‘What…?’
‘Oye idiot, come down under,’ he commanded.
Deepa slipped her head under the blanket. He switched on the flashlight of his mobile. He had built a barricade with his pillows.
‘Command centre of the Allied forces calling evil forces,’ he said from behind the pillows, ‘surrender all your weapons or face annihilation, rocket-head.’
‘Surrender, my royal foot…get ready to see Hell, O ye chicken-livered carrot-top low-breed!’ she declared building her own barricade.
All hell broke loose. The pillows withstood the onslaught but half an hour later, the foot of the bed crumbled with a loud crack under their weight and vigorous exertions.
Someone from a nearby cottage reached their door and asked, ‘Are you ok?’
‘Yes,’ the couple said sheepishly.
They informed the night-desk about their predicament. The night-manager was very apologetic about the poor quality of the bed. The couple, then looking haughtily displeased, asked for the bedding to be laid out on the floor.

x

Next morning, at the breakfast buffet, they were received with loud cheers. One of the ladies remarked, ‘Oh you unmarried lot…’
Later, there was a round of hugs, photos and promises. Shweta came to the couple’s room before leaving. She smiled at the broken bed.
‘Deepa is the one you were searching for,’ she told Sreekumar. ‘Wish you two the very best.’ They promised to keep in touch.
The couple checked out after lunch.
‘Thank you,’ Sreekumar said, during the drive to the airport.
‘Wait till your payback,’ Deepa said with a worried look.
‘Is it going to be tougher than this?’ he asked.
‘What do you think--my family, relatives, family friends and if that wasn’t enough, my niece’s wedding? This will seem like a stroll in the park,’ she said.
‘Oh boy…’
‘Oh boy, indeed…and, we won’t get a chance to break a bed. You might have to share a room with one of my widower uncles.’
‘Bloody hell…are they the fun-loving type?’ he asked.
‘Not really…more the honour-killing type,’ she said with a grin.
‘You are right. I shouldn’t thank you till I ain’t dead,’ he said.
‘Hey, you can pull out if you want to.’
‘That would go against the sharing policy,’ he said. ‘Unless, you don’t want me there…don’t you?’
She thought for a while.
‘I too need you,’ she said.
‘Well, that’s settled then.’
‘Will you be staying with your folks?’ she asked.
‘Hmmm…’
‘Won’t they ask about me? They will hear about me.’
‘I will say you will meet them next time,’ he said.
‘Next…three nights and four days in Hyderabad,’ she said. ‘That doesn’t sound fair at all. You got me only for two days and a night.’
‘Hey, this means as much to me,’ he said. ‘I am really glad I found you.’
‘Me too…’
‘I hope the start-up does well.’
‘Is there a big market for sharing escorts like us?’
‘Who knows?’