Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading Diaries


My diaries seem to flout the laws of gravity. The heavy hovers at the top of the pile and the empty falls to the bottom. The diaries at the top, full of busy details, copious notes, self-help attachments and daily exhortations, are meant to be attractive, to be read. The years with near empty diaries remain at the bottom of the pile, the blank pages and the rare jottings rest like an invisible dark mass of sludge or some weighty sediment. ‘Can you avoid us?’ they taunt, as if I have secrets or pain hidden in those empty vaults. I feel like retorting back, ‘Oye, you are empty because you mean nothing.’ Carelessly I pick them from the bottom of the pile and silently wipe dust from the exposed edges of the leather covers. The edges have aged but the center is pristine. That is probably the negative image of the life they failed to capture. Or maybe, it’s all there, waiting to be developed.
The diaries for the years 2004 and 2005 are half empty. Till May 2004, the pages are crammed with notes about the job interviews, the offer, my determination to make that work and the logistics of shifting base from Bangalore to Mumbai. In June and July, I go on about the new job and its frustrations. The details peter out with the gradual settling down. I still tried to fill the pages with expenditure figures and bank balances. By the middle of July, the near empty pages start. Till August of the next year, it remains so. Then, once again, the pages are filled with details about my wife’s pregnancy, impending fatherhood and its worries, appointments with the doctor, wife quitting her job and so on.
In between those two sets of pages bursting with life, in those twelve months from August 2004 to July 2005, there seems to be a vacuum with empty pages or utmost one line entries. It takes little time to go through those the first time. The second and third readings are slower. It is not as if it is encrypted or follows some devilish code. The right chronology follows the steady trickle of memory. Most were written on the day itself, I am sure, presenting the present. Some could have been written on those pages few days late, recording a past before it faded from memory or as an afterthought, even a deliberate one. It is possible that some are not exactly true, probably there to make another entry seem ordinary or part of a pattern. If there was deception, it does not really matter now. A few details might have slipped from memory but it is still too soon to believe the false as truth.
‘Tried out car-pooling with wife’s friends’ – This entry, in the fourth week of August 2004, is the first of that lot. My wife and I were living in Thakur Village, Kandivali (East). It was through my wife’s colleague Rahul that we found that apartment. He and his wife Aditi lived two floors above us. They were helpful and we became well-acquainted. My wife’s office was in Andheri (West), a few kilometers south of my office in Malad (West). At one dinner party, in late August, my wife and Rahul suggested that we should try car-pooling and that Aditi and I could be dropped off en route to their office. Aditi’s office was situated just a few blocks from mine. On each of those dates with car-pooling, I have noted ‘Car-pool’ and the car used, ours or theirs. On those mornings, Aditi and I used to walk together for about hundred meters from the drop-off point in front of the new Mall till the T-junction where we parted to go to our respective offices. In the evening, if we were not delayed by work, we met in front of the Mall to get picked up. The arrangement was flexible and it worked quite well. When my wife and Rahul went for projects elsewhere in Mumbai or outside Mumbai, rather than to their Main Office, we did not take our cars and Aditi and I went separately by auto-rickshaw from home to office, and back. Those entries were meant to keep track of the car-pooling and it has huge gaps, probably when my wife or Rahul or both were out of station.
‘Mall’ – That entry appears frequently on the dates without car-pooling. I usually left office around six or half past six in the evening and walked to the Mall. I enjoyed the leisurely stroll within, window-shopping, browsing in the book and music shop or shopping at the supermarket. Aditi used to do the same. We used to smile, nod our heads and walk past each other.
‘Cookie’ – That makes its first appearance in late September, after half a dozen entries of ‘Mall’. A new cookie shop had opened on the ground floor of the Mall, next to the supermarket, and they used to offer free sample cookies. On that first day, she was inside the shop trying out a spicy or ginger cookie while I remained outside near the chocolate and nut cookies. I must have gone for a coffee after that. She never came to the coffee-shop. ‘I am a tea-drinker,’ she told me.
‘Lucky Jim’ – The date with that entry appears midway between two dates with ‘Car-pool’ but, if I remember correctly, that probably belongs to the first of those dates. On those morning walks together, we talked about books or music or movies. Lucky Jim was her first recommendation. I enjoyed the comedy and Amis’ satire about the bourgeoisie and the education system. I did wonder if Aditi wanted me to take home some other message from that book, say luck. As for luck, if I was Jim, I would have ended with the wrong woman. I remember thinking that it would have been wicked if Amis had tried that ending and still kept the same title. On a loftier note, I had philosophized that the fortuitous and the haphazard rather than ability and ambition controlled lives, especially the crucial parts like getting the right job or the right woman. Now, that is exactly the kind of inane or self-pitying stuff I enter in my heavy diaries.
‘Sick’ – It seems I  continued to wallow in that flow of self-pity even a week after reading Lucky Jim, when I was down with a stomach bug for two days. My wife was in Bangalore to complete a project. I don’t think I expected Aditi to show up with medicine or food. In a movie, she would have come. A month later, Aditi and Rahul caught the viral flu. My wife was in town then and she helped them with a meal or two. I could not visit them, obviously.
‘Changing Places’ – Aditi and I were both members of the British Council Library. My wife and I used to keep one Saturday every month for the forty kilometer trip from the suburbs to the library in south Mumbai. But, on the day with that entry, my wife was working on a project in Delhi. Aditi was there in the library on her own. That was the only time I saw her there and it was by chance, I think. We met briefly near the water cooler. It was under repair and she asked me if she could have a drink from my water bottle. She knew that I walked around with one in my backpack. She often joked about the junk I carried everywhere – the water bottle, a raincoat, an umbrella, a small stash of essential medicines and such. When she returned the water bottle, I asked her if she would have lunch with me at Mahesh Lunch House in the Fort area or at Samovar, the café in Jehangir Art Gallery. She declined. That day, she suggested Changing Places. I found a misplaced copy in the library, somewhere between Rankin and Townsend. On the next occasion when we walked together to office from the drop-off point near the Mall, I asked her why she liked these books with an academic setting. She told me that she had left academics to take up the job in Mumbai and to be with her husband, and also added that her parents were professors in some Delhi college. I did not ask her if I should find some message in those books. I tried on my own and settled on something to do with couples.
‘Humiliation’ – It is tough to make out this blackened entry but I remember that one. I crossed it out because I could not find an easy explanation for it, in case it fell on strange eyes. It is there against a date two weeks before ‘Changing Places’. The entry actually belongs to some date with ‘Car-pool’ after that meeting in the library and after I read the book. We played the parlour game Humiliation described in Lodge’s book during the five minute morning walk. We fought well, and quickly, surprising each other with our pathetic literary upbringing. I had no clue about the Classics. She didn’t either. She was better than me with twentieth century literature. I admitted that I had read more of Mishima and Murakami than her. At the end of that walk, we drew level.
 ‘The Beautiful South’ – In early 2005, on dates spanning a fortnight or so, I have put entries of music groups or artistes, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Ben E. King, Eva Cassidy and so on. In the latter half of that list, there is ‘The Beautiful South’, the only entry there that has any relevance. On one of our morning walks, I suggested that group to her. A few days later, we met at the book and music store in the Mall. She bought an album of that group after listening to a few songs. I browsed through some magazine in the reading area. She greeted me with a casual Hi. I replied with an equally casual Hullo. She said that she liked the album, especially the song Rotterdam. I told her that it was one of my favourites. She then asked me if I listen to the ghazals of Jagjit and Chitra. There’s no entry of that in the diary. I did not buy that. It would have stood out in my collection.
‘A Good Woman’ – I went alone for the Saturday morning show. Aditi had mentioned that movie a week or two earlier. She too came alone for the movie. My wife and Rahul were in Bangkok that weekend for their company’s annual get-together. The movie-hall was in Goregaon, a few kilometers from home on the Western Express Highway and for that show, it was empty but for a dozen viewers. I took a seat near the aisle to stretch my legs. She sat three rows in front of me. We met at the popcorn stall during the interval. We agreed that the movie was a disappointment. But we sat through it, separate.
‘Ivan Klima’ – I suggested Klima’s The Ultimate Intimacy to her on one of those morning walks. She told me when she bought the book but she did not comment on it after reading and I did not ask her for any. I would have liked to discuss about faith and doubt in oneself, God and the system. Maybe, we would have had to talk about love, intimacy and adultery too. In that week, I also mentioned Neela Velicham (Blue Light) though I have not recorded an entry about that. I read that story by Basheer in school and how could it enter my diary nearly twenty years later. In those hundred meters, I told Aditi the story about a guy who rents a house haunted by a girl named Bhargavi. She had committed suicide in that house, probably because of unrequited love. In the first few days in that house, either due to fear or false bravado, the protagonist tries to curry favour with the ghost. ‘Good morning, my dear Bhargavi,’ he would greet, or say, ‘People say a lot of rubbish about you. Let them say so.’ Or, with growing familiarity, joke with her, ‘Sweet Bhargavi, some of my friends are coming to stay here, don’t do anything to them, ok?’ and ‘Bhargavi my love, I am going out, take care of the house; if anyone tries to enter the house, strangle them.’ As time goes by, he starts to forget Bhargavi. He explains, ‘How many men and women have died. All those spirits hang around. Like that, Bhargavi will remain, just a memory.’ With hindsight, my diary is a lot like that haunted house. Maybe, I was trying to imply that Aditi and I were like Bhargavi. I do not know what she thought about that story. It is not that there was no time for that. We had lots to say during those five minute walks. I even told her about the movie Bhargavi Nilayam based on that story. Doing a postmortem on what we said seemed pointless, trustless.  
‘The Decapitated Chicken’ – She suggested that story by Horacio Quiroga. The next day, I told her that the story was disgusting, horrifying and upsetting. ‘And good, no?’ she said. She had a playful smile in her eyes, as if she had enjoyed shocking me. I wondered about the family in that story and if she was trying to tell me something through that.
 ‘Bought a shirt for myself and a gift for wife’ – On that morning, I told her that I had to get a present for my wife. That evening we met by chance at a garment store in the Mall. She was browsing in the men’s section. I said Hi to her. She said Hi too and told me that she was there to get a shirt for her husband. She selected a brown one. I picked up a light pink one and told her that my wife usually picked such colours for me though I preferred earthy shades. We exchanged shirts. She bought the pink one for her husband and I got the brown shirt for myself. From there, I went to the ladies’ section and searched for evening wear. I chose a translucent, cream set of evening pants and sleeveless blouse. I thought it looked semi-formal, delicate and sexy. Aditi was checking out a discount sale of salwar tops. I approached her and asked her discreetly if she could try out my choice since she was roughly the same size as my wife. She put them on in the changing room and then opened the door. I slowly strolled past those changing rooms. She seemed rather self-conscious but gorgeous in those few moments when she posed for me. I could see that my earlier assessment of the set was spot on. Later, when she handed it to me, I said thanks and picked that as a present for my wife.
‘The Flood’ – Those twelve months with those little notes about casual chats and brief meetings ended with that note ‘The Flood’ on July 26, 2005.
In those twelve months, there should have been a ‘Lunch’ or a ‘Trip to Library’ or at least an ‘Ice-cream’ but we never had a date or went out together on a drive, just us. We never really confided or planned. All that was without, outside our direct control, remained so. On that day, July 26, my wife was working from home. That morning, Aditi and I went to office in separate auto-rickshaws. Around two in the afternoon, my wife called from home and informed me that the TV news was all about the rain in Mumbai and the flooding all around. I told her not to worry and that I would leave after completing some urgent work and after a conference call with my boss in the US scheduled at half past five. My wife kept calling with status updates. At six, when I was about to leave office, I received another frantic call from my wife. She told me that Rahul had managed to get home with great difficulty from a work site in Lower Parel. She then gave the phone to Rahul. He told me that the condition on the Western Express Highway was worsening by the minute. He had contacted Aditi and told her to wait in front of the Mall. He requested me to help her get back home or if conditions seemed bad, to wait at the Mall with her. He told me that he had tried to reach her a second time but her mobile was not reachable then. I told him that that could be because of congested networks or because her mobile needed charging. After that call, I left office. I found Aditi in front of the Mall. I called my wife and told her that we were going to walk back home. I could hear her informing Rahul of the same.
It was raining heavily. We joined the stream of people on the partially submerged road from the Mall to S.V. Road via Chincholi Bunder. In that initial part, the situation did not look bad. With our backpacks, raincoat and umbrella, we must have looked like backpackers on a light trek. But when we reached S.V. Road, the conditions turned grave. The Malad subway was unreachable and the sides of the road looked dangerously flooded. We trudged forward along with the masses towards Kandivali station. Volunteers had formed a loose human chain to prevent people from going towards the side of the road and the parts with uncertain depths or open manholes. People moved forward slowly, helping each other in little ways like pushing a car out of a manhole or keeping the aged to the middle of the road where the water was just a foot high. It was amazing that we didn’t come across any case of frayed nerves or meanness or public nuisance. We smiled and laughed at the comic relief provided by those joking about the filth we were wading in and by the antics of enthusiastic lovers who used the opportunity well to be close and needy.
Near Kandivali station, we made our way towards the Western Express Highway. We asked volunteers and policemen about the situation ahead. They warned us not to cross the Highway at the Mahindra Complex, and not even dream about going to Thakur Village. They told us that the water from the hills around was flowing like a rapid river flooding the township. By then, we had walked a few kilometers in about an hour and a half. We were just a kilometer or so from home. We had last called our spouses from S.V. Road before the mobiles went dead with drained batteries. Aditi and I decided to get home. It seems foolish now and it seemed foolish then, too.
We crossed the highway at the Mahindra Complex and there, on the other side, we realized the danger ahead. The area was dark and deserted. As we walked towards the township, we were wading into deeper and rapid water. We stayed on the middle of the road. We saw cars floating or precariously perched on some obstruction. Till then, we had not touched or even held each other. We should have turned back. I held her hand and we moved ahead.
The whole place lay like a deserted town with ghostly dark buildings, silent and eerie, towering all around us. There was no one around, of course, on that flooded stretch. It was a Mumbai I had never seen.
At a junction about fifty meters from our apartment block, we walked into a fast river more than knee deep. Two trucks carrying emergency items drove past us, creating waves that reached above our waist and nearly knocked us over. I could not let Aditi walk behind me or in front. I was not sure if my grip was strong enough to hold her from front and I knew that there were at least a few open manholes and large potholes in our path ahead. I held her around her waist half turned sideways, shielding with my body as she followed each step I took forward. She was definitely nervous though not unduly scared. She gave a small smile when I said, ‘Let me lead this dance, ok?’ After a few steps, she asked ‘Remember Titanic?’ Her smile vanished and I felt like kicking myself when I joked in reply, ‘Don’t worry. If I fall, I will take you down with me.’ Maybe, she would have kicked me if circumstances had not been so dire. I tried to change the topic but again with a stupid admission, ‘Seems more like Casablanca.’ She turned to look into my eyes. I think she understood that my remark was about our life ahead. That walk, those fifty meters, captured our entire time together. A careless step and we would have been washed away or fallen into some pit. If it was fiction or a movie, there would have been a tragic or comic ending. All we had was the well-trodden path ahead and any deviation involved only hurt and pain, and maybe, little joy beyond what we had, what we have forever. She smiled again, sadly though, and said without any claim on originality, ‘Of all the shitholes, in all the towns, in all the world, he had to wade into mine.’ My response was also trite, ‘We will always have,’ I paused before adding, ‘this flood?’ She nodded.
I guess we were trying hard not to think about each slow, arduous and dangerous step in that fifty meter stretch. We tightened our hold on each other. Maybe, we looked like those lovers we laughed at earlier. I did think of holding her with her front against me, concentrating on her face as I made each blind, slow step forward. But I knew every line and crease on it. I am not even sure if I concentrated more on her than on my step forward. It felt like it took ages to cover that distance to reach the compound wall of our apartment complex.
The complex was flooded too. We made our way towards our apartment block without being seen by anyone. We saw a few people, including the security personnel, gathered near the entrance to the basement car park. The basement was flooded with fifty or so cars, mostly new and expensive, under a few meters of water. We hoped that our spouses had shifted our cars to higher ground. The same wise guys who built that basement had also kept the power supply mains in the basement and that too was submerged. We did not know then that it would take four days for that basement to be drained and for the apartments to get power supply or water and of course for the lifts to work.
Aditi and I climbed the stairs. My apartment was on the thirteenth floor and hers on the fifteenth. We were tired but that climb at the end seemed a trivial trial. Like the rest of the place, the staircase was deserted. Between the eighth and ninth floors, we stopped to catch our breath. She leaned against the wall and I moved towards her. I was still holding her hand. I raised it and kissed her fingers. I held her waist. She moved away. I said sorry. She said, ‘It’s not that.’ She came close and leaned against me, her head against my chest. I kept kissing her face and lips. She played with the open buttons of my shirt. She let her fingers caress my chest. She kissed me there. We sat on the stairs. We were wet and dirty and in the dark, our tears slipped away unnoticed. I kissed her neck, opened a button or two of her blouse and kissed the top of her breasts. I slipped down and let my head lie on her lap, face buried in her thighs. I had wanted to do that that day near the changing rooms when she posed for me. I moved back up and held her tightly. We smiled and cried quietly, shamelessly. After a few moments, we stood up, corrected our clothes and covered the rest of the way without holding hands. My wife and Rahul were waiting for us in my apartment. My wife hugged me. Rahul held Aditi and after a brief exchange, they went to their apartment.
For four days, there was little water supply and no power. My wife and I rarely left the apartment. We were not keen about climbing down and up those thirteen flights of stairs. We made do with our stock of food and stored water, venturing out only once or twice for essentials. On that first night of the flood and each day during that break, I had sex with one and made love to the other. We met the other couple only once during those days. Most families just stayed within, keeping to themselves.
My wife got pregnant and my diary entries became more elaborate, revolving around that and fatherhood. Aditi too got pregnant. When we met at a restaurant for a dinner together, we joked that the great Mumbai flood had caused a baby boom, post-traumatic stress disorder we called it. My wife left her job. Rahul took another job in Delhi to be closer to his and Aditi’s parents. When the babies were born, we had separated for many months and the diary continued without blank pages or cryptic one liners. When I held my baby girl for the first time, I thought about the love that created her, the love that will never be revealed by her DNA or a diary. She is a surrogate baby of a different kind and there are millions like her, I am sure, with their history written on near empty pages.
Well, that is a reading of those half empty diaries.
  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I Want To Be Me


The couple woke up bitter and silent; head-aching and bleary-eyed after the reluctantly allowed brief fitful sleep; hungry without dinner and, being adults, avoiding breakfast together too; muttering to oneself but directed at the other, ‘I want to be me.’
At work, in their respective offices, mobiles buzzed with messages, phones rang incessantly, insistent emails popped up; impressed Japanese clients with the perfect bow and exchange of visiting cards; efficiently served unimpressed NRIs and HNIs, smiling, agreeing, barely hearing the complaints about infrastructure, filth, corruption; soothed aggravated bosses, managed the disagreeable, agreed to once-in-a-lifetime projects clashing with hopefully not-once-in-a-lifetime anniversaries; chatted with acquaintances about politics, world affairs and all the other who-gave-a-damn-about; swirled, smelled, tasted wine, nodded expertly, snacked on calamari and tiramisu; and, sometime in between, raced to the toilet, to bang head against the plywood door, to pray silently, ‘I want to be me.’
Back home, late and tired, good sense prevailed during a dinner together in the TV room – she wanted news, he wanted soap, they watched sports; she hated it when he purred scratching his dubiously yellow-brown Bermudas, he wondered if a nun’s habit is sexier than the loose faded take-single-get-double housedress she wore hitched up like a dhoti; they switched to a favourite crime-serial on DVD; one farted, the other burped, they washed the dishes together; good sense followed or preceded them to the bedroom – he picked up his book but put it down, she put on her earphones and then put it away; they lay silently, one said, ‘you love me, no?’, the other, ‘yes, you love me?’, nodded in the dark, mumbled soft sweet nothings that sounded like, ‘I want to be me.’
A few minutes later, one said, ‘My sister is coming this weekend.’
The other asked, ‘Why?’
‘Why not…?’
‘She is a pain…’
‘Your sister is a pain…’
‘I can’t do or wear whatever I want…’
‘Good…’
‘But you can do anything, right? And, wear your sick stuff, right?’
‘You are the sick one…’
‘Is that so…?’
As Yogi Berra said, it was déjà vu all over again, with one or the other reiterating, ‘I want to be me.’

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Secular Lover


Rakesh was a curious lover.
‘At fourteen, I found my first love, here in this town,’ he recollected, ‘a Christian, devout, chaste, the Sunday school type, you know. I stared, for hours, at the cross nestled against her cleavage. At fifteen, I talked to her. I asked her, why are you a Christian. She replied that it’s the only religion she can follow, in English. Man! That sounded so frivolous.’
‘Seven years later, in Bangalore, I fell for an orthodox Brahmin girl. It was destined, man! Every morning, on my way to work, I used to see these traditional ladies bending over, drawing kolam in front of their house, you know, those intricate patterns. What a sight! I had to have a religious, conservative, cultured woman like that. There was this girl in office. Real cute, looked so virtuous. She invited me, and the rest of the department, to her house. The dal, or maybe the chutney, did not agree with me. She took me to her room. I saw her book collection. Salinger, Nabokov, not a single religious text. Man! I had to use her toilet.’
‘I bounced from that into the arms of an atheist. Well, I realized soon that she had many more ists – anarchist, communist, feminist, ornithologist, anti-fundamentalist, whatever that is! Oh man! Her company felt as comfortable as a Molotov cocktail waiting to be lit.’
‘Then, in Trieste, I met my true love. Every man has only one, or so. She was Turkish or Iranian. Jeans and head-scarf, lethal even in purdah. Man! A thousand veils should shield her face from other lechers, her body the type that made guys say ‘esque, esque’ after Juno. On my last day there, while I waited for the bus to the airport, she walked past me. Man! She spoke to me! Such sweet Arabic, I gloated to another guy. That was Italian, she said your fly and mouth are open, the spoil-sport corrected. She was right, I admit. Goddesses should not speak to mortals. If only she had not, man!’
After many travels and travails, Rakesh returned home to find a wife arranged for him. She is a perfect match - religion, caste, colour, height, weight, ideology, all the boxes ticked. But, with regard to money, she is a mismatch. She is much richer than him, and absolutely perfect. He is now thirty two and she is twenty eight. They inherited two houses, a car, a speed-boat, two club memberships, a rubber estate and other properties, couple of huge fixed deposits, and a kilo or two of gold. They have bought, without loans, one more car, a villa in the city and a holiday home in the hills. They have added a kilo and a half to their gold bullion. Another point-five kilo will reach their locker before the number of kids reaches two. Currently, his wife and their one-point-five kids are taken care of by four grandparents. They worry about their dollar and euro as much as they worry about their rupee and, the prices of rubber and onions.
‘I am a secular lover,’ Rakesh concludes.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Bird


The young man and his girlfriend were returning to their hostel. It was late, the road was deserted and the street-lights were off. In the eerie light of the near-full-moon, followed by creepy shadows, the couple walked close, grazing but not touching or holding.
They heard a baby sparrow’s weak tweets. It took them ten minutes of frantic searching in the dark to find the little bird. She watched him pick up the bird carefully, cradling it in his palms, cooing, caressing.
‘My little baby…’ one crooned.
‘Our baby bird…’ the other corrected.
In his hostel-room, they made a soft nest and placed the baby bird in that cradle. He watched her feed milk, with a syringe, to the little one, drop by drop, her light soft hair falling forward, her lips pouting and wet, humming a lullaby. She looked up at him and smiled. She liked the way he watched over them. They felt secure.
He leaned forward and kissed the bird’s tiny head.
She too kissed the same spot.
A week or two went by, days full of such lovely private moments. Then, it was time to let the baby sparrow fly away. That same week, she went on a date with a senior colleague.
He thought about the bird. Maybe, it died in the wild, like their affair. Or, it survived, flying freely, uncaring, like her. He felt poetic, heroic, thinking like that.
‘Next time, I will kiss the girl, not the bird,’ he decided.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reflection


 
On every business trip to the city, Rajan Panikkar tries to keep the last afternoon free. That which started as a minor diversion became an integral part of his life, as if it was the foundation holding up the shaky rest. He guarded the addiction like a personal secret and with practice perfected a way to limit its sphere of influence. He did his utmost to conceal the anxious fear or fidgety irritation he experienced while waiting for it and, of course, enjoyed on his own the serene calm during and after the high. He tried in vain to understand why it was so important to him. At first, he thought it had something to do with him settling down in his village soon after his college days in the city but that explanation could not hold ground since he gained much in life and never had cause to regret the decision to build a business and family there. It puzzled him also because nothing out of the ordinary ever happened in those afternoons. But those few private hours in the metropolis, before catching the train back home, charmed him with a mixture of careless nostalgia and detached freedom. When quizzed by his wife, he described it as ‘rest and recreation in the busy and tiring city’. To him that was uncharacteristic eloquence but to her it sounded curt and evasive, and the topic remained unexplored between the two or with anyone else.
In his bachelor days, he used to spend that afternoon in a hotel room, near the city railway station, with a bottle of rum, spicy appetizers and bought company. After marriage, he preferred to be outside, taking in the sights and the sounds of the city and observing new fashions coexisting with persistent old ways. He enjoyed the outing most when he made the acquaintance of some transient stranger. He loved listening to anecdotes, true or imaginary; exchanging memories, with or without permanence; and sharing life, demanding nothing. He was not much of a talker but he usually managed to contribute his part in that play.
On his previous trip Rajan had met, in a pub on B. Road, a salesman of IT peripherals and their conversation had veered to the topic of drinking joints in that area. The salesman proved to be a storehouse of information on the bacchanalian establishment, and Betty’s had entered his discourse.
Betty’s is a non-descript place, bang in the middle of B. Road, dwarfed between a shopping mall and a movie-house.
‘It hardly competes to survive, run nearly like a charity,’ the salesman had said.
He had more to say about the other profitable types on that short stretch of B. Road. Near the market end, there is the government outlet with long, orderly queues. Close to that are the makeshift ‘curtain-bars’ where the hoi polloi vanish behind a curtain to have a few quick pegs of harsh cheap liquor, each gulp accompanied by a rapid lick of some fiery pickle. Then there are the pubs and dance-bars that serve various themes for the young and trendy, and the mid-level restaurants that cater to the family lot and budget tourists. Finally, there are the up-market places with old-world charm where money speaks and people vie for a place to be seen and to be on a first-name basis with the waiter or the guy at the bar.
Betty’s is like an old joke – mostly forgotten, rarely mentioned, never getting any response and well past its due date – and probably, and quite appropriate I say, that place is named after one,’ the salesman had told Rajan.
Its original owner, a garrulous man with a handsome inheritance and limited business skills, used to stand outside, right beneath the board with the name Betty’s Legs and an enticing picture of a blonde with long legs, greeting prospective customers with
‘Are you waiting for Betty’s Legs to open to have a drink? Go right in…’ his cackling mirth providing the first but not last reason for patrons to give it a miss.
‘Well, he didn’t last long…and the next owner, a religious and thrifty guy, chopped off the legs and the picture…and it became just Betty’s,’ the salesman had recounted. ‘The current proprietor, he’s been there since the early eighties I think, probably doesn’t even care or know about that name…’
‘Why? What’s he like?’ Rajan had asked.
‘Oh, you will see him, never outside, at the first table always…reading a newspaper as if it was the Gospel…he is one of the meanest rascals in town…I think he keeps that place to show a loss…to beat tax or something…but there’s one thing…there isn’t a more peaceful joint…just try being loud or troublesome out there and you will be booted out before you can say Ma…’
It was probably the name and its history that made Rajan decide then to make Betty’s his port of call on his next trip.
Rajan first completed his customary shopping for gifts to give his wife and kids. Even when business was dull and spare money scarce, he would cut down on the expenditure but he never went home without presents.
‘What’s the point in working…if I can’t get something for you…’ that became a part of his foreplay with his wife, ‘and the kids,’ he would add silently between kisses.
Rajan reached Betty’s after the shopping and a decent cheap lunch. No usher or guard stands outside the heavy wooden door which is bare except for a bronze plate at eye-level with the inscription ‘Estd.1935’ hardly visible through the verdigris. The wooden name-board on top of the door tilts to the right, and it seems incomplete with just Betty’s, roughly chopped and covering only half the span of the door.
He opened the door and entered. A dim corridor leads to a cool, windowless hall with a dozen square tables, each with four chairs. The tables and chairs are functional and of the cheap collapsible steel variety. The rough clean red and white checkered tablecloth provides the only colour in that room. Though the hall is well-lit, each table seems to lie in a shadow and sufficiently separated to have its modicum of privacy.
The table closest to the door was occupied by the proprietor, a short scrawny dark man of indeterminate age crouched over the paper laid out on the table, inert except when he sips black tea from a glass or licks his forefinger before flipping a page with that. The lone waiter, a middle-aged expressionless stooping man, shuffles around the room, carrying the drinks and the bills. The place serves no food other than roasted nuts and packaged crisps. The barman stands at a makeshift wooden counter at the right corner. He goes through his motions, as if by rote, with his eyes glued to the TV above his counter. That is always kept at low volume and the barman surfs the channels continuously, following the images, scarcely interested in the words. Quite a few of the customers sport that same vacuous hypnotized stare at the TV, drinking silently, comfortably soothed by the kaleidoscope of newsreaders, fashion models, film songs, politicians, strife, soap opera and cookery.
Rajan was surprised to find that all the tables were taken. He approached the third table near the left wall. He requested the sole occupant, who sat facing the wall rather than the hall and the TV, if he could share the table. The other nodded and Rajan took the seat opposite, facing the hall and the entrance.
 The man opposite was neatly dressed, and apart from three open shirt buttons at the top, there was no indication that he had left his office persona. His office bag, an old leather shoulder bag that probably had a morning paper and a multi-layered lunch-box, was beneath his chair. An umbrella hung on the back of his chair. His spectacles were on the table, and he sat stooping a little forward, his left elbow on the table, head leaning against that hand. Between slow sips the other hand traced lines on the wet glass or the table-cloth. He kept staring at a point on the wall to the right of Rajan.
Rajan studied the place. It could be mistaken for a lazy government office, he thought, without the flies and persistent public. No one seemed to be in a hurry or worried or carrying any load from without. Some stared at the TV, some were lost in reverie, silently nursing drinks or replenishing, some talked like passengers on a long-distance public transport, exchanging comments about the weather or the news or personal information, knowing well that the talk rarely exited that room. 
Rajan and the man ordered separately, drinking silently and steadily, munching nuts and crisps without sharing, not even looking at each other till the third round. The man was still gazing at the same spot on the wall and Rajan had been staring vacantly at the rapid channel movement on TV.
‘There used to be a mirror there. A large one, nearly spanned more than the breadth of this table,’ the man said.
‘Only here?’ Rajan asked, studying his companion more closely now.
‘I am not sure. I remember only that one. Maybe, there were mirrors all around…you know, at regular intervals or something. One of those must have broken…’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Well, they have removed all the mirrors, haven’t they?’ The man stated that as if a broken mirror could be the only logical cause.
‘It is bad luck…broken mirror…’ Rajan said before asking, ‘When was this?’
‘The broken mirror…? I don’t know,’ the man’s disinterest in that aspect was apparent.
‘No, when were there mirrors?’
‘Oh…it was definitely there twenty years back…twenty years back,’ the man said with a wistful smile. Then, he remained silent and thoughtful as if he was allowing some floating recollection to settle down. After a while, he continued, ‘I was remembering what I saw in that mirror twenty years back.’
‘You remember that?’ Rajan asked sincerely.
‘How can I forget her…I could see her in the mirror. She was sitting near the entrance, at the table right across from the first one, opposite the proprietor’s. That bastard was there even then, reading paper like now. I was with a colleague and I had beer, I remember.’
‘A beer…? Here?’
‘Yeah…I was young.’
‘Who was she?’
‘I don’t know. I was sitting in this same seat. I saw her in the mirror. She was not beautiful, not even pretty. But captivating…oh yes, she was that…’ the man leaned forward, ‘you won’t believe me if I describe her.’
‘Try me.’ Rajan said with a conspiratorial smile.
‘Her face had little make-up…a small bindi…and a thin line of sandalwood paste on her forehead, as if she had been to a temple…red lipstick, jasmine garland in her hair, that’s all…dusky, neat features, a full mouth with kissable lips…oh yes, I remember that…and she really had strange eyes, blank and expressionless, weary…all that behind the smoke from her cigarette…and she sipped her cool drink slowly…sucking at the straw, her lips pouting around it…I can still remember those lips. She wore a sari…the traditional type, you know, white with gold border…when she was not sipping that drink, she kept biting a locket on a gold chain, maybe her thaali…her mangalsutra…man, she was a sight…and that too here…’
‘Come on…you must have imagined…’ Rajan said, not trying to mask his interest, ‘sandalwood tika on the forehead, jasmine garland, sari…such a woman smoking here…not even in these days?’
‘What did I tell you…unbelievable, right? But she was no imagination…and the best part is yet to come.’
They ordered their next round of drinks and waited for it to be served, sharing their packets of crisps and nuts. Then, the man proceeded with his tale,
‘My colleague was also looking at her…directly of course...he was sitting in your seat. And I asked him what he thought of that captivating woman. Guess what he said…’
‘What?’
‘That she is a prossie…’
‘Prossie…?’
‘Prostitute, man…’ He was now whispering and Rajan had to lean forward too.
‘Oh my God, really…? How did your colleague know?’
‘He knew that kind of stuff alright…’
‘So, what happened?’
‘My colleague told me that that’s her seat and the proprietor managed everything for her. Everything…’
‘That scrawny louse, he is that too?’ Rajan asked. Their whispers were now even lower.
‘I saw the proprietor going to a table, speaking to a man…that customer got up and went out with that woman.’
‘You saw that?’
‘Oh yes…’
The two men sat back, sipping their drinks slowly, letting that twenty year old scene play on their minds.
Rajan suspected that only parts of it were true. He wondered about how the story could be taken forward or if he should give a tale of his own and if there was any role for him in any of that.
The other man offered to buy the next round. He looked pleased, smiling, reliving that past, letting the present slip away for a few moments more.
They were silent after that for a long while, enjoying those moments of forgetful peace, listening to the sounds – glasses clinking, metal tables creaking, seats scraping, crunching of crisps, water or liquor being poured.
Rajan was still thinking about a tale of his own when he saw the door open and a lady stepped in. She wore a sari, just a common cotton one not even worn with care, and she looked worried or embarrassed to be there. She surveyed the room quickly. She did not have sandalwood paste on her forehead or a jasmine garland in her hair but she was attractive, her discomfort adding to that, making her seem even bewitching. He watched her go talk to the proprietor and saw the latter get up reluctantly after listening to her.
Rajan leaned forward towards the other man, ‘You will not believe what has just happened.’
The other man remained reclined in his hard seat with eyes closed, still in some blissful stupor, ‘What?’
‘A lady has just walked in.’
‘Yeah, yeah, dream on…’ said the other with an incredulous laugh.
‘I know her. I couldn’t place her at first. It’s been years since I saw her…way back when I was a bachelor…’
The other man opened his eyes. Rajan gave him a wink. The man turned towards the door but all he could see was that scrawny proprietor approaching their table.
The proprietor came to their table and spoke to the man, ‘Your wife is at the door.’
The man looked surprised but recovered fast. ‘Tell her to get lost,’ the man said. Then he looked at Rajan once again. Rajan gave a small shrug, noncommittal though not condescending.
‘You better leave now.’ The proprietor told the man firmly.
The man did not argue. He stood up, collected his bag and umbrella, and left without another look towards Rajan, or a farewell.
Rajan watched the man go to his wife, with a malicious glare brimming with anger, body tense and moving with slow unsteady steps. He watched the lady say something to the man. Rajan wondered if she was telling him about some emergency at home, maybe a mother or a child ill, or he had finished off the money for a kid’s school-fees or household bills or, worse, some loan-shark’s dues, or she was asking him why he was not in office at that hour. Rajan lost interest in that endless soap-opera of the dreary life without. He saw the man holding his wife by the elbow, nearly dragging her out of that sanctuary.    
Rajan leaned back in his seat, eyes half-focused on the blur on TV, a smile on his lips, the story of the day slipping into some shelf of memories, with an hour or so still left to enjoy.