Wednesday, September 4, 2013


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…’
‘That she is a 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.


  1. Haha!!! :))
    That was a wonderful! Liked the slow pace and the intense build up you created!! And I was guessing impatiently!! But I Guessed it!!

    Really enjoyed reading! Thanks

    1. Thanks a lot for reading, KP...

      So, what did you guess??? :-)))

  2. Well!! when this Rajan spotted the lady, I guessed that she could be related to the other person! Wasn't she!!!

    1. Yes, that is true...


      Thx once again for looking at this one.

    2. Well ya!! But but... You didn't mention if the tale that Rajan gave was true or not. Also, but! How the reaction of the same man different when the same tale was recreated...
      But loose ends are fun coz one can tie knots in anyway they want and still enjoy it!

    3. Exactly, KP...

      As readers, we really need "buts" and loose ends, right? And, as writers, we want readers to explore, think, have fun... there's no greater appreciation than the time a reader spends on a writing, right?

      Thanks a lot...I mean it! wishes!