The place looked like it looked most Thursday evenings: full but not crowded. The familiar smoke and noise. The hazy phosphorent blue lights peeking from false ceilings and walls. A local band was reproducing mediocre improvised versions of popular 70’s rock songs. The crowd, most of them young boys and girls with rich old fathers, sang along sporadically and cheered at the end of each number to indicate that they had recognized it. Night after night, different bands produced near identical playlists, goaded on by an energetic audience that couldn’t care less what was being played as long as it sounded familiar. The song, as Led Zep would’ve put it, did remain the same.
He sat, nonchalantly sipping beer, and studying the two girls and his friend sitting with him. Very early in the conversation, he had been left behind, beaten by his friend’s aggression and experience and his own diffidence in the matter of random dating. Right from when drinks had been discussed, decided and ordered for and his friend had asked the waiter for a weird sounding chicken dish that was not to be found on the menu but was prepared for esteemed customers such as him, he knew he was out for the count. And so, he contended himself with odd sarcastic remarks here and there while he studied the two girls closely, a consistent half smile plastered on his face.
It didn’t help matters that the girls performed so dissimilarly on his appearance rating scale.
One of them had the kind of face that rarely inspires poetry and yet, is oddly attractive. This was complimented by a suitably dusky complexion, a magnificently toned body and well-chosen attire - in this case a well cut green gown. She spoke almost exclusively in excited monosyllables, in a sharp clean voice, and laughed gregariously.
The other was chubby and bland. Flat, pudgy face, puffed under the lips, accentuated by sagging cheeks. Unremarkable hair. She wore a brown corset, too tight for her, over bland blue jeans. The corset’s ends pinched into the flesh close to the armpits, about where the breasts begin to rise, forming a rippled mound of surplus fat. He felt almost revolted at the sight.
He felt sympathy for her, a sympathy he shared with himself. Here they were, he attracted to her friend and she to his, but fully aware that neither could hope for their attractions to be reciprocated. For a while, he had tried to chit chat. She was from Orissa, she had informed him. He had nodded and gulped down the tasteless Oriya jokes that scrambled into his mind.
“I am from Kolkata” he had ventured, to which she’d made no comment. So they had fallen silent again.
That had been over ten minutes ago. He decided to try another time. He thought awhile for appropriate and witty rejoinders after ten minutes of silence and came up with none.
So he went with “So, when you go to Orissa from here, how do you go? By train?”
Immediately, he realized just how ridiculous the question was. His mind flashed back to the time when he had been on a flight to Kolkata seated next to an American girl touring India. Having exchanged pleasantries, he had picked up his novel and pretended to read while contemplating how he could manufacture a conversation. An hour and a half later, he had noticed the girl fumbling through the magazines and instruction manuals inside her seat flap, out of boredom, and eventually picking up the air sickness paper bag and fiddling with it. “Do you feel like vomiting? I have some chocolates.” He had said.
“Why are you smiling?” the girl asked.
It was a habit that had come subconsciously to him and would not go away. It annoyed him that it would not. Whenever he indulged in wistful memories such as these, a smile crept into his face and held itself there until he realized it was there. On innumerable occasions, he suddenly became conscious that his face was creased in a wide smile, while waiting at the bus station, travelling in a train, walking on the street. He would immediately look around embarrassedly to check if people had noticed.
“Oh, nothing. Just remembered something.” He said.
He gazed around the place. Gradually, the dance floor had filled up. He realized with a shock that they were dancing to a remixed version of The Door’s “The End”.
“I did not think I would ever see this in my life. The End on a dance floor? Do these people even know what the song means?”
The girl laughed with genuine amusement.
“Yes, I noticed. They were using Another brick in the wall before this.”
“Quite appropriate, I’d say.”
“So, you listen to a lot of rock?” she asked.
“I’ve heard my share, yes. I prefer country though. Nicer and softer and less grandiose ambitions. And fabulous voices.”
She smiled again and looked away politely. He noticed his friend and her friend holding hands. He sighed.
He wondered if he’d ever have the opportunity to do that himself. Or be able to. He turned back to her.
“You want another drink? I’ve finished too, we could order one more?”
“You’ve ever been to Kolkata?”
“Yes, a number of times. I have an aunt who lives there.”
“Ah. Where in Kolkata?”
“Kankurgachi, I think.”
“That’s a long way away from where I used to live. How do you like the city?”
“Commonly held opinion! Its a strange city though. It looks like there’s always something happening, continuous flux, movement, worried looking people...but in truth, nothing actually does happen.”
“And it never seems to change. Kolkata looks the same every time I go there.”
“It‘s probably been like this since the 1800s. When they make a time machine, it’d be useless to use it in Kolkata.”
She laughed again.
“Time machine? Duh...that concept is all hot air.”
“You think so?”
“If they are ever going to make a time machine, then at some point in the future its already been made, right? Which means, it should’ve been here by now. In fact, it should’ve been to the prehistoric ages by now and introduced it to the Neanderthals themselves. And then, there’d be no need for all this gradual human evolution and gaining of knowledge and all of that. We’d be as advanced as we are ever going to be right from the beginning...”
“And the fact that that has not happened means they’re never going to make one?”
“Depends on how you interpret a time machine. They could make one where you don’t physically time travel. So you can’t interfere with what has happened, only witness it. Something of that sort”
“And how would they make that?”
“How could they make either? This is just hypothetical shit we’re spewing...”
“True”, she reflected on this for a while.
“I have another theory though. Or rather, an slightly silly interpretation of time itself. What if time is continuous and cause-effect driven in the present and the future but malleable in the past?”
She looked at him quizzically.
“Like an assembly line process where once the material passes a certain phase in the process, you could keep breaking and disconnecting or do whatever with those phases and, ideally, the material would still come out the same. You get it?”
“So, lets say time moves like that. So you pick up a point and call it present and everything beyond it future. Now if you go backwards into the past and modify something, it doesn’t matter because the future doesn’t know the past has changed. So everything goes on the same way, see! So maybe, the time machine has been made in the future and has gone into the past and changed things but we have no idea! Maybe the second world war never happened!”
She smiled and nodded to let him know that she had lost interest. He was too excited to notice.
“Of course, the counter argument is what do you consider as Present. Which is a tricky one. Because the counter to that is quite depressing.”
He paused, finished the rest of the whiskey in the glass, and looked intently at her, to communicate the seriousness of the issue.
She understood what was expected of her.
“And what would the counter be?” she queried, anxious to get done with it.
He chuckled, “Destiny. Doesn’t matter where you start in time. Whatever you change in the past does not matter and whatever has been changed in the future, you would not know in the present!”
He beamed widely again. He was starting to enjoy her company.
“So, how long have you lived in Mumbai?” she asked, exasperated and did not bother to register his reply.
She remembered reading on his facebook profile that he’d like to be a filmmaker. That had interested her. That was why she'd agreed to come in the first place. Besides, from what she could gather from his profile pictures, apart from being slightly short, he was pretty presentable. Through the course of the evening, she had found him a little nervous but otherwise agreeable. She had waited for him to settle down and start talking. On the evidence of what he had spoken, she felt, if he ever did make a film, she wouldn’t want to watch it.
“I didn’t notice, those two are over there, dancing.” He said.
“Oh, they are? I didn’t notice either.”
“Well, would you like to dance as well?”
She thought quickly, looked at her watch and said
“Yeah, sure. I’ve got fifteen minutes.”