“I’ve decided,” Kaushik announced between sips of Suleimaani Chaai, “to write a novel.” Ritankar nodded thoughtfully. “Oh man! Look at that babe entering!” exclaimed Ashish. They turned and looked.
Suleimaani Chaai was one of the many delights for which they frequented The Prithvi Café. It is black tea with very little sugar and is served, with a piece of sliced lemon and a few Pudina leaves floating inside, in short translucent glasses similar to those that can be found in every tea stall anywhere in India. The choice of glass is intentional – it is much appreciated for its earthiness by the liberals and intellectuals who haunt the Café in faded kurtas and jeans and a dirty half-torn bag slung on one shoulder. The Pudina leaves keep sticking to one’s lips when one sips from the glass and have to be peeled off with one’s fingers. The Chaai tastes magnificent.
Then there are the women. A lot of them come dressed in faded kurtas and jeans too, but they look enchanting since, unlike the men, they don’t carry three-day beards. On weekends, uber-rich businessmen bring their families to watch plays being performed in Prithvi Theatre, which is housed in the same premises. These families usually include a young daughter or two with perfect bodies, dressed in latest chic. Fifteen minutes before a performance, they all form a queue outside the entrance to the theatre since there are no seat numbers on tickets and therefore the best spots have to be fought for. The young boys at the café eye the queue with relish.
In the beginning, the theatre was the main attraction for Kaushik, Ritankar and Ashish. This was in their first months in Mumbai, when they were only starting to discover the pleasures of the city. Theatre performances were rare in the cities they’d been brought up and studied in and watching a play in the dark, intimate environs of Prithvi’s small amphitheatre - the proximity of the performers and their voices, pure and unfiltered by electronics - exhilarated them. After the performances, they’d spend time at the café gushing over what they’d witnessed., Soon, they exhausted Prithvi’s regular catalogue - a rather limited one, and found they would now have to wait for the occasional new production to arrive. They continued spending time at the café anyway, in love with the stone tables and benches, the yellow lights of bulbs, with enormous colourfully embroidered plastic shades over them, hanging from an iron frame, and occasional glimpses of stars and the moon through the branches of the coconut tree that loomed above.
In the last days before Kaushik quit his first job, he started coming to Prithvi in the afternoons on weekdays, slinking out of office for a few hours. In daylight, the place looked different -vulnerable in its now visible layers of old, fragrant dust and dried leaves on the floor and tables, more inviting. Most tables remained empty and the ones taken, were by theatre groups planning and rehearsing their stories and characters.
“Yes, you must.” Ritankar said.
“I must what?” asked Kaushik.
“Write that novel.”
“Oh. I’d forgotten where we were amidst all that distraction.”
“You can tell us the basic plot or something?” continued Ritankar.
“Oh I don’t know. I’ll just write the kind of stuff that I’ve written in the past – those mood pieces, you know. And I’ll see if they can be loosely bunched together into some sort of a theme…nothing concrete, really.”
“And maybe I’ll call it something vague like ‘Closing the Barn Door’ or something, so it sounds symbolic and important.”
“I was just reading the other day,” Ashish butted in, “Berlusconi seems to be at it again.”
In Lucknow, as their final year neared its end and they became increasingly convinced that a successful 30 year career was not up their alley, Kaushik, Ashish and Raakesh came up with the idea of writing a novel together. “Each one writes on paragraph and then lets the next guy carry it from there. Nobody will have any clue where the thing will end, should be an interesting experiment.” Ashish had said. Kaushik and Raakesh had agreed. It fell upon Kaushik to start and he did so, choosing to write an opening paragraph so open that it hardly mattered what the next one would be. The next one was never written.
A year later, when Ritankar and Kaushik had just bought a handheld camera to take to Europe, Ashish suggested they make a short film. “It’ll be in first person, the protagonist and cinematographer will be the same.” The story was of a guy exiting an apartment and then walking for a while, taking a bus or a train – (“might be difficult, we’ll need permissions for those”) – and somewhere during all this, realizing he’s left something behind. So he’ll hurry back to that apartment again and we’ll find he’s actually committed a murder and has returned to remove some evidence he’d overlooked earlier. It had sounded like a pretty interesting idea, at least something to shoot and practice with. They’d worked on details with great interest for the rest of the day at the end of which they had a dozen ideas and nothing on paper. They’d decided to develop on the idea individually through the week and meet again next weekend. That was the end of that.
Since then, Kaushik had figured he was better off thinking and writing on his own and that he didn’t much care for what Ashish thought of his ideas or he of Ashish’s.
“Aha! What has Berlusconi done now?” said Kaushik, waving to the waiter to get them more Chaai and readying himself for an interesting conversation.