Kaushik returned home around 8 in the evening. The journey back worked like clockwork. He and Ashish left office together at a quarter past six and walked to the railway station across the road. There they chatted for a few minutes until a train arrived and they exchanged curt goodbyes. They traveled in opposite directions. Kaushik changed trains a couple of stops later, walking to the end of one platform and crossing the tracks to another where the other train waited. An hour later, he was home. He’d been doing this for months now, the routine broken only when the odd bit of work kept him in office for longer.
The first thing he did when he reached home was switch on the laptop. It took a while for the machine to boot; age was catching up with it. While it did, he took a shower and changed into more comfortable wear. On most days, the woman who cooked food for them had already done so and left; she had a spare key. He checked what she’d prepared although he wouldn’t eat it until much later. His parents would almost certainly call before that and his mother would ask what he would have dinner. Sometimes, when the woman came in late, he asked her for a cup of tea.
He glanced through the list of friends online on his IM. Most of them were people Kaushik hardly ever talked to. He looked for the regulars - Rahul, a classmate from Lucknow, with whom he had the most outrageous conversations – they had developed a language all their own, which consisted of literal translations of Hindi sentences and phrases to English. Over time, it had evolved to a level where it almost sounded like code – if one didn’t have the key, one couldn’t even begin to decipher it. Sometimes, he also found Raakesh and they chatted about their latest efforts in reading or producing literature. Once in a while, he spotted a lady or two, of which there were very few on his list, and he debated whether he should attempt a conversation.
Kaushik’s first experiences in online chatting dated back to the early 2000s, while he was still in engineering college. Like most of his friends then, he had become a regular visitor to cyber cafés. There, he had chosen a ludicrous screen name for himself – a grandiose epithet prefixed to his name. He’d tried King and Royal and Greatest and Macho and found those were already registered. Eventually, he’d settled on Emperor. He thought it quite elegant. Every time he logged in, he had scrounged public chatrooms for females, sent messages to all of them and then waited with growing desperation for one to respond. Whenever one of them did, his face broke into a smile and he turned to his friends on adjacent machines and boasted about it. Those that were out of luck for the day then huddled around him and they all chatted to the girl together. Over time, they developed newer techniques of soliciting responses; the simple ‘Hi’ and ‘How are you’ having long since stopped working.
By the time he went to B School, those days were behind him and he was too embarrassed to share the ID with anyone. He later discovered he needn’t have been, for there were several others in the same boat. Ashish, it emerged, had managed to lay his hands on Greatest. Nevertheless, Kaushik created a fresh, more presentable account name so he could laugh at everyone else.
With or without epithets, Kaushik always preferred chatting over phone calls. The chat window redefined Time. A response could come or be sent five minutes later and still qualify as a response. A bunch of such responses strung together could become a legitimate conversation. He needn’t suffer the dismay of thinking of a suitable repartee too late. His friend Shrinivas, geeky and entertaining, had once told him there was a word for it – ‘esprit de l’escalier’. There could never be an esprit de l’escalier on a chat window. He could construct far more convoluted sentences than could ever be done face to face. He could quickly search for information and quotes and reproduce it as if from memory. It allowed him to be wittier. It allowed him to be many different persons at once. With Rahul he could make a mess of two languages, with Raakesh he could discuss the greatest works of literature, with the girls he could show off his command over language and humour, all at the same time. Chats made him feel cleverer than he actually was.
An hour of chatting later, he usually watched a film. Occasionally, if the film turned out to be bland and boring, he went back to the IM, while the film played itself out in the background. Today, it was a good one.