Sunday, September 26, 2010


It was the first time they were both together in front of the camera. The camera, placed on the parapet that separated Montefioralle from the lush Tuscan landscape, stared at them motionlessly, while they sat on a wooden bench and gazed at the unending countryside that the camera couldn’t see. There was nobody else in sight.

They remained silent for a long time. The camera heard the peaceful sound of birds and occasionally, the church bells toll. A light rain fell and the cobbled streets and ancient stone walls glistened. Tiny droplets fell on their shirts, darkening the colour where they fell and then spread, lightened and became undetectable. The glow of their cigarettes reddened when they drew in smoke.

“I wonder how they capture that sound of paper and tobacco burning when people smoke in films.” Kaushik said aloud.

“I don’t know. I think they use unfiltered cigarettes.” Ritankar said.

Kaushik nodded and stole a glance at the camera, then looked away again. The church bells chimed again.

“How about we describe what we see in front of us, the magnificence that lies there unseen to those watching through the camera?” Kaushik said.

Ritankar did not respond and continued to stare into the distance. They heard the fleeting sound of a car passing by on the highway behind them, hidden by the walls of the church.

“Look at them hills yonder,” Kaushik began, “green, wonderful. Oh bliss.” He sighed. “Those clouds brooding over them, perhaps drawn to their beauty as much as we. Those tiny houses with red roofs down in Greve clustered together like in a dream. Oh, that smoke rising from the chimney over there, snow white against the green grey.” He paused, shook his head thoughtfully and looked straight at the camera. “I wish you could see what I can see.” He clucked his tongue, “Oh nature, why art thou so cruel!”

Ritankar smiled but did not comment.

“This must be right up there with the best of our trip”, he said after long minutes had passed.

“Yes. With Cinque Terre and the Père Lachaise.”

“I hope the Aeolian Islands turn out alright. That should cap everything off nicely. And Rome, obviously.”

“I think this is going to be the best scene of our travelogue,” Kaushik mused, “if we do manage to compile one.” He added.

Ritankar stood up and strolled around for a bit, moving out of sight of the camera. Kaushik took a sip of water from the bottle he’d carried and settled back into the bench again.

“Must be twenty minutes since the camera started rolling,” Ritankar called out from where he stood, a few metres away, staring up at a streetlamp.

“Yes, must be. Why?”

“No. I guess we beat Hunger. That was seventeen minutes, wasn’t it?”

Kaushik laughed. “Yes, thereabouts. We weren’t that intense though, were we?”

Two years hence, Kaushik’s hard drive would crash and take with it everything they’d shot. In that time, they would’ve watched the videos once and never have worked on them.

“What time is it?” Ritankar asked.

“One. You want to leave? We’ve got to get back to Greve by three.”

“Lets walk through the village one more time. Then we can leave.”

Kaushik walked away from the line of sight of the camera and then detoured to it from its blind side. He switched it off and picked it up. “This should be fun to watch.” He said.

On their way down to Greve, they walked by the cemetery compound again – a small space enclosed by a thick wall that rose up to their chests. On the other side, over the wall, Tuscany rose and fell in all its glory. Stone plaques, some with faded photographs on them, stood in a four uniform columns. They read out some of the names under their breath, fearful that a raised voice might disturb the exquisite equilibrium of the place. They mulled over the paradox of what they felt – extreme calm and a warm melancholia.

It was only when they’d descended to Greve and sat in what appeared to be the only café in town, sipping warm steaming cups of cappuccino, that Kaushik finally spoke aloud.

“Not a bad place to die.”He said.

Amores, indeed, Perros

They were seated on the stone parapet that separated the tube-lit street from the sand. Around them, hawkers were preparing to shut shop for the day. It was a weekend and they had perhaps sold off everything earlier than usual. Pieces of old vernacular newspapers, folded into cones with hollow bottoms, lay about; a stray peanut or two peeked from a few. The smell of roasted maize hung in the air. On the street, the occasional group of tourists passed, hurrying to their hotel rooms, oblivious to the brooding hum of the invisible ocean to their side.

“What time is it?” Ashish asked.

Kaushik peered at his watch, twisted his wrist in search of a stray column of light from the streetlamps, for the dial not immediately visible in the darkness.

“About half past nine.” He answered.

“Early days yet, although by the looks of it, sufficiently late for everyone else.” Ashish said.

“Anyone wants more tea?” said Ritankar and waited for the other two to nod. “ Lets order before the fellow leaves.”

They called out for three more cups from where they were seated.

“I wouldn’t mind an omelet either.” Said Ashish.

“You go ahead. I am stuffed.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Oh well, then I guess I’ll skip it too.”

They had reached Murud that afternoon with growling bellies and aching backsides, a five hour bus ride behind them. Apart from the quaint thatched houses with sloping roofs and the faint, agreeable odour of cow dung that hung perennially in the air, the first thing they had noticed was the street names. Every street, even the narrowest by-lane, was named after a popular figure of the Indian freedom struggle – Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, Patel, Ambedkar, Tilak. Evidently, Murud thought itself important enough for this to be construed as bestowal of honour. They had found themselves a cozy little room on the first floor in a makeshift two storey hotel; the owners themselves lived on the lower floor. The stairs opened straight into a grassy courtyard with a palm tree in the centre, which overlooked the ocean. They had found the place enchanting although the bathroom door wouldn’t lock and the ceiling fan screeched and shuddered every once in a while.

A handful of tourists hung around the beach. They were surprised to note that some of them were foreigners. They couldn’t imagine how anyone outside India could’ve heard of this place, tucked away as it was in the long and largely inaccessible Konkan coastline. The nearest train station was two hours away. Three buses, state owned, plied to and from Mumbai each day on roads, narrow and bumpy, that weaved in and out of the lush Western Ghats. Whenever two buses crossed each other, they came so close one could smell the passengers’ breath in the other bus through the window.

The tea arrived in plastic cups. Kaushik blew into it and the vapour settled thinly on his glasses, then gradually faded away. The breeze had picked up and now ruffled his hair. He passed his hand through them and it came away with particles of sand sticking to it. He remembered he’d forgotten to bring the shampoo. He grimaced.

“I will be travelling to the Philippines next month.” Ritankar announced.

“To Philippines? What for?” Kaushik asked.

“It’s the annual conference for our company,” Ritankar said. He stood up and stretched his legs before continuing, “they’d eventually told us it would be in Beijing but it appears they’ve now chosen Manila.”

“Perhaps they need to send out a lot of letters during the conference,” offered Ashish, “Envelopes must be cheap in Manila, no?”

They laughed.

“So, how many days?” Kaushik asked.

“About two weeks I think.”

“Two weeks! I’ve never heard of an annual conference lasting that long!”

Ritankar sat down again. “No, the conference in only 4 days.” He said.

“So what about the other ten days?”

Ritankar stood up again and lit a cigarette, with difficulty since the breeze was strong and he wasn’t very good at cupping his hands around the matchstick. In fact, none of them were. He sat down again.

“I have something to tell you guys,” he said.

Ashish and Kaushik looked at each other. Kaushik raised an eyebrow.

“Go on.”

“You remember that girl from China I told you about? The one that works in our Beijing office?”

“Ah yes. She was here a few months ago for some training, right? Told you she didn’t like shopping for clothes, I think.” Kaushik said, glancing once again at Ashish.

Ritankar nodded. “Yes, she wanted to go to a bookstore, instead.”

“And you took here there. Yes, so, what about her?”

“Well, you see, I’ve been chatting with her since then,” Ritankar’s tone was almost apologetic, “off and on.”

“Off and on, I see.”

“Drop the sarcasm for once, Kaushik” Ashish said.

“Yes, of course. And I did not detect any in what you just said.” Kaushik countered.

Ritankar grew visibly impatient.

“Ok, Ok. Let’s get back to what his story now. Yes, so you were,” Kaushik paused, “chatting off and on.”

“Yes. And it, sort of, clicked.”


“Lets get more tea” Ritankar suggested.

Kaushik yelled for more tea again.

Ritankar went on to tell them how it was that they had clicked. He provided excerpts from their conversations, which turned out to revolve mostly around love and life and their meanings. “If you were divided into equal halves,” she had asked him once, “would one half love the other?” “Oh, really?” Kaushik remarked, “She asked you that? Very novel. Very subtle.” Ritankar waved Kaushik’s comment away with his arms and continued on. They had grown used to each other over time and spent an increasing number of hours chatting in office. They had exchanged novels and later, text messages, with each other. The girl, Ritankar told them, had majored in French literature. Kaushik and Ashish nodded approvingly. At some point, Ritankar had mentioned his interest in her was beginning to evolve beyond the confines of their chat window. Kaushik was certain Ritankar could never have said that if the two had been face to face, but did not mention it. The two had then agreed to find a way to meet again.

“So anyway, where do matters stand now? In all of this, that point has remains unclear.” Ashish said, when Ritankar finished.

“I don’t know. We’ll meet in Manila, spend a few days together and see how it works out. I am not sure.”

Back in office after the weekend in Murud, refreshed and bored, Kaushik and Ashish discussed this new development and sipped coffee pensively. “What the fuck man! What wrong have we done?” they said to each other. They determined they must get Ritankar to share a picture of her and based on what they saw become a little relieved or more depressed. The weekend before Ritankar was to leave for Manila they met again and wished him luck.

When Ritankar returned from Manila, he was convinced he had a future with her. So was she, he told Kaushik and Ashish. They had spent a fabulous week together, travelling through Philippines and its many islands. They had discussed their future together and a way out of, as Ritankar put it, all this.

“Does she have any lady friends she can introduce your friends to?” Ashish quipped.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Kaushik’s interest in Ritika, as much a product of incessant suggestion as of actual attraction, was firmly established, in his mind and of others’, by the time the second month in Lucknow had begun. She, with her aquiline nose, high cheeks and terrible voice, was one of the most sought after, although not overwhelmingly so, for that year the campus had witnessed a markedly increased influx of attractive women. The presence of competition – stiff is not the appropriate word to use in this context – meant Kaushik did not even try seriously, although it was unlikely he would have succeeded even if he did. For a long time, he wasn’t even sure if she knew his name.

It was still that phase when Kaushik was only feeling his way into the company of the Illustrious and therefore, his poise, never assured amongst womenfolk in the best of times, wasn’t what could be considered self-confident. Indeed, he fell back, more strongly than ever, on his time-honed defense of sarcasm and feigned indifference.

He never really had been a ladies’ man. In school, as a kid only dimly aware of man woman relationships beyond that of playing Snakes & Ladders together, he, along with his friends, had enjoyed the company of women often. By the time his dim notions had developed into more coherent physical urges – he woke up to these much later than most of his peers since at the time his naïve faith in his parents was unshakeable and they had begun to drop frequent, subtle hints, that he shouldn’t be getting carried away with himself at this precarious age -, he was almost through school.

He went to college in Ahmedabad for a couple of months to pass time, while he waited for the letter, from Dhule as it turned out, to arrive. There, he noticed how the women wore dresses very different from the full sleeved shirts and ankle length skirts that had been their school uniform. He registered the clearly defined curves, accentuated by the tighter tees and jeans, and the occasional, bewitching, sight of an exposed knee. At this stage, he himself was barely above five feet and in the nascent stages of obesity, and this meant, his advances, friendly and unsure, were met with only mild, somewhat sisterly, reactions. The subject of his height, a matter of great concern to his Mom & Dad for the past few years, suddenly became important to himself. He hunted around for girls his own height but found himself hopelessly distracted by those that weren’t. He went into a shell, eating sandwiches at the canteen alone, and taking the bus back home as soon as lectures ended. Sometimes, when he bunked class, he went to the neighbourhood bookshop and read.

The problem of his height alleviated significantly by the end of his first semester in Dhule. He never became an imposing presence, other than horizontally, but he grew enough to have a physical vantage point with respect to most women. But the Lord that gaveth also, snidely, taketh. Dhule proved barren in more ways than one. The one female worthy of, at best, passing attention garnered so much, she abandoned college, two weeks into the first session, and returned to her hometown. There were a handful others who were alright, not unworthy of mankind saving liaison after a nuclear attack by machines wrecks the planet leaving only two survivors, and these were quickly picked up by the locals boys, who, armed with a bunch of hockey stick wielding sidekicks, wrestled their way through the cluster of less connected aspirants and into the women’s hearts. Kaushik, of course, stood no chance.

And thus, by the time Ritika turned up, his wooing and conversational skills were still only marginally better than at infancy.

She was interested in literature and in western music. She maintained a blog which sounded profound and vague. She had a sense of humour, it appeared. Kaushik mentioned his interest casually to his friends and they latched onto it at once. They cajoled and goaded on his desire for her.

He constructed conversations with her in his head, fretting over each detail, going back and changing his own words, wherever he felt he had gone wrong, but never hers since what she said was of her own volition. They all turned out to be conversations worthy of the best noir and that he couldn’t actually have them with her depressed Kaushik further. He passed her by several times each day, at the coffee shop, at the student mess, in classrooms, but never said hello, choosing instead, to steal sidelong glances at her. Once in a while, when his glance would be caught by hers, he offered a frail smile and quickly looked away, not waiting to check if she’d smiled back. At this point, everyone was adding everyone else to their Social Network friend lists and Chat lists, but Kaushik desisted from sending her an invite, afraid he’d be turned down. It wasn’t until they were grouped together, along with a couple of other fellows, for a project, that he eventually sent her an invite, making up his mind to clarify it was to discuss about the project lest she harbor suspicions.

It was around this time that he met Raakesh, who was then struggling with romantic demons of his own. Since his gift for the written word was universally acknowledged by this time, Raakesh had figured he could use it to his advantage to make headway with the object of his desire. And so, he composed sonnets in her name and slipped them under her door in the early hours of the morning. After weeks of expectant waiting, when nothing happened, he and Kaushik figured the girl was probably too airheaded to appreciate the magic of his words. And they returned to their novels and their alcohol.

Ritika, it emerged one day, had succumbed to the charms of another man, a senior. Kaushik took the news with great equanimity and immediately set about finding all he could about this man. He was a hopeless alcoholic, Kaushik found, and evidently had a knack for growling absurd Death Metal songs. Nobody on campus, even those of his own batch, liked him. When the news of his conquest spread, they liked him even less. It won’t last, was the general opinion. In three years’ time, the two would marry each other.

With time, Kaushik grew out of her and a strange thing happened. He found he could now speak to her. They spoke a few times during the final months in Lucknow, sometimes face to face and sometimes in a chat window, and Kaushik found he enjoyed these occasions with a faint hint of wistfulness, even as they were underway. He recognized the transient nature of these conversations and that they would probably die away slowly once they left Lucknow. He still liked the sight of her.

They did chat once or twice after Kaushik, and she too, had settled in Mumbai. They did not have occasion to meet. She remained on his Gtalk list and he looked for her name each time he logged in, for no purpose other than to simply register her presence, until he grew out of that too and she became just another name.

The Earning of Respect

The summonses from the Director’s office weren’t ever entirely unexpected and yet, when they did arrive, those summoned put up shocked countenances nonetheless. One or two burst into tears even, genuine, for although they were aware exactly how it would all play out in the end, there was always the lurking fear that this could be that occasion when Neo chooses the other door. They would then spend the rest of the evening plotting how best forgiveness could be asked for when they were presented before the Director next morning. Those that had cried earlier were usually chosen as the spokespersons; sympathy was most likely to be won by the soft and the unmanly.

It happened every year. The sophomores, basking in their newfound seniority, sat atop the hostel wall, their legs wafting cockily below them, and watched the stream of new arrivals enter the hostel, a parent or two in tow. Some of the parents, usually fathers, greeted them cheerily and asked after the amenities their progeny would have at their disposal in the hostel. These fathers were then duly offered lengthy insights that eventually ended at the tea & snack joint round the corner. ‘We’ll take good care of your son, uncle, you don’t worry at all’, they were told. The new students continued to trickle in for a while and by the time the last of the parents abandoned their child to the vagaries of Dhule, more than a month had passed by. That was when the clarion call was sounded and the newbies were asked to gather on the hostel’s roof for a round of introductions.

The rules were simple and scant. The seniors, sophomores and beyond, would need to be addressed as Sir. Only formals could be worn. At all times, including in bed. Formals would include socks and boots too, except in bed, where the boots could be taken off. In a senior’s presence, their gazes could not meander above the third button of their own shirts. They would complete the seniors’ projects and assignments for them and do whatever else was asked of them at any point. The rest of the night was spent in various festivities; the newly inducted kids, generally unclothed, catered to their Sirs many requests, most of which were of a distinctly, although only mildly, homoerotic nature. One of the favourites over the years was getting one of the kids to pick up a pen or pencil from the floor with his buttocks, exposed of course, without using his limbs. Nobody had ever actually found success in doing so, which was the point, since nonperformance led to more severe punishment.

This continued for a couple of months, each night. On weekends, when everybody was more drunk than usual, several groups convened in one or the other seniors’ private apartments, outside the hostel and therefore, outside the immediate reaches of the warden. Kaushik too, not drunk but eager to pay it forward, having earned his badge the previous year, was among them. And pay it forward, he certainly did. He hadn’t read The Marquis De Sade then, but when he did, he was confident that the great man would have approved.

In time, the inevitable happened. One of the kids wept and whimpered into a phone and the voice carried through miles of metal and fiber to his shocked parents, who, in turn, wept and whimpered into the ears of the college authorities. The boy, one of Kaushik and his group’s victims, was called to the Director’s office. He named as many people as he knew the names of. And thus, the Director’s summonses. Kaushik’s name, it was found, had not been announced. He grinned from ear to ear and explained to the others that it would all be fine.

It began as it always did. The Director raged and fumed and spoke to their parents. He informed them that their sons were being rusticated, a somewhat inappropriate term to use since it could hardly get more rustic than Dhule. Some of the accused, a markedly larger number than the previous day’s, began to weep openly. ‘Won’t happen again, won’t happen again’, they sobbed. The Director remained firm, for he was supposed to on the first day, and asked them to leave his office and pack their suitcases. They needn’t attend lectures, he added.

That evening, the mood in the hostel was sombre. A first year kid even whistled his way to the toilet. Towards midnight, the hostel warden asked the beleaguered gentlemen to his office. There, he informed them that he was ashamed of them and such a thing had been unheard of in his regime before this. A little later, he asked the accuser to be brought to him and when he did, he asked the rest to apologize. They did as they were told. The warden’s voice softened. He told them he would talk to the Director the next morning and see if something could be done to save their careers. They thanked him profusely.

The Director acceded on the third day. They were all called to his office again. He too did not wish to see such bright careers brought to premature ends, he said, but they could not completely escape punishment. And so, the best way, he continued, would be for them to be paid back in the same vein. They were all made to stand just inside the entrance to the college for the entire day, in the heat, without shirts and with their arms raised above them.

What embarrassed them was how filthy their undershirts were. The girls passed by them, wrinkling their noses and giggling to each other. A few, with commendable oversight, had omitted wearing an undershirt and shaved their underarms and were, therefore, decidedly less embarrassed. Their friends, on their way to the lecture halls and back, waved to them and cracked jokes. Kaushik cracked a joke or two too and they glared at him so hard, he asked them if they wanted something to drink. They said yes. A few minutes later, Kaushik and a few others, returned with packets of wafers, aerated soft drinks and mineral water. The professors and other staff allowed them to finish most of it before asking them to stop the nonsense and take the punishment seriously.

In a couple of hours, when they couldn’t keep their arms aloft any longer and the heat wet their pants with sweat, the Director called them again. They fell at his feet, exhausted, and asked for mercy. The Director launched into another half hour monologue, which they all nodded thoughtfully through. By evening, all was well again.

Later that night, the first year students were summoned to the hostel roof again and the essential concepts of solidarity and unity were explained to them. They wouldn’t be ragged anymore, they were promised, but in return, they would have to continue to wear formals and address the seniors as Sir.

By the end of the semester, the only rule that remained, and would remain through the next three years, was the form of address.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Kaushik’s eyes opened and saw darkness. The eyelids opened and shut with trepidation several times since, when they opened, the retina they housed weren’t used to capturing a somewhat similar image to what they’d been seeing with the shutters down. Still dark. From somewhere close, came the sound of snoring. He felt damp and realized he was still wearing his jacket, which combined with two blankets and alcohol, had made him sweat. He also realized he needed, urgently, to relieve his bowels. He sighed, sat up and fumbled under the bed, first for the glasses and then for the mobile phone. The phone’s screen, once it lit up, informed him it was three in the morning and cast a ghostly halo around the tent. Kaushik spotted two bodies on the other two beds – Ashish and Raakesh – although he couldn’t be sure which was who. He stepped out of the tent and immediately a chill breeze blew into his face and he stepped back inside.

His backpack lay by his bedside, upon which a woolen cap and gloves had been carelessly tossed. He put them on and stepped out again.

It was a brilliant moonlit night and Kaushik was staggered to find how clearly he could see. The white sand stretched out ahead of him and he could see exactly where it met the water. The Ganges, blusterous and white foamed, hurtled down towards Haridwar, eager to complete the remaining distance to the plains, barely twenty kilometers, as soon as it could. On the other side of the river, the Himalayas loomed dramatically, the summits hidden by a luminescent sheet of white clouds that, miraculously, seemed immobile in the gusty breeze. Overhead however, unguarded by the mountains, the clouds scurried off, also in the direction of Haridwar, and Kaushik glimpsed a sky filled with stars. Looking directly up made him sway a little. The effects of the alcohol had evidently not worn off completely. He didn’t detect a headache though, a good sign.

The makeshift toilets were about fifty meters from the tents. He walked lazily in that direction; his slippers sunk into the soft sand and threw up miniature volcanoes each time they came back up again. He passed by the bonfire they’d lit earlier that evening; the embers were dull grey with patches of simmering deep red. Thin tendrils of smoke still rose from them and hung a few feet above. Kaushik stopped for a moment and flapped his arms through the smoke. He chuckled.

When he’d reached the first of the toilet doors, he looked back at the line of tents, about a dozen of them, milky white against the thick dark cluster of trees in the background. Apart from them, he had spotted only one other group that evening. He decided he would return with his camera after he’d relieved himself. The toilets had no roofs and no taps. One plastic mug, half broken, was placed inside each. Outside, a solitary cistern stood; its dark wet surface glistened in the moonlight. He picked up two mugs from adjacent toilets and fetched water, freezing, from the cistern, although, going by the smell inside the toilets, he was convinced that carrying the extra mug, which he intended to flush the toilet with, was a futile exercise. Squatting inside the toilet, he stared up, partly to savour the view he was afforded and party to escape the stench. He inhaled in short sharp bursts and exhaled deeply. The sheet of clouds above and the walls of the toilet below hid from view most of actual peaks.

He returned to his tent a quarter of an hour later, his buttocks and palms numb from being exposed to the water. He thought of the camera and then abandoned the idea. He slid back under the blankets and did not budge until the morning after.

Two years later, when he was reading of the Dharma Bums’ climb up the Matterhorn Peak, his mind threw up that image of the barely visible mountains from inside the toilet. It made him reminisce, fondly, of the bonfire of that night and the white water rafting of next morning and of Raakesh and Ashish and Lucknow. It was the three’s only trip together. And yet, for Kaushik, the defining image of it was of the mountains at three in the morning, and he suspected it would endure through his life, entwined as it was now, with The Dharma Bums.


At one every afternoon, Kaushik picked his phone up and began calling his fellow lunchmen – about half a dozen of them - located variously around the office campus. Once this was done, he took the elevator down to ground level where the Food Court was and found himself an unoccupied table, where he and his friends would congregate for the day. Kaushik enjoyed lunchtimes, happy for the break and the conversation after the monotony of reading, for three straight hours, Roger Ebert reviews and essays from The Economist.

The Food Court was a huge open space with round black wooden tables spread around it. There were five counters, each run by a different caterer, that served the same food, except one which served sandwiches and pasta that smelled of unventilated cellars. Over time, Kaushik had picked his favourite amongst the other four and stuck to it ever since. By the time the food he ordered was ready, Ashish usually arrived. Ashish, since he lived with his parents, brought home-cooked food in a black oblong Tiffin box. The rest – some of them friends from IIM Lucknow, the others colleagues whom they minded least – trickled in, in ones and twos; by half past one the congregation was complete.

The conversation usually revolved around neutral subjects. Cricket, the weather, politics, work. Most preferred cricket, since they followed it closely, with the exception of Ashish who, therefore, did his best to turn the conversation to politics. When they spoke of work, it was usually about one of the bosses; their favourite was a stocky old man with a permanently bemused expression, who addressed everyone, including in emails, as ‘Guys’. The expression wasn’t without reason; it was widely believed that he indeed had absolutely no clue what happened around him. Stories of him abound – of how, even as he signed proposals, he recommended that they not be taken forward, how he contended that their reporting systems should somehow capture and track competition data and how he, the bloody nincompoop, had a wife of the MILF variety. Sometimes, they spotted him approach their table and immediately made as if they were done and were about to leave.

Discussions on films and literature were usually avoided; Ashish and Kaushik were aware their fellow lunchmen weren’t terribly interested. They did utter the occasional wisecrack though, like when the only female amongst them, a pretty little girl with a shrill voice, had informed that she would be migrating to Ho Chi Minh City in a month’s time, for her husband had been transferred there, and Kaushik had said how she would love the smell of napalm in the mornings. Or when one of them had had his overtures turned down by a girl, a co-worker, and Ashish had declared he could smell bitter almonds. On these occasions, while the two of them laughed uncontrollably, the rest looked at them with expressions that resembled that favourite boss of theirs. They spent close to an hour at the table, continuing to occupy it long after their plates were empty and other groups began to circle around like eagles. Eventually, when someone mustered the courage to ask them if they were done, they shrugged and got up.

Afterwards, while most of them returned to their desks, Ashish and Kaushik did not. Instead, they made their way to the Visitors’ waiting area, empty at that hour, and lounged there for another half an hour. They exchanged notes – interesting articles they’d come across during the course of the day on issues that they would like to further delve into. Invariably, the conversation degenerated, at some point, into a cribbing session on what the fuck they were doing in this place and how they would happily relieve themselves of an upper and lower limb each to get out of there. There were long periods of silences in these conversations, during which neither of them could think of anything worthwhile to talk about but found simply sitting there more worthwhile than going back to their desks. It would be past three by the time they would wearily make their way back, promising each other to read more on that interesting issue and discuss it when they met in the evening. Once in a while, Kaushik would have a meeting he’d have to attend and he’d go straight to it, unprepared but convinced he’d breeze through it without the least trouble.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Ritankar entered, his tattered lopsided backpack hung on one shoulder, and found Kaushik and Ashish already there, sitting at the table right next to the parapet - the best table in Café Harbour View. Two beer bottles, emptied, and three mugs, two of them with foam at the edges, stood on it. The Sun wouldn’t be up for another eight hours.

“Should we order more beer?” Ashish asked Ritankar and signaled to the waiter without waiting for an answer. Ritankar hung his backpack on his chair’s backrest and lit a cigarette.

“I am feeling hungry,” he said, “order some starters too.”

Like most Saturday evenings, the place was full. They were not playing music today.

“How did you manage this table?” Ritankar asked.

“We arrived early” Ashish said. Kaushik chuckled.

“How early?”

“Around 4, I think.” Ashish glanced at Kaushik to check if he’d approximated correctly. Kaushik shrugged. “Yeah, thereabouts, I think.”

“Since 4! And in all this time, only two bottles?”

“No, this is the third pair actually. That reminds me, I’ve to take a leak.” Ashish got up, stabilized himself vertically for a few moments, during which he pretended to check his pockets, and then made his way, quickly, to the restroom.

Kaushik watched him thoughtfully. “We’re a little drunk.” He announced, before adding, “Suresh will join us later.”

The beers arrived.

“Should we wait for Ashish to return?” Ritankar said.

“No need. We’ve raised half a dozen toasts already.”

The starters, French fries and Fish fingers, arrived ten minutes later, Ashish, a few minutes after that.

“Long time.” Kaushik said.

Ashish picked a French Fry, thought about it and then put it back. He rubbed both hands on his jeans a few times and then picked it up again.

“One thing leads to another…” He said.

A group, two couples, sitting on the next table, opposite Ashish and behind Ritankar and Kaushik, called for their bill. Immediately, another set, two couples again, surrounded the table, breathing down the departing party’s necks. They had been standing at the entrance to the café for nearly an hour. Kaushik and Ashish had noticed them mainly because of the dark skinny girl with long curly hair.

“She’s attractive, isn’t she?” Ashish had said, “In an unusual sort of way.”

“In a Arundhati Roy sort of way.” Kaushik had commented. They had pondered over this between sips of beer.

“Yes, I can see why you say that. Puts me off a little bit, though. With all that nonsense she spews these days…”

“Yeah, but if this girl were to ask, I wouldn’t turn her down.”

“Fat chance! Well, neither would I.”

Kaushik turned and looked over his shoulder to check how the members of the group had placed themselves. “Your Ms. Roy’s sitting with her back to us.” He said to Ashish, “Not very keen on either of us, evidently.”

Ritankar’s cell phone started to ring. He prepared to say Hello even as he pressed the requisite button to accept the call, allowing the word time to burst through the accentuated stammer that ‘H’ and ‘R’ bring. The call was from home. He spoke in monosyllables till his parents realized it was not a good time and ended the conversation. He sighed and lit another cigarette. Kaushik gestured to him to pass the pack and lit one too.

“The other day,” Kaushik began, “I had some work and had to wait in office for a little longer than usual. Was past eight by the time I could leave and when I reached the train station, none of the usual suspects were there, obviously. Different bunch of people altogether, usual suspects of the 8:30 train probably” Kaushik drew in from the cigarette and exhaled it in the direction of the ocean. “Anyway,” he continued, “when the train arrived, we waited for everyone to get down since it was the last stop and train would return back from there. When I got in - I think I was the first to – I saw these two men, old-ish, still sitting patiently. One of them had a maroon briefcase on his lap and I started to wonder, you know. These things make me a little fidgety these days. And then a third man, older than the other two, dressed completely in white, grand white sideburns, he came in and joined them.”

Kaushik paused again for another puff in-blow out routine, stealing a couple of sips from his mug.

“Does this story have an end?” Ashish asked, continuing to look past Kaushik at the curly haired girl’s back. Kaushik ignored the dig.

“Now this new old man, must be nearly sixty five-seventy, took out two packs of cards from his pockets. And the three began to play rummy. They played for ten odd minutes – the train waits at the station for that long – and just as the train started to move slowly, the original two quickly gathered up their stuff and leapt off it. I don’t think they could finish the last hand. The old man patiently gathered the cards and put it back in his pocket. He then brought out a writing pad from his bag – he was carrying one – and started to jot down some stuff on it. I leaned closer to see. One entire side was covered with Rummy scores. He was scribbling, at the bottom of the other side, what I presume were that day’s scores.”

Kaushik dropped the cigarette, now a stub, onto the floor and crushed it with his left boot. He then looked away towards the ocean to indicate that the story was done and that he would not let explanations and interpretations come in the way of subtlety.

“They must’ve been doing this for years! Ten minutes each day.” Ritankar said.

“Would make a nice little short film.” Ashish said.

“Yeah, it would. You know, it reminded me of this lovely film I saw some time back – Babi Leto. Czech, I think. Or maybe Hungarian, I am not sure. I think it’s the best film about old age, I’ve seen.” Kaushik said.

“Better than Wild Strawberries?” Ritankar said; there was a slight edge, remnant of a forcibly repressed incredulity, in his voice.

“Dude, that is a Bergman film.”

“Are you guys feeling hungry?” Ritankar asked.

“I am OK; won’t mind another round of starters though.” Kaushik said.

More starters were ordered. They stared at the darkness of the ocean for a while

“There is one other film I thought was really wonderful in this portrayal of old age thing,” began Kaushik again, “I can’t recall the name. From the seventies, I think. It was by some female director…she made this other movie about a lesbian relationship – it had the woman from Short film about love in it…”

“Yes, yes! I know what you are talking about…Karoly Makk, the director’s name. And he is not female.” Said Ritankar.

“What did you think Kaushik?” Ashish grinned, “You were hoping to trump Ritankar?”

Kaushik laughed, “Oh no, never!” He turned to Ritankar, “You remember the name of the film I was talking about? The one with the old woman?”

“I think it is Szerelem.”

“Ah yes, that is the one.”

It was now past midnight and the crowd had thinned somewhat. The waiter appeared with the next set of starters. “Sir, last order.” He informed. They looked at each other, shrugged, shook their heads and decided they were done for the day.

They stood up and walked around the terrace while the waiter cleared their table. It was that time of the night when they realized, all at once, that half the weekend was gone and by the time they would wake up next day, half of the rest would be gone too. Then they would simply dawdle around for a few hours till it was time for Ashish and Ritankar to return to their respective apartments. And that would be that. The weekend was actually ending there, right then.

“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” Ashish said to Ritankar after the waiter finished and they returned to the table, “Kaushik and I will now be working alternate Saturdays. New company policy.”

“What the fuck?”

“Damn man! The day I quit that place, I hope it is raining so I can take my shirt off and do the Shawshank thing.” chuckled Ashish.

"Hey, I just remembered, Suresh never turned up, did he!" said Ritankar.

Kaushik nodded and picked up a cigarette, “Lets have one more smoke and then we can leave.”