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?”
“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.
“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.