Kaushik hated spending nights away from his apartment when he was in Mumbai. He did not know why, but there it was. Even in college, after nights of frenzied drinking in different rooms and on the hostel terrace, that left in its wake a floor full of empty bottles clinking against each other, vomit, piss and spent bodies, he would stagger alone on the empty tar road that ran through the campus, shivering slightly in the morning chill, looking for a cup of tea, fancying himself to be the tragic hero of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Sometimes he would find his tea, most times he wouldn’t. But he would return to his own room at the end of it anyway.
Ashish and Ritankar had long since realized this, and so, without ever explicitly discussing the subject, it had always been understood that it was to be Kaushik’s apartment where most of their weekends would be spent.
Tonight, however, it was to be Ashish’s place. He’d shifted into a new apartment and was thrilled with its balcony and the view it afforded.
“It is like in Boston Legal!” he’d explained to the other two, “I’ve got beanbags, a small table on which to place the whiskey bottle and the glasses, we’ll be on the twentieth floor, the view’s awesome. One can sit there with one’s feet up, sipping whiskey, looking up at the night sky and down at the city lights. Just like those episodes end!”
Besides, Ashish’s parents were away for the weekend and he had the apartment to himself apart from the presence of his younger sister, who he’d assured them, wouldn’t get in the way.
Ashish’s Dad, the owner of a smalltime stocks & funds trading agency, after having witnessed his business wiped out during the recession, had had to liquidate most of his assets, including a spacious four room flat in a plush suburb of Ahmedabad to pay off his debts, and had since shifted to Mumbai with his wife and daughter. There wasn’t enough income in the family to pay the rents for two separate places, and so they’d all moved in with Ashish. The immediate fallouts of this were that Ashish had to rent a much larger apartment and that Ritankar and Kaushik were having to nod through Ashish’s incessant assertions that it was all going according to plan.
“It is going to be perfect,” he’d say, “when they spend some time in this city, they’ll start to see how I live and what I want out of life and they’ll get used to it. In a couple of years, it should all be stable, and I’ll have enough money saved to buy them an apartment in Ahmedabad so they can move back and then I’ll be free to go settle in Italy!”
“A provincial Italian seaside town. Or Tuscany.”
“Yes yes. Exactly.”
“And what happens when they start pestering you to get married?”
“Oh, we’ll see. I am hoping they wouldn’t. And if they do, well, we’ll see.”
It was in this new, larger apartment where the three were to meet. And so, Kaushik was now on a train that would, in a half hour, take him there. The evening rush had peaked and there was scarcely enough space to maneuver his hand so he could pick his nose if he wished to, while he stood squashed between men he did not know, smelling their day’s work on their bodies. He had a vision of a clean, dull, dutiful wife who waits in a cramped one bedroom apartment with flaked walls, a silent dinner, an absent son out with friends and her submission to her unwashed husband’s needs on a creaky cot in a stuffy room with a creakier ceiling fan and a window unopened in years.
His train of thought was broken by a sudden elbow to his rib. A station. People replacing other people. Among the new set, a girl, young and pretty. A definite oddity in the men’s compartment. Kaushik scanned the area around her for the male classmate that, doubtless, must exist. He found him half hid behind her, a frail boy with spiked hair and acne. Kaushik smirked. Leap of faith, he thought. The man next to him looked at him sharply and he realized he’d said it aloud and smiled apologetically. He resumed looking at the girl. She wore a pink t-shirt with a white bunny on it. The bunny’s eyes, strategically placed, sparkled with what Kaushik gathered were round glass chips. The lower half of her body was obscured by the bodies between them but that she’d be wearing jeans was a safe guess. What else could she? His thoughts turned to Ashish’s sister. He’d never met her. What would she be like?
She was a pleasant looking, slightly plump girl. She wore glasses and once when she took it off to wipe with her napkin, he noticed that she had a slight squint and that she had an old scar from a stitch running above her right eye. Instinctively, his fingers touched the spot under his chin where his own stitch marks were, from a bike accident in Lucknow, when on a stormy night on an unlit single-lane highway he’d slammed into a fallen tree and rolled directly into the path of an approaching truck. He’d gotten out of the way in time; a spare tire on the side of the truck had brushed his back while he stared wide-eyed into space, expecting the impact that never came. His injuries, apart from the peeled skin on his back, were all from the fall, including the one under the chin where his face had struck the road. He remembered clearly what he’d said when he’d cried out loud just before the truck brushed past him. “Fuck Motherfucker!” He’d said it in Hindi, of course, and it struck him that he’d never thought about how, if he were to write about the experience, he would do so. Images of old Arnold Schwarzennegger film posters swam into his mind; he imagined one with Arnold’s huge face and a sawed off shotgun with “Fuck Motherfucker!” written on it in bright red fonts and underneath, in smaller, more fragile fonts, “(In Hindi)”.
He laughed out loud and they all stared at him. Second time it has happened today, he said to himself.
“Oh,” he said, “nothing, just remembered an old joke.”
“Isn’t it time we let the wine flow?”
She stuck around for a drink or two, making the odd comment, asking a bunch of questions, stemming the flow of their conversation. The other two waited patiently while Ashish answered her, explained to her the jokes and the references they contained; they walked over to the edge of the balcony and stared at the sweeping cityscape, and smoked. It was indeed a grand sight. Before long, however, she excused herself quietly and, as Kaushik put it in his interpretation of the British Accent, “retired to her chambers.”
“So how’s the novel coming along?” Ashish asked. It was the first time he’d shown any interest in the subject.
“Still some way to go,” Kaushik said, “meandering all over the place at the moment.”
“Yeah. I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any definite plot emerging.”
“From whatever I’ve read, it doesn’t have much hope for a plot, does it?” Ritankar asked.
“I guess not. We’re just a bunch of armchair losers after all.”
“Too many Sal Paradises. We need a Dean Moriarty at some point.” Ritankar mused, stumbling a few times over Moriarty.
“And a bit of yab-yum perhaps. I wouldn’t mind it certainly.” Ashish said.
Kaushik grinned, “At this point, I estimate we are miles away from either.”
“Damn. We really do need to get out of here.”
“Or the French Provence.”
“Yeah sure. After you buy your parents that house in Ahmedabad.”
“About three years.”
“Be married by then.”
“This isn’t helping.”
“Here, have some more wine.”
As the night wore, the city grew quieter. The sound of heavy tires on tar accompanied by the nasal buzz of automotive engines broke the stillness occasionally. In another setting, Kaushik thought, this could be the sound of insects. Honeybees, probably.
“When I am drunk,” Ritankar said and then exhaled deeply a couple of times, his head lulling to one side.
“’When’ was not required in that sentence, I’d say.” Kaushik quipped.
Ritankar ignored him.
“When I am drunk,” he resumed, “it seems to me my ears become more sensitive. Everything sounds louder. Clearer. The clink of glasses. Those trucks on the highway. Water leaking from that tap in your washroom.”
“Yes. Happens to me too.” Kaushik said.
“So for the hearing impaired…” Ashish began before he was cut short by Kaushik.
“Yes. I thought of that. Low hanging fruit.”
Ritankar looked at the two, a little lost.
“What the fuck are you guys talking about?” he said, exhaling thrice between the sentence.
“Oh don’t bother. We are drunk too.”
“How wonderful would it be,” Ashish said, “when we’d have nights as these ending in the arms of women we met at a café.”
“And in the mornings, when we’d wake up, to find them gone, leaving behind baked bread, jam, eggs and fruit juice on the table.”
“And on the next evening, to find them at the café again. Continue with them if we liked them or smile politely and leave with other women…”
“Lets play some music.” Ritankar interjected.
“Yeah sure. The Carla Bruni variety.”
“I don’t have the speakers set up in this apartment yet.”
When the sun rose, they were still there.
“Oh, there’s hills there! Nice and lush, too!” Ritankar pointed.
“Yes. That’s the Goregaon Film City area. The National Park’s somewhere in that region too, I believe.” Ashish said.
“We must go there sometime.”
“Yes, how about now?”
“No, not now,” Kaushik said, “I am totally not in the mood for walking jungles at the moment. I am hungry though.”
“We can go have some breakfast downstairs.”
“You know a place?”
“No. Haven’t explored too much yet,” Ashish said, “but we could start today.”
“Or,” Ritankar said, “we could go to Café Ideal!”
“But that’s more than an hour away!”
“Yes, so what?”
“Isn’t a bad idea, Ashish,” Kaushik said, “we can.”
“And then come back all this way?”
“We don’t need to. My place is closer.”