The Dish Verifier

A cloudy formation appeared in front of Naveen’s eyes. He blinked twice. For some reason, the clouds had a yellowish tinge. And there were lines in between them, and patches of brown.

His eyes slowly opened. The yellowish blur came into focus. It was the wall of his room, with its beige paint peeling off.

He yawned and reached for his phone on the bedside table. It was half past noon.

Standing up felt like a herculean effort. A sharp pain pierced through his head. His legs wobbled. He put a hand on the mattress to steady his lanky frame.

His roommate Sumeet sat at the dining table, hunched over his laptop. Patches of unshaven beard stubble decorated his face.

They were childhood friends who grew up in Mumbai, and now rented this studio apartment in Jersey City during their summer internships.

Naveen staggered into the kitchen.

Sumeet glanced at him. “You look like a zombie from The Walking Dead.”

Naveen massaged his temple. It felt like his skull was being pounded by a hammer, from the inside.

He picked up a plastic glass from the counter, and gazed into it.

“Seriously dude,” Sumeet said. “How much did you drink last night?”

Naveen lifted a hollow five-gallon plastic water jug over his glass. He barely got a drop.

“There’s no water.”

“As always, you have an outstanding grasp of the obvious,” Sumeet said.

The kitchen sink was overflowing with plates, glasses, utensils, spoons, forks, etc. Naveen put his glass below the faucet.

“Tap water here is not drinkable,” Sumeet said. “You know that, right?”

Naveen scowled, and threw the water into the sink. He put his palms on the counter and closed his eyes.

The click-click-click of Sumeet’s laptop keyboard sounded shrill to his ears.

“Stop making that sound,” Naveen demanded.

“What sound?”

“Your stupid keyboard…”

“What?” Sumeet paused. “Are you still high?”

Naveen saw a white bottle on top of the refrigerator. It had an image of two coconut trees, and the word ‘MALIBU’ above it. He lifted it by the neck, filled his glass, and took a gulp.

Sumeet raised an eyebrow. “You drinking in the morning now?”

“It’s afternoon.”

“Good to know that you can at least tell the time …”

“And I’m not drinking. It’s just Malibu.”

“Malibu is rum,” Sumeet said. “You know that, right?”

Naveen plonked himself down on a chair. “It’s practically water.”

“Practically water,” Sumeet repeated. He scratched his beard stubble, and went back to his laptop.

Naveen sipped the practically-water in silence. Every few minutes, he rubbed his forehead.

He went to the garbage can, but before he could toss his glass, a crushed-up paper plate and a plastic bag spilled out.

“This apartment is a mess,” Naveen said. “The trash is full, the sink is full, there’s no water.” He looked at Sumeet. “And you just sit on your laptop all day.”

“Dude, I have a big presentation on Monday.”

Naveen just glared.

“What?” Sumeet said. “You worried that the Israeli babe you rented this place from will come to check on us?”

“She’s an Aunty, not a babe.”

Sumeet shrugged. “Aunties can also be babes.”

Naveen opened the fridge and stuck his head inside. There were eggs and bread. He looked back at the sink. The frying pan was buried under mounds of utensils.

He rummaged through the kitchen drawers and cupboards. “Why is there nothing to eat here??”

He opened and shut a cupboard, again and again, staring inside it.

“Yea, if you open and close it a few more times, food will definitely appear,” Sumeet said, with a nod. He pointed to his laptop. “It works just like Windows.”

Once again, something from the top of the refrigerator caught Naveen’s attention. It was a transparent plastic box, which appeared to hold biscuits.

Naveen wolfed down a biscuit. He had barely swallowed the first one, when he crunched into another.

Suddenly, his face contorted into a grimace.

It tasted like rotten meat mixed with sawdust. It was by far the most horrific thing he had put into his mouth. Ever.

Sumeet came over and examined the box. A wide grin spread over his face. “You know what you just ate??”

Naveen opened the faucet and gargled in the sink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, still cringing.

“Dog biscuits!” Sumeet turned the box around, pointing to a small sticker on the lower corner.

Naveen squinted his eyes. “What???”

“Your Israeli Aunty has a dog.”

Naveen spat out again. He remained hunched over, dazed.

“You must have seen the dog hairs on the sofa and carpet,” Sumeet seemed unable to wipe the grin off his face. He gave a slow shake of his head. “I was also hungry, but man, you’ve sunk to another level of desperation.”

Naveen’s eyes bore into the plastic box. “Why is the label so small??”

“My friend, you’ve just crossed the line between man and…”

Naveen shoved him backwards. “I didn’t know what it was!”

“…canine.” Sumeet doubled over laughing. He touched Naveen’s forehead. “How do you feel?”

Naveen pushed him off. He turned his attention back to the cupboards. He ransacked every part of the kitchen. “I’m still hungry.”

“There are some bones in the trash, from the chicken we ate last week.…”

“Oh get over it dude,” Naveen snapped.

Sumeet beamed at him.

“I’m going to make eggs,” Naveen said. “But first, you’re going to help me wash theses dishes.”

Sumeet took one look at the colossal pile in the sink, and shook his head. “I have a presentation…”

“We can use this dishwasher thing,” Naveen pointed to an appliance with a stainless steel surface.

“We don’t know how to use that,” Sumeet said. “We haven’t been in the US long enough.”

Naveen shot him a look of contempt. “We’re both graduating with Masters degrees, and you’re saying we can’t figure out how to use a dishwasher??”

“Fine,” Sumeet said. He opened the door to the dishwasher, and crouched down. “Pass the dishes.”

One by one, Naveen handed him the items from the sink.

“Try to rinse them a bit,” Sumeet said.

“Why should I do the work? That’s what the thing is for…”

“Dude, it’s already full…”

Naveen handed off another plate. “Just shove it in somewhere.”

“Shove it in somewhere,” Sumeet rolled his eyes. “”That attitude is not going to help you later on in life…”

“Alright, that’s it,” Naveen said. He looked at the empty sink, feeling physically lighter.

Sumeet stood up. “We probably need to put soap.”

“Yea,” Naveen walked across the room.

“Where you going?”

“To the bathroom. You said we needed soap.”

“Dude,” Sumeet said, “Not that soap.”

Naveen half-turned.

“There’s a different soap for having a bath, a different soap for washing clothes, and a different soap for this….”

“What difference does it make?” Naveen spread his arms out. “Soap is soap.”

Sumeet looked through the drawers, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you’re going to survive in the US.”

“Why do they have 20 different types of soap, and 100 different types of cereal, and…” Naveen searched the lower cupboards. He picked up a green, rectangular box. “Here, this says dishwashing detergent.”

He opened it. “It’s some powder.”

“Just don’t eat it dude,” Sumeet grabbed the box. “Yea this is it.”

He saw a small square compartment on the inside of the dishwasher door. He flicked a lever to open it. He put powder inside, and shut it.

He examined the row of buttons on the front. “What setting do we want? There’s mini, light, normal, heavy duty…”

“As usual, 100 options,” Naveen said. “Just go for normal.”

“What water level? Low, medium, high? Also, do we want Rinse Dry or Heat Dry…”

“Normal, dude. Just put normal for everything.”

Sumeet gave him a sideways glance. “Yea, that’s brilliant. How do you come up with such intelligent answers?”

“I’m a genius,” Naveen said.

“Okay, I’m starting it,” Sumeet pushed a button, and stepped back.

“I’m going to bed,” Naveen said. “Wake me when it’s done.”

He collapsed onto the mattress, and fell into an instant slumber.

An hour later, he heard a voice that sounded like a distant echo. “Dude…”

Naveen stirred and turned on his side.

“Dude,” The voice called out. “I think it’s done.”

Naveen half-opened his eyes. Sumeet was sitting at the exact same spot, in front of his laptop.

Moving at a snail’s pace, Naveen crawled out of bed. He opened the dishwasher, took out a plate, and put it on the counter. “Dude, help me unload.”

“Fine,” Sumeet stood up. He picked up a plate. “Does this look clean to you?”

Naveen blinked, and looked at it. There were yellow stains on the edges. He glowered at the dishwasher. “Stupid machine didn’t work.”

“Maybe we have to rinse the dishes before putting them in,” Sumeet said.

“If we wash the dishes, then what’s the point of the dishwasher?”

“Maybe, it’s not a dishwasher,” Sumeet said. “Maybe, it’s a dish verifier.”

“What does that mean??”

“You wash the dishes, put them in, and it verifies that they are properly clean,” Sumeet pointed to the row of buttons. “When the light turns green, the dishes have passed the test, and are certified clean.”

Naveen looked his roommate up and down. His expression was a mixture of bemusement and disdain. “How high are you? How many dog biscuits have you had, ha?”

“Nah man, those are reserved for you.”

Naveen tapped the steel surface of the dishwasher. “We got to make this work. Masters students can’t be so stupid…”

“My masters is in finance, yours is in computers,” Sumeet said. “We don’t have a masters in dishwashing.”

Naveen craned his neck inside the dishwasher. He opened the small compartment. “You think we should put water with the powder?”

“Sure, why not?” Sumeet shrugged.

“Yea,” Naveen nodded to himself. “It can’t just be dry powder. It needs to be a little wet, like a paste.”

He poured water into the compartment, and stirred it with the back of a spoon. He stood up and examined his handiwork. Satisfied, he closed the compartment, and pushed the dishwasher door shut till he heard a click.

“Trying it again,” He announced, and pressed the button.

A few seconds later, a whirring sound started up. The two roommates exchanged a look.

“Good, it’s doing something,” Naveen said. He lay down stomach-first on his bed.

Sumeet spread himself across the couch. “I’m also taking a nap.”

The rhythmic whirring sound got louder and softer at a regular cadence. It was a background track to Naveen’s dreams.

Smack in the middle of a dream, he felt a pair of arms shaking him roughly.

“What? What?” Naveen woke with a start. “Get off me.”

“Dude,” Sumeet hovered over him. “What the hell did you do to the dishwasher?? It’s unleashed a tsunami in here.”

Naveen stepped into the kitchen. His bare feet dipped into the cold water spraying indiscriminately from the steel appliance, and sliding along the floors.

Sumeet said. “I tried to shut it off…”

Naveen moved his hand towards the dishwasher.

“Don’t do that,” Sumeet shouted.

But Naveen yanked the door open.

A deluge of water tumbled out, splashing onto the floor. Both the boys jumped backwards.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” Sumeet yelled. He picked up his laptop and cradled it in his arms.

Naveen stared at the outpouring flood. Water dripped down from his knees to his ankles.

“What are we going to do?” He looked around, flabbergasted. The water flowed from the kitchen to the carpets, and traveled onwards towards the bathroom.

“Start mopping, what else?” Sumeet said. From the side of the refrigerator, he fetched a tall mop with a bundle of strings at its end, which he gave to Naveen. In the cupboard, he found a shorter stick with a sponge at its base, and a bucket.

He looked at Naveen. “Don’t stand there looking clueless. Get mopping.”

Naveen rolled up his pajamas, and ran the mop over the floor.

“I knew we shouldn’t have used the frickin dishwasher,” Sumeet shook his head.

Naveen looked dolefully towards the fridge. “I’m still hungry.”

“So eat,” Sumeet gestured towards the plastic biscuit box.

“Shut up and mop,” Naveen barked.

It was going to be a long, long day.

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The Shoes

“The Reebok Crossfit Nano,” The salesman twirled the shoe in one hand with the consummate ease of someone who played this game a hundred times every day. “These are soft from inside and sturdy from outside.”

Rahul allowed the salesman to slip the shoe on his right foot, then the left. He flexed his toes, as the salesman tied the laces.

“Walk around and see how it feels, sir.”

Rahul went to the mirror, and peered at the shoe. It was a sleek black-and-grey piece with a flat sole.

“How is it, beta?” His mother called out. She was seated on the leather-cushioned stool, wiping the sweat from her brow with the ends of her dupatta. The a/c in the shoe shop provided scant relief from the muggy summer heat.

Rahul paced around the store.

“It’s looking very smart on you sir,” The salesman said.

“Are these durable?” Rahul asked. “How long do they last?”

“The soles are made from the latest high-abrasion rubber. They’ll last 4-5 years, no problems.”

Rahul touched the sides of the shoe.

“It’s our most popular model,” The salesman said. “I sold 10 pairs in the last two days only.”

Rahul sat down, and turned to his mother. “What do you think, mumma?”

“Looks-wise, it is nice. If you feel it’s comfortable, then take it.”

“The front feels kinda cramped,” Rahul said.

“That’s normal,” The salesman said. “It will automatically loosen up.”

“What do you mean automatically loosen??”

“Sir, in the beginning they feel tight, but after wearing it a few times, the shoe opens up.”

Rahul shot the salesman a suspicious look. He stood up and walked a few more paces. He shook his head. “No, I’m not comfortable.”

If the salesman was disappointed, he didn’t show it. “No problems, sir. I’ll show you something looser that you might find more comfortable.”

“This is the 4th shop and the 11th shoe you’ve tried,” Mumma said, after the salesman went off.

“What can I do?? None of them are good…”

“We left after lunch and now it’s dinner time.”

“There’s been some issue with all the shoes I’ve seen…and these people take so long to bring new shoes.”

Mumma shook her head, and went back to her phone.

Rahul’s eyes wandered to the street outside. The always-bustling Colaba Causeway teemed with pedestrians and footpath hawkers selling everything from cheap sunglasses and selfie sticks to food items like vada pav and samosas.

A short, dark boy walked with a steel bowl in hand. He wore a frayed t-shirt that extended to his knees. He tugged at passing shoppers, extending his bowl towards them with imploring eyes.

Rahul saw that the boy had no shoes on his feet. He didn’t seem to care though. His eyes continuously scanned for targets to approach.

“This is the Adidas Ultraboost,” The salesman reappeared, holding a blue shoe with a thick sole. Three purple lines ran down both sides of the shoe, signaling its brand.

Rahul put them on, and walked around.

“So?” Mom asked. “How’s this one?

“Umm….”

“Still not comfortable?”

“It’s better than the last one,” Rahul said. “But not good enough.”

Mom said nothing. Her fingers typed away on her phone.

The salesmen looked from Rahul to his mom, and then back to Rahul. Do something about this son of yours, his eyes seemed to say.

“I’ll show you one more shoe,” He said. “It’s very popular with our customers.”

He came back with a high, white shoe with gold and purple streaks around the heels, and a red tick on one side.

“Nike Air SuperMax,” He announced, and put them on Rahul’s feet. “There’s a mesh in front for ventilation, an extra layer of cushioning inside, and Nike’s patented ‘air’ technology to make it feel soft and flexible.”

Rahul walked another round. By now, the store was nearly empty.

“How does it feel sir?” The salesman asked, an undertone of resignation in his voice.

“Not bad,” Rahul said.

The salesman’s expression brightened. “Nike Air is a classic shoe, and this latest model has all their upgraded technology.”

Rahul pressed the toe-end with his fingers. The fit seemed just right. Not too loose, not too tight.

“You like it??” Mom asked.

Rahul nodded. “This one is fine.”

“Great, then buy it and finish it,” The relief was palpable in Mumma’s voice. She turned to the salesman. “Pack this one.”

“Yes maam,” The salesman beamed. He looked at Rahul. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy this shoe, sir.”

Mother and son walked out after a six-hour long shoe hunt. The Nike Air SuperMax was the winner.

****

The mustached tea vendor fiddled with his gas stove. He poured steaming hot, light brown tea from a large steel vessel into short glasses.

Next to him stood a dark-complexioned boy, clad in faded black shorts and a white banyan. Or rather what was once a white banyan, but now reduced to a brownish-blackish composite of filth, dirt and grime. Its color matched that of a thick scar that ran down the length of his left cheek.

“Rajju,” The tea vendor barked at the boy. “Take three glasses to the Maruti over there.”

Rajju picked up a cloth, and slung it over his shoulder. He arranged the glasses on a steel tray and served them to the customers waiting in the car.

The vendor’s gruff voice rang out nonstop.

“Two more glasses there, Rajju…”

“Did you collect the money from the blue Innova earlier?”

“Clean these glasses…”

“Move fast, Rajju…what are you doing…”

Back and forth, he trod barefoot on the uneven pavement. The same cloth used to wipe glasses also wiped the relentless deluge of sweat streaming down his slender arms and scared face. The sun beat down on him, burning his body from the inside out.

There’s a saying amongst the street dwellers of this city. May God deliver me from the bite of the tiger, the sting of the cobra, and the heat of the Mumbai summer.

“Take four glasses, Rajju…”

“Don’t forget the money…”

“You’re not cleaning the glasses properly…”

Back and forth. Up and down. Round and round.

Five long hours later, the sun finally waned and Rajju’s shift was over. He collapsed in a heap on the footpath. He massaged the soles of his feet. New blisters appeared every day, and the old ones got bigger.

Absently, he took out a red yo-yo from his pocket. A serendipitous discovery on the side of the road one fine winter evening, it was the one thing he always carried. His most prized possession. His only prized possession.

He wrapped his fist around the yo-yo, hurled it forward, then tugged the string to reel it back in. A technique he had mastered over the years.

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed something that made him turn.

A shiny, white shoe with a big red tick on the side. Gold and purple streaks adorned the heels.

Rajju didn’t look up at the bearer of the shoes. His eyes locked onto the white wonder, whose every step was accompanied by a slight squeak, and seemed to exude a certain sparkle around it.

“Oye Rajju, time to leave,” A voice called from behind him. It was Nandu, his friend who worked at the bicycle shop.

Rajju ignored him, transfixed by the shoe.

An elbow poked into his midriff. “Get up, Rajju.”

“You go, I’ll come later,” Rajju snapped.

“You’ll miss the Borivalli train, then you’ll have to catch the Virar fast.”

Rajju glared at him. When he turned back, the white shoes had squeaked away to the end of the road, and were turning the corner.

“Chal, let’s go.”

Rajju felt his arm being yanked up. He clambered to his feet. He strained his eyes.

But the white wonder was gone…

****

It was that time of the year. Results time. The time when atheists turned believers, when mothers performed poojas with colorful diyas and scented agarpatis to appease their favorite gods, when the silliest of superstitions gained traction: lucky t-shirt, lucky shoes, lucky pen, lucky glasses.

Rahul sat in the backseat of the car, his eyes glued to his phone. He toggled between WhatsApp groups, and scrolled through his Facebook newsfeed.

They say that in prison, a man will do almost anything to keep himself busy. An engineering student waiting for his semester exam results was no less than a prisoner waiting for his death sentence.

“Should I drop you off here, Rahul bhaiya?” The driver asked. “The car can’t go all the way to the mandir.”

“Here is fine,” Rahul said.

“I’ll wait on the main road. Call me when you’re out.“

“No, you go home. I’ll walk back.”

The driver glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “I can find a spot…”

“It’s just 10 minutes walk. And Mumma will probably need the car for something.”

“Are you sure, Rahul bhaiya?”

Rahul nodded, and stepped out of the car. He shut the door behind him.

The narrow lane leading up to Mahalaxmi Mandir was packed with people from all over the city, waiting in long lines. Stores sold orange and marigold flower garlands, mithai and ladoos, framed pictures of various Hindu Gods.

An assortment of smells filled the air. The jasmine and lotus from the flowers, the sweet scent of the mithai infused with sugar and ghee, the smell of incense sticks and candles, sweat from the armpits of the waiting devotees.

Rahul reached the front of the line, where a flight of steps led to the temple. There he saw a sea of footwear dumped together, everything from slippers and sandals to sneakers and leather boots.

He removed his shoes. The Nike Air SuperMax had become a stock favorite of his.

Two boys dressed in tattered t-shirts were seated on the ground nearby.

“Leave them with us, bhaiya,” One of them called out.

“Ha bhaiya, we’ll watch your shoes,” The other boy smiled at Rahul.

Rahul looked back at them.

Meanwhile, a man who was in the line behind him, took off his leather shoes, tossed them on the ground and walked onwards.

“Leave them here, bhaiya,” The boy repeated.

Rahul placed his shoes on the ground. He handed the boy a five-rupee note. “Watch them properly.”

“You don’t take any tension, bhaiya.”

Rahul walked up the flight of steps to the main mandir area where three idols of Goddesses sat on silver pedestals. They were adorned with nose rings, gold bangles, and pearl necklaces. Their palms were raised in blessing.

Rahul felt himself being pushed and shoved from all sides. He put a twenty-rupee note in the donation box, and closed his eyes.

God, I don’t want a first-class. I don’t even want a second-class. I just want to pass this time. Especially Electronics. That Electronics paper was an absolute bomb. Curse the bastard who set that paper.

Sorry God. I just want to pass, that’s it. Please God.

An elbow rammed into Rahul’s chest as more people swarmed into the mandir.

“Move along, move along,” One of the mandir staff commanded.

As he walked down the steps, he noticed something at the far end of the road that made him stop dead in his tracks.

Two boys walking with white shoes in their hands.

“Stop!” Rahul shouted. He dashed down the remaining steps, two at a time. “Stop those haraams.”

Most devotees in line didn’t give him a second glance, as he raced along the lane. He gestured wildly to a hawaldar in brown khakhi uniform, standing at the end of the lane.

The hawaldar had a bemused expression.

“Stop those boys,” Rahul screamed, and ran faster.

Next moment, he was airborne. He landed stomach-first into the concrete pavement.

“Aaaargh,” Rahul yelped.

Searing pain shot through his right knee. He rolled over, and brought both his hands to rub the knee.

“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”

He lay there for a few minutes. Wincing, cursing and massaging his knee.

A hand extended in front of him. Rahul accepted it, and rose unsteadily to his feet.

“Are you alright, boss?” A voice asked.

Rahul nodded. He stepped forward gingerly, testing the knee. He brought out his phone from his pocket.

The glass screen was smashed into bits. The power wouldn’t come on.

“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”

He inched ahead, trying to put his body weight on the left leg. He heard his own voice in his head.

“No, you go home, I’ll walk back. It’s only 10 minutes walk.”

He shook his head, and took another step forward.

The pavement was rough and uneven and dirty. With every step, he felt stones, fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and god-knows-what-else poke at the soles of his feet. With every step, his toes scraped against the cracks on the ground. With every step, his feet got filthier.

God, how he missed his Nike Air SuperMax…

****

Rajju sat on the footpath, propped up against the wall. It was twilight hour, but there was no evening breeze, no respite under the trees.

Another day, another long shift scurrying about in the sun, serving the chai-lovers of Mumbai. His t-shirt smelled of tea, his shorts smelled of tea, the pores of his skin smelled of tea.

Rajju swung his red yo-yo back and forth. He stared at the sky, dreaming of cold droplets of rain falling on his body.

When would the monsoon start? When would this summer be over??

His throat was parched. He felt like the sun would vaporize this whole city and everyone in it.

A commotion from the other side of the road distracted him. He looked up.

Two boys were running as fast as they could. Behind them was a hawaldar. The signal turned red, and the boys darted across the road in between the halted cars. The hawaldar labored to stay on their tail. His protruding round belly heaved up and down.

The boys ran past Rajju.

“Wait till I get my hands on you,” The hawaldar yelled, banging his stick on the ground. “I‘ll thrash you properly.”

One of the boys flung something to the side of the road. The chase continued, and the boys and their pursuer receded from Rajju’s sight.

Something about the discarded object caught his attention. He walked towards it.

He froze like a statue. He couldn’t believe it.

The White Wonder!

He looked around. The signal turned green, and vehicles on the road honked, cut lanes and chugged forward.

It was stolen. Obviously.

But still…

The white wonder had occupied his dreams for weeks after that initial sighting. Then the drudgery of the daily routine purged his dreams, like it always did.

And yet, here they were. Right here. For real.

It had to be fate. This was his destiny. This was what God wanted.

It had to be…

Rajju picked up the shoes, and walked along the footpath. He walked for a full kilometer, before parking himself at a quiet corner.

He put his right foot in, then the left. He stared at the laces. He fumbled to put them together in a knot, but it didn’t work. He tried making a loop and putting the ends through it, but it ended in a mess.

What are you supposed to do with these hanging threads??

Rajju gave up on them. He stood up, and put one foot forward. He looked left and right, and left again. He took another step ahead.

The blisters on his feet felt cushioned and cajoled. He couldn’t feel the ground at all. It was like gliding.

He ran his hand along the red tick on the side. He touched the mesh in the front.

With every step, the smile on his face grew broader. With every step, the swagger in his walk became more pronounced. With every step, he felt ten feet taller.

Shoes were such an incredible invention. A gift from god…

****

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Mumbai Dreamers

There was a wetness in the air. A dampness that you could feel, ever so subtly, on the pores of your skin. The smell of fresh rain was everywhere, an unmistakable mark of the imminent Mumbai monsoon.

The showers started last night and continued intermittently till afternoon, before abating. Few raindrops still dripped from the leaves of trees and from the protruding awnings above storefronts. The roads were wet and puddles appeared here and there.

Over one such puddle, an old lady squatted down and peered into it. The face that reflected back was wrinkled and dark. She had two nose rings, a hanging belly and flabby arms. She wore a saree that was once a vibrant violet color, but years of wear and tear made it look like a dull, dusty brown.

She cupped her hands, scooped up some water from the puddle and splashed it on her face. Then, she wiped off her face with the ends of her saree, and stood up slowly. She walked back to her butta stall, which was just outside a popular city park.

“How are you today Chachi?” A pot-bellied man asked. He was seated on the ground nearby, with a basket placed in front of him, containing his wares, which included assorted kinds of nuts, like peanuts, black chana, etc.

“All good,” Chachi smiled at him. Two of her front teeth were missing. Yet there was a lightness and brightness in her smile.

“Your back is still hurting?” The man asked.

“A little bit. But this is normal at my age.”

“It’s time to retire now, Chachi. Give up this butta business.”

Chachi just smiled, and said nothing. She shifted around some coal pieces placed in a rusty metal structure, and lit up the flames from underneath.

“Butta, sweet corn. Hot butta. Sweet corn.” She called out, in a voice that was hoarse from years of selling butta.

It was evening time, and the crowd of people entering and leaving the park was steadily picking up. There were retired folks on their evening walk, young couples looking to cozy up, mothers pushing their babies in prams.

Two young boys appeared in front of Chachi, wearing t-shirts and jeans, with backpacks slung over their shoulders. One of them was a thin and scrawny fellow who wore rectangle-shaped, half-rimed spectacles. The other was short and stout, and had unshaven beard stubble all over his face.

“Make two buttas for us, Chachi.” The thin boy said, raising two fingers.

Chachi nodded. She picked up corn ears, peeled the skin off, and placed them on her vessel. She took out a stiff piece of paper, attached to a wooden stick, and used it to fan the flames.

“Karan dude, just chill.” The thin boy said to his friend. “Everything will be okay in the long run.”

“What long run, ha?” Karan, the unshaven boy, shot back. “What is all this long run bullshit? I’m screwed, that’s all there is.”

“You got a K.T. in one exam, it’s not the end of the world….”

“What the fuck do you know, ha Rahul?” Karan had a grimace etched on his face. “A K.T. is a failure, and you’ve never failed an exam in your life, so what would you know about it??”

Rahul lapsed into silence. They watched as Chachi continued to fan the flames on her stove. She rotated the sticks of corn, making sure each part got roasted properly. Her movements had a certain rhythm and attentiveness to them.

“It’s just one exam.” Rahul said.

“Just one exam??”

“You can pass on the next attempt, dude. That’s why it’s allowed A.T.KT. – Allowed To Keep Term.”

“Thanks, I didn’t know what A.T.K.T. stands for.” Karan glared. “You just solved all my problems by telling me the full form.”

A little boy, dressed in rags, tapped at Karan’s leg. “Bhaiya, I haven’t eaten for days. Please give me something.”

“Get lost.” Karan barked.

“Dude,” Rahul said, “What will happen because of failing? What is the worst that can happen?”

“I’m planning to go to U.S. for my Masters, you know that. Now, I won’t be able to get admission into…”

“No man, that’s not necessarily true. You can do well on the second attempt. And anyways, they mainly look at your GRE scores.”

“They look at exam marks too, at least the top tier universities do. And I don’t want to settle for second string ones. This is my dream, you know that. I want to get a job in Silicon Valley, hopefully with a company like Google. But it’s all screwed up now” Karan’s face contorted as he spoke. “And then, there’s Aparna.”

Rahul looked across at his friend.

“She’s used to the good life, Rahul. Her family has a big bungalow in Bandra, three or four servants, cars and drivers to take her everywhere.” Karan’s voice grew shrill. “I have to give her a comfortable life, and I just can’t do that here. I’ve promised to take her to the US with me. When I get my Silicon Valley job, then everything will be fine. Otherwise if I’m stuck here, there is no way she will marry me, dude. No way.”

Rahul placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The two boys stood in silence for a few minutes.

“Everyone has dreams, you know.” Karan said, looking away. “Just like it is your dream to create a tech startup here. Everyone has a dream like that. And it sucks when your dreams get ruined.”

“It’s not ruined.” Rahul said quietly.

“It is ruined.” Karan shouted. “You don’t know how competitive it is. Hundreds of thousands of students like me apply every year. You just won’t understand…”

“You’ll want some butter on the corn?” Chachi’s voice interrupted them.

Both the boys looked at her. Rahul shook his head.

They looked on, as Chachi squeezed a drop of lemon on the corn. She dipped the lemon in a spicy masala powder, and distributed it evenly all over the corn.

With a gentle smile, Chachi handed them their buttas.

The smell of the freshly roasted corn, with the spicy masala, mixing with the latent moisture in the air made for a heady cocktail.

“What about her?” Rahul asked his friend, gesturing towards the old lady.

“Ha?”

“Do you think Chachi has any dreams?”

Karan looked at the wrinkled figure as she adjusted the coals in her stove.

“She’s been selling butta here for the last 20-30 years.” Rahul said, biting into his corn.

“She’s even here on Sundays, and holidays. I don’t think she ever misses a single day. Do you think she also has dreams?”

“Of course she does.” Karan said.

“You think so?”

“Everyone has dreams, dude. Everyone.”

****

On the footpath along the busy road outside Mahalakshmi Temple lane, a little girl struggled to focus on her assigned task.

Next to her, two saree-clad women, her mother and her aunt, removed white, jasmine-scented flowers from plastic bags. Those gajra flowers were the only wares that the family sold.

They were all seated on a cloth that had been spread out on the wet ground. There were scattered leaves, scrap papers, and other junk all over the footpath.

A small metal rod had been hammered into a crack in the ground. The girl’s mother tied a thin, white thread to the rod. She scowled at the girl.

“C’mon Nandu, don’t sit there like a moron.”

Nandu fidgeted with the end of her kurta with one hand, and tossed a small stone repeatedly on the ground with the other.

“This is so boring, ma.” She said. “Every day the same thing. Every day, take out flowers and tie them to a garland. I hate all this.”

“Shut up, and get to work. The evening traffic has started. We have to get enough flowers ready to sell.”

“I don’t want to.” Nandu folded her arms.

“Look at your sister, look how she’s working.” Her mother gestured to a smaller girl, who was sitting cross-legged, and separating each individual flower from a fresh bunch. She handed these flowers to the aunt, who strung them up onto another the white thread, like the one the mother was setting up. The aunt then stitched the flowers together to form a kind of garland that women wore on their buns, to decorate their hair.

“Separate only the good flowers, Choti.” Ma said. “Discard the spoilt and shriveled ones aside.”

“Yes, ma.” Choti said.

“Learn something from her, Nandu.” Ma said.

Nandu frowned at her sister, who gave her a sly smile.

“Who are you going to be today, didi?” Choti whispered. “Priyanka?”

Nandu shook her head. “No stupid, that was yesterday.”

“Then, Deepika?”

Nandu shrugged.

“Stop encouraging her with this nonsense.” Ma snapped. “Every day she imagines she is some new Bollywood star…stupid girl.”

Nandu looked away. That ‘nonsense’ was her dream. But Ma would never understand.

“Why can’t you understand, Nandu?” Ma said. “We have seven people to feed. Four of us here, your drunkard father, and your useless brothers. Where is the money going to come from, ha? We have to sell at least twenty sets of these flowers…why don’t you have any common sense?”

Nandu didn’t reply. She picked up a bunch of flowers and put them in front of her. She looked along the footpath to see two short, dark boys a few meters away. Her useless brothers.

One of them had a torn-t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of chappals. The other boy, the smaller one, wore just a long, loose t-shirt with no shorts or footwear. They had a few marbles in their hands, and were taking turns bending down, and aiming them at the ones on the ground, oblivious of the puddles around.

“Come didi, play with us.” The brother with chappals called out, when he saw Nandu looking in their direction. “It’ll be fun.”

“Get lost.” Nandu shouted back.

Ma stared at her, as Nandu fiddled with the flowers in front of her.

“If you’re not able to do any work,” Ma said. “At least make yourself useful, and go look after your brothers.”

“No.” Nandu said. “They’re useless boys.”

Her eyes wandered to the road, where the cars honked, cut lanes and zigzagged their way through the nonstop traffic.

Suddenly, her ears perked up.

A song emanated from the open windows of one of the cars halted at the red signal. Nandu strained her ears to listen. Her body swayed involuntarily.

“Stop that, Nandu.” Ma said.

But she couldn’t stop it. Without warning, she jumped up, and grabbed one of the flower garlands lying next to her sister.

“What are you…” Ma reached out to grab her hand, but Nandu slipped from her grasp. She ran to the basket that was tied to the tree on the footpath, reached in and fetched her most prized possession. That floral yellow dupatta.

It was slightly torn on the edges, and dusty all over, but Nandu loved it.

“Oye Nandu.” Ma shouted. “Where you’re going? Bring back those flowers, they are not ready…Choti, run after your sister, and get her back….”

Nandu bolted towards the car, the source of the music. The song was fully audible now.

Mainu kala chasma….O mainu kala kala chasma…”

Nandu wrapped the yellow dupatta around her neck, and slung one end over her shoulder. She threw her hair back, and broke into her dance.

Her hips swayed, her eyes sparkled and her feet tapped to the beat of the music. She waved the flowers in her hand, swiveling round and round, never missing a beat. Before long, she started singing the chorus.

“O mainu kala chasma…mainu kala kala chasma…”

She caught sight of Choti scampering behind her.

“Katrina.” Nandu yelled out. “I’m Katrina today.”

And in her mind, she was Katrina. There was no doubt about it.

As her loose feet tapped along the stony pavement, her waist swinging rhythmically, Nandu imagined that she was on stage at the Filmfare Awards show, performing in front of a huge live audience.

Where there were cars honking, she heard people applauding. Where the sunlight glinted off the car windows, she saw the flashing cameras of the assembled paparazzi.

Choti approached her sister and tugged at her dupatta.

“Didi, come back.” She said softly.

But Nandu didn’t hear a thing. She was at the awards show. Her performance was electric. The audience was in raptures. She twirled round and round.

The traffic signal turned green, and the cars started honking loudly. Nandu only heard the applause reach a crescendo as she neared the end of her performance. The music started to fade away.

Choti grabbed her sister’s hand and guided her back to the footpath, as the cars surged past them. Nandu felt she was being led to the podium to receive her award.

A boy appeared, pointing a microphone towards her, which seemed to be orange for some reason.

Nandu mentally rehearsed her acceptance speech. How hard she had to struggle to get here. From selling gajra flowers on the road to a best actress award, it had been a remarkable journey for her.

“Didi, you want some?” A boy’s voice asked, jarring her thoughts.

Nandu blinked, and looked around.

It was the same old footpath. Dirty, wet, and full of puddles. Her brother was standing in front of her, holding an orange ice-cream stick.

“You want ice-cream, didi?” The boy said. “Some memsaab was giving them out. I saved one for you.”

Nandu blinked again. The dream felt so real. The reality was so stark.

“Take it fast didi, otherwise it will melt.”

“Shut up, and get lost.” Nandu hissed. She wanted a Filmfare award, not some stupid ice cream stick.

She stomped off down the footpath, leaving her brother standing there with the ice cream.

No one understood her dreams. But one day, she would be a Bollywood star. One day she would win the best actress award. One day…

****

Stuck amongst the endless traffic, a taxi driver wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. The heat was stifling, despite last night’s rains. The traffic was suffocating. It was just a sea of cars after cars after cars.

His car was a white Maruti Swift, which he had bought on loan. Like all of his peers, he too had switched from driving the regular black-and-yellow city taxi to driving for Ola Cabs, one of those new fangled taxi apps that all the rich folks used these days.

He reached the assigned spot to see a family of four standing outside. The man had a thick beard, and wore a white kurta. His wife wore a simple salwar-kameez. They had two young kids, a boy and a girl.

“Are you driver Raviprakash Yadav?” The man asked hesitantly.

The driver nodded.

The kids bundled into the back seat, followed by the wife. The father stuffed their luggage into the boot.

“Myself, Shivpal Yadav.” He said, as he lumbered into the front seat.

“Where you going?” Ravi asked. “You haven’t entered your destination?”

Shivpal fumbled around in the front pocket of his kurta, and produced a piece of paper.

“This is the address.” He handed the paper across. “Do you know this place? I’m new to Mumbai, you see.”

Ravi read the paper and just grunted.

“Are you also from U.P.?” Shivpal asked.

“Hmm.” Ravi grunted again. It was evident that this Shivpal was going to talk nonstop. This godforsaken traffic, and now this fool jabbering away. What a crappy day.

“Myself also from U.P.” Shivpal said. “Myself arrived in Mumbai two weeks back, with family.” Shivpal gestured to his wife and children in the back seat. “We stay with Chachaji’s friend, but his wife wants us to leave. So, I find another room, you see. All these city people are not nice, they are not like people in the village.”

Ravi halted the car at another red signal. It felt like he was catching every single red today.

“I heard all the taxi drivers are driving for these apps now? Is it true?”

“Yes.” Ravi honked at the car that cut lanes ahead of him.

“How I can get job in these apps, friend? I know to drive. I’ve driven trucks and buses and jeeps, and everything else. Can you help me get driver job?”

“No, I can’t help you.” Ravi snapped.

“Why not, friend? Help a brother from U.P….”

“Just apply with Ola Cabs, and see if they take you. They will take your driving test, and ask some questions.”

“Acha? What kind of questions?”

“Simple stuff about how long you’ve been driving, and whatever.”

“Acha, acha.” Shivpal nodded his head. “How I contact them? Do you have a number or an address or something?”

“I’ll give you the number after I drop you off.”

“Thank you, friend, thank you.”

Ravi hoped that he would shut up for a while now.

“Acha, tell me how is it like driving for these apps?” Shivpal asked. “Is it better than regular taxi? Do you get more money?”

“It’s all the same.”

“The same? Surely it must be different, friend. You have this nice a/c car, and there are the apps and all. How many rides do you get in a day? Are you making more money?”

“It’s the same fucking thing.” Ravi growled. “Every day, I’m sitting behind the wheel, stuck in traffic jams all day long. Nothing ever changes. First gear, second gear, third gear, back to first gear. That’s all there is. It’s all the same fucking crap, day after day.”

Shivpal looked a little stunned by this outburst. He glanced behind at his family, and then slumped into his seat, staring out of the window.

Finally there was silence in the car, which lasted until their destination arrived.

“Thank you, friend.” Shivpal said. “And sorry for all the questions.”

“It’s fine.”

Ravi’s phone beeped with the next ride request, which he quickly accepted and drove off.

At the next signal, he realized that he never gave that fool the number for Ola. He shrugged, and wiped his brow. Why would anyone want this useless, laborious job of driving a taxi anyways?

For his next ride, Ravi picked up three city boys. Two of them sat at the back; one had black, square-rimmed glasses, and other wore a fancy gold watch. All three were dressed in smart shirts and dark blue jeans. The boy in the front seat had the top three buttons of his shirt open.

“Good morning, sir.” Ravi said, as the Ola people had taught him to say.

Their destination, Palladium Mall in Lower Parel, had been entered in the app. Ravi followed the directions on his phone, while the boys talked amongst themselves.

He understood only bits and parts of English, but caught snippets of what they were saying.

“…exams coming up…”

“…wish the semester just got done…”

“…college sucks…”

Ravi’s eyes lit up. College. Exams. His initial guess about them was right.

“College students, sir?” Ravi asked, trying to sound as refined as he could.

“Ha.” One of the boys said.

“Myself also knows little English.” Ravi said.

The boys stopped talking, and exchanged a look.

“Check out this driver, trying to speak English and all.” Mr. Open-buttons said, drawing sniggers from the others.

Ravi racked his brain, before speaking again. “What course study you, sir?”

Another giggle went across the boys. Ravi looked at them in his rear view mirror.

The spectacled boy replied. “Engineering.”

“Very nice, sir, very nice.” Ravi gushed. “Myself dream of college sir…engineering is dream for myself…”

He was aware that he was talking fast. He was also aware that his words were a source of amusement for his college-going passengers. But he couldn’t contain himself. College was his ultimate dream. It had been for years and years.

“Myself dream of college, sir.” He repeated. “What advice you give for me?”

Open-buttons turned behind to his friends. “What advice can we give our cabbie who wants to be an engineer, ha?”

The boys at the back laughed.

“Dude, we can barely pass engineering exams ourselves.”

“And this guy can’t even speak English. I’m sure he can’t read or write. What chance does he have?”

Ravi’s eyes darted from the boy next to him to the rearview mirror.

“Dude, he can probably understand you.” The spectacled boy said.

“He’s just a stupid cabbie, dude.” Open-Buttons shot back. “He can’t understand much, trust me.”

Nonetheless, the spectacled boy from the back seat met Ravi’s gaze in the mirror, and said. “Ha, always keep studying hard, and that’s it.”

Ravi didn’t bother to nod back. He understood that his dreams were like a joke to these kids. Kids born into rich families, with silver spoons in their faces. What did they know??

His dream was not a joke.

He fell into a sullen silence for the rest of the ride. Still, he tried to listen to the boys’ conversations.

“…she is hot, dude…”

“…should ask her for a date…”

“…lectures are so boring….feel like bunking…”

Ravi didn’t understand all of it. He got that the two from the back seat were goading the third one about some girl. He also picked up something about skipping classes.

Skipping classes?? Really?? He would give up all his fingers and toes for the chance to attend these classes. These fools had no idea how lucky they were. Just no idea.

He dropped them off at the mall, without another word. The spectacled boy looked at him, and said. “Good luck.”

Ravi nodded. He would be in college one day. He knew it.

Suddenly, the dashboard of the car turned into a classroom bench. His driver’s seat became a desk chair. His cell phone became a notebook.

Ravi was in class. He listened to everything the teacher said. He took down notes diligently. He never ‘bunked’ any class. Never ever.

He lapped it all up. Physics, Chemistry, Maths, whatever it was. He prepared hard for the exams. He studied everything in the syllabus.

Outside on the roads, the cars horned as they made their way through traffic. Ravi heard them as warning bells as he gave his final exam paper. He scribbled faster on his paper, determined to answer all the questions. He wouldn’t just pass the exam; he would top the class.

Then, he was outside the college building, waiting to see his results. He pushed past the crowd of students, and searched for his name on the notice board.

“Did you see my marks?” He asked someone.

“98…” He thought he heard a voice say.

Wow, 98! He had aced the paper. He knew he would. He just knew it.

“98 for 3.” The voice became clearer. It was accompanied by a cackle sound, like that of a radio.

“Oh no.” Someone else groaned. ”98 for 4 now.”

Ravi snapped back to the present. He saw a group of drivers sitting together in the back seat of a car next to him. They were huddled around a handheld radio.

“Virat Kohli is gone.” One of them said. “It’s over now.”

“No, no, they will still chase it.”

Ravi stared at them. Gone was his college classroom. Gone were his class-topping exam results. The real world only had some stupid drivers having a pointless discussion about some frivolous cricket match.

“Ravi bhai.” One of the drivers had noticed him staring. “We’re all going to Udupi Bhuvan to eat, and watch the match also. They have a TV there.”

Ravi gave him a blank look.

“Do you want to join us, Ravi bhai? It’ll be fun. India will win this…”

“No.” Ravi brushed his hand dismissively. He put his car into gear and drove off from there.

One day, he would go to college. One day, he would become an engineer. One day…

****

It was another miserable day in the miserable life of Hemant Patil. He had the shittiest job in the whole world.

Every morning, at the ungodly hour of 6am, he joined a team of ‘Clean-up Marshalls’ as part of Mumbai city’s Nuisance Detector Squad. They wore blue uniforms with red shoulder epaulets. Their job was to stop people from public defecation, and fine them if they caught them in the act.

So, literally the shittiest job in the world. The t-shirt with the slogan ‘Same shit, Different day’ would have been an apt description of his life.

He was doing his usual rounds in Bandra’s Garib Janta Nagar area, which was a popular spot for chronic public defecation. The wet, rainy morning made the stinky smell of the area even more pronounced.

Hemant crinkled his nose, as he walked parallel to the railway tracks, tapping his wooden lathi stick on the ground every few steps. The rain had reduced to a light drizzle, but the roads were still slippery.

“Caught one, Patil saab.” A voice called out.

Hemant walked over to his colleague. “Did you stop him, Schinde?”

“He had just started, and I stopped him.” Schinde twirled his mustache. He had his lathi pointed towards an old man with grey hair, wearing a white banyan, and with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist.

Hemant pulled his slipping pants up a little, over his bulging waistline. He appraised the old man. “How many times to tell you fools? Don’t sit in the open, use the mobile toilet that the government has kept for you’ll.”

“Sorry saab.”

“100 rupees is the fine for you.”

The old man looked at him with pleading eyes. “Please saab, it won’t happen again.”

Hemant raised his lathi, and the man cowered back. “How many times we’ve already told you to stop? But you won’t listen.”

“Sorry saab. I was really feeling the pressure. Otherwise I would have waited, I swear. I’m old now saab, and I can’t hold it back for long.”

“Don’t give me that nonsense about being old and all. Just pay the 100 rupees and get lost from here.”

“I don’t have the money,” The old man joined his hands, as in prayer. “Please saab, I won’t do it again.”

“Schinde,” Hemant turned to his junior colleague. “Did you catch him before or had he already done it?”

Schinde hesitated, looking from Hemant to the old man.

“I stopped him before.” He said.

Hemant turned to glare at the old man. “Get out of here fast.”

The Marshalls watched the old man scamper away.

“When will these fools learn?” Hemant said.

“They can’t help it, ” Schinde said. “They are used to shitting in the open their whole lives. Now because of this Swachh Bharat campaign, they are being asked to stand in lines outside toilets, and pay 3 rupees to take a shit.”

“They better learn.” Hemant said. “There is enough shit in this city already. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all of them.”

“I know,” Schinde sighed. “But have you seen the lines outside that mobile toilet, Patil saab? There are fifty thousand people in the slums in Garib Nagar. There are 10 seats in that toilet, and that too 6 are reserved for women and children. Can you imagine how long this old man will have to wait in the line? It might be twenty-thirty minutes at least…”

A small boy came up to them, with a samosa in one hand. He turned to Hemant and saluted him with his other hand. “Good morning saab.”

“What do you want?” Hemant said gruffly.

“Nothing saab. Just wanted to say good morning, that’s all.”

“Go, get lost from here.” Hemant said. The boy skipped off along the footpath.

Hemant turned back to Schinde. “This stupid government needs to install more toilets.”

“Yes, they do.” Schinde agreed.

“Swachh Bharat, Swachh Bharat, they go on. But who will pay the money for the toilets? No one will. And then fools like us are left chasing rascals who insist on shitting on the roads.” Hemant gripped his lathi tight. “And how much we get paid for this shitty work? Peanuts, we get paid peanuts. Even the auto drivers make more than us.”

Schinde just nodded.

“The whole system sucks, Schinde. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of this job. One day, I will quit and do my own thing…”

Just then, the rain started to pick up, and water droplets streamed down on the two Marshalls. The gusty winds made the rain come down at oblique angels.

“This fucking rain also now.” Hemant said. “I’m going to get my umbrella.”

Hemant turned away from his colleague, and walked along the road. He dragged his lathi on the ground, making a scraping sound as he walked. He brought one arm up to shield his face from the rain.

At the far end of the road, a bearded man with a white turban walked along the footpath. He went behind a tree, and squatted down low. Then, he slipped his pants down.

“Hey, you rascal.” Hemant shouted. “Stop that.”

The man appeared to not hear. He took out a newspaper, and placed one set of pages on his head to shield himself from the rain. He held the remaining pages in his hand, while still in the squatting position with his pants down.

“Stop that, you bastard.” Hemant yelled, moving towards the man.

The man looked up suddenly, his eyes widening. In a flash, he dropped the newspaper, jumped to his feet, and started to run.

“You rascal.” Hemant ran after him. “You have to pay a fine now.”

The turbaned man pulled his pants up as he continued to run. He reached the end of the road, and turned left.

Hemant ran faster. His breath came in wheezing gasps, as his middle-aged body struggled to keep up.

“Stop running, you rascal.” He shouted.

Without warning, his legs slipped on the wet road, and gave way from under him.

Hemant was flung backwards, and landed flat on the ground. A searing pain shot up his backside.

The rain continued to beat down upon him. He lay still for a while, groaning softly.

“This fucking job. I hate this, I hate this.”

It was a few minutes before he was able to stand up again. He leaned against a parked car, and rubbed his back.

He saw a store there that had a green plus in front of it. ‘Shree Ganesh Medical Store’ the sign proclaimed in capital letters.

Something inside him palpitated. An itch that had refused to go away for as long as he could remember.

Hemant Patil had always wanted to start a business, and his dream business was a medical store.

He had worked all over the city; first as a building watchman, then as a traffic hawaldar, now as a clean up marshal. He had seen many businesses thrive, then struggle, and then sink. The video cassette shops came and went. At one time, pool parlors were a rage, and then they all disappeared. There were cyber cafes, all of which shut down. Things always kept changing.

But one thing that never went out of style was medicines. People always fell sick. Medicines would always be needed. Always.

One day he would have his own medical store. It was the only stable business that could last for generations. He would serve the elderly and the young alike. The whole neighborhood would come to him. He would research, and keep everything from the latest foreign medicines to the Ayurveda creams.

In his head, the parked car turned into a counter top. The people walking along on the footpath were his customers.

A smile grew on his face, as he greeted each customer and retrieved the medicines they requested. Often, he would suggest the right medicine for them.

Stomach upset? Take Immodium. Need to relieve pain? Try Combliflam. Dust allergies? Have some Cetzine.

“Have some Cetzai?” He heard a voice ask.

“Cetzai? You must be meaning Cetzine?”

“…Masala chai…?”

Hemant felt the rain drench his whole body. His vision gradually readjusted to the scene around him.

“What happened, Patil saab?” Someone asked. “Are you okay?”

Hemant didn’t respond.

“Patil saab?” The mustached figure of Schinde stood before him. “What happened to your umbrella?”

“Ha?” Hemant looked dazed.

What happened to his medical store? What happened to his loyal customers? Why was he back here in the rain and the shit of this stinking place?

“I was asking if you want some masala chai.” Schinde said. “Some of us are going to the chai stall. You should come.”

“I don’t want.” Hemant said brusquely. He turned and walked away, his shoes splashing amongst the puddles on the road.

One day, he would have his own store. One day, he would sell medicines to thousands of people. One day….

****

Back at Chachi’s butta stall, the two students, Karan and Rahul, stood there, biting into their corn.

Chachi had just served some other customers, and shifted the coals to keep her flame going. She watched the two boys. They were lost in their own thoughts, ruminating as they chewed down the corn.

“You know,” She said, “The problem with all these dreams is that when you finally achieve them, nothing really changes.”

Both the boys looked at her, startled.

“I didn’t know you understood English,” Rahul said.

“And you were following our conversations??” Karan interjected.

Chachi smiled. It was that calming smile of hers that seemed to come from a place of serenity.

“When you achieve your dream, maybe you’ll be happy for a short while.” She said. “But then life will go on. You’ll still have day-to-day problems. It will be the same as before. Nothing will be too different.”

The boys looked at the old butta lady, with flabby arms, and two nose rings, in a newfound light.

“You know the other problem with chasing these dreams?” Chachi went on. “You miss everything that is happened around you.

“Did you notice the little boy who came and asked you for money? Did you observe the family that came here after you, with the small girl who was trying to pacify her crying baby sister?

“Did you smell the fresh rain in the air? Did you even taste those buttas that you have almost finished eating? The hot corn, the spicy masala…did you really taste it?”

The boys stayed silent for a few moments.

“No, I didn’t.” Karan said, staring at his butta. “I didn’t properly taste it.”

“Neither did I.” Rahul admitted.

“And I didn’t notice that crying baby and her sister.” Karan said. “I didn’t see any of it.”

“There is nothing wrong with having dreams, son.” Chachi said. “Nothing wrong with chasing after what you want. But you shouldn’t get so obsessed that you miss everything that is happening around you. You’ll miss opportunities for joy, for making human connections. Your life will go by, and you won’t notice most of it.”

The boys looked at her gravely.

“You’re right, Chachi.” Karan said. “You’re very right.”

He brought his butta close to his face, paused, and took in the smell. Then, slowly and deliberately, he bit into it.

“Wow.” Karan said. “This butta is amazing, Chachi.”

Rahul also paid close attention to his last few bites.

“Thank you Chachi.” Rahul smiled, as he paid her for their buttas.

“Take care boys.” Chachi smiled back.

“We will remember what you said, Chachi.” Karan said. “We‘ll pay attention to what is happening around us, and try to not get too caught up in dreams.”

Chachi watched them walk away. She had a slight smile, and a wistful look in her eyes.

She knew they wouldn’t follow her advice. Not for long at least. Soon, their relentless stream of thoughts would return and suck their attention inwards.

Mumbai was a city full of dreamers. And the dreamers just wouldn’t stop dreaming…

****

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The Dagger

“Sheilaben,” A shrill voice called out, with a hint of a British accent. “This table is not fully dusted.”

“Ha memsaab.” Sheila went to the table with her dusting cloth. It was the story of her life. The table was not fully dusted. The rent was not fully paid. The electric bill was overdue. The dinner she brought home every day was not enough to fill the stomach of her eleven-year-old son, Ajay.

Ever since her husband had died in a local train accident six months ago, life had become a daily struggle to survive. He was a good man, her husband. He hadn’t deserved the macabre death of being pushed onto the tracks at Dadar station, and being run over by the speeding train.

She had mourned his death for weeks, being consoled by relatives, neighbors and friends. Then, the debt collectors arrived. Her husband had taken loans from a few different people, using the money to pay the bribes needed to get his cushy job pushing papers around at the municipal office.

Sheila stalled and negotiated, but she couldn’t fend them off for long. She sold all her wedding jewelry, and paid off whosoever she could.

It was not enough. Still some loans remained. Like the little particles of dust that remained on the tables, no matter how hard she dusted.

“And don’t forget to wipe the windows properly.” Memsaab said.

“Ha memsaab.”

Memsaab and her husband had recently returned to Mumbai after many years in London. They had a penthouse flat in Andheri West, and wanted somebody to keep the house clean, and attend to the needs of their son. They preferred someone who spoke English. Sheila had studied for few years in an English medium school, and could speak passable English.

Becoming a glorified maid was not something that Sheila had imagined her life would come to.

She was down on her haunches, wiping the floor-to-ceiling windows, while her memsaab sat on the sofa, flipping pages of a magazine.

“Sheila,” Memsaab said. “Come here one minute.”

“What happened memsaab?”

“Come, I have something for you.” Memsaab reached into a plastic bag, and produced a silk scarf, sky-blue in color.

“Thank you memsaab,” Sheila wrapped the scarf around her neck. The cloth felt soft against her skin.

“Happy Ganesh Chaturthi,” Memsaab smiled. “And I’m sorry we couldn’t give you the loan you asked for. Business has been tight for Saab. When he gets back to Mumbai by Diwali time, we’ll give you the loan.”

“Ha memsaab.” Sheila nodded. Diwali was two months away. Her debt collectors wouldn’t wait that long. Her landlord definitely wouldn’t let her stay that long without getting the past due rent.

“That’s a nice saree you’re wearing.” Memsaab said. It was a purple saree with white floral patterns.

“Thank you memsaab.”

“Tell me, how’s your son doing?” Memsaab asked.

“Ajay is doing fine.” Sheila mumbled, concealing a grimace. Ajay wore the same dirty school uniform every day, because his poor mother couldn’t afford a new one. They would probably kick him out of school, if she didn’t pay up the full tuition fees soon.

“Good, good.” Memsaab said, and went back to her magazine.

Sheila resumed her cleaning. She had asked everyone she knew for money. Her employers, her neighbors and her friends. Everyone was either unwilling or unable to help.

All she had gotten for her desperate pleas was that stupid blue silk scarf.

She closed her eyes, and thought about her plan. It was a last resort, something that she wouldn’t do unless there was no alternative.

There really was no frickin alternative. It had come to this.

She glanced at the memsaab, who was leaning back on the sofa, with her feet up on the coffee table

After finishing the windows, Sheila went to the study, a square-shaped room at one end of the flat. She dusted the wooden bookshelf, and the long tables along the walls.

There were several decorative items on the tables, which the Saab used to show off to his guests. There was an ornate crystal giraffe, a silver sculpture of a galloping horse, a hand-carved Ganpati idol.

And the object she had been eyeing for weeks.

She looked back at the door to the study. She stood still, listening for any sounds.

Satisfied that the coast was clear, she turned her attention to the dagger.

It was a small metal blade, curved at the tip. The bronze handle had various symbols engraved on it. She had overheard the Saab say that he had purchased the dagger in an auction, and it had belonged to the legendary Tipu Sultan. He even showed the tiny bloodstains around the tip, to prove that it had been used in the sultan’s battles against the British.

But, what drew Sheila to the knife was the red ruby inserted at the point where the handle met the blade. The stone used to glitter in the afternoon sunlight, while she did her daily dusting. She didn’t know much about Tipu Sultan, but her gut told her that the red stone had to be valuable.

Sheila stared at the dagger. She clenched her fist to stop her hand from shaking. The arrangements had been made. There was no going back now.

She slid it into her handbag and closed the zipper.

Her breathing became rapid. It’ll be fine, she told herself. Nobody in the house went to the study, except during dinner parties, which wouldn’t happen till Diwali.

The tiny black eyes of the Ganpati idol seemed to be looking right at her.

“Sheilaben.”

Sheila spun around, dropping her handbag to the floor.

“…I forgot to tell you,” Memsaab was saying, “There are some samosas in the fridge. Put them in Kunal’s lunch dabba tomorrow, okay?”

“Ha memsaab,” Sheila exhaled, picking up the handbag.

She looked at the Ganpati again. Within few days, it would be visarjan time, and thousands of people would take many such idols and immerse them into the water in grand processions.

She knelt down in front of the idol, her eyes seeking some kind of reassurance. Ganeshji just stared impassively back at her.

Sheila finished the rest of her housework as fast as she could.

“Okay, memsaab.” She said, putting on her chappals, near the door.

“See you tomorrow,” Memsaab said.

While walking towards the train station, Sheila’s mobile phone rang.

“Ha, hello.”

“Do you have it?” A gruff male voice asked.

“Yes, I have it.”

“Meet us in one hour where I told you.”

The line went dead.

The caller was a man named Sushank, who worked as a driver in a nearby high-rise building. She had been introduced to him by one of her neighbors. He didn’t have any money to lend her, but had asked her about the showpiece items at her employer’s house. He knew a guy who would buy such stuff for a good price.

At first, Sheila had been appalled at the suggestion. But a month later, she felt like she was at the edge of the cliff, and her life was teetering on the brink.

She had called Sushank and told him about the dagger. Not wanting to hold onto the thing for a minute longer than needed, she had scheduled the meeting for that evening after work.

Sheila caught the fast train from Andheri to Churchgate and walked to the meeting place.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf

The other customers at the café were all college kids dressed in flashy tops and jeans. She adjusted her saree, feeling thoroughly out of place. To justify her presence there, she bought a cup of coffee. It tasted bitter and was not even hot enough.

“Sheilaben.”

Sheila looked up. Sushank was wearing a white shirt over faded jeans. With him was a short, stout man with a thick moustache. He wore a blue shirt, and had gold rings on three of his fingers. Slung on his shoulder was a black rectangular bag, the kind she had seen the Saab carry his laptop computer in.

Sheila gripped the dagger tightly, as the two men sat down at her table.

“This is Ankur bhai.” Sushank tilted his head towards his companion.

She looked at Ankur bhai and nodded.

“What are you just sitting there woman?” Sushank demanded. “Where is your bloody knife?”

“Have you brought money?” She asked

“Yes, yes, we have money.” Sushank said. Ankur bhai tapped his fingers on the laptop bag.

Sheila hesitated for a moment. She thought she saw an odd glance exchanged between the two men.

“C’mon, C’mon, we don’t have all day.” Sushank said.

Slowly, Sheila lifted the dagger, unwrapped it from her scarf, and placed it on the table.

Ankur bhai ran his hands over the blade, peered at the handle, and then at the ruby.

“How much you think?” Sushank asked.

Ankur bhai shrugged. “I can take it off her hands for 4.”

“4?” Sheila asked. “4 lakhs?”

Ankur bhai just looked across at her.

“That’s too less.” Sheila said.

“That’s the best price you’ll get.”

“C’mon,” Sheila lifted the dagger. “Did you see this shiny red jewel? It sparkles so much every day.”

Ankur bhai twirled his moustache.

“This dagger belonged to Tipu Sultan, you know. He used it while fighting against the British. See, there are blood stains also.”

“Who told you that?” Ankur bhai eyed her with one eyebrow slightly raised.

“The Saab where I work tells the story to all his guests.”

Ankur bhai toyed with the dagger, “5.”

“The red thing has to be worth more.” Sheila protested. “Make it 8.”

Ankur bhai brought his elbows on the table. “No one cares about Tipu Sultan and all. This will be tough to sell in the market.”

He scratched his cheek. “6 is my final offer.”

“Otherwise, I’m going.” He started to push his chair back.

“No, no Ankur bhai,” Sushank touched his arm. “She’ll take that much. Sheilaben, don’t be stupid. Do you want to sell the bloody thing or not?”

Sheila looked at Sushank, and then at Ankur bhai. “Fine.”

Ankur bhai took a few stacks of notes from his laptop bag, and put them into a plastic bag. He slid the money across the table, and picked up the dagger.

Sheila opened the plastic bag under the table. There were bundles of thousand rupee notes. She started counting them.

Ankur bhai stood up. “It’s all there, don’t worry.”

Sheila looked up and saw a tiny glint in his eyes. Sushank nodded to her. “Ha, ha, its all fine, Sheilaben.”

He stood up. “You know where to find me.”

“Okay,” Sheila nodded.

Both the men exited the café. Sheila counted the money to her satisfaction, and then stuffed it into her handbag. She finished her last gulp of coffee, and looked around. All the kids seemed to be busy chatting and laughing in their little groups, oblivious of her presence.

She got up and walked onto the street. A wave of elation spread over her. The money in her bag was enough to pay off her remaining debts, the rent, the school fees, and there would still be more leftover.

A cacophony of car horns blared all around her. Through the glass window of some clothing store, she saw a male mannequin wearing a smart blue checked shirt and corduroy trousers. On an impulse, Sheila went inside, and found the shirt that was on display. Ajay deserved a new shirt.

In front of her in the checkout line, she saw a small boy playing with his mother’s dupatta. The boy looked just like the memsaab’s son, Kunal, whom she was supposed to pack samosas for tomorrow.

Sheila shifted her feet uneasily. What’s done is done, she told herself. Memsaab could always buy another dagger or anything else they wanted.

She reached the front of the line, and placed the shirt on the counter.

“It’s 30% discount today, maam,” The girl at the counter said.

“Discount?”

“Yes, maam,” The girl said. “Happy Ganesh Chaturthi.”

“Happy Ganesh Chaturthi,” Sheila mumbled, and handed over two thousand rupee notes.

“Show me those notes,” A man dressed in a shirt and tie, came up to them from behind the counter. His name tag indicated that he was a store manager.

He took the notes from the girl, and held them up against the light. Frowning, he went to a computer and started typing something.

He came back to the counter. “I’m sorry, maam, but these notes are fake.”

The color drained from Sheila’s face. “What??”

“These fake 1000 rupee notes are all over nowadays. We’ve been asked to be careful, maam. I checked these against the RBI’s blacklisted serial numbers.”

Sheila stared at him, her mouth wide open.

“Do you have any other notes, maam?”

With quivering hands, Sheila gave him another note from her handbag.

He repeated the procedure, and came back with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry maam, this is also fake.”

Sheila couldn’t breathe. She felt all the muscles in her body contracting.

“Somebody must have given you a bad batch of notes, maam.”

Sheila managed a weak nod. She went out of the store, and just walked around randomly on the road.

Her head was spinning with all kinds of thoughts. Ankur bhai had swindled her. Her instincts had told her there was something wrong about him. And that bastard Sushank. She would chase him down.

She kicked an empty plastic bottle lying on the road.

“Aaargh,” She yelled out loud.

She exhaled heavily. Suddenly becoming conscious of people around staring at her, she slinked into a quiet side gali.

She slumped down to the pavement. She took out a bunch of the fake notes, and flung them around.

How could this happen to her? How could she be so stupid?

She put her hands on her head. A blue silk scarf flapped on the ground next to her. She picked it up. Memsaab had always treated her well. Maybe, she genuinely intended to give the loan by Diwali. What would Ajay think of her if he knew what she had done to try to pay his school fees?

The sounds of some chanting interrupted her brooding trance.

“Ganpati Bappa, Morya.”

“Mangal Murti, Morya.”

Sheila stood up slowly, and walked to the main road. A procession of people carried a large Ganpati idol, and chanted in unison. Some people always did their visarjan early.

She looked at the Ganpati idol being held aloft. The elephant god’s trunk curved left, and the palm of his right hand was held up in blessing. Her eyes locked onto the unblinking black pupils of Ganeshji.

She knew she had gotten what she deserved.

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What the f**k did I do?

Naveen examined his appearance in front of the mirror. He ran a brush through his wavy hair to push it back. Standard blue jeans, a red Nike t-shirt, a black-dial, metal-strap wristwatch reflected back at him.

“Naveen?” His mother’s voice called out behind him. She walked into his room. “You’re still here? Aren’t you late? Isn’t the first class at eleven?”

“Yeah, I’ll be done in a minute.”

His mother picked up some empty plates, socks, pens and other things scattered here and there in the room and put them away, while Naveen continued brushing his hair.

“What are you doing there? I’ve never seen you stand in front of the mirror for so long…”

“It’s the first day of college, Mamma.”

Mamma stopped and looked at him. “Are you worried about being ragged? Is there lot of ragging at Jai Hind?”

“I don’t know…”

“Tell me…” Mamma persisted. “Is it really bad? What do they make freshers do? What have you heard?”

“Nothing…it should be fine.” Naveen waved his hand dismissively. He peered at the mirror. Maybe, the red t-shirt was a bit too…..well, red.

“He’s not going to tell me anything.” Mamma said aloud. She looked at the wall clock. “At least be on time, Naveen. It’s ten twenty. You should leave now.”

“I’m waiting for Prakash to call…he’s picking me up in a cab.”

The phone started ringing. Mamma smiled. “There it is…” She picked it up. “Hello, Prakash.”

Naveen turned. “How do you assume it’s…”

“Yes, yes, he’s ready to leave.” Mamma shoved the cordless phone at him.

“Dude, when you getting here?” Naveen asked.

“Ten minutes.” Prakash said. “Come down.”

“And Sumeet?”

“He’s with me. You come down…don’t make us hold the cab and come up.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Prakash hung up the phone, and opened his cupboard. His eyes scanned the row of hanging t-shirts and settled on a dark blue, collared t-shirt with minimal patterns on it. He changed into it, casting aside the red one on the bed.

Mamma immediately picked it up. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know…its red and stuff.” Naveen was putting on socks.

“So what? It looks good.”

“Whatever….I’m leaving.” Naveen had his shoes on and walked towards the door.

“Wait, aren’t you carrying a bag?”

“No, just this notebook,” Naveen had a spiral notebook in his hand. “And I have a pen in the pocket. Anyways, I got to go…”

“Good luck.” Mamma called after him.

“Thanks Mamma.”

He lumbered into the front seat of the cab. Prakash and Sumeet were sitting behind.

“Dude, what are you wearing?” Prakash greeted him.

Naveen looked down at his clothes. “Why? What’s the issue?”

“Collared t-shirts are not cool man…that will draw attention,” Prakash said. “They’ll be hunting for freshers anyways.”

“And it makes you look a bit old.” Sumeet added.

“So? Isn’t that good? I won’t be assumed to be a fresher then.” Naveen shot back. “And what are you wearing?” He looked at Prakash’s black t-shirt with a big red Reebok logo. “Isn’t that a bit too red?”

Prakash looked down “No man, its fine….you’re seeing things.”

“Looks pretty noticeable to me,” Naveen claimed. He paused, before going on. “I heard that last year some freshers were made to jump up and down on the desks, holding their shoes on top of their heads or something…”

“Seriously?” Prakash said, tugging at his t-shirt’s logo.

“Relax guys,” Sumeet cut in. “The whole ragging thing is overhyped. Nothing will happen. We’ll all walk in together, confidently.”

“Just remember, if anyone asks which year you are, say SYJC.” Sumeet told them. Second Year Junior College is what they were going to pretend to be today, despite the fact that they had only been to Jai Hind College twice before, once while checking out the place and then during the admissions.

It was ten fifty by the time they walked under the arched gates of Jai Hind. Naveen looked around. To their right was the main college building with predominantly beige paint and red borders on the ledges between each floor. At the far end was an open canteen with long lines of students outside.

Naveen was struck by the throngs of students in all directions. Sitting on the steps, standing around in circles, walking about here and there. Jeans and some form of t-shirts or tops was the common attire. The variation was only in the color of the jeans (various shades of blue and black), and the fanciness of the tops.

“Don’t stand there looking so clueless” Prakash nudged him. “Let’s go.”

“Are you’ll seeing all these girls?” Sumeet had the look of a hunter surveying his prey. “Damn.”

“Here he goes.” Prakash rolled his eyes.

Coming from St. Mary’s, an all-boys school, the omnipresence of girls everywhere was definitely noticed by all of them. Naveen saw that most groups had at least a few girls with them.

They headed into the main building. Their classroom was on the third floor.

“Wait,” Naveen said. “I have to pee.”

“Really dude? Now?”

“I’ll be quick, wait for me here.” With that, Naveen left for the bathroom. The men’s bathroom had a rush of dudes coming in and out. Inside was a small sink, four urinals and paint peeling off the walls. Naveen looked up at the wall in front of his urinal. It was filled with all kinds of scribbling.

“Jai Hind Rocks”, “Neha loves Arun”, “When in doubt, go left”

Naveen smiled. His favorite was the one scribbled in small letters right at the top of his urinal. “No matter how hard you try, there’s always one drop remaining.”

True indeed.

As he washed up, Naveen cast a sideways glance at the other urinals. He would be sure to try a different one every time he was in there, to read Jai Hind’s finest literature. He liked this place already.

He made his way his back to the stairs where his buddies were waiting.

“That was not at all quick, man…” Prakash said.

Right then, they noticed a group of five or six dudes walking towards them purposefully. Prakash’s expression froze mid-sentence.

“Chill, guys.” Sumeet said. “Just keep talking normally.”

Sumeet raised his volume a little, “Yea man, that was a crappy movie…she really can’t act for nuts…”

The group reached the stairs and stopped right next to them. In front of them stood a stocky dude, who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. His chest was huge and his biceps bulging. His t-shirt was so tight that Naveen felt like it could rip at any moment.

He stood one step ahead of the others, and appeared to be the de facto leader of the pack. He seized up all of them individually.

“What’s up?” Sumeet asked.

“Which year?” He demanded.

“Ha?”

“Which year are you’ll?”

“SYJC.”

“Really?”

“Yea man.”

The muscle dude peered at Sumeet a bit closer. “Show me your id.”

“Yea man.” Sumeet started taking out his wallet. Naveen stole a quick glance at Prakash. He hoped no one else had seen his expression.

“Dude, you see that there?” Sumeet pointed at a small glass window to their right side, with a line of students forming in front of it. “That’s where you get the mark sheets attested, and get ids and things like that. The toilets are over there.” He gestured with his hands. “The book stall is further that way. The chem lab is on the second floor….I mean, would I know all this if I was a fresher?”

The muscle dude scratched his unshaven chin and stared.

“Should I go on…” Sumeet said. “…the physics lab is on the third floor…the computer lab is…”

“Swami,” A tall lanky dude from the group addressed the leader. “See those guys there.” He pointed towards another group who had just entered the building. There were three boys, all of whom were wearing backpacks. Two of them had round spectacles.

Swami looked at the new group, paused, and looked back at Sumeet. Sumeet returned his gaze.

Swami scratched his chin again. He motioned his pack to follow him. He walked towards the new group. The decision had apparently been made.

Without another word, Sumeet started walking up the stairs. Naveen and Prakash were right behind. When they reached the third floor, Sumeet turned around. “See, what I told you…its easy, just act confident…”

“Yea dude, but if they had seen your id…” Prakash began.

“But they didn’t…” Sumeet said. He punched Prakash on the shoulder. “You’re such a wimp.”

“Screw you.” Prakash shot back.

“How did you know all that stuff about the labs anyways?” Naveen asked.

“I don’t know…I kinda remembered a bit from the tour we took before…” Sumeet said. “Also, didn’t those guys look like commerce students?”

“Probably.”

“So, they themselves didn’t know where the chem or physics labs are…”

“Hmm…probably. Also, good thing we didn’t carry any backpacks like those other dudes.”

“Yea.”

Naveen looked at his watch. “Anyways, it’s already eleven…let’s go to this class…”

They made their way into the classroom. It was a rather large room, much bigger than the ones they were used to at St. Mary’s school. There were more than thirty rows, each having two long benches with a passage in between them.

Instinctively, they headed towards the back, but found the last few rows fully occupied. They ended up somewhere amongst the middle rows.

“Middle bench it is ha.” Prakash grumbled.

“At least its not the first row.” Naveen said.

Prakash shook his head, “True Marians never sit on the middle bench.”

The classroom was almost filled up, with the students chattering amongst themselves. Most of the benches had a mix of girls and boys. Their own bench had a couple of girls sitting inside already. Sumeet had been the first one inside the bench to get the inner seat. Prakash had the outer one, with Naveen in the middle.

A rotund man with a noticeable paunch, a thick black moustache, and square, gold-rimmed glasses walked inside, and shut the door behind him. He was a wearing a buttoned shirt and trousers.

The students noticed his entry, particularly the front rows, but the back rows were still chattering

“Silence.” The mustached man bellowed, announcing himself as the first teacher they would encounter at Jai Hind College.

He picked up a chalk and started scrawling on the blackboard. “This is going to your syllabus. “ He wrote down the chapter names. “And the breakdown of the marks is like this: there will be two unit tests, fifty marks each, final exam…”

“They get straight to it, don’t they?” Naveen said, flipping open notebook. He knocked a pen off the desk in the process.

“Dude, my pen.” Prakash said. He bent down looking for it under the desk. He resurfaced. “Where did you throw it?”

Naveen looked around a bit. “Can’t see it man.”

“Find it then…”

“Dude, forget it, borrow another pen…”

“No.” Prakash dismissed him. “That’s my lucky pen.”

“Your what?”

“You dropped my lucky pen.”

“Lucky pen? You have a lucky pen?”

“Of course,” Prakash said indignantly. “You don’t?”

Naveen gave him a half-amused, half-flabbergasted look. “I don’t even know how to respond to that.”

He shifted his position in the seat. His foot brushed against something on the side.

“Here it is,” Naveen bent down. “Your lucky pen.” He smirked.

“Thanks.” Prakash grabbed the pen.

“You’re a weird guy, you know that.” Naveen said.

Meanwhile, Sumeet had apparently ignored their conversation. Sitting next to him was a short, petite looking girl, wearing a light pink top. Her long, curly locks of hair were held together with a butterfly-shaped hair clip.

“Hi,” Sumeet turned to her, putting on what his buddies knew to be his ‘sweet’ voice. “Can I borrow a pen?”

“Sure.” She had a full pencil box out on the desk, from which she handed him a pen.

“Thanks.” Sumeet smiled. Sheepishly, he added, “And…do you also have some paper?”

She giggled, and tore off a few pages from her notebook.

Sumeet took them from her, “You must think I’m quite a clown, coming in on the first day without pen and paper…”

Naveen and Prakash exchanged a knowing look. They let Sumeet do his thing while they turned to the other side.

“Speaking of freaks…” Prakash began.

“Freaks?”

“Yea, didn’t you call me a weird guy…”

“Oh you…yeah, total freak you are…”

Prakash pointed towards a tall, broad-shoulder dude with round spectacles, sitting on the first row. “See that guy? Now, he’s a real freak…”

Naveen looked at the dude. There was something discordant about him. His physique looked strong and athletic, yet his glasses and his choice of bench proclaimed him to be a nerd.

“My dad knows his dad….he keeps telling me about this dude.” Prakash said. “Did you know Arvind is a national-level quizzer? He wins gold medals in quiz competitions all over the country.”

Prakash went on in a mock dad-like voice. “Did you know Arvind is a also national-level badminton player? His coach says he has the talent to represent India at the Olympics and all…what a multi-talented boy. And what are you doing with your life?”

Naveen laughed, and looked at Arvind again. “Yeah, sounds about right.”

“National-level freak he is man,” Prakash declared, “That’s what he is…”

Naveen laughed a bit louder this time, and caught himself. The teacher was drawing some diagrams on the board and lecturing in a dull monotone, seemingly oblivious to the constant chatter in the class.

Naveen glanced at Sumeet who remained focused on the girl in pink, engaged in some cute conversation undoubtedly.

“How do you think our national-level romeo is doing over there?” Naveen asked Prakash, a bit softer, out of earshot of the girl in pink.

“Pretty good I think,” Prakash replied. “His batting average is always high…”

“Yeah, very consistent performer.”

“Stop talking.” All of a sudden, the teacher yelled from the front of the class. His voice sounded gruff and a bit hoarse. Everyone stopped their conversations momentarily. Even Sumeet looked up.

The teacher stood still and glared at the whole class. He tapped a blackboard eraser on the table. “Be quiet.”

Slowly, he turned back to the blackboard. For a couple of minutes, there was relative silence. Then, some talking started in the last few rows. And then some other rows resumed their talks.

“This one looks like a freak too.” Prakash motioned towards the teacher.

“Yea,” Naveen nodded. “Doesn’t his voice sound like he has a mobile on vibrator stuck in his throat?”

Prakash burst out laughing.

The teacher turned from the blackboard and stared at the classroom. Students paused what they were doing again. Naveen nudged Prakash on the shoulder.

There had been too much noise from all over the classroom to identify the source of laughter. With a scowl, the teacher resumed his lecture.

After a few minutes, the noise in the class again regained its original level. Sumeet too resumed his conversation.

“You think our national-level romeo is going to rock it on the first day of college itself?” Prakash wondered.

Naveen looked at Sumeet and the girl in pink, chatting in hushed tones. “May the force be strong with him…”

“Yea, he has it I think…” Prakash said. “The winning formula…”

Suddenly, Prakash frowned and looked at Naveen’s notebook. “What is all that?”

“Ha?”

“What are you writing there?”

“You know…what the vibrator-throat over there is mumbling away and drawing on the board…”

Prakash looked his friend up and down incredulously, “So, you’re actually making class notes??”

“Yeah.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself. True Marians are never caught dead taking notes in class. You’re an embarrassment to our school man.”

Naveen grinned. “Sorry man, it happens to the best of us.”

Prakash shook his head. “Pathetic.” He moved Naveen’s hand aside, and looked at the notebook. “Let’s see what you got there…”

“What kind of handwriting is this man…I can barely read anything…”

Naveen nodded, still grinning. “So, maybe that’s my redemption…”

Prakash squinted his eyes and looked closer. “What’s that at the top?”

“What?”

“The big title you have written there…”

Naveen looked at his own writing. “Its Physics.”

“Physics?”

“Yea.”

Prakash looked puzzled. “Oh, so this is a physics class going on?”

Naveen couldn’t contain himself. He erupted in laughter.

“Shut up,” The teacher shouted.

The class went silent, while the teacher surveyed everyone’s faces.

“I think you got away with it, “ Prakash whispered.

The teacher took long strides in the passage between the benches of each row. He came to a halt at their row. His unblinking eyes bore down on Prakash from behind the spectacles.

“Get out.”

Prakash blinked.

“Stand up and get out of my class.” The teacher commanded.

Prakash blinked again. “Who me? What the fuck did I do?” He blurted.

There were some giggles of laughter from the last few rows. Naveen winced. Did the guy realize what he just said?

The teacher glared at Prakash. “Get out. NOW.”

“I didn’t do anything.” Prakash protested. He pointed his fingers sideways. “It was him.”

Naveen gritted his teeth. His old friend had sold him out. He looked up at the teacher, expecting to face the music. He saw that the gold-rimmed glasses were looking past him, further down the bench to where Prakash’s finger pointed.

Sumeet saw it too. He looked stunned, “We didn’t…I mean I wasn’t…” He paused. “What did I do?”

The girl in pink turned away from Sumeet. Her cheeks turned a shade not dissimilar from the color of her top. A smile crept up on Naveen’s face. Before he could stop it, a chuckle escaped from his lips.

The teacher’s irate eyes moved him Sumeet to Naveen and back to Prakash. “All of you’ll get out. This whole row get up, and leave this classroom.”

Everyone remained still for a moment.

“Right now.” The teacher roared.

The girl in pink made a tearful expression, “I wasn’t part of this, sir…”

The other group of two girls and another guy on the other side of the bench looked baffled, still unsure if they were somehow included in all of this.

“Not a word from any of you.” The teacher said. “Every single person in this row will stand up this second and walk out of the class.”

Prakash rose first, and walked towards the door, with Naveen close behind him. Then came Sumeet, glancing at the girl in pink who was gathering her things. She didn’t return his look. The other students on the row also collected their things and made their way outside.

Prakash stood outside and looked back at the teacher.

“Close the door behind you.” The teacher said.

The remaining three students, who had been caught in the crossfire, gave Prakash and Naveen dirty looks, and went off somewhere.

“Where’s your lucky pen now?” Naveen asked. “We got kicked out in our first lecture, on our first day…not only that, we got so many others kicked out.”

Prakash just shrugged.

The girl in pink stormed off towards the women’s toilet, without a backward glance.

Sumeet opened his mouth to call out to her, and then thought better off it. He turned to his buddies instead. “What haraams you’ll are.”

Both of them sort of grinned.

“Absolute haraams.” Sumeet repeated. “I was really getting somewhere…I was about to…”

“Yea, yea, we saw…” Prakash said. “Chill out, man.”

“Even Sachin didn’t score a century on his debut you know,” Naveen added.

“Exactly,” Prakash agreed. “What he said.”

“What the fuck happened in there?” Sumeet demanded. “I was nicely sitting and chatting with Priya …and then I look up, I see this haram pointing at me, and next thing I know…”

“Priya ha?” Prakash interrupted. “Did we get a number also?”

“No, ‘we’ didn’t get anything. ‘We’ were thrown of class and screwed over…”

“What are friends for,” Prakash said.

“Did you know that you openly abused in there?” Naveen asked.

“Me?” Prakash said.

“Yea, you…who else? The guy told you to get out and you said ‘what the fuck did I do?’”

“Seriously? I said that?”

“Yea man…everyone was laughing…I don’t know if the teacher registered it…he was anyways pissed…”

“I didn’t even realize I said that.”

Sumeet shook his head. “What freaks.”

“Anyways, want to get out of here?” Naveen asked. They were still standing right outside the classroom.

“There’s a pretty cool sandwich place around here…” Prakash said. “I’m kinda hungry.”

“Sandwich is on me,” Prakash told Sumeet. “I owe you…I think…”

“Shut up.” The teacher shouted from inside the class, loud enough to be heard out in the corridor. They heard him banging something against the table.

“Whoa, looks like he’s really pissed now.” Naveen said. “Nice job, man…you pissed him off properly and left the class to suffer.”

“Yea,” Prakash said. “I’m sure others will get kicked out today.”

Suddenly, Prakash’s gaze shifted towards the door. A weird sort of twinkle appeared in his eyes.

“I have an idea,” He said.

Naveen and Sumeet stared at him.

“Why don’t we get revenge on that haraam?”

“Revenge?”

“Yeah, lets create some tamasha…”

“Haven’t we done enough already?” Naveen interjected.

Prakash ignored him. “He’s probably going to throw someone else out today. Why don’t we lock the door? Then, the next person who gets kicked out won’t be able to leave only…”

“You want to do what??” Naveen looked at him.

“Lock the class from outside…”

“Huh?” Naveen couldn’t quite believe the thought. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this…” Prakash took two steps towards the closed classroom door. It had a small metal latch. He bolted it shut. “…this is what I mean.”

“What the fuck did you do?” Sumeet demanded.

Prakash smirked. “It’s locked…the next person who tries to come out is in for a shock…”

“Dude…have you lost it?” Sumeet asked.

“I don’t think he ever had it…” Naveen stared at the classroom door.

“What, you’re scared?” Prakash shot back at Sumeet. “Who’s the wimp now ha?”

“They won’t know who did it…” Prakash said. “Nobody saw me…”

Naveen looked around. There were some students walking here and there in the corridor, but they all seemed to be in their own worlds.

“C’mon guys…” Prakash said. “Chill out…”

“Get out,” They heard the teacher shout from inside.

“Here we go…” Prakash said.

A minute later, they heard a set of footsteps inside the class. Then, a push against the door. The latch rattled. The door didn’t budge. Another harder push.

All three of them took a step back.

“It’s not opening,” They heard a dude’s voice say.

“What do you mean?” The vibrator-throat voice demanded. “I said get out.”

Another shove against the door.

Naveen, Sumeet and Prakash looked at each other.

“Sir, I’m not lying…the door is not opening…”

“What nonsense…” Heavy footsteps approached the door. A big heave rattled the latch again.

“What is the meaning of this…” said the gruff voice. A fist banged against the inside of the door.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sumeet.

“Yea,” Prakash agreed.

“Open this door.” The gruff voice shouted.

Naveen stood there, dazed. Prakash tugged his arm. “Snap out of it. We got to go.”

He pulled him down the corridor. They scampered down the stairs to the ground floor, then out of the building, then out of the front gates.

“Whew,” Prakash exhaled.

“I can’t believe this…” Naveen shook his head. “Did that really happen? What the hell did you make us do?”

Prakash grinned. “I can’t wait to hear the story from someone tomorrow about what it was like inside the classroom…must have been crazy…”

“How much longer do you think they’ll be stuck inside?” Sumeet asked.

“Someone passing by will open the door I think…”

Meanwhile, Naveen still looked dazed. “I can’t believe…”

Prakash slapped him on the back. “Believe it or not….it happened.”

“I think I’ll take that sandwich now.” Sumeet said.

“Let’s go…” Prakash said.

Naveen stood there, looking at the college building. Students were still walking in and out, sitting around at the steps, standing in groups, chatting.

“Dude, you coming or what?” Prakash called out.

“Yeah, coming.” Naveen replied. He slowly turned away from the college.

What a first day. Who would have thought it would turn out like this. He wondered what the second day would be like. And the first month, and the first year.

With these haraams around, it was going to be one wild ride…

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Harshini Weds Sujat

Naveen lay on the couch in front of the television, his eyes half-closed. The irritating sound of a phone ringing emanated from somewhere.

He yawned and stretched his legs across the length of the couch, trying to ignore the sound. But the ringing continued. He lifted his head to find that his cell phone was the source of the annoyance. Just to stop the sound, he picked it up. “Hello.”

“Let’s leave.” It was his childhood friend, Prakash. Today was the day that Sumeet’s wedding events were set to begin. First, the sangeet tonight, the song-and-dance event, then the cocktail party tomorrow and finally, the wedding and reception on the third day. The normal Indian wedding extravaganza.

“Let’s leave, dude.” Prakash repeated, after getting no response for a few seconds.

“Leave? For where?”

“For the sangeet, where else? Are you high? You know that today is the sangeet, right?”

“Yea, yea, I know.” Naveen checked the time. “But it’s only 4:30. The event starts at 7. That too, the official invite says 7, which means it’ll start at 8, at the earliest.”

“Dude, we’ve been late too many times. You know it’ll take hours in Mumbai traffic. Let’s just leave.”

“You’re crazy. I’m taking a nap. Will call later…” Naveen began to move the phone away.

“Dude.” Prakash yelled. ”Don’t do it.”

Naveen brought the phone back. “I’m sleepy man.”

“If you sleep now, you won’t wake up in time. I know you. Sumeet also messaged me saying he wants us to get there early.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know, there’s probably some work to do. It’s your best friend’s wedding, and you want to take a nap? What’s wrong with you, man?”

“Don’t get all senti on me again…“

“C’mon dude, don’t take a nap. Just get dressed quickly, and get over here. He really wants us to get there early. It’s his big day and all, we got to help.”

Naveen stayed silent for a moment. “Fine” he grunted.

“Cool, I have the car and driver, so just get here quick.”

“Fine.”

Naveen took a quick shower, and changed into his wedding kurta, which had been freshly ironed that morning. Maroon colored, with subtle gold embroidery at the edges, and an elegant pattern in the front, that kurta had seen plenty of weddings in its time. Naveen examined his appearance in the mirror. The kurta suited his six foot tall, lanky frame quite well.

He reached Prakash’s place, where he walked in to see his friend lying back, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, his hair disheveled.

Prakash grinned. “Wassup, you made it…”

Naveen glared at him. “What the hell are you doing? You’re nowhere close to ready…”

“Yea.”

“I thought we had to reach early. I thought Sumeet messaged you about some work.”

“Yea, I lied about that.”

“What the fuc…”

“Dude, I was just bored.”

“You were bored.” Naveen repeated.

“In my defense, I never thought you would actually come so soon…”

Naveen started to roll up one sleeve of his kurta, slowly, with menace. “I was exhausted, about to take a nap. You give me fictional stories and emotional pressure. I gave up my nap, took a shower, got dressed…and you’re sitting here like a….” He had rolled up both his sleeves now.

He advanced towards Prakash.  “You’re getting your ass kicked today.”

Prakash raised both his palms in the air. “Hold it, just a minute.” He went over to a cabinet at the corner of the room, took out two stout, round glasses. He put several cubes of ice in each of them, brought out a bottle, and poured it into both the glasses. He offered one of them to Naveen.

Naveen looked at it. “You think offering me whiskey is going to stop me from kicking your ass?”

“It’s scotch man, single malt.”

Naveen stared at the glass for a moment, hesitating.

“So, stop whining and drink up.” Prakash said.

Naveen took the glass. “Fine. But this is not over. I’ll get you back for this.”

“Yea, yea, I’m sure you will…”

A few drinks, and a long car ride in Mumbai’s bumper-to-bumper traffic later, they reached Hotel Sea Princess, where the event was to be held.

It was a sprawling five-star hotel, built along the coast in the Juhu suburb of the city, a few kilometers away from the airport. There were lush, outdoor lawns right by the sea, true to its name. Apart from guest suites, a variety of restaurants and bars, the hotel also had several party rooms and banquet halls.

There were more than a couple of events being held at Hotel Sea Princess that night. Naveen and Prakash navigated their way to the hall on the third floor, where Sumeet’s sangeet event was supposed to be.

It was about 6:45pm when they arrived. Prakash had gotten dressed quickly, and had actually insisted on getting there early in the end. Naveen agreed, since he had already been ready to go. Moreover, they were out of scotch.

“There’s no one here.” Naveen spread out his arms in exasperation.

The event hall was in fact nearly empty, apart from a few of the hotel staff sweeping the floors, and arranging some tables and chairs.

“What an astute observation, my boy.” Prakash said.

“Dude, why are we here so early? I’ve never reached so early in my life for a wedding, or any event for that matter. No one from the host group is even here. What are we doing here?” Naveen demanded.

“Chill out, man. We’re already here now.”

“Yea, but we could have relaxed at home. I could have taken my nap…”

“Oh, you and your nap…”

“This feels stupid. They’re still cleaning the place. Should we also start sweeping now?”

“As a wise man once said, Stop whining and drink up.” Prakash grinned. “Let’s find a bar.”

“Alcohol is not the answer to everything.”

“No, single malt scotch is the right answer. Let’s go.”

A couple of rounds of scotch at the hotel bar, and they were both starting to feel it a little. They decided to get some fresh air and take a walk around the hotel.

They strolled outside the lawns. The entrance of the main hotel lawn was decorated with dazzling lights and an ornamental, semi-circular arc of flowers. A large sign read ‘Harshini Weds Sujat’.

Wedding guests drifted in and out of the lawn, dressed mostly in kurtas, saris and other formal Indian attire. Naveen peered inside. He saw waiters moving around with trays of bite-sized appetizers such as samosas, pakoras, chicken kebabs, schezwan paneer, and so much more.

“I’m kinda hungry.” Naveen mumbled.

“Yea, me too.” Prakash nodded, following Naveen’s gaze at the waiters with the trays. “That food looks fantastic.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“I got to get me some of that.” Prakash declared. He stumbled forward towards the entrance.

Naveen grabbed his shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“You know, to offer my good wishes to…” Prakash glanced up. “…the beautiful bride Harshini and the lucky groom Sujat.”

“…and eat…” He grinned.

“Dude, we can’t just enter any random wedding.”

“Why not? Look at us.” Prakash pointed at their kurtas. “We’re definitely dressed for it.”

“…and don’t you remember Sujat, man? He was there in our tuition classes back in first year engineering right? Mechanics classes or something?”

“Dude, are you high?”

“I’m probably not low.” Prakash replied. “But what I surely am is hungry.”

“Look at the place, man.” He pointed inside. “There must be hundreds of people in there. Who’s going to notice?”

Naveen looked inside, and said nothing. His eyes drifted again to the waiters with the trays.

“We’re doing this, dude. “ Prakash grabbed Naveen’s shoulder and dragged him forward. They stepped inside the entrance and into the main lawn. They moved a bit away from the crowd, and surveyed the scene.

Over to the left, was the main wedding buffet, with an expansive spread of dishes arranged by different courses from starters to desserts.

On the right, there was a raised platform or mundap, where the to-be-married couple was seated, along with immediate family. A pandit was reciting mantras next to a ceremonial fire in the middle of the mundap, and performing the rituals of a Hindu wedding.

Wedding guests were spread out across the vast lawn, some seated on chairs, some walking around and socializing.

Prakash homed in on one of the waiters serving appetizers. He grabbed a napkin, and some scrumptious chicken tikka kebabs, cut into neat bite-sized pieces, served with a tooth-pick. Naveen followed suit.

“Good stuff.” Prakash said. “Doesn’t food taste better after scotch?”

“Yea, it’s amazing.” Naveen admitted.

“I told you single malt scotch is the answer to everything.”

Naveen glanced around at the wedding guests. “Dude, what if we get caught? What if someone comes and starts talking to us? Who will we say we are? Are we from the bride’s side or the groom’s? Are we friends or relatives? What’s our story?”

“We don’t need a story, dude. We’ll just do some ‘namaste-uncle’ and it’s all good. Follow my lead.”

Prakash ventured forward in the direction of an elderly couple few feet away from them.

Naveen’s eyes widened. “Wait….”

But Prakash was on his way. He approached the couple and gave them a smile. He greeted them with the traditional Indian greeting. “Namaste, Uncle. Namaste, Aunty.”

“Hello, beta.” The old uncle smiled. “How are you?”

“I’m doing fine, uncle. How are you?”

“Very good, very good. How’s the food, beta? I hope you’re eating properly.” Uncle gestured towards the waiters. Then, a small group of people nearby, called out to him. “Manoj Uncle, come and meet my nephew and niece. They’ve come from New York.”

The uncle’s attention shifted. He nodded towards Prakash. “Enjoy yourself, beta

Prakash smiled as the uncle walked away. “I will.” He said softly, turning to Naveen, who stood behind him, frozen like a statue, observing the scene. “See dude, that’s how it’s done. Half the people here don’t know half the other people.”

“Typical desi wedding, man.” Prakash slapped his friend on the back. “Let’s hit the buffet.”

They moved towards the buffet side of the lawn. However, they found that no one else was around there. In fact, large sections of buffet hadn’t opened up yet. They figured it would be in full flow during the reception later.

So, they made their way back towards the mundap side, and focused on the appetizers. Prakash was zeroing in on those waiters like a moth to a flame. Naveen went in a different direction, in a divide-and-conquer strategy to maximize their loot. Between the two of them, they managed to score all the appetizers from the samosas to kebabs to paneer rolls to sev puri.

Naveen put a hand to his stomach. “This is amazing stuff.”

“Dude, you said it. Great food. God bless Harshini and Sujat. They’ll have a happy married life.”

Naveen laughed. “Yea.”

“Dude, seriously, the quality of a wedding is directly proportional to the quality of the food served. Especially, the appetizers.”

“Okay, now you’re definitely high.”

Naveen punched his friend in the arm. “But, I’m glad you made me do this. This was fun.”

Prakash grinned. “This was probably the coolest thing you’ve done…”

“Dude, everyone’s leaving.” Naveen interrupted. He noticed that the mundap rituals seemed to have been completed, and the main wedding party was making its way to the exit. The rest of the guests were also following them towards the hotel building.

“Yea, time to get out of here.” Prakash said. He led them towards the entrance from where they had come in, away from the rest of the wedding party.

“This was fantastic.” Naveen mumbled as they walked. “Namaste Uncle.” he called out to random wedding guests passing by.

Prakash pulled him forward. “Forget it, man. It’s over.”

Naveen laughed. “I liked the ‘namaste-uncle’ tactic.”

Prakash joined in the laughter. “It was obvious. But if you really want to listen to my genius, then I’m telling you that single malt scotch is the…”

“Yea, yea, I know…”

They were at the entrance of the hotel, when someone called to them from behind. “Naveen. Prakash. You are guys are here early.”

They turned to see Esha, Sumeet’s fiancé, dressed like the bride that she was that night. Behind her, scores of friends, relatives and others poured into the hotel, as their event was getting started.

“Hi, Esha.” Prakash smiled. “Yea, umm, we just got here.” He nudged Naveen next to him. “We have a wedding event to attend.”

Naveen looked at him, perplexed. “Again?”

“Dude, we’ve come here for Sumeet and Esha’s sangeet…”

“Oh yea…”

Esha shifted her gaze from Naveen to Prakash, and then back to Naveen. “Are you guys high?”

Naveen and Prakash looked at each other. They got the distinct sense that this was not the first time that night that either of them was being asked that question.

“No.” They both replied in unison.

“Uh-huh.” Esha said. Somebody called out to her, and she continued into the hotel. “I’ll see you’ll inside.”

Naveen and Prakash stood at the front entrance for a moment longer.

“No more scotch tonight.” Prakash proclaimed.

“Really??” Naveen looked at him in amazement. “Dude, I thought you said…”

“Yea, yea, I know…”

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Shoe Polish

A smile grew on Aryan’s face, without his realizing it. He looked outside his bedroom window. The yellow sun lit up a clear, blue sky. A gentle breeze drifted in through the window, rustling few leaves on its way there. What a beautiful day.

Yesterday had been the last day of his engineering semester exams. After months of preparation and stress, it was a huge load off his shoulders. And boy had they gone well. Every subject from Math to Electronics to Algorithms had been to his satisfaction.

The last day of exams always felt like the sweet taste of freedom. No more cramming through books and notes all day long. It was his time to do whatever he pleased. He had hung out at a friend’s place last night, watching the soccer game. Real Madrid had won their champions league semi-final with a convincing 3-0 score. Another reason for Aryan to celebrate.

If that wasn’t enough, India beat Pakistan in last night’s one-day match. It was a beautiful day indeed.

His phone buzzed, snapping him out of his reverie. The plan was to go to the mall with Kunal and William. He put on his shoes and stepped out of the house.

Kunal, who lived in the opposite building, was already waiting outside the building. “William is meeting us down the lane. We’ll take a cab from there.”

Aryan nodded, the remnants of the unconscious smile still on his face.

“What are you grinning about?”

“The exams are over. Over. Finished. Done.”

Kunal laughed, “You take these exams too seriously anyways. These results won’t matter later on in life.”

Aryan nodded. He had heard this line before, but he couldn’t help but take them seriously. If he was giving an exam, he wanted to do well. He often debated with Kunal about the importance of exams, but not today. Today, Aryan didn’t care.

They sauntered down the sloping lane, leading out from their cozy residential society, one of several located in the posh Breach Candy locality, home to Mumbai’s affluent middle class.

They chatted about various plans for the holiday month ahead. They were in no particular hurry. They were free men today.

At the bottom of the slope, they stopped to wait for William.

It was a busy section of the street, which was narrow to begin with. A bus stop on one side of the slope further slowed down the flow of vehicles. Some cars made a U-turn at the bottom of their lane, frequently requiring multiple attempts, blocking traffic in the process, and invoking ire and loud honks from the nearby cars.

On the other side of the slope, there were a slew of street vendors, selling sev-puri, vada pavs, dosas and various savory snacks. There was also a street barber and a shoe-polish boy, offering cheap grooming services, mainly frequented by the drivers, peons, and others who worked for the rich folks living in these societies.

Aryan’s eyes went to the shoe-polish boy. He had known Raju since they were both little kids playing cricket behind his building. They had been thick friends then. Over time, they drifted into separate worlds, with Aryan hanging out more with his classmates and then going to college.

“Aryan bhaiya.” Raju waved at him. He looked the same over the years. His body was short and frail, his skin dark with over-exposure to the sun. A deep scar ran across his left check.

“How are you, Raju?” Aryan waved back.

“Great, bhaiya. And you?”

“Good, good. Last day of exams was yesterday for me.”

“Nice.”

Aryan became intensely aware of the differences in the lives of Raju and him. Raju had always been a bright kid, good with numbers, evidenced by how quickly he could calculate run-rates when they used to watch cricket matches together.

Here, Aryan was on his way to becoming an engineer. Raju, on the other hand, never got to attend school or college. He worked many different jobs over the years, from being a domestic servant to a fruit delivery boy to a street sweeper. He and his brother now ran their own street-side fruits-and-vegetables business on the weekends. Raju did other odd jobs during the week, including a courier service, and the shoe-polish stand.

Aryan couldn’t help but wonder what if Raju had gotten the opportunities that Aryan had. And what about vice-versa? What if he had been in Raju’s shoes?

Aryan looked at his old buddy’s feet. Raju rarely had a decent pair of shoes at all. He wore half-torn slippers. Aryan looked down at his own Nike sneakers.

“Where the hell is William?” Kunal began pacing about. “I’m calling him.”

Aryan nodded absently. A tall, broad-shouldered man put his leather boot on Raju’s wooden footrest and grunted a demand for shoe-polish. He was dressed in a white short-sleeves shirt, white pants, and wore large dark glasses with a gold frame.

Raju squatted down on the ground. He started by dusting the shoes with a damp rag, and then took out the brush and polish.

“William says he’s on his way over here.” Kunal informed Aryan.

Aryan turned to Kunal and shrugged. Meanwhile, Raju was polishing away.

A sudden sound like the cracking of a whip startled Aryan. He turned around to see Raju clutching his cheek in shock and pain. Mr. White Pants stood over him with his palm raised.

“What the hell are you doing?” White Pants shouted. “You got polish on my socks.”

“Sorry sir.” Raju said in a small voice. His left cheek had turned a rosy red.

“What sorry? What a dumb-ass you are.”

“It-it was a mistake.”

White Pants raised his sun glasses a little and glared at Raju. “Finish the job quickly now, you rascal boy. Don’t waste my time.”

Raju picked up his polishing brush. His hands were shaky.

Aryan felt his blood start to boil a little. He took a step forward. Kunal saw this, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Forget it, dude.” Kunal said. “Don’t get involved with these people.”

“But Raju is my friend.”

“Who Raju? You mean the shoe-polish boy?”

“Yea.”

Kunal shook his head. “Trust me, you don’t want to get in the middle of it. You’ll get beaten yourself.”

Raju dipped his brush in the black polish, and moved it across the boot. He touched his cheek gingerly, and looked up. White Pants had his glasses off now, and two angry eyes looked down.

Raju’s hands quivered slightly. The brush slipped out of his hands.

White Pants pressed the sole of his boot down on Raju’s fingers.

“Aaaaarghh.” Raju screamed. He yanked his fingers away.

“Do you job properly, stupid rascal boy.” White Pants barked. Raju shifted backwards, his eyes welling up.

Aryan found himself moving towards them. A hand grabbed his shoulder.

Kunal appeared in front of him, “Dude, I’m telling you, don’t be stupid.”

Aryan looked at him. “So, I’m supposed to just stand by and watch this?”

“We’re anyways running late…William will be here soon.”

“He’s about our age you know.” Aryan paused. “I can’t let this go on.”

White Pants tilted his head towards Raju. “Don’t pretend to be hurt, rascal. Get back to work.”

With a few quick strides, Aryan stood next to White Pants. He clenched his jaw. He looked down to see Raju leaning back, his eyes as red as his bruised cheek. He looked into the eyes of the shoe-polish boy, whom he had known since childhood.

All of a sudden, Aryan’s anger dissipated. His breathing became steady. A wave of calm came over him.

He bent down, put his arm around Raju, and gently propped him against the back wall. “It’s okay, Raju.”

Raju met his gaze, but didn’t say anything.

“Don’t help the little rascal.” White Pants admonished.

Aryan took the brush from Raju’s hand. He lowered himself down, removed his sneakers, and sat cross-legged on the ground.

Kunal appeared next to him. “Aryan, have you lost it? Get up, dude.”

Raju sat up straight, and extended his hand towards Aryan. “Bhaiya, let me…”

Aryan waved him off. He looked up at White Pants. “Put your foot here.” He pointed at the footrest.

“What?”

“You want your shoes polished, right?”

White Pants looked dazed, unsure of how to react. Slowly, he put his right boot forward.

Aryan dipped the brush in the polish. He focused his eyes on the boot before him. Although he had watched shoes being polished, he had never actually done it himself. There were always servants at home to do this for him when he needed it.

Still, at that moment, he felt like he knew what he was doing. His hands moved at a steady pace, rubbing with the brush in small circular swirls. He applied the polish evenly, making sure to get into all the creases. He continued until every spot on the boot was covered.

From a jug of water kept on the side, he sprinkled a few drops of water on the boot. He picked up the brush again, and applied another layer of polish all over.

He leaned back to examine his handiwork. He put some extra touches of shine on the toe and heel portions.

Satisfied, he glanced up at White Pants and gestured for him to put forward the other foot. Aryan then repeated the same procedure on the second boot.

All the while, Kunal watched with his mouth hung open. White Pants looked too befuddled by what was going on to say anything intelligible. The neighboring food vendors had paused their activities and watched the proceedings in amazement. Even some passers-by had stopped to observe.

Raju’s expression gradually changed from bewilderment to amusement. His face started to brighten a little. There was even a trace of a smile.

Finished with both boots, Aryan put the brush away and wiped off his hands. White Pants stepped down, and mumbled some acknowledgement. He started to walk away.

“Hello, where do you think you’re going?” Aryan called out.

White Pants spun around. “Ha?”

“You owe us…” Aryan glanced at Raju, who gestured with his fingers, “Ten rupees.”

White Pants looked sheepish. It was his face now that was starting to turn a bit scarlet. He took out his wallet and forked over a ten-rupee note to Aryan.  Then, he scampered away.

Aryan had a big grin. He handed the money to Raju, and winked at him. They both started laughing.

Raju doubled over. “That was great, bhaiya. Did you see the look on his face? Hahahaha”

Aryan laughed along. “Poor fellow still can’t understand what happened.”

Raju put an arm on Aryan’s shoulder. “Thanks bhaiya.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Actually, you should keep this money…”

“Don’t be silly, Raju.”

“Bhaiya…”

Aryan poked Raju’s midriff, and tickled him. “Chalo, let’s have some sev puri.” Raju giggled with the tickling and didn’t object.

Aryan ordered a sev-puri from the nearby stall. The two old friends sat on the stony pavement, and shared their favorite snack, the one that they used to eat as kids, after a long game of cricket in the hot sun.

Just like old times…

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