Translated from the Kannada by Deepa Ganesh.
I could have run into him anywhere: in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, or in one of those resorts where large companies conduct their training programmes. It could have been in some management seminar. But of all places I bumped into him in a hotel lobby in Jakarta. Had I met him anywhere else I’m sure we wouldn’t have spoken. We would have walked by pretending not to know each other. That evening, those hunger pangs, and above all the alien land – if not for all of these reasons, we would not have met. Happenstances are like that – they collapse in the twinkling of an eye.
It was already seven in the evening; my fifth day in Jakarta. I had finished work early. The weekend mood had kicked in, and most people in the office had left by the afternoon. I returned to my hotel room and took a short nap. I woke up, checked my email and was disappointed to see I had no new messages. I browsed through the old ones, wrote a line or two to people I usually never wrote to. I changed the names of the recipients, but copy-pasted the same text into all of them. It hardly mattered whether I wrote to them or not. It was a way of keeping contacts alive. If I didn’t have even these people, who else would I write to? One in America, another in Delhi and yet another in Australia. Classmates and former colleagues scattered across continents: daybreak for some, dusk for others. Anyway, I was sure there would be a couple of replies by the next morning. Soon I was restless again and logged into my official account; in two hours I had received twenty emails. But for one everything could be junked. I exited after a cursory look. I called home, wondering how they were doing without me.
Shalini was still enjoying her siesta. She sounded annoyed by the call.
“Hello,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“Didn’t you call this morning?”
“Oh yes, it was today, wasn’t it? How are you?”
Same as usual…”
“Well … same with me … I wanted to call to…”
“All right, then.”
“How is Sumanth? Is he back from school?”
“School? It’s vacation!You remember nothing. Office work fills your head, and for no great glory. Don’t force a conversation.”
“Oh, yes! Don’t know how I forgot.”
“Call once a day, it is more than enough. Everything’s fine here without you…”
She hung up on me. I’m simply incapable of such meanness. She can even hang up in the middle of a conversation, while I’m still speaking at the other end. It’s humiliating. So what if I forget about my son’s school, doesn’t she forget many things too?
On a long-distance call I can never tell why she’s angry. The reasons are seldom simple. So I turned my attention to a more immediate worry – dinner. Having so much time on hand was a rare luxury for me. When work chases you endlessly, the need to think hardly arises. Problems crop up when you have plenty of time; it could be the beginning of philosophical moorings as well. Small fissures in the mind are dangerous. They can be as menacing as an air bubble in the blood stream. I stood by the window of my seventh floor room and stared outside.
From the window I could see the residential areas of the city. They had grown wildly and made their way into the city’s crannies. I sank into the luxury of the soft chair, and stretched my legs on the footrest. Within thirty minutes, the bright day slipped into twilight. I decided to take a stroll before having dinner, and took the elevator down to the lobby. That’s when I saw him.
The lobby of a star hotel in Jakarta. It was in this very place that a bomb blast had taken place two years ago and blown many like me to bits. Now, it’s under heavy security. In a corner was a fountain. Resting a foot on its bulwark, back turned towards me and a phone stuck to his left ear, he was speaking loudly in Hindi. Hearing a familiar language in an alien land, I turned towards him. He kept saying “haanji, haanji” and bobbing his head. He was the only one creating noise in that entire lobby. It was a plush place: silken carpets on the floor, huge marble pillars, roomy lounge sofas, a gently gurgling fountain. A regal silence usually pervaded the entire area, but now it was being broken by a man on the phone. I was reminded of my colleague C.K. Singh. He was enraged by Indians who spoiled the image of the country. And only he knew what that image was. After a couple of pegs he enjoyed tearing into such Indians. Four days ago, it was at this very hotel that he launched into a tirade.
“You must enjoy these five-star hotels with a mock seriousness. You may well be overwhelmed by all the luxury, but you must pretend you are used to it. But our Indians – do they have any etiquette? No. They are completely unaware of where they are, and how they should behave. They imagine they are in the privacy of their homes and shout into their phones. Especially the ones with IT money, the shameless fellows. Overnight they think they’ve scaled the ladder of class. Does class come with money? If there’s a buffet and there are ten Indians, two are sure to drop their spoons. At least one will stain his shirt. There’s a good chance that there will be one person who will ram into a guest with his food plate. There will certainly be two fellows chattering away, either in Tamil or in Malyalam, and then, with their food-stained hands suspended in mid-air, they will frantically walk the quiet corridors of these hotels asking passersby for “hand wash, hand wash”. By the time they hit twenty-five, they have pot bellies. When they check out, all Indians without exception tuck away the soap and shampoo from their rooms. You might ask – don’t people from other countries do this? Of course they do. But when the rich man does it, it is not such a bad thing. Let’s get it right. If the rich steal can we call it theft? If the poor steal, can it be anything but robbery? It is no different even when nations are involved. Think of those military missions with fancy labels like war against terror, self-defence, protecting one’s turf… If the booty is shared, it’s called a strategic alliance.
I walked along, thinking of C.K. Singh’s rant, and that’s when this man turned slightly in my direction. He was still on the phone. I saw him from the side and thought I recognized him. It’s him. Is it him? No. Yes, it is. As I deliberated, hundreds of names flashed across my mind, but I could not settle on one. Unknowingly, I took a step in his direction. Had I been in a similar situation in India, I would have certainly walked away. That unconscious step in his direction would not have happened. But a foreign land is after all a foreign land. Everything appears magnified to us; we are different people out there.
Several names buzzed in my brain but his name failed to come to me. Didn’t we work together once upon a time? My mind was ridden with doubt, but a name that could turn this speculation into certainty failed to come to me. I paused for a minute. He turned around like he knew me. Now there was just no question of going back. I was still trying to remember his name. He continued to talk on the phone, but he smiled and motioned to me to wait. This was the point of no return. I took another step forward. With the phone firmly pressed against his ear, he held out his right arm and we shook hands. We exchanged initial pleasantries through gestures and smiles. It was like being trapped in the limbo of what is called a Tirupathi kshoura – a barber who leaves your head half shaven and disappears: neither is the job done, nor can you leave for another barber. Without the slightest urgency to finish the haanji conversation, he fixed his eyes on me and continued to talk. He was dressed in a striped blue shirt, black trousers, and tasteful designer shoes. A thick fat wallet bulged from his back pocket.
Finally, he ended his conversation and came towards me. “Oh, ho! You? And here?” he shouted, followed by loud laughter. He held my hand firmly, and gave me a vigorous handshake. His loud greeting made me feel that everyone in the lobby must be looking at us. At that instant, his name came to me – Jyotirmoyee! Yes, that was his name.
He used to be in the marketing department of our company. How grey his hair had turned. There was a patch on his nose, which meant he must have been wearing glasses for a long time. But I had never seen him wear glasses before. Was it him? People do change, but so dramatically? Or had he not changed at all? Maybe I anticipated change, that’s perhaps why I’m in a bit of a quandary. But that nose … typical. It had to be him. Certainly him.
“What a surprise! I was badly in need of company. What is your plan for the evening?” he asked.
“I have set out for dinner. Nothing more.”
“Come, let’s go to my room. I have some first-class whisky. You’ll have some, won’t you? Why must we go to the bar and pay those ridiculous rates?” Without waiting for my answer, he had pushed me towards the elevator.
I remained silent. “If you like the bar, let’s go there. No compulsion to go to my room,” he said.
“I’m fine with either.”
“We can chat peacefully in the room. As the night warms up, the bar gets crowded and noisy. I don’t even like the music they play. I went there the last two nights, and the bastard fleeced me. First of all, the recession, and then this! There’s good whisky in the room…Come, see for yourself.”
His room was on the sixteenth floor. As we went up, I looked at him in the elevator’s mirror. He had gained weight. His belt could barely contain his stomach. How much he had changed!
He kept talking till we reached his room.
“Do you know who I was chatting with? With the finance secretary’s secretary. My brother-in-law is an influential fellow. He put me in touch with this person. Our company believes in action. They don’t care how it gets done. Latch on to your brother-in-law or to the Prime Minister, it’s up to you. Government contacts are very important. My previous company was far better. No hassles. You just said ‘professional charges’ and the bribe was a part of it. At least they kept our conscience clean. The recession is just an excuse. You know how shops are ransacked during riots? They wait for an opportunity like this to launch a clean-up operation, to sack people… I have changed jobs seven times in the last twenty years. I am a restless person. I get bored very fast – same boss, same team, there’s no challenge. And there are hardly any opportunities to move up. A new job is like a new step on the ladder. You occupy it and wait for the step above to clear. Keep pushing, hoping to dislodge the one above you. People from below are pushing too. If you are not alert, and press them down, you are sure to fall. When I get tired of playing these games with the same set of people, I quit my job. If I don’t change my job every three years, I feel something is wrong.”
He wouldn’t stop chattering till we reached his room. 1610.
On one side of the room was his bag lying with its mouth wide open. With sheets and pillows all over, the bed was a mess. “Sit down, sit down,” he said. I looked for a place to sit. He picked up his trousers lying on the chair and threw them on the bed to make room for me. He opened the curtains. Out there on the streets were cars, with their parking lights appearing in lines. The cloud of dust that daylight revealed, the corners and crannies had gone into hiding in the dark. I stood by the window, watching; the same scene was visible from my room, but from a different angle.
“Oh no, oh shit…” he exclaimed. I turned to see what calamity had struck him. He was holding a half-empty bottle of whisky. “This is just not enough,” he said.
“It should be fine. I don’t drink much. Do you need more?” I asked.
“For me, this will last two days. I don’t know how much you drink, but when two people sit down together it doesn’t take long to empty a bottle. We could always order more… What would you like – ice, soda?”
“Ice and water.”
He brought some ice cubes from the refrigerator and dropped them into my glass. As the cubes clinked into the glass, he watched my face, and smiled. He elegantly poured whisky and water and handed me my drink.
“Cheers,” I said.
“To our friendship,” he said. “Long live our friendship.”
After our first sips, we relaxed a bit. We sat on chairs that were facing each other with a table between us. To my right was the glass window, and beyond which was the city at night. Far below, lights streamed endlessly from moving vehicles.
“Enough of me now. Tell me about yourself,” he said.
“What can I say? I am still with the same company. Career-wise, I’ve done well for myself. I took a transfer as the head of the HR department. My third collection of short stories was released this year.”
“Wonderful … you write stories? I didn’t know. You are a silent operator. Three books! Wonderful. The corporate world should have more people like you … it’s an unusual hobby.”
“I’ve written a novel as well. I think of writing as my profession. Working in the corporate sector is my hobby.”
He laughed. “Well said. You’re saved because you head the department. If someone from your company heard you say this, you would be in for it! Now I remember reading your name somewhere, but I had no clue it was you… I forgot to ask – where do you live these days?”
“God, it gives me goosebumps to think of the traffic in Bangalore. It’s truly a pensioner’s paradise. People have all that time to spend on the roads. They suffer the traffic without uttering a single word.”
“Oh please, I don’t want to discuss Bangalore traffic even in this country. I’ve had all kinds of discussions about it, from philosophical to metaphysical.”
He was quiet for a moment. He took a couple of sips and spoke slowly: “Listen to this… You are a writer so you will understand.”
Such statements were not new to me. There’s a strange trust that people have in writers – they believe that writers understand what nobody else can. All the extremes of life – the mysterious, the weird, coincidences, upheavals. And above all, love. I have ended up listening to plenty of love stories. “Tell me,” I said.
“My father lived in Bangalore for four years. I went to high school there. Do you know where? Near BEL Factory. In those days, it resembled a village. My school was very close to our home. There were two trees right in front of the school – a banyan and a mango. There was an empty field opposite, and that was our playground.”
I didn’t know Jyotirmoyee had lived in Bangalore. Had I known, I would have perhaps been more sympathetic towards him. He became emotional as he remembered all this.
“I went there two months ago. You will not believe it, but I couldn’t find my school. I went round and round in circles and got exhausted, but I simply failed to find it. Everything had changed. I couldn’t recognise a single thing. The driver kept asking me, ‘Tell me where exactly you want to go, sir. We can take directions from someone.’ But I was adamant. I wanted to find the school on my own. Much as I tried, I couldn’t. The places that existed in my memory were no longer present in reality. The Ahmed’s shop, the playground, the trees, the big house at the turning, the huge well … had I found even one of these I would have known where I was. I finally mentioned the name of the school to the driver. He asked around and we found it a couple of streets away. Even when we found it, I couldn’t recognize it. The mango tree was no longer there. Shops and houses had come up like anthills around the banyan tree and the trunk was no longer visible. It seemed like the tree was growing out of the roofs of those houses. There was now a three-storey building in place of my school. The playground was gone and buildings had come up in its place. Whatever was left of the playground had been cemented. We used to kick up dust when we played, we used to pee on the anthills – it all seemed part of some other world. Those wide spaces had vanished from the face of this earth. A large, colourful board in front of the school announced that they taught a nationally recognized syllabus. It feels like a part of my childhood has been erased. When you spoke of change and Bangalore…”
He seemed to be choking up by the time he ended his story. This side of Jyotirmoyee was unfamiliar to me. I was at a loss for words. I don’t know what he made of my silence, but he laughed awkwardly and took two more sips. There was silence between us for a few minutes. I re-opened the conversation. “Let’s talk of something else. Who are you married to? Do you have children?”
He responded with enthusiasm.
“My wife Jayashree is a home-maker. Well, she shops, takes care of me. Her father is a wealthy industrialist. She grew up in Kolkata. We now live in Mumbai, but apparently she gets bored in this city. So she always keeps herself busy in social service. She thinks of Kolkata all the time. In fact, she lives her life in the memory of the city she grew up. She buys paintings, sells them, holds exhibitions. Great woman. She was twice on page three of the Times of India. You know where I met her? Outside the Prithvi Theatre canteen. She has many friends in the cultural world, you know … artists, playwrights, actors, writers. Somehow they all know each other. In the initial days of our romance, I felt I had developed interest in this arty circuit. Or was I pretending? I don’t know. But it never progressed from there. I could never make it on time even to a single music concert. Even if I did, I’d be bored in less than half an hour. It was beyond me. And those painting exhibitions! Tell me, do you understand them? The plays are any day better. If there is a bit of a storyline, you can somehow sail through it. Anyway, after two years she stopped asking me to accompany her. In those years I was enthusiastic about building my career. And soon, our son was born. I don’t know what would have happened to us without him. I have worked very hard to come up in my career, but she has no regard for it. ‘What’s money good for?’ she asks. What can anyone do without money! If I mention that her father also made money, she says she has no respect for him either. ‘You are becoming just like him,’ she complains. We fight every day. My son is growing up watching television and eating chips. I ask him to play and he plays computer games. What more do you need for a happy family? There is hardly any conversation between me and my wife. My son doesn’t listen to me. There is a hell of a lot of work at the office. My bank balance keeps increasing. Everything has changed. When I look at the picture of the two of us taken twenty years ago, I don’t see any love from the way she’s standing by my side. Things have become ugly between us.”
His phone began to ring. “Excuse me,” he said, moving away and answering it.
“Hello, yes, who do you want to speak to? Yes, yes, it’s me Phaneesh speaking… I am in Indonesia. I will return in three days. Let’s talk when I get back. Yes, I am interested in the property. I will speak to you when I’m back. Okay, good night.”
Who is this Phaneesh? I was stunned. If he was not Jyotirmoyee then whose story was I listening to all this while? I didn’t know any Phaneesh. Should I tell him? Just then – as my mind tossed between these thoughts – he hung up and returned.
“Right … so what was I saying? Forget it. It’s important to listen. It’s good to find people with whom you can share. Let me narrate a bizarre incident to you. You can use it in one of your stories. You know what happened? Two months ago, in January, I was travelling to Lucknow. I flew to Delhi and was supposed to board a connecting flight from there. There was thick fog in Delhi. The airport was milling with people. They refused to say when the flight to Lucknow would leave. So they herded us like sheep into one of the lounges. That’s when this guy appeared. ‘Hello, it’s been ages since we met,’ he said, and drew me into an embrace. He resembled my classmate Biswas. I was overwhelmed by his warmth and didn’t have the heart to ask him his name. We discussed all kinds of random people in a roundabout way. ‘Do you remember Nagesh?’ I asked. ‘That senior who was going out with Jamuna?’ I didn’t even remember if we had someone named Jamuna in our class. For all you know, Nagesh may have been going out with her. ‘By the way, how is Professor Rao?’ I asked him. ‘That rogue, he retired,’ came his reply. Rao is such a common name that you’re sure to find someone by that name in every institute. I kept trying to think of ways to find out his name. But no ideas came to me. He insisted I visit him. As our conversation went on, he began to address me as Sundar. It was bizarre … I didn’t know his name, and he thought I was someone else. Yet for nearly an hour our conversation went smoothly. In fact, he didn’t even realise there’d been a mix up. I knew, but didn’t know how to escape. Thankfully, they announced the Lucknow flight, and I was saved. But as I thought about it, I felt sad. It felt terrible that my life was so commonplace. As we add years to our lives, we remember only the immediate. Except for names that might be different, our lives are shockingly similar. Even if we were to switch places, nothing would change. I remembered my art teacher from school who always encouraged me to express myself. ‘Paint, write poetry, sing… Do something that can be called your own,’ he would say. But who wants to listen to advice that adds nothing to your score card? We made fun of him. Now all kinds of thoughts crowd me. Why do we buy anything at all if it is only for the pleasure of acquiring? I have no answers. There was something profound in what my teacher said. That’s why I went to Bangalore, looking for him. I haven’t told this to anyone else so far, not even to my wife.”
I was tongue-tied. The Jyotirmoyee I knew was someone else. And who was this Phaneesh?
His phone rang again. He answered the call. “It’s my wife… Excuse me.”
The story found its twist now. And then I overheard his conversation.
“Yes, I will be back the day after. Oh sure, you can go… Right, I will certainly come. By the way, do you know who is with me now? Ratan Kavale! The famous writer Ratan Kavale. I will tell you everything when I come back. Yes, yes, it’s him, the same person… okay, good night.”
It got stickier. He had mistaken me for some Ratan Kavale. If I told him the truth, the entire evening would be spoilt. All I wanted was to have a couple of drinks and leave. I suppose I could answer his questions vaguely and get out of there. Or I could tell him I was not Ratan Kavale, and say something like, ‘At least we met because of the misunderstanding.’ But the truth wouldn’t have changed our conversation much. Our names would have been different, that’s all. Didn’t we do anything in our lives to distinguish ourselves, make ourselves unique? I decided to be Ratan Kavale.
He was in a good mood. “My wife was happy to know that I was with you. Enough about me now. Tell me about yourself. What’s your wife’s name? How many children do you have?”
I was about to tell him about Shalini when I thought of Kamini, who I was once madly in love with.
Since I was Ratan Kavale, what difference did it make?
“Her name is Kamini,” I said.
I felt a new kind of freedom with my reply. I began to think about Kamini. He filled my glass.
Kamini … what could I say about her? I couldn’t decide. I had not thought about her in years. What was she interested in? In knitting … she had once made a sweater for me when we were in college. We got married. Then? We had a baby boy. Then? I had kept moving up the ladder at work. Then? She took good care of me… It was the same story all over again – no different from my life with Shalini. Nothing new or sparkling came from this story.
He was listening eagerly, sipping his drink every now and then. I felt the pressure of meeting his expectations with my story.
“She is the one who runs the household,” I said. “Without her things wouldn’t have been the same…”
“That’s true. It’s the same everywhere.”
Suddenly it seemed like we had nothing to talk about. I took a large swig and emptied the glass.
“Another drink?” he offered.
“I’ll leave now,” I said and rose from my chair.
“Sorry… I had a bit too much… I’m unsteady. I have to leave early tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Take my number. Call me sometime.”
He came to the door.
“We must keep in touch. Wait, let me give you my card.” He pulled his wallet out of his rear pocket. He had some trouble finding his card in the half-light near the door. Finally, he placed one in my hand. “I assume it is mine,” he joked. Without looking at it, I slipped it into my pocket.
“I am not carrying one,” I said. “But I have to tell you something.”
“I am not Ratan Kavale.”
“What?! Who are you then?” he asked.
I didn’t reply.
I smiled and walked away.
The long corridor on the sixteenth floor was lined with rooms on either side. They all looked identical, except that they had different numbers on them. In the dead of the night, it is a strange experience to walk past these closed doors.
I heard him call out from behind me.
“Who are you? Who are you?”
I pretended not to hear him and walked briskly on. I heard his voice again.
“Who are you? Bastard…”