Somdeb Ghose calls Kolkata his spiritual home, Delhi his nostalgic one, and Chennai his formative one. He can usually be seen at his desk working on the computer or with a pen and paper on some arcane Physics problem. Of late, he has been taking an enforced sabbatical from his vocation and has been spending time trying to write fiction, often with disastrously silly results. He can be seen lurking the interwebs @somdeb in the valley of the Twitterati, somdeb.ghose among the faces that no longer read books, and can be apprehended at somdebgATgmailDOTcom.
That got me swiftly back to Earth. Cut the reel, so to speak.
I was at the bus stop, a not altogether surprising place to find myself, considering it was time to go home. Office was certainly out.
I had walked to the bus stop today. I would normally take an auto or hitch a ride with someone. Not today. It was good to walk, I had reasoned. Fresh air, with a hint of rain. Lovely weather.
So here I was, waiting for the bus, thinking forward to the events of the day. Not one of your usual where-is-the-stapler-lets-go-have-tea type of a day. A red-circle-on-the-calendar-with-a-red-pen type of a day. And the details of said day were preplaying themselves, superimposed rather indiscreetly on the traffic and the chaos.
And it had come to the interesting bit. The climax, as the films call it.
Which is exactly when the owner of the raspy sandpaper voice had decided to put it into practice. My mental video had stopped. Rather suddenly. With the mental equivalent of a sound that old gramophones used to make when the needle would decide to, without warning, slip off the vinyl.
Denied my absolution, I decided to investigate.
An old man. Slightly bent. Scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, hasn’t seen a razor in at least a week. Shaggy but thinning hair, hasn’t seen scissors in at least two months. Striped shirt, once white, now not so, hasn’t seen a laundry machine in goodness knows how long.
That is all I could make out in the gathering gloom. The mercury vapour lamp wasn’t much help either.
The vagabond repeated his question, extracting a half-smoked bidi from behind his right ear.
I glanced at the paan shop right next to the bus stop. Every self-respecting institution, such as the one I was looking at, invariably kept a lit taper at the end of a thick jute rope.
“Ran out, before the rain,” Vagabond had followed my gaze. “They had another one. Got wet in the rain.”
Ah well. One had to stick to the creed. Smokers’ Creed. Never Refuse a Light to a Fellow Smoker.
I fumbled in my pockets. I had a matchbox stowed away somewhere, I was certain of that. I really did not want to take out my…
My hand closed around a cool metallic object.
The needle jumped back on to the turntable, found the groove of a different vinyl. Old. Dusty. But still sharp. And it ran the other way.
“No light?” Vagabond enquired, voice as polite as sandpaper would allow.
Wordlessly I unclasped my sidebag, thrust my hand in, and fished out a damp matchbox. It was a victim of the morning rain, and I had quite forgotten to dry it out. There was a single matchstick inside, soaked and miserable. I handed the sad little box over to Vagabond, and started walking rapidly away in the opposite direction. A little way out, I turned to see the hapless man trying in vain to light his bidi with that damp match. The stick broke off with a silent snap. I kept on walking, aware of Vagabond’s eyes on my swiftly receding back.
I kept walking at high speed for perhaps ten minutes. The next stop was just around the corner, and I did not want to meet Vagabond again. Slowing down, I took it out. I wished I hadn’t touched it, wished Vagabond would not have asked for the dratted light in the first place. Not today, of all days. Even in this gloom I could see it well enough. It was a lighter. I had got it on my birthday, a gift from the gang. It was rather expensive.
“Sterling silver, highly polished,” Combs had said, looking rather pleased with his knowledge. I suspected Glasses had let it slip, and Combs had pounced on it and run with it. I looked at Glasses. Sure enough, his mouth was open, the words forming, cut off mid-stride. He had looked rather abashed. I had decided to give him another chance.
“What’s sterling silver?” I had asked.
“Mostly silver, ninety percent or thereabouts, mixed with copper and other metals,” Glasses had rattled off, adjusting his spectacles.
“Improves strength,” Combs had guessed. Correctly.
“So,” I had observed, studying the lighter, “you bunkoos are trying to pass me fakey items, eh?”
Glasses had, predictably, looked hurt and outraged at the same time. Combs had started on his hyena laugh, and Tintin had thrown a pillow at me. Tintin could never throw straight, and I prided myself on my reflexes. Failing to hit me, the pillow had unerringly picked out the cut-crystal highball glass Combs’ brother had gifted him recently. It had shattered in a thousand fragments, the water making an indignant puddle on the floor.
The lighter was cool in my hand. It was custom-made. Tintin had an uncle who had a business doing that sort of thing. I ran my thumb along the raised symbol on the face. The sadhu was still there, meditating, a wisp of smoke escaping his mouth.
“He isn’t meditating, actually,” Tintin had explained once Combs had been calmed down, the shattered remains of his beloved cut-crystal taken away by his boudi, the water lapped up by her efficient mop.
“He is smoking weed,” Tintin had continued, dipping into the bowl of steaming alu-pakora that Combs-boudi had so thoughtfully brought.
“Unlike us.” Glasses had managed to light up a cigarette by then, seemingly unperturbed by shattered glasses and efficient boudis. He took a deep satisfied pull, and passed it to me. I took a drag. No smoke.
“Damn thing’s out,” I complained, grabbing the lighter. “Sterling silver, you said?”
I tried to light it, failed. Click click. I cursed, and flicked it again. It worked the third time.
“Hey Tintin, at least it works the third time around,” Combs had sneered.
Tintin had grabbed another pillow.
A loud screechy horn sounded right next to me. The auto driver zoomed away, cursing fluently. I stepped aside, and peered at the weed-smoking sadhu again. He seemed so peaceful.
“You know what is so funny about that sadhu?” Tintin had asked as we were trudging back to our places. I hadn’t a clue, and I had admitted as much.
“It is an old monk,” Tintin had dissolved into peals of laughter, scaring the alley cat into an indignant meow.
Old Monk. We had so many lovely evening with that old codger. I had stopped drinking, of course. Seven years back, to this very day.
Dare I break that oath, I asked myself. I mean, it has been seven years. I hadn’t broken any mirrors, true, but bad luck was something that evidently did not care whether you broke mirrors or lives.
What the heck, oath be damned.
I turned the corner and, sure enough, the shop was there. I don’t often take this stop, but I have had to do it once or twice, and I had noted this shop. Noted, and studiously ignored. I had an oath to maintain. So it wasn’t until today that I really took a good look at the shop.
It was rather like any other liquor shop; small, trying–not too hard–to be indiscreet and failing expectantly. It advertised Budweiser beer in garish red and yellow neon tubes. A knot of people thronged in front, waiting for their evening satisfaction.
Stowing the lighter away in my bag, I took determined steps towards the neon god, humming The Sound of Silence under my breath. The bus stop was only half a minute away, and I saw, through the corner of eyes, my bus arrive. That little fact did not even register; the sadhu egged me on, desperate to reacquaint me with my old love. By the time I had reached the shop, the bus had moved on.
The drizzle had started up again. I slid into the shade of the shop, took out my handkerchief, and soaked up the few drops on my head. The man in front of me was asking for a Bangla. There was a handwritten note pinned to the side of the barred window–“Bangla, half price, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” It was written in a neat hand, and did not look like it was written yesterday. Or any time in the past year. I decided to investigate.
The man in front was slurring his words, and stood at an alarming angle to the vertical, swaying about gently like a rice stalk in a gentle breeze. He reminded me of an upside-down pendulum I had seen in my physics teacher’s room, back in school. Or a metronome. I had seen Tintin practice the flute often with a metronome.
Metronome somehow managed to pay for the bottle, grabbed it with both hands, turned around, saw me, and hastily shoved it into his belt.
“Your change,” the owner called, holding out two notes. Metronome did not even seem to hear. He kept looking around, searching for somebody or something. I gently grabbed his arm and swung him around, pointing at the change. Metronome grabbed at it, missing it completely. He captured the notes on his second try, and attempted to put in his breast pocket, which had probably been ripped off months back.
I bent down, picked up the two notes that had fluttered rather disdainfully down, and shoved them into hands, pointing towards his trouser pocket. Metronome looked at me uncertainly, then at the notes. He smiled at me, a big innocent grin, and whispered something that sounded somewhat like “Thyaksh”. He then wandered off, calling out “Bondhu, where did you go?” aimlessly.
“Who is he calling out to?” I asked the owner.
“Someone helped him cross the road earlier. He seems to have disappeared,” he shrugged.
I pointed at the notice. “What’s with that? Yesterday, today, and tomorrow?”
Owner laughed. “We always sell Bangla at half price,” he explained.
Ah, I see. “Clever,” I remarked. I didn’t quite see the business logic though.
“My nephew wrote it,” Owner beamed with pride.
“Nephew?” I was shocked. Owner was about forty. “How old is he?”
“Fourteen last aashaR,” Owner’s smile broadened. Seeing my face, he put up his hand, palm outward, a reassuring gesture.
“Relax. He wrote it for my youngest brother. He tuitions. Bengali. My brother, that is. He was starting out, offered courses at half the price of the schoolteacher opposite lane.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, and then laughed. “So you gyarafied it, eh?”
Owner gave an answering guffaw.
I recalled why I was here. “Old Monk, half bottle. How much?”
Owner quoted the price.
My, how the times had changed. I could have gotten a full at that price in my day. I told the Owner the same. He shrugged, his smile morphing into a puzzled frown as he mentally calculated the time that had to have passed for Old Monk to have doubled its price.
“Long time, eh? Bad day?” he queried.
It was my turn to shrug. “You have no idea.”
Owner looked at me sympathetically. “Want one?”
I took out my wallet, removed a couple of notes, the last ones there. “All I have.” Owner made a clucking sound. “Sorry bhai, can’t.”
“That’s fine,” I said, replacing the notes. “Was a bad idea anyway.”
I turned around and saw Metronome swaying at the side of the road, evidently having failed to secure an escort.
“Maybe I should help him,” I declared, and strode quickly over to him. I think Owner tried to dissuade me from doing so, but I didn’t hear him through the thick bars and the traffic sounds. Or I did, I thought later, but it hadn’t even registered. Again.
The drizzle was going steady. I took out my umbrella, but realised it was fruitless to try and keep it open and guide this swaying pendulum across the road. I reached Metronome, who was still clutching onto his notes, and grabbed his arm, waiting for a break in the flow of cars. He did not seem to even feel the contact. There was no break in the tide of cars to either side, and I knew that red lights were somewhat far off in this part of the town.
I decided to dive into the mad rush, Metronome in tow.
The flow on the outside was slower but more chaotic, consisting mainly of bicycle, autos and scooters playing roulette with one another, weaving in and out of each other’s paths, creating a web of death for any who attempted a crossing.
Nothing out of the ordinary, of course.
I brandished the unopened umbrella like a policeman’s baton, threading a way through the flood of two-strokes and cycle-bells, and managed to get into the faster lanes.
Two-strokes gave way to four, cycle-bells to blaring horns and oiled carburetors.
Something tried to tug me back to that day, seven years back.
I swung wildly with the baton, trying to sweep it away.
Should have been you, whispered the wind, floating over the cacophony of lunacy.
“No!” I shouted back, pulling Metronome along. He weaved behind me, utterly oblivious. I should have left him back by the side of the road, he seemed too far gone. His legs wobbled, then collapsed.
I was almost pulled off-balance. I stopped, righted myself, looked back and brought him up to his feet with a heave.
The car screeched to a halt mere inches away, horns blasting and tires screeching, brakes glowing crimson red.
We stood shock still, like rabbits in front of a headlight.
The driver rolled down his window and let loose a string of choice curses that would have rivaled even Combs.
I saw Metronome open his mouth. Probably the only thing that got through to him right now were curses, and he was readying to give back his due. I decided to decline him that satisfaction, and with a vicious yank got him up to the divider.
The driver, egged on by the insistent honking of the cars behind, shifted back into gear. The Black Civic raced off. I watched it go.
“That was about an inch, wasn’t it?” asked one of the temporary residents of the divider, a middle-aged man perhaps a little more circumspect than I was.
“A millimetre,” I replied, blank-faced. The pedestrian gave a low whistle, folded up his umbrella, and resumed his keen observation of the traffic and his quest for a way through. I tugged at Metronome’s arm, who had by now started humming tunelessly, and stepped into the traffic once again.
I had missed my bus.
Of course, had I been paying attention and not daydreaming about lighters, I wouldn’t have.
And that had been the last bus going my way.
You might ask, the last bus this early in the evening?
Turns out, there was a bit of a fracas at the depot. Something involving due salaries and reluctant owners.
Either way, I didn’t have a choice. The alternate route involved changing autos twice and walking. Lots and lots of walking.
Typical, I said to myself, hanging on to the bare inch of space afforded the seventh person in the auto. I thought of Metronome, who by now would be snoring happily on the pavement. Or the gutter, I couldn’t quite tell.
The auto stopped at a signal. I felt my inch slipping away. Panicking, I shoved hard. Twisting and wriggling, I laid claim to my needlepoint space.
An albino roadside dog ran past the auto, barking incessantly. Reminded me of the dog Tintin had adopted.
“Why Milou?”, Combs had asked, “Tintin’s dog is Kuttush, not Milou.” He had looked rather pleased with himself.
Glasses had quickly scotched his enthusiasm.
“Kuttush is the bangla you bunkoo. Milou is the original French-Belgian.”
Combs vanquished, Glasses had turned a frowny face towards Tintin. Our Tintin, not the fictional counterpart.
“But Milou was a white fox terrier…” “A wire fox terrier,” I had thompsoned in, “to be precise.”
They had all stared at me, slackjawed.
“What?” I had countered, shrugging, “I read too.”
Tintin had turned back to Glasses, grinning.
“True. But since I didn’t see any…,” with a quick glance towards me, “wire fox terriers starving on the roadside, I decided to make do with a mundane roadside one. I hope I didn’t disappoint your highness.” The last sentence was accompanied by a flowery bow.
Tintin never had my reflexes, and although Glasses was also no good at aiming stuff, he had not missed at point-blank range. The pillow had scored a direct hit.
Combs-boudi had come in, attracted by the sounds of them fighting. In the crook of her arm rested Milou, fresh from a proper and efficient bath. Tintin was good on the think-to-do-gooder front, I had thought to myself, but not really of much use on the actually-doing-it part.
“I think I would have preferred Snowy,” she had said, carefully laying the pup down on the floor beside a saucer of milk that had been efficiently conjured up from what seemed like thin air.
The vote had been unanimous. Snowy had been officially anointed a member of our gang that very day, and his baptism had been carried out by me, helped along by a generous sprinkling of holy watery rum.
The absence of which I felt deeply as I took the last few steps towards my alleyway.
I had made it, finally. Four autos, instead of the expected three; one had broken down in the middle of the road and had flatly refused to go any further. The other five passengers had promptly melted away in the traffic, leaving the auto driver and me to push the recalcitrant auto to the pavement. Ignoring my offer of help, the driver had then sat down on the front seat with a mobile conversation, a bidi and a pouch of Bangla. Rather taken aback by the industriousness of said individual, I had proceeded to find another auto. The route had become thrice as long, and the waterlogged roads hadn’t helped.
The alleyway was mostly dark. That wasn’t odd; it was nearly eleven, so proclaimed the luminous dial of my trusty wristwatch, and my alley-neighbours preferred the early worm to midnight oil. What was odd was the curious collection of people milling about on the road opposite. I decided to investigate.
As I neared the group, I could hear hushed conversation shielding a blue-light white-paint police van, one of those swanky ones that had taken to the roads recently. Crime wasn’t a regular occurrence in this neighbourhood, and police vans were a rare sight.
“Ki hoyechhe dada?” I asked what had happened, recognising the local tea-seller-cum-newspaperman.
The teapaperman spit out a globule of paan.
“Accident,” he replied between chewing what was left of his betel cud, “Black Civic. Mereyi paliyechhe. Hit and run. Drunk. Driving too fast, couldn’t brake in time.”
“Didn’t brake in time, that fucktard,” interjected the local laundry-cum-ironing man, rubbing his khoini energetically.
“Hit someone, he did,” resumed Teapaperman. “Hospital now. ICU, I heard. Bad condition.”
“Died,” stressed the Launderer, pushing the wad of khoini deep into his mouth. “I just heard,” he jabbed a thumb over towards the police van.
“Fucktard,” Teapaperman copied Launderer, spitting again, with a slightly higher degree of vehemence.
Typical, I thought. I save one drunken life, another gets stolen away. Not that there was any correlation whatsoever between these two events. I walked away, vinyl back on the turntable. Little did I realise that I had overlooked two very important points : (a) It was a Black Civic car and, (b) I hadn’t asked who the victim was. Perhaps the sight of the drying patch of rust-red blood had quelled my investigative tendencies. I gently placed the gramophone needle back on the groove.
And went back seven years.
The results from our campus interviews had come back. Predictably, Glasses had been placed exactly where he had wanted to be placed– a neat six lakh a year starting. Combs hadn’t fared as well, but three lakh a year was nothing to spit at. Tintin had of course bowed out of the placement race long back, instead opting to accept a two-year scholarship for the Ethnomusicology undergraduate course at Brown University, with particular emphasis on the history of the Indian flute.
I had come up empty.
I blamed it on the system, of course. ‘The interviews were biased,’ I had raged. They had listened sympathetically. Tintin had offered to talk. I had angrily rebuffed the offer, walking away.
That was two days ago. I hadn’t seen them since, probably because I had been camping out at various watering holes, bidding farewell to my last savings. I had woken up on a charpai outside one such establishment, the rope bed having reluctantly put up with me all night and perhaps dreading a morning with my hangover.
I opened my eyes, and saw a white face inches away from mine, in its mouth a much-maligned tennis ball rather resigned to its fate. Its tail was making a metronome proud.
I looked to my left and, sure enough, Tintin was standing there, dressed all in white, concern and relief mixed in equal proportions.
“Leave me alone,” I had growled.
“It’s my birthday you bunkoo,” Tintin had replied, trying to place a hand on my shoulder. “Or had you forgotten?”
I had never forgotten a Tintin birthday, not a single one among the fifteen we had seen together.
“Yes, I had,” I had been defiant, brushing off the hand. “What of it? Go celebrate your birthdays at Brown or Black or whatever that is.”
So uttering I had snatched the ball from Snowy’s grasp and had flung it away. It had landed dead centre on the road, right in the middle of the office rush.
As I must have mentioned before, Tintin was no good at throwing or aiming things. So it had fallen to me to educate Snowy on the ins-and-outs of the retrieve-the-thrown-ball discipline. And I had trained him well. No sooner had the ball left my hand Snowy had shot off like a bullet, straight into the onrushing traffic, a joyous woof trailing close by.
I might have also mentioned that I had better reflexes than Tintin. They had seemed to have taken that day off though.
Tintin was about to sit down on the charpai beside me when Snowy had commenced pursuit of the ball. Tintin had frozen for an instant, and then had taken off right behind Snowy.
I had not moved a muscle. Not even when I had seen the bus bear down on the hapless flautist, nor when its brakes had screeched too late, its horns blaring uselessly.
I had somehow attained my feet only after a crowd had formed around the site and had gotten busy trying to extract the driver and the conductor from the bus. Guided by helpless whimpers and the occasional yelp, I had found myself staring down, uncomprehending, at the pool of blood that had spread ever so slowly outward, staining the snow-white salwar-kurta crimson. Tintin was lying on her side, the dupatta draped across her face, covering it like a shroud.
I gently removed the needle from the vinyl record. The memory faded out, gradually.
I needed a smoke.
I fished out my last cigarette and rummaged around for the matchbox, recalling belatedly that I had donated that to the Vagabond. Wondering what he was up to at this time of the night, I took out my old monk lighter, and flicked it alight.
I tried again, and again. Usually it would light by my third attempt. This time it steadfastly refused to contribute any illumination to the gloom of the alleyway.
“Dada, got a light?”
The lighter clattered on the road.
I turned around, slowly.
Sure enough, it was the Vagabond. He wasn’t bent any more, his hair and beard were now neatly trimmed, and his shirt was the dream of every washing powder company. His bidi was still there, tucked safely behind his right ear.
Vagabond picked up the lighter and struck the flint in one swift movement.
The Lighter flared brightly, and the flame held.
“You never asked who the victim of the crash was,” he said, lightning his own bidi and then offering to light my cigarette.
I kept my eyes fixed on his. They seemed to reflected the Lighterlight.
“Metronome is alive, thanks to you,” he stated, blowing out three smoke rings.
How did he know I had named the drunk Metronome?
“Also, thanks to you, the Black Civic ran free.”
The Black Civic! Now it hit me.
“In the meantime, you missed your bus, and arrived home late.” Vagabond continued, puffing away.
Late? Late for…
“The Black Civic went on to visit two bars, got into a spat in the second, and, loaded, was gunning towards the third one.”
No no no…
“She never had a chance.”
I sank down on my knees.
A couple of months back, I had decided to start a tuition, primarily to relieve boredom and also, of course, to earn some extra cash. My first student was a little girl, about eleven years old, finishing class V. Thrice a week I would teach her English and Maths. Her mother would drop her off around seven and rush off to catch her daily tellysoap. At around eight-thirty, I would help her cross the road and drop her home.
“Her mother dropped her off at seven today, as usual,” Vagabond continued, looking down at me. “She then rushed off to catch her tele-soap, as usual. The girl diligently waited for you, as usual.”
“Except today, I didn’t show up.” I looked back up at those two pools of Lighterlight.
“She waited for about half an hour,” Vagabond went on. “Then she decided that for some reason or another, you weren’t going to show up. She was worried, because you were never late. She got scared, and ran across the road to ask her mother to call you, to ask if Uncle was safe. Good kid. She never made it to the other side.”
Vagabond took a final drag, dropped the bidi, and crushed it under his heel.
“So, what now?” I asked, still looking up, the Lighterlight a blur.
Vagabond bent down, removed my half-smoked cigarette, took a drag, rubbed it out on his palm, released three smoke rings, and stashed it behind his left ear. He then held out his hand.
“The funny thing about second chances are how elusive they are, not how rare they are. Like that teardrop in your eyes.”
“Not for me though?”
He shook his head.
“Always an even trade?” I asked, taking his hand. He pulled me up effortlessly.
“Always,” he said, the Lighterlight in his eyes flickering out. I heard a soft flute playing from somewhere. It was the raaga Tintin loved playing the most.
The Lighter clacked close.
“Dada, got a light?”
The man at the bus stop folded up the newspaper he was reading, took out a matchbox, lit one, and offered it. The vagabond took out a half-smoked cigarette from behind his left ear, lit it, and took a satisfied pull.
“Anything interesting in the paper?” he queried, trying to peer into the newspaper.
“Nothing much,” the reader said, a frown crossing his face. “Just another darned accident.”
“What happened?” the vagabond inquired, taking another drag.
“Man was hit last evening, not far from here. Was trying to cross the road, the idiot. Black Civic car ran him over. Driver was probably drunk.”
“And the one that got run over? Was he also drunk?”
“Not him. The guy he pushed out of the path of the car was though. Very drunk.”
“And the car?”
“The locals caught him. The police towed him away and the car.”
A bus halted in front of them. The reader folded the paper and got on the bus.
The vagabond took a final drag, dropped the cigarette, and crushed it under his heel. He then walked away, whistling a familiar raaga.
Illustration: Neeraka Karon