Monday, May 26, 2014

Parallel Lines

The day ended.

It did not give Harsh a chance to collect himself after reading the email.  His boss, Cezanne, was upset. She called him incompetent and an imbecile who could not string together five short slides for a presentation despite being given all the help required. This email was sent at 8.00 p.m., one and a half hours after official closing time. But there was nothing official about this cesspool of a law firm. Harsh was too tired right at this minute to snap. While he finished off his soggy shwarma roll, he thought about his response which he would draft and send the next day.

"Dear Cezanne,
'All the help required' that you mention was a ten second brief from you whilst I washed hands after doing my business in the loo and you hollered outside. Assistance was also provided by our legal head, your husband,  who instructed me to:"...do whatever the mad woman tells you to." Over the last 3 days and over 30 hours I have put together the various merits of our law firm in toxic orange branding for a client I know nothing about. I did this crazy, illogical thing at your behest. Tell me again,  ma'am, why am I the imbecile? Best, Harsh."

Mythical correspondence drafted, Harsh left the office a happier man.

Outside, Bombay was a wet canvas of black and neon. A thin film of yellow from hallogen lights laminated it and the grunt of traffic coursed through the city's veins.

Traveling to court had been a challenge and working in that old, musty office in Kalbadevi, even more so. However, Jainath had been kind enough to supply him with endless cups of tea. That had kept him going.
Now, getting a cab to Marine Lines station was going to be a task. He should've just finished that email and waited back until 10 o'clock. Maybe the rain would've stopped by then or at least abated a little.  It would've been easier to walk to the station then.

At this point,  Harsh allowed himself to dream a little. He would have walked across Azaad Maidaan in the fresh,  moist air. The Maidaan itself would be a large, grassy petridish on which he'd amble along like a tiny bacterium on a strip of asphalt. Around it, tall buildings and street lamps would wink and glitter.  Bombay would still buzz low and sedate,  a reminder of the sweet continuity of life. The bricks on Rajabhai Tower would be washed over by the moonlight and streetlamps and Harsh would stand still,  stand tall, and hum to himself. Our hero, happy in victory.

What did happen instead was that a BEST bus careened close, a motley of girls shrieked and jabbed him with umbrellas,  and a wet urchin tried selling him a glossy map of India for Rs. 75.

"Cab! I need a cab!", he thought.

Harsh had lived in Bombay all his life. He knew that a living,  breathing human morphed into a phantom creature for autorickshaws and cabs the moment rain poured down and the moon came out. You suddenly became invisible. The cabbie didn't see you, the rick guy didn't notice.  For all your flailing arms to stop the vehicle,  for all your hollering of "Rickshaaaa!", "Taxiiii"- you did not exist.

Yet, one does what one has to. So...

"Taxiiii!"

And a cab stopped. Except that it did not stop in front of him. It stopped some distance away. In front of another passenger.  Who was a woman.  Just like one of his bosses.

"Of course!  Stop in front of the chick who's wet in white!", he grumbled.

The wet chick in white,  however, looked at him and shouted, "Going to Bandra. You coming?"

Harsh didn't answer but his superhero leap towards her over open manholes indicated yes.

"Bhaiyya, Bandra West. Tezz chalaiye. Jaldi pahunchna hai,", the girl instructed the cabbie.  (Drive fast please.  I need to reach quickly.)

"Where in Bandra West are you going?", Harsh asked.

"Linking Road. Around National College. Where do you want to get off?"

"I'll get off there. It's close to Bandra station. "

"Madam,  Haji Ali se loon?", the cabbie asked. (Madam, shall I take the Haji Ali route?)

"Bhaiyya, J.J. Flyover se..." (Take the J.J. Flyover instead).

Harsh interrupted. "J.J. will be crazy. It's a very narrow road. "

"Theek hai bhaiyya. Haji Ali se le lo." (Okay. Take the Haji Ali route. )

Harsh smiled and looked out the window.  "You know what I find sweet and exasperating about women? "
"Huh? Is this going to be that kind of a cab-ride?"

"No, no! I'm sorry. Didn't mean it like that.  I meant it's sweet that you just trusted my judgment of the traffic situation over yours. I mean...about the Haji Ali ...J.J. bit."

She stared at him while her fingers rummaged through a rather large purse. Oh yes. Large purses - also exasperating about women.

"Well...you looked like a local so I figured you'd know. "

He nodded and looked out again. They had just crossed Wilson college and the city looked inviting again. It always did until you accepted the invitation, he thought morosely.

"Naaz", he heard. "My name's Naaz. You are...?"

"Harsh", he extended a damp hand. "There's a Cafe Naaz near Haji Ali, you know. It has a dubious crowd but a terrace with the best view of the city."

"And very good kheema pav, I've heard."

"Right!  So, how long have you been in the city?"

"A month. Little over a month. "

"Liking it?"

"Trying to."

"Don't. Stop trying. Exhale and then let it fill you up."

"Oh...that it does! The stench does fill you up, as you put it."

Harsh guffawed so loud that he startled the cabbie who was trying to fidget with his radio.  Naaz had brought out a small packet of chips which she offered Harsh and then the cabbie. The former accepted.  The latter declined.

"Looks like it will be a long, long ride back," Harsh drawled. Cars snaked all across Walkeshwar and even the swanky strip into Malabar Hill looked like a car park.

"Moojik nahin chal raha hai", the cabbie piped up. (The music system's not working.) Niether had exactly asked for an update but well...what can you say to information offered up with such earnestness.

"So, where are you from, Naaz?"

"North."

"You from Delhi?"

"Of course, because that's all you people know of the North, right?"

"No...we also know Punjab."

She smiled. "Kashmir. "

Harsh gave a long,  slow whistle. That did seem very far away. He wondered why. It's not like Kashmir was that much further than Delhi but Kashmir just seemed like another world. For some reason, he felt a little lost for her.

"You must really miss it."

"Yeah. But when we were driven out, we just had to make our way here, you know."

"Driven out meaning? That Kashmiri Pandit issue...but you..."

"What?"

"Nothing. Just that your name's Naaz, right? Aren't you...? I thought only the Pandits were driven out."

"Well, we had to leave home too. Some of us Muslim families. But yes, it's linked to the Kashmiri-Pandit issue."

There was silence while the radio coughed up whirring sounds.

"Hey, Naaz! We'll be reaching Haji Ali soon. You want to pick up something to eat?"

"I don't know, don't want to get delayed anymore."

"No! No! Haji Ali Juice Centre is right there!  You see that? There. They have these ready to eat bowls of fruits and cream. We'll pick those up and be on our way. 5 minutes! "

"Okay. I may as well be sweet and exasperating again. Whatever you say."

The cabbie was quite relieved to park and get off for a quick smoke. Harsh dived out and brought back two large, chilled bowls of figs, almonds, and cashews blended in with thick, sweetened heavy cream.

He banged the door shut a little too hard. This jolted the radio to start again...and this time, it burped out actual music. The cabbie ran back happily. "Arrey! Chaalu ho gaya!" (It's working now.) Soon,  they were on their way. The traffic had thinned out a little.  Naaz watched as Harsh peeled off the clingfilm from the bowl and dug his spoon into the dish. "What is this?"

"It's dry fruits and cream. "

"What's it called? "

"It's called dry fruits and cream.  Why?"

"Are you sure it's not called Kashmiri something or the other? In Bombay,  the idea of a Kashmiri dish is to add kaju- kishmish."

"True but maybe instead of analyzing it so much, you just ate?"

She did. He could see that she liked it. She licked her lips, dug into the bowl a little more, and he thought he even heard her slurp.

"Nice", she said.

The radio hummed a sweet old Madhubala song. The cabbie whistled out of tune. Outside,  the city had become a soundtrack on mute.

"What do you miss about Kashmir?", Harsh asked.

Naaz stopped eating for a second,  fished out her handkerchief and wiped her lips. She folded it back neatly and answered. "Lots of things. Like what do you miss about growing up?"

"Nothing. My childhood was rotten."

"Oh...I guess what I miss is taking beauty for granted. Kashmir was like that. Like you know...how do I explain...like say, so many places are beautiful. But Kashmir is beauty. Know what I'm saying?"

He didn't but nodded anyway.  "Okay,  so what kind of beauty did you take for granted? "

"So many questions!  Are you a lawyer or something? "

Before he could answer, she had drifted on. "I miss full moon nights. I'd look out and see condensation on zaffran plants. The dew would shine like diamonds. Imagine so many diamonds across a whole field. And not just diamonds, mind you. Diamonds on that priceless spice -zaffran. Kashmir was full of things like this. So careless with such treasures. You could take them for granted."

She wasn't looking at him when she said this. She was looking out. They were at Mahim Causeway now. The area was splintered with dingy buildings,  rough and tumble shops, and hordes of people crowding into buses. He thought he'd point out a jeweler's shop (in reference to her 'diamonds in the field') and the orange poster of a political party (for the zaffran connect) but kept quiet. Maybe it wasn't the time for jest.

She continued softly. "I miss being shy. It sounds strange but I feel that. I wonder if I'll ever manage here."

"Naaz, can I tell you something? "

"Hmm?"

"You called out to a stranger and spent nearly two hours  in heavy, city traffic with him. You ate what I gave you. I wonder if it even occured to you whether I'd mixed something in it or not. By the way, don't do that again - eat something a stranger's offered you. But, you know what? I think you've started exhaling. You'll manage."

Naaz shrugged. A tad exaggeratedly, Harsh noticed.

"Okay, then. You're the local. You should know."

The cab turned left to National college. "By the way," he said as they split the cab fare and got off, " I am a lawyer" and handed over his bright orange visiting card.

In the light of the night, though, the card seemed to have softened, from a toxic orange to a pale saffron.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There's a Cafe Naaz near Haji Ali... " You must mean near Babulnath or at Hanging Gardens. Beacuse soon after that you start talking about Walkeshwar and Malabar Hill etc.

DI said...

You've got to do fiction more often. What a beautiful narration!

Anonymous said...

Nice.
Lekin kuch smooching ya phone numbers ks exchange hota story mein, toh kuch closure mil jata.

Thodin incompete si lagi story.

karan said...

what a pretty piece of writing.