Each Sauntering Step : Chapter 3 — Part 2
She takes a sip. He follows suit. They sit, staring out of the balcony for a few minutes. The balcony opens out into the streets of Mumbai – bustling with activity; bikes and cars being driven to bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, we sit still, taking slow, silent sips from each of our glasses. He catches a quick glance of her face. She is looking right at him. Holy shit. He looks away instinctively, choosing instead to stare silently into the empty glass in his hand. What’s wrong with me?
I wish I had something useful to say – maybe admit I am just a mirror. I can reciprocate, but I can’t possibly initiate. I can agree, but I can’t bear to be refuted. But the mirror never speaks.
“I only asked because if there’s anything —”
“Yes, of course, Ashwin.” Fatima takes a sip, Ashwin follows suit.
God, these parties… Last week was the same. When I reached Singh’s place, I found that everyone was already there, the same familiar faces lit blue by the light from the screen on the wall, playing a familiar scene from a familiar sitcom. The apartment reeked of alcohol and cigarettes. I pulled out a bottle of whiskey from my bag, mock-exhibited it to the crowd and said, a gift for the lovely audience.
Singh gave me an obligatory thank you nod, said, thank you for your bottle of poison. Fatima — Hey Ashwin. Arun — I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of this episode. A voice from the monitor — I know I’ll have a longer life if I don’t drink, but that won’t be living. Singh launched into another one of his traditional tirades, this one about the hypocrisy of the Indian masses when it came to psychedelic experiences.
“We guys have to plan a trip of some sort,” Fatima says.
Ashwin turns to Fatima, who turns her gaze to him in response, forcing Ashwin’s gaze back into his glass. “Yeah, we should. My colleagues went to this incredible place near Gokarna — more secluded, quieter, they had a great time there; it’s a very nice beach apparently.” “Let’s all make a plan.” “Yeah, I’m going to get a refill, joining?” “Yeah, go ahead, I’ll be right behind you.”
I’ll be right behind you? Eloquent.
Ashwin pushes himself up off the ground and begins to stagger towards the table when he sees Arun right next to him. “Crap, I didn’t see you.” “What a masculine display, Ashwin — chilling on the balcony with Fatima, who you were never keen on, like ever, right?” “What? We were just chatting about —” “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you were just chatting, not playing eyes hockey. You break my heart.” “Dude, there’s —” “Nothing for me to worry about, you aren’t into her, et cetera, cool.” Ashwin laughs. “There’s that laugh. I thought it had disappeared for good.” Ashwin laughs, embarrassed. “What’s up? You walk in drunk — that hasn’t happened in a while. Then you zone out for an hour and bounce. Something’s definitely off.” “I put in my papers.” “You did what?” “I quit.” “Good for you.” “Good for me?”
“Yeah,” Arun says, “Fuck those guys. Quitting was the best thing I did.” “You still haven’t told me why you quit out of the blue like that.” “Why did you?” “I had just had enough.” “I had just had enough too.” “But you didn’t speak to me for a month after that. Something must’ve happened.” “Forget about me. What’re you going to do now?” “X-Arch, probably.” “Good call.” Arun nods in approval as Ashwin gulps down what remains of his drink. “They must be good and high now,” Arun says.
Ashwin agrees. He starts walking towards the living room. “I need a drink.” He staggers to the bottle of whiskey on the table. “I’d love to join you, Ashwin,” Arun jokes. Ashwin laughs as he pours himself a patiala. “I think we’re out of soda,” he says, picking up the bottle of water on the table. “What’s up love-birds,” Singh says, “we’re gonna watch something, you guys in?” “Yeah, yeah, sure.” “What’re you guys planning to watch?” Arun sits at the dining table. Ashwin sits next to him. “Same shit,” Singh says in a lazy drawl. Same shit.
I can’t remember a single Friday I’ve spent doing something other than drinking at Arun’s or Singh’s place. This is how it has been ever since I started working — part of the same routine I once dreaded. We start with stories from work and the freshest goss, and end on hyperbolic discussions about happiness, the meaning of, and life, the purpose of, arguing until the early hours of Saturday. After hours of pontificating about the eternal mediocrity of the middle-class, the hidden beauty of life and the acute pangs of depression, I struggle to a cab and stagger back home barely in time to fall asleep before sunrise. Every Friday.
“So you’re not going to tell them,” Arun says.
“What,” Ashwin replies.
“That you quit. What else,” Arun replies.
“Oh yeah. Yeah. I will.”
Last Friday: Same faces. Same TV show. Same people. Same roaming around the streets of Bandra. Same desperately trying to avoid the eventuality of Singh’s apartment. I ran into Rita. That was different. I heard a woman’s voice, oddly familiar, as I stood aimlessly at the taxi stand, waiting for a yellow-and-black cab to take me anywhere but to Singh’s place. Ashwin? Ashwin!
Rita, I whispered back, offering a limp handshake that turned into an awkward hug.
What’s up, you’ve gained weight, she said.
Yes I have, you haven’t though, I replied. Since when did Rita wear sneakers, I thought.
What am I? What makes me so ashamed?
How’s work, she asked. Oh, you know how it is, it is, it’s busy, busy, lots of screen-staring. What about you?
Oh, I get by, I see the world, it’s good. I’m here for a couple of days, visiting dad.
We should meet some time, I thought. We should catch up; I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about., I thought.
How is the desk job treating you? You must find it weird, she asked.
Is that pity in her voice?
Yeah, it’s like doing jail time, I replied looking up for a second, then staring at the market behind her, before laughing and saying, no, it isn’t that bad really. I’ll need to find something else, though… for the future.
Yeah, that’s true, listen Ashwin, you’re not a desk job guy.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s not like I don’t think about quitting every day. Your work’s great, I —
Hey Ashwin, I’m terribly sorry. I’m in a hurry to catch someone, I’ll see you later, I’m terribly sorry, it was great seeing you, Rita said, before rushing off.
We should have exchanged numbers.
A cab stopped by the pavement; the cabbie looked at me expectantly. My phone started to ring; Singh. I raised a hand and said, Carter Road. The driver nodded and popped the door of the cab open. Yeah, Singh, I’m headed there. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m getting you a guys a bottle of JD. A treat man, I never treated you guys for my birthday. Yeah, yeah, don’t buy too much of your own stuff is all. Cool, cool, see you there in like half an hour, yeah. Bye.
“Ok guys,” Sunayna says. “I need to push off.” Singh rolls his eyes, “buzzkill.” “Bye.” “Bye Sunayna.” “Bye.” “Bye.” “We’re meeting tomorrow, right? For that bookstore thing,” she asks Fatima. “Yeah.” “Yeah.” “Cool then.” “Yeah.”
The room falls silent. Thumbs are twiddled, bottles are twirled, cigarettes are lit.
“Should we keep going with this show,” Singh finally asks.
The room seems to shrug.
These are my friends, a few of whom I have known since I was a child. Here I am, sitting across them, nodding, smiling, joining in in their silly in-jokes. Yet I have nothing in common with them.
“So now you can move,” Arun asks. “Move?” “Move in. Dude, Mick’s got a buddy at Worli — right next to his office. He wouldn’t mind moving at all, man, if I tell him you’re moving in. I guess he’ll move out in a few months, or many months, or a year — I don’t know when exactly — but if you say yes, he won’t mind moving out right away.”
Here’s what I predict — daily good mornings, most of them insincere, getting accustomed to conflicting bathroom schedules, the pressure to be social all the time. I don’t think I’m in the mood.
Not me. Not now. Not ever.
“I’ll think about it,” Ashwin replies. “Of course I’d like to move in. Of course I like the idea, but you know landlords and shifting and all this work I have now that I’ve quit.” “Take your time, man. But think about how cool it will be. All the parties and all, it’ll be A, totally A.” “Yeah, yeah.”
“Guys, dinner,” Fatima asks. Everyone gets up.
“Pause the show.”
The hivemind is an artificial intelligence.
“You think United will win this season,” Arun asks sarcastically as they enter the kitchen.
“I don’t —
“Yo Ashwin, what happened.” Ashwin looks around the room. The walls are bathed in blue light from Singh’s monitor. Everyone’s looking at me. Must’ve zoned out. “Nothing,” he manages to say. “Are you ok?” “Yeah, I just need another drink.” “Yup, you do. You’re a free man now. You deserve another drink.” “Where’s Sunayna?” “Dude. She left a while ago. You sure you’re ok?” “Yeah, yeah. Just zoinked.”
Arun: “I’ll take him upstairs. Don’t worry, I’ve got this under control. Ashwin, come. Let’s go.”