Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Hot Day In Delhi

I could feel the blast of hot air as soon as I stepped out of the airplane.

Summers in Delhi are as predictable and unbearable as one of those TV soaps and yet one cannot escape either. Despite the hefty UDF, ADF, or one of those numerous fees taxed on the "fortunate" people who had the misfortune to use the airport, Delhi airport still was missing those aerobridges that prevents sensitive people like myself from being exposed to the elements. And especially so of Delhi's.

I had not planned to make the trip. In fact I had not been to the city since the last 7 years. And yet the heat in the air reminded me that I probably never left. It was only due to a last minute glitch in Mumbai that the conference was switched to the city and unavoidably I had to make an appearance as planned originally. There I was ensconced safely in my 57th floor office in Hong Kong, but as someone said, "Religion can only move mountains, it is Capitalism that moves the world." Not highly original, but apt in my case.

I trudged to the awaiting bus and to a welcome experience of smelling my fellow passenger's BOs when they grab on to those what-you-call-'em for their dear lives. I smiled wryly to myself, Delhi summers do have a way to get the best sarcasm out of you.

I finally picked up my luggage and trudged to the pre-paid taxi booth. "Aha! I see computers," I said to myself, quietly appreciating (sarcastically obviously) that the land of underprivileged and poor can actually afford such extravagances for the privileged air travelers.

"One cab to Hotel Centura in South Delhi," I told the clerk.

He looked up and saw me through his horn-rimmed socialist-era spectacles.

"I am sorry Sir," he said. "There is a taxi strike in the city and we are short of cabs. Therefore, we have to put two people in one cab. Would you like me to do it?"

Typical, I thought. Well there was no other option and as an old hand in the Delhi summers, I knew that anything was better than standing around in a suit - a heat stroke would only be minutes away.

I took the receipt and walked out to a crowd of taxi wallahs, touts, families with children, and assorted security men. To see how far a city has progressed all one has to do is to walk out to the reception area of the airport. The Microsoft, HSBC, Amex, GE, Caterpillar on the various placards held aloft told me that there has been a seismic change. Now if only we could change this darn weather.

As I made it to the parking bay and looked for the taxi I saw him.

There was no mistaking him. The slightly puffed up face, fancy suit, fancier sunglasses, slicker hair with gray streaks in between, and the same cocky style. 7 years and the first person I see is Rakim (prounounced Rack-eem as per his instructions years ago at IIT Delhi).

As destiny would have it we were in the same cab. As I looked at him from 5 feet away I think I espyed a slight trace of surprise, but then as soon as I spotted it, it was gone. As if he were mocking me, "Your move compadre," his curled lips seem to say.

I knew immediately what I wanted to do. Though I had played this scene many a times in my mind, especially during the early years since after graduation, I threw away all those scripts in an instance: surprise, coolness, forced ecstasy, faked happiness, bluffing, and downright hatred.

I just looked right through him and he returned the compliment. I was not surprised. We were always alike.

As we both got into the back seat, he told the taxi driver a home in South Delhi. "Doing well I see if he is living there," I thought to myself. Immediately I checked myself. There was no need to get into a curious mode and start charting his life history for the past 7 years. I don't care, I had promised myself a long time ago and coming back to Delhi should not break that.

I could not afford it. Not after all those things that happened in the past.

As the taxi driver started the slow crawl out of parking he did not switch on the air conditioning. "Bhaiyya, start the A/C," I said using the universal North Indian term of addressal.

"Sir the A/C is on the brink and it not working and everything is closed due to the strike that is going on. I am sorry but we would just have to keep the windows open."

Damn it, first Delhi, then Rakeem, and now the drated heat. Well it would soon all be over. You can take it, I told myself without quiet believing myself or understanding which of the three bete noirs I meant.

As the taxi moved on to the Ring Road I could see the once-ubiquitous trees of Delhi. I never knew their name but they used to be everywhere in IIT. Medium-sized, small leafy trees, which neither provided shade nor sustenance. Typical (again), like Delhi - nameless/faceless people in the city going about their God-forsaken jobs with neither an end in sight to neither miseries nor a hope for a better tomorrow. They are just there for no reason. While the trees may have disappeared due to the much trumpeted bastard word of the past decade - "infrastructure", the ever growing populace had taken their place.

Sweat started to pour from my brow and on to my glasses. I fumbled in my pocket to find a handkerchief. Should I loosen my tie? Pat came the reply, "Well Rakim has not loosened his, then why would you?" The old competitive self again.

It was like from day one when we were clubbed as roommates in Nalanda Hostel. It did not matter that I was one of the elite who cracked the toughest exam in India and was chosen out of 100,000 aspirants (the word still had a nice ring to it; we Indians are always aspiring to something - sounds better than the western term "rat race"). I was only in the Civil department of IIT Delhi - a branch of a bygone era when people everywhere used to be on their hands and knees whenever an "Engineer saab" was in the vicinity. On the other hand my nattily dressed roomie was in Computer Science - the top choice of IITians everywhere and one with a one-way ticket to the land of dreams and plenty - "USA des" in popular IIT parlance.

I came back to the present. Gosh what a long time ago. I firmly put those old images behind me and looked outside.

The few trees now left on the side of the road had a doleful look about them. This heat has no mercy. I could see the leaves turning a shade of lighter brown and leaning expectantly, as would a Brahmin or a Fakir who comes to a door looking for alms. The stray dogs looked too hot and tired to do anything but lounge around under the inadequate shade of the trees. That is before they are chased off by some humans who want to do the same. The dogs would then settle into some other location (they have plenty) and continue to pass the time, too hot to even think about food, till the dusk brings some respite of a couple of degrees and not more. "Roam as you like you dastardly curs," they seem to say to some dogs that have encroached on their territories; heat is a great leveler - their designated scavenging area would be as much baked by the sun as those of their competitors. There is no benefit to be accrued by going hither and thither - just pick a spot and stick to it, seems to be their working mandate for the summer months.

I glance at my fellow passenger. Yeah, the heat does make strange bedfellows. Here am I sitting inches away from a person I had vowed never to set sight on again. But the heat makes us weak, it throws us at its mercy, and as a moment of weakness became an indecision, I turned my back and walked right into the cobwebs that I had skillfully made over the demise of memories past.

I was curios, I admitted to myself. I turned slighly in order to get a better look at him. Where would he be working right now? Is he more successful than I am?

He must be working in India as he clearly lives in Delhi. Let me think back and remember what other flights arrived around same time as mine did. There was one from Mumbai, another from Cuttack, couple from Bangalore. He has a Jet address tag on his laptop bag, so that eliminates Bangalore and Cuttack - so it has to be Mumbai. Now what was he doing in Mumbai? There are no huge software operations in Mumbai, well not as big in Bangalore or Delhi. He has to be a software engineer. But on the other hand he is wearing a suit. Maybe he has become a banker as all those engineers tend to do now days. Four years of wasted time and subsidised Government of India education.

Ah! I see a Rolex. He has to be a banker for sure, I thought to myself as I pulled my own cuffs to hide my once-proud-of-Omega watch. A reflex reaction. There I go again.

The suit seems one of those generic Indian brands I said to myself smugly as I caressed my hands on my own patented Italian garb. Even-stevens.

He looks so smug, is he not being driven crazy by the heat and this chance encounter? What are odds of this happening? Certainly much worse than being dealt a pair of Aces twice in a row in a game of Texas Hold 'em Poker.

I always liked to calculate the odds. Back in the day of "Teen Patti" and 5 paise chaals I used to do it all the time. Even though on an average I used to win I did not quiet enjoy it as Rakim used to on losing all that money.

Well if I can't loosen my tie I can certainly remove my jacket. I did so, carefully flashing the brand tag on the inside of my jacket. He barely moved his eyes.

"How much more time will it take," I asked the driver.

"Sir, 30 minutes more," he replied.

"Oh damn it! I forgot to call my wife," as Rakim said those first words since the airport I felt someone had taken a hot hammer and banged me on my stomach with it. I ignored the operative sentence, his tone, slight clipped accent, and concentrated on the last word in the sentence.

Goddamn it! I should have known better than to come to Delhi. And even if I did why the heck I could not have gotten another cab. All because of this bloody heat that messes up one's mind - it makes weaklings out of all of us, always has and always will.

I bit my tongue and looked firmly outside of the window, gulping down blasts of hot air that hit my face any blinded me to scenes outside. I did not care, I just wanted to find a small corner and hide in it.

Rakim took out his cellphone and I heard him dialing someone.

"Hey cutie! Sorry I could not call you earlier. Yes, the flight was fine. Mumbai was much cooler than Delhi, of course. But the damn place floods like crazy at the first showers. Yeah, see ya soon."

In spite of myself I held on to each of his words. Dissecting his tones and pauses, and analyzing her responses on the other side of the line.

Stop it, I screamed silently. But the damage was done.

"Cutie". Was it not how I used to refer to her. The bastard even stole my one term of affection that I had found the courage to address her.

"Where is my Engineering Drawing submission," I shouted at Rakim on a really hot day of the 2nd semester of our freshman year.

"Well," he paused, "I gave it away. Like a Good Samaritan."

I was pissed more because I was used to his shenanigans involving my assignments as he was my best friend, but to give it away to some third-party was unacceptable in my book.

"What?! How can you just give it away. I spent hours on that Goddamn thing in this bloody heat. Tell me who you gave it to and I will get it back."

He smiled his mischievious smile, "Well you will have to go where no freshman has gone before: Sarojini Hostel."

"You gave it a girl!," I said with dread of redoing the assignment and with the secret pleasure that I will soon be famous with all the girls in Sarojini.

"Yes, I did," he said with apparent pride in his accomplishment.

"Well what is done is done. Tell me her name so that I can ask her to lend it back to me so that I can redo the whole thing." I forgot all about my earlier anger.

"Arre yaar, I do not know her name. She is the one who sits on the first row. The one with those pigtails."

"The one I call 'cutie'?"

Oh God, how I hated him. All those years of suppressed hate, made up self-reconciliation, mad rantings, and final acceptance washed upon me in waves upon waves. The heat made me feel dizzier.

I could not imagine them together. With their neat home: potted plants in the balcony, a leather couch in front of a big wall TV, the bed that they own, the meals they share, and so on. Clearly they were very happy together. I could make it from his voice. I could bet he could not want anything more. A Ferrari maybe (he was nuts about them since the time I knew him), but nothing else.

This has to be the worst day of my life. Well actually, it could only be the 2nd most worst day as nothing touches that last day of IIT, 7 years ago.

"I can't be with you," she said. As ever, she was simple and elegant and God how much I loved her. "You are my best buddy, but I like someone else," she continued.

I had always suspected something but this was like a punch in my stomach with a hot hammer. I pleaded with her but it was inevitable. Four years of friendship does not a love make. Why not, one may ask, why not so, comes back the reply.

I knew what I had to do. My body was covered in sweat so that my t-shirt was sticking to my back. I raced down to confront Rakim - my best buddy in the world and a backstabber.

It took only 4 minutes for me to get over four years of compadreship (I always thought it was a stupid make-believe word) - I have been always melodramatic so I had timed the 4 minutes of my rant, after which I left, swearing never to return.

I lost two precious things at once.

And now here I was, sitting with the same man with whom I still brooked resentment, which this damn hot day had fanned into flames of hatred of yore.

It was always easier to imagine them being unhappy or even if they were happy then not knowing or hearing about them (I had strictly kept off those stupid social networking sites for the same reason). The dusts of time had settled this episode of my life. But now, in one stroke of a brush, I could once again see the twin graves of love and friendship.

I did not know what to do. The carefully constructed edifice of iciness had melted away in the heat of Delhi. And I was once again exposed to the elements.

"Sir, your hotel is here."

I was woken up from my time traveling, but unfortunately a little bit late.

I got out and walked into the hotel with a heavy heart. One more time carrying the baggage of my past with me.

........

"Bhaiyya, switch on the A/C now," Rakim said to the driver while handing him a Rs. 500 note.

Rakim had a quiet smile on his face. He had noticed his old friend's first reaction when he had seen him at the taxi stand and not a single subsequent one had escaped his meticulous mind during their long and (purposefully made) hot journey.

The idea came to Rakim when he saw him taking his luggage from the Hong Kong flight's conveyor belt. It would be an interesting sociological experiment, he mused. He promptly left to slip a note into the hands of the booking clerk, asking him to make a cock and bull story and get the man in the Italian suit to share a cab with him.

The rest was easy. His old friend always had an over active mind and a vivid imagination. All he needed to do was take him to the KoolAid and he would gladly oblige.

Rakim took out his cellphone again.

"Honey! Do you want to go to that new Italian joint?," he said.

"Yeah sure, I will be ready when you reach home. By the way, why did you call me 'cutie'? No one has ever addressed me like that," the voice on the other line said.

A smiling Rakim replied, "Well I said it for the benefit of an old friend - he never got the truth before and therefore I did not want to disappoint him by shattering his long-held illusions."

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5 Comments:

Blogger Chaos said...

Poignant and beautifully written. Especially liked the way the thoughts and feelings are described as also the ending.
Kudos. :)

6:41 AM  
Blogger Chaos said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Aks said...

Proud of you! :-)
- Rana

8:43 AM  
Blogger nitin said...

Man that was good.
Keep writing such stuff. Its quite gripping

7:04 AM  
Blogger virgo musings said...

Hey man..that was good..

12:12 AM  

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