On a really hot day…
It was another brutually hot summer in Mumbai. It always had been these past few years – each year warmer than the one before. Newspapers dutifully made note of the record for the highest temperature being broken each passing year. “Global Warming” they said. “Nothing you can do about it, so live with it” was the not so subtle message behind all the elaborate articles about sunspots and emissions inconsiderate developed nations spewed out. Heat seemed to radiate out of the concrete and the tar, the only two surfaces left in the unbelievable congested metropolis.
The tiny apartment in the suburb of Andheri seemed even hotter than the roads outside. Apartment number 8 on the second floor of HillShade Co-operative Housing Society was miles away from the nearest hill and there was no shade to be seen either. All those concerns where pooh-poohed because it faced east, in line with vaastu requirements, onto the main road winding through the industrial hub, which was not quite a vaastu requirement but was the case anyway. The builder’s knowledge of vaastu ended with apartments facing east. He didn’t have much to say about living inches away from a major arterial road.
‘Arre Sir, Best Location! No obstruction in front possible. See all window in the direction of wind. What more you want? All day mast mast breeze in Mumbai city. You are the luckiest people in this entire road,’ he told us opening a tiny window with layers of thick bars. The wind in question now whipped up clouds of dust from the road and deposited a thick layer of it on everything in the house. By the time rush hour was done in the morning, and it was never quite done, it would seem that a dust storm had just passed through the place. At the time we were desperate, the loan we took out would require only 20 years of paying half my income as EMI’s – it was a perfect match of requirements.
It wasn’t even 10 in the morning. The incessant honking of cars and bikes from the road passing near the building had reached a crescendo. Someone in the apartment block had turned their radio on at an ear splitting volume adding to the cacophony.
An old ceiling fan in the room creaked and groaned as it struggled to keep a listless breeze blowing.
I had been dozing in the armchair after finishing the morning papers. Ever since the recession hit there was nothing else to do anyway. Some geniuses at banks in the US had created a housing bubble and I was paying the price for it. Days after the news of collapse of Lehman Brothers, my boss called me into his cabin. ‘It’s bad, real bad. We have no choice but to let you go.’ Honestly, I couldn’t blame them. It was as good as an opportunity they would get to weed out unwanted staff like me. All I had done in the three years was to figure out 30 different ways of writing “Today’s Deal” using different fonts on a pirated version of CorelDraw software that they had installed on an old computer. It would have been nicer though, if they hadn’t made me attend the induction party for the new trainee journalists they had hired the same morning.
‘It’s gone again’ screamed Priya from the kitchen. In the one room with an attached kitchen that we called home, even an exasperated exclamation seemed like ranting.
‘No more water!’ Priya stormed into the room. ‘I am fed up with this place. Let’s go somewhere. Just get out of here.’
I looked at my wife. We had obviously seen too many movies and had high hopes for our life when we married. It was all very ‘filmi’. The world was investing in “India” and even though either of us hadn’t bothered getting much in way of education – we were young and in love – but we were sure we would find a way to make it work. Parents on both sides had opposed the marriage. Mine, because they were sure I would ruin her life. Hers, because they too were sure I would ruin her life. Turns out both weren’t too far off the mark. But the lady still had the stubborn streak which caused her to rebel at home in the first place. She insisted on going down the gutter of life with me, kicking and screaming all the way.
‘Tell you what – Let’s go to Matheran for a few days.’ she said, staring at me from the doorway. She now had an imploring look in her eyes – the look of a person beaten by the city. It was clearly taking her all her will power not to break down. ‘I want to walk around in the quiet of the hills. I don’t want to see this dry tap, this dust, hear the honking of cars. I don’t want to be covered in sweat. I don’t want to see furniture coated with dust. I don’t want to hear the stupid songs on the radio or hear 10 different news channels blaring from TV’s in every apartment. I just want to sit quietly for a few hours. Please!’
I folded my newspaper and patiently explained to her why we couldn’t afford a trip right now.
It was late evening by the time we reached Matheran.
The toy train that was so popular with the tourists had already finished its last run for the day. Priya yanked my arm and pulled me onto the empty rail tracks. Even after the exhausting journey in the suburban train till here and being packed into a taxi with a dozen others she still had the energy to walk the five kilometres of the tiny toy-rail track to our destination.
The track wove gently through the hill side. The trees were filled with the sounds of birds returning home for the night. Monkeys swung across the road in search of anything they could steal from the visitors. A couple of horses clopped by, returning home after lifting heavy, out of shape people all day. The Sun was setting and a soft glow descended on the landscape.
The track swerved into a dark corner, passing in between a narrow opening cut into the forest. Priya stopped and turned back. She waited till I caught up and grabbed my arm. As we walked into the darkness, following the rails, she tugged at my sleeve. ‘Tell me a ridiculous story’
‘A ridiculous story? I don’t know any stories, and definitely not any ridiculous ones.’ I said. I really was no good at telling stories and had hardly read any books. All I read was the latest scams by politicians or match fixing by cricketers. Neither of which made for good story telling.
‘All those years working with a newspaper and you don’t know a single tall tale? Come on. Tell me one. Tell me a ridiculous bedtime story.’
‘Look all those reporters at my paper just kept creating sensations out of mundane stories. Besides all I did was make ad-banners on the sister website screaming “Today’s Deal. Limited Offer.”’
‘Yes those limited offers that were always unlimited. I am sure nobody even paid any attention to those.’ she giggled ‘Come on- surely there is at least one story you know.’
We had now come out of the dark corner and passed by some shanties near the heart of the small hill town. Smoke rose through the tin chimneys. Dinner was being cooked. Little children were playing games in the courtyards and in the clearing by the tracks. Bats headed straight for us and veered away at the last minute. I could see our hotel just around the next turn.
I glanced at my watch. ‘It’s almost 9’ I said.
‘So?’ she asked.
‘So, it’s almost time for Trial by Fire to start on the CBN channel. And that’s where my story ends.’
‘Ends? But you haven’t even started!’
‘Patience, Mon Cherie. Now do you remember that episode a couple of years back where Pardesi announced he had a scoop, interviewing some terror suspects?’
‘Oh yes. But nothing came out of that, did it?’
‘Well, this is the inside story of what happened. One of my friends in investigative journalism section showed me the file they had prepared. The story, not surprisingly, never saw light of the day.’
[This post is part of a longer work of fiction. All people and events described are figments of the authors imagination. Resemblance to anyone or anything is coincidental. In short Nothing is True. For more questions on what, why and copyright stuff refer this post which introduces the book]