‘You introduced that stupid super-soft mattress into the story on purpose. Didn’t you?’ Priya reached out for another hot poori on the dinner tray set out in the garden of the hotel.
I grinned. The place served an excellent piping hot dinner even though they had ghastly rooms. The smell of pooris and spicy potatoes rose into the night sky. There were very few people staying there at this time of the year and hardly anyone else in the dining area.
A little mouse came exploring and was rewarded with a bit of potato from Priya. Bats flew in once in a while and changed direction at the very last minute soaring back towards the open sky. The grotesque figurines continued to hold up the ghostly orbs. Other than the clanging of utensils in a wash area around the other end of the hotel there was hardly any noise.
This would typically have been rush hour back in Mumbai and we would have been sitting down for dinner with cotton stuffed in our ears or snapping at each other because of a headache at least one of us would be having. I stretched back and looked at the sky. In between the branches of the trees, swaying in the gentle breeze, I could see stars carpeted the night sky. It was practically impossible to see stars from anywhere in the city even if one remembered to look up.
‘So what happens next? Who is the bad guy in the story?’ Priya wasn’t going to give up easily!
The single malt was excellent. I took another sip and it went down smoothly, warming my insides. ‘An unlikely one – A Malayalee actually, can’t hold his whiskey and not very smart.’
‘Oh! You mean he is exactly like you?’ laughed Priya.
A chawl somewhere in Mulund, Mumbai
‘What da, get some beef fry. What is the use of all this good whiskey I got from the Gulf if there is no beef to go with it.’ Sabu moped.
Curtains made of shocking pink cloth were drawn across the tiny gap in the wall. A lone red bulb hanging off a long wire bathed the room in a sinister light. Two lungi clad moustachioed men lay sprawled on thin dirty mattresses, drinking whiskey. The pungent smell of fried fish mingled with copious amounts of cigarette smoke lay heavy in the room. A tiny television sat on a wooden platform in the corner of the room. A movie was playing where one of the ever-green-good-guy hero was romancing a starlet half his age.
‘You want beef, bladdy, go to Trivandrum, bladdy and get it yourself bladdy. I don’t know where to go and get it in this bladdy city. I asked the ration shop where I buy rice, about the place to get beef and he shouted at me in front of everybody. Bladdy thief. Steals from his customers and acts all holy,’ Pattikuttan took a big gulp from his glass. The golden liquid seared his insides bringing a tear to his bloodshot eyes. His system wasn’t used to smooth whiskey. Old Monk was his brand.
‘This whole country is like that I tell you.’ Sabu peered through the smoke at Pattikuttan’s silhouette. ‘If you are dark skinned, have curly hair and a mustache you are classified as a Madrasi and they think they can shout at you as and when they please. Stupid people here don’t even know the difference between Tamil and Malayalam. All they know is Madrasi. And that city is not even called Madras any more.’
Sabu took a long draw at his cigarette with disgust. His anger manifesting as furious draws on the cigarette. The end glowered a hot red, the simmering flame reflecting his eyes. Pattikuttan knew his friend had a red hot temper, and had learnt over the years to ignore his mindless rants. He reached out to shove another piece of fish into his mouth.
‘These people from the North are so aggressive,’ continued Sabu ‘they don’t let us get anywhere in this country. Always they get promotions and raises da. They will always woo the boss with their butter-chicken and their wives will flirt with him. Anytime donkeywork is required, we are always present. Yes Saar, No Problem Saar, I will do Saar. Finally I got fed up and quit my job and ran away to the Gulf.’
Pattikuttan nodded his head. The whiskey was spreading wonderful golden warmth inside him and suddenly he found that he couldn’t stop nodding. ‘..and How do they treat you in the Gulf?’
‘Like a dog!’ Sabu roared and both men slipped into bouts of uncontrolled laughter, fueled by whiskey, fried fish and the heavy smoke from several packs of top-class 555-brand cigarette.
An hour later, both men lay perfectly still. Heavy snoring filled the room. The hero in the movie was done bashing up the bootlegging villains in the movie and had finished giving his speech against alcoholism to the whole village – all of whom then went and celebrated at the local toddy shop. The newsreader had announced the latest scams in the state and channel logo was left flashing on the screen filling the room in an eerie combination of blue flicker and dull red light. Only the occasional barking of a stray dog filtered through the closed window.
The shrill ring of a mobile phone broke the stillness the ring tone set to Sabu’s favourite Jackson hit – “Beat It!” He had tried Pavarotti once, but he didn’t quite connect with all the screaming.
Sabu reached out for the phone in his sleep and pressed the bright red call reject button.
“They told him don’t you ever come around here…” the phone started its buzzing again.
Sabu grunted and hit the reject button again.
“They told him don’t you ever come around here – Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear”
Sabu snorted in addition to his grunting. He pushed the phone under a pillow and went back to hugging the empty soda bottle.
“They told him don’t you ever come around here – Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear – The fires in their eyes and their words are really clear – So beat it, just beat it” A muffled Jackson screamed from beneath the pillow.
The caller was persistent.
This time Sabu grabbed the phone and answered the call “Who the blaady hell is this?” he yelled, the alcohol still slurring his speech.
Seconds later, Sabu was wide-awake. Mumbling ‘Yes Saar. Yes Saar. No Saar. Sorry Saar,’ into the phone he grabbed his lungi that had come undone and stepped out into the lane outside his friends’ kholi. The stench from the nallah flowing past filled the humid night air. Mosquitoes attacked him from all sides and his bare upper torso had little protection. Swatting mosquitoes with one hand and holding his breath for as long as he could, Sabu kept mumbling ‘Yes Saar’ at regular intervals into the phone.
When the call was done, Sabu was sweating. He glanced at the sliver of sky visible from between the asbestos sheet roofs of tightly packed illegal tenements. There were no stars or moon visible. A gentle hue of blood red in the distant horizon told him that it was almost dawn. Tucking his lungi in near his knees he went back into the dilapidated room and stared at his friend snoring away on the floor. In the next few minutes he made up his mind. Sabu didn’t really want to put his friend in any danger, but there was no choice – he himself was a marked man, and the packet had somehow to be delivered to the unpleasant man with the gruff voice. He had threatened to chop off certain vital parts of Sabu’s anatomy if the packets from Dubai didn’t reach him on time.
Sabu made some coffee on the kerosene stove kept in one corner of the room. He then woke up his host and thrust a cup of the sickly sweet coffee under his nose. ‘It will help you get rid of the hangover quickly,’ he cajoled. Pattikuttan accepted the cup full of muddy brown liquid stinking of kerosene without any protests. His head was exploding with a shooting pain and he still couldn’t see very clearly. His Seth, the cab owner, would be furious if he was late again. As it is, he was behind on payments this month.’
‘What’s the date today?’ Pattikuttan asked in between sips of the insipid coffee. He had enjoyed his friends stay so much that he had lost track of the days.
’10th’ mumbled Sabu from a corner in the room where he was rummaging through two giant suitcases he had brought with him. They occupied almost a quarter of the tiny room.
‘What?’ yelled Pattikuttan. ‘I have to run. Tomorrow is the day I have to make payments to the Seth and I blew it all on the fish yesterday. I will have to make at least 5 trips today or he will kill me.’
Sabu listened patiently and then approached his friend hesitantly. ‘Edo, I have a favour to ask of you. I need your help in delivering a packet to an address in Borivali today evening. And it will be worth your while. They will pay you 5000 when you deliver the packet”
Pattikuttan couldn’t believe his ears. Five thousand would go a long way in keeping the fat loud mouthed Seth off his back but usually when there was so much money associated with packets, things would go very wrong. ‘What’s wrong with the packet? Why aren’t you delivering it yourself?’ he had been raised to question any windfalls. The hard knocks of village life that taught his family that eternal truth a long time ago.
‘No da, there is nothing wrong. Trust me. It’s just that you have a taxi and it will be convenient for you. I will have to search for the address and then I also have to catch a flight to Kerala today. So will you do it?’
Pattikuttan pretended to think about the proposal for a minute. But his mind was already made up – The five thousand had already made the decision for him.
‘Excellent, remember to use only this phone to call the number if you need to contact the person.’ Sabu said, handing over a brand new Blackberry device. Pattikuttan had only seen these sleek phones with some of the executives he picked up at the airport. He himself had a plastic phone he got cheap with a prepaid connection and the damn thing didn’t work half the time.
Sabu taught Pattikuttan how to use the Blackberry and before his friend could change his mind, he picked up a bundle of packets from under the lining of his suitcase and packed them all in a bright yellow plastic bag emblazoned with “FLY! BUY! DUBAI!” and handed it over.
[This post is the second 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]