“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
- Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
In the horizon of my consciousness a freshly printed colossal billboard featuring, on one side, a smiling young couple with a beaming kid in her father’s arm peering, on the other side, at a glimmering high-rise building on a green hilltop. The tagline reads: All of life will be a dream. At the bottom: No pollution. No traffic. Only the best of Bangalore.
All of life is a dream, I think. At least, it seems to pass like one. I look back at the last few weeks and I find not a litany of occurrences, not a neat record of remarkable moments, but a series of snapshots that are too short, arbitrary, and nebulous (no, I am not hungover). And the meaning in all those experiences, I find only in how they contribute to the making of the now; otherwise, they might as well have never occurred.
And if that is so, the lure of a life that will be more dreamlike, more ethereal - is that a promise worth purchasing? I don’t know. I don’t have a disposable income.
The rain changes direction and interrupts my musings. I jump to slide the balcony window shut. The bed sheet hung for drying on the railing is wet but not enough to warrant me a scolding. In this house, the rules are strict and clear – do not open anything: the apartment door, the kitchen door, any of the windows, almirahs, the washing machine, nothing. If you must, and only if you must, you forgetful beast, then first lock Ringo in the bedroom.
My friends – my best friend Horse and his wife pH who is also a close friend – are parents of a wild and jumpy kitten who finds new ways to lock himself up. In my three weeks of stay at their place, he hasn’t lent me his trust. He pooped on the guestroom bed on the day of my arrival. The next day, he peed on my rucksack while staring right into my eyes. When I dozed off in the couple’s room, where the feline too sleeps, he slid his paws under my blanket and scratched my arms and nape. I have extended the hand of friendship several times, including by dutifully filling his bowl with ocean fishes and buying for him a sponge ball, but he has responded by hiding in the farthest nooks and ignoring the food. He is stressed by my presence, pH tells me. I am dreaded by his, I argue.
Nevertheless, in the couple’s absence, Ringo and I have found a way to get along: we respect each other’s spaces. I take the balcony and the couch; he takes the rest of the house. Presently, I finish sending my comments on the manuscript of a young poet I met here in Bengaluru, glimpse one more time at the congested Kormangala roads, the perpetually grey skyline, the attention-seeking billboard that obstructs most of my view, and decide to check up on the cat.
There he is: on a half-empty bookshelf, coiled, heavy-eyed. I throw him some air kisses and switch on my phone.
A flurry of text messages from my friends. pH is thanking the gods for Friday and listing out things she wants to do in the next two and a half days. She is using so many emojis and of such varied kinds, I find it impossible to match her excitement. Horse, afraid to miss out on the fun, especially because it is my last weekend with them, cribs about the plethora of festivals in India that result in extended discount seasons that result in excess workload for him. He will join us but we shouldn’t mind him working on the phone.
We debate over the locations of tonight’s shenanigans: ‘Tippler on the Roof’, known for its terrace view, home-brewed beers and wood-fired pizzas (too formal) or ‘G77’, hosting live bands from Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad (dangers of disappointment) or ‘Lokal Bar’, a nondescript place in the neighborhood made famous by a Kannada blockbuster shot in its basement (cramped spaces, poor service, long queues for the loo). Since my hosts will be traveling from their far-off offices located on the opposite sides of the city and since they are more excited about the evening anyway, I let them pick the place and interject only to help arrive at a decision.
I am not a part of this; I am only participating.
I am in Bengaluru for a long vacation, sort of. I recently won a creative writing contest for writers under the age of thirty and the award ceremony, a small affair, was to be held in this city. When pH and Horse learned of my possible arrival, they insisted that I spend some time with them; pH, in fact, emailed me flight tickets before I could commit. Since I freelance for a web-based robotics portal that doesn’t care where I am stationed as long as I show up online with a stable connection, I thought I might as well acquiesce. It had been over two years, since their wedding in Jaipur, that I had last seen my friends. And I had always wanted to spend some time in India’s most modern and happening city. Having seen all my friends rave about Bengaluru – weather, bars, foods, chicks – I thought I might as well gauge the pulse of the city myself. Who knows, a good story might come out of it? (Well, that’s how pH pitched it to me and I bought into it.)
Scooby Dooby Meow
Where art thou?
Uber waiting down
Run Now Now Now!
In a minute, sis!
These folks, they are so good to me. I feel ashamed. Seeing as pH has that I am working part-time and that I earn next to nothing from writing, the couple doesn’t let me spend a single paisa. Which would have been fine if I were using my time well. Alas, after they leave for work, I spread-eagle on the drawing-room couch, waiting for ideas and inspiration. For triggers, I resort to books but don’t read much. When I open the laptop to write, the Internet overpowers me, distracts me with news pieces and social media updates. And if I somehow march past these barriers, soldier on for a few hours and gain momentum, the session ends abruptly with me a) too pleased with myself and concluding that working more would be detrimental to the quality of the piece, or b) getting up for a quick bowl of Maggi and taking forever to return, or c) reading amateur erotica (I tell myself it is for research) and masturbating to it.
Evenings I go for obligatory strolls to Atta Galatta where I order a filter coffee and leaf through literary magazines or the newest arrivals in Indian fiction - often grudging them, mocking their poor standards, feeling restless, but also, in a twisted way, deriving motivation from them. Then, I take a long detour, opting for narrow lanes that open to hidden establishments… and while it pleases me how I spend my evenings they are not productive in any measurable terms. By the time I am home it is morning in California. I join my company’s marketing and engineering teams to work on making technical documents more readable, reachable and sellable. When the couple arrives in the night, exhausted or worked up, I reheat the food that the maid prepares in the noon and we eat together in the sheen of the TV screen, watching stand-up comedy or episodes of Suits or Mad Men. The two of them then go to bed or labor on their laptops to prepare for the next day, and I once again lie down on the couch, staring at the ceiling with my journal on my chest, castigating myself for writing too slowly, for wasting yet another day doing nothing.
It doesn’t take much to psych us up at G77. We compete to finish a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea (Horse wins), wobble our heads to the tune of popular songs, go out to smoke weed, try new dishes, dance to I love Cheap Thrills, point out the irony to complete strangers, do Kamikaze shots, puke, sneak backstage to meet a band, share a cigarette and score the phone number of their attractive female vocalist. In the cab, we doze off, and on our way up to the apartment, we trip several times on the stairs, laughing as we do so.
Upon changing into nightclothes, pH discovers that a toe is bleeding - the nail has come off - and she is thankful that Horse is already asleep (why I wonder). I clean and dress the wound, prepare two cups of masala chai, and we sit on the balcony of the guest room. It’s past midnight, it’s raining, it’s a weekend: still, there is congestion on the road below. I bring to pH’s attention the traffic, the overflowing sewers, the slogans on the in-your-face billboard now bathing in a downpour of neon light, but she seems pensive and lost. In her hand is a fidget picked up from the ground – perhaps Ringo was playing with it earlier – and she is holding it horizontally between her index finger and thumb.
-You know, she says, if you intend really strongly, like really intend, it will start rotating by itself.
- Will it?
- And again, through sheer intention, you can stop it. I heard Deepak Chopra say it.
- What if I don’t intend anything?
- If you don’t intend anything, she shrugs, it’s inertia. Objects in motion will remain in motion in the direction they were heading.
She hands me the fidget to let me test my powers and, placing a hand on my shoulder and thrusting all her weight on it, gets up and limps her way to the guestroom almirah. I can tell she has gone looking for Gudang Garam, I can bet she has hidden some there, away from Horse’s knowledge, and I know she will bring at least two and make me her partner-in-crime. In anticipation, I open the balcony window. A waft of wet, cold air hits my face and supersedes the stale pee smell that my nose has grown accustomed to. The perpetrator of that act is shut in the bedroom with Horse, so we can afford the luxury of breaking some house rules. We light our cigarettes and stand at the window, exhaling into the rain that has petered into a hint of a drizzle.
- Every time it rains in this city you know what I think, Mo? I think: acid rain. She leans out, her abdomen on the parapet, her neck craned towards the ground and her hands feeling for the water. She adds: I think, the rain will dissolve me.
- Are you going to jump off, pH? Because if you are, you should think of the poor animal at least.
- The poor animal will move on.
- I mean Horse, not the cat.
- So do I of course.
- But don’t leave us already, sis. If you die who is going to graduate me? From The Beatles to Beethoven? From Tinto Brass to - what sophisticated erotica are you guys watching these days?
She raises her eyebrows to say: lame, even by your standards. But she knows I mean it. pH has had a huge influence on the development of my artistic sensibilities. During college, when I was still a boy from a small town, grown up on the steady diet of Doordarshan cinema and the 90s Bollywood movies, she - a guitarist herself - introduced me to psychedelic rock and country music; handed me Vikram Seth and VS Naipaul when I thought John Grisham and Dan Brown were classics; shared articles with me of socio-political women thinkers when I expressed my reservations about feminism. More than my friend’s girlfriend or my friend, she took on the role of being my mentor during that time, six-seven years ago, stimulated by my willingness to learn and by my admiration of her wealth of knowledge.
- I am not going to jump off, she says. I am going to leap. I have plans.
- Explain, please?
- Woe is me, Writerji. But you don’t see.
For a while more, we stand in silence, smoking, looking, sipping on our chai. I try to probe pH about the woes she mentioned but she evades expertly. Soon, sleep beckons us and we call it a night. My friend hugs me and says: Thank you for coming, Mo. You don’t know how much it means to me.
I wake up to the sounds of the couple fighting. My presence would cut short their altercation, I reckon, leaving things unresolved, so I cover my eyes with my arm and listen in on their riff-raff. That they are fighting is not news to me, what puzzles me is that I have got a little inkling of their points of contentions.
Whenever I have broached the subject of their marriage, they have replied with platitudes. Their one-on-one conversations around me also either center on me or on exchanging information: the Netflix bill is due please link it to the new account; you have to meet the landlord for that elevator maintenance thing; is my suit with the drycleaners – are both my suits with the drycleaners?
What’s striking is that their exchanges are often like announcements, flat, without eye contacts, broadcasted to anyone who can hear.
I have dismissed my lack of insights into their matrimonial affairs to my self-absorption and to their lifestyles: they are a nuclear family of two overworked adults without any active social life; they have known each other for over seven years now and all the interesting topics of conversations must have been exhausted? Isn’t this how marriage is supposed to be: boring?
Horse’s voice rises. I don’t understand you. You are so… out of hands. pH responds in an even-tempered voice… you are out of hands. You have become a horse on a racetrack, a horse running with blinders on, going all out. Horse shouts: fuck you. If you can’t see how I am doing all this for you, there is no point. A thud of a door slammed shut and I see Horse storming past my room. There is a lull and before I know it, my pretense has resulted in real sleep.
- Time to repent for the sins of last night, pH says, as she wakes me up. She is eating veggies from a transparent plastic container labeled Pure & Wholesome.
- Oh, I’d rather starve, sis, I whine.
- Oh, I’d rather kick your ass, Mo.
We join Horse sitting already at the dining table, with his laptop on. His face is expressionless as ever and I can’t tell if he is still angry with pH.
- Man, I had such an inferiority complex yesterday. All those girls, they had such cute ass.
- I don’t know, I say. I was concentrating on the chords, the beats…
- By chords and beats you mean boobs and boobs.
- There were…so many of them.
- Hey, aren’t you going to call her? The singer, what was her name…
- I am leaving tomorrow.
- Wuss. She adjusts her bra now and brings a faux-sulkiness on her face. Well, she had boobs much bigger than mine. All of them had boobs bigger than mine.
- Husband, care to comment?
- None of them had a brain as sharp as yours.
- He doesn’t mean it. He is just making me happy.
- Isn’t that part of his job?
- Part of his job is to forgive me as well.
The wife glances at the husband. He squints his eyes and increases his typing speed.
- Basic, right? I ask Horse. Because I can't tell
- Go to hell, Mo.
Basic or acidic is another way of asking what kind of mood pH is in. pH resonates between bad tempers and good ones so frequently, switching from one end of the spectrum to another within just moments, that for the longest time we believed she was suffering from the bipolar disorder. However, this was at a time when we would google our peculiarities and ascribe to them psychological illnesses to feel good about ourselves.
pH did consult a clinical psychologist once, I think, just before her marriage, and was pronounced all right. Horse jokes that either that the psychologist doesn’t know her job or pH sent someone else instead.
I open the food packets and divide the contents into three plates.
- 350 bucks for Salaka Z – a fancy name for a pumpkin salad, I say, flashing the bill. 205 for organic fruit mix.
- Organic my ass, Horse says. It’s branding.
- 120 each for - what’s Quintana Roo?
- Smoothies. I don’t think poor people like me deserve this food.
- There is coke in the fridge if you want.
- No, no coke for you, Mo.
- Come on, sis. I am so hungover, I just want to drink coke and sleep all day.
- Why don’t you try something new for a change? Weekends are for breaking routines you know.
- You guys have routines. Look at your husband right at this moment. Analyzing sales report. Then he is going to the office to spoil weekends of his juniors. Isn’t this illegal or something – eighty-hour workweek, office on Saturdays? I should complain to the Labor Commission.
I say that but I know perfectly well that working over weekends is a norm in this house. The husband, an MBA from one of India’s premier B-schools, is Category Manager at an online shopping portal that is famous for lucrative pays and burnout culture. And my friend is happy to give his all. Back in the day, when we were roomies in the engineering college, we harbored the same dream: buying a quiet house in the Himalayas or in one of those cold Scandinavian countries, and finding a job that would pay us for reading books and watching movies. After my friend decided to do an MBA, things changed as they were bound to. Now when I ask him about his dreams, he says, a lot of money so that I can retire by forty, or, simply, a good life.
pH criticizes him but she isn’t holier than thou either. She is an IT consultant who has switched two jobs in as many years to unsuccessfully find a work culture that suits her. You have to be available to your clients round the clock, she reasons; you bill them by the hour. As a result, pH sleeps less than five hours on most days. I figure this is the reason for her over-enthusiasm for free weekends, for her compensating for interruptions from work with other distractions. Last weekend she took LSD. The Sunday before that, at ten in the morning, she and I finished a full bottle of wine and followed up with another during lunch.
- Three things, dude. First, I close deals on Saturdays, Horse retorts. If I don’t negotiate with the iphone retailers for the biggest Diwali and New Year discounts, the competitors will, and the competitors suck. So what I am doing is ultimately good for the market, good for the economy and good for you the consumer. You’re welcome. Second, you are jealous of me working because you don’t have a real job. Get a job! And third, this is the last Saturday of the month. And the last Saturday is No Limits Poker Saturday. So get this - I have a life.
- Poker is a sport invented for MBAs, Horse says as the two of us pour pretty-looking rum punch into our plastic cups. This is the first time I am having punch and am conscious of spilling it over or pouring it wrong, if you can pour it wrong. In his college friend’s apartment, where the party is, I am the only outsider; everybody knows everyone else. And they are dressed two nicely for my comfort.
- Poker teaches you to read others, he continues. It teaches you to find patterns, to guise your own emotions … you strategize, bluff, take risks… and you make money. You have to want money, you have to love money, and you have to not give a shit about it. Get it? Because it isn’t about money. It’s about winning. It’s about the smarts. There is luck, yes, like in all sports, but it’s also game theory and artistry and temperament… what a sport. What a sport.
- For the nth time, it’s just a card game, dude.
- Hah! Just a card game, just gambling. When are you getting your education? When are you watching Rounders?
I know how to make my friend talk. We have hardly talked during my entire stay - with the e-commerce rivalry on its prime, he has found himself hard-pressed for time - yet there is a small trick that always works on him. Mock his position on sports. Declare that Chelsea will beat the shit out of ManU, or cricket is superior to football because it is just and fair, or Remember the Titans isn’t half as good as Miracle; and his eyes will animate, his brain will recall all sorts of ridiculous facts, and he will invest himself in convincing you of the otherwise. At the end of it, you will have an engrossing conversation about his theories on sports and businesses.
Tonight, I plan to make him talk. It is on my agenda to bond with him once again, like the old times.
Two tables are set for six players each and Horse is called to be on one of them. Others like me watch or help themselves to food in the hall. Now that I feel more settled, I notice that there are pizzas and punch and whiskeys and weed, EPL on the TV, artworks on the walls – enough stuff to rescue me from awkward conversations.
The first few rounds are played in silence. There are no banters, no comments even from the audience. The scores are displayed and added to the carry-forwards from their last meets. And you sense that on display is fine gamesmanship. Like in the World Poker Tour videos Horse forced me to watch on the way, these players are calculative, unhurried, focused, playing to win irrespective of the cards they are dealt with and willing to risk large sums of money (almost as much in a bet as I make in a month). As Horse says, this is a game for alpha humans, for the likes of Harvey Specter, and my friend seems to fit well in his kind.
The tournament ends sooner than I expect and we drink and smoke up in the backdrop of bizarre EDM music and dimmed lights. Most of the people leave soon, but Horse and four couples stay for an all-nighter.
Even as they talk about the latest mergers and acquisitions, dismiss with a certain offhandedness overvalued Indian startups and debt-ridden conglomerates, I realize that these folks - substance abusing, foul mouthing, elite looking, jargon talking MBAs, who most in my literary circle love to hate – they are the same people I was friends with in school, who I grew up playing cards or gully cricket with.
Horse’s friends flatter me; say they envy my courage to follow my passion. They rue their own unrealized dreams – of becoming astrophysicists or IAS officers, of acting and directing in Bollywood, of starting their own businesses. It’s fine, I say. In my experience chasing a dream is the same as not chasing a dream, because when you chase something, you wish to reach somewhere, a milestone, and that severs you from the present moment, makes you restive, just like when you are not chasing your dream. I envy them, in fact, I add, for having a stable career so early in life, for being so adult-like already.
Bullshit, they call and laugh at me benignly.
High as we are, we easily agree that everything is a farce: chasing dreams, MBA education, corporate career, the “settled” life our parents want us to have - and the only thing that has ever really made sense to us is the uncomplicated childhood of the pre-internet era, alive now only in our memories. The best in our lives is behind us. We gulp down the last of bourbons evoking the 90s and feeling nostalgic.
One by one the gathering thins. The sun is already up when we leave for home. The sky is clear and cloud-free after two days of unremitting rain. The narrow streets of Bengaluru look quaint and fresh. I notice rows of archaic lampposts on the side of a road, the churches, the temples, and it strikes me that this crystal city has its history – the Cholas, the Gowdas and the Mughals –, that there are royal, palatial buildings here just like in the sister city of Mysore, and that the history stands shadowed but it does stand its ground as steel structures with glass walls rise here evermore.
We spot an Udupi restaurant opening its shop and, on my request, decide to stop by. There, I quiz Horse about his work life. Besides the few bland facts about his role and challenges, what interests him (negotiations with brands) and what doesn’t interest him (managing a team), he doesn’t disclose much. Upon asking about pH and my commenting that she is quirkier than ever, he merely nods. I ask about their frequent fights, and he says, with a hint of smirk, fights keep marriages spicy. They have become less and less handsy, I say, no ass-grabbing, no manhandling, they even haven’t kissed in front of me, and Horse reveals, in his monkish equanimity, that they are taking a break from sex and all that jazz.
Did I hear that right? With a wave of his hand he brushes off the subject: it’s another of pH’s crazy phases, but everything is great. There is such finality in his gesture that I just end up complying.
He asks me about my first novel: my target audience, expected sales, pricing strategy. I stammer like a fool and utter something incoherent. Horse laughs his famous neighing laugh that earned him the moniker and gives me tips and ideas on marketing myself. They make a lot of sense but I know I won’t be able to execute them.
Steaming idlis arrive… and that’s that. We get lost in our inner worlds and our phones until we reach home.
The rest of the day is spent in attending to chores and in grooming myself to look presentable for home. pH, who is low with severe menstrual cramps (which is why she says she didn’t join us yesterday), cooks and packs paranthas for the journey. She is a terrible cook and the flight ticket includes a meal, but I let her. Horse and I give Ringo a shower. The feline, insubordinate, keeps slipping out of my hands and makes nastiest faces to state clear his aversion to bathing but, in the end, what can he do except increasing his animosity for me? I feel sorry that we are departing on a bad note.
Just as my cab arrives, pH gets the idea of clicking selfies. We make strange faces and even Horse smiles in front of the camera.
At the airport, a strong feeling of loss overwhelms me. I reflect on my stay and find that I missed the chance of rediscovering my friends, that I was too obsessed with my own failures in writing I failed to properly connect with them. My shame increases when, while rummaging for electronics in my rucksack at the security check, I discover a present wrapped neatly in a glimmer paper. It is a hardbound edition of Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention and has a small handwritten note on .the first page:
Remember, the world is at your command.
La la la la! :)
P.S. Miss me not
In the aircraft, I read the book and chew over its ideas while gazing out of the window at the flimsy sky. A white sun is shining sharply on the horizon, making passengers on my side pull down the shades. The air inside is cold. In a hoarse voice, a pilot announces our altitude, our location, and warns us of possible turbulence near the destination. A woman shrieks because the present occupant of the toilet didn’t lock the door. On the seat behind me, I realize, a boy is humming a song playing on his earphones. His voice is sweet. And I start to think about the author’s premise of intent as a force in the universe, about purpose in life, my purpose, my life choices, my frequent dislocations, the stark absence of love and money in my life, when, if ever, I will get my act together, and at some point, we get swallowed by a dense colony of clouds and the aircraft starts to shake and everything grows dark.