Vijay did not show any interest in why Mohan and Bhaskar had vanished with the girls, or in what they might be doing was not only because of his basic lack of interest in such things, but also because he was leaving for his place that day, the day being Saturday. I remembered that he had packed early in the morning and had brought his airbag to the department. He had left it under the care of the peon of our department. He said he would return on Monday morning and climbed into the city bus. I stood in an unbearable feeling of solitude at the university bus stop, not knowing what to do. I cursed Mohan and Bhaskar under my breath as I scurried towards the hostel.
The rain that had stopped in the morning was making reappearance. The sky was gathering gray-black clouds in heaps. Passing through the turnstile to the botanical gardens, I was not sure I wanted to go the hostel using this shortcut. But even before I could decide, I was already walking under the shade of huge banyan trees. It suddenly started raining heavily and trees were not enough protection to me even though they had covered the sky over my head like an awning. I did not care to flick open my umbrella and the rainwater passing through the gaps in the branches of the trees fell on my head and shoulders. The first few drops of water trickling through my shirt startled me. The botanical gardens continued to attract me, yet it was mysterious and intriguing.
When I reached my room, I remembered that I had not gone to the mess to have my lunch. The mess in the hostel had closed down due to the losses the owner had incurred. I tried to forget that I was hungry and emptied half a jug of water down my throat. After changing, I lied on my bed, once again thinking of my solitude. Envy deep down in me, began to grow and I hated myself for being jealous of my own friends. Are they really my friends? Of course Bhaskar just followed Mohan wherever he went, whatever he did. He shared every moment with Mohan. But is Mohan really my friend? If he is, why doesn’t he behave like one? Why do girls choose him over me? I am fairer, more intelligent, more accomplished than him. Am I unapproachable? It can’t be that the girls approached him. He must have approached girls and must have charmed them. He is not even as funny as Bhaskar is in his conversation. Perhaps I cannot reach out to people. The train of thoughts just rushed through my head, till my heart began to ache. I wanted to change the line of my thoughts. But the same thoughts kept nagging me again and again, until I fell asleep.
I was still engaged in dissuading myself from self-disparagement, when I was again startled by the coldness of the water that I threw on my face later in the evening in the washroom. I cursed myself for not choosing hot water to wash my face. After deciding to go to the city even if alone, I got ready and came to the common TV hall to have a peek at the newspapers.
There was a guy reading the Deccan Herald at the wooden stand. A couple of guys were watching TV. I went to the newspaper stand and before I could find what I was looking for, the guy reading the newspaper asked in English, “Hello, You need this paper?”
He was a tall and lean guy of about twenty-three years, fair with sharp features. He had a pronounced nose, prominent chin and his accent was much different from the people of Karnataka. He was wearing blue jeans and a full sleeved beige but striped shirt. He was one of the guys you find on the campuses like that of an IIT or JNU. “No, thank you! The Kannada newspaper will do for me,” I replied.
“Looking to go to a movie?” he persisted.
“Not really, I am waiting for the bus. I got ready a bit early. There is a bus going to the city after 15 minutes.” I said without lifting my head from the newspaper.
“I am Sanjoy Bannerjee. I have come here to gather some information for my dissertation,” he said with aplomb, extending his hand. I had to shake hands with him and say, “ Harsha, studying for my master’s”. I was astonished at how some people strike conversation or make friends without any effort. He was one such guy, with a very friendly smile. He could easily put anyone at ease.
His name could have been Sanjay, but the Bengali people pronounced it as Sanjoy. I did not know whether they wrote too similarly.
“Which subject?” he enquired. “Political Science.” My reply was a monosyllable. I did not ask him his subject.
“You know, I have been staying in this hostel for the last fourteen days. Tomorrow I will be leaving for Calcutta. It seems the mess is closed down in the hostel. Perhaps, we can have dinner together in the city. I know of a very good hotel. Damn cheap compared to other hotels. Would you care to join me?”
After hardly a few minutes since introduction, the guy was already inviting me to have dinner with him! He was really wonderful, I thought. He abounded in what I lacked, social skills. He continued to amaze me. Without a second thought, he took it for granted that I could accompany him to a cheap hotel. He was confident that he could charm me to take to a cheap hotel even if I were the richest man in the town. After only a bit of hesitancy, I followed him to the bus stop just when the bus was taking a U turn before standing still.
“How did you like this city? And the university?” I asked him sitting at the aisle while he sat by the window.
“Umm I liked it very much. Such a calm and quiet town. The scenic beauty is marvelous. No hustle-bustle, no hurry. The pace of life is endearingly slow compared to my own place. It is called ‘a pensioners’ paradise’, isn’t it?”
“I have heard people call it so. But the pace is gradually picking up, because its twin city Hubli is expanding towards it.”
“Yeah that is happening with most of the towns these days. But the university campus is one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen. It was as if living with the nature for the last two weeks for me. Now that I have completed my work, I am feeling sad to leave it.”
“How come you are staying in the hostel? Why not at the university guest house?” I found myself asking.
“The guest house is not meant for research scholars. Only teachers and other guests stay there. It’s pretty costly too. I have been staying in the hostel as a guest.”
“Seen the places around here?”
“Ah, not much to see nearby. Last weekend I had been to Badami and Aihole”.
He chattered continuously till we reached the city. When we got down he asked, “Why don’t we have drinks before dinner? Liquors are strictly not allowed in the restaurant we are going”
I nodded in agreement. He took me to a two-storied building right behind the petty shops near the city bus station. The hoarding over the entrance read ‘wine shop’. “It is only a shop, not a bar,” I cried. But he said, “Just follow me. They serve here at the retail price. Moreover, you will get soda and snacks free of charge!”
I followed him on the stairs opposite the cash counter of the shop. The stairs led us to the first floor where I could see a hall of moderate proportions. There were folding tables with plastic chairs around them. We sat near the window under the ceiling fan. The air was slightly tinged with cigarette smoke. Some men sitting at the far end were getting raucous. On another table, a man was sitting alone in a melancholy mood, and suddenly he drank the whole glass of red liquid, gathered his bag and left.
Sanjoy ordered a whisky called ‘Royal Scot’. It could be easily mistaken for scotch but it was an ordinary, cheap whiskey. A boy of about fifteen brought the sealed bottle containing a quarter, which was 180 ml and two bottles of soda water. The green soda water bottle had a marble at stuck in its neck, pushed upwards by the pressure inside. When he pushed the marble inside with his forefinger, it released the pressure with a hissing sound. He opened both the bottles, placed them by the side of a small plate of salted chickpeas. As he left, Sanjoy said, “You see, you won’t have to pay for these items.”
The liquor was very strong, tasted bitter and soon left me groggy. I was already light headed due to skipping my lunch. I ate a lot of chickpeas to slow down the impact of the drink. “Only an hour ago, I did not know you. Now I am sitting with you having drinks. How can you make friends so quickly?” I asked Sanjoy.
“Honestly, I have never thought of that. May be I just smile and talk. May be I have an irrepressible urge to talk. I am indiscriminate as to whom I am talking to.”
“I think that’s great. It takes me hell lot of time just to say hello to people.”
“Even that can be very helpful, you know, in avoiding wrong people. Selecting the right ones to talk to.”
“True, but it leaves you with very few friends.”
For a while we talked about the politics of his state, West Bengal. He was very appreciative of the Leftist Party but at the same time critical of some of the issues of which I had no idea.
He gulped down three drinks in record time. I could manage only one and a half. When the bill came, he said he would pay and I would have to pay for the food. I felt guilty, for somewhere deep down, I had a feeling that he was conning me to get his evening paid.
The hotel he took me to was not very far off. It was on a small road leading to the residential area just behind the main bazaar. The hoarding over the building read ‘Hotel Diamond’. The entrance led to the counter located in a hall of which two partitions had been made. One portion was open hall; the other portion was further partitioned into two rooms, each room containing two tables. We sat in one if the rooms. There were wooden chairs and tables, the top of the table coated with glossy synthetic material. The ambience was good, the air filled with the odours of incense stick, cooking meat and biriyani. It was apparent that establishment belonged to a Muslim owner.
Sanjoy ordered the food without consulting me. A small doubt was lingering in my mind. He ordered mutton masala and rotis and a plate of biriyani. The food was delicious and sumptuous but the doubt in my mind kept recurring. After washing our fingers in the finger bowl, I finally gathered myself to ask Sanjoy whether it was beef that was served here. I expected him to be either apologetic or defensive, but he was neither. He simply shrugged and said that despite being a Brahmin, he didn’t mind it as long as it was delicious and available at an affordable price. Indeed, he was more rebellious against the established norms than I was. He showed it in his actions. Well I will be damned if anyone knows that I had had food here, and enjoyed it on the top of all, I thought.
When we got off the bus near the hostel, he thanked me, gave his address and asked me to keep in touch. In fact, I should have been even more grateful to him, for since I had met him, I had thought of Mohan and Bhaskar and the girls not even for a while.
Not until I reached the corridors of the first floor and found Mohan and Bhaskar puffing away their cigarettes near the banister.