It was more than a four-hour journey from Hubli to Sirsi and by the time we landed in a dirty bus station at Sirsi, it was almost five in the evening. It was just like coming out of a reverie for me, waking up to the rude shock of the stink of urine wafting in the air and the cattle wandering freely in the bus station as if it were a cattle shed. I’d enjoyed the journey so much that I wished it had never ended. But others looked tired and eager to get the hell out of bus. I didn’t have any idea as to where we’d be heading thereon. I left all such mundane worries to Mohan and taking out a small comb that I always kept in my pocket and combed my hair that had ruffled due to wind blowing through the window. Nirupama was pushing back tress on her cheek and looked so enchanting that my heart skipped a beat. In the next instance, I felt I was being silly. Yet Mohan’s promise that we would swap partners once we are settled in the lodge kept coming to my mind.
“The lodge is nearby. Let’s walk,” Mohan said moving towards the small gate fitted into the compound wall on one of the sides leading to the road. We followed him silently.
Sirsi was neither a big city nor a small town. It was somewhere in between. It retained some of the characteristics of a malnad village while many concrete buildings had come up on the main streets of the market that were mainly hotels, restaurants, and shops. The old market was still crowded with nondescript sheds, carts and trolleys. People spoke a different version of Kannada, though there were quite a few people who spoke the language of northern plains of Karnataka.
Outside the bus station, a number of passenger vans were lined up with the drivers seated on the driving seat and unnecessarily honking the horns to send the message to the travelers that the van was about to leave, while the assistants were yelling the names of different destinations at the top of their voice. A couple of people sitting in a barber shop were eyeing us with curiosity; even the one whose face had been lathered for shaving, was straining to turn his neck to have a look at us. I hoped that the barber would cut his ear!
Mohan was oblivious to all the stares and was walking towards the hotel. He obviously knew the town, and our destination well. The broader road gave way to a narrow lane descending towards an intersection point, which was visible now, and I came to understand that Sirsi was located on an undulated landscape. Just a few meters before the intersection, on the right side a concrete building of two floors stood amidst nondescript buildings. It was the hotel where Mohan was taking us.
Mohan went to the reception counter while the rest of us stood a few paces apart. There was a short, plump man with a round fair face wearing a white bush shirt at the counter. I couldn’t see his lower half for it was concealed by the counter. Mohan talked to him, wrote something in the register that the latter placed open before him and at last paid some cash. The receptionist who was perhaps the proprietor too, beckoned a room service boy and handed him keys to the rooms. Mohan approached us and pointing to the stairs, said, “We have rooms on the first floor. Come on.”
We climbed the stairs after the room service boy. The hallway leading to the rooms was dimly lighted. The rooms we were shown were opposite each other. While the room boy changed the bed sheets we waited outside. After he was finished, Mohan tipped him handsomely. “Is there anything else you want sir?” he asked with a wide grin. Mohan asked him to come later and looking at us said loudly, “This room is for the girls. We’ll occupy the opposite room,” as if he wanted the room boy to hear it and understand that the boys and girls will be staying in different rooms. However, the room boy must have seen hundreds of lodgers like us, for his grin became wider as though he had caught some thief red-handed, as he turned towards the stairs to climb down.
Meanwhile the girls had gone into the room that he had pointed out to them. I entered the other room with Mohan in my wake. He closed the door behind him and went straight into the bathroom. The room was about ten by twelve feet, sufficiently big. There was a double bed with a clean white sheet. There was a dressing table with a stool, a couple of chairs and a bed lamp. Everything was new, for the hotel itself seemed to have been recently constructed. The bay window opened towards the street but didn’t offer any pleasant view.
Mohan came out of bathroom and said, “I going downstairs to get something. I think you need cigarettes. Meanwhile you may use the bathroom and get fresh.”
I nodded and before I could say anything, he’d gone out. I went into the bathroom, but had to use it hurriedly. It was filled with cigarette smoke since there was no exhaust fan in it. The bathroom had one louvered window and it would take a long time for the smoke to clear.
About fifteen minutes later, Mohan returned, and both the girls too entered the room in his wake. Vani was carrying her bag but Nirupama’s hands were free. I rose from the bed where I was lying and sat on one of the chairs. The girls sat on the bed while Mohan paced up and down towards the door as if he were expecting someone. There was a knock at the door and he rushed to open it. He indeed was waiting for someone, and it was the waiter who had brought a half bottle of Old Monk rum and a couple of bottles of soft drink. They were cluttered with glasses, soda water and chips on the tray. He laid the tray on the teapoy and calmly went out.
“Oh oh! You have already made your arrangements,” said Vani.
“How can they forget it?” asked Nirupama.
“It is only our daily dose. Nothing more,” Mohan replied with a grin and opened the bottle of rum.
I didn’t expect Mohan to get the liquor when the girls were with us, although I wouldn’t have given a hoot about their presence. As the evening was advancing into dark, I was craving for a drink. But that the girls weren’t at all shocked or even surprised bewildered me. Those were the days in the early nineties when the girls were not even sent to college as it was thought to be inviting trouble. But these girls were certainly bolder than girls of metropolitan cities. Modernity must have been only a veneer over my conservative mind, I thought, perhaps I wasn’t as modern and open-minded as the girls were. Mohan poured the rum in two glasses and after mixing soda water, handed one to me.
“What about us?” Nirupama asked him teasingly.
Mohan opened the two bottles of soft drink with an opener and handed one to Vani who said she didn’t like soft drinks. When Nirupama extended her hand to take a bottle, instead of handing it over to her, he kept it back on the teapoy and poured almost two pegs of rum into another glass and filled it with soft drink and he gave her the glass. I was watching all this curiously.
“Does she drink?” I asked Mohan with astonishment.
Before he could reply, Nirupama said, “Cheers!” and emptied the glass in one go!
Shocked out of my wits, I stared at her with mouth agape.
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