I am suddenly catapulted to the present as the waiter clears the plate deliberately making noise as if to remind me that I had already paid the bill and I must make space for others. I look around and find that there are still a very few customers. I call the waiter back and order another drink. He seems to be used to customers like me for he gives a bored expression trying to avoid looking at me and turns away to bring my order shouting something at a fellow waiter.
As I lift my cell phone to know the time, it starts ringing. I press answer and say ‘Harsha’ instead of ‘hello’.
“I know you are somewhere in Hubli. Aren’t you?” I hear the familiar voice of Pavan. How does he know that I am here? I am puzzled but regret that I cannot lie to him. He is sure to have called Bhaskar, who knew that Nirupama was coming to meet me. Bhaskar has always had this weakness of telling others that he is the securest repository of secrets but always letting all the secrets out, more often than not after adding sufficient masala of his own.
“Yes. I was about to call you. Are you free?”
“Always free for you. Where are you?”
I give him my location. “That’s very good. I am hardly half a kilometer from the hotel. Wait for me,” he says before disconnecting.
Yes, those were the three days that made me what I am today I almost say it aloud but feeling embarrassed I look around to see if anyone is watching me talk to myself. I find nobody is looking. Why anyone would care? I start brooding again. Not all the three days, but the moment when I exploded was what made me what I am today. Could it have been different? Only if I had refused to follow Mohan, only if I had a stronger will to say no, only if… It released the Satan in me, or did it? Greed, lust, wrath, ego, envy were all inherent in my personality, however suppressed by the veneer of values and culture they might have been. In fact I could find these very things in Mohan, Bhaskar, Pavan and a host other friends that I made during my stay on the campus, the only difference being I was more conscious of these qualities, or rather vices as I was wont to ascribe them. But I was still neither better nor more mature than the members of the group into which I was drawn, like a shred of straw is into the vortex of a typhoon.
The last night of the tour was the breaking point in my story, thereafter something changed so fundamentally deep inside me, that even today I am unable to comprehend what it was.
The waiter comes and places my drink on the table. I remember that Pavan is coming and I will have to drink with him too. So I must slow down. I decide against taking a swish and start looking at the entrance. He arrives on a bike, spots me immediately even before he parks it and waves enthusiastically at me. I try to remember how he looked during the campus days and find it too difficult. He must have gained at least a dozen kilos of weight, mostly in the form of fat deposited on his paunch that now protruded pushing his trousers down. He still wears dark glasses that used to be fashionable back then, but now he wears then only while riding his bike. He looks around the whole place before entering, like a college student entering a bar stealthily. It irritates me every time my friends do this, as if they were committing a crime entering the premises where liquor or non vegetarian food is served, though those they are trying to avoid would be in some other bar going through the same ritual!
I wanted to be left alone today but it was not to be so. Instead of coming straight to me, Pavan goes to the washroom. I know this too is a ritual with him. He would take at least quarter of an hour to have a leak, wash his hands thoroughly, then wash his face, wipe it clean with his handkerchief, neatly fold and keep it back in his trouser pocket and draw a comb… and so on!
Unable to resist the temptation to take a swig of my drink, I pour soda water into the whiskey and take a big sip. It indeed was my lowest point, I remember those moments when I lowered my guard and became what I am today…