Saturday, September 4, 2010

24 Hours in an Urban Reality Show


19:00 - Yesterday at 7 pm, as I turned the key in the lock, I prayed for a dark and empty apartment.

It was dark inside. I checked each room. The apartment was empty too. I could smile.

I had drawn the curtains that morning and it was still that way, like mute spectators seemingly untouched by anything from within or without. I stood by the closed French windows, looking at the other apartments, at families gathering, at kids and their parents following each other. I wondered whether anyone there was watching me. I did not open the windows to let in the sound from outside.

It had been a hard day with a crucial presentation. The academic lot in the project wanted the grant at any cost, those from the company wanted just the program and I wanted to write the right numerical program for the right scientific problem. At the end of the day, their symbiosis won and I was discarded as a parasite.

Hunger made me come out of that reverie. I checked the contents of the fridge. There was some old cooked stuff which I did not feel like warming or eating. Anyway, I wanted to cook and relax. From what was available, I leisurely made a basic meal: fried chicken breast along with chopped spicy sausages, roast chilly potato wedges, sautéed beans and carrots and there was enough sweet yoghurt in the tub. I split the stuff into two portions.

20:15 - At quarter past eight, I ate my share. I was washing the dishes and sipping Amaretto Disaronno when my wife entered the flat. She came over to the kitchen, stood by the door and said,

“Hi, smells real good.”

“Your portion should still be warm.”

In our first year, we had agreed to dispense with the formality of waiting for each other or checking up on one’s arrival.

“I would have loved to have,” she leaned against the dining table, stretching, “but I had a heavy sandwich for tea.”

I kept quiet. I felt that there was more to come from her.

“I have to catch a night flight. There’s an important meeting at HQ tomorrow.”

“Again…?” I blurted.

“What do you mean by ‘again’? I told you that I am ready to sit at home, didn’t I?”

“For what…? Hey, it’s fine with me. Don’t get worked up about that.”

“Yeah, right…it must be convenient for you.”

I stared at her. I could feel my body stiffen, hands clenching, nails sinking into flesh and a dirty feeling curdling in my gut. I snarled,

“Spit it out…whatever…”

“When you reply to your friends, do check the send-list…or, did you include me intentionally?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember the e-mail you sent yesterday…to her…your friend who is like a sister…?”

Each emphasis sounded like an obscenity. I did remember sending that e-mail in a hurry but I could not remember adding my wife as a recipient. It must have ‘dropped-in’ from the frequently-used-list since their surnames are a close match, if not their character.

“Well, you saw my e-mail…is there anything in that for you to bitch about?”

“You don’t even remember, do you…just last week, you told me that you are not in touch with her.”

“But, there is nothing in our e-mail. It was just the usual Hi…Bye, right?”

“I didn’t check if it was Hi…Bye or Wham…Bam.”

“It was a good idea, wasn’t it, not to tell you the truth?” I retorted.

“I bet you sent that to me just to hurt me…to make me worried, to spoil my day in office.”


She stormed to the bedroom and I stayed in the drawing room. I could hear her packing and getting ready to leave.

21:30 - At half past nine, she was at the door. She came back to me, sat next to me on the sofa and reached towards me. I moved back to avoid her touch.

“You can’t even hold me these days, can you?”

“If I did, I would be treating you as a prostitute.”

She got up and left, thankfully not banging the front door this time. I sat there, with my eyes closed, for a long time.

23:00 - It must have been around eleven when I went back to the kitchen and put her portion in the fridge. I remembered what my parents used to tell me about their fights. They used to throw dishes out through the window. Even when they could ill-afford to do so. They have been married, quite happily, for nearly sixty years.

Moral of the story: Dishes are thrown out through the window in happy homes.


00:00 - Around midnight, I realized that there was no point lying in bed waiting for sleep. All that came were murderous thoughts. I decided to go for a walk to clear my head.

It is a pleasure to walk in the middle of a city road at that time of the night, to look at the moon philosophically while it returns a cold empty stare, and to smoke that rare joint without passively taking in exhaust fumes.

On one of those rare occasions when my wife and I shared the guest bedroom, she complained about how men, and not women, had the luck to do all that. It is true, I admitted. It is not safe enough for women to have such pleasures.

I had walked past the school and the Party office. I was near the dangerous turn on that road leading to the University. In the moonlight, I could see that there were some people on the footpath, huddled close to the short wall. At about twenty meters, I could make out that there were three – a young woman in her early twenties, a young baby in her arms and a girl barely in her teens.

The woman and the girl were sharing a meal from one clay pot. When they saw me, the young girl tried to hide a small cloth-bag furtively. As I got closer, I could see that the bag barely covered a water-melon. Probably, that was their prized possession of that day.

They are migrants or gypsies or whatever people call them these days. I have heard that there are vans which pick up these people and deposit them at the state border. It makes this place look good, I am told.

I did not even want to think about their life or the dangers these women faced. I have heard that there is an appropriate term in physics: dark matter – invisible matter that makes up most of the mass in the universe. In reality, unlike physics, people are like me and try not to observe.

I was then five meters from them. I saw briefly the bright headlights of a large speeding car swerving dangerously at the sharp turn. Before I could utter a cry, the car was nearly on us. What happened next took just a few seconds.

To my right, I could see the girl jump over the short wall. Though she had tried to throw her precious bag in that direction, it went vertically without any horizontal flight. The woman and her baby stood fixed. I grabbed the woman and jumped over the wall, with the baby crushed between us. There was a loud crash behind us and a squelching splattering sound also.

I landed on my back on soft wet ground. Though jarred by the impact and scratched and cut at a few places, I was fine. The woman moved quickly away from me. She and her baby looked more or less undamaged. The girl crawled to them. She seemed angry and ready to take on the driver but the woman held her tight. They disappeared into the night.

I jumped over the wall back onto the road. I could not help admiring the BMW and its wide wheels. It had gone a distance on the footpath, then crashed through a drainage slab and ended up immobile with one of those large wheels stuck in the large drain.

I moved towards the car. The watermelon had landed on the car and splattered in the front. The left front window was lowered and I saw a girl lean out, retching violently. The doors on that side were too close to the wall and could not be opened. On the driver’s side too, the windows were lowered. I heard a male having a slurred conversation on a mobile,

“Dad…the car is stuck…we hit something…damn it, dad…who cares…something or someone…just heard a sick sound…dad…please come…can you hear me…damn…”

The driver stepped out of the car. He was drunk, sobbing and young. I was right behind him and he had not seen me. I do not know what came over me then.

I grabbed him by his neck and pushed his head inside the car through the window. I reached inside through the door, for the button, and raised the window till the young man’s head was securely trapped in a narrow gap, choking him a little.

Through the window, I could see inside the car. The girl in the front wanted to scream but I hushed her and thankfully she kept quiet with her mouth and eyes wide open. A very young couple was lying on the back seat quite oblivious of the outside world. Drunk or doped, they were sleeping like babies, drooling spit on each other’s laps.

I was seething with rage, partly due to them and the rest from my own life. I reached for the young man’s waist and stripped him of his wide belt. I held the buckle and wrapped the belt a few times around my hand to leave enough for a good short whip. Then, with that, I smacked him hard ten or twenty times. That is deterrence or retributive justice or a good lesson or whatever. The only kind of justice such people will ever face.

I knew I was also letting out a lot of other stuff. I was too tired to feel ashamed but not too tired not to feel good.

01:00 - All this took place in a few minutes. I left the place quickly and got home by one. I had a hot shower and later, ate a bar of chocolate, drank a large peg of Glenfiddich and listened to Dido croon to me and only me.

03:00 - At three, I fell asleep on the sofa.

Moral of the story: If you drive after drinking or doping, angry men walking on the road can be a nuisance.


06:00 - At six, I opened my eyes briefly and sent the message ‘hi today sick thx’ to my boss. He must have been expecting it. Then, after switching off my mobile and shifting to my undisturbed bedroom, I slept soundly.

10:00 - I ran out of luck, once again. I was woken up, at ten, by a friend. His arrival was heralded by the musical car reverse horn playing ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Then, he tried to play ‘Spanish Rose’ with my door-bell.

“Hi.” I greeted weakly.

“Hey man, holiday, huh?” He pushed me aside and entered.


“Is the Mrs. around?”

“No…she had to leave early for work this morning. You should have called…we could have planned…”

“Man, you would have scooted.”

It hurts to have friends who know you rather well.

I have two types of friends: the friends who contact me only when they are on holiday; and, the friends who do not contact me even when they are on holiday. I prefer the latter.

This guy belongs to the first category and worse, he is also what people call a best-friend. I try my best to avoid him but he has the habit of turning up and leaving me with trouble.

The last time was at my wedding. He graced the occasion without invitation. The main part of the five-minute ceremony which is the tying of the thaali (mangalsutra) was about to happen when a young boy-child came to me, looked at me and cried with anguish,


The priest and the bride sighed at the same time. Standing there, with the chain to put my bride on leash, I wondered about how people dealt with such minor inconveniences. Then, I saw my friend rush to us,

Mone (son), come here,” and then to my bride, “he gets confused at times.”

Later, during that event, I saw him sharing a hip-flask with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. These two new relatives, like many others in my place, are usually long on spirits and short on sense. The three of them appeared to be bosom-buddies.

That first night, before tucking me in with their relative, the two in-laws asked me in private,

“Your friend is a jolly good fellow. But, we could not understand one thing. He asked us the meaning of 6.9 (six point nine). He said that it is a good time interrupted by a period. What did he mean by that? He told us that you would know all about that.”

I feigned ignorance.

That’s all that my friend did on that occasion. He has mellowed with age.

Today, my friend looked nearly normal. Probably, that was because he was raiding the fridge. He took out my wife’s portion of what I had made last night and between large bites,

“Man, good stuff…”

“Ah…you should try her traditional stuff…that is her specialty…” I elaborated.

“Yummy…your wife is a great cook…”

“We were celebrating last night…” I lied again.

“What was the occasion?”

“Do you need an occasion?” I gave a sly wink. He guffawed with pleasure and a full mouth.

Truth, I have realized, is insufficient and unnecessary for most relationships.

“How is your wife?” I asked.

“In production…thought of having the second before menopause…”

“But, she is very young.”

“I meant mine.”

“Ah!” I agreed.

We talked about foreign trips and vacation plans, mine definitely fictitious, his probably true. Then, he talked about his latest venture, building holiday homes for himself from Chennai to Kanyakumari and then up till the Konkan coast.

“Managing a single large house is so difficult…especially when you are old…so, I want small holiday homes…and I want to go from one to the other by speed-boat.” he tried to sell the idea passionately.

I kept quiet. These days, friends have very little to talk about other than real-estate. I also realized why he is my friend. There is very little we need from each other.

“How about you, man? Is this a rented place?” Another emphasis treated like an obscenity.

“Yes, it’s rented. Why have anything which I can’t discard in an hour!” I philosophized.

“Your wife?” he challenged.

Including my wife…”

He eyed me warily. And, as if to change the line of thought or to raid another fridge, he suggested,

“Hey man, let’s go to Seetha’s place. She is in town.”

Seetha is…was my first love.

“Ok.” I replied.

We left immediately.

Moral of the story: A good friend is indeed a friend not in need.


12:00 - We reached Seetha’s house around noon. Seetha’s parents greeted us cautiously. We waited for her to finish her mid-day bath. Her father and I studied the tiles on the floor, and when we came up for air, exchanged ambiguous smiles that would have made Mona Lisa jealous. My friend quizzed her mother about some shared acquaintances.

After twenty long minutes, Seetha came in like a breath of fresh air and her parents left her alone with us. She looked the same as she did twenty years back, still that 30-to-40 look which used to look great in that 15-to-25 stage. I looked at myself in a mirror on the wall, still the same 45-to-55 look, too.

There was one difference with the old days. She refused to look me in the eye. Probably, that was because my friend monopolized the dialogue. She was also into real-estate.

I studied her house. Chrome, leather and prints in sepia; more chic than the Ikea stuff in the Living; and not as personal as the stuff in Country Home. Her drawing room was as big as my apartment plus half the car-park. She had done well, without me, I concluded without envy.

13:00 - Around one, she realized that my friend did not intend to leave without a meal at her place.

She is on a diet, she claimed. We shared her misery with a frugal meal of rice, dal and a measly portion of vegetable curry.

13:30 - At half-past-one, we were back in the drawing room and I felt lost in that great expanse. Seetha went to a room inside and returned with some old letters. She said to me,

“Look what I found when I was clearing old junk.”

I did not have to look long to recognize that stuff. Old letters, greeting cards, flowery handwriting and poems composed for her. There were so many, too many. Seetha sat next to me and read a few of those personal lines to my friend. I laughed with them and felt sad.

I am not sure whether I loved her then. At one time, I did love the idea of falling in love with her.

After the laughter died down, my friend and I took leave. We went to a restaurant and had a proper lunch.

Moral of the story: When you write love letters, do not use ink that lasts.


15:00 - My friend dropped me at my place at around three and left me in peace. I sank into my arm-chair, enjoyed the solitary air and dozed till four.

16:00 - I had a mug of black tea with heaps of sugar.

I logged onto my computer and checked e-mail. The inbox had a few friendly notes which I kept for later. I studied the spam more closely. There were the usual – cheap vicodin, enlarged organs and the like. I deleted all but the one with the subject, ‘yellow convertible’. I opened that e-mail:

'A father asked his son on his fourth birthday,

“What do you want for your birthday, son?”

“A yellow convertible, Papa!” the son replied.

“Fine, son…I promise that you will have that on your eighteenth birthday.”

This was repeated on every birthday. On the eighteenth birthday, the son asked for the same once again. The father said,

“This morning, I saw a nasty accident involving a yellow convertible. Sorry, son…I cannot get you that.”

What is the moral of the story?

Never ask for a yellow convertible, ask for a red convertible.'

Nodding my head in agreement, I shifted to a social-networking portal and tried to be anti-social, enjoying virtual company and comfortable honesty.

18:30 - Around half past six, I received a phone-call from my wife.

We exchanged cordial greetings. She promised to return the next day. We made plans to go out for dinner. She filled me in on all the details about her trip. At the end, she asked,

“How was your day at work?”

“I took leave.”



What did you do?” the volume was increasing with each emphasis.

“I was here most of the time.”

And…” my wife persisted.

“Seetha is in town. I went to her house for lunch.”

She kept quiet. I clarified with a lie which sounded good,

“Just a simple lunch – pulao, mutton curry, vegetable kofta and grilled paneer which was out of this world. And payasam for dessert…ada payasam…”

“Sounds like a feast. Were there other guests?”


“She made all that…for you…?” my wife asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not…” I was testing truth but it didn’t sound as good.

She kept quiet for some more time.

“Seetha asked about you.” I lied.

“How is she?”

“Looks the same…” I admitted the truth.

She kept quiet and I kept quiet too.

I felt Solitude shift on the sofa from my right arm to the left side. I do not like that side of Loneliness’ face.

19:00 - The clock-wall ticked loudly complaining that it is seven pm once again.

Author’s Notes:

Before I submitted my first research paper for publication, my mentor suggested that I could split the 19-page dense article into two or three. Listening to good practical advice has never been my forte.

• I did think of splitting this into three: Modern Marital Mishaps, Dangerous Drunk Driving, Long Lost Love or another attempted alliteration. I could have posted two under Current Affairs and one in Travel.

• The question that remains: where do I put it? Current Affairs? I chose “Creative” because it is the closest to a “Non-Creative” account of mundane and common stuff without twists, turns, suspense or thrill.

• As for morals, I can only repeat Bertolt Brecht’s words in The Threepenny Opera, ‘Food comes first, then morals.’ Anyway, it is a myth. People tend to believe myths. As for stories with a moral, the less said the better.

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