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Arrack In The Afternoon

CHAPTER 1

The book had bombed, and that was all he could think of. Not a single copy sold.

Oddly enough he was brooding over the state of his finances, although money (or the lack of it) had never troubled him overly in the past. Tête-à-têtes on national television. A feature in India Today. Perhaps even breakfast with the President, who was reputedly a poet himself. This was what he had dreamed about, and aspired for, and it all lay buried now, beneath an enormous pile of unsold books, a mound of debt and a mountain of humiliation.

So much for vanity publishing.

It was a morbid, muggy evening, as many such evenings are in October. The humidity nestled in the nineties and there were sure to be thundershowers after sunset. An occasional breeze stirred up dust on both sides of the highway and cars and trucks rumbled past, leaving fleeting trails of noxious fumes to the mercy of the wind. There was a certain lull in the air, morose and ominous. It was that kind of an evening - oppressive, and stained with a sense of even more unpleasantness to come.

He however was oblivious to all these signs and kept on walking down the highway.

Poetry doesn’t sell anymore, Verghese. No one reads the stuff these days. Pillaichan had told him this repeatedly, but both he and Paddy had refused to listen. There is wisdom in gray hair, he conceded now, though a tad too late. There is greater wisdom in hindsight, but also very little solace.

Outwardly he appeared placid, even somnolent. But the pain was building up rapidly and he knew that he would soon capitulate. It was a pain that he could not feel and thus could never understand, but it left him broken and weak and terrified at the thought of its recurrence.

The slide had quickened when he crawled, unwillingly, into his forties. With every passing year he found it increasingly hard to convince himself that there was a greater purpose to his existence - that he would, one day, by chance, or even through divine intrusion, find a defining role for his being.

His dreams however had withered gradually and now alcohol was fast becoming his only prop.

He walked on the dirt track beside the road, barely acknowledging his few acquaintances on the highway. Every once in a while he stepped out onto the tarmac when confronted with mounds of rubble and cattle in his path. On one occasion he received a resounding wallop from the tail of an especially ill-tempered cow, but even this failed to make an impression.

He went past the concrete wall that served as the eastern boundary of the Ismail Yusuf College. Many years ago he had struggled through a brief period here as a science student before realising his ineptitude for that field.

The wall was covered with ads for products seldom seen and rarely bought and election posters of second-rung politicians, who were often seen, but very rarely caught. On this imposing canvas Deziner Bras & Panties vied with Ramdas Marathe, Congress candidate (North-East constituency), for a coveted share of mind space. The apelike mug of the Shiv Sena candidate from the same constituency was plastered all over the busty model for Jalganga Washing Soap, but Verghese did not notice the violation. He seemed completely unaware of the Big City, which had, almost possessively, wrapped itself around him.

A light breeze swept across the highway bringing with it a welcome respite from the musty air. The smell of shit hung fetid over the evening, but Verghese walked on, seemingly inured to the stench.

Some say that these events are preordained. The Bard has even written about a tide in the affairs of men, but it would be fair to state that Verghese had absolutely no inkling of what would transpire next. He was only searching for a way out, a small reprieve, when, as if by divine intervention, a line from a long forgotten literary piece floated through the air and alighted on his shoulder. Today is a good day to die, it voiced, and then repeated itself.

Today is a good day to die.

As Verghese waited beside the road biding his time for an opportune moment he reflected that he had seldom felt happier in his largely sterile existence. He had expected his life to pass before his eyes as he had read somewhere, but this did not happen. Instead he felt as if his every sense had been distilled to a point where he was acutely conscious of even minute details in his surroundings. He felt the gentle pulsing of his muscles and the blood throbbing in his head. He felt the strain, the exhaustion and the overwhelming sense of despair, and yet remained strangely unaffected. He reasoned to himself that he was probably experiencing satori, the awakening, that was so frequently propounded in the many Zen texts he had read. He decided not to further examine the state of his mind, cherishing its possession and fearing its transience.

Trucks moved past him on the highway with increasing regularity, as truckers are wont to drive through the nights after having concluded their affairs in the Big City. It was a Saturday evening and there were fewer cars on the road, which suited him perfectly.

He stood beside the tarmac, waiting for an opportune moment to make his move. Several trucks went by but they were either too small or were moving too slowly to induce a sense of confidence in him. Finally, after a gap of a few minutes (during which time his earlier resolve had diminished considerably) the perfect vehicle for his deliverance appeared on the horizon.

Verghese braced himself and waited for the truck to move closer. The evening was receding and its headlights were on. The left indicator was blinking furiously, perhaps owing to an oversight on the part of the driver, as the lorry propelled forward mindlessly in the outer lane. Verghese took two steps forward onto the tarmac. He waited until the murmur had risen to a rumbling, which soon gave way to a roar as the vehicle drew nearer. Still he waited, until he could see the make Tata emblazoned on the snout of the monster. Almost prophetic, he thought wryly. He paused until he could clearly perceive the inverted wedges of the A’s in the brand name of the vehicle. Then he rushed forward and leapt into the air.

Raghubir sat in the cab of his truck sipping at a quart of arrack. He was experimenting with a new brand and was pleased to note that his research was yielding results. It had been an easy trip this time around. On the way in he had carried a consignment of vegetables to be delivered at the wholesale market in Byculla. This had been accomplished with relative ease as the traffic was light and the unloading had proceeded smoothly. He had then spent an enervating afternoon in a Nepali brothel in Kamathipura and was now headed back to Surat on a milk run. He thought about Tara, his current favourite, with her grating voice and flaccid bosom and scratched his groin contentedly.

Raghubir was one of those gents whose driving improved considerably when under the influence. Mild inebriation seemed to smooth out his edginess and calm an often feisty disposition. Of course he did not expect the madarchod who owned the truck to understand these nuances, which necessitated a degree of cloak and dagger with regard to his drinking.

He leaned back in his seat and stretched out his left leg to the full extent that the cramped confines afforded him. His right hand (which held the bottle) was on the wheel, guiding his chariot to its remote destination. With his left he stroked his dick absently and began to sing. Raghubir was rather proud of his musical prowess (as he was about many other aspects of his personality). He modulated his voice to dance around the lower pitches and even raised it to a near-falsetto to negotiate the higher ones. Raghubir too was very close to nirvana.

He roared along the highway past Andheri and moved into Jogeshwari. Up ahead the road was clear and the flyover beckoned seductively. The lights just before the JVLR turnoff were green and at this speed he could probably cross them when they were still amber. Mentally he pitted himself against this challenge and sprung forth to do battle. He clamped down hard on the accelerator and the truck hurtled forward.

Raghubir would always be unclear about what transpired next. Through the mist that engulfed his addled mind he vaguely perceived a tall, spare man clad in a kurta standing beside the road. A split-second later he sensed rather than saw the blur of white that moved swiftly in front of his vehicle. His instincts were sharp however and almost instantly he screamed out an obscenity, swerved to the right, went over the divider, slammed on the brakes and brought his monstrous carriage to a squealing, grinding halt. With an agility that belied his girth he sprang down from his seat, shrieking incoherently and protesting his innocence. His terror soon transformed into immense rage when he saw a lithe figure clambering out from beneath his truck, dazed but miraculously unhurt.

Verghese had already thrown himself into the path of the onrushing vehicle when, quite inexplicably, his resolve failed him. While still airborne he cried out to a god who had forsaken him time and time again. He then twisted in midair at a seemingly impossible angle and willed his body to perform a miracle. Lack of commitment, which had been his bane all his life, conspired this once to save it.

“Madarchod, benchod, chutiye,” roared Raghubir in staccato, “You want to ruin my whole fucking life or what? If you want to die go and jump from some building or put your fucking head on the railway tracks. You want to fuck up my whole life, madarchod?”

Verghese, who had never meant to do this, stood with his head bowed in a display of fake contrition.

The city then wove its magic and conjured up a sizeable crowd out of thin air. Only a few folks in the gathering had actually witnessed what had happened and now theories were being put forth and discarded at will. The general consensus was of a love affair gone wrong, which to denizens of Bombay (with their celluloid obsessions) was a cause for concern (and of course, great entertainment).

Raghubir, seeing that he was being largely ignored by the throng and taking note of the docile manner of his nemesis, advanced towards Verghese mouthing a rapidly compiled volley of abuses. A portion of the crowd hastened to block his path, while an equally vocal and somewhat more youthful section sought to bring them to duel.

“Eh pandu aala re,” a youth shouted, pointing to an approaching policeman. “Pandu aala. Pandu aala,” murmured the crowd, bringing Raghubir's attempt at retribution to a premature end.

The constable sauntered over with a loose, swaggering gait, copied from Bollywood flicks, which both glorified and vilified his profession. He had been whiling away his time at the very lights that Raghubir had once sought to challenge and was extremely glad for the diversion.

The crowd parted reluctantly to allow him to take charge of the proceedings. His name was Vasu Bhosale and by the looks of it appeared to be quite an imposing specimen. His biceps bulged beneath the terrycot uniform and his pecs and lats threatened to split the fabric. His legs were skinny in comparison, but well concealed by tailored trousers, presenting him as a dubious poster boy for the police department - ugly as crap and scary as hell. The younger boys in the gathering were terribly impressed by the muscles on display, and he, noting the hushed whispers, turned this way and that, ostensibly to survey the crowd, but in actuality to present them with a better view of his physique.

“What happened here?” he snarled, although he had a fair idea. This question was met with a barrage of replies, which was far too vocal to be intelligible. Monarch of the Moment, Vasu raised his hand and quelled them all into silence. He turned his head slowly (imperiously he thought) and his cruel, beady eyes fixed themselves on the hapless Bihari.

“You,” he whispered in Marathi, “come here.”

Raghubir walked towards him, very intimidated, but also anxious for retribution. “Sir...” he said in a mollified tone, but with his eyes blazing, in an effort to appear reverently indignant.

“What happened here?” the policeman asked.

“Sir, I was driving my truck and when I reached here...here,” he said, turning around and pointing to where his vehicle stood, “this madman jumped in front of me.”

“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” the cop said nodding sagely and a shiver ran down Raghubir’s spine.

“No, no, no sir…” a denial that was hastily curtailed by the lawman’s changing expression. “Only a little bit after lunch.”

Driving under the influence is quite common among truckdrivers and while cops do occasionally milk this vice it is not treated as a serious offence. Vasu sensing that he was losing his audience turned slowly and with great relish towards the main event.

“You, come here,” he said, pointing towards Verghese and crooking his index finger.

Verghese was experiencing an elation that he had never felt before. The world around him had taken on a rouged undertone and he was able to clearly sense the pulse of the throng while at the same time distancing himself from them. He felt composed and strong and when he saw the cop gesturing at him to come forward he did so without hesitation. He experienced no fear, which was strange, and no self-consciousness either, which for him was even stranger.

“Kyo bey, bastard, you want to die? God has given you this good life and you want to kill yourself?” Verghese considered the life he had been given, but wisely kept silent. The berating continued, “To die like that you need courage. Courage in your arse.” Vasu looked around slyly to gauge the crowd response and heartened he pressed on, “It’s not for cowards like you. Like you,” he repeated contemptuously, throwing out his chest so that they could all see and appreciate the difference.

Verghese remained impassive and stared over the shoulder of the cop into the distance. This posture won him the approval of a section of the crowd and a few voices were raised in his defence. Vasu, with years of experience behind him, instinctively gauged the trend and segued seamlessly from intrepid lawman to concerned citizen.

“Arrey yaar, did you really need to jump? Is life so bad that you had to do something like this?” Then with a misplaced attempt at humour, he pointed at the truckdriver and added, “And just look at what you’ve done to this poor bastard here. His balls are in his mouth.”

By now Raghubir had realized that he would not be pulled up for his earlier misdemeanour, and, taking offence at what he considered an uncharitable description of his anatomy, he made an abortive rush towards Verghese mouthing a bevy of bad words. His charge however was easily restrained by the gleeful throng, and then, honour restored, he allowed himself to be led a safe distance away, from where he hurled invective at the silent Verghese.

Vasu now had his arm around the offender and was graciously ladling out advice on life in general. Homilies and anecdotes tripped over each other as his porcine features screwed up in an effort at portraying compassion. But, unfamiliar as he was with this emotion, Vasu erred.

A portion of the crowd took offence at this overt display of mollycoddling and began commenting on Vasu’s sexual preferences. These taunts were repeated until they finally became audible to the constable. He then cut short his performance, withdrew his arm from around Verghese’s shoulder and prepared to mutate again.

Karan had been hovering around the group like a circling shark, waiting for an opportune moment to move in. Noting the changing demeanour of the policeman and the declining interest of the throng, he pushed through to the centre and said to the bemused Verghese, “Arrey Subhashbhai are you still practicing? You never stop, do you?” And then as an aside to the crowd in chaste Marathi he added, “This is Subhash Naik. He works as a top stuntman in Hindi films. You’ll must have seen him in Teesri Khiladi. His speciality is jumping under buses and trucks.” Once again he turned towards Verghese and said, “How many times have I told you not to practice on the highway. You’ll give somebody a heart attack someday.”

Though still quite bewildered Verghese recognized the hand of deliverance and contorted his features into a conspiring grimace.

“Now just look at what’s happened to this poor fucker here,” Karan went on, pointing towards Raghubir who was leaning against the fender of his truck. The poor fucker in question, on hearing the sniggers, raised himself up from his rusty perch and glowered menacingly.

Vasu, though not at all convinced of the veracity of the claim, realized that the situation had been milked of all its drama. Seeing that the spotlight had drifted away from him, he stepped up to the unsuspecting Verghese and cuffed him expertly on the cheek, depositing that worthy flat on his back in the mud. Though not really hurt by the blow, Verghese had the good sense to pretend he had been and lay silent and still on the ground.

Realizing that no-one (with perhaps the recent exception of the jumper) had been hurt in the incident, Vasu ordered the trucker to start his vehicle and be on his way. He glared at Karan for a bit (to make it amply clear to his audience that he was not fooled at all, at all), dispersed the crowd with violent shoves and colourful language and then swaggered back to his former station.

Verghese now found himself all alone with his benefactor. He stood up slowly and began dusting off his soiled kurta. The haze that had enveloped him earlier had by now receded and he took in the person who stood before him. The face was quite personable in a coarse, meaty way, but marked with lumps and protrusions, which spoke of years of hard living. Narrow shoulders, an emerging potbelly and topped by an expression that oozed confidence. Verghese had met the type before and wondered what he was in for.

He raised himself to his full height, looked down at his redeemer and murmured his thanks.

“Get into the car,” said Karan without further ado.

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