Meet me at the park

Written for TimesofIndia’s WriteIndia Series for the cue by Ashwin Sanghi. 

 “Daaru piyoge?”, Ranju had texted me.  “Will you drink?
Needless to say, it was a hot morning in Chennai. I insisted we book an air conditioned car for our trip to Pondicherry instead of taking a bus. Work had kept me busy and I forgot to stay hydrated. My friends, Ranju and Pradeep, picked me up from my office. I had always envisaged a Pondicherry trip to be like lying wasted on the beaches. I was excited but my friends’ loud enthusiasm in the car combined with the moldy air and sickening seat covers gave me a headache.  
The head splitting honking and choked traffic at various signals finally led to the East Coast Road where traffic slowly tapered down. Beyond a point, we could just zoom by restaurants and retail stores of all kinds, passing through a toll gate and speeding off again. I peered through the window, my curious eyes juxtaposed with my amazed face watching endless beaches to the edge of the horizon.
By the time we reached Pondicherry, I felt as if my head had been smashed with a club. We were lost trying to find the hotel.  People were bad at giving directions and we were worse at receiving them. When we finally reached, I crashed on the bed right away while my friends went to get the “stuff” which was for later in the night. The plan for the afternoon was to go to the Boat House, hire a motor boat to Paradise Island and be back for dinner.
When they were back, the buzzing of their conversation disturbed my slumber. A third unrecognizable voice was speaking to them. I was suddenly embarrassed and angry at the same time. Unsure of the disarray I was in, I tried to pull a blanket over me and hide under covers. I drifted back to sleep in a few minutes and was woken up by Ranju after what seemed like two minutes.
Wake up! You’ve been sleeping for an hour”
“Huh, who was that in the room?”
“Uh, just a tour guide.”
“Why do we need a guide for Pondicherry?”
“He knows the local stuff better. Also he helped us get some good liquor and hashish.”
“We’re trying!”
We reached the boat house by an auto-rickshaw arranged by the tour guide. He sat in front, sharing the seat with the driver. Tightly-curled thick bush of his jet black hair outlined his rather small narrow face and slim build. As I got out of the auto, I noticed his face. He was dark with sharp, straight eyebrows and thin pursed lips. He quickly turned to look me and I turned away to avoid any persuasive marketing he would begin with. Instead he said nothing at all. He spoke to Pradeep softly and took some change to get us tickets for the motor boat to Paradise Island.
Throughout the journey, he avoided conversation with me and spoke only with Pradeep and Ranju. He was assiduous in describing every detail about the place and giving apocryphal stories of the Francophones of the city.  By the time our boat reached Paradise Island, Pradeep had already booked him to show us around the places he had described. 
We spent an hour at the island and returned to the main land in another boat. While returning, the rickshaw stopped at a men’s hostel. From outside, I could see into the rooms. Clothes lines hung over the beds. As we went in, the stench of liquor and smoke filled my lungs and I swallowed my urge to puke. So this was for the hash.
“Come in.”, he said. His voice was mild and rather girly compared to his aggressive body language.  “Is it okay for you, Ma’am?”, he asked looking directly at me.
“Uh, yes”, I said hiding the nonchalance I didn’t feel.
“I think I’ll have a coffee at the tea-kadai outside”,  I said trying to leave the place.
“He’s an expert. I’ll walk you down.”, the tour guide said coming right behind me . “Staying here is a bittersweet experience. The sweetness begins with the first sip of his hand roasted and ground, filter coffee and the memorable conversations had in this very room. The bitterness follows when you return back to reality with a dose of Styrofoam cups of vending machine coffee.”
I was suspicious of the sophistries in his exaggerated stories and descriptions.
“The western cafes sell some rubbish in the name of coffee, the beans charred black and jet sprayed with hot water. We give the coffee the time it needs, let it roast gently and the hot water to percolate slowly. It makes a huge difference, don’t you think?”

“Espresso is a work of art, man. Let’s not debate that, Muthiah”,  a loud accented voice came from behind.
A group of tourists joined us outside the gate of the hotel and spoke to Muthiah, the tour guide. Unwillingly I was drawn into the tiny lodge again and we sat in the cramped space with the group of foreigners. Two hours passed in random conversation at the end of which Muthiah brought out a huge tub of weed.
“Are you all ready for the experience?”,  he announced as if we were stepping into a spacecraft.
“Charas, man. We are so, so ready!” , a tall white youngster hooted.
“Charas?“, I whispered to Ranju.  “What are we doing?”
“Bhang. Charas. Ganja. Pot. Cannabis. Stash. Whatever.”,  Pradeep said, sneering at Ranju.
“Are you guys insane? With strangers? I’m out of this” , I firmly announced and got up.
“No Madam, you sit. We won’t ask you to but stay. You won’t be disturbed at all.” , Muthiah said, instructing me to sit down. The tone of his “madam” seemed more like an order than respect. The only saving grace was that I was with my friends and we were all going to suffer together.
“It is a spiritual experience, man. You’ve got to try. Lord Shiva loved a freshly rolled joint too.” , the white kid spoke again.
“Why don’t you go to a temple for that experience?”
“We do. But you don’t know how divine this feels!”
Muthiah took us all to another room with more bachelors and tourists, which was air conditioned and surprisingly very clean.
One of them began mulling hash and tobacco together and pressed it into stripped cigarette shells. Muthiah began passing them around to the foreigners in a sweeter tone. I see a direct monetary motive in trying to please the rich, which includes the educated, tourists and expats. The foreigners here seemed mostly uneducated, joint-rolling kids in search of some spiritual high in India. How much is he going to make out of them?
The joint was passed around. Everyone seemed so cool smoking it. I was being an observer. Physically I didn’t want to try but socially, I wanted to “belong in”.
When it came around next time, I chirped in,  “I’ll have some” and inhaled the much vaunted hash.
This is substance abuse, bad ass stuff! What am I doing?!
I coughed out my first toke and felt the joint being snatched away by the person next to me.
After trying one more time, I gave up and retired back to sipping my beer. A couple of pints later, I dozed off next to Ranju.

The next morning we went back to our hotel and slept again. Muthiah knocked our doors around evening and took us to some of the promised tours of the town. We checked out and drove back to Chennai.
I had to be at work for a meeting late afternoon. En route I received a call for an interview for which I had been applying for ages.  I had been waiting to hear from them for a final round with a senior.
“Will today evening work?”
“Sure, Sir. Evening at five?”
Fixing my dishevel in the elevator mirror I left my office post my meeting and rushed to the interview.
“Just a second, ma’am” ,  the security guard said and called my interviewer. When the elevator opened, a dark suited man with tightly curled hair stepped out and walked directly towards the security table. Shocked and unsure, I kept staring at him and forgot to greet him. The familiar narrow, olive skinned face and sharp eyes looked at me and said, “Madam, you sit.”
It felt more like an instruction than a request, again.
Muthiah waited as the security person issued a visitor’s pass and escorted me into a meeting room like he had done to the hash smoking room in Pondicherry.
“Please wait here. I’ll be back at five thirty” , Muthiah said, leaving me seated across a large polished table.
I calculated my options. Did it matter to me so much?  I did want the job badly but I felt no good in it after seeing Muthiah. Why should I worry?  Did people know he was selling hash? What other shenanigans was he up to? Was he trafficking women? Intoxicating and abusing them? Why did a person at his position need to be a tour guide in Pondicherry? My head was bursting to ask him, all about him.  Shouldn’t I just leave? I had a nice job, a safe one. That is the most important thing. Safety. I had heard terrible stories of what happened to women.. 

From my chair I could see him talking to the security guard who walked away. Two employees who were standing near the door had left too.
I was about to get up and leave but there was no one in hallway except Muthiah and he was right at the very end. Would he come at five thirty or was he walking towards me now?  I could make a quick dash outside and get out of the building before he could reach me. 
I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but I suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven …”
By count of three, he was inside the room. Closing the door behind him, he quietly sat down across the table. He looked up, both staring and smiling for a second.
“Sudhir here. Nice to meet you finally.”,  he said smiling formally. “You’ve already been interview by Vimal, I guess. This is more like a courtesy interview. So just tell me about yourself”
How can you pretend like nothing happened?
I was dying to ask him questions as much as I was dying to get the job.
I repeated the well-rehearsed stereotypical answers about myself and where I saw myself in five years.

“So what do you like to do for fun?” , he asked. His gaze was sharp and keen.
“Well, I …the usual. Movies. Friends.”
“Drink? Smoke?”
This was getting too personal. “Drink sometimes” I said
“With friends or alone?”
I was already irritated enough and he was making it worse. ” Depends on my mood. But in any case, that’s not important for the interview I hope” I added sternly.
“Oh it is.”, he began in his convincing tone.  “I will tell you later how.It is important for us to know what kind of people we employ, isn’t it?”
“Just like it is important for me to know with whom I will be working?”
“Yes. Same thing”
I was ready to whip back at him if he was going to brain wash me like he did to us in Pondy.  In a few minutes which comprised mostly of Muthiah’s oratory, the interview ended.
“Was lovely meeting you, we will get back to you very soon” , he said rising from his chair. I dashed out before he came to the door to escort me out of the building and ask me further questions.
I went home and crashed on bed.  I tried to analyze if it was really him. Or was it someone like him? 
The weariness of travel helped me drift to sleep. When I woke up next morning, I checked e-mails and found one from Sudhir.
“I regret to inform you that our vacancy is for a junior level for which you may be over qualified. It was a pleasure to meet you. Many thanks for your time”.
Still shocked, I called my friend. We planned to meet at the park near my office where I usually sat to catch up with my buddies. As I headed out of office to meet him, the familiar dark face stood by a car near the park. He was staring right at me. The nerve he has to be stalking!
“Do you have a minute Ma’am?”  he asked walking in and blocking my way.
“I am in a hurry, can we speak later?”
“I won’t take more than a minute.”
He was persistent, just like he had been with us as a tour guide.
“Well, please make it quick.”
“Firstly I apologize for declining your application.”
“Well, in any case I deserve an explanation. So who are you?”
“Sudhir. We met yesterday. You know me.”
“And the person I met during the weekend?”
“Every now and then, a man needs some time for himself. I head out of the city, unwire myself and live a basic life. Camp, mix with the local people.”
“Basically you take a break to smoke up.”
“That’s not the only reason. I could tip a rickshaw driver to help me with that. I want to be freed from the strings that come with our jobs, our degree, our credit cards. What is my real worth? Learn about life. One learns by traveling. Not luxury travel. Travel budget.  Do some daily errands. Mix with the villagers. The fishermen. The backpackers. Friendships made that way are more genuine than what I have here. Lessons learned are more valuable.”
“Great. Thanks for explaining. Now, I need to go Sir.”
‘Having said that, it is important for me to keep my private and professional life apart. You know what I mean… much as I have a valid reason for giving myself a break, I cannot afford to let it affect my reputation…”
“Reputation! You’ve surely “learned” about life.” ,I remarked trying to walk away.
“Ma’am, I’m sure you’ll understand. I have noticed you here many evenings around the time I come. If some day you’d like to hear me out, just ….”
I walked off before he finished and his voice trailed behind me,
“Well, just….just meet me here at the park”
And that’s how it all began. 

2 thoughts on “Meet me at the park

Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s