I loitered in college for most of Saturday afternoon and a good part of Saturday evening.
Word had already begun to get out about the Apocaparty (the idiot who came up with that refused to let it die down); some friends dropped by with a large batch of special brownies, and after a point everyone stopped mucking with rolling paper and random chatter and sat in utter silence, pulling on chillums.
It was only at nightfall – when folk began spreading out to scour for venues and/or procure liquid entertainment – that I realized the ex-con to my right was gone.
You ever seen one of those old anti-drug PSAs in Archie Comics with the characters all doing wholesome teenage activities? The tagline that went You Don’t Need Drugs to Have Fun?
Bhardwaj and a couple of his industrious friends once got their hands on an old lithograph press.
I helped with the first (and last) flyer the machine spewed out: a smudgy, pink blowup with Jughead pigging out/Archie sharing a sundae with Betty and Veronica/Josie and the Pussycats in concert, the tagline You Don’t Need Drugs etc appended by … but they sure help! in my untidy scrawl.
We all got suspended for a week.
The point is, we’d been toking nearly ten hours, were zonked near-witless on lack of sleep and prospects, probably should have gone home a long time ago. But my next clear memory is removing my earphones, shaking my head a couple of times to dispel the residual clangs of Bells and Thunder, and knocking on the door of Mr Bajaj, the landlord.
Public Service Announcement: You don’t need drugs to screw up your timing.
…but they sure help!
The landlord lived on the first floor of a three-storey house. Most of the tenants seemed to have gone home for the vacations; the only lit window belonged to Mr Bajaj’s living room, although the flickery CFL seemed less a light source than an afterthought.
“Janaki used to handle the interviews,” he said as I hunted for the least grimy spot on the sofa, “so I’m not sure exactly how this goes.”
“That’s alright,” I said. His breath reeked of whiskey and the tablecloth thrown over a pile of empty bottles in the corner was fooling no-one. “One of my friends moved here last year and had great things to say.”
He caught me staring at the bottles.
“Pretty great things,” I repeated lamely. “Does Vrinda still live here?”
“Vrinda!” his exclamation was loud enough for me to jump. The sofa squelched unpleasantly. “Yes-yes-yes. What a nice girl she was! ..Is.”
Conflicting emotions flitted over his face, too fast to get a read – or was I still too fixated on counting the glass necks in the corner? “What d’you mean, was? She not around anymore?”
“Well, she doesn’t live here, that’s for sure.” He took a swig. All that remained on his features was mistrust. Possibly deceit. “Janaki used to handle this so much better.”
“Maybe I could sneak a peek at the prospective room?”
“Maybe you should leave.”
This is where a mild sensation of shame will begin to creep into the narrative.
There had been something off with the entire tableau at the landlord’s. I thought it over as I filched a mostly-intact cardboard box from a large pile of refuse next to his doorstep. Was he hiding something? Trying to escape someone? He’d been pickled beyond coherence, but maybe a sober conversation would reveal more.
(There wouldn’t be one.
My own room had been overrun by a sea of green bottlenecks sometime last year. I’d woken up after yet another liquid dinner, clutching tepid leftovers in a bottle, and stumbled upstairs to yank the mosquito net from my girlfriend’s mattress.
I had walked out onto the empty roof before remembering I now lived alone, and the exact reason why.
Paid a couple of young scavengers to come take away all the bottles. I couldn’t look them in the eye.
Never again, I vowed to the freshly-unveiled patch of floor. Then I got my share of money from selling the empties, and the dry dawn was postponed to the day after.
It actually took two more weeks to happen for real.
This train of thought ran shorter than the Archie one; but, to be fair, it was a briefer walk to the Govt Wine & Beer Shop at Malkaganj.
The grizzled old proprietor looked through me like they do with most mooks standing beyond the immediate vicinity of the counter.
We’d been daily acquaintances before last year’s trainwreck; today he simply handed off my six brewskis without a second glance.
I was arranging the bottles for minimal clinkage in Mr Bajaj’s cardboard box when the old man finally spoke:
“Well,” I hefted the box. A couple of men alighting from a scooter saw the brand of scotch emblazoned on its side and whistled. “Slow Saturday night.”
“Always Saturday night somewhere.”
I did not turn or reply. Nothing but darkness and my feet pounding familiar bylanes, the familiar weight between my hands, the night too balmy for drinking anything harder.
I placed the box at the head of the stairs and took off my shirt before I reached the flat proper.
There was a mound of red and green and brown pulp beside my doorstep, all that remained of the potted plant I’d put my keys under. On the bright side, I was saved the trouble of letting myself in.
I banged my head on the door twice, in rapid succession.
It opened in a widening sliver of bulblight and smoke and music.
“Jimmy m’boy! Come on in!”
The box was taken from my hands. Then I was pulled into the sliver, returned to the fold like nothing of consequence had transpired in the interim.
-You’re kidding, right?
MPD stops flipping through the notepad. Shoots me a look.
It is not a nice look. Suddenly I’m in the midst of an interrogation again, no naked bulbs or hostile Babli but in Trouble nonetheless.
There is no way this is going on record.
-What’s the matter, Mandy?
-Stop calling me that!
He looks like he might hit me. The steady beeping from one of the monitors seems to restrain him. Maybe I need to stop antagonizing the one person marginally on my side.
-All of this, he continues. Just. All of this! The excessive detail! The crooked timeline! It’s like total fucking recall!
-It’s an old memory aid. You try and recreate the big moments as faithfully as possible and then
-Don’t say ‘join the dots’ or I will slug you. What about names? I already had Bhardwaj and Bajaj! Where are all the other principals? Where’s Eeji?
-I’m getting there! I first met Eeji on Sunday! It was
-Spare me the narration. Just tell me the guestlist at your flat that night, and I’ll get a team on it right away.
-I can’t recall.
And the fact of the matter is, I really can’t. Everybody whose name I avoid putting here – everybody not thrown to Mandy down the length of a ballpoint – is a Lost Boy, regardless of age, regardless of gender. Stuck in amber, slowly turning this way or that, but redeemable. Possibly.
The names MPD has – the names that occur and recur in the notepad he has just thrown in my face – are all marked.
Bad things have befallen them, or will befall them, through nobody else’s fault.
And I’ve been right there, in their midst, ever since an old man stapled a list with my name on it upon the college notice-board.
Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.
Public Service Announcement: This probably won’t end well.