(J02E01) “Johnny Mera Naam”

I have a confession to make, Mandy.

I don’t write too good.

I mean sure, the words been comin’ – just as the steady IV drip been comin’ – now ten drops of glucose, now a nice drippy anaesthetic haze, now another wave of phrases bearing whatever trash I manage to salvage.

Jagged pieces of shell. Burnt retinas. Used syringes.

Do you see why I hesitate?

On day one of writing class they grouped us according to genre and made us list the absolute worst clichés we needed to avoid like the plague. I almost got in a fistfight with the guy who wanted “It’s always about a girl” as item one.

I mean, it’s overused and melodramatic, sure, but can’t it also be true? Don’t things become clichéd for a reason?

Maybe I should’ve stayed till the end of the course. There went the merry band of misfits struggling to become better writers. And here lie we.

Stuck in a bloody hospital for all eternity.

I used to write to her, Mandy. This woman who called me hers. She was my constant reader, my audience of one, and with each passing day it gets a little harder to believe she’s still out there, somewhere, listening.

I mean writing to you is fun and everything, but I always have to contend with the possibility that the reader might not necessarily be just you.

And I still need to run out the clock on this bloody Thursday.

*

“Inspector Doshi here. May I know-“

“Mandy! How goes the routine extortion of chaatwallas?”

“Sure beats shaking down junkies, I tell you that. Whose number is this, Jimmy?”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking. Number’s a burner.”

“… Are you working a case?”

“Gotta beat off the everyday horror of existence somehow. Why’s that nice lady mispronouncing your name?”

“Last call for this flight I’m supposed to be on. Your result’s out today, right?”

“Got posted Saturday. No luck this time either. Where you flying?”

“Back to Dilli. Look, just hang on for a few hours, okay? We’ll talk over oat soda, get you straightened out.”

“I’ll do one better, old-timer. Call off your lackeys and I’ll come get you with Gwen and Mary.”

“Jesus. You still riding that deathtrap?”

“Don’t knock my bae, bey. He’ll outlive us all.”

“That would be my number one fear. It’s wheels down at noon. Don’t be late, okay?”

*

And just for the record, Mandy, I’m not fond of the crap you gave my scooter.

We were lugging around a basketball team worth of miscreants long before you got your first uniform. Or college degree, for that matter.

And sure, you could call him Gwen Stacy (my scooter was male, goddammit) and take odds on his time of demise, but the old boy easily outlived my soulmate, my academic ambitions, hell, my old life.

I hadn’t fancied my own odds (or yours, to be honest) but Monday’s loss still hits the hardest.

*

I went down to the corner panwadi near my other place, loaded up on Silk Cuts, folded my old worn trenchcoat into Gwen’s dickey, and yanked him from the dingy cul de sac where I’d hidden his dented ass.

Anvesha still refused to pick up her phone.

I dropped a text enquiring about her general well-being and the specific whereabouts of the Reverend Ma’am.

Then I drove four kilometres of crowded campus bylanes to Bharadwaj’s old place.

*

The pile of trash outside the gate had been fruitful and multiplied. I stepped over a frayed wicker basket that might once have contained kiwi or some unspecified variety of bird egg.

“Ah, Johnny boy! Welcome, welcome! I was wondering when you’d turn up!”

I thought of correcting him but he handed me a square glass with three pegs of whiskey and a purely cosmetic ice-cube and it was Johnny mera naam for the foreseeable future.

“Let’s get you caught up,” he said magnanimously.

I nodded quietly, the glass already half empty in my hand.

“This is damn fine hooch, sir.”

“Please, call me uncle. Or kaka. That’s what the kids go with. I’d offer you dry fruit but I left the basket uncovered overnight. The ants had a happy Diwali.”

The house didn’t look like it had seen a happy anything in years. I kept my mouth shut.

“What’s the deal with Vrinda’s room, kaka?” I finally asked. “I mean if she or that oaf are still there, I could get a different one.”

“Oh, you know Bharadwaj, then.”

His expression darkened. I drank a little faster.

“I kept asking Vrinda why she couldn’t find a nicer guy, you know? I mean kids will be kids, but who lives with a fucking gorilla?”

“Didn’t like him much myself,” I said, a little sheepishly. He refilled my glass and topped up his own. “Used to tell her his sorry ass would land them in jail.”

“Looked like a career criminal, too,” the landlord said, more to himself than me. “There were drug charges, you know. Got pulled over at Vidhan Sabha with white dust all over his jacket. Cops found half a kilo of cocaine taped inside his gastank.”

“Wait, he actually got arrested?”

“Oh yeah. Put him away for a long time, they did. Then two days later Vrinda just up and vanished. We got a postcard from Nagpur saying the girl’s family had found out about the whole shady business and taken her home.”

“But you thought something was off.”

“Well not me personally. But… Janaki thought the handwriting wasn’t a match. I remember thinking he got someone to get rid of her while he was inside.”

“You still have that postcard?”

“Probably. Haven’t tossed any,.. leftover belongings. That used to be-”

He didn’t complete his sentence.

I sat bobbing like a rat in a cage at the bottom of the Yamuna, sipping his fine whiskey from his fine glassware, wondering how long the transition from is to used to be his wife’s job had taken.

Eventually he got up to empty the bottle and didn’t sit down.

“I’ll fetch thap-postcard, Johnny,” he slurred, “and maywe becan masense offit togethr”

I nodded and nursed my drink while he stumbled deeper into the flat.

*

The weight of absence in that room was palpable.

I knew the weird taste on the air at last: it was just like the chunk of rocksalt that had been jamming up my throat for the better part of an year.

By the time the big hand on the clock had covered a third of its trip I was done snorting cobwebs and misery.

“You alright in there, kaka?”

There was no response. I stumbled into the footsteps of my host.

*

Kaka hadn’t responded because kaka was busy blurring the line between on and off the bed, his legs on his pillow, his torso buried under a landslide of photocopied affidavits and identity proofs on the floor.

The documents rose and fell softly as he snored.

The image would be comical if it weren’t for the impeccably-made spread and (clean) pillow marking his wife’s side of the bed.

I presumed it was her staring balefully from the portrait behind the headboard – a hawk-eyed old lady with the ghost of a smile dulling her sharp jawline.

They probably made a good team back when she was around, I thought stupidly.

Then I quit warming my thumb in my arse and began rummaging through the loose pages.

*

There wasn’t much to go on.

I found enough documentation on Bharadwaj to make Vrinda’s papers redundant: the same semi-fake permanent address he’d given the cops on our final bender after undergrad, the initials spelling out a four-letter word that set my inner five-year-old chuckling.

I was wondering whether to fling my useless haul back onto kaka when I saw it – the torn half of an A4 sheet wedged under his head.

It was a photocopy of the WiFi agreement for Bharadwaj and Vrinda’s room. The handwriting was a bit too legible to be Bharadwaj’s. There was nothing remarkable about her semi-childish curlicues or the semi-fake permanent address (69, Parag Industrial Street, Shyamnagar – if that helps your investigation) but there was a rusty staple in the top-left corner.

Attached to the back of the receipt was a passport-sized photograph.

I unhinged the staple and squinted at the flax-haired woman in the image.

She seemed… young. Younger than us bloodshot beardos by half a decade at least. The aquiline nose and brown eyes seemed vaguely familiar. The mouth looked like it belonged on a poster. The expression was somehow defiant but also… inviting?

A small voice in my head suggested I’d used up my quota of sleaziness. I stared down the photo one last time before pocketing it.

I had either seen her up close and in person or I didn’t know her at all.

Sounds infuriating, doesn’t it?

Especially after that bullshit in the last notebook about knowing yet not-knowing Anvesha?

I’m afraid this is as true as that was true.

*

That jackhole in writing class who objected to It’s-Always-About-A-Girl later stood up and loudly proclaimed that he was sick as cancer of Red Herrings, and the day writers stopped treating their readers like infants we would achieve world peace and find our rightful place among the stars.

I remember him being the primary reason I dropped that course two days later.

I still think about him, sometimes.

That jackhole might well have been the best friend I never had.

*

Monday morning in the landlord’s bedroom I decided the photo was lead enough.

There was no point snooping through two giant almirahs full of unsorted knick-knacks in search of Bharadwaj and Vrinda’s perfect little life.

The real question was – could I locate kaka’s stock of single-malt?

And, if yes, would he miss a bottle or two?

Anvesha buzzed with map coordinates and a license plate just as my conscience was trailing off into an embarrassed silence… and, just like that, the hunt was on again.

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