(J01E08) Red Letter Day – V

“What the fuck was that all about?” asks the girl sitting beside me on the auto speeding slow then fast then way too fucking fast across campus and then suddenly my tired jittery coked-up noggin spits her name out one tired jittery coked-up syllable at a time.

I know her.

“You cut your hair,” I say, more to myself than her, and there is a brief flicker of understanding in her eye before she puts one electric finger on the side of my nose and then looks at the white dust on the tip of her nail.

“Is that coke? Did you seriously just find coke in a fucking restroom?” The moment snapped way the hell up by the wind streaming way too fucking fast through her hair.

When I last knew her there were brown-black waves reaching halfway down her back.

She swore roughly the same amount, though.

Dhoondhne pe bhagwan bhi milte hain,” I proclaim. Look hard enough and you will find God.

The sodium streetlamps outside are a flickering orange chain. I wonder if God is hiding somewhere in this blurry light. I wonder if the auto has broken the land speed record yet.

“This is the limit, man.” She sounds pissed so I decide not to tell her about the half-empty salt shaker burning a hole in my back pocket.

We go over a bunch of those little speedbumps they put in for the sole purpose of pulling your back out of alignment and the auto has never been in the same sentence as shock absorbers let alone the same room.

“F-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ck,” I remember saying.

I also remember going cross-eyed at the last bump, her fingers on my right forearm, the sodium streetlightchain billowing like the arc of a skipping rope.

Then I came to with my head on her lap, watery-eyed and stuck in the past tense again.

The streetlights were no longer moving at all.

The wave had broken.

“You can keep the shades, Jimmy.”

“Thanks, Anvesha.”

*

Anvesha, Anvesha, Anvesha!

She had been a spinal cracker, glorious, crazy.

I met her in second year at a creative writing event held in one of the south campus colleges.

We hit it off despite my badmouthing said college, which eventually turned out to be her college.

“Fellow litcritter, huh?” I drawled as I lit her smoke later that afternoon. “Vocab of a science major on top. So have books always been your thing or are you acting out your personal rebellion?”

“Neither,” she said, raising a single eyebrow at my ridiculous private-eye impression. “Journo major. First year. Looking to change the world rather than tarting it up in flowery metaphors.”

We crossed the road.

“I wish they give our stories back,” I said. “Those six pages are all I’ve written this year.”

“Oh loosen the fuck up, skinnyman.” She’d kept mispronouncing my name and I’d bet her a Mild she couldn’t come up with a more annoying form of address. “Put words on paper and surrender them to the universe. Roll your eyes in the midst of a rainstorm. Get your heart broken and write shitty poetry. Then take a deep breath and let it all go.”

“Easy for you to say,” I grumbled. “Accustomed observer and everything. My world melts under direct light.”

“I feel guilty about taking this cigarette now,” she said. “Your existential crisis is way more annoying than any nickname. Come sup with me, Skinnyman. Grumble about the food instead.”

The next evening I took her advice and went to this party, where I stayed up all night talking to a girl named Manavi.

Anvesha returned my story the day of the prize distribution. It would be the only other time we met.

I didn’t mention the shitty-poem-generator in my life, but I didn’t really have to. Ditto the new nickname that stuck to me like a wad of week-old chewing gum on an overpass.

“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy,” she said in parting. “Go knee the world in the nuts.”

I placed third. She took home the big trophy.

*

Now, on this excruciating bloody Thursday, she enters right behind Mandy, who picks up his recorder from the bedside table, shoots me a brief look, and leaves.

-You should grow your hair out. Did I tell you that?

-About a thousand times. Ever thought of moving permanently into a fucking hospital bed?

-Why, you know any veterinarians in the area?

-I am starting to wonder if your sorry hide is worth all this trouble.

-Really?

-Well, only a little.

She manages a brief but troubled smile. I feel more horrid than usual about getting her involved.

-Anyone still running that marathon?

-Save the drawl for when they pull the tubes out. Three of your friends racked up hospital visits of their own. Another made it to Wednesday morning before ramming a stationary truck with a stolen bicycle. He’s currently in remand.

-Right.

-Yet another ingested roughly fifty g’s of pure black Afghan and went dancin’ with monkeys.

-Fifty fucking g’s?

-Yeah. Still in a plastic baggie and everything. Everybody got together and pumped his stomach last night. Everybody been having nice chai ever since. Did I get around to mentioning my disbelief at the way you campus folk live?

-About a thousand times. Did you try the chai?

-Yesterday. One cup with some friends of friends. Someone played a Crow ballad and I thought of you.

-Blue Murder EP?

-Last track. Coulda died, Jimmy. Can’t you just let the dust settle?

Today I’m the one with the plot points but don’t know where to begin. She stares out at the concrete overpass.

Bit by bit we have drifted into different stories.

I notice the heavily taped-up notebook in her hand. It is one of mine.

-Did you go back to the flat again?

-Nah. Picked it up the first day. But this was a finished notebook, Daddy-O. The last entry was a month ago and spoke vaguely of visitors. Ditto the one before. And there was no point looking for anything more recent, was there?

-What do you mean?

-That flat. Your so-called home. You go there when you have to meet people. They think it’s where you live. But you really put up someplace else, don’t you, Jimmy?

-Lot to infer from a purloined journal, Anvesha. Investigative chops shaping up nicely.

-Hysterical, skinnyman. You groovy but can’t disprove me. 

Cold furrows settle on her brow.

I make up my mind to tell her, but I guess I’m more medicated than I thought, because I blink and open my mouth and she’s already at the door.

The journal on my bedside table has a thin paperback on top.

-Got you some hardboiled to kill time. And get a new pen, that one’s gnawed through.

The moment drops like a melting icicle and shatters on the floor.

-Goodbye, Jimmy.

Click.

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(J01E06) Red Letter Day – III

“I think we might be misreading the situation,” I said to the girl a bit later. “What if those dudes simply ran out of roaches?”

We were sitting in an auto, heading to a broken-down amphitheater on the old campus.

“Don’t you wanna know why they cut you a new one?”

“Not if it involves waking up in hospital again.” I leaned into the gap between us and rolled a fresh one from the dust in the cigar box.

Dude. Just stay sober for fifteen minutes.”

“I’m in the midst of a marathon,” I patted down the sticky bit. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“You know, I remember campus being mellower,” she said after a bit. “No gratuitous violence or multi-day parties. It’s like you people don’t want to live anymore!”

“Well, it’s a pretty popular marathon,” I coughed. The stuff was better than anything I had smoked in years. “Are you sure you’re from these parts?”

“Nice try, mister. No hints.”

“I was just asking!”

“Save it for your fellow brain surgeons, Jimmy,” she took the stub from me and flicked it out into the open air. “We’re here.”

*

Your mileage may vary on most of the people I describe here.

Babli is a legend among cops, the Crow a dreadful myth fluttering down the rafters of campus; but outside their circles they’re both relatively unknown (as they’d no doubt like to be).

The meeting we were crashing, however, was the Red-and-Black Sermon, and the sliver of card belonged to the Reverend Ma’am himself.

We were in over our heads, like two Charmanders left overnight on a waterslide

I mean, I’d spent enough time around other people’s televisions to catch my share of Godmen, and enough effort in the pursuit of literature to absorb some radical feminist thought; but never had I seen anyone walk a tightrope between the two as confidently as the androgynous man in black currently pacing the stage before his flock.

This was probably how cults got started – and the scary bit was how much sense he made up there.

*

-Let me just stop you right there.

I let him. The fact that he managed to saunter in and sneak a peek is most promising: the throb in my leg is gone, my ribs less xylophone than kid-poking-a-stick-at-someone-else’s-chest.

God bless pain medication.

-Sure, Mandy. Sup?

-This is the Reverend Ma’am you’re talking about. 

-How many people do you know by those two honorifics?

-Okay, first of all, we can’t touch her.

-I’m not asking you to.

-Good, because I don’t have the authority. And second: we can’t touch her.

-Easily fixated, aren’t we?

-I mean the Reverend Ma’am is a woman, Jimmy. Female of the species and all that.

-Really?

-What did you think the Ma’am stands for?

-Macadam? Malayalam?

-Goddammit, should I cut off your meds again?

-You’re no fun, Mandy. Ever wonder why I call you that?

-Because you’re an asshole with a reckless disregard for authority?

-That, and it gets a rise out of you.

-What does that.. wait, you were purposefully planning to antagonize her?

-People reveal a lot more of themselves when angry.

-And by people you mean the Reverend Ma’am.

-You must really enjoy saying her name out loud.

-You must really enjoy eating through straws.

*

We caught roughly the last twenty minutes of the sermon but it was the conclusion that really stuck with me.

“They need us for reproduction, so they commodify our bodies. And we let them. They need to control the value of their commodity, so they put a high premium on ‘virginity’. And we let them. They need our complicity to uphold their precious power structure, so they continually reinforce how gentle the woman in the cage is, how tender. And. We. Let them.

“We let them chain us to the kitchen sink. We let them control our articulation. And then we tell them, sure, go ahead and think.

“For us!” The entire gathering called as it scrambled to its collective feet. A lot of them were women but I caught more than a few beards among the disembodied heads floating over the red-and-black sea of fabric.

“For whom these stone walls, this glass ceiling?”

“For us!”

“And for whom do we fight?”

“For us!”

“And for whom is the night?!”

“For us!!”

A rousing crescendo in a hundred voices drowned out the tall lackey having a seizure over his keyboard.

The Reverend glowered into the middle distance, walked back to the podium, blew on the big mic.

The resultant shriek of interference shut everyone up.

“The language is their friend. The terms of engagement are defined by them. And that is fine. It simply makes us the guerrilla monkeys to their demon horde, the Rebel Alliance to their Sith Empire. We will subvert the discourse. We will hit them right where it hurts, and again, and again. And we will not stop until we regain control.”

*

There was no mention of kicking strangers in the groin, no militant choir ending the sermon with an angry rendition of some popular tune (the tall lackey on keyboard appeared stoned or dead or both).

These words I attribute to Ma’am were transcribed from a faulty memory that renders everything into so much pseudo-erudite bluster. But right there, in the ruins of some past generation’s heated debates, the tiny person in the Undertaker getup radiated more conviction than any orator I’d met outside YouTube.

For a moment I almost let pot-fueled geniality shout down the misgivings in my gut.

“That was heavy,” the girl standing beside me breathed.

“I think that dude might be onto something,” I agreed.

(J01E05) Red Letter Day – II

Violence is never a good idea.

I learnt that right after my first dust-up in school, while sitting outside the Principal’s office (the other guy was three years older so they didn’t call my parents after all. Police intimidation tactics are imported directly from our educational system, I believe).

The reason violence is never a good idea – which I learnt as I held my knuckles under ice after the next dust-up – is because it is a damn sight easier than neeti or diplomacy or negotiation. As a last resort it fits the bill perfect-o, but use it any earlier and you risk forming the most expensive habit on the face of the Earth.

I’m pretty sure the two guys shredding books in my apartment knew that as well as I (the third happened to be taking a leak as I burst in); so, in retrospect, the subsequent dust-up was none of our faults.

I thrashed both dudes senseless, and enjoyed it more than they did, but we were sorely aware that leading with lunges instead of lines was ill-advised.

If we happen to meet again in prison I will tell them I forgive the assault upon my person. I will also ask them to forgive the broken teeth and kicks to the liver.

The third bastard, however, came at me with a knife from behind.

I don’t regret breaking his arm in the slightest.

*

I walked out of my flat bruised and cross.

The dude with knife had had a couple of joint joints in a fancy cigar case in his jacket pocket, but not one of ’em yielded a single match. There was probably a lighter lying about someplace but I didn’t have the heart to sift through my meager library one torn page at a time.

I would walk to the corner panwadi, get matches, and come back and kick one of the dudes repeatedly until they woke up and talked. It would probably be the one with the knife.

I ran into a girl on the bottom flight.

It will eventually turn out that I already knew her, but right then she was just a pretty chick on the landing who happened to be smoking.

“Lady, could I trouble you for a light?”

“Um, yeah. Sure. Are you okay?”

“Jonesing for some nicotine, but otherwise cool.” Who was this person drawling out of the corner of my mouth? I obviously had enough bruising on my face/neck to look like shit. Probably should’ve been seeking medical aid instead of playing Third World Tough Guy on the landing.

Then again, she offered me her own coffin nail, so I must’ve been doing something right.

“Thank you,” I exhaled. “Now I’m golden.”

“You sure? No dizziness or loss of co-ordination?”

“What do you mean?” I saw that she’d pulled out her phone instead of a matchbox.

She pointed behind me. There was a thin trail of blood leading down the stairs, culminating in a hole right above the back of my knee.

“Oh, man,” I groaned. “My last jean pair of cleans!”

“Jimmy,” she was holding the phone steady against her ear, which was swaying quite alarmingly. “Stay with me. Please.”

“How d’you know my name?” I wondered aloud, and then fell against her like a bowling pin on a landmine.

*

I came to a couple hours later.

The room around me seemed less like a hospital than a small, rudimentary dispensary – two beds separated by a makeshift wall of curtains, girl sitting on oddly-shaped chair next to the bed.

Pretty sure I heard the squawking of birds somewhere in the background.

“Please tell me this isn’t a veterinary institute.”

“Please tell me that gash is from a household accident.”

I sat up and gingerly inspected the field dressing. It seemed solid.

“Sorry for getting you involved in this, miss.” I avoided her eye.

“You still don’t remember me, do you?” She, on the other hand, was hellbent on staring. “Don’t worry. It will come back. The people who did this, on the other hand-”

“You went back to my flat?!”

“The trail of blood was rather helpful. Nobody home, though.”

I swung my legs off the bed and for a moment my vision was clouded by a thousand black wings.

“You need to rest.”

“Ain’t much else to do,” The drawl was back. “The trail’s gone cold.”

“Unless you’re forgetting something,” The bright fluorescent tube glinted off a fancy cigar-case in her hand.

“Are you sure we can smoke up in here?”

“Observe,” she said, opening the box. One of the joints was still intact; the contents of the other dusted the casing like green-and-brown flecks of paint.

“That was a perfectly serviceable blunt!”

“Get your head in the game, Jimmy.” The way she said it brought back some vague memories of… food?

There was a small, bent piece of cardboard at the bottom of the case; she picked it up and began smoothing it out.

“Is that the roach?”

She nodded. “I’d heard of these but never actually seen one before.”

“Hey, it’s all right. Public perception paints marijuana as-”

“Oh, hush.” There were words on the cardboard. “I mean this was less a J than a calling card.”

“And what does it say?” She held it to the light. “Well, fuck.”

*

-You certainly seem to wake up in hospitals a lot.

-I thought you weren’t reading the notebook.

The painkillers are nearly gone. I can count my ribs without looking down. My least favorite numbers in the world are 6, 7 and 8.

-I got bored. Also-seriously? Amnesia to avoid naming a girl? What sort of writer are you supposed to be?

-Like you found the guys that trashed my place.

-The descriptions you gave belong in a badly-made 80’s action flick. Besides, our regular channels of information are.. rattled.

-They’re scared. Nobody wants to fuck with the Crow’s masters.

-This just gets messier and messier. And yet you dragged that poor girl into it.

-Didn’t ask for her help even once. And she’s way tougher than either of us, Mandy. You’ll see.

-Can we stop with the testimonials and get to the important bits already?

-Right after you get me some painkillers. Or saw off some of dese ribs.

-Again with the avoidance of pain. You might have a problem, you know?

You don’t know the half of it.

Extreme Ways

Ever have a tune stick to your mind like chewing gum on the sole of a shoe?

That would make a kickass opening for a discussion of some music album I really love, right? Maybe with a couple of heartwarming anecdotes about music-as-backdrop-to-formative-years?

Not!

It’s a film we’re going to discuss. And it’s not a new film. And it won’t even be the first film that comes to your mind when I say
“Al Pacino headlining a seedy gangster plot.”

Or the second film, for that matter. Maybe not even the third, if you count all the Godfather films as-

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

I saw this movie nearly two years ago, to be honest with you. Tonight I was merely cruising through Pacino’s filmography, wondering if I could spare the three hours it would take to absorb Heat, when out jumped this one from the middle of some list.

One scene from this movie, in particular.

I will talk at some length about that scene, since it’s right at the beginning, but if you’re A.) already bored to tears or B.) have zero tolerance for pre-movie hype (you snooty bastard), let’s get this out of the way: It’s a good movie. Possibly a Great movie, if you go by that sort of crap. Watch it.

He might not have Godfather’s thorough character arc or Scarface‘s over-the-top-coked-up-shenanigans to work with, but Pacino brings enough charm and dignity to make for a memorable performance, and Sean Penn is able (incredibly) to make his over-the-top-coked-up-shenanigans support rather than upstage-

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

The scene I want to talk about is right near the beginning (if not the actual first sequence, I dunno). A man named Carlito stands before a judge, strutting and grandstanding as only Al Pacino can:

I’ve been cured! Born again […] Your Honour, I mean it. This is the truth. I changed. I changed, and it didn’t take no thirty years like Your Honour thought, but only five. That’s right, sir, five years. And look at me. Completely rehabilitated, reinvigorated, reassimilated […] and I want to thank a lot of people for that. […] I want to thank you, sir, for making the tapes in an illegal fashion. I would like to thank the Court Of Appeals, for reversing you, Your Honour. And I want to thank Almighty God without whom no case gets tossed.

The beardy guy looks like a hardened criminal. The judge is constantly rolling his eyes throughout. But beneath Carlito’s casual contempt there lies a certain desperation.

You see, he knows his own people are all ex-cons to whom the whole performance would look like yet another middle finger to authority. Hell, even the lawyer who just got him off has a latent coke addiction waiting to spiral out of control (Sean Penn, unrecognizable in a godawful hairdo, but really good).

The judge, on the other hand. represents a system that seeks to reform him, to change him.

And how Carlito has changed.

I will not divulge the plot, but there are some torturous choices arising out of the protagonist’s resolve to go straight.

Each time he suffers another setback, each time he is nudged a little closer to snapping, we reach back to that one scene in the courtroom and realize how serious that beardy hardened criminal guy actually was.

Sure, he talks a good game. Mouths off to the fuzz because that’s what you do, hey. But Carlito is ready to leave a world that keeps grabbing for his ankles and is loathe to let go.

The central character’s reluctance to play along turns the slo-mo-shootout bullcrap on its head, so it all works as a sad, wise commentary upon the loud bangs that usually punctuate a gangster flick’s soundtrack.

I have never seen an action movie more fixated on consequence.

The director, Brian de Palma, specializes in glitzy long shots that don’t hinder narrative flow; some visuals involving a boat are as iconic as the courtroom scene (although for more readily apparent reasons).

Speaking of slo-mo-bullcrap, there is also a brief sequence involving live bullets (rather than spent cartridges) falling through the air in slow motion.

I found it beautiful because
A.) It is such a wickedly clever sendup of our standard shootouts, and
B.) it carries more dramatic tension and plot repercussions than your average minutes-long gun battle could ever hope to sustain.

So, then. Carlito’s Way.

Al Pacino has possibly given better performances than this (I’ve yet to check out Scent of a Woman) but man, it is hard not to root for a gangster who takes the same stance on violence that any screen-hugging-couch-dweller most of us would.

What I’m saying is, this movie will draw you in and probably keep you hooked to the end – the plot and acting are both top-notch, the visuals occasionally transcendent – but it is Carlito’s desperate attempts to keep on the straight and narrow that will haunt you.

It is a wonderfully human impulse to seek betterment at the cost of personal hardship; the movie simply illustrates what a  long, long way it can be.

(J1E04) Red Letter Day – I

You know it’s been a decent scene when half the gathering wakes in unexpected places and the other half doesn’t wake at all, even on being kicked repeatedly.

I opened one eye a chink, gave the clock a look, and found most of Sunday morning already gone. I groaned.

I could not move my neck.

Opening the other eye revealed the reason: my head was bound by a tangle of earphones, which were still plugged into my laptop. There was no music, however – probably because someone had used the laptop as a coaster for half a beer bottle at some point.

Contents of said bottle soaking laptop, mattress, everything else in immediate vicinity.

On the bright side, I could not find my phone.

I groaned again.

One of the two idiots still drooling down the other edge of the mattress went shush.

The bathroom door was locked. I limped to the roof to take a leak.

Another Lost Boy was currently dangling headfirst from the watertank, having just woken up by the looks of it. “Your handset here,” he mumbled. “Couple missed calls. Some Babli.”

There are some things even groaning can’t solve.

I ran downstairs to get dressed, swearing all the way.

*

Malkaganj Police Station is a pleasant twenty minute walk from my place. I made it in six.

“Inspector Balbir Singh,” I told the Constable on duty, and was soon sitting before a hefty, bearded Sikh that no-one would ever call Babli to his face.

“Jimmy, Jimmy,” he said pleasantly. “Have good night sleep?”

“If it’s about the noise, sir-”

“Oh, nothing like that.” He scratched his beard with the end of a pencil. “Six years is long time to stuck in one place. Can’t seem to catch break, eh?”

“Well-”

“No, this is about one of non-useless batchmates. Do you know which one?”

“Not particularly.” A different sort of sinking sensation.

“I forgot alcohol and brain cells not get along. Want hint?”

“Uh-”

“Here, have hint anyway: you met yesterday.” He meticulously arranged the pencil parallel to the edge of his desk. “What did Bhardwaj wanted, Jimmy?”

“Said his girlfriend was missing. Needed help finding her.”

“Is that what convicted druggist told? Sounds.. what you say, ominous, doesn’t it?”

“The fact that she’s missing?”

“You’re not idiot, puttar, so how about stop acting like one?” The pencil disappeared under his palm. “Your friend is walking-talking bad news generator. Why not keep out of this, eh?”

“… I think he is innocent.”

“And I really appreciate expert opinion.” The air in the station was hot and completely immobile. “Look, I know you, Jimmy, but that will only extended so far.”

“Will that be all?” I needed a smoke.

He didn’t say anything. I left.

*

The twenty-minute walk back took nearly an hour; but then, I had a lot to think about.

Babli looked mellow but was among the sharpest people I’d met; his involvement here meant either
A.) that Bhardwaj hadn’t been completely upfront about the situation, or
B.) there was something deeper, more sinister afoot.

And how did Vrinda connect to all this? Eight months can be both forever and the blink of an eye – and somewhere within that timeframe a girl had vanished from the streets she called home. Where had she gone?

Where was I supposed to look for her?

It wasn’t like a lead would turn up at my doorstep, right?

Like that ever happened, outside of badly-written detective stories!

*

I came home to find the Crow perched on the last flight of stairs.

Or rather, I came home to find a lanky, long-haired dude sitting in the stairwell, smoking a joint.

“You must be Jimmy,” he said, and then I knew him.

It was hard not to recognize that gravelly baritone, even though it had only ever appeared on badly-ripped mp3 tracks, singing of doom and destruction and getting another beer and letting it roll.

“Is that- are you really-”

“That’s not what you should be asking,” he said. “The real question is, who busted the lock on your front door? And why is your apartment currently being trashed by- well, three dudes, judging by the sound of it?”

“That’s actually two questions.”

“Here.” He gave me the last of the joint. “I’ll let you get your house in order. Find me if you’re still around later, and maybe we can talk business.”

Life’s funny like that, isn’t it?

You wake up hungover, just looking for a place to piss, and return from meeting a hardass cop to find yourself being led into your big fight scene by a campus myth.

The same campus myth you’ll be blamed of murdering, three days later.

*

-So that was your first meeting with the vic?

-Who’s Vick?

-The victim. Artist formerly known as The Crow. Are you certain you’d never met before?

-What? No! I mean yes, I am! Wrote as much in the notepad, didn’t I?

-To be honest I’m only kind of browsing, at this stage.

I notice two things simultaneously at this point. One, that MPD is carrying a small, unobtrusive tape recorder. It is kept on the bed, next to my leg, quaint black thing with white spools rolling in the middle.

Anyway. We’d never met, but his legend preceded him.

The second thing I notice is that I can feel my leg. Or rather the three wedges where Bhardwaj’s pumped-up kicks landed, presumably. 

-What do you mean by his legend?

Focus on the white spools. Turning slowly. Too slow.

-Well, you know. Big man around campus. Friends in unsavory places. Hand in one too many cookie jars. Nasty sort of guy.

-And why was he called The Crow?

It is a ludicrous, leading question. Maybe he didn’t really ask it out loud. 

Ribs nudging back into focus like a xylophone being hammered into my chest, one bar at a time. 

-On account of how the damn birds can eat just about everything. Kick up a nasty racket, while they’re at it.

-Dangerous?

-In all probability.

The spools stop rolling.

-You look pale. Painkillers wearing off?

-Well, yeah. About that-

-I asked them to lower your dosage. Maybe help you focus again.

-Right.

-Stop going all la-di-dah, Jimmy. Need I remind you what’s at stake?

-No, Mandy, I get it.

-Stop calling me – yeah, well, whatever. Need anything else?

-Some flowers would be nice.

He is almost civil as we discuss the going rate for bouquets. Then he lets himself out, leaving me to strike up a better acquaintance with my pain.

(J1E03) Public Service Announcement

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.
-Captain Hindsight)

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:

“Long time.”

“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.

(J1E02) First Day, First Show

Shouldn’t have lied to MPD. Forgot he has access to this notepad every time nurses/doctors come in to disapprove/run tests.

So in college we had this system – I don’t know if you’ve heard of it – called ‘backs’.

How it works is: you blow off studying until it becomes impossible to cover enough of the syllabus, and then your examiners are kind enough to give you another year to strike up a better acquaintance with said subject(s).

If you’re very lucky you can indefinitely postpone graduating!

That was why I was in college the day everything began – should’ve been a graduate two years ago, but a single paper kept getting my damn arse stuck. A qualifying exam, no less – the marks wouldn’t even count in my aggregate.

The first wasted year went by in a drunken haze, but on my second go I dropped the old crowd, stayed home, stayed clean, gave my paper, went underground until the result was due.

The twenty-odd folk were probable there for the same reason I was. Most of them looked like they’d been up all night (just like the old song said).

I mean, I know hadn’t slept a wink.

And just like the old song said, we all got lucky.

Again.

*

The pitch for F.D.F.S. was not new. One year old to the day, in fact.

I’d sat in the college canteen with the old crowd and delivered the inaugural speech, which some sod was currently reciting to a mix of old and new people, all dazed or confused:

Well, boys and girls, we gone and dunnit again. A wasted year behind us, the prospect of yet another in the future, and nothing to show for our troubles but scenes from the high life and vague sensations of falling, falling.

The bastard even said it twice, like I had.

The solution? We stay clean and work shit out. No exceptions, no excuses, nothing. Except...”

a pause for effect,

except it’s before noon. On a Saturday. Who goes home at 11:40AM on a Saturday morning?! The high life needs a proper send-off, one we’ll remember til we’re old and grey; wise men call it aversion therapy.

Here came the kicker:

A party to end all parties, stretched across this bloody campus, hell, the whole fucking city. We empty out ATMs, max out credit cards, lie, steal, beg, borrow. Nobody – I repeat, nobody – goes home. Not today, not tomorrow, not the day after. To go home is to give up.

and sealing the deal with a suitably arbitrary endgame,

“Whoever makes it to Friday comes to watch the first show of whichever crappy movie-

I stopped listening. Hardly anyone would last the weekend.

Nobody ever made it to Friday.

“… Jimmy?”

Bhardwaj?! It’s been forever, man! Where the hell you been?”

*

The shadows across the old concrete overpass are shifting. Afternoon on Thursday.

I broke my year-long tryst with sobriety on Saturday; early Wednesday morning I was being given a tune-up by Bhardwaj. Woke up today in a hospital bed. And there wasn’t a single clear-headed moment since that speech. Not one. Even after the thing with the Crow-

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The point is, it wasn’t an ordinary binge, in retrospect. There was a clear and deliberate feeling of escalation – I wouldn’t change a thing if it were one of my godawful stories.

My sole problem had been with alcohol (which we will get to, unfortunately presently); giving up on smoke(s) had been an act of self-punishment. Can’t clear Formal Logic (or Communicative Hindi or Personal Hygiene 101 or Motorcycle Repair)? Be like that, then. Stay clean you lil shit.

The stuff in the tulip had been clean, fragrant and soothing. I smelt it as soon as the dude with the two lighters lit up and it was like I hadn’t been gone at all.

I will smoke until the lights go out tonight. I will make up for the months and months, and tomorrow it will be over again, this lapse. Not a drop of ethanol shall be spilled, for I am in control. Right?

Wrong. Wrong as fuck.

But more on that later.

*

Bhardwaj said no a couple of times, but he took the tulip in the end.

We sat in silence for a bit: him smoking, me swaying a little. The colors around us seemed a bit.. brighter? Like they didn’t look any different, but my mind kept insisting I pay them attention, and a dude with a guitar played something soft and downtempo but was drowned out by birdsong. Four other people sat earnestly discussing the degree to which ‘Apocaparty’ sounded ridiculous (Answer: every fucking degree).

I tell you all this so the conversation that followed doesn’t seem as weird.

“Didn’t the landlady’s husband have a forwarding address? A number he could give you?”

“He was in no shape to help. Been drunk ever since his wife went, I think. The whole place was reeking and dusty and stacked with empties. Plus I.. I don’t think he likes me much.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t like anyone anymore.”

“Funny as fuck, being left behind.”

He asked about the writing. I was less snarky than I’d been with anyone on the subject. He also asked about the Private Detective Story, which was easier to relate since it was funny and off-colour (maybe later?).

“You still seeing that girl, whatsername?”

“Manavi? No.”

“Still think of her?”

“Um. Sometimes. She had this annoying habit of hogging the covers and nudging me out of bed around 4AM. Still blame her for the first time I bombed this paper.”

“Was that the straw?”

“The what now?”

“Well, you know. The straw that woke the camel’s aunt. I mean why’d you break up?”

“We didn’t. Her blood went bad on her last year. The chemo did the rest.”

*

What would Bhardwaj say to that? What could anyone?

He kept quiet. To my surprise I found myself going on anyway.

“The boorish night habits are what I think about the most. I got a smaller mattress, cut the sheets into half, but it all still seems so fucking large. Way too much space for one person. Or two people. Or all the people in Hudson. You know? Every night I lie with sheets tangled awkwardly around my legs and think, mine all mine. Then I sleep on the floor.”

He gave a mirthless grin and motioned for me to take the tulip, which was almost done.

“Funny as cancer,” he said, “being left behind.”

And Babli and Mandal and half the world have been asking why I agreed to help him, why I got embroiled in an ex-con’s mess (who, as it turns out, might just have been on furlough rather than free).

Why I asked him the landlord’s address and offered a hand.

What nobody seems to understand is, he deserves to know.

The world is cruel and ugly and miserable, but it offers rays of sunshine to remind us that all darkness can be scrubbed off with time and effort.

It didn’t matter if he’d been gone eight months or eighty years, didn’t matter if he was a crazy druglord or framed simpleton. Bhardwaj deserved to know what had become of Vrinda.

It’s a pity my investigation got nowhere.

But more on that later.