It was my off day, and I was sitting in this restaurant, having a coffee and a cigarette. My usual spot was close to the window, so that I can smoke without bothering anyone.
“Hello”. A voice woke me up from my thoughts.
A total stranger was sitting across the table, but I bet that I haven’t seen him when I came. He must have joined later, but still, how he could come without my notice?
“Hello” I replied politely.
“The weather is nice, isn’t it?” he said while glancing outside.
“Yes. It is beautiful”. I replied in the same tone.
Then we started talking as if we were long lost buddies, meeting up after a long interval. After the regular weather talks, we ventured into the more interesting topics. Very soon we found a mutual passion, the riding of two-wheelers. We discussed about the new models of economy bikes, and like a kid talking about the moon, the Harleys and the Triumphs, and Yamaha R1s for that matter. The talk veered off to my exploits on the bike,the numerous trips and the recent adventurous trip to Abbey Falls, near Madikere, Coorg. He exhibited a keen interest about the trip. Ofcource I told him that the road was so good, that I was doing the corners at 90-100 KPH, without any bother. Out of the blue, came the next question.
“You travelled a lot on your bike, Bangalore to Bellary (320 KM) and back, Bangalore to mysore (150), Bellary to Madaksira (180) etc.. Why don’t you go to your place on bike?”
I was contemplating of doing the same, but the advice I got from all quarters is NEVER attempt it. But I was hesitant to admit a certain fear inside me, that I wouldn’t complete the journey. So I kept quiet.
After a long pause, he answered his own query. “You wouldn’t be talking about it the same way you talk about your adventures in Karnataka. It’s a punishment to ride on those roads”.
That reminded me of the pot-holed roads on the half of mind’s canvas, the other filled with visions of the sprawling new fly-overs, metro rails and spanking new roads of Bangalore, Mysore and even Bellary.
He started another topic. “How you plan to visit your folks?”
“I am planning to go by bus”, I said without knowing where this is leading.
“ofcource, you must be travelling Karnataka Road transport corporation, not Kerala, right?”
Again, as in the previous question, I kept quiet. When a person is revealing an uncomfortable truth about you, why should you cross him? The fact of the matter is, Kerala R. T. C running superfast buses from Mysore, which would be suitable for an hour’s journey, a couple maximum. Who, you think, will travel on those pieces of junk for 12 hours? And the reservation system, ah, a primary school website would function more properly and professionally. Ofource a GARUDA (Volvo A/c) is displayed on the site, but neither gets its timings or fare, nor the booking facility. Why should I bother? Karnataka R. T. C has more than 3 AIRAVAT (Volvo A/c) running between Mysore & Ernakulam daily, so I didn’t feel I should look at keralartc.
Suddenly my phone rang. The screen displayed the picture of my wife & daughter together. It’s home calling, I told him. I excused myself and took the call. Everything is fine and daughter is recuperating. You see she was hospitalized for more than 7 days for a viral fever. My wife is coming down with that now, and it seems the hospital is full with the seasonal viral attack. Every year the scenario is same, only the name changes. Dengue, Japan Encephalitis, Chikungunya, god-knows-it names. My mother is sick, so is my sister-in-law. My neighbor got it, so is his’.
Seeing the concerned expression on my face, like a true good friend, he questioned. “Is everything allright?”
I told him the story. He just smiled. That all-knowing smile. Then he asked me one question.
“You pride yourselves in keeping a high level personal hygiene, you bath twice, you wear clean clothes, and your neighboring states are not so lucky. But have you heard any epidemic hitting them so regularly?”
You know what, I hate you for that all knowing smile. I told myself.
It was almost evening, and a slight chill started to descent upon us. I was about to order another hot tea. He had other ideas.
“Do you drink?” he asked with his solemn eyes fixed upon me. His gaze never left my eyes. I felt a little uncomfortable, but I lied to him.
“Occasionally”. I replied hiding the fact that it is more than occasional.
“Let’s have a drink then. It’s getting colder and we need to keep ourselves warm”. I was more than okay.
So we shifted this conversation to his regular hang out place, a hole-in-the-wall kind of bar.
He ordered his poison, me mine.
I scanned the crowd. There was a sizable crowd, all with their own groups or alone, lost in their world. Few unruly elements, who are literally high on spirits, just squabbled with the waiter or some of their regular enemies, and left without much fuss. My mind flashed some scenes from our own kerala’s bars. And to what end we go to drink. If the beverages shop is closed, ex-militaries are hunted out from their hiding place, paid whatever been asked, but DRINK. And moreover, it’s a shared property, so the more and the quicker is the way to go. I watched this guy who silently sipping his drink, enjoying the cool weather. Ahem!
I vaguely remembered some statistics from a newspaper a year back. That our little, paradisiacal, serene state has topped in consumption of liquor. Beating big, thriving metros like, Mumbai, Delhi, etc. Way to go folks. Cheers!
“So, how long have you been working?” His question brought me back to present.
“Almost 18 years now.” I replied with a touch of pride.
“Wow! Amazing. How many years outside of kerala?”
Innocent as he seems, now I started to believe this guy has got something against me.
“Well, you see, I mean… err… all of it.” I managed.
“Why? Why you never worked in Kerala?” his innocent query.
I saw it coming. What should I answer him? That we have no industries left? That only thriving business is Liquor or tourism, for which I have no expertise / qualification? The one business which needs no expertise and thriving at the moment is sex rackets, which I am finding a bit too risky to enter into? That big names hesitate to come to our state? That when neighboring states were offering free of cost land to develop IT cities / smart cities, my government whining about a clause about the ownership of a small piece of land? That we live in a perennial state of fear, that any moment there will be a shut-down because some small-time political party’s leader’s dog shat? That ours is the only place in the entire universe (perhaps), where I have to pay for somebody watching the others doing hard labor? God, I am missing the fun, but I have a family to feed.
Again, my cell beeped. This time it was one of my buddies from my village. I took the phone. Initially I thought he is speaking Greek, then slowly it registered. As intoxicated as he is, it is a great feet that he is able to search my name in the list, dial and more importantly, hold the phone to his ear.
“Hey buddy, when you coming here?” was the opening line. When I met him last time during the first first hour of my visit to my place, his opening line was “When did you come?” and upon answering that the next salvo was “When you are going back?”. Now he want to know when I am coming?
“I plan to come soon, probably for Onam” I dutifully replied.
“Hey, liquor is cheap in Karnataka. Bring two or three full bottle of Rum, okay? Don’t forget. And tomorrow is shut-down here. Some criminal is arrested by the police and he belongs to the RED party. So we are stocking material (liquor) for tomorrow. Ha ha ” The line went dead.
I wanted to ask him, whether he will pay for that, but that is unnecessary. It never happens. And he doesn’t bother that it is illegal to transport alcohol inter-state. He want it and I am somehow, bound to obey him.
“What do you grow at your place? Rice? Vegetables?” once he was sure I am through with my phone conversation, he raised another, seemingly to irritate me, query.
I thought of the endless rubber estates, the trucks passing the Valayar checkpost every day with all the goods we need from Tamilnadu / Karnataka. If any one of these states decide not to, we would be eating rubber from the next day. I expertly skipped the question with another one.
“You must be retired, aren’t you? What were you?”
He was more tactful than I, so it turned out.
“Why don’t you start a business, if you can’t find suitable offers there?” Again he is hitting the bulls-eye, you see. I hate this guy now. I just wanted to finish the drink and go to another bar, without him. But somehow, I sat there, thinking about his latest suggestion.
What could be the best business? Start a hospital, hire a few doctors at exorbitant salary, compensate it with fresh nursing graduates and make them work for 12 hours a day, make every patient undergo the costly scans & tests, because I just bought those fancy machines? These tests may not have any relevance to the patient’s illness, but I have it, so you have to use it. Or start a new pharmacy company, copy some successful formulae, pack it in a new name, pay the doctors bribe and make them write this particular medicine (ofcource the price of this has to be over the roof), but never ever take that medicine for yourself or your family, because you know what are the poisonous things goes into it?
Or better, start a school. That is the best going around these days. Start some in a Christian saint’s name, get teachers who wouldn’t make it anywhere else and who couldn’t spell bee properly, and pay them peanuts, but charge the parents a king’s ransom. Who bother about quality, when you can be flashy?
I was lost in my thoughts until someone tapped my shoulder. I raised my eyes to see the waiter hovering about me.
“Anything else sir?” he asked in a tone, which was smooth.
“I am done. What about you?” I looked across the table, checking with my new friend.
The chair was empty.
“When did he leave?” I asked the water.
“Who sir? There was nobody with you, when I took your order.” He replied, hiding a smile.
“Come on. This gentleman who was talking with me all these while. Where is he?” Suddenly I realized that there is no chair opposite to me. Nor there was a glass, nor the snacks we munched on, nothing.
“Sir, you came alone, you drank alone. Here is your bill.” The waiter said with little impatience.
I checked the bill. He charged me only for what I drank. The other man must have paid his bill separately while I was lost in thought.
I paid the waiter and walked out of the bar. I was feeling a bit dizzy. How can a person vanish like that. I still remember his soft, dreamy eyes, the fluttering of his hair, his deep voice, and that annoying all-knowing smile. The waiter must be drunk, I deduced. Yes! There is a way to prove. I remember giving him my helmet to free my arms to buy some cigarettes.
I jogged to the parking lot, where I parked the bike. I stopped in mid-step, not able to believe.
The helmet is locked safely on the grab rail of the seat, and the only key to it is resting in my jeans pocket.