Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some Things Never Change

I don't really like childhood reunions. You are in for a few jolts - the world changes substantially in twenty years . It is not the same class anymore, none of the bonhomie pervades, none of that alluring mystery remains. Just a few years ago, I had been to a big college reunion where I was eagerly looking out for the the girl who had been the most beautiful- and unattainable - in our entire college, only to realize with a rude shock that the garrulous woman sitting next to me (wearing an enormous seaweed of a sari) is her current self. This was not a party of energetic young men and women with wings on their shoulders, dreams in their eyes, and funky music in their minds. This was a gathering of potbellied sofa spuds, men in various stages of baldness and women draped in curtains whose only conversation topic is how to convert the 401(k) plan into an IRA.

Since then, I have passed on many reunions. Until old homey LJ bugged me with his "one-for-the-ages" dish (he is tenacious as a leech.) He actually lives in Bangalore, but his trip to visit his in-laws overlapped with mine. It was just going to be me and him.

C'mon, you owe this one, he tweeted, for all that crazy stuff we did together. Ok, yes - once upon a time, we were thick as thieves. We learnt how to pick 3-lever locks to break into abandoned houses. We launched a home-made rocket (with a louse we named Nit Armstrong) for outer space, but a technical flaw sent it into the neighbor's bathroom instead. LJ charmed the young ladies off their feet (while I kicked around on the sidelines), melting them with his unblinking gaze. His ogling was brash and shameless, with such intensity that opened his own tear ducts, and yet, girls thought he was nothing but a puppy dog.

That was once upon a time, twenty years ago: a bygone era. Now, with kids and a shopping to-do list stuffed into my right pocket (darn it, I find a new list in my pocket every time I step out these days), no time for nostalgic reminiscences, especially when they are not particularly sweet from my point-of-view. Yet, I agreed, just because of LJ's personality. He was an interesting, unpredictable guy. It was going to be fun, for sure.

Here I wait for LJ, dodging the flies swarming from the streetlights. A Ford pulls up at the curb, the passenger door opened, and I see the stupid grin.

Immaculate dress - check. Saucer-like eyes - check. Bachchan swagger - check.

"Baddie!" he exclaims, pumping my arm. "All those years in America haven't changed you a bit."

Drops voice. "You still look like a hobo, bro."

Bullying humor - check.

We pulled up seats at The Jolly Den - redone with bright colors, now it looks like some children's nursery, where over a plate of samosas and tea, LJ chuckled  (like he just pulled a fast one on the rest of the world).

"We were rotten," he said, "the entire gang."

"Speak for yourself!"

"Now, don't be moralistic. Remember the paan shop owned by that one-eyed jack? You pinched some pricy Diwali stock from the side he couldn't see. That was cruel, bro. Worth over fifty rupees back then. Big money for him. "

Damn it, true. But I also remembered that LJ was the one who instigated it. I did the actual crime, but he lit up all the stolen firecrackers later while I sat in my room suffering the pangs of remorse.

"Yeah, we were rotten." I agreed, but LJ had stopped listening suddenly. He was looking past me. Tears formed in his eyes. I carefully followed his gaze behind me - a couple of chirpy young ladies had just sat down at a table - and I heard LJ draw in a big slurp.

"LJ, WTF! You still ogling at young ladies?"

He snapped back to reality. "Sorry, of course, I don't do that any more. I got kids now. Maybe it is this get together, you know - a momentary relapse. "

"You're incorrigible! Remember, you ogled the Punjabi girl whats-her-name who lived behind your house?"

LJ's eyes lit up. "Varsha. Oh yeah, that pretty girl! It was a two-way street. She was ogling me too."

"No, she didn't. You stared at her till you psyched her out. Then her burly dad came into the balcony and stared at us till he psyched us out."

"Damn it, Varsha and I had something there but we were living too close ... I didn't want scandals, never took the next logical step. Speaking of the neighborhood, do you want to come with me to check out my house? I have the keys. Let us have a nice old nostalgic walk."

The check arrived. I exaggeratedly began to pat my pockets looking for my wallet (try this - it sometimes produces desirable rewards).

LJ chuckled. "No sweat, man. You get it next time." He threw a thousand rupees on the table and got up to leave.

"Aren't you going to wait for the change?"

LJ smiled. "You Americans are all cheap bastards! C'mon, let us walk. I will tell the driver to wait at the stand."


From the main street, we took the byway that led into the little community of our yesteryears. Barely recognizable, the road was riddled with potholes and blotches of mud, and luminescent tall weeds lined up either side like green curtains. The only habitable light from the few occupied houses suddenly went out. The rolling power outage hit up just as we strode up to the gate, darn the timing. LJ wished he had brought along the driver's flashlight along. Even in the darkness, however, I could still clearly make out the outline of the old mulberry tree in his side yard. It was the only scenery that hadn't changed after all these years.

He opened the broken gate complaining about the caretaker slacking off. He took out the key, but found the door was already open. He swiveled around looking worried. 

"Hey, this door is supposed to be locked!" 

"Maybe the caretaker forgot."

"I'm not sure. Listen, can you come inside with me? Two is better than one if someone is lurking inside."

I suddenly felt a chill. Followed by a deep sense of regret. What the hell am I doing here? I'm living happily in US and now I get into this f-ed up nostalgic trip. What if we open the door and I get killed? This is plain insanity!

"Listen, LJ, all this nostalgia is sweet, but I need to get going. Why don't you just lock it up and let's scram."

"C'mon, don't be chicken. I need your help."

LJ grabbed my shoulder and pushed me inside. I could barely see anything. He flung open the windows. There was just a chair and a mattress inside. The floor was dusty and the wall was kind of sticky.

"Shh..." he whispered. 

I heard it too. A scratching sound from the back. 

"C'mon, let us try the corridor."

The "corridor" is a narrow closed porch at the back of the house with a wooden lattice grill. We used to hang out there sometimes after school on the pretext of doing joint homework, but really eyeballing girls. LJ peered through the grill while I shut my eyes and rapidly prayed to multiple gods in alphabetical order.

"It is just a cat," he said, and shooed it away. He stared at the house abutting his backyard. 

"Hey, that is Varsha's house," he whistled. 

It was barely visible. I recollected her father staring down at us from the balcony. Suddenly, a light flashed upon us waving from face to face.

"Who's there?" a woman's voice yelled from the other side.

LJ blinked. "V... Varsha, is it you?"

The light stopped moving, and settled squarely on LJ's face. There was a long pause.

"My God! LJ, what are you doing here?"

The hair on my neck stood up.

"No shit, it is Varsha!" LJ whispered, and shouted: "I came to check out my house."

She shouted back: "Come on over to my place, through the backyard." 

LJ flung open the backdoor and flew through the backyard like a gazelle. I followed him hesitantly. We rustled through the bushes separating the yards, and emerged on the other side guided by her flashlight. 

The dark shape behind the flashlight said: "Come inside, I have a couple of lights."

We followed her inside the house, tumbling into illumination. She turned around, and in the straw light from the battery-powered lamps, I finally glimpsed the person behind the voice. She was not the lithe girl any more, only carrying a passing resemblance that I could barely discern. 

But, the woman exuded a magnetic presence. Perhaps a little overweight, but jauntily agile. She was tall, dusky, with beautiful skin. The most striking feature were those narrow eyes, they had that intrinsic smartness of a person usually associated with a healthy sense of humor and an intrepid sense of risk. 

I have seen many pretty faces whose eyes, unfortunately, are continuously telegraphing their mental incapacity. Hers was not one of them.

It was the first time I had ever been in this place. I was a bit apprehensive that her burly father would show up to kick our butts. But when I saw a picture of him on the wall, I breathed a sigh of relief. The picture was garlanded.

Just then her maid walked in. An old woman who regarded us instantly with burning hostility.

"M'am, is someone bothering you?" 

"No, not at all. They are neighbors and old friends. Care for some tea, you two?" she asked us.

I was about to refuse, but LJ quickly said yes. He winked at me.

"Rani, can you make some tea for our guests?" Rani went out and almost immediately emerged with our teas. The beverage was as cold as her attitude. 

"I have to take off, m'am," she said, "If you are going to stay here tonight, shall I send someone for company?" 

"No, thanks, Rani. You can go. I will be fine." The maid left. It was just Varsha and us.

Varsha was in town to sell off the house. Her husband was a businessman working in Dubai, and she had a six-year-old son. Halfway through our conversation, I began to realize she had no idea who I was - and it didn't seem to matter to either of them. I was a bit annoyed. It was getting late in any case, and I stood up to leave. LJ leaned over and whispered something inaudible in her ear. She laughed heartily. I waved goodbye, and we returned through the same route via the thorny bushes.

"That was fun," I said, "now, can you drop me on your way back home?"

LJ paused and scratched his head. "Listen, why don't you take the car? The driver will drop you off. I'm going to stay here tonight."

The full import of his statement hit me like a cold jet stream.

"LJ, you are going to spend the night in this godforsaken place, while your family lives just a few miles from here?"

LJ fidgeted. "Listen,  I have to take this thing between Varsha and me to its logical conclusion. I'm getting a chance again. After all these years! Who'd have imagined that? It is god-sent! I don't know what's going to happen or not happen tonight, I don't even want to speculate. But - she is there, and I'm here and there is only empty air between us. That's just awesome!"

He gave the stupid shit-eating grin. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to call my in-laws and tell them I ain't coming tonight. The driver will take you home. If you have to shop for groceries, he will be happy to take you there too. See you, buddy!"

I walked off alone down the byway. At the end of the road, I turned around and watched the houses. The faint light from Varsha's house went out just as the Ford pulled up next to me.


I slipped into the passenger's seat. "Driver, please make a left on the main road." 

He turned at the intersection, and got into a traffic jam behind open trucks. The shop was just on the other side of the road, a flickering light showed that it was still open. I told the driver I was getting out to cross the road on foot. I jumped over the median and noticed, even in the dim light, little had changed over the years. 

"What do you want?" the man behind the counter asked me in a slightly tremulous voice. 

"How much for a betel nut packet?" I asked.

"Two rupees," he said, tearing out one sachet from a long column hanging off a hook. I took out a thousand rupee note from my purse. I passed it into his hand.

"Keep the change," I said. 

He grabbed my hand. "Sir! What is this?" he said. His face was a bit gaunt with white hair now, but the glass eye was still in the right socket, and, like the old mulberry tree, he seemed like another thing that never changes with time.

He peered into my face. "I know you! You are the Professor's son!

"I have to go," I gently disengaged my hand. The Ford had already made a U-turn and was waiting for me, I got into the passenger's seat. The one-eyed jack was clutching the note, his face was incomprehensible.

"What happened, sir?" asked the driver.

I exhaled. "Just repaying an old debt. Now, take me to any place where I can taste and feel America. To a McDonald's or a Pizza hut. To a place that has electricity and WiFi."

"Yes, sir." 

The driver sped me past the darkness shrouding this side of the city. He zipped across the beach road towards Novotel, a five-star hotel looming over the water where I heard foreigners lounge in their swim wear, discuss career trajectories, and the stock market slides.

Sometimes it strikes me that we'd all prefer first world problems to third world pleasures.