By Aparna Kalra
Abhishek wasn’t too happy when the doorbell rang. It was only seven, and he had his hands full, getting things ready for the party. He hated early guests; they spoilt the mood, they flapped around while you made last-minute preparations, they poked their noses into what didn’t concern them. Chetan stood at the door — in full uniform. “I’m here to help,” he said with a smile, saluting dramatically. “Can’t leave you alone to cope”.
Abhishek hadn’t always been solitary. Chetan must know that, he felt. He was the first to get a girlfriend in school, at a time when Chetan got excited just sitting next to a girl. Girls defined success — and Abhishek had been successful. He was quick, witty, outgoing. Jobs arrived, or work as it was called these days. Both qualified as chemical engineers, or unwilling engineers, as all engineers are wont to be in the country. Their first assignment meant interaction with ‘labour’. Anyone out of their social strata necessitated placing themselves above or below. So did the factory hierarchy: as shift engineers they had to shout at workers to get a move on so production targets got met.
“This is unclassy. We will never make an impact on society,” Chetan had said in dismay on the factory floor. “I wasn’t born to make Bournvita.” Abhishek didn’t see anything wrong with making something. But “making an impact” sounded cooler.
He and Chetan weren’t average engineers any more. Abhishek was a journalist; Chetan had been one. He soon got disenchanted with waiting in leaky and creaky antechambers of powerful people — for that one quote, one newsbreak. “I want to be powerful myself,” he declared.
“How many times will you keep changing professions?” Abhishek had asked peevishly.
Chetan had his wish. Abhishek couldn’t even request Chetan to lay food out on the table, he would smile condescendingly and say “Of course. I do everything ordinary people do”, and then proceed smoothly to ask his general factotum — how long would common people of India subsidize these Maharajah lifestyles — to “do everything.”
Had he begun to dislike his friend? The thought surprised Abhishek. An emotion, not
quite dislike, unnamed, unrecognized, had festered in him, he realized.
He glanced at the single red rose Chetan had deposited after filling out a jug with water.
It looked silly.
A familiar tread on the stairs, a knock. Abhishek opened the door to Yayati.
She filled the room, as usual.
She was looking good, as usual.
She ignored her impact on Abhishek, as usual.
Yayati was encountering Chetan-in-uniform for the first time. He had lost weight during training and acquired an unheard-of leanness. “OMG,” she said. Chetan blushed; Abhishek grimaced. Blush and grimace met each other in the middle of the room, avoided eye contact and continued pretending to like each other.
It had taken Abhishek time to figure out Yayati. “I know I am beautiful, it is impossible not to know. I do have mirrors at home. But I am impatient with my impact on men, or women for that matter. The pleasure or pain when they see me is weird! There is a complicated person beneath this face. How many will care for that?” Yayati said after they first met, hanging out at an ‘offsite’ of their company.
Except for Yayati, the offsite had been boring as hell. She had evaded being the sexual conquest of Abhishek and Chetan, who each tried their wares. “Engineers, not my cup of tea,” she explained politely. Abhishek and Chetan didn’t become Yayati’s cups of tea as journalists either. She remained their cup of coffee even as she branched off, launched a start-up, become successful, got cheated by her partners, and re-joined the original company all three had worked in. Abhishek never really got the juicy dirt on her start-up journey cut short.
Now would not be a good time to ask.
“Where are the starters?” asked Chetan. “C’mon, host, do your hosting.”
“I didn’t order starters. I thought we will move straight to dinner,” said Abhishek, getting flustered. It was the first party he had arranged; he thought he had taken care of a lot of details.
Chetan sighed. “Let my man get a few things,” he said.
“There is beer in the fridge,” said a now petulant Abhishek.
Yayati peeked into the refrigerator and counted aloud a total of eight beer bottles.
“How many guests?” she asked.
“Two couples…so four…three more from my office. Two friends of theirs. I don’t know exactly,” said Abhishek.
“Oh fuck it, Abhi,” Yayati smiled, her face alight. “Should have just got a crate.”
“Let me,” said Chetan. He dialed a number and gave out instructions: chicken szechwan, chicken lollipops, chili chicken, chili paneer, dahi kebabs, shish kebabs, crates of beer.
So. Much. Food.
Abhishek realized he sucked as a host. He had flashback images of himself tucking in starters, guzzling wine and beer at other people’s parties. He had actually passed out at Yayati’s once after throwing up on her sofa. Saint Chetan, who had arrived late because he was studying, and their journalist friends, cleaned the sofa and carried Abhishek to an Uber.
Yayati and her women friends had run into the kitchen, pretending to be busy, making it clear this was not “their mess” to clean up. Indian women had become strange of late.
The couples arrived. His office pals were suddenly here. Abhishek finally felt like a host. One of his colleagues had brought along a friend: a JNU professor, young, neat beard, gender studies. What was not to like?
Yayati and the professor chatted. Abhishek passed them a couple of times, catching snatches of conversation: “I went looking for that book of essays, Trick Mirror, by a New Yorker writer at the World Book Fair. I loved what she wrote on women and optimization that is forced on us.”
“Yes, optimizing, these days teachers also have to optimize, we are forever writing reports for babus on how we are optimizing ourselves.”
Yayati giggled. Abhishek had never made her giggle, although she had laughed at him sometimes when he griped about low pay in his profession. “…a king’s name, a man, if I remember correctly”. “No, could be a woman, just the desire for eternal youth”.
Aromas broke out in the third-storey flat.
Chetan’s man entered with the starters. He piled up the boxes, looking absurd in khaki uniform with a pistol in holster on his hip. He seemed in his mid-30s, or was it late 30s, and sported a fierce face — burnt deep brown in the sun — on a stocky body. He brought in another smell, along with the food, the smell of male sweat.
“He is an assistant sub-inspector, he will never reach anywhere. I will be made SHO during my training and some poor man who has worked for years to be made SHO will be shunted out,” Chetan told Abhishek and Yayati once they stood in the balcony together.
Yayati went “shh….”, glancing aghast at the flunkey, who could well have been within earshot.
“That beast of an air cooler is a good idea, Abhishek. Where did you get it from?” she said, smoothly turning the conversation.
“Local tentwallah,” Abhishek replied.
Chetan took pains to point out to guests that though he had a high-enough rank in the exam to qualify for bureaucracy, the police service had been his choice.
“It is a more on-field profession, it will allow me to serve the country better,” said Chetan to whoever cared to listen.
The assistant sub-inspector was the one doing the serving right now — opening beer bottles expertly and handing them out. Yayati smiled at him, grabbing them from his hand, and buttonholed the guests with the alcohol. She even ran down the stairs swiftly to help him haul up a second crate of beer.
“Is she a Leftist?” Chetan joked to Abhishek.
Abhishek hadn’t met Chetan since he had completed his training in Mussoorie and Hyderabad, miffed at Chetan not inviting him to the elite academy in the hills despite the dropping of several hints. “Friends are not allowed there. Only family. I can put you up in a guest house.” So much for friendship, which in Chetan’s five unsuccessful attempts at the exam, had often covered his bill when the two met. The exam in the first year; the exam in the rest.
Yayati had let the friendship with Abhishek and Chetan slide, of late. Maybe she felt the monotony of the job after the excitement of a start-up.
“Janaab, tell them about your bravery last night,” said Chetan, addressing his flunkey. “My man here, and a constable, got shot at by two robbers scaling a wall. They fired right back. One of the goons ran away but the other got three bullets inside him — three effing bullets — and collapsed. Our guy here took him to hospital, then donated blood to save his life.”
Chetan paused, and gave the room an eyeful. “This is how police functions,” Chetan looked around, again. “But people say we only beat up students at Jamia.”
The junior-rank cop’s face did not change expression.
“Sir, can I go down now?” he asked Chetan.
Yayati turned to the cop who wouldn’t‘reach far’ in the police hierarchy, and asked: “Why did you give blood to a criminal?”
“It was not like that, a big sacrifice or something like that. If someone needs blood to live, you give. I wasn’t thinking so much,” replied the junior-ranked policeman, his fierce eyes, for the first time, settling on Yayati. He seemed to frown to recollect why he had done what he did, struggling to answer while registering that this woman just lent physical help with a crate to him, a man used to doing physical work.
Chetan began explaining to Yayati the various WhatsApp groups his batchmates had formed: “We threw the IRS out, even the IFS we are re-considering. I want the
WhatsApp group to be only IAS and IPS.” He swigged from his beer bottle. “I am clear who is in, who is out.”
“Chetan, you are not in school, you know,” Yayati said, and laughed an uneasy laugh — perplexed, perturbed.
The assistant sub-inspector’s eyes crinkled as he watched the exchange.
“Who you associate with can make or break your reputation at this stage,” Chetan answered, grabbing a plateful of peanuts. “Thank god, Abhishek has at least arranged peanuts. One boy of 22, junior to me in exam rank, called me yaar whenever we met. We were in an IAS batchmate’s house in Jaipur for the weekend when I took hold of him. It is a beautiful house, very big. Even she, whose house it was, is junior to me in exam rank. I said to this boy, this 22-year-old — yaar kisko bol raha hai, bay? Now he calls me sir.”
Chetan was unstoppable: “From the rank and file you learn because they know much more about policing, and then you control them.”
Abhishek tried to throw in a tough question on police brutality against students, against Muslims in the protests. “They shouldn’t have thrown stones on police. All I know is there is a line which they can’t cross,” Chetan replied, actually drawing a line with a finger on the balcony parapet. He had been a ‘liberal’ journalist once.
A pilot dropped in — someone’s friend — and the JNU professor collared him. “I love pilots,” he said, almost drunk now. The air cooler and beer crates had worked their magic.
“In Indigo, we actually used to speed up the aircraft, yes, you can actually speed up a plane just like a car. Air India, where I am now, things are chill. Lots of overtime money. I actually waved at a Pakistan Airlines pilot from the cockpit at Heathrow.
And she waved back,” said the pilot.
Abhishek heaved a sigh, glad Chetan had competition in holding the floor.
Abhishek heard Yayati telling Chetan’s man: “Please stay. You are a guest now — and you’ve been on your toes since an hour here — and it seems were on duty through the night.”
“I don’t know,” the cop replied, hesitantly, looking out for Chetan, who was not be spotted. “We don’t mix up with officers.”
Yayati moved a dismissive shoulder, smiling at him.
“Madam, what do you do?” he asked, hesitant but making direct eye contact.
“She is a Leftist who makes Bournvita,” said Chetan, coming in from the balcony.
Abhishek laughed, despite himself. Yayati winced.
“I drink Bournvita. It is tasty,” murmured the assistant sub-inspector. He adjusted his pistol, and slid into a quiet place near the table, refusing the offer of a seat.
“Well, I did try, very hard, to be a businesswoman.” Yayati said to him, her constant brightness replaced by a flash of sincerity. “I have an MBA but not the dishonesty it takes to be one.”
“Its ok. Not every dream come true,” said Chetan’s man, wincing, his eyes faraway.
Yayati watched him as Chetan watched her.
“Mine did. If you work hard, they do. You have to believe,” said Chetan.
“For five years, when your bills are covered by other people,” shot back Yayati.
Yayati made Abhishek pull out his Bluetooth speaker. “I was going to, anyway…”, protested Abhishek. “No, you weren’t…,” said Chetan.
She dimmed the lights, bathing the drawing room in yellow glow, and twirled around in the breeze created by the gigantic air cooler. Abhishek noticed she was wearing the irritating rose that Chetan had brought in her hair. How clichéd. She had rarely looked this happy. Didn’t she mention once that she dug uniforms? Chetan had a man Friday, status, power. Journalism, in contrast, was so uncertain a profession — always in recession, always firing people. Abhishek wasn’t even on TV: visible, mike in hand, jogging after people for answers.
Yayati was dancing with the JNU professor, his colleagues, the husbands — and the wives. She pulled the assistant sub-inspector to the center of the room.
“Madam, I dance only pahalwan-style,” he said.
Yayati giggled: “C’mon, ASI, your boss isn’t even looking this way.”
“Madam, I have a request. Don’t call a child in police force my boss,” the cop said.
Yayati almost tripped. Abhishek, leaning against the wall, gasped. Both looked at Chetan, but he hadn’t heard.
“Tell me about policing,” Yayati said after she had recovered. Her silver eyeliner glinted in the dark.
“Policing according to public, I can tell you madam. Public calls police when bulb on street in front of their house isn’t working. Or sewer has too much water. Every problem is problem for police,” said the cop, his broad back moving, indeed, pahalwan style.
“Really? No wow moments?”
“A case comes sometimes. A maid got raped in a park; three thanas worked on it for months. I came up with idea of decoy because rapists repeat crime when not caught.
We caught them with help of lady police.”
“Any accolades? Meaning, any praise?”
“No, credit goes to seniors. I got two thousand rupees and special mention”.
“It is a princely sum, ASI – my sari cost less than that. Can’t expect more from the government.”
Yayati took his hand and actually twirled the sturdy sunburnt man around, sliding her hand on his belt as his body pivoted. He laughed quietly.
A smell of tobacco drifted into the room where hands met hands, fingers touched. Someone had lit a cigarette.
“I put everything in my business, it was online medical advice, purchasing health supplements online. We tracked gyms, put our stuff in there, brought doctors online. Then my partner got caught importing stuff without paying duties, without telling us. We lost everything in that one legal case,” said Yayati.
“hmm,” His eyes narrowed. “You should have shot him, madam”,
“Do you make toxic jokes about shooting people?”
“Why so? What is meaning of toxic?”
“I mean dangerous.”
“Every policeman want to shoot a few people. Seniors, netas who don’t give us promotion, who make us do double duty. All thanas run on one-fourth staff. You were cheated by a partner, madam, we are cheated by a system.”
“Yes, sometimes I do. Sometimes I feel like shooting people,” said Yayati, taken aback by her words. She had always thought of herself as easygoing; where had this anger been dammed?
Abhishek broke into the dancing with a round of clapping and announcement of dinner. “Biryani by the bowl, with raita” he barked out. At least he had got dinner right, he thought as guests dug in, collecting by the table.
“Oh, yes. The Calicut crash: what do you think about it?” asked the professor.
The pilots filled his plate, occupied centre stage, and said: “Boss, totally pilot’s fault. We really respect the Indian monsoon. You don’t land in that weather, especially after two turnarounds. The SOP is don’t attempt a third time, get the hell out of there. And your Kochi airport is just two hundred kilometers away. Land there, na.”
Everyone was all ears. Abhishek wondered if he could make a switch to the airlines
beat, a sexy and powerful beat. Chetan explained the stars on the epaulette of his uniform to the pilot: “I can’t understand how people can confuse a DCP and DSP.”
The party wound up at three in the night. As one Uber after another pinged its arrival on phones, Abhishek’s eyes darted around for Yayati. He felt the same festering emotion towards Chetan — sitting atop the Indian hierarchy with his lal batti and government machinery. All Abhishek had was limited, market forces-battered, penmanship.
Abhishek was made to get busy with the goodbyes and thankyous and lovely party, see you soons.
“Where’s Yayati?” Chetan asked himself looking around.
“The lady with the rose in her hair, who I talked to?” the JNU professor asked. “She left with the cop. The man helping you with the party, the junior-ranked policeman. Didn’t you notice they had hit it off?”
The sound of ‘bella ciao, bella ciao’ hit Abhishek as Netflix’s irritating and successful version of his favourite song began playing.
Indian women had become strange of late.
Aparna Kalra enjoyed poha, and telling and writing stories in school. Every girl grows up with boundaries, she feels, but every woman must learn to break and re-set them. She has a post-graduate degree from Delhi School of Economics, and has worked both as a journalist and editor in newsrooms.