The Narrator

  

                                                                        

                                                                                        Eighteen

                                                                     

 

  

    Though I had several relatives in Bombay, I decided to stay on my own.  I checked in at the Indian University Association guest house at the Kalina University campus near Santa Cruz. I had written to the Regional Officer earlier on my official letterhead requesting a room.  I said I was coming to Bombay on "academic work."

    All through my journey on the Minar Express, I kept trying to make sense, once again, of what had happened.

    After I heard that Badri had left Hyderabad so suddenly, without informing me, I was dismayed and frightened.  Was he all right?  Why did he leave so abruptly?  I waited for his letter every day.  Whenever the phone rang, I jumped at it hoping it was Badri on the line.  I really missed the bloke!  I also wondered if he was a conman, someone who had taken me for a ride all along? But if he had betrayed me, then what had he gained from it?  All the time we had spent together had been wasted.  Badri had even paid for all those meals and nights out.  As a businessman, why would he do that as a businessman if he was going to get nothing in return?  It made no sense for him to set me on to the movie script if he wanted to have nothing to do with it.  Badri had just disappeared out of my life as if he had never been real in the first place.

    The Minar Express was on time.  It would reach VT at 6:30. We reached Dadar at 6:05.  I decided to get off.  I then took a Central line local to Kurla Station.  I crossed the bridge, went over to the West side, and took an auto rickshaw to the guest house.  I reached in less than fifteen minutes. The fare was only ten bucks--those days you had to pay four times the one rupee meter.

    I was given room no. 13 on the ground floor.  It was a small room with a bed, a desk, two chairs, and a built-in cupboard. A far cry from Badri's five star hotel suite, but very adequate for my requirements.  The rent was, after all, only twenty-five rupees a day.  The only problem was the common bathroom, which wasn't always clean though there was a janitor on duty everyday. The worst part was the missing pipe in the urinal which meant that all the piss spilled onto the floor.

    I shrugged off all these inconveniences and reflected on how matters had come to this pass. I had not bothered to inform anyone of my visit, including some people in the English Department of Kalina University whom I knew.  I wasn't worried about relatives because Bombay is such a big city; I wasn't likely to bump into anybody who knew me.  But what if I met someone from the English Department?  How would I explain my visit?  I decided that I would brazen it out somehow; after all I wasn't doing anything illegal.

    After Badri had disappeared so suddenly, I had been very depressed.  There was a dintinct chilling between Neha and me.  I was unable to write anything except the most mundane letters to her.  On the telephone, our conversations were getting more and more brief and formal.  I am sure that when I told her that I couldn't spend the entire Diwali weekend with her, she must have been more than disappointed.  But I had decided that I'd spend the long weekend mostly in Bombay instead of Pune.  I would try to track down Badri and straighten out our whole relationship.  I wired to Neha that I had been put in charge of some paper setting at Hyderabad and therefore couldn't see her in Pune.  I would try, though, to meet her for a day or two on Diwali itself.  I asked her to book my return ticket to Hyderabad.  I had planned on taking a bus or train from Bombay to Pune on Diwali and to get over with the personal responsibilities and obligations to Neha and to my parents-in-law.

    The very day I arrived, I got on the phone to try to locate Mr. Sanjay Chawla at the Juhu-Centaur.  This wasn't as easy as I thought.  The public telephone at the IUA guest house wasn't very reliable.  In fact, it was out of order.  There was a slip of paper stuck on top of it saying, "Coin stuck."

    So I walked across the street from the campus to the public phone at the juice shop.  There, the dial was broken but the phone was working.  However, the man didn't have a telephone directory.  I had no option but to go to the Rs. 3 private pay phone at the xerox shop.  They had a directory.  There were at least fifteen phones listed under the Centaur Hotel, Juhu. I tried many of them one by one, but all were engaged.

    So I did the next best thing--to take an auto rickshaw to the Centaur.  It wasn't all that near Kalina, I discovered, though it too was in Santa Cruz; one had to go over to the other side, to Santa Cruz West, which meant going on to the highway, crossing the railway tracks over the flyover, and going back.  Finally, I reached the hotel.  I went up to the lobby and asked for Mr. Sanjay Chawla.  The receptionist spoke to someone on the telephone and then got back to me:

"I am sorry, Sir, but Mr. Chawla is not available."

"What do you mean not available?" I said a little testily.

"Well, he's out of station right now."

"When is he likely to return?"

"Not for another two weeks, Sir."

    Damn.  I had reached another dead end.  Before I left I found out that the Centaur phones had been changed.  At least I had made one useful discovery!  But it was totally amazing to me how the man I wanted, Badrinath Dhanda, was somewhere in Bombay but I had no way of reaching him.  He had simply disappered from my life and left no forwarding address, no message, nothing. I began to feel like a fool, like a miserable sucker.  I turned to the receptionist.

"May I leave a message for Mr. Chawla, please?"

"Yes, of course, Sir."  The woman smiled at me.

    I scribbled a note to the effect that I was a friend of Badrinath Dhanda, that I had very important business with the latter, and that he should get in touch with me immediately.  I left my Hyderabad telephone and address.  I handed the note to the Receptionist.  I couldn't think of anything else that I could do.

"Can you personally ensure that Mr. Chawla gets the note?"

"Yes, Sir, please don't worry."  The lady must have seen how anxious I was.

 

    I returned to the guest house.  It was lunch time.  I hadn't eaten anything the whole day.  I was hungry, tired, and depressed.  I decided not to risk the canteen on campus, but walked over to the Kalina fork to Seetha Vihar, an Udipi restaurant.  I had that wonderful invention called the Bombay meal for just twelve bucks--a platter with six puris, three vegetables, dal, rasam, papad, rice, pickles, and one sweet dish. At least the meal was a success.  I walked back with a full stomach, feeling slightly better.  This was one of the wonderful things about Bombay, I thought.  You could simply lose yourself in its hustle and bustle; no one gave a damn who you were.  The anonymity was comforting.  I crashed out in my room and slept through the afternoon.

    I gathered my scatterd wits about me that evening and decided to go to Ranjit Studios the next day.  At least I could register our script, or whatever of it we'd written.  I also decided to call Neha from the public booth across the road.  The phone rang thrice before it was picked up.

    "Hello, this is Rahul here, please may I speak to Neha." It was Neha's father.  "Just a minute, please," he said.  I could hear him holler for her:  "It's his phone."

    "Hello, Rahul, where are you calling from?" It was amazing how Neha asked the most uncomfortable questions right off the bat.

    "Unhnh....from home, of course."  "Home" sounded so odd, though.

    "But I've been trying to call you since yesterday."

    "Sorry, darling.  I am just calling to say that I shall be arriving you the day after, on Diwali."

    There was a slight pause; I could hear Neha suck her breath in as she said, quite exicited, "That's w-o-n-d-e-r-ful. Are you coming in on the Bombay Express?"

Another uncomfortable question.

    "Unnh, yes.  But you know how these trains are. Please don't send anyone to pick me up, ok?  I know my way home."

    "If you say so, honey."

    "Please."

    "All right."

    "See you on Friday."

    "See you."

    Neha paused before she said softly, "We love you."

    "I love `we' too."

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape