More than two hours had elapsed since Badri walked in through my door. I didn't know what to say to him about his proposal. The fact was that I was more interested in his story than in writing stories for him. I decided that the cautious approach was best. I would try to buy some time for myself before committing
"Look, Badri," I said. I am, er, fascinated by your plan to write, eh, a movie, but I have to make some dinner for myself. My wife is away with my in-laws in Pune. In any case, you must be getting late. You probably have some other business which you need to attend to. So why don't I meet you tomorrow?"
"Sir, will you have dinner with me tomorrow? I'll pick you up at seven."
"Ok, you have a deal."
"Good night, Sir."
"Good night, Badri."
That's it; the encounter ended as suddenly as it had begun. I heard his car start up somewhere down the street. Then it was quiet again. The whole of the next day, through my usual routine of teaching and meetings, I couldn't get my mind of Badri. It was like a nagging discomfort which wouldn't go away. Just when I was about to feel like myself, I would be reminded of Badri, and I would feel insecure again.
Precisely at seven, my bell rang in its two-minute irritating musical chime (it was my wife's choice). I opened the door to find him smiling at me. He looked fresh, relaxed, and of course rich in his celluloid style. He wore white trousers and a striped yellow t-shirt. The t-shirt had a small alligator on the left, near the chest. He also had white calf leather sandals on, and a carton of India Kings filter cigarettes in his hand.
He had come in a gleaming white Mercedes that was parked in the narrow lane which led to my house. I had never sat in one. I hesitated for a minute as a liveried chauffeur opened the back door for me.
"Sir, its hired. From a car rental agency at the hotel. Only double the cost of an Ambassador. So don't feel shy. Get in."
The big automobile purred to life and glided out of my street as my neighbours looked on with curiosity. The urchins raised a shout as we moved, following us till the end of the lane. Their hurrahs trailed us, but tinted windows made the exterior seem dim and shadowy. The airconditioning in the car buzzed self-importantly. I saw that we were moving towards Lambada Hills, the city's most expensive neighbourhood. That's where Badri's hotel was located.
At the lobby he addressed the receptionist by name.
"How are you, Sheila? Any messages for me?"
"No Sir. Here's your key."
"Thank you, you're looking marvellous."
Sheila blushed and broke into a smile. She didn't seem to mind his native accent. In fact, I began to think that that was one of the things that Badri used to put people at ease.
"Well, Badri," I said, once we were in his room, "tell me a little more about yourself. You said you ran away to Bombay. How did you survive? And what's the source of this crazy idea in your head that you should write for the movies?"
"Well, Sir, joining the movies is every starving, homeless, and poverty-stricken street-child's fantasy in Bombay. All those who enter that city want to make it big and what's the quickest way of making it big but by joining films?
"My dreams about entering the film industry began quite early on my arrival in Bombay. I found work at a Punjabi dhaba. It was called, `Papaji ka Dhaba' and it was just outside the Vile Parle station.
"Papaji, the proprietor, saw me outside his restaurant picking up leftovers from the garbage. When he found out that I was a Punjabi, that my parents had come from Lahore, and that I was an orphan, he decided to `adopt' me.
"I worked all day in his restaurant and slept right there at night. In me he got a waiter, cleaner, and a watchman all in one. It was hard work from early morning till midnight. After that, we'd mop all the tables and chairs, set them up, one on top of the other. Drag the blackboard with `Today's Special' on it back inside. Wheel in the ice-cream freezer, fruit show cases, and all the stuff we displayed. There on one of the tables, surrounded by piled up chairs, amidst smells of stale, rotting
food, sweaty, dirty, and dog tired, I sank into sleep."
"But, overall, Papaji was a good man. He kept some money aside for me and was happy when I told him that I wanted to go to evening college. I enrolled for my plus two in the Commerce stream.
"I stayed with Papaji for two years. One thing about Bombay is that you can always get another job. One moves on very quickly. No questions asked. While I was with Papaji I finished my Inter."
Just then, there was a discreet knock, "Room Service, Sir." "Aa jao," said Badri. The waiter brought a tray with a bottle of beer, a mug, a glass of nimbu pani with a plastic stirrer, and a bowl of cashew nuts.
"But how did you manage to study?" I asked.
"Well, it was tough," he said taking a deep sip of the cool amber liquid. Little droplets of moisture trickled down the sides of the dark bottle. "There was very little time to attend lectures. In fact there'd be days when Papaji would ask me to stay behind and work the evening shift too. I couldn't refuse. I had to cut classes. Sometimes, I didn't have money to buy textbooks. I studied after the restaurant closed. On a table smelling of stale food. No matter how much you scrubbed it, the
stink never went away. Some of my fellow-waiters would taunt me, `Bada padhne chala hai. Pata nahin apne aap ko kya samajta hai.' I ignored them. And luckily, Papaji always took my side.
"In B.Com., though, things changed quite a bit. I joined the morning college, that is regular classes. I left Papaji and moved on to a high class restaurant near the Centaur in Juhu. I worked from about 2:30 in the afternoon till midnight. I studied till one or 1:30. Got up at 5:30 again the next morning. By 8:00 I was in college. It was a real struggle.
"I had also two or three friends. We shared a kholi. There was barely enough space three beds. The rent was 900. Somehow I managed. Sometimes, I would borrow a friend's motorcycle, so I was like any other young man in Bombay, with plenty of dreams but very little money.
"At college, I kept to myself. No one knew who I was, where I lived, or that I worked in a restaurant. I never let anyone ask me any questions because you know how gossip spreads.
"Anyway, I finished two years of B.Com. But then, I had to drop out of college and leave my job. Something pretty drastic happened which sort of changed my life. There was a girl, though..." Badri hesitated. "I'll tell you about her some other time.
"While in college, I used to hang about at Prithvi Theatre during my spare time. I assisted Satydev Dubey in some of his productions. I told him I didn't want any money, but that I wanted to learn. A lot of people who are now famous used to hang about at Prithvi theatre those days. Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Baba Azmi, Farookh Sheikh, Akash Khurana. Sometimes, Shabana too would come by because her parents' house was so close. Shashi Kapoor also used to drop in. Then there was also Nirmal Pancholi, who those days, hung around Juhu. There were many others too, young, hungry, unemployed and horny. We picked up girls; sometimes we ourselves were picked up. Some of us went both ways; we made it with chicks and with guys. We borrowed money, sometimes failed to return it, got beaten up. And so on.
"Everyone dreamed of a big break in the movies. I knew I couldn't make it as an actor--I was too effiminate, I was told, to be a hero. I didn't have the right build. So I thought I'd be a writer instead."