The picture was tagged "Coming back to life". Hands on the hips, a starry grin, flowery dress, and a green hat. The curls on the hair and the nose ring was a first-time. With every passing year, she had only added on to the charm that she was gifted with. Lying on my bed, I scanned the pictures on my iPad scrolling through them in slow motion. I paused on a picture where she was sleeping with her daughters. "A happy family sleeps together". I was happy to see a Facebook update from her after so long but the realization that it was the last picture made my heart twitch. I felt myself sinking into the deep and dark pit of loneliness.
I first saw her in the college canteen. She was in pink pants, the first time I saw anyone in pink pants, and since then pink always reminds me of her. She was a senior and was dating a guy who looked like Brad Pitt. Despite that as the cliché goes, I couldn't help falling in love with her. She was the college tennis champion. I was one of the ball boys for the last match she played for the college. That was a golden opportunity to say hello to her but I couldn’t dare after she lost the match. It would have made no difference if she had won. She married a hot-shot and settled in the US. I'm ashamed, only slightly, but I have to admit that I regularly visit her Facebook profile. I still remember her post about her divorce last year. “Happily Married. 2008-2014.” I thought of sending her a Facebook friend request but, as always, dropped the idea.
I put the iPad face down. I needed to lift myself up. Drink and drive always works. I got into my car. The building security guard tapped on the car window and handed me a yellow envelope. It felt like a letter. A letter? For me? It must have been a mistake. I threw the envelope on the passenger's seat and drove away. Driving aimlessly with a bottle of whiskey was my remedy to sooth the heart on lonely days. There aren’t days when I'm not lonely but some days are lonelier than others. The blissful music of 70s calmed my nerves. I drove slowly, humming every song along and floating up with Kishore Kumar’s voice. I took a random left turn and went past a parked car. A young couple was laughing inside, most likely waiting for an after party to start. My heart ached.
I have passionately longed for a companion. After completing my secondary education in my small hometown, where speaking to girls was a taboo, my parents enrolled me into an all-boys boarding school. Life passed by uneventfully. My dark complexion, a height of 5'4'', a small nose, extra-large ears, and a flat, circled face was never going to make someone fall in love with me at the first sight. The two years of arranged-marriage wild goose chase that led to nowhere only added insult to the injury. First impression is the last impression. My receding hairline didn't help the cause. “I don't think it will work” was the usual response. Apart from a couple of girls though, no one was rude. I never blamed the ones who were. It was slowly dawning upon me that I lacked the charm to tickle a heart. I had no chance. I was at a juncture in my life where I had a choice to make. I did. I picked up loneliness over rejection. No regrets. Over the last five years, I've made peace with my envy pangs that get highly evoked while watching ‘happy endings’ in Bollywood movies. To envy is human. It doesn't make me a bad person.
My next day in the office was like any other day. As a backend sales analyst in a multinational electronics company, I crunch numbers on spreadsheets. I answer standard questions or at times invent and then answer them. Should the company invest in manufacturing a low range TV? Why did the sales in North drop by x%? Yadda, yadda, yadda. I think I'm good at it. I've had the desire to deliver the analysis to the head of sales but the thought of standing in the board room and presenting it to him sends a chill down my spine. The only person with whom I've had a meaningful conversation in the office is with Shilpa, my boss's secretary. For reasons that are unknown to me, she cares for me. I enjoy our one-sided conversations that are centered on her life. Boss rants, her husband Aditya's smoking or foreign trips, her boy's school admission, prickly mother-in-law, holiday plans to Goa, the list goes on. She gets to talk to someone and I get to listen to someone. Win win for both. We go out for lunch together every day. She often brings lunch for me. I cook daily, and every now and then I get food for her too. She's never asked me anything about my personal life or why I didn’t marry. Deep inside she knows.
This is your school friend Saurabh. I know this letter will take you by surprise. It has been so long since we spoke. I miss those days. Life was so simple. Wasn't it? Do you remember those cricket sessions? The only worry in life was Mathematics.
How are uncle and aunt? Did you marry? Do you also have kids?
I got married two years ago. I wanted to invite you but I didn't have your address. A lot of friends from school attended. We never remained in touch but I knew that you were in Delhi as we would often talk about you. It is sad that our lives took different turns. I myself had to move here this year. I did try to look for you on Facebook but couldn't find you.
I'm sorry but it was by accident that I jumped upon your address. I do marketing research and yesterday while scanning through demographics data of people who have bought a car in last three years, your name jumped in front of my eyes. The chance that it was really you was next to none but then out of curiosity I looked into the bio-data and I knew it was you.
I didn't like the idea of calling you directly. I was worried that you'd mind. That's why I'm sending you this letter first. Please call me if you'll like to rekindle the old days. I'm mentioning my phone number below. I will wait for your phone call.
It was the next morning that I read the note. At first, it filled me with a mild rage. How was it possible that my private data was so readily available? Who was I kidding though? It is the reality of the modern world. Moreover, my personal data was a useless piece of information that wouldn't sell for a rupee. I made myself a cup of tea and went down the memory lane.
I remembered Saurabh, not vividly though. It was difficult to put a face to him after all these years. He was an average student. He was a back bencher and often bunked classes. His father beat him to pulp once in front of his friends because he had stolen money to eat out in a fancy restaurant. He was well known for the dottiest excuses that he came up with every time he missed his homework. He was very active in school extracurricular activities. Despite an average academic record he was smarter than I ever was, in fact he was smarter than most of us, and what made him stand apart was the fact that he knew it. Although I stayed away from it during my school days and only got to it in college, he was the one who introduced our friend circle to cigarette. We really didn't play that much cricket together but every time we did, I prayed that we were in the same team. My legs turned to jelly every time he was bowling to me. He was fast alright but it was his fiery red eyes fixated at my middle stump that made me piss in my pants. The only time I saw him flutter was when Asheesh sir walked in for the Math class. I never met him and most of my classmates after moving to the boarding school. After my dad passed away, my mom moved in with my elder brother. She passed away too couple of years ago. Yes, I've a brother, elder and more successful than me, settled happily with his family.
I've grown apart from all my college friends and couldn't remember when I last spoke to one. This was a school friend I hadn’t spoken to in eighteen years! I remained in two minds. It was after a week that I called him.
"Gaurav, my friend. I'm so glad that you called up. I had a feeling you would." he said excitedly as soon as he picked up the phone.
"Hi Saurabh. It's good to talk to you after so long." I replied.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I'm doing just fine. How about you?"
"I'm good too. Look, I'm sorry that I chanced upon your details accidentally."
"I'm so happy to get in touch with you."
"What's up?" I asked awkwardly.
"Everything is good man. As I told you, got married. Life is good."
"Good. Are you in touch with others?"
"Yes and no. You know how life is these days. Hey, let's catch up. Phone is no fun."
"Yes, yes. Sorry, I'm driving." I lied.
"I can call later."
"No, no, it's fine."
"So let's meet. Where do you want to meet? I can come down to whatever works for you. Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, anywhere."
"Amm. Gurgaon is far for me and I seldom go there. Delhi?"
"Sure thing. Connaught Place?"
"Great. I'll book a table somewhere. This coming Saturday evening works for you?"
"Yes it does."
"Great. 5 PM. See you."
He sounded super excited, as if he was going to meet his long lost best friend. I really wasn't interested in going back and talking about school days, which probably was the only topic we could have chatted about. Bailing out wasn’t an option since I had called up and it'd be rude to cancel on him. I shouldn’t have called.
On Saturday, I cooked my lunch but didn’t feel like eating it. I sat tapping on the floor and flipping the TV remote around in my sweaty palms, a random movie playing in the background. I decided to leave early. Despite the weekend and perfect weather, the area was deserted. This area used to be a crowd puller years ago but the advent of multiplexes and shopping malls took the cream away. I didn't directly go to Brahma, the bar that he had reserved a table in. It would be rude if he saw me drinking even before he arrived. I knew a standing bar nearby. My nerves calmed down and looked forward to the evening ahead after two whiskey shots. I got to the reserved table by 5:10, a little late, on purpose. He hadn't reached yet. Twenty minutes had passed by. No sign of him. He must be stuck in traffic. I decided to give him another ten. 5:45, still no sign of him, ridiculous. I called him up.
"Hello" it wasn't him. It was a female voice. Someone in their twenties.
"Hello. I'm looking for Saurabh."
"Sorry, he is not home. I'm his wife. He forgot his cell at home."
"Oh, he was coming to see me but he hasn't reached yet. Is there an alternative number?"
"Sorry, no, there isn't. Yeah, he told me that he was going to meet a friend. He left almost two hours ago. I'm sure he is stuck in traffic or something."
"No problem. Thanks."
I ordered myself a drink, waited for another thirty minutes and then gave up. May be he changed his mind. May be he did come, saw me and turned around. It didn't feel bad. On the contrary, I felt very light driving back home. No conversation is better than an awkward one. I had a drink outside after ages (my night drives don’t count).
It was late in the night at around eleven that my phone buzzed. It was Saurabh. I didn't pick up. The phone buzzed again and again. It was the fourth or fifth time that I picked up. I expected a creative excuse. It was his wife though.
"Hello. Did you guys meet up?"
"No. What happened? You sound worried."
"He hasn't come back."
"What? I waited for him till 6:30 and then left."
"God knows where he has gone."
"I think you should check with his friends."
"I've only moved to Gurgaon last month. I haven't met any of his friends."
So he lived in Gurgaon.
"He must have gone out with a friend."
"He always keeps me informed of his whereabouts. He told me he was going to see you. You guys really didn't meet today?" she asked me.
"What do you mean? I've told you we didn't meet today." I was irritated.
"I'm sorry. I'm extremely worried right now. I'm new to this town. I don't know what I should do. Should I call the police?"
"Please calm down. Everything is going to be fine. It's just been few hours. I'm sure he is somewhere around. Please wait for him. I'm sure he'd be home soon."
"I hope so too."
There was a moment of silence. I didn't know how to end the conversation. I was groggy and wanted to sleep. I didn't need to try as she cut the phone herself.
The phone was buzzing again. Being a light sleeper, I woke up. I guessed that the time was around 3 AM. He must haven't returned.
"Hello. Is he back?" Stupid question to ask.
She was sobbing and breathing heavily. I jumped out of my bed worriedly.
"I have this weird feeling that he is in trouble. Has he met with an accident?"
"Please don't think like that. I'm sure he is fine."
"I told you. It has never happened before. I'm always aware of his whereabouts. I knew where he was even when I hadn't moved to Delhi. I don't know what to do. It's been almost 12 hours since he is gone."
"No one from family lives remotely close so they can't help and I don't want to trouble them at this time."
"I don't know anybody apart from you in the city."
Wait, what? That was stretching it a bit too far.
"Listen, Can I ask you for some help?"
"I'm very scared. Can you please come down to our place? May be we could talk to the neighbors? If needed, head to the police station? Please. I don't have anyone who can help me."
Her muffled sobs continued.
Not for the first time, I was in two minds. With no traffic that early in the morning, it would take me at most an hour to get to the address that she just gave me. I drove reluctantly, my mind filled with all kinds of possibilities. Accident? Road rash? It's not uncommon in Delhi. Did he elope with his mistress? That was absurd. Why would he get his wife in the town if he had to do that? Was he alive? Whatever happened to him it was unexpected, I concluded. He was coming to see me. I was hoping that he was safe for if he really disappeared, I'd surely be grilled by the police. I didn’t want that hassle. Google Maps told me that the destination was 5 minutes away. The first rays of sunlight were breaking through the dark. A left turn into a narrow street followed by an immediate right turn and I was in front of a tree in the middle of the road. That's when the phone started ringing. "I'm right in front of you." I looked up and saw a woman. Yellow pants, average height, and waving her phone at me. I waved back and slowed down.
My head felt like lead. My mouth was dry and tasted of bitter cucumber. I found myself sleeping at the back seat of my car. I was sweating like a pig. The first thing that I noticed was the tree. The car was neatly parked at the edge of the road, the sun beating down on it. I jumped out and scrambled through my belongings. Everything was in the right place. What had happened? I remembered that I had come out of the car. She stood there waving. Then what? It was all cloudy. Did someone hit me? I checked the back of my head. Nothing. I checked my phone. "All is well," a text message from Saurabh. I called. The phone was switched off.
A week had passed since that strange night. I wasn't able to get in touch with Saurabh or his wife. The phone continued to remain switched off. I drove back to their apartment building. There were two Saurabhs who lived there, an eight year old boy and a teenager. Was he living with a false identity? Why would he? I tried to check if there was a young man whose wife had just moved in last three months. No. No common school friend that I could get hold of was aware of his coordinates. Why would she give me a wrong address and then leave me in that drugged state in my own car? Did he really return or was that message sent by someone else? I scanned Facebook but couldn't locate him. I didn't even know her name.
"He had returned and wanted to avoid me so they drugged me and left me in my car,"
"I was piss drunk and dreamt the entire episode,"
"I met them and we smoked pot,"
"Someone harmed them. I was the uninvited guest so I was left in the car,"
Crazy conspiracy theories like that engulfed my mind. How could anyone explain what had just hit me? I was able to finally get hold of a close friend of his from our school days who knew he had moved to Delhi. He was surprised to hear that he got married. My sixth sense told me that they were in deep trouble. Reaching out to the police was a hassle and I ruled it out. I had only my lunch buddy to share this experience with. For the first time, our conversations had a scoop from my life. She had no conjectures apart from telling me that I must have been smoking weed. I couldn’t reach any conclusion.
With time, the curiosity dissipated. Life resumed to normal. A healthy dose of spreadsheets, night drives, harmless Facebook stalking, a hint of porn and good old sixties music helped me recover from the curiosity pangs. The cat had no choice.
A phone call from Shilpa three months after the incident awoke the cat again. She had never called me after work so it must be urgent. She asked me to come down to her place immediately. She wasn't ready to divulge any details on the phone. It was related to the mystery. I was asked to carry the note I had received from my friend.
This was only the third time that I was meeting Aditya in person but I knew him very well and I was sure he knew me well too. He was a nice chap. I liked him. Despite being a bigshot VP in a bigshot company, I found him extremely humble. I could be friends with him. Like wife like husband. He handed me a yellow envelope. It was something he had received that morning at his office address. Yellow envelope! I read the note inside it in a jiffy. Similar wordings to the note that I had received! Different handwriting. No mention of cricket. Something about a pretty girl in the school. It was addressed to Aditya and some Gaurav had sent it.
"What does this mean?" I murmured.
"You don't get it. Do you?" Shilpa said.
"What's going on?"
"Check the envelope you received carefully."
It took me a moment but I realized what she was talking about. How could I be so dumb?
No last names!
No house number in the address!
"Every Gaurav knows a Saurabh." I said.
"Exactly, exactly! The probability that there is someone with one of those names or for that matter Aditya in a building is very high. Pick one of these names and scream it out loud in a crowded place. Chances are that at least one head will turn." Aditya boasted. After all, he was the one who had the dibs on solving the puzzle. He passed the cigarette to me.
"What are the odds that one of these random letter reaches an Aditya who knew a Gaurav in school? Odds that they grew apart in school? Odds that there indeed was a pretty girl and this Aditya would want to speak to their school friend and call back?" I asked.
"Very slim but not zero. My head starts to hurt when I try to guess how many such letters this gang must have sent across the city." he said.
"It makes sense but why take all this trouble to leave someone drugged?"
"I don't know why. I do know something though. Take a look at this." He was waiting for this question.
He handed me three newspaper cuttings. Three different robberies. The victims - two Saurabhs and a Gaurav. All three men had gone to meet someone. A friend who had just flown in from London. A friend's brother who had made it big. A friend's wife in some kind of distress. All three were found on the roadside somewhere in or around Delhi in drugged state. Everything but their underwear had been stolen.
"Are you lucky my friend or did they take pity on you?" Shilpa put her hand on my shoulder.
"I have no clue. May be someone passed by and they had to abort the robbery." Aditya said.
"I'm not sure if it makes sense. Why take all this trouble? Just stop a passing by car and rob it." I asked.
"Evil has its ways."
"Random yet predictable! Thrill of the wait! Thrill of the chase! Some men like to relax in their boat and wait with the fishing rod instead of throwing a net in the water. The harder the catch, the tastier the dish." He looked into my eyes and lit another cigarette.
"So, Mr. Gaurav, what happened that night?"
"I don't know."
"Do you want to know?"
"There is no need to be Sherlock. Let's go and speak to the police." Shilpa chimed.
"Come on! You know that I'm a fish that thrives on any hooks that life has to offer."
"We're going to get close to the trap, not to get trapped, but to lay a trap of our own. I will dig my teeth into the hook only to pull this fisherman into the water. We'll call the police but only after we've played a bit." I liked his exuberance. She made a stupid frowning face though. I was in two minds but his confidence pushed me over.
He had a plan. Obviously it started with him making the phone call. As expected, the receiver knew who was calling. As expected, a quick discussion and a rendezvous date was on the offer. Aditya had already thought through how he was going to play. He played his part like a veteran actor. The stage was set. It was in a South Delhi bar this time.
On the meeting day, he'd go to the bar and I were to keep in the hiding somewhere around. He was sure that no one would turn up. Why set up the date then?
"It makes them look more real, just like mention of cricket and pretty girl in the letter did, but more importantly, they can follow you back home and get to know who you really are. The next trap, if they decide to put the plan in place, gets set up based on your profile. So I’m sure that no one will turn up but there'd be someone there waiting for me."
That is the reason I couldn't be the protagonist. I was tasked with following whoever would follow him. He was certain that this person would find himself a seat in the bar from where they could observe him. Is the fish worth it? Is the fish too dangerous to catch? It didn't take him long to understand who this person was. "A curly haired guy with white shirt and black denims." He flaunted his iPad and passed time writing some emails. Exactly thirty minutes past the scheduled meeting time, he called the number. A guy claiming to be Gaurav's cousin picked up. Gaurav was on his way. Indeed. The chilled beer calmed me down. Aditya spent another thirty minutes there before walking out. The curly haired guy started to follow him and I did the same, maintaining a healthy distance. I had to be careful because, in all likelihood, he was the guy who followed me the other day.
Aditya had no plans of going back home. He was driving a Toyota Corolla and had purposely left his BMW 3-series at home. That might just scare the gang, based upon the three profiles they had looted. The curly haired guy was in a Maruti. As planned, Aditya parked his car outside an old apartment complex in Noida. His friend lived there and he was a regular visitor, so no one questioned him. The rogue's job was done, so he thought. My heart was pounding. Sweat tricked down my neck. Traffic is a boon and a bane at the same time when following someone on Delhi streets. No one's going to know that they are being followed amongst the chaos. On the other hand, anybody can cut your way from anywhere and you'd lose the target if you aren't paying attention. I kept myself in a different lane at a distance of two cars and smoked continuously. The guy made a short phone call, most likely updating his boss. The fish was one step away from taking the bait. I followed him into a restaurant.
I entered five minutes after he did and found him seated with a man who was sipping on his coke and intently listening into him. I was hungry so I grabbed a sandwich and coke myself. I found a seat in the corner. I sipped on my coke and ate slowly and kept a constant gaze at them. The second man, most likely the mastermind, had his back towards me. He hardly spoke a word. He kept on nodding and taking notes.
All of a sudden, as if he had realized that someone was watching him, he turned his head. My heart skipped a beat. That gaze looked through my soul. The fire in those eyes! In a moment the paranoia turned into a realization that reflected on my face in the form a huge smile. He smiled back. He setup a game of chance but chance had played a game of its own. I uttered a muffled thanks and nodded at him. He nodded back, stood up and walked out. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. Aditya was calling. I didn’t pick up. My fingertips buzzed with a newly found reverence for the concept of chance.
I sent a Facebook friend request later that night.