The Table

It’s a rainy Mumbai night, a consistent stubborn downpour since the last three-four hours had left the streets water logged, not a very rare situation in the city though. But it was compounded by the infrequent power cut – the road lights are dimmed and the streets are looking like a black hole ready to engulf all the busy-ness of the city. A perfect night to be in house enjoying a Gin-tonic or Malt but no glory in jostling across the crowd trying luck amidst already thinning transport.

He was quite late at work, albeit in the late shift these days. The end-of-day settlement batch job had stretched its limits way past the midnight hour, the perks of a heavy trading day in the market. Joe – that’s what colleagues and client call him, an anglicised and ‘easy’ short of Joyshonkar, which he assumes to be too obnoxious a name to be called out at a party. Joe, looking at his watch whilst hastily collecting stuff in his cubicle, fathomed that there might be a very thin chance to procure a seat at the all-night bar close to Dadar station.

He was in his late twenties, should have been married happily if things would have gone as planned – but alas, he is unhappily single and not ready to mingle yet. In a jiffy, he almost zipped past the sign-out counter which caught the dozing gatekeeper off guard. The out-time is closely monitored for the late shift fellas, given the project associates are billed hourly and are paid accordingly. Without a second thought Joe started something which he calls sprinting by his own definition, but is indeed a swifter pace than a brisk walk. Nevertheless, seemed to be a lucky day for him as he landed straight at the back seat of a taxi, throttling the meter to the left, almost habitually and in a panted breath muted ‘Dadar’; lit a habitual cigarette to the taxi driver’s glare, puffed out the bluish smoke to the misty sky and realized quite late, he is almost close to being called as drenched.

It was quite a bit of struggle to get inside the crowded bar but thankfully the power cut had left a lot of tired faces finishing their session early, owing to dearth of chillness in the beer and diluted ice. He chuckled, that is a good sign for a start. Although this bar does not object to table sharing by four or at times five thirsty souls, but Joe chose or rather was made to choose a dim lit, scarcely air-conditioned corner on the mezzanine floor. He thanked his luck as these dingy late night drinking holes have their air conditioning really high so as to accommodate the hundred puffs. Had there been no power cut, he would have caught up cold in an otherwise freezing container. He waved to the waiter, and in few dumb charade moves the order was received. Things run fast and without much of a talking in this part of the world, time is indeed money here. He dropped his bag, rose to freshen up and readied for a fresh lease of life.

Back in a moment, he was taken at a surprise. He has company now. The waiter had placed his drink order on the table, fast indeed, and had placed a candle. A candlelight session with a stranger – he shrugged, may not be a bad idea, given he badly need somebody to talk to. Somebody, who did not have any prior knowledge about him, his background, absolutely a blank start. He is tired of the apologetic stances and the disgusting ‘Take Care’ pleasantries which have been offered to him over phone, text or in person in the last one week, since his disastrous breakup with his fiancée, or ex-fiancée to be politically correct. He pushed the chair and took his seat, trying hard not to look interested to indulge in a conversation. The man looks almost of his age; strangely not an iota of his dress is drenched and has ordered the exact drink as him, going by the colour at least, as visible in dim light.

“Sorry, I fancied that the table was unoccupied hence took the liberty of sitting here, sorry about it. Unfortunately none of the seats seem to be…” – The man with a baritone voice asserted.

His voice reminded Joe of his college days, those smoke free days when he was up on stage as an anchor…at least seven years and twenty kilos earlier.

Before fading into reminiscence he quipped back -“That is perfectly all right. A drink at these late hours, especially given this shitty weather outside, can’t ask for more. Sharing is absolutely fine with me, unless you have any reservations…”

“Don’t be silly”, he replied with a curvy smile. Joe could sense the contour of his face now. He lit a cigarette quickly. “One before the start, one in the middle and last one at the end of the session, tobacco kills the taste buds, hence the rule”. Joe, quite taken at a surprise, lit his own with a slightly trembling hand. This is a sermon he keeps parting to his fellow drinkers. Amazing, the stranger also shares the same view. He feels nauseated at times sitting in a bar which allows indoor smoking; his eyes tend to get a burning sensation. He felt relaxed that his fellow drinker follows the same regime, a good start.

From the corner of his eye, in spite of the heavy cloud of misty smoke, Joe could sense that the man is staring at him; he gets an eerie feeling. Hope he is not a criminal, these days it is not too safe to befriend.

The stranger is holding the white stick in his left hand, placed cosily between his index and the middle finger, angled such that the tip is very close to the ashtray. The ash tripped off just by a single jerk of the thumb at the butt end of the cigarette – exactly the same timing and in the same manner as him, eerie feeling gains momentum. Is he copying me? Nah, its commonplace, he shrugs, readies to break the ice.

Instead, the man starts off post a long thirsty sip, “Bliss!! Cheers”, Joe nods in response.

“Something is bothering you I guess – work, family, or is it the regular chores..?” Joe wonders, curious stranger, too many questions in the beginning. Hasn’t been a proper introduction even, or am I too old- fashioned, coughing out names and shaking hands is not in trend these busy days, considered clichéd probably. Before Joe could budge, the stranger barked, “My friends call me Happy, well, kind of my official nickname, lot easier than my long ten-lettered name, don’t you think,” followed by a loud laugh.

Joe, bewildered, almost gulped down the drink, managed to grab his hand at the last moment when Happy had probably lost hope of a handshake and shook it in a silly manner, mumbling “Same here, same here”.

“You could have managed with a better name than ‘same here’!!” He smiles.

“No, ahem. I mean my name is Joyshankar, but pretty much everybody in Mumbai calls me Joe. Cheers to that!”

Happy asserts “Na zdrowie, Polish !”

Weird. Joe assumed that he was of those limited few who spread the word on the global toasting culture, that’s not the case then.

Joe signals for the repeat of their last order to the waiter, and almost unplanned “Yeah, I know that. Interesting that you too..anyway”, pauses and oozes ”It’s a girl. Just a nasty breakup few weeks back. Well, technically she had dumped me, and since then…it keeps playing”.

Couldn’t believe having said this, Joe in demi-realization wondered, what’s wrong with him. There is no glory talking about it, but then, there was something in the stranger’s voice, a tone of inquiry yet comforting, soothing. Not the usual cacophony of personal space invasion, rather a balm on the wound.

“Hey, that is alright, happens. And to be true, I just had my share of break-up story too. But well, I’m the one who had dumped her”. The conversation and the gulping went in rapid turns.

“But why would you dump somebody, I mean, did you not love her.”

“What if I ask the same question to you – did she not love you?”

“She did, I loved her too. But something went wrong, I guess.”

“Ah come on, grow up. There can’t be any thing called ‘I guess’. Either you never knew it, or you had always been lying to yourself, all the way,” Happy replied, gulping down the lees. Joe followed suit.

They signalled for a double. The drink is slowly getting on him. Cigarettes lit once more.

“Look, ah, Monamie, she was absolutely perfect and so was our relationship. I believe I was taking things, err, her for granted”. They start off with a fresh dose.

“Now, that’s crap. Things which always look perfect, at the end of the day are boring and should be. You know…anyway, it’s irritating, beauty is in being…and ouch, hold on”, he thumps the glass and laughs aloud, “My ex was called Monamie too, it’s funny isn’t it, coincidence. I deleted all her stuff. Thankfully”. He goes on, ”Hell no, don’t tell me you do have something of hers still with you. Nope, don’t show me, else we might figure out that we were dating the same girl. You know the two side of the same coin story”. He was laughing hard and loud. Joe had ingested half the peg in a jiffy, whilst the entire conjuring monologue was on. It is either the drink or the story. Something is making him feel good of himself.

Rounds of drinks signalled, ordered and they ‘Cheered’– Bottoms Up!

Joe, eyes wide open, “You know Happy, I did not retain anything at all. It would have never worked out, holding my reigns too hard. I should have called off before, she did. It’s nice to be free, to breathe. But you have squared things for me, my man. Indeed, we were with the same girl!” Joe pronounced the last sentence too loud, while he was laughing hard he dashed to the washroom.

”I’d square off, will pay your bill. Glad we met.”

A single bill lay on the table, Happy had left without bidding good bye. Joe picks it up, inspects it, waves the waiter to collect the cash he rendered, but has a quizzing expression on his face. The bill just had his share of drinks. The ashtray shows two cigarette butts. On ‘drunk’ questioning the waiter, he gives him irritating ‘Just Leave’ look.

Joe’s mobile blips a reminder – ‘Urgent – Psychiatrist appointment tomorrow at 12.00 Noon”.


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