The world seems to be more fractured now than it ever used to be. Race, class, caste, religion, region, language; just when we think that one is getting weaker, a new de-marker comes up; dividing people, plunging the societies into a fresh hell of hatred and a mad vicious circle of violence and vengeance. I remember when I was growing up; this country was embroiled in a turmoil over demolition of some mosque and construction of some temple in its place. I remember how strong my views were or at least the impression that you can credit to a ten year old’s mind; about ‘the others’. Over the years as I became more aware, I realized that the problem was not with ‘the others’ or with ‘us’. People have been killing each other for centuries. What changes with time is the de-marker, the criteria for determining ‘the others’ and ‘us’. People will keep killing each other for centuries. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is.
In the fourth year of law school, I got an internship with Lex Juris Prude, LJP for short,
Johnny (his pet name by the way, his parents did not hate him enough to actually name him Johnny) was in the peculiar position of being more confused than the rest of us and believe me, we were quite a confused lot. His dad was in the armed forces. Johnny wanted to get into civil services but only after finishing IIT. He managed to get admission in some random engineering college but dropped out of it after a couple of months. Then by some strange mix of fortitude and fate, he landed up in law school. In that sense he was like the most of us, people who landed up in law school because we were smart enough to not to go to an engineering college. In law school, Johnny had a wide range of interests. None of them were even remotely relevant for academic purposes. At least not the kind that you got graded on.
One of the best kept secrets in law school was how Johnny passed his courses. It was a usual sight on the evening before the exam, to see him stocking up on food and beverages in preparation of a long night ahead before the exam. Almost as certain would be the sight of him snoring away soon after midnight even as people around him were indexing notes or preparing the ammunition for toilet breaks. Johnny in total oblivion of the commotion around him, lived his life unconcerned and blissfully. Mind you, he was not a genius. So of course, he flunked and got the ‘repeats’ and the ‘carry overs’ quite frequently. But just when it would be the last time, the time when it really mattered, the time when everyone thought it was over for Johnny, he would manage to clear it. So he reached the fourth year like the best of us in just four years. From now on it was just one cool, nonchalant walk till you passed out and got a well paying job at the end of the fifth year. On his way sometime around the half way mark, Johnny started showing where his heart lay. He became the uncrowned king of theatre in the college putting up one production after the other. It was alleged by his closest friends that his love for the stage was just a way to get some chick and sure enough he did start going out with the lead actress of one of his plays, a romantic comedy, incidentally. The number of movies Johnny had watched and the number of movies he had heard of or read about made him a walking IMDB for the rest of us. He was quite excited about the internship with Axals but least of all because of what they did. It was not his job profile or the pay package which drove him to accept the internship. The prospect of working with Axals delighted Johnny because more often than not work would get over by six o’ clock plus they had a five day week and most importantly it would be located in
Off late, Johnny had started taking his theatre quite seriously. He had even performed (meaning written, produced, acted and directed plays) in a couple of prominent theatres in Bombay which was no mean feat for someone studying in the best law school in the country with supposedly the most rigorous routine and curriculum. It was now the grand ambition of his life to manage theatre as a hobby with his professional life for some time and finally at some time after finding his feet, take the plunge in the movie industry. Johnny and I got along quite well. He more or less introduced me to the joy of English movies and I was more than hooked. Movies were the common ground on which the tree of our friendship found its roots. It’s a fact that anyone who’s ever been to a college can confirm; that the strongest and the most lasting bonding always happens over some form or the other of pop culture. Drugs, alcohol, rock music, films or literature are the forces which bring people of impressionable age closer than exams, projects or class room lectures ever could. Though he was not my room mate in college, I spent a lot of time in his room. When we realized that both of us would be interning in
“Dude, lets go and meet Ravi Kumar" , he spoke with his trademark forced enthusiasm.
“Who the hell is Ravi Kumar.” It seemed like one of his nonsensical conversations and I was not in the mood to humour him.
“Arrey, he is film star.”
“Of what, Bhojpuri movies?” I was pretty sure he was just making all this up.
“Well actually he’s not a star. But he’s done a lot of movies. He was the father of SRK in Anjaane and the lead villain in Betaab Dil. He also does a lot of TV serials and theater. He is a friend of my dad.” Johnny gave me what was sure to be the gist of Mr Ravi Kumar’s profile on IMDB; except of course the last sentence.
Although I could still not recall his face, I had definitely heard of the movies and was more or less convinced that Mr. Ravi Kumar was not another product of the fertile imagination of Johnny. As it turned out later that evening, Mr Ravi Kumar was not only a real person but a very realistic one also. He gave us a nice talk about the systemic inefficiencies of the entertainment business and how the creativities of young idealists are more often than not lost in the search of financiers and in appeasing the whims and fancies of the people who matter. He lived in a nice flat overlooking a creek in a peaceful northern suburb called Malad. He was a nice soft spoken gentleman who insisted on walking us till the gate of his apartment complex on the pretext of it being an evening walk for him. It was actually quite a pleasant evening. Most evenings in
Local trains in
‘Hamaari rashtra bhasha Hindi hai’. Why don’t you talk in Hindi?. Hum bhi baat karenge tumse.”
Both Johnny and me were startled if not shocked to hear this loud voice. As we turned our heads, the speaker came into our view who was now beginning to sit down on the berth across the aisle. He was a guy in his early forties wearing a faded jacket over his denims, which was a bit odd because it was not cold enough in
He snapped back, “Hindi is not our rashtra bhasha. We know, we are lawyers.” Then for a good measure he added, pointing towards me, “and he does not know any Hindi”. This of course was a blatant lie. Coming from Allahabad, the heart of Hindi belt; I thought, slept and dreamed in Hindi or at least I used to for the most part of my life. The guy however kept looking at us without blinking. It was almost as if he did not hear a single word of what Johnny said.
He started giving a monologue in Hindi, the essence of which was, “Do you know who I am. I work for the government. I give advice to the prime minister and the president. Do you know the reason why I am travelling in first class today? To catch people like you. I knew someone or the other will get caught and now I have caught you. One Indian and one foreigner talking in English. Now, you been caught’. There was an eerie menace in his voice when he said the words, ‘now you have been caught’. Both Johnny and me just looked at each other’s face. We didn’t know what to say. I was thinking who was this guy? What was his problem? Moreover, I was now silently cursing Johnny for being a smart ass and replying rudely to that guy. What followed were an uncomfortably long and silent two or three minutes during which the guy kept staring at us with a sly grin on his face. In an attempt to make light of the suddenly dense atmosphere, I spoke to Johnny in almost a whisper, “You know I would have never spoken to anyone in English for more than five minutes till I was in school except of course with the teachers.’ “AMENDEMENT. CONTENTMENT. PUNISHMENT. FONTEN. PAINTAN. HAINTAN”, the guy started shouting at the top of his voice and then stopped almost as suddenly as he had started. Now this was getting really weird and confusing. Why was this guy doing this? Was he irritated by us and was pulling a practical joke on us by forcing us to remain quiet? Or could he be just some loser who’d had too much to drink. It was getting more and more unnerving with each second. The guy just kept looking at us. Johnny and I were pretending to look outside the windows even while keeping an eye on him. " Yes, I have caught you now’", the guy spoke again, in almost a whisper this time and with a wide grin of immense satisfaction on his face. His next sentence was drowned by the announcement informing that the next station was Bombay Central. I looked at Johnny and was about to whisper to him that we should get down there when I saw the guy getting up and move towards the door. He was now standing between us and the door blocking our chance of getting off the train without going through him. I looked at his jacket and realized that the label on it was a fake and it was obviously a very cheap one. It was now riding a little above his waist. Then all of a sudden, I noticed something stuck between his jacket and the denims. It was a knife! It was quite evident from its thick dark wooden handle, that it was not of the harmless vegetable chopper variety but the kind that I had heard were used for wrenching out the guts. I suddenly felt a flush of heat as if I had been standing in the sun for an hour. A drop of sweat started rolling down from my forehead. Seeing the look on my face, Johnny also realized that there was something seriously wrong. I pointed with my eyes towards the guy. Johnny followed my line of vision and spotted the knife. His reaction was even more telling than mine. He started biting his lower lip and I knew that his mind had gone so numb now that he was as good as paralyzed.
The train came to a halt at Bombay Central. There were only a couple of people on the platform and none of them showed any inclination of getting aboard in our compartment. The train started moving again and within seconds it picked up to its normal speed. The guy moved away from the door and sat down again in his seat. I realized that now he was staring directly at me trying to establish eye contact. I kept looking out of the window even as my heart started pounding. Though I was really tense now I couldn’t help thinking that this would make a really good anecdote if we could just get out of it now. The problem of course was how to get out of this situation. Another few minutes passed and none of us moved or said anything. The only sound was the dispassionate rhythm of the train. I had always liked the sing song sound that a fast moving train makes but today it felt like someone was beating my head repeatedly with a baseball bat. Somehow I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange and Beethoven’s ninth. The mechanical lady announced that we were reaching
The train had just started to move again, when all of sudden two guys got on to the train. They sat on the berth the guy was sitting on. The one who sat next to him was listening to music on his ipod while the other one sitting opposite to the guy looked blankly in front of him. Evidently, the two new passengers on the train did not know each other and so no one spoke. I do not have the words to describe the joy and relief that Johnny and I felt to see these two people. I had never been this glad to see a friend as I was to see two complete strangers now. A few minutes later, the train stopped at Marine Lines. It is a station which is ridiculously close to Churchgate station. So much so that if some of the proposed long new trains stop at Churchgate, they will extend till Marine Lines station. No body got on the train but as he had done earlier, the guy got up and moved towards the door. This time he did not stop and actually got down. He started walking on the platform with his back turned towards the train. I broke into a grin as I sighed with relief. My smile was frozen half way through when the guy suddenly turned. He stared into my eyes for a couple of seconds before slowly turning away again. I was not sure but I think I saw a hint of sadness in his eyes. I actually felt a moment of pity for him.
The train started moving again and Johnny was now saying something which I could not hear as I was still looking at the guy who was walking almost painfully towards the exit on the platform. "Wow. What a loser. I am sure he was just drunk out of his wits or probably stoned. Must have had some really good stuff though." Now that it was all over, Johnny was finding his sense of humour back. Quite typical. I mean this guy was good company and all but he did get on my nerves at times. Specially with his ‘I am so great and talented but most of the times I underestimate myself ’ attitude. I made a note in my head to avoid him for some time after going back to the college. ‘Yeah. Yeah. Sure., I said so as to discourage Johnny from giving any more gyaan. Johnny did not get the hint though. He kept on blabbering and laughing rather obnoxiously on his stupid theories about the guy. God, he was at his irritating best. Finally, the train came to a stop at Churchgate and we got down. The big old clock dial on the platform showed 12.20 AM. I was thinking about the day ahead; the last day of the internship. I had to ask for the certificate and hopefully they’d give me a stipend cheque also. 'Hmm..how much will they give actually?', I wondered.
“You know I think that guy was actually an actor, a method actor…”. Johnny went on as I almost tripped on my shoelaces. I sat down to tie them. There was a faint metal squeak as the train started its journey again, this time in the opposite direction. There was something sticking to side of my shoe. ‘Uggh....I will have to clean it tomorrow morning’, I thought. ‘If they give me five grand, I can buy a good hard disk with it. Take all the movies when I pass out.’ As I got up I had a peculiar feeling. Something was wrong. Somehow it all seemed to have gone very……quiet. Johnny!! I turned with a jolt. He was not there. He was right there behind me, blabbering and now he was gone. For a couple minutes I though he was being the jerk that he was a lot of times and playing a prank on me but with each passing minute, it seemed less and less plausible. He would not do it today. No after what had happened earlier. Probably, he had gone straight to the hostel. I went there. He was not there. I waited for an hour and then I told the hostel caretaker. He called the police immediately.
They never found his body. It was five years back. They never found what happened to him. They never found the guy who was on that train with us that night. I spent the last year in college outside the campus. I hardly spoke to anyone. I did not take up the job at LJP. I now work at a pharmaceutical company. The only reason I took up this job was because there is no one from my college here. The pay is too low for anyone from law school to come and work here. It was all going well. I had almost forgotten about the entire thing. Almost forgotten. And then a few months back, it started all over again.
A colleague of mine fell off a train and died. Everyone thought it was an accident. In fact, I was in the same compartment although I did not see how it happened. Then about a month back, I spoke to his fiancée, a beautiful woman who works in the same office as us. Apparently, he was talking to her on the phone when he fell down. Just before she heard the phone crashing on the tracks, she heard in the background a creepy soft voice saying, ‘Hindi mein bola karo.’
This morning I got a courier. When I opened the envelope, there was only one thing inside it. The front cover of the Fountainhead with a couple of smudges of dried blood. I think I know whose blood it was. On the reverse side were written these ominous words: ‘Don’t speak Hindi, learn Marathi’. I know he’s coming after me now. I am leaving this godforsaken hell tonight. My train leaves in an hour. There is no time to pack. I am not going to leave any clues for him. I’ll burn this place down before I leave. He won’t know where I am going. I am just taking a few clothes, some money and a couple of books. Now, wait a minute, where’s my copy of the Fountainhead.
People will keep killing each other for centuries. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is.