The winter sun had been decaying all afternoon like a rotten fruit. Now it suddenly gave up its struggle and darkness fell on the little town like a heavy blanket. The four buildings of the boys’ hostel tried to be defiant against the slowly approaching fog, but only managed to stand awkwardly in the speckled light of the few working street lamps. Lights from some windows stared out in the darkness, as if surprised at the unexpected arrival of the night.
The winding lanes between hostel buildings were mostly empty, except for a couple of students who hurried towards the common kitchen, their bodies buried so deep beneath the shawls and winter caps that it was impossible to tell who was who till they sat on the large table inside the kitchen. There, with their cloaks gone, they changed into familiar faces, and chatted about annoying teachers and insufferable families as they waited for dinner to be served.
Rajvir knocked a third time at the back door of the kitchen. He wore a thin shirt and trousers, and shivered a little every time a cold draft of wind touched him. He looked around every few seconds involuntarily: he didn’t want any of his friends to see him like this. They studied at the same college, but oh how different their lives were. His friends, who sat with him at the same desks and studied the same problems never had to worry about saving money on a shawl so they could buy books. They never had to wear old worn clothes so they could save money to eat. And they never had to knock at the backdoor of a kitchen because … he was snapped back from his thoughts by the sound of the latch. The door opened.
“Raj babu, what are you doing here at this time? Tell me quickly, I have to finish cooking the dinner, the students are waiting!” he said and looked back at the large steaming pans in the kitchen as if he could make them cook faster simply by staring at them.
“Yes bhaiya, I just wanted to…” Rajvir started to speak, then looked down, suddenly at a loss for words. “I got a notice today”, he said after a pause, “they told me I can’t eat in the kitchen anymore.”
The cook exhaled a deep breath. “I see,” he said, “you haven’t paid the bill in four months, isn’t it?”
Rajvir nodded, still looking down.
“Do you know when you will get the money from home?” the cook asked.
Rajvir shook his head. He was almost in tears now.
The cook looked inside one more time, then stared somewhere far in the distance for a while. Then he sighed and said, “Come back one hour after dinner, I will give you some of the leftovers.”
“Thank you bhaiyya, thank you so much.” Rajvir said.
“It’s fine. Now go, you’ll make me lose my job too!” the cook said and closed the door.
Rajvir made his way back to the hostel. In one hour, he could eat. Hopefully he could sneak back to the kitchen without any of his friends noticing. But what if they did? He decided to ignore the possibility. His face was red despite the chill. This wasn’t exactly begging, but it wasn’t very far.
Money was always scarce. Rajvir had waited every day for the past four months for the check to come in the mail. It hadn’t. He had finally received a letter from his father the day before. “Your younger sister has fallen sick,” it said, “her cure is taking up all the money.” It offered no apology, no sympathy. This was survival pure and simple. Money from the crops dwindled every year, and it supported his parents and their six children. His father went to great lengths to support his education – it was the only way to escape the cycle of poverty – but pitted against death of his children, he had to yield. Rajvir understood.
Rajvir was mad at a world that was so unfair. But he was a survivor, like his father. His father had worked hard, saved money, and sent him to the best engineering college in the state. He had a good chance of finding a good job and building a career.
If he could survive another term, that is.
Things had improved greatly by summer. Rajvir was now in third year, and he was able to generate a steady income by teaching tuition to younger students. This along with the trickle of money from home was enough for him to pay for his fees, books and food. He still couldn’t buy a new pair of shirt and trousers. But it was okay. “Survive,” he said to himself, and continued.
In his fourth year, Rajvir was awarded a scholarship. His fee was waived, he received a monthly stipend, and his financial cares were suddenly resolved. He could buy another pair of clothes. “Don’t overspend,” he said to himself, “till you find a job.”
College ended. He was interviewed at seven companies before one of them offered him a job. He had to travel halfway across the country for it: three days train ride from his village. He accepted it. He was married by now; he needed the money.
And so it happened that Rajvir and his wife moved to Bombay. The fast paced city was completely foreign to them, both having grown up in quiet rural areas. But they adapted; they survived. And when their son was born a year later, they gave him the name Siddhartha—a wish fulfilled. The first time Rajvir saw Siddhartha, he kissed his temple. “You will have a great life.” he whispered in his son’s ear, “You’ll never lack anything.”
“No Dad, I won’t be able to come home next month, there is a lot of work in office”, Siddhartha said on phone as he used his other hand to balance his drink – a bourbon – on the railing outside the bar. The music from the bar was muffled but still audible out here.
“But son, we haven’t seen you in six months, and it’s Holi. Your mom and I were really looking forward to seeing you,” Rajvir said.
“I know Dad, I feel bad too,” Siddhartha said, then took a sip from his glass and continued, “but my new manager is putting a lot of pressure on me after my promotion. Things are really difficult for me.”
Rajvir let out a sigh, “Yes son, I understand, work is most important. We will see you another time. Is everything else good?”
“Everything is great dad!”
Rajvir put the phone down and walked to the kitchen where Padma was finishing up cooking dinner.
“Is he coming?” Padma asked.
Rajvir shook his head.
“Oh well, it will be fine, he will come soon. May be on Diwali, we can go to your friend in Panipat. You always say you want to meet him. May be we can use this excuse … wait,” Padma got distracted by some spice she had forgotten to add to the dinner. As she looked frantically through her cupboard, Rajvir walked out into the yard and sat down, his eyes fixed on something far away.
A light wind blew in anticipation of the approaching winter. He absently looked up: it was a clear sky, and it was filled with stars.
Siddhartha put the phone in his pocket, stood outside the bar for a few minutes, and then walked back in. The techno music asserted its presence immediately. It was mixed with the loud voices coming from the different tables where people had to speak loudly to talk over the blaring music. He made his way through the dimly lighted bar past the drunken laughter, the office complaints, attempts to strike friendships met with coldness, debates about why the latest movie by a popular director did or didn’t work, and the bewildered silence of those who had been dragged by some friend into this bar and suddenly exposed to all the rawness of the city’s humanity.
His companions sat at the other end of the bar. He walked over and sat down. One of his friends noticed him and shouted, “So are you coming for the trip?”
Siddhartha took another sip from his drink and replied, “Yes.”
It was early morning and the sun had not come up yet. Siddhartha sat in his house with his bags packed for a three-day trip. The phone rang.
“Yes, are you here?”
“Yes sir, I am downstairs,” replied a hoarse voice.
Siddhartha walked down and found the car they had hired for the trip parked a few steps down the street.
“Hello sir my name is Akram,” said the driver, “where to next?” There was no one else in the car yet.
Siddhartha appraised the man. He wore a shabby shirt; his eyes were red. He looked extremely tired. These car rental companies really sucked, why couldn’t they ever send a good driver?
“Let’s go to Koramangala first,” he said sitting in the car, “and drive carefully.”
They drove around the city for a while picking up all the friends. Soon they were on the highway. They had started early and the road was mostly empty. Dawn approached and the gray sky was being challenged by splashes of orange coming from the horizon in the east.
The mood was celebratory. They sang songs, they laughed. Then suddenly, the car stopped.
Siddhartha called to the driver but he didn’t respond. He got out of the car along with one more friend, Abhi, and went around to the front seat. Akram had his head down on the steering wheel, and seemed to be sleeping. They didn’t know what to do. They were in the middle of nowhere.
Five minutes passed. Then Akram raised his head and said, “Sir, give me half an hour, I have to take a nap. I have been driving all day and night yesterday, and my boss asked me to take this trip. I thought I could do it, but I am really feeling exhausted. Just give me half an hour and I’ll be ready to drive.”
“Fine Akram, that’s fine,” Siddhartha said. This was ridiculous; he was going to talk to the rental company. They had paid a huge amount and now this overworked driver was ruining their trip.
Siddhartha and Abhi walked to the edge of the road to smoke a cigarette. A Lamborghini whizzed past them. Siddhartha looked at it disappear towards the far end of the road. “Look at that, man! I could never afford a car like that”, he said, “I guess some people are just born in privilege.”