Akash opened his eyes with some effort. The bedroom was still pitch dark. Was that a loud thud that woke him? He turned over his phone. Four a.m. Maybe his girlfriend, Miya, was back from vacation? But she wasn’t supposed to be back for another week. He thought of getting up and checking, but his eyes were too heavy. He strained to hear any other noise. When he heard nothing, he pulled the blanket over his head and went back to sleep.
It was almost noon when he woke up next and the sunlight was ripping its way through the blinds. He shot up in the bed. The sound coming from the living room was unmistakable now, and it most definitely wasn’t Miya.
Akash walked out of the room and froze. In the foyer, his father’s eldest brother was on his knees rummaging through a suitcase open in front of him. His wife stood next to him, pointing at different areas in the suitcase and muttering every few seconds. Their two sons stood there, looking bored.
“Ah, Akash.” His uncle noticed him. “I am just looking for my toothbrush, don’t know where I kept it,” he said without standing up. His wife and sons smiled weakly.
“It was a long train journey, he wants to freshen up,” his wife said helpfully.
A train journey from Delhi to Portland? Akash wondered what he was supposed to do. Should he touch his feet and hers? He hadn’t done that in years, but he also hadn’t seen any of his father’s family for years now. He had no idea how to behave around them.
Had he invited them? Akash racked his brain. He noticed the door to the guest room was open. There were some people arguing loudly in there. He couldn’t hear what was being said, but he thought he saw another uncle from his father’s side of the family. The one he always avoided.
“Ah there’s my toothbrush!” The elder uncle closed the suitcase and stood up. “I’ll use your bathroom. Great house by the way, and such a nice garden. Enough to fit everyone.”
Only then did Akash notice the noise coming from outside. He stepped out the front door and almost fell back as two of his school friends ran past him, one chasing the other.
“Grown a beard, eh, Akash?” One of them shouted at him as they disappeared inside the house. He didn’t reply. He was too busy looking at the large crowd gathered in his garden.
People stood in groups of six or more, chatting and laughing. The groups competed for the shade of the large trees that Akash didn’t remember seeing when he had bought the house a week ago. The garden itself looked way bigger than he remembered.
He walked around, trying to decide what to do. Some people nodded at him, some waved, then went back to their conversations. It was close to lunchtime, were these people expecting to be fed? Akash became nervous. Maybe he could order food. But the crowd was too large for such a last-minute order.
He bumped into someone.
“Vivek,” Akash said. “Aren’t you living in Australia?”
“Yes, I took a red-eye flight,” Vivek said, looking around distractedly. “I should introduce you to my wife, she stopped to talk to some of our common friends from college.”
If there was any hope of understanding this, Akash had to talk to someone. Vivek had been his closest friend through college. He could be trusted not make a scene and help him deal with this.
“Listen, Vivek,” Akash said. “I have to ask you something. Don’t feel bad, I am just trying to understand.”
Vivek leaned towards him. “Tell me man, you know you can ask me anything,” he said seriously. “What happened?”
“I just need to know …I mean … who invited you?” Akash asked.
“What?” Vivek started laughing. “Listen to him,” he said, “the question! Well of course …”
He didn’t get to finish. Two more of their college friends joined them and were laughing, slapping their backs. They didn’t seem to have aged much since college. One of them had the leather jacket that he wore as a second skin. The other one had his cap on backwards.
“What’s happening? did Akash pulled one of his tricks where he tells you he’s failing and then scores the highest marks?” said the one with the jacket.
“No, he probably just decided to ask that girl out,” the one with the cap said. “What’s her name? The one from political science.”
Akash blushed. “No guys, that was long back,” he stammered. “I am with someone else now. But she’s away for work.”
“Away for work, eh?” Jacket man said. “You just don’t want us to meet her.”
Cap man nodded with mock seriousness. “Thinks we’ll embarrass him.”
“It’s not like that, really she’s away,” Akash said. Only then did he notice that Vivek had disappeared. He looked around, trying to find him among the crowd. There was no trace of him.
“Listen,” he said, “I’ll catch up with you guys in a bit, I have to do something.”
“Always on to something, this guy,” Jacket man said as Akash walked away.
“I hope you’re serving good food, not like your eighteenth birthday!” Cap man remarked.
It was probably getting close to one o’clock, he had to do something about lunch. Someone tapped his back. Akash turned and saw a formally dressed man he didn’t even recognize.
“Who are you? Who invited you?” Akash asked, feeling flustered.
“What do you mean, sir? I am the caterer,” the man said, with a hurt look on his face.
“The caterer?” Akash blinked. He noticed the smoke rising from behind the hedge at the end of the garden. Smell of Indian food wafted over.
“Yes, sir. I’ve been looking for you. We’re planning to set the tables here,” the man said, pointing to a large area in center of the garden. “Is that okay for you?”
“Uh…sure. Yes! That sounds good.” Akash said. What a relief.
“Wonderful,” the man said and rushed away.
Akash noticed a group of women sitting on chairs in one of the corners of the garden close to the house. He recognized two of them from the neighborhood that he grew up in during school. They were a few years older than him and used to help him with his schoolwork. He walked over.
“Anjana didi, how are you? I haven’t seen you in so long!” He said, sitting in one of the empty chairs.
“See Anju, he thinks you’re old too,” said the other girl, laughing.
Anjana shoed her with a wave of her hand and smiled at Akash.
“I am good, how’ve you been? I hear you’re a hot shot now at a big company.”
Akash laughed nervously and started to say something, but he stopped abruptly. From where they were sitting, he could see through the window of his bedroom. Some kids were jumping on the bed. But that wasn’t the unnerving part.
There was a man walking around nervously in his bedroom. For a moment, he thought he recognized the person, may be an old friend. Then, he looked closely and gasped. It was him. He saw himself, pacing around in the bedroom. Every once a while, his doppelganger surveyed the crowd outside and muttered something.
Akash excused himself and hurried to the bedroom. He was delayed by running into several friends and relatives on the way, having to make quick small talk so as not to appear rude. In the living room, one of the uncles had installed himself on the couch, watching something on the TV. The other one was rummaging through the kitchen shouting, “Where’s the tea leaves? Where’s the sugar?” Akash ignored them and ran into the bedroom.
The kids jumping on the bed were his cousins and nieces. He looked around the room, but his doppelganger had vanished.
“Did you see me here just now?” Akash asked one of the kids. They all started laughing.
“Yes, you’re standing right there!” One of the kids said.
“No, I mean, was I here before I just got here?”
The kids laughed even louder. Akash looked out the window. A long table had been set in the middle of the garden with dinner, and people had started to get seated around it.
“I hope the food is good,” he muttered to himself. “Otherwise, these people are going to complain about me everywhere. My reputation will go down the drain.”
Thinking these thoughts, he looked around the garden, trying to get a sense of just how many people were there. Most of the people were sitting by now, but a few small groups still stood around the garden chatting.
He noticed one of the groups that was especially loud. That’s when he saw himself again. The doppelganger was standing with a small group of his school-friends. This time, he seemed relaxed, enjoying himself. Everyone in the group was laughing.
Akash ran outside. As he was passing the table, someone called out to him. In one of the chairs, he found his old English teacher from school.
“Hi Akash, look how you’ve grown!” she exclaimed.
Akash stopped. “Hello ma’am, how’re you? I haven’t seen you in so long!”
She asked him to sit next to him and started talking about old stories from school.
“You know, the other day I found one of your test essays. I had forgotten how detailed your writing was.”
“You always gave me average marks,” Akash said. “How did it seem now after all these years? Better or worse?”
“It was good, you were so obsessed with the origin of things. Where did this come from, and where did that come from. You always wanted to get to the root of things. Why did the wars happen? How did the world leaders become the way they were?”
“Yes,” Akash said, remembering. “I always wanted to know the reason for things being the way they are.”
“Do you remember what I used to tell you?” the teacher asked.
Akash took a deep breath. “Finding the ultimate reason is not always the reward you think it is.”
She smiled. “That’s exactly right.”
Akash felt his scattered mind coalescing together into a whole, like a liquid coming to rest after being stirred vigorously. Only a sliver of sun remained visible over the top of the mountains now. Everything around them was bathed in an orangish glow. He felt the light wind caress his face.
People had started eating. He talked to the teacher for a bit, then walked to another part of the table and talked to the people there. They exchanged stories, the good and the bad. There was a lot of laughter. He finally came to sit among his college friends.
“This is the food of kings, Akash!” the friend with the cap on backwards said. He was sitting on the other side of the table, along with the friend with the leather jacket, who nodded as he chewed loudly.
“What jokers you are,” Akash said laughing.
There was a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and his heart leaped to see Miya. She sat next to him.
“You came back early!” Akash said.
“You didn’t think I would miss this,” Miya said, smiling. The sun had set now, but there were several rows of bulbs hanging above them. She looked beautiful in the light.
Akash kissed her. “Now let me introduce you to two losers without whom I would never have made it through college,” he said, pointing to the men with the cap and the jacket.