“Fix me a drink.”
He seemed pretty dull that day, duller than he looked on the other days. He even forgot to specify the drink, but I already knew what he wanted. Gin and Tonic with no ice, the usual order. I had never seen him drinking anything else in my bar.
He was a regular to my place for a long time, wandered into it one evening after everyone had left and didn’t stop coming for about a year. He was always polite, always ordered the same three pegs of his gin and tonic without ice, drank, tipped and left, barely ever speaking a word. He was probably in his thirties, about 6 foot, neither fat nor slim, and his beard always looked like if he hadn’t shaved for about a week. There was nothing spectacular about him, but his eyes always had a profound sadness residing in them. They were the saddest pair of eyes I had ever seen in my life.
I remember that it was the first shower of the year, and there was a power cut that day. Everything in the bar except for the counter was shrouded in complete darkness. While I prepared his order, he had a call. I could see him listening to the other person, nodding and shrugging intermittently. He hung up before I presented him his drink. He drank in silence while I got back to cleaning up the counter and closing the accounts for the day.
“Can you play some music man?” His voice startled me. Not that I had never heard him speak before, but something in his voice that day sent shivers down my spine.
“I’m sorry. There’s no electricity.”
“Oh… I guess I’ll have to listen to the rain sing its melody then.”
I turned to look at him. It was the longest sentence I had ever heard him speak. I could see a sad smile residing on his face. His glass was already empty. “Fix another drink, will you?”
“Sure.” I went back to fetch the bottle of Bombay Sapphire.
“And don’t stop till I tell you to.” I gave a nod.
I stopped when the glass was filled to the brim. The smile was still there. “Thank you.” He drank it in one gulp and then loudly banged the glass on the table. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he extended the other one in my direction. “I’m Aryan by the way. I don’t think we have been introduced.”
You only need to look at the drinking pattern of a person to know that they have hit the bottom. People who have hit the bottom drink their alcohol neat, they drink a lot and they talk even more when they are drunk. I had a feeling that he wasn’t just going to stop with the introductions.
“I’m Che. Nice to finally know your name.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I have been coming here for some time now, haven’t I?”
“7 months give or take.”
“7 months huh. You know, I am not someone you would call a very talkative person.”
“I guessed that much already.”
He had a strange way of saying some words, like someone who had to overcome his natural stutter. I filled his glass once again and fixed an old fashioned for myself. He took out a packet of Marlboro’s and offered me one. I took it and lit both of ours with a match. We sat there in peace, listening to the soft sound of rain falling in the streets of Powai, sipping our drinks and smoking our cigarettes, watching the raindrops crawl through the mist on the stained windows of my bar. It was exactly midnight, close to the time the shutters went down. But I had nobody to go home to. And he looked as if he had no one too. It felt good to just sit there and enjoy the petrichor, feeling melancholy as the cool monsoons brought relief to the burning. I was in no hurry to go anywhere. For a very long time, both of us sat unmoving in complete silence.
“This call I got Che. It was the doctor. He said that my father is dead.” He stated it as a matter of fact, like a weatherman reading the report, and it took me about a minute to fully comprehend his statement. He had an intense look, with the same sadness in his eyes and the same smile on his face.
“I’m sorry Aryan.” It was all I could manage.
“Don’t be. If only you had known him, you would celebrate.” He voice didn’t shake a bit.
I find it rather easy to offer condolences to others. Keep a poker face, look them in the eye and talk in a deep voice. But how could I express sadness when he himself didn’t want me to? If anything, you could say he was actually less gloomy than on other days. So, I stood there in an awkward pause unable to say anything. There was utter silence in the bar, for even the rain had chosen that very moment to subside. It was obvious that he wanted to talk, but was finding it tough to do so.
“You know, I have never told this to anyone Che but I had always hated my father. Despised him from deep down in my heart, but I never actually wished him dead. People become vengeful in hatred. But not I. Real hatred is when you stop caring about other’s fate. If he is on fire and you have a bucket of water at your side, you do nothing because it doesn’t matter.” He seemed to recognise the look of utter disgust I had on my face. “Oh Che, please do not judge me. I hated him for good reasons. It’s not like I’m Oedipus….” The sentence was cut short by his laughter. I took him a while to wipe the grin off his face.
“I’m sorry, it seems I am offending you with the talks of patricide.”
“I have heard worse.” I lied, “Ten years in this business, and you get to listen to all types of stories.”
Once again, he flashed that grin. “That must be true. Why aren’t the other regulars here today? Usually, it’s full when I come.”
“The rain should have prevented most of them. I was just going to close if you hadn’t wandered in.”
He nodded, “My office is a 5-minute walk away. I work as a proof-reader in the publishing company.” and turned back to look at the crude, enamel painted reimagination of The Flight of Icarus on the window pane right next to the counter. I had stopped drying the glasses a long time ago. There was more of it from where ever these words were coming from, and there was a certain calmness about his demeanour, like the calmness at the eye of a destructive tropical storm.
“You want to hear a story, Che?” Had anyone in my 10 years of running that place ever given me a chance to not listen to their tale of unending misfortunes, I would have gladly accepted. But not that day, because he wasn’t just anybody. This man had never uttered more than ten words in my presence. I didn’t know if it was a tale of pity and self-loathing or of heartbreak and sorrow, but no doubt it had me interested.
“Tell you what Aryan… It sure doesn’t look like I have anything better to do right now.” No sooner had I agreed that he turned his chair to come face to face with me and took up a position on the chair, one leg over the other. The incandescent bulb only lit half of the face, reminding me of Pacino in the first Godfather. He looked at me dead in the eyes, his gaze strong enough to look right into my soul.
“My grandfather was a very rich man. A successful doctor in the dying days of the British rule, he profited immensely from the black market which developed around the refugee camps in Delhi during the partition. He never looked back after that. Became a very successful politician in Indira’s India. Never lost an election in his life, saved his seat even in the one right after the emergency.”
“Quite a powerful man. The people in his constituency certainly seemed to love your Grandfather Aryan.”
“Only a handful of people didn’t respect my grandfather in that place, and they all feared him. But my father lost it all. Power, respect, fear, the seat. My father lost his father’s seat in the election in three consecutive parliamentary elections. Thrice. That son of a bitch. Can you believe it, he lost the bloody election three times in the very city where they have his father’s goddamn statue?” He was extremely loud by then and his face was livid with anger.
“But, how?” I attempted to calm him down, for I half feared that he was going to break the glass with his vice-like grip.
“Because he was an idiot.” He spoke through heavy breaths. “And a lecherous man whose bad reputation preceded his father’s good works. My grandfather built an immense empire in the hopes that his only son would one day command it. But this opulence provided my father with an army of personal servants in his younger years. Every personal wish of his was a command for others. He used to drink a lot even before he went to study in California, where he also got into a habit of frequenting Vegas. He was addicted to gambling by the time he came back. Even while contesting the elections, he never stopped. At first, nobody said anything. Not even my mother who had eloped with him in her foolish college years. But after the second loss, our family had started feeling the pinch. My grandfather tried to control him, and he would have succeeded if not for his untimely death. My father gave up everything to get a ticket from a small party to fight the third time, he hoped people would sympathize with him and give him votes. But he was wrong. He had taken huge loans to get the ticket and even more to sustain the campaign because his gambling addiction was already burning a hole through his pocket. It was the end of him.”
He went quiet for some time, staring at his half-empty glass with his vacant eyes. When it seemed as if he wasn’t going to resume the story, I intervened “And what happened after that defeat Aryan?” It took a moment for him to register my question.
“We ran away to our ancestral village to escape the loan sharks, who would have probably killed him in Delhi. I was 10 at that time.”
He then went back to staring at the empty glass, rotating it with the slow motion of his hand again and again. But before I lost all hope that he would ever speak again, he continued with his tale as if nothing had happened.
“It was a small hamlet near Gokarna in Karnataka. The bungalow was completely whitewashed, with a large open courtyard in the centre. There was a small nursery in the backyard and a rose garden in the front porch. Apart from my parents, an old cook and his daughter who also doubled as the maid lived with us. It was a beautiful place, Che. When I woke up in the morning, I saw rows of coconut trees through my window, stretching out as far as I could see. When the sun rose behind this sea of green, illuminating the hills situated on the northern horizon, it was a sight to behold. Especially during the monsoon.” He was quick to take control of the layer of moisture that had formed in his eyes. “In the start, the locals thought we were there for just a visit. They had no idea that the village was all we had left. My father was not going anywhere.”
Gokarna is a hipster’s Goa – serene, spectacular, well known yet obscure enough to retain a certain suave. I have visited many such small villages in that area during my many visits to the famous sea town. “It must have been a paradise to live in such a place Aryan.”
He slowly shook his head. “It was. At first. But after a couple of months, everyone in the village understood that my father was nothing more than a beggar. He had to sell off a majority of our land holdings to repay some of the debts. He had promised to send me to a boarding school in Mangalore, but eventually, I had to settle for the small public facility in the village due to lack of money. It was hard for me in the beginning. I had only lived-in air-conditioned bedrooms and went to luxury classrooms till that time, surrounded by servants and rich friends, with not a single care in the world. Now I was living in a place where power cuts were not uncommon, I was eating simple food instead of going to fancy restaurants every day and studying in a school which had a leaky roof and a teacher who couldn’t even pronounce ‘Pneumonia’ correctly. My classmates either hated me or laughed at my family. My father’s misfortunes were a laughing stock for the entire village by then. Needless to say, I never made any friends there.”
“Your father’s ego must have taken a huge hit.”
“It was shattered to pieces. And to cope with this new reality he got addicted to a new poison. Would you take a guess what it was?”
I took a long pause. I was starting to feel a little sorry for him now. “It was alcohol addiction, wasn’t it Aryan?”
“Yes, it was.”
The real tragedy of an alcoholic is not that he or she destroys themselves. Once a person has become an alcoholic, they already are doomed beyond saving. The real tragedy is that they also destroy every other life that comes in contact with them. An alcoholic is like a contagious disease, and I have seen the worst of the lot. Or so I believed till that day.
“My grandfather was an alcoholic too Aryan, and it almost destroyed the family in turn.” He would have completed the job too, if not for the stroke that thankfully took his life.
“And yet here you are.” The irony of my situation was not lost on him. The words were like a dagger through my heart.
“A man’s got to do what he got to do.” I defended my life choices with the only defence that I ever had.
“Couldn’t agree with you more on that Che, couldn’t agree more.” He went quiet for some time before continuing. “Every morning my father would leave for the government outlet and spend his entire day drinking cheap liquor and placing bets. Every night he would come back drunk, and then proceed to wreak havoc in our home. Some days were good when he would only break things and scream at imaginary people who he believed have wronged him all throughout his life. Others were bad when he would abuse and beat my mother for the most trivial of her faults. One day, he asked me to give him a glass of water and I spilt some on his shirt. There was an old whip in that house and my father was a very strong man.” I sensed pain in his smile now. “I couldn’t go to school for a month after that. It was the first time he had hit me. It was not going to be the last.”
I was appalled at how normal it all seemed to him. Although by now I had the faintest idea of what must have happened to him.
“When did your mother leave him?” I spoke softly.
“10 months after moving back to that place. She ran away with a guy who used to bring my father home on the evenings when he was so wasted, he couldn’t even walk.”
“Did she take you with her?”
“I must have been too heavy a burden for her to carry into her new life. My father would have never left her alone if she took me. I was the price she paid for her freedom. She didn’t leave any note and I never heard from her after that. A couple of years ago I did try to find her.”
“And did you find her?”
“I went to her home. She has a family now, two kids. One of them is in college. I couldn’t bring myself up to tell her my true name, but I think she recognised me anyway. She tried to contact me after that, but I…” His voice trailed off.
“Aryan, do you still blame your mother?”
He pondered over my question for quite some time before answering. “I used to hate her almost as much as him after she ran away. But after all these years Che, I really don’t. She got a chance to get out of that hell which she took. Taking me would have made life tougher. As you say, you got to do what you got to do.”
A sardonic smile came over my face. “What happened after your mother left?”
“Things got worse. My father started bringing prostitutes to the house. He sold the remaining land, and then proceeded to work petty crimes to fuel his alcohol, his gambling, his sex drive and also put food on the table. The gardener and his daughter did not leave for my sake. Things were still bearable, although in a sick way, but bearable until they stuck around. And then one day, in his alcohol-fuelled rage he broke the old man’s hand. They stopped coming after that. It all went downhill after that day.”
He paused to take a sip of his drink. “In about a year, my father had sold off all of his holdings in the village. He started working on others’ lands while continuing his side business of running a small-time extortion racket. I had lost all hope of ever escaping the clutches of misfortune, until the night it happened.” A deadly silence filled my heart. Something happened that night which broke this person’s soul forever, and I itched to know about it. In hindsight, however, I wish I would have never known.
“What happened that night Che?”
There was a long pause. Longer than all the others he had taken to tell me this story as if he was struggling to say the dreaded words aloud in front of a stranger.
“Hey look Aryan. If you don’t want to tell…”
He interrupted before I could say something more, “No, it’s fine. It’s just that I have never told about this to anyone.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I remember I had gone to sleep early that day, earlier than usual. He came very late, and his constant shouting broke my peaceful slumber. He asked me to serve him food, which I dutifully did. Nothing fancy, pulses and rice. He took a mouthful and spit it out immediately. Then he proceeded to throw the plate on my face and started beating me with his bare hand. When that didn’t satisfy his rage, he started using the plate.” My audible gasp brought back his to me. “It was a normal thing for me by that time. Hands, whips, kitchen utensil, there wasn’t much he had not already used on me. But until that day, he used to beat me and then go to sleep. Until that day.”
His eyes were moist and I could sense he was on the verge of crying. “That day, after beating me senseless, he left to fetch a glass of water. My clothes were in tatters, and when I tried to stand my legs gave away. When he came back though, he was undressed. He dragged me to his bedroom and then he proceeded to do….to do things……with me.” He took a pause to hide his tears, “I tried resisting but……I had no strength left in me. I passed out in the middle…” Nothing could have prepared me for this. I stood motionless for some time while his voice choked to a halt. I was unable to move my hands and it took me a while before I could offer him a glass of water. Draining it all at once he put the glass down, lit up a cigarette and went on to stared at his feet in utter silence.
The rain had completely stopped by then and the power was back on. Johnny Cash’s infinitely melancholic voice singing over Dylan’s poetic lyrics filled the bar as the lights flickered back into life. I could see him more clearly now. He was just sitting there, head down, hunched shoulders, grimy hair hiding his face. The old but crisp black suit had a shiny water droplet on the collar.
After some time, he picked up his hat and stood up to leave. The rain had completely stopped by then. “Can I ask you something Aryan?”
“Shoot.” He spoke with his back still towards me.
“When did you run away?”
“As soon my legs were ready to carry me.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“No. But a couple of weeks ago I got a call from a rundown government hospital in Mangalore. The doctors told me he was admitted in there and both of his kidneys had failed. They were looking for the right donor, told me he needed a transplant soon else he would die. The old gardener’s daughter had told them about me.”
“Did you go and see him then?”
He turned and looked at me with those same profoundly sad eyes, “No I didn’t.”
And I was left standing alone in an empty bar tucked inside a hidden street in Mumbai as the voice of Johnny Cash came up the Jukebox.