He tapped his foot on the beige polyresin carpet, his black shoes reflecting the glare of the TV that had been running on mute for half an hour now. The newspaper on the coffee table stared back at him, and made him shift uneasily in his seat. In many ways, he realized the newspaper’s fate was similar to his– it came home everyday, but none cared to open it. Too many words, Jenny had remarked the other day. Too many words, Mathew muttered absentmindedly, shoe still tapping the carpet.
She was right in a way, he realized as stretched back now to take a more comfortable position on the sofa. Why read a 600-word article, when a 40 word would suffice? Perfect for all the politics you needed to know at coffee breaks, in taxi rides and in conversations before the dinner arrived at a restaurant. New age media organizations understood this very well, and designed apps that did exactly that for you – summarizing neatly in bullet points what you could repeat in short brief sentences. 60 dead. Gay bar. French Café. Bad Muslim.
The TV flashed and distracted Mathew. A bright bar graph stood in the centre of the screen, surrounded by a multi window panel of 8 guests pointing fingers at each other, as a ticker below ran through the breadth of the screen carrying some more the news, leaving the bottom right corner for the latest cricket scores.
“Let’s go,” said Jenny marching into the hall, leading the way out of the door. An apology would’ve been nice, thought Mathew as he got up and dusted his trousers, but hey who has time for apologies for when you’re late.
The media industry was feeding the ADHD of the masses and he could feel it close in on his frail old-school mind, hashtag daybyday, hashtag houruponhour, thought Mathew as he locked the door and followed her down the stairs.
Sitting in the back of the taxi, a seat apart, Mathew and Jenny stared out of their respective windows. Like most other things they did as a couple, they did not hold hands when they were alone anymore, only in public. The previous night they hadn’t spoken on the way to the party, but as soon as they got off the lift, Jenny (unwittingly he hoped) she asked about his day at work, and held onto his arm just as they walked in.
Mathew disliked most things in the new city, but the party was such a nightmare, it made him nauseous. Sitting on the sofa in the corner, he stared at the chaos around him, tried to make sense of it and then gave up, just as a stranger offered him a glass and sat down next to him.
“Haven’t seen you around before,” said the stranger before sitting down. He was wearing brown corduroys that fit him (too well in Mathew’s eyes) and a shirt that was buttoned right up to his neck.
“Hi,” said Mathew looking to see if he could pull up a seat for the stranger to sit down. Stranger didn’t want to sit anywhere else, and he gently sat down on the armrest of Mathew’s sofa instead. “I’m Mathew, Jenny’s boyfriend. I was away at University in Europe and I got back to Mumbai a few of days ago.”
“Right,” smiled the stranger, and then his eyes darted in the direction of the kitchen. Getting up, he swiftly put his drink down, avoided two couples standing in his way and managed to make it just in time before a group of 5 people clicked a photograph. Once it was done, deftly as he had gone, he managed to find his way back to the armrest, the glass now back in his hand.
‘What do you do?’ asked Mathew, taking a gulp of his own drink. Rum and coke, he swallowed.
Stranger opened his mouth to answer, but was cut by a shrill voice. As Mathew turned left, he saw Vanshika looking like she could fall down any second, make her way across the hall, the black dress with the frills descending to just over her knees as she sat down on the other armrest. “Great,” thought Mathew, now, literally and figuratively trapped. Vanshika clumsily dropped some chips on him, apologized and turned to face Stranger. He remembered her from her visit a couple of days ago when she had come over in the evening, and he remembered how he found her to be (exactly like the title of the movie on Netflix they had watched for the rest of the evening) extremely loud and incredibly close. But he also recognized that there was something extremely smart, (no not smart), maybe street smart, (no that wasn’t the word either), he couldn’t quite figure out what, but there was definitely a word that Mathew couldn’t put his finger on, for people like Vanshika although couldn’t by conventionally standards be considered intelligent or clever, but definitely managed to navigate this new world far better than he did.
“Jayesh is a hotshot designer who works at a hotshot advertising firm, but he just refuses to design my website ya,” she said looking at Jayesh in mock accusation, nibbling on her chips.
“We’ve had this conversation before and I’ve told you that I will do it once I find the time,”exclaimed Jayesh finishing his drink and rolling his eyes at Mathew before walking away in the general direction of the kitchen.
Vanshika licked the masala off the rest of the chips, gulped down the rest of her drink, made a face at Mathew and ran into the arms of someone else she had recognized in the party.
That was the word, Mathew realized, staring out of the window of the taxi.
The word described Vanshika and everyone else whose successes he resented – the new, charming, unabashed successful queens and kings of the generation x. In one glance you could differentiate the enterprisers from the others at a party (frankly to their credit, they made it quite easy for you), for one, they announced their arrival loud and clear, always had one odd accessory – a tie with a comic strip, or a fedora hat, never sat down, were never without a drink and diligently they ensured for the rest of the evening that no one around them was without a drink either. They navigated towards/formed the group that was either the largest or the group that was laughing the loudest, while their eyes darted all over the room. They came, they saw, they networked, and they announced their departure just as they had announced their arrival, leaving behind a string of photographs as they walked out of the door.
They also, as a principle, never struck conversation with anyone for over ten minutes. Like the 40 word app, observed Mathew as the taxi came to a halt.
Before Mathew could register the number on the screen of the taxi driver’s phone, Jenny had dug out cash form her bag, paid her driver and was out, on her way to the elevator. Mathew scrambled out of the back seat and scurried behind her.
“Mathew, can you pass the chicken gravy please?” asked Siddharth, holding both his hands across the table, his right hand pointing at the dish.
The glass bowl was heavy and Mathew, pre-occupied as he was, spilt some gravy on the white tablecloth while passing the gravy. He got up immediately and ran to the kitchen to find a cloth.
The dinner at Jenny’s mother’s was as sober as Mathew would’ve liked it to be, yet somehow he felt out of place. There was enough silence to feel human here, thought Mathew as he wet the piece of cloth he had found hanging on the doorknob that led to the storage room, yet there was this constant ringing in his head that refused to go away – a feeling exactly like the one you get when you get out of the door of your home, ready for a long vacation – the feeling that suggests that you’ve forgotten something, something is surely amiss. Mathew tried to shake the feeling off by something else, but it refused to go away. Maybe this is what getting to Bombay feels like – you get used to the chaos in your own head first, and in the world outside, thought Mathew as he walked back to the dinner table.
Lying on his bed late that night, Mathew wondered if something was medically wrong with him, maybe he had this sort of depression. Tossing and turning, he concluded that he probably was going crazy. In any case, the next morning, he would go see a shrink, the same one that Neisha had gone to see, the last month. While this decision reduced his anxiety, it didn’t bring him any sleep, so he got up quietly, so as to not wake Jenny up and walked across the room to get some milk from the fridge. Maybe he would read a book.
Stepping out into the hall, he saw that there was already someone sitting on the sofa, a black bob of hair with the TV on mute (HBO) reading a book. Startled, he walked across to the sofa, and as he did, the black bob turned around and smiled.
“Sneha. I didn’t know you were here!” exclaimed Mathew.
“Caught a late night flight out and then Siddharth told me he was here, so I just came over,” Sneha said, moving to her left, making space for him to sit down next to her on the sofa. He stared at the armrest, thrilled that his company tonight was sitting next to him, and on not on the armrest next to him.
“You couldn’t get any sleep?” she asked.
“No,” he shook his head sideways, fidgeting with the toe-end of his pyjamas. A stray thread was bothering him.
She stared at the TV screen as John Travolta ripped through the streets of LA.
“How are you liking Bombay?,” she asked, her eyes still on the television.
“It’s too fast, the city, the people, everything just whizzes by you so fast,” he said, finally pulling the stray thread out. “I don’t think I can ever get used to this city. I think unless you’re from here, Bombay the chaos is difficult to get used to.”
“Yeah,” she said dragging the end of the word, turning around to face him now.
She lifted her legs off the floor, folded them in front of her and let her back rest on the armrest on her side of the sofa. “You know the other day Siddharth took me to a party and I was stuck there and looked around me and felt like the whole thing was a game. Like one of those games that you get points for. You won points here for talking to people, but somehow only the number of people you spoke to mattered – no points for content, unless of course you had a funny story and you can made someone laugh – 10 extra points for that,” she laughed.
He laughed with her. “I know what you mean”
“And you know,”she continued, “some people get so involved in the game you can almost see their faces turn blank and empty the minute they are alone because there’s nothing to play for, no points to be won. It’s so, so stupid.”
In the minutes that followed Mathew had to suppress these sudden urges to jump across the sofa and hug Sneha; mostly because here she was, perfectly pretty and perfectly fine, validating that he wasn’t a crazy or depressed with each word she spoke. At the very least, he wasn’t the only one who felt crazy in Bombay. Maybe he was just built for a different kind of a city, or maybe different friends from the ones that Jenny had made all her life.
“Imagine if they designed an app,” he said after a while as John Travolta walked into an empty field, a shotgun in either hand. “An app that listens through your phone and gives you points for when you share silence with your friends. No talking, and it measures your heart rate, so the silence has to be comfortable, not awkward or forced. You can of course share your points on social media and compete with your friends and all that. It’s like any other game, just that the rules are different.”
“How many people in this city do you think would play that game? How many of your friends would even be interested in something like that”
“Do you want to play the game? We could sit in silence, together, read or watch TV, sitting here on the sofa, until one of us is sleepy and has to go to sleep. And then we could keep track of the points, and play again, the next time.”
Mathew sat in silence for 42 minutes and watched as John Travolta shot at the bad guys, a shotgun in one arm, a woman on the other, as Sneha quietly read her book. After the movie ended, he picked up the newspaper under the table and read a total of 14 articles before Sneha finally broke the silence.
“I think I should go to bed now.”
“Sure,” he said with a smile.
She smiled back.
He sat outside for a while but dozed off minutes after she left. At 6.15 am, a distant alarm woke him up, he opened his eyes. At 6.30am he staring at the ceiling, when Jenny opened her eyes.
Enter stage left.
– Adithya Narayanan