By Shouvik Banerjee
Madhu and the children had been insisting on a family outing for a long time. So last week, we finally decided to watch a movie at New Empire. We would later shop at New Market and then gorge on spicy street food from the nearby food stalls. The children also insisted on visiting the museum. They had always wanted to see the ‘mummy’. This time I complied.
When we reached, a thick crowd of curious souls greeted us. They huddled around the 4,000-year-old dead body and inspected it from every angle. Madhu and the kids joined them while I stayed by the swinging door and watched.
As I scanned the room, my eyes rested on the guard standing in a corner. He was wearing his emerald uniform and his right thumb dangled from his belt. Under the cap, his face was clean-shaven, and his eyes moved quickly around the room. He was invisible except for the way his wrists flicked. It looked familiar.
For a moment I paused and denied the thought. It could not be. But I had to know. I edged along the wall until I was standing beside him. I inched closer and tried to meet his eye. My suspicion and the thought I had been denying were now a fact. He pretended not to have noticed me and continued to avoid my gaze. Finally, I said, “Excuse me, I have seen you somewhere?”
This time, he looked at me. The expression of mild surprise on his face hinted neither at shock nor bewilderment. Instead, he went into a denial mode, “I’m sorry but I don’t know you.”
What a rascal!
“Remember you were in Dalhousie, near the chowmein seller, you wanted to eat some chowmein? Remember?”
“Dalhousie? Chowmein? I’m sorry sir but I do not understand.”
He slithered through the thick crowd and disappeared.
Of course, he understood!
The week before, I was sitting at one of the innumerable fast-food stalls spread around Dalhousie when he had approached me with a yellowish toothy grin. Except then, he was a beggar and not a security guard. He was bare-chested and held up a corner of the torn khaki trousers with a dirty hand. It dangled from his slim waist, threatening to fall any second. In his other hand, he held a small bowl which jingled with a flick of his wrist.
The shopkeeper rebuffed and shooed him away.
It was hard to recognize him in the museum since the beggar’s face was a mess of dark repulsive hair. But I knew it was him. There was a spark in his eyes which was hard to ignore. It was not the eyes of someone who should be begging. That was what intrigued me about him.
The next day when he arrived, I bought a plate of chowmein to appease both parties. He sat down against the wall and devoured the food from an old newspaper.
“Do you live nearby?” I asked.
The beggar shook his head. “I don’t live anywhere.”
“So, you never had a home?”
“I had one, a long time back. My brother used to beat us – my mother and me. My father had already died. Then one day, he came home drunk and pushed us out of the small house. My mother died in a ditch and I kept wondering. You know, I have a BA and was part of a theatre group. But no one cares about degrees or talent. All they care about is money. Money, money, money…”
Under the mess of dirty hair, he did have a young face and was perhaps in his mid-thirties.
After that brief encounter, I had not seen him for many days. But I, too, was partly responsible for the disunion. Madhu was packing lunch as retaliation against my growing blood pressure and waistline. I was now spending my afternoons with colleagues. I listened to their gossip, and occasionally took sides in office politics. My workload had also increased. So, I found less reason to visit my beloved food stall.
The other day, Mahesh, the office peon, had piled a stack of files on my desk. “Dutta da wants this by tomorrow,” he had announced fastidiously before scrambling off. After working for six years, I had acquired one vital piece of knowledge about my boss – Raghubir Dutta. When he said next week, he meant this week; If he said tomorrow, he meant today.
Sometimes, when files were not coveting for my attention, I wondered why I slogged so much for so little. Other times, I romanticised the impossible idea of finding a better paying job. But almost immediately I dismissed such thoughts, remembering well that my father never had the luxury to send me to a business school.
I needed money to make money.
The next day, I took an early leave during lunch. I cited an important meeting with a customer as an excuse. Thankfully, Dutta was too preoccupied to have noticed the lie. I went over to the same stall and hid behind a bunch of bodies. His appearance, though, made me doubtful after my confrontation.
I was right. After waiting for half an hour, I went to lookfor him. I scanned the countless stalls, shops, and the streets packed with people.
It was a futile search. But just as I was about to board a bus, my eyes fell on a sugarcane juice seller at the far end of the street. And there he was, hunched on the ground, relishing the sweet juice and ecstatically smacking his lips!
I waited. He got up and dumped the plastic vessel in the dustbin. Then, he briskly walked till the end of the road and turned a corner. I followed. The beggar entered a small public urinal that was surprisingly clean. A few minutes later, the museum guard emerged in his crisp green uniform and cap, looking sharp and, I suspected, perfumed as well.
I ran and caught him by the shoulder as he waited for his bus. He turned around with a flabbergasted look.
“I know about your dual life,” I said, agitated and angry that he still feigned surprise. “The police might find it interesting. Why are you acting and fooling people?”
The guard gave me a wide smile and politely replied, “Aren’t we all?”
The bus arrived. He got up and I watched as the vehicle roared away leaving a cloud of black smoke in my face.
Shouvik Banerjee is the author of Seven Sundays (Hay House, 2019) and has been published in literary magazines and journals like The Bombay Review and The Universe Journal.
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