Friday, April 18, 2014

Yamuna Dhaba

The sun rose slowly as if it wasn't sure it was worth all the extra effort.
Another day dawned on the campus, as Kishore drew up the shutters. Someone had again put up another one of those damned posters asking for votes for one of the committees or the other with another combination of the letters he had been made to memorise by that old drudge of a Masterji back in Motihari. He still felt the sting of the back-handed slap handed out when he had turned up because his father would rather buy goat-feed than a pair of sandals. But that was many years ago, before he had come to the City where a fellow member of his biradari had taken him in to help out at the rickety canteen selling tea for twenty-five paisa.
As he ruminated, he heard the crash of utensils falling and looked up to see his bĂȘte-noire, Kali, a grizzled tomcat scuttled back to the dump behind the kitchen. Kali had always hung around his canteen since the days it used to be just a shack. The appropriate amount of palm-greasing had ensured that when the funds were granted he got the contract to operate the canteen. Stoking up the gas, he turned to his trustee pock-marked kettle which had served umpteen generations of students and put it on the boil. Thankfully, Kali hadn’t managed to get into the biscuit tins this time.
Kishore waited while the lit incense sticks fought their last and lonely battle against the rancid smells of the garbage dump.

Afroz usually woke up at 6 a.m., but today he was jolted awake by Abbajan. He had been having this recurring dream of his Abbu ordering him to jump up from his bed the past few days. As he drew the sheets around himself and reach for the water jug, he realized that Kailash had clasped his sinewy hands across his waist. He had missed him during the field trip to Azamgarh and yesterday evening was spent making up for it. ‘Such are the perks of living the Men’s PG hostel’, he thought to himself, ‘but today there was much to be done. If Laxmi had to have any chance of making it’. Reluctantly, Afroz tore himself out of bed, Kailash stirred but Afroz had slipped out of his embrace by then. A quick wash and slipping on his trusty battle suit of frayed jeans and kurta, he sauntered to the canteen.

“Kishoreji, make a special tea for me and don’t stint on the tea”, Kishore murmured lighting up his morning smoke. “Did you see Laxmi yet?”
“You are the first one here “, Kishore replied. “Besides it’s hard to tell one from the other with these girls after so many years. They’re always prancing about, higher than I ever got on Holi.”
Afroz thought: I can’t be talking to Kishore. If I was talking to that petty capitalist Kishore, I’d be mad, and I’m not insane, so no more talking to Kishore, he’ll drive me nuts. Anyway, where was she? It had been hard enough to push her for nomination after she had rebutted Dhar, the current President’s advances last semester. She was going to ruin everything! And the blame would fall squarely on him.

Laxmi meanwhile was having a manic morning. The last few days had been a blur with all the campaigning, her throat was sore, her eyes bleary , her back hurt and on top of all that her hair was a mess.
“Heck, everything is a mess today!”, she grunted trying to comb her hair and stuff some cereal into her mouth at the same time. As she hastily shut the door, she spied the box of chocolates Daley had left for her. “I’ll deal with that later. Today is my big day”, she prepped herself as she picked up a brisk pace towards the canteen. It was already 8.
Winding down the lane from her hostel, she saw Prof. Brahmaprakash sipping tea on the balcony, appraising the morning bustle of the university with as much as attention as he would bestow on the bottoms of his comelier graduate students. The sight of him instantly started to grate on Laxmi. Her mind filled with words strings like ‘that old party-switching scotch-swilling favour-dispensing sexist charlatan’ as she piped out a “Good Morning, Sir”. Well, it mattered to keep up appearances with someone who could get her a recommendation even if he was a smarmy toad.

“Morning”, grunted the balding Professor, “best of luck with the elections. I see you are going up against Suparna for the Sexual Harassment Committee position. Guess we’ll be watching our P’s and Q’s now!”

Laxmi stifled her rising disgust as she took his leave to scurry to the canteen. Afroz would be hopping mad at her being late today, she knew that he was the only reason she had got the nomination and was probably going to win it.

As Prof. Brahmaprakash saw her edging her way across to the canteen, he felt a sense of dread he hadn’t felt since his puritan mother had threatened to pack him off to Varanasi when he managed to fail his nd year examinations. Only the intercession of his uncle, the principal of the college had managed to save him.

“This simply won’t do”, he thought, “all these new-fangled Joan of Arc’s of women’s liberation and equality. What did they think of themselves? Their seniors were not liberated? They studied under me too, they didn’t go about shouting vile things about the administration. This chit of a girl who kept Dr. Bhargav suspended for just brushing against one of his grad students, cannot be tolerated. ”
The effect of last night’s Tolstoy critiques still weighing on him he scribbled “What is to be done?” and then reached for his phone.


By now, Kishore had set up his wares on display and gotten that idiot boy, Nandu, sent by one of his innumerable relatives back home to scout out for orders. A gaggle of first years had just walked in and with the ravenous appetites of teenagers he knew he could manage to pan off at least a dozen of the samosa he had bought yesterday.

Laxmi and Afroz had settled into counting the prospective votes when Afroz’s mobile piped up with a squeaky electronic version of a popular film song.Laxmi rolled her eyes as she heard the lyrics and as she prepared to direct a diatribe at Afroz, he signalled her to shut up.
“Haan, Saheb, tell me why you remembered this humble servant”, he smirked into the phone and then turned away.

Afroz had just about finished another leisurely drag when he saw Laxmi upon him. ”Is this the time to show up?”, he blurted, stubbing out the Capstan as he shuffled his papers, “You know just how fucking hard it has been to get you on the ballot and then to get the Independent Coalitions’s supporters on our side? I’m meeting their organizer Ranga in 15 minutes and you show up now!”

“I was feeling unwell, haven’t got any sleep in a week amd I have my midterms coming up”, croaked Laxmi.”And I thought the IC guys were on our side”

“Yes, but I just heard that Suparna is Ranga’s cousin and she also has the support of those saffron monkey worshippers”, snapped Afroz back. ”You need to sweet talk Ranga into ensuring every last fucking vote of his retarded naxal friends goes to us.”

“But Professor Saheb, this is not possible”, Afroz said, “It’s too late, It’s all sewn up now. We could have done this earlier”

“Listen you dog! If you get her elected, consider your fellowship over. You know that it is coming up for review next week. I simply cannot have her muck-raking when the accreditation committee is scheduled to come”, barked Prof.Brahmaprakash.
“Let’s not be getting too hasty. I know what you did on the last ‘conference’ trip abroad. Quite juicy details in fact! You may want to consider that when you make your threats”

Afroz could feel his bile rising in distaste at the old fart but he still kept talk till Prof. Brahmaprakash broke. And he knew he had leverage.

“You know I’m nominated to be on the board this year and if my brother becomes the principal secretary then you can be assured that I’ll be the next VC. It will be good for you.”, he smarmily put in, ”Just get this done! ”

“Well , you do this for me : get my stipend raised and get me 10 lakhs in funds for the college fest, I’ll take care of this”, proposed Afroz.

There was silence for a minute.

Afroz thought: This is going to take some spinning. And it must make a good yarn.


Laxmi had wandered off in her imagination where she was the Leader of the party , stunning the masses of workers with her charm and leaving a wake of adoring fans behind her cavalcade when Afroz tapped her. ”Guess our deal with Ranga is off! They are voting for Suparna. We just got trumped, he called me.”

Laxmi’s eyes started to brim as her face that had withstood the strain so far crumpled. ”But how can that be? We just hashed it out yesterday! They can’t go back on me! The bastards!”

“They can. It’s just politics, they got a better deal. But you know what, all is not lost, an opening just came up on the cultural committee, we won that flat out last semester and Bhagya is going to drop out now. You could be there.” Afroz soothed her.
 ”You win sometimes, most times you make sure you aren’t losing out” , he added cockily.

“Really. Thanks, well I never thought about it .But guess it’ll have to do”, said Laxmi as she rose up to her full height looking into the furrowed brows of Afroz.
Privately she thought, “Thanks heaven for that! At least I can get rid of all that agit prop and those rather ‘bohemian’ kurtas for something more comfortable. Besides, after Dr. Bhargav this lot are just looking for a martyr for the cause. This position does come with some real spending power and come December, I’m going to put all my favours to good use.”

Nandu took precisely this moment, calculated after months of apprenticeship to ask if Madam wanted more tea. As Laxmi brusquely brushed him off, composing her SOP to Dartmouth in her head, he aimed a stone at the ever idling Kali. However, evolution had graced him with feline grace, a healthy distrust of humans and the experience of long days on campus and he easily evaded the missile. Which in a glorious arc managed to lodge itself in a window of the teacher’s quarters.

Mrs. Brahmaprakash alerted by the sound of shattered glass rushed over to see slivers of glass splattered on her husbands beloved tweed coat, a constant reminder to himself and the world at large, of his Oxonian credentials.AS she swept it all way , cursing the monkeys that had ruined her morning, a cell phone slipped out of the coat. As she went to keep it on the marital shelf, it pinged furiously. Curiousity having gotten the better of her, she opened the message from Afroz which depicted the avuncular professor in various states of undress with a pair of Asian lady-boys. The message was simply titled ‘Remember Pattaya?’


It was almost evening when Kishore thought about his afternoon siesta. Drifting off to sleep after giving that lazy tramp, Nandu, a good thrashing, he remembered about all the money he had managed to stash away in his bank for 15 years. True, a lot had gone greasing the sweaty palms of the admins but it had given far more back. He could send Rs.5000 back home each month to educate his young son at the English Medium School that had sprouted at the district headquarter. Hell, at this rate he could even buy himself a new wife, which might be necessary considering the reception he got from Nirmala the last time he visited.

Still, life wasn’t so bad. Turning over, he hollered at Nandu,”Set a plate of milk for Kali! He‘s got more brains than you! ”

Kali’s eyes darted towards the plate, the evening light glinting off them.
Which soon became a glint amongst the stars, and then disappeared.[1]

[1] Opening lines and last lines taken from ‘The Light fantastic’-Terry Pratchett

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