The beggar lied there, curled up on the sidewalk, looking rather comfortable.
Perhaps more comfortable than I would look in my 80,000 bucks mattress, Pradeep thought without humour.
Pradeep stood not 5 meters away from the sleeping beggar. His was a figure 5’ 8” tall, a bulk which even though has suffered from drinking and allied issues, was still rather well maintained thanks to the two hours he spent at the gym every day.
He blew the cigarette smoke into the air, the breeze carrying it away over the water of the lake.
Pradeep was never really a romantic type. Even when he was married to Suchitra and they used to visit the lakes on certain evenings, he wasn’t really “into it”. The only reason he went along was because he loved her.
At the memory of his ex-wife, he blinked, told himself it was because of the ash getting into his eye.
The beggar was an old man who surprisingly had a full head of hair when most of the younger people who lived a way more comfortable mainstream life- Pradeep included were losing hair at alarming rates across the length and breadth of the country. If there was one thing which marked the 21st century India, it’s a widespread loss of hair.
Pradeep looked at the beggar. He thought, the piece of shit is just lying there so comfortably though he didn’t do anything productive for the society. Pradeep felt an intense dislike welling up within him, which he tried to drown in a gulp of smoke.
The beggar now began to snore loudly. For some reason, Pradeep felt like the beggar was intentionally mocking him. He threw what was left of the cigarette to the ground hard enough for dots of flame to spread in a minor arc.
Throwing one last disgusted look at the beggar and at the lake which didn’t do anything to calm his nerves, he walked back towards the car. The night in Bangalore was getting colder.
Once he was home, he took a shower- a cold shower. He found the ice-like touch of the water on his scalp therapeutic. The half bottle of Jim Beam which he had consumed softened the coldness a little though. His bath cubicle had the options for hot water and steam bath and colored bath and whathaveyou- it has everything short of a time machine lever, as Suchitra used to joke-but he preferred the touch of plain cold water on his skin to anything else.
Naked water on naked skin, as he liked to think.
He had a couple of more drinks before falling asleep. Upon waking up, he wasn’t sure when he fell asleep though, only that it was almost noon now, the sunlight through the window making him squint, his eyes unwilling to open to a world that didn’t have much to offer him-or so he felt.
Pradeep’s was a success story the kind of which made news headlines in the early days of India’s digital boom. He joined a company-Linker back at a time when it was not advisable to join a startup, especially if you have a well-paying government job as Pradeep did.
But the smart one that he was, he saw the future as one written largely by corporations rather than the government, for better or for worse. Linker was a company that specialized in facilitating communication links within companies, before the term ‘networking’ was part of the parlance. Against many people’s advice, Pradeep joined the small firm, which in the next two decades went on to become one of the most significant players in the arena from India. The company now has operations in Europe, America and Africa aside from India.
Pradeep, who joined the firm as a marketing manager went on to become one of its shareholders. When the company went public, he was among the ones who benefited hugely. From being a simple villager in Alleppey, Kerala, he became a success story that many people began talking about. He was appointed the consultant to many a leading organization-both in the public and the private domains.It became frequent for him to be featured in magazine covers.
But that’s just one half of the picture.
The gym is a place where he felt comfortable at. For there, he could vent off the unending frustration which swirled within him.
While pumping some iron, the sweat beads rolling off his body like tiny parts of himself making their escape to a better place, he looked to his right. There, on the wall was a sticky note which simply said: 196. He has been in the gym for over an hour, and spent another hour there. At the end of the session, he was fatigued enough that the incessant thoughts died inside his brain. At least, for now.
Pressing a towel to his forehead he walked towards the wall. On a small stool by the wall was a thick wad of sticky notes. He plucked one out, took the ballpen that was beside it and wrote on it: 197. After taking down the earlier yellow note from the wall, he pasted the new one.
197. That’s how long it’s been since he has taken his “off” from Linker. It wasn’t meant to last this long.It was meant only as a short sabbatical-something to help him recuperate from the divorce.
“Sir, I have kept the lunch on the table. The dinner, I have kept in the fridge.”
His train of thoughts was broken by the voice of the maid. Without looking at her, he dismissed her with a wave of the hand. She was an ugly woman to look at. Old, with a black mole on her cheek which was like a boulder put at the wrong landspace-both the boulder and the landscape standing in contrast to the norms of acceptable aesthetics.
But her cooking was the best thing Pradeep has tasted. And he has tasted some delicious fare in his time.
“if there is nothing else, shall I leave?”
He was surprised that she hasn’t left yet. Her raspy voice grated on his nerves.
“Yes, you can leave!”, he said a bit louder than he intended. Loud enough to startle the old woman. Loud enough to make her curse under her breath and leave the home like the Devil himself was chasing her out.
Woman. I need a woman.
The clock on the dining room wall showed the time as 3:30. He burped, having enjoyed the maid’s cooking- basmati rice, chicken curry and aloo tikka. There was some lassi too, which he didn’t drink. Instead he poured himself some whiskey.
He could turn this day into a repeat of yesterday-stay in drinking till late evening, not attending calls from friends, if any came and going for a drive late in the night-maybe to one of the lakes. But that’s not what he wanted to do today.
He wanted a woman. Sometimes, a headier intoxication a man may never know.
He scrolled through his phone’s address book, settled on the name ‘Sitara’ (some of the names he found only vaguely familiar). He gave her a call.
“Do you have something?”
The sex was good, at least it was for him. She screamed a lot, whether from pain or pleasure, Pradeep wasn’t entirely sure. Neither did he really care.
“Do you have something?” he repeated the question.
Sitara- a petite yet beautiful dark skinned woman with pearly white teeth and long eyelashes(factors which made Pradeep like her when he first saw her at a corporate event) was lying asleep, her head resting on the crook of his arm.
At the sound of his husky voice her eyelids fluttered open. He asked her the question once more, in a tone that didn’t vent any emotion. He clarified that he meant some intoxicant.
Getting off the bed, Sitara walked on wobbly legs towards a cabinet, opened it and walked back to the bed, this time with a small pouch in her hand which she dumped beside Pradeep.
She slouched again.
Cocaine. Yeah, it should do for now, thought Pradeep.
Some half an hour later he was getting out of the apartment, leaving the woman lying on the bed, naked under a blanket which covered all of her except the feet.
She looks like a corpse, thought Pradeep.
On his way down to the basement, he lit a cigarette inside the elevator. Taking deep drags from it, he walked towards his car.
It was as he was entering the Old Madras Road that the headache spurted-like a hand made of lava, its fingers curling around his brain-or so he left.
There’s a reason why you don’t find “Have cocaine and drive” as an advice in any “Best driving practices” articles.
But Pradeep, drug addled though his mind was, figured that the sudden headache was not because he snorted. Rather, it was because the coke was bad.
“Silly slut!” he shouted, the expletive aimed at Sitara for giving him the bad medicine.
The traffic was minimal though Pradeep did contemplate stopping. Usually, he enjoyed the rush he got from driving in an inebriated state. And the more potent the drug , the more he would enjoy the drive. But bad medicine is something else altogether, he knew from experience. You never know what all shit went into the making of bad medicine.
But presently, the headache abated, leaving in its wake memories of how Suchitra used to tend to him whenever he got a headache- migraine being an issue with him, such instances were many. Memories intermingled with anger towards Sitara, and part of the anger then got transferred to his ex-wife, for leaving him in the lurch to grapple with his dark thoughts all on his own.
Before he knew what he was doing, he dialed Suchitra-the number still on the phone though there was no reason for it to remain there.
The call wouldn’t connect, the message being “the number you’re trying is either switched off or not reachable.” That was hardly enough of a deterrent for Pradeep. He tried again.
And this time it did ring. Though his eyes were on the road, all his attention actually was on the phone, just dying to hear her voice. He hasn’t heard her for over an year now. She has desisted talking to him ever since she moved out of his home-what used to be ‘their’ home.
The phone rang but there was no answer, the electronic voice urging him to call again later. He did, just two minutes later. This time too there was no answer. The clock on the dashboard blinked 12:30 AM. He would have liked to ascribe her not picking the call to the fact that it was so late. But he knew that was just wishful thinking. Suchitra was a light sleeper. Just a couple of rings and she would we awake.
“Fuck!” he shouted. The headache spiked once again, only to abate a while later and then come back again.
It was getting harder by the minute to focus on the driving. It was only as he brought the car to a stop on the roadside that he realized he wasn’t too far from where he stopped last night- the boulevard which overlooked the lake, with the beggar lying there in his blissful sleep.
Pradeep pressed the palms of his hands against the side of his temples. The headache left once again.
“Fucking cunt!” he shouted-at Suchitra or Sitara, even he wasn’t sure. Deciding that the abatement of the headache has offered him a window of opportunity to smoke a cigarette, he pulled one out and lit it. As he got out of the car, he felt curious to see if the beggar would be lying in that same spot. He could reach there if he just walked for a few seconds.
If nothing else, it would help him take his mind off Suchitra-or so he hoped.
He took the walk, puffing hard on his cigarette, and sure enough, the beggar was lying there, almost on the same spot, beneath a street lamp, beside a partial shrub which was a failed attempt at urban beautification.
And there was that same peaceful look on his face, as though the world couldn’t touch him, as if nothing existed in the world but him and his sleep. No worries, no complications, no problems to solve.
“Motherfucker! Just lying there! Why don’t you just get up and do something-get a life, instead of being a leech!” Pradeep shouted loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood, if there were a neighbourhood to talk about. The lake was a little way off the main road, far from the nearest commercial building- a precious stones shop which was closed at this time, and the nearest house, well, that was two blocks away.
An empty bottle of cheap rum lied beside the beggar’s open hand, which probably explained the deep sleep-for he didn’t so much as flinch at the loud noise which Pradeep made.
“Fucking asshole!” shouted Pradeep, his eyes bulging with rage. “Not successful and yet you dare to just sleep like this, on public property which is paid for with the money of those who work, those who are successful!”
With every word that he uttered, he felt the rage inside him mounting, until it felt like it was the guiding principle, if not of his life, then at least of these following moments.
His legs had no qualms following the directions given by his anger-soaked brain, the grey matter blackened by the intensity of rage. He walked back to the car, opened the trunk and brought out a lever. Without bothering to shut the trunk, he walked to the beggar, this time with the lever in hand.
Standing over the beggar, be brought the lever down, hard, uncompromising, putting every last cell of his body behind the effort- bringing down the weight over and over again. The beggar screamed but just once. And then he ended in a burst of blood and brains. Pieces of broken bones littered the boulevard around him.
Pradeep woke up the next day feeling very peaceful. It took him a few moments to recollect what happened the previous night.
Getting off the bed he walked to the mirror on the wall- an ornate piece which was from Aaranmula, selected by Suchitra in one of their visits to Kerala.
The man in the mirror looked well-rested. No feeling of guilt surfaced in his mind at the sight of the face. In fact, he felt oddly proud of the man in the mirror.
“For the first time in a long time, you did something positive,” he told him. “Something that has helped you get out of all the dark thoughts which threatened to overcome you.” The voice that spoke out sounded like it belonged to a more matured version of himself.
That day, he enjoyed the maid’s cooking more than usual. Indeed, he even smiled at her once, paid her some money even though it wasn’t the pay day or a special day. The old woman was baffled yet pleased by the experience.
A couple of times he reached for the bottle but then restrained himself, for within him was the newfound peace and he didn’t want to risk losing it under the influence of alcohol.
“Yeah, there you are!” he said in a baritone, speaking to himself in a tone that a coach might use on his team after a major victory. “You are thinking properly again! Logically, clearly. See, see, you can see that the liquor, even though you feel like celebrating this, may kill the peace. That’s logical thinking right there, my man!” he said, hitting repeatedly the side of his temple with a finger. “The kind of clear headed thinking which has made you what you are today- a successful man!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. He turned on the music player- the first time he has done so in a very long time. The plush villa began to throb with the rhythmic beat of a drum.
But the music was not enough to celebrate. He needed something else. And he knew what it was-he wanted to talk to her once again. Just talk to her, hear her voice, once again, just once.
With this intention he took the phone in hand, put it away, and then took it up again-suddenly afraid if talking to her might in some way take away the peace.
“But it has to be done,” he told himself. “Otherwise, otherwise…” Otherwise you will lose the peace, the thought felt like a cloud which hovered above his head.
He dialed , expecting her not to pick up. So it was that he was surprised to hear her voice after the second ring.
“Hello?” the tone of apprehension in her voice was unmistakable.
“Hello,” after that he was lost for words, because hearing her voice made him aware that he wanted more than just talk to her, he wanted to see her.
“Hello?” she said again.
It took him a few seconds more to frame his thoughts but once he began talking again, the words came smoothly, “I have kept myself from contacting you all these months..hoping that with time the pain will subside. But every passing day just made the pain worse…Can’t we..can’t we be together again?” He was surprised by the words himself but once he said it, he felt a strange relief wash over him.
There was only a brief pause before she spoke, in her low yet stern voice-one which he was very familiar with. “I have been with you for 15 years, Pradeep. And I know that you are someone who can love, but you are also someone who holds so much rage within you, it destroys anyone who comes in touch with you.”
Before he could voice his protest, she continued, “Please don’t call me or contact me in any way again.”
“Why?” thundered Pradeep. “I am a successful person! You know very well the kind of background from which I came, and from there, I have built myself up to this level. And you know very well how well I have taken care of you-given you everything that you need. Even the place that you live in now, isn’t that something I gave you!” And when there was silence on the other end, “Answer me!”
It took him another moment to realize that she was no more on the call.
He felt the peace leaving him, like water leaking from a pot with a hole. Frustrated, he threw the phone to the ground. iphones are generally resistant to falls but this was no mere fall, and it landed just outside the limits of the carpet, parts of the phone skittering in different directions.
The sound brought to his mind visions of things breaking-household utensils and pend holders and bottles and whatnot, whenever his stepfather came home drunk. And the thrashings the man inflicted upon him when he was young, bruises which marked his flesh deep and his mind deeper.
At first he used to complain to his mother. But she was helpless, someone who was thankful for a second chance in life-even if it involved preparing dishes for a drunkard day in and day out. But the man did earn money, and more importantly, he didn’t spend all of it away. Running multiple small businesses- a provisionary store and a paper wholesale among them, there was always an income flow. More than good enough at that.
And he took care of his wife’s needs-clothing her, buying her ornaments on special occasions and taking her places. But her son was not exactly a top priority for him.
“You will never become a success! You will end up a loser like your father!” was one of the oft=repeated phrases, which the man would direct at Pradeep without any good reason, just for the kick of taunting him.
Pradeep’s father himself had run a small business-one that involved providing fat to soap manufacturers. But faced with stiff competition from bigger players, the business failed. He had put a lot of faith, and money in the business, incurring a serious loss.
It was a 6 year old Pradeep who one day pushed the door to his parent’s bedroom open and found him hanging from the ceiling fan.
Once he graduated from college(in commerce, a course he himself chose because it didn’t incur too much of a cost-he found the money for it by doing odd jobs), he moved to Chennai seeking a job. A couple of jobs that led nowhere and then he joined Linker. And then, as they say, there was no looking back.
Once he settled down in Bangalore, he asked his mother to move in with him. But she declined, her husband-whose excessive drinking finally caught up with him was bedridden. “All the more reason for you to come here,” Pradeep has said, “And I don’t mean you alone,” he added half-heartedly.
Still, his mother wasn’t taken with the idea, or rather, his stepfather- the proud fool that he was wouldn’t let her take up on the offer. Not that she told Pradeep this in so many words. But there was no need to. He has come to know his mother rather well in all these years.
So he went down there. It’s been a couple of years since he’s been there, limiting his communication with his mother over the phone, and of course, he did send her money regularly, money wasn’t a problem with him anymore.
Mother greeted him warmly, as only a mother could do. A smile that melted away a lot of worries from Pradeep’s heart, a caress which he thanked with a peck on the cheek. She was clad in a saree, ready to go out for a function-a wedding in the neighborhood when Pradeep dropped in.
“You should have called,” she said, albeit still smiling. When she told him that the housemaid whom she has arranged to come and look after her husband in her absence was not there yet, Pradeep asked her not to worry. “I will be here anyway.”
That was how he found himself at the side of his stepfather’s bed. The man was asleep but soon woke up, perhaps sensing the presence of someone beside him or maybe because he felt thirsty and wanted a drop of water. When his eyes fell on Pradeep’s face, he blinked once, twice and then stared at him for a long while.
Pradeep was beginning to think that all the alcohol has not just affected his liver and nervous system but also the brain, rendering him incapable of recognizing faces.
But then, a thin smile spread across his lips. Not a happy smile but one that’s meant to mock. Pradeep felt a heat rise within him, felt that if he listened closely enough, he could hear the sound of his blood boiling.
“So, you have come, my unsuccessful child!” the old man said. When he smiled, Pradeep saw that most of his teeth were brownish. But more than that, what revolted him was the man’s smile itself.
“How dare you, you who are wasted away with liquor, who don’t even have a child of his own, how dare you call me unsuccessful?” said Pradeep, barely able to keep the anger from showing in his voice.
“Because that’s what you are!” the old man’s voice, bedridden though he was, was still a mass of spite. “Your mother is the only person who loved you in the whole world. You father never did…that’s why he died. And as for me, well, you know it better than I how much I love you,” he laughed, it sounded like the dry rattle of a piece of marble inside a plastic mug.
For a second, Pradeep’s anger was overtaken by curiosity.
“Why do you hate me so?” he asked his step-father. “What did I ever do to you?”
“Because you are the symbol of all that I never wanted.I loved your mother even before she was married to your father. Though I pleaded she didn’t marry me then. But even after your father passed away, I still loved her .That’s why I married her. But you..you were the reminder of her past which I didn’t want. I repeatedly asked her to send you away, to a boarding school, or a hostel when you were in college. But she never let you go, she loved you so much. And I…with every passing day I hated you more. I tried to be thankful of having a stepson. I really did. But it was your mother I loved, and you were just an extra baggage I didn’t need. Kids..I think they are always unwanted baggage. And I thank God I never had one! ”The old man said all this in a neutral tone, as if reciting something he was reading off a book, facts that were like debris floating around the wreck of his life, picked up and presented in an orderly manner, one after the other.
“And now, you are still unsuccessful, the one who could not have the one who loves you-your mother. She stays with me still, ha ha ha!”
That was it. Something snapped inside Pradeep. He reached out his arms, wrapped the fingers around his throat. It was easy chocking the life out of him, far easier than he had thought.
And a peace settled inside Pradeep; a peace which even the money and career accomplishments failed to bring.
When his mother returned he told her how his step-father passed away peacefully in his sleep. Her mother, if she suspected something, never showed it. She lived the next two years with Pradeep, in Bangalore, until she too died, of heart complications.
Sometime during that time, Pradeep lost the peace he found as the soul fled from his step-father’s body. It was restored-to a certain extent when he met and fell in love with Suchitra, and he hoped to retain the peace by marrying her.
But then, hauntings were there-of deeds performed, of questions of right and wrong, questions he sought to drown in alcohol. And Suchitra, ever the amiable friend of a wife, began to admonish him for his drinking. And whenever she did so he would vent his anger at her, an anger that would soon transmute into intense love for her, caressing her, taking her in his arms.
She took the beatings as long as she could and no further.
Pradeep kicked one of the pieces of the iphone away, with furious force, as if the phone was the root of all his problems.
But this wasn’t the time to sit down and think of the root of problems. His brain was in overdrive, the heat of rage intermingled with sadness sending his mind in one direction and one direction alone.
He looked at the mirror, and this time saw a stranger-or rather a potential he wished to inhabit: Somone who can act so that he could bring about internal peace, someone who knew exactly what to do to make it happen.
He remembered reading in a recent article that India has over 4 lakh beggars. And though the number of people living below poverty line has supposedly reduced, another recent news piece told how around 60% of the entire population couldn’t even afford vegetables anymore. That’s bound to throw some of those people into the streets, towards the ‘profession’ of begging which could be more lucrative than whatever they are currently doing.
The unsuccessful ones. Ones who actually don’t have any reason to stay alive among the successful ones-like him.
There are bound to be a lot of them to be found. Oh, yes, thought Pradeep, grinning at his mirror image, taking the car key and heading out-to find in some alleyway or under a forgotten bridge, one of the least successful of the lot, all alone, without defense. Loser.