“You are late,” said Somshekhar.
“I am sorry. My son…you know how he hates getting up early on Saturdays,” said Nagabhushan.
“You are seventy three. When will you be independent? Take a bus like the rest of us, old man.”
“Show me your ticket.”
“I didn’t mean today! In general…”
“Daughter in law?”
“It’s only when I’m sitting in the car with her behind the wheel that I realize just how fast this old ticker of mine can really go, you know?”
“You’re a bitter old goat. She is a blessing and you should start treating her like one. You don’t deserve her. And neither does your son. Order a coffee for me, I need to use the piss room,” Nagabhushan said and got up.
Somshekhar saw him smiling and waving at the waiters as he made his way to the bat wing doors of the ‘piss room’ at Koshy’s. He hated it when Nagabhushan called it that. He shook his head and summoned a waiter. He ordered the usual – two coffees and baked beans on toast. When the waiter was gone, he took out a small notebook from inside his shirt pocket and placed it on the table. Nagabhushan came back in a while, handkerchief in hand.
“I see you’re ready,” Nagabhushan said seeing the notebook on the table.
“I forgot my pen,” Somshekhar said patting his shirt pocket, looking around as if he’d lost it somewhere in the restaurant right then.
“Again. And again, I come to the rescue. Here you go,” Nagabhushan said and handed Somshekhar a spare pen. He took out his own small notebook from the shirt pocket, cleared his throat and said, “So, what are we writing about today?”
“I was thinking about it last night. I think we should write about Bangalore. Not the Bangalore we grew up in. The Bangalore we will die in. Now. This,” Somshekhar said and pointed at the window.
“Speak for yourself, old man. I am going to die in Singapore. Decided,” Nagabhushan put on his glasses and turned the pages of his book.
“That’s it? No argument? You like the topic?” Somshekhar asked, surprised.
“I like it. This,” he pointed at the window like Somshekhar, “I hate this. I think I can write about this. It’s going to be depressing, but.”
“Mine too. Jugalbandi number…what is it? One hundred and three?”
“Four. One hundred and four. Who’s going to start?”
“You do this time. Wait. I need my coffee. God, One hundred and four jugalbandis? We should publish a book.”
“Eventually. Ah, coffee! Thank you, sir,” said Nagabhushan to the waiter as he placed their drinks on the table.
“You start while I drink,” Somshekhar said, adding just a little bit of sugar into his cup.
Nagabhushan uncapped his pen and started writing. A couple of minutes later, he stopped.
“Done. Want to see?”
“Read it out,” Somshekhar said, sipping.
“A boy, barely eighteen, sells stars at a traffic signal. The glow-in-the-dark, stick-it-on-the-ceiling kind. They’ll never glow as bright as his eyes, though. His mother is a street away, selling the plight of a baby she is carrying. It’s not her baby and she doesn’t care.”
“Typical Nagabhushan. I love it. My turn. Drink up while I write,” Somshekhar said and started writing.
He finished just as the baked beans on toast arrived.
“Will you stop eating this junk? I’ll buy you chow-chow bath outside – I hate how expensive this place has become.”
“Sshhh,” Somshekhar said and a second later, “Done!”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Somewhere else, a grandfather is teaching his son’s doe-eyed daughter the unwritten rule of ordering filter coffee after masal dose while her brother, a ‘techie’, is driving to an IT Park that’s crowded with lonely people.”
“Bang on, you old goat. You’re getting better at this. Let’s see if I can top that.”
Somshekhar smiled and proceeded to eat his beloved beans and toast. Just as he finished eating the junk, Nagabhushan declared he was done with his lines.
“Young, beautiful people, confused and insecure, walk past each other on that narrow, store-lined, shiny stretch exchanging the slightest of glances and clouds of perfume. They eventually end up on the couch of a café, all set to talk about how they don’t know who they are.”
“Brilliant. Sad and true, isn’t it? I have one ready. Was thinking while I was eating. Hear it out?”
“Fast for an old man, aren’t you? Write it down before you forget, please!”
Somshekhar wrote it down and read what he’d written out to his friend, “Somewhere near Marathahalli, a depressed husband walks into a bar in search of a pint-sized crutch for the walk of life. They give him one quarter darkness under frozen tears and rocks instead. They run out of rocks but the darkness continues to flow.”
“We are a couple of morbid old men. But have you seen what’s become of Marathahalli? I’d be depressed living there, too. These kids better buckle up. They’re not prepared for what they’ve got themselves into,” Nagabhushan said and looked away.
“They’re a smart generation. They’ll find a way. While you think of yours, let me visit the – I can’t believe I’m saying it – piss room. Excuse me…”
When he returned, Nagabhushan was ready with his lines
“A family of four gets out of a fancy car parked opposite a fancier restaurant. The son’s nose is almost kissing the screen of his ‘iPad’ while the daughter is busy texting, smiling to herself. Mom and dad try finding each other’s hand to hold but they are not trying hard enough.”
“Why does it sound like my son’s family?” Somshekhar asked, playing with the sugar bowl.
“If it were, your son wouldn’t be in it, would he? Where is he now? Bermuda?”
“He travels a lot. Is that a crime?”
“No, but what you found in his phone was.”
“It was a mistake. I should never have snooped around like that. I got what I deserved.”
“Think he’s still seeing that woman?” Nagabhushan asked and immediately regretted asking it.
“Can we please continue with the jugalbandi? I don’t like talking about it. It was a long time ago. He loves his family. He provides for them. Don’t ruin this for me, please. I love writing with you. Don’t make me not turn up the next time.”
“Sorry. Your turn.”
Nagabhushan stood up and went outside for a while. Just to let the air between them dilute a little. He shouldn’t have brought up Shankar. And he knew it. He shook his head, stared at the traffic jam and returned to the table inside.
Somshekhar seemed to be OK. He was smiling.
“Beat this, you old loafer: Somewhere else, an eighty-three year old woman mourns the death of her ninety-three year old husband. While her mind is busy wrapping up the past in sepia-toned paper, her sons’ are busy converting their now deceased father’s study into a store room.”
“While it is beautifully crafted, dear sir, you broke rule number one! What is rule number one, Somu?”
“No old men,” Somshekhar sighed.
“That’s not the complete rule. What’s the complete rule?”
“No killing old men.”
“Yes. You killed an old man, Somu. You killed one of us. I hope you feel good about yourself.”
“I forgot! You started talking about Shankar and I just forgot. Fine! I admit it. God, I hate you!”
“Sorry about Shankar. I shouldn’t have brought him up. But, good, that makes me the leader. I have one ready,” Nagabhushan cleared his throat and said, “A middle-aged woman who recently started living in the city calls her mother up and tells her the roads could be better. Idli is awful, she says. The weather is mild, yes, but unfortunately the men are, too, she giggles. Her mother scolds her to ‘find someone’ soon. Eventually she hangs up and gets back to her heady mix of laptop and cigarette.”
“That’s incredible. Where did you learn to write like that?” Somshekhar mocked, almost.
“Here. With my best friend,” Nagabhushan said as sincerely as he could.
They looked at each other for a while and smiled. A lot of years had passed since learning how to spell APPLE together at the same desk. A lot. But their friendship stood like a tree. Strong and proud. And at that moment, both of them felt it.
“One more and we need to leave. Savitri’s son’s house warming ceremony today. Need to go. Said Somshekhar.
“Who? Rohan? Good for him. OK, Your turn. Go.”
“I have it ready. Listen: A young lady works the petrol pump a mile away. A man, who has come to quench his bike’s thirst, is staring at her and not the running meter. She is uncomfortable but shrugs it off as normal. Her sister, a bus conductor, has told her, men will be men.”
“That’s nice. That’s really nice. All right, then, announce the winner, let’s go.” Nagabhushan said and gestured to the waiter to get the bill.
“And the winner is…Nagabhushan Rao! Huge round of applause, ladies and gentlemen!” Somshekhar said, drumming a roll on the table while Nagabhushan sat smiling, nodding.
They paid the bill, got up and left.
“Thanks,” Somshekhar said once outside.
“For what? Auto!” Nagabhushan screamed at an auto waiting outside.
“For this. For you. For your words.”
“Just go enjoy the lunch, you sentimental monkey. See you next week.”
“Don’t be late,” Somshekhar said as Nagabhushan got into an auto after negotiating with the driver.
“I won’t. Bye.”
And he was gone.
Somshekhar stared at the auto for as long as he could and screamed one for himself.
Nitin Kumar a mild rice eater from Bangalore where he was born and brought up. He works as a copywriter at an advertising firm by day and when the night rolls in, he is still at work. Selling people things they don’t need is tough. Whenever he gets the time, he writes short tales and shares it on