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Sport 41: 2013

Rajorshi Chakraborti — Half an Hour

page 262

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Half an Hour

Immediately after lunch, Ma said that Uncle Vinay and Aunty Priya would be visiting in half an hour, and pressed the button for an attendant because she wanted the room tidied up. What she especially seemed to want was their bed re-made after its cover had been taken off and dusted, because Baba and I had eaten on it whilst watching the end of the movie.

When no one showed up after even the third buzz, I was dispatched to the end of the corridor where we knew the staff had a room of their own. Ma in fact handed me the bed-cover, so that one of them could give it a thorough dusting. She would convey her displeasure at being ignored when he or she returned with me, I was sure.

But when I looked through the little window in the door of the staff room, I could see there were three of them eating and chatting. They were right in the middle of their meal, and I didn’t have the courage—or the heart, whichever it was—to go inside with our bed-cover, interrupt their lunch, ask one of them to wash his hands, and get to work for me right away.

Yet I also couldn’t return to the room without a clean bedspread as well as a staff member in tow. I briefly stood beside the door hoping one of them would finish eating and come out, but, when this didn’t happen in the next three minutes, it struck me that I could go downstairs, get one of the bellhops who hung about in the main lobby to take the bed-cover out the back and give it a good shake (or I could ask the friendly receptionist we always greeted to summon one of them on my behalf), and afterwards come up to our room.

But there was no one downstairs just then apart from the receptionist, and it wasn’t the man we smiled at every time we passed through the lobby. This was an unfamiliar woman, about Ma’s age, working busily at her computer screen. I certainly couldn’t expect her to step out from behind her desk and shake the bed-cover for me, page 263 nor did I feel I could ask her to call up one of the presently invisible bellhops. The only other option was the liftman who’d escorted me downstairs, and him I couldn’t request to leave his post for an errand as petty as this.

It was then I realised that I myself could take the bed-cover outside, shake the crumbs off, and then, when I was back on our floor, check the staffroom once again to see if those fellows had finished their lunch.

The lobby opened directly onto the pavement of the main road, which was where I would have to carry out my vigorous shaking, in full view of the passing public. That couldn’t be helped, I decided, but I unexpectedly found an ally right there—the doorman, who was only too happy to hold two corners of the queen-sized cover, so that together we could open it out and shake it extra-thoroughly. Yet I realised, as I counted aloud and we shook, that while we were getting the crumbs off, this was probably doing more harm than good because of the inevitable smoke and dust the bed-cover was picking up on a busy city road.

I’d just asked the doorman—an enthusiastic shaking partner—to stop for this reason, when a car drove past with what looked like a blind guy in the back seat, judging by the glasses he wore. But not just any blind guy, he resembled quite remarkably my classmate Abhinav from three years before, who certainly hadn’t been blind then. What could have happened? Was it really him? The car had passed too quickly for me to be sure; wouldn’t someone have written to me or mentioned it somewhere if he’d had such a serious accident?

But I still had a chance to find out, if I grabbed it right away. I asked my new friend the doorman to hold on to the bed-cover for me, maybe put it on one of the sofas in the lobby for me to pick up in a couple of minutes, while I just ran behind that car to confirm a suspicion.

And I would have made it too, if the car had encountered a red light at the next big crossing. Unfortunately it went straight through, and there was no way I could run across a giant five-way crossing—so big it also had a flyover spanning it—quickly enough to follow. I was standing there on the corner of the pavement regaining my breath in a space between a vendor of hairclips and another of socks and briefs, page 264 and wondering which of my old friends I could tactfully broach the subject with, when someone asked me where I wanted to go.

‘Nowhere. I was just trying to catch up with that car, but it’s gone now,’ I said to the kind-looking woman who’d spoken to me, about thirty, in a sari, looking like she was waiting for a bus to take her to work.

‘Which car?’

‘The red Hyundai Accent. It just went that way, towards the market. My friend was in it.’

‘Your friend the blind boy?’ the woman said next and stunned me.

To my flabbergasted, and obvious, next query, she answered, quite nonchalantly, that she was often at that corner and knew most of the cars that regularly went past because they stopped at the lights. She’d often seen a boy in those special dark glasses in the back seat of that car.

Then she added that she knew where he might have gone.

Five minutes later, I was following her down the middle of a pavement crowded with vegetable vendors to our left and small hardware stores on our right. It had seemed too extraordinary an opportunity to miss, that a stranger had appeared from nowhere and looked like she could lead me to the exact person I wanted to find, in the middle of this huge city.

And a minute after that, I knew where she was taking me, and asked her just to be sure—the J.C. Bhabha Junior College, right, coming up over there on the left?

Ah, you know it?

I had to explain as we walked, now alongside one another, that I was actually from here. My parents had migrated to Australia three years before, and we were back on our first visit. So if that had been my friend, he would be in his first year of junior college.

She didn’t seem so interested in my explanation. Perhaps she was a bit put out that I had undermined her big revelation, the conjuror’s trick she had been about to pull off. I attempted to put things right.

But you have still been enormously helpful, because I wasn’t even sure it was my friend. Now it makes perfect sense; he would be the right age. And I would have never thought of coming along to the college to check.

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All she said was, you don’t look anymore as though you’re from here, and kept walking.

At the college gate, she told me to go in and search for him, and I thanked her once more. As I was walking inside, I heard her calling out to me. She was pointing at something to my right—the red car parked under a tree. I shook my head in admiration and disbelief, waved at her, and kept walking.

There were dozens of students all around to choose from, and I asked a couple of girls ahead of me the way to the first-year classrooms. I had barely entered the building they directed me to, in the middle of a fair-sized throng, when two voices simultaneously called my name.

They were a couple of guys from VIII-B (I’d left while in VIII-C): I recognised them right away, but we hadn’t been especially close. They were amazed to see me in college (one of them asked if I’d moved back permanently), and also commented positively on my hairstyle and T-shirt. I corrected a misconception of theirs, that I now lived in Tasmania.

After these initial remarks, I felt the ice had been sufficiently chipped at to ask them about Abhinav. I didn’t want them to leave for their class without knowing something definite: after all, I still wasn’t sure it had been him. That was something the friendly woman obviously couldn’t confirm. A blind stranger could resemble a classmate my age in hurriedly-glimpsed profile.

But it had been. They told me everything readily, in just a couple of sentences, before returning to their questions about what I was doing in Australia, what I was studying, what we drove. It had been a chemistry lab accident early last year, during a Class IX practical exam. They didn’t know a lot more because they hadn’t been in his class, but apparently he still had some sight in one eye.

I felt a tap on my arm: an unknown student was telling me that Tarabai was waiting. He had to say it twice more before I understood he was talking about the woman at the gate. She hadn’t left, either because she thought I wouldn’t know my way back to the big crossing, or perhaps she was waiting for a more substantial expression of gratitude.

I thanked the guys, excused myself and returned briskly to the main entrance, where Tarabai was indeed waiting to one side, although she page 266 was on the phone when I arrived. She cut her call short when she saw me, and I pulled my wallet out even as I assured her that I knew my way back to my hotel, and gave her a hundred-rupee note. She looked startled and self-conscious and did a quick check to see if anyone was watching us, but kept the money nevertheless. She actually seemed disappointed, and said she’d come all this way and waited, and here I was ‘from foreign’ and dressed so well. I did have some more money on me, so I gave her another hundred, and then said I really had to go back inside and find my friend. I told her I was getting close but hadn’t reached him yet.

You won’t find him now, she said. Their classes have started. Next you’ll see them at four, or some maybe at three.

Why don’t you come back with me? We’ll make it an even five hundred. This was her, looking directly at me, so I could be certain of what she was proposing.

Finally I could reply knowing what I was replying to. I said thank you, I would walk back to my hotel if what she’d said about the class times was true, but I didn’t want to go anywhere with her. In fact, my parents, and an aunt and uncle, were expecting me back a while ago. They would be wondering where I was, and were probably going to call any minute.

But my entire afternoon is now gone.

No, it’s not, it’s only 2.30. I am very grateful for your help, so I gave you some money to say thank you. Come, let’s walk back together. I can return another time to see my friend.

You know, I can scream, and everyone here knows me. Then it will cost you much more.

But she said it with a mix of listlessness and humour and didn’t scream, even though the gateman was avidly watching us. Instead, we did walk together to the crossing, this time with her shuffling along behind me as if she was the newcomer to the area. I said goodbye at exactly the place where we’d first met, and told her I was now returning to my hotel. I thanked her yet again, and smiled.

Which hotel, she asked, as I turned away. I can come.

I wasn’t going to answer that, I was going to say goodbye with something different, but just then, amid all the cacophony of the crossing, I heard my name very clearly shouted out, once and then page 267 once more. I didn’t even have to turn around to confirm who it was.

I’m off, I replied to Tarabai. This whole thing was about putting a clean bed-cover on before they arrived, so I have to run right now, otherwise Ma will be very annoyed.

For the first time since we’d met it was she who looked at me uncomprehendingly, so before taking off I added, I might see you again. I’ll go past here. I definitely want to try and meet my friend tomorrow.