Malay had dozed off earlier than usual last night. It was perhaps 11:20 last, when he saw the update on his Facebook page. With congestion choking all the senses inside his head, his consciousness was overpowered by the lullaby of sodium hydrochloride. He had Googled the contents of this prescription last night. The imminent side effects were manifesting. Disgusting!
Once his slumber faded, by habit, he checked his FB page at 6:20 am. He was expecting a few good words, may be routine, but nice wishes of longer life and blossoming health. There was only one. It was Asif. He had met him during a concert on Kabir recently. The young man possibly had found him to be an interesting company to discuss classical and contemporary Urdu poetry. Asif used to regularly ‘like’ his posts and pictures. ‘Bless you’, he wrote back.
Madhu was already up. She was with Kunal in the other room. He dragged his sloppy self, half wishing to find a surprise gift. He was surprised – to know that Kunal has been up all night to submit his project. It was a card game on crafting communities. He was at his wits end swimming against the deadline. Madhu was keeping him company with occasional cups of coffee and running around for print-outs, scissors etc.
“Baba, can you ask John when his shop will open? Our printer doesn’t print Photo quality,” Kunal told him without shifting his eye from the Illustrator page open on his laptop.
“It’s too early. What time will you need the prints?”
“Can you put the milk on oven? I totally forgot. Kuni needs coffee so often.” Madhu looked up at him with her early morning eyes.
Madhu was painstakingly cutting the edges of a print to the size of a round card. “Oh, Ma, you can’t do a single thing right! Did I tell you to make such big circles? Leave it, I will do it later!.” Madhu gave a lost look to him that she did often when her best efforts were not good enough.
Malay picked up the newspaper and the milk packet. He put the milk on oven and kept browsing through the headlines.
“Happy 50th, Sir, wish you keep reading me forever,” the Newspaper quipped. He was much aware of its growing insecurity over the iPad, which accompanies him everywhere in his bag. He smiled, “Thank you, so long as you get printed.”
He made a cup of coffee for himself. It was bitter-sweet, not half as good as Madhu’s, but his own creation. He was proud of it. He settled with his cuppa and daily in the study room and pushed the door half-closed,
“Kiss you, darling!” The mug flirted shamelessly, just before touching his lips. It was his regular company for the last three years. Madhu had gifted it to him and the damn thing since then took liberties of a frivolous sister-in-law. The overheated affection burnt his lips. He gulped the accidental hot sip and managed, “That is why I am switching to lime juice and honey in tepid water. No expectations on taste, no fear of getting burnt.” He thudded the heavy ceramic coquette with a vengeance and waited till it turned cold.
Ma’s fingers were quivering as she pushed open the door of the study. She was rapidly waning after Baba got bed ridden. Stress of daily chores for a patient and strains of widening loneliness had made her nosey self even more irritating. Malay avoided his Ma as much as possible, especially when he was in a lighter mood.
“Some medicines are getting over. Also, get some diaper when you return today.”
“I shall tell the driver. After he drops me, he will pick up these. Give me the wrappers of what you need.” She left for making her morning tea. She would sip it slowly and look at his sleeping father till the cook came.
Din from the neighbouring room was increasing. Kunal was getting fidgety by the minutes drifting towards the submission deadline. Madhu was struggling to keep pace with his ever- shifting instructions. How he wished that Kunal left for a hostel or a PG! He was big enough to be on his own.
On a typical project submission day, he would try to make himself useful to Kunal. Today was different. Malay needed quietude and good wishes to cheer up his medicinal drowsiness.
He texted John about the printing and sent a connecting copy to Kunal on Whatsapp. “I have told John and sent you the link, follow up!” He was in the loo before Kunal could react.
He would be a badass from now on, he resolved. At 50, what does he have to lose? He had lived long enough caring about other people’s opinions. He would live now for his own, bindaas!
“Looking fresh today! Many happy returns, Malay.” The mirror on the wall was a congenital liar. But today, it sounded honest.
He expressed gratitude in progression to the shaving razor, the commode, the shower, the soapbox and the towel, as they wished ‘HBD’ one by one. “Getting smart, all of you!” He chuckled.
He was humming ‘Chala Jaata hoon kisike dhun mein’ in his towel when Madhu pushed the door open with the authority to kill privacy that spouses are entitled to.
“Can’t you knock?” He grimaced.
“What have I not seen!” Such intimate allusions could be made with such nonchalance only after 22 years of sleeping together. There was nothing unusual about it. But today was different. He moved towards Madhu with overt passion only to be ducked and ridiculed, “I’ve got work”. There was no smile, no glint in her eyes – no promise of compensation. The years bygone were, well, bygone.
“I have booked Ola for you at 11:00, hope that’s fine? I am taking the car today. Bye. All the best” He told Kunal and whistled off without waiting for any reply.
“Being badass is so cool, ain’t it? Happy gold, buddy!” It was the ubiquitous Deadpool from the mobile screen. He didn’t like this upstart Spiderman impersonator. He switched on the hands-free in his car and Adele crooned hello from the other side. In between, perhaps she sang the good old HBD rhyme and mentioned Malay. He couldn’t be sure as he had to negotiate the uncontrolled, unsupervised 8 way Hennur crossing.
“Why straight? Turn right and drive on the NH-4! Disappear…”
The steering always had a bohemian streak about it. It behaved domesticated in everyone’s presence, just as Malay did. But today, it kept swerving right and left. He had a very stable hand and acceleration no longer released enough adrenaline. He kept driving straight despite prodding diversions.
The access card detector flashed “Happy Birthday” at the main gate. The security guard saw it and saluted straightening like a bow. Old habits! Kunal hated it when any security guard did that to them. “Are we Presidents or National flags?” Malay smiled at the memory and texted him, “Take lots of fluids; you didn’t sleep and it’s hot today. Do your best.”
There was no reply. Kunal never replied to him.
He tailgated a colleague going to his very floor. He didn’t want another dumb display to publicly announce his annual destiny of getting older. The ritualistic mail from HR was triggered by the server early morning. So, he had to bear with a few frigid handshakes and some semi smiles muttering under breath, “Hapi Budday”.
Budday! Buddhe? It hurt.
Like gentlemen returning from brothel would rush past through the acquaintances, though no one would ever care enough to ask, so Malay reached his cabin. The glass door was reasonable. It just giggled a little but refrained from embarrassing him further. The coat hanger was not that subtle. The moment he was done with his hanging, it blinked, “Golden tummy, man! Before some body parts crack open, run, swim, play – do something! Else, you’ll die some day!” It didn’t deserve any more than a silent stare.
His secretary came with her stack of confusions: does she or does she not order the cake for the evening get together?
Malay realised that his birthday celebration was still a matter of choice for his group and excused himself for being under the weather. Cutting cake was too mushy for his image. It was never simple for him to scold someone after sharing a cake with them.
About 20 emails, 15 whatsapp messages and 30 FB posts were accumulated till noon. Malay replied with a common ‘Thanks’ in each medium. Rekha had sent through text message, an Urdu couplet which suggested that being born each year gives a hope of meeting once again, someone you lost. Even after 26 years, he couldn’t help daydreaming for a while, the alternate universe Rekha and he would have created. Would Kunal have still gone through the trauma of teenage like he had to? Would Malay have been a published writer by now? Could Rekha have managed Ma better than Madhu did?
“Saar, coffee.” This office boy smiled so consistently throughout the day that one might think there was a smiling mask available for sale online!
“Happy birdday! Kāphi āśisuttēve, Saar! Idu viśēṣa. (How is the coffee? It is special?)”
Probably, he expected a tip. Malay believed that each one should earn every penny they deserved. He never tipped. Office boys knew this and never offered him buttery flatter beyond routine services. This boy was new. He would know soon and cut such sentimental manipulation, Malay was sure.
After lunch, the mirror in the Male toilet wished him well and reminded him to comb his thinned, unruly hair tufts properly before the meeting with the fashionable interior design principal in the afternoon. Outside, as the cigarette burnt through his fingers, the ash bin below the Ashok tree nudged him to quit. Fifty is a good time. “It’s only three to four a day, that too, not at home. It’s ok” He excused himself to the conference room.
Ms. Florence D’Mello had already illuminated the room. Her associates were setting the cut-outs and drawings brought for the presentation. Malay’s juniors had assembled as well, all busy with their laptops in their private, little islands.
“Guys, can we all focus on the screen? Mobiles on silent mode, please. Keep the face up, and kindly go outside to attend calls only if they are from family. Others can wait.” These were his opening lines in any meeting. Everyone knew. Very few cared to sustain the discipline beyond 10 minutes. He could only grind his teeth at each such occurrence without letting anyone hear it.
The presentation was as eventless as the soulless design it presented. He rejected the concepts after the 5th slide. Ms. D’Mello tried to compensate by offering a very proximal handshake, homing his right palm under both of hers for about 30 secs. “Many Happy Returns, Sir!” She called him by name most of the times, resorting to formal salutation only when the wind was not in her favour. Malay muttered thanks and glanced sideways at the boys trying to gauge the idiot who diluted the client and service provider relation. Inside the sphere of relations, Malay always liked to draw the right chords. No one looked towards him; everyone’s vision pierced deep inside their LCD screens.
“Can we leave now, at least today? I am bored to death.” It was already 8 pm when his old faithful pure leather sling spoke. It maintained a certain dignity, as you would expect from something bought from Hidesign. If it said ‘bored’ instead of ‘peeved’, it was time to leave. Malay could never afford to antagonise his only designer possession.
“Yes, I am conservative.”
“No, I won’t indulge into binge drinking just because you think 50 is the new 30. That’s American crap!”
“Yes, I am going to a home where no one is waiting for me.”
“No, I will not try to spend my evening with Aparna just because she empathises with me and tells thing about me I like to hear.”
He didn’t get tempted into a rash change in direction though the steering never stopped trying all its tricks en route to home. He cursed the day since his hormonal equation seemed to have coincided with the solar flares and he had begun to hear everything. Talking objects made his previous verbose persona reticent.
“Happy Birthday! Careful. Your coat tail will get caught in the closing door, careful!” He pushed the switches softly, never banged its doors if power went out briefly; of course, never spat or struck its brushed steel walls with any sharp prick. Respect was mutual. The elevator cared about its gentle patron a lot.
It was quite calm inside the home. Baba was lying alone on the modified ‘sickness cot’ in the drawing room. As Malay removed his shoes and coat, his unblinking eyes followed his movement, as they did daily. Today, he walked up to Baba and touched his feet. Baba shivered with his touch, mumbled something. Tears dropped along the corners of his eyes. Malay wiped them off before anyone could come to the room.
“I have cooked Payes (sweet dish made of rice and milk), take some with dinner.” Ma entered the drawing room as if on cue. It was the turn of his eyes to get moist. “Sure,” he said and sneaked out of the audible reach of Ma.
Kunal could successfully submit the project on time and was appreciated by the trainers. He was in deep sleep compensating for the continuous thirty-six hours of work and travel.
“There goes my plans of eating out. All those coupons of Taj are getting so wasted,” He mumbled as he entered the washroom. No one heard him.
It was a full dinner that night. Nothing special, nothing missing though. His taste buds were pleased.
“Your wife is a genius. Give her a hug, say thanks,” the mobile refused to switch screens and Siri kept nagging him with automated outburst of pedagogy. He muted her immediately but on screen display continued. He slid the handheld below his pillow.
He smoked one languidly. It was new moon. The terrace was lit only with the ambient city-lights; so quiet, so busy, these cities were.
He pulled out his iPad, sat with legs straight on his bed with a pillow supporting his weathering back and tried to compose a poem loosely based on his experience of birthday, city buzz and routine life.
“Shall I switch off the lights?” He asked on seeing Madhu preparing to sleep. She was wearing the purple negligee he got her online for her birthday. Given its shamelessness, she had sworn never to wear it in her life. The poor attire cried at the insult, every time Malay opened the wife’s side of the wardrobe by chance or error. Today, it had its wish fulfilled.
“No, it’s alright. I will pull the pillow on my face. I am accustomed!” Then, as an afterthought, she pulled out a packet.
“What’s that? A Kolkata packet?”
“A shawl. See if you like the color. Picked it up from Gariahat when I visited last month. Bangalore is forever cold. Your black one had lived its life. Too many fine holes to mend for me. I gave it away to the security boy today.”
It was light olive green. He liked this colour though he didn’t wear it much in shirts or trousers due to its Army undertones. A shawl was the most apt excuse to wear the colour at last. The shawl was unembroidered, monochrome, devoid of fuss – like Madhu.
She curled up beside him. Her wrinkles recited her tiredness, the dark circles argued for her need to be taken care. Malay held her right palm in his left. She loved that always. She clamped her fingers tightly around his and gradually fell asleep.
With his free right hand, he kept typing the poem. It was one of the longest he had ever written. It was 1:30 when he finished. Carefully, not to break Madhu’s exhausted sleep, he wriggled his fingers out.
“Boss, such late nights are not good at 50. Belated happy birthday, anyways!” His mechanical table clock from the college days was still functional. This was the only object he consciously maintained. It had the bonhomie and cheek to tell each truth on his face, each night.
He set an alarm for 7 am, as he daily did. Thankfully, he was less clogged now. The medicine was working.