Editor: Read Chapter XVII here.

Tarun counted twenty ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ posters, each with pictures of twelve men, before he stopped counting. His heart had stopped when he got a call telling him of the posters that had appeared all over Mumbai. Had any of the relatives of his fighters caught on to what their so called All India tour was?

However, it had turned out to be a joke. How did Mumbai Police get it so terribly wrong, he wondered? The pictures were photographs and not portraits drawn by any artist based on descriptions given by the security guards at the Garden of Eden. Equally satisfying was the fact that Mumbai was in lock-down mode, Tarun noted with grim satisfaction.

Tarun parked his Toyota Corolla in a by-lane and dialled Swapna. ‘I’ve reached. No, its fine. Take your time but get here as fast as you can.’ He hung up with a chuckle and waited. Though it was November, there was no respite from the heat and the sun beat down heavily on the car. Tarun kept the engine running so that the air conditioning could be kept on. Despite it being a Tuesday, Tarun could have sworn that the number of people walking or driving on the road was fifty percent lower than normal.

Tarun did not have to wait for long since Swapna got there in less than five minutes and they were off.

‘How are you doing, my darling? Are you taking care of yourself?’ Swapna blushed at the endearment. Tarun found her ugly, with her puffy face, not less than two prominent acne on each cheek and a cleft in her chin that was too deep to be attractive. Some make-up had been applied to her face, changing her wheatish complexion to an unearthly pallor. Tarun found it hugely amusing when she behaved in a manner not unlike that of a heroine from a 1980s movie, except that she definitely did not have a movie star’s looks or grace, or figure, for that matter. She was wearing a red saree rather than one of her standard salwar kurtas and, with her long tresses left loose, had the air of a newly married, lower-middle class girl.

‘Where are you taking me?’

Tarun almost said: ‘To my Chembur flat. Where else, stupid?’

But he said instead, ‘It’s a surprise!’

Swapna settled back and prepared to be surprised, happiness bubbling from within.

‘So, do you know these folks?’ Tarun asked Swapna as they passed another poster, this one perched on a wayside tree.

‘No, I don’t. Do you know them?’

‘No, I don’t know them either,’ he replied.

Swapna looked straight ahead. ‘You won’t believe what I overheard,’ she said. Tarun felt she was trying to change the topic.

‘Who did you overhear?’

‘Ravi’s mother. She was telling another woman in the chawl that when Ravi is back from his All-India Tour, he will ask my father for my hand in marriage. Imagine the cheek!’ Her face was flushed slightly.

‘That’s shocking.’ Tarun managed to look shocked. ‘Who would have expected them to harbour such thoughts? And you never had a hint till now, of course?’

‘No way. I thought of Ravi as a nice guy, a bit of an idiot, but never, never imagined that he had plans to marry me. The sheer nerve.’

‘Forget it. When this is over, I will carry you away. Far away from all this. Okay?’

Swapna’s eyes sparkled in response.

‘Does Ravi still call you often?’

‘Yes, he does. It’s very funny you know. When he calls, he sounds as if he is speaking under some threat, as if someone is pointing a knife at him, as if he is being overheard. He asks the same stupid questions each time. Am I alright? Do I need anything?’

‘Actually, he is being overheard. Except for your father, none of the men can make phone calls unless there’s a Unit Leader present who will make sure that no goochi poochi takes place, you know, that nothing is given out. Of course, when Ravi speaks to you, there is nothing much to give out, because you know everything. I can ask Sanket and Niranjan not to listen in when Ravi calls you. Shall I do that?’

Swapna thought for a few seconds and said slyly, a faint smile playing on her lips, ‘No, why should an exception be made for Ravi? Not fair to the others, right?’ They both laughed at the joke.

The middle class Malvani restaurant they went to looked as if it was closed, but when they pushed open the door, a waiter came scurrying forward to greet them. They were the only customers there and the staff strength was also skeletal.

‘How hungry are you?’ Tarun asked her.

‘I’m very hungry.’ The response did not startle him. A woman from his social strata would have pretended to be not hungry at all, taken an inordinate amount of time to choose and order, pecked at the food when it arrived and finally would have wasted most of it.

With Swapna, there were no pretences. The prawn starters disappeared fast. The butter chicken and butter naan melted away. As she scanned the menu for dessert, Swapna whimpered, ‘Everything is so expensive. Each dessert item is like a main course.’ She waited for Tarun to say something and when he didn’t, she said, ‘but it’s okay, isn’t it?’

‘Of course, honey, it’s perfectly fine,’ Tarun said with a smile. He turned to one of the waiters and. ‘What are your dinner timings?’ he asked.

‘Seven to eleven thirty Sir, but…’

‘But what?’

‘Sir, these days we may not stay open so late.’

‘You mean, because of the bombings? But they have only targeted tall housing complexes. Why are you people closing early?’ Tarun sounded as though he were genuinely interested.

‘Sir, you should speak to the manager.’

Swapna had made her decision about dessert finally. ‘I’ll have the caramel custard. What will you have?’

‘No, I’m not very hungry. I’ll have a spoon of your custard.’

‘No, do have something else,’ Swapna insisted. ‘Have some ice cream.’

‘Okay. One butter scotch ice cream and one caramel custard.’

‘How are things at the chawl? What are they saying?’ Tarun asked, turning to her.

‘About what?’

‘The bombings, what else?’

‘They don’t care. They know that the chawl will never be bombed.’ Swapna looked at the caramel custard the waiter brought with anticipation.

‘Are they happy? Happy that the rich are getting killed?’ Tarun persisted.

‘Happy? No, no. No one is happy. I don’t think so anyway. Most people get their income from the work they do for rich people. Why would they be happy?’

As he expected, Swapna ate half of his ice cream in addition to her caramel custard. She reminded him of a child, a grown-up child who had been deprived of her childhood and was now creating a small zone of happiness in a make-believe world.

As they left the restaurant, Tarun found the manager sitting next to the cashier by the entrance. ‘Are you people affected by these blasts?’

‘Of course, Sir. Who isn’t? Half the staff has run off to their native towns. People are scared. Very few customers come for dinner and those who come, leave early. We didn’t have a single customer stay past nine-thirty yesterday.’

‘Horrible!’ Tarun gave his judgement as they left.

As they settled in the car, Tarun gently caressed Swapna’s cheek. ‘Do you know where I am going to take you now?’ he asked her.

‘Wherever you like,’ she replied shyly as she partly suppressed a satisfactory burp.


Featured Image (Cover): Nisha Joseph

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