“Hurry up,” Rahul whispered, standing outside the car. “Give me a moment! Bloody shoelaces,” Manish said, as he bent down to redo them.
Leaning back against the car, Rahul looked around. The street was abuzz. Almost nobody paid attention to them; yet Rahul couldn’t shake off that lingering discomfort. He wondered if his trousers ought to have been a more sombre shade of brown; if his sunglasses rendered them conspicuous or memorable. He peeked around furtively, with nervous twitches of the head, as Manish finally stepped out of the car, shoelaces firmly in place, and stood beside him.
“Try and relax, please,” Manish said, noting the beads of sweat on Rahul’s brow. “Taadu said that she can sense nerves.”
Following his eyes, Rahul whipped out a pearly white handkerchief and mopped his forehead quickly.
“This way,” Manish said, leading him towards a tobacconist.
“Are you sure the car will be okay?” Rahul asked warily.
“We’ll just have to trust these fine people, won’t we?” Manish said, gesturing around. Rahul smiled weakly and followed without further comment.
The day was fading fast. It was that awkward twilight hour that often plunges one’s mind into an unshakeable gloom – the time before the night has fully settled in, when the darkness is not true enough to be pierced by electric light. They had been instructed to wait out this period, and so they shared a cigarette – a solid, calming Marlboro – to kill time.
Rahul looked around as he handed the cigarette back to Manish.
“There it is,” he said, tilting his head towards a garish neon sign across the street that read ‘Aslam Chicken Corner’. “That’s the one, isn’t it?”
“Looks like,” Manish said, squinting. “Yes, that’s it,” he said, his face clearing in decisive recognition. Taking one last puff, he stubbed the cigarette underfoot and paid the tobacconist, taking care to pick up a couple of mints for later.
Darkness had finally set in. The streetlights flickered to life, slowly bathing the thoroughfare with an unhealthy orange glow. This was the moment. Manish nodded at Rahul and jerked his head in the general direction of the eatery across the street. Then he set off smartly without further ado. Rahul followed.
They crossed the street, sidestepping the multitude of motorcyclists, rickshaw pullers and cars that whizzed past with gay abandon, and paused for a moment beside Aslam’s tandoor oven. An old man sat on a platform embedded into the wall just behind the oven – ostensibly Aslam himself – and he leered at them as he tended to his skewered meats. Rahul studiously avoided his eye as he checked his phone for Taadu’s instructions.
“This way,” he said, stepping into the alley to their left, adjacent to the shop. The clamour of the street gradually receded behind them as they proceeded deeper into the maze of lanes. The shops had given way to houses now: tiny tenements teeming with people. The dirt and squalor were more pronounced here. Brown water and garbage spilled onto the path, and they had to constantly step over dung and animal refuse. Grimy children ran beside them, chattering incessantly as they took turns to roll along a discarded bicycle tyre with a knobbly stick. Labour-hardened women chatted to each other on the crooked steps outside their front doors, pausing only to survey the strangers with keen eyes. “Right from here,” Rahul said, when they had reached a fork in the path. “There’s the tree that we were supposed to be looking out for,” he added, pointing. Manish nodded.
The right turn led them into a narrower lane flanked by houses on both sides, yet devoid of any activity. It was eerily silent, and, if anything, the darkness seemed denser than before. Rahul’s unease returned. Perhaps this was a mistake; perhaps they should turn back before it was too late.
“Look out for a red door,” Manish said, as he gestured for Rahul to slow down.
“There it is,” Rahul said in a couple of moments, pointing to his left.
“That’s the one.”
They stood before the door for a few moments, gathering their resolve for what was to come next.
“I’m going to knock, then,” Manish said, turning to Rahul.
“Are you sure?” Rahul asked, sweat beginning to dot his brow again.
“Relax, it’ll be fine. People do this all the time.”
The door opened without warning, and a pair of bright, kohl-rimmed eyes peered out at them.
“Well, what are you doing, standing outside my door like this?” the woman hissed. “Either get in, or be on your way.”
Manish seized the moment and entered hurriedly before she could say any more. Rahul had no choice but to follow. The woman took her time to shut the door, looking up and down the alley to make sure that there were no prying eyes.
They stood awkwardly in what appeared to be the living room. A single bulb, hanging low from the ceiling, cast its garish yellow light across the cluttered space, which was dominated by a large, seemingly defunct television. A couple of plastic chairs lay strewn around, and a lone mattress lay on the ground. A child sat on it, scribbling busily in an exercise book.
What the hell are we doing? Rahul wondered, as the woman turned towards them, eyes flashing warily.
“What do you want?” she asked bluntly.
The two of them gaped. She couldn’t have been a day over 30, but spoke with an authority that belied her age. Her unwashed, sweat-stained sari and callused hands lent her a careworn appearance that contrasted with her otherwise youthful features.
“Guddu! Go inside.” The child looked up obligingly, but refused to budge. The woman eyed him with distaste, but let him be, and turned her attention back to them.
“Are you going to tell me or not?”
“Well, uh – we were looking for…” Rahul stammered and trailed off.
“I don’t have time for this,” the woman said testily.
“We want stuff,” Manish said calmly.
“What stuff?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.
“The good stuff,” Manish said, taking care to keep his tone and expression neutral.
“And what makes you think I’d have any ‘good stuff’, you shameless fellows? Do I look like the kind of woman who would do that kind of business?!”
“Sorry, I think there’s been some kind of mistake,” Rahul said hurriedly. “We’d better leave,” he said to Manish, and made for the door.
Manish pulled him back by his arm, levelling his unblinking gaze upon the woman, who was glaring back, her chest heaving.
“Should we be going elsewhere?” he asked.
The woman muttered angrily under her breath.
“Wait here,” she said, and swept into an inner room.
Rahul exhaled in relief. Manish, too, released the tension from his shoulders and dropped into one of the chairs, which creaked under his weight.
“She had me there,” Rahul said with a grin. “Good job.”
“As long as we’re able to get out of this place quickly,” Manish replied, surveying the room with ill-disguised disdain. He fixed his eyes upon the child, who still hadn’t moved, and was scrutinizing them one by one.
The child suddenly burst into song, subjecting them to his rendition of a lusty film song. Thoroughly unnerved, Rahul looked at Manish, who was simply gazing in the other direction, as though impervious to the musical genius that was revealing itself before him. The child was really getting into it, expressions and all, when he stopped abruptly.
“Won’t you sing along?” he asked pointedly, looking over at Rahul.
“Er…” Rahul looked on, nonplussed.
The child shrugged and went back to scribbling in his book.
“You think she –” Rahul started, then fell silent as the woman emerged from inside, pushing aside a grubby curtain.
“Guddu. Inside, now,” she said, with an edge to the command this time that the child did not dare to ignore. Shooting a last, fearful look at Rahul, he scampered inside, leaving his exercise book open on the mattress.
The woman threw a package wrapped crudely in newspaper at Manish, who caught it deftly and stood up.
“That’s all I have,” she said sullenly.
“It’ll do,” Manish said. Rahul decided upon silence, for Manish was clearly the transacting party.
“5,000,” the woman said, as if issuing a challenge.
Manish set the package down on the chair and made for the door.
“All right, all right,” the woman snapped.
“We’re not foreigners, you know,” Manish said contemptuously.
“No,” the woman said, eyeing them up and down with a nasty grin. “But you could well be. I can’t say this is the usual crowd.” Manish made no comment and waited patiently for the revised offer.
“2,000 for the lot. I can’t accept any less,” the woman said after a couple of moments with a touch of finality, as if bored with the constant back and forth.
Rahul stepped forward quickly before Manish could say any more, and reached for his wallet. The woman watched greedily as he extracted two crisp notes, and snatched them from his outstretched hand, rubbing the valuable paper lovingly between her fingers.
“Well, that’s all then,” Manish said loudly, as he grabbed the package and turned to the door, Rahul close on his heels. The woman watched silently as they stepped out, then slammed the door shut in one swift motion.
They walked back in silence, the package concealed within Manish’s jacket pocket. It appeared that everyone had retired for the night, for they did not encounter a soul as they retraced their steps to the main road. Yet, Rahul could not help but shoot guilty glances around, expecting them to be accosted by a beat cop at any moment. None appeared, however, and within minutes they were back at Aslam’s tandoor. Was it his imagination, or did the old man’s leer have a knowing air to it this time around?
They crossed the street quickly, making a beeline for the car which, to Rahul’s relief, was exactly how and where they had left it. They settled in and Rahul turned the key in the ignition. He was just about to pull into the traffic when Manish cursed.
“Skins,” Manish said.
“Right,” Rahul said, and opened the door, making for the tobacconist.
“A packet of OCB, please,” he said, holding out the cash.
There was no mistaking it this time. The same tobacconist who had supplied them with a cigarette not half an hour back without a second glance was grinning at him slyly as he handed across the small, slim, black packet.
“Keep the change,” Rahul said, abashed, and turned back quickly.
The tension of the past hour dissipated as they left the congested roads of the old city behind and entered familiar terrain. The realization that they’d achieved their illicit objective without incident began to sink in slowly, and they guffawed loudly as they relived the events of the evening.
“I swear, I thought she’d turn us in when she began yelling,” Rahul chortled. “But man. You were cool as ice.”
Manish grinned. “Taadu had warned me about her.”
“The bastard, he only told me the directions.”
“That’s because he knew that you would crumble under pressure either way,” Manish teased.
“Can’t argue with that,” Rahul conceded with a grimace.
“Right from here,” Manish said after a few moments.
“Sure?” Rahul asked warily.
“Yes, yes, don’t worry, it’s clear. My family is out for the weekend.”
Forty minutes later, the two of them sat at Manish’s dining table, beers in hand.
“Get me a post-it, you’ll find it on the coffee table. And a sheet of paper – fold it right down the middle, please,” Manish said, as he extracted the package from his jacket and set it out on the table. Rahul watched, fascinated, as Manish unwrapped the newspaper to reveal three neat plastic packets filled to the brim with the costly green twigs.
“I’ll have to go home in a bit,” Rahul said, checking his watch worriedly. “You’re sure this won’t get us over the top, right?”
“You’re forgetting that this is my first time too,” Manish said with a trace of irritation. “Relax please. Drink beer. Call a cab if you want later.”
As Manish got to work at the table, Rahul sank into an armchair, resolving to enjoy the moment as much as possible. He felt a little giddy: he couldn’t believe that they’d actually gone through with it. All said and done, it was a criminal act, wasn’t it? The thought sent a funny little shiver down his spine – not an altogether unpleasant sensation – for it tickled him that he was engaging in such reckless daredevilry. It had been Manish’s idea, a couple of weeks back. It was about time, he’d said, that they figure out what they’d missed out on. He’d had his doubts, but then, he was overcautious by nature, and Manish had talked him into it in the end. After all, he thought, as he took a long draught of lager, if not now, when?
Ten minutes later, Manish held up the pencil-like object in his hand, twirling it in his fingers to admire it from all sides.
“And there we have it,” he announced, handing it to Rahul. “Our very first, full-fledged, and highly illegal joint.”
Rahul took it in his hands, admiring Manish’s pièce de résistance.
“That’s a fine joint if I ever saw one,” he said.
“But you never did,” Manish replied, and finally, the hilarity of the moment caught up with both of them, and they began to laugh helplessly, tears and all.
“Do you remember when the boy asked us to sing along,” Manish roared, banging his fist on the table. “I thought I’d lose it completely, I don’t know how I held it in.”
Rahul’s phone rang suddenly, and he forced himself to subside, although he was still giggling madly as he checked the caller.
“It’s Sameer,” he hissed at Manish. “Give me a minute.”
He composed himself before he picked up.
“Hello,” he said in as neutral a tone as he could muster.
“Happy 50th, Papa!” his son said.
“Thank you,” Rahul said, still grinning.
“We’re just waking up here. So what’s special today?”
“No, no, nothing special. Just the usual.”