The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 2]



 Chapter 2


A little over seven years ago

Clash of the Titans, debate finals

Rendezvous Fest, IIT Delhi

October 2010

She stood on the left podium. Her upright posture made her look taller than her five feet three inches. She wore a white salwar kameez, and a fuchsia dupatta with silver piping. I should have focused on her debating skills rather than her attire. However, even her debate opponent paused for a few seconds to take in Zara’s stunning, model-like looks.

   The Seminar Hall stage had a banner with the debate topic: Should public display of religion be banned?

   Zara Lone was debating against Inder Das, the reigning champion from Hindu College. Both had reached the finals of Clash of the Titans.

   The packed hall was waiting for the duo to make their final rebuttals.

   Inder, with his loose kurta, curly hair and rimless glasses, looked like he had walked out of a Bengali art film, one of those where everyone waits for five seconds before the next dialogue.

   ‘Last I heard, we are a free country,’ Inder said. ‘Our Preamble uses the word “secular”. The state will not discriminate or meddle in the profession of any religion. Article 25 through to 28 in our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.’

   Damn, people know the articles of the Constitution? I didn’t even know the Constitution had something called articles. I had no view on either side of the debate. I only wanted Zara to win. I wanted to see her smile.

   Zara raised her hand to object. However, she had to wait her turn as Inder wouldn’t stop.

  ‘Article 25 says, and I quote,’ Inder said and paused, fumbling through his notes.

  When people say ‘I quote’ and pause, they come across as scary-level intellectuals. Let’s face it, nobody wants to mess with the ‘I quote’ types.

    Inder spoke again, or rather quoted.

   ‘All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise, and propagate religion.’ He paused again for us to digest that. ‘Miss Zara Lone, you are arguing not only against our culture, but also against the Constitution. You not only want to take away our Diwali celebrations, you want to break the law, too.’

   He finished his speech and tossed his notes aside in disgust; I could smell his pomposity from where I sat. Inder shook his head, as if to say, Why are we even debating this?

   The crowd broke into applause. I had a sinking feeling. Would Zara lose?

   All eyes turned to Zara. She waited for the applause to die down before she spoke.

  ‘My opponent seems to have a good knowledge of the Constitution. I compliment him for that,’ Zara said. Inder smiled.

   ‘However, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to discuss the right thing to do, not just quote Constitution clauses we can Google in two seconds.’

   The audience sat up straight. This petite fireball was not going to give up so easily.

   She continued, ‘The Constitution is the foundation of our republic, but it can be changed. Have we not made Constitutional amendments?’

   Zero decibel silence in the hall.

   ‘So the issue here is not what is written, but what needs to be written,’ she said.

   ‘Yes, superb! Shabash,’ I blurted out aloud. My voice echoed in the silent hall. Damn, I had thought more people would applaud. The entire audience, including Zara Lone, looked at me.

   ‘Thank you.’ She smiled at me. ‘But save it for later.’

   The five hundred-odd audience burst into laughter. The serious vibe thawed a little, even as I went stiff. I wanted a power cut, absolute darkness and complete invisibility so I could run out of the hall. Zara went back to her argument.

   ‘My friend only quoted Article 25 partially. Article 25 does say that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise, and propagate religion, but it also says, “subject to public order, morality and health”. How did my esteemed opponent miss out on that?’

   ‘So, if it bothers others,’ Inder said, interrupting Zara, ‘as a Muslim, would you stop the azaan from being called on loudspeakers five times a day?’

   ‘Yes, I would.’

   The audience let out a collective gasp. A Muslim girl saying this on stage had everyone’s attention. Unfazed, Zara continued. ‘You can still pray five times a day. Maybe have an app to remind you on your phone. Listen to the prayers on headphones. But don’t impose them on the whole neighbourhood. And I would appreciate it if you didn’t say things like “as a Muslim”. I am not here as a Muslim, I am here as a finalist in the Clash of the Titans debate competition.’

   The applause was deafening. A few minutes later, one of the faculty members from the judging panel went up to the podium to announce the results.

   ‘The debates were excellent today. However, to argue for restricting displays of religion is difficult all over the world, let alone India. You had the harder side, Miss Zara, and you defended it with logic and poise. Hence, the winner for this year is Miss Zara Lone.’

   A standing ovation followed. Zara came to accept the trophy. I clapped like a maniac. A fellow hostel-mate egged me to whistle. Did I tell you I had the loudest whistle in IIT Delhi? I put my right thumb to my index finger in an ‘O’ shape and brought it to my mouth.

   Tweeeet! My whistle, loud and shrill, suited a football stadium more than a debating contest. Many intellectual types turned to me again, wondering why such a crass person had been allowed in here.

   My whistle caught Zara’s attention. She looked at me, trophy in hand, and smiled. I pulled out my fingers from my mouth.

   ‘Dude, easy. She is your girlfriend or what?’ a guy next to me said.

   No, she isn’t, but she will be, I wanted to say. After all, the universe had already decided it.

   I stepped out of the hall and walked towards the food stalls.

   ‘Thanks for the cheering.’ I froze on hearing her voice.

   ‘Zara?’ I said, turning around.

   ‘Yeah. Nice college. Are you from here?’

   ‘Yes. How about you?’ I said.

   ‘Delhi College of Engineering. Missed IIT by a few marks. Not smart enough.’

   ‘You demolished him in there. You are definitely smarter than me.’

   We walked out on to the main road, which was dotted with food kiosks due to the festival.

   ‘As you guys walked, Zara asked if you were hungry. You guys ate together.

   Exchanged phone numbers…’ Saurabh said, breaking my story narration.

   ‘What? How do you know this?’ I said. A waiter saw us out on the balcony. He came to us with a tray of drinks. Despite Saurabh’s attempts to stop me, I picked up a glass of whisky.

   ‘Arrey, bhai, please. You ordered a plain dosa. She ordered a parantha.

   The parantha wasn’t good. You gave her your dosa. The rest is history. Let’s go in. I am turning to ice here.’

   He hugged himself. I took a big sip of whisky. It went down my throat like a little ball of fire.

   ‘Have a drink,’ I said, ‘it will make you feel less cold.’

   ‘Not really. Alcohol actually leads to heat loss. It is heat coming out that makes your skin feel warm.’

   ‘Golu, seriously, stop the JEE chemistry. It’s New Year’s Eve,’ I said. I brought the glass close to his mouth. He looked at me once, then with great reluctance took a sip.

   ‘Good job, my Golu,’ I said. ‘So you know about the dosa too? You want to know about our next meeting? The first real date?’

   ‘Please, no, bhai. Let’s hang out with the other staff inside. They already think we are antisocial.’

   ‘Screw them. We freaking hate this job,’ I said. ‘How do you expect us to socialise?’

   ‘Let’s talk to them a little bit.’

   ‘In a minute. I just need to make a call.’

   I pulled out my phone. I opened Zara’s contact. Saurabh saw her picture.

   ‘No, bhai, no.’ He reached for my phone. I ran ahead of him as he clumsily and unsuccessfully chased me.

   ‘Bhai, my kasam. You are not calling her.’

   ‘It’s New Year. I can’t even wish her?’

   ‘Bhai, no!’ he said as I shushed him.

   ‘Shh. It’s ringing,’ I said. I used my left hand to keep Saurabh at a distance and my right hand to hold the phone to my ear.

   One ring. Two rings. Five rings. Seven rings.

   ‘Hello?’ I said as I heard a voice. ‘Hello, Zara. Don’t hang up, okay?’

   ‘The person you have dialled cannot be reached. Please try again later.’

   It was the Airtel lady, the emotionless bitch. If only she knew how important this call was to me.

   ‘Couldn’t get through? Good. Leave it,’ Saurabh said.

   I dialled again. Same seven rings. Same cold Airtel bitch.

   ‘Stop it, bhai. She will see all those missed calls and freak out.’

   ‘I don’t care,’ I said. Once you have already faced the humiliation of giving the other person multiple missed calls, it doesn’t matter if it is two or three. Or seven. Or ten.

   That is why I dialled her a tenth time. And this time it wasn’t the Airtel lady.

   ‘Hello.’ I heard Zara’s voice. Her one word alone made me feel better than any whisky in the world could.

  ‘Hey, Zara,’ I said, clearing my throat and stretching the ‘hey’ longer than necessary. Saurabh let out a sigh of disappointment. I stepped away from him.

   ‘Yes, Keshav,’ she said in measured tones. She sounded cold. Colder than the Airtel lady.

   I wondered what to say next. ‘I have been trying to call you,’ I managed to say.

   ‘I know. And you should realise that if someone doesn’t pick up the phone ten times, then maybe they can’t talk.’

   ‘Nine times. Not ten. Anyway, are you busy?’ I said. ‘I can call later.’ I needed an excuse to call her again and hear her voice another time. I heard music in the background. She was at a party too. Maybe in the black sari. I wondered if her idiot loser boyfriend was with her.

   ‘What is it, Keshav? Why have you called me?’ she said.

   I stepped to a corner of the balcony. Saurabh did not follow but kept an eye on me from a distance.

   ‘I just wanted to say happy new year. Why are you interrogating me like this?’ I said.

   ‘Hold on a second,’ she said, as her attention shifted from me to someone else at the party. ‘Hi,’ I heard her say, ‘you look lovely too.’

   ‘Zara, are you there?’ I said, when I didn’t hear anything for a long while.

  ‘There are just too many people here. Anyway. You know what we decided, right?’

   ‘To be together forever and ever?’ I said. Damn, why did I have to say that?

   ‘What?’

   ‘Didn’t we, when we went on our trip? New Year in Goa.’

   ‘That was a long time ago, Keshav.’

   ‘Six years ago, 2011 New Year’s Eve,’ I said. When the heart breaks, the part of the brain that stores data on past dates works perfectly.

   ‘I meant when we broke up. We decided to not be in touch. Something you don’t follow. It’s been years since we broke up now.’

   ‘Okay, so kill me. Kill me because I called to wish you. Kill me because New Year’s Eve makes me remember you. Or kill me because it is the anniversary of the day we first made love.’

   ‘Keshav, stop it.’

   ‘Stop what? Thinking about you? I wish I could,’ I screamed. ‘I so freaking wish I could.’

   Saurabh came running to me. He gestured to check what the matter was.

   I shook my head. He motioned for me to put the call on speaker. I complied.

   ‘Are you drunk?’ Zara said in her soft, almost caring voice.

   ‘How does it fucking matter? Drunk or not, I miss you, Zara. What are you doing with that loser Raghu?’

   ‘Stop calling him names, Keshav. And I have to go.’

   Saurabh sliced his hand in the cold Delhi air, indicating I end the call.

   Of course, I ignored his sane advice.

   ‘Oh, so protective of your Raghooooo,’ I said, mocking his name.

   ‘Maggu Raghu. That’s what they called him in hostel. You know that? Mag-gu Rag-hu.’

   ‘I don’t have to take this, Keshav,’ Zara said, ‘I am going to hang up.

   Don’t call me back.’

  ‘So touchy for that freaking nerd. That nerd who loves his fuck-all dotcom company more than anything else. He can never love you like I do.’

   ‘That fuck-all dotcom company is one of India’s hottest startups—and Raghu created it. Do you know its valuation? Why am I even telling you this?’ Zara said, her voice irritated.

   ‘So that is why you went to him. For his money,’ I said.

   ‘I went to him because I wanted to belong. I wanted a family. And you were running scared. Instead of manning up, you abused my folks.’

   ‘And what did your folks do?’

   ‘You have tried this before. It won’t work. You can’t provoke me. Now, bye. Don’t call me again or I will have to block you.’

   ‘Block me? Are you bloody threatening to block me—’

   I had to stop mid-sentence because she had ended the call.

   ‘Anyway, even I have to go,’ I said to nobody on the phone.

   ‘She’s cut the call, bhai,’ Saurabh said. Fine, she hung up on me. Why pretend she didn’t?

   I looked at Saurabh. I expected a slap. He came forward and hugged me.

   The whisky, rejection and his hug added up. I began to cry loudly.

   ‘Bloody bitch. “I will have to block you”—I love her every minute and this is what she says to me,’ I said between sobs.

   ‘Bhai, you have to leave this girl. It’s been too long,’ Saurabh said.

   ‘I am so over her,’ I said. The biggest lie of the freaking millennium.

   ‘Good. Shall we go in?’

   ‘Wait. I have to call her once more. I have to tell her I am over her.’

   ‘No, bhai, no…’

   Before Saurabh could react, I had dialled her number again. The phone rang. I expected her to cut the call. However, someone picked up.

   ‘Yes?’ a male voice said on the other end. Damn, it was the lover of the century, Raghu.

   ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘happy new year.’

   ‘Listen, Keshav, I want to be civil, but I have to tell you to stop bothering Zara.’

   Fucker, who was he? Her dad? Her watchman? And ‘I want to be civil’, who talks like that? What the hell does that even mean?

   ‘I am not bothering her,’ I said, trying not to slur.

   ‘I think you are. And you do this regularly.’

   ‘I don’t.’

   ‘It has happened many times in my presence. Please stop. I am requesting you,’ Raghu said, his voice poised and calm. He probably only had coconut water to drink on New Year’s Eve.

   ‘See, bro,’ I said, trying to figure out what to say next, the whisky making it difficult for me to structure a logical, decent sentence. All I really wanted to say was, ‘Fuck off, Zara is mine’. However, even in my drunken state, I knew that wasn’t the best idea.

   ‘Just cut the call,’ I heard Zara’s voice over his. Bitch. Bitch to the power of five.

   ‘Yes, Keshav?’ Raghu said, his voice patient.

   ‘See, bro,’ I repeated. ‘Can I speak to Zara?’

   ‘She doesn’t want to speak to you.’

   ‘How do you know? Give her the phone.’

   ‘She just told me. Now can you let us be in peace? Happy new year.

   Bye.’

   ‘Listen, Raghu,’ I said, my voice dropping.

   ‘What?’

  ‘Listen, Raghu, I will come and…’ I said things I don’t want to repeat here. Mostly because I don’t remember them. I think it involved me doing unmentionable things to Raghu’s mother, sister and probably grandmother. I said all this in explicit Hindi, using words that would make even the truck drivers of Rajasthan blush.

   ‘And I will take a danda and…’ I said as Saurabh took the phone from me. He cut the call and kept my phone in his pocket.

   ‘What chutiapa are you doing?’ Saurabh yelled at me, something he never does. I looked away from him as I realised what I had done.

   ‘You were cursing Zara,’ he said.

   ‘Nope. Only Raghu,’ I said.

   ‘Have you lost all shame?’ Saurabh said.

   ‘I just wanted to speak to Zara. Asshole picked up.’

   ‘Because she doesn’t want to talk to you,’ Saurabh said.

   ‘I am fucking never ever calling her again.’

   Saurabh shook his head and smiled sadly.

   ‘I mean it.’

   ‘Why are you obsessed with this girl?’

   ‘May I have my phone back?’ I said softly.

   Saurabh patted his pocket.

   ‘I am keeping it. And I will smash your phone to the floor if you don’t come in. Right now.’

   We came back into Chandan’s drawing room. Kamal sir, chemistry teacher in Chandan Classes, walked up to us.

   ‘Happy new year ji. Another year, another JEE. Another round of students ji,’ he said and laughed at his own joke.

   I touched my glass to his.

   ‘Where were the two of you? Arora ji was asking,’ he said.

  ‘Sorry, we wanted some air,’ Saurabh said.

   ‘And now some whisky,’ I winked. ‘Kamal ji, will you get me a drink?’

   ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I will be right back.’

   Saurabh glared at me after Kamal left.

   ‘Stop,’ he said.

   ‘Last drink. Can I have my phone back?’

   ‘Never. That wasn’t cool, Keshav. How you shouted outside.’

   ‘Golu ji. When you scold me, you look too cute. Your round face becomes red like a tomato ji,’ I said.

   ‘Stop it,’ he said.

   I moved towards him.

   ‘Happy new year ji. Another year, another JEE,’ I said and tickled his paunch.

   ‘I said stop it.’

   I dipped my hand into his trouser pocket to get my phone back.

   ‘Never,’ he said, as he laughed and tried to push my hand away.

   ‘You have become even more fat, Golu,’ I said, feeling his belly. ‘You love your mithai, no?’

   ‘Better than loving what you can never have,’ Saurabh said, shoving my arm away.




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