The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 18]

 


Chapter 18


A week after the pakora fiasco, we sat in our living room, watching a reality show on TV. Little girls in makeup danced to item songs. Saurabh’s eyes were glued to the season finale. I surfed on my phone in between watching the programme.

‘Give me your phone,’ Saurabh said. I ignored him.

‘Why do you watch this? I find such shows disturbing,’ I said, eyes still on my phone.

‘I will tell you what is disturbing,’ Saurabh said, snatching my phone.

‘What the hell, Golu?’

‘What were you doing on the phone?’

‘Er, nothing. Checking if my LinkedIn profile was up to date.’

‘There’s nothing to update. We still have the same lousy résumé.’

‘I thought maybe a new picture.’

‘Bullshit. Why do you have the Twitter screen on your phone?’

A little girl began to gyrate to ‘ Munni badnaam hui’ on TV. The judges and the audience cheered her on with thunderous applause.

‘How is this shit legal?’ I said, ignoring Saurabh’s question.

‘Answer me, bhai.’

‘Just,’ I said, ‘keeping updated. Current affairs.’

‘I can see here. You searched Tehreek-e-Jihad on Twitter.’

‘Did I?’

Saurabh switched off the TV. He came and sat on the coffee table to face me. The coffee table creaked as it bore a weight far beyond its capacity.

‘Bhai, I am super-serious,’ Saurabh said, staring into my eyes like he was trying to hypnotise me.

I looked down.

‘You saw that psycho’s gun. You will never touch this case again.’

‘I was just fooling around on my phone.’

‘Searching for terrorist organisations is fooling around?’

‘I became curious. See, we already know this. Sikander is part of Tehreek. He ran away when I asked him about Zara and Tehreek.’

Saurabh put a finger on his lips.

‘Shh. Bhai, I said listen to me. You. Are. Going. Mad.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘Some shit happened. Terrorists killed Zara. End of story. You will never think about this again. Ever. No more theories. No more analysis. Just wipe it from your head.’

‘How?’ I said. ‘There’s nothing else I can seem to think about. Nothing else I find meaningful in life, or give a fuck about.’

‘Getting a new job?

I shook my head.

‘I do need a new job. But I don’t give a fuck about it really.’

‘How about finding a new girl?’

‘Not in that frame of mind. One girl gave me enough pain.’

‘Tinder, bhai, pain-free love. Do you know, I had two matches on Tinder.’

‘You did? What happened?’

‘Nothing. They unmatched me when we chatted.’

‘What? Why?’

‘They said they valued honesty. I said fine. They asked me what I am looking for. I told them.’

‘What did you tell them?’

‘I said sex. Or anything physical. Even a hand job is okay,’ Saurabh said with a straight face.

‘What?’ I said. ‘You said what?’

‘I told you. I was honest.’

I burst out laughing.

‘And then?’ I said.

‘They deleted me. Bitches. Honesty, my ass.’

‘Come here my “anything physical” darling,’ I said, trying to bear-hug him.

‘Get off me. And be serious,’ Saurabh said.

‘I am serious,’ I said, while I continued to laugh. ‘But seriously, “even a hand job is okay”? You actually said that?’

‘I will move out. Choose between the case and me,’ Saurabh said.

‘What?’ I said. Laughter evaporated from my face.

Neither one of us spoke for a minute.

Saurabh stood up from the table. ‘I got my answer. I will leave this weekend,’ he said.

‘What senti drama are you doing?’ I said. I pulled his hand to make him sit down again.

‘What?’ he said and turned to me.

‘Screw the case. I have already lost a lot. I can’t lose you.’

‘Really, bhai? You will do that for me?’

‘Don’t fish now. Switch the TV back on. I want to see if that Munnibadnaam girl wins.’

‘Enrolment has crashed. Unacceptable,’ Chandan said.

The smell of paan masala, cheap cologne and general obnoxiousness filled the room. Chandan had read an article in The Economic Timesabout the importance of weekly management meetings in corporates. He loved the idea, ignoring the fact that Chandan Classes was a dictatorship and not a corporate. We now had to report on Saturday mornings at eight o’clock, two hours before classes started. Chandan wore formal suits for these meetings.

He looked like a south Indian movie villain’s sidekick who had dressed up for his daughter’s wedding.

Everyone from the faculty to the peons to Sexy Sheela hated the idea of these early morning meetings.

‘Superb move, sir,’ Brij Chaubey, a chemistry teacher, had said at the first meeting.

‘We have really become professional,’ said Mohan, or pulley-sir, a physics teacher famous in Delhi for teaching one topic, pulleys, better than anyone else.

Sucking up to Chandan Arora was an art form. Literally for Sexy Sheela, and figuratively for the other faculty; they were far better at it than us.

However, all the fake praise failed to lift Chandan’s mood today.

‘Look at the student numbers. Dropped to 376 from 402 a quarter ago,’ he said. When he made the ‘r’ sound in ‘dropped’, a tiny speck of paan masala escaped his mouth and landed on top of my wrist. Saurabh saw it and made a disgusted expression. He passed a tissue to me to express his sympathy.

‘Mr Saurabh Maheshwari,’ Chandan Arora said.

‘Yes, sir,’ Saurabh said, sitting up straight.

‘Please pay attention,’ Chandan said.

‘I am paying, sir.’

‘What do you teach?’

‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

‘What subject?’

‘Chemistry. You hired me for that, sir.’

‘Tell me all the Gas Laws,’ Chandan said.

The eight faculty members present and Sexy Sheela gave each other awkward glances.

‘Are you serious, Chandan sir?’

‘Yes. I want to know if my own people know their stuff or not.’

‘Boyle’s law, Charles’s law, Graham’s law of diffusion, Avogadro’s law and Dalton’s law of partial pressure. You want me to explain each of them, sir?’ Saurabh said.

‘No need,’ Chandan grunted. ‘But explain why enrolment is down. It has to be the quality of teaching.’

Nobody said a word in response.

‘I am cutting everyone’s salaries, ten, no twenty per cent this month,’

Chandan said.

‘What?’ I blurted out. Everyone looked at me shocked, as if I had told Hitler to his face that he had a funny moustache.

‘Don’t you understand? Business drops, your salary drops,’ Chandan said.

‘You never increased our salary when enrolment rose,’ I mumbled, not loud enough for him to hear though.

‘What did you say?’ Chandan said.

‘Nothing. Sir, other coaching classes have opened. There are also online apps now to prepare for JEE.’

While we prepared children to face cut-throat competition, our own business wasn’t immune to it.

‘Are you selling Chandan Classes? Are you telling students to bring their friends? That’s the best way to get new students,’ Chandan said.

‘We are faculty, sir. It doesn’t look dignified…’ Saurabh said.

‘What dignity? This is dhanda, behenchod. You understand?’

Sexy Sheela blushed at Chandan’s use of Delhi’s official greeting.

Maybe I imagined it, but I think seeing this alpha male side of her lover turned her on a little.

Saurabh looked at me. I tried to telepathically tell him to stay calm.

Chandan continued, ‘And stop calling yourself faculty. This is not a university issuing degrees or diplomas. This is a coaching centre. We teach students to clear an exam. And we make money from it.’

Everyone around the table hung their heads low.

‘Get out, everyone! This time it is a pay-cut. If the numbers don’t improve next quarter, I will fire people. Every faculty member must get ten new students in every quarter. It’s a must. Mr Gas Laws, you especially, understand?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Saurabh said.

‘I hate him!’ Saurabh whispered fiercely to me in the corridor. ‘Can you get that jihadi Sikander to kill this guy?’

I laughed.

‘I wish I could. But that chapter is closed. I chose my brother,’ I said, ruffling his hair.

‘She responded?’ Saurabh said.

‘Yeah. In fact, she wrote to me first,’ I said. I stared at my phone, still trying to make sense of the Tinder app, where I had found a match.

‘You are lucky, bhai. What’s her name?’

‘Sonia,’ I said.

We lay in bed at home on a Saturday night. Saurabh had given me a Tinder tutorial, teaching me how to swipe and talk to the matches.

‘Is this how people find love these days?’ I said. I thought about meeting Zara at Rendezvous. What would happen today? Would she have swiped left or right on my picture?

‘Courtship is dead, bhai. Whatever you want, say and get it fast,’

Saurabh said.

‘She just messaged, “Hey what’s up”,’ I said.

‘That’s good. She has initiated. Message her,’ Saurabh said.

I replied with a ‘Hi’.

‘So you wanna meet?’ she replied.

‘You have lucked out, bhai. She wants to meet so soon,’ Saurabh said when he saw my phone.

‘Shall I say yes?’ I said.

‘Of course. You have a date.’

I replied with a ‘sure’.

I waited for the new love of my life to reply. She answered after five minutes.

‘One hour 5k. Includes BJ and one shot straight.’

I turned the screen towards Saurabh.

‘What?’ Saurabh said and read the message. ‘Oh, professional. Sorry, bhai. Unmatch her. She sounds like trouble.’

I unmatched Sonia and our love story ended within six minutes. I switched off the lights. Saurabh still wanted to sleep in my room.

‘I am tired. Goodnight,’ I said to Saurabh in the darkness.

‘Sure, goodnight, bhai. But one thing?’

‘What?’

‘You think that Sonia would have bargained?’

I sat alone in the classroom, checking test papers after class. Saurabh came in and shut the door,

‘What’s the matter?’ I said.

‘Chandan gave me a warning,’ Saurabh said.

‘Warning?’ I said, looking up from an answer-sheet.

‘I didn’t get any new students. He cautioned me that I would lose my job if I don’t bring in new students next month.’

‘I haven’t brought in any either. In fact, I convinced one to leave,’ I said.

‘You did?’

‘He wanted to study fashion. How can a person like that clear the JEE?’

‘Bhai, Chandan will kill you.’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘That student had paid the entire year’s fee. Non-refundable. Chandan won’t lose money. But at least the student will not waste a year here.’

Biswas, the peon at Chandan Classes, came into the classroom carrying a tray filled with cups of tea. We picked up one each.

‘Biswas, will you get some biscuits?’

‘Chandan sir said no more biscuits,’ Biswas said.

‘What? Why?’ I said.

‘Cost-cutting or something. Kya maloom what he says,’ Biswas said and left the room.

We sipped our tea in silence, wondering how many days we had before Chandan fired us. I resumed correcting the students’ answer-sheets. Saurabh spoke after a few minutes.

‘Bhai, I never wanted to become an engineer. I became one because my parents wanted me to. Serves me right for doing something I didn’t believe in or felt passionate about.’

I made a face without looking up from the answer-sheet in my hand.

‘Can I say something?’ Saurabh said. ‘Don’t get too excited.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘I miss the case.’

‘Zara’s case?’ I looked up at Saurabh.

‘Yeah, it made me feel alive. Like we were doing something that mattered. We had a purpose.’

‘Really?’

‘Like when I hacked Laxman’s phone. Or when I discovered Saxena has a limp.’

‘Yes, it is you who did all that. That’s the big reason I left the case. I can’t do it without you.’

I went back to my answer-sheets.

‘That jihadi put a gun to our face. That’s what made me stop you,’

Saurabh said.

‘Yeah, I know.’

Saurabh nodded and became silent. I started checking the last few test papers. ‘Why were you searching Tehreek-e-Jihad on Twitter?’

‘Huh?’ I said, looking up from my answer-sheets. ‘Why are you talking about all that, Golu?’

‘I am just curious. Why Twitter?’

‘To find out about Tehreek and where Sikander might be. These organisations often have an active Twitter presence.’

‘Okay, and what’s the white powder? Did you find out?’

I put the cap on my pen and kept all the answer-sheets aside. I looked into Saurabh’s eyes.

‘Seriously, Saurabh?’

‘What?’

‘No, I didn’t find out. You stopped me from working on the case.

Remember?’

‘And Sikander’s cell phone records? Rana can help us get those.’

‘Why are you asking, bro?’

Saurabh slammed his empty teacup down on the desk.

‘I don’t know what’s worse. The risk of the jihadi killing us if we work on the case, or us dying a slow death here at Chandan Classes,’ Saurabh said and left the room.

I woke up from my regularly recurring nightmare. Almost every night, I dreamt of Zara struggling to release herself as her killer choked her with his hands. I checked the time. It was 3 a.m.

Saurabh was awake. He was sitting next to me on my bed, working on his laptop. ‘What are you doing?’ I said.

‘Sikander is in Srinagar. I can tell for sure,’ Saurabh said.

I sat up.

‘What? Who?’

‘Sikander. There’s a picture of him in a group. One of Tehreek’s accounts posted it on Twitter. Looks authentic and recent.’

‘Wow,’ I said as I looked at the picture. Sikander and six other young men stood with a Tehreek-e-Jihad flag, with mountains in the background.

‘How did you find this?’ I said.

‘I searched in Arabic, entering whatever was written on the business card we found in the safe. Took me a while using Google Translate and going through dozens of accounts. But look, they posted this picture two days ago.’

I whispered, ‘Why?’

‘Why did they post this picture? No idea.’

‘No, Golu. Why are you doing this? Why?’

‘It’s the only meaningful thing I have in my life. And I think we are close. We shouldn’t give up.’

‘You sure?’

Saurabh tapped his hand on his heart and nodded.





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