By Achyut Dutt
Alternative endings can be tricky. If you have killed someone in the previous ending and you want to make them come alive in the alternative ending, slip it in easy. Like I do here. I have a PhD in alternative endings. I wish my own life too had an alternative ending – on a Pacific island, with Scarlett Johanssen, but don’t get me started on that.
Alternative endings have to be in sync and at the same time, be very different from the previous ending. Different in essence and storyline only, not physical attributes. Those Malayalee farm girls that I referred to in Part-4 won’t be wearing bras in the alternative ending too, that is, in case, they happen to be in this post as well. They aren’t. I am too straight-laced to have bra-less women in two consecutive posts.
On the other hand, I might have an Indian housewife, any Indian housewife, tooling around doing her groceries, walking around her mohalla with her sahelis, in her nightdress and flip-flops. That is something typically Indian.
But enough of that for now. I have made a small modification. In the alternative ending, Arjun lives in Pune, India and Nandini, as before, in the US.
So here it is.
“JooJoo, I’m readyeeeeeee!” That was Sparsh, impatient, waving madly from inside the car, “Let’s go, na! They’ll run out of stock only.” Sparsh had just entered that age when girls in India love to lace their sentences with ‘na’ and ‘only’. Some other girls in her class frequently use ‘yaar’ but with the ‘r’ silent (Ya), while boys make it a point to stress on the ‘r’ (Yaarrr). Arjun was taking her out to buy her a new Ipad for her birthday. Tomorrow she would enter her teens, 13.
The two messages from Nandini Shyamrao had put a definite spring in his step that even the Pune heat couldn’t dampen. As they started down Moledina Road, the A/C inside Arjun’s Honda fought to process the steamy air. Sparsh was humming to herself, her pretty head bobbing up and down, excitement blazing in her eyes. Eyes that sparkled just like her mother’s did, the first time they’d met by the Dhakuria lake two decades ago (you’ll have to read part-3 for more of that). Arjun couldn’t have felt better in that moment.
They drove west past the Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir on the left and hit the Forestry Emperor Road (That’s one of Sparsh’s literal translations, from ‘Jangli Maharaj Road’). The traffic was heavier now, cars going bumper to bumper, with those damned two-wheelers weaving in and out, like pesky flies. As they neared the Shivajinagar Bus Stand, they shifted down to a crawl. He had time to look around.
A Toyota Corolla with tinted windows was keeping pace on the next lane. It had an Avis logo at the back. As the two cars coasted by the Maruti dealership, he noted that the Toyota had speeded up just enough so that the left rear window was now abreast with him. Suddenly the glass rolled down. There was a woman at the window, with a boy in the shadows, on the far side. Plush curls cascaded down her shoulders. As she spoke to the chauffeur, she kept her smiling face, looking out, as though she was giving him directions.
Arjun stole a glance and noted that her face was flushed from the heat. He prayed for a chance to do a more detailed appraisal and his prayers were answered almost immediately, when the traffic grew so heavy that they came to a complete halt, with the two cars still maintaining their relative positions. At that very moment, he turned and so did she. Recognition blossomed and the woman’s smile froze for an instant, to be replaced immediately by joyous surprise. She began saying something but the din of the traffic drowned out her voice.
Oblivious that the traffic had now started moving once again and some very angry folk were blaring their horns behind him, Arjun kept his foot jammed on the brake pedal and stared back at the lovely face of Nandini Shyamrao. She had known he was in Pune but hadn’t told him she, too, had connections with Pune. Far as he knew, her folk were spread over Bangalore and Chennai. Maybe she wasn’t actually from here; maybe she was in town just to visit old friends. Come to think of it, they’d never really had the chance to get well acquainted.
Arjun gunned the engine, making the Honda suddenly leap forward to catch up. Sparsh shouted out in alarm as the back of her pigtailed head bounced on her headrest, “JooJoo! Watch it, na!”
They left their windows rolled down, unmindful of the oppressive heat, as millions of unspoken jingles made an invisible bridge between them and the two cars rode along sedately, side by side. They drove this way until the constricted lanes on the Lakdi Pul forced the Toyota to fall back a couple of cars behind the Honda. At the Alka Talkies junction, Arjun waited, the Toyota now further back and barely distinguishable in the long line of vehicles and the choking haze.
The lights suddenly turned green and the Honda got swept along with the flow, up Tilak Road. Arjun tried to slow the car down and prayed that the Toyota would somehow catch up and take the same route. The lights behind him then turned red again and his field of vision got swamped by cross traffic coming from the 80ft Road/Alka Talkies direction. To be with the flow, Arjun had no choice but to keep driving. He heaved a sigh when, up ahead at the SP college crossing near Neelayam, the lights turned red.
“Where are you, my darling?” Arjun breathed, through every pore in his being but it wasn’t until they had reached Swargate that Arjun realized the Toyota was no longer behind. If Sparsh hadn’t been sitting there, we all know what Arjun would have done. He would have made a U-turn. I would.
Have you ever been in a situation where something you always yearned for but couldn’t have, like a Ferrari, for example, or the aforesaid Miss Scarlett, suddenly appears within grasp and then slips away, dissolving into nothingness, like a dream? The feeling of loss is crippling. Frustration welled up and it took all of Arjun’s self-control to keep driving past Swargate toward Camp, looking away so Sparsh wouldn’t be able to see his miserable face.
Parking on Main Street is a bitch. You just have to keep cruising up and down, in circles around East Street, till you spot someone backing out and you crowd in for the kill along with one or two other hyenas who also might be waiting for a spot. Scrapes and bumps are not out of the ordinary. Denting and painting in India cost peanuts. Getting a parking spot is more important. Besides, no one cares about resale value. You buy a car new and it usually stays with you till it falls apart.
On his third circuit, Arjun got his parking spot. It was plonk in front of the massive JD Electronics showroom where they were going to get Sparsh’s Ipad. Am I lucky, Arjun thought and grinned inwardly.
The other car’s tail lights were flashing and a sing-song sound began. It was preparing to back out and Arjun’s Honda was right behind. He screeched to a halt and let it back out. As its trunk drew closer, the Avis logo caught his eye. It was the Toyota. Right then the large swing doors of the mall burst open and a boy raced out and jumped into the car.
That must be Dharam, Arjun figured. He recognized him immediately from Nandini’s FB photo albums. Seconds later a couple hurried out. It was Nandini and the man had to be Sukumar. Arjun had seen him, too, in her FB timeline but hadn’t imagined he would be this tall. Sukumar seemed bronzed, far better turned out than he, Arjun, could ever be. He felt a disquieting twinge.
They stopped under a lamp post. Sukumar said something that made Nandini look up into his face and blush. He lifted her up effortlessly and kissed her while her hands snaked around his head and eagerly drew him to her. The boy inside the car began gesticulating wildly. All around, passers-by gawked. Such intimacy was still a bit alien in India.
“You and Mama ought to be doing something like this once in a while, JooJoo,” said Sparsh and giggled, waving a hand at the embracing couple on the sidewalk. Arjun remained transfixed, not uttering a word, his breath coming out in short rasps.
“Are you okay, Joo?”
“Yeah I’m fine, Sweetie,” Arjun managed.
The kiss went on for what seemed like an eternity and, then, they broke off and hurried into the car, their arms tightly wound around their waists. The Toyota backed out, the sing-song stopped, and the car raced away into the traffic.
Every sinew within Arjun had been looking out for the car just a little while back. But now, the thought of pursuit did not even enter his mind. Somewhere within, a door had gently shut with a firm click. He eased the Honda into the vacant slot, sat back, and heaved a sigh. Funny, he felt relief, as if a yoke had been unclasped and he was free at last.
“JooJoo come, na! We’ll be late, only!”
“Relax, na! I’m coming only!” Arjun threw back his head and guffawed. Hand in hand, they marched into the mall.
Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. He writes under the pseudonym ‘spunkybong’ and has a blog at spunkybong.com.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Here and There: The Diaspora Universe”. Edited by Bhaswati Ghosh, author & translator, Canada. Read and discover a group of extremely talented writers sharing their experiences of living between multiple worlds.