Quirks

Summer had ended, I realised, as I looked out of the smudged kitchen window. Up, above the monotonously brown stretch of eight storied buildings, clouds now carpeted the sky. As far as we could see, from the buildings to the rocky hills on either side, not a single ray of light came through clouds unfiltered. The city was fast becoming dull.

Anuj grinned as he looked out the window. Spatula in hand, he stirred the poha gleefully. "It's going to rain," he said. Standing by the doorway, I told him to hurry the hell up. I was hungry.

Sitting on the couch, Nidhi was flipping through some fashion magazine, looking for a design that she could borrow for her next assignment. "Fashion is all about re-creation," she had once declared.

Anuj came bouncing in with a bowl of poha and three spoons. Nidhi got up and walked towards the kitchen. Anuj deftly stepped aside to let her through. Swinging her bulging hips from side to side, it was a wonder that she didn't hit the side of the doorway on either side. Tall and lanky, Anuj placed the bowl on the table in front of me and sat down on the floor, crosslegged.

"C'mon, man. Lets go someplace. Let's go to FC Road. We'll play Battleship at the Barista. Don't worry, this time I'll play easy."

I grinned. "Why do you want to go to FC again? We go there everyday. Look at the weather outside…l take you guys to a new place today."

"Where to, Gaurav?" Nidhi stood by the refrigerator, glass of juice in hand.

"That's going to be a surprise. You just tell me whether you're coming with us or not."

Nidhi looked at Anuj and he at her. She smiled.

"Yeah. I'll go. Now you tell me- where?"

"There", I said, pointing out the window in the living room, at one of the hillocks in front of us. Tekadi, they called it. The three hillocks converged and from far, it seemed to be one single hill that surrounded the wall of buildings. It was our local Cherrapunji. If clouds were to come, riding the winds, and burst into rainfall over a part of Pune - this would be it. Little droplets would strike the buildings and the roads, the lawns and the hills. With rain, the gardens and trees would seem greener and fresher, the hills - once grey and brown with pebbles and stones - would sprout shrubs and grass, and from a distance, it would seem as if covered with moss. The roads - once a single plain stretch with an odd depression and three speed breakers - would be laden with potholes. For a few days, everyone would smile.

Nidhi came and sat down next to us, on the floor, to eat. After the snack Anuj and I listened to music as Nidhi prepared tea. We filled the thermos with boiling hot tea, which I kept along with cups, in the transparent little bag that I carried whenever I came to Nidhi's flat. I emptied out the books so they wouldn't spoil, in case the thermos leaked.

We walked down the steps, Anuj leading the way out the gate, and into the street. Anuj kept a little ahead of me, leaving Nidhi behind. Consequently, I slowed down so all three of us were almost walking alongside each other. A hundred yards after the college, we turned left. Up ahead, across the street from an abandoned incomplete building, was the way up the hill.

We braced ourselves for the climb up. Since I was familiar with the route up the hill, I thought it was best if I led the way. I climbed slowly, waiting for Nidhi to catch up. A chronic smoker she was out of shape and had to stop often to catch her breath. Anuj, a tall and lanky sailor, was quite the opposite. In spite of three packs a day, he was in great shape and raced up the hill, ahead of us. But for my constantly calling out to him, he would have been on top of the hill before Nidhi and I were halfway up. Still, we reached the top in nine and a half minutes, as opposed to my usual of around six and a quarter.

"Where is it, Gaurav? How much farther?" Nidhi was out of breath. We stood there, on top of the hill, looking down at the buildings below, and at the skies above.

From where we stood, we could see our apartments. A cool breeze sent a shiver up my spine. It was going to rain today. Above us, clouds playfully swirled. Wind blew from one direction, then another. Summer had, thankfully, ended.

"Let's move, people"

"Where are you taking us, Rana?"

"You'll see."

I took them along a winding path that led through the sparse tree cover on this part of the hill. Soon enough, we reached the road that led to the research institute atop the hill. We crossed over the road, and walked into the forest on the other side.

"Gaurav, is this place safe? I don't see any people on this road."

"Yeah, Nidhi. Don't worry. I know this place. I used to come here for walks with Tina, remember?"

"Oh! This place? She never told me where it was."

"Yeah. She never did tell me much about where all she went either"

We walked downhill now- down thin, pebbled paths that twisted through trees on either side. Under the tree cover, it was humid. I was sweating already, and was feeling rather suffocated. Anuj seemed energised by the surroundings. He would rush ahead, out of sight, and then wait for us to catch up with him every time he came across a clearing.

Soon, we reached a clearing, and a whiff of refreshingly cool air greeted us. I took them to the clearing that I had come across several times before, had gone to with Tina on a couple of occasions. Before us, lay a stretch of flat and almost clean rock. Cool breeze; cloud covered skies and a bed of rock to lie on. They lit their cigarettes, and we lay back, staring at the grey-white sky above us.

*

Later that night, we were to meet a few friends for a small get-together. Anuj had an apartment a few kilometres from FC Road, and we were all planning on getting drunk. Shawn and Ronak were to meet us at the Barista on FC Road. Puneet, a friend of mine, was coming along with us to Barista, so it was decided that Anuj and I would go on his bike, while Puneet and Nidhi would go by auto-rickshaw.

We left together, Puneet and Nidhi in an auto, and Anuj and I by bike, but Anuj soon left them behind. Going at a speed of 70kmph on a crowded main road was scary. He was passing bikes, cars, cycles and buses left, right and center. I held on tightly to the bike as he took it up on a footpath to bypass the still traffic at the traffic signal, and then sped across.

"Are you mad?" I yelled, the wind hitting my face hard.

"What?"

"I said are you mad? You just ran a red light."

"I didn't get caught, did I?"

"No, but still!"

"You just relax, dude. I know how to handle this bike."

That he certainly did. We reached FC Road in all of 8 minutes, a distance that normally takes at least 20 minutes to cover.

Shawn and Ronak were already there. We greeted each other with the usual hugs and handshakes, and waited for Puneet and Nidhi to arrive. Shawn, a friend of mine from college, was 5"7', but stockier than I was. Ronak and Shawn had been going steady for two years now, and I had met Nidhi through Ronak: they were cousins. We quickly went inside Barista, and took up our favourite table in the corner. Nidhi and Puneet arrived after Anuj and I were halfway through our first game of Battleship. She wouldn't believe that we had reached almost 15 minutes before she and Puneet did.

"Sit behind Anuj when you leave for his place." I suggested.

We sat and chatted in Barista for over an hour. Anuj and I played Battleship, and I lost 4-0. As we got up to leave, I suggested that we play Scrabble next time.

"I don't know scrabble, yaar. But, yeah, the next time we play Battleship, I'll go a little easy on you - I'll play with my left hand."

*

Shawn and I left on his bike to pick up the booze. Anuj and Nidhi were to lead Puneet and Ronak, who were going by auto-rickshaw, to Anuj's flat. It was just four kilometres, but since they would be going through lanes in a congested colony, I told Anuj to drive slowly. It was not easy finding your way if you got lost in these colonies with narrow roads and poor planning. Both Puneet and Nidhi were from Bombay and would definitely not be able to find their way to Anuj's place.

Shawn and I had just reached the liquor shop when Ronak called on Shawn's phone. They were lost, and didn't have Anuj's number. Seeing that I was pissed with Anuj for being so irresponsible and not doing as I had told him to do, Shawn took his number from me and called him up. It seemed that Anuj thought that they were right behind him, all the way, and that the auto-rickshaw driver might have taken a wrong turn.

"They're near a Siddharth General Stores" Shawn told him.

When we reached Anuj's apartment, they were all there. Anuj had found them a couple of blocks away, and led them back to his place.

*

It must have been around 2 AM when Nidhi asked for some vodka.

"We're all out of vodka," I told her. "Will rum do?"

"Is it Bacardi?"

"Old Monk. It's red rum. Tastier than Bacardi, in my opinion."

"I don't like red rum. You've got nothing else?"

"Nope. I don't think there's any liquor shop that is open at this time."

"Okay, then pour me some rum and coke, please."

Before I could get up to fill her glass, Anuj stopped me.

"C'mon Rana. I know a place where we can get vodka," said Anuj, the dependable.

*

As we left his place, his bike noisily spewing smoke behind us, I looked up to the sky, searching for the moon. A cool breeze kissed my face.

"It's raining somewhere right now, Anuj."

"How do you know?"

"The cool breeze. Whenever there's this cool a breeze blowing, it's raining somewhere."

"Okay," he said, as he sped along at 80 kilometres an hour, passing drunken men and lone cars on the way.

Ahead of us, we saw a blanket of rain pouring down, striking the street with immense force. Before I could tell him to do so, Anuj slowed down to 30 kmph. It was like driving into a waterfall, and as the cool droplets hit my face, I felt the effect of alcohol wearing off. Anuj drove slowly, the rest of the way, letting the odd car and bike pass him by.

Five minutes later, we got off the parked bike and ran towards the side of a small restaurant called "Chandni Bar".

"You get booze here till 3AM. The main restaurant shuts down, but the side entrance remains open for people like us" Anuj hollered. But the side entrance too seemed shut, and we stood outside, under the tree, shivering and waiting for the rain to stop.

"Like Nidhi, you mean. Tell me something - she could have made do with the rum, so why did you have to come out at this time?"

"You know, I didn't want to disappoint her. She wanted vodka, and I knew a place. When we're out enjoying ourselves, one shouldn't leave a friend disappointed. We're enjoying what we're drinking, and so should she."

"Hmm... I agree with you there. But...but tell me something - why do you drive so fast? Why do you pull off all those unnecessary stunts? It's risky, taking the bike up on a footpath and then crossing a red light."

Anuj smiled. I guessed he'd been asked this before.

"I don't like people ahead of me. It's always been like this, with me. If you're walking in front of me, I will need to walk faster and overtake you. If you're driving ahead of me, I will have to overtake you. I take everything as a race, and I need to win every race."

"So why did you let people pass you by earlier."

"It was raining, and I don't take any risks in the rain. I may be faster, and want to win, but I'm not stupid". He grinned, and said "C'mon, lets go. It's probably going to rain all night."

*

When we returned, Nidhi was asleep.
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