It was my last weekend at home before I went back to college. So, when my father asked me if I wanted to go to Marine Drive, I said yes, despite everything. I put on the best polo T-shirt I owned; Rishav put on his clean shoes; Ma tied her hair into a bun and Dad slung the car keys from a notch in his jeans.
We congregated in the compact Swift just as the clouds above us began to churn and rumble. As Dad reversed us out of the parking spot and put the Swift into first gear, all around us the sky, the buildings, the cars and the people dissolved into a watercolour blue and slowly the patter of raindrops began hitting the windshield. Dad lit a cigarette and began smoking it, his elbow jutting out of the open window.
Five minutes into the journey, we were out of Thakur Village. As he attempted to shift down to second gear, due to a commotion in Samta Nagar, the clutch grumbled and let out a piercing cry and Ma screamed over the sound of the rain, “You understand that we don’t have any more money to shell out on this goddamn car, right? How difficult is it to drive? You’ve been doing it for thirty fucking years.” With the viciousness of rubber against rubble, my father brought the car to a violent halt on the side of the road, nearly hitting a vada-pav wallah.
“Why did you stop?”
“I’m getting out. You drive.”
Ma did not know how to drive. And Dad, well, he was used to driving on the other side of the road in Abu Dhabi. In any case, the gulf residents adhered to rules and lanes, while here in Mumbai, driving was like playing a malfunctioning video-game. We were left with no functional drivers. Both of them got out of the car and were soon drenched from head to toe in rainwater and bile. After screaming for several minutes through the commotion, Ma got back in.
Dad knocked at my window and signalled me to lower it. I did. He ducked his head into the car and said, “Hot hot vada-pav anybody?” With pain-stricken brows and emphasis, we all yelled, “NO.”
Staying in the suburbs, in Mumbai but away from Bombay, meant that trips to town were a rarity. Before we owned a car, it would mean hiring a cab; in the days before Uber, that meant a considerable jolt to the family budget. The earliest memory I have of such a trip involved me getting lost outside a McDonalds in Colaba and requesting a stranger, with an unnatural calm, to allow me to make a phone call. Those ten minutes of heady paranoia and nausea in the busy streets of Colaba – foreigners buying modern antiques, locals haggling for junk jewellery and swatches of people slithering past each other, butting into my slender shoulders – dealt a series of blows to my consciousness and my first painful foray into Bombay.
After the vada-pav incident, the car ride was mostly silent. The FM radio was playing a countdown of the latest hits and was currently on number 12. I attempted to read by the light of passing cars, trying to drown out the perfunctory onslaught of remixed items. Ma spoke to Rishav about a diorama presentation due on Monday while Dad orchestrated his painful symphony of false starts, clutch grumbles and emergency hand-brakes till we passed the bronze statue of Shivaji Maharaj outside the airport. The sky was now a deep, syrupy Prussian blue, painted in heavy strokes across the clouds, suddenly low and present, hovering like ruffians over and above the neat housing colonies of the suburbs.
It soon became difficult to read, the words hung distant, past the page, hitting my eyes one at a time, as a car whooshed past, colouring the windows a murky brown; I decided to give in to the radio and tune in to the conversation that had started by the airport, which lingered in the side-view mirror, like a memorial to our past affluence –
“…How is that possible? How come he’s still roaming around the airport collecting a hefty salary while you’re left high and dry?”
“It’s not that simple, Smitha. Our positions were different.”
“How come he didn’t do anything? Sending a bottle of perfume for the kid. That’s it. That’s all he could do?”
Dad’s response was a pregnant honk. He lit another cigarette.
Up until a year ago, every December, without fail, we would arrive at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, our suitcases filled with our best clothes, theplas, lasun chutney, mufflers and mini-toiletries. The boarding pass would spell a different destination each time: Munich, Rome, Venice, Paris, Zurich, Stockholm – always through Abu Dhabi. That’s where my father worked as a duty-manager with Etihad Airways. During the layover, he would meet us at the airport. When I was younger and Rishav wasn’t around, he would pick me up the moment he saw me and kiss me on the cheek; the prickly hair on his jaw and the whiff of cigarettes would tickle me, and I’d laugh and feel entirely loved in that foreign country.
We’d then walk with a peculiar collective strut around the burst-lit corridors of the airport, raiding the Duty-Free for massive, arm-sized Toblerones, M&Ms that came inside movie characters, Ray-Bans, camel-milk chocolates, mobile phones and perfume bottles. Just before completing the purchase, Dad would wave out his ID card for a staff discount and we would all feel special. As his colleagues would greet him, sometimes nervously, sometimes casually, an unmistakable sense of security would emerge in the air, tying us all together in an invisible thread, cordoning us off from the rest of the weary travellers.
In those days, we lived in a strange mirage of affluence: we’d travel to swanky destinations but only on the one free ticket we got every year from the airline, we’d buy expensive furniture but also have loans piled up in two different time-zones; while Dad made a lot of money, the expense of running two households would blunt its influence. We lived the middle-class dream for a decade before he got laid-off and moved back to Mumbai, dulling the mirage and pressing the brakes on a peaceful domestic life.
Mumbai seemed to softly expand, becoming somehow bigger during the rainy season: the clouds magically released some of the tension from seething potholes and metro construction pits that would normally choke the razor-thin roads.
I asked Ma if we could go to Pizza by the Bay. It was a ritzy restaurant standing right next to Marine Drive; it directly overlooked the Arabian Sea and I’d heard lots of good things about it. Silence followed and my question traipsed around the car before fizzling out through the AC vents. I repeated myself, “Can we go? It’s supposed to be really good.”
Ma looked out the window, seemingly deaf to my request. I looked at Dad. He had, over the years, cultivated a habit of never saying no to anything I asked of him.
“Don’t look at me. Ask your mother. She is the one who makes the decisions now. I have to beg her for petrol money also.”
“What is that supposed to mean. You’ve been home for a year now. Has your wallet ever been empty?”
“And what about the ten fucking years when I sent you money every month. Have we all forgotten about that?”
“We’re not going to Pizza by the Bay,” she said, dismissing the question with a verbal flick of her hands.
“But why?” I asked.
“Your maama is coming down next weekend. He’ll take you.”
Dad honked, repeatedly, vigorously.
“Why? I can’t buy pizza for them now? We have to spread out our arms before your brother?” he said, honking again. The Swift exuded fire.
“His maama wants to take him out. How is that spreading our arms?”
“He doesn’t need to buy us that sofa set either. I’m not that far gone. Do you understand?”
“He just wanted to gift us something. If you have a problem with that, please tell him. And for god’s sake, focus on your driving. I don’t know how you jump from one thing to another,” she said, whipping out her mobile phone and getting lost in its inert glow.
“I don’t want to go. I was just asking,” I said, increasing the volume on the car radio.
Now that Dad had lost his job, our major source of income had been cut off, but appearances had to remain. For the benefit of all neighbours and friends and aunts and uncles, the mirage had to survive. We still only bought branded clothes; but my mother would covertly examine the price tag and if it was too costly, she’d call out: “I don’t like it. The colour doesn’t suit you.” We still ate out once a week at lavish restaurants, but her perusing eyes would look down the right side of the menu and if someone chose to order something above a certain pre-emptive figure, her voice would immediately sound out, “Ayi. Not that. I can make that better at home. Order something else.”
Someone had changed the station and Mohammad Rafi’s troubled baritone filled the Swift with a song from Pyaasa.
Yeh duniya jahaan aadmi kuch nahi hai
Wafa kuch nahi, dosti kuch nahi hai
Yahaan pyaar ki qadr hi kuch nahi hai
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai
Both Ma and Dad hummed along, vaguely following the tune, making tonal excursions of their own, verbal deviations written nowhere, trundling along the song with exaggerated enthusiasm, seemingly oblivious to the despair pervading the words.
From early in the morning, after taking our dog for a walk, until the rays of noon slowly baked our stuffed one-bedroom in the leafy heart of Borivali, Dad would remain deeply engrossed, hunched over a game on his phone. Nobody knows what game it was, but all of us were familiar with the clink-clink-clink that regularly emanated from it, disturbing the score of domesticity cultivated over the ten years he wasn’t home. The sound of coins clanging would ring out, adding points to an entity only he knew, in ironic defiance of his immediate surroundings. Squinting at the screen, this game would engage him till nightfall, when he would make himself a drink and settle back again in the armchair, marinating in his cocktail of inertia and whisky. Nobody could stop him.
We decided to take the Sealink: that ten-minute rendezvous inside an artificial simulation of luxury was something we were all fond of. My father paid the squiggly man in the toll booth and off we went, jutting our heads out of the windows, in a faint imitation of Bombay kids poking out of the sunroofs of BMWs and Audis, delighting at the steady intercourse of lines set against the darkened conversation of water and waves.
Ma took out her phone; Google Maps would now be needed to navigate the foreign land materialising all around us, skyscrapers owned by single families and outrageous mansions housing the one percent of Mumbai, a land without auto-rickshaws, where real estate prices made sense only to Bollywood.
Ma’s navigation skills breathed neck-to-neck with Dad’s driving skills. Looking at the screen, as if the directions were in braille, she’d shout out instructions at the very last moment, when the street had already begun to disappear, and Dad would turn – the hurried squeal of the tires ostentatiously veiling his anger. With one final such misdirection, we reached the The Queen’s Necklace.
“Why are you taking a left?” my mother asked when Dad began swerving away from our destination.
“I’m hungry. I wanted to eat a vada-pav and you all very nicely said no. I didn’t stuff myself at lunch like you guys.”
“What the f— whose fault is that? You asked us if we wanted vada-pav. If you were hungry, you should’ve told us.”
Dad simply uttered a hoom and turned towards where the massive Air India building stood. The 23-storey mammoth was barricaded with two sets of gates, the outer one reading NO PARKING in bold blue letters. Despite that evident factoid, Dad brought the tyres to a resounding squeal right outside the gate. Ma and I turned to him with worry in our eyes. What is he up to this time?
Before leaving for Etihad, Dad was employed with Air India for 13 years and, at that time, when the building still served as the headquarters for the Airline, this is where our trips to town reached their happy climax. Dad would know the watchman by name and we’d be ushered in with smiles into the lobby where Dad would be greeted with a giant hug by the manager. After catching up for a few minutes, the conversation would invariably circle round to that one question. “Do you wanna go up?”
The answer was always yes.
With the manager’s arm around my back, we would enter a lobby with pictures of all the aircraft models Air India had ever owned. We’d be treated by Dad to a nugget of information about one of those, while we waited. Huddled inside the lift, an excited pack, we would then zoom up all 23 floors.
Once out of the lift, we’d climb a rickety metal ladder that led on to the equally rickety balcony lining the building on three sides. Even as a ten-year-old, I would be mesmerised by the city stretching out below us: Marine Drive hummed and harmonised in a delicate curve flanked by rectangular pathways, abundant always with light and life. My eyes would follow the C-shaped promenade from one end to the other, occasionally distracted by the waves flowing serenely against it. The whole of Mumbai spoke in the language of dots and dashes, made up entirely of light, and, unerringly, we all understood.
That was before. Now we had no business being here. We were all silently worried that the watchman, a new watchman, would reprimand us and with Dad’s wicked, explosive, temper, there was no possible scenario that would not end in a brawl. He got out of the car and yelled out, emphatically, even before he’d made his way to the outer gate: “Tell them Sanjeev Menon is here. Sanjeev Menon.”
“You didn’t hear me or what? Sanjeev Menon. Go tell sahib.”
We attempted to fold into ourselves, trying to occupy as little space as possible. He heard you, I wanted to say. You have no business being here. I stayed silent.
For the next two minutes, nothing happened and then the manager came out bearing the annoyed air of someone who was woken up from an unplanned nap. “Who the hell is it at this time of the night?” he said to the watchman before turning towards Dad and squinting. “Is that… Sanjeev…SANJEEV MENON?”
He asked for the gates to be opened, then rushed towards Dad, repeatedly saying his name while hugging him wholly. ‘Sanjeev Menon. I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it. Gulf export…here…Sanjeev Menon.”
Dad was suddenly inflated, smoothened and crisp at the edges. “I knew you’d be here! That’s my family,” he said pointing towards us. We meekly waved through the glass.
“Arrey. Come in. I’ll have tea made,” said the manager.
“No rey. I just wanted to park here and eat something. I remembered the vada-pav outside was good so.”
They reluctantly parted ways and Dad settled back into the car with an air of invigoration. We rarely ever saw him this happy. He stared ahead with a smile, before saying—
“Do you guys want vada-pav?”
He hopped out and back into the car within minutes, closing the umbrella and entering with the wet polythene in one swift motion. The sky began to empty itself and a curtain of precipitation appeared on the windshield, completely blocking our view of Marine Drive; but no one cared. He handed me the umbrella and uncovered the old newspapers laden with vada-pavs. Moving with perfect industriousness and child-like excitement, he took out the pavs, dabbed them with two kinds of chutney, filled them with the round mounds of potato and passed them to everyone in the car, one by one.
We ate silently and without fuss.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.
Prithvi Pudhiarkar is a student of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. His poetry has appeared in Berfrois.