T

he college cafeteria wore a deserted look that night. The place, which had been recently renovated glowed foggy yellow from the suspended lights above. There was a lot of talk about the new place and it certainly did not disappoint. It was a well ventilated and large rectangular room with the walls painted orange and yellow. The white tables were neatly arranged on the grey floor leaving enough space in the middle for walking about. The fibre glass chairs in soft pastel green colours were neatly tucked in.

One out of three men would cheat on their partners with their partner’s best friend, while one out of five girls would do the same!

Mani sat alone in the left corner of the hall. He was reading the day’s edition of ‘The Hindu" with his lips mouthing the words, but very conscious not to make any sound. He cleverly faced the window so as to not embarrass himself in front of the hungry onlookers. Mani was dressed in a short and tight white shirt with an equally tight grey pair of polyester trousers.

A group of girls, possibly in the second or third year, nestled together, shoulder to shoulder sharing a single shawl, opposite the LCD television, which hung from an orange pillar in the middle of the hall. Distinct sounds of sniffling and munching of potato chips alternated from the huddle.

“One out of three men would cheat on their partners with their partner’s best friend, while one out of five girls would do the same!" declared a wise dude in a black leather jacket. Television programming was crowded with reality shows, which surrogate as experiments in understanding social behaviour. If providing an opportunity to peep into the bedrooms of people was their only motive, the shows had certainly managed to get youngsters totally hooked on.

“That’s total bull crap," a girl raised her voice in disagreement. “How can they make such a sweeping generalisation?"

“Boys always cheat," agreed another.

“Guys, what’s happening? Fill me in." Charu appeared from nowhere and pulled a chair closer to the girls. All the three girls put their heads out like a tortoise and looked behind in one brisk motion. Charu always displayed an air of confidence, which many mistook as arrogance. The girls shared a quick glance before narrating the programme’s story so far.

“This guy Jai suspects that his live-in girl friend Niharika, is having an affair, so he requested the channel to undertake an under-cover sting-operation on her." Before the girls could complete the story in perfect unison, Charu laughed out loud. Unaffected, the girls continued, “So, they have set-up this other model looking guy Vikram…" Even before they could complete, Charu interjected, “This guy is hot and yummy," and winked at them.

“So, this guy Vikram is trying to tempt Niharika into sleeping with him. They have met three times in different coffee shops. This slut was all over Vikram and has kissed him twice. She even kind of hinted that she loves him. All this has been captured on camera by the channel guys. They have invited Jai, her boyfriend to see the video footage," the girls summarised dutifully.

“So now what happens," Charu asked impatiently.

“Jai has seen the footage and is very angry with Niharika. Now she is at Vikram’s house late at night and Jai, who is at the Channel's studio, can see what the two are doing live." The girls sighed in relief.

Charu nodded, but remained silent and glued to the television.

In the show, Jai was visibly livid and angry, “I want you to tell Vikram get aggressive with her and start kissing her. I want you to tell him right now. I want to see how this bitch responds. I want to see her sinking her lips into his throat. Then wait and see what I will do to the bitch."

The presenter agreed to his request and spoke to Vikram who consented to play the act. Vikram didn’t have to do much to seduce her; she was already all over him. The camera was now focused on Jai in the studio. His eyes were red in anger. He threw a water bottle at the TV, which landed very close. Then he covered his face with both his hands and started crying.

Jai wept and cried in anguish, “How could she do this to me? How could she?"

The presenter in the black jacket egged Jai on, “Would you want to confront her right now?"

“What the fuck is wrong with these people?" Charu was livid. “Assuming this whole thing is not staged, who the hell is this Jai or the Channel to video record and spy on that poor girl. Whether she wants to stay with Jai or sleep around with someone else is her business. It’s her body, it’s her mind. She has every right to do what she wants. Where is her right to privacy? The girl should sue these spineless men. I can’t believe these programmes are aired on mainstream TV. Fucking losers," and pushed the chair towards the table. The chair banged against the table making an unpleasant screechy noise.

The three shawl sisters continued watching the programme voyeuristically, undeterred by Charu’s rants.

Charu walked briskly towards the doors, while Hari walked in. Someone tapped her shoulder from behind. She quickly turned around. “Here, drink some water," Mani offered her, “I was watching you and the girls. Come on, calm down," he pacified her.

You know Charu, when I tried to hang myself, I could hear my mother crying. She has suffered so much to bring me up and I was going to give it all up because I could not understand English.

“Not done guys. I don’t understand what pleasure people get in watching the private lives of real people. And these anchors behave like thugs; shouting, being rude and unkind. Do people really like this nonsense? Maybe they are living the lives that they can’t live in real. I am just so mind fucked right now," Charu rattled, feeling very unsettled.

Both Hari and Mani looked at each other in silence.

“Can we sit under the tree? I need some fresh air," she requested and led the way.

“I am sorry, did I introduce you to each other? Mani this is Hari, Hari this is Mani," Charu introduced, while jumping on to the platform around the Pipal tree.

“Mani, what do you think? Am I overreacting," she enquired.

“To be honest, I am not a good judge a rich man’s problems," Mani answered bluntly.

Hari remained silent.

“Morality is a moving target. What’s theirs needn’t be yours. As much as you have a point of view, they have one too. The drama between people on different points of the pendulum makes one compelling story. It is just entertainment. Come on, chill," he rationalized.

“When you are poor, surviving consumes your life so much that we do not have the luxury for such drama," he smiled in the direction of a well nearby.

“Says the philosopher who tried to commit suicide," she laughed out loudly.

“That’s a cheap shot Charu," Hari intervened.

“I am not going to apologise," Charu shot back, “I will keep reminding him of his stupidity till I die," and slapped him gently.

The night was awfully quiet and the Pipal tree remained still. There were no stars in the sky too.

The darkness around was interrupted by the flicker of light from Charu’s phone. Sam’s name flashed on her phone. She pushed the phone back into her pocket without answering the call.

Mani kept looking at the well and was consumed in deep thought. Although, Hari liked Mani’s frankness, he also felt sad at his silent suffering.

“Looking at this well, I am reminded of something that happened when I was little, when we used to live in Kaveripattinam village," Mani recalled from his childhood. “I must have been eight or nine; my mother had given birth to my brother only a couple of days back. It was late in the evening and my mother was tired and had slept after nursing the baby. I was playing with a broken car that I had discovered on the road earlier in the day. Our house was very small, you know. Let’s say, to give you a comparison, our house might be just the size to fit in a buffalo and it would still be gasping for breath. I had eaten some porridge and butter milk for dinner. Eating rice was only for some special days, but those days were far and few," he chuckled softly.

“My father was like a guest who would come once in several weeks, mostly when he ran out of money. I used to be terrified of my dad; he was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He would always beat up my mom. My mother worked in a klin nearby. She had to work even up to her last day of pregnancy. Actually, she delivered my brother near the water sludge at the klin," he choked.

Charu and Hari looked at Mani patiently.

“Our house was near a Pipal tree and a well just like here. It was probably drizzling a little then. My father had had a big argument the day before, where much to my delight, my mom had whacked him ‘black and blue’ with a broom. He tried to steal the money that mom had secretly saved for my text books," Mani smiled cheekily.

“My father appeared out of nowhere that night and signalled me to come out. It was very funny seeing his round bald head reflect the yellow light from the incandescent bulb tied to the roof. He showed me a packet of chicken biryani that I really loved. I had not eaten rice in a long time, leave alone biryani. I took slow cautious steps towards him. He was wearing a blue lungi. And looked really old and sick. I was used to seeing him as the handsome man in the photo frame that still hung inside the house. My mother escaped her parents’ house when she was just fourteen and ran away with my dad. They were deeply and madly in love, I was told," he paused, taking a breath.

“He offered me the biryani and requested that I sit down and eat. He gently ran his fingers through my head. His eyes were moist, but I could sense he was drunk. He stayed close while I relished the biryani. It was very delicious and for few minutes I had forgotten all my anger and fear of him. I hurriedly and noisily gobbled up all the rice and meat, which was wrapped in a plantain leaf and newspaper. He led me to the well and washed my hands gently. I was very surprised at his sudden display of affection. But, I was in for a bigger horrific surprise," he lowered his head and paused briefly.

“It was a short well, with the pulley tied to makeshift scaffolding. The Pipal tree next to the well would creak noisily during heavy winds and I was afraid to go near it during nights. But, I couldn’t wake-up my mom as she would be angry with me for entertaining my dad. My father led me close to the well. The small steel bucket, which would normally be empty, was full and untied. I cleaned my hands by drawing water from the bucket. As soon as I finished, my father grabbed my arms from behind and tied me tightly with a rope. I cried aloud calling ‘amma’. I was terrified of what might happen next. My father did not speak, but did not stop me from screaming. ‘Amma’... ‘amma’, I continued screaming."

“I tried hard to squeeze out but could not escape his tight grip. He tied my waist with the coir rope that was tied to the pulley and lifted me in a sudden motion and pushed me into the well. ‘Amma’ I screamed in fright, while my father maintained his composure unfazed by my screams. He lowered me further down within just three or four feet of water. I was very scared now and felt suffocated. It was dark and black all around me. I saw something slimy crawling on the wall of the well. Suddenly, memories of my mother’s warning of a ghost residing inside the well haunted me. I was terror-struck and started shouting and crying."

“Then I heard my mother’s voice. She begged and pleaded to get me out of the well. My father abused her in filthy words. He blamed her for all the failures and disasters in his life. My mother looked deep inside to check on me, but I don’t think she could catch my eyes in the dark. She called out to me saying that I shouldn’t worry, I shouldn’t cry and I should be brave. I could hear her cry. She shouted expletives at my father. She begged him to lift me up. He wanted 2000 rupees immediately or threatened to let go of me."

“Was I worth only 2000 rupees to him? The glimmer of affection that I saw in his eyes, when he offered the biryani was all a hoax, just pretence; I was just a tool for his ends."

“My echo was more frightening, but I continued wailing. I urinated in fear. The winds that somersaulted inside the well created a whizzing sound that haunt me even today. I could hear my mother’s voice again. My father was abusing her again. But, the taunts looked more victorious. I was slowly being pulled out. The creaky sounds of the pulley were reassuring. I could see the edges of the wall and the light from our house slowly sneaked in. I could now only hear my mother’s cry. She pulled me out of the well carefully and untied me. I hugged her tight and bawled my heart out. She reassured me that she was there to protect me and would take care of me. I was still shaking in fear."

“She made me drink some water. I did not see my father. He had already run away. I was so angry. If I had seen him then, I would have surely killed him," his anger more evident now.

“You know Charu, when I tried to hang myself, I could hear my mother crying. She has suffered so much to bring me up and I was going to give it all up because I could not understand English. I am so ashamed of myself. I will one day make her proud, Charu. We are good people; my mother is a good human being. I will not let her suffer anymore. I will make her live like a queen, and that is the only way to show our revenge to the man who gave me just his sperm."

Hari hugged him and said, “I will help you with English, okay? You can trust me on that." He was emotional too.

Charu hugged the two together briefly while Hari and Mani continued.

“Hello, this is no gay pride, enough, quota over, move on." As soon as Hari heard Charu use the word ‘gay’ he pulled himself away.

Both the boys shared quick glances and laughed out loud.