Jehangir was soaked to the skin. But he did not notice it, as he noticed nothing else around him. He was oblivious to the celebration of rain, to its freshness and abundance, to the delicious coolness and comfort that graced the air which barely an hour ago had been vile and full of threat.
With long desperate strides he splashed through the puddles. Some of them were ankle-deep, and his shoes were soon waterlogged, but he hurried along. The rubbled pavement abandoned in mid-construction was impossible, so he took to the road.
A car fixed his soaking figure in its headlights, honking in annoyance. Sweat mingled with the rain-water coursing down his face. Waiting for a bus back to Firozsha Baag in this weather was pointless, it would take too long. He was panting hard, gasping for breath, but did not slow down. And his wretched, anguished mind would not be rid of her seated figure on the sofa, her hair over her soft brown eyes in which there were traces of moisture.
And to think that just a few minutes before he’d been sitting beside her on the same sofa, they were holding each other so close. Things could not be more perfect, it had seemed to him at that moment.
“Isn’t this like a Hindi movie?” she had said smiling, adding wickedly to make him blush, “only thing is, I should be wearing a sari made transparent by rain. Even the thunder and lightning soundtrack is perfect for lovers” Lovers? Was that a hint? She had stroked his hair. “Tell your parents and your Baba they did not succeed.”
Jehangir had rested his cheek against hers, at peace with life and all its tangled complexities. His eyes wandered around in the dark, passed over the clock (a flash of lightning showed eight-fifteen), the outline of the bookcase, the piano and the frowning bust of Beethoven.
Eight-fifteen. Was that the right time? He had to find out. The radium-painted numbers of his watch dial would glow in the dark and show the correct time. He shifted, uneasy, and tried to move his hand. But she’d noticed immediately.
“If you want to look at your watch don’t be so sneaky about it.” She shook off his hand.
“I’m supposed to be home by eight.” He looked at his watch.
“I know. You remind me every time you see me.”
“In my watch it’s almost eight. It’s set with the clock at home. We eat dinner by it,” he added apologetically, as if that would set things right. Short, complete sentences again, for reassurance. He got up.
“Going home on time for your mother is more important than —?” and she broke off. Her eyes rested for a moment on the cushions which lay about the sofa, comfortably rumpled, still holding the heat of their bodies, then returned to his face. He did not reply, just glanced at his watch again. Tidying up in great haste, he tucked in his shirt, put the crease back in his pants, smoothed down the tousled hair: raced with the clock of Mother.
Behroze watched in stark disbelief at this exhibition of terror, the transformation from man to cowering child. “Calm down, will you? Your mother’s world won’t end if you are late. Haven’t you learned yet? All these are just her tactics to —”
“I’ve told you before I know they are tactics,” he snapped back, “and I’m doing it all because I want to, because her life has been troubled enough, because I don’t want to add more misery to it. Because, because, because! Do you want me to repeat everything again?”
Then he had stooped to pull up his socks. As he was leaving he turned around, and that was when he saw what he’d least expected — two tiny tears moistening her lower lashes.
And side by side with this image that refused to go away was the sickening thought which had struck in the pit of his stomach, like nausea — the one interpretation of Bhagwan Baba’s words which he had never considered during all his rumination in the Hanging Gardens: that the trap was the one laid by Bhagwan Baba himself. To trick him into ending it this way.
He rushed through the streets like a madman, shivering, tormented and confused, glancing at his watch again and again. His breath was coming hard, he thought he would collapse. Finally, he turned into the compound and stumbled up the three steps of the C Block entrance and into the lift.
He rang the doorbell. Just one short burst. His finger slid off, the arm fell limply to his side. There was no energy to complete the prearranged signal of rings that the family members used: two short and one long.
Mother opened the door narrowly, leaving on the chain. “Trying to fool me or what, with just one ring?”
Jehangir shook his head. He clung feebly to the door, wanting to speak, but the words could not form through the panting.
“You know what time it is?”
He nodded, holding up his watch. Eight-thirty.
“This time you crossed the limit. Your father says be patient, he is just a boy. Just a boy, yes, but the boy has climbed to the roof.” She shook off his hand and slammed the door shut.
Still leaning against the door, he reached for the bell and rang it. Desperately, again and again, two short bursts and one long burst, two short and one long, over and over, as if that familiar signal would magically open the door. It remained shut. From inside the flat, silence. His arm fell. He slid to the floor and settled down to wait.
His breathing returned to normal but the wet clothes clung to him, he was very cold. During his school years, Mother used to accompany him on rainy mornings with a towel, a change of socks and shoes; at school she would dry his feet, help him into fresh socks, exchange his gumboots for the dry shoes.
He pulled his handkerchief and wiped his face, then pushed back the wet hair. The door was exposed to a gusting wind from the balcony. It made him shiver, and he shuffled into the narrow corridor sheltered by the staircase. He looked at his watch. Still eight-thirty. Must have stopped, clogged with rain water. It was a gift from Mother and Father for getting first class with distinction in his ssc exams. He hoped the neighbours would not open their doors: the news would spread through all three blocks of Firozsha Baag. Then the boys would find new names for him. He fell into a light sleep, leaning against the wall, till the soft clanking of the chain being removed from the door woke him up.
The old man’s wheelchair is audible today as he creaks by in the hallway: on some days it’s just a smooth whirr. Maybe the way he slumps in it, or the way his weight rests has something to do with it. Down to the lobby he goes, and sits there most of the time, talking to people on their way out or in. That’s where he first spoke to me a few days ago. I was waiting for the elevator, back from Eaton’s with my new pair of swimming-trunks.
“Hullo,” he said. I nodded, smiled.
“Beautiful summer day we’ve got.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s lovely outside.”
He shifted the wheelchair to face me squarely. “How old do you think I am?”
I looked at him blankly, and he said, “Go on, take a guess.”
I understood the game; he seemed about seventy-five although the hair was still black, so I said, “Sixty-five?” He made a sound between a chuckle and a wheeze: “I’ll be seventy-seven next month.” Close enough.
I’ve heard him ask that question several times since, and everyone plays by the rules. Their faked guesses range from sixty to seventy. They pick a lower number when he’s more depressed than usual. He reminds me of Grandpa as he sits on the sofa in the lobby, staring out vacantly at the parking lot. Only difference is, he sits with the stillness of stroke victims, while Grandpa’s Parkinson’s disease would bounce his thighs and legs and arms all over the place. When he could no longer hold the Bombay Samachar steady enough to read, Grandpa took to sitting on the veranda and staring emptily at the traffic passing outside Firozsha Baag. Or waving to anyone who went by in the compound: Rustomji, Nariman Hansotia in his 1932 Mercedes-Benz, the fat ayah Jaakaylee with her shopping-bag, the kuchrawalli with her basket and long bamboo broom.