The publisher was going to drop them off at the Delhi airport. As usual, K checked his ticket to find the terminal only when in the car, at the last minute. His writer friend and her two sweet daughters were with him. They had to go to terminal two. He looked at his ticket and the terminal was not written on it. So he called up the online travel agency he had used to book the ticket. Fortunately, his phone was charged and had money in it, so he got through. Then his trip that had been lovely till then began to go awry. The girl at the other end told him that while he was booked for the same terminal, terminal two, somehow his ticket’s date was a month away. These things happened. While booking, July would slip to August etc.
He did not want to bother his friends, so he got down where the publisher dropped him. He called his wife to tell her the bad news. He saw his friend off, after hugging her small daughters. He set off to search for the direct booking office, thanking his lucky stars that he had enough money in his card. A taxi driver ran up behind him and told him to come with him to the office. He did. They gave him the ticket but told him that the next flight was in an hour and from terminal three which was far off. He was upset and showed it but the man inside, at the counter, said “we will get you a taxi, sir.”
K came out with him and waiting outside was the same taxi man who had shown him the ticketing counter. He put his bags in the taxi and they were off.
The taxi man said, “you have to pay me 1300 Rs.”
He only had some 800 Rs with him.
The man said, “that would be enough, but there is a toll of 500 you have to pay just here, but as you are in an emergency and a hurry I will take you for whatever you give me.”
K remembered getting the terminal wrong once before like this, with Anna, at the very same place, and hearing the same dialogue about the toll charge, but Anna had bailed him out that time by asking the driver and his companion to take them to the police station.
The present offer of taking no money or only what he had with him, now, thawed him, towards the taxi driver.
The man was talkative.
“My name is Prateek, sir, Prateek Gupta. I have no one, only my taxi. Anytime you come to Delhi, I am here.”
A white Ambassador with a Ganesha on the dashboard.
“Do you take riyals,” he asked Prateek.
“So you have no one?”
“Father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children?”
“Why in Delhi, saab?”
“I’m a writer. I came for a book launch, but have to get back, as my family is waiting for me. Especially my son who can’t talk”
Prateek made a sad face.
“Sab uperwala ka khel hai, saab.”
He dropped K off at the terminal.
K gave him the 800 Rs and the riyals and the bottles of Old Monk and Scotch another friend had given him and told him not to drink again after finishing it.
“No, saab, I won’t promise. I don’t tell lies. I need to drink. Give me only one bottle then.”
He gave him both and vanished inside the airport.
When he went on the plane, he found he had an aisle seat. It had set him back a pretty packet. Oh, well. Sigh. It was only money. He could make more as long as his luck lasted. This was just his usual fucked up luck regarding it.
A couple sat next to him. She was going to Bangalore for the first time, the husband told him.
His thought was on his empty purse. How to get hold of something to eat or drink or get home?
There were four air hostesses on the plane. Three from the North East, pretty as china dolls, Dresden, unreal looking almost. The fourth one was obviously from somewhere up North – Kewpie, a bomb, tall, slim, fair, svelte, in red and black, spice on a jet long haired – jet black, long-legged.
They brought the food tray around. He badly wanted a coffee. “Can I swipe?,” he asked the B.
“Oh, I am so sorry sir, the card machine is not working,” she said.
He must have looked terribly disappointed. Or tired. At the same time his neighbor asked, “do you have hakami noodles?”
“No, sir,” the NE hostess said, “but we have paneer tikka noodles,” thrusting an example at his neighbor. It smelt delicious.
His stomach rumbled.
The Bomb said, suddenly, for no reason that he could make out, “I will get you a coffee, sir.”
“But the payment…”
I’ll sponsor it, sir”
He couldn’t believe his ears.
It was 295 Rs.
He smiled and said, “Please make it a cappuccino.”
After five minutes she came with the coffee, flashed him a warm smile and went off.
He thought of her.
He felt he had to do something to pay her back for her kind deed.
He got up from his seat and got his bag down from the overhead storage space where the passengers kept their hand baggage.
He had been to Delhi for a book launch, but the book that he wanted to give her was not that one. He wanted to gift her his novel.
It was titled You Only Live Once. It cost 295 Rs.
He opened it and took out his pen and wrote: One good turn deserves another. Then he signed it and drew a 🙂 under the signature.
He looked around, caught her eye, and she came.
“This is for you,” he said.
She flashed an even warmer smile at him. Her face lit up so, it was bewitching.
“That’s very sweet of you, sir. Is there anything more that you want?”
“I want paneer tikka noodles,” he said, “but can’t pay for it.”
She laughed. “I’ll get it for you, sir,” she said.
“On me, sir.”
The noodles came. It was 495 Rs.
He ate it. The air hostesses came and cleared away all the stuff, like the empty plates and cups.
He was about to doze off when she suddenly reappeared, kneeling by his side, looking up at his face.
She would be about twenty five, he thought. She was smiling and held out a card to him.
“Sir, our email address is here. Can you please write to the company about your feelings as to our service.”
He said, “Yes, certainly.”
He took the card as she got up and flashed another charming smile at him and went off.
He took the card and turned it around.
On it was written, ‘Hope to see you soon, Nayanatara.’
It was accompanied by a 🙂
Akin to the one he had put on his book.
He put the card away carefully.
He knew what he should do next.
Give her his card.
He had none.
Give her her card back with his number written on it.
Call her and ask her to jot down her number.
Add her on Whatsapp.
He knew she was waiting.
He knew it would work.
He knew… too much. Of? … everything. Including the fascination middle-aged, thickly-bearded, moustachioed, pot-bellied, salt and pepper haired men who looked a bit like Kabir Bedi and others like that and were writers to boot could have on young girls.
The plane landed.
He went out, waving goodbye to her, smiling, while she looked at him, only a half smile now in her eyes and on her lips, the two stars or ‘taras’ at bay in her ‘nayanas’, banked, her body suddenly defensive, defenseless, young and expectant, waiting a little anxiously, uncertainly, and also questioningly, to see if he would make the next, expected move.
He did not look back on going out, even as out of the corner of his eye he saw the question in her eyes change into one of puzzlement.
It had been a long trip, and day.
He was tired and only wanted to get home fast.
The red and the black.
Weakness, and strength.
A ‘ride’ on a plane.
That same old pattern, again.
He told Anna everything, later.
Except one thing.
That he had kept the card, which was also red and black, as a keepsake and a souvenir.
Not that it mattered.
But he could not throw it away.