(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
The silence between them had drawn uncomfortably long. Ravi took a sip of water from his glass and then set it back quietly so as not to interrupt, but it didn’t help the conversation.
‘Well, your name?’ he repeated awkwardly to the girl sitting opposite him.
Once again, she didn’t respond. If anything, it made her blush further. Her head turned down a notch. Her shoulders tensed up some more.
Ravi studied her as she sat there shyly, looking young even with her hair tied back in a severe bun. She was plump but looked good in her neatly ironed formal outfit. Not conventionally gorgeous, but she did have her charms, and the sweet scent of her perfume was in the air.
Ravi was about to reach out and pat her hand when he thought better of it. Midway there, he grabbed his glass a second time instead.
What am I even to say? “It’s alright”? “Don’t be shy”? Wouldn’t that appear too friendly? Perhaps something more assertive…
He smiled. ‘Well, I’m afraid if this contin—’
The door to the room flung open the way Ravi had seen it often enough in the last three months. He didn’t have to look to know who was entering. The girl, however, jumped like a cat.
‘Ravi! What’s up?!’ Subro’s irritating voice tore through the silence of the office. Oddly enough, Ravi didn’t mind it as much this time. The quietness had been rather awful.
‘What do you want?’ Ravi asked, a practised irritation in his voice.
‘We have places to be, man!’ Subro was wearing his trademark smile. The painter reached Ravi’s desk, taking a seat beside the girl. He put his cigarette out in an ashtray Ravi especially maintained for his use and hung his ridiculous umbrella on the armrest of the chair. ‘The event’s in two hours. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten!’
‘I’m aware. Which is precisely why I need to wrap up these interviews quickly. The last thing I need is for you to delay me.’
‘Me? Delay?’ Subro faked a pained expression. ‘I’m hurt!’
‘Don’t care, please be gone.’
‘Ouch! How blunt. You know what? This calls for proving you wrong.’ He put on an exaggerated pout and turned to the girl sitting next to him. ‘So, what’re you called?’
‘Don’t bother.’ Ravi shook his head. This was precisely when she uttered her first word: ‘Sharmila.’
‘So you can answer him but not me?!’ Ravi threw his hands up, bewildered.
The girl went back to keeping mum, her posture closing up again.
‘Well, Sharmila, you’re hired!’ Subro announced.
‘What?!’ Ravi jumped. ‘You don’t get to decide that! I have other people waiting to be interviewed. I need the best of the lot to be my assistant.’
‘Well, too bad, I sent the others home,’ Subro stated matter-of-factly. Then, turning to the girl, he said, ‘Congratulations! You can start working right away! Now, would you mind waiting outside for a bit? See you soon, thanks!’
Before Ravi could contribute any further, the girl quietly flashed a smile, got up from her seat and trotted out of the room. As the door closed, they heard her whoop of joy from outside.
‘What in the world is wrong with you? Call those applicants back right now!’ Ravi stabbed his index finger at Subro threateningly to emphasise the point.
‘Now who’s delaying, hmm? You should thank me for freeing up your schedule. We can get to the venue on time. Also, let’s leave already? I’d like to avoid the rush hour.’
‘There isn’t going to be any rush! As president of the company, I have a helicopter now to get me places! I could have finished the interviews and still reached comfortably early.’
Subro suddenly had a coughing fit that sounded like, ‘Nicely…dropped…show-off!’ Then, speaking normally, he said, ‘Trust me, it would have taken you hours, especially with all the lovey-dovey stuff you were up to with Sharmila.’
‘I—I wasn’t up to any stuff!’
‘The first few paragraphs would disagree. Anyway, this is for the best. I haven’t ridden the chopper in weeks! We can use the extra time to fly some more, do some sight-seeing! It’ll be fun! Let’s go, go, go!’ He sounded like a little kid throwing a tantrum.
‘NO!’ Ravi yelled, and in his anger he picked up the glass of water and flung it at the painter. It missed by half a foot, shattering instead on the floor, the liquid spilling all over. ‘Argh! I’ve had it with you always testing my patience!’
‘Oops… Did I go too far? Okay, I’m sorry…’ Subro got up and reached into the pocket of his kurta, pulling out a diary that he then offered to Ravi. ‘Here, to make up for the trouble… last piece from your borrowed luggage, returned safe and sound. Happy?’
Ravi didn’t verbally respond, but he did snatch the diary away. He flipped through the pages as if to check for damage.
‘Don’t worry,’ Subro assured him, ‘I haven’t read a single word in it…’
‘…that begins with a “q” and is not followed by a “u.”’
‘Wait, that means—’
‘Means we’re even now, so let’s get going, shall we?’
‘Fine! At least you lost your last leverage over me. The next time will be the final time.’ With that warning delivered, Ravi seemed satisfied. He hid the diary in the inside pocket of his coat.
‘Yeah, I guess,’ Subro said dejectedly, collecting his umbrella. ‘Unless I steal it all again, that is!’ He brightened up and mockingly rushed toward the door as if expecting another outburst.
Ravi begrudgingly got up, picked up his new MorsePage, and followed the painter out.
‘Hey, Sharmila,’ Subro said to the girl waiting outside as they exited. ‘Will you get someone to clean the room? There’s spilled water and shattered glass. You should be able to find someone from the cleaning staff at the end of the corridor there.’
She nodded and made off in the indicated direction without a word.
‘And join us on the roof, once you’re done,’ he called after her.
When she was out of earshot, Ravi remarked, ‘You could at least allow me to assign tasks to her.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ Subro replied. ‘Have I been denying you the thrill of ordering the young girl around?’
‘Huh? No! What I meant is that she is my assistant, after all.’ He pressed the button to call for the lift.
‘You didn’t deny it. Interesting!’ Subro smiled smugly.
Ravi sighed, which had become a regular exercise by now. He changed the topic as the elevator arrived and they got in. ‘So, where is the event being held, again?’
‘Hah! Does it even matter? We’ve never quite established the geography of our world before. I mean who knows what this city is even called?’
Ravi pressed the button for the top floor, then looked back with a curious expression. ‘Umm, Calcutta? What is wrong with you?’
‘Nothing! Just that, maybe we could’ve said that out loud sometime three months ago? You know, for the reader’s convenience? And what about the fact that for reasons of diversity in the main cast, you’re actually a Maharashtrian from Bombay even with a very familiar Bengali name? Or that Madhu’s family is originally from Madras? How’s anyone supposed to know? Frankly, our world-building has been very lousy.’
‘Okay, are you feeling alright? You seem to be rambling nonsense.’
They arrived at the top floor, and as the doors of the elevator opened, Subro stepped out. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. Anyway, we need to head to this completely fictional auditorium, Niranjan Theatre.’
They climbed the final flight of stairs, which led up to the helipad. A cool breeze invitingly rushed in from the opening above.
As they climbed the final stair, Subro observed, ‘Oh good, my boys are here.’ He pointed toward the helicopter where two men were loading stuff in. Ravi recognised the Captura bag among them.
‘Wait, why are they here?’ Ravi asked, puzzled.
‘Hmm? Asked them to start loading my stuff in. I was confident, I could get you to take me along.’
‘No, I mean, why do you have assistants? I don’t remember granting you permission, or even seeing a request.’
‘Well, they’re not assistant assistants. More like colleagues, you know, who… let’s just say, owe me favours.’ Subro smiled sheepishly.
‘Oh God, I should have known. Hope you don’t have too many of these poor souls.’
‘Nah, just one other.’
‘Okay,’ Ravi said. ‘Wait… it’s me, isn’t it?’
‘Right you are, boss!’
Ravi sighed again. ‘You know, you’ve been cracking way too many jokes this morning, even for you. If this was one of my stories,’ he said, nodding at the MorsePage held in his hand, ‘something awful would happen to your character soon.’ He laughed at his own attempt at humour.
Subro smiled at first, but then his expression betrayed a little alarm.
‘Oh come on, you’re not worried, are you?’ Ravi rolled his eyes. ‘It was a joke! Real life doesn’t work that way.’
‘Don’t be so sure that we aren’t in someone’s story.’
‘Wow, didn’t think you’d be much of a believer.’
‘It’s not that…’ The artist trailed off as Sharmila arrived. He didn’t speak again until his “assistants” had left and everyone else was seated inside.
When the engines started, he finally spoke his mind. ‘God damn you, man, for dropping that spoiler! You’ve completely ruined my mood… Can we go over some nice scenery, first, please? I need something to lift my spirit… Besides, it’s Sharmila’s first chopper ride too! Would be great!’
‘Fine,’ Ravi shrugged. ‘Pilot, take us over the bay, please, then to Niranjan Theatre.’
A moment later, the helicopter took off.