(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
If there were any doubts in Ravi’s mind about Subro’s seriousness regarding the party, they were shot down the moment he reached the venue. One of Phantasy Publishing’s larger conference halls had been repurposed for the event, and how!
It was difficult to imagine that the place was still inside the company building. The slightest traces of corporate furniture had been done away with, replaced by small round tables laid out in the centre of the room. Covered in white cloth with blue ribbons tied across, the chairs and tables looked beautiful against a dark, patterned carpet. Meanwhile, the ceiling had been lined with tiny blue bulbs, and it gave the impression of stars glittering against a white sky.
Along either side wall was a long row of buffet dishes, which — if the delicious aromas in the room were anything to go by — were going to be absolutely delicious. Ravi wasn’t much of a food enthusiast, yet even his mouth was watering at the scent.
The far side of the room was clear of tables, and the use of colourful stage lights there helped designate it as a dance area. The setup was completed by a live band getting ready to play on one side and a counter for liquid courage on the other.
Ravi was really impressed with how well Subro had managed to get things ready in only a few hours. He had to admit, the guy was pretty resourceful. If only he could put his skills to more productive uses, Ravi thought.
He caught sight of Subro standing around the dance area, looking rather smart in a green suit. Bandages covered the better part of his face, and the absence of his umbrella was quite noticeable. The painter was seemingly engaged in an intense discussion with the band, probably instructing them of the kind of music that was to be played.
Looking around, Ravi spotted Madhu and Anurag at one of the tables, also having an involved conversation. Anurag was simply wearing a jacket over regular formals, while Madhu looked quite graceful in a red sari. Ravi chose to take part in their discussion.
Madhu was speaking when he got there, ‘…are good, I just wish we didn’t have to waste time here tonight.’
‘What’s good?’ Ravi asked, taking a seat.
‘Well,’ said Madhu, ‘Anurag has marked all temples around the city in these guide maps.’ She pointed to some sheets lying on the table. ‘The plan is to divide the areas among us so we can start visiting them tomorrow.’
‘Oh good, let me help you,’ said Ravi
‘Well, there’s not much help required,’ Anurag said, ‘unless you can keep this party from happening, so we can go visit some temples right away!’
‘I hate this too.’ Ravi waved his hand at the surrounding. ‘But we need Subro’s help for this plan to work. Let’s not piss him off.’
‘Alright. Now, how do we divide the city among us? I was thinking of letting Papa handle the nearby temples so he doesn’t need to travel much.’ Anurag drew a small circle on the map around the Phantasy Publishing building, which stood at about at the heart of the vertical city.
‘Yeah, that’s best,’ said Madhu, ‘and I can go with him to do the heavier work. If the two of us take one Captura, that leaves the second one for…’
‘Me,’ Ravi volunteered. ‘I’ll take one of the devices, and since I have a helicopter, I can visit the not-so-near temples.’
‘Brilliant,’ said Anurag, drawing a larger circle around the top of the city. ‘You handle the north end then. It would take quite long to get to by road, otherwise.’
‘That leaves the south for Subro,’ Madhu noted. ‘Who accompanies him?’
‘Not me!’ Ravi immediately declared, then voiced his realisation in a softer tone, ‘Obviously, since I’m going the other way…’
‘I’ll go with him,’ Anurag remarked, ‘leaving you alone with Sharmila.’ He winked at Ravi.
‘Oh, not you too!’ Ravi complained. ‘I thought you were suspicious of her.’
Anurag shrugged. ‘I make the most of a situation.’
‘Well that’s settled then,’ Madhu said, taking her eyes off the map. ‘Now, let’s hope that this temple is actually within the city.’ She looked over Ravi’s shoulder, towards the entrance, as though she’d seen someone come in.
‘I’m hoping the search comes to fruition tomorrow itself,’ Anurag added. He too followed Madhu’s gaze and Ravi noticed the boy’s eyebrows jump at what he saw.
Ravi nodded. ‘All right then. Sounds good.’ He took the pen from Anurag’s hand and began to scribble down two names against each circle that had been drawn on the map, according to what had just been decided.
Subro arrived at the table in a flash, bringing his hands down on the surface.
‘RAVI!’ The artist practically barked at his friend. ‘What are you doing, man? You’ve ignored all your cues to turn around! What sort of a protagonist are you?’ He looked quite scary with the bandages covering his face.
‘God damn you, Subro,’ Ravi spoke through gritted teeth, ‘I’m not in the mood for your nonsense. Please be gone!’
‘Ugh,’ Subro groaned, ‘Trust me, you’ll be in the mood for this one. Just turn around, will you? Look who’s here!’
Ravi noticed Madhu was smirking by now. He pushed Subro away and finally turned to see what the deal was.
It was Sharmila. She was standing at the entrance. Ravi actually gulped as his eyes caught sight of her. Where she had seemed decent in her formals before, the two-piece traditional draping she now wore looked amazing on her. To add to that, she had let her hair loose and it flowed in volumes. A simple coat of makeup and the barest traces of silver jewellery accentuated these efforts, and needless to say, she had heads turning all around.
‘Okay, stop staring, man,’ Subro whispered urgently.
‘What, umm, no,’ Ravi mumbled, taken aback. ‘I’m not — not staring.’
‘Sure,’ said Subro funnily, drawing the word out. ‘Good thing she hasn’t noticed. Looks pretty nervous, though, doesn’t she?’
Ravi chanced another look. Indeed, her eyes were set on the floor, her shoulders were drooping, and she was clutching one fist in the other hand.
‘Why don’t you go make her feel welcome?’ Subro suggested nicely.
‘What — why me? This is your party, you go.’
‘Oh come on, I have so many guests to greet. You have to help me here. Besides, isn’t she your assistant?’
Ravi got up, but as he lifted his foot, Subro pulled him by the arm. ‘Just one thing; don’t be talking about work and stuff, okay?’
Before Ravi could come up with a reply, the painter let him go and stole his seat at the table. Ravi reluctantly straightened and marched on.
‘Hi,’ he greeted Sharmila when he got to her.
‘Oh, hi!’ she replied in a small voice with a soft smile.
‘Well, what’s up?’ he asked
‘Nothing. Just got here.’
She looked back to the floor.
‘Umm, so,’ Ravi said, trying to keep the silence from stretching on. ‘You’ve taken some effort to get ready, haven’t you?’
‘Oh, oh yes, umm, it was Subro! He came by before; chose my dress for me. Umm, is it too much?’
Ravi looked back at the table. Subro was darting glances his way from time to time. Ravi caught his eye and the painter winked at him. He turned back to Sharmila and she was looking at him worriedly.
‘What’s wrong? Oh — oh no, I think it’s okay,’ Ravi managed.
‘Er, you’re looking great, don’t worry about it.’ Ravi felt his heartbeat pick up as the words left his mouth.
‘O — okay,’ she responded softly.
There was another pause in the conversation.
Ravi looked back to the table. Subro had a ridiculously mischievous smirk on his face. With his eyes, the artist motioned towards a section of the hall. Ravi followed with his eyes and then shot a nervous glance back at Subro. The painter nodded and conspicuously gave him a thumbs-up.
Ravi cleared his throat as softly as he could. ‘So, umm,’ he began.
‘Would you like to grab a drink or something?’ In his mind he repeated, condescendingly, Or something?!
‘Oh,’ she said, then paused.
Ravi’s fists were so tight, it hurt. He fought the urge to kick something hard.
Then she added, ‘Yeah, okay.’
A relief took over him. He started walking, almost at once, to hide the smile that threatened to spread over his face. She followed.
Slowly, they moved towards the bar. On the way, he looked back to the table once more. Subro was still observing them. The artist made a motion with his elbow that Ravi understood to be a suggestion for offering his arm to Sharmila. Ravi chose to pass.
He and Sharmila arrived at the bar and sat themselves down on the high stools at the counter. Nobody had occupied the other seats yet, and the bartender himself was busy at the back arranging crates and boxes. The smell of juices in this area overpowered even the dominating aroma of the food from before.
‘Excuse me?’ Ravi called to the bartender.
‘Oh my,’ the man said, turning around. He wore a shiny white shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and a black bow-tie. ‘Customers already! How can I help you?’
‘Two beers please, mild.’ Then he asked Sharmila, ‘That’s alright, I hope?’
‘Sure,’ she nodded, ‘though I’d normally go for a strong.’
‘Oh, well, we do have the night. Or we can change your order?’
‘It’s fine, I’ll just drink it quicker,’ she laughed.
‘All right,’ he smiled.
They sat there, mostly silent, as the bartender grabbed them their drinks. Then, picking up their bottles, Ravi and Sharmila clinked them together, happily exclaiming ‘Cheers!’
Ravi took a sip, wondering what else to talk about. They had gotten through all the pleasantries, and Subro had warned him not to bring up work. What else is there?
He looked about the room. Perhaps I can comment about something?
‘Oh, Uncle Silver’s here!’ he noted. The man was entering through the doorway, an over-the-shoulder bag worn diagonally across his torso.
‘Hmm, yes,’ Sharmila said, then took another gulp from her bottle.
At this point, Uncle Silver noticed them. Ravi witnessed the rising amusement in the man’s eyes as he watched Ravi sitting alone with Sharmila at the bar. In a moment of embarrassment, Ravi did the first thing that his mind came up with — he invitingly waved at the man. Uncle Silver smiled and proceeded towards them.
Wait, why did I do that? Ravi thought.
Uncle Silver reached them in a bit, greeting them with his warm smile. ‘You young ones are having fun, I see.’
‘Sure,’ Ravi managed. ‘How about you? Are the Capturas coming along nicely?’ It was a deliberate distraction from the other topic, he was aware. He’d also brought up work, but that rule didn’t apply when chatting with the uncle, did it?
‘Indeed,’ the middle-aged man said. ‘I’ve finished one already.’ He patted the bag hanging from his shoulder. ‘There’s another to go, but I thought I should take a small break; meet and greet everyone.’
‘That’s great! Would you like a drink?’
‘Oh, no, no. I can’t hold my liquor as well as I used to, anymore, and I have work to finish. You two have fun, though. I’ll leave you alone.’ He beamed. ‘I brought this Captura for Subro; I’ll give it to him and get back to more building, I think.’
‘Okay, see you.’
Ravi watched Uncle Silver head back towards the table where Subro, Anurag and Madhu were seated.
Then a little snort distracted him. Turning around, Ravi found Sharmila smiling rather creepily. There were four empty bottles of beer before her. She looked at him and blinked several times. Then she picked up one of the bottles and hit it lightly on the counter, turning to the bartender and demanding ‘Another!’