Air bubbles explode inside the water cooler, jolting him out of castles he built in the air. At 9 pm, the office is ghost-quiet except for the overworked air conditioner struggling to live up to its 3-star reputation. On his laptop screen, a newsletter email draft lies unfinished. “Who the hell is going to read this?” he whimpers, scratching his forehead. He makes an attempt to change the headings and design elements, but he knows that they will get him to adhere to the brand guidelines. An ‘electronic focus’ playlist plays in his headphones, but in vain.
The desk chair squeals after every sentence he types. Accepting his indifference, he copy-pastes text from a used draft. Sends it in. And bangs the laptop shut. He packs up and goes to the pantry for a protein bar, which would be the one thing that made him glad about his daily fiber intake. Unfortunately, someone has had his share of fiber. When will they start respecting labels here? He stomps out, hoping to grab a chicken roll in time before the eatery closes. He waves a labored goodbye to his senior colleagues who have made themselves at home on their desks.
“I need to get out of this place,” he remembers whining to Salina this afternoon. The office becomes a tolerable place in her presence. A gentle pat on the shoulder followed by cheery morning wishes from her is a remedy for facing the monotonous day. He admired that they didn’t need small talk to have a conversation. ‘How are you doing? How’s it going? How was your weekend?’, none of that crap. “You need to take a break,” she reminds him every day as she brings two cups of coffee, and they head out for a walk.
She talks about how she’d rather be on a beach, go for a trek or play the piano at a café than be here. She reveals a little more about how she ended up in this place each day. The scanty shocks that sprout up when their hands brush against each other validate his futile existence. Walking with Salina on blazing concrete around the corporate neighborhood is the highlight of his day. “If only I could walk with her forever…” Since he is learning to lower expectations these days, he promptly puts an end to his wishful thinking. Asking her out would be a swift ax to a treasured friendship, he assumes. Why are they stuck together in the same place, escaping their stale present while coping with their distressful pasts?
Trap songs about money, drugs, and bitches play in his earphones as he shoulders through a huddle of white collars on the pavement. “I could use a smoke. It’s been a long day,” he assures himself, avoiding the gaze of the loosie seller on the corner. “No, not again. Can’t give in every other day.” He acknowledges the loosie seller with a faint smile and hurries past him.
Through the cuboid canyons of skyscrapers and shopping malls larger than factories, he walks in compliance with his navy blue formal attire whenever the glass panes reflect him. The retina-burning halogens on billboards illuminate the poker-faced barbie models of elite fashion brands. Dating apps and condoms have replaced advertising spaces once reserved for chips, biscuits, and sodas. ATMs outnumber dustbins at every corner.
He crosses the road and heads under the overpass where lost vehicles and forgotten people sleep, wrapped in the dust. The other side of the town fades in and engulfs him in its chaos. The pallor of the chawls in juxtaposition with the warm hues of hawker stalls develops into an eerie ambiance of despair. Yellow tungsten bulbs dangle inside stores, and the odor of overused cooking oil lingers. Dirt and sweat clothe everyone here, and one cannot tell the immigrants apart from the natives. He notices the miniature temple built below an enormous and friendless banyan tree. Islamic prayers echo above the never-ending urban noise. The people here, albeit their misery, have time for God. They make the food that gets delivered to the offices on the other side of the overpass. The masses help each other survive, and the classes remain in check.
The chicken roll eatery being on this side of town does put its hygiene standards in question. But it’s something he looks forward to after an awful day at work. When it comes to street food, ignorance is bliss.
He glances at his watch to calculate the hours of sleep he will be getting tonight. The lack of it doesn’t surprise him anymore. Once home, getting ready for bed is another strenuous routine.
That reminds him of the discussion the guys were having in the smoking-room this morning: deepfakes, which, in a matter of minutes, became a gabble about deepfake porn. As immoral as it sounds, it piqued his interest. Maybe he will check it out tonight; another attempt to spice up jerking off to sleep every night. Which hasn’t been great either because every time he achieves the point of sweet release, his ex-girlfriend’s face pops up in his head. And she happens to be getting hideous with each passing day. He doesn’t remember her being repulsive, or he didn’t realize it then. “Good riddance, I guess?”
At this late hour, the eatery has a dense, diverse crowd upfront. The eatery owner, a stout, middle-aged man, welcomes him with a familiar smile. The owner hands him a menu card with its laminated corners crumpled up. He pretends to go through it, then orders a chicken roll with cheese and chilies, pays the owner, and steps away from the booth.
A friend from university who gives company for dinner is conveniently absent when smoking weed isn’t involved. Fuck fake friends, sure. However, getting stoned by yourself suggests that you have a problem. He checks his cellphone: no new notifications or messages. “I wish I could just quit tonight and disappear.” What will he do after leaving his job? He doesn’t know that yet. He plans to paint every weekend. Years of delaying and hesitation later, he is now oblivious to the liberating sentiment of creating art.
A furry waggle against his shin startles him; a ginger-spotted cat marks its territory. When he decides to take in the scenery around him, the eatery owner going about his business intrigues him. The owner addresses his work with impressive gusto, makes a lasting impression on customers, introduces new flavors to the menu, manages his kitchen without a slip in quality. In a way, they both share the same job: marketing. Except, the owner has an immense passion for his work.
A server calls out his name, and he proceeds to grab his roll. He takes out a decent piece of meat and tosses it to the cat; it meows back with gratitude. A deep inhale, a huge bite, and – an explosion of flavors. The soft, grilled flatbread crumbles as the blended sauces flood his taste buds. The cool veggies bring the extra crunch, the chilies and cheese tickle the roof of his mouth. The zesty, peppery, slow-cooked chicken with all its juicy tenderness melts in, filling his parched soul. Worth every penny spent, another terrible day saved.
In her overbleached nightgown, a middle-aged woman emerges from the back of the booth. She places her cellphone over the owner’s ear. She must be his wife. The owner expresses annoyance for being disturbed from his work, but the voice on the other end gets his attention. The owner’s wife rests her hand on his shoulder as his face loses its color. Maintaining his composure, the owner gestures to the jumpy customers to excuse him.
“Oh…What stage is it?… What did the doctor say?… Don’t worry; everything will be fine. I’ll be there soon.”
The owner and his wife share a brief gaze, eyes filled with sanguine hope. The kitchen comes to a halt, and the assistants stare at their boss with concern.
“It’s my sister,” the owner answers, “She’s diagnosed with cancer, pancreatic.”
Before he can gauge their reactions, the owner turns to his wife, nods at her, and leaves the booth. The owner’s wife takes over, gets the kitchen up and running, and attends to the swarm of customers with the same commitment.
Having eavesdropped on their private conversation, he stands appalled, and his self-centered musings come to a pause. At that moment, his life shrinks down to a freckle in time. Why does fate strike its rusted sword and inflict irreparable wounds on us all? His appetite vanishes, and he gives the leftover bits to the cat. Does being at that place, time, and listening in on their conversation mean anything for him?
A heartfelt impulse ignites, which propels him towards the booth. He scans the QR code sticker of a payment app and transfers a few thousand bucks. Before the owner’s wife figures out the unusual transaction, he disappears into the throng heading towards the train station.
When the rush of spontaneous action fades away, he understands that his well-intended offering won’t be a notable contribution. But it was worth having this occasional feeling of contentment. This disease had robbed him of his aunt and wrecked the lives of quite a few of his friends. The people living in these chawls, how do they handle being diagnosed with cancer? Despite their chances of survival, one foot’s always in the grave without the necessary funds and healthcare.
He walks on a narrow and sludge ridden alleyway, surrounded by a sequence of putrefied wooden planks, cobalt-blue aluminum sheets, and chipped brick walls. He turns around for a peek; there is no horizon, but more people, more vehicles, and a curtain of concrete elevations. Above this cityscape, however, the ethereal moon shimmers in the inky skies. Pleased about catching its glimpse, he looks forward to appreciating it some night.
Reaching the train station, he collapses on the first bench he finds. “I can’t believe I’m panting like a bitch from that walk.” The dreadful realization of your health slipping out of control. He recalls his university days of admirable stamina, appetite, and libido. Aware of their absence now, he rubs his eyes. A long weary sigh. Followed by a blaring horn, the train whooshes by the platform; the gust cools the sweat off from the eager commuters. He trots towards a first-class compartment and hops in.
In the compartment, men play cards and mobile games, eat rice puffs, sleep like invertebrates, and watch raunchy movies on their phones. Amidst them, he sits pondering over the events of the day against the railroad noise. “There isn’t enough luck for everyone out here.” The train seems full of mindless zombies, existing in their constricted, conformed lifestyles, innocently diverted from their realities. Drooping heads, slouching shoulders, and protruding bellies. But who’s he to judge, for he belongs to the same spectrum of the living dead. Alas, a self-aware zombie doesn’t cease to be an abomination.
An automated voice announces his destination over corroded speakers. He gets down at a deserted platform; the indicator for visually impaired passengers beeps with an unsettling tempo. As he heads home, chirping crickets and dogs howling afar welcome him. The air here is crisp, with trees arching above him. Streetlights make dainty amber halos, and he walks under them ruminating over the absurdities of his life. A quarter of his presumed lifespan has passed by him with nothing to show for it. If he dies tonight, who would care to attend his funeral, and who would miss him years later?
The error of his ways begins to froth his spirit. Why does he sabotage the chances of getting his shit together by procrastinating? Why does he give in to distractions instead of getting better at things that matter? Why does he fail to check up on his loved ones until it’s too late? Why does he spend money on stuff he doesn’t need? Why does he comply with peoples’ opinions who don’t have their own lives figured out? Why does he fall into relationships only to become desperate to end them? And expect them to solve all his problems and fix him? Why doesn’t he realize valuable lessons right away and avoid this perpetual regret?
Why don’t epiphanies occur when you need them?
Keys turn a rusted door lock open, and he steps into his studio apartment. He drops his laptop bag and sinks into the sofa. His house appears to be what a failed minimalist would have, but there’s some niceness about it. He stretches his swollen toes that pop out of socks’ holes. While he garners the strength to shower and call it a day, his eyes land on a puffed-up spot on the ceiling. The longer he stares at it, a crack in the paint becomes visible to him.
He stands engulfed by steam as the warm water hits his body and rejuvenates him. Newfound courage courses through his veins to break out of this self-built prison and get back on track. He must live on his own terms. Life is about the choices we make, and hence he’s going to make the right ones from now onwards.
He opens up his laptop and emails a sick leave, the well-deserved break he needs. “I should draft my resignation letter as well…Maybe too soon for that. Better to wait for a few months’ worth of paychecks.”
And now, to end this night on a high note, he’s going back to his calling. His passion. His art. A wide drawer hoards brushes, palettes, paint tubes and bottles, canvases, and other tools wrapped in plastic with cobwebs surrounding them. Taking them out, he dusts them and assembles the set up in a nook. He adjusts the lighting of the room to his desire. He takes a seat in front of the canvas, his fingers tingling with hope. His prowess is coming back to him.
It’s a new beginning. What will he paint tonight? Should he paint something that pays homage to the surrealists that inspired him? Or pour out his emotions through colors to create an abstract composition? Or should he focus on forms using a monochromatic color scheme? There are plenty of options. A little too many.
The fatigue of a long day starts kicking in. An empty canvas is intimidating; his anticipatory anxiety magnifies. Legs bounce with unease. A fluttering heart; sweat cascading inside his nightwear. “This looks harder than I thought.” If only there were a way to calm his nerves down.
Memory serves to be a curse when he remembers – deepfake porn. Like a moth to a flame, he grabs his cellphone and advances to the bedroom. Smack! A frail hand clasps his neck from behind and holds him down. Slender arms reveal a pale, sickly woman; struggling to hold herself up on the floor. Her sapped eyes mirror what once used to be her alluring figure. “Resist, you fucker!” she wails, clawing into him.
It’s been quite a while since she showed up. She is his muse. They used to be at one with each other as she guided him through chaos and nurtured his gifts with innocence. Her breathtaking charm inspired works of art. She was an embodiment of his creative expression and ambition.
He can’t stand watching her starved to the brink of death. It’s a lost cause. With no effort, he shakes her arm off of him and leaves the room for his frivolities. Her bones crack as she drops to the floor. Blood trickles out of her nose.
Minutes turn into hours. Unrequited, she waits. Silvery hair soaked in blood, her chest wheezing.
She rests in peace, at last. Her existence dissipates from the room. The paints remain caked, and the canvas lies barren.
A momentary relapse for gratification foreshadows his continual turmoil, and another ‘could have been’ artist bites the dust.