Face Off9 mins 395 9 mins 395
I got out of bed at 7 in the evening, the jet lag does that to me.
After turning on the side lamps,I called room service and asked them for some shaving foam.
The doorbell rang while I was staring at the ceiling.
“Will you be joining us for the carols, sir?” The Hotel Clerk asked while handing he the red and white container.
I told him I had other plans.
He nodded and took my leave.
“Same to you” I shut the door.
After tossing the invite on the bed I removed my T-shirt and splashed some hot water on my face.
The lime flavoured lather’s smell was similar to that of a soap I had briefly used during my childhood.
I tried to recall the name as I hummed the tune of a Christmas ad while shaving.
After I was done I wiped my face and put on fresh clothes.
From the closet, I fetched my bag and verified its contents.
A water bottle, My table tennis kit, A bottle of Gatorade, Spare clothes, A hand towel.
I flung it above my shoulders and gave myself a once over in the entrance mirror.
Then I removed my card from the power enabler on the wall.
The lights of the room went out behind me as I entered the hallway and made my way to the elevators.
The lobby area was decorated with Christmas trees having fake ice on their barks.
There were candies hanging from them.
I plucked 4 and walked out.
My Uber driver turned out to be an old man who didn’t talk much.
As a result of that, I spent the brief road trip gazing outside the car window, at the city I and Sonny grew up in.
"The day I spoke my first word, Gurgaon got its first mall" he'd often tell strangers.
"The day he celebrated his 6th birthday.." Sonny would point towards me "Gurgaon was declared the millennium city"
He was always good with words, my cousin.
This has always been his department.
You see as I made way to my uncle's farmhouse like I had been doing for the last eleven years now, there was only one person on my mind.
The only person whom I have genuinely hated in life.
And like it usually happens with mutual hatred, it bore a seed for rivalry.
No wonder we were always competing.
My scores were much higher than Sonny's throughout our school and college lives.
And even though he never said it, I knew it bothered him as much as his conversation skills bothered me.
No that's not entirely correct.
My scores bothered his father, and his father's concern bothered him.
And his street smartness bothered mine, who in turn bothered me.
And so it came to happen that our respective father's constant comparison of us to one another came to colour our perception towards our strengths and weaknesses.
My weakness wasn't being introverted.
My weakness was being Sonny's cousin brother
And his wasn't being an average student, it was being mine.
The car came to a halt in front of the farmhouse at around 8 pm.
I paytmed my fare to the driver and got out.
Sonny’s father had purchased the farmhouse in 2002 as an investment when Gurgaon’s real estate prices were at a rise.
However it eventually became the family’s holiday home and was never sold off.
In our school days we’d often spend our winter vacations here, Me and Sonny.
His father would come to pick me in his silver honda city with Sonny on the front seat and drop us here before going to office.
Here we'd fly kites, make paper planes, play video games and throw stones at the ducks inside the farmhouse pond.
Once, perhaps in the vacation of 2008, Sonny ended up killing one by accident.
He ranted for days after that as to how he'd be going to hell because of it.
“Hello sir” The guard called out, opening the gate.
I gave him a brief nod.
“Shall I get the keys?” He asked me
So Sonny hadn’t arrived yet.
“Yes please,” I said to him
He disappeared behind a cupboard and fetched them, wiped them with a wet cloth.
I walked through the unkempt lawn towards the entrance.
The lake had dried up around 2 years ago,
I don’t know what happened to the ducks.
The door to the farmhouse was jammed and took a while to open, after which I was greeted by a cloud of dust and pitch-black darkness.
I switched on the lights, keeping the door slightly ajar for Sonny.
The place didn’t look very different from the previous year.
Although the same couldn’t be said if you were to compare it with what it was a decade ago.
One of the few things that hadn’t changed was the red jukebox kept adjacent to the mini-fridge.
It was from the nineties and had come as a present at the wedding of Sonny’s parents.
After years of obselletion it didn't serve any purpose in their upscale establishment, hence was dumped here when the farmhouse was furnished.
With around 17 songs, most of them the ones I and Sonny grew up listening to,the jukebox held a sentimental value for us.
Once when Sonny had too much to drink he sat cross-legged in front of the jukebox and kept saying “Thank you” over and over again.
I went ahead and switched it on.
It took a while to come to life but when it did – "Golden Brown" by Stranglers started playing.
The ground floor of the farmhouse consisted of the living room,a kitchen and the french windows which opened to the lawn.
The staircase was right next to them.
On the first floor were the bedrooms and a verandah with a view of the Aravalis.
I and Sonny never paid much heed to it during our childhood days but as I grew older it became our second favourite spot of the house being the perfect place to smoke.
The second floor had a guest bedroom as well, and a study with just enough space in between as to fit an almirah.
This was the most sought after hiding place during games like dark room and hide and seek.
It was on one such occasion when I was hiding there along with one of Sonny’s female friends that I had my first kiss.
I walked past the study and sat in that very spot.
Right opposite the wall carrying a portrait of seven horses I tried to feel something.
But it was pointless.
I didn’t feel strongly about anything on the second floor.
Or for that matter even the ground and the first.
The same could not be said about the third floor of course.
The moment I open the door to the third floor of Sonny’s father’s farmhouse; a sense of obscene terror fills my heart.
A second later it feels like excitement.
Another second passes and it’s fear.
If personality is a habit of doing certain things in a certain manner, this was the place where we contradicted it.
I switched on the lights, then lifted the cloth off the TT table.
It stood there as if it had been waiting for me.
I ran my hand across its smooth surface.
As I did so, strange flashbacks came and went from the focal point of my mind like beggars on Delhi roads.
That time when Sonny lost and smashed his racket on the floor.
Or when I fractured my wrist after punching the wall.
When he scratched his face after losing a point and ended up with stitches on his right cheek.
When I tossed my racket down the terrace and screamed so loudly that I had a sore throat for weeks.
The visuals are endless.
And all equally aggressive.
But of all these the scariest one is that of Sonny’s laughter.
Whenever he'd win, which is usually the case - he drops his racket, faces the ceiling and laughs.
I'm the only person who has seen him laugh like that, with others he never laughed in a such a grotesque way.
And I swear the first time I saw him do that I thought I had seen the devil.
My phone rang, putting my train of thought to a halt.
It was my younger sister.
"Are you in India?" She asked me
"Who told you?"
"We got a call from the guard at the farmhouse"
"I was gonna drop in after I left from here" I said
"What are you doing at the farmhouse?"
"What I do here every year"
There was silence on the other line.
"Yeah" I said
"Sonny, who else?"
"Even after what happened in August?"
"How does that affect anything?"
There was silence on the other line.
I could hear the flicking of a lighter.
"I don't have time for your insanity" She declared in a calm voice "We all have given up on you, but Mom still misses you a bit, so drop by"
"I'll try," I said "but my return flight is scheduled for tomorrow morning so don't expect me to be there for long"
"Sure" she said and hung up.
I went on practicing my serve.
13th August 2018.
Sonny with his exemplary convincing skills had successfully built a reputation for himself as a doctor of stocks by that time.
It wasn’t like the investments he’d recommend would always show a profit.
But if he was the guy pitching the stock to someone, that person was at a 100% risk of believing so.
Unfortunately for Sonny, his way with words led him to believe them himself at one point.
And that day, when the stock of PYK Motors fell, along with it, fell Sonny.
From the 13th floor of the Global Foyer building in sector 42.
After I was satisfied with my spin I walked over to the French window and looked outside at the city.
It's a funny city - Gurgaon.
Not a spiritual retreat like the Himalayas, not a party animal either like Goa.
Not the next big thing like Pune, nor a decaying mess like Delhi.
Doesn't smell like the interior of a new car like Indore does, nor does it have an old-world charm like Calcutta.
Half of us are even confused about what our name is.
And in this confusion lies our introduction.
In our identity crisis, our identity.
Maybe that's why the same window which offers a view of the city also reflects back our own face to us.
Sonny never failed to romanticize this city.
Maybe that's why Gurgaon repaid the favour.
A lot of people, like my sister, won't get it.
They won't get it as to why I'm here or why the farmhouse door is open.
Dead people don't play table tennis, is what I'll be told.
But when two Male egos collide, concepts like life and death, body and soul, forms and dimensions, they stop mattering.
All that matters is who survived the collision.
And the collision will happen tonight like it has been happening for the last 9 years.
It will happen next year too, by the way.
And the year after that.
The universe will end, eventually.
But our Table Tennis matches would continue.
The song inside the music system has changed to Sonny's favourite one ; Gramatik's "Balkan Express".
Which is funny because the previous track had not ended before this begun.
And rightfully so, I can hear footsteps now.
Leading from the jukebox to the staircase.
Carefully climbing each step, one at a time.
They pause on the first floor.
Then on the second floor.
He'll be here any moment now, the person whom they belong to.
And this door knob reflected inside the French Window will twist.
Meanwhile, I'm hoping that there is a TT table in hell.
You see, I don't want lack of practice to be Sonny's excuse tonight.
When this time I drop the racket,
Face the ceiling,
Like the devil.