But he reached right on time at 4am.
The train was crowded and late. He wanted to sleep but the crowd kept increasing as did the noise. He remembered spreading in his berth to sleep and gradually the crowd swelled. He let someone sit near his feet and then there were a few more and he pulled his knees up to him to accommodate a few more women with kids in arms. He could only see the smudged human forms looming around and hovering above him from the occasional light that pierced the darkness swiftly.
The crowd had disappeared when he woke up. As if… the night never happened.
His luggage had disappeared with the crowd. Unperturbed, he sat on one of the benches of the station. He took an inventory of what he had on him. The crumpled shirt on his body, the trouser with a pocket that won't hold much, his wallet, and his phone which had 25 per cent charge. He switched it off. A shirt, a trouser, a wallet, dead weight of the phone till charged. He had lost so many things in the past month that it didn't really matter. He sat on the bench, he didn't think of anything. He had a mind and heart with him. The heart ached because it had a hole. The mind hit the fact like hammer incessant that he had a gaping hole scooped by time in his heart. So he sat silent listening to the heart and mind because he had no choice and he couldn't outrun these two last companions who derived a masochist pleasure in using his body as host and won't abandon him even if he begged.
His saw the toilet- male, toilet- female signboard. He walked to the male one. It stunk. He straightened his shirt, sought the comb in his back pocket. Lost again. He wet his hair and hand combed. He was recognizable, was still Mr. L, for the moment.
As he stepped out he could see the empty bar across the street. He crossed the road and stepped carefully over the man who was lying on the street, just at the side of the bar, like an abandoned soggy torn soft toy.. he had only one sandal on his foot, the other was not around. He wondered for a moment if he was alive. He walked a few steps towards the body with scrutinizing eyes and saw his belly rise. He was alive. Now he felt thirsty and was beginning to be hungry.
He stepped in and could not find a corner and sat under the light that fell on his hair and made deep lines on his face. He suddenly looked ominous and not so lost. As he waited....his hand involuntarily patted the air next to his seat, imagining a bag there. He missed his luggage now, he missed the weight of it on his shoulder and he had nothing else to watch over. He felt discomfortingly free. He ordered whiskey.
The girl was dark or the room was or the light was shinning too hard on him. She brushed against him while taking orders. He liked the human touch. He watched his skin goose bumping and looked back at her and all that he could see was the painted lips and a smile. Like a Cheshire cat. He laughed at the thought of cat. He remembered he had one not long back. Wondered where she roamed. When she delivered the order, neatly placing the glass before him he said, "I need a place to stay."
The lips puckered. Then went expressionless....then he saw it move "Take a hotel."
She made sense. He needed to find a hotel and that could be his place of stay. It sounded so simple and it never occurred to him. Then he wondered why he asked her when it is obvious. Did she think he was trying to start a conversation?
He ordered another peg just so that he could apologize. "I didn't mean to start a conversation. I genuinely needed a place to stay." He saw her lips. It was bored. He was not sure whether he at all said those words. He didn't want to drink anymore and the glass stood before him. The drops rolled down the sides of the glass, he drank because he didn't know what to do.
As he stepped out the sun was hitting his eyes, the sodden-guy was now pushed further aside and he was in deep sleep. He looked around him to take in the city he was in. He saw the billboard Hotel Better Home. He stumbled towards it. It was in the street next to the bar. It wasn't, the hoarding was. He kept walking and Better Home kept fading. He asked someone, "How can I find Better Home." The man looked at him and stepped aside, the face didn't look happy. He walked on and saw a bar across the street. He crossed the street and saw a dark girl standing outside the entrance. She had painted lips. On the other side was a man carelessly tossed on the ground. He was against the wall like a fixture. He went to the girl, "Where is the Better Home?" Her lips moved but it was not the answer he sought. Then he could see the stencil on the sky "Hotel Better Home." It was there where it should be. He took the street and walked to it. He booked a room in the hotel and after a quick shower he felt better, he dressed back in same shirt and trouser. He had a meeting for a job. He thought he would explain his sloppy dressing. After all he travelled all the way, lost his luggage and was still on time for the 11am interview; that was more important.
"Madam M is out for a meeting, once she is in she will meet you." "I had an 11am appointment." "Um, she left for a meeting, once she is in she will meet you."
He drank water from the common glasses kept in a corner. He saw buildings out of the glass walls, Square windows, round ventilators, the glass panes, the reflection of the street on the glass facade, the signs rolling on ad screen, he timed the ad for "furnishings" that rolled in every 15 seconds, the window cleaner dangling on the wall, rotating giants of the huge fans of ACs spoiling the smooth face of the wall. The business news floated and waved before him, waves of news. He became a fixture on the sofa. People appeared in and out of the door with cards around their neck, just as he had made one for his cat. With expressionless weary eyes, and laptop in hand, they cursorily examined him in the passing as he slipped from erect to flaccid on the sofa.
He forgot the time. Then the girl appeared and asked him to follow. He was seated in another room. He said "I had an appointment at 11am.
"Yes, once she is in she will meet you."
He scanned the room, the ceiling was perforated and the air cold. The walls were white, the door wooden, white again and then the wall and some more wall at his back. He could see nothing and he sat looking at the fingerprints on the glass table.
The door opened and he stood up eagerly to meet the Madam. The girl left a form for him to fill up. Name, father’s name, mother’s name, address, age, gender, religion, qualification, education, achievements, are you a leader, what are your negative traits, what are the positive traits, why we should hire you.
He wrote he is angry man then he crossed it out, but it was readable, he thought he won't be given the job, he made crosshatches to hide the word ANGER. He thought he wasn't angry man, he was called angry by those around him; he was mostly a calm person. Then he wrote about how stress panics him ...then he realized it is a negative trait though he meant due to panic attack he finished his task beforehand to avoid the stress. He had to find his way to deal with panic. He wasn't sure it was positive or negative. Struggling, almost to the tears trying to find what he is, he realized the paper had no space left to write. He was ceased with panic of how he will write the right things. There was no water in the room. He just looked at the paper, now full of scribbles and cuts. The first page was ok he explained to himself. The second...he felt he won't get the job anymore. He sat looking at the paper, still trying to think of his achievements, his negative traits, his positive traits...he remembered the fights he had, when he had pushed the friend into the river because he won't let him use his new pen in classroom and he was beaten up for that and he was called criminal by his parents, he had organized a picnic when he was a kid, he was a leader his mother had said, he needed to be social, the doctor had said, you are a liar, shame on you, his colleague proclaimed, he was a pervert, the wife said, the girlfriend said he was rich, the woman in train said he was kind and the cat loved him or may be does even now. And then he saw the row with "References". He was stunned. Who could refer him? The bar girl knew he had two pegs of whiskey. And the guy in the toilet who collected money for letting you pee, the manager of Hotel Better Home. What reference does he give? He figured out it had to be parents. He left the name of his mother and father and waited for the girl. He was hungry, he wondered about the time. He slowly stepped out of the door, the girl was laughing with some more people, he could see the lipstick on her teeth, on seeing him she came to him and said strongly, "You are to wait inside, madam has gone for lunch. She will meet you once she is free. Have you filled the form?" He fell back into the room that quarantined him, a bit scared. He passed the form reluctantly and she took it and left. He wanted to say he was thirsty. Almost pushed back to his chair by invisible hands, he counted the holes in the perforated ceiling and he could not count beyond 50, his eyes closed.
The door opened and he could see the light on his eyes and he remembered the operation theatre when he was anesthetized. The girl said, "Madam is going to be busy today. Can you come tomorrow?" He was on his foot alert, trying to prove he didn't sleep and mumbled, "My appointment was at 11am."
She had left by then. Or maybe he never said it.
He saw his filled form on the file cover tossed on top with other papers on the desk of the girl.
"What time do I come tomorrow, 11am?" he thought he should ask, she didn't hear or he never asked because he left without a reply.
He reached his hotel, hungry and looked for the key in the pocket. His hand met the hole that was at the bottom. He remembered he had left the key at the reception. "Could you please give me the key?”. "Which room, Sir?" He went blank. He didn't see the room number. ''I do not know". “How can I give you the key if you aren't a guest? We can book one for you." He insisted he had made entries in the register and had even paid some advance. "I came in the morning.” The man was in a suit and spoke very softly from behind the high desk. He strained to hear. "Can you give me the time…Sir?" "I was to meet for an interview at 11, so I came before that." "Do you have the receipt?" he asked while making a call to someone and looked disinterested. He dug his hand in the pocket for the receipt and met the friendly hole. He took his wallet out. The railway credit card, the ID cards, the bill of laundry, the bill of the credit card, the bar bill, the railway ticket…he re-searched the papers – the railway ticket of Rs 1,000, the bar bill of Rs 2,000, the bill of the credit card amounting Rs 30,000, the bill of laundry of Rs 250 for the coat he never picked up, the voter ID when he looked young, the ID card with his mugshot, the railway credit card with a happy family boarding a train and a folded paper. He opened the paper and it was the letter. He started reading it ..it ended with "forever yours, with love". He wanted to sleep. That reminded him of the receipt, he looked up, the desk was empty. There was no one. The lobby was empty and dimly lit.
He waited on empty corridors and empty high desk…he looked at all the keys hanging at the counter from room number 001 to 136. He wondered why it ended at awkward 136.It made him uncomfortable. He tried to remember his number. He waited till his legs ached.
He felt his hunger screaming in him. He remembered the bar across the street. He stepped out of the hotel and looked across the street. There was no bar. There was dust and smoke and fire. There were water jets and police in black uniform with masks, gesticulating in all directions like branches in storm. There was a yellow bulldozer parked somewhere with giant teeth and face bowed, almost embarrassed and apologetic for the massacre it created. He and it shared a brief moment of empathy for each other and he felt better.
There were people scattered on the street hunched, slumped, spread like soggy torn soft toys, one pair of shoe missing, there were women with veils over the face and eyes wide squatting on street, there were steel utensils shinning, there the dish antenna looked like a plate to eat, the fridge laid on its back gaping at the sky, there were colorful clothes twined between the bricks making abstract canvases.
There was a bed on the street and a sofa, he wanted to sleep.
He could hear the faint sound of the train far faraway. And through the smoke he spotted "Hotel Better Home" swaying in the horizon.
He started walking to it.