The overnight bus skipped a little on regular intervals as it ran over the gaps in the flyover. For Puraj it was sign that the bus-station was another few minutes away. He woke up, groggy from a few hours of sleep on the uncomfortable seats of the bus. Anyway, 5 am is no time to be woken up. Being dumped with the luggage on the sidewalk, having to look for a local bus at that hour and then willing it on as it waited for sleepy forms to turn into passengers made it only worse. It was around the time when the eager summer sun was hastening up from behind the building that he finally made it to the flat he had shifted in a few months back. Dragging his luggage up the narrow flights he had to stop and make way for Mr Kumar who was walking down for his walk and a smoke that his wife wouldn’t allow him at home. He knew Mr Kumar, his next-door neighbour, from the name plate on the door. They had never spoken, a fact he had come to accept from big cities.
He fumbled with the keys for a while and then let the bag drop on the floor to find the slot on the lock with the protruding key. The door opposite creaked open, as if on cue. Not turning back, he could imagine Mrs Kumar filling up her dull days with everything happening around her, hoping someday some excitement will find its way into her life too. But the door behind him swung back and the soft click of the lock confirmed that for her there was nothing exciting about him returning any more. Earlier, the door would remain open just a crack, waiting to see if a girl had followed him from home or office. But like him, Mrs Kumar too had given up all hope.
Inside, the two-room flat painted a strange shade of yellow was stuffed with the stale air locked in for the last three days that he had spent breathing the fresh air of his home town on the foothills. He opened the other door that opened on the balcony as he shut the one that he had just entered in from. The other room was just four walls that opened to nothing, except the door that led to the small bathroom. Next, he flicked on the fan and dropped on the bed to catch an hour of sleep before heading out to work.
The bell must have been ringing for some time as it had the impatient continuity that comes only after the thumb that’s been pressing it has been working for longer than it wanted to. Once he got over the fear of having overslept, he knew it must be the newspaper man come to collect the last month’s bill. He opened the door, his hand already on the stray cash in his pocket. It was Mrs Kapoor. With a cup of tea in her hand.
“Here, he was telling me how tired you looked on the way up so I thought I’d get you some tea.”
“No, no! I am fine. I mean, I was about to leave anyway.”
“Like this! You look like you have just stepped out of your shoulder bag!”
Mrs Kumar had a nice laugh, it didn’t make you feel like she was making fun of you. She made you feel like you were both on the same side, laughing at something as innocent as an infant pulling its toes and gurgling when it wouldn’t come off.
“Here, and don’t bother washing up the cup. I will send Hoora to pick it up later.”
Hoora must be that young boy who worked at the Kumar’s. Initially he thought he lived with them, but figured out by piecing together the various encounters with him that he came in the morning and left in the evening and did whatever he was told. Mr Kumar ran a shop in the small market below, Mrs Kumar ran the kitchen for him and the school-going kid and there was enough work though there was nothing in particular.
As he shut the door with the cup in his hand, he remembered he hadn’t even thanked the lady. He thought he shouldn’t have that tea on account of that slip. But that would be silly, so he sat down, but at the edge of his bed, feeling like a guest in his own house, the cup making him feel like he was new to the surroundings. He sipped the over-sweetened syrup slowly and enjoyed the warmth of it even as the city geared up for another hot day.
The next time he opened the door after getting ready for work, he had his bag over his shoulder and the washed cup in his hand. Wondering if he was doing the right thing, he thought of ringing the bell, more to thank the lady than return the cup. But what if Hoora opened the door? So he went back to his flat, left the cup back on the table and rushed out locking the door behind him.
Once in the office, the air-conditioned environment and the company of friends took over and he soon forgot the tiring journey, the dull sadness of leaving home and the Kumars. It was another day at work, meetings and the rushed lunch and then plans for a late-night movie. It was generally the gang of these three bachelors who stayed away from their hometowns and had nothing to go back to. But today, Puraj refused. He made some excuse about the landlord dropping in to get the leaking bathroom tap fixed.
It was still light as he took the bus back home. But today he got off a kilometer before his stop. From here he walked on to the market on the way, walked from one shop to the other wondering what can go in a cup. Eventually, he went back to the candies wrapped in a floral plastic cover and took it to the cash counter. This was a safe bet, a gift that could be for Mrs Kapoor, or her daughter. From there to home, feeling the candies settle in against the pressure of his hand as he carried them home. Up the staircase and into his flat, he dumped his bag on the bed. He washed up, combed his hair and dropped the candy bag in the cup that stood where he had left it in the morning.
He was soon standing at the door with the Kapoors written in raised plastic letters on a plywood board. The cup and the candies in hand, he reached out for the bell. Finally, after all these months in the city, he had something to come back home to.