The wide road that ran past the row of shops faded into strange towns and places that Bhiru never wanted to know of, or visit. He was often told of the many mesmerising things that happened there. Or people and sights and acts like the travelling circuses and the cinemas. People who stopped by from both sides of the roads would compete with each other on which side was better. If the posters on the cinema were brighter and bigger on this side because of the halls and their walls being better lit, the many roadside carts that sold the local spread of Jikhri — the sweet and salty dish served in paper cones — was said to be better on the other. There were always opinions and viewpoints and personal favourites and events and memories and experiences that were layered onto the reality of the places and the stories served with relish and some amount of debate. But finally, all these stories converged on this place, that lay in the middle of the two places, far enough to stay hidden from the shops and its seekers of mind altering substances that came in all states — solid, liquid, and gas. And yet, this place was close enough to both the ends to allow for a quick ride over on motorcycles that people shared in twos, threes, and even fours. Especially on their way back. When the thought of having to enter their homes, explain their states, hand over the moneys they may still have on them, and find a way to get to sleep without others coming in the way.
Bhiru, having served all these people for so many years, knew their stories to be a lie. There may have been some truth in all of the stories, or at least in a few of the stories. But finally, as he would tell his ever-changing apprentices who always fell for the lure of the towns and run away, they all came here to escape whatever it was that they were hiding. From him, from each other, from themselves. And when they under the influence, they all had other stories to tell. Stories that ran amok once the senses that had been guarding them were put to sleep. In between their pleadings to let them have another one on credit, or their shouting at him for having cheated them by measuring out less than they had paid for, or between their arguments and murmurings of understanding each other, they would blurt out things that really made their lives. Their struggles with their work, their position in their own homes, their fear of the next day, and for some, of the night that they had to return to. Some cried because of the work they had to go back to, some because they didn’t have work to go back to. Some would speak of wives or girlfriends or the lack of either. Some of having lost their parents, while others because they hadn’t yet. They all had debts, or if they didn’t, they weren’t happy about it. Rather, they would speak of wanting to take some and pay for things they had wanted to do. Which also featured coming here and spending their nights and days under these clouds of forgetfulness.
Why would Bhiru ever want to leave this place, this place that gave shelter to those who were let out of their cages for a short while? He had learnt over the years to judge a place’s worth by seeing what brought people there. The need to earn money took them to work, or to the pawnshop — which to him were both same, in one you gave your valuables, in the other your time. The demand from families took you back home. The inability to find love took some to brothels. But here, Bhiru would tell his apprentices just as he saw them itching to make a getaway, here they came on their own. They found time, money, company, even space on the rear seats of motorcycles that didn’t have any to spare. All so they could spend their free moments here. He knew he was talking in vain. They would run away. Young, full of dreams, riding on optimism. They would all go to one of those towns to live the lives the visitors spoke of before they started ordering and settling in. And then some of them — those who survived long enough — would return here as paying customers. With their own stories, and then the real stories. Only Bhiru would stay here. He had seen all he had wanted to see, without leaving the place. For what he thought was pure chance that had brought him here as a young boy who had run away from home and had started working in one of these notorious joints when the cities on the two ends were merely towns and the people who stopped by were mostly truck drivers on long-distance journeys. And he had already found the perfect place that everyone escaped to. The place that got the real stories out of people. The place that gave a few moments of truth and freedom to all who came here. He had too. And over the years, he had forgotten his own story. Leaving him with only the ones that others had to tell. But who was he going to tell these to? The people who had spoken of these didn’t want to hear when they were in their senses. They had other lies to tell. All he had to do was to listen. And each story would put another brick in the wall that he was building around himself. Building for himself a corner in which he was glad to be in. He did leave some windows open, some slits from which these voices came in, telling him that he was where he should be. He was where everyone would rather be. But the chains would start pulling soon and they would be gone. To look at those lights and sights and relationships and events and experiences that they could use to build their own lies with.
Only Bhiru knew that. The others, when they were telling one story, they didn’t know that they had another to tell.