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"At the party, and after...." by Sunil Sharma
They had invited him for the party and then totally forgotten about him.
Now, that is perfectly possible--- you may argue--- in any crowded party. The busy hosts may
fail to personally attend or acknowledge every guest for long, in the melee. But what, if it is done
This is a thing that poor Banbari Lal or BL wanted to ask his rushed hosts and the outside world.
Sadly, nobody was interested in replying to this basic question by the lowly government clerk
attending the birthday bash in Versova, Mumbai: Why to make somebody invisible?
In fact, nobody was interested in the short, slim, bespectacled balding man in his late 40s. He---
the powerful clerk in the education department of the government at Fort, Mumbai, the one who
will keep senior college principals waiting at his cluttered desk in the shabby office for hours as
a way of revengeful authority--- was here reduced to a mere wallflower only…and, for more than
Then it started. Innocently. Quietly.
After waiting to be noticed by the busy hosts in their resplendent ethnic wear, BL--- as he is
known in his government office--- got up suddenly and dashed into a young liveried server
carrying drinks and fries. The overloaded tray of bone china toppled over and the drinks in fine-
cut crystal wine glasses spilled over and the golden fries flew and scattered like the wind-driven
golden leaves of autumnal trees on a deserted avenue of a suburban French town or the Parisian
boulevard, on a gloomy wind-swept evening.
The turmoil caused unwittingly by this poor specimen of humankind attracted the attention of the
gossiping well-dressed party goers in the ballroom, who smirked at the sight of a balding man
dressed in a striped cotton shirt and black trousers and wearing cheap shoes, an oddity among the
designer suits and party wear. This sudden attention further added to the deep agitation of BL,
born painfully shy and diffident. Public places and high society made him miserable. Their
attention and smirking faces worsened his condition.
And he began shaking violently. Like a trembling leaf in a strong wind.
Those familiar with him know that he has this strange habit of a Dostoevsky character of
trembling uncontrollably, whenever in confusion or extreme nervousness. This trait will be
triggered in a strange setting or alien company, especially in wealthy settings. This caused
further embarrassment to the denied BL and further aggravated his physical condition. And as
ninety-nine percent of the attendees did not know him, they paused to take a longer, harder look
at the trembling man and smiled. This combo of withering looks and smiles reduced him to
pathetic tears. He fled from the scene and bolted himself in the loo.
That itself was herculean task. He had to negotiate the small passage to reach the loo by carefully
walking the narrow corridor filled with empty bottles and stained cutlery and piles of crushed
cups and plastic glasses and stained plates with yellow-red colored leftovers of the meals and the
dirty crumpled napkins. He lightly hopped, ran and jumped over the assorted heaps of party trash
and found himself locked in a small loo, much to his eminent relief. And stood there, doing
nothing for full ten minutes, hoping for the din to die down a natural death. His longer detention
was also caused, inadvertently, by the presence of two ladies outside the loo, smoking and
chattering in a loud drunken chorus.
“Throw away these bangles,” the first voice, highly pitched, said.
“And you throw away these ear-rings. After wearing five times, you ought not to wear them,”
advised the second voice, light-pitched.
“I will. But you are wearing the floral top for the third time in one month. And the pink slippers
for the fourth time,” said the high-pitch.
“Yes. They are my fav combo,” said the light-pitched.
The first one laughed. “In throwaway societies, nothing is constant or favourite. You just throw
things out after few uses. Otherwise, people will think you are a miser, a dodo in an i-Pod-fixated
society. Ha-ha-ha-ha.” The laughter grated his tiny thumping heart in the locked-in loo.
The second one responded viciously, “Right, Ms Convivial. That is why you go on changing
your boy-friends like tissue papers on a hot humid day in Mumbai.”
Ms Convivial laughed. “Yeah. I change them fast---as they change theirs. But, please, do not tell
my loving businessman husband who loves his whores and whisky more than his legally-wedded
wife. He will die of shock.”
“And, if I do?”
“No problem. I will tell your pot-bellied man in Dubai you are tossing daily in bed with his best
friend, while he is busy collecting petro-dollars there for the family. That will be fun watching
his reactions during the video-conferencing from my home. The truth will kill that miser
buffoon. Ha, ha-ha.”
“SHSHSH! Keep your voice low. Somebody might hear. Our happily- married facades will
crumble. Let us go inside and enjoy. Male predators are waiting for us.”
“Yeah. I saw that middle-aged fat businessman ogling at you. He is stinking rich. Go, hunt him
as your next query. Milk him. He is already unhappy with his wife.”
“You are a motor mouth. If somebody was listening in on us?”
Someone, indeed, was listening in.
“Oh! In the loo! Always suspicious. Caring for your public image of a simple, dutiful, modest,
virtuous woman. Ha ha ha!”
They both laughed loud. BL was surprised by the boldness and deception in the Indian marriage.
Then, the merry duo left.
As he cautiously opened the doors of the loo, BL saw two thin servers with loads of cutlery
coming down the narrow passage. He immediately closed the doors. Another panic attack! The
extremely shy man---more so due to his stammering habit---heard the approaching steps and the
“Bastards! These rich waste so much of food!” exclaimed the baritone. “They must be punished.
This food they throw away can feed one entire slum in Dharavi.”
“Right. The same food can feed an Asian slum anywhere. These guys have no sense of shame.
Wasting a lot. The same food should be recycled and fed to them,” answered the bass.
“Wastage is their way of showing off. The bastards are interested in drinks and skirts only. The
“They should be taxed for wasting this much of food.”
They paused and then lit up. The smell could reach the imprisoned person inside the loo.
“I want to get rich quick. How can I become one?” asked the bass.
“Murder your rich uncle. He has got diamonds stored in his almirah.”
“How do you know?”
“I have seen him stashing those diamonds inside his almirah.”
“He is my uncle. Blood relation. Brought me here to Mumbai from my village. I cannot betray
him who has housed me and fed me so long.”
“You are an idiot. You can never be rich. The rich do not believe in sentimental ties, family,
values. They are brutal. They chase money. Everything else is shit. They do not go by heart.
They go by the killing instinct,” said the baritone authoritatively.
BL just shrank inside his skin: First, deception, now a murder plan of a relative and benefactor
by a greedy unethical man!
“OK. Then kidnap the old man.”
“Then forget the whole thing and rot in this city for rest of your life serving these drunken
bandits and their fat dolls.”
“Naw. Very happy.”
“Give me another plan.”
“Then kidnap the caterer’s son.”
“OK. I will give it a thought.”
“Kidnapping is simple. No blood. Only ransom. Good urban business. Kidnap the person.
Demand money. Big money. Negotiate. Strike a deal. Deliver. Disappear fast.”
“You make it sound so simple and classic Bollywood!”
“Yes. Hollywood or Bollywood. It is simple.”
“I do not think so.”
“You are a coward. A dreamer. Will not get rich in life.”
“Simply because you refuse to take risks. Both murder and kidnapping are modern businesses.
Take risk. Get paid. That is all.”
“If cops catch us?”
“Then get shot and die…” The baritone laughed out loud and clear. BK’s heart missed out a beat.
He is an accomplice now.
“I do not want to die young.” The bass said.
“You are already dead.”
“The poor are the non-living species everywhere in the world. They are the dead people.”
“Sometimes you sound crazy to me…”
“All discontented, disaffected are crazy.”
“Now, you sound like a philosopher.”
“Do not insult me.”
“OK. Let us get moving. Have to serve these bastards. Come on, move your ass.”
They were gone.
The next sixty seconds were crucial. BL sped out of the closet and simply flew out of the
crowded party- room into the hotel’s main lobby. Unnoticed, he slipped out of the marble lobby
and hit the Mumbai road, a much relieved man. Affluence oppressed him. It made him feel
small, insignificant and fatalist. Also inferior. His stammer always increased in the rich
company. That is why he stuck to his own familiar milieu. The clerks with ordinary dreams and
uneventful lives. The long commutes on the overflowing local trains, in the company of his
group of regular commuters, were his social outings. Standing on his swollen feet and then
sharing a few inches of hard-wood seats, the commuters will shred the world to pieces.
Birthdays, marriage anniversaries, promotions and weddings will be celebrated in the diversified,
multi-lingual, multi-regional group of middle-income, suburban commuters travelling second
class in most inhuman conditions but never complaining. They bore it all patiently. With a wide
grin. Complaints never helped in that hot humid climate. Travelers had made peace with their
gods. Living in cramped places and earning two meals for their families was enough. You cannot
fight the callous system. So, be a part. They talked to their gods, prayed on the way, played
cards, fought with other groups occasionally and then, made peace. Typical Indian metro life!
You survived to live another day in most horrible conditions but there was no choice to living.
Was it there? Bomb attacks, flooding, train-blasts in Mumbai, heavy pollution, rude cabbies,
murders and bursting buses, locals and auto-rickshaws, crumbling cities of the suburbs, well,
nothing could force any one to jump off from a train into the creek or from the sea wall into the
sea. People existed. That was all.
BK was back into his familiar world. That of a crowded local train. And happy. He had just
escaped from hell. Here he belonged to his own world of the denied. Folks like him. He felt
relaxed. It was night. The city glittered in the soft rain of September. Being a Saturday night, the
rush was less. The fast local was rattling down.
The dancing couples; the overweight men, women and kids greedily attacking chicken tikkas and
paneer at the food counter; the men drinking hurriedly; the DJ playing a number in the
background came back to him again. Good riddance!
Then his cell rang. His wife was on line.
“How was the party?” She asked in a garrulous tone.
“Good.” He said, not in a mood to talk in a crowded train compartment.
“How was your elder sister?”
“Did she talk to you?”
“Yes, very much.” The sadness of this ironic tone was obvious.
“Had your dinner?”
“Why?” She screamed. He thought others might have heard that shrill scream.
“You are silly. You go there to your sister’s grandson’s birthday bash in a leading five-star hotel
and do not eat anything, what does it mean?” she said angrily.
“That I am an idiot. A stupid guy. Yes, I am. Yes, I go there in a five-star hotel to attend my
sister’s grandson’s sixth-year birthday bash and refuse to eat, simply because I feel unwanted
there in that rich successful company. I do not feel like eating there. I am unwanted. Everywhere.
In my home by you and my kids. In my family, by my brothers and sisters. In my office. In my
neighborhood.”He said angrily. Then, BL realized his wife had aborted the call. He was just
talking into a dead machine. He became frustrated and irritated. This wife of last twenty-two
years now finds him ugly and boring. Once she had blurted out, “You smell like a municipal
gutter! All choked up and obnoxious.” The sentence, delivered during a regular fight, devastated
his fragile self-esteem. He shriveled more inside his dark skin, saying nothing. What can you say
to a wife who is fixated on the image of a film star as a handsome un-ageing hunk in a media
society where images count more than living persons? He knew he was trapped inside a hopeless
social situation. A situation from which he could not wriggle out, despite his best efforts. In fact,
he felt he was neither inside nor outside. He did not belong. On many occasions, during social
gatherings, parties, outings, power lunches in the office, BL had felt a permanent outsider. He
had felt more desperate than the waiters living on the edge of a new emerging Indian society
where money was being worshipped, displacing old moral values. Guys like me are caught in
this flux. On such occasions where new money was mobilized to make an already- small man
like him feel smaller, BL had wanted to take up a machine gun and kill all the filthy rich. But he
knew this was plain impossible. You cannot kill the entire tribe of the rich. It was a heartless
system, a wall. You cannot demolish that wall by banging your head. The poor were getting
poorer; the rich, richer. He belonged to the first category. On his own, he could not change the
system. Nobody can. You need others to do that. But, he knew by his readings of history and
sociology, the clever system had separated fellow strugglers and made them all small, isolated,
fatalist, resigned and helpless. All the collectives were gone in the post-90s of the liberal India.
His senior colleague was suspended last year and union could not do much. The poor guy filed a
case in the tribunal that is still going on. BL knew that the system was meant to dominate and de-
radicalize the human spirit appalled by the injustice and inhumanity of an unequal system
promoting disparities and hatreds among working people. They want to kill the solidarity among
the struggling people. And reduce these sensitive folks to intense baser desires for food, drugs,
alcohol and sex.
After getting down at his small railroad station on the western suburban line, BL felt relieved.
As the insulted and humiliated man hit the dark road to his tiny home in a high-rise, he heard the
familiar violin being played by the blind violinist on the corner of the dark road. As the roads
were always dark due to long power cuts and not safe, commuters walked in groups or travelled
in share-a-rickshaw. He often walked alone. The short distance was walkable. He had often
heard the violinist and seen him in his hurry. To-night, he noticed him.
The blind street violinist was old, decrepit, graying fast at the ears. The eyes were sunk. The
cheek bones stood out in a gaunt hungry face. The eyes, mercifully, did not see a cruel wicked
world. He stopped and listened to the notes flowing out of the old violin held skillfully in thin
gnarled hands. The instrument came alive in his hands and the strings sang a divine song. A
young girl-child sang in a beautiful voice. It was marvellous. He stood spell-bound for minutes
together. The notes and the soulful song remembering a missing son wrung his heart. His
feelings of smallness found lyrical expression in the tears flowing down his cheeks, all the
bitterness of the rich party-scene streaming down in hot drops of water that strangely
accumulates and comes out of the tear ducts of human eyes.
He stood there for long, listening to another song, while exhausted commuters went by, without
noticing the talented street musician and tiny child- singer, hawking their wonderful music to an
indifferent world going by in a hurry.
Moved beyond by the combo of their glaring poverty and unspotted great talent, the government-
office clerk took out a hundred rupee note and gave it to the child who stopped singing in the
middle of her track, a bit surprised by the amount. She took the note and held it in her little
hands, rolling it slowly. Her adult and care-worn face split into a child-grin: innocent smile that
lit up a perpetually dark street and a heavy heart that once cared.
The child smiled sweetly and said, “Thanks a lot, Uncle.”
The crushed small uncle broke into a matching smile and said, “You are a great singer, my child.
Do not give up in life and go, conquer the world, one day.”
Then, humming an old tune, lighter in spirit and steps, the government-office clerk headed for an
apathetic home, where his arrivals, departures and presence/ absence hardly mattered, mirroring
his value in the sister’s bash few hours ago, his only regret: he could not kiss and wish a happy
birthday to that innocent child there, the only one smiling sweetly at him in that glittering hall
and attendant splendour…
Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, a college principal, is also widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has already published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited five books so far. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate
classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of
the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award---2012.
He edits online journal Episteme: