The first thing that you need to know about me is that I have a massive inferiority complex. I avoided meeting anyone who had drifted apart to become successful- in any definition of the word. I would not bore you with the reasons, rectifications and ramifications of my idiosyncrasies. I have learnt to smile my way through the rodomontades of entrepreneurs, civil servants, management graduates, and last but the worst, self-proclaimed philanderers. However, I am yet to cope with the peculiar enviousness, that I experienced around Kanav, my college roommate who had established himself as a travel blogger.
In college, Kanav spent most of his time studying and I squandered my resources in aimless wanderings in the Lesser Himalayas. I often tried to tag him along on my adventures, but he'd rather focus on a high paying job. Stereotypically enough, he quit his job after settling in a six-digit salary. When he started out making video logs about his weekend trips, he'd often call me for itineraries to less explored places in the country and ask me to take him along on my ramblings. I would have, but I despised his idea of travelling with a mic and a camera. I was one of those purists, who preached travelling in its organic form and exploring the world without the distraction of a camera.
I could quote Kahlil Gibran, but apart from a few inebriated stories to share over drinks, I have nothing to show for the misspent youth. And as for memories, they tend to fade away with age. Now, when I am stuck in an IT job in a tier two city, I often wonder if my life would have been different, had I put my life, travels, and thoughts out on the public display. Sure, Gibran would have been disappointed, but who cares for an old poet, when you can make people pay for your whims.
Presently, I was waiting for Kanav in a coffee house and scrolling through the posts about his recent month-long trip to Eastern Europe. I was already regretting not blowing him off like the previous few times.
“Sorry, I got a call from the Enfield people. They are launching a new bike and they want me to take it for a spin," he apologised while embracing me in a bear hug, "You have gained so much weight. How do you trek with such extra luggage?"
"Desk job," I replied.
"Well, thank god, I quit IT in time," He laughed.
He had an athletic physique, a full-grown beard, and a man bun of a vagabond. He was wearing a black t-shirt donning off a Romanian Metal band.
"It was a gift from a host in Romania," he satiated my silent query, "such a brilliant woman. She was a Consultant in Big 4 during the day and moonlighted as the lead singer of a Metal band. Such an inspiring woman and so hot in bed."
He gloated over for several minutes about the European women he slept with.
“I don’t talk to other people about this because you know, how Indian men think of white women as hookers, but I know you’d understand. You have spent time abroad and I am sure shagged off more women than I have. You’d understand that white women are so overrated.”
“Yes, I agree,” I nodded along. I am not sure how he arrived at that misconception, but I didn’t correct him. I seldom correct anyone's presumptions about me nor challenge anyone's prepossessions in general.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added, “I know the white women are pretty, but they start shagging in their teens.”
He laughed and I mimicked him, hesitatingly.
“You know, I was in Sri Lanka and I was doing this Spanish girl in a machan amidst a downpour. The whole idea was so erotic; the rain and the jungle and such a hot girl jumping on me. But I felt nothing. She was so loose in the box that her bobbing up and down was futile and I had to stop her. You know what I am saying?”
I nodded, but he got me burning up with envy. In my younger years, I embarked on several wild goose chases to frivolous places in search of one single casual encounter. I burnt the money I didn’t have in the infamous moonlit parties of Thailand, the fake rave parties of Goa, the drug hikes in Himachal, but I couldn’t get laid.
“That’s why I prefer the Indian girls, they are much better and easy to come by these days,” he said, “you promise them one shoot and they come down on their all fours if you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t handle it anymore, so, I changed the topic.
“Where is your next trip?”
“I have not planned anything yet,” he replied, “it is difficult to go anywhere in winters. Do you have any place in mind? Give me a unique idea; like Kazakhstan. It was your itinerary that skyrocketed my career. Did you manage to go there yet?”
“No,” I replied. His modesty was asphyxiating. I didn't plan any trips for him but half-heartedly agreed to tag him along on my trip to Kazakhstan. To my relief, I got an assignment in London and I ditched him. It turned out to be a blessing for him, as he landed a sponsor, took the trip for free and made impressive videos that established him as a travel blogger.
“I do have an offer, but I haven’t finalised it. It is an all-paid bike riding trip in Norway.”
“Sweet,” I couldn't help but acknowledge, “how did you land that up?”
“Remember, I made a video about bike riding in the northeast?”
I nodded. I had long unfollowed him on social media.
“There’s this company that’s promoting the Assamese culture, in particular their traditional tribal teas.”
“Why do they have to promote Assamese tea?”
“Tribal Assamese teas," he corrected me, "and I hope they do. "That’s how people like us get gigs. They are getting good funding from people in the west. You know how people in the west are crazy about organic and traditional stuff.”
“True,” I replied.
“Whole of Bhutan’s economy is dependent on the funding from the west to preserve their culture.”
“So, what’s the deal?”
“I don’t know the exact details, but it’s a 21-day event. I think it’s called the cup, the ride or something like that. They are funding 15 bikers and pillions from India to ride around Norway and Northern Ireland promoting tea and Assamese culture.”
“And when’s this?”
I laughed, “Do you know where on the map is Norway? In January, Norway would be under the cover of snow. How are we going to ride a bike there?”
"That's what I thought," he replied, "but then I looked at the investors. Red Bull, Enfield and even some Government ministries. I am not sure of the details yet, but if they are organising the event, they must have thought about the snow. It won’t be driving around Norway, but like promotional events in different cities.”
It was his field of expertise so, I didn't argue and nodded along.
“They are looking for more riders to join the ride. I can put in a good word for you.”
I laughed. “Sure,” I replied, “I can be a vagabond.”
“Think about it. It’s just about 21 days. You can take a leave and it’s a paid vacation and if I am correct, you will get compensated, as well.”
“Yeah, why not.”
We humoured the idea until Kanav's followers mustered in the tiny coffee shop. He switched over to his vagabond personality and I took it as my cue to leave. The enviable volume of the flock made me wonder about the number of people trying to make it as a freelancer. How many of would be able to land up the opportunity that Kanav was dangling over my cup of coffee? Was it the miracle that I had been waiting for all this while; my Golden ticket to the chocolate factory?
I carried that thought along with me to my office; a laid back public sector company in a small town on the foothills of the Himalayas. I fostered the thought throughout the day until my boss called me to his office. He was the living embodiment of corporate arrogance. We got off on the wrong foot and he had been looking for an excuse to fire me ever since. Fortunately, we worked in a public sector company, so we had to endure one another until one of us got transferred or did something excruciatingly inexcusable.
"You should start running," he told me, in the middle of a rant about an error I made while sending out a PO, "You have gained so much weight. The company is not paying you to break the chairs."
I didn't hear anything he said after that but kept wondering about the reason for his arrogance. In my initial days, I used to get riled up by the comments of my superiors, but with time, I grew insolent. I realised that it was the generic monotony of a stable job, stable life or incorrigible kids, that was oozing out as frustration. As much as I pitied him, I worried that if I continued on the same path, I would end up being exactly like him.
Later in the evening, I met Kanika; the girl I was sort of dating at the time. Kanika worked for an NGO dealing with waste management in the Himalayas. She was drifting through social projects until she made it to Ivy college. While I had made up my mind to settle in this small hamlet in the foothills of the Himalayas, she was just passing through; a fact that formed the backbone of our relationship - she was not willing to stay and I was not willing to follow. We both knew that we would have to break it off at some point, and that penultimate moment had quivered on the horizon for two years.
I told Kanika about the meeting I had with my friend and the proposal he had for me.
“So, why don’t you take it?”
“I am not sure if I can take a month off work,” I replied, “And you know my boss!”
“You can always fake typhoid and take a month off.”
“I know I can,” I had already thought about making fake medical certificates, “but if I make such an excuse, my boss would get to the bottom of it. He has been looking for an opportunity like this for ages.” “So?” she replied impassively, “you get fired. You can always find a job.” “Of course, I can always find a job, but I can never find a job here.”
“So, that’s a stalemate,” she said, “you will not leave this town.”
“Why would I?” I replied, “I love my life here. I have my whole family here. My friends, my house, my mountains and you know how claustrophobic I get in the big cities. Why should I try to change something, which is working well for me?”
We have had this cyclic conversation many times for her to know that it was a lost cause trying to persuade me to move out of the town.
“Then, why are thinking about taking this opportunity?”
“Because it’s once in a lifetime sort of an opportunity.”
“Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it as well. At some point in life, you have to figure out what you want. What is it that you want? And please for heaven’s sake, do not say that you do not know what you want.”
I didn’t reply. The world is not a nice place for people who have no idea what they wanted from their brief existence. Every longing was a utopia and every reality seemed like an oasis.
We got high, had sex and then devoured our dinner while watching a movie online.
“What’s the point of thinking about something, when you are not going to do anything about it,” she whispered as we lay breathless on the bed.
“I might,” I replied.
“Risk your job to go on a trip?” She chuckled.
“I have done that before,” I replied, “remember my Thailand trip.”
“It was aeons ago,” she replied. “And in a job that you didn’t care about. Anyways, why am I doing this, you will be over it by tomorrow.”
She was right, I did forget all about it the next day. Kanav called me up after a few days to inform me that he had convinced the organiser to consider me.
“She was a bit sceptical in the beginning as you have no social media presence. 'You are a dead asset', she told me, but I convinced her that you are an amazing writer and an adventurer. You will help us with the press releases and the digital content. Are you onboard?”
“Let me think over it,” I told him.
“You have to confirm in a couple of days,” he said, “We all have to chip in 25 Grand to reserve our place, but Moily said that she would adjust that in our compensation.”
“Compensation? Are we getting paid for this?”
“Yes, didn’t I tell you that?” he replied, “I am a professional. Why would I bring in free deals for you? It’s around 2 lakhs, I do not remember the official figure, but you will get a contract and it specifies the amount.”
Money had never been a motivator for me; I doubted if anything was. I usually did things on a whimsy conformed between the norms of the job; a week off in a quarter was enough to make me feel free. I told Kanika about the money on our date night. Our idea of a date was to get high in the parking lot of a single screen theatre and catch the last night show in the deserted hall. The movie would sober us up to drive around the town that dropped dead before midnight.
“I don't understand why you are still thinking about it?" She lit the joint in the car and turned up the volume of the song that was playing in the stereo. I rolled the windows down. She puffed out the white smoke on my face in defiance. "It's a lot of money and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
"I know," I nodded. She passed me the joint and I took a long drag. "The thing about lifetime opportunities is that if it goes south, you have nothing to look forward to."
We passed along the joint and the arguments.
"Why are you trying so hard to convince me?" I asked.
"I don't know," She replied, playing with the window regulator of the car, "It is such a shame that a person like you is stuck in a place like this."
"To endure suffering, we must," I replied.
“Can I do something to help you?”
“Decide for me.”
“Anything, but that,” she replied. I shook my head. She rolled another one and I sipped on my beer. We were getting late for the movie. I pointed that to her and she shrugged her shoulders callously.
“You remember our first date?” she asked.
I nodded in agreement.
"You know, what the funniest thing was?" I shook my head.
“Yes, when you asked me for permission to kiss.”
“Consent,” I replied.
“Yes," she laughed, "but that's the most unromantic thing if you ask me.”
"Yet, here we are," I said.
"Yeah," she giggled, "it worked with me, but I kept thinking to myself that this is not some small-town guy, being all polite to get into my pants. Everyone I know is well-travelled, but you were one of those few who have learnt the humility that comes with it. You belong to the world and I don't know, why you are content in being in just one part of it. I know that the end of it all is the satisfaction, but you are just too young to retire in a place like this."
She finished rolling the joint and lit it.
"That's just how I feel," she said when I didn't reply to her insinuations, "but you are a man of yourself and I know you can choose for yourself.
Kanav connected me to Moily and she filled in the details that Kanav had missed. I asked if I need to pay her the money, but she asked to hold off until I got the contract. She added me to a WhatsApp group of all the people who were part of the project. I recognised a few well-known influencers from social media and my inferiority complex stopped me from being too active in the group. Kanav tried to rope me into some of the conversations, but I kept aloof, in a group where everyone was earning from social interactions.
Moily got me to write articles about the project and she got them published in different journals all over the country. I never knew that getting published could be that easy. I had been writing long enough to know that every story gets rejected until it doesn't for now rhyme or reason. Shit sticks, they told, so keep rolling it out, but everything Moily touched turned into gold and stuck.
“It's not what you are selling," she'd often tell me, "but how you are selling that makes the difference.”
Moily drafted me a contract like Kanav's, but I was getting lesser compensation. Seniority, Kanav explained. As soon as I made the bank transfer, I joined the team as the official creative writer. I remember making love to Kanika on the balcony of her apartment to celebrate the success.
“To your freedom,” she said, as she ripped off my clothes on the roof. I wished, it had rained that night, but only if the wishes were horses.
As days went by, my fellow riders in the WhatsApp group got freebies from the sponsors. I didn’t get anything. I focused more on hatching a plan for my unaccounted leave of absence and forging the fake medical certificates for Typhoid. The plan was to take a month’s leave and stay with my parents until my boss was convinced that I had Typhoid. Then, I‘d spend some days at Kanika's place, dump my phone with her and leave for Delhi to join the rest of the team. The most difficult part of the plan was to deal with my trepidation. On most of the days, Kanika helped alleviate the anxiety, but on the rest of the days, we ended up in bed fighting over the trivialities.
A few days before getting fake typhoid, I got a call from Kanav and he was livid, “Did you send your passport to Moily?”
“I’ll do it on Monday,” I said, “you know there are no courier shops open here on the weekend.”
“Lucky you,” he said, “I sent my passport to her, but then I realised that personal attendance is mandatory for Schengen Visa. So, why is Moily asking us for our passports.”
“Fair point.” I released the reason for my trepidation. It didn’t take me more than a moment to realise that we had been scammed. If something is too good to be true, it rarely is. I remembered all the red flags that should have made me suspicious. Apart from the obvious, riding a motorbike in Norway in winters. Kanav listed out other caveats that we should have looked out for. He rambled on the further plan of action to expose Moily and get our money back, but I had already given up. I didn’t care for the money.
“I was not getting a good feeling about this so I connected with some of the people in the group with whom I had worked before. Do you know that Moily had been asking them for small amounts of money on pretences? I am adding you to a new WhatsApp group, it includes all the people who are suspicious of Moily.”
I grew too numb to understand the rest of the rambling. After the call, he added me to a group call of all the people who were suspicious of Moily's intentions. I was not interested.
I put the call on the speaker of my car and went to the nearest wine shop, bought an expensive wine and went to Kanika's house. I handed her the bottle of wine.
“What are we celebrating today?”
“Freedom,” I replied.
We got drunk together as I told her about the whole incident. She didn’t ask any questions but listened intently as I narrated the whole ordeal. When the dram was done, I bent over to kiss her, but she pushed me away.
“You should go now,” she said. I kind of knew the reason, so I didn’t argue with her. I picked up my stuff and left her house. The night was cold and the stray dogs howled at a distance. There was a sour taste that the expensive wine left in my mouth, or perhaps that is what freedom tasted like. I left her house for the last time. She never let me in again.
Manish Pathania is a software consultant by profession. He has published two chapbooks on Amazon Kindle named “Poems that do not rhyme” and “Recycle Bin” He was the winner of Juggernaut short story contest 2018. His works have been published in Kitaab, Muse India, efictionIndia magazine, The Hans India, Half-baked books blog, Juggernaut India, and The Ancient Souls. His work has been included in anthologies from Juggernaut and Half Baked Books.