G and I went to a corner of the roof-top, away from friends who were drinking and chatting. We knew each other from school, but had not been very close. I was seeing him after a long time—he had grown thin and shaky, started to wear glasses, and wasn’t doing as brilliantly as had been expected of him at school, where he had been a topper and a hard competitor. He had recently been embroiled in a scuffle with his flat-mate which made news among our community members in the city. When I heard it was him, I was surprised that he was here and that he had gotten into a fight. I didn’t ever remember him getting involved in such things. But there was another angle to it as he made it known when the moment we met, he took me aside, and taking deep drags of his cigarette, talked.
“It was, as you say, a ‘strange’ incident. I am glad it has a name, a quality. That gives it validation, I think.”
He giggled, untidy hair shaking. Compared to his younger days, freckles were deeply pronounced on his face, and the lines of his jaw had hardened to something stubborn and cunning.
“It’s also said the reasons for the incident were ‘silly.’ That’s the term being used. But I don’t think any reason is silly, simply because you cannot invalidate all the incidents that led to that final event, can you? If they have happened, they aren’t silly, are they?”
I nodded. He cleaned his glasses with his shirt, probably the better to speak; nights lent themselves to telling stories and one couldn’t if the sight was unclear.
“With Bangalore, it was love at first sight—the tree-lined roads, the clean shops, the rainy evening, and the breeze carrying small leaves; they did it for me. I was inside an autorickshaw travelling towards our flat for the first time. I think I laughed inside with happiness.
“A friend from back home—Sanju, you remember? Okay, you guys might not have met—he was moving to a new place. He told me I could move into his. I had contacted him without knowing anything, just to get some news. The apartment was small, and there were four other people. It wasn’t also very bright or received copious air. But I could live with that; didn’t have the money to expect more.
“Two months after me, Jaro came to stay in place of another guy. You ever met him? Well, he is Sanju’s cousin; we are from the same neighborhood. Didn’t have a good reputation back home too. Thought of as weird—silent, unresponsive, impervious to what people told him or asked him to do. Sanju was trying to set him up as a waiter where he worked. But Jaro fancied himself to be a chef someday.
“I was surprised to even see him here, let alone find the job of a chef. The idiot forgot —what with his cousin doing everything—how difficult it was really. I had tried—for years—to find jobs back home. But you know the deal; always some shit or the other—corruption during the examination, then litigation, postponement, counter-litigation, reconduction of examinations, and the cycle repeating; it’s like no one wants to get anything done or they want to see how much they can make the aspirants suffer. I got frustrated and started doing stupid stuff. But my Church people, they prayed with me and reminded me of the great expectations they had once; they saved me. I started to think again—started to have those tremors of inspiration again, felt so long back during the school days—and realized I had to start anew.”
“Yeah, most of us have felt that,” I offered.
He nodded and looked away.
“Jaro—that guy was weird, like I said. And he had a strange obsession too. You heard about it?”
When I said no, he took a drag and continued, “We came to know of it on a rainy Saturday, a month after he had moved in. That day most of us were at home, and so we decided to have chicken for lunch. He took the initiative of cooking and did it with utmost concentration, not allowing anyone else to touch it. And then right when we had sat down to eat, he went out saying he had a call to make. My flat-mates had questioning faces, and so did I, like hadn’t this been done before? It had been, and we fell to chuckling and wondering. Over time, as we talked amongst ourselves, the conclusion came out that—crazy as it was—he did it to have more meat than us! He was taking advantage of our generosity because we would save more for those who had not eaten but were about to.
“And it wasn’t only this. He would stand before the butcher and observe minutely the entire process of the poultry being chosen, cleaned, and packed. He never made a wrong purchase—always the correct weight, correct size, and the good portions.
“This high-standard was for us too. He would enquire from those who had purchased the condiments:
Did we buy the onions? Yes, we did.
Ginger? Yes, we did.
Potatoes? Freshly opened from the bag.
And coriander leaves? We have coriander powder in the house.
“He would wrinkle his nose here, twitch his mouth with disappointment; to indicate fresh coriander leaves tasted much better than packaged powder. And after he got the waiter’s job—since we often asked him for financial help—he was no longer concerned about what we felt or thought; did whatever that pleased him. Once he had cleaned up the pan, he would lick his fingers, slurp the bones, then look around smiling conspiratorially, before finally getting up. Slowly though, people started to know about his habits—friends who had eaten with us talked about the barely-concealed lasciviousness; overnight guests shook their heads and laughed when they found left-over meat from dinner cleaned up in the morning.
“So, it wasn’t a pleasant scenario. Everyone outside knew of what he did and made fun of him, but we weren’t supposed to know or talk about it. Sanju’s or my name would always be taken along with him—being from the same place—so much so that Sanju told me to do something. I thought since I had been helped by praying, maybe he would be too. The other idea being that eating a simple lunch at the pastor’s house—about which I had talked to the pastor—might lead to his reformation. He would have to share and eat in moderation, and wouldn’t dare to pull any tricks. I requested him to join me for Sunday service, lying about a personal crisis which might be resolved if a friend prayed alongside.
“We went for five Sundays. The first three times, when I saw him with head bent over the pew in concentration, lips whispering intensely, I felt love and relief. This was indeed the way out, I thought. And during those days, he ate slowly, looked at others, and only asked for more at the very end, that too with circumspection. He seemed to carry this practice over to the apartment, where he no longer had the wild look of before, counting pieces of meat in each plate. My flat-mates were delighted with his progress.
“But a scent, a glance, a small longing, that’s all it takes for the hunger to build up again—I know of this.
“On the fourth Sunday, the pastor didn’t buy enough meat and he loudly declared too, which was a mistake. The lack should have been cloaked in nicer words, elevated to a higher purpose. But all he kept saying was sorry, sorry, you can eat at home, I am sure, you can eat at home. What more temptation could you provide! I feared the worst, and so it happened.
“Walking back, when we reached the store from where we bought our vegetables, Jaro became restless and crossed the road without looking left or right. In the shop, he ran his fingers through the coriander leaves, weighed the pieces of garlic, and bounced the onions in his hands. He didn’t care how pathetic he looked. And then such needless questions! At the butcher’s shop, the same thing—questions like whether there would be meat available at six, whether we would get extra pieces since we were regular customers, then laughing at himself. He was out of control.
“The next Sunday, he refused to eat at the pastor’s and insisted on going home. At the grocery store, the owner pointed out to his assistants what Jaro was doing with the vegetables, and they laughed. But only I seemed to feel the insult, he was laughing along with them. At the poultry shop, he hung around and asked those cringe-worthy questions again. I walked away, unable to bear it anymore.”
G was silent for a while.
“But whatever happened after that, revenge was never the motive.”
“When Jaro went out to make his call that night, I got up and locked the door quietly behind him, playing the fool; my flat-mates had a good laugh about that. Now in the mood, another guy served everyone with extra pieces of meat, leaving very few on the pan. Soon there were angry knocks on the door, but we only laughed and let it be banged for a while. I could hear the increasing desperation in the voice, so I went and opened the door. Jaro walked in straight to the dining area but as he scooped the remaining chicken pieces, the first guy reached for the water bottle and knocked down the spoon.
“The dismay on Jaro’s face! It was something to see. But all of us contributed from our plates and that’s how he had his dinner.
“The matter should have ended there, but his problem runs deep, believe it or not. You know what he did? He was there, at two in the night, picking up chicken pieces from the dustbin and eating them.
“I had woken up to drink water and when I saw him, he jumped at me.
“I had to protect myself—what else could I do? He was murderous.
“In the scuffle, his head hit the wall and he fell down.”
G took a final drag and threw down the butt, which went sparkling through the air.
“There was the meeting after that—you weren’t present, were you? After hearing everything, the senior community members called the fight silly and childish, and told us to stay united, that we hadn’t come down here to quarrel amongst ourselves.
“Jaro went back home after that; for which I am blamed. Sanju also quarrelled with me—called me ugly names—along with the rebuke from others. Jaro was an innocent idiot according to them and should have been left alone.
“But you know what?” G smiled here, showing stained teeth. “I think what they really hate me for is that I got his job. That they have been here five-ten years and have nothing to show for it.”
The story ended there. I noted to myself to stay away from G, old friend though he was.
Gankhu Sumnyan teaches English at a government college in Arunachal Pradesh. Two of his stories – “Caring” and “Son of the Soil” - were published in Cafe Dissensus and East India Story magazines respectively in 2020. His poetry book Old Friends’ Parade was shortlisted for Satish Verma Young Writers’ Award 2015, organised by Muse India. Four poems were also published in Indian Literature journal in 2014.