I am sick to death of this plastic world that I inhabit. Granted, the pay is not bad and everywhere I see beautiful people which I love. I love beautiful, rich people and the casual easy confidence that they have as they strut through security to disappear into these mass flying birds to take them to their destinies. Rich destinies!
I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’m not rich and I don’t think I have a destiny. I had once. I was bright, graduated top of my class, JEE, and like most of the best and brightest in India was set for big things. But fortune, fate, bad luck, whatever you want to call it, had other plans. Age old story! My father fell seriously ill and I, being the only son, had to be on hand. It was then I threw up my American dream and looked for a job, any job that would keep close to home. It was there that I found the airport and the airport found me.
I work in a luxury goods store. It’s strange here. You wear smart clothes, leather shoes that pinch, a nice watch, and watch as the world goes by. We sell bags, bags of a brand called…whoops, I’m not supposed to tell you that and wait for customers who are rich enough to buy from us. I smell their heady perfumes and colognes, watch how they handle expensive items with confident ease, how they open up their wallets with confident ease to display the array of credit cards they have. Whatever the brand let me tell you, we have a 200 per cent markup which means that we are twice as expensive as normal retail. We know that and they know that but our customers they don’t care. And for some reason that angers me, the thought that I could, I should, have been one of them but I’m not. I sit here and watch them buy while I pretend to be interested.
It’s then I begin to notice ‘The Man.’ I call him that because I don’t know what else to call him. He seems to be Chinese or Japanese, I’m sorry if it sounds racist but I just can’t tell. He appears in the Arrivals lounge – from which flight I can never tell – and just waits. A copy of the FT and a laptop bag always accompany him and he just sits there. An hour it’s no more, no less. He dutifully reads the paper but at the same time, I feel he is scanning the area, the huge area where people are busy with their lives. There are those armed with children – running behind or ahead of them – impatient to meet loved ones; those just waiting to jump into their next meeting; those who’ve returned from their honeymoon and those who’d rather be anywhere but here; all these people are busy running their lives. In this bevvy of activity, this man stands out simply for the fact that he is doing nothing. He’s sitting on a bench normally reserved for the elderly before he too disappears.
I wonder about this man but it seems I am the only one. It’s also perhaps to do with my circumstances. Because of my qualifications, I don’t fit into the category of a salesman and a wall comes between me and the others. At first, I try to be nice, tell jokes that I think are funny and they try too but in the end, we silently agree that silence is a better option. And so, I begin to notice the man more and more often to the exclusion of everything else. Who is he? What does he want? Why is he here?
The man has been coming for a month now and my questions keep nagging away. So one day I decide to do the unthinkable – talk to him. It is bizarre. Why am I interested in a stranger’s life? What do I hope to find? That he is waiting for someone? That he’s lonely? There are many answers and none of them is my business. But if you ask me that question now even after all that happened, I would do it all again. What’s more, I wouldn’t change a thing.
A resolution made, I decide to act upon it. We had made good sales and ipso facto my boss is in a particularly good mood. As a result, he couldn’t care less if I wanted to go to the moon and back when I ask him for the afternoon off.
Seizing the opportunity before he can change his mind, I move away from our store and almost run towards the man. I don’t know why I am so scared but I am. Walking almost on tip-toe like an elephantine ballerina, I approach him as a hunter would possibly approach a tiger he has shot but is not sure is dead. But as I close the distance between us, I feel something change within me, that this is something I am supposed to do and had been delaying for some time now.
‘Good morning sir.’
At first, the man does not move and my first thought is that he is deaf. But then he slowly lowers the newspaper from his eye-line, looks up and beckons to me to take the seat on the bench next to him.
‘You have been a long time coming?’
‘You don’t think I’m talking to the air do you?’ There is a whiplash to his words and as I look into his eyes I see that he is deathly serious. I had somehow wasted his time by not coming to him sooner.
‘JEE boy meets Japanese man,’ I think and he looks up.
‘You’re not funny.’
‘Not very bright either it seems. Look we really need to get on…
I grab his arm and shake it violently.
‘Can you, are you reading my mind?’
The Japanese man starts smiling. It is the first time I have seen him smile and it is the first time in all the time that I have observed him that he seems human to me. Fear is dancing within me but so is adrenaline as I contemplate the giddy thought that something, anything now could happen to change this miserable, humdrum existence that I loosely term ‘Life.’ Life! Life is what is happening to other people while I stand by and watch it happen, a bystander in my own play.
‘Well,’ he says catching hold of my hand. ‘Are you ready to go? Life awaits.’
I don’t know where I am. The light around me is dim but even so, it hurts my eyes when I open them. I am in a room, a very tiny windowless room that looks as if it has been constructed for a large cat. A black table accompanied by a chair stands in front of me with an inviting black laptop that stands tantalisingly open.
There are two men on either side of this large desk who start as I take a step forward but a harsh guttural voice, in a language that I suspect is Japanese, makes them stop dead. They watch as I gingerly approach the desk, slide into the chair and caress the contours of the sleek shining laptop that seems as if it has been waiting for me.
I press ENTER and the black screen dissolves and soon a plethora of names and images hurtle towards my eyes in various colours and fonts. Gradually my eyes adjust and I find patterns. This is ‘My Circle’ and the names and coloured fonts have been thoughtfully arranged by someone or something into people that I know. Some are family. I see my father gasping for breath in the house that I hate, my oily boss, my would-be fiancé who had laughed at my proposal of marriage but most of all my eyes alight on my younger sister. I see images of her and us as we carry her body out of our home with the chant of ‘Ram Nam Satya Hai’ and I feel things that I couldn’t and shouldn’t be feeling again. Tara, you were my rock, my star, my Tara. Your smile, the way you tugged at your frock when nervous, the way you charged into my room demanding chocolates, nursery rhymes, bedroom stories, you wanted everything that I could give you and I did. Whatever I did, it was for you, Tara…
The images roll on. I blink back the tears and stare ahead and the men stare curiously at me as if I am an interesting piece of furniture worth buying. Suddenly the Japanese man inches forward towards me and speaks.
‘Be a man!’
‘Be a man! All your life you have cried that life has not given you a chance. Well, now here is your chance to be a man, to set things right.’
I stare at him as he stares back at me and soon I begin to understand. These circles of life that hover over the laptop are people, people whose destinies I can alter if I so wish. I can also alter my own if I so wish and return to the real world but what excites me here is the chance to throw the dice, to play God. Yes, I can and will play God! My human self can wait.
The Japanese man sees the smile creep its way to my lips and he smiles too, a smile that makes me shudder. I know it is wrong, I shouldn’t be here but at the same time, I cannot compel myself to go. For once, I feel that it matters that my life is of consequence and that I will do my utmost to make sure that the world knows that I exist. It will be so much fun. Wicked, delicious fun.
The author wishes to mention that a longer version of the story shall follow shortly.