Waiters bustled by with a busy looking air, carrying viands and drinks ordered by the diners seated at the restaurant of the Billiards club. Four Johnny Walker blues made their way to a table at the far of corner of the rectangular dining area. Four distinguished looking gentlemen were seated at this table, and they seemed to be filled with ennui.
The drinks arrived and they partook of the liquid nourishment, all the while maintaining the listlessness that seemed to plague them.
One of them, a silver haired dandy named Rajesh Srivastava, also widely known as the billionaire banker, whose foible for expensive cars and predilection for women often preceded his other characteristics, said, ‘Rohit, we’ve lost all verve for life. Time was when I just couldn’t wait to grab hold of the next moment to suck the juice out of it, Carpe Diem if you will, but now I discover that the spirit is lacking.’
‘Maybe you should lay of that busty chick you’ve been servicing lately, or rather having her service you, for you clearly seem as if you’re constantly being put through the ringer. A little less sex would go a long way in invigorating your mind and spirit.’ Rohit Fernandez said.
Rohit Fernandez, another of the town’s millionaires, had made his fortune in the transport business. The man had an obvious eye for money. He discovered early on that there was a pile of green to be amassed in the transport line, so he borrowed enough money as a young lad of twenty three, and bought a truck which he used to drive himself. Fifteen years later, now aged thirty eight, he was the kingpin in the transport line of business for an area far and wide, and whatever he said went.
‘I’m not an impotent, emasculated weakling such as you, Rohit. At thirty eight, I used to go through four or five women a day’, retorted Rajesh Srivastava, with a laugh and a leer, knowing full well from past arguments with Rohit that his views on the subject were those corresponding to an abstemious sage’s.
Rohit Fernandez did not take the bait. He was a strange animal as far as women were concerned. Even back at school his friends chided him. For some inexplicable reason he had shown no interest in girls. Of course, this was not to say that he was queer. He was as straight as a fire poker.
‘All this talk of humping and pumping makes me horny,’ said the third participant in this conversation, who went by the name of Vipul Kumar.
Vipul Kumar was a wealthy townsman, who had acquired a huge fortune manufacturing and selling billiards tables. At forty five, he could rack up a hundred plus break any day of the week, but when it came to an official game, he failed miserably. In his youth, he had taken a fancy to the game which developed into such a passion that he discontinued his studies at the university in order to pursue it with vigor. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t good enough. He could never make it on the professional circuit. So he took to manufacturing billiards tables, which became known all over the world, and the world snooker and billiards championships were played on his tables.
‘Forget pumping and humping for now Vipul bhai, we’ll get plenty of action tonight. But what happened at the frame this morning? You owe me two lacs for that frame you lost. You could very easily have sunk the pink and secured the frame’, said the fourth and last occupant of that table. His name was Vikram Chandra. Vikram, like the three other participants in the conversation, was a very wealthy man. People often used to confuse his name with his other two namesakes’- the eminent journalist and the best -selling author. He was the owner of two car rental businesses- the two largest in the city. Having begun his operations with only a single Maruti van twelve years back, he now had an impressive fleet of Rolls Royce’s, Jaguars, BMW’s and what not, to boast of. These luxury cars he rented out at exorbitant rates, which he could sustain using a little tact and a lot of muscle.
Vikram Chandra was the most prurient of the four men. At the age of forty, he had the vigour of a twenty year old youth in full bloom. He was also reasonably good at snooker. He had once had the opportunity to play a friendly frame with Stephen Dundry, when the latter had visited town for an exhibition cum promotion.
‘Can’t you think of anything other than women, you prurient bastard?’ asked Vipul Kumar of Vikram.
‘Vipul Bhai, we all well aware of your superior vocabulary, but would you please refrain from using words to decipher the meaning of which I’ll have to pull out my pocket dictionary, which I don’t happen to have on my person right now’ retorted Vikram Chandra.
‘Prurient simply implies a person who is excessively inclined towards sex, a nymphomaniac if you will, or if you wish me to elucidated further, a tharki, as they say in Hindi. Now do you understand?’ said Vipul Kumar.
‘You boys will get plenty of action tonight at the party. Be there or be square’ said Rajesh Srivastava, finishing his drink and hailing the waiter to order another one. ‘But I have a proposal to make to you gentlemen, so kindly lend me your ears’.
Parmesh Pandey sat all by himself at the cheap café in an obscure part of town. The dust from the street without wafted through the window by his table every time a heavy vehicle drove passed the café. He could not help but ponder his situation.
‘Twenty Six wasted years’ the voice inside his head said. Parmesh Pandey had been given a reasonably good start in life- he belonged to a middle class family, was given a good education by his parents, and had access to the best of facilities. But as so often happens in this world, it is not uncommon to find individuals who have been singularly unsuccessful at whatever endeavor they choose to pursue.
At thirteen, he wanted to be the greatest cricketer in the country. He used to perpetually live in the sepia toned movie reel playing incessantly inside his head which involved six runs being required of the last ball, with Parmesh at the crease- the classic movie scenario. Or , six runs being required by the rival team, a lofted shot being hit by the batsman at the crease, the ball making its way furiously toward the boundary, threatening to make that six runs required by the enemy to win, but Parmesh Pandey makes an incredible dive, catches the ball with his left hand- his wrong hand- but soon realizes that he’s going to land outside the boundary making the shot a six, but throws the ball back in just in time, takes a hard fall, gets up quickly, rushes back in and grabs the ball without it having fallen, thereby getting the batsman out and saving the day.
Despite having such crystal clear ambitions, he was a perpetual bench warmer at the school cricket tournaments. The captain and the team manager were dead against giving him a chance even in a match that wasn’t very crucial in the tournament. Eventually, he abandoned his dream of becoming an ace cricketer.
Same was the refrain with his studies- the harder he tried, the more poorly he performed. He managed to barely scrape through his exams and landed up in an engineering course. Here too he performed very poorly and was tempted to abort mission half way. But somehow he stuck with it and saw it through.
For a while in his teens, he had also wanted to become a professional snooker player. This was perhaps and endeavor at which he worked the hardest, but failed nevertheless. He somehow could not get passed a seventy five break, and smallest wager on frame would ensure that he definitely lost. Parmesh Pandey did not perform very well under pressure. His parents, too, had given up on him.
‘Parmesh is not a hard worker’, his father would say of him, ‘the boy wants everything made. What a wastrel!’
And his mother would nod in acquiescence.
‘Look at Kamlesh. What a gem! Poles apart the two boys are.’ His father added.
Parmesh’s older brother Kamlesh had made it to the Indian Administrative Service, a career considered by some to be the best in the country, while Parmesh Pandey had failed three times in the income tax inspectors’ exam. The distinction between the brothers was truly evident. But Parmesh never begrudged his older brother the success he had attained.
‘You’ll be a failure in life!’ one of his professors at college had said to him. This prophecy had undoubtedly come true.
His acquaintances, too, which he had thought of as friends, had a not too different opinion of him.
‘What a looser!’ a girl he had once fancied had opined of him. ‘How dare he muster up the courage to ask me out?’ she had said to her friends.
This kind of response from girls he had fancied had made him resolve never to ask any other member of the fairer sex out, but the resolve had lasted only till the next time. Each time he received a setback, his resolve strengthened, until finally he had mastered that desire by so strong a sense of derision and self deprecation, which snuffed out any possibility of his befriending those strange creatures. He had wowed to never speak to another woman. He had even stopped watching porn.
His parents’ diagnosis of his character was, to a certain extent, correct. Parmesh Pandey was, indeed, a lazy man. He wanted everything the easy way. He had no tenacity. And on the occasions that he did try hard, as in the case of his snooker endeavour, he ended up trying too hard. Added to this was the rotten deal that luck had dealt him.
Even with women, his problem was that he was too sincere in his ardours. This sincerity scared them off. His intentions were probably too pure. And the women punished him for this purity; for not being vicious enough. He had seen other boys with him hitch up with a woman only to go to bed with them, giving them no inkling before the event, and when everything was done and dusted, would leave them flat for the next object of their desire. Of course the jilted women felt miserable, they cried in public, garnered sympathy from their girl friends, ‘Oh what a fiend!’ they would say of the chap who had befriended them, and move on to the next wooer. Perhaps they liked that. No place in such a set up for the true intentions of poor Parmesh Pandey.
So here he was, twenty six years old, with dwindling finances (on account of the fact that he couldn’t hold a job for too long), on a dark and tenebrous day. The light outside had quite an unreal hue- the kind of shades that you got to see only in Ridley Scott movies. It looked unreal, but here the unreal was about to become the real. Dark ravens flew across the horizon, but there was no gothic architecture in sight where they could go and perch and become harbingers of tragedy. They settled on the awning of Manunatha general stores, nevertheless. Manjunatha general store was situated diagonally opposite the café.
Behind Manjunatha general stores was situated a huge, imposing house made completely of granite. The ravens somehow treated this structure with deference. This house was owned by the big granite baron of the state, Nanjund Kanth. He had also dabbled in politics, but had not yet progressed beyond carrying the feces of the political big wigs. Soon, he hoped, he would be a ‘made guy’, in Italian mafia parlance, and he would have his own lackeys to carry his feces. But until such time, it was back to the shit.
Nanjund Kanth’s wife was from the village. She was not very conversant in any language, let alone English. She spoke a corrupted rural dialect of the language of the town, which only the residents of that village could easily understand. They had a daughter, whose name was Nirmala. She was a qualified lawyer working in a reputed law firm in town. But many of her friends were of the opinion that she was in the wrong profession; that she was so good looking that she should be an actress. She was wasting her good looks in the legal profession.
Nirmala Kanth was indeed beautiful. Added to this beauty was an intellect to rival that of Aristotle. But day after day when she looked out the window of her room at the derelict café, she saw the solitary, brooding, sullen figure of Parmesh Pandey.
‘I wonder what ails that chap over at the café’, she had said to one of her friends one day pointing him out from the window in her room.
‘He’s quite a looker’, her friend had replied.
Parmesh Pandey had the kind of slight figure which some girls go for in a big way. He was tall with slender hips, an emaciated face and dark deep sunk eyes. However, his physical features could not exercise their attraction when he had approached females he had taken a fancy to, for reasons earlier mentioned.
This process of observation went on for six months, at the end of which Nirmala Kanth had quite made up her mind to get to know this tragic figure somehow.
‘Your tab has increased beyond the permissible limit set by the proprietor Parmesh sir’, said Raju, the kindly cashier of the café. He had been one of the few people who had been kind towards Parmesh in his times of need.
‘I’ll settle it by the end of the week Raju’, replied Parmesh Pandey.
‘All right sir, but please don’t delay any further or the boss will have my neck’, said Raju.
Parmesh promised and picking his jacket up went out of the café, with no particular destination in mind. As he went out, Nirmala Kanth pretended to walk by with some other errand in mind. As soon as Parmesh saw her, he turned his face away, so as to not be even seen to be looking at a girl. He was trying to be fastidious about his vow. But he did turn and look at those substantial hips undulating under those thin pyjamas that she was wearing. The pyjamas strained under the load of those hips. They were under the danger of giving way. He saw her going to Manjunatha general store. But little did he know that was only a ruse to be able to befriend him.
He –‘What a beautiful face! If only I could make her mine.’
She –‘What misery, what melancholy. Such sadness as you never knew. If only he would respond to my looks.’
Parmesh Pandey made his way toward a lake, if you could call it that, where he liked to muse on his thoughts. He had all but given up. The strange thing was that he was able to be quite philosophical about it. Failure at everything in life- sports, money making, going out with girls- everything. Recipient of rebuke from his friends, acquaintances, parents, all and sundry. He really had no more ambition in life. In short, he was quite ready to end it.
Parmesh Pandey always had a sense of dissociation from himself. He always considered himself to be a stranger to himself. As a child, he used to have a recurring dream that a person came out of the darkness to attack him- only that person was himself. He used to make faces at himself in the mirror and be terrified of them. His greatest adversary was himself. This internal conflict had played havoc in his life. The little voice in his head was always against him.
Now he was ready to end it all. Perhaps the time was right. Why take up scarce resources of the earth, which the poor governments of responsible nations the world over, after having exploited the very same resources to their heart’s content, thereby gaining a head start in terms of development, were fighting tooth and nail to protect?
Yes, he thought, it was better to call it quits, to throw in the towel, to hang up his boots. Someone had once said to him that a man’s importance can be gauged by the number of people who turn up at his funeral. He started counting. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t think of very many people apart from his folks who would make it to his. He didn’t mind though. How stupid this was all, he thought. What difference will it make how many people attend my funeral. After all, I’ll be long gone and oblivious to any crocodile tears that may be shed for him. No requiem for Parmesh Pandey.
He began to think of ways to end his life. Seated by the lake, drowning occurred to him as a probable choice. Then he decided against it. He was too much of a coward to take that route. Hanging, again, was quite painful, or so they said. Slitting of the wrists or an overdose of sleeping pills were the narrowed down choices. Either of the two would be feasible.
Nirmala Kanth had followed him from the café to where he was seated by the lake, unknown to him, of course.
While he was considering the best way to commit suicide, the thought of Nirmala also drifted into his mind. How can a woman be that beautiful, he thought? He would have worshipped her day and night could he have attained her. His resolve was already weakening. But he chastised himself and turned his thoughts away from her. Just then she came and sat beside him on the grass. The smell of urine and shit wafted through the afternoon air. The lake lent itself as a ready toilet to those poor, unfortunate creatures that had no access to bathrooms and had to go out in the open. It could kill a man’s soul to be subjected to this ignominy day after day. But gradually they must get inured to this feeling of shame. The government made all kinds of promises during election time- we’ll provide you with an enclosed place to shit- but as usual they renged on their promises.
Least romantic of ambiences as that lake side was, what with the aromas of human and possibly animal refuse scenting the air, Nirmala Kanth and Parmesh Pandey knew instantly that they were made for each other. All this without a word having been exchanged between the two.
‘I recently came across an article in a magazine that highlighted the need for hope and persistence in achieving any goal in life. Needless to say, you all must have evinced varying degree of these two qualities- hope and persistence- without which you wouldn’t have been as successful as are today,’ said Rajesh Srivastava. ‘I’m utterly bored with life and wish to seek some entertainment, and I thought we could make it a little more interesting by making a little wager on the whole affair.’
‘What affair? What wager?’ said Rohit Fernandez.
‘Patience my boy, patience,’ said Rajesh Srivastava. ‘I wish to conduct an experiment, an experiment that would test human nature to the ultimate. You see, I’m sure you’re aware of the spam mails and messages that people have been receiving for quite some time now, the main body of which conveys the message that the recipient has won some kind of a lottery or a prize quite randomly, or that some rich industrialist in South Africa has left them their entire wealth, if only they would claim the same, which would require processing charges.’
‘Oh yeah, I remember that scam. Tickled me to the bone,’ said Vikram Chandra, laughing all the while. ‘To think how gullible people can be. There were a few fools who actually believed that yarn and ended up loosing a significant amount of money. Crazy people, I tell you.’
This topic had brought the four out of their languor and they were now discussing animatedly.
‘Crazy they may have been, Vikram,’ said Rajesh Srivastava, ‘but hope is inherent in human nature. You see, you wouldn’t survive a day if didn’t have hope. In the magazine article I was telling you about, an experiment was conducted, in which a group of docile fish such as herrings and a barracuda were put into the same glass tank filled with water, only the tank was partitioned by a glass plate. The barracuda rushed furiously at the benign herrings, with the intention of killing and eating them, but each time collided with the glass partition which was quite well camouflaged in the tank. It repeated this activity twenty two times after which, it quietly stayed in its part of the tank. At this point, the observers surreptitiously removed the glass plate separating the barracuda from the herrings, and guess what; the barracuda didn’t do a thing. It had the herrings at its mercy, and yet repeated failures had programmed it to think like a failure. It could have devoured those herrings, but instead they both maintained their quarters.’
‘So what do you propose, Rajesh bhai?’ queried an excited Vipul Kumar.
‘My proposal is quite simple. It’s so simple that it’s brilliant,’ said Rajesh Srivastava.’ In these past years the newspapers and other electronic media has ensured that information about this scam is disseminated far and wide, which is a good thing. Now this may sound cruel to you, but its all for a little fun. We’re going to get the mobile numbers of hundred townspeople, and send them a message saying that they have won a lottery- yes a real lottery sponsored by us! One crore rupees would be the value of the lottery, only they had to pay five thousand rupees to collect. They would have to credit the money into an account which I’ve asked one of my men arrange. It’s all been worked out folks. You don’t have to worry about the details. Just sit back and relax. I’m sponsoring the lottery myself. You just have to place the wager.’
These men were so wealthy that they took umbrage at not being included in funding the lottery. They insisted that it would only be fair that each of them contributed twenty five lakh rupees toward the one crore.
‘All right, all right. If you so insist. We’ll split it even. Now what about the wager?’ said Rajesh Srivastava.
The bets were placed between them, and they were gentlemen true to their word; they’d be sure to honour their bets. All except Rajesh Srivastava, bet against anybody replying to collect. He could potentially loose rupees ten crore if he lost the bet. Then they went about hunting for phone numbers of the prospective recipients of the message informing them of the prize. This they did in quite a rondom fashion. They went to the club reception and copied a few numbers randomly. Vipul Kumar even included his chauffeur’s number in the list. He got a kick out of doing so. Rajesh Srivastava, in a very innocuous manner, asked his adjutant to get the list of residents from the old peoples’ home concomitant to the club premises.
And so in this manner, they got together a list of one hundred telephone numbers to which they sent a message which read thus:
we are pleased to inform you that your number has been randomly selected in a contest organized by our organization, known by the name of the ‘Devil’s Workshop’. The magnitude of your prize is Rupees One Crore. It is imperative that you collect the prize within seven days of having received this message. Failure to do so will result in the forfeiture of your prize. A nominal processing fee of rupees Five thousand has to remitted by you to account number-------------- , Lucifer banking corporation. At the completion of this process, the sum of Rupees one crore shall be delivered to you in cash and cash only at a location of your choice. This location has to be explicitly mentioned in your reply.
They procured a sim card with some other bloke’s id- the rich could very easily swing this. And then they went about mass messaging. Their diabolical minds worked in a frenzy of excitement- such was the decadence that money had brought with it. They visualized the reaction of the various recipients of their message. Would they be filled with hope, at least momentarily? But of course, that was only human nature. And then immediately cynicism and pessimism would take root and they would dismiss the entire thing as just another hoax. In fact, the majority did that. Those poor retired folk, abandoned in the evening of their life by their children, relegated to old peoples’ homes, would their eyes light up when they read the message, so they could once again buy respect and service, something that was incumbent upon their children to provide them with?
Three days passed and no reply had reached them. Their agitation had also died down. It was a damp squib. Sure, Vipul Kumar, Rohit Fernandez and Vikram Chandra seemed like they would win the wager, but what were a few paltry crores. Then on the fourth day, a message reached them. It was from a chap called Parmesh Pandey. They were really surprised. This unexpected development truly interested them. The chap had actually remitted the said amount in the designated account, which they cross checked. This was really something.
‘Ha haha!!!! You owe me big time boys!!!!!’ exclaimed Rajesh Srivastava in extacy. ‘I knew there was hope in this world. Now I know mankind will survive, no matter what the odds. With hope in his heart and a prayer on his lips, man can even occupy and spawn his kind on another planet.’
‘The address for the drop off is a shack by the old lake road. I’ll ask Manoj to get the cash ready so we can go and drop it off. I do want to see who this Parmesh Pandey is,’ said Rohit Fernandez. Manoj was an accountant at his transport firm, and was accustomed to getting money of this magnitude ready at such short notice, with no questions being asked.
We had left Parmesh and Nirmala on the banks of the lake in the chapter before last. Since then they had moved on very quickly. After a session of intense love making, with a single word still not having being spoken between them- they didn’t even know each other’s name- they had sat and talked the entire night and found that their thoughts more or less ran along the same philosophical lines. It seemed as if they had known each other for eons. Parmesh had always scoffed at this cheesy line when it appeared in mushy romantic movies, but now his cynicism was beginning to ebb, and he realized what the meaning of the term ‘soul mate’ was. Four days with Nirmala Kanth had totally transformed the boy. He had a new hope in his breast. No matter how many more failures he would have to face in times to come, he had Nirmala’s love, which was something that was beyond the petty rules of normal life, something so unconditional, it bordered on the divine.
On the third day after his meeting Nirmala, he received the lottery message. He was amused. He, too, was aware of the great scam that had been afoot to fool gullible people, helpless folks hoping against hope, and swindle their money. It was a crime; nay it was a sin to be hopeful in this world. To be with hope was to be setting oneself up for a great fall. Wasn’t it better to be without hope? To be scared of hoping? But he was redeemed by Nirmala’s love. It gave him the courage to hope for the impossible. To soar in the realm of fantasy; to revel in the youthful fancy that filled his heart.
A part of him was skeptical of the entire deal. After all, hadn’t the police rounded up Nigerian nationals recently who had been behind one of these fake lottery rackets? How could anyone be as stupid as to believe in this nonsense? He sat on the chair by his table in his room, with his phone still in his hand. The thought of Nirmala Kanth came surging into his mind. He was due to meet her in half an hour. To think of her was to become hope personified. As a testament to his new found love, he would reply to the message. He would credit the five thousand rupees that were required as ‘processing charges’. Let the money be washed down the drain. He had to evince belief; he had to exhibit faith, no matter how improbable the outcome.
So he went about replying to the message and transferred the requisite money from his account. After this he went out to meet Nirmala Kanth at the promised rendezvous.
It had so happened, that during the years when Parmesh Pandey was passionately involved with game of snooker- he had hopes of making it big on the professional circuit- he had played a few amateur tournaments at the club where Rajesh Srivastava, Rohit Fernandez, Vipul Kumar and Vikram Chandra were hatching their diabolical scheme. Parmesh Pandey’s number featured in the club’s database. By a quirk of fate, it was this batch of numbers that Rajesh Srivastava and his cohorts had decided to take from the database. And Parmesh had been the only one to have replied to that lottery message.
Parmesh Pandey met Nirmala a little way off the lake, and they decided to go to the apartment that one of her friends had rented. He filled with absolute bliss. He could never have imagined that such joy existed. To be wanted, to be loved, to be cared for- he could die a thousand deaths and come back to experience the same joy.
Nirmala and Parmesh lay exhausted from their session of intense love making. Hitherto, this had been their most passionate encounter. Parmesh still ruminated on the feelings that had surged through him. She on her part was happily satisfied by this lean frail creature- she had loved the ecstasy of it all.
‘You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever met,’ said Nirmala.
‘And you the most wonderful that I have,’ said Parmesh.
‘I’ve got an appointment at the old shack by the lake,’ he said to Nirmala. ‘I want you to come with me.’
And he related to her the goings on of the morning.
‘How can you be this naïve, Parmesh?’ ejaculated Nirmala, incredulously. ‘What has made you hope that you’d actually receive the money?’
‘You have,’ replied Parmesh.
The four millionaires got into the Vikram Chandra’s black Limousine, with the sum of rupees one crore – in cash- in a black nylon bag. They were making their way to the rendezvous point, in order to see this character who had claimed the prize. He had to be totally naïve or completely insane, they thought.
The most basic and universal of all rights was the RIGHT TO HOPE. This right has been in existence long before modern civilizations were formed, preceding constitutions and governments by millennia. For without hope, there is no life.