“Objects of Desire”

This is a story that appeared in the 2017 anthology ‘Madras on my Mind’, published by Harper Collins.

I had become friends with the editors of the collection, Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, on the sidelines of an event at Kala Ghoda some years earlier, at which Krishna and I were on the same panel (books of ours were being released). I had later read his book, and it was sharp and funny, and so were the two of them in real life.

So when they invited me to write a story for the Madras anthology, I was happy to oblige. I proposed a recounting of a notorious pot hunt that I had undertaken during my college years, and they accepted. It was a story I had told at many get-togethers since graduating, but when I got down to it, it felt a little silly for someone of my age (50-plus at the time) to write about. I came up with a fictionalised version set at a college reunion, featuring disguised, grown-up avatars of my batchmates – our batch had indeed celebrated its 25th anniversary reunion the previous year (I hadn’t gone). But after some to-and-fro, Chitra and KSD decided to stick to the non-fiction version.

What I have posted below is the fiction version, which has not seen the light of day prior to this. To read the published story, click here and download the laid-out PDF (71kB).

The resort was in near-complete shutdown. Outside, the wind raged and howled in frustrated fury, searching for a way in.

‘It’s like a wild animal baying for our blood,’ thought Beardo. ‘A mythical beast, a force of nature intent on wreaking revenge on us for the depradations we have wrought upon these shores.’

He liked to compose thoughts in his mind as sentences that he could later insert into stories. This one was a doozy, and he slotted it away in a mental pigeonhole.

‘You know, Beardo,’ Shark broke in on his thoughts, ‘if you ever write this up, you should start the story with “It was a dark and stormy night”.’

Laughter ricocheted around their small group, which had commandeered a clutch of comfortable chairs in one of the spacious suites.

The reunion had split up into small coteries, some bluff and backslapping, some caught up in intense discussion, some gathered around the pool table and gym equipment. The composition of the groups, Beardo noted, was much the same as it had been in college. Which was interesting, since those associations had been broken and reformed in unanticipated ways in the years since. Partnerships had formed that during their college days would have seemed incongruous, even suspicious. In life, evidently, people could come together for reasons other than a common language, or a shared fanaticism for Pink Floyd’s music, or a mutual interest in abusing the same substances. But back again in this familiar-unfamiliar setting, some invisible polarity had drawn them all back into the same formations that they had found comfort in a quarter of a century ago.

What had drawn their particular group together back then? Beardo wondered. It was more than just the arbitrary proximity of being in the same wing in the same hostel. They had been the cool group of their year. But then, there were other cliques which probably felt the same way about themselves. Where their group had been demonstrably different was that they were the Doers. Even before they were in their final year, they were the ones running most things – the Literary Club, the Quiz Club, various sports teams, the hostel mess, the students’ canteen.

It was hardly surprising that all of them had taken entrepreneurial routes in their careers, some sooner than others, some with more success than others. This reunion had drawn them in from their dispersed locations — from as close as Goa and Hyderabad to as far-flung as the west coast of the United States.

Reminded of an oft-played line from a favourite college-years music album, Beardo thought to himself, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, from Los Angeles, California – the Doers’, and grinned.

Somewhere upstairs, the wind had found itself an open window and was banging it about savagely, shaking it from side to side like an animal with its prey. The group fell into a short silence as they listened to the persistent clattering. Some member of the resort staff must have dealt with the oversight quickly, as it soon stopped.

Cherry’s new wife rebooted the conversation.

‘Your nicknames intrigue me,’ she said. ‘None of you seem to call each other your actual names.’

‘None of our names are worth being spoken out loud, Newbie,’ Valentino replied. ‘Much sexier to give ourselves these noms de plumes. Besides, by IIT regulations, every third person admitted has to be named Srinivasan, so how else do you differentiate?’

Beardo was happy the ‘Newbie’ appellation had caught on. He had deployed it heavily from the moment they met, and the others had taken it up. To all appearances, it simply alluded to the fact that she was a newcomer to their group. Only Beardo and his wife knew that he had coined it with another, more secret allusion — that it was short for Nubile Young Thing, a reference to the fact that she was more than twenty years younger than Cherry, who was in his late forties.

‘I don’t know why it’s bothering you so much,’ Supriya had said to him finally, after he’d been going on about the age difference for a while as she packed their bags for the trip. ‘He’s a brilliant man, or so you’ve told me often enough, and she must be captivated with his mind.’

‘Maybe, but for him to marry some bimbo…’

‘You don’t know that she is a bimbo,’ she had responded angrily. ‘Don’t make these judgements even before you’ve met her.’

Supriya had been right. Newbie was patently very intelligent herself, a neurobiologist who was making waves in her field. She was also cheerful and sociable, and had quickly made a positive impact on Beardo. Without thinking about it, without perhaps even being conscious of it, he had spent most of the past two days revolving around her in an elliptical orbit, never allowing himself to get too far away, always willing to be drawn close by her charm and vivacity.

‘Cherry I can understand,’ she now said. ‘Short for Cherian, of course. And Beardo I can figure out – Bong, quite weird, those wispy chin whiskers. But Valentino, Shark, Walla… where did these come from?’

‘Valentino was some reference to a movie of Rudolf Valentino’s, I forget what,’ Beardo answered. ‘Shark – let me think, I think that was from “Mack the Knife”, right?’

He looked at Shark for confirmation, who responded only with something between a smile and a grimace.

‘”Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, and he shows them pearly white”,’ Beardo sang the line from the song. ‘Have you seen his teeth? Still pearly white!’

‘That’s only because he’s got a new set of dentures,’ Valentino scoffed.

‘Yes, like you’ve got a new head of hair,’ Shark retorted.

‘What about Walla?’ Newbie was persistent in the face of the digressions.

‘Hmmm, anyone remember where that started? Walla, why are you called Walla?’

Walla had his characteristic crooked grin on. ‘God knows!’ he said.

‘It was from ragging,’ said Shark. ‘I vaguely remember, he had to sing something that had the words “walla, walla” in it, and dance like a vamp while singing it, and he did an exceptionally good job of it. Hey, maybe we can get him to do it again. Come on, Walla, dance, dance!’

He pummelled Walla’s arm as he spoke. Walla absorbed the blows like a good-natured bear and continued to grin silently. Eventually, it was Walla’s wife Madhu who put her hand up to block Shark.

‘Stop it,’ she said in mock anger.

‘Yes, mother,’ Shark said, and rolled his eyes dramatically.

He had come for the reunion on his own – bringing the wife and kids all the way from LA, he had told them, would have been far too expensive. Possible, Beardo thought, but he knew he wasn’t the only one wondering if something was up with the marriage.

Valentino, on the other hand, had never married, which had made him a target of speculation of an entirely different nature.

When they’d all been in college together, they had all known everything about each other. Separated by distances and lifestyles, they now had hidden depths which only provided fodder for the imagination.

The rain had now picked up, and it sounded like the resort was being peppered with buckshot from an endless array of shotguns.

‘Wonder what it would be like to be out in that,’ said Newbie, jerking her head to indicate the storm.

‘I can tell you – I have the experience,’ Beardo responded.

‘Oh damn! Are you going to tell that story again?’ Supriya let out a long-suffering sigh. ‘I should have known that was coming, with this bloody cyclone!’

‘What story?’ Newbie asked.

‘Beardo’s famous pot hunt in the cyclone,’ replied Valentino. ‘The stuff of legend.’

‘The problem with legends,’ Supriya complained, ‘is that they get repeated over and over. I must have heard this story at least twenty times!’

‘But she’s never heard it,’ said Beardo, ‘and besides, you yourself say that it grows bigger and more dramatic every time I tell it. So it’s like a new story each time.’

Madhu stood up. She looked genuinely upset.

‘I thought I was done with these things,’ she said forcefully. Turning to Newbie, she continued, ‘When these guys were fresh out of college, every get-together would be the same – drag out these juvenile nicknames, get drunk, tell the same stories, laugh hysterically all the while, and end up asleep all over each other. Those of us who weren’t from their college were completely excluded all the time. Thankfully, Senthil and I moved to the States and got away from those awful evenings. Now, they come back here, find a new audience in you, and are at it again. Anyway, I’m out of it. I’m going to my room. Senthil, are you coming?’

His face completely screwed up as if he was trying to swallow something very sour, Walla said in a low voice, ‘I think I’ll stay for a little while.’

Madhu stared at him, arms akimbo.

‘Okay, but don’t be too long, and don’t drink any more,’ she said. ‘You don’t want a hangover in this weather.’

She walked off, her clicking heels punctuating her stride. Walla watched her go, then went over to the bar and returned with a drink, his face impassive.

Newbie dragged her chair a little closer to Beardo’s and sat up in it, facing him. That put her at an angle in front of Supriya. Sneaking a glance at his wife, Beardo saw that she was watching the younger woman with hooded eyes.

‘Okay, tell me the story,’ Newbie said.

‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ Beardo began, playing for a repeat laugh that was far more cursory this time around. ‘Much like this one. It was cyclone season, and things were wet and miserable like they always are around that time of year. Our rooms stank from the clothes we would string up which would never dry. Wet leaves would fly in while we were trying to study and slap us in the face. Mattresses and bedclothes felt damp and smelt dank. Going anywhere was an ordeal, so we just stayed in our rooms and drank coffee, because booze ran out quickly and there was no way anyone was going to cycle to the campus gate to get refills.’

Though it had been a while since he had told this story, he had the practised raconteur’s ability to remember sentences wholesale, and the phrases popped up easily again from memory banks where they had been stored away.

‘It was Valentino who set things in motion. He was going from room to room, asking if anyone had any pot, and when he found that no one did, he set up a long, loud lamenting. His behaviour just added to our overall malaise, so I went to my room to get away from his complaining. I had secretly stashed away a quarter of Old Monk which I hadn’t told anyone else about, and I quickly swigged down the two fingers of booze that was left at the bottom of the bottle. Neat.

‘I put on some music and was lying in bed feeling a little warmed up when I was struck by what seemed like a mind-blowing idea. What if I were able to come up with some joints for everyone, I thought. How amazing would that be? The guys would all be completely zapped out of their skulls!

‘It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. There was this aunty in the Velachery village that abutted the campus wall not far from where the hostels were, who was our regular supplier. I just had to go and get a few potlums from her the way we would in clement weather.’

‘You see, babe?’ Cherry interrupted my narration. ‘You see why we called him Beardo? It was because of notions like this. And let me tell you, this wasn’t even the craziest idea he came up with during those four years, okay? Un-hunh!’

The interruption caused Beardo to look around their little group. Supriya had curled up in her chair, and seemed to be asleep. On the other side, Shark, Walla and Valentino had pulled back a little with their glasses of whisky and were in a quiet conference of their own. No doubt plotting the next big techno revolution. Cherry was oscillating back and forth between their conversation and his storytelling.

‘Go on!’ Newbie exhorted Beardo, her eyes shining. ‘What did you do?’

She was now leaning forward in her chair. He mirrored her move, so their faces were not far apart. When he continued, his voice was quieter and lower, as if they were alone in the room.

‘I put on my raincoat, checked the corridor to ensure the coast was clear, and sneaked out. Getting to the Vales gate was tough enough. The road was slick and slippery, and littered with twigs and branches blown off the trees. The wind kept changing direction, making it tough for me to keep my balance on the cycle. The rain seemed to be coming in horizontally, and struck my face and arms with the sting of small pebbles. Took me twice as long as it should have, but eventually I got there.

‘I dumped my cycle in the open shed next to the gate and walked out. In our days, the gates were always open and there were no guards during the daytime. Now, of course, things have changed, and the campus has begun to feel like Guantanamo or something.’

Supriya, who he thought had been sleeping, suddenly spoke, without opening her eyes. ‘You know that someone’s over the hill when they start using the phrase “in our days”.’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ Beardo responded, a trifle annoyed at finding that she wasn’t asleep and unusually riled by what she had said. The thought, ‘You’re no spring chicken yourself’ entered his mind but he still had the sense not to let it out of his mouth.

‘Outside the gate,’ he continued, ‘it was like a watery hell. Velachery was a regular village at the time, with mud tracks where today the roads are all tarred. I don’t even remember if it was electrified.’

He would have asked Cherry for clarification, but the man had turned his chair around and joined the other men in their discussion. Beardo carried on with his narrative.

‘Beyond the campus gate, the path dipped away downward into darkness. It felt like it was a jungle out there. Literally, not in the figurative sense. To whatever extent I could see, there were shrubs, bushes and trees thrashing about like frenzied dervishes in the wind. I was a little daunted. I stood in the little frame of light cast through the gate by a tubelight inside the campus for a short while, and wondered whether I should step out beyond it. I’ve never quite ridden myself of my childhood fear of the dark, and this was as dark as it gets.

‘The desire to shock and awe the idiots back in the hostel, though, was stronger than my fear. I stepped out. Within a few steps, I was in water up to my knees.’

‘Last time he told this story, it was till his shins.’ Supriya interjected again, looking at him but speaking to Newbie. ‘Before that, his ankles. The water level keeps going up.’

This time her eyes were wide open, and she had a ‘look’ in them. Beardo decided to ward off her evil eye with a dose of humour.

‘Well, that’s how it works with floods and flood tales,’ he said.

Newbie smiled, and he felt gratified. Not allowing Supriya time to say anything else, he hurried on with the story.

‘The water had turned the path into a squelching, sucking morass and I had barely taken a couple of steps before my foot came away without my slipper on it. I tried to feel around with my foot, but the damn thing seemed to have been swallowed by the earth. It was slithery underfoot, and I wasn’t able to stay steady with my weight on one leg, so I had no option but to put my bare foot down. It was a moment of sheer horror, let me tell you. Who knows what I was going to be in for – snakes? scorpions? thorns? sludgepisscrapmucksnot?’

‘Aargh!’ Newbie made a face – equal measures of disgust and delight – and laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. ‘I can just imagine your plight!’

‘Strangely, though, putting that foot down was like a liberation. Once I had mud or whatever squelching between my toes, it was like, what worse could happen? On my next step, I discarded my other slipper and went ahead barefoot. Thankfully, Aunty’s hut was not too far away and I was familiar enough with the route that I would have been able to find my way there blindfolded. Despite all of nature’s resistance to my progress, I arrived at her door in a few minutes.

‘The hut had no door, just a rectangular entrance with a plastic sheet to shield the view inside. Normally, we would find Aunty or one of her layabout kids sitting outside and would register our order with whoever there was. On this ocassion, of course, I had to stand on the mud platform which raised the entire hut above the level of the water and yell ‘Aunty, aunty’. The wind tried to drown me out but I waited for a lull and shouted as loud as I could.

‘A small flap of the plastic sheet was moved out of the way – it had all been tied into place for protection from the storm – and a face filled the gap. Even in the dim light, I could see the complete amazement on the man’s face.

‘”Enna?”, he asked open-mouthed. “Potlum”, I replied.’

Newbie had been giggling ever since Beardo described arriving at the hut.

‘He must have thought you’re completely mad,’ she said, slapping her forehead. ‘By the way, you used this word before as well – potlum. What’s a potlum?’

‘It was the basic unit of grass that you could buy. Aunty and others like her would portion off little clumps of the plant and wrap them in newspaper. These packets were called potlums, perhaps still are, I don’t know.’

‘Ah, right. Okay, continue.’

‘So Aunty’s head replaced the man’s and she said a lot of stuff in Tamil that I didn’t understand.’

‘I was meaning to ask – how come you were in Madras for four years, and never learned Tamil?’

‘I’ve never been good at picking up languages, unlike Supriya. And at IIT, we were quite self-contained in our little cocoon of the campus, where everyone spoke to everyone else in English, so there was really no pressure to learn.’

He looked at Supriya, but she had on an inscrutable expression.

‘In this case,’ he continued, ‘ I didn’t really need to know what Aunty was saying. I just kept repeating ‘potlum’ from time to time, and eventually she thrust three of them at me through the gap in the plastic. I grabbed them, stashed them away – in all the madness, I had had the foresight to bring a plastic packet to keep the potlums dry – and headed back. By now, I was positively enjoying being drenched all over and having the mud grab at my feet every time I lifted them up.

‘Once I was back in the campus, I washed my feet in a puddle, got back on my bike and teetered back to the hostel. Now the anticipation of people’s reactions was really clawing at me. I raced up the stairs, and peeked around the corner. I could see the gang gathered at the far end of the wing. My room was just the second one from this side, and I was able to slip in without anyone noticing.’

Suddenly, Supriya got to her feet and stretched.

‘I’m really sleepy,’ she announced. ‘I’m going to head off.’

‘But this is where it gets really funny,’ Beardo exclaimed.

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ she retorted. ‘I’ve only heard it a thousand times. Good night, Newbie, and God help you.’

Newbie made a few noises of protest, but cursory enough that it was clear that she didn’t mean them. Supriya bid farewell to the other guys, and left.

‘I had thought the story was done,’ Newbie asked, after the door had closed behind Beardo’s wife. ‘But you said it gets even funnier after this?’

‘Not much more left, but it’s a suitably grand finale,’ Beardo smiled. ‘So I towelled myself off quickly, put on some fresh clothes and got right into making the joints. Now here’s the thing. In our wing, we all had some unspoken roles vis-a-vis joint rolling. Mine was stripping – extracting the tobacco from the cigarette and mixing it with the grass. As I didn’t have a table lamp, the drying of the grass before it was mixed with the tobacco would usually be done by Cherry, whose room was the preferred hang-out when getting high.’

‘Really?’ Newbie snorted with laughter. ‘Professor Cherian, the junkie? Who would have known!’

She gave her husband’s back a fond glance, but he remained oblivious.

‘We were all a little wild,’ Beardo said, and felt a little twinge as soon as he said it. In any book, that would have been a line spoken by a purposeless old man, he felt. He quashed the feeling, shaking his head as if that would dislodge the undesirable thought.

‘Anyway, so now I was wondering how to dry the grass. I cast around my room for a suitable device, and hit upon the toaster.’

‘The toaster!’ Newbie said with another snort. ‘That would be like what, 300 degrees?’

‘Engineering was never my strong suit,’ Beardo grinned. ‘Anyway, so I stuffed the three potlums into the toaster, pushed down the knob and started stripping a couple of cigarettes. When I finished, I turned around and discovered two columns of fragrant smoke rising from the toaster slots. I released the pop-up lever, and up came three charred lumps. In a panic, I turned the toaster upside down and shook the smoking lumps onto the bed. Two of them, which had been in a slot where one of the heating elements didn’t work, were salvageable, but the third potlum was glowing red.’

Newbie was now rocking with laughter in her chair. ‘You’re mad!’ she gurgled hysterically.

‘But there’s method in my madness. I couldn’t even touch the glowing potlum, so I left it alone and tried to strip away the charred paper from the grass in the other two. Singed my fingertips a little, but managed. The grass was nice and crisp, perfect for rolling. Congratulating myself at getting the plan back on track, I turned my attention to the third potlum.’

He paused for dramatic effect.

‘To my horror, the potlum had burnt its way through my mattress! The entry wound was a small hole, but inside I could see the cotton smouldering away nicely. As you can understand by now, I’m not the best man in a crisis. For a few moments, I just turned this way and that, trying to find something to put out the impending fire with. The only even slightly fluid thing I could see was a can of condensed milk – another of my secret indulgences that I hid away from my rapacious wingmates. But that even I could tell would not be the best thing to use for this situation.

‘Part of what was keeping me from doing the right thing was the last remnant of hope of getting my plan to bear fruit, but finally I figured it wasn’t going to happen. I rushed out of my room and ran down the wing to the bathrooms at the end. En route, of course, I had to burst through the knot of chaps gathered there. In passing, I noticed the zapped, enquiring faces but I couldn’t pause.

‘I filled a mug with water from the sink and ran back. By the time I got to my room, all of eleven doors way, my mug was less than half full. With no option but to be optimistic about it, I poured this paltry amount into the hole in the mattress. That part of the burning bedlinen sizzled and hissed, but it was quite evident that the subterranean smouldering had spread much further. Smoke was rising from many parts of the mattress, which had begun to resemble a terrain dotted with hot springs.

‘Luckily for me, Shark had followed me on my water-bearing trip back from the bathroom. He turned out to be a better man for the season – quickly taking in the scene, he grabbed hold of a non-smoking corner of the mattress, dragged it out of the room and heaved it over the parapet and into the muddy, rain-soaked courtyard below.’

By this time, Newbie was laughing so much that the others in the room had stopped chatting and turned to look at her. Infected by her laughter, they all had smiles on their faces.

‘So someone enjoyed the story, huh?’ Cherry asked.

Beardo grinned back. He was feeling exhilarated himself.

Newbie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and asked, ‘Then what?’

‘That’s it,’ Beardo answered. ‘I had to tell all these guys the whole story, and they fell about just like you’re doing. But a few months later, when I packed up and went home after we graduated, I had the most difficult time explaining to my mother why my mattress was in the condition it was.’

‘No! You took it back with you?’

‘Are you kidding? Of course I did! I still have it with me. You think I’m going to get rid of that?’

‘That’s priceless. I’m going to have to come visit so I can check out this famous mattress.’

She winked at Beardo, who felt his stomach lurch. Did she mean anything by that?

Soon afterwards, the rest of them also decided to call it a night, and everyone headed off to their respective rooms.

After his night-time rituals, Beardo slipped into bed beside Supriya. Putting his arm around her, he lay in the darkness, slowly drifting off as he listened to what was a steady but no longer tempestuous patter of rain on the windowpane.

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