So Mr Five-Two decided to buy an air-conditioner for the first time in his fifty-plus life. Mr. Five-Two did have an a-c installed in one room of his flat, an old monster given to him by someone, but it was one that cost hundreds of rupees every time it wheezed out some simulacra of cold air. The machine was as economical to run as an IAF Mig-21 and about just as dangerous — at full throttle, there was every chance that the vibrating 2-ton monster would fly out and decapitate Mr 52 as he attempted to work in the afternoon or sleep at night. In any case, despite this growling behemoth, Mr 52 found his computer was getting hot. Besides, monkey-see, monkey-do, Mr 52’s friend, the younger Mr Buddhi G.V. Baldnose had just bought a new a-c. As 52 and BGV snatched a taxi and made their way to Esplanade one evening, Baldnose defended his purchase: “I don’t need one! Aami kintu shokhto maal! (I’m a hard nut!) Aamaar goromey kissu hoy na! (heat doesn’t affect me at all!) You know, I need to be out in the field, in tribal areas and other hot places, so I can’t allow myself to get used to! Kintu wife wanted, so what to do!” BGV further explained that this a-c was now causing major marital discord. “After a night under that machine my face swells up, my eyes are puffed, I can’t breathe, but wife doesn’t care, she is toh verihappi.” Mr 52 sympathized. So did the taxi-driver. “Yes, Babu! Look! Shobbai bolchhey (everyone is saying) a-c, a-c, a-c! Now they even want these yellow-blacks to have a-c’s. But the way things are going for us, there will be no taxis in this city in two years!”
After eating a shengara each at K.C. Das (air-conditioned), 52 and BGV found themselves shouldering their way into a big, crowded electronics store and asking for the air-conditioner section. It was not clear exactly how this came about but now the two men were surrounded by split and window models, 2-stars, 3-stars, 5-stars and even some spaceships with ‘inverter technology’. No matter how BGV now equivocated, the dynamic saleswoman commanding the a-c section wasn’t about to let a clear full toss like Mr 52 escape un-punished. In fifteen minutes Mr 52 was the proud owner, if not quite yet the possessor, of a 1-ton split Panictras machine. Yes, the saleswoman was giving her personal, nijer naamey, own name, guarantee the machine would be delivered and set up the day after the next, here was her personal mobile number in case of any problem. It was only after the payment procedure was complete that she raised the topic of the power-cuts and how they were expected to increase. No, she herself did not have an a-c at home, it was very difficult for her kid to study. Well, actually the owner should have given her one, just as a commission, or at least at a major discount, but, sir, you know these maaliks, what they are like.
On the way home in the taxi, 52 and BGV shook their heads and remarked on the fact that this woman, who froze all day selling cold air to people, had to go home to the warm downdraft of a fan. Then they began discussing the difference between BGV’s new a-c and the one 52 had just purchased. The taxi-driver snorted. “Ayercundissun khareedey hain? (Have you just bought an a-c?) Achha kiye! (Well done!) Because, if they don’t increase taxi fares there will be no taxis soon! Have you seen the line of new taxis sitting at Garchha? No drivers! In a year or so, those of you without cars can just sit at home in your a-c’s!”
On the saleswoman’s own-name guarantee delivery day, Mr Five-Two found himself boiling. First he was told by the people at Panickaikin that he hadn’t registered for installation. After registering he was told there was no chance the a-c would be delivered that day. When he called his saleswoman’s mobile number a girl told him ma had gone to the doctor. After a while Mr 52 got hold of an installation engineer at Panicpool on the phone. The man took down the registration number and then he snarled at someone: “Ei, paankha-ta on korbi!” (Switch on that fan, will you?) This brought home to Mr 52 that almost everyone he was dealing with that day probably hated him for being able to afford an a-c. Then, another woman at the big electronics store told him the police had stopped the maal at Howrah and they were trying to cajole the cops into releasing all the arrested air-conditioners. Just as 52 was giving up hope, he got a phone call from an irate tempo driver — where the hell was his flat? When the delivery man and his assistant arrived bearing the boxes, 52 offered them water and a tip. Asking for more, the delivery-walla was poetic: “Babu, naya a-c aya hai. Ab toh kab, duss saal ke baad bheynt hoga, kuch, thoda jyaada dey dijiye na! (You’ve just a got a new a-c, sir. Who knows when we’ll meet again, maybe in ten years, please give us some more!)” Before the man left, 52 established that he got Rs 15 per delivery; little wonder that he was expecting to be doing the same job in ten years’ time.
The leader of the two young men who came from Panic-Arrear’s installation department was being paid a bit more, a massive Rs 6000 per month, that is, one-fourth the price of the a-c he was installing at Mr Five-Two’s flat and one-fifth or one-sixth of some other models. The day after the delivery, the two young men began to hammer into the wall of the room where the a-c was to go. After a few minutes the men realized they were boring into concrete and not brick, after a few more minutes they really cursed when they realized it was a ten-inch beam and not the thinner ones they were used to holing through. As Mr 52 watched in fascination and horror, the two men took turns to attack the wall, making the concrete chips ricochet off the walls of the room. After a while, the chips began to shoot out into the neighbouring building’s parking lot, little pellets bouncing off the new cars parked below. After a couple of hours of crude hand-to-hand combat with brackets, pipes, bricks and circuits, one of the men standing un-tethered for a long time on a window ledge with a four-storey drop, the a-c was finally installed. Drenched in sweat, the two young men stood in the sealed room, absorbing the quiet wash of cool air they had just created. Then they took their money and left for the next job.
That evening, Mr 52 sat at his computer, enjoying the deep-freeze produced by the clean white Panikachi. Every now and then, he looked up briefly, hypnotized by the flap of the gleaming unit as it dipped and flowered like the wing of a jet-plane. A ping announced an in-dropping email. 52 scrolled down the message which had images of a huge new multi-storey coming up in Bombay. Every apartment of this building had a ‘swimming-pool balcony’ where tiny, computer-generated flat-owners in swimming costumes lounged, dived or sipped cocktails while dipping their perfectly formed bare legs. It was not clear from the images whether these pool-conies had retractable windows that could seal them off from the dirty Bombay weather outside and into nice, quiet air-conditioning. The first text of the chain email said “Water-problem? What water-problem? Take a look at the future!” The next recipient had added his own take and Mr 52 shivered slightly as he read it: “Good. When the revolution comes it will be easier to drown the mother-sellers.”