This is what is happening to our country. There are forces that are setting parents against son. Brother against brother. Friend against friend. We are becoming unrecognizable to each other.
– In An Ideal World
‘I’ll meet you at Flurys at six,’ he told Mimi before hanging up. He had expected her to object. Home of European cuisine, it was considered bourgeois by his ex-comrades. One expected to find businessmen in suits there and foreigners yearning for milder stuff in spicy Kolkata. In any case, Flurys was beyond budget for students, meant only for those who could stride past the beggars at the door and order a table by the window.
Mimi didn’t seem to mind Flurys. ‘At six then, give or take a rainy half hour.’
On arrival, Gomes, the head waiter, smiled broadly at Joy. As a regular, he knew Mr Sengupta’s favourite table and led him towards the velvet sofa meant for two. ‘Not there, Gomes.’ Joy stopped him and pointed to the quiet table behind the pillar near the confectionary counter.
The power, as expected, went out after the rains, plunging Flurys into darkness and ruffling the waiters. A momentary gasp withered quickly into sighs as patrons wrestled with their orders. A water carafe crashed onto the floor. Children squealed and ran around the tables upsetting everyone. Bringing over a lit candle to Joy’s table, Gomes apologized, ‘It’s the municipality’s fault, Sir. They’re driving Park Street into the ground! The backup generator will restore lights and fans soon,’ he said, assuming the soothing tone one takes with youngsters. ‘But the air conditioners will have to wait for full power before they restart.’
From behind the pillar, Flurys appeared to Joy like a stage, waiting in the dark for the first act of a play to begin. A pale-blue light accentuated the chandelier, danced off metal and glass, a flashing pendant. Streaking car lights pulsated inside the room like the beam of a lighthouse. He felt like an actor waiting for his cue behind the curtains. Lost in thought, he missed the shadowy form approaching his table, till Mimi tapped on his shoulder and settled down across from him. She was wet from the drizzle, her umbrella dripping, holding firmly on to a soggy overnighter.
‘A candlelit meeting after a lifetime. How romantic!’
‘You have changed,’ Mimi gazed at Joy across the flame. ‘The beard’s gone, and you’ve dyed your hair. But you’re still the lady killer, I bet, as popular among your fellow workers as you were among friends in college.’
Ladykiller! Joy sighed. That honour belonged to his much younger loan officer Jamshed Khan, gazing plaintively all day at Mrs Sen with his almond eyes.
‘Jokes apart, you look much the same as before,’ Mimi dived into her patties then glanced up at Joy. ‘And your son takes after you . . . the same face and eyes, but a different set of lips. Maybe that comes from his mother.’
‘My son! How would you know him?’
Munching studiously, Mimi took her time before answering. ‘Everyone knows Vivek Sengupta, or Bobby, at his university in Manhar. You could say he is as popular as you were, at least among a certain section of students. As an administrator, I meet him quite regularly. Of course, he doesn’t know about us . . . as friends or whatever.’
‘How did you know I was Bobby’s father?’
Mimi shrugged. ‘I saw you. You had come to Manhar when he enrolled as a student, went around the campus and met his profs. You sat next to him during the welcoming ceremony. I was there too, but you didn’t notice me.’
Why didn’t you come forth . . .? Words clawed at Joy’s throat, before he swallowed them back.
‘I thought I’d speak to you after the ceremony, but you were gone by the time I came looking for you.’ Mimi stopped to gauge his reaction, then went on, ‘As director of student affairs, I have Bobby’s file. It has your address and phone number, and bank details for fees.’
‘So, you’ve quit being an activist and become a despot, whipping students into shape!’
‘What activism are you talking about?’ Mimi retorted. ‘Do you have any idea what’s happening in college campuses all over India? It’s nothing short of war.’
‘You mean, like the war we used to fight . . . boycotting exams, calling strikes, barricading, picketing, shouting slogans . . .’
Dropping her knife onto her plate, Mimi gave Joy a long stare. ‘You really don’t know, do you? Our thing was child’s play, a storm in a teacup. All that’s finished. Now you have the real deal. You’ve heard of the Nationalist students, haven’t you?’
Joy nodded with an eye on the little girl at the next table who was badgering her mother for ice cream. ‘Those that want to cleanse the nation of impurities,’ he recited lines read in the papers, making the sign of double quotes in the air.
‘Exactly. They want to create a Hindu homeland in India. They’re talking about a Golden Age. Muslims are outsiders, Christians too; only they are the true inheritors of the soil, its divine children.’
‘But that’s just saying,’ Joy stifled a yawn. ‘Like we used to demand a dictatorship of the proletariat.’
The lights had come back on, and the air conditioners had started to whirr. Tables had filled up, clattering with orders, and waiters dashed back and forth from the kitchen. Reaching over, Joy blew out the candle, the smell of the burnt wick signifying the end of festivities. But Mimi went into full flow.
‘It’s more than words. These students are hell-bent on stopping meat from entering the campus. They want a curfew at the women’s hostel. They’re harassing liberal-minded professors, targeting Muslims, storming plays, banning couples from dating on Valentine’s Day, demanding that the university rewrite the textbooks. The Nationalists are creating havoc.’
This was the Mimi he knew.
‘You know about Altaf, don’t you?’ Mimi gazed unblinkingly at him.
‘The poor Muslim boy who was abducted from his hostel room in our university. He and his friends opposed the Nationalists. Maybe there were some arguments between the two sides. He was kidnapped and taken away. No one knows where he is.’
Joy nodded. He had watched it on the news. The mention of Manhar and Bobby’s university had caught his eye.
‘It has been three months now. There’s no trace of him. Altaf’s mother, Ruksana, has come from her village to look for her son. The poor woman has been going around pleading to everyone, the university administration, the police, the government, but no one’s come forward to help her.’
‘Do you think he might still be alive?’ Joy tapped the empty espresso cup on the table, drawing Gomes’s attention.
‘Can I have one more of these too?’ Mimi spoke under her breath. Her face seemed more strained than when she’d arrived at Flurys. Fidgeting with her spoon, she resumed.
‘That’s the question no one has an answer to. Is he being held captive in a secret hideout? Are they torturing him? Have they . . . finished him off already?’
‘But someone must know, right? He can’t simply disappear into thin air!’
Taking a sip of her espresso, Mimi leant forward on her chair. ‘You can help find Altaf; let his mother know what’s happened to him.’
Joy’s exclamation drew attention to their table.
‘This is why I’ve come all the way from Manhar to plead with you. To meet you face to face, rather than speak on the phone. You can help Altaf and his mother. I wished to meet you urgently, before it’s too late to save him.’
Setting down his cup, Joy collected himself before speaking.
‘How can I help, Mimi? I am a banker. We don’t know about these things. We deal with money, with savings and loans, not kidnapping. If the police won’t help, how can I?’
‘You know someone who knows. You can persuade him to reveal the truth.’ Mimi’s voice took on greater urgency, ‘Your son Bobby can tell us everything that has happened to Altaf.’
‘What!’ Joy felt the shock of a lightning bolt.
In An Ideal World by Kunal Basu has been published by Penguin/Viking. It will be released on January 24, 2022.
Read more about it here: https://penguin.co.in/book_author/kunal-basu-2/