Mrinal had never amounted to much in life. There was a brief period when his mom had thought he’d make something of himself — back in high school, when his dad still had his wits about, and a job at the local dispensary as a compounder, and his liver had not yet been consumed by the hard cheap whiskey he had every other day.
He was a reasonably good student. Reasonably good at sports. And arts. Always getting an A in Application and Personal Neatness, not that anybody knew what those two accomplishments meant or how they were relevant to the job scene the school was evidently readying them for. By all accounts, he was a good, silent type, who never gave any trouble to the teachers. Or disobeyed any rule. He was sociable and had a steady set of friends.
But before he could find his true calling, figure out what he wanted to do with life, or at the end of schooling at least, which was looming large on the horizon, his mom passed away. In an accident, his neighbor, Malhotra uncle, informed him when he got back from school that day and found nobody home and the door locked from the outside.
Col. Malhotra, now retired and old and set in his ways, had tried so hard to come across as sensitive, sympathetic. Going so far as to loosen his shoulders and lean in to pat his head. It must have been hard for him. He was a military man, through and through: six feet tall, broad chest in perpetual attention mode. Much like his rooster that announced the arrival of morning each day on the boundary wall that separated their homes. This man was not given to a show of emotions. Of any kind. But that day he had tried.
His dad, on the other hand, did not. Something inside him shut down completely that day. He no longer talked like the world was a hilarious satire and he had the front row seats. Didn’t crack his ribald jokes, not even after his standard peg, which became two, then four, till he lost count. His mom had laughed silly on those jokes. Even though she tried to stop him. From drinking. From making those jokes. Back when she was around.
His drinking got worse. And he started sleeping till late in the afternoon, missing work, or showing up drunk when the dispensary was about to close for the day. He was drinking more and more. Every rupee he earned, and later begged, borrowed, and stole, went into the service of the bottle. Till everyone knew where to find Mr. Chaudhary when he didn’t show up at home or work. The local Beer and Wine shop, passed out in a gutter, face down, a bottle clutched to his chest.
At first, all the doctors and nurses and the rest of the staff had been understanding. He had, after all, lost his wife. The man was grieving … albeit in his own, self-destructive way. But when months passed, and he refused to come out of his drunken stupor and attend to his job at hand, the people soon tired and eventually he was let go. No salary. No pension. All savings gone. But even in his last days, for some reason, a cheerful memory perhaps of the good old days, he sometimes showed up at the dispensary, characteristically drunk, to catch up with his old friends, most having retired or transferred years ago. There he regained some of his old self. Cracking jokes, ordering phantom tea and samosas, passing out on the bench in the veranda, displacing the outpatient who mumbled and scattered in his wake, till the dispensary was closed and he was chased away by the peon with a broom who ended up paying for his tea and samosas on most days.
After that, with no relatives to fall back on, Mrinal had no choice but to drop out from school. There weren’t many high-paying jobs for a 12th standard dropout. And he found himself moving through several odd jobs. A contractor’s apprentice, a salesperson in a hosiery shop, a delivery boy for Benny’s Best Pizzas, and, when he got a license, a driver to one of the doctor uncles in whose lap he had once sat and played with a stethoscope. He could have joined the army, Col. Malhotra sure did try to get him in. But his feet were too flat.
Not good for getting away quickly, if he remembered right. Though his father had managed to escape life quite well, if you asked him — flat foot or not.
He had a small income now, a reasonably settled life. Sure, it wasn’t worth gloating about, but it was nothing to be ashamed of either. If you hadn’t wanted more, yearned for more. Wondered how it would have all turned out had the Gods favored him? He could have been someone. Important. Worthwhile.
It was with these thoughts on his mind that he came upon the pier. Ready to end his miserable life once and for all.
He glanced at the city lights sparkling like countless stars across the river. At the refinery in the distance breathing fire into the sky … an angry monster eager to swallow the night.
He would have jumped in. Be done with the whole charade of living. He was surely testing the water. Sticking his toes out, inching slowly and steadily toward the edge, waiting to keel over by the sheer pull of gravity. When he heard a loud splash and found himself diving into the river, swimming after the drowning man, a tall, dark gentleman in a three-piece suit by the looks of it, flapping about his hands helplessly, bobbing up and down.