Fiction

Story: Old Rum Bottles

 By: Narasimha Sharma Veturi

Old rum bottlesI opened my eyes to the frantic chaos of porters pushing my fellow passengers to come in and be the first to carry the luggage of the seemingly rich people. I was reasonably hungry and as I cast a glance through the window straining my back, I realized I was in Pune. With a start, I grabbed my bag and got down from the seedy second-class upper berth and made my way towards the exit amidst curses from people on whose legs I stamped my feet on accidentally. I got down and sat on a nearby bench and waited till the train left which was not until another 15 minutes. I smiled at my silly thought that I could have easily slept 15 more minutes.

As I came out of the station an enthusiastic auto driver came forward and asked me where I was heading to, but soon my listlessness subsided his excitement and he quickly went away looking for other prospects and signaled his friends not to bother with me. I started walking towards the bus stand unlike the first time when I had no clue how to go to my guesthouse and ended up parting with 250 Rupees. I saw the bus to Hinjewadi in its position waiting for its scheduled time to depart, which was a further ten minutes. I lit a cigarette and bought a tea from a nearby vendor and ruffled my hair to clear away the dust that settled on my head. The hot liquid with a generous dose of ginger ran down my throat making me feel invigorated and the city seemed to be less hostile than it was earlier. I paid the vendor and got into the bus just in time.

The hour-long journey was a tedious one with incessant traffic jams due to hordes of people trying to reach their offices in time. When I finally got down at my stop, I felt I could use another cup of that hot ginger tea. With nothing else planned for the day I did eventually have one and made my way towards the guesthouse. As I walked towards my room, I saw Mama mopping the floor with his scrawny back hunched in an awkward arc. I took my sandals in my hands to ensure I don’t spoil the effort but he saw me, smiled in recognition and told it’s okay to walk with them on. I locked myself in my room and hit the bed once again.

I woke up at around 5 in the evening as I heard someone knock my door. I saw Mama and groggily asked him what the matter was. He said that I ate nothing all day and it would be better if I get something. As he left I dozed for a further fifteen minutes before finally getting myself out of bed. I shaved and had a long leisurely bath for about an hour in an effort to make myself presentable at work the next day. I went out in the evening to have something to eat and got back home with a bottle of Old Monk Rum.

The call from my parents and girl friend delayed the drinking session by an hour and by the time I started it was 10 PM. I played some of my favorite songs and started to indulge myself in the rum, I heard a familiar knock. Mama stood at the door with a sheepish smile and I invited him in and motioned him to pour himself some. He never did that himself and instead asked me to fill his steel glass, which he forwarded to me. I made him what I considered a generous drink and he left immediately. We never drank together, on weekdays at least. As the music played mellifluously, the rum I consumed started showing its effect lulling me into a gentle sleep. It was a good lazy day.

********

Days passed and I settled into a relatively comfortable and boring routine juggling my time between office, home, movies and other such trivialities in general. There were a lot of new recruits in my company and some of them chose to stay in our guesthouse, which was reasonably empty most of the year. Their youthful gusto and freshness brought some much needed fervor into the place though sometimes I felt it was intruding my privacy. We played Cricket on weekends and watched, cheered and fought for our favorite IPL teams. Arguments went all night and on few occasions ended in verbal fights, but things usually returned to normal the following day.

Mama came one day knocking on my door to disturb my slumber again. He asked for a chanda as he was planning the Ganesh Chaturthi on a grander scale than usual since we have more number of people now. I gave him a hundred rupees but asked him not to bother me much with everyday rituals. We saw a Ganesh idol two feet tall from our contributions and the puja carried on for 7 days after which, the idol was taken away for Visarjan. All our hostel mates wanted to celebrate after weeklong alcohol abstinence and I was only too willing to join.

We drank to our heart’s content that night though I felt the music was a bit too loud for my comfort. Mama hogged the attention and was visually delighted for it as he danced and sang in his croaky voice. He continued to tell his story of how he came from a family of palanquin bearers and how he survived and got accustomed to the big bad city life. It was clichéd but the matter of fact way in which his narrative went on made it easy to be suitably detached and we were all drunk anyway to absorb everything he said. Towards the end of the night I asked his name and forgot about it the next morning. I don’t recall him answering either.

In three months, many of our hostel mates got bored of our surroundings and wanted to move on to better places. Besides spending winter in our hostel was not such a great idea. It left the hostel empty again with me choosing to stay back along with some others who never bothered checking with each other frequently. The guesthouse once again assumed its melancholy.

********

It was one of those Sundays of intimidating rain that never lets you go out or pours down to force you to stay in and my girl friend chose the day to have a bad argument with me. I was not willing to back out and it was surely not going to end pretty or soon. I kept checking my will and the atmosphere and neither was conducive to make a trip outside to get some food or to catch a movie. I lit a cigarette and it left a bad taste in my mouth and my empty stomach stirred in revolt. Mama came to me and asked me in his customary sheepish smile if I wanted anything but I dismissed him. When finally the calls ended, he was still not asleep and was shifting in his bed. I asked him what the issue was and he replied that his 90 ml for the day was not taken yet. I gave him 100 rupees to get what he wanted but he insisted that I join him. I had the drink in my room and made peace with my girl friend while Mama had his in his bed and snored his way to another rainy morning.

********

Things at my work place were moving with no intent of mine and soon I was offered to go onsite to work from a client location in USA. I was neither happy nor reluctant but accepted to go there since I wasn’t doing much else in Pune. My colleagues arranged a farewell on the day before my scheduled date of flying and I came home late and very drunk. Mama was sitting there on his bed perhaps from the lack of the day’s quota of rum but I was too drunk and weak to care and made my way towards my bed. He followed me as if he knew I won’t be awake too long and asked me directly so as not to waste my time. I gave him money to buy his drink but he again insisted I have some with him. I badly wanted to deny and have even practiced a version of how I should wake up early the next morning and catch up a flight but except for a slight nod of approval, nothing came out. I dozed off as he rushed out to get us the spirits.

I woke up suddenly and saw that it was morning already. I saw a cover, which had a 90 ml rum bottle and another 180ml bottle, both untouched. I went out and saw that Mama was awake and was busy with his chores. He gave me his usual smile and I asked him if he slept well. He told me he did and when I prodded him about why he did not drink his rum, he smiled and said that he was unable to drink it alone. That stung me and I felt guilty and stood there for a while as he continued with his work. My boss’s call came to my rescue asking me to finish my formalities and be travel ready.

I came home after a couple of hours to collect my baggage and told Mama that I would be leaving to USA on job. He wished me good luck and asked me to come back to meet him once if I come to Pune again. I promised him I would and took his leave. I also promised him that I would get him some of the finest scotches in the world once I come back. He told me to get married soon to which I made a gesture of mock admonition.

***********

In the year that I lived away from the country I worked more than I ever did and I missed India more than I ever did. It was neither my jingoism nor the uneasiness in living outside it and I can never point out to that single reason I so badly wanted to be back in India.

My parents came to the airport to receive me and I was immediately rushed to my native place. I was the center of attraction to all my relatives for about a week and though the pampering was different I felt uneasy and irritated after a couple of days. Soon talks about my marriage followed and the whole house seemed to be a daily mess and I needed my sanity and privacy badly. As I was unpacking leisurely on a rare lonely occasion, I saw the scotch I brought to my friends. The bottles suddenly made me remember the promise I made to Mama. I wanted to see him immediately and told my mother that I would be back in a couple of days.

I took a flight to Pune and reached the guesthouse in a taxi. I was exhausted by the journey but I was looking forward to seeing and spending time with Mama. It might be the anticipation that was pent up in me but I felt a nervous excitement as I reached the guesthouse. I could not find him in his usual place and asked an inmate about him. He told me Mama was upstairs. I opened my bag and took out the Glen Livet bottle from it and ascended the stairs.

I saw the figure of Mama from back and recognized him immediately but he was sitting along with another man. They were gulping down their drinks, singing merrily as I approached them and by the looks of it, they came to the end of their bottle. I greeted Mama, who did not seem to recognize me. I sat on the floor beside them and shook hands with the other man who sat opposite staring at me. I introduced myself formally to him and shook Mama vigorously. He did seem to recognize me after a while and when I eventually told him that I came to give him the scotch I brought for him both their eyes lit up. We drank the scotch I brought as I tried to strike a conversation with Mama.

He gulped down the scotch in a single go and stayed silent. The other man followed suit and I was left with a deadly silence. As I started to bring myself to drink mine, they threw up violently for about full five minutes. Then both of them fell back from where they were sitting and passed out. The floor was filled with their vomit and it was stinking with the remnants of the food they ate earlier. More eerie silence followed and I could not make anything out of the situation I found myself in. With enormous reluctance and indescribable guilt I left them both in that situation and asked a maid to clean it up. I took the incomplete bottle along with me. Somehow it didn’t belong there.

********

This story is written by Narasimha Sharma Veturi who is a software engineer by profession and a writer by obsession. He likes to read a lot in his free times and admires the works of Amitav Ghosh and Upamanyu Chatterjee. The author likes to write about movies, cricket and books. He blogs frequently at morningshows.blogspot.in and veturisarma.blogspot.com. He also wrote screenplays for short films and participated in many 55-word fiction and short story contests in the internal blogging platform of his organization and external blogosphere as well.

The author can be reached at  veturisarma@gmail.com

Or

https://www.facebook.com/veturisarma

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