This is what is happening to our country. There are forces that pit the parents against the son. Brother against brother. Friend against friend. We become unrecognizable to each other.
– In an ideal world
“I’ll meet you at Flurys at six o’clock,” he said to Mimi before hanging up. He had expected her to object. Cradle of European cuisine, it was considered bourgeois by its ex-comrades. One expected to find businessmen in suits and foreigners longing for sweeter things in the spicy city of Kolkata. In any case, Flurys was beyond the budget for students, meant only for those who could walk past the beggars at the door and order a table by the window.
Mimi didn’t seem to mind Flurys. “At six o’clock, more or less half an hour rainy.
Upon arrival, Gomes, the maitre d’, gave Joy a broad smile. As a regular, he knew Mr. Sengupta’s favorite table and led him to the velvet sofa provided for two. “Not there, Gomes. Joy stopped her and gestured to the silent table behind the pillar near the candy counter.
The power, as expected, went out after the rains, plunging Flurys into darkness and ruffling the servers. A momentary gasp quickly turned to sighs as customers struggled with their orders. A jug of water crashed to the floor. Children were screaming and running around the tables, upsetting everyone. Bringing 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 soon restore lights and fans,” he said, assuming the soothing tone one takes with young people. “But air conditioners will have to wait for full power before restarting.”
Behind the pillar, Flurys appeared to Joy like a stage, waiting in the dark for the first act of a play to begin. Pale blue light accented the chandelier, dancing across the metal and glass, a flashing pendant. Car flashing lights pulsated inside the room like the beam of a headlight. He felt like an actor waiting for his cue behind the curtains. Lost in thought, he missed the dark shape approaching his table, until Mimi tapped him on the shoulder and sat across from him. She was wet from the drizzle, her umbrella dripping, clutching a soggy nightgown tightly.
‘A candlelight reunion after a lifetime. How romantic!’
“You’ve changed,” Mimi looked at Joy over the flame. “The beard is gone and you have dyed your hair. But you’re still the hitman, I bet, as popular with your colleagues as you were with your friends at college.
Woman killer! Joy sighed. That honor went to her much younger loan officer, Jamshed Khan, who stared plaintively at Ms Sen all day with her almond eyes.
“Jokes aside, you’re pretty much the same as before,” Mimi dived into her patties then looked up at Joy. “And your son takes after you. . . the same face and the same eyes, but a different set of lips. Maybe it comes from his mother.
‘My son! How would you know him?
Studiously munching, 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 fairly regularly. Of course, he doesn’t know us. . . as friends or whatever.
“How did you know I was Bobby’s father?”
Mimi shrugged. ‘I’ve seen you. You had come to Manhar when he registered as a student, toured the campus, and met his teachers. You sat next to him at the welcoming ceremony. I was there too, but you didn’t notice me.
Why didn’t you come out. . .? The words cling to Joy’s throat, before he swallows them back.
“I thought I’d talk to you after the ceremony, but you were gone when I came to pick you up. Mimi paused to gauge his reaction, then continued, “As director of student affairs, I have Bobby’s file. It contains your address and telephone number, as well as your bank details for charges.
“So you stopped being an activist and became a despot, shaping the students!”
“What activism are you talking about? Mimi retorts. ‘Do you have any idea what is going on in college campuses all over India? It is nothing less than war.
“You mean, like the war we used to fight. . . boycotting exams, calling strikes, barricading, picketing, shouting slogans. . .’
Dropping her knife on her plate, Mimi gave Joy a long look. “You really don’t know, do you?” Our thing was child’s play, a storm in a teacup. It’s all over. Now you have the real deal. You’ve heard of student nationalists, haven’t you?
Joy nodded with one eye on the little girl at the next table who was pestering her mother for ice cream. “Those who want to purify the nation of its impurities”, he recited lines read in the newspapers, making the sign of double quotation marks in the air.
‘Exactly. They want to create a Hindu homeland in India. They speak of a golden age. Muslims are foreigners, Christians too; only they are the true heirs of the soil, its divine children.
“But that’s just to say,” Joy stifled a yawn. “As we demanded a dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The lights had come on again and the air conditioners had started humming. Tables had filled, clattering with orders, and servers were coming and going from the kitchen. Leaning down, Joy blew out the candle, the smell of the burning wick signifying the end of the festivities. But Mimi went full throttle.
‘It’s more than words. These students are determined to keep meat out of campus. They want a curfew at the women’s hostel. They harass liberal-minded professors, target Muslims, storm plays, ban couples from dating on Valentine’s Day, demand that the university rewrite textbooks. The nationalists are wreaking havoc.
It was the Mimi he knew.
“You know about Altaf, don’t you? Mimi looked at him without blinking.
“The poor Muslim boy who was abducted from his hotel room at our university. He and his friends opposed the Nationalists. There may have been arguments between the two parties. He was kidnapped and taken away. Nobody knows where he is.
Joy nodded. He had seen it on the news. The mention of Manhar and Bobby’s college had caught his attention.
‘It’s been three months now. There is no trace of him. Altaf’s mother, Ruksana, came from her village to look for her son. The poor woman started pleading with everyone, the university administration, the police, the government, but no one came forward to help her.
“Do you think he might still be alive?” Joy patted the empty espresso cup on the table, catching Gomes’ attention.
‘Can I have one more too?’ Mimi spoke in a low voice. Her face seemed more tense than when she had arrived at Flurys. Playing with her spoon, she resumed.
This is the question to which no one has an answer. Is he being held captive in a secret hiding place? Are they torturing him? Have they . . . has he already finished it?
‘But someone has to know, right? He can’t just vanish into thin air!
Taking a sip of her espresso, Mimi leaned forward in her chair. “You can help find Altaf; let his mother know what happened to him.
Joy’s exclamation drew attention to their table.
“That’s why I came all the way from Manhar to implore you. To meet you face to face, rather than talking on the phone. You can help Altaf and his mother. I wanted to meet you urgently, before it was too late to save him.
Putting down her cup, Joy composed herself before speaking.
“How can I help you, Mimi?” I am a banker. We know nothing of these things. We deal with money, savings and loans, not kidnappings. 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 grew more urgent: “Your son Bobby can tell us everything that happened to Altaf.
‘What!’ Joy felt the shock of lightning.
In an ideal world by Kunal Basu was 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/