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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guy Next Door

Citizen Gautam Naik shares his fiction.

My Phone rang on a chilly January morning in office. And what happened next gave me the biggest of surprise in life. I learnt lessons which I cannot forget rest of my life.  The call was about Manish, my new neighbour who lived next door.
I met Manish first time on the same day he occupied house next door. It was a rainy night in June. I was trying to get hold of TV Remote which was in the firm grip my wife. I hate these soap operas. While my wife hates bombastic news anchors shouting at the top of their voices and making life of other panellist miserable. She feels how  that can entertain anyone after a long day in office? But then she doesn’t get my point. Who wants to cry over the fate of a newly married lady in palatial house as shown in these soaps? Anyways it’s an eternal dilemma across the families in India. Now both of us had a competition from my eight years old daughter. She always wanted to see one of those Japanese cartoons. But then time being you could scold her and ask her to do her homework. Once she would be a teenager, and then god only knows what would happen? Suddenly the bell rang.  I was wondering who it could be at that hour of the day. I opened the door.
I saw a tall guy with an athletic build, dressed in three fourth jeans and T shirt.  Did I know him?
He smiled and said “Hi, I am Manish, Manish Brar. I have rented the flat next to yours.”
I said “Hello, nice to meet you” and we shook hands.

I realized that finally Desai had got a tenant. Desais stay in Mumbai and had bought the flat as an investment. The family staying earlier on rent had shifted to Nagpur. He was showing the flat to many prospective tenants.
Brar is a typical Punjabi surname. Why did Desai rent the flat to a Punjabi? Was he unable to find any Marathi family? Not that I had any problems with Punjabis but challenge was to speak in Hindi. Speaking in English was easier but English conversation sounded too formal to me.
 He said “I am sorry for disturbing you at this hour but wanted to know if you have an electric tester. I need to open a switch board as fan is not working”
“I know I won’t get any electrician at this hour. And we cannot sleep without fan in summer” said he with a charming smile. I wanted to remind him that the monsoons had started and summer had turned into rainy season.
I went to my room, searched for the tester and luckily found it. Maybe some people are born lucky. I am unable to find such odd tool even in my own house, when I need it.
I offered him coffee but he said he did not want to give us more trouble. He promised that he will surely drop in during weekend.
We made a point to call whole family that weekend. They came is sharp at 6 pm. We had decided on that time as its non lunch non dinner time. Now this is very typical of my clan as then we can get away with serving tea-coffee and light snacks items. But then more importantly we were not sure of eating preferences of that new family. It is always rare for guest to turn sharp at decided time here in India so were bit unprepared when they actually turned up at six pm. We felt embarrassed as we had to make them wait for more than they expected to spend with us. Maybe they had planned something after our home visit as we could feel their uneasiness after 7.30.
It was good to know the man and his family. Manish passed out from a premier management institute and was working for a consulting company. His wife was into HR with IT Company. They had two kids. Manish had come to Pune after working for fourteen years in the US. And since the company he wanted to work for in India and the business group of that company was located in Pune, he had chosen Pune over other Indian cities. It was a poster book family of new Indian metropolis. They could go off as models in any housing ad as we see in Pune. In fact his wife can pass off as model in any ad herself. Some people have everything in life including Punjabi background. Punjab is India and India is Punjab as they show in Indian films. Everything about them is larger than life. And we Marathis always have inferiority complex for their well built physic, handsome looks, fair colour, fancy food and beverages, overhyped and over the top emotions, and so on.  Manish also had an army background. His father is a retired brigadier. Army people are made differently and you will make out after a small conversation with them. My wife found out that Mrs Sanjana Brar was from a Doon school background from affluent Delhi based Business family. Manish and Sanjana met during a college fest in Delhi and were going around 4 years.  Then Manish migrated to New York through a new job posting. They got married after a year.  They are now married for 13 years . They had two sons; 10 years old and 7 years old: Armaan and Arnav. They will now go to a famous IB school just started in Pune. Kids speak in typical US accent adding to discomfort for my daughter who goes to a vernacularly strong English medium school popular among my clan and locality. Manish’s parents stay in Nainital and have a great bungalow at a great hill location. Sanjana’s family had a flat in good locality in Pune but they still decided to stay in our locality due to proximity to SEZ where Manish‘s company was located. Sanjana had left her US job and was supposed to join an IT major in the same SEZ next month.  They had booked a big penthouse in upmarket locality of Pune. The possession for said house was at least six months away so had leased Desai’s flat temporarily. They liked our society and facilities for the temporary stay.  
He also asked about us during the conversation.
Reality then hit me. How his life and mine were so different like chalk and cheese. I worked for a manufacturing company as senior engineer amidst technicians. I had to climb manufacturing facilities few times in a day. I would imagine Manish will never go out of an AC corner cabin. My wife works for a cooperative bank to support our EMIs for house. Our house is our biggest claim to fame or maybe full and final trophy of life in such a good society. And we know price of it and sacrifices attached be it in form of vacations forbidden, eating out restricted to joints we know will be non ultra expensive, non-branded and need based shopping. But then why was I complaining? My parents did not complain doing things for us all the time. But then we as kids, we never introduced them with something called as peer pressure as our kids make us face. My daughter always quoted about her friend going to Europe for summer vacations or having birthday party at J W Marriott. I had no answers for her. Looks wise Manish could be defined as tall, slim, fair, fit and handsome. I am opposite on every counts. Manish had stayed in US for 14 years and seen almost half the planet on his job while my only stampings on passport had been when my company sent me to Italy for 15 days training when I was a bachelor and when we took personal loan and went to Thailand just to convince my daughter that we too can do a foreign trip.  He had booked a Fortuner and his wife would be driving Honda city next week from then. My Alto was five years old, needed denting and painting but then it was maintenance free and has a great mileage and my wife rides a Scooty.
But then I managed to hide my awe while being polite and forthcoming in our introduction. Throughout the conversation, Sanjana was calm detached and formal. We thought it must be common for US returned NRIs.  Manish on other hand was talkative, enthusiastic and pleasant to all of us.  That’s how my acquaintance with Manish and his family started.
After that our interaction restricted to occasional ‘hi-hello’ as we bumped across in society. They seemed very busy as it was obvious as they had to get their routine set at new offices, school. Lot of things were needed to get done and add to that entire project management of buying and designing new house. It seemed that few others in our society also got themselves introduced to Brars as typical for this showcase; US returned Punjabi family which was bit rarity in our neighbourhood. Of course there is a big nomadic IT tribe in my society who travel to US as if like travelling to Mumbai. These out of college kids drive big cars, spend a lot on weekends on eating out, shop at branded outlets.  Things have really changed in India and people like me always miss the bus.
 My wife got along well with Sanjana. She helped her out a lot to arrange domestic staff which is essential these days. And then my wife is good cook. She used to send traditional Marathi food and her fancy dishes (even Punjabi ones) to their house without fail. And then their kids had only my daughter to play with.
All this led us to an invite at their house one weekend for dinner. We did not want to be embarrassed by being late so reached sharp at 8 pm. And they were ready. The house was decorated nicely even if they were going to occupy that only for few months. That’s one thing about Punjabis with defence background: they need to be presentable at any cost all the time. Light western music was on with dim lighting suiting a relax Saturday evening atmosphere. After niceties, kids went to the kid’s room and women sat on dining table discussing latest news in the neighbourhood. Manish opened his Bar and offered me red label. My wife raised an eyebrow but then who refuses such offer. He brings glasses and we break the ice. I heard about his achievements during his IIM days, his job. He talked about places in US, Europe and everywhere. He talked about his childhood roaming about everywhere in India as a defence son. He showed snaps of his palatial US house, his house in Nainital, his in laws house in Vasant Vihar Delhi. Everything was a showcase. Some people get everything in life. And he was so full of life. After few drinks he got bit quiet. Some people go talkative after few drinks while some talkative go into shell. Alcohol can have strange effects to various people. Now the ladies joined us. So we started on usual family talks revolving about kids. Normally for an NRI family such conversations start around a sentence” when we were in the US” or it ends with “in US its different”. But with Sanjana it was different. She seemed to focus only on future. She was bit worried about how kids will fare in new environment.  Strangely Manish was quieter on front. So we deduced that anything about household needs to be taken care of by Sanjana and rest by Manish. Simple division of labour typically US styled.  I asked her how she feels to be in India?  She said very practically so far so good, but keeping fingers crossed. Manish strangely interrupted her and joked indicating she being too happy here in India. Sanjana interrupted the conversation asking us for more starters. And she had made very good non veg starters. I complemented her for that but Manish clarified that they were ordered from a good non veg joint in the locality.
“Oh she heats them very well in the microwave” said Manish. That was a needless but commonplace Male chauvinist joke from Manish after downing few pegs.
There was no retort from Sanjana. It seemed like she was silent types. I had to envy Manish again as a silent wife is an added benefit to marital life.
As we headed towards dining after few pegs ladies again departed for preparation. I took opportunity asking question which I was very curious about. I told him that people like us die to be settled in US and why on earth did he come back. Maybe I was bit tipsy and speaking about the Achilles heel of my own. He went silent into deepest thoughts and made an unpleasant face. Curiosity kills the cat as they say and i was feeling embarrassed for asking this stupid question. I apologized for asking him personal question. He said “Come on there is nothing personal it’s all about India. India is the place to be today as compared to US”. He then successfully side tracked the conversation to latest things in Indian economy, politics, cricket and movies. These were the conversation topics all the time during the dinner which was ordered from another good restaurant. After ice-creams we said good night and ended a great weekend dinner.
We then met occasionally. Once we met at one of our neighbour’s place for some family function. Both of them were dressed traditionally and were formal to everyone. He asked me about my work and then we talked about latest defeat of Indian cricket team at T20 WC. I asked whether he had settled now. He said everything was as per plan including new house which they planned to shift next month. It was almost four months that they were staying in the rented flat by now. 
I knew he had joined a club where he played Tennis every morning. I bumped across him occasionally whenever I was bit late for my company bus as he returned after his game. I also saw him one weekend with his rack sack and hunter shoes. I asked him where he was heading to. Guy also had formed a group at office to go for hiking. He was totally outdoor personality. As compared to him only sport I play is cards that too very rarely. Only hiking I do is to climb my own stairs when the elevator is out for maintenance. We also saw his Fortuner out on family outing every Sunday afternoon. My wife tried to pull Sanjana into various women’s groups she was a part of, but Sanjana tactfully avoided that. Of course the usual interaction of food exchange programs, kids playing at mutual houses went on as well.
I was informed by my daughter that both Armaan and Arnav were stars of their IB school. Armaan the elder one went to next level of informatics Olympiad and Arnav won sports awards. I scolded my daughter for not winning anything in school except a silly race called ‘three  legged race’. Some people are blessed genetically as well.
There was a Kojagiri event in the society. Manish volunteered to sing an old Hindi song and he sang really well. And I am scared to sing even in bathroom. How can some people have everything in life?
It was some day in Nov after Diwali the Brar family came to our house and announced that 30th Nov was their last day in our society. Their new penthouse was ready to be occupied and they had given notice to Desai about vacation of the flat. Poor Desai now has to find another tenant. It was nice of them to turn up with sweets box for new house and a thank you card to us for helping them. We were bit sad but always anticipated this moment as we knew very well about that. Human mind is strange. Even when we know what’s going to happen especially when something good is going to end, but still we end up feeling sad or down when that actual moment comes. All fathers know that their daughters are going to leave them some day but I have seen strong minded fathers breaking down when that moment arrives after marriage.  That’s same paradox as posted by Yaksha to Yudhishthira in Mahabharata. The story was narrated by safety head in our company.  As the story goes Yaksha had asked Yudhishthira, “What is the biggest paradox?” Everyone knows that someday one has to die. But then no one thinks about it and death by accident always comes as surprise. The biggest paradox is that the biggest surprise is the death that too when we all know death itself is inevitable. So better be prepared all time as proclaimed by Safety officer.
In this context the moment we always knew which would arrive had finally arrived. Anyways so all that were good, had to end in life so was our acquaintance with Brars. Of course we could meet them in Pune always. They promised to invite us for house warming they had planned in December.
And we got the invite for the event.  It was a great house: Spacious, well decorated and had a different class about it.  We were the only ones invited from our apartment. All the others were typical high society crowd. Some of the guests he introduced were CXOs of companies, entrepreneurs, financial wizards.  Later a well known musician also graced the party for some time. We were bit overawed amongst that beautiful crowd. Of course the kids were happy to meet again and started playing on their own. That’s an advantage of being young. You don’t carry any complexes. Everyone was discussing yearend plans. Some were going abroad, some were joining their families, and some mentioned very popular places and parties. For us it was usual cup of coffee watching TV. Only difference between other nights and New Year eve was that I would be awake till 12.30 while on other days I retire at 11. I don’t know whether I do it out of peer pressure or just to avoid getting disturbed by loud music in neighbourhood and crackers at midnight.
Year passed by, One January morning, I got a call from my wife. She was frenetic. I could make no sense of her initial conversation but later myself was shocked to know that week earlier Manish had committed suicide.
“What??” I said. “Are you joking? How can someone as vibrant, happy like Manish can do this and for what reason?” I had lots of questions. I then came to know bits and pieces of the news.
Sanjana had called my wife bidding goodbye to Pune. She was moving with kids to Delhi with her parents. And my wife was the only person in Pune she felt saying goodbye. My wife could not ask further about the suicide or reasons. She knew Sanjana won’t share that part with her. My wife could come out of her shock to offer Sanjana any help needed in Pune. She said her brother and her father in law were there in Pune to manage everything following such event. And i knew they were well connected to resolve everything....
Manish was by no means someone close to me but somehow his life reflected someone whom one wants to emulate. That was the only emotional attachment with Manish. Not that they were not down to earth interacting normally with people like us beyond their dignity. But then such people are always like something you look up to. But then who would end this life and for what reason?
Next few days and following weekend we all were bit sad following such event. I was imagining mental status of Sanjana and especially the smaller ones.
Other guys in society also knew about it as someone had read in last week’s papers. Some people can connect names and follow the news. For me newspapers are only meant to be glanced and unless there is some very high profile news like 9/11, 26/11, or world cup win 2011.
The International business expert in our society: Nadkarni, said that he knew that Manish was working with a big corporate as consultant representing his company and faced a malpractice suit after which he was fired  and may be the result of that case was out in the US. Other Global expert Shintre with whom also Manish had a drinking session some day, said that he knew Manish’s Company as he was in the same field. “Know it all” Shintre also knew few colleagues of Manish.  He can swear an oath that matter was very personal: His wife and he never went on well. In fact some nastier colleagues claimed an affair based on college romances at Doon school for Sanjana. But then you never trust Shintre who claims to know it all.
Whatever might be the reason? I don’t know about the reason neither I want to know about it. Things are not what they appear as I learnt from Brar episode which might have happened next door to a guy next door. And always, don’t denounce what you have as that same thing might be that something which some who has it all but except for that thing will always yearn for.
Next day I took my family to outing, dinner and a late night out. I told them that you live only once as one Mr Yudhishitra advised us to be prepared for an ultimate surprise....

Time for all of us to know that the Grass has been always greener on our side as well just that we never noticed it... It’s the grass on other side which is a problem... and that’s the cause of human misery since ages...
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