Saturday, 16 January 2016

A lock and a key

I was writing at the Ellipsis café when my sister called to enquire of my whereabouts, and within a few minutes, rushed in, huffing and panting.

“I need a lock and a key!” She said before I could even open my mouth.

“A lock and a key?” I glanced at my watch, “at this hour of the night?”

“Yes.” She said, tending to her wild hair.

“Why?”

“I’m going out of the city tomorrow, and I have to lock the house before leaving.”

“But isn’t it locked now?”

“No. I borrowed a friend’s lock, but I’ll have to return it before I leave.”

“Aah! You should have told me earlier!”

“I’m sorry! I forgot!”

“Oh come on! Don’t You always forget?”

“Please?”

“Stop smiling. Alright? I’ve told you so many times to...you know what? Confound it. Let’s go look for your lock and key. I swear this is the last time I’ll help you.”

“Ok fine. But where should we go? All the shops will be closed now.”

“I don’t know. We can start at the market place. We may find something.”

"To the market." My sister ordered as we sat on the warm back seat of a black and yellow cab.

Barring a few shops, the marketplace was largely closed and none of the open shops looked like they would sell locks and keys. There was a diner, a pharmacy and a small car wash, none of which seemed like the prime candidates to ask about a lock and a key. Among the others, there were small eateries selling fast food, filled with as much junk in them as was necessary for the taste. We marvelled at all the people eating at these joints; so late into the night, the marketplace seemed like a different world, and the people there seemed like strange nocturnal beings very different from the ones seen during the day.

There was the homeless man, who could’ve been either thirty or sixty years old, nibbling at a piece of deep fried fish wrapped in a newspaper; a crowd of noisy college students, probably out for some cheap late night drinks; the couple who shared everything and ate from the same plate; the lonely lady stirring her glass of fake orange juice, and the doctor sitting across and staring at her- so many different people, just eating, oblivious to everyone and everything around them.

We targeted the diner first. My sister and I went in, keeping the cab waiting. The diner lady seemed or rather acted very busy, even though there was only one guy eating there. She eyed us with suspicion when we asked for a lock and a key, and denying the possession of either, told us to, “run along now!”. We assured her we meant no trouble, but she declared she could not help and refused to speak any further. We considered it best to leave the diner and entered the pharmacy. Who asks for locks and keys at a diner anyway? Maybe if she had one to spare...

As expected, there was no lock and key at the pharmacy, it being a pharmacy after all. The shopkeeper did mention having a spare, but he confessed having misplaced it a few days back. He was also unable to point us to any place that might have a lock and a key, but he was very insistent on selling us any medicines we might want, for whatever malady that might be ailing us.

At the car wash, three guys sat playing cards, whiskey glasses resting on their table. They did not seem very friendly, but when asked of locks and keys, laughed and said they did not have any, but pointed us to a shop at the far end of the street where we could probably find something. We thanked the guys and walked away to our cab, relieved at not running into any trouble anywhere.

There was no shop at the end of the street! We had been tricked. There was only a dark neighbourhood lost in sleep, its residents away in the land of dreams- not a soul stirred; a fine mist covered the land and the street light shining through it looked eerie as a ghost. Where were we supposed to go? Wherever we looked we only saw a row of streetlights and cars and people crisscrossing the streets, no shops or any other place likely to have a lock and a key in their possession- one that they would be willing to sell or spare.

This is when the cab driver stepped in, "I know a guy." He said confidently and dialed a number,

"Hello, is this Tom? Jerry here." So started their conversation, that lasted no longer than a minute and ended with, "Uh huh...alright. I'm disappointed Tom, I thought you would have it." He then turned around and apologised. We laughed. The man's sincerity was too much to bear.

"Let's just go a little further, at least to that truck over there. If we don't find anything, we'll go home." My sister said.

We drove towards the truck with caution. A lone truck, parked in the middle of the road on a cold winter night? My mind raced with a thousand different ideas, all bordering on the fantastical and bold, but very few of them pleasant. When we were near, we left the cab and approached the truck on foot. The driver decided he would stay behind.

It was a huge truck by Indian standards. Standing under the spotlight of a lone street light, it looked like a magnificent mechanical beast adorned with ornaments and trinkets from all over the country- chains and strange metallic objects hanging from the body, garlands decked at the front, reflectors in red and orange and green on all sides; the colours on it were fresh- a coat of bright blue on which were painted intricate filigree patterns worthy of a Mughal monument. On one side of it, a rustic landscape of India presented itself like an oil painting in an art gallery. Coloured flags, stuck to the sides of the hood, fluttered in the gentle wind; at the back of the truck, the all too familiar, ‘Horn-Ok-Please’ sign greeted us.

“What do you want?” A voice, calm and poised, came from somewhere.

“What are you doing out here so late?” The voice asked again. It was coming from inside the truck, but the doors were closed, so we couldn’t see who it was.

“We...we are looking for something.” I replied. My sister clutched my hand tightly; I whispered in her ear, “Maybe there’s a kidnapper in there” and laughed, but she only tried to pull me away. I stood my ground; there was something familiar and yet strange about the voice, something that told us we had come to the end of our quest.

“What is it that you seek?” The voice asked again.

“A lock and a key sir!”

“A lock and a key is all we ask for.” My sister added.

The door opened, and out came the driver- a dusky young man, dressed in gypsy clothes. Behind him, a kid pushed his head out.

The man’s orange turban lit up like a fireball under the street light, and his golden-brown vest sparkled like fine jewellery. He had tattoos all over his arms- faces, shapes, numbers and writings. On one arm, the phrase, ‘Sic-Parvis-Magna’, was tattooed, bold and confident. There were gloves hanging from his belt and I distinctly noticed a dagger tucked away in his left boot.

“A lock and a key, huh?” He asked, and smiled.

“Yes Sir. A lock and a key.” I replied. My sister still held my hand tightly and barely said a word.

“Allow me to introduce ourselves.” He said, “My name is Raihgir, and this here is Maanjhi”.

We introduced ourselves.

“Now you fine folks must be wondering what we’re doing here, right?”

I nodded, but my sister quickly spoke, “We just want a lock and a key, it would be great if you can spare us one, if not, we’d like to leave.”

“Leave? Surely not so soon. The show hasn’t even started.” Raihgir replied.

“What show?” My sister asked.

“Ahh…that my dear, you’ll have to wait and watch.”

And so saying, Raihgir climbed on top of his truck and unfurled a long white cloth that hung from two poles high above the truck’s back side. He then switched on a light that hung from a similar pole at the front. The light fell on the goods the truck was carrying, and only then did we notice that the truck was loaded with crystals of all shapes and colours and as the light reflected off them on the white cloth swaying in the wind, it lit up with the sheer magnificence of an Aurora Borealis. The northern lights danced before us and it seemed they were no longer confined to the cloth- the colours jumped out and exploded like fireworks, spreading through the sky. They were all around us until we were encircled, standing under a dome of celestial magnificence. Sparks of colour flew and danced around us and rested on our outstretched hands, the tiny particles sticking to our fingers like fireflies. My sister and I stood in silence, just awed at the sheer brilliance of this unearthly light show.

And then, in a split second, everything vanished, and Raihgir said, “So now that the show has ended, you may have what you seek.”

“Can we see the show again?” My sister asked.

“My dear, once the show ends, it’ll take another lifetime to begin.”

Disappointed, my sister asked him if he had a lock and a key.

“Yes. Here, take this.”

He placed the lock and key in her hands and started the truck; Maanjhi pushed his head out and waved at us.

“Where are you going, Raihgir?” My sister asked.

“Me? I’m on my own way, dear.” He said, and drove away before we had a chance to thank him or say goodbye.

We looked at his lock and key- an old bronze pair that had seen better days. Reflecting on the events that led to them, I marvelled at how, sometimes, you find what you are seeking for and more in the most unlikely places. “Thank you”, my sister spoke to the wind and we walked towards the cab, content with this little adventure of a cold winter’s night.



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