| April 09,2012 10:10 am IST

I was new to Delhi, and was looking for a house. I was something of a novice in big city-life, and some people say that I will always remain one.

I had landed a job as a trainee journalist in city paper. I was ready for anything.


People back in my provincial town had told me that South Delhi was a posh area with big buildings, where rich people let out their top-floor barsatis cheap to young bachelors like me. Because I have been warned against brokers who would fleece me, I spent all evenings and weekends walking around in these colonies, scanning the barsatis, looking for unoccupied ones. I carried a canvas grip with some books and a lock in it. I had been told that whenever I got a deal and made the advance-payment for two months, I should leave some possession inside and put my own lock on the door. Because on getting a better deal after Id left these rich people were capable of denying everything, including the advance payment. There were no receipts.


It was my fourth day of house hunting. A Sunday afternoon in late September, with a dirty yellowish haze far up in the sky which made the day dull and indirectly lit. The colony was of the kind where very rich people live mysterious lives. Elegant three-storey houses with silent blank glass fronts, black-painted delicate metal gates, and excessively green lawns. Some had slack-looking guards in khaki sitting on wooden stools outside the gates. The houses made me think of basements and international air travel.


There were very few people about. Some stray dogs who seemed to have learnt not to make noise, and some dark-skinned but well-fed ayahs who sat talking in sedate flirtation with the guards, spitting paan-juice sideways. Even the colonys cinema-hall looked as if only cars came there for the movies, not people. From the road, I was finding it difficult to decide about the barsatis. All looked vaguely unoccupied. There were occasional faint sounds nearby of high-wattage western pop enclosed inside upholstered walls.


On turning a block I saw a red Toyota twenty yards ahead, with both front doors wide open. On the driving seat there was a smart girl, and a big oldish man sat on the passenger seat who could have been her father or boss. Both were looking outside silently through their open doors, their faces turned away in opposite directions.


I was wearing my old blue jeans and white T-shirt, with white sports shoes. When I neared the car, the old man who sat facing the curb, gave me a wide grin.


Where are you heading for, sonny? he said, in English. He was wearing a check suit, the type secure businessmen wear. From close now, he looked older and his eyes were surrounded by some kind of darkness under gold-rimmed glasses. He had rings on all fingers of both hands, and the colours of their stones did not fit with his suit, or the car.


Looking for a house I said, with a smile.

Imagine that, he said and turned to the girl. I looked at the girl and saw that she was smiling too, although she was wearing dark glasses. A tall bony girl, wearing blue jeans and a blue silk shirt with peacock feather design. The complexion of her face contrasted with her hands, which were clear and smooth.


Hop in, she said, and gave a small laugh.

The old man had stepped out of the car. He thumped me on my back, and got into the back seat. The girl was looking up at me in a friendly way, and patting the seat he had vacated. I was puzzled, but I got in and put my bag on my knees. The girl started the car like an expert.


Nobody spoke for some time, and I didnt know what to say. I kept a smile on. We reached the end of the lane, and turned into another block.


Actually I want a barsati, just for myself, I said and turned my head, to include the old man, who was sitting directly behind me.


Sure, son. Well find something. His tone was rich and friendly. The girl was smiling, as she drove slowly. I looked ahead, ducking my head to peer at the top of the houses.

We drove in silence, and turned again into the next block. The old man stirred, and reached over to pick up my bag. He put it on the back seat.


Ill keep it here, he said. Lots of room.

I felt the cold air on my legs. The girls smile went out for a moment, and came back again. She nodded, and gave me a quick glance. I was beginning to feel uneasy.

Look, I think I am getting in your way. I mean, I dont want to trouble you with this. I can manage actually.


The old man bent ahead, and patted my shoulder.

It is no trouble, son. This is a big place here. We were driving around anyway. We do this a lot. Rita is learning driving.


His face was close to my head and I felt his breath on my ears, laden with some heavy kind of aftershave.


Dont worry, man, Rita said. Just keep on the lookout. I know a few places too. Ill take you there. Well all look, okay?


Her voice was very clear, but hard like in TV. But she was smiling, in an amused way. We drove on slowly, cruising.


In my mind, I ticked off the wrong notes. Rita had learnt driving long time back; these people had no intention of finding me a house; the old man need not have made a point of making me sit in front; the business about my bag did not make sense; they were driving around not in search of something, yet it was clear that they were not driving for pleasure; they were not tense or cunning, yet they were not relaxed. Kidnapping or robbery was out of question. So was kindness for me. These people couldnt be terrorists, or could they? Spies? There was something professional about them.


We will stop for a minute, the old man said.

I saw that we had stopped in a shopping centre, the type where many empty cars wait all day in parking lots. Rita had got out, and was entering briskly into a brightly lit shop.


For ice-cream, the old man said, also getting out of the car. Rita wants ice-cream.

I saw that he was a tall man, with a neat abrupt paunch.


Come on, have one yourself, he opened the door for me and flashed his teeth in a smile. I got out; decided not to make a run for it. I was into something.


The shop sold two kinds of things. On our right was an ice-cream parlour, with dozens of pots of coloured ice-cream inside a slick refrigerated glass case. A smart attendant in clinical white topped by a beret-type cap stood behind the ice-creams, with a smooth grave face that seemed to miss nothing. On the left was a gifts counter, also brightly lit. Things like cute note-pads, naughty statuettes, shining plastic and wooden jewellery, and hundreds of small attractive objects that need focused eyes. I felt like a seventeenth century African bushman. Behind this spread sat a young woman intent on doing her nails. Her short hair was dyed red in henna. Rita bought three cones with double scoops, all vanilla.


Hold these for a sec, okay? she told me, fishing for money inside her handbag with her left hand. She was the only customer then. I took the ice-creams from her, and walked across to the old man who was talking to the jewellery woman. She was listening, her eyes bent on her furious nail-file. As I reached them, the old man looked up and took a cone from me.


This is Sunny, he told the woman. She looked up at me.

Hi, she said and returned to her nails.


Rita came over, took a cone from me, and started talking to the woman. The three were speaking in gentle tones, about someone they all seemed to know. I drifted around in the shop, licking my ice-cream. I did not know what was happening, and now I did not give a damn. I knew there was no bloody danger for me. There was some hidden music playing, I noticed only then; soft electric guitar interminably seeking some unreachable melody. I licked at my ice-cream and watched the wall posters. One whole wall was covered by an orange red poster, in which some wild muscular horses with flowing manes were galloping towards a bloated orange telephoto sunset. My ice-cream was nearly finished.


I heard decisive clatter of shoes on the floor. Their conversation finished, Rita and her old man were moving out, both smiling at me.


Lets go, Rita called me loudly. The jewellery woman was looking at me. She waved, interrupting her nail file.


We went out to the car. The evening sky had turned brown; and the remaining daylight seemed to cut me off from everything else of my life, except these two people and their lives. They had hardly started on their ice-creams. The old man reached the car first, and got into the back seat. Licking her ice-cream, Rita looked at me across the top of the car.


Your drive now, she said.

I cant drive, I said, as if it should have been obvious.


Oh hell, she said, with a glint of sun on her dark glasses, and got into the drivers seat. I too got into my passenger seat, ready for the battle.