WINDOWS

CHAPTER 1.

A voice. A woman's voice. Urging her man off their bed. Screaming, get up Som, you have duty at 9, Colaba's not what it's used to be, the traffic's mad. What about work, what about your breakfast going cold, what about the specs you'll be begging me to find five minutes before you leave?

The man will wear blue striped pyjamas today. The green ones are still in wash from when she dumped last night's chicken soup on him. Which is a good thing, because he usually wears them till they stink.

And he'll shut her up with four words: Divya, it's only seven o'clock.

Who cares if I'm just imagining this happened today? I've seen all this so often before, I think I could recite their day's schedule backwards.

Meet Somesh and Divya Das. Young, reclusive, stay-at-home-and-don't-mix-much-with-the-neighbours types. Have survived five years of marriage, witchy landladies, excessive scrutiny and each other. In our noisy apartment, that's a feat as tiny as a banana republic.

I've never talked properly to them. I can't even remember what they look like.

Then how would I know all this, you ask. How would a common next-door neighbour who hardly steps outside know so much?

Trust my window.

Each floor of our apartment has a long corridor flanked by two flats on each side, both arranged in such a way that you can get a full view of your neighbour's sitting room from the comfort of your bed. My window blinds were my camouflage: I could see fractured versions of people I'd seen long ago, and they had no clue I existed. Since they always left their window open, I could always hear every word too. Is it any wonder then, that at a time when I wanted to be alone, that Somesh and Divya were my one link to reality?

They're everything you'd expect a Mumbai couple to be: too busy to look back, too into their own thing to look forward. Divya may obsess over her blotchy skin, but accuse Som of shallowness if he groans over his graying hair. Som will never let on that he's as messy as his wife is. But that's part of their charm. They're closed-up and contradictory. Bashful, then bold. They want the rat-race, but treasure their lazy hours in the sun.

Five years ago, they were as new to this city as I was. They loved each other, and they loved 'Bombay'. 'Bombay', with its sweat-soaked bodies, milling crowds: buying chaat and kulfi – stuff that tasted so good you sometimes wondered what it was laced with. Beggars who tottered around pitiably and tried to touch you in desperation, beggars who would later shamelessly chew beedis with the money you gave them. Filled with rich men whose bellies seemed filled, rich men who probably hid bankruptcy beneath their Armanis. Bombay – now Mumbai – bright like a garrulous sari-swathed visiting aunt, like a flaming circus fire. As a freelance writer, I love its promise of a 24-hour joyride.

That wasn't always the case. I entered Mumbai as a Class 12 passout from Chennai, trying hard to fit in with the college crowd. I hated every moment of it. I hated Mumbai all through college. I hated getting ragged, hated the 'we're-like-that-only-deal-with-it' attitude. I had even started hating my writing at that point. I was lonely, and my only friends would be put off by my lack of social graces.

Most of all, I hated Somesh and Divya Das, for loving 'Bombay' as much as I hated it.

Trouble is, they fascinated me just as much.

I'd met them personally only once, after much buttering up to the darwan. But even poor Kushal Singh's potbellied peacemaking presence that day couldn't have saved our meeting from being a disaster.

"Meet Varun Shivaprasad, Mr. Das," he said, "Bright fellow. New here, like you only. Only 19, sir, and already some of his pieces are in The Hindu. Doing his degree in…what was it again, beta?"

In spite of the fresh air and the scent of roses, I found it hard to breathe. "Journalism, sir."

I could feel Som's gaze scanning me like a million lazars. I tried to keep my talking to a minimum. I didn't want them to know that they mattered to me, that their presence in my life filled me with creative energy. They wouldn't understand how they'd kept me company those few lonely months.

"Oh, how nice," said Divya dismissively, "do you do anything for a living…yet?"

"Yes," I told her, "I write."

I waited for them to ask me what I'd published.

"Interesting, Mr, uh…Shivamani?" he said, raising an eyebrow.

"Thanks," I squeaked, "and it's Shivaprasad."

I suspected they were glad I left. In fifteen minutes, through my window, I knew.

But I still watched them. I was lonely and had nothing to lose. Back then they were a mystery to me. I didn't know them the way I do now. I didn't know their families, friends, foes, fetishes or fondness for swear words. It was like watching a movie from the interval onwards. They merely spouted dialogue, it was left for me to fill in the blanks. Divya could leave bowls of curry on the table – I had to imagine what was in them. The channels on TV would deliver noise loud and clear – I had to wonder what made them watch. They were like sketches with just the outlines drawn in – it was up to me to give them colour.

But now that I know all about them, the magic seems to fade. Their lives are as dull, as generic as mine. There's nothing left for me to know.

They've been like friends, but I never had prove myself worth their time. It had appealed to me the moment I'd first seen them from my window, trying so hard to break the ice.

"Tell me na, were you serious about the snakes at Nepal?" she asked, giggling. Her mehndi was still a fresh deep brown on her hands.

"Your uncle liked the joke, didn't he? Our hospital was close to a forest and housed a lot of animals – rats, lizards, but frogs for lab purpose only. The snakes were regular visitors, though!"

She giggled again, more for the sake of giggling: "What if a snake bites you while you're out for a walk?"

"You run to hospital," Som stated, simply, "and carry the cure with you."

"Anti-venom at such short notice?"

Som's face was a study in tranquility: "We get our anti-venom from the snake."

By now, both Divya and I were laughing. Did she find Som funnier than the joke itself? Because I did. And here I was, a part of their joke without them knowing.

He kept a straight face all through, and imitated his hostel warden instead: "'If you bitthen by snake, thake snake with you.'"

Divya collapsed in his arms, I collapsed on my bed. The two of us broke into fresh giggles even before he could start his next joke.

That wasn't the last joke he cracked, and that wasn't the last time I joined them. And I loved every minute of it. With them I felt a kind of intimacy I had never experienced before, not even with my ailing parents. I knew things wouldn't be the same, I knew I'd want them to be a part of my life

Well, not anymore.

Starting this year.

For God's sake, I've even started completing their sentences!

I should learn to treasure my loneliness. In no time at all, I'll learn to stop caring about these people who don't even know me.

I've already started a sabbatical from a lot of things – work, people, the horsey landlady downstairs and my window.

Maybe I should start moving away from Som and Divya too. Starting today.

Starting now.

A/N: This is another novel-type, completely different in treatment and plot compared to Love Is A Verb. Hope you enjoy this, too!

Colaba is an urban location in Mumbai, a city in the state of Maharashtra, India. It used to be called Bombay till ten years ago.

Chaat and Kulfi are common Indian roadside snacks – chaat is a savoury item, and the closest way to describe kulfi would be as a type of ice-cream.

Beedi is a sort of chewable tobacco that can also be found on the streets.

Durwan is Hindi for security guard.

The Hindu is a newspaper circulated all over India, perhaps the most widely-read one.