If we were sitting in my office twenty years ago, I’d have put the question to John and we’d have talked about his favourite Socratic dialogue or mine for a pleasant hour.
‘Are you doing philosophy, John?’ I ask him
He looks me in the eye and says, ‘No, sir, there are more important things to do.’
He’s no longer apologetic.
I’ve finished my drink and I’m ready to leave. But John isn’t; he’s pointing out something in the distance, up in the lighted hills.
‘Do you know what’s on the other side, beyond those big houses and electricity pylons?’
I look at him steadily, saying nothing.
‘There are villages there and the people in those villages . . . Well, they naturally don’t have anything we have. They’re poor people,’ he says, pronouncing the word ‘poor’ as if it’s a foreign word, a word he’s trying to teach me.
I think of the letter in the newspaper the previous day, the vision of apocalypse seen in a dusty taxi.
‘I know, John,’ I say calmly. ‘I know they’re poor.’
‘Now what happens when winter comes around? The growing cement plants need all the coal they can get and more. So where are those poor folks going to get coal from to keep themselves warm? Can they compete with the monsters? No, they cannot. They just have to lump it, they just have to freeze.’
I wait for him to connect this back to the question of what he’s been doing with himself, but he seems to have abandoned that line of conversation.
John is silent for a while, then leans forward and says, ‘They used to call this place the Scotland of the East. You know what it is now?’
‘The Shitland of the East.’
I laugh uproariously.
John has a grim look for a minute and then he dissolves into laughter too. He shakes his head and says, ‘Man, what can you say? The rich get richer, the poor stay poor. And all we have till Doomsday come is whisky.’
Doomsday again? He orders another drink and insists I have one too.
Suddenly we’re talking about everything — the multitudes of people in town and the languages I’ve heard spoken on the street, many of which I no longer recognize; how the ministers in the state government keep breaking up and then forming and reforming alliances, like blind amoeba; the number of men who look like Elvis Presley; John’s children and his cautious hopes for them; the people I used to know when I lived here, now scattered like rain all over the country.
It’s close to midnight and I should be getting back. I have a flight to catch the following day. I feel for my wallet to pay the bill but John has already got it.
‘Do you think of him?’ he asks suddenly, looking up from the bill.
I blink at him. Kant, finally?
‘Francis,’ he says impatiently. ‘Do you wonder what happened to him?’
It takes me a couple of seconds to remember who Francis is and, of course, it shows on my face.
‘No,’ I say truthfully.
‘He went down, that guy. He went all the way down. He couldn’t stick it out with the padres. He went back home and got into drug running. He was caught in Mumbai airport with three kgs of Ephedrine. You know what they do with that stuff, don’t you? He’s been cooling his heels in jail for the last five years.’
The question — ‘Why is this any of my business?’ — is on my lips but before I can say it John has killed it.
‘Sir,’ John is saying, ‘Why are you afraid to take responsibility?’
* This piece is excerpted from ‘Difficult Pleasures’ (Penguin Viking, 2012), reprinted here with permission of the author.
Anjum Hasan is the author of the short story collection ‘Difficult Pleasures’ (2012), the novels ‘Neti, Neti’ (2009) and ‘Lunatic in my Head’ (2007) and the collection of poems ‘Street on the Hill’ (2006). Her poetry and prose has been widely published. She is books editor at ‘The Caravan – A Journal of Politics and Culture’ and lives in Bangalore.