Life was crazy and I loved every minute of it. It was the end of the month and work was more demanding than usual. I was mulling over some design issues in my head as I walked down to the sea-face for some ‘me’ time. I badly needed to recharge my batteries; the evening had all the makings of an all-nighter. The promenade in front of the Taj Hotel had to be just about my favourite place in Mumbai. I sat on the parapet, staring out over the water as the evening sun turned the sea into a sheet of gold. The gentle feel of the salty spray on my face never failed to release me and send me soaring up on a carpet of bliss. Evening was always such a beautiful time; the trials of the day were over and you had the thought of relaxing in your mind’s eye as you hurried home. Tomorrow was another day, this evening was yours. Mumbai has millions living together and for many of these millions the Gateway was a wonderful spot to visit. Young couples surreptitiously saying goodbye before having to head off home, others just sitting and unwinding; glad to be together. Children running around, not sure if they would rather look out longingly at the mysteries of the water or at the monolithic Gateway and all the hustle and bustle around it. It was my favourite time of the day and I was in my favourite place. The world was good and there was a God up there who was looking down on me.
That was when I met Mario. Did I say met? Let me amend that: at that moment it was more of a rude intrusion. There I was floating along on my velvet cushion of well-being when I suddenly heard this gratingly, jovial voice beside me,
“Hi! My name is Mario.”
“‘Eh!” I said, none too politely. Couldn’t this guy see I wanted to be alone? I gave him a sideways glance and then went back to contemplating the scenery in front of me. Hopefully he would get the hint and carry on walking. My response or rather the lack of it did not seem to faze Mario one bit.
“I work as a barkeeper at Red Earth… Sorry, make that the bar-master. I really am an absolute whiz at what I do.”
I didn’t even bother to look at him this time.
“Have you ever been to Red Earth?”
“What in the world are you talking about?” I asked sharply. “Are you selling something?” By now I was really annoyed.
“What is Red Earth? C’mon don’t tell me you haven’t heard about us, we are just about the hottest night club in SOBO [South Bombay]. I think we get more mentions on Page Three than all the other restaurants in SOBO combined. But then again that is just me talking… and as you might have guessed I do have a healthy opinion of myself,” he said in a bright voice.
OMG! He was like a steam engine. It didn’t matter what I said or did. He just carried on. I looked away and rolled my eyes in disgust. That should hopefully do the trick.
Beep! Wrong again.
“Would you like to know how I do it? Hmmm? Well why don’t you come with me and see for yourself, how the… ehm… ’master’ works”, he offered enigmatically. Then he looked around conspiratorially. “Shhhh”, he said, his finger on his lips, “can’t let all these others know what is happening.”
So what was happening, that he was acting so cagey? Not that I really wanted to know anything about it. I was totally exasperated and obviously not on the same page as him. Why couldn’t this guy just leave me alone? I was seething.
My lack of response did not deter him one bit; on the contrary, it seemed to make him more determined to get me to respond to him. For the first time I looked at him, as he stood there beside me, his hands in his pockets. I saw a rotund figure in a flowery beach shirt, Bermudas and flip-flops, a Buddha-like smile on his face. I just sat there staring at him, dumbstruck. How completely thick could a person be… Didn’t he get it? I didn’t want to talk to him. Was he trying to promote that night club? Who was he and why did he pick on me specifically from all the hundreds who were wandering around in front of the Taj Hotel that evening? On a scale of one to ten for weird experiences, this had to be an eleven.
“Well, are you coming or not?” he persisted.
I couldn’t believe it but I actually found myself getting up to follow Mario. That is after the sum total of my contribution to the conversation (if you could call it that) was “eh”, and “what are you talking about”.
Why? I don’t know why. Maybe it was just to get rid of him, which sounds really odd, as you don’t follow someone to get rid of them. The only thing that I can come up with is that as it was such a puzzling experience I felt I had to see it to the end.
As we made our way to Red Earth, I could see that Mario had not been bragging. It was just 7 PM and already people were making their way in, and this is in a city which doesn’t come alive till past eleven. As we entered through the massive brass-studded doors, I looked down into a huge dimly lit space with red velvet banquettes arranged around the edges. The walls had looped red velvet drapes hanging from them, interspersed with gigantic mirrors. A shiny black floor in the middle made of what looked like under-lit glass completed this designer’s nightmare. Red Earth? This looked like something from Dante’s Inferno. People were definitely not coming here for the décor.
“What do you think, man?” asked Mario, all bounce and swagger. I did not have the heart to tell him what I did think, so I just grunted in response, hoping against hope that he would let it pass. To my relief he did. He promptly gave me a knuckle bump.
“Good! Eh? Good!” he asked rhetorically in an enthusiastic voice, fairly dancing on his toes.
He then lowered his tone mysteriously and leaned over towards me. “Ready to learn?” He hissed the question into my ears. I had absolutely no idea what great knowledge he was planning to impart to me but I nodded vigorously nevertheless. This was beginning to look more and more interesting.
He raised his hands in the air as if he were Zubin Mehta about to start conducting. The ‘bar-master’ had arrived.
“Look at all these people,” he gestured grandly. “They are all here for me. They want to taste what I mix for them. You know how I do it? It’s just a case of psychology,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “I look at them and I know what they will like from the way they behave. It is my system,” he beamed proudly at me.
I must have been looking a bit dubious at his claim as he pointed at a couple that was seated to the right of us and said sotto voice:
“See that couple over there… Her, I would give the Absolut Lemonade: vodka, lemon, almond liqueur and sprite. She is cute, bubbly, loving life and all that it is giving her right now. For him… Salty Dog… He loves it too but he is going to take what he gets and then walk away. I feel sad for her, I really do,” he voiced with emotion, his hand theatrically planted on his chest. “But who is to tell her? Eh! Who is to tell her?” He questioned with feeling.
We made our way to an empty table. Once we were seated there, he glanced around. He pointed out to a lady sitting and texting on her phone, every inch corporate. “See that one, she has to be a Margarita. Not flavoured or frozen but the absolute original one with the salt around the rim and a bit of lime. All “no fuss” but she likes to break out once in a while. Am I right or am I right?” he quizzed me. His eyebrow was raised and he had a slight smile on his lips. At that moment one of the waiters came up and put a Margarita in front of her. I was completely astounded. He had hit it spot on.
“What about me?” I was eager to hear what he said.
“Beer,” he replied. “Not the very strong ones but the SAB Miller type.”
My jaw dropped. “How do you do it? You just met me fifteen minutes ago!”
Mario gazed at me with an odd look of compassion in his eyes. It was as if I hadn’t spoken.
“That is what you were drinking that day, weren’t you? You had decided to meet your old college buddy at Leopold. He was just in town for the day and it was perfect – near your office and great ambience. You couldn’t have known what was going to happen. You can’t blame yourself for it.”
I looked down at the crisp white tablecloth, my fingers knotted together so tight that my knuckles were white. There was a lump in my throat. I looked up at him, anguish written all over my face.
“His back was to the door, he didn’t even see them come in.”
“Did you,” countered Mario.
I could feel my head nod like an automaton.
“I threw myself under the table. I should have tried to pull him down with me but I left him slumped on the table”.
I could still see the scene as if it were yesterday. The noise, the sickening sound of bullets thudding all over and the screaming. The screaming that just wouldn’t stop. Funnily enough… All I remember thinking at that moment as I lay on the ground was, why was Leopold letting off fireworks at this time of the year? That too indoors?
Then everything had gone blank and I slipped into a warm, welcoming cocoon of silence.
Mario was still staring at me waiting for me to come to terms with what had happened.
“You do know you have to face it,” he said, gently patting my hand. “You have to move on.”
Suddenly he stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Dude, at least you went with a bullet. Fucker that I am, I heard the gunshots and died of a heart attack. Can you beat that?” he guffawed.
A small chortle escaped my lips. It felt good to be able to laugh again. Now I knew why I was the one he had chosen to talk to that evening.
Adiana Ray believes the human mind has to be the most intriguing thing in the world. Our genetic and environmental effect on it and the resulting affect being the inspiration for her stories and character development. She likes to read, write, cook and enjoys outdoor sports. She also likes to sing and dance which she is told by her family she is particularly bad at. Her previous works include a romance novella Rapid Fall published through indireads.com and a contribution to an anthology Love Across Borders brought out by Indireads on Independence Day (2013).