Everyone seemed to be looking at me; like I was bound to be treated so. I cared the least. I cruised through the evening traffic, on my bike.
‘Fashion Studio’ the LED-lit board gleamed even in the daylight. I parked my bike in front of the studio and walked in. The recent revamping of business was quite evident to the eye. Showkath had spent a fortune and bought equipment that involved drones that whizzed past the tables as people of Thopp indulged in wedding biriyani. A new-age crew was also roped in, each of them given identical T-shirts and hairstyles.
As I walked in, Showkath was at the desk, his eyes on the laptop monitor. I hurried in, wanting to finish the business at the earliest.
“Ha. Quite early!” A balding Showkath exclaimed, looking up. I sat facing him, wondering if his remark was layered. Being sceptical was an inevitable and immediate after-effect of a divorce.
“It was 55 pending, right?” I asked, forcing a smile at the shiny forehead, while retrieving my debit card from the wallet.
“Yes yes. That’s right.” Showkath replied, quickly leaning down to his left.
Now came the sick part, I thought.
As Thopp’s legendary photographer produced a bright red, handsome-looking box made of something definitely expensive, I looked at him with expressionless eyes. Unaffected, he produced a card-swiping machine beside my wedding album.
“Showkath bhai,” I cleared my throat unnecessarily, “I really don’t want the album.” I think I looked like how my dead body would have been. In front of me, I was with a glee on the red box; one of the two fakes on it.
The legend surprised me by looking considerate. He nodded calmly and tapped lightly on the swiping machine, where his had was resting.
“I did hear about it.” He started. “Crazy. That too-”
“Here.” I cut across his words, handing over the card. He took it and began to operate the machine. I waited, and then entered the pin. As the receipt rolled out, he tore it and said, “I can’t keep the album.”
Nothing particularly crossed my mind.
He continued, “I can’t. You can keep it. Maybe use some pages-” he stopped seeing my straight face. “I can’t even display it here, you know…” He ended.
I nodded, looking at the red box that reminded me of the city’s buses before they were dipped in blue. The SMS beeped, announcing my new poverty status. I got up, picking the red case.
“The cover is a unique design. I know it doesn’t matter, but the embossing is a first-timer. Specially done.” The photographer struck the final nail on the coffin. I thanked him and left.
As if I didn’t have enough attention already, the red case now boosted my presence through the evening buzz at Thopp. My mind wandered as people walked in all directions around me. I didn’t want to take the album home; that would be the Sad Sight of the Day.
I suddenly remembered Changaran’s shop. The place had redefined the word ‘scrap’. He accepted everything. The ‘boook-plaaastic-paper-tin-metallll’ slogan would bend in shame when passing his shop. His warehouse held everything that Thopp did not need. The cardboard luggage boxes of Thopp’s NRIs were sorted by name and neatly arranged; he would sit on an European style commode outside the shop, reading newspapers, and there were pyramids of obsolete electronic appliances in the backyard, all of them had travelled from the middle-east to Thopp with high hopes.
And, Changaran paid for these. Every bit of these.
Instinctively, my hand weighed the album, as if my palm had a meter in it. It felt heavy. Now the necessity of disposing the album was crowned by the possibility of being paid for it. It felt good to think that Changaran’s meagre payment was the quantifiable number to represent my failed marriage. It was cheap. And satisfyingly fair.
The shop was open, but Changaran was nowhere to be seen. The commode sat empty, thankfully with its seat cover down, preventing any further disgust.
“He’s gone to pick something, in an auto.” A voice came from my right. It was the black-toothed guy who sold roasted groundnuts from a cart. He seemed to have stationed near to Changaran’s for the evening.
Groundnuts never disappoint; I walked towards the cart. He welcomed me and offered a rolled pack of nuts. I took it inside my palm – it was that small, and started popping them one by one into my mouth.
With each passing minute, the album became more of a burden. Not only did the red crave for attention, it gave away the entire story to the familiar faces of Thopp.
It was the groundnut guy, now free of customers. He had long but a few hair and wore a loose shirt. He looked at me inquisitively, having pointed at the world’s most hated wedding album.
“It’s just…” the proud cut-the-crap speaker in me fumbled, “Just something to sell here.” I glanced towards the scrap shop, disgusted at myself for having said ‘sell’.
“Oh.” He started towards me. “Let me see.”
Wow! The only person whom I was not (thankfully) familiar with, wanted to now see my expired wedding album. People of Thopp were popular for their friendly nature. Not today, you nosy fellow, who sold under-cooked nuts.
I scorned his advance, shifting the album to the right hand, away from danger. His eyes followed my movement.
“Oh, it’s an album!” He exclaimed. I was irritated; his exclamation had attracted newer heads from across the road. Thopp had roads as small as its name.
“But,” he was still hopeful! “Why you selling it?” I remained silent. Thanks to the heights of idiocy I had been experiencing from people lately, I had cultivated patience in me.
“It looks costly…” he muttered to himself. I saw a plane in the evening sky, and hoped if I were in it; or maybe the nuts guy.
“Divorce?” Came the next question.
He was only half the size of me. If I swung my weaker arm – the right one – he and his nuts will surely meet the ground. If the album was used on top of that, he could be flattened there. I realised then that I was not merely patient; I was ashamed to hit the malnourished being because I had not swung either of my arms at people who had asked for it, and deserved it – those hypocritical bastards with double standards (and maybe even a third one as reserve), who were now smiling and hugging me inside the red box. What a shame that I was patient then. And what a bigger shame it will be, if I grounded the groundnut man.
But he wasn’t done. He applied the icing on the cake by asking, “I will buy it. I can use the pages to pack the nuts.”
I smiled and looked at him; he seemed serious. And I was smiling at the hypothetical scene where people of Thopp were popping groundnuts from paper envelopes that had my photos; me romancing unwittingly because Showkath’s photographer had asked me to. It would be a joyous day for the town, sharing and exchanging envelopes because they too were in one of them.
“Da.” Changaran’s voice broke my trance. I turned to see him stationed in front of the shop. Without even a glance at the disappointed groundnut guy, I walked to the scrap shop.
“Why did you wait?Now everyone knows of it.I heard it from Ikka’s shop.Yes,that far.Don’t you know the people here?One of them even offered to buy it from me,onceyouleaveithere.Scumbags.” Changaran said in a breath.
I stood stupefied.
“And I’m not taking it.Not because of the chaos,but it’s anyways useless for me.Too glossy.More of plastic than paper.ThatfuckerShowkathisrunningascam.”
Without speaking a word, I walked back to the bike, thinking of the money I had planned to collect from Changaran and then deposit in the masjid’s collection bin. More importantly, I think it was the first time in history that Changaran has rejected something! “Useless”, he had described it, as opposed to the billion things usefully distributed in his shop. I sighed, and moved away from the place, the red starkly in front of me, on the petrol tank.
I stopped by the bridge for a breather. The place was empty, except for the two middle-aged men who were tarring the road on the other side. I got down and walked to the bridge, where I leaned onto its wall; the water beneath lacked any enthusiasm. I glanced back at the Classic 350, which didn’t seem happy to be left alone with the red matter.
That’s when an idea struck me. I bit my lip and looked either ways – the bike and the men at work. I walked back to the bike, fetched the album and for the first time, opened it. The embossed picture on the cover seemed dismal. Opening the cover, I saw myself in full size on the left spread. On the facing page was the lady. That was good; suited my plan. Next, I checked my wallet; it had only a five hundred Rupee note. I took it and turned towards the bridge, clutching the open album along.
Fifteen minutes later, I climbed back on my Classic, smiling. As I rode down the bridge, I looked downward. The embossed cover had caught the stream – it was floating fast and away, towards the unknown. As I crossed the bridge and curved along the road, the two workers looked up and smiled at me; one waved. I smiled back, but soon scanned the freshly tarred patches, for the big pothole that got filled. I thought I spotted it – the spot where her face laid looking at the sky, but overlapped by a mix of earth and gravel, with three layers of tar above it.
Not knowing the exact spot did not bother me much. From the fisherman’s bike to the mighty tipper trucks, the whole of Thopp will now scramble over the spot, oblivious to the fake smile beneath the black mass. Even if the road gave in to the potholes over time, it was of no concern – all pages were now stuck together with slimy tar, which made each of the leaf burn and disorient the faces on it. I felt some faces looked better now.
The satisfaction was worth five hundred Rupees.
As I thumped away, feeling like Lalettan from Drishyam, I glanced at the mirror; the only two people who had seen my wedding album were still staring towards me.