The alarm clock jolted Ranjit out of sleep. He smacked the ringer and grunted, fuming at his failure to switch it off for Sunday morning. After turning in his bed for a few minutes, he gave up. He picked his pack of cigarettes and walked to the balcony, muttering curses at the alarm clock all the while.
The city was only just waking up. As he strained to open his eyes, he could hear the sound of newspapers landing on yards and the characteristic thump of the milkman’s motorcycle. The sun was up and shining, but the night’s grim silence still hung in the air as he rested his arms on the boundary wall. Ranjit only opened his eyes when his lips clasped the cigarette. It wasn’t because he was about to light the cigarette, but because he had produced his lighter from his boxer shorts.
Ranjit owned a limited edition golden lighter bearing the colours of the French national flag on its front with the words ‘C’est la vie’ written on the back. It was the only time he had splurged on an item he fancied, and was the only remnant of his attempt at learning French. The one thing he could remember from those days was the beautiful instructor with her large, vivacious eyes, small upturned nose with a lustrous nose-pin, mesmerizing fragrance, and infectious smile. He had realized within the first week that learning French was beyond him, and so too was wooing his instructor with her facial beauty and buxom body. But, like with other men, it couldn’t stop Ranjit from fantasizing about her.
A smile crept on his lips as he inhaled the tobacco. However, his reminisce was interrupted by something landing on the nape of his neck. He heard the pigeons cooing in open mockery, and felt their morning excrement slipping beneath his vest and sliding down his back. Ranjit screamed and turned around with a jolt, looking up and seeking to admonish the perpetrators. The birds flitted away, leaving a man in his vest and boxer shorts waving his fist and cursing them.
Disgust still presided on his face as Ranjit wiped the bird poo off his neck and back. But there was another offering in the morning’s bag of surprises. The substance he cleaned off was liquid, was white, was slimy, but it also had small globules of spit. The fact that it was toothpaste didn’t help allay his anger. There was only one floor above his, and that floor also had just the one apartment.
Ranjit was awake, disgusted, and enraged. He climbed the narrow, winding staircase, stomping his feet. He banged the door on the top of the landing even harder. But when the door opened, he lost almost all his vigour.
The lady standing in front of him was almost as tall as his six foot frame, with hair that seemed to flow endlessly. Her eyes were devoid of life but they were lethal nevertheless. Her long nose seemed larger on her bony face, but it couldn’t tarnish her grace. Dressed in a black tank top and pyjamas, she stood tall and firm, almost like an imperial guard.
“I don’t talk to men wearing chaddis,” she said and shut the door in his face. The words hurt Ranjit not because of what was said but due to the way it was said. As he went downstairs to put on a shirt and a pair of trousers, Ranjit rubbed his chest softly to dampen the sting of the verbal darts. It was only when he pulled his zipper that he realized how tactlessly and naively he was acting.
Having regained some of his lost vigour and determined not to make a fool of himself again, Ranjit climbed the staircase and knocked on the door. The lady opened it at once and sighed on seeing him again.
“My name is Ranjit,” he said.
“So it is,” returned the lady.
“I live in the house below you.”
“Howdy neighbour,” she said with a dreary face and a dull voice.
“All men wear chaddis.”
The two of them sighed together. Ranjit closed his eyes and stood with his head cast down for a few moments. The lady continued looking at him callously. When he looked up, Ranjit tried peeking into her apartment. But the door was not fully open, and the lady covered the sparse space effortlessly.
“Anything I can help you with?” she asked. It was the first time there was an emotion in her voice or face, but the restlessness and reluctance didn’t help Ranjit’s cause. Still intent on salvaging the situation, he cleared his throat.
“Does anyone else live here?” he asked in his baritone voice.
“I live by myself.”
“I see. I’m sure you were brushing your teeth a few minutes ago and walked over to your balcony to spit out the toothpaste. I was standing in my balcony at the time, and it just so happened that—“
“It won’t happen again. I’m sorry,” she said, snapping his sentence with her heartless voice. Ranjit stood there, dejected. His baby face became even more lost and unassuming.
“It landed on my back,” he said in a low, defeated voice, casting his eyes on the ground. He saw she wore a toe ring on each foot. Her nails were painted red. Before he could think of speaking again, the door was shut in his face once more.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully as Ranjit remained cooped up in his room, brooding to himself. Just when it got dark, there was a knock on his door. He found a small bag waiting for him. It contained a white vest and red, chequered boxers. He heard the door above slam shut for the third time that day, but this time, Ranjit smiled.
He put them on right away and admired himself in the mirror. He had never felt so excited to look at his flabby body. It was the sort of gift he had never hoped for or wanted, but it was the best he had ever received.