A Coffee Table Book

I remember, it was a Saturday. What should have been my day off the clockwork city was wasting away in that most crowded mall; one that I would have easily mistaken for CST or Grand Central or some such-not that I’ve been to either. By then, I was used to waiting for her; her time was never linear. It was more like a sheet of paper-fold it and put it in your pocket and it disappears.

Her pocketed time left me staring blankly at the maddening crowd wondering how quiet my toilet was; after all it’s truly the only place in the world where one could be alone in peace. When the 2nd coffee drained my wallet and in fear of my contents tipping the scale further, I chanced upon a couple at the far end of the room. They sat directly ahead of me but behind a wall which made them curiously inconspicuous. And they were engaged in the most unusual activity that nobody seemed to notice.

Planned by someone in love with the time-wasting tactics of an open-office floor, this coffee shop was just a space cornered against a wall with nowhere to go. While they were lucky to have the coffee counter guard the other free side, the last side was what I came to believe was the “view”; of hundreds of people buying random things they will never use simply because there seemed to be so many of them for one paise cheaper. That’s to make you appreciate better that overpriced coffee you just downed.

There were children, the annoying sorts, crying from exhaustion, grumpiness or purely bad upbringing; tech-savvy iphoners trying to “catch” range with their voices in this basement floor; families whose decibel levels were not monitored by anyone, others who just spoke loudly because they were kindred spirits and to top it off announcements that everybody heard but no one understood.

Amidst all this, the couple sat at that low table on cushions facing each other and between them was a red notebook. One would write something and pass it on to the other. Then the other would read, think, scribble and pass it back.

Siblings. I was sure they were brother and sister whose mother was a force to reckon with. She liked her home best when it was quiet. And she liked her home best, always. These two DNA mutations, like all of us, had their share of quibbles but didn’t dare make a sound. They had taken to writing utter filth to each other. And after their ferocious pen fights they refused to talk to each other; in that silent house indifference had easily gone unnoticed. As children they fought a lot because no one had intervened. But they had been silent for so long that they forgot they could speak to each other. They grew up but never shunned that habit. All their conversations were written. And it was a joy to watch.

This week’s writing exercise, the trainer at the workshop had spoken in his animated ecstatic voice. You will pair with the person to your right, go to a crowded place and write a descriptive narrative of the scene. You will write in different coloured inks and each of you will write one line. During the course of this exercise you will refrain from talking to each other or lingering too long over the scenario. This is partly a word association test.

They really like each other’s company. But he or she was being childishly ridiculous. They knew each other since high school. She had befriended him because they both loved cycling. The real reason was that he looked friendless and she was friendless too. They had clicked instantly; they watched Dexter’s Laboratory, hated oats for breakfast and resented the PT master. She was the one he called in panic after he had slept with a friend in college; he was inconsolable. She had called him and bawled incoherently when a friend she had avoided had died in an accident. And now after all these years, here they were sorting out this insurmountable hurdle. They were both as stubborn as a mule. They had hung up on each other and she had texted to meet here. Bringing the book was his idea and they wrote endlessly about how the other was a moron for being blind to the alternative. The swelling crowd, it seemed, helped circulate the air around their heads, for otherwise, they surely would have exploded.

He and I work together as associates. I hate his fucking guts. Like I care that he hates me too. The trouble began when our animosity came to a head at a meeting with our boss. I don’t remember what really went down; I was red with rage. He had made a condescending comment at my work. As if she were the only one who worked on it. It was my project too. We were supposed to work on it together. I hate her fucking guts. The meltdown had cost them their ego. The Boss had put them up to this task. Take the Saturday off, go to the nearest mall and finish writing that newsletter copy. You needn’t speak to each other if you can’t mind your language. You could write it, yes, only write it. These minions of marketing had no choice but to act out this charade. They didn’t stand a chance to hoodwink the Boss. Had they tried, the other would most definitely tell on them. Also a Saturday off was an impossible privilege for these twenty-four-seveners. They were in a fix.

Is that invisible ink they are writing with? Are those UV glasses that read invisible ink? They had to be with the Intel services. No wonder they had found that spot behind the wall; out in the open but away from the cameras. Of course they were writing in a book. It was the most low-tech technique in their skillset. Yes, right next to chopping vegetables in morse code. They were discussing the government’s underground bioweapon trials. Yes, it was true. A country as battered by epidemics as ours was indeed testing Chikunguniya on its unsuspecting slum dwellers. They were scientists and lovers. They wanted out of this maddening research that took innocent lives every day. But there was no safe house where they could talk. Talking was out of the question. They had briefly written on steamed up mirrors and cubicles in their bathroom. But that was mighty dangerous with the security arrangements. This was a spot far away from their canopied university, writing in a book wouldn’t alarm civilians and they could easily destroy evidence.

As I stared at the couple, I imagined it was him and me. There in that crowded madhouse, submerged in a sea of voices that smelled of coffee. We were writing to each other what we could never say better. I had the annoying habit of repeatedly asking the same questions. We were trying to capture the essence of these questions on paper before he grew tired of answering them. I wrote the first question and passed it on. He answered it diligently in half a sentence. Then he stalled, thinking. I will never forget that smile he smiled. His smile continued to fill that almost-fresh page with his thoughts. I knew he saw the joy he had anticipated on my face. The written word was an incredible high for me. Then he wrote a question. And it was my turn. But I love reading better than writing. At one point, I made him draw. I imagined and he drew. Then we both drew on the same page, facing away from each other’s halves. It was a banyan tree with our dreams etched on every leaf.

Right then, enters friend running; her curls laughing wildly and uncontrollably; a private joke perhaps. As she hugged me tight I forgot about the couple, their space I had invaded to create my own and that my time was folded in her pocket. She was just what the doctor had ordered; a ball of energy.