Jimmy looked again at his phone. No message, no missed call. She’s a bitch, he thought. Hurt and anger welled up inside him.
Ragini had not answered his messages for two days. She hadn’t even taken or returned his calls.
She must have found someone else, he thought. Someone more like her—fast and immoral and unreliable, the slick international type to whom nothing held any meaning.
Why do I even think about her? he wondered. I know she’s not my kind, and I am not hers. Anita—now, she had seemed like a nice, decent girl. Where was she? Why did she disappear? He switched off his phone and flung it on the bed in frustration.
An hour later when he switched it back on, there was a message from Balu. ‘Come for a party,’ it said.
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He went to the bathroom, thought of the fake, shiny world that Balu was inviting him to, and spat. Then he returned and switched his phone off again.
For the next two days, he didn’t receive a single phone call or message from anyone. On the third day, his phone finally rang.
It was Balu again. ‘Hey, where have you been?’
‘Oh? Okay. Are you all right?’
‘Great. So do you want to come out for coffee? I’m going to the Def Col Barista. There are two nice French girls who are also coming.’
Jimmy paused for a moment. He had not replied to Balu’s message two nights ago. He wasn’t sure why he had done that. Balu had done him no disservice—in fact, he was being a good friend.
‘Okay. Will you pick me up or do we meet there?’
‘I’ll pick you up. See you in twenty minutes.’
The idea of French girls sounded interesting. Of course, nothing was going to happen, but at least they would get Ragini off his mind.
Balu arrived on time. Apart from this, he was his usual self.
‘You d***head. What have you been up to?’ he asked as soon as Jimmy got on the bike.
‘Nothing. I was just feeling anti-social.’
‘Oh. Yeah, that happens. But why?’
‘I don’t know... I guess because I don’t fit here.’
Balu pulled over and stopped the bike. ‘Get off,’ he told Jimmy.
He then put the bike on its stand and pulled out a cigarette. As he sat on the bike, he lit his cigarette and asked, ‘Why do you think you don’t fit in?’
Jimmy didn’t say anything. Neither did Balu. He merely puffed on his cigarette. By now he knew Jimmy well enough to know that prodding him would only make him clam up.
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Eventually Jimmy spoke. ‘Look, you guys are different. People here are a different tribe altogether.’
‘Yeah, right. People here have horns and tails... and hooves. F***, how am I holding a cigarette? I have hooves!’
‘No, look, I’m not kidding. People here are so brash and loud and aggressive. They act so superior! Like they know everything.’
Balu ignored the jibe. ‘People are the same everywhere,’ he said. ‘They eat, they drink, they fight, they f***, they procreate. Apart from this, they get sodomized at work. That’s it.’
‘The people in Haripur are not junglis,’ Jimmy countered. ‘They are not beasts. They have manners, they have morals, they are in touch with our culture and nature, and they are not forever in a race to show off their money or earn more of it. They are human.’
‘Man! That’s a new one! No, hang on, that’s an old one. So Haripur village on the edge of the jungle must be the heaven we hear so much about. And does everyone have a halo and carry harps?’
Jimmy stared angrily at Balu, who broke into one of his lopsided grins and offered Jimmy the last puff of the cigarette.
‘Let’s go, angel,’ he said, and started the bike. ‘The girls are waiting!’
Jimmy cursed him and hopped on. The only thing he could think of saying was, ‘Haripur is not crowded and ugly.’
‘It won’t last because people everywhere want development,’ Balu retorted.
There was no more conversation until they reached the Def Col market because Balu drove like a maniac and Jimmy spent his time catching up on his prayers.
The girls were waiting. One was petite, vivacious, with dark hair and dark eyes. The other was a tall, slender blonde who spoke very little. ‘Jelena and Aurelie,’ Balu said, ‘meet Jimmy. He’s a very good boy. An absolute angel.’
Jimmy smiled tightly and tried furiously to think of something clever to say.
Jelena said a warm hi. Aurelie said a gentle hi.
‘It is very difficult to find good boys in Europe now,’ Jelena said with a grin, in her delightfully thick French accent.
‘It is very difficult to find good boys—or girls—anywhere,’ said Balu. ‘But Jimmy is one. Though I’m not sure if it’s good for him to be so good.
Anyway, what’s the weather like in Paris? I hear it was unseasonably cold this year.’
The conversation drifted from global warming to the failed predictions of millennial doom and Y2K disasters that had brought in the new year. The girls, both students at the Sorbonne, had strong views on most things, and the discussion was lively.
After a while, they decided to have some beer and moved to a nearby restaurant popular with the city’s artists and writers. A long and animated discussion on France, India and everything in between followed. Eventually, inevitably, the topic turned to Jimmy’s hometown.
‘It’s a small town at the edge of a jungle in the state of Madhya Pradesh,’ Jimmy told Jelena and Aurelie.
‘And it’s heaven on earth,’ Balu added.
‘Oh really? What is there?’ Jelena asked.
‘Well, there is the jungle, and there are nice streams and a lovely cliff in the forest from where you can see the land carpeted in green . . . and there are the animals. Deer, wolves, bears, monkeys, pythons, a few elephants, even the odd panther or tiger,’ Jimmy said.
‘It sounds lovely! We must go there,’ Jelena piped up.
Jimmy smiled sheepishly. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘Though actually now it’s not as nice as it used to be . . . lots of trees are being cut, houses and shops being built, traffic . . . you know, development.’
‘But the people are absolute angels,’ Balu said.
‘I know!’ said Jelena. Aurelie smiled encouragingly.
Jimmy blushed, and again smiled sheepishly.
‘Even the people are not as nice as they used to be. But still, they’re better than those in Delhi. The people here are so aggressive!’ he said. ‘Yaar, I’ve never been in a street fight!’ Balu muttered sotto voce. The girls looked at Balu, who didn’t explain, and the conversation paused for a moment before returning again to the temperament of the average small-towner. ‘But anyway, I guess the pace in small towns is a lot more laid back, so people do seem gentler and kinder,’ Balu resumed.
‘And there is a certain charm about these middle-of-nowhere places. They are a large part of India. You won’t understand very much about the country by looking at south Delhi, south Bombay and the Taj Mahal. So, you must visit Haripur. Maybe Jimmy could take you there.’
All eyes turned to Jimmy. ‘Er . . . sure!’ he said, trying to sound welcoming.
‘Good! We’ll plan this!’ Jelena said.
And so it was duly decided that the girls, Balu and Jimmy would go to Haripur in two weeks’ time. Everyone left the restaurant in high spirits.
Warm goodbyes were said, but the strange French way of saying it with a kiss on the cheek eluded Jimmy. He managed a hesitant hug, and silently cursed himself.
Excerpted from The Urban Jungle, by Samrat. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org