The road to the house where I live right now has a blockage of lazing street dogs. I am terrified of dogs. Been that way as a kid, still scared as an adult. Well, young adult. I’d like the ‘young’ moniker to be around for some time, just for security. I think I see one of the dogs looking at me. They don’t like me enough to not bark for the sake of my nerves. I take an alternate route. It has lots of cars and no dogs. It feels safe. I feel hungry. It’s going to be 20:00 soon or it already is. I don’t bother checking the phone in my hand to see the time. I feel like tearing off grilled chicken flesh off its bone. I am intuitive about food like that. I know what I want and I am now pushing the glass door to the KFC in the nearby mall. I took a 6 buck auto ride here, I could have walked. I did not want to come across unfamiliar dogs.
At the fast food outlet, I take up an entire booth to myself. All of the space for me! The chicken is fine. I try not to think of the diarrhoea it generally gives me. There is a kid’s birthday party, two other men taking entire booths to themselves, a date, friends eating out. A couple of old couples wait around for a man to finish his meal. One of those men with the booths. They have reduced the space for this outlet. It used to be double what it is now three years back. I was in college three years back. The neighbouring pizza joint took up the space. The woman at the table next to my booth seems to be looking my way. She is with her friends laughing. My skin crawls. Is she laughing at me? Am I eating this drumstick funny? Not that it bothers me, but you know… it bothers me. If someone is laughing by me when I am alone, I feel like they are laughing at me. Not that this makes me anxious or nervous. Not at all. It’s just… why would you laugh at me?
I am gnawing on my last drumstick. I’ve had 4. An old gentleman joins me at my booth, sitting on the other side. I feel generous and am okay with sharing my space. He has a burger, a packet of fries and a coke on his tray. I stare at him while he enjoys his fries, at his neatly combed hair, checked shirt and a pen in the pocket of that checked shirt. Now here is something you don’t see that often anymore. A pen in a pocket. That’s the sign of an upstanding man.
I keep staring at him from behind my phone. It’s rude but if you stare at someone long enough you could start a conversation. “Don’t stare at your phone so much. You will ruin your eyes,” he opens. “Sotti,” he stresses, his eyes comically big to drive home the point.
I take a moment to consider this. My eyes aren’t all that good to begin with. I can never tell if a guy standing few feet from me is a pretty face or not. He may have a point.
“Okay.” I say.
This makes him chuckle. He asks me what I do.
I hate this question. The truth is I am not proud of what I am doing. 15 year old me would have been. But not 24 year old me. When I tell what I do to people I can see them thinking of me as less than. I think of myself as less than. I am on my path to learn that what I “do” need not define me. I may be more than what I contribute to society. The self-worth attached to your contribution to the society and the benefits achieved from the contribution is still too big for me to renounce altogether at 24. I explain my job to him. He doesn’t seem to mind it the least bit. There isn’t any judgement. I can always tell when a pair of eyes is being judgemental. He then voices the concern I knew would come when I told him the truth. I sometimes lie to avoid this part. He asks why I started working so early. I ask him how old does he think I am.
15-16. “No, I am 24,” smile on my face. Surprise in his. Delights me every time.
I ask him what he is doing alone here. This he takes as a cue to tell me about his children and their accomplishments. They, indeed, are accomplished. Academics, professors, world-travelers. He is proud. His sense of self revolves around the accomplishments of his progeny. Is he lonely? I ask him what he did. Nudge him to talk about himself. Self-centered stories are what I am interested in. I am also interested in figuring out what kind of father does it take to raise accomplished children. A self-sacrificing, hard-working East Bengal born, JU graduate engineer who raised his siblings and then his children. That’s what it takes.
I take my leave.
I board a rickshaw that would take 30 bucks to drop me till my door. I could have walked. I would have liked to walk but it’s late and you know, dogs.
I spot a woman crossing the road with her daughter. Her daughter is wearing one of those frocks with attached belts at the back. I had one too many a frock like that as a kid. I spent one too many an evening with my mum, crossing roads like that. I imagine them having one of those tight-knit mother-daughter relationships. I have flashes from my childhood. That always makes me cry. I cry in the back of the rickshaw silently till I notice the wheels moving without the guy pedaling. Is this running on electricity? I ask him, “Is this running on a battery?”
“Yes!” clearly enthused he takes this as his cue to explain to me the working of his automobile.
People tell you all kinds of things if you just ask.