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January Yarns

The January Yarns

Monday, 1st January 2024

Image by Kristina Flour
Illustrated Portrait

Clandestine (Part I)

By Pooja Singal

From the bedroom balcony, the campus looked beautiful at night. The quaint houses, set in a neat row, with potted plants lined up along the identical red parapets, low metal gates, a small green patch in the front yard and the green fiber sheds for the car parking. Though dimly lit, Poonam could make out the houses; feel the stillness and hear the silence inhabiting the ‘B Wing’ at that hour. Though she found Ashutosh’s house small and ordinary, as compared to her palatial apartment in the suburbs, she didn’t mind it. The university campus held a fascination for Poonam. Clad in black micro-shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt for the night, her shiny eyes lined with thick black kohl, and her lovely face in a trance – she looked more of an enchantress than a bride. Nothing in this marriage fitted into the definition of an Indian marriage, but it was one anyway, and Poonam had vowed to make it work; and she was pretty sure it would work.  The cool October breeze was giving her gooseflesh, as if urging her to get into bed, but she was wide awake. Poonam looked at her watch – 1:00 am. She texted Vishwajeet, “Missing you more than ever…” –the message which she had been sending religiously, every single night before closing her eyes, for the last 5 years.  So, what if it was her nuptial night? She could not skip this. Vishwajeet – the only man she had loved in her life; and not just loved –Poonam had absorbed him with every pore of her body, lived him with every heartbeat, treasured him, since the day they had first met. He was essential to her existence –he had taken the journey from an obsession to a soul mate in just a short while. Poonam sighed.

Vishwajeet Agrawal was an industrialist. He was the owner of ‘Cenit Cures’ –a leading pharmaceutical industry. One of the richest businessmen in the city, Vishwajeet was attractive and convivial – and famous. He was fair and short, yet dynamic with a unique charm of his own. He loved luxury and style, and also a little attitude at times. When Poonam first met him, Vishwajeet was 42, with a little bald patch at the back of his head, a roundish handsome face with a ski-slope nose, asymmetrical yet attractive lips, and big doe eyes with a mole a little above his right eyebrow, not to miss the tiny but conspicuous injury mark in the center of his forehead.

Vishwajeet’s C.A. Hemant Shah was shifting to Mumbai, after having lost his wife Monika to Covid. It was not just a professional loss to Vishwajeet, but a graver personal blow as well because he was close to Shah’s family, and their houses were in close vicinity. After Monika’s death, Shah had decided to move in with his daughter Amoha and son-in-law Kunal. Vishwajeet was unenthused regarding hiring a new C.A., but it was a professional necessity. So, his manager, Gaurav had fixed a meeting-cum-interview at Vishwajeet’s office located in his huge set up in the industrial hub of the city.

When Poonam had pushed the glass door of his office that afternoon, it was like she had gate crashed his soul. Vishwajeet was spellbound and, for some moments, forgot to breathe and blink. Looking smashing, in a maroon and black saree, her hair falling on her shoulders, threader earrings violently playing with her cheeks and neck, Poonam had bombed Vishwajeet’s peaceful existence. She had jiggled the car key, raised her eyebrows; and, after waiting in vain for him to be normal, had taken a seat. Trying to overcome her aura, Vishwajeet inhaled through his mouth to fill his lungs with oxygen and clear his brain. He looked quite fancy in his white linen shirt and a disoriented look on his face.  Poonam had fallen in love with him at first sight –she felt that she already knew him… from some previous life, and intuitively knew that he too would fall for her. Vishwajeet was captivated by this magnetic woman, though unaware of the depth this relationship was going to gain in future. Poonam glanced at the files maintained by Shah and picked the current one to be carried along. Coffee arrived the moment they had finished talking business. Vishwajeet told her about his parents, his 16-year-old son Kartik, and his wife, Bindiya. She in turn told him that she had recently lost her father, she lived with her mother; and that her elder brother Sandeep lived in Canada. Poonam’s plush office was on the fourth floor of the Business Centrum on the highway. Her house too was in the upmarket estate on the outskirts. Vishwajeet was curious about her marital status, but resisted asking though he could make out that she too was around 40. Coffee had been sipped slowly with a lot happening in the meantime. He was already in love with Poonam’s loquaciousness, and Poonam with his looks –never in her life had she met a man so handsome and bonny at the same time.

Poonam went inside to get some coffee for herself. While passing through the bedroom, she realized that Ashutosh’s snoring was very light– mellow like his voice, mild like his character. Poonam smiled. She still remembered Vishwajeet’s resounding snores –sonorous like his voice, dashing like his character.  The whole scene stood live in front of her eyes. That night, they had talked till midnight on the phone, as Bindiya was off to her parents’ place. The tiredness of day’s work, Poonam’s intoxicating voice and a post-dinner drink of Vodka –had all made Vishwajeet fall asleep while still holding the phone. Initially, Poonam was unable to make out that sound, but suddenly she had realized that he was snoring, “Oh my Gosh! Vish, you are ROARING!”  She had literally rolled on her bed, laughing, forgetting her anger at him dozing off in the middle of a romantic conversation.

Poonam chuckled at the memory. The milk was boiling. She hurriedly poured it out, and tiptoed through the bedroom, with no intention of waking Ashutosh. She again looked at her phone, “No response! Come on Vish… Marrying AB won’t stop me from loving you.” She took a deep breath and started sipping her coffee. Poonam and Vishwajeet had known each other only for 5 years, but they understood each other more than anyone else in their lives did. Strangely, they could read each other’s minds, hear the unsaid words, and even experienced telepathic connection in times of deep upheavals. It was weird that an illegitimate relationship could be such a true source of love and strength.  Vishwajeet admired Poonam’s boldness while she cherished his combination of flamboyance and innocence. Poonam even loved his being shorter than herself by several inches.

Poonam remembered the day when Vishwajeet had asked her the reason for being single. Having planted a wet kiss on his lips, she had said “Coz I didn’t get a man like you Vish. The way you admire me makes me fall in love with myself. What else is marital bliss? Men treat their beloveds more tenderly than their wives.” Vishwajeet could feel Poonam’s soft gaze gradually turning intense. He mumbled, “It’s needless to exploit those sultry eyes Princess, I’m already ravished.” Moving closer to him, she whispered, “It’s better to have a lover like you.” To keep herself from melting into his arms again, she got up, straightened the pallu of her emerald-green crepe saree, and hissed, “I shall surrender to these half-shut sexy eyes sooner than I think.”

On the balcony, Poonam finished her coffee and scrolled through Instagram newsfeed. She was astonished to see that Vishwajeet had posted a picture of her Reception- with the four of them in the frame –Poonam dressed in her royal blue ‘n gold party dress, Ashutosh in his midnight blue three piece suit, with Bindiya next to him in a pink fusion dress and Vishwajeet smiling, in Poonam’s favorite coal-black suit with his arm round her waist, titled: “My Best Friend is a Bride!” Poonam was amused, rather worried, thinking how Vishwajeet was to handle Bindiya’s reaction to this. Though Bindiya was intelligent and beautiful and also worked for an NGO, she would panic whenever he paid attention to women… to the extent of interrogating Vishwajeet. And the irony was that Bindiya’s fears had materialized in the shape of Poonam.

Suddenly, Poonam felt the increasing chill in the night breeze. She had unpacked just a small bag with essentials, so, she went inside again to look for some cover, and luckily found a serape on Ashutosh’s bedside table. She quietly took it and stepped into the balcony again, convinced that this was going to be her favourite place in Ashutosh’s house. It was too early to call it her house or their house. Poonam didn’t feel anything for Ashutosh as of now. She only knew that Ashutosh Bhardwaj was a Professor of English at the City University, a learned man with a doctorate from England, childless, divorced for the last 16 years. He was of medium height, well built, had a handsome V-shaped face, most seductive eyes behind his expensive rimless glasses, a salt and pepper French beard and close-cut hair. Ashutosh had been a batch mate of her brother back in school, but that was it. She didn’t know him any better, until the ties were revived on the recent Old Boys Reunion for which Sandeep had specially flown in from Canada. The following morning, he had straightforwardly told Poonam that she could consider marrying Ashutosh as he seemed compatible for her; then ridiculing her idea of the perfect man, he had added, “He respects women, and believes in their personal space and all that blah…” Poonam was so madly devoted to Vishwajeet that a marriage proposal sounded sacrilegious to her ears. She had smiled at Sandeep, reiterating what she had been saying for last ten years, “I want an equal partner, not a superior; and that happens only in love… not in a marriage. I want to be valued, not taken for granted. I want a lover more than a husband… someone who spoils me with too much love… someone who wants me more than he needs me.” Sandeep had argued, “Nimmi, don’t you think you are too old for such foolish dreams?” “Yes. I am, and for marrying too.” She had wrapped a pashmina stole over her royal blue blouse, kissed her mother, given a fist bump to Sandeep and had rushed out of the house, little knowing that she would accept his proposal within a month’s time.

                                                                                                                         To be contd...

Monday, 8th January 2024

Image by Kristina Flour
Illustrated Portrait

Clandestine (Part II)

By Pooja Singal

Looking at the street poles, Poonam smelled the serape, and after a thought, muttered, “Vanilla-ish? Is it his natural smell or he’s using some perfume?” she twisted her lips and shrugged. Then, she smiled nostalgically remembering Vishwajeet’s musky smell. She inhaled a mouthful of air and sighed, “I love you the same after what all happened that day, or who knows, even more.”  That day!

That day, Poonam had packed half a dozen short dresses for a single night trip! But she left home in a saree because the false pretext was of a Chartered Accountants Meet at Neemrana Fort Palace. Vishwajeet was to attend an Entrepreneurs Convention there on Saturday, and the plan was that Poonam would join him that very evening, spend some intimate time together and come back to the city on Sunday evening, by separate flights. The plan seemed easy to be executed, but both of them were apprehensive –about things going haywire, about families finding out their secret, about missing the flights, about each and everything that could go wrong. Saturday morning, Vishwajeet had worn a dull grey suit to keep a low key lest Bindiya’s suspicions should be aroused. Poonam was so stressed that she had slurped on a boxful of ice-cream by the time she left home for the airport. She had worn her prettiest chiffon saree - off white with red floral print, paired with a red backless blouse.  Vishwajeet had messaged her at 12:10 pm, “Convention started.” She knew he would be occupied till 5:00 pm and free by the time she would reach the hotel. With her heart thudding violently, Poonam had left for the airport earlier than needed, to ease the million butterflies fluttering in the tummy, making her stumble and stammer. She had her fingers crossed, “God please. I’ve never asked for anything. Just asking for some moments with him. Jusssst some moments!”  While on the short 45-minute flight, she just kept thinking how they would handle their passion for each other, once together in absolute privacy. It was absurd that in spite of having a fierce desire for each other, they had never gone beyond some loving hugs and kisses. They candidly voiced their hunger for each other and at the same time their reluctance too. Vishwajeet held back because he knew that howsoever he loved her; he would never be for her what she deserved and wanted. Poonam was scared because she was emotionally vulnerable, and she didn’t want to this beautiful relationship to sustain on the grounds of something as base as sex. Though she loved his body, she never went beyond nuzzling his neck. More restless than before, Poonam disembarked, rushed out of the airport, and got into her already waiting Neemrana-bound taxi. Certain that things would fall in place, she could already feel the warmth of Vishwajeet’s arms.

“Good morning Cinnamon! How are you?” standing behind her, Ashutosh held her by the shoulders and placed his chin on her head, “Its 5:30 am. You had a sleepless night. Ya?” Poonam was speechless, trying to discern that it was already dawn, Ashutosh was awake, and that she couldn’t keep thinking about Vishwajeet all the time. “Good morning AB. You are an early riser. Ya?” turning towards him, Poonam tried to smile. He sat beside her, looked intently into her sleepy eyes, and held her hand, “Ahh! These bewitching eyes… You know you are savagely beautiful, Cinnamon! Don’t you?” Poonam tried to look away, smiling though. Ashutosh continued, “Ah! My heart and my eyes are at war over who shall possess your beauty and your charm.” Poonam got up and stood leaning against the parapet, “Thanks for the literary compliment, AB. Trying to spoil me with poetry?... or love?” Ashutosh held her smoky eyes for a moment, and said in his immaculate British accent, “Poetry is Shakespeare’s, but the love is patently mine!” Poonam blushed at Ashutosh’s ornate yet subtle expression of love, but also felt a little awkward. She had not expected so much emotion from this marriage of convenience. She smiled, partly out of happiness, and partly because this was another tribute to the sexual magnetism that she knew she possessed. Poonam smiled, tied her hair in a fuzzy bun and went inside, asking, “Care for a cup of tea, AB?” Over tea, they shared some chunks of information about each other, saw pictures of their simple wedding solemnized at the Vishnu-Lakshmi Temple and of the reception party. They also planned a weekend getaway to get to know a little more about each other’s past.

After Ashutosh left for his morning walk, Poonam messaged Vishwajeet, “Good morning, my honey and silk! Can I ask something?” Vishwajeet replied immediately, “Good morning, Princess. Shoot!” Poonam’s eyes filled up with tears. Since the Neemrana fiasco, Poonam had been reluctant in her conversations. Though her heart still refused to hold anything for Vishwajeet except love, his stinging words still kept echoing in her ears… reviving and deepening the hurt: “Why do you ask questions which I don’t have answers to? You don’t understand certain things because you are in a different situation altogether. There’s more flexibility at your end. Things are easy for you Princess. My efforts don’t necessarily succeed, but at least acknowledge them. Can we just talk about something else?”  Poonam hadn’t understood his desperation at that time because she had said or done nothing to trigger it.  She had distinctly heard something break inside her –Was it her heart? She didn’t know. She didn’t even want to know, because she couldn’t allow herself feel anything for Vishwajeet except love. She just disconnected the call and wept –for hours, for days… and finally realized that this one time, he had taken her for granted… and that it was time to make him give-up his rights on her and vice versa. She wept more, because she still loved Vishwajeet with the same delicacy and depth, the same romance and hunger. But one thing she had always been sure of was, that she could not be taken for granted, that too, in love.

The balcony was flooded with sunshine by now, forcing Poonam to move inside. In her new bedroom, looking at the reflection of her mermaid body, Poonam slid down the memory lane... She clearly remembered the night she had spent at the luxury room at Neemrana Fort –alone, struggling to fathom the story behind his text message: “Sorry Princess. Medical emergency at home. Shall explain later... Going back!” She had not wept, rather got herself drunk and missed Vishwajeet more and more. She was on tenterhooks all night through but managed to keep herself from calling him. His call came around 8 next morning.  Poonam, unrecognizable with smudged kajal, and wrinkled saree, had pounced upon the phone, “Good morning Vish. Are you ok?” Vishwajeet sounded guilty and remorseful, apologized, explained that he had been in a fix, and that he had never wanted to cause such humiliation to her. He had been summoned home immediately. Their communication had failed because in those crucial hours, they had been on the flight. When Poonam had told him that his nothing did not sound good enough to explain the debacle, Vishwajeet had come down heavily on her. Poonam had fallen silent…

After coming back from Neemrana, Poonam was a changed woman. Her spirit seemed tamed, her bright-eyed chirpiness was marked by a peculiar stability, and her voice had a tinge of prudence. That very evening, Poonam had announced to her mother that she had decided to marry Ashutosh. It was a rash decision… But she was disillusioned by love. She had realized that even a lover could take her for granted.

Vishwajeet met Poonam at her office the next evening, to find her looking more fascinating with an uncanny sadness in her eyes. She had sprung like a cat and hugged him tightly round his neck, listening to his heart.  After a while, she murmured, “Vish, I’ve decided to marry… just so that we can be equals – you and me … so that I get to understand things which I do not … so that I realize the irrelevance of the questions I asked about your rushing back to attend to your friend’s heart attack, without giving a thought to my feelings. I can’t allow anyone to take me for granted Vish, not even you. Do attend my wedding. Finally, at least one of our million dreams will come true- we shall get a chance to be have a photograph together.

And do remember- I shall love you forever.”

Vishwajeet could hear something break – Was it his heart? He didn’t know. But he knew he had lost her –the woman he had truly loved, the woman who loved him fervently. He had collected himself, congratulated her, resenting the fact that he had neither any reason nor the right to question her for anything she was going to do. He still had to absorb what he had just heard, and to dare to love the new Poonam- the professor’s wife! He held her eyes and said softly, “I earnestly wish he doesn’t take you for granted Princess… Never in your life!”  Poonam’s pain had blurted out once again, “I don’t know, Vish! I thought the same about you as well.”

Poonam had not revisited this box in her recent memory to evade the excruciating agony. Sobbing hysterically, she texted: “I shall go to my office tomorrow to wind up some urgent task.  Can I see you at your office, at the usual time? We are to leave for an outing the day after tomorrow. Just want to see you once.”

Vishwajeet wanted to ask Poonam the questions which had been sapping him every second since he had refused to answer hers: “Why had she married in such a hurry? Was it just a reaction to the Neemrana fiasco?  Did she do it to punish him? Did she really think that marrying someone was the right way to repair their relationship? Did she actually like Ashutosh? Why did she not discuss the idea of getting married with him before finalizing it?” But he knew he was supposed to keep out of it. He realized the pain of not being able to ask questions from someone so intimate –which he had given to Poonam - the pain of feeling cheated… of being left behind… of being taken for granted. Poonam was waiting for his response. She texted: “Vish ???” Vishwajeet collected all his strength and asked: “Princess, are you happy?” Poonam sent him three smiley emojis along with the message: “I know what you want to ask, Vish. AB shall create a new place for himself. You still hold yours! You broke my heart, I guess, some of those broken pieces still love you. I know you’ll judge me for this, but I believe that it’s beyond the capacity of marital love to replace clandestine love. Our love for each other is savage and ravenous. The only natural form of love- the way it should be.”  

Perhaps Vishwajeet got some of his answers –She could still listen to his heart. Pushing his self-pity in the background, he texted, “Don’t be late Princess. Your favorite sandwich and coffee shall be eagerly waiting for you… and me as well."

Monday, 15th January 2024

Merchant of.jpg
Quill

Merchant of Vetaverse

By Anika Joseph

Act I - Scene 1

Anant logged out of a Google Meet with a few fellow Vetaverse investors and decided to take a walk along the Carter Road promenade. As he got out into his building’s lift, he messaged his friends Sundar and Somesh, who also lived in Bandra, to join him.

‘Why the long face Anant?’ Sundar asked, as they met outside Jogger’s Park and started to stroll down Carter Road. A warm breeze blew in from the sea. The sun had barely half an hour left in the sky, and it was unusually warm, even for the beginning of May.

‘I’m not sure,’ Anant replied. He was casually dressed in a light blue tee-shirt and navy-blue jeans. His friends were also dressed likewise, in informal, but sober clothes.

‘Worrying about your investments in the Vetaverse?’ Somesh asked as the wind from the sea caused his long ponytail to arc upwards.

‘If I were you, I would be worried too. You have so much at stake,’ Sundar added. ‘The gossip is that you used all your bitcoins and dogecoins to buy real estate in the Vetaverse.

‘Yes, you have reposed greater faith in Duke Hammond than any other Indian crypto-business person. Taken on so much risk. Of course, if it pays off, you will become one of the richest crypto entrepreneurs in India.’

‘Chaps,’ Anant interrupted them, as he scratched his greying beard. ‘It is true that I have invested everything I have in the Vetaverse. But I’m not worried about it.’

Sundar prodded him playfully in his ribs. ‘Well then, you must be in love!’ he teased.

‘No’ said Anant. ‘Although I wish that were the case’, and he managed a wry smile.

‘Not in love either?’ Somesh looked thoughtfully at Anant. ‘In that case, that must be your nature. You must be anhedonic!’

‘Maybe,’ Anant responded sheepishly, just as his salt and pepper hair came off the hairband, he had used to tame it and blew all over his face.

As they reached the Union Park junction, they heard a shout.

‘Hey Anant!’ Basant shouted from across the road, in the fading evening light.

‘Basant!’ Anant did not hide his joy at seeing Basant who was standing outside Starbucks with two of their common friends, Gagan and Loknath. 

‘We’ll take your leave then. We are leaving you with better company,’ Sundar said.

‘Guys, I assume you have stuff to do. Carry on.’ Anant did not prevent them from walking back in the direction they had come, even as he carefully crossed the road over to his young friend Basant.

‘So, what’s the plan for the evening,’ Basant asked Anant, who was six inches shorter than him.

‘Nothing much. Once we finish chatting, I will walk back to my flat. I have a VC scheduled with Duke Hammond at ten tonight.’

‘Oh My God! When are we going to have a party next? It’s been ages since we made merry.’ said Basant, forever in a party mood.

‘Why don’t you finish your VC and then come over to Escobar to join us?’ Gagan asked Anant. ‘We plan to party late into the night.’

‘Too late for me to change my demeanour Gagan,’ said Anant. ‘The world is a stage on which everyone has a part to play. Mine is a sad one.’  He turned to Basant and said, ‘Basant, tell me about the charming lady who has captured your heart. When are you going to meet her?’

‘Sure, I will tell you all about her. As for meeting her, I need your help for that too.’

‘I’m all ears!’

‘I met her through Reddit. She loves Jazz, just like me and we’ve been chatting for the last four months!

‘A jazz lover! Nice. When did you see her in person first?’

'Not yet! But…’

‘Wow! And you’ve been chatting for four months? That’s too long to not have met! Where exactly is she?’

‘She is in Goa, at a place called Bela Montanha.’

‘I’ve heard of Bela Montanha, but never been there.’

‘Me neither,’ Gagan said.

‘Same with me,’ Loknath chipped in.

‘Everyone has heard of Bela Montanha, but very few have gone there. It’s on the southern tip of Goa, quite far from the airport and it’s not really open to the public. Poorna’s mansion is on top of Bela Montanha.

‘A mansion!’ Anant exploded.

‘Yes, a mansion. And she practically lives alone, but for her best friend Nalini, who lives with her.’

‘Very mysterious.’

‘Poorna’s parents are no more. They are originally from Mysore, but they moved to Goa after Poorna’s father married her mother against their parents’ wishes. Their families cut them off. In Goa he started from scratch and became very rich. Poorna went to a boarding school in Sanawar where she made friends with Nalini. Nalini actually hails from Chennai. They both went to the same college in the States, UPenn actually, and …’

‘Stop, stop. That’s too much info. Tell me, is she into Tech? Does she like cryptos and NFTs and AI?’

‘Unfortunately, no. She prefers to admire Tech from a safe distance. But she loves Jazz!’

Anant sighed. ‘When are you going to bring her to Mumbai from her Bela Montanha mansion?’

‘That’s going to take some effort. You see, her parents have left a Will according to which she can go out with a man only if he passes a test.’

There was silence for a few seconds, and one would have heard a pin drop, despite the traffic. Then Anant exploded, ‘is this for real? We are well into the 21st century, aren’t we?’

‘Unfortunately, yes. And to get to Bela Montanha in style and win her hand, I need a fair amount of money, which I don’t have.’

‘I would happily lend you the money Basant.’ Anant said, taming his flapping ponytail as he spoke.

‘I know you would. But I am already deeply in debt to you. I don’t have the heart to ask you for more money.’

‘How much do you need?’

‘Around four lakh rupees.’

‘That’s not a big deal. Unfortunately, I do not have four lakhs with me since I have invested every bit of spare cash and crypto in the Vetaverse. No worries, I shall borrow that money for you and lend it to you.’

‘That would be wonderful. Air tickets to Goa. Stay in a five-star hotel in South Goa for a week. Buy myself some fine clothes. Rent a good car for the week. Plus, a good gift to carry with me when I call on the beautiful Poorna at her Bela Montanha mansion.’

‘Why don’t you borrow the money, Basant? Borrow it from Shylen. I shall be your surety.’

‘Shylen? But he’s horrible!’

‘Yes, he is a nasty piece of work. However, he usually has ready cash and is willing to lend. At a steep interest, of course’

‘He hates people like us.’

‘And we hate people like him. However, in this instance, don’t hesitate to approach him. The IPO is just three months away. I will be able to replay him in three months’ time easily.’ With that Anant turned around and started to walk back to his flat, his ponytail fluttering in the wind, just as the setting sun sank into the sea.

 

Act I – Scene 2

Meanwhile, Poorna was chitchatting with her best friend Nalini. Billie Holiday sang Solitude gently in the background. Both the ladies had their feet up on the comfortable couch they were sprawling on. The remains of their breakfast were scattered on the table before them. The large French windows were wide open, and a warm sea breeze blew into the room.

‘So, who’s coming to see me today?’ Poorna asked Nalini, just as the brilliant sunshine glinted off her beautiful wavy hair.

‘Mohit. The cricket captain. All the way from Delhi,’ Nalini replied, as she adjusted the straps of her housecoat.

‘I hate doing this. Why did my parents have to set such horrible terms? Mohit is nice and so I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t see him. But what if he passes the test? I would not be able to date anyone else. Will I end up having to marry him?’ Poorna wailed melodramatically.

‘You don’t have a choice, my sweet, beautiful Poorna. The terms of your parents’ joint Will are very clear. You can’t date anyone unless that person has passed the test and you can date only one person at a time. If Mohit passes the test and you want to date someone else, you need to break up with Mohit and your new heartthrob has to pass the test.’

‘Ouch! My parents wanted me to be a prude. Or maybe I should just chuck my inheritance and find a job.’

‘Maybe you should. You are an Arts Major. You could work for an art gallery or a museum.’

‘Those places pay a pittance. I know. I have done my homework.’

Nalini got up, brushed a few tiny breadcrumbs off her housecoat and said, ‘let me ask the maid to clean up the place.’

‘And I shall get Balraj to buy some groceries for the cook to make something good for Mohit,’ Poorna said even as she got up and walked towards her dressing room.

 

Act I – Scene 3

Basant got off the rickety lift on the fifth floor and rang the bell for Shylen’s flat. It was oppressively hot on the landing.

Shylen’s manservant Lallojit opened the door and invited Basant in. It was just as hot inside the drawing room. Though Basant espied an air conditioner, he noticed that it was switched off.

‘Shylen Sa’ab will see you soon,’ he informed Basant and waved at a semi-circle of old-fashioned sofas with plump cushions in fading pink. Overhead, a fan spun into life after Lallojit flicked a switch.

Basant waited impatiently for around ten minutes before Shylen made his appearance, chewing paan energetically, bright yellow kurta a total contrast to Basant’s light blue t-shirt and navy-blue jeans.

‘Good to see you Basant-ji. Did you have trouble getting here?’ Shylen sat on the same two-seater as Basant, uncomfortably close. It was no longer so warm, since the fan above was whirling at top speed.

‘Not at all. I took the train to Borivli and then found an auto.’

‘This is a far cry from Bandra. Your kind of people are rarely seen in these parts.’ Shylen patted his big paunch which threatened to spill out of his kurta.

‘I don’t know about that. I am just a music teacher. I live in Bandra in a flat that my father has bequeathed to me and my siblings. On my own, earning from the guitar lessons I give, I wouldn’t be able to afford my own place anywhere in Mumbai. Forget Borivli, I don’t have the money to buy a flat even in Virar.’

‘Come on. You are an intellectual. A man who pursues the fine arts. Your father was such a well-known philanthropist.’

‘All that’s true Shylen-ji. However, I am not rich. Also, I am in urgent need of some money. Which is what brings me here. Could you please lend me four lakh rupees?

Shylen was shocked into silence. He then burst into laughter and clapped his thigh. ‘I am so flattered Basant-ji. I would be delighted to lend you four lakh rupees. What kind of security can you give me? Maybe you could pledge some shares or create a mortgage over your flat?’

‘Unfortunately, I do not have any shares. As for my flat, it is our joint family property and is not mine alone for me to mortgage it in your favour. However, my best friend Anant, who you know very well, will offer you his personal guarantee.’

‘That would do very well. Everyone knows that Anant-ji is such a rich person with investments in all these new-fangled things that I don’t understand. Crypto-currencies and NFTs and what’s that thing which he has invested in? I forget the name.’

‘The Vetaverse. Yes, he’s into all that and he will be give you his personal guarantee for this loan.’

‘That would be fantastic. I know Anant-ji so well.’

‘Actually, he will be here soon.’

‘That’s good. We can finalise the loan today itself.’

The doorbell rang at that moment. Shylen looked towards the inside of the house, waiting for Lallojit to open the door. Nothing happened. The bell rang again. ‘Lallojit! Where are you? You lazy piece of shit! Open the door!’

Lallojit came out running and opened the door. Anant entered the hall, bringing with him some sultry air from the landing outside. His ponytail was stiff, as if it had been smeared with glue and the armpits of his t-shirt were stained with sweat.

‘Talk of the devil,’ Basant said.

‘May you live a thousand lives, Anant-ji,’ Shylen said.

‘Shylen-ji, we meet again.’

‘Please do sit. Lallojit, bring some tea.’

‘Please don’t bother.’

‘It’s no trouble at all, Anant-ji’

‘Anant, Shylen-ji has agreed to lend me four lakhs,’ Basant told Anant.

‘Excellent. How much interest do you intend to charge?’

‘Five per cent. My standard rate.’

‘Five per cent per annum? Surely, that’s …’

‘No Anant-ji, it will be five per cent per month. I am not a bank.’

‘That’s steep. I hate borrowing money, especially traditional money. And paying interest is something I detest. However, for the sake of my friend Basant, I shall pay you back four lakh rupees within three months, along with interest of five percent per month.’

‘Excellent!’

At the moment, Lallojit came in carrying with him a tray with three cups of steaming tea and a plate of laddoos.

‘Please have some tea,’ Shylen cajoled.

Anant and Basant hesitated.

‘Or maybe you are used to drinking only Cappuccinos?

‘Not really. Just that I am not in the mood for tea.’

‘Well, have a laddoo at least!’

Again, Anant and Basant hesitated and did not pick up a laddoo.

‘You must be missing your avocado sandwiches!’

‘I am not hungry Shylen-ji,’ Basant told him.

‘Okay then. Let’s agree on this. Three days from now, I shall lend four lakh rupees to Basant-ji. Anant-ji will repay me this money within three months, with five per cent interest, compounded every month.’

‘Compounded every month, my foot,’ Basant muttered under his breath.

‘And I shall sign a personal guarantee deed in your favour Shylen-ji.’

‘That won’t be necessary Anant-ji. However, why don’t you, this is more a joke than anything else, agree that if you cannot repay me four lakh rupees and interest within three months of the loan, I can infect your properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus.’ Shylen laughed and clapped his thigh even as he spoke, just as Anant and Basant looked on in astounded silence.

‘Just a joke between the three of us, nothing more,’ Shylen repeated.

‘I’m fine with that,’ Anant said, scratching his beard.

‘Anant, don’t agree to this crazy condition,’ Basant said. ‘Never heard of anything like this.’

‘Basant-ji, please don’t mis-understand. This is just a joke between friends. All that Anant-ji has to do is to send an email to Mr. Duke Hammond, the founder of Vetaverse, who we all know is his good friend and explain the terms of our agreement. Say that he is doing it of his own free will.’

‘Sure, I will do this.’

‘You must copy me on your email to Mr. Duke Hammond. And Mr. Duke Hammond should reply to all of us with his confirmation.’

‘Agreed!’

‘Anant, don’t do this please.’

‘Basant, Vetaverse is going for an IPO in three months. My investments in Vetaverse will be worth a thousand times this amount, no ten thousand times if not more, once Vetaverse is listed on NASDAQ.’

As Anant and Basant got off the lift on the ground floor and walked towards the exit, they saw Lallojit ran after them, panting a bit. ‘Sir, please wait.’ He had evidently taken the stairs.

‘What’s it?’ Basant turned around and asked.

‘Sir, I can’t bear to work for this evil moneylender anymore. Can I work for you please?’

‘How do you know me?’

‘Shylen-Sa’ab’s daughter Jeiya madam is good friends with your friend Loknath. Jeiya madam has said many good things about you and your group of friends. I just want to work with someone cool, like you.’

‘Oh, I’ve met Jeiya a few times, but I didn’t know she was Shylen’s daughter.’

‘No, I didn’t either,’ Anant added. ‘Interesting.’ Somehow Lallojit had discovered that Loknath and Jeiya were dating.

‘Well, what’s your mobile number? Let me WhatsApp my address to you. Come over to my flat tomorrow, after you settle with your boss.’

‘Okay sir.’ Lallojit was subservience personified.

‘I will pay you fifteen thousand rupees a month. Nothing more. Plus give you three meals a day. Most probably you get as much here.’

‘No Sir. Shylen Sa’ab is a miser. He pays me a lot less. I would be honoured to work for you sir.’

‘Really! He pays you less than this amount. I swear! What a miser he is!’

‘And he never pays on time either,’ Lallojit whined.

‘I promise to treat you fairly and well. See you tomorrow at my flat

‘Thank you so much sir. Let me run back sir, before Shylen Sa’ab misses me.’ Before Anant or Basant could say anything else, Lallojit ran back towards the stairs. 

 

Act I - Scene 4

Meanwhile Mohit had arrived at Poorna’s mansion at Bella Montagna and was chatting with Nalini, a cup of coffee in hand.

‘Finally, Poorna agreed to see me. We used to be pretty close till she cut me off.’

Nalini chuckled. ‘She had to cut off quite a few men, after her parents passed away. She told me many times that she missed seeing you.

‘She has come to watch me play a few times, when I played for my school.’

‘I know. I came with her once. That was a match against the Doon school team.’

‘Did you? I don’t remember.’

‘You scored nine runs and then’

‘That LBW! That was a horrible umpire who sent me off!’

‘I know. We all said that. Poorna was very upset.’

‘Was she?’ Mohit cheered up considerably on hearing that and ran his fingers through his long straight hair.

‘So, tell me, why did she cut me off?’

‘All that will be revealed soon Mohit. Would you like something to eat?’

‘When will I get to see Poorna?’

‘She’ll be down in a few minutes. Don’t worry.’

‘Good.’ Mohit turned a bit and looked out of the window nearby. The bright sunlight nearly blinded him. ‘When does the monsoon arrive,’ he asked Nalini.

‘A month and a half, I think,’ she informed him.

 

Act I - Scene 5

Shylen’s daughter Jeiya saw Lallojit pluck his clothes from the clothesline on the balcony and run inside.

‘Hey Lallojit, wait! So, you are leaving us, aren’t you?’

Lallojit hesitated. ‘Yes Madam, he conceded.’

‘And you don’t see the point in telling my father before you leave?’

Lallojit was silent.

‘I don’t blame you,’ Jeiya said and Lallojit relaxed.

‘Who are you going to work for?’

‘I’m taking up employment with one Basant Sa’ab, who stays in Bandra.’ Lallojit had a shrewd look on his face.

‘You clever boy. You found out my secret!’ Jeiya laughed. She thought she had been careful when she called Loknath. it was a good thing that Lallojit was leaving. 

‘Listen, when you are with Basant, you will run into Loknath. Give him my regards.’

To be contd...

Monday, 22nd January 2024

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Quill

Merchant of Vetaverse

By Anika Joseph

Act II - Scene 1

‘Are you ready to take the plunge?’ Poorna asked Mohit, as Louis Armstrong played in the background.

Mohit shook his head lightly and then nodded. ‘Let’s do it. I can’t believe this is happening to me, in this day and age.’

Poorna led him to a smallish room and opened the door. At the end of the room, three boxes were kept. ‘If you pick the one with my photograph inside, I will date you and date no one else. If you ask me to marry you, I shall marry you. You will share all the wealth that I have inherited from my parents. However, if you pick the wrong box, you should never contact me again.’

Mohit muttered under his breath and walked forward.

The first box was golden in colour and on top of it was inscribed: I care about my shareholders and will do everything to increase my shareholders’ wealth. Nothing else matters.

The second box was silver in colour and the inscription on top of it read as follows: I care about my shareholders and the employees of my companies. Nothing else matters.

The inscription on the third leaden box declared as follows: I care about my shareholders, the employees of my companies, my customers, the environment and the general public. All these are equally important.

Which was the correct box, Mohit wondered? It was clear that Poorna’s parents wanted her to find a husband who would look after her. All his life, Mohit had been told by his parents to focus on the most important thing. What was it that his cricket coach told him? Focus on the ball. Nothing else matters. Who was the shareholder of the companies that Poorna’s parents had left behind for her? Poorna of course. It was not a businessman’s job to worry about the environment or the general public, right? That was the government's job. As for employees, they would get a fair wage. They were definitely not on par with shareholders. It had to be the golden box, for Poorna, the most beautiful girl in the world.

‘I’d like to open this box,’ Mohit said pointing to the golden box, his voice hoarse with the tension.

Nalini gave him a small golden key and Mohit opened the box only to find the photo of a joker inside.

‘This is ridiculous,’ Mohit exploded.

‘Please do remember your promises,’ Nalini reminded Mohit as she ushered him outside. You need to keep the details of this lottery confidential.’

Mohit looked crestfallen even as a warm sea breeze blew into the room through the large open windows. ‘And please delete Poorna’s phone number and email address from your phone and laptop,’ Nalini added.

Act II - Scene 2

Jeiya and Loknath decided to order a second bottle of red wine. It was rather cold inside the airconditioned restaurant, though it was very warm outside.

‘Let’s order this one,’ Jeiya said, pointing to the most expensive wine on the menu. Her sleeveless dress made her arms feel cold and Jeiya took a shawl from out of her handbag and wrapped it around her shoulders.

‘Nooo! Not worth the money,’ Loknath objected. These French wines are overhyped. Let’s just repeat the Chilean.’

‘My father has too much money and I am determined to spend some of it tonight.’ Jeiya refused to give in.

‘If only you father were to know about this!’ Loknath chuckled.

‘He’d go nuts. Can you imagine? He has made so much money but is such a miser and will not even move into a nicer flat. Follows the most unhealthy diet possible and doesn’t exercise at all. Wears only very brightly coloured clothes. He doesn’t smoke or drink, but chews paan with a vengeance and has all forms of lifestyle diseases. And he hates nerds like you and your friends who wear sober clothes and eat healthy.’

‘When are you moving into my flat? I can’t wait to make it formal.’

‘Listen, if I move into your flat, my father will get the police to arrest you on some false charge and drag me back. Why don’t we go off somewhere for a year or two and return after that? Dubai or Thailand? You could work remotely, can’t you?’

‘I’d love to, but I don’t have too much money. Yes, I can do my job remotely, but ...’

‘Don’t worry about the money. I have lots. Plus, I will be carrying all the jewellery that I inherited from my darling mother.’

Act II - Scene 3

Anant logged into the Vetaverse and started to stroll around. ‘The Vetaverse is a broad and speculative shift in the way you interact with technology,’ a popup proclaimed. More than one third of the properties were owned by Duke Hammond. Another one-third was up for sale. Of the rest, he, Anant owned one-tenth, which made him the eighth biggest investor in the Vetaverse. The Vetaverse was spruced up for the IPO. There were banners everywhere encouraging more folks to invest and to adopt a crypto-way of life. If Duke Hammond had his way, fiat currencies would disappear overnight and cryptos would take-over everywhere.

Anant clicked lightly to enter The VetaMall and went to Claude’s Art Junction. He reached for his VR headset and strapped it on, even as he ignored the popup which said, ‘MARKETPLACE FOR ARTIFACTS AND ART CREATED BY A WIDE RANGE OF RENOWNED ARTISTS AND CREATORS.” The two Ragini NFTs that he had put up for sale were still there. Which was surprising since Ragini was so popular and her NFTs ought to have sold like hotcakes. Beyond a point, one could never predict how people behaved. Anyone who got it right made a lot of money.

Anant couldn’t leave without a visit to his favourite HologramHeaven. It was meant to become operational within a month and would enable users to teleport themselves instantly as holograms to their offices or to social gatherings. Fingers crossed. Touchwood. It was funny how one still crossed fingers and touched wood even as technology leapfrogged one into the future.

Anant minimized the webpage and checked his Gmail. There was nothing other than the usual spam, which he deleted. He then went to his E-Doc-Locker and opened the contract which Shylen and he had signed. ‘If I do not repay four lakh rupees within three months from today, along with interest of five percent per month, Shylen, the other party to this contract, is entitled to infect all my properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus. Payment of the loan amount after this deadline will not take away Shylen’s right to infect thus.’ Both Anant and Shylen had affixed their digital signatures to the contract and Anant had emailed it to Duke Hammond, copying Shylen. Duke Hammond had replied, confirming his acceptance of the contract.

Anant laughed. Shylen was a petty idiot. In around twenty days’ time, the IPO would take place and the Vetaverse would be listed on the Nasdaq. HologramHeaven would go live in a month. His shares of Vetaverse would shoot up in value. He would sell a small fraction of those shares and pay off all his creditors including Shylen and he would buy a big mansion in Mumbai or somewhere else. No. The future was digital. He had a comfortable flat in Bandra and he would continue making all his investments in Tech companies. Bricks and mortar be damned!

 

Act II - Scene 4

‘Arun. The investment banker. All the way from Mumbai,’ Nalini announced, as she peeped into Poorna’s bedroom.

‘I don’t want to.’ Poorna yawned. Ideally, after a siesta, she should go for a walk on the beach, a coffee mug in hand. Instead, she was being forced to go through this rigmarole.

‘Too late to not to want to. Anyway, you like Arun, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I do. And what’s more, I’d rather have gone out for a drink with him, like normal people, instead of putting him through this.’

‘Do you want him to win?’

‘To be honest, no. And not because I don’t like him, but’

‘But because you like Basant better?’

‘Actually yes. Arun is a mercenary. Thinks of money and nothing else. He’s good looking and can be fun, but’

‘He just doesn’t measure up to Basant!’

‘Come on, I can’t compare them. I’ve never met Basant, though I think I know a lot about him. As for Arun, I’ve met him only twice before. Once at a birthday party when he got my number. Then I went on a date with him once. That must have been two years ago. He sends me a message or calls me every once in a while, but I still don’t know much about him. Never mind, let’s get over this. I’ll get dressed and be down in like fifteen minutes.’ Poorna stood up with determination and slipped into her bedroom slippers.

‘Okay. Let me go down and prep Arun for this drama.’

Arun had taken off his light brown jacket and was stretching his long legs clad in moccasins, Nalini noted. Why on earth did Poorna decide to invite Arun, she wondered? Couldn’t she see through him? He was such a mercenary! At least Mohit was 100 percent genuine. What if Arun won the lottery?

‘Poorna will be here soon,’ Nalini informed Arun.

‘Which hotel are you staying at?’ 

‘I didn’t bother to check into any hotel. Came here straight from the airport.’

Will you be going back to the airport straight, after you meet with Poorna? Nalini almost asked Arun but managed to bite her tongue at the last minute.

‘Where should I take Poorna for dinner, I wonder? Thalassa?’ Arun had a dreamy look on his face.

I hope you lose, Nalini whispered to herself.

‘I’m sure Poorna would love to go to Thalassa,’ Nalini told Arun. ‘She hasn’t gone out much, other than with me or on her own.’

‘Or is there someplace good, that’s closer to Bela Montanha?’

‘Have you checked Zomato?’

Arun ignored the question and its hidden barb and asked, ‘tell me, what’s this test that I have to pass, if I am to date Poorna?’

When Nalini had finished, Arun’s eyes widened, and he pinched himself.

“##$%^”. “I apologise for the profanity,” Arun added, just as Poorna made her appearance.

‘Arun, it’s so good to see you,’ Poorna announced and enveloped him in a warm hug.

 ‘Oh My God! Poorna, you look as pretty as ever!’

‘It’s been so long.’

‘Yes. And now you are putting me to this test.’

‘Arun, I’m so sorry, but my parents have written this crazy Will and I am greedy enough to want to inherit their wealth and don’t have any other means of supporting myself and so, yes, I am going to put anyone who wants to date me to go through this weird test.’

‘Let’s do it then. Let’s not delay any further.’

‘Would you like a drink before you take the test?’ Nalini asked Arun.

Arun shook his head lightly ‘No, no.’

Poorna led him to the room with the three boxes and said ‘pick the correct one and I will date you and date no one else, until you either ask me to marry you or we part ways. If you marry me, you will share all the wealth that I have inherited from my parents. But if you end up picking the wrong box, you can never meet or call me.’

Arun took a deep breath and stepped forward. He surveyed the three boxes and started to read the inscription on top of the each of the three boxes. He was an investment banker and understood all about increasing shareholders’ wealth. However, it was wrong to say that only shareholders mattered. Keeping employees happy was equally important. The third box was an overstretch. Worry about too many factors and one was bound to mess up. Shareholders, employees, customers, the environment, the general public! Hmmpf! Not, it was wrong to say the environment is as important as shareholders. Not all things are of equal importance.

‘I’ll put my money on this box,’ Arun said, pointing to the silver box, a small bead of perspiration on his upper lip.

Nalini gave him the small silver key and Arun fumbled a bit before he managed to open the dainty box. A photo of a gorilla stared back at him.

‘What the hell!’ Arun expostulated.

‘Rules are rules and promises are promises,’ Nalini said softly and started to walk outside. Arun followed her tamely, after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Remember your promise. Keep everything confidential and don’t ever try to contact Poorna again.’

Arun had a stony look in his eyes as he walked away, even as dark clouds gathered in the sky above.

‘Looks like it will rain tonight,’ Nalini told Poorna after she re-entered the mansion and closed the door behind her. 

To be contd...

Monday, 29th January 2024

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Quill

Merchant of Vetaverse

By Anika Joseph

Act III - Scene 1

‘Basant, please take me with you to Goa,’ Gagan pleaded over the phone.

‘Gagan, you are my friend and a wonderful human being. However, I don’t think I should take you with me when I go to Bela Montanha. You might mess it up for me.’

‘Why would I do that?’ Gagan asked.

‘Not intentionally, no. However, you have this habit of putting your foot in your mouth and saying the wrong things.’

‘Basant, I promised to keep my mouth shut and not say much. That will ensure that I don’t embarrass you.’

‘Well, let me think it over.’

Basant, you can’t not take me with you, when you make this most important journey of your life.’

Oh, I jolly well can, Basant almost said. Instead, he said, ‘okay then, come along. But mind you, don’t forget the promise you just made to me.’

‘Cross my heart and hope to die if I don’t keep my word,’ Gagan solemnly promised.

 

Act III - Scene 2

‘She has run away with all my money,’ Shylen burst out over his mobile phone.

‘Who has run away with all your money?’ the person at the other end asked patiently.

‘Who do you think? My daughter. Jeiya. She’s run off with an avocado eating nerd! Of all tragedies that could befall me Tushar, this is the worst that could have happened.’

‘Who did she run away with?’ Tushar asked. ‘Do you know his name?’

‘Loknath. He is part of that Basant’s gang. I had lent some money to Basant a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Are you sure of all this?’ Tushar asked.

‘Yes, she left a note for me, asking me to forget her. Like hell I will forget her. Even if I forget her, I will not forget all the diamonds and gold and sapphires she carried off with her. Not to mention that she has a fair amount of money in her bank account.’

‘You need to find her and bring her back,’ Tushar said darkly.

‘And get back the jewelry she took away with her. The sheer nerve.’

‘These avocado eating nerds are really horrible. They are innocent and dangerous at the same time.’

‘Find her for me Tushar. Find her. Else, I will never be able to hold up my head among good people like us.’

Act III - Scene 3

The monsoon reached Goa on the same day as Basant’s and Gagan’s SpiceJet flight. Despite the thunder and lightning in the sky, the flight landed safely, and the two men checked into the Radisson at Cavelossim. The next day, when Basant drove his hired Mercedes-Benz into Poorna’s Bela Montanha mansion through a drenching downpour, he espied Poorna looking out of her first-floor bedroom’s window. Nalini’s face was also partially visible. Basant’s heart thumped loudly as he parked and entered the mansion, Gagan by his side. Balraj opened the door and bade them be seated. ‘Madam will be here in a minute,’ he said.

‘Would sirs like something to drink? Stephen asked.

Before Basant or Gagan could respond, Poorna walked in, with Nalini on her heels.

‘Finally! It’s so good to see you Basant.’ He was enveloped in a warm hug. Nalini too gave him a hug.

‘I’ve mentioned Gagan, haven’t I?’ Gagan too was given a hug.

‘You are prettier than all the photos you’ve sent me, more beautiful than you appear on Facetime and Zoom.’

Nalini burst out laughing, but stopped as she saw that Gagan was staring at her intently.

‘Would you like a drink, before you have lunch?’ Nalini asked the two men.

‘If it weren’t raining, I’d have asked for a beer,’ Basant said.

‘A glass of wine then?’ Nalini suggested.

‘Sounds good,’ Gagan said.

‘White or red?’

‘Red,’ provided it is as red as your lips, Gagan told Nalini who burst out laughing. Basant was shocked and embarrassed and nudged Gagan with his feet, not-too-gently.

However, Nalini did not seem to be put off by the request. ‘I shall get you some wine that’s redder than my lips,’ she told Gagan and asked Stephen to get a bottle of Pinot Noir from the wine store.

‘What will you have Basant?’ Poorna asked. Was it her imagination or did Basant appear to be a tad taller than the six feet he had told her he was?

‘I’ll have the same,’ Basant said without thinking and then regretted it a moment later since he liked white wine much more than red.

Act III - Scene 4

Shylen dropped into Tushar’s flat without any advance notice, as was his wont. Informing a friend in advance was, in Shylen’s view, an insult to such friend's hospitality. Tushar was not put off by the unexpected visit and offered his friend some ginger tea which had generous amounts of sugar in it. Both men were dressed in a similar fashion, in bright kurtas and pajamas, though Tushar’s did not have the freshly starched look that Shylen’s clothes had, not to mention a dark brown stain on his kurta, possibly from spilt tea, running down from his chest to his tummy.

‘Have you heard anything?’ Shylen asked.

‘They are right now at Phuket. Before that, they were at Ko Samui for three days.’

‘It feels horrible, to get reports of my daughter’s whereabouts from a detective agency and not to be able to drag her back home and teach her a lesson.’

‘Unfortunately, that is true. We can only monitor them.’ Tushar then hesitated and said, ‘but they seem to be happy.’

‘I don’t care about her happiness,’ Shylen burst out. ‘I can’t bear the idea of my daughter running off with an avocado eating nerd. I was planning to get her married to the richest money lender in Mumbai!’

‘Apparently at Ko Samui, she exchanged a turquoise ring for a Persian cat which she now carries around with her everywhere.’

‘Oh that ring. I remember that ring. I had bought it for her mother when Jeiya was one year old. I would not have exchanged that ring for a clowder of Persian cats.’

‘Stay strong Shylen. Your daughter will realise the error of her ways and come back to you soon.’

‘I am much more concerned about the jewels she took with her and the money in her account, which I assume is diminishing rapidly.’

'That’s a fair assumption to make,’ Tushar agreed.

Act III - Scene 5

Fortified by good wine and a sumptuous meal, Basant went to the three boxes with hope and joy in his heart. Poorna wants me to win. I’m sure that her parents who designed this test are looking on from above and will make me win this test, he reasoned. As for Poorna, she desperately wanted Basant to win, though she had met him in person for the first time that day.

‘I so wish I could just tell you the correct answer,’ Poorna told Basant.

‘No, that wouldn’t do. It would be disrespectful towards your parents.’ Basant’s response gladdened Poorna but did nothing to ease her trepidation. What if Basant did not choose correctly?

Basant read the inscriptions on top of the three boxes carefully multiple times. He had to get into the head of Poorna’s parents and discover what their intentions would have been when they devised the test. Did Poorna’s parents care only about shareholder wealth, which was their own wealth? Or did Poorna’s parents worry about employees too? Or did they take into account their customers, the environment and the general public, in addition to shareholders and employees? Surely, it was the leaden box. But why leaden? Why couldn’t Poorna’s parents have kept the ‘consideration for all’ message on the golden box for their perfect girl? Because it would have given the game away? It had to be the leaden box.

‘This. Please give me the key to this leaden box,’ Basant asked the ladies waiting behind him.

Poorna could barely contain her excitement, though she managed to stay silent and waited for Nalini to hand over the key to Basant. Basant carefully opened the leaden box with the small leaden key and found a beautiful framed 6X6 photo of Poorna inside the box.

‘Hurray!’ he shouted with joy.

‘Basant, I love you.’ Poorna rushed into his arms.

‘Poorna, I love you.’  Basant crushed Poorna to him.

The happy couple turned around to look for Gagan and Nalini and found them holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes.

‘When did this happen?’ Basant demanded of Gagan.

‘It was love at first sight. Never felt anything like this.’

‘Nalini, I am so happy for you,’ Poorna said as she noticed that her talkative friend was at a loss for words.

‘We shall compound each other’s happiness,’ they told each other.

Act III - Scene 6

‘Basant, there’s some bad news!’ Gagan shouted staring at his phone.

‘What bad news?’ Basant asked a bit drowsily, though his drowsiness soon disappeared. The two couples were sitting on the private beach that was part of the Bela Montanha mansion.

Gagan continued to stare at his mobile phone as if in a trance.

‘I haven’t followed any news since the day I won Poorna. What’s up?’

‘Cryptocurrencies crash in value! Vetraverse IPO postponed!’ This news is three days old.

‘Oh no. Anant is in trouble.’

‘Is this your best friend Anant?’

‘The very one! He lent me four lakhs to come to Bela Montanha in style. Now he is in trouble.’

‘Why is Anant in trouble?’ Poorna asked.

‘I hope Anant managed to pay Shylen.’ Basant was speaking to Gagan rather than to Poorna even as he fumbled for his phone and checked his messages. ‘I think yesterday was the last day to repay Shylen. It totally skipped my mind. Hold on. Shit, there are ten missed calls from Anant over the past three days. And tons of messages asking me if I can help him get the four lakhs plus interest.’ Basant continued to scroll through the messages from Anant. Gagan stood next to him and read his messages. ‘He says, his credit with his friends and contacts is very low because of the bad news about Vetaverse and he is unable to get hold of the money to repay Shylen. Oh Shit!’

‘Basant, I don’t understand a thing. Please explain this to me. What’s happening?’

‘My best friend Anant got Shylen, a moneylender, to lend me four lakh rupees so that I could come here in style and win your hand. Anant is rich, but he has invested everything he had in the Vetaverse. So, he didn’t have the cash and so we had to approach Shylen. Anant stood surety for the loan and yesterday was last day for Anant to repay Shylen. If he failed to do that, Shylen can enforce the bond.’ 

‘This is horrible! I wish you hadn’t borrowed money from Anant!’ Poorna wailed.

‘I am a guitarist. I make a living by giving guitar lessons. How do you think I got the money to come here and win you?’

‘Yes, I know that. I did guess that you borrowed the money from somewhere to buy yourself good clothes and to rent a good car and to take up rooms at the Radisson. But tell me again, why is Anant in trouble? So, what if he failed to repay Shylen on the agreed day? He may have to pay more interest now, right? We can give him the money, can’t we?’   

‘Not really. As per the Anant's bond, if Anant does not pay back to Shylen four lakh rupees and interest within three months of the loan, Shylen is entitled to infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus.’ Basant’s face turned ashen even as he spoke.

‘If Shylen is able to infect Anant’s properties with the zokirr, then even if Vetaverse has its IPO later on, Anant will not benefit from it,’ Gagan added.

‘What if Anant ignores this silly guarantee? How can such a stupid contract be enforced?’ Nalini wondered.

‘Unfortunately, that Shylen is diabolically clever. He made Anant email the digitally signed contract to Duke Hammond, the founder of Vetaverse, and explain the terms of our agreement and Duke Hammond has confirmed his acceptance of the contract. Duke Hammond is the sort of guy who would want to enforce this kind of agreement, just as a matter of principle. He has been saying all along that in free market economics, mutual agreement and Contract should reign supreme.’

‘But why would he allow Vetaverse to be infected?’ Poorna queried, a sob in her voice.

‘Not the whole of the Vetaverse. Only the properties belonging to Anant. Make no mistake, Duke Hammond really likes Anant, but he loves the principle of honoring a contract even more.’ Basant’s voice sounded defeated even to his own ears.

‘Why didn’t you check with Anant before the repayment due date to see if he had the money to pay the loan back to Shylen?’ Poorna demanded of Basant. ‘I could have given you the money.’

‘Unfortunately, I didn’t even look at my phone for the last four days, ever since I won your hand. There are ten missed calls from Anant over the past three days.’ Tears came to Basant’s eyes even as he spoke. ‘Ten calls from my best friend Anant.’

‘Shame on you sir!’ Poorna exclaimed. ‘What can we do to help Anant?’ she demanded of Basant and Gagan. Both men were at a loss for words.

‘Surely, he can pay back the loan now, can’t he?’ Maybe with some additional interest?’ Nalini asked.

‘Unfortunately, Anant’s bond specifically states that payment of the loan amount after the three-month deadline will not take away Shylen’s right to infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with zokirr,’ Basant explained.

‘That’s a cruel and evil bond.’ Poorna shuddered as she spoke.

To be contd...

Wednesday, 7th February 2024

Merchant of.jpg
Quill

Merchant of Vetaverse

By Anika Joseph

Act IV - Scene 1

‘Finally, some good news,’ Shylen told Tushar as they shared a plate of jalebis at Diamond Farsan, which was Shylen’s habitual eating joint.

‘You can crush him now. He is at your mercy, that avocado eating nerd!’ Tushar took a big sip of sweet lassi from the tall glass by his side.

‘Indeed, he is. I need to repay him for all the past insults. These nerds thought they had conquered the world with their crypto-currencies and NFTs and that Vetaverse. Do you know how much business I’ve lost because of  crypto-currency dealers like Anant?

‘This will send a clear message across to Anand, Basant and even Loknath. Don’t mess with us traditional folks!’

‘Ha! Ha! I can’t wait to infect Anant’s Vetaverse properties with the zokirr virus.’

‘Hmmm. Ahhh. So, you are actually going to do that? To enforce the terms of your bond?’

‘Of course. Why won’t I do it?’ Shylen took a swig of lassi from his glass.

‘Right. Yes, of course, you should. Make an example of the idiot.’

‘There will be some who ask you to show forbearance and take some extra money instead. Don’t fall for that.’

‘Of course not. I won’t fall for such tricks. The pleasure of watching Anant’s work in the last few years go down with a virus infection, well, that’s priceless, something money can’t buy.’ Shylen laughed at his own joke.

Tushar joined him. “For everything else, there are credit cards.’

Both the men collapsed in a bout of laughter.

‘I’m still hungry. What about you?’ Shylen asked Tushar.

‘Let’s get one more plate of jalebis, shall we?’

‘Or should we have some puran polis?’

‘Let’s have both. I’m really hungry.’

‘Extra butter on the puran polis,’ Shylen instructed the waiter, as he placed the order.

 

Act IV - Scene 2

‘Our flight’s at four pm,’ Gagan announced.

‘Anant and Shylen are hitting the headlines everywhere,’ Basant said in a grim voice.

‘Duke Hammond promises to enforce the contract, but will give Anant one opportunity to say why not.’ Nalini read from her mobile phone. ‘Those are his exact words.’

‘When will you be back?’ Poorna asked.

‘Not sure. But I will be back soon. As soon as this is sorted out.’

‘If Duke Hammond lets Shylen have his way, Anant will kill himself,’ Gagan told Nalini who looked aghast. ‘Vetaverse is everything Anant has got.’

‘And he put Vetaverse at risk just to get you four lakhs! I so wish we could help Anant.’

‘We should leave in twenty minutes,’ Basant told Gagan.

‘Darling, let me give you this,’ Poorna said even as she took off the heavy sapphire ring on her middle finger. My mother gave this to me two weeks before she died. Do wear it all the time when you are away from me.’

Basant was very touched. ‘Oh, this is so sweet, though I doubt it will fit me.’ Basant tried putting it on his forefinger. Predictablythe ring was too small and so he put it on his little finger.’

‘My prayers will be with you.’

‘Gagan, take this ring and wear it all the time,’ Nalini told Gagan as she took off an emerald ring from her forefinger and gave it to Gagan.’

‘Wow!I will have it adjusted later, but for now, I will follow Basant’s example and wear it on my little inky pinky finger.’

‘Remember me every time you look at the ring,’ Nalini told Gagan.

As soon as the two men left, Poorna said, ‘quick, let’s call up my cousin in New York. It’s past his usual bedtime, but I had sent him a text asking him to stay up for me.’

‘What’s this all about?’ Nalini asked.

“My cousin, Doctor Bellampally, teaches Technology Law at Harvard Law School and is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on anything and everything relating to technology and internet law.”

‘I still don’t get it, Nalini said.

‘There’s going to be a trial at Vetaverse. Duke Hammond will decide whether to implement the contract Anant and Shylen have entered into.’

‘So?’

‘A trial involves lawyers and legal experts. Vetaverse and the zokirr virus call for experts in technology and internet law.’

‘Ah! I get it now. So, you are going to get your cousin to request Duke Hammond to not to implement the contract Anant and Shylen have entered into.’

‘No, I have something else in mind actually.’

Act IV – Scene 3

Anant, Basant and Gagan logged into the trial from Anant’s flat on Carter Road, sitting around the small dining table which stood at the end of Anant’s drawing room. It was nine pm and raining heavily. Though the windows were shut firmly, the lash of water against the windowpanes made the three men feel they were on a boat in a choppy sea. Anant, Basant and Gagan were admitted into the zoom meeting in rapid succession, one by one and they found that Shylen had already logged in. Tushar and two other friends were also present. A few seconds later, Loknath was admitted, and it was evident that he was logging in from a beach resort. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Gagan would have made a wisecrack about the beautiful beach in Loknath’s background.

‘Good morning. Or rather, good evening. I think we have everyone. Are we ready to begin?’ Duke Hammond asked. Wearing his usual t-shirt and his hair tied up in a ponytail, Duke Hammond could have passed for Anant’s cousin or even sibling, if one ignored the fact that Anant was a couple of shades darker.

‘Both parties are here,’ Duke Hammond’s executive assistant informed him.

‘Some more of my friends would like to attend. Please admit them,’ Shylen requested.

‘No, we did tell you that each of you can have three friends in the meeting. We are not going to deviate from that.

‘Shylen, tell me, do you really want to enforce this bond?’ Duke asked Shylen.

‘Yes, I do.’ Shylen leaned back on his sofa and adjusted his Dell laptop on his tummy.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course. Why do you ask? If I didn’t want to enforce the bond, would I be wasting my time sitting here?’

‘Yes, of course, silly question. I do apologize, Shylen. In the Vetaverse, contract is supreme, and we want all contracts to be enforced, without exception. Anant, do you have anything to say in your defence?’ Duke Hamond asked Anant.

‘I am willing to repay the money and interest two-fold. No, three-fold. No, four-fold.’ Anant beseeched. Basant turned away from his mobile phone to look at Anant, who cut a sorry figure. His ponytail had grown longer, but indoors, looked very tame, and his pepper and salt beard was much more luxuriant, but Anant’s eyes had sunk into deep pools of sorrow and shame.

‘Shylen, are you willing to accept this offer?’ Duke Hamond asked Shylen.

‘No, I am not. The bond is very clear. If the repayment is not made on the appointed day, I am free to infect all of Anant properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus. Offering to pay the money later, two-fold or three-fold or four-fold, will not take away my right to infect all of Anant properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus.’

‘You are right Shylen. The bond is very clear.’ ‘However,’ Duke Hammond cleared his throat. ‘However, before we proceed further, I want to consult with a legal expert on this matter. Last night, I was wracking my brains on who to consult on this matter when luckily the world famous Doctor Bellampally got in touch with me and offered the assistance of his brilliant research associate. This assistant wishes to remain anonymous and so will have his face obscured when appearing on camera. Please admit him and his assistant.

Two more individuals logged into the meeting, their faces blanked out.

‘I understand that you wish to be addressed as ‘D'Artagnan’, is that right?’ Duke asked the newcomer.

‘That’s correct Duke.’

‘Okay D’Artagnan. You know the facts. What’s your opinion on this issue? Should Shylen have his way?’

‘Shylen, please explain to me why you wish to enforce this harsh bond? Why won’t you accept four times the money due to you and delete the bond from your records?’

‘Because I don’t want to. I want my bond. Nothing more, nothing less.’

‘Anant seems to have invested all his savings and monies in the Vetaverse. Destroying his properties in the Vetaverse would devastate him, reduce him to penury. Is that what you want?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want. Aren’t I entitled to it D'Artagnan?’

‘Actually, yes you are.’

‘D'Artagnan, you are an Einstein,’ Shylen shouted in happiness. Even the bright turquoise kurta that he wore seemed to sparkle in joy.

‘Yes, Contract is supreme,’ Tushar shouted. The packet of potato chips he had been eating out of, had been empty for some time, but Tushar hadn’t noticed, and he continued to hold the empty packet in his hands.

‘D'Artagnan is a reincarnation of Einstein,’ another of Shylen’s friends exulted. A half empty glass of falooda could be seen next to him.

‘Anant, you need to prepare to lose all your properties in the Vetaverse. Are you ready?’ D'Artagnan asked.

‘Yes, I am,’ Anant replied, his voice trembling with pain and anguish as he leaned forward into his Mac. Basant and Gagan were in tears, as they held their Apple phones and watched intently.

'Duke Hammond, have you put in place a firewall around Anant’s properties so that the rest of the Vetaverse is not affected after Shylen unleashes the zokirr virus?’

‘I have.’ Duke Hammond confirmed.

‘Shylen, you can now infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus.’ D’Artagnan declared.

‘D’Artagnan, you are indeed an Einstein,’ Shylen shouted once again. ‘Anant, are you ready? Think of all the times you insulted me in the past. It is now repayment time.’

‘Shylen, please tell me, how do you plan to infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus? D’Artagnan asked.’

‘I shall send an email to Anant’s vetaverse address. Anant has to click on the attachment to open it and zokirr virus shall do the rest. Ready to click and accept and be destroyed Anant?’

‘Hold on. Your bond says Shylen is entitled to infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus. It does not say Shylen can use an email to do so. You may infect Anant’s properties in the Vetaverse with the zokirr virus only if you can do so yourself, with your bare hands.’

‘What the heck!’

‘A second Einstein!’ Basant and Gagan were exultant.

‘Also, your bond does not say Anant has to cooperate with you in infecting his Vetaverse properties. You cannot compel him to click and accept the attachment to your email.’

‘D'Artagnan is definitely reincarnation of Einstein,’ Gagan exulted.

‘Tell you what Anant, give me four times the money due to me and I shall delete this bond from the laptop.

‘No, you have lost that opportunity, D’Artagnan thundered.

‘Alright, give me back my principal and 5 percent interest and I shall leave,’ Shylen said meekly.

‘No, you don’t deserve that either.’

‘Fine, just return four lakh rupees to me and we can call it quits.’

‘No, you conspired to harm a law-abiding tech-evangelist and ruin all his properties in the beautiful Vetaverse. You deserve to be punished for that conspiracy.’ D’Artagnan was relentless and with his face masked appeared to be an extra-territorial being out for vengeance. 

‘How do you think he can be punished?’ Duke Hammond asked. ‘I agree with you, but do we have that authority?’

‘We shall inform all internet-based businesses of what Shylen conspired to do and request them to ban him from participation. He should never be able to place an order online!” D’Artagnan declared.

 

Act IV - Scene 4

‘D’Artagnan, I am so grateful to you. I shall forever be in your debt,’ Anant told D’Artagnan as soon as Shylen logged off the meeting.

‘We are all grateful to you D’Artagnan,’ Basant added. Anant got into this mess because of me, and I was wondering how I could help him.

‘Can I send you both some money as a gift? Please send me your bank account details,’ Basant begged D’Artagnan.

‘Come on, my satisfaction in seeing justice being done is gift enough,’ D’Artagnan responded.

‘No, it isn’t. We have to show our appreciation for your efforts. How can we do that?’ Basant demanded.

‘Tell you what, I can see a beautiful ring on your little finger. Why don’t you give it to me. I shall send you an address to courier it to.’

‘Oh no, I can’t do that. I was given this sapphire ring by a person in the world who means so much to me. It would be impossible for me to give up this ring.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ D’Artagnan exploded.  Just a moment ago, you were wondering how you could reward me. When I ask you for a simple ring, you refuse. You are weird.’

‘Basant, please give your ring to D’Artagnan,’ Anant requested Basant.

Basant conceded defeat. How could he refuse Anant?  ‘Well then, I shall courier it to you. Please send me your address.’

D’Artagnan turned to his assistant and said, ‘please post my address on the chat box’. With that, he abruptly logged off.

Anant, Basant and Gagan hung around for a bit. D’Artagnan’s assistant then said, ‘I too would like a gift, if I may?’

‘But of course,’ Gagan said. ‘What could we give you?’

‘I spy, hmmm, I spy a lovely ring on your little finger.  Can I have it please?’

‘Oh no, I just can’t part with this emerald ring.’

‘You folks are such fine specimens. On one hand you beg us to accept a gift and when we ask for a trifle, you come up with such flimsy excuses. Shame on you sir. Never mind. This shall be a lesson for me. Good bye!’

‘Hold on. I shall give you my ring. Shall I courier this ring as well to the address you have posted?’

‘Yes please. Adieu!’

Act IV - Scene 5

Poorna and Nalini went to the airport to pick up Anant, Basant and Gagan and there was a joyous reunion.

‘I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for your help to Basant,’ Poorna gushed. ‘And you put your investment in Vetaverse in such grave danger.’

‘Well, I managed to extricate myself, thanks to D’Artagnan,’ Anant said as his long tresses danced in the Goan breeze .

‘Yes, we all are so grateful to D’Artagnan,’ Basant added.

The drive back to Bela Montanha was uneventful, except for the heavy monsoon rain that lashed the car and reduced visibility to just a few metres.

A few kilometers before they reached Bela Montanha, Anant’s phone beeped.

‘It’s Duke Hammond,’ Anant told his co-passengers and held the phone to his ears.

‘It’s very early in Silicon Valley,’ Basant muttered. I wonder what’s up.

‘What? Wow! That’s great!’ Anant exulted. The rest of them couldn’t wait for Anant to put down his phone and give them the good news, which he did after a few more minutes and many more joyous exclamations.

‘Vetaverse is going ahead with the IPO. The markets have revived, and the announcement will be made at nine a.m. Pacific Time.’

‘That’s amazing. You will be a billionaire soon,’ Gagan gushed.

‘We have a dollar billionaire and a rupee billionaire in this vehicle,’ Nalini announced.

Balraj and Stephan were waiting to receive them and soon bottles of champagne were opened to accompany the lavish feast that had been prepared.  However, no sooner than the five of them had sat down when Nalini noticed that Gagan was not wearing the emerald ring that she had gifted him.

‘Where’s my ring?’ Nalini demanded.

‘You won’t believe it, there was this man, an assistant to the wonderful D’Artagnan, who helped Anant, he wanted the ring as a gift, and I couldn’t say no.’

‘I swear on my mother, I can’t think of a worse betrayal,’ Nalini thundered.

‘I agree with Nalini. If Basant were to give away or lose the ring I gave him before he left last week, I would be extremely upset.’

Even before Poorna made her statement, Basant was squirming in his seat. Now he got up and walked to her, held her hand and said, ‘darling, I am so sorry. You must believe me. I was in a position when I just had to.’

‘What? You too? You too gave away that precious ring?’

‘I had to. You see.’

‘Dear Poorna, please forgive Basant. It was on my behalf that he gave that ring to D’Artagnan. And Nalini, please forgive Gagan. D’Artagnan and his assistant wanted those rings and nothing else. We had no option but to courier the two rings to them.’

Poorna and Nalini sulked for a few minutes, and they ate in stony silence. Kind Of Blue played softly in the background. No more champagne was drunk, until suddenly Poorna got up and went to a nearby chest of drawers, opened it, took out an envelope and emptied the contents of the envelope onto the dining table. The two rings, one Poorna’s sapphire and the other Nalini’s emerald, were there for the three men to see.

‘Hello! What’s this? Aren’t these our rings? Basant was shocked.

‘How did you get hold of them?’ Gagan demanded. Did D’Artagnan send them to you, just to have some fun. But how would he know of your existence?’

‘Did you know Doctor Bellampally is my cousin? Did you know Doctor Bellampally and I spent a fair amount of time reviewing Anant’s case and looking for loopholes in the bond?’

It took a while for the truth to dawn on Anant, Basant and Gagan and when it did, the men were shellshocked.

‘Oh my word. I have found myself a very clever partner,’ Basant gushed.

‘So, you were D’Artagnan’s assistant!’ Gagan exclaimed and hugged Nalini heartily.

‘You are my savior,’ Anant told Poorna.

‘If it weren’t for Basant and me, you wouldn’t have got into this predicament,’ Poorna responded.

They continued their meal but didn’t eat much since they were all so excited and it would take the three men many hours to digest the information they had just received, but once everything settled down, one would not have found a more happy group of people in the whole world.

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