Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Masquerade

Every time he stared at the desktop, the down-in-the-mouth look of his reflection on the screen was hard to ignore. As if his true self came out face to face in an abrupt blaze of spiritual enlightenment. While his mechanical strokes keyed in another lifeless report titled “Less flesh, more trade – the gory tale of prostitution”, his mind was busy contemplating the approaching dead end in his own life.

This was his last day in office. The tabloid needed him no longer. But who did, anyway?

He got up from the revolving chair with the uneven cushion, went to the stinking loo, and came back in a jiffy – much earlier that the time one would assume in answering a nature’s call. How many would suspect, he wondered, that it was only his near-fatal restlessness begging for some movement that engineered the futile trip.

Still unsure about the story, he brought about a non-committal end to the torture with the line

“These vulnerable victims of an age-old flesh trade continue to suffer the wrath of pouncing beasts even as the world around them chooses to look away”

Today, there was no remorse to prick his conscience as he filed the report for the skinny sub-editor to fake a post-mortem. To hell with the trash. Tons of such garbage fill the advertisement-deprived blank spaces in umpteen newspapers everyday.

Newspapers run by warring industrial groups in a theatrical war against the establishment. And with himself dismissed, who cared if his report met the same fate. In fact, it would rhyme well with his destiny if it did.

Picking his torn leather bag bursting at the seams, much like his anxiety, he came down the creaking stairs of the office building.

He was now to come after a week to collect his paltry dues. In humanitarian interests of its employees, his caring employers would donate a month’s salary as compensation for the termination.

That was enough to feed an ageing bachelor with a queer lifestyle till he found a new abode that would harbour his redundant conviction. His farewell treat was an inconsequential affair in the roadside canteen, a couple of old mates and the sole peon for company.

The cool air seemed to fan his agony but was some respite from the stuffy confines of the editorial room. As he walked towards the friendly railway station in faltering steps, he checked the jingling treasure in his pocket that stuffed more metal than paper. Turning his back to the over bridge that offered to take him to the platform with unfailing regularity, he went to the desolate Pan shop in the corner of the busy lane.

The familiar face behind the hanging strings of tobacco and Pan masala pouches was his most reliable source of nightlife information. Today, the Panwala was amused at the special request from the “paper guy” of a packet of condom along with the regular brand of tobacco.

The stonewalled heritage building looked exceptionally bright, like an old, wrinkled woman dressed in bridal wear. Tube lights in the staircase were a rare sight in structures of this variety. In sharp contrast, the building was the home of shady acts in dark corners.

He climbed his way to the third floor with a slow, measured pace where the reddish eyes of the Madam greeted him. Thanks to his deceptive white-collar appearance, she took some time to come to terms with his basic instinct wrapped in fine print.

And almost in a flash, her instinctive respect for the sophisticated tribe made way for the plastic smile of day-to-day commerce. She turned the soiled curtain to allow a peak inside and named the price.

Ignoring her playful abuses, he entered the dingy room glowing in the cheap red light of 20 watts. She sat there, wearing a dead expression to match the wood of the broken furniture around. Yellowing straps of her white bra stuck out of a tarnished red blouse, deliberately buttoned the wrong way.

The act did not last long. Without the foreplay, it was quite disgusting in hindsight. He dressed up, eager to win back his place of pride in the civilized world.

Madam was waiting outside in earnest for a closer look at the new specimen. He found her eyeing him intently as his hand slid into his pocket.

“They all come here,” she swore under her breath, glowing in the pride of her social acknowledgment.

The last train back home hardly looked like one, carrying scores of tired souls dozing to the tunes of their middle class fate. Leaning against the metallic wall of the foot board, he thought of his carnal escapade and a broad smile spread over his face.

The guilt of the impetuous act also accommodated a relief of an inadvertent escape. Far away from the fairy-tale stories of the fourth estate, he was now free to play the victim that he was.

The masquerade was over.

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