“You have changed,” Mimi gazed at Joy across the flame. “The beard’s gone, and you’ve dyed your hair. But you’re still the lady-killer, I bet, as popular among your fellow workers as you were among friends in college.”
Ladykiller! Joy sighed. That honour belonged to his much younger loan officer Jamshed Khan, gazing plaintively all day at Mrs Sen with his almond eyes.
“Jokes apart, you look much the same as before,” Mimi dived into her patties then glanced up at Joy. “And your son takes after you...the same face and eyes, but a different set of lips. Maybe that comes from his mother.”
“My son! How would you know him?”
Munching studiously, Mimi took her time before answering. “Everyone knows Vivek Sengupta, or Bobby, at his university in Manhar. You could say he is as popular as you were, at least among a certain section of students. As an administrator, I meet him quite regularly. Of course, he doesn’t know about us...as friends or whatever.”
“How did you know I was Bobby’s father?”
Mimi shrugged. “I saw you. You had come to Manhar when he enrolled as a student, went around the campus and met his profs. You sat next to him during the welcoming ceremony. I was there too, but you didn’t notice me.”
Why didn’t you come forth...? Words clawed at Joy’s throat, before he swallowed them back.
“I thought I’d speak to you after the ceremony, but you were gone by the time I came looking for you.” Mimi stopped to gauge his reaction, then went on, “As director of student affairs, I have Bobby’s file. It has your address and phone number, and bank details for fees.”
Now it made sense to Joy what Mimi had told him over the phone. Listen, I’ve just arrived in Kolkata. She must’ve taken the slow train from Manhar and reached the city barely hours ago. The catering services on Indian Railways would’ve turned her stomach, and she was starving. It was the very same thing with Bobby, his and Rohini’s only child, a student of computer science at a private university in Manhar, a mid-sized city in a neighbouring state. Just like Mimi, Bobby would arrive unannounced and hungry, which stressed and pleased his mother.
“The students’ details are kept private, to be used only if we need to.”
Joy could sense a blanket being drawn over his heart, lulling it to sleep. The part that was throbbing at the scent of adventure was now settling down to the steady rhythm of a familiar script. He could imagine an evening in Flurys spent on son, studies and university affairs. Like adults, they’d catch up, and then leave promising to catch up again. But it was the bit about Mimi being an administrator that roused Joy’s curiosity. He’d have to tease her gently to get her story out, Joy thought, and gestured to Gomes to bring over the espressos.
“So, you’ve quit being an activist and become a despot, whipping students into shape!”
“What activism are you talking about?” Mimi retorted. “Do you have any idea what’s happening in college campuses all over India? It’s nothing short of war.”
“You mean, like the war we used to fight...boycotting exams, calling strikes, barricading, picketing, shouting slogans...”
Dropping her knife onto her plate, Mimi gave Joy a long stare. “You really don’t know, do you? Our thing was child’s play, a storm in a teacup. All that’s finished. Now you have the real deal. You’ve heard of the Nationalist students, haven’t you?”
Joy nodded with an eye on the little girl at the next table who was badgering her mother for ice cream. “Those that want to cleanse the nation of impurities,” he recited lines read in the papers, making the sign of double quotes in the air.
“Exactly. They want to create a Hindu homeland in India. They’re talking about a Golden Age. Muslims are outsiders, Christians too; only they are the true inheritors of the soil, its divine children.”
“But that’s just saying,” Joy stifled a yawn. “Like we used to demand a dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The lights had come back on, and the air conditioners had started to whirr. Tables had filled up, clattering with orders, and waiters dashed back and forth from the kitchen. Reaching over, Joy blew out the candle, the smell of the burnt wick signifying the end of festivities. But Mimi went into full flow.
“It’s more than words. These students are hell-bent on stopping meat from entering the campus. They want a curfew at the women’s hostel. They’re harassing liberal-minded professors, targeting Muslims, storming plays, banning couples from dating on Valentine’s Day, demanding that the university rewrite the textbooks. The Nationalists are creating havoc.”
This was the Mimi he knew. Joy could well imagine her lecturing at their secret gatherings in college. She hasn’t changed one bit, but why? Perhaps life hasn’t yet dealt her a knockout punch. She has kept her shape intact, unlike me, he thought, beaten up into a bunch of moving parts without a central purpose. That must’ve been the reason why she’s summoned me over...to show off that shape. That was the urgency behind the call, the fury of her living past.
“You know about Altaf, don’t you?” Mimi gazed unblinkingly at him.
“The poor Muslim boy who was abducted from his hostel room in our university. He and his friends opposed the Nationalists. Maybe there were some arguments between the two sides. He was kidnapped and taken away. No one knows where he is.”
Joy nodded. He had watched it on the news. The mention of Manhar and Bobby’s university had caught his eye.
“It has been three months now. There’s no trace of him. Altaf’s mother, Ruksana, has come from her village to look for her son. The poor woman has been going around pleading to everyone, the university administration, the police, the government, but no one’s come forward to help her.”
“Do you think he might still be alive?” Joy tapped the empty espresso cup on the table, drawing Gomes’s attention.
“Can I have one more of these too?” Mimi spoke under her breath. Her face seemed more strained than when she’d arrived at Flurys. Fidgeting with her spoon, she resumed.
“That’s the question no one has an answer to. Is he being held captive in a secret hideout? Are they torturing him? Have they...finished him off already?”
“But someone must know, right? He can’t simply disappear into thin air!”
Taking a sip of her espresso, Mimi leant forward on her chair. “You can help find Altaf; let his mother know what’s happened to him.”
Joy’s exclamation drew attention to their table. A senior journalist holding court among his juniors gave him an inquisitive look. Busy with other patrons, Gomes stuck out his hand to indicate he’d be free soon to attend to Mr Sengupta and his guest.
“This is why I’ve come all the way from Manhar to plead with you. To meet you face to face, rather than speak on the phone. You can help Altaf and his mother. I wished to meet you urgently, before it’s too late to save him.”
Setting down his cup, Joy collected himself before speaking.
“How can I help, Mimi? I am a banker. We don’t know about these things. We deal with money, with savings and loans, not kidnapping. If the police won’t help, how can I?”
“You know someone who knows. You can persuade him to reveal the truth.” Mimi’s voice took on greater urgency, “Your son Bobby can tell us everything that has happened to Altaf.”
“What!” Joy felt the shock of a lightning bolt.
“Bobby belongs to the Nationalists. Maybe you know about this already, or maybe you don’t. He is quite active – I’d say, a leader in the making. I think he was one of Altaf’s abductors. The police haven’t questioned him or any of his friends. It’s part of the cover-up. Unless one of them comes forward with the truth, we will never know where Altaf is, or if he is still alive.”
Excerpted with permission from In An Ideal World, Kunal Basu, Penguin Viking.