I heard her clearly. She called my name: “Avinash.”

Then I thought I might be wrong. Someone in this restless crowd might call out a name but who among them would know my name? Those who know me use my well-worn office name: A Kapoor, in which the “A” doesn’t count. No one needs to know whether the “A” stands for Avinash or Ashok. In the business world, Kapoor is enough. If this seems incomplete, they simply add a Mister or a Saahab to it. “So what’s up, Mr Kapoor?” or “How goes it, Kapoorsaahab?”

But this was my name, my first name, and someone had called it out.

Many people were milling about which was why I thought it might be a mistake. Or perhaps because the February air carried a trace of the crispness of spring. Who knows how that happened. Otherwise, this city knew two seasons: the heat and the monsoon. If the sky is not filled with clouds, it is slate grey, the shade of much use and a long life. When the wind blows, it blows up a storm or it does not blow at all – it seems to have a sense of the tides. There is not much difference between night and day except for the difference between darkness and light. Where it is dark by day, it gets bright by night; where it is bright during the day, it gets dark by night. One’s food does not get digested whatever the season. But that February evening was different. The wind carried a promise of spring and the sky in the West even looked beautiful. At around seven-thirty hunger pangs began. I was walking, looking at people and thinking idly about whales. I thought that if I found some crunchy peanuts, I would certainly buy five paise worth.

Then someone called out: “Avinash.’” Another reason that I did not believe it was I who was being hailed was that the voice was a woman’s or a girl’s. There is a difference between the two, though not a great one. One needs months of study to be able to discern one from the other

And this was Bombay and an evening on Marine Drive. And a girl calls my name! Of course, anything is possible, anything can happen, but it rarely happens to me.

I continued walking for ten or twenty more steps. I had almost made up my mind not to look back but then seized by a sudden enthusiasm, wondering if someone had really called out to me, I turned around. When I saw a hand waving at me, my disbelief increased. And just as it increased, it evaporated. The face was very familiar. It didn’t take me as long to recognise her face as it seemed. Actually, I was surprised to see her here again.

Weaving through bhelwallas and coconut sellers, I made my way towards her. She had remained where she was after calling out to me. It was as if she had left all the rest to me: I had to recognise her, I had to get to where she was. Even when I got to her, she did not move. When I was far away, she smiled with her lips closed; when I got close, her lips parted. That was all. She raised eyebrows well defined by pencil and asked, “Do you remember me?”

How could I say it was a silly question? If I had not recognised her, would I have bothered to walk back to where she stood? Would I have gone through all that trouble just to say, “Sorry, I’m not sure I recognise you?”

She laughed, perhaps out of habit, perhaps out of happiness. “You seem older,” she said and began to swing her handbag, perhaps to show that she was still young and unspoiled. At first, I thought I should tell her exactly how she looked to me but then politeness prevailed and I said what she wanted to hear. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

She laughed again and I smiled again but this time I had a reason for smiling.

She stopped swinging her bag and took some shelled peanuts out of it. She popped some into her mouth and offered me the rest: “Are you still alone?”

I couldn’t think of an answer. First, I thought I should lie. Then I decided on the truth. But I could not find sufficient motivation for either the truth or a lie. From somewhere, I dragged out an old cliché, “He alone is alone who feels lonely.”

She could not find any more peanuts in her bag. She kept digging around for a while and when she finally found some, her eyes lit up and she began to eat them, one by one.

Her teeth were still as sharp as her mind. Her name was on the tip of my tongue, a common name, shared by many women. Every third house had a woman by that name. Six or seven years ago, I had spent around three weeks in the company of these two women. Sisters, yes, but so different they didn’t even look like cousins. The elder one had a square face; the younger one’s was a triangle. Both had large eyes but the eyes of the younger seemed larger. Both were chatterboxes but the younger one’s chattering did not irritate. The younger one’s name was Pramila, aka Pammi, alias Miss P. The elder’s name still eluded me. When I met them the elder’s marriage had ended in divorce. And so she demonstrated much more childishness. She would use her own name ten times in every sentence. “I said to myself, ‘Sarla…’”

That was it. Sarla. Her name was Sarla. She would say things like, “I said, ‘Sarla, you will remain a child for the rest of your life.’”

She did not like her name because it could not be Englished with a change of spelling. Pramila would sometimes substitute the “a” with an “o” and become Promila. At other times she would drop the “r” and become Pamela. Sarla also resented Pramila for still being single. All their friends focused on her; she was always the one everyone talked to.

“Would you like to meet Pramila?” she asked now.

“Is she here?”

“We came together,” she said. “We were seeing Satish off. He left to do locomotive engineering in Germany.”

“Satish?” I could not put a face to the name although I tried.

“You don’t remember Satish?” She was shocked. For a moment she chewed the lipstick on her lips. “Our younger brother Satish…You used to play cards with him night after night.”

I might have indeed played cards with him for many a night but I knew him then as Satti. Who could have foretold that in seven years Satti would have grown into Satish-saahab, on his way to Germany to study locomotive engineering?

“How could I forget?” I said confidently. “Could I possibly forget Satish?” And indeed he was difficult to forget for his prominent nose.

“Pramila is doing some shopping in Fort,” said she. “I couldn’t take it in the shops for a minute longer so I came here.” She let the wind blow the pallu off her shoulder. Her fingers played with the buttons of her blouse as if she would open them at any moment. “It’s so hot today,” she said and her tone suggested that it was my responsibility to keep the temperature of the city at a reasonable degree. Then she added the second part of her plaint: “February in Delhi is so fine.”

This was the moment when we should have said, “Right, then, see you around,” or some such and gone our separate ways. I could have said that myself but I was waiting for the moment to say it politely. She said nothing either. Perhaps she hadn’t even thought of it. With no formality, she took hold of my elbow and said, “Come, let’s go to Flora Fountain. Pammi said she would meet me outside Volga at eight. She’ll be so happy to see you.”

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Flat on the Fifth Floor’ by Mohan Rakesh, translated from the Hindi by Jerry Pinto in Maya Nagari Bombay-Mumbai: A City in Stories, edited by Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto.