Nikhil and Zap became friends when they were both excluded from a junior school football match that only wanted rough, sturdy boys. They went to the same tuition for maths and visited the same dentist who always got muddled between their names and their faces. They would spend hours at Zap’s childhood house trying not to touch each other’s growing bodies.

Nikhil told me they were curious, but desiring each other was not permissible. By the time they were sixteen, they were already looking to score women and there was no going back.

After college, Nikhil joined the cinematography course of a film school in Madras. Within a month he dropped out, unable to bear the bad hostel food. His mother had proudly told me that her son left his higher education because he was not brought up to eat food cooked in coconut oil and tamarind paste. Nikhil later joined a film school in the city fifteen minutes away from his home. He was a day scholar. Most of the other students bonded over the hostel’s soggy okra and watery lentils; only Nikhil was not one of them. Nikhil had told me his grades were the worst in the literary components of the syllabus. A few conscientious faculty members tried to help him develop a reading habit by giving reading lists, but he never read a single book. He did not like reading. He believed stories were false and truth was elsewhere. He only liked good light. He liked people through his lens; outside his camera he usually found fault in fragile humanity. It was my guess that not looking through a window to any other life except his own and his few school friends made Nikhil dislike most people. Except Zap. He disliked Zap too but not in an obvious sort of way. He also needed Zap.

Zap, on the other hand, did not go to any film school. He directed school and college plays. During college, he did the set designs for a famous Calcutta theatre person who died midway through the production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Zap completed the production and was ushered into the parallel universe of Calcutta theatre. He made his first film in the summer after his tenth boards waiting to be an adult. His neighbour, a new wife, had told Zap’s mother about their holiday purchase an easy-to-use movie camera. Zap overheard the conversation that was carried out across adjacent balconies. A few days later when the women were resting their aching feet, Zap climbed the balcony into their house to find the movie camera sitting on top of the television. The next morning, he was out in the streets of Calcutta making short movie clips. He spent the night downloading the footage in his computer and making notes. Just before the blue light of dawn when he was sure the neighbours were asleep, he left the camera back where it was, like a flower vase crowning an expensive television set.

Did the film get selected anywhere? I ask.

No, but Zap didn’t care. He convinced his girlfriend, who was the head girl of her fancy convent school, to get permission for her school auditorium. He had a screening there. The schoolgirls loved his film.

Nikhil finishes the story in front of Zap, who did not interrupt. He looked happy that a story about him was being told by someone else.

I must say it is strange to come back to Calcutta after all these years. There are new things happening, but it is a bit directionless. People have not moved beyond the old cultural icons. But then this city loves nostalgia, doesn’t it, Zap says.

Zap has a stick of black sticky toffee like hashish in a foil that he starts grinding in his palms. He massages the sticky toffee mixing it with tobacco, the paper tucked in his fingers.

One of the two rooms you see there will be my workspace. The hall will be the office. And depending on the projects I might take the floor upstairs for rent. It will cost a bit, but what the heck. Zap continues answering imaginary questions that might be thrown in the room.

The upstairs flat? Doesn’t that belong to your cousin? He will probably just give it to you, says Nikhil, his face refusing Zap the liberty of making his own fiction.

Yes, but I still have to rent it. Good thing is that this is a large space. Anyway, my idea is to have a co-working space. When this settles, I will convert the terrace into a performance space. Plays. Screenings. Gigs. Book readings. Basically, create a cultural scene for the neighbourhood.

Zap fiddles inside his pocket and takes out a lighter shaped like red lips. He lights the smoke, talking, the joint trapped in his monologue. Our fingers meet when he passes the smoke to me. The smoke floats around the three of us in circles like a clock turning time. I don’t speak much. Nikhil was talking about islamophobia among their childhood friends. Zap always spoke a few sentences more than Nikhil.

I knew our childhood friends would grow up to be right-wing supporters. That’s how we are here in this political state, Nikhil says.

It is a larger problem. If the government is right-wing, the people are no longer scared to admit they were religious. And they were always fucking bigoted. Now the state is bloody giving leverage to middle-class Indians like our good old classmates, Zap continues the thread of the conversation with ease.

Yes, middle-class Indians who could not express their xenophobia legitimately. They are out in the open with their hatred.

I have many things to add, but I stay silent.

I hate the word apolitical, says Zap.

The joint comfortably placed between his lips, he brings an old acoustic Yamaha guitar out of the case. He tunes it with an app on his phone making a metallic sound. He plays the opening notes from unfamiliar songs and then sings a Velvet Underground song. For the past month, I had been listening to Lou Reed on loop, I say so aloud.

Zap looks at me and continues strumming. He has a pleasant face. His is one of those rare faces which does not need a smile to show amicability. It is a face of easy feeling which seems like it could break into peals of laughter any minute.

Zap never stops strumming the chords. When he forgets the lyrics, Nikhil reminds him. It is as if they were waiting for me to be a witness to their relationship. Zap doesn’t look at me while he sings. He stops once to take a call.

Lila is on her way. Do you want something from the market? he asks Nikhil.

I am hungry. What are we doing for dinner? I’ll tell Lila to get some food.

What do you want? Should we get some Chinese?

Zap snaps his fingers making clicking sounds in quick succession. His eyes have the glint of a little boy who’d just found someone to do his homework. He puts the phone on speaker and keeps it on the floor. The screen has a woman’s photo with a red filter. He lets the phone ring till there is a female voice on the other side. There is a muffled protest from the other side. Lila seems to be saying that the Chinese takeaway place is not on her way.

Lila come on, we are craving Chinese, and any other cuisine would make us sad, says Zap.

She must have asked about the portions.

It’s me, Nikhil and his girlfriend, Zap tells her.

He pauses and looks at me till I look away. She must have agreed because exactly an hour later, the doorbell rings.

I still haven’t given Lila the keys of my house, says Zap.

Lila was Zap’s girlfriend. In a sentence, Zap clears the power equation of their relationship. Lila and Zap had just moved in together to Zap’s parents’ apartment where we sat smoking. Nikhil had told me that Zap had been married once. It was a short marriage. According to Nikhil, it ended since it was useless to Zap’s ambitions.

Lila was an actress. She had started her screen career as a character actor in a popular Hindi film that was shot in Calcutta. Her next role was in a mythological film franchise where she survived eighty-four days of squabbling and drama. The producers never cleared her dues. Her face was in the newspapers when she filed a court case against the producer. Lila got a few roles as a seductress and a home breaker but not the money due to her. I had seen Lila in a popular Hindi film. She played the role of a swimmer. She was only seen in an Olympic-sized pool swimming ten lengths in a red swimsuit. Her character was found murdered in the second scene. I didn’t watch the rest of the film. It was one of those films that were copied from a Scandinavian murder mystery. It was playing on the in-flight channel on our way to Calcutta. I changed channels and watched an episode of a British village detective series instead. Before I knew it, I could see the clouds swimming past against the Calcutta skyline of blue-and-white buildings with a river in between.

Excerpted with permission from Summer of Then: A Novel, Rupleena Bose, Penguin India.