Her eyes are lost; they still seem to be looking at the tiny figures scurrying off that faraway student's face.
"Joshi saeb called up the uncle... he had the address, and he asked one of the boys to go. They came in a few hours and took away Ankur... I don't know if he survived. Don't even know if he did well in the entrance exam."
I say,” That doesn’t make much sense – it’s all gloomy and there’s no main character or anything. Don’t you have any good stories?”
She seems to have been expecting this; she grins and says,” That’s how most real stories are – You wouldn’t even understand them unless you were a part of them. Like I was, who saw that boy every day for a month. I’ve seen thousands of students come and go, each had their tale to tell. Why do you think I remember this one?”
I think about it. There’s some truth to it – I am pretty sure I am going to remember this tale for a while. Not as well as she remembers it, of course. I’m only hearing it second hand.
The road seems to have grown a bit quieter. I look at my watch and start. “Oh, I’m late… I have to pick up my sister, her class must be over by now.”
She nods. “Go, then. It was fun talking.”
“I’d like to come again, if I’m not intruding.”
“Of course, come back. Come in the evenings, I don’t have too much work then.”
“I’d like to hear more next time.”
“You know it’s your turn… I’ll tell mine after that.”
I walk back the way I came, down the stairs, onto the road, and away from the old building. The yard is totally empty now, I see. The huts are closed, none even have kerosene lamps burning in them.
When I come back, a week has passed. But it could have been the same day, for all that has changed. I am there again at the same time, the labourers are again getting ready to pack up, she is again in the balcony. This time she seems to be by herself up there.
I wave at her. She looks down, and nods. “Wait!” she calls, and starts down.
In a few minutes, I am back in the chair I’d occupied last week. She has gone somewhere to get me some tea, and I am looking idly at the thinning traffic on the road.
“Here you are”, she says, walking up with two cups of tea, and handing me one before she sits down herself. “So… you thought my story was pointless, and today you’re going to tell me a good story that isn’t pointless…”
“Well… since you put it that way, I don’t know whether it’s good or not. All I know is that it made me happy to hear it.”
She is looking at me, waiting.
* * * *
He said to her,” I want to tell you a story.”
She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Only after we order. I’m starving.”
They sat in a coffee house, like most college students, not to eat but for company, to spend long hours feeling safe to talk. They were surrounded by others like them, who provide a backdrop of guffaws, arguments, constant comings and goings, and the occasional waiter replacing empty glasses of water.
The waiter asked them for their order. Both were regulars; both had come often enough with their friends to know the menu by heart. They each ordered their favourites : One Masala Dosa for him and one Idli Sambhar for her. Filter coffee after that. He’d have bought a pack of cigarettes too, but he was scared of ruining her impression of him.
He tried again after some idle chatter. “Want to hear the story now? You’ll like it.”
She said,”Do you write?”
“A little…” How could he say that he’s never thought up anything like this before… that if she asked him for more he wouldn’t have anything worth mentioning.
“Okay, so this is a science fiction sort of story. Our hero lived on a planet that was very similar to earth, except…”
The Idli Sambhar arrived. That never took any time, they always had the Idlis ready. He motioned for her to begin eating.
"As I was saying, the planet, and it's people were very similar to earth, except that their tongues were different from ours. They were made of mud."
He braced himself for a reaction from her. This sounded wierder than he'd thought. But she went on eating, nodding for him to go on.
"Now don't think this is very different from what we have. The whole purpose of a tongue is to reflect what's in your mind, isnt it? So if you have that wet shiny sort of mud, it reflects your mind out of your mouth pretty okay. So they didnt have any problems speaking.
"Now our hero wasnt entirely normal. In fact, he was considered below average. This was because of a birth defect, which happened to a very few people.
"His tongue was made of silver. Dont get the impression that it helped him somehow because silver is a precious metal. On the contrary. Think about it, you're a science student, you can get this. Mud is really soft, it can be formed into any shape. So you could reflect whatever part of your mind you want. If you want to reflect something in a different form from what it's like in your head, just shape your tongue to it. With practice, you could say whatever you want to, and it would come out in the form you wanted it to. Basic social skills. Smart people who understood reflection could make out the real shape in the mind, of course.
"But silver is a metal. It doesnt change shape all that easily. His tongue would be straight and undistorted all the time. It would reflect plainly what exactly was inside, all the time. He could never disguise it, tailor it, or even stop it from showing up, the moment he opened his mouth. As a result his talk had all the finesse of a two year old, who's only just learnt to angle his tongue correctly. Of course he was a social outcast, people tried to stay away from him because you never knew when he would say something stupid.
"He had his own little group of friends, most of whom had the same problem. One or two were normal people, who found it acceptable to know the real thoughts of their friends all the time. They got through school and most of college together. But he was always lonely for more company.
"One evening, our hero had a bright idea. ("That's why he is our hero, right?" she said, grinning) If the reason people stayed away from him was that he alone had this silver tongue, and they had mud tongues, why not just disguise his own? He went quickly to a medical shop and bought a jar of the good quality mud, the kind that didnt wear out very easily. Alone in his hostel room, he spread it evenly over his tongue. After a couple of tries, he thought it looked pretty good. It was difficult to tell it was a disguise. He tried talking, and he found that while he couldnt change his thoughts entirely, they did get muddled up a little. He could get mistaken for a normal guy who preferred to stay honest.
"He couldnt wait to try it out. His own friends of course knew him already, and they wouldnt approve, either. He went to a bar he'd never been earlier. The experiment was a success. He found people talking to him easily. The conversation went on well, as long as he didnt open up too much, kept on the shy act.
"As time went on, he did this more and more. When he left college and took up a job in a new city he kept his disguise on all the time. People liked his being generally honest and he did all right. Of course, the disguise put up a barrier against him opening up all his thoughts to anyone, so he began to get lonely in another way. Every once in a while he would meet his old, silver-tongued friends in out of the way places and talk to them freely. Somehow those conversations were more satisfying than all the others with normal people.
"Then, one day, he went to this variety entertainment programme. It was a popular one, which he'd been hearing of for some time. And in the middle of one of the items, he saw her.
"She wasn't one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen, but there was just something about her face that set her apart from the others. He looked at her and forgot that he was in a hall with a thousand other people. Others looked at her, listened to her and laughed at her jokes, but he alone seemed to understand what she was really thinking.
"He wondered what it was about her that attracted him. Was it something she was saying? He looked closely at her mouth to catch every word.
"And then, he thought, he had it. From time to time, while she spoke, he caught a glint off her tongue. It could have been just a quirk of the lighting in the hall. But he thought it was because she'd had the same idea he had - her tongue was silver, just like his, and she'd disguised herself as a normal person. He decided he needed to meet her and find out for sure.
"After the show he would go up backstage and talk to her. There was only one way to persuade her to reveal the truth - he would have to tell her the truth about himself. And if she werent a silver tongue? He'd work that out if it happened..."
He stopped speaking, and picked up his spoon and fork. The Masala Dosa had arrived while he was telling his story. After taking the first bite, he looked up. She was still waiting for him to continue. At some point she’d forgotten about her food.
“Well? So what next?” she asked.
He looked calm (he hoped), but inside he was in turmoil. This was it, he thought. This is the point you’ve been hoping for. She even seems to be interested in your story.
“I don’t know,” he said.
She was less startled than expected. “So you don’t want to tell me right now, or you don’t know the ending at all?” she said softly.
He swallowed. “No, I don’t know the ending yet. Because I don’t know if you really are a silver tongue, yet.”
She laughed out loud at that. “You idiot,” she said,” You had to say this in the most roundabout way possible, didn’t you?”
He was too scared inside to say anything. He hadn’t expected her to see through him as easily as that. But…
“Let me think about it. I don’t really know if I am a ‘silver tongue’ or not. But you have a cute way of saying things, all right.”