Sharmaji is livid. It has happened again. The Mathews’ house dog has peed and pooped right outside his house, near the gate where he installed a brand new Ganesha idol only a fortnight back. He gets out angrily, while shouting out instructions to the housemaid to clean up the area and sprinkle Ganga water (hand sourced all the way from Hrishikesh) to purify the premises. As he huffs across the lane to the opposite gate, Grandpa Joe saunters out, smiling, ready for another walk with his Snowy. Sharmaji pauses, isn’t really sure if he wants to have a verbal conversation at all, finger wags at him menacingly while keeping a safe distance from jumping joy Snowy and walks away as respectably as he can, while trying to hide his fear of barking dogs that may bite.
This is how they have been, Sharmaji and Grandpa Joe, since a decade or so. But, there was a time when they had been the best of friends, when they were young enough to be called Ashok and Joseph respectively. They had joined work in one of Delhi’s many government offices, had bought plots in the same colony and built similar looking houses opposite each other. Little had they thought about religion as they spent their spare time playing tennis and chess in the local Gymkhana, while their children grew up playing hide and seek, and ludo, coco and Scrabble. Then, one fine day, like a bolt out of the blue, Ashok’s son and Joseph’s daughter were not to be found. The story unravelled quickly – the 20 somethings had been romancing for quite some time, and had eloped silently, not wanting to test the wrath of their families and the society. What ensued wasn’t surprising. Club memberships were cancelled, kitchen utensils returned. No longer could the same maid work in both houses, nor could colleagues plan a trip to the colony with the express desire of meeting both friends at the same time. Some days cold shouldering, some days hot word tossing, every day has been entertaining since then, an entertaining battle for everyone around.
Cut back to the present: The announcement comes on a fine wintry morning. The Delhi Government introduces an experimental odd-even rule to reduce the number of private cars plying the road every day, in a bid to contain emissions and pollution. Sharmaji stares at the TV dumbstruck, many minutes after the news item is over and the Sunny Leone interview commences. Aunty comes out of the kitchen just then and admonishes him with some choice abuses for behaving like a silly teenager. Sharmaji shakes himself out of the stupor, switches off the TV and starts wondering what he will do from now on. He has a Santro, only one Santro, a car numbered 6957. And, he needs to go to the Maruti car dealer 10 kms from home every day, where he works as a senior accountant (Sharmaji, an ardent fan of work, has refused to be cowed down by minor hiccups like retirement and has found himself a job that will keep him occupied and pay well. Also, he has no friends left in the colony, everyone having died or migrated with their children, and passing time is his biggest challenge). Should he try to tamper with the 7 to make it an 8 on and off? Religious and hot headed as he may be, Sharmaji is not a corrupt soul at heart. The idea sounds repulsive to him, so he drops it right away and decides, “On even days, I will take the bus. All my relatives in Australia do that.”
The first day is smooth, what with it being New Year’s and his car being odd numbered. The weekend follows immediately, and Sharmaji decides he should cool his heels and gear up for the week to come, where he would have to display some skills in getting into and standing in rickety old buses. January 4th dawns, foggy and cold, ominous and scary, not a sign of good things to come. Sharmaji dons his sweater and muffler, wears his sturdy black boots, and unheeding of Aunty’s advice to just take a rickshaw, walks confidently towards the nearest bus stop. As he nears the stop, he starts feverishly. The bus stop seems to be overflowing. Has it always been this way? Is this an outcome of this cursed odd-even rule? Confidence fizzling out quickly like air from a pricked balloon, Sharmaji slowly and tentatively walks to the bus stop and stands at a spot which is empty. Just then, 71A, the bus to his destination comes up. Excited that he had to wait hardly a minute for the bus, which also seems sparsely filled, Sharmaji walks towards it, only to see the bus stop a good 100 metres away from the spot he is standing at. The crowds nearby literally pounce and jump into the bus, as Sharmaji watches helplessly. Now, he understands why his spot was uninhabited. As the bus pulls away, groaning under the weight of over a hundred people, Sharmaji wonders what to do. Just then he sees his once-friend-now-enemy Grandpa Joe drive his battered Maruti 800 attempting to avoid a large pothole. Haven’t these cars been banned yet, Sharmaji snorts to himself, as he notices the number on the car. It is 7280, a perfect even number. For a second, actually a fraction of a second, a thought flashes through Sharmaji’s mind. He dismisses it as hurriedly as he would swat a fly, and tries to focus on the road, hoping to see another 71A. But, the nagging thought comes back to haunt him. Fighting against his will to look at the 7280, he pointedly keeps his face in the opposite direction when he senses a light tap on his shoulder. He turns to see Grandpa Joe, peering at him through large, round-rimmed glasses. As Sharmaji confusedly wonders whether he should cold shoulder Grandpa Joe or look on neutrally, the other party starts off. “I am not here to renew friendships with you or kill enmities. I have a business proposition for you. Are you willing to listen?” Now, Sharmaji is hooked on and more than willingly nods his head in acquiescence. Grandpa Joe continues, “I have an even numbered car and you have an odd-numbered car. I need to go to the same area as you every day, to my friend’s pharmaceuticals shop that I help in managing. Unlike you, I have no intention of waiting in crowded bus stops flashing off my public-transport-love. Should we come to an arrangement?”
The first day of the arrangement is awkward, at least the first 5 minutes are. What do two people who haven’t spoken to each other in over ten years speak? How will they communicate? Just as Sharmaji moves the car into third gear and ploughs on to reach the signal, a bike cuts in from the left, with no indicator or prior inclination to do so. “M*** Ch***!” cry out both Ashok and Joseph at the same time.
Last heard, Sharmaji and Grandpa Joe have been breaking their heads together over an iPad, struggling to set up a Facebook account. They have unanimously decided to forgive their eloped children and are planning to extend olive branches and red roses through a Facebook friend request.