#12 That Place Between Peace and Chaos

While growing up, I had only heard about the dance bars of Mumbai in news channels. A news anchor would announce the breaking news about a raid in Mumbai dance bar and women were arrested. Usually, mom or dad would change the channel the moment face covered women would appear on the screen.

It has been a year since I moved to Mumbai to make it big in life but I never went to the dance bars. I never felt the need. A friend of mine got engaged back in my hometown. His marriage was in a few weeks and all my old friends had come to Mumbai for some fun before his big day. That’s when I was dragged into a dance bar for the first time in my life.

In the dance bar, all my friends began throwing cash on the girls dancing on stage. I wasn’t enjoying much and kept looking around reluctantly. That’s when my eyes got fixed on one of those bar dancers. She was wearing a shiny green dress, performing in one of the corners and enjoying the process to the core. There was a beautiful smile on her face and there was a strange innocence in her eyes.

Other girls were trying really hard to impress but she was just expressing. I just kept looking at her, mesmerized. It wasn’t like one of those lustful ‘I-want-her-tonight’ kinds of attraction, but like an innocent crush that you develop in your early teens. She evoked a strange desire in me – desire to talk to her and to know how she thinks and sees the world. I just couldn’t stop admiring her.

While performing, she came close to me and snapped her fingers in front of my eyes. I was mesmerized enough to not realize that I was staring at her for a while. Soon, she went off the stage. I looked around being clueless again and the loud music was irritating me. My friends continued to enjoy and were in no mood to leave.

I craved a cigarette. A waiter guided me to the backyard of that bar where I could smoke in the open. The door creaked when I opened it to walk out. I pulled out a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and looked around for matchbox or a lighter. I sighed and got a little restless when I didn’t find any of the two around. That’s when I heard another creak of the door and realized a girl has joined me.

She was wearing a hoodie and jeans, carrying a bag. Her hair was tied up and there was hardly any makeup on her face. She wore round glasses with a frame which was slightly oversized for her face... I had looked at her enough to realize that it was the same dancer I was admiring. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it using her lighter.

“Excuse me… can I borrow your lighter for a second?” I asked.

She handed it over to me without saying anything. I looked at her from the corner of my eye while lighting my cigarette. She was looking somewhere else, exhaling the smoke.

“Thank you,” I said and returned her lighter.

She gave a half-smile and took it from me. No words yet. I took a couple of drags and kept wondering if I should talk to her or not. Deep down I knew I had to, this was my only chance.

“You were great,” I said pointing towards the creaking gate, “great on that dance floor.”

“We’re not allowed to talk to the customers. Also, I am not available. I only perform here. That girl in the blue dress, who was dancing next to me is still available for tonight. You can talk to the bouncer standing next to the stage,” she said in one go.

“Oh, I don’t want any girl. I am not that type,” I said

“Really? What type are you then?” She asked immediately.

I didn’t know how to answer that.

“Actually… my friends brought me here. It’s my first visit.”

“Oh. In that case,” she shrugged and looked away, going back to puffing her cigarette.

I knew the moment she would be done smoking, it will all be over. I had to be straight forward.

“Okay, so here’s the deal. My brain has been frozen a little ever since I’ve seen you. I am not interested to hire you for sex, but I want to know you as a person. I am intrigued.”

She scoffed the moment I said that.

“When you said that you’re not that type, I should have known. Maybe, you’re one of those artist types, who want to explore our lives and get inspired to make a documentary, write a book or something artistic shit. I have met people like you before,” she said and puffed the cigarette.

“I am not that either,” I stood straight to look more decent to her, “just a guy wanting to know someone… maybe over a coffee.”

“Coffee…?” She raised her eyebrows and gave a half-smile to me.

“And a conversation,” I said.

“Forget conversation, I won’t even tell you my name,” she said.

“I am not interested in your life here or outside this bar. The conversation can be about anything,” I said.

She looked at me again, shook her head and exhaled another stream of smoke.

“You know how noisy it is on that stage?” She said pointing at the creaking door. “After the shift, I come to this backyard every day to enjoy my smoke in peace. Time slows down for me here.”

“This place is definitely peaceful,” I said.

“Today it’s not,” she said and took the last puff of her cigarette.

It felt like I don’t belong in that backyard the moment she said that. It was as if I had intruded her territory and she wanted me to get lost. Her elegant presence made me nervous while talking to her and I tried hard to keep that nervousness hidden. Her cigarette was over and she could leave any second. However, I didn’t want the conversation to end.

“Sorry for making this place less peaceful for you today. I wish you would have enjoyed my chaotic inclusion in your peace.”

“Peace and chaos can’t exist in the same place,” she said.

“I think they can be,” I immediately said, “I know a place in Mumbai that’s a perfect balance between peace and chaos.”

“What place?”

“Would you want to go there with me right now?” I said with a hint of excitement.

“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”

“I know. It’s the best time to go there,” I said.

“And what makes you think that I will go to an unknown place with an unknown guy?”

She had a point. I thought for a few seconds how I can make her comfortable.

“I know it’s late and we are strangers but this idea of having you for a company and having a conversation with you sitting there is quite exciting in my head. We can go in separate cabs and you can opt-out at any point,” I said and wasn’t able to believe my own impulse. She could have complained to the bouncers standing at the other side of that creaking door and got me beaten up. I could see that she was contemplating but still wasn’t sure. I pulled out my wallet from my pocket and pulled out my driving license from it.

“You can ask one of the girls in there to keep my driving license. If I turn out to be a bad guy and harm you in any way, I will be caught by the police in no time,” I said.

She sniggered and gestured asking me to keep the driving license back into my pocket.

“Look, I told you, we’re not even allowed to talk to the customers. Even if your intentions are clean, it will be a trouble for me if I walk out of here with you.”

“How about I walk out first and wait for you outside the next building? We can take our cabs from there,” I said.

She looked away and thought about it for a few seconds and half smiled. “Single cab is fine,” she said.

I booked a cab while walking towards the next building and within fifteen minutes, it picked us up. We were on our way and it was quite silent in the cab for while. I noticed that she was not initiating the conversation. Maybe, she was comfortable with the silence but that same silence was making me uncomfortable.

“It’s been a year since I have moved to Mumbai and I am yet to fall in love with this place. There’s so much going on here all the time. When you arrive in this city, it initially welcomes you and fills you up with grand experiences. It overwhelms you. It’s like your appetite to experience things will die out but the city will always have more experiences to feed you,” I said.

I looked at her and noticed that she was keenly listening to me. I felt more comfortable knowing she was interested in my thoughts.

“What you don’t realize is eventually this city starts feeding off you too,” I said. “The notion of being fed with experiences never leaves you and the awareness of city feeding off you comes much later. I often think of a way to unplug whenever the feeding off part begins. But I guess this disorderly struggle to balance the feeding and being fed is the way of life here.”

“Your perspective is interesting but I see this city quite differently. Yes, everything here is overwhelming but because of this grandness, it gets a lot easier to choose whatever I want to be,” she said.

I got intrigued and repositioned myself to look at her as she talked.

“When I arrived here, I had a realization within the first thirty minutes that nobody knows me here. Nobody would care what I do or who do I choose to be. I could be begging on the street or be the person who offers help to the beggar. But to the person walking by or the people who live around my place, I am just another person. Not many people realize how blissful it is to be unknown to the world around you and people not conditioning your way of life,” she said and I mulled over her perspective for a while.

The cab stopped at Terminal 3 of Mumbai International Airport, outside the departure gate. She looked a little confused when she got off the cab. When the cab drove off, I looked at the huge structure of the airport and had the widest smile on my face. When I turned around, she was smiling but also gave me a weird look.

“Airport? Seriously?”

“It will make sense. Just give me some more time,” I said. “Before we go to that spot, let’s get some coffee.”

We went to the lower floor, outside the arrival gate to get the coffee. We walked into a café and stood in the line. I asked her what coffee she’ll have but she insisted on buying her own coffee. I let her do that because I wanted to ensure she’s comfortable. I ordered mine and was asked to wait at the delivery counter. While I saw my coffee getting made, I noticed that she had an elaborative explanation for the barista about how she wants her coffee.

“I come to the airport often,” I said when she joined me at the delivery counter.

“I guessed that. You seem to be in love with this spot of yours,” she said, “I just hope it’s worth all the hype.”

Our coffees were ready. I collected a few extra tissues and we walked out of the café. When we came back to the upper floor, we walked past a bar which was right opposite the departure gates. The place had transparent glass walls and people sitting behind it were visible. As expected, I saw him sitting there on that day as well.

“Do you see that guy – the one sipping beer and staring at the departure gate?” I said.

“Yeah”

“Whenever I come here, I see him. He always sits on the same table near this glass wall, sips his regular beer and keeps staring at the gate across,” I said.

“Why does he do that? Have you ever asked him?”

“I haven’t. I don’t know if he has ever noticed me but I share a bond with him. I think he comes here for the same reason as I do. At least I would like to believe that,” I said.

“And that reason is?”

“For the peace and chaos at the same time,” I said, “exactly what I want to show you.”

We finally reached the spot that, for me, was the most beautiful place in Mumbai. It was a waist-height wall covered in fine granite. I used one of the tissues to wipe away the dust and we sat on it. We were overlooking the entire view of the departure area. Countless soothing lights were illuminating the entire airport. There were two lanes where cars and cabs stopped and people got down. Some would be hurriedly taking the luggage out; some would be saying goodbye to people who have come to drop them, some passengers aimlessly strolling with their luggage trolleys due to layovers or flight delays. That night, as soon as we sat, I noticed a couple hugging below a clock. The guy was kissing girl’s forehead before seeing her off.

“What do you think about this place?” I asked her.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect it to be this beautiful,” she said, still admiring the view.

“So much of hustle and bustle right in front of us and yet, we can’t hear any of that. We only have the peaceful sound of wind rusting the plants behind us,” I said.

We stayed silent for a while and sipped our coffees. I noticed that she removed her specs and was getting comfortable. She was observing the details of everything going on in front of us, exactly how I always do whenever I am here alone. I had a moment of realization that I was actually spending time with her and it felt surreal. My thoughts were interrupted by her sudden chuckle.

“Noticed something funny?” I asked and she shook her head.

“I recalled the first-ever flight I took,” she said.

“What happened that time?”

“I didn’t know much about the check-ins, the luggage deposit or anything for that matter. After lots of misunderstandings and figuring things out, I finally managed to board the flight but my misery didn’t end there. A lady would not let the flight take off because she was not given the seat next to her husband. There was shouting and yelling going on,” she said.

“And the husband didn’t stop her?”

“The husband was sitting silently like other passengers, witnessing all of this happen. I guess only the popcorns were missing for him!” She got a little animated while talking about it. “I was young at that time and got really scared of the commotion. I was almost convinced that we’ll be asked to go back because they can’t fly the plane.”

“And then?”

“Two passengers walked up to the person sitting next to that lady’s husband and asked him to exchange seats with that lady. When that person refused, those two passengers began to have an argument that person. It was chaos!” She said. “Finally the guy sitting next to the wife agreed to exchange the seats. That guy looked like some God-sent avatar to me who sacrificed his seat and took away my anxiety.”

“You know, nine months ago I had a ligament tear in my knees. I had an ACL and Meniscus surgery. I was asked to use a stick while walking to reduce stress on my knee. Twelve days after the surgery, I had to travel for work. When I arrived at the airport, an airport employee offered me a wheelchair, noticing my condition. I opted for it without any second thought. But then, the perks of it were a revelation to me. People did everything for me and were so caring. I bypassed the long queue of security checks and loved every bit of the treatment. Those three months, while I was recovering, I always asked for the wheelchair whenever I travelled. I am ashamed to say it, but I loved its advantages. Maybe, it has to do with sudden attention I was given. When I knew I have recovered enough, I had to stop opting for it, but I miss that feeling sometimes,” I said.

“You sounded like a little kid while telling me about it,” she laughed.

“We all have things that make us childlike happy,” I said and she nodded. “Do you have thoughts or things that make you childlike happy?”

She thought about it for a few seconds and then smiled at the picture forming in her head.

“It involves things that many people dream of these days – a little home in the mountains, a fireplace, simple life and everything extremely slow. But, my excitement is in the details of that idea,” she said.

“Details?”

“Yes! I imagine a place where the temperature is always low. There are two hills… you know, like the one we used to see in the default Windows XP desktop wallpaper,” she said and I grinned, “so I want two hills like that and right in the middle of those two hills, I want my home with a fireplace. No television, internet or any media device – just a lot of books, simple food and long hours of observing the details of nature.”

I imagined the scenario she just described. After a few minutes of silence, she pointed her finger at an old couple who was cutely walking towards the departure gate, possibly going for their vacation. They looked cute enough to make me smile from ear to ear.

“Do you ever imagine someone with you in that home between the two Windows XP like hills?” I curiously asked.

“I don’t. This idea in itself gives me an extreme feeling of contentment. The thought of having someone by my side and then that person turning out to be the worst piece of this beautiful setup gives me anxiety,” she said.

“But, that person could also be the most beautiful piece of this setup, right? I mean, it’s wonderful to read books in an environment like that but the idea of books being read by someone to you isn’t all that bad.”

“Depends on the reader, I guess,” she said and shrugged. “Don’t you think about your perfect setup and the possibility of someone in it?”

“I have seen what it’s like when you have a life without purpose. You start feeling meaningless and the frustration keeps rising. I decided quite early in my life that I want to keep working until my last breath. The purpose of working might swing between money and joy, but I want to be at it. It’s one of my biggest fears to see a day when I don’t have work,” I said and took a sip from my coffee. “In this quest to keep working endlessly, I can only see a partner who is able to understand this buzz and be okay with it,” I said.

“But, don’t you think it’s unfair for your partner to just put up with you and keep applauding for you while you keep working throughout life?”

“Maybe it is unfair. But if my partner shares the same ideology then it can be much easier – someone who also wants to just work throughout life and in between enjoys those brief slower moments,” I said and she nodded.

For two hours, we kept talking. The conversations were not about who we are and what we do, but about the random experiences in our lives. My friends kept calling me but I didn’t answer those calls. I just texted them to go back to my place and I would meet them there. I looked at my watch and it was almost 5 o’clock in the morning.

“I always leave from here before sunrise,” I said.

“Usually, people look forward to the sunrise.”

“Not here. I once stayed here all night and was excited to see what it’s like to sit here through the sunrise,” I said. “When the sunlight began to fill the sky; one after the other, I saw the airport lights getting switched off. This spot and its hustle and bustle remained the same, but that connection I feel with this place began to disappear. I remember feeling anxious and wanting to run away from here quickly. It’s like watching something you love shedding its charm.”

“I would like to save myself from that visual, in that case. I would rather preserve what I just witnessed and get going,” she said and got up.

“I love the charm that this effortless conversation,” I said after a few seconds, looking up into her eyes, “I am thinking of ways to somehow keep this going right now.”

“Whatever we get, how much ever we get – it is enough and it is all wonderful,” she said. I smiled and got up to leave.

While walking, we booked our cabs from our phones and told our respective cab drivers to pick us up from a lane between the departure gate and the spot where we sat. We shook hands, kept looking into each other’s eyes and kept smiling.

“Thank you for this,” she said.

“Thank you for trusting me and coming here with me,” I said.

Her cab arrived and we walked towards it. She struggled to open the car door because she was holding the empty coffee cup in one hand and her bag in the other.

“Do we have a trash bin here?” She looked around and asked.

“Give it to me, I’ll take care it,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ll do it. Don’t worry,” I said and took the empty cup from her.

She sat in the cab, waved and the cab disappeared in no time. Before I could look for a trash bin, my cab arrived too. I boarded it, holding her coffee cup along with mine. When the cab began to move, I looked at her cup and realized that I didn’t ask what her name was. I turned the cup and saw something written on it. I knew this could be her name because the barista in the café must have written it while taking her order. I looked at it closely to understand the handwriting and figured what it said. I had a wide smile on my face. I unlocked my phone screen and looked for ‘Despoina’.

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