‘They are your journals, you read them,’ I said to him.
He shook his head.
‘Listen, I don’t have the time or patience for this,’ I said, getting irritated. Being a writer on a book tour doesn’t allow for much sleep—I had not slept more than four hours a night for a week. I checked my watch. ‘It’s midnight. I gave you my view. It’s time for me to sleep now.’
‘I want you to read them,’ he said.
We were in my room at the Chanakya Hotel, Patna. This morning, he had tried to stop me on my way out. Then he had waited for me all day; I had returned late at night to find him sitting in the hotel lobby.
‘Just give me five minutes, sir,’ he had said, following me into the lift. And now here we were in my room as he pulled out three tattered notebooks from his backpack.
The spine of the books came apart as he plonked them on the table. The yellowing pages fanned out between us. The pages had handwritten text, mostly illegible, as the ink had smudged. Many pages had holes in them, rats having snacked on them.
An aspiring writer, I thought.
‘If this is a manuscript, please submit it to a publisher. However, do not send it in this state,’ I said.
‘I am not a writer. This is not a book.’
‘It’s not?’ I said, lightly touching a crumbling page. I looked up at him. Even seated, he was tall. Over six feet, he had a sunburnt, outdoor ruggedness about him. Black hair, black eyes and a particularly intense gaze. He wore a shirt two sizes too big for his lean frame. He had large hands. He reassembled the notebooks, gentle with his fingers, almost caressing the pages.
‘What are these books?’ I said.
‘I had a friend. These are her journals,’ he said.
‘Her journals. Ah! A girlfriend?’
‘Listen, have you eaten anything all day?’ I said.
He shook his head. I looked around. A bowl of fruit and some chocolates sat next to my bed. He took a piece of dark chocolate when I offered it.
‘So what do you want from me?’ I said.
‘I want you to read these journals, whatever is readable…because I can’t.’
I looked at him, surprised.
‘You can’t read? As in, you can’t read in general? Or you can’t read these?’
‘Why not?’ I said, reaching for a chocolate.
‘Because Riya’s dead.’
My hand froze in mid-air. You cannot pick up a chocolate when someone has just mentioned a death.
‘Did you just say the girl who wrote these journals is dead?’
He nodded. I took a few deep breaths and wondered what to say next.
‘Why are they in such a terrible shape?’ I said after a pause.
‘They are old. Her ex-landlord found them after years.’
‘Sorry, Mr Whats-your-name. Can I order some food first?’ I picked up the phone in the room and ordered two club sandwiches from the limited midnight menu.
‘I’m Madhav. Madhav Jha. I live in Dumraon, eighty kilometres from here.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I run a school there.’
‘Oh, that’s…’ I paused, searching for the right word.
‘…noble? Not really. It’s my mother’s school.’
‘I was going to say that’s unusual. You speak English. Not typical of someone who runs a school in the back of beyond.’
‘My English is still bad. I have a Bihari accent,’ he said without a trace of self-consciousness.
‘French people have a French accent when they speak English.’
‘My English wasn’t even English until…’ he trailed off and fell silent. I saw him swallow to keep his composure.
He absently caressed the notebooks on the desk.
‘Nothing. Actually, I went to St. Stephen’s.’
‘Yes. English types call it Steven’s.’
I smiled. ‘And you are not one of the English types?’
‘Not at all.’
The doorbell startled us. The waiter shifted the journals to keep the sandwich tray on the table. A few sheets of the journal fell to the floor.
‘Careful!’ Madhav shouted as if the waiter had broken an antique crystal.
The waiter apologized and scooted out of the room.
I offered him a tomato and cheese sandwich. He ignored me and rearranged the loose sheets of paper.
‘Are you okay? Please eat this.’
He nodded, his eyes still on the pages of the journal. I decided to eat since my imposed guest didn’t seem to care about my hospitality.
‘These journals obviously mean a lot to you. But why have you brought them here?’
‘For you to read. Maybe they will be useful to you.’
‘How will they be useful to me?’ I said, my voice firmer with the food inside me. A part of me wanted him out of my room as soon as possible.
‘She used to like your books. We used to read them together,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘For me to learn English.’
‘Madhav,’ I said, as calmly as possible. ‘This seems like a sensitive matter. I don’t want to get involved. Okay?’
His gaze remained directed at the floor. ‘I don’t want the journals either,’ he said after a while.
‘That is for you to decide.’
‘It’s too painful for me,’ he said.
‘I can imagine.’
He stood up, presumably to leave. He had not touched his sandwich—which was okay, because I could eat it after he left.
‘Thank you for your time. Sorry to disturb you.’
‘It’s okay,’ I said.
He scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper and kept it on the table. ‘If you are ever in Dumraon and need anything, let me know. It’s unlikely you will ever come, but still.’ He stood up, instantly dwarfing me, and walked to the door.
‘Madhav,’ I called out after him. ‘You forgot the journals. Please take them with you.’
‘I told you I don’t need them.’
‘So why are you leaving them here?’
‘Because I can’t throw them. You can.’ Before I could answer, he stepped out, shut the door and left. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened.
I picked up the journals and ran out of the room, but the sole working lift had just gone down. I couldn’t have taken the stairs and caught him in time; after a long day, I didn’t have the energy to do that either.
I came back to my room, irritated by his audacity. Dumping the notebooks and the slip with his phone number in the dustbin, I sat on the bed, a little unsettled.
I can’t let someone I just met get the better of me, I thought, shaking my head. I switched off the lights and lay down in bed. I had to catch an early morning flight to Mumbai the next day and had a four-hour window of sleep. I couldn’t wait to reach home.
However, I couldn’t stop thinking about my encounter with the mysterious Madhav. Who was this guy? Dumraon, Stephen’s and Delhi in my head. Questions popped up: What the hell is a half-girlfriend? Who was this guy? And why do I have a dead girl’s journals in my room?
Eyes wide open, I lay in bed, staring at the little flashing red light from the smoke detector on the ceiling.
The journals bothered me. Sure, they lay in the dustbin. However, something about those torn pages, the dead person and her half-boyfriend, or whoever he was, intrigued me. Don’t go there,’ my mind screamed down its own suggestion. The suggestion: read just one page.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ I said. But thirty minutes later, I switched on the lights in my room, fished out the journals from the dustbin and opened the first volume. Most pages were too damaged to read. I tried to make sense of what I could. The first page dated back nine years, to 1st November 2002.
Riya had written about her fifteenth birthday in Delhi. ‘One more page,’ I told myself. I flipped through the sheets as I tried to find another readable page. I read one more section, and then another. Three hours later, I had read whatever could be read in the entire set.
The room phone rang at 5 a.m., startling me.
‘Your wake-up call, sir,’ the hotel operator said.
‘I am awake, thank you,’ I said, as I’d never slept at all. I called Jet Airways.
‘I’d like to cancel a ticket on the Patna-Mumbai flight this morning.’
Pulling out the slip of paper with Madhav’s number from the dustbin, I texted him: ‘We need to talk. Important.’
At 6.30 a.m., the tall, lanky man was in my room once more.
‘Make tea for both of us. The kettle is above the minibar.’
He followed my instructions. The early morning sun highlighted his sharp features. He handed me a cup of tea and took a seat diagonally opposite me on the double-bed.
‘Should I speak first, or will you?’ I said.
‘Do you think you knew her well?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘You feel comfortable talking about her to me?’
He thought for a few seconds and nodded.
‘So tell me everything. Tell me the story of Madhav and Riya.’
‘A story that fate left incomplete,’ he said.
‘Fate can be strange indeed.’
‘Where do I start? When we first met?’
‘Always a good place,’ I said.