The Dish Verifier

            A cloudy formation appeared in front of Naveen’s eyes. He blinked twice. For some reason, the clouds had a yellowish tinge. And there were lines in between them, and patches of brown.

            His eyes slowly opened. The yellowish blur came into focus. It was the wall of his room, with its beige paint peeling off.

            He yawned and reached for his phone on the bedside table. It was half past noon.

            Standing up felt like a herculean effort. A sharp pain pierced through his head. His legs wobbled. He put a hand on the mattress to steady his lanky frame.

His roommate Sumeet sat at the dining table, hunched over his laptop. Patches of unshaven beard stubble decorated his face.

They were childhood friends who grew up in Mumbai, and now rented this studio apartment in Jersey City during their summer internships.

Naveen staggered into the kitchen.

Sumeet glanced at him. “You look like a zombie from The Walking Dead.”

Naveen massaged his temple. It felt like his skull was being pounded by a hammer, from the inside.

He picked up a plastic glass from the counter, and gazed into it.

Seriously dude,” Sumeet said. “How much did you drink last night?”

Naveen lifted a hollow five-gallon plastic water jug over his glass. He barely got a drop.

“There’s no water.”

“As always, you have an outstanding grasp of the obvious,” Sumeet said.

The kitchen sink was overflowing with plates, glasses, utensils, spoons, forks, etc. Naveen put his glass below the faucet.

“Tap water here is not drinkable,” Sumeet said. “You know that, right?”

Naveen scowled, and threw the water into the sink. He put his palms on the counter and closed his eyes.

The click-click-click of Sumeet’s laptop keyboard sounded shrill to his ears.

“Stop making that sound,” Naveen demanded.

“What sound?”

“Your stupid keyboard...”

“What?” Sumeet paused. “Are you still high?”

Naveen saw a white bottle on top of the refrigerator. It had an image of two coconut trees, and the word ‘MALIBU’ above it. He lifted it by the neck, filled his glass, and took a gulp.

Sumeet raised an eyebrow. “You drinking in the morning now?”

“It’s afternoon.”

“Good to know that you can at least tell the time …”

“And I’m not drinking. It’s just Malibu.”

“Malibu is rum,” Sumeet said. “You know that, right?”

Naveen plonked himself down on a chair. “It’s practically water.”

“Practically water,” Sumeet repeated. He scratched his beard stubble, and went back to his laptop.

Naveen sipped the practically-water in silence. Every few minutes, he rubbed his forehead.

He went to the garbage can, but before he could toss his glass, a crushed-up paper plate and a plastic bag spilled out.

“This apartment is a mess,” Naveen said. “The trash is full, the sink is full, there’s no water.” He looked at Sumeet. “And you just sit on your laptop all day.”

“Dude, I have a big presentation on Monday.”

Naveen just glared.

“What?” Sumeet said. “You worried that the Israeli babe you rented this place from will come to check on us?”

“She’s an Aunty, not a babe.”

Sumeet shrugged. “Aunties can also be babes.”

Naveen opened the fridge and stuck his head inside. There were eggs and bread. He looked back at the sink. The frying pan was buried under mounds of utensils.

He rummaged through the kitchen drawers and cupboards. “Why is there nothing to eat here??”

He opened and shut a cupboard, again and again, staring inside it.

“Yea, if you open and close it a few more times, food will definitely appear,” Sumeet said, with a nod. He pointed to his laptop. “It works just like Windows.”

Once again, something from the top of the refrigerator caught Naveen’s attention. It was a transparent plastic box, which appeared to hold biscuits.

Naveen wolfed down a biscuit. He had barely swallowed the first one, when he crunched into another.

Suddenly, his face contorted into a grimace.

It tasted like rotten meat mixed with sawdust. It was by far the most horrific thing he had put into his mouth. Ever.

Sumeet came over and examined the box. A wide grin spread over his face. “You know what you just ate??”

Naveen opened the faucet and gargled in the sink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, still cringing.

“Dog biscuits!” Sumeet turned the box around, pointing to a small sticker on the lower corner.

Naveen squinted his eyes. “What???”

“Your Israeli Aunty has a dog.”

Naveen spat out again. He remained hunched over, dazed.

“You must have seen the dog hairs on the sofa and carpet,” Sumeet seemed unable to wipe the grin off his face. He gave a slow shake of his head. “I was also hungry, but man, you’ve sunk to another level of desperation.”

Naveen’s eyes bore into the plastic box. “Why is the label so small??”

“My friend, you’ve just crossed the line between man and…”

            Naveen shoved him backwards. “I didn’t know what it was!”

“…canine.” Sumeet doubled over laughing. He touched Naveen’s forehead. “How do you feel?”

Naveen pushed him off. He turned his attention back to the cupboards. He ransacked every part of the kitchen. “I’m still hungry.”

“There are some bones in the trash, from the chicken we ate last week.…”

“Oh get over it dude,” Naveen snapped.

Sumeet beamed at him.

“I’m going to make eggs,” Naveen said. “But first, you’re going to help me wash theses dishes.”

Sumeet took one look at the colossal pile in the sink, and shook his head. “I have a presentation…”

“We can use this dishwasher thing,” Naveen pointed to an appliance with a stainless steel surface.

“We don’t know how to use that,” Sumeet said. “We haven’t been in the US long enough.”

Naveen shot him a look of contempt. “We’re both graduating with Masters degrees, and you’re saying we can’t figure out how to use a dishwasher??”

“Fine,” Sumeet said. He opened the door to the dishwasher, and crouched down. “Pass the dishes.”

One by one, Naveen handed him the items from the sink.

“Try to rinse them a bit,” Sumeet said.

“Why should I do the work? That’s what the thing is for…”

“Dude, it’s already full...”

Naveen handed off another plate. “Just shove it in somewhere.”

“Shove it in somewhere,” Sumeet rolled his eyes. “”That attitude is not going to help you later on in life…”

“Alright, that’s it,” Naveen said. He looked at the empty sink, feeling physically lighter.

Sumeet stood up. “We probably need to put soap.”

“Yea,” Naveen walked across the room.

“Where you going?”

“To the bathroom. You said we needed soap.”

“Dude,” Sumeet said, “Not that soap.”

Naveen half-turned.

“There’s a different soap for having a bath, a different soap for washing clothes, and a different soap for this….”

“What difference does it make?” Naveen spread his arms out. “Soap is soap.”

Sumeet looked through the drawers, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you’re going to survive in the US.”

“Why do they have 20 different types of soap, and 100 different types of cereal, and…” Naveen searched the lower cupboards. He picked up a green, rectangular box. “Here, this says dishwashing detergent.”

He opened it. “It’s some powder.”

“Just don’t eat it dude,” Sumeet grabbed the box. “Yea this is it.”

He saw a small square compartment on the inside of the dishwasher door. He flicked a lever to open it. He put powder inside, and shut it.

He examined the row of buttons on the front. “What setting do we want? There’s mini, light, normal, heavy duty…”

“As usual, 100 options,” Naveen said. “Just go for normal.”

“What water level? Low, medium, high? Also, do we want Rinse Dry or Heat Dry…”

“Normal, dude. Just put normal for everything.”

Sumeet gave him a sideways glance. “Yea, that’s brilliant. How do you come up with such intelligent answers?”

“I’m a genius,” Naveen said.

“Okay, I’m starting it,” Sumeet pushed a button, and stepped back.

“I’m going to bed,” Naveen said. “Wake me when it’s done.”

He collapsed onto the mattress, and fell into an instant slumber.

An hour later, he heard a voice that sounded like a distant echo. “Dude…”

Naveen stirred and turned on his side.

“Dude,” The voice called out. “I think it’s done.”

Naveen half-opened his eyes. Sumeet was sitting at the exact same spot, in front of his laptop.

Moving at a snail’s pace, Naveen crawled out of bed. He opened the dishwasher, took out a plate, and put it on the counter. “Dude, help me unload.”

“Fine,” Sumeet stood up. He picked up a plate. “Does this look clean to you?”

Naveen blinked, and looked at it. There were yellow stains on the edges. He glowered at the dishwasher. “Stupid machine didn’t work.”

“Maybe we have to rinse the dishes before putting them in,” Sumeet said.

“If we wash the dishes, then what’s the point of the dishwasher?”

“Maybe, it’s not a dishwasher,” Sumeet said. “Maybe, it’s a dish verifier.”

“What does that mean??”

“You wash the dishes, put them in, and it verifies that they are properly clean,” Sumeet pointed to the row of buttons. “When the light turns green, the dishes have passed the test, and are certified clean.”

Naveen looked his roommate up and down. His expression was a mixture of bemusement and disdain. “How high are you? How many dog biscuits have you had, ha?”

“Nah man, those are reserved for you.”

Naveen tapped the steel surface of the dishwasher. “We got to make this work. Masters students can’t be so stupid…”

“My masters is in finance, yours is in computers,” Sumeet said. “We don’t have a masters in dishwashing.”

Naveen craned his neck inside the dishwasher. He opened the small compartment. “You think we should put water with the powder?”

“Sure, why not?” Sumeet shrugged.

“Yea,” Naveen nodded to himself. “It can’t just be dry powder. It needs to be a little wet, like a paste.”

He poured water into the compartment, and stirred it with the back of a spoon. He stood up and examined his handiwork. Satisfied, he closed the compartment, and pushed the dishwasher door shut till he heard a click.

“Trying it again,” He announced, and pressed the button.

A few seconds later, a whirring sound started up. The two roommates exchanged a look.

“Good, it’s doing something,” Naveen said. He lay down stomach-first on his bed.

Sumeet spread himself across the couch. “I’m also taking a nap.”

The rhythmic whirring sound got louder and softer at a regular cadence. It was a background track to Naveen’s dreams.

Smack in the middle of a dream, he felt a pair of arms shaking him roughly.

“What? What?” Naveen woke with a start. “Get off me.”

“Dude,” Sumeet hovered over him. “What the hell did you do to the dishwasher?? It’s unleashed a tsunami in here.”

Naveen stepped into the kitchen. His bare feet dipped into the cold water spraying indiscriminately from the steel appliance, and sliding along the floors.

Sumeet said. “I tried to shut it off…”

Naveen moved his hand towards the dishwasher.

“Don’t do that,” Sumeet shouted.

But Naveen yanked the door open.

A deluge of water tumbled out, splashing onto the floor. Both the boys jumped backwards.

“Why the fuck did you do that?” Sumeet yelled. He picked up his laptop and cradled it in his arms.

Naveen stared at the outpouring flood. Water dripped down from his knees to his ankles.

“What are we going to do?” He looked around, flabbergasted. The water flowed from the kitchen to the carpets, and traveled onwards towards the bathroom.

“Start mopping, what else?” Sumeet said. From the side of the refrigerator, he fetched a tall mop with a bundle of strings at its end, which he gave to Naveen. In the cupboard, he found a shorter stick with a sponge at its base, and a bucket.

He looked at Naveen. “Don’t stand there looking clueless. Get mopping.”

Naveen rolled up his pajamas, and ran the mop over the floor.

“I knew we shouldn’t have used the frickin dishwasher,” Sumeet shook his head.

Naveen looked dolefully towards the fridge. “I’m still hungry.”

“So eat,” Sumeet gestured towards the plastic biscuit box.

“Shut up and mop,” Naveen barked.

It was going to be a long, long day.
-->

The Shoes

“The Reebok Crossfit Nano,” The salesman twirled the shoe in one hand with the consummate ease of someone who played this game a hundred times every day. “These are soft from inside and sturdy from outside.”
Rahul allowed the salesman to slip the shoe on his right foot, then the left. He flexed his toes, as the salesman tied the laces.
“Walk around and see how it feels, sir.”
Rahul went to the mirror, and peered at the shoe. It was a sleek black-and-grey piece with a flat sole.
“How is it, beta?” His mother called out. She was seated on the leather-cushioned stool, wiping the sweat from her brow with the ends of her dupatta. The a/c in the shoe shop provided scant relief from the muggy summer heat.
Rahul paced around the store.
“It’s looking very smart on you sir,” The salesman said.
“Are these durable?” Rahul asked. “How long do they last?”
“The soles are made from the latest high-abrasion rubber. They’ll last 4-5 years, no problems.”
Rahul touched the sides of the shoe.
“It’s our most popular model,” The salesman said. “I sold 10 pairs in the last two days only.”
Rahul sat down, and turned to his mother. “What do you think, mumma?”
“Looks-wise, it is nice. If you feel it’s comfortable, then take it.”
“The front feels kinda cramped,” Rahul said.
“That’s normal,” The salesman said. “It will automatically loosen up.”
“What do you mean automatically loosen??”
“Sir, in the beginning they feel tight, but after wearing it a few times, the shoe opens up.”
Rahul shot the salesman a suspicious look. He stood up and walked a few more paces. He shook his head. “No, I’m not comfortable.”
If the salesman was disappointed, he didn’t show it. “No problems, sir. I’ll show you something looser that you might find more comfortable.”
“This is the 4th shop and the 11th shoe you’ve tried,” Mumma said, after the salesman went off.
“What can I do?? None of them are good…”
“We left after lunch and now it’s dinner time.”
“There’s been some issue with all the shoes I’ve seen…and these people take so long to bring new shoes.”
Mumma shook her head, and went back to her phone.
Rahul’s eyes wandered to the street outside. The always-bustling Colaba Causeway teemed with pedestrians and footpath hawkers selling everything from cheap sunglasses and selfie sticks to food items like vada pav and samosas.
A short, dark boy walked with a steel bowl in hand. He wore a frayed t-shirt that extended to his knees. He tugged at passing shoppers, extending his bowl towards them with imploring eyes.
Rahul saw that the boy had no shoes on his feet. He didn’t seem to care though. His eyes continuously scanned for targets to approach.
“This is the Adidas Ultraboost,” The salesman reappeared, holding a blue shoe with a thick sole. Three purple lines ran down both sides of the shoe, signaling its brand.
Rahul put them on, and walked around.
“So?” Mom asked. “How’s this one?
“Umm….”
“Still not comfortable?”
“It’s better than the last one,” Rahul said. “But not good enough.”
Mom said nothing. Her fingers typed away on her phone.
The salesmen looked from Rahul to his mom, and then back to Rahul. Do something about this son of yours, his eyes seemed to say.
“I’ll show you one more shoe,” He said. “It’s very popular with our customers.”
He came back with a high, white shoe with gold and purple streaks around the heels, and a red tick on one side.
“Nike Air SuperMax,” He announced, and put them on Rahul’s feet. “There’s a mesh in front for ventilation, an extra layer of cushioning inside, and Nike’s patented ‘air’ technology to make it feel soft and flexible.”
Rahul walked another round. By now, the store was nearly empty.
“How does it feel sir?” The salesman asked, an undertone of resignation in his voice.
“Not bad,” Rahul said.
The salesman’s expression brightened. “Nike Air is a classic shoe, and this latest model has all their upgraded technology.”
Rahul pressed the toe-end with his fingers. The fit seemed just right. Not too loose, not too tight.
“You like it??” Mom asked.
Rahul nodded. “This one is fine.”
“Great, then buy it and finish it,” The relief was palpable in Mumma’s voice. She turned to the salesman. “Pack this one.”
“Yes maam,” The salesman beamed. He looked at Rahul. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy this shoe, sir.”
Mother and son walked out after a six-hour long shoe hunt. The Nike Air SuperMax was the winner.
****
The mustached tea vendor fiddled with his gas stove. He poured steaming hot, light brown tea from a large steel vessel into short glasses.
Next to him stood a dark-complexioned boy, clad in faded black shorts and a white banyan. Or rather what was once a white banyan, but now reduced to a brownish-blackish composite of filth, dirt and grime. Its color matched that of a thick scar that ran down the length of his left cheek.
“Rajju,” The tea vendor barked at the boy. “Take three glasses to the Maruti over there.”
Rajju picked up a cloth, and slung it over his shoulder. He arranged the glasses on a steel tray and served them to the customers waiting in the car.
The vendor’s gruff voice rang out nonstop.
“Two more glasses there, Rajju…”
“Did you collect the money from the blue Innova earlier?”
“Clean these glasses…”
“Move fast, Rajju…what are you doing…”
Back and forth, he trod barefoot on the uneven pavement. The same cloth used to wipe glasses also wiped the relentless deluge of sweat streaming down his slender arms and scared face. The sun beat down on him, burning his body from the inside out.
There’s a saying amongst the street dwellers of this city. May God deliver me from the bite of the tiger, the sting of the cobra, and the heat of the Mumbai summer.
“Take four glasses, Rajju…”
“Don’t forget the money...”
“You’re not cleaning the glasses properly…”
Back and forth. Up and down. Round and round.
Five long hours later, the sun finally waned and Rajju’s shift was over. He collapsed in a heap on the footpath. He massaged the soles of his feet. New blisters appeared every day, and the old ones got bigger.
Absently, he took out a red yo-yo from his pocket. A serendipitous discovery on the side of the road one fine winter evening, it was the one thing he always carried. His most prized possession. His only prized possession.
He wrapped his fist around the yo-yo, hurled it forward, then tugged the string to reel it back in. A technique he had mastered over the years.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed something that made him turn.
A shiny, white shoe with a big red tick on the side. Gold and purple streaks adorned the heels.
Rajju didn’t look up at the bearer of the shoes. His eyes locked onto the white wonder, whose every step was accompanied by a slight squeak, and seemed to exude a certain sparkle around it.
“Oye Rajju, time to leave,” A voice called from behind him. It was Nandu, his friend who worked at the bicycle shop.
Rajju ignored him, transfixed by the shoe.
An elbow poked into his midriff. “Get up, Rajju.”
“You go, I’ll come later,” Rajju snapped.
“You’ll miss the Borivalli train, then you’ll have to catch the Virar fast.”
Rajju glared at him. When he turned back, the white shoes had squeaked away to the end of the road, and were turning the corner.
“Chal, let’s go.”
Rajju felt his arm being yanked up. He clambered to his feet. He strained his eyes.
But the white wonder was gone…
****
It was that time of the year. Results time. The time when atheists turned believers, when mothers performed poojas with colorful diyas and scented agarpatis to appease their favorite gods, when the silliest of superstitions gained traction: lucky t-shirt, lucky shoes, lucky pen, lucky glasses.
Rahul sat in the backseat of the car, his eyes glued to his phone. He toggled between WhatsApp groups, and scrolled through his Facebook newsfeed.
They say that in prison, a man will do almost anything to keep himself busy. An engineering student waiting for his semester exam results was no less than a prisoner waiting for his death sentence.
“Should I drop you off here, Rahul bhaiya?” The driver asked. “The car can’t go all the way to the mandir.”
“Here is fine,” Rahul said.
“I’ll wait on the main road. Call me when you’re out.“
“No, you go home. I’ll walk back.”
The driver glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “I can find a spot…”
“It’s just 10 minutes walk. And Mumma will probably need the car for something.”
“Are you sure, Rahul bhaiya?”
Rahul nodded, and stepped out of the car. He shut the door behind him.
The narrow lane leading up to Mahalaxmi Mandir was packed with people from all over the city, waiting in long lines. Stores sold orange and marigold flower garlands, mithai and ladoos, framed pictures of various Hindu Gods.
An assortment of smells filled the air. The jasmine and lotus from the flowers, the sweet scent of the mithai infused with sugar and ghee, the smell of incense sticks and candles, sweat from the armpits of the waiting devotees.
Rahul reached the front of the line, where a flight of steps led to the temple. There he saw a sea of footwear dumped together, everything from slippers and sandals to sneakers and leather boots.
He removed his shoes. The Nike Air SuperMax had become a stock favorite of his.
Two boys dressed in tattered t-shirts were seated on the ground nearby.
“Leave them with us, bhaiya,” One of them called out.
“Ha bhaiya, we’ll watch your shoes,” The other boy smiled at Rahul.
Rahul looked back at them.
Meanwhile, a man who was in the line behind him, took off his leather shoes, tossed them on the ground and walked onwards.
“Leave them here, bhaiya,” The boy repeated.
Rahul placed his shoes on the ground. He handed the boy a five-rupee note. “Watch them properly.”
“You don’t take any tension, bhaiya.”
Rahul walked up the flight of steps to the main mandir area where three idols of Goddesses sat on silver pedestals. They were adorned with nose rings, gold bangles, and pearl necklaces. Their palms were raised in blessing.
Rahul felt himself being pushed and shoved from all sides. He put a twenty-rupee note in the donation box, and closed his eyes.
God, I don’t want a first-class. I don’t even want a second-class. I just want to pass this time. Especially Electronics. That Electronics paper was an absolute bomb. Curse the bastard who set that paper.
Sorry God. I just want to pass, that’s it. Please God.
An elbow rammed into Rahul’s chest as more people swarmed into the mandir.
“Move along, move along,” One of the mandir staff commanded.
As he walked down the steps, he noticed something at the far end of the road that made him stop dead in his tracks.
Two boys walking with white shoes in their hands.
“Stop!” Rahul shouted. He dashed down the remaining steps, two at a time. “Stop those haraams.”
Most devotees in line didn’t give him a second glance, as he raced along the lane. He gestured wildly to a hawaldar in brown khakhi uniform, standing at the end of the lane.
The hawaldar had a bemused expression.
“Stop those boys,” Rahul screamed, and ran faster.
Next moment, he was airborne. He landed stomach-first into the concrete pavement.
“Aaaargh,” Rahul yelped.
Searing pain shot through his right knee. He rolled over, and brought both his hands to rub the knee.
“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”
He lay there for a few minutes. Wincing, cursing and massaging his knee.
A hand extended in front of him. Rahul accepted it, and rose unsteadily to his feet.
“Are you alright, boss?” A voice asked.
Rahul nodded. He stepped forward gingerly, testing the knee. He brought out his phone from his pocket.
The glass screen was smashed into bits. The power wouldn’t come on.
“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”
He inched ahead, trying to put his body weight on the left leg. He heard his own voice in his head.
“No, you go home, I’ll walk back. It’s only 10 minutes walk.”
He shook his head, and took another step forward.
The pavement was rough and uneven and dirty. With every step, he felt stones, fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and god-knows-what-else poke at the soles of his feet. With every step, his toes scraped against the cracks on the ground. With every step, his feet got filthier.
God, how he missed his Nike Air SuperMax…
****
Rajju sat on the footpath, propped up against the wall. It was twilight hour, but there was no evening breeze, no respite under the trees.
Another day, another long shift scurrying about in the sun, serving the chai-lovers of Mumbai. His t-shirt smelled of tea, his shorts smelled of tea, the pores of his skin smelled of tea.
Rajju swung his red yo-yo back and forth. He stared at the sky, dreaming of cold droplets of rain falling on his body.
When would the monsoon start? When would this summer be over??
His throat was parched. He felt like the sun would vaporize this whole city and everyone in it.
A commotion from the other side of the road distracted him. He looked up.
Two boys were running as fast as they could. Behind them was a hawaldar. The signal turned red, and the boys darted across the road in between the halted cars. The hawaldar labored to stay on their tail. His protruding round belly heaved up and down.
The boys ran past Rajju.
“Wait till I get my hands on you,” The hawaldar yelled, banging his stick on the ground. “I‘ll thrash you properly.”
One of the boys flung something to the side of the road. The chase continued, and the boys and their pursuer receded from Rajju’s sight.
Something about the discarded object caught his attention. He walked towards it.
He froze like a statue. He couldn’t believe it.
The White Wonder!
He looked around. The signal turned green, and vehicles on the road honked, cut lanes and chugged forward.
It was stolen. Obviously.
But still…
The white wonder had occupied his dreams for weeks after that initial sighting. Then the drudgery of the daily routine purged his dreams, like it always did.
And yet, here they were. Right here. For real.
It had to be fate. This was his destiny. This was what God wanted.
It had to be…
Rajju picked up the shoes, and walked along the footpath. He walked for a full kilometer, before parking himself at a quiet corner.
He put his right foot in, then the left. He stared at the laces. He fumbled to put them together in a knot, but it didn’t work. He tried making a loop and putting the ends through it, but it ended in a mess.
What are you supposed to do with these hanging threads??
Rajju gave up on them. He stood up, and put one foot forward. He looked left and right, and left again. He took another step ahead.
The blisters on his feet felt cushioned and cajoled. He couldn’t feel the ground at all. It was like gliding.
He ran his hand along the red tick on the side. He touched the mesh in the front.
With every step, the smile on his face grew broader. With every step, the swagger in his walk became more pronounced. With every step, he felt ten feet taller.
Shoes were such an incredible invention. A gift from god…
****