I went and joined the tail end of the serpentine queue leading up to the Speed Post counter at the post office. The queue was long and about to spill over to the pavement. Not that I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was armed with earphones to help me concentrate in peaceful boredom on my smart phone playing out the audio version of the Economist. I listened to the pros and cons of Germany’s trade surplus, Donald Trump’s latest spell of insanity, Cornelis’ prize-winning vegetables in Ngabang, Mr. Hapilon’s shelter in Marawi and so on and so forth.
Peace, however, was disturbed unexpectedly. “Non-peace” had arrived in the shape of a youngish bozo. He was snarling at me I observed, but strangely enough I couldn’t hear a word he said. I wondered for a split second if I was in the midst of a surrealistic dream. You know, the sort of dream sequences that great film makers, such as Fellini or Bergman, weave into their movies for the sole purpose of making you feel insecure about your intelligence.
I stared at him open mouthed till I realised that the earphones had turned me deaf to happenings within close range even as I was hearing about events occurring in remote South China Sea, both loudly and clearly. I removed my hearing hurdles therefore and switched my attention to the young man’s grievances.
“You have taken up my place,” he accused.
I looked behind me and found that I was still the solitary person guarding the rear of the queue. “But I am at the end of the queue! How could I have possibly usurped you?”
“You have,” he replied haughtily. “I was the last person in the queue and now you have taken up my place.”
He sounded as though he was trying to establish a territorial right and not his last position in the waiting list. Being peace loving, I moved back a few inches to accommodate him. He warned me not to disturb the order. “You are behind me,” he hissed. “Remember this.” Saying so, he disappeared wherever he had appeared from. I continued to guard the rear, quickly closing up the gap I had created for his use. But I was uncomfortably conscious that the rear that I appeared to be guarding was not exactly the rear that I was meant to guard. Which rear was invisible at the moment, but could pay surprise visits whenever it wished.
I plugged back my earphones. A woman with a perfect British accent greeted me with news about sex workers in Colombia. I decided to switch gear and shift over to YouTube to listen to the Schubert Serenade as I watched the faces that I faced inside the post office.
One in particular caught my attention. He sported a sparsely vegetated, large round head and rushed around a matching round table, clockwise at times and anti-clockwise at others. A mound of timeworn papers lay on the table and he took short breaks to feverishly sort them out. A grumbling crowd chased him, some clockwise and the rest anti-clockwise. I tried to figure out without success what the round chap was doing for his followers around the round table. It occurred to me, not without a tinge of jealousy, that I had never been sought after this way.
Schubert continued to entertain me in the meantime.
And then I noticed posters on the walls. One said that you needed to link your postal savings bank account to your Aadhaar number, or else unknown things could happen to you. I happily recalled that I possessed no such account. Yet another said that it was the Speed Post service that was keeping the country together, but that it wouldn’t remain open after 3 PM. This was disconcerting, I mean the possibility that the country was getting ready to fall apart after 3 PM.
Schubert took leave as this new piece of intelligence invaded my mind. Worriedly, I checked my watch. It was ten past one. Life has its pleasant surprises too I thought. I still had close to two hours left on earth. Peace returned along with Schubert, since I forgot to ask where Speed Post parcels were likely to be delivered once the earth ceased to exist. I live in a fool’s paradise I suppose.
Someone behind me patted my shoulder. I looked around in mild alarm. He was a shortish chap, once again pretty young, but not snarling. Obligingly, I removed my earphones. Schubert, feeling neglected, began to vibrate inside my trouser pocket in agony as the man who didn’t snarl, actually smiled at me. I smiled back too with an amiable “Ah! How are you today!” expression, but had no idea who he might be. He responded audibly. “I am behind you,” he observed. This fresh new “behind” related allegation made me lose a heartbeat, for there was no room for doubt concerning his assertion. Before I could agree with him though, he too disappeared with an “I will be back here later” message. This undoubtedly meant that should anyone else come and stand behind me, I was in charge of explaining to her or him that she or he was in fact not standing behind me.
I don’t think I had found myself sandwiched between two persons ever before in my life, both of whom were invisible. It was a case of disappearing front and behind in Perry Mason language. The situation was unenviable. I went back to Schubert, however, and continued to watch the visible waves of perspiring humanity once again. There were wooden benches where people were dozing. I had no idea why you needed to walk over all the way to the post office to enjoy your siesta. I vaguely recognized one of them. I stared at him trying to recall where I had seen him in the recent past. The man returned my gaze and smiled. The smile was unmistakably familiar. Who could it be?
The man was helpful. “I am behind you,” he reminded me. The man behind me, even though not visible behind me, was not exactly invisible either. He was riding a bench, under a rickety fan, while I, his trusted lieutenant in the infantry, was holding the fort at the end of the queue.
In the meantime, the queue moved forward along with me immersed in the Schubert serenade. It was around 2.15 PM when I found myself to be the third person from the counter, not counting the invisible man behind whom I stood. He materialized though by the time I had moved up to the second position and taken out the earphones, ready to confabulate with the girl at the counter.
“You are behind me,” he snarled. As with the other man, I had no recollection of his face, but I recognized his trademark snarl. I let him squeeze in without a murmur. I am a peaceful person. I think I have already said that.
Soon, he faced the girl seated on the other side of the counter in a violet shirt and black trousers. Quite pretty in fact. She weighed his envelope and told him that the charge was Rs. 53. He produced Rs. 60 from his pocket, which the girl refused to accept.
“Sorry, no change available,” said Girlie.
“Where do I get three rupees from?” replied Snarlie, somewhat unsnarling.
“Go out and get the change from nearby shops,” replied Girlie.
“But there are no shops nearby,” Snarlie had rapidly melted and was close to whimpering now.
The invisible man behind me, the one who smiled, had now turned visible behind me and he began to offer his opinion as well. “Don’t delay us, come tomorrow with the change,” suggested Smilie.
Snarlie snarled at Smilie. Girlie though didn’t budge. I looked at my watch. It was half past two. I was getting fidgety, when divine help intervened. Like oil in Arabia, I struck coins inside my trouser pocket. In my left pocket to be precise. With an exclamation of hallelujah, I extracted them and offered three rupees worth of coins to Snarlie in broad daylight. Plenty of witnesses.
After this, the matter was settled in a jiffy. Snarly disappeared soon after as was his wont. Before he did so, however, he looked back at me and produced a mixture of a growl and a grunt. In appreciation I think.
This brought me face to face with Girlie. Except that it didn’t. When I turned my face from the disappearing Snarlie towards the counter, I found much to my horror that Girlie too had disappeared. The day was reserved for vanishing people. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes to three and the counter still empty. I stood there dumbfounded as the seconds ticked away. Schubert too was angrily protesting inside my pocket. The right pocket, for if you remember, the left pocket was where coins tinkled.
I looked everywhere. No girlie alas. I noticed instead a middle aged woman sitting inside a kiosk that said “Stamps” in bold red letters. Did people buy stamps anymore these days to post letters? What strange commodity was the woman selling? A closer look at the window resolved the mystery. A typed notice was pasted there. “Gangajal,” it announced. In two sizes, 200 litres and 500 litres. Not Bisleri mind you, but Gangajal! To wash away your mortal sins. A postal route to Heaven?
I began to pray. Sweet God, I will offer you a 200 litre bottle of Gangajal to make Girlie reappear.
The prayer was answered instantaneously. She walked out of the adjacent room from behind a curtain that had last been washed around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny, accompanied by two zealous male colleagues. “What medicine did you consume?” one of them queried. She whispered a reply. The other one reacted, “That’s the last tablet you should have tried. It makes you feel sleepy.”
Absolutely correct, I thought to myself, when super-potent Gangajal was easily available. Postal employees might even be offered a discount.
I didn’t have to wait much longer. Girlie handed over the receipt to me somnolently and I rushed towards the Gangajal kiosk to stick to my promise to God, only to discover that the lady in charge of Gangajal had vanished as well! The lights in the kiosk had been switched off, its door was locked and a Sold Out notice snickered!
In the meantime 3 PM had arrived and left, with not a drop of Gangajal available in the vicinity to hold back cataclysms. And if you are wondering how come you are still alive, I have a simple question for you to consider.
Who told you that you were still alive?