Readers Write In #264: Suppley: A Short Story

Posted on September 9, 2020

10


(by CV Nitin)

This short story will be put up in Chapters, over the next few days.

Chapter One

08

Nikhil stares hard at the number but it does not change. It sits smugly on the display panel and stares back at him. He presses a button. Nothing happens. What is going on in the eighth floor, he wonders. Is the lift stuck? He waits for another minute.

Fuck it, he says.

He turns left and starts to climb the emergency staircase to his grandfather’s apartment on the fifth floor. It is night and the building is fast asleep. Nikhil hums a song tunelessly.

Fifteen minutes and hundred and seven steps later, he stops at a door marked 503. He takes out a key but it slips through his fingers and falls to the ground. He picks it up and tries again.

The door swings open inwards. He steps in as quietly as he can.

Nikhil bro, what are you doing here? A voice comes from behind him.

Nikhil swings around. It is Dhruv, the pimple faced teen next door. Dhruv is a twelfth-class science student and a first class bore. He chatters about every stupid thing under the sky and doesn’t leave until Nikhil forces him.

Shhh…. Keep your voice down, man. Nikhil says. My grandfather is sleeping inside.

Isn’t your grandfather deaf? Dhruv asks.

No, you idiot. He only pretends to be deaf because he doesn’t want to hear your constant jabbering.

Dhruv is surprised but not too much. Now, he pretends to be deaf and ignores the insult.

Can I come in, he asks but he is already inside.

Nikhil sighs. What do you want?

Nothing bro. Just wondering what you are still doing in Bangalore.

What do you mean? You know I am here for the summer holidays.

But you have your suppley exam, no.

Yeah, on the twenty second.

Today is the twenty second.

Nikhil pulls out his phone. It says: 12:52 in bold digits. And below that: Wednesday, 22 May.

Dread builds up like a big, gravelly rock in his stomach. He has a supplementary exam at nine in the morning.

In Hyderabad.

Six hundred kilometres away.

That means, he needs to be at the exam centre in exactly eight hours, eight minutes and thirty-two seconds.

Tick.

Eight hours, eight minutes and thirty-one seconds.

Tick.

Eight hours, eight minutes and thirty seconds.

Tick.

Snap out of it, man.

Why didn’t you tell me earlier! Nikhil says.

I thought you already left. Dhruv replies. Besides, you strictly told me not to call you. Even if the entire building was on fire, you said.

Nikhil scans the different travel apps on his phone. The first flight is at 8:30 in the morning. That would be too late. There are no trains or buses either.

What about outstation cabs? He asks.

Nothing is available. All Ola and Uber drivers are doing that strike, remember?

That’s still going on? Nikhil asks.

Yeah, no online cabs till the end of the month at least.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, this shouldn’t be happening. Nikhil paces across the room. How could I forget the fucking suppley, he wonders out loud.

You should have put a reminder on your phone, Dhruv suggests.

Thanks, Dhruv. I’ll remember that for my next suppley exam, says Nikhil; his voice dripping with sarcasm.

He lights up a cigarette and takes a hard drag. Deep in thought, he stares at the coconut tree  outside the building. There is a car parked right under it. That guy shouldn’t park there, Nikhil thinks.

Coconuts keep dropping from the tree and in the past month itself, they shattered the front glass of at least four different cars.

Nikhil starts to turn but then he does a double take. The car. He looks at it closely. It is a taxi.

Taxi! He exclaims.

What? Dhruv asks.

There is a taxi right here, he says, laughing in a sudden burst of excitement. Dhruv comes to the window and takes a look. A white car with yellow plates sits idle right outside the apartment building. Nikhil rushes to his bedroom and stuffs his college bag with some essentials: a pair of clothes, tooth paste and brush, deodorant, and a water bottle. He wonders whether he should wake up his grandfather and inform him. He decides against it.

Tell my grandfather that I left, okay. Nikhil tells Dhruv.

Now? Dhruv asks.

Not now man. In the morning when you see him.

Sure bro. You can count on me, says Dhruv.

Nikhil puts on his Converse sneakers and steps out of the main door. Alright then, he says and rushes to the lift. It is still on the eighth floor.

Fuck it, he says and runs down the steps.

Chapter Two

Nikhil raps lightly on the car window and peers inside. It is completely dark. He knocks again. Harder this time. There is a slight movement. A light comes on and a tired stubbly face emerges from the darkness. He rolls down the window.

I need a ride, says Nikhil.

Where, asks the driver, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

Hyderabad.

The driver stops rubbing. He turns and looks closely at Nikhil.

I’m not joking or anything, says Nikhil. I have an exam in the morning.

And you remembered just now? The driver gets out of the car and stretches.

Can you take me?

Do you have money?

How much?

Fifteen thousand.

That’s too much.

The driver shrugs. Take it or leave it, he says, scratching his stomach.

Nikhil counts the money in his wallet. It comes to ten thousand, two hundred.

Here’s ten thousand rupees. That’s all I have, Nikhil says, pulling out a bunch of notes from his wallet.

You know that Hyderabad is quite far from Bangalore, right. The driver says.

I think ten thousand is fair, says Nikhil. The driver thinks for a moment. He takes the money and counts it.

Get in, he says.

In less than half an hour, the taxi leaves the blinking city lights far behind. It goes along the near-empty highway at a steady pace. An old Kannada song plays on the radio.

Is this the fastest you can go? Nikhil asks, looking at the speedometer.

I am already going twenty above the speed limit. The driver replies

Yeah, but you can go faster.

I am telling you, you will reach Hyderabad well in time.

Not at the speed you are going. Nikhil says.

The driver opens his mouth to reply but he stops himself. A steely expression clouds his face.

He changes the gear and the car shoots forward at 160 kmph.

That’s what I am talking about. Nikhil says, rapping the glove compartment hard. He lowers

the window, puts his head out and hoots loudly.

Doesn’t that feel grea–

BANG!!

The car swerves violently from right to left.

What was that? Nikhil asks.

The driver does not answer. He is struggling to keep the car steady on the road. Thick, black smoke emerges from under the engine hood. The car sputters and slowly comes to a halt at the edge of the highway.

Chapter Three

Nikhil drinks from his water bottle and scans the road. A Ford Ecosport is visible in the horizon.

He stretches his right hand out; signalling the Ecosport to stop. It doesn’t. It tears past Nikhil without even bothering to slow down for a second.

Asshole, Nikhil mutters. He comes back to the broken-down taxi.

Any luck? asks the driver.

Nope, replies Nikhil. What about you?

What do you think? The driver says, wiping his hands on a greasy towel. The engine is totally busted. I have to get it back to a garage to find out how badly it is damaged.

Um, what about my money?

How do you think I am going to repair the car? The driver asks as if it was the most logical thing in the world.

But we had a deal. Nikhil protests.

That ten thousand you gave is not going to be enough to repair the engine. So, you know what, I should actually charge you more.

Nikhil is about to argue but from the corner of his eye, he sees another car coming. It is an SUV this time. Nikhil picks up his bag and walks to the centre of the road. This time, he stands directly in the car’s path; hoping that the bold move would get him a lift.

Nikhil raises his hand but the SUV barrels down towards him at more than a hundred kilometres per hour. Nikhil is terrified. Will it stop or run him over? As it comes nearer, the latter seems more likely since the driver shows no sign of slowing down.

At the last moment, Nikhil steps out of the SUV’s path and it shoots past him like a bullet.

Fuck you man! Your car is empty. Nikhil screams at the top of his lungs. I was just asking for a lift, not your fucking wife.

He continues to rant in the middle of the road, not realising that a big lorry is coming up right behind him. It honks loudly but Nikhil is not listening. Right now, his brain is too busy conjuring the most outlandish curses.

The honking continues. Nikhil turns around and finds himself staring at two giant balls of light that are only getting bigger and bigger.

Holy fuck, I’m going to die, Nikhil thinks. He nearly pees his pants. The lorry screeches to a halt.

The driver jumps out and comes to the front. He sees Nikhil crouching down, head bent, eyes closed and hands over ears. His face is just a few inches away from the lorry’s right headlight.

The lorry driver bends towards Nikhil and touches him on the arm.

Are you alright? He asks.

Nikhil flinches so hard that his head bangs into the lorry.

Ouch!! He stumbles up and looks at the lorry driver with one eye closed. His head hurts like mad.

You are lucky. I thought you got crushed under there, says the driver.

Well, I am not. Nikhil says, taking a good look at the driver. He is a wiry, young man in a red sleeveless t-shirt and a blue lungi. He looks roughly the same age as Nikhil.

What are you even doing in the middle of the road?

Trying to catch a ride.

Where, to heaven? The driver asks, laughing.

Ha-ha, very funny. Nikhil says.

Where are you going?

Hyderabad.

Oh, good. I’m headed there too. I can take you there if you don’t mind travelling in a transport lorry.

Nikhil thinks for a moment. Are you sure? He asks.

Yeah, you can sit in the front with me. No problem.

But I need to reach by eight.

I’ll take you by seven, the driver says confidently, hopping into his seat. Nikhil just looks at him.

C’mon get in.

Nikhil opens the passenger side door and gets in. The lorry smells strongly of cabbage.

I am Sampath, but everyone calls me ‘Driver Sampath’. The lorry driver says. He stretches his hand.

Is it alright if I call you just Sampath? Nikhil asks, reluctantly shaking Sampath’s hand.

Haha, of course you can.

Sampath starts the truck and looks at Nikhil. You know what, you are going to remember this journey for a long, long time, he says pleasantly

I’m sure I will. Nikhil says, not feeling pleasant at all.

Chapter Four

At around three in the morning, the lorry leaves Karnataka and enters into Andhra Pradesh.

The kilometres slip away easily under the lorry’s heavy tires and with every passing minute, Nikhil sees a new white and yellow stone marker on the side of the road. Each one tells him that Hyderabad is getting closer and closer.

So, what exam do you have? Sampath asks. Nikhil has just finished narrating the entire night’s journey to the young lorry driver.

Physics.

What’s that? Sampath asks. Nikhil thinks for a moment, wondering how he can best explain the concept of physics.

Um, physics is about matter, motion, energy and all those things… Nikhil says, moving his hands stupidly in the air. The driver has a blank expression. Nikhil looks out his window. The dark night sky is pockmarked with stars.

We also study about the sun, moon and stars. Nikhil says.

Hmm… that sounds interesting. Sampath says.

Well, at least some of it is. Nikhil replies.

You know, I don’t talk about this to anyone but I find it all very fascinating. Like, when I drive during the day – I don’t do that very often though – because I drive nights mostly. But yeah, when I drive during the day, many times I wonder about how the sun goes from one end to the other every single day. There is no holiday. No Diwali, Dusshera for the sun, he says, laughing.

Umm actually, it is the other way round. The sun doesn’t travel. It is the earth that goes around the sun instead. The driver blinks at him.

What?

Yeah, I mean, the sun is the centre of the solar system and all the other planets like earth and Mars revolve around it. Nikhil says making random shapes with his hands in the air again.

Sampath looks at him like he is mad.

The sun goes from east to west. At night he sleeps in the ocean. He wakes up in the morning and again goes from east to west. Sampath says. It is now his turn to make random shapes in the air.

Please tell me you are joking, says Nikhil.

What’s there to joke? The driver says, seriously. I mean everyone knows this stuff.

Next you’ll tell me that the earth is flat, Nikhil says, rolling his eyes.

Of course it is flat.

That’s not true.

Listen, there are four giant elephants at the four corners, you know, like North, south, East and West. These elephants stand under the earth and carry it on their backs.

Alright, in that case, where are the elephants standing, asks Nikhil.

In the underworld, obviously.

The driver takes his eyes off the road and looks at Nikhil like he is quite dumb. How come you don’t know any of this stuff? Maybe that’s why you failed your exam.

Nikhil has a thousand things to say. But at the same time, he is at a complete loss of words.

He simply looks at the driver and shakes his head. He pulls out his earphones, plugs them into his ears and closes his eyes.

The lorry plods ahead at a steady pace.

Chapter Five

Wake up.

Hey, wake up. The driver shakes Nikhil’s arm. Nikhil gets up with a start. Did we reach? He asks. His mouth feels sticky like tar.

Not yet. Come, let’s go and have some chai.

They have stopped at a brightly lit dhaba. Nikhil looks at his watch. The time is 3:40 AM. He gets down and follows the driver.

He sits at a table and looks around. Despite the late hour, the dhaba is quite full; mostly with other truck drivers. Sampath comes with two cups of tea.

This is the best chai you will get on this highway. I always stop here, he says. Nikhil takes a sip. Sampath is right. The tea is quite good. They silently drink their tea for a couple of minutes, lost in their own thoughts.

Motherfucker!

Nikhil looks up surprised. What happened, he asks Sampath.

Sampath does not answer. His eyes are somewhere else. Nikhil follows his gaze. There is a huge, beefy guy at a nearby table, calmly polishing off a plate of chicken biryani.

See that guy over there? Sampath asks.

Yeah, what about him. Nikhil replies.

That fucker slept with my wife.

Nikhil splutters and tea spills out of his mouth onto the table. Sampath doesn’t seem to care.

His fists are clenched tightly, and his eyes burn like hot coals. The big guy is now looking at them. His thick jaws stop chewing for a moment to give them a shady leer. This gesture is enough to rile up Sampath.

Bloody bastard, he says, leaping up violently. And before Nikhil realises what’s happening, Sampath is at the other table, raining down blows on the fat fornicator.

The brawl turns into a spectacle as the two men roll on the ground punching and kicking each other. Everyone in the dhaba stop what they are doing. They form a circle around the two men and cheer on loudly. Nikhil does not know what to do. He pushes through the crowd and comes up front. He is sure that Sampath is going to get crushed by the fat guy.

Stop it, please. He says but his voice is drowned out in the commotion. He takes a deep breath and jumps into the fray, trying to push both men away from each other. But he is no match for them.

Don’t interfere sir, Sampath tells Nikhil, shrugging his hand free from his grasp. Nikhil tries again in vain. In the madness of the fight, he finds himself right in between both the fighters.

And in a flash, he sees a huge fist in close up before it makes contact with his nose.

Whack!!

Nikhil feels something crack in his face. But before he can register the pain, the world around him rotates and dissolves into a dark, empty void. The last thing he sees is the hard ground rushing up to meet his face.

Chapter Six

The world is all blurry and woozy as Nikhil flits back into consciousness. Images fade in and fade out in slow motion. A face appears close to him.

Can you hear me? It asks. Nikhil can hear him but he doesn’t respond. He simply sits there, dazed. Someone splashes his face with a jug full of water. Nikhil blinks a couple of times and when he reopens his eyes, everything seems clear. There is a policeman standing in front of him with a jug in his hand.

What’s your name, the policeman asks.

Nikhil.

He looks around. The dhaba is nearly empty now. Sampath and the fatty are squatting a few feet away. Both of them are bloody but the fat guy looks worse.

Are you okay, Sampath whispers to him.

Quiet, commands the policeman. He turns to Nikhil.

What’s your involvement in all this?

I didn’t do anything sir. Those two were fighting and I tried to stop them. One of them hit me in the face and I passed out. After that, I don’t know what happened.

Were you drinking? The police asks.

No sir. I only drank chai.

Well, we shall find out at the station.

Station?

Yeah. This is a criminal case now.

Please let me go, sir, pleads Nikhil. I promise you I didn’t do anything. I just tried to stop the fight, ask them.

Now you know, every good deed comes with a price. The cop says coolly. He takes out a cigarette and starts smoking.

But sir –

What part of ‘NO’ did you not understand, the cop shouts. I already told you, you are not going anywhere. So shut your mouth and sit there until I tell you.

Nikhil shuts his mouth and sits silently. The cop stares at him. Nikhil looks back. A couple of minutes pass.

Can I go to the toilet. I need to pee, says Nikhil.

Do it over there, right where I can see you. The policeman says, pointing to an area a few feet outside the dhaba’s entrance. Nikhil simply looks at him.

Is there a problem, the policeman asks. Nikhil shakes his head and walks out. He starts to pee.

The policeman turns his attention back towards the two lorry drivers.

How the fuck did you beat up this fat bastard, man? He asks. I mean, he is clearly much bigger and stronger than you.

Looks are not everything. Sampath spits out. I have more muscle strength than him. It is not visible because –

He continues to talk but Nikhil is not listening anymore. As he zips up, his eyes fall on a bike.

It is close to him. And surprisingly, the keys are right there in the ignition.

Nikhil looks back. The cop is sitting on a table with his back towards him, talking to the driver.

The discussion has moved on to AIDS and its prevalence in the lorry driver community.

Nikhil slowly walks towards the bike. It is an old Pulsar. There is a ‘POLICE’ sticker on the front in big red letters. He gets on the bike and turns the key. It lights up silently. Nikhil looks for the electric start button. It is not there.

Fuck.

With a huge amount of trepidation, he kickstarts the bike. Nothing happens. He kickstarts it again. The bike sounds like it is about to start but it dies down again. Nikhil looks back with big eyes. His heart is thudding. The policeman looks at him and realises what is happening.

Stop right there! He shouts, jumping off the table and running out.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, Nikhil whispers under his breath. He kickstarts the bike again. This time, it roars to life. Smoke billows out from the exhaust pipe. The cop rushes towards him. Nikhil raises the accelerator. Behind him, the cop is yelling something. He is only a hand’s length away now. Nikhil taps into first gear and the Pulsar takes off.

He swerves right onto the highway. The bike wobbles but he manages to get it under control.

Bang! He hears a loud sound as a bullet whizzes past his right ear. The cop is in the middle of the road with his gun drawn out. Nikhil looks back long enough to see him take a good aim.

Nikhil raises the accelerator hoping to get out of firing range.

Another shot rings out and this one finds the rear-view mirror. It shatters into a thousand pieces. A left curve appears on the road and Nikhil disappears out of sight. He breathes a sigh of relief.

Fuck, fuck, fuck! I stole a police bike. Nikhil tells himself, in shock. His nose is bleeding freely now. He feels the metallic taste of iron in his mouth. He laughs loudly, still unable to believe what he did.

Chapter Seven

Nikhil rides in silence for the next two hours. A lone car whizzes past him now and then but for the most part, it is he who overtakes other vehicles. Dawn comes and goes; replaced by a bright yellow sun in a clear blue sky.

He enters Hyderabad and all of a sudden, he feels terribly hungry. He wants to stop and have breakfast but there is no time. Instead, he stops at a roadside tea stall for a quick chai.

How do you get to St. Mary’s college from here? He asks, between sips.

Go straight and take a right. Ride for five or six minutes and you will see it on the left, replies the tea stall owner.

Thank you, says Nikhil. He pays the money, gets on his bike and follows the directions. He sees the college in the distance and raises the accelerator. The bike shoots forward but after a few seconds, it slows down and then, stops completely.

The petrol indicator is at zero.

Nikhil abandons the bike and starts running. He looks at his watch. It is 7:59. The watchman at the entrance starts to close the main gates. Nikhil sprints like an Olympic runner on steroids and he manages to slip in just as the gates are shut.

A bell rings loudly somewhere. Nikhil sees one of the suppley regulars.

Where’s the physics exam? He asks.

Room 2A, replies the guy.

Thanks, he says and runs towards 2A. There is a long line of people waiting to go in. Nikhil joins at the end of the line. He has made it on time, the exam hasn’t yet started.

A professor passing by gives him a dirty look. Nikhil sees that his shirt which was originally white is now brown and caked with dried blood. He pulls out the spare shirt from his bag and changes into it. He uses his deodorant for good measure.

It is his turn to enter. The invigilator stands at the door with her hand stretched out.

Nikhil wipes his hand on his pants and shakes it. The invigilator is surprised.

I am asking for your admit card, genius. Not for a shake hand.

What?

Admit card, repeats the invigilator.

Nikhil looks inside and sees that everyone in the hall has an admit card in front of them. He checks his pockets, knowing fully well that it is not there.

Is it compulsory, he asks. The invigilator simply stares at him.

He rummages his bag hopelessly hoping to find it somewhere in the bottom. I may have misplaced it, he says.

The invigilator is having none of this. If you don’t have an admit card, you cannot write the exam, she says and shuts the door in his face.

The End