Fiction: On Friday the Fourteenth

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story of a young man away from home

March 8, 2019

He peered out of the window and saw her. Fully dressed in sports gear. Bold pink with a neon tinge! Avik hates this dress more than his lonely nights. She kept running towards the left and disappeared beyond the roundabout. The weekend begins soon. The date will change in another thirty minutes. Why does the girl go running at this weird hour of the night? Often, when Avik comes out for his last smoke before hitting the bed, she appears from the lane far right and crosses his apartment. Not too fast, but at a pace, Avik can hardly run a kilometer. The streetlights are dim; the air is foggy. The hoodie also doesn’t help in seeing her face clearly. But from the contours and shadows of the tight sports suit, he can make out that her muscles are tender but taut; the girl is not too old. At least younger than Avik, who will enter his forties in another two years.

Avik pulled the curtains and picked up his phone from the bed. No new messages. Not even one from the thirteen-odd WhatsApp groups he belongs to. He was a social man. Till a year ago! He turned towards his study table and pulled the chair and opened the lid of his laptop. It roared back to life in a few seconds. Gone are the days of his first laptop, which he had purchased after getting his first job seventeen years back. He would press the start button and had time enough to finish a cigarette before it was ready for his input. While keying in the password, he recalled how the passwords have changed… from bearing his own name to his wife’s name to his daughter’s name now. He mentally corrected himself – his ex-wife. Although they are still legally married, the separation is permanent. It is only a matter of time before the Judge of a Civil Court in India declares the marriage null and void. The laptop has now booted and Tania, her daughter, smiled back at him. He rolled the cursor over her pretty face as if to virtually caress her. She kept smiling and tears rolled down his cheek. He felt weak; he felt tired of life. 

Avik took a deep breath. Although tired, he is not yet done with life. He wants to see Tania again; he wants to kiss her till she is fondly irritated. In the mild winters of Kolkata, he wants to hold her tiny hands and walk in a garden, near his apartment, till she gets tired and asks him to place her on his shoulders. 

He has been here in this foreign land for over two months now and is already feeling homesick. He pondered for a while – does he really have a home back in India? 

Avik opened a folder named ‘Yekaterinburg’. Then clicked a subfolder named ‘To see’. Plenty of pdf documents, pictures, and maps recently shared by his boss Alex appeared, unexplored. Avik is good at photography and Alex knows it. Alex also knows about his personal crisis and empathizes. He is just a little older than Avik and has been through a divorce. He didn’t have any children from his first marriage but has twin boys now. He insists that Avik should start life afresh; at least live a normal life in Russia. Avik graduated as a Metallurgical Engineer and is now a Senior Manager in one of the biggest mining and metallurgical groups of companies. The employment is long-term, and the salary is pretty good considering Indian standards. Avik didn’t think twice when he got the offer a few months back. He was looking for an opportunity to get out of Kolkata. He preferred to stay away from the turmoil he was experiencing in the relationship with his ex-wife. They had married a decade ago; after a steady courtship of four years. It was painful for him to be in the same city as Tania and yet stay apart. In fact, a few months back, before accepting this lucrative job offer, he had to move to court to claim visitation and communication rights as a father.

Yekaterinburg
For Avik, Yekaterinburg was an unexplored city

Avik is still undecided about settling in Russia. The first two months were difficult. The severely harsh winter, with temperatures plunging down to minus twenty degree Celsius was not like anything he had experienced earlier. Getting a home that is not far from his office and close to supermarkets was his priority. Hearing Avik’s interests in history and museums, Alex had suggested he stay close to the heart of the city. Yekaterinburg is known more for its industries, but it also has a deep history and a rich culture.  Avik pays more rent than he would have paid closer to his office, but at least he can see more people here. Also, this area has more restaurants and supermarkets to choose from. But eating out was expensive and the available cuisines were not to his taste. His home cuisine is spicy and oil-rich. He is also used to eating a lot of fish and vegetables which are not widely available here in food outlets. So, a couple of weeks back, he started cooking at home. The weekends whizzed past while doing laundry, cleaning, and cooking. 

As Avik explored the resources sent by Alex, his interests heightened. His city Kolkata had communists at its helm for a long span of thirty-four years. Some of his favorite childhood story books were from Russian publications like Raduga, Mir, and Vostok. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s stories made quite an impression on him. Now he is the land of Anna Karenina, Alyosha Karamazov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Myshkin!

Also read: What’s Her Choice?

He decided to spend his weekends visiting places within the city. Alex suggested that he should stick to the museums till the start of summer. Most of them have an impressive collection of artifacts and provide English subtitles. He started looking at options but soon gave up. The numbers were overwhelming – over thirteen history museums, two on science, and another two on specialty topics. The ticket prices are affordable, and entry is free for children below seven. Again, the thought of Tania came to his mind. She is just five and is as interested in history like her dad. Wish he could have Tania here… Avik stopped and breathed a deep sigh.

While planning the routes to the museums he came across a street with a strange name; it’s called 8th March Street. He browsed for some time to find out the origin of this name. No pointers from Google! He felt tired now, physically as well. The laptop clock showed 1 am. March 8th is now in the past. He has missed visiting the street on the date, at least for this year.

story of a man away from home
Yekaterinburg has a deep history and a rich culture

June 9, 2019

Avik is on a WhatsApp video call with Tania almost after a month. He has coaxed his ex-wife and finally managed to set up this virtual meeting. He is now sitting on a wooden bench. It is a warm, bright, and sunny Sunday and the colorful surroundings are looking vibrant. Happiness can’t get better than this!

“Dad, are you outside?”

“Yes Mamma, I am at Ulitsa Vaynera.”

“What’s that?”

Ulitsa means outside or street in Russian. So, I am at Vaynera Street; the most popular street in this city.”

“Can you show me around?”

“Sure.”

Avik got up; rotated the mobile at different angles to give Tania views of the street and of the sky above. 

“Are these shops around?”

“Yes.”

“Whose statue is that, in the middle of the street?”

“It is of a famous American singer-dancer, Michael Jackson.”

“Did he die in your city?”

“Not my city Mamma, my city is the same as yours – Kolkata.” Avik forced a smile and continued…

“No, he didn’t die here. The local people are very fond of Rock music and of Michael Jackson.”

“There are no cars!”

“This street is only for pedestrians.”

“Such a wide street, only for walking!”

“Yes, people enjoy walking and shopping here.”

“Dad, I can see some writings on those boards in the middle. Can you move your camera please?”

“Why not, I’m going to show you right now.”

Avik walked up to a distance where several whiteboards with pictures were lined up in stands. He focussed his camera close to a board.

 “Can you see now?”

“Yes, but I cannot read!”

“Me too. I can’t decipher. It’s written in Russian. Some letters though are the same as English.”

“Pictures of ships on fire!”

“These are war memorials. This picture shows some bombed warships; from a period almost 80 years back.”

“Oh! Before you were born?”

Avik smiled. “Yeah, before even your grandpa was born.”

“What is that Red line on the street?”

“Ah, that’s an interesting one. This red line connects over thirty places that are interesting for tourists. A walking tour is conducted which takes two to three hours to go around these places.”

“Wow! Have you taken the tour?”

“I have gone around by myself.”

“My summer vacation is over now. Classes are on, else I could have joined you…”

Avik didn’t know what to say. Tania sensed she had said something which cannot happen. Dad cannot take her to his place.  She quickly changed the topic.

“Nice weather… is it warm?”

“Around 22 degrees. But it can start raining anytime here. Russians from other places call it ‘Mud city’.”

Tania laughed. Her pearly teeth shined. Avik wished he could kiss her, right now…

He decided to spend his weekends visiting places within the city. Alex suggested that he should stick to the museums till the start of summer. Most of them have an impressive collection of artifacts and provide English subtitles. He started looking at options but soon gave up. The numbers were overwhelming – over thirteen history museums, two on science, and another two on specialty topics.

The apartment Avik lives in is a little old. The gadgets inside are also old but Avik doesn’t mind if those are working. Russians rarely throw things away. The house owners, an elderly couple, had seen the Soviet era and they too were no different. Once during the first month of his stay here, the heating system was not able to cope with the dipping mercury. The couple realized his inconvenience and took him to their home for four days. Their apartment was nearby and a modern one. The people whom he thought of as cold were extremely kind-hearted and hospitable. They shared dinner and breakfast with him. Avik had promised to cook an Indian dish for them sometime soon. 

The agent who got him this apartment was a beautiful Russian lady in her late twenties – Irina. On an extremely cold January afternoon, she had picked him up from his office and showed him a few apartments in the middle of the city. Although tall she wore high heels and Avik being average height, felt awkward walking beside her. He finalized the apartment in the next week and when the formalities of signing the documents were over, she chatted with Avik for a while. Together they had tea in a small cafe. Avik, himself almost a tea connoisseur, found it interesting that Russians also drink a lot of tea. After the tea session, they spent more than an hour in chit-chat. 

Yekaterinburg in winter
The severely harsh winter was difficult for him

Coincidentally, Irina had been to Kolkata about four years back for a month-long course in Yoga. She found the city very crowded and weird. The food was difficult for her digestive system, and she had to manage with milk and fruits for days together. 

Before leaving, she brought her right hand close to Avik’s left cheek and placed a strange request.

“Would you mind if I touch you?”

Avik was taken aback but promptly managed to say, “Not at all; go ahead.”

She touched his cheeks down to his clean-shaven chin and then held out her left hand for a parting handshake. Avik was surprised; she had noticed that he was a leftie. 

“How do you guys have such lovely skin; smooth, oily, and tanned?”

“It’s in our food, you know. Which you missed when you had gotten a chance…”

And they had a hearty laugh together.

November 12, 2019

There is this guy in his office from South Korea named Chang. Quite a character! He and Avik both report to Alex. He calls himself a monkey, makes faces, jumps, and laughs loudly breaking the silence of the sombre Russian office. In the last eight months, he has gone on vacation four times and on return spent at least four days talking about the places he visited. He, however, is not pally with Avik. Presumably, because they are rivals in the workplace. Everyone in the office likes Chang. He offers ‘free massages’ to his male colleagues, stands behind the person, and delivers an elaborate kneading of the scalp and shoulder. From the face of the person, it appears that the massage is invigorating. Avik has seen some people even asking for it. That’s extremely strange as Russians are very serious in nature; always! Avik has experienced this often.

Last week he was traveling in the Yekaterinburg metro. The metro has only one subway line, with only nine stations. Avik boarded the train at Botanicheskaya. The station has its ceiling designed in a honeycomb pattern with bright colors. He was so fascinated by the design that he did not notice a pillar by his side. After hitting the pillar, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. It didn’t hurt much but he was in a state of shock. A middle-aged tall and strong gentleman with glasses held out his hand and lifted him up without any strain. Back on his feet, Avik thanked him, but there was hardly any reaction. The guy just turned around and started walking. Avik realized that his exchange was in English. Most people here don’t understand English and some understand but don’t acknowledge. 

“Spasibo!” He quickly translated his gratitude into Russian. 

This time the man turned back and slightly nodded his head as if saying – that was my duty.

Last week he was traveling in the Yekaterinburg metro. The metro has only one subway line, with only nine stations. Avik boarded the train at Botanicheskaya. The station has its ceiling designed in a honeycomb pattern with bright colors. He was so fascinated by the design that he did not notice a pillar by his side. After hitting the pillar, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. It didn’t hurt much but he was in a state of shock.

Inside the train, Avik was lucky to have a window seat. Opposite him was another middle-aged co-passenger. That man was engrossed in reading a Russian book, probably on chess strategies. No wonder these guys rule the world of chess. Once the man lifted his eyes and his eyes met Avik’s. Avik smiled. The man noticed but there was no reaction from his end. He went back to reading the book. Avik got down at Ploshchad 1905 Goda, a station close to the 1905 Square, named after the victims of the 1905 Russian Revolution.  

Today after a long meeting he came out from Alex’s room. It was well past lunchtime. When Avik realized this, he sought permission from Alex to proceed toward the cafeteria in the adjacent building. The cafeteria was about to close. Alex stopped him.

“I haven’t told you earlier. I have brought lunch for you today.”

“Oh, but I am fine to go to the kafeteriy.”

“Come on, your boss is asking you.”

Avik smiled and followed him to his plush cabin. Alex closed the door.

“It’s my birthday today, Avik.”

“Oh really! Happy birthday to you! I didn’t know…”

“Hardly anyone knows. What would you have done?”

“I could have brought something for you.”

“Ha ha!” Alex laughed loudly. “We, the Ural people only give others; we don’t get much.”

Avik did not get the context!

“Relax. That was not meant for you. A generic statement.” He started unpacking some food from a big container.

“I think no one from our team knows about my birthday. I joined a few months before you. I have got some cheesecakes for everyone on our team. Will distribute them later in the afternoon. I thought you should taste home-cooked Ural food.”

He brought out two big dishes and laid out a multi-layered, multi-colored cake.

“You love fish, right? So, here is something novel for you – ‘herring under a fur coat’. It’s a layered salad of carrot, potato, and beetroot on pickled herring.”

“Amazing!”

He also poured some thick soups into two bowls. “You know this right?”

“Okroshka.”

“Perfect!”

While they relished the dishes, Alex asked “So, how is life beyond the office?”

“Going on.”

“Got a girlfriend?”

“Not yet.”

“What about Irina?”

Avik just smiled. 

“Did you call her up after you last met?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“I think she is much younger.”

“And you too are not that old! Come on, at least you can go on a date… have you ever asked her?”

“Alex, my lawsuit in India is still pending. Officially I am not yet single.”

“Puh, you are so unromantic, so unadventurous!”

February 14, 2020

The minute hand met the hour hand at the top mark of the old wall clock. The day has begun. The hands meet so many times during the day but don’t touch each other! Avik took his eyes away from the grandfather clock and fixed them on his mobile screen. A few hours back he had hit upon the idea of going on a Valentine’s Day date. After much wavering he dared to text Irina.

“Can we meet tomorrow and have tea together?”

Within a few minutes he got back an emoji – thumbs up; but then she didn’t appear online again! They have stayed in touch with occasional WhatsApp messages and infrequent phone calls. But they never met after the rental deal in January last year. In between Irina was in Moscow for six months and came back to Yekaterinburg just before the New Year. He now cursed himself for missing the chances, making no advances earlier! It is quite natural that she would be a little hesitant to join him on this day.

story of a man in Yekaterinburg
He immediately texted Alex and asked for an off day.

After getting the thumbs up from Irina he felt so happy that he immediately texted Alex and asked for an off day. Alex promptly replied with a smiley followed by “Feeling happy for you! Leave approved on condition that you will show the selfie of you two.” Avik felt the blood rushing to his cheeks and ears. He thanked him and ended the conversation with a blushing emoji. 

Should he call her up? It’s already half past twelve. It won’t be a prudent act at this hour of the night.            She must be asleep. The latest he had called her was once at 8 pm. Avik suddenly felt the urge to smoke. He put on a jacket and opened the balcony door. The white ball-shaped street lights adorn the residential areas. They now look strangely beautiful; like trees with a halo of falling snow sprinkles. It seems there are only two colors in the world now– white and black. There was nothing in between until he lit his cigarette… which emitted grey smoke. 

He no longer sees the sprinter lady around this time of the night. She had disappeared in June. Probably she has shifted to another place. Worst maybe, she has changed her route; because of the embarrassment caused by Avik. He used to ogle at her. He planned his smoking with precision and kept waiting on the balcony even after his smoke only to have a glimpse of her. He could have done something different and could have struck up a conversation with her on some pretext. No, he could not become that adventurous. He is still not divorced. In fact, he hasn’t been to India since he first came here. If he had gone to India, Avik could have at least met Tania; cuddled her, and kissed her. He could have touched the feet of his parents. He could have met his dear friends and hugged them tightly. Here the best thing he could have is a massage from Chang! Avik decided against lighting up another cigarette. It is getting too cold, and the burning white stick won’t be able to give him the warmth he craved.

He woke up late at 8. On other Fridays, by now he would have revved the engine of his car and on his way to the office. But today is somewhat different, today is special. He looked up the mobile – no text from the beautiful young lady. She is still offline. Desperate, he dialed her number. A cold automated female voice suggested in Russian to try again after some time.

Avik felt restless. He brushed his teeth, freshened up, and dialed Irina’s number again. Same response. He took a warm bath and tried again. Yet another unsuccessful attempt! Breakfast was superfast and he tried one last time. Same result. Undecided about what to do next he took out from his trouser pocket a packet of Ziganov, a popular Russian brand, and went for a smoke, dialed her number once more in vain…

camera and man
He decided to take his camera out

The clock is ticking away. Maybe she would respond towards the afternoon. Why waste the entire day? The bright sun and snow await him today in this beautiful city. He quickly checked his camera. The battery is low on power. It will take an hour to get charged. So be it. Putting it on the charger, Avik unpacked the newly purchased 50 mm prime lens. An auspicious day, to inaugurate it! He smiled.

Ulitsa Vaynera was colorful and busy as usual. Avik’s camera went into overdrive. He spent a lot of time clicking a team of four. They danced and performed amazing stunts. Avik was reminded of his childhood winters in Kolkata when different Russian Circuses were in the city. These stunts are no less spectacular! Avik put a Hundred Rouble bill in their basket and moved on. 

On weekends there are more street performers. Today there are a mere handful. He took out his mobile. Irina is still offline. Alex has sent a message. The link to a blog advising the dos and don’ts of a Russian date. Avik replied with a smiling emoji. It’s now 2 pm and he felt hungry. The nearest burger joint is not far but on the other way. He turned around. In the middle of the road stood a middle-aged lady holding a placard written in English – ‘Free Hugs’. The other side read ‘Happy Valentine’s Day”. The lady was dressed in a pink parka jacket with black leggings. She was a brunette with more Asian features than European, typical of this Europe-Asia border region. She must have been extremely pretty during her prime. No one was stopping by her. As her eyes met him, she smiled generously. Avik reciprocated and advanced toward her. They hugged. Her embrace was soft, yet tight. The feel of her shapely body soothed his nerves. The warmth it transmitted was more than he had imagined. Once out of her embrace, Avik stood still; as if in a state of trance. The image of Irina suddenly loomed in his mind, her supple stature, her slender body, and her petal lips. Will she also hug him today? Will that be an intimate luscious hug? A sensual desire welled up deep inside his body and he had a reeling sensation inside his brain. Will Irina come forward unabashed to satiate his hungry soul?

“I think you need another hug, don’t you?” she flashed her charming smile. 

Could she read his mind, thought Avik! He stretched his arms again and went for the second hug. This time the enjoyment lasted a few seconds more. 

The lady lovingly planted a soft kiss on his left cheek and said, “Enjoy. Have a lovely day!”

Images courtesy: Wikipedia

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