IT WAS EASY to get lost in New Bridge City. With a population of more than ten million, Veer Rathod found comfort in the fact that he didn’t know anyone.
No one would bother him unless he wanted them to. No one had to know where he came from or what he had gone through.
His life could remain a mystery if he chose to.
And in a way he did.
Who would believe what he had experienced in HarbourOne City anyway? He still had trouble believing all of it was real.
A move to a new city was just what he needed, and to a place like New Bridge City where people generally kept to themselves.
Over here, the people were caught up in a rat race. The only thing they concerned themselves was with earning enough money to afford good housing.
Not many succeeded and spent most of their lives in tired old apartments where it was considered to be fortunate if you had running water and plumbing.
The summers were hot and humid, the winters bitterly cold.
Veer had come to the city believing he too would have to struggle to keep up pace with the others. But a week after he had moved and found a small apartment to live in, he had received a job offer for sales.
He no longer wanted to write, no longer wanting to reach into the depths of his soul to seek out inspiration.
He wanted to do anything that didn’t require him to rake up memories that he wished would just erase from his mind.
On the day of his interview, he took one look in the mirror and decided he would have to shave and shower. He ironed his clothes, wore cologne, and combed his hair back. It was time for a haircut but it could wait. Right now, he had to focus on the upcoming interview.
A new mall in the city had just opened, and a major electronics retailer was looking for salesmen. The night before he did his research on gadgets and other electronics. The next day, he put on his most charming demeanour and met with the interviewer.
Veer answered all his questions, impressed him with his knowledge, most of which he acquired last night.
Two days later he found out he was hired.
* * * * *
NEW BRIDGE CITY Mall was vast and had thousands of stores and restaurants. He was working in Planet E Electronics which had the largest range of electronics in the country. He was one in a hundred employees at the store. He was required to always be on his feet and entice customers into buying the latest and most expensive cell phones.
There was a uniform; he had to wear a dark grey shirt, black tie and pants. He had to appear prim and professional at all times.
Veer was allowed a break for lunch, then work another three hours before he could leave for home at five.
Accommodation was provided near the mall in a building that was fortunately not too shabby. There was electricity, water, and maintenance.
For the first six months he shared the flat with three other co-workers, then when he was promoted to assistant manager, he rented an apartment of his own and moved into it.
Once a month, he would call his parents and let them know he was fine. They grew increasingly worried when he just up and left after his cousin Shanaya died.
The memories of his cousin tormented him every night. She was his best friend, his younger sister. She was perky, lively, and aspired to create a successful life for herself. All of it had been cut short in one tragic night.
It was his fault. He knew it was his fault. He really did believe he was doing the right thing but all he had done was put innocent lives at risk. And now he couldn’t even face Shanaya’s mother. He had to believe Aunt Rekha was okay. Veer’s mother had said her sister was coping well with grief, but Veer could imagine what she must be feeling. Probably anger at her nephew for being responsible for her daughter’s death.
Summer turned to autumn, and then winter. The end of the year was a busy time with everyone looking to buy gifts for others or themselves. Veer appreciated the extra work he was saddled with because that meant he was too tired when he returned to his apartment to think. And the less he thought about his guilt, the less chance was of it following him in his dreams where he had no control.
Spring came and the company hired new employees. Ravina was one of them. She had just moved into the city after finishing college. She was short, had curly hair, and a great sense of humour. Everyone liked her and she liked Veer.
They did go out a couple of times, but Veer was too wary of forming relationships. By the end of summer, Ravina told him they were better off as friends because he clearly didn’t reciprocate her feelings.
Two weeks later, she started dating another co-worker and a month later, announced that she was engaged. The wedding would be in December.
When he told his mother one evening about his co-workers, just to change the topic from the usual exchange of weather reports, his mother sighed and asked him, “When are you planning to get settled? Are you at least dating anyone?”
“Do you have a good life there? Many friends?”
He replied again in the negative.
“Veer, you need to come back,” his mother told him. “I don’t know what happened in HarbourOne City. You were doing so well according to Rekha. You were a journalist and at least we knew what you were doing and where you were headed. Now you won’t even tell me what your job is. Come back, son. Your father and I will set you up with a nice, stable job. My friend Mina’s daughter is a dentist. She’s looking to settle down as well.”
“Mom, I don’t want to...” he let out a frustrated sigh. His mother wasn’t even listening as she went on about how pretty Mina’s daughter was.
“I’ll send you her picture so you can see for yourself,” she said.
“Don’t do that. It’s just weird.” Veer groaned. “Look, I’m busy with work and not really looking to date anyone.”
Veer stifled the next sentence he was going to utter. He didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s death. The more people were distant from him, the better chance they had at living a normal life.
“I’m not asking you to get married immediately,” his mother said, a tad kindly. “There are thousands of dating sites. Try one at least. Get yourself out there into the dating world at least.”
“I’m going to make your profile tonight if you don’t,” his mother warned.
“No, I’ll do it myself,” Veer replied with gritted teeth.
“Good, then send me a screenshot of it when you’re done,” she said firmly before her tone developed sweeter notes as she ended the call.
Veer knew his mother would keep pestering him until he did as he was told. He was getting worried that his parents would show up one day at his apartment and demand that he return home with them. He would revolt, of course, but their mere presence would destroy the harmony he was seeking in a new city.
He searched for a dating site and began to build a profile. He didn’t have to use it. It was just a show for his mother who would no doubt go to the site and make sure his profile was there. He would later lie about dating and then how things weren’t working out and eventually deactivate his account. He finished making his profile, sent a screenshot, and immediately received advice via text from his mother on how he didn’t write an appealing enough bio.
The whole night was spent on correcting his profile.
* * * * *
IT WAS THE first week of December and the mall was full of eager shoppers looking to buy gifts. There were sales everywhere. The mall was decorated with hundreds of stars and Christmas decorations.
Kids thronged outside toy shops and there were the persistent sounds of tantrums as weary parents dragged away their children from the display of expensive toys.
Veer had just finished working an eight-hour shift and his back and neck hurt. He took off the Santa hat and his tie as he made his way to the escalators. He had to go down four floors and the elevators already had a long line in front of it.
His phone buzzed and he saw a notification of someone who had liked his profile on Just Date. He imagined it was some lonely woman looking for someone during the holidays to spend time with. Then next month, she would unceremoniously dump him.
He put his phone back in the pocket and then bumped into someone as he came off the escalator.
“Sorry.” The woman’s voice was cheery as she dragged along with her an eager girl who kept chanting about being late to meet Santa.
“Yeah, no problem,” he said distractedly. Then stopped. His left hand tingled, then vibrated. There was a time when he had felt all this, usually accompanied by an ominous feeling.