‘So, Richard, tell me about the first time you did drugs.’
Richard Menezes was so taken aback by the blunt question that he gaped at Naina, unable to say a single word. He wasn’t prepared to immediately start sharing his deep, dark secrets. He had assumed that he would make some placatory noises and get Naina to give him a clean chit but here she was, grabbing him by the jugular, asking him uncomfortable questions. To buy a few seconds, Richard looked up at a pigeon that was lazily resting on the wooden rafters of the high ceiling of the classroom. Before he could think of an appropriate answer to stall her, Naina said, ‘Look, you’re going to tell me about it at some point anyway, so why don’t we stop wasting each other’s time and you give me all the information I need so that you can go back to your hacking in peace?’
Richard opened and shut his mouth like a fish, not knowing how to respond to this crazy woman. He looked out of the open door to the corridor outside the large classroom that doubled up as Naina Rai’s counselling room after college hours. Suddenly, a man wearing a checked bush shirt ran into the corridor, pausing outside the classroom door to catch his breath. Richard had never seen him before but there was something familiar in the manner in which the man turned his head over his shoulder, looking to see if someone was following him. Richard could immediately tell that the man was not on the right side of the law. All of a sudden, the man caught Richard staring at him from inside the classroom and, for one long moment, their eyes locked together. Before Richard could react, however, the man had rushed into the classroom.
The disturbance caused by the man’s entry didn’t upset Naina at first; instead, assuming an officious tone, she said, ‘Can’t you see there is a counselling session in progress?’ Without a word, the man turned and walked towards the door, but instead of walking out, he proceeded to try and shut it from the inside.
‘Arre, kya kar rahe ho?’ shouted Naina at the man’s back.
Richard sat glued to his seat. He had just spotted a gun tucked into the waistband of the man’s pants. His knees began to shake with the knowledge that although the session was over, the situation had gone from bad to much, much worse. Meanwhile, closing the heavy wooden doors of the classroom was proving to be a challenge for the man whose slight built did not give him too much strength in his arms and shoulders. He had somehow managed to shut one side of the door and was struggling with the other when he saw someone run into the corridor. He stopped trying to shut the door and turned, facing Naina who, by now, was standing right behind him, protesting loudly. The man grabbed her by the neck and put his hand over her mouth in a hasty attempt to shut her up, while simultaneously whipping out his gun from his waistband. As soon as she saw the gun, Naina calmed down instantly. She let herself be dragged to a corner.
The man now pointed the gun at Richard and raised a finger to his lips indicating that Richard should be silent, but Richard didn’t need any persuasion. He remained rooted to his spot, his whole body shaking with fear. In the corridor outside the room, the footsteps of someone passing by the door could be heard. As the footsteps receded into the distance, the man in the checked bush shirt calmed down a little but he still kept his arm around Naina’s throat. A couple of minutes later, he eased his grip a little.
‘You must be tired,’ said Naina. The man didn’t say anything but his hand loosed around her neck a bit more. ‘I have a can of Red Bull in my bag, let me get it for you,’ she said softly. He didn’t react but kept standing with his arm around her neck, ears trained on the corridor, listening intently. ‘If you don’t believe me, take it out yourself.’
For the first time, the man looked at Naina, who stared back at him with an earnestness that he couldn’t ignore. He stared at her; Naina could almost hear the gears turn within his brain. She could feel his gaze on her as he tried to decide whether she was really sympathetic or if she was playing a dirty trick on him. After a long minute or so, he let go of her neck and instead levelled the gun to her forehead. ‘Go get it,’ he ordered in a gruff whisper.
Naina nodded and turned towards the large leather bag that was lying at the foot of the table near the blackboard. She had just bent down to pick it up when the door was flung open and Virkar stood at the doorway, the gun in his hand levelled straight at the man in the bush shirt. ‘Give up, Usman,’ Virkar hissed. But Usman Teacher was in no mood to do so; in fact, having had the advantage of stabilizing himself over the past few minutes, he fired a shot, and the bullet nicked Virkar’s right shoulder. Virkar lost his balance because of the sudden shock of the bullet and fell, hitting his head on the corner of a desk that stood by the side of the door. Virkar’s gun slipped out of his hand as the combination of the gunshot wound and the knock on his head rendered him unconscious and he slumped on the floor of the classroom.
Usman Teacher sprang forward, grabbed Naina by the hair and started for the door. But at that very moment Richard fell off his chair, shivering uncontrollably. The foam at the corners of his mouth indicated that he was having some kind of a fit. Usman Teacher stared at Richard who had by then begun convulsing and holding onto his chest as if he was having a heart attack. A plastic vial filled with white powder rolled out of Richard’s pocket and on to the floor. Naina raised her voice in a scream for the first time. ‘He’s having a withdrawal attack! He’ll die, please help him.’ Usman Teacher’s eyes jumped from Naina to Richard to the vial. He dragged Naina backwards to her table on which lay a hardbound book. Releasing her for a split second, he said, ‘Pick him up.’ Naina bent down and lifted the scrawny Richard and made him sit on her chair. Richard stabilized as he sat.
‘Now the vial,’ hissed Usman Teacher. Naina quickly scooped it up and kept it on the table. Usman grabbed her again; placing the gun on her right temple as he spoke to Richard. ‘Cut yourself a line and one for me, too.’ With trembling hands, Richard emptied the contents of the vial on to the hardbound book. He reached into his pocket and drew out a hundred-rupee note and a credit card. He rolled the hundred-rupee note with one hand, while in the other he held the credit card, deftly using it to separate the mound of white powder on the hardbound book into two thin lines. He was about to place the rolled hundred-rupee note against his nostril, when Usman grabbed the makeshift pipe from him. Richard nodded in understanding and raised the hardbound book, offering the first snort to Usman. Usman loosened the grip on Naina’s neck but kept the gun pointing in her direction. He brought the pipe close to his nostril, placing the other end at the edge of the white powder line. Without warning, Richard blew hard on the white powder which flew straight into Usman’s eyes.
As Usman screamed, Naina grabbed the hand holding the gun and twisted his wrist in such a way that the gun now faced the ceiling. Usman screamed again and squeezed the trigger of the gun in panic. The bullet shot out into the air towards the high ceiling of the British-made structure. He fired again and again but the bullets all sang their way to the sky, hitting the distant ceiling tiles. Although the bullets had no effect, the sound of the gunfire revived the unconscious Virkar, who sprang to his feet, leapt towards Usman Teacher and grabbed the gun from his hand. Virkar pushed Usman with whatever strength he had left in him and dropped him to the ground. He then aimed the gun at Usman while he dialled for backup. Usman Teacher’s eyes were swimming with tears of frustration as he lay on the ground. Through his blurred vision, he could see Richard standing calmly by Naina’s side. Usman cursed himself as he saw Richard turn to her, smile and wink.