"Shroff is Punjabi," Tulika said with a period.
"NOOOO, this guy is so not a Punjabi. He is a Kannadiga."
"We'll ask when he gets here then?"
We four were at Pecos, listening to Jerry Garcia, as the waiter came and refilled our mugs. Tzameena had come back to Bangalore after four years in the US, Tulika had come to meet her from Pune, and their friend Tever Peer was always in Bangalore. I knew only Tulika, and the other Ts I was meeting for the first time. Being the only guy with three girls, the idea of another guy joining us soon made me brighten up. I didn't quite care about what language he spoke, Punjabi or Kannada.
The girls were being themselves, their squeals and cackles making me feel like a distant observer. Observe I couldn't much because of my shades, which I had to wear to cover my infected red eyes. And Pecos is dark, pitch dark. Some say the food tastes good there mainly because you can't see it. Or you don't care because the draught has already started dancing with your senses.
"Even the loo is the same," Tulika remembered. I knew she got nostalgic, but this was the first time I saw someone getting nostalgic about the dingiest loo in the dingiest pub of Bangalore. I say "dingy" but that's where I go back to. It has this deliberately retro, rundown look, with deliberate Floyd, Grateful Dead, Doors playing from old audio cassettes, to remind you that the world was a lot more beautiful before the iPod generation set foot on it.
"Yes," I nodded in agreement. I had to go twice already to prevent the beer from screwing up my balance, so I knew what she meant. The loo definitely was still the same. And then I discovered popcorn in my beer. I've had corned beef. Liked it pretty much, I must say. But corned beer? I thought I will let it pass as merely a typo when something strange caught my attention. The girls were aiming at each other's necklines and dunking popcorn like those deft NBA blokes. I forgot about the popcorn in my beer and watched in utter horror. The people at the other table were busy head-banging to Bad Moon Rising and didn't seem to mind one bit. Eventually a few of those got dunked into my shirt and I got into the spirit of the game. By then the tacos and crabs were almost over and the free popcorn too.
Shroff came in late. Short, bearded, my liking for him was almost instant. Some might want to argue that it was mainly because I was craving for male company all this while, but then, let's not argue about the "why" now. Fact remains I liked him. We struck up a conversation and then in walked Roshni, another friend of a friend. The conversation grew, multiplied, criss-crossed, and soon looked like a busy underground network. Meanwhile, we somehow managed to move from Pecos to Koshy's and the group had gotten bigger. We could see Prof Ram Guha sitting alone for a while before being joined by two of his friends. I contemplated going up to him for an autograph, but didn't have a proper diary/notebook in which to take it. I don't want to disrespect India's best-known historian by asking him to put his signature on a piece of napkin. Mr Prem Koshy (who was there too, looking dapper in his shawl) perhaps wouldn't mind doing that given that the napkin would have Koshy's written on it, but Prof Guha? Nawww. Some other time, then.
Tzameena couldn't drink at Pecos (because she hates beer), so she was filling herself up like a tank in a hurry. Tever was quietly taking pictures. Shroff found himself in the unenviable situation of being between two beautiful ladies who had joined us later. I remember asking him which one he was seeing, but because the question was put bang in public, all he could manage was an "ummm" with both the girls curiously trying to lipread his mind. Roshni constantly came up with novel catch phrases and kept us entertained. She was narrating a story of how some huge blokes once chased her in Ohio and all I could manage was a stupid laugh! I think the laughter was because she talked about their "size" meaning "bulk" and me doing some instant napkin math. But then, you hardly want to analyze the reactions of someone in high spirits.
We discussed nothing in particular but then almost anything under the sun. It was a motley group of unconnected people sitting together and enjoying each others' company, exchanging notes on almost every topic. A gang of 25-40 year old urban Indians. And as I went to a distance and listened to the buzz, to the topics they were freely discussing, I realized that middle-class, urban India has had a paradigm shift in its thinking since I last witnessed it. From gay relationships, live-in relationships, jazz bands, Bertolucci's Dreamers, anti-rightist political leanings, jobs around the world, Mahasweta Devi, latest mobile apps, motorcycling adventures, cleavages, and the need to care for your parents while they are still there, these people were already open and aware. They knew what they wanted, they had their opinions, and even after having enjoyed one evening of revelry they will go back to their respective lives, chores, and influence others who are probably not so privileged with information. This is not a judgment about whether it is good, bad, sinful, or inadequate to be what we are today, but just a huge exclamation mark a few points bigger than the normal font. I changed some of the names here to make them race-agnostic, but even if I put the real ones, you would realize that this can be a scene from any city in the world. Am I trying to make a point here? What started off as just a casual description of one evening spent with known and unknown people suddenly took a serious turn, giving the impression that I am trying to make a point in this article. I am not. I am not saying anything new to you. You perhaps witnessed this change yourself. I perhaps hadn't, being busy changing diapers. I have a vague feeling it isn’t a change after all because all this was so part of the Delhi I saw ten years back. My parents would perhaps argue that this was the scene fifty years back in Calcutta as well, when the fervor of Mao, French cinema, and unreal idealism gripped the youth of an entire city. In Delhi, when I saw it ten years back, these groups were not common, not from the dregs. There was always emancipation in small pockets, restricted to the college campus or intellectual dos. This somehow seemed more generic, more everyday to me. Am I calling this emancipation? Maybe not. Maybe just a change in some direction. Maybe just the illusion of a change. Maybe there was no such evening, or many. I, unlike the people I met today, am scared to have an opinion of my own, living in the comfort of the dark alley between two houses where nobody asks you uncomfortable questions.
I came home and raised a silent toast to all the people I met today and also to the ones that came after us and sat at different tables. We finally forgot to ask Shroff if he was a Punjabi or a Coorgi. But that didn't make any difference to the evening.