The Illusion of ‘Zero’

Excerpt: He sits by the side walk, head low and drooping shoulders with certainly a remorseful look on the face that emerged from of a moment of weakness (Reads: 4,408)


Creative Writing Competition 2012 India
CODE 385
SETTING College Canteen OR Restaurant
OBJECT Chocolate
THEME Remorse

The Illusion of ‘Zero’ – Friends Short Story
Photo credit: Alvimann from

He sits by the side walk, head low and drooping shoulders with certainly a remorseful look on the face that emerged from of a moment of weakness transforming a well evolved relationship into a meaningless and strange entity in an illusionary world…

The sweaty summer of 1978 in Mumbai wreaks unpleasantness and engulfs the sweet innocence of the teenage congregation at the college canteen with a mercurial high of 38 degrees in the month of May. Cold drinks are being passed around by the canteen boy, Chotu who doubles up as an entertainer; he sings popular Hindi songs and breaks into a jig once in a while. The applause he receives resonates in the small, dimly lit room that can house no more than twenty people but now holding fifty people; some sitting on the window ledges and some on the floor.

The ‘heart’ of the college is this canteen where inventions are created by the ‘Nobel Laureate’ types and hearts are broken and mended by the ‘Love Sick’ types. There is also room for the ones who don’t belong to either ends of the spectrum and struggle with all their might to stay neutral to stay in tandem with their rational minds.

“Hello, so do you want to go for a movie after Economics Class?” asks Ravi, a lanky lad who sports cheap imitation clothes emulating film actors. All of 19, he exhibits an attitude of an aspiring movie star though his parents struggle through the month to keep their heads above water.

“Not today. I promised that I would pay the electricity bill on the way back home from college,” replies Ashok whose attitude is defined by middle class values which seldom gets messed owing to lack of exposure and an in built animosity to anything remotely against it.

Still the two pals get along like a house on fire with Ravi doing most of the talking and planning and Ashok tagging along with few mumbles and smiles.

“Come on Ashok, do that tomorrow,” says Ravi urging Ashok.

“No, I can’t do that; the electricity at home will be cut,” says Ashok in a convincing manner.

“Always doing things for home,” says Ravi and together they walk toward two chairs around a table that had just been cleared.

“So what’s today’s number?” asks Ashok excitedly.

“Wait till I open the chocolate wrapper,” replies Ravi unwrapping the outer plastic cover of the chocolate to reveal a white paper wrap underneath. The number ‘5’ is cited on the white paper and he announces, “It’s 5.”

“Let me see the number on my coupon,” says Ashok very excitedly and searches his wallet and brings out a blue folded piece of lottery ticket. “The first number is 5 on my ticket as well!” he says excitedly.

Ravi, the boisterous of the two jumps and does a cart wheeling jig to display his thrill.

“Let’s not be happy so soon. I still have more four numbers to go,” warns Ashok.

But Ravi didn’t listen to any of what Ashok is saying and continues his histrionics.

The following day as is the usual norm they meet during the lunch break at the canteen. There is an ambient noise coming from the radio and seems a bit muffled to decipher what it was actually playing. Surprisingly, they find a table close to the window which overlooks the ladies’ common room and Ravi is happy eyeing the new entrants of the year.

“Look at the one with the purple dress; she’s so cute!” says Ravi without even taking his eyes off her.

“I’m sure she is! Did you buy the chocolate?” asks Ashok somewhat irritated.

“What chocolate?” replies Ravi still ogling at the many ‘colourful wonders’ as he would call them.

“Ravi!” screams Ashok and makes sure his tone gets Ravi into the present state.

“Huh? Sorry, yes and you were saying? Ah, yes, the chocolate!” says Ravi sporting an impish grin on his face.

Knowing the ways of his friend, Ashok breaks into a giggle and takes out the coupon from his pocket. Their understanding was that Ravi would buy the chocolate from the money that Ashok had given him by saving on the bus fares back home; he had been walking back from the bus stop everyday for the past few weeks to awaken Lady Luck and make her shine on him. And he held the coupon which came as a part of a jam bottle. The shopkeeper had commented that Ashok had a face which has the capability to invite Lady Luck to be by his side. The coupon that he was currently holding was valid for another week and he needed four numbers tallying with the numbers on the white wrappers of ‘Snow White’ chocolates to claim the prize money of Rs. 20,000.

“The number is 7,” says Ravi excitedly as he reveals the white wrapper to Ashok.

“It’s 7 here as well! But can you not make such a big deal by advertising the chocolate here? What will the girls think when they know that I’m digging into ‘Snow White’ chocolates every day?” asks Ashok.

“When you win the prize money, they will make up your fan following,” says Ravi with a twinkle in his eye. He continues, “What are you going to do with the money?”

“I’m three numbers away, Ravi,” says Ashok in a cautious tone.

“Yes, but still tell me,” urges Ravi.

“I can use it to study further to become a lawyer and fulfil the dreams of my parents,” says Ashok with a forlorn look in his eyes.

“That’s the plan?” asks Ravi in a dismissive manner.

“It may not seem important to you, but I want to see my parents happy,” stresses Ashok looking at Ravi who is now busy devouring the chocolate oblivious to the emotional state of mind that his friend is in.

“Excellent chocolate!” says Ravi licking the wrapper.

“Can you be a little discreet?” asks Ashok nodding his head in disapproval.

Ravi lets out a little giggle and says, “Yes, Mr. Lawyer!” and they walk out of the canteen.

The afternoon heat the next day is excruciating as most of the students at the canteen are holding bottles of cold drinks and sipping away at a rate fast enough for the canteen owner to order Chotu to pull out another crate from the attic to be able to cool it in the fridge.

“Mother is ill, so I must go home early today,” says Ashok.

“Chotu, get a bottle of Thums Up for our lawyer saab here,” says Ravi summoning the canteen boy who hurries to obey the orders.

“I have no time to sit down and gossip, so what’s the number?” asks Ashok stomping his feet in impatience.

“Lawyers have to learn patience, my friend. Cases can drag on for years,” giggles Ravi. “Sit down and we’ll share the surprise together and he starts to unwrap their hopes; the chocolate.

“Number 9 for you,” says Ravi and puts the white wrapper on the table.

The tea arrives and between sips Ashok brings his lottery ticket close to his eyes and says, “Yes, its 9 here as well!”

The pact was that Ashok would reveal the coupon to his friend only on the last day as his superstition had it that lady Luck does not like to reveal herself in the fear of being doubted at; so he might just displease her.

“I’ll have to rush home, see you tomorrow here at lunch time. I will be taking mother to the doctor in the morning. Don’t forget to bring the chocolate!” says Ashok rushing out of the canteen.

Now Ravi is left by himself to munch on the chocolate in the manner he deems fit without being commented upon. The canteen slowly starts overflowing with the girls rehearsing for the college play to be held the following week. With no one to reprimand his childish behaviour, Ravi asks for another Thums Up and lets his eyes pan the entire canteen; from the entrance to the dark corner facing him and from the payment counter to the girls sitting in the middle of the canteen and giggling loudly. Ravi pulls up his collar aping his favourite movie star and starts walking towards the girls’ tables to make an impression.

The next day brings Ashok to the canteen with the wrinkles on his forehead manifesting the muddle in his head.

“How’s aunty?” asks Ravi sitting at their usual place at the canteen.

“The doctor says it could be hypertension. She is worried about getting didi married,” replies Ashok sounding concerned.

“Don’t worry, let’s see if Lady Luck is on your side today as well,” urges Ravi and starts unwrapping the chocolate.

“Number 8 for you!” says Ravi excitedly.

“Wow! 8 here as well,” says Ashok unable to contain his excitement.

“Just one number to go. Why don’t you tell me what it is? I’m curious and can’t wait till tomorrow,” tells Ravi trying to get a peek at the lottery ticket.

“Don’t its inauspicious,” says Ashok scolding Ravi who is already laughing loudly.

But his mind is set on knowing what Ashok’s fate reveals. And when the mind is faced with stubbornness, it turns into a resolve to defeat the purpose it is against. “Look who’s there? Hello Prof. Sharma!” says Ravi and stands up from his chair to mark his respect for the oldest Professor of Economics in the college who also was revered by Ashok. The moment Ashok hears the Professor’s name; he stands and looks behind him with his hands crossed behind his back. Ravi jumps at this opportunity and gets closer to the coupon in Ashok’s hand and gets a glance at the last number and then sits back calmly in his chair.

“Where is Prof. Sharma?” he turns around and asks Ravi asks rather irritated.

“He was here a moment back. Sorry you didn’t see him! But don’t worry, we will be in his class shortly,” says Ravi with a straight face like nothing happened in last few seconds.

“Hmmm….” mutters Ashok, his mind still on his mother’s health.

They leave letting Lady Luck decide the course of action for the next day. Ashok is convinced that it will be his moment of glory as he has entrusted his hopes on his destiny that he is sure of and spends the night sleeping like a baby. Ravi on the other hand is restless with knowing he tricked Ashok and peeked at his destiny. Will Lady Luck be angry with them? Will she shine on Ashok?

The bright morning seems different to Ravi as Ashok is one number away from the truth and he knows that he is looking at the last chocolate he would buy for Ashok. Temptations sweep him as he is fiddling with the chocolate in his hands. “Should I get a peek?” he mutters and then decides to ignore the impulsive side of his mind. He heads to college and sits through the lectures with his mind only on the outcome of their adventure which is to shape their destiny. “His destiny!” Ravi corrects his mind. He scans the classroom scouting for Ashok who is nowhere in sight.

The hours go by and Ravi gets impatient and pulls out the chocolate from his pocket. He heads towards the canteen and his surroundings seem different to him. Maybe it’s his mind playing tricks on him; the ambient noise seems to dull around him. It falls silent and his mind seems to be talking to him. He hears it carefully and his hand again fiddles with the chocolate. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” he asks silently. He could and pretend like nothing happened. He was an aspiring actor anyway, so Ashok wouldn’t suspect him. Slowly the crowd at the canteen starts to thin down as the lunch hour is almost over. “Where are you?” he mutters and taps his fingers on the table with his eyes fixed on the chocolate.

And then after a good contemplation of an hour or so, he sees Ashok enter the canteen with a sombre look on his face and Ravi doesn’t say anything. He hands him the white wrapper of luck and truth. Ashok’s face falls. “6? And I wanted a 0. Is that all my luck?” says Ashok and gives the coupon to Ravi. “Now you can see it! Lady Luck can’t be angry with me anymore.”

Weeks roll by and Ashok’s appearance at college becomes a rarity; not that Ravi misses him.

The tubes that are running back and forth from his mother paint a gory picture of the situation. The nurses are running in and out of the room and the doctor is putting down his observations on his writing pad.

“Well, I got here as soon as I could. How’s aunty?” asks Ravi.

“She’s going to need an operation to remove the clot from her brain. I needed the money, Ravi. I needed that money,” cries Ashok.

Ravi comes out of the hospital and sits by the side walk with his head low and shoulders drooping. He searches his pocket and finds the keys to his guilt; the keys to his new, red car deflecting sunlight off its roof top, standing proudly next to him. He drops the keys on the hard cobbled pavement and along with it, two white wrappers with the number 6 which he had deceived Ashok with and the other one with his lucky number 0 on it which blinded him into an illusionary world.


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