Let's start! Where was I? Did I mention Muchhad's paan Khokha yet?

(definition) Khokha (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi): A temporary cheap small counter for sale of various items; but most commonly lotteries, cigarettes, beedis and paan (betel leaves). Sometimes in commercial areas cheap lunch is also sold from khokhas.

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage-
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age ...
- e.e. cummings

III. When serpents bargain for a right to squirm

We spent the night flipping Date and creating fifth normalization databases. The early morning milky light had started to spread and birds were just about to start to sing when we decided it's breakfast time. We looked at our watches, "4:15", "4:12 to be accurate", "Ooooh! Where would we be without your digital watch", "Let's go on bike today, we don't have too much time", said Ali, Nabbu, I and Vikku. We counted the money in our pockets; we had just enough. Vikku and I took Ali's bike to get us Jalebi and milk while the other two waited.

Just before the Jagdish Lines area ended, there was an old khokha in a corner with "Muchchad Paan Corner" painted in peeling bright red paint over white on a tiny metal sign board. The board wanted to say "Muchhad", not "Muchchad", but no one except me seemed to care. We had practically never seen it closed, it was always open with an old Murphy radio blaring at a medium volume, tuned to the All India Radio.

True to his name, its owner 'Muchhad' had thick long mustaches adorning his otherwise bald head. Muchhad was a middle aged plump man always dressed in white kurta payjamas with a red colored handkerchief hanging from his shoulder to help him wipe hands between handling the paan and the money.

In the mornings we saw Muchhad prepare his counter, wet the leaves, refill his gulkand, kattha, keep supari in water to soften it, change ice in the rusty Coca Cola container and light a dhoop agartbatti, through the day he was busy selling his paan and beedis like hot cakes to tired railway workers returning from different shifts every couple of hours in need of instant nirvana.

Vikku stopped here like a devout Hindu in front of a mandir or a devout Muslim in front of a mosque to offer respect before passing. And because Vikku's love for cigarettes was much stronger than any follower of any religion anywhere in the world, he stopped much longer, to buy a pack of Wills to spend the rest of the day with and enjoy his first cigarette of the day in peace, sitting sideways on the bike with closed eyes. I would stand about looking silly during this ritual. "Why can't you ride the pillion and smoke it while I drive?", I asked. "You drive too fast, the wind makes the cigarette burn much faster. It's such a wastage".

"C'mon! I'll be slow. We don't have enough time today yaar. We've not even started SQL."

"I'm too confused about what we have studied already, this helps me concentrate better. It'll take a minute, just a minute. Please. Hmm? Please. I'll get all jumbled up in my mind otherwise", Vikku would plead like a kid and I'd give in. It had happened so many times before. He did agree sometimes, but not always.

"Are you guys Hindu?" Muchhad stopped his clockwork routine for a moment and looked up at us from his counter to ask.

We looked at him then at each other for a moment. Vikku simply replied, "Yes."

"Are you guys aware of what's happening? A snake was sighted under the banyan. People say it's Shivji's sign, an order to construct a temple for him."

"Yes. We heard. Are they going to do it?"

"The crowd is crazy. Especially young people. You remember what happened in 92*? They are thinking of repeating it here. Last night some people started talking here and things they talked about were very scary. They talked about place of a Hindu in India, and what Muslims did to Hindus during partition. You know how they always pull for Pakistan during cricket matches in Hydrabad, they even dare to celebrate Pakistan's victory. It angers a lot of people. They were talking about this and so many other things and I was worried this might really flare up. I will have to close the business down. My shop was burnt down during last riots; I was devastated. I work day and night to pay off the credits I took to start my shop again. I have four children to feed..."

"Don't you want this to be done and over with for once and for all?" Vikku interrupted him and started to say, "You know how these people are. They keep converting our people to Islam and screwing India up internally. Pakistan is only half our problem, we have these snakes poisoning our country from the inside..."

I was shocked to hear Vikku say those words. I had known him for many years, but had never seen this side of him. So bitter, so toxic, so poisonous ... I saw snakes everywhere all of a sudden. With raised hoods and bared fangs. Snakes everywhere. Who's fighting whom?

Seeing the lack of time on hands I decided to not discuss this with Vikku till later in the day and pulled him away from the conversation by reminding him that his cigarettes had one last breath left for him, and in a few hours we would be needing to fiddle with bigger problems in life - databases, tables, rows, columns, records. The snake receded back for a moment and we drove towards Banwarilal Halwai's sweetmeat shop to complete our current mission.

We didn't talk much till we were back at Ali's place, there too it was mostly about Jalebi and SQL. In my mind a discomfort had started to grow, I could see the hatred flowing in the veins of my best friend. I wondered what was going through Ali's head at that moment. Is there a snake inside him too? Is there a snake hiding inside Nabbu? And the worst fear I had was about my own self. I wondered if I was as full of venom as Vikku, if I had a sleeping but similar hatred inside me. Would I spew venom too if I opened my mouth on the subject? What if snakes do drink milk when no one is watching? Early in the mornings ... with Jalebi perhaps.

(definition) Dhaba (Hindi, Punjabi): An open eating place on the side of roads (usu highways), offering inexpensive but very delicious Punjabi dishes.

Later in the day, after the exam, we collected at our usual joint, a dhaba just outside the college. Lacking enough money we ordered just tea and started to discuss the questions. We had a three day break before the next exam so none of us was in a hurry to go back home. Sitting there for a couple of hours in Vikku's smoke, we talked of random things; and all the while a push to start to talk to Vikku about his attitude kept getting stronger in me but I resisted, not wanting to start around Ali.

After a while, we all decided to sync up on phones sometime the next day and Ali left with Nabbu. Vikku and I were left sitting at the dhaba table sipping last few sips of tea blackened and peppered with tea leaves.

I was starting to collect my thoughts and form questions in my mind when Vikku said "I know what you want to say, I know you think I am wrong. But believe me, you don't know half the truth."

I was still not sure what I want to ask. But Vikku seemed to already know what his answers would be.

* : in December 1992, the infamous 'Babri Masjid' demolition incident happened at Ayodhya in Northern India.

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