J Is for Joker
Four o’clock on a sticky Sunday afternoon finds me at the table with Sultan, Prince, Shadow, and King. We are all running blind at sixty-four thousand, and the game is burning up. My fellow virtual billionaires won’t back down, but there’s one millionaire among us, and he’s thirsting for a win. Sultan pings me privately. He’s down on his luck. I ignore his pleas. The thing he needs is in short supply for me too.
The room lives only in pixels on the Internet, but the game plays out like I’m live in a gambling den. I’m in one of many game-rooms tables, playing Teen Patti, an Indian version of poker. My fate rests in three cards dealt out by the Gods.
By the time the Iyengars arrive, I have consumed my weight in chocolates.
And I’ve lost four million dollars.
Our first Diwali as a married couple, Rahul ushered me into the living room of his brother’s house, where an assortment of his relatives sat cross-legged in a makeshift circle on a rug. I knew nothing of the rules or the tricks, but they roped me in, probably hoping to make a clean sweep of my money. How could I claim that Delhi blood ran in my veins and its dust had settled in my lungs if I didn’t know how to play Teen Patti? Just three cards that would make my life.
The thought of us – two imbecilic newlyweds – gambling away the few crisp notes we earned every month turned my palms clammy. Unable to escape, I proposed an alternative – to play with Monopoly money.
Laughter rang out, loud and clear. The comments rolled forth. So young! So naïve! A typical virginal bride! Just like when you brought her home, Rahul! Is she always so shy like this (wink, wink)?
Six months had passed in a blur of monotony since Rahul and I had married. I wasn’t a bride anymore, and didn’t cower behind a veil, but the innuendos hadn’t dwindled one bit.
I curbed the retorts that rose on my tongue, and stewed in silence, swerving my focus to the game and my cards.
The stakes started low. In the first hour, I lost seven hundred rupees. Rahul folded most of his hands, but he showed me each one, and tutored me in the art of gambling. He himself lost a thousand rupees.
I gritted my teeth and watched my competitors tuck away wads of cash winnings into deceptively small cloth pouches. They tried soothing me with words:
Lucky in cards, unlucky in love
Rahul blushed. Why did a thirty-year-old man have to blush like a teenage girl? I feigned a shy smile, but beneath my grinning exterior, I yearned to throw them a punch, and stamp on Rahul’s foot. But only his foot – I couldn’t hurt the rest of him.
I built up my pot once more, accruing small but vital wins of fifty, hundred, two hundred rupees. In the beginning I almost gasped at the brilliant hands that came my way, and it cost me large boots of money as the experts folded. Soon I learned to conceal the delight in my features when the Card Gods blessed me with a trio or a straight flush. I learned to play blind, to trust in my fate that when the time came, the cards would deliver.
When my kitty blossomed and swelled, they noticed. It was their turn to watch, while I gathered mountains of crunchy notes and packed it into my little sling bag.
I baited them into betting higher amounts of money by playing dumb, duping them into parting higher bets each time, especially when golden cards crossed my palms.
An hour away from dawn, we rose from the cross-legged lotus positions. Our knees had stiffened, and Rahul had lost two thousand rupees.
I had won five thousand rupees, and for the first time in life, I had fallen in love.
2.54 pm, 53%, $71.8K
Stealing moments between meetings makes my blood boil, but there’s no other way I can earn back the dollars lost in the minutes after waking up.
Seconds before I step into the room, the options pop up on my phone. Play or fold? My virtual treasures lie at stake.
My boss assumes his seat at the head of the table.
I enter with my head down, buried in my phone, holding it between my palms in landscape mode.
I switch off my phone screen in a hurry. If my colleagues glimpse the vibrant colors of the game-room, they’ll know it’s not work that has me engrossed.
My boss glares at me with that hangdog expression as he usually does. I always marvel at how his jaw resembles an ape’s.
“Yes?” I ask him, taking care not to smile, mimicking his vacuousness.
“Could you please take notes? We’ll need to send this to the senior management.”
I want to thwack him on the head. I’m not your effing secretary.
Then I realize that he had said “please.”
I cradle the phone on my lap. I’m wearing a skirt today, and the phone nestles upon the bowl of cloth between my widened legs. My phone remains on silent, so the jangle of each bet, the rustle of cards as players fold, the whoosh as each one is dealt – all those sounds stay confined to the phone.
My boss drones on. I bend my head to emit closed-mouth yawns every so often, while placing my bets. I dispatch a zinger of a bet, then place my pen on the page, poised as if to write down every golden word that escape his lips. I scribble some of what he says, along with a smattering of words from others and instructions that bear the ring of importance.
“What do you think, Sunaina?”
I glance at my phone.
3.09 pm, 47%, $62.6K
My turn will come next. In a flash, I press the “Fold” button, and read over the notes.
We’re good to go, I say. They nod.
Boss says, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you can think of? It’s a compliance issue, after all.”
He’s pushing back. Resisting and saying no would make me look like an idiot.
“I’ll double-check to be sure.”
This time he double-nods. Now he’s really satisfied that everything’s taken care of. Doesn’t matter if I really check things or not. Despite his directive to take notes, nothing of significance comes up. The meeting justifies his humdrum existence in the world of Excel sheets and insipid emails.
I hit New Game, and live to play another day.
From the living room in Gurgaon, I leapt to the gambling dens of Pamposh Enclave and Tilak Nagar. There, in the seedy bellies of crumbling brick buildings, soaking in the stink of sweat and smoke and homegrown local beer, I played, I won, and I lost. I surrendered my faith and life in the hands of my fellow players.
The dens glorified democracy more than elections did. They banded together all sections of society. Truck drivers tested their luck alongside suited businessmen and heiresses wearing Levi jeans and Chanel perfume.
Wedged between their sweaty middles was the middle class – people like me, stuffed into impossible positions, forever crouched upon the cusp of glory and immense wealth, but that remained elusive. Even one victory would propel us to the top. When we did win, we beat our chests with pride, only to return deflated in ensuing deals.
Rahul never discovered my clandestine trips to the dens, and neither did his family. Even the next Diwali when I swept the board and cleaned out their houses with my winnings, they furrowed their brows and strained harder, as if trying to dump aces on the floor, but they asked where I had gained so much practice.
When all else failed, they demanded babies. I didn’t bother to tell them that patting my stomach wouldn’t conjure up a baby inside it, no more than they could convert their twos into kings. Rahul and I hardly met these days. He slogged at his father’s boutique on the weekends, and I staggered home late every day on the other five days. He never guessed that my “late working” stemmed from my hours in the dens. He never complained too much about my hours after the first few weeks. We quarrelled over it a few times, but soon he gave up. In retrospect it should have warned me that something was amiss.
Rahul and my family didn’t find me out, but my friends from the dens did.
I took my Diwali winnings to the dens and bet all of it. I was invincible now. Everyone knew about that. I told them the whole story as soon as I strode in carrying the cash in a haversack.
Everyone knew what the haversack meant. On that day that I met the Iyengars.
They looked like such a homely couple. He with a crew-cut and a moustache ripe for twirling, she in a salwar-kameez and walking shoes, her thick hair in a plait down to her waist. I couldn’t but think of a horse’s tail when her plait swished every time she shot a bet.
They cleaned house faster and better than I did. My cash winnings, which I had scraped together after more than six hours of play, evaporated in minutes.
The Iyengars bore down upon me. I owed them money. They wanted it back, and they wanted it quick. They did not shy away from skirting the law to get what they desired.
I had to find a way to return it. In desperation, I turned to my art.
11.24 am, 92%, $91.9K
The call comes from reception – visitors from some infernal agency. I don’t even know what they want.
I click the bet button and rush downstairs.
Inside a small meeting room shielded from the world by frosted-glass doors, I shake hands with them. One man and one woman, both bespectacled, serious-looking and utterly without humour. They’re dressed in business suits, and suddenly I feel naked in plain jeans and a t-shirt on Friday.
Everyone folds. I bag a virtual fifty thousand in my kitty without a sweat. Looks like a good day.
The duo hurl terms at me that whoosh over my head. It sounds all very official. I’m wondering if I should tell my boss right now, but I picture his face contorting in rage for disturbing him and shelve the idea.
I’ve lost twenty of the fifty thousand already. But this hand looks promising. I hit Check.
They haul out their laptops and thrust the screen in my face. Graphs, charts and spreadsheets float before my eyes – together they narrate a woeful tale of our non-compliance.
Another forty thou in the kitty. The balance is beginning to swell.
They hand me their business cards. If I don’t send them the data they need, I can expect another call from them.
It’s a bank after all, and it dawns on me they know what they’re talking about. The evidence is damning.
I drag myself back to my seat. Over the next few hours, in a flurry of bets that I win and lose almost alternately, I compile and consolidate the data they had demanded.
A ten-thousand-dollar loss doesn’t sting any more.
Should I talk to my boss once before I dispatch it?
I lean over to check through his glass doors if he’s in his cabin, but I can spot only an empty chair.
The chat tool shows him away for an hour. That means he’s at an important meeting for the higher-ups.
How do I consult him?
A brilliant idea strikes me. When I email the data, I mark him in the email, so at least he’s aware of it.
Around six when I’m stuffing things into my bag, boss calls me to his cabin. His suit shines bright and clean, so I know he’s come to the office after nodding off during a conference rather than at his desk.
I follow him inside and he closes the glass door.
That’s my first sign of trouble. I shut off my phone temporarily, something I haven’t done the whole day.
“What’s that email you sent today?”
That was easy. “We were facing compliance issues.”
“Why didn’t you check with me about it first?”
“You weren’t at your desk, so I thought – “
“Do you have my number?”
“Yes, but I – “
His voice drops dangerously low. “You have committed a grade A violation.”
His chin crumples so much it looks like an orange peel.
I don’t survive to play another day.
The Iyengars arrive at six. The hues of twilight steal into our room when they ring the bell.
Rahul opens the door to them. His scowl disappears when he sees how homely they look, just as I had reported to him. They own businesses with millions of rupees in turnover, and they don’t have to pretend otherwise. I have simply not divulged to Rahul the exact nature of their business.
I serve them cold drinks and juices. Rahul offers Mr. Iyengar a drink, but our guest refuses. I don’t know why, because I’ve seen him chug them down by the gallon during the den parties. His abstinence impresses Rahul, more so when Mrs. Iyengar chimes in to say that he does it of his own accord. There’s no religious flavour to it – he simply abstains when he “feels like it.” This amazes Rahul, and he promises to join in on the next spree. Rahul hardly drinks anyway, but who am I to sever the ties of a premature bond?
I can’t gobble up chocolates in front of them, and I can’t pull up my poker game either. So, I do what I do best – bite my nails down to their cuticles.
Rahul says, “I don’t remember – where exactly is it that you people met?”
“Oh, that’s easy – in the Connaught Place den.”
Mrs. Iyengar’s face turns ashen. My insides turn to ice.
Suspicion and doubt ring through quite clear as Rahul enunciates each word. “The Connaught Place den?”
He turns to me. I sip my mango juice and shrug, as nonchalantly as I can.
Mrs. Iyengar addresses her husband. “I believe you are thinking of someone else, Mr. Iyengar. We met Sunaina at Indian Art Gallery, the day she took the decision to quit her job and pursue art as a career.”
It bears the ring of sincerity because it’s true, though that hadn’t been the first time we had met.
Mr. Iyengar shakes his head. “Oh, I am getting old, Rahul. My missus is right as usual. I am very bad at remembering dates, and names and faces.”
Rahul chuckles. “That’s ok, I am the same. But I do remember the important dates!”
“You are lucky, my dear.” Mrs. Iyengar says. “He doesn’t remember our anniversary ever.” She scoffs at her husband in disdain. He remains unperturbed.
I wear my finest fake blush and sip my juice. “I think this is an appropriate time to reveal my gift.”
Rahul smiles at me, the kind that reaches his eyes. It must be the news I whispered into his ears last night. I was late, too late for it to be anything else except what he and our relatives craved.
“Good idea. Get it now.”
Mr. Iyengar says, “What? What is it? Please! You should not go to so much trouble.”
“It’s just a little something I made for you. I’m sure you’ll like it!”
I skip inside to fetch it. The conversation drones on in my absence. Rahul’s remonstrations and Mr. Iyengar’s appreciative murmurs mingle into a pleasant hum of harmony and balance.
The canvas wrapped in newspaper weighs my arms down.
Everyone rises to their feet.
“Tear it off,” I offer Mr. Iyengar.
He and his wife rip off the packaging, revealing my magnum opus masterpiece – a reproduction of the “Glow of Hope” by S L Haldankar. An innocent young being, clad in a pink saree, stands with a lamp in her hand, her palm shielding its glow.
The look on their faces gratify me. I’ve captured the delicate colors and refined hues of the original painting better than I had hoped to.
“It is beautiful.”
“Really, Sunaina. You are a brilliant artist!”
“She has worked on it day and night, especially to present it to you two.”
They grin. The deal between the three of us hangs like an invisible thread in the air – Rahul, an outsider, who would never catch it even if he could.
“Well, you just have to wrap it again, Sunaina!”
I grab the canvas from them. “It won’t take me more than five minutes.”
They watch, spellbound. Such an expert forgery will fetch more than eighty thousand dollars on the open market, seventy-nine of which will clear my debt. The rest they’d pocket as their commission, the price I’m paying them to leave my teeth and face intact.
When they leave, I trudge to my studio, knowing what I’ll paint next.
I turn on my phone, shut off the light and click “New Game.”
Gargi Mehra works as a Project Manager in the IT arm of an international bank. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print, including The Forge Literary Magazine, The Temz Review, The Writer, and others. She lives in Pune, India with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.gargimehra.com.