Five man-children made their way up the spiral stairs and into the grand old Hall.
The place had seen disrepair and neglect for all but two nights in the year: the day students entered these hallowed grounds of learning, and the day they left it.
Someone had been keeping busy. There were six chairs, arranged in a circle, dead center in the middle of the hall. A small side table had been dragged to the center, and had been loaded with refreshments: biscuits, spicy wafers, and bottles of water.
The Five: there was a jock, a geek, a loser, and two very judgmental young men. They clambered onto their rickety chairs, wary of the splinters and the rusty nails on the side.
They had all received a simple message, at different times of the day, handwritten on a small scrap of paper.
The name had become quite popular, and not just because of the obvious Beatles inspiration: for six months now, boys had spoken of the name in hushed, reverent tones. Girls had complained of never getting them.
No one was quite certain about what happened in these meetings. Sure, stories had been told, myths had been propagated, small details had somehow become public.
The message would be simple: a time and place, with that curious signature:
6PM in the Hall. You are invited. – The Lonely-Hearts Club Band.
The Five responded with various degrees of startle: two bobbing heads investigating the source of the sound, two loud gasps, and two who’d paid closer attention to the stories, thus sitting shock still.
There was a large brown speaker perched on the girt directly above them. It had two knobs where it’s ears could have been.
“Please stand for our anthem.”
Two stood, two flashed middle fingers, one pulled out his smart phone.
For the next two minutes, the air of the hall was thick with rock and roll:
“We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band;
We hope you will enjoy the show…”
People react so differently to anthems, thought the bespectacled girl who hid by the curtains. Some stood in uneasy attention, others rocking from side to side with the rhythm; some trying to disrupt and distract, others were caught up in the magic of the music.
The voice issuing from the looming boom-box was loud and slightly muffled. The words were formal, but the sound itself was harsh, almost like it was having difficulty hiding its contempt.
“Let the games begin.”
The lights were dim, the lamp-shades grimy, and there was a thick coating of dust on the walls; the old paintings had been given vulgar captions with an ink corrector pen, and the small statues were missing limbs or portions of their marble skulls.
Rohit had never been more discouraged. Five pairs of eyes (and a disembodied voice) did not help matters.
“Chicken-shit, get on with it.”
“If only your mom hadn’t said that to your dad.”
Amidst sniggers, the bully Rahul glared and made to get up, but then thought the better of it.
“Well, I guess I just had enough”, Rohit sighed.
He sat back down.
The floodgates will open now, at least, the bespectacled girl said to herself. Her pen was ready, and so was her notebook.
One-by-one, the guys stated their positions.
“I asked her not to do ONE thing. One FUCKING thing. She just had to keep it a secret. But NO, Bitch-Tits had to run her fucking mouth on Facebook and now my dad want to come down here…”
“She likes the ‘intellectual’ type, she said. She dumped me for some loser nine-pointer…”
“It was mutual. We both knew it didn’t have a future.”
“I dropped her pen, I picked it up, I tapped her shoulder and said, ‘Is this yours?’ She blocked me on Facebook, her friends laugh at me…”
“This is stupid. I’m getting out of here.”
Vardhan was just about to get up when bully Rahul stood up.
“You’ve heard the stories: you shouldn’t have come if you didn’t want to share.”
The invitees were sworn to secrecy; the legend had dictated that much. It was now clear how this clause was honored.
Bully Rahul was six and a half feet tall, and had a face like an ogre. Vardhan gulped.
“It’s a little embarrassing.”
He told his story, halting while the others shared smirks and knowing looks in equal measure. Vardhan spoke like a man caught red-handed doing something very wrong: something so unspeakable his girlfriend had warned him to never do it. But he did.
When Vardhan was finished, Rohit had a look of incredulity on his face.
Geeky Rahul raised his hand, like he was still in class. The others disregarded it completely.
Bully Rahul was perplexed. “But how did she even find out?”
“She had my laptop over the weekend once.”
“Okay, my friend, this is a little ridiculous. For starters, how’d she even find it?”
It is a Treasure trove that a boy keeps fiercely guarded. It is hidden in ingeniously clever ways, often in plain sight, and woe betide a boy that divulges the location of his happy place.
“It’s all her fucking fault. Why’d she have to snoop around? I mean, can’t you have boundaries or something.”
“I don’t know about that. They take these things seriously, they do. They’ve got the market cornered on the whole sex thing in the relationship, don’t they?”
“… ‘the whole sex thing?’ What are you, twelve? – “
“I think,” Geeky Rahul squeaked, his hand still raised in the air, “maybe… she had a point… “
The others turned to him now.
“This is a safe zone. We speak our minds here. We stand up for the man here,” said the Boom Box of Doom. The voice was a monotone, but oddly authoritative.
“But… maybe she’s just offended that he didn’t do as she asked.”
Pavan looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“You’re comparing me to Vardhan’s girl? Are you fucking kidding me.”
That one friend who swears a lot more than anyone should, bless him.
“Rahul has a point”, said Rohit.
“No, he doesn’t. Shut up, nerd.” Geeky Rahul put his hand down.
Bully Rahul was getting restless. “How could someone not like this?”
He outstretched his arms, he looked to the heavens, he saw himself in a Hindi film, romancing flight attendants in Australia whilst wearing a turban.
“Maybe she didn’t want to hang out with a muscly ballerina.”
“You’re right, you look like you belong on a magazine cover… Playgirl magazine?”
Bully Rahul didn’t seem to have heard them, or maybe he simply hadn’t understood. “C’mon, this is where we solve our problems, isn’t it?” he said belligerently. “How about we get down to some solving, then?”
“Well, I know what I’m doing”, snapped Pavan. “I’m going to shame the bitch.”
“Whoa, shame her?”
“That’s right. I’m going to town on her – in college, in the hostel, online – I’m going to make her cry.”
“See that’s… not how you handle it.”
“Like you know better?”
“Well, yes, I do actually. I’ve broken up more times than anyone here.”
“Go on, Rohit. You tell them, you break-up master, you.”
“Thank you. Well, there are a few golden rules: one, don’t say anything you might regret, because you may want to get back with her; two, there’s no such thing as a clean breakup, you have all these little lingering feelings, and you will want to get back with her; three, and this is a big one, this is India.”
“You’ve lived a lifetime of being told that girls can’t handle it when things get tough, and for the most part: that’s true.”
“That is a little sexis-“, Geeky Rahul began –
Aditya looked at the boom-box, which had said precious little thus far.
“Well, this is like some sort of… support group? We just sit around, talk about our problems, leave happy?”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“Well, I could talk about what happened with me, I guess…”
He was fair-skinned, well dressed, with the high cheekbones of a movie-star.
“We’d been going out for six months, things looked good. We went to the movies over the weekends, big date every month, regular texting…”
“Did you guys, do it?”
“No, Vardhan, I’m not getting into that”, said Aditya, gracefully. “So anyway. A few weeks after it began, I felt like I was caught in this never-ending loop. It was fun and games at the start, but then the conversation started getting stale, I started to miss being alone for a few hours a day, my guy friends started going out without me… So, I sat her down, I told her that I missed being single.”
“Wow, that probably didn’t go too well.”
Aditya smiled. “I said my breakup was mutual, didn’t I?”
Aditya was standing slightly in front of a yellow light bulb. To the boys before him, the light rose behind him, and for a moment, he looked more radiant than before, like an angel.
“I was honest about what I wanted. She missed her friends and her life before me too, imagine how long we’d both be miserable. I came out with it, we shook hands, and I’m on for paintball with the guys this Saturday!”
Geeky Rahul was looking at Aditya all through the little speech.
“You’re saying it’s over for good. No hard feelings, you’ve ‘moved on’.”
Aditya took a small bow.
Bully Rahul began to clap loudly. “Alright! You’re the man!”
“So basically, you never did it.”
“Damn it, Vardhan, give it a rest, I’m not talking about that.”
“Are you saying – “, Geeky Rahul suddenly looked happier, maybe even a little hopeful, “ – that I should just speak my mind? Just be confident? Tell her what I want?”
“Sure! If you look like Aditya.”
“The dating game is rigged, geek-zilla, it’s fucking rigged. You could be one charming fuck of a human being; you could blow up your grandpa’s trust fund in the process; you don’t look like a rock star, you’re still going out with your right hand on weekends. “
“I just want to be friends with her…”
Five pairs of eyes on Geeky Rahul again. The boom-box coughed slightly.
“No you don’t, Rahul, no you don’t. You don’t ask a girl out to be her friend.”
“You know, Rohit, you’ve been saying a whole load of stuff about everyone, and it’s been nice to hear your opinion about everyone in this room, but if you don’t mind we’d like to hear about you.”
Rohit, the accused, go to his feet wearily.
“Oh yeah, you judgmental fuck. Time to spill the beans!”
“How many years was it? Four, five years?
“Six years and seven months”, Rohit muttered.
Rohit wasn’t great looking in the classical sense, but he had a charisma about him that drew people to him.
“So… did she cheat on you? Did you cheat on her?”
“You found someone else, didn’t you.”
“Can’t say that I did, no.”
Rohit seemed to be willing himself to think.
“I don’t even know if there’s a reason. I was with her one day, we’d gone to Captain Cook, and I was chewing on a sandwich, and then I thought, fuck it.”
“Six and a half years, and… fuck it?”
“Six years and seven months. She was all dressed up today, of all days. I looked her in the eyes, and I said: I’ve had enough.”
“It took you six and a half years to get bored, I’m not buying this.”
“Six years and seven months.”
“Remember every day of the struggle, don’t you?
Something has to give, thought the bespectacled girl.
“It’s funny, how I only remembered the good after we would take a break from each other; I’d remember every horrible thing she did to me when we got back. I resented her, I resented myself, I resented her friends who’d take her side all the time, I resented MY friends because they’d take her side – what the fuck is wrong with guys, anyway?”
He yelled it out in unadulterated rage. There was an uneasy silence.
“This meeting is over”, the Boombox rasped. “We will meet again.”
Aditya was staring down at his phone, occasionally sending a text.
“So that’s it, right? We don’t talk about this to anyone?”
“We keep it quiet, man. The meetings have been happening since, I don’t know, forever. How many times have you actually heard what people say here?”
“It’s all a big fucking mystery.”
“It’s just – a mystery, Pavan, that’s it, stop saying ‘fuck’ when you don’t need it, you’re taking the fun out of it.”
“Yeah, for fuck’s sake, Pavan.”
“I guess it’s just good to get stuff out occasionally.”
Bully Rahul looked one last time at the boom-box.
“The Lonely-Hearts Club Band. Huh.”
“So let me get this straight, just, just to clarify: she broke up with you because… you had porn on your laptop?”
“That is what set her off, anyway.”
“Wow. Just… wow.”
They got out of the hall, one by one. The bespectacled boy put her notebook and her trusty blue pen back into her shoulder bag. She had found six new lives, after months of effort and observation; soon, she would know it all.
“Okay, that was good. C’mon, guys, Blue Wings?”
“Um, no, sorry, I don’t dr- “
“Wasn’t inviting you. Rohit, Aditya, Pavan?”
“I do feel like some cheap fucking rum right now. Let’s go.”
“Awesome! Pavan, Aditya?”
Aditya was walking away quickly, barely looking back. They watched him pull out his phone again to pick up a call, and then he blew a kiss into the speaker, and then he bolted.
“I’ll pass, Rahul. I just told five people and some dude with a spare loudspeaker. I think I’m calling her again.”
He walked away, kicking at the ground as he did.
Rohit had felt this way before, suffocating in his own rage, seeing the world in a red haze of frustration. Cheap rum would flow freely today, but the winds of change were in motion: lashing out felt good, so it wouldn’t be the last time.
LHCB Chapter 1, by P. Shenvi