Gregory stood for a minute, allowing his eyes to adjust to the minimal lighting on the rooftop terrace. He leaned against the closed door to catch his breath after climbing the six flights of stairs from his friend’s apartment and looked up at the clear night sky.
He looked around the narrow space at the small lights affixed to the terrace walls at odd intervals and the wooden furniture scattered around on faded swaths of fake grass. Stepping out onto the terrace, he could see the elevator room down at the end of the terrace. It loomed against the glow of Chicago’s city lights, its base obscured by shadows. He went to the terrace wall and looked down at the empty elevated train tracks that ran alongside the building and the darkened windows of the apartment complexes on the other side of the tracks.
It was 2 AM, and Chicago was under the COVID-19 lockdown, frozen now like most of the world. Gregory shook his head hard, trying to dispel his sad and scared thoughts about all that. He was alone, and he’d do what he came up here to do and hope it helped.
He sat on one of the wooden chairs and unlocked his phone. Its screen blinded him for a second before the music player he opened darkened the screen. A few taps more and the mellow and sorrowful first notes of “Koi Humdum Na Raha” spilled into the night. As the intro played, Gregory took a deep breath and began to sing.
“Hey hey hey hey
Ho ho ho ho
Hm hm hm hmm hmm hmm
Koi humdum na raha koi sahara na raha
Hum kisi ke na rahe koi hamara na raha
Koi humdum na raha koi sahara na raha
Shaam tanhaayi ki hai aayegi manzil kaise
Shaam tanhaayi ki hai aayegi manzil kaise
Jo mujhe ra herki kya hai . . .”
He sputtered to a stop, looking around self-consciously, though he knew he was alone. After all, that’s why he’d come up here: to be alone with his mistakes and not bother his friend or the neighbors while he practiced. No matter how many times he tried to say “deekhaye,” it came out wrong. He sighed, reversed the music track, and started over. He’d sing it correctly, even if it took all night!
On the sixth attempt, an exasperated cry rose from the end of the terrace: “It’s ‘dee-kha-ye. . . dee-kha-ye’!”
Gregory leaped to his feet, almost dropping the phone. “Who’s there?” he demanded, already calculating how fast his 50-year-old body could dash back to the terrace door and down the stairs.
A thin man stepped out from the shadows around the elevator room and into the dim lighting provided by the terrace wall fixtures. Gregory stared, his heart racing. The stranger looked Indian, with thick black hair falling into his face. With his arms raised non-threateningly, Gregory could see a mobile phone clutched in one hand, and a pair of black rimmed eyeglasses held in the other.
The two men stared at each other.
From the corner of the terrace, a cricket hesitantly started chirping.
“Who are you?” Gregory demanded.
“I’m Nandakumar,” the other man said, slowly lowering his hands. “I’m staying with the Kulkarnis on the second floor.” He put his glasses on to peer at Gregory. “You stay on the first floor, no?”
Gregory relaxed, his heart thankfully slowing down. He’d met the Kulkarnis once before while visiting his friend, though he didn’t know them well, and he had not seen Nandakumar before. He looked to be in his late twenties, so maybe a friend or relative of the elderly Indian couple? “Yes, I’m Gregory, staying on the first floor for a couple of weeks now.” Gregory sat down again, and Nandakumar sat in the chair beside his. “But what are you doing up here? It’s 2 AM!”
“Oh.” Nandakumar gestured vaguely at his phone. “Talking with a friend in India. I didn’t want to disturb the Kulkarnis, and with the time differences, this is the best time to call. I thought I’d wait until you left to go back down also, but then you started singing!”
“Sorry!” Gregory laughed. “But yeah, it’s around 12:30 or 1 in the afternoon in India right now, I guess.”
Nandakumar looked at Gregory with surprise. “Yeah, that’s right. But how do you know that? You’re American, right?”
Gregory nodded and leaned back in his chair. Nandakumar’s incredulity was accurate: Many Americans didn’t know the time in India any more than they knew the time on Mars. “I am American,” Gregory said. “Born and raised. But I’ve lived and worked in Bangalore for around 12 years now, and it’s more like home to me than the US. I came back here to renew my employment visa and got stuck in this lockdown.”
“Really?” Nandakumar said, smiling and leaning toward Gregory eagerly. “Me too! I mean, I’m from Bangalore also! I came to Seattle to attend a Microsoft bootcamp for software engineers. They ended the bootcamp when the lockdown was called. I came to Chicago to stay with the Kulkarnis while I figure out how to get back to Bangalore. They’re my father’s friends.”
“Isn’t Microsoft helping?” Gregory asked.
Nandakumar held up his hands helplessly. “I even work for Microsoft in Bangalore, but the government here and in India have shut all borders. I was seeing if my friend can find a travel agent in Bangalore who can pull some strings or something. . .” He trailed off and looked out over the darkened city.
A tiny flashing light in the sky absurdly showed them that a plane was flying high overhead. “Someone’s going somewhere,” Gregory said. “But not us.”
Nandakumar shook his head and turned back to Gregory. “Anyway, I hope we can both figure it out and leave soon. In the meantime, maybe I can help you with that song you were singing.”
Gregory smiled. “Yeah, ‘Koi Humdum Na Raha.’ I’m trying to learn how to sing it.”
“Why?” Nandakumar asked, settling back in his chair.
“Well,” Gregory said, wondering how much he should share with Nandakumar. He was a virtual stranger, their bonds to Bangalore notwithstanding. After a few seconds, Gregory mentally shrugged and plunged into his story. “Back in Bangalore, my boyfriend Sanjeev is waiting for me to return. He’s all alone in Bangalore; his family lives in Delhi, and no one can travel with the lockdowns. He’s worried about COVID, of course, and worried about how I’ll get back to him.” Gregory paused to look at Nandakumar, trying to gauge his reaction to such a personal story.
Nandakumar was nodding and listening curiously, so Gregory went on. “Sanjeev’s favorite song is ‘Koi Humdum Na Raha.’ I decided to learn it, so I can sing it for him during one of our Skype calls. Maybe it will make him feel better.”
“That’s damn romantic,” Nandakumar said. “I mean, it’s a sad song, but what you’re doing is damn romantic!”
Gregory grinned, because he knew Sanjeev would think so too. “Yeah! But though I’ve been in Bangalore for so long, my Hindi is still not the best. I’ve learned more Kannada than Hindi, to be honest. You know how it is,” he said.
“Yeah, everyone speaks English in Blore, even the auto guys.” Nandakumar nodded with experience. “How long have you and Sanjeev been together?”
“Oh, almost as long as I’ve lived in Bangalore.” Gregory said.
“How did you meet?” Nandakumar asked. “Tell me, if you want.”
Gregory smiled. “Are you sure?”
“Of course! Maybe it will help me think about something other than this lockdown,” Nandakumar said.
“I’d only been in Bangalore for a week or so and was still getting used to the way streets are named,” Gregory said. “You know, like how every area seems to have a 1st Cross and a 2nd Main or a 6th Main, or whatever? And there’s more than one 80 Feet Road, more than one 100 Feet Road, and how many Ring Roads?” He shook his head and chuckled. “I was trying to get to my new boss’s house for dinner. I thought I told the auto driver the correct address, but when he stopped and told me to get down, we were at some office building with no one around except for a guard at the gate.
“While I tried to ask the guard how to get to the boss’s address, a man in a sky-blue turban walked out of the building carrying a laptop bag. I stopped him and asked if he knew how to get to the area where my boss lived. ’I’m going that way now,’ he said. ‘I can drop you if you want.’”
Gregory laughed, remembering how hesitant he’d been to get into a stranger’s car. “I agreed to go with him, and we chatted a lot on the way because we got held up by the traffic. By the time he dropped me off at the boss’s house, we’d exchanged phone numbers. The rest, as they say, is history. We moved in together after about six months and have been together ever since.”
Nandakumar smiled and clapped his hands in appreciation. “Wow, that’s a great story! I’m more than happy to contribute to it by helping you sing as good as Kishore Kumar!”
Gregory laughed. “No one sings as good as Kishore Da,” he said. “But I can try!” He checked the time on his phone, amazed to see that more than an hour had passed since he’d come up to the terrace. “Do you think we can meet here again tomorrow night, though? Sorry! I have to get some sleep. I managed to get an appointment at the Indian embassy tomorrow in case they can help me get home.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure!” Nandakumar said. The men stood and shook hands. “If we meet a little earlier, I can even bring you some hot bisi bele baath from the Kulkarni kitchen!”
Gregory felt his mouth water, just thinking about that. “That sounds fantastic! And if I find out anything at the embassy tomorrow, I’ll let you know. Let’s help each other out!”
Nandakumar walked toward the terrace door and turned before he went inside. “Of course!” he said. “If my friend in Bangalore learns anything, I’ll let you know too! See you tomorrow evening!”
The terrace door shut behind Nandakumar with a soft thud, leaving Gregory grinning to himself in the dark.