“What if they don’t like it?” I wonder out loud and barely control the opposing feelings of annoyance and amusement as Khalid lets out an irritated noise. “All right, all right, I’ll – OW!”
“Ya Allah! That hurt. But I had to keep my word.” He speaks as he dodges my retaliation while falling back on his chair. “I did warn you that I don’t want you bothering about it anymore.” All of a sudden, he moves and I find my hands seized by him. He looks at me straight in the eye and I can see both how serious he is and how odd my hairstyle looks in the reflection in his eyes. Note to self: Get a haircut before tomorrow’s presentation.
“Yeah, easy for you to say.” I mumble a weak defense as I free my hands from him. “You aren’t the one who has to give this presentation in front of a crowd that can make or break us in an instant.” He gives me a droll look and I just raise my hand to stop him. “Don’t give me the ‘are you kidding me’ line once more. I know things will be difficult for you to watch from the sidelines as well, knowing well you can’t step in to help, but I’m not who I once was, bro. That kid who loved the spotlight has now learned to stick to the shadows.”
He pulls my hands down so they don’t block our view and he leans over the table, well into my personal space that I would be uncomfortable if I wasn’t used to it from him, and then speaks. “Are you kidding me? Seriously, Ankush, I have seen you slave over this project with over 90 hours involved in the past week. Believe me, bud, things will go fine.” Then, he leans back and smiles so wide that his fairer face shines as if sunlight falls directly on it. “Besides, this plan of the green housing will be the next big thing people will remember us for.”
He takes a pause and I almost mentally count for three seconds of silence before trying to speak when he opens his mouth again. “And just so you know, I have heard your presentation already and I know it’s fantastic.” With a huge grin that has to be hurting his cheeks, he adds the sole reason of my terror as if it’s the biggest thing to be proud of (which it is). “And to think that everybody who’s somebody in the business world of India would be there personally to hear from you.” Yes, and that makes it either a huge success or the biggest flop. Not sure if I like the figure of 50% chances of loss. Why doesn’t he understand? Speaking to him is easy. He’s a close friend so I know he won’t care about such mistakes but those people are strangers. And would they wish to associate with someone who reeks of lack of self-confidence for kilometres?
He claps my shoulder, and I almost cry out in pain at the force. “Think about it bud. Us, two of the underperformers of a heretofore unknown school in a heretofore unknown village of a heretofore unknown district of a backward state of India, would be giving a presentation to the elites on something that will change the life of every single person who is alive right now or will walk this planet. Now, ain’t that exciting?” Yes, very exciting. But what you just pointed out was that we’re nobodies. Who cares about nobodies? No one does. So why would they even bother caring?
“It has all come to this point because you were the face of ‘Healthier World Rehabilitation’ project, Mr Akhtar. So why are you risking it all now just for getting me the stage? You know I prefer to work from behind the blinds.”
The smile slips instantly from Khalid’s face and he glares at me. “If I didn’t need you at 100% tomorrow,” he threatens me in a way that is absolutely serious, “I would definitely knock you out! What is this rubbish? Come on man, grow a pair. I’ve hogged the limelight for too long now. It’s time to let the creator speak about his brainchild. You know I falter when it comes to technical jargon and we absolutely can’t have any faltering of any sort.” Oh geez, thanks for adding more pressure. I will have to add the ‘do not falter’ into my list of warnings to remember as well.
A yawn escapes me as these thoughts roam in my head and Khalid laughs. “Oh yes, sleep for the tired is a must. Come on now, let’s go to bed so we wake up fresh for the day. You go ahead and clean up and I’ll close up here.” I’m feeling too tired to argue and so I drag my feet from our office to the hall of our apartment. Wondering if I will ever be able to earn if tomorrow goes wrong, I spread the comforter on the floor while hoping we can soon buy our own single beds soon. Or will it be that by this time, we’re on the unavoidable path of being homeless and broke? You hold the cards, Mr Ankush Gupta, but you cannot see them either. Can you succeed? Have you prepared enough?
The last wonder makes me pause while stripping off my clothes and I almost start to move to the office. But Khalid arrives at that moment and with one look on my face, he knows what I’m thinking. “Don’t you dare go in there or I’ll feed you beef and then your own family will disinherit you for disrespecting the sacred cow, you understand?” Helpless against the threat, I take off my pants and hang it before noting that Khalid isn’t preparing for bed. “I’ve still got some work left to do, you know.” He answers my unspoken question and I just nod at his routine behavior.
Trying to ignore my demons, I lay down on the bed in my shorts that I had worn underneath the trousers and rest my head on my folded arms. And then, after a very long time, I do something I had thought I would never do again. I pray for a miracle, despite having stopped since I realized I wanted to earn my right and not resort to beg it from god either. Well, desperate times make such idiotic vows null and void.
“When tomorrow comes,” I plead. “give me the strength to make everyone I have ever cared about proud.”