“This is going to be a good year. I just fucking know it. I’ve already cut back on my smokes, I even go for morning walks every weekend. For someone who works 50 hours a week, this is the best I’ve felt about myself in years.” Kunal Shukla said as he tapped his cigarette on an ashtray.

It was New Year’s Eve. Kunal Shukla and three other city dogs were at a lounge celebrating. Pseudo-celebrating, rather. It was important for their egos and they were at that age where feeding their ego was the only thing that made them feel good. For Kunal it was the false sense of feeling busy and being a “hotshot” journalist. His day job was writing a column everyday in Awakening, a tabloid that hit the streets every afternoon. It was heard to call it a newspaper, for the sheer lack of news that it contained. Kunal’s column was about the size of a visiting card on the bottom left corner of the editorial page. A column he had been rewarded after his precursor had moved on to greener pastures. Kunal had worked at Awakening for eight years after being recruited shortly post turning twenty five and completing his Master of Arts degree.

“If I had hair like that, I’d take better care of my body too. It’s been a pretty shit year for me. Hopefully this Vaishno Devi trip will change my life.” Vishnu said. His resentment toward Kunal’s full head of hair was well documented since their college days. Vishnu’s hairline had already started receding then and was now unfit to even be called a hairline. Vishnu owned a bar and an adjacent wine shop. Business had not been great over the last couple of years but there was never any risk of losing money, those were the prices liquor sold at. Vishnu was wearing a crisp yellow shirt that fit him perfectly from neck down till his pot belly at which point it became more of a leotard than anything else. He was not one to indulge in scotch whiskey, not even on New Year’s Eve. And that New Year’s Eve was no exception.

The silent ones are perhaps the most twisted and depraved. The silent ones who write are definitely the nastiest kind, but Anthony Tandon was a fairly simple man. How he became a writer, god only knows. He wasn’t that great either and he lacked the flair and poise most good writers have. He also lacked insight but he had written four published books that had met with a lukewarm response. He was the only one who wasn’t partaking alcohol that night. It was nice enough of his wife to have let him out on new year’s eve to party with his friends but only on the condition that he be the designated driver for the night. Anthony was an alcoholic in recovery. He wrote articles off and on for various small time publications and his lack of marketing skills hurt his success as a writer. But he stuck to it and as a forty plus introverted man with no experience of a desk job and intermittent alcohol abuse issues, he was pretty much backed into a corner. Kunal would occasionally throw some work his way, but not too often. Anthony’s wife Nilofer was the bread winner in the house. Anthony took care of his own needs but never came close to making enough money to support the family, which consisted of just the two of them. Nilofer was barren.

The fourth member of their troupe was Gautam Shirke. Gautam was an English teacher. He taught English literature and grammar to the ninth and tenth grade at a lesser known school in the heart of the city and conducted tuitions at home in the evenings. He was three years short of fifty. He had graying temples, a faint instance of a jaw line, a long, well-formed nose and a broad forehead that gave him even more of a V-shaped face than it already was. He was the kind of dreamy English professor that girls secretly nurse crushes on but he was excruciatingly boring. He had bad form, very ordinary delivery and did no justice to Shakespeare when he narrated Julius Caesar. An industrious teacher, he practically knew a dozen Shakespeare plays by heart and held the same degree as Kunal but was quite a few years senior to him. Gautam had a wife until a few years ago. They had separated after 16 years of marriage. He met Vishakha when he was pursuing B.A. hons and married her in a typical Maharashtrian style wedding when they were both twenty four. They had one son together and even though they hadn’t been too close for over a decade, Gautam and Vishakha stayed together for till Sagar turned twenty.

They didn’t really have a lot in common. They hung out together purely due to geographical convenience. They had all grown up in the same neighborhood and met every weekend. Kunal liked to think of them as his entourage. He liked to think of himself as the leader of their band. Obviously, none of the others concurred. But Kunal was the cool one, admittedly. He spoke well, was still in decent shape, still married to his age appropriate, easy on the eyes wife although it was far from a perfect marriage. Kunal had major ego issues and his reputation of being a chain smoker preceded him. His wife, Roshni worked as a receptionist at the Taj. On the face of it, Kunal really had his shit together, sometimes the object of envy and at other times an object of supernatural inspiration.

That’s the things about city dogs. They’re not quite as faithful as they should be. With all the crap you have to put up with when it comes to dogs, the least you ask is that they sit around like the lazy mutts that they are when you’re not around and don’t go humping every lamp-post in sight. But city dogs will be city dogs. City dogs will wrestle with alcohol issues, do stupid things and get obsessed with irrelevant bullshit. And even after years of training them with a whistle that you can’t even process the frequency but you blow on the other side of, just for them, they’ll still leave the occasional shit on your couch and bark at inappropriate times for no rhyme or reason. City dogs will compete with each other, endlessly.

Part of the reason why Kunal started hanging out with Anthony, Vishnu and Gautam was that he had begun to think of himself as a bit of an elitist loner and he was worried about being perceived as such. His social life had been reduced to striking up late night text conversations with girls much younger than him and women from his past. Nothing happened, of course but he would only get out of the house for work and if it was absolutely essential. Kunal had begun to recede and reside in a shell that he enveloped around himself at all times. When he woke up every morning, when he went to bed, in generality, whenever he was sober, which was far less often than is healthy. When he wasn’t drinking, he was smoking (not that he wouldn’t smoke while he drank) and when he was doing neither, he was restless cunt, either depressed or a complete narcissistic jerk. Compared to him, Roshni was doing much better. She had found solace in her job which took up most of her day and he job, like most others required her to leave her personal hassles at the motion sensing glass door and put on a fake smile and look good in a saree and minimal make up. In Roshni’s case, that was her job in entirety. There were perks and the pay was good. The working hours were long, on her insistence. Come what may, she would be at the gorgeous front desk at six a.m. every morning and for the next twelve hours she only mandated breaks. Work was a tremendous distraction and she enjoyed every last bit of it. She wasn’t the ego-rush seeker her husband was and on most mornings when she left home at a half past five, Kunal would be lying in bed, his ashtray never far enough for his hand to reach out and grab.

Gautam Shirke was a comparatively less complicated man. He never quite turned out to be the English teacher he had dreamed he would as a young arts student. He was aware that he had turned out to be just another John Keating wannabe with lesser charisma than a chubby midget. And he had great features. He had the look but not the goods. An uneventful, mundane job and an unsuccessful marriage had proved too much of a downer for him. His son was a promising young kid, inclined more towards sciences, much to Gautam’s relief. He didn’t have much of a relationship with his wife Vishakha left. They knew the marriage was headed in the dumps a few years after Sagar was born. It took Vishakha eight years to regain her post pregnancy figure and eight months into 2000 to begin sleeping with her gym trainer. Gautam was 35 then. It took him a few weeks to realize and was devastated initially. They had a confrontation 2 years later and the result was that they would stay together for Sagar but they barely spoke since. Gautam was never a heavy drinker but he started drinking regularly in the last eight years. Now he needed a couple of glasses of whiskey to go to bed.

The least alluring member of their troupe, Vishnu Shetty who lost the bulk of his hair shortly after entering college was a pious man who drank as an occupational hazard more than a habit. He owned a wine shop and family restaurant cum bar that did good business on the weekends. He managed the shop and the restaurant himself and without a professional business degree, he got great returns from both enterprises. Bu then a few years back, liquor prices went through the roof and never looked back. His business was hit badly because he was neither here, nor there. His regular customers who had a quarter everyday and then a meal couldn’t afford him anymore. They brought their quarter from the wine shop and drank in alleys and on footpath corners. Vishnu stuck to his rates for the fear of his restaurant turning into a down market country bar, something that went against every goddess fearing bone in his body.

Anthony Tandon, who at his best was a competent but never an effortless novelist, still lived with his mother. His house was in a state of disrepair but he never had the money to spare to renovate it. he still wrote on a typewriter, a family heirloom now and perhaps his closest friend. The typewriter had always been there, ever since his college days when he fell in love with writing, never being cut out to pursue it as a career. Anthony was a regular patron at Vishnu’s bar and that’s how they got to become acquaintances. Anthony had been married for three years, allegedly and his alleged ex-wife now lived in Pune. Allegedly.

There are friends and there are people you regularly spend time with. Anthony, Gautam, Vishnu and Kunal were the latter. They met regularly, ate meals outside together, hung out at sports bars and developed quite the camaraderie but it had always been more about perception than anything concrete.

“My mother passed away three days ago” Anthony said, breaking the ice abruptly. Kunal put down his tequila shot and salted lemon slice.