Enrolment by Ajay Patri

Mallikarjun Despande sat on a rickety wooden bench at the end of a long corridor on the first floor of the old KGID building. He sat in the middle of the bench, away from the sharp ends of the iron nails that jutted out from the wooden surface at either end. His back ached from the long journey of the night before, the muscles bunching up and refusing to relax. He kept his eyes on the door in front of him, occasionally lifting them to look at the sign over it which said that he was at the office of the bar council.


A cool breeze wafted through the corridor in which he sat, making him shiver slightly and pull his black coat closer around himself. The cuffs were slightly frayed and the sleeves a little too short for his gangly arms. The man at the thrift store who had sold it to him had extolled the coat's virtues, reassuring him that it would last him for a decade and that it wouldn't shrink. It had shrunk to half its size. But Mallikarjun knew that when you buy something so cheap, you cannot expect too much.


He fidgeted on the bench, trying to make himself more comfortable, wincing slightly whenever his back twinged. The quiet was broken by the sound of footsteps, echoing in the peculiar way that they do in government  buildings. A young man in his twenties was walking towards him, his polished boots slamming down on the ground confidently, a well-fitted black jacket covering his torso and a shiny backpack slung over his shoulders. Mallikarjun instinctively clutched his cloth rucksack a little tighter in his lap.


The young man looked around, taking in the closed door, the sign over it and Mallikarjun sitting huddled on the bench.


Are you here for the enrolment as well?


Mallikarjun nodded his head.


We are at the right place, no? It seems pretty empty.The young man followed this up with a smile that made his thick framed glasses go up a bit on his face. Mallikarjun nodded again.


They told me to come here by nine thirty.


I was told that as well.


Just as Mallikarjun expected the young man to continue speaking, he whipped out a tiny black slab out of his pocket and started tapping away at it furiously. Tiny beeps issued from the object.The young man walked away a little from where he sat, which allowed Mallikarjun to breathe a little more easily. In his head, he heard his wife's voice laughing at him as he told her he wanted to be a lawyer. You are scared of people, she had said, how will you ever talk in a court with everyone looking at you? The memory made him blush even as the door in front of him creaked open. A man with a face like an old ox peered out, squinting a little. Mallikarjun immediately brought his palms together and saluted him, bowing his head forward a little.


Yes? Are you waiting here for something?


Before Mallikarjun could say anything, the young man was in front of him, giving a winning smile to the man behind the door.


Good morning, sir. I am here for the enrolment. As is this gentleman here, I understand.


Mallikarjun nodded again. The ox-faced man looked at them blankly for a second before stepping out of the office gingerly. He wore a white shirt that was not ironed, and his greasy hair was combed to one side carefully. He sniffed a little like he was recovering from a cold.


I don't understand.


The bar council enrolment, sir. We are here to get ourselves enrolled.


But it's not happening today.


The man looked at the two of them. Mallikarjun looked at the young man, expecting him to say something, which he duly did.


I was told it was happening today.


When were you told this?


Last week. When I submitted my application and paid the fees.


And you, sir, when were you told?




Mallikarjun seemed surprised at being addressed. He half-rose from his bench.


Yes, sir, you.


I was told last week as well. I got a letter.


He started fumbling in his rucksack for the letter that he had preserved carefully. The man ignored him. Well, the enrolment isn't happening today. The chairman has a meeting so you will have to come next Friday.


The young man frowned, deep creases forming on his forehead, making him look older. Mallikarjun found his own heart beating a little faster at the information, questions popping up in his head that he didn't know how to ask.


Why were we not informed?


The man held his hands up at this.


I don't know. I'm just a clerk here. You can wait for the Secretary Madam if you want. She can tell you more. I was just told that no enrolment will happen today.


I'm waiting for her then. And you, sir?


Mallikarjun jumped at being addressed again. He realised that one of his hands was still in the rucksack. He retrieved it and looked around helplessly. He wanted to ask what good would waiting do if the enrolment was not happening but he knew he would come across as silly if he did. It was like those times when he had gone to attend classes in the law degree course, and professors as old as himself would state something and ask him if they were right before guffawing at his discomfort.


Well, sir? Will you also wait?


Yes. Yes, I will wait.


The ox looked at the two of them, scratching his head slightly and sniffing.


Where have you come from?


I live in Bangalore, the young man said. The ox smiled a little at that.


Ah. That's a good thing. You live close enough. And you, sir?


Mallikarjun was ready for the question to eventually make its way to him this time. He sat up a bit straighter and spoke in what he hoped was a more confident tone.


Bidar, sir.


The ox's mouth dropped open, making him look even more bovine. His hand dropped down to his side again.




Yes, sir.


That's so far away.


It is, sir.


How did you get here?


I took the train, sir. The Udyan Express.


The man made a face at this.


That train? Wow. You must have spent half your life in it. That thing goes slower than a one-legged dog.


Mallikarjun did not know what to say to this so he decided to stay silent. The young man was also looking at him with pursed lips. The attention being given to him was unnerving. Ox face finally sighed and waved his hand around.


You better wait then. Let's see what the Secretary Madam says. I'll tell her as soon as she comes in. I hope they can do something about you. I wouldn't want you to come all the way from Bidar again.


The man retracted his face and closed the door. Mallikarjun was left with the young man, who started pacing up and down the corridor, hands in his pockets and brow furrowed. Next Friday was a week away. It would mean buying tickets to the train again. He began making mental calculations of the cost involved, of going back home and coming back to the city again. He briefly considered staying in the city until the next week but dismissed it as a foolish idea. It would just mean spending more money for a roof over his head, for food, for everything.


Sir, you said you are from Bidar?


The young man was standing a little distance away, the little black slab back in his hand but his eyes on Mallikarjun.


Yes, sir. I come from Bidar.


I stayed in that district, you know. When I was a child.




Mallikarjun didn't know what to say at being proffered this piece of information. He went back to tugging the cuffs of his coat, desperate to elongate them enough to cover his exposed wrists a bit more and silently cursing the toothy man at the store who had sold it to him.


Yes. I lived in Basavakalyan. It's quite close to Bidar. You will know that, of course.


Huh. Yes.


He stopped working at his cuffs and looked at the young man. He saw a small smile but wasn't sure if it was a friendly one or not. It seemed inconceivable that the strapping young man in front of him could have lived in the dusty environs of where he came from. As if reading his mind, the young man laughed a little and said that he could barely remember the place because he had stayed there when he was a young child. Mallikarjun felt obliged to say something but was saved the effort by a short woman marching down the corridor towards them. Without looking at either of them, she knocked on the door of the bar council office and when it opened, stepped in.


That must be the Secretary the clerk was talking about, Mallikarjun's companion remarked. Mallikarjun thought so too but did not say anything. The day seemed to be getting colder and he hunched down on the bench, wishing the whole thing could get over soon.


No sooner had he wished it, than the woman came out of the door, followed by the greasy haired clerk who looked like an ox. When she spoke, her voice was blunt and her words rushed, like she was impatient to say whatever she wanted to say.

The Chairman is in a meeting. The enrolment will happen next week.


She waited for her words to sink in, perhaps waiting for the two of them to accept what she said and slink away. When they continued being there, she looked over her shoulder at the ox before turning back to them.




The young man looked at Mallikarjun before replying.


Was there any intimation of this change? Why were we not told of this?


Where did you come from, young man?




Then it shouldn't be a problem coming again next week, right?


The young man's voice got a little louder when he next spoke and Mallikarjun saw that his fists were clenched.


That’s not the point. I had to take leave from office to come here today. And this man here came all the way from Bidar.


Mallikarjun found himself getting up from his spot and saluting the woman the same way he had done the clerk. The woman gave him a baleful look.




Yes, Madam. Could I please get enrolled today?


The woman sighed.


Didn't you hear what I said? The Chairman is busy with a meeting. He is meeting some important ministers. He won't be here all day.


The young man interjected before Mallikarjun could say anything else.


Why weren't we told about this?


The woman shifted her gaze to him and waited for a second before replying.


I had instructed a person in the office to make the calls. Maybe your phones were switched off.


The young man bristled at this suggestion, folding his hands in front of his chest and pulling himself up to his full height.


I never switch my phone off. That cannot be true.


The woman shrugged and looked at the clerk.


Didn't I tell Somashekhar to make the calls?


The ox-faced man, who had been looking on with a dreamy expression, looked a bit surprised to find himself in the middle of the discussion but he recovered quickly to nod energetically.


Yes Madam, you did.


Turning to the other two men, he repeated his words. She did tell Somashekar to make the calls. When the woman turned back to face them with a triumphant expression on her face, the clerk blushed and averted his gaze from the two of them.


See? You shouldn't keep your phone switched off. What can we do if we try to inform you but you cannot be reached? We have a hundred other things to do here as well.


This is unbelievable! I told you that my phone was not switched off. I would have seen a missed call if you had actually called me.


Are you saying we didn’t try to call you?


The woman crossed her own arms and gave a smile that reeked of victory. She knew that she would win. The young man seemed to realise it too because he opened his mouth to say something but closed it without a word escaping his lips. He looked at Mallikarjun, as if expecting the older man to step forward and say something. Mallikarjun felt his face flush, his body tremble slightly. In a moment that seemed to last for ages, he saw himself open his mouth and berate the arrogant woman standing in front of him. He imagined words streaming out of him, eloquent and coherent. He imagined her face wilt as the force of his words hit her, saw the young man looking impressed, witnessed the clerk silently cheering him on. Then the moment passed and he was standing in the corridor while the woman rubbed her hands with finality.


So do come next week, alright? That would be the 29th, if I'm not wrong.


The woman had the temerity to end with a small smile before turning around and disappearing back into the bowels of the dingy office building. The clerk hung around for a second longer, dragging his feet around, his oxen face looking despondent. Mallikarjun expected him to say something comforting, reassure them that the woman had been lying and that he sympathised with their plight. But he turned on his heel and followed her without saying anything. Mallikarjun settled back on the bench as the young man came and took a spot next to him, careful also to avoid the nails.


They are such liars, aren't they? They didn't even have the decency to admit that they forgot to tell us about the change in schedule.


Mallikarjun nodded, feeling exhausted. He wished he could just lie down somewhere.


I never switch off my phone. That woman could have come up with a better excuse there. I mean, who switches off their phone these days? It is so absurd for her to even suggest that, and then stand there like it's all our fault that we landed here today.


Mallikarjun was barely listening to his companion now, trying to imagine what his wife would say when he told her that he would be making another trip to Bangalore in a week. She would throw a fit, blame him and his ambition of becoming a lawyer so late in life. What is wrong with finding some other job that doesn't need us to spend money, she would ask. He couldn't even think of what he could possibly tell her.


I bet you didn't get a call from them either. You should have said so when they were here, you know.


The young man's voice was tinged with reproach but he didn't seem angry. Mallikarjun looked at him and shrugged.


I don't have a phone.



Ajay Patri is a twenty-three-year-old lawyer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared in many journals including Spark, Muse India and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, among others. He was a finalist in the 2014 DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction Feature. He is an active member of the Bangalore Writers Workshop.