Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat

Prologue

'They are your journals, you read them,’ I said to him.

He shook his head.

‘Listen, I don’t have the time or patience for this,’ I said, getting irritated. Being a writer on a book tour doesn’t allow for much sleep—I had not slept more than four hours a night for a week. I checked my watch. ‘It’s midnight. I gave you my view. It’s time for me to sleep now.’

‘I want yon to read them,’ he said.

We were in my room at the Chanakya Hotel,Patna.This morning, he had tried to stop me on my way out.Then he had waited for me all day; I had returned late at night to find him sitting in the hotel lobby.

‘Just give me five minutes, sir,’ he had said, following me into the lift. And now here we were in my room as he pulled out three tattered notebooks from his backpack.

The spines of the notebooks came apart as he plonked them on the table.The yellowing pages fanned out between us.The pages had handwritten text, mostly illegible as the ink had smudged. Many pages had holes, rats having snacked on them.

An aspiring writer, I thought.

‘If this is a manuscript, please submit it to a publisher. However, do not send it in this state,’ I said.

‘I am not a writer.This is not a book.’

‘It’s not?’ I said, lightly touching a crumbling page. I looked up at him. Even seated, he was tall. Over six feet in height, he had a sunburnt, outdoor ruggedness about him. Black hair, black eyes and a particularly intense gaze. He wore a shirt two sizes too big for his lean frame. He had large hands. He reassembled the notebooks, gentle with bis fingers, almost caressing the pages.

‘What are these?’ I said.

‘I had a friend.These are her journals,’ he said.

‘Her journals. Ah. A girlfriend?’

‘Half-girlfriend,’

‘What?’

He shrugged.

‘Listen, have you eaten anything all day?’ I said.

He shook Iris head. I looked around. A bowl of fruit and some chocolates sat next to my bed. He took a piece of, dark chocolate when I offered it.

‘So what do you want from me?’ I said.

‘I want you to read these journals, whatever is readable...because I can’t.’

I looked at him, surprised.

‘You can’t read? As in, you can’t read in general? Or you can’t read these?

‘These.’

‘Why not?’ I said, reaching for a chocolate myself.

‘Because Riya’s dead.’

My hand froze in mid-air.You cannot pick up a chocolate when someone has just mentioned a death.

‘Did you just say the girl who wrote these journals is dead?’

He nodded. I took a few deep breaths and wondered what to say next.

‘Why are they in such terrible shape?’ I said after a pause.

‘They are old. Her ex-landlord found them after years.’

‘Sorry, Mr Whats-your-name. Can I order some food first?’ I picked up the phone in the room and ordered two club sandwiches from the limited midnight menu.

'I'm Madhav. Madhav Jha. I live in Dumraon, eighty kilometres from here.’

‘What do you do?’

‘I run a school there,’

‘Oh, that’s...’ I paused, searching for the right word.

'...noble? Not really. It’s my mother’s school.’

‘I was going to say that’s unusual.You speak English. Not typical of someone who runs a school in the back of beyond.’

‘My English is still bad. I have a Bihari accent,’ he said, without a trace of self-consciousness,

’French people have a French accent when they speak English,’

'My English wasn’t even English until..,' he trailed off and fell silent. I saw him swallow to keep his composure.

‘Until?’

Pie absently stroked the notebooks on the desk.

‘Nothing. Actually, I went to St. Stephen’s.’

‘In Delhi?’

‘Yes. English types call it “Steven’s”.’

I smiled. ‘And you are not one of the English types?’

‘Not at all.’

The doorbell startled us.The waiter shifted the journals to put die sandwich tray on the table. A few sheets fell to the floor.

‘Careful!’ Madhav shouted, as if the waiter had broken some antique crystal.

The waiter apologized and scooted out of the room.

I offered Madhav the club sandwich, which had a tomato, cheese and lettuce filling. He ignored me and rearranged the loose sheets of paper.