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The Thirteenth Floor

The inauspicious, unsold floor became a favourite hub by the time buyers came

The Thirteenth Floor

In the end, our building's thirteenth floor went to an American company. The floor's flats were turned into serviced apartments for Rafell Inc's expat workforce. It was a direct deal with the builder. None of us earned any commission. In the vacant space where our kids once played carrom and table tennis, where our drivers and servants took afternoon naps and where our youngsters held Saturday night dance parties, now people with names like Brenda and Wesley slept, ate, and watched television. The watchmen claimed the Americans would be up all night sometimes. Maybe it was the differing time zones and residual jet lag that caused their insomnia. It was more likely, however, that the walls of their thirteenth floor flat had retained memories of our laughter, our screams, our amorous whispers and stifled sobs, making the air still crackle with the excitement and anticipation that we had come to associate with that derelict floor.

In the end, when it was time to dismantle the table-tennis table and move out our discarded furniture to make way for the Americans, we realised we loved the thirteenth floor more than our own plush, over-furnished flats.

For the first eleven months of Varsh Tower's inhabitation, the building's thirteenth floor had remained unsold and derelict. We were to blame. We were bankers, businessmen, advertising professionals, doctors, lawyers.... Despite being active contributors to the machinery of a so-called modern economy, we nursed the most ludicrous superstitions with regard to colours, numbers, and the North-South orientation of beds and kitchens. When it came to booking a flat in Varsh Tower, we, the building's future tenants, were adamant in our choice: anything but the thirteenth floor.

The builder dangled free flat-screen TVs and modular kitchens as bribes. He offered to re-number the building's storeys, skipping thirteen in the count from G to 25. We didn't fall for it. Thirteen by any other name would still retain its malevolent potency.

And so, for the first eleven months of Varsh Tower's inhabitation, the thirteenth floor sat vacant and unfinished, like the last remaining bachelor from a brood of married siblings. It had holes for windows and no electrical or sanitary fittings. When strangers saw our building from a distance, especially at night, the dark, unoccupied thirteenth floor must have seemed to them like a slice of menace wedged between the twelve cheerfully luminous storeys both above and below it.

Only those of us in the know knew the truth: That it was there, within that ill-numbered midway floor, that Varsh Tower's good spirits truly resided.

The tenants of floors fourteen and up were the first to discover the thirteenth's dark allure. What drew us to it was its unclaimed wilderness. It was no one's. During our initial weeks in Varsh Tower, if the elevator accidentally stopped at the thirteenth floor, the metal doors would open on to a staggering expanse of raw space: windswept and sunny in the day, pitch black and foreboding in the night. Viewing the thirteenth floor was like stepping into the past, it was like witnessing the gray rough-edged birth of our gleaming twenty-five-storey building. We didn't like what we saw. The thirteenth's untiled floor, its exposed cement ceiling and the random-seeming positions of its load-bearing walls made us doubt the specialised expertise that had ordained the dimensions of our own "vaastu-friendly" homes. Was this the disarray that lay beneath our marble tiles and behind our velvet finish walls?

Like property owners throughout the island city, we too had paid excessively for our flats in Varsh Tower. Many of us had signed away greater parts of our incomes for decades to come in order to pay back loans on our homes. It was a monumental act of faith in our future selves. With those home loans, we had forever relinquished the freedom to be whimsical or wayward, reconciling ourselves to lives of chronically overworked members of a society deep in the red. The thirteenth floor was threatening to unsettle our resolve. When we peered into its unoccupied expanse, we saw...well, we saw a great business opportunity. The space was worth crores of rupees. If we could swing the deal for the builder, the earnings from a percent or two in brokerage would take years off our debts. It would mean we could work less, be less anxious about our jobs, refuse to take on more clients, stay home some more and for once enjoy the flats that we were killing ourselves to finance.

Each of us approached the builder—delicately and on the sly—to offer our help in disposing the thirteenth floor's unsold flats. It may not have been propitious enough to live in, but we had no objections to earning fat commissions off that inauspicious storey.

The builder, a battered old dog of a man, played us like a coquette, feigning astonishment at our phone calls, and over our surreptitious visits to his office. "Arrey, programmer saab, since when have you entered real estate?" "Arrey, doctor saab, you're into real estate too?" He would say real estate like it was RDX or opium, making us squirm in our seats.

The thirteenth floor's failure to sell had wounded the builder's pride. It had bled him financially. People like us were to blame. And now, if people like us wished to make money off it, here were the conditions: The entire floor would have to sell en bloc; builder saab wasn't interested in any piecemeal transactions. The payment would have to be made lump sum, in all white, before possession. And there was to be absolutely no negotiation on the price. The effect was akin to being boxed on the head when the builder quoted the figure in crores. Our ears hummed. He wanted almost twice the market value prevailing for a property the size of the thirteenth floor. It was an impossible demand. He knew it. 'I am in no hurry. None whatsoever. My family won't starve if that floor doesn't sell. Let it sit forever. Maybe I'll turn it into a clubhouse or community centre. No hurry at all.'

We came home feeling tinier than cockroaches. Our futures had never weighed heavier on us.

Over the coming years each of us would make a variety of attempts to augment our fixed incomes. We would dabble in shares, rent out extra rooms to paying guests, conduct coaching classes for neighbourhood students, and move to cheaper flats. Despite our apprehensions, we would manage to get along fine—paying off our EMIs on time while adequately meeting our households' increasing expenses. But the sting of that initial failure in selling Varsh Tower's thirteenth floor would forever colour our perception of wealth and the wealthy. Even when we were to become fairly well-off ourselves, we would forever guard our faces against the smugness that had crept on to the builder's visage when he said he was in no hurry, when he said he could wait forever. We would hope we never amassed so much as to believe in the eternity of our affluence. But that was in the future....

Meanwhile, some of us made perfunctory efforts to peddle Varsh Tower's thirteenth floor. We advertised the property in newspapers for a few weeks at our expense. Nothing came of it, of course. Inquiry calls would end in laughter when people heard the price we were quoting for the space. 'For the thirteenth floor, that too? You must be joking!' We found it impossible to argue.

Once it was clear that there was no money to be made off it, we lost interest in the thirteenth floor. Now it was just a vacant property where our children hung out, where our wives conducted yoga sessions, where our teenagers partied, and where on Sunday afternoons, our elders held their laughter club meetings. We wondered how they could endure the thirteenth's unpaved floor, its unpainted walls and the lack of electricity and toilet amenities. In bitter moods, we would taunt our families to go live there, given the inordinate amount of time they spent in that wilderness. At least then we wouldn't have to earn so much for the upkeep of our swanky apartments.

Over time, we pinned our hopes on other sources of side income. We ceased to associate the thirteenth floor with the builder's arrogance. We ceased to be annoyed when our families were always itching to go there. In fact, we even began to venture there ourselves.

Half the contents of our homes had landed up in that empty storey. Our cracked coffee tables, wobbly chairs, and the table-tennis table we had no room for in our own flat, the extension wires and old carpets and myriad other things that we thought had been discarded due to lack of space had all converged on the thirteenth floor. Looking out through the windowless holes in the walls made us dizzy. Putting up with the thirteenth's imperfections was a thrill unto itself. And there were the unfinished walls defaced with copious amounts of creatively obscene graffiti: Jiya cucks sock. Hoof arted ice melted. Bugi digs Rishi. Lord is cumming.

Like our families, we too fell for the thirteenth floor.

On a Saturday afternoon, eleven months after Varsh Tower's occupation, a group of four Americans came to inspect the thirteenth floor, accompanied by the builder's assistant. We and our families were neck-deep in a carrom tournament comprising seven boards, twenty-eight players, and twice as many onlookers. By then, we had become regular participants in the thirteenth floor's revelries.

"They got a liddle pardy goin' on here!" commented one of the Americans, a middle-aged white man in a black T-shirt.

"Not to worry, sir," the builder's assistant assured him, "All this will be cleared out as soon as you say yes."

"Yes!" the American said, "We say yes. The place is close to the airport, close to our office, looks good to me." His colleagues seemed surprised. A man of Chinese descent spoke up, "Josh, come on, you want us to live on the thirteenth?"

The American in the T-shirt shrugged his shoulders. "We got a deal," he said to the builder's man, and then, turning to his colleague, "You believe in crap like that?"

(Altaf Tyrewala is the author of the novel No God In Sight. He does not own property.)

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