3: Meet Him Please
Slaves we are, habitual slaves. Look around. You will see us everywhere. We are serfs. Originally of our invaders, the British and the Mughals. Then of our culture, our parents, teachers, and neighbors, our superstitions and our horoscopes. Independent thought doesn’t come naturally to us. We need a guideline, a common constitution. If there are rebels amongst us, they are scant.
It was a pleasantly cool Friday morning and the parrots were up and about screeching their morning ragas. Mita had made her exit and I was back on the living room couch, embracing sloth like a long lost friend which meant catching up on my reading and getting acquainted with our new maid. A thin and wiry young woman close to my age, Rani was married with three children, the youngest a mere babe in arms.
“How do you manage?” I asked more than a little curious.
Rani was kneeling before our small wornout display cabinet, dusting with care a collection of beautifully carved wooden folk musicians. A family relic, they had escorted my mother from her paternal home as a wedding gift.
Rani turned around with a bright smile. “As best as I can.”
I wasn’t satisfied by her answer. “How about your your husband? Does he help?”
“No, he works all day at the construction site and returns home late in the night after the children have gone to bed. I manage very well.” She looked pleased and satisfied with her lot, so unlike me. I regarded her with renewed admiration.
Just then Mom emerged from the kitchen with fresh burning dhoop in her hand and her wet hair encased in a towel. She walked, swirling the brass holder around chanting under her breath leaving a thick cloud of fragrant smoke in her wake. She was purifying our abode, It was one of the rituals out of many she had followed without disruption ever since I can remember. I’m not sure she believed it actually served any purpose. It was more like a habit, a superstition.
Then she got on my case. “So what do you think Aanchal?” Settling down her tiny frame on one of the wicker modas that lay scattered around the room. She removed the towel and began the arduous process of drying her long and thick salt and pepper mane. I have never seen her use a blow drier.
“About what?” I tried to appear engrossed in the Stephen King paperback I’d borrowed from a neighbor. To irk her wasn’t my intention though I didn’t mind if I did. He happens to be one of my favorite authors. Besides his macabre plots came in handy to provide my current state of mind much needed succor.
The book was snatched from my hand. “Look at me when I’m speaking. You are my daughter and I deserve some respect!” Mom said. Rani giggled, pausing in her task. But a sharp glance from Mom was enough to shut her up and dispatch her from the room.
Wasn’t it not so long ago you told me I was a grown woman? I mused but didn’t vocalize the thought. Mom had an intense aura about her. I had come to regard it with trepidation from experience
“How long are you going to be like this?” She asked, flicking her eyes over my bedraggled appearance.
“Not for long. Another week and I’ll be out of your hair. I heard Bollywood is full of nut jobs. I’m sure there’ll be a few clamoring for a shrink who’s willing to keep things close to his or as in my case her chest.” I smiled and reached for my book.
She tucked it inside the folds of her sari. “I didn’t mean that. I was talking about the match Mita had mentioned—Suraj Patel.”
“It’s not a match. Anyhow I’m not interested. Besides he’s a Patel. That eliminates him instantly doesn’t it?” My grin was smug.
She waved a hand in a motion of dismissal. “That’s a minor thing. What’s important is that he is an NRI!”
“So, being an NRI excuses everything does it? I thought we were die-hard traditionalists.”
“Aanchal that’s enough! I didn’t expect education to have made you so impertinent!”
I looked away and willed myself not to be provoked. What else could I expect? She was after all following a script that retained its popularity despite being enacted to death. A single girl in the house was vulnerable virgin progeny akin to anathema. Do away with her or invite certain doom.
Mom squeezed my shoulder. “I know how you feel my dear, but good matches are hard to come by. But this one—I have a nice feeling about it. Why don’t you meet him, just once and then figure out whether you like him or not.”
A single rendezvous cannot determine my future. Nor several for that matter. Rohan being a case in point—so I wanted to tell her but mom being who she was wouldn’t see my way. Far from it. because her marriage was a compromise not a collaboration. Hence I chose to humor her. Poor woman, going by the dark circles under her eyes she hadn’t slept in days.
I asked Suraj to meet me at Juhu beach. It was a public place with plenty of crowds in the evening. I chose it so I wouldn’t be obliged to carry on the pretense of attending to every word he said and feel self conscious under his scrutiny.
“I’ll meet you at the Andheri entrance between 4:30 and 5,” I texted him.
“I’ll be there,” he texted back promptly.
He arrived at 5:15.
I subjected him to no more than a fleeting glance before making a beeline to Chandu chaatwala’s booth. The salty air was making me hungry besides I needed a cover. I observed that he was tall, maybe a little on the skinny side and clean shaven. He wore glasses with lenses that turned dark in sunlight–i.e. he was practical. Attired in a crisp light blue long-sleeve shirt, dress pants and shiny black dress shoes he looked as if he was appearing for a job interview.
I suppressed a giggle with the edge of my white cotton dupatta that I had draped over my plain blue cotton salwar kameez. It was a compromise Mom and I had arrived at after she had declared my usual jeans and T unfit attire in which to meet my potential future husband. The garb was as close to traditional wear as I could get without having a fit.
“I’m sorry I’m late.. It was a struggle for the cabbie to get here from the Taj.. the traffic is horrendous.” Suraj sounded genuinely apologetic.
“Yes it is at this time but I haven’t been waiting very long,” I said wanting to give him a break though I wasn’t sure why.
“I was meeting with another girl there,” he said. “She is an engineer,” he added.
“Oh..” I was jolted into silence. So I wasn’t the only one. He had a list he was running through which was a good sign in any individual. It shouldn’t bother me but it did.
“You didn’t like her?” I asked as Chandu’s assistant put my bhel together with crisp clean movements.
To my surprise Suraj didn’t exhibit any hesitation this time. “Shruti seemed okay,” he said sliding his neat manicured hands into his pockets. “But her brother was another matter altogether.”
“Yes, and he had a list of demands this long.” He indicated to the length of his arm. “His parents are invalids so he is practically running the show.”
I sent up a silent prayer that Shruti’s brother’s demands were met and she and Suraj got together.
“Zara sa aur teekha chutney please,” I told Chandu before passing over a hundred rupee note. “Don’t you want some?” I finally asked Suraj though the effort involved was considerable. I had to tell myself repeatedly that he had no role to play in my grievances.
He smiled and shook his head while pointing to his midriff. “Sorry. I’ve been away way too long that I can’t afford to take chances. Should we sit somewhere?” He had a nice voice. It was cushiony soft with a grainy timber to it. And the tadka of American was very pleasant to the ear.
We settled ourselves on the parapet, rather I did and he took his place beside me. I scooped a spoonful of the crunchy puffed rice snack garnished with raw mango into my mouth and waited for the spicy sweet and tangy flavors to whip my taste buds into a frenzy.
“So you are studying to be a doctor.” The interview had begun.
“I’m already one. Didn’t Mita tell you?” I said, a little too quickly.
“Yes she did. I apologize, it slipped my mind.”
I excused him. He must have had a lot of information to assimilate, what with all the girls he had been seeing.
“I’m a doctor too. And so are many in my family.”
That was news to me. I pricked up my ears and heard him repeat the term ‘PhD’ a few times. It left me quite amused.
“Do you have any hobbies?” I asked for nothing better to say.
“I’m a huge cricket fan.” I sensed a new enthusiasm in Suraj’s demeanor. “So is everyone in my family. We follow the Indian team assiduously. Occasionally I get to play with my friends. And politics. I love American politics. And what are yours.. I guess you like to cook.. All girls do.”
I laughed. “No. I hate cooking. And I don’t consider it a hobby. It’s a necessity. What I like to do is read. And travel and listen to music.”
“Hmm.. I’m not much into travelling unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’d rather sit at home with the newspaper and a hot cup of coffee.”
“Newspaper? Who reads newspapers these days?”
“I do. I like doing things the old fashioned way.” He said shutting me up effectively.
Silence ensued. There seemed nothing left to say. The preliminary inquiries had concluded. Suraj, the probable husband, had established his credentials, that he was capable of keeping the home fires burning, while I, the probable wife, had pronounced myself inept or in the least unwilling.
My gaze inadvertently drifted to my side. His nose was sharp and his hair was thick and curly- something all girls would kill for. His jawline didn’t do much for his profile but then why should I weigh everyone against Rohan? I needed to get that asshole out of head!
I looked out at the horizon and was instantly taken. The big dipping orange ball, the clang of the metal spatula striking the tava, the aroma of the roasted bhutta and peanuts, the bark of a stray dog, the banal end of the day chatter of the tired Mumbaikers—all of it delighted me. This was paradise, the quintessence of the city, that which made us thrive.
Suddenly, I felt a cold hand on my arm and I was pulled out of my reverie.
“I’m sorry.” I heard Suraj say.
I scrambled off my seat. “I think I should go now. It’s getting late. It was very nice meeting you.”
I left and that was it.