Ogre is going to use the briefcase we gave her as a bluff, to pack her things and travel with Dodo for a while, in his mobile medical van. She plans to join Dodo in a couple of weeks. Etcetra said she would like to go with her too. Dodo looked amused and happy. Suddenly, I said I would come along too. Ogre looked thrilled and Dodo looked surprised and happy. We didn’t say much, just looked at each other, imagining what it would be like to travel together for a while. I know I felt absurdly happy. Perhaps all of us did. In anticipation.
At the main crossroad outside the Family Court, work is underway to build a skywalk from Bandra Station to Kala Nagar. I look at the steel frame taking shape, rising above me every day, and imagine what it will be like to negotiate that huge crossroads with ease. I can imagine the exact spot on the bridge where I will stop for a few moments every day, that point where the traffic coming from 7 different directions converges. I imagine the burst of exhilaration I will feel as I pause for that moment, high above the traffic. I feel happy now, imagining the clanging of that steel bridge under my feet as I walk across it. In anticipation.
I am wearing a dress I have finally chosen myself. A light grey satin sheath layered with sheer gauzy uneven lengths of pale grey, pale blue and the palest pink. It has a wide neck and falls to my ankles. It looks demure until I move. I have put my hair up to look a little more sophisticated than I usually do.
Of course, there has been no time to think about what High BP had said. Under Comma and The Prospect’s supervision, Ogre’s 50th birthday bash has taken on the proportions of a Big Event. I would hardly be surprised if the press turn up flashing their cameras.
1. Dodo, who has been whisked off straight to the flat from the railway station.
2. The Prospect, now definitely the Intended.
5. 2x-y, bravely cheerful.
6. Neempatta and her husband.
7. Rummy and Subi.
8. A few of Dodo’s friends.
9. Some friends of Ogre.
10. High BP, once again playing the gracious host.
Etcetra guides in a perplexed Ogre. For a moment, I think she will burst into tears at the surprise. But she doesn’t. I don’t know what Etcetra has told her to make her dress up in the new sari that we had bought for her, but Etcetra has done her job, and Ogre looks formidable in rust and cream silk.
It was only after everyone has settled down, Nawaaz Aunty’s special cake cut and devoured, the presents given, drinks in hand, snacks passed around, music in background, laughter and chatter rising to the ceiling, that I have time to stand back in the balcony and watch all the people who make up my life gathered in the room.
So-On is smiling, talking to Ogre. He looks charming, like a young boy, relaxed after a long time, and yet distracted, his mind already in New York perhaps, waiting to fly away.
Etcetra, glamorous in a short teal-blue dress that seems to hang on her body only through will power, is cuddled up beside Dodo, her favourite man. Despite the sexy dress, she looks like a little girl, listening in to Dodo and Rummy’s conversation. Dodo strokes her hair absent-mindedly as he chats. He looks healthy and happy, and scrubbed and unrecognizable in a grey suit that Etcetra has unearthed from mothballed status and smuggled out of the house for him.
Neempatta is talking to The Prospect. Both seem at ease. Comma, all grown up in a mauve silk sari, clings to The Prospect’s arm unabashedly. He grins at her every now and then, and Neempatta looks at both of them affectionately.
High BP hands Subi a glass of wine. He smiles at her, and moves on to another group of people, checking whether they need another drink, some more snacks. He looks very, very handsome in dark brown jeans and a light yellow shirt.
Of course, I think of what he had said yesterday. I know then that I really like him, and am very attracted to him. I want love, but as I looked around, I know also that I want friends and a loving family, and someone who can be part of it all. Yes, I want it all.
Looking at him now, so gracious and completely at his ease taking care of people whom he barely knows, it seems to me that High BP could be that All. And yet, I am hesitant. I look at So-On again, and feel that familiar twinge in my heart. I look at High BP and wonder if love could happen over a period of time. I also wonder if he is not too wealthy for me. What will his family be like? Aren’t they very conservative? Do I want to be part of all that?
High BP says a few words to 2x-y who is talking to one of Ogre’s friends. Then, he moves towards me.
High BP: “You look worried as usual. Don’t be. The party’s going really well.”
Me: “Yes, it is. But I wasn’t thinking about that.”
High BP: “Me, then? I’m flattered.”
Me: “Don’t be. I wasn’t thinking flattering things about you.”
High BP: “I’ve known you to be a dull, boring, self-righteous girl, Appi, but never a liar.”
Me: “Dull, boring, self-righteous? Is that what appeals to you?”
High BP: “Oh, you don’t want to hear what appeals to me. At least not here in this crowd.”
I fight the blush. But it wins.
High BP: “But let me tell you anyway. It’s that dress, like the sea. It’s your hair barely touching your shoulders. It’s your eyes that reveal more than you want. Should I continue?”
Me: “No, thank you.”
High BP: “But I want to,”
Me: “But I don’t want you to.”
High BP: “Why? Not now? Or not ever?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
High BP: “‘Don’t know’ is good. ‘Don’t know’ is better than ‘no’.”
Me: “Yes, maybe.”
High BP: “Is that a ‘yes, maybe’ to me, or a ‘yes, maybe’ to what I said? God, that’s enough. As if you don’t know how silly I am. I forgot you like sensible, mature men.”
Me: “Shut up.”
High BP: “I will. If you say something. Say something, please.”
Me: “I’m scared. I don’t know where it would all lead. Your family. Our backgrounds. All of that.”
High BP: “And So-On too, perhaps.”
Me: “No, that’s over. He’s going away to New York, to Sam, that girl in the play.”
High BP: “That doesn’t necessarily change anything for you. For us.”
Me: “There’s no ‘us’, right now.”
High BP: “OK, OK, Ms. Prickly. There’s no ‘us’. I’m just saying.”
I scowl at him.
High BP: “I know that look. That’s the look I like. Anyway, talking of backgrounds, family. This isn’t exactly a life-long plan yet. Not even a 5-year one. Hey, I’m just asking to see you. In a while. A few dates. Go around for some time. You know. Maybe you’ll come to like me.”
Me: “Hmm. So it’s nothing serious. You just want a fling, is it?”
High BP: “No, not a fling. But I’d like to be flung by you. Shit. I do talk nonsense when I’m nervous. Appi, OK, this is not to deny that I am serious about you. But I don’t expect you to be immediately. I know your heart still aches for So-On ..”
He lets out a loud guffaw, while I look at him appalled that he would dare to make a joke about my feelings for So-On.
High BP: “Sorry. But I just can’t resist pulling your leg. I can’t. It’s involuntary. Promise. Listen, before I say anything else to shoot myself in the leg, let’s just end with one question. Will you give me SOME time, a little bit of time to prove that I’m not a bad guy?”
His hand has crept up to mine a long time ago, and most of my protests are rendered ineffective by the fact that I haven’t shaken it off. I look at him, and he looks into my eyes. But before I can summon up an answer, he smiles and goes away. The clever guy. He would make a masterful strategist at war.
The Prospect has taken over all other mundane arrangements for the party, dismissing my feeble protests as unnecessary politeness. Comma assures me that The Prospect will never enjoy the party if he has not slogged over it. So it is better for me to conserve my energy to look my beautiful best.
So when High BP insists that I meet him in town to order a special cake for Ogre from a special lady that only the initiated few know about, I can’t plead lack of time. There has been no reference so far to the could-have-been-kiss.
High BP seems preoccupied in the car. I thought l would take the train back from Grant Road station after we were through with the choosing and ordering of the cake, but High BP says he had “work to look into” at his Juhu flat, since the party is being held there. I decide to stop resisting all this male solicitousness that is coming my way. But now it seems that High BP might be regretting his kind offer. Maybe I should have shown more keenness to going back home by train.
Me: “Are you all right? You really didn’t need to do this. But thanks. I know Ogre will love the cake.”
High BP: “I know that too. I’ve never had a birthday party without Nawaaz Aunty’s cakes. But no thanks. In fact, I ought to thank you for inviting me to the party.”
High BP: “I didn’t expect it.”
Me: “And why not?”
High BP: “Well, you barely seem to tolerate me. And I’m sure, being extra-nice to clients by inviting them home, is not part of your brief at Neem.”
Me: “Well, since the party is in your home, we could hardly not invite you, is it?”
I know he would like me to say that he is not just a client anymore but also a friend, and so on. But he knows that well enough, so why ask? Surprisingly, High BP does not continue in this vein, as he would usually have. But keeps quiet again.
Me: “Is something bothering you? You are … ”
High BP: “Appi, that kiss …”
Me: “It’s OK. Forget about it. I …”
High BP: “No, it’s not that. I don’t want to forget about it.”
High BP: “Look Appi, I know my life is a mess right now. So I’m not asking for anything. But do you think we could see each other once things are sorted out, once I’ve got my divorce and all?”
Me: ” … ”
I gabble, gag, gape, gaze, gawk, gulp.
High BP: “Please, please don’t look so stricken. I didn’t want to say this to you, but I couldn’t help myself. I really, really like you, Appi. But if you want, I’ll take back my words, and say I didn’t mean any of it, OK?”
Me: “And I’m supposed to believe that?”
High BP: “Believe what? That I like you?”
Me: “No, that you don’t mean any of it?”
High BP shakes his head miserably.
High BP: “Of course, I mean it. But I’m an idiot for telling you. What’s the use?”
Me: “I don’t know. Could I … could we talk about this later? Let me think about it?”
High BP turns and looked at me, amazed. Perhaps he hasn’t expected me to even promise that much. I feel dazzled and flattered. But also eager to reach home, and hide behind Comma and The Prospect and their good cheer.
High BP: “Whatever happens, we’ll still be friends, right? Appi?”
What else? The ride back home is sufficiently awkward enough to seem interminable.
1. He clears his throat, I clear mine.
2. He hums off-key, I clear my throat.
3. I cough, he clears his throat.
4. I clear my throat, he clears his throat.
5. OK, you get it.
Dodo calls to wish Ogre. I watch Ogre’s face while she talks, for any signs that Dodo has let out the secret. Etcetra does better than that. She listens to the conversation on the extension in our room. She comes out a minute after Ogre has put down the phone and gives me a signal with a quick toss of her head that everything is OK.
Etcetra and I have given Ogre our presents, deliberately mundane things like a set of kitchen knives, which she has been long coveting, and a briefcase. That should have given us away if nothing else! But if Ogre suspects something, she is not letting on. She pretends that she is used to us being thoughtless beasts that give her household goods as birthday presents.
Later, I speak to 2x-y.
Me: “Will you bring Motorbike Man too?”
There is a silence that indicates bad tidings. After a while,
2x-y says: “We’ve broken up. His family found out. And of course, they made a horrible fuss. He couldn’t handle it.”
Me: “Are you OK?”
2x-y: “I expected it to happen sooner or later. So yes, I’m fine.”
But of course, she is not.
2x-y: “It was great while it lasted. But no more relationships for me. For a while, at least. Until I get my divorce and Miku’s custody sorted out.”
Me: “Yes, maybe. Anyway, do come, won’t you?”
2x-y: “Oh yes, I will. Don’t worry. I don’t intend to mope around about this. Life’s bad enough without that.”
I put down the phone to find a face grinning at me across my cubicle wall. I peer at the grinning face with appalling ignorance. It takes me exactly 2 minutes and 42 seconds to remember that the face belongs to The Prospect.
I apologize: “It’s just that I never expected to see you here.”
He doesn’t seem to mind much and continues to grin. Comma pops up from behind her cubicle
And says: “He’s come for Ogre’s party. Early, to help out with the arrangements.”
I feel abashed at how distant I have always been with The Prospect and yet, how easily he has decided to become a part of my life.
Comma: “You don’t need to be ‘touched’, Appi. All this is just an excuse to come and meet me. You know how irresistible I am”
The Prospect continues to grin affectionately. His grin spreads to my face too.
My tiny office desk is submerged under a vast canopy of flowers. I squeeze myself into the little wedge of remaining space, and reach out for the card. Flowers from So-On. With a big ‘Sorry’ on the card. While I am still looking, he calls.
So-On: “I don’t know why I should have yelled at you. It was hardly your fault.”
Me: “It wasn’t her fault either, So-On. She’s just worried. You’ve been so unlike yourself lately.”
So-On: “She’d be worried whatever my behaviour was like. Just at the thought of a prospective daughter-in-law.”
I can’t deny that my heart plunges into the pit of my stomach at talk of daughters-in-law, but it is only for a moment. I am glad that So-On seems to be moving towards some decision himself.
So I laugh and say: “That’s a worldwide phenomenon, apparently. All mothers worry about the women their sons will marry. But she said that Uncle would let you go, sooner or later. So keep up your terrible behaviour. It’s convincing them that they are better off without you.
So-On cheers up and laughs.
So-On: “Well, one thing is for sure now. I am going to go to New York, whether my parents agree or not. If only for a short while. Just to convince Sam that I want us to be together. What do you think, Appi?”
Me: “I agree.”
So that is that. I know it’s not going to be easy watching So-On make his travel arrangements, pack his bags, and leave on a plane. It’s not going to be easy being friends long-distance. Not going over to his house, not seeing movies together, not speaking over the phone every now and then. And it’s definitely not going to be easy, knowing he is with Sam, perhaps making plans to marry her.
Yet I feel relieved that So-On is going away. I know that distance will finally make it easy for me to accept that my first love was not to be. “Closure” as they say in ‘Friends’.
High BP almost kissed me yesterday.
Yes, that’s true.
I don’t know how it happened.
Then, maybe I do.
He had come to the office to drop by some documents. Whatever that means. Because they were not really important documents. And he could easily have sent them across with a peon from his office or couriered them.
He comes in while I am winding up work just after noon. We work only half-days on Saturdays.
He says: “Want me to drop you home? I’m going that way.”
Never one to refuse an air-conditioned drive home, I say: “Yes.”
He waits patiently for the few minutes it took me to pack up for the day.
In the car, he says: “Would you like a coffee, somewhere?”
I say: “Not really. I don’t feel like sitting in some noisy place right now. I’ve been filing and writing reports all morning, and my head’s swimming.”
He say: “I know a really lovely place. Very quiet. Tiny. But it’s a drive. Want to go there?”
I say: “OK.”
I don’t really need the coffee. But I don’t mind a drive.
The drive turns out to be all the way to Khandala. I could slap myself for being taken in like that. But it would seem gratuitous on my part to crib about the distance, considering he is driving.
The place is lovely. A little old-world coffee shop run by a young, new world couple. Who have given up their corporate jobs for this romantic fancy.
We sit alone in a small garden, enclosed by hills and hedges. We speak of this and that. We leave for the drive back home.
On the way home, we stop near a field of yellow flowers to watch the big, round pink sun about to drop on the road before us.
He says: “Your face has the most lovely light on it. I wish I’d brought my camera.”
I brush a nervous hand across my face. He reaches out and follows the movement of my hand.
He says: “Shy girl.”
He pulls my face gently towards him as he moves forward. I feel his breath. As he hovers over my face, suddenly I pull back.
He is flustered too.
He says: “Sorry. I don’t know what happened.”
I mumble: “It’s fine.”
He puts on some music as soon as we sit down in the car. I shut my eyes, and for some time, I actually go to sleep. Perhaps I am really tired; perhaps the confusion of that moment is too much for me.
I hope my mouth was not open or my chin lolling while I did that. Nice thing that would be to see just after an averted kiss.
OK. I have been kissed before. Just to set the record straight that I am not exactly the dull, boring, drab person I seem to be. To be exact, I have been kissed thrice. Details as under:
1. At 10, by a distant cousin Momo who was visiting us. He was 9. And we got along really well. And the kiss was an integral part of the ‘Mummy-Daddy’ game that we were playing.
2. At 16, by a date that I went out with, in the aftermath of Cockroach and So-On’s smart-alecky comments about the lack of a boyfriend in my life. I’ve forgotten the name of my date. But he seemed to think that a kiss on the doorstep was mandatory after an evening out, as in Hollywood films.
3. At 20, by So-ON. YES. Bit of experimentation, that. It was after a play. So-On was a little drunk. The group had decided to move from a pub to its rooftop restaurant to eat. Everyone took the lift; So-On and I decided to run up the stairs. On the 8th floor, as we stood laughing, gasping for breath, he suddenly leaned towards me and kissed me. For So-On, it was just one of those things that happened, something that he had forgotten by the time we reached the table where the others were waiting. For me, you can guess. I wrapped up the memory in muslin, and took it out every once in a while, and looked at it and caressed it, until I had to put it away again when it began to disturb me too much.
Yet today, in the train, I was not thinking of So-On but High BP. Despite all my efforts, I have spent not less than 13 hours, 47 minutes in imagining what THAT kiss would have been like if it had been. Would his lips be dry, clammy, soft, firm, hot, cold, what would they taste like?
I wonder how things would be between High BP and me, after yesterday. I hope they won’t be awkward. It is going to take another 2-3 months at least, before the case is finally closed.
So-On is not at home. He knows I was coming, but has just gone out to run an errand for his mother. For the first time, she beckons me into her room and directs me towards an armchair.
While I sit there bemused, wondering at the strangeness of it all, So-On’s mother says: “I think Uncle will have to agree to let him go. It’s useless keeping him here against his will. He’s just becoming intolerable.”
She does not seem to want any response from me because she continues: “Personally, I don’t see what the fuss is all about. Both father and son are just stuck with their egos. Uncle can easily carry on the business without So-On for another 10 years. It’s not as if he is planning to retire. Thank God for that. It would be terrible having him under my feet all day.”
I don’t know what I am expected to say to that, but luckily I am not expected to say anything. Only listen.
So-On’s mother: “And So-On. He’s going on about Sam as if he’s just met her. I mean, he has been going around with her for years, and they’ve been friends for more years than that. And he discovers that he can’t do without her, just before she’s going to New York? Unbelievable.”
I maintain my stoic silence unnoticed by her.
So-On’s mother: “I don’t even understand what he sees in her. She’s beautiful, OK. But so? There are 1000s of other girls like her. She’s a snob, and arrogant, and hardheaded. She’s going to tie him around her with a noose. Hmmmph.”
That is funny coming from her, as she doesn’t do too badly herself in the snobbery, arrogance and hard-headedness departments. But I don’t have time to either laugh or choke back my laughter,
because So-On has entered the room with an infallible sense of timing to hear his mother’s opinion of Sam. She has the grace to look embarrassed. So-On turns and storms off into his room and bangs the door behind him. I sit in the chair in his mother’s bedroom, wondering what to do with myself.
I know I have hankered for some signs of friendliness from So-On’s mother all these years, but now that she has decided to have a tête-à-tête with me, I wish she would go back to being her unfriendly self.
A few minutes later, I knock on So-On’s door.
He screams: “Go away.”
I say softly: “So-On, it’s me.”
So-On: “Go away, Appi.”
When High BP and Pallo met in Court today, I was expecting a bit more courtesy, and a little more warmth from Pallo, some sign of gratefulness for High BP taking back the case. But I seem to be too demanding of people. Because Pallo continued to be her cold, blank-staring self while she signed the necessary documents, and continued to ignore both High BP and me.
Later I fume over a cup of coffee: “She could at least have greeted you with some civility. All said and done, she has been unfair to you. And she shows no sign of remorse for that.”
High BP: “Come on, Appi, I don’t expect her to say ‘sorry’ to me. She has enough problems of her own, and she’s caught up in them. Forget it.”
I continue to scowl over my coffee.
High BP: “I must say that it’s a refreshing change to have you angry for me, and not angry AT me. Makes you prettier.”
I refuse to be distracted from my righteous rage.