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Chapter 5: A Lovely Dinner
Back home, he had another task cut out.
“What?! Why!?” Titu was annoyed. He had been quite sure Lovely would veto Sonu’s plans and save him the bother. Dammit now he would have to spend time in her company. What if anyone asked who she was? He couldn’t very well say fiancé could he? She was downright ugly and a blot on his standards. “I don’t want to get to know her better!” He echoed Lovely’s sentiments. “What’s the point?”
“What will everyone say?” Sonu asked. “We did put off the engagement saying that you needed time to get to know her didn’t you? And if you don’t meet at least a couple of times, they are going to get suspicious. Even her own Aunt and Uncle.”
“What a bore.” Titu grumbled. “And what a waste of a perfectly good evening.”
“If you were so dead against going, why didn’t you say something before I went to meet her?”
“I did! But you didn’t listen,” Titu pointed out. “Besides I thought she would refuse. I am still surprised that she agreed.”
“She had no choice.” Sonu smirked. “Plus she also has a vested interest,” He pointed out smugly, “She needs to keep up appearances of this engagement.”
“Makes sense.” Titu nodded, “but,” he shot Sonu a keen look, “what doesn’t make sense, is your interest?”
“My interest?” Sonu got up to pour himself a glass of water. He drained it. “I don’t know what you mean.” He picked up his car keys. “Okay then see you at around 7?”
“What’s going on Sonu?” Titu stood in front of him.\
“Going on? Nothing.” Sonu shrugged. “I just remembered, I was supposed to meet a caterer…”
“Don’t lie Sonu!” Titu interrupted, “If you know me, I also know you. So out with it.” He insisted.
“I really don’t know what you are talking about!” Sonu stuck to his story. “I am just trying to help…”
“How are you helping me by forcing me to meet this girl? She doesn’t want to marry me and even I don’t want to marry her….”
“Exactly,” Nodded Sonu, “We need a valid reason to break off isn’t it? The sooner we meet and the oftener we meet the earlier we can convince Ghasitaram that you aren’t suited.” Seeing Titu’s unconvinced expression, he added, “You do know Ghasitaram is hell bent on this alliance?” Titu nodded glumly. “It’s not going to be easy to break this one,” Sonu warned. “We have to find a solid reason one that even Ghasitaram wont be able to overlook.”
“That will be tough,” admitted Titu, “the way he waxes eloquent about his friend. In fact he said until college they were like you and me. It was because of the partition they lost touch until now.”
“I know. He told me that as well. And that’s why we have to meet Lovely and find some solid reason that would convince Ghasitaram.”
“What if he doesn’t get convinced?” The dreadful possibility gave Titu the jitters. “I am not marrying that girl and that’s final!”
“Okay fine! I’ll think of something.” Sonu reassured him.
“I know!” Titu snapped his fingers. “You could marry her.” He said slyly. “You seem quite taken in with her.”
“Rubbish.” Sonu hedged. “It’s just that she’s piqued my interest. She’s so…so different and refreshing from the usual girls, that’s all.”
That’s all. Titu grinned to himself. This was getting interesting. He made no more objections until he saw Lovely.
“You do know we aren’t going to the temple for bhajan kirtan?” Titu said as Lovely got into the car.
She paused in the act of shutting the door, the only indication that the barb had hit home. “Yes.” She slammed the door shut and pulled at the seat belt.
“Then why are you dressed as if you are?” Titu deliberately rubbed it in ignoring Sonu’s glare in the rear view mirror.
“What’s wrong with what I am wearing?” Lovely said stiffly looking down at her sober full sleeved salwar kameez. “Besides, how does it matter what I wear?”
“Of course it matters!” Titu didn’t start the car. “We are going to a friend’s engagement party. What will everyone think? That my fiancé is a behenji?”
“Shut up and drive,” Ordered Sonu from the backsat.
“As you wish,” Titu slid the car into gear and zoomed off. “But for your kind information we are going to a discotheque. So don’t blame me if everyone stares at you or makes fun of you.”
“I thought it was a formal function.” Lovely said stiffly. “Not some half-naked dance party at a discotheque.”
“Call it what you like but we people like to wear clothes which we are comfortable in and not what society expects us to wear.” Titu tapped his fingers on the wheel one eye on Sonu’s black expression. He laughed to himself.
“I am comfortable in these clothes, thank you very much.” Lovely sat stiff and composed as Titu gunned down the road.
“Whatever.” he looked at Sonu through the rear-view mirror, “She can be your friend, fiancé whatever. I refuse to be associated with her.” He screeched to a halt. “Here we are.” He got down from the car. Sonu leaped out and accosted Titu. “How can you be so rude?”
“I had to be rude to be kind,” Titu was unfazed. “If she went in looking like that they would demolish her in no time.” He shook his head. “What were you thinking? And what the hell are you playing at?”
Lovely exited from the car. She slammed the door with finality. “I’ve booked a cab. I am going home. Thank you for a fine evening.” She glared at Sonu.
“Hey no!” Sonu went to her. “Don’t do that! If you don’t want to attend the party,” he looked behind where Titu was already deep in conversation with a couple of girls in bits and pieces of garments, “I’ll drop you home.”
“No thanks.” She raised a hand. “I’ve had enough of your hospitality.” She raised a hand to hail her cab.
Sonu walked up to the cab and dismissed him with a 100-rupee note. He turned to face a fuming Lovely. “If you don’t want to attend the party, I won’t insist. But please let me drop you home. Please.” Lovely glared at him before looking away. Taking it as tacit acceptance he went to Titu. “Give me the car keys. I’ll drop her and come back.”
“Sure.” Titu said affably and handed over the keys to him.
“Please,” Sonu held open the car door and waved her in. She looked up from her phone where she was hunting for a cab. Pursing her lips, she got into the car with a regal swish.
Sonu hurried over to the other side and started the car. “Sorry.” He said. “It’s all my fault. A misunderstanding. I should have warned you about the kind of party.”
“Yes you should have. They you wouldn’t have had to waste your time picking and dropping a behenji.”
Sonu winced but rallied. “Titu said that! Not me. I would never say that to you. Not in a million years.” He swore.
“Wouldn’t matter even if you did.” She dismissed his avowal rather rudely. “I just find it weird that all their lives girls are constantly nagged to dress properly, cover properly sit properly and then wham one fine day she is supposed to drop ALL her inhibitions and along with it everything else! She’s not supposed to draw any attention to herself; She should blend into the background and yet be attractive engaging and forward enough to catch a rich handsome husband. Idiotic double standards.” She ranted.
“Yes I suppose the mixed signals can be confusing,” he slowed the car and slid in to the parking.
“Confusing? They are dizzying and oh so frustrating!” She looked around. “Why are we stopping here?”
“I thought it was only good manners to at least treat you to dinner.” He unstrapped himself and got out of the car. He opened her door where she sat mutinously.
“I don’t want dinner. And definitely not with you.”
“Ouch.” Sonu winced. “No one has ever been so rude to me ever in my life and definitely not a beautiful girl.”
Lovely snorted and crossed her arms.
“Please. Look the guard is coming. Please don’t make a scene. Please!” he begged. The security guard had begun to stroll towards them. Rolling her eyes, Lovely got down from the car. “I don’t like these blackmailing tactics.” She warned. “And it’s the second one tonight. One more and you’ve had it.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He said meekly shutting the door behind her. “I wasn’t very sure what kind of food you’d like so I chose Indian. Is it okay?” He asked worried. “Would you have preferred Chinese or Italian? We can go to another joint nearby if you like.” He waved his hand.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’m not here to ‘enjoy’ my food but only to fulfill my years of ingrained societal niceties, to complete a formality and sooner the better.” She looked at her watch. “I have to study.”
“It will be a quick meal I promise.” Sonu looked at the hovering obsequious waiter. “Anything special you would like me to order?”
She didn’t even deign to reply. Sonu quickly gave their order and dismissed him. “Your ingrained good manners don’t extend to me?” He half-joked half-complained.
She looked at him with a puzzled arrested expression. “You are different.” His heart leaped. “You and Titu. I feel like banging both your heads together.” She said conversationally. “You especially get my goat.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “And I don’t seem to feel the need to censor my words with you.”
Pleased, Sonu leaned back as the waiter served them their drinks. “Cheers!” He raised his drink in a toast. “May you continue to be honest and frank with me.” He indicated her drink with his glass. “Don’t worry, that’s non-alcoholic.”
“So,” she raised an eyebrow, “Yours is alcoholic?”
“Yes.” He took a sip. “Alcohol keeps me focused.” He grinned.
She crossed her arms. “After you finish dinner, I’ll take a cab.” She said pointedly.
“Just one drink,” he promised. “So,” he leaned forrd, “Do you actually like studying?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Strange.” Sonu looked at her with concern. “Since when do you have this disease?”
Lovely threw back her head and laughed. He stared at the transformation it brought to her face. She glowed and he was the moth to her light.
“No I am serious.” He insisted wishing he could keep her animated and alive always. He hated the pained withdrawn look that she often wore. “Were you fond of studying even as a child?”
“Yes. Studies came easily to me.” She shrugged. “My parents, especially my father encouraged me and I always topped my school.” Her face clouded. “Until they passed away.”
“I am sorry.” Sonu cursed himself. That dreaded look was back. “It must have been very tough. I lost my mother and that was so difficult to cope with but to lose both your parents.” He shook his head. Surely that wasn’t why she appeared to wear a mask to cover the real her? “How did you cope?”
“I was shifted to the hostel soon after they passed away. It was the best solution for all concerned. Dadi had taken the loss of Papa badly and Chachi had her hands full with two young children and my tantrums alternating with bouts of depression were too much for them to handle.”
“Hostel must have just worsened things for you.”
“No actually it didn’t.” She toyed with the cutlery wearing a far away look. “Hostel was the best thing for me. There was no time to mope or mourn. Life was too busy and hectic with sports and extra-curricular activities. They put me into theater, which was very therapeutic for me. I got the chance to forget myself, become somebody else and also give me perspective and helped me to cope with my loss. Plus while in hostel I could pretend everything was fine, that my parents were still at home, I was just studying.” She swallowed. “That’s why I often refused to go home during vacations.”
“You aren’t taking your drink?” he asked. “Should I order something else?”
“I don’t take drinks with strangers.” She said baldly.
He stared. “I am sitting right here! How could I have laced your drink?”
She shrugged. “How do I know you aren’t in cahoots with the waiter? He seemed to be pretty paly with you.”
Giving her a resigned look he reached out and poured half of her drink into his now empty glass and downed it. “Happy? Convinced?”
“One can’t be too careful.” She refused to apologize.
“I am surprised that you actually agreed to have dinner with me.”
“If you remember,” she pointed out, “I didn’t agree. I have a horror of creating scenes and drawing attention.” She admitted. “But,” she warned. “I am a black belt in judo and karate.”
“Oh.” He was impressed. “I am glad you are on my side.”
She just raised an eyebrow. He grinned cheekily. “So where did you learn self-defense? In school?” He attacked his food.
“I wish.” The brooding dark look was back. “I learned it in college.”
Something had happened in college?
“You studied from DU right?” she nodded. “You stayed with you grandparents?”
“Initially. Then I shifted to the hostel.”
Definitely something in college.
“What did you study?”
“Math!” His eyes widened. “Don’t even ask!”
“Did you even go to college?” She mocked.
“Good question!” He grinned engagingly. “I only remember the college canteen.” He looked at her empty plate. “Aren’t you going to eat either?” He pointed to his plate. “Look I’ve been eating and drinking and am still alive.”
“There are worse things than death.” But she helped herself to a piece of naan and some dal.
What he dearly wished to ask but wisely held his tongue. “How’s your grandfather?”
“Not well.” She said shortly. She took a cautious sip of her drink and put her napkin on the table. “How soon can we go?”
“Once you finish eating.” He promised. “You’ll have to go home and cook dinner for yourself.”
“I already cooked before coming.”
“But of course. I get the children ready for school, pack their tiffin serve breakfast, make lunch for everyone and do it all over again in the evening.”
“What does your Chachi do?”
“She oversees everything, decides the menu, controls the purse strings, manages her in-laws, husband kids…”
“But I suppose the children’s homework is also your headache?”
She softened. “The children are no bother.”
“You should thank me.” He asked for the finger bowl
“Why?” she frowned.
“At least you won’t have to serve dinner tonight.”
She laughed. “Actually, honestly that was also one of the reasons I got down from the car.”
“Is that also the reason you are so against marriage? Because you have to cook clean and serve?”
“Partly.” She shrugged. “I don’t mind the work so much as the skewedness of the relationship. Why is everything just her responsibility? Why should she only cook…?”
“That’s not true! Even I know how to cook.” Sonu claimed. “In fact I make a mean biryani and often on weekends when the mood strikes, I cook for everyone.”
“Good for you,” she applauded. “But can you do that everyday not just when the mood strikes you? Four meals a day, every day regardless of heat, the humidity, health and mood?” He was silent. “And listen to complaints and criticisms?”
“That shouldn’t be enough to put you off marriage,” he argued. “You could keep a cook, an army of helpers. And what about children? You do like them don’t you?”
“Yes of course.” She nodded. “Later, when I am better settled in my career and have bought a house of my own, I intend to adopt a child, or as many as I can afford. But I have no intentions of being a slave to someone else’s moods and dictates.”
“No place for men?”
“No.” She stood up. “Can we go now? Or should I book a cab.” She scrolled through her phone.
“Let me pay the bill and we are out of here.” He promised. “How about an ice-cream on the way. Then you won’t have to scrounge for something in the kitchen.”
Her lips twitched. She nodded. “I do like ice-cream.” She admitted.
“Finally!” He pumped his fist
“Can I have your phone number?” he asked as he dropped her off home after a companionable ice-cream binge topped with arguments and discussions over the best flavors and brands.
“You can,” she said, “but you may not.”
“Damn.” He banged on the wheel setting off the horn. She frowned at him and got off the car. “Why not?” he wasn’t giving up so easily.
“Why should I? You do have the landline number don’t you?”
“I thought we could chat sometimes?”
“I don’t have time to chat.”
“Okay fine.” He surrendered. “At least take my card.” He thrust it into her hand.
“Why would I need your card?”
“Who knows?” He shrugged. “Perhaps to plan a wedding?”
He was rewarded with a laugh before she disappeared inside.
He looked at the time on his phone. Just 11 pm. And four missed calls from Titu. He looked up at the dark sky and the moon stared back at him. He suddenly cherished the silence, the loneliness. He couldn’t stomach the thought of going back to the blaring thudding music the gyrating mass of bodies. Not when he was in a different world altogether. He wanted to savor the evening, every gesture, every nuance every expression.
Click here for Chapter 6: A Lovely Confession and a Spat