I was going to ask Shashi on the day of the pooja. I wasn’t going to wait any longer. Something told me he was equally interested. Checking my kumkum-bindi one last time, I stepped out of my room. Shubha Aunty oohed and aahed at my perfectly draped nine-yard saree. I saw Nalin dressed in his new silk panche-shalya, attracting equal attention from all the auntys who would rush to him to remove drishti. I didn’t know if he thought I didn’t notice. Something was going on with Nalin. Something new. There was a spring in his step. I hadn’t seen him spend so much time in front of the mirror before. Good that he’s taking care so much. He fussed on each and every strand of his hair before stepping out of his room these days. And that secret smile at the dinner table when no one was looking? I wonder who’d stolen his heart. Like someone had mine.
From what I see, our fully dysfunctional family is not short of interesting characters. Amma will soon retire from her job. She’s a teller at a co-operative bank. She’d got the job by luck, she always said, “All the manager asked me at the interview was, ‘can you count?’” Growing up, I began to understand that Appa was working odd jobs to support us. He used to work as an assistant in a garment factory in Bommanahalli. Then he began to run errands for a film producer for a while in Peenya. Then he was an assistant to a Stores Manager at a soap factory in Rajajinagar. He retired from that job a few years ago. He’d saved every penny he’d made.
A typical morning scene at home these days: Appa sits on the cane chair and reads the newspaper, ordering Amma to get him a “strong cup of coffee,” – Ramu (our adopted dog) promptly at his foot – with a satisfied look on his face, only to be disturbed by Amma’s anguish. Amma would say, “Yenri, you surely realise our Sukanya is not getting any younger, don’t you? Have you even thought of getting her married? Or are you waiting for her to run off with some loafer, like that Seetha’s daughter did,” before slamming the cup of coffee on the teapoy in front of him, and stomping off back to the kitchen. While combing my hair from my room I’d hear Amma worrying loudly about me getting old and not attracting a suitable marriage alliance, ultimately dying a spinster. And then she’d shout about a nightmare she had about Nalin where he had become a loafer. “Ayyo, what will happen to my children?” All this would be observed by my all-knowing Ajji, sitting across from my father on her wheelchair and tutting at Amma’s rant, sipping sugarless coffee from her cup. To check the tentative atmosphere in the living room, I’d stick my head out of my room. Ajji would wink at me before I escaped.
At dinner today, Amma said, “Did you hear about Seetha? She’s moving out, poor thing. This had to happen. How will she even live in this neighbourhood with her chin up? With all those goody-goody families around, does she expect them to treat her well? After Sowmya ran off with that good-for-nothing Lokesha, a mechanic for godsake… Chi, what a disgrace!” She looked sharply at me and Nalin, her index finger (smeared with rice and rasam) brandishing, “If either of you do such a thing, I will break your legs and lock you up!”
I was about to turn twenty-five next month. And a month after that, Appa was going to turn fifty. So Amma and Appa decided to perform a pooja to celebrate both occasions, on Appa’s birthday. I began to dread all the unwanted relatives it would attract, their annoying enquiries about when I’ll be getting married. “Or do you have a boyfriend,” one of the wide-eyed young cousins would tease.
I worked as an accountant and stenographer for a lawyer, her office was on Avenue Road. Mrs. Nagamani Kamath, a fiery woman, was one of the few criminal lawyers I knew who was successful. She worked big criminal cases and mostly won. Her clients were businessmen and politicians. She paid me well. She would even invite me to have lunch with her when she was in a good mood. Today she said, “I have an idea. Tell me what you think, Sukanya. As you can see, we are a successful law firm. As we get more clients, we will have more responsibilities. I’m thinking of getting an assistant.” This last bit she announced triumphantly. “That’s a great idea, Ma’am. With so much work, you could use a hand,” I smiled.
And soon enough, I met the new assistant. His name was Shashidhar Bhatt. “Fresh out of Christ Law School!” Nagamani had trilled after interviewing him. Handsome, in his lawyer’s formal wear, Shashidhar dazzled everyone with his sense of humour and wit. Soon he was everyone’s favourite. One day when Nagamani won a case, Shashidhar bought a huge amount of delicious jalebis from the sweet shop opposite our building, gathered everyone at the reception area and distributed them.
Monsoon had just begun and it only added to the city’s woes. And mine. I hated the rain. I just didn’t enjoy getting wet in the rain. That first week of June saw incessant downpour after the sunset. And the rain would start precisely at the moment I’d step out of the office to go home. One evening I was looking for an auto rickshaw to race home before the rain would begin. I was waiting on the footpath on Avenue Road when a man on a bike stopped in front of me. He took off his helmet. I let out a sigh of relief. “Shashidhar!” I laughed. He said, “Call me Shashi. I hear you live in Rajajinagar. So do I. Hop on, I will give you a lift.” I was more than willing. “Let’s hurry before the rain starts.” Grey clouds had begun to gather.
By the time we reached my house, rain had decided to play spoilsport. Both of us were wet to the bone. “Please, come inside,” I invited. Seeing that he was equally wet, he didn’t object. “A hot cup of coffee would do wonders,” he winked. Laughing, I told him that I’d gladly make him one. Nalin opened the door. Ramu rushed outside and welcomed us with a sharp bark. Nalin frowned at the wet duo on the porch. I said, “Well, move over, I’m cold!” We hurried inside the warm confines of the living room. Amma and Appa were not home, surprisingly. “They’ve gone to see Gopi Uncle. Apparently he’s fallen sick. Ajji is sleeping,” Nalin informed. “This is Shashi,” I introduced. “Will one of your shirts fit him, Nalin? He is completely wet,” I said, and looked at him pleadingly. “That won’t be necessary,” started Shashi. “Don’t be silly, you’ll catch a cold,” I said, and looked at Nalin for help. He rolled his eyes and said, “Alright, he can borrow one of mine. I will look inside the cupboard.” “Take him with you. Give him a towel. Thanks kano,” I squeezed my brother’s arm and made a beeline towards my room upstairs.
I grabbed a towel and thoroughly dried my hair. I peeled the wet kurta that was clinging to my skin. I stepped out of my frigid leggings. I changed into a warm white kurta and purple pyjamas. I combed my hair quickly, tied it into a bun. After placing a bindi on my forehead, the image in the mirror seemed to look OK.
They hadn’t come out into the living room yet. I went to the kitchen. Thankfully there was enough milk and coffee decoction. I poured some milk and the decoction into a pan and turned the stove on. The smell made me feel better already. Sudden exchange of banter and laughter poured into the living room. I took three steaming steel glasses of filter coffee and placed it on the teapoy. Shashi looked comfortable in Nalin’s black t-shirt, even though it seemed a tad short. Rubbing his palms together, “Mm, smells good,” Shashi took a glass. Nalin and I sipped from ours too. Nalin had a funny look on his face. Shashi was smiling. I asked, “Did I miss something?” Shashi laughed, “Nalin was telling me about his literature classes and his favourite authors. We have some common interests, him and I,” he winked at Nalin. I narrowed my eyes at Nalin, “Have you been boring our guest,” and laughed. Nalin rolled his eyes at me. “No, no. We were talking about all these interesting books we have read,” said Shashi and smiled at Nalin. “You’re the first lawyer I know that reads novels,” I commented.
The rain seemed to have stopped finally. And it was past 9: 30. “Ride safe,” I smiled at him. He saluted at me and winked at Nalin. “Bye,” said Nalin coyly. After Shashi left, Nalin went straight to his room without a word. I sat down on the sofa to watch TV, Ramu’s head on my lap. Bored, I called my old friend Shalini. I told her all about Shashi. “Someone’s got a crush,” teased Shalini. “Chi, nothing like that,” I protested, and we laughed.
And so it became our routine. Shashi would pick me up and drop me home every day after work. Amma and Appa would always ask him questions about his family. “Where is your family from?” “How much property does your father own?” Something like this would be followed by a loud and chastising “Amma!” from me. “Yes, Uncle, I’m the only child,” said Shashi one day, sipping his coffee. Amma was watching him with some interest. “Are they looking for a bride for you,” she enquired. Nalin was staring at Shashi curiously, his novel discarded on his lap. I rolled my eyes. “Che, leave him alone, will you? You interrogate him every time.”
As much as I was annoyed, and dreaded this pooja, I had no choice but to be part of it. My birthday was next week but all focus was given to the pooja. This was huge for Amma and Appa as no shubhakaarya had been performed in our house in nearly ten years. They’d taken it very seriously and had begun to invite our relatives to the event. Amma wanted all of us to buy something in silk for the occasion as it was supposed to be “auspicious.” She insisted Appa and Nalin buy new pairs of silk panche-shalya. Amma was even planning to visit Pobbathi Silk Sarees in Gandhi Bazaar to buy a new traditional nine-yard saree for herself, “They have the best collection, you see.” She wanted me to buy one too. I refused and said a regular saree would do for me. She tutted and said wearing a nine-yard saree would make me look “marriage-ready,” whatever that meant. Appa suggested, “We’ll go this Sunday. And it’s your birthday,” he added, as though it was the most convenient thing. Shashi had already become a household name so he had offered to drive us all to Gandhi Bazaar that Sunday. Pleased, Amma and Appa readily agreed, ignoring my protests.
Shashi was honking from his car, a red Santro, indicating for us to hurry. Amma was powdering her face and I was applying lipstick, “Almost done,” I shouted from my dresser. I wanted to sit in the front with Shashi but when I came out, Nalin and he were already laughing at a joke. Annoyed, I sat next to Appa on the backseat. “Happy birthday, Sukanya,” smiled Shashi, looking at me in the mirror. I smiled back, “Thank you”. Much discussion ensued about which route to take, “If we take that route, we can avoid traffic,” “This route is shorter,” you get the drift.
In the showroom, the sales-boy was showing us a variety of sarees, sweating all the while. Amma, after nearly half an hour of dissatisfaction, finally sighed at the choice she’d made, “I don’t have anything in the snuff colour, you know,” she said. I thought it was an ugly saree, only I didn’t tell her. I was going to zero in on a parrot-green number, when Shashi came up to me and whispered, “Gaudy.” He pointed at one of Amma’s rejects, a midnight blue that was simple and elegant. Raising an eyebrow, I nodded in appreciation at his choice. “But it’s a nine-yard,” I said. He said, “Midnight Blue is my favourite colour,” and winked. I felt funny and started to grin for no
reason. Nalin caught me and frowned. He dragged Shashi away and made him select the best fabric for him. Nalin promptly finalised what Shashi pointed at.
All of us dropped heavily into our seats at Roti Ghar for lunch, stuffing the shopping bags wherever there was place. As we were about to finish our meal, the waiter brought a birthday cake and placed it in front of me. They all chimed, “Happy birthday!” I had not anticipated this and smiled a surprised smile. “Shashi planned all this, Suku,” said Amma, nodding meaningfully (Nalin cleared his throat loudly), “Oh, and it’s eggless,” she added happily. The cake was cut; we all helped ourselves to huge slices despite the heavy meal. It had been a long time since we all had eaten out. I had to admit that it was a good day. Shashi had made that happen… well, in a way.
Nalin was growing fond of Shashi. He’d drag him to his room whenever he came and they talked about authors they loved. Sometimes I’d get bored of their argument and hurry to the kitchen to make some coffee to shut them up. I’d once caught them on MG Road shopping for books; I’d gone to shop for one-gram gold jewellery with Shalini when I saw then come out of a bookshop, laughing. Nalin had been shocked to see me. Shashi however, had feigned surprise, joked about being discovered on a clandestine meeting, laughed and winked.
Shashi liked Nalin too, he’d told me at work while having lunch once, “So intelligent, so quiet. So handsome, so funny and so talented,” Shashi even thought he had a bright future, “a glint in his eyes.” “But I think he wants to be independent. I feel he’s over- protected.” “He’s happy where he is, thank you very much,” I retorted before I could stop myself. “Sorry, it was not my place to discuss your brother’s prospects. But he may surprise you,” he said, nodding, “You should read his poems. They’re brilliant and thoughtful.” I said I will.
I’d begun to like Shashi. Seeing him waiting for me at the door everyday to pick me up would please me. His face would brighten the room. His smile would lift my spirits. His forthcoming nature, his generosity, even his ferocity at arguing about a case with Nagamani, was admirable. The way he took interest in my family, even Appa approved of him, “Olle huduga.” He’d even make Amma laugh, although I thought it was too high-pitched at times. He was every bit of somebody I wanted to be with. I tried to be composed around him (sometimes I’d giggle at his jokes like an idiot). Sometimes we’d go to the multiplex in Malleshwaram and watch Hollywood movies after work. On weekends we’d have dinner at Halli Mane. But my most favourite was the CTR, where, I believe, they made the world’s best Benne masale dose. And their coffee was divine (I’ve noticed that coffee tastes much better after a decent Masale Dose). I was having the best time, thanks to Shashi.
And so the day of the pooja came. You will not believe how many people had turned up. Mostly to find out if my marriage has been fixed with some NRI. “Beautiful,” Shashi smiled when he saw me clad in the saree (I don’t know if he noticed the subtle makeup I was wearing). The elders approved of my nine-yard saree and the near perfect kumkum-bindi and blessed me by saying, “Sheeghrameva kalyana praptirastu,” may you get married soon. I know, ridiculous. Honestly, my relatives were even more annoying and old fashioned than Amma and Appa. “Nalin wants to show me his new poem. I’ll be in his room,” said Shashi. Swarna Aunty could be seen (and heard) arguing with the caterers. I told him to go ahead, and I went to see what Aunty was fussing over. She’d caught them mixing water in the milk. She was threatening to dismiss them when Appa and I had to step in and control the heated argument. The catering manager apologised and said he’d charge us less for the event. As Appa began to haggle with him, I went to find Shashi.
Shashi and Nalin weren’t in the room. But I saw an opened envelope on his immaculate bed. From it sticking out were a few sheets of paper. They were written neatly in Nalin’s hand. I wondered if one of them was Nalin’s poems. Nalin and I weren’t exactly close. The huge age difference (seven years) made us wary of each other. We mostly never fought or even had a heart-to-heart. After a point, I stopped asking if he had a girlfriend as he always answered with a flat ‘no’, which was hard to believe. We just kept out of each other’s way. Today, curiosity got the better of me. I looked at the first sheet of paper. It was a letter, addressed to Shashi. Tremors were beginning at the tips of my fingers. I didn’t know why. Out fell a sheet torn from a small notepad. And it was indeed a poem. And at that moment, my life turned upside down:
A stranger in the rain, I thought,
You, with your clothes clinging to you like second skin
Me, looking at you askance.
The wet smile and the wetter wink was introduction enough
To open the gates of my racing, pounding heart.
We fell into the abyss for each other, and we knew.
Even the dead poets we talked about nodded their approval.
We laughed, we brushed our tears away, read to each other, argued.
We were quite the pair, yet we weren’t.
Oh, how grateful I am, when I go back to the word go:
There you were, at my door that fateful night,
That rainy, rainy night, by my sister’s side.
I couldn’t believe it. Pulse racing, clutching the sheet of paper I went looking for Shashi. I couldn’t find him on the ground floor. They weren’t upstairs in my room either. The first-floor landing led to an open terrace that had a water tank high up and a couple of solar water-heater panels. No one was around, except Nalin and Shashi under the water tank, kissing. I turned on my heel, ran down the stairs, hot tears stinging my eyes.
Just the other day in class, Nikhil was asked to see the Principal. It was raging news that he’d written a love letter to Aarti. I don’t know what happened later. But that gave me an idea. I wanted to write a letter to you.
You might think this as silly, because we’ve already had a few hundred conversations. I wanted to put some of those meaningful ones in writing. And what better time to give you this letter than today! I haven’t organised my thoughts, so I’m going to let the pen lead the way.
I want to begin by saying that I love you. I have never felt this way towards anyone. Not when Anil stuck his tongue down my throat during Recess last year. Not when Girish let his fingers wander inside my pants at Nina’s party. Not even when Professor Roy grinned devilishly at me in his cabin. Not even when my cousin’s friend grabbed by butt at Chaitra’s wedding.
All these experiences seem meaningless, even shameful, after meeting you. Being with you reminds me of who I really am. No frills, no pretence. I love every minute I’ve spent with you, not to mention the involuntary heart-to-heart they end up being, every time. But there’s one small thing I haven’t told you: I’ve seen you before we even met. At a bar in Malleshwaram. Venky’s Bar, to be precise.
It was the end of semester, and me and my friends had decided to celebrate. It was a Saturday evening and we entered the bar which was crowded and warm. We were laughing, drinking, smoking, exchanging gossip; you know, the usual. After a while, the blaring music suddenly mellowed down a bit and played a romantic number. A few of them went up the dance floor just to sway in each other’s arms. That’s when I saw you.
You and your partner were on the dance floor. I liked how you and your partner were so relaxed. I watched you for a while. Your moves so fluid, and your smile so carefree. I was overwhelmed by this gay couple who didn’t give a damn about the world around them. I saw you whisper something to him and he laughed. Were you in love? I don’t know. But a strange feeling began to bubble inside me. I didn’t wish for more momentary pleasure that the Anils and Girishs had brought me. Instead, looking at you, I wished for someone who’d look into my eyes, smile and whisper sweet nothings into my ears.
Well, I was very drunk. Or, I must’ve really wished for it. Because it came true! Not only did I meet the nicest guy, I met the same nicest guy I saw on the dance floor! I guess we were meant to meet.
From the moment we met, I’ve been in constant elation. I have been told that I’m a hopeless romantic. Who knew the rain god would bestow you upon me? All those rainy evenings were spent in your anticipation. How I’d hide my tremor when we shook hands every evening, and it would spread violently throughout my body when you hugged me goodnight.
How we’d steal to my room, talk about poets and favourite novels, while Sukanya prepared coffee for us. How you’d shyly drop an unexpected compliment, however small it was, (“I like your hair today,”) and make my day. I remember the first conversation we had. While you peeled off your wet shirt and wore my black t-shirt (a little short for you but you wore it anyway), you scanned my bookshelf. Your approval of my choice was not only surprising (it didn’t strike me that lawyers read too), it also pleased me. And thus, literature became the centre of our conversations.
I also observed. You were patient, even indulgent in Appa and Amma’s interrogations. Their aggressive (but well-meaning) questions didn’t deter you. You soon fit right in, an extension to a family that needed someone to hold on to, to make life a little exciting. This gave us room to hang out more. One rainy evening when you hugged me in my room, I knew that you liked my company too. You’d pecked on my cheek. And that’s how it had all started. I’d look forward to your visits and welcome them. This brought us closer and we began to hide from the world in plain sight.
Our trip to MG Road was a memorable one. As I was rotting in class listening to Paul sir’s boring lecture, I received a text message from you: Meet me on MG Road. Cauveri Emporium. 4 PM. As the bell rang at 3: 30, I ran to the college gates and hailed a rickshaw. The driver agreed and even turned the meter on. I saw this as good omen. You were waiting for me at the entrance of Cauveri Emporium. You greeted me with a hug and asked me if I had a good day at college. I said I did, smiling like an idiot. We walked the MG Road Boulevard. We went to Gangarams Book Bureau where we bought books to our heart’s content, laughed, read poems and passages from our books to each other. As we step out from the book shop, who do we run into but Sukanya! While I was panicking, you handled it well. You even bought me ice cream from Corner House later. The Hot Chocolate Fudge with mint syrup (my favourite) calmed me down. You joked about our encounter with Sukanya and made me laugh, “Phew! That was a close shave.” I looked at you over my empty plastic cup, a mischievous smile playing around your lips. How beautiful you were.
On Sukanya’s birthday we were supposed to go shopping for the anticipated pooja. You played the designated chauffer, much to my parent’s delight. You helped everyone in shopping, and even bought a birthday cake (eggless) for Sukanya. You’d won everyone over. Even me.
I don’t want to talk about the future. I love every minute spent with you. I look forward to more conversations, more smiles, more hugs and kisses from you.
P.S. Do tell me if you like the poem.