We reached the District Centre, a ghetto of shalwar-kameez shops, beauty parlours and STD booths. Dolly insisted on going to her favourite clothes boutique. I watched her choose clothes for half an hour. I wondered if it would be appropriate to call Ananya from one of the STD booths. I dropped the idea and hung around the shop, watching Punjabi mothers and daughters buy shalwar kameezes by the dozen. The daughters were all thin and the mothers were all fat. The boutique specialized in these extreme sizes.
'Healthy figure range is there,' she asked, opening her bag.
'Nice,' I said as we entered Barista. The air-conditioning and soothing music were a respite from the blazing forty-degree sun outside.
'One cold coffee with ice-cream,' Dolly said. 'What do you want?'
I ordered the same and we sat on a couch, sitting as far apart as possible. We mutely stared at the music channel on the television in front of us.
'I've never spoken to an IITian before,' she said after some time.
'You are not missing much,' I said.
She shifted in her seat. Her clothes bag fell down. She lifted it back up.
'Sorry, I get nervous in front of hi-fi people,' she said.
'Don't be,' I said. 'Enjoy your coffee.'
'You have a girlfriend, no? South Indian?'
'Kittu told me,' she said.
Kittu was my first cousin and Shipra masi's daughter. Kittu's father was Pammi aunty's cousin. In some sense, Dolly was my third or fourth cousin, though we weren't related by blood.
'Kittu? How did she know?'
'Shipra masi must have told her. And your mother must have told Shipra masi.'
'And now the whole clan knows,' I guessed.
'What else do you know about her?'
'Nothing,' Dolly said as her eyes shifted around.
'Oh, some stuff. That she is very aggressive and clever and has you totally under her control. But South Indian girls are like that, no?'
'Do you know any South Indian girls?'
'No,' Dolly said as she twirled her straw. 'Sorry, I didn't want to tell you. You guys serious or is it just time-pass?'
I tried to curb my anger. 'What about you? You have a boyfriend?'
'No, no. Never,' she swore.
'Not even time-pass?'
She looked at me. I smiled to show friendliness.
'Just one colony guy. Don't tell my mom, please. Or your mother, or even Kittu.'
'He sent me a teddy bear on Valentine's day.'
'Cute,' I said.
'Have you kissed anyone?' she asked. 'Like this South Indian girl.'
I though hard about how I should answer her question without saying the truth, that I lived with Ananya in one tiny hostel room for two years.
'No,' I said.
'OK, because this guy is insisting I kiss him. But I don't want to get pregnant.'
'How did you meet him?'
'It's a very sweet story. He called a wrong number at my home one day. And we started talking. I've only met him once.'
'You are seeing someone who called a wrong number?'
'He's not my boyfriend yet. But you know I have a didi in Ludhiana who married a guy who called her as a wrong number. They have two kids now.'
'Wow,' I said. I wondered if I should gulp my coffee down so we could leave sooner.
'Do you like me?' Dolly asked.
'You know why we have been sent here, right? For match-making.'
'Dolly, I can't marry anyone but Ananya.'
'Oh, that's her name. Nice name.'
'Thanks, and she is nice, too. And I am involved. I am sorry my mother dragged me into this.'
'But you said you haven't even kissed her.'
'I lied. We lived together for two years. But please don't tell anyone this.'
'Lived together?' Her eyebrows peaked. 'Like together? You mean, you have done everything?'
'That's not important. I only told you so you don't feel bad about my lack of interest in you.'
'I can make you forget her,' Dolly said as she opened out her waist-length hair.
'I know what guys want.'
'You don't. And try to stay away from wrong numbers.'
We left Barista and drove back in her spacious Honda. I realized this Honda could be mine if only I didn't believe in stupid things like love.
'What should I tell my mother?' Dolly asked.
'Say you didn't like me.'
'Why? She'll ask.'
'It's easy to slam an IITian down. Say I am a geek, boring, lecherous, whatever,' I said.
'She doesn't understand all that,' Dolly said.
'OK, tell her Krish has no plans to continue in the bank. He'll quit in a few years to be a writer.'
'You are too hi-fi for me,' she said as we reached her house.
'I can't believe you said no to Dolly,' my mother said. 'There has to be a reason, no?'
She had brought up the topic for the twentieth time three days later. My father didn't come home until late so my mother had taken the risk and invited her sister home for lunch. Some Indian men cannot stand any happiness in their wives' lives, which includes her meeting her siblings.
'Pammi is buying one more house in the next lane. She told me it is for her daughter,' Shipra masi said, rubbing salt into my mother's wounds. My mother hung her head low.
'You are making the same mistake again. You chose an army person for your own marriage. You said they are sacrificing people. We have seen how much. You have spent your whole life in misery and poverty.'
My mother nodded as she accepted her elder sister's observation. Shipra masi had married rich. Her husband, a sanitary-fittings businessman, had struck gold building toilets. My mother had valued stupid things like virtue, education and nature of profession, and suffered. And according to Shipra masi, I planned to do the same.
'How much will that Madrasin earn?' Shipra masi inquired. 'Dolly would have filled your house. When was the last time you bought anything new? Look, even your dining table shakes.'
Shipra masi banged on the dining table and its legs wobbled. I pressed the top with my palm to neutralize her jerks.
'I say, meet Pammi once again and close it,' Shipra masi suggested.
'What are you thinking?' She said after a minute. 'Do you know Pammi bought that phone, the one you can walk around with everywhere?'
'Cordless…' my mother said.
'Not cordless, that new one costing twenty thousand rupees. You can take it all over Delhi. Pass me the pickle,' Shipra masi said. She ate fast to catch up for the lost time she spent on her monologue.
Cell-phones had recently arrived in India. A minute's talktime cost more than a litre of petrol. Needless to say, it was the newest Punjabi flaunt toy in Delhi.
'And what is this writer thing? Dolly said you will leave the bank to be a writer one day.'
'What?' my mother gasped.
'In time, after I have saved some money,' I said and picked up my plate to go to the kitchen.
'This is what happens if you educate children too much,' my masi said.
'I have no idea about him becoming a writer. When did this start?'
'That South Indian girl must have told him. They love books,' Shipra masi said.
I banged my fist on the table. The legs wobbled. Maybe we did need to change it.
'Nobody asked me to be a writer. Anyway, it is none of your business, Shipra masi.'
'Look at him, these black people have done their black magic,' Shipra masi said. 'Don't be foolish, Kavita, tell Pammi he will remain in Citibank and make a lot of money. Get his price properly.'
I glared at everyone at the table, went to the living-room sofa and picked up the newspaper. The matrimonial page opened out. I threw it in disgust.
'Let's look at some educated girls. You want to see educated girls?' My mother threw a pacifier at me.
'I have an educated girl. I like her. She has a job, she is pretty, decent, hard-working and has a lot of integrity. What is your problem?'
'Son,' Shipra masi said, her voice soft for reconciliation, 'that is all fine. But how can we marry Madrasis? Tomorrow your cousins will want to marry a Gujarati.'
'Or Assamese?' my mother added.
'My god!' Shipra masi said.
'So what? Aren't they all Indian? Can't they be good human beings?' I said.
Shipra masi turned to my mother. 'Your son is gone. I am sorry, but this boy belongs to Jayalalitha now.'
The bell rang twice. Panic spread in the house as my father had arrived earlier than usual. I never welcome my father home. However, I was happy as it meant Shipra masi would leave now.
'Hello Jija-ji,' Shipra masi said as my father entered the house.
My father didn't answer. He picked up the newspaper thrown on the floor and folded it.
'I said hello Jija-ji,' Shipra masi said and smiled. She didn't give up easily.
'I like your goodbye more than hello,' my father replied. No one can beat him in the stakes.
'My sister has invited me,' Shipra masi said.
'Useless people invite useless people,' my father said.
Shipra masi turned to my mother. 'I don't come here to get insulted. Only you can bear him. The worst decision of your life,' Shipra masi mumbled as she packed her handbag to leave.
'I would appreciate it if you don't interfere in our family matters,' my father said and gave her a brown bag. It was the mithai Shipra masi had brought for us.
'Take it or I will throw it in the dustbin,' my father said.
I stood up to argue. My mother signaled me to back off. Shipra masi reached the main door. I came with her to shut it. I touched her feet, more out of ritual than respect.
'Son, now don't make foolish decisions like your mother. Marry a good Punjabi girl before they find out about your father. Dolly is good.'
My father's ears are as sharp as his tongue. 'What is going on? Who is Dolly?' my father shouted.
Shipra masi shut the door and left. Nobody answered.
'Are you seeing girls?' my father demanded of my mother.
My mother kept quiet.
'Did you see a girl?'
'Yes,' I said. I was kind of glad I did, just to piss him off.
'I will…' he screamed at my mother, lifting his hand.
'Don't even think about it!' I came close to him.
'In this house, I make the decisions,' my father said. He picked up a crystal glass and smashed it on the floor. The violence intended at my mother had to come out somehow.
'You sure seem mature enough to take them,' I said and moved towards the kitchen.
'Don't walk barefoot,' my mother called out. She bent to pick up the splintered shards. Anger seethed within me. Not only at my father, but also my mother; how could she let him get away with this and start cleaning up calmly?
'I don't know why I come to this house,' my father said.
'I was thinking the same thing,' I said.
'Bastard, mind it!' he shouted at me like he did at his army jawans ten yeas ago.
'Krish, go to the other room,' my mother said.
'Not until this nutcase leaves,' I said.
'He can't be my son. Nobody talks to their father like this.'
'And no father behaves like this,' I said.
My mother pushed me towards the bedroom. My father looked around for new things to shout at or break. He couldn't find much. He turned around and walked out. The loud sound of the door banging shut sent a sigh of relief through the whole house.
My mother came to my room after cleaning up the glass in the living area. She came and sat next to me on the bed. I didn't look at her. She held my chin and turned my face towards her.
'You let him do this, so he does it. Why did you have to start cleaning up?' I sulked.
'Because he'll break the other glasses, too. And then we will have no more glasses for guests,' my mother said. 'Don't worry. I can manage him.'
I looked at my mother, a tear rolled down her eye. I felt my eyes turn wet, too.
'You have to leave him,' I said after we composed ourselves.
'It's not that simple,' she said.
'I will earn now,' I said.
'I am fine. Ninety percent of the time he is not even here. He goes to his army mess, he visits his partners with whom he tries his harebrained business schemes.'
'What? Like that security agency?' I scoffed.
'Yes, but he picks up fights with customers at the first meeting. Doesn't exactly make them feel safe,' my mother said.
'I can handle him. It is you who gets angry and fights with him,' my mother said.
'He starts it. What was the need to insult Shipra masi?
'He won't change. Shipra is used to him. I worry how you will stay with him when you work in Delhi. Maybe you should take the company accommodation.'
'Or maybe I should not be in Delhi.'
'What are you saying?'
'I can't stand him.'
'Where are you planning to go?'
'I don't know, mom. I can only give a preference to Citibank. It's no guarantee. Plus you get posted out after two years.'
'You chose Delhi, no?'
I didn't answer. Somehow the thought of being in Delhi and seeing ditzy Punjabi girls by day and dad by night didn't seem terribly exciting.
'You come with me wherever I go,' I said.
'What? I can't leave Delhi. All my relatives are here. You will be in office all day. What will I do in a new city?'
'I want to go to Chennai,' I said.
'Oh God!' my mother's mellow mood shifted gears to overdrive. She got up from the bed. 'I find this harder to deal with than your father. Are you mad?'
'Mom, I like Ananya. I want to give our relationship a shot.'
'You'll become a Madrasi?'
'I am not becoming anything. I'm only going there to live. And Citibank transfers you in two years.'
'I should meet an astrologer. I don't know what phase you are going through.'
'There is no phase. I love someone.'
'Love is nothing, son,' my mother patted my cheek and left the room.
I didn't submit the Citibank form until the last date. I kept taking my pen at the 'location preference' question. It had asked for three choices in order, I couldn't fill it.
'You've sent your from?' Ananya asked on the phone.
'I will. Almost ready,' I said.
'Are you crazy? It is the last day. You put Chennai, right?'
'Yeah,' I said and hung up.
I gave one final glance at the form. I looked at God above and asked him to decide my love-life. I filled up the form:
1. Chennai or Delhi (equal preference)
I sealed the form and dropped it off at the bank branch. In my bed I opened Ananya's letter form last week. I read it every night before going to bed. I read the letter ten times. I wanted to be with her right that moment. I realized I could have written 'Chennai' in the form but had played roulette with my love-life due to some vague sense of responsibility and guilt towards home. I wondered if Citi would need more people in Delhi as this is where all the money is. After all, a Punjabi is far more likely to want a foreign bank account than a Tamilian. And I am Punjabi, so they would give me Delhi. Something yelped inside me. I read the letter again and again until I fell asleep.
To be continued...