‘WHAT’S GOING THROUGH your mind – right now, this very moment? Of course, you’re bloody nervous!
‘There, there, knew it! Shuffling those feet again. You think I can’t see you from here, VS? Hah! I even caught you fiddling with your trousers! Wearing lycra, in this bloody Agra summer! Idiot!
‘I said stop grinning – fake-oo. Stop pretending you’re actually enjoying this tamasha! Do you have any idea how dumb you look, with that silly goatee and all that sticky gel smeared over your hair? Think your bald patch isn’t visible? Hah!
‘Ya ya! I get it, life’s a big fat party, huh? But you know what? You’re going to regret this shit tomorrow – or wait, tonight…this very night – when she discovers your right testicle is smaller than your left! I mean, what do you think she is? In love with you, blinded by it? You’ll know soon enough what it means to be with Anjali Raizada. We go back a helluva long way man…besties, like the ladies like to say. Screw you, VS. I said, screw you! I hate you, you son-of-a
‘Hey, what’s your problem? You, yes, hello, what’s with the abuses? All that shouting and throwing punches? Come here to murder someone?
I swerved, hearing a loud voice, and confronted a pair of expressive, kohl-rimmed eyes. Restless, the eyeliner slowly slanting outwards, they gazed intently at my face, as if demanding nothing but the truth.
I swallowed hard, studying the silhouette of her perfectly oval face, my heart still beating haphazardly. I wondered how I didn’t hear or see her walk up to me. The moonlight was strong tonight, casting a translucent glow on her face; the rest of her was draped in a shimmering, scented darkness. Like the smudged contours of the Taj Mahal standing a distance away, across from the tiny garden we both stood in. Until now I had had the place entirely to myself, a narrow, rectangular alcove of sorts, nestled strategically at the back of a plush, 5-star hotel, accessible largely for hotel staffers trying to take a quick short cut from the kitchen to the banquet hall.
‘Tawlking to me?’ I replied in a deliberately loud voice, a tad flustered at the unexpected invasion of my privacy.
She stood unmoving – as if she hadn’t heard. So I repeated myself, this time with the accent intact. It was an old trick, mastered over time, tried and tested on various damsels – in distress and otherwise. It always worked. Well, almost always. When in doubt or testing the field, an impeccable Brit accent was my thing.
She walked up to me with a measured gait, as if trying desperately to balance herself. She wore really tall stilettos, I noticed, her ornate silk pallu slipping off her slender, bony shoulders as she stepped forward hesitantly. A bunch of golden glass bangles matching her blouse created a soft clamour as she cautiously stepped forward, an embroidered, satin clutch nearly falling out of her left palm.
‘Shiiisssh,’ she’d hiss every time she was unsteady, carelessly running her fingers through her unruly tresses, pausing briefly near her right temple, the bangles colliding with one another, momentarily hiding her eager eyes.
‘Talking to me?’
‘Who else…in this mosquito-infested, dark, shady shithole?’ She arched her pencil-thin eyebrows as if to prove a point and curled up her plump lips.
There was something intimidating about her. And yet…
‘Well, I beg your pardon, miss; I guess I wasn’t counting on anyone else being around – here, in this mosquito-infested, dark, shady shithole,’ I smugly countered, taking out the neatly ironed red silk handkerchief from the top pocket of my linen blazer to wipe the sweat steadily dripping off my brow.
‘Here, maybe this’ll help. You look like you’ve just showered,’ she handed me a wispy tissue of some sort. It reeked of lavender, the dampness gradually spreading onto my palm as she pressed it into my hands.
Our wrists touched. Briefly.
‘Thanks, but this is strictly ladies’ stuff. Guess I’ll pass. Was about to leave…’ I said stiffly, inching back a step or two.
‘Whatever! Suit yourself. But in case you’re planning to hold court here any longer, a pack of these is bound to come in handy,’ she claimed in a singsong voice, carefully removing a small plastic box of wipes from her clutch.
‘And just what are you doing here, if I may kindly ask?’ I interrogated, studying the shape of her eyelashes, trying to stop myself from staring longer than required, suppressing a passing promiscuous pleasure.
‘Me? I just came out here for a drag. Looked deserted actually, quite unlike the lawn out front, where they clearly specify “No Smoking”,’ she replied. Then, almost instantaneously, she added, ‘Actually, I’ll be frank. We had entered the lobby almost at the same time, then I saw you head towards the sign that pointed towards the banquet where the wedding is on. I was headed there too, so I followed you… And then you suddenly disappeared, till I spotted you making a dash for this spot, with a cigarette in your hand. I have been here for a bit actually… I, I needed a light,’ she ended abruptly.
I fumbled inside my linen blazer, suddenly tongue-tied.
How long had she been around?
What else had she heard?
Was she related to the bride or the groom?
‘You should’ve just asked me for a light then, instead of creeping up on me like that,’ I frowned.
She was next to me by then, her forearm grazing against my shirt sleeve, a thick line of dampness running down the side of her arched neck into the inviting recesses of her bosom.
I leaned in, holding the neon haze from my Zippo to the tip of the slim cigarette between her ruby-red lips. A thin gold chain flickered around her curvaceous waist in the slight light, distracting me.
Wordlessly, she removed her heels, kicking them away. Then she squatted on the dewy grass lawn and rolled her head back to look up at me.
‘Smoke?’ she asked, clearing her throat.
I hesitated, unsure of how to respond.
‘Look, I smoke pretty fast. Care for a drag before it’s gone?’ she repeated, poking rudely at my left thigh.
‘All right, much appreciated, miss,’ I courteously responded, taking the cigarette from her, inhaling longer than required, the nicotine wafting into my lungs.
‘Welcome,’ she said with a half smile. ‘And what’s with that weird accent, huh? Have you mistaken Agra for London?’
I coughed uncomfortably.
After an awkward pause, I spoke, running my hands over my mouth, ‘What accent?’
‘The one you just put on. “Tawlking.” “Thanks, much appreciated, miss”,’ she imitated, verbatim, sounding every bit like me.
‘Look, I don’t have time for this. It was nice meeting you,’ I cut her short, turning to make my way out of the garden.
‘You have to tell me something before you disappear… Just what were you so peeved about earlier? Before I…’ she paused, before continuing teasingly, ‘invaded this mosquito-laden, dark, shady shithole?’
I searched for the right phrase, my throat unusually parched, ‘Nothing – that was just, umm…’
‘You’re really mad at someone, right? Someone at that wedding going on over there, right? That’s where you were headed, before you took a detour and landed up here? I mean, maybe you were just gate-crashing. Or weren’t even invited at all. Maybe, that’s what got you crazy mad…’ she raised her voice dramatically. The tiny petals of her floral nose pin glimmered in the shifting shadows of the trees that surrounded us.
‘It’s nothing…’ I muttered, continuing to move away.
‘Anyway, look, listen. In case, just in case you happen to make it into the banquet and happen to get insanely bored, or dead pissed at someone again, and choose to head back out, will you get two drinks for me, please? Rum, dark, on the rocks, with a slice of lime. There’s a smaller open-air bar…see, there, just outside the main hall. Makes sense to stock some extra before that gets overcrowded too. And… umm…some of those stuffed karelas – I remember having them at another wedding here. At the same hotel, I mean. Besides, they’d probably go well with the rum.’ She wiped her lips with the edge of her pallu, adding sheepishly, ‘I know the combination sounds weird. But sometimes when you mix two things that everyone else thinks may result in a bloody disaster, you kind of cook up a storm… Hey you…you’re coming back here? Right?’
The rest of her words melted into the darkness as I hastily strode off.
It had been half an hour since I’d got back, with two rums for her and a whisky for me. Just like she’d said.
‘How the hell did you know I was coming back?’ I asked.
She was already on her second rum. My whisky was almost over.
The stuffed karelas I’d brought back on napkins had been devoured in silent urgency. We were sprawled on our backs on the grass. She had clamped her eyes shut. Hers were the longest lashes I had ever seen.
‘They’re fake!’ she mumbled, running her hands carelessly over her breasts.
‘Huh?’ Caught off-guard, I was suddenly conscious of myself.
‘You’re staring at my eyelashes again…’ she murmured, turning sideways towards me, opening her eyes.
‘Umm, not exactly, I mean…’ I fumbled for words, inhaling her rum-tinged breath, conscious of the rustle of her pleats.
‘Exactly!’ she exclaimed, breaking into impromptu laughter.
‘About time you lightened up,’ she grinned, punching me on my arm as she rolled onto her stomach.
‘You didn’t answer my question though,’ I said, impulsively reaching out and grabbing her hand.
‘Me coming back here, to this mosquito-infested… C’mon, you know the rest…’ I winked, taking a large sip of my single malt.
‘Ha! As if you answered mine,’ she retorted, wrenching her wrist out of my grip, using a little more force than I’d anticipated.
I must have been unconsciously searching my pockets for cigarettes, because she said in a sharp voice, ‘Pass me one too.’
‘Tough luck. Just one left. Besides, I noticed before that you smoke fast, but don’t exactly inhale – so why waste something as precious as a fag? What if this is the end of the world or something?’
I threw my hands in the air, drawing out my last India Kings.
‘That would make this all too clichéd – two strangers, a wedding party in progress, a mellow moon-soaked night, hushed conversations, the magnificent Taj Mahal somewhere in the backdrop, one last, solitary cigarette,’ I feigned a sigh, flicking open the lighter.
‘Do you always calculate everything this way?’ she asked, her chin resting precariously on her elbow, her ankles crossed, her delicate silver anklets riding up.
I took a long drag. Then, following the movement of her anklet, I replied languidly, ‘C’mon, you gotta be fair, okay? As if the thought didn’t cross your mind. Just look at us – the setting is so typical – so freaking clichéd.’
‘Everything’s clichéd in life – what’s the big deal?’ she pouted, lying back on the grass as before, her eyes searching the breadth of the night sky.
‘What’s “everything”?’ I interrupted, handing over the half-finished cigarrette.
She took a deep drag. ‘This – all this,’ she raised her chin upwards slightly, before pointing at the tiny fairy lights on the tall, ochre branches at a distance. ‘The Vikram Saxena, ace Wharton graduate, scion of India’s biggest hotelier dynasty meeting the Anjali Raizada, only daughter of steel magnate Ratan Raizada in an elevator at the World Trade Centre exactly a year before it was bombed. It’s love at first sight. Then they bump into each other again at a fancy London fair when she drops a dollop of delightful blueberry ice cream on his immaculate, pinstriped Ralph Lauren shirt. They exchange numbers – but naturally – only to misplace them. Afterwards, finding each other again in India, exactly two years later, this time on the banks of the holy River Ganga, somewhere in Rishikesh, on the sacred eve of Diwali. And tonight they profess their undying commitment to one another before the loftiest emblem of human love, the Taj Mahal! “Divine communion” – or was it “celestial union” on the wedding invite?’ She paused as a sudden flurry of fireworks illuminated the encompassing darkness. We both gazed upwards.
‘Wow! Some serious fireworks,’ I smirked.
‘Maybe the gods decided to join the celebrations as well,’ she
I let out a wry laugh.
‘And I thought I was angry!’ I quipped.
‘So whose side are you on?’ she resumed after a while, handing back the near-finished India Kings.
‘You mean we have to take sides? Just when I was beginning to enjoy this…’ I clicked my tongue, studying her from the corner of my eye.
‘Might as well – since this is kinda clichéd, anyway,’ she said.
A short silence later I asked, nudging her elbow, ‘Umm, so what makes you absolutely certain he’s making a gigantic mistake? That Vikram Saxena is going to regret this all his life?’
‘Well, going by your deranged outburst earlier and the law of averages about marriages that are held with famous monuments as their backdrop…’ She bit her lower lip, pulling herself up, wrapping her pallu protectively around her shoulders.
‘Need my blazer?’
‘No,’ she slanted her head sideways.
‘Do you know that one out of every ten couples worldwide gets hitched in front of famous monuments; and one in every five couples who do actually end up in a messy divorce? In fact, a Guatemalan woman who said “I do” in front of the Taj Mahal actually claimed the monument as part of her divorce settlement, insisting that her soon-to-be ex-husband had promised her the Taj as a wedding gift. In a TV interview she even claimed she had letters to prove it! He, on the other hand, insisted he’d delivered on his promise – he’d bought her a marble Taj keepsake that was five feet tall with actual shrubs surrounding it, and he’d even christened his dog ‘Taj’.’
‘No! Are you serious? They have statistics to prove this kind of bullshit these days?’ I asked. ‘Which TV show was this? I can bet my life it’s some Oprah rerun.’
She rose suddenly to her feet, startling me, and pointed at the two empty glasses lying beside her. ‘Another drink before the really deep questions, then?’ she winked at me.
‘Refill? No way. You’re guzzling those down!’ I said.
‘Shut up!’ she snapped, turning around and stepping unsteadily into her stilettos, gathering her clutch and pallu. The fading light cast patterns on her bare back. Her brocade blouse was completely backless, her olive skin shone in the haze of the faraway lights.
I rubbed my eyes. How drunk was I?
The shehnai strains had suddenly become louder.
Before I could say anything more she was gone.
– End –
Excerpted with permission from You’ve Got the Wrong Girl by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu (Hachette India, Feb 2016, 384 pgs, Rs. 350)