“Mamma ice cream!!!” seven year old Rani yelled as she saw the gelato store in the mall and tried to run towards it. But Ranjana held her hand firmly.
“Not now, Rani.” she said, dragging her inside the shoe store. “First we have to get your school shoes.”
“But I want it now!!” she started jumping up and down. The kid had been a handful from the day she was born.
“Rani, please don’t make a scene!” Ranjana said as the dozen or so customers in the store started looking at them.
“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?” a salesman walked up.
“We are here for these shoes for the Vidya Niketan uniform.” she handed him the note from Rani’s school.
“Ice cream!” the brat pouted, but at least stopped jumping up and down.
“Yes ma’am, this way.” he said.
Ranjana took her sulking daughter towards the girl’s section. The salesman measured Rani’s feet and then went to the store room in the back.
“Mamma, look at that!!”
Rani had strolled over to the wall which displayed a lot of pretty designer shoes for little girls. Her mother walked behind her and admired the selection. They were all really pretty. The European sounding brand names suggested they were pricey.
“I want that one!” she reached over and picked up a purple sandal from eye level. Purple had always been her favorite.
“Rani! Don’t go around snatching shoes off the wall.”
“But mamma…..” she started whining again.
“Really pretty aren’t they?” from nowhere, a sales girl materialized and started talking to Rani. “Would you like to try them on?”
“YES!!!” she shouted.
“We really don’t need to….” Ranjana started protesting, while looking at the wall to see if there was a price display. But the salesgirl was already walking towards the bench with Rani in tow.
Ranjana followed them, annoyed, as the salesgirl sat her daughter down and slipped her tiny feet into the shoes. Rani stood up and ran to the mirror.
“We are here only for her school shoes.” Ranjana said to the salesgirl.
“Here you go.” the salesman returned with that very box.
“Rani, come here and try on your school shoes.”
But the little one was standing in front of a full length mirror, admiring the designer shoes.
“RANI!!!” her mother raised her voice.
Rani reluctantly sulked back. The salesman sat her down, took the purple shoes off and slid on her school shoes. Rani, enamored with the designer shoes, held them in her hands.
“I want these!” she defiantly said.
“We’ll see.” Ranjana didn’t have a problem buying her the shoes if they were in her budget range.
Meanwhile the salesgirl had wandered a few meters away, and was talking on the cellphone. While the salesman helped Rani tie the laces of her school shoes, Ranjana walked towards her.
“How much….” she started asking but the salesgirl gestured her to wait.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. No problem, sir. The pumps and heels are still….”
She kept talking on the phone for a while. Ranjana mimed the sign of money, pointed to the purple shoes and signaled, how much? She nodded and held up five fingers. Okay, five hundred. Not too bad.
Rani was walking around in her school shoes while still holding on to the purple pair.
“Are they the right fit?”
Rani nodded, and raising her beloved pair, said,
“I want these too.”
Ranjana told the salesman to pack both pairs and walked to the counter with Rani to pay. As they reached there, someone suddenly called out from behind,
“Ranjana? Is that you?”
She turned around to see a vaguely familiar face that she couldn’t quite place. It belonged to a woman in her 50s, with big designer sunglasses, and dressed in a stylish pantsuit.
“It is you, isn’t it?” she came closer and smiled.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked with mock disappointment.
“I am sorry. You look familiar but…..”
“It’s Reena Bajaj! From Happy Colony in Meerut!”
“Oh, right! How are you, aunty?” Ranjana finally remembered. Reena was an army wife who had lived in her neighborhood for a couple of years. Their houses weren’t very close, nor were their families. But she now remembered,
“I am great. Fancy running into you in here of all places. How long has it been? Almost 12 years.”
“I think so.” Ranjana said, grabbing Rani’s hand as she was trying to reach for the box of shoes.
“I remember you were a pretty then. And now look at you, a fully grown woman. And a mom no less!”
She then bent down to look at Rani.
“And what’s your name?”
“Rani.” the little girl distractedly answered.
“Ma’am. Your shoes.” the lady behind the counter said, pushing a big bag with the two boxes.
“Thanks. How much is it?”
“It is five thousand six hundred and thirty rupees, including VAT.”
“WHAT??” Ranjana almost shouted and looked at the receipt. “I thought the purple shoes are five hundred.”
“No ma’am, they are five thousand rupees. Esther Michaela.” the lady said, flashing a condescending smile.
“I don’t have that much cash on me.” Ranjana truthfully said.
“We accept cards.”
“I….left my card at home.” she said, not wanting to lose face by admitting that she didn’t have a credit card at all. “I’ll just take the shoes for now. And come back for the other ones later.”
“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! I WANT MY SHOES!!!!” Rani, who had been listening to the exchange intently, started throwing a tantrum.
“Rani, please behave yourself.” Ranjana grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her.
“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” she flopped down on the floor and started bawling. “I WANT MY SHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOES!! I HATE YOUUUUUUUUU!!”
Now everyone in the store was staring.
“It’s okay. I’ll pay for them.” Reena aunty said, handing her card to the clerk.
“What? No way, aunty. I can’t let you do that!” Ranjana protested. Yes, they had been neighbors just for a little while over a decade ago. But even back then, they weren’t friends or anything. Barely acquaintances.
“Nonsense, what are old friends for?” she put her hand on the young mother’s shoulder and pressed it.
The clerk, not wanting to let go of the commission, quickly swiped the card. Rani, who realized that her tantrum had worked, quietly got up from the floor and hugged Reena aunty’s leg.
“What do you say?” Ranjana asked.
“Thank you.” the little brat said.
Ten minutes later, the three of them were sitting in the mall food court. Rani had not forgotten about her ice cream. And Ranjana felt obligated to buy Reena aunty coffee after the nice gesture she had made.
“Mamma, can I play in there?” the brat finished her ice cream and asked, pointing towards a ball pit nearby.
“Okay, but stay in my sight. You have been a very bad girl today.” Ranjana scolded her, but it was like water off a duck’s back.
As soon as Rani was out of an earshot, she turned to Reena aunty.
“Aunty, that was a really nice gesture, but you didn’t need to do that.”
“Nonsense.” she waved away the protests, taking a sip from her cup.
“Rani is a little brat who thinks tantrums can get her anything she fancies. On Monday when she’s at school, I’ll return the shoes and give you the money back.”
“Ranjana, you really don’t need to do that. Consider them a gift. The little girl really has her heart set on them.”
“She has the memory of a goldfish. In a week, she’ll forget about the shoes and start demanding something else.” Ranjana sighed. “I hate taking her to malls. She just wants me to buy her everything she sees. And really, we can’t afford it.”
“Hmmm.” she said. “What do you do, Ranjana?”
“I’m a housewife.”
“And your husband?”
“Amar is a history professor.”
“Not too much money in teaching, huh?” she sympathetically said.
“It’s okay. Not too bad. But we certainly can’t afford to buy our little girl five thousand rupee shoes that she’ll outgrow in six months.”
“But seriously aunty, give me your phone number and your address and I will come return the money on Monday.”
“Out of the question.” she smiled and shook her head. “About returning the money I mean. Trust me, I can afford such indulgences. But we should exchange numbers and meet though. I’d love to catch up in more detail.”
She picked up her phone and asked me for her number. She then gave a missed call and Ranjana saved her number.
“How is Bajaj uncle?”
“He passed away five years ago. Lung cancer.”
“Oh my god! I am so sorry!”
“It’s alright. I’ve gotten used to it by now.”
“And how is….” Ranjana tried to remember her son’s name. He was a couple of years older than her and in college when they lived in Meerut.
“Nilesh? He’s doing okay.” she said.
“Is he in Mumbai too?”
“No.” she said in a tone that suggested she did not want to discuss him.
“Do you live nearby?”
“Yes, Malad West. You?”
“Borivali east. Close to the station.”
That’s when her phone rang. She looked at the display, frowned a little, and said,
“Excuse me a moment.” and walked away.
Ranjana sat there looking at her daughter roll around in the ballpit with a few other kids. She was a handful but she was the center of her existence. She wished she could buy her everything she wanted. But money really was tight.
“Ranjana, I am so sorry, but I have to get going. A bit of an emergency at work.” Reena aunty returned and picked up her purse and her shopping bags.
“Oh, no problem. Where do you work?”
“I am the assistant manager at a hotel nearby. A couple of the staff members didn’t show up, so now I have to go fill in for them.” she said. “But we should meet Monday for sure.”
“But don’t you dare return that little girl’s shoes. If you give me as much as a single paisa, I will never talk to you again.”
“Come on, aunty, that’s not fair!” Ranjana tried to protest, but Reena was already on her way out.
Ranjana finally managed to drag Rani out of the ball pit and take her home. She agreed to leave on the condition that she could wear her new purple shoes. Ranjana reasoned with her that they would get dirty in the local train on the way back, but she wouldn’t budge.
When they walked up the three flights of stairs to their one bedroom apartment, the door was open, and the familiar cacophony of male voices could be heard.
“But Amar, even if Hitler had not been distracted by Yugoslavia, it was a matter of time before the Soviets would have prevailed. Maybe an extra year.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about.” Amar shook his fist in the air. “If the bitz krieg had…..oh there you are Ranjana.”
“Papa, papa, look, new shoes!!!” Rani jumped in his lap.
“Very pretty, my little princess!” he said.
“Namaste, bhabhiji.” Amar’s friends said.
“Namaste.” Ranjana said and went to the bathroom to freshen up.
When she got out, Amar was standing there.
“How about some chai?” he said.
“And some of your famous onion pakoras.”
“Amar, onions are….”
“Yes, I know, they are very expensive. But you can’t put a price on the pleasure of friends.” he said and went back to his intellectual conference.
For the next couple of hours, Ranjana slaved in the hot kitchen, frying pakoras for her husband and his friends. She hoped against hope that the session would end soon. But they kept rehashing world war 2 history all evening, and she eventually had to make dinner for everyone. Which used up all the vegetables in the house that she had hoped to make last til next week.
By the time everyone dispersed, it was midnight. Rani was asleep on the bed next to Ranjana. Amar came in, and laid down in bed, sighing heavily.
“Dinner was spectacular as always.” he said.
Ranjana didn’t say anything.
“I know you are upset about the onions.” Amar finally said.
“Shouldn’t I be?” Ranjana turned around. “It’s not easy for me to budget our needs when you keep bringing friends home without notice.”
“You should consider it a compliment, Ranjana. They love your cooking so much that they always insist on coming here.”
“I don’t mind the cooking, Amar. You know that. But I don’t have Draupadi’s magic plate here. I was hoping to make those onions last at least a couple of weeks for us. And now…”
“I’ll get onions tomorrow.” Amar flatly said.
“Yes, and that’ll be another couple of hundred rupees we didn’t budget for.”
“Then don’t use onions for the next couple of weeks.” he said, annoyed.
“Why are you getting annoyed at me?” Ranjana flared up.
“Mmmmmm…” Rani stirred on her bed.
Husband and wife stayed absolutely quiet until she went back to sleep.
“I need to withdraw two thousand rupees tomorrow for Rani’s textbooks and stationery.”
“Textbooks….stationery….uniforms….picnics….it’s like they are running a for profit business.” Amar grumbled.
“You’re the one who wanted to put her in that fancy school.”
“Education is something I will not compromise on.” he said. “Designer shoes on the other hand…..”
“She threw an almighty tantrum right in the middle of the store!”
“How much did they cost?”
“Not too much.”
“Five hundred.” Ranjana lied, not wanting to tell him about Reena aunty. She knew her husband was really big on self-respect, self-reliance, and pride.
“You could have just refused to buy them.”
Ranjana felt really annoyed at this comment. Amar knew how much effort it took to manage Rani’s demands. And handle her tantrums. He himself never really scolded her or said no to anything. He played the good cop. Ranjana was supposed to be the bad cop.
She felt like throwing a tantrum of my own. But she just seethed silently in anger, half-expecting Amar to apologize. But soon, his patent snores filled the room.
“It’s not even like I am asking for anything extravagant for myself. It’s not like I expect him to buy me diamond necklaces or take me on a European vacation. But is it too much to expect him to show some recognition of our situation?”
“Not at all.” Reena aunty sympathetically nodded.
“I know he himself is a very simple man. And he is a very nice person. Nice to a fault. Part of the reason our financial situation is tight is that he keeps donating a chunk of his salary to this charity that helps slum children go to school. I appreciate his generosity. But isn’t it prudent to take care of your own family before going to help others? Hasn’t he heard that charity begins at home?”
“Some dessert ma’am?” a waiter appeared out of nowhere.
“No, thank you. I am already stuffed.” Ranjana said.
“The chocolate lava cake here is divine. Try some.” Reena aunty said.
“Really, I couldn’t.”
“Get her one.” she said to the waiter who smiled, nodded and walked away.
“Aunty, this is too much. I am really really full.” Ranjana protested. And she really was full. The rich food at the restaurant was not something she was used to.
“Just have a couple of bites. You won’t regret it.”
Ranjana was overcome by a sense of gratitude for the nice lady. She had called up Monday morning asking if Ranjana could meet her at her hotel. It was a very fancy four star hotel in Malad, the likes of which the young middle class housewife had never stepped into. She then took her to lunch at a posh restaurant next door, insisting that it would be her treat.
She was being so nice that Ranjana couldn’t help but unload all her troubles and complaints on her. Ranjana didn’t really have any close friends. She spent some time now and then with Amar’s friends’ wives and Rani’s friends’ mothers, but there was no one she was close enough to for her to open up like this. Her last close friend had been in college in Meerut and she had lost touch with her after getting married and moving to Bombay.
So Reena aunty was like a throwback to her younger more carefree days. And she had been so nice and generous. Ranjana felt an instant bond forming. Reena aunty had listened patiently throughout lunch to all the whines about her middle class life.
“Ranjana, let me ask you something.” she said, folding her palms under her chin. “Why don’t you just get a job?”
“Hehe. Who’ll give me a job?”
“I have no skills, no real qualifications. Just a meaningless B.A. from a college no one has heard of even in Meerut. That too with mediocre grades.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I am just being honest, aunty. I have seen how it works nowadays. Everyone has an MBA or an MS or some sort of an advanced degree. Even these career-oriented women. But my parents never really thought of me having a career.” Ranjana sounded a little resentful.
“Lots of people have jobs even without an MBA.” Reena said.
“Besides, even if I did get a job, who will take care of the house and Rani? We can just barely afford a maid for washing clothes. I have to wash the dishes, cook, clean the house, take care of Rani’s homework…..”
“I could give you a job.”
“That’s very nice of you. But like I just said, with all my household duties…..”
“It won’t take up too much time.” Reena aunty said.
“You mean in your hotel?”
“Sort of.” she mysteriously answered.
That’s when the waiter came with thedelectable chocolate lava cake. Ranjana stared at it wide-eyed, like Rani would have. Dinners in posh restaurants like these were way beyond their means. They usually ate at mid-level udipi type restaurants, that too on special occasions. The most fancy dessert there was a scoop of chocolate ice cream with a cherry on top that Rani always demanded.
“Dig in.” Reena aunty said, handing her a gleaming spoon.
“Mmmmmmmm.” Ranjana moaned in delight as the rich gooey chocolate filling danced around in her mouth. Although she had really felt full, this heavenly dessert whetted her appetite again.
Ten minutes later, Ranjana had finished the whole thing. Reena aunty paid the bill and they started walking back to her hotel.
“Thank you so much for lunch, aunty.” Ranjana said, as Reena led her into her office.
“You’re welcome, sweetie.” she said. “No offense, but it looked like you really needed that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some indulgence…..something nice…something out of the ordinary. Your life needs some more sunshine.”
“What my life needs is some more money.” Ranjana bitterly said.
“So would you be interested in a job?” she asked.
“In the hotel? Like a receptionist?”
“Sure, you could be a receptionist if you want.” Reena aunty said. “But those shifts are a minimum of 8 hours.”
“Oh, that doesn’t seem like something I could do.”
“Hmmm.” Reena said, playing with her phone. “I will think of something. Do you want some tea?”
“No thanks, aunty, I am so full with that dessert.” Ranjana said.
“It is amazing, right?” Reena smiled. “I have it at least once a week.”
“I wish I could afford to. I saw the price on the menu. It was…..let’s say it cost a lot more than the ice cream we have at our usual restaurant.” Ranjana said. “Thank you again for the treat. And the shoes. You are being so kind. I wish I could repay you back in some way.”
“Nonsense!” Reena shrugged. “You are an old friend. Friends shouldn’t really bother about repaying stuff.”
There was a lull in the conversation. Then Reena started talking again.
“Although we are old friends, I don’t know much about what happened since we lost touch.”
Ranjana kept finding these “old friends” references odd. Yes, they lived in the same neighborhood over a decade ago. But they barely knew each other. Even so, the old lady was being so nice that it was hard not to think of her as a friend.
“Well, not much happened.” she shrugged.
“Is yours an arranged marriage?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Why of course? I knew many people having love marriages in Meerut.”
“I know. So did I. But you didn’t know my parents.” Ranjana said.
“Hmmmm….so did you get to spend any time with your husband before you married him?”
“Oh yes. We went for a movie once…..” Ranjana said.
“But my mother was with me.”
“It was nice.” Ranjana smiled.
Reena realized that Ranjana’s upbringing had been even more sheltered and protected than she had imagined. She knew those type of families. Doing their best to stamp out a woman’s individuality as soon as she is born. And then trade her away in a marriage like cattle.
“How many years have you been married?”
“Almost eight years.”
“And how old is Rani?”
“So Amar didn’t waste much time, huh?” Reena winked.
“Aunty!” Ranjana blushed.
“Rani seems like a very intelligent girl.” Reena said.
“She is. We have put her in this really good international school. Amar wanted it. In fact….that is another reason our finances are tight. The school is quite pricey.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, speaking of Rani, I should get going.” Ranjana got up. “She will be home soon.”
“Oh okay. It was really great spending time with you.” Reena also got up. “You should drop by whenever you are free.”
“I would love to.”
“I can have one of our hotel cars drop you home if you like.”
“No aunty, don’t worry. I will take the local. The traffic will be too much anyway.”
The two women walked out of the office and towards the hotel lobby. As Reena escorted her young acquaintance through a crowd of guests waiting to check in, she noticed something. A few of the men discreetly checked out Ranjana. Nothing blatant or disrespectful, but something Reena caught. It didn’t seem like innocent young Ranjana had noticed though.
“Okay aunty, thank you so much again.” Ranjana held her hands in gratitude.
“Stop thanking me, Ranjana. Oh and wait!” Reena took out her phone. “Sunil, come here.”
She called out to a bellboy hanging around. She handed him the phone.
“Take a few pictures of me and my old friend here.”
“Oh.” Ranjana smiled.
“Just to remember the occasion. Who knows when you will drop by again?”
“Oh come on, aunty. I will come again soon.”
Ranjana said and the two posed for a picture, smiling. Sunil snapped a good one and was about to hand the phone back.
“Take a few more. My phone’s camera can be very unreliable.” Reena said.
And Sunil took half a dozen more pictures. Reena took the phone back from him. Ranjana said goodbye once again and walked out of the hotel.
Reena went back to her office and looked at the pictures. Ranjana had a nice smile, she noted. And she was not bad looking at all. Not exactly a drop-dead gorgeous hottie that would set the ramp on fire. But pretty enough to turn a few heads as she had just done in the lobby without realizing. Even in a conservatively wrapped sari, it was clear that she had a nice slim body. And a pleasant symmetric face with big eyes and a sharp nose, with a light-wheatish complexion.
Reena looked at the pictures for a little while more as she thought about everything Ranjana had said about her money problems. She then opened her contacts list, found the name she was looking for. She chose the 3 best pictures she thought Sunil had taken. And forwarded them to that contact with a message.
‘What do you think?’
Ranjana walked to Malad station and took the local to Borivali. Throughout her journey, she kept thinking of the time she had spent with Reena aunty. It all had seemed so nice and posh and plush. From the fancy hotel lobby to aunty’s tastefully furnished office to the restaurant they had eaten at. She was amazed at how crisp and clean the clothes of the waiters had been. And the waiters actually spoke English! The only waiters she was used to wore stained tattered clothes and looked like they hadn’t taken a bath in weeks.
Even the food itself was so unbelievably delicious. She had seen that the menu had a lot of French, Italian, and Spanish dishes. But with no idea about what those things were, she had ordered from the Indian part of the menu. Her usual order, dal fry and jeera rice. Aunty then asked if she was vegetarian. Ranjana said no, she wasn’t. So aunty also ordered some fancy sounding chicken dish and a fish started. Everything, right down to the simple jeera fry, had tasted heavenly. Even the plain rice in that restaurant was so much tastier than what she was used to – super long grains like in Basmati advertisements, and lovely flavors. And then of course, there was the dessert, which Ranjana decided was the best dessert she had ever had.
As she walked through the narrow lanes of Borivali East towards her building, Ranjana started thinking less and less about that amazing time with Reena aunty, and more about the chores she had to do at home, and what she would cook for dinner. And then she remembered that she had to buy more onions. She walked towards her vegetable seller, mentally thinking about how to negotiate him down by 10-15 rupees.
That night, after dinner and cleaning the kitchen, she went to the bedroom. Rani was asleep and Amar was reading a thick book about the Ottoman empire.
“Hmmm.” he responded.
“I am thinking about getting a job.”
Amar shut the book and looked at her.
“A job? You?” he said, surprised.
“Why not?” Ranjana asked, a little hurt by his condescending tone.
“Why not indeed?” Amar shrugged and opened the book again. “What kind of a job?”
“I am not sure yet. But Rani is now grown-up enough to not need my constant attention. She is at school most of the day. In the free time I have, I can earn something extra to support our finances.”
“So it’s about money?”
“Is it all about they money? Isn’t the world already materialistic and consumerist enough that I should hear this from my own wife?” Amar asked.
Ranjana stared at him in shock. From the day she was matched with Amar for marriage, she knew that she was going to spend her time with an idealistic and academic man. And for eight years, she had heard his monologues and speeches and rants about society and materialism and everything. But to bring it into this?
“Come outside.” she quietly said.
“Come out to the living room and close the door behind you. I don’t want to wake Rani up.”
Amar sighed and got up, following his wife as she angrily stormed out. As she had instructed, he closed the door.
“Yes, my dear wife.” Amar said in his typical condescending professorial way.
“What do you want from me?” Ranjana said, her nostrils flaring.
“What do you mean?”
“I understand your principles and ideals and all that. But you don’t run the house. I do. You have no idea how difficult it is to stretch the budget, especially when I include all those parties you throw for your friends.”
“Ranjana, hospitality is our….”
“Yes, yes, I have heard that before.” she said with a sneer. “All I said was, I would like to get a job. And yes, Mister Professor, it IS all about the money for me. If I can make a few thousand rupees more to buy my daughter whatever she wants, I don’t care if it is about the money.”
“Fine. Fine.” is all Amar said. “Get a job. When have I ever stopped you from getting a job?”
“Then what was that materialistic and consumerist taunt about????”
“It wasn’t a taunt. I was just expressing my opinion.”
“So I can get a job?”
“Again, Ranjana, when have I ever stopped you from doing anything?”
The young wife stared at her husband. He wasn’t entirely wrong. He was a bit weird in his ways, and his habits and way of living did put a lot of stress on her. But he had never been a domineering demanding husband. Especially when it came to the question of getting a job, it was a brand new topic. She had never thought of it before. Her parents had raised and trained her to be a housewife, just like her mother and grandmother and aunts and all other women in her family had been. After marriage, she just assumed that position by default. It’s not like she had some great qualifications anyway.
So Amar was right. He had never stopped her from doing anything. She just had never talked about getting a job before.
“You have not.” she quietly said.
“If you want to get a job, get a job. If you want it to be for money, that’s fine. My humble suggestion to you is…..get a job that is satisfying for you. Aim for real satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction.” Ranjana repeated.
“Yes. Aim for a job where the money is just a welcome bonus for doing something that truly satisfies you.” Amar said, using a line he often used to lecture students about their career choices.
“Truly satisfies me.” Ranjana nodded and walked back to the bedroom. Amar smiled and followed her.
The very next day, Ranjana thought about calling Reena aunty about the job opportunity. But then she felt it might come across as opportunistic and desperate. The way she thought about it, that nice woman, who barely knew her in Meerut, had bought her daughter shoes worth almost six thousand rupees. Then she had taken out for a fancy lunch, that based on what she read on the menu, easily cos another two thousand rupees at least. Now if she called her right away about a job, it would seem like she was some opportunistic woman. So Ranjana decided to wait until Reena aunty herself called her again.
Reena on her part was thinking in a similar way. But in an equal and opposite way like Newton’s third law. She saw a lot of potential in Ranjana. Potential for something that would be mutually profitable for them. It had been at the back of her mind when she paid for the shoes. And had solidified when she spoke to her during that lunch. But she did not want to come across as too pushy and eager. She knew that middle class women from small towns could be very touchy like that. So she too held off, waiting for Ranjana to call her.
This continued for another two weeks. Both ladies thought that the appropriate thing to do would be to wait for the other to call. Finally, it was Ranjana whose resolve broke. It was a combination of yet another impromptu dinner party thrown by Amar for his intellectual buddies and a tantrum thrown by Rani demanding new clothes.
“Hello, aunty. It is me, Ranjana.” she finally made the call one Monday morning when she was home alone and had finished her chores.
“Oh hi, Ranjana, how are you doing? How are Amar and Rani?” Reena was delighted that the call she had been eagerly waiting for finally arrived.
“They are good. How are you doing?”
“I am great.” Reena said and paused as she wondered about how to proceed.
Ranjana was also thinking about what to say. She did not want to instantly talk about the job. That would seem impolite.
“So aunty, I am free today. If you are free too, we could meet too.” Ranjana said, and then not wanting to seem like she was trying to mooch off another meal, added, “You can come over to my place and I will cook for you.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely, Ranjana. But today, I am busy.” Reena said. “Oh wait, someone has just come into my office for something. Can I call you back in a few minutes?”
There was no one in Reena’s office. She reached for her phone and sent a text message.
‘When can you be in Bombay asap? It’s about that thing we discussed.’
She got a reply very soon.
‘Wednesday. I will get in by 10.’
‘Ok. Confirmed. Keep your afternoon open.’
Reena dialed Ranjana’s number.
“Hi Ranjana, sorry about that.”
“It’s okay, aunty. I understand.”
“Thanks. So what was I saying…..oh yes, sorry, I am busy today. But are you free day after tomorrow, Wednesday, for lunch?”
“Wednesday, let me see.” Ranjana had no idea why she said let me see. She was free pretty much everyday. But she didn’t want to sound too eager.
“Problem?” Reena asked.
“No no, no problem. Wednesday lunch sounds great. Let me tell you my address….” Ranjana spoke up.
“Actually Ranjana, if you don’t mind, can you come here to the hotel again? I have a couple of hours free for lunch. But then I have some appointments right after. So traveling to and from Borivali will be…”
“I understand, aunty. I will come there.” Ranjana said eagerly.
“Great. Just go to the reception and tell them my name like last time.”
“Thank you, aunty.”
“Stop thanking me, Ranjana. I will see you in two days.”
Ranjana hung up, feeling a little glad that their meeting would again be in that fancy hotel. Maybe she would take her to another nice restaurant again. Reena hung up, feeling glad that it had worked out so easily. And started making plans for Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Ranjana was standing in a small line in front of the reception. In front of her was a white couple, very stylishly dressed. Behind her were two young men dressed in suits. Ranjana felt glad that she decided to dress nicely.
The last time she was here, Ranjana had felt very out of place in her simple almost wrinkled sari that she wore at home. Everyone around her had been so fashionably dressed. And then the hotel itself was so posh with its big chandeliers, scent of perfume wafting through the air conditioning, expensive elegant sculptures everywhere, etc. So Wednesday late morning, as she started getting ready, she decided to dress well. She wore her most expensive green-gold sari that was normally reserved only for weddings and other such functions. She didn’t really own much make-up but put on some lipstick. And instead of just tying her long hair into a bun, she combed it throughly and left it open. She also took with her the relatively fanciest purse she owned, and put on a couple of gold bangles.
This small makeover did make her look even more alluring than usual. Because this time, even she noticed the glances she was getting from men around her. Nothing blatant or impolite, but still, it was clear that she was making heads turn.
“I love your sari!” the white woman in front of her suddenly turned and said.
“Thank you.” Ranjana blushed.
“Where can I get something like that?”
“I..I don’t know. I bought it….in my hometown. Meerut.” Ranjana was feeling uncomfortable talking to her in English. It’s not like Ranjana’s English was bad. She just wasn’t very used to speaking it beyond helping with Rani’s homework. Besides, the white woman’s tall frame and foreign accent intimidated her a little.
“Well, it’s beautiful. Excuse me.” the lady said as it was their turn at reception and walked away.
Ranjana stood at the front of the line, waiting to be called.
“You are from Meerut?” a voice behind her said in Hindi. She turned around.
It was one of the two suit-clad young men standing behind her. They seemed like hotshot executives or MBA types.
“Yes.” she answered.
“I am also from Meerut! Well, Ghaziabad technically, but that makes us neighbors.” he smiled.
Ranjana just nodded and looked straight ahead. She wasn’t used to strangers, especially men, just casually striking up a conversation with her,
“Are you also staying in this hotel?” he continued. His friend, to whom it was obvious he was trying to chat her up, suppressed a smile.
“No.” Ranjana simply said.
“We are. About to check in. We are both investment bankers. Visiting from London.” he said, hoping, like many investment bankers do, that it would impress her.
“I see.” she wasn’t sure why this man was continuing to talk to her.
“We are here to close a multi-milion dollar deal. What brings you here?”
“Just visiting someone.” she said curtly, wishing he would take a hint.
“Someone in this hotel?”
“Oh. Ohhhhh! I understand.” he said and giggled a little, as did his friend.
Ranjana was too sheltered and innocent to realize the conclusion they had drawn. A good looking young woman dressed so nicely, not very comfortable in English, without any luggage, visiting someone in the hotel. They drew the only conclusion they could.
“Do you have a card or something?” he giggled and asked.
“Card? What card?” Ranjana was confused. The two men giggled some more.
“Yes, ma’am?” a clerk at the reception called out. And Ranjana rushed towards the desk. She was getting a bad vibe from those guys.
“I am here to meet Reena Bajaj.”
“Oh, Reena ma’am? Yes, you must be Ranjana ma’am.” he said.
“Just one second.” he reached out under the desk. “Here’s a key card.”
“Key card? I am just visiting her.”
“Yes, she is expecting you in her residence.”
“She lives here?” Ranjana’s eyes went wide.
“Yes, she has a suite on the VIP floor. The 35th floor. And that floor is only accessible by card. So here it is. Suite 3502.”
All this was very new and impressive to Ranjana. She knew Reena aunty worked in the hotel at a senior post but she had no idea she even lived there. And that too an exclusive VIP floor? 35th floor? Ranjana had never gone that high in any building. Very impressive. She stepped into a shiny lift and entered the card in a slot meant for the 35th floor.
Ranjana could not believe how fast the lift reached all the way up to the 35th floor. The lifts she was used to, took that much time to reach 4 floors. She stepped out into a floor that was even more fancy than the lobby. She felt a little intimidated. But Rena aunty was expecting her. She went to Suite 3502 and knocked.
The door was opened by an unknown person. A tall old man in a suit, with half-bald white hair and a big belly.
“Oh I am sorry.” Ranjana said and looked at the number outside the door.
“You must be Ranjana.” the man flashed her a friendly smile. “Don’t worry, you’re not in the wrong place.”
“Come on in. Ranjana!” she heard Reena aunty’s voice from behind the old man. He stepped away and opened the door wide. He saw Reena aunty putting some glasses on a coffee table.
“Oh, I didn’t…” Ranjana was a little taken aback. She had not expected anyone else to be there. But she still walked in, feeling out of place again.
“Sorry if this gentle giant scared you.” Reena aunty smiled. “Let me introduce you two. This is an old family friend of mine, Mr. Navin Dutt. And as I told you, Duttsahab, this is my old neighbor from Meerut Ranjana.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ranjanaji.” he politely folded his hands.
“He lives in Delhi. Called me a little while ago saying he was in Bombay for a business trip, so how about lunch? I assumed you wouldn’t mind if he joined us.”
“Not at all.” Ranjana politely said, although she was a little disappointed. With someone else there, she would not be able to be very open in her conversations. And would not feel comfortable bringing up the topic of a job.
The three of them headed towards the plush couches in the living area.
“Some beer, Ranjanaji?” Dutt asked pointing at the glasses on the table.
“No, thanks. I don’t drink.”
“Some orange juice then?” Reena aunty asked.
“Let me go get it.”
Reena went into another room as Ranjana sat on the couch. She could not believe how deep her petite body sank in. Dutt sat on a single seat perpendicular to her and smiled. There was an awkward silence.
“So Ranjanaji, how long have you lived in Bombay?” he broke the silence.
“Eight years. And please don’t call me ji, Duttsahab. You are my elder.” Ranjana respectfully said, remembering her manners.
“Are you calling me an old fogey?” Dutt feigned feeling hurt.
“No no, I didn’t mean it like that.” Ranjana immediately explained.
“Haha, relax. I am just joking. Okay, I will call you just Ranjana.”
“Hehe.” she smiled.
Although she had initially been disappointed to see him there, as time went by, she got used to his presence. Dutt was a very charming old man, great at conversations.
“Eight years…..do you like it here?” he asked.
“It is what it is.” she shrugged.
“I can never get used to Bombay, although I have been coming here for decades. The humidity, the crowds, the smells….it’s all so overwhelming.”
“Yes, that it is.”
“Very different from Meerut, huh?”
That’s when Reena came out with a class of juice for Ranjana.
“Don’t tell me you are chewing her ear off already, Duttsahab.” she said jovially. “Ranjana, this man can talk the paint off the walls.”
She laughed, as did Dutt. Ranjana politely joined in as she took the juice.
“So…..I have my two dear old friends here. I wish we could go out for lunch. But I have a ticking clock. So I just ordered some room service for us. Hope that is okay.”
“Of course.” Ranjana said. She was looking forward to whatever yummy pricey food aunty would order now.
“By the way, Duttsahab is a business tycoon in Delhi. He owns factories, theaters, retail stores, and what else I am sure even he can’t remember.”
“Don’t embarrass me, Reena.” Dutt smiled with false modesty. “It’s just god’s grace. Nothing more. What business is your husband into, Ranjana?”
“He isn’t in business. He is a college professor. History.”
“Oh history? It was my favorite subject in school. If I hadn’t gotten into business, I too would have ended up in the world of history. I need to meet professor sahab sometime and pick his brains. What is his specialty?”
“World war 2.”
“Oh, I love that topic. Blitz Krieg. Battle of the Bulge. Vichy France. The siege of….”
Ranjana winced a little bit, which Reena noticed.
“Yes yes Duttsahab. you are very learned. Stop it.” she jumped in.
“What happened? Did I say something wrong?”
“She is married to a history professor. I am sure she gets to hear all this non stop. Don’t bore her more.”
Again the two laughed. And Ranjana joined in.
“Is it true, Ranjana? Do you find history boring?” Dutt asked looking into the demure housewife’s eyes.
“Not boring as such.” Ranjana said shrugging. “But you know, when you keep hearing about it all the time….”
“I understand. We shall drop the subject at once. What are your interests? What are your…..passions?” Dutt said that last word with a little bit of passion in it himself.
Reena said to herself, take it easy, old man. Don’t overdo it.
“My interests?” Ranjana was taken aback.
“Yes, what do you love? What excites you?”
He looked at her as did Reena. Ranjana couldn’t think of anything to say. No one had asked her this before. She herself hadn’t really thought about it ever. The only life she knew was of a housewife and a mother.
“That’s not what I am talking about. Everyone is passionate about their kids. I have three of them myself. Two daughters and a son. With kids of their own. What i am asking you is, outside of your family and your commitments and responsibilities, what excites you?”
Ranjana had no answer.
“Will you stop grilling her, Duttsahab?” Reena reached over and slapped him on his arm. “That’s the problem with you tycoons. Every interaction is an interview.”
“It’s okay.” Ranjana smiled. “I just haven’t thought about it.”
“Ok, here’s an old test. Let’s say someone gave you unlimited amounts of money. After buying a great house, setting aside money for kids etc etc. What would you spend it on?”
“Don’t say travel. Everyone likes to travel.”
That’s when there was a knock on the door.
“The food is here.” Reena said and got up to open it. “Let’s move to the dining table.”
A waiter came in with a trolley of food.as Ranjana and Dutt walked to the ornate glass table by the edge of the suite. As he started uncovering and putting the bowls on the table, Ranjana realized that it was Chinese food. She liked Chinese food. The kind they had from street carts once in a while at Rani’s insistence. But this looked very different.
“Please, have a seat.” Reena said. “I hope you like Chinese food, Ranjana. This is real Chinese food from our hotel’s highly rated restaurant. The chef is from Shanghai.”
Ranjana nodded absent-mindedly like she was thinking of something else. The waiter put big plates out and started serving them noodles, a couple of different chicken dishes, and some appetizers.
“Paintings.” Ranjana suddenly said.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” the waiter asked.
“Dutt sahab.” she turned to him. “If I had an unlimited amount of money, I would buy paintings. Maybe even buy a museum. Buy a lot of art supplies and spend the whole day painting.”
“Ah, that’s the kind of answer I was looking for.” he gently touched the back of her chair. “So you are an artist?”
“No. I wouldn’t say that.” she blushed. “I just like to draw and paint. Your favorite subject in school was history. Mine was arts and crafts. I always won a lot of prizes in school contests.”
For the first time since that chocolate lava cake, Reena saw a spark of life on Ranjana’s face. And although initially she had thought Dutt was being too aggressive, she was impressed at how quickly he had put Ranjana at ease.
“So why didn’t you pursue it as a career?”
“Pursue art? Forget art, pursue a career?” Ranjana smiled sadly. “I don’t come from that kind of a family.”
“I understand.” Dutt sagely nodded. “My own father was very rigid. Anyway, who are your favorite artists? Impresionists? Dadaists? Cubists?”
Ranjana felt uncomfortable. He was trying to impress her but she didn’t really know any of these words.
“I…I never really learned about art. I don’t know the terms and all that. I just know that when I see a painting I like, I like it. A few years ago my husband and I went to an exhibition of Hussain saab. Those were nice.”
Dutt gauged her level of knowledge and course-corrected.
“After all, that is what art truly is. Something that speaks to your heart. That’s why you can’t spell heart without art.”
Reena felt like laughing at that corny line, but Ranjana seemed to like it.
Dutt nodded and started eating. So did Reena. The waiter had left by then. Ranjana looked around the plate. There was no fork or spoon. Just a pair of fancy looking wooden chopsticks. She looked at her two companions. Both were eating with the chopsticks very expertly. The street Chinese food always came with cutlery. She had seen people use chopsticks on food shows on TV but never really had to use them.
“Aunty….” she awkwardly said.
“Yes, dear?” Reena pretended like she didn’t know what was going to be the request. It had been Dutt idea, with the assumption that a small town middle class woman would not know how to use chopsticks.
“Is there any cutlery? I can’t….” she pointed to the chopsticks.
“Oh god. Those idiot waiters. I told them to bring cutlery as well. Everything has to be told a dozen times.” Reena got up and went to the phone.
Ranjana again felt out of place as she saw Dutt effortlessly eating even rice with the chopsticks. He looked at her and smiled.
“It is very easy, Ranjana.” he said. “Here, do what I tell you.”
Ranjana picked up the chopsticks.
“Now, put one like this sliding from the base of your thumb to the middle of your ring finger. Yes. Like that. Now hold the other one like a pen between the tip of your thumb and index fingers. Yes. Now click them together. Yes. Very good. Now try to lift something.”
Ranjana followed the instructions exactly. But the sticks slid out of her grip. She tried again.
“Here, let me help you.” Dutt said.
And before Ranjana could say anything, was swiftly standing behind her, leaning down. he put his big hairy right hand on hers. She felt his breath against her ears as he said.
“Now….one stick like that. Another like that. Relax, it’s very easy. You are an artist. This is easier than painting a circle.”
Ranjana felt an odd sensation as the old stranger’s big rough fingers pressed gently on her smooth small ones. She wasn’t exactly used to male touch from anyone other than her husband. And even with her husband, actual touching happened very infrequently. But she ignored the strange feeling and focused on the chopsticks.
“Yes, now…try to pick up that dumpling. Yes…perfect. See how easily it comes up? Easier than with a spoon. Now slowly….slowly….open your mouth.”
Reena was watching as she was on the phone pretending to ask for cutlery. Again, she was impressed by Dutt’s charm and skills. Here was a demure chaste middle class housewife being touched from so close by a man over twice her age. And yet there was nothing in the situation that would make her protest or take offense. It was all set up very naturally.
Ranjana’s hand, guided by Dutt’s slowly put the dumpling in her mouth. Dutt looked at the nervous pretty face right next to his. And felt a surge of thrill and arousal.
“Mmmmmm….” Ranjana said happily as she bit into a delicious prawns dumpling. Better than anything you got on the streets.
Looking at her effusive happy expression, Dutt had the strongest desire to make some kind of a move. Maybe try to kiss her. But he restrained himself. Reena had been right. With this one, things had to progress slowly. He could risk upsetting the balance.
So he took his hand off hers and slid back into his seat. Ranjana felt a little relieved by that. Although she very naively did not doubt his intentions as anything but helpful, she was getting uncomfortable by the prolonged proximity to another man.
“You’re right. This is very easy once you get the hang of it.” she said with childlike glee as she rolled up a bunch of noodles and slurped them. And giggled.
Reena came back to see Ranjana enjoying her food. Cutlery wasn’t mentioned at all.
The lunch proceeded smoothly with a lot of conversations between the three of them. Reena talked frequently about Dutt’s businesses and his contacts and his influence, which was always followed by Dutt acting very modest and self-effacing. He instead was more intent on talking to Ranjana. And he was so charming and easy-going about it that the young housewife found herself not feeling as out of place as she was earlier. Dutt talked to her a lot about art, the different styles of painting, and so on. Ranjana listened like a young student.
Dutt also peppered his art lecture with a few questions about Ranjana’s own life, her upbringing, her likes and dislikes. The more she talked, the more Dutt was able to get a complete picture of her personality and her psyche. She was a very simple, traditional, and conventional middle class housewife, but she was also hiding a deep sense of dissatisfaction with her life. Was that dissatisfaction merely financial and situational? Or was there something physical in it too? He would have to figure out how to gauge that without scaring her off. He began making a mental list of other small tricks and tactics he could use going forward.
When they finally got done with lunch, Reena pointed her to the bathroom to wash up. After stepping in and closing the door, Ranjana again looked around her wide-eyed. The bathroom looked fancier than her living room. Not a spot of dirt or mold anywhere. A huge wall-length mirror. And the counter full of small artisanal soaps and different kinds of lotions and shampoos. Once again, Ranjana felt like a child, just touching and examining all those things as if they were wondrous toys. Even the faucets were so ornate.
When she came out, Reena and Ranjana were back on the couch having beer. She joined them.
“So did you enjoy lunch, Ranjana?” Reena asked.
“Yes, it was delicious.” Ranjana smiled. “And I got to learn something new. Using chopsticks.”
“Happy to be of help.” Dutt said.
They all talked casually for a few more minutes. And then Dutt suddenly said,
“Oh, I just remembered.” And he took out a small envelope from his inner pocket. “At a meeting with the Food Mart chain folks today, I got these complimentary gift cards. They don’t have a branch in Delhi. Why don’t you two take them?”
“No no, that’s okay.” Ranjana politely declined.
“How much are they for?” Reena reached over and opened the envelope.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t say. It’s just like a debit card with their logo. To be used only in their store. Maybe a couple of hundred rupees.”
“Why not? Thank you.” Reena took one and held out the other for Ranjana.
“No, aunty, it’s okay. You keep both.”
“Don’t be silly, Ranjana.” Reena pushed one into her hand. “Duttsahab got them for free anyway. Why let them go to waste? I know they have a big store in Borivali too.”
Ranjana nodded and put them in her purse. A couple of hundred rupees might help stretch her budget a little.
“Thank you, Duttsahab.” she said politely.
“Don’t mention it. Anyway ladies, I need to leave for a visit to one of my factories in Dahisar.” Dutt got up.
“Oh okay.” Reena said. “I have an appointment soon too.”
Ranjana nodded, hoping that with Dutt gone, she might get a few minutes alone with aunty to talk about job opportunities. But then Reena said,
“Duttsahab…you said Dahisar. Why don’t you drop Ranjana off at Borivali on the way?”
“Sure, happy to.” Dutt nodded.
“Oh no, I don’t want to delay you. I’ll just take the train.” Ranjana was overwhelmed by all these favors he was doing her.
“What delay? It’s my factory. I can reach there any time I want. And Borivali is just on the way.”
Ranjana demurred some more but there really was no way to refuse the offer. She couldn’t explicitly say that she had hoped to talk to Reena aunty alone. And honestly, she was a little relieved. It was a heavy lunch and she was feeling a little lazy. It would be nice to get a ride all the way instead of struggling through the local.
So she said her goodbyes to Reena aunty who hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks before letting her go. She accompanied Dutt down the lift in silence and to the hotel lobby.
“Driver, bring the car to the front.” he called and said.
A few minutes later, Ranjana was sitting on a plush car seat, again feeling a mix of awe and wonderment. It was a big Mercedes limousine. Expensive leather interior, A/C on at full blast, with a smart looking driver in a crisp uniform. She was getting a first hand exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
“Thank you again, Duttsahab.” she said as he got in from the other side.
“Please stop thanking me all the time, Ranjana.” he smiled. “So where exactly do you stay? Tell him the address.”
Ranjana told the driver her address in Borivali east and the driver nodded. She sat back and was tempted to thank Dutt again, but he was on the phone.
“Yes Pradeep….no no…..can’t do it for 12 million. Had to be fifteen. Yes, we can do something about the warranty….”
He seemed busy with his business. So she sat back. The car started moving. She looked out of the window and marveled at how different the streets of Mumbai looked from the inside of a plush limousine.
She stared at the buildings and cars whizzing past as she wondered, is this how people with money live? How would it feel? Do they get bored of it? She started thinking about a parallel universe where she hadn’t been born to middle class conservative parents in a small town but to someone like Dutt. He seemed like such a nice and knowledgeable man. Very kind and gentle. Surely he didn’t yell at his kids, force fit them into his ideas.
She noticed that Dutt had finished his phone calls.
“Can I offer you some water or a soft drink, Ranjana?” he asked. “Your lips look a little dry.”
“Oh no, there is no need to stop.” Ranjana said, without realizing that this meant he had been looking at her lips.
“We don’t have to stop.” Dutt smiled. “Push that blue button by your side.”
Ranjana was intrigued and pushed it. Immediately, a small refrigerated box slid out of the panel next to her. It had water, cola, and a couple of juices.
“Wow!!!” she said, her eyes wide. A mini fridge in a car? She reached out and took a bottle of water.
“Press it again.” he said, and then the fridge disappeared into the wall as if it was never there.
Taking a sip of water, Ranjana licked her dry lips. Dutt watched her do that and felt a stirring in his loins. But he restrained himself.
“Duttsahab….what do your kids do?” she asked.
“My kids…oh they are a great bunch. The eldest, my first daughter, is a Vice President in my business. She is the one who runs most of our operations these days. And once I retire soon, she will take over completely. To be honest, she is going to take our business to great heights. She is married to a lawyer and they have two sons.”
Ranjana was a little surprised that despite having a son, it was a daughter that he was grooming as his successor.
“The second is my son. About your age. He is a sculptor. Not hit the big leagues yet, but I see a lot of promise. And my youngest is doing a masters course at Stanford University in the US. She is going to be a great writer.” he proudly said.
Ranjana smiled and nodded. If she had been born to him, maybe she could have become an artist too.
That’s when Dutt’s phone rang again.
“Excuse me. Duty calls again.” he said and answered.
As the old man talked business on the phone, Ranjana turned back to look outside the window. They were now on the western express highway. She thought about her own daughter, and how intelligent she was. What was in her future? Even with all his flaws and idiosyncrasies, the good thing about Amar was that he was not an old-fashioned guy when it came to that part. It was his idea to put her in an expensive high quality school. She was sure that with him together, they would be able to help her live up to her full potential. But that needed so much money these days.
“See that blue building over there with the glass facade?”
Ranjana was so lost in her thoughts that she did not realize when Dutt finished his phone call and slid over right next to her. His face was right in front of hers and his finger was pointing out the window. His hips were touching hers.
“Hmmm?” she absent-mindedly said, looking where he pointed.
“I own two floors in that building, and that is like my Mumbai branch office.”
“I see.” she said.
“So you see, we are neighbors of sorts. You live in Borivali East. I have my offices in Borivali East.” he said, still right next to her, a little too close.
“I guess so.” she said, and squirmed a little, uncomfortably.
Dutt noticed her reaction and was a little disappointed. He had hoped for some sort of a signal that she was also attracted to him. But it wasn’t there, He immediately slid back and she looked more relaxed.
Soon the driver turned off from the highway and went into the roads of the suburb. There was a short period of silence as Ranjana sipped a bit more of the water. She didn’t think that Duttsahab meant anything untoward by sliding that close to her. Maybe that was the norm among high society people. And he was such a nice charming man. When his face was right next to her, she had found herself thinking that it was a very handsome face. And that in his younger days, before he got a paunch, he must have been quite a good looking guy. He reminded her a bit of Rishi Kapoor.
“We are almost there, ma’am.” the driver said from the front.
“Oh, yes, thanks.” Ranjana said as she recognized the familiar narrow roads of her neighborhood. Part of her felt a little sad that the ride was ending. It meant that her small adventure with high class society was ending.
“Ranjana…” Dutt said holding his phone. “Why don’t you give me your number? Like I told you, my son is a sculptor. Through him, I hear of a lot of exhibitions and events related to art in Mumbai. Next time there is one, I can call you. And then you can visit it with your husband and daughter.”
The mention of her family was very purposeful. He had gauged her well enough to know that if he just asked her for her number saying the two of them should meet, she might refuse. But putting that request in the context of her main passions – art and her family – would make it easier.
“Oh sure…it is…”
Ranjana gave him her cellphone number. He then gave her a missed call and saved his.
And then thanking him once again for the ride, the chopsticks lesson, and the gift card, she stepped out of the car.
As the fancy limo drove away, she realized that she was now back in the tepid confines of her regular middle class life.
Two days later, Ranjana took Rani to the mall near their house that had a branch of Food Mart. They walked the two kilometers there to save money on rickshaws. It was nearing the end of the month and finances were low. So whatever couple of hundred rupees were on that gift card Dutt gave her would be helpful.
“Mamma look!!!” Rani said as a toy helicopter flew over their head.
The little girl struggled free of her grip and ran after the helicopter. It landed right in front of a makeshift stall in a corner. It was laden with many different types of toy helicopter and a few young sales people with remote controllers in their hands were flying them around, enticing kids. There was a small crowd of kids and parents around the stall.
“Hello there.” a young woman walked up to Rani. “Do you want to fly it?”
“Rani, let’s go.” Ranjana said, annoyed. This is why she hated going to the mall. There were temptations for her demanding daughter around every corner.
“Mamma please….just a few minutes.”
“It’s a lot of fun, ma’am. I love it even as an adult. You should try it too.” the sales girl made her practiced pitch.
Ranjana knew there was no point even putting up a fight. She had been through such situations so many times. And it unfolded exactly as she knew it would. Rani flew the helicopter around for a few minutes. Fell in love with it. And who wouldn’t? Ranjana herself was very impressed by how cool and fun it was. She would have loved to buy it for her precious daughter if she could.
But she had also read the board they had on the side with the prices. The cheapest model was 1000 rupees. She had just a little over 1500 left for the rest of the month after accounting for what she owed the kirana store. Even with that gift certificate of a couple of hundred rupees, she simply could not afford it.
And what followed was also very much expected. After the trial demo, the salesgirl started talking about the prices. Rani started yelling and crying about how she absolutely wanted it. A lot of parents around them, with more money, were buying them. Rani threw a tantrum. Ranjana said no, felt embarrassed. A scene was created. And finally she managed to drag her sobbing and sulking daughter away.
“Stay with me!!” Ranjana sternly told Rani as she took a big cart and walked into Food Mart.
She had heard about this place. Some neighbors had told her that although it was very big and posh and nice, its prices were same as or even lower than their neighborhood kirana store if you bought big quantities. But the problem was, unlike the kirana store, these people did not give credit. With the kirana guy, she could keep buying things, one or two at a time as she needed them, and then pay off the bill when Amar’s salary came. With the Food Mart, even with the competitive prices, payment had to be instant. She had read that most people who shopped there were upper middle class people who came with their cars, bought stuff in bulk for the month, and that was it.
As Ranjana walked through the store and filled the cart with the essentials like flour, dal, milk, etc, she realized that the prices were indeed competitive. Maybe it was worth it to always come here and shop. It might take some planning with the finances but why not?
“You never buy me anything nice.” Rani sulked, still by her side.
“Don’t be a brat. I bought you those shoes.”
“I don’t like those shoes anymore.”
Big surprise, thought Ranjana. Is there a more fickle mind of the earth than her daughter’s, she wondered.
“Papa is nice. You are not nice.” Rani said.
This made Ranjana’s temper flare. Amar barely spent any time with their daughter, and was always the nice guy. She was the one bringing her up, taking care of everything, and she was not nice? She knew that this was just the sulking comment of a 7 year old. But it still pissed her off. She didn’t say anything of course. But anyone watching the mother and daughter would have seen that both were wearing identical surly expressions.
Ranjana had initially planned to just buy a few things of immediate need. If she bought too much, it would be too heavy to carry back on foot for two kilometers. But the more she saw the products and their prices, she realized that she could afford to buy enough for a couple of weeks. And the savings compared to the kirana guy would be enough to take a rickshaw home with the heavy bags. So she started buying the bigger packs for better savings, even buying a few things not on her list.
“That’s 1226, ma’am.” the guy at the counter said after scanning the last of her items while another guy put them in bags and in the cart.
As the register machine had kept racking up the prices, Ranjana had gotten happier and happier. This was was least 10% cheaper than if she had bought all this at the kirana store.
“Okay. Here.” she reached into her purse. “I have a gift card. Whatever is left, I will pay by cash.”
“Sure, ma’am.” the clerk took the card and swiped it as Ranjana took cash out.
He looked at the screen for a few seconds. Then there was a whirring noise and a receipt was printed out.
“There you go, ma’am. Thank you for shopping at Food Mart.” he held the card up to return it to her.
“Wait….don’t I have to give you money?” she said, holding up the cash in her hand.
“No, ma’am. The gift card covered it all. It was worth 5,000 rupees. So here, it still has 3774 rupees on it.”
Ranjana took the card back and put it in her purse. Then with Rani by her side, she started pushing the cart with all the bags. This had to be a mistake. Duttsahab had said just a couple of hundred rupees. Surely the Food Mart machine made a mistake. But who was she to complain? She quickly rushed out of the store holding Rani’s hand, fearing that any moment they might call her back.
She kept walking and looking back, wondering if someone was following them. But no one was. She stopped. That’s when one of the toy helicopters flew past her again. Rani looked at it sadly.
“So….I am not nice?” she asked her, staring at the helicopter.
“No.” the girl sulked. Ranjana smiled.
“See, what you don’t realize about the Battle of the Bulge is, if only the American generals at that time had shown a little more initiative, and been more smart, then I tell you…” Amar was waxing eloquent on another of his favorite subject walking into the building compound when he was interrupted.
“Look at that!!” one of the three friends with him exclaimed.
Amar looked up. There was a small toy helicopter flying in front of him.
“Hands up, Papa!!” his daughter’s voice said from some distance. He saw her standing with a crowd of the building kids. Smiling, he raised his hands. The helicopter flew away.
Along with the kids there were a few adults in that crowd watching his daughter maneuver the helicopter. Among them was Ranjana. She saw him and smiled.
“What’s all this?” he quietly asked her.
“Her newest toy.” Ranjana said happily and then looked at his friends. “You should all try it out. It is fun even for adults.”
“Sure looks like it.” one of them said staring at the helicopter.
They all stood around watching the helicopter fly all around. Finally Amar said,
“We will be upstairs. Can you make us some…”
“Yes sure.” Ranjana nodded and then said. “Rani, just five more minutes. Time for homework.”
“Okay, mamma.” her daughter, for a change, did not argue with her. Just focused on her newest toy.
A while later, Rani was in the bedroom, doing her homework. Amar and his friends had set up their intellectual conference as always. Ranjana could hear that the topic for the night was the Battle of the Bulge. Same old facts, same old arguments that she had heard a dozen times. She was in the kitchen cooking.
Amar walked in alone with the empty tray. She put hot pakoras on the plate in it.
“Ranjana….that helicopter…how much did it cost?” he asked after a few seconds.
“Nothing.” she said.
“Nothing?” he said skeptically.
Ranjana opened her mouth to tell him the whole story. About Reena aunty and the job offer and the kind old man Mr. Dutt and the gift certificate and everything. But it didn’t seem like the right time. It would take too long. And knowing his weird sense of honor and pride, he might insist on returning it all. And it would make Rani cry bloody murder. So she decided on a white lie.
“We were at the mall. They were displaying these toys and holding a lottery to give one away every hour. I just put Rani’s name in the lottery. And we won.”
“Oh…ok.” Amar believed it.
“Doesn’t she look happy? And see how obediently she is doing her homework.”
“Yes, of course. But it is materialistic behavior, Ranjana.” Amar’s sanctimonious professorial tone came out.
“Why don’t you try explaining your thoughts on materialism to Rani?” she sarcastically said.
“I will. Some day.” Amar said and walked away.
Again, Ranjana felt annoyed at her husband. He liked to talk the talk on materialism and idealism and everything. But she was the one who had to live it out. And deal with a very demanding little girl. But Ranjana decided not to feel surly about it. It was a rare happy day. She could still remember how Rani’s expression had turned from a scowl to one of delight when she finally told her that she’d buy her the helicopter. It had to be the cheapest model, of course. But even then, the little girl had been over the moon. And she had felt even happier when, after stepping out of the mall, Ranjana had decided to take an A/C taxi home instead of a rickshaw. With the savings from the gift card, she could afford it.
As usual, Amar’s history session continued past just snacks and tea and it rolled over into dinner. Rani finished her homework, and tired from running around after the helicopter, fell asleep on the bed. Amar’s friends finally left after dinner and the two of them headed to the bedroom.
Exhausted, Ranjana laid down on the bed next to Rani just the way she was, in a comfortable simple sari.
“Can you take Rani to the couch?” Amar asked as he headed to the bathroom. “And why don’t you change into a gown instead?”
“Oh….okay.” Ranjana said and got off the bed.
She knew what that meant. She gently carried her daughter to the couch. Rani was a heavy sleeper, so did not wake up at all. Ranjana put her on the couch and covered her with a thin sheet. Living in a small one bedroom apartment, that’s the only way the married couple could get some privacy. Wait until the daughter falls asleep and then put her in the living room. She then went back to the bedroom and took a gown out of the closet. It was a simple modest full body sleeping gown. She changed into it and got into bed waiting for Amar. But she was so tired that she fell asleep almost right away.
The room was dark when Ranjana felt herself being pushed a little. She opened her eyes.
“Are you awake?” Amar whispered.
“Hmmm.” she responded.
“Too tired for it?” he considerately asked.
“No, I am ready.” she said. It had been a while since the last time.
In a flash, Amar got on top of her, sliding off his pyjama and underwear. His hands went to her ankle and started pushing the gown up. It was easier than pushing up her sari. Ranjana hated those gowns. But she knew that whenever Amar suggested that she sleep in a gown, it was a signal that he wanted sex that night. It happened about once a fortnight.
Amar pushed the gown all the way up to her chest. He reached behind her and fumbled with her bra hooks. Even after eight years, it always took him a while to unhook her bra. Then he played with her boobs with one hand as his other hand slipped her panties down. There was some perfunctory kissing for a few seconds. Ranjana could feel her husband’s erect dick against her thighs.
It had been eight years so there were no surprises left as such. Ranjana could predict Amar’s moves and their sequence. After the few seconds of kissing, he took her right nipple in his teeth and gently bit it. Then his left hand moved to her right knee and pulled it, opening her thighs. He lowered his hips and the tip of his cock rubbed against the opening of her pussy. She reached down with her left hand and aligned it. And then he penetrated her.
And the bed started shaking and creaking. Ranjana felt pleasant sensations emanating from her loins as her husband fucked her. She always liked this. She always wished he did it more often. But she was brought up in too demure and conservative a way to ever make the first move. So she always had to wait until he felt horny. And this was the night. Their thighs made a soft slapping sound as Amar banged his wife fast. She put one hand under his kurta and played with his chest hair. As the sex continued, she felt herself getting more relaxed and also more pleasured.
She looked at Amar’s face on top of her. He was staring at her with a blank expression, occasionally kissing her. She closed her eyes. Suddenly an image flashed in her mind. The image of Duttsahab’s face as it was right next to her in the car. Panicked, she opened her eyes.
“What….happened?” Amar asked her.
“Nothing.” she whispered and kept her eyes open, focusing on her husband’s inert face. She was disturbed by why that old man’s face had suddenly flashed in front of her eyes. She did her best to not think about it, and kept looking at Amar, kissing him whenever he kissed her.
After a couple of minutes, Amar started humping her harder.
“Still on the pill?” he hoarsely whispered, on schedule.
“Yes.” she said.
Whenever he asked this, she knew what was coming. And soon he was cumming, inside her. It had been another enjoyable sex session. Amar stayed on top of his wife for a few seconds. Then he got up. As always, he wrapped a towel around his waist and went to the bathroom first to clean his sticky cock. When he came back, Ranjana lowered her gown and did the same. When she came back from the bathroom, Amar was fully dressed, and in bed snoring.
She put her panties back on, and went to the living room. She carried her sleeping daughter back to the bed. And then fell asleep next to her.
Ranjana got back to her regular life after her short introduction to high class living with Reena aunty and Duttsahab. She considered calling aunty to meet up again and talk about the job. But then she decided to give it a few days. She worried that if she contacted her again so soon, it might seem like she was again trying to mooch off a free expensive meal. Besides, thanks to that gift card, she was okay with finances for a while. There was enough money left on it to buy groceries and other supplies for almost two months if she stretched it. Which meant that the money from Amar’s salary could be used for other purposes.
The next few weeks were great for Rani. Whenever she went out with her mother and made a random demand, most of the times, it was fulfilled. Be it ice cream or pastries or even small toys being sold here or there. She just had to ask and she would receive, as long as it was within reason.
“Rani is getting more and more toys these days.” Amar noted one morning as he saw his daughter playing with a few doll.
“It makes her happy.” Ranjana shrugged.
“But….can we afford all this?”
“Do you want me to give you a full accounting of all the money?” Ranjana said in a miffed voice.
“Of course not. Why are you getting upset?”
“I have been running the household for eight years now. I know better than you what we can and cannot afford.”
“It’s not just about being able to afford it.” Amar changed the topic. “I have said before that I don’t want to instill materialistic values in our child.”
Ranjana seethed in silence as she did her work. It was so easy for him to be so high and mighty from his ivory tower while leaving her to face the practical implications of his supposed values.
“So….how is your job search going?” Amar asked. She noted a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“I haven’t gotten around to it yet.” she said. She considered telling him about Reena aunty but then decided to wait until the job was confirmed.
“Hmmm.” he said and smiled. She could sense that to him it was a big joke. He did not think his homely barely qualified wife could ever get a job.
This made her even more resolved to call Reena aunty soon. She knew that Amar didn’t take the idea seriously. But it was important to her. Making some money wouldn’t just make her household life easier, it would be useful for Rani’s future too. She had been thinking about it since Dutt spoke about his kids. To give Rani a bright future, they would need a decent amount of money. A few years ago they had started a dedicated savings account for her college fund. But given how tight money was, it did not have more than a couple of thousand. If she got even a moderately paying job, they could save at least a couple of lakhs until Rani grew up.
As it happened, Reena was the one who called her the next morning.
“Ranjana, you have become a stranger. Too busy for your old friend?” she mock scolded.
“No aunty, I just didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You can never disturb me, sweetheart. Listen, are you free today?”
“Yes.” Ranjana eagerly said.
“I have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise? What surprise?”
“If I tell you that, it won’t be a surprise now, will it? Be ready in an hour. I will pick you up from that main road near your house. The corner with the ATM. And dress nicely.”
Ranjana hung up and wondered if she had ever given aunty her address. How did she know about the main road and the ATM? She guessed she must have and just forgotten about it. Ranjana picked out another of her nice saris and got ready. She wondered what the surprise was.
And hour later she was waiting in the heat where Reena had told her to when a gleaming limousine pulled up to her. She wondered if it was Duttsahab again, but it was different from the one she had been in last time.
The chauffer, smartly dressed, got out and stylishly opened the back door.
“Ranjana! Hi!!” Reena aunty squealed from inside and waved.
Ranjana saw her and got into the air conditioned limousine. And right next to her, she found Dutt, again dressed in a stylish suit.
“How are you, Ranjana?”
“Namaste, Duttsahab. Namaste, aunty.” Ranjana said as her shapely butt sank into the soft seat of the car. She was a little confused to see the old man here again. But she did not mind much. She had taken quite a liking to him. She tried not to think about how his face had flashed in front of her eyes during sex, and blushed a little.
“Ranjana, you seem confused. Let me explain your surprise. Or rather, let Duttsahab explain.” Reena said, holding a champagne flute in her hand and sipping from it. There was a champagne bottle in an ice bucket on a shelf next to her.
“It’s nothing, really.” Dutt said, also with champagne in his hand. “I told you my son is a sculptor. When I told him I was coming to Bombay again, he told me about this exhibition at a great art gallery in Bandra. And I remembered your interest in art. So I thought you might enjoy coming to it with Reena and me.”
“Oh, thank you. That was very thoughtful of you.” Ranjana beamed. A high end art exhibition in posh Bandra did sound like something she would enjoy.
“Don’t mention it.” Dutt smiled and shook his head.
“Some champagne, Ranjana?” Reena asked reached for the bottle.
“No thank you. I don’t drink.” she shook her head.
“You don’t drink alcohol. This is champagne.” Reena laughed. “I mean sure, it is also alcohol But it is very mild.”
“But still….” Ranjana protested.
“But still nothing. Just have a little. besides, they usually serve champagne at such exhibitions too. If you refuse it there, it will look rude.”
“Oh, is it?”
“Yes. Just have a little bit. I insist.” Reena poured half a measure into a stylish looking flute and held it towards Ranjana.
The young middle class housewife, again feeling a little intimidate and out of place, took it. She didn’t want to be rude to Reena aunty, who had been so nice to her. And she had heard that champagne is indeed a mild alcohol, mainly used to sip at celebratory or fancy occasions. She took a sip of the cold fizzy drink and grimaced a little.
“How do you like it?” Reena asked.
“It’s….different. Tastes a bit like….sprite.” Ranjana said. It was a bit more carbinated than she expected. And the taste was a little bitter. She didn’t enjoy it much, but did not want to seem like a bumpkin.
Reena and Dutt started laughing at the comparison. Until then, Dut had been checking email on his phone, listening to everything.
“Sprite. That’s a good way to describe it.” Dutt said.
“Have a few more sips and you will get used to it.” Reena said.
As the car zoomed south on the western express highway towards Bandra, Ranjana took a few more sips of the foreign drink. Having brought up in a conservative small town household, she had never even thought about tasting alcohol. It had been hammered into her that it was a vile drink that makes people act really crazy. She had seen many drunks on the streets of Meerut and knew it had to be true. And drinking for a woman was almost unthinkable.
But she was in the company of high society people now. So to fit in, what’s the harm in having a few sips, she thought. Ranjana knew so little about the effects of alcohol, that she expected that she would suddenly started feeling unbalanced and confused like a drunkard. So she was surprised that even after a few sips, there was no major effect on her, except just a pleasant sensation in her mind.
“Some more?” Duttsahab politely asked.
“Thank you.” Ranjana held out the flute.
By the time they reached the sea-facing gallery on Carter Road, Ranjana had kept pace with her two companions, finishing three flutes of champagne. As the driver dropped them off and she got out of the car, Ranjana felt a mild but funny sensation in her head. She wasn’t imbalance, nor was she slurring. But there was something different. She did not know the term, but the first time drinker was what you might call “buzzed”.
Ranjana walked into the posh gallery feeling just mildly light-headed, even though her two companions were perfectly sober. Obviously, this being the first taste of alcohol in her life, she had a much lower tolerance. But Reena had been careful not to give her too much.
“May I accompany you inside, dear lady?” Dutt held out his elbow in a ceremonious way.
Ranjana smiled and put her arm through his. As the two of them walked into the big fancy art gallery followed by Reena, a few photographers milling around ran over and started snapping a few pictures. Ranjana was surprised by all the attention. She assumed it was because Dutt was a big shot industrialist. But in reality, the photographers had been drawn to her. Dressed in another of her very few fancy saris, and with her hair combed straight and let loose, she looked quite attractive. Although none of the photographers obviously recognized her, they all thought a picture of a pretty lady with a stylish but paunchy old man would make a great page 3 photo.
“So glad you could make it, Mr. Dutt.” a distinguished looking older gentleman who was the owner of the gallery said.
“Happy to be here.” Dutt smiled. “These are my friends, Mrs. Ranjana and Mrs. Reena.”
Ranjana was just staring at the picture closest to her. It was a big 12 ft x 9 ft abstract painting hung on a spotless white wall. And the price tag said Rs 26,00,000. She almost fainted that she was so close to a picture that cost more than her husband would earn in two decades. But once she looked past the price, she found herself strangely enamored by the painting. It was a lot of strange blobs and strokes and uneven shapes. But she could see why it commanded such a high price. There was something magnetically fascinating about it.
“Ranjana!” Reena nudged her with an elbow. Everyone was waiting for her to greet the owner back.
“Oh hello, how do you do?” she politely said.
“Ranjana here is an aspiring artist herself.” Dutt said, and she blushed.
“That is fantastic. We are always looking to discover new talent.” the owner smiled and fished out a card. “Feel free to send me a sample any time.”
“Sample….thank you.” Ranjana just dumbly stared at the card and said. She had done some drawings on chart paper many years ago. It had been considered nice by the untrained population of her small social circle in Meerut. And here was the owner of a super fancy gallery giving her his card.
The owner smiled knowingly and then snapped his fingers. A waitress appeared carrying a tray of champagne. Ranjana looked at her. And yet again, wondered how the wait staff in the high society world is always so impeccably dressed. Dutt and Reena picked up a glass each. Ranjana was now starting to feel the mild but real effects of the champagne she had in the car. She didn’t want to over indulge. But she remembered what Reena aunty said in the car about not being rude, so she picked up a glass. She told herself she would just hold it, not really have any.
But fifteen minutes later, she felt an empty glass being taken from her hand and replaced with a full one. Dutt had been talking about all the gorgeous paintings in that brightly lit gallery accompanying the two ladies through the exhibition. As was his forte, he was talking nineteen to the dozen sounding very knowledgeable about everything, but any real expert of art would have realized that his expertise didn’t go very deep and was actually very cliched and stilted. But to Ranjana, who had never been formally educated in the ways of art and just had an amateur passion in it, everything sounded very profound.
The next hour or so passed with Ranjana walking through the exhibition with her companions, being lectured on art. Throughout that hour, Dutt had occasionally touched Ranjana on her shoulder or brushed her arm, while guiding her from one place to another. She noticed it and maybe because of the alcohol in her system, felt a small thrill at the unfamiliar touch. But did her best to put it all out of her mind. He is just a nice old man, she told herself. Stop being silly. Little did she know that all the subtle touches and brushes were very carefully planned and calibrated by Dutt.
About halfway through the exhibition just as they walked up to a new painting, Dutt stopped, and looked across the hall.
“Oh….would you ladies mind it terribly if I left you alone for a little while?” he said. “I see an old business associate that I need to discuss a new deal with.”
“Sure.” Reena said. Until now she had been a silent spectator much like Ranjana.
“Sure.” Ranjana said.
“It won’t take more than 15-20 minutes. You ladies keep looking and I will join you soon.” Dutt said, and gently stroked both their arms before walking away.
Reena and Ranjana watched him walk away and then looked at the painting.
“So what do you think this is?” Ranjana said, trying to remember everything Dutt had said about shape and form and strokes and subtext.
Reena stared carefully at the painting.
“A big question mark on a fried egg?” Reena said. Both of them started giggling. “Sorry Ranjana, but I am not really artistically inclined like you or Dutsahab. To me, most of these paintings look lie something a kindergarten child would make.”
“I….like them.” Ranjana said. And Reena realized that she was getting more and more under Dutt’s spell, although she probably didn’t realize it herself. So this was the right time.
“Ranjana…remember we spoke about a job for you?”
“Oh yes. In fact….I was going to bring it up myself.” Ranjana said. And then, more than a little buzzed by the champagne, started talking with a slight slur. “Amar has a great job as a professor and his salary is not bad. But it falls short, you know. Some extra money always helps. For helicopters and ice cream. So why not a job? He thinks I won’t….or I can’t….but he is also right. I never got any great education. Very basic. Like B.A. basic. And it was like….you know…it didn’t matter if I could draw a perfect circle with just a brush….but more about whether I can roll a perfect roti. You know what I mean?”
Reena had trouble following that rambling sentence in entirety, especially the part about helicopters and ice cream but she got the general gist. She nodded sympathetically.
“Yeah…so….with Rani….I don’t care about her rotis. I mean….I do care about the rotis she eats. I mean…I don’t care about the rotis she makes. In fact she shouldn’t even make rotis. She should go to best colleges. And become like….Barkha Dutt or even Edmund Hillary. Why can’t she be like Edmund Hillary?”
“You mean climb Everest??” Reena asked, a little confused.
“Noooo….become the first woman president of America.” Ranjana said.
“Oh of course.” Reena realized what she meant but didn’t say anything. gently, she took the half empty glass of champagne from Ranjana’s hand. She did not want the first time drinker to get so drunk that she would just fall asleep.
“So yes….I want to get a job. To save money for Rani’s college. We started a bank account for her college fees but I haven’t been able to add anything much to it. If I start working and start adding money to it, she can go anywhere. Go to IIT….IIM…maybe even Stambford.”
“Yes, Stanford.” Ranjana said. And then stared at the painting. “I think I also see the fried eggs.”
“Come with me, Ranjana. Let’s sit for a while.”
Reena led the young housewife to a leather bench by the side. She had hoped the champagne would relax Ranjana, but it had maybe been a little too much. She signaled a waitress over and picked up a glass of orange juice and handed it to Ranjana who started drinking it.
Ranjana was too inexperienced with drinking to realize that she was slightly drunk. She did realize that something was off. But she trusted Reena so implicitly that she still thought champagne is too mild to really be alcohol. They sat quietly for a couple of minutes as Ranjana sipped the juice. Then a waiter came by with some finger food and Reena gave some to Ranjana and had some herself.
“Ranjana, I do have a job for you.” she said.
“You do?” the orange juice and the food mad Ranjana feel a little more normal.
“I do. In fact today is something like a job interview plus audition.”
“Do you like Duttsahab?”
“He is very nice.” Ranjana said and then found the question weird. “Wait, what do you mean?”
“Nothing like that, don’t be silly.” Reena giggled and slapped the young housewife on her shoulder. “I mean do you think he is a nice respectable person?”
“Of course.” Ranjana said.
“Well, the job is with him.”
“With him?” Ranjana was confused.
“Yes. He comes to Bombay often. Mostly it is social events and visits like these. Sometimes a business lunch. He is a widower. Alone with kids all grown up. And you have seen what a social butterfly he is. He likes company. So you will be like his…..local guide plus personal assistant of sorts.”
“What?” she was still confused.
“It is perfect, Ranjana. Think about it. You have family commitments and household chores, so it’s not like you can do a 9 to 5 job. Duttsahab’s social responsibilities will mainly be in the daytime when your husband and daughter are away. And no more than a few days a month.”
“I am still not sure what the job exactly is.” Ranjana said.
“Whatever we did today. Just like that. Accompany him at such events and keep him company. A big reason he likes company is also to avoid random bankers and industrial sales reps and account managers and other business folks from bothering him for orders or jobs or other favors. If he is in the company of a graceful young woman, no one bothers him. So you just spend a few hours in the afternoon with him, maybe 3-4 times a month. And you will be paid well.”
“How well?” Ranjana said, remembering that it was all about the money.
“I didn’t ask the exact amount.” Reena shrugged. “But you have seen how he is. Nice and generous. Trust me, it will be good. You trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course I trust you.” Ranjana said.
“I know this seems very unusual. But believe me, it is a very common job. Not just in Bombay but also Bangalore, Delhi, even in foreign countries. Just giving innocent company to business people. I myself have facilitated many such arrangements.” Reena gently rubbed Ranjana
Ranjana was silent and thinking about it. She liked Dutt’s company a lot. And she had recently enjoyed her brief glimpses of the high society. If she got a chance to do this a few times a month and also got paid for it, what was the harm? Even if she got a couple of thousand rupees for it, it would be worth it.
“What do you think?” Reena asked softly.
“Just 3-4 times a month?”
“Yes, just that.”
“Will you be with us too?” Ranjana asked.
“No, sweetie, I have my own job. You understand.”
“Can I do like….a trial thing?”
“Of course. Next time he needs company, I will arrange it with you. And you can go out for a few hours. And then make the decision.”
“Okay.” Ranjana shrugged.
“Great!” Reena was delighted. Stage 1 was complete.
Ranjana was surprised when Reena aunty hugged her on that bench. She hugged back, thankful that this woman who was barely an acquaintance many years ago was being so nice and going out of the way to help her.
“I will go tell Duttsahab the good news. He will be very happy. He is very fond of you.” Reena said and got up. “Oh, I almost forgot. He said that if you said yes, I should give you this for today.”
She held out a sealed envelope. Ranjana stared at it for a few seconds before taking it.
“Yes, he was dreading going to this exhibition alone. So many hangers-on trying to mooch something off him. That’s why he walked in with you on his arm. This way, he can stay busy and fend off those vultures. And only talk to the ones he wants, like he is doing now. Plus he remembered you like art, so two birds with one stone.” Reena said. “It’s sealed, so I don’t know how much is in it. But knowing him, it will be good.”
Ranjana sat there with the envelope in her hand as Reena walked off to the other end of the gallery where Dutt was talking seriously to another old man about some business deal. The young housewife was still feeling a little buzzed. Her head was hurting a little. She quickly put the envelope in her purse and sat there, looking at the paintings around her. She saw Reena and Dutt talking a little. And then she put a hand into the purse. She didn’t want to openly check out what was in it. But she was curious. So carefully, using her index finger, she opened the seal of the envelope. Then quickly she looked inside. She saw pink notes. With her fingers, she separated them to count. There were five. So five thousand rupees! For just a few hours of attending an art exhibition?
Ranjana felt a combination of jubilation and doubt. On the one hand, she was very happy about getting this extra cash. She could just add it to the bank account meant for Rani’s college. On the other hand, it felt weird that she was getting so much money for something so minor. And it was the same amount as that gift card. Was that also meant to be a payment? And for such generous payment, what would she be expected to do? Would he expect her to….
No no, don’t be silly, Ranjana scolded herself. He is such a gentleman. And an old man. Almost like a father. And plus this was set up by Reena aunty who was so nice. Ranjana scolded herself for even thinking any unsavory thoughts. In the meantime, Reena was walking back towards her so she quickly closed the envelope and took her hands out of the purse.
“Okay, I talked to him. He is thrilled. And he is perfectly happy with meeting you next time as a trial run. If after that you don’t want to continue this arrangement, that is up to you.” she said.
“Thank you so much.” Ranjana said gratefully.
“One more thing. You found the idea of this arrangement a little…..weird and transactional when you first heard it, right?”
“Well, so does Duttsahab, although he looks forward to it. So….in your interactions, please don’t make a reference to the fact that you are like his employee. Just be like a friend. When he calls you next time to meet him, think of it like meeting a friend, like you are meeting me. Or else it feels a little sleazy. Does that make sense?”
“Oh okay, I guess that makes sense.
“Great. Okay, I should get going.” Reena said picking up her purse.
“Yes. I have so many things lined up back at the hotel. Plus you should get used to spend time with him alone. That is your job from now on.”
“True.” Ranjana nodded.
She looked up and saw Dutt walking back towards them.
“Duttsahab, thank you for this great experience.” Reena aunty said gently hugging him and kissing him on a cheek. “But work calls so I have to get going.”
“I understand.” Dutt smiled.
“Will you drop Ranjana off please?”
“Of course.” he eagerly nodded. “Shall we continue with the rest of the exhibition, Ranjana?”
Reena left after hugging Ranjana goodbye and whispering congrats. And then she walked with Dutt towards the next section. A waitress stopped by with a glass of champagne. But Ranjana was still feeling a little light headed so she politely declined. Dutt thought about insisting that she have more, but remembered Reena’s advice about taking it slow. And the two of them walked from painting to painting with Dutt talking nineteen to the dozen.
Ranjana had seen so many high price tags that by now, she stopped even thinking about them. She had truly immersed herself into the exhibition and was really enjoying the whole experience. Most of the drawings were very abstract. And then suddenly they came across one that looked like something out of a comic book. Ranjana was surprised and stared at it. It did not seem like art. And yet the price on it said Rs 75,000.
“Oh what a lovely reproduction of a classic.” Dutt said. “Do you recognize the original that this is based on, Ranjana?
“I don’t think so.” Ranjana said nervously. Until now, he had just been speaking and she had been listening. Now suddenly he was asking her questions. She felt very conscious about her ignorance.
“It’s a reproduction of Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein. Describe to me what you see please.”
“A girl drowning, crying, and saying” she moved closer to read the comic book style speech bubble, “I don’t care. I’d rather sink than call Brad for help.”
“And what is the painting trying to convey?”
“Despair….frustration….” Ranjana guessed.
“And do you see the thinly veiled erotic references?”
“Really?” she stared at the image. She couldn’t see any erotic references. She felt a little strange to even hear the word erotic in the context of a comic book
“I….have no idea.” Ranjana shrugged.
“All that white stuff….we assume it is water she is drowning in. But doesn’t it look a little like….semen?” Dutt quietly said.
Ranjana blushed profusely. She came from an unorthodox family. And never discussed words like semen even with her husband. She saw what Dutt meant though.
“The subtext I see is, she is drowning in semen….which symbolizes that she is being very promiscuous. And maybe she is in trouble because of it. Hence the tears which also look like semen. Or maybe someone came on her face. The mention of the name Brad suggests that he is maybe her boyfriend or husband. But she is angry with him or dissatisfied with him for some reason. So she doesn’t care. She would rather drown in this ocean of semen, continue her promiscuous life, than reach out to her man for help.”
Dutt stopped talking and was a little impressed with himself. He had thought of the whole thing at the last minute. But it seemed like a great way to casually introduce the subject of sex in their interaction. He saw she was still blushing like the simple shy housewife she was. But he stared at her pointedly as if waiting for her response.
“I guess so.” Ranjana finally gave in to his stare. And then quickly walked to the next painting.
At that moment, Ranjana was so uncomfortable with the topic that she couldn’t look at the painting anymore. But days and weeks later, as things progressed, she would often think back to that painting and identify with it and the interpretation Dutt came up with.
As they covered the rest of the exhibition, Dutt noticed that the innocent chaste housewife had gone into a bit of a shell. So he didn’t really push her too much. In describing the other paintings, he did not make any more erotic references. And when she kept refusing champagne, he did not insist. An hour or so passed and Ranjana seemed to be returning to normal. But she soon looked at her watch and said she needed to get home for her daughter. Dutt nodded and called his driver.
“So Ranjana….” Dutt said about halfway to her house. “Tomorrow, I was thinking of doing some shopping for my family. For my granddaughters and so on. As you can imagine, I am just completely clueless about these things being a man.”
“Amar is the same.” Ranjana smiled. “Once I sent him to buy some clothes for Rani and he came back with such outsized things.”
“Haha, indeed. So I was wondering, would you mind helping me out? Just come along and pick things out.” he casually said.
“Oh….” Ranjana thought about his question. Was this the trial run for her “job” that she had talked with Reena aunty about? But she had said she will arrange it. Here he was asking for it himself.
“I understand if you’re busy and don’t want to spend more time with a boring old man.” Dutt knew that self-deprecation was a great tool.
“No no, please, Duttsahab, nothing like that. I will be happy to help.” Ranjana said. It was just shopping, she thought to herself. One of her favorite activities. Seemed like an ideal setting to spend time with him alone and get paid for it.
“Great. I will SMS you the time I will pick you up. You have my number, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
When she got out of the fancy limo in front of her building, there were a few kids playing around who stopped and stared at the car. Such expensive vehicles didn’t frequent their colony much. There were also a few neighbors out in the balcony. Ranjana smiled at them and headed home. Rani would be back from school soon, and she needed to start cooking. She changed out of her fancy sari into a regular household one and got to work.
As Ranjana cooked and did her chores, she thought about the events of the day. She had gotten a job and that too very easily. And it fit right in her schedule. She had been paid five thousand rupees. Maybe it was a little high because it was the first payment. But even if she got, say, half of that on average. Reena aunty had said he would need her services 3-4 times a month. So about eight thousand rupees on average. If she put it all into the account for Rani’s college, it would be roughly a lakh rupees a year. In another ten years, if she did such jobs, about ten lakhs. Plus interest. It would be a decent bird’s nest for her daughter’s education.
Then she thought about how to tell this to Amar. Would he find that arrangement weird? What if he expressly rejected it? He could be so strange when it came to matters of money and ideals. Ranjana decided to think about that later. Tomorrow will be a trial run anyway, she told herself. If things didn’t work out, she didn’t want to talk about it too early. So she postponed that decision to the next day.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t in her control. In the evening, she was having dinner with Amar in the living room. Rani was busy watching cartoons on TV as she ate, which was her habit. Amar was quieter then usual. Finally he said,
“So Ranjana, how was your day?”
She was surprised. He never asked her this question.
“It was okay.” she said.
“Did you go anywhere?” he pointedly asked.
She knew the man for 8 years. She knew he wasn’t one to ask such questions casually. She also knew her big mouthed neighbors, many of whom had seen her get out of the fancy limo dressed like she was returning from a wedding or a big function.
“Yes, I did go out for a while.” she said, thinking in parallel about what to say next.
“Where?” Amar paused to swallow the food in his mouth and asked.
“Bandra.” she said, taking a big bite of the food.
Ranjana held up her finger and nodded as if to say, just let me swallow this and I’ll tell you. Meanwhile her brain was working at a rapid pace to come up with the right responses.
“It was like a job interview of sorts. Nothing is final. I still have to go tomorrow. But if everything works out, I will have a job that doesn’t require too much work and pays reasonably okay.”
“Oh! That’s nice.” Amar said in a neutral tone. “What kind of a job?”
Ranjana opened her mouth to tell him the whole story. But then something in her brain said, be careful. The whole thing sounds ridiculous and shady. Some rich old man is going to pay your just for your company? She knew Reena aunty and Dutt sahab were good decent people. But Amar didn’t know them. He would be very suspicious. So she starte talking and found herself weaving a story with partial truths and a lot of untruths.
“A few days ago when I was out with Rani, I ran into an old family friend from Meerut. Reena aunty. Reena Bajaj. She works at a four star hotel as an assistant manager. We spent some time catching up. And I just mentioned to her that I was thinking of getting a job. So she called me yesterday saying she could use me in the hotel.”
“Use you how?”
Ranjana couldn’t believe how quickly she came up with a convincing story.
“Well, you know me. It’s not like I have qualifications or any professional skills. And I have so much work at home with Rani with her studies etc. So she came up with an idea. You know how these hotels host special events and conferences once in a while. She said I could help her out with that. They always hire temps or students for such work.”
“Just….helping out with the event.” having never been to such an event herself, she didn’t know what exactly it entailed. She had just seen the signs for the events in Reena aunty’s hotel and seen crowds of people with name tags around their necks. Which is how she thought of the idea.
“You mean like…registration desk, displays, maybe helping with catering, etc?” Amar said, having been to a few academic conferences.
“Hmmm.” he said.
“It will only be a few days a month. And the extra money I get can either be used for household expenses or we can put it in Rani’s college account.”
“Hmmmm.” Amar said. “And how come you got out of a fancy limousine today?”
Ah, there came the confirmation that one of the gabbing neighbors had mentioned it to Amar. And she knew exactly how it must have happened too. Not in a suggestive or conspiratorial way, but in a joking way. Like, oh, that was quite a fancy limo Ranjana was in today afternoon. We didn’t know you were so rich, professor sahab.
“Yes, it was one of the hotel limos. It was going in this direction anyway to pick up a guest so Reena aunty asked him to drop me off.”
“I see. Why didn’t you tell me?” he said.
“Like I said, it isn’t final. I have to go again tomorrow. I was waiting until it was confirmed. As it is, you seem very…..never mind.” Ranjana bit her tongue.
“I seem what?”
“You seem to find the whole idea of me finding a job so amusing.” she said a little bitterly.
“I never said that.” Amar got defensive. “I just meant that we need not be so materialistic. But if a job makes you happy and gives you satisfaction, go for it.”
And the topic ended there.
The next morning, Ranjana kept checking her phone every few minutes to see if there was a message from Dutt Sahab. Now that she had made up a half-true story about the job, she might as well go through with it. She felt a little guilty for lying to Amar. And she also felt a little surprised and insulted that he never asked how much her salary would be. Maybe he assumed that given the low level simple job she described, it would be paltry. Well, she could surprise him a few years later. he never checked bank accounts anyway. So he had no idea what the balance of Rani’s college account was. Years later, once she had saved up lakhs, he would thank her, she told herself.
She went to the closest ATM and deposited the money into that account. Then she started cooking a simple meal for herself.
It was a little past noon and she was having a quick lunch when Ranjana’s phone buzzed. Eagerly, she checked it.
– Hello Ranjana. This is Navin Dutt. Sorry I was unable to text earlier. Was busy with meetings and calls. I will be there at your building in ten minutes. Come down whenever you can. No hurry.
Just ten minutes? Ranjana immediately put her plate away and went to the bedroom to get ready. He had said no hurry, but she did not want to keep him waiting. After all, it was almost like a job interview, this trial trip with him. What would he feel if she was late?
Little did she know that the experienced businessman negotiator, an expert at mind games, had done this on purpose. He had not been busy or anything. He wanted to see that if he gave her such short notice, how quickly she would comply. He wanted to test just how much of a hold he had over her.
– Will be down soon
She texted back and changed into a nicer sari. It wasn’t quite as fancy as the other two she had worn. But was decent enough for a trip to the high end shopping stores he was sure to take her to. She tied her hair into a neat bun and wore a couple of her nicest bangles. From her window, she saw a big limo pulling up in front of her building. Quickly she applied some powder and a light lip stick and ran down.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting.” Ranjana breathlessly said as she got into the limo.
Dutt threw a quick glance at her heaving chest, beads of sweat on her neck, and looked up at her flushed face. He realized she had come almost running. He took it as a good sign that she did not want to keep him waiting. Oh, if only she would not make him wait for other things too, he thought.
“Relax, Ranjana. There’s no hurry, I said.” and he gently rubbed her shoulder. It was a quick rub. Ranjana had by now grown accustomed to the fact that the old man occasionally did such things. But it was just for a short while so she told herself it was all very innocent and paternal.
“So….where should we go?” Ranjana said, wiping the sweat off her brow. It was a particularly humid day, even by Bombay standards.
“You are the local. You tell me where I will find great clothes and toys for children.” Dutt said.
Her first instinct was to take him to the places she bought Rani’s clothes from. But then she remembered that this was a super rich tycoon. All those places might be too low end for him. So she told the driver the location of an upscale mall in Goregaon which had a few American and European outlets.
“Please excuse me.” Dutt said, putting his bluetooth on his ear. “As always, work beckons.”
“No problem, Duttsahab.” Ranjana said.
The car soon sped down the western express highway as Dutt talked business and Ranjana stared out the tinted windows. Once again, she noted how different Bombay looked from the insides of a plush limo as opposed to from the insides of an auto rickshaw or local train like she was used to. That’s when her phone rang. It was Reena aunty.
“Hello aunty.” she answered in a low voice to not disturb the busy Duttsahab.
“So Ranjana, you were so eager that you made this arrangement without me?” Reena said in mock disappointment.
“What? No….I thought…”
“Relax, sweetie, I am just kidding.” Reena laughed. “Is Duttsahab free?”
“No, he is on the phone.”
“Okay, no problem. I spoke with him earlier about this. So you are accompanying him shopping for his grandkids, right?”
“For the compensation for today, I had this idea. If you like something for Rani, you can buy it and he will just pay for it. If not, I will give you the cash when we next meet. Or you can just sms me the details of that bank account you have set up for the college funds. I will communicate it to him and he will transfer the cash directly.”
“Oh ok.” Ranjana said. She told herself that clothes from where Dutt shopped would be too expensive for Rani. Better to just sms the account details.
“Good luck.” and Reena hung up.
They reached the mall and went up to the fancy outlets for kids’ clothes. Ranjana had seen these outlets from outside when they occasionally went to watch a movie at the multiplex in that mall. But she had never had the courage to actually walk in. Now that she was inside, she noted to herself that she didn’t feel as out of place as she used to. Maybe the time spent with her two older friends in recent days had made her more uncomfortable in such settings.
Dutt also noted that Ranjana was a lot more comfortable and self-assured. He took out his phone and showed her several pictures of his grandkids so she had an idea of what would fit and suit them. She made a mental note of it all.
“How many clothes do you want to buy for them?” she asked.
“As many as you find to be great.” Dutt said with the casualness of a multi millionaire.
Ranjana nodded and browsed through the shelves and the rows, trying to find something perfect. She saw the prices, which were really high, but on the tags, she also noticed that many of these clothes were made in Italy or France. All this while, a salesman was hovering politely a few feet away. Finally Ranjana found a sweatshirt that would be perfect for one of his granddaughters.
“This one is really good.” she said, taking it off the shelf and holding it up.
“Looks very pretty.” Dutt nodded.
The salesman hovered closer.
“Would you like that one, sir?” he asked Dutt, because it was obvious who was in charge.
“It’s not bad. But the price seems a little too much. Give us a more realistic price.” Ranjana really liked the dress, but she was so used to haggling as a daily routine, that she almost instinctively said this.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” the salesman was taken aback.
“The price says….3500 rupees. How about…..1500?” Ranjana said in her best haggling voice.
“Ma’am……..Sir…” the salesman was so confused.
“Would you excuse us for a moment?” Dutt smoothly said.
The salesman nodded and walked away. Dutt then walked up to Ranjana and said softly but firmly,
“Ranjana, what are you doing? This is not some bargain stall from Linking Road. These people don’t bargain. The prices are fixed.”
Ranjana blushed and felt very embarrassed. She was so used to bargaining for clothes than she did not know this would be out of place.
“I…I am sorry.” she stuttered.
“It’s okay. I understand.” Dutt said, and put an arm around her shoulder to gently press it in solidarity.
Ranjana had to fight off a shiver. So far his touches, after he taught her to use the chopsticks, had been occasional and fleeting. This was something a lot closer. A lot more expansive. He had almost engulfed her petite body in her casual embrace. She even felt one of her breasts gently press against his side. What bothered her was that the act didn’t bothered her. It made her feel almost…..excited.
Dutt gauged her reaction instantly, and held her like that for a few more seconds. Then he felt Ranjana stiffened as the natural reaction of her body gave way to cultural discomfort. He let go at once.
“You can put this one aside.” he raised his finger and said to the salesman.
The salesman was lost in thought, trying to figure out these two people. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Didn’t seem like father-daughter. Didn’t seem like a couple either. The old man was clearly a rich polished guy and the young woman was a middle class type. She seemed too decent and homely to be a call girl. And she did not seem like a working professional, so was not his employee either. So what were they exactly? That’s when Dutt called him over.
“Yes sir.” he said and took the sweatshirt aside.
Although Ranjana felt embarrassed at being gently scolded for bargaining and a little disconcerted at what she had felt when Dutt gently put his arm around her, she tried to shake it off and concentrate on the job at hand. Dutt knew that he had taken another slow but steady step so he stood back. And decided to make some calls while Ranjana shopped.
At the end of an hour, Ranjana had chosen almost a dozen different clothes for his grandkids.
“Is that everything?” the salesman asked.
Dutt looked at Ranjana and said,
“Why don’t you get something for Rani as well? My gift to her.” there was a slightly suggestive tone in his voice.
Actually, Ranjana had seen a couple of really gorgeous frocks that would look great on Rani. But the price was so high that they would use up her compensation for the day, assuming it was again five thousand rupees. And in fact leave her a little bit in debt to him.
But then on an impulse, Ranjana decided, why not? She knew how much Rani loved such new clothes. Ranjana had already saved five thousand on household spending because of the gift card. She had deposited the other five thousand in the college account. So, she told herself, a little indulgence for this month is okay. Especially for Rani’s happiness. Being in that high end expensive school, her classmates always wore clothes that were more elegant and expensive at school events and get together. This would make her fit in.
So Ranjana went and picked up the two frocks. Dutt smiled and asked the salesman to pack those separately. He paid for the entire thing and called his driver to come pick up the bags and take them to the car.
The old man and the young housewife then went to a toy showroom and then to a fancy Belgian chocolate shop. Ranjana gave her opinions on what to buy, and finally their shopping for the day was done.
They were walking back towards the lift to go down when Dutt suddenly stopped outside a women’s clothing store. Ranjana stopped too. He was looking at a mannequin dressed in a black formal dress.
“Ranjana….let me ask you something.”
“I have a corporate lunch event to attend next Thursday in Worli. Would you…..like to accompany me?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
Ranjana looked at him. She knew the meaning of what he was asking. Was she happy with this trial run and would she be interested in continuing this arrangement? She thought for a few seconds. She continued to find him very nice and charming and polite. The money was good. The hours were great. And it was for Rani’s happiness and future. It was a no-brainer really.
“I’d be happy to.” she nodded.
“Great. Well….it’s an event organized on the roof deck of a tall building. I don’t know those idiots want to organize an outdoor event in this heat, but that’s how it is. If you wear a sari, you might feel a little too hot and sweaty. Do you have something like this?” he pointed to the dress.
Ranjana looked at it. It was very modest and formal. High neckline, and a hem that ended well below the knees. Nothing revealing. But Ranjana hadn’t worn western clothes in years.
“I don’t.” she said.
“Then we should buy something like this for you.”
“Oh no, please!” she protested. She would feel so uncomfortable in a western dress in public.
“No, Duttsahab, really, a sari is fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am sure.”
Dutt shrugged and started walking with her. He had hoped to get her into the store and have her try on a few western clothes she might look even more gorgeous in. But he knew that it wasn’t a great idea to push her. Not yet.
Any discomfort or second thoughts Ranjana was having about continuing the arrangement with the charming old man vanished when she saw her daughter’s eyes light up on seeing the new dresses. Rani hugged her mother, said “I love you” multiple times, and tried on both dresses, admiring herself in the mirror. Amar wasn’t home, or he might have asked how much the dresses cost. She could have given him an number and he might not have known the difference, although to a discerning eye, it was clear that they were expensive. Still, just to be on the safe side, after she put the dresses away, she told in a playful conspiratorial way,
“Don’t tell papa about these dresses, ok? Keep it our little secret and maybe I will buy you some more.”
“Ok mamma, promise.” the little girl smiled. To her young brain, all that mattered was that she was getting new shiny things.
That evening, as was often the case, Amar arrived with a bunch of his friends for yet another one of their intellectual sessions. As Ranjana toiled in the kitchen making them snacks, she kept thinking about her time with her two high society friends. When she was with them, she was the one being waited on by others, being offered delicious food and strange new drinks. But in this part of the life, she was like a servant for Amar and his buddies. She longed for another high society experience. But it wouldn’t be for another week as Duttsahab had said.
She was lost in thought frying pakoras when Amar came in to put away empty cups.
“So Ranjana.” he said and stopped.
“You didn’t tell me what happened with your final job interview.” he sounded a little judgmental. The tone set Ranjana off.
“When was I supposed to tell you? You walked in with all your buddies without telling me first.” she said angrily. And a little loudly.
“Shhh. Don’t get upset. I just wanted to know what happened. Did you get the job?” Amar was taken aback. His wife did sometimes react testily, but he hadn’t expected it now.
“Yes, I got the job.”
“Okay, good. Congratulations.”
Wanting to be supportive, he put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed it gently. Ranjana was a little surprised. Firstly because Amar didn’t really make such physical gestures too often. And secondly, it immediately made her think of earlier in the day when Dutt had done something similar. And she found herself comparing the two. How much taller and more manly the old man was, as opposed to her slim short husband.
That night, Amar again suggested that she sleep in a gown. The same routine was repeated. Ranjana took a sleeping Rani out to the living room. And soon, Amar got on top of her. This time, Ranjana had even more trouble keeping Dutt’s image from her mind. At almost touch and every gesture, her brain kept throwing up the charming old man’s face. She kept remembering how his touch had felt. She kept feeling excited at these unexpected mental intrusions.
At the same time, Dutt and Reena were sitting at a hotel bar, discussing Ranjana.
“The more time I spend with her, the more I see what you initially meant. She is dissatisfied but also repressed and fragile. And she seems very submissive by nature.”
“That she is.” Reena said. “I know women like this. All their lives, they have been told by men what to do – fathers, brothers, husbands. They have never developed the instinct to assert themselves. If you play it right, the whole game is very easy.”
“So….I am meeting her next week. What should be my next step?”
“Hmmm…..don’t make the ultimate move yet. But push her out of her comfort zone. And try being more dominant.”
“More dominant.” Dutt nodded.
“Try pushing her into a situation where she is uncomfortable but has to comply to make you happy. And see how she reacts. If she protests vehemently, then don’t push her more. But if you sense compliance, even reluctant, you are on track.”
“Hmmm.” Dutt nodded again.
“Another mojito, ma’am?” the waiter asked Ranjana as he took her empty glass away.
“Thanks.” she took the full glass, standing next to a cocktail table in the shade.
It really was a hot and humid day, and as Dutt had said, these people had organized the event on the roof deck. What were they thinking? This was Mumbai, not Simla. Ranjana reached for her handkerchief from the purse and wiped her brow again as she sipped the cocktail. She liked the sweet-sour and mint-filled taste. And the rum used by the caterers was a very smooth one, so she did not feel the alcoholic flavor as much as she had with the champagne.
Dutt glanced at her from across the deck where he was talking to some bankers. He smiled as he saw her sip her third cocktail for the day. He was pleasantly surprised at his easily this innocent woman, who once hadn’t even tasted alcohol, was enjoying cocktails in the middle of the day. He excused himself from the conversation and walked over to her.
“Humid, right?” he asked.
“I told you, Ranjana, that a sari is not the appropriate attire for a scorching outdoor event like this.”
“But that’s all I wear.” she shrugged, sounding a little buzzed.
“Look at those women.” Dutt pointed to a couple of fresh MBA hires networking. “Don’t they look comfortable?”
A couple of them were wearing elegant sun dresses and another one was in a formal skirt and blouse.
“Yes, but….I have never…I mean. I would feel so weird.”
“You should not be ashamed of your body.” Dutt said.
“I am not ashamed of my body.” Ranjana argued back.
“Then what’s the problem? You should wear more western clothes. I am sure your husband would love that.”
“When my wife was alive, and we were younger, I often bought her skirts and shorts and nice western blouses and all.” Dutt whispered naughtily. “It used to spice up things in the bedroom.”
Ranjana blushed a deep shade of red at the reference. Then she thought about what Amar would think if he showed up one day and found her in a short sun dress. Would it really make him more excited in bed? Or would he disapprove?
“Besides, you have such an amazing figure.” Dutt pressed on. “Even in the sari, it is obvious. You’re like a model or an actress. Or a sculpture.”
He gently placed his hand on hers. Even in that hot weather, Ranjana got tiny goosebumps at that touch. She was feeling a little flattered and also uncomfortable at the compliments about her figure. She was on her third drink on a mostly empty stomach. And over the previous week, she often found herself thinking about his touch, despite scolding herself about it.
“Please Duttsahab.” she pulled her hand away after a few seconds. “You are embarrassing me.”
“What is there to be embarrassed about? What did I say that was so wrong?” he said in a slightly hurt voice. “I am sure you must have heard such things from your husband all the time.”
“Not….really.” she said.
“You mean he doesn’t shower you with compliments day in and day out?” Dutt said with exaggerated surprise.
“He is a different kind of man.” Ranjana laconically said. But she did find herself wondering why her husband never said such nice things.
“For what it’s worth, Ranjana.” Dutt decided to take a small risk and gently stroked her left cheek with the back of his right fingers. “I think you are the most gorgeous woman here.”
That made Ranjana blush so much that she found herself rooted to her spot. Yet another gentle touch, yet another compliment.
“Thank you.” she softly said after a few seconds.
“Anyway, I have to talk to a few more people.” Dutt straightened and took a step back. “I see they are putting the food out. Why don’t you serve us both a couple of plates and I will meet you at the dining tables over there?”
Before Ranjana had fully come to terms with what had just happened, he had walked away. She saw that the spiffily dressed catering staff was indeed putting out a buffet of food in gleaming silver trays. She finished the mojito in three big sips and headed towards the buffet to serve food for her boss. Is that what he was, she asked herself, her boss? Or was there something more?