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Authors: Lavanya Sankaran

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BOOK: The Red Carpet
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He looked for Ashwini. She had to be here. Even if it was just for a short visit, one stop on a series of Saturday-night parties. He had come early, knowing that this was the type of function she would finish first, on her way to something more hip, less sober.

It was three days since he’d decided that she was the woman he wanted to marry. He’d slept on the decision, thought about it while swimming, in the shower, and at work. His reasoning was as clear as could be: what kind of person gives up their kidney to someone else?

Someone with courage.

Someone with conviction.

Someone with principles.

In short, someone with a Depth of Purpose.

Ashwini was a heroine.

This was something he could respect in his wife-to-be, and that others would respect also. The gift of her kidney gave her a depth, and by reflection, him a depth as well.

He’d fought an urge to telephone her—that would not be the right approach. He somehow felt that this first conversation should happen in a milieu they were both used to. A party. This party. They could take it from there. Go somewhere private, if need be.

The fact was, Ramu was not terribly clear on how to proceed. He’d discussed the options with himself. A: He could leave it to the mothers, a choice he’d already dismissed. Far better to circumvent their mothers, talk to Ashwini directly, and then bring the news to his parents as a fait accompli. That would be amusing. B: He could court her as he might any other woman, see where it developed, propose (ring in hand, on his knee) as the grand finale to several months of dating—and suffer, meanwhile, the uncertainty of future rejection. C: He could strike a path somewhere between the first two options: tell her that the mothers were talking—that he himself preferred to deal with such things directly—yes, he was interested—and what did she think?

He tried to untangle himself from one of his father’s acquaintances, a gentleman who by day haunted the club swimming pool in the guise of a Buffalo, and who now held tightly on to his arm and repeated with gentle insistence: “
Hanh beta
, so why you don’t drop by?”

Ramu stared blindly at the three strands of graying hair combed unconvincingly across the bare stretch of pate. He’d been kidnapped by geriatric perseverance while Ashwini hovered tantalizingly out of sight.

“You come next week. My granddaughter is visiting. From London. You come.”

“I will,” said Ramu. He wrenched his arm away, helping himself to a kebab from a passing tray.

His companion watched him eat, and then asked querulously, “How it is, this one? Good-uh?”

“Very good,” Ramu nodded politely, waiting desperately for the old gentleman to get absorbed in the kebabs, before diving suddenly into the crowd.

He waved and smiled to passing friends, shaking his head when they waved him over. He felt free, elated, as if a great pressure had lifted. Perhaps they could go for a holiday somewhere before the wedding, he and Ashwini—if the parents didn’t prove too great a social barrier to such a plan. Ramu already knew where they were going to live—in that new apartment building in the center of town with the marble floors and the terrace garden.

There they would throw parties where Ashwini will have done Everything. Not just the curtains, or the soufflé. Everything. And Ramu would pour the drinks and look urbane.

A vague anxiety tugged at his brain.

Supposing she said no?

Was it, in fact, better to just trust to the mothers; repose faith in the Great Indian Marriage Machinery?

He tried to convince himself: surely there was more than just his mother to his awareness of himself as being terribly eligible? Yet, he could not deny that he found comfort in the realization that Ashwini, surely, would not have put him (or anyone else) through the same analysis to which he had subjected her.

He couldn’t spot her. The crowds were huge. He made his way over to where Swamy was standing by the bar. Ramu forced himself to act casual, hiding his impatience, hugging his secret decision to himself.

“This place,” said Swamy, polishing his glasses morosely, “is a fucking zoo. Why that bastard has to go get engaged in this city, I don’t know.”

“Because he lives here?” suggested Ramu.

“Chuth.”
Swamy was at his most dogmatic. “What I say is, we go over, kick KK’s arse, say hello to his parents, and then fuck off—go to my house, play some music, have a few drinks, relax. Maybe order in some kebab rolls.”

He started to move away, oblivious to Ramu’s reluctance.

“Where’s Murthy,” Ramu said idly, trying to delay him.

Swamy began to laugh. “He’s driving this chick around.”

“What?”

“Driving this chick around, trying to get laid. Denies it, of course. But took her shopping this morning; I rest my case.”

“Really.” Ramu listened to Swamy with half an ear and scanned the crowds eagerly. Where was she? “Fuck. He must be desperate.”

Swamy shrugged, as if to say they had all done such foolish things, and turned away. Ramu said something to him, not moving from the bar, tugging Swamy back like a weak but persistent sea current.

“What?” Swamy turned around.

“Who is she?”

“Who?”

“Murthy’s new girlfriend.”

“Uh . . . what’s her name. That cute chick . . .” Swamy frowned, on the verge, Ramu recognized, of suggesting that for god’s sake wasn’t this all best discussed over a quiet beer, and could they please get the fuck out of this silk-infested social pigsty? But instead, Swamy abandoned the effort of mentally conjuring up Murthy’s love interest with evident relief. “Oh, there they are.”

Ramu had stopped listening to him entirely, his attention captured by the woman walking towards him.

Oh there she was.

With a proprietary thrill, Ramu realized that she looked lovely, elegant. It was almost as if she were, like him, dressing especially well this evening. He tried to remain calm, regulating his breath as he might while swimming. Perhaps that was why it took him a few moments to recognize what he was seeing: Ashwini, as women will on such occasions, was wearing a silk saree shot through with gold over a lamé blouse, accessorized with diamond jewelry, an italian handbag, french perfume—and Murthy.

Her voice, when he heard it, was pitched higher than usual. “Hey! Hi, guys!”

Ramu felt a great silence wash through him.

He dared not look at her directly. Murthy, he noticed, was wearing the surprised look of a man who was doubting his own good luck.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ramu saw Ashwini lean across to air-kiss a startled Swamy on both cheeks. She turned to him, doubtless to offer him the same treatment, and from somewhere deep inside him, Ramu found his voice: Swamy and I were just on our way out, he said, stepping away. We’ll see you guys later. Coming, Swamy?

As he walked away, a slight smile forced upon his face, he could hear Ashwini say, “You know, this is quite a small affair, really. Engagement parties in Bombay are twice this size.”

CLOSED
CURTAINS

Mr. D’Costa lived with his wife in a cul-de-sac off Ulsoor Road, in a pastel pink house that was square and squat and small, with a sloping cement roof and no garden space to speak of. It was identical to the houses that flanked it on either side, except that the others were pastel blue, pastel yellow, and pastel green. They were designed as affordable middle-class housing at a time when Bangalore was small, and everybody lived in houses, and apartments were some sort of unseen exotic Bombay invention. Even today, they spoke of identical resident lifestyles: with windows meshed, barred, and tightly shuttered; with pastel walls scarred and fissured by monsoon rain; the smell of steamed rice idlis and spicy sambar that floated in the air in the mornings; the potted hibiscus plants on the narrow cement footpaths that ran between house and compound wall, interspersed with dusty jasmine and bougainvillea creepers that hugged and further blinded the lower-floor windows in overgrown disarray. The driveways held Bajaj scooters, and sometimes, perhaps a very old, rarely used Fiat car that had been carefully husbanded over the decades.

There had been more of these houses at one time, lining the lane right up to where it met Ulsoor Road. Thirty-five years ago the area had been considered respectable but certainly not upmarket; a good place to bring up a young family. Now, of all the old neighbors, only a few remained: apart from the D’Costas, there were the Ambekars; the Nizamuddins; Mrs. Reddy, relict of the late Wing Cdr. (Ret.) Reddy; the Kuriens next door; and three doors down, the Gnanakan family, where the money that Mrs. Gnanakan painstakingly earned through arranging flowers at minimum expense in her “Daisy” florist shop, her husband discreetly drank away.

The rest of the neighborhood had been swallowed up by the pressures of a growing city. Escalating land prices had nudged the little lane into prime real estate. People had sold their homes and moved further away, leaving behind the detritus: those who didn’t have the energy or desire to realize the sudden astonishing worth of their properties and readjust their lives to localities far from the center of town. Grand new bungalows came up on the ruins of the old, inhabited by people who air-dashed to delhi-london-tokyo so often, they had no time for friendly neighborhood pursuits. Witness the Lakshminarayanans and the Jaffers, who, between them, had bought and converted five of the old houses into two palaces that now guarded the mouth of the little lane in stately fashion. Mr. D’Costa wouldn’t dream of dropping in on them for a chat and a cup of tea, as he might with Mrs. Ambekar or anyone else of the old brigade. They probably wouldn’t even know who he was, so he left well alone, stealing occasional glimpses of their lives by peeping into their gardens as he walked to the Ulsoor Market, and chatting with their servants as they scurried to and from work or came to buy fresh bread from the Good Fellows Bakery man.

Since his retirement ten years earlier, Mr. D’Costa liked to regard himself as a Neighborhood Elder. It gave him a sense of purpose, and rendered meaningful his habit of standing at an upstairs window and conducting a detailed survey of his neighbors in a still, intense manner, born of lingering time and low energy.

He would follow this up by popping out of his house to hold discourse several times a day. He timed his trips to the vegetable market to coincide with the hapless Mrs. Gnanakan’s morning walk, gleaning plump morsels of pumpkin and information about her husband’s drinking habit with equal efficiency. His scooter would get its daily wipe just when the Good Fellows Bakery man trundled down the lane on his bicycle, balancing the big metal bin full of bread, currant buns, shortbread biscuits, and mutton puffs behind him. As the neighborhood ammas and ayahs, the madams and maids, collected around, Mr. D’Costa abandoned his scooter to gather news and confirm his sightings of the morning.

“Your husband not well, Mrs. Ambekar? Didn’t go to office this morning . . .” That’s right, Mr. D’Costa, he has a cold.

“Yenu,
Muniamma,
amma nimage
salary
eevage kodalilava?”
No, sir, she hasn’t paid me my salary yet. Late as usual, and how do I settle my children’s school fees?

More important, he dispensed information on what everyone else was doing, and with whom, discussing neighborhood matters with a weighty sense of deliberation that always impressed his listeners. Personal questions addressed to him, though, were always answered with a brisk, uninformative, “Fine! Very fine!” Everyone knew that Mrs. D’Costa lived a subterranean life deep in the recesses of their bungalow; she rarely surfaced for any kind of social dialogue. It was even rumored that she had succumbed to some terrible forgetful dementia; if that was true, Mr. D’Costa never confirmed it.

Of all the changes that had taken place in the neighborhood, the block of flats opposite his house proved the most interesting. It was a large, three-story building painted a gleaming white, surrounded by green lawns and colorful cultivated flower borders— the product of a real-estate developer’s zeal and the purchased remains of three square bungalows. The inhabitants were not inaccessibly wealthy, yet they were fascinatingly different from anything Mr. D’Costa knew. He’d read about them in
India Today
magazine. Something about the new young professionals and their cosmopolitan lifestyle.

“Puppies,” he explained to an astonished Mrs. Reddy. Or guppies. He couldn’t remember which. From his research, he knew that the apartment building contained two people in the software industry, a tax consultant, an oncologist at the glamorous, recently built Modi Hospital on Airport Road, a German engineer, a Lipton’s man, and in the ground-floor flat directly opposite, an investment banker married to an advertising professional.

It was the last couple who succeeded in fully capturing Mr. D’Costa’s migratory interest. The banker, Aman Kapur, and his copywriting wife, Rohini.

He’d noticed them the day they’d moved in: young, very young, as he had once been, but utterly different in their ways. They were as Indian as he was, but they had about them the strangeness of an inexplicable foreign movie. It wasn’t just the matching clothes: both husband and wife were clad in shorts and T-shirts, which looked nice on him, but skimpy on her. It wasn’t the quality of the richly upholstered furniture that was being carried in piece by expensive piece. It wasn’t the large shiny car painted black, with jazz music blaring through the open doors. It wasn’t the way they laughed together, or even the appallingly casual manner in which they held hands on a public road, without once being aware of the impropriety of it all.

Mr. D’Costa was instantly enthralled. After years of even-handed interest around the neighborhood, he found his attention increasingly tugged across the street, right into the Kapur apartment. His favorite perch at the upstairs window gave him a delightful bird’s-eye view straight through their French windows, directly into their sitting room, and, if he squinted hard, to the conjoined dining room beyond. He quickly learned the rhythm and flow of the household opposite, the arrivals, the departures, when they rose and when they slept.

For a long time, they kept to themselves, as did the other people in that apartment building. They didn’t have a housewarming party for the neighbors, or bring trays of sweets around the lane to introduce themselves. They just moved in and started their life, which, in the beginning, didn’t seem to center around their flat at all. They were rarely at home; both of them worked all day, and then frequently went out again in the evening.

When they did stay home, that was the signal for Mr. D’Costa to settle by his window seat, watching. At mealtimes, he studied the distant dishes on their dining table, wondering what food they contained. The same Goan meen curry and vegetables that he ate, or something impossibly foreign and romantic? He wondered what it was they discussed when they sat around with their jean-clad friends in the drawing room, or in the sunken garden, drinks in hand and listening to the harsh, too-loud music that seemed to have neither melody nor delicate rhythm and whose volume was finally tempered several months later by the baby’s arrival. Fragments of conversation wafting across the road revealed unabashed Americanisms in what had previously been unquestioned English territory: “That’s great!” instead of “Lovely!”; “Cool!” and “Awesome!” for “Good show!” Nice guys had replaced good chaps.

And through it all, the hand-holdings and the hugs and the kissing hello and kissing good-bye, in full view of the neighbors, who, it was increasingly apparent, didn’t really exist or matter to this couple.

It was a fascination that did not wane.

Late in her pregnancy, to Mr. D’Costa’s delight, Rohini Kapur gave up her job and made her first appearance as a neighborhood memsahib. She liked to stroll heavy-footed down the little lane in her new avatar, taking in the slumberous leafy world she lived in, smiling politely at all the neighbors who, for months now, she had seen only as blurs through her car window. It took Mr. D’Costa two days to introduce himself, and one more week to gently entice her into his information net.

“Ah, Mrs. Kapur,” he would say. “Not buying bread today?”

Not today, Mr. D’Costa.

“Your husband is not eating bread-toast for breakfast?”

Yes, yes, he does. Toast and coffee.

“I see. I see. . . . Where he is working? Bank, no? . . . Good job, uh?”

Quite good, Mr. D’Costa. He likes it, anyway.

“And your good health? You are . . . keeping well?”

Very well, thank you.

“Very good. Very good. Right-o, then.”

Try as he might, Mr. D’Costa could feel no chord of similarity between the life the Kapurs led and his own long-ago, mustily remembered youth. It went beyond mere cultural differences; of times then and times now.

Mr. D’Costa remembered: the treats of his boyhood were to munch on Huntley Palmer biscuits and to visit the cinema; the goals of early manhood never transcended a burning desire to dress and act like an English gentleman. To have the grand good fortune to study in England, and perhaps the ultimate blessing of being able to make a home there, or perhaps in Australia or even America. They had tried so hard and so faithfully to cross all those impossible cultural bridges—shyly, self-consciously feeling out the way; diffident of their Indian habits, of their accents, of the way their wives spoke English.

It had been a time, he remembered, when the prized jobs were still in the plantation companies, run by British bosses who retained their power and their membership to whites-only clubs, unswayed, even after Independence. When it had still helped to have a name like Peter D’Costa, and not, like his colleague, Nagendra Pani, whose moniker their English superiors had brutally shortened to Nag. And made jokes about it, too.

Now what was he to make of these youngsters across the road, who acted with all the assurance of a people who have forsaken those jewel-bright foreign jobs that feverishly glisten and beckon from across the oceans, siren whispers that taunt you in your dreams; forsaken those jobs to return to their country with an ease and an air that indicates that this is perhaps not a very big thing to do at all. My goodness, Mr. D’Costa. My word.

Vaguely he had known, through reading the papers and the magazines, that things had changed in this country. But this, opposite, was proof.

Every now and then he shared the information he gleaned with the other older neighbors, but in a most casual way, never revealing the depths of his interest in the Kapurs, or the duration he spent gazing into their living room from his hidden niche by the window. To ward off further inquiry into his methods, he sometimes said that the Kapurs lived a life that was utterly familiar to him.

“Like my son,” he said, to Mrs. Nizamuddin. “In Australia.”

“Like my daughter,” she said, quick as a flash. “In London.” But there Mr. D’Costa had his doubts. Mrs. Nizamuddin’s daughter was married to a young man whom Mrs. Nizamuddin carefully referred to as a chef, which sounded to Mr. D’Costa’s ears like
chess
pronounced through a toothless mouth,
che-ff,
but which he knew to mean nothing more than a cook. And what kind of a profession was that? Mr. D’Costa’s son, he never failed to remind her, was an MBA.

“And like my daughter too,” said Mr. Kurien irrelevantly. His daughter lived up the road and held no mysteries for Mr. D’Costa. She had chosen to disregard her parents’ views and marry an inappropriate young man in a headstrong, falling-in-love way, a proceeding that, as Mr. D’Costa said, was always filled with foolishness.

He wanted to discuss this changing-times business with his wife. Once, she would have been interested in such topics, her alert mind composing some acerbic comment on the absurdity of youngsters the world over that would make him laugh and give him comfort. But her declining brain rarely took an interest in anything these days; conversation between them had slowed and finally trickled to a stop. They had turned away from each other, his eyes actively roaming over his neighborhood and the retired world he knew, hers increasingly fixated by the television set and the Cartoon Network. The bright colors and simple plots kept her riveted. Unlike other channels, it didn’t seem to matter that her mind wandered, and her eyes weakened. She was also getting increasingly deaf, and Mr. D’Costa was chased all over his house by extra-loud shrieks and thuds of animal mayhem, by music that jumped and giggled with crazy glee.

He attended to the household matters: did the shopping, went to the bank to deposit their dividends and pension payments, supervised the plumbers and electricians who routinely battled to preserve the increasingly decrepit house, and paid Sakamma the ayah, who for ten years had cleaned and cooked and stolen what she could. Now and then he’d look in on his wife, but she barely noticed, her eyes on the screen, her face bizarrely painted in the yellows and blues thrown by the TV into the darkened room, her lower jaw moving rhythmically over a toothless mouth whose dentures reposed unused in a muddy glass of water by her bed.

The doctor said that he should expect such decline to continue. As yet, no cure was available. As time went on, the doctor said, she would recognize less and less of her life. Mr. D’Costa did not reply that the gradual erasure of his wife had rendered his own life unrecognizable as well.

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