2 States by Bhagat - HTML preview

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‘We could chat all night,’ she said as we tucked under the quilt together.

‘About what? And why? We are with each other all the time. Why sacrifice sleep?’

‘Still, we could talk. Future plans and stuff.’

The word ‘future’ and females is a dangerous combination. Still, in business school future could merely mean placement. ‘We’ve good grades. You’ll easily get HLL. It is the best marketing job, right? And I’ll go for WPM.’

‘WPM?’

‘Whoever pays more, so I can save as much money as fast as possible,’ I grinned.

‘You still serious about becoming a writer, right?’ She ran her fingers through my hair.

‘Yes but I’m still wondering what I’d write about,’ I yawned.

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‘About anything. Like that girlfriend of yours.’

‘Ananya, we had a pact. We will not talk about my ex-girlfriend again.’

‘Sorry, sorry. You said you had a deal with the Prof for grades, so I thought maybe it will make an interesting story.’

‘Good night, my strategist.’ I kissed her and lay down.

‘I love you,’ she said.

‘Mean it?’

‘Yes.’

‘How come you said it now?’

‘I think about it a lot. I only articulated it now. Good night,’ she said.

One-and –a-half years later

‘Tell me your thoughts. Don’t you like to talk after making love?’

Actually, I prefer to look at the fan above. Or drift into a nap. Why do women want to talk all the time? We were in my room. We were snugly wrapped up on a cloudy, winder afternoon.

‘I love to talk,’ I said carefully. ‘Do you have something in mind?’

‘It’s one week to placement and I’m nervous,’ she said.

‘Don’t worry, every company has short-listed you. You will hit t he jackpot.’

‘I’m not nervous about receiving a job offer. What after that?’

‘After that? Finally, we will have money in the bank. No more scrimping while ordering in restaurants, no more front row seats in theatres, no more second-class train travel. College is fun, but sorry, I’ve had my share of slumming it.

Imagine, you can shop every month!’

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‘I don’t like shopping.’

‘Fine, you can save the money. Or travel to exotic places.’

Her face turned more thoughtful.

‘You OK?’ I asked.

‘Do you realize we leave campus in four weeks?’

‘Good riddance. No more mugging and grades, hopefully for life,’ I said.

Her voice dropped an octave. ‘What about us?’

‘About us what?’ I asked with an idiotic, confused expression exclusive to men when they have to get all meaningful with women.

She sat up and wore her top. She stepped off the bed to wear the rest of her clothes. Despite the serious mood, I couldn’t help but notice how wonderful women looked when they change. ‘I’m going to my room. Enjoy your nap,’ she said.

‘Hey,’ I extended my arm and stopped her. ‘What’s up? I am talking, no?’

‘But like a dork. We could be in different cities in four weeks. It will never be like this again.’

‘What do you mean never?’ I said, my mouth open.

‘Wear your clothes first. I want to have a serious discussion.’

She kept quiet until I finished dressing. We sat across, cross-legged on the bed.

‘Here is the deal,’ I said, collecting my thoughts. ‘You are the career focused one, I am doing it for the money. So, I will try to get a job in the same city as you.

But the issue is, we don’t know which city you will be in. So how can I do anything about it now?’

‘And what will you do next week? We are all going to get placed around the same time. You can’t wait for me to get a job.’

‘So let fate play out,’ I said.

‘And what about our future? Or sorry, I should ask, is there a future?’

‘I can’t really talk about that now,’ I said.

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‘Oh really, can you give me a time in the future when we can talk about the future?’

I kept quiet.

‘Forget it, I’m leaving,’ she said and made for the door.

‘I need time to think,’ I said.

‘Two years are not enough?’

I kept quiet.

‘You know it baffles me,’ Ananya said, ‘how you men need so much time to think about commitment, but how you need no time at all to decide when you have to sleep with the girl.’

‘Ananya,’ I began only to hear the door slam shut.

‘You’ll be fine,’ she told me for the fifth time. We took a four-kilometre walk outside campus to reach Navrangpura. I wanted to be as far from the madness as possible. Day Zero, or the first day of placement, had ended and I hadn’t got a job.

‘I thought with my grades I will crack Day Zero,’ I said.

‘Who cares? There’re six more days left for placements,’ she said.

We stopped at a roadside vendor for pao-bhaji. She ordered two plates with less butter. ‘You will be fine. See, marketing companies don’t even start until tomorrow. I have my big HLL interview. I’m not stressed.’

‘You’ll get in. I can’t think of a single company who can say no to you,’ I said.

She looked at me and smiled. ‘You do realize that not everyone is in love with me.’

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‘You have good grades and a passion for marketing. You are so HLL, I can see it on your face.’

‘You have two more banks tomorrow.’

‘I want Citibank,’ I said. ‘I should have better answers than “I like the money”. I need to lie better in interviews.’

The waiter served us. She broke a piece of the pao and fed me. ‘But that’s the only reason why anyone would work in a bank, right?’

‘Yes, but the interviewers like to believe they are doing something meaningful.

Like they work for the Mother Teresa Foundation or something.’

‘Well you should say this – I want Citibank as I want Indians to have access to world-class financial services. And use words like “enormous growths” and

“strategic potential”,’ she said.

‘I have to say all that without throwing up?’

‘And remember, the Citi never sleeps. So say you will work hard,’ she said.

‘I can’t lie that much,’ I said.

She laughed as she wiped a bit of bhaji off the corner of my mouth. I thought how lucky I was to have her. She could be running HLL in a few years, but today her priority was to wipe bhaji off my stupid face. Guilt knotted within me. She deserved an answer about the future. Do it, loser, I told myself. Do it now. Even if it is a makeshift pao bhaji stall in Navrangpura. I gathered the courage to sopeak.

‘What? You want to say something?’

‘Do you want more pao?’ I said.

‘You are third,’ a first-year student volunteer who assisted in placements told me.

I sat on a stool with seven other candidates outside the interview room. We resembled patients at a dentist’s clinic, only more stressed.

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The HLL interviews were on in the room across me. Ananya had moved up all the rounds and now waited to be called one last time. I reflected on what had gone wrong on Day Zero. OK, I only wanted a job for the money, but I had hidden that when they spoke to me. Then why did I screw up with five banks yesterday?

What if Citi also screws me? I thought. Sweat beads popped on my forehead. Was it destiny leading me to doom after all these degrees and grades? Is God not on my side ?

I

wondered if I had given any reason to God not to be on my side. I saw the HLL

room from a distance. Ananya stood outside, looking beautiful in a peacock blue sari. Maybe God will not let me decide my future unless I give her clarity on her future.

‘Krish Malhotra,’ the student volunteer called my name.

I offered mental prayers and stood up. I checked my tie knot and shirt collars.

Remember you need this job, I told myself. Banks pay double, I could quit a corporate career twice as fast to do whatever I wanted to. I breathed in deeply and exhaled.

‘Welcome, take you seat,’ a man in an impeccable black suit spoke from his chair. He was rich enough to wear a Rolex watch and obnoxious enough not to look at me while he addressed me. He rifled through a pile of resumes to find mine.

‘Good afternoon.’ I extended my hand. I flexed my forearm muscles as people say a tight handshake is a sign of confidence and world domination.

‘Rahul Ahuja, managing director, corporate finance,’ he said and shook hands with me. He pointed to his colleague on the right. ‘And this is Devesh Sharma, vice-president in HR.’

I looked at Devesh, a thirty-year-old executive with the timidity of a three-year-old. He came across as someone who could be kicked around despite being called vice-president. Anyway, I’d heard Citibank had four hundred vice-presidents to accommodate careers and egos of hundreds of new MBAs that joined every year. Of course, it took away the relevance of the title but at least it gave you a good introduction. Rahul signaled Devesh to start.

‘So Krish, I notice you have poor grades in your undergrad,’ Devesh spoke in a voice so effeminate, he’d be the obvious choice for female leads in college plays.

‘You are pretty observant,’ I said.

‘Excuse me?’ Devesh said, surprised.

Cut the wisecracks, I told myself. ‘Nothing,’ I cleared my throat.

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‘So, what happened?’

A girlfriend, fun-loving friends, alcohol, grass and crap profs happened, I wanted to say. But Ananya had told me the right answer. ‘Actually, Mr. Sharma,’ I said, emphasizing his name so he felt good, ‘when I entered IIT, I didn’t realize the rigours demanded by the system. And once you have a bad start, due to relative grading, it is quite hard to come back. I did get good grades in the last semester and my IIMA grades are good. So, as you can see, I’ve made up.’

There were twenty minutes of stupid questions like ‘will credit cards grow in India?’ or ‘can India improve its banking services?’ where you easily answer what they want to hear (yes, they will grow and, yes, India can improve heaps). Finally, they asked the big question, ‘Why Citibank?’

I want Citibank because none of the other five banks worked ou tI. sucked in my breath along with my stupid thoughts. BS time, buddy, I thought, the ten seconds that will determine your career start now.

‘Mr Ahuja, the question is not why Citi. The real question is why would any ambitious young person want to go anywhere else? It is the biggest private bank in the world, it has a great reputation, it is committed to India, and there are opportunities in almost every area of the bank. It is not a bank, it is a growth machine.’

I paused to see if I had gone over the top. But Rahul listened with rapt attention and Devesh nodded. Yes, they were falling for it.

‘And, ultimately the biggest reason is, Rahul,’ I said, switching to the first name to show my closeness to him, ‘I really want to work with people I look up to.

When I see you, I want to be you. And Citi gives me a shot at it.’

Rahul flushed with pride. ‘How…I mean, how do you know you want to be me?’

No matter how accomplished people get, they don’t stop fishing for compliments. ‘I saw you at the pre-placement talk. I’ve attended dozens of talks, but the way you presented showed more thought clarity than anyone else. I think it is a Citibank thing. You people have a different confidence. Right, Devesh?’

Devesh looked at me, perplexed. ‘Actually, we at human resources pick the best talent,’ he parroted, probably from a manual.

‘HR does nothing. I personally pick everyone for the job,’ Rahul said as the two jostled for my attention.

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‘It shows,’ I said.

Rahul pushed back his chair and stood up. ‘Listen Krish, I like you. So between us, let me be honest. We are mostly done with the recruitment and have only one place left. But we have internal criteria; we need seven-point grade in undergrad to take new recruits.’

Fuck. My past sins would not let go of me. Maybe that is why the five banks had rejected me.

“and this missed semester….’ He tapped my undergrad grade sheete.

‘Research semester, sir’ I corrected.

‘I don’t know about that. Devesh?’

Devesh, like anyone who works in HR, had never taken a real decision in his life. ‘It’s a business call, sir,’ he said.

‘I head my business,’ Rahul said.

‘Yes, but you may want to talk to the country manager,’ Devesh said, scared to make a suggestion.

‘I’m senior to him. I came from New York. He’s just connected so he became country manager. You know that, right?’

‘Sir, but grade-wise….’ Devesh paused and both of them looked at me.

‘Can you give us five minutes?’ Rahul asked.

‘Sure, I’ll wait outside,’ I obliged with an ingratiating grin.

‘Thanks, we’ll call you in again. So, don’t send the next candidate.’

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8

I stepped out of the Citi interview room. I scanned the list of remaining companies on the notice board. Everyone else paid half of Citibank. I found an empty stool to sit on and closed my eyes to pray. God appeared in front of me.

‘Hello God,’ I said, ‘I’ve not said one true thing in that interview today. But I want the job, please.’

‘They don’t want to hear the truth. So, that’s OK,’ God said. ‘But that’s not what you should be worried about.’

‘Then what?’

‘You have lived with a girl for two years.’

‘I love her, God,’ I said.

‘Love is not enough. You know what you have to do.’

‘I will, I just need time.’

‘You are well past your time. In four minutes, I could let your last bank job slip away,’ God said.

‘No God, I want Citibank.’

‘I want you to do the right thing first.’

‘How?’ I opened my eyes. I looked at the HLL room. Ananya had gone inside the room. I closed my eyes again. ‘How?’ I repeated. ‘She is in an interview. I promise to do it after I get my Citibank job.’

‘I don’t trust you. Anyway, upto you. You don’t listen to me, I don’t listen to you,’ God said.

I opened my eyes. I had three minutes. Ananya would kill me if I went inside the room. But a voice inside told me that if I didn’t go to her, the Citi country manager or Rahul or Devesh could decide against me. Of course, my rational mind knew I was being completely moronic. Both the events were not connected.

But there is only so much our rational mind knows. Maybe, events and karma are connected. I ran to the HLL room.

‘Excuse me,’ the volunteer on the door said, blocking me.

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‘I need to go inside,’ I said, ‘urgent.’

‘There’s an inter….’

I forced my way inside. HLL was conducting its final interviews in one of the classrooms. The company staff sat in the front row of the class while the candidate sat in the prof’s chair.

Ananya faced a panel of five elderly people in the room. She was moving her hands in an animated manner as she spoke. ‘The rural market doesn’t need different products. They need affordability….’ She stopped mid-sentence upon noticing me. Her eyebrows elevated in shock and stayed there.

‘Yes?’ a sixtyish-year-old gentleman turned to me.

Ananya’s face turned pink, then red. The colour coordination came from embarrassment and anger, respectively.

‘I need to talk to her,’ I said slowly, scanning everyone in the room.

‘Can’t it wait?’ the old gentleman asked. ‘She is having her final interview. All our senior management is here.’

‘Actually, it can’t,’ I said.

‘Everything OK?’ another panelist said.

‘Yes, I only need a minute,’ I said and signalled to Ananya to come out.

‘What? Just tell me here,’ she said, throwing me a dirty look.

I saw the panel’s confused expression. I went up to Ananya.

‘What?’ she whispered,’ Are you mad?’

I knelt down next to her, my mouth close to her ear. ‘Sorry, how is it going?’ I whispered.

‘Krish Malhotra, this better be important. What’s up?’ she whispered, loud enough for the panel to hear.

‘Ananya Swaminathan, I, Krish Malhotra, am deeply in love with you and want to be with you always. Apart from where we go to office, of course. Will you marry me?’

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Ananya’s mouth fell open. She alternated her glance between the panel and me. “Krish,’ she said. She tried hard but a tear slipped out of her carefully eye-lined eyes.

‘Everything OK?’ one panel member asked as he noticed Ananya’s restlessness. ‘It’s not bad news, I hope.’

Ananya shook her head as she took a sip from the glass of water in front of her. ‘No, it’s not bad news at all. It’s good.’

‘Ananya,’ I whispered again. My knees hurt as they rubbed against the rough classroom floor.

‘What now?’

‘Is that a yes? Will you be with me, always?’ I asked.

She tightened her lips to hide a laugh. ‘Yes, you idiot. I will be with you. Just not right now. So, go!’

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9

‘Wow, this feels special,’ Ananya said.

She opened her HLL offer letter for the third time at Rambhai’s. I had collected mine from Citibank the day before and, after confirming the salary, had dumped it in my cupboard.

‘It’s an invitation to be a slave, don’t get so excited,’ I said as I ordered a samosa sandwich.

‘Aw, don’t be morbid. They are thrilled about hiring me. HLL has a serious South India strategy.’

Rambhai’s minions served us tea. During placement time, tips peaked for them.

‘Do you go to school?’ Ananya asked the thirteen-year-old boy who served us.

‘Yes, Rambhai sends me,’ the boy said.

‘Good, because if he doesn’t, report him to the police,’ Ananya said and gave the boy a fifty rupee note.

‘They will post you in South India,’ is aid, ‘in one of those unpronounceable places without an STD code.’

‘No, they won’t. And if they do, my husband will come and rescue me.’ She winked.

‘Ananya, you don’t get it. We have decided to get married. Our parents haven’t approved – yet,’ I reminded her.

‘C’mon, mine are a bit conservative. But we are their overachieving children, the ultimate middle-class fantasy kids. Why would they have an issue?’

‘Because they are parents. From biscuits to brides, if there is anything their children really want, parents have a problem,’ I said.

‘Your parents will have a problem with me?’ Ananya pulled her hair back to tie it in a loose bun. She clenched a pin in the middle of her teeth.

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‘They’d have a problem with anyone I choose. And you are South Indian, which doesn’t help at all. OK, it’s not as bad as marrying someone from another religion. But pretty close.

‘But I also aced my college. I have an MBA from IIMA and work for HLL. And sorry to brag, but I am kind of pretty.’

‘Irrelevant. You are Tamilian. I am Punjabi.’

Ananya folded her offer letter and rearranged things in her bag.

‘What? Say something?’

‘Can’t be part of this backward conversation,’ she said. ‘Please, discuss your woes with the Punjabi brethren.’

She stood up to leave. I tugged her down by her hand. ‘C’mon Ananya, aren’t your parents going to flip out when they find out you have a Punjabi boyfriend?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘Have you told them?’

‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘Waiting for the appropriate time. The convocation is in two weeks. They’ll be here, I will introduce you. Tell them what you have done in life, not where your ancestors were born. They can meet your parents. They are coming, right?’

‘My mother, yes. Father, I don’t know.’

‘What’s the deal?’

‘Let’s not talk about it.’

‘You won’t tell your future wife? Have you invited him?’

‘No.’

She stood up, I followed suit. ‘Let’s go to the STD booth,’ she said.

‘Now?’

‘This strong and silent warfare between you and your dad is becoming too much.’

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‘It’s peak hour rates.’

‘I don’t care.’

We walked to the STD booth near Vijay Char Rasta. I called home. ‘Hi, mom, it is me.’

‘Krish, we should book tickets. I am coming, Shipra masi wants to come, Rajji mama and Kamla aunty, too.’

‘Mom, is dad coming?’

‘No,’ she said and fell silent.

‘It’s my convocation,’ I said.

‘He said he has work.’

‘He’s retired. What work?’ the meter rode up twenty rupees.

‘You talk to him, he expects a personal invitation,’ my mother said.

‘I won’t. Doesn’t he want to come by himself?’

‘No, why don’t you ask him to?’ She prepared to put me on hold.

‘Mom, no. I don’t want to call him if he doesn’t want to come.’

‘Fine. Can masi and mama come?’

‘Don’t get any relatives,’ I pleaded.

‘Why? They love you so much. They want to see you….’

‘I want you to meet someone, mom.’

‘Who?’

‘You’ll find out,’ I said.

I came out of the booth. Ananya and I walked back. Which father needs an invitation from his son to attend his convocation? Screw him ,I said to myself.

‘You invited him?’ Ananya asked.

‘Dad’s not coming,’ I said.

‘Why?’

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‘We have no relationship, Ananya. Don’t try to fix it ever. OK?’

‘What happened though?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

‘Standard answer.’

‘Yours was a standard question.’

‘You do care for him. You are upset.’

‘I’m upset about paying peak hour rates. Now listen, I’ve fended off my aunts with great difficulty. It’s only my mom. You have a plan, right?’

She skipped ahead of me. ‘Let’s make it a great first meeting of the families.

We should do something fun together.’

‘Like shoot each other?’

‘Shut up. It’ll be fine. They’d love it that my boyfriend is from IIT.’

‘They won’t ask my grades, right?’

‘They might. But who cares, you will be in Citibank. Listen, we organize an outing for them?’

‘I am not so sure if our families would like to spend so much time together.’

‘Of course, they would. You leave it to me. Your mom will love me more than you after this,’ she said as we reached the campus gates.

I received my mother at the Ahmedabad railway station a day before the convocation. Ananya’s parents flew down, her father using his LTC that allowed him to fly once every four years. My mother arrived with two suitcases. One had her clothes and the other contained mithai boxes sourced from various shops in Delhi.

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‘I’m in college for five more days. Why so many sweets?’ I asked in the auto back to campus.

‘We will eat them, no? And we might meet people. They will say her son is graduating and she has nothing to offer us. I almost brought packed meals. I don’t want to eat the Gujarati daal with sugar. Is it really sweet?’

‘It’s not that sweet. Anyway, I want you to meet someone, mom,’ I said as the auto struggled to penetrate the narrow lanes near the railway station.

‘Who?’

‘There’s this girl,’ I said.

‘You have a Girlfriend? Girlfriend?’ she asked as if I had contacted AIDS.

‘A good friend,’ I said to calm her down.

‘Good friend? What, you have bad friends also?’

‘No, mom. We used to study together. We did a lot of projects together.’

‘OK. Did she get a job?’

‘Yes, in HLL. It’s a good job.’

‘HLL?’

‘The company that makes Surf. And Rin and Lifebuoy and Kissan Sauce.’ I named products, hoping that one of them would impress her.

‘Kissan Jams also?’ she asked after thinking for thirty seconds.

‘Yes. She is in marketing. It’s the most prestigious marketing job.’

‘She will get free jams then?’

‘I guess,’ I said, wondering how to bring the conversation back on track. ‘But that’s not the point.’

‘Yes, it’s not. So, should we stop for lunch before we go to your college or do we eat in college? Bhaiya, any good restaurants here?’ she addressed the auto driver.

‘Mom, stop. I am talking about something important.’

But my mother said, ‘These auto drivers always know good places.’

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‘Stopping is extra, madam,’ the auto driver said, ignoring me along with every speed-breaker on the road.

‘What?’ my mother said as I continued to stare at her to get her attention.

‘Her name is Ananya. Her parents are also here. I want you to meet them and be nice to them.’

‘I will meet whoever you want me to meet. And when am I not nice? We are nice people only.’

‘Mom…..’ I said before she interrupted me.

‘Let’s take some Nice biscuits on the way. They are good with tea.’

‘Mom,’ I screamed. ‘This is what I don’t want. I want you to meet them properly and not obsess about meals or snacks or tea or whatever. They should have a good impression.’

My mother gave me a dirty look. I didn’t respond.

‘Bhaiya, turn the auto. I am going back,’ my mother said. ‘One, I come all the way from Delhi to attend your convocation, get mithai from four different shops, and now I can’t make a good impression. It’s OK, if we can’t make a good impression then we won’t come.’

My mother kept mumbling to herself. She had officially entered her drama mode. The driver stopped the auto.

‘What? Why have you stopped?’ I asked, exasperated.

‘Madam is telling me to turn back.’

‘Mom,’ I said as she continued to sulk.

‘So, you remember I am your mother? I thought you only cared about your friend’s parents?’

Anger filled my mother’s voice. I had to take emergency measures.

‘There is an excellent pao-bhaji place round the corner. Bhaiya, just take us to Law Garden.’

‘I’m not hungry,’ my mother said.

‘Only for tasting,’ I said. I tapped the auto driver on his shoulder. The driver turned towards Law Garden.

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I ordered paneer pao-bhaji with extra butter and lassi on the side. Nothing soothes an upset Punjabi like dairy products.

‘Who is this girl?’ she asked after finishing the lassi.

‘Nobody important. She wanted to meet you after I told her how much trouble you took to bring me up because of dad,’ I lied.

Maybe it was the extra butter or my words. My mother calmed down. ‘You told her everything?’ she asked.

‘No, only a little. Also, her parents may be a bit formal. That’s why I spoke about making a good impression. Otherwise, who wouldn’t love to meet you?’

‘What do Gujaratis eat for dessert? Or do they put all the sugar in their food?

My mother picked up the menu again.

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10

The next morning, two hundred fresh MBA graduates and their insanely proud parents sat in the Louis Kahn Plaza lawns for the convocation. The cief guest, a third generation silver-spoon-at-birth industrialist, told students to work hard and come to the top. He also had the tough job of handling out degrees and posing for pictures with two hundred students. Today, we had to collect our post-graduate diploma in management, a ticket to a lifetime of overpaid jobs. Ananya wanted everything to be perfect. She had reached the venue half an hour earlier to secure six seats for her family and mine.

My mother wore her best sari. I wore graduation robes rented for thirty bucks.

‘Mom, this is Ananya. Ananya, my mother,’ I said when we reached the premises.

Ananya extended her arm to shake my mother’s hand. My mother looked shocked. While Ananya touching her feet would be too much, I felt Ananya should have stuck to a Namaste. Anything modern doesn’t go down well with parents.

‘Hello, aunty. I have heard so much about you,’ Ananya said.

‘Actually, since I have arrived I am only hearing about you.’ My mother smiled, making it difficult to spot the sarcasm.

‘Let’s sit down. Ananya, where is your family?’ I asked as we sat down.

‘My mother takes forever to put on her sari. I came first to get good seats.’

Ananya wore the same peacock blue sari that she wore to her HLL interview.

She caught me staring and blew a kiss. Fortunately, my mother didn’t notice. I shook my head, beseeching Ananya to maintain decorum.

Ananya’s parents arrived ten minutes later. Her father wore a crisp white shirt, like the one in detergent ads. Ananya’s mother walked behind in a glittery haze.

Her magenta and gold Kanjeevaram sari could be noticed from any corner of the lawn. She looked as if she had fallen into a drum of golden paint. Behind her walked a fourteen-year-old boy with spectacles; a miniature version of MBA men who would get a degree this evening.

‘Hello mom,’ Ananya said and stood up, her voice her cheerful best.

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‘Safety pin illa something something,’ her mother replied. Mother and daughter lapsed into Tamil. Ananya’s father took out his camera and started taking random pictures of everything around us – the lawns, the stage, the chairs, the mikes. Little brother didn’t have much to do but looked uncomfortable in his new button-down collar shirt. My mother heard them talk and her mouth fell open.

I whispered, ‘Get up. Let us introduce ourselves.’

‘They are Madrasi?’ my mother asked, shocked.

‘Shsh, Tamilian,’ I said.

‘Tamilian?’ my mother echoed even as Ananya continued the introductions.

‘Mom, this is Krish, and this is Krish’s mother.’

“Hello,’ Ananya’s mother said, looking just as stunned as my mother.

‘Isn’t this cool? Our families meeting for the first time,’ Ananya cooed even as everyone ignored her.

‘Krish’s father has not come?’ Ananya’s father asked.

‘He is not well,’ my mother said, her voice butter-soft. ‘He is a heart patient.

Advised not to travel.’

My mother faked it so well, even I felt like sympathizing with her.

Ananya’s parents gave understanding nods. They whispered to each other in Tamil as they took their places.

‘I better go, I’m one of the first ones.’ Ananya giggled and ran up to join the line of students.

I sat sandwiched between my mother on one side and Ananya’s mother on the other.

‘You want to sit next to Ananya’s mother?’ I asked my mother.

‘Why? Who are these people?’ she frowned.

‘Don’t panic, mom. I said it because I have to join that line soon.’

‘Then go. I have come to see you, not sit next to Madrasis. Now let me watch,’

she said.

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The chief guest started the diploma distribution. The audience broke into continuous applause for the initial students. Then they got tired and went back to fanning themselves with the convocation brochures.

‘Get to know them. We’ll probably go for lunch together,’ I said.

‘You go for lunch with them. I can eat alone,’ my mother said.

‘Mom….’ I said as the announcer read out Ananya’s name.