2 States by Bhagat - HTML preview

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Ananya walked on the stage, probably the only student whose picture was worth taking. I stood up and applauded.

My mother gave me a dirty look. ‘Sit. Even her parents are not standing.’

Maybe they don’t love her like I do, I wanted to say but didn’t. I sat down.

Ananya’s parents clapped gently, craning their necs to get a better view.

Ananya’s mother looked at me with suspicion. I realized that I hadn’t yet spoken to her. Start a conversation, you idiot, I thought.

‘Your daughter is such a star. You must be so proud,’ I said.

‘We are used to it. She always did well in school,’ Ananya’s mother replied.

I tried her father. ‘How long are you here for, uncle?’

Uncle looked up and down at me as if I had questioned him about his secret personal fantasies.

‘We leave day after. Why?’ he said.

Some whys have no answer, apart from the fact that I was trying to make small talk. ‘Nothing, Ananya and I were wondering if you wanted to see the city. We can share a car,’ I said.

Ananya’s mother sat between us and listened to every word. She spoke to her husband in Tamil. ‘Something something Gandhi Ashram something recommend something.’

‘Gandhi Ashram is nice. My mother also wants to see it.’ I said.

‘What?’ my mother said from her seat. ‘Don’t you have to go on stage, Krish?

Your turn is coming.’

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‘Yes,’ I said and stood up. Gandhi Ashram would be a good start for the families. He stood for peace and national integration, maybe that could inspire us all.

‘Then go,’ my mother said.

‘Wait,’ I said and bent to touch her feet.

‘Thank god, you remembered. I thought you were going to touch Ananya’s mother’s feet,’ she said.

My mother said it loud enough for Ananya’s mother to hear. They exchanged cold glances that could be set to the backdrop of AK-47 bullets being fired.

Surely, it would take a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to make them get along.

‘Mom, control,’ I whispered to her as I turned to leave.

‘I am under control. These South Indians don’t know how to control their daughters. From Hema Malini to Sridevi, all of them trying to catch Punjabi men.’

My mother had spoken so loud that the entire row heard her. For a few moments, people’s attention shifted from the convocation ceremony to us.

Ananya’s mother elbowed her husband. They stood up, pulled up Ananya’s scrawny brother between them and found some empty seats five rows away.

‘Mom, what are you doing?’ I struggled to balance the graduation cap on my head.

‘Kanyashree Banerjee,’ the announcer said over the mike and I realised I was horribly late. I had missed my last convocation as I had overslept. I didn’t want to miss it this time.

‘What have I said? It’s a fact,’ my mom said, talking to me but addressing everyone who had tuned into our conversation that beat the boring degree distribution hollow any day.

‘Krish….’ I heard my name and ran up. The five Mohits were waiting near the stage. I smiled at them as I climbed the steps to the stage. The chief guest gave me my diploma.

My mother was standing and clapping. ‘I love you,’ she screamed. I smiled back at her. For the last ten years my father had told her that her son would get nowhere in life. I held up my diploma high and looked up to thank God.

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‘Move, the next student has to come,’ the announcer said as I emotionally thanked the chief guest again and again. As I walked down the steps, I saw Ananya’s parents. They had not applauded or even reacted to my being on the stage. I came back towards my seat. Ananya stood at our row’s entrance, looking lost. ‘I stayed back to get some pictures with friends. Where are my parents?’

‘Five rows behind,’ I said.

‘Why? What happened?’

‘Nothing. They wanted a better view,’ I said.

‘I’ve booked the car. We are all going afterwards, right?’

‘Go to your parents, Ananya,’ I said firmly as I saw my mother staring at me.

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11

‘We’ve already paid for the taxi,’ I said. ‘So, you can pretend to get along. See it as a budget exercise.’

My mother and I walked towards the taxi stand outside campus. She had no inclination to see where MR Gandhi lived. The Sabarmati Ashram, on the outskirts of the city, was a key tourist attraction. Ananya had got lunch packed in little packets from Topaz. According to her, it would be a Kodak moment to picnic somewhere by the Sabarmati river. Of course, she had no idea about her missed Kodak moment when my mother had made insightful comments about certain South Indian actresses.

‘We had booked a Qualis,’ I told the driver who stood next to an Indica. Ananya and her family were already at the taxi stand. Her mother looked like she had just finished a grumble session, maybe her natural expression.

‘The Qualis is on election duty. We only have this.’ The driver crushed tobacco in his palm.

‘How can we all fit in?’ I wondered.

‘We take double the passengers, squeeze in,’ the driver said.

‘Let’s take an auto,’ I said.

‘I’m not taking an auto,’ my mother said as she slid into the backseat.

‘You can sit in front and make madam sit in your lap,’ the driver pointed Ananya to me. Ananya’s mother gave the driver a glare strong enough to silence him for the rest of the day.

‘Mom, can you take an auto?’ Ananya requested her mother.

‘Why, we have also paid for this,’ she said. ‘Something something illa illa!’

‘Seri, seri, Amma,’ Ananya said.

We finally arrived at an arrangement. Ananya’s dad sat in front with Ananya in his lap. Ananya’s mother sat behind with her son in her lap. My mother had AskManiG.com

already taken a window seat behind the driver. I squished myself between the two ladies in the middle.

The Sabarmati Ashram is eight kilometers away from campus. The twenty-minute drive felt like an hour due to the silence. Ananya tried to make conversation with her parents. They pretended not to hear her as they kept their heads out of the windows. My mother took out a packet of Nice biscuits and started eating them without offering them to anyone. She took one biscuit and put it in my mouth, to assert maternal rights on me. Of course, I couldn’t refuse.

‘Why is everyone so silent,’ Ananya said to me as we went to the ticket counter at the ashram.

‘My mother made a silly comment at the convocation,’ I said, hoping Ananya won’t seek details.

‘What did she say?’ Ananya asked as she fished for the required amount of money for six tickets.

‘It’s not important. But your parents left after that.’

‘What exactly did she say?’ Ananya persisted.

‘Nothing, something about South Indian women being loose or something. No big deal.’

‘What?’ Ananya looked at me, shocked.

‘I didn’t say it. She did. Silly comment, ignore it.’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ Ananya said.

‘Nothing. Let’s get everyone talking again,’ I said as we walked to the main entrance.

We came inside the ashram. Gandhi lived here from 1915 to 1930. The famous Salt March started form this ashram. Ananya appointed a guide, for no other AskManiG.com

reason than to keep everyone walking together. We passed the exhibits – various pictures, paintings, letters and articles of Gandhi.

‘And when Mr. Gandhi left in 1930 for the Dandi March, he vowed never to return to the ashram until India won its independence,’ the guide said in a practiced voice. ‘And he didn’t after that day.’

‘Did he come back after India became free?’ Ananya’s mother wanted to know.

‘Alas,’ the guide sighed, ‘he couldn’t. He was shot dead within six months of independence.’

My mother, not to be left behind in asking of questions, turned to the guide.

‘Why is it called Dandi March? Because he carried a stick?’

The guide laughed. Like all his mannerisms, his laugh was dramatic, too. ‘How little we know about the greatest man in India. No madam, Dandi is the name of a place, five hundred kilometers away from here.’

The guide took us to an exhibit of the map and pointed to the coastal town.

Ananya’s mother turned to her father and spoke in Tamil. ‘Something something illa knowledge Punjabi people something.’

‘Seri, seri,’ Ananya’s father said in a cursory manner, engrossed in the map.

Ananya’s mother continued. ‘Intellectually, culturally zero. Something something crass uneducated something.’

I don’t know if Ananya’s mother realised her use of the few English words, or maybe she planted them intentionally. She had made her comeback. My mother heard her and looked at me. The guide looked worried as his tip was in danger.

‘So, you see, Gandhiji strongly believed that all Indians are one. Anyway, let us now see Gandhiji’s personal belongings. This way, please.’ The guide said, breaking the Antarctic glances between the two mothers.

We sat down for lunch under a tree in the ashram complex, looking like we were on death row. Everyone ate in silence as Ananya dropped the news. ‘We like each other.’

Everyone looked at each other in confusion. Most people did not like each other in this group.

‘Krish and I, we like each other,’ Ananya smiled.

‘I told you. I smelled something fishy……’ My mother tore her chapatti.

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‘There’s nothing fishy. There’s nothing to be worried about. We just wanted to share our happiness. We are just two people in love,’ Ananya said as her mother interrupted her.

‘Shut up, Ananya!’ Ananya’s mother glared at her. I wondered if she would slap her. And I wondered if Ananya would offer her second cheek considering we were in Gandhi’s ashram.

‘This is what I meant when I said about South Indian girls. There are so many cases in Delhi only,’ my mother said, itching to slam Ananya’s mom again.

‘Mom, chill,’ I said.

‘What have I said? Did I say anything?’ my mother asked.

‘Get up,’ Ananya’s mother said to her husband. Like a TV responding to a remote, he stood. Ananya’s brother followed. ‘We will take an auto back,’

Ananya’s mother said.

Ananya sat under the tree, perplexed.

‘Now you will stay with them?’ Ananya’s mother asked.

‘Mom, please!’ Ananya sounded close to tears.

Ananya’s mother tugged at Ananya and pulled her away. The guide noticed them leave and looked puzzled. I paid him off and came back to my mother. She finished the last few spoons of Topaz’s paneer tikka masala under the tree.

‘They are gone,’ I said.

‘Good. There’ll be more space in the car,’ she said.

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ACT 2:

Delhi

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12

‘What are you reading with such concentration?’ my mother asked as she chopped bhindi on the dining table.

‘It’s the Citibank new employee form. I have to fill fifty pages. They want to know everything, like where was your mother born.’

‘On the way from Lahore to Delhi. Your grandmother delivered me in a makeshift tent near Punjabi Bagh.’

‘I’ll write Delhi,’ I said.

I had come home for the two-month break before joining Citibank. Even in April, Delhi temperature had already crossed forty degree centigrade. There wasn’t much to do, apart from calling Ananya once a day or waiting for her call. I sat with my mother as she prepared lunch. My father wasn’t home, nobody really sure or caring about where he was.

‘Is this the form where you fill your location preference?’ my mother asked.

I looked at her hands, a little more wrinkled then before I left to join college.

She cut the top and tail of a bhindi and slit it in the middle.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘You chose Delhi, right?’

I kept quiet.

‘What?’

‘Yes I will,’ I said.

The phone rang. I rushed to pick it up. It was Sunday and cheaper STD rates meant Ananya would call at noon.

‘Hi, my honeybunch,’ Ananya said.

‘Obviously, your mother is not around,’ I said. I spoke in a low volume as my own mother kept her eyes on the bhindi but ears on me.

‘Of course not. She’s gone to buy stuff for Varsha Porupu puja tomorrow.’

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‘Varsha what?’

‘Varsha Porupu, Tamil new year. Don’t you guys know?’

‘Uh, yes of course, Happy New Year,’ I said.

‘And have you sent in your Citibank form yet?’

‘No, have to fill a few final items,’ I said.

‘You’ve given Chennai as your top location choice?’

‘I will….wait.’

I picked up the phone and went as far from my mother as the curly landline wire allowed me. ‘My mother expects me to put Delhi,’ I whispered.

‘And what do you want? HLL has placed me in Chennai. I told you weeks ago.

How are we going to make this work?’

‘We will. But if I come to Chennai, she’ll know it is for you.’

‘Fine, then tell her that.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know. They didn’t give me a choice, else I would have come to Delhi. I miss you sweets, a lot. Please, baby, come soon.’

‘I’m someone else’s baby too, quite literally. And she is watching me, so I better hang up.’

‘Please say “I love you”.’

‘I do.’

‘No, say it nicely.’

‘Ananya!’

‘Just once. The three words together.’

I looked at my mother. She picked up the last bunch of bhindis and wiped them with a wet cloth. Her shiny knife, symbolic of her current position in my love story, gleamed in the afternoon light.

‘Movies I love. You should see them, too.’

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‘Aww, that’s not fair,’ Ananya mock-cried at the other end.

‘Bye,’ I said.

‘OK, love you. Bye,’ she ended the call.

I came back to the dining table. Out of guilt, I picked up a few bhindis and started wiping them with a cloth.

‘Madrasi girl?’

‘Ananya,’ I said.

‘Stay away from her. They brainwash, these people.’

‘Mom, I like her. In fact, I love her.’

‘See, I told you. They trap you,’ my mother declared.

‘Nobody has trapped me, mom,’ I said as I thwacked a bhindi on the table. ‘She is a nice girl. She is smart, intelligent, good-looking. She has a good job. Why would she need to trap anyone?’

‘They like North Indian men.’

‘Why? What’s so special about North Indian men?’

‘North Indians are fairer. The Tamilians have a complex.’

A complexion, complex?’ I chuckled.

‘Yes, huge,’ my mother said.

‘Mom, she went to IIMA, she is one of the smartest girls in India. What are you talking about? And not that it matters, but you have seen her. She is fairer than me.’

‘The fair ones are the most dangerous. Sridevi and Hema Malini.’

‘Mom, stop comparing Ananya to Sridevi and Hema Malini,’ I screamed and pushed the bhindi bowl on the table aside with my arm. The bowl pushed the knife, which in turn rammed against my mother’s fingers. She winced in pain as drops of blood flooded her right index fingers.

‘Mom, I am so sorry,’ I said. ‘I am so sorry.’

‘It’s OK. Kill me. Kill me for this girl,’ she wailed.

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‘Mom, I am not…..’ A drop of blood fell on my Citibank form. Now would be the time to betray your mother, you idiot, I thought.

‘I am going to write Delhi,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. Where are the band-aids? Don’t worry, I will cook the bhindi. Give me the masala.’

I bandaged my mother and had her recline on the sofa. I switched on the TV. I tried to find a channel with a soap opera that didn’t show children disrespecting their parents. I filled each bhindi with masala over the next hour.

‘Do you know how to switch on the gas?’ she screamed form the living room as I hunted for matches in the kitchen.

‘I do. Don’t worry.’

‘I can show you Punjabi girls fair as milk,’ she said, her volume louder than the TV. I ignored her as I checked the cupboard for a vessel. ‘Should we give a matrimonial ad? Verma aunty downstairs gave it; she got fifty responses even though her son is from donation college. You will get five hundred,’ my mother said.

‘Let it be, mom,’ I said.

I ignited the stove and kept the pan over it. I poured cooking oil and opened the drawers to find cumin seeds. It was kept in the same place as when I left home for college over seven years ago.

‘Actually, I have a girl in mind. You have seen Pammi aunty’s daughter?’

‘No. and I don’t want to,’ I said.

‘Wait,’ my mother said as a new wave of energy was unleashed within her. I heard her open the Godrej cupboard in her bedroom. She brought a wedding album to the kitchen. ‘Lower the flame, you’ll burn it. And why haven’t you switched on the exhaust?’ she snatched the ladle from me and took control of the stove. She stirred the bhindi with vigour as she spoke again. ‘Open this album.

See the girl dancing in the baraat next to the horse. She is wearing a pink lehnga.’

‘Mom,’ I protested.

‘Listen to me also sometimes. Didn’t I meet Jayalalitha’s family on your request?’

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‘What?’

‘Nothing, see the picture.’

I opened the album. It was my second cousin Dinki’s wedding to Deepu. The first five pages of the album were filled with face shots of the boy and girl in various kaleidoscopic combinations and enclosed by heart-filled frames. I flipped through the album and came to the pictures with the horse.

I saw a girl in pink lehnga, her face barely visible under a lot of hair. She was in the middle of a dance step with her hands held high and index fingers pointing up.

‘Isn’t she pretty?’ My mother switched on the other gas stove and put a tawa on it to make rotis. She took out a rolling pin and dough.

‘I can’t make out,’ I said.

‘You should meet her. And here, keep stirring the bhindi while I make the rotis,’ She handed me the ladle.

‘I don’t want to meet anyone.’

‘Only once.’

‘What’s so special about her?’

‘They have six petrol pumps.’

‘What?’

‘Her father. He has six petrol pumps. And the best part is, they have only two daughters. So each son-in-law will get three, just imagine.’

‘What?’ I said as I imagined myself sitting in a gas station.

‘Yes, they are very rich. Petrol pumps sell in cash. Lots of black money.’

‘And what does the girl do? Is she educated?’

‘She is doing something. These days you can do graduation by correspondence also.’

‘Oh, so she is not even going to college?’

‘College degrees you can get easily. They are quite rich.’

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‘Mom, that’s not the point. I can’t believe you are going to marry me to a twelfth pass….oh, forget it. Put this album away. And are the rotis done? I am hungry.’

‘We can get an educated Punjabi girl.’

‘No, I don’t like any Punjabi girl.’

‘Your mother is a Punjabi,’ my mother said in an upset tone.

‘That’s not the point, mom,’ I said and opened the fridge to take out curd. ‘I don’t want any other girl. I have a girlfriend.’

‘You’ll marry that Madrasi girl?’ my mother asked, seriously shocked for the first time since she found out about Ananya.

‘I want to. In time, of course.’

My mother slapped a roti on the tawa and then slapped her forehead.

‘Let’s eat,’ I said, ignoring her demonstrations of disappointment. We placed the food on the living-room coffee table and sat down in front of the TV.

The doorbell rang twice.

‘Oh no, it’s your father,’ my mother said. ‘Switch off the TV.’

‘It’s OK,’ I said.

My mother gave me a stern glance. I reluctantly shut the television. My mother opened the door. My father came inside and looked at me. I turned away and came back to the table.

‘Lunch?’ my mother asked.

My father did not answer. He came to the dining table and examined the food.

‘You call this food?’ he said.

I glared at him. ‘It took mom three hours to make it,’ I said.

My mother took out a plate for him.

‘I don’t want to eat this,’ my father said.

‘Why don’t you say you’ve already eaten and come?’ I butted in again.

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My father stared at me and turned to my mother. ‘This is the result of your upbringing. All the degrees can go to the dustbin. You only have this at the end.’

This, and a job at Citibank that pays me three times at the start than what you ever earned in your life, I wanted to say but didn’t. I pulled the Citibank form close to me.

My father went and touched the TV top. ‘It’s hot. Who watched TV?’

‘I did. Any problem?’ I said.

‘I hope you leave home soon,’ my father said.

I hope you leave this world soon, I responded mentally as I took my plate and left the room.

I lay down in bed at night, waiting to fall asleep. My mind oscillated between wonderful thoughts of Ananya’s hair as they brushed against my face when we slept in campus and the argument with my father this afternoon. My mother came to my room and switched on the light.

‘I’ve fixed the meeting. We’ll go to Pammi aunty’s place day after tomorrow.’

‘Mom, I don’t…..’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve told them we are coming for tea. Let me show you off a little.

You wait and see, they will ask me first.’

‘I am not interested,’ I sat up on my bed.

‘Come for the snacks. They are very rich. Even for ordinary guests they give dry fruits.’

‘Mom, why should I come, really?’

‘Because it will make me happy. Is that reason enough?’ she said and I noticed her wrinkled hand with the bandage.

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‘OK,’ I shrugged and slid back into bed. ‘Now let me sleep.’

‘Excellent,’ she said and switched off the lights as she left the room. I allowed my mind to be trapped again by thoughts of my South Indian girl.

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13

Pammi aunty lived in Pitampura, a hardcore Punjabi neighbourhood. Each lane in this area has more marble than the Taj Mahal. Every street smells of tomatoes cooking with paneer. We took an auto as my father never allowed us to take the car. My mother told the auto driver to stop a few houses away. We couldn’t tell Pammi aunty we hadn’t come by car.

‘He had a meeting, he dropped us outside and left,’ my mother said as Pammi aunty came to greet us at the door.

‘He should have come for a cold drink at least,’ Pammi aunty said and escorted us in. Pammi aunty’s weight roughly matched the decade she lived in, and that correlation had continued into the current nineties. Pammi aunty had been Ms Chandigarh thirty-seven years ago. A rich businessman snapped her soon after the title and gave her a life of extra luxury and extra calories. Now, she weighed more than the three finalists put together.

We walked to five steps to get to their living room. Pammi aunty had difficulty climbing them. ‘My knees,’ she mumbled as she took the last step.

‘You are going for morning walk nowadays?’ my mother asked.

‘Where Kavita-ji, it is so hot. Plus, I have satsang in the morning. Sit,’ Pammi aunty said as she told her maid to get khus sharbat.

We sank into a red velvet sofa with a two-feet deep sponge base.

‘Actually, even if you walk to satsang, it can be good exercise,’ my mother said.

‘Six cars, Kavita-ji. Drivers sitting useless. How to walk?’ Pammi aunty asked.

She had demonstrated a fine Punjabi skill – of showing off her wealth as part of an innocent conversation.

My mother turned to me to repeat her comment. ‘Six cars? Krish, you heard, they have six cars.’

I didn’t know how to respond. Maybe I was supposed to applaud. ‘Which ones?’ I said, only because they kept staring at me.

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‘I don’t know. My husband knows. Just last week he bought a Honda.’

‘How much for?’ my mother asked. It is almost courteous among Punjabis to encourage someone who is flaunting his wealth to brag some more.

‘Seven lakh, plus stereo changed for thirty thousand,’ Pammi aunty said.

‘Wow!’ my mother said. ‘He has also got a job with Citibank, four lakh a year.’

To a non-Punjabi, my mother’s comment would be considered a non-sequitur.

To a Punjabi, it is perfect continuation. We are talking about lakh, after all.

‘Good. Your son has turned out bright,’ she said.

I guess to be rich is to be bright, as she didn’t ask for my IQ.

‘Your blessings, Pammi-ji,’ my mother said.

‘No, no,’ Pammi aunty said as she gloated over her possible role in my bagging the job.

We had smiled at each other for another minute when Pammi aunty spoke again. ‘Dry fruits?’

‘No, no, Pammi-ji, what formalities you are getting into?’ my mother demurred.

‘Rani, get cashews and those Dubai dates,’ Pammi-ji screamed.

My mother gave a mini nod in appreciation of the international nuts. ‘Where’s our Dolly?’ my mother inquired, claiming the heiress of three gas stations as hers without hesitation.

‘Here only, Dolly!’ Pammi aunty screamed hard to reach the upper floors of the hydrocarbon-funded mansion.

The servants were summoned to call Dolly downstairs.

‘She takes forever to have a bath and get ready,’ Pammi aunty said in mock anger, as she took a fistful of cashews and forced them in my hands.

‘Don’t stop our daughter from looking beautiful, Pammi-ji,’ my mother said.

Yes, Dolly was already ours.

‘Who knows ji about whose daughter she will become? We only have two girls, everything is theirs,’ Pammi said and spread her arms to show everything. Yes, the sofas, hideous marble coffee tables, curios, fans, air conditioners –

everything belonged to the daughters and their future husbands. I have to say, for AskManiG.com

a second the thought of owning half this house made me wonder if my mother was right. But the next second the thought of losing Ananya came to me. No, I wouldn’t give up Ananya for all the cashews and cash in the world. If only Pammi aunty allowed me to live in this house with Ananya.

Dolly came scurrying down the steps with her perfume reaching us three seconds before her. ‘Hello Aunti-ji,’ Dolly said and went on to give my mother a tight hug.

‘How beautiful our daughter has become!’ my mother exclaimed.

Dolly and I greeted each other with slight nods. She wore a wine-red slawar kameez with vertical gold stripes sunning down it. She was abnormally white, and my mother was right; she did remind me of milk. She sucked in her stomach a little, though she wasn’t fat. Her ample bosom matched Pammi aunty’s and it made me wonder how these women would even wean their children off without suffocating them.

‘What are you doing these days, Dolly?’ my mother asked.

‘BA pass, aunty, correspondence.’

‘You are also doing computer course, tell that,’ Pammi aunty said and turned to my mother, ‘I’ll get more snacks?’

Dolly tried to say something but was ignored as we had moved on to the interesting topic of food.

‘No, Pammi-ji. This is enough,’ my mother said, obviously daring her to serve us more.

‘What are you saying? You haven’t come at meal time, so I just arranged dome heavy snacks. Raju, get the snacks. And get both the red and green chutneys!’

she shrieked to her servant.

Raju and another servant brought in a gigantic tray with samosas, jalebis, chole bhature, milk cake, kachoris and, of course, the red and green chutneys.

Twenty thousand calories were plonked on the table.

‘You shouldn’t have!’ my mother said as she signalled the servant to pass the jalebis.

‘Nothing ji, just for tasting. You should have come for dinner.’

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I felt I would come across as a retard if I didn’t talk to Dolly now. ‘What computer course are you doing?’

‘Microsoft Word, Power Point, Email, I don’t know, just started. Looks quite hi-fi.’

‘Sure, it does sound like a challenging programme,’ I said, and instantly felt guilty for my sarcasm.

‘My friends are doing it, so I joined. If it is too difficult, I’ll stop. You know all these things, no?’

‘Sort of,’ I said.

My mother and Pammi aunty had stopped talking the moment Dolly and I began a conversation. Dolly and I became quiet as we noticed them staring at us.

‘It’s OK. Keep talking,’ my mother beamed and looked at Pammi-ji. Both of them gave each other a sly grin. They winked at each other and then folded their hands and looked up to thank God.

Dolly looked at my mother and smiled. ‘Aunty-ji tea?’ she asked.

‘No ji, we don’t make our daughters work,’ my mother said. The work in this case being screaming at the servant.

‘Raju, get tea,’ Dolly exerted herself and earned affectionate glances from my mother. Why couldn’t my mother give Ananya one, just one, glance like that ?

‘Son, tea?’ Pammi aunty offered me. I shook my head. ‘You young people have coffee, I know. Should we get coffee? Or wait, what is that new place at the District Centre, Dolly? Where they sell that expensive coffee? Barsaat?’

‘Barista, mom.’ Dolly switched to a more anglicized accent when asked to describe something trendy.

‘Yes, that. Take his there in the Honda. See ji, we are quite modern actually,’

she said to my mother.

‘Modern is good ji. We are also not old-fashioned. Go Krish, enjoy,’ my mother said. Of course, hating Tamilians is not old-fashioned at all.

I stood up to partly enjoy myself with Dolly, but mainly to get away from here and ride in the new Honda.

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‘Come here, Dolly,’ Pammi-ji said and did the unthinkable. She slid a hand into her bosom ATM and pulled out a wad of notes. I wondered if Pammi aunty’s cleavage also contained credit cards.

Dolly took the wad and put it in her golden handbag without counting it. She screamed at the servants to scream at the driver to scream at the security guard to open the gate so the Honda could be taken out.

We reached the District Centre, a ghetto of salwar-kameez shops, beauty parlours and STD booths. Dolly insisted on going to her favourite clothes boutique. I watched her choose clothes for half an hour. I wondered if it would be appropriate to call Ananya form one of the STD booths. I dropped the idea and hung around the shop, watching Punjabi mothers and daughters buy salwar kameezes by the dozen. The daughters were all thin and the mothers were all fat.

The boutique specialised in these extreme sizes.

‘Healthy figure range is there,’ one salesman said as he pointed a mother to the right direction.

Dolly finished her shopping and paid for three new suits with her wad of notes.

‘You like these?’ she asked, opening her bag.

‘Nice,’ I said as we entered Barista. The air-conditioning and soothing music were a respite from the blazing forty-degree sun outside.

‘One cold coffee with ice-cream,’ Dolly said. ‘What do you want?’

I ordered the same and we sat on the couch, sitting as far apart as possible.

We mutely stared at the music channel on the television in front of us.

‘I’ve never spoken to an IITian before,’ she said after some time.

‘You are not missing much,’ I said.

She shifted in her seat. Her clothes bag fell down. She lifted it back up.