"He likes Chinese food and cricket," crooned Savitri as she watched the faces of her friends looking at the picture of Ashok on her phone. She couldn't stop smiling. The three friends had gathered to trade stories and Savitri was the first of them to be officially engaged. It was big news, heralding the entry of one of them into domesticity, the ultimate goal of their existence.
Rukmini stopped by their table as the mobile phone was being passed around and asked the obvious question. The response was a fit of giggles. Savitri, Susan and Shanti had been meeting regularly at the bar and she liked their young innocence. It amused her immensely since the three girls, despite her entreaties, refrained from drinking alcohol. They came to gossip and seemed to require no more stimulus than a fresh lime juice or occasionally, a fizzy drink.
It was Shanti who finally ended the giggling spree and blurted out, "Savitri is engaged to this boy." Rukmini was hoping it was only a boyfriend and was disappointed that Savitri was already contemplating marriage. She asked for all the details like a nosy auntie. After a sharp intake of breath, Savitri launched into a piece that would form the main content of all her conversations for some time to come. Ashok was tall and fair; Rukmini constrained herself from rolling her eyes at the mention of colour. He had finished his MBA and then got a job in a bank that had posted him in America. He was the only child. The match had been suggested by Savitri’s neighbour, and after their families had spoken, they had been permitted to speak with each other unsupervised. They tried to talk often but Ashok very busy at work. Even though they had not met in person, Savitri was convinced that he was the man of her dreams. They had similar family backgrounds, went to academically matched institutions and felt they were ready for marriage. The wedding was in two months, and she hoped to leave for America soon after.
Rukmini tried hard not to give Savitri a good shake. What was wrong with the girl? She was just finishing college, and seemed to think that marriage was simply a change of address and last name. But she didn't echo her thoughts aloud - when the girls wanted advice, she would be available, but till then her role was consciously limited. Instead, she smiled broadly and asked Manivannan to bring a plate of Gobi Manchurian to the table; it was on the house. She asked Savitri to bring her fiancee at his next visit to India. Despite the sign on the door that the bar was for ladies only, Rukmini as proprietor occasionally indulged in flexibility when a particular story had tickled her curiosity. The invitation elicited another round of giggles from all the girls. At Ashok' s next visit, Savitri and he would be married.
It was surprising to Rukmini when a couple of months later, Savitri bought Ashok to the bar. They were newly married and Savitri whispered that it was Ashok who wanted to come to the bar. Drinking alcohol was not acceptable in their homes and Ashok had wanted a break from the endless loop of congratulatory messages and insipid blessings. Rukmini was thrilled that he drank alcohol and quickly got organized to give the newlyweds some specials. Ashok wanted a fruity drink with plenty of alcohol; Savitri coyly asked for the same but without the alcohol. Rukmini also remembered Savitri's comment about the colour of his complexion. While she was at the counter fixing drinks, she asked Manivannan to turn up the lights near their table. It was then that she caught Ashok's face more fully. When bathed in yellow, his skin seemed speckled, an inedible reminder of adolescent acne, and despite the bushy eyebrows there was a trace of what Rukmini would consider handsome. The face felt very familiar. Even the loud flowery shirt he wore was somehow etched in her memory. Since the rolodex in her mind refused to identify the face, she soon forgot about it – after all, she ran a bar and Ashok’s face was common enough to be forgettable.
But Rukmini was the type of person who was very uncomfortable with unsolved mysteries so at every opportunity in the evening she stole a glance at Ashok, trying hard to make an identity match against the faces of all the young men she had tucked away in her memory. It was towards the end of the night that it finally hit her, like a lightening bolt. She had seen that face in an email her friend had sent to announce her child’s engagement. Attached to the email were photographs of the couple. She quickly checked her email to confirm – yes, the resemblance to Ashok was strong, and he was wearing the same shirt. Ashok looked happy and much unlike what he was with Savitri. So, he was engaged to someone else and had married another?
Rukmini’s mind quickly entered into chaotic thinking. What if this was a strange coincidence? Maybe she should just forward the email to Savitri and allow her to come to her own conclusions? May be she could slip a note to her. No, that would be cowardice. She looked at Savitri and a goofy face cupped in henna-ed hands stared back at her. That was enough to convince Rukmini that without a footnote, Savitri would not understand the email. Was it right for Rukmini to interfere, to be the bearer of news that would unsettle the young girl and possibly end her marriage?
Rukmini methodically rubbed the counter-top. The circular motions calmed her. This was not going to be easy. Rukmini did not immediately even know what words she would use to tell Savitri this. But it was not right to withhold this information. She caught Savitri's eye and beckoned her. Used to being docile and deferential to elders, Savitri immediately understood the gesture and started to walk towards the counter. Rukmini steeled her resolve, composed her face and started to mentally pick the words she might use to tell Savitri that Ashok possibly had another life, in which he was gay.
To Shoots for inspiring me to complete this story.
To N, for coaxing me into making it read better.