[My latest book “Sultan of Delhi” is now available on Kindle outside the Indian sub-continental region]
“Let me go and offer puja”, the wife says pointing to the Durga idol to the right, up on the stage, “You can sit there, see if you know anyone.”
All married couples know this passage of play. It’s when one of the two makes the other do something that that person doesn’t want, and then compensates by backing off for a certain period of time afterwards. My wife knows I am not happy. I did not want to be here. Weekends are for reading books and watching movies, not for wearing kurta-pyjama that don’t really fit me in the way they were originally tailored, driving an hour, taking three exits, and then paying fifty dollars per person at the door for the dubious privilege of lunch, dinner and “cultural program”.
But it’s Pujo. Are we not going anywhere?
Even if that place is a high school rented for the weekend, and we don’t know anyone there.
So here we are.
“Well why don’t you go to Bangali Association meetings?” My wife had said on the drive here, chilly inside the car even though the heat was turned up high, “Then everyone would not be a stranger.”
I had simply gripped the steering wheel harder. I have been married for ten years. I know not to answer such questions.
“But you used to love Durga Pujo.”
I did. Back in Calcutta. When I had friends. When I could walk into a random pandal at any time of the day and most likely meet someone I knew, from school or college or from “coaching”, when the whole city was extended family.
Not now. Not in the US. Not any more.
And now as my wife walks away, I look around at the assemblage.
The usual stereotypes.
The newlyweds, the ink on their registry papers not even dried. You can always tell the newlyweds. The husband, that engineering college-face I can make out anywhere because I see it every day in the mirror, with that glow of “I am having sex people, and not with my hand” taking pictures of his wife, one after another, here, there, look this way, not that way, bend shoulder a bit, just a shadow of cleavage, but not the real thing for that would be against culture and very chi-chi and “issh ma ki bolbe” and I can see these pictures on timelines on the Interwebs, as the song “Dekhuk para porsite kemon maach gentechi borsite” (Let the neighbors know, I have netted a marvelous fish) plays in my mind, and in his.
As an aside, you can tell how long a couple has been arrived, by watching the line of the sari at the waist, the more the years, the more it rises.
And then there are those whose sari-lines have advanced, over the years, to their necks. The mashimas. They are there, selling gaudy saris, passing off what I am sure are fifteen-year-old hand-me-downs as the “latest design from Calcutta”, and for variety, “ethnic jewelry original from Bankura”, which if I didn’t know better, are massively marked-up items picked up from Dakkhinapan, from the last time said mashima was back home. The unsuccessful businesswomen stand quietly behind their table, while the more dangerous of them, work the crowd, catching the newly weds, and even she knows the sari-line index which allows them to home in on them like a heat-seeking missile. Then, and here I must use my only Gunda-reference, “chikni chikni baatein kaarke” she unloads her wares on those least likely to be able to resist her aggression.
To the left, right near the door, is a wooden bench and table, some paper plates with half-eaten pizzas and overturned soda cans, and these are the first-generations, teenagers and soon-to-be-teens, some as bored as I am, looking at their phone, some sitting grumpily, and I know their parents have revoked their phone privileges. In the whole crowd, these are the ones I feel the most kinship to, none of us quite fitting in but still there, like Mahisasura in the Ma Durga posse.
And then at the center are clumps of chairs, and there in small connected graphs, are people my age, men in one clump, women in another, and children running in between them, shouting noisily, stepping over saris and dhotis, and I am wondering what to do, when I hear a voice calling out my name.
I can’t believe it. I know someone here too.
I turn around. And a familiar face is smiling at me, his arm raised hailing me like I am a cab. I say familiar, because we went to engineering school and we would play carrom in the union room, and we went together to see a soft-core Zalman King porn film at Bhavani once, and I know it sounds strange saying it now but then it seemed the coolest thing to do, but I never really knew knew him. I am seeing him after ten years, and he has changed, and I am not just talking about the extra kilos he has packed on, the soft man-boobs, the insistent image of the nipple straining against his tight-kurta, and flour-like rings of fat around his waist.
It’s his eyes.
They seem dead. Like a decapitated goat, on the butcher’s chopping board. As I approach, a polite smile on my face, a boy of about eight walks up to him, and kicks him on the side of his thigh, and he does not seem to care, does not even look at him, and then the boy holds him by the neck and starts shaking it, and yelling about something, and he still does not react.
I know it then.
I pull up a chair and sit next to him. He is in a group of about seven, and he introduces them to me one after another, mid-career professionals, almost identical kurtas, generic names, and DSLR camera hanging around their necks. They were all “doing software”. One hands me a card which said “Archisman Ganguly Photography” and added “my hobby”, lest I think he did this for a living (yes he is “in software” too). After the round of introductions are over, and I have forgotten all their names already, me and my once-friend exchange some status updates, what we have been doing over the past ten years, only to be disturbed once as he gets up and breaks up a fight between his son and his daughter, and then comes back, and sighs.
As my friend runs about, I sit with a moronic grin on my face, pretending to participating in the conversations about me.
I write more code than you. My DSLR has better specifications than yours. My daughter won a county scholarship. My son can recite the alphabet and he is only ten months. I refinanced my house at a better rate. My Honda is better than your Toyota.
I will them to all stand up, and fish out their dicks, and make it into what it is, a Neanderthal “my cock is longer than your” competition, but since we are Bengali men, we don’t do this, because we know we will all lose.
At some time the group gets up, and we all make our way to the side room where lunch is served. A long row of ladies (pronounced “leddies”) stand there, doling out food, proportional to their familiarity with the person holding the plate in front. My friend, who is the general secretary of the Bangali association, gets generous portions, while I get scraps of broken vegetables, half a spoonful of rice, and chicken, that has had the meat molten off it. The chaatni they somehow allow people to take by themselves, and I scoop two large portions on my paper plate, as a gesture of protest, only to find that it tastes like someone put sugar in salsa.
“So are you renting or owning?”
We are back at our seats, and my friend is pigging away, the daal dribbling down the side of his lips.
“Do you rent a house or have you bought?” He repeats, thinking I did not genuinely get it the first time.
It’s a strange question, but still.
He pulls his chair close, ignores the fact that his children are now fighting again, and launches into a monologue on why this is the right time to buy, interest-rates are at historic lows, the real-estate market has bottomed out, and then he asks me, how much I make, and then adds to soften the blow, “in the ballpark”.
Almost magically, his wife appears at his side.
It’s then that I notice.
My friend and she are in color-coordinated clothes.
His wife bends down, gives him a chaste hug, and I see the words coming out of his lips “This is Sreemoyee, my wife, she is an assistant to a real-estate agent, you know she can’t work on H4 but, she can do this, on commission basis, and trust me, she has already sold….”
I shut out the words. Because I know exactly how this is going to end.
At that moment, I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s my wife.
“Do you want to go?” She asks.
Thinking this might be a loaded question, I reply “No we can stay. There is a cultural program later.”
Sreemoyee helpfully volunteers the fact that she will be singing Rabindranasangeet and also dancing to a medley of Hindi songs and my friend adds helpfully, that the real-estate company is one of the platinum sponsors, and it’s all coming together now, when my wife repeats, this time with a slight firm grip on my shoulder, whose meaning any husband knows, “Let’s go.”
“Did you have lunch?” I ask, just to confirm I got the message right.
“I am not hungry. Can we go please?”
We are in the car, and I know something has happened. So before starting the engine, I wait. This is “old married couple” silent signal for “Talk”
“It’s your friend’s wife. What a…”
“Did she try to sell you a house?” I ask, with a smile.
“She asked me, me, a person she barely knows, “do I have an issue?”
Despite myself, I laugh. An issue. Oh yes, we have issues. Just not the way Sreemoyee thinks.
“When I said I don’t, she went on a long lecture. Why don’t I have kids? Don’t we like kids? Don’t we have plans? Do we have physical problems? If we do, she has a good clinic she can refer us to. Imagine. If we don’t have kids, we will regret it later. Kids complete a marriage. And loads of other bullshit.All this to someone she just met.”
“Maybe she figured she would get more selling a single-family than a townhome.” I point out helpfully, “She is doing business development. In the true sense of the term.”
“We are not coming back”. She says, ignoring my attempt at levity, “I don’t care if he is a friend of yours.”
“Whatever you say”, I say as I put the key into the ignition, “I was kind of enjoying myself.”
I lie. If only to take the marital high ground for the rest of the day.
Somewhere, and I know I am imagining this, Ma Durga smiles.