Though it had been a few years since he had been badgered by Mandira into learning to drive, Sid wasn’t a confident
driver still. Driving at night made him especially nervous, and it didn’t help that tonight he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Not that his eyesight was too bad – a mere .25 in the left eye, and .75 in the right – but the glasses did help.
it wasn’t his vanity this time – he could have chosen to leave them in the car while he was up at the party, but he had been so distracted while leaving the house that he had forgotten them. And he just hadn’t felt like going back to get them. oh well, he had made it here safe and sound, he’d be okay driving back too. Hopefully.
Just as he had made up his mind to plunge blindly into the parking spot with a prayer on his lips, the street lights came on and light flooded the area around him. He heard the sound of music and people cheering from what he knew was Aditi’s flat.
Of course! Just a little power failure. Could happen to anyone. Sid decided to forgive Aditi for living here and parked his car smoothly. it ended up only a little too close to a bright yellow Honda City, which he had never seen before.
He checked himself out in the rear-view mirror before getting out of the car, an old habit. Sid always needed to know that he was looking sharp. He was letting his hair grow out this year, but it was carefully styled and slicked back, every strand gelled into place. He bared his teeth to confirm he had nothing stuck in there and finally stepped out.
He was in his carefully torn new jeans and his favourite dark blue shirt which had the first two buttons casually undone and sleeves rolled up. only the tail end of the Black Panther tattoo on his right arm was on display this way. His new, brown, high- heeled shoes made him look and feel taller, which was always welcome, even though he stood at a perfectly respectable five-ten. Sid had always wished he could have made it to six feet, but no amount of stretching in college had helped. Still, he knew he looked pretty good in a lean, clean-cut, boyish way.
He took a deep breath, trying to keep at bay the thoughts of his evening at home. He slammed the car door shut, put on his most confident swagger as he headed towards Aditi’s building, and then bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to the first floor.
As he reached the door, he heard the sound of ABBA and groaned inwardly. ABBA? in this day and age? He reached out and rang the doorbell. the tinny annoying tune of ‘B-I- N-G-O’ made him cringe as always. He glanced at his watch as he waited and his eyes bulged a little,
damn! nine thirty already? He knew Aditi had expected him to turn up at seven p.m. sharp. Just so unreasonable of her. it was the unwritten protocol these days to come at least an hour late, although a control freak like Aditi wouldn’t subscribe to that view. Sure enough, as soon as the door swung open, her hard and unsmiling face confirmed that she was not happy with him. tonight, her long, wavy hair was tamed into a tight ponytail which gave her a severe look despite her frilly dark-green top and tight jeans. She stood glaring at him in silence. He bravely maintained eye contact, but had the distinct impression that she was tapping her feet as she waited for him to say something. He decided to go with his usual approach, which meant pretending not to notice anything was wrong.
‘Happy Birthday, Buddy-boy!’ He gave her his most charming grin and reached out to envelop her in a big, warm hug.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, suppressing his own twinge of irritation. She didn’t have to make such an issue out of everything. it was only a little tardiness, after all.
‘it’s not my birthday, you dolt,’ she hissed. ‘it’s Ayaan’s.’
Ayaan’s? Oh no! That was right. Sid felt his ears turning red. this was indeed what you might term a bit of a boo-boo. of course, it was Ayaan’s birthday party – he was turning two today. Sid had obviously not been paying attention when Aditi had called last week to confirm he was coming for ‘the birthday party’ – he had just assumed it was her own. Wasn’t hers around this time of year? He decided to blame Facebook – it was because of those darned birthday calendars that no one bothered to remember anything any more. Although he had known Aditi for over twenty years, right from their school days, it was still tough for him to think of her as a mom. He hadn’t had a clue he was coming to a kid’s birthday party.
Oh bloody hell! Wait. Kids’ parties needed gifts. His usual alternative for a gift – ‘Heh-heh. i’ll take you out for dinner next week’ wasn’t going to work with a two-year-old. Sid felt mortified. So to cover up, he grinned and said ‘Of course it’s Ayaan’s birthday. get out of my way, you imposter! Where is the real birthday boy?’
He took a step past her and vaguely looked around towards the knees of the few people who were crowded around Aditi’s drawing room – some sitting, others standing and most shouting over ‘Dancing Queen’ to talk to each other. Aditi was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear it. Finally, she grabbed hold of his shoulder and, putting her mouth ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼close to his ear, shouted, ‘He’s asleep now. the party was at seven p.m. Sid! All the people with kids have left already. But then again, you always do this, don’t you?’ Sid cringed as she continued, ‘You’re just too cool to land up on time even when it’s an important occasion? You know how much this means to me. i don’t know why i expected better from you.’ this made him feel even worse. He just stood there gazing at her, unsure of what to say. After a few seconds, Aditi spoke again, more curious than angry now, ‘And hey – you didn’t bring Mandira?’
He stiffened a bit at the mention of his wife. ‘Well, you know, she said she would come but then she had an office thing, and you know, it was just one of those things ... you know? So i said i would go alone. Hey, so where’s Krish? Are we having beer?’
Aditi was staring closely at his face. that penetrating look of hers always made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t know why but this woman somehow always seemed to know – or at least, to always want to know what was going on inside his head. He wondered if he had made another tactical error by asking for beer at a two-year-old’s party, but he was pretty sure he had seen a few people with drinks in their hands. Aditi’s face wasn’t disapproving any more. ‘What’s wrong, Sid?’ she said, sounding concerned. ‘did you guys fight?’
Sid’s immediate reaction was to deny it with a half-scoffing, half-snorting sound, followed up with an ‘Arrey, no, no yaar.’ After all, it hadn’t really been a fight. Just a small ... difference in point of view. Yes. All married couples had them. no point talking about it. So he continued, ‘i’m telling you, na – she’s just super busy nowadays. She said to give you her love and wish you ... er, i mean, Ayaan a happy birthday.’
Aditi’s continued scrutiny of his face was driving him nuts. He decided to resort to joking. ‘So since my wife is busy at work, are there any hot chicks i can meet here?’ He leaned over and leered at her, adding, ‘Besides you, of course?’
It worked. Aditi laughed. ‘Yeah, yeah, watch it. Krish is around. And oh, don’t try to flatter your way out of the situation, Mister. You’re late, you forgot and...’
‘Hey, I'm really sorry about that, yaar.’ No posturing this time – his misery was genuine.
Aditi squeezed his arm and grinned, and he knew he was forgiven. She was as quick to forget as she was to flare up. ‘never mind. there are some people i want you to meet. Especially this friend of mine from Bangalore – i’ve told you about her, right? neha?’ She began leading him towards a girl sitting on the sofa when the doorbell rang again. Aditi stopped in her tracks and Sid almost bumped into her, ruining the effect of the cool walk he had put on while following her. She doubled back past him to the front door, saying, ‘i’ll be right there – just go over and say hi to her, no?’
Sid abandoned the cool walk and headed over in a normal fashion to the girl that Aditi had been making a beeline for. She was in conversation with an earnest-looking bespectacled young man and sipping from a tall glass of Coke, which he presumed was spiked. the first thing he noticed about her
was that she was rather small. An unusual-looking little thing, he thought as he took in her sharp-featured face with high cheekbones and a long, prominent nose. Her skin was fair, practically glowing; her make-up had been applied, he noticed, liberally yet tastefully. Her shoulder-length curly, black hair was stylishly cut to frame her face, giving her a pixie-like appearance. interesting, he thought, but she wouldn’t ever make it as a model given her size. You wouldn’t call her petite – no; in fact, she was sturdy and well-endowed as revealed by her low-necked, sleeveless purple blouse. not that he was looking or anything. the blouse was teamed with a flowing white skirt, and she had around her neck a chain of closely strung together, large white beads. He decided that she wasn’t his type. But the overall effect was striking.
He stopped right in front of her and the bespectacled young man, but neither seemed to notice. He cleared his throat – meeting people for the first time always made him a little nervous. And right now, he somehow found himself even keener than usual to make a good first impression.
He stuck out his hand to her and said in a deep voice, ‘Hi, Neha, i’m Sid.’
Neha didn’t seem to hear Sid over the loud music – she was facing away from him and concentrating on what the young man was saying. However, a moment later, she did acknowledge Sid’s outstretched hand - by distractedly placing her glass in it. As he stood frozen to the spot, holding her glass, she glanced up with a quick smile and said in a clear, penetrating voice ‘Harish Bhaiya, thodi si aur ice please.’ She then turned her attention back to the young man.
Sid’s face turned red, flushed with embarrassment. Harish Bhaiya was Aditi’s Man Friday. He was a thin man with ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼lanky brown hair and a faint moustache, and Sid knew he looked nothing like him. Yet, this rude and uncouth woman, this complete stranger, was pretending to have mistaken Sid for him. He was on the verge of sputtering with indignation when the real Harish entered the room from the kitchen with a large tray of drinks and ice. Sid saw that Harish’s hair had been oiled back to look slicker than usual, perhaps in honour of the occasion. Harish’s torn jeans and blue checked t-shirt definitely looked a lot like what Sid was wearing. He also noticed, for the first time, that Harish even had a tattoo on his forearm – of course, it wasn’t a cool, intricate Black Panther like his. It was pale blue and said Harish Yadav in Hindi. Still, there was no mistaking it. Tonight, of all nights, Sid looked like a Harish.
After a couple of seconds, Neha seemed to realize something was amiss, probably because the earnest young man was now shooting confused glances towards Sid over her shoulder. She looked up again, this time more carefully, at Sid, who stood there clutching the glass. She clasped her hand over her mouth and stood up to face him, her eyes wide-eyed in horror. He had been right – even in fashionable three-inch heels, she stood a good head shorter than him. never mind that she had just made him feel about two feet tall.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she breathed. ‘i thought you were ... you see, he ... Oh shit. i mean, I’m really sorry.’
Sid might have believed her except for the fact that her horror was already fighting a losing battle with her sense of humour. She seemed to have made up her mind that one way to look at this was that it was rather funny. She started off slow, with poorly suppressed giggles, but was soon in the midst of musical peals of completely uninhibited laughter at a volume rather disproportionate to her size. Despite the loud music, people heard her and turned around, and many slightly bewildered grins went around the room. No one actually knew the joke, but Neha’s laugh was very infectious.
That she was laughing at him did not come in the way of Sid being fascinated by her laugh. He waited politely for it to subside, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon. Finally, there was a bit of a lull during which neha wiped her eyes and tried to catch her breath. Sid took the opportunity to say with all the panache he could muster, ‘So, as i was saying ... i’m Sid, not Harish. And you are perhaps, Kanta Bai?’
Neha had almost regained control at this point, but Sid’s wisecrack set her off again. Sid watched as she threw her head back helplessly, her face now flushed completely red. But this time it was much more gratifying, considering that she was laughing at a joke he had cracked. He was feeling friendlier towards her by the time she caught her breath and straightened up to face him one more time. ‘i’m really sorry...Sid,’ she said breathlessly. ‘of course, Aditi’s told me a lot about you.’
‘Oh, has she?’ said Sid, half-pleased and half-wary. You never knew with Aditi. He decided to go with the polite, standard response, ‘Likewise – she’s told me a lot about you too.’
‘Really? What did she tell you about me?’
Sid was flummoxed. Neha was waiting intently for his response, her head tilted to one side, gazing at him with big brown eyes done up with purple-blue eye shadow. He did recall Aditi mentioning neha’s name a few times but he couldn’t for the life of him now recall the specific things that she had been gabbing about. So he smoothly lied, ‘oh, of course, you know, that you’re a really good friend of hers.’
She continued to look up at him with her head tilted to one side. Sid looked down to avoid her eye, and racked his brain for something else to say. He then caught sight of the bulge in neha’s tummy.
oh, he thought, okay. Another one bites the dust. out loud, he said, ‘And of course she told me that congratulations are in order!’
Neha narrowed her eyes. Sid was dimly aware that someone had come up behind him and was nudging him in the ribs. Aditi? He didn’t know why she would first get him to strike up a conversation with someone and then interrupt immediately. She had absolutely no manners sometimes. Well, she could wait. He didn’t notice that ‘Dancing Queen’ was now fading out rather quickly, else he probably wouldn’t have posed his next question to neha quite so loudly, shattering the sudden silence in the room.
‘So! When is the baby due?’