She had been waiting for ten minutes now and was desperately in need of some distraction. That is why she asked the waiter to bring her the menu-card. Of course, if her mother were here, or had some kind of body-camera installed on her, something that Sandhya knew that her mother was fully capable of, she would have been livid.
“You don’t convince a potential suitor about your marriageability while stuffing your face with greasy food,” Amma would have pointed out.
But she didn’t care and as she went through the menu of deep fried snacks served with spicy chutneys, causing her bleak mood to immediately transform. So engrossed was she in this little gastronomical dream-state that she did not notice a shadow that fell over her table. It wasn’t until a somewhat amused male voice said, “Hi Sandy,” that she had been startled into looking up.
She immediately knew it was him, because she remembered his gigantic ears from the photograph that she had by now seen a hundred times. The trouble was that once she had seen his huge ears, she was unable to un-see it. There were probably a number of things about him that was interesting, but inside her head he had now been reduced to a caricature of sorts; the guy with the gigantic Gandhi-esque ears. He didn’t sit down immediately, hovered over her and thereby making her feel uncomfortable. Sandhya was sitting cross-legged on her chair, and as was habit, made herself smaller than what she was. She had rehearsed this scene many times in her head and even had a ready speech, but none in which she imagined that she would have to talk while staring at his waist. She giggled. If only Amma’s cameras were on her, it would be a potentially interesting situation. She shifted around, trying to make more room for herself and in the process the menu-card on her lap fell down.As did the stainless steel glass of water kept on the table. Clang! Guests on the other tables stopped their conversations and looked at them. Having so many pairs of unkindly eyes on her was embarrassing, but she glowered back. Meanwhile Madhavan had bent down to pick up the menu and the tumbler, which seemed to have rolled a few tables away. Congratulations, you klutz, Sandhya said to herself.
“I am so sorry, I am so sorry,” she apologised to the general air around her. It was ingrained in her. To apologize when she was at fault. And when she wasn’t.
After what seemed like an eternity, Madhavan emerged, with the menu-card and the tumbler. He grinned at her and she mustered a half-smile. Don’t seem too friendly. But don’t seem too cold. Amma her warned her.
“Have you been waiting for too long,” he asked her as he settled into the seat. Before she could answer, they were interrupted by a shrill Bollywood chartbuster, about a girl and her pigeon. It was Madhavan’s phone and he excused himself to answer it.
As Sandhya saw him, away at some distance talking over the phone, she got her first good look of him. He wasn’t as tall as he had initially seemed to her. He had a generous mop of hair on his head. At least Amma will be pleased that a potential son-in-law might finally break the family tradition of men with receding hairlines. He was dressed in distressed denim jeans and a Manchester United T-Shirt. She did not really care for fanboys, especially when it trickled into their sartorial choices.
“I am sorry that I got a little late. You know traffic...” he offered in manner of explanation. Though in its incompleteness, it explained nothing to her. He was done with his call and was back, sitting in the chair across her. Correction. Not sitting, but slouched lazily.
Sandhya nodded. Because that is what Amma would want her to do. Nod. Not necessarily in agreement. But a benign nod that signified, I understand your incomplete sentences. At any rate, that I am happy with the incomplete sentences.
“Have you decided what you want,” he asked pointing at the menu-card that she had held on to since the time Madhavan had rescued it for her. In her assessment of him she had completely forgotten about this. She looked at the menu-card again; clearly she needed some coffee and possibly a lot of food as well. A few pieces of bonda stuffed with spicy potatoes, a plate of upma topped with ghee and one tumbler of kaapi with twice the sugar that she would normally take. Yes, that would be perfect.
“I will just have tea.”
“You don’t want to eat anything” Sandhya asked, alarm already setting in her heart. What kind of future could she have with a man who drank tea? Just tea.
“Na…everything here seems so oily and unhealthy. You know tea is better for health.”
Sandhya nodded again. But she was pretty certain some kind of tea cartel was responsible for its sudden positive press in the media. I mean, how could tea be better than coffee. Tea did nothing for her. On the other hand, coffee made her feel fearless. What was appropriate etiquette? she wondered. Was she expected to drink tea too? Would he find it charming if she made an independent decision and ordered what she wanted? Didn’t all potential suitors claim they wished to marry girls who were independent, whatever that was supposed to mean. But then again what sort of person would want to marry a girl who was a glutton? Or marry a girl with ill-aligned planets?
In her head Sandhya was running through the questions that she imagined Madhavan would ask her. Why do you want to get married? What about living in another city? In another country? Future? Children? Something. Anything. But Madhavan was busy texting. Perhaps she should ask him something, Sandhya thought.
“So you were going to meet a friend, yes? How did that go,” she asked initiating polite but pointless chitchat.
He stretched his arms instead of answering her question right away. That is when she got a whiff of his perfume. He didn’t smell like all the other Tamil boys she knew. There was the fragrance of musk, lemon and something else that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“Yes, I did. She is my friend from school. Sumi is my chellam.”
Chellam, Sandhya thought. Meaning, dearest. My most loved. Darling. Why did he offer this piece of information to her?
“Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
She considered his question carefully. It was a predictable one and in all the possible scenarios that went through her head in the run-up to this meeting, this question made it to every list. She knew the answer to this. How could she not? But in that moment, her mind drew a blank and she did not remember one thing from her carefully rehearsed answers.
“I work in advertising and I hate my job,” was what she finally said. What a stellar thing to say. How was this going to help anyone in his or her mate selection?
Thankfully, he seemed to find this amusing and laughed.
“I have those days too. But they usually go away.”
The tea arrived and Sandhya grabbed the steel glass wanting to warm and dry her clammy hands with the heat. This meeting was already so awkward, and they had just begun.
With the arrival of the tea, Madhavan too put his phone away. At least something warranted his complete attention.
“You know what, you are very different from what I imagined you would be like,” he said.
“How so?” she asked, her voice sounding more cheerful and less nervous now, greatly aided by the four spoons of sugar that she had generously added into her tea.
“I am not sure, da,” he said and the usage of da made her cringe. First Sandy. Then Chellam. Now Da. What was the word for it, overfamiliar? She did not like that. She liked distanced men, ones like her Appa and her brother, the kind who would address everyone formally and retreat into their corners at the first opportunity.
“I am not too sure. You seem like such a chammatu Ponnu,” he added after some thought.
Chammatu Ponnu, aka the good girl. What every Indian girl aspires to be, or at least that is what families will have you believe. However, Sandhya knew by now, Chammatu Ponnu, was usually shorthand for, you really are a dork, rather unattractive and unremarkable. It was clear that Madhavan saw her as altogether too plain. This was not news to her, in fact, she was used to it by now. It was her plain clothes; her mass-produced salwar sets tailored by unimaginative craftsmen. It was the unfashionable way that she tied her hair and the dot on her forehead that she refused to lose.
The sweetness of the tea was now beginning to make Sandhya sick and she wished she had ordered coffee instead. Coffee could withstand the onslaught of sugar, but tea was too insipid and watered down. At the very least, she should have at least ordered one deep fried snack.
“So why do you want to get married?” Madhavan asked next, once again a question that was part of her set-list.
She recalled this one advertisement that she wrote copy for. It was for a brand of cooking oil and the cheesy tagline that Sandhya had come up with after forty straight hours in office was, home is someone you come back to. It had this image of a woman, waiting for husband with a hot meal while he toiled at work. Her client, as oily as the products he made, had immediately approved of her endorsement of the privilege of patriarchy. Needless to say, the advertisement evoked severe backlash on social media and inspired think pieces by angry women. Her follower count on Twitter reached a respectable triple digit when someone discovered that she was somehow involved with this copy. Perhaps she could offer this award-winning copy as a response to Madhavan’s question.
“To get my parents off my back, I suppose.”
Wait, did she just say that out loud?
“What about love and shared adventures, that is the most important thing for me. I want to fall in love, don’t you?”
Mr Bollywood was rather cheesy; in fact he should be the one writing copy for ads. Also, if one were seeking love, why do so by meeting parents-whetted girls, after checking for the alignment of planets? She asked him just that and he looked wounded at her question and also uncomfortable. Perhaps tea works as a truth serum.
“We are not that modern a family, you know. My parents have expectations.”
What did that even mean? Didn’t all parents have expectations? That was the cornerstone of parenting. She did not get a chance to ask him more because the Bollywood song was back and he once again excused himself to answer it.
While he was away, Sandhya replayed the meeting in her head. Play. Rewind. Pause. Was he not interested in her? Was it her have-a-mind-of-its-own hair? Couldn’t be, she had shampooed and forced it into submission by getting it blown dried at a salon yesterday. Was it her ill luck?
He returned in a bit and said, “I have to leave now, as something has come up.”
Sandhya got up and Madhavan opened his wallet to pay. Normally she would have volunteered to pay her share, but if she was not getting a husband, she should at the very least get a free cup of tea, she concluded.
But as they walked out, a feeling of impending gloom took over her. What will she tell Amma? Amma would demand every single detail; each word and gesture would be parsed. Perhaps she should just tell Amma that Madhavan was gay. For her mother understood so many things, homosexuality was not one of them. She giggled as she got on her bike and the Learner’s Licence card that she had been contemplating getting rid of for days now, fell off on its own and she rode into the sunset. The universe had spoken.
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