IT'S A FRIDAY EVENING but you can’t head home and settle in front of the T V with beers from your fridge and mutton biryani from the dhaba across the street. It’s already been a long day and it’s still not ended. You now have to go to your friend’s home for a dinner party. Well, she isn’t really a friend friend. She is a former colleague, so you could blow it off. But you’re also not an asshole, and she has invited you to celebrate the three-month anniversary of her wedding. You care neither for the occasion nor the husband. Still, you board an auto and head her way because you are a good person.
The two-story, bungalow-style home has a wrought-iron gate and a small garden. It’s conveniently located a hop away from the bustling Hauz Khas market. You can’t help being envious. They probably just stand at their balcony and holler for all sorts of vendors to come rushing in with platters of pakoras and samosas and hot jalebis straight from the fryer. You, on the other hand, you live in the hinterlands by yourself because that’s all you can afford on your salary. Which is really why you tip the dhaba boys so generously every time they bring over your order. You cannot risk angering the one source of good food in your neighborhood.
You reread the directions you were given over the phone this morning. You are to go straight upstairs and neither loiter around the ground floor nor accidentally ring its bell. The husband’s widowed mother lives below them, and you’ve been warned she has little tolerance for anyone under the age of seventy.
You walk past the tidy, square garden until you hit the mosaic staircase. With each step you take, the strain of jazz music grows stronger. The stairs lead you to a heavy, black door, and you let your finger hover over the bell. You’re no expert, you don’t know the names and types of woods in this world, but you can tell this is expensive. And you’re happy for her—your friend / former colleague, you truly are. After all, how many people your age and with practically the same goddamned salary get to disappear behind a door such as this every evening?
You take a deep breath and press the bell even though your throat feels like it’s closing in, like flowers whose petals clam up at night. We are done preening for you, sucker !
You hear the momentary lull in conversation but you have already recognized the voices. You quit these people a few months ago in pursuit of a flashier salary but now you have to spend an entire evening with them. You press the doorbell again. Urgently. As if you are here to take care of serious business.
Tanu opens the door, her face awash with happiness and laughter. Marriage hasn’t changed her, at least not on the outside. She is dressed simply in her usual blue jeans and a pale T-shirt, her outfit of choice for practically every occasion. She gives you a hug, and you breathe in a cloud of familiar smells—lemon verbena soap, sandalwood perfume. Mahesh slides up beside her, his shaved head hovering like an egg over her bony shoulder, his arm possessively gripped around her tiny waist. He smiles too and says, “Welcome, welcome. Please come in.”
You say, “Thank you,” although you can’t help thinking the deep lines under his eyes and the tight way his skin stretches over his face make him look less like Tanu’s husband and more like a creepy uncle. Somehow, the fifteen-year gap between them is more pronounced tonight than it was on the day of their wedding, when you saw him for the first time. But you were too drunk that night, and so all you remember is how after a few drinks, Mahesh began telling everyone what he would like to do to every man who has ever hurt Tanu. You had giggled along with the others, but secretly you had wondered what it must feel like to be the object of such passion.
You catch Mahesh’s eyes sweeping over your black shirt. His gaze doesn’t linger on your breasts—maybe if you weren’t so flat-chested things would be different—but out of habit, you surreptitiously glance down to check that the buttons haven’t come undone.
“Black really suits you,” Mahesh says.
You laugh because you haven’t mastered the art of accepting compliments in stride. You follow Mahesh and Tanu into the drawing room, where a cluster of familiar faces acknowledges you with varying degrees of nods and smiles.
It’s a smartly put together room, all stainless steel and white leather with tasteful accents of bamboo. Two loveseats face an enormous couch, and the side tables have neat stacks of expensive-looking coffee table books, lit up just so by stark, Scandinavian-looking lamps.
On one of the loveseats, Pia and Projapoti are smashed next to each other, gazing into a glossy book of black and white photographs of umbrellas. Their romance is as new as it is tumultuous, so you tell yourself to forgive them if they ignore you. But they don’t. Pia looks up from the page to give you a cheery wink and Projapoti, who took you under her wing when you first joined the company, sets downs her drink, stands up, and wraps you in a hug.
Rani is sprawled on the large sofa. Swathed in a voluminous pink and red sari, she looks like a porcelain doll. Her eyes are closed, lips pressed together. She is the picture of calm, a far cry from the perpetually anxious person she is in the office.
Auro, the only other man in the room besides Mahesh, is on the other end of the couch. He was hired to replace you, and you trained him for the last week you were there. But from the cocky, two-fingered salute he gives you, you would think it was the other way around. He slides toward Rani to make space for you on the couch. You sit down beside him and, as if to deliberately ignore your irritation, Auro stretches languorously and crosses his long legs at the ankles.
Tanu and Mahesh settle themselves in the other loveseat and resume their conversation with Auro, something about Nietzsche’s third principle.
“I have never understood his point about if you stare at the abyss, the abyss stares back,” Auro says, taking a swig of his drink. “I mean I know what it means literally. You will become whatever you let consume you. But I think it is our ability to turn away from the abyss that makes us human.”
Mahesh leans back, and sighs dramatically. You wonder if it’s mostly for effect because he must sense the way Tanu looks at him, her eyes filled more with the ardor of a devotee than the love of a wife.
Rani too stares at Mahesh, as if in a daze. She moistens her parted lips and cups her chin, the way one does while admiring a work of art.
You, however, are too tired to care what any of the men—Nietzsche, Mahesh, or Auro—have thought or said. You glance about, hoping someone will offer you a drink or a bite to eat. But no one moves a muscle, as if this isn’t your first time here, as if you didn’t just arrive at a party, hungry and tired from a long day at work.
You glance at your watch. It’s only six-thirty. You need something in your hands if only to distract your rumbling stomach. You spot the stylish bar cart in the corner. Two shelves lined with bottles of expensive liquor, a handful of glasses, and two bowls of chips. You take care to avoid tripping over Auro’s legs, and walk over to pour yourself a generous drink. But where’s the ice?
You’re considering trying the kitchen when Mahesh calls out, “Sorry. Our fridge broke this morning. So, no ice.”
It’s April. In New Delhi. What kind of human beings invite people over with a broken fridge and no ice?
• • •
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SAYANTANI DASGUPTA is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between—a finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction—and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her writings have appeared in several national and international publications such as the Rumpus, the Bellingham Review, and the Hindu. She teaches in the M F A program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.