Jagmohan Sahai, a man born in poverty and clawing his way to riches must deal with a business partner born into ancestral wealth. When Sahai is invited to a party at his partner’s mansion, he suffers painful anxiety at the thought of being considered “provincial” by Delhi’s high society. The part becomes a minefield for Jagmohan and his wife and culminates with a hilarious disaster. In the process of becoming nouveau-riche, Jagmohan’s desperation is perfectly penned – desperation to make money, fit in, and, of course, show women their place. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.
Holding a crisp one Rupee note just acquired from the bank, Jagmohan Prasanna Sahai was tickled pink. A tall-ish, stocky man, body and face the colour of desiccated hay, pink wasn’t a colour he’d often associate with himself. Today, however, was an exciting day for him and his.
“Hurry, you fool. I’ll give you the whole thing if you do.”
“Bhaiya, traffic hai. Airplane nahin, Auto hai.”
Jagmohan tapped his foot against the steel floor of the auto rickshaw, which was navigating through Yamuna Nagar’s zigzagging lanes at an excruciatingly slow pace. He’d taken the auto to avoid looking disheveled when he met his business partner Sohaib. He could’ve walked the distance from his house. It seemed to him that would’ve been quicker.
“If you don’t hurry then you’ll get nothing. I’m telling you now.”
The driver floored the accelerator on his rickshaw, making the rickety vehicle speed up to all of twenty kilometers an hour. It wasn’t much, but it got him to his destination in time, just as Sohaib was pulling up in his shiny new ’87 model Ambassador.
As he hurriedly disembarked Jagmohan deposited a few paisas into the hands of the auto driver. “Where’s the rest?” cried the driver. “If you actually thought I was going to give you a whole rupee, you’re mad.” said Jagmohan, already distracted by the site before him. “But you said…”
Tearing his eyes away from the large vacant lot he’d come to assess, Jagmohan turned towards the driver. “You’re crazy to believe what everyone says, I can say I want to go to the moon and back if I want. Now fuck off or I’ll take my money back!” He took a step towards the driver, a man quarter his size in both length and breadth. Just as he expected, the driver backed down.
The driver got back into his auto rickshaw, cursing under his breath as he started up the motor. Jagmohan turned around once more, “What did you say you low life? What did you call me?” If he had been annoyed before, now he was flat out furious.
“Oye, J.P.” shouted Sohaib, distracting Jagmohan and affording the rickshaw driver an opportunity for escape. The little box on wheels backfired several times as it rushed down the road. Jagmohan watched the hasty departure disdainfully, and thought, ‘If the jerk had moved that fast on the way here, I might have given him the whole rupee!’
“Still sweating small change I see,” Sohaib said while shaking his head. “Why didn’t you just drive here? Just bought yourself the 800 haven’t you?” And when Jagmohan didn’t answer, Sohaib added, “Didn’t want to spend the 8 rupees on fuel?” Jagmohan’s economic piety seemed to be a constant source of amusement for Sohaib.
It bothered Jagmohan when Sohaib made light of his spending — no, his saving habits. He wasn’t from an old and respected city family like Sohaib’s, whose family had settled in Delhi much before 1947. Jagmohan hadn’t lived comfortably through and after the partition in one of the huge bungalows near respected localities like Aurangzeb Road. Jagmohan’s family had been uprooted and migrated to Kurukshetra where his father had spent the last of his days tending to the small plot of land the government had given them, in lieu of the thousand Multani acres they’d been forced to abandon. Jagmohan’s inheritance had been scraped-together money, just enough to pay for engineering college in Delhi. He knew what it was like to start from scratch.
Given his circumstances, Jagmohan thought himself rather generous.
“The bloody fool was trying to cheat me,” he said defensively, “Everyone is always trying to cheat you in this city!”
Sohaib shrugged, that grin still spread over his whole face, only just camouflaged by a thick beard that covered half of it.
“What’s the point of buying a car if you’re going to break your head with auto drivers everyday, I ask!”
Jagmohan didn’t really care to answer anything Sohaib asked, he could never understand. His father had probably bought him his first car, which was definitely long forgotten by now. Sohaib’s fresh white Ambassador was parked by the side of the road; the driver, in his perfectly starched white uniform, was leaning carelessly on the hood as he waited for his master. Jagmohan wanted to shout at the driver to stand up straight, mind that he didn’t scratch the polish but Sohaib didn’t even seem to notice. Sohaib didn’t blink twice while forking out five lakhs — the amount he’d paid to buy into what was now, much to Jagmohan’s dejection, their construction company.
In front of them, was a vast flat land covering practically the whole block. Jagmohan imagined the rows of flats that would cover it soon enough and the pile of contracts such a project would bring. As if reading his mind Sohaib said, “This is just the beginning bhai. My friends in the government have promised that many such projects will come to our company.” He laid stress on the word our, which was the exact word that Jagmohan liked to blur out.
“But before all that,” said Sohaib, “for this project they’re offering thirty lakhs.” When Jagmohan opened his mouth in ready protest, Sohaib quickly added, “Out of which you’ll get to keep six, give or take expenses.”
‘Six lakhs could go far right now’, he thought. It could mean a nicer house in a more respectable locality, savings for future marriages, education. “I’ll have
to think about this… Thirty lakhs for a project as big as this one….” he spoke slowly, letting his voice taper off as if wholly dismayed.
“Well, we will have to tell them soon. We’re not the only company in the running for this. Most of them would jump on it so we can’t dilly-dally about it. Honestly I don’t even know what you’re thinking about. Seize the day J.P! Carpe Diem, my man.”
“What sort of deadline have they given?” asked Jagmohan cautiously eyeing the land; he didn’t give a shit about Carp or Ediem, and knew not what they stood for together. Then came the kicker. “Well yes, they do want the whole thing up and running by next year.”
“Next year!” cried Jagmohan whipping around to face his partner. “No bloody way we can do this in one year. Did you tell them that we could? Sohaib?” He watched his partner’s confidence crumble; it always started with a furrow by the forehead, then a sagging of the cheeks. “Just think of the labour cost alone. Sixty. At least. You tell your friend — if he is, even, your friend. Sounds to me like he’s taken you for a bloody fool”
And there it was. Sohaib’s whole face had collapsed. The man was soft, unaccustomed to standing out in the summer heat, or fighting to get his way. “Fine. Sixty lakhs then.” said Sohaib.
Jagmohan’s eyes narrowed into near slits. “That was quick. Don’t you want to talk to your friend first? Or are you keeping something from me?”
Sweat was now trickling down from under Sohaib’s turban and snaking down past his proud Ludhiayanvi nose. “Don’t be silly man!” cried Sohaib slapping one hand unto Jagmohan’s shoulder. “I just see your point.” When Jagmohan continued to glower at him, he added, “Isn’t that what my part is in our company. To take care of these little things? You focus on how to build these apartments and I’ll make sure we get paid for it.”
“Sixty lakhs is not a small thing,” muttered Jagmohan under his breath but he relaxed his stance. “Fine, fine. Tell them we’ll do it — If, and only if, they agree to our price. Tell your friend I’m not running a charity here.”
Sohaib chuckled as if he’d heard some sort of joke, “Then it’s settled. I’ll come into office with you right now and make the call.”
“You’re coming to office today? Wah!” Jagmohan had his sources of amusement too.
“You know as well as I do, JP. Business deals don’t take place in an office.”
With that, they left the site and started back towards the office. There were other matters on Jagmohan’s mind. For one, he couldn’t help but wonder if Sohaib was shorting him on the deal. Such thoughts were the reason he remained quiet during the car ride. The same could not be said of Sohaib, who prattled on about the project and how much money it would make for them in the future.
“I want to meet these officials,” said Jagmohan. “It seems only fair since we’re partners that I should meet them as well,” he added when Sohaib’s eyebrows shot up. If this demand — and indeed Jagmohan’s tone made it clear that it was more a demand than a request — bothered Sohaib in any manner, neither his face nor mannerisms betrayed it. He suggested that Jagmohan come over to his house for a dinner party his wife was throwing this Friday, which was in two days time. The official in charge of the tender was an old friend of the family’s and would also be there. It seemed as good an excuse as any and they could all meet in a sort of cordial atmosphere. “Delhi is all about being social my dear man!” was how Sohaib ended that conversation.
Jagmohan couldn’t help but wonder at the last minute invite. Surely if there was going to be a party at Sohaib’s house, Jagmohan, his business-partner, should have been one of the first to be invited. This not being the case, he wondered if Sohaib was slightly ashamed of him.
This liquid thought was made all the more concrete when Sohaib came into Jagmohan’s room in their offices later in the evening. “I spoke with Leela, she’s said yes.” Why was there any need to ask his wife?
“Will you be bringing the Mrs. and your son?” Sohaib asked him in a manner Jagmohan thought was guarded. Was he afraid that Jagmohan’s family would embarrass themselves in whatever eminent company Sohaib’s party was catering to?
“Yes. Of course. I don’t know about Shashwat, you know how children are these days. Kalavati will come with me, I’m sure.” He replied while barely looking up from the building plans he was studying. It was his way of diminishing some of the higher ground he felt Sohaib had over him at this point. After all, if the man was ever going to be a success in this business, he would need Jagmohan and he should know that.
“Good…Good…” Sohaib said distractedly, “Bring Shashwat as well, my son Bonny will be there too. They can keep each other company amongst all the old men.” Jagmohan made a noise with his throat that could be taken for affirmation and with that, Sohaib went home for the day.
As was his habit after his partner left the office, Jagmohan pattered about the small space for a few hours by himself. Usually, he checked the work sheets, the accounts, some days he even checked Sohaib’s papers, as the man never locked the door to his room. Today he walked back and forth the two hundred square feet in agitation.
He felt consumed with irritation at Sohaib’s last minute invite. If he thought about it, Jagmohan could not remember ever visiting Sohaib’s home or meeting his wife. Had he been younger he would have imagined such small details did not matter but these last years in the city had taught him better. Sohaib’s words haunted him — “Business deals aren’t made in offices.”
Before going home, Jagmohan decided to take a detour to Chandini Chowk market. The familiar smell of cow dung, sweat, and sugary jalebees calmed his mind a little, but not entirely. Usually he would have stopped to indulge in a deep-fried radish-stuffed parantha, or some pomegranate juice. There was no dearth of delicious food stalls in the nimble lanes that snake through the market. But today his goal was different. He looked around for what seemed to be the largest and most expensive clothing store. He immediately knew which one to go into from the displays outside — the one with the most gold ornaments and zari work on their saris. Such was the opulence of this shop that it seemed to yell that whoever bought its wares had declared themselves to have ‘arrived’. This was exactly the sort of message Jagmohan wanted to convey.
It was late when he finally reached home. Shashwat, who at his father’s insistence was preparing for medical school entrance exams, had already gone to bed. Only Kalavati was waiting, sitting crossed legged on a sofa in the small living room that also doubled as their dining room and kitchen. For the first time Jagmohan felt as if his house were suffocating.
She had probably been watching for him through the window. Even as Jagmohan came through the door, Kalavati got up to ready dinner for him. “You’re late today,” she said rather than asked. Women like Kalavati would never ask anything of their spouses, or so Jagmohan thought.
They had been together twenty years now. Twenty years, in which time her body had filled out from the slender pear shape it used to be to resemble the over ripe mango it now was. He nodded and grunted at her, no explanations were needed. He glanced towards dinner. Yellow lentils, oily cauliflower soaked in turmeric, and a stack of thick rotis; same as any other day and on any other day it would satisfy him. Tonight it left him wanting. If someone had asked him, what for? Jagmohan, whose only dietary variation was that some days Kalavati switched the cauliflower for potatoes, would not be able to answer. So perhaps it was a good thing that Kalavati hadn’t yet developed the habit of asking questions.
As he sank down on a dining chair and the packages slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor. He picked them up carefully but then threw the packages on the dining table and toward Kalavati. He watched as she merely shoved them aside and went about her usual supervision of his every bite, filling his glass with water, giving him that look she gave whenever he came home late, half approbation — at him, half pity — at herself. Nevertheless, she’d been raised properly; she kept spooning thickly cut slices of cucumber and onions onto his plate, her mother had taught her that it helped aid a man’s digestion.
But was she stupid? She couldn’t really think that the package, tied with a golden gauze bow that had taken the shopkeeper almost five minutes to perfect, was meant for him. He brought back gifts for her often enough — thread so she could mend his shirt, plums and guavas when he could get them cheap.
“Arrey, look at least, they’re for you, silly woman!” cried Jagmohan, only after his hunger was satisfied and not before. He enjoyed this time with his wife. Not that he’d ever admit it to her. “Or should I take it back? I guess you don’t want new clothes.”
Kalavati’s lips spread out into a toothy smile. “For me?” she said with no little amount of incredulity. Immediately she grabbed the bags, as if terrified that he would act upon his threat to return them.
“Of course for you. You see any other women around here?” he replied and then said somewhat grudgingly, “Be careful. Don’t lose or tear anything. I don’t have money for replacements.”
Kalavati was barely listening. Her hands were greedily tugging the ribbon loose, tearing at the brown paper packaging, and her eyes wide with excitement. When she unfolded the length of the sari, however, she did so judiciously.
“It’s beautiful! I love it!” She stood up, and held the clothe against her body. The sari Jagmohan chose, after no small amount of thought and convincing by the shopkeeper, was made of chiffon; burgundy just like his 800; with tiny gold, tinsel stars embroidered on the paper-thin fabric. Against Kalavati’s olive complexion, its colour took on an intense hue. He was pleased with his good taste and so beamed as much as his wife.
“Careful!” he warned her again and so gently Kalavati placed it back unto the brown paper packaging, though most of it was torn now. Silently, and with undying dimpled cheeks, she filled his empty glass with water.
“You’ll need a blouse and all that to go with it,” he said and she nodded excitedly. “That Mrs. Gonde, she knows a good tailor, she’s always saying. I’ll go over the weekend.”
Jagmohan shook his head, “No, No. You have to wear it on Friday, this Friday,” and then to answer Kalavati’s questioning eyes he told her as little about Sohaib’s party as he possibly could. He left out the parts about the contract and his thoughts of the day. Those were not matters to be discussed with wives.
“Just get something made quickly. But look nice. I don’t want people wondering who this villager is, who’s walked in with me!” Kalavati’s smile dwindled ever so slightly but she remained, as she was taught to be, soundless. She stroked the featherweight material of the sari and played with the gold star embroidery.
Over the next two days Jagmohan prepared himself on dual fronts. Arrangements had to be made for the project Sohaib and him were about to embark on. He spent a great deal of time crunching numbers and familiarising himself with the ins-and-outs of the deal. This didn’t stop him from fretting about the party. So high-strung was he on the subject that Shashwat commented that he was behaving like a woman. This earned him a good boxing on the ears, for Jagmohan wasn’t averse to doling out corporal punishment as and when he deemed it necessary.
For his part, Shashwat was not wrong. Jagmohan harangued his family on the proper protocol for such high-class affairs, as he put it. Kalavati was told to speak as little as possible since she knew no English and Jagmohan had the presentiment that speaking in any other language would make them seem provincial. Shashwat was taken to the market to fit him for a proper collared shirt and a pair of new black shoes.
So it happened that Friday came before Jagmohan even realized, and as his family got ready that night, for all his planning and plotting, he felt unprepared and thus tremendously insecure. Even as he turned the ignition of his Maruti, which had been washed and polished by Shashwat for the occasion, he reminded Kalavati to stay near him and checked to see if their clothes were in order. His wife and son underwent his inspections with little complaint, at least none that were voiced.
Jagmohan’s fretting only gained traction when they reached Sohaib’s home — which was less of a house and more of a mansion. An old but straight-backed guard in a primly starched uniform let them through the mammoth wrought-iron gates. A white Ambassador had arrived just before them. The government plates on it suggested that it belonged to Sohaib’s contact, whom he was supposed to meet that night.
Excited to see whom he was to deal with, Jagmohan followed the car through the driveway and till the front entryway. The man who alighted from it looked to be well over-sixty, balding, and dressed in white kurta–pajamas. There was little adornment to him, which comforted Jagmohan temporarily till he noticed the fat diamond gleaming audaciously on the man’s petite pinky finger.
Another uniform clad guard approached Jagmohan’s car. He held the door open for Jagmohan and then held out his hand for the car-keys. No servant was going to park his precious car, and no amount of insistence could convince Jagmohan otherwise. The guard told him how to reach the back of the house where all the other cars were parked. In the driveway stood several imported cars, all of them with drivers waiting by their side. The Maruti now seemed not so impressive. As they trudged to the front of the house, which was built to resemble a Mughal palace, Kalavati clung to Jagmohan’s hand.
Sohaib’s house was even more impressive from within. The three of them were led through the long corridor, their footsteps echoing on the pristine marble flooring. On either side the walls were covered with oil paintings of proud, tall Sikhs in full battle garb. Jagmohan guessed they were ancestral portraits. If the haughty stares frozen in these frames weren’t enough to make him feel small, entering the living room where the entire party had gathered convinced him that they were not ready for Delhi society in the least.
There were ten people standing about the living room in total. Men and women in equal number and the party seemed divided by gender. Men standing by the mahogany bar or sitting on the plush leather stools placed by it and the women perched daintily on sofas by the raw silk curtains. The room spoke of luxury without screaming it. The framed art on the wall, an elegant black-marble fireplace (which in these moments of summer heat was not being used) Kashmiri carpets, filigree lace table runners – all whispered about it.
With the exception of the older man that Jagmohan had seen entering before him, the rest of the men were dressed in their weekend best; shirts with crisp collars and satin scarves tucked into them. He could not see Sohaib but almost as soon as they entered, a pretty woman in a pastel apricot coloured sari approached them.
Her smile was malleable and her eyes almost as hard as the diamonds that dripped from her wrists and ears. Jagmohan held Kalavati’s hand to stop her from self-consciously playing with the gold bangles she had on. These were the very best that Jagmohan could afford but now they looked nugatory. He squeezed her hand to show support as she pressed herself closer to him, almost hiding behind him. The room fell into a momentary silence when they entered as if everyone was accessing the newcomers.
Out of nowhere came Sohaib and greeted them with exaggerated gusto. Introductions were made. Leela looked at Kalavati from head to toe in a disconcerted manner. “What a lovely sari!” she exclaimed in a way that suggested she was too polite to say otherwise. When Kalavati’s blank expression gave away her ignorance of the Queen’s language, Leela repeated the same in Hindi. Taking the hand that Kalavati wasn’t using to hang onto Jagmohan, Leela led her, like one would lead a child, toward the rest of the women who all looked at her with the same, muted disdain.
Kalavati, looking very much the sacrificial lamb smiled bravely at Jagmohan who found that he felt surprisingly lost without a wife’s hand to hold unto. “You should have told me it was such a big party, we didn’t realise and have come quite casually dressed,” he said. Laughing, Sohaib threw his arms around both Jagmohan and Shashwat to drag them towards the bar.
Standing at the bar, Jagmohan assessed the pack of men that had congregated around it. Each holding a highball filled with amber liquid in one hand and several with lit cigarettes in the other. When offered a drink — “Have a Scotch, man.” — Jagmohan confessed to being a teetotaler and pointed to the recent deaths in Karnataka in support of his choice. Ascending chimes of laughter let him know what an unheard of idea that was, “That was Karnataka!” said one portly man, “This is Delhi and this is Sohaib’s house. It’s all imported yaar. I can bet my life on it.” He took a generous swig from his glass to prove his point.
The conversation amongst the men ranged from the latest sporting activities to the upheavals in politics. After a while, Shashwat and Bonny disappeared, no doubt similarly bored of the company of old men. Jagmohan hoped that his son wouldn’t try and surreptitiously smoke the cigarettes, which he thought his father was clueless about.
Meanwhile growing impatient to speak to the official as Sohaib had promised, more than once Jagmohan tried to nudge his business partner and each time he was rebuffed, “Arrey J.P., later, later. This isn’t how one does business. Let the man enjoy himself. Enjoy yourself, have a drink. The business will take care of itself.” Any attempt of Jagmohan’s to speak privately with the official, who had been introduced to him as Patelji, was also negated by Sohaib who seemed to be watching his partner with hawk’s eyes.
It then occurred to Jagmohan that if he wasn’t going to get some work out Patelji then he might try to find productive means elsewhere, or amongst the other men at the party. He knew from his introductions that these were all men of means. Not that he needed such preambles or knowledge of family trees to make that out. He had right before his eyes, (and he was the sort of man who saw everything when it suited him) evidence in the form of heavy bejeweled watches and the cavalier manner in which they discussed the collapse of the Rupee. “Anyone who’s smart has invested in gold by now,” sneered the same portly man, whose name Jagmohan had learnt was Surjeevan Rai. He was the owner of several woodwork showrooms and residential plots around Delhi.
Jagmohan’s ears perked up, and immediately he began to press Rai for a good contact from where to procure gold. “The best are the Saudis,” he was told in a way that also informed him that this was not confidential information; it was something everyone knew. Certainly everyone gathered at this party seemed to know for they nodded in ready agreement. “I have my man in Dubai, I don’t know how he does it but you can call on him for any amount you need or want, he sends it through the hawala system. Prompt too!”
Upon hearing this, Jagmohan started to work on Rai. Where did he find this man? Was there any way for Jagmohan to contact him? Of course, there was, but Rai wasn’t particularly helpful. In fact, his information grew shadowy once intruded by Jagmohan’s probing, which wasn’t light or casual by any stretch of imagination. Eventually Sohaib had to interject the twosome’s conversation and thus it was steered towards the latest movies. Jagmohan hadn’t seen Lawaaris yet, though everyone else seemed to have. When questioned as to why and still stinging from what he considered Sohaib’s untimely interjection he said, “I just haven’t found the time. Some of us have to work for a living you see.”
The pointed and bitter accusation bought him a few minutes of joy, if only because it allowed him to vent for that time. The party lapsed into a brief silence at his comment, everyone watched him with displeasure as they sipped from their heavy crystal glasses. This was when Shashwat and Bonny returned from the garden.
“Have you seen Lawaaris my boy?” Rai asked him as he approached. To this Shashwat, with no idea of what had unfolded in his absence, nodded delightedly, “It’s a wonderful film isn’t it? I saw it just a few days ago, with a friend.”
“Oh, a friend. Do you mean a lady friend?” inquired Sohaib gleefully. Jagmohan pursed his lips and crossed his arms over his chest. “Shashwat doesn’t have time for lady friends at this age. He’s in medical school, I’m going to make him a surgeon.” That his son was not entirely comfortable with these plans was obvious to everyone surrounding them but for Jagmohan, Shashwat’s education and future potential were a matter of deep pride- As evident from the twinkle in his eyes as Shashwat’s reluctance to participate was from his silence.
“Oh but everyone needs a lady in their life,” interjected, rather suddenly, the voice of Leela. Her voice sounded as amused as she looked, it seemed she’d been listening to the discussion for some time. “Surely you wouldn’t deny your son some happiness in his life.” Turning to Shashwat she continued, “Who is this lady friend? Tell us about her, Dear. Is she pretty?”
That there was indeed an illicit friendship hidden in the folds of Shashwat’s life and away from his father’s eyes was confirmed by the sudden onslaught of ruddy colour on the young man’s cheeks. “Well…” he began nervously though smiling, but he wasn’t allowed to complete the sentence. “Not meaning to disrespect madam,” interrupted Jagmohan, “but it’s not any of your business how I raise my son.” He gave Shashwat a look daring him to defy, which the boy didn’t. Then pointing towards Bonny, who was helping himself to some Scotch, Jagmohan added, “Anyway I hardly think your son is the best example.”
Once again the group fell into an uncomfortable silence. Only the giggling of the women on the sofas by the corner of the room, who were neither in ear-shot of what was being said nor did they care to participate, was audible. Leela looked as if she had more to say. Jagmohan prepared for a standoff, though he would have been surprised to be in one. He had, after all, correctly informed this woman of her place.
Then as quickly as the tension had arisen it was broken by Sohaib’s laughing voice, “My, my, I must watch it. Let me not have to choose between my business partner and my wife. Come now dear man, she was only joking. Wasn’t she?” He said this last question while staring meaningfully at Leela, who immediately transformed the expression of irritation on her face into one of complacency.
“Of course, I didn’t mean to interfere Jagmohanji. I was just thinking it’d be a shame for your boy to be alone. He is after all, so handsome. I just came here to tell you men that dinner is served. Please, come to the dining table.” she said gesturing towards a built-in enclave from where the smell of roasted meats and fresh bread wafted towards them.
Jagmohan didn’t reply in kind, he was still annoyed. The husbands made their way towards their respective wives, to escort them to the table. Sohaib hung back with Leela while Jagmohan walked to where Kalavati was sitting by herself.
It had been no more than an hour since they had arrived at the party but from Kalavati’s haggard face one might have thought decades had passed. Jagmohan knew the expression well —she was famished. He, too, been nervous the whole day and as a result of that, neither had eaten a bite. The aroma coming from the dining area played havoc on Jagmohan’s senses; his mouth watered, his stomach thundered and a maelstrom of hunger threatened to sweep him off his feet. With a gentle nod, he helped her up from the sofa and took her towards the round dining table, also made from mahogany.
Everyone sat in pairs, as god and the hostess had intended. The latter’s design made apparent by dainty name cards nestled in the swan shaped napkins. Jagmohan sat next to Kalavati, opposite Sohaib and Leela. Shashwat was placed next to his father. Much to Jagmohan’s chagrin, Patelji sat by Sohaib’s left and Rai by Kalavati’s. How could he talk business to them now?
It was this thought that was racing like mice through Jagmohan’s mind when a delicate china plate topped with an equally delicate, charred carcass of a small bird was placed before him. Other sides such as potatoes that had been creamed out of any discernible shape and green salad with large, uncut and oily leaves were already sitting on the table. Presumably the sides were for communal use while everyone got individual plates with a dead bird on it.
Kalavati was delighted. “Titar!” she whispered excitedly to Jagmohan. “Ah! roasted Pheasant!” came another happy sigh from right next to her. Mr. Rai’s eyes were sparkling with an extra voltage now. Leela smiled in a gratified manner as if she could not have wished for more apposite praise. “Sohaib hunted them himself Mr. Rai. There’s hundreds at our farm you know.”
Everyone on the table made suitable sounds to indicate how impressed they were. Jagmohan would have too, but he was busy giving Kalavati a look of pointed admonition. She’d picked up the pheasant with her hands, as she had so many times in her village. She was just about to sink her teeth into a muscle-filled area that she knew would be sweet and soft, when Jagmohan’s elbow poked her hard in the ribs! “OW!” she yelped, unceremoniously dropping the bird back into her plate.
She gave her husband a questioning look and also, he saw, a silent entreaty — ‘Let me eat in peace.’ This was not to be the case however. Silver forks and knives had been laid out next to every place setting. Jagmohan was holding up his pair so she’d see the proper way to eat here. The cutlery was heavy; silver with ornate carvings around the handles. Kalavati turned the fork over to admire the work. These were larger and infinitely more beautiful than the steel set she’d bought with her dowry, used still in the Sahai house.
Jagmohan felt the weight of Leela’s horror at Kalavati’s blatant obliviousness. Beautiful or not, she had no idea what to do with this cutlery; she’d never used either before to cut through meat on the bone and Jagmohan was painfully aware of this. With the deliberate and slow actions of a mime, he showed his wife how to place the knife in her left hand and the fork in her right. She watched as he made exaggerated gestures of securing the bird with his fork and cut a bite for himself with the knife. He jerked his head to indicate that she should follow suit. She did as was expected of her but it was clearly a struggle.
The bird was roasted to a much tougher consistency that either was accustomed to, and Kalavati miscalculated the precise pressure point at which to start. Jagmohan watched, mortified, as the dead bird flew right out of his wife’s plate, did a brief pirouette in the air and plopped loudly into the bowl of mashed potatoes. Leela’s delicate sari was ignobly splattered with a generous helping. Much more than the tiny toothsome of buttery purée that she’d daintily served herself.
The entire incidence must have taken seconds but for the Jagmohan, it lasted a lifetime. Silence followed. Kalavati’s eyes grew saucer-like with horror; Jagmohan remained speechless, all the while looking to and fro between Kalavati and Leela. The latter could have dissipated the tension with the smallest of smiles but none seemed forthcoming. The quiet was finally broken when some of the mash, which had landed on Leela’s neat and shiny hair, fell onto the table, and leaving a trail of potato pulp on the left side of her face. Then, a loud booming laughter was heard.
Jagmohan turned towards the sound to see that it was Mr. Rai who was convulsing over, holding his belly. His mouth stretched out in an expression of uncontrollable mirth and his eyes flashing more than ever. Sohaib hastily joined in and shortly after the entire party mimicked these two men.
“Please don’t worry about it!” Leela assured Kalavati who was already mid-profuse-apologies; only a hint of half-heartedness could be heard in her tone as she got up from the table to clean herself up. Mr. Rai wiped the tears rolling down his face as he turned towards Jagmohan, whose heart was filled with the nauseating feeling of humiliation.
“Please madam, don’t worry too much about it. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen.” When he noticed Leela’s annoyed expression, he laughed some more and continued talking to Kalavati, “It’s not your fault at all. The cutlery set here is all wrong, too big for such a small bird! Leela, of all people, should know!”
As if the irony was too heavy for him, Rai doubled over in another fit of laughter. This time Sohaib didn’t join in, but he didn’t venture a defense for his wife’s service sensibilities either. The little respect Jagmohan had for Sohaib was eroded by this tactical muteness. Yet, when Leela came back from cleaning herself up, face washed spotless and hair made slick by water; Jagmohan found himself taking on a similar role. “I’m so sorry about my wife!” said he, before Leela had so much as a chance to sit herself back on the table. Shashwat glared at his father, but Jagmohan knew not why.
After that, dinner was eaten in near silence, only occasional small talk was made. For all his previously raging appetite, Jagmohan barely touched his plate. Fearing repercussions and a repetition of her misadventure, Kalavati followed suit. Only Shashwat ate hurriedly — appetites of young men are barely affected by brief embarrassments. Once the last of the dessert, an extremely English trifle, was polished off, Sohaib invited the men into the garden for cigars. “Genuine Havanas boys!” Jagmohan and Shashwat were the only ones who declined.
The women returned to their sofa seating and gossip, accompanied this time, with some coffee and mini-chocolates and Jagmohan. Shashwat tottered around his mother, who wore a morose expression as she watched Jagmohan’s continued apologies to Leela. Yet, he thought, what else could he do?
When Jagmohan saw Shashwat sneak out, he knew instantly it was to smoke a cigarette behind his father’s back. Another one who would humiliate him? Unable to stomach anymore, he quickly excused himself to follow his son.
He’d only just exited from the drawing room door that led into the grounds; he could see Shashwat’s back slightly ahead of him. Shashwat, too, was still hidden from the group of men by lack of lighting at the entrance of the lawn. “Really Sohaib, where do you find these guys?” Jagmohan heard a male voice, which he could not yet identify, say.
He knew Sohaib’s deep chuckle though and heard his partner say, “Arrey he’s an excellent worker Patelji. You’ll see. Those apartments will be made in less than a year and for half the estimated cost. Good for you and good for us! They’re new, raised on that desi ghee. They’ll grow into Delhi, you’ll see.”
“Still,” replied the voice he now knew as the government official he’d wanted to impress. “His wife and son are okay but what a boorish, obnoxious man he is!” All the men broke into a gale of laughter. Jagmohan’s cheeks burned, stinging as much as his pride. Before Shashwat could turn around and see him standing there, Jagmohan quickly retreated back inside.
Later when the party broke up, and during the entire ride back home, Jagmohan lectured Kalavati. Pontificating about the importance of table manners he said to her, “You embarrassed me tonight! Just like I was afraid you would.” There was nothing Jagmohan could say to drown out the memory of the condescending laughter he’d heard coming from Sohaib’s garden. In the rearview mirror, he caught sight of Shashwat’s expression — disappointed for and by his father.
~ The End ~
Avantika is the founder of ‘The Ladies Compartment’ (TLC); and a Winner of Women’s Economic Forum 2019 Iconic Woman Making the World Better Award. Her bylines have appeared or is forthcoming in: Hindustan Times, Scroll.in, IndiaSpends, QZ, Business Standard, Vogue India, Bennett- Coleman, The Sunday Guardian, Tehelka Magazine, Legally India, Live Law, Brown Paper Bag etc. Fiction published in Asia Literary Review, Out of Print Magazine.