All eyes were on Sunaina as she entered the Greyhound micro brewery on MG Road.
The slinky LBD caressed her figure seductively and she waltzed past tables teeming with die-hard pub crawlers, in her strappy stilettos. The alcoholic haze enveloped her in a supermodel aura as the lights dimmed. And she felt very much the queen of the ramp. The show stopper.
Her sparkling solitaire reflected the glint in her eyes, and she smiled in acknowledgement at the ogling glances of complete strangers – men and women. The barely perceptive shrug of her bronzed shoulders seemed to hoarsely whisper, 'I know honey'.
Isn’t that exactly how it’s supposed to happen in the chic-lits, sighed Sunaina, as she bumbled along in her silver wedges to the 'reserved' table in the far left corner, desperately trying to be invisible.
At 41, she looked decent in the sequin and lace, M-size, sheath dress she picked up at the fall sale in Ambience Mall. The 4-inch Aldo peep-toes, however, had to be chucked last minute because of this dull ache in her heels. Kind of like a sudden explosion in the nerve endings. Is this Achilles heel? I must take an appointment at Max next week, she chided herself, before I get a limp like Neena. Poor thing, condemned to the hideous Dr Scholl’s brown sandals! Yuck!
The invite said 7:30 pm, but she was early as usual. This was the thing with her. She was almost always among the first lot to arrive at events. 'On time' and 'late' weren’t options for her. She looked around casually for familiar faces and not finding any, plonked on a chair away from the psychedelic glare.
Sunaina was thankful that her table wasn’t near the 'live' stage with its jazz quintet warming up to the soft strains of Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World…
Her much used Samsung Duos, which she had self-consciously covered just a moment ago in a fancy Rhinestone skull case, flashed and she switched on to paid 3G to check Whatsapp.
The group 'Bruschetta Babes' had 26 messages. Ignoring the kissing heart and heart eyes emojis, she skimmed through the writing. On my way…blah…blah… Is it b4 Sahara mall or after darlins? (Thinking Face)… C u in a bit girls (red heart, red heart, red heart)…blah…blah…
Sigh! She’ll have to kill a good half hour before the girls start arriving, she deduced correctly. A quick glance at the huge LED screen on the exposed brick wall showed cricket, what else? Some match or the other was happening, with Kohli’s close-ups coming on every time a bowler finished an over.
He’s kind of cute, she thought, in a rugged way with all the tattoos, but if you ask me there’s no one quite like Dhoni. Yes Sir, that’s Mr Cool with a capital C. But today’s not about cricket, she reminded herself, and glanced expectantly at the main door while shaking her feet anxiously. A habit she’d picked up after marriage.
I remember mom used to get wild when bhaiyya did it. Stop that shaking right now Gaurav, she would order, it’s so gawaar, cheap people do it, Sunaina reminisced with a smile and immediately stopped the fidgeting, her mom’s words echoing in her ears even today.
Her hands felt clammy and she wiped them with a logoed tissue from the tissue case placed on the large round table along with the hand-painted ceramic condiments tray. Sunaina wanted a drink of water real bad, but the sheer effort of attracting attention to herself was too much for her. That’s why she always carried her water bottle around. A slim, neat Tupperware that fitted snugly in her faux Michael Kors signature carryall as well as the stylish satin clutch she had on her right now. Besides water, she always carried a rose body mist and cocoa butter lip balm.
Today, though, she’d also slipped in a MAC Velvet Teddy lipstick and a Sephorah Blush Palette. A bit much for the tiny tote and the zip registered its protest every time she opened it. But she needed the stuff today, it was Sunaina’s very first time in a bar with just 'girls'. Till now it had always been with Sameer and his raucous gang from college or office. That’s all 21 years of her married life straight out of Jaipur University.
20 years ago…
'Jaldi chal na yaar, we’re getting late for dance practice,' screeched Bhawna in her nasal twang, trying to pull Sunaina even as she slurped water from the drinking water spout in the college garden, right next to the rose beds.
Winter was round the corner and the flowers were in full bloom liberally spreading their heady scent in the air – red, orange, yellow, pink and even the grafted multi-coloured Rumba roses planted by the Botany department as part of their organic farming project.
It was Sunaina’s favourite nook in college, and she did not miss any opportunity to hang around the manicured green space.
'Ouff oh, let me drink water at least na,' she protested mildly, splashing a palm-full of cool water on her face and then dabbing at it with her lime and green cotton leheria chunni. Seeing her friend’s knitted brow, she couldn’t resist the urge to spray some water on Bhawna, who was shocked at first but then gamely laughed as the refreshing droplets settled on her chubby pink face.
The girls soon began a water fight, giggling just like school days, when they spied a harried Gupta Ma’am across the cobbled path, wobbling towards the audi for the rehearsals of the college fest: Desert Rose 1997.
'Sssshhh…don’t shout,' Sunaina whispered, 'If Sarojadevi sees us here, she’ll kill us.'
'Chal fast, let’s run along the hedge and get in through the back door before deviji reaches the ampitheatre,' she grabbed Bhawna’s hand and ran on tip toe along the thick bougainvillea bushes lining the path.
The lush green and pink foliage provided wonderful camouflage as the girls rushed towards the rehearsal ground barely inches now from the fuming professor, who was muttering to herself as usual. 'Ouff yeh garmi,' she whined, before wiping sweat off her brow and neck with a baby pink hand towel.
Prof Gupta, thanks to her fondness for the ghee-laden ghewar and dal-baati-churma was pleasantly rotund. She had joined the Literature Department as a lecturer nearly a decade ago and since she also had a Diploma in dance from the prestigious Kathak Kendra, she was automatically in-charge of the college cul-fests.
Unknown to her, students had code-named her Sarojadevi because of her uncanny resemblance to Saroj Khan. And just like the celebrity choreographer, Gupta Ma’am, too, doled out winning performances year after year. Students tried their ‘level best’ to pass the auditions for her grand performances. But Gupta Ma’am was very strict while selecting her group, and for the past three years, her favourite had been Sunaina.
'The girl is naturally gifted,' Ma’am would often say, mesmerized by her petite student’s grace and beauty. This year Sunaina was attempting the challenging Mohe panghat pe nandlal, under her able guidance.
'Capturing the subtle kathak nuances of the absolutely stunning Madhubala is near impossible,' Ma’am felt, 'but if anyone could do it in this age, it is my star student Sunaina,' she proclaimed.
Naturally, Sunaina was in awe of her mentor, as was Bhawna and a whole bunch of girls privileged to be selected for the Mughal sequence. Actually Prof. Gupta saw a lot of her younger self in the shy Sunaina before life piled on the inches.
December: Desert Rose 1997
'…and the award for the best dancer goes to…Sunainaaaa!'
The applause was deafening as the whole auditorium errupted in a standing ovation.
'Sunaina outdid herself today,' was the general verdict, and the Jaipur University cheer group went ballistic, whistling and waving, as they jumped in uninhibited joy hugging each other. Yet again, thanks to the mind-blowing performance by Sunaina, the prestigious Rolling Trophy was theirs!
As soon as Sunaina dismounted the stage, proudly holding the magnificent gold trophy, Ravi rushed to her and hugged her. 'Congrats yaar,' he shouted in her ear above the din, 'you were just awesome. Nazar hi nahin haat rahi thi tumse.'
Sunaina wriggled out of the embrace, a little embarrassed, and gave him a shy smile, blushing to the core of her being. She liked Ravi, a lot. In fact, secretly she was in 'love' with him – heart and soul, but now wasn’t the time for PDA. So she quickly gave him a nod and ran to Prof. Gupta who was sitting in the VIP row right in front.
Touching her feet, Sunaina thanked her for her blessings. 'Utho beta, wahan nahin, yahan,' Ma’am smiled and hugged her to her ample bosom, thrilled with yet another victory, and in style.
As Sunaina was walking towards the greenroom to change, she felt someone pass on a note into her left hand. 'I am waiting outside,' winked Ravi and disappeared out the main door. Sunaina thought her heart would burst. She rushed to the girls’ toilet, nearly tripping over her 20-kg red velvet lehenga, eager to read Ravi’s note…
I'll be your dream, I'll be your wish, I'll be your fantasy.
I'll be your hope, I'll be your love, be everything that you need.
I love you more with every breath, truly madly deeply do
I will be strong, I will be faithful 'cause I'm counting on a new beginning.
A reason for living. A deeper meaning.
I want to stand with you on a mountain.
I want to bathe with you in the sea.
I want to lay like this forever.
Until the sky falls down on me….
Words from Savage Garden’s latest album Truly Madly Deeply echoed in her ears as if Ravi was standing right there serenading her. Her face flushed in excitement and all she wanted to do right now was tell Ravi finally how much she loved him too.
The very first time Sunaina set eyes on Ravi was during the orientation session when she realized he was the only boy in the Literature Department that year. He looked extremely charming as he spoke confidently about his love for writing and his deep desire to someday express his thoughts with the passion and fervor of Sadat Hassan Manto.
'I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together,' he quoted his all time favourite author wrapping up his introduction speech that had everyone in the room spellbound, even the Science and Commerce students.
'I think it was love at first sight right then,' acknowledged Sunaina, smiling to herself, trying hard to bring Ravi’s note to her lips and failing miserably, so self conscious was she, even in the empty college toilet.
Ravi had gone out of his way to get a very flowery sheet from Archies and sprayed it with gulab itar. It was all very romantic and Sunaina blushed some more thinking of how she would face him now that IT was all out in the open.
Just then, Bhawna shattered her reverie with, 'What are you doing here Su, uncle is waiting outside. He’s getting angry now. Come on get ready fast.'
And with that Bhawna started hastily packing her stuff in the plastic Meena Bazar packets. Bhawna was already in her bandhej skirt and top, though faint traces of eye shadow and lipstick were still visible on her face in the yellow toilet light.
Sunaina quickly washed her face at the sink and changed, aware of the very real danger of annoying her dad.
The moment they were outside, Mr Upreti huddled the girls in the Maruti 800 with a 'Chalo chalo, jaldi karo, ladke wale dekhne aa rahe hain. You need to change and get ready. Yeh trophy peehce rakh do beta.'
Sunaina was married within a year. Krishnav was born nine months later. And after a gap of exactly two years, she became mom to beautiful Gauri. 'Now the family is complete,' declared the elders, and patted her back for being the 'ideal bahu' – demure, obedient, gharelu.
'Arre Mrs Srivastav, our bahu makes the most round and thin rotis ever.'
Sunaina smiles demurely, head down, handing Auntyji the tray of onion pakoras.
'Mummmmaaaa…my shoes are not polished.'
Sunaina quickly brushes Krishnav’s shoes with Express Kiwi Shine.
'Shona yaar, hanky kahan hai?'
Sunaina runs to the drawer on the left hand corner of his cupboard and digs out a neatly-folded starched handkerchief.
'Puttar, ek cup chai aur. And where are those matthis you made yesterday? Badi swad hain, give me a katori.'
Sunaina brews another cup of hot masala tea for dadaji and takes it to the roof-top jhoola, along with fresh savories.
'Where are my notes mummy?'
Sunaina sits with Gauri and helps her out with the sociology essay.
'Didi, dhobi ko 5 shirt aur 4 pant de di.'
Sunaina double checks MIL’s list and nods in approval.
'Bhabhi, buaji called. I think we have to go again to the tailor. The lehenga is not matching the polki set.'
Sunaina gets the lunch done, organizes dinner and changing into the kota sari her saas got her last week, drives down to Aslam Tailors with Rinky.
Life, goes on.
Every once in a while though, when there is no one in the house, Sunaina takes out an old album and just stares lovingly, longingly at the sepia pictures.
A group of third year students crowding around a golden trophy, girls laughing outside the Sahitya Kala Academy during their college trip to New Delhi, a candid click of third year students in the canteen preparing for the English debate competition…and then that group photo of the Literature Department with the lone boy flashing his 1000 watt smile!
I'll be your dream, I'll be your wish, I'll be your fantasy.
I'll be your hope, I'll be your love, be everything that you need.
I love you more with every breath, truly madly deeply do...