Even before the first ring ended, I heard Diya’s excited voice on the other end of the phone, "Hello, so how was he?"
I too went straight to the point, "He is not bad. From the little I could understand, I think he is all right."
"So when are you guys meeting alone?"
"He asked me whether I was free for dinner next Sunday."
Diya sounded thrilled, "Great. Let’s meet tomorrow at your place to discuss the strategy. Bye."
When my mother saw Diya the next day, she exclaimed, "So the two of you are going to plan for the meeting, huh?" Diya hugged her and said, "Aunty, you are also most welcome to join us."
I rolled my eyes at her, speaking in a warning tone. "Mom, don’t you even think of coming in!" My mom quipped, “I will not, as long as you two are not planning how to drive him away like the previous ones.”
Diya assured her, “Don’t worry Aunty; from the little that I heard, this one seems much nicer and more eligible than those three weirdos.”
“Oh! Diya, how I wish she had found someone herself, like you did and spared us all the trouble!”
Diya laughed out loud. “My grandmom is still angry with me for refusing her the opportunity to handpick someone for me. How I wish she thought like you, Aunty. It would have been so much easier for me to convince my whole clan.”
In my room, Diya sat cross-legged on my bed and began in a serious tone, “Now tell me every single detail about…what’s his name?”
“So let’s get our Project Ashish rolling. Tell me, what did he say and do yesterday? What are your gut feelings? Did you observe anything in particular? We first have to understand him to be able to figure out whether he is the perfect one for you."
"Well, he was a little quiet throughout the evening. His brother and sister-in-law were chatting a lot with Didi and Jiju, but he was just smiling and nodding his head."
Diya interrupted me, "So, number one – he is quiet by nature and doesn’t speak much.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions so fast. A lot of people don’t talk much in such situations. I myself hardly opened my mouth. But he did get along with my dad like a house on fire. Guess on what topic they kept on discussing? Trend in Stock Exchange! The professor in him simply had to test the knowledge of Ashish."
Diya was thoughtful, "It shows he is smart, but then he is an investment banker. He is supposed to know his stuff. It’s also a good sign that he could get along with your Hitler dad.” She ignored the angry look that I threw at her and continued, “Now tell me about his body language. Non-verbal cues are sometimes important indications of a person’s character."
I had to admit that I did not remember to check out his body language during the evening. I was myself, far too nervous to notice all that.
Diya waved off this bit of failure on my part. "Now, let’s decide what all you will have to find out on the dinner date. Where is the questionnaire that we prepared?"
We both poured over the three-page document, consisting of 25 questions. It was something which we had prepared just before my family embarked on the man-hunt for me. However, most of the questions were framed to scare the guy away and included questions to find out whether he snored, was a male chauvinistic pig or if he had any unnatural sexual fetish!
Diya started making some necessary changes in the language. "Don’t ask about his past right in the beginning. He might get defensive and tell lies. Remember to first put him at ease and then bombard."
I spotted a particular question, which was what we had termed the sure-fire way to drive a prospective groom away. "Hey, do I have to ask him whether he is closet gay or not? This was not meant to be really asked, right?"
Diya said, "Yes, of course, unless you want to end up like Monalisa. Thank God that she figured out before marriage that the suave gentleman she was engaged to swings both ways. These days you can’t be sure just from a man’s looks or mannerisms that he is straight."
I rolled my eyes at my know-it-all friend and secretly decided I would not go down that path. I was sure when the time came, my instinct in this regard would guide me.
The next two hours were spent by us formulating the strategy, while my mom supplied us with piping hot pakoras. I wondered whether Ashish too, was taking such preparations for the dinner date. I found out soon.
He called me that night. I was so taken aback that I ended up talking incoherently. The conversation did not last long, since I was replying only in monosyllables, trying hard to cover up the tremors in my voice.
Diya almost banged her head on the wall when I told her the reason why I was at loss for words – his voice sounded super sexy over the phone. "Do you even know what you have done to your image of a smart, intelligent woman? He must now be laughing his head off! How could you act like a nervous sixteen-year-old?”
I tried to salvage my lost dignity. “Well, I never had the opportunity to experience all these when I was sixteen.”
Unfazed at my attempt to justify, Diya retorted angrily, “Oh yes, at sixteen you were too busy with your IIT entrance exam books! For God’s sake, don’t act so naïve now at twenty six.”
I spent an anxious week since he did not call me until Saturday, when he confirmed the plan and asked me whether he would pick me up from my residence. I panicked at the thought of meeting him in front of my family and immediately refused.
Project Ashish was not at all going as planned. On the D-day, I discovered a hole in my favourite dress at the last moment. I chipped my nail and failed to get the desired curls with the hot rollers. With Diya by my side, I frantically tried to make myself presentable.
Didi arrived in the evening and immediately began her tirade. "The base makeup has not blended properly, it’s blotchy in places.”
“Diya, don’t try smoky eyes on her, it looks very smudgy after sometime."
“Those earrings are definitely not matching with the blue kurta. Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would have brought a matching set with me.”
At the end of it all, I was tired from all the squabbling among Diya, my mom and my sister over my looks, dress and accessories. How I wished I could just slip into my favourite pair of denim and tee and walk out in my comfortable ballerinas. Instead I was forced into wearing a designer kurta with matching accessories and tottered in painful stilettos. I was already running late and hurriedly said goodbye to all. Diya mouthed "All the Best" and signalled me to sms her in case there was an emergency.
I spotted him at the entrance of the newly opened fine-dining restaurant, scanning the surrounding for me. I took a deep breath and walked up to him. Then I stopped mid-way. He was looking somewhat different! Before I could think of what the change was, he saw me and waved. After a polite "Hello", we went inside and took our places at the reserved table.
I quickly noticed his attire – a pale pink shirt with white collar and cuffs, formal trousers and shining black shoes with a pointed front. I remembered reading something about such shirt and shoes being in trend these days.
One proper look at his face and I figured out the change in him. "Where are your glasses?" The moment I spoke, I knew I had gone off-script. He looked visibly embarrassed.
"I am wearing contact lens."
My mouth literally fell open. He noticed it and squirmed even more. He mumbled something like "I wear lenses all the time" and then knocked off the glass on the table.
I felt my nervousness ebbing away. He looked more tensed than I was which, in turn, gave me courage to control the situation. I placed the order for food and after some polite conversations, decided to start my quizzing as per the questionnaire.
But before I could start, he asked me enthusiastically, “Are you wearing Burberry from their latest Summer Collection?” Thousand alarm bells rang in my mind as I nodded a yes. Not only he was in tune with the latest trends in fashion, he even could identify women’s perfumes! Is it supposed to be a manly trait?
“I gifted one to my mom and she loved it.” The alarm bells stopped and I decided to start my questioning before he began identifying the brand of clothes that I was wearing.
After a few minutes of casual conversation, I slipped in my first question of the evening, "Do you believe in this so-called arranged marriage system? Don’t you think it is strange to marry someone you hardly know?"
The question was mistimed. He had just put in a piece of kebab into his mouth and gagged on it. After a few uncomfortable moments of coughing, he managed to finally wash down the piece with water. I was myself embarrassed now that things have started to go horribly wrong right from the beginning. I kept my mouth shut, as a result of which we both endured painfully long seconds of silence.
"For me, it’s more about finding the right girl and less about the method of finding."
I took some time to realize that he was answering my previous question. By now, I had forgotten the next question in the script but instead asked, "But how would you know whether someone is right for you within a short time?”
He smiled. "Well, for me, marriage is all about sharing your life with someone. So, if I am able to figure out that we can be good friends, then I know that I can spend my life with her. It must be harder for women than men, isn’t it? You must hate to entertain the prospective grooms and their families at your place, trying to be as polite as possible even if you don’t like them, right?”
I was surprised. Seeing that he was expecting a response from me, I debated whether I should be candour. “To be honest, you are right. I really have no issues with arranged marriage per se, but simply hate some of the process.”
He smiled. “Even I felt very uncomfortable last Sunday under the prying eyes of all your relatives! Trust me, it’s the same for men tool. Even they are scrutinized on every little aspect!” The expression on his face made me laugh out. He said, "There is this colleague of mine, who laughs exactly like you. Once she starts, she simply cannot control and will go on laughing till tears roll down. Imagine what happens if some joke is cracked during any office meeting where she is present." And both of us started laughing again.
Then, I wondered whether it was a compliment or a joke at my expense. Unable to decide, I aimed my next arrow at him, "I have heard investment bankers are the boring types; they know only work and money and have no spare time. Are you also like that?"
He raised his brow. "You seem to have the general notion about our ‘kind’. Well, I try to do my work sincerely, but also socialize on and off Facebook. We are entitled to leaves and I took a long one last year and went to Ladakh with friends. I also try to find time for my weekly squash practice and all the Bollywood movies. So I am not bad with time management or am I?"
I countered, "So you realize that there’s more to life than just earning money?"
"Of course! Otherwise, where will you get the necessary oxygen?"
I decided he had passed that round with distinction and prepared to shoot the next one. But he pre-empted and asked me, “What made you start your business and not take up a regular job after passing out of IIT?”
I have always been touchy about this sort of question. But I knew it was a very basic question, which I had to answer. “I believe it was destiny. I was down with jaundice during the campus placement season and hence was forced to opt out of it. By the time I had recovered, all my batch mates were placed and I was too weak and exhausted to go through the rigmarole of off-campus recruitment. I knew two friends who were launching a city-based information portal and needed someone to take care of the software part of it. That is how I ended up in business and I have enjoyed every moment of it till now.”
“I have always admired entrepreneurs and must confess, that was one main reason I was eager to meet you.” I was so happy to hear him say that my work and not my looks or degree or success had made me attractive to him.
That moment, my eyes fell on his hand. He had long, slender fingers with strikingly clean nails. They almost looked like the after-result of a manicure! The alarm bells returned to haunt me.
Realizing that I had not finished even half the questionnaire, I quickened my pace. "Hey, did you read about the recent news of how that family hacked their daughter-in-law to death just because she gave birth to a girl child? How gruesome, isn’t it?"
He immediately responded, "Oh yes! To top it all, they are supposed to an educated, cultured family. There are a family like my uncle’s who have three sons and would do anything to have a girl child and there are families like these who are criminal! They should come to my office and see that almost 30 per cent of the workforce is women." I was pleased with his outburst. So he was not a male chauvinistic pig. Moreover, if he admired me for my business, he would surely not ask me to stop working after marriage. Two of my biggest fears had been taken care of.
The evening passed on pleasantly. The food was good and the company even better. Both of us had overcome our initial awkwardness and were having a comfortable conversation. He was cracking some good jokes and some poor jokes, both of which cracked me up completely and I laughed till I had tears in my eyes. I also remembered to quiz him in between as per the questionnaire and got satisfactory answers.
Just after he paid the bill, he dropped the final bomb, "So what do you think of me?" I replied, "You have changed my first impression about you being a quiet, boring banker."
He cleared his throat and asked, "So, have you given the proposed alliance any thought?"
Momentarily, I was thrown off-guard and didn’t know what to say. Seeing my discomfiture, he immediately said that there was no hurry and I could take my time to answer. I wondered whether this meant that he had agreed at his end.
While driving me home, we both tried to make small conversations, but things had suddenly become awkward between us. My glance kept falling on his pointed shoes, manicured hand and pink shirt and the niggling doubt bothered me.
After he dropped me in front of my house and drove away wishing a polite good night, I realized that I could no more bear the suspense. I wanted an immediate answer to the one question I thought I would never ask. I called him up, "Hello, sorry to disturb you while driving. Can you talk?"
He sounded tensed, “Yes, of course.”
“Did you, by any chance, get a manicure?”
“Mani – what?” He was surprised.
“Eh… err… did you do something to your hand?”
There was a long silence at the other end. Without thinking too much of the consequence, I blabbered on, “Please don’t misunderstand me, but I have to be sure, are you, by any chance….umm…. gay? Or, do you, well…. you know… are you the kind who swing both ways? I mean, your pink shirt with white collar and cuffs, pointed shoes and manicured hands are….a bit… strange for a straight man. I mean, please don’t be offended, but…” I stopped, unable to think what else to say.
The silence on the other end seemed longer after my monologue. Then, I heard him say, “Well, as far as the shirt and shoes are concerned, I bought them after the store manager told me they are of the latest fashion. I really didn’t think too much about the colour since it was a very pale shade of pink. I had no idea that they would send out such a wrong signal!”
He paused for a moment for me to say something. When I didn’t, he continued, “I went to a salon for a haircut yesterday and the guy there convinced me to get my nails and hand scrubbed by telling me that women like men with clean hands. I thought it would be appropriate since… I was meeting you today….”
“Oh! Ok!” was all that I could say in reply. I had made an utter idiot of myself. “Bye, then.” Suddenly, I was eager to go off the phone and hide myself somewhere.
“Wait a second. Did you think that I was gay also because I did not kiss you at the door step? Trust me, I thought that would be a little too soon!" His throaty laughter filled my ears.
At that moment, I knew that if there was a man who could convert an embarrassing situation into a hilarious one, then he must have been made solely for me. My cheeks burnt as I disconnected the phone with a smile on my face.