My phone buzzed.
It was my cousin Ashleysha, calling from our family home in Pune about something that was sure to be utterly unimportant.
‘Amuuuuuuuu. I’m getting married!’ she screeched.
‘What? Wait, Leshu. One sec.’
I got up and walked out into the corridor, eyeing the terrace where Arjun and Rahil stood smoking with M, in serious discussion.
How much nicotine needs to enter Mukhtar’s system before it’s safe for me to go out there?
I found a private spot near an open window. ‘You’re only twenty-three. What’s the rush?’
‘What rush? There’s still time. I’m getting married in March.’
‘You’ll still be twenty-three in March, Leshu.’ Her birthday had gone by a month ago; she was just a year older than me.
‘Oh, yeah.’ She made this strange clucking sound to fill up the awkward silence.
Outside, M was nodding at something Arjun was saying.
‘So, um, who’s the guy?’ I said, because I couldn’t think of anything better.
‘His name is Atul.’ Her voice softened. ‘Atul Athalye.’
Oh dear God.
My family’s tradition of ‘matching-matching’ names is so obsessive, it’s against the order of nature. When my uncles Anil and Anant married, they took advantage of a heinous custom in Marathi weddings. After the pheras, a dish of uncooked rice is placed before the newlyweds, and whatever name the husband chooses to write in the rice becomes the new name of his wife.
Because marriage in our culture is akin to buying a puppy at a pet shop and saying, ‘I am your new owner, and I shall call you Fluffy.’
So Anil Adarkar brought home Asha Adarkar (née Kiran), and Anant Adarkar brought home Anita Adarkar (née Geeta). And to complete this picture of divine perfection they named their children Aniket, and Ashwini and Ashleysha, respectively.
I’ve always wondered what happened at my parents’ wedding. I imagine Baba lifting a finger, and thrusting it through the air in slow-mo towards the rice, until he sees Ma’s eyebrows converge at a single, angry point – don’t even think about it. Arun Adarkar and Sailee Adarkar become the anomaly of the family.
I, unfortunately, did not become an exception to the rule and must live with the horror of being Amruta Adarkar.
‘We met at Nirang Kaka’s son’s wedding,’ Leshu prattled on. ‘It was such a set-up Amu, what to tell you! Asha Kaki introduced us at the salad counter and by the time we reached the sweet dish, I knew … I just knew it inside my heart ki he was the one.’
I slapped my forehead.
‘He’s a double graduate. Engineering in Pune and MBA from UK!’ she gushed. ‘Works for Standard Chartered. He has a house in Kothrud and a Maruti Swift. He’s fair and he has such grey eyes! I’ll WhatsApp you his photo. And he’s nice also … very sweet guy.’
In order of priority, then.
‘But he’s Athalye, na,’ she paused, as if that explained everything.
‘So?’ I asked.
‘Bramhin. Pure vegetarian,’ said Leshu. ‘So he had this condition ki any girl he marries should not eat non-veg.’
Okay, I have to say something.
‘Leshu, are you crazy?’ I said, trying to keep my voice down. ‘Are you saying you’re going to give up meat?’
All her life, my graphic designer cousin has had three passions: corny movies, cosmetics and kebabs. In my grandparents’ house in Pune, there would be chicken for lunch and dinner every weekend. And while Ashwini and I still struggled with our first leg-pieces, Leshu would have piles and piles of bones lined up at the corner of her plate, tearing through flesh with her teeth, all table manners be damned. Her steel plate would look like the site of a carnage by the time she was done. She sent her chickens off with gratitude and burps.
‘You can’t give up meat. You’re the fucking grim reaper of chickens!’ I reminded her.
Five seconds of complete silence.
‘Hahaha. You’re too funny, Amu. When are you writing your book, haan?’
And I was certain that she had no idea what a grim reaper was.
‘Anyway, we are marrying in March and you have to come,’ she said. ‘From the time you’ve left Pune and gotten into this publishing line, you’ve become full out of touch. I’m booking you from now only, Miss Busybee. If you miss this wedding for some stupid reason again, I will kill you.’
She was referring, of course, to her sister Ashwini’s wedding with Nachiket three years ago, which by the way, I had missed with very good reason.
Being in love with someone else’s groom is usually considered a good reason to miss a wedding.
‘I’ll be there,’ I said, making a mental list of excuses that might save me in March.
Out on the terrace, Mukhtar stubbed out his cigarette with his foot, his face grim again.
I hung up quickly, bit my lip and took a step towards the terrace, when I heard it: the delicious phut-phut-phut of bubbles being burst.
I pushed aside a few books in the shelf that separated the corridor from my cubicle and peered through the gap.
A miscreant sat on my table, pop-pop-popping every last bubble of my precious bubble wrap while rifling (rather roughly) through the pages of my Summer’s Lease book.
My empty tote and all its contents had been dumped into a chair.
This is not happening.
I strode over, pushing aside a creaking swivel chair. But he seemed not to hear.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, standing right over his shoulder.
He turned, his creepy green eyes taking in my stringy hair.
‘Those are mine.’
He handed both bubble wrap and book back with a befuddled look, like I was the weird one. The guy wore blue jeans and a white shirt, its sleeves folded and buttoned up at the elbow. A pair of wayfarers sat at the top of his head, giving him a distinct Dilliwallah vibe. I expected the first words out of his mouth to be: Tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?
I looked down at the bubble wrap in my hand.
He hasn’t even burst the bubbles in proper order. God, this day just keeps getting worse.
‘Hi, I’m Jish.’ His voice had the scratchy quality of un-tuned violins.
‘Yeah?’ I rolled my eyes and deliberately began to pile items from the chair on to the table. He still hadn’t taken his ass off my desk. He was a vendor, right? The girl at the front desk was always too busy watching cat videos to stop unsolicited visitors from entering.
‘You’re new here.’ He pronounced the last word ‘hair’, leaving me confused for a moment.
Definitely a vendor.
I reached for a drawer directly under his leg.
He moved. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Amruta,’ I said, shoving the destroyed bubble wrap under a pile of catalogues.
‘Am-reeta or Am-roota?’ he asked, looking pleasantly tickled at something I couldn’t quite understand.
His smirk reminded me of this guy in my seventh grade who thought it was funny to hide my glasses.
‘Are those your parents, Ruta?’ He pronounced it like ‘peer-ents’, leaning forward to look at the family mug that held all my pens.
The ceramic eyesore was a relic from my parents’ 25th anniversary celebrations – the brainchild of my cousin Ashwini. She got an ‘artist’ to Photoshop an old picture of my parents feeding each other cake, surrounded by cut-out headshots of everybody in the family. My father’s older brothers, their wives and kids, monkey-grinned behind Ma and Baba. Ashwini had deliberately chosen a picture of me from the time I had werewolf eyebrows and hair like Sathya Sai Baba. The dismembered heads of my grandparents sat at the very bottom of the mug, on either side of an ornate ribbon that said, ‘Happy Silver Jubilee!’
‘Yup.’ I put my tote up on the table, so it blocked the mug.
That didn’t stop him.
‘Is that you? My cocker spaniel had ears like that.’ He picked up the mug, trying not to smirk. ‘Twenty-five years, haan? That’s a long time. You must be so proud, na?’
‘They’ve just split up actually …’ I took the mug from his hand, poured every pen and pencil out on the table, and stowed it in the bottom drawer. ‘… so not that proud, no.’
Why the hell did I say that?
All the sparkle disappeared from his eyes.
‘Sorry,’ I murmured. ‘Look, why don’t you email us your quotes and I’ll get back to you when we have an event c…’
‘Jishy boy!’ Rahil burst through the door. ‘How you doin’?’
They clapped each other on the back and started to discuss Dubai and the response to something. In a few minutes, Rahil had called half the editorial team down. Everybody seemed overly pleased to meet this Jish.
‘Oh my God,’ squealed Jyo, in a distinct, American accent. She was a senior commissioning editor who sat upstairs with the rest of the self-important editorial team. ‘You didn’t even say you were in Dilli. I met Bunty and your gang just this weekend. None of them told me you were back!’
Jish took a step back to check her out. She wore a white chiffon kurta, her hair in a single, fashionable side-braid, and looked like she could be one of Sonam Kapoor’s BFFs from Aisha. Huge, silvery, crescent baalis dangled from her ears.
‘I forgot, na … what I was missing …’ He gave her a little wink and pulled her into a hug.
When Arjun came in, I turned to him as discreetly as possible. ‘Who is this guy?’
‘He’s Jishnu … Jishnu Guha.’ He raised his eyebrows like the name meant something.
It sounded awfully familiar. ‘Ohhhhh …’ I said, though I had no idea.
When the team left for lunch, I Googled the name.
Oh no. Oh no, no. No. Please, no.
You know those books you see at Jigsaw bookstores with the titles from hell and the ridiculous covers a ten-year-old could have made on MS Paint? The ones that make you question the sanity of the world with their mere existence in published form?
Yeah. Jishnu Guha writes those.