Whatever his wife said, I was sure I would not miss him, though I, in all sincerity, hoped I would.
I could imagine his big, round figure, with a toad-like face, eyes bulging out from his forehead, hair pasted back into the skull, smug smile that dragged the corners of his lips down, emerging out of the arrivals terminal. I was pleased that he had my number and I did not have his. He, for all his arrogance, making his wife to mail me regarding his flight details, would have to finally degrade himself and make the call!
Unfortunately, I could spot him the moment he stepped out of the terminal and scanned the crowd. Unfortunately, he looked tall and slim, with enviable wavy black hair, and every bit as dashing as in the snap his wife had sent me, and nothing like the beast I had morphed him into. Unfortunately, I would have to wave and let him spot me, before he made the call for which his fingers were already probing his phone. So wave I did, after swallowing the grimace and envy that were bubbling up, and resolved to play the perfect host, for the sake of the woman I used to be in love with, if only to prove to her that I was not as irresponsible as she alleged.
Venkat waved back with a friendly, relieved smile. The shaking hands and ‘Hi’, ‘Hello’ were affairs I would extract from mind later and chuckle over, if possible with friends, just to trample over his memory, because I could not do it to the man. His fake Australian accent, richly supplemented with Indian sounds, made for much of the comedy. I did not let any of my amusement slip; in fact I found pleasure in pretending to be in awe of him. I took him to his hotel, the most expensive in the area, to suit his Australia-returned tastes.
“Venky,” he had suggested, holding out his hand.
“No,” I replied, with my friendliest smile, “Venkat is just perfect.” He shrugged. He must have got an inkling of me at the time.
He ordered some unpronounceable thing for breakfast. I asked for iddlis.
“I can’t stand iddlis, dude,” he said. “I wonder how I survived all my years here in India, having iddli and dosa in the morning!”
“Oh, I love them,” I said, “especially with sambar.” I pushed the spoon and fork aside and ate the iddlis with my hand, licking the sambar off my fingers now and then.
He pretended not to see, but did manage to display his disgust pretty well. “You and my wife were in college together?” he said after a while.
I grinned at his ill-concealed disbelief that she was friends with a man of such horrid tastes. “Oh yeah,” I said, letting out a satisfied burp. “We were chums.”
“Indeed,” he said, keeping his eyes on his plate. “She holds you in high esteem, and suggested I meet you here.” Evidently he was appalled at her choice of friends. “She has briefed you on the purpose of my trip, I hope.”
“Oh yes, she has,” I said, just stopping short of asking why he had to make his wife do the entire communication, instead of doing it himself.
He said, “I should be here for a few dyes.” I almost spilt my tea over my shirt. “Three or four dyes, a week at the max.”
“Three or four days, yeah,” I nodded. The accent was becoming quite unbelievable.
It was a joy to hear an authentic Australian speak. When one of my clients from Perth came over, I used to chat with him frequently, if only for the love of hearing his accent. But this was way too phoney. He probably had to fit into the society out there, so he must have forcefully inducted the accent into his Indian blood. What sort of a man had she married? After all those fancy talk she gave me of chasing her dreams, my pulling her backwards with my ‘wild’ and ‘irresponsible’ ways, and of finding a man who would help her realise her ambitions, was this moron the one she found? I had let her go, rather hoping she would find her way back to me. She didn’t. They did not sting any more, the thoughts or the words, but I could not resist a secret pleasure in knowing that the man she married was such a loser.
When she first mailed me with the request of helping her husband find a house to purchase, my immediate response was ‘No.’ Am I a real-estate broker, an agent, what did she take me for? She sent a reply, sweet and apologetic, that would reduce any man’s heart to dough, let alone an ex-lover’s. I had to give in, for there was also a tinge of curiosity to see who she’d chosen over me. I could not decide whether I was glad of her choice or disappointed: glad that she got what she deserved, or disappointed that such a fine woman was destined to live with a dud like him.
Meanwhile, the Indo-Australian was going on and on about the kind of house he was looking for, the purpose and the locality. His budget, he took care to mention over and over again, was sky high. He had to invest all the money he had heaped in Australia and elsewhere. My eyebrows wanted to soar to the sky, the corners of my lips wanted to droop to the floor and my shoulders wanted to hunch together, but I kept them all in place with a force of will I did not know I possessed. I took him to the costliest localities in the city, introduced him to the most cut-throat brokers and builders I could find. He tried to involve me in the negotiations, but I refused to let myself get drawn into it. My smoking habits emerged like never before whenever the discussions required my involvement, and that day I smoked about double my original quota, excusing myself whenever the need arose. The next morning I left him to fend for himself and got back to work. We met during the course of the few ‘dyes’ he was in the city. Every time I would be showered with complaints of the horrid weather of India, the spicy food of India, the unmanageable traffic of India or the despicable roads of India. My hitherto non-existent patriotism took the shape of an avenging devil.
When he finally left after booking an apartment that was close to completion, both of us were relieved that the visit was over. As a parting gift, he tried to plant the responsibility of looking over the apartment work on my head, and the way I slipped out of it would have put an eel to shame. I did not care any more what image he took back to her. I just wanted to be rid of him.
Not a year had passed before her mails started to pour in again, begging me to check on the status of the apartment, as they were considering moving back as soon as possible. I replied firmly that I did not wish to do that. It was all very well that we shared a beautiful past, one that I could not forget and she forgot easily except when she needed me, but she was now welcome to seek some other friend to look after the apartment or ask hubby dear to come down and look at it himself. I sent her the required phone numbers and washed my hands off.
I did wonder afterwards why she was so keen on moving back to India – in fact, the urgency in her mails had been evident. I wondered if she had finally decided to leave the man and come running to my arms. Curiosity drove me to accept, six months after she moved in, when I was invited to dinner. A surprise awaited me in the form of an adorable little five-year-old, who became my friend the moment I stepped into the house. I had been hanging out with the man for a week, and not once did he mention that he had a little daughter. Many people would never tire of talking about their children. He had not talked much of his wife either, come to think of it, and when it was absolutely required, he would say ‘my wife’ instead of using her name. I was not surprised that she had not mentioned her daughter in her mails, nor had I ever asked, for our conversations steered clear of personal discussions and were strictly to the point. I could excuse her shortcomings, but never her husband’s.
The little one held out her hand with a sweet “Hello” and I scooped her up and pretended to throw her to the ceiling, making her squeal with pleasure. As I put her down, my eyes met her mother’s quiet ones. In that one instant I knew she hadn’t forgotten a thing. She was pleased to see me, for sure, but nothing would be the same. The husband, his smug smile in place, was welcoming me to their posh house. So she had not really come running from him, as I had fantasised. Looking at their apartment, I remembered her dream house, located at a beautiful remote hill station, with a garden full of flowers, overlooking a tea plantation. Interiors were awesome, no doubt, but when I looked out, I could see only manicured lawns and tall apartments blocking the skyline. In the course of dinner, Venkat conversed more than all the rest of us put together, still Australianised, but a little subdued, it seemed to me. I avoided his wife’s eyes during most of the conversation because I was afraid she would see the mirth in my eyes and be humiliated. She could always read me; I did not think the years had changed anything.
“We came over in a hurry,” said Venkat. “We thought we should shift before the school year started in India.”
“I thought the house was merely an investment. I did not know you were planning to shift so soon,” I said with no particular interest.
Venkat glanced at his wife. “There was no plan,” he said. “We didn’t know we would be back here so soon. You see, the situation became very difficult there for Indians. You must have heard of the racist attacks. One of them happened very close to us. In fact, a man we know was attacked. We dared not to stay there, especially since our daughter was just starting school.”
His wife averted her eyes and hugged the little girl close to her.
I got up to leave.
“Anyway it is good to be here,” said Venkat. “We’d always wanted to return to India. There is no place like home…” He put his arm around his wife. I looked at the three of them standing together, picture-perfect refugees from Australia, seeking the warmth of ‘home’.
As I ran down the steps, I was chuckling to myself. I was free forever from the ghosts of my past.