In the evening, the whole clan met for dinner in the central lawns. A long row of tables and chairs had been arranged for us, under a white gazebo tent. Chimineas stood around for warmth, while overhead lanterns cast a yellow glow over us all. The buffet table seemed to be creaking under the weight of scrumptious Rajasthani food; I recognized gatte ki khichdi, laal maas, and dal bati churma instantly. Twenty-seven of us sat together among great ruckus, and I found myself between Aman and Ayush, Tara’s eighteen year old cousins.
By now, the news of my missing bag had travelled far and wide. Everyone was extremely sympathetic of my plight and had offered me help when it came to clothes, shoes, and stuff like body lotions. Mickey Mamu went as far as to tell me that he’d buy all my wedding outfits for me, if the need arose. Leia turned out to wear the same bra size as me and offered me her brand new one. As much as I hated this whole situation that had led to me borrowing clothes from the one person I didn’t like at this wedding, I couldn’t bear the thought of repeating my underwear for yet another day, and had succumbed to the temptation of a clean bra. Leia had given me a bright orange-candy one, with the price tag still attached—fifty dollars. I tried to pay her back to retain some dignity, but she refused point blank. So now we’re ‘friends’. Yay.
Aman and Ayush were involved in discussing glitches from the Far Cry 4 videogame. I listened to them talk back and forth for a bit (“Dude, that part where Ajay Ghale simply can’t grab the rope? What even is that?”), until they realized that I was bored to death, and asked me if I played any videogames.
‘Um, I read books.’ I awkwardly said. Aman and Ayush exchanged glances, clearly worried about the kind of company they were keeping at the dinner table.
‘I don’t get a lot of time to play games.’ I quickly added. ‘But it’s easier to read a book in between classes or while I’m travelling.’ They gave me sympathetic nods. I asked them about their universities, and their eyes lit up. They were still freshmen, Aman studying graphic design in Melbourne, and Ayush pursuing biotechnology from Manipal. They told me about their courses, and some of their friends, adding that girlfriends would be discussed later. It felt nice to be a part of a teenage-conversation; they worried about such nonsensical stuff that bordered between amusing and mental. Well it was nice, until we were back to videogame talk. Or at least they were. I resumed my chore of spectatorship, shovelling sev-tamatar into my mouth. From across the table, Rita Chachi and Kamlesh Chachu struck up a conversation with me.
‘So Stuti, when will we get to hear your wedding bells?’ Rita Chachi asked, radiating in the glow of the surrounding light. Not that she needed any extra light to glow. She was gorgeous. But I had no interest in dissecting and analysing my marriage plans, since I didn’t even have any. God, wedding talk was much worse than videogame talk.
‘Not any time soon, definitely.’
‘But why, sweetie? No boyfriends in tow?’ I shook my head and she gasped.
‘So you’re single? And why?’ Only Rita Chachi would frown upon a young Indian woman being single.
‘I guess the right guy is still to come along.’ Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Arjun animatedly talk to Mickey Mamu at the other end of the table. Leia was sitting next to him.
‘I hope you’re looking for someone. Or at least open to the idea of love.’ Kamlesh Chachu said. Arjun was grinning one of his trademark grins. I shrugged in nonchalance.
‘I think I am.’ I looked, I found, I loved, I discovered he loves someone else. It was fun while it lasted.
‘I remember when I met Rita, I was at that stage in life where love was the last thing on my mind. I was young and love didn’t appeal to me. But it still happened.’ Rita Chachi squeezed his arm endearingly.
‘How did you two meet?’
‘In the most clichéd manner. At a wedding.’ They smiled at each other.
‘His best-friend in college was getting married to a very dear friend of mine who lived next door.’ Rita Chachi said. ‘We were obviously from the opposite sides of the wedding party-’
‘-and we even fought during a ladkewalle vs ladkiwalle game of Antakshari at the sangeet, because her song didn’t begin from where it was supposed to-’
‘-it did! Just because you didn’t know the lyrics-’
‘-psht, I know every Pancham Da song by heart!’
‘Sure, darling. Every song except this one.’
‘Okay, and then what happened?’ I interrupted.
‘So that was when we first noticed each other,’ Kamlesh Chachu continued. ‘During a silly fight. We hardly spoke to each other during the entire wedding, but after that fight, I found myself looking at her all the time.’
‘And I couldn’t stop looking at him.’
‘And later when I returned home, that was when I realized that I had to find this woman, and woo her. In those days we didn’t have Facebook jaisa kuch, ki khatak-khatak kiya aur mil gayi ladki. Finding a girl’s phone number was a laborious task. I called my friend Sonu to find Rita’s number, but he had already left for his honeymoon by then. But his brother Monu was a good friend of mine too, so I asked him for the bride’s address. I knew she and Rita were neighbors.’
‘Wah Chachu, aap toh Karamchand nikle.’ Dev commended sarcastically. By now, some of our surrounding neighbors had turned their attention to Kamlesh Chachu’s storytelling.
‘Thank you ji.’ Kamlesh Chachu laughed. ‘So, that’s how I reached Rita’s doorstep, with no idea of what to do next.’
‘And when my father opened the door, he thought Kami was the new carpenter and tried to convince him to complete our boundary fence before the rains came in.’ Rita Chachi giggled. Kamlesh Chachu rolled his eyes.
‘Your father was always a bit dopey. How could someone as handsome as me be a carpenter in his eyes?’ Rita Chachi smacked his arm.
‘Don’t say a word about my father! It was probably all your stammering and uncleji, yeh ji, woh ji that made him think you were the carpenter.’
‘Ah, but you do agree I was very handsome.’ Despite flaring nostrils, Rita Chachi burst into a smile.
‘You still are.’ She pecked his cheek. I watched them in wonder— twenty-four years of marriage, and they still behaved like newly-weds.
‘I finally managed to convince her father that I wasn’t Jogi the Carpenter, but actually a friend of their neighbor’s son-in-law. He invited me in for tea, and then informed me that his wife and daughter had left for Spain that very morning.’
‘But how did you explain why you were there?’ Dev asked. The rest of us mumbled the same.
‘I couldn’t tell him I was there after tracking down his daughter of course. So I told him I was supposed to drop off some sweets, but I’d forgotten the box.’ So much for Karamchand.
‘Arrey, I said the first thing that came to my mind! I was very scared of that man, he was an army officer and could shoot me then and there!’
‘And you call my father dopey.’
‘Okay, okay. But it all turned out fine, didn’t it?’
‘What happened next?’ Aman asked.
‘When he got home,’ Rita Chachi said, a twinkle in her eyes. ‘He had a surprise waiting for him. It was my phone number.’
‘How did that happen?’ Ayush asked.
‘Sonu had called me while I was away. Monu had told him that I was looking for Rita, so he spoke to his wife, who managed to procure Rita’s Spain waala number. And that was that.’
‘Did you call her immediately?’ I asked.
‘No, not right away. I was a little nervous. And I was sure her father would’ve told her about me. But I called after a few days. She had been waiting for my call because Sonu’s wife had already told her everything.’
‘We spoke almost every other day after that, and even wrote letters to each other.’ Rita Chachi reminisced.
‘My father understood where all my pocket money was going—he knew I was in love with a girl. And then when she finally returned to Ajmer after a month, I asked her to marry me.’
‘But you guys barely knew each other!’ Aman exclaimed, echoing our thoughts. The happy couple laughed.
‘Pehle aisa hi hota tha, beta. Plus, we didn’t marry right away. We convinced our parents, gave it a year’s time, and then settled down. And here we are today, together and happy.’ Ayush, Dev, Ananya, and I burst into applause. Aman still looked a bit skeptical, but joined in any way. Our accompanying diners looked at us in inquiring surprise.
‘Chachu, kaunsi kahani sunai?’ Arjun called out.
‘Arrey wahi, apni love story!’ Kamlesh Chachu chortled.
‘Kammu, ab bachchon ko woh waali sunao. The one where you were chased by Kittu around the block!’ Hariman Uncle said, and half of the table erupted into laughter. The younger ones looked on in curiosity as the elders who knew the story sniggered— Kittu was the neighborhood dog who had chased Kamlesh Chachu around the colony when he tried to sneak in to meet Rita Chachi a night before their wedding. The two of them were crazy alright. Chachu and Chachi I mean. Not Kittu and Chachu. Though Kittu was possibly crazy too.
‘Who is Kittu? Kaunsi story? Batao na!’ the younger folk clamoured. Kamlesh Chachu shook his head resolutely, shaking with laughter. But he eventually relented at everyone’s prodding. I felt my phone buzz inside my cardigan’s pocket just as Kamlesh Chachu began his second story. I peeked at my phone.
‘Hey Stuti, this is Kabir Durrani. Would it be okay to call you right now? Got some good news.’
Good news could only mean one thing—they had found my bag.
‘I’ll be back in a bit.’ I said to Ayush, waving my phone. He nodded, deeply engrossed in Kamlesh Chachu Meets Kittu kahani. A few others only glanced up as I hurried past; Arjun queried whether I was trying to escape the story and I told him that I had to make a call. A little distance away from the clamour, I dialled Durrani’s number.
‘Hello? Hi Stuti.’ came the sonorous voice.
‘Hello Mister Durrani. I think you have some good news for me.’
‘I certainly do. I hope I didn’t interrupt your dinner.’
‘Nah, I was pretty much done. Did you find my bag?’
‘Yes, I did. Actually, Vijay from the airport did. It’s currently enroute from Ranthambore and should be here in the morning.’
‘A certain Bharat Ghatori called the airport two hours back to report that he had brought the wrong luggage home. He had already reached Ranthambore by then.’
‘Woah, my bag’s been on an adventure!’ Durrani let out a chuckle.
‘Yes, but we also have to send Mister Bharat’s bag back to the airport— unless you’d rather keep it.’
‘Oh no, I had just begun to grow fond of it!’ I dramatically said.
‘Well, I can always call Vijay and tell him that Mister Bharat will have to settle for some lehengas then.’
‘Maybe some other time. Where can I drop off his bag?’
‘It’ll be collected from your room, but in your presence.’
‘Now would be good. Mr. Bharat made sure your bag was sent out immediately. We should do the same.’
‘I’ll be at the room in two minutes.’
‘Great. I’ll send one of the bell-boys.’
‘Oh, you’re not coming?’ I realized how strange that question sounded after it had left my mouth. ‘He has that effect on women’ echoed in my head. And now, he probably thought I wanted him to be there, because he thought I thought he was cute. Lovely, Stuti. Commendable.
‘I mean,’ I started to say, as he said ‘um, is my presence required?’
‘Yes. I mean no. I mean it is okay, and you don’t have to!’ Geesh.
‘I can, if you’d like me to.’
‘No.’ I regained my composure. ‘It really is okay.’
‘Alright. I’ll be there in the morning with your bag.’
‘Outside my door?’
‘No, Stuti. In the lobby.’
‘I know. Sorry, I do fantastic attempts at jokes.’
‘A few more and you could be the next Sorabh Pant.’
‘Aditi Mittal you mean.’
‘Ah, I smell a feminist.’
‘Just a strong supporter of female comedians.’
‘Yes, they are quite funny.’
‘That sounds just like the audience during Aditi Mittal’s shows!’
‘That is so-’
‘Stuti, I’m really sorry, but I have to go. My boss is calling for me.’
‘I’m sending someone over now to your room, don’t forget.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning?’
‘Goodnight Mister Durrani.’
‘Kabir will do. You make me sound so old.’ The line went off. I blinked at the phone.
What even was that?