The next morning dawned colder than ever. My phone recorded a temperature of 4 degrees, and it was with great distaste that I got out of the warm embrace of my fluffy white quilt. Ananya had come knocking at seven, announcing that we were meeting up for ‘dance practice’ for the sangeet. Not a single person looked happy as we descended to the dining room for an early breakfast. But Ananya Solanki was a dancer by profession (she choreographed theatre shows in South Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi), and had been awarded with the duty of choreographing any and every dance for the wedding of any of her cousins. So, we had no choice but to comply.
‘My eyes,’ Dev drearily said to me, as we stood in front of the toaster. ‘-are about to fall out of their sockets.’
‘Don’t eat too much, or else there will be undigested food falling out on the dance floor.’ I said. He snorted and grabbed three slices of bread and sticks of butter.
‘I can’t even dance, by the way.’ He shoveled eggs and hash-browns onto his plate. ‘Besides, the concept of ‘light breakfast’ does not exist in my books.’ Blueberry pancakes topped with syrup followed. Deep inside my heart, I knew he was right. I picked out some pancakes too, along with orange juice, and followed Dev to the table where Aman, Ayush, and Ajay were already seated.
‘Think of it this way,’ –I took a sip of the OJ- ‘when you dance, you will grab the attention of so many pretty girls from the boy’s side.’ Dev rolled his eyes.
‘I know I’ll grab attention. Because that’s how bad I dance.’
‘You can’t be that bad.’
‘Is that a challenge?’
‘He is a bad dancer.’ Ananya announced as she joined our table. Dev dropped his fork and clapped his hands together.
‘Aha! You do agree. So now can I not dance?’
‘Nope.’ Ananya calmly speared a papaya chunk. Dev groaned.
‘I promised Bhanu Tauji I’d get you to dance.’ Bhanu Tauji is Dev’s father.
‘-and I will get you to dance. Also, why are you eating so much?’
‘So I can vomit on your face!’ Ananya punched him in the shoulder. Dev grabbed a piece of watermelon from her plate and threw it at her. It hit her squarely on the forehead. Before anyone else could react, the two were screaming at each other.
‘I didn’t know we were rehearsing for Mowgli.’ Arjun said, having just arrived, Leia in tow. ‘Can I be Shere Khan?’
‘Dev doesn’t want to dance! Say something, Arjun Bhai!’ Ananya wailed. Arjun placed his hand firmly on Dev’s shoulder. Despite being of exactly the same age, Arjun still managed to look like the elder one, because of the elder-brother vibes he exuded.
‘Dekh Bhai. You’re probably going to be the next one to get married out of this lot. And if you don’t listen to Ananya now, she’ll wreck your wedding dances.’ Dev was the mischievous deviant of this generation, but if there was one person he listened to, it was his dearest Arjun. The elders’ often regretted not naming Dev ‘Karan’.
‘Besides, think of all the girls you could impress from the enemy side!’
‘That’s exactly what Stuti said too.’ Arjun winked at me,
‘Great minds think alike, hm?’ he said, and then trotted off to get food, leaving me behind with fluttery butterflies in my tummy.
‘If you like him so much, why don’t you just tell him?’ Dev said to me in an undertone. I choked.
‘What?’ I asked, as though I hadn’t heard him. He rolled his eyes.
‘Stuti, you liked him when he was an ugly teenager. And I can see that you still like him.’
‘He was never ugly.’ I murmured, staring at my toast keenly.
‘That was a trick.’ I glared at him and then back at my plate. A bunch of other people arrived at the table then, putting an end to our discussion. Tara was the only bright-eyed one out of the lot, and that was because the ladkewalle were arriving today. The rest of the cousins dragged their feet over the wooden floor and dully picked up plates. Some of them brightened up when they saw the fascinating variety of food, but Ananya quickly admonished them with a ‘eat only enough to sustain! Or else you won’t be able to dance!’ So their frowns returned. The elders weren’t going to join us any time soon, because their practice was scheduled for the afternoon. So they were all indulging in extended sleep and that only made our predicament worse.
‘Have you finalized the songs?’ Dhruv (Dev’s younger brother) asked Ananya.
‘Kind of. I want everyone to be happy with them, only then will I finalize them.’
‘What happens if we’re not happy with the songs?’ Arjun asked, sitting down next to me. Dev coughed purposely and I poked him.
‘Well, I’ll obviously consider it, but Arjun Bhai…’
‘Haan–haan, I know we promised you complete control over this thing.’
‘Exactly.’ Tara firmly said. ‘I trust Anu with this. She’s a professional, come on. Besides, she’s already told me the songs and everybody’s roles, and I’m fine with it!’
‘Will you ever tell us the songs…?’ Dhruv sighed. Ananya nodded fervently.
‘I will. In ten minutes. In the Bikaneri meeting room.’ An outcry of ‘ten minutes? But we just started eating!’ went around. Ananya shrugged.
‘Great, now we can also discuss potential sponsors for our dance performance.’ Dev said. Ananya glowered.
‘Kabir said that the meeting room would be the best place for dancing.’ My interest was piqued.
‘You’ve been talking to Kabir Durrani?’ Tara mildly asked, adding pepper to her scrambled eggs. Ananya turned slightly pink.
‘Oh yes. I told him I was the choreographer and I needed a roomy spot for practice. He gave me his extension so I could reach him anytime.’ Her tone was a tad bit pompous, as though getting Kabir Durrani’s extension number was akin to bagging a National Dance award.
‘Reminds me, did you get your bag back?’ Arjun asked me. I shook my head.
‘I asked at the reception first thing in the morning, but it hasn’t arrived yet. They said they would inform me the moment the bag arrives.’ Also, I didn’t want to call or text Kabir after that garrulous conversation last night. I was yet to tell Tara about it.
‘Why don’t you ask Ananya to call Kabir directly on his extension?’ Dev asked innocently. The rest of us burst into laughter. Ananya merely flicked her hair back.
‘I can call him if you want.’ she said to me, unaware (since I hadn’t told anyone but Tara) that Kabir had given me what seemed like his personal number. Why had he divulged it to me, when he could have just as easily given me his extension?
‘It’s okay, I’m sure the guys at the reception will let me know soon.’ I smiled. Ananya shrugged. I peeked at my phone; it was quarter to ten. Kabir had said- no, claimed– my bag would be here by now. What if it’s gone astray again?
‘Do you want me to have a word with Durrani about this bag business?’ Arjun said.
‘I actually spoke to him last night,’ I said in an undertone. ‘And he did say he would personally get it to me.’
‘He gave you his extension too?’ Arjun grinned.
‘No, his phone number.’ The grin was abruptly replaced by a look of curiosity.
‘Oh? Did he ask for yours first?’
‘Nope, I gave it to him. It’s easier to contact each other that way.’ Arjun turned to his plate with a strange smile and muttered something inaudibly, shaking his head softly.
‘I said, that you’re really cute, Stuti.’ I blinked.
‘No you did not…’
‘I did. You’re cute, and he’s clever.’ Before I could say anything else, he diverted his attention to Leia, asking her if she had tried the sausages. I stared at the back of his head idiotically.
‘Look who just walked in.’ Dev said, turning back, and I looked in the direction he was facing. Almost instantly, all the girls at the table had straightened up in their seats, suddenly awake. It was Kabir Durrani, dressed in a dark brown blazer, looking prim as always. I saw Ananya quickly finger-comb her hair, and then wave at Kabir.
‘Hi Kabirrr.’ She elongated the r’s to time it with the recherché sway of her fingers. Kabir waved back receptively.
‘Hello, Ms. Ananya. How are we doing this morning?’
‘Doing okay.’ Ananya said somewhat breathlessly. ‘Did you-’
‘Don’t worry, the meeting room is all ready for you.’
‘Thanks.’ She was obviously bedazzled. ‘Will you be coming along…’
‘I’ll try to drop by later, just to check on you all.’ Tara gaped openly at her sister, and then at me with a ‘what the heck’ face, and then back at her. Ananya wouldn’t stop flashing her best smile.
‘Please do!’ Subtle, girl. Kabir beamed and imparted greetings to the rest of the table, back-slapped Arjun (who greeted him back with equal enthusiasm), and then his gaze came to rest on me.
‘Good morning, Stuti.’
‘Good morning, Kabir.’ He moved in closer and then bent down, lowering his voice. ‘Care to join me in the lobby?’ A day old stubble lingered on his face. His cheekbones were more prominent than ever.
‘You’re beginning to make a habit out of dragging me away from my food.’ I laughed, already halfway out of my chair. I knew what I’d find in the lobby.
‘I can wait if you want.’
‘But I can’t! I want my bag!’ I saw Ananya visibly bristle up, as Kabir chortled at my words. I don’t think she had expected any of the rest of us to be on first name basis with ‘Kabirrr’.
‘This way then.’
‘Stuti, don’t be late for practice!’ Ananya called out as Kabir and I walked away towards the exit that led to the lobby.
‘I’ll drop her off personally, rest assured.’ Kabir said. I heard Dev guffaw in the background, probably to irk Ananya.
‘I almost thought the bag had gone on another adventure and I was never going to get it back.’ I said, hurrying to keep up with Kabir’s long strides. He noticed this and immediately slowed down.
‘I wouldn’t let that happen.’ My bag came into sight, propped up next to the reception counter. I let out a squeal of happiness. Without another thought, I broke into a jog and joyfully descended upon my bag. The familiar lock and tag looked up at me and I gratefully placed my palms upon the handle. I couldn’t stop smiling. This whole thing had been quite scary, frankly. I had some irreplaceable items in there. I almost kissed the top, but restrained myself in public. Later, bag. The kisses can wait.
‘I told you I’d be there in the morning with your bag.’
‘Well, that’s not how I imagined it.’ I got back on my feet.
‘How else did you imagine it?’
‘I thought you would be waiting with it from five in the morning or something, sitting on the lobby sofa, awaiting my arrival, maybe checking your watch every two minutes.’ He raised his eyebrows.
‘Were you here at five?’
‘Then why would you expect me to be here at five?’ Geez.
‘It was just how I imagined it, not that I actually expected you to be here at five.’
‘My duty begins at six, Stuti.’ What about this exceptional jerky behavior? Does that have set timings too?
‘Tell me, Stuti. Do you watch a lot of Bollywood films?’
‘Uh, how did you know?’
‘You seem like a filmy person. You know, a romantic.’ Is he belittling me now?
‘I don’t see the harm in that.’ I said a little scornfully. He watched me for a few seconds in silence, and then motioned to the bell-boy Jagpratap, to take my bag upstairs.
‘Good morning, Jagpratap, kaise ho tum?’ I cheerily said. Jagpratap had been the one to pick up Bharat Ghatori’s luggage from my room last night. He was an extremely polite, shy young man, just nineteen, with a barely-there moustache, and I felt quite chummy towards him. Jagpratap looked meekly at Kabir before responding with a squeaky ‘achcha hoon, Maam.’ Kabir maintained a stoic expression.
‘Jagpratap, take Ms. Stuti’s bag to her room. 215. Take the master key.’ Jagpratap nodded and set off obediently.
‘I’ll need your signature on this.’ Kabir said, handing me a clipboard with a single sheet of paper attached to it. I skimmed through it— it was a baggage-claim form.
‘Pen?’ He peeked over the reception counter to find one—all the staff was busy with either guests or phone calls—and then plucked out a fountain pen from his inner pocket. I held it in fascination; it was ostentatious silver, with a miniscule engraving on the lower end that said ‘Kabir Durrani’ in swirling black script. I pulled open the cap; the nib was embossed silver.
‘This is very beautiful.’ I murmured.
‘Thank you. It was a gift from my sister.’
‘You have a sister?’
‘Is she older than you?’ He nodded.
‘Kaanchi is the eldest. And then, my brother Kunal, and finally, me.’
‘Where do they live?’
‘Would you like to find out everything about my family right now? I thought you had a dance practice to attend.’ I rolled my eyes.
‘Excuse me for making small talk.’ I scribbled my name on the document and returned it to him with the pen. He looked at my signature, and then at me.
‘Do you like reading?’ Handwriting expert too, are we?
‘We have a bar library here, did you visit it yet?’ What?
‘Surprising. I was so sure every guest would read the brochures we have kept on their desks.’ I narrowed my eyes at the sarcasm. ‘But of course, you wouldn’t get any time to, what with the fancy bathtub and everything.’ My eyes narrowed further. He smiled, almost as though inviting me to retort. I said nothing.
‘Shall I escort you to the dance practice? Unless of course you would like to go back and finish your orange juice.’ When did he see that?!
‘How did you—okay never mind. I’ll go by myself. Where is the Bikaneri meeting room?’
‘On the other side of the lawns.’
‘Okay. Thanks.’ I turned and then remembered that I hadn’t thanked him for getting my bag back to me.
‘Oh, and thank you so much. For delivering the bag to me safely.’
‘My duty, Stuti.’ The smile still sat infuriatingly on his pretty mouth. I began walking away. A second later, Kabir was jaunting beside me. For a moment, I thought he was going to go away in a different direction, but he didn’t. Nor did he quicken his pace to suggest he was headed elsewhere.
‘Um, are you coming to the meeting room too?’
‘Yes I am.’ I scrunched up my face in annoyance.
‘Why didn’t you just say so?’
‘You look captivating when you’re confused.’ It was a wonder how quickly flitted from formal to playful. I clicked my tongue in annoyance. Our feet pattered out of the foyer; I made a point to wave at Mohit the santoor player.
‘Looks like by the end of this wedding, my staff will like you more than they like me.’ Kabir said, with—I was glad to note— a tinge of chagrin. I dug my hands into my coat’s woolly pockets. It was horrendously cold.
‘Do they not like you?’ A female staffer passing by accosted him with a ‘good morning sir’. He nodded back curtly, hands crossed behind his back.
‘Most of them are scared of me.’
‘Scared? Of you? Why?’ I snorted. He looked mildly affronted.
‘I’ve been told I’m short-tempered.’ Another passing-by staffer meted out good-mornings at us. I reciprocated right away, but Kabir refused to even spare a smile.
‘Maybe you should try toning down your rigid attitude?’ He stared at me in incredulity, as though such a notion had never occurred to him.
‘It’s how you run things. I’m an authority figure, not their best friend.’
‘I’m not asking you to juggle maracas for them. All I’m saying is,’ – I took a pause to blow at my cold palms and rub them together—‘that being friendly won’t hurt. If your colleagues look up to you, then at least make the effort to smile at them.’ He pursed his lips in contemplation. We chanced upon a third staffer. Right after he wished us, Kabir attempted to smile back in return, an unbelievably unnatural, forced smile. The smile that came so effortlessly otherwise looked closer to a grimace right now. The staffer (his badge said ‘Chawla’) stumbled away confusedly. I burst out laughing.
‘What, I tried!’
‘Worst attempt ever!’
‘Never trying this again. Did you see the look that Chawla gave me?’ Kabir sulked. At his crabby face, I cracked up again. For the first time since my arrival yesterday, I’d seen genuine emotions on his otherwise guarded face.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘It wasn’t that funny, okay…’
‘But that’s not how you smile!’
‘Well, I have a practiced smile for guests.’
‘I think you should try this one on the guests once. They’ll all leave before check out time.’ As I bent over with laughter, I instinctively held on to his arm.
‘Stuti?’ I saw Arjun peering out from behind a set of doors; I hadn’t noticed that we stood only a stone’s throw away from the meeting room. I quickly let go of Kabir’s arm at Arjun’s inquiring expression.
‘We’re discussing the songs.’ Arjun said, pointing to the room behind him. ‘Coming?’ I remembered what he had previously said—you’re cute and he’s clever.
‘I’ll see you later.’ Kabir breezily said, stepping away neatly. His stance changed whenever a third person intruded on our conversations.
‘I thought you had work here.’
‘My work was to drop you off at the meeting room.’ He smiled, and the difference was so perceptible—this one he had mastered.
‘What about the bar library?’ I suddenly recalled.
‘Would you like to see it?’
‘Um, obviously. What kind of an alcoholic would I be if I didn’t go to the library?’ Kabir let out a snort.
‘Meet me after your dance practice. I’ll show you the way.’
‘I can’t. We’re going to Le Méridien to receive the ladkewalle.’ Nitesh and his kin were to stay at Le Méridien, which was further along the road from Fairmont.
‘Oh, yes. Your dinner is scheduled there.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘Okay. Some other time.’
‘How about after I come back?’
‘Wouldn’t that be very late?’
‘Does the place shut down very early?’
‘I can ask them to leave it open for you. I might not be around then, however.’
‘That’s okay with me. I’ll find my way.’ If he was dismayed at my words, he didn’t show it.
‘I’ll ask the concierge to look into it. Have a good day, Stuti.’ If he’d rather have me visit the library with him, why not just say it?
‘You’re too formal, Kabir.’ I said, shaking my head.
‘I don’t see the harm in that.’ He left, anti-climactic as always. Arjun was still waiting for me at the door.
‘You look happy.’ he said. ‘Excited to have your bag back finally?’ I beamed in response.
‘Relieved would be a more appropriate word.’
‘What were you and Kabir talking about?’
‘Nothing really. He was just recommending the hotel’s bar library, since I like reading books.’
‘Are you headed there after this?’ Something about his tone told me he wouldn’t appreciate an affirmative answer to that.
‘Not sure. Too busy today.’ The rest of the regiment was already present in the large carpeted hall. The mahogany conference table had been pushed away to a side, to create space at the center.
‘How did I not see you guys come here?’ I asked Tara.
‘Dining room has a second exit.’ She leaned in conspiratorially. ‘So, what did Kabir want?’
‘He was just delivering my bag to me.’ Arjun was in vicinity.
‘Secondary. Why did he have to call you out for that?’
‘Um, because it was his duty?’
‘I think Mr. Manager’s got a tiny crush on you.’ Tara smirked suggestively. Oh.
‘Please. Your theories are retarded.’
‘But this one isn’t!’ Did he really? Or was he just impeccably nice to all his guests?
‘Tara, I’m the romantic!’
‘I know, I know, but still!’
‘We’ll discuss this later. I have more to tell you.’ Tara’s eyes glimmered at that, and we joined the huddle around Ananya, who clapped her hands in initiation.
‘Okay, we have three days until the sangeet,’ she said. ‘And we need to beat the ladkewalle at this. Luckily, we have a day’s head start.’ Dev sidled up next to me.
‘All she needs is a military uniform. Maybe a rifle too, so she can shoot me in the head.’ he whispered. I sniggered. Arjun warningly shushed at us, and we quietened down.
‘I’ve decided on three songs. The first one is going to be all girls, with Tara at the centre, on Navrai Majhi. Then, the guys will join in on Radha. And we’ll end the whole thing with Gal Mithi Mithi Bol. It’ll only be one stanza and chorus per track. Sounds good?’
‘Will we be able to learn all the steps in three days?’ Ahaana asked skeptically.
‘We will, don’t worry. I’ll ensure that.’
‘Complicated steps?’ Ajay queried.
‘Not a single one, I promise.’
‘What about bade log?’ Dhruv asked. The elders.
‘They’ll do different performances. I’ll handle that with Mumma.’ ‘Mumma’ meant Rita Chachi, who was quite a skilled dancer herself.
‘What if the crowd throws chappals at us? What are our contingency plans, Lieutenant?’ Dev asked out of nowhere.
‘Then I’ll throw you at them.’ Ananya’s expression was faultlessly similar to Jack Nicholson’s crazy look from The Shining. ‘Okay, shall we begin?’