The four days of Puja, Anushtup had planned to spend them the same way he did every year, one afternoon lunch with Ma, and the rest of the days a bit of reading, a bit of drinking, and a lot of walking, with only his cigarettes for company. This time though, on Ashtami, the employees at the mall, not just from his store but all the shops on the ground floor, had planned to meet at the Maddox Square pandal at seven in the evening, and though this was absolutely not worth looking forward to, he knew that he needed to be in attendance, just for the sake of appearing to be agreeable. An hour or two of simulated enthusiasm, three fake laughs, and four back-slaps and then he would slip away, was what he had thought he would do. Things were proceeding according to plan, and since Payal from the perfumes department at Couture was there in the group, all the other men essentially talked to her, without talking to her, in the way that men trying to make an impression do, which suited Anushtup fine, because he could stay mostly silent and have it not noticed. After some time, which was sooner than he had thought it would be, Anushtup had decided he had had enough of the desultory conversation. Making an excuse of a prior appointment, he moved away from the clump of wooden chairs where the group sat, and walked over to the other side of the pandal looking to take the nearest exit out. Then, realizing he had not even looked once at the idol of the Goddess, he turned back.
Eight-thirty in the evening and they were packed in at Maddox Square shoulder to shoulder, men wrapped in elaborately ornate kurtas purple and red, glitteringly bejeweled women marinated in make-up, little beggar children scurrying around hunting for discarded paper plates, smoke from the evening aarati curling up in hazy columns, and behind the wall of voices, laughter, affected South Calcutta accents, cries, clangs and drum-beats, Goddess Durga and her sons and daughters, hardened clay and color, beautiful yet silent, gazing placidly back at the human folly in front.
Anushtup chuckled to himself, glanced at his watch and, why he never did realize, looked up again. And there she was, white salwar-kameez and black leather purse, hair bouncing like in the shampoo ads, a wisp of a dream gliding through the land of the real. Then she, and why he never did realize, turned her head to the right in his direction. A smile lit up her face and he immediately realized two things, that he too was smiling and that he would never ever forget this instant. She raised her hand, and at first Anushtup felt she was waving at him but before he could wave back, realized she was telling him to stay where he was. She said something to the two girls who were with her, one of whom looked in the direction of Anushtup, giggled and then turned away, which made him feel very conscious, wondering if the fawn kurta had been a bad choice. Then she came towards him and he towards her, and he saw she was slightly out of breath and he was too.
“Thank God, I could catch you before you had left.” she said, with a breath of relief. “I asked them there where you were and they said I had just missed you.”
“Oh I didn’t know they had invited you too.” Anushtup said. The fragrance of her perfume, light yet assertive, was intoxicating.
“I heard that everyone was coming here to Maddox Square. I was out with my cousins, so I thought I would drop by and say Hi.” She paused, looked around and said “Are you waiting here to meet someone?”
“No. I was just leaving.”
“So soon? I thought you guys just got here.”
“We have been here for an hour already.” Anushtup said, adjusting nervously the sleeves of his kurta.
“Oh I am sorry, I guess I am keeping you from something” said Poonam apologetically which is when Anushtup realized that she had interpreted his sleeve-adjusting as a casual glance at the watch.
“No. No.” He said alarmed, “I really have nothing to do now.”
“But they said…”
“I lied to them.” He shrugged, “I needed to get away.”
“That’s what I figured.” She said, with a smile, “I am guessing none of them were into Aldous Huxley.”
“More Shahrukh Khan, I would say” and Anushtup felt relaxed, but only for a second, because then she said, “Since you don’t have anything to do, and I don’t have anything to do, why don’t we do nothing together."
Excerpted with permission from YATRIK (THE TRAVELLER) by Arnab Ray
To be published by Westland, 2014.
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