Waiting outside the lawyer’s office for interminable hours was difficult for Aahan. He was born with a place in this world, as the scion of the Sikand family, and took having to wait anywhere, or indeed any delay or inconvenience, however minor or justified objectively, as a personal affront, a marker of his diminished status. If that wasn’t bad enough, Parul insisted on accompanying him to every meeting and hearing.

After all, it was through her uncle’s connections that the lawyer was giving them his time, this reduced fee, the commitment that he would actually show up when the case was listed. This gave her a sense of entitlement to comment nonstop about what should be done, could have been done, and wasn’t being done.

The factory was in a mess, there were labour problems, and there was the whole larger Nooriya problem to tackle. The lawyer who he was consulting was a school acquaintance too – one who he wouldn’t have deigned to acknowledge in the school yard, possibly even bullied, and certainly never invited to his parties – and Parul’s Mausaji’s intervention was needed to ensure that he met them quickly. And now, here he was, hoping that the learned senior counsel gave him adequate attention and would reach the court in time for the hearing, give it priority over his other cases.

The bills were astronomical whether the lawyers got the job done or not. Plus, he had to keep up appearances in his personal life too: business-class travel, imported cars, a lavish annual bash. The factory was mortgaged, the Shimla house title was unclear. He wouldn’t get much for it, even if it did come to him.

Someone more important than him entered the office, with a flurry of activity. ADCs, security people, hangers-on followed. Mr More Important was ushered straight into Aahan’s classmate’s room, and his wait got a lot longer. He sighed and resigned himself to staring vacantly at the ticker on the screen before him, where a news channel was streaming on mute: “BREAKING NEWS: RESHUFFLE IN DELHI CABINET”.

Completely disinterested in politics, Aahan was about to tune off, when he saw a name chug by on the rolling list of ministerial berths: Rajesh Kumar, minister for Labour and Social Welfare.

How had he done it, making it look so effortless, seemingly overnight? Aahan smiled, despite himself, at the grit and gumption of his one-time playmate. He remembered his father, smirking when he heard that Rajesh had joined this new crackpot party, that he spent his time in Jagdambika Camp, supervising water tankers sent by the party to be delivered to those wretched people – they didn’t have a water connection, of course – even carrying the heavy buckets without spilling the precious liquid to the older ladies’ homes.

His father had patronisingly instructed Laxman Chacha to make Rajesh leave all this nonsense, he would get him a government peon’s job through his connections, which was the best that he could hope for, after all. Kya chaihiye usko zindagi se, Laxman? He would ask, while idling at a traffic light. Laxman would smile and nod deferentially, and keep his eyes on the road.

Despite all the pressure and advice to the contrary, when it seemed like madness, Rajesh had forged on, and here he was, a minister in the state government. Aahan made a mental note to ask Rajesh if he could help him resolve the disputes with the factory labour union, to get them off his case and let him close down the unit without too much trouble. He glanced at Parul, but by the looks of it, she had seen the news too.

Her face pursed in a grim frown, exposing the cracks in her makeup, where it had settled into the inevitable crevices and creases on her once youthful profile. The harsh bluish office lighting gave her face an orangey hue and highlighted the crow’s feet along her eyes. He knew his wife only too well, she wasn’t happy with this development, and was calculating how this would affect them, how it could potentially be used to their benefit.

They would remember 2015 as the year when Rajesh, their servant’s son, was a minister in the government, and they were looking to sell everything to stay afloat. Parul was thinking back to the day when she thought, in retrospect, that it all began to go downhill. It would have been 18 April, Aahan’s birthday, about a decade ago, give or take a year or two.

It had been an unusually hot April, hot enough for her to remember it a decade later. Haryana had temporarily stopped supplying water to Delhi, and there was none in the house. People like her didn’t know anyone who mattered in the local government any more. It was full of the riffraff jhuggi-jhopri types now, she felt – uneducated louts who had previously hung around akharas, teashops and brothels.

Most of her father’s classmates had secured government jobs when they left college, IAS and IRS officers, or in the army like her Papa, with one old boy even becoming a minister in Uttarakhand. If they ever needed anything done, there had always been someone that Papa or Mausaji could call. No one from Parul’s and Aahan’s class had even given the joint services exam, it just wasn’t considered an attractive option. As a result, now that Papa and his batchmates had retired, they had no one to call for conveniences like water, electricity, school admissions, street sweeping, drain cleaning.

Parul and Aahan had a large party planned that night, for Aahan’s birthday. That it was a weeknight didn’t bother any of the guests. The men mostly worked in businesses established by their fathers, with no specific hours of work, and the women didn’t work at all. Rajesh would be the bartender, of course. He could be trusted not to steal the booze. He didn’t drink, and he wouldn’t dare take a bottle to sell.

In those days, he still occasionally stayed in the servant quarter block with his parents, sleeping outside their room on a rolled-up mattress that was stowed under their bed when it wasn’t in use. Rajesh had offered to organise a water tanker for them; the councilor was his “friend”, he said. Aahan had accepted while slapping Rajesh on the back: “Dost, tere to kaafi contacts ban gaye, nayi sarkaar mein, ab mera saara kaam tu hi karaana.”

And yes, that was how it was going to be.

For the occasion, Parul decided to wear her blue lace LK Bennett dress, the one that didn’t really work without Spanx – if she was to be honest with herself, was still a bit meaty even with it – and the three-carat diamond solitaire earrings that she had borrowed from her Masi for the evening. She wondered what it would take to get her own pair. She descended the staircase, carefully, her nude heels were a bit ambitious and she hoped that no one would notice that they were slightly scuffed, to find that Aahan had already started on the whiskey.

She sighed. She had loved drinking when she was in college and still did, really, but having to keep an eye on Aahan every single time he consumed alcohol, which was every day, substantially dampened the fun. How many had it been? How quickly? Had he eaten? Would he stagger home cheerfully, or would he be in a mood to fight? Would the kids notice? A minder now, she was always in control, approaching drunkenness as she would a reunion with her school girlfriends – extremely enjoyable for the evening, always without her husband, and at best an occasional event.

Parul had met Aahan at The Tipsy, an all-white themed bar that kids from Modern School and Vasant Valley frequented. They had spotted each other there every Saturday for a couple of months. Both had been partying with their own, separate set of friends. An army child, she had studied at an all-girls boarding school in the mountains since she was little, while her parents lived in the mofussil cantonment towns where her father was posted, Bareilly and Jalandhar and Ajmer.

When it was time for university, she had to study in Delhi. Her parents’ budget did not allow for the shiny foreign universities that were in all the bulky catalogues that arrived in the mail and SAT classes and her friends’ incessant chatter in the school canteen those last months of term, before everyone went their own way.

Most of her classmates were to study abroad, and her three best friends had gotten admission in the same mid-western US college. “Parul, yaar, you have to come! Only two of us can be roommates so one of us will be left out! Tell your dad to work something out na, it will be such fun!” they trilled. Life was just beginning.


Excerpted with permission from Equations, Shivani Sibal, HarperCollins India.