The roll-up chessboard with walnut and cream wooden pieces was set up on the low-lying rustic coffee table in the study. A quick game each night was a part of her and her father’s bedtime routine. He played in order to spend quality time with her and to keep his mind sharp. She played in order to spend quality time with him and to make courageous moves on the board that somehow she couldn’t in real life.
The unseasonal rain had washed the streets clean, and she could see the asphalt glistening in the yellow light from the iron lamp posts. Ravi Pant had just returned from a commotion at work and had said those magic words: “Bete, cold coffee?” He had darted into the shower soon after. He liked going to bed all clean in crisp night suits, something that was ingrained in her as well. “Which is why our bedsheets are cleaner than a bar of Dove soap,” he would dispense such gems now and then.
Her grandfather was still at the society clubhouse vociferously arguing his political conspiracy theories – some age-old ones, others newly minted – and her twin brothers hadn’t returned from whatever shenanigans they were up to. That left her with the pup, Bark Twain, who was too haughty to make eye contact with her.
Kittu added an extra scoop of fresh, home-made lychee ice cream to the cold coffee to help make the conversation that was on her mind easier. Ravi had already made himself comfortable in the two-decade-old studded leather chair in the study. Kittu walked in, gingerly placing the two mugs of cold coffee on the side table, and glanced at the chessboard.
“This is pure cheating. You cannot take white again,” she protested, referring to the pieces on the board.
Ravi shot her a confused look. “First of all, you had white the last time we played so technically it’s my turn. Second, I never cheat so that’s a strange accusation coming from a fine young woman who’s known to be fair. And thirdly,” he smiled, “you can have it if you want it so bad.”
She beamed, taking a seat across from him. Then she turned the chessboard around so she could lead with white.
Kittu made the first move with d4, the queen’s gambit. Ravi responded with a traditional move, took a sip of the coffee and was about to place it on the other side table when Kittu shrieked.
“Wait wait wait, let me get you a coaster.”
He involuntarily pulled back, now holding the mug close to his chest. “Gosh, Kittu, sometimes you behave just like your mother.”
Kittu froze, unbeknownst to Ravi, when she heard that. Not that it was untrue. She had made a conscious choice to behave like her mother. It helped alleviate her guilt a tad.
When he moved his queen, Kittu made a strategic verbal move in response, one she had planned for a while. “Daddy, did you think about Rashi Mehra? You promised!”
Rashi Mehra was a boutique owner in her fifties, a widow with whom Kittu shared an enterprising cook – Lakshmi Mausi. Kittu hadn’t been oblivious to the periodic bursts of loneliness that engulfed her father’s life since her mother’s passing. She had seen him smoke on the terrace even on chilly nights, staring into oblivion. She’d noticed the restrained laughter at family events and festivals in the company of other couples. And more than anything, she’d felt his pain as if it were her own.
Over time, with much planning and strategising with her grandfather, the duo had broached the idea of a remarriage for Ravi who had outright opposed it. “It’s too much work; I don’t even know any women my age who’re looking for a partner,” Ravi had dismissed the idea.
The moment those words had flown out of his mouth, Lakshmi had caught them like a pro through some telepathic communication channel and had taken it upon herself to upgrade herself from a cook to a matchmaker for her employer. The next morning at 6.30 am, Kittu’s WhatsApp had been inundated with multiple photos of Rashi Mehra in various ethnic outfits, a demure smile on her lips in all of them. Kittu and her grandfather had instantly gravitated towards her.
“Rashi Maidum is poised, restrained in her conversations, no needless hehehaha – you know how some women are over- the-top trying too hard to be friendly, she’s not like that, has never coloured her hair and she’s sweet simple mummy-type; perfect for your family,” Lakshmi Mausi had later succinctly pitched.
Kittu had laughed, not being sold on those qualities, but there was something genuine about the woman in the photographs that had appealed to her.
“I haven’t thought about it, Kittu. Your move.” Ravi pointed at the board with his eyes as he moved his bishop.
“Lakshmi Mausi said she’s loving and kind and very WYSIWYG,” Kittu moved her knight as she spoke. She had become a pro at multitasking over the years.
“What You See Is What You Get.”
“Oh that. Nice. Wait, Lakshmi Mausi said WYSIWYG?”
“I’m paraphrasing, Dad. You’re focusing on the wrong details. Can you please meet Rashi Mehra? I can invite her over this Saturday.”
“This Saturday is too early. I need time – ”
“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll think about it.”
‘Eeeeeeee,’ Kittu squealed, pecked him on the cheek, left the game as is and ran to her room where her phone was charging. Without wasting another second she dialled Lakshmi to inform her about her father’s willingness, forced as it may be (minor detail), to meet a prospective bride-mom.
“You took too long, Kittu. Rashi Maidum already found an alliance. Yesterday only she gave me the good news,” the cook said nonchalantly, then quickly changed course. “Not to worry, I’ll find someone else. But you’ll have to hurry. Single women in their forties and fifties are flying off the shelves,” she confided, providing a matrimonial market assessment report and hung up.
Excerpted with permission from A House Full of Men: A Novel, Parinda Joshi, HarperCollins India.