Satyajit was still single. He was getting older by the day. There didn’t seem to be anyone close to him bothered enough to persuade or pressurise him to get married. For nearly twenty years, he had changed many jobs and flats in this city. There was probably no Mumbai suburb he hadn’t lived in and no streetside food cart he had not eaten from.

For some time he had shared rooms with other bachelors who were not really his friends, but as he grew older, he got tired of living with strangers and took up quarters on his own. He used to wonder why he needed an entire room to himself when all he used it for was for a bath in the morning and six hours of sleep at night.

But when he realised that even with people he had known for years he could not share the sort of easy camaraderie that bus drivers had when they met momentarily at the station, he had given up that kind of living, and now for the last four years, he had occupied a small room by himself on the terrace of an old building.

The room had a small square window. On the days that Satyajit did not go to work, he would observe the sunbeam coming through the window to make the room sparkle. It seemed to him like a broom of light that swept his mind too. When clouds gathered, the rays disappeared. He always left the window open, even when he went out. On its inner ledge, his shaving set, toothpaste, brush and comb shone in the golden light. He often went to his colleagues’ weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.

When someone tried to pull his leg about not being married, he would say, “I’m married to this city. Where’s the space for another relationship?”

Since he lived on top of a three-storey building, he felt as though below him lay an entire society. On the terrace was a silence quite alien to the people below, or to the noise of the road. It was as though he filled himself with this silence as he would secure his little room with a little lock and climb down the steps to go to work. When he returned in the evening and unlocked the door, standing in that same silence, it was as though the room had been waiting for him. In this room that no one else ever entered, only the sun’s rays had come and gone, warming the space. A deep twilight pervaded the terrace, quite different from the darkness split by the lights from the bazaar below.

Today, like always, Satyajit woke late and rushed to get ready. As he was locking the door, he saw an old man climbing up the stairs. Thinking he had made a mistake, Satyajit said, “There are no more floors here. This is the terrace and there’s no one here,” making a sign to him to stop. The old man tried to catch his breath, and, hesitantly pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket, said, “It’s this very address. Satyajit Datta…”

Satyajit was irritated. He was already late for work. But he felt bad about being impolite to this elderly man who had clearly come looking for him from afar. “Come in, come in,’ he said, unlocking his door, and unfolding a metal chair for him to sit on. Satyajit had never had a guest in this house; the old man was the first. Looking around at the small room, the man stammered again, “Satyajit Datta…”

“Yes, that’s me, Satyajit. I was just leaving for office. Two more minutes and you would have missed me. And all your effort would have been in vain. Tell me, how can I help you?” he asked, pouring out a glass of water from an earthen pot. Drinking the water quickly, and wiping his mouth with his sleeve, the old man said, “Perhaps if you’re getting late, I should come another time.”

“No, no, do tell me what you want,” replied Satyajit, folding his shod feet in order to sit down on his unmade bed on the floor. “My name is Sanjeev Sen. Retired from the Railways ten years ago. I live in Borivli. I heard about you from a friend who lives far away. I’ve come with a request. I’ve brought a marriage proposal on behalf of my daughter. Her horoscope and other details are here,” the old man said, proffering a brown envelope.

Satyajit was dumbstruck. It was like getting a gallantry award without going into battle. He pulled the sheet out of the envelope and glanced at it. Shalini Sen…education…date of birth, etc. The details had been typed on an old typewriter, and corrections had been made with a coloured refill.

“She’s working part-time in a travel agency. She’s thirty-nine. Our bad luck that everything got delayed. We are willing to conduct the marriage at any time and place of your choice. If you want to meet her, we can arrange a meeting at a convenient place. Please give me your phone number. I will call you myself. I don’t want you spending on the phone call.”

Looking around carefully at the small room, Sanjeev Sen stood up. “The address, phone number, are all there…” he said as he went down the stairs.

“Look here, I stopped thinking about marriage years ago. And I still haven’t settled down properly. Perhaps I’m not the type to ever settle down. I’m a sort of wanderer. Look at this room. Marriage is not for me…” These words began to occur to Satyajit only later. This meeting with the old man had happened in a flash, and had already begun to seem like an illusion.

Author Jayant Kaikini | Image: Noopur28 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Satyajit locked his door and slowly went to his office. It was as though a new blank page had suddenly appeared in his crowded diary, or a new pocket on the shirt he had flung on. It gave him a strange pleasure to think that the father of a “girl” had come looking for him – he who was past forty, greying, and leading an aimless life. Satyajit did not have any friends with whom he could discuss this.

What upset him was also the fact that this gentleman looking for a bridegroom had not asked him any questions. What did he do for a living, how did he live, what kind of thoughts did he have? How could the old man commit his daughter to a man he showed no curiosity about? Or was this family in such a terrible predicament that they were not interested in knowing such things?

It began to distress Satyajit that the man had given him the daughter’s horoscope as naturally as leaving a load of laundry to be ironed. Since the old man had been walking around under the fierce sun, the letters of the horoscope seemed to have evaporated in the heat. Shalini, Shalini Sen, the name had some sparkle to it. She had been living on this earth the past thirty-nine years, and suddenly her existence and Satyajit’s had come close to one another.

Perhaps, he thought, she was the child of a migrant family which had come here seeking a livelihood, perhaps the family had never quite settled down. She would have learned to walk somewhere in this city, and grown up seeing lakhs of faces other than his. Speaking Bambaiyya Hindi, painting her nails in a girlfriend’s house, dancing the garba during Navratri, going to the sea for the Ganesh immersion,

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories

Excerpted with permission from No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini, translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, HarperPerennial.