When we reach his house, a stone’s throw away from the club, he insists I come up for a spot of tea to calm my nerves. The thought of my meeting his family at the unconventional hour of 10 pm does not dissuade him; in fact, he insists that no one will be bothered since they are up watching the Golden Temple kirtan anyway. I’m already aware that his family is acquainted with Devanshi – yet another connection that has cropped up between us – which puts me at ease about walking into his house.
When I follow him into the living room, I’m surprised to find his family congregated there. I am acutely aware that all eyes are on me.
I notice that they are all diminutive, and his six-foot figure is in stark contrast with their four-foot frames. He sees me size them up, literally, and comments that he too has wondered how he came to be so tall. “My dad used to buy his shoes in the children’s section,” he says, making me smile. Just as I’m wondering if he can read minds, he adds, sotto voce, “You would fit into this scenario very well.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, puzzled.
“They all sit around in their nightwear and don’t go anywhere,” he explains, chuckling. I recognise this as an allusion to my having turned down many evening plans because I was reluctant to change out of my nightdress. Once again, the over-familiarity catches me off guard.
While his grandmother makes tea for us, I look around at the photographs on the walls and a series catches my eye, where every shot has captured him entirely immersed in playing the sarod. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and I think it’s impressive for a teenager to be so dedicated to a traditional art form.
“Ustad Amjad Ali Khan heard me play the guitar at an inter-school competition and told my mother to send me to learn the sarod under him,” he explains. Turning to his grandfather, he says in Punjabi, “Remember how the girls would whistle when I came on stage?” The old man gives an indulgent smile, while I’m surprised that Randy can converse fluently in Punjabi.
“Oh, I didn’t know you speak Punjabi so well...” I can’t help saying.
“I’ve tried to hold on to my roots,” he shrugs. “My grandpa taught me to read Gurmukhi and Urdu as well.”
While I make small talk for the next thirty minutes, the topic of Pranay Singh does not come up. Not until the next day at least, when Randy calls to check on me.
“I’m all right,” I assure him. “I was only unnerved because he’s always been polite and respectful in the past.”
“Well, you know, you’re pretty. A lot of men might be feeling the same way.”
Again, that uncalled-for familiarity! “I tend to stay away from men who call me ‘pretty’,” I say, peevishly.
He drops the topic, and we decide to go see a play. When he calls to say he’s arrived to pick me up, I step outside the house to find him on a motorbike. It makes me laugh and he can see he has immediately improved my mood.
“The guard at my gate is going to be so shocked,” I laugh, clambering on behind him.
“Borrowed the bike,” he tells me, revving it up. “Reliving my youth since Ma never let me ride a bike back in the day!” And we’re off, sweeping down the streets, my hair flying in the wind. After the play, he takes me to a quiet corner opposite the Jor Bagh market to teach me how to ride. Since I’m generally strait-laced, I’m uncharacteristically enjoying his attempts at drawing me out; he’s a fun, bad boy in the guise of a good boy with strong family values.
A few days later, Randy lands up at my house for dinner with a beautiful bouquet of lilies.
I dump the flowers immediately; I don’t want my friends to see him walking in with flowers and misconstrue our “relationship”. He looks surprised, confused and slightly woebegone, but I am certain that I don’t want to jeopardise my peaceful life.
Not that Randy and I have not become close – I respect his candour and have warmed up to his generosity. There are things about him I am beginning to appreciate – his honesty about his family and his troubled past, his desire to make his own way in life, his habit of leaving hefty tips because he too had once waited tables in America in order to pay for college.
One evening, when we are out for dinner at a hotel, I see a girl weeping in the ladies’ room. I ask if I can help, and she shakes her head. When I tell Randy about her, he is instantly concerned. I learn he used to counsel victims of abuse in New York. “You know, even one kind word can save a life,” he says, which sends me scurrying in search of the girl again. I am drawn to the fact that he is not afraid to get involved if it can save someone.
I begin to trust him enough to talk about my difficult marriage and my raising a son single-handedly. He has already begun to include my son in our Lodi Garden walks and Khan Market coffee dates. Often, it feels as if he is older than me, certainly not five years younger.
One day, on one of these walks, his words stop me in my tracks.
“You should get married.”
When I find my tongue again, I say, “Why don’t you mind your own business and get married again yourself?”
He retreats quickly. “I was only thinking about Akshay. My mother was widowed at a young age and never considered marrying again. I often think I would have done better if I had a stepfather.”
I drop the subject since it seems to come from a place of personal injury. But he brings it up again the following week. “I think you will be married by the end of the year.”
This time I laugh. “Are you a soothsayer?” I tease. “You’re certainly not a well-wisher, because if you were, you would not wish this upon me.”
He isn’t one to give up; a few days later, he pops his first proposal. “Would you ever consider marrying me?”
I am flummoxed. I had never intended to be anything more than friends. I tell him he is too young to cast his lot with me. Besides, it has been a harrowing escape from my first marriage. I beseech him not to put me in that spot again.
I am not keen to revisit the trials of marriage.
I was twenty-two when I was married to a man who found it hard to be kind to me. I was too young to have ideas of my own and did not know what to expect from the relationship. The safest choice I could make for myself was to stay mum, because anything I said was used against me.
His family oscillated between derision and insincere appreciation, always putting me in my place even while they pretended to care. Their attitude towards life was so different from mine, I didn’t know what to make of it. It always seemed to me that there was much in me that they needed to put right before they could love me.
So now I am wary. Even though Randy has met my family and gets along rather well with my friends, I remember how my former in-laws had also managed to convince my family that their son was right for me. In an arranged marriage, no one thinks of what might be good for the bride; she simply gets married and prays for decency.
No, I cannot bring myself to be married again.
Excerpted with permission from Beguiled: A Real-Life Story of How a Woman Got Conned in Love, Ruchika Soi, Penguin Books.