“Hi,” he said to the girl from the band. “Don’t take this the wrong way, you’re a very good singer, but I think I’m going to invent the world’s first tandoori shrimp missile if I have to go back in there.”
The girl stared at him. “Don’t take this the wrong way, we don’t choose the lives we’re born into, but I’ve already considered it and decided that the aloo tikkis would be more effective.”
Ashwin smiled, pulling out his pack of Davidoff ’s and offering it to her. She hesitated for a moment, then took a cigarette.
He said, “You know it took my mother all of two seconds to suggest a party after seeing the admissions letter? I bet she planned to throw one no matter where I went to college. I wanted to DJ myself but she put her foot down to hire a band ‘for all ages and tastes’. What does that even mean?”
“It’s a musical genre we invented: it’s only for middle-aged women from the Chhattarpur farmhouses, but for them the appeal is quite hypnotic.”
“I’m sorry. I meant no offence.”
“None taken.” She stretched out her hand. “I’m Mallika.” “Ashwin.”
Ashwin lit Mallika’s cigarette. “I guess I’m hard to miss tonight.” She coughed out a ball of smoke. “Oops,” she said, swatting the cloud with one hand and wiping the water from her eyes with the other. Ashwin wondered why she had taken one if she didn’t smoke. He noticed that her eyes were the shape of mangoes, their tips pointing upward.
“You don’t seem very excited about going to Columbia,” she said. “What makes you think that?”
He looked at her forehead, which was tall and placid, hemmed in by a dense forest of hair along the upper arch and two neatly threaded eyebrows below. The way the dim light hit her, he could see that her hair was not solid black but almost auburn, and that the ridge of her cheekbones was dusted with light freckles, a feature for which his mother would have reserved the tag “unfortunate” but which he found uniquely alluring against the curtain of her dark hair. Out on the street, it occurred to him that her skirt was too short for a pedestrian. As if she had read his thoughts, she pulled at its hem and adjusted her posture.
“For one, you’ve been hiding all evening. You also haven’t danced at all - and our music is not that bad. And, lastly, you started talking to me by saying you want to throw shrimps at people who are celebrating your admission.” She swatted, then scratched the naked back of her knee. “So am I right?”
He shrugged. “It’s normal to have mixed feelings about leaving your home town.”
“Very diplomatic,” she said,flinging open her arms as if to hold ￼￼￼all of Chanakyapuri. “Like this part of town.” There was boredom in her voice.
“My school is around the corner from here,” Ashwin said,trying to sound even more bored.
“The Commonwealth School,” Mallika replied, as if that was what he wanted to hear.
“TCS,” Ashwin confirmed, hoping that despite the dryness in her voice she would be impressed that he was graduating from one of the more well-known private schools in the city. “But everyone calls it Ticks.”
Mallika grinned. “If someone ever did a study they would find that the English-speaking Indian’s itch for verbal shortcuts is class-blind and altogether unbeatable.”
“But it’s been Ticks for a long time!” Ashwinprotested. “And we do have a very distinguished list of alumni.” He broke into a grin himself. “A tap-dancing heir to a political dynasty, a pot-dealing son to an arms-dealing father, a runner-up in the 2009 season of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge – "
Mallika interrupted him, “Oh, how cosmopolitan!”
Ashwin, still finding no sign that Mallika was impressed or even vaguely intimidated by him, began to suspect that perhaps he was not as essential to the city’s libido as he had always assumed. He knew that many of his classmates could be described as ABCDs so cosmopolitan they were stripped of all identity other than the “Born Confused” part, but he now wondered whether her last words were aimed at him.
Widening his grin, he went on, trying to match her tone, “Not one, not two, but three of the prime suspects in the capital’s most spectacular hit-and-run cases.”
“Let me guess, earning them entries into the Limca Book of World Records for ‘Most People Killed By A BMW In A Single Hit’?”
Ashwin laughed, then, before he could stop himself, the ￼￼￼￼words tumbled out of his mouth, “Have you ever thought about committing suicide?” He expected her to be bewildered but Mallika’s gaze revealed only a small degree of renewed interest in him.
“I think everyone considers it at some point in their lives. Makes things more meaningful.”
“Sounds like you have.”
Surprisingly, this time he seemed to have thrown her off. “No,” she said, escaping into a clumsy smile, her first genuine one that evening, as far as Ashwin could tell. “I haven’t. Though I wonder sometimes why that is.”
“Maybe your life’s already meaningful,” Ashwin replied. It came out sounding both childish and avuncular, though he meant every word. When he met her gaze, he saw that she had recognized his earnestness and connected to it, turning their so far neutral encounter into a delicate kinship. Embarrassed but also thrilled by the unexpected intimacy of it, Ashwin quickly looked away and didn’t wait for her response.
“So you perform at parties often?” he asked, knowing that she would get harassed by night guards and taxi drivers after the gig was over unless there was a privately chauffeured car to take her to a doorstep hidden behind tall gates.
“Just once in a while.” Her eyes drifted off into the street. “Deepshikha Ma’am suggested us to your mother. We played at her daughter’s wedding reception.”
“Ah,” Ashwin said, regretting now that, with the help of a hot-water bottle pressed to his forehead for ten minutes, he had been able so easily to convince his parents of a fever to get out of accompanying them to the wedding reception two months earlier. He followed Mallika’s gaze to the main road, where the sidewalk was lined with potted plants. He could make out the black outlines of the drooping leaves. When he turned towards her again, she was looking at him.
“When are you leaving?” she said. “For New York, I mean.” She crossed one leg over the other and seesawed on and off the tips of her toes like a drunken ballerina.
“Soon.” She uncrossed her legs and picked at the glaze on her fingernails. “Let me guess, okay? You’re doing finance and economics.”
“Not even close for someone with such a clear bias.”
Mallika tried to hide her smile behind her thumbnail, which she had jammed into the slim gap between her front teeth. “Business and international relations?”
“You’re observant, I’ll give you that, but you’re clearly not a psychology major,” Ashwin said and played with the lid of his cigarette pack.”Business Studies is so my dad.What’s the furthest away from that? English Lit. And I play music.”
“Ah, okay, I see. Artsy type. Rebel with cause. And no, I’m not studying psychology.”
“You’re in college?”
“You sound surprised.”
“I guess I’m a little biased, too.Though I’ll admit your bias was a lot more charming.”
Mallika’s eyes brightened suddenly. “One more guess, then, yah? I bet you like Junot Diaz.”
He rubbed his chin, which he had shaved before the party.
Mallika turned to dig inside her purse and pulled out a tattered issue of The New Yorker. Ashwin lit another cigarette. She leafed through it and showed him the fiction page. He breathed out a thick haze of smoke. “Ah, yes, the writer.”
“I’ll tell you a secret, because you seem like a worldly-type guy.” Mallika leaned closer to Ashwin. “I stole this from the college
￼￼￼￼￼￼library. I think the magazines are the only new things they’ve acquired since the 1990s, even though everyone swoons when they hear Azad College.” Mallika bit her lower lip. “Don’t tell anyone, or it’ll mean major trouble for yours truly.”
“Normally, I just read the back issues at the library - now that it’s air-conditioned – but this one I just had to have.” Mallika rolled the issue into a tube and returned it to her bag. “I went to the bookstore yesterday and showed them the name written down, but they’d never heard of him, can you believe it?”
Ashwin stubbed out his cigarette on a ledge. He watched Mallika place hers, unsmoked and gone dim, next to it.
“I have his book,” he said and ran his hand over the gelled part of his hair. “I would be happy to lend it to you.”
“If you don’t mind reading my worn copy.”
“Of course not!” Mallika frowned. “I hope you don’t think I mentioned him only because I figured you might have his book.” “Don’t be silly.” He handed her his phone. “Punch in your deets and maybe we can grab a coffee somewhere. I’ll bring the book.” Remembering Meera’s schedule, he added, “I’ll give you a call the week after.”
“Okay, but coffee’s on me.”
Ashwin smiled. “We’ll see.”
Mallika turned to go. “You know, you’re the first person I’ve met who’s read him. Most people have never even heard of him. Most people I know.” Mallika held out her hand. Ashwin shook it.
“I was hoping I’d get to talk to you,” he said.
Mallika was halfway back to the restaurant when she turned around. “ ‘You know my coins are counterfeit/but you accept them anyway.’ No? That’s a line from Rumi.” She waved at him. “Chalo, bye then, yah?”
Ashwin looked into the street. He regretted the additional lie
￼￼￼￼￼about the book being worn, but first he had to get the damn thing. He pulled out the slim burgundy Moleskine from his back pocket, which Meera sent him from New York in packs of three. Though he would never admit this to any other living creature, Ashwin considered himself an artist, and one thing he had determined with the confidence of a bona fide SAT topper was that real artists took notes obsessively. This notebook had already taken on the crescent shape of his right buttock—an added credential. Ashwin licked two fingertips and leafed all the way to the back pages, which were still blank. He yanked off the cap of his pen with his teeth and left it there as he scrawled on the top of the page:
! ? J U N OT D I A Z ? !
Below it he wrote: YOU KNOW MY COINS ARE COUNTERFEIT BUT YOU ACCEPT THEM ANYWAY !!! He put away the notebook and returned inside.
Excerpted with permission from Fire Under Ash, by Saskya Jain, Random House India.
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