For one, she is a book editor. And from what I’ve seen, book editors don’t have free time to moon about anything. Like, they actually have no free time. For another, having to constantly manage the cloying neediness of authors, their passive-aggressive approach to success and fame while simultaneously being in love with the idea of failure reminds her so much of her long-time ex-boyfriend – said relationship ended, badly, a couple of years ago – that really, 80 per cent of the time, Milly has no use for men.
It is at a strange coincident of the two 20 per cents outlined above that this online dating business comes about. One of our other friends has just announced her engagement; consequently, the eighty-member smart and beautiful and well-read and sexy contingent is down by one. All seventy-nine of the rest have taken it personally.
And as if that were not enough, it all transpires in the run up to the New Year when every single person we know is depressed about something or the other. Those who are not in relationships are blue, those who are in relationships are blue, those who have money are sad about not having a life, those who have no money are finding it difficult to afford a life, those without children are fantasizing about baby clothes, and those swimming in diapers are shouting at their spouse the live-long day.
December is about to end; the city is grey and cold. Milly takes to waking up at the crack of dawn in panic – what if she dies alone and nobody thinks of her for days? (She knows it is impossible: her health is impeccable, and her family and friends have no sense of space anyway. They call her all the time to interrupt her at work and chat about supremely mundane stuff. Just yesterday an author had called her twenty-two times.) But the moment is overpowering and raw. The panic is more real than the voice of reason.
Milly takes to drinking gallons of coffee, letting the bitter aftertaste give her an edge, just like smoking had done in the early years of college. But she is very sensitive about her skin, Milly is. And just like she’d given up smoking, she gives up coffee after five days.
The panic solidifies to a dull ache, spreading a sort of malice under her skin. She draws up lists of courses she can do (crafts, mountaineering, part time MBA, baking – each sadder than the next); things that can be done to her (Lacanian psychoanalysis, foot massage, aura cleansing); cities she might move to (everywhere, it seemed from blogs about these cities, the number of eligible men is dwindling); friends she can get furious with. Nothing helps. Finally, she gets her hair cut at this hip new salon, and she takes the advice of some of her younger colleagues.
Milly is in her early thirties. She finds her younger colleagues, all in their mid- to late-twenties, a different breed. Their solution to everything is an app. If you are unhappy about something, in their book it means you have simply not found an apt app yet. It is profoundly uncomplicated, this firm belief in the possibility of everlasting intelligent pursuit.
Milly has missed this age group by a whisker and now, after hearing their success stories, in love and technology, and seeing their good cheer undimmed by the prospect of the New Year and its jollities, she is suddenly eager to be more like them, to bridge the giant gulf that lies between her and the app-collectors. So she buys a fancy new phone and downloads the novelty relationship app that everyone is swearing by, the one that promises to net the god of love in an elaborate network of signals and codes and bring him, kicking and screaming, to her doorstep.
Milly is suddenly supremely excited.
She fills out the online form – though she does not link it to her facebook account – and she puts a photo to go with it. She does not want to overanalyze the photo part – so she just goes ahead and picks an old one that everyone had liked on facebook. But not one that makes her look particularly thin or conscious. She is not someone trying too hard, that much the photo declares confidently. Things might have come to such a pass that she has downloaded an app to meet a guy, but she is not going to put up her best ever portrait up for that. (Well, at least not yet.)
Then she goes to office, leaving the new fancy phone behind. It is going to be a crazy day at work – acquisition meeting, book launch, yada yada yada – she isn’t going to have time for this anyway.
Plus, she wants to remember what it feels like to actually want to return home after work.
Milly manages to leave office by 8 o’clock that evening. She buys groceries, boils milk, returns calls, takes a bath, makes a bowl of Maggi and finally gets under the duvet, all the while intensely conscious of her phone. I may not even turn on the data, she says nonchalantly, to her reflection in the mirror. There’s no rush.
Apparently there is.
Outside, the temperature has dipped and the window is wet with mist. Rain has been forecast.
About a hundred and sixty people have expressed an interest in her profile.
My friend Milly suddenly feels overwhelmed – and a little panicky – again. She should have had a friend with her. A hundred and sixty people, wait, a hundred and sixty-two people have written to her photograph and form, and now, she will have to sift through their narratives to see if there is gold hidden somewhere? A terrible tiredness descends on her shoulders. Wasn’t this exactly what she did all day at work?
But our Milly is no coward. She begins the mining.
Six hours later, her fingers are shaking.
Ten of the one-sixty-two are married and open about their extracurricular needs (?!). A hundred and ten use words like lyf or sistah, want to live in the present (read, hookups only) or worse, spell atrociously. Twenty-three are too clever by half. Seventeen are mind-numbingly dumb. Twelve remain.
Good-looking ish, good jobs, good grammar. But three of these comment on her ‘stats’ – and while she is quite happy in theory for her ‘stats’ to be appreciated – in this specific instance, Milly finds their casual presumptiveness tacky.
Of the final nine, four are painfully young.
And while, for a moment or two, the idea of a dashing young whippersnapper is appealing, she gives up on it. The thought of dating someone in their early twenties is just too agonizing. Milly remembers the naïveté of her early twenties – definitely not a country she’d revisit. Plus, she has to think of the future. Not overtly – then she’d have joined that stupid marriage website where there are boxes for castes and salaries and stuff – but still, the future is a box that she cannot totally ignore.
Five is a good number.
And all said, when Milly goes to bed that night, her right hand throbbing in pain from the constant swiping, she is quite happy.
There are five suitably interesting men left on that list. Tomorrow is Saturday. She’ll stay in and see where it is all headed. She will seize lyf by the jugular. Then she giggles out loud. At three-thirty in the morning, she sends me a long text summarizing the events. I have that message right here in front of me. Then, presumably, she sleeps. I have on authority she does not panic at the crack of dawn.
Saturday evening, there is a furious knock on the door. When I open it, I see Milly standing outside, her long coat glistening with rain.
We drink lots of tea.
And that is when she narrates to me the speedy dénouement of this story.
She has spent all day, chatting with the five men, eating nothing but fistfuls of cereals, and not even glancing at the newspaper or looking at the clock. The hours have passed hysterically.
Guy 1, let’s call him V, works odd hours as a senior techie at a Gurgaon firm. He grew up in a small town in Jharkhand, went to IIT, and is very into causes. His mother’s a mathematics teacher.
Guy 2, W, is a Kashmiri from Srinagar, and is planning to go abroad for a higher degree. He is, apparently, heartbreakingly handsome.
Guy 3, X, is a cartoonist in his spare time and is employed by one of the biggest advertising agencies in the country. He wants to retire at 40 and farm.
Guy 4, nicknamed Y, owns a restaurant, and told Milly, very charmingly, that she has the sexiest chin he has ever encountered. He has a dog called Choux.
Guy 5, Z, is somewhat burly for a doctor. He is 6’ 3” and has a deep voice. He speaks eloquently about the long hours he has to put into his job and Milly finds him the easiest to talk to.
The kettle is steaming again. I get up and fetch Milly a plate of cookies, more tea, and do not hide my annoyance. ‘So’ I say, ‘Have you come running in the rain only to rub my very old married nose in your hot and happening life, teeming as it is, with suitable boys and suchlike?’ I ask, sipping my tea.
‘No,’ Milly says, very acidly. ‘I would not have come running in the rain if there had been the slenderest option of happy endings.’
We glower at each other for a bit – and peace falls again. I love Milly. (She doesn’t give me as many free books as I’d like, but still, I do love my friend Milly.)
‘Everything fell apart,’ she says.
‘But why?’ I ask, gently now, not wanting to pry, though I am bursting with curiosity. ‘How can five promising things all fall flat on the same day? You haven’t even met any of them.’
‘Because,’ Milly says, ‘the moment I told them I was a book editor, working in FancyPants Publishing House, immediately there was a pause. After that, every single time, I became Ma’am – can you believe it?!?! To every single one of these fucking Pandavas, I became Ma’am, will you please look at my manuscript?’
‘Impossible,’ I say shaking my head. ‘You are joking. I mean, you must be joking.’
‘Oh really?’ she snorted. ‘I must be joking. So these emails I have received are also jokes? They are jokes that are so unfunny that I want to roll around your stupid planet laughing. Wait, crying.’
Her voice trembles, ever so slightly.
She roots through her bag grimly, finds a handkerchief, blows her nose, wipes her face, roots through her bag again and brandishes her phone at me. ‘See,’ she patters open her Gmail.
‘Go on, read.’
I do what she asks.
There, in Milly’s inbox, are five emails in a row.
V has self-published a non-fiction book about bringing women into the workplace more, with a specific case study of the IT sector. Will Milly buy the rights to it and republish it? He is willing to pay the costs again. His grandfather was a writer.
W is a poet; his verses are grim and deep and filled with longing and war. Milly, very kindly, has even recommended the Sahitya Akademi to him. Since they have a scheme called ‘Navodaya’ under which they publish young poets under 40. Nobody else encourages poetry anyway.
X has created a graphic novel which is so huge it refuses to download on Milly’s phone. But apparently, every big name in advertising will endorse the book.
Y wants to write a food memoir. Unless he wins one of those Gourmand awards, there is no way his restaurant will court superstardom. Also, his dog is also very into books. He likes to sleep on a bed of books.
And Z, her favourite bar the heartbreakingly handsome Kashmiri, is the author of a medical thriller, which, from the summary itself, has clearly been patched together from several Robin Cook novels, most notably Coma.
I sigh and hand the phone back to her.
‘So what did you do?’ I ask.
‘I deleted the app. And my account,’ she says, flopping down on the carpet. The rain drums on the ceiling.
‘Do you think they’ll deliver pizza in this weather?’
I can’t remember which one of us says this. But I do remember we eat pizza that night.
The next morning is fine. The sun is out. There is no fog. We have cold pizza for breakfast and pop down to get chocolate croissants. It is eighty per cent of the time again.
Devapriya Roy is the author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club. Her new book is called The Heat and Dust Project: Pilot, and is co-written with husband Saurav Jha. It is due in May, and tells the story of their travels through India on a very very tight budget. She has her friend Milly’s blessing in telling this cautionary tale – though, of course, as you may have guessed, in the interest of privacy, all names have been changed.