There was one in most of the grand houses in Delhi, usually beached somewhere on the upper floors. A maiden aunt, she would have been expected to marry and move out at some point, but a failure to secure the right kind of alliance during her vernal years would have meant confirmation as a permanent, if slightly unwelcome, resident in the family home. The neighbourhood would change – apartment blocks sprouting up over gardens, cinemas called Eros or Gaiety replaced by glass-fronted shopping centres, a flyover suddenly visible in the distance – and the aunt would see it all from an upstairs window.

No one could understand how Renu Khurana had joined their number, least of all her. In her youth there had been occasional mutterings that she was too educated, too tall, too fussy, but no serious doubt expressed about her prospects. And yet, the years had gone by: a few unsuitable proposals, a couple of half-hearted affairs and one broken engagement. These days it would be fashionable for her to say that she had struck out on her own and chosen to break the mould, that her way of life, in effect, was a political statement. But that would have been untrue. In spite of her inclinations, the flow of men with honourable intentions had waned and then ceased altogether.

The Khurana house had gradually anesthetised her, diminishing any desire for an independent life. With each passing year her face accommodated more of her father’s handsomeness, the eyelids becoming heavier, the jaw sitting a little more squarely.

She quit her job as a museum curator and tired of her clamorous friends. Instead there were plump cushions, thick carpets, a bountiful supply of true-crime paperbacks, and a swirl of cream in the dishes that came up to her on a little trolley.

Every so often her thoughts would spark in a particular direction. She had plans to start an art consultancy, matching Delhi’s rich with works that would earn them the greatest cachet at the lowest cost. Appeals poured in from charities, requesting her to help them raise funds – and from time to time she would feel that she really ought to do what she could. She wondered about moving abroad, perhaps to a Mediterranean island where she pictured a new and simple life: a large white sun hat, late- night dips in coves, harvesting her own clams. Nothing ever came to fruition.

One year she decided to learn Persian and engaged the services of an Iranian tutor. This seemed as though it would be the most successful of her ventures until the young man began to unburden himself to her as they sipped mint tea on her balcony. His family had fled Iran immediately after the Revolution and, having been cheated out of their Paris apartment by a business partner, were forced to seek refuge in India. It was only the beginning of a chain of indignities. He would speak yearningly of the turtle doves that flitted around the walnut trees in the garden of their Tehran mansion. There had been two servants whose sole duty was to look after the chandeliers. Would it surprise her, he wanted to know, to discover that he went to school in a Daimler?

“And now look,” he said, gesturing at the gulmohar-lined Khurana drive, “I have to come here on a second-hand scooter I bought from a butcher.”

Renu tried to be sympathetic but her interest in Persian sprang from the desire to read enchanting verses steeped in romance. She had not really reckoned with the despair of an embittered émigré.

“They used to bow before us and lie on the ground. And then they chased us out like stinking rats,” he told her.

Renu couldn’t help but feel that this would have sounded a little more palatable in Persian.

While Ania loved her bua’s presence in the house, finding in her someone even more indulgent than her father, she was stricken by what she saw as the tragedy of Renu’s life. A firm believer in the elemental nature of soulmates, Ania felt that it was never too late.

“I’ve set up a discreet profile for you online and I’ll monitor the responses,” she had told her recently. “Don’t worry, I haven’t used your real name. And there’s no photo. I’m just looking at what’s out there. You don’t have to do a thing until I put together a shortlist. You have no idea, Bua, but there are tons of creeps out there. Even in your age bracket.”

Renu didn’t take Ania at all seriously and assumed she would tire of this new pastime as soon as something more diverting came along. In any case, Renu had assumed a long while ago that she would remain single for the rest of her life. She allowed herself no measure of hope – it was too wounding.

While Ania trawled dating websites, squealing or groaning at the expectations of solvent men in their fifties, Renu continued to leaf through wine-auction catalogues, even though Dileep allowed her no part in the acquisitions for their cellars.

The websites yielded nothing, but events proceeded in an unexpected manner in that most unlikely of locales: the consulting rooms of the city’s leading oncologist.

Delhi’s smart set would not let anyone other than Dr Bhatia anywhere near their tumours, and the parking area of his speciality hospital was choked with Bentleys and Jaguars. Ania was an occasional visitor too. She considered public-service commitments important to her personal growth and would drop in to Dr Bhatia’s hospital whenever she had a commitment-free weekday that took her in that direction. He was after all her father’s close friend and had assured her that his patients were among the most desolate and blighted creatures in the National Capital Region. It seemed natural that Ania should visit and spread a little cheer in the wards and waiting areas, distributing handmade get-well-soon cards to bewildered patients and chatting to distraught relatives. No one who favoured their privacy was likely to object when they discovered that she was Dileep Khurana’s daughter.

On one of her missions, Ania was delighted to meet a trim man with a face like a genial frog, who managed a buoyant air in those most funereal surroundings. Colonel Suraj Singh Rathore, formerly of the Garhwal Rifles, had an aunt who was grimly hanging on to what was left of her life in a south-facing room on the top floor.

“It must be so terrible for you, all this waiting,” Ania said.

“Yes, it’s about time. Sad to say but the poor lady should just go. It’s much worse for her children, of course.”

“Naturally, naturally.”

“Just thinking of the fights over their inheritance is causing them all to break out in ulcers.”

Ania discovered over the course of the afternoon that he was widowed, with no children, and owned a few bungalows scattered around the Kullu and Kangra valleys of Himachal Pradesh. He had also been shot in the knee during routine training.

“In India, dear girl,” he said, with a loud chuckle, “the enemy is very much closer than the one you’re supposed to be fighting.”

Ever since Ania could remember, she had played a game with female friends, cousins, anyone her age who might be around: “That’s your husband”. Their gaze would alight on the most uncouth boy, the vilest man, the male most likely to bring forth a great snort of laughter, a shriek that was equal parts delight and disgust. Leering men with sweat patches under their arms, pimply louts, smelly layabouts with bad teeth – the grosser the better.

“That’s so your husband.”

But occasionally the game would be flipped and one of the girls would gesture to a shining specimen and say with a sigh: “You know what, he really is my husband.”

In spite of the Colonel’s looks, Ania was bewitched by him and felt that he really was a husband, specifically one who would be ideal for her bua.

On her way home, as the driver sped down the expressway, a plan began to fall into place. There would be no problem inviting the Colonel home – she had already discovered at least half a dozen mutual family friends. The difficulty would be her dear, wretched bua who seemed determined to end her days like some sort of long-suffering abbess, albeit one with a colourist trained by David Mallett in Paris.

A drinks evening was arranged, followed swiftly by a dinner, but matters were not progressing to Ania’s satisfaction. The Colonel and Renu would need a little push.

She discussed the matter with her new friend, Dimple, as they returned from their obstacle-course training one weekend.

“Arre, it’s simple, why don’t they go for a picnic in Lodhi Gardens?” suggested Dimple.

“Are you crazy? A picnic in a public place?” asked Ania. “But I like the idea of al fresco. Maybe we could have a little quiet something on the gazebo here or I could get them to open up the private garden at the Tapi Museum. Maybe Jérôme will be able to cater. Not a bad thought, Dee.”

Dimple almost glowed with pleasure. She had only met Ania a few months ago at a PR event and was still unaccustomed to the idea that she could be privy to plans involving the Khurana family.

In due course, a little table was set up under the jacaranda tree behind the Tapi and lanterns hung in its branches. Renu barely touched her salmon and at the moment when the Colonel’s knee grazed hers, the little garden seemed to turn vast and soundless.

She didn’t think he looked like a frog at all. A few teas and one lunch later, the Colonel proposed.

Dileep was astonished by the turn of events. Years ago he had suffered bouts of minor irritation at the thought that Renu would be a permanent fixture in the house. But he had learnt to appreciate how she always deferred to both him and his wife, and eventually it became impossible to imagine her living anywhere else. He came to view Renu like the rosewood furniture that he had inherited from his grandmother: handsome pieces with sturdy legs that represented a precious link to the past.

And now Renu was leaving to become the wife of a well- liked and charming ex-Army officer, a new status that seemed to delight her. The other day he had actually heard her humming. He couldn’t help but feel a little overlooked, although he tried hard not to show it. Renu’s departure was just another manifestation of the monstrous tick of time.

They all had their reasons to desire a small wedding: the Colonel because he hated any kind of fuss, Renu because she thought drawing attention to herself in this way at her age would be unseemly, Dileep because he was not sure how he felt about these developments in any case, and Ania because enormous Indian weddings were gross.

But a small wedding would have been impossible in Delhi – news would get out and in no time there would be widespread agitation for the right to participate in a Khurana wedding, no matter how antiquated the bride. So they decided to have a quick ceremony in that most unfashionable of foreign locations: London. Everyone knew that the Russians had ruined the place; it was unlikely that it would be overrun by friends and relatives.

The Colonel’s visa was fast-tracked after a call to a contact at the British High Commission and they gave the Kensington and Chelsea Register Office notice of their intention to marry. Dileep and Ania would fly in for the ceremony but had been careful to impress upon the new couple that they would be leaving the day after. There would be calla lilies, there would be tears, but Ania was determined that there would also be a grant of privacy and discretion.

Renu and the Colonel stayed at the Khuranas’ company flat in a little lane off Fulham Road, opposite a shop that sold fountain pens. On their second afternoon they unlocked the gate to the residents’ garden in the square but were dismayed to see a sign that said that dogs were prohibited. There seemed little point in being in a park with no dogs, so they took a quick, sullen tour of the paths and left, wet leaves sticking to their boots.

The idea of having any kind of itinerary quickly lost its appeal and the discussions about museums and matinees petered out. They also soon discovered that a large number of their acquaintances were still unaware of London’s outmoded status and, as usual, had come to vacation on Bond Street.

Instead of ducking into shops to avoid the Mehras and the Chhabras, Renu and the Colonel spent their days mostly in the warmth of the upper deck seats of various buses, gazing out at the quiet streets of Pimlico, making out the Royal Courts of Justice through the drizzle, watching people struggle with their umbrellas on a blustery King’s Road. In the window of Peter Jones, there was a wedding dress that looked as though it was made of cobwebs. The Colonel gave Renu’s hand a little squeeze. This anonymous absorption into a city felt like a freedom that would not be available to them again. So, they kept changing buses and returning to the upper deck to look at London in the rain.

Excerpted with permission from Polite Society, Mahesh Rao, Penguin Random House India.