Raghu Mehta’s wide-set eyes popped open as the faint screams of a female voice called out at him. The sound pierced the calm of the water gently rocking Raghu’s float. It was a pleasant summer evening, and he was in his Olympic- sized swimming pool.
“Sir, this way, sir,” the woman said in an exotic accent, beckoning him to the porch by moving her arms wildly.
The sun had long gone down on the Tapi river and soft breeze was blowing through the branches of the Gulmohar trees lining his backyard. The pool was lit from underneath by countless little bulbs that made the water sparkle. Raghu pushed the float to the deck where the party planner – a young girl in a fine black blazer, matching miniskirt and headphones – balanced herself like those Russian gymnasts he saw on television; only this girl was in towering heels.
When he reached the marble deck, she lent him a hand and hauling himself out of the water, he landed with a slight jolt on the ivory tiles, but not without splashing some water on his spiffy suit and handmade leather shoes, and hers for that matter. Without getting flustered, the planner simply signalled to a helper, who was ready with a hair dryer. The helper dried Raghu right up and then the party planner adjusted his bow tie before escorting him to his sleek black Porsche.
“Perfect,” she said, looking at him and smiling enigmatically. He beamed, self-assured, knowing fully well that his smile was the first thing people noticed about him.
A crowd of about a thousand people, dressed in their finest suits and saris, extended a warm welcome to Raghu in the main ballroom of The Imperial Palace, the newest five- star hotel in Surat. The three-tiered cake in the centre of the hall appeared taller than Raghu’s five-foot ten-inch frame, and had ‘Happy 40th Birthday, Wang!’ written with icing on it. His childhood friend turned role model, Dev Desai, had bestowed the epithet upon Raghu after he’d established himself as a ruthless businessman and built an immensely successful Chinese imports empire in the country. Wang meant king in Mandarin. Raghu bowed, blew out all the forty candles and cut into the cake as his beautiful wife Rukmini and his two boys cheered.
The live orchestra, which had been flown in from Chicago the previous night, set the mood, although Raghu couldn’t quite follow the music. Champagne flowed freely and people danced. Raghu had wanted the event to be designed as an inconceivable extravaganza, and he smiled and noted that the event planning team had certainly delivered.
“Who knew our own Raghu would be king one day!” Dev said as he raised a glass of Japanese Scotch and made a toast. He said a few more things, some in jest, others in praise, patting Raghu on the back. More gushing speeches by friends and family followed, and Raghu’s chest swelled with pride and delight.
He caught his own reflection in the silver coated glass he was holding and saw that he cut a fine image today, as if he himself were an import from a First World nation. There was not a hair out of place, and radiance reflected off his face like a disco ball or an aluminium foil, whichever sounded more masculine, he reckoned. His dimpled chin was the cherry on the cake, he thought smugly, knowing that this was his best feature, and sure to mesmerise the ladies – the young and beautiful ones, not the middle-aged flabby ones, who unfortunately filled much of the room.
The food was a work of art; French recipes blended with Himachali flavours, Italian dishes with Goan spices, complemented by the finest wines from Tuscany.
Raghu glanced around the room and saw the happy faces of his wife and kids; the kohl-lined eyes of his wife sparkling with delight, his children laughing with abandon. He raised his flute and toasted to the occasion, to the joy in his life and to those present.
“Where did you learn to speak like that?” Rukmini asked softly once he’d finished the toast, “Such an impactful speech! Better than the prime minister’s.” She looked at him with love and awe, her lips curving slightly as she smoothed a slight crease on his shirt. Those shimmery lips with a tint of coral appeared so inviting; he could have sucked on them right then and there.
“Your husband is a big shot now,” Raghu replied with an air of self-importance.
She nodded in agreement, brushing off a few strands of hair from her forehead.
The event had something to offer for everyone; one of the rooms was reserved for the women, who watched as a couple of male performers sang and danced and also entertained in other ways. For Raghu and his men friends, Russian dancers in silver Madonna-esque bras and matching hot pants who swayed to pulsating, exotic music had been brought in from oversees.
When one of the dancers had a wardrobe malfunction, the crude cheers and whistles were enough to wake the city up. If he hadn’t ventured into the ladies’ party and faced the absolute horror of watching his wife dance on the bare-chested male performer’s lap, his slender limbs not offering enough surface area for her ample posterior, her sheer sequined sari’s pallu covering his face, his hands running ravenously all over her curves, it would have been a perfect night.
“Rukmini,” Raghu bellowed from his gut, the roaring voice piercing through his lungs and out his throat as anger pulsated through his veins. Then suddenly, there was nothing but an expanse of black around him.
Raghu awoke covered in sweat, his heart pounding.
It must have been late morning, for Rukmini wasn’t by his side. He placed a hand on his forehead and groaned.
What kind of a bizarre dream was that, he wondered, breathing heavily. A business tycoon! He smiled ruefully to himself. He wasn’t a business tycoon in any sense of the word; in fact, he still ran the same shop in Surat that his father had set up forty-odd years back, where Raghu now sold Nepali handicrafts. Cash was drying up and Raghu hadn’t even dared to daydream of luxury in months. He’d certainly never been to anything that remotely resembled the party from his dream.
Lying in a cocktail suit on a float in my swimming pool! he thought to himself. And that’s just dumb, to wear a suit in a pool, he added as an afterthought, his head shaking in disappointment.
Raghu tried to recall more details from the dream. Champagne? Honestly, he wouldn’t be able to tell soda from champagne if he were to ever taste the latter in real life. Casino? The only gambling he allowed himself was playing cards with his friends on Janmasthmi, with nothing more than pennies at stake.
And what was with that DJ and the dance floor? Why had those featured in his fantasy? It wasn’t like he craved for them in real life. His brain must have pieced together bits of information from movies, newspaper gossip supplements and those never-ending stories his wife subjected him to each time she returned from the salon she worked part-time.
Then he suddenly remembered the Russian dancers, and buried his face in his palms, his heart beating faster. Feeling both stimulated and discomfited, he decided to not pursue the dream any further. It was just a dream, he thought, pulling the bedsheet off himself and stepping onto the granite-tiled floor. He ran both hands through his hair and thought, “I should shave my head. If nothing, it’d at least remove this barrier of hair between any good thoughts wanting to soak into my head, and my poor, scattered brain.”
Excerpted with permission from Made in China, Parinda Joshi, HarperCollins India.