The party was buzzing and the guests were milling around. Some were in the living room, others on the terrace adjoining it, where Akash had fired up the barbecue and was hard at work, turning the pieces of chicken and pork with a pair of tongs. The sweet scent of sizzling flesh curled into the cold January air.
The night was starless and the pollution a tactile haze. Jazz strains swam out of the living room. A bonfire crackled in an iron cauldron, scattering orange sparks. They sat around it on squat Gujarati stools, mudas and low deck chairs, sipping their drinks and biting into chunks of barbecued meat, their eyes warmed by alcohol and faces glossy in the firelight.
It was not a large party. Just the usual crowd that Priya and Akash hung out with most often – Akash’s childhood friend Dileep Mitra and his wife Anuradha, Vivek Chopra and Shaili Nair, Mihir Chandra and Jasmeet Kang, Ramola and Tarun Paul, and Kulsum, the only unmarried person in the group. Kulsum did not use a surname and had fierce views on patriarchy and women’s rights. Though she didn’t have much in common with the others, Priya had invited her because she was her best friend.
“Hey, Kulz, take some more of the chicken, na,” Priya called out to her now as she clopped about on her high-heeled boots, seeing to the refilling of plates and glasses.
“Peeps, do help yourselves to the other stuff too. It’s all laid out on the table – the garlic bread, potato salad, macaroni cheese...There’s some fish tikka as well, which we ordered in. I told the maid to lay out everything and leave,” Priya said. Then she looked at Anuradha and said to her with a sad-helpless face, “Anu, as usual, I feel so guilty about not having enough on the table for you.”
Anuradha, who was a vegetarian, opened her crimson rosebud mouth and smiled. “Hey, no worries, Priya. It’s quite enough – much more than what I eat at home,” she said.
Priya looked at her doubtfully, as if to say that she couldn’t quite believe that since Anuradha was so fat. In truth, Anuradha was not exactly fat. She had an amplitude, an over-ripe buxomness, that was sexy in a mother-earth sort of a way. She was all warm and pillowy, with heavy breasts and big buttocks. When she leaned forward or walked by, men eyed the deep cleft between her breasts and the promising swell of her bottom.
She was wearing a grey woollen cape over a vermilion red sweater and her black leggings accentuated her plump thighs. She looked smug and knowing, as though she held salty secrets close to her bosom, and she surveyed everyone with her large, tip-tilted eyes. She sat next to Vivek, who was talking to Ramola, the oldest woman in the group and also the most stylish.
“Say what you will, I think it’s a shame,” Vivek remarked in his somewhat high-pitched voice. “Why are they returning their awards? It’s so silly. What do they hope to achieve?”
“Dahling Vivek, don’t be so delightfully dense,” Ramola said, smiling. “I should think their purpose is pretty clear – they want to make a statement against this intolerance.”
‘Ooh, nice alliteration,” Priya cut in. “Darling, delightfully, dense.”
“You forgot ‘don’t’,” Ramola chortled. “I’m a natural alliterator! Is there such a word, by the way?”
Ramola was tall, somewhere between the end of youth and the beginning of middle age, and she looked striking with her long, black hair swinging loose about her waist. The big, red bindi on her forehead lent a sort of centre of gravity to her otherwise nondescript, but intensely mobile face. She sat on the only high chair around the bonfire, looking like a diva or a goddess, with a cigarette held between her hungry, bony fingers laden with oversize rings.
She took a drag from the cigarette with a slight inward hiss and smoke flared from her nostrils as if she were about to emit fire. She was wearing an ink-blue firhan and a chunky silver medallion hung between the conical surge of her breasts. An embroidered off-white shawl was looped around her long neck and square shoulders like a wreath of many-splendoured flowers. Priya was sure that the shawl had cost a few lakhs.
She was also quite certain that Ramola was in her late 40s. Akash was of the opinion that she was younger, although he swore that her husband Tarun had to be at least 50. Priya had often mentioned her own age in conversations with Ramola, willing the other woman to reveal hers. But Ramola never rose to the bait.
Ramola leaned towards Vivek and tapped him on his thigh. “The intolerance debate is important, dahling,” she said, her voice rich with laughter. “It’s also very, very in. You won’t be allowed into civilised company if you show such social tone-deafness.”
“Oh, please, guys, I’m sick of the subject,” Dileep said, as he walked out into the terrace. He had been in the living room, deep in conversation with Ramola’s husband Tarun about whether the stock market could go any higher in the short term. Tarun was supposed to be a master of the dark art of playing the markets, and Dileep, who was a lawyer, had recently become an avid investor in stocks. “I mean, really, yaar, go anywhere, switch on the TV, and all you hear is intolerance, intolerance, intolerance. There’s no end to the pontification! Now even those wretched film stars have joined in the fun. It’s sickening!”
Tarun, who had come out on the terrace, too, and was looking around for something to sit on, boomed in his deep baritone, “I totally second that – it’s a goddamn bore now. Especially because my dear wife can’t stop outraging about it.”
He came and stood close to Priya who was leaning against the ornamental balustrades with which they had encircled the terrace when they renovated the house. It gave the terrace a period feel which was out of sync with the ultra-modern decor of the rest of the house. Priya felt cold, standing so far from the fire, but it was nice to move away a bit and take a break from entertaining. Anyway, the party was on auto pilot now, with enough booze flowing to keep it going.
She swirled the red wine in her glass and glanced around: Shaili, a gynaecologist and a woman with hard eyes and a girlish demeanour, was telling Kulsum about the astonishing success rate of IVF treatments – “It’s become a yuge part of our jobs now,” she said. Jasmeet, who ran a kindergarten and was known to all as Jessie, was staring into space with her unwavering, angelic half smile. When Kulsum pointed out that her shawl was trailing on the floor, she gave the other woman a pitying look and said, “It’s toosh. It’s meant to trail.”
Her husband Mihir, who had the faint swagger of an overpaid executive at a management consultancy firm, was talking to Anuradha. He said something funny, his grin really a leer, and Anuradha cracked up. She had an exaggerated, chesty, upper body laughter, which seemed to set off a mini quake around her shoulders and breasts. And somehow, that made Priya’s newfound dislike of her more acute.
“Did I mention how gorgeous you’re looking tonight?”
Priya started a bit and realised that Tarun was addressing her. “I think your wife did,” she retorted and hoped that she had managed to administer a snub.
“Ah, but women don’t mean the compliments they pay other women,” Tarun said, laughing his soft, nearly silent laugh. “Do you?”
“I guess not,” Priya admitted, smiling a little. She was at once somewhat attracted to and repelled by Tarun Paul. He had an old-fashioned courtliness, a certain formality of language and manners, that set him apart from any other man she knew. At times, she found him plain theatrical, at other times, rather engaging. She wondered if he was flirting with her, this almost old man with his abundant salt and pepper beard and his long, thinning, grey hair which was tied in a pony tail.
He wore a natty black fedora, red corduroy trousers, a long, dun-coloured trench coat, and a red woollen scarf. The steel buckles on his dun-coloured shoes winked gold in the firelight. Priya thought Tarun was looking more stagey than usual. She threw a look at Kulsum, who was watching their exchange with interest. Then she said, “Excuse me, I must make Akash another drink. The poor boy is working himself to the bone.”
Excerpted with permission from The Swap, Shuma Raha, HarperCollins India.