Anirban got a message from his cousin that evening. “Let’s meet up for a bit before we part again, dear cuz,” it said. Chintan’s uneasy use of slang had always irritated him, and he stared at the word “cuz” for a while.
“Yo bro!” he replied. “Whenever, whatever, you say.” A plan was formulating in his head, whereby he would be able to hold his own in the encounter.
So it was decided that they would meet in the bar of the Rambagh that evening. Anirban persuaded Juan to accompany him, not a difficult thing to do as the famous Taj hotel was on his bucket list anyway.
Anirban took trouble to dress up stylishly in a black tee shirt and a designer cravat, with a long black shawl to protect him from the distinct bite of the winter evening.
The Polo Bar smelt of wealth, and class, and privilege. It was a compound smell, partly musty, with a whiff of ancient cigar smoke. The walls were cluttered with trophies and memorabilia and crossed swords and faded photographs, the cabinets stuffed with whiskies, single malts, cognacs, wines and liqueurs of every description.
Chintan Banerjea was studying the menu with deep interest. His eyes moved from right to left, frowning at the prices.
A thin woman in a chiffon sari and coiffed hair came over to chat with him at his table. Chintan flicked his hair and looked her in the eyes, giving her the full benefit of his delightful dimpled smile.
He leapt forward when he saw Anirban, and gave him a fond hug. He was charming and courteous to Juan, who had introduced himself.
“I’m sticking to a single malt,” Chintan Banerjea declared. “And perhaps some Asian-style grilled prawns.”
He handed them the menu. A turbaned waiter was hovering around solicitously.
Anirban studied the menu, a mischievous smile lighting up his eyes. Juan observed that Chintan and Anirban had almost identical dimples.
“A bottle of champagne, please,” he instructed the waiter. “The Dom Perignon, please, and three glasses. We have something to celebrate!”
Chintan looked disconcerted, and his smile began to look a bit fixed.
“In 1930, the Jaipur Polo team made a clean sweep of all major international tournaments, and this bar was set up to commemorate that unique achievement,” Chintan commented, almost proprietarily.
Juan was still studying the menu. “That’s fantastic,” he responded. Then, to the waiter, “Perhaps I will have an 1857 Bloodiest Bloody Mary, with Absolut Peppar and Wasabi.”
The champagne arrived, and the steward popped the cork.
“This is a special occasion, dearest cuz,” Anirban said, putting his arm gently around Juan. “I wanted to introduce you to...to my fiancée...to Juan.”
Chintan looked amazed, then alarmed. His eyebrows shot up, like two inverted arcs, Anirban observed. He was, for perhaps the first time, rendered speechless.
Juan, too, looked amazed, but only for a moment. Then he recalibrated himself, and his face settled in a quiet, rather shy smile, though his eyes, too, held a naughty twinkle.
“Oh!” Chintan said. “Oh!”
Just then, a famous film star, also a prominent member of parliament, walked in. He recognised Chintan and headed for their table. His body language, despite its natural swagger, was deferential in the extreme.
“I suppose you are here for the literature festival?” he enquired. “My autobiography is being launched at lunch time tomorrow. I would be honoured if you could join us, perhaps grace the stage?”
Chintan Banerjea had regained his composure, “Unfortunately, my dear friend, I head back to Delhi soon, where work and duty beckon,” he replied. “May I introduce you to my cousin, Anirban...and his partner, Juan?”
The grilled prawns had arrived. They were delicious. Chintan had three, then began fiddling with his phone.
“Get him another single malt,” Anirban told the waiter. Then he turned to his cousin.
“Chintan, I’m so delighted to be here with you today! Do you know, Juan, that I hero-worshipped this man through my childhood and my youth? I thought, I believed, that the sun shone from under his arse!”
Chintan put another cube of ice in his whisky. He wasn’t sure where the conversation was going.
“But he let me down. He let us down. He sold out. He sold out to his ambition, his need to climb the greasy pole. He was my idol, and he turned out to have feet of clay!”
He gulped down his champagne, then held the fluted glass upside down for dramatic emphasis.
“So here he is – mega-successful, ultra-pleased with himself, a right-wing homophobe who endorses genocide and drinks single malt, when really, he should be sipping cow urine!”
Chintan’s face had turned black with anger. “I do not really have to engage with you, Anirban,” he said. “But since we are comparing notes, let me tell you of my assessment of you. An overgrown child, an unfunny clown, a pathetic failure trying to raise laughs at the expense of serious people. You make me want to weep, little cuz, with your leftist affectations and your convenient convictions.”
He stopped for breath. “Moreover, I am not a homophobe. I believe in life and liberty for all. But I do NOT, in capital letters, NOT believe in irresponsible and unnatural sexualities. What went wrong with you, Anirban? Where did we fail you?”
He turned to Juan. “I’m glad to have met you, young man, but I must leave now. I cannot sit here to be reviled and ridiculed. I hope Anirban has the wherewithal to settle the bill.”
He swept out of the bar. Juan turned to Anirban to gauge his reaction. His friend was chuckling uncontrollably, holding his belly so as not to roll over from the convulsions of laughter.
“What was that about?” Juan asked wonderingly.
“He was trying to get to me, but I got to him instead,” Anirban replied. “Victory is mine! Sorry for the misrepresentation of our relationship, but I had to draw him out on all fronts. Why is it that all the ultra-right is homophobic, even if...”
And he broke into another round of giggles.
“May I have another 1857 Bloodiest Bloody Mary, please?” Juan asked. “And let me settle the bill. Let this be my treat, tonight.”
“I’ve brought all my credit cards,” Anirban said, still choking on his giggles. “It was worth it, whatever it costs. I wouldn’t want to break into your backpacker budget, amigo!”
Now it was Juan’s turn to giggle. The absurdity of the evening was getting too much for him.
“It is my pleasure to announce, my dear Anirban, that I am, as you might say in the English, substantially well-off! I happen to be born to a rather distinguished line of plunderers and conquistadors, of different politics and ideologies. So it is my honour, absolutely, to pick up the bill for this highly entertaining evening.”
Anirban looked at him amusedly. “Beautiful, and rich, and virtuous as well! Maybe we should get married after all!”
They walked out into the cool night. Anirban pulled his shawl around him and began fiddling with his phone.
“She’s gone quiet,” he said worriedly. “Eleanor Rigby has switched off. I hope she is all right, that nothing has happened to her.”
Excerpted with permission from Jaipur Journals, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Viking.