His feet drag to a halt.
Much to his disgust, his heart starts to slam against his ribs, loud and hard.
Well, he knew this was bound to happen. The Delhi Turf Club is her turf. This is where she rules.
BT, bro BT, the Doscos would say with a shudder. Bad bad trip! Dogra ka BT ho gaya. Poor fucker. She sucked him and chucked him like a marrow bone. So much for her being a pure vegetarian.
Should he just…ignore her?
Act like he hasn’t heard? Like he’s too busy and important, with grown-up shit to do, and cases to close, and a hot girlfriend waiting for him? Like he hasn’t been stuck in some sort of sick, numbed purgatory ever since she dumped his ass three years ago?
Good idea. He unfreezes, and seeks to set one foot in front of another in the direction of the East Lawn.
But his body has a different plan.
Fuck off, boi, it says mildly as it turns around of its own volition and starts to walk towards Bambi’s voice, which is still calling out his name like a siren on a rock.
And so Akash has no option but to resign himself to the inevitable, smile, and call out, as suavely as he can.
“Heyyy, Bambi Todi! How’ve you been?”
She throws out her arms then and does that mandatory little screaming dance of joy that girls always seem to do when they see you after a long time. It gives him ample time to walk over to her all slow and casual, like there is no angry, unsteady beat to his heart, no queer sort of gladness in his veins, no quickening of his pulse as he makes skimming, tentative eye contact with her, testing to see if the scar tissue he’s managed to grow since they last met is going to hold up to the occasion.
How can such a small person create so much upheaval in one’s internal workings, he wonders for the hundredth time. Bambi Todi is a five-foot package, the colour of powdered cinnamon, delicately and delectably curvy, with a bright smile and huge eyes, a small snub nose and masses of softly curling brown hair. She has tied a red-checked apron over her cut-off denim overalls, and is standing beside a table holding a confused but cheerful display of vegetables and fruit, a large mixer-grinder, and two shiny, bright red gumboots from which are protruding untidy bunches of bright yellow sunflowers.
Love, love me do!
You know I love you!
I’ll always Beetroot!
So pleeeeeese, love me do! declares the bright hand-painted banner above her head.
Ghanta, you’ll always be true, Kashi wants to say, but what emerges from his mouth instead is, “You look like a picnic.”
He tries to say this casually, but it comes out sort of wobbly-intense.
She looks momentarily discomfited, then recovers, tucking a soft, unruly ringlet of hair behind her ear.
“Come buy some organic beetroot grown right here at the DTC,” she orders him in the clear sweet voice he remembers so well. “C’mon, step up, show me the big bucks you’ve been earning since you left law school! It’s all going to charity!”
“There’s mud on your nose,” he tells her in a more natural voice as he digs into his pockets for his wallet.
She grins cheerfully. “Perks of the job. I’ve spent the whole morning digging up the finest produce from the DTC kitchen garden with my main men here!”
She indicates her two assistants, also wearing red-checked aprons. Kashi nods at them in a friendly way.
“But where’s Guppie Ram ji?” he asks. “He’s the resident garden fairy at the DTC, isn’t it?”
The garrulous old gardener had befriended Bambi and Kashi when they were kids, picking out leaves and flowers and bird feathers for their science homework, helping them build a treehouse, and even organising a most solemn burial for a dead baby squirrel once.
Bambi’s face falls slightly. “He died,” she says. “Didn’t you know?”
Kashi shakes his head. “No. Shit.”
“You haven’t been here for ages, have you?”
There’s a small pause.
In a resolutely gay voice, Bambi addresses her assistants. “Guys, say hello to Kashi Dogra, mere bachpan ka dost!”
They smile at him.
“Sir, take juice?”
A disproportionately black wave of resentment sweeps over Kashi at this glib introduction. Mere bachpan ka dost? My childhood friend? Is that what you call somebody who was your “best guy friend” right through high school, somebody you spoke to every night, sometimes from midnight to six in the morning, whom you claimed to love and promoted to boyfriend in college, whom you went to three-and-a-half bases with?
He tells himself he’s overreacting and manages to somehow bite down on the bile, but his eyes, when he looks up again after extracting some notes from his wallet, are decidedly cool.
“Sure,” he replies indifferently to the assistant.
“Heyyy, guys!! What’s upppp?”
Kashi almost drops his wallet. A horde of ex-TVVS girls has descended on them, and he is suddenly drowning in a flurry of effusive, scented hugs, straightened hair and curious eyes.
He studied with these girls from nursery to class seven, but even then he has never been able to get their names straight. They’re all called Pia/Kia/Tia/Sia/Dia/Lia – and so naturally, they’d ended up being nicknamed the Ghia-Lauki gang. They’re in full attendance today – except for one, who had an arranged marriage with a major movie star a couple of years ago and vanished from the Delhi scene forever.
He hugs them all dutifully and listens as they tell him that they’ve been well, that they all did their graduation from the States and have come back to work in their family businesses. Two of them have got married. And Sia’s having a birthday party soon with lots of the old TVVS gang from school. Bambi’s already promised to come – would he like to come too?
Would I like to kill myself, Kashi thinks wryly. If the DTC is a bubble of privilege, then the old TVVS gang is a bubble within a bubble – a hardened Perspex shell, suffocating, unbreakable.
“Bring your girlfriend,” one of them adds slyly, which, Kashi notes with a little rush of exultation, makes Bambi narrow her eyes and flare her nostrils in a gesture he knows all too well.
“She’s in Kalahandi,” he replies. “We’re doing the long-distance thing.”
“Awww, that sucks!” commiserates a Sia/Pia/Ria/Tia. “Is the time difference really intense?”
“Ohmygod, Kalahandi’s in India, Tia!” Bambi snaps. “In Odisha. Why do you not know that?”
Tia widens her eyes. “The point is why do you know that, babe? Been stalking him much?”
Excerpted with permission from Club You To Death, Anuja Chauhan, HarperCollins India.
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