The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 12]

 


Chapter 12


Four years ago

‘Milk cake?’ Zara said.

‘Yeah. That’s what Alwar is famous for. You have to try it.’

After a three-hour drive, we had covered the 150-kilometre distance from Delhi to Alwar. Zara sat next to me in the cab’s backseat, looking out of the window with great interest.

‘What’s that? A big fort?’ She pointed ahead.

‘That’s my house,’ I said.

‘Really?’

‘I wish,’ I laughed. ‘It is the Bala Qila or Alwar Fort, built in the fifteenth century by the king at that time.’

‘It’s beautiful! I hope you will show me around the city.’

‘We have not come here for tourism. If your in-laws are here you can visit anytime.’

‘In-laws?’ She gave a happy giggle. ‘Keshav, I know I tease you about this, but what you are doing is so cute.’

‘What?’

‘Making this effort. To make me a part of your family.’

‘You already are. But you remember what I told you? About how to act with my parents?’

‘No.’

‘What?’ I said, exasperated.

‘Kidding. I do remember. But I am also going to be myself. If they have to like me, they better like the real me, not someone I pretend to be.’

‘Zara, come on. These are parents. Some drama we have to do.’

‘Oh, so I shouldn’t wear my hot pants to sleep at night?’

‘Zara, are you crazy?’ I was aghast.

‘Ha ha, relax. Don’t over-manage this. I am amazing with parents. They will love me, wait and see.’

‘Their son does, too much.’ I moved close to her.

‘Don’t even try,’ she said, pointing to the driver.

Zara adjusted her blue and white dupatta as she read the nameplate outside my parents’ bungalow.

Sh. Naman Rajpurohit, Advocate

Mahanagar Karyavah, RSS

‘You informed your parents about my coming, right?’ Zara said, sounding just a little bit nervous.

‘Of course,’ I said, only partially truthful as I rang the bell.

I had told my parents I was bringing a friend along for the weekend.

However, only my mother knew it was a girl. Even to her, I hadn’t mentioned Zara’s name. I didn’t want her prejudiced even before meeting her. Nor had I told my mother we were dating. ‘A friend of mine wants to see Alwar,’ is all I had said to her over the phone. My mother did express surprise over my friend being a girl. ‘Yeah, she is doing her PhD at IIT,’ I had said, trying to sound as casual as possible. Indian parents find it easier to accept an inter-gender friendship when it is linked to academics.

I knew my parents would love Zara once they met her. I would then tell them about our decision to be together for life.

‘Sorry, I was in the kitchen,’ my mother said as she opened the door.

‘Namaste, aunty,’ said Zara, putting her palms together delicately. The bangles on her wrists clinked and caught the light.

‘She’s so beautiful,’ my mother said.

Zara smiled demurely.

‘Maa, this is Zara,’ I said, but I don’t think my mother heard me.

‘Come inside. It’s so hot,’ she was saying to Zara.

‘Lunch will be ready soon,’ my mother said, bustling away to the kitchen,

leaving Zara and me in the living room.

Zara sat on a sofa, her eyes scanning the walls, filled with Rajasthani paintings and framed pictures. She saw a few photos of my father with political bigwigs.

‘Is that the PM?’ she said.

‘Yeah, he was a CM then, though.’

‘Wow, your father seems connected.’

‘Senior member of the RSS. As senior as married men can go, frankly.’

‘Meaning?’ she said, surprised.

‘Top positions in the RSS are usually only given to bachelors.’

‘Wonder why. Maybe it is a way to choose the wise ones. If you are truly smart, you remain a bachelor,’ Zara said and laughed.

She walked up to the wall to take a closer look at the pictures. I imagined her in this house after we were married. We would sit in the lawns.

She would chat with my mother and father. Maybe a baby or two would arrive on the scene. I wondered what to name them. How about a name from both sides, like Kabir?

I looked at Zara; she looked so vulnerable in this large room, with her hands clasped behind her back like a little girl. And I felt happy that she was here, finally, in my home.

‘You were a cute kid.’ She peered at a black-and-white photo of me playing in a park.

‘Thank you.’

‘What happened later?’

‘Shut up,’ I said. She laughed again.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ my mother said as she re-entered the living room. She dabbed at the sweat on her face with her sari pallu. ‘Are you hungry?’

‘No, maa. Sit down and let me introduce you both properly,’ I said.

‘Yes, beta,’ my mother said, looking at me fondly. She perched on the sofa, patting the seat next to her, and Zara came and sat with her.

‘Maa, this is Zara, my friend from Delhi. Zara, this is my mother. I am her only son, she is my only mother.’

Zara folded her hands again and smiled.

‘Zara as in…?’ my mother said. ‘What’s your full name?’

‘Zara Lone, aunty.’

‘Oh,’ my mother said and fell silent. Then she spoke in a rush, to compensate for her discomfort.

‘You are beautiful, beta, are you a model?’

Zara’s eyebrows went up a little even as she smiled.

‘Maa, come on,’ I intervened. ‘She got PhD admission at IIT straight after B.Tech. Very few people get that.’

‘Sorry, I meant it as a compliment.’

Zara said, ‘You have a beautiful home. I love all the pictures on the wall.’

‘Thank you, beta. Look, how well-mannered she is,’ maa said to me.

‘What? And I am not?’ I said.

‘Boys don’t know how to talk. I always wished I had a daughter,’ my mother said. She then turned to Zara. ‘Where are Lones from?’ In India, people have to know where you come from. Only then they feel comfortable enough to talk to you.

‘I am from Kashmir, aunty. Srinagar. Moved to Delhi more than ten years ago.’

‘Kashmiri? Oh,’ maa said. She stretched out the ‘oh’, as if I had brought a Martian home.

‘It’s in India only, maa,’ I said, my tone sarcastic.

‘I know. See, boys don’t know how to talk.’ She gave Zara a conspiratorial look.

Then to me, she said, ‘Have you shown your guest her room?’

She was referring to Zara as ‘your guest’, not ‘your friend’ or even

‘Zara’. Not the best start.

‘I’ll do it,’ I said.

‘Good,’ maa said and turned to Zara. ‘You want to see Alwar today or tomorrow?’

‘Whenever Keshav says we can go.’

Maa looked at me, surprised by the ‘we’ in ‘we can go’.

‘Only a few places in Alwar to see. Anyway, let’s eat lunch. Zara, hope you don’t mind, it’s pure vegetarian.’

‘Not at all, aunty. I love vegetarian food.’

‘I thought you people like non-vegetarian.’

When parents address your girlfriend as ‘you people’, it is definitely not a good sign.

  ‘The Rajasthan CM is visiting Alwar next week. I have invited him for a stop at home,’ my father said. He removed his socks and placed them inside his shoes. He had come home at eight in the evening. Zara was in the guestroom, taking a shower before dinner. My mother was doing an evening aarti in the puja room. I felt she was singing her bhajans very loudly today, perhaps to re-emphasise her identity to Zara. This passive-aggressive stealth communication mothers do with their sons’ girlfriends is a refined and deadly art form.

My father and I sat in the living room. I hoped he would ask me something about my guest. However, he had only one thing on his mind.

‘Can you stay back next week? It’s the CM. Will be good for you to meet him, no?’

‘I have work in Delhi, papa,’ I said.

‘What work? It’s not like you have a real job.’

I wanted to tell him I had a boss ten times worse than those found at

‘real’ jobs.

‘I have classes, papa. Students will be waiting.’

‘The CM of Rajasthan visits your home. You want to do tuitions?’

‘It’s what I do.’

‘Are you going to apply for a proper job? In companies?’

‘Yes, papa. I took what I could get for now.’

‘If only you had done better in college. It’s hard to explain to friends why my son couldn’t get proper placement after IIT.’

I trained my gaze down. We had discussed this a dozen times before.

‘We have our Agrasen ji. He’s pranth pracharak in Rajasthan. He owns a marble factory. He will give you a job if I ask him.’

‘I don’t want to work in some family-owned marble factory in Rajasthan, papa.’

‘Why? At least you will be a real engineer. Better than giving tuitions.’

‘It should be a multinational. At least a top Indian company. Otherwise, what is the difference?’

  He shook his head in disappointment. He stood up and began to twist his upper body side to side, to crack his spine. I said, ‘Let me know the exact time the CM is coming. I’ll come down for a few hours if I can.’

‘Oh, you are bigger than the CM now? You will come down once you know the CM’s exact time?’ Papa sat back on the sofa.

‘I just meant instead of staying the whole week.’

Zara opened the door of her room. My father heard the sound.

‘Someone is upstairs?’ he said.

‘Yeah, papa. I told you I am coming this weekend with a friend.’

‘Did you? Staying here?’

‘Yeah. Just for the weekend. Wanted to see Alwar.’

Zara came out of her room and took the steps down to the living room.

  She wore a simple lemon-yellow salwar kameez. With her damp hair and bare face she looked more beautiful than ever. When my father saw her, his jaw dropped. He whispered to me, ‘This is your friend?’

‘Yeah. She’s doing PhD at IIT.’

‘But…’ Before papa could say more, Zara had reached us.

‘Namaste, uncle,’ Zara said. Papa stood up, more in shock than out of respect.

  My father folded his hands. No words came out of his mouth. Why do so many Indian men get tongue-tied in front of women?

  Zara had listened to me. She wore a full-sleeved kameez, which covered her wrists and most of her neck. I had given her strict instructions not to show any skin. She said I made my parents sound like the Taliban. She didn’t get it. Parents need one measly reason to hate their child’s choice. Strike one, doesn’t dress conservatively enough, game over.

‘Papa, this is Zara. Zara, my father,’ I said.

  My father gave the briefest nod. He sat back down. The three of us sat in the living room, which had become so silent the clock’s ticking sounded like a hammer being struck on the wall. My father, who had been lecturing me in full flow a few seconds ago, had zero words to say right now.

‘Zara is doing her PhD at IIT Delhi,’ I said, ‘in big data networking. Computer science.’

My father nodded and smiled, but his vocal cords remained on strike.

Zara initiated some conversation.

‘You are a lawyer, uncle?’

‘Hmmm…’ my father gave an unhelpful grunt in response.

‘You have your own practice?’ Zara said.

‘Used to. Now full-time Sangh,’ my father said. Wow, finally the man had spoken.

‘Sangh?’ Zara said.

‘RSS. You know RSS?’

‘Yes, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.’

‘Where are you from?’ my father said, the must-ask question for all Indian elders. Maybe parents should just insist on address-proof or a copy of the Aadhaar card when they meet their child’s friend for the first time.

‘I live in Delhi. But Kashmiri, originally.’

‘Oh,’ my father said. ‘What’s your full name?’

My father feels it is totally normal to have a conversation that sounds like a cross-examination.

‘Zara Lone, uncle,’ she said.

My father absorbed her last name with the help of a long, deep breath.

Yes, she’s a Muslim, papa, relax. They don’t bite, I wanted to say.

‘I have to talk to his mother,’ my father said, and stood up. He went to the puja room. The bhajans stopped. I heard incomprehensible voices that suggested a serious discussion.

‘Everything okay?’ Zara said to me.

‘Yeah, why?’ I smiled extra-bright. ‘Nice salwar kameez, by the way.’

I sat at the dining table having tea with my parents the next evening. Zara was out on her own, shopping in the street market in Alwar.

‘Your father wants to know why you have brought this girl home,’ my mother said. I turned to my father. I wanted to know why he had to route what he wanted to know from me through my mother.

‘Papa, she wanted to see Alwar. And I thought she will get to meet you too.’

‘Why do we have to meet her?’ my father said.

‘It’s nothing, right?’ my mother said. ‘I told your father. She is just a friend who wanted to see Alwar. You offered your home as it is safer. So many crimes against women these days.’

‘Yeah, but…’

‘But what?’ my father said.

‘She is a good friend, papa.’

‘Good friend? Who has girls as good friends?’ my father said. Normal people, I wanted to answer but didn’t.

‘You bring a Kashmiri Muslim girl home and we can’t even ask questions?’

‘Why are you getting angry?’ my mother tried to pacify her husband.

‘IIT has students from everywhere. She seems like a decent girl. She will see Alwar and leave. Why are you getting worked up, Rajpurohit ji?’

‘Your son brings a Muslim girl home and you are not concerned?’ my father said. I couldn’t tell exactly what my crime was. That I had brought a girl home or a Muslim home? Maybe both.

‘Why, beta? Is there anything to worry?’ my mother said in her most soothing voice.

Worry? Zara and I together counted as a ‘worry’, I guess.

‘Maa, didn’t you say she was beautiful?’ I said.

‘Yeah, so?’ my mother said. My father gave her a dirty look; how dare she call a non-Hindu beautiful?

‘She’s intelligent too. She’s doing a PhD from IIT. On big data networking. Cutting-edge stuff.’

‘Big data what? Like data package?’ my mother said, genuinely confused. I need not have mentioned Zara’s thesis topic, I guess.

‘She’s passionate about social causes. She’s not materialistic. Wants to do something for Kashmir once she finishes her studies. She is respectful—’ I said before my mother interrupted me.

‘That’s good. But why are you telling us all this?’

Both my parents were by now staring at me with horror. I took a deep breath.

‘I like her, maa,’ I said.

‘What?’ my mother said, as if I had admitted to necrophilia or something.

‘I like Zara. She likes me too. We want to be together.’

‘See,’ my father screamed. He stood up from the dining table. ‘I am your father. Not an idiot. I could sense it the moment I saw her.’

‘Together? You want to marry that Muslim girl?’ my mother said, finding her voice again.

‘I want to be with Zara, maa, who happens to be a Muslim. And five feet three inches tall. And fair like Snow White in the fairy tale. How do all these stupid superficial attributes matter?’

‘Being Muslim doesn’t matter?’ my mother said, her eyes and mouth making three round Os on her face.

   My father retorted with the same clichéd line millions of Indian husbands use to palm off responsibility. ‘Go, love your son some more. First he graduates last in class. Then he can’t get a job. And now he wants a Muslim girl. Tell me this is not because you have spoilt him.’

   My mother reached me in a flash and whacked the back of my head. She hadn’t done this to me in fifteen years.

‘Ouch.’ I rubbed the back of my head. A Rajput mother’s whack can really hurt.

‘Have you lost your mind? You want to marry a Muslim girl?’ she said, as if I had just requested for seed money to start an online cocaine shop.

‘ Kashmiri Muslim,’ my father added, to rub it in that Zara was somehow worse than just a plain vanilla Muslim.

‘Papa, she’s an educated girl from a good family in Delhi.’

‘It’s people like her who threw Hindus out of Kashmir,’ my father said.

‘What? Zara has a blog to promote peace and unity in Kashmir,’ I said.

‘What are you even talking about, papa?’

‘Blaw … what?’ my father said.

‘Blog. She writes on the internet about Kashmir and the need for peace there. Talk to her and listen to her views.’

  ‘I am not speaking to these Kashmiri Muslims about Kashmir. Just tell me when she is leaving our house,’ my father said. He walked up to the sofa and sat down in a huff. He sulked as he switched on the TV. A news channel came on. To make things worse, the prime-time debate was about stone-pelters attacking the Indian Army in Kashmir.

‘Look at them, ungrateful people. Our Army keeps them safe. They throw stones at our jawans and shield terrorists.’

I stomped across and stood in front of the TV. ‘I don’t know the Kashmir issue too well. But I am sure it is not as simple as people just being ungrateful,’ I said.

‘You refuse to see sense.’

‘Papa, Zara and I love each other. This is not about some stupid politics.’

‘Love?’ my mother screamed from across the hall. ‘Your papa is right.

You should get your brain checked.’

‘Move away from the TV,’ my father said in a gruff tone.

‘No, papa, talk to me. Tell me what is wrong with Zara, apart from her religion?’

‘I don’t want to talk about this. Please send her back.’

‘If Zara was a Rajasthani Rajput, you would be fine, no?’

‘Don’t talk back to your father, or I will give you one more slap,’ my mother hissed.

I turned to plead with my mother.

‘Maa, please look beyond her religion.’

‘How? Will anyone in our khandaan look beyond it? Tell me honestly, at the wedding, what will people be talking about?’

‘Is that it? Gossip at the wedding ceremony?’

My father made a tch-tch sound.

‘It’s not just that,’ my mother said. ‘The problem is you do not care about your father. And that is what hurts him.’

Maybe I just imagined it, but I heard a sniffle from my father. When parents decide to do a full-frontal emotional assault, nothing is off-limits.

Crying dads and slapping moms are a routine part of how Indian kids are hammered into shape and manipulated to give up on things they really want.

‘How is this about papa?’ I said.

‘He’s in the RSS,’ my mother said. ‘Already his rise is limited because he is married. But they are still considering him for a more senior position.’

‘So?’ I said, confused.

‘Now you will bring home this Muslim girl. What will people say?’

‘How is it connected? Isn’t RSS just a social organisation? To promote Indian nationalism? That’s what they say all the time.’

‘See, I told you. He doesn’t care,’ my father said. ‘He will marry a terrorist, I tell you.’

‘Terrorist?’ I shouted. ‘She’s an IIT student.’

‘Shut up,’ my mother said. ‘Enough is enough. I got fooled. You ask her to leave tonight itself.’

‘Tonight?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ my mother said.

‘It’s not even safe to drive back to Delhi at night,’ I said.

‘Your father can arrange an RSS worker to accompany her. Can you, Rajpurohit ji?’

My father nodded.

‘And you stay away from her.’

‘But maa…’

‘Or stay away from us,’ my father said.

‘Maa, this is not fair.’ I turned to my mother.

‘I will burn myself if you marry her,’ my mother said. ‘Call a worker, Rajpurohit ji.’

The doorbell interrupted our conversation. My father stood up and opened the door.

‘Milk cake, anyone?’ Zara’s cheerful voice filled the room.

‘One more hour,’ I said, checking Google Maps on my phone. ‘And you should be in Himadri.’

  Suketu, one of the RSS workers in Alwar, was driving us in his Honda City to Delhi that night. Rajpal, an adolescent volunteer, sat in front with Suketu. Zara and I were in the back.

‘What is this sudden job interview that came up?’ said Zara, slightly breathless from all the hurry.

‘It is OLX, you know the second-hand goods website?’ I said, making things up as I spoke. I had just seen an OLX ad banner a few kilometres back.

‘What’s the job?’

‘Coding, what else?’

‘Oh. And they wanted to interview you on a Sunday?’

‘Yeah, tomorrow morning. Their CEO is in town or something.’

‘Bhaiya, I bought a second-hand mobile phone on OLX,’ Rajpal piped up. ‘Works pretty good.’

Okay, so these morons in front were listening to our every word.

‘Which brand?’ Suketu said.

‘Redmi,’ Rajpal said. ‘Keshav bhaiya, if you get a job at OLX, tell us about the best deals first.’

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Sunday? The CEO is meeting you?’ Zara said. ‘For a coder job.’

‘I don’t know, Zara. Why are you interrogating me?’

‘It’s just a bit strange. This was my weekend to meet your parents as your girlfriend.’

‘You did meet them.’

‘Weren’t you going to talk about us?’

‘Can we discuss this later?’ I pointed to the people in front. She ignored my signal.

‘Did they not like me?’

‘Are you mad? Didn’t you hear my mother? She called you beautiful.’

‘Doesn’t necessarily mean likeable.’

‘They liked you. Of course, they liked you. You want to stop for dinner at the border dhabas? Suketu bhaiya, let’s make a quick stop.’

‘You are acting weird,’ Zara said as we walked to a jute charpoy in the dhaba.

  We had stopped at Rangeen Dhabha, one of the last open-air eating places before the urban chaos of Delhi took over. Suketu and Rajpal went to use the toilet, allowing us a moment of privacy.

‘Zara, I was thinking. Why don’t we go through your parents first?’

‘But I thought we decided to start with your folks.’

‘Yeah, but we could do it the other way too,’ I said, and flipped over the laminated menu. ‘You want to try gobi paranthas?’

‘Did you chicken out?’ she said in a lowered tone.

‘I am not chickening out, okay?’ I said, my voice loud.

‘Yeah, bhaiya, don’t eat chicken here. Not safe.’ Rajpal had returned from the washroom.




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