The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 13]


Chapter 13

‘Stop being so self-conscious,’ Zara said as we reached Westend Greens, a super-upscale farmhouse-only neighbourhood located along the Delhi–Gurgaon border. We had taken an Ola; the mobile app made taking a cab to anywhere easy. The IITian-founded Indian company was already valued in billions. Why couldn’t I think of an idea one-thousandth of this level? Why couldn’t I even get a proper job? Or make a proper tie knot?

‘This tie has a life of its own,’ I grumbled.

‘The suit was unnecessary. You are only meeting my family. It’s not an interview.’

‘They see me in a suit, they believe I am a professional. Otherwise, the moment I mention IIT tuitions, it is over.’

‘It’s not tuitions. You are faculty in a cutting-edge test preparation centre,’ Zara said.

When Zara put it like that, my career didn’t seem as horrible. That is why I loved her. She saw the best in everything, including the pretty ordinary me.

A watchman opened the gate as our Wagon R entered her mansion.

‘This is your house? And you still live in a tiny hostel room?’ I said, as I noticed a garden the size of a volleyball court in front of her half-acre bungalow.

‘I love my room. 105 is my life.’

‘You can have a good life here too.’

‘It’s much better to be on campus. Commuting is a pain. Okay, final checks, mister. Ties, belts, shoelaces and nerves? All good?’ Zara pinched my nose. Have I mentioned that? She was always pinching my nose. Most annoying.

‘Can I serve you some more gosht?’ Safdar said in his thunderous voice. We were seated for lunch on chairs that resembled the thrones in mythological TV serials. Safdar was at the head of the eighteen-seater dining table.

   He was wearing a black bandhgala, with two gold bracelets and a Rolex watch on his left wrist. His French beard was dyed black. His wife, sitting to my left, had said little so far. Her pink silk salwar-kameez, dupatta half covering her head, and her diamond and jade necklace, which probably cost as much as one of the small apartments they keep advertising on the Dwarka–Gurgaon Expressway, spelt upper-crust. Her hair looked naturally black; I figured she was no more than a decade older than Zara.

‘No, sir, I am quite full,’ I said. Even though I didn’t eat much meat, I had made an effort to do so today. I had to fit into Zara’s family.

‘So, Zara tells me you and she have a lot of dosti,’ Safdar said, eating his biryani with an ornate fork and knife.

   Unlike idiot me, Zara had already spoken to her parents and prepared them in advance. Hence, unlike the electric shock I had given my mother and father, Zara’s parents seemed calm. At least they hadn’t threatened suicide yet. ‘We sort of, kinda like each other,’ is what she had told them.

 Unfortunately, for native Hindi speakers like my parents, there was no equivalent word for ‘sort of’ or ‘kinda’. I don’t think my father was a sort of, kinda guy anyway.

‘Sir,’ I said as I cleared my throat to speak.

‘You don’t have to call me sir.’

‘Can I call you uncle? Or Mr Lone?’

‘Uncle is fine. So tell me about your dosti.’

‘We have known each other for almost three years. We met on campus.’

‘And our daughter never told us. What do you think, Zainab? Zara joined PhD in IIT for her dost?’ Mr Lone said and laughed. Zainab only responded with a half smile.

‘Uncle, I graduated from IIT within a year after Zara joined.’

‘I am joking. Anyway, what do you do now?’

I got a sinking feeling. In a small voice, I said, ‘I am faculty at a test prep company.’

‘Test prep, as in?’

‘It’s pretty hi-tech, dad. They are working on apps to do test preparation.

Keshav is part of it,’ Zara said.

Zara had made it all up. The only hi-tech thing Chandan Arora probably ever did was to order his gutkha online.

‘Like an education startup?’ Safdar said.

‘Huh, yeah, uncle,’ I said. ‘It’s bricks and mortar at present, but we are going to go online.’

‘Good. I think of investing in internet companies sometimes too,’ Safdar said. ‘People care much more about Apple phones today than apple orchards.’

Everyone laughed. I liked Zara’s dad. At least he made an effort to have a proper conversation.

‘I heard you are one of the top fruit exporters from Kashmir,’ I said.

‘God has been kind.’

Zara brought us back to the main topic.

‘So, as I told you, dad, Keshav and I like each other.’

‘I can see that,’ Safdar said.

‘We need your blessings,’ Zara said.

‘Oh,’ Safdar said, surprised. ‘Zainab, see these app-making kids of today. How they ask their parents directly.’

‘You know, dad, I am always frank with you.’

Safdar laughed.

‘Of course. So what do you want me to do? Meet his parents?’

‘No,’ I burst out.

‘What?’ Zara looked at me surprised.

‘Sorry, Zara, I should have told you. But, uncle, my parents are not supportive of this. I’m sure you can guess why.’

‘When did this happen?’ Zara said. I continued to look straight at her father.

‘Uncle, I love your daughter very much. I will do anything to make her happy. Please bless us. My parents won’t. But we need at least one side to be with us.’

‘But, Keshav…’ Zara said and then lapsed into silence.

Safdar let out a huge breath.

‘Well, parents are important. I must say, even I wasn’t too happy when Zara said she wants to be with you.’

‘Because I am a Hindu?’

‘Yes, but I am not that old-fashioned.’

Relief made me stammer. ‘Th … thank you, uncle.’

He nodded his acknowledgement. ‘Yeah, so anyway, we can take care of that,’ he said.

After lunch, we moved to the garden. Zara’s father and I sat on a swing.

Zara played with their dog Ruby, a German Shepherd who wanted to snooze in the sun more than run after Zara. Zainab had retired for a nap.

Zara came up to us panting and sat on the swing as well. Safdar spoke to me again.

‘So, tell me, what is the situation with your parents?’

‘Yes, even I want to know, Keshav,’ Zara said.

I told them, censoring all the anti-Muslim comments, about the conversation I had had with my family in Alwar.

‘Ah, so that is why we left Alwar early,’ Zara said.

‘You went to Alwar?’ Safdar said.

‘Casual visit. Well, until I was kicked out.’

‘Nobody was kicked out,’ I said. It is hard to hear negative things about your parents, even when they are against you.

‘So they hate Muslims?’ Safdar laughed.

I looked at him, surprised.

‘No. They have a few Muslim friends. But to have their only son marry a Muslim—that’s too much for them.’

‘You want to see a person’s true prejudices? Ask if they will marry their children into a community,’ Safdar smiled.

‘They are nice people. Trust me, they are just scared. They love me.

They will come around. Just, right now it is difficult.’

‘What do you suggest?’ Zara said.

‘We get married. Then I convince them. They have little choice then,’ I said.

‘You want me to let Zara marry you without meeting your parents?’

Safdar said.

‘You can meet them if you want to. It will only make things worse.’

Safdar sat back.

‘If you ask me, you guys should end this,’ Safdar said.

‘We can’t,’ Zara and I said at the same time.

Safdar looked at Zara and me.

‘Please help us, uncle,’ I said.

He stood up and paced around the swing twice.

‘Say something, dad,’ Zara said.

‘It will have to be our way. We can do a nikaah.’

‘Whatever,’ I said.

‘We can give you the shahada in a ceremony before or even during the nikaah.’

‘Shahada?’ I said, hearing the word for the first time.

Safdar turned to Zara.

‘Your dost doesn’t know? Yet he loves a Muslim girl.’

‘Dad, what is this shahada business? I don’t think we need to…’

‘Of course we need to,’ her father broke in. ‘His parents will disown him. Let’s do things properly from our side.’

‘But what is shahada?’

‘An oath,’ Safdar said.

‘Dad, please. This is all too old-fashioned.’

‘Old-fashioned?’ Safdar’s nose went up an inch. ‘How dare you call it old-fashioned? You have any tameez left, or not?’

Zara shrugged and sat on the grass with Ruby.

‘Sorry, uncle, I am fine with any tradition. I just didn’t know,’ I said.

‘This girl is mad,’ Safdar said. ‘Extra-modern for no reason.’

‘But what is this oath, uncle? Shah-what?’

‘Shahada. It’s simple. Just a couple of lines.’ He raised his palms and murmured something in Arabic, ‘lā lilāha lillā llāh muhammadun rasūlu llāh.

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God. To make you one of us.’


‘A nikaah can’t happen unless both bride and groom are Muslims. You have to convert,’ Safdar said.

Maybe I was giddy from the swing, but I swear I felt the ground move beneath me.

‘Would you like some tea? We have wonderful Kashmiri kahwah,’

Safdar was saying, as if the kahwah came free with the conversion.

‘Trust me, I didn’t expect this turn of events,’ Zara said, cupping my face.

I took her hands in mine and kissed the inside of a wrist.

‘I can’t convert, Zara. Please understand. I love your religion, but I can’t convert. My parents will kill themselves.’

‘So don’t.’

‘How do we marry?’ I said.

‘Under the Special Marriage Act. The Indian Constitution allows it.

People from any two faiths can go to court and marry. No religion, no caste drama. Just the way it should be.’

‘We do a court marriage?’

‘Yeah, if you can’t convert.’

‘And your parents will also not come?’

‘Forget come. I will get disowned too. And my dad will also send thugs from his warehouse to beat us up. So filmi, no?’ Zara raised her eyebrows comically.

‘I am serious, Zara. We can’t be parent-less on both sides. That’s not a good start.’

‘So convince your parents.’




‘So we have to give them up for the sake of our love.’

‘Zara, what are you even saying?’


Zara freed herself from my arms.

‘I am trying my best, Zara.’

‘Is this your best? I don’t think so. I don’t see you telling your parents,

“This is my girl and that’s that”.’

‘They are my parents, Zara.’

‘That they will always be. But the way we are going…’ She stopped mid-sentence.


‘Nothing. Good night.’

My phone rang in the staffroom. I picked it up.

‘It’s Safdar. Can we talk?’

‘Keshav!’ came Chandan’s loud call. ‘Come to my office.’ His fat stomach reached the staffroom before he did. I covered the phone with my hand.

‘Chandan sir, I am on an important call. Give me five minutes?’

‘Important call? What? Being interviewed by other coaching centres?’

he said, one eyebrow raised.

‘Sir, family,’ I said, moving away from Chandan. ‘Yes, uncle, how are you?’

Safdar came straight to the point. ‘Zara says you are not comfortable converting to Islam.’

‘No, sir, I mean, I would, sir, but my parents won’t be able to take it.’

‘So forget Zara. Stop meeting her.’

‘But, uncle…’

‘Stop means stop. I opened my heart to you. You betrayed us.’


‘Your parents threw my daughter out when she came as a guest. I welcomed you into the family. But you don’t want to respect our wishes.’

‘Uncle, it’s about one’s religion…’

‘Enough,’ he said, interrupting me. ‘You went to PVR with Zara yesterday?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, wondering how he knew.

‘And she came to your apartment afterwards?’

‘Zara told you?’ I said.

‘No. I have people who track you. And if need be they will hurt you.’


‘You are just a kafir. Taking advantage of my precious daughter. Leave her alone, or it won’t be good.’

‘Are you threatening me, uncle?’ I said, just to be clear.

‘I don’t threaten. I display kindness, and when betrayed, I take action.

For my family’s honour, if necessary, I will draw blood.’

The word ‘blood’ sent shivers down my spine. Chandan Arora walked into the staffroom again and shook my shoulder.

‘If your loving family call is over, let’s talk work?’

‘That wasn’t cool, Keshav,’ Zara said.

‘I know,’ I said, taking a bite of the falafel kebabs in her friend Sanam’s kitchen.

We were at a New Year’s Eve party at Sanam’s aunt’s house.

  Even though Zara and I hadn’t officially broken up, our relationship was beginning to resemble a war zone. We rarely met. When we did meet, we didn’t talk anymore, we argued. Somehow we ended up at the same topic—we have no future. I didn’t want to convert or disown our parents. Zara couldn’t believe I wouldn’t fight for us.

At the party, I had told Zara I wanted to talk to her alone. Sanam’s kitchen was the only quiet place we could find in the entire house.

‘You drunk-dialling me every week is bad enough, but how could you call my dad?’ Zara said.

‘I didn’t realise it. I searched for Lone on my phone and ended up dialling his number.’

‘And since he picked up, you felt it was okay to yell and abuse?’

   I avoided eye contact with her. I looked at all the party food kept in aluminium foil trays near the stove. Three days ago, too many drinks and an accidental call had meant Safdar Lone heard some wonderful abuses from his almost-had-been Rajasthani son-in-law. I had screwed up, and had no excuses. Still, I remained stupidly defiant.

She continued to stare at me. I smirked. Yes, I could smirk at Zara then.

I didn’t know how much this girl meant to me. Or that I would be pining for her years later.

However, at that time, stupid me couldn’t care less.

‘Your dad deserved it,’ I said.


‘Didn’t he threaten me and tell me to stop meeting you? I told you he called me at work.’

‘Did I stop meeting you? Did I, Keshav?’

‘No,’ I said sheepishly.

‘Didn’t I give you enough chances to think about what to do?’

‘Yes, but you have started avoiding me now.’

‘Because you have no answers for us. It’s better we stay away from each other then.’

‘Just like that?’

‘Not just like that. It’s hard. Super hard. Keshav Rajpurohit, I left that scholarship from MIT for you. Joined IIT just to be close to you. You think it is just like that for me?’

‘Oh, so now I am supposed to feel guilty? Give up my parents and God because you gave up a scholarship?’

‘I don’t like your tone, Keshav.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Fine, then. I will go hang out with my friends. You are the one who pulled me aside.’

‘Go wherever.’

‘I am leaving. Keshav, I know it sounds kiddish. But can we, like, officially break up?’


‘We kind of have already. But, like, let’s be clear. From now on, no contact.’

‘Zara? Are you mad?’ I said.

‘I was mad. I’m coming to my senses now.’

‘I got drunk and called your dad. Big deal. What do you want me to do?

Say sorry? I will.’

Zara shook her head.

‘It’s not just that. It’s more. Anyway, no point going over it again. We are done. Bye.’

‘Zara,’ I called after her, but she had already left the kitchen to join her friends. At least on that day, I had too much pride and ego to go after her.

And, yes, she was right. I didn’t have answers. Just as I had no measure of how desperately I wanted to be with this girl.

Someone was shaking me by my shoulder.

‘I am never coming to pick you up like that again,’ Saurabh said, continuing to shake my shoulder, switching off the past videos playing in my mind.

‘Huh? Oh, Golu. You are here. You are my jaan, Golu.’ I ruffled his hair as I came back to my senses and the present moment.

Apparently, I had had a bill for ten whiskies at Social, which Saurabh

had paid for last night. One of the waiters had used my phone to dial his number when I passed out at my table.

‘I saw their conversations. Between Zara and Raghu. Full-on love,’ I said, as if that justified my alcoholic meltdown.

‘They were dating. Of course, they will have such conversations. When will you stop this Zara business?’

‘What will I stop? God only stopped it. I didn’t convert. That’s why he punished me. Took her away. Right when she wanted to get back.’

I felt like crying again. Saurabh noticed and spoke again.

‘Shut up. Take a shower. Teach your class. Move on,’ Saurabh said, a rare strictness in his voice.

‘Did you know, Prof. Saxena made an indecent proposal to Zara?’

‘Your IIT dean?’

‘Yeah, Zara’s guide. I have an email in which Zara says everything he did. I have to meet that bastard,’ I said.

I stood up and walked to the bathroom.

‘No meeting anyone,’ Saurabh screamed from behind. ‘Focus on work.’

‘I will finish my classes first, Golu. Relax,’ I said, splashing water from the tap on my face.




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