A Desi One Night Stand

After ten months of self-imposed chastity, I was to go on a date.  And my date was late.

My rucksack stood in the corner of the room. Its contents bulged from all sides, prostrate like a flaccid dick, awakened only to sit in the corner of my living room, watching sitcom reruns and PG-advised advertisements including violence against mosquitoes and toilet bacteria, all in a double-repeat mode that seemed to be the trend in advertising.

I leafed through the book beside me on the sofa, the philosophical sayings of JDK, and flicked the remote with my other hand. My eyes flickered to my mobile, which subsisted heavily on my distracted attention. It blinked needily now.

“Still at Home?” said Souvik’s WhatsApp message.

I typed back. “Yes!! It’s 9 PM. We were supposed to leave two hours ago!”

“What’s the delay?”

“Someone’s wedding shopping.”

“What?”

“Long story. Don’t ask.  But the bridesmaid/Boss is tired of waiting, as per my last communication with Tirth. She has threatened to leave without the indecisive groom.”

“Wasn’t this supposed to be an office trip? When did it become a wedding party? Who is getting married?”

“Hopefully, me and Tirth…  <Wedding Emojis>.”

“Oh, God! Are you dreaming about that already? You haven’t even gone out with him.”

“Well, we flirted. At least, I think we did. And can’t you take a joke?!” I threw aside the mobile and returned to my book. I didn’t have to listen to Souvik’s shit. He was gay and just jealous that I got to Tirth first.

My phone blinked. It was Souvik again. “So is Tirth a good flirt?”

Shit, he’d caught me. I typed quickly. “I think he’s nervous or too decent to flirt or shy.”

“Hmmm…”

I hated a chat Hmmm. It never boded well. “Why can’t you just say what’s on your mind, Souvik!”

I waited for a single tick eternity. Where was this guy? Time fell through, one sand grain after the other. I tried desperately to read my philosophy textbook. I tried practicing my newly developed philosophical learnings and struggled with detaching myself from my inability to be detached. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that much.

“Where are you?!” I punched into the Whatsapp.

“Hey. Sorry. Bad connection. Does he have a girlfriend?”

Now there are points in life, where you want to be close to someone, just to smash a giant book on his provocative bothersome head.

“I flirted with him!”

“You said you guys didn’t flirt.”

“How can he have a girlfriend?”

“Well, he is a good looking boy. He could have one.”

My emojis were bubbling up, bloody red and ready to burst. “YOU SAID HE WAS INTERESTED IN ME,” I all-capsed him, thumping the screen.

“Well, he was interested in that German chick too, on the same trip we met him. Remember how he chatted her up? That doesn’t mean anything.”

“ASSHOLE! I HATE HIM. I HATE MEN.”

“Hey, are you taking all this a bit too seriously?”

“I am not.” I hurriedly turned off the caps-lock. But I guess Souvik had sensed it. I was getting mad over the supposed betrayal of a guy who I was not even dating. I hated looking uncool in front of Souvik.

“K,” he replied.

I didn’t want his half-written compliance. His indifference was incensing me further, “And you know what. I don’t care. I don’t care if he has a girlfriend. I don’t care. I’m just going to have fun.” If Souvik could be a slut, so could I.

My phone started to buzz. The cars were here. I grabbed my rucksack. Turned off the TV and stuffed in the damned book. And just before I threw the mobile into my pocket, I saw Souvik’s last message.

“Listen. Be careful. And don’t take things so seriously. You are just out of a painful divorce. And also, if you fall in love with him, I will whack you with a stick!”

♦♦♦

Tirth got out of the car and walked towards me. I felt my heartbeat as I waited a lust-filled eternity. Would there be a hug? I could hug, damn it. It was the feminist century.

Ok, the hug should have been casual and friendly (considering I had met Tirth just once socially). But it was a slutty frontal (I wanted to get the message across clear).

And after the hug, I took him in, this beautiful creature before me, well-built shoulders that looked farm-hand healthy (and not sculpted at the gym), a skin tone that reminded me of golden stalks of wheat, gentle pearl-shaped eyes that shimmered like curious fish in freshwater, playful like his full lips. I was drowning for a few full seconds before realizing that we had an audience, seven pairs of eyes that glowed at us in the darkness of the night, from the car behind us if not from the trees.

I was introduced to them, as a hasty courtesy, a mass of weirdly shaped humans, silent and pensive in English, rudely over chatty in their respective local tongues. I felt a layer of grease spread over me as they perused me, a mixed butter of Indian judgment and repressed lust. I hated them, judged them, and desperately hoped that they would like me.

“You guys are so late!” I told Tirth.

“Shhh…don’t bring that up, Nina,” he hissed at me, just as he bundled me into a second car. The occupants here were quite the opposite, sullen, disinterested. We entered and moved to the back seat of the six-seater Innova, and I said my quick hellos. Distracted Anna, raised her unsmiling eyebrows at me, before returning to punching into her mobile. Enormous Ediran, the aforementioned hard-to-satisfy groom of Nigerian origin and American girth. Finally sweet, ravishing Chris, lean, healthy, and so middle-eastern in skin tone that in the flash that I met his eyes, it was a cold winter night, snowflakes kissed the window sill, and naked we lay, Chris and I, making love on the warm rug by his fireplace. (He had a girlfriend I was later told, to the sounds of my breaking heart.) Until our entry, this was the non-Indian car, segregated (I learned afterward) more by official title and language handicaps than good old racism.

“Good music,” said Tirth, an awkward attempt at conversation. The car stereo belted a few local songs that only the driver seemed to enjoy. I smiled, my eyes lingering long on Tirth’s until he blushed painfully and hurriedly looked out the window. Well, I wasn’t the kind to give up.

“So Ediran,” I said cheerily, “Done with your wedding shopping?”

Immediately, I got Tirth’s attention, a pretty glare no less. And I heard a snort from Anna.

“Yeah…I dun my wedding shopping” said Ediran, his voice a drawling twang, turning around to flash me his toothy grin, “From Commercial street. Got a nice wedding suit for mahself. Stitched and tailored to mah size, and all.”

“Yeyyy!” I replied. I pinched Tirth, “Why is Anna pissed?” I whispered, pulling him close.

“Don’t ask” he whispered back, his eyes pointing to Ediran. Why my eyes asked him. I could smell Tirth now, a wild musky scent.

“Later,” he mouthed, leaving me to my thoughts. What was all this tip-toeing and whispering? Ediran didn’t seem to care that Miss Anna was pissed.

And the car remained sullen. For thirty whole minutes. After which we drove into a café for dinner, and I sighed in relief…a bit too soon.

♦♦♦

It took me half an hour into the Rastha Café, Paan Masala Hookah project to realize that I was being ostracized.

The Cheppu gang, as I had decided to call the 7-member Telugu/Kannada crowd of car number two, had decided not to like me…not just not like me…but dislike me…openly. And it wasn’t because of my giant earrings.

We sat around, the ten of us, on one of the well-lit tables in the open, surrounded by happy people. The music was Bollywood, and that wasn’t going well with the Cheppus.

Tirth’s legs brushed against me while we sat down, a mammalian touch, hairy, and I felt almost lucid as a shiver followed through. It was a warm, still October night. I could do with more shivers.

The conversation on the table came in bursts, over chatty Kannada, Telugu, and silent, pensive English, for utility purposes only. “Did you call the homestay, Tirth?”, “Will we start trekking right in the morning?”, “Any place to change?”, “Is the trek going to be tough?”

I looked at the American side of the table (There was a clear racial divide). Anna, I noticed, had brightened up. She seemed to have picked up on the local entertainment, a light-eyed guitarist, who was looking earnestly into her eyes. She was talking fast, laughing, with a girlish abandon. Chris was fooling around with the fellow’s guitar, pretending to play and sing, while Ediran broke into a matching jaunt. There was much drama. I found myself laughing,

“She seems happy now,” I told Tirth, eyeing Anna. Tirth looked at the guitarist, his eyes narrowing. “Of course” he replied.

“What was the problem?” I asked, “Earlier, I mean.”

Tirth looked at me and sighed a tired smile. “It’s Ediran,” he said, “He just took forever to get his wedding clothes stitched… and Anna lost it. I mean, it’s her last two days in India. I wanted it to be fun for her. That’s why we planned this trip. I hope Ediran doesn’t ruin it for us.”

“Have you known Anna long?”

“Oh…we’ve known each other for three years. Though it doesn’t feel like we are in different countries. But this is the first time I’m seeing her in person. This one week.” He looked at Anna with a disturbing tenderness.

“And you are all… one team?” I asked.

“Well…yeah…kind of…testers and developers. Two teams. Same product. Anna and Ediran are more at the managerial level. Test and Dev managers.”

“And Chris?”

“Chris is also in Anna’s team. He’s a dev engineer. He’s young too. About our age.”

“So American bosses and Indian slaves? Are you planning to revolt?”

“Nothing of the sort.” Laughter rippling through him like a shimmering wave, “Well… the guys have trouble understanding the American accent. And they have trouble with the Indian accent. A communication issue, if at all anything,” he said, eyeing the separate conversations.

“But you seem to get along well with both,” I said, as he blushed at my adulation.

“Hey man, Tirth,” cut in a giant Cheppu monster, blowing smoke rings through his nose. “You buyed off soda?”

“No. The Homestay folks will arrange,” replied Tirth.

“What about smokes?”

“Oh shit…”

“What? No…” The monster’s eyes widened dramatically.

“We can still buy them…” said Tirth.

“City over now,” he was shaking his head, quite dramatically.

“I have some smokes,” I offered.

He stared at me as if he had just noticed my existence.

“Where you are from?” He said, squinting strangely at me.

“I… Kerala…?”

“Ohhh…Mallu. Why no accent?” he asked, rubbing his nose as if he expected my English to be more entertaining.

But at this point, I ceased to be of conversational interest. A sudden hush descended on this side of the table. A girl had walked up. Denim skirt, boots, and a massive chain over her black snug top.

“Do you guys have a light?” she said, with a hint of embarrassment. She looked back at the table she’d been sitting at, a table of seven, clearly smoking. “It’s a dare.” She said as if to clarify that there was no other way she would have appeared before us. The others didn’t catch on to that.

“But that is such an easy dare for you!” smoky rings replied, flicking open his lighter, and lighting her cigarette as if he’d been born for it.

“Thanks, guys!” she said, sweetly, and disappeared just as quickly, thankfully missing the sniggers. “Why can’t they dare her to kiss, Macha”, was the parting comment.

It was the hookah that finally brought home my ostracization. For most of the while, the hookah skipped me, was passed over me, or stayed with the person beside me so long that I eventually got distracted.

Of course, I wanted Anna, Ediran, Chris, and the Cheppu gang to like me, irrespective of my feelings towards them. After all, I was to spend the next two days with them. But really, was it that important?

I wanted Tirth to like me. And I had forty-eight hours to manage that.

♦♦♦

The meandering rocky path had come to an end, through giant rock faces, and ravines, at the ass of this stubborn cow.

The cow was unimpressed to see me, here, lost, alone, in the middle of nowhere, after just an hour into the trek.

“Don’t judge me,” I informed the cow, “Judge my ego, perhaps.”

The cow turned its back to me. Not the friendly type.

“It’s not that I couldn’t walk with everybody else, you know” I informed the cow, “It’s just that everybody was so slow. It’s a trek for god’s sake. Not a photo tour, you know. Selfies at every tree, and smiles at every rock. God, even that dog was bored.”

I checked my cell phone. It registered no signal, and I, no hope. Which was why I was making conversation with a cow’s ass.

I sat down, next to the cow, on a comfortable rock, and opened my backpack. No better time for a snack as when you are lost. Salt cashew, yum. I took in the view, the city of Chikmagalur. From above, it was like a little toy city, and I the lord, watching from above.

I offered the cow a banana. This won me some immediate points. It sauntered towards me, without wasting time. Smart cow.

“You know…I would have walked with them if I could,” I told the cow as it ate from my hand, “It’s just that, at every turn, every mildly challenging rock, Anna was there, with her lost puppy eyes, looking for help, making those cute girly noises. And of course, who has to help but Tirth. Oh… I am the knight in shining armor, give me thy hand and I shall carry you to safety.”

I gently stroked the cow’s soft snout, watching it puff at my jealousy. I handed it another banana. Which was probably not the best idea when one is lost.

“I could do what she did, you know. I’d have had him eating out of my hand by now instead of you. It’s just. I can’t.”

“Are you talking to the cow?”

“Shit!” I shouted, and turned and faced Tirth, “You scared the crap out of me!” I said, ramming my fist into his shoulders.

He laughed. “Weirdo! What were you telling the cow?”

“Where is everyone else?” I said. What had he heard?

“I dunno…I lost them an hour back I think.”

“What? So you are lost too…”

“I’m not lost.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Well, there is a cow, to start with.”

“You want to ask the cow the way?”

“It might have been more useful than gossiping with it,” he laughed.

“Do you have any water?” I asked him. All that salt and sun weren’t helping.

“No…I ran out of it a while back.”

That pressed my panic button. “Oh my god!  We have run out of the water.”

“Yes clearly.”

“What do you mean clearly? Clearly, we are going to die now.”

“No…I don’t think so…”

“What? Why? Why are you so chilled out in this heat?”

“There’s a stream just a bit from here.”

“There is?”

“Yes. We need to retrace,” he said, walking away. I sprung up and followed, feeling sufficiently embarrassed at my theatrics. Thirst had that effect on me.

He took a deviation to the left and entered a downward trail of crisscrossing tree roots.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked, hopping over a fallen tree. But he was already too far ahead.

It was a small trickle that seemed to spurt out of a crack in a giant rock.  But it was there, and I greedily gulped down the precious silver that trickled to me. I looked up to find Tirth missing.

“Heyy!!” I didn’t want to be alone again.

“I’m here,” came his reply from behind the bushes.

“Listen…where are you going?”

“This is cool. Come here.”

“I think we need to find the others,” I said, walking towards his voice. The trail had turned thorny and not particularly inviting.

He stood there with a stick in hand, moving aside the thorns over what looked like the entrance of something.

“Is it a snake hole?” I asked.

“It’s a cave, dummy. How can snake hole be so huge?”

“Nice…lets go.”

“Good idea…” he said, crouching to enter the cave.

“No…I mean, let’s get out. Before the snake comes out and sees you stand there like a dummy, ready to be bitten.”

“Dude… this is not a snake hole. It’s large enough for a human to crawl through.”

“Don’t dude me…”

“OK sorry. Madam, would you kindly accompany me to discover the glories within this cave?”

I hesitated. “We don’t have a torchlight.”

He flicked open his mobile phone and turned on the torchlight. “Helps to charge your phone in such situations. Ok, I’m going in. You coming?”

It was a bad idea. But he was on all fours and crawling in, and if you’ve seen his ass, firm, bouncy, and currently, in the air, you would probably understand why I crept behind it.

But this was apparently another one of my stupid ideas. Very soon, I could see neither ass nor the path before me.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Nothing.  We are just going forward.”

Now, when you think of a cave, you think of a small opening that you enter for the sole purpose of taking a few pictures, after which you get the hell out before the creepies realize you are there. But not this particular cave.

“Why is it not ending?” I asked. The whole thing was reminding me of one of those cave networks. One small wrong turn, and you’d be spending eternity lost with every horrible dark creature your mind could imagine.

Suddenly, a giant shadow loomed in front of me, in the light of the torch. I screamed.

“What?”

I pointed to the shadow, terrified.

“It’s your own shadow, dude.” Even in the darkness, I could feel his damn grin. I could have spanked his butt right there. I would have survived this ordeal in one piece, had it not been for the sudden whizz a few inches away from my ears.

“What’s that?” I asked. We stopped. This was not my imagination. He swung the phone light, over the low wall of the cave. Five furry rat heads hung from the ceiling.

“Bats!” I hissed, pressing my hands into his, feeling faint.

“Hey, it’s OK.” He shook me and slipped his hands around me. “They’re just bats.”

My breath was growing shallow. I could hear my heartbeat thrash in my ears.

“They’re just chilling there…” he said, calmly, “Look, they seem kinda stoned even.”

I looked at them, “I guess it does seem that way.”

“And I think you’re just getting a bit claustrophobic,” he replied softly. “Here, let’s sit down. Now imagine having a little campfire here,” he said, putting his arm around me to comfort me. It was sweet.

“Yeah.  That’s an idea.” I felt my voice small, and my breath return to normal.

We sat there a while. Just listening to our breathing, even as we listened to the occasional whoosh of the bat wings, imagining their rodent-like bodies almost close to us. I could feel Tirth, the heat of his body, just inches away, the tempo of his breath, the whirr of his rushing thoughts.

“Maybe we should head back.” I said finally, “The others could be looking for us.”

“OK,” he replied, fumbling with his phone. It lit his lips, and I noticed how it was bee-stung heavy. He bit and licked them as the phone light flickered. I stared hard at the rough stubble around it, wondering how it would feel against my cheeks.

I moved close and whispered, “Kiss me”.

He looked at me surprised, then suddenly, the light fell off, and I felt his lips on mine. A sudden touch of flesh. I drowned in that touch. Then woke up. Swam to the surface. He was cruising there. On the surface of my lips. Just licking away. Light flickering kisses. With every lick and kiss, I felt my blood rush through, from every part of my being, rushing to my weakening lips. His lips seemed to draw around the circumference of mine, as if testing the boundaries. I was breathing hard.

I just hoped that nobody would come in now. Somebody as bat-crazy as we were.

♦♦♦

The water fell from the sky it seemed, as I looked up, the droplets falling all over my half-pinched eyes, the rays of sun streaking through, a sheet of gold, bouncing little rainbows off its path. The breeze was cold, and not comforting.

“This is amazing!” said Tirth with a whoop, his shirt was off in the split of a second, thrown over the rocks. I saw him climb, and in a flash he hoisted himself on a ledge, staring into the deep waters below.

“Goodness Tirth! What are you up to?” shouted Anna from beside me.

He looked at us, his eyes flashing even from above, and with a graceful leap of a fish, he made a clean dive into the water.

I stood there, struck with awe and frozen. The Cheppu gang followed one colored mass after the other, either into the water before us, or following the steps of Tirth, for a dive.

“Well?” asked Anna. I realized it was to me.

I looked at her questioningly.

“Shall we go in?”

“I… I don’t have anything to change.” I said.

“Oh… not to worry,” she said, holding my hand. “Come over. We’ll find something.”

She grabbed her bag in the other hand.

“Where are we going?” I asked, uneasily.

She walked away from the waterfall, Anna now hopping through a trail of slippery rocks one after the other, while I stepped wobbling, terrified, waiting for both my feet to stop firmly at a rock before finding the next.

I stepped over the last rock and stood to look for Anna.

“Over here.”

I walked over, towards the tree that seemed to be the source of her sound, a mammoth of sorts.  I climbed over the fallen branch on my path, almost tripping, before I navigated around the cave like clearing that she stood at.

She stood bare naked to her waist, and I watched her through the dwindling roots that grew to the forest floor, a curtained changing room just for us.  I blushed on her behalf and looked away.

“Hey, it’s OK. Come over.”

I walked towards her, moving aside the root curtains as I stepped in closer. I stole a glance at her, as she rummaged through her bag, her breasts bobbing up and down as she pulled out the contents of her bag. I wondered if I’d ever seen the naked chest of a woman up so close, with all its imperfections, her curvy waist was a brilliant white. I looked away as she slipped over the top of her bikini.

She handed me something.

I opened it up. “What is this? A skirt?

“It’s skirt of the sari I got from Commercial street.”

“You mean a petticoat? How do you expect me to wear it?”

“Oh come on. The same way your ancestors did?”

I looked at her in confusion.

“Just…tie it above your chest. Oh, come on. Are you going to be shy?”

She returned to her bag. And I stood there, wondering what prehistoric Indian soap opera this girl had consumed before arriving. But I didn’t have anything else. Nobody had told me that I had to bring swimwear on the trek.

“Come on. We don’t have all day!” she said sharply. She was ready. And I didn’t want to be left behind.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “Come on… it will be fun. Tirth and the others must be waiting.”

I turned around slowly, taking off my shirt, leaving my undergarments on. There was no way I was taking them off. I had no clue what the water would do to this flimsy material. I pulled on the petticoat above my bra, wondering if she was looking at my pathetic waist the way I had looked at hers. I tied the string of the petticoat, as tightly as I could, deciding that my modesty hung literally on a drawstring, before taking off my pants.

I turned around and told her we could leave now.

“Cheer up. Don’t look so sad. You look cute!”

I gritted my teeth, deciding this was part of some grand team plan to embarrass me. Why did these people hate me so much?

We walked back the cruel trail, this time my shoes and clothes dangling in either hand, the jagged rocks scratching the tender arches of my feet, mercilessly. The wind swept across my naked arms, sprouting goosebumps along its way. After a bit, I heard Anna laughing and looked up. She was already with Tirth and the rest, quite far away. The rocks were growing slippery, and the water deceivingly shallow. A wrong step now was not just a graceless fall into the water, but also a plunge into one of those painfully jagged rock structures.

Gingerly, I kept my leg on the next rock, a trifle far away. Instantly, I felt the mischievous shake of the rock telling me this was a miscalculation. I lost balance… temporarily… a scream strangled at my throat… the shoes slipped from my hand into the water, as I gripped the rock by my leg. The water splashed at my thighs, the cold water knifed through. My legs were in a split between two rocks, as my soggy socks bobbed away. I clung dearly to my clothes. I did not want that to get wet.

“Hey Hey. Here. Give me your hand.”

I looked up hopefully. It was one of the Cheppu’s. The loud boisterous one that seemed like the ringleader just because of that. His eyes were on my chest, a view that left little to his imagination. I ignored the disgust that rose within me and held his hands. He pulled me, and we stood on the same wobbly rock for a split second.

And then I made a crucial mistake. I decided to take in the scenery. Well, I just looked around. And my eyes fell on that ruining sight.

Tirth and Anna stood below the waterfall, his hand slid around her naked waist, Anna was laughing, her lips close to his, and then they posed for a watery selfie.

Suffice to say, I fell. A loud splash into the water, a solid rock striking my back, barely missing my head. And even as a million icy knives hit every inch of my numb body through the flimsy cloth, I heard the laughter. Loud and clear. Of the Cheppu gang. A trickle of red colored my thighs, which is when I noticed that the petticoat had adventurously risen to my calves.  I bit back the tears, as I felt my hands couldn’t move.

♦♦♦

It was at the bonfire back at the camp I finally found my senses warmed to room temperature, with a crocheted blanket wrapped around me instead of Tirth. I sat in front of the fire, my eyes half closed to keep away the sting of the smoke that seemed insistent on following me wherever I shifted.

Vijay, the camp manager, was fanning the fire, blowing on it. He had a toothy smile, this guy, that he flashed whenever he was clueless, which seemed often enough in conversation. He’d pitched a few tents, for the adventurous ones that wanted to forgo the warm beds inside the homestay and try sleeping bags. There were even marinated veggies and Kababs, for the outdoor cooking experience to the guests, although that plan seemed suspect.

There was a table arranged near the fire, and a little bar was being set up by the gang. A row of 12 bottles, every variant of alcohol possible, lined along with mixers and packets of spicy chips and snacks. The party planner had not gone cheap.

Anna and Tirth were a distance away, discussing I don’t know what. Somewhere, I’d decided, that they could be together if that’s what they wanted. I was done. I wasn’t dousing myself in any more cold water.

The Cheppu gang were around me, like a swarm of seagulls that had suddenly discovered that I was made of bread. One of them wanted to dance with me, and I finally agreed, literally getting my arms twisted in the process.

I was offered a drink of rum and coke, the drunk barman’s running favorite of the moment, and I took it without comment. After which the sufficiently drunk dancer, Chetan he introducing himself, plopped down cross-legged next to me. He was getting married next month to the love of his life, he told me, they’d “loved each other for eight years,” a romance across states, for she was in Chennai and him in Bangalore. But they’d meet, of course, their minds were one after all and 200 miles they would drive to have ice-cream with each other, which was code for neither sex nor substance, for she knew of none of his ‘habits’. “What if she came to know?” I asked him, and the look he gave me before exiting the conversation indicated that I had not made a friend.

Chris, I noticed was quite the dancer, and was being taught a few Koothe steps, that he was picking up pretty well. Koothe was not a dance of grace. It was everything but that. It was a rebellion against groovy moves and twirls. No this was more booty and booby shakes. This dance needed space, you had to spread out, your hands flaying around, gesticulating at your chest, grinding over a bath towel, all accompanied with the most vulgar obscene face expressions. It was a folk dance, and it had its sensuality. And Chris was the tramp king. His elegant, lean body imitating each move, retaining a grace in the worst of moves. We were all having a laugh.

Ediran, walked up and sat next to me, barely clinging on to his whiskey glass in one hand and mobile phone in the other. “I can’t seem to get any messages from Dina”, he said, shaking his head. “I guess it’s the time zone difference. She must be sleeping now.”

”Your phone has got signal here?” I asked.

He looked at the phone’s signal, and then at me, traumatized, as if he’d never known phones could stop working outside of a natural disaster. He threw the cell away and drank up his entire glass of whiskey before turning to me again.

“How do you know T-Earth?” he said, and I looked confused, before realizing that he was referring to Tirth.

‘Why would you mispronounce such a beautiful name like that?” I asked.

He looked confused. “How else should I pronounce it?”

“It’s Th…and it rhymes with teeth “

“Teerth?” He asked.

“No… Theerth.” He tried repeating a few times. Either he missed the first h or the second, rolling his tongue and his eyes in frustration.

“Let him call me whatever he can,” said Tirth grandly, walking towards us on hearing his name. Anna was with him, as always.

“Heyyy…she has a point,” said Anna. “We need to know how to pronounce these Indian names. Like the name Chirag. Am I pronouncing that right?”

“Whose Chirag here?” I asked.

“He’s the guy we met at Rastha…the long haired guy?” She said and caught my blank expression. “The guitarist?” she clarified.

“How do you know him?” I asked.

“Oh… he’s played at an office gig,” replied Tirth, offhandedly.

“He plays quite well, too,” said Anna.

“Hmm…” replied Tirth. “I’m going to get a drink. Anyone joining me?”

“Hey, I need a refill, man,” said Ediran getting up.

Anna watched them leave. “So how are you feeling?” she asked.

“Ok, I guess?” I said wrapping the blanket closer to my chest, “I was never a big fan of water.”

“Then why did you decide to join us at the waterfall?” She was laughing at the memory, “I’m sorry I don’t mean to be rude…but it was funny. The way you fell and tried to drown in a little puddle of water. “

“I know. It’s ok.” I said, resignedly.

“It’s Tirth, isn’t it?” she asked, “You like him.”

I looked up at her, surprised. “Yes,” I replied. So much for my subtle moves.

“Well, I think he likes you too.” She was trying to cheer me up.

I stared at her in surprise. “Well…we did make out in the caves,” I blurted before I knew it.

“You naughty girl!” she looked delighted. “You know what you should do? Get a little frisky with him.”

I looked at her, shocked.

“He’s got these keys to the room in his pocket. He refuses to give it to me, cos… well… he thinks I’m going to sleep. I’m not…”

“OK…”

“I need to make a call to Chirag. And I can’t tell Tirth that.”

“The guitarist?” I asked.

“We’ve been messaging each other,” she said, “And it has been sweet. I think I like him,” her eyes were tender.

“Why can’t you tell Tirth?” I asked.

“Well. It’s been barely a week,” she said, “I don’t know. I wanna see where it goes.”

Tirth was staring at us curiously, as we whispered to each other. I started walking towards him. But I didn’t seem to be reaching him.  He was far away. A receding sight. I couldn’t make it. I needed to sit down.

Tirth appeared beside me, “Are you OK?”

“The room…” I whispered.

He grabbed me by my shoulders like I was about to faint. I wasn’t. It was overly dramatic on his part. But the path was wavery. Difficult to walk over it straight, if you’d asked me. Perhaps it was my excellent acting. I couldn’t really say the difference anymore. Anna’s eyes were following us this time. Me and Tirth. His arms linked around me, holding me strongly. I knew that I was being taken upstairs. The stairs were being difficult and long winding, like a movie that wasn’t planning to end anytime soon. The key from his pocket, the door of the room opened. I was laid down like a useless doll. My sweater loosened, a blanket carefully arranged over me. My eyes closed without much coaxing. Sleep was clouding my senses, though not before I felt his pearly lips touching my lips softly.

♦♦♦

The atmosphere in the car was tense; every ear in the car strained and tuned to the contents of the conversation in the back seat, the conversation between us.

I ground my teeth with my jaw muscles quivering, “So you’re hanging out with the boys after this?” I said,

“The guys want me to go with them.” He said, his lips trembling.

I glared at him for a split second, and then looked out of the car window as a flush of heat colored my cheeks and burnt my eyes. Rejection was never a sweet pill.

But I had thought things were going well. Why had I thrown myself at him? Maybe he was gay. Maybe I was a bad kisser. Or had bad breath. Whatever it was, I was a shameless slut, just as his damn friends had assumed.

Or was he just shy? Did he need some coaxing? I didn’t know. I couldn’t find out now.

The two cars were entering the Marriot hotel, our final drop point, and we got out of the vehicle, all ten of us, taking out our baggage from our cars. I pulled out my bag and hurriedly moved away from the group to hide the tears pouring down my face like a muddy track of rain. Everyone knew rejection when they saw it. And this group seemed to savor it. Well, I didn’t want their sympathy. I’d walk away from all of them, with my head held high.

“Bye guys,” I said, preparing to walk away.

“How are you going?” Tirth cut in.

“By bus,” in my ‘obviously’ tone.

“It’s ten o clock in the night. Are you crazy? It isn’t safe. I’ll call a cab, or put you in an auto,” he said.

“It’s ok…I’ll manage…” I said, walking away as fast as I could. I didn’t want his fucking pity. I dragged my baggage, along with a plastic cover that held a giant blanket. The walk to the Marriot entrance was slow painful one, and I felt my legs hurt and my arms collapse at the end of it. The journey had taken its toll on me. And once I exited the glamourous walkway of the hotel security, I realized my mistake. The road was empty and the air thick with dust, with more than a few lecherous eyes resting immediately upon me. There was not an auto stand or a bus stop in sight. My phone had conveniently died on me.

I was losing hope when a truck stopped before me, and a pan-stained set of teeth grinned at me, “Ellige madam?”

I tried to look away. I wasn’t going to board a truck home. My logical mind informed me that I wasn’t placed to make such choices. “Bangalore…” I said, almost whispering through my terrified tears.

“Banni madam. Time illa manage,” he said, his leery eyes already seeing more than he could. I imagined getting into that truck. Imagined being groped by this creature whose face was as dirty as his shirt. Imagined the nausea that would hit me with his smell, all through my mumbling tears.

What I didn’t imagine was the car that had parked behind the truck.

“Nina!” I heard my name, and looked around, my eyes flooding with relief. It was Tirth, his eyes wide with shock. I almost ran towards him and then quickly braked and walked towards him, leaving the truck driver to swear his fury away.

“I’m not planning to let you go home like this,” Tirth said with a newfound strength in his voice. “I’ll book you a cab.” He flipped open his mobile and I kept my mouth shut. I needed that ride. Safety over Self-respect, I told myself.

I stood there beside him, waiting for the cab to arrive.

“You were planning to go with the truck driver?” he said.

“Well, I needed a ride home.”

“I don’t think that would have taken you home,” he replied.

I looked away sullenly.

“So…did you enjoy the trip?” he asked, as he punched into his phone.

“Anna was nice,” I replied. I was relieved that he had come, but that didn’t mean I had to make intelligent conversation.

“What were you two whispering at the party? You and Anna… giggling like that? There was some secret, I know.”

I felt the heat shoot up my temples. “Is that why you are here? What makes you think I’ll tell you? And Anna is my friend.”

“And I’m not?” he said with mock shock.

“Well, she’s the only one who’s been decent enough to me.”

“And what did I do?”

The words tumbled out, “I thought we had a good time, you and me. I assumed you liked me.”

“I do like you,” he mumbled. I looked at him squarely as he said that. “As a friend.” he added, quickly.

I swallowed a big phlegm of shame. “Didn’t seem that way when we kissed,” I replied, harshly. “You seemed to like me a lot more than a friend.”

“I do like you… more than a friend too. And if circumstances had been different, I’d have taken you on a date. Yes, I’d have dated you. You are a pretty girl. An interesting person… I…”

“What circumstances?” I wanted to hear it from his mouth, whatever it was. I was done with the guessing.

He looked down stubbornly.

“Tell me,” I said, “Is it Anna? Do you like her?”

“What?  Fuck… NO…” he replied, “I like her. She’s just a good friend.”

“Then? Are you gay?’

“Now you’re being funny aren’t you?”

“Then what is it? I’m not attractive enough? I’m fat? I have bad breath? What the fuck is it?”

He stared at me with a sad forlorn look. And looked down at his hands. “My wedding is fixed. With a girl my parents have found. I’m trying to break it off…but…”

I could have ripped his throat like a starved vampire, “Fuck… and your colleagues know this?”

“I yes… Anna doesn’t… but the others do. Thulika has hung out with them a few times.”

“And why the fuck did you call me on this…this stupid office trip? I thought it was a date?”

His eyes were downcast, everywhere but where I could see them, “Anna was the only girl on the trip. And she needed company. It…it wasn’t a date.” He looked up at me, his eyebrows gathered in pain, his lips pursed.

Well, I wasn’t going to not get angry. “What am I? A hired clown? You flirted with me.”

“I talked to you.”

“I called you for coffee…and you said yes…”

“How is coffee a date?”

“You are a fucking asshole. That’s what you are. And why are you breaking up with your soon-to-be wife?”

“I don’t want to get married,” his voice was breaking.

“Why? Because you want to flirt with all the women in the world…” I spat angrily.

He buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t flirt…with…you.”

“You kissed me…”

“You kissed me,” he said, with more vehemence this time.

“You didn’t seem to resist it.”

He stared at me, and then looked away, his shoulders slumping, his face dirt red. We stood in another sullen silence. 3 minutes, showed the Uber App.

“You could have told me you know,” I replied.

He looked up at me, questioningly.

“That you were engaged. Instead of flirting with me.”

“You wouldn’t have come on this trip with me,” he replied.

“That doesn’t mean you flirt.”

“I was being friendly. You wouldn’t have hung out with me if you knew I was engaged. Girls don’t hang out with engaged men. I wanted a friend. You were really fun. And…I was just tired of being lonely.”

“Aww…so sad. Such a sad life,” I taunted.

He stared at me with tired pain in his eyes. I looked into the Uber app again. 1 minute it said.

“I wouldn’t have come on the trip” I replied, looking at him. “But I would have hung out with you. You are a fun person too. Even as a non-boyfriend. You are fun.”

“Will you hang out with me now?’ He asked suddenly, “Tonight? Just As friends?”

I stared at his sad hopeful eyes. What harm could it do? I nodded.

♦♦♦

We were at the bottom of his apartment, hiding behind a giant tree, like two badly trained robbers.

“Shhh…” whispered Tirth into my ears. “We have to wait, here.”

“Are we breaking into someone else’s apartment?” I hissed at him, covering my nose from the stink of the drain.

“No.  It’s the damn neighbour.  He knows Thulika, my future wife. Even has her number. He’s been waiting for me to slip. I don’t want him to see me bring you home. Asshole.”

It struck me that this probably wasn’t the first time that Tirth had stood here, behind this tree, watching and waiting as the lanky shifty-eyed neighbor got onto his bike and left. There was something fishy about Tirth’s deal. And I hoped that by the end of the night, I would find it.

Of course, this required me to think with my brain and not my hormones. Not something I was used to.

The minute the neighbor left, Tirth skittered away, with me following his curvy bum, and we climbed the three flights of stairs into his house.

Finally, when I stepped into his house, I knew I was safe. Safe from myself at least. There was no way I could get myself to make out with an engaged guy, in a room that was that dirty.

We’d dropped our bags, and he hit the shower immediately. I was left to explore the hidden secrets of his home. Yippee for me.

Like all bachelor pads, the primary feature of the living room was the floppy mattress that lay on the floor in the corner, with a bedsheet that promised to give me rashes of some kind. But staying away from it was clearly not an option, as that was the bachelor version of a sofa cum bed. The chairless table, occupied another corner, its purpose merely to provide the 50 Java/C textbooks the space to sit and accumulate dust for its tenure there, which seemed to be permanent from the amount of dust.

There were the Gods, a picture here on the table, an idol there inside the glass showcase, overlooking his life and its doings. It would have made for some interesting conversation, if these idols could talk. Like what these bachelors do when left to their own devices. The holy offerings at its feet were unimpressive: room keys, bottle opener, electricity bills, Oregano and Ketchup covers, a dirty passport size photograph, a stray College mark list, and a strip of paracetamol.

“Your place is kinda dirty,” I said, dropping the ‘flirty chic’ act the minute he stepped out, rubbing his hair with a towel. I’d drink the night away, and sleep it over. I had my ethics. And I would stick to it.

“Would you like something to eat?” he said.

“Are you going to cook it?” I said.

“We can order something,” he said.

“Good. Then I want something.” No way was I eating something from this bio-hazard area. And the kitchen scared me even from afar. Perhaps he was growing a nice little fungus and had a pet roach. I didn’t want to find out.

“Do you want something to drink? We’ve got all that left-over liquor,” he said.

“Hmm…I dunno. What did you get?”

“Rum.”

“I dunno…”

“Why don’t you take a shower?”

“Not after that waterfall. I’m not taking a shower for years. ”

“But… I’m sensitive to smells.” He whined.

“So…?”

“So you have to take a shower.”

“Sit far away and don’t try to smell me.”

“Come on,” He pulled me off the floor bed, and handed me a towel, pushing me towards the bathroom door. “Do this for me…please…” He said, shutting the door to my loud protests.

I wasn’t taking a shower. I would just mill around and do nothing. I turned on the water, to start my pretend shower, and the water fell straight onto me, clothes and all…who sets the water to shower by default? Asshole. It was cold…waterfall cold…and that memory wasn’t helping…then burning hot. “This is crazy”, I screamed at him. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I was going to be a sloth. Who cares? Being clean was already doing too much.

I opened the bathroom door to greet that cute little ass bent over before the floor. “Nice…” I said to it… “What are you up to?”

“Cleaning.” He said, looking up from the broom in his hands.

“Why? Are you selling the house?”

“I don’t like people seeing how messy I am,” he said.

“I’ve already seen it. And much as I love the sight of your pretty ass in the air, walking around cleaning the house like a Porno maid, can we please order the food?”

He laughed. “In a bit.” He was arranging the books on his table. He unveiled a music system that seemed hidden behind a stack of newspapers in the showcase, and wired it up. Then he opened the rum bottle and poured it into two glasses.

He handed me one.

“That’s like three shots,” I said, “You want me sleeping in half an hour?”

He poured out some and mixed a bit of juice. “So you watch a lot of porn?”

“Not really,” I said sitting down. We were on the mattress, the two of us. I wore my grey, decent looking, knee-length, flannels, with some very suggestive buttons. But my clothes were limited. I pulled his blanket to cover my bare legs. I may not have planned on a purdah night. But I was quite serious about my abstinence vow, and was planning on keeping my stand on morality. “Porn grosses me out mostly. Bores me even. I’d rather make my own porn.”

He laughed. “So what would your porn movie be like?”

“Well, for starters, I’d star in it. And there’d be no incessant cock waving and cream showers. There’d be a lot of beautiful people sitting around not having sex. There’d be tempo and tension and teasing.”

“OK… if they aren’t having sex, what are they doing?”

“Anything. They can lie down and read with their boobs sticking out, they can clean the house, with their ass in the air, see…sex is so much more fun than just the damn fucking. Don’t make it just about that. Build a storyline.”

“Sounds boring to me…”

“Tried watching porn with your future wife?”

He rolled his eyes, “I’ve watched it with my previous girlfriend.”

“Wait a minute? Previous girlfriend?”

“Ya. Madhu her name was. Should have stuck with her. But then she wasn’t the marrying kind.”

“I love the name Madhu. Had a crush on someone named Madhu once“

“You’re into girls?” his eyes widened excitedly.

“Madhu was a guy,” I said firmly. “But…yes…I like girls too.”

“You’ve ever done a girl?”

I smiled and nodded.

“Seriously? Really? Oh my god! Would you ever do a threesome?”

“With you and your future wife on your wedding night.”

“Well, not on my wedding night…but?”

“Would you do a threesome?”

“Fuck ya, I would.”

“With me and you and my hot future husband, who has a six-inch dick? Threesomes work both ways you know.” I said, in response to his gruesome face expression.

He sat with his back to the wall, his legs occupying most of the floor mattress, while I sat at the edge of it, perpendicular to him, with his legs inches away from my thighs, and more than once, his legs brushed against them, sending a warm quiver between my legs. I moved an inch away.

“You can keep your legs there. I don’t mind.” He said, quietly.

“That’s fine. I’m comfortable here.” I replied, “And I know what a tease you are.”

“I’m a tease? How am I tease?”

“You flirted with me. You flirted with Anna. All the while you had a future wife.”

“Come on. I just talked to you guys. How is that flirting?”

“Leave all that. Tell me about your future wife.”

“Nothing to tell. Nags all the time. Forbids me from having friends. Forbids me from talking to Madhu.”

“Tirth?”

“Hmmm…?”

“Why is your leg on my thigh again?”

“Come on…it’s just a leg.”

“Why? Did you break up with your wife in your head? That’s not how it works you know.”

“I’m just being friendly. And we are having so much fun talking. Like, have you ever talked like this to anyone?”

“I’ve had better conversations.”

“Come on. You are lying. I think if we keep talking like this, we’ll just fall in love.”

“I doubt that very much. Love is just too much work. Too much selflessness. You don’t have it in you.”

“We’ll see.”

“Oh really. Is that a challenge now? Quite the narcissist we’ve got here. No sweetheart, I don’t want to make your asshole babies.”

“I didn’t mean that…OK, whatever. You want another drink?” He asked.

“No thanks. Don’t try to get me drunk and in bed.”

“Listen. That was cheap of me. Sorry. I was only joking. And… I’m sorry for misleading you…during the trek…earlier on…I was an asshole, sorry”

“Yes you were. You made me cry”

“What? When did you cry? “

“In the car.”

“But…ok…I’m sorry…but why?”

“I don’t know…I felt bad. I thought we had a good time. And here you were asking me to piss off.”

“But how can you cry for something like that?”

“WHY not? I replied. “I cry quite easily.”

“Really? I wish I could cry sometimes…I didn’t even cry when my dad died.”

“Oh…I’m sorry. When was this?’

“Oh…when I was seven. He had a heart attack. It was quite sudden. It upset me of course. Then it was mom and me. It was terrible. Everyone was so sympathetic, it just made it all the worse. I just wanted to be left alone.”

“Yeah…I can understand that.”

“But after that, I’ve had trouble crying. I didn’t cry even when I broke up with Madhu.

“Did she dump you?”

“No. We lived together for four years. She wanted to go abroad and study.”

“And you let her?”

“Well…I didn’t want to stop her future. But to tell you the truth I was secretly happy. That I could be a bachelor again… Drinking up to 3 AM in the morning.”

“Asshole,” I laughed.

“You think that’s evil of me, don’t you? I guess…because I really paid for that later”

“Oh?” I said interested.

“In real tears. For the only time in my life. I cried when I lost Madhu. Forever.”

“Why…did she die?”

“What? NO! Don’t say that…” He flinched like I’d slapped him, his eyes widened.

“She dumped you?”

“I told you…nobody dumped anyone. We separated, like good friends. Long distance wasn’t sensible anymore. So we started dating too. And then I got engaged, this December. To my so-called future wife. Thulika. And I was turned into a dog on a leash. She monitors my calls, my messages, my friends. Threw a fit in front of my colleagues once, because I was friendly with one of the girls in the office.”

“You know, with guys like you she has to be careful. You are a flirt…and a tease.”

He gathered his knees locked tight together. “Do you know she slapped me once? Right in the face. And said that if I ever talk to a girl again, she’d teach me a lesson.”  His face was flushed red.

I stared back at him, my heart hard, “Is that when you cried?”

His eyes were filling fast, “No…I was still talking to Madhu. Despite everything. I hadn’t lost her yet. Madhu came down. She felt bad for me. She visited me and my mom in Siliguri, my hometown. Stayed there for a night. It was the most beautiful night of my life. I held her for one last time. Kissed her. My heart just broke with all the stupid things I had done. The screw up that was my life. I cried that night. In her arms. For the only time in my life.”

He looked into his glass, staring at the whiskey inside, his eyes glazed. He always looked precious when he was unhappy.

“Hey….I’m sorry yaar,” I put my hands around him, “Why don’t you get back with Madhu then?”

“It’s too late now,” his voice was breaking, “She’s engaged, anyway. To a nice American boy. H1B1 and all. I blocked her on the phone later. Thulika did, at least.”

“Hey” I leaned forward, touching his shoulders, pulling him towards me “Its Ok.”

He turned to me, and said… “Can you kiss me?” His lips were trembling, his eyes were sad, desperate.

I leaned forward and touched my lips to his. He breathed deeply, the tension in his body loosening for a bit. I could feel the sobs well up in his throat. I drew myself back after a bit.

“I think we are done,” I said.

“Why?” he said, his eyes pained.

“I don’t want to be dragged into the screw up that is your life. First, break up with your future wife.”

“Then what? You’ll marry me? You’ll be my girlfriend?” His voice was high, desperate.

“Hey, you are unhappy. Why should I solve your problem?”

“Because you are creating it!”

“You are pathetic. Solve your own fucking problem. Marry your wife, and have her children. I don’t care.”

♦♦♦

When I returned from the bathroom, after a much-needed pee, I found him giggling into the phone. We were much drunk by then, and it was 3 AM in the morning.

“What’s so funny?”

“Madhu.” He replied, his eyes still on the phone.

“Arreey. This girl makes you cry first, and then laugh.”

“She pinged me.”

“I thought you blocked her.”

“Ohh…I unblocked her…”

“And when was that? When I went to pee?”

“No” he giggled, “A while back. When Thuli picked a fight with me.”

“Asshole. That’s what you are. You think that girl is your mommy, and you can do things behind her back. You know what? You are ruining a poor girl’s life.”

“Madhu’s?” He looked up and hiccuped.

“No. Your future wife’s.  Thulika’s”

“Umm…how…?”

“By being a coward. Just break up with her asshole. Don’t marry her. Don’t have your asshole babies with her. You’ll just make the poor girl cry, ten years from now.”

“If I can break up with her, I would so marry Madhu”

“Stupid!!” I screamed at him, wishing I had a rock to throw at his thick head.

“Or I will come to you…”

“Don’t you dare come to me. I have enough problems of my own.”

“So how come a pretty girl like you hasn’t had sex for so long?”

“How do you know that?” I asked, lying down. My back was aching by this time. He quickly lay down next to me. I tried putting a pillow between us, and he pressed the pillow under his arms. I wasn’t going to tell him that I was waiting for the right man to come along. And that I had been dumb enough to think it was him. But he was cheeky, this one, and happy that he could talk freely for once.

“How do I know that you are pretty?” he said, with a toothy smile, “You should try Tinder. You’d know how popular you really can be.”

“I’m presuming you have tried it.”

“I…” He giggled, “I install it sometimes. Then I go and like all the girls there. Someone will like me back. Then I start chatting with her…”

“Flirting with her, you mean…”

“No… just Hi. Whachyoudoing…etc. Just harmless fun” He looped his arms around me. My breasts began to heave, trying to push up against him like two excited teenagers. I closed my eyes and felt his hands unbuttoning my shirt quickly, baring my chest, his hands circling my throbbing nipples, desperate for his touch.

My lips leaned towards him, searching for his, and they touched for a second.

“What kind of lame kiss is that?” I said.

“I’m being nice to you. I don’t want to kiss you too passionately and make you fall in love with me. I am being a gentleman.”

“Oh! That is so nice of you.” I spat at him. I wanted that kiss, I thought, staring at his lips. I wanted to bite them and see them bleed. And then suck out the blood, until he screamed. This creature was taunting me…and I was being taunted. And I hated it. And I loved it.

“You are so like me.” He said, his eyes had a mischievous glint.

“I have some principles,” I replied.

“Oh! And what are they?” he snorted, nipping at my nose.

“I don’t like cheating,” I said, weakly. His tongue was in my ears, flicking it in and out, sending my body into trembling waves of pleasure.

“It’s not cheating. We aren’t doing anything wrong you know. Would you like a proper kiss?” he said suddenly.

“NO…” I said, my voice small and weak. “Yes…”

His lips pressed against mine, loving licks, and soft sucks. I couldn’t remember what I was fighting anymore. The last of my ego lay shattered in his caresses, my heart drowned in pools of his persistence.

♦♦♦

We fell asleep soon enough, lack of sleep and sheer fatigue taking over.  Five hours later, my hands searched for him on his bed, eager for a cuddle. He shrugged me off rudely, the night’s tenderness a distant dream. “Time for office,” he said, tapping his watch. When he left for his bath, the doorbell rang. “Can you open the door, I’ve ordered breakfast.” He shouted from within. I opened the door, and caught in a sharp breath, as I saw, behind the delivery boy, Tirth’s lanky neighbor eyeing me as he scooped the morning paper. When I closed the door, my eyes fell on the show-case idol, and I could have sworn that I saw it wink.

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