September 2, 2010


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Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(6)

'What's up?' Ish said as I laid my head on the cashbox early morning.
'Nothing. Couldn't sleep well,' I said.
'Why? Thinking of Pandit-ji's daughter,' Ish laughed. I ignored him. Every few hours I had the urge to send Vidya a 'did anything happen' message. But she would tell me if something happened. I opened a calendar and tracked all the past dates of our intimacy. Apart from the first time several months ago, I had used protection every time. Could they be late for any other reason? I didn't know and I could not ask anyone. Ish and Omi probably didn't even know the P-word. And there was no other woman I knew apart from Vidya. And I couldn't ask mom anyway. I picked up my phone again. 'How is it going?', I sent a neutral message. 'Nothing yet', she replied back.
The next night I did get some sleep. I sprang out of bed early morning to SMS her again. I had an SMS from her already, 'a bit of pain, nothing else'.
I threw the phone away. I wanted to reach the shop early to take out supplies from the godown. Somehow, I hated being late anymore.

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(5)

'You promised to help Mama, remember?' Omi said, his silk badge fluttering in the breeze.
I walked over to the other end of the park, to the other rally, The decorations here were less saffron and more white.
'Gujarat is a place of intelligent people,' Ali's dad was speaking, 'who know politics and religion are separate.'
I took a seat in the last row and eyeballed the crowd. Unlike Mama's hundred per cent Hindu, this was more of a mixed bunch, If the secular party was so pro-Muslim as Mama suggested, why were so many Hindus sitting here?
'The gods we pray to, stayed away from politics in their time. If we truly want to follow our gods, we must keep our religion separate from politics. Religion is private, politics public,' Ali's dad said.
'You a party member?' someone asked me. I shook my head. I guessed he was Hindu.
'How about you?' I said.

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(5)

'You promised to help Mama, remember?' Omi said, his silk badge fluttering in the breeze.
I walked over to the other end of the park, to the other rally, The decorations here were less saffron and more white.
'Gujarat is a place of intelligent people,' Ali's dad was speaking, 'who know politics and religion are separate.'
I took a seat in the last row and eyeballed the crowd. Unlike Mama's hundred per cent Hindu, this was more of a mixed bunch, If the secular party was so pro-Muslim as Mama suggested, why were so many Hindus sitting here?
'The gods we pray to, stayed away from politics in their time. If we truly want to follow our gods, we must keep our religion separate from politics. Religion is private, politics public,' Ali's dad said.
'You a party member?' someone asked me. I shook my head. I guessed he was Hindu.
'How about you?' I said.
'Yes, tor generations,' he said.
Ali's father invited the main candidate, Ghulam Zian, on stage.
As the septuagenarian began to talk, the microphones turned silent and the pedestal fans conked off. Murmurs ran along the crowd. Was it a power failure? No, as the event had its own generators.
it's sabotage. The Hindu party did it,' said one person in the crowd. Tension filled the air. People talked about raiding the Hindu rally.
'Let's teach those guys a lesson,' a muscular man led the pack and lifted his chair. I wondered if I should run back and warn Mama.
'It's back. Ladies and gentlemen, please sit down. The power is back,' Ali's father came to the stage with folded hands. The fans whirred again.
1 remembered the kissing chimpanzees and reconciliation mechanisms. But right now, there were no kisses. Only chairs that could be thrown everytime the power went off.
I stepped outside. I called a travel agent. 'We want to apply for four passports and visas to Australia. And don't give me a crazy price.'
I returned to Ghulam Zian's speech. Ali's dad spotted me and came over, inaayat, Govind bhai. What brings you here? Welcome, welcome.'
'You speak well. You know Ish's plans to take Ali to Australia?' I said.
'He told me, Inshallah, you will go. Ali mentions Ishaan bhai's name at least ten times everyday. Sometimes I feel Ishaan bhai is more his father than me. Goa, Australia, I never say no to him. Why isn't he here?'
'Well he and Omi are...'
'At the other rally, isn't it? Don't worry, I understand. Your choice.'
i am a businessman. I have no interest in politics,' I said, in fact, I'll go now.'
He fell into step with me. 'I'll come and say hello to Ishaan
I wanted to tell him it was a terrible idea for him to come to Mama's rally. Politics may be his pastime, but for Mama it was lift and death. I kept quiet as we walked back to Mama's rally. Hasmukh-bhai was still on, with lots of hand gestures. 'Put your hand on your heart. Don't you feel wronged as Hindus? And if we had the best culture and administration thousands of years ago, why not now?'
Mama saw us from the stage and pointed a finger. A few people in the crowd looked at me and Ali's father.
'Hey, who is that?' a party worker said.
The crowd booed at us. Ali's dad's beard looked extremely out of place.
'Get lost, you traitor,' said a person from the crowd. 'Let's teach him a lesson,' said another. Hasmukh-ji stopped talking. Luckily, he kept quiet. Ali's abba raised his hand to wave to Mama and Hasmukh-ji.
'Go away, Ali's abba,' I murmured without looking at him.
Omi came running to me and grabbed my hand. 'What the hell are you doing? I sent you to spy and you bring back another spy?'
Ali's dad heard Omi and looked at me. I shook my head. He gave me an all-knowing smile and turned to walk back.
I don't give a fuck about this,' I shouted back. I doubt he heard me.
First Goa, now Australia. What business do you do?' said Vidya, her eyes the size of the new one-rupee coins.
'Fred kept his promise when Ish wrote to him again. We received tickets in the mail,' I said. We had finished class and I wanted to tell her about my impending absence.
'So who are the two people going?' she said.
'Not two, four. Ali and the three of us are going,' I said.
'Lucky bums,' she laughed.
'So, I will be away for ten days. But your books won't be. Vidya, all my students do well. Don't let me down.' 'You also don't let me down,' she said. 'How?'
'Forget it. So where are you going in Australia?'
'Sydney. Fred is from there. Ali will practice in his academy for a week. When your brother sets his mind on something, he goes real far.'
'Unlike me. I can't focus. I'm sure I will flunk my medical entrance. I will be stuck in this hellhole home even in college. And then I will get married into another hell-hole in some backward part of Gujarat.'
'Gujarat is not backward,' I retorted.
'Maybe I am too forward.'
We locked eyes again. In an entrance exam for insolence, Vidya would top easy. I opened her guide books.
'Why are studies so boring? Why do you have to do something so uninteresting to become something in life?'
'Vidya, philosophical questions, no. Mathematical questions, yes,' I said and stood up to leave.
'Will you get me something from Australia?'
'Ask your brother, he will get you whatever you want.' I restacked the books. No way would I spend more cash than I needed to.
'Anyway, we are on a tight budget,' I clarified. She nodded as if she understood. 'So, will you miss me?' I continued to look down.
'You have a budget for how much you can miss people, too?' she asked.
'Do your sums, Vidya. Focus,' I said and left.
'You guys tired or wanna hit practice?' were Fred's first words of welcome at the airport.
'Where is my bed?' I wanted to ask.
We had taken an overnight train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, waited six more hours to board a fourteen-hour flight to Sydney via Singapore. Thirty hours of travel in cramped environments and I wanted to kill myself with sleep.
'Oh, so we made it in time for practice?' Ish looked out at the streets of Sydney. At 7 a.m. in the morning, joggers clogged the pavements. Picture-postcard coffee shops advertised delicious muffins.
I patted the khakras in my bag. We couldn't afford any cakes In this town.
'I go to the academy ground in the morning,' Fred said as he stepped on the gas. 'I've put you up in a hostel. Take a nap first I'd say. Philip will pick you up for the evening practice.'
Guys, this is Ali. He is a batsman,' Fred said to the other players who came for practice. Apart from Philip, there was a beefy guy called Peter and a spectacled spinner called Steve. I forgot the other names instantly.
Fred screamed, 'Five rounds everyone. Close to the boundary line, no short-cuts.'
The first two hours of our Australian practice was the practice of death. Five rounds of the academy grounds equaled twenty rounds of Nana Park and fifty rounds of the bank's courtyard. After the run, we did innumerable sit-ups, push-ups and crunches. Three personal trainers supervised five students each. The first lime I groaned, one came running to me. The next time he said, 'Cut the drama, mate.'
We came to the pitch after endurance training. I told them I was no player, but I had to field anyway.
'Here, bowl,' Fred tossed the ball to Ali.
'He doesn't really bowl,' Ish said.
'I know, give it a burl,' Fred clapped his hands.
Philip took his fielding place at the boundary near me.
'What's burl?' I asked him.
'Aussie slang, mate,' Philip laughed, it means give it a try.'
Ish offered to be the wicket keeper, but Fred told him to stay at the slip instead. Ali's bowling was no match for these state level players. Roger slammed the ball towards the boundary several times. Once the ball came between Philip and me, and we had a tough time catching it.
'Rattle your dags, mate,' another fielder shouted at me. No one had to translate 'hurry up' to me.
I threw the ball back. What was I doing in the middle of this Australian ground?
As the day progressed, so did my Aussie vocabulary. 'Onya' was short for 'good on you', which meant well done. An easy ball was a 'piece of piss', while a good one 'packed a wallop'. The mosquitoes were 'mozzies', and soft drinks 'coldies'. When I took a loo break, Philip broke into some more slang. 'You got to siphon the python, is it?'
It started to get dark.
'Pack-up time,' announced Fred though Ali hadn't batted yet.
Fred raised his eyebrows at a glum Ish in the locker room.
I am fine,' said Ish. Omi and Ali were taking a walk outside the dub.
'Fair dinkum?'
Ish looked up from his wooden stool.
'He is asking if you are telling the truth,' I showed off my newfound linguistic skills.
'When is practice tomorrow, Fred, in English if you can,' Ish said.
'You a whinger?' Fred said. 'Whinge means...,' I said as Ish interrupted me.
I know what whinge means, can someone please explain the point of calling a batsman from thousands of miles away and not making him bat?'
Fred smiled, 'Oh, you wanted your little discovery to bat. What for? So he can hit a few sixes. You want the kid to be a show-off from day one?'
That's not what I...'
'Mate, I see a lot of talent. Every AIS scholarship kid has tickets on himself. If I don't break their pride, they will stay hoons for the rest of their life. Sportsmen aren't movie stars, mate. Even though your country treats them like that.'
'But Fred...'
'You Indians have good talent, but the training - trust me on that mate.'
'We are only here for a week,' Ish sounded helpless. 'I'll make the week productive. But today's lesson was important. If he isn't humble, he won't last long,' Fred said, then looked at his watch. 'Promised the missus some time. I'm off like a bride's nightie.'
‘Cheers!’ everyone cried. We clanged our dark brown bottles of XXXX beer, also known as 'fourex' stubbies. 'Hi!' our server Hazel, too hot to be a waitress, hugged Fred. 'Oooh...,' Fred's students egged him on after she left. 'No way, mate. The missus won't tolerate me making eyes at anyone else,' Fred said. 'But you guys are single. You must have pretty girls all over you in India.' Everyone looked at us. 'We don't have girlfriends,' Omi said.
'Why not? Indian women are hot,' said Michael, rolling his
'Too busy with work,' I said.
'Busy? Never heard a bloke too busy to root, mate,' Roger said.
Everyone laughed. Root meant, well, whatever. 'Check those honeys out,' Michael said as four girls walked
"The one in brown, she's ain't bad,' Michael said. 'NCR 5.'
'NCR 10,' Roger said.
'And the blue one?' Philip said.
'She's NCR 0. Bring it on, man,' Roger said. Everyone laughed.
'What's NCR?' I asked as there was a whiff of maths in the
'NCR is Number of Cans Required. The amount of beer yoi need to drink to want to have sex with a girl,' Fred said.
'Michael dated an ugly bitch once. He admits it, NCR 40 Roger said. Everyone roared with laughter.
'Here you go, hungry boys,' Hazel said in a flirtatious tone she passed the plates.
The Australians mainly ate meat dishes. We had stuck to a pizza as it was the only recognisable choice.
'You got to do more protein,' Michael said, his biceps flexing, as he ate.
Omi said, I drink two litres of milk everyday.'
Ish sat next to Fred. I could not hear their conversation However, I saw Ish's frequent nods. I left the Aussie rooting stories and moved to Ish.
'If you're the bowler and you've got the ball in your hand, you're controlling the game. You've got to make sure the batsman know who's the boss,' Fred was saying. 'Same for Ali. He doesn't just need to hit shots, he needs to show the other team who is the boss.' 'Right,' Ish said.
My players will eventually figure out new ways to bowl to Ali. A determined mind can counter a gift. A champion has both.' Ish nodded.
Hi Govind!' Fred had spotted me. 'Don't want rooting tips? We are just doing boring coach talk.'
Ish's chest swelled with pride as Fred had called him equal in role.
I remembered something. 'You mentioned a scholarship yesterday. What's that? In fact, how does the whole sports thing work in Australia.'
'You want to know why Australia always wins?'
it doesn't always win,' Ish said.
'Not always, thank goodness. We love to dominate opponents, hut also love a fight. When there's a challenge, it brings out the
'Yeah, even if not every time, Australia does win a lot. Every Olympics, there is pile of medals for Australia. In cricket, the domination continues. How come, Fred?' 1 said.
'Plenty of reasons, mate. But it wasn't always like this.' Fred sipped his sparkling water, in fact, in the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, Australia didn't win a single medal.' 'But you guys did well last year,' Ish said. 'Yes, in Sydney 2000. Australia won 56 medals, only after USA, Russia and China. All these countries have ten times as many people.' He paused. 'Aussies saw the Montreal fiasco as a national shame. So the government set up the Australian Institute of Sports or the AIS and initiated the world's best scholarship programme.' Fred finished his glass of water and continued:
'And today the AIS has hundreds of staff - coaches, doctors and physios. They get two hundred million dollars of funding| and have excellent facilities. And at the heart of it all, they offer seven hundred scholarships a year.' Fred pushed the spaghetti plate towards me.
I listened as I struggled with the ribbon-like pasta. I calculated how seven hundred scholarships for twenty million people would equate to for India. That was the equivalent of thirty-five thousad sports scholarships a year for India to match the ratio.
'What's the scholarship? Money?' Ish wanted to know.
'Not just money, mate. It is full on. Expert coaching accommodation, travel to tournaments, sports science, medicine -you name it. And the best part is to be part of that communit where everyone has a singular commitment to their sport. I can't describe that feeling,' Fred said, as his eyes lit up.
'I know the feeling,' Ish said. Even though Ish's eyes aren't blue. they shone as bright.
The waiters cleared our plates as we finished our food.
'Any famous players from this scholarship programme?'
'Heaps. Michael Bevan, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Andrew Symonds, Shane Warne...'
'What are you talking about? These are all cricketing legends Ish said.
'Legends - that's a good word,' Fred laughed. 'Hope I get there someday.'
'You have a scholarship, too?' I said. Fred nodded.
'You are already a legend, Fred,' Ish said. 'Nah, I'm starting out. And let me tell you boys, the whole legend bit is far-fetched. You take a bit of talent and mould it properly, and good stuff happens. In that sense, Australia can create legends.'
'And we can't,' Ish asked.
'Well you could, though right now you rely on talent more than training. You have a big population, a tiny number of them are born excellent. Like Tendulkar, or maybe like Ali.'
'Yeah, but,' Ish boxed his left palm with his right, 'imagine what would happen if we could have this kind of training in India.'
'Cricket would be finished. India would dominate and teams like us would be nowhere. At least for now we can call ourselves "legend".' Fred hooked his fingers around the last word.
Ali did bat the following days. Every bowler went through the shock of being slammed for sixes. However, Ali kept the showbiz low and played a steady game. He crossed fifty runs in a couple of innings. On Friday morning Ali hit the ball for a defensive shot. The ball didn't go far. Ali decided to stay at the crease.
'Run, it is a single,' Ish urged from the boundary line.
'Run Ali,' Ish said again. Ali looked surprised at the instruction hut ran.
'Faster,' Ish screamed, 'don't sleep.'
Ali ran faster as the fielder returned the ball to the bowler.
'Jump,' Ish said. Ali dived. He made the crease but fell with his full body weight coming down on his left ankle. As everyone rushed towards him, he lay on the ground clenching his teeth and holding back tears.
'Oh, get up. No time for drama,' Ish said.
'Easy, mate,' Fred said to Ish and signalled for a physio. Within minutes, a paramedic arrived and placed an ice pack on Ali's swollen ankle.
'Lucky it is not a fracture or dislocation. Looks like a ligament got some wear, mate,' the physio said, applying painkillers and wrapping a crepe bandage. Ali leaned on the physio as he tried to hobble. 'Give the game a rest for two days. You'll be fine.'
'Don't worry, he'll play in a few hours,' Ish said with a sheepish expression. Guilt bubbled up his eyes.
'Everyone,' Fred clapped his hands, 'let's sit down.'
We sat down on the pitch around Fred in a circle.
'You are big boys and tough players. You want to give it your all. But I can't emphasise it enough - respect your body's limits
'I do,' Ish said, feeling compelled to speak, 'but there was a single there. And that is what we Indians miss. We don't want to dive. We don't want to take risks.'
'The game is not about being macho. You can't get caught up in the moment so much that you forget.'
'Forget what?' I said.
'Forget that you got one fragile body. Lose it, and you are gone, You must safeguard it. And Ish, you must protect your student.'
Ish hung his head low.
'I had just started my career when my nasty back almost finished it,' Fred said. 'I'd have been selling suits at a store for the rest of my life, as that is the only job I could get.'
He added, '1 made the same mistakes, wanting to kill myself for the game I played that day. But if you want a career, think long term. Yes, passion is important. But the head has to be clear during the match.'
Ish apologised to Fred later in the locker room. 'I'd never let Ali get hurt.'
'The kid is good. I have a little surprise for him. You leave Sunday evening, right?'
'Yes, in two days,' Ish said.'Can't believe the week went by so fast.'
'Sunday breakfast is on me. I want you guys to meet someone important.'
Bondi beach is so beautiful that it needs a coffee table book of its own. First, the sky. The Australian sky is a different colour from India. It actually looks the same as the sky blue colour in paint shops and is so crisp that your eyes hurt. There is no pollution. The sea is visible for miles. At the shore, the Pacific Ocean meets the powdery sand to create perfect waves. They are strong enough to surf on, yet soft enough to make you relax.
But that summer, the nicest part about the beach was its people - those who were not men. That is, those who were women. Gorgeous and topless. And if you've never seen a topless woman in your life before, places like this did things to you.
'There must be a hundred women here," Ish whistled. And each one a knockout!'
It was true. It was like all the beautiful women in the world emailed each other and decided to meet at Bondi.
'You want an umbrella?' I said as we parked ourselves at a scenic spot. Six topless women played Frisbee there.
'Wow, you can actually see their ni ... wow,' Omi pointed out helpfully.
'There are a hundred women here. So we have two hundred breasts to look at,' I said and was teased for bringing maths everywhere.
Having grown up in a place where sleeveless blouses cause scandals, tops-off is what an MBA type would call a 'paradigm
'I could not play with them. I'd never look at the Frisbee Ish said.
'Check that blonde one, wow, she is massive,' I said. Oh well when in Disneyland, play.
'This is what heaven must look like. My eyes are tired from not blinking,' Omi said.
It is funny but the bare-breasts became routine in a few minutes. I guess you get used to good things fast. I'd much prefer to see one topless woman every day for hundred days, rather than a hundred at once. I sat down on the sand. Ish and Omi soon went for a swim in the sea and to see if wet and topless women looked even hotter wet. Yes, we are a sick bunch.
I noticed a brunette in an umbrella next to me. She wore a shirt on top of her bikini and had her back to me. Her long black hair fell over her thin back. She applied something in her half, probably oil or lotion or any such thing that girls feel is essential to their existence.
Something hurt inside me. I felt like someone pounded my chest. The brunette rubbed her hair exactly like Vidya. I saw Omi and Ish splashing in the water at a distance. They laughed as the pushed each other down.
Random thoughts circulated in my head, like oiled fingers in hair. Wouldn't it be nice if Vidya was here? Isn't this what she longed for most? Freedom above all else? Didn't she have the Bondi spirit, even though I'd have killed her if she walked around in a bikini. Wait a minute, I'd kill her or her brother Ish would kill her? Why should I care? But I did say I would kill her? And why am I thinking of her when there are so many beautiful topless women to distract me right now? And why do I think of her every night before I go to bed? And why does my mind not stop asking stupid questions?
If you began to miss a girl thousands of miles away even with naked breasts around you, something is seriously wrong. I opened my notebook that I carried
everywhere. I wanted to make a budget for the next three months. I found a long strand of hair. It didn't belong to Ish or Omi or me. Only one person that I knew had long hair. The notebook I had opened to forget her made me miss her even more.
Omi came running to me. Water dripped from him and fell on my legs. I closed my book.
'The water is amazing. C'mon inside,' he said, catching his breath.
'No, I have work. I have to make a call,' I said. 'Call who?'
'Suppliers,' I said without making eye contact. 'From here? Isn't it expensive?'
'Short call, need some coins,' I said as I collected the change.
'You are working on Bondi? Whatever, I am diving in again,' Omi said and ran back to the sea.
I collected my belongings and walked back to the beach shopping area. I found a public phone.
I dialed her number.
The phone rang twice. I disconnected it. I thought about leaving the booth. I re-inserted the coins and dialled again. 'Hello? Ishaan bhaiya?' Vidya said as she picked up the phone.
The phone gobbled two dollars worth of coins. I cut the phone again. Fuck, what the hell was I doing? I called again with fresh coins. She picked up instantly. 'Bhaiya, can you hear me?'
I did the cheesiest thing possible. I just breathed. I must have come across as a pervert, but I could not find anything better to say.
'Govind?' she said, her voice careful. Had she guessed my breath? What is with this kid? 'Hi,' I said. I could not contain myself any longer. 'Govind, wow. I saw the international number. So, tell me?' Of all the phrases ever said on the phone, I hate 'tell me' the most. Do I have to tell something just because I have called? 'Well, I...'
'How is Australia? Having fun? Tell me?'
I could kill her if she said tell me again. But maybe I should just tell her something, I thought.
'Yes, it is nice. You will like this place,' I said.
'Which place? Tell more no? Where are you now?'
'Bondi beach. It is beautiful. Such a perfect place,' I said. Of course, I gave stupid descriptions. But you try to call a girl you are not supposed to call for the first time.
To add to the nervousness, the phone consumed coins at a ferocious pace. I kept adding more change as the damn phone ate a dollar every thirty seconds.
'Wow. I have never seen a real beach in my life. How is it? Does the water never end? Can you keep looking until forever?'
'Yeah, and the sky is endless too.' Duh! Say something more than borrowing from her phrases.
'Where are Ish and Omi?'
'They are in the water. I am in a booth,' I said.
She asked the one question I did not want her to ask.
'So, how come you called?'
'Oh nothing. How is the preparation going? Integration is quite important you know.'
'You called about integration?'
'Well, and other...'
'Do you miss me?'
'Don't ask silly questions.'
'I miss you. A lot actually,' she said. Her voice became heavy. 'Ok, that's well, that's ... wow,' I said, champion of nonsensical, monosyllabic responses.
'Yeah, and not as a tutor. As a friend. As a very good friend.'
A 'very good friend' is a dangerous category with Indian girls. From here you can either make fast progress. Or, if you play it wrong, you go down to the lowest category invented by Indian women ever - rakhi brother. Rakhi brother really means 'you can talk to me, but don't even freaking think about anything else you
bore'. A little voice in my mind shouted at me, 'tell her you miss her stupid, or you'll be getting rakhis for the rest of your life.'
'I do. If you were here, Sydney would be more fun.'
'Wow, that's the nicest thing you ever said to me.'
I kept quiet. When you have said something nice, don't be in a hurry to speak again and ruin the good line.
'Can I get you anything from here?' I said.
'Tight budget, isn't it?' she said.
'Yeah, but a little something won't hurt...,' I said.
'I have an idea. Get me some sand from the beach you are on right now. That way I will have a piece of Sydney with me.'
Sand? Now that was a weird request. At least it was cheap. Free, rather.
'Really?' I said.
'Yeah, bring me a matchbox full of sand. And put some feelings in it if there is space,' she said.
The phone display blinked. It threatened me to feed it with more money or my first romantic conversation would be murdered. I had no coins left.
'Listen, I have to go now. No more change,' I said.
'Sure, come back soon. Someone's missing you.'
'Back in three days. I miss you too,' I said and cleared my throat. Wow, I could actually say what I felt after all.
'And I want to tell you something...,' she said.
Beep. Beep. Beep. A stupid Australian company called Telstra ruined my first romantic moment.
I walked back. I thought about the girl who only wanted sand. I also thought how much money telecom companies must make given a tiny call cost me as much as a meal.
I passed a trendy outdoor restaurant called Blue Orange Cafe. Australians give the word laid-back new meaning. People sit with a glass of beer for hours. Beautiful waitresses scampered around getting people burgers and toasted sandwiches.
I took a match box from the bar and emptied the sticks in a dustbin. I walked back to the shore until the surfy water touched my toes. I looked around and bent over. I stuffed some sand in the matchbox and put it in my pocket.
'Hey, what are you doing?' Omi said as he emerged from the waves like the world's ugliest mermaid.
'Nothing, what are you doing this side? The waves are better at the other end,' I said.
'I came to meet you. Can I borrow a few coins for a Coke. I feel thirsty.'
'Coins are finished. Have some cash left for today, but let's use it to eat lunch.' 'Finished?' Omi said.
'Yeah,' I said, irritated. I don't like it when people less sensible than me question me.
'Who did you call?' Omi said.
'Which one?'
'Fuck off Omi, let's go get lunch. Will you get dry first.' 'Vidya?'
I looked at him dumbstruck. What a random guess. And what the hell is his business anyway. 'What?' I said, surprised. 'Don't lie to me.'
'C'mon Omi why would I call Vidya?' 'I'm not that stupid.' 'You are,' I said.
We walked towards the restaurant with me three steps ahead of him.
'I've seen the way you guys look at each other,' he said as he tried to catch up with me.
'Get lost,' I said and walked faster. We came to Campbell Parade, a strip of bars and cafes near the beach.
'And I've noticed. You never talk about her since you started teaching her,' he said.
I went inside 'Hog's Breath Cafe'. After five days in this country the name didn't seem weird anymore.
We sat facing each other. I lifted the menu to cover my face and avoid conversation.
'You can hide if you want. But I know.'
I slid the menu down.
'It's nothing, ok maybe something. But nothing to worry about,' I said.
I hid behind the menu again.
'There is an unspoken rule among Indian men, and you broke
'What rule?' I said and slammed the menu on the table.
'You don't hit upon your best friend's sister. You just don't. It is against the protocol.'
'Protocol? What is this, the army? And I didn't hit on her. She hit upon me,' I said.
'But you let her hit upon you. You let her.' 'Well, it wasn't exactly like being hit. it didn't hurt. It felt good,' I said.
I played with the toothpicks on the table to avoid eye
'Fuck man, how far are you guys?'
'What? Hey Omi, go call Ish for lunch. We are here and he has no idea.'
'Yes, he really has no idea,' Omi said and left.
A noisy gang played on the pool table near us. I had five minutes until Ish came back. Thoughts came to me. Will Omi say something stupid to him? No, Omi was not that stupid.
Omi and Ish walked in laughing. Ok, all is good.
'Hog's Breath? Can you think of a worse name for a restaurant?' Ish said and laughed.
‘I can,’ Omi said.
'Don't say it. Anyway, where's the toilet? I have to go siphon the...,' Ish said.
'Over there,' I interrupted him and pointed to the corner. I had enough of Aussies for a lifetime.
'Are you intimate with her?' Omi continued. 'Did you say anything to him?' I said. 'You think I'm stupid?' 'Yeah.'
'I didn't. Now tell me, what stage are you in the relationship?' Omi said.
'Stage?' I said.
'Yes, there is a "we-just-look" stage, the most common stage in the old city. Then a "we-just-talk" stage. Then a "hold-hand" stage. Then a...'
'It's not like that. It's different between us.'
'Fuck, that's an advanced stage. When you think your relationship is different from any other in this world. Don't do anything stupid ok?'
Omi leaned forward to whisper.
'You know stupid. Ish will kill you, or her dad will. Or any man who is related to her will. Remember that guy in the car? Trust me, you don't want to be that boy, or that car.'
'Well, it's nothing really. Just good friends,' I said and looked towards the toilet.
'Just good friends should be a banned phrase. There is nothing more misleading. You are her teacher damn it. And how old is she? Seventeen?'
'Turns eighteen in a few months.'
'Oh great,' Omi said.
Ish came out of the toilet. He cracked a joke with the Aussie guys playing pool. I turned to Omi.
'I don't want to talk about it. Don't worry, I won't do anything stupid. She sucks at maths. I don't know why I agreed to teach her in the first place.'
'Then stop teaching her no?' Omi said.
'Can we get lunch, I really want to get lunch,' I said and flipped the menu.
'I am just saying...'
'Ish,' I screamed across the bar, 'What do you want? Garlic bread is the cheapest item on the menu.'
'Whatever, I trust you,' he screamed back as he continued to play pool with the Aussie guys.
His last phrase bobbed up and down in my head like the surfboards on Bondi beach.
These houses are huge,' I said as we drove past a rich neighbourhood called Double Bay.
Fred had picked us up for breakfast on Sunday, our last day. Ish, Omi and Ali sat at the back in Fred's Saab convertible while I rode in the front. Cool air blew through our hair as we drove past Sydney's early morning streets.
'But most people have modest places,' Fred said. 'In Australia, we don't brag about how much money we make or what car you drive. Heck, people don't even ask what job you do. Do you know what people ask the most?'
'What?' Ish said.
'What do you play, that's what they ask,' Fred said.
'I love Australia. I wish India approached sports with the same spirit.' Ish leaned forward.
'Here sports is a national obsession,' Fred said. 'What's the obsession in your country then?'
'There's a lot of people. And there's a lot of obsessions. That's the problem,' Ish said.
'But religion and politics are pretty big. And them together, even bigger,' I added.
I stay out of that stuff. Aussie politics are a joke anyway,' Fred said, killing the engine.
We parked in an area called Paramatta Park. Fred had brought us to Lachan's Restaurant in the Old Colonial House. We went inside the restaurant to find two men waiting for us.
'Good morning Mr Greener and Mr Cutler.' Fred introduced us to the two older men.
'And this is the talented boy?' Mr Greener patted All's back.
'Yep, as talented as the man above sends them,' Fred said as we settled at the table.
'These are the gentlemen who helped me get your tickets. Not| my ex-girlfriend,' Fred said and winked at us.
'What?' Ish said as we understood the purpose of Fred inviting us. It wasn't to just play for a week.
'Remember my phone calls from Goa? To these gentlemen,' Fred said.
'Mr Greener is the chairman of the Australian Sports Academy and Mr Cutler is head of the AIS scholarship programme.' Fred buttered some toast 'I told them about AIL How he is good, really good, and how with proper training he has the potential to go really far.'
I saw Ish s face tighten in anticipation. Were they going to sponsor Ali?
'If he is as good as Fred and his boys who played with you say you are,' Mr Greener said, 'we should do whatever we can to help'
"Thank you, thank you,' Ish said as Fred shushed him. Over-excitement was a constant problem with Ish. His sister as well, Maybe it was hereditary.
'You see,' Mr Cutler cleared his throat, 'the AIS selects from the nominations of the various state academies. I can get Ali selected, However, Ali doesn't live in any Australian state.'
'So?' Ish said.
'Under AIS rules, the scholarship holder must be an Australian resident, or at least a person in the process of becoming a resident'
'Can't we make an exception?' I said. Omi was too busy eating to talk. Omi and Ali had hardly spoken during the entire trip. The Aussie accent stumped them.
'Well, the only way we can do it is this,' Mr Cutler said and took out a file. He opened it and laid out some forms on the table.
'Or Cutler had to pull serious strings at the immigration department for this,' Mr Greener laughed in a friendly manner.
'Well, this is the Australian citizenship forms. As you may know, a lot of people in the world want it. But here, given the great talent, we are offering Ali an Australian citizenship.'
Ali and Omi stopped eating as they saw the forms on the table.
'He'll become Australian?' Omi said. 'He'll become a champion,' Fred said.
'His parents will have residency rights, too. And Ish, you can ... your friends here, too, can apply. We will assist you in every way. Chances are good,' Mr Cutler said.
'You love Australia.' Fred winked at Ish.
'Think about the child's future. From what I hear, his means are rather, er, limited," Mr Cutler said.
They meant poor. I nodded. Ali's life would transform. 'They have a point,' I told Ish, who still looked shell-shocked.
'Why don't you ask Ali first? It is his life and his decision,' Mr Greener said.
'Yes, no pressure,' Fred said, turning over both his palms. We explained the offer in simple terms to Ali while a waiter cleared our plates.
'So, Ah ... what do you want?' Ish said.
'If I make it to the team, who will I play for?' Ah said.
Australia,' Mr Cutler said.
'But I'm an Indian,' Ali said.
'But you can become an Australian as well. We are a multicultural society,' Mr Greener said. 'No,' Ali said.
'I am an Indian. I want to play for India. Not for anyone
'But son, we will give you the same respect as your own country, And some good coaching,' Mr Greener said.
'I have a good coach,' Ali said and looked at Ish. Ish beamed at his proudest moment ever.
'It will be tough to make it in your country. Your coach knows that,' Mr Cutler said.
Ali spoke slowly after a pause.
'It's ok if I don't become a player, but it's not ok if I am not an Indian,' Ali said. Maybe he never meant it to be profound, but that was his deepest statement yet.
'But,' Mr Cutler said. He leaned forward and put his hand on Ali's shoulder.
Ali slid next to Ish and hid against him.
The officials tried for another half an hour. They asked if we could speak to Ali's parents, but realised this wasn't going to work after all. I maintained the polite conversation.
'We are sorry. We do realise that this is a big, big honour,' I said, 'sorry Fred. What you have done for us is huge.'
'No worries mate. Your kid is good and he knows it. If you can make a billion people proud, why bother with us down under?' Fred said and laughed. He didn't show if he was upset. Sportsman spirit, I guess.
We saw the officials off to their car.
'Never mind mate. Maybe next time, next life in this case. You could be Australian, who knows?' Mr Greener said as he slid into the driving seat of his silver Honda Accord.
'I don't want to,' Ali said, his face emerging from hiding behind Ish.
'I don't want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them,' Ali said.
A plane flew above us. I looked up in the sky. I was glad I was going home tonight.
Vidya. Vidya. Vidya - her name rang like an alarm in my head. I ran through tomato sellers and marble playing kids to reach her house on time.
I had tons of work. There were waiting suppliers, stuck stocks and unattended orders. However, Vidya's thoughts dominated them all. A part of me, the logical part, told me this was not a good idea. Businessmen should not waste time on stupid things like women. But the other irrational part of me loved it. And this part controlled me at the moment. Where is Vidya? I looked up at her window as 1 pressed the bell downstairs.
'Govind,' Vidya's dad opened the door. I froze. Why does every male in the family of the girl you care about instil a fear in your soul?
'Uncle, Vidya ... tuitions,' I said.
'She is upstairs, on the terrace,' he said as he let me in. He picked up a newspaper from the coffee table. Why do old people like newspapers so much? They love reading the news, but what do they do about it? I went to the internal staircase to go up to the terrace.
He spoke again as I climbed the steps. ‘How is she? Will she make it to the medical entrance?’
'She is a bright student,' I said in a small voice. ‘Not like her useless brother,’ uncle said. He buried himself into the newspaper, dismissing me.
I climbed up to the terrace. Vidya stood there with an air-hostess smile. 'Welcome to my al fresco tuition place.'
She went and sat on a white plastic chair with a table and an extra chair in front 'I had so many doubts,' she said, flipping through her notebook.
Smoke came out from under the table. 'Hey, what's this?' I said. 'Mosquito coil,' she said.
I bent under the table to see the green, smouldering spiral coil. I also saw her bare feet. She had her trademark pearl-white nail polish only on the toenail tips. 'The coil is not working,' I said as I came up, 'I see a mozzie party on top of your head.'
'It is what they call mosquitoes in Australia,' I said.
'Oh, foreign returned now. How was Australia?'
'Great,' I looked at her. I tried to be normal. I couldn't, not after that call. I had opened my cards already. No matter how close I held them to my chest now, she. had seen them.
I noticed her dress. She wore a new purple and white bandhini salwar kameez today. Her necklace had a purple teardrop pendant and matching earrings. She had freshly bathed. Her hair smelt of a little bit of Dettol soap and well, her. Every girl has a wonderful smell right after a bath. I think they should bottle it and sell it.
'You brought my gift,' she said to break the pause, or rather to fill up the silence as I checked her out.
'Yeah,' I said.
I stood up to take out the match box from my jeans pocket.
'Blue Orange Cafe, cool,' she said. She took the box and slid it open with her thin fingers.
'Wow, an Australian beach in my hands,' she said. She held it up with pride as if I had presented the queen's stolen diamonds.
'I feel silly. I should have brought something substantial,' I said.
'No, this is perfect. Look there is a tiny shell inside,' she signalled me to lean forward. Our heads met in a dull thud as we looked into the matchbox's contents.
Her toes touched mine as we inched closer.
'Ouch,' she said as she pulled her feet away.
'What?' I said.
'Nothing, the mosquito coil,' she said, 'I touched the hot tip.'
I sat back upright. Water droplets had passed from her hair to mine. Half the mosquitoes hovering over her head had shifted over to mine as well.
'Why am I so cheap?' I said.
'It’s fine. The call would have cost something.'
'Yeah, five dollars and sixty cents,' I said and regretted talking like an accountant the next second.
'There you go. Anyway, life's best gifts are free,' she said and pulled her hair back to tie them with a rubber band.
I nodded. Ok, enough is enough, my inner Mr Logical told me. Time to study.
I opened the books. She asked the dreaded question. 'So how come you called?'
'I told you,' I mumbled.
'Did you really miss me?' she said and put her palm on my hand.
I pulled it back in reflex. She looked surprised.
'I am sorry, Vidya. I shouldn't. I have my business to focus on and this is really not my thing, but...,' I said and turned away. I couldn't talk when I looked at her. Or rather, I couldn't talk when she looked at me.
'It's ok, you don't have to be sorry,' she said.
'It's not ok. I don't have time for emotions,' I said in a firm voice, 'and this is not the place anyway. My best friend's sister? What the fuck ... oops, sorry.'
She giggled.
'Be serious, Vidya. This is not right. I am your teacher, your brother trusts me as a friend, I have responsibilities - loans, business and a mother. You are not even eighteen.'
'Two months,' she wiggled two fingers. 'Two months and I will turn eighteen. Time to bring me another nice gift. Anyway, please continue.'
'Well, whatever. The point is, significant reasons exist for me not to indulge in illogical emotions. And I want...'
She stood up and came to my side. She sat on the flimsy armrest of my plastic chair.
She put her finger on my mouth. She cupped my face in her palms.
'You don't shave that often eh? Ew,' she said. She threw a tiny spit ball in the air.
'What?' I said and looked at her.
'I think a mosquito kissed me,' she said and spit again, 'is it still there in my mouth?'
She opened her mouth and brought it close. Her lips were eight millimetres apart from mine.
Soon the gap reduced to zero. I don't know if I came towards her or she came towards me. The tiny distance made it difficult to ascertain who took the
initiative. I felt something warm on my lips and realised that we have come too dose, or maybe too far.
We kissed again. The mosquitoes on our respective heads re-joined.
I'd love to say I saw stars and heard sweet, music during my first kiss. But the dominating background sounds were (a) Vidya's mom's pressure cooker whistle from downstairs in the kitchen, (b) the campaign sounds from the autos of various parties for the upcoming elections and (c) the constant buzz of the mozzies. But when you are in the middle of a kiss, sound and sight get muted I checked once to see if the other terraces were empty. Then I closed my eyes.
'Vidya, what are we doing,' I said, not letting her go. I couldn't stop. Probability, algebra, trigonometry and calculus - the passion held back in all those classes came blazing out.
'It's fine, it's fine,' she kept reassuring me and kissing me.
We broke away from each other because even passionate people need oxygen. She looked at me with a big grin.
I packed my pens and books. No maths tonight.
'Why aren't you making eye contact?' She remarked, mischief in her voice.
I kept silent.
'You are older than me and a hundred times better than me in maths. But, in some ways, I am way more mature than you.' 'Oh, yeah?' I challenged weakly, collecting the textbooks. She pulled my chin up.
'I am turning eighteen. I can do whatever I want,' she said. The loudspeaker of a campaign auto continued in the background. 'I can vote in that election,' she continued, 'I can have a bank account, I can marry, I can...'
'Study. You can also try to get into a good college,' I interrupted
She laughed. We stood up and walked over to the watertank on the terrace. We leaned against the tank and saw the sunset. We talked about everything other than maths. I told her about the academy, the dinner with Fred, the blue Australian sky and the loamy water on Bondi beach.
She listened in excitement. She said she wished she could have a home on the beach and how she would colour the walls inside pink and yellow. It is amazing how specific girls can get about hypothetical scenarios. 'Want coffee?' she said.
'You'll have to go down?' I said as I held her hand on instinct. A voice in me still protested, but now that voice had no volume.
'No, I have a secret stash under the water tank. Come,' she said and pulled at my hand.
The five feet cubical cement water tank was raised from the ground on reinforced concrete pillars. Between the tank and the ground, there was a gap of four feet We could sit on the ground under the tank.
'This is my favourite place since I was a kid,' she said. I bent on my knees and' slid inside, following her. She pulled out a picnic basket. It had a thermos flask, red plastic cups and Marie biscuits.
'Welcome to Vidya's rooftop cafe" sir,' she said and passed me a cup.
I looked at her. She is too beautiful to study maths. Maths is for losers like me.
I took a sip. My lips still felt the sensation of her lips. I rested on my elbow but the concrete surface hurt.
'I'll get cushions next time,' she said. 'It's fine,' I said.
We finished our coffee and came out. We switched on the terrace bulb. I flipped through the textbook to forget the kisses and coffee. The symbols of integration looked dull for the first time in my life. At one level, maths does suck.
'Thanks,' I said.
'For what?' she said.
'For the coffee and the ... you know.'
She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. 'Thanks for the gift, the gift of true close friendship.'
True-close-friendship, another hyphenated tag. It meant progress.
I came down the steps passed through the living room on the way out.
'What a good, responsible boy. Ish hasn't learnt anything from him,' Vidya's father was saying to his wife as I shut the door behind.
I could have done my accounts much faster if I didn't have the parallel SMS conversation. My phone beeped a fifth time.
'Who the hell are you SMSing?' Omi asked from the counter.
It was six in the evening, almost time to shut the shop. Ish had gone to one of the KVs and Omi had to leave soon for the evening aarti. Two dozen invoices, notebooks, pens and a calculator surrounded me.
'Nothing, I am bargaining with a supplier,' I said. I turned the phone to silent mode.
'Call him,' Omi said.
'I'll look desperate. I'd rather he calls first.'
'Do the accounts first, Govind. So many unpaid orders, it is a complete mess,' Omi said, popping a candy from the jar into his mouth. I let it pass. Anything to get his mind off the SMSs.
My phone flashed again.
itz my bday.
i celebr8 my way.
u'll get cake or not??
I had saved Vidya's number as 'Supplier Vidyanath' in my phone, in case anyone picked it up. Also, I deleted her messages as soon as I read them.
'I hope you are staying away from Ish's sister?' Omi said. My hands froze as I manipulated the messages. I told myself, It is a coincidence. Omi doesn't know who I am messaging to. Be cool.
I replied to the SMS.
Ok, u win. will get a small 1
now let me work, you study 2 ?
I kept the phone aside. Smiley faces had entered my life.
'I teach her, Omi. Just a few months for her entrance exams,' I said. I dug myself deep into the paperwork.
'Does she...,' Omi began.
'Can I do the accounts or should we gossip about my students?' I glared at Omi.
Mama came running to our shop. 'Switch on the TV fast.'
'Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center Twin Towers located in New York,' the BBC news channel reader said. The live visual was incredible even by sci-fi movie standards. The hundred-storey tall twin towers had deep incisions in the middle, like someone had cut through loaves of bread.
'Two planes in a row suggest a planned .terrorist attack,' a military intelligence expert said on the TV. 'The world will never be the same again,' the Israeli prime minister said.
We half-closed the shutters. Everyone in the temple gathered around TV sets where the towers crumbled down again and again in replay. Smoke, soot and concrete dust filled the streets of New York. Reports said thousands may be dead.
'What the...,' Ish said as he returned to the shop.
'Muslim terrorists, I guarantee you,' Mama said as his phone rang. He saw the number and stood in attention.
'Parekh-ji?' Mama said, his voice subservient.
I couldn't hear Parekh-ji's words.
'I am watching it,' Mama said,'They are turning into a menace Yes, yes sir we are ready for the elections Parekh-ji, yes,' Mama said, wiping sweat off his chest, 'Belrampur is not a problem ... yes, other neighbourhoods need work but you know Hasmukh-ji. He doesn't spend as much time...'
Bittoo Mama stepped away from us. Parekh-ji gave him tips on the elections next week.
Later at night, pictures of the first suspects were released. Four Muslim boys had joined a flying school a few months back. They had hijacked the plane using office box cutter knives and caused one of the most spectacular man-made disasters of the world. A stick-thin old man called Bin Laden released an amateur video, claiming it was all his big idea.
'What's up?' Omi asked Mama as he ended his call.
'Hasmukh-ji takes everything for granted. He doesn't pound the streets of his constituency.'
'Parekh-ji is not happy?' Omi said.
'He is fine with me. He isn't too worried. The bye-election is only for two seats in Gujarat The real elections are next year.'
'Mama, so next year,' Omi said and patted Mama's back, 'we will have an MLA in the family.'
The temple bells rang to signify time for the final aarti. Omi and Mama stood up to leave.
'I have to show Parekh-ji I deserve it. Winning this seat will help,' Mama said.
'You need any more help?' Omi asked. 'You already did so much,' Mama said and kissed Omi, 'but we must put extra effort next week. Parekh-ji said these attacks could work in our favour, Let's tell everyone at the puja.' They left the shop and went inside the temple.
'Your phone flashed. Is it on silent?' Ish said. He collected all the invoices scattered on the ground. We were closing the shop for the night.
'Oh, must be by mistake,' I said and picked it up, 'a supplier is sending me messages'.
I opened supplier Vidyanath's message.
when I study, I think kisses
u and only u, v misses
I put the phone in my pocket
'What? Trying to sell you something?' Ish said.
'Yes, wooing me, hard,' I said as I locked the cashbox.
I knew it, that old man wouldn't listen,' Mama said.
His mood alternated between anger and tears. It was hard for a tough, grown-up man like him to cry. However, it was even harder to work for months and lose an election. We stood outside the counting booths. Electoral officers were still tallying the last few votes, though the secular party had already started rolling drumbeats outside.
'Look at the Belrampur votes,' Mama pointed to the ballot boxes. 'Clean sweep for the Hindu party. That's my area. The two other neighbourhoods given to me, we won majority votes there, too.'
His group of a dozen twenty-something supporters held their heads down.
'And look what happened in the other neighbourhoods. That Muslim professor has nothing to do all day. He even met the old ladies. But Hasmukh-ji? Huh, chip on shoulder about being upper caste. Cannot walk the lanes and feels he can win elections by waving from the car. And look, he ran away two hours into the counting.'
Mama wiped his face with his hands and continued. 'Am I not from a priest's family? Did 1 not go to the sewer-infested lanes of the Muslim pols? Aren't there Hindu voters there? Why didn't he go?'
The secular party workers jeered at Mama's team. Tempers rose as a few of Mama's team members heckled the drum player.
'It's going to get ugly,' I told Omi in his ear, 'let's get out of here.'
'I can't go. Mama needs me,' Omi said.
A white Mercedes drove up in-front of the vote-counting station. A jeep of bodyguards came alongside. The guards surrounded the area as the Mercedes' door opened. Parekh-ji stepped outside.
Mama ran to Parekh-ji. He lay down on the ground and 'I am your guilty man. Punish me,' Mama said, his voice heavy.
Parekh-ji placed both his hands on Mama's head. 'Get up, Bittoo.'
'No, no. I want to die here. I let the greatest man down,' Mama continued to bawl.
Parekh-ji gave the youngsters a firm glance. Everyone backed off. Parekh-ji lifted Mama up by the shoulders, 'Come, let's go for dinner to Vishala. We need to talk.'
Mama walked towards Parekh-ji's ear, his head still down.
'Come son,' Parekh-ji said to Omi. Ish and I looked at each other. Maybe it was time for Ish and me to vanish.
'Can Ish and Govind come along? They came to Gandhinagar,' Omi said. I guess he wanted us to have a treat at Vishala, normally unaffordable for us.
Parekh-ji looked at us and tried to place us. I don't know if he could.
'Hop into the jeep,' he said.
The Vishala Village Restaurant and Utensils Museum is located at the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in the village of Sarkhej. Along with a craft museum and village courtyards, there is an ethnic restaurant that serves authentic Gujarati cuisine.
We took a semi-private room with seating on the clay floor. Parekh-ji's security staff sat outside, near the puppet show for kids. Their guns made the guest's importance known to the waiters and insured us good service. Within minutes, we had two dozen dishes in front of us.
'Eat, and don't get so sentimental about politics. Emotional speeches are fine, but in your mind always think straight,' Parekh-ji lectured Mama.
We gorged on the dhokla, khandvi, ghugra, gota, dalwada and several other Gujarati snacks. I felt full even before the main course arrived.
'Now, listen, Parekh-ji said as he finished his glass of mint chaas, 'things are not as they seem. Hasmukh-ji's defeat has a back story. We expected it.'
'What?' Mama said while Omi, Ish and I made valiant inroads into the food.
'Hasmukh-ji's seniority in the party earned him a ticket. But he is part of the old school. The same school as the current chief minister. Our high command in Delhi is not happy with them.'
'They are not?' Mama echoed stupidly.
'No. We might be a Hindu party, but it doesn't mean we preach religion all day and do no work. Gujarat is a place of business, it is not a lazy place. The high command did not like the way the administration handled the earthquake. People lost a lot in that, I know you boys did too,' he turned to us.
We nodded. The mention of the earthquake still hurt.
'The by-elections for these seats came as a boon. The old school put their candidate. We knew they were weak. Of count, hardworking people like Bittoo tried their best But, a dud candidate is a dud candidate. So we lost both the seats. With the main election in twelve months, the entire party machinery is shaken up. And the high command finally gets a chance to make a change.'
'What change?' Mama said.
"They are replacing the chief minister.'
'What? For losing two seats?' Mama said, 'the total number of seats is...'
'A hundred and eighty plus,' Parekh-ji said as he broke his bajra rati, 'but like I said, it gave a reason to change. And Gujarat is vital to our party. We can't afford to lose it.'
We gorged on the dhokla, khandvi, ghugra, gota, dalwada and several other Gujarati snacks. I felt full even before the main course arrived.
'Now, listen,1 Parekh-ji said as he finished his glass of mint chaas, 'things are not as they seem. Hasmukh-ji's defeat has a back story. We expected it.'
'What?' Mama said while Omi, Ish and I made valiant inroads into the food.
'Hasmukh-ji's seniority in the party earned him a ticket. But he is part of the old school. The same school as the current chief minister. Our high command in Delhi is not happy with them.'
'They are not?' Mama echoed stupidly.
'No. We might be a Hindu party, but it doesn't mean we preach religion all day and do no work. Gujarat is a place of business, it is not a lazy place. The high command did not like the way the administration handled the earthquake. People lost a lot in that, I know you boys did too,' he turned to us.
We nodded. The mention of the earthquake still hurt.
'The by-elections for these seats came as a boon. The old school put their candidate. We knew they were weak. Of count, hardworking people like Bittoo tried their best But, a dud candidate is a dud candidate. So we lost both the
seats. With the main election in twelve months, the entire party machinery is shaken up. And the high command finally gets a chance to make a change.'
'What change?' Mama said.
"They are replacing the chief minister.'
'What? For losing two seats?' Mama said, 'the total number of seats is...'
'A hundred and eighty plus,' Parekh-ji said as he broke his bajra rati, 'but like I said, it gave a reason to change. And Gujarat is vital to our party. We can't afford to lose it.'
'No dessert here or what?' Parekh-ji said as there was a delay after the main courses were cleared.
'Who will get the aamras for the sahib?' Mama screamed at the waiters.
Where's your smallest chocolate cake?' I was at Navrangpura's Ten, the best cake shop in Ahmedabad. Vidya turned eighteen on 19 November 2001. She could now officially make her own decisions. Unofficially, she had done that since birth.
'No bag please,' I said as I kept the cake box in my rucksack of books. I kept the rucksack upright in my lap until I made it to Vidya's place.
Entering Vidya's house while hiding a cake was hard enough. Ish being in the house made it worse. India was playing England It Kolkata Eden Gardens in a day-night match. Ish had plonked himself in front of the sofa with sandwiches, milk, chips and biscuits - everything that he needed to survive for the next eight hours. Ish's dad sat on the dining table, continuing his PhD on the newspapers of India. As was often the case when Ish was around, uncle had a disgusted expression on his face.
I snuck the rucksack between my arm and side body to keep it horizontal.
'India's batting - Ganguly and Tendulkar. Seventy no loss after ten overs,' Ish said and screamed, 'Mom, sauce!'
Uncle picked up the ketchup bottle from the dining table and banged it as hard as possible on the coffee table in front of his son.
'Thanks dad,' Ish said. 'Can you move. Can't see the TV.'
Ish's dad gave his son a dirty look and moved.
'Sit no,' Ish said to me.
'Tuitions,' I said, pointing to Vidya's room.
'Oh, you've come for that. She's studying on her birthday, dedication dude.'
'Some people are serious about their lives...,' Ish's dad ranted while still reading his paper.
Ish pressed the volume button on the TV remote as loud as possible in protest.
'His mother has made him into a monster,' Ish's dad said and left for his bedroom. Tendulkar struck a four and the monster clapped.
'Don't worry, dad's fine,' Ish said as he saw my nervous expression. 'Hey, wish her and all. She'll like it. I forgot this morning.'
Ish grabbed a sandwich and topped it with lots of chips and ketchup. He took a big bite. My friend had found bliss. I had to find mine.
I climbed the stairs, my heart beating fast. 'Happy birthday, Miss Eighteen,' I greeted as I shut the terrace door.
She wore a shiny red kurti and white pants. The choice of clothes was a bit over the top but it was ok on a birthday I guess.
'Did you know eighteen is the only number that is twice the sum of its digits?' she said.
I took out the cake and placed it on the white plastic table.
'A cake from Ten! Someone is going high-class,' she teased.
'You like chocolate. They have the best.' I opened the box. She stood up from her chair and came next to me to see the cake.
'You've changed since we have had this thing.'
'What thing?' I peeped into her big eyes.
'This thing,' she said and came forward to kiss me. We kissed during almost every class since the last month, so it wasn't a big deal. Sometimes we kissed
everytime she solved a problem. At other times, we took a kissing break every fifteen minutes. Once, we didn't kiss at all as she did a mock test. However, we made up for it in the next class where we spent the first ten minutes kissing and the rest discussing her mistakes. When we felt desire, we kissed. When we felt guilty, we studied. Somehow, we balanced mathematics and romance within the hour quite well.
We went to the edge of the terrace. The last bit of sunlight disappeared as the sky turned dark orange. The evening breeze held a chill. At a distance, we saw the dome of Omi's temple.
She entwined her hands with mine and looked at me. 'You tell me,' she said as she removed a strand of hair from her face, 'should I become a doctor?'
I shook my head.
'Then how do I get out?'
'Apply to whichever college and just go,' I said.
'How?' she said as she tugged my hand. 'How will I even get the application fee to apply? How will I support myself in Mumbai?'
'Your parents will eventually come around. They will pay for your studies. Until then...'
A loud roar went through the pol and startled us. India had hit a six.
'Until then what?' she said after the noise subsided.
'Until then I will support you,' I said. We looked into each other's eyes. She smiled. We took a walk around the perimeter of the terrace.
'So my tutor doesn't believe I need to figure out maths problems?'
'Figuring out the maths of life is more important,' I said. 'What's that?'
'Who you are, what do you want versus what people expect of you. And how to keep what you want without pissing off people too much. Life is an optimisation problem, with tons of variables and constraints.'
'Is it possible to run away and not piss off my parents?'
'You can minimise the pissed-off state, but can't make it zero. We can only optimise life, never solve it,' I said as we came to a corner.
'Can I tell you something weird?' 'What?'
'When you talk hardcore maths, like these terms that totally go over my head,' she said, her hand in take-off motion above her head.
'It turns me on.'
'Vidya, your boldness...,' I said, shocked. 'Makes you blush, right?' she said and laughed. 'So we are cutting this cake or what?' I said to change the topic.
'Of course, follow me to Café Vidya,' she said.
We slid under the water tank and sat on the floor. She had brought six pink cushions and a rug. 'I brought them from my room, so we can have a little party here,' she said and passed a couple to me. Under the cushions, she had a stereo.
'Music?' she said, her face pretty as a song. I nodded.
'I'll put on Boyzone, my favourite,' she said. I took out the packet of eighteen candles that came with the cake.
'Let's light all of them,' she said.
I wanted to go switch on the terrace light as it had become dark.
'Let it be,' she said and pulled my hand as she lit the eighteenth candle.
'What if someone comes?'
'Both my parents have bad knees. They never climb up to the terrace. And Ish, well there is a match on.'
We heard two consecutive roars in the pol. The Indian innings had reached the slog overs.
She released my hand as I sat down again. She looked beautiful as the candlelight flickered on her face. A song called 'No matter what' started to play. Like with all romantic songs, the lyrics seemed tailor-made for us.
No matter what they tell us
No matter what they do
No matter what they teach us
What we believe is true
The candle flames appeared to move to the rhythm of the music. She cut the cake with the plastic knife that came in the box. I wished her again and put a piece of cake in her mouth. She held it in her mouth and leaned towards me. She pushed me back on the cushions and brought her mouth close to mine for my share of the cake.
She kissed me like she never had before. It wasn't like she did anything different, but there seemed to be more feeling behind it. Her hands came to my shoulders and under my shirt.
The music continued.
I can't deny what I believe
I can't be what I'm not
I know this love's forever
That's all that matters now
I don't know if it was the candlelight or the birthday mood or the cushions or what. But it was then that I made the second mistake of my life.
I opened the top button of her kurti and slid my fingers inside. A voice inside stopped me, I took my hand out. But she continued to kiss me as she unbuttoned the rest of her top. She pulled my fingers towards her again.
'Vidya...' By this time my hand was in places impossible to withdraw from for any guy. So, I went with the flow, feelings, desire, nature or whatever else people called the stuff that evaporated human rationality.
She took off her kurti. 'Remove your hand, they won't run away.'
'Huh?' I said.
'How else do I remove this?' she said, pointing to her bra. I moved my hands to her stomach as she took the bra off and lay on top of me.
'Take it off,' she said, tugging at my shirt. At this point, I could have jumped off the terrace if she asked me to. I followed her instruction instantly.
The music didn't stop, and neither did we. We went further and further as the tiny cake candles burned out one by one. Sweat beads glistened on our bodies. Vidya didn't say anything throughout, apart from one time in the middle.
'Are you going to go down on me?' she said, after she had done the same to me.
I went down, and came back up. We looked into each other's eyes as we became one. The screams from the pols continued as England lost wickets.
Only four candles remained burning by the time we finished. We combined the six cushions to make one mattress and lay on it. Only after we were done did we realise how cold and chilly it really was. We covered ourselves in my jacket and dug our cold feet inside the lower cushions.
'Wow, I am an adult and am no longer a virgin, so cool. Thank God,' she said and giggled. She cuddled next to me. A sense of reality struck as the passion subsided. What have you done Mr Govind Patel?
'See, I still have goosebumps,' she said and lifted her arm. Little pink bumps dotted her flawless, fair skin.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, Govind, what are you doing right now? Touching her goosebumps? The voice in me grew stronger.
I am so glad this happened. Aren't you?' she said.
I kept quiet.
'Say something.'
'I should get going.'
'Don't you like it here?'
'Here? You realise we are on top of your dad and mom and brother?'
'Stop freaking out,' she said.
'I am sorry. I am nervous,' I said.
'Don't be,' she said and hugged me. She felt my body shake. 'You ok?'
I didn't know why, but I had tears in my eyes. Maybe I felt scared. Maybe because no one had held me like that ever and asked if I was ok. Maybe because I never knew it would be possible for me to feel like this. Maybe because I had betrayed my best friend. I normally never cried, but with so many reasons at the same time, it was impossible not to.
'Hey, I'm the girl. Let me do this part,' she said. I looked into her moist eyes.
I sat up and dressed. We came outside as the moon lit up the terrace. I checked my watch. I had overshot the class time by thirty minutes.
'I love you,' she said from behind as I opened the terrace door.
'Happy birthday,' I said and left.
'Hey, you missed the best part. We will win this. Stay on,' Ish said as I reached downstairs.
'No, I'm quite tired. I'll watch it at home,' I said as I reached the main door.
'Eat dinner, son,' Ish's mother said as she set the table. 'I've made special dishes for Vidya's birthday.
'No aunty, my mummy has cooked at home as well,' I said. I had already celebrated her daughter's birthday.
'Such a good boy,' she said fondly as I left the house.
Hold it tight, it is shaking,' Omi said. He stood on his toes on a stool to reach the ceiling. We wanted to drop the tricolour ribbons from the ceiling fan. I held the legs of the stool, Ish stood next to us with glue and cellotape.
'I'll fall,' Omi warned, dangling his right foot off the stool.
'It's not my fault. The stool has creaky legs,' I said.
I never wanted to celebrate Republic Day, which came in a week. However, we did want to celebrate our resurrection after the earthquake a year ago. Though thoughts about that day still made me tremble, I was relieved to have fully paid off our loans. Our business had tripled from a year ago and it all happened from this shop.
'January 26 preparations? Keep it up,' Mama's entry distracted us all. Omi toppled from the stool and landed on the floor. The ribbons fell on his head.
'You let go!' he accused me as everyone laughed.
Mama placed a brown bag of samosas and some yellow pamphlets on the table. We grabbed a samosa each.
'What exactly are you counting?' I asked idly. 'The number of times we have made love,' she replied. 'Wow, our score is eight already.' 'You keep track?' I said. 'I keep track of a lot of things.' 'Like what?'
'Like today is 21 Feb, only five days to my period. Hence, it is a safe day.'
'It's safe anyway. I used a condom,' I said as I shifted my cushion for comfort.
'Oh? So now you trust physics over mathematics?' she said and giggled. She flipped over to rest on her elbows and poked her toes into my shins.
'Are you still embarrassed to buy condoms?'
'I get them from an unknown chemist in Satellite. And I have enough now for a while.'
'Oh really,' she climbed over me. 'So no problem in using a couple more then?'
With that, our score reached nine.
'Goodnight aunty,' I said to Vidya's mom. I always hated that part, the point when aunty offered me something to eat or asked me why I worked so hard.
I walked back home with my thoughts. Nine times in two months. We made love on an average of once a week. Nine times meant I had lost all benefit of doubt. I couldn't say that I had made love to her by accident, in an impulsive moment. You don't do things by accident nine times. Though sometimes, another kind
of accident can happen. And I found out exactly five days later.
'There is something you should know,' she said.
We had come to the Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association's (ATIRA) campus lawns. She had SMSed me that we needed to go for an 'urgent walk', whatever that meant. We had said at home that we had to go and buy a really good maths guide. No one questioned us after that. The ATIRA lawns in Vastrapur swell with strollers in the evening. Several couples held hands. I wanted to but did not. We fixed our gaze on the ground and did a slow walk. Fat aunties wearing sarees and sneakers and with a firm resolve to lose weight overtook us.
'What's up?' I said and bought a packet of groundnuts.
'Something is late,' she said.
I tried to think of what she was referring to. I couldn't.
'What?' I said.
'My period,' she said.
Men cannot respond when the P-word is being talked about. For the most part, it freaks them out.
'Really? How?' I said, struggling for words.
'What do you mean how? It should have happened yesterday, the 25th, but hasn't.'
'Are you sure?'
'Excuse me? I wouldn't know if it has happened?' she said and stopped to look at me.
'No, I meant are you sure it was due on 25th Feb?' 'I am not that bad at maths.'
'Ok but...,' I said. I had created the problem. I had nothing of value to offer in the discussion. I offered her groundnuts. She declined.
'But what?' she said.
'But we used protection. And how does it work with girls? Are they always on time?' I asked. Nothing in the world was always exactly on time.
'Mine are. Normally I don't care. But now that I am with you, even a slight delay scares me. And the anxiety creates more delay'
'Do you want to see a doctor?' I was desperate to suggest a solution.
'And say what? Please check if I am pregnant?'
Another P-word to freak men out. No, she did not say that 'You can't be pregnant?' I said.
Sweat erupted on my forehead like I had jogged thrice around the ATIRA lawns. I rubbed my hands and took deep breaths.
'Why not?' she retorted, her face tense. 'And can you be supportive and not hyperventilate.'
'Let's sit down,' I said and pointed to a bench. I threw the packet of groundnuts in the dustbin. She sat next to me. I debated whether I should put my arm around her. My being close to he had caused this anyway. She kept quiet. Two tears came rolling out of her eyes. God, I had to figure out something. My mind processed the alternatives at lightning speed, (a) Make her laugh - bad idea,{b) Step away and let her be - no, (c) Suggest potential solutions like the A word - hell no, (d) Hold her - maybe, ok hold her, hold her and tell her you will be there for her. Do it, moron.
I slid closer to her on the bench and embraced her. She hid her face on my shoulder and cried. Her hands clutched my shirt
'Don't worry, I will be there for you,' I said.
'Why, why is it so unfair? Why do only I have to deal with this?' she cried, 'why can't you get pregnant at the same time?'
Because I am biologically male, I wanted to say. But I think she knew that.
'Listen Vidya, we used the rhythm method, we used protection I know it is not hundred per cent but the probability is so low...'
Vidya just shook her head and cried. Maths is always horrible at reassuring people. Nobody believed in probability in emotional moments.
A family walked by. The man carried a fat boy on his shoulders. I found it symbolic of the potential burden in my life. The thought train started again. I am twenty-two years old. I have big dreams for my business. I have my mother to
support. Come to think of it, I have to take care of my friends' careers too. And Vidya? She is only eighteen. She has to study more, be a PR person or whatever she wants to be. She couldn't move from one prison to the next. Ok, worst case I have to mention the A-word.
She slid away from me. The crying had made her eyes wet and face pink. She looked even more beautiful. Why can't men stop noticing beauty, ever? We stood up to walk back after a few minutes.
'Let's wait for a day or two more. We'll see what we have to do then,' I said as we reached the auto stand.
'It's probably a false alarm. I'm overreacting. I should have waited for a day or two longer before telling you,' she said. She clasped my fingers in the auto. Her face vacillated from calm to worried.
We kept quiet in the auto for five minutes. Then I had to say it. 'Vidya, in case, just in case it is not a false alarm. What are we going to do? Or should we talk about it later?'
'You tell me, what do you want to do?'
When women ask you for your choice, they already have a choice in mind. And if you want to maintain sanity, you'd better choose the same.
I looked into her eyes to find out the answer she expected from me. I couldn't find it.
'I don't know. This is too big a news for me. I can't say what we will do. Pregnancy, abortion, I don't know how all this works.'
'You want me to get an abortion?'
'No, no. I said I don't know. What's the other option, marriage?'
'Excuse me, I am eighteen. I just passed out of school,' she said.
'Then what?'
'I don't know. I don't want to think. Please don't talk about it,' she said.
We kept quiet for the rest of the auto journey.
'Here, take this maths guide to show at home,' I said and passed her a book when she reached home.
Vidya and I exchanged ten 'are you asleep' and 'not yet' messages that night.

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(4)

'It's ok. I like the tag. Makes it clear that studies are first,
I nodded.
'How are you doing?'
I overcame my urge to turn to the wall. 'Life goes on. It has to. Maybe an air-conditioned mall is not for me.'
'Of course, it is. It isn't your fault. I am sure you will get 1 here one day. Think about this, aren't you lucky you weren't in the shop already when it happened? Imagine the lives lost if the mall was open?'
She had a point. I had to get over this. I had to re-accept liittoo Mama's smug face.
I returned her M.L. Khanna and kept the card under my pillow.
'Ish said you haven't come to the shop.'

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(3)

'That was a good shot,' Paresh said.
'Shut up. Hey Ali, I know you can do that. Learn the other aspects of the game.'
Ali froze, very near tears.
'Ok, listen. I am sorry. I did not mean to...,' Ish said. 'That is all I know. I can't do anything else,' Ali's voice cracked.
'We will teach you. Now why don't you bowl?'
Ali didn't bat anymore that day. Ish kept the practice simple for the next half an hour and tried not to scream. The latter was tough, especially because he was an animal when it came to cricket.
'Get your books from upstairs. We will study in the backyard,' I told a sweaty 'Ali.
He brought his books down and opened the first chapter of his maths book. It was on fractions and decimals.
Omi brought two polypacks of milk. 'Here,' he gave one to
'Thanks,' Ish said, and tore it open with his mouth.

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(2)

'Oh, you think Parekh-ji is some old, traditional man who will force you to read scriptures. Do you know where Parekh-ji went to college? Cambridge, and then Harvard. He had a big hotel business in America, which he sold and came back. He talks your language. Oh, and he used to play cricket too, for the Cambridge college team.'
'I will come if Govind comes,' said Ish the idiot.
Mama looked at me. In his eyes, I was the reason why Hindu culture had deteriorated lately.
'Well, I came to invite the three of you in the first place. He only said he doesn't believe in God.'
'I didn't say that,' I said. Oh, forget it, I thought.
'Then come.' Mama stood up. 'All three of you. I'll give Omi the address. It is the grandest house in Gandhinagar.'

Chetan Bhagat-The 3 Mistakes of My Life(1)

A Story about Business, Cricket and Religion
Chetan Bhagat
Rupa & Co
My readers, you that is, to whom I owe all my success and motivation. My life belongs to you now, and serving you is the most meaningful thing I can do with my life. I want to share something with you. I am very ambitious in my writing goals. However, I don't want to be India's most admired writer. I just want to be India's most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn