I showed Ananya the guest room. She kept quiet as she took out fresh clothes to take into the bathroom.
'Hey,' I'm sorry about my mother. She's all talk. Good at heart.'
'Even murderers are good at heart. I thought you had told her about my coming.'
'I wanted to give her a surprise,' I said.
My father had gone for a business meeting. Ever since he left the army, he had tried different ventures. These included a property dealership, a security agency and a freight forwarding agency. None of them worked. According to him, unscrupulous partners or corrupt officials had led to their failure. According to me, it was his short temper and inability to come out of his army officer mode. When you are used to a hundred people saluting you every day, it is difficult to suck up to uneducated builders to allow you to sell their house. However, my father kept jumping from one disaster to the next, which kept him out of the house most of the times. Some even said he had a mistress somewhere, though I doubt another woman could survive him.
Ananya hadn't left her room ever since she came. My mother went for her evening stroll at 6 p.m.
'What are you doing inside? Come out, mom's gone for a walk.'
She opened the door, her face still upset.
'Should we make love?' I winked at her.
'Don't test your luck, Mr Malhotra, I shall turn violent.' She pushed me aside and came to the living room. She switched on the TV.
'What's with this attitude, Ananya? You are supposed to win my folks over,' I said.
'You can win over normal people. Not rude, insensitive people who insult guests,' she said.
'So you will stay inside that room and sulk?' I switched the TV off.
'I don't know what to do,' she said.
'If you listen to me, you will be able to navigate her.'
'I am all ears,' she said dryly.
I opened the fridge and took out two Frootis. I gave her one.
'She is going to come back from her walk and prepare dinner. Offer to help her, it is a good start.'
'Help her?' She poked a straw into the Frooti with more force than necessary.
'You know, make a dish or two. Or if you want to bowl her over, make the dinner tonight.'
'What? Are you crazy, I've never made full dinner.'
'Really?' I slurped noisily at my drink.
'Don't "really" me. Did you ever learn to cook?'
'No, But I studied all the time.'
'I went to IIMA, too.'
'Yeah but,' I said and paused.
'Yeah but, what? I am a girl, so tough luck, baby. There's the kitchen,' she said and tossed the Frooti carton on the table.
'Ananya, I am suggesting ways to win over my mother. You said you will do whatever it takes.'
'Fine, can I have another Frooti? I am famished.'
I gave Ananya another tetrapack. The doorbell rang. Ananya stood up to go to her room.
'Stay,' I said as I opened the door.
My mother came back with two plastic bags full of vegetables. I helped her carry them into the kitchen. She opened the fridge to keep the vegetables inside.
'Who had the Frootis?' my mother said.
'I had one. And Ananya also.'
'Three Frootis are missing. She had two.' She said.
I kept quiet.
We came to the living room. My mother brought a giant cauliflower, a plate and a knife with her. She started cutting little florets with the knife, using her thumb as base.
'Aunty, can I help?' Ananya said.
'With?' my mother said.
'With dinner,' Ananya said.
'Yeah, mom, why don't you let Ananya make dinner today?' I suggested with a hearty smile.
Ananya glared at me. To help is one thing, to prepare a whole meal another. Still, if Ananya had to make an impression, she had to more than wash the vegetables.
My mother looked at Ananya.
'Sure, aunty, why not? It will be fun,' Ananya said.
Mom shrugged and passed the plate to Ananya. 'Krish likes gobi aloo.
'I thought we will also make black daal, bhindi, raita and salad. Nothing much, simple dinner.'
'Mom,' I said, to stop her from increasing the menu.
'The dry atta is in the drum below the gas stove. Knead some for the rotis,' my mother said. 'Yes, Krish?'
'Nothing. You want to cook together so it is faster?' I said.
'She can make it if she wants to. I am not that hungry. Let it take time,' my mother said and switched on the TV.
Ananya cradled the cauliflower in her lap like a newborn child. She couldn't cut it like a pro, with the knife and thumb action. She cut florets one at a time, using the knife like a saw.
My mother sniggered. I gave her a dirty look. 'I have a headache. I'll rest in my room. Call me when dinner is ready,' my mother said and left.
'Ananya, you want help?' I said.
'Leave me alone,' Ananya said, her gaze deep into the cauliflower.
'Use your thumb, like this,' I said and mocked the action with my hand.
Ananya tried. She cut herself. 'Ouch!' she screamed.
'Nothing,' she sniffed. 'Nothing go rest with your mother.'
'Is that blood?' I said. 'You are hurt!'
'It's OK. I said I will do what it takes. What's a little blood?'
'This cut is not my mother's fault,' I said.
'Shut up and get me a band-aid. And bring the bhindi from the fridge,' she said.
An hour later we had cut the gobi, bhindi, onions garlic, ginger, tomatoes, cucumber and green chillies required for the various dishes. Until you do it yourself, you don't realize the effort your mother puts into every meal.
We went to the kitchen. I took out the atta in a bowl.
'I have no clue how to knead this,' she said.
'It's OK, I've seen my mother do it. Let me try,' I said and poured water into the bowl.
'And you fry the onions in…this?' Ananya pulled out a kadhai from the utensil shelf.
'Yes, please,' I said and switched on the gas. I opened the box of spices. She didn't know how to use them.
'Remember the five constant spices in every Punjabi dish – salt turmeric, red chillies, coriander powder and garam masala,' I said.
Ananya cooked the vegetables while I worked the atta. I had to refill the atta twice due to too much stickiness. A pungent smoke rose in the kitchen. Both of us had a coughing fit.
'What did you do?' I said.
'I…don't…know.' Ananya coughed uncontrollably.
My mother came into the kitchen. 'What are you doing?' She ran to the stove and lowered the flame. 'Who cooks on such a high flame? See, the spices have burnt.'
Ananya backed off from the stove.
'And you? What are you doing here?' my mother said.
'I… I came because of the burning smell,' I said.
'And your hands fell into the atta?' she said, pointing to my dough-smeared palms and fingers.
I kept quiet.
'See, this is how she will use you after marriage. She can't even make rotis.'
Ananya exited the kitchen. I wanted to go after her, but with mom present, it didn't seem like a good idea. I threw up my atta-filled hands in despair.
'She is South Indian, mom, how can you expect her to…'
'You said she wants to make dinner. OK, tell her to make dosas if she wants. Can she make dosas?'
'Yeah, I am sure. But you need a grinder…'
Ananya came back into the kitchen. 'No, aunty, I can't make dosas,' Ananya said. 'And I can't make a roti either. In fact, I am terrible at cooking anything.'
'Apart from cooking schemes to trap my boy,' my mother said.
They exchanged battlefield looks. Ananya left the kitchen in disgust.
'Mom!' I said in frustration.
'What? What else is this?' my mother said. 'You are under her spell.
You bring her home. You knead atta for her. You give her two Frootis I had brought for guests. You are so worried about her. What about me?'
'What about you, mom?'
'What is she doing here?'
'Mom, she can hear you.'
'See, you only care about her. Go, be with her.'
My mother rearranged the plates in the kitchen. She threw the old spice mixture and made a news one as I left.
'Get me to the guest-house, I want to leave,' Ananya said, her face wet with tears.
'No,' I said and wiped her tears. 'No, you can't.'
'I can't do this,' she said. 'I thought convincing my parents would be enough. You said your mother is sweet. Sweet? If your mom is sweet, than Hitler is a cuddly toy.'
'Take a shower, Ananya,' I said. 'Let's all eat dinner together.'
We sat down for dinner. My mother served me. Ananya took the food herself.
I chose a safe topic. 'What are the important ceremonies for Minti's wedding?'
'I have to go every day,' my mother said, chewing her food. 'There is a puja, then a sangeet. Of course, the important ones are the sagan and the marriage, next Friday and Sunday. You'll come, no?'
'Sagan and marriage, of course. I'll bring Ananya, too.'
My mother gave me a dirty look. She didn't want to talk about it with Ananya present.
'Don't avoid the topic, mom. I've brought Ananya here so you and the family get to know her.'
'I already know she can't cook dinner,' my mother said.
'I'm sorry, aunty,' Ananya said. I didn't expect it but felt relieved that Ananya apologized.
'It's fine, you mother girls are like this. That is why I want Krish to marry…'
'Mom, I want to marry Ananya,' I said, 'In case it is not clear.'
My mother placed the piece of roti back on her plate and pushed her chair back to get up.
'Mom, please wait. I want to talk,' I said.
'Why should I talk? You will do whatever you want anyway. Go to the temple right now and get married.'
'Aunty, we want you to be happy about it,' Ananya said.
'Well, I am not. You can't force me to be happy. Everyone is praising Minti's mother for her choice. I've suffered for years to bring my son up. Why can't I have the same happiness? I want a lavish wedding, I want the girl's parents to respect me, I want the girl to be approved of by my brothers and sisters.'
'They will like Ananya! She is intelligent, educated…'
'She is South Indian,' my mother said, cutting me.
'So what? Let's see what your brothers and sisters say about Ananya. This wedding is a perfect excuse.'
'And who will I say she is?' my mother asked grimly.
'Say she is Krish's classmate who's never seen a Punjabi marriage ceremony and wanted to come,' I said.
My mother kept quiet. She picked up her roti and began to eat again.
'Aunty, I am sorry I came unannounced. I thought Krish had told you.'
'He never tells me anything. He is so careless,' my mother said.
'I agree, he doesn't communicate well,' Ananya said.
'See,' my mother said to me.
Even though they were ganging up against me, I let it pass. I wanted them to bond in any way possible.
'Then why are you eating like a squirrel? Take a proper helping,' my mother said.
'I'll speak to Minti,' I put in. 'I'm sure she will have no problem if I bring a friend'.
'Only as a friend,' my mother said.
'Thanks, mom,' I said and hugged her.
'Your dad never gave me anything. You don't deprive me of what I deserve,' my mother said.
'Where's uncle?' Ananya said.
'Who knows?' my mother said. 'He'll be back late. You'll see him in the morning. You are sleeping in the guest-room and Krish in his room, right?'
'Of course, mom,' I said, 'how else?'
My mother finished dinner. Ananya offered to do the dishes. My mother said the maid would arrive in the morning but Ananya insisted. My mother went to her room.
'OK, Miss Brand Manager, you sure you don't need help?' I said as I leaned against the kitchen wall.
Ananya applied Vim on the dishes with a wire mesh. 'No, I don't want to be accused of trapping the Prince of Punjab again,' Ananya said and mercilessly scrubbed a kadhai.
'Let me dry the dishes,' I offered.
'Go away, I beg you,' she said as she pushed me out of the kitchen.
'Good morning, uncle,' Ananya said as she came into the living room in her night-suit. It was seven-thirty in the morning. My father, bound to his army habit, had showered and changed. He looked up from his newspaper. He didn't respond.
'I'm Ananya, Krish's friend.'
'Good,' my father said and went back to his newspaper. He kept calm. I knew he'd blow his lid when Ananya left. I came to the living room and ignored him.
'Ananya, get ready. We should leave before the peak-hour traffic.'
'Where are you going?' my father said.
I didn't answer. My father stood up and went to the kitchen.
'Is this the way to behave?' I heard him scream at my mother.
'What happened?' my mother said as I kept one ear to the kitchen.
'I asked him where is he going, he didn't answer. And who is that girl?'
'He is going to drop Ananya to her guest-house and go to office. Why?' my mother said.
'Why can't he say it? And why didn't you tell me we will have a visitor in the house.'
'I didn't know,' my mother said.
'You are lying again,' my father screamed.
Ananya looked terrified.
'Welcome to my world,' I said, 'now let's get the hell out of here.'
I came home from work and found a deadly silence in the house. Obviously, my father was home. He sat at the dining table with my mother.
'Krish, your father wants to talk to you,' my mother said.
'Tell him I don't want to,' I said.
To be continued...