To Mrs. Meena Shankar, A-14 Poddar Road, Mumbai
You were right, as always. They knew. They knew I was coming. There is no other explanation for how well-prepared they were the first evening I dropped in on them. A table full of dishes had been laid out – all cooked by Anita, naturally – and Ravi had procured wine. A fine wine, he said, that rolled around the tongue and tasted just a little bitter on the palate. This is utter rubbish, of course, more so than the tripe trotted out in food magazines and restaurant reviews. It was as tasteless as every wine he ever served to us back home. Even three years in Belfast hasn’t cured him of his predilection for cheap liquor. Back home he fleeced our local wine shop, and here he must be rubbing his hands in glee when filching a bottle from Tesco at a discounted rate.
Before I took the eight-hour long flight to London followed by a domestic flight to Belfast, Anita had repeatedly told me on the phone that the weather was excellent. It was, she said, well-suited to a girl like me who froze at the sight of ice-cream. She had felt the cold waves shudder through her initially, in her first few days here, but as the months passed her body accustomed to it. Her teeth didn’t chatter any more and her knees didn’t knock together. The layers of snow did not deter her from stepping out into the frigid outdoors, and it shouldn’t discourage me either.
I feel cold enough that I need a fleece jacket even on days when the temperature hovers around twenty degrees Celsius. The cold winds are doing me in, pinching the skin on my face and freezing my hands. I have never hated this kind of wintry weather more and even worse now because I believed this idiotic woman and hadn’t come prepared for it. Fortunately, I was able to purchase winter-wear on my second day here, at an affordable shop called Oxfam.
You will recall she said that the rents are reasonable, and between the two of them they are able to save a small amount each month, which in pounds converts to a large number in Indian Rupees that has a long line of zeroes trailing it.
I concede that this may be my problem, having to shell out full rent and having no-one else to share expenses with, but I have hardly saved much since I got here. Everything is so costly. It hurts to take a taxi ride, because it costs five thousand rupees, and it hurts to eat my favourite chicken biryani in a restaurant – the price is simply too exorbitant. The first day when I saw the price I ordered it just to check if there were bits of gold mixed in with the rice.
Anita has lots of friends. She meets them for brunches, coffee sessions, and ladies night-outs. She goes shopping with them, and arranges potlucks with them, and they even gift each other hand-knitted sweaters with cute buttons and teeny pockets. I went out with them once, and they seemed nice enough, but they treated me differently when I said I was working as a nurse in a premier hospital. They had all accompanied their husbands to Europe, and most of them, like Anita, had travelled around a little before settling on Belfast as their location of choice. One of them was married to a doctor in my hospital. I recognized the name and said so, happy to find a kindred spirit. But the wife didn’t look too happy at all.
The ladies leave their weeping broods at home when they go for outings. They have kids ranging from six months to eleven years, and no scope or ambition to work. When they asked if I have kids, I said I hadn’t even got married yet and that threw a gloom on the proceedings. They looked baffled, more so than if I had declared that I had birthed an alien. One of them took advantage of the gap in conversation to jump to her feet and say she had to leave, to take her daughter for tennis lessons. The other ladies said that’s great, but I protested that it was raining, and the child might fall sick, because tennis was an outdoor game after all. She flashed her tiny eyes at me. I don’t know if her eyes are actually tiny or just look that way because of her plump cheeks. She flashed her mascaraed eyes at me, and I fell silent. She’s clearly one of those who has transferred her ambitions to her daughter, and looks askance at those who don’t share her view. I’m now in her bad books, but really, there’s nothing I can do about it.
I feel so lonely, Mamma, and I don’t know what to do. It’s always so dark and gloomy outside. It’s always raining. The sky is overcast and shrouds the city in a dull grey. I sit inside the house, in the comfort of my compact living room, sipping English tea and reading a book or surfing channels on the television. The house is the only place comfortable when the weather is so foul outside. I turn the heating up to maximum as often as I can, but Anita says my electricity bill will be sky-high, and that if I want to save any money I should keep it low as possible and dress in layers.
One weekend the sky cleared, so I called Anita and offered to cook dinner for her and Ravi. She instead suggested a restaurant. I Googled it before leaving the house. It looked expensive, so I ate a little sandwich of my own and left. That way I could afford to order just a side at the restaurant.
Once we reached there I found she and Ravi had brought along a friend of his called Deepak. He was cute, which means he was not that good-looking, but appealing enough for me to oblige when Ravi ordered a fine wine recommended by the waiter. I did not object when Anita chose the duck, or when Ravi said he was in the mood for crème brulee. That’s a sweet dish they seem to like here, though I can’t for the life of me understand what’s so special about it. I prefer my yummy gulab jamuns and rasgullas, but I didn’t see them on the menu. I asked the waiter in a low voice if he had it, but he smiled and said no. When he left Anita said, “You don’t get Indian food in this restaurant, my dear. You should have asked me, no need to ask stupid questions to the waiter and embarrass yourself.”
You taught me, Mother, that there were no right of wrong questions. Deepak believed this too, and he came to my rescue, and took Anita to task for it. To my surprise she did not mind his scolding, and took it sportingly.
The week after that Deepak and I shared a candlelight dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s on Lisburn Road. That’s walking distance from my house in Eglantine Avenue and it serves great British food. We talked about our life back home, and he said he has three sisters whom he hopes to get married off soon. He is looking for prospective grooms for them, which I think is commendable. How many boys do I know who are such good brothers? He ordered for me, and even treated me to some kind of mousse which he said I would like, and I really did. He is better-looking than I thought at first.
He walked me back home, and towards the end he even held my hand ever so sweetly. After our third dinner together, he kissed me on the front steps of my house! I feel ashamed to tell you this, Mother, but it was exciting, and also embarrassing because it was in public. But it's not like I’m famous and people were turning their heads to look at us, because here public affection is as common as a singsong accent.
I took Anita aside one day when she had invited me to a lunch party at her house where all her mommy friends had gathered. I mentioned Deepak’s name and she giggled. “Don’t tell Ravi, but I’m pretty close to that guy! He’s so hot!”
The way she said “pretty close” was convincing enough for me. The stinging pain of shame and embarrassment burned my cheeks, and I left her house immediately. Deepak called, and even dropped by, but I never answered the phone, or the door for that matter.
You were right. She never liked me. I don’t know why I’ve been friends with her so long.
Now I have no friends, Mamma, and I don’t know what to do. And it’s not like I can leave all this and come back to you. I don’t know if someone at the hospital is really reading my letters to you as I instructed the doctors to.
I pray for you every day, Mamma. You were always my best friend. I know you will be alright, but I don’t know if I will ever be.
Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother at all times. In 2014 she wrote one short story every month along with a group of writers. An anthology of their stories is published on Amazon. Apart from this, her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. She blogs at GargiMehra.wordpress.com and tweets @gargimehra.