Manik threw a glance at his wrist watch. He was summoned within 10 minutes at Oshiwara. That was the time given by Nandini to him, if he had to meet her.
He had hoped to fix an appointment for dinner, go back to the hotel to freshen up and change. But she didn’t leave him with much choice.
He looked at himself. He was dressed in casual attire – a navy blue and gray polo neck tee and blue denims. Not perfect for fine dining at a high-end restaurant. Not by his standards.
He had been to Lokhandwala to meet a friend since evening, had been driving since late afternoon and a shower was the minimum, he could use to save himself some embarrassment. But when she asked him to come immediately, he wondered if he had made a wrong move by asking her out for dinner. For once he even thought about cancelling the meet. He didn’t want to appear unsophisticated.
It was another thing that he was going there only because he didn’t want long discourses from his mother and was in all probability going there to get rejected. He didn’t want to get married and maybe, this girl would listen to him and understand.
Still, the least you are expected to do, when you meet someone willingly or unwiilingly, is to appear presentable and fresh.
On second thoughts, he simply shrugged and let the impulse go. He was handsome, well educated and sophisticated. And it was okay if he didn’t get time to be dressed at his best.
He was still Manik Malhotra !
He reached below Nandini’s building within 8 minutes and waited at the selected spot for her to come down as she had specified.
She had asked him to come quickly. 10 minutes, to be precise. Then, she had asked him to wait at one specific place, slightly away from the main building. And she had not bothered explaining any of it!
He was intrigued. It appeared like a scene straight out of a Sherlock Holmes movie, where the supporting character had no idea why and where the protagonist was taking him.
Manik tried to remember the last time when something tickled him and got him excited as if he was doing a mischief. He must have been in school, he concluded. Life after school, from IIT to IIM to his job, had been quite planned, systematic and moved smoothly in the direction he had wanted, wished and expected. An achiever, a go-getter, he was used to planning to extremes, so much that he had almost lost this sense of spontaneity, anticipation and amazement.
Nandini was the other spectrum, it appeared. Just by talking to her twice, he had realised that she was spontaneous, funny and interesting.
It was an irony that despite all this, he was here to tell her that this meeting was a formality. They had to finish it off. That’s it.
In fact, he would have never called her, had his mother not talked directly to Nandini’s mother and called him again, insisting that he meets her before going back to Bangalore.
He hadn’t seen her and just hoped now that she didn’t misunderstood him that he was refusing her based on her looks, appearance or personality.
He wondered how Nandini looked like and decided to explain it to her that it was nothing about her. In fact, he had always been sure that looks didn’t matter for him. He was not here as a judge of a beauty contest. It was the personality that really clicked with the other, he firmly believed. Working in the field of glamour and showbiz since so long, he had been trained to look at the profiles and analyse the beauty that was just skin deep. He had seen quite a lot of ugly personalities behind pretty faces and most beautiful people in, what they believed, not so flattering outer caskets.
He was not sure whether she had seen his photograph or not. So to be on the safer side, he had informed her that he would wait for her in a hired Audi Q3, provided by his company. He had sent the driver back and was driving himself.
A minute later, he observed a girl leaving the exit gate of the building and looking around for a second. Sixth sense told him that she was Nandini.
She spotted his vehicle and headed straight in his direction. He was glad that the car was parked a bit far so he had enough time to observe her in the rear view mirror and side mirror.
And… She made him take off his aviators.
The lady approaching the car was short, maybe around five two, with a slender frame. She had long hair taken high up to form a sticky ponytail. Wearing a full sleeved, cotton, button-down top in black colour, with each sleeve rolled to three fourths,tucked inside faded blue denims, a small sling back hanging by her side, she walked as though she was the next to conquer the entire world. Her walk and her body language oozed confidence in every sense of the word.
All through his professional life, Manik had seen models walk on the ramp. They were all types – nervous ones, or super confident ones, simple ones and arrogant ones too. He could see through their personalities right across the way they walked. The need to appear cool, classy and stylish dominated every walk. But not this girl.
To observe Nandini walking was totally different. A pleasant change from others.
She was class, but she didn’t need to dress up in a designer-wear to prove that. She appeared stylish even in the casual worn-out attire. She was cool as she didn’t hesitate to come out and meet him in sticky, oily hair taken high up to be tied in a ponytail. She wore thick rimmed spectacles on her eyes. She was confidence personified and the source of that confidence and attitude was not her physical appearance or simple dressing, but it was something that was ingrained deep within her. Her qualifications, and personality added to that.
The fine line between confidence and arrogance was not crossed by Nandini even once. And he could read all that just by watching her walk towards him. To give him some credit, it was his profession to assess and read people.
He stepped out of the car when he realised that, while observing her, he was forgetting his manners. A girl was walking towards him and he should, at least, have the courtesy to step out and greet her with respect.
He moved out of the car, slowly closed the door, stood straight and flashed a small smile towards her. She reached closer to stand directly facing him.
“My God, you are so tall?!!”
“Exactly what I thought… what were our parents thinking?”He shrugged.
She stretched her hand with a warm, endearing smile, flashing her glistening, white teeth. Her friendly, chirpy voice followed the smile, as she said, “Hey…I’m Nandini Murthy.”
“Manik.” He took the hand stretched towards him and spoke his name, warmly shaking it. “Shall we ?” With that, he used his eyes to point towards the car and asked her if she was ready to go with him. She nodded hesitatingly, taking her lips inside her mouth, a sign a slight nervousness appearing now for the first time.
“Thanks for coming at such a short notice, Manikkk…” She just dragged the ‘k’ in his name and stressed on it a second longer than necessary.
It was the second time that she had called his name, the phone call and now, and had got the pronunciation wrong at both times. As a rule he hated people who got his name wrong. It was such a simple, easy name, but people had to mess with it.
“That should be – Manik… it ends before you decide to hold on to it for long.” He rolled his eyes and subtly corrected the pronunciation, before opening the car door to sit inside. She found his sarcasm funny.
“Oh no… I like people who are touchy about their names!” Her smile widened as she crossed the car to sit at the passenger side, beside him.
“To tease them?” He smirked at the joke and asked.
She nodded to agree and smiled slightly. He drove and she sat beside him. For a short while, there was an awkward wordlessness between the two. Nandini stared at the road before her while Manik focused on driving. The peak hour Mumbai traffic needed concentration to drive and he couldn’t begin to talk to her about anything.
Poor at social skills, Manik was an introvert at all times and had problems talking to people even when he knew them well. He was awkward, even with relatives and casual friends. He maintained distance with office staff too and opened up only before close friends.
With strangers, he was at a total loss of words, unless it was for a professional reason.
Here, he was on a personal agenda, was meeting a girl, and that too for matrimonial purpose.
Almost immediately he knew that it was a mistake. He was going to end up making a fool of himself. He could have refused to meet her. Now, he had no idea what to talk and how to take it ahead.
As if on cue, Nandini turned to face him and asked, “I hope you know where we are going.”
“Err…” He was nervous. He replied honestly, “I’m sorry, I should have asked before. Where do you want to eat ?”
He could almost kill himself for this. Taking a girl out for dinner, without any planning, without reservations at the hotel and without even thinking about the destination was an absolute no-no in the do’s and don’t’s list for beginners. He was, in fact, asking her where she wanted to go. He took his lips inside his mouth wondering how poorly she must be thinking about him.
Nandini, on the other hand, suggested, “If it’s not much of a bother, can we take a U turn. There’s a Pizzeria at the turn we crossed.”
“Pizza?” He asked, giving her a weird look.
“Hmm!” She shrugged, cutely. He took the turn and followed her instructions.
The Pizzeria had a pleasing decor and a serene ambience. Located in a quiet lane, away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city roads, it offered respite from noise through thick tempered glass and added peace through ceramic artefacts and thick bushy plants placed at the entrance and central area.
“Nice.” He commented, as he sat down on one of the chairs at the corner table.
“It’s one of my favourites.” She replied, sitting down facing him and added, “For a moment, I was worried when you made that disapproving face when I said ‘Pizza’.”
He was mortified. “Did I? I’m sorry.”
She smiled, brushing it off, “Don’t be sorry. I just realised then, that a pizza was not your ideal choice for dinner, right ?”
He was relaxed. “Yeah. I was thinking of proper food, when I said ‘dinner’.”
“I’m sorry. Dinner was not even on my mind,” She added with a truly pained look on her face, “I’m just so tired. I didn’t want to go somewhere far. Can we just finish this ‘meeting’ or ‘whatever’ quickly and go back?”
He slowly picked up the menu booklet and opening it to make a choice, he murmured, “That was insanely flattering!”
She bit her lower lip with an apologetic grin on her face and said, “I’m sorry, again. Please, don’t mind. I didn’t mean it in a negative sort of way. It’s not about you. It’s just that my exam got over hardly an hour back. I haven’t slept properly in past 4-5 days. Last night I couldn’t sleep even for a minute. The exam started morning 8 am and for 12 hours we were in the hospital. And right now, my mind is still reeling, overloaded with the names of drugs, dosages, their side effects and innumerable features of gynaecological disorders. All I could think of, right now, was getting some sleep.”
He drew a deep breath, almost apologetic himself, “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have asked you out. Listen, let’s not be formal. We can go back. You are tired.”
She nodded, laughing it off slightly with a wave of her hand, “Oh no, that’s okay. I’ll have to eat anyway. So we can talk for a while and go back home.”
“Being a doctor is tough, isn’t it?”
She nodded to confirm it. “Yeah, it is!”
“Do you like your studies, your profession?”
She appeared to think for a moment and shrugged, “I love it when I am performing surgeries or treating patients. But when I am studying… I don’t know… I’ve come too far to think about that. After spending close to 9 years in studying for this degree, I can safely say that I’m used to it, more than anything else… I can’t see myself, anything other than being a doctor.”
He smiled at her reply. She smiled back. For a moment, they focused on the menu book before them, as the waiter had arrived to take their orders.
“Mushroom cheese pizza and ginger ale.” She ordered, giving the menu back.
“Pasta Alfredo and diet coke for me.” He added. The waiter left after taking the order and leaving them alone.
They were quiet for a few seconds, having no clue what to say… how to begin again…
“So?” She asked. “How was your seminar ?”
“It was good. The stalwarts in the field spoke about the changing trends, the need to update, the role of media and technology etc.”
“Same like our seminars. It’s fascinating, at times, to see the pace at which the world is changing shape.”
“Yeah.” He replied and became quiet again, unable to continue talking. She smiled, bobbed her head side to side, wondering about what to talk next.
“Can I ask you a question ?” He rested his hands on the table and picked up a fork to play with it.
“I like to paint, play lawn tennis and read books. I love coffee and animated films. I love music too.” She replied.
“What?” Perplexed, he raised his brows at this random reply from her.
“These are my hobbies!” She informed him.
“What am I supposed to do with this information?” He asked with a shrug, still unable to understand.
“You didn’t want to ask this? Oh! I guessed that was the first thing people ask in a marriage interview after introduction, about one’s hobbies!” She replied innocently.
He couldn’t stop smiling at that. “How many marriage interviews have you attended till now ?”
“This is my first. But I’ve seen this in some tv serials and films. How many interviews have you attended?”
“This is my first too.” He replied casually.
“So, what happened to the other two girls that you were supposed to meet, in last couple of days?”
“I didn’t call them.” He looked down at the table and rotated the fork in his hand over the graphic design on the table cover.
“Tch… I don’t know.” He looked around the restaurant, admiring the ambience and observing the few people occupying places far from them. Then, his gaze returned to her, ‘I find it awkward. Very weird.”
“Then why did you call me?” She placed her hands on the table too, leaning over and looked at his face.
His smile made a comeback, with an evident tease this time.
“I didn’t call you, Madam. You called me first. You told me about your exam. And then it stopped feeling awkward…”
She opened her mouth and widened her eyes in a shocked look, “And here I was thinking that I won’t have to meet you, at all. Maybe, you will like someone so much when you meet those girls first. And look, what I did. Got myself in the trap.”
He laughed loudly at that, “I’m not on a hunt and I have no trap. You are a free bird.”
She chuckled too. “Anyway, what did you want to ask, if not my hobbies?”
“Oh yeah. Why did you asked me to meet within 10 minutes and then asked me to wait away from the building ?”
“When I came back from the hospital, I found that my parents were not home. They usually go to the temple at this hour. I wanted to leave before they came back.”
“And why would you do that?”
“I told you that I was tired. If my mom had returned, she would have made me wash my hair, blow dry them to make perfect curls, made me wear the turquoise saree with silver embroidery and the gorgeous diamond ear rings that she had asked me to wear for this ‘special occasion’. She would have applied make up on my face and maybe ensured that I walked wearing high heels… you know… to match your height. In short, she would have converted me from a maid into Cinderella. Someone who would fit into the definition of a beautiful, sweet, docile, ideal Indian bride-to-be… and I didn’t have time or energy for that.”
“Thank goodness, you didn’t. I would have felt embarrassed and totally out-of-place if you had taken pains to dress up and turned up like Cinderella.” He quipped, making her smirk.
Their orders were placed on the table before them and they focused on digging their forks in the scrumptious meal, for a moment. Both of them thinking the same about how to breach the topic and go about telling the other that they were here just because of their parents’ insistence and not for a marriage alliance. It was more of a formality or a mechanical process for both of them.
“How was your exam?” He asked.
“Exams are always good. Same thing cannot be said about the results!” She joked, transferring a slice of mushroom pizza on her plate.
Once again, they were quiet for few minutes, eating silently, though a bit comfortable with each other than before.
She asked, “You don’t talk much, right ?”
He nodded, sipping on his diet coke, “I was sent to this planet with few words and a limited vocabulary. I use them very cautiously.”
It made her laugh. “That’s interesting! So, in that context, I think I carried a big library with me.”
He chuckled at the comparison. “Okay, then you talk, I’ll listen.”
“Anything. Talk about you.”
“Mmm…Hi, I’m Dr. Nandini Murthy, age 26, height five two. Weight, I’m not telling you but I think I have maintained well. I’ve already told you about my hobbies. I’ve almost completed my post graduation, MD in Gynae and Obs today, I was always an extrovert, I like to talk to people and make friends. I am a Gemini and I’m a virgin.”
*Cough… Cough* … He almost spluttered his drink at the last bit of information. Holding a napkin to his lips and wiping them, he asked, “What was that?”
“The virgin bit? Isn’t that the only question that goes inside the guy’s mind, when he meets a girl for an arranged marriage?”