Litro # 160: Changes | The Prize

The wives, Meg and Ekta, wanted to try the new Italian restaurant, L’Artusi, for dinner. It is one of the first places in Ahmedabad where you have to book a couple of weeks in advance and, if you are nobody, make that a couple of months. Meg and I are still adrift between the two parallel shores of “nobody” and “somebody”. Manoj married into an entire dynasty of up-and-coming somebodies and Ekta knew exactly who to call to get us a table.

Meg has been mad for Italy since our college days. After my new business makes enough money, I have promised it will be our first foreign vacation. Another reason I need Manoj, as chairman of our Paradise Heights Society Managing Committee, to help me win this contract. It will be my biggest project yet – in the high seven figures for a three-story building with a gym, banquet hall, and indoor swimming pool. So, yes, my nerves are in knots.

She presses my arm. “Relax. You just have to talk him into accepting your bid tonight. The rest is formalities. You know what I always tell you: if you wish it, you will win it.” She blows me a kiss. All these years, and it never fails to make me want to pull her close and kiss her hard.

Yet, I wonder why Manoj agreed to consider me. There are two other bids: one is from the original society builder, and the other is a medium-sized company like my former employer. I am a small architectural firm. Small with big passion and talent, Meg always corrects me.

Coming into the dinner lounge feels like entering the bottom of the ocean. Waves of air-conditioned coolness hit our faces. There is a dense sort of darkness everywhere, and the only significant light is from the high ceiling, which is like a blue sky with many-coloured clouds. Looking closer, I find it has been painted with Western classical figures in bright robes.

“Sistine Chapel ceiling,” Meg informs me as we follow a uniformed waiter to our reserved table. “I read it online.”

The place is not crowded yet: a long banquet table at one end filled with some kind of birthday party, three couples, and one other foursome. A few people turn to us, staring more at Meg. Her designer-copy black silk dress shows off her classical statue curves and fair arms and legs. As she sits, the candlelight catches the shimmer of her chandelier earrings and gives her face a translucent golden hue. Again, I push back the urge to take her into my arms.

Meg orders drinks as our guests have not arrived yet: a Sanbittèr for me and an Aranciata for herself. I have never heard of either before and she pats my hand reassuringly.

Settled in, I observe the ceiling from my new vantage point, noting that the heavenly figures are clothed more modestly than I recall seeing in photographs of the Sistine Chapel. I scan down along the walls and, yes, there are similarly painted frescoes interspersed with imitation green climbing vines and ornately fluted pilasters. Our table is tucked into one of the few bay windows with red-blue-green stained glass. The seating is plush cushioning upholstered in a dark, rich fabric. Even the table linen is thick and coffee-coloured. The sounds of the other diners around us are muffled. As is the Western classical music piping out dimly from various corners.

“They’ve spent a lot of money here,” I almost-whisper to Meg, picking up the menu. Restaurants, bars, and food service facilities are among the most complex architectural and design projects, but if done right, these investments pay off the quickest. Major cities like Mumbai and Delhi have always known this, but my city has only woken up to it in the past decade or so. So, when I come across the rare Ahmedabad restaurant with well-designed and well-constructed structure, layout, and decor, I am always impressed.

Our drinks arrive and I remove the large stalks of mint leaves and chunky slices of lemon. Taking a sip of the sparkling cherry-coloured liquid, I make an effort to swallow rather than spit because I had been expecting sweet and this is herbal-bitter, with a strong backbone of sweet. The intensity grows on me after a few more sips and I nod.

She smiles as if I have paid her a personal compliment. “This is what they all have in Italy before dinner.”

I am sure they drink much stronger stuff in Italy before, with, and after every meal. But then, Italy does not have alcohol prohibition like our wonderful state of Gujarat. I could do with a whiskey and soda tonight, though.

The menu is an antique grainy parchment scroll with words I cannot pronounce. Helpfully, there are descriptions. I hold it closer to the candles on our table, mindful of the naked flames. The prices make me groan.

“Nik,” Meg says in a warning tone and stands.

I look over my shoulder and stand too. Manoj and Ekta have walked in. Their very presence fills the air with a kind of noisy restlessness – his heavy puffing from having climbed the stairs, her jangling jewellery as she adjusts her hair and clothes, their too-loud, tumbled greetings. Again, people turn to look at us briefly. Manoj glares back at one of them.

The first time I had met Manoj, he had asked where I was from. I had replied, “Ahmedabad.”

“No. Your village?”

He meant to know where my parents and ancestors were from, which is a question people of my generation rarely bother with. More important, these days, is to know a person’s job or line of business. I had answered, “Surendranagar.”

Arrey! We’re almost family. I’m from Chotila – same district, na.”

It pleased him so much that, when I next met him at our society’s Annual General Meeting, he kept introducing me so: “And, this brother is from my own village. Right, Nikhilya?”

He’s shorter than me, battlement height and built wide like one too. His blue-striped shirt has underarm and back sweat patches and his closely-cropped hair shows bits of bare scalp. When he talks, his nostrils flare like a tiny bellows, showing the inner black hairs. There is something predatory in how his round, close eyes take measure of everyone and everything. We shake hands – his are like large, soft, wet sponges. I recall how those same hands, in his WhatsApp profile image, are holding out a long rifle as he stares into the camera with jaws clamped fiercely.

Ekta is a big woman too. Her waist-length straight hair frames her face, with thin black strands often getting stuck in her sticky red mouth. She smiles constantly, baring glistening teeth in a way that does not immediately invite a reciprocating smile. And her eyes are an indescribable shade of blue, because of her weirdly-tinted lenses.

We all sit, Meg by my side and Ekta by his. Ekta’s phone buzzes. She giggles on reading something and says, “I checked in on Facebook. Some of my friends have been here. They’re saying the manager is hot. Looks like Akshaye Kumar.” Both women sit up and look around.

Manoj snorts, looks over the drinks scroll, points to our glasses, and asks, “What are those?”

Before I can tell him, he snaps at the waiter, “Do you have Pepsi? Not Coke. Two. Ice separate.”

Turning back to me, Manoj asks, “Did you see the commotion at the entrance gates? Bloody parking, na.” He laughs in short spurts. “People are bringing in three-four cars without permits and using any empty space. I told security not to let any vehicle in without a parking sticker. Then what happens? The society treasurer’s wife drives right past the watchman trying to stop her. Damages the gate. Runs over his foot. I had to go tell her to pay up. Crazy woman nearly went for me with her purse.”

“Wow,” I say. “What about the watchman?”

“Hospital. What else? Fractured foot, na.”

“Wow.” I cannot think what else to say. Meg and Ekta are looking at something on Ekta’s phone and smiling at each other. I do not quite know why the thought of them becoming good friends makes me queasy.

“This Society Committee chairmanship is a thankless job,” Manoj continues. “Do you know, people ring my doorbell past midnight with complaints? What to do? I am too good for my own good, na.”

Ekta looks at me, her weird eyes flashing, “No manners, Nikhil Bhai. This new public is so faaltu. You know we had four Muslim boys renting in A2? Hooligans. Manoj had to kick them out. Cooking what-all non-veg. Non-stop music and singing. And such girls they brought late at night! My God.” She blinks her spiky black lashes at Meg, who is shaking her head as if she cannot believe such things happen in Paradise Heights. “Megha, you have to join my gym club. Much better crowd. I’ll message you the membership committee chairman’s details. He’ll get you ahead of the wait list.”

Meg beams at Ekta with such joy that I have the sensation of a fist closing over my insides. We cannot afford any of these big gym clubs – their annual dues are more than my annual income.

When the waiter comes over for our dinner order, Manoj demands, “What’s the special?”

The waiter tells him they do not carry specials but their chef is known for and recommends certain dishes. In his minute-long recitation of these, I catch only these familiar words: Crostini, Bruschetta, Pasta, Ravioli, Tiramisu.

Manoj hands him the menu scroll and says, “Achha. We’ll try all that. It better be the best. Otherwise, I’m not paying.” That laugh again. He catches my eye, then adds, “Arrey, don’t worry. I’ll pick this up. We’re on society business, na.”

Meg shifts slightly next to me. This is my cue to move the conversation to my bid. I clear my throat, take another sip of Sanbittèr, which now has a terrible, flat taste, and say, “Haan, Manoj, about the contract…”

He holds up both hands and shakes his head from side to side. “I know what you’re going to say. You’re the best company. Society member. I can rely on you to take care of all problems immediately. Correct?”

I nod, though it is not what I was about to say.

“But there are rules, na? Three companies must bid for such a big-big project. I have to do my…” He turns to Ekta, “What does Santosh always say about this?”

“Due diligency,” she replies, looking at a new message on her glittering pink phone.

Haan. I have to do due diligency.” Manoj smiles and sits back, taking a slurp from his Pepsi. “You know about moksha, na? You only have to do the chaar-dhaam yatra. Pilgrimage of only four holy places will get you eternal peace. In our society, per the by-laws, you will not get moksha until your file has been blessed at all twenty dhaams. Understood?” His laugh makes his belly jiggle so much this time, it jolts our table.

Under the table, Meg’s hand comes to rest on my thigh. “I understand,” I say. “All twenty committee members have to vote. If there’s anything else from my side to help the decision…”

“See, Nikhil,” Manoj lowers his tone, “you know I have the entire contract for lighting and electricals for the society, na? From before I became the chairman. Do you know how I got it?”

I am not sure whether I am supposed to know or ask him to tell me.

He is telling me. “I put in my bid along with two others. One was the old man who had done the work since the time of the builder. My bid won. You know why?”

Again, I wait. My left eyelid flutters like a dying moth’s wing – an involuntary and hardly noticeable thing that happens when I am nervous.

“I gave the chairman everything he needed. Stayed two steps ahead. He then managed all twenty committee members exactly as I needed.” Manoj makes this pinched-finger mudra with one hand, then spreads the fingers out wide. “Understood, na?”

The table waits for my response. “Yes,” I say.

Ekta looks up from her phone long enough to bare her teeth around at the rest of us before returning to it. My old boss used to snatch phones out of people’s hands sometimes. I try to imagine what Ekta would do if I took hers.

Though a silly, idle distraction, it helps to think about something else. It has been a week since I gave Manoj my bid and I have not slept well even a single night leading up to this dinner. And all I get now is “give him everything he needs” and “stay two steps ahead”?

Our dinner shows up on various-sized square white plates – colourfully garnished and artistically arranged, like little edible islands floating in oceans of glossy milk. The rich, varied aromas of cheese, garlic, herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables would have, normally, made my mouth water. All I can sense now is a tight dryness in my throat.

“Megha Bhabhi,” Manoj says as he thrusts a forkful in his mouth, “This is your size meal, I think. We will need one-two more rounds or Ekta will have to cook khichdi and kadhi later to fill this pot up.” He pats his belly protectively as if it is a mound of treasure. He adds, “Look at Nikhil. Complete Gujju bhai. Cannot take his eyes off the food.”

I eat slowly, yet can scarcely taste anything as the aching anxiety has spread from my stomach into my chest.

The manager comes over to check in, and I concede he does look like that movie hero. His accent, however, gives away his rural Rajasthani roots. And, past the flimsy façade of his cosmopolitan attitude, I see the uneven jaggedness of his own desperation to please, to be accepted.

*

We emerge from the restaurant shortly after ten. The city is surging with seekers of fun, revellers of every stripe.

As Meg and I follow Manoj and Ekta to their car, Meg bumps into me. She bumps into me once more and I know it is no accident.

Before I can speak, Manoj shakes my hand, and says, “This was fun. Come to our home next time, na. We have strong cognac from our last foreign trip. You will enjoy.”

Ekta smiles at Meg, then at me, then at her phone.

We stand for a half-minute, no one saying anything. I wrestle with the thought of pulling Manoj aside about the contract but do not know what to say. Manoj rattles his car keys and clicks open the remote locks of his silver-shiny new Honda City. We all wave as they drive off.

In our five-year-old Maruti 800, Meg fiddles with the air-conditioning settings while I reverse out of the parking spot.

Then, she says, gently, “Why didn’t you discuss the contract further with him? This was the chance to do it.”

I look straight ahead as we get onto the SG Highway. It is crowded, as usual, with vehicles of all sizes; mostly the two-wheelers that zip through any gaps their drivers can find.

“I tried,” I say eventually. “He was not forthcoming at all. Did you not see?”

She leans back and checks her fingernails by holding her hands, first one and then the other, out before her.

“Look, sometimes the cart needs to be pushed along. You let go too easily, Nik. When he said something about staying two steps ahead – that was a good opening to move the talk further. Or when he started about the Modi government and how all the new construction is because of Modi’s ‘good days’. Instead, you let him go on and on with his ha-ha-hee-hee nonstop comedy act. At least he didn’t stick the bill on us – after the quantity they both ate. You’d have paid that without a word too.”

There is some truth to the part about my giving in easily. If it had not been for her persistence, we would probably have not got together in college. Some go-getter like Manoj would have got her and put her on the high pedestal she deserves.

We wait at the traffic light and I watch her staring at the car next to her. A large family, dressed as if for a wedding, is packed in tight, doubling up on almost all seats. In profile, I see her lips compressed into a hard, straight line.

As the light turns green, everyone surges forward from all directions. An auto rickshaw cuts me off and I hit the brakes, swearing. It makes me wish for our two-wheeler days when we drove about as we pleased with no obstacle too difficult to pass. Meg, still looking out the window, sighs as if she has guessed my thoughts.

As we turn onto the service road leading into our society, Meg says, “Pull up near block A9 first.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

“It’s nearly eleven.”

“I don’t care if it is midnight. There’s nearly one crore involved here. Bole tena bor vechay. Speak up if you want to sell your fruit in the market.”

I pull into the visitor parking near A9 and wait as Meg tilts the rear-view mirror and refreshes her makeup. Walking to the elevator, I put my arm around her waist. She bends to adjust the thin straps of her shoes, escapes my grasp, then glides forward. Neither of us says anything going up.

The doors open to the penthouse floor and our first sight is of a large pseudo-Palladian doorway, above which hangs a droopy garland of dry basil leaves and withered marigold blossoms. A sandalwood statue of Lord Ganesh balances jauntily on top of the architrave. In one corner of the doorway, a dusty metal shoe rack is crammed with shoes of all sizes, colours, and shapes.

Ekta opens the door, her eyebrows raised. In a blue silk kaftan, hair knotted in a high bun and face scrubbed clean, she looks, somehow, more imperious.

“Is Manoj Bhai still awake?” I ask, my voice like sandpaper.

“He went to the hospital. The watchman has lodged a police complaint.”

She lets us in and gestures toward the bolster-lined, mattressed divan that takes up an entire wall. Above it, there is a massive, riotously-coloured fabric hanging of the famous Mahabharata war scene. The long living room is a jumble of traditional and modern decor; old and new furniture; cluttered patterns alternating with fake, shiny veneers; kids’ toys lying tossed in one corner; a man-size mandir, crammed with metal gods and goddesses, looming in another. And throughout all this a smell of fried onions and stale humanity laces the air. I try not to flinch at the casual ugliness.

“I’ll get some cognac,” Ekta offers, and without waiting for a response, disappears into a narrow corridor.

All I can hear is the ticking of their Rajasthani shield and sword wall clock.

Ekta returns with a tray of tumblers and a bulky brown folder tucked under one arm. Once her hands are free, she opens the folder and lays it dramatically on the wagon wheel coffee table. Then she picks up her cognac, raises it in our direction, and takes a sip.

Meg and I lean forward. The top page is titled “Paradise Heights Leisure Facilities”. Next, in large handwriting, there are three entries. The first shows the name of my business and my bid amount. The next two entries are for the competing bids. Mine is the lowest by far. I can barely breathe.

Ekta sits across from us on a low patio chair. “Your price per square foot is almost fifteen per cent below the next lowest bidder’s. Raise it up by five per cent. You’ll still be well under and make close to Rs 4 lakh more.”

I finish my cognac in two hefty swallows, even as the room’s silence rings in my ears like a wild alarm bell.

Meg puts her lipstick-smeared glass down and says softly, “I’ll email you the updated document in the next thirty minutes.”

Something lifts me off my seat. I realize I have not eaten much after all because the room tilts a bit. And as if in one-point perspective, all the lines and planes in my field of vision converge to a single vanishing point: the main door.

“Thank you,” I say to Ekta. “It’s late. Please don’t mind, we won’t wait for Manoj.”

“Just one thing. I will need six bearer checks for Rs 50,000 each.” The words come as if from a faraway location.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Meg pull out our joint account chequebook from her purse. Ekta closes the folder, picks up the tray of glasses, and takes it all back into the kitchen. Meg finds a pen in one of her purse’s outer pockets and begins writing.

Somehow, things are happening both very slowly and very quickly. I lay a hand on Meg’s shoulder, more to steady myself, and whisper, “We do not have three lakhs in the account.”

Ekta hears this on her way back and says, “There will be an advance when you get the contract. They will not be cashed till then. Leave the dates blank.”

We take the elevator back down in silence. I feel Meg’s calm gaze on me but I cannot meet it. All I can do is think of the scant number of times I have given a traffic cop the odd fifty-rupee or hundred-rupee note. Everyone knows they have to hold their hands out because the government does not pay them enough. This, though. What we have done here is on a scale I cannot comprehend.

When we get to our car, Meg takes the keys from my hand and drives the short distance over to our block. Lights blaze through a few balconies of the buildings we go past. A woman stands in one of them, patting a shrieking baby over her shoulder. Sleep will be difficult with that thudding bass from loudspeakers at a nearby party plot – well above the regulation decibel limits and past the cut-off hour.

I reach for Meg’s hand on the steering wheel; it feels icy cold and clammy as death.

*

Sleep eludes me even after the party music has died down. The shower I took before bed, while Meg updated and emailed the bid, has not helped. I get some water and sit in the living room, leaving the lights off.

My phone buzzes. A WhatsApp message from Manoj: “Awake?”

I hesitate before typing, “Yes.”

He calls right away. “Nikhil, sorry yaar. Just got back from the hospital. That saala watchman wanted to bring a case against the whole society. I made sure he understood he would never work again in this city if he tried such a stunt. You give these people a finger, they grab your entire hand, na.”

I make an agreement-like noise, wondering why he has called at this hour.

Achha, look, I think Megha Bhabhi made a mistake on the new bid,” he says. “She raised it by ten per cent instead of five per cent.”

I hold my breath as I take this in. My face and neck are on fire. Then I say, “That was not a mistake.”

In the background, Ekta says something that I cannot make out.

Manoj laughs. “You knew? Nikhilya, quiet waters truly do run deep. Okay, so just drop off six more bearer checks like the ones before. I’m home all day tomorrow.”

Pausing only a couple of beats this time, I say, “Three checks.”

“Five.”

“Four.” I hunch lower so that my head, throbbing now, is just a few inches above my knees.

“Hmm. Okay.”

“Tomorrow,” I say, and end the call.

I stay in that painful crouching position for some time. Till a rustling movement makes me uncurl. In the murkiness, I make out my wife’s shape leaning against the bedroom doorway. Slowly, soundlessly, she walks over. Pulling me close, she cradles my head, smoothing her hands over my face, running her fingers through my hair. I clutch at her as if she is a prize I have just won.

Jenny Bhatt

About Jenny Bhatt

Jenny Bhatt’s Pushcart-nominated writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Eleven Eleven Journal, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review, NonBinary Review, Femina India, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World‘. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the US and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. She is currently working on her first short story collection. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.

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