Saturday, July 21, 2012

A short story by Seema Punwani


A short story by Seema Punwani

- "Rahul. Naam toh  suna hoga".

- "I am Maya"

- "If it were Simran, it would be so Dilwale Dulhaniya"

- "That would be possible, but you are 'Rahul' not 'Raj' from Dilwale Dulhaniya. You were quoting Dil Toh Pagal Hai, hence 'Maya' and not 'Simran'.

- "Damn! The line has worked every time before. And it's never been this complex!"

- "There is always a first time...'Rahul'. Don't take it so badly"

And that is how Anay and Mishka first met. 

- "So... is your name really Maya?"

- "If your name is really Rahul"

And with that Mishka smiled, tossed her head, turned and left. As Anay watched her go, he felt a strange sense of loss. But pursuing girls was not his style. They came to him. So he turned the other way and walked away too.

A few seconds later he turned, only to catch her look back too. She laughed out aloud, while holding her hair back from the breeze. She then winked at him, with a mischievous glint her her eye... And then...she was gone.

Anay felt his heart skip a beat and he ran to get her real name and number, only to have a red BEST bus zoom past him and stop him in his tracks. It was a 255. He will still remember the bus number many years later.

If this were any other love story, Mishka would be waiting at opposite side of the road, waiting for bus to pass. But this is not any other love story, so here Anay and Mishka met for the first time and parted ways too. It was 4 July 2008.

On her way home Mishka stopped at the vegetable stall at Juhu Church and picked up some coriander and lime. Tomorrows snack menu was wada pau, and she needed to go home and make a fresh pot of green chutney. Upon reaching home she debated between watching Grey's Anatomy or head to bed. Common sense prevailed and she went to sleep as she had to wake up at 5 am everyday.

Mishka ran a 'dabba' or tiffin service and the dabbawala was at her doorstep at 7am to pick up the 50 tiffin carriers that she prepared fresh each morning. Today's menu was chicken kheema, chapatis, raita, moong dal and wada pau for snack.

Mishka made the chutney first thing in the morning and added her own secret ingredient- peanuts. It is not a common found ingredient in green chutney, but it was her special touch. It added texture and gave the chutney a distinct 'Mishka flavor' as she liked to think of it.

Mishka's parents had named her Mythalie and her nickname became Mishti- which meant 'sweet' in Bengali. Mishka had spent her childhood years in Kolkatta and though neither of her parents were Bengalis, her mum was obsessed with all things 'bong'. And thus Mishti was what everyone called her.

When she was 18 and moved to Bombay to study, the first thing she did was to re-christen herself 'Mishka'. The name was inspired by her love for Russian literature. While other girls read Mills & Boons, Mishka re-read Anna Karenina for the umpteenth time. While other girls had their noses in crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie, Mishka could not put down her worn-out copy of Crime and Punishment.

Mishka studied Arts and Literature at Xavier's. It was an obvious choice and had received a nod of approval from both her parents. After graduation, it was expected of her to do her Masters and take up a respectable teaching job, followed by marrying a boy- need not be chosen by her parents, but should come from a 'cultured family' and should be a Chartered Accountant or Doctor or at least an Engineer. But Mishka had other plans for herself. She joined Dadar Catering College to learn professional cooking.

Mishka had to fly down to Kolkatta to console her mother and explain that it did not mean she hated her mum's food and it also did not mean her mum could not teach her to cook. 

After the initial shock and heart palpitations that Mishka gave her parents and family, everyone slowly settled down. And Mishka went on with her life. She was happiest when she was in the kitchen cooking, experimenting, tasting and feeding her friends her new creations.

After she finished catering school, Mishka took a loan from her dad and started her tiffin business. She dedicated it to her mum and called it 'Mishti's'. Within a year she had broken even, and within the following year she returned her dad's loan, with interest. By this time Mishka's mum had given up all hope of her marriage, and Mishka was left pretty much to her own devices

That day would have been an ordinary day, with everyday chores and humdrum routine. But that was not the case. It would be remembered as the day Anay and Mishka would curse each other for the rest of their lives.

Per normal, Mishka sent off the tiffins and left to buy the groceries for next days menu. Her phone was on silent so she did not notice the 12 missed calls from her assistant, Tripti. Upon reaching home a surprised Mishka called Trip ( as Tripti ordained she must be called. And well, Mishka always respected people who changed their names and insisted everyone call them that).

Trip picked up the phone with panic in her voice and told Mishka she was coming over as she could not explain what happened over the phone. Mishka was pacing up and down her balcony till Trip arrived anxiously wondering about what possibly could have happened. 

When the doorbell rang, Mishka nearly jumped out of her skin. She ran to open the door to see a rain-drenched Trip with an extremely worried expression. Mishka made her sit down and slowly Trip explained what happened.

One of Mishka's clients, a Ms. Kate D'costa, had called up Trip and informed her that her boss was going to sue 'Mishtis's' as despite giving strict instructions about his allergies, the food in the tiffin contained peanuts. 

Mishka then realized her mistake! She had one customer from an advertising agency whose PA had filled the registration form informing about his allergies. Mishka always prepared his tiffin separately from the rest as he was allergic to peanuts, cashew nuts, almonds- well all nuts actually- and shellfish also. However today as none of the items needed any of these ingredients, Mishka did not cook his meal separately. Except she forgot about the chutney!

The gentleman, named Anay Mathur, was now in the hospital because of Mishka's special touch of peanuts.

If this were any other love story, this day would be known as the day Anay would tell their grand kids  as 'the day when your grandmum nearly killed your grandad'. But this is not any other love story. So here this day will be known as the day when Anay was in hospital while Mishka met her future husband.

Trip assured her that the customer was out of danger, but her business could be in peril. As Mr. Anay Mathur was going to sue 'Mishtis's' for negligence.Trip advised Miskha to get legal advice at the earliest.

Mishka was not even sure where to begin! She has anticipated many things going wrong when running ones own business, but being sued was not one of them. She got in touch with Fixit. His name was actually Farhan, but since college days he was called Fixit as he fixed everyone's problems or at least introduced them to people who would do so.

And that is how Mishka met Vikramaditya Chatwal, Attorney at Law.

To say it was love at first sight, would be a lie. But to say Mishka was not smitten, would also be lying. When the very existence of what you have created with so much affection and passion is under threat, you naturally look to the person who is helping you save it as your messiah. And a wee bit of smitten-ness is only natural. 

Vikram did a great job of defending Mishka's interests, business interests strictly. To be honest, her family lawyer who had drafted her initial business contract had done a good job in CYA (covering your ass) or what's referred to as terms and conditions in legal language. They clearly stated that at any dietary specifications were limited to main food and could not be extended to accomplishments (in this case the chutney). This was drafted as most accompaniments tended to be store bought, and hence out of the business owner's control. The fact that the chutney was made by hand by Mishka herself was a small technicality that Vikram easily exploited.

Mishka did not need to meet Anay or even his lawyers for that matter. Vikram handled it all very admirably. For Mishka he was nothing short of her knight in shining armor. Handsome, charming and extremely attentive...what more could a girl ask for? And he was a lawyer! What more could the girl's mother ask for?

Within a year of wooing (on Vikram's part), swooning (on Mishka's part) and dating (naturally on both their parts), they got married. 

4 Dec 2011. Rustomji welcomed Mishka to Brittania. She was one of his favorite customers. Sorab the head waiter knew her order by heart. So Mishka settled comfortably at her table and started reading 'Persuasion'- it was the only Jane Austen she had surprisingly not read as yet. 

"Kem cho dikra", she heard Rustomji's loud voice yell. She looked up to see 'Rahul' standing 2 feet away from her. She still remembered him as 'Rahul' and thought about that day sometimes and wondered 'what if' to herself. 

It had been 3 years. She did not think he would remember. Little did she know that Anay remembered every little detail of that day very vividly. And he looked back at that day rather wistfully over the past years.

So when he saw her, his face broke out into a huge smile. He went up to her with a cheeky grin and said "Rahul. Naam toh  suna hoga". Mishka laughed out aloud, extended her hand and introduced herself as 'Maya'. 

Anay had imagined the scene when he would bump into Mishka countless times in his head, and in all those scenes, she was still his 'Maya'. He was thrilled that this was panning out just as he had imagined.

"Well this is just like 'Serendipity' with John Cusack and Diane Lane" said Anay.

"You are thinking of 'Must love dogs'. 'Serendipity' had Kate Beckinsale. I can see your movie references are still all messed up". She still had that mischievous glint in her eye, it had not faded one bit, thought Anay fondly.

"Well, I have never met anyone before who has done a PhD in movie lines" retorted Anay laughingly. "Mind of I sit down?"

She hesitated, but only slightly, before extending her hand to the chair next to her.

He sat down and contemplated deeply while reviewing the menu. "Berry pulao. That's the speciality here" advised Mishka.

"Oh I do know that, but I love their boti kebab as well".

"Why don't we order both and share?" suggested Mishka

"Excellent idea! But I won't share the caramel custard later", replied Anay, much to Mishka's amusement.

Suddenly looking up from the menu, Anay said, "You know what I hate"

"You mean besides girls who correct your movie reference pick-up lines?"

- "Yeah besides that. I hate that nowadays there is no mystery in meeting people. You know their life history down to the last meal they ate, all thanks to Facebook"

- "I know! It leaves no room for surprises!"

- "So what do you say, that for today, you be 'Maya' and let me be 'Rahul'"

-"I would really like that!"

With that 'Rahul' and 'Maya' settled into a comfortable conversation about everything under the sun, except telling each other their real names and professions.

After polishing off 2 caramel custards, each, the time had come to leave the cafe. Anay refused to let Mishka split the bill, and then they found themselves in the awkward moment, when neither wanted to leave, but they did not know how to ask the other to stay.

Anay looked up at the December sky and commented how it was his favorite time of the year. Mishka took the bait and complimented the beautiful breeze and suggested an after-lunch stroll. It was just what Anay was hoping for!

They walked towards Gateway of India and sat on the wall by the sea and played 'Spot the tourist'. Mishka explained that it was a game she and her friends had invented when they were in college and came here when they bunked their lectures. Gateway of India had hordes of visitors everyday. It attracted locals and tourists alike. 

Anay began, - "The family on your right, posing for the camera. Definitely out of towners"

- "Umm...good first attempt, but you got lucky. Camera is such an obvious clue!. The teenage couple feeding the pigeons- locals, but from the suburbs like Boravali or Vasai"

- "That is ridiculous! How can you possibly know something so specific?!?"

- "Cause they are too young to come to Bombay by themselves, and the way she has tied her hair in a braid, its obvious she is not from around here. Elementary my dear Watson"

- "So now you are quoting 'James Bond' to me?"

Mishka was about to yell 'No, Sherlock Holmes', but she saw Anay's cheeky grin and stopped herself while laughing out aloud.

Anay felt his heart skip a beat again, just like it had 3 years ago. Except this time he was not willing to let the moment pass. He took her hand and led her down the road. Mishka could not get herself to put a stop to this, even though she knew it was so wrong

They both needed their caffeine fix and went to Gaylords for coffee and cake. Mishka found herself telling him her childhood stories from Kolkatta and how now she could not consider any place other than Bombay home. Anay told her how he could see that. As she had no qualms about calling 'Calcutta' by its Indian name, but could get herself to call Bombay, Mumbai. 

Anay talked about how he grew up in America and never imagined he could live in India. And now he could not dream of a life anywhere else. Even though he travelled all over with his job from Budapest to Boston and Melbourne to Milan, Mumbai was still what he considered home. He explained that he came to the city after its rechristening, so calling it Mumbai is what felt right to him, not Bombay.

They went for a stroll to Marine Drive...still holding hands. By this time the sun was setting and it was the perfect time to sit down and look out into the Arabian sea. They sat quietly for what seemed like hours, their bodies closer, hands help tighter and Mishka's head on Anay's shoulder. She felt terribly guilty, however could not bear to let whatever was happening, and probably going to happen,stop. 

Anay could feel exactly what she was thinking. He did not want the evening to end either. But they could not sit like this forever, even though he did not want anything more.

He suggested having the famous sandwich ice-cream at Churchgate. Mishka's eye lit up and they walked towards the ice-cream stall. 

Anay had never seen anyone eat an ice-cream so sensuously. She removed the wrapper with utmost care, and slowly let her tongue caress the ice-cream. She then took a small lick, closed her eyes, and murmured 'ummm'. She then open her eyes to find Anay gaping at her with is jaw hanging. She should have been embarrassed, but for some reason she felt confident, almost brazen. And she simply continued savoring the ice-cream in the same way, while Anay struggled to look away while finishing off his ice-cream.

Short of nothing to say, he blurted, "This is just like the scene from 'For love or money' where Helen Slayter drinks water from the fountain and Michael J Fox can't stop staring". Mishka stopped eating, and shook her head slowly, "Well at least you got the actors right this time, but the movie you are thinking of is 'The secret of my success'".

"Well I give up! No more movie references. Ever."

"What would happen to all those pick-up lines then?" 

"I am hoping I never need to use them again", and with that he leaned forward and kissed her lips. He could taste the sweet strawberry, while she felt her lips feeling the chocolate. Suddenly she pushed him away and tried to move back. Anay pulled her towards him, held her from the waist and for the first time in his life begged..."Please stay". As she looked into his eyes she saw a fervent desire for her that she had never experienced before. She dropped her ice-cream to the floor and rushed into his arms. And stayed there for what felt like eternity.

As the stars came out in the sky, they continued their stroll. This time stopping every few minutes to kiss. And never once leaving each others hands.

They indulged in every cheesy cliche in the book, the Victoria ride, the late night strawberries and cream at 'Bachelors', the long drive back with Kishore Kumar and Lata songs on the radio. 

But the night had to end at sometime. 

Mishka  felt the need to be bound by their initial agreement and refused to let Anay drop her home. She got off at Bandra station, which meant she lived anywhere between Bandra and the end of the Western suburbs. Anay would have no way of finding out where.

Mishka entered her Juhu apartment close to midnight. She could not bear to think about the days events, as she knew she would break down into unending tears. In such cases, routine always helped. She decided to watch the Grey's Anatomy episode which had taped the previous night. And made a mental list of the next days menu. She reminded herself to not marinate the chicken afghani with egg, as one of her customers was allergic to egg. 

Which made her think of the last time she had forgotten a customer's allergies and it had lead to her meeting her now ex-husband Vikram. The problem with having a handsome, charming, extremely attentive lawyer as a husband is that there are many other smitten clients besides the wife.

If this were any other love story, Mishka would be calling Rustomji tomorrow to get Anay's number. 

But because this is NOT any other love story, Mishka shed a tear remembering how Anay slipped his wedding ring off his finger and hid it in his pocket, just before he had approached her table that afternoon. 

Parting note from the writer- There are many 'Rahul & Mayas' and 'Raj & Simrans'. But there are also many 'Anay & Mishkas'. Coz happy endings are not for everyone.

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