Candidate No.23 by Shruthi Padmanabhan

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 6.06.51 pm

Present Day, Besant Nagar Beach

Aparna watched as he walked away. But she knew he wouldn’t turn around and she knew he’d never call back. There goes candidate no.23, she thought to herself. One more guy who didn’t get it. One more guy she’d have to explain to her parents. One more guy she’d spend an inordinate amount of time over-analyzing with her friends. One more guy.

She sat and watched him until he got in his car and drove away. She paid the bill and went to sit by the water. She sat on the slightly wet sand and watched the grey sea ebb and flow. For some reason, she never ever saw the sea be a shade of blue in Madras. She saw plenty of photographs of the sea all across the world, all blue and all gorgeous, but in Madras the sea was an indeterminate colour. Sometimes it was grey, sometimes it was, well, it was some colour for sure.

It was a surprisingly overcast day for Madras. Unseasonal. If the news was to be believed all of India was reeling under a cold snap, and yet, Madras seemed to have missed the memo. And right now, she wondered why she was thinking of everything but Deepak walking away from their conversation.

***

March 2013

Aparna was 26. Single. She looked in the mirror, long and hard at herself. She had, in her twenties managed to acquire about five grey hairs. And it excited her, this overt display of maturity and wisdom. Not that she was anything but wise for her years, but it helped when one looked one’s age, or so she thought. The second her mother discovered the greys, when she parted her hair from the right, she brought out the tweezers to pull them out. Aparna refused.

Aparna, in her own esteemed opinion, looked average. Although, the men who hit on her at Zara or Illusions or Blend under the influence of martinis and whiskeys sang a different tune. If she was such a hottie, then why was she single? She could have anyone she damn well pleased, if public opinion was to be believed, and yet, here she was, standing in front of the mirror, critically examining her eyeliner and lip tint to check if she had gone a little overboard.

“What the hell are you wearing, Apu?”

She rolled her eyes. Amma never approved of anything she wore.

“There’s nothing wrong with what I’m wearing.” She replied in as flat a voice as she could muster under the circumstances.

“I mean… it’s cotton.”

“It’s 10.30 in the morning, I don’t see why I have to wear a silk sari. We aren’t going to a wedding.”

“We’ll only be going to weddings and never planning one if you dress like this and make no effort. Apu, they’re coming all the way from Bangalore to see you. Why won’t you even try?”

“Try what?”

“Try being proper for once in your life!”

Aparna turned to her mother, her exasperation clearly written on her face.

“Amma, I’m in a salwar kameez, I’m even wearing a dupatta, I’ve got bangles and earrings on, I’ve braided my hair. I fail to understand how any of this is improper.” She mentally congratulated herself for not yelling.

Her mother just blinked at her, shook her head and left the room.

Aparna considered herself a skilled veteran at these arranged marriage boy’s-family-meets-girl’s family rituals. For all the pretense that they were modern, her parents had very rigid ideas about what was proper and what wasn’t and they never hesitated to impose their many clashing ideologies on Aparna. She ignored whatever of it she could and went about life her own way. This meant that weekends were a time of great distress. As her parents complained incessantly about her late Friday nights, and she nursed her hangovers with as straight a face as possible.

She had never been in a serious relationship. She’d been in love. Once. But since then there had been no one in her life. No one who meant anything more than sex, and a few dates that left her feeling pleasant… but not excited.

Growing up, like every girl did, she always thought of herself as that one girl who’d have an epic romance that was worth sharing with the world. And everyone would gush about how lucky she was to have found love and how they all thought she was one half of a perfect couple. She thought she had that. Once. But he had moved on. He was married now and his wife was pregnant with their first child. Aparna had become a footnote in her own epic romance.

The doorbell rang and Aparna took a deep breath and exhaled.

“The circus begins. Bring on candidate number 20.”

The brunch was a disaster. The guy was shorter than she’d imagined him to be. Then there was the language problem. He didn’t speak any English. And he kept staring at her chest.

Her parents sat in the living room. Looking dejected, per usual. She knew that they knew the second whatshisname walked into their house that this wasn’t going to pan out.

“So, what did you think Appa?”

“I don’t know why I thought he was different. His profile seemed okay.”

“We could have avoided it if you’d just let me chat with him first,” she said.

“I won’t allow it Apu. It’s not right for you to be conversing with these strange men. They might be dangerous.”

“Not dangerous enough to invite to our house?”

“That’s not the point.”

“Then what is?” Aparna got up from her chair and went and sat next to her father on the sofa. She leaned against him and just sighed.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong kanna. Maybe these people know about your partying, I’ve told you a million times not to go out and be seen in these bars and pubs and discos. What will people think?”

She sighed. Louder this time. She’d lost count of the number of times her father had made this comment and she’d also lost count of the number of times she replied and the number of times it turned into an ugly shouting match between her and her parents.

When they were at their club, her parents were the epitome of so-called cool. They had the right opinions and thoughts and when the topics of conversation veered towards the mildly controversial, their friends turned to them expectantly, and her parents never disappointed them. Then they all exclaimed at her parents’ modern outlook and told her how lucky Aparna was to have such parents.

When it came to Aparna, however, her parents turned into completely different people. Everything from the neckline of her clothing to where she went with her friends on a Friday night was considered a subject of conversation and ever since she was thirteen all the conclusions were the same – ‘what will people think? You have to get married one day.’

***

July 2014

Candidate number 22. 22 was a small number. She knew friends who met a new guy each month, and were somehow unfazed by the whole thing. Of course, all of these girls had boyfriends that their parents were trying to exorcise from their lives, but, none of them gave in. They all stoically put up with what they called the donkey parade and went back to insisting that it was the boyfriend or no one.

For her it used to be Neeraj. He was closest to the perfect guy in every way. He was her best friend, her drinking buddy, the one guy who understood her, but things hadn’t worked out. Neeraj, it turned out was not very different from everyone her parents tried to foist on her. He wanted a wifey wife, not a career wife. It didn’t matter to him that Aparna was a lecturer in the English department at Madras University. One of the youngest to get the job. it helped that she did her M.Phil at the University and when her class had graduated they were looking for someone to replace a faculty member who had gone on maternity leave. Aparna, applied just for fun, she didn’t think they’d give her the temporary post since she hadn’t cleared any of the necessary exams. But since she was an ex-student, they offered her a part-time position. Post-baby, Prof. Radha resigned and by then Aparna had written and cleared the teaching exams. She formally applied and got the job.

Neeraj disapproved of her having even a career. He felt that he was earning enough for the two of them and since his parents had bought him a flat, there was no need for a second income.

She had no idea why she’d rewound to Neeraj today. Today was Sunday and she hated doing this to her Sundays. But she couldn’t take it out on anyone, she had only herself to blame. She told her parents that she would meet potential grooms only over the weekends. Since all the parties involved were employed, it would be convenient for everyone. It was the only thing her parents had agreed to.

She was hoping that luck would smile on her for once and the person at the door would be someone she could tolerate for longer than five minutes. But Aparna realised the second she opened the door that luck was her mortal enemy.

The guy in front of her was the same guy who threw up on her brand new Aldo pumps at Blend on Friday night. Her friends had spotted him across the bar. He’d had only two beers and was swaying around like a tree in a cyclone. The girls just ignored him but he walked right up to them with his finger swinging wildly in the air as if he was making a valid point, and stopped dead in front of her group. He stared for a few minutes and then puked all over Aparna’s new shoes.

After the introductions were made, Aparna and No.22, were sitting at the dining table.

“I’m sorry about your shoes.”

“You should be.”

“Wow. You don’t have to be so bitchy about it. They’re just shoes.”

“I spent 4,000 on them. I’ll be the judge of whether I want to be bitchy or not.”

He mumbled something under his breath.

“Did you say something?”

“No. No. Nothing.”

They just sat at the table, fidgeting with nothing in particular.

“So, why is a girl like you going through arranged marriage?”

Aparna’s head snapped up. “What do you mean?”

“I didn’t mean to insult you or anything.”

“Look, I was in a relationship, and it didn’t work out, so I figured why not…”

“Oh. Speaking of relationships, I actually need to tell you something. I’ve been seeing someone for five years now and I haven’t told my parents about her. They’ve been pestering me for years now to participate in this nonsense and I’ve evaded them all this time. But my father insisted that this time I come and meet you. But I keep thinking that I’m somehow cheating on my girlfriend.”

“I wouldn’t count this as cheating.”

“I know it isn’t. But it just feels wrong. I’m planning to tell my parents soon. I’ll take them out to dinner and ask my girlfriend to come as well. I’ve met her parents and they’re ok. Convincing my parents will be tough… But I’ll do it.”

Aparna’s father came over. “You two seem to have a lot to discuss.”

“Karthik was just telling me about one of his English professors.”

“Well, I’m sure you can discuss more when you talk later, I hope you’ve exchanged numbers.”

“We have,” Aparna lied and looked across at Karthik. He just smiled gratefully at her.

“Good. Good. Karthik, your parents wondered if you were ready to go home.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll join you all in a minute.”

“Good. Good.” Aparna’s father left them alone.

“Thanks a lot, Aparna. I hope you meet someone you like.”

“Good luck with your parents.”

She was happy to watch them leave.

“Well, I’m hoping to hear from them soon. They seem like such lovely people,” Aparna’s father said and reached out for one of the macaroons at the table.

Aparna watched her father. So at ease with life and with himself. He was so sure of everything, down to the fact that he didn’t like collared t-shirts. Everything about her father spelled surety and Aparna found herself being jealous for a moment. She never really knew if she was sure of anything in her life. Watching her father make macaroons disappear made her wonder if her life was nothing but a series of events that were enacted just to provoke her parents into realising that they were the typical Indian stereotype they tried so hard to avoid being.

“Appa?” Her father turned to her, half a macaroon in his hand and the other half being chewed with great relish. He looked at her expectantly, waiting, it seemed, for her to launch into a series of explanations about why she liked Karthik. For once, after such a morning, her parents looked relaxed. And if Karthik hadn’t said what he had to her, she would have been relaxed too. Despite the puking, she thought Karthik was a nice guy. Maybe if she got to know him better, she might have said yes to marrying him. But, knowing what she did, she couldn’t in good conscience let him down. Her father was now attacking the murukku.

“I don’t think this is going to work out. He is seeing a girl and is planning to tell his family about her.”

Her father looked dejected. She could have sworn he’d already planned the wedding, caterers included, and designed the wedding card as well.

“But how do you know this about him? Have you met him at some club? I’m sure that’s how you know,” her mother said.

Aparna just rolled her eyes. In her mother’s opinion, Aparna was an immoral reprobate, and marriage was somehow going to cure all her evils and place a halo around her head.

“Karthik told me about his girlfriend. That’s how I know,” she said.

A few days later, Karthik’s family called Aparna’s father to let him know that their son had other plans, and that they were sorry but they couldn’t take things forward.

“Apu, where are you?”

“Coming Appa, just give me a minute, I’m on a call. It’s from work.”

Aparna’s mother shook her head. “You know, Ram, she thinks we’re fools. If it’s a work call why can’t she take it in the living room? Why does she have to stand in the balcony and talk so quietly?”

“Jalaja, the balcony has better network coverage, and you know it. The three of us take all our important calls standing on the balcony!”

“That’s not the point. It’s 9 in the night. What is so urgent that she has to take a work call now? She’s a lecturer for god’s sake. What crisis could the university be having at this time of the day?”

Aparna walked in and sat at the dining table. “Enna pa?”

“Karthik’s family called today, they’re trying to talk him out of his relationship, but he isn’t budging. Just thought I’d let you know.”

“Oh, that’s quite decent of them to call. Also, I’ll be coming home later than usual starting tomorrow. We’re beginning production for this year’s play, so I’ll be busy with auditions and readings for the next few weeks.”

“Already? Seems like your last play was staged just now,” her father said.

Aparna just smiled at that. In her profession the New Year came twice, January 1st and the beginning of a new academic year.

“Apu, please, stop with your excuses. If you have a boyfriend just tell us now! All this business of being late at work is nonsense. Why can’t they finish up at a decent time?”

“Amma if you’re so suspicious, why don’t you spend some of your precious money and arrange for someone to follow me around and give you a damn report!” Aparna got up and left, she didn’t touch her dinner.

“Jalaja, that was uncalled for.”

“Please Ram, I know I’m right.”

Aparna was angry. She didn’t understand why her mother had only one way of thinking – suspiciously. Even if Aparna was in the same place as her mother, she was guilty of something that pertained to secrecy and sex. What on earth could she possibly do to make her mother believe her? Was it even worth her time to make her mother believe her? Sometimes she wondered if her future husband would respond like this too.

***

January 2015

Everyone loved the show. Aparna was backstage congratulating her students when Adil, who played Hamlet, ran up to her and hugged her, “Ma’am, superb show. What an amazing start to the new year!”

Aparna hugged him back. Soon she was enveloped in a group hug.

Adil was a discovery. He seemed so shy and introverted when he joined the class that she didn’t think he’d mouth a line of dialogue, but he just needed some motivation.

“I’m so glad everything went off well. What say we go out and celebrate tomorrow evening?”

“Ma’am, as long as celebrate means food, we’re in,” he said.

Aparna couldn’t help but laugh. Her students were all hostellers who were perpetually hungry and were always eating.

“Fine, I’ll take you out for pizza. Idiots. Now get out of here.”

Aparna turned to see her parents standing in the wings. Her mother looked like she was in the middle of one of her famous suspicious rages.

Aparna waited until the last student was out before she paid off the venue manager and the other staff. She went to the green room to pick up her bag and smiled at the signed card her students had left for her with a single red rose. She held the flower in her hands and walked out to her parents, her father was about to say something to her when her mother snatched the flower from her hands and threw it to the ground and slapped Aparna.

Aparna’s eyes had filled up and her cheek stung from the slap.

“Apu! I cannot believe that you’ve been using this play as an excuse to seduce young boys. How disgusting!”

Aparna and her father just stared at her mother.

“I know that’s what you’ve been doing. You remember your suggestion about hiring a detective? Well, I did and your secret life is not a secret anymore! Do you want to see his file? Drinking tea with these boys, laughing with them, holding their hands, hugging them. What did you think? That we wouldn’t find out?”

“Jalaja, I can’t believe you would resort to such cheap tricks.”

“What cheap tricks Ram?” Her mother cried. “What cheap tricks? I’ve been telling you from the beginning that our daughter behaves like a slut. She sees a man, any man, and loses all sense of who she is and where she’s from. Those photos are so shameful. And you saw the way that boy hugged her. He’s her student. I don’t remember hugging my teacher like that. Why does he have to hug her?”

“Let’s go home. We’ll talk about this there,” her father said.

Aparna sat in the back seat of the car wondering just where things had gone so wrong that her own mother spoke of her like this. And to think she was being followed all these days by some shady detective who was taking photographs of her in class, interacting with her students, and giving them to her mother who misinterpreted every single one of those images. It hurt.

Her father unlocked the house and Aparna’s mother didn’t wait for the door to close before resuming her rant. She grabbed Aparna’s arm.

“What do you have to say for yourself? Do you know what these boys are thinking about you? Just look at these photos!”

Aparna’s mother threw a white envelope at her husband. Aparna sat on the sofa and her father next to her and they looked at the pictures. Each of them had captured Aparna’s animated face. Sometimes she was taking selfies with her students, sometimes she was laughing like everyone else in the group, and in some she was holding a student’s hand, saying something.

“Appa, I can explain every one of these photos.”

“You don’t have to,” her father said, sympathetically.

“Ram, these boys don’t think of her as a teacher. Why don’t you see that?”

Aparna finally spoke up.

“Amma please don’t ever try to speak to me again if you have nothing nice to say to me. I’m tired of this cycle of hurtful accusations. Goodnight!”

“Just look at her go. Thinks she’s better than everyone. I know her for who she truly is. You’d think I got older magically. I’ve got more knowledge of the world and it’s not as rosy as my delusional daughter thinks it is.”

“Jalaja, for once, I beg you, just shut up,” her father said and went out.

“I’m right, Ram,” her mother said to an empty room.

Aparna sobbed in her room. She couldn’t believe that hidden under the veneer of “Try and be proper for once” was the “you’re a slut and I believe that completely” subtext. She lay awake all night, thinking. As a child, Aparna was the darling of the home. Her parents adored her and were her friends and partners in crime. Until she turned 13. And she no longer focussed all her energies on dance, music, and French class alone. She enjoyed them, but she also enjoyed gossiping with her friends, huddling over fashion magazines, talking about boys.

She was a happy child and a happy teenager, but she noticed her mother’s behaviour changing over the years. Suddenly t-shirts were a no because her breasts could be noticed. Aparna was not allowed to wear anything other than lip balm or Vaseline on her lips. She had to keep her hair oiled all the time. She couldn’t wear skirts, except the school uniform. She was banned from receiving phone calls from her friends. She was not to go out and play with the kids in the colony. And god forbid if some boy called her house! How did he get their number? Did she have no shame, handing out her phone number to boys? They must all be saying how easy she is. At the time Aparna didn’t know what easy meant. She kept telling her mother that they called to find out about homework, but her mother never believed her. Why homework? Were they absent from class that they needed to call about homework? Why Aparna and not any other girl? Pretty girls like her who were also voluptuous were easy targets. Her mother, it seemed, didn’t think beyond her daughter’s sexual appeal. Even if her daughter was a gangly fourteen-year-old who was too shy and awkward to live up to the notorious reputation her mother had carefully constructed for her.

Her mother stopped harassing her when she was in college, because Aparna went to an all-girls college. But the tirades began in earnest, again, when she went to a University for her M.Phil. But the difference this time was that Aparna also went out every once in a while for a drink with her friends and her mother was one accusation away from branding her daughter an escort.

Slowly the conversations turned to how they were ever going to get her married off if she was of such poor character. No one would want a girl like her as his wife.

After that night, Aparna stayed true to her word and did not speak to her mother. The silence in their home was deafening. Her father, she could tell, was torn between the two, but to his credit he didn’t get involved.

A couple of weeks later, her father it seemed was still hard at work on the quest to find his daughter a husband.

“Apu, can you check out the link I’ve opened on the internet and let me know what you think.”

Aparna couldn’t stop her smile. She was always amused at her father’s language when it came to technology.

The guy looked okay. He was wearing good clothes and had a nice smile. According to his profile he worked in Chennai and was in IT. He didn’t mind a working wife, as long as she was not in IT too. Aparna she wanted to speak to him before meeting him. And she told her father as much. To her surprise, her father agreed.

“Why? So she can seduce him into marrying her? Just fix it and get this whole thing over with. When I was her age, I didn’t have these freedoms,” her mother shot out. Aparna almost reacted but she just shook her head and looked at her father.

“Appa, please, I’ve never asked you this before… Just this once…”

“Okay. I’ll give him your number and he’ll get in touch. Unless you want to reach out first.”

“No, no, let him.” And she left for work.

By that evening, Aparna got a text from Candidate No.23, Deepak, and by dinner, Aparna had exchanged about 60 texts with him, and she was waiting for his phone call at 9pm, and that’s how the Deepak chapter began.

***

Besant Nagar Beach, February 2015

She was finally meeting Deepak. She’d told Appa and he hesitated, but Aparna  convinced him. He was late. Half an hour late and Aparna was angry. If there was one thing she disliked in a person it was tardiness. She simply failed to comprehend late coming. Her phone buzzed.

“Hey! Are you the girl in the white top and jeans standing near Pupil?”

“Yeah, that’s me. I don’t see you though.”

“I just drove past you. I’m parking now, I’ll see you in a minute.”

She was still annoyed. She saw a tall guy walk towards her. He was wearing jeans, a short kurta, aviators, and kolhapuris. He also had an awesome smile. It helped that waiting meant a good looking face at the end of it.

“Hi! It’s nice to finally put a face to the voice.”

Aparna just smiled back, “Do you want to find a place to sit?”

“Sure.”

He seemed oblivious to her temper. He’d find out soon enough. She didn’t want to be one of those women who argued standing on the pavement. They found seats outside Pupil and ordered a plate of fries and a couple of cokes.

“Deepak, before we delve into anything at all, can I just say how much I hate people who are late. I’ve literally come all the way across the city, and I’ve waited a full half hour. It’s rude, not to mention bad manners to keep a woman waiting, I hope this is not something you do on a regular basis.”

He looked very sheepish.

“Actually, I was here well before 5. I’ve been so nervous about meeting you…  I mean, this is a first for me, meeting a girl with the sole purpose of deciding whether I want to marry her or not, and all this with no cushion of her home and both sets of parents.”

“I don’t know what to say to that.”

“Just say that you forgive me, and let’s talk. I have so much office gossip to share!”

Aparna smiled at him. She was early for precisely the same reason that he was late.

“You mean there’s a development in the Meenakshi-COO romance?”

Deepak laughed out loud. “Amazing. I didn’t even have to build up to anything.”

“The suspense is killing me. What happened?”

“They were caught in a, how should I say this, compromising position…”

“No way! By whom?”

“By the COO’s wife of course. She went into his room to surprise him, and screamed so loud the entire floor ran to his office and saw Meenakshi topless, scrambling for her clothes!”

“Really? Shit. Poor Meenakshi!”

“Well the big boss came to inquire about the commotion, took in the entire scene and fired them both on the spot.”

“I’d never have thought IT was this exciting.”

“Yeah, after this, I’ll have nothing exciting to report for the next five years!”

“It can’t be that boring.”

“Trust me, it is that boring.”

Aparna was laughing at that when their order arrived and the waiter also handed Deepak an envelope and walked away. Deepak opened it, and took out a bunch of photographs that he went through quickly. He put the photographs back and took a deep breath before looking at Aparna squarely in the eye and saying, “You know, I didn’t realize that teaching English would be this exciting.”

Aparna was confused. She looked around her and went cold. She saw her mother’s car across the road. Her mother had lowered the windows and was smirking at her. The window went up and her mother drove away. She couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her face.

“Care to explain yourself?” She didn’t know how she managed to choke that out.

“Well, it looks like you need to do the explaining.” He gave her the envelope. She knew what was in it. They were the same photographs her mother showed her after the play.

“Deepak, I’m one of the youngest lecturers in the department and the students treat me as an equal.”

“Looks to me like you return their affections.”

“I do, but not in the way you’re implying. I’d never cross that line.”

“But these photos… they all seem a bit too friendly, no?”

“That’s unfair.”

“Tell me Aparna, did you ever take selfies with your professors in college?”

Aparna was quiet. There was no point in explaining this to him at all.

“Don’t you have anything to say to me?”

Aparna tried to explain her role as a theatre director and how it involved helping young students become comfortable with their bodies and that she would never cross a line with her students, but ran out of words after that.

“I can’t believe that you’re able to justify this as innocent.”

She wasn’t looking at Deepak. She was looking at the beach. It had filled up with the evening throng. Already her body felt sticky with the humidity. Her mind had already concluded that Deepak would be Candidate No. 23. Nothing more than that. Inspite of everything he was going to be a number.

“Look at me Aparna.”

She turned to him.

“I don’t think I’m comfortable with this. You’ll probably be better off with someone who is more open-minded about such things. I know I’m not.”

And with that he got up and left. He hadn’t even paid his share of the bill.

While she was waiting for change, she called her father, “I hope your wife is happy.”

She hung up before her father could reply. She took the change and walked towards the sand.

 

shruthi

Shruthi Padmanabhan is a former journalist, now aspiring writer, and full-time army wife. She teams up with her husband to temporarily adopt stray dogs wherever they move.