“We are not going there, the man is obviously a drug peddler,” I told my roommate and friend, even as Mitu shuffled around the hotel room, looking for her heels.
We were in Miami — I had moved to the United States on a work gig and a search for a housemate had led me to Mitu. My advert had called for a female, Indian (who else is going to tolerate the smell of turmeric, coconut, and other spices in the kitchen?) working roomie who could share the rent and was otherwise free of hangups.
Queries started coming in soon after the online post hit Craigslist. Only, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that most “working Indians” in the US were IT professionals, and the lion’s share of them were in the land of opportunities to scrimp and save as much money as they could before they could return home. Not exactly the kind of company I was seeking. I wanted to live, to see places, and make memories.
The first girl who walked in was a vegetarian. I am a Bengali, and a bona fide fish and meat loving one at that. One can imagine how that went.
The second girl came dressed in a Salwar suit, with a strong smell of coconut oil wafting from her as she walked into the living room. Now, this was downtown Chicago — the midwest of the United States. This was a workday — I pulled very early hours and got done by 4, and this girl had texted to say she would come straight from work. Who goes to work in Chicago wearing Salwar suits and drenched in coconut oil? On a regular weekday?
But I immediately scolded myself for giving in to superfluous, judgemental thoughts, and decided to give it a fair chance. After all, I can spend entire weekends in pajamas, binging on Netflix, not showering.
“Hey, so this is the house. It has only one bedroom, but there are two beds in there. You can take the one I’m not using. I have Wifi, cable and Netflix, and you are free to use the kitchen and everything else as you want. And I know your office, it’s just three stops on the Redline,” I chirped.
“Yes, thanks. I can keep my utensils and grocery separate if you want.”
What? I just said…. That’s the first thing she has to say? Ok, nevermind.
“So, what do you do on weekends? You said you’ve been here a year, so you must have done quite a lot of traveling?”
“Not really. I don’t go out. I haven’t travelled at all. My uncle and his family live in Naperville, I go there.”
All weekends for the entire year, I wondered. “Do you have friends? I sometimes have friends come over. Yours can too, no problem!”
“There are no Indians in my division, so I didn’t make any friends,” said the girl. And it was then that I knew that I could never bunk with her.
The third girl had given my shorts-clad legs such a look of disapproval I felt like I was walking down time-warped India of the 80s. Or Jackson Heights in New York. Or Keshavganj, the small Indian town I had grown up in — and god knows I hadn’t moved out of there to get judged for wearing shorts inside my own home. That’s why, when Mitu responded to my email, I only halfheartedly invited her over for a look-see.
When the bell rang, I was prepared for another disappointment, and ready to make peace with the fact that I won’t really find a roomie. It wasn’t like I needed the money, though it wouldn’t hurt to have more in the bank. The hunt was more for the company — coming back to an empty apartment day after day can get very tiring, no matter how many dinners and drinks and engagements you go to. And one can’t read or stream online all the time.
Mitu, Mitali Mahajan, was friendly, did not judge my clothes, did not spend all weekends at her uncle’s, and did not reek of coconut, or any other oil. She was…. for want of a better word, normal. Normal, like how one would expect a working girl in her late twenties to be. And, oh joy, she was part-Bengali. She had moved to Phoenix some years back to work, but was in Chicago for a year-long work project. And she had the toned body of a cross between an athlete and a model, which immediately made me conscious of my rice-eating self.
“I’m mostly out, travelling for work all week. It’s just the weekends I’ll really be in,” Mitu had said, in a very strong American accent. (International school in India, years in Arizona, and a job as a public relations agent, she explained when I couldn’t control my curiosity and asked).
Mitu had quickly settled in and we had become friends. We ate aloo poshto and maach (when we could find it) for lunch, went out for drinks, talked about our families and boyfriends and lived the proverbial life of two single women living by themselves in a big American city.
Now, we were in the middle of our first fight. We had travelled to Miami, unable to take the dreary Chicago winter any more, and Mitu had gotten talking to a bunch of men who had claimed the table next to us at Mr Chow. There was the usual light conversation, and the exchanging of numbers, followed by quintessential American “nice to meet yous.” Only now, he had texted her with an invite to a party at his place, which my middle class Indian mind had filed under “obviously ignore.”
And so I had changed for bed.
“We turned in early yesterday, Pritha. We did your thing. Why can’t we do my thing today? We are on a vacation in Miami. Even the restaurants don’t open before 12 in the afternoon!”
Mithu’s words were getting heated by the second, and I could feel my own temper rise. This guy was not my idea of a fun hangout. And come one, looks couldn’t be all that deceptive. Who wears a baseball hat backwards, dangles gold chains, walks around like Snoop Dogg, and texts random women to come to his house for a party late at night?
But then, Mitu’s points were valid. We were on vacation, and we did do “my thing” the first night. Which was basically scoping out the hot bars littering the beach, having a delicious dinner of lobsters and other Instagram worthy food accompanied by some strong cocktails, and then heading home to sink in the luxuriousness of the hotel bed. Barring the one instance where the maitre d had come up to say I couldn’t take off my shoes even though I was sitting, and the high heels were killing me, it had all been very enjoyable.
“Snap out, Pritha,” I told myself. “You obviously can’t let her go to this party alone, so better get out of bed.” To be honest, it wasn’t all my sense of duty for my friend. By now, my curiosity was piqued… if we didn’t have adventures now, when would we?
After bargaining that we wouldn’t carry swimming costumes — my way of putting my foot down to say we can look, but will not get in random people’s pools — I got dressed.
Fifteen minutes later, we were Ubering to a noticeably tony neighbourhood of South Miami, where the houses looked like they were sets on a television show. Front and back yards, garages that could hold four cars, and private pools with every property.
Turned out, it was Miami Snoop Dogg’s birthday (or at least, that’s what he claimed). There was a hot tub with the pool, and a bunch of young women (and some men) milling around the house, pouring in and out of the many bedrooms. Some were naked.
In the middle of the party, a girl suddenly took off her bikini, padded out of the pool, and started slow dancing with a frosted glass wall. I pride myself on not being a prude, but this threw me off completely. Unable to join in the clapping and cheering, I slinked away, looking for Mitu. She was still in the pool, dipping her feet in and sharing stories and more did the rounds.
I hit the home bar, which could put any middling pub in Bangalore to shame. Miami Snoop Dogg materialized from somewhere and poured me a drink.
And then, just like that, he told me me he was related to Pablo Escobar. I saw Mitu walk up to us, in time to hear that last bit of conversation. We quickly resorted to Bengali.
“Listen, I don’t want to end up dead in this house. Or go to jail with these guys.”
“Did he just say Escobar? Also, your eyes are quite red, by the way.”
“You’re one to speak. Can you believe this? Could this be more cliched?”
“I know, right? We are in Miami, and of course the rich guy throwing the crazy party is related to Escobar.”
“I think he means for it to be a pick up line.”
“Most probably. But hey, do you really want to stay and find out?”
“Ladies, I know you aren’t like the other girls here. Listen, I know how to respect women. Why don’t you stay over for the night, and I’ll get one of my valets to drop you off to your hotel first thing in the morning. It’s only a few hours now, anyway,” our host slurred. There’s a universality in the spoken language, rather, in its tone, that lets us understand if something is off, even if we don’t really understand the language. Our conversation was clearly giving of minor distress signals.
20 minutes later, we were back at our hotel, somewhat relieved, but also laughing about our little adventure/misadventure.
“I told you, this wasn’t a good idea girl.”
“Oh shut up. Now we have stories to tell our grandchildren.”
Get out, sister
That was a few years ago. Mitu is now married and we are both staying away from naked parties thrown by strangers.
I have returned to India, to the small town where I grew up. My name is Pritha : I am in my late twenties, lover of all things beautiful, reformed wild party lover, foodie, book lover, Harry Potter enthusiast (the books!), and currently unemployed. After more than a decade of working, I have decided to give writing a chance, and what better place to do that than in the place that holds all my adolescent memories?
So far, the only thing I’ve achieved is an empty Google docs page, where I type and delete and type and delete all day long. I have also gained 5 kilos from living close to my parents — like all middle class Indian mothers, ma expresses her love through food.
I am also getting increasingly drawn into the the local politics of my one-horse hometown, learning more about the inner workings of small-town, upper-middle class India than I have ever had a chance to.
The other thing I have is time. Time such that I’ve never had before — to think, to introspect, and to evaluate. Sometimes, it getting incredibly frustrating.
Like the other day, when Neena aunty came home.
“Arey Pritha beti, so you don’t have a job anymore? Are you just going to sit at home all day long?”
“Well, yes aunty. I mean I decided to take time off and do some writing.”
“What is this writing-shiting now? If you are not going to work, get married at least. You can write after that too, na?”
I sunk a little more into the sofa and pretended to the paper so intently that I didn’t hear her. Secretly, I was praying Neena aunty’s quips won’t rub off on my mother. Luckily, she was in the kitchen, making chai.
The truth is, I don’t know what I am doing, or even if it makes sense. Everyone knows how hard it can be to find a job in India. And yet, here I am, voluntarily trading my poster life of all things “New India”- the big city, the well paying job, the fun, the pace, the “getting ahead in life,” the foreign trips — for a semi — sanyaas, in a town where “excitement” is when the neighbour’s wife wears a short dress to a party.
Am I running away like a loser? Hiding under the garb of “writing” where in fact I have just lost the rat race to big money and big careers? I mean, Neena aunty had a point, right? One can write after getting married, it wasn’t like being single is a necessity for this. But who can I get married to? The last relationship I had went up in flames when I found out that the boy (man) I was going around with for three months was secretly dating my friend on the side. I confronted him, and he said we were never exclusive, so he does not owe me an answer.
I confronted my “friend,” and she said she simply didn’t know how to tell me. I take satisfaction in the fact that those two broke up in two months.
Before that, there was the passionate affair with the married man, which obviously did not have a future. I simply fell for the age old trope of “my wife and I are all but divorced.” If any of you out there are in a similar situation, listen to me real hard. S/he isn’t going to leave her/his spouse for you, OK? That is the truth. I am a smart girl, and I knew this. And yet I allowed myself to fall in the ditch, saved last minute by some very concerned but insensitive friends who rubbed my face in the fact that I was being an idiot. They also stuck by me while I cried and justified my actions to them (but really, more to me), and eventually told me to shove it up my a** and get a grip.
So, I’m going to repeat to you what my friend yelled at me one day, tired of taking in my constant emotional highs and lows. “You had your fun, now get out, sister.”
Which I did, with a lot of difficulty. And I decided to channelize my energies elsewhere. I worked hard, and partied harder. Tinder came in as a easy blessing (or so I thought), and I joined the dating pool.
Who knew modern dating can be so much work? Or maybe everyone did, but me. And funnily, while the nuances change depending on where you are in the world, I can now say with absolute authority that the basic rules stay the same. The moment a single girl meets a single guy, there are expectations and unwritten rules that come into play.
How soon is too soon before you respond to a message?
Am I being too unrealistic in my demands, Bollywood having successfully ruined my expectations of a partner?
I once met a third generation Indian American — lets call him Z- outside a bar, and it was all fun and games for a few days, and he asked me out. I wasn’t sure I wanted to date him, and wanted to give it more time. In that spirit, I asked him over for a party I was going to attend, hoping we could be friends and see “where it goes.”
One hour after the party had started, Z still wasn’t there. I called him up.
“Listen, I don’t want to go to this party till you can tell me if we are doing this or not. Are we dating?
“I told you, I am not sure.”
“Yeah well, I can’t come then.”
“You couldn’t tell me yesterday? I have been waiting for you to show up for an hour!”
“I am not your “friend”, and I don’t want to be.”
Lesson learned. Stringing anyone along, not right. But standing someone up, not right either. Asking for time? Not sure. How much time is too much time? Is Maine Pyaar Kiya coming true in all its 80s archaic glory? “Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho saktey.”
Wait, correction. “Ek unattached ladka aur ek unattached ladki kabhi sirf dost nahi ho saktey!”
We unfriended each other on Facebook, and that was that.
All my life I went to co-educational schools and colleges, and hung out with boys who were simply friends. That happens when you know the same set of people since you were 12 years old, and know all of their secrets. Most of us migrated to the big city as we looked for further degrees and jobs, and I carried my little small town bubble with me, looking outside-in into the world of big-city classmates and Gucci wearing assignment partners, sometimes hanging out with them, yes, but mostly making fun of their social playbooks and coming back to the safety of my world as I had grown up knowing it.
The first time I had to adjust without that safety net, I nearly broke down. College in Pune was a learning experience in itself. I had a pedigreed-enough educational lineup, and I was aware of the big-city trappings before I decided to seek my destiny some more, but Pune was the first time I had to navigate myself through the world without my support system of time tested friends.
Everything was an adjustment. A professional degree at one of the top colleges in my stream meant we were all being worked to the bone — something I slowly came to look forward to, because the other alternative was to socialize.
There were friends, yes, but the early twenties is when you realise that “grown up friends” are never the same as childhood buddies. The brainiacs were too steeped in note-taking and career building, the rich “management quota” folks were fun but came from a different social setting altogether, the “babes” and “jocks” were their own clique, and I had no idea where I fit in.
The louder and flashier you were, the more cheers you got when you made a presentation. The quiet, unassuming ones got good scores, but somehow never worked their way up the popularity ladder. And popularity can be very important for a twenty year old.
One day, we were working on an assignment when someone brought up Thomas Hardy. I chimed in happily, seeing as he was one of my favourite authors. I think were were talking about Tess when our third assignment partner walked in.
“You’re talking about Hardy? I used to read them so much when I was in school. I love the Hardy Boys,” she quipped.
The rest of us gave each other silent looks, pulled up our laptops, and got typing.