I took a deep breath to deflate my stomach in order make the button slip into its designated hole. When that failed to yield results on the eleventh attempt, I decided I had had enough, and dejectedly extricated my legs from the fancy pair of slim fit jeans I had bought just last month. It had fit then, but an intervening month of exams between then and now had led my exercise schedule astray. With the result that twenty minutes later, I stepped out of the tiny one BHK Rajinder Nagar apartment I shared with Priyanka, in my regular, much soiled, pair.
My metro card showed that the thirty-minute ride to Khan Market had left me poorer by fifteen bucks. I did a mental calculation to reassure myself that the free lunch that awaited me would be enough compensation for these necessary expenses. Priyanka had insisted that it would be- it wasn’t everyday that a cousin anchored in the city and offered to take a penniless member of kin, especially one she did not take a particular shine to, out to lunch. To an abstractly named restaurant whose upmarket location promised it would be an expensive affair. If nothing else, I could order the most expensive dishes on the menu and have the satisfaction of bleeding her dry of her month’s salary. And I could always go on my diet from the next day.
Malini di was waiting for me when I reached our designated meeting place. She was dressed in a lime green sleeve less kurta and a pair of slim fit jeans, and had clearly lost weight. That was enough to put me in a bad mood, made worse when she flashed me her dazzling smile. I attempted to smile back. But her expression showed that I had failed. I pointed to the sun to indicate that the heat had caused my sullenness, so she smiled again, this time a benign, kindly smile, and put her hand on my back ushering me into the cooler confines of the aforementioned abstractly named eatery.
A waitress proffered menu cards. I took one while Malini waved her hand to decline hers and asked for a pitcher of iced tea. She would have done well to check the price list before ordering that, I thought to myself.
“I am full, heavy breakfast at the hotel. You order”, she said.
I nodded and scanned the menu. I settled on a pasta and a slice of their famous mousse cake, fearing that she might not offer to buy dessert later.
“So, what’s up?” She beamed while waving her fingers in the air to indicate that the phrase was in quotes.
I did not want to confess to my eventless existence. So I vaguely hinted at a life filled with happening parties and glamorous friends, and then asked her what she was doing in the city.
“Oh, just a regular work assignment, “, she shrugged.
The conversation was flagging already. I racked my brains for other subjects we could talk about. She fiddled with her mobile. I knew she was looking at the time.
“You have to go somewhere?” I asked helpfully.
“No, later. How do I get to the Modern Art Gallery, from here?” she enquired.
“Take an auto from C sec,” I replied.
She looked puzzled.
“The Central Secretariat Metro Station”, I intoned.
She beamed again.
“You and your short forms”, she said.
I immediately wanted to slap her for acting like she was from a different generation.
Thankfully, the arrival of the food diverted my mind. I began wolfing it down as soon as the waitress set it down while Malini di looked on. I reluctantly offered her a spoonful. She declined.
“I have been putting on weight like crazy”, she explained while pointing at her slim waist to underscore her point. I again had a burning desire to slap her.
“So, why do you want to go to the art gallery? Sight-seeing?” I asked, to stop her from staring at my food.
“Yeah, you could say that. There is an exhibition on by Dhrittiman Ray. ” She answered.
I shook my head to indicate I had never heard of him.
“I am not surprised. You have lived in Delhi, all your life”, she said, smiling her kindly smile again. I sensed an insult. So I asked her what she meant, a little roughly, I suspect.
She hurried to mollify me.
‘No I meant he is an upcoming artist in Kolkata. Everyone knows him there. He is lesser known here. And you know you have to accept that people from Delhi are a little you know....” she searched for the right word. I refused to help her.
“You know...caught up in their lives. And more likely to be found at the mall or at a Shah Rukh Khan movie, than an art gallery”, she opined.
“Yeah, I agree,” I nodded sagely. “People here work hard all week, so at the end of the week they don’t want to be attacked by an exercise in self aggrandisement by a pseudo intellectual artist whose understanding of art matches that of a six year old with a set of crayons” I finished. Then rued that I hadn’t wiggled my fingers to indicate that the word artist was in quotes.
She looked taken aback at my verbosity. I decided I didn’t want to say anything else to antagonise her. After all, she was paying for the food.
Four months later Maa told me over the phone that Malini was getting married. The whole extended family was jubilant at the news. I was singularly disinterested.
“He is an artist. Very famous around here. Dhritimaan Ray,” Maa said.