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Saturday, 25 August 2012


I locked the door of my apartment, entered the elevator, and sleepily waited for it to take its time to reach the ground floor. I unlocked my mailbox, not really expecting to find anything, but looking just in case my parents had sent me a letter from our home in Pune. I always hoped to get news from them: they were beginning to get old, and a little bit frail. The air-letter, which I found in the box that spring morning in 1989, did not bear either of my parents' handwriting. I flipped it over, and found that the sender was Renuka Patel, the daughter of one of my parents' friends in Bombay. I tore it open quickly, wondering why on earth she should have written to me. We had met several times in India, and I had found her to be quite friendly, but not someone whom I counted amongst my closest of acquaintances.

Before beginning to read her brief letter, I looked up briefly and glanced the notice by the front door that announced that "Every Friday between 9.00 am and 11 am the exterminator will visit this apartment block." This sign always brought a smile to my face. I read Renuka's letter quickly before stepping out into the already warm early morning sunshine beating down on East 57th Street.

As I waited for a cab to take me to my office near Wall Street, I marveled at what Renuka had written. She said that her brother Vivek, who lived and worked in Boston, had been sent photographs of me, and was keen to meet me. I wondered who had sent him these. I was certain that it was not my parents. 

As my cab moved jerkily southwards along Fifth Avenue, it dawned on me that I was already twenty-eight, and that no one had ever proposed to me. This was not strictly true: my parents had received plenty of marriage proposals for me, but had never bothered to pass them on to me. 
They had had a 'love marriage', and had assured me that I would never have to consider having an 'arranged marriage' if I did not want to. Marriage was not top of my list of worries. Being a compliance officer in a merchant bank provided me with enough pressing concerns. Something, maybe it was curiosity, made me decide at one of the numerous red stop-lights that it might be fun to experience 'meeting a boy'.

A week or so later, I stepped of an aeroplane at Logan Airport, and took a cab to a hotel in downtown Boston. It was noon when I finished applying my eye-liner and mascara. I took a final look in the mirror on the oversized dressing table in my excessively large bedroom, and set off to meet Vivek for a lunch date, as previously arranged by 'phone from my office in New York.

Vivek lived alone in a luxurious block in Cambridge, not far from MIT. I stepped out of the elevator, and saw him standing at the door to his apartment. He looked older than me. A few strands of his greying hair had been brushed over the top of his head in a pathetic attempt to hide a bald patch. My heart sank, but I smiled, sweetly I hoped.

After exchanging pleasantries in his sitting room, he said: 
"I'll get us some snacks before we go out to lunch."
The bowl of snacks, which he fetched from his kitchenette, consisted of a pile of nacho crisps partially hidden by a glue-like skin of what must once have been molten cheese.
"Do you drink?" he asked. "Alcohol, I mean."
"Sure," I answered, thinking that anything would do to help wash the almost inedible corn crackers down my throat. 
He ambled back to the kitchenette, rummaged about in his large refrigerator, and returned empty-handed, saying,
"There's only beer."
"Never mind," I replied. "Maybe, we can drink something else at lunch."
"Hmmm," he mumbled.
Being quite hungry after my early departure from New York, I picked at the gooey mass on the low glass table that separated my chair from the sofa on which my host had stretched himself almost languidly. I looked at him. His shirt was not fastened completely. His tie was sloppily fastened. 

After I had eaten a few more nachos, and we we had discussed our professions and the relative merits of the colleges at which we had studied our MBAs, he became silent. Was he concerned, I wondered, that I, a woman and far younger than he, had a more senior position in my company than he had in his? Or, was he concerned that my MBA was only from Salford, whereas his was from Harvard? 

I was still hungry despite the few nachos, which I had managed to force down my throat without having seen any sign of a drink, even it it had been going to be 'only beer'. When he had assured me that he wished to marry an intelligent girl - someone with whom he could have serious discussions - he announced:
"As you've had something to eat already, and could do with losing some weight, let's not bother with lunch."
I was outraged - I knew that my figure was not stick-like: I wasn't a Twiggy - but, overweight I certainly was not.
Moreover, with his well-developed paunch, he was in no position to criticise my appearance. 

He stood up. I could sense that he wanted me to leave. I was not sorry: it was not a moment too soon.
"Let's meet for dinner. At eight this evening? Ok with you?"
I nodded. I had come to Boston especially to meet Vivek, knew no one else in the city, and had nothing else planned before my return flight the next day.
"Eat meat?" he asked whilst holding open his apartment door.
"I do."
"Well, we cook vegetarian at home. I'll expect to eat veg only when we're at home. You can cook our Gujarati food?"
I nodded, lost for words. However, had I been less well brought up I would have obliterated his supercilious smile with a sharp blow from one of my fists. To hell with non-violence!
"I'll see you at eight, but where?"
Vivek gave me the address of a restaurant in downtown Boston.

The candle-lit restaurant that Vivek had selected was vegetarian. It served mainly Middle-Eastern dishes. We sat awkwardly, reading the menu, but despite my suggestions, Vivek ordered what he wanted without any reference to me. This annoyed me.
"Would you be happy to have children," I asked him, guessing this is something one ought to ask when 'seeing a boy'.
He looked at me horrified, and asked:
"How can you suggest such a thing?"
I think that he must have noticed me raising my eyebrows.
"We're both in the twilight of our lives," he explained.
I was only twenty-eight, for heaven's sake, and he could not have been more than ten years older. 
"Kids? Oh no! They'd just get in our way. Spoil our lives. When we're married, we will work, and go on lovely vacations together. Kids - definitely not - there's no two ways about it."
I was dumbfounded even though I had already decided that Vivek was a lost cause.

Then, he looked at me and said:
"I've ordered us a special dish."
"Really?" I asked, trying to smile, rather than to begin laughing at him.
"Yes, you won't have come across it before," he said condescendingly. "It is made from thin pastry filled with cheese and spinach."
This was the moment I had been waiting for.
"Spanokoppitas," I said, smiling broadly. "I used to eat that frequently when I worked for KPMG in their Athens office."
Vivek's face assumed a sulky expression, which he was unable to shake off for the rest of the evening.

On my return to New York, I wrote to Renuka, thanking her for introducing me to Vivek. I told her tactfully that although I had spent a pleasant time with her brother in Boston, I thought it highly unlikely that anything marital would work out between us, because of our differing views on bringing children into our lives.