Stout and plump, Mrs Sharma was also dressed in a garish red sari, matched by colourful sets of bangles that tinkled against each other as she proffered her namaste. But the similarities ended with the features because unlike her counterpart, the mother of the girl greeted her guests looking straight into their eyes.
After the courtesies were exchanged, they were led into the drawing room, which had a green sofa set on each side of the wall and a round table with a colourful spread of sweets and biscuits in the middle. Ram sat down, stealing a furtive glance of the room. Maya Devi, out of general courtesy parked herself on the edge of the sofa and Rajesh, on whom the blush still hung like a curtain, cringed next to her. The room was painted in grim gray, matched by a spread of dull linoleum on the floor. Ram reacted to the linoleum with a quick mental calculation.
"Hmm.no carpets. Perhaps doesn't want to show he takes bribes."
On top of the TV was a cluster of tiny animal statues, some wooden, some brass and some plastic. As Ram Kumar covertly continued his inspection, his eyes fell on the framed picture on the wall of Mr Sharma standing proudly in front of the Eiffel Tower. When he turned his head, he found Mr Sharma looking at him.
"My 1985 trip to Paris. Office expense. Beautiful city. Ever been there?" Ram, who had never been farther than India simpered, shaking his head. For some time they sat there smiling at everybody but nobody in particular. It was Kiran ji who broke the silence. "I'm telling you, this pair is made in heaven, just like Lord Ram and Sita." Another burst of mandatory laughter followed and after some small talk Mr Sharma called for the bride-to-be.
Bina finally entered, in measured steps, her head bowed down, her fingers clutching the edges of her silk sari. Her hair was tied in a delicate bun, partially shielded by the sari, like a veil covering a woman's blush. Her cheeks were soft and rosy, with just a teasing dab of powder on each side. On her lips hung a faint and demure smile. Suddenly everything in the room, from the sofas sets down to the last grain of dreary paint seemed to have become younger in the presence of this fresh young being. She sat next to her mother, so delicately that she seemed to melt into the sofa. At this very first glance Ram felt the magic and like his son, sat frozen in his seat, transfixed by this picture of pure beauty.
"Ram ji, Ram ji." Suddenly he was jolted from his trance by Mr Sharma. "Would you like tea or coffee?" Ram looked up, the words struggling to come out.
"Tea would be fine." He muttered. Then Mrs Sharma, teasingly rolling her eyes, asked Rajesh.
"And what would it be for you Rajesh Babu?"
Rajesh squirmed a little bashfully looked into Bina's eyes and said, "I want coffee."
"Bina nani, make sure you sprinkle enough sugar for him, huh? Hahaha." Kiran ji cut in, twitching his moustache. Bina gave an easy nod and walked out of the room. Rajesh was smitten and felt defenseless against her bewitching charm. Sheepishly, he edged closer to his mother and clutched her hands as if to say, "I want her." Maya Devi, out of character, pinched his hands, a cheeky smile appearing on her own face. Ram on the other hand managed to pull himself together and complemented his host.
"Well our only daughter, now will be at your mercy." Replied the host, passing around the biscuit tray. When Bina came back with the tea tray, Kiran ji was complementing her cooking skills, especially her expert hand at making pickles. Her entry made Ram once again divert his complete attention on her and her every delicate feature. As she approached, he felt he was drowning into a world where there was nobody else in the room but the two of them, her beauty floating in a wave of surreal images and her faint but depraved whiff of perfume enveloping his very being.
"Tea Buwa?" He was the first one she served, slightly bowing down, glancing at him for a fraction of a second then looking down, the eyelashes covering her big eyes like a beautiful screen, the honeydew dripping from her lips. When he took the cup their eyes met once again and Ram made an effort of returning the smile but she sauntered past him, the silk of her sari brushing against the fabric of his trouser, giving him a strange sensation.
"Is the sugar ok?" Mr Sharma asked, which immediately jerked him back to the real world. He turned to his host; nervously adjusting his cap, hoping nobody had noticed his behaviour. When Maya Devi looked up, she noticed beads of perspiration glinting on her husband's forehead.
In the kitchen that night, Ram could not even concentrate on his food. Rajesh, sitting on the floor next to him was fiddling with a potato.
"So you like her huh?" Ram asked, without looking at his son. Rajesh looked up, the blush slowly giving away to a confident grin. "Yes father." Ram forced some food into his mouth the suddenly got up, leaving the rice unfinished, with Maya Devi gaping behind him.
He went to the patio, lit his cigarette and started pacing up and down. Soon he was sweating, the heat of the summer evening gripping his body. Images of Bina, her flowery youth, the particular way she glanced at him, the slight drop of her head and the quivering smile, all flashed before his eyes and he felt as if she was sitting right there with him, now inviting him with her smile, now piercing him with her looks.
That night sleep eluded him.
The next day at noon, Ram and Kiran ji sat in the canteen, licking their fingers stained by pea curry. As they got up to leave, Kiran ji once again took Ram's hands and shook them vigorously. The wedding date had been fixed. (Concluded.)