Night In

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Swapna Kishore


With the temperature outside at 110 degrees even though it was late evening, I should have been glad that I was seated in the well air-conditioned lounge of Delhi’s top five-star hotel, but I was too busy trying to hide my face behind the potted ferns.

I was scared that someone I knew from my other life would see me as I was now—a newlywed groom dressed in a silk kurta and with a traditional vermilion line on my forehead, some petals of marigold still stuck on my hair and clothes. Next to me sat this anorexic girl, my new bride, wrapped in a red silk saree with gold embroidery and encrusted beads, loaded with jewelry. The thick layer of makeup on her face showed erosions where rivulets of sweat had made their way down.

The iconoclast Sam (Swamy Rao to his parents), software engineer par excellence from California, had just undergone an arranged marriage—that too, one conducted in a pucca traditional way.

Well, I had tried to wriggle out of it. But parents have many subtle and not-so-subtle ways to put pressure. The only thing in which I got my way was that I would not spend my wedding night at home surrounded by the gadzillion relatives with pesky kids trying to peek from the ventilator when I was trying to have my first real conversation with my wife.

I had met her only once-–as I had met a dozen of other females short-listed by my organized father in anticipation of my annual trip. That meeting was short, just half-hour, and of course, there was a chaperon present. While I boldly looked at the would-be’s face, her eyes remained lowered. My elder sister pulled me up later for acting shamelessly.

Now, having been properly married by encircling the fire in the presence of priests with my clothes tied to hers, I and this overdressed doll had been deposited at the hotel lounge where a plush “honeymoon” suite had been booked for us.

Fifteen minutes later, all the relatives had left after having fun at our expense, making snide comments and winking at me. We were finally alone.

I got up and went to the suite. She followed, carrying a small case.

The suite was quite good really, done up tastefully for the newlywed couple-–there was a welcome bouquet, a basket of sweets and savories, and a huge cake. A bottle of champagne with a pink ribbon rested in the ice bucket. I closed the door softly and looked at her.

She dumped her bag on the bed. Then she jerked back the edge of the saree that was covering her head, sat in front of a small dressing table and started taking off the jewelry, piece by piece. Without turning around, she said, “I’m going to change into something comfortable and wipe this muck off my face. Then we can go down for a drink.”

I looked at the bed where she had dumped the bag-–a pair of well-used jeans and a sphagetti top peered out of the half-open bag.

Wow! The coy bride was transforming into the modern miss. Maybe things were not that bad.

That reminded me that I had forgotten my change of clothes in the car, so I told her I’d get my bag in a jiffy.

It took just a few minutes to retrieve my clothes. I changed in the washroom off the lounge into my red T-shirt and jeans-–the silk kurta was pushed hurriedly to the back of the bag. Now I need not duck behind plants.

Back on the sixth floor, I knocked the door of the suite impatiently. “It’s me, open up.”

I could see something block the magic eye at the door-–she was peering. The door did not open. I knocked again.

“It’s me, Sam, I mean Swamy,” I repeated, feeling slightly foolish. “Open up”.

“How can I be sure?” she asked from inside. “If you are, tell me my full name.”

It was then that I realized that she did not really recognize me any more than I recognized her, and my changing clothes outside had not been that great an idea.

What’s worse, while I remembered that her name was Lakshmi Rao, I could not remember the middle name she had told me the one and only time I had met her. I had not been listening, busy as I was trying to see her face and peer down her blouse.

I leaned on the pillar, trying to figure out how to convince her to open the door. It was stuffy outside.

The lift had halted on the floor and out poured three men, dressed a bit gaudily. This floor had only two suites and no other rooms, and these coarse guys definitely did not look like honeymooners or senior executives.

I instinctively hid behind the pillar. They were speaking in hushed tones, and looking around as they opened the door of the other suite. One of them seemed familiar.

I turned back to more important matters. That middle name-– there had been some literary connection…

I thought I’d go down and call my sister to explain what had happened and ask her for help-–she would of course make fun of me, but I was sure I could persuade her not to tell anyone else. After all, I had smuggled her a Everything you always wanted to know before her wedding night.

I started walking toward the lift and was just outside the other suite when its door opened, the knob hitting me in the solar plexus and flattening me against the wall.

As I gasped for breath, my mind connected. I remembered where I had seen that big guy with the white shirt and blue scarf before-–it was in the papers. He was one of the dons from Dubai with a hefty price on his head.

I bit my tongue to make sure I did not cry out in pain. Tears stung my eyes.

I could hear one guy come out, walk around for some time, and then return. As he closed the door he told his friends that they must have been mistaken, there was no one outside.

I started pussyfooting toward the stairway-–the lift would be too noisy.

I had barely crossed their door and was just near the pillar when the door opened again. I ducked behind the pillar. I was getting quite good at this hiding business.

This time around, all the three had come out. Their loud voices made it clear that they did not believe the first guy and had decided to check again. The first place they checked was behind the door and then they fanned out. If I stayed where I was they would see me soon-–so I slipped into the only place that they were not likely to search—their wide-open suite.

The suite was a mirror image of ours. I just managed to hide in a closet in the main room when they returned, cursing each other. I could see their legs through the slats in the closet.

That was when the lights went off.

The closet was suddenly hot and very suffocating. I could hear the hotel’s generator cranking up-–all good Delhi hotels have full power backup.

The lights came on. Then there was a large explosion and it was dark again. The generating unit had conked off.

I cursed silently.

Here I was, the law-abiding Swamy Venkateswaram Rao, cramped along with clothes hangers in a closet on a hot summer night with no air or light, in a room full of hoods just because my new bride, Lakshmi Sucharita Rao did not recognize me.

That was it! Her middle name was Sucharita-–named after some character in a Rabindra Nath Tagore story. If only I had remembered it ten minutes ago.

The room was getting hotter by the minute and the language of the men outside was getting more and more colorful. They cursed each other, they cursed the hotel management, they cursed the power ministry, they cursed the PM. Sitting in a fetal position, jeans clinging to my legs wet with perspiration, I quite agreed.

I could feel something settle on the back of my neck and then start crawling down my spine. A cockroach in this plush hotel? I stifled a scream-–being explored by a roach was preferable to being tortured to death by those guys outside. The creature was going down my spine, vertebra by vertebra, down between my bums (how did it get under those tight jeans?) and then—drip-–a drop of sweat fell. Followed by another and yet another.

At this rate, my sweat would be flowing out in tributaries from the closet and I would be spotted.

One of the guys had managed to locate a candle or some such thing and with the click of the lighter there was a glimmer of light again. Another opened the door to a small balcony. Hot air rushed in, laden with dust. The others yelled at him to shut it. But the first guy had dragged out a bucket with water, which he poured on the curtains. Voila! the air that was coming in was somewhat cooler now.

One thing about these rough-and-ready hoods-–they can think on their feet.

The sounds of glasses being clinked told me that men outside had now taken out some bottles of whisky. The air became heady with the vapors. Talk varied between boasts and curses with an occasional mention of the big job they would be carrying out the next day. Their lives seemed more eventful than the most imaginative Bollywood film, but frankly, I was in no mood to enjoy it. Then conversation started flagging.

The radium dial of my watch showed that it was 9:00 pm, but I had flown to India just a week ago and had a very hectic time checking out girls and getting married. To my still jetlagged senses it was like I had not slept a whole night and it was only dawn. I knew that I must not sleep and started using my mental search engine to locate all tips for staying awake.

The next I registered anything was when the radium dial showed 4:00 am. Without intending to, I had caught up with some of my sleep backlog. Those who had seen me sleep in examination halls would not have been surprised.

In a way, having seen the not-so-coy side of Lakshmi, I felt I was lucky I was not with her-–if I had slept off on the honeymoon night she may not have been too happy with me. Right now she must be wondering where I had vanished, trying to decide between my getting kidnapped as a rich expatriate or going off with some other woman.

The generator was back in action now, but the air conditioning was still out of action. I could see a bit of what was happening in the room.

What had woken me up was an alarm clock. The men were getting up now, cursing as usual. In between the their rounds of abusing each other I figured that they had to leave for the kidnapping they had to do.

Shuffling of feet and a closed door. They had left. I waited till I heard their footsteps fade away on the stairway and then came out cautiously from the closet.

Just then, the main supply came on. How’s that for timing! I could hear the air conditioning kick in.

Bolder now, I looked around. I was hungry and the snacks on the table looked inviting. A refreshing shower followed.

I left the room wide awake, well fed and rested, and stood yet again in front of my own suite. It was 5 am now.

“Open up, Lakshmi Sucharita Rao, its me, Swamy Venkateswaram Rao,” I said, knocking boldly.

She opened the door sheepishly, rubbing her eyes.

“I have been knocking for a long time,” I claimed.

“I am so sorry,” she muttered. “I was so tired I just fell asleep soon after you left. There had been an imposter though, who tried to get in earlier.” Her hair were scattered and her top was askew.

I looked sternly at her, “I spent the night at the door and kept knocking. I could have gone back home, but then all the relatives would have mocked you.”

She looked suitably apologetic and helped me sit down while she fussed around me, pouring out champagne and feeding me cashewnuts with her own hands. Soon, she was fiddling with the collar of my T-shirt and nibbling my ear. We still had several hours before the relatives started arriving again, and I had every intention of making good use of it.

There is something okay about being married after all, I was thinking, as I sank back in the sofa after the rather exhausting session that followed.

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Swapna Kishore lives in India and works in the field of software. She has been writing technical books and material for quite some time, and is now turning to writing short stories and humor pieces to retain her sanity. E-mail: swapna_kishore[at]vsnl.com

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