The Substitution Paradigm
Ramu came up to our table. Glaring at me, he said, “You either order something or get out.”
I glanced away from the threat, and turned to Raghav. A single drop of sweat was running down his brow. Ramu saw that too and identifying his prey, he sprung.
Swinging around, he faced Raghav, “Order something or get out.”
Then Ramu just stood there. It was not as if we had rehearsed it before hand, but he knew. He knew that my co-occupants generally folded in the first round. Only the stout made it to second level, but they too buckled under Ramu’s relentless gaze.
I always had a policy of not spending on other people’s problems. My purse was already slimmer than the waist of a size zero model. So, I simply sat there, watching the lion circling his prey.
A few seconds later, the prey went down. “Two coffees”, Raghav said, wiping away the sweat with a handkerchief.
Ramu turned his head back, gave me a leering smile, and went back behind the counter. One of these days he would meet hi—
Raghav snapped his fingers in front my face, “Adi, focus!”
“I am all ears, bhai, all ears.” I muttered mentally giving Ramu a left-upper cut.
Raghav began once more, “Like I said, I met this girl online and …”
I waved him off, not again, “Let me summarize. You met this wonderful girl online and you two exchanged pleasantries. While chatting, you managed to exchange numbers too and at the same time you agreed to stay in touch with each other. For six months you talked on the phone with each other.” I mentally ticked off the points. “And now she is coming to Mumbai. But you two never exchanged photos. She wants to meet you and you are scared witless. Am I correct?”
Raghav nodded, his toady eyes peering at me through prescription glasses. No wonder he was scared to meet her. If I were him, I would be scared to see myself in the mirror, let alone meet a girl. A small beetle crawled near my foot. My my, it bore a strong resemblance to Ravi —
Ramu slammed two cups on the table in his trademark style. Ignoring him, I picked up a chipped cup, and sat back into the wooden chair.
Nonchalantly, I took a sip, “What is it you want me to do?”
“You have to meet her, Adi. Find out if she is really interested in me.”
I coughed wholeheartedly. “You want me to meet her? Why me, yaar?”
“You are the only true friend I have got, Adi. Please? Pleeease?”
Elongated pleases had always made me melt. Why, one day, in fourth standard I had given up my chocolates just because a girl—
Now this was a done deal. Two pleases! I had done more for less! I nodded with full enthusiasm. A burning sensation told me I had forgotten about the cup of coffee in my hand, but I kept on nodding. Two pleases!
With a wave, Raghav took out a twenty rupee note and put it on his table. Beaming, he squeezed out of the door.
Across the store, Ramu coughed. I ignored him. He coughed again. Again, I ignored him. He coughed again.
“What?!” I turned around.
“Nothing, I just have a cold, that’s all.” Ramu grinned manically as I returned to my free coffee.
A couple of unacknowledged coughs later, Ramu called out from behind the counter, “You going tomorrow to meet her?”
I turned around, “Why do you care?”
“Nahi, I was just wondering about the fare to the meeting place. Too bad you forgot to take it from him.” Ramu let out a booming laugh.
I raced the Ravi-beetle to the door.
The next evening, I sat in the Marine Drive, in front of the Indian Airways building. Raghav had told me that she would meet me here, and that she would be wearing a black skirt. I was wearing a white tee-shirt as instructed. Raghav had also mentioned something about a red rose, but roses cost money, and I never spend money on other people’s problems.
Half an hour and three slaps later, I was still sitting all alone with no signs of Reshma. I was in half a mind to get out of there, when a voice spoke up behind me, “Raghav?”
I turned around to see the most beautiful lady in the whole wide world.
It was as if an angel had dropped down from the heavens. She seemed to glow in the setting sun, her white skin sparkling. Her beautiful brown eyes stirred up a long lost sensation in my heart. She wore a white blouse and a black skirt. Reshma!
I managed to stammer, “Re.. Resh.. Reshma?”
She smiled, her shiny black hair shimmering in the dimming light. My heart hadn’t skipped so many beats ever since the last India-Pakistan match.
“Who else?” She answered, her voice running over me like a breath of fresh air.
She slid her hand into mine and for a while we silently stood there, watching the sunset. Then as if on a cue we started to stroll. All that time, she kept on chattering away. As for me, it was enough to hear her magical voice though at times I would nod now and then to show her that I was listening. Two hours passed by like a beautiful song on a loop. Pausing at a flower shop, I bought her a red rose. An hour later, both of us reluctantly said goodbye at the Churchgate station.
When I reached the coffee shop, I found Raghav waiting for me, sitting on the door step.
“So what?” I replied as I wrestled the door open.
“How was she?”
“She didn’t turn up.” I lied as I squeezed in.
“She didn’t? You sure you waited for her?” said Raghav as he also tried to squeeze inside.
“Er.. yeah I did. But she never turned up. Sorry, yaar.” Entering the shop, I shook my head solemnly.
“She said she would. Why didn’t she?!” Raghav cried out, loud enough to wake up Ramu who was dozing in a corner.
Two chipped coffees later, I managed to convince Raghav that his lady love had not turned up at all. He left an unhappy man, but I had other things on my mind.
The next day again I stood at the same place as before, waiting for the love of my life to turn up.
I looked back to see a strange woman staring at me.
A shout went behind me, “Adi!” I turned around to see Raghav huffing towards me.
“Raghav!” Another shout went up behind me. I turned to see Reshma running towards me.
“Reshma?” I called out.
I turned to find that Raghav had come up to me, “Adi.”
Behind me, the strange woman was now speaking, “Raghav?” I turned to face her.
Reshma also drew up beside me. I turned around, my head now giddy with all this turning, “Reshma?”
The strange woman also turned back, “Smita?”
I put up my hand. “Enough! From left to right, Raghav, Adi, Reshma, Smita.”
Raghav shook his head, “No no. From left to right, Raghav, Reshma, Smita, Adi.”
Reshma cut him out, “What? No! From right to left, Reshma, Raghav, Adi, Smita.”
The strange woman was now shaking her head, “From left to right, Reshma, Adi, Raghav, Smita.”
Perplexed, I called out in general, “Reshma?”
The strange woman put up her hand, “Reshma.”
I turned to the old Reshma, who wore a sheepish grin, “Smita.”
I pointed to Raghav and said, “Raghav.” Pointing towards myself, I said, “Adi.”
I looked at Reshma-who-was-now-Smita, “Why this charade?”
“Well,” the strange-woman-who-was–now-Reshma answered, “I asked her to test the waters for me.”
Raghav jumped up excitedly, his glasses bouncing on his nose, “Why me too! I asked Adi to do the same!”
They both looked at each other for a while before Raghav caught her hand and they both walked away.
After they had gone out of earshot, I looked at Smita and asked, “So what now?”
Later that day, Ramu met his match at the store.