Everyone said he was the best creative brain Agya Anderson had. No one ever called him handsome or even good looking, but when a jealous colleague suggested that he was the most eligible bachelor within the Indian advertising world, there were no sniggers. He was of less than medium height, his beard always unkempt, the grey hairs in them prominent and visible, his glasses always dirty and his hair always slightly longer than it ought to be. However, his clients ate out of his hands, the big bosses respected and trusted him and all the women in Agya Anderson’s Mumbai office had a crush on him. He was a loner and did not have a single close friend in the office. He had a past, they all knew that, but he never talked about his divorce even after a couple of pints with the boys after work.
Only once a month when his secretary placed the alimony cheque under his nose did he grumble and ask, ‘Is there any way I can avoid sending this cheque?’
And his secretary would soothingly reply, ‘we don’t want another contempt of court case against us, do we? It’s not really worth the trouble, is it? You won’t go broke if you sign this, will you?’
‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he would say. His secretary would then sympathetically nod her head, but stand right next to him till he signed the cheque.
He would then moan, clench his jaw and finally sign the cheque, after which he would sit back as though he had just signed away half his wealth.
He was aware of her existence, but he ignored her as he did so many other people. She smiled at him a couple of times, once near the photocopier and another time near the coffee machine, but he refused to smile back. Finally she had managed to almost collide with him at a cocktail reception, the glass of Bloody Mary in her hand, mere inches from his dinner jacket. Instead of showing some gratitude for having spared him from a disaster, he bared his fangs and snarled, ‘you ought to be more careful.’ Which was very rude since that almost collision was so obviously contrived and nobody would have failed to notice that it was just a pass and nothing more.
That incident had the effect of hardening her resolve. A week later when they were all standing around the silver trolley, drinks in their hands, celebrating the scooping up of India’s second biggest toothpaste manufacturer, she went up to him and asked, ‘have you already put your very intelligent brain to work for these bastards?’
This time he had no excuse to be rude. ‘No, I haven’t,’ he said. ‘Not yet.’
She drooled over him. ‘I so wish I had a little bit of creativity in me. I would give an arm and a leg to be in your team.’ Conversation around them died. People were openly staring at them. Agya Anderson was a very liberal place by Mumbai standards, but such an open pursuit was definitely unheard of.
‘I guess I had a very narrow escape,’ he told her with a wry smile and ignored her for the rest of the evening.
She did not lose heart. She smiled at him whenever she could. If there was anyone else present, she made it a point to ask him a question, even though his replies were curt and snappish.
A month later, he came up with a brilliant campaign for the new client, one that had a three-year old girl walking around with a smile that made passers by blind. The client was delighted and the production team, in which she was a lowly assistant, went to work.
One evening after they had wrapped up a shoot at a local school, she went up to him and said, I’m likely to go broke in a month’s time.’ He looked at her with irritation, but didn’t say a word. ‘I’ve told the gang that I’ll get you to take me out on a date in a month’s time. If I fail, I have to take five of those good-for-nothings to the Dum Pukht for lunch.’ He continued to be silent. ‘That’s a month from yesterday,’ she added wistfully.
‘Why don’t you take them to lunch right away?’ he asked her and walked off.
Two weeks later, she had made no progress. The whole office was watching her lack of success with merriment. Unlike him, she had many friends in office since she always had a kind word for everybody. None of her friends understood why she was behaving thus. She merely smiled when they demanded an explanation. ‘But you are so very different from him, as different as chalk and cheese,’ they told her. ‘Even if you are successful, you will not be happy.’ She merely tossed out one of her warm and generous smiles in reply.
The month she had under the wager slipped away and she took her friends to the Dum Pukht for lunch.
‘You lost, didn’t you?’ he asked her when he met her at the coffee machine a day later.
‘Hmm,’ she said, her face downcast. Then she looked at him and said sweetly, ‘at least I tried.’
He turned his back to her and started to gulp down water from the Styrofoam cup.
‘You always drink some water before you drink coffee or tea, don’t you?’
‘Yes, do you mind?’
‘But why do you do that?’
‘Why don’t you do it?’
‘Because it’s not done. Just not done.’
‘And who says so?’
‘You Maharashtrians always drink some water before you drink coffee or tea, don’t you?
‘You’re well informed.’
‘Is it because it’s bad for the teeth to drink cold water after a hot drink?’
‘If you knew this, why did you have to ask me?’
‘Oh! Just polite conversation.’
‘Why can’t you leave me alone?’ he lashed out, the sudden burst of fury distorting his face. ‘We don’t have a thing in common,’ he added, a trifle gently.
‘Okay, I won’t trouble you ever again,’ she told him with very sad eyes.
‘Try not to forget your promise,’ he told her as he walked away with a cup of cappuccino.
She stayed away from him for a week, followed by another week. She looked away with sad eyes as he walked past. And then, he started to miss those conversations, those flirty comments, the obvious come-ons. It took him a few more days to realise that he had been a fool.
‘Listen, I’m sorry,’ he finally managed to tell her.
‘I’ve been a nasty bastard.’
‘You don’t have to feel sorry. You owe me nothing.’
‘Like hell, I don’t. Listen, let’s go out for dinner today.’
She pursued her lips and pulled a face. ‘You’re kidding me.’
The whole office soon got to know that he and she were going around. She received numerous pats on the back and even more warnings. He is too selfish. He is not a one-woman man. He is too cold blooded for someone like you.
‘Oh, let me be,’ she always responded in her usual good natured way. No one had the guts to rib him about it though.
They maintained a professional relationship at work.
‘When will you tell your parents?’ they asked her.
‘Why should I tell them anything?’
‘What happens when they want you to get married?’
‘That’s a long way off. Why worry now?’ She could afford to make light of such questions since she was only twenty-six and her parents had given her two more years.
One day she told him, ‘why don’t you shave off your beard. You’ll look a lot better without it.’
‘Like hell I will.’
‘And you could cut your hair shorter.’
‘Go to hell.’
She never repeated those suggestions, but when he suggested that she move out of the flat she shared with a friend and move in with him, she refused. ‘Let’s carry on the way we are doing now.’
‘I’d rather have you with me all the time. I love you.’
‘So do I.’
‘So move in with me. And we should get married as well.’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Move in now. We can get married later.’
‘I doubt it. I like you a lot. But I don’t think I can live with you forever.’
‘You mean, this is temporary?’
‘But it was you who …’
‘I who chased you? Hmm, yes. I did do that.’
‘I liked you. I was curious. And hey! I did give you a chance.’
‘Never mind. We are bound to break up. Eventually, that is….’
‘You mean you want to break up?’
‘Well, now that we’ve started to talk about it, we might …. we might just as well.’
‘So, if hadn’t asked you to move in with me, we would not be breaking up?’
‘Well, yes. Not immediately. But eventually we would have…’
‘What the heck do you want?’
‘Nothing. Not from you. Not any more.’
He walked away.
Two days later he cornered her alone. He had shaved off his beard and cut his hair short. ‘Let’s do dinner,’ he said.
‘What’s the point?’ she asked.
‘The only two things you ever asked me to do, I’ve done.’ He gave her the best smile he had in his armoury. ‘People are already laughing at me,’ he added grimly.
‘There are a lot of other things which I didn’t ask you to do.’
‘Like not dropping cigarette ash all over the floor in your flat. Like brushing your teeth in the morning rather than using mouth wash, like taking a shower more often rather than relying on a deo, like …’
‘I can do all that for you.’
‘Can you stop being so arrogant?’
‘You were just checking me out?’ he accused her.
‘Well, yes’ she agreed, giving him her usual warm, generous and good natured smile.