The heat of the afternoon sun scorched the lilies decorating the front yard of House No. 43, Chittaranjan Park. Inside the bungalow, the seven women who gathered for tea wore their best ethnic finery, expensive baubles hanging from their lobes and around their necks. The chill of the air-conditioning did nothing to quench the envy that rose in their breasts when the owner of the bungalow laid out her latest acquisition for her friends’ expert judgement.
Mrs. Anjana Sen set the jewel pouch made of maroon velvet on the glass-topped table. She loved how this pouch resembled an envelope. She lifted one flap at a time, until the jewel lay exposed to their curious eyes. An expectation of diamonds or rubies hung in the air, but the ornament resting on the velvet did not live up to it. The ladies found themselves ogling an insipid necklace, strung together from asymmetrically-shaped pearls.
‘It is beautiful,’ Mrs. Roy said.
‘Gorgeous!’ Mrs. Das exclaimed.
‘Is it really made of pearls?’ Mrs. Mukherjee asked, furrowing her brows to mask her vexation.
Mrs. Sen’s blush-imbued lips parted in a smile. ‘Yes, of course, it is fashioned from Tahitian pearls.’
‘This must be very expensive,’ Mrs. Das hinted, her sunken eyes boring into Mrs. Sen’s kohl-lined ones.
Mrs. Sen paused. ‘Six lakh rupees.’
A sharp intake of breath followed this statement.
Mrs. Das smiled. ‘Maybe if I sold my Maruti Esteem, I could buy this necklace!’
Silvery laughter echoed around the room.
‘It will suit you perfectly,’ Mrs. Roy said, rubbing her glasses against her bosom before setting them on her squat nose.
‘Yes, how nicely it will match with your lal par shada saree,’ Mrs. Mukherjee said, gritting her teeth.
The other women muttered their consent.
‘Mr. Sen is always buying little gems like this for me,’ Mrs. Sen said. ‘This time, when he flew to Sun City – in South Africa you know – he passed by a jewellery store and this magnificent piece just caught his eye. He bought it immediately for our thirtieth wedding anniversary.’
‘Mr. Sen is so romantic. I cannot imagine Mr. Mukherjee even setting foot inside a jewellery store by himself. He doesn’t even know what brand of tea I drink!’ Mrs. Mukherjee said.
Mrs. Sen smacked a hennaed hand on her forehead. ‘Oh! Where is the tea and refreshments? I must keep an eye on these servants. You know how they laze around all the time.’
In the kitchen, she found her cook and caretaker engaged in animated conversation.
‘What are you doing? Do I pay you just to sit around and chitchat?’ Mrs. Sen waved a finely manicured hand in the air.
The patter braked to an abrupt halt. The caretaker swung down from his seat and rushed out. The cook jumped from his chair and started laying out cocktail sandwiches on a plate.
Mrs. Sen wandered back down the passage. A burst of uproarious laughter shattered the stillness that she imagined had descended on the living room after her departure. She lingered outside the half-open door, craning her neck just enough to hear Anushka Roy’s nasal tone.
‘… and Anjana thinks having an expensive pearl set makes up for the joy of hearing the pitter-patter of little feet around the house!’
‘And what a nondescript pearl set it is, too! At least she should have asked Mr. Sen to buy something that looks worth its price!’ said Mrs. Mukherjee.
‘Ah! You cannot blame her for that – her mind is so preoccupied with Nivedita that she can hardly make out which pearl is from the sea and which is from the gutter. You know, for a long time now, Nivedita has worried me – she is too stubborn for her own good,’ Mrs. Ghosh chimed in.
Mrs. Sen withdrew, and tiptoed to the room adjacent to the kitchen.
Poor, dear Nivedita! Mrs. Sen’s only daughter drove her far too often to the astrologer and the blood pressure pills, but did she deserve such censure for her unorthodox behaviour? How appalling that Anushka Roy could gauge her mental state with such razor-sharp precision.
Nivdhi, as loving uncles and aunts called her, had proved a sad trial to her mother. Three years had passed since she had tied the nuptial knot, but the next-generation Sen still hadn’t made an appearance. Even if Mrs. Sen did become a grandmother, it wouldn’t be because Nivedita had nourished a foetus for nine months and then heaved it out. As she wrote in an email to her mother, she ‘did not wish to put herself through the laborious process of giving birth’.
She had scandalized her parents once before. Five years earlier, she cornered her mother at the puja mandap on ashtami, and showed her a cell-phone picture of her boyfriend Karan Bhatia. Mrs. Sen’s heart fluttered with joy – her daughter would finally wear the bridal red sari, albeit at the ripe age of thirty. She flew back down to earth when Nivedita said, ‘No need to prepare for a wedding, I am going to move in with him.’ Mrs. Sen sunk down on to the nearest chair. When this news reached Mr. Sen, he cracked his knuckles and summoned his future son-in-law. In less time than the bearer took to serve them tea, he unearthed two vital facts. One, the idea of ‘living in’ stemmed from his headstrong daughter. Two, his future jamaai harboured no objections to donning a turban and circling the holy fire while a priest chanted mantras.
The joint efforts of her fiancé and her parents prevailed upon Nivedita, and she surrendered to the demands of a traditional Hindu marriage. A fond cousin, under instruction from the Sens, hovered by the mandap, ready to tow the bride back to the sacred fire if she staged a walkout from the ceremony. Mrs. Sen mopped her brow and muttered a prayer of thanks when she bid the bride and groom a teary farewell.
After succumbing to family pressures during the wedding, Nivedita had resolved to strike her own path when it came to bearing children.
Mrs. Sen’s face screwed up in anguish. Tears fell unchecked onto her lap. She wiped them using the edges of her sari. Her reflection in the mirror alarmed her. Her cheeks had turned red, and the tip of her nose resembled a well-grown cherry. Mrs. Sen patted just so much powder to her face that would cover her little burst of emotion.
On the way to the living room, she peeked at the full-length hall mirror. The same reflection that she had seen at her father’s funeral stared back at her.
She steeled herself, and turned the golden knob of the door. The discussion had diverted to more pleasant topics. Mrs. Sen forced a smile.
‘I have just arranged for some refreshments.’
As if on cue, the cook carried in a large tray holding a teapot, seven cups and saucers. He asked the ladies their preferences for milk and sugar. As he poured out the tea, Mrs. Mukherjee vented about the stiffness in all her joints. When the cook shuffled out the door, Mrs. Sen steered the conversation to the good old standby of malicious gossip.
That evening, Mr. Sen suggested a weeklong holiday in Shimla.
Mrs. Sen looked at him askance. ‘Is something wrong? You never feel like visiting romantic hill-stations like Shimla! What made you think of it now?’
‘Why do you have to investigate matters like a detective? Just tell me, you want to come or not?’ Mr. Sen said.
Mrs. Sen hesitated. ‘It seems like a good idea. After all, we have only been there once since our honeymoon. Perhaps we could visit the Calcutta Lodge this time?’
‘I have told Pandey to book our tickets and hotel stay. Oh, and remember to pack some good saris. The Minister’s annual get-together will be held at the Shimla Residency this year.’
Mrs. Sen sighed. Her husband never invited her anywhere without an agenda lurking in the background.
As she stood by her cupboard wondering which of her expensive saris deserved the honour of travelling in her suitcase, Nivedita called.
‘I have good news, Ma,’ she said, sounding unusually chirpy.
Mrs. Sen sucked in her breath. Hope rose in her breast, but she willed her heart to remain calm. Conversations with Nivedita usually tumbled down the rabbit-hole of negativity.
‘Yes, baba, tell me,’ she said.
‘I got a promotion at work, my second year in a row!’
A slight pause as Mrs. Sen exhaled. ‘Oh!’
‘Yes. It’s pretty good of them, considering I might need leave later-’
‘Leave? For what?’
‘Oh…to visit you, no?’
Had Mrs. Sen imagined that tiny pause?
‘Well, congratulations, darling. I always knew you were brilliant.’ Mrs. Sen cocked her head to one side, jamming the cordless handset between her ear and shoulder. She used her free hands to pick out petticoats and blouses from the mahogany cupboard, and tossed them in the suitcase.
‘C’mon, Ma, you don’t sound so excited.’
‘No, no, beta, I am! Really.’
‘Did you think…are you still after the baby stuff?’
Mrs. Sen hesitated. ‘You know, Mrs. Chatterjee’s daughter-in-law is expecting her third child this year, and she’s younger than you.’
‘Ma, they can all become baby-producing machines for all I care. I am not living their lives and they are not living mine. Haven’t you learnt that by now?’
Mrs. Sen sighed. ‘Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes, beta.’
‘Great line. Where did you hear it?’
‘I…don’t remember. Nivdhi, can you please just think about it? I am not telling you to produce a cricket team tomorrow.’
‘Cricket team? You won’t even get a single tennis player out of me!’
‘Okay, Ma, I’ll think about it.’
She must have caved in just to stop her mother from ranting any more. Mrs. Sen sighed and flung the cordless on the soft mattress. She punched in the code for the safe that housed her jewellery. Four sets of diamond-cut bangles, three gold necklace-and-earring sets and their matching rings made the cut. She drew out the velvet case that contained her ‘nondescript pearl set’, and unwrapped it. The pearls winked at her, as if to say ‘Wear us, Mrs. Sen. You won’t regret it.’
Her favourite sky-blue chiffon sari, together with its matching blouse and petticoat found pride of place in her baggage. She stuffed the velvet case containing her pearls in the folds of her sari, just as her mother had taught her.
Mrs. Sen pictured herself dazzling the minister’s residence.
The Sens pulled up in their white Mercedes outside their company guesthouse, in time for a late-afternoon cup of tea. As Mr. Sen stirred his sugar into his cup, Mrs. Sen gazed out of the window. The patio leading out of their bedroom suite afforded a breath-taking view of the valley. White flakes of snow blanketed the beautiful hilly landscape. A thrill ran through Mrs. Sen – even nature concurred with her idea of wearing pearls.
‘Let us walk up to Scandal Point and come,’ Mr. Sen said, with a twinkle in his eye. He set down his teacup.
Mrs. Sen dithered, though she knew why he had suggested that particular spot. ‘I am tired, and we have to get ready for the evening party.’
‘Oh, come, it will not exhaust you as much as you think.’ He patted her affectionately on the knee.
They traipsed along the Mall road, hunting out the statue that served as the backdrop of their first honeymoon photograph together. They paid their respects at the Kali temple, and sampled so-called Pashmina shawls in one of the shops on the way back. An hour later, as they climbed up the hill of Jaku Peak, the caretaker of the guesthouse huffed down the slope towards them.
‘Mr. Sen! Some burglars broke into the rooms when I was out and robbed our things.’
Mrs. Sen turned wide-eyed to her husband. His face remained passive. ‘Has anything been taken?’
‘The police have come. Only you will know what is missing.’
Two police officers waited for them in the lawns. One of them stepped forward to talk to Mr. Sen, and drew him aside. His wife rushed past them into their room. Her suitcase lay on the floor, its insides ripped open, even the pocket. Her chiffon sari lay spread out on the bed. She unfurled it, flattened the folds. No velvet case tumbled out. No gleaming pearls winked at her.
She burst into tears.
Mr. Sen and the inspector entered the room.
‘How much did you lose, madam?’
‘Everything,’ she said,‘everything.’
She overturned the pillows and flung the quilts onto the carpeted floor.
‘Madam, we need to dust the room for fingerprints.’
Mr. Sen raised a hand to stop him. He put his arm around his wife.
‘Anjana, stop crying. I will get you another one. Right now, it’s important we don’t make a scene.’
She tried and failed to hold in her tears. He would sort things out, she knew.
Mr. Sen’s mobile rang. He stepped out of the room to answer it.
Mrs. Sen crumpled to her knees. She knelt before her suitcase, and dug her hand into its cavernous depths for any sign of her precious pearls.
‘It’s Nivdhi,’ said Mr. Sen. He towered above her, holding his mobile phone close to her ear. ‘She wants to talk to you,’ he said, in a gruff whisper.’ I told her what happened but she insisted.’
Mrs. Sen took the phone from him.
‘Hello, Ma?’ said a honeyed voice.
‘Yes, beta,’ Mrs. Sen croaked.
‘Ma, I have to tell you something,’ Nivedita said. Even through her tears, Mrs. Sen caught the tone of urgency in her voice.
‘Tell me, beta.’
‘Ma, I’m pregnant.’
Mrs. Sen lifted her gaze to the window. A light snowfall has started once more. Tears stung her eyes. ‘Very good, beta.’
‘Are you ok? You sound distracted. Baba said you lost something. I thought this news would cheer you up.’
‘It has. I am very happy,’ she said, sniffling. ‘Really.’
‘Ok, I’ll talk to you later then.’
Mrs. Sen hauled herself up, grabbing the edge of the bed for support.
Her husband entered the room. ‘They’ve left. They will keep us posted.’
He put a gentle arm around her. ‘Are you okay?’
She nodded, the corners of her lips twitching upwards in just a hint of a smile.
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Sen said. ‘Let us get ready for the party,’
Gargi Mehra asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work