The euphoria of having won the debate at VNIT against a strong opponent from the Third Years gave Srini the feeling that he had made up for the "stolen" elections. The opposition party (Rahul) from the Third Years had prevented the students from voting for the Machhar Party (Machhar, Lambu and Srini)by bringing in menacing-looking goons. That was how they'd won the elections. So, the debate had been crucial for the Fourth Years to save face.
So why was Srini feeling like a loser? Because all good things come to an end. He was heading to Chennai. Not just heading there … his over-enthusiastic father had forwarded his CV to a friend of a friend to the right hands. Srini was recruited at Alstom. Imagine that!
Machhar and Lambu, his best friends from VNIT, were more positive than Srini. Machhar (named after a mosquito because his voice sounded like the buzz of one) said, as he kickstarted his bike, "Chalo, yaar, think of us. We haven't even gone for an interview leave alone find jobs."
Lambu didn't say much as he mounted his tall and lean form behind Machhar. But, poor Lambu, he first needed to clear his arrears before anything else.
By the time Srini finally got onto the bike behind Lambu, he barely had any place to sit and was practically hugging Lambu so that he didn't bounce off the seat. Machhar raced through the narrow lanes and potholed roads of Vallabh Nagar as if he were impressing a bunch of groupies. Srini was afraid that instead of going to Chennai, he might go in a body bag.
He was going to miss his crazy friends, the dilapidated hostel and the unappetizing meals. Four years of Engineering had finally come to an end. He had gotten through with surprisingly good results despite the distraction of the election and the debate.
They rode to the station, discussing how Srini could move forward. According to them, he should cut ties with Ritu because long-distant relationships never worked. Srini decided to take their advice, but for different reasons.
The name itself irritated Srini immensely. Imagine getting saddled with a villager, whose only education, according to local gossip, was in her little village in Chengalpattu, under a roofless structure called a school, with a professor who only spoke in native lingo. She dressed in Davani (an oblong unsewn cloth worn by girls to cover mainly the front and upper portion of their body) with a skirt one foot above the ankles, and of course, a huge bindi on her forehead and flowers in her hair. She was the only daughter of an influential Zamindar who had grand, ambitious plans for her.
Srini's father swore that he had been in shock ever since the Zamindar discussed his plans of uniting their children. But what could he do? After all, the Zamindar had been of crucial help in Srini getting a seat at VNIT. Thanks to his guidance, Srini's father had gone to a friend of his who happened to be the secretary to the Chairman of Alstom.
"Appa, I'm not meeting this girl. Don't force me." Srini turned a warning glance at his subdued parents. He had arrived a few days ago in Chennai and was already in tension.
The Chennai Monsoon had flooded the roads of Foreshore Estate, where he and his parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Having the sea at a walkable distance from home was an additional peril. Moreover, the autorickshaw had refused to enter his street, which meant that Srini had to trod in knee-height dirty water with a heavy backpack.
How he missed his hostel life. How carefree they had been …
His parents were exchanging glances and muttering something under their breath, which sounded like they owed the Zamindar a lot. How could they do this to him?
"Srini, he got you a seat at VNIT and the job at Alstom. You would not have made it this far without him," his father inserted in a smooth voice, holding the newspaper in front of him, an indication that the conversation was at its end.
His parents were government employees with secure futures. His mother, however, opted out when Srini came into the world and preferred to take care of her son. His father worked at Tamil Nadu Grama Bank, and the Zamindar was their biggest client.
Srini swallowed an irritated sigh. Had he known the consequences of their visit to the Zamindar house, he wouldn't have opted for Engineering. He would have just followed his father's footsteps and got a secure government job.
How could he forget that trip to Chengalpattu? He had just completed his twelfth grade and prepared his entry to one of the Engineering institutes on merit. Only he'd discovered to his frustration that it was easier to get in through influence than merit.
Srini closed his eyes as he remembered the tall dumpy girl who couldn't stop staring at him with her fingers stuck to her mouth. Every little while, her lips twitched crazily. At first, he'd thought she had facial tics and felt sorry for her, wondering how the Zamindar was going to find a groom. However, he knew that money could buy a prince, and the Zamindar had loads of it. But he hadn't known that the Zamindar had decided then itself that Srini would be his son-in-law.
Thanks to his proud father, who had been exaggerating his accomplishments.
"Vanalakshmi, inkē vā, inta putticāli paiyaṉai pār." (Come here, see this clever boy.)
The thick bells on Vanalakshmi's dainty feet had jingled as she skipped to his side, holding the end of her Davani to her lips. Then, again, came the twitch and then the giggle.
Srini had jumped to his feet and dragged his father behind him, making some wild excuse for their speedy departure. But Vanalakshmi had come charging behind them and said with another giggle, "Viraivil cantippōm." (See you soon.)
His father had talked him out of his fears. Srini was imagining things. Why would the Zamindar want Srini – a nobody, for his only daughter? "You watch too many Tamil movies!" He told Srini.
And now the girl had kept to her word of seeing Srini soon (five years weren't long enough, where she was concerned).
"I'll pay the debt back in another way, Appa. But don't ask me to meet her. I will not."
"Poor kuḻantai, Srinu!" his mother said over her shoulders from the tiny kitchen, facing the balcony, as she heated a tawa of oil, possibly to fry something delicious.
Her day started at 5 am where she'd take a bath, tie a towel around her wet hair, and circle a Tulsi plant before sunrise. Then she'd wake them up with BRU coffee. Next, she'd pack her husband's lunch kit in three stainless-steel containers and a plastic pickle box. Then, after he left for the day, she'd see to her son's breakfast. By the time she'd finish washing the vessels, it would be time for lunch. Sometimes his poor mother didn't step out of the kitchen.
"She must be missing home food. Motherless Child."
For a moment, Srini's heart softened. He'd never inquired about her upbringing, but coming to think of it, he had never seen Vanalakshmi's mother. He thought she was stuck in the kitchen like his mother always was. But then, why should have Vanalakshmi serve him payasam in that case?
"Go bring her here from the hostel. I'll feed that poor child."
Four years at VNIT had been a carefree lifestyle, good friends, hardships, and smiles. And some sex. Yes, he had slipped out occasionally and met up with his girlfriend, Ritu. She hadn't put up a fuss in the beginning. Only towards the end, she nagged him about wanting to give a name to their relationship. Srini's passion had become lukewarm after that, and his trips to the girl hostel came to a halt.
But what was Vanalakshmi doing in a hostel in Chennai?
He picked a fluffy poori, wrapped it with potato in semi-gravy form and placed it in his wide mouth. He closed his eyes and savoured the taste. Four years of hostel food had been the only setback in VNIT. Somehow they had managed to live on that unappetizing menu. They had eaten out once a week and had accepted every invitation of their batchmates just for those homecooked meals.
When he opened his eyes, he found two more glistening pooris on his plate and a spoon full of potatoes. At the rate that it was going, he would have to go jogging to Alstom!
"Which hostel, Amma?" He asked with his mouth full.
"Stella Maris College," his father said from the sofa.
Srini choked. His mother left the simmering pan of oil with the pooris floating on it and ran to fetch a glass of water for her darling son. Her husband, having delivered the news before his wife could, squatted in front of the television – a sign of Do-not-Disturb on his face. Srini's eyes were watering, and he dabbed them with the kitchen cloth. They started to burn as, on closer inspection, his mother's chilli powder fingerprints were on it. He rushed to the washbasin and rinsed his eyes, cursing himself for not using a clean handkerchief from his pocket.
Vanalakshmi at SMC was like Rahul winning the election – a stolen win. He had to get to the bottom of this.
Did the Zamindar buy her a seat there? Srini's blood boiled. At least Srini deserved that seat at VNIT; he was qualified to take up an engineering course, he had worked very hard for his degree. But this girl, as far as he knew, didn't make it past high school. Or was he missing something? Surely, SMC wouldn't enrol any student even if her father constructed an extra block for the nuns?
"I'll meet her, but I need the car. Some money too. I'll return it after I start to work." He hummed beneath his breath. Stella Maris College! How on earth did Chengalpattu Vanalakshmi get a seat there? Was she a part of the reservation quota? Whatever! He was looking forward to visiting SMC.
Srini remembered with some embarrassment how he had tried in the past to check out the beautiful, sophisticated SMC girls whenever he came on vacations. It had never worked; those girls hadn't bothered to glance his way. One girl, in particular, he'd been crazy about … Sophia.
He pressed his foot on the accelerator and zoomed out of the garage in a Red Swift. His father had grudgingly bought it when Srini had told him in a fit of anger that he would not be taking the bus to work, even if Alstom arranged it. He would be earning his bread soon, so his father could consider taking a loan and buying a car for his son. He will repay him.
His father had answered in dry tones that by the time Srini repaid all his debts from the Zamindar to the Finance company to the Nadar shop, to name a few, a coconut tree might be growing on his grave.
Coming back to Sophia, Srini had spent his holidays perched on an uncomfortable fence, bang opposite the SMC gates to get a glimpse of the gorgeous black-haired siren, Sophia, who ventured out on Saturdays along with a short-haired, flat-chest girl, Ramya.
Four wasted weekends went by, and finally, Sophia was alone one day. Srini had run across the road almost into her, as she chose that moment to cross the broad main road. Ramya, fortunately, hadn't been around. Sophia had smiled in wary recognition and agreed to have a coffee with him at hotel Rainbow, a small chick restaurant opposite the college. Srini couldn't believe his luck, and fortunately, he had money in his pockets. Sophia was expensive.
Hotel Rainbow had tinted windows facing the college bus stand, and as they walked into the plush interior, Srini had felt out-of-place with the dazzling Sophia, who sauntered in as if she owned the world. What confidence she had. She made a beautiful picture as she flicked her long fingers through her straight black silky mane. Her large eyes were glittering under that beige eyeshadow, the lashes long and thick and curling upwards. But it was her full chest that drew eyes to her before her face did, and the fact that her waist was tiny and legs long added to her charisma.
As she'd draped herself on the couch, the head waiter asked, "Your usual drink, Madam?"
A tall glass of lemonade, mint and some attractively cut fruits decorated the rim of the glass. Then the second waiter brought her a finger bowl to wash those long claws painted in red. The third one brought a saucer with some healthy biscuits. Srini started to panic as he saw yet another one coming with some almonds, cashew nuts, walnuts. He'd stood up and excused himself, ready to murder that headwaiter for overdoing his part. Just because he'd seen Srini staring at Sophia like a love-struck teenager, it didn't mean he should take advantage of it.
"I think I'm in love with you," he'd finally confessed to Sophia as he returned to his seat after having duly warned the headwaiter not to show his face for the next hour, even if Sophia choked to death.
Sophia wasn't snobbish like the other girls who looked down upon him. She nodded, seeming somewhat uncomfortable and stared out of the glass window as if she were gathering her thoughts. Her voice had that deep husky pitch to it, and he was so entranced that he almost didn't hear what she said.
"Srinivasu, I don't swing that way."
Srini couldn't understand at first what she meant, and when he had, his face flushed with anger and sorrow combined. What was she saying? This beautiful creature with Marilyn Monroe looks and body preferred women? And that too dropping the bombshell after leaving him a fat bill which the headwaiter had conveniently sent to the table, in case the sorrowful Srini didn't pay.
His throat went dry. His hands turned damp. Maybe it was the shock of imagining Sophia with another girl that had made him order for a lime and soda to help him not to disgrace himself over there. But what made it even worse was seeing his competition. Had they planned that?
How could crewcut Ramya know where they were? She was rushing into the restaurant, her acne face and thin structure contrasting Sophia's beauty. To his utmost disgust, Sophia had drawn her beside her on the couch and kissed the corner of her lips to reassure her that she had been faithful. Srini had thrown some bills on the plate, made some mad excuse, and ran for his life.
Machhar and Lambu laughed so much when Srini had recounted the tale that he'd sworn never to confide any more embarrassing events to his friends. And that was why he didn't tell them about the latest … Vanalakshmi. Not even a death threat will make him disclose his plight to his friends. As for Ritu, he was beginning to think seriously about giving her a commitment. Anything was better than Chengalpattu Vanalakshmi. At least Ritu was hip and a civil engineer, and they gelled well in bed too.
Srini parked his car in Damordan Street, opposite Stella Maris College, drew his sunglasses and flipped them on when he saw a few long-legged chicks stepping out of the high-wall campus. The security guard had one look at Srini and decided he didn't like him. Srini didn't care. He had a valid excuse not to meet Vanalakshmi. He asked the guard to pass the message to … Srini looked around to make sure no one was paying attention to them and leaned down and whispered the dreaded name, "Vanalakshmi."
"One more time, Saar. Not hear. What name?
Srini controlled his impatience and said as pleasantly as he could, in whispers, "K. Vanalakshmi, Sociology Department 1st year."
Just then, a batch of five hip mini-clad beauties was coming out of the gates. Srini couldn't help the direction of his head, watching as they mounted the empty public transport buses parked patiently every afternoon at 1.40 pm for them. For a minute, Srini wished he was that lucky conductor issuing tickets and showing teeth at those girls. What a choice he had!
"You want Chengalpattu Vanalakshmi, Saar?" The security guard said in such loud tones that Srini wanted to strangle him on the spot. He had attracted all the girls' attention, from the bus stand to the buses.
Why did the guard have to be so proud of Vanalakshmi? Were they from the same village? Was that why he was smiling from ear to ear. He even walked with Srini and pointed him in the direction of the reception, adding that Ms Vanalakshmi was waiting over two hours for him.
Srini cursed her, cursed her father, cursed his father and everyone responsible for that meeting and strode down the paved courtyard towards the reception. There was no one waiting for him except a few nuns, who had just returned from the chapel. How he knew that was because, in the days of Sophia, he had once scaled the walls of the garden behind the Bonaventure block. Not only had he scraped his knees, sprained his arm and almost broke his neck as he tumbled into the lawn of SMC, but he also had four fierce-looking nuns in front of him, resembling this same tribe.
Would they recognize him? Srini shuddered in remembrance. They had dragged his wounded body to the holy chapel, insisted that he confessed his sins (although he didn't have any mortal sins, only virtual ones at that time), sprinkled holy water on his head, gave him a pocket-size Gideon Bible, and asked him to leave through the front gate.
And all that suffering went in vain!
"Looking for someone?" an attractive voice said from behind.
Srini's heart leapt out of his throat. He turned and almost fainted. Sophia was standing in front of him. He removed his sunglasses in case the shades were playing tricks on him and looked again. It was Sophia. She was smiling broadly. No pimpled Ramya beside her. But Srini was wary. Once bitten twice shy. But still, hope bubbled in his heart. What if she now swung his way?
"Sophia!" He said in a hoarse voice.
"Srinivasu!" Her deep husky voice was such a turn-on that Srini was afraid he would become delirious just hearing his name. Who cared what she called him as long as it was in that deep sexy voice. The nuns had mercifully left the reception area, giving him the chance to get nearer to that beautiful creature.
"I never thought I'd see you again," Srini said, taking her hand in his and drooling over it. He refused to let it go even when she tried to release it politely from his grip. "Not complaining, though."
"Srinivasu, I have a favour to ask of you," she looked over his shoulders and said in Silk Smitha tones. "Vanna …"
Srini didn't bother to check out her friend. It was enough that he had his beautiful Sophia all to himself.
"I don't know if you met my roommate, Vanna," she said, making a sign to the girl behind them.
Srini paused, "Italian … Spanish?"
Her deep-throated laughter floated around the reception area. An old bat was answering the phone at the front desk. Had it been a Boy's college, she wouldn't have got even one student enrollment. These nuns were real sadists. Couldn't they keep some beauties like Sophia to handle the desk?
"Na, Vanna is from ..."
Srini was glad he was standing close to the reception counter, or he might have fallen face downwards to the floor.
Walking towards them was indeed Vanna – no – Vanalakshmi, but not the one from Chengalpattu. This girl wasn't wearing Davani with the skirt one foot above her ankles. She wore a short black and gold mini that embraced her curvy bottom and long legs, appearing even longer with the high-heeled gold footwear. Her hair was streaked in shades of gold, blended with her dark mane and styled in layers that framed her stunning features. She wore a smoke-grey contact lens, and the effect of those eyes against her tanned skin and streaked hair was so gorgeous that Srini was looking at her salivating.
"Not what you expected, huh?" Vanalakshmi asked with a familiar giggle, but it sounded like music in his ears this time. Srini shook his head. This couldn't be her. How could she have turned into a fashion model in what … 5 years?
Where did she learn to talk so well? Had he been biased because she lived in a village? Had the fact of her ogling him those years ago made him think he was some hot catch? How could he imagine that the Zamindar's daughter was illiterate? It served him right for listening to local gossip. This girl had hidden skills that she had been too shy to expose. Maybe … just maybe, Sophia had played a role too in grooming her, especially if they were roommates.
"Man, you seemed bowled over!" Sophia's drawl brought Srini back to his senses. He shook his head, still unable to get over the shock that his Vanalakshmi – no – Vanna suited her better— had transformed into a fashion model.
"I am! I've been a jackass!"
"That you are," Vanalakshmi said beneath her breath. "I knew what you were thinking that day when Appa introduced us. Your distaste was painted over your face. I vowed that no one would look down upon me again. Fortunately, I got a seat at Stella Maris College – on merit, in case you think Appa got me the seat."
Srini gave a guilty smile. He couldn't deny it. But he could make things better. Hadn't Machhar and Lambu swear that Srini had the gift of conviction? He could even persuade God to accept Lucifer into paradise?
"I'm sorry," Srini said. Nothing else was coming to his mind. How did he win that debate that took the Fourth-Year students to the top?
The two beauties were glaring at him.
"Can I make up for it?" He looked at Vanalakshmi once again, awestruck by her lovely face. How on earth did he think she had a crooked mouth? It was the most delicious-looking mouth painted dark red. He wanted to kiss it.
"I don' know …" she looked at Sophia, undecided.
"Srinivasu, that's what I'm trying to say. You can't make it up to Vanna because she's my girl. Ramya and I broke up last summer as I fell in love with Vanna, you understand?
Srini became purple in rage. What was it with these girls? Damn it all. He was not letting Vanalakshmi go to this she-cat. Instead, he grabbed Vanalakshmi's hand and dragged her out of the reception area, onto the pathway, her heels clattering all the way to the gate.
Behind them, Sophia was charging, hair flying backwards in the air, suddenly reminding him of a possessed witch. He drew Vanalakshmi to his side, threw a note at the loud-speaker watchman and gave hurried instruction to stop the witch from hurting their Chengalpattu Vanalakshmi.
Srini and Vanalakshmi were breathing hard as they ran across Cathedral Road and darted into Damodaran Street. He opened the car door with shaking hands, helped Vanalakshmi onto the front seat, dashed to the other side, and jumped in.
Sophia managed to cross the road and attract the attention of a policeman. They began to stride towards the parking area. Srini backed his car in a mad rush, praying he didn't run down any pedestrians and collide with other vehicles.
He advanced towards Thiruveedian street, cut through Gopala Puram, drove into several narrow lanes that took him as far as Chola Sheraton. Then he darted into Luz Corner and headed to Pattinampakkam. It was the first time he thought of Foreshore Estate as Pattinampakkam. It seemed like Chengalpattu Vanalakshmi's breeze was blowing on him.