“Mamma ice cream!!” seven year old Pinky yelled as she saw the gelato store in the mall and tried to run towards it. But Mansi held her hand firmly.
“Not now, Pinky.” she said, dragging her inside the shoe store. “First we have to get your school shoes.”
“But I want it now!!” she started jumping up and down. The kid had been a handful from the day she was born.
“Pinky, please don’t make a scene!” Mansi said as the dozen or so customers in the store started looking at them.
“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?” a salesman walked up.
“We are here for these shoes for the Vidya Niketan uniform.” she handed him the note from Pinky’s school.
“Ice cream!” the brat pouted, but at least stopped jumping up and down.
“Yes ma’am, this way.” he said.
Mansi took her sulking daughter towards the girl’s section. The salesman measured Pinky’s feet and then went to the store room in the back.
“Mamma, look at that!!”
Pinky had strolled over to the wall which displayed a lot of pretty designer shoes for little girls. Her mother walked behind her and admired the selection. They were all really pretty. The European sounding brand names suggested they were pricey.
“I want that one!” she reached over and picked up a purple sandal from eye level. Purple had always been her favorite.
“Pinky! Don’t go around snatching shoes off the wall.”
“But mamma…” she started whining again.
“Really pretty aren’t they?” from nowhere, a sales girl materialized and started talking to Pinky. “Would you like to try them on?”
“YES!!” she shouted.
“We really don’t need to…” Mansi started protesting, while looking at the wall to see if there was a price display. But the salesgirl was already walking towards the bench with Pinky in tow.
Mansi followed them, annoyed, as the salesgirl sat her daughter down and slipped her tiny feet into the shoes. Pinky stood up and ran to the mirror.
“We are here only for her school shoes.” Mansi said to the salesgirl.
“Here you go.” the salesman returned with that very box.
“Pinky, come here and try on your school shoes.”
But the little one was standing in front of a full length mirror, admiring the designer shoes.
“PINKY!!” her mother raised her voice.
Pinky reluctantly sulked back. The salesman sat her down, took the purple shoes off and slid on her school shoes. Pinky, enamored with the designer shoes, held them in her hands.
“I want these!” she defiantly said.
“We’ll see.” Mansi didn’t have a problem buying her the shoes if they were in her budget range.
Meanwhile the salesgirl had wandered a few meters away, and was talking on the cellphone. While the salesman helped Pinky tie the laces of her school shoes, Mansi walked towards her.
“How much…” she started asking but the salesgirl gestured her to wait.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. No problem, sir. The pumps and heels are still…”
She kept talking on the phone for a while. Mansi mimed the sign of money, pointed to the purple shoes and signaled, how much? She nodded and held up five fingers. Okay, five hundred. Not too bad.
Pinky was walking around in her school shoes while still holding on to the purple pair.
“Are they the right fit?”
Pinky nodded, and raising her beloved pair, said,
“I want these too.”
Mansi told the salesman to pack both pairs and walked to the counter with Pinky to pay. As they reached there, someone suddenly called out from behind,
“Mansi? Is that you?”
She turned around to see a vaguely familiar face that she couldn’t quite place. It belonged to a woman in her 50s, with big designer sunglasses, and dressed in a stylish pantsuit.
“It is you, isn’t it?” she came closer and smiled.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked with mock disappointment.
“I am sorry. You look familiar but…”
“It’s Reena Bajaj! From Happy Colony in Meerut!”
“Oh, right! How are you, aunty?” Mansi finally remembered. Reena was an army wife who had lived in her neighborhood for a couple of years. Their houses weren’t very close, nor were their families. But she now remembered,
“I am great. Fancy running into you in here of all places. How long has it been? Almost 12 years.”
“I think so.” Mansi said, grabbing Pinky’s hand as she was trying to reach for the box of shoes.
“I remember you were a pretty 16 year old then. And now look at you, a fully grown woman. And a mom no less!”
She then bent down to look at Pinky.
“And what’s your name?”
“Pinky.” the little girl distractedly answered.
“Ma’am. Your shoes.” the lady behind the counter said, pushing a big bag with the two boxes.
“Thanks. How much is it?”
“It is five thousand six hundred and thirty rupees, including VAT.”
“WHAT??” Mansi almost shouted and looked at the receipt. “I thought the purple shoes are five hundred.”
“No ma’am, they are five thousand rupees. Esther Michaela.” the lady said, flashing a condescending smile.
“I don’t have that much cash on me.” Mansi truthfully said.
“We accept cards.”
“I…left my card at home.” she said, not wanting to lose face by admitting that she didn’t have a credit card at all. “I’ll just take the school shoes for now. And come back for the other ones later.”
“NOOOOOOOOOOO!! I WANT MY SHOES!!” Pinky, who had been listening to the exchange intently, started throwing a tantrum.
“Pinky, please behave yourself.” Mansi grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her.
“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” she flopped down on the floor and started bawling. “I WANT MY SHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOES!! I HATE YOUUUUUUUUU!!”
Now everyone in the store was staring.
“It’s okay. I’ll pay for them.” Reena aunty said, handing her card to the clerk.
“What? No way, aunty. I can’t let you do that!” Mansi protested. Yes, they had been neighbors just for a little while over a decade ago. But even back then, they weren’t friends or anything. Barely acquaintances.
“Nonsense, what are old friends for?” she put her hand on the young mother’s shoulder and pressed it.
The clerk, not wanting to let go of the commission, quickly swiped the card. Pinky, who realized that her tantrum had worked, quietly got up from the floor and hugged Reena aunty’s leg.
“What do you say?” Mansi asked.
“Thank you.” the little brat said.
Ten minutes later, the three of them were sitting in the mall food court. Pinky had not forgotten about her ice cream. And Mansi felt obligated to buy Reena aunty coffee after the nice gesture she had made.
“Mamma, can I play in there?” the brat finished her ice cream and asked, pointing towards a ball pit nearby.
“Okay, but stay in my sight. You have been a very bad girl today.” Mansi scolded her, but it was like water off a duck’s back.
As soon as Pinky was out of an earshot, she turned to Reena aunty.
“Aunty, that was a really nice gesture, but you didn’t need to do that.”
“Nonsense.” she waved away the protests, taking a sip from her cup.
“Pinky is a little brat who thinks tantrums can get her anything she fancies. On Monday when she’s at school, I’ll return the shoes and give you the money back.”
“Mansi, you really don’t need to do that. Consider them a gift. The little girl really has her heart set on them.”
“She has the memory of a goldfish. In a week, she’ll forget about the shoes and start demanding something else.” Mansi sighed. “I hate taking her to malls. She just wants me to buy her everything she sees. And really, we can’t afford it.”
“Hmmm.” she said. “What do you do, Mansi?”
“I’m a housewife.”
“And your husband?”
“Amar is a history professor.”
“Not too much money in teaching, huh?” she sympathetically said.
“It’s okay. Not too bad. But we certainly can’t afford to buy our little girl five thousand rupee shoes that she’ll outgrow in six months.”
“But seriously aunty, give me your phone number and your address and I will come return the money on Monday.”
“Out of the question.” she smiled and shook her head. “About returning the money I mean. Trust me, I can afford such indulgences. But we should exchange numbers and meet though. I’d love to catch up in more detail.”
She picked up her phone and asked me for her number. She then gave a missed call and Mansi saved her number.
“How is Bajaj uncle?”
“He passed away five years ago. Lung cancer.”
“Oh my god! I am so sorry!”
“It’s alright. I’ve gotten used to it by now.”
“And how is…” Mansi tried to remember her son’s name. He was a couple of years older than her and in college when they lived in Meerut.
“Nilesh? He’s doing okay.” she said.
“Is he in Mumbai too?”
“No.” she said in a tone that suggested she did not want to discuss him.
“Do you live nearby?”
“Yes, Malad West. You?”
“Borivali east. Close to the station.”
That’s when her phone rang. She looked at the display, frowned a little, and said,
“Excuse me a moment.” and walked away.
Mansi sat there looking at her daughter roll around in the ballpit with a few other kids. She was a handful but she was the center of her existence. She wished she could buy her everything she wanted. But money really was tight.
“Mansi, I am so sorry, but I have to get going. A bit of an emergency at work.” Reena aunty returned and picked up her purse and her shopping bags.
“Oh, no problem. Where do you work?”
“I am the assistant manager at a hotel nearby. A couple of the staff members didn’t show up, so now I have to go fill in for them.” she said. “But we should meet Monday for sure.”
“But don’t you dare return that little girl’s shoes. If you give me as much as a single paisa, I will never talk to you again.”
“Come on, aunty, that’s not fair!” Mansi tried to protest, but Reena was already on her way out.
Mansi finally managed to drag Pinky out of the ball pit and take her home. She agreed to leave on the condition that she could wear her new purple shoes. Mansi reasoned with her that they would get dirty in the local train on the way back, but she wouldn’t budge.
When they walked up the three flights of stairs to their one bedroom apartment, the door was open, and the familiar cacophony of male voices could be heard.
“But Amar, even if Hitler had not been distracted by Yugoslavia, it was a matter of time before the Soviets would have prevailed. Maybe an extra year.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about.” Amar shook his fist in the air. “If the bitz krieg had…oh there you are Mansi.”
“Papa, papa, look, new shoes!!” Pinky jumped in his lap.
“Very pretty, my little princess!” he said.
“Namaste, bhabhiji.” Amar’s friends said.
“Namaste.” Mansi said and went to the bathroom to freshen up.
When she got out, Amar was standing there.
“How about some chai?” he said.
“And some of your famous onion pakoras.”
“Amar, onions are…”
“Yes, I know, they are very expensive. But you can’t put a price on the pleasure of friends.” he said and went back to his intellectual conference.
For the next couple of hours, Mansi slaved in the hot kitchen, frying pakoras for her husband and his friends. She hoped against hope that the session would end soon. But they kept rehashing world war 2 history all evening, and she eventually had to make dinner for everyone. Which used up all the vegetables in the house that she had hoped to make last til next week.
By the time everyone dispersed, it was midnight. Pinky was asleep on the bed next to Mansi. Amar came in, and laid down in bed, sighing heavily.
“Dinner was spectacular as always.” he said.
Mansi didn’t say anything.
“I know you are upset about the onions.” Amar finally said.
“Shouldn’t I be?” Mansi turned around. “It’s not easy for me to budget our needs when you keep bringing friends home without notice.”
“You should consider it a compliment, Mansi. They love your cooking so much that they always insist on coming here.”
“I don’t mind the cooking, Amar. You know that. But I don’t have Draupadi’s magic plate here. I was hoping to make those onions last at least a couple of weeks for us. And now…”
“I’ll get onions tomorrow.” Amar flatly said.
“Yes, and that’ll be another couple of hundred rupees we didn’t budget for.”
“Then don’t use onions for the next couple of weeks.” he said, annoyed.
“Why are you getting annoyed at me?” Mansi flared up.
“Mmmmmm…” Pinky stirred on her bed.
Husband and wife stayed absolutely quiet until she went back to sleep.
“I need to withdraw two thousand rupees tomorrow for Pinky’s textbooks and stationery.”
“Textbooks…stationery…uniforms…picnics…it’s like they are running a for profit business.” Amar grumbled.
“You’re the one who wanted to put her in that fancy school.”
“Education is something I will not compromise on.” he said. “Designer shoes on the other hand…”
“She threw an almighty tantrum right in the middle of the store!”
“How much did they cost?”
“Not too much.”
“Five hundred.” Mansi lied, not wanting to tell him about Reena aunty. She knew her husband was really big on self-respect, self-reliance, and pride.
“You could have just refused to buy them.”
Mansi felt really annoyed at this comment. Amar knew how much effort it took to manage Pinky’s demands. And handle her tantrums. He himself never really scolded her or said no to anything. He played the good cop. Mansi was supposed to be the bad cop.
She felt like throwing a tantrum of my own. But she just seethed silently in anger, half-expecting Amar to apologize. But soon, his patent snores filled the room.
“It’s not even like I am asking for anything extravagant for myself. It’s not like I expect him to buy me diamond necklaces or take me on a European vacation. But is it too much to expect him to show some recognition of our situation?”
“Not at all.” Reena aunty sympathetically nodded.
“I know he himself is a very simple man. And he is a very nice person. Nice to a fault. Part of the reason our financial situation is tight is that he keeps donating a chunk of his salary to this charity that helps slum children go to school. I appreciate his generosity. But isn’t it prudent to take care of your own family before going to help others? Hasn’t he heard that charity begins at home?”
“Some dessert ma’am?” a waiter appeared out of nowhere.
“No, thank you. I am already stuffed.” Mansi said.
“The chocolate lava cake here is divine. Try some.” Reena aunty said.
“Really, I couldn’t.”
“Get her one.” she said to the waiter who smiled, nodded and walked away.
“Aunty, this is too much. I am really really full.” Mansi protested. And she really was full. The rich food at the restaurant was not something she was used to.
“Just have a couple of bites. You won’t regret it.”
Mansi was overcome by a sense of gratitude for the nice lady. She had called up Monday morning asking if Mansi could meet her at her hotel. It was a very fancy four star hotel in Malad, the likes of which the young middle class housewife had never stepped into. She then took her to lunch at a posh restaurant next door, insisting that it would be her treat.
She was being so nice that Mansi couldn’t help but unload all her troubles and complaints on her. Mansi didn’t really have any close friends. She spent some time now and then with Amar’s friends’ wives and Pinky’s friends’ mothers, but there was no one she was close enough to for her to open up like this. Her last close friend had been in college in Meerut and she had lost touch with her after getting married and moving to Bombay.
So Reena aunty was like a throwback to her younger more carefree days. And she had been so nice and generous. Mansi felt an instant bond forming. Reena aunty had listened patiently throughout lunch to all the whines about her middle class life.
“Mansi, let me ask you something.” she said, folding her palms under her chin. “Why don’t you just get a job?”
“Hehe. Who’ll give me a job?”
“I have no skills, no real qualifications. Just a meaningless B.A. from a college no one has heard of even in Meerut. That too with mediocre grades.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I am just being honest, aunty. I have seen how it works nowadays. Everyone has an MBA or an MS or some sort of an advanced degree. Even these career-oriented women. But my parents never really thought of me having a career.” Mansi sounded a little resentful.
“Lots of people have jobs even without an MBA.” Reena said.
“Besides, even if I did get a job, who will take care of the house and Pinky? We can just barely afford a maid for washing clothes. I have to wash the dishes, cook, clean the house, take care of Pinky’s homework…”
“I could give you a job.”
“That’s very nice of you. But like I just said, with all my household duties…”
“It won’t take up too much time.” Reena aunty said.
“You mean in your hotel?”
“Sort of.” she mysteriously answered.
That’s when the waiter came with thedelectable chocolate lava cake. Mansi stared at it wide-eyed, like Pinky would have. Dinners in posh restaurants like these were way beyond their means. They usually ate at mid-level udipi type restaurants, that too on special occasions. The most fancy dessert there was a scoop of chocolate ice cream with a cherry on top that Pinky always demanded.
“Dig in.” Reena aunty said, handing her a gleaming spoon.
“Mmmmmmmm.” Mansi moaned in delight as the rich gooey chocolate filling danced around in her mouth. Although she had really felt full, this heavenly dessert whetted her appetite again.
Ten minutes later, Mansi had finished the whole thing. Reena aunty paid the bill and they started walking back to her hotel.
“Thank you so much for lunch, aunty.” Mansi said, as Reena led her into her office.
“You’re welcome, sweetie.” she said. “No offense, but it looked like you really needed that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some indulgence…something nice…something out of the ordinary. Your life needs some more sunshine.”
“What my life needs is some more money.” Mansi bitterly said.
“So would you be interested in a job?” she asked.
“In the hotel? Like a receptionist?”
“Sure, you could be a receptionist if you want.” Reena aunty said. “But those shifts are a minimum of 8 hours.”
“Oh, that doesn’t seem like something I could do.”
“Hmmm.” Reena said, playing with her phone. “I will think of something. Do you want some tea?”
“No thanks, aunty, I am so full with that dessert.” Mansi said.
“It is amazing, right?” Reena smiled. “I have it at least once a week.”
“I wish I could afford to. I saw the price on the menu. It was…let’s say it cost a lot more than the ice cream we have at our usual restaurant.” Mansi said. “Thank you again for the treat. And the shoes. You are being so kind. I wish I could repay you back in some way.”
“Nonsense!” Reena shrugged. “You are an old friend. Friends shouldn’t really bother about repaying stuff.”
There was a lull in the conversation. Then Reena started talking again.
“Although we are old friends, I don’t know much about what happened since we lost touch.”
Mansi kept finding these “old friends” references odd. Yes, they lived in the same neighborhood over a decade ago. But they barely knew each other. Even so, the old lady was being so nice that it was hard not to think of her as a friend.
“Well, not much happened.” she shrugged.
“Is yours an arranged marriage?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Why of course? I knew many people having love marriages in Meerut.”
“I know. So did I. But you didn’t know my parents.” Mansi said.
“Hmmmm…so did you get to spend any time with your husband before you married him?”
“Oh yes. We went for a movie once…” Mansi said.
“But my mother was with me.”
“It was nice.” Mansi smiled.
Reena realized that Mansi’s upbringing had been even more sheltered and protected than she had imagined. She knew those type of families. Doing their best to stamp out a woman’s individuality as soon as she is born. And then trade her away in a marriage like cattle.