Twist in the Tale: The Panipuri Party

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Maya tried to stay calm. Stop it now, calm down! She told herself.

“Wow, what’s this?!” she asked in a forced, cheery voice.

“Oh, you found the panipuris?” Naina chirped happily, walking into the kitchen. “Who needs cocktails if you can get panipuris in Bristol!” she laughed.

“Does Charu like them?”

“I’m not sure. But she’s nice — and something about her tells me she’ll love them!”

And with that, Naina walked off — to tidy up the toys strewn in the hallway.

Maya stayed behind, leaning against the kitchen worktop, trying to quell her rising panic. She quickly went over everything she had heard so far that day, about Charu.

Naina had met her for the first time on the bus a few weeks back. They had started talking. They had met again a few days later and Naina had invited her over. Charu had recently moved to Bristol with her husband. And before this, they used to live in London, where Charu used to work at the Swinton Hotel.

And it was this last bit that was making Maya’s stomach churn. She still remembered every moment of her affair with Daniel, even though she had ended it a long time ago. But for the life of her, she couldn’t be sure if she had ever seen an Indian face at the Swinton Hotel’s front desk.  She tried to tell herself that Charu probably never even worked at the front desk. Or the concierge. Or in room service. Or in housekeeping.

Oh My God!! What am I going to do?! Maya felt the tears welling up. I’m sure she would have seen me somewhere!

Come on Maya. Even if she did see you with Daniel, would she remember? Get a grip! Maya tried hard to talk some sense into herself—and felt herself failing miserably.

“Oye! What are you doing there Maya? Come and help me!” Naina called out. “She’ll be here any minute.”

Maya mumbled an apology and hastily went into the living room.

“Do you want to go to Greville Smyth Park on Saturday?” asked Naina. “The weather forecast is good and we can take a picnic along. I’m sure the girls will love it!”

Maya forced herself to pay attention to what Naina was saying.

“Yes, OK” she replied. “Arindam will be away at work again this weekend, so I might as well. I’ll go mad at home if it’s just Ashi and me all weekend, with nothing to do!”

Naina laughed. “I SO love it that our daughters are such good friends! Touchwood. Ashi and Nikki – best friends forever!”

Maya couldn’t be bothered to smile, she was so caught up in her thoughts — desperately trying to invent an excuse  to leave before Charu turned up.

A forgotten appointment? No. Bad stomach? Yes, possibly. And that wouldn’t be too far from the truth anyway!

Maya was just framing her excuse when suddenly, they heard a car pull up outside.

“Oh there she is!” Naina jumped up. Maya’s heart started pounding. She wondered if she should run upstairs and hide in the bathroom.

“ … Yeah yeah, just park on this side of the road, don’t worry yaar… yes, it’s fine… ” she heard Naina shout from the kitchen window.

Maya shrank back. She felt like a trapped animal, unsure of what to do. As her thoughts raced, she heard Naina chatting pleasantly in the hallway “… I know, lovely weather isn’t it …”

Just deny everything, Maya! Just deny everything!! You’ve got to…

“Hi Maya”.

There was nothing else to do. Maya looked up — unwillingly.

“Hi, I’m Charu,” the stranger said with a smile, hand outstretched.

Defeated and with a deep sense of foreboding, Maya got up. She shook Charu’s hand hesitantly.

“Have I seen you somewhere?” Charu asked immediately.

“Yeah! I’m a movie star in disguise!” Maya laughed nervously. She averted her eyes as they all settled down on the sofas.

“So, how has Bristol been treating you so far, Charu?” Naina asked, bringing in a tray of lemonade.

“Not bad, yaar. I do miss London but I think I’m liking the slower pace here. Plus my job in London was just too much. I don’t know if you girls have ever stayed there — have you been to the Swindon Hotel ever?” Charu said, looking at Maya.

“Did you say ‘Swindon’?” said Maya, trying to keep her voice level.

“Yes ‘Swindon’, why?”

For a split-second Maya couldn’t say anything. And then she blurted out “No, I’ve never stayed there!”

And then whilst Naina and Charu chatted, enormous floodgates of relief opened in Maya’s mind. Awash with gladness, she silently gave fervent thanks to the universe.

Phew! What a difference a single letter makes! She thought to herself.

As the afternoon wore on, they talked and gossiped over a sumptuous spread of panipuris — about their husbands, their bosses, their neighbours — essentially everything under the sun.

“…and I don’t know why, whenever he works from home, he talks really loudly on the phone!” Charu laughed.

“Yeah, my husband too! Gosh, we are probably married to the same man!” laughed Maya.

“I’ve told Debashish that we’ve got to spend more time together during the week.” continued Charu. “You know, we see each other only on weekends! And that’s what our move was all about. Since his client’s office was in Bristol, I wanted him to at least return home every night. But guess what, now he’s on a different project!” she said wryly.

 “Yeah, tell me about it!” Maya retorted. “Same bloody story everywhere. With us it’s the other way around — he has to work through the weekends. My little one, Ashi, misses out on playing with daddy.”

“Do you have kids, Charu?” Maya asked.

“No, both of us are so busy, we barely get to see each other.  So we just decided to keep things simple,” said Charu, with a smile.

“Great! You can babysit ours then!” Naina piped up with a laugh.

What a nice girl, Maya thought.

“Oh my gosh, I’ve got to rush!” Charu exclaimed, looking at her watch. “Our new cleaner is coming over for the first time.”

They bid their goodbyes hurriedly, promised to meet again and Charu picked up her things and ran. After a few seconds, Naina and Maya realised Charu had left her door keys behind. “I’ll take them to her!” Maya said, and rushed out.

She bumped into Charu coming back on the pathway. “Oh you’ve got it, thanks so much. Debashish would’ve been very cross. He bought this especially for me from Surajkund Mela ages ago. Sweet, isn’t it?”

Maya looked down at the key ring. It had an ornate antique silver pendant attached to it, which flipped open on a hinge. The inside was lined with a circle of tiny rice pearls and in the centre, in a small oval, was a lovely, smiling picture of Arindam.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

‘Addicted to life’ is how friends describe 37 year old Antara. Living in London with her husband and the cutest three year old in the world, she is a senior Talent and Change management consultant in a global multinational. She is also a keen DIY-er, improvised-toy-maker, Netflix watcher, kitchen dancer, outdoors singer, book lover, foodie and a serious plant addict (read gardener). She uses her degree in Architecture to justify her frequent weekend DIY projects. Juggling home, child and a full-time job, Antara is now taking time out to reconnect with her one true passion – writing.

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