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A suitable boy, p.159
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       A Suitable Boy, p.159

           Vikram Seth

  Lata hurriedly asked Haresh the first question that came into her head: ‘Have you seen Deedar?’

  ‘Oh, yes,’ said Haresh. ‘Thrice. Once by myself, once with friends in Delhi, and once with Simran’s sister in Lucknow.’

  There was silence for a few seconds.

  ‘You must have enjoyed the film,’ said Lata.

  ‘Yes,’ said Haresh. ‘I like films. When I was in Middlehampton I sometimes saw two films a day. I didn’t see any plays though,’ he added rather gratuitously.

  ‘No—I wouldn’t have thought so,’ said Arun. ‘I mean—there’s so little opportunity, as you once said. Well, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll get ready.’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra. ‘You get ready. And we have a few things to do. Savita has to put the baby to bed and I have a few New Year’s letters to write, and Pran—Pran—’

  ‘—has a book to read?’ suggested Pran.

  ‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs Rupa Mehra. ‘And Haresh and Lata can go into the garden.’ She told Hanif to put on the garden light.


  It was not yet quite dark. The two walked around the small garden a couple of times, not knowing quite what to say. Most of the flowers had closed, but white stocks still perfumed one corner near the bench.

  ‘Shall we sit down?’ asked Haresh.

  ‘Yes. Why not?’

  ‘Well, it’s been such a long time since we met,’ said Haresh.

  ‘Don’t you count the Prahapore Club?’ said Lata.

  ‘Oh, that was for your family. You and I were hardly present.’

  ‘We were all very impressed,’ said Lata with a smile. Certainly, Haresh had been very much present, even if she hadn’t.

  ‘I hoped you would be,’ said Haresh. ‘But I’m not sure what your elder brother thinks of all this. Is he avoiding me? This morning he spent half the time looking around for a friend of his, and now he’s going out.’

  ‘Oh, he’s just being Arun. I’m sorry about the scene just now; that too is typical of him. But he’s quite affectionate sometimes. It’s just that one never knows when. You’ll get used to it.’

  The last sentence had slipped out of its own accord. Lata was both puzzled at and displeased with herself. She did like Haresh, but she didn’t want to give him any false hopes. Quickly she added: ‘Like all his—his colleagues.’ But this made things worse; it sounded cruelly distancing and a bit illogical.

  ‘I hope I’m not going to become his colleague!’ said Haresh, smiling. He wanted to hold Lata’s hand, but sensed that—despite the scent of stocks and Mrs Rupa Mehra’s tacit approval of their tête-à-tête—this was not the moment. Haresh was a little bewildered. Had he been with Simran, he would have known what to talk about; in any case they would have been talking in a mixture of Hindi, Punjabi and English. But talking to Lata was different. He did not know what to say. It was much easier to write letters. After a while he said:

  ‘I’ve been reading one or two Hardys again.’ It was better than talking about his Goodyear Welted line or how much the Czechs drank on New Year’s Eve.

  Lata said: ‘Don’t you find him a bit pessimistic?’ She too was attempting to make conversation. Perhaps they should have kept on writing to each other.

  ‘Well, I am an optimistic person—some people say too optimistic—so it’s a good thing for me to read something that is not so optimistic.’

  ‘That’s an interesting thought,’ said Lata.

  Haresh was puzzled. Here they were, sitting on a garden bench in the cool of the evening with the blessing of her mother and his foster-father, and they could hardly piece together a conversation. The Mehras were a complicated family and nothing was what it seemed.

  ‘Well, do I have grounds to be optimistic?’ he asked with a smile. He had promised himself to get a clear answer quickly. Lata had said that writing was a good way to get to know each other, and he felt that their correspondence had revealed a great deal. He had perhaps detected a slight cooling off in her last two letters from Brahmpur, but she had promised to spend as much time as she could with him over the vacation. He could understand, however, that she might be nervous about an actual meeting, especially under the critical eye of her elder brother.

  Lata said nothing for a while. Then, thinking in a flash over all the time she had spent with Haresh—which seemed to be no more than a succession of meals and train and factories—she said: ‘Haresh, I think we should meet and talk a little more before I make up my mind finally. It’s the most important decision of my life. I need to be completely sure.’

  ‘Well, I’m sure,’ said Haresh in a firm voice. ‘I’ve now seen you in five different places, and my feelings for you have grown with time. I am not very eloquent—’

  ‘It’s not that,’ said Lata, though she knew that it was at least partly that. What, after all, would they talk about for the rest of their lives?

  ‘Anyway, I’m sure I will improve with your instruction,’ said Haresh cheerfully.

  ‘What’s the fifth place?’ said Lata.

  ‘What fifth place?’

  ‘You said we’d met in five places. Prahapore, Calcutta now, Kanpur, very briefly in Lucknow when you helped us at the station. . . . What’s the fifth? It was only my mother you met in Delhi.’



  ‘We didn’t meet exactly, but I was at the platform when you were getting on to the Calcutta train. Not this time—a few months ago. You were wearing a blue sari, and you had a very intense and serious expression on your face as if something had—well, a very intense and serious expression.’

  ‘Are you sure it was a blue sari?’ said Lata with a smile.

  ‘Yes,’ said Haresh, smiling back.

  ‘What were you doing there?’ asked Lata wonderingly; her mind was now already back on that platform and what she had been feeling.

  ‘Nothing. Just leaving for Cawnpore. And then, for a few days after we met properly, I kept thinking, “Where have I seen her before?” Like today at the Test match with that young fellow Durrani.’

  Lata came out of her dream. ‘Durrani?’ she said.

  ‘Yes, but I didn’t have to wonder long. I discovered where I’d seen him within a few minutes of talking to him. That was in Brahmpur too. I’d taken Bhaskar to meet his father. Everything happens in Brahmpur!’

  Lata was silent but looking at him with, he felt, great interest at last.

  ‘Good-looking fellow,’ continued Haresh, encouraged. ‘Very well informed about cricket. And on the university team. He’s leaving tomorrow for the Inter-’Varsity somewhere.’

  ‘At the cricket match?’ said Lata. ‘You met Kabir?’

  ‘Do you know him?’ asked Haresh, frowning a little.

  ‘Yes,’ said Lata, controlling her voice. ‘We acted in Twelfth Night together. How strange. What was he doing in Calcutta? How long has he been here?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ replied Haresh. ‘For the cricket mainly, I suppose. But it seems a pity to have to leave after three days of a Test. Not that this one is likely to end in a win for either side. And he might have come on business too. He did say something about wanting to meet someone but being uncertain about his reception when he met him.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Lata. ‘Did he meet him eventually?’

  ‘No, I don’t think so. Anyway, what were we talking about? Yes, five towns. Brahmpur, Prahapore, Calcutta, Lucknow, Cawnpore.’

  ‘I wish you wouldn’t call it Cawnpore,’ said Lata with a touch of irritation.

  ‘What should I call it?’


  ‘All right. And if you wish I’ll call Calcutta Kolkota.’

  Lata didn’t answer. The thought that Kabir was still in town, in Calcutta somewhere, but unreachable, and that he would be leaving the next day, made her eyes smart. Here she was, sitting on the same bench where she had read his letter—and with Haresh of all people. Certainly, if her meetings with Haresh were marked by meals, her meet
ings with Kabir were marked by benches. She felt like both laughing and crying.

  ‘Is something the matter?’ said Haresh, a little troubled.

  ‘No, let’s go in. It’s getting a little chilly. If Arun Bhai has left by now it shouldn’t be too difficult to get Varun to put on a few film songs. I feel in the mood for them.’

  ‘I thought you were more fond of classical music.’

  ‘I like everything,’ said Lata brightly, ‘but at different times. And Varun will offer you a drink.’

  Haresh asked for a beer. Varun put on a song from Deedar, then left the drawing room; he had instructions from his mother to keep out of the way. Lata’s eye fell on the book of Egyptian mythology.

  Haresh was more than a little bewildered by her change of mood. It made him feel uneasy. He was being truthful when he wrote in his letters that he had grown to be in love with her. He was sure she too was fond of him. Now she was treating him in a baffling manner.

  The record had run its three-minute course. Lata did not get up to change it. The room was quiet. ‘I’m tired of Calcutta,’ she said light-heartedly. ‘It’s a good thing I’m going to the Botanical Gardens tomorrow.’

  ‘But I’d set tomorrow aside for you. I planned to spend it with you,’ said Haresh.

  ‘You never told me, Haresh.’

  ‘You said—you wrote—that you wanted to spend as much time as possible with me.’ Something had changed in their conversation at a certain point. He passed his hand across his forehead and frowned.

  ‘Well, we still have five days before I leave for Brahmpur,’ said Lata.

  ‘My leave will be over tomorrow. Cancel your Botanical trip. I insist!’ He smiled, and caught her hand.

  ‘Oh, don’t be mean—’ said Lata.

  He released her hand at once. ‘I am not mean,’ he said.

  Lata looked at him. The colour had left his face, and the laugh too had been wiped away. He was suddenly very angry. ‘I am not mean,’ he repeated. ‘No one has ever said that to me before. Don’t ever use that word for me again. I—I am going now.’ He got up. ‘I’ll find my way to the station. Please thank your family for me. I can’t stay for dinner.’

  Lata looked completely stunned, but did not try to stop him. ‘Oh, don’t be mean!’ was an expression that the girls at Sophia Convent must have used twenty times a day to each other. Some of it had survived—especially in certain moods—in her present-day speech. It meant nothing particularly wounding, and she could not imagine for the moment why he was so wounded.

  But Haresh, already troubled by something he could not lay his finger on, was stung to the depths of his being. To be called ‘mean’—ungenerous, lowly, base—and that too by the woman he loved and for whom he was prepared to do so much—he could tolerate some things, but he would not tolerate that. He was not ungenerous—far less so than her cavalier brother who had had hardly a word of appreciation for his efforts a few days earlier and who did not have the decency to spend an evening with him in order to reciprocate his hospitality. As for being base, his accent might not have their polish nor his diction their elegance, but he came from stock as good as theirs. They could keep their Anglicized veneer. To be labelled ‘mean’ was something not to be borne. He would have nothing to do with people who held this opinion of him.


  Mrs Rupa Mehra almost had hysterics when she heard that Haresh had gone. ‘That was very, very rude of him,’ she said, and burst into tears. Then she turned upon her daughter. ‘You must have done something to displease him. Otherwise he would never have gone. He would never have gone without saying goodbye.’

  It took Savita to calm her down. Then, realizing that Lata looked completely shell-shocked, she sat beside her and held her hand. She was glad that Arun had not been there to fling sawdust into the fire. Slowly she worked out what had happened, and what Haresh might have misconstrued Lata to have meant.

  ‘But if we don’t even understand each other when we speak,’ said Lata, ‘what possible future can we have together?’

  ‘Don’t worry about that for the moment,’ said Savita. ‘Have some soup.’

  When all else fails, thought Lata, there is always soup.

  ‘And read something soothing,’ added Savita.

  ‘Like a law-book?’ There were still tears in her eyes, but she was trying to smile.

  ‘Yes,’ said Savita. ‘Or—since Sophia Convent is what started this confusion in the first place—why not read your autograph book from school? It’s full of old friends and eternal thoughts. I often look through mine when I’m feeling bad. I am quite serious. I’m not merely echoing Ma.’

  It was good advice. A hot cup of vegetable soup appeared, and Lata, amused a bit by the idiocy of the suggested remedy, looked through her book. On the small pages of pink and cream and pale blue, in English and (from her aunts, and once from Varun in nationalistic mood) in Hindi, and even in Chinese (an unreadable but beautiful inscription from her classmate Eulalia Wong), the edifying or moving or amusing or facetious lines in their different inks and different hands stirred her memories and diminished her confusion. She had even pasted in a small fragment of a letter from her father, which ended with a rough pencil sketch of four little monkeys, his own ‘bandar-log’, as he used to call them. More than ever now she missed him. She read her mother’s inscription, the first in the book:

  When the world has been unkind, when life’s troubles cloud your mind,

  Don’t sit down and frown and sigh and moon and mope.

  Take a walk along the square, fill your lungs with God’s fresh air,

  Then go whistling back to work and smile and hope.

  Remember, Lata darling, that the fate of each man (and woman) rests with himself.

  Yours everloving,


  On the next page a friend had written:


  Love is the star men look up to as they walk along, and marriage is the coal-hole they fall into.

  Love and all good wishes,


  Someone else had suggested:

  It is not the Perfect but the Imperfect who have need of Love.

  Yet another had written on a page of blue in a hand that sloped slightly backwards:

  Cold words will break a fine heart as winter’s first frost does a crystal vase. A false friend is like the shadow on a sun-dial which appears in very fine weather but vanishes at the approach of a cloud.

  Fifteen-year-old girls, thought Lata, took a serious view of life.

  Savita’s own sisterly contribution was:

  Life is merely froth and bubble.

  Two things stand like stone:

  Kindness in another’s trouble,

  Courage in our own.

  To her own surprise, her eyes became moist again.

  I am going to turn into Ma before I’m twenty-five, thought Lata to herself. This quickly stemmed the last of her tears.

  The phone rang. It was Amit for Lata.

  ‘So everything’s ready for tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Tapan’s coming along with us. He likes the banyan tree. You can tell Ma that I’ll take good care of you.’

  ‘Amit, I’m in a terrible mood. I’ll be terrible company. Let’s go some other time.’ Her voice, not yet quite clear, sounded strange even to herself, but Amit did not comment on it.

  ‘That will be for me to decide,’ he said. ‘Or rather, for both of us. If, when I come to pick you up tomorrow, you decide not to go, I won’t force the issue. How’s that? Tapan and I will go by ourselves. I’ve promised him now—and I don’t want to disappoint him.’

  Lata was wondering what to say when Amit added: ‘Oh, I myself have them often enough: breakfast blues, lunchtime lows, dinner doldrums. But if you’re a poet, that’s your raw material. I suppose that the poem you gave me must have had some such origin.’

  ‘It did not!’ said Lata, with some indignation.

  ‘Good, good, you’re on your way to recovery,’ laughed Amit. ‘I c
an tell.’ He rang off.

  Lata, still holding the receiver, was left with the thought that some people appeared to understand her far too little and others far too much.


  Dearest Lata,

  I have been thinking of you often since you’ve been away, but you know how busy I always succeed in making myself, even in the holidays. Something, however, has happened which I feel I should write to you about. I have been torturing myself about whether to tell you, but I think the thing to do is simply to go ahead. I was so happy to get your letter and I dread the thought of making you unhappy. Maybe what with the election mail and the Christmas rush this letter will be delayed or will disappear entirely. I don’t suppose I’ll be sorry.

  I’m sorry my thoughts are so scattered. I’m just writing on impulse. I was looking through my papers yesterday and came across the note you wrote to me when I was in Nainital, saying you had found the pressed flower again. I read it twice and suddenly thought of that day in the zoo, and tried to remember why I gave you that flower! I think it unconsciously was a seal to our friendship. It expressed my feelings for you, and I’m glad I can share my joys and sorrows with this wonderful, affectionate person who is so far away from me and yet so close.

  Well, Calcutta isn’t so far away really, but friends matter all the time, and it’s good to know you haven’t forgotten me. I was looking at the photographs of the play again while I was sorting things out in my mind, and was thinking how wonderfully you acted. It amazed me at the time and still amazes me—especially from someone who is sometimes so reserved, who doesn’t often talk about her fears, fantasies, dreams, anxieties, loves and hates—and whom I would probably never have got to know if it hadn’t been for the good luck of sharing the same hospital room—sorry! hostel room.

  Well, I’ve avoided the subject long enough, and I can see your anxious face. The news I have to give you is about K, which—well, I should just give it and be done with it and I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me. I’m just doing the unpleasant duty of a friend.

  After you left for Cal, K sent me a note and we met at the Blue Danube. He wanted me to get you to talk to him or write to him. He said all sorts of things about how much he cared for you, sleepless nights, restless wanderings, lovelorn longings, the lot. He spoke very convincingly, and I felt quite sorry for him. But he must be rather practised at that sort of thing, because he was seeing another girl—at the Red Fox—on about the same day. You told me he doesn’t have a sister, and anyway, it’s clear from my informant, who is completely reliable, that he wasn’t behaving in a particularly brotherly way. I was surprised how furious I was to hear of this, but in a way I was glad that this made things quite clear. I made up my mind to fire him up face to face, but found he’d disappeared from town on some university cricket tour, and anyway now I don’t think it’s worth the stress and bother.


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