Love stories aren’t perfect and relationships far from it.
So this Valentine’s Day, we asked bestselling writer Anuja Chauhan to write an exclusive short story on romance – but more real than romantic – for Brunch. Anuja is the author of The Zoya Factor (2008), Battle For Bittora (2010) and Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013).
This short story is a prequel to her first book.
WATCH: ANUJA CHAUHAN ON LOVE IN THE TIME OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The toad stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me, a look of utter consternation upon his face. Didn’t see this coming, did you, toad?
"Zoya." He said slowly, the sing-song Bangalore drawl very pronounced. (That tended to happen when he got nervous.) "Hey. How… how nice to see you. Didn’t you get my mail?"
I cocked my head to one side innocently. "What mail?"
His handsome jaw sagged slightly. He looked about the courtyard (blazing with pink bougainvillea and warm winter sunshine, by the way) – in a harassed manner. I couldn’t help noticing how nicely his aquamarine muffler set off the golden tone of his skin. He was fair for a guy – fairer than me. And lovely too – in a brooding, manly sort of way. A fair and lovely toad.
Then he squared his shoulders and looked right at me. "The email. From Columbia."
I smiled brightly, though my palms were clammy. "You wrote me tonnes of emails from Columbia. Which one d’you mean?"
Silence. I raised my chin then, looking up at him challengingly.
He met my gaze squarely, his eyes narrowed. We stared at each other like that for almost a full minute, while my heart slammed against my ribs and my stomach churned as busily as a Videocon washing machine in heavy duty mode. Gwwooon gwwooon gwwooown.
Then he gave a light little laugh. "You’re right." he admitted. "I did write you a tonne of letters. It’s silly to ask about each one separately. Come ’ere and gimme a hug. I’ve missed you, babe."
So of course I ran into his arms and hugged him. He hugged me back. Hard. And when we finally pulled away, his eyes were all soft. His cheeks flushed. And his heart was slamming hard under my fingers. I could feel it right through his preppy Benetton sweater. I really could.
"Come up to my room?" His voice was low and husky and just the way I used to like it.
"Um, not now." I said, somewhat breathlessly. Breathless, not because I was so hopelessly turned on. But because I suspected, that he suspected, that I had gotten the last mail he’d written me. In which he’d suggested that we should give each other ‘space’ because
* he had met somebody hotter,
* unlike me, she was totally non-hawji about sex,
* I was dumb and he was smart,
* I was from Karol Bagh and he was from Golf Links,
*I was doing a dopey MBA from Ghaziabad and he was doing a fancy one from New York,
* he’d only dated a Gaalu Aalu like me so that my Gajju chacha – who had been his professor, and was this big shot at Delhi University – would recommend him to the schools in the US for a scholarship.
He hadn’t actually come out and said any of this, of course.
He’d been much more elegant. But, net-net, the message I’d received was ki yeh jo world hai na world, isme two types ke people hotay hain – users and losers – and that he was the former and I was the latter and that the time had come for a parting of the ways.
(Well, at least there had been no parting of the thighs. Which was a good thing – or maybe not? Maybe I should’ve used him a bit too, while we were at it?)
Naturally I was shattered when I received the email. I really liked him. We’d met so romantically – slow danced that first evening – and sat on the steps and talked till dawn. I’d lost three whole kilos in that first month when he left for the US (a best-ever record for me!) and then spent the last year doodling Zoya Singh Solanki <3 Ayaan Menon across my class notes and wondering how our life together would be (A Yawn, my troll-like brother had assured me repeatedly, but he’s an ass, what does he know?)
Two (not very attractive, to be honest) guys had asked me out that year and I had turned them both down, telling them solemnly that I had a long-distance boyfriend I was serious about. It had been lonely, but it had been romantic.
And now this!
A mail from the US, asking for ‘space.’ And please don’t tell me I’m over-reacting, because hello, a ‘space’ mail is the rokka ceremony of the big break-up mail. Everybody knows that.
And so I had come up with a low, cunning PLAN.
I would pretend that I hadn’t gotten his ‘space’ mail at all. I would dodge it – like people dodge subpoenas from the courts in all those legal thrillers. And then, while he was on the back foot and wondering how to dump me while I was being so needy and sensitive, I was going to quickly dump him. And thus avoid all heartbreak. Because heartbreak is 90 per cent just your ego getting kicked in the gut.
Everybody knows that, too.
Oh God, who am I kidding? This so-called Plan is just a sham! I’m desperately hoping that he’ll see me – all freshly shampooed and exfoliated and peachy – and remember all the good times we had – and fall in love with me all over again – and forget that he had ever met a new girlfriend or written me a ‘space’ mail. That’s the real low cunning plan.
And looking into his eyes now, I’m starting to wonder if his kisses still taste sweetly of Hubba Bubba grape and if he’s still got that Hero CD stashed about someplace.
Hero is our make-out song. Except that when I close my eyes I sometimes start seeing Enrique in my head instead of Ayaan, which is kinda creepy. Or maybe good? Because it proves that this is not true love? I mean, if it were, would I be seeing Enrique when we lock lips? Surely my One True Love should have the power to drive out the image of random mascara-wearing singers with weird moles from my brain while we’re kissing?
This is more like it, Zoya. Hold on to this thought. Ayaan Menon is a toad. You’re here to dump him, quick. Now, here’s the way to do it. You’re going to focus on his flaws – one by one – and gross yourself out completely.
Start with the fact that sometimes his mouth smells, which is probably why he’s always chewing Hubba Bubba. No, wait, start with his butt. It’s far from ideal. Too high. And it sticks out a bit. Like a shelf. You could stand a Coke can on it. Well, almost. And he wears mommy jeans. And then there’s his chest – which is umm, kinda bulbous. And he uses Mysore sandal soap. Which is just so uncool.
And then there’s his…
I can’t do this.
This is like those diets where you’re supposed to gross yourself out by telling your brain that masala dosas look like poopy diapers – all white with a yellow centre – and then you never want to eat them again. They so don’t work.
I love him. I don’t want to break up with him! But I cannot stand around like a deer in the headlights, waiting for him to dump me. I cannot. "Do you?"
Ayaan was leaning right into my face, looking expectant. "Huh?" I said stupidly.
"D’you wanna come into the living room at least? Get some coffee?"
"Yes, please." I said faintly. "With lots of sugar."
He laughed, put his arm around me, hugged me sideways (avoiding boobage? Being platonic?) and started to march me into this house.
"It’s good to see you again.” He said, looking right at me. His eyes were shining with sincerity. Or maybe that was just the winter sun bouncing off them?
My heart leapt into my mouth. Was the plan working? Which plan? Damn, I was so confused, I didn’t even know what I wanted anymore...
Well, the kisses were just as good as they used to be. When the usual struggle for possession of the top button of my jeans started, I yanked down my sweater, and stalked out into the fancy living room, and after a while he followed.
It always makes me feel inadequate, his living room. It’s full of these Tanjore paintings and fancy rugs, and all these genuine paintings with signatures and all. At home, all we have on the walls are a couple of Bhutanese dragon carpets. And they’ve been hung up only so that our dog won’t chew on them.
There was a cricket match on – running on mute on his fancy flat telly. Our team was losing as usual. Losers.
"Where’s everybody?” I asked. "Your mom and dad?" "Some family function.” He replied briefly. "I pleaded jet lag. D’you want some more coffee?"
He got the coffee, while I sat on the couch, fiddling with my hair, stealing looks at myself in the hallway mirror. I was looking good. As good as I could get. But as good as he could get? Clearly, he thought not.
"So listen, you really didn’t get my last email?" He asked as he slid the coffee towards me.
I rolled my eyes and shook my head, swinging my hair deliberately from side to side. My hair is super sexy – all cork-screw curly and jet black and down to my waist. It’s my best thing.
"No – but what’s the big?" I was feeling strangely light-headed. "Just resend it, na. We’ll both sit here and read it together. That’ll be fun!"
He went very still. "Are you sure?"
His voice was challenging. "Absolutely." I said coolly.
"Let it be, actually." He shrugged. "It isn’t that important."
Which immediately made me seethe inside. Not important? The email that broke my heart? Really?
He sat down next to me and started to talk. And as he talked, his arm draped casually around the back of my shoulders, his fingers gripping mine, the weirdest thing happened. The masala dosa=poopy diaper, seekh kebab=human turd thingie actually started to work.
I let him talk, and noticed small things about him.
His fingers – bony and hairy. These are the fingers that typed that mean email. Meanfingers.
His aquamarine muffler – chick-ish. And peacocky.
He’d pretended his mom picked it out for him, but I bet he bought it himself.
And the stuff coming out of his mouth – always so belittling.
"So what is this AWB you’re interviewing with?" He asked. "Never heard of it."
"Amos Walter Branson is India’s biggest ad agency." I tell him. "It would be a huge deal to get the job." Ayaan’s forehead creased.
"Will they pay well?" I mention the salary they’ve offered. It’s not insane – but it’s not piddly either. He smiled.
A patronising smile.
A patronising, toadish smile.
It made me want to slap him.
"What brands do they handle anyway?" "The best." I said, with more confidence. “If I get through, I’ll get to work on Zing Cola!" He pursed his lips.
"Don’t they do all those flashy, multi-starrer ads?"
"Ya-ya!" I nodded excitedly. "So cool, na?"
He crossed his legs (chick-ish again. Omg, I’ve been dating a chick!)
"In our marketing classes," he said, emphasising the ‘our’ in a way that instantly made me feel all protective about my small-time little MBA school in Ghaziabad, "they say that celebrity advertising in a double-edged sword, which, if wielded ineptly, can be totally destructive to brand building."
"So now I’m inept?"
"Zoya!" He spread out his hands, palm raised. "I didn’t say that."
"Well, I’m not." I told him, nostrils flaring dangerously. "I have the same genes as my Gajju chacha, and he’s smart enough for you, isn’t he?"
Ayaan put down his coffee mug. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
I didn’t say anything. My chest was feeling tight. I felt like I was about to explode. And then I did.
"It means you’re an ass. And a user. It means I’m tired of you writing me short emails while I write you long ones, it means I’m tired of being made to feel insecure and inadequate, and it means –" I paused.
"Well?" He asked.
"It means that I dump you!" I said it really loud and fast, and sat back, feeling half sick, half smug.
Ayaan blinked. "What?"
I nodded several times. "Yeah. I dump you. I dump you first."
"First?" His eyebrows rose. "Um, I did send you an email, back in December, saying I wanted spac–"
"Oh shut up." I said crossly. "If you couldn’t be faithful, at least be graceful. I dumped you. Is that clear?"
He nodded. "Crystal."
"Good." I said in a tight little voice.
And then he dropped me home. We didn’t talk in the car. There really wasn’t anything more to say. I found my dog and got to my room and got into bed and cried.
His mouth did used to smell. I admitted to myself, as I blew my nose on my pillow. And he was a user. But I’m not going to catalogue his bad qualities again and again in my head, because that will only make me all bitter and twisted. I will catalogue all my good qualities in my head, instead.
And then one day soon I will meet someone truly fabulous and awesome, who will be attracted to me because of how joyous and down-to-earth I am, and make me forget I ever knew a toad called Ayaan Menon, and he will be the hero of the movie of my life, and we will live happily ever after.
And then I called Eppa on my phone (she hates when I do that, this is nott a hotal this is a homme!) and asked her to bring me some hot adrak ki chai and a bowl of Bikaner ki bhujia to my bedside.
There’s lots to look forward to, actually. In a few days, it will be spring and Delhi will be full of flowers. My horrible brother will come home on his annual leave. And I may have good news from that interview at AWB.
I’m only twenty three years old. And healthy. And I have sexy hair. Life is good.
A peep into her bookshelf
We asked Anuja Chauhan to list her favourite romantic books. She likes them historical
Georgette Heyer’s books
I love all her books as I find them very funny also. I like romance with a touch of humour. I love all the characters in her books. I also like the fact that there is always a gang of guys who are all there together.
There is always a good concept of male bonding in her books. In one of her books, Friday’s Child (1944), she has one girl among this group of guys and everyone is friends with her. She is my all-time favourite.
Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery
This is like a childhood romance written amazingly and with good humour also. I just love the hero Gilbert Blythe and also the vivid way in which the village setup has been described so well.
Even the various characters have been described in detail – some of them are so wise and some wicked too.
Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen
Even though I have lots of issues with this book, still it is one of my favourites from school. The mother though is really horrible, I would cringe every time she appeared. Who can get away from the charms of Mr Darcy?
But I don’t like the fact that the two elder sisters can be so bitchy towards the other three.
Avalon High (2005) by Meg Cabot
This is a young American school romance that is actually retelling the story of King Arthur.
He is back in school where the revelation of King Arthur happens along with his table of knights. Very grand and nicely done.
Mill on the Floss (1860) by George Eliot
Even though it is not a typical romance, I still like it a lot. Brilliantly written, especially whatever little romance is shown between the lead characters.
I love the overall characterisation – the mother, the father and even the uncles, they all are slightly Dickensian in their portrayal.
From HT Brunch, February 9
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