Story 25: The Measure of a Man

Some days, you just wish it would rain.

Mythili Patel twisted the wooden ring on her finger. The turquoise-blue curtains covering the French window of her penthouse apartment had been drawn open, affording her a view of the orange-tiled balcony that housed seventy pots of various varieties of rose. Despite the uncharacteristic heat of this year’s March, Ramu Kaka had made sure that the petals were always dotted with water.

Temple Towers had four blocks of fifteen stories each, and on top of each one was perched a four-bedroom, open-to-all-sides penthouse just like this one. From this window Mythili could see the shut floral curtains of Mrs. Dwarakanath on Block A, wife of the soon-to-retire Air Commodore Bhaskar Dwarakanath; and to the right, on Block B, the family of Contractor Joga Reddy was seated on the cane furniture of their living room, watching pictures dance on their fifty-inch flat screen. If she were to go to her study and peer out of the window there, she would see whether Assistant Commissioner Anant Saxena and family were in or out.

All of them Papa’s friends.

She would have to walk out onto the balcony, right to the edge, and bend over the black iron railing to see the oval-shaped swimming pool some hundred and fifty feet below, with people splashing and swimming in it soundlessly. It was almost six p.m., but the muggy heat refused to budge. Bengaluru was not like this once, she had heard; it would rain throughout the year, and the air would be clear and sharp, as though cut of fine glass.

She thought of Sukumaar – dear old Sukumaar – who was right this moment racing toward her carrying a ‘surprise’. He would do the usual things – he would ask her to close her eyes, he would count down from three, or five, or ten, and he would scrutinize her with those narrow blue-black eyes to see if she was adequately impressed.

Today was the day they ought to rejoice – both him and her. For the first time in years, nothing stood between them. Papa had said yes. (His parents had never objected, of course.) The boy had passed his interview – Papa never bothered to mince words – with flying colours, and had proven himself worthy of being a Patel son-in-law.

How nice.

Mythili looked up at the greying sky. It had rained when Sukumaar had first held her hand. It had rained when they had first walked together on a Candolim beach. It had rained when they had first kissed, under a bright yellow umbrella in Coorg. It had rained when she had gone to meet his family for the first time. And it had rained on that May day – right in the middle of summer – when he had asked Papa for her hand the first time, and was turned down.

Given all that, she thought, it must rain today.

Ramu Kaka did his best to steal quietly behind and around her, switching on the lights, but she heard him. He must have seen her flinch, because he said, ‘You must be happy today, no, baby? Sir told me that Sukumaar babu is coming.’

It had become quite an event, then, this ‘coming of Sukumaar’ to this apartment tonight. He had been here before, of course, with Papa, without him, when Ramu Kaka had been around, when she’d been alone. He had stayed the night on some occasions. He had stormed out after an argument on others. They had fought here. They had made love. They had slept, him on this couch, her on that beanbag, after talking deep into the night about how to change the world. For the better. Always for the better.

‘Yes, Ramu Kaka,’ she said, turning around to face the small man. ‘I am happy.’ In her mind she told herself that yes, she was indeed happy, though the rain refused to come.

Ramu Kaka slid open the French window and stepped out onto the balcony with a half-filled bucket of water, to wet the petals once again. Mythili came to the couch and sat on its very edge, hands clasped on her lap such that the silver inscription on the wooden ring faced upwards. She spent a couple of seconds watching it, the inverted golden-black swirls of M and S entwined together, and for just a flash of an instant she heard the croaking voice of the lady who had sold them the ring all those years ago. You will marry this boy, she had said. He cares deeply for you, my love, and if this ring survives the travails fate has in store for you, know that this is meant to be.

The ring had survived, hadn’t it? They had survived, hadn’t they?

Yes, she was happy. How could she not be?

Without her knowledge her legs had begun to shake, her calves had begun to bob up and down on the balls of her feet. She held the ring and turned it around, so that the inscription went out of sight, hidden under her finger.

That calmed her down.

* * *

‘Today’s the happiest day of my life,’ he said.

Mythili could not tell whether he was referring to the deal he had just made or to the fact that they were finally together. But then she thought: did it have to be one or the other? Was happiness ever the result of just one thing?

‘Mine too,’ she said, returning his smile. They had hugged each other just for a minute after he had arrived. Now he sat on one sofa, she on the other, with a crystalline glass coffee table between them. Ramu Kaka had opened the champagne bottle Sukumaar had brought, and had tactfully made himself invisible. She knew, though, that he would appear in an instant whenever called for.

Sukumaar filled the glasses – hers first, then his – about half-way with the golden liquid. She leaned in, clinked them together once, said ‘Cheers’. Sukumaar said, ‘To us.’

His eyes caught something on her hand, and narrowed in an expression of distaste. Throughout their college days, Mythili had teased Sukumaar about the perpetual, forbidding frown he wore on his face. It was the frown of someone who studied little things. Someone who was bothered by little things.

‘You don’t need to wear that anymore,’ he said, his index finger lifting off the glass and pointing at her hand. ‘I have a real ring. Royal Solitaire.’

He was sitting back, with one leg mounted on the other, and the fingers of his free hand draped around the knee. He was dressed in a creamy-white suit. No tie. Black socks, brown polished shoes. Testoni. For the last year or so, Sukumaar had worn nothing else but Testoni.

He had once said he did not need a watch; now he owned a collection of limited-edition Rolexes.

She laughed at him, and something about the manner in which she did brought a cool, sly colour to his eyes. He still held the smile on his lips, though; just the lips. It reminded her so much of Papa.

‘Would you like to give it to me now?’ she asked. ‘Or will you put it on with your own hands?’

‘I will put it on, of course,’ said Sukumaar. He jumped to his feet and felt the inner pocket of his suit. Out came a purple box lined with velvet, studded with little diamonds along the edges. He came to where she was sitting, and sunk his right knee into the carpet.

‘Mythili Patel,’ he said, ‘there has never been a girl whom I loved more than you. We have withstood all that life can throw at us, and I can honestly say that tonight, with the world at my feet, I want you by my side for the rest of my life.’

Mythili held his gaze. His face was lit up now, and it seemed to burn with a blue, tawny inner fire. He meant every word. She could tell. It was the speech of an emperor, a general back from his biggest victory.

‘Mythili Patel,’ he said. ‘My best friend, my most honest critic, my guide, my lover – will you marry me?’

Mythili’s thoughts went back to their second year together, when one night he had wooed her back after a fight with a couplet he had written. She had asked him how he would propose to her if he had to, and he had said that even wild horses would not be able to make him go down on one knee. ‘We’re already past that stage,’ he had said. ‘We belong to each other already.’

And now here he was. No wild horses in sight.

She gave him her hand and said, ‘Yes, I will.’

‘Of course you will,’ he said, chuckling to himself, setting aside the box with the new ring on the table so that he can pull out the old one. ‘This can now go out.’ And as he slid the ‘surprise’ onto her finger, he looked into her eyes and said, ‘I love you.’

For the first time she looked down at her hand. A line of half-carat diamonds set around the rim. Four one-carat diamonds mounted on a throne of white gold, and one nine-carat stone perched at the top, glittering liquidly in the night light. She knew enough of diamonds to guess how much it would have cost him.

‘Don’t worry about the price,’ he said, with easy nonchalance. ‘Only the best for my girl.’

He took both her hands in his, and pulled her up to her feet, facing him. Covering her ears with his palms, he planted a soft kiss on her lips and said, ‘Are you as happy as I am?’

She nodded, holding on to his wrists. ‘I am,’ she said. ‘Very happy.’

* * *

‘A hundred and fifty crores,’ he said, with a disbelieving laugh. ‘Profit.’

They were seated along the adjacent edges of the dining table. Ramu Kaka had once again repeated his deft disappearance act after serving them their food.

Mythili poked at the reddish-orange stuff on her plate with the tip of her fork. From the texture it looked like something non-vegetarian.

‘Yes, Papa told me,’ she said. Remnants of an old conversation from a faraway past: Sukumaar telling her that if he could accumulate sixty lakhs in his bank account, he would have enough to retire on, enough to begin a career as a novelist. It would not pay the bills, he had admitted, but it would feed his soul. Keep him alive.

‘Dad said he will keep a third of it as commission,’ said Sukumaar, working his way through his food with a fork in his right hand and a knife in his left. Mythili had never been able to convince him that it was supposed to be the other way round. Well. At least something had not changed. ‘A third of it will be ploughed back into the business,’ he said, and cleared his throat. ‘A third of it is mine – he said I have earned it.’

About the same time Sukumaar had bought his first Rolex, he’d begun calling Papa ‘Dad’. He was ‘Uncle’ before that.

‘I am sure you have.’

‘That’s fifty crores,’ he said. ‘Mine to do whatever I want with.’

‘Indeed,’ said Mythili, examining the new ring on her finger. ‘What do you plan to do now?’

‘Ah, I don’t know,’ he said, shrugging. ‘I think you and I have earned one night of blissful sleep after all this. We can think of the future tomorrow, can’t we?’

She was about to nod, but he looked away in the direction of the French window, out into the crimson night. ‘But I’ve been thinking. Dad was talking about a new project in Mumbai. New technology, new people. He was saying that if I was interested, he will take me on as partner, show me the ropes.’ He fell silent, and held the distant gaze for a few minutes. Then he shrugged and smiled. ‘I don’t know. We will think about it tomorrow.’

‘What about your writing?’ said Mythili.

‘Hmm? Ah, yes, I will write. Maybe after I retire.’

‘Don’t you have enough to retire on now?’

A shaft of anger struck him across the face, then. Mythili saw it. But he pushed it aside and smiled up at her. Once again, all lips, no eyes. ‘I feel like I can make a difference to more lives by being in construction than in writing,’ he said.

‘True,’ she agreed. ‘And you make more money.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing. In construction, you make more of a difference and you make more money. Win-win.’

‘Yes,’ he said, defiantly. ‘I am not going to apologize for making money.’

‘You shouldn’t,’ she said, ‘especially when you’re making it all for us.’

‘Yes!’ he said. Then he peered at her carefully. ‘Are you being sarcastic?’

‘Not at all. I know how uninterested in money you truly are.’

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You are being sarcastic.’ He placed the knife and fork on the plate. Then he picked them up. Then he dropped them, so that they clanked loudly against the china. ‘I cannot believe that you’re sitting here on your high horse –’

‘Let’s not fight,’ she said.

On your high horse,’ he said, ‘judging me for doing all of this donkey work for your father just so that I could prove myself worthy of –’

‘Sukumaar,’ she said, ‘not tonight.’

‘And I come here, I give you everything you ever wanted. I give you a ring. I propose to you. I give you a future that you never hoped to see with me –’

‘That I never wanted to see with you!’ said Mythili. ‘I didn’t want a ring. I didn’t want a proposal. I did not fall in love with the Sukumaar who wears Rolexes and Testonis and sips on champagne. I fell in love with – the other guy!’

‘What other guy?’

Mythili stood up, placed the napkin on her unfinished plate. ‘Forget it. Just for tonight, please, let’s not fight.’

‘No no,’ he said, and got up. ‘What other guy?’

‘Sukumaar –’

‘What other guy!’

‘The guy who used to wear shorts everywhere he went!’ said Mythili. ‘The guy who did not know the difference between fake and real gold. The guy with whom I went to temples with, the guy who took joy in tossing stones into a lake and watching them skip, the guy who liked to write. The guy who was good at writing.’

He stopped and frowned, as if he were seeing her for the first time. ‘We did all that because we couldn’t do better.’

‘I could always do better,’ said Mythili. ‘I chose to do all those things with you.’

‘See,’ he said, ‘this is exactly what your father said. “My daughter can do better than you,” he said. And now you’ve confirmed it. Thanks.’

‘Sukumaar, you know that’s not what I meant. Whatever I had with you – whatever I fell in love with – is better for me. You may think that there is a better out there that you need to reach, but what we had was good enough.’

‘No, it wasn’t.’

‘It was! It was what made you you, and us us. Today – today you speak of new construction projects and – and you have this slimy look about you – and when you smile I don’t see the light in your eyes – and you tell me that you make a difference in people’s lives – and there is this green tinge to your tongue –’

He rubbed his hand over his mouth and looked at it. ‘What green tinge?’

‘You have tasted money, Sukumaar,’ said Mythili. ‘And you like it.’

There was an air of a cornered animal about him, now. ‘But – but I did this all for you.’

He didn’t. She knew he didn’t. But he looked so broken at that moment that she did not find it within her heart to say it. Instead, she went up to him and gave him a hug. He resisted at first, and his arms fell about him, loose and weak, but his strength returned in few moments, and he held her with his old sturdiness.

‘Let’s not fight any more, okay,’ she said, watching the white wall behind his back. ‘Let’s go to bed.’

* * *

Mythili woke up at the crack of dawn, with an itching ring finger. She lifted Sukumaar’s arm off her and felt her way in the dark toward the living room. She turned on the lights. The wooden ring was no longer lying on the carpet where Sukumaar had tossed it. It was now on the table, next to the empty velvet box.

She pulled off the new ring. To her surprise it did not chafe, and it did not leave a mark. But the itching disappeared. She picked up the wooden ring and stood there for a few moments, feeling the inscription with her fingertips. Then she put it into her pocket and said to Ramu Kaka, who was hovering in the corner: ‘Tell Papa I am coming to meet him, right now.’

And she grabbed her car keys and set off.

* * *

‘You turned him into you,’ she said, marching into her father’s office. He was pretending to look into a file, but he was still in his sleeping dress, and she knew that he never worked unless he was dressed in an Armani. At least a Raymond.

‘Good morning, baby,’ he said. ‘Have you eaten anything?’

‘You turned him into you,’ she said.

‘Why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk. Okay?’

She did not want to sit down. But he looked up at her with genuine love in his eyes. Papa had this way of screwing you over and then convincing you it was all for your good.

She pulled out the chair and crashed into it, suddenly tired. ‘You could have just said no if you didn’t like him.’

He did not deny knowing what she was talking about, which was a good start. ‘I did like him,’ he said. ‘I like him even now.’

‘So much that you had to change him into you?’

Her father laughed, and thumbed the pages of his file. ‘I am not that powerful, Mythu.’

‘Don’t call me that.’

‘You know,’ he said, as if she had not spoken, ‘your mother used to tell me. If you want to know the true measure of a man, give him money. I gave Sukumaar money. Do you not like him as much anymore?’

‘I don’t like him at all.’

‘Then he was never right for you, my dear.’

‘Rubbish!’ said Mythili. ‘If you did not corrupt him –’

‘You keep saying that,’ he said. ‘And I keep telling you I am not that powerful. I cannot change people from who they are. But I can – sometimes – unmask them from who they pretend to be.’

‘Did you tell him that he must not write anymore?’

‘I did not. Does he not want to write anymore?’

‘He does not,’ she said. ‘Papa, what have you done to him? Now all he thinks of are construction projects and money and expensive diamond rings and –’

‘He was always thinking of them, Mythili,’ said Papa, fingering his white beard. ‘The only way to know what a man truly wants is to give him the means to have it all. I did that.’

Mythili placed her elbows on the table and buried her fingers in her hair. ‘Is this one of your games? Is this all your ploy to get me married to someone of your choice?’

Papa laughed; a sudden, genuine laugh that made his ears go red. In spite of herself, Mythili felt her own spirits rising. ‘I am not that powerful either, my girl,’ he said. ‘I am more concerned that you should not marry the wrong man.’

‘And you think Sukumaar is the wrong man for me?’

Papa shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never had an objection to you marrying him. I just told him that he should learn some business from me, and he did.’

‘And he changed!’

‘Everything changes everybody,’ said Papa with a rise and fall of his fingers. ‘He might change back in a year or two.’

‘Or he might never.’

‘Or he might never,’ he agreed cheerfully.

For a long minute, they sat in silence. Mythili kept shaking her head and beginning a sentence, but swallowing it before it spilled out. Her father sat with his hands entwined on the table and his head cocked to one side. That was his listening stance.

‘Why did you do this?’

‘To be honest, because I love you.’

‘That’s what he says,’ muttered Mythili.

Papa laughed without mirth. ‘I was curious too. I wanted to see how much of him was force and how much was choice.’

‘Well, looks like you’ve won.’

His face became sad all of a sudden, and his eyes, dark, round, saucer-like eyes, filled with compassion. ‘I am sorry I did, Mythu,’ he said. ‘I truly hoped I wouldn’t, this time.’

Mythili inserted her hand into her pocket and felt the cold touch of the wooden ring. The croaking old woman had said that if the ring outlasted all their troubles, it meant that they should be together. She had thought the night before that it had survived, but then Sukumaar – in all his great shame – had walked in and taken it off her finger with his own hands.

What did that mean? She did not know.

‘It’s not your fault,’ she told her father, and got up to leave.

* * *

‘Hey,’ said Sukumaar, and stood up as Mythili entered the apartment. ‘Where did you go? I was getting worried –’

‘Did Ramu Kaka not tell you?’ Mythili looked at the slouching figure in the corner, who nodded at her.

‘He did,’ said Sukumaar, ‘but I was still worried.’

‘You were scared, you mean,’ said Mythili, and sat down on the couch, the same one on which he’d proposed to her the night before. ‘Sukumaar, we need to talk.’ She pointed at the ring on the table. ‘You saw that?’

‘I did.’ The cool slyness came back into his eyes. ‘Did you not like it? Are you going to return it for something bigger?’

‘No. I am going to keep this.’ She held up the wooden ring. ‘I am going to keep this because it stands for something. That one – it’s just a collection of bright stones.’

Something like shock overcame his features. ‘A nine-carat diamond,’ he said, as if he were speaking to a four-year-old.

‘A collection of bright stones. Anyway, that is not what I want to talk to you about.’

‘Yes? Are you calling off the wedding?’

She smiled at him. ‘I am postponing the wedding. Indefinitely. But as of now, you and I are not a couple anymore.’ She waited for him to process that. ‘I am breaking up with you, Sukumaar.’

Silence again. He sat with his old slouch, his hands trapped between his thighs, looking down at the floor. Gone was the swagger, the champagne-wielding bravado.

‘Forever?’ he said.

‘Forever for now,’ she replied. ‘I will consider getting back together with you if you return all the money you got from my father. Yes, even the amount that he said you earned. You know you didn’t, Sukumaar. Come on.’

‘I did,’ he said, petulantly, but in a low, mousey voice.

‘I am giving up all of my inheritance too,’ said Mythili. ‘All of it. This apartment, my car, Ramu Kaka, everything. I am going out on my own. If you want to join me, I might consider taking you back.’

‘But – this does not make –’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I know it doesn’t. But these are my rules. I won’t wait for you forever. If in two months I don’t hear from you, I will assume that you’ve made your choice.’

‘Two months? That’s hardly anything –’

‘It took you less than a month to tell me you loved me.’ He fell back to sullen silence at that, and Mythili felt a tight fist closing around her heart and choking it. She could see that this would change everything, test the very foundations on which she thought their love had been built. But it had to be done. ‘Two months is too long, if anything. Would you rather I demand you make your choice right now?’

‘No,’ he said, looking up with fright-racked eyes. ‘Two months is fine.’

At that moment, Mythili felt she had lost him for good. Perhaps Papa was right; perhaps he was this person all along, and all that Papa had done was push away the mask. Or perhaps the reverse was true; Papa was playing puppet-master by offering him temptations that no man could resist.

It did not matter. What mattered was that she could not love him the way he was now. She was not sure if she could love him if he changed back to who he had been, but at least she could try. Right now – no chance.

‘Go,’ she told him. ‘I need to be alone.’

* * *

Mythili Patel stood at the window of her third-floor apartment in Temple Towers and watched the thin drizzle. She had horribly outspent her first month’s salary, so much so that she had to borrow money from a colleague to make rent on time. But this month was looking good. If everything went to plan, she might even save a little. Once or twice Ramu Kaka had come down from the penthouse – on Papa’s secret behest, no doubt – with food, but she had sent him back without opening the carrier. She had employed a maid. She’d learnt that she must supervise her when she was mopping around the corners and under the furniture. She’d come to know by sight Mrs. Lalitha, a frail old widow who lived in 312 across the corridor. One of these days she planned to bake some cake and take it over.

In all this, she wished she could say she had had no time to think of Sukumaar. But that would be a lie.

Every night over the last two months, the last thing she’d done before going to bed was cross off the day in the calendar. With every cross, a little more of the hope in her heart had died. Now it was the final week.

The sounds of kids yelling at each other by the swimming pool below came to her ears, and she craned her neck to see what was going on. She had begun walking down to the grocery store every morning, saying hello to early morning joggers, smiling at the kids, eyeing the Bharatanatyam class that happened at sunrise in the convention hall. There was less light in this apartment compared to the penthouse, but there were more sounds.

One of these days, she thought, I will muster enough courage to swim in the pool. Yes, in front of everyone.

Her finger began to itch right then, and just as she was about to twist the ring around, she heard a knock on the door. Almost by instinct, she knew who it had to be. As she crossed her living room, her fingers began to tremble, and she had to ball them into fists to still them.

It was him. He came in shorts and an old T-shirt, bearing no gifts, no surprises. Just him. His left wrist was bare. He was wearing his old blue-and-white Bata slippers.

Some of the old innocence had returned to his eyes, though Mythili could still see the blue furtive glow lurking not too deep beneath. But it was a start.

‘I’ve begun to write again,’ he said.

She gave him a cautious smile. ‘Why don’t you come in,’ she said, ‘and read it out to me?’

As they made for the couch and he fished out his notebook and pen, Mythili noticed that it was now raining heavily.