Home Stories Fantasising by Amita Basu – FICTION on the WEB short stories

Fantasising by Amita Basu – FICTION on the WEB short stories

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Ashwini fantasises about academic success, Suman about the perfect husband – but one woman sees her fantasies as escape, the other as inspiration; by Amita Basu.

Image generated with OpenAI

ACT I

“I get up excited every day,” said Ashwini, blowing on her steaming filter-coffee. “I can’t wait to begin the day. But, I also feel dissatisfied, wondering what it was that I achieved yesterday. I mean, I work all day. I strike things off my To Do list… Still, I guess it’s better to get up excited, than to struggle to get up, right? I do still get depressed, occasionally. But you know what I’ve discovered? It’s that frustration that I feel, even on the best days, that already contains the seeds of depression. I mean, if even on the best days you wonder what you achieved yesterday – that’s bad, no?”

“Anything’s better than being depressed,” said Suman, palms clasped to cool around her white ceramic mug of cold coffee. They’d just entered the air-conditioned caf√© from the north Indian midsummer. The heat was still lifting in blankets off their skin; Suman’s ears and fingers burned red despite the cotton scarf in which she’d tied herself up against the sun. Suman pressed her burning ears with her cooled fingers. “Sometimes I wish I were dark like you. I burn so damn easily.”

“Yes,” said Ashwini, trying not to flinch. Suman wasn’t cruel: just thoughtless. Ashwini and Suman were modern young women: but their country still despised dark skin. “You should try that sunscreen. I sent you the Amazon link.”

“Hmm.”

“How’s it going with Vishwas?”

Suman shrugged. Worrying at a speck of grime on her coffee-cup, she frowned. “Yeah, I know what you mean by waking up excited. I felt that the first few weeks. I’d keep getting up to check if he’d messaged… To the extent that I wasn’t sleeping at all. I really think he’s the one. Now – now I’ve settled down, I guess. I sleep through the night. That’s inevitable, right? I mean, you can’t eat and sleep love, can you?” She looked up, cheering herself up with this piece of wisdom. “I really feel like love has grown me up. Other people talk about their achievements: but you can learn about life from anything.”

“That’s wonderful, Suman. Yes, I’ve been watching you growing up. I’m proud of you!” Carefully Ashwini refrained from pronouncing judgment on Vishwas. She didn’t know him. When your friend’s always quarrelling with her lover, and crying to you over breakfast, naturally you think the worst of him. But it’s your friend who sees both sides: who then defends him against you – to your confusion. So Ashwini left the judging and decision-making to Suman. “I don’t think I’ve seen you depressed since you got together!”

“No! I really think he’s the one. If it lasts till Divali, when we go home – I’m going to introduce him to my parents.”

“Suman that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you…” Ashwini paused to savour Suman’s happiness. In school Suman had been not only the prettiest girl, but the brightest. A decade later, Ashwini still felt grateful for Suman’s friendship. “Can you believe that just a year ago we were both so depressed? Thank you, sir!” This to the waiter, who’d brought at last the sugar-bowl.

Suman sniffed contemptuously. “Even Vishwas thinks you’re strange, calling waiters and rickshaw-drivers ‘sir.'”

Ashwini had learned to overlook Suman’s jibes. “But you know what? Now that I look around, I realise it’s epidemic. What we used to call our illness. Anxiety, ambition, depression: this endless cycling. Everywhere I look, in our generation, there it is… But I like to think we’re getting better. Getting more realistic about what we can achieve in a day. Beating ourselves up less. That’s more stable, isn’t it?”

“Vishwas says he can’t afford to be depressed. He’s too busy.”

“Hmm.” Depression was a complex thing – the everyday, non-clinical depression that marks time in ordinary lives. Ashwini wouldn’t dismiss depression in those words. But she held her peace.

“Bill, waiter,” called Suman. “Oh, I’m sorry – ‘sir.'”


It was going to be another long day. Where does the time go? Ashwini wondered. She rose before dawn, planned her day, and through the day checked things off her To Do list. Yet, at bedtime, she thought she could’ve done more. It was hard: doing a PhD without guidance. But, at least, her doctoral guide let her do as she pleased. He signed off on the experiments she’d designed, the papers she’d drafted. She knew students right here, at her department, who implored their guides for months to sign off on their drafts. She was fortunate! He wasn’t training her: but she’d acquired the tools to train herself.

‘Slow and steady,’ she reminded herself. But surely slow and steady doesn’t mean dragging my feet from day to day with no progress. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing, to get where I want? Is that what I’m supposed to want?

That old fear. Ashwini shrugged it off. She enjoyed a last cosy minute in bed. In the room that’d been at last, at night’s end, cooled to a human temperature by the water-based room-cooler that’d been blasting cold, wet air on her face all night. She reflected: It’s hard for everyone. I’ve come far. It’d been nerve-wracking, attempting a PhD alone. She’d early given up expecting guidance. She’d modelled her work, instead, on the work of those senior students who’d succeeded in academics. The compulsion to scrutinise continually the big picture, looking for where she might’ve gone wrong – was manageable, now. She knew she was on the right track.

Alone? No, she wasn’t alone. Her guide was no help. But she’d learned to ask others for help. Senior students. Even the other faculty – who were happy to help, behind his back, their peer’s struggling student. To gossip about their peer’s inadequacy. Ashwini, realising that the fee for her getting the help she needed was dents in her guide’s reputation – had regretted this state of affairs. She vowed that when she became a professor, she’d take on no student whose work she hadn’t the time or expertise to guide. Her guide took on students merely to fill his quota. She couldn’t help that.

Yes: learning to ask for help had been her most important lesson during PhD. Even more important that maths, stats, programming, and all the non-psychology things she’d found she had to learn to earn a psychology PhD. In the age of super-specialisation, she and her peers here – those who succeeded – had become multiskilled.

On the handkerchief she kept by her pillow, Ashwini blew her nose. The cooler had given her congestion again. She longed to finish her degree and go home to Pune. Pune where you never needed a room-cooler. Today, blowing her nose did no good. She reached for the Cetirizine on the other side of her pillow.

Growing up, Ashwini had avoided medication. Her mother had asthma and arthritis: but refused medication. ‘I’ll take it when I’m really bad,’ said her mother, stumbling around painfully wheezing. ‘If I take this now, what’ll I take when I’m really bad?’

A strange, negative foresightedness. It’d puzzled Ashwini. Her mother had given up walking, and other enjoyments, and necessaries too: because she prioritised the uncertain future over present comfort. How did she know she’d live to be ‘really bad’? Ashwini had vowed to take, herself, whatever medication she needed. To battle her own little complaints. To get through the day.

Time to plan the day.

She’d booked the Virtual Reality lab 0900-1100. She’d run two participants on her newest experiment. She’d ring them, to remind them to come on time. The colleague who shared the lab with her never planned his work: he’d barge in anytime demanding, on the basis of seniority, the lab.

Afterwards: format her Morality paper.

And at 1400: the live webinar on multiple regression.


It couldn’t be called a lucid dream. It was a series of images of the kind you’re sometimes aware of before you fall asleep. When you’re sleepy, but overstimulated too – because you’ve worked right till bedtime.

Lucid dream. Fantasy. Daydream at night. Whatever you call it: Ashwini enjoyed it.

Her guide was the same man, only younger. He’d been a good guide then: when he’d been an Associate Professor. When his career advancement had depended on guiding doctoral students, and graduating them on time with several good publications.

Her guide was the same. But, instead of barging into her cabin thrice a day – whenever he was bored in his – to say Hello and chatter about the weather, his health, and other incidentals – in this fantasy, her guide scheduled meetings with her. To discuss her work! And his work. To offer her opportunities for collaborating with his colleagues.

“I’m sorry I’m late, sir,” said Ashwini, entering his lab.

“No problem,” he said. But in a tone that decided Ashwini to be five minutes early next time. She’d forgotten how to be punctual. “Did you try the loglinear conversion?”

“Well, sir, I did both. I don’t know which one’s right. This programme offers two options: to-the-tenth-power conversion, and also something called power-of-ten-exponent conversion.”

“Don’t worry,” he reassured her. He explained what the two processes did, and which one she needed for her analysis, and why. She listened, wide-eyed, nodding. But, even in her fantasy, the fact that her guide was guiding her – teaching her things, training her on stats, discussing her work with her – so startled her, that she was never really able to listen to her fantasy-guide’s teaching.

‘But, then,’ Ashwini reasoned with herself, ‘It’s just a fantasy. In my head. So, naturally, he’s speaking gibberish. For I don’t know why it’s the power-of-ten-exponent conversion that’s appropriate to my non-normal data – so, these explanations that I’m fantasising, they’re gibberish and there’s nothing to listen to. I’ll look that up tomorrow, in the Cohen book…’ Ashwini resisted the urge to get up and put that on tomorrow’s To Do list. ‘I’ll remember.’ For now, Ashwini shut her eyes and surrendered to the fantasy.

Now her guide and she were attending a conference. In Vienna! Young researchers approached her guide, expressing to him admiration of his work in accents Croatian and German. (In her fantasy Ashwini was a well-travelled young lady: able to discern a Croatian accent.) Coherently her guide discussed with these, her international peers, their work. Ashwini stood listening, proud that her guide was a respected and approachable academic. She vowed that, back home, she’d give herself no airs on her guide’s account. Some of her peers did: it was obnoxious. She’d even turn down the letter of recommendation her guide offered her. In this universe, ‘You trained me, and my work will speak for itself,’ she’d tell him. But his advice she would take: she’d go do a postdoc at Gordon Wiley’s Action & Cognition lab in Amsterdam.

Ashwini awoke from her fantasy. She sighed. Not with disappointment. With hope. She didn’t have this with her guide. But, she promised herself, her students would have this with her.

In her fantasy, she’d been well-dressed.

Yes: she must get herself fitted for a business-suit. Would the conference accept her paper? It all depended on her. She’d run those other stats tomorrow. They’d bolster her argument.

In these fantasies, it was never Ashwini. Someone like her. But better. Better-dressed, better-looking, more skilled. And, above, all, more confident. Moving through the world with the weight, behind her, of things achieved. Able to face people on their own terms. Not hiding behind unmeaning smiles: all the while feeling inadequate, already planning the snide gossip she’d indulge in afterwards.

How odd, to see almost-yourself walking around! With a self-confidence so alien.

‘Hope!’ Ashwini instructed herself. ‘It’s only recently that I began paying attention to these silly fantasies. Perhaps they are silly, but… the gap between me, and me-in-them, has been shrinking. I’ve been doing it right.’ Doing what right? she wondered.

‘Something,’ said Ashwini, getting up to compile today’s To Do list.


Suman awoke and checked the time on the ghostly blue face of her mobile-phone. 4:39am. Another three hours before he’d be up! Lazy man. Are all men lazy? she wondered.

She ought to get up and work on her paper. She’d used to be a morning person: till she’d fallen in love with yet another lazy man. Of course, rising late doesn’t make you lazy: but all the men she fell for were.

Odd. Suman herself was so ambitious! The men in her life held her back. But, then, she was in love with them.

She’d tell Vishwas he must readjust his sleep schedule. She couldn’t live like this once they were married. How could she get up and work, with him lying there snoring? It’d destroy her motivation. How easy it’d be to work: if only he were there to bid her good morning!

Suman cleared her nose, and sniffled, and blew her nose, and turned over in bed on her other side. All these attempts to clear her nostrils failed. Sighing, she resigned herself to a sleepless two hours before it was time to get up and try to get something done before sauntering to department.

There’s that strange girl sleeping across the corridor: swallowing pills at a moment’s notice, getting up at an unearthly hour. What’ll she do when her allergies get really bad? Take two pills? Suman turned over again. There! There’s Ashwini’s light, shining under her door. Advertising: I’m up and working. She wants everyone to know she’s industrious.

Well, thought Suman. It’s hard for her. She’s so dark-skinned. Good features, though: a pity. All through school, it was me all the boys had crushes on. Must’ve been hard for her, being my friend. I guess her industriousness is to make up for it. I wonder if that strange girl even wants to get married! I don’t see her taking any steps to attract a man. She seems perfectly content pottering around all day working. She didn’t even use the Fair & Lovely skin-whitening lotions I gave her on her birthday.

I ought to get up now. To do what? Work on my paper? I gave my guide a paper months ago and he said it needs work. What work? What am I to get up for? To write another paper that he’ll say needs work? He tells me I can send it off myself, if I’m happy with it. He’ll sign off on it. What good will that do me? Suppose I’ve made an error – will his signature absolve me? Is it not his duty to help me write papers? Never mind helping me to design and run and analyse experiments. I’m lucky I’m good-looking: my guide’s useless, but I had no dearth of colleagues helping me with everything.

Poor Ashwini! What must her life have been like! Running around doing everything herself. When Ashwini asks for help, she only wants people to show her how it’s done. Silly girl! If she just put on some makeup, made a little smalltalk – she could get people to do the work for her.

Again Suman checked the time. 4:51am. Will this day never start! Just my luck, falling in love with lazy men. I can’t even bid him Good Morning till 7am. How am I to get up and work, when he’s sleeping?

Again she turned over, blew her nose mightily, and resigned herself to lying awake breathing through her mouth.


She sees them everywhere: the couple that will be them. Always a different couple.

For, if you look at any one couple too long, they disappoint you. The man’s eyes stray: often as not, it’s with Suman that he attempts eye-contact, while his girlfriend checks her mobile-phone. Or the woman offers to pay her half and the man protests insufficiently. Or, worst of all, the woman has let herself go. She’s flabby-thighed, and splotchy-skinned, and not trying to hide it.

So – always a different couple.

Suman looks just long enough to make a cast. An empty cast: into which, effortlessly, enter the spirits of herself and Vishwas. To move, in the bodies of strangers, into their own alien future.

No longer so alien. Suman’s parents and Vishwas’s have met, and agreed that their children should be engaged. Suman’s parents insist that the wedding mustn’t be until Suman has defended her thesis. How niggardly of them! Don’t they trust her to finish her thesis in good time, without their preconditions? Yes, her work’s going slow: but that’s hardly her fault is it?

In her fantasies she’s already a PhD. The work’s got done somehow. How? That bit Suman skips over. That’s the bit that’s useful when it’s been done, but no fun to do. In some universe, her PhD’s done. That feels so nice! So, in this universe, she’s in no hurry to do it.

There! Across the restaurant from them – as Suman studies the menu and Vishwas studies his smartphone – sit the couple they’re going to be. The girl is svelte. Bad skin, but well made-up. She’s sitting right under the light: Suman would never do that. But the man! The man’s a dream. Not too goodlooking – that’s a risk, too. But he looks in charge. Perhaps an executive at an MNC. His shirt fits him perfectly. Vishwas is so lazy he won’t get anything fitted: tells Suman to stop fussing.

Vishwas at her table thumbs through his smartphone. Suman asks, “What d’you want? Palak paneer or shahi paneer?”

Vishwas mumbles: “Whatever.”

But Vishwas at the table across the restaurant – that Vishwas is guiding Suman – Suman with perfect skin, skin morning and evening exfoliated and moisturised – through dinner selection. “You should try the paneer lababdar here. It’s delectable.”

Suman’s proud of this Vishwas’s vocabulary. My man works hard at everything!

“Lababdar – that’s like butter paneer, isn’t it?” Suman asks the impressive stranger into whom Vishwas has metamorphosed. “Minus the butter. What’re you telling me, that I’ve grown fat? No butter for me?” Suman laughs, but holds her breath. Vishwas never knows how to react to these shit-tests: and afterwards she’s angry at herself and at him.

But this Vishwas knows what to say. He laughs. “Yes, you’re the fattest girl I’ve ever been in love with. Don’t order paneer at all… Will you have boiled vegetables? Off-menu.”

Suman laughs, amused and flattered. At her own table, Vishwas glances up. “Have you decided what we’re eating? Or will you take another twenty minutes?”

“What’d you say you wanted? Palak paneer?”

“I’ll leave it to you,” says Vishwas at her table, turning away again.

Suman wants to ask Vishwas: ‘Why don’t you take an interest?’ But Suman’s afraid.

What if Vishwas replied: ‘You’re right. None of this interests me. Let’s call this off. This was a mistake. Now let’s save ourselves years of unhappiness.’ – What then? Suman’s spent too long getting Vishwas to begin again.

There’s no need to ask Vishwas anything! For there, across the restaurant, sits the other Vishwas. Their order’s been placed. Suman compliments that other Vishwas: “Whoever it is who tailors your shirts so well, you should tip them generously.”

“It’s to you I owe the tip,” says her suave stranger-lover. “Until you entered my life, I never had anyone to tell me what constitutes a well-fitting shirt. Nor did I have any motive to care much how I looked… A drink, while we wait?”

Suman nods, blushing with pleasure. Vishwas signals the waiter. “Sir?”

Suman laughs. How silly she was! Of course one must call everyone ‘sir.’ How you treat anyone is how you treat everyone. Vishwas is the best man in the world. And she the luckiest woman.

Her satisfaction from that universe travels well. Back here, it sustains her.

As she sits alone, with her Vishwas, planning their wedding.


ACT II

At the tailor’s, Ashwini took longer than she’d expected. She’d never visited a tailor before: so she’d allowed an hour, imagining that was enough. It wasn’t. Oh, well. Also the review on her paper had come in early: so she’d address the feedback, and email the reviewers back, and get that over with. She’d have to push two items to tomorrow’s To Do list. Generating figures in Matlab, and rerunning neural-net simulations.

It was easier when you scheduled your day in several small tasks. That way you could push things forward, or accommodate what came up.

So: this is why she’d got anxious, then depressed! Tackling one big thing at a time. Excluding all other tasks. Excluding rest and recreation. And, finally, not getting even that one thing done.

It was in other people that she’d first identified this pattern. Her peers. In the mirror that other people hold up to us, Ashwini had seen that she, too, was struggling blindly on this way.

Why didn’t we learn this in school? Instead of trigonometry and state capitals.

Back at work, she texted Supratik. “Fitting done. Suit due this weekend.”

She’d expected to learn much during PhD. And she had: but not just academic psychology. She’d learned many things unplanned. Not just stats and maths.

How to manage time and emotions. How to plan a day and a year. How to look at the world, and move through it, so as to end the day reasonably happy and calm.

An hour later, when she’d gone through the review, her phone buzzed. Supratik replying: “Good. You can model it for me.”

Ashwini blushed. She’d not told Supratik her paper had passed first-stage review. She’d tell him when it was published. She didn’t want to get his hopes up. And, more importantly, her own. Journal after journal, she’d thought: This is the one. This journal will publish my first paper.

Looks like she’d have time to run the simulations after all. She jogged to the VR lab. She just had to set up the parameters and leave it to run. She’d return when her labmate was lunching, and collect the results. He’d not scheduled a slot: but he could barge in anytime. She’d just left him, in the cabin containing their workstations, whining about his guide to their peers. They, too, were dissatisfied with theirs. So they listened.

There! Simulation: set up. Ashwini returned to the doctoral candidates’ cabin, greeted her peers cheerfully and briefly, plugged in earphones, unmuted her white noise app, and set to work addressing the reviewers’ feedback.

They were talking loud. The whining session had become a free-for-all. It bothered Ashwini.

‘No,’ Ashwini reflected, ‘What bothers me is that I wasted dozens of hours doing this. But now that I’ve realised our destiny is in our hands… Stop expecting what we’re clearly not going to get. No guidance? Guide yourself… I’ve tried to tell my peers to do what they can. A word to the wise is sufficient. Now all I can do is my work.’

Ashwini turned up her white noise. Her phone blinked. Another provocative text-message from Supratik. She replied with an emoticon, then put her phone on Silent and face-down.

When had Supratik and she become lovers? She couldn’t say. She’d not been looking for love. Neither had he.

So far, it was wonderful.


“Check Psych Science,” Ashwini texted Supratik that morning.

Then she felt guilty: she should’ve first told her parents. Rectifying her error, she rang them. “Put me on speakerphone please, Ma. Ma, Pa – my paper’s out!”

Ashwini’s parents were overjoyed. They didn’t read academic journals. They didn’t really know what she was working on. They and Ashwini had had their differences. But they were her parents, and they were proud, and Ashwini was joyful.

Then Supratik rang. The complacency that Ashwini had admired in him was gone. He was exuberant with congratulations. Later, about to hang up, he remembered: “Guess what? I’ve got good news too. Nothing like yours, but it’s a start. My experiment’s finally working! I’ve corrected the operationalisation. Simplified the design, as my guide suggested. I thought I knew better than him… Well, live and learn! I’m finally getting the data that I’m supposed to.”

“Supratik that’s wonderful!” She grilled him then: precisely what had he done and why? What difference had that made and why? “Let’s go celebrate! My treat!”

“Your treat? Say no more,” laughed Supratik.

She’d been up all night, waiting for the edition carrying her paper to release online. She’d ordered print copies too: but, shipped from the US, that’d take time. Now she went to bed. It was Sunday: she’d take today off.

She was too stimulated to sleep. She lay awake, her mind vibrant with fragments of possibility.

She was at the conference in Vienna. That paper, too, had been accepted. It’d happened all together. Years, she’d spent on this: labouring alone, feeling in the dark. Am I doing this right? Is this any good? Now it was all happening together.

At the conference Ashwini was in her new suit. She’d picked it up, and tried it on: perfect! She was, also, in the haircut that she’d picked out. That she’d get this weekend. She’d felt guilty, planning a makeover without Suman. But Suman had her own worries: Suman was engaged, and Suman was struggling with PhD. Shutting her eyes, Ashwini savoured the vision of herself walking into the conference. Self-confident. That self-confidence was no longer so alien.

Who’s this, walking up to her? Sheila Sundaram. The top researcher in Ashwini’s field! Ashwini lying in bed trembled, nervous. Ashwini at the conference smiled and said ‘Good morning, Ms. Sundaram,’ extending her hand.

‘Morning, dear!’ The great woman studied Ashwini’s name-tag. ‘You’re Ashwini Rajaram! I read your paper. Excellent work. Keep it up. Are you almost done with PhD?’

Ashwini laughed. A laugh light, not bitter. How had Ashwini acquired that laugh? Ashwini must remember it. ‘I think I’m done… My colloquium is in June… Let’s see.’

Sheila laughed. ‘Whenever you finish, email me. My lab needs someone with your skillset.’

Ashwini lying in bed prompted Ashwini at the conference: ‘Thank her! Hug her! Blabber incoherently!’

Ashwini at the conference said, ‘That’s very kind of you! I’ve followed your work for years…’ Two of her peers hovered, waiting to speak to Sheila. “Ma’am, I won’t keep you now. May I catch up with you at lunch?”

‘Yes, I’ll save you a seat… Morning, dears!’

Ashwini lying in bed squirmed. Then she laughed at herself. ‘Look at me, publishing papers, talking to Sheila Sundaram! I didn’t even stammer!’


Suman had been engaged three weeks. Already she’d uninstalled and reinstalled WhatsApp eleven times.

Eleven times. Yes: Suman kept count. That’s what marked her days now. Arguments with Vishwas.

Arguments?

They never had an outright argument. Suman and Vishwas lived their lives, next to one another – meeting at work, spending weekends in one room. When her demands irked him, he told her to stop fussing. She demanded: ‘What d’you mean, fussing?’ He backed off. On trivial matters they argued furiously: arguments that broke out without warning, he and she shouting, already mid-argument. Mid another argument: not that one. That argument they never had. Even when they were most furious, of that argument they steered clear. Subsided, feeling stupid, into the status quo of everything seeming alright.

What bothered Suman was: of those eleven times, Vishwas had never noticed.

Suman, tired of waiting for Vishwas to text-message, wondering whether he would, wondering whether he ever thought of her, tempted to text him herself – uninstalled WhatsApp. Then she panicked: what if he’s trying to reach me? What if he breaks up with me? What if he’s dead? Ridiculous ideas tortured her, filling her with guilt. As if she were in the wrong! As if she wanted anything to happen to him! It was he who never noticed.

So she’d reinstall WhatsApp, and flood Vishwas with texts. Texts brimming with love and remorse: their cause, to him, always mysterious. But never worth investigating.

“How’s your thesis coming?” Ashwini asked her.

“How d’you think?” Suman snapped.

“Sir asked about you at lab-meeting.”

“Why should I attend lab-meeting when it’s no use? Does he ever discuss anything relevant?”

“No, and he wasn’t blaming you for not coming -”

“Blaming me! He wouldn’t dare. Who made him qualified to guide students, when all he ever talks about is stupid things! Can you believe it’s me who’s struggling?” Suman’s eyes brimmed. “I was the brightest student. Everyone thought I’d do well. And now because of this idiot I’m stuck here… God knows when he’ll let me finish and get out of this hellhole.”

Patting her friend’s knee, Ashwini waited until Suman had composed herself. “You know, he doesn’t guide you, but he lets you do what you want. You can sit with our seniors, and decide what to do. You’ll run experiments, get results, and send off your paper! He never creates delays that way… If you look at Santhosh and Michael, just stuck waiting for Varsha ma’am to sign off on their papers… We’re lucky!”

“Lucky!” cried Suman. “I’m lucky? You’re an idiot.”


Suman wanted to apologise. She didn’t. It was for screaming she wanted to apologise. But what she’d said – that she’d meant. Why should she apologise for screaming? Would Ashwini apologise for talking rubbish?

She couldn’t wait to finish her thesis and get out of here. She’d get Vishwas to get a job in Los Angeles. Suman had always wanted to live in L.A. She’d find something to do, too: she wasn’t going to be a stupid housewife. How wonderful it’d be! That’d be the real start of her life. All this – this was – what? Trial by fire? Paying your dues? This was something she wished she could sleep through. How long would it take? Another year, till her idiot guide let her graduate? Two years? It was unbearable to think her parents would make her wait two years to get married. Once she was married, and they moved to L.A. – then everything would be well.

Yes, she must finish.

How? Somehow.

Vishwas was dawdling, too. He had no excuse: his guide was a proper guide. What was taking him so long? Had he no ambition? She’d been the brightest student. He doesn’t realise how lucky he is, to get me. I’m not just pretty; I’m ambitious. I’m bright. And now, because of that idiot, and this idiot – I’m stuck.

Suman squeezed her eyes shut. Soon all this will be over. I have only to endure. Everyone knows engagements are hard. You’re getting things sorted, working out who you’re going to be, how you’re going to look. When we’re married all will be well.

Suman reached for her laptop and, lying comfortably propped up, browsed online clothing retailers. Can you believe she’d not even selected her trousseau? She’d select them, and order them – then her parents would know that she was getting married, PhD or no PhD. Ooh, look at this darling dress! It’s cream! It’s got lace, and flounces, and tulle too! All in one, yet it doesn’t look cheap… She should’ve gone into fashion design. But her parents would never have heard of that. They were so snobbish, and now here she was suffering… She’d look divine, coming down the aisle in this.

Well, it wasn’t going to be an aisle. No aisle, no church. Of course she knew that. They weren’t Christian. She’d devoured Hollywood chick flicks – much classier than Bollywood chick flicks – so she’d just got confused for a bit, that’s all. She sighed and turned off the alarm that told her it was time to dress for work.

Okay, I’ll search for a sari, for my actual wedding. How dull! If I have to wear a sari I might just as well not get married.

I’ll look at wedding dresses just a bit longer. Just till I feel happy.’

Suman rang the participants she’d scheduled for the day, and asked if they could reschedule. They agreed. “Thank you!” she said in her sweetest, most professional voice.

She switched off her phone, fetched a fizzy drink, and set to the task of selecting wedding-dresses. For the wedding that would require a sari, for the wedding that would occur after she finished her thesis, the thesis in which she was stuck for no fault of her own.

No: this dress is even better. It costs a few lakhs, but – oh, well! It’s not as if she’s buying it! She just wants to dream for a bit and feel happy. Life’s hard.


“Your hair looks good,” granted Suman, as they settled at their old window-seat.

“Thanks!” Ashwini blushed. Suman had been the class hair-and-beauty expert. “I thought I’d try highlights. Now that I’m a PhD, nobody can consider me frivolous!”

That’s not what people consider you,” smirked Suman, uncomfortable. She’d always been the better-looking one: now Ashwini was making inroads here too.

“Forget about me, how are you? How’s married life?”

“Mmm. I like it. It’s not for everyone. When will you marry? Now that Supratik’s defended his thesis, too, what’s the delay?”

“Let’s see where he gets a postdoc position.” Ashwini had got one in Paris.

“You must be relieved! You’ve finished your work, you’re out of this dump!”

Ashwini laughed. “I’d grown to like it. It’s just that – when something drags on so long, and you feel helpless – people become frustrated. And depressed, and anxious. You know, I used to think that these things were inevitable as you got older. Like feeling things less: feeling blah. Feeling self-conscious always, feeling distracted and unable to really get into anything. I thought that was inevitable” –

“Yeah!” said Suman, sitting up. Arms on table, she leaned forward.

But Ashwini failed to notice that Suman had something to say. With self-confidence had grown Ashwini’s ability to weather Suman’s jibes and interruptions. “Like, getting papers out, and defending my thesis – it’s just the beginning of my career, but these little things encourage me that I’m on the right track. You know? When you feel that you’re getting somewhere, then – my god, you can work so hard, you wouldn’t believe. Day after day, and still go to bed excited, and jump out of bed. I’d convinced myself that I was lazy, that I had to fight myself, that all adults become lazy… I mean when you’re young you’re excited, so you never feel tired. And somehow we just accept that, as adults, we’re going to be bored. How awful is that? We live once, and we just accept that we’ll be bored!” Suman’s interest had faded: she sat back, eyes glazed. “For example,” continued Ashwini, “Today, divorce is allowed. I mean, if the person you’re with bores you, or whatever – why shouldn’t you divorce them?”

Suman glanced up sharply. But Ashwini was looking at her phone.

“Excuse me, I’ll just be a minute.” Ashwini stayed at the table, speaking softly into her palm. A queer creature, speaking privately around friends! Suman knew she was being unfair: Ashwini did it as a courtesy. What the hell did Ashwini know about being bored? Not just with your husband. With life.

Ashwini finished her phone conversation.

“No,” said Suman, “It’s going wonderfully. When are you getting married? Do it soon!”

“Let’s see.” Ashwini’s eyes, bright with humanistic speculation, turned soft. “Supratik’s not decided where he’ll do a postdoc. As long as it’s somewhere in Europe, it’s fine. There we can manage international commuting.”

It was time to go. Ashwini signed for the bill. She paid. They lingered.

Ashwini gazed out the window. Happy contemplating her prospects. Happy watching the lives, on the street, of fruit-vendors and rickshaw-drivers. Sad that it was time to go.

Suman gazed out the window. Unhappy.

“We must stay in touch!” said Ashwini. “We’ve been through so much.”

“Yeah,” drawled Suman. Can one hold on to the past? The Vishwas at the table across the restaurant was not hers. Her Vishwas had become already a stranger. Suman saw, now, that he’d always been. The man she’d known was not Vishwas: he was an amorphousness that’d consented briefly to fill the mould of The One. And Ashwini? Ashwini had raised herself up to be Suman’s equal, and now – “Yeah,” drawled Suman. “We’ll stay in touch.”



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