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The Unexpected Son
By SHOBHAN BANTWAL
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Shobhan Bantwal
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePalgaum, India-1976
The applause lasted a few seconds before fading. For Vinita it was an evening to remember. She'd rehearsed for this one occasion, the grand annual college gala, for many long weeks. And all that preparation had been worth it, if only to hear the pleasant sound of hundreds of hands clapping in unison.
She took her final bow before the appreciative audience with humble grace, her hands joined in a namaskar. Remain humble when accepting praise, was what her nritya guru, her dance teacher, emphasized to his students. To be able to dance skillfully was a gift, a privilege. It was not to be used for satisfying one's ego. Humility. Always.
The instant the heavy, faded curtains closed on the stage, she exhaled a quick, hard breath. Then she ran backstage, her ghoongroo, the traditional dancing bells tied around her ankles, making a racket. She waded through the folks standing in the wings, waiting for their cue calls. She heard the emcee's voice on the microphone, announcing the next item on the program.
While she made a beeline for the women's dressing room-her long braid, intertwined with jasmine strings, swinging like a pendulum-she realized she was wheezing audibly. It was a demanding routine she'd just completed.
Sweat ran down her face and arms. Voices swirled around her, spoken in whispers so as not to reach the microphones on stage. Now that the much-awaited yet much-dreaded performance was over, everything that had happened became a blur-the blinding footlights; the quick surge of anxiety as the curtains parted and the hush settled over the sea of faces in the audience; the melody of the South Indian dance music; and minutes later, the final, frantic rhythm of her recital's finale synchronizing with the crescendo of the instruments.
It was all so familiar, the galloping heartbeat and the urge to take cover and run. And yet every presentation was a fresh new experience to be savored-if it was executed perfectly, that is. And today it was.
The evening's program was packed, with a lineup of music, skits, dances, stand-up comedy, and even a juggling act. She was glad her recital was placed toward the beginning, so she didn't have to pace in the wings, cracking her knuckles, waiting her turn.
"Very nice, Miss Shelke," someone murmured as she brushed past them.
"Good performance, Vinita," said another.
"Thanks," she panted absently, not bothering to look at their faces. Instead she kept striding toward the dressing room. She had to get out of her elaborate costume and join her friends in the makeshift open-air theater to catch the rest of the evening's entertainment.
The dressing room was blissfully quiet. There was only one other girl, getting ready for her performance in a play. They smiled at each other.
"How did your dance go?" the girl asked. She was carefully gathering up the pleats on her sari.
"Very well, thanks," said Vinita, and proceeded toward the bathroom. "It's a huge audience-bigger than last year. Good luck with your play."
At the sink, Vinita scrubbed and rinsed off the greasy makeup. The cold water felt marvelous against her heated skin.
She dried her face and studied her image in the mirror. Her performance was a success. The audience's reaction had assured her of that. The young, noisy crowd of students at Shivraj College wasn't shy about booing and heckling a less-than-acceptable performer. They'd sat in silence while she'd gone through the intricate footwork and facial expressions of a varnam-a complex, classical Bharat Natyam dance composition that told a story of love and longing. In the end had come the gratifying ovation.
She emerged from the bathroom to find the other occupant of the dressing room gone. Ridding herself of the elaborate rhinestone jewelry and form-fitting silk costume traditional to the dance form, she changed into a cinnamon-colored salwar-kameez outfit: knee-length tunic worn over drawstring pants and topped with a long piece of gauzy fabric called the chunni.
Then she unfastened the ankle bells. In a couple of minutes she had her hair neatened and a touch of face powder dabbed on.
Haphazardly she stuffed her things into her shoulder bag and thrust her feet into sandals. She didn't want to miss any part of the evening's excitement. This was the entertainment highlight of the year for both students and faculty.
Rushing out the door onto the cool, dimly lit porch that wrapped around the ancient, ivy-covered stone building, she bumped into something hard. Or someone.
"Ouch!" Her breath caught in her throat. Her bag slid off her shoulder and fell to the floor. The bells inside tinkled.
She stumbled backward. Whoever he was, he looked tall and threateningly large in the shadows cast by the sturdy stone columns. And he was strong. Her elbow was smarting from the collision.
"Miss Shelke!" exclaimed a very deep voice.
She remained silent, still reeling from the jolt. Fear made her throat go dry. She was all alone in the dark with a stranger.
But he knew her name?
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding genuinely contrite. He shifted and emerged from the shadows into the pool of dull yellow light cast by the single overhead fixture surrounded by fluttering moths.
She recognized him at once. Somesh Kori. All six feet of muscle and testosterone combined with a face that was chilling in its somberness. Despite the face, Somesh was the heartthrob of Shivraj College. A playboy. And captain of the cricket team.
"Th-that's okay," she managed to stutter after drawing a quick breath. It was a relief to discover he wasn't a robber or rapist on the prowl. "I was in a rush. I wasn't paying attention."
"But I wasn't rushing. I should have been more careful," he apologized, bending down to retrieve her bag. He handed it to her. "Did I hurt you or something?"
"Uh-uh." Her pulse was still unnaturally high.
He glanced at the bag. "Nothing breakable in it, I hope?"
"No ... just my dance costume."
"And the delightful bells," he added, as she took the bag.
She could think of nothing to say when his fingers brushed hers, making her tremble. Delightful bells? Was that supposed to be a compliment, or was he mocking her? She'd seen and heard him ridicule plenty of girls.
Then he smiled at her, the slightly lopsided motion that tickled the ovaries of even the most resolute old maids on campus. He supposedly smiled very rarely, and that usually happened when his team won a match. But the smile sure did wonders for his intimidating countenance.
"Your dance was excellent, Miss Shelke," he said, his eyes raking her in one slow, easy pass. "You have such grace and precision."
She bit on her lower lip and tried to ignore the warmth rushing to her face. Any fool could see he was used to handing out flattery. "Thank you ... Mr. Kori."
"Call me Som. All my friends call me that. It's pronounced Sohm."
She knew how his name was pronounced. "But we're not friends." He stood so close she got a whiff of his aftershave combined with cigarette smoke. With that came the forbidding thought that standing alone in the shadows with a man of his reputation was hazardous. Adjusting the bag on her shoulder, she started to move away.
"That could be remedied," he suggested, seemingly oblivious to her fear. He fell in step with her as she hastened around the bend and toward the front of the building, where the audience was seated.
She heard raucous laughter coming from the crowd. The humorous skit that followed her recital was obviously quite entertaining. It was a comforting sound; it assured her she wasn't alone with this man.
"I'm not interested in sports, Mr. Kori," she said, putting as much starch into her voice as she could. But she wasn't very good at doing the snobbish bit.
Besides, all his friends were rich-boys with cars of their own, and girls who got chauffeured around. They wore clothes bought in big city shops, unlike her and her middle-class friends, who wore simple cotton outfits made by the local tailors. Kori and his pals went for coffee at the upscale Bombay Café, while Vinita and her friends kept to the more affordable college canteen.
"Why should that matter?" he reasoned. "I have some friends who know nothing about sports, and we're still good friends."
She looked up at him from her five-foot-two height. Despite her high heels, his face seemed far above hers. The smile was long gone, but the sparkle in his brown eyes resembled the semiprecious stone known as rajvarki-goldstone. He was making her uncomfortable with his steady golden gaze. "Good-bye, Mr. Kori. I have to go now."
"Som," he insisted. "Mind if I call you Vinita?"
"Okay ... no ... yes." She clutched at her bag to keep her hands from shaking. "You know what I mean."
He chuckled. "I know what you mean."
The sneering giant could actually chuckle? This time he was laughing at her. She was an idiot to get so rattled because the most popular boy on campus was asking to be her friend.
That was the puzzling part. He wanted to be her friend.
They had almost reached the giant shamiana-canopy. The light was brighter here, even though they stood on the outside. She could clearly see the clean, smart fit of his clothes, his angular face with its barely concealed expression of amused cynicism. There was strength in the jaw and the curve of his nose. God knows those long arms and legs were capable of performing magic on the cricket maidaan-field.
She didn't want to be seen walking and conversing with him. Tongues would start to wag. Definitely not good for her reputation. The girls he got mixed up with were referred to as STs-Som's trollops. She didn't want to be one of those.
Nerves tingling, Vinita craned her neck to locate her friends amidst the crowd of spectators. She spotted them. They had saved her a seat, bless them. Thankfully none of them had noticed her with Kori.
The fact that he was making her hands tremble wasn't a good thing. You're not the type to turn into a gelatinous glob of female at the sight of a man, she told herself. "I have to go," she repeated.
"You really have to?" He tilted his head to one side, looking genuinely disappointed.
She gave an emphatic nod.
"I guess I'll have to let you go, then. But it was nice talking to you," he said with a reluctant wave, and took off.
With a perplexed frown she watched him saunter away with the effortless grace some athletes seemed to be blessed with. She observed him pull a cigarette and a lighter out of his pocket. With hands cupped around his mouth to protect the flame, he lit the cigarette and took a long drag on it. Seconds later, a plume of smoke emerged from his mouth. Then he disappeared into the shadows as abruptly as he'd appeared minutes earlier.
She stood on the spot for a while, puzzling over what had just occurred. It wasn't a mirage. And yet it was all very strange. Why was a popular playboy befriending her? Why was he lurking around the dark porch behind the building in the first place? Where were his ever-present friends? They always moved in a herd.
Giving her heartbeat a moment to settle, she turned around to find her way toward her friends amidst the swarm of students. When she plopped into the chair reserved for her, she was still wheezing. Sweat had gathered under her arms once again.
Prema Swami, her closest friend, turned to her with a frown. "Are you okay?"
"You look flushed ... agitated." Prema's frown turned to narrow-eyed speculation.
"Of course I'm flushed," Vinita retorted. "I just finished a dance recital."
But Prema was right. Vinita was behaving oddly. Was she reacting to Kori like those other girls did? Som's trollops? In the next instant she dismissed it as the most ridiculous notion.
She settled back in her seat to enjoy the rest of the evening. But she couldn't help looking back once or twice, her eyes searching for a wisp of smoke somewhere beyond the canopy.
Chapter TwoVinita closed her textbook and tossed it aside to gaze outside her window. It was a typical winter morning in Palgaum-foggy, nippy, and disinclined to welcome the sun. Warmth rarely arrived until late morning at this time of year. The dew that settled over the grass and shrubs lingered until noon.
She had her red cardigan on over her salwar-kameez, the one her mother had knitted years ago. It looked faded and threadbare, but it was incredibly soft after innumerable washings. And it was still her favorite protection against the damp chill.
In a few minutes she'd have to stir out of her room, take a bath, eat something, and head for college. Her mother was already making breakfast for the family. The sounds of pots and pans clanging had started to emerge from the kitchen about twenty minutes ago-Mummy's not-so-subtle wake-up call to the family.
Vinita wasn't sure what her mother was preparing, but the aroma of phodnee-seasoning made of smoking oil with mustard and cumin seeds sputtering in it-was seeping in through the crack beneath her door. Visions of a hot breakfast with a steaming cup of tea usually made her stomach rumble. But today they didn't.
Picking up the book, she tried to make sense out of the words on the page, but a minute later put it down again. Studying was becoming hard lately. Pressing her fingers to her eyes, she wondered why she was having such difficulty focusing on her studies. This had never happened to her before.
She'd spent the last couple of weeks in a haze. She mostly kept herself sequestered in her room, sitting at her old teakwood desk, a hand-me-down from Vishal's college days. It even had his initials crudely carved in the corner: VBS.
But keeping herself glued to her desk wasn't unusual. In fact her parents expected it of her. She had preliminary exams to study for-prelims as everyone called them. She was a good student and she hoped to maintain her grades. She was looking forward to earning her bachelor's degree in two years. She had aspirations of graduating at the top of her class.
No second class would be tolerated in the Shelke family. Vishal had been a brilliant student, too. He had gone on to become a chartered accountant and had a promising job with a large financial corporation in Bombay. Academically she was expected to follow in his footsteps.
But the odd meeting with Som crept into her mind frequently, distracting her from her goal of becoming a statistician. And the fact that something that trivial could upset her steadfastness was annoying. She had no time for silly daydreams. And frankly, a drifter like Som Kori wasn't worth one single minute of her time.
His behavior was odd, too. He'd asked her to call him Som, flirted with her, and claimed he wanted to be her friend, and yet he hadn't even bothered to acknowledge her presence on campus. It was as if that chance encounter in the dark had never happened. Maybe it hadn't meant anything to a man like him. Maybe he had feigned interest in her out of politeness. Maybe she was reading too much into a casual conversation. Maybe-
She gave a frustrated groan and shifted her fingers from her eyes to her temples. All that conjecture was giving her a headache.
Several times she'd observed him lounging as usual with his gang of five by the massive wrought-iron gate of the college compound. They called themselves The Sixers-all of them athletes with little or no interest in academics. A couple of them leaned against the gate while the others sat on the brick wall nearby, like Humpty Dumpty, legs dangling.
They all wore similar clothes that looked almost like uniforms-tight, bell-bottom pants that hugged their jock buttocks, and dark-colored shirts left open at the neck and a bit beyond to showcase their manly, hair-sprinkled chests. They blew rings of cigarette smoke, and through the gray haze watched the world, especially the girls, go by.
Theirs was a life of idle indulgence. Except when they played cricket. That was the one thing they excelled at-the only thing that got them moving at lightning speed.
When did they attend classes, if they did? Vinita sometimes wondered. How did they manage to stay in college if they kept failing courses? Did they have any ambitions in life beyond wandering around the campus, playing cricket, and letting life pass them by?
She more or less knew the answer. They were wealthy. Their fathers donated large sums of money to the small, privately run Shivraj College. With that kind of backing, the boys could get a dummy degree certificate without ever attending a class.
College was a playground to them-until they became too old to be students, and were eventually forced to join the family business, get married, and settle down. She knew of several playboys like them, who'd taken the slow, lackadaisical route to adulthood.
Som and his pals made loud remarks when girls walked in and out of the gate each day-remarks that were often crude and hurtful if a girl was heavy or short or ugly. They teased and taunted and jeered mercilessly. Sometimes they gave an appreciative whistle or comment if a girl was pretty or passably attractive. The in-betweens were usually ignored.
Excerpted from The Unexpected Son by SHOBHAN BANTWAL Copyright © 2010 by Shobhan Bantwal. Excerpted by permission.
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