Mr. Das waited for Mrs. Sethi near the India International Centre at the Lodhi Gardens entrance. It was a lovely afternoon, the dust and pollution adding a haze to the air that was quite romantic and diffused the afternoon sun. A fat street dog wearing a sweater lay lazily in the sun near the entrance, its tail swatting away flies every few seconds. Mr. Das was tempted to have a similar afternoon—something about India always made him want afternoon naps. It was a habit that started during the long summer afternoons in Calcutta when he was a little boy. He would come home from school and have lunch, usually rice and daal with steamed potatoes followed by a fish curry and dessert, always dessert. His father used to have a spoonful of sugar after every meal, even breakfast, if there wasn’t dessert at home. His father was a family doctor who had his clinic attached to the house so, on the one hand, his father was always around but, on the other hand, he was really never around and always at work. He had regular clinic hours from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. and he reserved his evenings to do house calls and hold free clinic hours for poor people. Mr. Das used to resent those poor people lined up outside their gate with their illnesses and ailments that would keep his father in his clinic until long after he had gone to sleep. He never saw his father take time off. On most days, the servant, Karthik, would take a tray of food to the clinic for lunch and Mr. Das would look at the empty tray return an hour later. On occasion, his father came into the main house for lunch, his stethoscope hanging off his neck but he spent most of lunch on the phone diagnosing patients who were too old or too sick to come and see him. Once his father left or the empty tray returned, Mr. Das would take a bath and have a long afternoon nap before waking up to do his homework and play cricket with the neighboring children.
He thought of that as he waited for Mrs. Sethi. A young couple pulled up on a motorbike, the man with a helmet on, the woman sitting behind him sidesaddle in a salwar kameez with her dupatta draped around her hair and face to protect it from the pollution. She jumped off the back of the bike and untied the dupatta as the man put the bike into park and removed his helmet. He smiled at her and she turned away from his smile as if they were in the middle of a conversation. She went off a few steps ahead of him and he tossed his motorbike keys in the air, caught them, put them in his pocket, and rushed to catch up with her. He grabbed her elbow and spun her around and they both disappeared into the gardens. That was what new love was supposed to look like, Mr. Das worried. What kind of future could he have with Mrs. Sethi when most of their years were already in the past? What were her afternoon rituals, he wondered. What was her childhood like? What did her parents do? Were they alive? Did it matter? Are those questions you even ask someone over fifty? And would he ever know her as well as he knew Radha? Was this all a fool’s errand?
“Neel,” came Mrs. Sethi’s voice from behind him.
He spun around and said, “Do you sleep in the afternoons?”
Mrs. Sethi laughed and said, “Hello to you too. And no, I don’t usually sleep in the afternoons. I find it depressing. It can be so tempting, especially in the hot summers and also in the cold winters here, but I don’t like it. I like to keep my days occupied. These days I’m volunteering at a school for poor children. I should be there today as well, but that’s the problem with volunteering, isn’t it? I take days off whenever I want to. I really ought to be more disciplined. That’s a long answer to an easy question. Why do you ask? Do you usually sleep in the afternoon?”
“Not since I was a child. In Calcutta, my father was a doctor. Where do I begin to tell you about a life that’s so old?”
“I think we’ve been doing a good job so far,” Mrs. Sethi said. She pointed to her wrist and said, “I’ve started wearing a Fitbit—do you mind if we walk?”
Mr. Das smiled and showed her his wrist as well and said, “Let’s walk. Although I find it much more challenging to try and maximize my step count while minimizing my steps.”
Mrs. Sethi laughed loudly and Mr. Das decided it didn’t really matter what her parents used to do or whether or not she slept in the afternoon.
For now, he was going to enjoy Lodhi Gardens and the autumn sun and a walk with a woman who seemed to enjoy his company.
“Tina is going to join us this afternoon. I hope that’s okay.”
“That’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”
Mr. Das looked up at the ruins in the middle of the garden and marveled at how majestic Delhi could be. It always amazed him that centuries-old tombs could exist, scattered in the midst of chaotic, crowded Delhi, surrounded by acres and acres of green grass and walking paths open to the public free of charge. When they had visited here when Tina was young, Mr. Das always suggested picnics in Lodhi Gardens but Radha thought it was more hassle than it would be worth—packing all the food and drinks, the plates, Tina’s toys, a sheet to sit on, water bottles, napkins—and for what? To sit out in the sun and the dust and worry about flies settling on their food? And yes, that was all probably true and fair, but Mr. Das thought it was worth the hassle, worth the worries about the dust and the heat. One group of men and women was celebrating a birthday and the remnants of a large cake lay in an open cardboard box. There were several flies on the cake but none of the people seemed to mind or care and they continued to eat from their plastic plates and laugh and talk.
“That looks nice,” Mrs. Sethi said.
“Picnics seem like such a hassle,” Mr. Das said. Why had he said that?
“It certainly is easier to eat at home without all the flies buzzing around,” Mrs. Sethi said. “But my husband loved picnics and I learned to start enjoying them as well. But my rule was always that we don’t bring sweet food and we bring food that won’t have any remnants, like a sandwich. Nothing with chicken bones or big lemongrass leaves that need to be left aside at the end of the meal. And it was always an argument because our maid used to make the most delicious pomfret fry and my husband loved that but I never agreed to bring those because of the hassle. So we would stop at Sugar and Spice in Khan Market and pick up sandwiches only. It was still fun and the cleanup was much easier but I suppose the pomfret fry wouldn’t have been so hard either. I would have just had to pack one extra plastic bag for all the garbage and some wet wipes for our fingers. Anyway, never mind now.”
Mr. Das tried to picture a young Mrs. Sethi sitting on a sheet and eating a sandwich with the dust particles moving down toward her in the rays of the sun. It was an easier image than picturing her sifting through a whole pomfret to free the flesh of the fish from the bones. But he wondered if Colebrookes did a good pomfret fry; he could use a tandoori pomfret for dinner.
The fresh smell of marijuana wafted toward them and Mrs. Sethi inhaled deeply and said, “I always love that smell.”
“Of drugs?” Mr. Das asked, unable to hide his shock. “You like drugs?”
Mrs. Sethi laughed loudly. She shook her head and looked over at Mr. Das looking wide-eyed at her.
“America makes everyone so conservative,” she said. “Marijuana is hardly a drug. It’s better than the anti-anxiety drugs everyone is hopped-up on all the time. But I sound like an addict. I rarely smoke but come on, Neel, we’re children of the sixties. Don’t tell me you’ve never done any drugs.”
“I haven’t,” Mr. Das said. “I’ve never even smoked cigarettes. Well, no, I did once but I hated it.”
“I tried ecstasy on a cruise in Halong Bay last year,” Mrs. Sethi said with a laugh. “I loved it. Can you imagine? I went on an organized tour of Vietnam for single Indian women and at first that sounded like just about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard of but I went and it ended up being one of the best two weeks of my life. There were twenty-five-year-old women and one seventy-plus-year-old spinster, and everything in between, and it was so refreshing. No more ecstasy for me but my gosh, it was fun. That’s one of the few things I’ve never told Minal about.”
Mr. Das looked over at Mrs. Sethi not sure how to respond. None of this was the India he remembered. When he had first heard of Mrs. Ray’s Matchmaking Agency for Widows he had expected to be set up with some old lady wearing a synthetic sari and orthopedic shoes and maybe sprouting a chin hair. But here was Mrs. Sethi, glamorous in her raw silk kurtas, drinking port from Portugal, and confessing to having tried drugs on a cruise and not hiding any of it. And here was Mr. Das coming across as the conservative old man from New Jersey. A bee buzzed near Mr. Das and he frantically tried to move it away from his face. He knew there was nothing less manly than a man trying to escape a determined bee.
Excerpted from Destination Wedding, a novel by Diksha Basu, with permission from Bloomsbury India.