The world was wrecked, but they were having a party. Small, socially distanced, TC had laughed on the phone, self-aware.
Tia had rolled her eyes. She didn’t tell TC then but she thought it was a. still risky and b. kind of loserly. Who spends New Year’s Eve at their Professor’s? Even though technically TC wasn’t a Professor-Professor, just a novelist who taught a course or two to fund what her husband called her organic lifestyle, and Tia was no longer a student. She didn’t say it then, but she was sure she’d have other—more appropriate—plans.
A week later though, when all that shit had gone down with J, Tia was relieved to have this self-aware shindig. It wouldn’t be completely non-awkward, but would definitely be better than staying on campus, where all her friends had elected to converge—last hurrah before the next wave and grad school and life!—and where, in the interest of said hurrah, alcohol would flow freely. Her group would get sentimental, commiserate over her broken heart, and keep an eye out for the perpetrator, cordoning her drunkenly as he walked in—all of it insufferable. This, at least, would be clean.
Maybe clean was the wrong word. Going by Tia’s past experiences, the party would likely be messy, cluttered, in the way all of TC’s things were, whether her bag or her car—the seven hundred strands of her life coming together in weird permutations, her yoga-teacher and Brigadier-cousin and activist friend from JNU sitting stiffly on the self-same couch. There would be at least two of the oddballs and strays—non-feline, unfortunately—who TC and her husband loved dearly, and who annoyed Tia with their proprietary tendencies over the bookshelves, the guest room, TC herself. But then again, the food would be nice. The corner where she lurked would be fragrant. And, most of all, every time TC introduced her with that dramatic flair—“teachers aren’t supposed to have favourites but you know what, we do, and this one’s mine”—a sort of bright clean pepperminty light would fall upon her from nowhere, making her giggle.
And so, in pursuit of that radiant, elusive clean, Tia ironed her outfit that afternoon—a black shift dress—and found a long black sweater, longer than the dress, to match, and black tights. Her shoulder-length hair had red streaks now, and she’d wear red Converse shoes and a red mask, knowing that as soon as she walked in, TC would sigh and hug her and say how cool she was looking, and she—she wouldn’t crumble, nope, not at all, not about J.
When the cab was five minutes away, Tia texted her mum—they had this rule about clocking departures and arrivals— and only then she saw the missed calls. Seven.
“What is it, Shaswat?” she said, when he picked up on the second ring. “Why have you called a hundred times?”
“No, no, I am okay, don’t worry,” he said, in his presuming Shaswat fashion, “Are you going to TC’s?”
“Why do you ask?” Tia narrowed her eyes.
“I need to send her books.”
“Oh, okay. Yes, as a matter of fact I am going. But you’ll have to give it to me at the gate in a minute. Max two minutes. I am leaving now.”
“I am on my way.”
He arrived at the gate, eleven minutes later. Tia would most definitely have left, combining all the various messages she had tried to convey to him in the last few years, ever since they’d taken TC’s memoir course in the first year: don’t be tardy, Shaswat; don’t be tone-deaf, Shaswat; don’t commit micro-aggressions, Shaswat. If only her stupid cabbie hadn’t taken a wrong turn. As it happened, both converged upon her at the same time, Prince Kumar, blaring music, and Shaswat Kumar, in a pair of ridiculous track pants and chappals, sockless and maskless. He was carrying a plastic bag crammed with books. Despite her profound irritation, Tia was curious for a second: “Did you read all the books?”
“I read one. I think. You are going to TC’s in a cab?”
“Yes,” Tia flushed. She wouldn’t ordinarily have taken a cab—but her mother, back home in Bangalore, was worrying about Omicron, and had topped up her OLA wallet just so she’d cab it to the party. But hey, Tia thought, she was the bona-fide earner here, a Research Assistant, about to leave for a mostly subsidised MFA. Shaswat, spending an extra semester trying to pass Econometrics after failing it twice, what authority did he have? She recycled, she usually took public transport, she separated her trash—a concept possibly still unknown to this joker. Tia climbed in and slammed the door.
“That’s great then,” Shaswat was saying, “why don’t I come with you? TC had invited me also.”
In his blasé fashion, he walked round to the other side and got into the cab next to her.
“OTP?” the cabbie said.
“OTP?” Shaswat repeated helpfully, looking at Tia, who gave it, seething beneath her mask. “You aren’t dressed to go, you don’t have a mask, how can you be so random?”
“Bhaiya extra mask hai?” Shaswat addressed the cabbie. Prince Kumar casually pulled a surgical mask out of the glove compartment and gave it to Shaswat.
Sexist asshole, Tia glowered. One-star.
There was only one reason Tia was putting up with this rubbish: karma. (Not that she would ever say it out loud.) When they were taking TC’s class on memoir-writing—and TC was allowing Shaswat to submit his assignments IN VERSE—Tia and her friend Nayan had found themselves stranded at the border one evening. They were on their way back from a book launch and a sudden fight had erupted between two parties—she was fuzzy on the details—and the border had been sealed off. The cab the girls had taken had disgorged them at Singhu, and Tia had called TC for advice. She wasn’t in town but she’d raised an alert on the WhatsApp group, and somehow, an hour-and-a-half later, Shaswat had rolled up in a tractor.
Nayan, Tia’s South Delhi friend, with perfectly straightened hair and a tiny waist, had been charmed by Shaswat, the scholarship boy with a motor-mouth and encyclopaedic knowledge of Urdu poetry. (Nayan would have liked to go back in the tractor, but apparently the farmer had only agreed to bring Shaswat to Singhu—what kind of a rescue mission that was remains an open question. But TC had managed to arrange a university vehicle back to campus.)
While Shaswat and Nayan had chatted the whole way back, Tia had stayed silent. She wasn’t with J then, he was just a remote senior she had a crush on, and he wouldn’t even have known about this drama. And yet, irrationally, Tia had been convinced that he would be the one to come rescue them. Tia, radical feminist, A+ student in every gender studies course there was, was herself shocked to observe the manner in which her heart was derailing her head. Subsequently, she directed the irritation she felt at her own absurdity towards Shaswat. It took another few months for J to get to know her, and a whole year before they began to date. But she remained irritated with Shaswat since. Also, he made it easy. You just had to read his posts on the university FB page.
But now, sitting in Prince Kumar’s white Swift Dzire, Tia must accept that Shaswat had come to Singhu border on a tractor, when she was stranded, and for that reason alone, she deserved to repay the debt with better grace. It wasn’t exactly his fault that J turned out the way he did, only as much as they were both cis-men.
“How is your Mother?” Tia asked, putting away her phone.
“Not too good since my aunt died,” he sighed.
“Your aunt who was a doctor?”
It was surprising how much they knew about each other, TC’s kids. Little fragments returned to Tia, things that had casually come up in TC’s office, as they’d lounged about drinking coffee and talking at her simultaneously, trying to impress her with the most outrageous stories of youth. Tia remembered that he had once got change for a 2,000-rupee note in record time, on a campus where even the Chancellor was refused change by the shops, so that all of them could eat cake. She knew that Shaswat had once dreamt of becoming a human calculator. And that Shaswat’s mother ran a primary school and his aunt a clinic, in their native place.
“I am sorry,” she replied softly.
“How is your Mother?” Shaswat asked. “Still feeding the cats?”
Tia told him the latest about Mama’s cats, how the numbers had multiplied during the lockdown, cats from far and wide landing up at their doorstep. Shaswat laughed. The cab streamed down the highway, past farmland, where wheat was growing lush and green, interrupted by towering, yet untenanted, apartment buildings with exotic-sounding names—Tuscan Sun and Ibiza Country. After the foggy spell that had lasted for most of the week, today had turned out to be beautiful, as though 2021 was apologising on its way out, the sun dazzling goldenly on the road, the cold, bright and sharp, cutting through all the wistfulness the drive might have evoked in Tia otherwise.
“How is J?” Shaswat asked.
Instantly Tia’s mood soured. She took out her phone and AirPods as though she hadn’t heard the question at all.
Once they had crossed the border into Delhi, the traffic became impossible. They caught every signal. Shaswat, jiggling his legs energetically, began a discussion on the economy with Prince Kumar. What the pandemic had wreaked on the countryside—just because he had lived for a few years in a small town, apparently that make him an expert on the countryside—and all the losses of the last two years, both young men trading importantly in phrases that people had wildly overused the last six months. Just from a purely linguistic perspective, Tia decided, it was tiresome.
She was forced to shut off her podcast entirely when Prince Kumar began to talk about the passengers he had ferried during the horrors of April and May. She felt her heart contract: what if there was another wave when she was in the US, what if her mother got Omicron (or some new variant), what if flights were suspended? What if J got Omicron and died? Before she could flash her incredible career as a novelist and lover—her future happiness—in his face?
This last was unlikely though. He’d already had the damn thing once.
Then evening fell. The pollution had cast its sticky thumbprint all over the air but now, as the streetlights began to glow, one by one, the smudgy light softened everything outside, the Delhi haze, the crowds, the traffic. Tia sighed. In front of her was a sea of red and yellow tail lights blinking. Prince Kumar too tired of talking.
“Did you get covid?” (Four years at a liberal arts college and he still had no filters.)
“No,” she replied, “Mama and I were lucky.”
She wouldn’t speak of J’s covid. His fever had stayed for ten days, his oxygen was unstable, there was a bit of panic all round. Eventually it turned out to be alright. But something had darkened inside his heart, she had theorised, a little canker that entered the forests she had laid claim on, triggering something final, incomprehensible. Tia turned away from the thought.
“I am sure I got it,” Shaswat volunteered. “I didn’t get tested or anything. I was alone in the room I’d rented in the city for online classes. The internet is awful at my place, that’s why I failed a couple of courses last sem. Anyway, I think that’s when I had covid. My smell disappeared for a few days. But one odd thing happened. Since then, I can’t smell lemons any more. In the mess, I squeeze the quarters into my dal, and I can taste it, but instead of the smell there’s just a blank.”
Outside, the humming darkness feels velvety, all grown up and bourgeoisie.
“It’ll come back,” Tia tells him, “in time. I read in an article that for some people good smells got scrambled, so their favourite dish suddenly began to feel rotten. You know? This is at least neutral. It will get better.”
They fall quiet. Minutes elapse. She rolls down the window. The cold air is metallic on the tongue. At the other end of the journey is TC’s house, lit up and waiting, proof that sometimes it does work out in the end, in favour of love and art, at least for a while. But how does one get to that part quickly—why is it so hard?
Next to Tia, Shaswat, lemon-less, begins to hum a song under his breath. “When I get a job, Tia,” he says finally, interrupting the melody, “I will invest in a kho kho team.”
“I am glad to hear,” Tia giggles, “that you have given up your dream of becoming a human calculator.” He laughs, and as Tia takes in the wonder of this—they actually laughed together at the same thing, albeit it wasn’t very funny—she tries to conjure up the smell of lemons in the car. Mama’s perfume, J’s soap, the rub of rind on her fingertips from the last time she’d baked a cake. The squirt of juice on Shaswat’s dal-chawal in the mess when—if—they share a meal in the new year, before they go their ways. Around them, traffic heaves and grumbles. Tia knocks off her red Converse shoes and pulls her feet up, in one fluid movement, and sits like a girl, with her chin upon her knees, waiting, waiting, waiting for the roads to clear.
Devapriya Roy is the author of five books. Her sixth, an anthology she has edited, Cat People, is just out.