film Karan Johar could have made: Dostana 2, a modern Bollywood love story
starring Sameer and Kunal, two men drawn together by fate. And a little
help from Sam's mum.
It is Shah Rukh Khan, Mumbai's celluloid immortal hero, with the ubiquitous intro countdown. Five, four, three, two, one. Then the megastars of Hindi films seen in two-second clips.
Hi, this is Amitabh Babchen. Hi, I'm Shah Rukh. Hi, I'm Rani Mukerjee. Hi, I'm Ashkay Kumar.
Then the narrative, the voice of it Hindi English with tonality singing and clipped at the same time.
Over the last 25 years, one name has cast the spell of Bollywood all across the globe. It's Eros, Amitabh says, Eros, Shah Rukh says, and so do Rani, Ashkay. And then the voice over again - Eros International. The largest Bollywood content provider the world over. The latest Bollywood blockbusters are Eros releases. At Eros, it's a mission to create, enhance and distribute content across technological platforms. Are you crazy for Bollywood home entertainment? Buy only original Eros DVDs and say no to piracy. Log on to Eros entertainment dot com and enter the world of unlimited Bollywood Entertainment.
And like all Hindi films, the certificate is in Urdu. This is a certificate 15, unusually explicit for an Indian film. The first shots are still photographs of the movie Dostana to which this is a sequel, plot reminders for those who do not speak Hindi or have not seen the first film. Brightly coloured and in sunshine the photographs show a beach; a skyline; a condominium; two men in Miami casuals; a girl in Bollywood spandex. Smiling. A Cadillac, a party, a broken piece of artwork. A child in a park with ice-cream; two men kissing, a wedding -
Two men kissing?
Miami airport, October 14th 2009.
Kunal looks down before he turns round. His face is composed, but afterwards Sameer will think that Kunal had guessed he might be followed. Had perhaps even hoped.
"What are you doing here?"
But surely Kunal already knows.
"Coming to your wedding," Sam says. He points. "Passport, eh?"
And as Kunal retrieves his, Sam's crosses the desk. "I'm with him." Sam smiles, and the check-in girl gives an involuntary, real smile in response. Sam has that effect on people.
"I did not invite you," Kunal says. His voice is low: he holds his passport between them, as if the barrier could stop Sameer knowing how his face had lightened.
"Matlab?" Sam says comfortably. "Yes, I packed my own baggage. Do you want my mother's address?" And to Kunal, "My best friend gets married, and I am not there? What kind of friend does that make me?" Sam's eyes are round, innocent, slightly wounded.
He lies. Kunal knows this.
"We are not friends," Kunal says.
"Darling," Sam purrs. He taps Kunal's check as he would a child. "He's so cute."
The check-in girl smiles again, handing back Sam's passport and boarding card.
"How does he think he can get married without me?" His voice is deliberately arch.
"Have a lovely flight," she says. Her eyes move from Sam's face to Kunal's. "Darlings."
Kunal throws his hands in the air and walks away. Smiling, Sam shrugs. Follows. They are on the escalator before Kunal speaks again.
"We have discussed this. You cannot come."
"There is no room."
"It's a wedding, no? My mother will be pleased to see me." Sam says serenely.
"My brother will hate you."
"So?" Sam asks, untroubled.
"I can't marry with you there," Kunal says, flat.
"Why?" Sam asks. His voice is gentle. He is as stubborn as a bull, Sam, when he wants to be. Solid. Grounded.
They are nearly at the first security gates. The queue is short.
"You are my friend," Sam says.
"You are not my friend," Kunal says. He turns round. His face has sharpened. "I can't do this," Kunal says. "Sam. Until you - don't you understand?"
Sam shrugs. "Make me." There is a lift to his eyebrows that is a challenge in itself.
"Sam. I want -" Kunal closes his eyes, opens them. "I want to do the hokey cokey with you. Shake the green manalishi." He is spitting the words out, now. "Get under the covers."
"I know this," Sam says. The queue shuffles forward. He fumbles his passport open.
Kunal is looking back over his shoulder, eyes narrowed. "It was all girls until you came along. You, with your -" He throws his hands up again, mouth open, frustrated, before he rallies speech. Staccato punctuation. "Sam-"
"I know this," Sam says.
"Passport and boarding card, please," The security guard says.
Glancing down, Sam holds his passport open at the photograph. He looks young.
"Sam," Kunal says. "I want to fuck you up the arse."
"Passport-" The security guard's eyes widen, his face as carefully blank as two day's worth of customer service orientation and nineteen years of hard-won experience can make it. Sam himself blinks.
"Here," Kunal says, impatient: in two seconds he is striding onto the concourse. He walks like a body builder, thighs braced and shoulders squared.
The guard waves Sam through without even glancing at his paperwork.
"Did you hear that?" The woman behind says to her husband.
Kunal has two heartbeats head start but Sam's legs are longer. "Stop," Sam says, and puts out a hand to make it so. Under his fingers, through the grey sweatshirt Kunal wears, his friend's skin is hot. "You can't just say that here."
Kunal whips round. "I just did," he hisses. Anger lends his face colour and deepens the brown of his eyes.
"This isn't the place." Sam does not say, these are not the words.
"Oh, and where is? Sam." Exasperation. "This isn't a film. This isn't all roses. There is no happy ever after. You have no idea what I want."
"Last time I checked, we were not standing on a mountaintop in Switzerland and neither of us were wearing saris," Sam says. "Do you hear music?" He asks as if both of them should be listening. Straight-faced. Then, he rolls his eyes. "Nurse, remember? If you've thought of it, I've probably seen it. What are you so frightened of?"
Under his hands, Kunal shivers, convulsive and undisguisable. "I am not frightened."
"No?" Sam says. "Why then are you telling me now, my friend, where there is no possible chance that there is a bed within ten hours where we can - how did you - fuck -"
Slapped over Sam's mouth, Kunal's hand is cold where the skin of his shoulder is warm. His fingers smell of engine oil and verbena soap. They stare at each other, unblinking. Sam thinks himself rock to Kunal's scissors: he's bigger, darker, than Kunal has ever acknowledged. Not scared.
"You are not supposed to-" Kunal breaks the sentence off and looks away. The skin of his face is drawn tightly over his bones and his wrist under Sam's fingers feels both strong and fragile, strung tense. He does not resist the grip of Sam's hand.When it is obvious Kunal has nothing more to say, Sam says, "Tum meera dhosti." As if that is enough. You are my friend.
Kunal looks back. Still angry.
"Eh, drama queen. We have a plane to catch. Pick up your bag. Challo."
Sam is smiling.
Even Otherwise I am Yours
Miami, May 2009.
Abhimanyu says, "Neha, I have something to tell you."
Stubble shadows Abhimanyu's jawline, and the skin around his eyes has darkened. Before arriving, he has had to call twice over the course of the evening to explain that he will be late, and then that he will be later yet. His meeting ran three hours over time and when he arrives home his son Veer is asleep.
The new baby has not started to show, but in the heat of a Miami summer Neha already feels heavier. Her stride has changed; her hips feel looser and her centre of balance lower; her moods are uneven. She has cried once this evening already without reason although this her husband will never know. At times she has started to wonder how Abhimanyu's first wife could have abandoned her child: she is fiercely protective of her own unborn baby, and her adopted son Veer is so much part of this new family they are making that she cannot imagine life without him.
"Sit down, " Abhimanyu says. It is said with tenderness. Abhimanyu is a good man, a caring husband. A proud father.
"They have offered me a new job," Abhimanyu says. "A secondment." Looking down, he taps his fingers on the arm of the leather sofa. "They have offered me the Italian edition." When Abhimanyu looks up his eyes are tired, loving, the eyes of the man she married. " Managing editor."
They both know what this means, the experience, the prestige.
Neha presses her hands together. "For how long?"
"Six months," Abhimanyu says.
Neha is four months pregnant. She is still working. Neha's job - like Abhimanyu's, very like Abhimanyu's, although after marriage she had moved from the clothing magazine where they met to lifestyle - involves long hours, socialising, commitment. She has not yet told her employers that she is pregnant.
Neha thinks of having her baby alone.
"Do you want this job?" she asks.
"Then we will manage," Neha says.
"I thought - " Abhimanyu stops. To say what he has been thinking is a confession to ambition, but he has no secrets from Neha. "I could call Sam and Kunal."
"Eh - " Neha says.
Reaching out, Abhimanyu takes one of her hands in his. "You were such good friends," he says.
"I cannot trust them," Neha says. The perfect line of her eyebrows falters, cut by her frown. Her hand, under Abhimanyu's, clenches.
"It's been a year, " Abhimanyu says. He had fought hard for Neha's heart, when they had first been introduced. He had worn clothes he knew to be terrible, changed his manners and risked his relationship with his young son, only to learn that Neha's flatmates - his advisers - had been sabotaging the courtship. Abhimanyu had not been the only man in love with Neha, and winning her had been a small and very dirty war.
"They lied to me," Neha says. She had not known that the gay couple she shared a flat with, the two men she knew as her best friends when she met Abhimanyu, had not been a couple: in fact, had not been gay.. For the sake of two rooms in Neha's condominium, a small pool and a breathtaking view, Sam and Kunal had lied. The lie had snowballed. Sam, a metaphorical rose between his teeth, had told the romantic story of their first meeting. Kunal, to speed their immigration paperwork, had persuaded Sam to become officially gay. To the sounds of Karan Johar's Kabhi Khushi Khabie Gham, a film so traditional your grandmother would love it, Kunal had stood for Sam's mother's marriage puja and, barefooted, as if he were truly the bahu of the house, had knocked the salt over the threshold of his marital home. In front of a hall of people, in apology to the deceived Neha, Sam and Kunal had kissed - an action intensely private to a married Indian couple and forbidden to the unmarried of either gender.
Neither Kunal nor Sam were actually gay. Both of them were in love with Neha.
"I want to know that someone will be looking after you," Abhimanyu says.
They had been friends, Neha and Sameer and Kunal, the best of friends. Laughing together, working together, going out together, enjoying each other's company with a camaraderie Neha had thought uncomplicated.
Eventually, she says "Tika. But you call."
"I will ask them over tomorrow," Abhimanyu says.
When Abhimanyu calls, Sam is driving along Marine Parade in a pink Cadillac. It's his. Like a Hollywood star of the sixties, Sam wears bright shirts and cashmere sweaters tied loosely over his shoulders, Gucci sunglasses and scarves slung round his neck. Sam owns two-tone cowboy boots and twelve Hawaiian shirts, each freshly laundered. He's a powerfully built man with long legs, and the driver's seat is pushed back to accommodate his height. Elbows propped on the doorsill and head tilted back, Sam is listening to Madonna and watching the bikini-clad girls on the beach.
His cell phone is new, and fuchsia. The ringtone rocks.
"Hi, " Sam says. "Abhimanyu?"
"How are you?" Abhimanyu says. "How is Kunal?"
Sam breathes in, pulls over. He curls his hand - Sam's hands are broad, his fingers long and tapered - over the phone.
"I haven't spoken to him lately, " he says. His voice is level and unemotional, but Sam's left hand with its neon watchstrap tightens on the steering wheel.
"Neha and I have something to tell you," Abhimanyu says. "Are you free for dinner?"
Sam remembers what it was like, laughing with friends. Living with them. He says, for he owes Neha, "Yes."
Kunal has his nose in someone else's cleavage. Perfect tan: perfect, apple breasts, silicon-round. Heaven. His hands are as close to a perfectly peaked nipple as they can be without a sexual harassment suit, and he can smell both the most expensive of sun creams and a perfume just a little too heavy for Florida sunshine.
"Done?" the model asks, bored.
"Nearly, " Kunal says, fixing double-sided sticky tape to the minimal straps of a futuristic bikini.. He takes his time, long enough to be pleasurable, not long enough to be insulting. In all fairness proximity gives the girl an admirable close-up of his own perfectly defined pecs, the smooth skin of his washboard stomach and the ripple of muscles in his arms. Kunal looks good and knows it.
"Superb, darling." He steps back, head on one side, to admire the shot. Behind them, his assistants tilt the glare filters and adjust the lights. Only Kunal touches his cameras.
He's just about to hit the switch on the soundtrack when his phone rings. Kunal's cell phone is sleek, black, minimal.
"Hi," he says. He doesn't recognise the number.
"It's Abhimanyu," Abhimanyu says. "Kunal. How are you?'
"I'm fine," Kunal says, which is not what he would say to one of his friends. Sam, Sameer, for example. If they were talking.
"Neha and I have something to ask you," Abhimanyu says. "Are you free this evening?"
Kunal blinks. He turns his face from the incurious model, and his free hand rises to tug at the stubble on his chin. But he owes Neha.
"Yes," Kunal says. "When?"
Abhimanyu answers the door. He doesn't smile. A year ago they fought each other over Neha, Kunal and Abhimanyu, and Abhimanyu won, but the scars are still there.
"Sam's here?' Kunal asks. He wears grey, a Paul Smith shirt, and Japanese jeans.
"Welcome back," Abhimanyu says. "Yes. Come in."
Behind him Neha, in a sari rich enough to be just the right side of formal, smiles a welcome. The smile does not reach her eyes and an embrace would be clearly unwelcome. Kunal passes her instead the white orchid he has brought as guest gift.
"Let me take your coat," Abhimanyu says. " Go on through."
There is an archway to the garden room, and seen through it the hanging glass lamps are a golden welcome. Kunal walks with care, head up. Over the back of the sofa he can see Sam's shoulder, broad under the vivid green of his shirt, the casual crook of his elbow and his close-cropped black hair. Almost every Indian has black hair. Kunal would recognise Sam's on a Mumbai train in rush hour.
Under the archway, he stops. He does not know if Abhimanyu has told Sam they would be eating together. He does not know if Abhimanyu has even mentioned his name.
He says, "Sam," and is startled that his voice sounds exactly as it had when he spoke to Neha and Abhimanyu.
Unhurried, Sam unfolds himself upright and turns round. It would be possible to think Sam slow: without the laughter lines curled at his temples and the well hidden mischief in his eyes. His face is heavy; dark-browed and fleshy. Yet when Sam's face brightens into laughter the world smiles with him. He is not smiling now. Nor is he surprised.
"Kunal," Sam says. A year ago, he would have said dude. Or nothing at all, with a smile.
"Do we shake hands?" Kunal asks. He is a little paler than usual, his nostrils pinched.
"Do we kiss?" Sam says, straight-faced.
They are squaring off like wrestlers before the bout. Sam's knuckles are white on his glass: Kunal can feel the tension in his shoulders.
"Do you want to?" Kunal snaps. His hands beckon, staccato, aggressive, a coded come on then, come on, hit me -
" - Boys!" Abhimanyu says. "Relax! Relax." His hands are spread, empty, between them. "Relax," Abhimanyu says, gentler, and then earlier than he had planned, " Neha has dinner ready."
The palms of his hands raised, obviously harmless, and his eyes on Kunal's face, Sam smiles. "Tell me she didn't cook," he says.
"She didn't cook. She picked the restaurant," Abhimanyu says. "We ordered in. Although she tells me Kunal does a mean stir-fry."
"Acha?" Sam says, slowly, gently. "I wouldn't know." His hands, the expression on his face, offer nothing other than a rueful conciliation.
It's enough. Kunal looks down and smiles, shakes his head, and looks up still smiling. "It's an essential art of seduction. Cooking." he says. Under three pairs of eyes, he adds, "Girls, yaar? It's my sensitive side."
And then, assailed, "Don't laugh. No, don't laugh ..." And almost it is like it was before, for a moment.
The food is good. The conversation is led, lightly, by Abhimanyu and Neha. They talk about the latest films, the opening of a new club, Neha's family news, celebrity gossip from the media world Abhimanyu and Kunal both know. Sam eats solidly, with the concentration of a man who has both an appetite and irregular hours. Kunal picks at his food. They do not talk about the past.
After they have eaten Abhimanyu serves coffee, little sweet measures of fresh-ground Turkish beans scented with cardamom. "We have something to tell you," he says.
It is fully dark, and in lamplight his face is soft. Neha has her hand over her mouth, but her eyes are smiling.
"We are having a baby,"
It takes a moment.
Sam stands up. It starts slowly, his smile, and brightens to glory.
Kunal says -"Baby? Tum?" His smile is for Neha, but after he has to look at Sam, at the delight in his face that makes this thing shared and real.
"Acha," Sam says. "Congratulations!"
"Congratulations, " Kunal says, quieter, no less heartfelt.
He is smiling. Everyone is smiling. Sam shakes Abhimanyu's hand. Abhimanyu shakes Kunal's hand. ("Congratulations, man!") Kunal hugs Neha. Sam and Neha hug. Kunal and Neha hug again. Abhimanyu and Neha hug and do not let go. Kunal and Sam hug -
- And freeze as soon as they realise they are touching. Kunal, braced, waits for a get-your-hands-off-me that never comes: Sameer does not recoil. He does not, like Kunal, drop his hands or avert his face. Instead - and this Kunal can feel, not see - he uncurls his hands finger by finger in silence, and does not - will not, although Kunal can barely take a breath for the closeness of their skin - step back. Kunal ... expects violence.
Until Abhimanyu speaks. What Abhimanyu says, shakily and too fast, are the words that people begin say at the end of an evening which may or may not have been a social success, and in the midst of them Sam finally lets go and steps back and still does not stop looking at Kunal. It is Neha who says quickly, you must see the photographs, Sam, look .... So that the three-month sonograms are laid out on the table, and Abhimanyu can smile again, and Kunal can breath, and both Sam and Kunal then can cast admiring professional gazes for entirely separate reasons, and then there is more coffee.
So that Abhimanyu can say, "Actually, guys ..."
And then he takes a deep breath and explains.
Kunal pales. Sam, intent, rests his fingers under his chin and stares at the crisp linen of Neha's Grandmother's wedding-gift tablecloth. Neither Sam nor Kunal can look at one another.
"You want us to - " Sam says, eventually.
"Move in?" Kunal's voice expresses aghast horror. Across the table, Sam's eyes flick to him, once, as near mutual communication as the evening so far has managed to contain.
"You want us to - "
"Have your baby?" Kunal finishes again. He blinks.
Abhimanyu smiles. "Neha needs you," he says.
Neha herself is leaning back in her chair, one hand resting on her stomach. It might be love, but Kunal thinks it's affect. Then he changes his mind. Neha's face is so quietly content that he can barely recognise the career girl he had shared an apartment with, a year ago.
"But - " Sam says.
"No," Kunal says. And then adds, " Are you mad? Don't you remember what we did?"
Abhimanyu smiles again. "Guys, " he says. "Guys ... I have not forgotten. But then ..." He stands up. "Kunal. Your bike. Racing bike, no? Meant for the open road, the wind in your hair, speed only, no?"
Kunal nods, lost.
"Then why have you got luggage strapped on the back?" Abhimanyu asks. Waits. Adds, "Your clothes? And your laptop? Kunal, you're not living anywhere - you're spending the night with friends when you can and in the studio when you can't. Even your PA doesn't know where you are half the time. Tough, no, homeless in Miami?" Abhimanyu asks, all faux sympathy and gleaming teeth.
There has been a time when Kunal had thought Abhimanyu weak. Gullible. He had been wrong.
Now Sam is looking at Kunal. "Achar." It's drawn out and considering and unbearably superior, but just as Kunal does consider violence himself Abhimanyu says, "Tum," and any amusement in Sam's face fades.
"Do you not find it noisy, sharing a room with students? Fun, eh, but you must get tired of the stress - boyfriends, girlfriends, exams ... you're sharing a dorm with how many people, Sam? And a bathroom also? Ten rooms on your floor, Sam?"
"Yes," Sam says, short.
"And here we have five bedrooms and three of them empty," Abhimanyu says gently. "Match made in heaven."
Kunal, unclipping his helmet and placing it carefully on the Hayabusa's tank, does not look back at the pretty boys and girls. Instead he links his gloved fingers over the black kevlar and rests his chin on his knuckles. For a second, before he looks at Sam, he closes his eyes.
Sameer also must be blind. Stretched out, head tilted back, Sam could surely see nothing but the stars.
"Can you do this, Kunal?" he asks. His voice ... Sam's voice between them alone is not the entertainment it was for Neha and Abhimanyu, but deeper, as if there is a different communication between them, something that is only Sam and Kunal's -
Kunal says, "Yes."
When he rolls his head sideways, he can see that Sam's eyes are still starlit. He says nothing.
Kunal straightens his back, unclasps his fingers. Under his visor, when his helmet is on, his face is unreadable.He breaks four separate mandatory speed limits, going back to the studio.
"Thanks," Sam says.
When he is done his posters are on the wall, his bedspread on the bed, his TV and DVD and playstation against the wall. His books are on the shelf. He should be more than content.
Neha says, "Sam?"
"You are happy with this, aren't you?"
"How can I not be?" Sam's smile could almost be real, but uncertainty still lends Neha's face a quizzical cast.
"Hey, " he says gently. "Do we need a hug?"
And as Neha's face softens, he opens his arms.
In the doorway, Abhimanyu smiles. When he turns away, it is to tell Kunal that there is space in the garage.
In Kunal's room, a satchel on the desk holds papers and a laptop. There is a pile of clothes on the floor and an ipod playing ghazal. Kunal himself is lying on the bed with his arms over his face.
Abhimanyu leaves him alone.
It is Sam, later, who goes to find him. There is popcorn, and a mint julep, carefully alcohol-free, and there is Shah Rukh in black with a machinegun on DVD. For now, although nothing like the evenings when Neha and Sameer and Kunal laughed and cried and clung together, it's a good evening.
In the morning, Abhimanyu leaves. Neha sees him off, although it is Sam, on a late shift, who drives them to the airport. Kunal is at the studio, calling his agent.
Kunal will spend a lot of time at the studio, calling his agent: and when he is not asking for more work he will be completing that work.
He will see Neha and Sam only at very early breakfasts or very late at night.
It is Sam who watches Neha slowly realise that they will never regain the easy friendship of their apartment. It is Sam who makes sure Neha takes her vitamins and keeps her appointments, Sam who makes certain there is always fresh fruit in the house and always a cushion on Neha's chair. Sam who realises that if there is a friendship to mend, it is he who will have to do the mending.
"I'm busy," Kunal says. He has one hand on the cell phone and the other tapping through shots on the computer.
"I know that, " Sam says. " I said, where are you?" Sam's voice is strained.
"Studio," Kunal says. "Neha?"
"Neha is fine. I am not fine. Dude, I am surrounded by baby carriages and pink fluffy blankets. A little moral support here would be very good indeed." There is an emphasis to Sam's voice that makes his feelings on the subject remarkably clear. "Are you a man or a mouse?"
"What?" Kunal asks. And then, resigned, "Where are you?"
"The Disney Store," Sam says. He is looking at a rather large Mickey. "Rescue me."
The number of things a two men, a very small unborn baby and a first-time mother with a serious shopping habit and several credit cards can buy in one afternoon is remarkable. Neha's baby needed very small clothes, blankets, a cot: a mobile with tropical fish and one with motorbikes. Neha's baby needed hypoallergenic blankets and a wardrobe of onesies and a t-shirt that said 'If you think I'm beautiful you should see my mother'. A large Winnie-the Pooh that sat on the back seat of the Cadillac with a very pink Piglet: three CDs that were guaranteed to sooth a fretful night and two baby DVDs that promised to produce a second Mozart. Neha's baby needed a baby buggy that took Sam and Kunal half an hour of test drives to select: Kunal preferred the sporty black three-wheeled Jeep edition while Sam argued for English tradition. It took a long-distance mobile call to Italy to resolve the issue, and at the check-out the assistant was fulsomely pleased. "My neighbours have just had a little boy. So sweet! They bought exactly this model - Paul and Timothy take little Timpo jogging on the beach. When is your baby due?"
"It's not mine." Kunal and Sam say together, instantly.
The assistant looks between them.
"Did you want it wrapped?"
They buy tiny sheets and building blocks, a small fire station and an imported train set that will take the baby seven years to grow into. "Every boy should have a train set," Sam says, who grew up in London.
"What if it's a girl?" Kunal asks.
"Who says girls can't be train drivers?" Neha says, one hand on the gentle rounding of her stomach. "My child can do anything."
Batman slippers, because this will be an American baby, and teething rings, and a small illuminated globe so that the baby will not forget it is an Indian baby also. Four packets of disposable nappies and a mat for changing.
"You think I can put these on the bike?"
"Dude, there's no more space in the car."
"Do you deliver?"
A very small pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap with adjustable fit, a scrabble set and three jars of Johnson's Baby Lotion from the only chemist in Florida with the stuff in stock. Neha was not the only person making long distance calls.
"Ma, what do babies need?"
"Sam? Sam! You got married and didn't tell me! How could you do this to - "
"Mum, it's - "
"And what about Kunal? How can you just abandon - "
"Mum, no - "
"You will be arrested for bigamy? What will I tell your father's mother? Sam, what have - "
"Mum, it's Neha - "
"You married Neha? She will be arrested with you? Sam, you have always been such a good boy -"
"Mum, Neha and Abhimanyu's baby. Neha? Abhimanyu? You met them last time you were here?"
"You're not pregnant?"
"No - Mum - Kunal, you stop laughing - "
A car seat, a bassinet, and socks so tiny only two of Sam's fingers fit inside.
Three prints and a picture alphabet for the nursery wall.
"Neha - "
A set of bookshelves, a pink CD player -
"Neha, please. Can we stop for coffee?"
A year ago, they had had their favourite bars, three restaurants where they knew the waiters and always got a table, a stack of take-out menus by the phone. Today they go to a bar only Kunal has visited before, a new development just off the waterfront run by an Indian from Vancouver who had endured one too many Canadian winters. The screen shows ice-hockey re-runs and the cocktails come iced: Neha orders mint tea, and falls asleep on the Chesterfield sofa before it arrives. It is Sam who takes off her shoes and straightens her hair.
"Dude, did the train set make it to the car?"
"I always wanted one." Sameer says. "They had a set in the window of the toy shop at home."
Kunal takes a long draft of beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You had one, didn't you?" Sam says.
"Yes," Kunal says.
"Tell me you have the Flying Scotsman. The green engine."
"Indian, nehe? I had the All-India Express, the Calcutta Express ..."
"How much track?"
"Enough. Three circuits. I had a control panel this big for the thing."
"You didn't like it."
Kunal shrugs. "I had no one to play with."
"You think I let my sister play with my toys? I'd have swapped her for your train set."
"What makes you think I want your sister?" Kunal is smiling, but when he looks up and sees the expression on Sam's face the smile fades. He should say something, Kunal thinks. Sam. Dude. He takes another mouthful of beer. Anything.
"My sister is married now." Sam says, slowly. He does not say, I would not let you near her. He does not need to say it: his face has said the words already.
"Sam -" Kunal says, and then Neha wakes up. She does not need tea, but ice cream.
It is Sam who unloads the car. Neha is on the sofa with a quart of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food. Kunal is on his way to the studio.
Kunal's absence is perhaps even more intrusive than his presence. For a year, Sam has ruthlessly repressed the lack of the one friend who has always met him, in anger or amicability, on equal ground. He has missed the lift of Kunal's eyebrows, his laughter, the sly, lying after-midnight smile. Sam does not watch slasher movies on his own.
Once or twice Sam may have checked that there are still barbels in the bedroom, and that the razor in Kunal's bathroom was still present, although for all he knew Kunal might be growing sideburns and a seventies clone moustache. Maybe it was all the rage in the fashion industry these days. He wouldn't know. What he does know is that Kunal has a stash of product that can only belong to someone whose beauty is his stock in trade. He gels. He has under-eye replenishment and dermatological evening face restorer with added vitamin A. He moisturises with more than one brand, and almost undoubtedly more than his face. Kunal has probably slept with more girls than Sam has ever dated, although this is not something Sam will ever admit out loud.
"Is it that he doesn't like me?" Neha says, late one evening, when Aunty is out with the girls and they are watching Salaam Namaste on the DVD player, which always makes Neha cry and thus has to be seen surreptitiously and after Abhimanyu's evening phone call.
"No," Sam says. He does not need to ask who. "He doesn't like me."
It is a week later, after the first Lamaze class - Abhimanyu flew home - that Neha asks "Why? Was it ... ?"
"Was it you?" Sam asks. "No. I don't want to talk about it."
"I am fed up
of this," Neha says.
Kunal's studio is a converted warehouse in a part of Miami that is less run down than it pretends to be, and the security system is state of the art. There is a web cam above the door that links to the network, but it is three minutes before Sam can let his finger off the buzzer. If he were feeling charitable he would assume that Kunal was distracted, or in the john, or making coffee, but charity is not an emotion Sameer has on offer at this point in time. He has been vetted, found wanting, and does not know if it is the tell-tale gleam of Kunal's Hayabusa parked in the lobby or the insistent pressure of his own finger on the doorbell which has gained him entry. Either way, he is not happy.
Inside, the lights are out. He has to wait for his eyes to adjust before following the golden evening sunlight up the stairs: skylights fling the last of the it in great swathes across the polished oak floor.
"Nice place," Sam says.
At the back of the studio Kunal turns round from the Mac. His hair is rat-tailed, and there are dark smudges under his eyes.
"You've been staring at a computer too long."
"And?" Kunal says, unsmiling.
There is a couch with an unrolled sleeping bag. Sam lets his eyes linger.
There are three desks and five laptops and a router where Kunal is working. Sam's feet are sore: he moves a set of contact sheets and sits, thighs spread, hands on the desk edge. "Kunal."
Kunal says nothing.
And Sam says at last, "Was it the kiss?"
He is expecting an explosive reaction. He would not be surprised if Kunal threw the computer - the mug at his elbow, the chair, himself - either across the floor or at Sam. But Kunal does nothing. Only the way his eyes narrow says that he had heard.
"Dude, I can't do this alone."
"Did I agree?"
"Even you sat in that carpark and said yes." Sam says.
Kunal's fingers twitch back to the keyboard. There is an image on the scream, black and white, almost abstract: a female body wrapped in fishing nets. Sam thinks the model might be naked, under the twine. It's a beautiful photograph.
"What do you need?"
Absently, Kunal runs a finger over the mousepad. Across the screen, white light curves with the nets. In the abstract, the model's skin is so fine that it looks unreal, porcelain and silk.
"Neha knows it can't be the way it was," Sam says. "But dude, if I have to watch one more film about babies I'll be heading to the hospital to check myself in. And I've put on three pounds in Ben and Jerry's. Help me out. Do you think I have no life?"
There is the shadow of a smile on Kunal's mouth, and seeing it, Sam can feel his hands relax.
"Say we swap nights," Kunal says. "I watch Shah Rukh on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you get Hrithik on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays we get pizza and Said."
"Oh no," Sam says. "Neha has yoga on Tuesdays. I get Rani on Monday and Thursday, you get Preity on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Saturday we get whatever's new. And pizza."
"On Saturdays I date," Kunal says.
"Achacha?" Sam says, scornful.
"Tika. On Saturdays I f-"
"Saturdays. Pizza. You want to fuck, make it Sunday."
Kunal throws his hands up. "On Sundays they see their mothers, they do their hair, they go to church, they answer the door in face masks, they take their dogs for a walk-"
Sam is shaking his head.
"You will owe me so much," Kunal says.
"Done. Shut the door when you leave."
"The other thing."
"What is your problem?"
Kunal's fingers slip on the keyboard. Suddenly, there is a black slash across the photograph, all context removed, ugly.
"I mean, dude, a year ago I would have said you were my best friend. What is wrong with you?"
Standing, Kunal is as tall as Sam. His shoulders are broad, the armbands of his t-shirt tight round his biceps. He is not smiling. In sweat and muscle Kunal has reconstructed his body, and it shows. "Every time I go out. Where is Sameer? How is your boyfriend? I hire an Indian model, he hits on me. My copyist asks if you have a brother. My cleaner won't touch the couch. The last charity function I went to they'd lined up three introductions on the grapevine and I spent the whole evening fending off some guy from New York who wanted a threesome. What is my problem? This is my problem!" Emphasis, Kunal's fingers, pointed, every muscle tense.
"So?" Sam says.
"This is my life!"
"Dude, see it my way. Do you have any idea how many girls think I need only find the right woman to go straight?" Sam is smiling.
"I like Indian girls."
"So? Shaadi calls? Planning to get married soon?"
"What?" Sam says. Then he takes off the sunglasses. He has the knack, Sam, of wiping his face of all expression. He does it now. "You are."
Slapped on the desk, the sound of Kunal's hand is sharp and harsh.
"You are in love." Sam says, slowly.
"No," Kunal says.
Sam levers himself off the desk. On the far wall of the warehouse, blow up prints: a Vogue cover, Neha in a sari, an exquisite black model who could be Nefertiti, a old print of a man on a motorbike with a striped helmet, racing.
Kunal says nothing.
Sam turns round. "Congratulations."
Kunal says nothing. His eyes do not leave Sam's face.
Sam looks down. His sunglasses are still in his hand: he puts them back on. "Don't forget my invitation. Dude," he says. "Once you know her name."
Sam rolls into bed with a bowl of chocolate and marshmallows.
On Thursday he watches Rani playing a courtesan.
On Friday he goes to a bar with people from work, but comes home early. He tiptoes past the sofa and bolts the door to his room. Not that anyone would knock.
On Saturday he has an early shift and comes home tired enough to nap through the afternoon. When he wakes, it's with the contentment of a man with two days off and nothing to do: he stretches, feeling every muscle tense and relax, glad of the air conditioning that means he can sleep under the comfort of a quilt. Coffee would be good. Coffee would be better if someone else made it and brought it to him, but that had not happened since he left home at eighteen and was unlikely to happen tonight: he glances over at the pile of his jeans and t-shirt on the floor and sighs.
There are voices in the house. Laughter. Someone singing. The smell of good Mexican.
It is Saturday night, and he has a date with a DVD for which he is already more than an hour late.
"Sorry," he mutters ten minutes later, wet haired and but unshaven, leaning over the back of the sofa. Neha, on the phone, waves: Kunal, legs spread either side of a family sized basin of popcorn, grunts, but the blonde stranger draped over most of Abhimanyu's designer leather takes in his hair, his black western shirt and the breadth of his chest, and gives him a sultry smile that sends him two steps backwards.
"Hi," Sam says, and reminds himself that his bedroom door has a bolt.
"Hi yourself," says the blonde. "Kunal?" In her accent the name is an extended two syllable seduction.
"Sameer, this is Louise: Louise, Sam. Where were you?"
"Asleep," Sam says. He edges round the sofa. It's not as if he has a problem with girls. He has no problem with girls. He likes the way they look, the way they smell, the way they think: he likes them on the dance floor and under his skin in bed - their beds.
There is no way he is sitting on the sofa. He sits down on the rug instead, and leans his back against the arm of the thing. The lights are low, the fire lit, and on the screen Raj Kapoor is romantically poised, his hair a miracle of brycream and exuberance.
Kunal passes the popcorn down. "Nice of you to join us," he says, low voiced.
"I was asleep," Sam says again.
"Shush ... " Neha's hand waves them to silence. Raj is in love, and wants the world to know it. Neha's face is rapt.
"Anything more to eat than popcorn?" Sam whispers.
"In the kitchen."
Not pizza, and not Neha's cooking either. When he puts his mind to it, stir fry is not the only thing Kunal can cook.
Sam says thanks, later, after Raj has once again married in glorious technicolor and Neha has gone to bed, but the only acknowledgement is the departing wave of Kunal's hand as he follows Louise to her car.
Next Saturday, it is Carrie-Ann, who thinks Said is the cutest actor she has ever seen on screen. The Saturday after that, it is Shona, who spends the evening repolishing her exquisitely painted nails.
The next Saturday, Sam wraps a packet of condoms with a large red bow and leaves them on Kunal's bed. The girl's name is Jamie. She's small, spike-haired: she wears a mini-skirt with Doc Martens, and she turns out to be one of Kunal's assistants. She's the eldest of six, and it shows: by the intermission, she and Neha have taken the cookies to the garden room and are laughing over obstetric intimacies Sam has no wish to explore.
"Thanks," Kunal says, dryly. "Wrong girl."
Passing the popcorn, Sam is smiling.
Jamie brings her own car and drives home alone.
Next Saturday, she comes back with home made chocolate cake. Neha is noticeably pregnant. Sam is beginning to feel he will recognise half the inhabitants of Mumbai by face - or at least the half of Mumbai's inhabitants concerned with the film industry, but Kunal has bought a second cable for his laptop that lives in the TV room and means he works from home more often than not. When they don't talk, he and Kunal, they get on very well indeed.
A week after her six month scans, Neha flies to Milan for ten days. She will see Venice, Florence, Verona: she takes two empty suitcases and a pair of Grace Kelly sunglasses. Veer goes to Aunty's. Sam and Kunal, together, drive her to the airport and wave her off.
"Dude," Kunal says, clicking his cell open. "Party time." Then he says, "You like models, yaar? You wanted introductions?"
By the time they get back to the house, the first cars have already arrived, and Kunal is standing on the front seat of the Cadillac waving his shirt in the air.
"I never thought you were gay," she says. She's very drunk. Her candy-pink lipstick has smeared, but she is so young the shape of it is endearing and the smudged eyeliner lends her charm. "Pass me that glass .."
"What's your name?" Sam asks. He's on his back, on the floor, looking up: her hair is Britney blonde, and his hand is free to play in the length of it without either of them really minding.
She rolls over on the sofa and looks down. "Who cares?"
Sam smiles. In Sam's life, his smile, this his conscious smile, white toothed and charming, has won him almost everything he has ever wanted. It works now. In her eyes there is a glimmer of recognition, attraction: the sweet curve of her breasts is pressed against Neha's sofa and must be uncomfortable, his bedroom is ten feet away ...
"Hey," he says gently, reaching up a hand to tuck some of that blonde hair behind her ears. She smiles. He lets the back of his hand graze her cheek. She closes her eyes. He -
"Dude, where's the tonic?"
It's not just the unexpected ice in the voice, sharp and altogether far too aware. It's the toes poking into his thigh.
"Kunal," Sam says, and rolls back on the carpet. He has to squint to look that far up. "Nice party."
"Yeah," Kunal says. He stands still, looking down. Sam allows time to pass, looking at Kunal. Then, abrupt, Sam's friend folds himself down to lie on the sofa where the girl - what girl? - has warmed the leather. "You're drunk," he says tolerantly.
Sam closes his eyes. The world is pleasantly blurred, and Kunal's hand in his hair is a comfort against the sound of strangers laughing.
When he wakes from sleep he is still on the floor but warm and comfortable, his arm crooked around someone else's heavy, sleeping weight. Fine and light over his forearm, someone else's hair brushes his skin. He has lost his shirt, for between them there is flesh and not cloth.
It is not the first time he has woken, not alone, but with no memory of whom he has seduced. Or been seduced by. He looks down.
Golden skin. An arm too muscled to be female, too heavy: the curve of shoulder rich with strength, the hair gel spiked but fine as angora.
Sam should move. He does not. Slowly, very slowly, he closes his eyes and bends his head. Kunal smells of sweat and beer and of apple shampoo and spice, the smell of home.
"You should look at his laptop," someone's voice says, from above him.
He looks up. The blonde has gone: it is Jamie who sits above him, her legs curled up on Neha's cushions and a thin cigarette in her hand.
"Matlab?" he says slowly, and then, "Meaning?"
"He has photographs of you," she says. "He has ..." She lets the smoke trail out of her nostrils, sensuous and slow, and glances down. "He has stopped sleeping with models."
"He is getting married," Sam says. The words .. he knows what he wants to say, but the words thicken in his mouth. "Arranged marriage."
Jamie raises an eyebrow.
"So?" she shrugs. "This is America." She smiles at him then, an oddly wry smile, and leaves.
It seems irrelevant. Yet here, on someone else's floor, in America, Sam closes his eyes, his hands on another man's skin. It is all too easy to slide into sleep again, like this.
Much later he wakes again in his own bed, in his own clothes, alone, and does not see his housemate again until Neha flies home and Kunal is there to greet her. She has three suitcases and a bag of duty-free tequila and chocolate: Kunal wires the laptop into the stereo and channels the BBC's Asian Network, but does not come within two feet of Sam all evening although he smiles as if they spent the week in each other's back pockets. It's not the first time Sam realises that Kunal lies when he smiles, but it's the first time it's hurt.
There are six weeks until the baby is born. Neha stops work and takes up residence in front of the DVD player with the telephone to hand. Sam perfects the art of the foot massage. Kunal starts collecting taxi firm numbers, in case Sam is at work when the baby decides to come. They have a birthing suite booked at a cost that could have paid for a wedding.
Kunal ... compromises. He works in the house most days, feet and laptop curled up on the sofa, DVD control ceded to Neha. He has entire conversations with Sam, conversations that start and end casually as if they really are friends, although both Sam and Kunal know that they are not.
Once or twice, they laugh.
Then the first letter from London arrives.
Recognising the stamps, Sam has his fingers on the seal by the time Kunal snatches it away.
"My post, dude." But Kunal is too distracted to be annoyed. The look on his face, that careful lack of expression, Sam recognises from the moments when Kunal wants least to be read.
He snatches it back. Thick, laid paper, Hampstead postmark. Heavy, but small. This Sam ascertains, ducking and weaving, on the run, Kunal not shouting behind him but silent. Kunal does not bother with 'give that back' or 'it's mine.' At the drive, Sam gets a thumb under the flap: by the rose bushes, a rip that half-opens the envelope. He had thought he would at least get as far as the beach, but Kunal tackles him on the lawn and they go down with a thud that would not disgrace a pair of college quarterbacks. Hands at full stretch above his head, Sam tears the thing open: as if his clothing were the chocks on a climbing wall, Kunal is scrambling over his body. Before Kunal gets a knee on his stomach and a grip on his forearm that means business, Sam glimpses a crest and printed words that he cannot read.
"Dude," he says in protest, muffled by Kunal's T-shirt.
"Sam." Kunal has a grip of the envelope and sits down, hard. Sam, winded, tries to curl up around the hurt of it but Kunal has both his wrists pinned under one hand. There's a glint in Kunal's narrowed eyes when he looks down. "Should work out more."
Sam gets his knees up and takes a breath that hurts less, although Kunal is no lightweight. Neither is he blonde nor female: his thighs are heavy against Sam's hips and the bones of his pelvis are uncomfortably sharp. "Tika. Your post."
In an orthodontic flash of white, Kunal uses his teeth to unfold the end of the letter. Reads it. Sam tries, once, to roll free, and nearly breaks his wrist in the process. There is a gym in the garage and perhaps he should consider a post-shift workout. Kunal's face reveals nothing but the determination to be unreadable: he has settled himself comfortably on Sam's stomach. Lying back, Sam rolls his eyes, and wiggles. Kunal's eyebrow quirks.
Today, Kunal's T-shirt is lime green and reads, 'I wasn't drunk. I was overserved.'
"Oh, darling," Sam says experimentally. Then, "Give it to me, big boy."
"Shut up," Kunal says.
Sam, arching under Kunal's weight, gives an exaggerated moan.
"If I wanted porn, there's prettier boys than you." Kunal says absently, then glances down. "Better hung, also."
Sam opens his mouth, says, "You ain't seen nothing - " and then his mind catches up with his mouth.
"Acha," Kunal says absently. He is reading, eyes narrowed and focused.
"So?" Sam asks. Eventually.
"So what is her name?"
"What does it matter to you?"
"Come on, dude. Name?"
"Too soon," Kunal says. He lets go of Sam's wrist and stands up, abrupt, his boots bracketing Sam's chest. Narrow hipped and broad shouldered, Kunal is too muscular to be lithe, but owns the supple promise of grace in the way he moves. Held still he can be breath-taking, as pretty as a model.
Sam blinks up. "Kunal?"
"Sam." When Kunal looks down, he is not smiling. "Sam, this is nothing to do with you."
"Matlab?" Sam stretches out and links his hands behind his head.
"That's all? Dude, am I or am I not your partner, your best friend? Did we not dance on the Lido in Venice? Who else can you tell?"
"Sam ..." Kunal is smiling, but it's a very wry smile, no more than one tucked in corner of his mouth. "We did not dance on the Lido."
Sam grins. Not something he would have done two weeks ago, but they are on good terms, now, he and Kunal. So good that they have been known to touch accidentally in the kitchen and not spring apart and make each other coffee without pretending that they do not know how much milk and sugar the other takes.
Expressing frustration, Kunal's hands arch and straighten. "Tika." He moves, sits down on the grass, shakes his head. "My brother .. it is my brother Nicholas who is arranging this marriage. He is a businessman." Kunal's hands curl over his knees. "All business, no?" Cut sideways, Kunal's eyes are narrowed so far that only the black of his pupils shows between the emphatic line of his eyelashes. "Shaadi ... it's business." Kunal shrugs. "It worked for him."
Sitting up, Sam does not take his eyes from Kunal's face. "And for you?"
Kunal looks away.
" ... so jaa main balihaari ... so jaa, so jaa ... hmm?"
"Neha, what did your family say, when you married Abhimanyu? Did they want you to have an arranged marriage?"
Neha laughs. "My aunties were horrified. The divorce? But then they met Veer ..." She smiles. "After that everything was fine."
"But did they ever ..?"
"I said no when I was very young. If I'd asked, maybe ... But I wanted to do everything myself. Get a job, get a career, get a husband ..."
"Did you ever ... ?"
"Before you two? Even I had begun to think about asking. But then there was you, both of you. And then Abhimanyu." Neha smiles, then, shrugs. "Then there was Abhimanyu." Her hand drops to the swell of her belly and the baby within it, and for a second her eyes close. It takes a moment before she asks, "Sam?"
"Not me," Sam says. He picks up the magazine lying on the sofa and glances down at pictures of soft focus pink-skinned babies. It's not his story to tell.
Sam knows more, now, about the Asian marriage market than he ever wished to know. All Indians marry (or at least, all Indians that Sam's Mother knows and mentions, at length, marry); it is a duty, like making money or having children - but Sam had been a romantic. Sam had thought that one day he would walk into a room; onto a balcony; sit down in a train, a plane; cross a river and look down at a temple courtyard or hire a motorbike and in some secluded valley in Kashmir - she would be there. In his dreams, she had worn a sari, and occasionally there were mustard fields, although Sam has never in real life seen a mustard in bloom or out of it. What he had not considered were the hopeful, sad, aspirational profiles on websites that mixed the commercial and the sentimental without any sense of irony, the airbrushed photographs of smiles and saris and moustaches. Sam, who had considered marriage - sometime in the future, something, undefined, that would make his mother happy - has come to dislike the whole business with an antipathy startling in its strength. He keeps searching.
By the time the second letter arrives, Sam could have written a profile in ten minutes and understands two dozen acronyms for phrases that he had never considered would be worth abbreviating. He has a good idea of the going rate for a college-educated English speaking virgin from Delhi and a divorced MD living in Leicester with two children and an equity problem. None of this has he mentioned to his mother. What he has not found online is anyone who could possibly resemble an itinerant photographer from Miami with expensive tastes in motorbikes and family in London.
Nor does he have a plan.
By the time the third letter arrives, Sam is thinking about little but Neha's baby - her due date is imminent and Abhimanyu has two cell phones and an open flight ticket - and Kunal's wedding.
Sam has never considered himself a traditional Indian. A second generation British immigrant, he grew up in the home of punk rock and constitutional monarchy. His friends are Indian, Bangladeshi, English, Jamaican, American, Italian: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, agnostic. Somehow, even knowing Kunal was born in India and not the European West, Sam had thought this friend so similar to himself in humour and inclination that their values and ethics must also be the same.In his objection to Kunal's marriage, his arranged marriage, Sam would like to see an impartial denial of the choices of a western-born Asian. But this is not true.
For Sam, Kunal's marriage is a personal punch to the gut he cannot explain.
When, two weeks later, the fourth letter arrives he tries.
It is early in the evening. Neha is asleep. Kunal is working in his room, ipod on speakers, laptop open on his bed and himself sprawled behind it.
The door is open, but Sam knocks. Peering over the laptop, Kunal raises an eyebrow, which is greeting enough to allow Sam entry, There are no chairs in Kunal's room. Sam sits instead on the edge of the bed.
"Dude?" Kunal says.
"Yes," Kunal says, short.
"You are really doing this?" Sam asks.
Kunal shrugs and looks down. "Sam ... "
"In what way," Sam asks, "will this make you happy?"
Slammed shut, the laptop sounds a single anguished beep.
"Are you my mother?" Kunal asks. Across the angle of his cheekbones an edge of blood bourne anger blooms red. "My brother? What business is this of yours, Sameer Acharya?"
"You are not happy," Sam says. He forgets his arguments, his careful, reasonable discussion. He remembers the hunch of Kunal's shoulders and the tension in Kunal's spine.
Turned away, his friend's profile is all angles, stubble and hair, unreadable.
"Fuck," Sam says. "What is is? Duty? Honour?"
Kunal says nothing.
"Do you remember," Sam says, "When you said to Neha and I, when we were friends, 'I'm happy, and my life is truly perfect, because I have the two of you in it'?"
Then Kunal does turn his head, although he does not look up.
"I am still your friend," Sam says. "And I am telling you that this is a sin."
"Really," Kunal says.
"Sam ...Sameer. If you do not let me do this it would be a greater sin than you can possibly imagine. Let it be." Kunal's voice sounds weary.
"Really," Sam says. "Paid the bride price already, have you? Or is it your unborn sons you are thinking of? Your brother's honour? What did you promise, Kunal?'
"Let it go," Kunal says.
"Why?" Sam asks. His hand is on Kunal' wrist, pressed into the bedspread, his fingers so tight the skin has whitened under his grasp. He is furious.
And then, finally, Kunal does look at him. "Sam. Are you stupid? Are you really that stupid?" Starkly lined by his eyelashes, Kunal's eyes are so narrowed all Sam can see is the black of his pupils. "Sam. I don't want a bride. I want you."
Sam can feel his mouth shape the word, but it takes him two attempts, clearing his throat, to say.
"In a gay way," Kunal clarifies.
"What?" Sam says again.
Kunal says, "Dude, it was me that kissed you."
"But you are not gay," Sam says, stupid with shock.
Under his thighs, Kunal's bed is warm and soft. Outside the window, a bird is singing in the evening sunlight. Neha's bedroom door brushes against carpet, opening. None of these things are as vivid as the colour of Kunal's eyes.
"No?" Kunal says. His wrist twists in Sam's grasp, and suddenly it is Kunal who is holding Sam's hand. His fingers are gentle.
There is the sound of someone speaking, but neither of them move.
"You are supposed to run away," Kunal says softly.
"Sam?" It is Neha's voice from the passageway.
"Do you understand?" Kunal asks. "I want to sleep with you."
"Sam," Neha calls.
"In a moment," Sam says. He cannot look away from Kunal's face, the wry line of his lips, the taut beauty of his cheekbones and the challenge in his eyes.
"In a moment!"
"You gonna hit me now?" Kunal says, softly.
Sam shakes his head. He does not feel - he is not surprised, and is faintly surprised by his own lack of surprise. He is not disgusted. He is - he is "Dude," Sam says, as if he expects Kunal to make a joke of it, to step back, to retreat into sarcasm.
Kunal says nothing.
He has never before considered what sex means, between men. Camp, he knows intimately. Love he can guess at. Sex is a different animal, a flush of heat up his spine and a black-and-white succession of images that start with Kunal shirtless and end with Kunal's mouth, strong and heated, on his cock, which is -
Which is possibly the hottest thought Sam has had for years. He can feel his eyes widen, the flush of heat on his face, and he can see that Kunal -
"Sam?" Kunal says, very softly.
"Sam." Neha's voice, very close, and with a tone to it Sam has never heard before. He turns round.
"Sam, the baby is coming," Neha says, from the doorway.
"Oh shit," Sam says, and runs for his car keys.
He forgets his cell, and asks Neha if she has her suitcase despite the fact that she has it by her feet, and Kunal has to say, "Dude, shoes." His hands are shaking. They are half way there before he remembers the paperwork and has turned round to go and get it before Kunal thrusts it under his nose.
"Sorry," Sam says, and does an illegal U-turn that sends three Hondas and a Lexus scattering between lanes. "Fuck, fuck .."
"Relax," Neha says. "Nothing will happen yet. It will take hours."
"Neha, I'm a nurse," Sam says, spinning the wheel and running two red lights. "It could be minutes. It could be in the back seat of the car. Kunal - "
"Sameer, the contractions are every fifteen minutes. And you're a support care nurse."
"Have you rung the hospital yet?"
"Tika. Also I rang the airline, and I left a message at the desk for Abhimanyu, and I booked him a car, and I explained to all these people why it is so important that Abhimanyu gets to the hospital on time." Kunal's voice is softer. "He will get here," he says to Neha. "Sam, you heard me - "
"I know," Sam says, and very nearly turns into the hospital car park on two wheels and not four.
There are three nurses and a wheelchair waiting for them, and a lift to reception where Neha gets whisked away and Sam and Kunal get to answer many questions they have already answered and have to say yet again that no, it is not Sam's baby nor Kunal's baby nor - and it is Kunal who shudders - does it belong to both of them. At the same time Sam now cannot forget the strength of Kunal's hands and the hard curves of his forearms and the heat of his skin, the sheer weight of his cock pressed against his loose trousers. Kunal had been hard, talking to Sam, so hard that it had been impossible not to notice and Sam himself - Sam had not been unmoved. So that sex, of necessity for Sam in the past involving the inevitable getting of babies or rather the avoidance of the inevitable getting of babies, has suddenly become something other and strange and immediate. Entirely divorced from procreation.
"I can't - "
"Are we done here?" Kunal asks. "Yes? Good. Sam, this way."
"Which - "
But Kunal is already moving, one hand on Sam's shoulder tugging him along. "Challo. This way."
"Where is your head, dude? The nurse said room 141, two floors up, left at the top. Come on."
He half expects to come into the room to find it full of green-robed doctors and a squalling infant, but Neha is sitting up comfortably in bed with the television remote and a glass of iced tea.
"Where is the doctor?" Sam says, skidding to a halt.
Neha looks up and smiles, shaking her head. "It'll be hours yet, Sam. Sit down,"
He does try. But agitation forces him to his feet within a minute, and even Neha's serenity cannot calm him down. He goes to pace the corridor while Kunal and Neha play cards, kicks the vending machine into producing two cans of Pepsi cola and a handful of chocolate bars and later coffee. Neha's contractions speed up, so there are moments when she holds Kunal's hands, closes her eyes, and the sweat breaks out on her forehead. She is a brave woman, Neha. The nurses come and go with ice, monitoring equipment, offering pain relief to which Neha shakes her head.
Kunal breaths with Neha, when it hurts.
The airline calls to say that Abhimanyu has landed.
Neha's contractions are four minutes apart and suddenly the doctor arrives, brisk and smiling. Throws them both out of the room for the examination, so that Kunal stares at the noticeboard (Breastfeeding support group, Tuesdays at four) whilst Sam walks up and down in choppy ten pace increments. Fifteen minutes since the airline called. Two more nurses bustle pass and vanish into Neha's room.
Kunal says, back to the wall and eyes slitted, "I did not want you to know."
Sam takes a deep breath and says, "Too late." Then "If you're gay, dude, why are you getting married?"
"I'm not gay," Kunal says. "You know this."
"Really. So. It's just me you want to - "
"Leave it, Sam," Kunal says. He's closed his eyes.
Sam walks to the end of the corridor and back again. Leaning against the wall, Kunal is as limber as a teenager on a Mumbai street corner, the long line of his legs an elegant stretch to the cant of his hips and the breadth of his shoulders under the leather jacket. The hospital lights are harsh on the skin of his face and hands, throwing the veins over his knuckles into sharp relief and darkening the shadows under his eyes.
Sam stops in front of him. Puts one hand on the wall by Kunal's face and leans his weight against it. He can feel the heat of Kunal's skin, and the smell of him - leather, oil, shampoo - is so close he can almost taste it.
"Suppose I don't want to?" Sam says softly.
Kunal's eyes widen as fast as if he has been struck. His mouth opens, soft as a girl's. Sam could lean his weight in three more inches and kiss him. In Kunal's eyes, he can see the same realisation.
"Neha Singh?" someone calls. They both spin round. It is the doctor, standing in the doorway of Neha's room and beckoning.
"Which of you is the father?" she asks. Behind her, Sam can hear Neha's voice, panting, with an edge to it there has not been before.
"Only the father
can come in now," the doctor says urgently, eyes moving between them.
"Which of you-"
Neha's baby is born at ten sixteen in the evening. Eight pounds nine ounces, she has a shock of fine black hair, blue eyes - "they will fade," says the nurse - and an utterly beguiling smile. Sleepy, she curls her hand around Abhimanyu's finger: her entire hand is no wider than his thumb, and perfect. Her name is Rohinda.
It is midnight by the time Sam and Kunal drive home, but neither of them are tired. They have the radio on: Kunal is singing, out of tune and loudly: Sam, circumspect, is beating his fingers on the steering wheel. Both of them are smiling.
"Champagne," Kunal says, suddenly, and they stop at a late night liquor store and drop a hundred dollars on two chilled bottles for the back seat. The cashier is so bemused they have to explain, and then crack open a bottle at the counter and have to buy another. By the time they get home the moon is not rising but setting and even the frogs have gone to sleep.
"Challo," Kunal says, both wrapped bottles in his arms, so it is Sam who finds the glasses and cranks up the stereo. "I'm working tomorrow," he warns, but Kunal opens up his laptop and gets Sam to e-mail a friend who owes him a shift and is also on-line.
So Kunal says, smiling, "Cheers," and loads up the photographs.
"Look at Neha's face."
"Look at Abhimanyu's."
"Dude, you look scared. She's only a baby."
There is one photograph where she could almost be smiling, in Abhimanyu's arms. Veer is leaning over his father's shoulder, grinning down at the baby.
Two glasses of champagne down, Sam breaths in. "This will be you," he says deliberately, and Kunal's hands freeze on the keyboard. Bracing, his shoulders stiffen and his head drops, hair falling forward to hide his eyes.
"Way to break the mood," he says, muffled.
Now, Sam's hands have nowhere to be. "But - "
"You think I want to get married?" Kunal says, harsh. "You think this is easy?"
"You think that isn't what I meant?" Sam says. He is thinking of Kunal's hands on his skin, and the expression on his face when they stood together in front of his mother.
"I have no choice," Kunal says. "I can't - "
His voice sounds so defeated that Sam has to reach out, but Kunal jerks away from his hand. "Don't."
"You could say no," Sam says.
"You don't understand," Kunal says. He turns round, looks directly at Sam, unflinching. "I cannot say no to my brother. And if it isn't this one .."
So it was photographs in the envelope, Sam thinks.
"Have you talked to him?" Sam asks.
Kunal laughs. It's not, short and barked, a laugh Sam recognises.
"What if I talked to him?" Sam tries. He shrugs. "Concerned friend, yaar? Illness, madness ..."
"Dude, if you can get me out of this I'd marry you myself," Kunal says.
"Acha," Sam says, as Kunal looks up and sees the expression on his face.
"No. No, Dude. No."
But Sam is still smiling. He does reach out a hand, then, and allows his fingers to curve around Kunal's face, the stubble under his touch three days old and softening. Under his thumb, silk soft, Kunal's mouth. Sam drags his thumb across Kunal's lips, the skin yielding under pressure, white under and reddening after. "Is it a deal?" he says.
"You're mad," Kunal says. "You're drunk."
But he does not move away. It is Sam who draws back his hand. "Drink on it?" he says, and smiles, and reaches for the champagne.
"I don't want to talk about this ever again," Kunal says. "You hear me, Sameer?"
But he drinks.
Neha comes home, but no-one, even Abhimanyu, says anything about moving out. Sameer learns to change nappies. Kunal sits at the latop with Rohinda in the crook of his arm.
Then the fifth letter arrives.
And Kunal is gone.
Miami airport, October 14th 2009.
In silence, Kunal lets his wrist slide from Sam's fingers and follows through the gates and onto the plane. The check-in girl has seated them together: Sam, so irritatingly serene that Kunal could slap him, reads.
Kunal feels empty and light-headed: he has said in public every dark thought he has had and Sam is still smiling. Is still beside him. The words have washed over and through both of them.
Kunal thinks, he cannot have understood what I meant. But when he replays the conversation, there is no doubt. It is himself who does not understand.
He can find nothing else to say. Instead he pretends to sleep. Then he does sleep, really sleeps, so that when he wakes up it is morning and the plane already descending: he is warm and comfortable, with his head pillowed on Sam's shoulder and two blankets tucked over the pair of them. It feels both right and comfortable.
Kunal thinks, I am getting married in ten days.
Sam is still asleep. Uncurling himself carefully, very carefully, Kunal folds back the blanket. Across the seat backs, one of the stewards gives him a meaningful smile.
Kunal drops his head in his hands. He is thirty two years old. He really is, finally, getting married. He wants to fuck his best friend, and half the world knows it.
He might be going slightly mad.
Beside him Sam gives a disappointed grunt. "Kunal -" Sam's body is curved as if in sleep he had been cradling Kunal's weight.
"Coffee?" Kunal asks. "The steward is here."
The chill of a London river fog winds its way through the airport terminal in unexpected, cold eddies. Kunal is shivering. Sam seems impervious. He finds a trolley for their luggage, which means that when Kunal finds both the driver and the black limousine he knew his brother would have sent it would have been utterly impolite not to offer Sam a lift to his mother's house. They drive in silence, the car's engine so expensively silenced it is little more than a vibration on the skin.
Sam's family house is a small villa in Fulham. It has a driveway, empty, onto which Kunal and the driver stack Sam's luggage.
"Well," Kunal says, when they are done.
Sam is smiling again, a tired, wry smile. "Don't worry, Dude," he says. "I'll see you later." He does not offer touch in farewell and Kunal does not ask.
He had thought he could, but at the last moment Kunal cannot leave without a farewell glance. He turns, and through the rear window can see Sam's tall figure standing still and dark against the green of his mother's garden, watching him leave.
Kunal should not have looked back.
Standing on the driveway Sam watches Kunal's limousine round the junction. He is tired: he'd slept badly on the plane, waking and dozing, Kunal's weight on his shoulder a promise that could not be fulfilled. When he bends to pick up his suitcases, his back aches, but when he looks up his mother is standing in the doorway waiting for him to acknowledge her welcome puja.
When he was small, Sam's mother had been the sum of his world. Now, hugged, she feels light in his arms and her head comes up only to his breastbone, but she still smells of the spices of his childhood and she still uses the same scented oil on her hair. Her hands are as strong as his own.
"Ma," Sam says.
His mother looks up. "What is it?" she asks.
Sam says, "I have something to tell you."
It takes three hours.
After the tears are done, Sam's mother makes them both green tea for clarity of thought, and fetches her telephone book, and a pad of paper, and two sharpened pencils. Sam's mother could have won wars, if someone had asked her. Sam's mother has connections through all of London.
Kunal has no family waiting for him. The limousine delivers him to the door of his brother's townhouse, and it is his brother's doorman who carries the luggage up to the suite that will be his for the next ten days. The house is strange to him and he has to ask where the kitchen is, to be told to ask for the maid. Does he want someone to unpack for him?
"No," Kunal says. "Thank you." He wonders if he should tip as he would in a hotel, but his brother's doorman leaves before money can be offered. Coffee would have been welcome, but Kunal unpacks instead, smoothing out his T-shirts and jeans into gold-handled drawers and a closet the size of his own bedroom. The rails are half-full already with wedding clothes, white and heavily embroidered. Kunal does not need to try them on to know they will fit perfectly.
Lunch is served for him in the dining room. He eats alone, and then wanders through the rooms of his brother's house. Each is perfectly decorated, formal, pristine. Even the garden lawns are so close cut they could be plastic and the roses grow in lines clipped straight.
In the evening, his brother comes back from the office.
When Kunal's parents died he had been young enough to still have an nurse. Nicholas had been an adult, already president of one of the Chauhan family companies, thrust perforce into his father's role. Even if either of them had wished - and they did not, both of them alone in grief - Nicholas' was not a lifestyle with place in it for a small child. Kunal went to boarding school, at first in India and then under protest in England. Holidays were spent with the parents of friends. When he went to university they met, he and Nicholas, for occasional lunches in formal dining rooms where Nicholas' three piece suits outweighed the colour of his skin and Kunal's frayed jeans earned an icy politeness from waiters. After Kunal dropped out they were seldom on the same continent. He had gone to his brother's wedding, but struggled to remember the face of his brother's wife. Mona. Mona, and the children were ... Emily. And Andrew.
He had been expecting the sound of tyres. When the front door opened, he was waiting in the hall.
"Good, you've made it," Nicholas says. His suit this time is grey, cut with the expensive simplicity of a bespoke tailor. He carries a briefcase. "Flight ok?"
"Yes," Kunal says.
"Come into the study, " Nicholas says, and then, "Tea, please," to the manservant. "There is much to do. You could have come earlier."
"A friend was having a baby," Kunal says. He takes the chair facing Nicholas across the desk.
"You had to be in the delivery room?" Nicholas snorts, a disbelieving amusement.
"Outside," Kunal says quietly, crisp enough for Nicholas to look up. Like his father's, like Kunal's, Nicholas' eyes are sharp and bright.
"No," Kunal says.
"Good," Nicholas says. There is no emotion in the word. It is a business to Nicholas, family. Children. Alliances, mergers, assets. Now, practised, he snaps the briefcase open. In it, on top, a manila folder: Nicholas does not pass it across but instead hands over the papers one by one.
"Your bride's family. This is her father Lalel, her mother Rebecca. They are strongly established here in London, and he has business interests also in Dubai. They are devout," Nicholas says, and his eyes hold Kunal's for a moment. "Here are the company accounts. I want these back," Nicholas says.
"The wedding will be on the 24th . The family have hired a small hotel in Kensington, well known for these things. The invitations have been sent. Kunal, don't worry about anything to do with the wedding, Lalel and I have arranged it all. I have a schedule for you here. Please note-" and here Nicholas glances at Kunal's T shirt, which says 'Chill' in large letters, black on pale pink, "-I've had it matched with suitable clothes for each occasion. Did you look in the wardrobe?"
"Yes," Kunal says. And then, feeling it is expected, "Thank you."
"It's nothing," Nicholas says. "It is for the family." He pauses. "There are more details here. People you should know who are coming to the wedding. Business interests it is safe to discuss. Lalel will expect you to be at least a little familiar with how we - the company - is doing."
"Lalal and Rebecca will be here for dinner, tomorrow." Nicholas says. He does not look down: he holds Kunal's eyes, and his face is the face of Kunal's big brother, the face he remembers from the interview with the bursar at Charterhouse, the same face Kunal saw over five excruciating dinners in restaurants populated by Home Counties parents and students in scarves. "Kunal - "
"I know what is expected, " Kunal says.
" Good," Nicholas says, thoughtfully, and then he adds: "Have you any questions?" Nicholas asks. Now, he is looking at the paperwork, not Kunal.
Kunal smiles, small, ironic, although the one man who would recognise the irony is six miles and several taboos away. "The bride?"
Then, at last, Nicholas does smile in return, shakes his head. "Kunal. I am sorry. Here." There is a photograph, a glossy still as carefully posed as a Bollywood star's publicity shot. A little over exposed for the colour of her sari. "And here," Nicholas says. " I have a list of -" he shrugs - "interests. She has a degree from Cambridge University, plant science. There is - I have arranged - if you look at the schedule, she is free for lunch on Thursday afternoon. There is a restaurant booked. She would be here tomorrow, but ... she is staying with her sister."
Kunal takes the photograph.She looks kind, his bride:her face is sill slightly rounded with youth, her hair glossy, her skin clear. Someone has made her up with care, and the cosmetics were not too heavy for her age.
The page with her interests he hands back to Nicholas. There are other papers in the folder Nicholas has not given him, pages with figures and company names. It is a company merger, his marriage. He had expected nothing less.
"What is her name?" he asks.
"Leila," Nicholas says. For a moment, he looks as if he might say something more and Kunal tilts his head in enquiry, but Nicholas does not know him well enough to read the question.
"I would rather find out what she likes for myself," Kunal says.
"Fine," says Nicholas. He tucks the paper that details Leila's life back into the folder.
"And I have a friend in London," Kunal says. "Sameer Acharya. He might come to the wedding."
" Invite whom you like. Your wedding," Nicholas says. And then, "Is he related to anyone we know?"
Kunal smiles. "No."
At night, lying in bed, he does not think of Sameer.
Jet-lagged, Kunal spends the day lying on his brother's sofa watching Australian soaps, making desultory replies to e-mails from America. It is only when Nicholas comes home that he forces himself to shower and shave, puts on a new suit that should fit perfectly and feels as if it has been cut two sizes too small. By the time he is dressed his brother's guests have arrived, and as he goes down the stairs he can hear voices from the dining room.
The front door is ten steps away.
In three months, he has not found any alternative plan. He thinks of Sam leaning against a wall in a hospital in Miami, his mouth three inches from Kunal's.
Kunal braces himself and opens the dining room door.
It could be worse. Lalal has the comfortable fleshiness of a successful businessman, and an avuncular sharpness that suggests he knows a little more about Kunal's past than Kunal is entirely comfortable with him knowing. Rebecca is softer, with the polished affability that suggests a long acquaintance with parties and dinners which are more about business than friendship. Nicholas and Lalal trade the compliments of a cautious alliance: Rebecca admires the food, the decor, and the location. Over dinner, Lalal and Nicholas discuss the hotel, the catering arrangements, the invitations. Neither of them mention cost.
Rebecca eats. Shuffling food round his plate, Kunal says very little.
"Please don't mind my brother," Nicholas says. "He's a little jet-lagged."
Kunal smiles weakly.
Coffee arrives before the table is entirely covered with estimates and invoices. Rebecca asks Kunal if he has any preference for flowers. Nicholas' secretary arrives with a cordless telephone and whispers in Nicholas' ear.
"Lalal and I had a traditional wedding," Rebecca says. "But you are younger?"
"Anything you want," Kunal says. Nicholas' secretary is coming towards him with the phone.
"Roses? Marigolds?" Rebecca frowns.
"Telephone call for you, sir," The man's voice is quietly deferential, and the telephone held out to Kunal is balanced on a polished tray.
"Thank you," Kunal says. He picks the receiver from the tray.
"Who is it?"
Sam says, "Dude."
Kunal shuts his eyes. Sam's voice is as tired as his own, and so very welcome.
"If you are as jet-lagged as I am, you haven't been out either. How are you doing?"
"Nasturtiums?" Rebecca says to herself.
"I am at dinner," Kunal says carefully. Nicholas is frowning at him.
He can hear Sam's tired amusement in his voice. "In-laws? No wasting time? Full-on wedding party, then?"
"Twenty fourth," Kunal says, "Wedding."
"Where's my invitation?"
"Tomorrow," Kunal says, unthinking. "Come and get it."
"You're out tomorrow," Sam says. "You're meeting Leila for dinner."
"Kunal," Nicholas says. "Can you ask your caller to telephone tomorrow? This is family time." Humourless, he smiles at Lalal.
Kunal says, "This is my friend. He flew all the way from America to come to the wedding."
"I flew all the way from America to ruin your wedding," Sam mutters in Kunal's ear.
Rebecca says, "What do you think about flowers on the tables?"
"Yes, I can see you tomorrow," Kunal says quickly.
Sam's voice says, "Know what her name is yet?"
"Kunal!" Nicholas, not happy.
"There was all that trouble with the Malhotra's cousin's asthma .. "
"Goodnight Sam," Kunal says, although Sam is still speaking as he turns the phone off.
After Lalal and Rebecca have gone, Nicholas suggests that he might ask his friends not to call in family time.
Kunal does not say, 'my friends are my family.'
The restaurant Nicholas has had booked for Kunal's first meeting with Leila is both discrete and expensive. When Kunal arrives he is expected and the table is secluded, on a balcony that overlooks the tiny dancefloor. The music is almost subliminal and the coffee excellent. The menu is offered. Alone and apprehensive, Kunal watches elegant men in black set up the DJ's equipment and sips his coffee.
When Leila arrives it is with a chain of attentive waiters. Kunal, awkward, smiling, stands: other men pull out Leila's chair, take her coat, provide her with napkins and water and promise to come back in a few minutes with the menu. As she should be, Leila is charmingly flustered.
As herself, Leila is prettier than her photograph. She is the kind of woman whose curves are saved from heaviness by youth, her hips rounded, her breasts taut and heavy, her waist narrow. She wears a blouse that covers her arms but shows half an inch of cleavage, and a pencil skirt her mother must have approved. There are diamond studs in her ears which probably cost as much as one of Kunal's cameras.
She is not wearing make-up. Kunal finds that interesting.
"Hello," Kunal says, ridiculously. "You're Leila. I'm Kunal."
Leila says. When she smiles, Leila looks down.
She is a stranger to him, this woman. More important already than the casual, smiling models of his past. Not quite yet his future, which ... But it was not Sameer opposite him. Could never be Sameer.
Over the menu, Kunal discusses restaurants in Cambridge. Over appetisers, films: over salad, photography: over dessert, her family. Leila smiles, and agrees with him, and smiles some more. By coffee, she can look him in the eyes while she smiles. Kunal counts it a victory. She has not asked him a single question.
Outside evening has darkened the windows and turned the fairy lights in the manicured orange trees on the patio to gold. The restaurant becomes crowded, couples and families eating early and the theatre crowd in furs and pearls sending waiters gliding between tables. Behind the decks the DJ spins the kind of music that Indian restaurants all over the world play.
The dessert plates have been cleared, and there is coffee and petit fours on the table. Kunal lets the music fill the space between them. Filmi music, romantic, elaborate.
Leila unwraps one of the restaurant's excellent chocolates. She does not eat it, but instead smoothes out and then folds the wrapper, flattening each edge with manicured fingers.
"Do you want to get married?" Kunal asks. His voice is as casual as it had been when he had asked her about her favourite films.
Quietening, Leila's fingers are slender and pretty.
"After marriage..." Leila says, "After marriage ..." She hesitates.
Kunal smiles. He leans back in his chair, smiling.
"I am the last of my family to marry," Leila says. She glances up: her eyelashes are long. "There is a course ..."
"Umm?" Kunal asks.
"Have you ever been to the aquarium in Miami?" Leila says.
Kunal blinks. "No."
"There is a course the university does. In oceanography. I have always loved the sea," Leila says. "And if I was married ... if I was in Miami ... do you want children?" She asks.
"I've never thought about it," Kunal says, lying, for despite Rohinda's beauty he neither wants nor likes children. Compromise.
"So ... you would not want children ... right away?" Leila asks. She blushes.
"No," Kunal says. And then he says, as he should, "I can enquire about your course."
"I can work as well," Leila says.
"There is no need." Even Nicholas - especially Nicholas - does not know how just how much Kunal earns nor where his investments lie.
"Thank you," Leila says.
Kunal says, "You did not answer my question."
Tearing, the chocolate wrapper catches candlelight and throws it splintered across the white linen of the tablecloth. There is, between songs, silence. Someone who is not a waiter has come up the stairs and is walking towards them.
To Kunal the relief is a a gift of water at the height of the sun.
"Leila," he says. "Leila, I want you to meet someone."
He stands. Leila fumbles with her napkin before she looks round.
"This is Sameer," Kunal says.
Sam is already smiling. Kunal's smile can be cold. Sam's is generous. People smile back at him without thought: Leila's face has already lightened.
"And you're Leila," Sam says. His eyes are not for Kunal, not yet. "You're going to marry my best friend," Sam says, and opens his arms. "I think we should hug."
And Leila falls into his arms as if they have known each other for years.
Behind her back, meeting Sam's frown - 'what have you done to her?' Sam's eyes ask - Kunal throws up his hands. He shakes his head. Sam scowls, and his hand curves momentarily around Leila's hair as if she was a child in need of comforting.
"He didn't say you were beautiful," Sam says, and Leila blushes again. Her eyes are smiling.
Badly, Kunal wants to say, "I didn't do anything."
"And clever too, no?" Sam says. "Marine Biology? Has Kunal told you about the aquarium in Miami?"
Kunal closes his eyes.
"I came to pick up my invitation." Sam says, "But, Dude, you weren't doing too well. I thought I'd give you the benefit of my experience." He is leaning back, balancing his chair on two legs: taunting, he has an overwide smile and a cool glass of beer where Kunal has nothing but a vicious ache to his forehead and the dregs of a cold cup of coffee.
"How did you know?" he asks. He is is no longer as tired as he was last night, when Sam called.
Sam shrugs. "None of your business."
"But this is my business, ne?"
"Ah, so?" Sam says, and his grimace might just be Sam's best Jackie Chan impression on a bad day. Then he leans forward. "You really want to get married, Kunal?" His eyes are wide, but not soft. "Think carefully," Sam says, and leans back. Leila is coming back to the table.
The music is louder. Couples are dancing now. Sam talks about Neha, and Neha's baby. Leila talks about her sisters. Kunal nurses his empty coffee cup. It is night, the patio behind them is floodlit, and there is a couple dancing together. He could ask Leila to dance, but it is intimate, the act of dancing, and in any case not something he wants to risk in front of Sam. He shakes his head to Sam's crooked, hinting eyebrow, and frowns at his grimace.
'Idiot.' Sam's eyebrows say. And then, at last, "We should go," he says. "Kunal?"
"What?" Kunal says. Dance with her? Talk to her? Kiss her? What?
Sam, himself, says to Leila, "Will you introduce me to your sisters, then?"
Blushing again, Leila glances down, over the railings to the dance floor. " How did you know?"
"Who would not want to be with you tonight? Kunal, come."
So that there are more introductions, and smiles, and small conversations, and finally - finally - a taxi, saris and sandals and perfumed hair piling into it, and Kunal can walk away.
He is angry. Suddenly and absolutely, angry, a meaningless frustrated rage that encompasses his family and his wedding and his friends ... Kunal walks. He is not sure where he is going, but the sound of his footsteps on the pavement -
"Slow up, dude."
- are the counterpoint to the beat of his heart and the rage he has to - must -
"What's wrong with you?"
- the sheer lack of control of it -
There are footsteps behind him, the sound of the tap of the heels of Sam's boots. He knows that sound.
"I can't talk about this right now," Kunal says. Then he stops, and turns round and says it again.
He's poised like a streetfighter, Sam, holding himself caught on the balls of his feet, and in the flicker of the neon street lights his face is stone carved at night, black, washed out, harsh. It was a mistake to turn round and see the effort it had cost Sameer, this evening. It had been a mistake to start looking at Sameer and wonder if Sameer was looking back. It should never have started, this ugly, wrong, attraction.
He should not be looking at Sam and seeing his own expression reflected back at him.
"Don't - " Kunal says.
But Sam does walk forward. And Kunal - for all Kunal's skin is alive with violence, itching, goosebumped, for all his heart thumps the blood through his veins - Kunal steps backward. Again. He puts his hands up, a barrier that proves utterly ineffective. Sam stops only when Kunal's back slams against breeze-block. As if the only reason Kunal's hands have for lying between them is to touch the silk of Sam's shirt and the warmth of his skin under it. As if the palm of his right hand belongs over Sam's heart.
When Sam slaps Kunal's face, he is almost gentle.
"Decide what you want," Sameer says, and then his mouth comes down hard on Kunal's.
This is not courting but war, and it is not a battle Kunal can win. Sam's hands are a personal invasion that force Kunal's face to the exact and desired angle. Hot and hard and alive, his tongue has rejected exploration and gone straight down Kunal's throat. In defence, Kunal has nothing left to offer. He is cracked open, falling under, subject to an unexpected and inescapable surrender. It is not for public consumption, Sam's kiss. Not film star pretty. It's hot, wet, awkward, muscled, strong-tasting: a declaration of intent written on, in, Kunal's mouth in a language he has just begun to suspect exists.
It is only when Sam allows them to break apart that Kunal can begin to encompass the degree of his surrender, the suppliant curve of his spine and the clench of his hands on Sam's shoulders. Every breath he takes - and by now he is panting, small shallow grasps at air scented with Gujurati cooking and heat - is shared. There will be bruises later on his throat, where Sam is holding him still.
It is only now, blinking, that he realises he has hardened in seconds, hardened faster and more powerfully than he can ever remember. He's dizzy with it.
As if ownership was already granted, Sameer does not let go.
"It is a sin," he says, "To marry and look elsewhere. If it's not me, " Sam says, " Who will it be in two years time, when you cannot bear the want of it alone?"
"I made a promise," Kunal says. Slowly. He can taste blood in his mouth, and the sharp sweet tang of another man's saliva. He could swear his lips are swollen.
"You made a promise also to me," Sameer says. Where in Miami his thumb had been gentle, smeared across Kunal's mouth, it is not now and his eyes are not friendly. Stripped out and splayed between them lies the truth of that first kiss, the promises Kunal made then and never spoke.
So sure of himself, so reckless, it had been then Kunal who had ripped desire from both of them.
"I made a promise to marry," Kunal says now.
Sam walks away
Kunal holds onto the wall for balance. In the morning, he will find his fingernails bloodied.
Now, because there is nothing else to do, he goes back to his brother's house. He cannot sleep.
Leila meets him for coffee, alone this time. "I like your friend Sameer," she says.
Kunal smiles. It hurts.
She likes India, baking, small sweet cakes and coffee. She does not go to the gym as often as she should, Leila. She has never ridden a motorbike and thinks she might be scared if she did. Her mother worried about her, living abroad, but she had cousins in Los Angeles and an uncle in Manhatten.
That evening Nicholas, over sushi, gives him a menu and a marked up and invoiced brochure from the wedding florists. There will be flowers on the tables. Someone has noted, "Check water in bowls. Spare inhaler.'
Sam calls that night.
"She writes stories about elves and posts them on the internet," he says without preamble. "She wanted to take her phd at Southampton but her mother wants her to get married instead. Her sisters also. She was living with one of them until you came back: she doesn't get on too well with her father. She's walked away from one engagement already. She says she should marry, but what she talks about is the graduate program at Miami. She's hoping you'll let her enrol."
Limbs spread, Kunal lets himself fall onto the bed. Only his hand is tensed, shaped around the receiver as if to hold Sam's voice to his skin alone.
"Join us tomorrow," he says.
"I want to see you."
"Yes," Sam says, on an indrawn breath Kunal can hear.
"I'm so sorry," Kunal says.
"Don't worry," Leila is smiling. "Sameer has been entertaining me" Her smile turns sly, entertaining: a glimpse at last of the woman he would like to know. "Did you really strip off for a charity auction, Kunal?"
And this is the last thing he expects. Leila should be his new life, not his old one. "Maybe."
"Invite fifteen models to the same party?"
He'd done far worse than that, but not to Sam's knowledge. "Maybe. Sam, did you have to tell her everything?"
"Did you really," Leila says, "Waltz with Sameer?"
He cannot help looking up. Across the table, Sam smiles, untrustworthy as a dacoit. "What else did he tell you?" Kunal asks.
For a moment, Sam looks at Kunal. "I told her a lot of stories," Sam says. And then he adds, "About when we were gay,"
It is Leila who gasps and puts her hand to her mouth, seconds later. Her eyes are round with shock, sliding between the pair of them.
There is a clean napkin on the table. Kunal looks at it. He should ... laugh. Say something casual.
No-one says anything.
Kunal picks up the napkin, and fastidiously cleans his fingers. He cannot look up. He does not want to see Leila's face.
But the silence is killing him. He looks up. Sam is watching him, steady, unashamed. "You fight a dirty war," Kunal says.
"I have something worth fighting for," Sam shrugs. And then, half ironic, "Isn't that what you wanted me to say?"
"Tum - " Leila manages.
"Here is the problem," Kunal says to Leila. He doesn't know it, but his face has sharpened, and his eyes are bright. It is the first time she has seen him look truly alive. "My best friend wants to sleep with me."
"So?" Sameer says. "My best friend wants to fuck me."
Both hands now are over Leila's mouth.
"I have told him I think for him to marry you would be a sin," Sam says. "I do not want to see you hurt. But - " he pause, looks at Kunal. "Sit down." There is a force to the words Sam seldom uses."But I think that this should not stop you doing your phd. Why should you be married to do this?"
Leila is looking at Kunal, wide eyed. She drops her hands, slowly, as if she had forgotten where they were.
"I promised my mother," she says. Her voice breaks on the words.
"He promised his brother," Sam says, and then, "Leila - "
Leila is crying. Her eyes are glistening: one tear gathers in the corner of each, swells and falls. They leave tracks on the perfect skin of her face. She hiccups, and wipes away another tear with the back of her hand. Cannot suppress a drawn-in gasp. Another tear. Another, and she drops her head in her hands. Breath shudders through her between sobs.
Confused and in need of help, Sam and Kunal, looking at each other, find nothing but a mutual confusion. Sam draws on a deceiving vacancy. Kunal, with no such recourse, can only shake his head. But it is he who reaches out a hand and lets it lie palm up on the table.
Leila, scrabbling, bats it away.
"Go," Sam says to him. "Go. Leave."
The flat of Kunal's hand slices down between them, denial.
"You. You go. I will deal with this." He knows Kunal's anger. As the stone walls of assumed incomprehension are his retreat, so anger is Kunal's.
"Call me later," Kunal says. He does not kick the chair as he leaves, nor slam the cafe door. When he walks away, he walks straightbacked and does not glance over his shoulder.
Sam sighs. His tea is cold. Behind the counter, the tearoom girls are discussing hairdressers. A young girl walks past the window: two plaits, nose in a book. Following her are three small boys with a football and a majestic woman in the brightly printed robes and headdress of Central Africa.
"You can look up now," Sam says to Leila, and does not dare to think what he will do if he is wrong.
When Leila looks up, her eyes are still bright. Her eyelids are a little swollen and pink and her mouth still strained at the corners. It was indeed not sorrow that had marked her face but hysterical laughter.
It was gone.
"Do you want ... a minute?" Sam asks. He glances at the restroom door, and there are clean tissues at Leila's elbow.
Composure took only a few minutes. Sam, left alone, contemplated the choreography of friendship.
When Leila slid back into her seat only the colour of her eyelids betrayed the tears. There was fresh coffee for her on the table: she wrapped her hands round the cup and looked at Sam, direct and unafraid.
"How did you know?"
Sam's smile was direct and affectionate. "My mother has been trying to marry me off since I grew my first moustache." He paused. "She knows everyone. Your mother also. I am surprised we were not led into the show ring for each other. "
"I moved to America to escape," Sam said. "I thought I was safe. And .." he shrugged. "I like America." His voice was dry. "Then I fell in love. Not what I planned."
"With Neha. It didn't work out." He smiled, wry: they had not mentioned this, he or Kunal, when they had talked about Neha and Abhimanyu and the baby. They had not talked about a lot of things.
Neha's photograph was in his wallet. He took it out, passed it across. There were others. "Kunal and I ... wanted rooms in the same apartment. Neha's aunt was letting it. Here. She has the fashion sense of a large marmot, but she cooks like an angel. Aunty didn't want men sharing with her neice. Kunal and I ... pretended to be gay. It's a long story." Sam looked away. Back. "Neha ... we both loved Neha. She was young, and beautiful, and bright. Very bright. We told you about Abhimanyu? Here they are, with their son Veer. Happy, no? And they have a daughter also. This is Rohinda. Isn't she lovely?" Sam is smiling now.
"And you? Kunal?"
"You think this is a love story?" Sam's hand waves the idea away.
Leila smiles. "My mother says, shaadi first. Then love."
"Maybe for your parents. And mine. But ... Leila, there is a reason I said what I did. Leila, what do you want?"
"I knew you would ask." Leila says.
"It's not necessary."
"No." But Leila makes herself another cup of coffee, milk, two teaspoons of sugar. Stirs it, taps the teaspoon on the cup and lies it down before she speaks.
"You are right." She looks up. "I promised to marry. I did not promise to marry Kunal. I don't believe .." A very small smile, this. "I don't believe I gave my parents a date when I would marry. But I do want ... I do want to do my phd. In Miami. I want their resources. Their teaching. Their library. I want to meet the people there, people interested in the same things as me. I want to be respected for what I have achieved, not because I am someone's wife. And," she smiles again - " I want my mother to be happy."
"You. You and Kunal. If you and Kunal were together, I had a way out. Temporary. But still ... "
"If you choose to go ahead, Kunal would support you," Sam says. "He is a good man, Leila. And otherwise ... stopping now ... engagements can be broken."
"If we married, you would still be lovers," Leila says. And when Sam shakes his head, she adds "I saw his face. Sam, if I must marry, I want someone who can bring all of himself to that marriage."
"What Kunal feels is not love." Sam says. Then he asks, "What would you say if I asked you to meet my mother?"
Kunal says, "OK." He puts the phone down and lies back on the bed. Like many of the rooms in his brother's house, it is white and gold: under his back the eiderdown is cold satin.The ceiling is elaborately corniced and carries a small chandelier, electric, lit. Prisms spark a cold clear light.
"Sam, you failed," Kunal says to the ceiling.
"Acha?" Sam says.
Kunal loses two pillows and gains a crook in his neck, sitting up. "How did you get here?"
Sam shrugs. "Knocked." He wears black, a high collared jacket, formal. The set of his mouth suggests that it has been a long time since he last smiled. "Did Leila phone?"
"Yes," Kunal says. Although Sam stands expressionless and unmoving, back to the door, for the first time in his life Kunal feels overexposed. He had been working out and his T-shirt is sweat-stained, his shorts old and worn thin. It takes courage not to reach for a pillow or pull up the eiderdown.
"Take the sunglasses off," he says. "It's night, dude."
There is something wrong with the tone of his words and Sam is not listening anyway. He is undoing his cuff links. Loose, they fall soundlessly to the carpet. Then he does take the sunglasses off.
"Dude, " Kunal says. "What are you doing? Come for your invitation?"
Under the heavy line of his eyebrows, Sam's eyes are intent. "Undressing," he says. "Necessary, eh?" His hands are on the buttons of his coat.
"Oh, no," Kunal says. "Dude. No."
Stabbing, Sam's forefinger indicates the bed, then Kunal. "You want to, you don't. You say yes, you say no.You promise marriage, you want me to break that promise for you. Kunal," Sam says. "I am making your mind up for you. The door is locked. Take your clothes off."
"Fuck you," Kunal says. "Fuck - " But Sam's raised eyebrows stop him mid-sentence. Now, he does reach for the concealing pillow.
Crumpling, Sam's coat falls to the floor. His shoes are heeled off. The buttons of his shirt open too quickly.
"No. I'm serious. Scared to finish what you started?" Sam asks.
"You're blaming me?" Kunal says, and swallows. Sam does not have a gym rat's identikit physique. He is a man who does a physical job for a living and keeps himself fit: under his shirt, his body is a warm gold, perfectly curved. His arms are muscled, the delicacy of his wrists hiding the strength of his forearms and the power of his shoulders. Sam, unclothing, reveals a body made for enduring strength and Kunal's mouth is dry.
"Stop," Kunal says. Then, "You don't want this."
Although he knows exactly what his own body wants, has known it since he looked up and Sam was there. Every nerve in his body had fired as one.
Sam was smiling. "Come over here and find out." For a moment, his hands still and his head tilts in challenge. But Kunal does not move and Sam lets his fingers work again. His jeans have a button fly. Kunal watches as, sure of themselves, Sam's fingers work the selvedges open. After the fourth button, Kunal can no longer hide the change in his breathing.
"You've flushed, " Sam says. His fingers hesitate: Kunal, heavy lidded, looks up. Tell-tale sign, the muscles of Sam's mouth have loosened. Kunal knows exactly how that lush flesh feels on his own skin, when he had not been alone in wanting.
"What do you want to prove, eh? Kunal asks. "Does it make me less of a man that I want you? Whose law am I breaking?"
your clothes off," Sam says. "Or I will take them off for you."
When he drags his T shirt off, he can hear the stitching split. The last pillow tumbles to the floor. His shorts are loose, but his hands are not steady. It takes both of his thumbs tucked in the waistband to strip himself bare.
He has a good body. He has a beautiful body. He knows. He built it. But for the first time he is uncertain if it is enough.
" OK," he says. "Show me."
Sam drops his trousers. He's hung. Gloriously flushed, thick, his cock rises from the dense black curls between his thighs to curve up towards his belly. The head of it is a deep rose-pink, and when he walks, his balls are heavy enough to sway in their sac.
" I won't play the girl for you," Kunal says. His voice has deepened and lowered: he barely recognises himself.
Sam raises an eyebrow. "Is that what you're thinking?" He is still smiling, but the smile has started to fade.
"No," Kunal says. Sam's hand is on his face and the tenderness of that touch is enough to make him forget the argument. He turns his mouth into the palm of Sam's hand, tasting salt, honey, rain. The mattress shifts beneath him. Everything he wants in this moment lies between his hands, there to be taken.
"Oh, Kunal," Sam says softly, arch and ironic, but his heartbeat is as fast as Kunal's own and his hands are shaking. Heart stopping, the relief is as strong as pain: at last, knowing he is wanted and unable in this moment to think anything else Kunal slides his skin against Sam's and feel desire flare as visceral as a kick to the stomach. Now he can let his mouth crash down open to the strong curve of Sam's shoulder, the strength of his neck and the softness of his mouth: can reach out and find Sam's cock erect in his hand, the head of it so perfectly cupped in his palm that each of them could have been made for the other. 0-60 in three seconds. He is suddenly so close to coming that, shuddering, he has to use the heel of his own hand on the base of his cock to stop. Sam groans. Deep, heartfelt, it makes Kunal laugh, half gasping, and Sam's retaliatory slap is not gentle. Nor are his hands, hard curving over, around, between them, cupping Kunal's body against his in urgent rhythm.
Skin to skin they fit, from the rasp of thighs strained against each other to their hands as they clasp, unclasp, fist. Kunal's heels drag at the eiderdown while Sam's hand kneads his chest, flattens itself over his ribs and fastens on his hips. They are kissing again, deep, open, an undirected connection that shares both shock and an astonished greed. It is Sam who comes first in helpless, thrusting spasms splattered blood-hot against Kunal's skin, and it is the feel of it, the thought - Sam with all control lost, blind with lust - that pushes Kunal over the edge harder and faster than he knew his body could travel. Coming, he can neither see nor hear. Only much later will he find the faded bitemark on Sam's shoulder that marks the moment when he comes this first time.
They are men. Afterwards, they lie apart, afraid to look at each other. Drying, Sam's seed on Kunal's belly itches and flakes, evidence that will take more than soap and water to wash clean.
For Kunal, it takes courage, to turn his head against the piled eiderdown and say, "Sam?"
When he tilts his head back, Sam has a patch of skin under his chin where the stubble is sparse. Next time - and when he thinks next time, there is a hollow ache somewhere in the pit of his stomach - Kunal wants to know the taste of it.
"Marry me," Sam says to the ceiling. There is a slow grin lurking at the corners of his mouth that Kunal cannot but echo.
"Dude. I'm fairly sure ... that's not possible."
Without looking, Sam reaches to the bedside table and gropes for Kunal's sleeping mask. Passes it across. "Some things should come as surprises," he says. "Birthday parties. First kisses. Sleep." His arm is heavy across Kunal's chest and their ankles tangle.
His body aches.Another first in a surfeit of them: the first time ever he has woken alone and wished he was not. He feels aimless and disconnected, has to force himself to get up and shower though he forgets to wear unripped jeans. He does manage a clean shirt and the onyx bangles from Kerala that are far more traditional than the neon bracelets of Miami. When Nicholas's doorman answers the buzzer, he is composed and prepared.
There is a woman's voice in the hall. It is not Leila, or Leila's family. It must be the woman who does the laundry, or the driver's wife, or a canvasser. But when the door opens, it is Sam's mother. Kunal stands. He cannot but reach to touch her feet, smiling, expecting the touch of her hands, but she does not reach to stop him. Instead her face is stern. Her sari is magnificent, pink silk and crystals, the sort of sari that is worn new and once only.
'Sam told her,' Kunal thinks, suddenly cold.
But whatever Sam's mother has been thinking, she has been thinking it for the last year. In Miami, a year and a half ago, before the first kiss, Sam's mother had blessed both of them together.
Behind her the doorman is carrying boxes.
"You are hurting my son," Sam's mother says, and it is not a question.
"I - "
"Do not lie to me. Do you think I don't know my own child?" Her eyes are contemptuous.
"Where are your bangles?"
"What?" Kunal asks, so thrown off balance that he has forgotten everything but the look of her eyes and the feel of her son's hands on his skin.
"Your bangles. The bangles I gave you." She slaps at his wrist. " Go and get them."
Dazed, Kunal does. Because, absurdly, he does still have them, the glass marriage bracelets Sam's mother had saved for her daughter-in-law and given to him in Miami. Wrapped in tissue paper and a T-shirt ('I'm not a size queen, but I can be impressed': it was a gift and he's never worn it) they have travelled with him in suitcases, rucksacks, bike panniers: through studio floors and other people's beds. He's never worn the bangles, either.
In the mirror on the dressing table, Kunal's face is pale and his eyes bright. He is beginning to wonder if everything he had ever believed about his life was true. He will not give these back.
"Put them on, " Sam's mother says. "There is little enough time anyway. Sit down."
The sofas are low and soft, and the words accompanied by a stabbing fingertip. Kunal feels that moving would not be one of his better ideas.
"Do not let it be said that the Acharya family does not know their duty," Sam's mother says. "Here. Your clothes." Three boxes. "Two days. You will come to my house. You will wear .." Her hands span disgust. " Not those jeans with holes but look like a proper Indian. And here also this is for you." There is an envelope, familiar from the weddings of friends, on top of the boxes. It will have money inside.
"Make my son happy," Sam's mother says.
There is one last box. "Let your life be as sweet to you as these gifts," Sam's mother says, although the look in her eyes suggests something more than doubt. When she opens the lid, inside the box lie formally wrapped in coloured tissue paper the traditional wedding sweets. Her hands strip two open. "Eat," she says, and holds the sweet for him as traditionally as if it were his engagement they are celebrating. Kunal takes the sweet from her fingers with his teeth. The other she eats herself, fastitidiously, watching him choke his own down. Her eyes - she knows everything, Kunal thinks. He remembers what she looked like in Miami with her hair loose, beating the demons that she believed had driven Sam gay out of her son's body and of the look in her eyes when he had opened the front door to find her blessing him as her son's spouse. He knows what her son's smile feels like against his own mouth, and there are bruises on his hips the span of Sameer's thumb and forefingers.
He swallows, and waits.
"What can I do?" Sam's mother asks. It is not a question for Kunal but for the Gods. But it is to Kunal that she says, "God bless," although her voice is not soft.
They look at each other. Kunal thinks, she wants the best for her son. She is his mother. He thinks of his own, 'I cannot remember her face, but I remember the smell of her hair'.
Sam's mother's face relaxes. ""Be kind to that girl also, my son," she says, and then pulls her shawl tighter. Without farewell, she turns to the door. She is halfway there before belatedly Kunal remembers his manners and goes to see her out. The living room door swings back in his face, and opens: in front of him stand Lalal and Rebecca and Nicholas and Nicholas' secretary. Behind them, Lalal's driver, and a tall Englishwoman in a pencil skirt with a Blackberry and two mobile phones.
Also with boxes.
'Oh shit,' Kunal says soundlessly. And, for the second time that day, bends to take the blessing of his in-laws.
It is an exquisitely strained lunch. "Photography? And what will you do when you have finished the course?" Lalal asks, and then, avuncular, adds: "There will always be a place for you at my side, my boy."
Kunal smiles, and under the table plays with the threads dangling from the rip in his jeans.
"Leila likes you," Rebecca whispers to him over desert.
"Would you like more coffee?" Kunal asks.
"She has started to smile again. I thought at first it would be hard for her, she is a modern girl, but her values are Indian. She is a good girl," Leila's mother says.
Kunal up-ends the cafetiere and wishes the coffee Irish and alcoholic. On his wrists, the bangles chime with every movement.
After they have gone, he finds the telephone. It is morning in Miami. He gets Abhimanyu.
" Put Neha on the phone. Please?" Kunal says.
" - Hello?"
"Neha," Kunal says, and then finds he has nothing to say.
"Kunal? What is it?"
"Just talk," Kunal says. "Please. Tell me about Rohinda."
Neha pauses. Then she says, "Okay." And does. She does not ask about the wedding. She does not mention Sam's name. His goddaughter is already sleeping through the night. She smiled at Abhimanyu, although it might have been wind. She was beautiful. And Veer has made the football team. They were so happy.
"Does she want to get married?"
"Not to you," Neha says. "Her parents will not allow it." He can hear the smile in her voice, but it is for Abhimanyu. "Are you okay, Kunal?"
No. "Yes," Kunal says.
"And you will - that's the other phone, " Neha says. "I have to go."
When he rings Sam, the line is engaged, although later that day he is brought another box. In it is, in layers of tissue, a new bike jacket so well sized it skims his skin. Italian leather, soft and flexible as lambskin. It is coloured the paintwork of his Hayabusa.
There is only one person who would have sent him such a gift.
Nicholas says, later, "Why did they send you this? Did we not agree that when you are married you will not ride that motorbike? Kunal, you will be a family man."
Kunal says nothing.
Late that evening the priest arrives, and with him Sam and Sam's mother. "I hope you don't mind," Sam says, tall and formal in a black sherwani, unsmiling. "But he doesn't drive. We can sit somewhere for the blessing, of course-"
But there had been an envelope with the presents that had contained a signed partnership agreement, and Nicholas had been quietly triumphant over dinner. Would Kunal like a house in Miami, or would he prefer one of those American condominiums? Although the children would need a garden ...
"I have a condo," Kunal had said quietly, but Nicholas had not been listening.
"No, no, " Nicholas says now. "You must join us. Kunal's friend Sameer from the States, no? And you must be Mrs ..."
Sameer's father Mr. Acharya, it turns out, had done business with the Chauhan company. More smiles. Tea. Sweets. Sam does not look at Kunal. They have to clear the floor and put a carpet down before the priest performs the blessing: Nicholas' is not a religious house.
Sam sits next to Kunal, their knees an inch apart. Last night they had shared a bed and had been even closer. The thought of it is heavy and heated, and for the first time in his life Kunal prays half-hard and almost unable to concentrate. Beside him, Sam is utterly still and with his eyes closed, Kunal can smell him, aftershave and rain and turmeric. In his mind, the blessing takes forever, and the priest has a most peculiar smile.
"Don't forget the party," Sam's mother says, as they leave. They are due elsewhere.
"What party?" Nicholas says.
Kunal shrugs. "Some family thing. I said I would go." He looks at Nicholas, still in his work suit: the frown lines at his eyes, the grey in his hair. Nicholas is starting to put on weight. "Come with me," he offers.
"They are your friends," Nicholas says. "And there is so much to arrange-"
"So bring your own friends," Kunal says.
For the first time in Kunal's life, he sees his brother look uncertain.
"I'll drive," he offers.
"Maybe," Nicholas says.
At three the next day, Sam texts to say he is in Soho. Does Kunal want to meet for a drink?
Kunal, who has spent the morning with lawyers and not enjoyed the occasion, says yes.
It is one of those October days which are blessed with sunshine, the last rags of a British summer that appear in apology for the yearly August rain. Sam has a table outside a pub, coffee, sunglasses. In jeans, he looks like the friend Kunal left in Miami.
"Hey," Kunal says, sitting down, with his back to the pub's windows and his face to the pavement.
"Kunal," Sam says. He stirs his coffee. "Do you want something to drink?"
"Beer," Kunal says. "Is there-"
But there is a waiter in front of them, a thin boy with a slant to his hips and more piercings than Kunal really wants to consider. "Gentlemen?"
His smile is unmistakable.
"Two beers," Kunal says cautiously.
"Coming ... right up," says the boy.
"You brought me to a gay bar?" Kunal asks.
Sam takes off his sunglasses. "Kunal. You should know. I am thirty one years old. I'm a nurse. I have - "
"Dude, even I know this," Kunal says. "Is this a gay bar? Suppose someone sees us?"
"I have five years training. I'll always have a job. I don't own a house, but I have savings."
"What?" Kunal says.
"I like Hindi movies. Restaurants. Dancing. Ten years ago, a friend gave me a lift to Bradford on the back of his bike and scared the shit out of me. I could try again."
"What is this?" Kunal asks.
"Two beers," the waiter says. "Enjoy."
"I have shares in a friend's children," Sam says. He looks up. "I don't need my own. I ... like you. Your turn."
"Dude, we're not getting married," Kunal says.
"Have a drink," Sam says. "You'll find it easier."
Kunal does. "You really want me to do this?"
Sam raises his eyebrows, waits.
"Tika. Okay. I ... I take photographs. I like ... girls," Kunal says, but Sam's face does not change. "I own a Hayabusa. Also, a condo. In Miami. I like dancing. I work out. I ... I have friends." Kunal swallows. "I like you also." He drinks.
"You own a condo?"
He shakes his head. Sam frowns. "No. No, I don't believe it. Neha said some company bought it."
"Yeah," Kunal says.
"Really? You - then why weren't -"
"It wasn't the same without -"
"Sameer Acharya!" Someone says, and on the pavement people bunch and crowd around the woman who has stopped walking. She's a middle aged woman in a green sari, with glasses.
Sam stands up. "Auntyji?"
"Sameer! You grow taller every time I see you!" She's smiling. "How is your mother? Is that a spare seat?"
It takes five minutes for her to sort out her shopping bags, hug Sam, find a comfortable chair, order tea from the bemused waiter, phone her friend, send the waiter back for lemon -
"And so this is your special friend Kunal?"
'Oh, shit,' Kunal thinks.
"Such a nice boy. From America!"
And, to Kunal's utter dismay, she taps him on the cheek and smiles at him so knowingly that for the first time in his adult life he blushes.
"So sweet! Bhai, isn't he a lovely boy? This is Sameer's Kunal."
To Kunal's horror, there is another woman, this one in orange, also smiling.
"Auntyji," Sam says weakly.
"Oh, you don't mind, do you? We're family, after all!"
This time the waiter is not smiling when he brings more tea. Kunal leans over to Sam, and says, "Dude-"
Sam mutters, "Leave me here alone and I'll cut your balls off."
Apparently, half of Sam's family have spent the afternoon shopping in Soho. Two cousins arrive, with small children. Uncle Harry, who is Sikh, with a magnificent turban. More aunties. Sam's mother arrives, her sister, her hairdresser. Sameer's father's mother and her gentleman friend who is English and charmingly diffident. Some friends from Leeds who have come to see a show and are just in the area. The waiter sends out to the restaurant next door for more china, and men in leather keep coming to the door of the pub, blinking, and moving away. All Sam's family think Kunal is lovely: they coo over his hair, tut at his jeans, have a proprietary interest in his personal space - "You wouldn't drink in front of me?" Sam's mother says - that is not leavened by alcohol. More cousins arrive. Sam tips the waiter a roll of notes. Uncle Harry strikes up an animated conversation with a person in a nun's habit who is six feet tall before the rollerblades and very interested in importing sequins. Food arrives from the Indian restaurant two doors down. The first Aunty leaves to find the Ladies and is escorted back by a smiling gentleman with a moustache and chaps: they are talking about the advantages of hair wax, Aunty's long-dead husband being similarly adorned. Two very pretty Indian boys, absorbed in each other and holding hands, fail to notice the crowd until someone calls out: they look up and run.
The waiter is smiling again. Kunal, at the bar inside for medicinal whiskey, tries to apologise.
"No, no," the boy says. " We get it. It's a wedding, innit?" He leans his elbow on the counter and gestures beyond the bar, grinning. "So you're Indian. You're still family."
Very slowly, Kunal turns round. There is a drag queen in lilac raising her glass to him. The leathermen by the pool table, unsmiling, also have their glasses raised. Everyone in the bar is toasting him.
Later, they all go clubbing.
"Nicholas, is there a family party?" Kunal asks the next day, too hungover to read his timetable.
"No," Nicholas says.
That evening, Kunal does wear one of the embroidered sherwanis from his wedding wardrobe. He would have taken Nicholas, but Mona and the children are flying into Heathrow that night and so he goes alone to Sam's mother's house.
The first person he sees is Leila, standing on her own at the front door.
"Hey," Kunal says gently.
"It's not that I'm shy," Leila says. "But-"
The door opens. Uncle Harry: the turban is pink.
"Do you know Leila?" Kunal asks. "Leila, this is Harry, Harry-"
"Leila! Come in - Seema is waiting for you. Kunal, Sam's in the living room - don't go in."
"Matlab?" Kunal asks, but Harry is already pushing him into the kitchen where there is a surreptitious keg of beer and several cousins Kunal has not met who all want to talk about models and shake his hand. Then there are more cousins, and more beer, and when finally not Sam but Sam's mother and Leila arrive, giggling, Kunal is once again not exactly sober. So he is less cautious than he should be, and by the time he realises, in the middle of a conversation about the aquarium - he's not unkind: he'd looked it up on the internet - that the woman holding his hands is actually applying henna it's too late.
Sam's mother takes him by the chin. "Sit still."
He has still not seen Sam, nor Leila again, by the time he gets sent home in a taxi. Sobered, he has no idea how he will explain the patterns on his hands to his brother. In two days, he will be getting married.
He spends the next day in bed.
"Yes," says Kunal.
"Bas," says Sam's mother. Enough.
It is raining, the day of Kunal's wedding. Not even lightly, but a downpour with a force that flattens the grass and floods the driveway, the sky heavy with indigo-shaded clouds. The doorman holds an umbrella over Mona and the children as they run to the limousine, but Kunal and Nicholas take their chances with the rain.
"How fortunate you said no to Lalal when he wanted a horse," Mona says to Nicholas, shaking out the crimson brocade of her sari. "And have you checked with the caterers?"
"Everything is fine," Nicholas says.
"Mona, everything is fine," Nicholas says, and looks at the children. "And how is school?" he asks.
Kunal says nothing.
When they get to the hotel the stewards are ready with umbrellas. A child on each hand - they are people now, Emily and Andrew: Emily is eight and likes Hannah Montana, Andrew at six still thinks that Kol Mil Gaya with its friendly alien is the best film ever made - Mona makes a run for the cover of the awning. In the car, Nicholas reaches out to hold his brother's hand still on the door handle.
"I have heard rumours," Nicholas says. He is looking not at Kunal, but at the henna patterns on Kunal's hand.
"I am getting married today," Kunal says.
It feels almost unreal to him, as if it is happening, this arrangement, to someone else. He has sleepwalked through the morning, the dressing, the lunch where Mona and Nicholas discussed people he did not know. His phone is off, his laptop powered down, and there have been no messengers: Kunal is looking at the first day of the rest of his life through a haze of bemusement and resignation.
"Tika," Nicholas says, and lets him go.
The chill of the rain feels real. Waving away the stewards, Kunal runs for the hotel doorway and arrives breathless, rain dampening his hair and adding to the heaviness of his embroidered sherwani.
The first person he sees is Sam's mother. Stately and magnificent in silk, she is standing by the entrance as if she has been waiting for him. Beside her, tall and beautiful, is a woman Kunal has never met but who from the way she stands must be Sam's sister. He has always thought of her as a child with a train set, but she is married now. It should be Leila's mother Rebecca Kunal greets first, but Seema Acharya is a presence he cannot ignore. Kunal smiles at her - they love the same man, she and him, and now they both know it - and bends to touch her feet.
When he stands up she throws a garland over his head.
He had not seen it. He steps away. She must have been hiding it behind her back. Someone murmurs.
" - what?" he says, and then Sam's sister steps forward with the second. He puts a hand up to stop her, and she lifts an eyebrow, and although her face is fine-boned and elegant her eyes are the same as Sam's and he lets the flowers fall into place.
Someone shouts. He can hear Mona's voice, querulous and rising, and Nicholas' hand is sharp on his shoulder - "Kunal!"
Behind Sam's family, Lalal and Rebecca are staring, shocked. He should have greeted them first. As mother of the bride, it should be Rebecca's garland around his neck, the marigolds that are hanging lose in her hand unused. After her, Leila's sisters also have garlands, the three girls who look so like their mother no-one could mistake them for anything other than family.
"Kunal. This is fixable," Nicholas hisses in his ear. "Take the garlands off."
Behind Lalal and Rebecca stand his best friend Sameer, in black, and on Sameer's arm Kunal's bride Leila, pale and tired in her red and gold wedding sari. Leila should have been upstairs, with the women. Her face is bare, the veil thrown back, when Kunal should have seen nothing but her eyes - and those properly downcast - until the ceremony was over.
"Now!" Nicholas says.
But Sam and Leila are walking forward and behind them are the people from the hotel, the guests, friends of Nicholas and Lalal who have clearly realised that something out of the ordinary is happening. Kunal had thought he would know few people at his wedding, but among the grey suits he can see Sam's family, the aunties and uncles and cousins and friends he met has met over the past week. Uncle Harry in a rainbow turban, the priest Sam brought for the blessing, the waiter from the bar in Soho: two taxi drivers, a tearoom girl, a DJ, his brother's doorman ...
Leila bends to touch her parent's feet with the respect due to elders from their children. Then she steps back. Sam stands beside her.
"You might need this," Sam's mother says behind him. She is pushing something into Kunal's hands: he looks down. A scarf, chiffon. "Go on," Sam's mother says, and pushes him into place beside her son.
Leila turns her head and smiles. It's a very small smile. Sam beside him is rigid with tension.
"Papa. Mummy," Leila says to her parents. "I know you love me. I know you want the best for me. You found a man-" her hand tightens on Sam's arm "-you thought would love me and make me happy."
She stops for a moment, and Kunal wonders if she, like him, is thinking of the business agreements, the partnership, the mergers. Signed.
"But he is in love with someone else," Leila says, and the people crowding into the hotel entrance start to murmur and sigh. Shock hits Kunal bright as a magnesium flare. His mouth is gaping.
"I know you wanted to make my future secure and happy," Leila says. "But this is not the way to make it so. Kunal ... Kunal loves Sameer," Leila says. "And Sameer Kunal. This is their kismet, their fate, and I cannot come between them."
Kunal is shaking.
Lalal's face is so angry that beside Kunal, Sam takes a half step forward, poised. He has not yet looked at Kunal, but he does not need to. In a darkened room, on a monsoon night, Kunal would know how Sam feels from the shape of his back and the touch of his skin. Sam is both triumphant and terrified.
"Kunal and I will not be marrying today," Leila says, and her voice has strengthened as she speaks, so that even at the back of the crowd the guests must be able to hear her. "But we gathered to celebrate a wedding, and the priest is here to give his blessing."
He is smiling and nodding, the priest, as if it is completely normal to bless two people of the same sex. Around him the guests are looking backwards and forwards, gauging each other's reactions: half of them, Sam's half, are smiling.
Leila takes one last look at her parents and turns round. It's actually Sam's mother she looks at first, a fleeting look that is more than telling of both conspiracy and shelter, and only then Sam and Kunal.
And Sam also turns. His face - his face is uncertain, tentative, tender.
Kunal says, "You must be kidding." He's starting to smile. He can't stop smiling.
"No," Sam says, and his own smile has started in his eyes and is moving south. "It's our kismet. The priest thinks our stars are fixed."
"Dude," Kunal says helplessly.
"Marry me," says Sam. "Live with me." His hands are on Kunal's, skin against skin. Looking down, Kunal can see the same henna patterns that are on Sam's fingers echoed on his own. It's fate, given a helping hand by Sam's mother.
"Yes," he says, and then again, smiling, "Yes."
"Did you say yes?" Sam asks, his hands sliding up Kunal's arms, pulling and catching on the heavy embroidery.
"Yes," Kunal says, and then, "Unless that makes me the girl. Sam, I'm not the-"
And then, in public and deliberately, Sam kisses him. It's a through kiss, leisurely, the kind of kiss married people share in private affirmation of a public partnership. Kunal, knocked sideways, can do nothing after it but try and remember how to breathe.
Sam looks at him, and laughs. "Adjust, dude," he says.
Then they get married.
Acharya ...................................... Abhishek Bacchan