The No. 1 man’s wife

Mrs. Sethna rang Dolly Bordoloi’s doorbell for the usual morning walk, but what she was really hoping was for a glimpse of the guest from Bollywood. He’d arrived last night and Dolly had driven out to IAD to pick him up.

The singer himself opened the door. Mrs. Sethna took in his craggy, pock-marked face, the beard. He looked even better than his promo posters, decided Mrs. Sethna. He was a bonafide star, with brand name recognition. His real name was Anirban, but everyone called him Bourbon.

Bourbon’s arms were stretched outward like a scarecrow and Dolly’s daughter, Amara, was hanging off it, like a large limpet.

“Saroj Sethna,” she said, extending her hand. “Dolly’s friend.”

Bourbon’s grip was firm, and he held Mrs. Sethna’s gaze.

“My neighbor - the ambassador’s wife,” Dolly called from the kitchen.

“Ah, the number one man’s wife.” Bourbon helped Mrs. Sethna up the stairs, stepped aside, and bowed with a flourish. Amara howled with laughter at this, jumped off and bowed as well.

“You two.” Dolly hovered over the island in the kitchen. “Finish your breakfast.”

Dolly was still in her pajamas, so no walk today, guessed Mrs. Sethna.

“As soon as we get your friend something to eat too.” Bourbon’s speaking voice was deep. He pulled out a chair for Mrs. Sethna. It was easy to imagine this man, thronged by adoring fans after concerts. The kind of man who inspired women to rend their clothes, pull him to their chests, slit wrists over, smother, mother. He had that tragic look, like he had terrible secrets that he could reveal. He sang his songs in a low, growly whisper, like an intimate confessional.

Looking at him, she felt she knew him from somewhere. Must be the promo poster effect. Too many posters wherever she’d looked in the last couple of months.

“Orange juice?” Bourbon broke into her reverie, bottle of juice in hand.

Mrs. Sethna smoothed her active wear top and pulled at the hem down a notch. She hadn’t been in the room with him, like what, five minutes, and she was already mesmerised by his voice, his face. Everything. Wonder what he sounded like when he sang live? She’d find out tomorrow at the party.

“Nothing for me, really. I came by to say hello.” She turned to look at Dolly. “I still haven’t forgiven you.”

“Because I’m not walking today?” Dolly pointed to her pajamas. “I wanted to, but crazy morning. Dishwasher problems.”

“Because you stole him.” Mrs. Sethna nodded in the direction of Bourbon. As the wife of the ambassador, she really had dibs on which celebrities to host when they toured the US and landed up in Washington DC. They had worked out an alternating arrangement - she and Dolly. But lately, Dolly seemed to be snagging all the A-listers, and Mrs. Sethna had been relegated to babysitting the smaller fry. It was actually Mrs. Sethna’s turn this time with Bourbon, but he had requested that he stay with the Bordolois.

“We go back a long ways, Bourbon and us.” Dolly laughed at this, tossing back her shoulder length hair. “We studied law together, Bourbon, my husband, me. He always visits us wherever we are posted. Maybe next time.”

“I know, you told me. But still not forgiving you.”

Mr. Bordoloi’s head rose from the other side of the island when he was mentioned. “Good morning, Mrs. Sethna.”

Mrs. Sethna jumped in place when she saw him. “I didn’t know you were home.”

“Our dishwasher broke,” said Dolly. “He’s fixing it.”

Mrs. Sethna walked around to the other side.

“Watch your step,” said Dolly. “Wet floor.”

That’s when Mrs. Sethna noticed the small pool of water around the dishwasher, which had been pulled out slightly from its slot.

Mr. Bordoloi with his big belly and hearty laugh had always seemed like a jolly Santa to Mrs. Sethna. Though Dolly and her husband looked like Laurel and Hardy, he portly, she svelte, they both gave off matching auras of innate likeability.

But Mr. Bordoloi didn’t look anywhere near jolly today. The No. 2 man at the Indian embassy - after Mr. Sethna - looked like a common plumber, in his shorts and gear, beads of sweat on his face, t-shirt clinging to his back. His face was fixed in a perma-scowl. He went back on his knees, poking at something with a pen flashlight, screwdriver in hand.

Mrs. Sethna looked around the kitchen. What a mess. She herself wouldn’t be able to even think in such a place, leave alone cook or eat. Well, Dolly was readying the house for the party, so some mess was expected. One corner of the room had a photo booth with oversized mustaches, fake lips and who knows what else. There were paper plates, bottles of wine, general debris, on every inch of counter space.

But Mrs. Sethna knew how scary Dolly was in her party planning ways. By 5 pm tomorrow, this same place would be transformed into a spread befitting a decorating magazine.

“What going on with the dishwasher?” She asked.

“Someone, I won’t say who, put in dish soap instead of dishwashing liquid last night. Stalled and flooded overnight. I woke up to this.”

“Go on, say it.” Mr. Bordoloi dug his head back out from the dishwasher and looked at his wife. “Say I did it.”

“When did I say that?” asked Dolly. “I’m sure I did it.” She winked hard at Mrs. Sethna as if to convey it was all a joke.

“Don’t let the water stand on the floor.” Mrs. Sethna said to Dolly. She arranged her face a look of concern on her face, but inside, if she admitted it, Mrs. Sethna was smiling.

Dolly. Perfect, petite Dolly. The other wives - and the men, everyone really - called her Dolly, and not Mrs. Bordoloi. They certainly addressed her as Mrs. Sethna, and she was not that much older. Dolly always laughed in a loud, unrestrained cackle that seemed to set people off laughing with her, not at her. She had her own car, unlike most other diplomatic couples who shared one. After four years of the Washington posting, Dolly knew DC streets - which ones were one-ways at what time of day, where the cops teemed - and bounded through them in her Lexus, like a mad cow with its tail on fire. She happily took other newcomers under her wing - took them shopping, taught them American etiquette, and guided helicopter parents in school selections.

That’s how Mrs. Sethna had met her, when Dolly gave her crash course in American living, a week after the Sethnas arrived at their new post in March. They’d been in the same diplomatic circles, heard about each other through common friends, but had never been in the same place same time, until this year. Dolly was the No. 2 man’s wife, but everyone seemed to like her - a little too much, if you asked Mrs. Sethna - in  the Embassy circuit.

So this mess, this little chink in Dolly’s universe, and that too in front of Bourbon -- Mrs. Sethna felt a little bad about it. Or really, not at all, if she was being honest.

“The husband is mucho upsetto,” whispered Dolly to Mrs. Sethna.

Maybe he’d be less upset if they looked like they were helping, instead of standing around watching him work? Mrs. Sethna asked, “You have old sheets or towels? All this pooled water can’t be good for the floors.”

“The damage is already done.” Mr. Bordoloi swept his hand in the general direction of the flooring. “Standing water overnight. The wood is swollen.”

Mrs. Sethna noted the slight warp in the floor.

“I have sheets in the guest bathroom,” said Dolly, heading down the hall. Mrs. Sethna followed her.

They gathered a few sheets, Amara’s old bucket, and ran back to the kitchen. They spread the sheets on the floor, soaked up the water, wrung it into the bucket. They repeated this a couple of times.

“Call the landlord, ask him to repair.” Mrs. Sethna remarked. “Why struggle with this yourselves?”

Dolly turned to her husband. “Can we?”

“For once, be logical.” Mr. Bordoloi looked first at his wife, and then to Mrs. Sethna. “You know about the landlord situation.”

What situation? Mrs. Sethna wanted to ask. The Bordolois and the Sethnas shared a picket fence and the landlord. The same guy rented both homes to the Indian Embassy. He wasn’t the friendliest or nicest person, but it was always good to know if he was an out-and-out nutter. She made a mental note to ask Dolly later. Situation with landlord or no, Dolly being Dolly, she’d find a way to get the repairs done, or a new dishwasher, before the week was out, predicted Mrs. Sethna.

Mr. Bordoloi looked at his watch. “Meeting at ten. This will have to wait. Is Amara going to daycare?” He walked to the bedroom in the back.

“Of course, daycare! Amara, put your shoes on.” Dolly called, as she heaved at the dishwasher with her hip and inched it back into place.

Bourbon came over to help, Amara in tow.

A few minutes later, Mr. Bordoloi hurried out of the bedroom in a suit. “Still not ready? Keep her home. I told you I have a ten o’clock.”

“Amara! Shoes! Now!” Dolly ordered. She turned back to her husband. “Bourbon and I have a full day of walking around DC looking at ugly sandstone structures.”

“Hey, you told me DC was a happening place,” Bourbon interjected.

“DC is a lovely place. Haven’t you read Dan Brown? Da Vinci Code? Full of adventures and secrets. It’s just what I have to tell the husband,” said Dolly, grinning at Bourbon.

She looked around for Amara. The girl ambled to the shoe cubby by the entryway and picked out a pair of sandals.

Dolly walked to Mr. Bordoloi, who was sitting at the bottom step of the stairs, lacing his shoes. She sat on the step beside him and leaned into him. “Jaan, there’s a lot of walking to be done today. Kid food, potty breaks, nap times, I don’t want to deal with it. Drop her to daycare. I’ll pick her early if I can.” She kissed Mr. Bordoloi’s ear.

For the first time since Mrs. Sethna saw him this morning, Mr. Bordoloi looked pleased. He pushed Dolly in jest. “Enough of this PDA.”

Amara walked to her parents with a pair of sandals.

“Look, she’s still not ready.”

“No sandals, Amara. Shoes please.” Dolly ran over to the cubby, picked out a pair of shoes, and stuck them on Amara’s feet.

“Do I have to go?” Pouted Amara. “I want to play with uncle.” She looked to Bourbon for support.

“Wouldn’t you rather listen to Miss Elsa’s stories?”

“No!”

Bourbon made a silly face at Amara. “We’ll do something fun when you get back.”

Amara held out her pinky. Bourbon bent down next to her, looped his little finger through hers.

The three of them watched the father and daughter leave. Bourbon blew Amara a kiss.

Dolly flopped back on the stair after Bourbon shut the door. “Every morning, it’s like a mini Waterloo.”

“Get showered and ready. We’ll leave in half an hour,” she told Bourbon, who nodded and went into the guest room.

“He’s even better than he looks on TV,” gushed Mrs. Sethna. “He reminds me of someone I know. Can’t place who.”

Dolly sighed. “Maybe, I guess. Sorry. I’m so fed up with everything. Dishwasher is acting up. The husband too. He tells me, ‘Clean dishes by hand.’ I thinking, what do you mean clean dishes by hand? Party is tomorrow, all of today I’m with Bourbon. So much to get done. And yet, he won’t call the landlord and tell the damn guy to fix it.”

“Why?”

“Long story. Some other time. Not the most cooperative landlord I’ve had, I’ll tell you that. Mrs. Sethna, I have a favor to ask. Ok for guests to park in your driveway tomorrow? I’ve asked couple of other neighbors too.”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Sethna. “You don’t even have to ask.”



When Mrs. Sethna returned from her walk, Dolly’s car was gone. She walked into the privacy of her husband’s home office and called a friend on the Embassy circuit.

Mrs. Roy was hesitant to gossip about Dolly, but thought there had been some fight with the landlord last year over the basement flooding. He had refused to pay for repairs and the repairman started chasing the Bordolois for payment.

“You don’t remember?” Asked Mrs. Roy.

“Before my time probably.”

“I don’t have all the details but I can ask.”

The landlord, whom she'd met twice, reminded her of Fred Flintstone. He was always distantly polite with her, even gruff. She could definitely imagine him doing something like that. With rentals, repairs were tricky. Did you pay for them because the issues happened on your watch, like how you paid for any damage to car rentals? Or did the landlord, because he owned the house and everything in it?

Well, that explained Mr. Bordoloi’s reluctance to call the landlord.

Later that afternoon, Mrs. Roy called Mrs. Sethna. “You not going to believe what I heard. So we knew that the repairman billed the Bordolois because the landlord wouldn’t pay. I guess the Bordolois also refused to pay. He sued them in court.”

“How do you know this?”

“It’s in the public domain. Non-payment of dues case. Word is they used diplomatic immunity to kill the lawsuit.”

“You don’t know for sure.”

“Granted. But it’s not that hard to put one and one and realize it’s eleven, not two. Have you seen how lavish their spending is? On a single salary, how do you manage two cars, these over the top parties, private daycare for Amara when she could clearly stay home with her flutterbug mother?”

Mrs. Sethna wasn’t sure what to make of this. Diplomatic immunity had always been a sore point for lower level consular staff and families like Mrs. Roy’s. Not everyone got the same protections like the Sethnas and the Bordolois, and that always caused some heartburn.

“Officers like Mr. Bordoloi, your husband, they represent the government. Using diplomatic loopholes for financial problems makes Indians look bad. India looks bad.” Mrs. Roy was saying. “Poor repairman. Did he sign up hoping for referrals and business among the Embassy crowd? Try getting the diplomatic immunity crowd to pay for any of their expenses.”

“You are not fair,” said Mrs. Sethna, “to lump us with the Bordolois. I don’t think we’ve ever had any golmals of this nature in our postings.”

“That might be true. But it’s not enough for you and Mr. Sethna to be personally ethical. The culture of morality starts at the top. That’s who the rank and file - like us - take cues from.” Mrs. Roy was quiet for a few moments. Then she said, “This behavior can’t go on. Do something, Mrs. Sethna. A solid rap on their knuckles with the number one man’s ruler. That should teach them something.”

What could she really do? thought Mrs. Sethna, after she hung up. Diplomatic immunity made people untouchable, and liable to behave in the strangest of ways, though she and Mr. Sethna had rarely - never - used it. They were childless, liable to live within their means. Simple living, high thinking, was the Gandhian motto Mr. Sethna adhered to. It helped that she saw eye to eye with him on this.

Mrs. Sethna had got the website link out of Mrs. Roy, so she looked it up. Wasn’t it funny, how Americans, with all their insistence on privacy, listed their legal affairs for everyone to see? But there it was, the case history. Both the Bordolois were named in the suit.

Mr. Sethna called to say he’d be home by 5.

At 5, as was their habit in summer time, she set out tea in the wraparound porch. A tea cosy covered pot, a dish of sugar cubes, milk, a tray of cake rusks on a small beaten down table she'd inherited from one of the families leaving DC. Tongs, silver stirrers, paper napkins. Perfect.

When Mr. Sethna arrived, she made him his cup, and then hers. Single cube of sugar for him, two for her. No matter how hot the temperatures got, Indians would still go for boiling tea, not lemonade, not iced tea.

"It has been a long crazy day," said Mr. Sethna as he dipped his cake rusk in his tea. He must've kept it in too long, as it warped, then broke on the trip from cup to his mouth. The tea-rusk goop fell on his formal white shirt.

"Damn!"

"Go, wash off the tea right now, or it'll stain," said Mrs. Sethna. That’s what the napkins are for, thought Mrs. Sethna watching his receding back. Clumsiness and messes like these bothered her so much. They spoke to a certain lack of clarity.

She quickly sopped up the mess with multiple paper napkins and settled back into the rattan loveseat.

Mr. Sethna came back out changed into a casual polo and shorts. They sat together, Mr. Sethna spotting fireflies, Mrs. Sethna filling him in on what she’d learned.

At about six, Mr. Bordoloi returned from work, bringing Amara with him. He waved to the Sethnas as he walked across the lawn to his house.

“What are you going to do about this?”

“What do you want me to do?” said Mr. Sethna, setting down his cup. “You just saw Mr. Bordoloi walk in. He’s good at what he does, a true right hand man. What they do with their money, or their diplomatic status is none of my business.”

“But it is. Diplomatic immunity isn’t meant for things like non-payment of parking tickets and plumbing repairs. It was meant to protect us from being arrested or held back by hostile governments on trumped up charges.”

“Intent-wise, yes. But when you say 'diplomatic immunity', these specific clauses are not spelled out. If they’re using diplomatic immunity to not pay rent, or to get free repairs, they're technically allowed to. It's not illegal. They’re doing it because they can.”

“‘They can’ is different from ‘they should’. Which is a whole universe away from ‘it’s right’.” Mrs. Sethna set her cup down with a thud and crossed her arms across her chest.

“True, but I can’t interfere. I have no standing. If there’s a complaint about misuse of diplomatic immunity, it’s up to the Ministry of External Affairs to police this stuff.”

“You are the Ministry of External Affairs in this country.”

“A tiny cog in a big ministry.”

“The biggest cog in the number one nation in the world. The number one man. You just don’t want to confront Mr. Bordoloi. Or maybe you have an eye for Dolly just like all the other man. I guarantee you this. You would not do this kind of golmal. And even if you wanted to, would I let you behave like this?”

“No, I don’t have an eye for Dolly. I only have eyes for my righteous wife.”

“Good. These younger people. Ten, fifteen years in diplomatic corps. Behaving like the job, privileges, cushy life are things their rich daddy bestowed on them. So blase.”

“You’re a good woman, meri jaan, but impractical, ” said Mr. Sethna. “Break your head over things you can control, not things you can’t. Let karma take care of the rest.”

When the Sethnas gathered up the tea things and went inside at eight, Dolly’s car was still not back.

—-

She’s has certainly outdone herself, thought Mrs. Sethna, seated at one of the lit tables next evening in Dolly’s backyard. There were rows of paper lanterns hanging along the periphery of the garden. Waiters in uniform worked the crowd, trays balanced on their hands, offering paper napkins and hors d'oeuvres.

Dolly was going all out for Bourbon’s party. There were some eight tables with cloth covered chairs. Mrs. Sethna caught sight of Amara, with a fake mustache and beard, posing at the photobooth. There was a photographer dressed in all-black, taking pictures of kids at the photobooth. She recognized him as an embassy staffer.

At one end of the garden, they’d set up a raised platform with a standing mic.

Presumably where Bourbon would sing tonight. He was standing next to Dolly being introduced to an arriving guest. In his long sherwani and loose trousers, jet lag behind him, he looked even better than yesterday. Dolly wore a short maroon dress and knee high suede boots. Her hair shone in a slick bob.

She shepherded Bourbon, group to group, with a gentle touch on his arm. Just the slightest hint of cleavage when she bent down.

Mrs. Sethna wondered if she looked too matronly in her Kanjeevaram silk saree.

Bourbon held out his hand when he reached Mrs. Sethna’s table.

Mrs. Sethna hoped he wouldn’t notice how clammy her hand was. With her free hand, she adjusted her bun and smiled.

“Madame, my compliments,” he said. The charmer.

“Have you tried the lamb samosas? They’re delicious,” declared Dolly, kneeling down next to Mrs. Sethna. “Waiter!”

A young man in uniform scurried over and piled Mrs. Sethna’s plate with a sample of everything on offer.

“Mr. Bordoloi agreed to get the food catered?” Asked Mrs. Sethna.

“I was out all day yesterday. Where’s the time for food prep? Bourbon and I had dinner at a small restaurant in College Park. I asked the manager, 'Embassy party, smallish crowd, will you cater?' Little bit he fussed, 'So short notice how I can cater madam?', and all that. But he finally agreed.”

“Of course he did. Who could say no to the great Dolly Bordoloi?” piped Mrs. Roy who was seated next to Mrs. Sethna. Dolly beamed and whisked Bourbon off to the next table.

“Isn’t this all a little —"

“Too much?” Mrs. Roy completed the thought.

Mrs. Sethna nodded. “You think it’ll be another non-payment story?” she whispered.

“Maybe this is how they do it. Use services, run up a big bill, and never pay the invoice when it arrives.”

Mrs. Sethna bit into the lamb samosa but even though she’d been told it was delicious, she couldn’t taste a thing. It felt dry, cardboard like. Was she coming down with something? She felt the beginnings of a headache. These tables, the food, the lights, Mrs. Roy chattering away beside her - everyone and everything had begun to bother her. Nothing here was real.

Elsewhere in the garden, there were raised voices. Mrs. Sethna whipped around. Mr. Bordoloi was on his cell phone, gesticulating with his hands, and saying something. Dolly stood next to him, listening to one side of the conversation. Other people were gathering around them.

Nothing is real here. Nothing real. Nothing. Nothing. The words kept up a drumbeat in Mrs. Sethna’s head. Were they real - the waiters in uniform, filling people’s cups with grape juice and cold drinks? The party tables and chairs on rent, the paper lanterns?

Somewhere behind her, the photographer said “Say ‘Salsa and corn chips are better than cheese’,” and the kids repeated the sentence, and posed. Click. Click. The group fell apart, giggling. Was the photographer grinning extra because he was dreaming of the dollars he’d receive at evening’s end? Would the Bordolois screw him? Would he hate them, her, if they did? Or would he think of Mr. Bordoloi’s No. 2 man status and decide any unpaid dues were not worth the fight?

Nothing was real.

“Are you ok?” Mrs. Roy placed a hand on her. “You seem upset.”

Mrs. Sethna started. “My head hurts. I need a chai.”

She looked around for a waiter. But everyone seemed congregated around the Bordolois. She went to the front to talk to the waiters at the buffet table.  One of them informed her. “No chai. Dolly Madam said summer party, no chai needed.”

Maybe she should head home and fix herself something healthy instead of this unhealthy party poison. She looked around for Mr. Sethna. He stood in the cluster of people surrounding the Bordolois.

She pulled him aside. “What’s going on?”

“Dolly’s car got towed.”

“From her driveway?”

“No, neighbor’s. She had talked in the morning to a neighbor to park in their driveway. But she parked at the wrong neighbor’s. They got it towed.”

Mrs. Sethna heard Dolly’s voice in the background. “Arre, you’re my neighbor. Talk to me, tell me to move my car. Don’t be a bloody chutiya.” Dolly’s voice was beginning to break. “It’s a newish Lexus. I don’t want any dents on it.”

“Read house numbers before you drive into random driveways.” Mr. Bordoloi was getting louder. “Thanks to you, now I have to pay an additional four hundred dollars to get the car out.”

“Four hundred?”

“The daily rate to store the car is hundred dollars. Plus towing fees."

But if we get it out now, it shouldn't --"

"We can’t get the car out till Monday.”

“What? They just towed it. Why do we have to wait till then?”

“Because Friday evening onwards - it’s only cars in. No outs. The tow truck driver brings the car in and dumps it, but they don’t have anyone else working the register. There's no one to take the fines, check registration, and let the correct car out.”

“What a scam.” Dolly looked shocked. “What a bloody scam. Call the towing company back. Tell them we have diplomatic licenses. They can’t fine us.”

The real scam is what you’re doing to everyone, thought Mrs. Sethna. She looked around at the onlookers. Everyone was looking at Dolly, shock, concern, anger on their faces. Everyone solidly on Team Dolly.

Suckers, every one of them. Suckers, patting your arm, cluck clucking in chorus with you, not realizing you’re playing them as much as you’re playing the part of an aggrieved towee. Rewarding you with their friendships, the collective silence.

“They can fine us. And they will. No amount of diplomatic immunity can get your car out of the impounding lot. Not without paying the fine.” Mr. Bordoloi jabbed a finger at Dolly. “You think I own a money tree. I go up to it, shake it, and Boom! This week alone - dishwasher repairs, party plans. Now this. Everything is too easy for you. You know the value of nothing.”

Dolly said, “How do you jump from towed car to this? You're not

Bourbon stepped beside Dolly and put his arm on her shoulder, “Thand, thand. It's just dollars, not the end of the world.”

Dolly looked at Bourbon for the briefest moment, and then Mr. Bordoloi snarled at him. “You keep out of this. You stay in my house for a day or two, and you think you can dance in here like some Bollywood hero and save my wife?”

Amara had sidled up to the group by now. She still had her fake mustache from the photobooth. Tears were running down her cheeks. She clung to her mother’s dress, but Dolly didn’t seem to notice.

No one really, except Bourbon. He picked her up. He stuck his forehead against Amara’s, and they stayed that way, oblivious to the squabbles around them.

Bourbon smiled at Amara in the light of the paper lanterns. She smiled back at him. And just like that, everything became crystal clear to Mrs. Sethna. There they were - mirror images of one another, Bourbon and Amara. She was surprised she hadn’t caught it previously. The smiles, the eyes. That's where she'd known Bourbon from. In profile, it was easy to see how closely the two resembled each other.

“Put her down,” said Mr. Bordoloi.

Bourbon looked in confusion at Mr. Bordoloi but complied. Mr. Bordoloi picked Amara up.

“Come here,” he said to Dolly. She stood where she was. Mr. Bordoloi reached up to her, and pulled her into himself.

He put his free arm around her. “Forget everything I just said. We’ll figure out what to do with the car. We’ll get the dishwasher repaired. Now smile.”

The fool. The fool. Look at him, hands around his wife, holding his child who was not his child. Mrs. Sethna felt a rush of something that was equal parts pity, anger, and revulsion.

He was just a boy, a jealous little boy. They went back a long way, Dolly had said. Dolly, Bourbon, Mr. Bordoloi. He didn’t know why, Mr. Bordoloi, but he sensed it - the undercurrent between Dolly and Bourbon. Maybe he even saw the special bond Amara shared with the interloper. All these subterranean feelings - they made him act out in petty ways. Cuckold that he was, he refused to admit any other reality, refused what was obvious to maybe everyone at the party. Believing only what he wanted to believe. Caving in to Dolly's every demand, every whim, racking up expenses, picking up the tab for her transgressions. All just to ensure she didn’t leave him for the Bourbons of the world, men with more charm and game in their little fingers than in his entire body.

She looked at Dolly in his embrace. Traipsing through the world like it belonged to her, smiling, curtsying, touching, laughing. Taking what was hers, and also what was not. Born to slay men, lay them at her feet. Bending rules to suit herself, corrupting others along the way. Mr. Bordolois groveling before her, ready to look the other way just to have her by his side. How sick it was, this lopsided equation.

“I’m feeling weird,” she whispered to Mr. Sethna. “I’m heading home. Tell them.”

She hurried into her bedroom and changed in the dark. The night was warm. They were in the habit of leaving windows open in the summer. As she lay in bed, she heard Bourbon’s hoarse voice wafting in from the windows. It was an old Bollywood number.

Mera kuchh saman tumhare paas pada hai, he sang. Some of my things still remain with you.

When would the piper show at the door? To reclaim his things? she wondered. Make Dolly pay for her transgressions, big and smell. When would he come?

Who was the piper?

Somewhere along the way, listening to Bourbon, she must've slept. She didn’t notice when Mr. Sethna returned from the party.

Next morning, in bed, when she pumped him for information, he said there was that one hiccup with the towing but the rest of the evening had gone well.

“That Dolly. You have to admire her. Source of unending drama. But an entertaining one.”

She turned sharply to look at him. What was that in the tone of his voice?

“What?” Said Mr. Sethna, feeling her gaze on him.

You too? She wanted to ask, but didn’t. This was not looking good.

She waited for him to leave for work before she went into his study, locked herself in, and sat in his chair. She realized it was all up to her. She was the No. 1 man’s wife. If she didn’t, no one would. It was her job to enforce decorum, in public dealings, in private lives; her job too to enforce discipline and hierarchy; her job to ensure that the Dollys and Mr. Bordolois and Bourbons of the world didn’t sully the image of the diplomatic life she and her husband had devoted their lives to.

The more she thought about it, the more right it seemed. She would have to be circumspect, talk in images and hints, saying everything without really saying anything.

No amount of diplomatic immunity would protect Dolly Bordoloi from what was about to be unleashed.

She picked up the phone and called Mrs. Roy.

“Did you notice,” she began.

As she spoke about her guesses, she imagined Mrs. Roy’s eyes widening in shock.

A matter of days, maybe hours before the innuendos spread far and wide through the embassy circuit, eventually reaching Mr. Bordoloi. She hoped, this time, he’d do the right thing and bring his wife to heel.

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