Ved arrived early, mainly because he wanted to take a quick look at the mall’s loo. The loo here was legendary in gay folklore. Before the luxury designer stores came in, the mall was a train station, making it prime cruising ground for gay men. There was no one in the loo besides the bathroom attendant—not that Ved was really interested in hooking up with some stranger in a bathroom. He couldn’t even imagine how gay men in the city during the eighties and nineties had put up with looking for sex in foul-smelling train station loos, seedy massage parlors “for gents,” or the promenade at the Gateway of India in the wee hours of Saturdays.
Meeting another man like yourself was a pure stroke of luck, proving that fate had dealt you a good hand. Most of the time, players lost it all in the game of chance that was gay dating in India. The guy you met could end up being a petty blackmailer, a truck driver, or an incomprehensibly horny Arab looking for a quick jolly. No long-term love. No way to find your life partner.
All of that seemed to change with the invention of online dating apps. Suddenly, the possibilities seemed endless, and the game of chance seemed much less perilous. After having been in the world of online gay dating for years, Ved wasn’t so sure that he was more likely to find a future with another gay man in the era of technology. On Grindr, guys sporting pictures of a hairy, ripped body turned out to be hairless, horny eighteen-year-olds. When a man claimed he had an eight-inch monster, Ved never expected anything more than a weasel. Gigolos posed as students; students posed as experienced lovers. Flabby old men described themselves as “muscular and gym fit.” The app made it easy to deceive. What was worse, it was Ved’s only option. At the very least, Ved was able to find short-term companionship. Before the apps, even that had been tricky.
Ved soon stepped into the high-ceilinged, art deco interior of Le Cinq. Some said it was a carbon copy of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, though Ved thought this restaurant was much cozier, with all the tables allocated their own corners of privacy. Mild chatter surrounded the space around him. The clientele was clearly very wealthy, members of India’s “rising rich” class. Men gorged themselves on caviar and truffles while reclining back in their chairs, clothed in custom-tailored Italian suits. Women were surrounded by shopping bags from Chanel, Dior, YSL, you name it. A mix of expensive colognes filled the air. There was such a variety of Birkin bags in the room that, together, they would’ve made a rainbow. All the faces smiled, stretched free of any indications of age. While he was dressed in his own designer clothing, Ved couldn’t help but shift uneasily in his seat as he waited for Disha. The pressure his mother was putting on him that night didn’t help either.
It was weird. Ved had no interest in marrying Disha, yet he knew he had to perform well on this date. If he didn’t, he would risk incurring his mother’s disappointment, and that was so much worse than her wrath. What kind of son would he be if he embarrassed her further than the divorce already had? What kind of son would he be if he denied her the one thing she had dedicated her life to: His future happiness? Disha couldn’t be the one to say that she didn’t enjoy Ved’s company. After all, her aunt was the London-based busybody socialite, the “loo paper heiress,” whose father had made a fortune by inventing wet wipes for the butt. To make things worse (or better, in Dolly’s opinion), Disha’s father was Dharmendra Kapoor, the founder and CEO of Kapoor & Co., the most prestigious investment firm in the country. He was ranked number five on the Forbes billionaire list and owned offices all over the world, including in London, Dubai, and Mauritius.
More than a marriage proposal, Dolly viewed this as a business deal to help Ved expand Prem’s company. It didn’t matter that Dolly had lost all financial stake in Mehra Electronics after the divorce. What mattered was that her son still did have a stake, more than a stake. Her son was to inherit the entire weight of the company, and she’d be damned if he didn’t inherit a successful one that would secure prosperity and comfort for his future. And for his future family. So, just as Dolly had done everything in her power to help Prem make the company successful for Ved’s future before the divorce, she’d continued doing everything in her power to reach the same goal after the divorce.
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Yes, Ved had to be the one to say he didn’t enjoy Disha’s company. That was the only way he could get out of this situation without hurting anything, besides perhaps Dolly’s pride. Oh, Dolly would certainly push back on any excuse Ved presented, but if Ved insisted he would be unhappy with Disha, then Dolly would eventually drop the issue. She always did wherever Ved’s happiness was concerned. Not that there had to be anything wrong with Disha. From what he’d seen on Facebook, she seemed lovely. For all her money, she was not at all flashy. Her taste was classy. She clearly loved to pose in front of the camera in a variety of different outfits: a downcast halfway smile while wearing a gray V-neck T-shirt and ripped white jeans; a regal, tall posture while wearing a pink salwar kameez; a close-up that flaunted large diamond earrings and red highlights in her long, dark-brown hair. Slim, with expressive almond-shaped eyes and full lips, she was a conventional Indian beauty.
Ved looked down at his phone, where he’d prepared a list of questions to ask Disha. He had already memorized them, as if he were studying for an exam, but he needed something to do while the people all around him ate their dinners. Then, a message came in from Disha: Ved, I’ll be there soon. Hope you haven’t reached!
Ved quickly typed out a response: Don’t worry, take your time.
She texted back: Haha! Sorry. Give me 10 minutes, followed by two smiley-face emojis.
Ved sent a thumbs-up and put his phone in his pocket. Staring at his list of questions was only making him more fidgety. Pulling the skin down from his hangnails was not helping at all. He settled for observing those around him again. Something caught his gaze. Above the left shoulder of the woman sitting at the table in front of him, Ved could see a man staring at him intently. Once he met the man’s stare, Ved couldn’t look away. His stomach dropped and his heart thudded painfully in his chest, somehow too fast and too slow at the same time. Was it really him—Akshay?
Title: The Other Man
Author: Farhad J. Dadyburjor
Price: Rs 499
(Published with permission from Westland)
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