Thursday, February 5, 2009

Singles Only

The sweaty men were eyeing the gently perspiring women. The women, of course, were not so good at staring, so they pointed and giggled cautiously. The heat was on even before the speed dating started. Partly because it was the first of its kind in the city and mostly because the air-conditioning was not good.

‘Such a shame’, Amit thought, ‘considering these big AC guys were sponsoring the event.’ Perhaps it was a secret ploy by the organisers to help them send pheromone-laced sweat signals to each other? He smiled to himself for the first time since he came here. It felt such a nice change from being hot and bothered.

Once he stepped in, he was suddenly conscious of his regular jeans, tee routine. People all around were all dressed up for the part. He expected to be at ease, once his office buddy arrived. Two phone calls later, he learnt that he was not coming. That’s when he started cursing under his breath and sweating profusely. Thankfully, he had the black T-shirt and the heavy-duty deodorant on.

Amit wanted nothing more to do with this speed dating stuff except writing all the cheeky posters and banners. But the other two guys in his creative group, including the treacherous office buddy, kept insisting for a go, making it sound like the male version of a ‘sex and the city’ episode. And after choosing to invest his precious Sunday, these guys drop off one by one. Amit felt dumped already, even before the real dumping started.

Thankfully, loners like Amit know how to give themselves company, so Amit started looking around for diversion. Since he knew all the words, commas and full stops in the posters and banners by heart, he started eyeing his competition. The bunch next to him were exchanging tips, suggestions and pick-up lines in urgent whispers. It reminded him of his board exams and all the enthusiasm of snooping on his competitors vanished.

He turned away in distaste and was greeted by a big, red smile from a girl few feet away. She silently mouthed, ‘What’s your name?’ Amit was puzzled at this silent lingo first, then he remembered the rules, no boy-girl talking before the event started. ‘Amit’ he quickly mouthed back along with a standard-sized smile and looked the other way. Not because he felt shy and tongue-tied. But because he knew exactly what he was doing. His moody eyes and unkempt looks always attracted a certain kind of girls like moths to the flame. And after a couple of bitter experiences he knew that they were not exactly his kind. He checked the friendly stranger cautiously with the corner of his eyes. The signs were familiar and telltale. Perfect grooming, pricey clothes, professional smile and an edgy, infectious laughter. No sir, not the same mistake again. He started thinking about the ways to put her off when they would meet across the table.

Just fifteen minutes into this and a non-starter already. Amit felt bored and nervous at the same time for his bad luck. Unknowingly, his hands started doing the usual thing whenever his mind didn’t know what to do. Amit had a curious way of twiddling his thumbs, whenever he felt distracted, bored or anxious. After locking in his fingers, he would rotate his thumbs around each other, one clockwise and the other anti clock. He took quite a pride in this silly achievement, because it was, frankly, not very easy to do.

So keeping his hands busy this time, he let his eyes wander. This time they stopped at two girls wearing matching outfits. Not twins obviously, must be best friends. They seemed deep in conversation and the frequent giggles made Amit suspicious of their plans on ganging up on a poor guy. Then he realised that must be forbidden by the rules and felt a bit relieved.

But his relief was short-lived as he stole a glance of two hands and a back, between the dress-buddies. The hands were busy. The thumbs were twiddling and she was doing his moves! Fingers locked in, thumbs rotating around each other. One clock-wise, other anti clock. In fact, Amit was both angry and anxious to note that, they were moving much faster than his. His first thought was whether this was a joke. Or better still, a secret signal? But since she had her back to him, both seemed improbable. Then Amit’s eyes slid up her back draped by a magenta raw silk kurti, to her hair. And immediately a third possibility loomed in his mind. He always had a thing for girls with short hair.

A bell diverted his train of thought. A busy-looking lady trotted in with a clipboard and started cooing in her wireless mike. She started with the usual patter of thanking the sponsors and associates of the event. Amit couldn’t help noticing his Ad Agency being thanked in the process. Then she started how things will work.

Apparently, they could finally sit at the vast row of twin-chaired tables at the other end of the hall. The girls sit tight on their chairs. On the other side, guys have to change places after a bell every ten seconds. To avoid musical chair and fistfights, each guy shifts to the chair on his right, the poor guy at the end of the row obviously has to run back to the beginning of it. It was quite simple actually, except it sounded too much like a breeding experiment.

Breeding, of course, seemed exciting. But Amit was in distinct disadvantage as far as experiments were concerned. He could still remember, his Physics teacher’s disappointment at his electrical experiment results. The used to be nowhere close to the right ones. Not even distant cousins or half siblings, but perfect strangers. This experiment was going to be another mess, Amit soon realised and as usual, he was part of the problem.

In order to make a breeding experiment, i.e., a speed dating event a success, the number of male and female participants should be equal. And thanks to Amit’s treacherous office buddy, there was one too many girls. A yum extra helping for guys no doubt, but against the rules and unfair for the girls, too, as the busy lady explained. There was a problem, she frowned and tapped her pen furiously on the notepad. Thankfully, she didn’t point her fingers at Amit and told him to stand up, as Amit expected.

The more Amit grew embarrassed, wider the smile of relief grew in a pretty face. “Excuse me, Ma’am!” A confident voice rang, “I am ready to leave. I guess that will solve your problem.” Visibly relieved, the busy lady queried, “But what about the fees you paid, dear?” “My office paid them, don’t worry.” And with a swish of her Magenta kurti and turn of her short crop, Amit’s only hope left the room, leaving everybody else relieved.

The ‘Exam Bell’ rang. And torn away from the girl who could have been his thumb-twiddling buddy, Amit landed bang in front of one of the dress-buddies. He was still straining his neck to follow the departing trail of magenta, when a sudden piece of paper shoved its way to him. “Quick!” urged dress-buddy one after a super fast, “Hi, I am Anima!”, “Fill up this match-making form, we have only eight seconds left!” With horror, “Hi, I am Amit!” discovered that the paper was crawling with questions like- ‘favourite colour?’, ‘favourite season?’, ‘favourite bollywood star?’ etc. Anima had her long nose deep into her form. ‘More our answers match, the more compatible, we will be.’ She offered to explain. Amit already knew their compatibility factor till two places after the decimal point. It was zero. He was just happy that there was no blank space for mobile number. Seconds passed like minutes as Amit struggled to fill his form. The bell rang and like the shrewish English teacher he always hated, Anima told him to submit his papers. The only match was their home city, Mumbai. Anima was not amused at all. Her gloom deepened when her dress buddy bragged about her nine matches.

Seconds earlier, Amit wanted nothing more than to know the short-haired girl’s name but after the match-making test encounter, all he wanted was not to encounter the other dress-buddy ever. It was inevitable, but he wanted to keep the worst for the last. His wish was granted, the next girl she met was the one who could hardly wait to meet him. The one with the infectious laughter.

“Hullo!” She said, “ So what do you do?” She charged without further delay. “ I am a copywriter. What about you?” “I am in PR.” So was the last girl Amit loved and lost. At least, he didn’t have to explain what on earth copywriters do. She would know that. She wanted to know much more, it seemed. “So, how much do you make per month?” “I…uh…what?” was all Amit could muster. “I quite like you.” The bubbly Devina offered to explain, “But going out with me can be quite expensive, so just checking out!” Amit’s stupor was broken by her rippling laughter. “Just kidding!” she said. Gathering up a smile as fast as he could, Amit hastened to say, “Ok, at least you have some sense of humour. The last girl I met made me fill up a form. Girls and sense of humour, phew!” And there he was, doing what he did best, sticking his foot firmly in his mouth.

All the mirth in Devina’s face vapourised instantly. “You guys are so, so chauvinist. Girls are uptight and guys are all jolly good fellas of the world. Just too much!” Amit could only say, “ Just kidding. You are a glorious exception anyway.” “Not funny!” she said and was all prepared to storm out. Thankfully, the bell rang, so that she could storm out officially.

Half his Sunday already down the drain, Amit started missing his chatty idiot box and his pile of books that don’t get offended when you laugh at them. “Look at the bright side,” he consoled himself, “at least I didn’t have to ward her off, she did that all by herself.”

One more shift to the right and Amit was gladdened by the vision. This girl was gorgeous. Lithe and cheery, her lightness of being was for all to admire. She ran her fingers through her dark hair with hints of auburn. She smiled and waved. The auburn mother of pearl bracelet slid down her slender wrist. It reminded Amit of something quite poetic he couldn’t quite recall. It also reminded Amit of his own double chin, wide waist, stray pimples and too large eyes. “Hi, I am Divya.” She said. “Amit.” He said. Just the beginning and he was already intimidated by her beauty. Cracking a joke seemed to be the only way out.“ Why do you need speed dating? It’s for the lesser mortals like me.” “What do you mean?” Divya frowned. “I mean, look at you. You can have any guy you want. No trial and error needed.” “I guess not.” She said with a weak smile. “My boyfriend broke up with me over SMS and I can’t have him back. No matter how many times I called.” Shocked and sorry, Amit apologised for talking fast and loose. She said, “Don’t worry, I am not going to cry. By the way I talk too much too. A sagi after all.” Amit was so delighted at this match, he could only blurt out, “Great! Can I have your number?” Divya smiled indulgently. “The rule is, your first contact can be through the organisers only.” Before Amit could decide whether it was a convenient lie or the simple truth, the bell rang.

Amit suddenly felt dizzy. It could be because he was starved, but mostly because of these close encounters of the worst kind. He was an out and out loner. He liked the company of very few people and he was one of them. He wanted the company of the rest of the world as and when he chose. He wanted to put the rest of the world in a box and take it in as and when required. No self-respecting world would appreciate that, hence their meetings were strictly on an appointment basis. With a secret world full of imagination and fantasy, he could wade through the muck of everyday life easily. Smiling, helloing, joking, writing, yet alone inside his head. It seemed like a gift all along till the gift wraps were torn recently and loneliness came out. And after many meetings with loneliness in its many avatars, he met an incurable one. It demanded to be fed. It demanded the company of like-minded laughter and sorrow.

But now he regretted listening to it. He felt ashamed about feeling so needy and even more shameful to admit the fact to himself. Today, after all these chance meetings, being embarrassed, examined, reprimanded and refused, the little, lonely boy inside him wanted to go home.
But there were three more to go. And he desperately wanted for something good to happen. It came in the shape of Anima’s dress-buddy. He got up and left immediately. The misery of facing the match-making form again gave him enough courage to leave behind her gasp of surprise, the organiser lady’s hurried announcement and the security guards feeble attempt to stop him.

Amit was at last free, under the grey sky, on the road, facing a traffic jam. A loner trying to speed date. He remembered his three-legged dog who loved to chase cats. He smiled to himself while his eyes searched for the familiar red of a BEST bus to take him home. His eyes caught on a colour much more interesting. The magenta kurti. Amit quickened his pace. The Sunday was slipping through his fingers fast. Something good had to happen.

“Hi!” he said, breathing almost on the girl’s neck. “I am Amit!” “I am Megha.” She barely lifted her eyes to identify him and went back to her paperback. “I am sorry.” Amit said. “My friend did not turn up. And you had to leave.”

“It’s OK.” She said, “I am quite a loner. Wanted to wiggle out of this speed-dating stuff anyways. One of the organisers is my friend. She forced…” Megha finally looked up from her book and straight into his eyes. ‘Thinking Out-of-the box’ the cover read.
“So we read the same kind of books. Out of the box stuff.” Amit hastened, refusing to waste any time. “Speaking of boxes, I would rather put the rest of the world in a box and open it only when needed. There comes my bus…” Her voice was little angry, little sharp and full of the telltale signs of a thoroughbred loner. The magenta was gone in a trail of red.

This was the first time in his life, Amit was happy for not coming up with a sharp retort. His grin only grew wider when he found her dropped visiting card, which recently lost its job of a page mark.

But his smile faded, when a sudden thought crossed his mind. Loners can get along only with loners. But being loners, can they ever get together? But hopefully life defied logic and with rapid pushes on his mobile, Amit started to store Megha’s number.

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