Looking at her effusive happy expression, Dutt had the strongest desire to make some kind of a move. Maybe try to kiss her. But he restrained himself. Reena had been right. With this one, things had to progress slowly. He could risk upsetting the balance.
So he took his hand off hers and slid back into his seat. Mansi felt a little relieved by that. Although she very naively did not doubt his intentions as anything but helpful, she was getting uncomfortable by the prolonged proximity to another man.
“You’re right. This is very easy once you get the hang of it.” she said with childlike glee as she rolled up a bunch of noodles and slurped them. And giggled.
Reena came back to see Mansi enjoying her food. Cutlery wasn’t mentioned at all.
The lunch proceeded smoothly with a lot of conversations between the three of them. Reena talked frequently about Dutt’s businesses and his contacts and his influence, which was always followed by Dutt acting very modest and self-effacing. He instead was more intent on talking to Mansi. And he was so charming and easy-going about it that the young housewife found herself not feeling as out of place as she was earlier. Dutt talked to her a lot about art, the different styles of painting, and so on. Mansi listened like a young student.
Dutt also peppered his art lecture with a few questions about Mansi’s own life, her upbringing, her likes and dislikes. The more she talked, the more Dutt was able to get a complete picture of her personality and her psyche. She was a very simple, traditional, and conventional middle class housewife, but she was also hiding a deep sense of dissatisfaction with her life. Was that dissatisfaction merely financial and situational? Or was there something physical in it too? He would have to figure out how to gauge that without scaring her off. He began making a mental list of other small tricks and tactics he could use going forward.
When they finally got done with lunch, Reena pointed her to the bathroom to wash up. After stepping in and closing the door, Mansi again looked around her wide-eyed. The bathroom looked fancier than her living room. Not a spot of dirt or mold anywhere. A huge wall-length mirror. And the counter full of small artisanal soaps and different kinds of lotions and shampoos. Once again, Mansi felt like a child, just touching and examining all those things as if they were wondrous toys. Even the faucets were so ornate.
When she came out, Reena and Mansi were back on the couch having beer. She joined them.
“So did you enjoy lunch, Mansi?” Reena asked.
“Yes, it was delicious.” Mansi smiled. “And I got to learn something new. Using chopsticks.”
“Happy to be of help.” Dutt said.
They all talked casually for a few more minutes. And then Dutt suddenly said,
“Oh, I just remembered.” And he took out a small envelope from his inner pocket. “At a meeting with the Food Mart chain folks today, I got these complimentary gift cards. They don’t have a branch in Delhi. Why don’t you two take them?”
“No no, that’s okay.” Mansi politely declined.
“How much are they for?” Reena reached over and opened the envelope.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t say. It’s just like a debit card with their logo. To be used only in their store. Maybe a couple of hundred rupees.”
“Why not? Thank you.” Reena took one and held out the other for Mansi.
“No, aunty, it’s okay. You keep both.”
“Don’t be silly, Mansi.” Reena pushed one into her hand. “Duttsahab got them for free anyway. Why let them go to waste? I know they have a big store in Borivali too.”
Mansi nodded and put them in her purse. A couple of hundred rupees might help stretch her budget a little.
“Thank you, Duttsahab.” she said politely.
“Don’t mention it. Anyway ladies, I need to leave for a visit to one of my factories in Dahisar.” Dutt got up.
“Oh okay.” Reena said. “I have an appointment soon too.”
Mansi nodded, hoping that with Dutt gone, she might get a few minutes alone with aunty to talk about job opportunities. But then Reena said,
“Duttsahab…you said Dahisar. Why don’t you drop Mansi off at Borivali on the way?”
“Sure, happy to.” Dutt nodded.
“Oh no, I don’t want to delay you. I’ll just take the train.” Mansi was overwhelmed by all these favors he was doing her.
“What delay? It’s my factory. I can reach there any time I want. And Borivali is just on the way.”
Mansi demurred some more but there really was no way to refuse the offer. She couldn’t explicitly say that she had hoped to talk to Reena aunty alone. And honestly, she was a little relieved. It was a heavy lunch and she was feeling a little lazy. It would be nice to get a ride all the way instead of struggling through the local.
So she said her goodbyes to Reena aunty who hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks before letting her go. She accompanied Dutt down the lift in silence and to the hotel lobby.
“Driver, bring the car to the front.” he called and said.
A few minutes later, Mansi was sitting on a plush car seat, again feeling a mix of awe and wonderment. It was a big Mercedes limousine. Expensive leather interior, A/C on at full blast, with a smart looking driver in a crisp uniform. She was getting a first hand exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
“Thank you again, Duttsahab.” she said as he got in from the other side.
“Please stop thanking me all the time, Mansi.” he smiled. “So where exactly do you stay? Tell him the address.”
Mansi told the driver her address in Borivali east and the driver nodded. She sat back and was tempted to thank Dutt again, but he was on the phone.
“Yes Pradeep…no no…can’t do it for 12 million. Had to be fifteen. Yes, we can do something about the warranty…”
He seemed busy with his business. So she sat back. The car started moving. She looked out of the window and marveled at how different the streets of Mumbai looked from the inside of a plush limousine.
She stared at the buildings and cars whizzing past as she wondered, is this how people with money live? How would it feel? Do they get bored of it? She started thinking about a parallel universe where she hadn’t been born to middle class conservative parents in a small town but to someone like Dutt. He seemed like such a nice and knowledgeable man. Very kind and gentle. Surely he didn’t yell at his kids, force fit them into his ideas.
She noticed that Dutt had finished his phone calls.
“Can I offer you some water or a soft drink, Mansi?” he asked. “Your lips look a little dry.”
“Oh no, there is no need to stop.” Mansi said, without realizing that this meant he had been looking at her lips.
“We don’t have to stop.” Dutt smiled. “Push that blue button by your side.”