Falling in Love
A short story.
Untitled by Tyeb Mehta (1973)
Ashima was excited. After what felt like months of prodding, ‘final’ ultimatums, and countless rescheduling, she was finally meeting Aditya’s parents. Or, “finally getting a chance to be introduced to them at a gathering in a relative’s home,” she corrected herself. She was standing in front of her full-length mirror, doing a last-minute check. They had bought this mirror, like the rest of the furniture, at a second-hand market near Chor Bazaar. With ornate wood framing that looked slightly rusty, it was a damn steal. A stroke of luck. “Just like my life with Aditya,” she thought, before heading out the door.
For before stumbling onto what felt like a relationship-from-heaven, Ashima had gone through her share of men. Men who were afraid of her ambition. Men who told her she needed to be more ambitious. Men who wanted her to be more open. And men who were so emotionally closed-off, a hint of personal conversation sent them running. Just when she was getting around to the idea that she might just be that forever-single-friend to all those who knew her, she met Aditya.
There was no love at first sight. Or a fortuitous meet-cute. She knew of Aditya through her close friend Ayesha, and met him at her wedding. They exchanged numbers — and then, Instagram memes. He asked her out on a date. She said yes. Many dates and an agenda-setting meeting over takeout Thai, they moved in. Like all things Aditya, their relationship was a straightforward affair.
Which is why Ashima just couldn’t understand Aditya’s wariness when it came to His Parents.
It started off innocuously. They were on their fourth date, and Ashima’s mother – Prof. Mittal to her dear students – had called to ask for a butter chicken recipe.
In the Mittal family, cooking was a matter of congeniality. Ma, who was fearless when it came to droll university committee meetings and uninterested students, never got along with the kitchen. “It’s not like I hate cooking, baba. I just think there are better things to do!” she’d offer as her final argument when anyone interrogated her about her non-existent cooking skills. Thankfully for Ashima, her father loved the kitchen with as much gusto as Ma avoided it. She’d grown up watching her father cook like a frenzied conductor; guiding an orchestra to a crescendo. Ashima had inherited his love for cooking, although her style was more military – less chaos, more recipe fidelity.
When she hung up after promising to dispatch step-by-step instructions, she asked Aditya, “So, what do your parents do?”
It was the first time His Parents were came up. Their relationship was still nascent, and thorny conversations a while away. But Aditya’s reaction to the question of His Parents would remain the same – a slight hunching of shoulders, a deep sigh, a desperation to talk about anything else.
Over the years, Ashima had gleaned bits of information about His Parents. No, they weren’t abusive. They were actually quite fond of him, him being the youngest son, after all. They had a family business of some kind, which Aditya had decided to not to be a part of. Astrophysics, as Ashima knew by now, was his lifelong passion and pursuit.
They lived in Delhi, but on the outskirts of the city – which Aditya always used as a reason for why he never really visited them. He had two elder brothers. Both of whom worked in this elusive family business – and both of whom Ashima had never met. (“They live so far away, Ashu, and you know how bad Delhi’s traffic gets during peak hours.”)
Not being generally suspicious, Ashima had initially brushed off Aditya’s reluctance about his parents. He was so open, and straightforward otherwise. “Respectful, collaborative, sexy, funny, and intelligent,” she reminded herself as she sat in her car and switched on the radio. She’d been wary of men, and ready to bolt at even the slightest fluttering of a red flag. But Aditya made her feel comfortable.
Sure, they had their problems. She was a commitment-phobe; he wanted stability. Her temper was notorious; his Zen-like calm was popular. She liked things clean; he reveled in mess. But still. They’d talked about it, found a mid-way, and somehow, fallen even more in love with each other.
They were in love, they wanted to get married, and were fairly confident that they’d made the right decision. The only possible-problem-but-who-really-knows-because-mystery were His Parents.
“You think you're in love
Like it's a real sure thing
But every time you fall
You get your ass in a sling
You used to be strong
But now it's "ooh baby please"
Because falling in love is so hard on the knees!”
“Aerosmith really knew their stuff,” Ashima thought to herself and started driving. It was a long drive but she was ready. It was time to meet His Parents.
Aditya had decided to meet her at “the farmhouse.” Ashima was a little miffed that they weren’t going together. But just the fact that he had agreed to arrange this meeting with his parents was such a rare occurrence, that she said nothing. As she drove through the shady, tree-lined roads in Chhattarpur, her anger gave way to curiosity. She’d never actually been to this part of Delhi, and it was unlike anything she had seen.
There was no sign of human life on the roads. Just barbed wire and large steel gates. Interrupted by blank walls with unnecessarily aggressive signs. “Beware of dogs.” “Private property, trespassers will be prosecuted.”
She’d lived in Delhi long enough to know just how class-obsessed the city was. “But if you were rich enough to have a farmhouse in Delhi, why would you want to live in a place with prison gates?”
Slowly, she started to see people. Families walking. Women, and men. Most of them well-dressed, and carrying knitted tokris as they shuffled along in a mix of reverence and martyrdom. Some of them even barefoot. She checked the location Aditya had sent her on Google Maps. There was just one road, and it seemed these families were heading where she was. Had Aditya actually called her to a temple?
“God, I hope not.” Ashima wasn’t what you’d call a textbook-atheist. But neither was she a textbook-believer. Temples to her seemed to work better as people-watching zones. Rather than, you know, a place to feel at one with some kind of Supreme Being.
She was often amazed at the things she saw people do at temples. Buy offerings they knew would be discarded, stand in line for hours on end, prostrate at what they could clearly see was probably a cheaply bought statue. What was it about people believing that a divine power was keeping a watch on their everyday mundane lives anyway?
“You’ve arrived,” droned Google. Ashima looked around. It wasn’t a temple…but it also wasn’t not a temple. It was a farmhouse, alright. But with devotees everywhere; some of whom honking at her to get a move on. (Ah, Delhi.)
She let herself be directed to the parking lot, parked her car, got out…and ran into a kid selling her flowers. “Guruji ke liye phool nahin loge?” Guruji? Then she really looked around.
The farmhouse seemed to be some centre (“or a modern temple?”) of a “Guruji” for whom these tokris were destined for. Somehow, Aditya – who even hated her zodiac signs app! – had decided this centre (“wait, it’s an ashram, that’s what the sign says”) was the place where Ashima should meet His Parents.
“What the hell is this place?” were her first words to him. Words she instantly regretted. Ashima had promised herself that she would be supportive of Aditya and this meeting, no matter what. She loved him, they were a team, they could handle it. But this, this, was quickly exceeding her list of things-that-could-be-wrong about His Parents.
“Just…do you want to do this? Shall we just go get lunch somewhere and forget about this, Ashu?” Aditya looked anxious and hopeful.
“No, no. I…just got thrown off a little, bas. Let’s do it. Let’s meet your parents. Shall I go buy tickets?”
She felt Aditya was giving her an appraising look. The same look he gave when she needed rescuing from a boring conversation at a party. “You sure you’ve got this?” That look was one of her favourite things about him. It meant, that above all, they were a team.
Yes. They were a team. She loved him, and he loved her. They could handle…whatever was coming next.
Ashima whispered to herself. With the blaring bhajans on the speaker drowning everything else, there was no danger of Aditya hearing her, but even if he had, she didn’t care. She couldn’t believe where she was. In a large prayer hall, being pushed by people, standing in an endless line, but clearly, a line that was Sacred. For everyone else in the room. This was the line that will take them to “darshan.” This wasn’t a meet-the-parents in a temple like she had imagined it would be. This, bafflingly, was a pilgrimage.
“What are we doing here, and where are your parents?”
“Just…I will explain later.”
“Later when! I thought you were taking me to meet your parents! Why am I standing in this sweaty hall, what the fuck is happening?”
“Aditya! Aap yahaan kya kar rahein hai! Hato, hato, idhar aayiye aap…”
A short, smiling man beamed at them both, and before she knew it, Ashima found herself being shepherded by him. The crowd parted to give way for the man, with many now looking at Ashima and Aditya with the same reverence as they were looking at everything around them. (“Bhavya darshan.”) Clearly, this Short Smiling Man was important in the hierarchy of this temple (“Ashram, I mean.”) And, by the brief nod of recognition on Aditya’s face, he was also someone who he knew.
On each side of the prayer hall were big, ornate wooden doors on the side, as if standing guard while devotees made their way to The Big Door in a serpentine queue. Those doors reminded Ashima of the prison-like barricades for the farmhouses she had just seen outside. Without the barbed wire.
They went in to what looked like an anteroom. The loudspeakers, and the noise faded away. From chaos, they were finally at a place of calm. If you live in India long enough, you recognize some atmospheric changes as indicators of your change in social status. Special seats in a concert marked “reserved,” the hush of a premium airport lounge where you aren’t rubbing shoulders with the common people, the appeal of being a “VIP” in a public place where you’re marked “special.” In this place – farmhouse, ashram, temple, whatever it was – Ashima instantly knew that she was no longer any other devotee. She was a VIP. Why, though, was the Short Smiling Man now asking her if she wanted tea or coffee or “shikanjvi also we have, Ashimaji, anything you want…” when there was a massive crowd outside these doors being willingly treated worse than cattle, was still a mystery. Not for Aditya who was asking the Short Smiling Man (“Guptaji kaise hain aap!”) how his eldest son was doing in school.
“You have five minutes to explain what’s happening, or I am walking out, Aditya, and I mean it.” Giving threats while waiting for refreshments wasn’t Ashima’s style. But then, neither was being kept in the dark.
Aditya looked at her with a mix of resignation, fear, and loss. Whatever this was, Ashima knew that she was finally going to get some clarity. Time was up. What came next was The Truth.
“Do you see the photo of that man on the wall behind you?”
Ashima craned her neck to look, but she didn’t have to. The twinkling face of the tall, bearded man, wearing a bright orange kurta and holding up his hands in blessing was imprinted on her short-term memory. From the moment she got off the car, to now, sitting in this sparkling waiting room, the Twinkling Orange Man was used as if he was the last décor option left in the world.
“Ye-es. Same guy whose photos have been everywhere in this place. He’s some Guruji that this ashram or temple…. or whatever this place is called, is for na. What does that have to do with anything?”
“He is my father.”
Ashima had read many, many times what happens to people when they hear news that shifts their world. For Jane Austen heroines learning news of romantic betrayal “time would stand still,” newspaper articles would describe everyday people confronted with unimaginable tragedy “feel a pit in their stomach,” and tragic heroes in 19th-century poems would hear a “whoosh that meant life had changed.”
All three things happened to Ashima as Aditya uttered “he is my father.” (“What is he, in some Star Wars film?” was her random, first thought.) She could feel Aditya talking, but saw his words tumble out in slow-mo, felt like her stomach had dropped to her knees, and she couldn’t be sure but she heard a resounding whoosh in her ears. Though, that could just be the devotees clanging their plates for the aartis.
“…wait, what. I thought you had a family business?”
Aditya’s words fell off mid-ramble and he focused his attention back to Ashima. “Yes, they do. This…” waving at corridor with the Twinkling Orange Man (Aditya’s Father, Ashima corrected herself), “…is my family business.”
“Which is what?”
“Does this look like the face of someone who knows?!”
“Okay okay. My father is what people here call Guruji. My mother is called Gurumaa, but she isn’t worshipped or anything, she just manages the administration….”
“Ohh no, only your father is worshipped as some sort of godman, how incredibly, terribly, boring!”
“Aashima, come on, there is no need for that...”
“No what there is need to be is to fucking….”
“Ashima ji, shikanjvi?”
The Short Smiling Man looked at them, well, smilingly.
Even though a part of Ashima didn’t care if the whole ashram stopped in their tracks and watched her rip Aditya a new one for what so blatantly felt like deceit of the worst kind to her, she stopped herself. The man watching her sip shikanjvi and trying to make small talk with Aditya was related to the family, and she still wanted to make a good first impression. Be the kind of woman this Short Smiling Man would report back as the only woman for Aditya to his parents and family, and also because somewhere she still believed that they were a team. She was hoping that this whole…thing was an elaborate prank. But, sigh, but if it were not, she told herself, she will not be cowed down. She loved him, Ashima reminded herself, as she forced a smile at the last (terrible) joke the Short Smiling Man (“no, no, he has a name…Guptaji”) cracked. She loved Aditya, they were a team, and they could handle anything…even this.
“So, hum kab mil sakte hain? When can we meet um Aditya’s um…Dad...?” she asked.
Guptaji smiled even wider, and looked at Aditya and Ashima as if they were a giggly couple asking for his blessing on their wedding day. If Ashima wanted approval at least from this sort-of-family-unit, it was given. Only His Parents remained to be wooed. The Twinkling Orange Man and the Twinkling Orange Woman (she assumed?) Or Guruji and Gurumaa. Ugh.
However Ashima had imagined godmen to be on their personal time – you know before they sat in front of an audience that worshipped them and smiled beatifically – she hadn’t certainly thought that they would scroll IG reels, and then ask their associates to “shoot a bank of such content for the audience connect.” But that’s exactly what she heard Twinkling Orange Man/Aditya’s Father/Guruji say to his minions when she walked in to meet him. They were in room made of gold – gold wallpaper, marble flooring, gold-plated chairs, chandeliers that reflected all the gold-ness. The luxury of the room was a little deflated by the messy camera set up that had taken over the room like an out-of-control creature. Wires everywhere, a harsh white light, a camera alongside a man looking like this was a gig he could do without…and seated among this gold-ness was the Twinkling Orange Man. (Ashima realized that it would take her a while to call him Aditya’s Father…at least.)
Less godman, more CEO-getting-ready-for-another interview, he had ditched his trademark orange robes for a t-shirt, and was instructing someone on why “we need to rethink our social strategy if we want to get to a younger TG yaar…think 18- to 25-year-olds, where are they going when they feel they need a spiritual dose in their life? Spiritual dose! That’s it! Raman, are you writing this down? That’s what we need to pull these kids in. Fifteen second reels called Spiritual Dose! Will you get the content team to work on this while…oh Aditya? Is that you?”
Aditya smiled bashfully, walked carefully over the wires and gave his father a hug. In that moment, Ashima felt a moment of relief. Because despite the absurdity of what the “family business” was, it was clear that as far as the family part of it was concerned, there was no unpleasantness. Or unpleasant surprises. Whatever this Orange Twinkling Man may be to the huge crowd outside one of these doors – Ashima wasn’t sure which door led to a stage but she knew was in some sort of a backstage area – she knew that to Aditya, he was his father – and a father who was now looking at her with a friendly curiosity.
“Hello uncle, um, sir, um guruji, um.. I am Ashima, Aditya’s um…friend.”
Introducing yourself to the parents of your boyfriend is awkward enough. Depending on how progressive your partner’s parents are, at the moment of introduction you are either slotted into “ah how lovely our son has someone!” or “hmm girlfriend but our son usually doesn’t date, hmm, chalo influence is of all sorts…” Add the surprise element of your partner’s parents being godmen (“godfamily?”) where public beliefs are known to range from take-onion-and-bury-under-a-tree absurd to “women must be servants of men” Stone Age gyaan, Ashima really felt that she was taking a dip. Not in the holy Ganga, but a wild sea. At high tide. At night. And she didn’t know how to swim.
“Ah of course, of course. Welcome Ashima, how are you? Is this your first time coming to the ashram?”
“Hmm, and that’s because you didn’t know…?”
“I mean, I am not really…I mean, we wanted to come…but you know, Delhi is so big, and traffic!”
Aditya’s Father (it was easier to imagine him such without the orange robes, admittedly) gave an understanding smile, as if he knew all about the whoosh, drop in the pit of her stomach, and slo-mo revelation. He knew that she didn’t know, and somehow, he was okay with it.
“Why don’t you guys sit down? We will be starting shortly. Your mother is getting ready, so I think you will be seeing her later.”
And with that he patted Aditya’s back, and turned away. With his back to them, while he chatted with a hassled assistant (Raman, she mentally registered), he looked like any other father. At least he hadn’t banished Aditya for having “illicit relations with a young woman” or cursed her for doing “kaala jadoo.” Small mercies. Could it be that…Aditya’s father actually had a twin brother who was a godman, and this man was just the guy taking care of things behind-the-scenes? Sure, having anyone associated with a godman-cult-type thing was not desirable, but this was Delhi, anything could happen. And he would certainly be easier to explain to Ma and Baba than if their in-laws actually turned up on TV with a pravachan, har sandhya 5 baje.
“Okay here’s the thing. I am a coward.” Aditya was looking at her with a kill-me-or-I-would-die expression. The Confession was here.
“I am a coward. I should have told you. But I got scared that you would clock me as a kook and run away. When the truth is, well, that it’s my family that’s kook, not me. Look, yes, this ashram is where I grew up. Guptaji who you met practically raised me. Anuj bhaiya and Armaan bhaiya are older, Ma and Baba as you must have understood by now, were…busy. The ashram just seemed like a big playground while growing up. I studied in Dehradun, and no one really knew about…this…right? After I came back, I knew I wanted to study physics. Baba didn’t like that initially, but lucky for me, I didn’t have to worry about taking over the family business. Anuj and Armaan bhaiya both helped me ….and so, I moved out. Did my Masters, and then my PhD, and during all that time, I just never called anyone at home, or said my family has a big business…which if you really think about it, my story isn’t different from any Delhi guy…”
“Yeah, except, instead of I don’t know, cement or steel, your family business is what, god?”
“Actually, no, they just think my father is an incarnation of god so…”
“Okay, okay I know I know. But here’s what I do right, I just think of him as…a motivational speaker! That’s all he is. He motivates people, tells them how to solve their problems, have faith, and people pay well, some kind of fees. I know it’s a shock, but just don’t think of him a baba or something. He’s just, an influencer.”
“What in the holy fuck is fucking…”
“Ashima ji, chaliye bhavya aarti ka time ho gaya hai.”
Did Guptaji did have special powers to see who was violating the sacred space of his Guruji? Ashima found herself being hustled onto the sidelines of a stage. All she could see in front of her were blinding lights, behind which, presumably, was an amorphous public which had just let out a giant roar. It felt like she was accompanying Sachin Tendulkar while he walking in Wankhede.
Except she wasn’t only accompanying Sachin Tendulkar. She was marrying his son.
Suddenly, the hall felt silent. She looked to see Twinkling Orange Man (now back in his Guruji avatar, so she couldn’t think of him as Aditya’s Father, for her sanity she couldn’t) had his hands raised for what felt, to her, an awkward length of time. But clearly, she was new to this. For the enraptured people standing next to her, this was bliss. Whatever slight weight Aditya’s “think of him like a motivational speaker” argument had, faded away. This was a damn cult. And she was marrying the prince. The rebel prince. But, still.
“Ashima, come.” The prince was speaking to her. She shook her head to feel Aditya gently holding her hand and pulling her on stage. She could feel the eyes of every eye in the hall on her.
They walked up to the Orange Twinkling Man. For a second, he rearranged his features to be her boyfriend’s father she had just met. And then, back. The devil’s magic trick.
“Ashu, now.” She felt the force of Aditya’s hand, as she found herself bending on her knees and bowing to her…future father-in-law? A godman who on any other day she would have laughed out of the building…sorry ashram? A nice man? Or a powerful devil she daren’t cross?
You used to be strong
But now it's "ooh baby please"
Because falling in love is so hard on the knees!”
The Aerosmith song, that morning, that excitement – Ashima felt that surely, surely, that had happened a century ago? But no. The day hadn’t ended, she was on her knees, and in that moment, she felt a mad urge to laugh and startle Aditya, and Twinkling Orange Man, and Guptaji, and the whole absurd rigmarole; just shout and laugh and point.
Because, turns out, falling in love had been hard on her knees. She just didn’t know how.
That’s it from me for this week! Because you got all the way to the end of this not-so-short story, I will spare you the Links of the Week. If you liked this newsletter, do share it along. If you didn’t, well, it wasn’t me, it was Substack. As always, I would love to hear from you — what you thought of Ashima and Aditya, what you’ve been up to, or how you’ve been dealing with this heat. (Mangoes are my saviour.)
I hope you’re well. I will write again, soon.