CHAPTER 2

MATTHEW

Shimla has always been my cradle – well, at first. It always gives me a good feeling to remember how I spent my childhood amidst snowy mountains, pearly skies and warm sunshine. A pity I had to grow up.

I left my cradle and shifted to Mumbai with my family, still a young boy. And I hated it. But then, you hardly like change when it just pops up and bites you in the backside.

I missed everything, the sharp, pungent scent of tea in the fields, the dirt caking my shoes with echoes of the wet earth's thunk, Grandpapa's stories of how the Chinese made tea and let the British make it a worldwide beverage, even irritating Evie Gardiner's pitter-patter footsteps as she walked across the fields, book in hand.

I thought I would lose them all; that they would disappear one day into a little box of memories that I'd be too busy to open. I was right only about my grandfather, however. Of all three, two of them became an important part of my life thereafter. I married the girl, and inherited the plantation – all given to me as if they were gifts.

Even as I walk along the field, I still remember with pleasure Grandpapa's afternoon walks with me. He carried me over his shoulders and walked across the fields, beating the cane to the ground in time with each alternate step. It was lovely to have him as a companion in between the delicious tea plantations, to see them with his eyes, to hear the delicate plucking of the leaves with his ears.

He wasn't one to give me stories of spirits of dead people or the folk legends that my cousins loved to hear so much. He preferred that I listen, wide-eyed, to the story of how emperor Shen-Nung discovered the results of a tea-leaf completely immersed in his boiling water, of how the British took the tea plant from China to India and Ceylon and the Americas. How chai gave you a bigger kick when you added just the right amount of ginger in it. Looking at him as he bent down to lovingly touch the fresh leaves, I could easily imagine myself in the same place – as I am now.

For me, this tea estate is not just a land of scent and color, but a haven away from a world that scream at me to live their way. The green leaves have been my companions in all the weathers of my life, and this is where I have come up with the solutions to my own problems. The sound of the wind rustling them from the suppression of order is music to my ears, a beckoning to lost souls who only need to find themselves.

Funny: considering the fact that I never really felt an interest to the likes of Wordsworth and Shelley, we do share the same ideas, if their poetry is anything to go by.

The girl, on the other hand, became a woman, and then a wife. What a jolly proposition. It amazes me sometimes, how people simply presume that destiny can interlink blood relations enough to transform two distant relatives into life-long soul mates.

Then again, if Evie and I hadn't married, we probably wouldn't have even thought of having a child (and, in consequence, losing one as well) and maybe Sophia would have never come into our lives in the first place. I'll always be grateful to Evie for that (and for other tiny, unnoticed things, which I will never reveal to her).

"Boss," My employee calls from behind, clad in his trademark blue button-down shirt and black pants.

"Yes, Ishan?" I say, knowing immediately what his reply will be.

"Our associates will be meeting you in an hour's time," he replies, grinning.

I smile back – not at him, but (with relief) at the edges of his shirt that are somehow not frayed anymore.

"Let's meet them in my office this time," I replied, flicking away a bit of lint from the soft blue fabric, "We can always give them some homemade tea – " here we smile at the shared pun " – and who, may I ask, is responsible for your revamped washing this time?"

Ishan blushes, but still manages to grant me a feral grin. "Who else?"

It takes a while for me to recollect that Ishan's fiancée, Juhi Kapoor, had jointly decided with him to move into his spacious two-bedroom apartment a month ago. I silently express a congratulatory wish to the dear child. It must have taken a lot for Juhi to help him get over his clumsiness with the laundry.

The meeting with the associates is a successful one. The discussions about opening a new refining factory have reached a fruitful end: our associates are impressed by the plot on one of the hills and are ready to provide the financial back-up.

"Well done, Ishan," I say, feeling proud enough for the both of us put together.

"They weren't really keen on it, you know. I had my doubts, but your presentation really got them eating out of your palm." Several crinkles appear near his eyes as he smiles, "You're the best, Boss."

I can't blame Ishan for wanting to give the credit to me. He reminds me of the devotion I held for my seniors in my day, thinking they could do no wrong. No matter how hard he works, no matter how much of his efforts have been put into a project, he always talks to me as if I've done it alone.

"We all are, young man. We all are."

The sun dips itself into the hills above and sets the sky ablaze, reminding me to call it a day. I arrange my presentation papers, clip them together, lock them in my cupboard and leave for home, but not before asking the watchman to recheck the premises once everyone has left. Just as I was about to sit in my compact black Maruti, I hear Ishan calling my name from behind.

"Boss!" he yells, waving a gold-embossed card "I have to give you this!"

My attention is divided between the unearthly glow on his face, and the card he thrusts into my hand. It's only when I read "The Goldsmith family", right above the great, big, golden "Welcome", that I realize we'll be losing another bachelor to a woman's apron strings, in less than a week.

"Congratulations, my boy," I reply, trying hard to construct that particular sentence in my head in a more optimistic manner.

What about: He'll be married in a few weeks? He'll get what he wants in a few weeks? He'll be responsible for a life other than himself in a few weeks?

He'll be singing an entirely different tune in a few weeks?

Evie's setting the table, just as I come in. Sophia's on the guest divan, reading a magazine and being of absolutely no help to her mother. I set the card on the table as soon as Evie's done.

From the corner of my eye, I see Evie staring at the gold-embossed card, before looking up at me. I move it to her direction. She picks it up and reads. She shoots a questioning gaze, stating the obvious. I avoid giving in, and give her a non-committal shrug. She knows the answer to her question already.

Sophia's abandoned the magazine by now, to watch what she calls our "non-verbal badminton". She's the one who watches our exchanges as they go back and forth, like a shuttle cock. Miffed by our silence, she stands up and grabs the card from Evie, belting out a triumphant war cry after she's done reading.

"Ishan's getting married?" she exclaims, now walking in circles, talking very fast, giving Evie an opportunity to turn away from her. "Are we going, Mamma? Are we? Are we? Are we?"

Evie turns to Sophia now. I hadn't noticed till then, of course, how long her gaze was pinned on me.

"Your Pa knows better," she sighs, moving to the kitchen to serve.

At dinner, Sophia hardly concentrates on her channa-drenched rice and makes noises with her spoon. She only stops when we put down our cutlery to look at her.

"What is it, Sophie?" I say, taking a few spoons of rice from the bowl

"Er...Pa...?" She fidgets in her seat as she tries to find words for whatever is plaguing her mind.

"The wedding card...well…I mean…are you and Mamma planning to go?"

I adjust my glasses, and smile tiredly. "Of course."

Sophia jumps off her chair and practically throws herself at me. I try to make sense of what she's muttering against my neck, and decide that she's thanking me. Evie grins fondly at our jumping ball of joy and shakes her head.

"Of course he'd let you go, dear. He wouldn't have even brought it here if he didn't."

This time I look at her in shock. How the hell did she know?

She's probably faking it, a part of me hisses, Just look at that smile.

Shut up, a little voice inside me counters, there's at least something she knows about you.

"I'll tell Ishan that we're coming for the reception," I reply, getting up.

"Party time!" Sophia screams as I walk along the corridor, "We'll have fun, all of us!"

Fun? We're going as a family. Are families really for fun?

Evie looks like she's probably thinking the same.

I rush into my room, escaping from a strange desire to shake a few words from Evie's mouth, and then wondering what aroused that desire in the first place.

A/N: Channa refers to chickpea curry here, which can be eaten with chapathi (the Indian version of bread) or rice (staple food in many states in India). Of course since rice is not as much the norm where the Goldsmiths live, this can be a peculiarity for them, and a rare dish as well.