Ramya Srinivasan | April 2022
Nandini stood at the restaurant’s doorstep, shuffling her legs, and peering inside every few seconds.
It was seven on a Friday night, and most tables were filled with office goers behaving like fledglings who had just flown away from their nest for the first time. It seemed like they were eager to compensate for the long week of meetings and staring at computers. Colleagues who would otherwise not exchange even a few words in the office were having animated conversations with each other. With beer mugs in their hands, they signalled the freedom that the weekend beckoned.
There’s still time to back out, a voice cried inside Nandini. But her legs moved involuntarily as she trudged towards the welcome desk.
“Table booked under the name of Shyla,” she mumbled.
The lady at the desk flashed Nandini a measured smile, guiding her to a cosy room at the farthest corner of the restaurant. The room seemed to appear with no warning, a quiet surprise buried in this noisy joint.
As she stepped in, she noticed that the room had just one long heavyset wooden table with a dozen or more chairs around. The sober décor of this room with dim pendant lights was in contrast to the jazzy tangerine that dominated the rest of the place. This one looked more like a board room calling out for profound conversations than a place to chill out and eat.
Beads of sweat appeared behind Nandini’s ears as she looked at the group of women huddled in the room.
The anxiety she felt reminded her of the initial years in New York when she had tried to make friends. New place, new food, new faces, new colleagues…it had all been overwhelming. But her fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude had helped her to not only survive but also to go on to become the youngest vice president at her firm.
I should feel braver than this, she thought. But it wasn’t easy to shake off a feeling that’s been clinging for years. Especially, if its seeds were strewn in childhood years.
Nandini thought back to the days when she felt like a misfit all the time. Her father was a dreamer who didn’t find anything odd about the daughter of an electrician going to school with a bunch of rich kids who were dropped in swanky cars by drivers wearing sparkly clean uniforms. He didn’t mind the judgmental looks from friends and relatives or scrimping on meals and clothes to get his only daughter educated. He was crazy like that.
But it wasn’t easy for Nandini to not be bothered by these things. She couldn’t help noticing that her home was smaller than her classroom, that her faded pants were a few inches shorter because they couldn’t afford to buy a new school uniform every year, that her lunch box looked bleak in comparison to the buttery aloo parathas her classmates brought, or that the popular gang of girls hesitated to be pally with her.
The days dragged along like a stretched out elastic band waiting to snap. But she got through them by burying her nose into books.
When Shyla reached out to her about the reunion on Facebook, Nandini’s first thought was…So, these guys knew I existed.
She tossed away the idea of going to the reunion, but as the day drew nearer, her curiosity took over. She wanted to find out what Shyla, Priya, Selvi, and the other girls were doing now. Also, being alone in an alien country for years, she was starved for familiar faces.
Shyla was now waving her hand frantically at Nandini from the table. An hour later, Nandini surprisingly found herself hobnobbing with the girls as moments of anxiety melted into nothingness. There seemed to be a lot of common ground to cover from the harsh winters of New York to jobs and boyfriends.
At twenty-eight, most of them were being pressurized by their families to get married, and this common angst united them like nothing else. Two of the girls were married with kids and their cell phones were being passed around for everyone to gush and do the mandatory exclaim of “How cute!” at their kids’ photos.
As Nandini excused herself to the rest room, Shyla joined her.
“I’m so glad you came,” Shyla beamed.
“Yeah, me too,” said Nandini.
“Priya was telling me you’re a big shot now and you might be too busy. But I was really hoping you’d come.”
“Hey, nothing like that at all. In fact, meeting you girls is a refreshing break from my 24 by 7 work.”
Shyla paused briefly, before adding, “We always knew you’d do something great, you know. Even at school, you were brilliant and focused.”
Taken aback by this assessment of her, Nandini didn’t know how to reply.
“We all used to be intimidated by you. You seemed so sure of yourself, when many of us were struggling,” continued Shyla.
Is this what the girls thought of me then? wondered Nandini.
Same canvas. Different interpretations.
Lying on her bed that night, Nandini browsed through the Facebook posts and photos of the girls, clicking Like, typing comments, and laughing out loud as she scrolled along. They were no longer just some random names to her, she realized. They were her gang. She had painted them with one shade earlier, but not anymore. Shyla was the affable, motherly one, Priya was the architect with a dark sense of humour, and Selvi was the foodie with a gregarious personality.
Shyla’s message popped up right then. “Want to meet again next weekend?”
“Definitely!” replied Nandini.
As the invisible walls came down crumbling, Nandini found a bit of herself in the debris.
Ramya Srinivasan is a freelance writer from Bengaluru and a member of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (WICCI) National L&D Council. Her short stories have been published in the anthologies The Mask (TMYS), Blind Turns, Kintsugi, and Skin. Her personal essay, The Dream is Still On, was published in the Chicken Soup for the Indian Entrepreneur’s Soul. A BITS Pilani and IIMB graduate, she worked as a techie with Goldman Sachs and Intel for twelve years before becoming a full-time writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Alec Douglas
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