The morning she gave Peter and Neha, and their baby daughter Minty, a tour of Ambassador Apartments, Mrs Banerjee decided she didn’t like them very much. No, not the baby. The baby she didn’t mind. But the young couple, dressed in all leather (black and brown) and jeans (dark blue), and armed with lattes from the pretentious café across the street, struck a jarring chord.
From her window, she had watched their car pull into the driveway. Neha had been driving, Peter sitting next to her, and the baby strapped into her special chair in the back. When Peter had bent to retrieve their daughter, Neha had grabbed his right butt cheek, and squeezed it hard, like it was a melon she was testing for ripeness.
Quickly, Mrs Banerjee had averted her gaze. Not once in the forty-two years of her marriage had she behaved this shamelessly. She had kept her eyes glued to the far corner of the street, where a crow and pigeon were fighting over what looked like a piece of bread, until Peter and Neha had knocked on her door.
And now they followed her, almost wordlessly, as she showed them one landmark after another. They murmured their approval for the well-stacked library in the basement, the guest suite on the ground floor that you could rent for out-of-town friends or family visiting for the weekend, and the herb-and-flower-lined terrace perched at the top of the building, next to the red and brown sign that proclaimed in bold — Ambassador Apartments, 1976.
“It’s so retro,” Mrs Banerjee heard Neha whisper to Peter, “and yet, so chic.”
Mrs Banerjee pursed her lips. What were these words even? The image of Neha’s hand and Peter’s butt flashed in her mind, and she hurried her pace, as if that would wipe it.
Peter said, “Yes,” but didn’t expand further. He shifted Minty from his left shoulder to the right. The baby fussed a bit, but went back to sleep. Sure, the building wasn’t new nor did it have all the amenities their previous apartment had had, but it was safe, affordable, and with the kind of aesthetics that Neha adored.
“The terrace garden is for everyone’s use,” Mrs Banerjee said, gesturing towards the pots of mint and coriander, buttressed against the generous sweep of the bougainvillea. “This was one of the original guidelines we put in place when the Association was formed.”
“Ah,” Peter said. Of course, she had to remind everyone about the Association, didn’t she? Mrs Banerjee, one of the founding members of this famous housing cooperative, and presently, its president. Oh, please. Not manager. Not director. No, sir. The old woman in the hippie skirt was President of the Ambassador Apartments Resident Association.
“Nice,” Neha said. “Thank you for showing us around.”
Peter ate the words he wanted to say. “It’s her job, Neha.” Neha just had to be sweet to everyone, didn’t she? It was like a disease with her.
Mrs Banerjee waved her hands in the air. “Not a problem. Remind me again, though, what is it you two do?”
“We run a communications consultancy,” Neha replied.
“That’s right. Social media and all that, right?”
“Sure, you could say that,” Neha nodded vaguely.
Peter cleared his throat but once again, he didn’t say anything. Good god, who made this hick president of anything? He didn’t think old people had to know everything, but, jeez, at least they could make the effort. He had already answered Mrs Banerjee’s questions last week during their interview. After that, following Ambassador Apartment’s rules, he and Neha had filled up the five- page application form, and written an essay on how they would contribute to the overall quality of life in the building. Even though everyone knew that in their case, this was all a formality. He and Neha were renting the apartment from his friend’s mother, who now lived in Australia. Technically, they shouldn’t have had to jump through the hoops, but apparently, when it came to the Ambassador, rules were rules.
“I used to work too, you know,” Mrs Banerjee said, cutting into his thoughts. She waited, unsmiling, as if expecting Peter or Neha to ask follow-up questions. When neither did, she offered on her own, “I used to teach English at a convent school. I did that for almost forty years.”
“Wow,” Peter said, as he wiped the drool gathered at the corners of Minty’s mouth.
“Thank you,” Mrs Banerjee said stiffly, acutely aware of his tone. She led them two storeys down to the flat they would be renting, and the image of Neha’s hand and Peter’s butt danced in front of her eyes again. The authority with which Neha had grabbed him, as if staking her claim, a combination of playfulness, nonchalance, and perhaps even hunger? So inappropriate.
Surreptitiously, Mrs Banerjee ran her hands down the sides of her layered skirt, as if ironing out its rusched cotton. She wished she had had an inkling of how well turned out Peter and Neha would be.
Really, she chided herself, she could have made an effort. It’s not as if she didn’t have nice clothes. What about her black and cream kurta? Since retirement, she had gotten into the bad habit of grabbing the first thing off the drying rack every morning. Even her husband, who once had a fine eye for such things, had stopped urging her. But say he had, and say, she had made the effort, would her kurta have cut it with these two?
They weren’t bad people, perhaps, but from the way they squared their shoulders and held themselves, they reminded her of some classmates back in the posh college she had attended all those decades ago. Here, the daughter of senior bureaucrat, there, the son of the foreign minister, beside him, the niece of a famous author, and behind her, the nephew of the country’s most notorious photographer. Oddly, even if they had not known each other before starting college, it was as if the moment they walked through the wrought-iron gates, they knew whom to gravitate towards, and whom to ignore, meaning, folks like her, the ordinary daughter of two ordinary school teachers, no famous politician or diplomat or artist anywhere in the family.
Her husband, not her husband then, but simply a classmate, who also happened to be the son of the socialist-minded agriculture minister of the country, had been one of those insiders. And yet, strangely, unexpectedly, he had broken rank, and chosen her. The memory tugged at something inside Mrs Banerjee, and as Peter and Neha discussed how they would convert their second bedroom into a home office plus gym, she felt grateful for the respite it offered.
Later that night, Peter recollected their terrace walk with Mrs Banerjee. “Now, now, remember Neha, what do you think is the job description of our building president? Here’s my guess,” he counted off on his fingers, “send floral good mornings on WhatsApp. Punish anyone littering by denying them terrace dhania for a week. Reward good behaviour with a garland of bougainvillea for their bathroom.”
Neha chuckled, her face slathered with the new face oil from Goop that her mother had sent. “If it’s good enough for Gwyneth, it’s good enough for us,” the package had said. “Come to bed,” she said, patting the spot next to her, “and stop talking nonsense. It’s one of our last nights in this flat. I say we commemorate it.” She gathered her nightie and pulled it off her head.
In a flat that looked exactly like the one Peter and Neha were about to move into, Mrs Banerjee tried to concentrate on the detective novel she had checked out from the library. Next to her on the bed, her husband of forty-two years snored like a faulty car engine, almost competing with the late-night trucks plying one after the other on the road outside. Her thoughts kept returning to Peter and Neha, at how bored and dismissive they had seemed around her. She saw herself the way they saw her — a stodgy, old lady, dressed in haphazard clothes. The words swam on the page, and with a frustrated sigh, Mrs Banerjee closed the book.
Why was she still thinking of them? Why were they such a bother to her?
The answer came quickly.
Because of the butt moment.
No, it wasn’t just that, Mrs Banerjee scolded herself.
It was because for the first time since she could remember, an Ambassador flat was being rented to folks who didn’t really deserve it. She wasn’t the only one unhappy about it. Some of her neighbours shared the same sentiment. But their hands were tied. There was nothing in the by-laws to prevent anyone from renting to whoever they liked.
All those years ago, when she and her husband had formed the cooperative with seven other families, the founding principles for them had been community, welfare, and sustainability. Yes, long before these became buzzwords.
Peter and Neha just didn’t fit the mould. They didn’t seem the type to want to get along with anyone but themselves. Forget body language, and what they said or didn’t say, even their business card, which they had handed to her shortly after introducing themselves, was pretentious. Made of grey and gold-heavy cardstock, it had reeked of excess.
Could she and Mr Banerjee have started a business together back when they were young?
Could they have honed in on something they both loved, and converted it into their profession? Maybe. She couldn’t be sure. What were the things they did well together? Baking chocolate cakes with vanilla frosting. Planning impromptu trips. All that seemed so long ago. What else? Raising children. Remembering birthdays. Almost nightly sex. The last one made Mrs Banerjee blush.
She rose to refill her bedside water cup. She wondered what Peter and Neha were up to in the moment. Sex, the answer shot through Mrs Banerjee. What was the matter with her? Stop, she commanded herself.
But her mind was in no mood to cooperate. It beamed images, one after the other, and she imagined Peter and Neha, Neha and Peter, coiled and entangled, their bodies panting and slick with sweat, this time, his hands squeezing her as if testing for ripeness.
Mrs Banerjee closed her eyes. Sure, it had been a long time since she and Mr Banerjee had been together in that way. He had stopped trying. You are never in the mood. It’s either a headache or a stomach ache or a book you have to read or a movie you have to watch.
But, really, thinking about their bedroom travails was neither here nor there. She returned from the kitchen and put down her water cup. She resumed her spot on the bed, and turned towards her husband. He smelled of the lemon soap he loved, and toothpaste. But he also smelled of long-forgotten classrooms, impromptu movie dates, and chocolate chips and cinnamon. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then for the first time in her forty-two years of marriage, Mrs Banerjee reached for Mr Banerjee’s right butt cheek, and gave it a tight squeeze.
Two days later, Peter, Neha and Minty arrived in their new home. As the movers lugged in beds, chairs, pots and pans, Mrs Banerjee brought them a manila envelope. It contained the Ambassador Apartments Residents’ Handbook. It included rules such as keep your balcony clean and do not use heavy appliances from 10 pm to 7 am.
Was it her imagination or did Peter and Neha seem mellower than before, Mrs Banerjee wondered? Clearly, exhaustion suited them.
Once the movers left, Peter and Neha showered, and got themselves and Minty ready. They wanted to step out, for some fresh air, as well as to grab a quick dinner, and then collapse into bed soon after.
But when Peter opened the door, a square-shaped box sat blocking their path. Peter picked it up and lifted the lid. Inside was a cake, with the words “THANK YOU,” striped across it in white frosting. There was no name or card attached to it.
Peter brought the box close to his face and sniffed. “Umm, chocolate and vanilla.” He looked at Neha. “Who do you think it’s from?”
“I don’t know,” Neha said, scratching her chin, “maybe what’s-his-face’s mother?”
“Oh, you mean, the lovely mum of my lovely friend who we are renting from?”
“She doesn’t know me personally. Plus, why would she thank us? It’s not like we saved the flat. It’s the other way around. There’s no shortage of people who want to live here.”
“We don’t know anyone here besides… ”
“…Madam President Banerjee?”
“Hush. But why would she thank us? I actually don’t think she likes us very much.”
“I agree.” Peter shrugged. He considered the cake again. “You know what? I am going to put this in the fridge. We will solve this mystery once we are back from dinner.”
Minutes later, after they locked their flat and took to the elevator, Neha could be heard saying, “By the way, did you notice? Mrs Banerjee was wearing the loveliest kurta today.”
“I didn’t notice her clothes. But she seemed very happy. Youthful even.”
Sayantani Dasgupta lives in North Carolina, and her debut collection of short stories ‘Women Who Misbehave’ will be published by Penguin RandomHouse in March