I dropped Joanne at the Salon. She turned & very sweetly asked ‘Raghu, I hope you are not thinking of leaving me to get back all by myself, are you? The voice was dulcet but the eyes flashed a fire & "Yes" as an answer did not look like a wise option though the thought had crossed my mind. Guts-ball with a woman is not my idea of heroism. I merely shook my head and said "Never". This simple act fetched me a hug and a warm kiss, leading enough to promise more at an hour distant. My bachelor pad was where it could culminate. Hope too is a four letter word. The positive fact being that it was a "Ladies Only" salon and hence I was not expected to wait up inside. Whew, thank god for small mercies. Now to while away the time I started looking around. On the opposite side of the kerb we stood on was a street side bookstore and café and I made my way towards it. Browsing and Coffee sounded the perfect remedy for a long wait. I picked up a few magazines, ordered an espresso and settled in the bucket chair. My mind slowly drifted to the first time when I had gone shopping with Jo.
Let me bring you guys up to date. Joanne is my girlfriend of six months now and our lives are totally amorously entangled. It is a knotty situation but getting tied up and being unraveled is such a pleasure. Now this sojourn had begun on an academic platform at a conference in Goa. One thing led to another and what the grey cells started, the heart carried on and the hormones furthered the cause. It was Bio-Chemistry in its purest form and my faith in science strengthened. Now, we are together. But please let no one fool you that being the squire of a stunning and smart lady is a cakewalk. One periodically avails of rewarding moments that stretch long into the hours of the flying owls, however the days can be something else altogether. Here one has to develop common interests and learn to enjoy similar activities together like the most violent and avid of all feminine sports “SHOPPING”. Woe betides the man who displays impatience or too much mojo driven decisiveness. That may work splendidly in a boardroom but for a showroom these traits most certainly are a liability. One needs different skills here where one must communicate without actually committing; this is what I call "The Fine Art of the Non-Speak".
I recalled the instance of my first round as an inexperienced partner accompanying the lady on a Sari purchase expedition. This was for a formal occasion that she had to attend. Patience was then never my strongest point and when we entered the showroom it left me completely dazzled. The range and the depth of materials and types had me running scared. For someone whose apparel shopping was limited to Formal (solids, stripes, 42) or Informal (T-shirts with or without collar), Trousers (32’) or Denims (I only wear the conventional Levis blue) the whole exercise never lasts more than ten minutes. Eight of whom is taken up by the travel time between the rack and the billing counter. I doubled this factor and naively applied it with generous consideration to the lady sari shopper as I went along with Joanne.
Now let me describe Joanne to you. She is of the Christian faith ("And what do they know of Sari’s?" you could say. But she is also a Tamil and you can also say "what do they not know of Saris?"). She worked in the front office of a Luxury Hotel. Extremely presentable, this profession also made her a trained professional in the art of the drape; both as a buyer and as one who is adorning it. The first time my eyes fell on her packaged thus, I thought it was Christmas & Santa had come in early that year; So yummy did she look. I had felt like opening up my gift right then and there under the tree. What tree? Can’t you follow symbolisms? Ok that tall potted plant creating a muddy stain on the marble flooring in the reception corner, if you have to insist. Now what did you infer from the above rambling? One that Jo knew her sari, how to wear it well and look delicious in it. But the experienced readers would have read between the lines. They would have seen that this made the whole experience more complicated. In hunting analogy this made Jo a hungry predator; the kind who patiently sorts out the small game from the big game. Casing the prey and lying in wait endlessly to swoop in only when all specifications of taste are met or when competition lurks on the horizon. And I knew none of this then as I innocently went with her.
The showroom operatives welcomed madam and completely overlooked me. Then they offered us wide sofa chairs to sit, no one at the trouser counter has ever done this to me ever. Then they asked Jo what would she prefer "Teee, Kaaapi or Koaldreenks?" Jo disdainfully asked for two cold drinks. Boy this was looking good and I had not even shopped here. Isn’t this wonderful, thought I to walk into a new Showroom every evening and drinking cold drinks, sample the conditioned air make a show of buying a Sari and walking out. Then I noticed the burly guards at the corner and banished the idea far away. A cold drink was too steep a risk to get the feel of those paddle hands. Men can be very naïve and I was clearly out of my depth.
I sat in the chair sipping on the cold drink in the cool atmosphere. As the salesman displaying white teeth constantly (why did he have to smile so much? I felt like giving him one punch such that just the front incisor is knocked out) asked her the preference of a fabric. Silk said Jo and he exclaimed with undisguised enthusiasm “Now Madam NOSE eggjactlee what she wants”. It certainly made me feel good that it would mean, my girl Jo, who knows what she wants will make her choice quicker. But was I on the mark? Clearer need never mean quicker as i would realize. Now which Silk madam? Calcutta, Pochampalli, Orissa, Paithani, Kanjeevaram, Art Silk, and he rattled off a dozen more types that had me blown. Jo vaguely said show me some first and let me decide. I looked at the watch and noticed 30 minutes had elapsed and we had not even begun.
He turned to an assistant and whispered something to him, he jumped up on the shelf and picked some ten odd saris and handed them over. Our man with an elaborate care and precision opened up one. Plain Pochampally, Jo vigorously shook her head at the opened sample. He opened another and again Jo shakes her head then a third and a fourth and a fifth, I like them all. But Jo is a tough customer and the salesman a veteran. The only amateur at the show is yours truly. "Show me something bright and good not such cheap useless stuff” and I was aghast at Jo. But the salesman was not offended and called his assistant and screamed "take this lot away and don’t you understand, Madam has a very good taste, bring on the better weaves." The boy repeated his exercise at another shelf and was back with another lot...this time a Kanjeevaram traditional weave…Single border...And a brilliant flash happened before my eyes as the rich fabric opened out. Jo looked at it for a long time, fingered it and said the weave is thin. Double weave madam look at some more and he showed another ..."Double weave, double border traditional design…blouse material is in the weave". Jo seemed to have liked it and I heaved a sigh.
One hour had passed and the sofa chair was not feeling so comfortable any more. My posterior had identified where exactly the spring in the sofa cushion had bent. Realizing that I was fidgeting for the first time in an hour Jo looked at me and asked, "What do you think?" I picked up two and said "These are wonderful and you would look dishy in either of them. Select fast and let’s go, do I give you a coin to make the choice?" My smile froze in its place when I saw her expression. It was so cold that I felt like I was swimming in the tundra region in just my knickers. "You want me to buy this…this?"…she hissed. The salesman seeing a fight swept them all away and screamed at his assistant, "Ennada Swami…At once get the new lot which has come in yesterday. Not unpacked? Go unpack it for madam. She is distinctly unhappy with what you are showing her." Jo turned to the Sari's & I smiled gratefully at him; his eyes behind a fierce expression looked kindly. He had saved me from a calamity. "Don’t worry madam, best quality saris are coming now, even Saar will like it. Till then try this "patto" and see yourself in the mirror there." Jo draped one and he smiled again. Now I didn’t resent his smile anymore and reversed my decision on his front incisor.
"Thambi, get one more drink for 'Saar' and another cold orange drink materialized before me. After three hours Jo had shortlisted seven saris. All this while I had been looking around and saw a few fellows like me faking interest in the sari selection activity. With two drinks under my belt in the cold ambience, I felt it coming. Desperately tried controlling it a bit but then when the back teeth started floating had no choice and whispered in Jo's ear,"Please ask the man to show me the way to the washroom”. She giggled as I was shown the way. While washing my hands, happened to look up in the mirror above the basin, two red rimmed eyes stared back at me. They mocked me openly "Aren’t you the same dope who has spent 3 hours shopping for a sari that has not been selected yet?" I nodded and meekly retired back to my sofa chair. I had planned on dozing off and taking a cat nap but Jo had other ideas. With each Sari shortlisted, she would drape it around her loosely, pose before the mirror , then turn back and enquire "What do u think?" Time had me wiser. I too would squint and look it up completely. Then slowly move the head from right to left and look at her studiously, saying nothing, poker faced. This was what she expected and I had to do it seven times before she shortlisted three and discarded the rest. "Raghu tell me honestly do I look better in the bottle green silk with the gold border, the grey blue with the maroon border or the black with gold?"
This time words were expected but I yet refrained. This proved to be a master stroke. She managed to discard the blue and we were down to two. Do I give her the coin again; an impish impulse almost spoilt it all. But she now decides to drape them both together and did a few more twirls and again cocked an eyebrow at me. This time I got up, stood behind her & looked in the mirror. She was anxiously looking back at me. Boy, I was getting good at this. Slowly I fingered the black around her shoulder and felt her skin through the sari & then did the same to the green. The green and flaming gold was a terrific combination and I liked it but perversely told her that the black can be worn by her on many occasions than just this one function. It had a universal appeal. "Raghu, she said with an exasperated exclamation, "will you feel really bad if I take the green?" Indifferently I turned around. The salesman was now out of the picture and I found myself squarely in it. "Tell me na, please" and I turned back and critically looked at her and asked her to wear only the green. She happily did it and as I nodded, she squealed and told the man, "pack this up fast and do check that there are no loose threads or holes."
I looked at the clock; it was precisely 3 hours and 52 minutes since we had entered. As we walked out after having paid up at the counter she seemed happy. But I was totally drained. The strain was too much. Taking my arm she said "Raghu initially I thought you were very frivolous & I was mad at you, but then because you were here, we could take a decision on that green and so very quickly at that, no? You must accompany me every time I go shopping for a sari. It will save so much time". All I could do was wink as this shifted her attention away from my Adams apple that bobbed furiously; the only visible indication that I had completely choked.
The second cup of coffee was almost finished when I felt a tap on my shoulder that brought me back into the present. There she was before me now, styled, shampooed & looking very lovely. When she lifted one eyebrow in an enquiry; the art of the non-speak now came very naturally. Elaborately lifting the butter cookie accompanying the espresso, with one significant pointed look at Jo, chomped on it with eyes shut and said “Delicious”.