Two weeks into our training Avinash came up to me.
‘I have a group of Indian friends in New York. We are meeting up for drinks tonight. You want to come?’
‘I have to finish the merger model spreadsheet,’ I said.
‘You are still a muggu,’ Avinash said, referring to me as someone who mugs up, or studies, all the time. My IIMA reputation would not leave me so easily.
I had lied to Avinash. I had a haircut appointment. After moving to New York, I had decided to leave my nerdy, unfashionable days far behind. An associate trainee in my class had gorgeous shoulder-length hair with waves, exactly how I wanted mine. She had made a booking for me at a salon on 32nd Street.
Of course, I couldn’t tell Avinash this. Muggu Radhika doing her hair? He would laugh in my face. The news would spread like wildfire in the IIMA alumni groups.
‘You are in New York, will you live a little?’ Avinash said.
‘Where are the drinks?’ I said.
‘At Whiskey Blue. It’s a bar at the W Hotel. Right opposite the Benjamin Hotel, where you are staying.’
Some problems in the world seem to exist solely for women. Like not having anything to wear. I realized I had nothing nice for tonight.
‘I am not sure, let me see,’ I said.
‘What let me see? Just come, Muggu,’ he said.
For the rare breed of girls like me that hates shopping and has serious retardation in the areas of the brain that help you pick a dress, Banana Republic is the answer.
‘Hi, miss. God, you have a gorgeous colour,’ one of the African-American female sales assistants said. Say that to my mother. She stays up at night wondering who will marry me with this skin colour.
‘I have to go for drinks, with some friends,’ I said, ‘and I suck at shopping. Can you help?’
When you have no clue, best to surrender. The only shopping I ever did in my life was for textbooks.
‘I’ll take care of you, girl,’ the shop assistant said.
She picked a navy-blue lace dress for me. It fit well, but ended mid-thigh.
‘Too short?’ I said.
‘Not at all. It’s summer. You look lovely,’ she said. Even though she was paid to say it, it felt good. ‘I would wax those legs, though,’ she added.
Ouch! That hurt.
‘Unless you like it natural,’ the salesperson corrected herself, switching back to classic American political correctness.
I entered Whiskey Blue at 9. The plush bar and lounge had decadent leather sofas and dim lighting. Avinash noticed me first.
‘Hey, you are late,’ he said, ‘and wow.’
‘Your dress. I almost didn’t recognize you.’
Was that an ‘oh my God, you look good’ wow? Or was it a ‘what the fuck are you wearing’ wow? Before I could ask he introduced me to the others.
‘That’s Ruchi, Ashish, Nidhi, Rohan and our dreamer-philosopher, Debu,’ Avinash said, ‘and this is Radhika, guys, my batchmate from IIMA, top mugger and now at Goldman Sachs, like me.’
Fuck you, Avinash.
‘She doesn’t look like a mugger,’ Debu said. He shifted to make space for me.
We occupied two sofas. Ruchi, Ashish and Nidhi sat on one. Rohan, Avinash, Debu and I sat on the opposite side. The waiter asked for my order.
‘I don’t really drink a lot,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry, they only give you one glass at a time,’ Debu said. I smiled.
He looked into my eyes. He did have a philosopher look about him, with his beard and uncombed hair.
‘Wine?’ he said. ‘It’s light.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘A glass of Shiraz for the lady,’ Debu said to the waiter. Nobody had ever ordered Shiraz for me, which I later learnt is a type of grape. Nobody had ever referred to me as a lady either.
‘Cheers,’ Debu said once our drinks arrived.
Everyone lifted his or her glasses. Debu continued, ‘To the fresh-off-the-boat people, Avinash, Rohan and Radhika. Welcome to the USA, welcome to New York.’
I learnt more about the others. Rohan had come from IIMC. He had a job at Morgan Stanley. Nidhi and Ashish were dating each other. They had worked at Merrill Lynch for two years.
At one point, when the others were lost in conversation, Debu turned to me.
‘Goldman Sachs, eh? That’s a big deal. What is it like?’ Debu said.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I am still in training. Most of it is going over my head. How about you? Are you in a bank too?’
Debu laughed. ‘Far from it. I am not a numbers guy at all. I work in BBDO. An advertising agency on Madison Avenue.’
‘That is so cool,’ I said.
‘The only somewhat creative career I could find.’
‘Where are you from?’ I said.
‘I grew up in Kolkata. Then went to SRCC in Delhi, then did my master’s here. . .’
I cut him mid-sentence.
‘SRCC? You went to SRCC? Which batch?’
‘I graduated three years ago,’ he said.
‘What? You are one batch senior to me.’
We realized that despite attending the same college we had never seen or met each other.
‘Sorry, I can’t recall seeing you,’ I said.
‘I was under the influence. Justifying the use of grass to stimulate my creativity. So I don’t blame you.’
‘I studied most of the time. I don’t blame you,’ I said. Both of us laughed. A little bit of wine from my glass spilt on my leg. He offered me a tissue. Even in the darkness, I noticed him look at my legs.
Oh, so this is how guys check out girls? Thank God it is dark. I need to book a waxing appointment soon.
‘Where are you staying?’ Debu said.
‘Right across, at the Benjamin Hotel. Only for training, though. Will look for an apartment soon.’
He lit up a cigarette. He offered me one. I declined.
‘Can I say something?’ he said.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘That is a nice dress you are wearing,’ he said.
‘Oh, thanks,’ I said. The mix of compliments and wine made me giddy.
‘But if you want me to cut the price tag, I can. Sixty-nine ninety-five. Good buy,’ he said. He pointed to the tag, still attached to the back of my dress.
My face colour changed to match that of the red wine. I had never been so embarrassed in my life.