The 21st century will be characterised by future historians as a turning point, with technology changing the ways of human life and interaction, including the way people think and behave, and even love each other. The effects of technology on the very idea of love are the subject of the short story collection Love in the Time of WhatsApp and Other Stories, Juggernaut's first digital to print anthology.
While for centuries love has been expressed through the tradition of letter-writing, today, one mainly uses social media. This has changed the fabric and function of conversation, the type of information people exchange, and the speed at which they expect responses. It has also changed the way people meet in the first place.
This new type of meeting is the theme of the story Rent a Husband by Vasudha Sahgal, reproduced here from Love in the Time of WhatsApp and Other Stories with kind permission from the publisher Juggernaut Books.
Gayatri kept refreshing the damned Rent a Husband app. But the page refused to come alive on her smartphone screen. Where’s a husband when you need one, she thought to herself, grabbing her purse and rushing out of her apartment for work. Her most annoying relative, Meena bua, was about to visit from the States. Ever since Gayatri’s parents had passed away, Meena bua’s sole dream was to see Gayatri happily married and she felt it was her responsibility to make this happen.
‘Bachche, I had promised your father that if anything ever happened to him, I would see to it that you are settled,’ she loved to remind Gayatri on their long-distance phone calls, although Gayatri doubted this conversation had ever taken place between her father and her aunt.
Meena bua was a widow who lived in Washington, DC with her pet chihuahua, Chicklet. She had three sons, all married and settled in different parts of the States. She spent a few months every year at each of her sons’ homes and the remainder of her year was spent comparing her daughters-in-law and complaining to her relatives and friends about the one who hadn’t been up to the mark. Every year the rating of her three daughters-in-law would change, depending on how much they had succumbed to her whims during her stay with them. Gayatri felt quite sorry for them and hoped to God she did not get stuck with someone like Meena bua, in the unlikely event of her getting married.
She had downloaded the Rent a Husband app following a conversation with Meena bua three months ago. ‘You are thirty-six. Is there still nobody?’ she had asked Gayatri condescendingly. Gayatri replied in a huff , ‘Of course there is, bua! In fact, he proposed to me just last week and we plan to get married quietly in a temple!’ Gayatri only realized the grave error she had made when her aunt, who fi rst let out a shrill, long yelp over the phone, squealed, ‘What good news you have given me, beta! And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I am visiting with Anil and Aarti in a few months. We have finally won our case against those awful tenants. I will be in time to finally witness my beautiful niece and her lucky husband-tobe. What’s the fellow’s name? Oh you chhupi rustam, WhatsApp his photo na! I am so happy. I will have grand-nieces and grand-nephews soon.’
Gayatri had been hearing about Meena bua’s property troubles forever. Meena bua had inherited a small flat from Gayatri’s grandparents, and for years the tenants occupying the house had refused to vacate.
Meena bua informed Gayatri that she would be travelling with her youngest son and daughter-in-law (the one who had made it to the top of her favourites’ chart last year) to take the keys of the property and ensure everything went smoothly. Gayatri knew what ‘everything went smoothly’ meant: in the event that the tenants still refused to vacate, they would be physically lifted and thrown out by her hefty son Arun. Gayatri envisioned the petite Aarti haplessly trying to be of help at the scene of the commotion. Maybe she could throw out their bags. Gayatri shuddered at the thought that she and her fictional husband would be expected to participate in the ruckus. However, Gayatri wasn’t one for any kind of confrontation. In high school, when Sahil, the boy with the cute dimples whom she had been crushing on for years, finally asked her out on a date, she had blushed and walked away. She knew her reaction was strange, but she couldn’t help it. In matters of the heart and heated encounters, Gayatri’s reaction was similar: finding herself tongue-tied, and then slowly getting herself out of the situation. Perhaps that’s why men didn’t approach her, and she quietly resented herself for it.
‘I will also go for darshan this time and take you and your chap with me. And then I can die in peace! What’s his name?’ Meena bua continued in an ecstatic tone which made Gayatri want to throw up.
‘His name is . . .’ She was in the middle of preparing some taglines for a new Mahabharata musical to be aired in town when this ominous call had come. Looking around for a cue, she found the five Pandavas grinning at her from the pamphlet in her lap. She could swear it seemed they too were making fun of her awful plight and were telling her, ‘You shouldn’t have refused those arranged marriage introductions in your twenties when you still had the twenty-four inch waistline and wrinkle-free skin; who knows, you may have landed one of us, or maybe ALL of us!’
In those seconds that seemed to last a lifetime , Gayatri went into a short reverie, imagining herself in a pink chiff on sari and a low-neck blouse in a New Delhi nightclub, married to all five Pandavas. A modern-day Yudhisthira engrossed at the poker table; his brother Arjun throwing darts, fully aware of the giggling girls in miniskirts who couldn’t take their eyes off him; Bheem wrestling with three bouncers outside; Nakul out on a spin in his new Ferrari; and Sahadev somewhere with a greedy numerologist wondering if he should add another ‘a’ to his name for better luck.
‘Gayatri! Gayatri! Are you there, beta!?’ shrieked Meena bua a little louder, a tone of impatience and a hunger for details overtaking her ecstasy. Gayatri couldn’t decide which tone she loathed more.
‘Sah . . . his name is Sahil!’ Gayatri blurted out a bit too loudly, attracting looks from her curious colleagues and a salacious grin from one of her seniors who had been hitting on her since forever.
Gayatri had limited time to arrange for a husband now. She could feel the impending doom and the nagging voice that accompanied it. Gayatri, run away to the Pyramids with all that saved-up money while you still have the chance. She had always wanted to see the Pyramids as a little girl. And little Gayatri had imagined going there with someone special.
But knowing Meena bua, she would take the first flight out even to Egypt to see Gayatri and the man she had ended up with. Moreover, the agency had a very important account that they were hoping to land by next month. She had a promotion pending. Running away was not an option.
She had come across the app while reading a business magazine for brand research on a prospective client. The article said that the Rent a Husband app was really popular in Japan and had been launched a few months ago in India. It was founded by a thrice divorced gentleman of fifty. The app was Gayatri’s final resort. She would have asked Rahul or Varun, her college friends, to pose as a fake husband, but they were known to Meena bua’s sons. And asking anyone at work would make her look downright crazy, although at ad agencies they did look up to the ‘crazy ones’, people believed to be the ones who had their creative juices fl owing at all times. Even if Gayatri asked around, she was sure it would be that sleazy senior copywriter who would volunteer and she was afraid he would take his method acting a bit too far.
The article about the Rent a Husband app made it sound fairly straightforward. All one had to do was put in the details of the kind of man one was looking for based on four traits: physical, emotional, financial and intelligence. After these details were fed in the system, the team would revert in a few days with the biodata of those who fit the bill. Other details, such as the duration for which one needed the husband, age, etc. also needed to be given, and the team provided the closest match. Rent a Husband is all about giving women an authentic husband experience, the app’s ‘About Us’ section explained. And to make it convincing, the app suggested that once the makebelieve spouses were ‘matched’ on the platform, they meet one another a few times and find a bone of contention or two. Gayatri hadn’t made up her mind about whether she found this suggestion purely ingenious or truly bizarre!
The auto turned around a bend and Gayatri’s place of work showed up. It was a well-known ad agency called Y&Y, nestled in a nondescript building in a bustling part of town. She pulled out some change from her large handbag, handed it to the autowallah and disappeared into the building. She ran up the three flights of stairs to the creative department floor. It was where the ‘crazy ones’ like her worked. This place, her office of five years, made her smile every time she entered it, no matter what her mood. Gayatri always found the right words for her client’s brands. The constant exchange of ideas, the exasperation and seriousness in coming up with one-liners considered capable of making or breaking businesses, the collaboration of the copy with the images to create nothing short of art, the cussing, the odd clothes and timings, the eccentric habits of the employees and the strange posters on the red walls – everything in this place made her feel alive. Sure, it took up all her time, even the time she should have spent socializing. But it also partly filled the void left by her parents’ sudden demise in a car crash twenty-one years ago.
As Gayatri crossed numerous workstations, one of her colleagues enquired about her weekend. She simpered politely. Depends on how you perceive being under the covers all day watching sappy movies, she thought.
Gayatri reached her work desk, a large table from where she got a good view of the outside. As usual, the sleazy senior from the cabin ahead was staring at her.
Maybe I could just ask him to pose as the husband. I would scream at him, all in the garb of pretence, and he would stop eyeing me from top to bottom.
She pulled out her phone from the handbag she had gifted herself last month. Finally, after her twentieth attempt at refreshing, Gayatri saw a red-and-white page on her screen, the words ‘Rent a Husband’ written on it in a jarring blue font.
She filled out all the necessary details and tried being creative in her answers; after all, being creative was what she did for a living and was meant to be good at.
As she went through the multiple compulsory tabs to fill, she let out a hearty laugh, for the hilarity of it all finally hit her.
She glanced at the cabin in front. The senior was still staring at her, as though she was a lascivious weekend movie on his laptop screen. He proceeded to roll out his tongue and then let out a smack. That did it. Gayatri surprised herself, too. In her thirty-six years, there had been so many situations that she had chosen to just ignore and walk out of. But today it was like a strange spirit had possessed Gayatri’s body, the kind of spirits and angels she had heard about in the stories her mother used to tell her as a child. Gayatri sprang out of her seat, making her way to the senior’s cabin. His gaze was still fixed on Gayatri. For a moment she thought he looked frightened by her sudden coltish advance. The next thing she knew she had barged into his office cabin. ‘Day in and day out you stare at me, your rotten yellow teeth showing or your sickening tongue hanging out over your long chin, making you resemble a sad, clownish goat. I am not interested. I never will be. And if I see you looking at me once again, I am not certain what I may not be able to stop myself from doing.’ She proceeded out of the cabin as swiftly as she had come in, her movements more awkward than usual. Gayatri picked up her phone; the words ‘Rent a Husband’ looked like they were yelling at her. They won’t last long; they don’t have an appropriate tagline – what the heck is an authentic husband experience? Let them enjoy the moment till it lasts. If there was one thing Gayatri was sure of, it was her taglines. She proceeded to kill the Rent a Husband app and opened a new browser. ‘Best hotel near the Pyramids’, she typed furtively. The sleazy senior was now exiting his cabin, his scene of action, in an embarrassed huff .
Gayatri made her way to her apartment on the sixth floor, a spring in her step. Earlier that week she had called in sick at work, something she hadn’t done in three years, and then spontaneously taken off for a five-day trip to Kasauli. Yes, it hadn’t been the Pyramids, but it was probably better, she thought, grateful to get away from the dreary June weather of Delhi, if only for a few days.
She wiped the beads of sweat trickling down her large forehead while reminiscing about the cool, short-lived days in the foothills of the Himalayas. She reached the third floor and there was Mr Gupta, a seventy-year-old widower, fumbling with his keys to get into his apartment. Mr Gupta had a stack of hundreds of keys in his keychain and every time Gayatri met him outside his home he would be fumbling to find the right one. Maybe it was a convenient distraction, she thought to herself. Ever since she had moved into the building six years ago, Mr Gupta, a retired college professor, only stepped out of his home to walk his pet dog or buy groceries. Gayatri often heard other building folk discuss how strange they found him and his aloofness. He had lost his wife a year before Gayatri had moved in and had retired the same year. Before that the Guptas were known to have been a sociable pair.
How human beings introduce convenient annoyances in their lives to distract them from the void within, thought Gayatri, as she nodded politely to Mr Gupta who was still trying to figure out the right key from his bunch. Life really is a set of doors, some opportunities and some hurdles, and all we ever do is try and find the right key to unlock those doors.
‘Hiiiiii bachche!’ Gayatri’s train of thought was distracted by a familiar shrieking voice coming from above her. It can’t be, she thought. It was easier for those on the top floors to see the occupants on the floors below them, so the familiar voice had obviously spotted her first. She ran up the remaining three floors, her rucksack thudding against her back, her chest heaving, inviting stares from the fifty-year-old bachelor collecting his mail on the fifth floor. She could have sworn so many single people residing in one building seemed like the apartment curse. She had just landed on the sixth fl oor when she was swooped into a tight embrace by a tiny woman who reached up to her shoulders.
‘Oh, how I have missed you!’
‘I have missed you too, Meena bua,’ she lied, catching her breath and thinking that holidays truly do come right before doomsday.
When Meena bua finally let go of her, Gayatri noticed how much her aunt had aged and how voices are the only feature that can disguise the years. Over the phone, Meena bua’s shrieks always sounded as young as ever. They were meeting after two years. Meena bua stood at a petite five foot two. Her small eyes glinted with excitement under her large spectacles, but the lines on her forehead were deep. Her greying hair was neatly tied into a bun and she wore a floral salwar kameez with white sneakers – the new Adidas ones that Gayatri’s agency had made hoardings for. How Gayatri wished she had known about this unexpected visitor, but then being a welcome guest had never been Meena bua’s forte.
Meanwhile, Meena bua was taking Gayatri in. Gayatri’s long thick hair, which she had washed just that morning, flowed loosely down to her hips. Her almond eyes were devoid of any kohl and her plump lips were devoid of any lipstick. She was wearing an old but comfortable linen kurta over her distressed jeans. Gayatri felt pretty attractive, but Meena bua preferred the made-up ones. She had boasted once about how she had sent one of her daughters-in-law home from a party to apply more rouge.
‘Well, you look . . . you look pleasant, my dear! Am I just in time to meet the newly wedded bride?! I decided to surprise you. Anil and Aarti will come only by next month, which gives me ample time to meet you and that husband of yours!’
Th e next thing Gayatri heard was a loud thud, followed by complete blackness. She was in one of those Kasauli cottages, sipping masala chai in the winter sun, watching the monkeys wrestle on the pine trees in front of her and the sun playing hide-and-seek with the mountain peaks.
‘Pulse rate normal.’
Gayatri found herself lying in what definitely looked like a hospital bed. A man in scrubs shone a torch around her nose. How long had she been here? Last she remembered, Meena bua was at her apartment door making enquiries. She looked to one side and Meena bua stood there with a concerned expression. ‘We were so worried, beta! You had a fall when you met me. . . just fainted. It was probably the Delhi heat after the Himachal ki hawa. Luckily, Sahil arrived immediately. You never told me your husband is a handsome architect!’
Gayatri looked behind her aunt to find a tall man – who looked like he was in his early thirties – with thick eyebrows, high cheekbones and the most striking smile. He was wearing a smart blue suit and held her favourite flowers, white carnations, in one hand.
Was this some sort of nightmare? If it was, and Meena bua was in it, why wasn’t it seeming all that bad? Was it because of the handsome stranger?
The man bent towards Gayatri and whispered in her ear, ‘From the Rent a Husband app. I have a pesky uncle coming to see me in a few days, too, and I signed up for the same reasons. But maybe . . . maybe after seeing you, this may not be that bad after all.’ He smiled politely. The comment made Gayatri blush and she wished she could get out of the stale white patient clothes and slip into something more appealing. Then he spoke a bit louder. ‘They ran some tests; you were knocked out for a while but everything is okay, thank God.’
The stranger didn’t seem strange or lecherous. In fact, he was quite the contrary. He spoke with a tone of empathy. And it all came back to her. Before she killed the Rent a Husband app on her phone a few months ago, she must have accidentally submitted the data and requested a husband! She had mentioned the terms: someone sensible and educated, preferably a professional, who should be ‘okay’ with being called ‘Sahil’!
‘Beta, you have been here for a day. Sahil has been by your side and has kept me such good company! Achcha, I have not rested, and you will be discharged tomorrow. Do you both mind if I wait at home for you? And beta, you never told me you and Sahil have such a lavish apartment. Why do you keep going back to your small . . . anyway, I toh have shifted my samaan to the lad’s place. Sahil, your cook makes the best khana. But please, at least put up some shaadi ki photos at home. You both should have let me have a dhoom-dhaam wali shaadi for you. What was this running to a temple and getting married business? Anyway, mind if I go to your place now?’ Sahil gave his hundred-watt smile in response and Gayatri felt herself blush.
Sahil and Gayatri were alone now. ‘Can I please update you on the story of how we met?’ asked Sahil gently. ‘Meena bua knows it down to the details and it would be safe if we stick to one version.’
Gayatri laughed. ‘Are you really an architect?’
‘Hundred per cent authentic.’ Sahil grinned. ‘Delhi College of Architecture.’
Gayatri suddenly felt like she was on a date. She looked around. There were patients on similar beds and nurses and doctors hovered around them urgently. ‘This hospital . . .’
‘Yes, a pretty strange place for a fake husband and wife’s first meeting!’
They both laughed. It was as if he was reading her mind.
‘So how about we get out of here and go on a real date?’ Th e words slipped out of Gayatri’s mouth before she could help herself. This time it was Sahil who blushed. Maybe it was the fall that was making her this frank.
‘Sure, they will discharge you tomorrow. We might as well enjoy this . . . thing, process, whatever we have signed up for. My uncle believes I am married, too. He is coming from London tomorrow. That’s why I signed up. The app tried to get back in touch with you with the details, but you did not respond. The emails must have been going to junk mail since you probably deleted the app.
‘I . . . I am sorry for just showing up like this. I was desperate. If you can’t keep up the act or don’t want to, I will understand. You can tell Meena bua I have left for some work. She said she was moving to a hotel anyway, because she can’t stay in a niece’s marital home longer than a day. And in that case, I will handle my uncle and think of something else.’
‘Heck, why not give this darn thing a shot!?’ blurted Gayatri. She was now certain this assertiveness was drug-induced. She wondered what the doctors had given her through the intravenous drip sticking into her left arm.
‘I mean, it’s only a matter of a few days and, who knows, it may just be fun!’
She looked at Sahil, who seemed relieved. ‘Well, and you have to say something about our timing,’ said Sahil with a naughty glint in his eyes that only made him look cuter. He sat down on the stool near Gayatri’s bed. ‘I have heard all about Japanese precision in manufacturing but, wow, look how wonderfully it has worked for us! You forgot to ask me my name – it actually is Sahil. I think they ran an algorithm to narrow down all the Sahils in the city! I was lucky I fit the other criteria.’
And who would have thought I would find the most handsome Sahil of the lot, Gayatri wondered, staring dreamily at the gentleman in front of her.
‘Mr Real Sahil, it is a pleasure to meet you. And you are so right about Japanese technology – it seems to have aligned itself accurately with the timing we needed in this entire situation! But let’s just take it from the beginning,’ Gayatri said happily. ‘For the world and our ever-intrusive uncles and aunties, what’s our story? How did we meet? How did we become man and wife?’
Updated Date: Sep 05, 2019 10:35:21 IST