The office was deserted by the time Sanjay stretched his arms to signal the end of yet another working day, when his phone rang. It was Sushil.

“Hi, bro! Care for a drink before heading home?”

“Only if you’re paying, Sushil.”

“Deal,” Sushil chuckled, “The usual place? In twenty minutes?”

Geoffrey’s’, the pub, was abuzz with activity. They ordered their drinks, started with some small talk and generally got comfortable amid the noise and bustle.

The two friends went back a long way. At college together, they had later danced on the streets of Delhi as baraatis to hold up traffic at each other’s weddings. Now, several years later, they had reunited in Singapore after following similar career paths in MNC’s. Yes, they were close. Mala and Ritu, Sushil and Sanjay’s wives respectively, had become friends too, having several interests in common.

“What’s up, Sushil?”

“Bro, there’s somebody I’d like you to meet!”

Sanjay looked at his friend in silence. What needed to be said had been said many times before, but to no avail. Sushil was an incorrigible womaniser who just could not stay away from attractive young women. Not another one? This was getting tiresome.

Sushil heard the disapproval in Sanjay’s silence and hastily said, “No, bro, this one is really nice.”

“You effing idiot, you said that the last time too! And the time before that.”

“Did I? Holy shit! You sure? But come over with Ritu this Saturday to my place. I am having a small dinner party. She’s coming too. You’ll get to meet her.” Sushil grinned, drank the last of his whisky and waited for his friend to finish.

When Ritu opened the door for him and smiled a greeting, Sanjay couldn’t help but count his blessings, for a stable marriage and a loyal wife. He felt sorry for Mala.

On Saturday, the party was on in full swing when Sanjay entered the apartment, feeling proud to have Ritu by his side. It was a large, airy apartment in a high-rise building on Tanjung Rhu. Muted lights and instrumental music had already created the right atmosphere. There were several couples that Sanjay hadn’t met before. Voices, perfumes and accents wafted in the breeze coming in from the balcony.

“Hey, you guys! You’re late! Never mind, come‘n’meet everybody.” Sushil went from couple to couple introducing Sanjay and his attractive wife to all present. There were the Mehras, the Chhabras, a British couple the Scotts, a young good-looking Chinese couple and another tall European young man with an unpronounceable name. Topics like the weather, sports, the political scenario in India and Brexit created a steady, pleasant murmur.

Sushil was all over the Chinese girl, trying to keep her amused. His antics were getting difficult to ignore, and yet the guests were pretending not to notice. The girl’s Chinese partner (husband? brother?) was nodding from time to time, his expression inscrutable. Sanjay wondered if the guy was dying to punch Sushil on the jaw. The girl on the other hand was enjoying the attention – simpering and responding very favourably.

So this was her, Sanjay realised – the new love of Sushil’s life. Another one to keep him amused till the next one came along? Then this one too would bite the dust. True, she was lovely – he couldn’t fault Sushil’s taste. He felt no envy though. He wondered why he himself did not hunger after beautiful women. But then with a wife like Ritu, he mused, why would he need to?

“I have to talk to you”, somebody spoke at his elbow.

It was Mala. Sushil’s wife, married to his buddy for almost ten years. Mother to his children, solid as a rock. Mala – large and matronly with serious, dark eyes. From the expression on her face, Sanjay knew this could not wait.

“Not here, Sanjay. Let’s go to the guest room. It’s empty.”

“What the hell is going on between my husband and that bitch?” Mala burst out, once alone.

“Nothing, Mala. Just a bit of healthy flirting, I guess.”

“Healthy flirting? Really Sanjay . . .” Mala rolled her eyes in disgust. “That’s what you men call it? There is nothing healthy about flirting, not for a married man. Is my husband sleeping with her? Has he ever told you anything about it?”

Sanjay answered truthfully, “No, nothing!”

“I know there have been other women before this. I am not an idiot. Why are men like this, Sanjay? What hunger drives them to do this? Why must they play games with us? To lie, cheat and deceive their faithful wives who have devoted a lifetime to them? Why?”

Her eyes were afire as she waited for an answer. Sanjay had never heard her talking like this.

“It’s a physical thing, Mala. It’s not that he doesn’t love you.” Sanjay replied, defensive, not meeting her eye.

“Don’t give me that Men are from Mars crap, Sanjay!” Mala retorted sharply. “There is no excuse and you know it.” Her eyes were glistening with tears.

Sanjay stood up, wanting to make good his escape. He had nothing more to say and certainly no more excuses to offer in his friend’s defence. He nodded to her and walked to the door. He was hoping Ritu had not noticed his absence. She would demand to know where he had been.

“Some women are like that too, Sanjay,” was Mala’s parting shot as he opened the door to the babble of voices and music.

A fresh drink in hand, Sanjay walked out into the wide balcony overlooking the harbour. The lights of a hundred ships in port winked back at him as he stepped out. He took a deep breath and wondered if his friend’s marriage was on the rocks.

A faint noise made him turn. In the furthest corner of the dark balcony, he noticed Ritu quickly move away from the tall European young man with an unpronounceable name.

***

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Written by Beetashok Chatterjee

Beetashok Chatterjee is a seaman by profession. This old sea dog is also a wannabe poet/writer, avid reader, music lover, movie buff, cricket enthusiast and a restless spirit.