An excerpt from the book, The Swap by Shuma Raha.

‘I wish we hadn’t called Dileep and Anuradha,’ Priya said.

She was fixing her earring in front of the dresser mirror, her head tilted to one side. The earrings had been a gift from her mother when she got married. They were big and showy, and each had a single red stone in the middle of an opalescent disc of fine kundan work. ‘It’s not ruby,’ Priya said hastily if anyone happened to admire them, as though she were embarrassed about wearing expensive jewellery. Not that she wore the earrings often. They were far too ornamental for a casual evening out.

‘Why?’ her husband Akash asked, raising his eyes from his phone. ‘I thought you liked them.’

‘Oh, he’s all right, I suppose,’ Priya said carelessly. ‘It’s her. I find Anuradha a bit tiresome these days. It’s like she’s trying too hard all the time, if you know what I mean.’

Akash wanted to say, ‘I don’t, actually’. But he didn’t feel like starting a line of conversation that could lead to an argument or draw a quick, acid retort from his wife. It was nearing 8. Their guests would be here soon. It was their wedding anniversary today, and though neither of them had been keen to throw a party this year, their friends had prevailed upon them to keep up the tradition. ‘Come on, yaa,’ they’d said. ‘Your anniversary barbecue is always such fun. We won’t let you wriggle out if it!’

Akash watched his wife as she finished dressing. Her movements were quick and deft, her limbs supple and perfectly proportionate to her short, compact body. She was still boyishly trim, almost exactly the way she had been when he first met her more than six years ago. Right now, she was absorbed in the act of examining herself in the full-length mirror. She squinted at herself critically, dabbed a little more shimmering gold eye shadow on her eyelids, and pouted to check if her nude lips were much too nude and needed a bit more colour. Priya had an arresting face—heart-shaped, bright-eyed and resolute, topped with a mop of pixie-cropped hair that shone like a polished crown. A few licks of hair fell on her forehead, giving her face the look of a head on a classical statue. She took off the shabby brown cardigan she had worn while putting on her make-up and stood in her black trousers and clinging black turtle-neck pullover, her high, smallish breasts in sharp relief against the tight stretch of her top. She struck a pose and moved her head a little to see how the light caught the gemstones in her earrings. For a moment, Akash was dazzled. Dazzled by her shining eyes and glinting hair, her honey skin, and the way she prepped and primed herself. God, Priya could look beautiful when she wanted to, he thought.

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‘I think Anuradha is a helluva bore,’ Priya continued, conducting half pirouettes before the mirror. ‘I mean, she’s good-looking, I suppose—in a boring sort of way. But nothing much up there, I-M-O. She looks awfully traditional to me. And yet, she’s always trying to give the impression that she’s hip and up for anything. That’s just so phoney. You don’t agree?’

I would add a touch of class to the room, she had said when she bought it. As it turned out, the chair mostly served as a beast of burden, with Priya dumping her clothes on it whenever she was in a couldn’t-be-bothered-to-hang-’em-up mood—which was often.

The question was a challenge and Akash tackled it like a pro. ‘I didn’t say I don’t agree, did I?’ he said, adopting a playful tone. He was good at marital word game and had perfected the art of appearing not to disagree with his wife without actually agreeing with her. He didn’t fool her, of course. If Priya were in a combative mood, she pinned him down and demanded, ‘Well, do you agree or don’t you? I wish you wouldn’t play dodge!’ At other times, she threw him a sarcastic smile, as though she knew exactly what was going on in his mind and disdained him for his cowardice in coming out and saying it.

‘Aren’t you going to get ready?’ she asked him now, changing the subject and turning away from the mirror to face her husband. Akash yawned and stretched and got up from the large, black, wing-back leather arm chair that Priya kept in the bedroom. I would add a touch of class to the room, she had said when she bought it. As it turned out, the chair mostly served as a beast of burden, with Priya dumping her clothes on it whenever she was in a couldn’t-be-bothered-to-hang-’em-up mood—which was often. So each time you wanted to sit on it you had to transfer the pile of rumpled shirts, trousers, kameezes, bras, socks, and other bits of clothing onto the bed. And the entire process had to be played in reverse when it was time to go to bed.

Image Credit: HarperCollins India/ Shuma Raha

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Excerpted with permission from The Swap by Shuma Raha, HarperCollins India. 

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