An excerpt from the book, Friends From College by Devapriya Roy.

Helen of Troy

Everyone says you’ll get used to the weather, of course you’ll get used to the weather, thought Lata Ghosh, but you never do.

London, sliding greyly past her window, was predictably rainy, chilly, giving off its signature wet winter scent: drizzle on stone and beer and smoke (and this at eleven o’clock in the morning!). She wiped the fogged-up window with her palm, imagined the November wind outside, and London instantly became greyer, smokier, trees collapsing into each other as the water drummed down, now hard.

Even though there was a fair bit of time to her flight, Lata Ghosh was Ubering her way to Heathrow from the client’s office in the suburbs – a fat amount even for successful management consultants like herself – since she couldn’t bear the thought of reaching the airport with bedraggled hair or a fussy umbrella, heaven forbid a mac smelling of the Underground.

If there was one thing Lata had learnt from her mother, Manjulika, it was that when you travelled, you put your best self forward. Life – that everyday thing of running out of milk and forgetting to pay bills on time and unremitting grocery shopping and crying inconsolably some afternoons – that thing could well be lived in fits and starts, bursts of planning and good housekeeping mixed indiscriminately with unironed clothes, unwashed hair or unmade beds. Manjulika made allowances for Lata’s life in London, she was not unreasonable, but travel was something else. A superior state to mere living, Manjulika contended. Stepping out of your own small life into the vast cosmos, into history and geography? You’d better be dressed for the occasion.

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(Manjulika Ghosh taught history and geography in middle school. She also only wore the finest Dhakai saris on her annual journey to London, where, unlike the other passengers who emerged from Heathrow looking like crushed paper towels, she glided out like Aparna Sen on set.)

London, sliding greyly past her window, was predictably rainy, chilly, giving off its signature wet winter scent: drizzle on stone and beer and smoke (and this at eleven o’clock in the morning!).

Lata craned her neck and caught the driver’s mirror. Her shoulder-length hair, coloured freshly at Martha’s yesterday – at a price which would give Manjulika a heart attack – was, luckily, still salon-fresh. She saw a gently brown, heart-shaped face, the café au lait complexion as blemish-free as it was on her fifteenth birthday, the legendary bee-stung lips creamed lightly with Chanel’s velvet allure, L’amoureuse #47, her signature colour. Lata smiled at her own reflection, tentatively testing its effect with her new hair but, mid-smile, her chestnut eyes behind the oversized Chanel spectacles accidentally caught the driver’s.

It was awkward.

Smilus interruptus, Lata quipped to herself, and quickly looked away to hide her amusement.

The poor cabbie, though, promptly found himself blubbering mildly, as men were wont to when Charulata Ghosh – for that was her original Tagorific name – flashed them a smile, however unintended. She had that kind of beauty.

‘Nasty weather, innit?’ he said first and then, buoyed by her agreement, took a couple of wrong turns, despite what the GPS was saying, blushed deeply at his own inadequacies, and eventually sputtered to silence. Lata looked impassively out of the window.

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After a childhood and early youth spent as a geek in an all- girls’ school, when Charulata Ghosh (it would be years later, in London, that she dropped the Charu formally, much to her mother’s chagrin) first stepped into Presidency College in 1997, around two decades ago, at the ripe old age of eighteen, she was gobsmacked by her strange ability to make boys do ridiculous things. Within three weeks of college, she had received five heart-wrenching proposals, three sets of complete notes and photocopies from outgoing third-year toppers – not just those pursuing Economics, which was her discipline, but from Mathematics and Statistics, merely her pass courses – and two letters written in what could be either a lurid red ink or blood. Freak-magnet, her classmates began to mutter. (Most of the girls agreed, in private, that they just couldn’t understand the secret of her SA. She was of medium height and build and boobage. Good in studies. Cotton kurta-jeans. Where was the mysterious SA located?)

If there was one thing Lata had learnt from her mother, Manjulika, it was that when you travelled, you put your best self forward.

But the myth took on a life of its own.

Boys from various departments, and even from colleges as far down south as Ashutosh, would lurk outside the department library where Lata was often found, and her classmates were regularly sought out and bribed with chicken samosas at Pramod-da’s canteen to make introductions. The rumours reached professors.

One day in end-November, several months into her first year, renowned economist K.D. Sen, who headed the department, bestowed upon Lata the cruel moniker, Helen of Troy, when she failed to answer a simple question in his Microeconomics seminar. It was shortened to HOT and institutionalised by her classmates even before the two hour lecture ended.

Later that afternoon, Ronny Banerjee found Helen of Troy weeping on the canteen roof. The twin discovery of her beauty and stupidity had confounded no one more than her, especially since she’d been an ace student with ugly braces all her life. Ronny fished out a large blue checkered handkerchief from his pocket and told her, ‘Don’t mind these old men, Charu. At least he’s given you a daak naam. Helen of Troy is memorable. It’s better to be memorable than nothing. No?’

Picture Credit: Devapriya Roy/ Westland Books

Excerpted with permission from ‘Friends From College’ by Devapriya Roy, Westland Books.

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