An excerpt from the book, Once upon a Curfew by Srishti Chaudhary.

The sisters greeted people around the room as they circled, briefly stopping for whomever they met along the way: ‘Rajat is well, missing India a little bit but enjoying London immensely,’ Indu would recite the standard answer. ‘No, there’s still time, it’s a full two years, this course.’ With Amita, they would approach with more caution, restricting the questions to how Govind’s business was going and if her mother-in-law was better now. Most of these people had also come to Amita’s wedding. Indu spotted Govind bhai in the distance and turned away.

‘Look at Aggarwal aunty over there,’ Amita said to her sister. ‘When I came in, she asked me if I would now start working at the government hospital. Said the people camped outside the hospital always took up all the parking spots there, so I must put in a word to ensure a smoother parking system.’

‘Typical,’ Indu said, rolling her eyes. ‘If only there were no cobra protecting their lockers and safes thirty feet under their house, they could have donated some of that money to the hospital for the parking she so desires.’

‘Ha ha ha, how did you come up with a cobra?’

‘Didn’t you hear? When the government threatened a crackdown on defaulters some time ago, they panicked and got a cobra and his charmer to sit guard outside their hoards.’

Amita sniggered, ‘As if the government could touch them anyway. All they need to do is offer them a piece of it.’

‘She’s changing everything, though, how systems work,’ Indu said. ‘I knew it from the start, didi, she’s not one to take things as they are. Have you seen how quickly banks are cropping up now in every town? After nationalization? I mean, I haven’t seen it, of course, but I’ve read about it.’

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‘Are you talking about Indira Gandhi?’ Shashi uncle said to the sisters, coming up from behind them with their father, giving them both a one-armed hug.

‘Congratulations again, uncle,’ Indu said, and both she and Amita smiled. ‘Let us know if we can do something to help you tonight.’

‘Of course, my dears, but you don’t have to do anything except be the beautiful girls you are,’ he said, turning to her father. ‘Ajit, your Indira seems to want to follow in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi, eh?’

‘It is in her blood, of course,’ her father said, laughing.

‘What about the Prime Minister, then?’ Shashi uncle asked Indu. ‘What do you think will happen now?’

‘Do you mean with all the trouble going on?’ Indu asked.

‘Yes.’

‘I believe in her,’ Indu said. ‘She’s done more for this country than anyone else. She is the future.’

‘You’ve taught her well, eh, Ajit?’ Shashi uncle said, looking at her father, as Indu beamed in response. ‘But not even she can predict the future.’

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Esha, paani pilao, didi is tired, get her some water,’ Sunita told her daughter, who generally trailed her mother around. Esha immediately ran off to bring water and Indu realized that her mother wasn’t home.

Indu smiled at Sunita and asked, ‘Theek ho? Everything okay?’

Bass, it’s okay, same old routine, same old life,’ Sunita answered as Indu nodded distractedly. There was a chill in the air now, and Indu would have to get her winter clothes unpacked soon. She was about to ask Sunita when she could do it when Esha handed her a glass of water and smiled.

The phone rang and Indu walked over to pick it up.

‘Hello?’ she said carefully into the receiver.

‘May I speak to Miss Indu Narayan, please?’

‘You may. Is that Mr Rana?’

‘Yes, I just wanted to hear how you respond to me saying your name.’

‘What?’

‘What?’

‘What do you mean?

‘Nothing Did I call on time? You said you hoped I wouldn’t be late.’

‘Yes, you did,’ she said, smiling, looking at the clock on the opposite wall. ‘A little early, actually. A couple of minutes earlier and you would have missed me.’

‘Sorry, but I just couldn’t wait.’ Indu found that his voice sounded deeper on the phone.

She forced herself to stop smiling, for she knew that some people could tell over the phone when the other person was smiling. Summoning her strictest voice, she said, ‘Do I have to remind you that the purpose of this phone call was only work and not idle chatter?’

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‘I meant the work! That I couldn’t wait to begin work! You’re the one who’s delaying it . . . uff, women.’

‘We can try to work together on this,’ she pressed on, ‘but we have a lot to plan.’

‘I agree. I think we should meet every day till we have some clear idea of how to go about it. Chalk it out, you know.’

‘Yes, but I’ll have to think of where, what all we need . . .’

‘We can meet at my house, if you want.’

‘Of course not,’ Indu said sharply, and heard him laugh.

‘Where, then?’

Indu didn’t have an answer. As inappropriate as it would be to meet at his house, it would be even more so to meet him at Number 7, which remained empty all day long, or even at her own house.

‘Maybe again at Indian Coffee House. Is that okay for you?’

‘As long as you make up your mind about whether or not you want coffee . . .’

This time, Indu couldn’t suppress her laughter. ‘Okay, after lunch? 2.30?’

‘Fine by me,’ he said briskly.

‘Don’t you have classes or anything?’

‘Not too many, and the classes that I have are not very important right now.’

‘Compared with me, you mean?’ Indu asked.

She heard him chuckle before he said, ‘How important is someone feeling today? I didn’t think there was any scope for improvement.’

‘The work that I have, mister. I meant the work.’

‘Ah, just like I meant the work before?’ he asked her, still laughing.

Before she could answer, Indu heard the front door open. She hurriedly told him she would see him later and hung up.

Picture Credit: Srishti Chaudhary/Penguin Random House

Excerpted with permission from Once upon a Curfew by Srishti Chaudhary, Penguin Random House.

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