Maggie deposited 5,000 rupees on the nightstand. Ranbir picked up the 1000-rupee notes and held each up to the bedside light. Maggie shook her head and laughed.
“I got those from the ICICI ATM. They had better be real.”
“Occupational hazard. One of my bad banker habits,” joked Ranbir.
“Don’t invest it all in one place, my Rockstar Banker,” teased Maggie.
Ranbir winced. Sometimes, that nickname stung his ego. His amber eyes flashed in the dim hotel room. He flattened his spiky, overgelled hair.
“Isn’t it enough?” asked Maggie.
“No. I mean, yes, of course, it is. You are very generous,” he replied.
“So are you, lover,” said Maggie as she traced the curve of Ranbir’s bare bicep.
“It’s just…” he paused.
“Just what?” insisted Maggie.
“When will it ever be enough? 5K or 5 crore. It doesn’t matter. Why am I even doing this?” he whined.
“Choice, Ranbir. We all have the freedom to choose. I choose to have sex with you, and you choose to profit from it. I could stop paying you, if you really want. But, that would change the nature of the transaction. Do I really need to explain economics to an MBA?”
“No, of course not. It’s just I can’t even remember why I made the choice in the first place.”
“Well, why did you?”
Ranbir leaned farther into the pillows, glanced out the window, and sighed.
“I love my mother and couldn’t bear to see her suffer.”
“Wait. Let me get this straight. You have sex with random women for money because you love your mother? Good lord, now, I’ve heard everything.”
Maggie laughed, but Ranbir wasn’t smiling. His face had turned a deep, gorgeous red. It almost matched the color of the bed covering that was a signature of BKC’s best five-star business hotel. Ranbir turned away.
Maggie sat down next to him and tugged at his chin, turning his face toward her. Her blue eyes stared straight into his amber ones.
“Hey. I’m sorry. Tell me.” A few strands of Maggie’s blond hair had escaped her updo and fallen onto her shoulder. Ranbir brushed them back behind her ear.
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“How about the beginning?” Maggie rose and turned toward the room service cart still cluttered with tea cups, samosas, and whiskey.
“Are you sure you want to hear this?” he asked.
“Yes,” insisted Maggie. “More tea?” She picked up the teapot and poured another drink for him.
“Yes, with Glenlivet and little honey, I like the way you make it,” he replied.
Maggie handed him her signature hot toddy.
“How did I get here?” he thought. He gazed at the silver tea tray and remembered another tea tray at his parents’ old flat.
Ranbir rose to help Mrs. Kapur as she struggled to balance the tea tray piled high with biscuits, cakes, and samosas.
“Maa, let me get that. Where’s Stephanie?” he asked.
She shooed him away.
Mr. Kapur glared at his wife. She demurred.
“We gave her the day off. Please sit down, beta. Your father and I have to talk to you about something.” After she set down the tea tray, Mrs. Kapur took her place on the couch. She touched her neck where her mangalsutra usually hung.
Ranbir picked up a samosa. His mother only served his favorite food to brace him for bad news. As he sat down, he bit into the samosa. The masala mixture tasted bland in his mouth. Ranbir’s stomach lurched. Bile rose in his throat. He replaced the samosa on the tray.
“What’s wrong?” he asked cutting through the formalities.
Ranbir’s father shifted in his seat as he spoke. “We’re about to be evicted.”
“We’re behind on our loan on the house. We have been for some time.” His father’s matter-of-fact response undercut the seriousness of the issue.
“What loan? When did you take out a loan?” demanded Ranbir.
“When you started university. We couldn’t afford the tuition payments…” his father trailed off.
“I knew the University of Mumbai was more expensive, but I didn’t realise. Why didn’t you tell me?” Ranbir’s face reddened.
“It was not your business to know. Who are you to decide our financial concerns? That is my job. I am the head of this family. Not you. I took the decision. It was my choice.” Mr. Kapur snapped.
“Then why tell me now? If it’s not my concern? Not my decision?” Ranbir’s voice rose and then cracked.
Mrs. Kapur had finished pouring a cup of tea and handed it to Ranbir. As he sipped the hot tea, his temper cooled.
Mrs. Kapur tried to bridge the growing rift between her son and her husband.
“We’re sorry, beta. We know the timing’s not great. You just started your job at ICICI. We were hoping to delay the eviction until after your first pay slip, but we can’t delay telling you any longer.”
Ranbir blanched. His face matched the color of the bone white china cup in his hands.
Mr. Kapur cleared his throat. “Ranbir, we thought perhaps you could talk to your boss. That Mr. Jain. Perhaps he could intervene on our behalf. As a favor to you.”
Ranbir blanched again. “I…can try…but, I can’t promise…” The intricate fiction Ranbir had woven about his bank job was beginning to unravel like a cheap dupatta.
“Talk to him on Monday for us. Here are the bank details.” Mr. Kapur handed over the latest loan statement. The number of zeroes on the remainder of the loan outnumbered the number of years Ranbir had spent at university.
“I…thank you,” stuttered Ranbir. He felt a rush of gratitude that fell short of his simple acknowledgement of their sacrifice. He hoped Mr. Jain would take his call on Monday.
On Monday afternoon, Ranbir dialed Mr. Jain’s mobile number.
“Prabir Jain here.”
“Sir, It’s Ranbir…”
Mr. Jain cut him off. “Dekh, yaar, I told you last week—and the week before last—we don’t anticipate hiring after all until next fiscal year. At the earliest. I’m sorry, but the downturn has hit the bank hard. It’s out of my hands. HR has cracked down on expenses. They won’t approve any more freshers. Check back with me in April.”
“Yes, sir. I understand, sir. Thank you, sir. I’m calling for a different reason, sir. It’s about my parents, sir. Could we meet for coffee, sir?” begged Ranbir.
Mr. Jain was silent. Ranbir’s stomach flip-flopped.
“Please, sir. It’s important. They’re loyal ICICI customers.”
“Customers.” Mr. Jain perked up. “OK. Meet me at Starbucks at 2 pm. It’s down the street from the new Powai branch. Do you know it?”
“Yes, sir. 2 pm, sir. Thank…” The phone clicked.
At 2 pm sharp, Ranbir walked into the Powai Starbucks. He didn’t see Mr. Jain, so he ordered a black coffee and sat down toward the front of the cafe. He took the paperwork out of his bag and read through the loan terms. Some time passed. Ranbir switched to the latest best-seller, but he couldn’t focus on the words. He put the book down. More time passed. He glanced at his phone. The display read: 3 pm. More time passed. Ranbir typed out a text message to Mr. Jain and then erased it. An important man like Mr. Jain shouldn’t be bothered with text messages from peon job hunters. Right now, Ranbir wished he were a peon. Even that lowly office job seemed a vast improvement over no job at all.
Finally, at 3:30, Mr. Jain walked through the door.
“Ah! Ranveer, my boy! Glad to see you. Glad to see you,” shouted Mr. Jain as he sat down.
Ranbir ignored the mistaken name and extended his hand. Mr. Jain did not return the gesture. Ranbir’s hand fell to his side.
“May I get you a coffee, sir?” asked Ranbir, hoping for a cheap beverage choice.
“Yes, that would be great. I’ll have a mocha frappaccino with caramel syrup, a chicken roll—and an oatmeal cookie.”
When Ranbir returned with the food and drink, he found Mr. Jain buried in his phone, checking emails.
“Here you go, sir.” Ranbir set everything on the table.
“Ah, yes. Thank you Ranveer. How can I help?” asked Mr. Jain as he slurped his drink.
“Well, it’s my parent’s loan with the bank, sir. They’ve fallen behind—way behind—and they are about to be evicted.” He picked up the loan papers. “Here are the papers.”
Mr. Jain eyed the papers briefly.
“Hmm. There’s not much I can do.”
“Please, sir, perhaps you can put in a call to someone in the loan department.”
“Hmmm. Well, OK.” As Mr. Jain dialled the phone, beads of sweat appeared on Ranbir’s face.
“Yes, Sangeeta? Jain here. Listen, can you give me the status on account number 074237348976?”
Ranbir’s stomached flip-flopped again as Sangeeta took some time to check the status.
“Ah. Yes. I understand. Just after Diwali then is it? … Yes. I see… OK. Thank you.”
Mr. Jain hung up the phone.
“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news. It’s already gone to auction. It’s scheduled for next month. Just after Diwali. There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. You can always try to reclaim the property before the auction date.”
“Pay off the portion in arrears,” offered Mr. Jain.
Ranbir’s face fell. “I don’t have a job, remember?” Bitterness seeped into his voice. “How am I supposed to generate that much cash before the auction date?”
“What other assets do your parents have?”
“Not enough to reverse the default.” Ranbir remembered his mother’s missing mangalsutra.
“What about you?”
“Me?” Ranbir’s eyebrows met his hairline. “I don’t have any assets.”
“Sure, you do. You’re a good looking guy. Fit, young. Fair, lovely. Those are big assets. Leverage those assets and convert them to cash.”
Ranbir chocked on his coffee. “What are you saying?” Ranbir lowered his voice. “Prostitution?”
Mr. Jain waved his hand dismissively. “Call it what you will. I think the Americans call them gigolos.”
Ranbir sipped his coffee. Stunned.
“You mean like in that American movie? Who was the actor?”
“Richard Gere, I think,” came Mr. Jain’s simple response.
“I… er… well… I never expected this from you, sir,” stuttered Ranbir.
“Well, I’ve not done it, of course, but I’ve heard,” coughed Mr. Jain. “There’s a woman named Meera. I can put you in touch.”
‘Ranbir shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, you know, sex…for money. I don’t think I could do it.”
“Just take the number.” Mr. Jain scrolled through his contacts and shared Meera’s number to Ranbir’s phone.
Ranbir almost hit his head on the front door of his parents’ flat. “Huh?” He looked up from his phone. The text with Meera’s contact details glowed on the screen. Ranbir rang the bell. His mother answered the door.
“Come in, beta,” she said. “You’re just in time for tea.” Ranbir was always in time for tea even when it wasn’t tea time. His mother was always prepared to feed her always hungry son.
“Sit, beta.” Mrs. Kapur shuffled off to make tea.
Ranbir sank into the faux leather couch. A filmy haze of pollution and dirt covered the windows of the 13th floor flat. Ranbir stared at his phone. Ms. Kapur returned with the tea things.
“Maa, why are the windows so dirty? Shouldn’t they have been cleaned by now?”
“Oh, I guess I forgot, dear.” She shifted in her seat. “So, did you speak with Mr. Jain, beta?” She smiled.
Now, it was Ranbir’s turn to shift in his seat. He glanced at the floor. He couldn’t break her heart.
“He’s looking into it, maa.”
Ranbir’s eyes fell on his mother’s bare neck. “Maa, did you forget to put your mangalsutra on this morning?”
Ms. Kapur cleared her throat. “No, dear, I sold it.”
“But, your wedding jewellery, maa? You sold it? When?”
“Last month. We needed it for household expenses,” she explained.
“But, it was your favorite piece. It meant so much to you,” stuttered Ranbir. The teacup wobbled in his hand.
Ms. Kapur waved her hand to dismiss his concern.
“Why didn’t you say something?” he asked.
“Because that’s what it’s for. An investment until it’s needed,” she replied as if the matter was settled.
“But, maa,” he pleaded.
“But, nothing. Nothing means more to me than you, beta. Nothing. It was worth the sacrifice to keep a roof over our heads. Besides, you have a good job now. Soon, all our problems will be solved.”
Tears welled in Ranbir’s eyes. He rose to comfort his mother and started to touch her feet. She smiled and bent as if to stop him.
“Beta, why the formality?”
“I’m just so grateful for all the sacrifices you and papa have made for me. I love you, maa.” Ranbir kissed his mother goodbye. The moment he left the flat, he dialed the new contact on his phone.
Ranbir glanced at his phone again. Meera, flat 3201, Shahi Towers, SoBo. As he reached the towers, he instructed the driver to drop him at building A. The large bank of elevators shone across the highly polished marble entrance.
“Which floor?” asked the doorman.
“Yes, sir. Madam Meera’s flat.” He indicated the right elevator. “Go up this elevator, then get off on the 10th floor. From there you will see another set of elevators. Take those to the top.”
As Ranbir exited on the 10th floor, he entered a floor ringed almost entirely with windows. He paused to enjoy SoBo’s best view of the Queen’s Necklace. Another storm was rolling in across the Arabian Sea. Raindrops began to pelt the windows.
Ranbir crossed the lobby to the other bank of elevators. He breathed in then out as he pushed the up button. As the elevator slowed to a stop, Ranbir breathed in then out again. He stepped into the elevator. The doors shut.
The trip to the 32nd floor made Ranbir’s stomach lurch. The elevator creaked as it passed each floor. 11… 15… 23… 32. Finally, the elevator bell dinged, and the doors opened.
As he stepped off the elevator, Ranbir saw an elaborate wooden door at the end of a long hallway.
A few hundred meters stood between him and his parents’ financial freedom. His shoes smacked against the cold marble as he crossed the distance. A statue of Krishna playing his flute greeted Ranbir at the flat entrance. Ranbir knocked softly.
The door opened.
A woman appeared.
She was scantily clad in a white silk nightgown. Her fingers and toes were painted a shimmering lavender. Her black hair was parted down the middle and partially drawn up into a tidy knot at the back. The remaining hair was draped seductively across the front of her shoulders. She leaned against the door frame and blocked Ranbir’s path.
“You’ve arrived just in time for tea,” she purred, “I’m so glad you could come.”
Meera stepped back from the door, and motioned toward the couch in the center of the room.
Ranbir stepped inside.
The door slammed shut.
Hot Toddy originally appeared in issue 1 of Unbound. You can read the entire issue on Smashwords. Issue 2 of Unbound will be available on Amazon and is set to release on 8 March, International Women’s Day. The theme is the Strength of a Woman.