The Prime Minister of Tawa – 35
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More than anything else, it was Peelee’s wink which made him do it, Mash would tell himself many years later. If only Peelee hadn’t winked at him in such an obscene fashion, he would not have taken up with Sulawa, Mash was sure, however alluring she might have looked that night. Not that the subsequent conversation he had with Peelee that night helped him in any way.
Mash had arrived at the reception at around seven thirty. The Hepara city hall was rented out by Dimanan’s family for the reception. When Mash stepped out of his car with a gift in his hand, Dimanan, his brother and brother’s wife were at hand to receive him.
‘Alakom, Maheshdas-raan,’ Dimanan’s elder brother greeted him.
‘Maheshdas-raan, this is my elder brother,’ Dimanan informed Mash needlessly.
‘Alakom, Alakom’ Mash told Dimanan’s brother and sister-in-law. A huge crowd gathered around him. Before the crowd could get any bigger, Dimanan quickly escorted Mash into the hall which was packed with people. The noise level in the hall suddenly dropped as Mash entered and was introduced to the couple who had got married earlier in the afternoon. Mash shook hands with the groom and nodded at the bride. The groom was a mere wisp of a boy. He could not have been more than twenty-one. And the bride looked older than the groom. There was little doubt who would have the final say in the household. All the best to you lad, Mash silently wished the groom as he handed him the wrapped gift. Kamel, who got the gift for him to take to the reception, had told him what was inside the wrapped parcel, but Mash had forgotten. He hoped Dimanan would not ask him. The groom handed over the gift to one of his cousins standing nearby. Tawan etiquette demanded that a wrapped gift should not be opened in front of the gift-giver.
‘Would you like to have some dinner Maheshdas-raan? Dimanan asked him.
‘Why not? I would like some dinner,’ Mash said.
Dimanan was shocked. He had not really expected Mash to have any dinner. Mash himself had not planned to stay for dinner. But after the really nasty argument he had with Judy in the afternoon, he was not particularly keen to rush back home.
Dimanan led him to the buffet tables kept in a corner of the hall. An aroma of spice and steam rose from the mounds of food kept in large stainless steel trays, each of which had a liveried waiter standing behind, ready to serve and assist. Peelee came up to Mash and tapped him on the back. ‘So you finally decided to come, Maheshdas-raan!’
Mash ignored him. Peelee was the only minister or even MP who could get on his nerves effortlessly.
‘Maybe I should walk around for a while and meet people,’ Mash told Dimanan who continued to hover around him.
‘That’s a good idea Maheshdas-raan. Let me introduce you to our guests,’ Dimanan offered. Mash was about to tell him that he would walk around on his, but he changed his mind. It was not really Dimanan’s fault. A guest in a Tawan home was never left alone. Almost all Tawans lived in joint families. They were used to having people around them all the time. And what was more, they liked having people around them all the time.
Dimanan and Mash abandoned Peelee and walked around with Dimanan introducing Mash to various people. Mash had never been accused of being an extrovert, but making small talk was very easy when one is Prime Minister. Everyone wanted to talk to him. He could see people gearing up to smile at him as he approached them. They would quickly swallow the food that remained in their mouths and cease any further intake of food just to make sure they did not have their mouths full when Mash came up to them. The people in his proximity would remain silent and strain their ears to hear what Mash was talking to their neighbours. Some of them gaped at Mash unashamedly. The cream of Tawan society, Mash thought as a wry smile crossed his face. Were the receptions at 10 Downing Street any better? There was no reason for him to be embarrassed about his countrymen. Human beings were the same everywhere, weren’t they?
Sulawa was talking to one of Dimanan’s relatives when Mash approached her. She stood out from the other women since she was much taller – almost five feet eight inches – as tall as Mash. But more than her height, she had an air of self-confidence, which very few women in Tawa possessed. Like other women, she too wore a sarong, doree and thuli, but unlike others, her garments were cream and off-white in colour. The mere fact that her doree and sarong were not in bright colours made her look very different.
Dimanan, who was following Mash, said, ‘Sulawa-ree is a lecturer at the university. She is my cousin’s colleague.’
‘That’s very nice. Sulawa extended her hand to Mash, something that did not happen very often in Tawa.
She has a firm handshake, Mash thought as he shook her hand and said, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you. What do you teach?’
‘History.’ Sulawa was not particularly beautiful. She had a few acne-marks on her face and her teeth were slightly uneven. Her long and straight hair was not braided and hung loose like an unfurled flag.
‘I teach Sociology,’ Dimanan’s cousin offered and received a smile from Mash for her pains.
‘And Sulawa-ree is a writer as well,’ Dimanan added.
‘Oh I see. That’s wonderful. So, what have you written so far?’
‘My first novel got published last year. I have published a few short stories as well.’
‘What’s your novel called? I’m not sure I’ve heard of it.’
‘It’s called ______________. You don’t read too many Keenda books, do you?’
‘No I don’t. In fact, ever since I went to the UK at the age of fifteen, I haven’t read a single book in Keenda.’
‘If you did, you would have known that ___________ was panned by a few critics and is slowly disappearing from bookshelves without a trace.’
‘Aw come on! It can’t be all that bad. I would like to read your book. In fact, I think I will get hold of a copy of it and read it. What’s it about?’
‘It’s about a woman who does not take the beaten path. She strikes out on her own and doesn’t do too well, but she is still happy, because it’s her life and she got to make her own choices. I’ll have a copy sent to you.’ Sulawa offered shyly.
‘Oh please don’t do that. I should buy it myself. You ought to get something in return for your efforts. Is it autobiographical by any chance?’
‘No, it’s not. Not really. Although I guess some shades of me have crept in. That’s inevitable I guess.
They were both silent for a while. Mash suddenly realised that lots of people were staring at him. He had spent more time with Sulawa than with anyone else. It was time for him to walk on and talk to other people.
‘I wish I could stay on and talk to you,’ Mash told her. ‘But….’
As Mash prepared to move on, he saw Peelee walk past. As he walked past, Peelee winked at Mash. Mash was so irritated that he hung back and asked Sulawa, ‘may I have your telephone number? After I’ve read your book, I’d like to give you a call and tell you what I thought about it.’
Dimanan who had moved on came back.
‘Dimanan-raan, can I have a piece of paper?’ Mash asked him.
The piece of paper was produced and Mash noted down Sulawa’s number. By that time, everyone was openly staring at Mash and Sulawa. Sulawa was even more self-conscious than Mash. Mash stuffed the piece of paper into his pocket and walked away saying ‘see you soon Sulawa-ree.’.
Dimanan followed him. One of these days he ought to sit Peelee down and give him a lecture about the norms of acceptable behaviour, Mash thought. The man was a damn pain in the neck.
‘You must be really hungry now, Maheshdas-raan,’ Dimanan reminded him.
With a jolt Mash realised that he was yet to eat dinner. He was tempted to tell Dimanan that he was no longer hungry and go home. But he was really hungry. Might as well have something, Mash told himself. He walked over to the buffet tables. Most people had finished dinner, but the food trays were still full since they were being constantly refilled.
Mash picked up a plate and walked around the trays. He decided to avoid eating rice and instead settled for a rice pancake stuffed with spicy fried prawns.
‘Is that all you are going to eat Maheshdas-raan?’ Dimanan asked him, disappointed.
‘I’m afraid so Dimanan-raan. I am a very poor eater, you know.’
‘And what would you like to drink?’
‘A coke? Coke? Oh coca cola! But of course!’
A waiter overhead Mash’s wish and quickly poured out some coca cola from a bottle into a glass.
Mash carried his plate and walked over to where the tables had been laid out. Dimanan followed carrying the glass of coke. Each table was covered with a white table cloth and had six chairs around it. Most of the tables were deserted and the table cloths stained with food. He found a table with a clean table cloth and sat down. Dimanan sat down on a chair next to him and set the glass of coke next to Mash. Soon, Dimanan’s elder brother joined them. A few people sat a couple of tables away. Dimanan and his brother looked at each other hesitantly, wondering whether they ought to make small talk as any self-respecting Tawan host would do. After a little bit of hesitation, they sat back in their seats, having decided to let their foreign-returned Prime Minister enjoy some silence. However, Mash was not destined to enjoy any peace or quiet. A few minutes later, Peelee joined them.
‘I noticed you talking to Sulawa-ree, Maheshdas-raan!’ Peelee said.
‘A very polite and civilised lady,’ Mash replied. Was Peelee ever going to take a hint?’
‘I used to know her husband very well,’ Peelee informed Mash. Mash jerked up his head, but remained silent.
‘But it’s alright Maheshdas-raan,’ Peelee bellowed with laughter. ‘It’s alright. She is separated from her husband.’
‘I see. And why are you telling me all this?’ Mash demanded.
‘Peelee ignored Mash’s question and continued, ‘she has a five-year old son, though.’
Mash was torn between the desire to ask Peelee for more information and the need to avoid giving Peelee the impression that his behaviour was acceptable. He decided to remain silent.
‘Her husband is a businessman. She left him three years ago, carrying away their small boy with her. She now lives with her parents. Her parents want her to go back, but she has refused. And her husband is not too keen to have her back, because everyone knows she does not want to go back. He is now thinking of getting a divorce and marrying someone else.’
‘I see,’ Mash said. He was grateful for the information and could not bring himself to tell Peelee off.
‘Have you eaten Peelee-raan?’ Dimanan asked Peelee.’
‘Yes, Peelee-raan has eaten,’ Dimanan’s brother confirmed before Peelee could reply.
Mash finished his meal and got up to wash his hands. Peelee somehow got the feeling that his presence was not being appreciated. ‘I think I’ll leave,’ he told them at large and walked off in a huff.
‘An extraordinarily moody man,’ Mash declared to Dimanan and his brother, not caring that at least a few people remained within earshot. Dimanan and his brother were silent. Soon they were joined by a two MPs and some other TFP party workers. Mash decided to give Peelee a five minute head start and remained silent while the others talked. But their small talk was constrained by his presence and they were relieved when Mash looked at his watch and smiled at Dimanan.
As Mash walked off, Dimanan continued to follow him.
‘I’m so sorry you had to attend a cabinet meeting on the day of your nephew’s wedding,’ Mash formally told him.
‘That’s okay Maheshdas-raan. Work is more important, isn’t it?’ Dimanan countered. He sounded sincere. Mash walked on.
‘Maheshdas-raan, there was something I needed to ask you,’ Dimanan said.
‘Sure. What’s it?’
‘A small favour Maheshdas-raan.’
‘Sure, what’s it?’
‘My sister’s brother-in-law works in our embassy in Australia. He is due for a promotion. According to the civil service rules, he ought to have got his promotion many months ago. A one hundred percent deserving case! But his boss has been withholding his promotion because he does not like him. Is there anything you could do about it?’
‘Well, I’m in charge of foreign affairs. So, I ought to be able to decide on our embassy staff’s promotions. What’s your sister’s brother-in-law’s name?’ Dimanan deserved a good turn, Mash felt. He was a good boy. Unlike Peelee, he sided with Mash in most arguments. He rarely raised objections. The least Mash could do for him was to make sure his sister’s brother-in-law got the promotion he deserved one hundred percent.
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