On a pleasant October evening in 1974, a slender young woman hurried along a narrow residential street in Pune, her short, bobbed hair curling around her vivacious face. Though she usually favoured light cotton saris in the office, or jeans and T-shirts when not at work, today for some reason – she was not sure why – she had chosen to dress more formally and was wearing a khadi sari in white, her favourite colour. She was headed for the flat of her co-worker Prasanna, a young man with whom she had become friends because they rode the TELCO (Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company) bus together to work each day and because they both came from Karnataka. This, she recognized, was an unusual excursion for her. She felt a tiny shiver along her spine: a frisson of anticipation and excitement.
The young woman liked Prasanna because, like her, he was a voracious reader. Each day on the bus, he would have a different book with him. She would glance over at what he was reading and feel pleasantly surprised because usually it was something she had read already, like The Discovery of India or My Experiments with Truth. Sometimes they would talk about the book and she would dive in eagerly into their discussion with forthright opinions. But recently Prasanna had surprised her. He had been engrossed in a writer she had never heard of: George Mikes. The titles of Mikes’s books were unusual, too: How to Be an Alien, How to Tango: A Solo across South America and How to Unite Nations. And on the flyleaf of each book was written, with a confident flourish, a name and a place. The places were unexpected, exotic: Paris, Rome, Munich, Istanbul and Kabul.
The young woman couldn’t resist asking, ‘How is it you have all these books? And who is this man, anyway? A global bus conductor?’
Prasanna had laughed. ‘He’s my friend – and now my flatmate. I stay in the front room of a flat he shares with a colleague called Shashi Sharma and his parents. He has certainly travelled to many countries and had many adventures! Why don’t you come over sometime and meet him? He’s a most interesting man, full of stories. Also, he’s a Kannadiga like us. You’ll love his collection of books. They’ve taken over most of our living room. In fact, I’d say that books are the only things he cares to own.’
The woman had hesitated. She had never visited a male friend in his flat. As the first woman employed by TELCO, living alone in a city far from her more traditional home town of Hubli, she knew there were many eyes on her. Thus, she was ultra-careful about her behaviour, about establishing boundaries. When she went on a company business trip with male colleagues and was required to share a company guest house, she kept strictly to herself. When she went out with male friends for dinner, she made sure to pay for herself so there would be no confusion about their relationship. ‘Paying my share allows me to keep them at the right distance,’ she explained to her women friends.
But this time, on the verge of saying no, she hesitated. It was too tempting, the thought of an entire room filled with exotic foreign writers she had not read and might never come across elsewhere, shelves and shelves of books she could perhaps borrow. And the owner of the books – she admitted to herself that she was quite curious about him. What would he look like? In her mind, she imagined this intrepid world traveller to be suave and debonair, tall and broad-shouldered. Maybe, she thought, because she loved Hindi movies, he would look like Rajesh Khanna, sporting sideburns and boots. ‘All right,’ she had finally said. ‘I’ll stop by tomorrow, just for a little while.’
When she walked into Prasanna’s flat, though, she was surprised by the man her co-worker introduced her to. He was thin and slight, with thick glasses and a small scar on his forehead – a far cry from a movie star. He had on a checked coat that was nothing like the fashionable leather jackets the heroes of Hindi movies favoured. He was quiet – almost shy, she thought – until they started discussing books. Then he shed his reticence and sparkled with intelligence and an eloquence that startled her. She discovered that they shared a passion for Kannada writers: Kuvempu, Shivarama Karanth, Triveni and SL Bhyrappa. But more exciting was the fact that his bookshelves – as crowded as she had imagined – sported many new and fascinating writers. There were also more books by Mikes. She read out the titles excitedly: Little Cabbages, The Prophet Motive, The Land of the Rising Yen, How to Scrape Skies and Shakespeare and Myself.
‘It’s Meekesh,’ he said gently, correcting her pronunciation of the Hungarian writer’s name. While the young woman could be prickly when told she was wrong, she found that, for some strange reason, this time she did not mind. Her visit stretched longer than she had intended as she listened to him talk about his favourite writers and describe how he had discovered them while living in Europe. At the end of the evening, before she could ask, he offered to loan her as many books as she wanted. He filled a shopping bag – the simple kind a housewife might take to the market to buy vegetables – with the volumes she chose.
At the door, as she was about to say goodbye, he took a deep breath. ‘May I invite you to have dinner with me tomorrow night – maybe at a restaurant?’
It was not her habit to go somewhere with a man she had just met. But to her surprise, she heard herself agreeing. Was it because their conversation, at once frank and deep, had made her feel she knew this man better than she did most of her colleagues, even people she had worked with for months? Was it the way his eyes shone with intelligence behind his glasses? She pulled herself together and said, ‘But Prasanna must come with us, too.’ In a stern voice, she added, ‘And I will pay for my dinner.’ She chose the venue: Poona Coffee House, which was inexpensive and unpretentious and served tasty meals and was therefore popular with young people. It was the kind of restaurant where one went with friendship – not romance – in mind.
He agreed to everything, bowing gallantly – like a Parisian might, she thought. Later, he would say, ‘Do you know, you lit up the room when you walked into our flat. I’d travelled all over the world, but I’d never met a woman so fully interested in life. I couldn’t stop thinking about you after you left.’ The next night, he showed up outside Poona Coffee House half-an-hour early. Despite what she had said, he tried to pay for her dinner. But she found herself unable to get angry with him. She could already tell that he wasn’t like other men, who might presume there might be a romance brewing if they bought dinner for a woman. There was a straightforwardness in him that, as a straightforward woman herself, resonated with her. That is how Sudha Kulkarni, 24, and Narayana Murthy, 28, began a relationship that would open the doors of aspiration for many young people who came from similar middle-class backgrounds and ultimately change the face of entrepreneurship and philanthropy in India
(Extracts published with permission from Juggernaut)
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