The news broke upon him with all the suddenness of a monsoon thunderstorm. He was
alternately bewildered, angry, confused, and also glad.
" I don't believe it!" said Sharmaji. " You mean Rukmini our Rukmini, and Robert,
Robert Todd are going to get married? How do you know, and why was I not told before?
Why am I always the last person to be told anything? Am I just nobody? I can't believe it,
and I won't till they tell me personally!"
A few minutes later Robert entered his unit, accompanied by Rukmini, to join Abraham
the bearer of ill-good news. Her silky, dusky cheeks were blushing darkly, and her eyes
sparkled as she looked at Robert.
" Sharmaji! You can throw me out on my ear if you like, but I have come to ask your
permission your permission, Sharmaji to marry Rukmini," said Robert in his shy,
open way.
Sharmaji had pulled himself together. He ran out from behind the table, embraced and
kissed Robert on the cheek, and saluted Rukmini with equal fondness. This was the
happiest day of his life, he announced frankly, everything was to be left to him, it would
be a grand wedding, people would remember it for the rest of their lives, Rukmini was a
blessed girl, he knew it the moment he had set eyes on her, and Robert, Robert was the
luckiest man, he could see their children being the light of the world, Abraham, there was
so much work to be done, and what were their plans? and so on, in a bustling manner that
would have done credit to Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennett.
As he said himself there were a million things to be done. A SERVICE staff meeting was
called, a critical path chalked out, and duties apportioned. While the couple had said they
would prefer a Hindu wedding, Sharmaji insisted it should be followed by a Christian
wedding, as was only fit and proper, in the Wesley Church. He would arrange everything
with his friend, the pastor. The church choir must be rehearsed, and Abraham, as the
Christian on the committee, must see to it. Gandhiji, said Sharmaji with his customary
respectful pause at the name, had liked `Lead Kindly Light,' and this must be sung. The
marriage pandal of the mutt premises was the obvious choice for the `Hindu' wedding.
After much debate, it was unanimously decided that since the elite of the city and
`government' were to be invited for the `wedding of the season,' the rural centre was
ruled out as a venue for the reception. All the events must take place in the city, but
where? was the key question.
The choice of venues stretched from Sharmaji's own neighbourhood as that would be
`homely,' the bride being almost a `daughter of the house,' a statement that raised many
discrete eyebrows, and not so discrete smiles hidden behind sari paloos to the Raj
Bhavan itself, since Sharmaji was a known friend of the Governor's, who patronized
NGOs in general, and SERVICE it particular. Ultimately, the Botanical Gardens were
accorded the great honour of hosting the Reception, since the Horticultural Society in any
case was a partner in providing planting material for the `Green' SERVICE programme.
Venkat would be Reception in charge, but keeping Sharmaji informed of every move first

thing every morning. Three busloads would bring women from all the villages to the
reception, and Dasgupta was to oversee all transport arrangements, including decking the
`bride's car,' their society's SUV, with roses, and hiring special taxis for the city's
After much discussion with the pastor of the church and the priests of the temple,
Sharmaji reluctantly agreed to the church wedding being performed first though by
rights the girl's religion should have had primacy. What clinched the issue for Sharmaji
was the appetizing prospect that straight after the `hindu' ceremony they could all partake
of a chaste lunch, cooked on the temple premises in the traditional manner. Many times in
the past several months he had been tempted to offer a special puja at the temple, to be
followed by a lunch at the temple, but had desisted for fear that the Gods might take
umbrage at his insincerity. But a marriage was a fitting occasion, especially so, since
Robert, a foreign `outcaste,' would be given Gods' grace for once in his life.
Organizing the menu for the reception was an altogether tougher proposition, since the
elite would be coming, Muslims and government officials, and press people, whose
friendship he could cement during the evening. It went without saying that a bar must be
kept open during the function. But someone had to keep a watchful eye open, on it and
the servants, otherwise he would be beggared. Of course, all expenses would be met out
of the society's funds, but even then, he could always find good uses for money saved.
After worrying at length, he decided that no one in the staff could be trusted, and that he
had no option but to ask his brother-in-law to take charge of the bar. Of course that fellow
would take advantage of his helplessness by offering free drinks to all his cronies, but
that was a better option than to let any one of his staff loose on the drinks.
Sharmaji decided he would take personal charge of ordering the food. He prided himself
on his epicurean tastes. He would meld Andhra dishes with Hyderabadi cuisine each
dish should be a delight on its own, and yet no more than one organic highlight among
many of a gastronomic evening that would be remembered by all. He was pleased with
this fancy, with himself, and even Rukmini, for enabling him to be the `giver of food' to
all, and what food it would be! He threw himself into organizing the food with an
enthusiasm he had not felt for anything else in a long time. Clearly no single cook could
be entrusted with the whole menu, but different experts must be called in for preparing
the dishes that had brought them special renown.
His wife had sniffed at his enthusiasm, remarking pointedly that his own daughter's
wedding had been a shabby affair, while he was now making a fool of himself over this
other woman. He had snapped back that they were not spending a rupee of their own
money, and that this was a business occasion when he could please so many important
people. Her eyes had widened at this new perspective, and she had said no more, but
showed her displeasure in the way she banged down his coffee cup every time. As he
needed her help, he decided to overlook her ill temper.
" Look, all the secretaries to government will be there, from the chief secretary
downwards," he told her one evening. " They are almost all North Indians who have

never had a chance to eat proper food, our food. You must conduct them to the Andhra
table and show them how to eat, how to appreciate every dish. No one can do it better
than you. We must buy a silk sari for the evening. We will do it this week. Now we must
get the best cooks you know them better than anyone else, since you yourself are the
best cook."
She was not impervious to this praise. She smiled, sat down, and they amicably discussed
dishes, cooks, special vessels to be borrowed, and who had them. " What you need to do
is engage Kamalamma," she said after due deliberation. " My mother learnt cooking from
her, but she fusses all the time, and she hates to come to the city. But I know she needs
money. Her son is an IT engineer and he has the offer of a good job in California, but he
has to pay for his own ticket, so she will cook, but you must send a car to fetch her."
Kamalamma when she arrived turned out to be a very large woman, very unsteady on her
legs, but with a commanding voice all the same. Refusing to sit on a chair, she lowered
herself groaning on to the floor of their flat, and ordered Sharmaji's wife to get her some
hot coffee and a few soft idlis if she had any. Sharmaji was amazed to see his wife being
obsequious, which she had never been before, even on their wedding day, even to his own
aunt. After half an hour had passed, during which the women exchanged many stories
about distant relatives, and cures for constant aches and other disorders, Kamalamma
turned to Sharmaji who had sat by patiently ignored, and told him that she and her three
assistants, no more than boys really, would stay at the temple, she could not stand dirty
city apartments, but next morning he was to come with them to buy provisions.
The shopping expedition stretched over four days, with Kamalamma negotiating the
crowded narrow lanes with surprising agility, though she never ceased to complain of the
city, its filth, and her own ailments, which had brought her to death's door. She rested her
large, panting self on narrow ledges or stools by the door of shops, and held long
animated conversations with the shopkeepers. They all seemed to agree readily with her
that the vegetables, or oil, or grain, on display were not of the fastidious quality to which
she was accustomed, and some blamed it on the government and its policies, some on the
present generation, and a few on the Iraq war. Sharmaji tagged along, disgorging money
whenever she declared herself reconciled to the choice available, vainly wishing he could
be sitting in his cloistered office, under his fan, waiting for tiffin. But he was determined
the feast at the reception would be such as would be remembered in fable and in song,
and so he soldiered on.
Kamalamma was pleased that he had danced attendance for four days without
complaining. There were not very many husbands like that she reminded his wife, who
should count herself lucky. Sharmaji was amazed to see his wife blushing demurely, and
coyly glancing at him, as if to hint of other services he performed to her satisfaction.
Upon being told he would no longer be needed to accompany them to the shops, he
organized a taxi for them, gave his wife all the money she demanded, and hurried off to
consult his good friend, Wajid Hussain, about the Hyderabadi section of the menu.

He entered his friend's gate, tucked away unobtrusively in the corner of a mean little
street, and crossing a wide courtyard overrun with children, puddles, and chicken,
climbed a few shallow stone steps to the deep verandah, where Wajid sat in an armchair,
fanning himself. His friend would hear of nothing till he had had a cup of tea and tasted
the sweets made just that morning. Wajid and he had been at school together, and smoked
their first cigarette together at the Palace Theatre's matinee show, so he started straight
away telling Wajid to get off his armchair and find him the best Hyderabadi cook there
was, and why he needed one, and how important the party would be. Wajid heard him out
languidly, and then seemed to sink into sleep. Sharmaji waited patiently, knowing the
great mind was working.
" You need Afzal mian if he is at all free that evening," said Wajid with deliberation. "We
will go and see him, but after lunch. You never come home these days, so I must insist.
Then, we will start up my old Austin 8, I haven't taken her out for a spin in a long time,
and this could be a perfect afternoon." Sharmaji knew nothing could induce Wajid to
change his plans once his mind was made up, so after a leisurely lunch, which he
enjoyed, and tinkering for half-an-hour with the carburetor of the old car, which he
didn't, they set off to the other end of town, proudly honking their brass horn. They were
received with ceremony at Afzal mian's place, a long low structure which combined a
large cookhouse, a small neat frontal office, and residential quarters at the back.
Afzal mian did much consulting of his diary, shouted at sundry young assistants to fetch
him his `order book,' used two of his cell-phones to apologize to various customers that
despite his earlier promises he would not be able to cater for their parties, what could he
do, his hands were tied by honour, and life would be meaningless without loyalty. After
thirty minutes spent assuring them that he would help make alternative arrangements,
Afzal mian turned to Wajid and said, bhai sahib, see what trouble he was creating for his
old friend?
Wajid took all this with equanimity. " Arre bhai, what are friends for if not to give
trouble?" he asked. " If you have a dish of your excellent qubanni I would like it very
much now." Afzal mian hurriedly shouted orders, and a dish of sweet qubanni with thick
cream and apricot nuts was served up to both of them in old porcelain dishes.
Contentment reigned for a while, and then Wajid and Afzal mian put their heads together
to design the menu. It was immediately agreed that chicken in biryani was a modern
abomination, and not to be thought of, but Afzal mian said dejectedly that the market did
not have the quality of rice he used for his biryanis. When Sharmaji intervened to suggest
that he could have some basmati sent down from Punjab, they looked at him in silent
disdain, Wajid explaining that that sort had no real fragrance, the secret of good biryani.
After more phone calls, Afzal felt somewhat comforted that loyal friends might send
some special rice from Karimnagar in time for the feast. While Wajid knew of a man who
could be depended upon to sell them good quality dried fruits, there was no hope of
genuine saffron being available anywhere, so certain dishes were ruthlessly eliminated.
Before they left Afzal mian's place, Wajid asked him to give them his best price. Afzal
mian objected. He could not charge anything; this was between friends, it would be like a

function in his own house. After much haggling, it was agreed that Afzal mian will charge
something not fees that was impossible, but something to cover the minor expenses of
his assistants. Since he had several assistants, Sharmaji was sure it would be a large bill,
but thankfully not exorbitant.
As the preparations progressed, Sharmaji found he was working with an energy that
surprised himself. He went to bed planning, leapt out of it before anyone else was about,
organized the day meticulously as he had never done before. His exhilaration grew with
the successful operation of every step, this was one `project' that would really happen, for
which he would not have to write a long report why things went wrong. He was
exhausted, but triumphant. On the eve of the wedding, he was tense and relaxed in turns,
like some Napoleon, who had scrupulously planned a victory and waited only for his
forces to carry out his vision. On the day itself there was nothing further for him to do but
savour the accolades that would be showered upon him, but he was too tired and dazed,
even to do justice to the meals he had planned with such anticipation.
After all the guests had left late that evening, and Robert had pumped his hand one last
time, and Rukmini had kissed him on the cheek, he was all alone with himself. For once
in his life he had done something from which he derived no benefit at all, but all the same
he was happy.