Apart from being good at Accounts, Anshuman Dave was just an average Gujarati Joe lost in the milieu of Calcutta’s high society. People knew that he existed but he was one of those fillers that were invited to parties to make the handsome look handsomer and the rich look richer. His father was a chartered accountant and he had inherited a small business, Dave, Ajmera & Associates that made enough money to put food on the table but not enough to afford the finer things in life.
Anshuman was an awkward man and whenever he was nervous, he had this annoying habit of clearing his throat in a loud and obnoxious manner that would often cause his eccentric wife Rita to jump out of her skin. He was someone who was really hard to pick out in a crowd – he was of average height, had tanned brown skin, possessed the signature oversized Gujarati nose, wore thick round eyeglasses – the kind that most Indian grandfathers, nerds and now hip teenage girls wear and had a prematurely greying moustache.
His not-so-handsome looks coupled with a banal personality did not make him a big hit with the ladies. After completing his Chartered Accountancy and working with the family business for two years, he was coaxed into an arranged marriage by his traditional Gujarati parents.
Rita was the fifth girl that he met and he knew instantly that she was the only one who would accept his mediocre stature. She was about an inch shorter than him, had a slim, petite figure and sharp features that grew prettier after you got to know her. Her family owned Rupavali Saris, the largest and most successful chain of sari stores in the East.
Yet, Rita wasn’t a prime catch in the matrimonial circuits. At twenty-eight, she had already been through two broken engagements due to an alcohol addiction. To add to that, she was astrologically a manglik and her family guru believed this would bring suffering and death to the family she was married into. To reverse this effect, she was made to marry a Peepal tree before marrying Anshuman. The idea was to end all the suffering in her first marriage in order to make her second marriage happy and prosperous.
For Anshuman’s father, the marriage was simply a business arrangement. His firm was going through a rough patch and bagging the Rupavali business would bail him out of a mountain of debt. To this end, he negotiated a generous dowry that gave him a leg up from middle class to upper-middle class in Calcutta society. He was, finally, able to buy the Mercedes car that he had always wanted to show off on his weekend visits to the Tollygunge Golf Club.
Anshuman had seen the warning signs when he married Rita and had expected the erratic behavior that came with alcoholism. Yet, when their newborn son, Amaan, looked like a carbon copy of Rita’s ex-boyfriend, and people began gossiping in Calcutta’s social circles, he began to withdraw – not only from her but also from the few friends he had left. He gradually became a recluse, grew a beard and concentrated on the one thing he was good at – Accounts.
His father passed away shortly after Amaan was born giving him reins to the family business and for the first time in his life he excelled at something. Although he was the laughingstock of many drunken, late-night party conversations, when it came to business the gentry of Calcutta took pity on him and transferred their business to his firm. His small company grew bigger and bigger and soon became the most successful chartered accountancy firm in the city. Yet, he was still unhappy.
Rita’s alcoholism grew worse with every passing year and her steamy affair with her married, ex-boyfriend became famous in the city. The affair was hard to hide because the man, being a famous Tollywood actor, led a very public life. Soon the city came to know her as his favorite concubine.
Anshuman had thought about divorcing Rita many times but decided against it. Instead they slept in separate bedrooms, came and went as they pleased and pretended to be married for society’s sake. He absolutely didn’t trust her with primary custody during their son’s formative years and planned on getting a divorce when Amaan went off to college.
Anshuman was inherently a good man and although he wanted nothing to do with Rita, he treated Amaan as his own and would spend Sundays golfing and chatting with him. He absolutely adored the kid and never once made the boy feel alienated.
A year before their son was to leave for college, at the age of fifty, life suddenly changed for Anshuman. He met someone magical and it all started when his business partner and right-hand man Mr. Arun Ajmera’s daughter got married. Mr. Ajmera was like family and had a reputation for being as wise as he was clever.
With their mammoth influx of wealth, Mr. Ajmera planned a lavish ceremony with over 1000 guests at the Oberoi Grand Hotel. This was his only daughter and he spared no expense. He believed in the age-old proverb, ‘money begets money,’ and wanted to show off to the city that Dave, Ajmera & Associates were now playing the big leagues. Several Bollywood celebrities were flown down and everyone who was anyone attended this gala affair with voracious appetites to eat, drink, dance and make merry.
It was the most talked about social event of the year and the famous Bollywood singer, Happy Singh kick-started the festivities with a live rendition of ‘Humma Humma Again,’ while the fabulous Kabir Ali Khan led the dance. There were celebrities crawling out of every corner and it was an evening of epic proportions. Even Anshuman who had been a teetotaler for more than a decade had three large pegs of Glenmorangie and let his hair down.
It was about one a.m. when it happened. Anshuman was walking to the bar to order his fourth peg of Scotch when his shoe got stuck in a fold on the carpet and he slipped and lost his balance. His empty glass was inadvertently hurled into the air and headed straight towards the skull of a joyous and rotund Mrs. Ajmera dressed in a beautifully embroidered Ritu Kumar sari.
A few people in the room saw the event unfold and time seemed to stand still as the glass rotated on its axis and catapulted towards the back of Mrs. Ajmera’s head. There was no time to warn the poor lady and Anshuman began imagining the aftermath of this unfortunate incident when suddenly, in the nick of time, a gorgeous, long-legged creature wearing a short, black dress dived to her left much like a cricket slip-fielder and out of nowhere caught the glass smack in the palm of her hand just a few inches away from Mrs. Ajmera’s head.
Immediately, there was a round of applause and as this angelic woman fell to the ground, Anshuman, for a split second caught a glimpse up her dress. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when he noticed she wasn’t wearing any underwear. He was embarrassed for her and looked around hoping no one else was watching. Impulsively, he walked up to her, took her by the hand and lifted her to her feet.
She smiled at him and said, “What does a girl need to do to get a bloody drink around here?”
He looked at her up close for the first time. She was about 35 years old, had soft features and a sensual voice. Her hair was long and golden brown and she was tall and slim enough to be a ramp model. Her buttocks and breasts were fuller and larger than those of a runway model making her more voluptuous than the anorexic models he had seen on television.
From the moment they met she made him feel like he was the Don Juan of Don Juans. She had this endearing quality, which could make a person feel as if their inadequacies were their strengths. Something permanently switched inside him and he confidently grabbed her by the arm and walked her to the bar.
They spent the entire evening together and they chatted and danced and then danced some more, and chatted some more. He told her everything about his life, his marital woes and his work and in return she shared just as much.
Her name was Alvira and she was an artist born of a French father and a Bengali mother. She had moved to Calcutta a year ago and was in an open relationship with a famous French Artist named Jean-Pierre. She frequently travelled back and forth to Paris to meet him and sell her art. Much later in the night, he worked up the courage to ask her how she had the audacity to go commando at a high society wedding and she responded with a mischievous grin.
“I had a feeling you were looking up my dress you geriatric pervert. If you must know, I lost a bet with one of my girlfriends and this was my punishment.”
He went home with her that night and she taught him things he could not have imagined. They were soon inseparable and spent almost every night together. He became her pet project and she taught him how to dress, where to shop, where to eat, where to be seen, what to say and what not to say. He had the money and she had the glam, the polish, the personality, the looks and everything else – they made the perfect team.
Six months later, when Anshuman arrived fashionably dressed to Mr. Ajmera’s birthday party driving a silver-grey Porsche sports car, more than a few heads turned. His transformation was the talk of the town and everybody knew it was because of the stunning Indo-French girl who was often seen on his arm. Anshuman now had the life he had always dreamed of – the stunning girl, enormous wealth and the polish that came with it.
Yet, he was frowning as he walked into the party alone and only a few in the inner circle knew it was because Alvira was in France showcasing her art while shacking up with Jean-Pierre, her handsome, French boyfriend. He had first asked her not to go and then had asked her go but stay at a hotel and, finally, had offered to buy all her art but to no avail. She had told him in no uncertain terms that she loved both Jean-Pierre and him and would carry on the relationship with or without his consent.
He couldn’t for the life of him understand how a woman could be in a relationship with two men at once. Rita was the only other woman he had been intimate with and, now, he was certain he loved and wanted to marry Alvira but unfortunately she belonged as much to Jean-Pierre as she did to him.
He knew that he needed to solve this problem soon because the jealousy was consuming his entire being. He couldn’t eat, work or sleep and kept visualizing a tall, muscular Jean-Pierre doing unspeakable things to the woman that he loved.
As these thoughts went through his mind, he spotted Rita who had made a surprise appearance at Mr. Ajmera’s birthday party. At the age of 53, she still had a fabulous figure. Her diet of vodka, cigarettes and almost no food had kept her slim and trim. Yet, the alcohol had taken its toll; her face had become puffy with dark circles under her eyes and the skin on her cheekbones had starting sagging.
Today, she wore a turquoise colored Armani dress paired with black stilettos from Michael Kors. She had recently purchased both these items on a shopping spree at the DLF Emporio Mall in New Delhi. Anshuman had given her a black credit card with a limit of one million rupees a month. He wanted minimal interaction with her and this way he didn’t have to hear her constantly nag about money.
Rita was already intoxicated when she entered the party and found it difficult to balance on her stiletto heels. Without greeting anyone, she stumbled into Mr. Ajmera’s drawing room, which was filled with guests and went right through into the attached garden area. Here, she found her old friend, Dimple Chatterjee, seated next to a group of ladies that all belonged to the same Sunday kitty party. It was teatime and they were sipping cups of Darjeeling tea while munching on bite-sized cucumber sandwiches and carrot cake.
Dimple and Rita were like two peas in a pod as they both were in bad marriages and having extramarital affairs. They would often chat about their relationship woes while catching up for lunch at one of the many fancy, new restaurants that had recently opened in the city. The many different flavors and cuisines found both in restaurants, homes and on the street made Calcutta a food lover’s paradise and Dimple did love her food. At these lunches, Dimple who was a healthy, middle-aged, Bengali Lady would fill up her plate with food while Rita would spend the entire afternoon nibbling on the equivalent of a spoonful of food consumed by a salivating Dimple.
Rita, realizing there was no open bar at Mr. Ajmera’s party, unashamedly took out a hipflask full of vodka from her purse and poured herself a drink in an empty teacup. She then hailed the uniformed waiter attending to their table and asked him for soda and ice. Just as he left, Anshuman walked into the garden to have a smoke. He was not a daily smoker and only took to the habit when he was highly stressed. Today was one of those days and he took out a Dunhill cigarette from the pack, put it to his lips and lit it with a custom-made platinum Zippo lighter.
As he began puffing away to glory in the far corner of the garden, Rita walked up to him and asked for a light. She caught him a little off guard because they generally ignored each other at social occasions but he soon recovered and lit her cigarette dutifully.
They smoked most of their cigarettes in silence. Then, just when Anshuman was about to stub out his cigarette and leave, Rita suddenly erupted, “That harlot is never going to marry you, Anshu. And what makes you think I will ever give you a divorce. She’s way too pretty for you and she’s playing you. She will toss you out the window when the next rich millionaire comes around. Just be careful! I know the likes of her.”
Rita was ranting away drunkenly when Anshuman curtly interrupted her and said, “Stay out of my business,” after which he walked away.
As he was walking to the car his phone rang and he smiled when he saw that it was Alvira calling from Paris. They had a ten-minute conversation where she explained that her art show had gone well and she had sold most of her paintings. She was having a great time but was missing him and wished he had gone with her. She had even told Jean-Pierre about him and he had accepted the relationship.
At the end of the conversation, she had very excitedly told him to catch the next flight to France so that they could spend a couple of days in Paris where he could meet Jean-Pierre. After which, just the two of them could travel to Nice in the French Riviera for a weeklong romantic getaway.
When the invitation registered in Anshuman’s head, he began thinking like a shrewd Gujarati businessman. He knew in his mind that he needed to get rid of Jean-Pierre and also knew that every man comes with a price. If he could go to Paris and get some alone time with Jean-Pierre, he could find out what it would cost and pay him off, once and for all. He immediately accepted Alvira’s invitation and went home to prepare for the trip.
The following day, after a nine-hour flight, Anshuman was surprised to find that Jean-Pierre and Alvira were staying at the uber fancy Ritz on the Place Vendôme. He had expected them to be at Jean-Pierre’s apartment. He arrived at the hotel, tired because of lack of sleep, stress and jet lag and found Jean-Pierre and Alvira shacked up in a swanky two-bedroom suite. He had banked on Jean-Pierre being a somewhat struggling artist living off his art-show proceeds, not someone who could whimsically book a suite at the Ritz for a week. He began having second thoughts about his idea to bribe Jean-Pierre.
Alvira hugged him warmly as he entered the suite and instructed him to put his luggage in the spare bedroom. It was ten a.m. and she had just finished drinking her morning cup of coffee while munching on a freshly baked cinnamon croissant.
Much to Anshuman’s surprise, she grabbed her handbag and told him that she would be gone for the rest of the day, as she had to go to the framers and deliver her artwork to several clients. She explained that Jean-Pierre, who was sleeping in the other bedroom, would soon be up and they could spend the day getting acquainted and exploring the city.
At least his first problem of getting alone time with Jean-Pierre was solved. Now, he just had to work up the courage to make the offer. Knowing that Alvira was close by and not fornicating with Jean-Pierre alleviated his stress and he sat down with his laptop to work. As he was typing up his third email, Jean Pierre emerged from the bedroom wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.
He was a sixty-five year old man, with ruffled up white hair, a face that loosely resembled the American actor, Richard Gere, a skinny frame and a small pot belly. He had a larger-than-life personality and spoke as much with his hands as he did with his tongue.
As he fixed himself a café allongé from the espresso machine in the kitchen, he asked Anshuman what he’d like to do during his stay in Paris. Anshuman, who had been too preoccupied to give sightseeing much thought, suggested that Jean-Pierre decide the itinerary.
They were to start the day having brunch at Café Saint-Régis, a popular French bistro that was a twenty-minute taxi ride away. An hour later, after showering and getting spruced up, they arrived at the restaurant and sat at a table on the cobbled pavement outside.
Jean-Pierre lit a hand-rolled cigarette and asked if he could order for both of them to which Anshuman readily agreed. The restaurant was simple yet elegant and had a dark brown, wooden exterior with a chalkboard displaying the specials for the day. The tables were small, round and carved out of expensive teak wood while the matching chairs were made of both teak wood and wrought iron.
Jean-Pierre spoke to the waiter in French and after a long conversation, he finally seemed satisfied and said, “Merci beaucoup,” after which the waiter left.
Then much to Anshuman’s surprise, Jean-Pierre immediately cut to the chase and said, “You must really hate me.”
Anshuman stiffened up a bit and stayed quiet while Jean-Pierre casually smiled and asked the million dollar question, “What are your intentions with my girl and how is this arrangement going to work?”
Anshuman paused for what seemed like an unusually long time before responding.
“I love Alvira and want to marry her and give her a happy life – the life that she deserves. I’m still young enough and want us to have kids. I’ve made enough money to not only give our children but even our grandchildren a secure future,” replied Anshuman.
Hearing Anshuman’s emotional outburst made Jean-Pierre burst into loud fits of laughter and Anshuman could not for the life of him understand what was so funny. Finally, ten minutes, a lot of tears and a bellyache later Jean Pierre calmed down and said, “Do you want me to just disappear from Alvira’s life because you say you love her? I don’t know how things work in Calcutta, sonny boy, but around here nothing comes for free.”
“I’m willing to pay. I’ll pay you anything you want,” Anshuman responded a bit too eagerly.
“Do you think you can just buy me out, you scumbag? I love Alvira and I’m not for sale. When she finds out about this I hope she tosses you to the curb,” Jean-Pierre said angrily.
Hearing this threat, Anshuman panicked and joined his hands together begging Jean-Pierre not to tell Alvira.
Jean-Pierre then softened up a bit and said, “I’m too old to have kids and start a family and you really seem like you love her. The right thing for me to do is step aside and let you two start a life together. There’s one major problem though, Alvira is too attached and she’s going to keep coming back.”
“Not if you start a new life somewhere and not tell her your whereabouts,” Anshuman quickly responded having played out this scenario many times in his head.
“I’ve always wanted to move to the southern coast of Spain and paint to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, setting up shop somewhere else is going to be very expensive and with the economy the way it is, I can’t bank on selling art. It’s taken me years to establish a reputation in France and I will have to start from scratch in Spain,” Jean-Pierre explained.
“Just give me a number,” Anshuman demanded emphatically.
Jean-Pierre began mumbling to himself doing a mathematical calculation in his head before he calmly responded, “Five million Euros.”
It was a lot of money. Anshuman thought about it for a minute and it was a no-brainer. He had found happiness because of Alvira and no amount of money could otherwise have given him that. He decided that being with her was worth a lot more than five million Euros. Anshuman made the deal with Jean-Pierre on the condition that Jean-Pierre would be gone by the time they got back from the French Riviera. Jean-Pierre nodded in agreement and they decided to head back to make the required arrangements.
Once at the hotel, Anshuman spoke to his accountant and had the money transferred to Jean-Pierre’s account. A few hours later, when the money arrived, they decided to celebrate with an expensive bottle of French Merlot. Shortly after, Alvira returned and the three of them spent a lovely evening getting drunk and enjoying a delicious French meal at the hotel restaurant.
Anshuman, to this day, doesn’t remember how and when the night ended. He woke up the following evening, tired, groggy and alone in his room. Alvira and her things were gone and there was no sign of Jean-Pierre. It took him a long time to realize what had happened and he kept calling Alvira’s cell phone wondering why it was switched off.
He immediately filed a missing persons report with the French police and it was only when Interpol took an interest in the case and explained what had happened, did he realize that he had been conned. He spent the next few days giving statements to Interpol and learnt that Jean-Pierre and Alvira were world-famous con artists and several countries had arrest warrants in their names. Alvira had in fact moved to India to evade the police in Italy, which is where their last con took place.
Jean-Pierre and Alvira were such geniuses at their craft that Interpol had still not been able to figure out their original identities or their relationship to each other. They were nicknamed, ‘the loveable ghosts,’ because they would appear and disappear without a trace and their victims would often fall in love with one of them and refuse to cooperate with the police.
With a heavy heart, Anshuman began packing his things in order to catch the flight back to India, when he noticed a crumpled piece of paper in his laptop bag. He looked closely to find a tear-stained note from Alvira that read,
I’m sorry. You won’t understand today but someday I hope you will. I never wanted to do this to you but I didn’t have a choice. This is the life I inherited and it’s too late to back out. I do love you but please forget me and move on.
Three years later, Anshuman was still rich, unhappy and married to Rita. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon when the call came and Anshuman was sitting in the office about to devour a delicious masala dosa from his favorite south-Indian restaurant, Jyoti Vihar. As he carefully prepared the first bite by getting the right proportion of dosa, masala, coconut chutney and gunpowder, his cell phone rang. It was an international number that he did not recognize and he let go of the food and answered the call out of curiosity.
On the other end, was an Interpol agent with a strong German accent and he explained to Anshuman that they had apprehended Jean-Pierre and Alvira in Berlin. Through the course of the conversation, Anshuman learned that Interpol did not have enough evidence to keep them in custody much longer as most of the victims were refusing to testify. The few that had, in the past, been willing to testify were senior citizens and had passed away. The agent informed him that his testimony could make or break the case and requested him to catch the next flight to Berlin.
A day later, Anshuman was sitting at Interpol headquarters in Berlin arguing with a giant-sized, blonde-haired agent.
“But, Mr. Anshuman, why do you need to see Alvira before recording your testimony?” asked the agent.
“I’ve told you this a hundred times now. It’s for my peace of mind. I’m leaving and catching the next flight to India if you carry on wasting my time,” responded Anshuman with a poker face.
As Anshuman got up to leave, the agent began to panic and allowed him to see Alvira for ten minutes.
Even in the orange prison overalls, Alvira looked just as pretty as she had three years ago and Anshuman remembered why he had fallen in love. He then put his feelings aside and morphed into the shrewd businessman that he had become. He made it clear to Alvira that her life was in his hands and in ten minutes he was going to put Jean-Pierre and herself away for a very long time.
She immediately burst into tears and explained everything. Jean-Pierre was her father and the life of a con artist was the only life she knew. Her mother had passed away when she was seven and she had been performing cons for Jean-Pierre ever since. She had tried to quit many times but he had always threatened to turn her in or kill her. She had begged him to let her start a new life with Anshuman but instead he had forced her to go through with the con. She had even written to Anshuman several times explaining things but had been too scared to mail the letters. Over the past few years, the fear of getting caught had turned Jean-Pierre into a detestable monster and she stayed loyal to him out of force, not out of choice.
Upon hearing Alvira’s explanation, Anshuman smiled because it was exactly what he had hoped for and set his plan in motion.
Two years later, Alvira looked into the light brown eyes of her newborn baby girl and all the regrets that she ever had vanished. She had given the testimony that had sent Jean-Pierre to prison for life and in exchange they had given her immunity. But that was all behind her now and as she sat on the hospital bed holding Anshuman’s hand she made him promise that they would allow their daughter to choose her own life path – a choice that she had never had.