Today's Reading

"Soda's fine," I said.

Smets smiled to indulge me, then told Sandip to add some soda to my whisky. The kid reached for the bottle with the yellow cap.

"No, Sandip," said my host. "That's tonic water. Never serve tonic with whisky."

Sandip said nothing. He poured from the red-capped bottle instead, then slipped away.

"He's new," said Smets as he raised his glass to mine. "Welcome to Bombay." We sipped our drinks. "Is it true you're a reporter for United News?"

"Yes. But how did you know I was with UNI?"

"The fellow who occupied the flat before you. He was also UNI."

"Eric Nielsen? Did he come to your parties?"

"Only once," he said with a frown. "He behaved badly. Didn't understand that Indian girls are not as liberal-minded as Americans. I didn't invite him back."

Smets gazed around, taking inventory of his guests and their needs. I returned to what he'd said in my ear a few minutes earlier. Had he meant that the locals—the Indians—were beneath him? Beneath me? Should I be afraid of them? He'd mentioned slit throats, after all.

I wondered if Smets might not be some kind of latter-day colonialist, pining for the old days of the Raj. Or was he merely looking out for a newcomer in an exotic and challenging place? A spoiled American, used to clean water running from the tap and bottles marked clearly to distinguish soda from tonic. I tried to convince myself that he was only telling me how things stood for a gora, that's what they called white people in India. Yet, the taste left in my mouth was the same either way. Like whisky and tonic. Undrinkable.

What happened next, however, gave me cause to consider him in a totally different light. The inspiration for my change of heart was the arrival of a bright-eyed young woman as beautiful as Smets was not.

Her name was Sushmita. Easily half Smets's age, she was a couple of years younger than I was, too. An extremely attractive girl, she was sexy, but hardly perfect. There was that one slightly crooked incisor, for example, and a small scar at the side of her right eye, caused perhaps by a childhood fall. And those matrimonial classifieds in Indian newspapers might have described her complexion as dusky. Shameful, I thought. She wasn't quite as fair-skinned as the Hindi film starlets, but so what? I found her enchanting. I entertained a brief fantasy, wondering what chances I might have with such a woman. Then it became painfully clear that, not only was she uninterested in me, she was unavailable.

Draped in a shimmering green sari, which revealed her fetching midriff for all—for me—to see, Sushmita leaned her left hip against Smets in a casual, intimate gesture and regarded me with what I could only describe as sociable indifference. Even if she hadn't been attached to my newfound friend and neighbor, I'd never have had a shot with her.

"You're quite tall," she said, extending her right hand to me. Her voice was smooth and easy, like her confidence.

Fully aware that my American imperialist attitudes were at play, I found her accent exotic and bewitching. I'm sure she thought mine was unsophisticated and dull.

As I took gentle hold of her fingers, four diamond-encrusted bangles slid down her wrist and clattered to a stop at the heel of her thumb. She squeezed my hand, enough to make me wonder about her intentions. That was stupid. Wishful thinking.

The social niceties completed, she smiled, withdrew her hand, and cocked her head to one side as she sized me up. I couldn't tear my gaze away from the bindi on her forehead. Not the red dot I'd seen on some women, but a small crescent-shaped moon with the horns pointing upward.

"It's impolite to stare, Mr. Jacobs," she said. "Would you like me to remove it?"

"I...I'm sorry. Of course not. I was...admiring it."

"Don't mind her games," said Smets, interrupting my stammering. "Mita is a playful girl."

He even had a pet name for her.

"It's called a chandrakor bindi," she said. "Typically Maharashtrian."

"It looks like a crescent moon. What does chandrakor mean?"

"It means crescent moon," she said.

"Oh," was the wittiest riposte I could manage.

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