(The following has been excerpted with permission from ‘The Swap’ by Shuma Raha, published by Harper Collins India. Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @ShumaRaha. Subheads are not part of the book and have been added by The Quint)
“But don’t you think lust is a function of liking?”
Priya posed the question to the man who was standing very close to her. He was short and shaggy-haired, rather like a dog, with an alert face and moist, protruding eyes. The open V of his flowered dress shirt revealed his matted chest hair.
He looked sleek and affluent and he was pulling on a joint with big, hissy sounds. He looked like a man who was determined to be cool. For the last 15 minutes he had been trying to get cosy with Priya.
He had offered her the joint he was smoking, which she had politely declined. They were discussing the nature of lust, and although Priya couldn’t remember how they’d landed on the subject, it seemed appropriate, considering that they were at a swapping party.
“At a physical level, yes,” the man replied. “You have to like the person physically. But what I’m trying to say is that you may not like the person as a person and yet have a strong feeling of lust towards him. Say, a workman comes to your house. You wouldn’t want to socialise with him, right? But then suddenly, you wanna do it with him. Y’know what I mean?” the man said, placing one hand on Priya’s arm.
“I know what you mean,” Priya said, and removed his hand. “It sounds exactly like a scene from a porn clip.”
The man took a long swig of his white wine as if it was sharbat and stared regretfully at Priya, who was looking sexy in a short, black sleeveless dress and a white sequinned shrug around her shoulders.
Her bright, smoky eyes slanted up with winged tips, her heart-shaped face was flushed and her lips were glossy pink. She was sitting sideways on a bar stool with a glass of vodka in her hand. Her elegant legs were crossed, which made her short dress ride up higher. She looked nimble, catlike. The man eyed her legs and then, deciding that this kitten had too many claws, said ‘excuse me’ and retreated.
It was mid-February—that uncertain interregnum between cold and not-cold, the frigid and the fecund. The weather had cleared and the smog was all but gone. They were in a farmhouse a little beyond Chhattarpur. Though Priya, Akash and the rest had been given detailed directions, they had meandered through miles of bumpy, ill-lit lanes, taken several wrong turns and reached well after the party had begun. The farmhouse was large, filled with great, tall trees and immaculate, rolling lawns. The house, which was situated on a rise, was imposing too, with a sloping red roof and a wide pillared porch. It looked pale and magical in the nimbus of light from the old-fashioned wrought iron lamps that lined the pathway leading up to it. The air was chillier here than in the heart of the city and the moonlit night unfurled itself coldly about the vast grounds.
Inside, men and women sat chatting in the big living room. Some stood by the mirrored bar which glittered with gleaming bottles and crystal glasses that threw points of rainbow light. The room was warm and seemed to be heated. A faint, pungent smell of weed hung in the air and soft, romantic music played in the background.
Seeing Priya and Akash, Mr Goyal came forward. Mrs Goyal rushed up, too, and welcomed the younger couple with rapture.
“Glad to meet you at last,” bowed Mr Goyal to Priya, clasping her hand with his fleshy paws. His wife Lovey, a forty-something woman with leathery skin and big hair dyed almost blonde, embraced them and touched cheeks. She wore a vivid fuchsia gown with a plunging neckline and a slit up one side, which showed a slice of her stocky legs.
“So glad to have you both. So, so glad,” she breathed. “And Priya, you are so lovely,” she said, looking at the younger woman with her head tilted sideways. “But where are your friends?”
“On their way,” Akash replied. “Probably a little lost. Google Maps wasn’t working,” he said apologetically, as if he were somehow to blame both for the failure of tech and their friends’ tardiness.
“Oh yes, very patchy connectivity in these parts,” Lovey Goyal exclaimed. “I do hope they’ll be here soon. We sort of like to warm up a bit before we get started. But please! Do mingle! Just introduce yourselves to people. Formal introductions are so boring.”
Her words made Priya recall a meditation class she had once attended, one where everyone was supposed to accost each other and say, “Hello, I’m so and so. And I belong to you.”
She had found it hysterical and not gone back after the first session. She wondered if she should do the same now, go to that crinkly-haired chap over there, for example—the one who looked part-gigolo and part-Maradona in his prime—and say, "Hello, I am Priya Bakshi. I belong to you. And you to me. So let’s get busy!”
A Single Girl Among Mid-Age Couples
She knew the names and occupations of the people who were here today, thanks to the Goyals’ latest mail to them. But she didn’t know who was who. There were supposed to be nine other couples apart from themselves—and that included their four friends, the Goyals and the American-sounding Rocky Dutt and his wife.
A single girl, who had dramatic white hair and several silver studs in one ear, was also part of the group. They were all in the 30 to 45 age group, with Mr and Mrs Goyal possibly the oldest amongst them.
When their friends arrived, they greeted each other with that new self-consciousness that had arisen between them. Priya noticed that while Vivek was grinning widely and looked as if he’d had several drinks already, Shaili was busy sizing everybody and everything up. Tonight, her blunt-cut hair had a harder edge than usual and her eyes snapped under her girlie bangs.
She wore a racy red dress that ended mid-thigh, high platform heels and long silver danglers in her ears that swung madly when she tossed her head. And she tossed it often, shaking her hair and making her earrings flash like daggers. Looking at Shaili’s polished face and her nails that glistened like bloody talons, Priya decided that she must have gone to a beauty salon to deck up for the occasion.
Who knows, maybe she’d got herself a Brazilian wax, too, so she would be all hairless and baby-skinned for her upcoming sex romp. Priya wondered what Shaili’s patients would think if they saw her now. Women sluggish and heavy with child—would they trust themselves in the hands of this sexy Doctor about to DoMuch? She almost laughed out loud at the thought. Then Shaili threw her a toothy grin and Priya gave her a jaunty thumbs-up in return.
Dileep and Anuradha were walking up now. Priya avoided her lover’s eyes and hailed his wife. Anuradha returned the hello with her slow, serene smile. Priya looked at her with secret envy, mainly because she was so much more well-endowed than herself.
Anuradha was in a fitting blood-orange top, its deep, square neck revealing half-moons of her creamy breasts. Her lustrous hair fell thickly about her shoulders. She looked rich, replete, centred—all quivering mounds of waiting flesh that knew their purpose in the world.
“See you,” she murmured, as she unhooked her arm from Dileep’s and clicked away on her high heels, shaking her large bottom and swinging her long black skirt.
‘Hi! She said; Overcome by an Old Ache’
Priya looked at Dileep. He said ‘hello’ to her, smiling slightly. And all at once, she felt her heart lurch into her throat. She forced out a muted ‘hi’, suddenly overcome by that old ache, that primordial twist and shout of her nerves, of the early days of their affair.
She felt she was alone with him in this crowded room where men and women were already sidling up to each other, dispensing with the tedium of flirtation and plunging straight into the game.
Over the hum of the conversation and the strains of ‘Sway Me’, Dileep’s voice tolled towards her, sonorous as a temple bell. She found the familiar set of his face pristine, his large, slightly convex forehead noble, his thickly-lashed hazel eyes a little surprised—by her? By this unfolding orgy?—and she felt that all their moments together had got mashed and distilled into this single, absurd moment when she knew, profoundly, unaccountably, that she was in love with him.