11 April 2009

I arrange to take you as my spouse...

Friday 12th January 2007,later that afternoon

We’re sitting in hedge-fund wife and fellow mum Natalia’s white cavernous kitchen, the last dregs of unseasonal winter sunlight pushing through the windows. The kids are running around the playroom on the floor above, little thudded footsteps, squeals, laughter. They’re OK, Paloma the trusty Filippino housekeeper's keeping an eye. When we left them to it, the boys had dressed up as Spiderman and were racing round saving the Universe, and the girls, predictably, were sitting bent over dot-to-dots and Disney colouring books.
‘Does anyone want coffee?’ asks Natalia, beside the Gaggia. It’s a heavy, ornamental old-fashioned coffee machine with a big bronze eagle on top, the like of which I’ve never seen anywhere but Milan in those grand old places with mahogany, mirrors, marble countertops and waiters in uniform. Quite a conversation piece! Oh, the joy of being able to afford anything that takes your whim!
‘No thanks’, says Pinki, rich Bollywood mum, brushing down her baggy silk shirt and absent-mindedly rubbing her stomach. ‘I haven’t fancied it recently.’
‘Pinki, are you going to tell Helen?’ asks Natalia cheekily, putting her hand on Pinki’s shoulder and leaning into her conspiratorially. Natalia knows Pinki better than I do, being neighbours on 'millionaire's row'. She turns on her heels towards a cooler cabinet with glass doors and shelves, between the mammoth double brushed steel American fridge-freezer and the temperature-controlled wine cabinet. She pulls open the door and lifts a beautifully-decorated cake from the shelf. I can see a couple of other mouthwatering creations there too, as well as bowls of fruits. Either Paloma, or Natalia’s cook, or both, must have been busy.
‘Well, yes, OK’ says Pinki. ‘I mean, it’s time to break the news. I had my twelve week scan just after the new year!’
‘Pinki, you’re expecting! That’s wonderful! Oh my god! Five kids, wow! I've got my hands full with two!’
‘Well, my eldest will be at boarding school and I'll have help at home, naturally. My husband says, why not when the house is so big?! We Indians love a big family!'

Pinki still lilts with a very Indian inflection despite her years in England. The house she’s talking about is the mansion with the Roman columns just down the road I’d seen on my first foray into this neck of the woods. I’d guess that it’s got multiple bedrooms, games room, wine-cellar, pool, screening room etc. That type of thing. The houses around here usually do. Atul, Pinki’s husband, is some hotshot tech company director, or something. ‘Atul works very hard’, she told me once, by way of explanation for the fact that we obviously won’t meet her husband. ‘He travels all the time. And plays golf with his clients at the weekend!'
‘Sounds like a pretty typical husband to me!' I'd replied. 'Men and sport! Martin would like nothing better than lounging on the sofa all weekend with a bottle of Bud and sport on the box!’ I'd laughed, even if secretly I think it’s all a bit of a tragedy.

I ask Pinki if she'd always dreamt of a big family, while Natalia sets a large crystal designery platter on the black and gold flecked granite countertop of the kitchen island. On it, a coffee-coloured cake groaning under smooth curls of dark and white chocolate and al dente' roasted half hazelnuts: a diet-busting bomb laced with Amaretto liqueur. A silver cake knife and a small pile of Wedgwood’s best sit beside it ready.
Pinki's already tucking into a large slice of carrot cake (complete with marzipan decor) with a slim silver fork. She looks up, and delicately wipes a sticky crumb off her lower lip with a heavy linen napkin.
‘My marriage was arranged by my parents, and you know it's all to do with planning a family anyway’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘Look, we expect it from childhood. First you get married and then you have children. I was happy to trust my Mother's choice.
‘When I reached twenty-two my parents started looking, we settled on the son of a local industrialist but there were astrology problems – horoscopes have to match, you see! – and his family pulled out. My parents were embarrassed and looked at overseas proposals. We got Atul’s photo from a family friend’s cousin in London. Atul was here for a joint venture – that was 15 years ago. He came back to India for the engagement 5 months later, we married and I moved to London.’
‘Do you mean, Pinki’, I ask in wonderment, ‘that you never actually saw your husband until you got engaged?’
‘No,’ said Pinki, ‘but I saw a photo and we wrote to each other?’
I tell Natalia I’d take an Earl Grey. Slice of lemon, please. Absolutely no milk, thanks. No sugar, either, thanks.
‘Pinki’, I ask cautiously, ‘what if you hadn’t got on with your husband, then what? After all, it’s a huge risk to take, marrying someone you don’t know very well at all!’
‘Helen, it’s a huge risk marrying someone whether you know them or not! You just have to know what's expected of you and do your bit - we call it duty. Our duty's to keep it all harmonious, we don't believe in divorce.'
Put it like that and she’s right. I’m dying to ask Pinki about sex, but she’s pregnant for the fourth time, so that more or less answers my question. I tuck into my slice of cake feeling more than a little guilty about the calories, and silently contemplate (and compare) my own marriage.

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