The First Choice

by Chandramohan Nair

Two old friends are faced with intriguing choices as they renew their friendship after many years. A story by Chandramohan Nair.

“This is heavenly!” said Kiran, savouring the lightly fried banana pancake along with a hot cup of masala tea.

“Ajay, I don’t know how good a banker you are but your culinary skills are sublime,” she continued.

Ajay gave his childhood friend a smile of delight. They were having evening tea in his new and elegant apartment in a leafy suburb of Bengaluru.

“I am no Cordon Bleu chef, Kiran, but perhaps I am a better cook than a banker,” he said.

“All right, Ajay, I am now in the perfect mood to hear about all your exploits in the first few months after retirement,” she said.

Ajay had opted for retirement after a  career of two decades in the banking sector. He was tired of relocating every few years and he found the work cheerless. He was single, without any dependents and had a healthy bank balance, so the decision was easy.

“Well, I have been living the usual post-retirement dream. I went on trips to Europe and the Far East, watched more movies and read more fiction than I have done during my entire working career and started playing games for the first time since leaving college,” he said.

“Lucky you! I can’t even think of taking a week off. So what next?” asked Kiran.

“That’s the problem. You value these diversions when you are working  but when you have plenty of time on hand you just don’t enjoy them the same way. That apart, I have to find something interesting to occupy myself. I can’t spend the rest of my life travelling and watching movies.”

“Have you considered the usual suspects for retired white collar professionals – consulting, teaching, mentoring?”

“I really don’t fancy any of them,” he said.

“I am looking for something which I enjoy doing, provides for social interaction, is flexible on time but does not require long term commitment,” he continued.

“That sounds to me more like a definition of a pastime. Even a hobby would require more commitment,” Kiran said, laughing.

She was his younger sister’s classmate and they had grown up in the same neighbourhood in Bengaluru. After he joined the bank, they had kept in touch initially through letters and later through email and phone.

A bright student, she had resisted family pressures to go for a professional course and had  instead studied Interior Design. She made a name for herself quickly as an independent consultant and was completely immersed in her work. Kiran had not been averse to marriage but her plans never progressed beyond the occasional idle contemplation.

“Ajay, the problem is that when you were studying and early on in your career, your family circumstances hugely influenced your choices. Nothing wrong in that but you are now in a position where you can really choose to do what your heart tells you,” said Kiran.

Ajay knew that there was truth in what Kiran had said. His parents had separated while he was still in high school and the responsibility of looking after his younger sister and brother had fallen upon him and his teacher mother. He was a hard-working but average student and opted for a science degree, not wanting to burden his mother by going for an expensive professional degree. He considered himself lucky to have been selected by the bank. He had the satisfaction of seeing both his siblings do well academically and get good placements. Ajay was in early thirties by then and his mother was keen to get him married. But he was too settled in his frugal but comfortable bachelor life and apprehensive about any change.

“Kiran, if you were in my place what would your choice be?” he asked.

“There you go again, Mr Ajay Rao! I can think of a dozen options and I am sure you would happily settle for one of them. I just want you to take a decision without being influenced by anyone,” she said with exasperation.

Ajay looked at Kiran thoughtfully. The years sat lightly on her and no one would have guessed she was in her forties. With the sparkle in her eyes, her easy smile and her self-assurance she must have broken many hearts, he thought. Perhaps they could have become more than friends had he secured a job in Bengaluru and got to see her more. He mused whether it was too late now to think along those lines.

“Ajay, stop staring at me in this strange manner. You seem to be in some kind of a trance,” she said.

From her tone, he wondered whether she had half-guessed what had gone through his mind.

“Sorry, Kiran, I was just lost in some old memories,” he said.

“I am not going to trouble you by asking what they were. I need to leave now,” she said with a smile.

“Kiran, I’ll take your advice seriously. Will call you as soon as I firm up something,” he said.

Exactly two weeks later Kiran received a call from an animated Ajay.

“Kiran, I really think I have found something that excites me,” he said.

“ Oh, I am so happy for you ! What is it, Ajay ?”

“All details in person, Kiran. Can we meet over dinner tomorrow ?”

“No problem. Where?”

“What about 8 pm at the poolside at By The Blue. It’s not very far from where you stay.”

“That’s a nice choice, Ajay. See you tomorrow.”

Ajay was waiting at the restaurant entrance when Kiran arrived. She was wearing a fetching blue maxi dress. He hoped he looked presentable in his formal blue  shirt tucked into a sober pair of grey trousers.

“Kiran, you are looking like a million dollars,” he said.

“Thank you, Ajay. I can see that your banker persona hasn’t quite left you,” she said.

Ajay had selected a cosy poolside table for two. The tranquil waters of the pool, the soft lighting, the soothing background music along with the mild chill in the air all combined to make for a romantic setting.

“Ajay, what a wonderful ambience! I have been here quite a few times for brunch but never imagined it could have this kind of an atmosphere,” said Kiran.

They spent the next twenty minutes excitedly considering the various menu options and placing their order.

“Ajay, now tell me about your plans. I just can’t wait to hear about them and don’t ask me to guess,” said Kiran.

“Kiran, it was a surprisingly easy choice. I just followed your advice about doing something I really enjoyed. So here goes – I’m planning to start an Udupi restaurant,” he announced rather theatrically.

“Ajay, I must say that is an inspired choice considering your love for cooking! But have you thought about how to differentiate your restaurant? There are countless eateries extolling their authentic Udupi fare…”

“Kiran, you know that the genuine ones are just a handful. A couple of my foodie friends will be joining me. I think our common passion and involvement in day-to-day operations will make all the difference.”

“I’m sure you guys will do well. Don’t forget me when it comes to the interior décor!”

“And you should call your restaurant The First Choice. It’s your first choice and they are supposed to be lucky,” she added, with a laugh.

“That’s a great suggestion, Kiran. But there’s really something much more important that I wanted to tell you,” he paused for a moment.  “I want you to consider becoming my partner.”

“Well, if you insist, I can think about it. I hope your two friends won’t mind my joining the venture?”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it that way …I meant would you consider becoming my life partner. Kiran, this really is the first choice I have made following my heart,” he said, with a quaver in his voice.

Kiran appeared surprised and flustered. She sat silent for some time.

“Ajay, how absolutely sweet of you! But it’s difficult for me to think of you as anything more than a friend. And really, I think you should put all your energies now into getting your venture up and running,” she said, recovering her poise and giving him an endearing look.

“Kiran, I hope I haven’t made a big fool of myself. But I just had to let you know my feelings.” He looked sheepish and slightly crestfallen.

“Don’t worry, Ajay. Old friends can be frank with one another. Time to enjoy our dinner now!”

Ajay couldn’t help feeling that he had got recklessly carried away by his emotions. He was relieved that Kiran had handled the awkard moment so diplomatically.

But they were in high spirits throughout the rest of the evening and it was quite late by the time they were through. Ajay offered to drop her home.

“I’m not going to forget this dinner in a hurry. Thank you, Ajay. We should come here more often,” she said, as they reached her apartment.

“Anytime you want to, just let me know,” he said, helping her out of the cab.

“Good night, Ajay,” she said.

“And Ajay, one last thought for the day. It just struck me that we can find a better name for your restaurant,” said Kiran, with a radiant smile on her face.

Chandramohan Nair lives in Kochi and has taken up writing after a career in the banking and technology sectors.
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