Overview: There is nothing really wrong with Priya Bakshi and Akash Srivastav's six-year-old marriage...except that Priya is having an affair. And Akash, too, seems to be on the lookout for sexual adventure. When Tarun, their richer, older, and manipulative friend, tells them about Delhi's couple-swapping parties, Akash wants to jump right in. With some reluctance, Priya agrees to give him company. Soon, Akash and Priya find themselves in a world of swinging couples and sexual abandon, joined by friends who are equally keen to test the the waters.

But as the clothes come off and the secrets begin to tumble out, it seems that none of them will emerge unscathed. Sharp and racy, The Swap is a sparkling novel about sex, marriage and mortality.

 

The Swap by Shuma Raha Book Chapter One

 

‘I wish we hadn’t called Dileep and Anuradha,’ Priya said.

She was fixing her earring in front of the dresser mirror, her head tilted to one side. The earrings had been a gift from her mother when she got married. They were big and showy, and each had a single red stone in the middle of an opalescent disc of fine kundan work. ‘It’s not ruby,’ Priya said hastily if anyone happened to admire them, as though she were embarrassed about wearing expensive jewellery. Not that she wore the earrings often. They were far too ornamental for a casual evening out.

‘Why?’ her husband Akash asked, raising his eyes from his phone. ‘I thought you liked them.’

‘Oh, he’s all right, I suppose,’ Priya said carelessly. ‘It’s her. I find Anuradha a bit tiresome these days. It’s like she’s trying too hard all the time, if you know what I mean.’

Akash wanted to say, ‘I don’t, actually’. But he didn’t feel like starting a line of conversation that could lead to an argument or draw a quick, acid retort from his wife. It was nearing 8. Their guests would be here soon. It was their wedding anniversary today, and though neither of them had been keen to throw a party this year, their friends had prevailed upon them to keep up the tradition. ‘Come on, yaa,’ they’d said. ‘Your anniversary barbecue is always such fun. We won’t let you wriggle out if it!’

Akash watched his wife as she finished dressing. Her movements were quick and deft, her limbs supple and perfectly proportionate to her short, compact body. She was still boyishly trim, almost exactly the way she had been when he first met her more than six years ago. Right now, she was absorbed in the act of examining herself in the full-length mirror. She squinted at herself critically, dabbed a little more shimmering gold eye shadow on her eyelids, and pouted to check if her nude lips were much too nude and needed a bit more colour. Priya had an arresting face—heart-shaped, bright-eyed and resolute, topped with a mop of pixie-cropped hair that shone like a polished crown. A few licks of hair fell on her forehead, giving her face the look of a head on a classical statue. She took off the shabby brown cardigan she had worn while putting on her make-up and stood in her black trousers and clinging black turtle-neck pullover, her high, smallish breasts in sharp relief against the tight stretch of her top. She struck a pose and moved her head a little to see how the light caught the gemstones in her earrings. For a moment, Akash was dazzled. Dazzled by her shining eyes and glinting hair, her honey skin, and the way she prepped and primed herself. God, Priya could look beautiful when she wanted to, he thought.

‘I think Anuradha is a helluva bore,’ Priya continued, conducting half pirouettes before the mirror. ‘I mean, she’s good-looking, I suppose—in a boring sort of way. But nothing much up there, I-M-O. She looks awfully traditional to me. And yet, she’s always trying to give the impression that she’s hip and up for anything. That’s just so phoney. You don’t agree?’

The question was a challenge and Akash tackled it like a pro. ‘I didn’t say I don’t agree, did I?’ he said, adopting a playful tone. He was good at marital word games and had perfected the art of appearing not to disagree with his wife without actually agreeing with her. He didn’t fool her, of course. If Priya were in a combative mood, she pinned him down and demanded, ‘Well, do you agree or don’t you? I wish you wouldn’t play dodge!’ At other times, she threw him a sarcastic smile, as though she knew exactly what was going on in his mind and disdained him for his cowardice in coming out and saying it.

‘Aren’t you going to get ready?’ she asked him now, changing the subject and turning away from the mirror to face her husband. Akash yawned and stretched and got up from the large, black, wing-back leather arm chair that Priya kept in the bedroom. It would add a touch of class to the room, she had said when she bought it. As it turned out, the chair mostly served as a beast of burden, with Priya dumping her clothes on it whenever she was in a couldn’t-be-bothered-to-hang-’em-up mood—which was often. So each time you wanted to sit on it you had to transfer the pile of rumpled shirts, trousers, kameezes, bras, socks, and other bits of clothing onto the bed. And the entire process had to be played in reverse when it was time to go to bed.

‘Change, no?’ she said to Akash again.

‘What’s to change?’ he replied, looking down and surveying himself. ‘This is perfectly ok. I’m not going to change into a jacket and tie for a barbecue in my own house, which, by the way, I’m supposed to do all by myself!’

Priya ignored the mild rebuke and looked her husband up and down. Akash was wearing a pair of baggy blue jeans and a furry green jumper. He was tall and well-built, broad at the shoulders and narrow-hipped. At 35, his face was fleshier than it had been a few years ago. His gut muscles had slackened and a paunch looked imminent. He had thick, woolly hair, soft, twinkling eyes and wore small, round spectacles that gave him an intellectual air, even though he wasn’t anything of the sort and nor did he pretend to be. In fact, Akash never read a book if he could help it.

‘Okay, suit yourself,’ Priya said with a shrug. ‘But I’m in the mood to dress up today. I mean, really, really dress up,’ she said, and put on a wine red jamewar jacket to show that she meant it.

She came and stood close to Akash. ‘How do I look?’ she asked him.

‘Lovely,’ he said, touching her earrings and feeling their weight. ‘Your earlobes are all red. The damn earrings are too heavy for you.’

He felt a sudden stirring of lust for this vivid creature who was his wife. He had been conscious of a change in her lately. He hadn’t been able to put his finger on what it was. It struck him now that she had become more vital and animated. Today, right at this moment, she reminded him of the early days of their romance and marriage and the feverishness with which they used to explore each other. He put his hands on the curve of her slim hips and tried to pull her close.

But Priya slipped away from his embrace.

‘No pain, no gain,’ she said, smiling. ‘Heavy earrings go with the territory of an evening of over-the-top dressing!’

‘Hmm, I can see that. By the way, if you promise not to gossip, I shall tell you something I heard today.’

‘Me and gossip? Heaven forbid,’ she said in mock horror.

‘It seems our friend Dileep is having an affair.’

‘Really? How interesting. Who with?’ Priya said, putting on her cool and derisive face.

‘That I do not know.’

‘How boring. But who told you?’

‘I’ll tell you later.’

‘I like the way you make everything a matter of suspense,’ Priya said. ‘So, are you going to ask him about it?’

‘Who, Dileep? No, of course not. I don’t even know if it’s true! So don’t go dropping broad hints to him or Anuradha.’

‘I won’t,’ Priya said.

She checked her watch. It was 8.15.

‘So is all the stuff for the barbecue in place?’ she asked him.

‘Yep. And the booze too. I came back early to lay it all out, didn’t I?’

‘You certainly did, you good boy,’ she said, blowing him a kiss.

 
*

 
Priya Bakshi and Akash Srivastav had been married for six years. They were good years, during which they had seen their affluence grow. Priya had moved ahead in her career as a journalist, and Akash, who was a chartered accountant in a multinational firm, had swiftly ascended the corporate ladder.

They lived in a house in south Delhi that Akash had inherited from his father. Priya was pretty sure that her late father-in-law, who had been a bureaucrat, acquired the property with his ill-gotten gains. After she and Akash met at a party and started dating almost immediately, she had nosed around the subject with her usual journalistic curiosity. But Akash would not tolerate any questions or speculation on the matter. The senior Mr Srivastav, who had nurtured him and his sister after their mother passed away when they were in their early teens, had died of a sudden heart attack a few years ago. And Akash worshipped his memory. Priya shrugged and accepted Akash’s touchiness about his father. It wasn’t her problem if his dad made a pile as Secretary, Civil Aviation. Anyway, the dude was dead.

Their romance advanced rapidly. Priya would never admit to herself that Akash’s house or the fact that he was free of hassles like parents or intrusive relatives (his sister was married, settled in Chicago and rarely visited) had anything to do with his growing appeal in her eyes. She was sure that she would have fallen in love with him anyway. She loved Akash for his kindness, good humour and patience with her abrupt mood swings. She loved the fact that he seemed to be besotted with her. It was plain lucky that he was also gloriously eligible. At the ripe old age of 27, Priya Bakshi had come to the conclusion that matters of love and marriage were rendered much more pleasant when money was in ample supply.

Akash popped the question six months after they met. She was in his house all the time anyway, making out with him on every surface imaginable. Both felt they might as well make things official.

When they settled into the more sedate rhythm of married life, Priya wanted to renovate the house. So they did. Room by room. With passion and weeks and months of avid discussion. The living room was thrown together with another room to give it more space and the old mosaic floors ripped out and replaced with mirror-bright Italian marble. They changed the doors, enlarged the windows, redid the plumbing and turned the bathrooms into state-of-the-art pleasure houses. Now the kitchen looked as modern as a gleaming spaceship and their bedroom—done up in tones of storm grey, black and white—straight out of the pages of a home decor magazine. The Mehras, who rented the ground floor of the house, complained bitterly as the work on the first floor, where Priya and Akash lived, went on for more than a year. ‘The noise, beta! And the dust!’ moaned the stout Mrs Mehra, who used to feed up Akash in his bachelor days. ‘How long will this carry on?’

Akash, who was fond of Mrs Mehra, hung his head like a scolded schoolboy.

And truly, dust and grit swirled about the house like a low-grade sandstorm. Clots of cement clung to their lives like alien parasites. ‘The house now belongs more to the masons than to us,’ Akash said unhappily from time to time.

But Priya loved it all. She loved the idea of breaking things down and doing them over. ‘This is like a revolution,’ she said, laughing. ‘The beginning of a whole new era.’ After a long day at the newspaper where she worked, she came back late in the night and wandered amidst the glittering new-laid tiles and walls glistening with fresh plaster and felt as happy as if she were building a shrine to herself. The house was coming to life, emerging from a chrysalis into something beautiful and breathtaking. She remained quite dizzy with rapture as long as the renovation went on. And when it was all done and Akash tugged at his hair as he looked at the crater in his finances, she flung her arms around him and said, ‘I’m so happy! We are the happiest couple in the world!’