Forum — From the December 2014 issue

Nina

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I met her in a computer course my sophomore year at NYU, in 1981. It was the first day of class, and we were learning how to connect the terminals on our desks with the mainframe: we had to dial a number and insert the phone handset into a bulky modem, after which it would emit a series of tones of varying frequencies and speak to its master. The girl next to me was having difficulty making the apparatus work, and she turned to me for help. I didn’t know much about computers, but as an Indian I was expected to know. I got her through.

“Thank you! Can I have your number, in case I need help with the homework tonight?”

She had laughing brown eyes, dark hair cut short in a bob, a Carib Indian cast to her cheekbones, and a mouth made for sin. Her name was Nina, she said. It wasn’t; it was Natalia, I found out much later, the first of the evasions or adornments or embellishments that marked all her stories.

“Nikkia Simmons and Isiah Merrill, Malcolm X Shabazz High School, Newark, New Jersey, May 18, 2006” and “Miranda Banks and Candice Martin, Charlottesville High School, Charlottesville, Virginia, April 26, 2008,” by Mary Ellen Mark, from her monograph Prom (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

“Nikkia Simmons and Isiah Merrill, Malcolm X Shabazz High School, Newark, New Jersey, May 18, 2006” and “Miranda Banks and Candice Martin, Charlottesville High School, Charlottesville, Virginia, April 26, 2008,” by Mary Ellen Mark, from her monograph Prom (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

That night she called me. After we got business out of the way, we chatted about NYU, where she had just started business school. She seemed, in her Latin manner, easy and approachable. I asked her what she was doing that Saturday night. I asked if she’d like to go with me to a Broadway play.

The university gave its students discount vouchers to plays that had been extended past their natural runs, or that nobody wanted to see, or that had too much dialogue and not enough music. One of them was a one-man show performed by Dave Allen, an Irish comic who had a series on PBS.

“Sure,” she said. I put down the phone quickly, before she could change her mind.

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is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Vintage).

More from Suketu Mehta:

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