Dr Patel by Farah Ahamed

Dr Patel ran his finger along the back of his collar and down the length of his tie. Smoothing out the striped navy blue and yellow silk with its embroidered Club crests, he rolled the tie half way up his shirt, then unrolling it, pressed it down on his belly. He made his way to the front of the reception hall that was filled with tables covered in white cloths, ornate flower arrangements and candelabras, till he got as close as he could to the head table. There he pulled out a chair and sat down to wait for the bride and groom, as if he were part of their family.


He was, as usual, too early. He was particular about timing. He hated being kept waiting himself, and so he made a point never to be late. But no one in Nairobi’s high society appreciated the finer aspects of his character, his sense of propriety and his polished etiquette. Dr Patel sighed, caressing the silky fabric of his tie, from the knot to the bottom. He was glad he’d decided to wear it, even though the famous crest and stripes design was never recognised and no one had ever asked him about his membership with the Club.


A few more guests arrived and they huddled together around a table at the back of the room, a group whose wealth, businesses, friends were all inherited. Not that he had anything against inheritance, but he’d seen that it made men, like those at this wedding, lazy and self-confident. It made them take for granted those things which he had worked for. He hadn’t inherited the position of Head of Human Resources at Amber Investments, he’d earned it day in and day out for twenty years, and he’d even worked on Saturdays. He deserved some respect for that. His friends called him Doctor Patel, out of affection and deference, because of his accomplishments. But he’d outgrown his friends’ company and the new acquaintances did not give him the respect he deserved, and often did not even remember him.


The Kantilals entered the room. The eldest son had recently been bequeathed several hundred acres of agricultural land by his father, and he shook hands with everyone at the entrance and at the back table, saying hello to a man there, waving to so and so, patting this uncle on the back and kissing that aunty on the cheek, and smiling at no one in particular. They were followed by the Shahs, reserved and unsmiling as they walked to the front of the hall, cloaked in their multi-generational wealth.


A couple came over. ‘May we please join you?’ asked the man. ‘I’m sorry these are reserved for the family,’ replied Dr Patel.


The couple looked at each other. The man pulled out two chairs and they sat down.


Dr Patel was sure they were not related to the groom. The woman’s dress, even to his inexperienced eye, was unfashionable and drab in its cut and design and as for the man’s trousers, worn so high around the waist, he hadn’t seen anybody wearing a gaudy belt like that since the seventies. What right had they to sit here? He had earned his place at this table. He was closer than family. Only a few months ago the groom’s father had phoned him.


‘He’ll do anything, just give my son a job. He can’t stay home with his new wife and play golf all day. He must be seen to be achieving. Dr Patel, can you help me?’


‘I can get him a job right away, but of course there’ll be a small administrative fee.’


‘Dr Patel, be sure you come to my son’s wedding.’


And so here he was, closer than family.


‘Are you family?’ asked the man with the belt.


Dr Patel reached into his pocket and took out his card holder. He gave one to the man and another to his wife.


‘Amber Investments?’ said the man. ‘I’ve never heard of them.’


‘I have,’ said the woman. ‘I’ve heard of you. Doesn’t the groom work there? You’re the Head of HR aren’t you? His new boss?’


Dr Patel detected a note of admiration. He adjusted the knot of his tie and ran his fingers down the silk. ‘We have investments in thirteen countries in Africa.’


The man extended his hand, ‘I’m Gokul.’


‘Dr Patel.’


‘Ahh, you’re a doctor?’


‘Those who know me well call me Doctor.’ Dr Patel put away his wallet and took out his new phone. He frowned and shook his head to indicate he had just received an important message.


‘Did you remember the gift?’ the woman said, turning to her husband. The man placed a small box wrapped in silver and gold paper on the table. ‘Did you remember yours, Dr Patel?’ the woman said, smiling. ‘We almost forgot ours.’


Dr Patel looked at her with a semi-raised eyebrow. He put down his phone, fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a creased cream envelope. ‘I have my gift here,’ he said, taking two crisp notes from his wallet and putting them in the envelope. He added one of his business cards, licked the flap and pressed it down with his short fingers. ‘Do you have a pen I could borrow?’ he asked.


‘I believe I do,’ the woman said, producing a gold biro from her bag.


Dr Patel wrote the groom’s name on the envelope. ‘What’s the bride called?’

‘Bindi,’ said the man.


Dr Patel noticed a look pass between the man and his wife. He wasn’t sure why, maybe he had embarrassed them with his generous gift? He wrote the bride’s name and returned the pen. The woman turned away from him.


Dr Patel leaned back in his chair and picked up his phone again. He was sure his relaxed manner, as he prepared his gift, had made them feel awkward. They must have spent a long time deciding what to give, and he had been able to do it so easily, so generously.


By now almost all the guests had arrived. Two more couples Dr Patel had met before made their way to the table and when they introduced themselves, he handed them his card. ‘We’ve met before,’ he said. ‘Only last week in fact, at the temple fund raising meeting. If you remember, I was on the chairing committee, I’m the treasurer.


The couples half smiled at each other, pulled out their chairs and sat down. Dr Patel poured himself a glass of water and took a sip. It wasn’t as if he was an easy person to forget; his fair skin, thick head of hair and ample size, commanded awe. But no one had ever said, ‘Ah yes, Dr Patel, I remember you. We met on the 4th of February at the Khans.’ He remembered every one of them as he repeatedly handed out his business card, and he despised them for their weak memories.


The three couples were discussing businesses investments and who was related to the groom’s family. Then the conversation turned to the latest scandal. A priest at one of the temples had taken an overdose and left a note: ‘God has finally acknowledged my life’. ‘What a profound man he must have been,’ said the woman. Dr Patel stared at his empty plate and fingered his tie. If only they’d ask him, he’d be able to explain that dilemma in detail. But the couples continued to discuss the incident amongst themselves.


The waiters came around with the starters: chicken tikka on skewers, tawa fish, king prawns, samosas and mutton kebabs. Wine was flowing like water, as was the champagne, and here he was right in the middle of these rivers, at ease with the crème de la crème of Nairobi society. How he loved these sounds, the tinkle of expensive cutlery, the low sophisticated chatter and the classical music from the sitar and the tablas played by the highly paid musicians in the corner. Dr Patel looked down at the musician seated on the carpet. He recognised the raag Kalyan melody always sung at weddings and raised his hand in a benevolent way. ‘Wah, wah,’ he said.


The man made a salaam in return, and Dr Patel beamed.


‘Aren’t you going to eat anything, Doctor?’ asked Gokul.


‘I’m a vegetarian,’ replied Dr Patel.


‘But there is plenty of choice. Have a drink?’


‘I don’t take alcohol,’ Dr Patel answered. Shifting his eyes away from the vulgar belt around Gokul’s middle, he picked at random a man in a grey suit at a nearby table and waved. Without interrupting his conversation, the grey-suited man nodded acknowledgement.


When the waiter came, Dr Patel asked him for a small salad and a glass of water. The men gave each other furtive glances, and the women looked down and smiled. Dr Patel guessed they were shamed by their own decadent and indulgent eating habits. He pressed his huge belly closer to the table, drank a dainty sip of water and dabbed his chins with his napkin.


Everyone clapped as the bride and groom entered the hall and walked around the room hand in hand. Then came speeches and wedding jokes which Dr Patel had heard many times, followed by the clinking of knives against glasses, with shouts of ‘Kiss the bride’. Amidst the frivolity around him, Dr Patel struck a particular pose he had perfected, one of serious contemplation. He looked up when  he realised one of the women at his table was talking to him. He stared in bewilderment at her moving lips.


‘Have you come alone, Dr Patel?’ she repeated.


He thought of his wife’s raucous laugh, Sejal could never be part of this haute society. Even after two decades, she hadn’t learnt the art of subtlety and she hampered his style.


‘Yes, I’m alone,’ he mumbled. He took his phone from his pocket and frowned. ‘An urgent matter has come up at work,’ he said. ‘Please excuse me.’ He stood up, the starched napkin falling from his lap, and stumbled through the crowd to the exit. In a daze, he reached his car, took off his tie and flung it onto the passenger seat.


He drove until he came to a fork in the road and halted at a traffic light. What had gone wrong? He had just the vaguest inkling that he hadn’t impressed those at his table, yet he’d done what he always did – stayed aloof with an air of reflecting on important matters.


When the lights changed, he put his foot on the accelerator and instead of taking the road to his right which took him home, he took the left turning towards a roundabout.


He drove around it. ‘This is my true friend, Dr Patel,’ the groom’s father had said, with his arm around him, when he’d introduced him to his friends. The affection was a clear signal to everyone that he was just like them.


Dr Patel swung his car round again. There was no traffic as it was after midnight. What envy he’d seen on the faces of that shabby couple when he’d put the money and his business card into the envelope with the shining golden logo of Amber! They had no flair, no panache, but he had risen from that same world of unsophistication through his own initiative, and now fitted in with the most successful in society.


He rolled down the window and let his arm rest on the ledge. He felt the cool wind in his face as he drove faster round the island. He lived in leafy Lavington, in a three bedroomed house with a heated swimming pool and a sunken bath tub and he drove a four wheeler Forester. He sent his children to private school, and his family had annual holidays abroad, in Europe and America. So what if it was all paid for by Amber? This was his success. He wasn’t called ‘Doctor’ for nothing.


And that was not all, he’d even found himself a mistress. He had the complete lifestyle. Of course people talked, but that was the point. They said he could afford a mistress, just like any other man of success and social standing. He was good enough for two women, his wife and a younger woman willing to be with him, on his terms. Dr Patel swerved the car.


He parked in the empty car park and decided to wait until he saw other people enter the apartment block. He usually made a point of seeing his mistress at a time when everyone was coming home from work. He’d alight from his car holding his phone to his ear, and lean against the door with a pre-occupied air. Initially, the neighbours used to nudge each other and snigger. This gave him much pleasure, while he remained intent on his phone conversation. Now they no longer reacted, but this did not bother him. His reputation as a virile lover had been established.


He picked up his tie from the seat beside him. Rolling the smooth silk between his fingers and then unravelling it again, he held up the strip of cloth in the dim lights of the car park. Oh, how beautiful it was. He had had to have it especially made because he wasn’t an actual member of the Club. He laid it flat on his thigh, stroked it and placed it lovingly back on the seat.


He noticed a young couple waiting at the entrance so he hastily slid out of the car and joined them. They entered the building and Dr Patel whistled raag Kalyan so they would remember him. He knocked on Afshan’s door. There was no answer, so he knocked again.


‘Who is it?’


‘It’s me, Anand.’


‘What do you want?’


‘Please open the door, I can explain.’


She stood in the doorway dressed in a black lace negligee, satin gown and high heeled slippers. Her hair fell around her shoulders silky and smooth, and as she tilted her head, something glinted in her nose. Strange, he hadn’t noticed the ring before. ‘May I come in?’ He caught his breath at her delicate perfume. So, she’d been expecting him?


She stepped aside to let him pass and shut the door. Dr Patel waited in the corridor. ‘It’s very late,’ she said, pulling her gown closer, and fumbling with the belt.


‘I, I…’ He stared at her.




On impulse, he took out his wallet. He pulled out a wad of notes and thrust it at her. ‘I came to give you this.’


She took a step back. ‘What’s it for?’


‘For you,’ he said. ‘A token.’


‘Of what?’ She looked over his shoulder at the door.


Dr Patel smiled. ‘Of our friendship, my gift to you.’


‘But we’re not friends.’


‘I don’t expect anything in exchange. Please take it.’


‘I think you should leave,’ she said.


‘But I don’t ask anything of you. All I do is sit on your couch and watch the news.’


She folded her arms.


‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I thought you were happy with our arrangement.’

She opened the door and looked towards the elevator. He turned, there was no one there.


‘Please go,’ she said. ‘It’s very late.’


‘But I’ve made sure you get regular promotions and a bonus. We have an understanding.’ He held out the notes.


She shrugged and took the money.


‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I hope we’re friends now.’


The door slammed and Dr Patel walked slowly to the elevator. As he entered the lift, a slim, clean-shaven, young man was exiting.


‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘Dr Patel, I presume?’ The man was dressed in faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt. ‘I notice you’re not wearing your famous Club tie tonight, Doctor?’ Any other time, Dr Patel would have been flattered, but he frowned and made no acknowledgment. He went down to the car park and was puzzled to find the car unlocked. Then he remembered he’d left it in a hurry. He must be more careful.


He drove back to the roundabout, swinging around it at full speed. To Nairobi society, he was Afshan’s lover, and tonight like any other, he’d visited her and been just himself. She’d hesitated over his gift and been eager for him to leave. Tonight most of all he’d needed her friendship, but she hadn’t understood.


He circled the island one more time. He thought how Gokul had asked several times if he was feeling all right. Dr Patel had squinted at his salad and poked the lettuce leaves as if lost in thought, yet all the while he’d listened intently to the easy banal chit-chat from which he’d been excluded.


The traffic lights turned red and he braked. He reached for his tie absentmindedly, but felt only shirt buttons. He turned to the seat beside him, fumbled where he must have left it, and then felt near the hand brake, but there was no sign of it.


The lights changed to green. Accelerating, he swerved the car towards the apartment block again, parked in the same spot as before and alighted from the car. Using his phone as a torch, he flashed it here and there, but could not see his precious tie anywhere.


He drove back to the island and veered towards home, oblivious of the red lights he was skipping. When he reached the gates of his mansion, he stopped. He sat there drumming his podgy fingers on the steering wheel and switching  the headlights on and off, again and again. Then he smiled. Of course, the young man in the lift had admired Dr Patel’s car on his way in and noticed the Club tie on the seat. Dr Patel laughed aloud. Wasn’t imitation, after all, the sincerest form of flattery?



Farah Ahamed is a Kenyan lawyer with a Creative Writing Diploma from the University of East Anglia. She currently lives in the UK. Her short stories have been published by Kwani?, Bridge House, Fey Publishing, New Lit Salon Press and The Missing Slate. In 2014 Zoloft for Everyone received a commendation at the Winchester Writer’s Festival, and 1972, was nominated for the Caine Prize for African writing. In the same year, she was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize for a collection of short stories. Red is for Later was nominated for the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing and the 2016 Pushcart Prize.