He was dripping in sweat by the time he was done; as he made his way back to his (their) room, he stripped his vest over his head and used it to wipe the drops of sweat rolling down the side of his face. Walking into the bedroom, he gave a sigh of relief as he realised he was alone, then walked towards the wardrobe to find himself something dry to wear. After digging out a clean shirt and a pair of jeans (determinedly ignoring the feminine clothing mingling with his), he stepped back and closed the wardrobe door, then turned towards the bathroom.
As he put his hand out to open the bathroom door, it opened towards him and his wife stepped out, her head bowed as she rubbed her wet hair with a towel. He tried to step back to avoid the collision, but it was too late- she let out a shriek as she bumped into him, one hand going to grasp her towel where she had secured it loosely to cover her, the other trying to find a secure handhold on the unyielding wall of his chest.
Giving in to the inevitable, he put his hand out to hold her up, the skin of her arm cool in his hand. She stilled as she felt his hand, looking up into his eyes. When he didn’t step any closer, didn’t take any advantage of her closeness, didn’t seem to be affected by the fact that they were both half-naked and alone, tears sprang into her eyes; after a moment, she stepped back and said “thank you, aap ne girne se bachaliya”
He knew that something had happened, that he had done or not done something that she was expecting, but he couldn’t remember the little rituals that she so obviously hoped he would participate in. Accepting the usual feeling of guilt as if it were an old friend, he gave a sigh then turned to watch as she walked away from him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want her—his body had ached to feel her against him, nothing would have been easier than to pull her closer and let himself get lost in her body. But it wouldn’t have been fair to her, would have been nothing more than giving in to the unconscious physical connection between them- and she would have surely felt any lack of emotional involvement on his part and been hurt even more.
He watched as she dried herself with the towel; as she started to let it drop to the ground at her feet, she paused and looked over her shoulder at him, suddenly self-conscious about undressing in his presence. As she turned her back towards him and awkwardly dressed whilst doing her best to show as little of herself as possibly, the thought crossed his mind that the discomfort felt wrong. The feeling that it would be normal to watch her dress, normal to approach her, normal to caress her damp skin washed over him; he knew it was something he did regularly, though he had no memory of ever having been this close to her before. It had felt just as normal (just as right) to hold her wet arm, to feel her skin damp against his.
It was impossible to reconcile the two sides of himself- whether he believed his brain (which insisted that this woman was a stranger) or his body (which said that it was not only normal but indeed necessary to have this woman roaming his room in a state of undress), he wouldn’t be comfortable.
Taking a deep breath, he turned away and walked into the bathroom; he bathed and dressed in privacy then walked outside to find Geet seated at the dressing table, her fingers holding a pinch of sindoor that she was obviously about to apply to her maang. Their eyes met in the mirror as she, with more than a hint of defiance, applied a thick line of sindoor. Dusting off the remaining powder from her fingers, she stood and said “Aap ke liye naasthe ka bandobast karti hoon”
She started to move towards the door; realising that if he didn’t talk to her now, he probably wouldn’t get a chance all day, he walked towards her and blocked her route out of the room. Geet was lost in her own pain, so didn’t notice him until she walked into the unyielding bulk of his body; letting out a gasp, she stepped back.
As she looked up at him, their eyes met and he was once again flooded with guilt at what he saw there. In the depths of her eyes, there was a whirlpool of emotion; pain, loss, love, despair, hope, determination and terror all shone out when she looked at him. He knew he had to do something; he was a hard man, but he’d never wanted to be the cause of such pain in someone who had never harmed him.
She blinked, and in a moment every emotion was hidden as she brought herself under control..
“Naashta thodi der mein karloonga, aap se kuch baat karni thi” he made a deliberate effort to speak gently, reminding himself over and over that she wasn’t an employee, she was his responsibility no matter how little he wanted the burden,
He put his hand up to grasp her elbow, then drew it back as she quietly moved out of his reach.
“Aaiyye, baithiye” he said, then waited until she was seated in front of him. He stood, silent for a moment as he tried to work out the best way of broaching the subject.
Deciding that plain speaking was the best way, he said “Geet, main samajhsakta hoon ke aapke liye ye sab bahut mushkil hai, mere liye bhi aasaan nahin hai. Jiss aadmi ne aapse shaadi ki thi, woh ab nahin hai. Main hoon, magar woh nahin hoon jissse aapne shaadi ki thi.”
He paused, then with a sigh continued “dekhiye, main jaanta hoon ye sab meri ghalti hai; issliye main samajhta hoon ke aapko sab faisle karne ka haq hai. Agar aap chahein to aap divorce le sakti hain; aapko aazaadi miljayegi aur main aapka poora khayal rakhoonga, aapko kabhi kissi cheez ki zaroorat nahin hone doonga.”
Looking at her, he saw the silent tears tracking down her cheeks, but continued, knowing that he had to say what needed to be said.
“Agar aap chahein, hum saath rehsakte hain. Aap meri biwi hain, sab saboot yahi batate hain ke maine aapse apni marzi se shaadi ki thi. Magar main ab woh nahin hoon jo main tha. Mujhe to yaad bhi nahin ke main woh aadmi kaise bana tha. Agar aap chahein ke hum saath rahen to yeh bhi mujhe manzoor hai, magar aapko yeh samajhna padega ke main woh nahin hoon jo main tha, aur main phir kabhi nahin banpaoonga.
I don’t want you to stay with me in the hope that one day I’ll turn back into the man you married—that is not going to happen. If we stay together as husband and wife, that is your choice, but you need to make that decision with the understanding of what it would be like. We can live together, share a life, share a bed, maybe have children someday if you want, but I’ll never be the kind of man who gets emotionally involved. I have my business, my other interests; you would have to find something to keep you occupied, maybe a job or some charity work. Women have never been my particular weakness, that was always Dev’s speciality, so I’m not going to cheat on you or find anyone to replace you, but if we stay married, it would be a sensible arrangement which is convenient to us both rather than any grand romance.”
The tears continued to run unabated down her cheeks as she sat silently, giving him no other indication that she had heard a word he said. Anger built inside him, the idea that he was having to deal with a situation so out of his control triggering his ever present fury. He wasn’t sure who he was angry with, but he knew the silent figure in front of him was possibly the only person who didn’t deserve his wrath, so he controlled himself before he said something he would later regret. Taking a deep breath he said “Geet, aapne meri baat suni, baat samjhi?”
She nodded, still not looking up at him, leaving him unable to read her eyes (read her eyes what rubbish, he couldn’t read her eyes- where were these stray thoughts popping into his head from). He realised that he wasn’t going to get any decisions from her immediately, that indeed it was only reasonable that he give her a sometime before asking her to make a decision that was going to change her life forever, he said “main jaake Nakul se naashte ka kehta hoon. Jab aap tayyar hoan, to neeche aajaiyyega”
Turning towards the door, he put his hand on the door handle when he heard her voice “Mujhe divorce nahin chahiye. Jab aap se shaadi ki thi, to kuch vaade kiye the- aap se bhi aur khud se bhi. Main vo vaade nibhaoongi”
He turned back to her, but she was still sitting where he had left her, the tears still glistening on her cheeks, her eyes still fixed on her lap. Unable to think of anything more to say, he nodded once, unsure whether she could even see him, then turned and left the room.
An hour passed; the breakfast cooled and Maan ran out of excuses to explain to himself why Geet hasn’t come downstairs yet. He was about to resort to glaring at Dadi when Geet finally appeared, calm and composed. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her skin blotchy as if she had been weeping, but there were no other signs of her inner turmoil.
The ever-present anger reared its head- what right did she have to act as if she were being put upon; he was the one with an unwanted and un-needed wife. He paused the internal tirade as his inherent fairness kicked in- she had more than enough reason to be upset and he would be a monster if he expected her to be unaffected. Taking a breath, using the moment of stillness to dampen down his anger, he turned to pick up the newspaper and turned it to the business pages. After a moment of silent perusal (after all, it was Sunday, the business pages were full of space-filling non-stories), he turned his head towards her and said “Geet, kuch khaalein”. He didn’t really care whether she ate or not, after all she was a grown woman and able to decide whether she wanted to eat or not- but he felt it best to start as he meant to go on- a civil but formal relationship was what was called for.
He ignored the shocked stares of the rest of his family- it was the first time they had seen him address her since the accident. She nodded quietly and took a piece of dry toast, hardly enough to sustain a mouse, let alone a woman. He let it pass, not wanting to provoke any more distress (a small voice inside his head could be heard saying “since when did you care so much about how upset she is”).
He turned to Dadi and said “Dadi, mujhe ek hafte ke liye zara Mumbai jaana hai, aap aur Dev thoda khayal rakhlena, Adi ko agar support ki zaroorat hogi, to woh aap se baat karlega.”
“Magar bete, aap? Aap Mumbai mein kya karsakenge? Hamara matlab hai, abhi to aap ko poori update nahin mili hogi na?”
Thinking quickly, not wanting to explain that he was going to see a neurologist in Mumbai to get a second (fifth) opinion about his amnesia, he said “Nahin Dadi, yeh ongoing project nahin hai, main ek conference mein jaaraha hoon, wahan socha thode contacts bhi banaloonga, aur iss tarha se yeh bhi dekhloonga ke pichle atthara maheenon mein who the new players are in our market”
Dadi nodded “Theek hai bete, phir hum yhan sambhaal lenge”
They both looked up as Geet stood from the table “Dadi, thodi tabiyat theek nahin hai aaj, aap ijaazat dein to main zara araam karoongi”
Standing quickly and crossing to Geet’s side, Savitri said “Geet, tum jaao araam karo, kya main doctor ko bulaoon? Mujhe pata tha, tumne itne dinon tak apna thoda sa bhi khayal nahin kiya, kuch na kuch to hona hi tha”
He watched as the two women walked slowly towards the stair, inwardly wondering what he had let himself in for—perhaps it would have been more sensible just to insist on a divorce rather than leave the choice in her hands; it was clear that she was still extremely distressed, perhaps it would have been kinder to her to just make a clean break and force her to start anew. After a moment, he shook his head- she had made her decision in full knowledge of what he was offering; under those circumstances, what right did he have to remove the protection his name and family offered, especially when he had so clearly given it to her of his own free will. If he was honest, he had to admit there would be some benefits to having a wife available when he needed her.
Now that the decision was made, and she had decided to stay with him he allowed himself to think of all the positives that would come with being married. He wouldn’t have to find excuses to avoid predatory women anymore, the facade of being a devoted husband would be useful in explaining his lack of interest in dallying with the piranhas he came across. He would have an ever-available escort to all the business functions he inevitably had to attend. Indeed, he had always planned to marry someday, knowing that he needed to continue the Khurana family line; he now had a wife, so why take the trouble to find someone else? Indeed Geet seemed quite maternal, so if they ever got round to sharing a bed again, he might have some children to leave the business to sooner rather than later. (And if he didn’t let himself dwell on how pleasurable the begetting of children was likely to be once Geet was ready to allow him access to her body again, that didn’t mean that the thought didn’t lurk in the depths of his subconscious).
All in all it was a win-win situation, as long as he could be sure that his wife understood what type of marriage she was letting herself in for.
He spent the rest of the day sitting in front of the computer, catching up on what had happened in the world over the last eighteen months. He had been spending some time doing this every day since his release from hospital and was gradually catching up to the present day. The only thing he had avoided was any news about the Khurana family, not feeling able to deal with such personal information on a piece-meal basis.
Instead, he had a private investigation company putting together a report about what had gone on in the Khurana family over the last eighteen months- hopefully they would be able to clearly summarise how he, Maan Singh Khurana had ended up married to a small town girl called Geet Handa; how it was that his elegant Dadi seemed to have accepted his wife without any qualms, and where exactly his sister-in-law, step-sister and step-mother had vanished to before Pammi had reappeared to ruin his life. The report was due to be submitted to him after he returned from Mumbai; he could wait till then for the final answers he wanted.
Sometime later, he sat back; his head was pounding, the strain of long hours of staring at a computer screen combined with the fact that he hadn’t recovered fully from his head injury (no matter what he wanted to believe). He looked at the clock, surprised when he realised that it was late afternoon.
Standing, he stretched his back then started walking towards his – no, their room. He entered quietly, not wanting to face his wife if she was safely asleep. Rather than asleep, however, she was sitting dry-eyed on the bed, staring into the distance.
For once, he felt uncertain, unsure what the best approach was. Deciding that silence was his best option, he turned to the wardrobe to retrieve something more comfortable to wear; he stilled as he heard her voice.
“Aap agar bura na mane to kuch baatein kehni theen aapse”
He turned, silently giving her the go-ahead.
“Aap ki sab baaton ke baare mein soch rahi thi main. I’ve made my decision; I’m going to abide by the vows I made and stay as your wife. But there are some conditions to my decision- aap pehle sochlein ke aap ko bhi kya yeh shartein manzoor hain.”
He nodded once- it was better that she spoke her piece now before they made any final decisions “Kahiyye”
“Meri pehli shart- you will never be unfaithful.” She held up a hand, forestalling him as he was about to speak “Mujhe pata hai ke aap ne aaj kya kaha hai, magar main saaf saaf aap ko bata dena chahti hoon- agar aap ne kabhi aisa kiya I’ll divorce you.”
He nodded again “yeh shart manzoor hai”
“Meri doosri shart- aap kissi aur ke saamne kabhi meri be-izzati nahin karenge. Main aap ki biwi hoon, naukrani nahin. Agar aap ko mujhse koi baat karni hai, to aap akele mein jaise bhi ji chaahe bol sakte hain- magar duniya ke saamne aap kabhi meri be-izzati nahin karenge”
A third nod signalled his acceptance, prompting her to state her third condition
“Aap ne kaha ke main apne aap ko masroof rakhoon- main chahti hoon ke pehle jaise main aake Khurana Constructions mein kaam karoon.”
The third condition gave him pause- he wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to deal with her all the time. He would much rather she stayed in the mental box where he wanted her- that of ‘wife’. If she began intruding into his working life, he would have no time to himself.
Seeing his hesitation, she took a breath “Hum pehle bhi saath kaam karchuke hain; magar aap chahein to hum alag alag projects pe kaam karsakte hain, din bhar hum millenge bhi nahin”
After a moment, he nodded again- he would deal with her presence in his office if and when it became an issue; till then, she could be just another employee in the vastness of Khurana Constructions.
She spoke again “meri aakhri shart- mujhe thoda waqt chahiye hai. Mujhe pata hai ke agar main aap ki patni bann ke rahoongi to aap ko mujhpe haq hai, mujhe aap se inkaar karne ka haq nahin hai”
She paused, then spoke before he could assure her that he wasn’t a rapacious monster.
“Aapko andaaza nahin hosakta ye mere liye kitna mushkil hai. Aap kabhi nahin samajhpayenge. Main suhaagan hoke bhi vidhwa hogayi hoon”
She stopped as a sob threatened to escape. Her lips quivered as she struggled to stop herself from crying again, the depth of her misery clear on her face. Even he, as hard and emotionless as he knew himself to be, couldn’t deny the veracity of her pain and he cursed inwardly again at the fate that had led to him being caught in this web of responsibility- never before had it been clearer to him that having no memory of the relationships he had built over the lost eighteen months didn’t absolve him of responsibility towards the one person whose life had been irrevocably altered by his involvement.
He stepped towards the bed, though he had no idea what he could do. Before he could touch her, she drew in a deep breath and made a clear effort to remove all the emotions from her face, then spoke in a calm, collected, almost robotic voice.
“Aap pareshaan mat hoiyye. Main zyada din tak soag nahin manaoongi. Thoda sa aur waqt guzar jaane deejiye, phir aapko jaisi patni chahiye, main waise hi bann ke rahoongi. Magar thoda sa samay aur lagega”
Standing at the foot of the bed, he could feel the shield she gathered around her, as if there were a barrier between her and the rest of the world. He respected the inherent strength she was displaying; indeed, he felt a grudging admiration for the way she had faced him. After a moment, he stepped away and turned towards the wardrobe, but something drew him to glance at the mirror, to see if she had moved at all. The only sign of life were the tears pouring down her cheeks- he had never met another woman who could weep as silently as she could, without a gasp or whimper or a single sob.
After a moment of indecision, he left her to her grief; she was mourning the loss of something that had never existed as far as he was concerned, but it had obviously been real for her and she had a right to grieve for as long as she wanted. He couldn’t however suppress a wish that she would be sensible and realise sooner rather than later that remaining as his wife would be far better than becoming his ex-wife.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------to be continued.......