Arnav stood in his office, looking down at the desk where Khushi had once placed her statue of her Devi. It had been two months since Akash and Payal had gone to
Malaysia, two months since he had sent his brother-in-law to . Two months since his wedding day. South Africa
In the past two months, they had been husband and wife in the eyes of the world.
The simple statement he had made, Khushi’s hand held tightly in his, had been met with disbelief by the Gupta family and by irritatingly knowing smiles by his family. There had been an attempt by both families to persuade them to delay, to wait two months and then have the huge wedding extravaganza that was expected for Arnav Singh Raizada, but he had held firm, Khushi silently standing beside him.
Within moments of his declaration, Aman had arrived with the mala’s Arnav had ordered, as well as the Raizada’s priest. The Varmala ceremony had taken place then and there, without any preparation, and without giving anyone a chance to object. Khushi had been wearing a simple green churidaar suit, and he had been dressed in his usual business attire; as soon as possible, the Raizada family left to arrange the rest of the wedding.
That evening, they had been married in a simple ceremony held at the
. Both families had been present, as well as a few of the more distant relatives who had yet to return to their homes after Payal’s wedding, but there had been no time for grand preparations. Raizada Mansion
Arnav had asked his grandmother to arrange for some appropriate clothes for his bride-to-be, but at when he finally saw her being brought towards the lagna-kund, he saw she was wearing an old-fashioned red lehenga with gaudy embroidery on it. Taking it as the insult he was sure she had meant it to be, he felt his temper rise; Arnav leaned towards his grandmother and said “Nani, aap yeh kahan se laayeen. Nani, where did you get that? Didn’t you tell the boutique-owner who she was marrying? Is that what people would expect my bride to wear?”
Nani looked a little surprised at his tone; it was hardly lover-like. “Chote, humein pata hai aap Khushi bitiya ki khaatir harr acchi cheez lena chahte hain, magar woh apni Buaji ka joda pehhna chahti theen, to humne mana nahin kiya. Waise hi bitiya ke liye kuch nahin hosaka, na mehendi, na sangeet, na koi aur rasam. To hum unki ye ek khwaaish kaise poori na karte” “Chote, I know that you want Khushi to have every lovely thing she could want, but she wanted to wear her Buaji’s wedding outfit, and I couldn’t say no. Poor thing, she didn’t have any of the usual wedding rituals, no sangeet, no mehendi, nothing. So how could I say no to this one request?”
Pinning a (hopefully indulgent) smile to his face, he turned to look at Khushi as she walked nearer to him. Though her face was covered with her ghoonghat, he could make out the glistening trail of the tears which ran down her face. His heart clenched at the thought of what he was doing, of what she must be feeling, and for a moment all he wanted was to reassure her that he would never hurt her, never let her cry again. At that moment, his heart ached with love for her, and all he could think was that she was going to be his. Arnav shifted his weight as if to stand up; he stopped as he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Kya hua Chote?” “What’s wrong Chote?”
Di. His sister. The woman who’s life Khushi had almost destroyed. He felt anger flood his mind as he turned back to look at the girl walking towards him, rage at her, at his lecherous brother-in-law, at the world, but mostly rage at himself. Why could he not stop loving her? Why had his love for her not died the moment he found out what was going on? Even knowing what she was, why did his heart still stutter at the sight of her tears? Arnav looked into the fire and took a deep breath, aware that to the watching family members it would appear as if he was overwhelmed by the sight of his blushing bride.
As Khushi was seated gently next to him, he glanced at her from the corner of his eye; her eyes were closed and her face expressionless. Pain threatened to overwhelm him for another moment, his hand almost reaching out to her, then he stopped. Just stopped. Using every bit of the control he had developed over the past ten years, he switched off every emotion; the love that threatened to overwhelm him and the rage that was threatening to destroy him.
This was simply a deal, he reminded himself, a deal. He was paying for his sister’s happiness with his freedom, and buying Khushi’s cooperation with the contents of his bank accounts. Khushi would pay for her sins too, though; he would ensure that by making her live under the tightest restrictions he could impose.
The priest began the ceremony, and the moments passed in a flash; before he realised he was being asked to stand and lead his bride around the sacred fire. Never before had he ever entered into a deal with so little intention to keep his side of the bargain. As they walked round the fire, taking the seven marriage vows, he thought about every part of the contract that he was already planning to break.
He was entering a contract in which he was promising to cherish and provide for her—he would provide for her, but could never cherish her.
He was contracting to protect her and their children- again he would have to protect her, to protect his sister, but there would never be any children to look after.
He was making a deal to become financially successful; well that was one promise he could keep.
He was entering a contract to father her children; again a part of the contract he had no intention of keeping, though he had once dreamed of seeing her carrying his child.
He was promising to make her his best friend, when he had no intention of letting her into his life.
And finally, he was promising to be hers for eternity. As the priest spoke the words of the final vow, Arnav took a deep breath and for one moment, let himself go. From the depths of his heart, he promised to be hers for eternity, and vowed he would never let her go. She was his, no matter her faults and weaknesses. She was his, and he would never let her go. With a gasp, he fought to contain his longing; as his hard won control re-asserted itself, he rationalised his claiming of her, refusing to give in. Of course he would never let her go; keeping her bound to him was the only way to ensure his family’s happiness. (And if a quiet voice deep inside him kept repeating over and over and over that she was finally his, his, he ignored it; this need for her was something he would purge from his mind if it was the last thing he did.)
The ceremony was almost over, only two steps left to seal the deal. As they sat next to each other again, he saw that she had closed her eyes underneath the ghoonghat. She kept them closed even as he hooked the mangalsutra around her neck, kept them closed as her mother lifted the ghoonghat to allow him access to her maang.
Only when he filled her maang with a thick pinch of blood red sindoor did her eyes fly open; their gazes met and locked and for a moment it was as if their souls were communicating with each other. It was only a moment, before she shielded her eyes and looked down, but it left him in agony.
He remembered wanting to lash out, share his agony; if Shyam had been in front of him, he would have beaten him to a pulp. Instead, all he could do was grit his teeth and pretend to be full of joy.
Once the priest declared that the ceremony was complete, Arnav and Khushi stood. He started to turn away, but Nani’s gentle glare reminded him of what was expected, and he turned back to the assorted family members standing around the mandap. Together, he bent to take blessings from his Nani and Di, then turned towards the Gupta’s. He couldn’t help but feel angry as he looked at them; if they had had even slightly more control over their younger daughter, perhaps he wouldn’t have been placed in this insidious position. From the first, it was their weakness which had let her run riot, let her appear at the show where they had first met, let her roam free and end up in Shyam’s path. It was as much as he could do to force himself to bend and touch their feet, but he did it and was rewarded by the harsh breath of relief which escaped from his wife’s mouth.
He turned towards her, noting the trepidation with which she looked at him. “Khushi, tum apne parents ko khaane pe lejaao, main bas abhi aata hoon” “Khushi, why don’t you take your parents to get something to eat, I’ll be there in a moment”
She nodded hesitantly, then turned away, taking the handles of her father’s wheelchair as always.
“Ek minute Khushi.” She stopped, and turned back to look at him.
He made her wait, made her worry about what he was going to say for a moment, before saying “Aaj to tum dulhan ho, aaj kissi aur ko yeh zimmedari nibhaane do” “Today, you’re the bride, today you should let someone else shoulder that responsibility”.
With a gesture, he asked Akash to take the handles from Khushi, before saying “Don’t worry Khushi, aaj ke baad tumhare harr araam ke baare mein main sochoonga” “Don’t worry, after today, it’s my responsibility to take care of you”.
Khushi turned and walked away from him, the stiff set of her back mute witness to how unhappy she was. He couldn’t believe that no one else could see through their act, but apparently they were convincing in the their designated roles as impatient lover and blushing bride.
From that day till now, they had maintained the facade of a happily married couple in front of both families well enough that no one seemed to have any doubts. Anjali had been almost overwhelmed with happiness that her Chote had finally succumbed to love; she smiled and laughed more easily than ever, seemingly freed of a worry that had been burdening her for a long time. His grandmother was truly thrilled to see him settled with someone who shared her values and care for tradition, whilst Mamaji accepted the marriage with his usual calm demeanour. Mamiji had been the most difficult to read; it was inconceivable that she was happy with the marriage, but she didn’t say a word, possibly because she knew that Arnav wouldn’t listen to anything he didn’t want to hear.
The reaction of Khushi’s family were more varied. Garima, his mother-in-law, didn’t seem to care about anything except the relief of having both her daughters safely married off. Though she was a caring woman, she didn’t have any particular depth to her, and it was clear that she wouldn’t ever bother to look any deeper into the state of her daughter’s marriage. He had very little opinion of the woman.
Khushi’s aunt was more of a challenge. She was extremely disapproving of the hasty way in which the marriage had happened, even more unhappy that her niece was married to a man who didn’t seem to appreciate the importance of religion, tradition and ceremony. Her disapproval had been cemented when he had married Khushi without even a thought for the correct mahurat, or any of the other ceremonies involved with a normal wedding ceremony. Still, she never said anything more than her usual “Hai Re Nandkishore”, granting him the only glimmer of amusement he could find in the entire fiasco.
His father-in-law, now he was someone who Arnav was more wary of (and he had never imagined that he would be wary of a small-time business-failure). Shashi Gupta may have been disabled, may have lost his ability to talk, but the look in his eyes told Arnav that he was more than aware of what was going on. On the day he had seen Khushi married, seen her maang filled with red sindoor, seen the manglasutra around her neck, his eyes had filled with tears; but the look in his eyes had been fierce and victorious and utterly thankful. His hand had trembled as he gave them blessings, but as Arnav had turned to walk away, he had felt Shashi’s hand catch his and turned back. For a moment, their eyes had locked, and Arnav had felt as if Shashi had seen into his soul; he could feel Shashi looking deep as if for the answer to a very important question. After a moment, his father-in-law’s eyes had filled with tears again, and he had smiled, then laughed. Khushi, who stood numbly beside her husband as this byplay was going on, had gasped as Shashi brought Arnav’s hand towards her, indicating mutely that he wanted her to place her hand on his. It was only when Khushi’s hand was firmly clasped in Arnav’s that Shashi let go, a satisfied smile on his face.
From that day till now, whenever he saw his father-in-law, he couldn’t help but wonder what exactly the man knew; he knew something, that was certain. Perhaps with time, with the therapy that Arnav was now paying for, he would be able to reveal his secrets. But time was something that they were fast running out of.
It had been two months since they married, but in two weeks Shyam, Payal and Akash would all be back.
And then the games would begin.