Bestsellers Galore

Sameer washed down on the last bit of the burger with a healthy swig of beer. He was sick of airport food, which was all that he got these days. On the flight from Chennai to Delhi, he had had a wonderful dream of dal and rice, just the way she used to make.

How can the cook mess up something as simple as rice and dal? I could do it better, if only I had the time.

Liar! You hate going into the kitchen because it reminds you of her.

Everything reminds me of her dammit.

Then why did you let her go?

She didn’t want to stay.

Did you ask her to stay?

Why would she listen to me?

When has she not?

She left didn’t she?

You left her no choice. You forced her to choose between self-respect and her love.

So fine! She chose herself.

What did you expect? That she would prefer to choose a moody obnoxious…

Whose side are you on?

Hers obviously. I am sick of you and your blasted ego. Just because you don’t like to say sorry, admit your mistakes, you let her go.

Oh stop whining. Move on. It’s been two years…

Oh so you’ve been keeping track?

What’s there to keep track?

You lie even to yourself. Hey isn’t that her?

Where? Shut the hell up and stop messing with my mind.

I am not messing with you! And even if I am, what can you do? Push me away like you did her? Just because she told you a few home truths?

What rot! I didn’t push her away.

That’s what you think. And deny as much as you like and the way I see it, she still has a firm clasp over your heart.

Nonsense.

And every now and then she gives it a squeeze.

His heart stopped. There she was – at the bookshop.

Go to her! Don’t let her go away again.

Stop being so Bollywood. What do I have to say to her?

Tons.

But I can’t say it. I wrote it all down. I even published it.

You should have sent her a copy.

What if she laughed at my face?

She has the right. Besides the book is funny.

Very funny.

If you hadn’t used a penname, she would have known by now. She couldn’t have missed it.

I couldn’t make fool of myself.

So you used a female penname?

Oh shut up.

For once be honest with yourself. Do you or do you not believe what you wrote? If you do, do not let her go. Fate has handed this chance do not let it slip.

I couldn’t.

Why can’t you? Just say hello?

What if she refuses to talk to me?

Just the kind of tonic your oversized ego needs.

What?

I told you I am on her side.

Help me dammit.

Go to her and apologize to her.

What if she insults me?

What if she doesn’t?

What if she does?

That’s the risk you have to take. That’s what you have to decide. Whether you love her or yourself.

She had finished purchasing her book and was moving away towards the boarding gates.

 He couldn’t let her go. Not again.

“He…hello?”

“How are you?” No surprise. No flicker of recognition or emotion.

“Fine.” Limbs and heart leaden, he turned away.

“Do you mind autographing this book?”

 She held out his book.

“Y…You know?” He held his breath.

“Yes. I read the book.”

“How did you like it?” He couldn’t quite hide his smug expression. His book was good. The reviews and sales proved it.

She looked at the book in her hand. “The book is good. I especially liked the twist in the end.” She met his eyes.

His heart thudded. “When he walked away?”

She nodded.

He shrugged. “It is what the protagonist deserved. To be punished. To be alone, forever.” He cleared his throat. “If you have already read it why did you buy it?”

“I wondered if it was all mere talk. I wanted to find out for myself.”

“And?” His breath eased and his heart steadied. He felt on top of the world. He could picture her in his their home. Nothing would have changed. It would be as if these two years had never happened. He at his table tapping away, a delicious fragrance wafting around him while she pottered about…

“I better go that’s my flight.”

“But…”

“I’ll mail you my thoughts.” She paused. “Or maybe I won’t. You can buy the book and read it. Stay well.” She walked away.

***

Depending on whom you’ve been rooting for I hope I managed to jolt you or extract a chuckle or two 😉

Thanks for reading! I would appreciate if you let me know your thoughts 😉 Or would you prefer me to wait for the bestseller? 😀

Die Another Day

On account of bad weather, the seat belt sign has been switched on. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.”

Sia looked up from her Ipad as the air hostess aboard the Mumbai-Delhi flight made the announcement.

Deeply entrenched in the twists and turns of Chake De! India, she hadn’t quite noticed the turbulence.

Sia’s co-passenger on the window seat shifted uncomfortably “Just look at that!”

Accepting the invitation, Sia leaned forward.

She gasped – a thick swirl of grey-brown lay directly below them and seemed to be growing bigger.

“There is a dust storm over Delhi and we are diverting to Jaipur. Sit back and relax.” The Captain’s reassuring boom echoed from the cockpit.

Oh good! She would be able to finish her movie. Sia smiled to herself as she turned her attention back to her downloaded movie.

“How can you watch a movie at this time?” The guy next to Sia glared accusingly at her. “We are all going to die and you are sitting here watching a movie?”

Sia sighed and took off her earphones. “We aren’t going to die. We are…”

“Yes we are! Can’t you see the thick billowing clouds? Can you not smell the dust?”

“Relax! Didn’t you hear the Captain? We are diverting to Jaipur. It’s all clear there.”

“But what if we die en route? What if…?”

“Yikes!” Sia jerked up straight in her seat. “I never thought of that! I better get back to my movie, it has been on my bucket list for ages…”

“It’s not funny!”

“No it isn’t.” Sia straightened her expression as it slipped. Her eyes strayed to her Ipad.

She sighed and held out her hand. “Hello I am Sia.”

“Whatever.”

“What’s your problem?” Sia asked.

“My problem is that you don’t have any problem!” His voice rose in affronted indignation. “We are going to die and all you are concerned about is your stupid movie.”

“So what would you have me do? Die before it is time to die?”

Frustrated, he glared at her. “At least…”

“I could panic a bit?” Sia twinkled at him. “Have a fit or two?” She twitched and rolled about her seat.

He rolled his eyes.

The aircraft dived and steadied. His knuckles turned white.

“Is this your first trip to India?”

“Last trip.” He mumbled, his eyes determined closed.

Sia laughed.

He opened his eyes. “How can you laugh?”

“How can you begrudge me my last laugh before I die?” Sia shot back.

He rolled his head as they hit another bad patch.

“At least tell me your name.” Sia coaxed.

“What good would that do? We are all going to die…”

“Talk about yourself.” Sia settled herself comfortably. “I am not going to die.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Yeah right! So Ms Know-it-all, do tell me, am I going to die?”

Sia looked at him over.

She pursed her lips and tapped her head with a contemplative finger.

He rolled his eyes. “Hey come on! Cut the dramatics would ya?”

Smothering a laugh, Sia finally shook her head. “Nope.”

His lips twitched.

“So when am I going to die Ms Sia?” He folded his hands and bowed.

Sia raised her hand in blessing. “I say never.”

She was rewarded with a laugh.

“The dust storm has passed and we are heading back to Delhi. The seat belt sign has been switched off but for…”

As the announcement droned on, Sia pinned him down with a smug expression.

He returned her look expressionlessly but gave up. He threw up his hands in defeat. “Sia maiyya ki jai!”

Sia clapped her hands. “Very good! I am impressed.”

“I thought you would be depressed.” He looked out of the window trying to hide his embarrassment.

“Never mind,” Sia consoled, “it happens to the best of us.”

“But I am better than the best!” He turned to her. “Tell me weren’t you scared? Not even a bit?”

“Of course I was.”Sia confirmed. “But not of dying. Of crashing down, breaking bones, hospitalization…”

“Oh those! That’s all reversible. I am talking about dying.”

“I knew I wasn’t going to die.” Sia said.

“But how?” He was all at sea.

“It’s all thanks to you.”

“Excuse me?”

Sia burst out laughing at his confused expression. I knew I wasn’t going to die because you didn’t let me watch the movie. And I wasn’t going to die without seeing the whole movie.”

“Whaaa!” He stared at her open- mouthed. “Crazy.”

“Yep! We Indians are like that. Crazy.”

He shook his head. “How do you do it?”

“Complete and unquestioning faith in destiny. “ Sia was serious. “If it is meant to be, it will be, if it is not,” Sia shrugged.

“Well your way of thinking beats me.” He scratched his head. “But thank you for not letting me make a fool of myself.”

“My pleasure, and more than happy make the Lufthansa TVC a reality.” Sia grinned mischievously at him.

He frowned.

“When you have time, check out the advertisement, but for now, after that near-death experience,” she twinkled, “do you think you could tell me your name?”

He held out his hand.

“Bond, my name is James Bond.”

***

A/N This is my first time participating in an indiblogger contest. I found the details in the mailbox this morning and voila! this happened. 😀 😀

Thank you for reading and do let me a note. Have a super day.

#MoreIndianThanYouThink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the Ordinary

 

It had been a long day at the office and Sonali was looking forward to putting up her feet with a cup of tea.

Raja, her 12-year-old-son, opened the door. “Mom, my scholarship money which was in the drawer has been stolen.”

Sonali suppressed a groan.

There went her hopes of relaxing. “Are you sure? Did you check properly?”

“Yes Mom.”

“Let me see.” She hunted high and low with Raja prowling about like a bear that had misplaced her cubs.

“Perhaps you spent it and forgot?” Sonali asked hoping against hope.

“No! I didn’t. I had Rs 7122. Now there is only Rs 122.”

“Why would a thief take only part of the money?” Sonali wondered.

“Probably because she was in a hurry?”

“She?” Sonali turned to her husband.

He shrugged. “It’s obviously one of the girls.”

Sonali looked at him in dismay. Who else indeed? Nobody else entered Raja’s room.

“Mom, are you going to call the police? Will they go to jail?” The bear wanted blood.

“I am not going to do any such thing.”

“Why not? They are thieves and they should be in jail.”

“There are three of them and I don’t know who has taken the money. I can’t just call the police.” Sonali was aghast. “This is a domestic matter and not a very big issue. I will sort it out.”

“Not a big issue? It was my scholarship money!”

“How will you sort it out? You do realize this is a tricky situation, which could blow up in our faces? What if they bring counter allegations of harassment?”

Mama and Papa bears pulled her in two different directions.

“Let me think! I haven’t even been to the washroom.” Sonali snarled. “And you,” Sonali turned to Raja, “It’s all your fault. How many times did I tell you to take care of it?”

“So it’s my fault? Not the thieves? You want to put me in jail and let them go scot free?” He followed his mother to the washroom.

Sonali slammed the door for some peace and quiet.

Her husband was right. This was indeed a tricky situation. She couldn’t –shouldn’t talk to the girls. Who knew how they would react? They would of course deny culpability. It would be better to talk to their mother, Sheila.

In the privacy of the loo, Sonali allowed herself the luxury of a groan. If only Raj was still around. None of this would have happened.

“I can’t come to work from tomorrow.” Raj, Sonali’s longtime and trusted house help, had said not so long ago.

Disaster!

Raj was Sonali’s right and left hand. A delicate health, a full time job, a hungry teenager, breakfast, tiffin, lunch, high tea, and dinner – the heat! How would she manage?

“I am sorry but the family is shifting far from here. You know I can’t read bus numbers. Besides I have never traveled alone. So.” She raised her hands in a helpless gesture.

“Can you suggest someone as a replacement? Someone trustworthy?” Seeing no other option Sonali asked.

“I will see. But I won’t be able to vouch for trustworthiness.”

“I suppose not. But at least send someone who is regular and doesn’t take too many offs. You know how things are at home.”

After a frenetic week, a middle-aged woman turned up. “Memsahib, you are looking for a maid? Raj sent me.”

“Oh.” Sonali wiped the soapsuds off her hands. “What’s your name?”

“Sheila.”

“Are you new? I haven’t seen you around.”

“No Memsahib. I have been here for longer than Raj has. I was the one who arranged for her accommodation near my house when she first came to town.”

“Okay Sheila,” Sonali interrupted her self-righteous affronted speech, “I do need someone to help me with the housework. But you have to come early morning before I leave for work and after I come back from work.”

“But Raj used to…”

“Yes Raj had a key. But she’s been with me for more than a decade now. I can’t just…” Sonali trailed off for fear of offending her.

“Don’t think like that of us Memsahib. We are of good family Memsahib. It’s just that we have fallen upon bad times.”

“I am sure! I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t trustworthy. But you do agree trust takes time? Even with Raj…”

“Okay Memsahib. As you think best.”

“And I don’t want you to take any leave without information. At least give me a call, if you can’t come.”

Sheila nodded.

Relieved, Sonali agreed to Sheila’s demands of a salary hike and handed over the reins of the cleaning to her. She could go back to having a cup of tea in peace.

After a bit of tussle with the men of the house who didn’t like the idea of a strange woman roaming the house and encroaching upon their activities.

“Why do I have to go out? My room is clean.”

“Who is she? What are her credentials? What if she steals something?”

“Whoever has objections can take her place. I will even pay for it.” Sonali smartly turned the tables. They backed off mumbling and grumbling.

Sheila turned out to be a God sent – she was regular, clean and a reliable worker. Sonali relaxed and bonded with her new ‘friend’ and life savior. Saturday was Sonali’s day off and Sheila would share a cup of tea her life’s woes and joys while the bears were away.

“Memsahib, this morning breakfast that you are kind enough to give me everyday? I really appreciate it. I come for work without having breakfast. It saves me time. And money.”

“My husband is a good man, Memsahib. No smoking no drinking, no bad habits. I feel sorry for him that he got me as a wife. I couldn’t give him a son.”

“Without a son, there is no respect in society, Memsahib. I gave birth to five daughters but no son.”

“My husband can’t sleep nights for worry. The other day he fainted because of high blood pressure. Running around the hospital is no woman’s job. I cannot even read and write. If only we had a son.”

“My husband is taking a life insurance policy. He has been advised to make his nephew as the beneficiary not me or my daughters.”

“My youngest says she is my son. She said she would never leave me and go.”

“Daughters’ weddings are expensive business. We are still dealing with the burden of loan for our two elder daughters’ marriage.“

“I don’t know how to control my daughters Memsahib. They are driving us crazy with their demands for an early marriage. The middle one especially is running out of control and is straying. She has a boyfriend. She has no shame in flaunting him. She carries on publicly with him. She cares more for him than us. She gave us an ultimatum, either we get her married or she will run away with him. Think of the shame Memsahib, we will lose face in society.”

“We can’t put off their wedding much longer. But where will we get the money to marry them off?”

“Sweets for you Memsahib. I am very happy today. My daughter’s second child is a boy. Now nobody can taunt her or me. Our ‘sonless’ curse is broken.”

“Memsahib, I need leave to take care of my husband. He’s had a heart attack.”

Sonali looked at her in dismay. “Oh no!”

“Don’t worry Memsahib. Your work won’t suffer. I know you also don’t keep a good health and I will make sure that at least one of my three daughters comes to do your house work.”

Seeing no other option, Sonali agreed. Besides, it was considerate of Sheila to keep her comfort in mind in this situation. But her neat orderly house running like clockwork was thrown into disarray. It’s not that the girls didn’t come, but each had a different way of working and special area of slipshoddiness. But Sonali had little choice but to bear it as well as she could.

And now money was missing. And who knows what else was missing.

“Mom, you are still letting thieves walk about the house?”

“I don’t know which of the three took the money. Besides, I don’t want to say anything to them. Sheila will have to deal with them.” Sonali said. “Until she comes to work, things will carry on as usual, except that we will have to keep a closer watch on their activities.”

A long drawn out altercation followed but Sonali was adamant.

Much to everyone’s disgust.

Sheila reported for work four days later.

“Sheila,” Sonali was uncomfortable and apprehensive, “I wanted to tell you that some money is missing from my son’s room.”

Sheila stared.

She turned off the tap.

“My youngest would never do it.” She said at last.

Relieved not to have Sheila take offence or fly off the handle, Sonali said carefully measuring each word, “You know your daughters best. I didn’t say anything to any of them because I thought you were best suited to deal with the situation. And there is no doubt I am afraid that one of them must have taken it.”

Sheila didn’t say anything and went about her work as usual.

Sonali escaped to office but she was bombarded with dire warnings and advice from all quarters.

“Be careful of these people. They are very cunning. They will land up in hordes and create a ruckus. Worse they can also file a harassment complaint at the police station.”

“So what should I do?” Sonali was getting more and more apprehensive.

“Forget about the money.”

“And continue to let her work?”

“That’s a bit tricky. Best you deal with it diplomatically.”

“But how?”

“Oh look at the time! And I have tons of work…”

That’s it work – work was the only distraction and Sonali pushed the domestic crisis for later.

When Sonali returned from office, she found Sheila and her husband waiting for them.

Now what?

Sonali looked at her husband. He set his lips and walked inside.

Sonali steeled herself for the worst.

“Yes Sheila.” Sonali hated the defensiveness in her own tone.

“Memsahib, we came to apologise and offer compensation. I know my middle daughter has taken the money. Please don’t call the police.”

Sonali stared at Sheila unable to believe her ears. “How do you know?”

“Like you said Memsahib, I know my children best. I knew my youngest couldn’t have done it. And my middle one has been getting desperate about her lover. I confronted all three of them. They all denied. So I accused her outright. She denied vociferously. Then I told her ‘Memsahib has a CCTV camera and she saw you take it.’ She broke down and confessed.”

Sheila wrung her hands waiting for the axe to fall.

The wind taken completely out of her sails, Sonali was dumbstruck.

In all the scenarios that they had painstakingly constructed, they had never ever considered that Sheila would accept culpability or identify the culprit.

“Memsahib, we have brought some money. Please take how much ever she stole from you. She confessed that she stole for her boyfriend and has already given it to him. We would have thrown her out Memsahib, but her wedding cards have distributed. Think of the bad name our family will get. How will I get my other two daughters married? Please don’t call the police. We just have Rs 5000 with us right now. We will give back the rest to you as soon as we can.”

Sonali felt humbled yet victorious, small yet exhilarated.

***

A/N Based on a true incident.

In response to the Daily post’s one-word prompt – Outlier

 

The Elopement

“What’s the matter darling?”

“I hate sharing my room.”

“Me too! I didn’t want to come. But your Dad was adamant and quite unreasonable.”

Lilly looked at her granny with new eyes.

The grey-haired lady shook her head. “Your Dad behaves as if I were six not sixty.”

“Or ninety.” Lilly giggled.

“Yeah that too. Ever since your granddad passed away five years ago, I have been living alone and managing pretty well too.”

“You have a broken arm.” Lilly couldn’t help pointing out.

“Anyone can break their arm. While in college, your father broke his nose and leg – did I shift him home from his hostel? Then why is he doing this to me?”

“But…but we thought you were lonely, sad…”

“and helpless? Granny snorted. “Nonsense. Just a passing inconvenience.”

“But it’s natural for…”

“Children to mother their parents? Honestly Lilly, whose side are you on anyway? Don’t you want me to leave so that you can have your room back?”

“Ye…es but I don’t want to have your…your,”

“My death on your conscience?”

Horrified, Lilly giggled. “Granny you are really cool!”

Granny stroked her chin. “True.” She winked. “Now tell me about Adarsh.”

Lilly was taken aback. “Adarsh? How do you…?”

“I am not deaf or blind – yet.”

“Oh Granny! I love him. But Dad…”

Granny raised a hand and shuddered. “Don’t talk to me about your Dad. I thought you loved the Cummerbund guy.”

“Granny! That’s Cumberbatch. And you know what I mean?”

“Nope. Does ‘Dad’ not mind you loving Cumber..whatever?”

“Oh Granny please! As if I am going to run away with Cumberbatch.”

“So you plan to run away with…Adarsh? Interesting. But I wonder, how can you be sure that you do actually love Adarsh? That you are not just doing it for the adventure, for the romance, to get your Dad’s attention?”

“No Granny! I just know I love Adarsh and he too loves me.” She fiddled with the tassels of the bedcover and confided in a rush. “Adarsh wants us to elope but…”

“You aren’t sure.” Granny interrupted.

I am sure Granny. But I wish Dad agreed.”

“But then there would be no need to elope!”

“Ye…es, but I want Dad to accept Adarsh and…”

“Why? So that if anything went wrong, you could blame him?”

“That’s not fair Granny!”

“But it’s true. If you really loved him, you wouldn’t need anyone’s permission. You would have run away by now.”

There was silence.

“Maybe you are right.” Lilly admitted. “Talking always helps, doesn’t it Granny?”

Granny started from her reverie. “It sure does honey. Now tell me dear, were you thinking of running away at night or during the day? Were you planning to leave through the window or just not return from an outing? What about clothes and stuff?”

Confused, Lilly stared at her grandmother. “But Granny, I am rethinking…”

“I know you are! And a good thing too. No need to rush into this marriage business so young. Better to wait a few years, live a little, find your love, or at least try to find the one for whom you would willingly give up everything without any hesitation and then elope.”

“Then why are you asking about…?”

“Oh that!” Granny’s wrinkles pinked, “I was trying to organize my elopement.”

 ***

For once, not linked to anything 😀 I was trying to pen a flash fiction when Granny hijacked it – do let me know what you thought. Thanks for reading – have a super weekend

 Readers of Moonshine, hope you are aware Chapters 123 and Chapter 124 are up

How Blue is My Sapphire

The eighth and the final short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other submitted stories – Click here

Prompt:

All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am….. ” Anita Nair ( (For more about the contest/rules click here).

Rules by the Author

1) Name of the Story: How Blue is my Sapphire
2) Must be literary fiction that leaps off the page. Literary fiction is best defined as “works that offer deliberate social commentary or political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”
3) The story shouldn’t have more than four characters and an animal
4) The story should play out in 24 hours.

 

How Blue is my Sapphire

I pushed open the door of the terrace and looked at the vast expanse of sky and treetops. The view made the climb worth it. Maybe that was why Neelima had chosen the barsaati over the cramped paying guest accommodation. She could have commuted from home, but she preferred to be near the hospital. I didn’t object – she was big girl now. Besides, I am not the clingy, insecure, possessive kind of mother. I believe in letting children fly the nest, and sooner the better.

“Mom! What are you doing here? And what’s with the bird?”

“Meet Zack, my new pet. Isn’t he cute?” I put my arms around her. She leaned in for about a millisecond before withdrawing.

“I wonder that you have time to take care of a pet.” Neelima said. “What about your numerous commitments?”

Unable to resist, I shot back. “Oh he doesn’t ask for much. Unlike some other people I know.” I should have bitten my tongue for this was exactly what Neelima liked to sink her claws into.

“Is that why you dumped me at Nana-Nani’s whilst you traveled the world?”

I gritted my teeth and said in an even tone, “For the nth time, it was no joy ride. It was part of my art course and I only went to Paris.”

“For two years. And after that also you never bothered to come and…”

I sighed. “I told you I had commitments. Besides, nobody had any objections. I asked your grandparents, your father…”

“Did you ask me?”

It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here. What did I expect from Neelima? That she would understand? When had she ever? I still recall her teen years with a shudder – shrill, harsh, demanding and exhausting. Not much has changed since.

Ratan, my other child, was so sorted and cool. We had our moments of course but they were like a summer shower – a little wetness, a bit of a steam but oh so refreshing. Plus Ratan never bore grudges. Neelima, on the other hand, nurtured her grudges like tender saplings, watering and feeding them on a regular basis. Martyr-like, she wore her woes as if they were badges of honor. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. I carry no guilt or baggage of the past. And I often wished that Neelima too would just move on.

“Oh God! The way you hang to the past. Give me a break would you? I was 18 years of age and if it wasn’t for your grandparents I wouldn’t have got married in the first place…”

“So you punished them by dumping me on them. What was my fault?”

I flinched under her accusing glare but I refused to feel guilty. “I did what I thought was best under the circumstances.” I reached out and pinched her cheeks. “In any case I doubt you would have liked staying with me. My maternal instincts are nonexistent at best.” I offered her a smile.

She jerked away. “They sure kicked in when Ratty was born.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“Why not? Did you stop him from calling me Ninima?”

“Ninima’s cute! Ratty is so horrible.”

She turned on her heels.

I put the cage on a broken down table. I could have kicked myself. If only I hadn’t made that wisecrack. But then she would have found something else. We had been over this topic in various avatars and I had failed to appease her. And I couldn’t change the past could I?

Neelima came back and poured Zack some water. She held out her hand. “What do you think Zack would like – some nuts or a tomato?”

I shrugged. “Let him decide.”

She opened the cage door and put down the food. She caressed him with a gentle hand. Her face was soft and tender.

And that hurt more than I cared to admit.

“A feast for Zack and nothing for your mother?”

“Mother can ask or help herself.”

I wondered if a slap would have hurt as much. I walked to the edge of the roof to hide my emotions.

“You should have had an abortion.” She stood beside me sullen and stiff.

For a moment I dearly wished I had. But then I realized that she was offering an apology in her own way.

“What!” I turned to face her. I gestured between her and me. “And forgo all this?”

Neelima looks beautiful when she smiles. Triumphant and relieved, I smiled back.

Ice broken, she held me by the arm and led me inside – rather like a cat dragging her kitty. “Why did come Mom? And why didn’t you call before coming?”

“Because you never pick up my call.” I looked around. “So messy and dusty.” Instinctively, I straightened the pillow and folded a rumpled sheet. I hunted for a duster.

“Yes, ever since you called at the clinic,” she said, “to discuss about your maid stealing vegetables…”

“But that was an emergency!” I protested. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“And you thought I would know?”

“Well,” she had me there, “you always were a smart kid, school topper, a doctor to boot…

Neelima held out a glass of lassi. “Are you patronizing me Mom?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Just seemed like that.” She shrugged. “Besides, I know you don’t approve of me.”

“Nonsense.” I took a tentative sip of the lassi. I smiled. “Just the way I like it.”

“It’s always about you isn’t it?” Her tone was conversational.

I stared. “What do you mean?”

“Just the way I like it.” She mocked me.

“Yeah so?” I was all at sea. “I was praising you. Didn’t you say just now that I didn’t approve of you? So.” I raised my glass and took a sip.

“And that is all you can find to approve of? Nothing else? And in any case, if you wanted to convey your ‘approval’ you could have said you made it well. But no, the way you like it is more important and special. Because you are special and all of us are useless hangers on determined to pull you down.” Neelima’s pitch rose and her lips twisted in a sneer.

Hands shaking I put down the glass. “What on earth is this about?”

Eyes glittering, she stood with her fists clenched. “As if you don’t know.”

“I don’t.” I said in my most patient voice.

“Your acclaimed painting Freedom where you show yourself trapped in a house while the rest of us are having fun outside. Even there you are bigger than all of us put…”

I was taken aback. “You saw my exhibition? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters. And interesting that you should interpret it that way – I only meant to depict that once the family is out and having fun, she is free to do her own thing.”

She wore a disbelieving expression but she didn’t argue further.

“Did you even like any of the paintings?”

“All of them were nice. Especially the one of the sea.” She hunted about the fridge. “There’s only bread.”

“I make very good bread upma.” I offered, pleased with her compliment and interest in my art.

Neelima threw her hands up. “See? Again it’s all about you. While I can do nothing right. You are the best in everything. You keep the best house. You make the best…” She choked.

Shocked, I could only gape at her bewildered. “Sometimes I just don’t understand you.”

Sometimes?!” Her voice was bitter. “When have you? Oh forget it. Why did you come here?”

I stilled. Perhaps I should have talked to Ratan first, got him on my side. Neelima would of course take her father’s side.

“Call Ratan over for dinner tonight. We can talk then.”

“Why tonight?” Neelima was instantly up in arms. “Tell me now.”

“No. I can’t do this twice over.”

“Twice over?” She loomed over me. “Are you well? Any health…”

I looked up. Her eyes reflected the panic in her voice. “Relax. I am fine. Call Ratan will you?”

“You call him. He is your darling.”

“Why do you hate Ratan so much?”

“I don’t hate him. You hate me.”

“Me? Hate you? Why on earth would you think that?”

“You let him go on the rafting expedition but you didn’t let me go.”

“I didn’t let him go! I said no to him as well. You listened. He didn’t. What could I do?”

“You could have said yes to me.”

“But I didn’t say yes to him.”

She flounced off.

Despair stole over me. Why were we always at loggerheads? Why couldn’t we just talk like two responsible adults? What was it about our relationship that had embittered her so much that she misconstrued anything and everything I said? I was trying hard to make up for my earlier follies but she needed to meet me halfway.

Neelima reappeared carrying her purse. “I called Rats. He will be late and he wants you to cook Biryani.”

Delighted, I laughed. “I knew it!”

Neelima looked at me with a sour expression. “I doubt if you even know what I like to eat.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Who said life was fair?” She turned to leave. “I have texted you a number. You can order whatever groceries you need. I am going to the hospital.”

“Wait! At least tell me what you would like to eat?”

“Upma.” The door banged shut.

I winced. My fault. I had forgotten she hated upma. But why couldn’t she be as straightforward as Ratan? So much easier to understand and deal with.

When Neelima returned it was past 9 pm. She headed straight for the kitchen. “What did you make?” She lifted the covers.

I waited, smiling.

She turned. “Avial!”

I couldn’t help but laugh at her delight. She heaped her plate and dug in. I put my arm around her. “Darling if you want or expect something from me – ask! I am quite dumb that way.”

“But you are my mother,” she objected, “you should know.”

I warred between tears and laughter. What to do with this crazy, sensitive, prickly uppity daughter of mine?

Ratan came in a little later. He greeted me with a broad smile and a bear hug. “Hi Ma! Where’s my biryani?” He grabbed a plate.

“Wash your hands!”

But he had already begun. “You make the best biryani in the whole world.” He spoke with his mouth full. “What’s that? Avial? Yech!”

Neelima glowered at him.

“Why the bird Ma? I mean you and a caged bird don’t really go together.”

Ratan understood me. I smiled. “Zack is a gift. He has been caged for so long that he has probably forgotten how to fly.”

“You could try.” Neelima said.

After dinner, Ratan lay down on the folding cot. “Ma can we talk in the morning? I am sleepy.” He grinned endearingly.

“No. Let’s talk now.” Neelima held out a pillow and sheets.

Ratan grabbed the things and turned over. “Goodnight all.”

Neelima looked at me as if it was my fault. “How come he always gets his way?”

I shrugged. “Perhaps it’s because men don’t hanker for others approval the way we women do.” It was a moment of epiphany for me. After all, wasn’t that why I was here?

Next morning, Neelima had her revenge.

“Get up Ratty.”

“Go away.” Ratan mumbled. “It’s not even morning.”

“No way Rats. Get up now.” Neelima pulled at the sheet. “Any later and you will say I am late for college.” She held out a cup of tea.

“No worries, Ninima,” he peeked out, “I am bunking college today.” He grinned and went back under.

“You can bunk. I can’t.” Neelima was firm. “So let’s just have this talk shall we? Mom?” She looked at me questioningly.

I put down the cup. I suddenly wished I hadn’t come. I should have just sent an email.

“Mom?”

Even Ratan sat up.

“I am separating from your father.” I played with my fingers.

Neelima put a hand on Ratan’s shoulder. “Is there anyone else?”

“I am moving in with Stu.”

“Stu?” Ratan threw off his covers and stood up.

“Stuart, the artist from Paris?”

I nodded, feeling dull and heavy. Ratan looked shell-shocked but Neelima was cool and composed – the lull before the storm.

Ratan looked at me pleadingly. “What about Dad? And what will people think?”

“Your father has agreed to a divorce. People don’t matter. You do.”

“Why now Ma?” Ratan asked. “After so many years?”

“I am 45 years old and I am tired of ‘adjusting’. I feel as if I have been leading two lives – doing justice to neither. No matter what I do, I always feel guilty about neglecting the other. I want to be free. I want to just draw and paint the whole day or night if I so wish.”

Ratan began collecting his things.

“What happened?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.” He picked up his bag. “I just remembered. I have an important class this morning. Got to go Ma.” He thrust his feet into his shoes and picked up his mobile. “Bye Nini, bye Ma.” A final wave and he was gone.

Now, even my son would hate me. Tears choked me.

“Do you love him?”

I gaped. “Of course! Otherwise why would…”

“Does Stuart love you too?” Neelima was cool, clinical.

“Ever since the first time I went to Paris.” I cleared my throat. “Initially I didn’t. Or perhaps I was scared to acknowledge my feelings. Besides I had responsibilities.”

“What if it doesn’t work out?”

I spread my hands. “At least I would have tried. All my life I have wondered fantasized. Now, finally, I will know. That is if,” my eyes strayed to the empty doorway.

“You haven’t decided?”

“How can I decide? It all depends on you both.” Poor Ratan. I had upset him. Was my happiness more important than his? I broke out in a cold sweat. I put a hand to my throat. I felt as if I was suffocating, drowning…

“Did Stuart gift you Zack?” Neelima was stroking Zack.

Confused, I said, “Yes.”

“Maybe you should fly before you forget how to fly.”

Unable to believe my ears I gawked at her. “But what about Ratan?” My voice was hoarse.

“Don’t worry about Rats. I know how to manage him. Maybe I will shift back home. Be with Dad.”

Emotions assaulted me. Uppermost was guilt. “I don’t know what to say…”

“Then don’t say. Just…Just fly.” She gave me a tight hug before withdrawing. “I hope you are on the pill?

I began laughing but ended up crying. My daughter held me and rocked me like I never had.

***

Thank you for reading. I really would love to know what you think, brickbats included…

The Christmas Present

The seventh short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

 Author Prompt

It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. by Jaishree Misra  (For more about the contest/rules click here).

The Christmas Present

Daddy wasn’t going to come home ever.

It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.

 

Rhea closed her eyes, trying to shut out the present, the past, the pain. But no matter how hard Rhea tried, the memories came flooding back. Her hiding in the dark, pressing back against the shadows, stifling her scream, of her father’s low menacing growl, “Are you hiding in here Princess? I can hear you breathing.”

Rhea clapped a hand over her nose but it was too late. A hand reached out and plucked her out.

Rhea squealed and protested even as she threw her puny arms around him. “Not fair Daddy! If I hadn’t got a cold you would have never found me.”

“Well, that’s your fault isn’t it my little Princess?” Jason pulled her button nose as he strode off with her in his arms. “Remember what the doctor said? It’s because you don’t eat properly that you keep falling ill.”

“Oh but I do eat! Do you want me to eat like an elephant?”

Jason laughed. “But that doesn’t mean you eat like an ant!”

“Daddy do you know how strong ants are? They can carry load up to 50 times their weight.”

Jason put her down and got down on his haunches beside her. “Are you 6 years old or 60?”

Rhea sighed and put her hands on her hips. “How would I know Daddy? I was just a baby when I was born wasn’t I?”

Jason cracked up.

“Come on Daddy, it’s your turn to hide now,” Rhea pulled him.

Chuckling Jason got to his feet. “Later. First have dinner.”

“No! First you hide.”

“After dinner, I promise.”

“You are cheating!” Rhea walked off in a huff.

Jason caught up with her. “Cheating?”

She looked at him knowingly. “You are trying to trick me into eating aren’t you?”

Jason clapped his hands together and bowed. “Yes Granny!”

Please and flattered, Rhea condescended to nibble at her food. “Mummy, after dinner you also come and play. It’s my turn to be the den.”

Gia smiled and pinched her cheeks. “Maybe if you finish all the food on your plate.”

Rhea rolled her eyes. “Not you too!”

Gia looked at Jason, whose shoulders were shaking. “Beware Gia, that’s not your daughter. That’s my Granny – isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Rhea frowned and tapped him on the knuckles with her spoon. “Come on now, eat your food quickly. Wash your plate and don’t forget to brush your teeth.” She dropped her serious veneer and giggled into her hand.

Warm rich laughter erupted and broke over the clatter of cutlery.

It was her turn to find Daddy. She hunted for him high and low, upstairs and downstairs, outside and inside but he was nowhere.

“Daddy? Daddy! Daddy!!!” She woke screaming.

Gia held Rhea close as she blabbered. “”Where’s Daddy? Why doesn’t he come home? Is he angry with me Mummy? I promise I will eat up everything Mummy, just ask him to come home. Tell him that I lost the game Mummy. Please Mummy.”

“Shush my darling shush. It’s okay dear. He has just gone on a long flight, somewhere very far.” Gia wiped her face and consoled her. “You know he is a pilot right? It happens that sometimes he is gone for days on end? Well this time it is just taking longer than usual.” Her voice broke and she turned away to hide her emotions.

“But why are we staying at Granny’s house? When are we going back home? What if Daddy is home? What if he can’t find us?” Rhea was getting hysterical and Gia had no answers. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Rhea the truth – her beloved Daddy wasn’t coming home ever.

“Soon sweetheart, soon.” Gia mumbled as she rocked her to sleep.

“Daddy will come home for Christmas won’t he Mummy? Will you tell Santa I don’t want any gift for Christmas? Just that Daddy should come home.”

“Yes darling.”

But days passed as did weeks and months but there was no sign of Daddy. Rhea stopped asking about him but she continued to wait for him, starting with every car that turned the corner, every knock on the door, every ring of the telephone.

And then one day, Gia stowed their bags in the car and said, “Come let’s go.”

“Where are we going Mummy? To Daddy?”

“Hush. It’s a secret!“

“Where’s Granny? Aren’t we going to say bye to her?”

“She…She’s busy.” Gia hurried her into the car.

“Oh!” Rhea squealed in delight as she spied the red blooms of their hibiscus, “We are home! Daddy, Daddy!” Rhea tumbled out of the car and stopped short.

A stranger stood at the door.

“Come Rhea, come in and meet your new Daddy.”

Rhea stared at the tall man. He wasn’t at all like her Daddy. She didn’t want a new Daddy. She wanted her old Daddy.

“Didn’t I tell you that Santa always listens to good girls?” Gia’s voice was shrill.

“Who is that?”

“That?” Gia’s laugh was forced. “That is your new brother Ron. Say hello to him dear.”

Rhea looked at the scruffy grumpy boy standing a little off. He ignored them and stared determinedly at the PSP in his hand.

Rhea’s eyes swung back to her mother. “Am I going to get a new Mummy too?”

“No!” Her mother’s voice broke on her laugh. “Why would you need a new Mummy? I am here aren’t I?” She paused. “But I am Ron’s new Mummy. Hello dear,” she held out her arms.

“I am 9 years old and I don’t need a new Mummy.” Ron stomped out of the room.

“Hello, I am Jake.” The tall stranger bent down.

Rhea stared at him unblinkingly. “I am 6 years old and I also don’t want a new Daddy.”

“Fair enough. Maybe you would like a new friend?”

“I don’t make friends easily.” She warned.

“Great! I do. So let’s play a game shall we?”

“Game?”

“A game to see who wins – you at not making friends or me at making friends.” Jake held up his hand.

Intrigued and almost reflexively, Rhea gave him a high five. “Game on!” She grinned at him confident of winning.

“Aha!” Jake pointed a finger at her, his eyes twinkling. “Be careful, you are smiling; you could lose the game.”

Rhea hurriedly straightened her expression but it slipped. She pressed her lips and turned away. “I am going to my room Mummy.” She cast Jake a sidelong glance.

Jake grinned. “I am going to win just you wait.”

Rhea stalked off with her nose in the air. She spoilt it by turning back to check if Jake was looking at her. He winked. She giggled and ran off.

Rhea was in a fix – she liked Jake but she didn’t want a new Daddy. Neither did she want a new brother.

But where was he?

Rhea peeked into the guest room. Ah, there he was, glued to his PSP.

She pushed the door open. He ignored her. Encouraged, she entered. “You are staying in this room?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“That means you are just a guest.” Rhea’s voice dripped with satisfaction.

Ron sent her a withering glance.

Unfazed Rhea carried on. “Where’s your Mummy? Is she also a pilot?”

Ron glared. “My Mummy is dead do you understand? Like your father is dead.”

“My father is not dead. His airplane got lost and he can’t find his way back. When I grow up I am going to be a pilot. I will find him and bring him back.”

“Don’t be a fool. Your father is dead. He can never come back.”

“When I become a pilot, I will hunt for your Mummy too.”

“Get out of my room leave me alone.” He slammed the door on her face.

Rhea knocked on the door until he opened the door. “What?” he snarled.

“My Daddy isn’t dead. He is playing hide and seek with me. He is doing this to make me to eat. I try very hard but I still can’t eat. No matter how hard I try, it all comes out. That’s why Daddy is still hiding from me. But he can’t hide forever can he? Did your Mummy play hide and seek with you?”

Ron’s throat worked. “No. She used to tell me stories. After I finished my homework.”

“Did you do your homework?”

“No.”

“Oh but then that will only make her angrier. Maybe if you did your homework…”

“Stop talking nonsense will you?”

“Mummy also tells stories. Shall I ask her to tell you…?”

“No! I don’t want your Mummy to tell me a story. Go away and leave me alone.”

“I also know many stories. Shall I tell you a story?”

“Of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty? No thanks.” He turned his back to her. But then he turned around again and burst out. “Just becoming a pilot won’t help. When people die they become stars. And pilots can’t reach the stars. But what would you know?” He scoffed.

She stood there beaten, but only for a moment. “Astronauts can reach the stars. I will become a pilot and you become an astronaut. Together we will find them.” She clapped her hands. “This is better than hide and seek.”

“Get out.” Ron pushed her out and closed the door.

She looked up to find Jake staring at her.

“Give him time.” Jake said. “Like you he also takes time to make friends.” He grinned. “Not like me.”

Rhea turned away but he called out. “I was just going to eat mangoes and then plant the seeds.”

Rhea stopped.

“Would you like to help me?”

Rhea nodded.

“Great! Let me call Ron as well.”

Gia peeped in to see all three of them, elbow deep in mango, peels on one side, and seeds on the other.

“Ready to plant some seeds?”

“Yay, let’s go!” Rhea scrambled up from her chair and ran out into the garden. The others followed sedately.

It was hot, sunny, and messy but a lot of fun. There were five seeds and each planted one.

“Let’s plant the last one together,” suggested Jake. So, with great enthusiasm (Rhea) and a show of reluctance (Ron), the last seed was planted rather ceremoniously.

“Well well! Just look at all of us!” Jake laughed. Rhea looked down at herself. There was no denying it she was the muddiest of the lot. “Oh! It will take ages to clean up. And Mummy will scold me for dirtying the bathroom.” She pouted.

“Hmm.” Jake tapped his cheek thoughtfully. “Let me see. How about this?” He picked up the hose and swung it towards her bare mud-caked legs. Rhea squealed and jumped. He leaned towards her. “Come on now it’s Ron’s turn.”

Rhea’s eyes widened. She grabbed the hosepipe and together they sprayed Ron top to toe. He gave a yell and jumped into fray and soon it was a free for all session, even Gia wasn’t spared. Shrieks, screams and laughter cascaded over them in healing waves.

Rhea was sporting enough to accept defeat and accept Jake as her friend if not her Daddy. Ron remained aloof and insisted on maintaining his distance. But that didn’t stop Rhea from pestering him. She would wait impatiently for him to return from school and then sit with him while he had his lunch. She would weave exotic and far-fetched plans to bring back her Daddy and his Mummy quite oblivious of his silence and rejection.

Until one day she didn’t come to sit with him.

Restless, Ron sought her out. He found her curled up in her chair, clutching her Daddy’s picture.

“What happened?” His voice was gruff.

“You were right. My Daddy and your Mummy are dead. They have gone away to a place where no pilot can go.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“How do you know?”

“My teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told her I wanted to be a pilot so that I could bring back my Daddy. She…she laughed at me.” She sobbed. “The…the whole c…class laughed at me. Nobody can bring back my Daddy or your Mummy.” Rhea was quite inconsolable.

Ron stood there feeling the familiar helpless rage creep up on him. “Of course you can’t. Didn’t I tell you that long ago? But don’t worry when I grow up I will become an astronaut. I will bring back my Mummy and your Daddy.”

Rhea’s tears dried miraculously. “Really? Promise?”

Ron looked at her with foreboding. “Only if you don’t nag me. And you can’t tell anyone about this. It has to be our secret.”

Rhea nodded. “Cross my heart and hope to die. And I promise I wont even come and sit with you when you have lunch.”

Ron coughed. “You can sit if you like. I don’t mind.”

Rhea threw her arms around Ron. He let her hug him before pushing her away with a ferocious frown. She dimpled at him. She had another friend! He would bring her Daddy back. She skipped away to her Mummy.

“Why are you packing Mummy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Yes we are soon going away from here Rhea.”

“Where? To Daddy?”

“No, to a new house.”

“But why Mummy? What about our mango tree? The one we all planted?”

Gia shrugged. “We are now shifting to Bangalore where my new job is.”

“All of us?”

“No just us. You didn’t want a new Daddy or a new brother…”

“That was before Mummy. Santa was right. I…I like my new Daddy. Ron too.”

“It’s too late now. They are also leaving.”

And today Ron was gone. Jake too. They would never return, just like her Daddy. Ron would grow up and forget his promise. He would find his Mummy but not her Daddy. She clutched her pillow to crush out the pain in her chest. Ron was just a little boy but how could Jake do this to her? Hadn’t he said they were friends forever?

A paper fluttered. She picked it up. A smiley stared up at her holding a placard –Friends forever. And underneath it was a phone number.

Rhea’s heart gave a leap. Jake hadn’t really gone away. She could phone him anytime!

But…but why hadn’t Daddy left his phone number? Daddy was mean. So was Mummy.

“Mummy, you are mean too. You let Daddy go. And now you let my new Daddy and new brother go too. This time for Christmas I am going to ask Santa for a new Mummy.”

***

Yup, this one didn’t make the list either  – how about you telling me what you think – the good, the bad and the ugly…

But on a positive note – my blogger friend Ramya won the first prize for this prompt 🙂 My heartiest congratulations to her! If you like, you can hop over to her blog for some awesome stories.

Click here for more Short Stories or here for more information About the Blog

 

Love Jihad

The sixth short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

Author Prompt

“Love Jihad

Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.

Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?

She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.

Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”

Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her?” by Madhuri Bannerjee  (For more about the contest/rules click here).

 

Love Jihad

Syed and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love. But love happens when you least expect it. It creeps up suddenly. When someone needs attention, care, conversation, laughter and maybe even intimacy. Love doesn’t look at logic, or at backgrounds and least of all, religion.

Gayatri was from a very conservative South Indian family that went to a temple every Saturday. Syed bought goats for his family every Eid. That said it all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if destiny chose our loved ones for us. Did we have any role to play at all?

She looked at her watch. Syed was late. They met every Thursday at five pm to catch up. Their conversation lasted for hours. Sometimes at the cafe, sometimes in his car, sometimes in places that she could never tell her friends about. They would never understand. And yet Syed made her happy.

Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”

Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her? Had he talked to his parents? What had they said? Was he coming to break off with her? What else could he do? Even her parent would never accept their illicit love.

No! Love could never be illicit.

Yet Gayatri couldn’t see the way out. She shuddered – how could she choose between her parents and her love? Or expect him to? So where did that leave them? Nowhere unless they ran away, leaving their parents to face the brunt of societal ire and agony of betrayal. But they couldn’t do that could they? The knots in her stomach tightened and she struggled for composure.

“Hi!” Syed broke into her thoughts as he slid into the seat opposite her. Heart thudding, she stared at him. She wished she could throw herself into his arms and let them close out the world. She didn’t need anything, anyone, hysteria bubbled up within her. “Where the hell have you been?” She couldn’t help herself. “I have been waiting and waiting. Worrying about us, and on top of it you are so late…”

Syed reached out and put a finger on her lips. “Shush. How can a doctor berate another doctor for being late? I was busy saving lives dammit!” He winked as he pressed a quick kiss on her clenched fist.

Gayatri stilled. Her eyes fluttered as she involuntarily cast a look around the cafe. What was wrong with him? He was not one for public displays of affection. And the look in his eyes! She flushed a beetroot red – yet the world, the society faded into the background. It was just them.

“What important thing?”

He clasped her hand. “Will you marry me?”

Her fingers tightened involuntarily on his. “Are you crazy? What about…”

“Look what Ammi sent.” He opened a box. “Her engagement ring. With her blessings.” He took it out and slid it on her finger. “It fits!” he gave her hand a tight squeeze before releasing it and leaning back into his seat. “I need a coffee!” He signaled for two cups and grinned at her. “What’s the matter?” His voice was innocent. “Don’t like the ring or don’t want to marry me?” He waggled his eyes at her looking smug and confident.

Gayatri worried the ring on her finger which felt odd yet right. “It’s not so simple Syed and you know it.”

“Don’t be so negative Gayatri!” He chided her. “Ammi agreed didn’t she? Your Amma too will.” He cast her a knowing look. “Once you gather the guts to talk to her of course.” He paused as the waiter placed their order. “Or should I…”

“Stop it Syed!” Gayatri was irritated. “One swallow does not a summer make. Just because your mother agreed doesn’t mean anything. What about your father? What about the others?” She looked away. “Does your mother know that I wont change my religion?”

“She does.”

“And?”

He shrugged. “And nothing. I told you she is okay with this marriage. She has given her blessings and taken responsibility for convincing my father, the others. You manage your family.”

Gayatri shook her head. “I don’t believe you. How could she agree? She doesn’t even know me.”

Syed smiled. “But she knows me!”

“Oh stop treating this as some kind of a joke dammit!”

“First you stop making it into a Laila-Majnu tragedy. For your information, this is the 21st Century.”

Gayatri clenched her fists. “Syed, I…”

“Okay!” He raised his hands. “Look, how about you meet my mother and see for yourself?”

Two days later, she was at Syed’s house. Since Syed couldn’t get leave, she was here all alone, nervous and tense. But Syed had assured her of a warm welcome. “I promise you will love her.”

Yeah, right.

“Come in dear. You are Gayatri aren’t you?” A beaming elegant middle-aged lady opened the door. “I am Ayesha, Syed’s mother.

“Namaste…I mean good afternoon Ma’am.”

“Namaste, Namaste. Come in and make yourself comfortable. Don’t worry there’s just us. Here have a glass of aam panna. It’s so hot, I thought this would be refreshing.” She bustled about busily around their cozy house. She carried in a tray loaded with goodies. “No, no you sit. I had it all ready before you came so that we could chat in peace.” She sat down across her. “Here, try this.” She held out a plate of cutlets. “Don’t worry Gayatri, it’s pure vegetarian. No onion or garlic. I even used a new frying pan.”

Tears started in Gayatri’s eyes. She just couldn’t help it. She sank down on the floor beside the baffled lady, put her head on her lap and bawled like a baby.

Ayesha let her cry for a while before forcing her up. “Enough of crying now. Go and wash up, while I make a cup of tea. Or do you prefer coffee?”

The tears started again. Gayatri controlled herself with an effort. “Tea is fine.” She managed a weak smile.

“Good. Wash your face and come into the kitchen.”

“I am sorry.” Gayatri stood behind Ayesha, pleating the edge of her dupatta. “I was very stressed and worried, you were so kind, so accepting.” she choked. “My parents…” She broke off.

“Have you talked to them?”

Gayatri shook her head. “I know they will never agree.”

Ayesha was silent, intent on the pan of boiling water.

Gayatri reached out and turned off the gas.

Ayesha started and busied herself with the tea. “Strange, how our past comes back to haunt us at the most unexpected of ways,” mused Ayesha with a twisted smile. “You could be me, three decades ago.”

“I don’t understand.”

Ayesha wore a faraway look. “When I was about your age, I was madly desperately in love with Indrajit, my childhood friend, classmate and constant companion.”

Gayatri stared.

“Nobody stopped us from playing together and we didn’t even know when we fell in love. And by then it was too late. Yet, marriage was out of the question.” Ayesha paused. “Actually, that is my greatest regret. That we didn’t even ask our parents – who knows what they would have said?”

She strained the tea and allowed Gayatri to carry the tray to the sitting room.

“What happened?”

Ayesha shrugged. “The usual. I cried, he cried. He got married. I got married and we both got on with our lives.” She smiled. “You know, you are the first person I have ever told this to. Nobody else knows, not Syed, nor his father.”

“And that is why you agreed to let your son marry me.” It was a statement not a question.

“Yes, perhaps.” An odd expression flitted across her face.

“What?” Gayatri asked.

“Indrajit has a daughter. Her name is Gayatri.”

Gayatri’s eyes widened.

Ayesha smiled. “When Syed told me, I took it as a sign, a gentle rebuke if I may call it that. I shouldn’t have given up so easily then. It was time to make amends. If not me, at least my son could have the happiness that I couldn’t.” She reached out and clasped Gayatri’s hand. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t give up so easily. Talk to your parents. At least you would have tried.”

Gayatri nodded. “Yes I will. Thank you,” she hesitated, “Ammi.”

Ayesha enfolded her in a warm embrace. “Bless you my dear. If it is meant to be, it will happen. But you have to at least try.”

Armed with these words, Gayatri took the bull by its horns and confronted her parents.

“Amma, Appa can I talk to you?”

“Yes?” Her father muted the TV and shot a look at his wife who shrugged.

“I…I love this guy and we want to get married.” She paled and her breath hitched in her throat but she gritted her teeth and continued, “his name is Syed.”

“You want to marry a meat eating scoundrel!” There was a crash as the remote hit the TV screen. Gayatri’s mother shot to her feet and slapped her. “Over my dead body.”

Gayatri’s neck snapped and she put a hand to her bruised cheek. But she held her ground. “Please Appa, he is not a scoundrel. He is also a doctor, senior to me, well-settled, good family, even his mother has agreed. And I won’t have to change my religion, eat meat…”

“Meenakshi,” roared Ravi, “tell that girl to shut up or I will murder her right now.”

“Appa,” stunned, Gayatri pleaded, “listen to me please. Just meet him once…”

Ravi strode off and returned brandishing a knife.

“Ravi!”

“Appa!”

They ran towards him but he waved them away. “One step forward and I will slash my wrists,” he positioned the knife. “Gayatri, do you swear never to talk about this thing again? Swear, otherwise I will kill myself.” He lowered the knife over his wrist.

“Appa please don’t, Appa,” Gayatri was weeping hysterically while her equally panic stricken mother berated her, “What are waiting for you wicked girl? Promise him! Promise him before he hurts himself. Gayatri does your father’s life mean nothing to you? You ungrateful wretch,” her mother shook her till her teeth rattled. “Is this why we brought you up, so that you could make us the laughing stock of our society? Is this any way to repay your parents’ debt?”

“Appa please just listen to me…

“Gayatri, I am asking you one last time.” Ravi touched the knife to his wrist and began slashing motions.

“Appa!” Gayatri shrieked. “I promise Appa, I promise. But let me meet him once, just once to explain, please Appa.”

“Fine.” Ravi nodded. “Only once. And you can invite him to your wedding next Saturday.” He threw the knife down and walked off.

“Amma! What is this about my wedding? To whom and so quickly?”

“To the first guy your father approves of, what else.” Meenaskhi too flounced out of the room.

***

“Please try and understand Syed,” a tearful Gayatri pleaded as Syed turned his back upon her, “please don’t ask me to choose you over my parents. I wouldn’t be able to live with being the cause of…”

Syed turned back and squeezed her hands before releasing them. “I am not. I am just trying to accept the situation.” His throat worked.

“What else can we do?” Gayatri said dully. “Nothing has changed in three decades.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Gayatri shook her head. “Appa fixed my wedding. I have no choice but to go ahead with it. You also get married and forget that…” She wept bitter tears for one last time in his arms.

“You do what you think is right and I will do what I think is right.” His voice was cold and implacable.

“Wh…what do you mean?”

“I will never marry anyone other than you.”

“Syed!” her voice was a mere whisper. “Please don’t do this! I will die of guilt. You should at least try to move on.”

“I cannot, Gayatri. I cannot spoil a fourth person’s life. Please do not ask me to.”

“Syed…”

“Goodbye my love.” Syed pulled her into his arms and pressed a fierce kiss on her lips. “Remember that I will always wait for you.” The next instant, he was gone.

“Syed.” Gayatri wept bitter tears. For one wild moment she contemplated jumping off the nearest high rise building – anything to be rid of this deep agonizing excruciating unbearable pain. But then her phone rang.

“Yes Appa, I told him. He has gone. Yes, Appa, I am coming home.”

True to her word, Gayatri didn’t contact Syed. Yet she couldn’t prevent herself from calling Ayesha.

“How is he?”

“How do you think? Completely shattered.” Ayesha was short.

Guilt smote Gayatri. “Please don’t be like that! I thought you would understand. I didn’t have a choice!”

“I disagree.” Ayesha’s voice was hard. “There is always a choice. You made yours. You chose your father over my son. Your father is alive. My son…” She choked.

Gayatri flared up. “How can you blame me, when you also took a similar decision?”

“That wasn’t my decision. It was Indrajit’s. He was too cowardly to face societal ire. I was ready to brave anything but he backed out.” Her voice broke. “And now you. I hope you are happy Gayatri.” She disconnected the phone.

Gayatri broke down – it wasn’t fair! She screamed silently and not for the first time. Why should so many lives be shattered because of the outdated dictates of some faceless, unknown ‘society’?

Taking no chances, Gayatri was married off to Ramesh at the next auspicious date in a quiet private ceremony followed by a gala reception. Society turned out in large droves to bless the happy couple, gush over the ostentatious arrangements and gorge on the lavish spread. Ravi and Meenakshi beamed from ear to ear as they basked in the glory of their appreciation. They heaved a sigh of relief and carried on with their lives.

A few days later, Gayatri burst into her parents’ home and threw up in the washroom.

“What the hell!” Ravi thundered. “I will kill you.” He grabbed a still retching Gayatri by the throat and shook her like a ragged doll.

“Are you crazy?” Meenakshi threw herself into the fray and dragged Gayatri away.

Meenakshi slapped her hard. “Get out you shameless woman. I never should have brought you home from the orphanage.”

Gayatri stilled as the penny dropped.

“And yet you didn’t let me marry Syed?”

“You ungrateful wretch!” Ravi charged at her.

Gayatri held up her hand. “Relax. I am not pregnant.” She looked Ravi full in the eye and said, “I threw up because Ramesh, your beloved son-in-law, insisted that I eat meat.”

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