People were standing up around her, call her name, clapping while she made her way to the stage. She reached out to accept the Certificate of Distinction being awarded but somebody jostled her. Try, as much as could, she couldn’t get her hands on the coveted certificate. The intensity of jostling increased and was that a pinch? With a squeak she sat up and caught a glimpse of Harsha vanishing into the crowd that had gathered in the room. She hurriedly slid under the covers and attempted to smoothen her hair, which she was sure was standing up on end.
Who were all these people? What were they doing here?
A clamor rose. “The bride is awake! Let us have a look at her!”
Rajani huddled further down in the bed. She wasn’t even dressed!
“Not fair! Not like this!” Sunaina exclaimed over the din. “There will be a proper Munh Dikhai ceremony. Please wait outside while the bride freshens up.” She escorted them out.
Harsha reappeared. “What the hell! People are here and you are sleeping?”
“Y…your mother, I mean Mummyji only told me to rest.” Rajani defended herself.
“Mummy said the proper thing and you should have also done the proper thing!”
“But she told me to rest. I just closed my eyes and I must have dozed off. You should have woken…”
“I tried to do that! But you sleep like the dead…”
“Shush! Don’t use such inauspicious words today,” Sunaina scolded her son. She took a look at Rajani’s ashen face and glared at Harsha, “Have you been scolding her again?”
“Nothing.” He vanished.
Sunaina sighed. “Don’t feel bad dear. He really is in a foul mood all because he is sleepy. I told him to go to sleep but he refused and now he’s probably feeling jealous of you!” she laughed.
Tears rolled down Rajani’s cheeks.
“Now, now don’t cry beta. Everybody is waiting for a glimpse of the bahu. Hurry, there’s no time to mope or cry. Come on get ready. I will help you. Go on take a quick shower. I’ll take out your dress and jewelry – the pink one right?” She turned to look at Rajani who was still standing there. “What happened? Harsha will be back…” Rajani disappeared and was out in record time dripping wet and shivering. She had forgotten to take the towel.
Sunaina clucked and continued her fussing and ministrations. And a good thing too for Rajani felt frozen, emotionally and physically. She stood docilely almost in a daze as Sunaina draped her and decked her out all the while keeping up a steady prattle. For all her solicitous concern and care, Rajani couldn’t help the intense irritation that she evoked. She just couldn’t connect to her. She was like a pesky fly that reappeared no matter how much it was batted away. But she was grateful to her. Even in her dulled state of mind, a deep instinct for self-preservation told her that if there was anyone in this house who had the least bit of consideration for her, it was her MIL.
“Mummy!” Rekha barged in, “Isnt she ready? Everyone is getting restless. Breakfast is over and now they want to go off home…”
“Yes, yes we are coming! Come along Rani dear.” She pulled the pallu over her head, completely obstructing her view. She was then led ceremonially into the other room. The gathered women burst into a raucous discordant folk song, “Who is she?” a childish treble rose over the racket. A tiny hand slipped into hers and peered up at her face under the veil.
Tears started in Rajani’s eyes – wasn’t it just the other day when she had gone along with Shikha to see the new bride at Biji’s village? Was this how she had felt? Thrown off the boat, thrashing and gasping in the high seas.
Rajani was seated on a low stool and one by one the ladies came forward to pass their judgment over her color, nose or whatever caught their fancy as if she couldn’t hear. Or perhaps they wanted her to hear. The gifts were swiftly gathered and shifted elsewhere. Not that Rajani cared. They could take everything she had for a moment of silence, solitude sleep.
But there was no respite, she was supposed to cook her first meal, serve food, smile, pose for photographs and touch the feet of elders, which included pretty much everybody. By the end of it, her back was on fire and her legs were trembling. The nausea was back with a vengeance and her head throbbed. Despair settled over her like a thick blanket and threatened to suffocate her. It was just the first day – how would she last a lifetime?
A couple of hours of sleep in the evening were all that came her way for sleep eluded her much of the night. Her MIL and SIL were huge snorers. Sandwiched between them on a not so big bed Rajani didn’t find it all that funny this time around. Shikha I miss you. I miss you Mamma. She wept silently and dropped off only in the early hours of the morning.
That it self set off another cascade of events. She woke up late. Harsha made his displeasure very clear. And then she dropped the saucepan of tea over her foot. This was the first time making tea for 20 people. Straining the tea while wearing a sari with the pallu draped over her head was too much for her non-existent domestic skills. She set up a massive screech and the entire house in uproar.
Everyone fussed over her while Harsha glowered and growled like he was the one injured. Nobody paid any attention to him but Rajani cowered under the waves of animosity that pierced her through the layers of concerned people surrounding her.
“What the hell are you trying to prove?” He blasted at the first opportune moment.
“Whaaaa….” Rajani looked at him dulled by pain.
“That you are being tortured by your in-laws? That we make you work like a slave? Are you going to call the police?”
“What are you saying?” Rajani gasped.
“Don’t pretend as if you don’t know what I am talking about?”
“But I don’t!” Rajani was bewildered. What was he going on about? Surely she dreaming?
“You deliberately dropped the tea over your foot so that you could complain to the police about being tortured by your in-laws.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Who knows how your evil mind works? Or was it a ploy to get out of kitchen work? Or any sort of work.”
“You are crazy!” Rajani wanted to say but her teeth were chattering She had been married off to a madman. There was no other explanation.
And he was still ranting.
“The Maharani who likes to sit or even better loll about on the bed while her in-laws ran around her fussing and feeding her tidbits.”
The pain in her foot faded into nothingness. Everything faded – there was just darkness a deep bottomless pit and Rajani was in free fall. Her mouth opened to scream but no sound came out.
“Rani beta,” her MIL came in holding her phone, “talk to your mother, she’s called several times but I didn’t want to disturb you…” she took one look at Rajani and Harsha and spoke into the phone, “Nishaji, Rani is in the washroom. I will get her to call you back. No, no, she’s perfectly fine. Busy and having fun with her new family. She made lovely kheer for all of us in the morning. And now we plan to play antakshari, our favorite game. Okay bye. Yes of course I will tell Rani to call you. But don’t worry. She’s our daughter now.”
Rajani’s breath was stuck in her chest – she couldn’t breathe in or breathe out. She stared in frozen distress at her MIL.
She rushed to enfold her in her arms. “What on earth did you say to her?”
“The truth.” He was unrepentant. “Whom have you brought into the family Mummy? She doesn’t even know how to make tea!”