Rajani stared at him with mixed feelings. The walls stopped closing in on her. She felt she could breathe. But dare she believe him? What if it was an act? But sleep deprivation could make people act in weird ways, she remembered reading somewhere. Should she give him the benefit of doubt? What other option did she have?
“It’s okay,” she mumbled after a long time.
“Are you ready?” He asked.
“Are you going to wear that?” He looked at her jeans and Tshirt. “Mummy?”
“No no. Of course not. Beta, this is your first visit home with your husband. You should look like a bride not like a schoolgirl right? We don’t have any objections to jeans and decent tops but there is a time and place for everything. Who knows how many people are there at home to welcome you? What will they think if they see you like this? Remember you represent our family name. You have to hold up the family name and honor.”
“Yes Mummy,” Rajani said meekly, “We were traveling so I thought…”
“I understand beta, it’s all very new and different isn’t it? Come let me help you choose something. Hari can load the luggage until then. How about this sari?”
“Sari? Oh I couldn’t!” Rajani baulked at the thought of traveling in a sari. “I have never…”
Sunaina laughed. “Have you ever been married? There’s always a first time.”
“Couldn’t I wear a suit?”
“Wear a sari,” Harsha made his views clear, “it’s what every bride wears.”
“Not every bride!” Rajani protested.
Harsha’s face darkened.
Sunaina stepped in. “Don’t worry beta, I will help you wear the sari and pin it up so well that you’ll be as comfortable as in jeans.”
“But I have never traveled…” Rajani whined.
“You’ve got to make a start someday? May as well do so today!” She smiled. “You will make everybody very happy.”
Trapped, Rajani gave in. She allowed her MIL to drape the sari, “You know Harsha used to help me drape my sari. He’s very good at making the pleats. I would have asked him but I knew you wouldn’t be comfortable with him, so I didn’t say anything.”
Thank you Bhagwanji.
Relieved and grateful at being saved that experience, Rajani submitted to the thick make up and jewelry overload. But she drew the line at broad end-to-end sindoor.
“Please Mummyji…” Horrified, she burst out but clammed up when she caught Harsha’s glare in the mirror.
“Come on come on, you are getting late,” Sunaina hustled her, “Oh my dear Rani, you are looking lovely! Let me put a black mark – people are bound to give you the evil look.”
Whoever gave an evil eye to a cartoon?
Rajani gritted her teeth and subsided, simmering with resentment and embarrassment.
She was going to be the laughing stock of the entire population between Delhi and Chandigarh.
To make matters worse, hordes of people came to see them the newly wedded couple ceremonially. Harsha nudged her to touch their feet – all their feet.
She rebelled at the enforced bowing and scraping – was she their minion or slave? She ranted, conveniently forgetting that Harsha too joined her in the bowing and scraping.
She got into the car with poor grace.
Her obvious displeasure ruffled Harsha’s barely settled feathers. “What’s the matter?”
“Then why are you behaving like a spoilt annoying brat?”
“What! I am a spoilt annoying brat! You are the one who…”
“I apologized. Haven’t we moved on?”
“I thought we had but clearly we still live in the middle ages.” Rajani fumed.
“Touching the feet of elders is tradition. Their blessings is priceless…”
“It’s not just that! Can’t you see this?” She pointed to her overflowing parting.
“What? Sindoor? All married women wear it.”
“Thick like a bloody river?”
“Is this anyway to speak? Is this what your parents…?”
“Don’t bring my parents into this! I wasn’t cursing. I was telling you. I don’t like walking around displaying my private life for all to see.”
“That’s good. You can start by not wearing such a sulky tragic look.” He stared out of the window.
The driver obligingly turned up the volume of the radio.
Rajani fumed. The memory of the last two days came rushing back. Nobody, nobody had ever spoken to her like this. Not Papa, not Bhai, not her teachers, nobody. She didn’t even know people could speak to other people like that! How mean and unkind they could be.
She would tell her parents and be done with him. She had done what they wanted and now it was time they listened to her. They loved her. They would never allow her to stay in such a place where she was humiliated and insulted at every turn.
“Drape the pallu over your head.”
“What?” Surprised she turned to him. It had been hours since they had spoken. Not even when they had stopped for refreshments. Rajani had been starving but he ordered just tea and looked so forbidding that she didnt dare say anything. Until she remembered her MIL had thrust a packet into her hands. She unwrapped it to find sandwiches. She took a piece and left it on the seat. He could take if he wanted. She wasn’t going to offer him.
He ignored the sandwich. She munched on hers which turned to sawdust. She swallowed with difficult. She held it up to him. After several seconds, he deigned to accept a piece.
Another put down.
“Drape the pallu over your head.”
“Why should I?”
“Didn’t you hear what Mummy said? You are a bahu and you should look it.”
“I hardly look anything else,” Rajani shot back as she held out her arms encased up to her elbows in the wedding chura, she pointed to her sindoor, “what more do you want?”
“The pallu on your head.”
“On your head, otherwise I am not getting down from the car. It’s your choice, you want to create a scene, go ahead.”
Seething Rajani glared at him and turned away. She wouldn’t cover her head no matter what. She gritted her teeth.
But her heart quailed. Was he bluffing? What if he didn’t get down from the car? What would everybody think?
She shot him a covert look. He was unconcerned. It was as if she didn’t exist. He took out his phone and busied himself with it.
Two could play at the same game. She looked out of the window.
Excitement curled at the bottom of her tummy. Home was just around the corner. Oh how she wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms and bawl her heart out.
Her mother was at the door, all decked up and bearing the aarti thaal, just like in the movies. Her father and brother too stood in attendance as if waiting for the King’s arrival. A few neighbors also hung around curious to see her groom, or perhaps her – in her new avatar.
Rajani slowly drew the pallu over her head and got down from the car. Harsha was still inside. Her heart sank. Wasn’t he going to get down? Her father and brother rushed to open his door.
“Namaste,” He opened the door before they could. He properly bent down to touch their feet. He looked at Rajani and indicated that she should follow suit. Rajani pretended not to notice. They were her parents, this was her home, and she could what she wanted. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to give in and put the pallu over her head?
“Mrs Goel!” Shikha hurtled down the lawn from her home.
Rajani wanted to cry. Her eyes glittered and she clenched her fists.
Kirti followed, albeit sedately. Panting and eyes sparkling, Shikha waited impatiently for Nisha to finish her traditional welcome of the bride and groom. She pounced on her the moment Nisha was done, “Oho the brand new bride! Let me look at you! You look beautiful sari? Oh these churas look so nice! I am going to wear mine for a year.” She giggled.
“You have no idea how uncomfortable they are,” the words slipped out and instantly all eyes bored into her.
“What?” she shrugged defiantly, “it’s the truth.”
“You shouldn’t say such things Rani beta,” her mother castigated her, “it’s ill-omen.”
“Come inside,” Suryakant ushered Harsha in, “hope you had a comfortable journey. Would you like to rest or…”
“I am starving Mummy,” Rajani rubbed her growling tummy, “I haven’t eaten anything for ages.”
“Yes yes beta, of course. Freshen up, show Harsha your room, I’ll lay the table.”
“Bhai can show him, he is taking the luggage in any case…” She began opening jars and lifting lids looking for goodies to eat.
“Rani!” Her mother hissed, “go with your husband, it’s a new place for him. Make him comfortable…”
“Why should I? He goes out of his way to make me uncomfortable…”
“Rani!” her mother gasped a hand to her heart, “Are things not fine?”
“Fine?” Rajani gave a bitter laugh.
Shikha was back.
Rajani frowned. She turned to her with hands on her hips. “Where did you disappear?”
Shikha giggled. “Amu called.”
“Amu called.” Rajani mocked. “What about me? We meet after so many days and yet you run after him?”
“What to do Rajji? He is my life, my very breath, without him I am barely alive…”
Rajani gagged. “I hope you are joking Shikhs!”
“No! Not at all,” Shikha swore, “I can’t wait to be his bride, wear the sindoor that proclaims me as his for all to see…”
“Rubbish! If I had my way I wouldn’t wear any of these symbols of bondage. They constantly mock me and remind me I am now Mrs Goel.”
“Mrs Rajani Goel.” Shikha smiled.
“No. Rajani was burnt alive at the mandap.
Click here for the next chapter: Harsha at Home