The week flew by and Shikha too flew off to be with her husband. But even though Amu was overjoyed, Shikha’s happiness was marred by the fact that her MIL insisted on accompanying her. How could Shikha cross the seven seas on her own? No, no, she couldn’t allow it. If something happened to Shikha, Amar would never forgive her. So leaving the comfort of her home, leaving the responsibility of her kingdom to another, she took this extreme step for the happiness of her son and of course bahu. Besides, what did Shikha know about running a home? Nothing. She had little choice but to go along, show her the ropes and help her set up home and standards. Since Shikha was a slow and reluctant learner, it took Biji more than six months to train Shikha and to tell the truth, she was only half-trained before Biji was forced to cut short her visit as her daughter was expecting and needed her mother.
Busy with her new family, home and country, Shikha didn’t get much time to contact her friend. It wasn’t that she didn’t miss her, there were times when all she wanted was to pour out her guts to Rajani but it was never the right time. She would store it up to share later and later became later and later. Besides how much could one talk with husband and MIL in the same room? Time zones and expenses were an additional hurdle. One time constant companions indulged in occasional stilted polite conversations, which became more and more infrequent.
Rajani continued to focus on academics and not surprisingly she topped her class and went from strength to strength. On the home front things continued to be volatile and flared up ever so often.
Rekha delivered a bonny baby boy and Rajani went over to join the celebrations and ceremonies at her father insistence.
“Everyone is going to be there. What will they think? No, no I cannot allow it. You must come and do your duties as the bahu of the family.”
“But Papa, Harsha never said anything to me, neither did Mummyji. They know I don’t have any leave.”
“They are very considerate people. They didn’t want to disturb you. Sunainji let slip something and I really feel you should be here.”
“What did she say?”
“That’s not important beta. You are needed and expected here. I am sending the tickets. Take one day leave or just bunk college and be here.”
How things had changed! How many times had she heard her father shout at Abhi, scold him for bunking college while he was in Chandigarh? Once, he had even thrashed him.
Rajani felt strange – nothing was sacrosanct, or absolute. Not friendship, not guiding principles, what else was in store?
Rajani ended up flying out for the naamkaran ceremony. It was a whirlwind trip where Rajani spent more time travelling than at home. She barely got a glimpse of the baby for there was much to be done at home. So many guests, so many mouths to feed, so many cups of tea to be served over and over again, puris to be fried, utensils to be washed, guests to be greeted, feet to be touched, questions to be answered, shopping to be done, gifts to be presented. Every muscle, every joint screeched their protest, even her cheeks hurt from all the smiling and talking.
Rajani soaked up the silence of her hostel room. Thank God that was over. She could go back to her beloved studies.
Until it was Teej, Diwali, Lori, Holi, Rakhi, Karwa Chauth.
People asked her how she could bear to be away from her family but if truth were told, she never felt she was away from their clutches. They were constantly breathing down her back, via texts, phone calls and the mandatory family Skype calls. She felt crowded and cornered; only during classes and late at night while the world slept, did she breathe easy and lose herself in reassuring world of Mr Mathematics.
Every visit home was a roller coaster ride and before she had recovered from one she was thrust upon another. Diwali was a big occasion to exchange gifts and sweets, as was Karwa Chauth. Every festival that Rajani attended seemed to be centered around malls and involved shopping and more shopping. And then showing off while partying till late at night.
But the worst was probably Holi.
Holi was a non-event at the Ahujas – something to be sneered at and peered at from the safety of barred doors and windows. Not for them the mixing with the riff raff, getting wet and dirty. Each year, on Holi, Nisha would ritually put a teeka on each of them. And they would decorously do the same and share sweets before tuning to Holi songs on the TV. Distracted and lured by the shouts and shrieks of fun and frolic, Rajani would at times sneak off to peer through the cracks and wonder at their enjoyment. This was one festival where not even Shikha (a Holi buff) could lure her out. Shikha had tried several the tricks and baits but they had all failed. When they were about 12 years old, Shikha had come up with an elaborate plan but that had only made matters worse and antagonized Rajani once and for all.
“Rajji!” Shikha called from outside where she stood with a jug.
“Go away!” Rajani slammed the door.
“Hey! Open the door!” Shikha banged the door. “I just want water.”
“Why?” Rajani was suspicious. “Don’t you have water at home?”
“No! That’s the problem. We don’t even have drinking water. Can you give some?” She held up the jug.
Rajani looked at her mother, who nodded. Rajani ran to the kitchen and took out a bottle from the refrigerator and poured it into Shikha’s jug.
Shikha promptly emptied the colored water onto Rajani’s head. “Happy Holi!”
Rajani gasped with the shock of the ice-cold water. She shrieked and screamed and pummeled Shikha. She caught a terrible cold and was in bed with fever for about a week sealing her dislike of the festival.
And as fate would have it, Goels, on the other hand waited whole year for that one festival which was no-holds barred. Everyone and everything was fair game on Holi and the messier, dirtier it was the better it was. The entire extended family of the Goels would get together the night before, do Puja, burn Holika, play tambola whole night long and vie with each other to be the first one to play with colors. The first year Rajani missed her tryst with the Goel Holi but the second year she wasn’t so lucky. Harsha hinted and Suryakant sent the tickets.
Harsha picked her up from the airport and drove her home.
But not before a welcome spat at airport.
“What the hell are you wearing?” He blasted the moment he laid his eyes on her.
“What?” Rajani looked down at her jeans and full sleeves top. “I am covered from top to toe.”
“Don’t you know there are guests at home? What will they think? Go and change.” He ordered.
“Change?” Rajani looked at him stupidly.
“Yes change. I presume you have an Indian dress in that bag of yours? Now go and change.” Harsha crossed his arms and frowned ferociously.
Rajani gritted her teeth and went off to change, thankful that she did have something suitable in her bag.
“Where’s your bindi?”
Rajani shrugged, feeling a malicious pleasure. “I don’t have one.”
Harsha stepped on the accelerator and drove off. Rajani clutched the seat to steady herself. Her heart thumped. He looked furious. He took a detour through the market. He stopped the car and said, “Go and buy bindi and some bangles as well.”
Rajani stared at him disbelievingly. “It’s late! Most of the shops have shut and I don’t like the look of this market. I am not getting down.”
“FINE! We’ll just sit here then.”
Click here for the next chapter: Unholy Days II