“It’s been so long since I went home.” Rajani said to Harsha. “Can I go home?”
“Maybe after Diwali?” Harsha agreed. “Right now there’s a lot of work at home, whitewashing and cleaning up.”
“Oh.” Rajani was disappointed. She had thought of going during Diwali, to celebrate with her entire family, Bhai duj with her brother. “I was thinking of Bhai duj…”
“I know but Rekha would be mad at me for missing it. You go on ahead, I…”
“No, no.” Rajani protested. “We’ll go together. Whenever that may be.” In any case, she knew her father would object to her spending Diwali at Chandigarh. As would her mother. No point in insisting, getting her way and then having it vetoed.
The next few days were a blur as rooms were emptied, workers tramped in and out of the house, Rajani made gallons of tea, sifted though jars, bottles, bags and odds and ends. The kitchen was spic and span. It was time for the bedrooms. Today hers would be done, tomorrow they would attack her in-laws room.
“Rani beta,” Sunaina called, “get some newspaper for the cupboards will you?”
“Yes Mummyji.” Rajani put down a bunch of newspaper.
“Take this lot,” Sunaina stripped the old newspaper from the cupboard and rolled it up. They sneezed. “Dump it in the trash bag by the kitchen door.” Sunaina instructed as she turned back.
Rajani gathered up the yellowing dusty pages and walked to the kitchen holding her breath as her nose tickled. “This trash bag is full Mummyji,” she called.
“Take out another. There’s a bundle under the sink.”
Rajani dumped her burden on the floor, which promptly unfurled and spread out all over the kitchen floor. Cursing, Rajani shook out another garbage bag and set about gingerly collecting the bits and pieces. A white envelope slipped out from between the folds of the newspaper.
What was this?
Addressed to her?
From Delhi University?
Hands shaking, she tore it open.
It was the call letter for her PhD interview.
She stared at it unable to make sense. How could this be? What was the letter doing in her mother-in-law’s cupboard?
She checked the postmark, the date on the letter. She went hot and cold. The letter was received well before the date of the interview. If she had got it on time she would now be a bona fide PhD student of DU. Had Mummyji deliberately hidden the letter?
Why would she do such a thing?
“Rani! Rani beta!” Sunaina called.
Rajani marched into the bedroom and waved the letter. “What’s this Mummyji?”
“My PhD interview letter.”
“PhD interview letter? Please Rani, there’s no time for all this. It will soon be dinner time…”
“Why did you hide my PhD letter?” Rajani’s said accusingly.
“I don’t know what you are talking about Rajani. Let’s finish sorting this out okay…”
“Why did you hide my PhD letter?”
“Oh my back is killing me. I think I am going to collapse…”
“Why did you hide my PhD letter?”
“Why are you shouting?” Harsha’s father stood at the door.
“Look at this Daddyji!” She turned to him. “My PhD interview letter.”
“She hid it.”
“Nonsense. She must have forgotten.”
“But why did she keep it in her almirah?”
“It must have gone in with some other things.”
“Why would only this letter find its way under the newspaper?” Rajani’s voice rose.
“There could be thousand explanations but I don’t see any reason why you should create such a hue and cry about it. What’s done is done,” he dismissed. “I am hungry. I want my dinner.” He turned away.
“Anybody can want dinner all they want.” Rajani too was hungry.
“First I want answers.”
“Shameless girl!” Mr Goel turned purple. “Is this any way to speak to your elders?”
Rajani waved the letter. “Is this any way for an elder to behave?” she retorted.
“Enough!” Mr Goel caught her by the arm and pushed her out of the house. “Get out. And stay out.” He slammed the door on her face.
Shivering and shaking, Rajani stood on the landing staring uncomprehendingly at the closed door.
What should she do?
Ring the bell?
She went cold. This was wrong. Terribly wrong.
If only she could go home.
If only Harsha were here.
But would he take her side or his mother’s?
She wouldn’t, couldn’t stay in this hellhole for another minute.
But where could she go?
It was dark.
She had no money.
“Hello beta.” It was the neighborhood aunty coming up the stairs. “Any problem?”
For a split second Rajani was tempted. It would be so easy to collapse in her arms, cry her heart out. But to what end? Make a public spectacle of her woes? To have people snigger and gossip about her behind her back?
“No.” Rajani mumbled brushing past her.
She ran down the stairs.
She would go home.
She had to.
But how? She didn’t have any money. Or did she? Surely she had something tucked away in some corner of her pockets left over from her myriad trips to the market?
She scrabbled around in her pockets.
A crackle. And another. What was this? A folded washed crinkled 500 Rs note. She spread it out. It would do. It would have to. She counted her money.
Would it be enough to reach Chandigarh? How did one go to Chandigarh other than by car?
Out of the question.
Where did one get tickets? Online? At the station? Which station? What time did the train leave? Questions and more questions with no answers forthcoming. Despair and helplessness tore at her.
Would she have to beg to be let back inside?
But what else could she do?
What other option did she have?
No. No. No. No.
Tears streaming down her cheeks Rajani tried to think rationally. If only Papa were here. Or Bhai. But he had also gone back to Chandigarh with Ritu and Sameer.
If only she could contact them.
She looked at the tiny marketplace down the road. The shops were mostly shut and the place deserted. She spied a medical store. She scrubbed her face into a semblance of normalcy and walked inside.
“Bhaiyya can I make a phone call?” her voice was hoarse.
“No.” He snapped.
“I can pay. Please Bhaiyya.” Tears started in her eyes. “I need to make an STD call.”
The shopkeeper looked her up and down. “STD call?” Rajani’s skin prickled at the change in tone. “We have a phone inside.” He held open the door flap. “Come in.” His voice was silky smooth.
Rajani backed away. “Th…thank you.” She fled. Where was Harsha? Why was he so late today? Surely he would come and rescue her? She stiffened.
Rescue her and take her back to that hellhole?
Every fiber of her being revolted. She couldn’t go back in there.
“Where do you want to go Madam?” An auto stopped by her side.
“The bus stop.” The words tumbled out.
“The inter-state bus station?” He nodded for her to sit.
The auto jolted and jerked taking her farther and farther away, from all that was familiar. Rajani’s heart thudded madly and a dreadful nervous excitement suffused her. She had never taken such a drastic step before. Never had she gone anywhere alone in the dark. She gripped the strap tightly.
Had she done the right thing?
What if the driver turned out to be a murderer?
Or worse – a rapist?
She closed her eyes and prayed.
Bhagwanji please, Bhagwanji please, Bhagwanji please, Bhagwanji please!
“While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.” – Stephen R. Covey