On Christmas morning, the Delhi Shatabdi rolled into the Chandigarh railway station. An excited Shikha had dragged a not so eager Rajani to the exit gate well in advance, complete with bag and baggage so as to save time later.
First they had caught the Rajdhani express train to Delhi with a stopover at Shikha’s uncle’s place and then boarded the morning Shatabdi train to Chandigarh. Shikha had been bubbling and excited over her wedding and had waxed eloquently on her plans for a gala wedding, perhaps in the hopes of tempting and infecting Rajani as well.
Even though Rajani had tried her best to play along with her friend, she had been on tenterhooks and in an agony of uncertainty throughout the journey. God only knew what awaited her – that Shikha was getting married and going away was bad enough but her getting married off to a complete stranger plagued her day and night.
As they neared Chandigarh the dread and agitation grew to gigantic proportions. Bhagwanji please convince my parents to change their stance. Please! Fear clutched her – but what if they weren’t convinced, what if they forced her, what would she do – what could she do?
“Oh look, look there’s your Papa,” Shikha waved excitedly from the train, “And there’s my Dad, Daddy!” she shrieked while Rajani did her best to prevent her friend from falling on to the Chandigarh railway platform or worse, under the train’s wheels. “At least let me go now?” Shikha protested laughingly and jolted Rajani out of her morbid thoughts, “The train has stopped, can’t you see?”
Rajani let go of her arm and jumped down from the train as well. Shikha’s driver came up at a run to get their luggage while the girls ran to greet their fathers.
“Hello Suri Uncle, hello Papa,” mumbled Rajani as he put his arm around her, “How is my dearest Rani?” he rumbled jovially, “let me see,” he put her at arm’s distance and looked at her over critically.
“You have lost a lot of weight,” he commented, “Makes you look even shorter,” Rajani flushed – not his fault, he was just worried about how it would affect her prospects in the marriage mart.
“Oh Uncle, Rani isn’t short, she is petite and look,” Shikha swept away the cap covering Rajani’s hair, “doesn’t the new hair cut suit her? Gives her such a charming elfin look,” Shikha smiled brightly even as she held her breath and surreptitiously crossed her fingers.
Rajani stiffened and glanced warily at her father as she attempted to smoothen her hair. Just before they were to board the train, Rajani had dashed off to the nearby parlor for a haircut – a silent gauntlet to her father, first ever open challenge to his authority. All these years he had never allowed her to cut her long lustrous locks, even though she had pleaded on several occasions but he had sternly refused, “Long hair is the very epitome of womanhood, if your husband gives permission, you may cut them but until then they stay as it is,” he had decreed.
Cutting her hair at this juncture was no less than waving a red flag to a bull and Rajani marveled at her own temerity and regretted her spurt of rebellion.
Shikha too had been shocked at Rajani’s foolhardy act. “God Rajji,” she had screamed, “this is suicide, what the hell were you thinking? You could have at least talked to me, you know how much Uncle is against you cutting your hair, how could you do such a foolhardy thing? And at this crucial juncture too when you need to be in his good books?” Shikha had raved and ranted.
Rajani burst into tears and sobbed. “Oh I don’t know, I know I shouldn’t have done it,” she blabbered, “I just got so upset when again this morning Papa called up to say that I should pack all my stuff and bring it along as I would not be coming back to the hostel again that I just lost my head,” she looked wildly at Shikha, “How will I go home now?” she clutched Shikha fearfully, “Papa will surely kill me, what should I do?”
Shikha took a deep breath and calmed down. “Of course he won’t kill you and besides your hair will grow back in just a few weeks…”
“But how will I face him, I thought I would wear a cap and give him the shock of his life when I grandly pull it off at home,” Rajani said dolefully. “It seemed like such a good idea then but now,” she shook her head and wrung her hands in despair, “Help me Shikha do something.”
Shikha nibbled her fingers, “I have an idea,” she said a bit doubtfully, “I will pull off your cap at the station, show him the hair cut, I am sure he wont say anything in front of my Dad and by the time you all reach home he would have had time to digest the shock and perhaps he wont be so angry?”
Rajani hadn’t been too convinced about the brilliance of the plan but in the absence of any other option, played along – and it worked. At least Mr Ahuja hadn’t instantly flied off the handle.
Just as Shikha had predicted, in deference to Mr Suri and Shikha’s presence he simply turned away and said tightly, “Come let’s go home, your Mother is waiting for you,” he shook hands with Mr Suri, patted Shikha on the head and strode off.
Rajani rolled her eyes at Shikha who hugged her and whispered encouragingly, “Stick to your guns, I am sure Uncle wont force you into anything you don’t want to do.”
“Yeah sure,” Rajani swallowed and smiled bravely, “You have fun and take care, will catch up with you later and don’t you dare go shopping without me,” she threatened before rushing off to catch up with her father who was half way across the platform, “Bye Uncle.”
Suryakant didn’t speak another word and the silence grated on Rajani’s nerves. “Say something Papa,” she burst out.
“What’s to say?” he shrugged and turned the corner, “What’s done is done,” his fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly, “You did what you thought was best and I will do what I think is best,” the car jerked to a halt outside their house.
Rajani got out of the car and rang the bell – she was instantly enfolded in her mother’s warm embrace, “Rani! My dearest daughter,” Nisha shed copious tears on Rajani’s shoulder.
“Let me have a look at you.” Rajani braced herself. “Oh you have lost so much weight and,” she looked up and dropped her arms in disbelief, “Oh!” her eyes were round with shock and she clapped her hands to her mouth; apprehensively she turned around to meet her husband’s eyes, who glared at her.
“This is all your fault,” he snapped viciously and walked off.
“Rani!” Nisha cracked the whip, “How dare you cut your hair, and especially now when you are about to get married, what was the hurry? Couldn’t you have waited just a month, then you could have done anything with your husband’s permission?”
“It’s my hair Mom!” Rajani flared up, “Why would I need some God damn man’s permission to keep it or cut it?”
“Mind your language young woman, that’s your future husband you are talking about,” her mother was furious, “You are this far from being thrashed,” she fumed, “Your father was right, I never should have given in to your pleadings and let you pursue higher studies, graduation is good enough, what is the need for higher studies when all you have to do is produce kids and run a house,” she nodded her head as if coming to a decision, “Okay that’s it, enough of your wishes and dreams, from now on you will do just as we say till you get married,” she waved her hands, “After that it is none of our business and your husband can decide whether you can study or work, cut your hair, be bald whatever.”
Click here for Chapter 110: Pleading her Case