“What’s what?” Shikha asked.
“That.” Rajani pointed to Shikha’s neck.
Shikha turned red and hurriedly draped her slipping dupatta around her neck. “Nothing.” She mumbled.
Rajani frowned. Why was Shikha acting so cagey? And was she blushing?
“But what is it? Did a bug bite…”
“Shush!” Shikha poked her and stabbed her with a fierce glare as she looked from her father to Rajani.
“What is it?” she insisted but she lowered her voice.
Shikha sighed and leaned sideways to whisper, “Hickey.”
“Hickey?” Rajani brow wrinkled. She opened her mouth to ask what that was when some faint recollection from an obscure book flickered. She went a tomato red and stared determinedly out of the window away from Shikha.
Shikha’s low delighted laughter teased her. She turned to frown at her. Shikha was openly laughing at her. “Why are you so embarrassed? Don’t tell me Ha….”
“No!” Rajani broke in scandalized casting a warning glance at her father, “No. And how could you allow…”
“How could you not allow?” Shikha retorted. “Rajji you don’t know what you are missing out on.”
“Nonsense!” Rajani said primly. “There’s all the time in the world for that.”
“Perhaps. But the best fun is in doing the forbidden.” She giggled.
Rajani looked at her. “Who told you that?”
Shikha put a hand to her heart and her eyes glazed over, a small smile played about her lips. “Amu.” She mouthed as she held up her phone with his photo as the screensaver. Her eyes widened with shock. Her phone was ringing and it was Amu. “Oh! I was just talking about you,” Shikha’s voice was barely audible. Rajani turned to look out of the window and tried her best to avoid tuning in to her conversation. Not that it was difficult but the indistinct murmur was irritating and distracting.
Tears pricked Rajani’s eyes. She had so much to talk to Shikha about. She had been saving up all these weeks. Shikha was the only one whom she could share her deepest thoughts and emotions but clearly Shikha was in a different zone altogether.
Everything was changing and Shikha was her sheet anchor – how would she survive without her?
You are a fool, she castigated herself, Shikha is in any case going abroad…
But she didn’t have to change did she?
“Hmm?” Rajani blinked furiously before turning to face Shikha.
“Nothing. I didn’t want to intrude on your private conversation.”
Shikha simpered. “He said he heard me ‘talking’ about him, that’s why he called.” She caressed her phone looking lovesick. “Oh Rajji I really miss him! How am I going to survive these two weeks?”
“And I was wondering how am I going to survive after these ten days?” Rajani’s voice was low and bitter.
“Oh Rajji! You still haven’t made your peace with it? Stop resisting so much Rajji. Give in and embrace the change. Life will be so much easier, better, brighter filled with love and togetherness. Complete.” Shikha lapsed into silence twisting the ring on her finger.
“When did you get engaged?” Rajani cleared her throat to ask accusingly. “You didn’t even tell me!”
Shikha glowed as she shook her head. “The engagement is just two days before the wedding.”
“He slipped this on my finger just now,” she admired the ring on her hand, “something to remember him by he said.” She paused. “Not that I need anything to remind me of him,” her voice was low, soft and tender.
“How sweet.” Rajani swallowed her jealousy and the instant comparison that reared its ugly head. “It’s a pretty ring. He’s got a good choice.” She said.
“He’s very proud of his eye for beauty.” Shikha laughed and blushed. “He keeps boasting that he was the one who spotted me on Facebook.”
“But Shikhs,” Rajani eyed her friend critically, “you look so different. I have never seen you like this –heavy make up and the glittery suit. I almost didn’t recognize you…”
Shikha laughed. “Grow up Rajji! We were girls before, now we are women. We need to look and behave like them.”
“You are crazy!” Rajani looked at Shikha as if she were seeing her for the first time.
“No I am not. You are the one who is stuck in a time warp – still a baby. Besides,” she smoothed her dress, “Amu likes me to be well dressed always. He says it makes him proud when the others praise me or look at him with envy. Actually I also don’t much care for all the make up, but if it makes him happy, I don’t mind making the change.”
“I guess not.” Rajani admitted. “You are lucky.” She gave Shikha’s hand a quick squeeze and smiled at her. “He looks completely and madly in love with you.”
“He is!” Shikha gushed. “And so am I. I just cannot wait to be with him, forever.”
“Good for you.” Rajani hoped her voice didn’t give away her feelings – despair, envy and how utterly alone she felt. But she needn’t have worried. Shikha was far far away – in Delhi, where she had left her heart.
No wonder, all her pent up emotions came rushing to the fore when Rajani saw her mother’s familiar face as she waited anxiously by the door.
“Rani my little baby!” She enfolded Rajani in her embrace unleashing the flood.
She cried and cried and cried. Suryakant disappeared inside while Abhi remembered some urgent work and Nisha was left holding her hysterically weeping child.
“Don’t worry darling,” she soothed, “everything will be fine. Trust me. It’s just that you are scared of the unknown. Everything will be fine. Come in and eat something. You must be starving and exhausted.”
She bustled to the kitchen and brought out an apple pie. “Have this for now. Oh! Look at my baby, so thin and so scrawny! There’s hardly any time to fatten you up…”
“No need to fatten her up,” Suryakant spoke up, “she looks better now.” He patted Rajani on the head. “If only you hadn’t cut your hair.”
“It’s grown a lot in just two weeks. Don’t worry by the time she comes back from college she would have her full length back…” Nisha rushed to her defense.
“But all the people at the wedding are going to see her now.”
“It doesn’t matter now, most of the times it will be in a bun. Nobody would have noticed anyway.”
“We don’t have much time. Give the dresses and blouses for stitching first thing tomorrow morning. And remember all full sleeves okay?” Suryakant reminded Nisha.
Nisha nodded. “I know. No need to remind me. Thank God it is a winter wedding. And don’t worry Rani, I have booked a series of appointments at the parlor. You are going to look like the most beautiful bride ever. Your father is determined to spare no expense to ensure that you look your best on your wedding day.”
“Yes Mamma.” Rajani mumbled. “Where’s Bhai?”
Click here for the next chapter: Not Quite Home