23: Baat Pakki
Shantanu woke the next morning to realize he had fallen asleep in the rocking chair. His body ached all over. He saw Megha was not in her bed and the bedside clock read 9 am. He got up to stretch then suddenly grew anxious for today Dad was going to make him aware of his decision. He walked over to the window and looked out to see the sun was already well into its journey across the sky. It was going to be another beautiful day, and he hoped it would bring him luck.
He turned around. His niece was standing at the door all dressed up and ready for school.
“What is it honey?”
“Everybody is downstairs waiting for you. Mama asked me to call you right now!”
“I am coming. Give me a couple of minutes.”
As she skipped away, Shaan hurried into the bathroom and shut the door. His pulse was racing. He didn’t feel quite as bold as he had in front of his father yesterday. He opened the tap and splashed his face with cold water then examined himself in the mirror. He saw doubt and hesitation in his eyes and he looked like a loser with the day-old stubble on his jaw. That won’t do, he thought. He took a deep breath and drew himself to his full height. “Come what may, I will keep my side of the bargain. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve just been straight up and honest. I deserve to be happy, don’t I? Shantanu Khandelwal is a trustworthy man Khanak, you can bet on it.” He gave himself an assertive nod and then headed downstairs.
The extent of Madhavi’s excitement was such that her fingers felt like spaghetti on the keypad of her cell phone. She emitted a loud shriek as soon as she saw her son climbing down the stairs. She rushed over and enveloped him in a hug, “OMG! My bacchu, akkal ka kacchu! Why did you hide it from your own Mama that you had fallen for the petite Doc and wanted to make her yours forever? Afraid I won’t approve?”
When she sensed a mixture of confusion and embarrassment in her son’s face, she pinched his cheeks and said, “Sweetheart, remember Mama is always on your side, no matter what anyone says! You can always depend on your Mama!” She cast a pointed glance at her husband who was lounging on the sofa trying to appear nonchalant.
“Haan bro! You made me proud! You did what you said you would!” Akshay walked up to his brother and clapped him on his shoulder.
Shantanu closed his eyes and mouthed a thank you to heaven as Dadi ma and Khushboo also came up to congratulate him. Megha ran into his arms with a scream of joy and as he hugged her, he couldn’t resist walking up to Sunil and saying, “Don’t you want to congratulate me too, Dad? Your bachelor son is going to get married.”
“Congratulations son, you’ve made a great choice.” Sunil shook his hand while smiling reluctantly.
“So, when are we going to meet our new bahu? I just can’t wait to meet her and her family.” Dadi Ma had tears in her eyes.
“Yes! When are we going to Doctor Auntie’s, I mean Chaachi’s house?” Megha said bobbing up and down like a spring toy.
Khanak smiled sympathetically at Mrs. Mohini Sharma. She had been her patient ever since she had started her practice and she had watched her dwindle in front of her eyes, in that short span of time. Though Mrs. Sharma refused to admit it, she was showing all the signs and symptoms of depression. Khanak wondered if her relations with her husband were the culprit.
“Your headaches are not migraines,” she explained to Mrs. Sharma patiently. “They are tension headaches and are due to stress and too much dependence on pain pills.”
“But I get up with one every morning and I can’t move without taking an Anacin or Crocin!”
“Exactly! Those pills are making your headaches worse. How often were you getting them say one month ago?”
“Maybe once a week?” Mrs. Sharma shrugged.
“So, after you started taking these pills every day for even the slightest pain, you have been getting them every day. Am I right?”
Mrs. Sharma nodded as understanding dawned on her.
“There you go. You have to use some other method to treat the discomfort, such as a massage, relaxation techniques, yoga etc. Go for a brisk walk after dinner, get some fresh air, and see the difference.”
Her patient looked skeptical. “I’m not sure it’ll work. Don’t you think I need a scan of my head, to look for a tumor or something?”
“No. You are…”
Khanak was interrupted by a beep from her mobile. She looked at it absently. But as soon as she saw it was from Shantanu, a deep flush took hold of her cheeks. She tried to hide it from Mrs. Sharma’s prying eyes by pretending to fan herself.
“It’s really hot in here, don’t you think?”
“No beta, the AC is rather too cool. Is something wrong?” She asked curiously.
Khanak took a quick peek at the message and smiled. “Nothing. Really, sometimes I guess I dress too warm.” She laughed. “What was I saying?”
“About my needing a head scan? I do think I should have one.”
Khanak shook her head. “I don’t think so. None of your symptoms suggest anything serious. On top of that these scans come with the risk of radiation. Try what I suggested and I will see you in a couple of weeks alright? And can you please thank Mr. Sharma for me, he has done so much for our new hospital.” Khanak said hoping Mrs. Sharma would get the hint and take her leave.
“Okay. I know you know what you are doing. I will try my best to follow your advice, but Mr. Sharma keeps saying I should get my head examined, that’s why…”
Khanak suppressed a giggle and thought that Mr. Sharma was behind most of his wife’s problems, just like Shantanu.
Call me within 5 minutes or I’ll mess up your schedule!
Khanak waited for her plump patient to leave before heaving a nervous sigh. She called her secretary to hold her next patient for fifteen minutes before sitting down to dial Shantanu’s number. Why did he always affect her such?
“Good am sweetheart! Can’t wait to hear my voice again hmm?”
“You are impossible! You know how to press my buttons don’t you?”
He laughed. “There! I had always thought we had a connection of some sort, now I have no doubt whatsoever! Woman, you can’t escape from me now!”
I don’t want to, Khanak thought.
“Won’t you make me happy by complaining why I didn’t bother you these past three days?” Her paramour whined.
“I just didn’t. You don’t know your Khanak that well, Mr. Shantanu Khandelwal!” Khanak smiled.
“What? Come again!”
“I said you didn’t really know your Khanak….”
“Your Khanak. Now I know you really missed me Ms. Not so Direct.”
“Stop teasing and come to the point! What did your father say about us!”
“Assertive, are we? I am breaking into a sweat. Phew! Alright, we are going to begin the long and tiresome process of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge by dropping by your place today. Be there at 6 or else…”
There was a long stunned pause.
“Khanak? Love? Are you being shy even over the phone? Uff… I hope you won’t kill me with all this sweetness before our wedding. Okay looks like I’ll have to pick you up.”
“No don’t! I’ll be there.”
“And so will I. I can’t wait to see my bride’s beautiful face again.”
It was close to thirty minutes past six when Khanak reached home. She had received a dozen calls from her mother in the past hour…
“Shantanu and his entire family are here and waiting for you. How much longer? They are not complaining because they are good people. Would you need a special invitation even for your own wedding?”
Khanak smiled and shook her head. “Mama please! Traffic! I’m almost there and it’s Shaan who is in a hurry to get married, not me.”
“So are we! How much longer are you two going to roam around together? Mrs. Chatopadhyay the other day was saying…”
“Nothing, just that she saw you with a good-looking lad the other day and that too hand in hand. I told her he was about to be your fiancé… I can’t keep doing so…”
As soon as Khanak entered the apartment Sunita pulled her into her room. She had set aside for her a gorgeous old sky blue silk sari with a dark blue zari border along with some of her own jewelry. When Khanak protested, she said it had always been her dream of seeing her elder daughter dressed in her engagement attire.
“Won’t you fulfill my wish my child?” She asked gently lifting her chin.
Khanak observed her reflection in the mirror. The blue fabric added a wonderful glow to her skin and the small yet ornate pieces of jewelry made her look and feel beautiful and quietly sophisticated.
“Deeeds! I bet there is not a more beautiful bride in the whole world!” Palak blurted out admiringly. She had been unusually quiet.
Khanak smiled and kissed her sister on the forehead which caused her eyes to well up.
“Palak don’t make your sister cry.”
“No I wasn’t. I just can’t imagine us without…” Palak burst into tears.
Khanak suddenly grew anxious. “I don’t want to get married. I will tell Shantanu, he will understand.”
“No buddhu don’t take it to heart!” Sunita chided her. “This is natural. Besides you aren’t going far. And it is hard to find a boy like Shantanu, we shouldn’t let go of this opportunity.”
“And me? Am I just an ordinary girl?” Khanak pouted.
Sunita shook her head, “No. My Khanak is a beautiful angel who God sent my way and now I am going to give her to a handsome prince. The Khandelwal’s don’t know how lucky they are.” She put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders and looked at her proudly in the mirror. She was having a tough time controlling her emotions.
As a final touch Sunita draped the palloo of Khanak’s sari over her head and placed a small nazar ka tika (black dot) behind her ear.
Palak came back from the kitchen with a tray of freshly made chai and handed it to Khanak.
“Mama why is this necessary especially when I didn’t make it.”
“It’s alright beta! I know Shantanu and his family have already accepted you but we should follow tradition sometimes, don’t we?”
“Besides, this was Shaan jiju’s idea. He put in a special request. He badly wants to see you looking shy and flustered. Mom adores him for it!” Palak laughed.
Sunita silenced her with a glare then smiled at Khanak.
“Shantanu is a little naughty but very sweet. He’s like a son with me. And his request is very simple, how could I refuse?”
“But mom!” Khanak protested as Sunita hurried her out.
“Now will you please hurry or the tea will grow cold!”
Khanak legs turned to jelly and her hands started to shake as she made her way to the living room. She tried to focus on the tray and wondered why men weren’t subjected to the same torture. She took a deep breath when the chatter came to a sudden stop and could almost feel the intensity of at least a dozen eyes on her. The silence was broken by a low admiring whistle. She glanced up and deduced it had emanated from Akshay who was watching her with a look of wonder on his face while his wife smiling in embarrassment nudged him and at the same time struggled to control Megha who obviously wanted to run to her.
Khanak’s eyes searched for Shantanu. She found him sitting next to her father, dressed to kill in a tan sports jacket, an off-white shirt and dark blue jeans. Looking straight at her, he winked and mouthed a silent ‘wow’ causing her to drop her gaze.
“Doctor Khanak! I mean Khanak! She looks like an Indian Princess, doesn’t she Sunil?” Madhavi rushed towards her.
“More like an angel bahu!” Dadi ma said as she took a cup from the tray.
“God bless you Dr. Agarwal, I mean Khanak.” Sunil’s usually stern face lit up with a smile.
“Don’t worry Khanak, we will serve ourselves.” Said Khushboo.
“Not me Bhabhi. I have been waiting so long for my future wife to serve me.” Shantanu said smiling mischievously. He appeared to be enjoying Khanak’s discomfort as he indicated her to hand him the tea and deliberately brushed her fingers with his, causing her shiver. She was glad to be able sit down finally but was asked to take a seat beside Shaan who spread his legs so he could brush against her even as she squeezed herself in to a corner. Megha broke away from her mother then ran to Khanak and climbed on to her lap where she gazed at her silently wide eyed. Khanak hugged her, thankful for the distraction and spent the next few minutes talking to her and avoided the discussion around her.
“So, everything’s settled. I can’t say how lucky we are to have acquired such a wonderful and accomplished daughter in law!” Madhavi gushed while Sunil nodded in approval.
“And so are we, Shantanu is almost like a son to us.” Khanak’s father said beaming widely.
“Accha, now to seal the pact you have to feed each other a laddoo. C’mon Shaan I know you have been waiting impatiently for this!” Dadi said.
Shanatanu dodged as Khanak extended the sweetmeat toward his mouth. She finally succeeded but not before he took the opportunity to grab her wrist in his hand in an attempt to steady it then reluctantly let it go as she tried to pull away. He fed her in return and managed to brush the corner of her mouth with his fingers, causing her to close her eyes with pleasure. Sunil announced he would soon arrange a formal engagement party.
Shantanu hesitated as his family prepared to take their leave,
Palak took the hint. “But uncle!” She exclaimed. “Don’t the future bride and groom need to talk a little in private, like they do in the movies?”
“Oh yes!” Madhavi winked at her son. “They know each other but tradition is tradition, what do you think Mrs. Agarwal?”
After some debate they decided on the terrace. Shantanu heaved a sigh of relief when they finally got into the elevator.
“At last! The moment I’ve been waiting for all day!”
He looked at Khanak whose gaze was fixed on the floor.
“I have to agree Indian women look their sexiest in a sari.”
“Women?” His fiancé’s kohl-rimmed eyes blazed.
“Oh lord itna gussa? So much anger is not good for your health madam!” Shantanu laughed then sidled as close as possible without touching her. “How can I think of any other woman when I have you?”
She blushed fiercely and looked away. He continued to gaze at her till the elevator came to a halt. He was thankful no one else had shared their ride.
Both walked out on the terrace hand in hand. The Arabian Ocean glimmered in the distance while the setting Sun set the sky ablaze.
Shantanu slipped his arms around Khanak and nuzzled into her neck. She shuddered in the still warm evening and felt goosebumps rise all over her skin. She didn’t pull away though; after all they were almost official.
Her future husband let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. “Happy?” he asked.
“Uh huh. Very.”
“I can’t how happy I am. It feels like I have reached a major milestone in my life. For after today I’ll have you to share in my joys and sorrows and you will have me to share in yours. I feel like a real man now.”
“A man? I thought that you were way past your puberty.” Khanak teased.
“Aww c’ mon! That was just a figure of speech. I am one hundred percent man, want a demo?” Shantanu winked playfully.
She blushed beet red and shook her head. She couldn’t control her reactions any better now than when they had first met.
He sat her down on the narrow parapet, took both her hands in his and traced the delicate veins gently with his fingers. Then he looked her in the eye. “Tell me, do you think I rushed you in to it? If so, I’m willing to wait for a while, but not too long.”
She shook her head and looked away toward the ocean. Her sun kissed skin luminescent, naturally blemish less, her long eyelashes casting delicate shadows on her cheeks, her full lips a shade of dark pink, made him want to kiss her right then and there. “No, you don’t have to. It’s just that things have moved so fast, I’m still dizzy with the effort of trying to get my bearings. It was just yesterday that I was plain simple Dr. Khanak Agarwal and now I’m on the way to getting engaged and married!”
She closed her eyes and pinched herself in the forearm then nodded. “Yes it’s true.” She smiled at him.
“You are so funny!” Shantanu laughed. “You are still Dr. Khanak Agarwal, the only difference is that soon this guy,” he pointed to himself, “is going to make a honest wife out of you. So, enjoy your single status for it’s not going to last long.” His expression was innocent but his eyes spoke a lot more as his fingers massaged her palms.
She snatched her hands from his grasp and turned away with a shy smile. He smiled with delight and moved closer. “Are you afraid of the inevitable? Aren’t you supposed to know everything?” He said in a low voice.
She shook her head in the negative.
“Oh man! My future wife is an innocent. I’ll have fun teaching her a thing or two.” He chuckled.
“Shut Up! Do you always think of only one thing?”
“I think of many things! Do you want me to spell them out individually? Are you getting restless? Can’t wait?” He traced the line of her collar bone with his forefinger. She shuddered violently.
Both turned as one. Mrs. Bak Bak was staring with her hand on her mouth. Khanak was confused. She didn’t know how to react. Her companion came to her rescue. He caught her hand and held tightly on to it as he turned toward the intruder.
“We meet again Mrs. Chatopadhyay! I didn’t have a chance to properly introduce myself last time, I am Shantanu Khandelwal.” He smiled and extended his hand.
Khanak was amazed at the sudden transformation in his demeanor, from the ardent lover to a suave and charming businessman.
Mrs. C smiled, instantly falling under his spell, her gaze switching to their clasped hands. “Khanak and you…”
“Yes, Khanak has made me the happiest man on earth by agreeing to be my wife. In fact, I am here with my family today for that very purpose. We should be getting married soon and I hope you and your family will honor us by your presence at the wedding.”
“Congratulations! You make a lovely couple!” She said while thinking the Agarwals had made a great catch.
After she left, Shaan took Khanak in his arms again and embraced her.
“Do you trust me now? Is there anything else I can do to express my love for you?”
She shook her head and smiled as he smooched her gently on her forehead.