“You aren’t ready yet? Ahaan and his mother should be here in no time.” Kiran said, her voice brimming with anxiety, upon entering her daughter’s room and finding her there, standing at the window looking out, still in her blue jeans and T, while the grey and pink silk sari that she was supposed to wear, lay neatly folded on the bed.
“I don’t want to exhibit myself, especially when I already know what my decision is going to be.” Mili retorted, her gaze rooted on the antics of a couple of squirrels on the branches of a Cyprus tree.
“And we shall respect it.” Her mother replied, quietly coming up to stand behind her. She continued, a stern note creeping into her soft voice, “Your father and I do not want to force you into anything against your will. Your happiness is our prime concern. Yet at the same time I expect you to behave like the well bred young lady you are; with dignity and poise. We are proud that you are our daughter and we want to continue to hold our heads high.”
A sudden bout of rigors seized Mili as she made her way slowly with the tea service, to the large open patio, where the family liked to receive their honored guests. The brick path was still wet from a light drizzle earlier that day, but the skies had cleared, giving way to brilliant evening sunshine, which made everything in sight look fresh, clean and vibrant.
It took Mili all her will to prevent herself from tripping over the edge of her sari. Her mother’s reassuring presence behind her helped but did not do much to allay her agitation. A sudden hush fell as everybody’s attention shifted onto her, while she directed hers on the wicker table. After setting the tray down without mishap, she concentrated on pouring out the tea and was thankful when Kiran came to her rescue and handed out the cups.
“Your daughter is the epitome of grace and beauty and this tea is the best I’ve ever tasted.” A feminine voice rang out approvingly.
“Thank you. You are very kind Mrs. Sharma. Mili has prepared it herself and it is the product of our own estate!” Her father Jai, remarked with pride.
I didn’t make it Papaji. It was Ramu kaka! Perhaps he should be the one that Mrs. Sharma should take home. Mili thought, almost bursting out into a hysterical giggle, while her eyes traced the outlines of the bricks in the pavement. She couldn’t bring herself to look up and face Ahaan. She just couldn’t.
The conversation floated unheard around and above her head. He was there, his curious eyes upon her, wearing a pair of shiny brown leather shoes and crisp khaki trousers, sitting beside his mother, who was dressed in an elegant cream colored suit. She felt her face burn as she recalled their many not so friendly interactions. Indeed, their parting had been on less than amicable terms. She hadn’t even wished him good bye. Then why did he agree to see me? Is this some kind of a sham? I’m sure it is…she thought, working herself up into a frenzy, twisting the tassels of her sari around her fingers.
So lost was she, that when her mother tapped her on the shoulder, she nearly jumped out of her skin. “Beta? Why are you so quiet?”
“Youngsters prefer not to talk in front of us.” Mrs. Sharma suggested.
Kiran smiled in agreement. Then looked pointedly at her daughter. “Perhaps you can show Ahaan around our garden which has found a new life under your tender care?”
Mili frowned irritably…her parents appeared to be reeling off lies at a rapid pace today…but she didn’t rush to correct her mother. Instead, she jumped to her feet and marched rapidly away, crushing the sweet smelling grass underfoot, not waiting to see if Ahaan was following behind.
Apparently he did. For moments after she settled down on a low stone boundary wall, the only dry spot she could find; she found him there right beside her.
“I agree that you have very pretty feet but…” A deep resonant voice whispered close to her ear.
She looked up at him.
“Ah..at last! I was afraid, I’d have to leave without getting a glimpse of your lovely face. Won’t you say Hi to an old friend?”
“You were never my friend!”
“Perhaps just an acquaintance then?”
“Hi…” She muttered, while resolutely training her gaze away into the distance, at the Sun as it made its passage to the other side of the globe. She was trembling like a leaf. Was he really truly Ahaan? He looked so different; tall, well built with strikingly handsome features..not at all like the inelegant, thin gangly chap that she and her friends used to be so fond of making fun of.
“It is a beautiful scene isn’t it? You are so lucky.”
Mili turned abruptly to him. “Where are your glasses?”
He appeared puzzled for just a moment, “I gave them up for contacts..”
“You could have me fooled…they are barely visible.” She said, peering deep into his chocolate eyes.
“I lied… Got them fixed with surgery.” He said, grinning as she flushed a deep red. He was playing with her.
There was an awkward silence.
“Who prompted your mother to think that I was the right one for you? Mrs. Patel…? Since when has she adopted the role of matchmaker?”
“It wasn’t Mrs. Patel. It was me. I’m sorry.” He replied, not appearing remorseful at all.
She stared at him in disbelief.
“When I saw a pretty girl in the market, who was bent on making a poor vendor’s life miserable over a paltry sum of 2 rupees, I was reminded of somebody I’d known a long time ago. Then when Mrs Patel confirmed my suspicions..I dared to take the chance. Perhaps our 2nd interaction would end on a better note than our first one?”
“You are mistaken. It won’t!” She snapped back.
He wasn’t rattled. “At least it got you talking. Something is better than nothing.”
“Is that the diplomat in you speaking?”
He shrugged, “We have to break the ice somehow, don’t we?”
He is clever. That I have to admit. Mili thought, relenting just a little bit. “Don’t you have any girlfriends? Someone you might have met on one your trips abroad…whom you could present to your mother as a potential bahu (daughter in law)? She seems very undemanding.”
Ahaan laughed, shaking his head. A smile flickered across Mili’s lips. She didn’t ever recall seeing him like this before. Perhaps because they were always at odds with each other.
“Yes, I’ve had friends but none who I would want to call a girlfriend. When my mother told me a couple months ago that I should get married..”
“Well..she thought that I was getting way too caught up in my work and I needed a steadying influence…someone who would clip my wings and keep me rooted to earth so to say..” He said looking at her, with a twinkle in his eyes… “I don’t know why, but when she said that, I could only think of you and no one else. So, when she decided to make a trip down here, I jumped at the chance, hoping to see you again… And here I am…” He paused, seeing her drop her gaze in confusion. It was apparent she hadn’t been expecting this.
He continued softly, “That’s me in a nutshell. What about you Mili? Any love interests?… But why am I asking that? Of course! You being one of the most popular girls in school…”
She looked away, “No… none.” For a fleeting moment, the thought of her music teacher came into her mind, but it was tossed out just as quickly. A long time ago, she had come to realize that it was just an infatuation born out of hero worship. Anyway, a match like that would never have been acceptable to her parents.
“I heard that you are an ace musician!” Ahaan’s voice interjected into her musings. “I dabble in a little guitar myself but nothing to even come close to your level.”
Her curiosity was piqued. “What else do you do, besides play the guitar and interfere in world affairs?”
He laughed again, “Not much. I do some trekking—helps reduce the stress which comes naturally with the job. I also cook–again a necessity, and…. I shoot…” He said mysteriously whipping out a tiny camera out of his pocket.
“Show me!” She leaned forward eagerly…, and watched agape, as he flipped through the digital shots one by one. Several featured her as the main subject.
“You…took pictures of me without my permission?” She demanded, irate.
He shrugged, “It is not my fault. My camera happens to have a mind of its own.. and it couldn’t resist itself in the bazaar yesterday…”
God..he’s trying to flirt with me and I like it! Mili thought, trying hard to suppress a smile.
“Won’t you call me what you used to before?”
“Mr Times of India? I thought you hated it.”
“I did initially…but then I grew fond of it. It made me feel special.”
She stared wide eyed at him.
“So what do you think, Mili?”
“You have changed Ahaan.”
“No really, I haven’t. Perhaps it appears so because I’m slightly more confident…, now that I’m grown up. And I am not afraid of expressing my feelings like I was in the past. I’ve always liked you, Mili. Even more so now than before.”
“You are a lot more beautiful…”
She looked down and mumbled in a barely audible voice, “My mother likes you..”
“Oh that is great!.. Or isn’t it? You aren’t a rebel, are you?”
“I am confused. I don’t know what to say.” She was breathing fast as she felt the pressure mount. The short speech of rejection that she had prepared, had long ago evaporated.
They walked back together in silence. Their parents as expected were waiting eagerly.
Her mother eyes anxiously searched her face. But Mrs. Sharma was the first to speak. “So baat pakki (the deal is sealed) ?”
Amaan apparently nodded in agreement, for there was a loud burst of cheerful applause.
Mili ran in the direction of her room.
NOTE: Baat Pakki Hindi <-बात पक्की meaning ‘The deal is sealed.’ It also describes when a couple intend to get married.
The boy usually meets the girl to assess compatibility, and if everything works out well, they get engaged.