14: Shattered Dreams
“Hello there!” Called out an authoritative voice while a strong hand grasped Shan firmly by the shoulder stopping him in his tracks.
Irked at the interruption, he turned around and was confronted by an imposing specimen of manhood… tall, slim, and square of shoulder, it was obvious this guy hailed from the armed forces…and after a careful perusal of the distinguished features marred by a linear scar on the right temple, Shan figured that he was a close relative. Khanak’s brother or cousin perhaps? Gosh..I hardly know anything about her.
He smiled and shook the proffered hand, concluding that it wouldn’t be prudent to cross any of Khanak’s relatives, particularly if he wished to form closer alliances in the future. Heck! What am I thinking about?
“Hi! I am Shyam..the bride’s brother! Am so sorry to startle you, but you see mom has given me the task of making myself familiar with as many guests as possible. Being away stationed on the border for months on end, I hardly know my own family..let alone anyone else! You must be one of Anand’s college friends’. I’m assuming so, because I know all his school ones!” He roared laughing out loud as if finding the thought quite funny.
Shan guessed Anand was the bridegroom.
“He must have sent you to spy for him. That chap has very little patience. Has been that way ever since he was 5 yrs old. I don’t know how Khanak handled him. Both of them always got along very well.”
Shan felt a sudden chill as Shyam’s voice trailed off and a look of pique settled over his jovial features.
“Hello? Neengal yaaru? Who is this Shyam?”
The welcome interruption came from a dignified middle aged woman wrapped in a bright orange sari who appeared to have been perusing him curiously for some time now. She was carrying a tray loaded with steel tumblers filled with aromatic filter coffee and was quite obviously jostling with way too many things at the same time.. Shan guessed that she was the lady of the house: Shyam’s mother and Khanak’s aunt.
He gratefully accepted the brew his hostess offered him. “I am Shan… Khandelwal.” He said with a respectful incline of his head, glad that Shyam excused himself at the exact time. He didn’t want to irritate him any further.
“I meant to ask who are you? I haven’t seen you around before. Are you Anand’s friend?” She asked again, this time with a pleasant smile which perked up her wan and tired features. Time hadn’t been kind to her of late.
“No..I’m not his friend..and I’m from Mumbai.”
She didn’t speak waiting for him to elaborate.
“I…” He glanced at his feet. “I’ve come with Khanak.”
“What?!” Komal stared at him disbelievingly. “You are here with Khanak? She’s here?” She raised her hands to her face in delight, unable to contain her happiness. “My baby is here? Poor thing..how is she? Is she all right? I can’t even begin imagine how she’s been living..surviving all by herself in that big city, with no one to cook for her or take care of her..she has never been away from home for more than a few days at the most.”
“You needn’t worry. She’s well taken care of, she lives with me…”
Komal didn’t think she heard him right. “She lives with you?”
Shan nodded reassuringly. “Yes, you needn’t worry about her.”
“I can’t believe it. Khanak…my Khanak, living with a man?! How could she? What happened to make her stoop so low? She isn’t that kind of a girl!”
“No..no..Mrs Mishra! You are mistaken!” Shan rushed to clear the air. “Rest assured. It isn’t like what you think. Khanak would never besmirch your name or her’s for that matter. I own a dance company and she works for me. I’m her employer. She’s let’s say my Paying Guest for now as she hasn’t found other suitable accommodations.”
“Oh I see.” Komal calmed down considerably but she continued to inspect him in silence.
Shan was growing edgy. He badly wanted to meet this Anand, wanting to know what he was like and judge him for himself. Was Khanak with him now?
He looked Mrs Mishra straight in the eye as he had nothing to fear or hide. His intentions toward Khanak had been always honorable and would continue to remain so.
Finally she asked with a broad smile. “What kind of employer accompanies his employee unless he or she is someone special?”
“Khanak is someone special. She is very special to me.” He replied having never sounded more sincere in his life.
She nodded in approval. “I gathered as much beta.” Then she stood up and gestured at him while casting a quick glance around. “Come with me. We need to talk some more.”
Khanak ran out of the room, down the single flight of stairs and onto the street, her feet automatically turning in the direction she had taken countless number of times in the past. Down to the end of the narrow road, around the corner where Raghu the fruit vendor parked his cart every day under the shade of the huge Gulmohar tree which was now a brilliant mass of scarlet. After a few months it along with its neighbors would shed and transform the entire street into a lush red carpet.
‘Here’s our very own Oscars Khanak!’ She remembered Anand saying, as he offered his arm which she’d accept willingly and then they’d parade up and down as if they were in the world’s most brilliant spotlight.
“Khanak?...Tum kaisi ho beti?” (How are you, child?) Raghu, the vendor, hailed her. Though born and bred a Tamilian, Raghu had attempted to learn Hindi from Khanak and always made an effort to speak to her in the same tongue.
She smiled and waved at him but didn’t stop to admire the big golden juicy mangoes that never failed to entice her. Instead she hurried on, hooking a right down another more secluded path.
It was a beloved path; of simple joys; of innocent pranks and mischief. A path she’d take without hesitation at any time of the day to escape from the present, to relive the period of unfettered childhood or just to find a friend who would provide her with unconditional comfort, no questions asked.
Khanak’s heart wept for those bygone days, her eyes welling up with a torrent of spontaneous tears mourning the loss of something that’d never be hers again. She stopped at the large iron gate which led to a grand old house and wondered if she should turn around and leave without meeting her friend and forget about everything.
No..I can’t. He is still my best buddy, and I can’t rest till I speak with him.
She didn’t see any signs of activity. It seemed like the entire house was mourning a death rather than celebrating a new beginning.
He wouldn’t leave. Anand was never a shirker. Khanak thought as she unknowingly took the familiar route she’d always taken, avoiding the main door to escape Mrs. Vaidyanathan’s sharp eyes, instead skirting to the left toward her friend’s room. The window was open as usual. She hesitated before standing on her tip toes and glancing inside.
“Anand?” She called out in a loud whisper..and waited for several moments before turning away in disappointment.
“Khanak is that you?”
There he was. Her dear friend smiling, like always. His face alive with cheeky mischief as their eyes met and shared secrets privy only to them.
But then his smile vanished and he was no longer her best friend.
She didn’t want him to turn away. “Please..can you let me in..just this one last time?”
He stood still for what felt like eternity before letting her in through the side door and into his room.
Feeling awkward all of a sudden, she dropped her eyes unable to meet his gaze as he stared at her unblinkingly.
“You grow more beautiful by the day Khanak.” He said in a tender whisper.
She looked up and saw regret in those intelligent and warm eyes. They looked unusually deep set and were surrounded by dark circles. The laughter lines had faded from around his sensitive mouth.
Anand was someone whom people would call as quietly good looking. Never much of a talker, except when he was in her company, making enough of an impression with his superior height, intellect and demeanor, that everyone sat up and took notice without him having to utter a word. She had envied him this gift and had never failed to tease him about it..
He’d just laugh in reply and pooh pooh her by saying. “Your beauty outshines everybody else in the room Khanak. I’m flattered tremendously if you happen to take notice of me.”
“Why are you here Khanak?”
His voice brought her rudely back to the present. She chose to ignore the question. “What happened to us Anand?”
“We grew up. That’s what happened.” He said cynically. “Answer me Khanak. Why are you here? To show me what I’ll be losing?”
“Anand..please! You know I’d never do that! Don’t make me feel guilty for something that isn’t under my control.”
“Then why..why now..why today?”
“I..I got a call from Shree..that she was getting married and she wanted me there. I couldn’t say no. But I didn’t know that you were the one…”
“So are you surprised?”
“Yes…I am. I don’t understand. Nothing is clear to me.. Why does she have to get married now and ..and why to you? Didn’t..didn’t you say you’ll wait for me Anand?”
He regarded her for a long time, head slightly tilted to one side as always and then smirked. “I’d have waited a lifetime for you Khanak…but now I know whatever you said that day was just to make me feel better..while actually you had no intention to see it through.”
Khanak hadn’t given enough thought to the subject, but deep down suspected he was right..yet. “That may or may not be true..only time will tell..but why such a hurry? And why my sister? Are you marrying her on the rebound?”
“Rebound!” His laugh was acidic. “Oh my god Khanak! What do you think I am…a vengeful lover or a crazed fiend to even think of doing such a thing to a friend. I’m deeply hurt.”
She could see that he was and at once hated herself for even thinking along those lines. “I am sorry to have said that..but I still can’t figure it out..my mind is in a jumble.”
He plopped down on the edge of his bed and tented his fingers under his sharp chin, while resting elbows on his bent knees. “I don’t know what to say, rather I have no idea who I am anymore.. After your sudden disappearance for no apparent reason, my parents made up their minds that there was no way they’d accept you as my bride and despite my pleas to wait for some news from your side, though you never cared to inform me about your leaving, “ he threw an accusing glance her way, “they raised a big hue and cry about it. Then your uncle as compensation offered Shreya’s hand…and my parents reluctantly agreed. It never crossed anyone’s mind to consult me or ask me if I wished to get married at all!”
“In fact it surprised me no end when your sister agreed. I was shattered! I… am still in shock! I hate my life Khanak!” He exclaimed, his eyes filled with censure and torment. “Tell me..do I have any way out of this hell? Or should I run away too?”
“Go away Khanak. Please go away!” He cried in anguish as his noble head dropped into his cupped hands.
The tears finally sprung from her eyes. She couldn’t bear to see the lives of the two most precious people in the world destroyed and all due to something she’d done, albeit she still didn’t feel she’d taken the step in error.
She stepped up to him, her voice trembling yet clear. “I am willing to marry you Anand. If that’d make you happy.”