“I am willing to marry you Anand.”
He looked up and stared disbelievingly at Khanak. “Did I really hear what you just said?”
Her lips attempted a bright smile but her facial muscles refused to cooperate. “Yes..I will marry you if that’d make you happy and ..and Shreya would be free to lead her life the way she is supposed to.”
He got up to his feet and stepped up close crowding her in. “Leave Shreya out of it! I want to know about you! Would it make you happy?”
False words couldn’t cover up the anguish brewing inside. “Of course! I will be happy..after all I’ll be spending the rest of my life with my best friend…right?”
All at once Anand threw his head back and burst into a fit of merry laughter and it filled Khanak with trepidation.
“You will never grow up will you Khanak? Though we have all graduated into adulthood, even your precious Shreya…you still remain a little girl of eleven whose favorite pastime is playing hide and seek with her chums. No Khanak! I won’t let you off this lightly, you can’t deceive me..I can read you through and through!”
His smile vanished as his hands clamped down on her arms, and she felt his fingers mark her bones, yet she didn’t squirm. There was something in his eyes she had never encountered before and it scared her. “I don’t want you to be just a friend, I want you to be much more than that…I want you to be my wife, my lover..Someone I can share my sorrows and joys with..I want to be your everything. Can you see me in that guise Khanak?”
She didn’t think he’d like her answer..but they’d always been honest with each other. “Perhaps I could.”
“Perhaps? ….Just perhaps? That isn’t the answer I was looking for!” His gaze grew softer as his hands gently fingered her cheeks. “I want to be the one who makes your pulse race with anticipation, the one who makes your heart sing with joy…I want to be the one to fulfill your every need and desire. Do you think that’s plausible?”
His face swum in a film of tears. “I..I could grow to love you.”
“Grow to love me..?” He stared at her as if seeing her for the first time.
“Please Khanak, I beg you. Don’t mislead yourself..don’t work too hard. Don’t try to offer me the olive branch. We aren’t strangers to fumble around and make errors..then learn to compromise, cross our Ts’ and dot our Is’. Either you love me or you don’t.”
He scanned her face with desperate hope but did not find what he wanted to see. “You are a horrible liar Khanak!”
He turned away so she wouldn’t bear witness to his intense disappointment. “You could never reciprocate my passion. You were born for your art, it’s your first and last love…rhythm flows in your veins. How could I expect to replace that? No… I cannot see you wither away in front of my eyes. I cannot take your life away from you..if I tried I’d be sinning against the sanctity of our friendship. Go away Khanak! There’s a wedding I need to attend.”
She saw his shoulders droop with defeat. “I’m so sorry Anand.”
“Don’t be…You did nothing wrong.” He glanced at his watch. “I don’t want your uncle to think his future son in law is a turncoat.”
A bitterness had crept in and was eroding their relationship. This wasn’t how she’d anticipated them taking leave of each other. “Anand? Can you spare a moment for your friend?”
He was clearly taken aback as she took both his hands in hers and gently kissed them. “Khanak what are you doing?”
“Anand…I don’t know if our paths will ever cross again and if they do, I’m not sure if you’d even care to look my way. Nevertheless.. whatever happens I want you to know this. I consider you as the best..(for the briefest moment Shan’s likeness flickered across her mind,)..one of the best men I know..who is an exemplary human being, who loves and respects women as his equal..who doesn’t consider them as objects to possess and subjugate as he pleases and throw them away when he has had his fill…he believes that besides wanting to be wives and mothers they too have dreams which are worth fulfilling.”
She paused, not sure how to say something that was bound to hurt him. “I know I don’t need to tell you this but I shall be failing in my duty as a sister if I don’t.”
He waited patiently.
“Please don’t punish my sister for my deeds..please don’t take out your frustrations on her..I know you won’t but sometimes control slips…Excuse her mistakes and ..and love her.”
She gazed into his eyes with all the sincerity she could muster. “That girl thinks the world of you. She believes she’s in love with you…which may very well be true given it has lasted this long.”
He stared at her with a blank look on his face, as if he had walked into a world which was at once strange and fearful. He was struggling hard to pretend that he was strong. “Thanks..very much, for lauding me so much. I certainly don’t deserve all that praise…and rest assured Khanak..I’ll never use your sister as a sounding board nor will I come in her way..she has all the freedom she desires.”
“As for love?” His eyes bore into hers. “Isn’t it ironic that it’s the hardest word in the world to define? ..Maybe as you said we’ll grow into it.”
“ANAND! cikkram!” (hurry up!) “How long will you mope..it’s your wedding day son!”
Khanak turned to the locked door with terrified eyes as she had done so many times in the past when she’d heard Anand’s mother’s voice.
A sad smile puckered his lips as he also recalled those good old days. “I think you should go now Khanak…my mother won’t be very pleased to find you here.”
“I don’t think anyone will be pleased to find me here.” She muttered as she turned to walk away from that gate for what she thought was the very last time.
She glanced around the quiet neighborhood, thinking about all those people who used to shake their heads and smile indulgently when she stormed into their houses any odd time during the day to play with Shalloo, Viji, or Sanjay…
“It’s alright. She’s after all a child..let her be” They used to say when her aunt chided her for acting wild.
Will those very same people come forward now to say a few words in her favor? She didn’t think so.
It is quite surprising but not uncommon that it just takes a random wicked rumor to severe relationships which may have taken years to cultivate… Individuals may be highly educated, capable of independent thinking, but during times like these, the need to fit in the whole takes precedence. Why would you wish to incur the wrath of your neighbor when it’s so much easier to nod your head and say, “Yes, that girl never seemed quite right to us..uske tevar kabhi theek nahin lage mujhe. poor Mishraji.”
Khanak’s feet dragged with malaise. She’d failed all those whom she loved and whom she thought loved her in return equally and unconditionally.
Unfortunately she’d been mistaken. Because for some love is but a transient feeling.