“Aati kya khandala?”
Khanak’s breath caught in her throat and her heart sank to the pit of her stomach. She had been so lost in her thoughts that she’d failed to notice the car.
Dreading the worst, she chanced a peak out of the corner of her eyes and saw them; three men in a dark red convertible that was hugging the sidewalk and trailing just behind her.
It was her worst nightmare.
Lifting her head, her posture belying a confidence she lacked, Khanak fought an irresistible urge to flee and resolutely continued to trot on.
But The SOBs were tenacious young hounds, disinhibited and emboldened by a liquor.
The vehicle drew in front blocking her progress as she made to cross the street.
She could now clearly see their faces—young slackers who free loaded off their rich dads and whose souls were sold to a life time of sin.
Within moments she was surrounded. They circled around her like hyenas; their blood shot lascivious eyes gloating over her as if she was a piece of meat on the butcher’s block.
She took a step backwards as her skin crawled with revulsion. Her hand instinctively reached for her stole before she realized she had none.
An oily faced juvenile delinquent; his hand still clinging on to an empty bottle, shot up from depths of the back seat of the car and mumbled; his words an indistinguishable slurry.
“Itni raat gaye, jaaneman…road par.. akele..ek.. khoob surat ladki?” (So late in the night sweetheart, a lone girl alone on the street….)
“Kyun? Nahin chal sakti? Tere baap ka naam likha hai kya?” (Why can’t I walk? Does your father own this road?) She shot back taking cover behind a facade of aggression.
The rogues were taken aback but only momentarily. They roared with glee and inched closer; “Chikni toh teekhi churi nikli yaar…phir toh aur bhi mazei hain…” (Pretty girl is also sharp like a knife. Thereby she will be more fun.)
She eyed them warily, her mind fighting the numbness brought on by fear. She gripped her purse tighter as her palms turned began to perspire.
One of them decided to take the initiative and made a grab for her.
“Aage mat aana nahin toh goli maar doongi!” (Don’t come forward or else I will shoot!) she screamed.
“She’s kidding yaar!” they laughed but stopped in their tracks; their attention riveted as she made a show of slipping her hand inside her purse. She was desperate.
“Sweetheart! There you are finally! Do you realize how much I have been worried about you?”
She blinked, her jaw dropped. Was it real or was her mind playing tricks.
“Darling! Don’t stare at me like that! I am after all your only husband!” Shan said with a broad smile.
“Yes. How could you just leave without telling me?”
I’m definitely imagining this! She thought.
He drew closer, embracing her with loving concerned eyes; “All right forget about me but what about chunnu, munnu?”
“Yes…and Tina, Meena?”
“Tina …Meena?!” One of the loafers who had been as stupefied as her interjected.
Shan turned to him; “Our sweet little kids! And… she is expecting again!”
All eyes including Khanak’s zoomed in on her flat stomach.
Shan laughed; “I just found out today! Darling you are pregnant!”
“What?” Khanak’s head spun.
“Yes you are with our fifth in 2 years!” he exclaimed.
He ignored her and turned to her perspective attackers.
“So guys, do you think it’s right for a pregnant mom to abandon her poor husband and babies and take off like this in the middle of the night just because she loves her job so much?”
Khanak was also inquisitive. This road show was turning out to be quite interesting.
“She is a secret CIA agent, on a dangerous mission and a sharp shooter to boot!”
“Really she is?” The hyenas weren’t looking as hungry anymore.
“Yes! …She can spot and shoot someone in the head from a mile away… it’s like a sport to her…many innocents have sacrificed their lives. She’d have shot you too if I hadn’t arrived on time… am I right precious?” He asked her with an intimate smile while putting an arm around her shoulders. “The only reason I am still alive is because I’m your darling husband and the father of your babies.”
It wasn’t clear when they realized that the ruffians had abandoned them but it was after a while.
Khanak was the first one to wake up.
Breaking free from his grasp she took several steps back as if distance would help eliminate the influence of his charm; “Thanks, but no thanks. I am quite capable of taking care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt you can but when I saw you hemmed in by those sick bastards I couldn’t help myself.”
“Stop it please!” She said, her eyes welling up with tears; “Stop eroding into my defenses! I know I am quite alone in this world therefore please let me fight my own battles!”
He looked chagrined; “Don’t say so Khanak. I am always there for you. You are in deep pain. I want to help….”
“So was that one of your acts as well? If it was…it was really good! So good that a poor girl like me was thrown into a mire! I must truly compliment you on your prowess Mr. Khandelwal! You are truly a master of disguise!”
“Khanak please! I have never willingly tried to…”
She didn’t let him make his case; “Why…why did you need to use me like a pawn? If you wanted to play me against her, you could have just said so and I would have helped you. Why chose to humiliate me in front of that crowd…why Shan?”
“I didn’t mean to do anything of that sort Khanak.”
“I thought you were real unlike the rest! But you deceived me or rather I did! I was living a lie!” She lashed out in an attempt to ejaculate some of her bitterness but it wasn’t enough.
She glanced at her hand, at the beautiful ring that had come to mean so much to her. Now it felt like a painful appendage. A sob rose in her throat as she plucked it from her finger; “Take this, I don’t need it anymore! Give it to her. She is the one who should be wearing it!”
“NO! No Khanak please don’t do it!” He exclaimed gripping her hands tight; “It’ll break my heart!”
She pulled away forcibly; “What about my heart? Is it fair game? Or do you think I don’t possess one at all? Perhaps that’s true. My heart has been shattered so many times already that it doesn’t exist anymore.” She wailed.
“Khanak no!” He cried crushed at the sight of her crestfallen face; “You have a beautiful heart, one that is generous to a fault. And it brims with a passion that can move people to exalted planes just like I have been. So many times that I have lost count.”
She raised her eyes and he thought he saw something there that gave him a flicker of hope. “Please Khanak listen to me,” he said.
“No, it’s all over;” she declared. “you may consider everything as a joke or fun and games but it isn’t so for me. I can’t go on this way. I’m not made like you people.”
“I’m not like those people, I am like you Khanak. I want you to know that. Hear me out, give me a chance to explain before you pass your judgment. Doesn’t every culprit deserve his day in court?” Shan implored.
She studied his face for a long moment and thought; What do I have to lose?
She let him lead her to an isolated bus stop close by and grudgingly accepted his invitation to sit on the bench but maintained a mindful distance.
He took several moments to collect his thoughts. He didn’t want to hide anything from her yet at the same time he didn’t want to appear frivolous. He closed his eyes briefly before looking directly at her; “I’m not sure how you will take what I’m about to tell you because a lot of it may be unexpected. But I have to say it now for I may get no other opportunity in the future.”
He took hold of her hand, not letting go even when she protested; “When I slipped this ring around your finger I had an ulterior motive.”
“Yes…” He said with an embarrassed smile. “I was looking for a way to keep you with me even after the term of our contract…and I did so in the pretext of protecting you from your chachu’s wrath ’cause I wasn’t sure if you’d humor me.
“I didn’t have the courage to tell you then but I…;” he hesitated before continuing while a struggle raged inside him. “I really had started to uhm…l…like you. You were different Khanak.”
He gazed into the distance; “I was drawn to you from the very first time I saw you…as Shakuntala…I was like the rest arrested by your magnetic presence on the stage.” He looked at her; “It’s a God given gift you have and despite spending time with you I fell victim to it again when I saw you dance today. You are something else Khanak.”
She lowered her gaze as a slow blush spread on her cheeks.
“And that’s another thing, you seem utterly oblivious to it all! You are so immersed in your art that everything else falls on the way side! You are ambitious but you will only wield your talent as your weapon.
“And that pulled me even closer to you. I began to see you as part of my future…a potential companion, someone who is as devoted to her art as I am to mine. You changed my mind because before I met you I had planned to spend my life alone.”
This was new to Khanak. She didn’t want to believe him. “Then what about tonight? About what Natasha said…your engagement with her?”
“Yes I’m coming to explain that;” he said with a grim set to his jaw. “Tonight was as much of a surprise to me as it was to you. I expected it to be something different but…;” he shook his head, “never mind.” He turned to face her again still not letting go of her hand; “Diva told me he did enlighten you about that one of a kind bitch.” He saw Khanak flinch; “Sorry but that’s the only word that befits her.
“She was an excellent dancer, no doubt about it, and I considered myself fortunate when she agreed to be part of my company because I was just starting and she had umpteen number of choices. Things were fine for some time. There was some whispering in the media about the two of us like there always is and I didn’t take it seriously. I was never interested in her that way Khanak…
“Then things changed as Diva probably told you. I saw her interest fade. She stopped attending the regular practice sessions and began to invest more time in associating herself with big names. I saw her grip on dance slipping.
“She saw it too but instead of remedying it she tried to con me into giving her a permanent contract that fortunately I refused. But she wanted to secure her future, she was afraid I would replace her with someone else. I wasn’t about to then, I was willing to give her a fair chance but that wasn’t acceptable to her. She wanted more. I was willing to give her a small cut in the profits we made as well as other benefits. I thought she was satisfied…at least she seemed to be…
“So one day when we were celebrating the success of a show…she produced these two rings and asked me to put one of them around her finger as a guarantee I won’t abandon her in the future. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal so I humored her because that was exactly what I had done…..at no time did I realize she’d later blackmail me like this! It was a carefully planned deception, a scheme and I didn’t believe in it then just like I don’t believe in it now. That so called ‘engagement’ never happened as far as I am concerned.
“In fact just like Diva I too have started to believe that her broken ankle fiasco was a deliberate attempt to spite me, to make me realize that I am helpless without her. But I am not because of you Khanak…and that has shaken her. She’s scared out of her wits!”
His face grew dark with rage; “I don’t feel pity for her not after tonight when she did what she did to you. I could never forgive her for that…Ever!”
He hadn’t realized he was twisting her wrist. “I’m sorry Khanak, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I never did. I hope what I’ve said has shed some light on the fact that I am an innocent man.” He perceived a slight nod and felt a thrill of relief.
He then dropped down to his knees; “And I meant each and every word I said earlier. I want you to be my partner in more ways than one. I want you to be my perfect foil. And I want to teach that woman a lesson. I want to punish her for what she has done to you…and for that I need your help…”
“What kind of help?”
“You don’t really hate me do you?” He asked looking hopefully at her lovely face wishing fervently she’d accept his offbeat proposal.