“Could you… consider pretending,” Shaan paused; “that we are… deeply in love with each other?” He said and waited for her reaction. Please don’t say no.
“Pretend?” Khanak’s beautiful eyes grew wide.
“Uh…huh…I mean put on an act for the benefit of the world in general and one person in particular—Tash. ‘Cause I want to hit her where it hurts the most. I want to crush her pride, make her blind with jealousy. So much that she digs her own grave and falls victim to her own machinations.
And do so in such a manner that there is no hope for recovery. She deserves no sympathy;” he said looking grim and determined.
But his eyes were tender when they turned to Khanak; “This way she will surmise nothing and when she does… it’ll be too late.”
“But why play a game? Why don’t you simply tell it to her face?” Khanak asked.
He sighed; “I could but she wouldn’t believe me. She has assumed such a thick cloak of self-glorification and prejudice that criticism or rejection of any kind will glide off like water from a duck’s back.
No that wouldn’t work,” he pursed his lips. “That armor has to be riddled with so many holes that she drowns in her own putrid cesspool of despair. And I think it can be done because she too possesses a vice that has spelt the downfall of many…”
His mouth twisted into a cynical smirk; “For some reason she possesses this false notion that she is irresistible. That she is god’s gift to man. She believes I’m crazy about her and that I’m just playing hard to get which makes her even more tenacious. What she doesn’t get is that men look for other things in a potential mate… like inner beauty for instance.” He looked keenly into Khanak’s eyes making her blush again.
Shaan stared riveted. He was enchanted by her virgin allure. He fought a compelling urge to take her in his arms and reassure her of his undying devotion.
It is agonizing but I can’t rush it now, he thought. That moment has come and gone. Her trust in me has faltered and in order to win it again I have to give her space and give her time.
“But I won’t impose on you”, he said though he desperately wanted to, “I won’t bind you to a written agreement.” Idiot! What are you saying?That’s the only way you can keep her with you! “Everything will go on as it has before…” How is that possible? Pagla gaya hai kya tu?! Have you gone mad? “Take your time…” Shaan wanted to kick himself hard!
“If my behavior in the past few weeks has been any indication of my character than I really hope you will decide in my favor Khanak.”
She didn’t respond and her large eyes were unreadable.
He couldn’t wait anymore. He stood up. “Come. Let’s go home.”
“But I can’t come with you.” She looked flustered.
“Khanak please! At least for tonight. You can do whatever you wish tomorrow. Besides Horse will be on edge, he hasn’t seen you all day.”
“Did you miss me a lot?” She hugged Horse tight and buried her face into the soft thick fur of his neck.
He whimpered softly in reply and gave her cheek a few licks. She held his head between her hands and peered into his gentle eyes. They seemed to empathize with what she was going through.
“How is it that despite the gift of language we fall way short in expressing our feelings while you can do it without saying a single word? How Horse?” She asked him before breaking down into a loud sob.
It was impossible for her to control the outburst. The pent up misery and anguish of the past few weeks had finally found an outlet. There were several things to mourn for including the loss of her childhood home which she had been compelled to forfeit; a place that harbored some of the most beautiful memories of her life–the family with whom she had been coerced to sever all ties just because she had dared to dream, to aspire to be someone.
Then just when a glimmer of hope had become apparent, it had been callously eradicated like one does a pernicious infestation, ruthlessly, with no mercy.
She wasn’t sure how long the torrent flowed but when it ebbed, she felt empty, bereft of any feeling, just like her eyes, gritty and desolate.
Her canine companion who had borne the emotional onslaught silently, displaying unusual fortitude for a pup his age or any mammal for that matter; calmly placed both his forepaws on her shoulders and proceeded to lick her face clean not paying any heed to her gasps of protest.
Then in front of her curious eyes he busied himself fetching various articles in a gesture of appeasement. These included a chewed up tennis ball, a Frisbee, a squeaky toy bone, a stuffed bunny as well as a barely recognizable computer mouse. He laid them down at her feet all covered in ample amounts of slobber. When she didn’t seem to find any of these offerings very appealing, he turned the TV on by stepping on the remote (he looked well trained in the particular task). It was tuned to a channel that showed old black and white reruns.
Despite a near absolute lack of interest Khanak couldn’t resist being taken by the abusive and self-destructive antics of the Three Stooges that she rolled around the bed convulsing with laughter. And it had Horse prancing around and barking excitedly.
Finally, exhaustion caught on and she succumbed to a deep, dreamless sleep. So deep that Horse was able to pillow his massive head on her abdomen without getting shoved away.
“What…?” She groaned awake. It was an effort to open her eyes as the lids stuck were together.
Horse was tapping her with his paw, her ringing phone held between his jaws.
“Yikes! Don’t swallow it!” She exclaimed wrenching it free.
The call was from an unknown number.
“Hello.” she said after some hesitation.
“Shree! … Is that you?”
“Yes it’s me. Your Shree!”
“Oh my god!” It was hard for Khanak to believe she was hearing a voice from the past. The one she had left so abruptly. She was suddenly concerned; “Shree, are you alright? Is….is Anand treating you well?”
“Oh c’mon di! I’m fine! We are fine! You don’t have to worry about me!”
Khanak felt better right away. Her friend Anand would never let her down. She scolded herself for letting such an idea even creep into her mind.
Shree continued; “Anandji is so sweet…a little shy, but sweet. He doesn’t talk much. I do…” she giggled, “…and he listens. He doesn’t shoo me off like he used to. He can’t. Poor him.”
“Oh Shree…I’m so sorry!”
“No di. I’m not complaining. You two had a special bond. We are just beginning to get to know each other and he is doing his best.”
A shy note crept into her voice; “He… he is very attentive. He is always aware of my needs. I don’t have to ask for anything! He calls from work several times a day to make sure I’m fine and he comes home promptly at six. Then we go out together…just for a stroll around the neighborhood, or to the store… I’m getting familiar with the dollars and cents and the fact that there is no bargaining here…” She laughed. “Once we even took the subway and travelled to downtown New York and Central Park! He laughed a lot that day…”
Khanak was pleased. Her sister sounded very happy.
“Di? Are you there?”
“Yes Shree. I am.”
“Are you missing your old friend?”
“Yes… I mean no! No I’m not missing him Shree!”
“It’s alright if you do di. I won’t feel bad. I would too if I were you. Di…. Oh my god he’s home!”
“I should say goodbye Shree. Thank you so much for calling me.”
“No di wait! Please don’t keep the phone down!”
Khanak waited biting her lower lip nervously. She felt oddly uncomfortable.
She didn’t speak.
“Khanak… are you still there?”
“Yes I am. How are you Anand?” she said in a rush.
“Ohh Khanak!” She heard relief in his voice and something else she didn’t want to hear.
“Anand I’d better go…We’ll talk later.”
“You won’t spare time for someone who at one time used to be your best friend?”
“It’s fine to talk. Shree has left us alone for a change,” he laughed.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help it. I remembered those good old days. Some memories are so hard to erase Khanak.”
“You sound cynical Anand.”
“I’m not Khanak. I’m not! I’m trying and so is she…maybe even harder than I am! She is very sweet, this sister of yours. I didn’t know she could cook so well and so fast! I am sure I will be double my size pretty quick if I don’t watch it! She is also very funny…she reminds me of you Khanak.”
“Anand don’t! You have to move on. She is your wife now and I am just your old friend.”
“No! You are my best friend Khanak and that’s how you’ll always remain even if you choose to forget me.”
“I will never forget you Anand…but you have to give your all to your new life. To your wife. She comes first.”
“I want to Khanak! I want to real bad! You think I don’t know my priorities?” Anand burst out loud.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone off like that on you. I’m so sorry. But I keep thinking of you all the time. The only way I can do as you say; that is move on is if I know you are alright Khanak…’cause I feel so guilty when I think about the circumstances in which we parted. So guilty and so helpless!”
“Anand you don’t have to. I’m fine.”
“Are you? By the way…is that guy…what’s his name.”
“Yes Shan. Is he looking out for you? I know what he did that day was a ruse prompted by the circumstances though he showed great presence of mind. I must laud him for that. But I felt I saw a lot more there between you two…it made me envious. That dance…It was…magical. I think he really cares about you. But I want to hear it from you Khanak! I want to know that you are fine. That you are living your dream. That it was all worth it. I want you to be happy where you are.”
She screwed her eyes tight shut, almost choking on the tears that had begun to flow again. Horse let out a warning whimper. She patted his head. “I am fine Anand. And yes I am living my dream. I am doing exactly what I left home for and it is worth it! One day perhaps you will even see me perform on Broadway and ask me for my autograph!”
He laughed; “Really? Then that would be the most memorable day of my life! I’d be so proud. I’d announce to the world that you are my friend! I will be waiting eagerly for that day Khanak!”
You won’t have to wait long Anand.”
Great! I feel so much better now. So much better. Thank you Khanak.”
“Thank you Anand…” she relaxed. “thank you for everything.”
She remained awake long after thinking of what she had just said and sensed a resurgence of familiar excitement, a feeling that had left her by the wayside for quite some time.
‘I need to know you are living your dream.’
Yes. I need to find myself, the real Khanak again. I should not lose track of her. She is important to me. Thank you for reminding me Anand. I’d almost forgotten about her.
Then an image flashed across her mind, a vicious ugly image of jealousy and hatred.
‘I want to hurt her…crush her…she deserves no sympathy.’
Khanak nodded, “you are right Shan. She deserves none whatsoever, only the worst she can get because she dared to interrupt my dream! What do you think Horse?”
He answered with a loud approving Woof!
But what if Shan didn’t mean all that he said? A little voice nagged.
So what? He did say he wouldn’t impose, that I was free, with no contracts to bind me, that I could leave whenever I wanted to. Yet deep inside she knew she didn’t want to.
Her heart began to thud rapidly again. She slid off the bed.
It was 9 am. Pretend to be in love? That wouldn’t be so hard.
She peeped outside then stood there holding the door ajar. She heard voices raised in argument.
“I am not so sure about that.”
“Hell Shan! I am pretty sure. I want to be the last act like always!” It was haughty Tarun at his peevish best.
“Nope.. that won’t be cool. This time Jhankaar’s theme is different. It calls for a different perspective, something new and vibrant. I think we should end with the entire team on stage; a grand finale so to speak. People should get an opportunity to see us in all our splendor.”
“Shan that’s bull! We have never ended that way. It has always been me and Tash… and since she isn’t around, me alone!” Tarun declared. Khanak could imagine a pompous sneer on his face.
Shan who had been so far displaying remarkable tolerance lost it; “Yes.. Tash isn’t there anymore nor will she ever be. ‘Cause we have someone far better…Khanak! She deserves all the respect you can give her and more! She will dance with you in the final act and the rest will be there as well!”
Tarun whined; “But what about tradition Shan. I know you are big on that and I am Jhankaar’s tradition!”
“I want to break away from tradition. I want us to reach new magnitudes, chart new territories and that’s that!” Shan put his foot down.
“But…” Tarun stopped midsentence when he realized there was someone else in the room.
Shan followed Tarun’s gaze and he saw Khanak. She looked different. Beautiful as always but no longer vulnerable. Instead she looked proud and dignified despite being still dressed in her PJs. It was an attractive new aura.
He watched as she approached in slow measured steps with a bright smile that enveloped both of them and was directed at him in particular.
After gracefully taking her seat on the arm of his taupe recliner she stunned him by putting a casual arm around his shoulders with the ring he had given her in plain view. Then she addressed his employee; “It’d be better for you to listen to what your Boss says Tarun for he is as stubborn as they come and has a very violent temper! You don’t want to be left high and dry do you?” Her smile grew wider. “Besides he can do nothing wrong and that is why I am his biggest fan. Isn’t that right Shan?”
Her lustrous eyes met his and what he saw in them made him wish to jump up and whoop with delight. Rather he exhibited uncommon control and made do with raising her hand deliberately to his lips: “If you say so honey… and so am I… forever yours.”