Happy Deepawali everyone! Here’s some holiday reading for you!
22: He States His Case
“Score!” Sheila, Shantanu’s secretary, muttered. She had been keeping rhythm with her boss’ steady pacing and he had just made it to a hundred in fifteen minutes. At this rate the carpet would soon need replacing, she thought making a check list in her mind, or else she would be. It had been tough but she had managed to make it through to this far. She had done so by doing her job and keeping out of his way. His absent mindedness had not helped much. It became her prerogative to find excuses for his sudden disappearance acts. He frequently skipped important meetings, then when asked why, he would say he had more important things to do than attend silly chat clubs.
She admired him for being completely out of the norm. Despite his unorthodox habits he had already gained a foothold in the market. He had established a name for himself separate from his father and brother as a thinking man’s architect, who designed buildings keeping in mind multiple aspects including aesthetics, ecology, the environment and sustainability. All his buildings were powered by at least 50% solar power and used recycled rain water. He had also been using locally available materials and was willing to accept all kinds of jobs. Nothing was too big or small for him.
Sunil Khandelwal had let his younger son contract out his services as an architect and hadn’t insisted on building those designs. This had broadened their presence in the business and more and more people including the government had begun seeking out Shantanu Khandelwal’s expertise. Sheila was smart enough to realize he had become a major asset to his father’s business and he knew it very well. He could probably call the shots if he wished but being his father’s obedient son he hadn’t done it yet. He’d simply exhibit his defiance now and then by doing things his own way and not toeing the line of tradition as he had done earlier today by skipping the weekly morning meeting headed by his father, which his brother had never missed in all his ten years with the company.
But Shantanu Khandelwal was Shantanu Khandelwal. A man who made his own rules and lived by them alone. He was a mystery and an alluring enigma, thought Shiela dreamily as she counted rotation number one hundred and six, his handsome head visible above the wood paneling, immersed deep in thought. But one whose heart was already taken as he had made very clear during her interview.
She sighed and waited for an opportunity to interrupt him. There was a lot of work to do.
It had been exactly three days since Shantanu’s tryst with Khanak when he had told her they would be engaged and wed in a week. And here he was, yet to take it up with his father, the almighty Sunil Khandelwal.
Hell! He banged his hand on the wall. People usually hesitated while approaching their future parents ‘ in- law but here I am shying away from approaching my own father! He knew the news would probably not be to the great man’s liking but he had to get it out in the open. I don’t care if he blesses our union or not. My mind is already made up and there is no going back, come what may.
Shantanu rang for his secretary. Sheila found him standing and staring out at the panoramic ocean view with his hands in his pockets and his lean back facing her. It was a standard pose that he adopted whenever he wanted to talk on a serious issue.
“Can you call Mr. Khandelwal’s office and arrange a meeting with him for say about 1 O’clock this afternoon?” He said without turning around.
He always addressed his father as Mr. Khandelwal, not Dad or father, whereas his brother was always Akshay. She wondered if it was his American education but instantly dismissed the thought. All Americans she dealt with insisted on addressing her by her first name, a practice they believed put people at ease. No, there was some other reason. There appeared to be an unspoken distance between father and son.
“But sir, you could just walk in. Why the need for a formal appointment?”
“Ms. Sheila, I know what I’m doing and I don’t need any pointers. Please do as I say and don’t ask questions.”
“Will do sir.” She turned to leave and then paused. “This morning’s meeting sir that you forgot to attend on the naming of the new resort casino… Your father was very disappointed when he didn’t see you there. I thought you may want to know.”
He turned around, his face stern. “Thanks for the FYI. It’s all just bullshit. Why the hurry to find a name for a place which is yet to see the design board? There isn’t even a site in the horizon and I can’t begin without any info about the location, views etc.” He shook his head. “Buildings, buildings, and the business of construction, that’s all he cares about. How about building lives and the foundation for a solid family?” Shantanu became pensive. Then he suddenly looked up. “But why am I talking to you about all this? You may go Ms. Sheila and please let me know when you’ve made the appointment.” He turned away dismissing her.
Looks like he wants to discuss his marriage, she thought and sighed again. There goes the most eligible bachelor in Mumbai!
In his massive corner office, Sunil Khandelwal sat preparing the company report for the upcoming quarterly shareholders meeting. Though he could designate the task to any of his very able staff, he insisted on doing it himself. Being always hands on and keenly involved in the day to day running of his company had been one of the key reasons of his success. Everyone knew nobody could fool Sunil Khandelwal and there were very few who would survive if pitted against him. So, instead people chose to join forces with him and keep him on their side.
There was a knock and he saw Shantanu peep around the door. “Can I come in?”
Sunil smiled broadly and waved his son in.
“Come on in! I don’t understand you young folks nowadays! All this formality to talk to your own father while on the other hand you are absent from an important meeting without even a courtesy call!”
“I’m sorry about that Dad,” his son said ambling in. “I guess I should have called come to think of it. But as you probably know by now I’m not interested in frills and fancy stuff. I care about substance and the soul. Most importantly I don’t like to count my eggs before they hatch.”
“You are absolutely right my son. And I appreciate knowing your POV. But I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way. Sometimes you must take a gamble and place the stakes high if you want to win. I mean if you are hungry enough.”
“Dad!” Shantanu shook his head. “But I’m just a simple guy. I play straight and let my work do the talking for me. Nobody need strain any grey cells here!” He laughed.
“All right son, you’ll learn with time. Now I don’t want you to waste any more of your half an hour. Any new ideas for expansion, some big deal around the corner?” Sunil said with an indulgent smile.
“Yes I do have an idea for expansion but it’s not what you think.”
“Then?” Sunil raised his eyebrows.
His son hesitated. “What I’m going to say now may make you happy and not so happy at the same time. I want to get married.”
“What? The confirmed bachelor getting married! That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time! So Khushboo was finally able to persuade you. Is it someone we know? Is it Krishnakant Sharma’s daughter? The one you danced with at your comeback party? Say yes! This marriage will mean a great deal to us. I’ve always wanted to buy KK out but now I wouldn’t have to. His daughter will bring all the goods with her! Yes, that’s like my son!” Sunil was jubilant.
Shantanu didn’t seem to share his joy. “Well it’s not as you think,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish Mr. Sharma’s daughter all the best. She will make some lucky man happy. But I don’t like to mix personal life with business, too complicated.”
“Then who is it?”
“It’s someone you know and I think like as well. It’s Khanak, Dr. Khanak Agarwal.”
“What? Dr. Agarwal? But…you must be kidding me son! When, how?”
“Dad I’m quite serious.”
Sunil then recalled Megha’s birthday, the pretty doctor’s unexpected arrival, her bonding with the family, Shantanu having eyes only for her, then his driving her home despite Dharam being there and available. “Perhaps it’s an infatuation that would pass?” he said with some hope.
“Dad!” Shantanu burst out laughing. “Now you are kidding me! Nope, this is the real thing. She is your future daughter-in- law!”
“Does she know?” Sunil saw his house of cards come crashing down.
“Of course, she does! Didn’t I tell you that I play straight? She knows, her parents know and everything’s hunky dory!” his son said confidently.
“Her parents? What kind of people are they?”
“Just regular people. Her Dad works in a bank, Mom’s a housewife devoted to her two daughters. She has a younger sister who is still working on getting educated. Overall a warm loving uncomplicated family, perfect for me in every sense and I have a feeling that they already like me a lot.” Shantanu beamed.
“You are a fast worker.”
“Well, I don’t believe in wasting time when it’s quite clear what we both want. Besides we aren’t growing any younger. Don’t you want some cousins for Megha?”
His son was at his best charming self and very hard to refuse. But Sunil tried.
“Do you think she would be able to carry out the responsibilities of a Khandelwal bahu? You know she and Khushboo are as different as night and day.”
“Like chalk and cheese, yes. But you don’t make sense, Dad. She’s beautiful, educated, a brilliant young doctor for crying out loud! I want someone who I can talk to and make decisions with. I want my marriage to be on an equal footing and not a one-sided affair like, like yours and Mom’s or for that matter Akshay bros!”
“Shantanu you are overstepping your boundaries!” Sunil exclaimed but couldn’t deny there was a ring of truth in what his son had said.
“Dad, as I said, I don’t mince my words. Khanak will not be like Khushboo bhabhi, no offence. Nor will she be like any upstart socialite. She will be what she is and that’s the reason I love her. Yes, I do and I have already given her my word and I won’t go back on it, no matter what you say.” Shantanu stood up from his seat. “This is just an FYI, I’m not asking for your permission, though it’ll be appreciated. This is the most important decision of my life and I’ve already made it.”
“Then what’s this charade of asking me? You could just as well go ahead.” Sunil leaned back in his chair.
“Well, I wanted to follow certain traditions and norms. I don’t want people to point fingers and wag their tongues.” He then spoke in a quieter voice, “Dad, I respect you and Mom tremendously and I am sure you will soon love Khanak as much as I do once you get to know her better. Please say yes and make me happy.”
“I need time.” Sunil said his mind was racing.
“All right, then till tonight or at the latest tomorrow morning. Enough time to discuss with mom, for Dadi ma has already given her okay. Bless her, maybe you should talk.” Shaan smiled.
“Okay I’ll let you know tomorrow.” Sunil said, hoping his wife would see his way.
Shantanu nodded and walked out leaving Sunil wondering why he had spoiled him so much.
That night at Khandelwal House:
Sunil looked at his wife Madhavi sitting as usual with her faithful companion, her mobile, sending one of her innumerable SMSs to god knows who. For all he knew she could be talking to aliens and soon may even get kidnapped by them, he thought hopefully. But right now he had to speak to her.
“You’re talking to me?”
“Yes, I have to ask you something.”
“Okay, so what have I done now?” She said, continuing to plug away at her phone.
“Well what? Have I taken you to the cleaners? Or did I forget to send a thank you note to Mr. and Mrs. Whoever!” She said without looking up.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what else can it be? Every time you need to talk to me it’s for one of those reasons. Madhavi! Why did you have to buy another diamond set, are you planning to get married again? For God’s sake, do I have to have an excuse to buy jewelry for myself? What else do bored rich business tycoons’ wives do anyway?”
“Do whatever you want to Madhavi but please listen to me now. I have something to say which is much more important.” He paused for effect, “Shantanu wants to get married.”
Madhavi gaped at him as if he had announced they were leaving for Timbuctoo. “Say that again!”
“Our son wants to get married.”
“Pinch me! No, not that hard, you’ll give me a bruise! Oye my baccha! Bless him and bless you for giving me the good news! Now I can put those diamond sets to good use. I knew he won’t be able to resist his bhabhi’s wicked ways any longer! So what stinking rich dad’s beti has agreed to be handcuffed to my laadla?” She asked with a bright smile.
“It’s not like you think. He wants to get married to…” Sunil took a deep breath, “Dr Khanak Agarwal.”
Madhavi swayed in place and placed a hand to her forehead. “OMG! Am I dreaming?”
“It’s true, Madhavi. I know, it’s a terrible shock.”
“Sunil, yes, shock it is but not terrible! It’s the best news I’ve heard in ages! Thank god!” Madhavi clasped her hands together. She was beaming from ear to ear. “At last! I knew it! Shaan would be the one to take a stand, to make his mama proud. To defy the rules! I knew it! He fell head over heels for that cute doctor who saved his life! I saw the signs, that naughty boy! What a lovely couple they’ll make!” She said dreamy eyed. “Sunil, thank you for giving me this wonderful news.” She blew him a kiss. “OMG a doctor in the house! Dadi ma wanted to light a thousand diyas if her living saint came home. I’ll be the envy of my friends! Oh there so many things to do! I’ve to plan the trousseau, poor girl, she has a heart of gold but no dress sense. I have to inform Dadi ma right away!”
“But Madhavi…” Sunil couldn’t believe his ears.
“Eat your heart out Sunil Khandelwal!” His wife rushed out leaving him stunned.
It was close to 9 O’clock that night when Shantanu sat with Megha in his lap, in the comfortable rocking chair in her room. He had offered to baby sit her while his brother took his wife to the movies for the first time in many years. They had asked him to come along but he had refused mentioning pending work while in fact he wanted to brood over what had transpired between him and his father earlier that day.
What will Dad do? Will he be able to get the entire family to vote against me? No, Akki and Dadi are on my side. I can probably count in bhabhi too; her behavior has changed considerably since Megha’s birthday. But Mom I can’t predict. She has always been a hard nut to crack, Shantanu thought as he twirled a lock of Megha’s hair around his fingers, It was so different from Khanak’s, lighter in shade and finer.
“Stop doing that Chachuu! My hair will get all matted like Mom says.”
“I’m so sorry!” Shantanu raised his hands in defense.
“Can you tell me a story? I can’t sleep.”
Shantanu sighed. “Please excuse me this once honey. I am tired, long day at work.”
“Okay. Do you want me to tell you a story then?” Megha asked innocently.
“Of course. I’d to love to hear what my baby has to say.”
Megha smiled appearing pleased and after making herself more comfortable in his lap enunciated in a dramatic voice, “This story is what Mom tells me all the time and it’s really true!” Her brown eyes opened wide. “There was once a beautiful girl just like Mom who lived in the biggest castle in the whole world ever! Are you listening?”
When Shaan nodded, she continued, “She was so happy, playing and laughing, but one day her Daddy married again and that woman was very bad and she hated mama and sent her to the forest. I hope my Dad never marries again!”
“I’ll make sure he won’t! What happened then?” Shantanu was curious to hear Megha’s interpretation.
“A witch in the forest gave poor Mom a bad apple and she ate it and died!”
“Yes, she was dead like really dead but then Dad was riding by and he saw her and kissed her and she woke up and then I was born. So, I am a real princess!” She said with a broad smile.
Shantanu guffawed at how she had managed to mix fiction and reality. Then he asked, “So you were born after they kissed?”
“Yes! Mom did not want to tell me but when I asked Grand Dadi how babies were made, she said by kissing. Is that right chachu? If you kiss Doctor aunty she may get a baby?”
Shaan laughed again and shook his head, “No my sweetheart! It’s far more complicated, something you won’t understand right now. I will talk to Dadi ma to stop filling your ears with ridiculous stuff!” So it was Dadi who sabotaged our first kiss, he thought.
“I miss Doctor Aunty!” Megha’s mood had undergone a sudden change. “I wish she was here with teddy and me. Can you ask her to come tomorrow?”
“I miss her too.” Shaan sighed closing his eyes.
“Can she come here and live with us and tell me stories every night?”
“Yes, if I have my way she will come here soon so you can play with her but she can’t sleep with you. Well may be occasionally.” If I let her that is, Shaan smiled.
“Yeah! That’s awesome! Did you hear that Teddy? Doctor Aunty is going to stay with us!” She addressed Teddy who was lying on the floor.
“I love you Chachu! You are the bestest!” Megha flung her arms around his neck.
Shantanu hugged her back hoping her wish would come true.
Later. after she had fallen asleep he laid her gently on the bed then sat down at her side and watched her with wistful eyes.
“Khanak, if you were here with me now, you’d know how much we all miss you.”
He covered Megha with her blanket and settled back down in the rocking chair and closed his tired eyes. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep.