It was late twilight. The Sun was about to set. The sky was awash with a plethora of hues that gave everything in sight a warm becoming glow, including the two young occupants of the far table close to the window.
Mili had pulled on a watermelon pink button down sweater, slate colored leggings and a scarf of the finest white pashmina, not realizing that she looked utterly fetching in the outfit. Ahaan, in a deep navy pin striped shirt and tan casual pants was the picture of effortless elegance.
Mili tried to appear unperturbed, even as she felt Ahaan’s admiring gaze upon her. Both had barely touched their drinks.
Finally, mustering some courage, she began, “Ahaan..I…”
“Spill it out! Say it Mili, that you can’t trust me enough to make you happy!”
“I didn’t mean that…” She said looking up, startled by his impassioned tone.
“Then what else was the purpose of this meeting?” He demanded, leaning forward in his chair, staring directly into her eyes.
Mili was shaken. Ahaan seemed to have a lot more vested in this than he had made her feel. It was not just an exercise to fulfill his mother’s wishes. The confident nonchalance he had displayed yesterday had disappeared, leaving in its place a certain raw vulnerability that had been a characteristic of the old Ahaan and it drew her to him. She tried to resist.
“I…wanted to apologize for the appalling way I’ve always treated you. You didn’t deserve it. You must have felt miserable. I’ve been a most malicious mischief maker.” She said, her cheeks flushing crimson at the admission. Yet she continued on bravely, “And I also wanted to say that…that I’m not the right girl for you.” There it is out.. I’ve done my job! She thought taking a deep breath.
An amused glint crept into her companion’s eyes, “How could you know about how I felt and more importantly how can you decide who is suitable for me?”
“I don’t know..” She said, surprised at his response. “I am quite stupid and irrational, while you are smart and intelligent. You deserve much better.”
He smiled, reclining back in his chair. The assured suaveness returning in his manner. “To tell you the truth, I truly enjoyed all the attention you heaped on me. I liked being singled out, even though it was for punishment.”
Mili felt a load lift off her shoulders, “You didn’t feel bad? You didn’t hate me?”
“Like I said yesterday, I did, at first, but then it was fine…perhaps because I took a liking to you. You were not vicious, even though you may think so, nor did you spread rumors…you just irritated me like hell!”
Mili frowned, “But then.. are you really serious about marrying me?”
“Yes. I am. At first, I was just chancing it. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. But now I see myself spending the rest of my life with you and you alone. Yet I will respect your decision, whatever it may be.” He replied, his smile growing broader.
Damn does he look hot! She thought, feeling an unfamiliar heat rush through her being. Gosh! What is wrong with me?
“Ahaan, you just don’t seem to get it!…” She said, pursing her trembling lips.
“I get everything perfectly.”
Mili sensed a sudden hush in the cafe. People had stopped their chatter and were watching both of them with keen attention. Everybody there knew who she was and it was just a matter of time before the Bharadwaj girl’s exploits would be all over town.
She got up, “Let’s take a walk.”
“It is dark.” Mili said, anxiously glancing around the practically deserted street outside the cafe. Darkness had descended abruptly on the small hill town.
“You have nothing to fear, least of all me.”
Mili looked up at Ahaan. He was absolutely right. There were very few others she would feel safer with.
They took the long way home.
They walked in silence for several minutes while Mili tried to gather her thoughts. She was glad he didn’t rush her.
“I… wasn’t prepared for this… marriage was not on my immediate agenda. I’m not sure of my parents though.” She said wondering if her mother and father had already begun the dreaded search without bothering to seek her approval.
“So you don’t ever wish to tie the knot.”
“I’m not saying that…I would sometime in the future, I think.” She rushed to correct him, then wondered why she had done so.
“So why not now? Why not at 24 than at 30?”…
“Mili, look out!” Ahaan shouted a sharp warning as he placed an arm around her waist and pulled her to safety. She had been perched on the edge of a path which inclined steeply downhill.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see where I was going.” She said, savoring the comforting cocoon of his warmth for a moment before releasing herself.
He didn’t attempt to restrain her, but she could sense his reluctance.
“I feel that marriage would limit my freedom, like I have seen happen to some of my friends. Focus gets lost. Children, home, husband divide your attention and in the process you lose sight of who you really are.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way with us, Mili. Not at all.”
She continued with a wry smile, “And just like any other girl, I too have held a silly romantic notion, that one day I’ll fall in love and find my Mr. Right.” Then looking straight at him, with her chin tilted at a defiant angle, “I know that sounds ridiculous. Go ahead, laugh at me. I won’t mind!”
Ahaan smiled indulgently, “There is absolutely nothing silly about it. Love can be nurtured and it will flourish between two individuals as long as they care about each other.” Then turning towards her, he said, “ Mili, I respect your feelings and reservations. The only thing I have to say for myself is that I will try my best not only to be your husband but also your best friend and companion. Your needs and well being will be my highest priority.”
Mili saw the earnestness in his expression. He was dead serious.
Why am I fighting it? Just because I’m used to…or because I can’t believe how much I want to say yes. She turned away and closed her eyes, feeling a tremendous relief at the realization. I do want to say yes!
When she turned back, she saw that his eyes were filled with apprehension.
“Mili, are you?…”
“I’m willing to marry you but I have a couple of conditions…”
He stared disbelievingly at her for several moments before a broad smile lit his face, “Of course, whatever you say!”
They had reached the gates of her home.
“You won’t make demands for any kind of dowry.”
“I certainly won’t. Me and my family have always abhorred such regressive customs. You can rest assured.”
Mili’s heart had begun to thud rapidly inside her rib cage. The moment was near. “Secondly, I do not wish us to have a lavish wedding.”
Ahaan, who had been holding his breath, let it out audibly, “My thoughts exactly! We can just sign the certificate in front of the magistrate if that’s what you wish.”
Mili laughed, shaking her head, “It’s not me, it’s my father that I’m worried about. I’m sure he has made plans to squander the entire year’s earnings on his youngest daughter’s wedding and it’ll be impossible to dissuade him. Perhaps he will be willing to curb his enthusiasm slightly if his future son in law advises him to do so. Will you? Please?”
“Of course I will. Anything to please you.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “Is that all Mili?”
“Yes…that’s all.” She replied, lowering her gaze.
He took her hand in his, “Are you completely satisfied?”
“I think I am.”
“Then let’s go tell your parents before you change your mind.”
She smiled and nodded. They walked to the house together .