“At last. The Dulhan (bride) is here.”
Dulhan.. Mili pursed her lips and concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, gingerly making her way into the drawing hall of their bungalow, which was now filled to the brim with guests. If it hadn’t been for her mother’s firm grip on her arm, she’d have swung about and made a break for it; so desperate was her urge to flee.
For the past half an hour or so, she had schooled her mind into a state of detached indifference, while Kiran dolled her up. Closing her eyes, as she had so many times in the past, she had let her mind drift to a faraway place , to help alleviate the jitters somewhat.
But they were back now with a vengeance. She was acutely aware of everyone’s eyes upon her, including Ahaan’s, as though they were seeing her for the first time. And why wouldn’t they be—her mother had insisted on dressing her up as a bride. “When will I get another chance?”
Mili was draped in an outfit she had bought for her sister’s wedding. She had forgone wearing it at the time on the insistence of one of her aunt’s, who had warned that it’d make her outshine the bride, which would have been taboo.
The dress was a light maroon lehenga with a silver choli heavily embroidered with zari and studded with tiny mirrors. The jewelry was her mother’s own; ornate yet restrained, her luxurious midnight hair fell naturally lose around her shoulders, and it was all brought together by a touch of kohl to enhance her doe shaped eyes and a dash of maroon lipstick; she being blessed by a flawless complexion.
“Mrs. Sharma, your bahu (Daughter in law) is a Chand ka tukda (as beautiful as the moon)!” Someone exclaimed aloud.
“No, not the moon; the Sun!”
“When my bahu enters the room, everything fades into the background. Her beauty dazzles. So one could go blind if he stares too long.” Mili’s mother in law, in a white and black sari (white seemed to be her color of choice) said, with a bright smile while drawing her to sit beside her son. “And these words are not mine, they are my Ahaan’s. You have made a poet out of him my dear.”
Mili raised her eyes to glare accusingly at her fiance and promptly turned crimson. He was staring transfixed at her, while looking outrageously handsome in a dark suit and tie. With a wry shrug of his shoulders, he admitted his guilt, though there wasn’t even a whiff of contrition in his manner. Rather he seemed to be relishing her state of inordinate distress.
“If stating the simple truth makes you color so prettily, then I will have to make a habit of it.”
Flustered and thrilled at the same time she looked away and tried instead to focus on her future mother in law, though it proved to be far from an easy task. But it seemed important because she was going to play a big role in Mili’s future, almost as big as Ahaan and it made her nervous.
She wondered what kind of person Mrs. Sharma was—stern or lenient, compassionate or spiteful. By the looks of her she seemed quite pleasant and it was obvious that her world revolved around her only son.
“Open your mouth, my dear!”
Mili obeyed and almost choked on the date that was placed in her mouth. Her eyes filled up with moisture, but she composed herself and solemnly accepted the gifts which were piled into her lap.
But the worst part of the ritual was when she was directed to feed her fiance laddoo (a type of sweet). Still quite rattled at him, she reached up blindly, and missed the target by a mile. While everyone present burst into amused laughter, he caught her wrist and guided it to its destination.
“Perhaps you should feed me dinner. It might be fun.”
Not on your life, Ahaan! Mili’s eyes flashed fierily.
We shall see about that, Mili. His retorted with the utmost calm.
This visual argument was interrupted when their parents urged them to offer prayers together at the household shrine and then seek the blessings of the elders, by touching their feet.
“Dinner is served!” Her father announced gaily and led the party into the yard. She marched after him paying no heed to her fiance, knowing fully well that it made her look like a willful child. Perhaps she did so because it reminded her of the past; when she’d almost always exercised the upper hand or simply because she enjoyed irking Ahaan. Nevertheless, she didn’t pause to figure out.
The air was much cooler outside. Mili welcomed it. The bright indoor lights gave way to softer and more cozy stringed lanterns. Tables draped with white and red, muted classical music playing from hidden speakers, and a delicious vegetarian barbecue completed the lovely atmosphere.
Her father as usual adopting the role of the perfect host, was everywhere at once making sure that no one was left wanting for anything. Watching him, she felt her eyes well up again.
“Mili, come here beta!” He beckoned and when she came up, introduced her to his friends and associates. She was pleasantly surprised to hear him declare proudly that she, his daughter, was the future beacon of Indian classical music.
But when he pulled Ahaan to his side, her agitation returned and she scurried to make her escape.
She joined her mother, Mrs Sharma and a group of other ladies and sat quietly among them, playing with the heavy gold bracelets that her future mother in law had slipped around her wrists, while they carried on a conversation without her aid—one of the benefits of being the ‘bashful bride.’
Unconsciously her vision drifted, seeking Ahaan, and found him with a group of their old school friends, apparently having the time of his life. Right away she felt her ire rise. Then at the very moment he turned, and invariably caught her eye, making her cheeks burn yet again. She jumped up and dashed inside the house.
Ahaan found her in her room, huddled on the window seat looking out at the moon. Sitting down beside, he gazed at her for a long time, attempting to absorb her surreal beauty.
Fearing she would vanish at any moment, he hesitated before speaking. “Why are you avoiding me, Mili.”
“I am not!”
“Are you having second thoughts? Did I do anything wrong?”
“No. Whatever makes you think so?” She asked turning to him. He looked anxious.
“Phew! Thank heavens. You had me quite worried there!”
She couldn’t help but relent, her anger flying out of the window.“Why Ahaan?”
“Because your father wouldn’t listen to me. When I asked him to take it easy on the expenses, he came back saying that I shouldn’t intervene in something that gives him umpteen pleasure. And that I would know better when I have a daughter of my own!” He paused leaning closer, “Your father thinks way ahead, doesn’t he Mili?”
“Yes, he does.” She mumbled looking down, unable to meet the intensity in his eyes.
“I can’t thank you enough for deciding in my favor. It is impossible to express how happy I am. I can only promise that you won’t regret it.” He said grabbing her hand.
She nodded shyly finding no reason to doubt him, and held her breath as he raised her hand to his lips.
“They you are! And we were all wondering where our children had disappeared!”
Mili and Ahaan looked up guiltily at Kiran who had entered the room unbeknownst to either of them.
“Mrs. Bharadwaj! I..Mili,…we were just…” Blast! Ahaan found himself stumbling all over his words.
Kiran pretended to ignore it. “Your mother would like to go home. She is feeling worn out. And please call me mummy ji beta.”
“Yes mummy ji. Mom does like to turn in early. How could I forget?”
It was clear by the look in Kiran’s eyes that she guessed the precise reason behind his brief lapse, but she didn’t elaborate on it. Instead, she chose to tuck her arm around her future son-in- law’s and lead him down the corridor. But before Ahaan let her do so, he turned to Mili and slipped a piece of paper in her hand, with a covert instruction to open it in the morning.
Clutching it tightly, Mili followed behind, thinking, Mama, why the hell don’t you give me my space when I need it the most?
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