Category Archives: Stories

Milan (A Wedding Story) 3A: Indecision

Chap 2

Chap 3 A: Indecision

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Continuing from where I left off 🙂

“Mili?…” Jai ventured at the dinner table, not having had the opportunity to converse with his daughter all day. For after the guests had left, she had locked herself up in her room until  her mother had finally coaxed her out for a bite. But she hadn’t tasted her meal…, just pushed the food around her plate for the past half hour.

She stood up, “I think I’ll turn in. It’s been a long day. Good night.”

“But beta (child) we have to talk…” Jai’s voice trailed off when he saw Mili disappear down the corridor without even a glance back. He looked askance at his wife, who was watching the proceedings with a discerning smile on her face.

“Kiran…we really do need to talk to her…”

“Our daughter is confused. Consider it a good sign.” She said, placing a reassuring hand on her husband’s.

`

Mili turned the TV off and tossed the remote away frustrated. Watching documentaries usually helped her fall asleep but not tonight. Her mind refused to distract itself from the topic of Ahaan. He had made it all so difficult.

She was indeed quite confused.  It was not black and white anymore. She couldn’t just pick up the phone and say no to him.

Why? Because she didn’t want to hurt him? Because she cared about how he felt? Did it mean that her feelings for him had undergone a drastic change or was it because they had been silly and unrealistic to begin with… A product of an immature adolescent mind. He had never really done anything to incur such animosity from her. His behavior had always been exemplary.

Perhaps mother is right. I victimized him because he was different and his silence made him easy prey. I acted like a cruel child, and he took it all quietly. Even now he bears no malice towards me whatsoever.

Mili was overtaken by tremendous guilt. I should apologize and tell Ahaan that I am not worthy of him.

Swinging her legs off the bed, she walked up to where her sitar rested. She picked it up and began playing absently. Her fingers flew up and down the instrument effortlessly, playing a favorite tune of their own accord.

‘I dabble in a little guitar myself…’

Mili smiled… ‘Dabble’ in Mr TOI’s vocabulary would equal a significant degree of proficiency. She could picture Ahaan strumming expertly on his guitar. Perhaps we could even do a Jugalbandi together, a musical east-west fusion.

No! What am I thinking? That could never be… A frown of distress marred her clear brow.

Placing her beloved instrument aside, she picked up the phone and dialed her elder sister’s number, but then changed her mind immediately.

No.. Sheela di (elder sister) will tell me to be obedient and submit to whatever mama and papaji decide because they know best,  Mili mused, recalling the events of four years ago when her sister had complied with Grandpa’s wishes and wedded his best friend’s young nephew, just because he had given him his word. She had quit her studies and had not uttered even a single word of complaint just because the family honor was at stake. It was a different matter altogether that Rohan Jiju (brother in law) had turned out to be the perfect match for her.

She opted to call her best friend Annie instead.

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Rhythm and Blues Chap 31: Make-believe

Chapter 30

31: Make-believe

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Diva stood at the entrance of the studio and watched his two friends like a proud mother watches her high achieving kids and pride swelled his chest.

They were doing what they did best–dancing. And when they danced they were in their element. Two gorgeous individuals in perfect synth—a condition so infectious it spilled over to the rest of the artists and made them give their very best.

The dance was a slow lyrical  number; a song about the triumph of love with plenty of lifts and intimate moves giving Shaan ample opportunity to romance Khanak and he made the best of it repeating certain steps over and over in the pretense of correcting other dancers’ mistakes, in the process making Khanak go red with embarrassment.

“I think everybody’s got it Shaan. We should let them work on their own now.” Khanak said breaking away when she found him on the verge of kissing her which was certainly not part of the routine. He let go of her reluctantly and though he tried hard, couldn’t cover his frustration.

That is exactly what happens when you bottle up your feelings, bachaa! Diva thought with a smirk. He sashayed up to the pair, “C’mon little ones….lets go home.”

“Home? Whatever for?” Shan had to work hard to control his scowl. He was in no mood to listen to anybody at the moment, particularly Diva with his far fetched ideas.

His friend’s false eyelashes went aflutter as he pouted, “For a photo shoot. An intimate portrait of two lovers which I feel should be documented for posterity… to inspire future generations.” He sighed. “Just like Shakespeare did with Romeo and Juliet even though they were fictional characters. But both of you are very much for real and the world needs to know don’t you think?” His sly wink enveloped both of them.

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Romance Chap 5: The Inevitable

Chapter 4

5: The Inevitable

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A few days passed without event. I was outside on our tiny terrace garden, a watering can in my hand, exchanging notes with my young neighbor while her good-looking bhaiyya hung around in the background and pretended to ignore me. I was in a great mood having received a very good offer from a renowned local clinic. Plus mom had made my favorite idli sambhar for breakfast which I took as a peace offering from her side.  

“Let’s go to a movie. How about you Manas?”

“I’d love to come. How about this Friday? I’m free after five,” Puja’s brother said catching my eye and I felt something akin to an old familiar excitement.

“Yes it’s a date!” I turned and skipped back inside, already thinking about what I was going to wear.

“Aanchal…!”

My hopes were dashed.

My mother confronted me again but this time she had company… my Dad.

I haven’t yet talked about him. There’s a reason. Because Dad and I shared a relationship which could be best be described as uncertain. Mom and I got along quite well. At least we had so far despite her many faults and likely mine as well. We usually found a middle ground. But it wasn’t the same with Dad.

To everyone; family, friends and neighbors included, Krishnakanth Govindrao Bhatt was a wonderful person. He was solid, hardworking, honest and reliable. And he was generous to a fault ever ready to lend a helping hand. But he had a vice that dismissed everything. At least it did for me–his love for drink. The bane of many families. It was what drove my brother away to join the army and make a life of his own. My mother’s years of sitting up late into the night waiting for Dad to come home and then having to deal with his drunken meanness with my assistance.  It is still as clear as day. I remember wrestling with him while he rained slurred curses on mom. Him telling me I was good nothing, the vile stench of alcohol on his breath. There were times he would retch up blood and we would rush him to the hospital. He always recovered. Always; only to return to his ways. I was traumatized. Perhaps that contributed to my anxiety and eternal self doubt. Perhaps it was the reason I could never open up to anyone because I couldn’t trust them. How can you after being betrayed by someone so close to you? Perhaps it was also the reason why I hadn’t confronted Rohan.

Dad did come around finally. I got him into a treatment program. He had been sober for almost five years though even now the fear would always haunt us when he didn’t return home on time.

I couldn’t forgive him. So I pushed him to the background. He didn’t mind. Rather he liked to remain there and let me do whatever I wanted. Maybe it was his way of saying sorry. Therefore I think it must have taken mom quite a bit of effort to have him back her today.

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A Cup of Tea (Excerpt From Romance)

 

The flames in the fireplace flickered making the shadows dance across their faces as they regarded each other. A single thought occupied both their eyes. They could hear it as if it was being said loud and clear—Why, why does life behave this way?

Why did it have to them together at such a time?


Why did it brew this attraction? And he expressed it without any hesitation throwing her in confusion at first. She, who for sometime now had not considered herself attractive or for that matter even in the least interesting to the opposite sex. Then she realized it was for real and he was oh so sweet.

Why?


Her hand shook as she offered him the cup. She withdrew it right away and dug it into her pocket as if it would give her away. Her cold immune self.

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Romance Chap 4: They Like You

Chapter 3

4: They Like You

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Mita’s wedding entailed a long weekend in Pune. It panned out to be quite a pleasant waste of time rather than the embarrassing ordeal I’d anticipated. The foremost reason being that I was saved from an inevitable run in with Suraj.

“He had to fly back to the States since he had used up his paltry two weeks of vacation,” Mita informed me with a morose droop of her pristine painted lips. “I begged him to stay, after all I’m like a sister to him, but he wouldn’t. He said his job was at stake. He has a tough boss.”

Thank heavens for ruthless capitalism; I thought trying to maintain a straight face. But then another provoked renewed anxiety. “How about his mother. Is she still here?”

My almost cousin shook her head. “She too had to leave. Kokila aunty dreads flying alone.”

I engulfed Mita in a bear hug and bid Suraj and his mother a gleeful goodbye.

Now, feeling slightly more in control of my future, I settled down to entertain myself. The birds of paradise were out in full plumage, each one more resplendent than the next. The carnival that was the marriage venue was a perfect setting for them. I floated by with a chilled glass of kokum sherbet in my hand, and watched from what appeared like a safe distance. I caught snatches of conversation, exchange of news and gossip, punctuated by the tinkle of merry laughter. But when I attempted to look closer, I witnessed a different scene altogether. It was filled with envious, lonely and unhappy hearts that yearned forever in silence. I turned away disgusted with myself. My profession was making me feel like an intruder.

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Romance Chap #3 Meet Him Please

chapter 2

3: Meet Him Please

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Slaves we are, habitual slaves. Look around. You will see us everywhere. We are serfs. Originally of our invaders, the British and the Mughals. Then of our culture, our parents, teachers, and neighbors, our superstitions and our horoscopes.  Independent thought doesn’t come naturally to us. We need a guideline, a common constitution. If there are rebels amongst us, they are scant.

It was a pleasantly cool Friday morning and the parrots were up and about screeching their morning ragas. Mita had made her exit and I was back on the living room couch, embracing sloth like a long lost friend which meant catching up on my reading and getting acquainted with our new maid. A thin and wiry young woman close to my age, Rani was married with three children, the youngest a mere babe in arms.

“How do you manage?” I asked more than a little curious.

Rani was kneeling before our small wornout display cabinet, dusting with care a collection of beautifully carved wooden folk musicians. A family relic, they had escorted my mother from her paternal home as a wedding gift.

Rani turned around with a bright smile. “As best as I can.”

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Romance Chap #2 The Inescapable Truth

Thank you for the wonderful comments. Here’s the next chapter.

chap 1

2: The Inescapable Truth

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A girl should be pretty, fair, demure,

Educated but not too much

Her only ambition should be to serve her family

And once she weds– her husband and his family

A divorced woman is a woman without morals

As for love–well leave it for the movies

It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the following few weeks were some of the worst of my life. While I occupied my days struggling to fill the void left by my favorite companion, my nights were spent chasing away visions of his naked body entwined with my double-crossing best friend’s in varying degrees of nauseating intimacy.

I found my mood vacillating between extremes—an all-consuming jealousy and a soul sapping depression. My ego was wrecked beyond salvation. I was done. I, me, myself—all of us were done. Finished. Kaput. It was a foolish notion yet very real. At last I could empathize with what many of my patients often told me—When it comes to matters of the heart, the mind simply loses it.

I believed I was ready to call it quits. I began attending keenly to the plans some of my more miserable patients had concocted so to do themselves in. It came as a surprise at how creative some of them were. And easy. Damn easy. But a couple of things barred me from taking the conclusive step. Fear for one. I hate to admit I am a coward. While the other was fulfilling my life’s greatest ambition of becoming a full-fledged doctor of medicine. I didn’t want to die without obtaining the rights for the title of ‘Dr.’ in front of my name. In the least that would give my parents something to speak about with pride and regret at my funeral. I couldn’t give that up. Not even for Rohan. Fortunately or unfortunately it’s a curse I have learned to live with. I abhor leaving anything half-done. My life revolves around a perennial check-list.

The finals were looming just around the corner. I aced my exams, secured my degree, then packed my bags and moved back to my gaon as they say in my land. Though gaon was no tiny hamlet rather it was a sheher; the biggest in the country—Mumbai.

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Human After All Chap 23: Baat Pakki (Done Deal)

ghunghat

chapter 22

23: Baat Pakki

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Shantanu woke the next morning to realize he had fallen asleep in the rocking chair. His body ached all over. He saw Megha was not in her bed and the bedside clock read 9 am. He got up to stretch then suddenly grew anxious for today Dad was going to make him aware of his decision. He walked over to the window and looked out to see the sun was already well into its journey across the sky. It was going to be another beautiful day, and he hoped it would bring him luck.

Chaachu!”

He turned around. His niece was standing at the door all dressed up and ready for school.

“What is it honey?”

“Everybody is downstairs waiting for you. Mama asked me to call you right now!”

“I am coming. Give me a couple of minutes.”

As she skipped away, Shaan hurried into the bathroom and shut the door. His pulse was racing. He didn’t feel quite as bold as he had in front of his father yesterday. He opened the tap and splashed his face with cold water then examined himself in the mirror. He saw doubt and hesitation in his eyes and he looked like a loser with the day-old stubble on his jaw. That won’t do, he thought. He took a deep breath and drew himself to his full height. “Come what may, I will keep my side of the bargain. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve just been straight up and honest. I deserve to be happy, don’t I? Shantanu Khandelwal is a trustworthy man Khanak, you can bet on it.” He gave himself an assertive nod and then headed downstairs.

~~

The extent of Madhavi’s excitement was such that her fingers felt like spaghetti on the keypad of her cell phone. She emitted a loud shriek as soon as she saw her son climbing down the stairs. She rushed over and enveloped him in a hug, “OMG! My bacchu, akkal ka kacchu! Why did you hide it from your own Mama that you had fallen for the petite Doc and wanted to make her yours forever? Afraid I won’t approve?”

When she sensed a mixture of confusion and embarrassment in her son’s face, she pinched his cheeks and said, “Sweetheart, remember Mama is always on your side, no matter what anyone says! You can always depend on your Mama!” She cast a pointed glance at her husband who was lounging on the sofa trying to appear nonchalant.

Haan bro! You made me proud! You did what you said you would!” Akshay walked up to his brother and clapped him on his shoulder.

Shantanu closed his eyes and mouthed a thank you to heaven as Dadi ma and Khushboo also came up to congratulate him. Megha ran into his arms with a scream of joy and as he hugged her, he couldn’t resist walking up to Sunil and saying, “Don’t you want to congratulate me too, Dad? Your bachelor son is going to get married.”

“Congratulations son, you’ve made a great choice.” Sunil shook his hand while smiling reluctantly.

“Thanks Dad.”

“So, when are we going to meet our new bahu? I just can’t wait to meet her and her family.” Dadi Ma had tears in her eyes.

“Yes! When are we going to Doctor Auntie’s, I mean Chaachi’s house?” Megha said bobbing up and down like a spring toy.

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Human After All Chap 22: He States His Case

Happy Deepawali  everyone! Here’s some holiday reading for you!

chapter 21

22: He States His Case

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“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.”

“But…!”

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.

“Madhavi?”

“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…”

“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!”

“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.