1: Wishes and Demands
NYC 2 months ago
Rihaan Mehta was a confirmed bachelor, at least he was determined to be one, until now.
There were several reasons why. The most important being his independence. To not have a girl nagging him day and night to determine his whereabouts or harrying him to present himself at home sharp at 6pm, was an asset that he guarded jealously. He pitied his Dad who was probably so accustomed to being henpecked that he wouldn’t know what to do if he was left alone even for a day or two.
Another consideration which urged him toward bachelorhood was that he’d never had an eye for the fairer sex. No girl had ever been able to bowl him over with her charms, though not for the lack of trying; many had. He just wasn’t impressed by what he called superficial accoutrements, nor had he felt the need for feminine company, except on rare occasions when he’d been obligated to. His work provided him with all the company he required and he couldn’t be happier, for he loved what he did.
Six months ago, after graduating summa cum laude from the very demanding and rigorous neurosurgical residency program at Mass General/Harvard Medical School, Rihaan joined as the youngest associate of one of the busiest neurosurgical practices in New York City. And he had proven himself so well that today his chief had offered to make him partner. He was thrilled beyond belief and would have been off flying on cloud nine, ten, or maybe even eleven, if it hadn’t been for the untimely demands of his mother.
Shashank and Shobha Mehta of the ‘famed’ (for various reasons) Mehta clan of New Delhi, along with their two children Rima and Rihaan had immigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago, defying the wishes of their elders. Shashank was ambitious. He wanted to spread the Mehta business beyond the desi shores by establishing one of the biggest and finest jewelry chains abroad. And where best to start but the Big Apple? He did exactly what he said he would, making the entire family proud.
But his younger son Rihaan, instead of joining his father, and continuing with the tradition had opted for medical school and became a dimaag ka doctor (head doctor)…no, not one who deals with mad people but one who wields a chaku and a churi (knife and scalpel).
Everybody including his favorite uncle Rajbir shook their heads in disapproval, “Can’t trust such people. Business mein kya kharaabi hai?” (what’s wrong with business?)
But on a bitter cold day when mama and papa Mehta saw their defiant son being honored as one of the best to have passed through the hallowed grounds of the famed university, they couldn’t stop the flood of tears from flowing unchecked down their ruddy cheeks.
From then on the youngest Mehta was given free rein. When he declined to stay in the family’s huge suburban villa because it was way too far a commute from the city, his father gave his grudging assent. And when he opted to stay away from the many communal poojas (prayer ceremonies) and parties that his mother threw (most of them in the hope of finding a suitable daughter-in-law for herself) the senior Mehta looked the other way.
Rihaan succeeded in slowly but surely separating himself from the crazy chaos of his massive family except for occasional events such as his sister Rima’s wedding and the naamkaran (naming ceremony) of her child.
Finally he felt at peace.
But this state of affairs was intolerable for his mother Shobha. She felt cheated. How many years had she spent yearning for someone whom she could order around the house, and who would wait upon her hand and foot. How she longed to be a Saas to beat all Saases (mother-law to beat all mother-in-laws).
But her son wouldn’t oblige. Despite her lining up hundreds upon hundreds of suitable girls (handpicked by her of course) he just wouldn’t bow his hard head down. What a waste of such a handsome face and a six figure income to boot!
One day she threw in her final salvo and served him the ultimatum in typical Bollywood style, “Shaadi ke liye tayyaar ho jao nahin toh tum mera mara muh dekhoge.” (Get ready for marriage or be prepared to see me on my death bed.)
He didn’t stay over that weekend.
“Do you think mom is serious?” Rihaan asked his father the question on the way to the local subway station. Rihaan hated driving particularly in a city like NYC where a car is considered a handicap. Instead he preferred the subway or his faithful bicycle which he rode everyday to and fro from work; come rain, snow or shine.
Shashank guffawed. He was very loud for not so big a man. Rihaan, who was more than 6ft tall, had apparently inherited the lanky genes from his Uncle Rajbir.
“No son, she won’t kill herself. But she’ll certainly kill you if you don’t bring her a bahu!”
That provoked a chuckle from his son, “Guess that’s one reason why I don’t wish to get hitched. Because no girl deserves to be a victim of mom’s ministrations, no matter how well intentioned they may be. I’d rather stay single.”
His father voiced sagely, “You say so now. But soon you will change your mind.”
“Why would I? I can see how happy you are married to mom!”
Shashank turned to face his son in all seriousness, “I’m as happy as I will ever be. You may be even happier.”
His son’s mouth twisted into a confused smile, ”I don’t get it.”
His father continued patiently, “You are young. You have everything going your way—Choice of education, job, respect, incredible success. But for how long? How long can you sustain this pace? Life comes with checks and balances.” His voice turned somber. “I was like you once; young, dynamic, impatient, and indestructible. But then papaji (father) persuaded me to tie the knot. I’m glad that he did. Though perhaps I’d have preferred a less forceful woman.” He said, erupting into an awkward laugh. “Anyway that’s beside the point.” He continued, glancing at his son whose fine features had assumed a dubious expression. “What I mean is that a time will come when you’ll find an empty space inside that can only be filled with love. Mark my words.”
And on that cryptic note Shashank pulled to a halt. Rihaan adjusted the ubiquitous backpack on his shoulder. “I’ll think about it Dad,” he said before nodding goodbye and walking away. Though he didn’t intend on doing any such thing. He’d said so just to humor his father whom he was very fond of.
Yet that night, he tossed and turned restlessly alone in his bed, whence typically he’d have fallen fast asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. His mother’s threat along with his father’s pearls of wisdom were raising a clamor inside his skull.
He knew his mother wouldn’t rest without seeing him wed, and by no means was he willing to cast away his entire future by linking up with one of her choices. What was a man to do when he found himself in such a bind?
Frustrated, he swung his feet off the bed and onto the cold hardwood floor. A glance at the luminous digital clock disclosed the arrival of another new day. Pulling on a pair of worn out sweats he’d had ever since college and his dependable trainers, he then grabbed his bicycle and rode out toward Central park.
Rihaan rented a one bedroom apartment in the posh Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’d come at a bargain because the guy who owned it happened to be a close friend, who’d just found himself a wife, thus been compelled to move to larger quarters.
Rihaan loved the place, even though it was somewhat cramped. It was a convenient commute to the park and a half-hour to forty-five minutes at the most to work.
He pedaled furiously down 5th avenue and onto one of the numerous paths that led into the Park. Then, after securing his bicycle, he took off at a brisk paced jog. This marked his daily routine. The crisp, clean air helped keep his brain robust and operating in top gear for the rest of the day.
It was late autumn. Soon, very soon, a glittering white powder would descend from the skies and cover everything in a blanket of snow—a pristine, flawless layer of white—one of the most beautiful scenes nature could offer its patrons.
He contemplated, as his breath steamed in front of his face. Passing by a few other lone joggers like himself, he nodded to a couple of nameless yet familiar faces whom he recognized from before: a young man walking his dog and an elderly gent with his wife out on a leisurely stroll, their faces serene and blissful.
He then came upon another couple voraciously necking on a bench even in the bitter cold. They continued undeterred as he ran by. He snickered. Idiots! Wait till she springs the surprise!
Abruptly he stopped, reminded of an incident from a long time ago. It was prom night and the prom queen had dared him to a kiss to which he’d obliged quite willingly. In the girls’ bathroom, in a tiny stall, his raging hormones had taken over. Then egged on by a few slugs of beer, one thing led to another. Thank heavens someone had barged in at the right moment—or else.
“PHEW!” Rihaan collapsed against the gnarled limb of an old oak, the memory still strong enough to suck the breath out of him. Cindy, the prom queen, had been pregnant and the perpetrator had dumped her, making him, Rihaan, the dumb, rich fall guy.
“I’ll never let that happen again. Ever!” He blurted out loud to no one in particular. All he saw was the spectacular image of the skyscrapers reflected in the calm waters of the lake, where two white swans were taking a lazy turn. Bloody couples everywhere!
His pager came alive, springing him out of his reverie. It was the ED from Lenox Hill. He pulled out his cell phone and responded to the call. After listening quietly to the report, he barked few crisp instructions into the phone: “Alert the OR team. I’ll be there in 40 tops.” A fifteen year-old kid, playing with his father’s gun, had accidentally shot his friend. The bullet, while narrowly missing the vital organs, had lodged dangerously close to the spine.
Rihaan could feel the adrenalin pumping as he jogged back. This was why he loved his job so much. His skills could prevent someone from losing the use of his legs for life. He could already visualize himself performing the delicate procedure in his mind’s eye, and the most wonderful thing about it all was that his hands never shook.
Releasing a prolonged sigh, Rihaan sunk back into his swivel chair at the Manhattan clinic of Central Neurosurgical Associates. It had taken four long painstaking hours but the surgery had been successful. The bullet had been extracted, the blood evacuated, and the spinal cord saved. The boy would be able to walk!
Grudgingly he’d accepted the praise for accomplishing one of the toughest procedures that a neurosurgeon could undertake. But the best part of it all was when the boy’s father with tears in his eyes, had taken Rihaan’s hands and reverently kissed them. That was enough to validate all the years of toil and hard work he’d put himself through.
But his achievement failed to make the slightest dent in his mother’s demands. She screeched into the phone, “Rihaan! Do you want me to kill myself? If so, prescribe me some poison!”
Damnit! Why can’t I be left alone for even a moment! He closed his eyes, counted to five and replied, “Okay. I’ll give the matter serious consideration.”
“Wow really?” She sounded excited. He could imagine her eyes gleaming. “Then shall I start discussions with the Sharmas for their daughter Renu? She’s supposed to be a really good cook. Or what about the Roshans? Their younger girl Sush is apparently very skilled in needlework.”
“Ma…are you getting married or am I?”
“Beta, listen…I…” She wailed.
He retorted sternly, “I’m willing to listen to you but on only one condition. I’ll choose my future wife entirely on my own!”
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