The Familiar Seem Unfamiliar
The waiter asks if I want something else. From Karthik’s office, I had rushed out and taken refuge in a café. I rouse myself and shake my head. Paying, I get up and leave. It is already dusk and night is falling fast.
I start my bike and feel foolish for having lingered. I am feeling nervous.
The high beam in the opposite direction distracts and I struggle on the road. Traffic seems high, and the one-ways are confusing. More than once, I find myself on a wrong track. I finally manage to reach the road that will lead home. But something flashes in my brain – is it some nightmare I had, of falling off the bike? - and I lose balance, falling to my left. Luckily, I am away from the traffic, but I have fallen off at high speed. Maybe a car knocked me. I don’t even know. The bike falls on my leg just as I sprawl out of control on the floor. There are no pedestrians. Only speeding vehicles. Someone kindly stops and helps me up. I feel a shooting pain in my ankle and I can feel my elbows scratched badly. I sit for a second, shaken. Seeing I am holding up this stranger, I assure him that I am fine. He curses the traffic and asks if I can go on my own, or would I prefer an auto. I assure him I can and get up feeling wobbly. I muster a smile and he goes, relieved.
The journey gets shakier. I feel excruciating pain on my left ankle and the scratches on my elbow distract me. It is sheer will-power that takes me home. I park blindly and limp in, somehow managing to wash before sprawling on my bed. I howl lying face down; howl because of the pain; howl because of the mess I am in.
I find turning on to my back difficult. My leg is swollen and my elbows are burning. With great difficulty, I manage to sit up. I want dinner, but pushing myself up seems like a challenge. Have I broken bones! Oh, god, no!
I slowly limp to the kitchen and take some food. My hand is mobile, only my foot hurts badly. I check out for some gel and apply it on my leg. I swallow a pain-killer, and I am out cold.
Morning, the pain returns with a vengeance. When the maid rings the bell, I can’t get up. Karthik lets her in and peeps in to see me. I pretend to keep my eyes closed. But my foot is swollen. He comes closer and demands, “What happened?”
I bristle. Can’t I sleep late! He asks me sharply to stop dithering and tell him what happened. I do. He smacks his forehead. He is angry, and I am scared to see him like this, devoid of any concern or sympathy. “What was the need to make that trip? What are you trying to prove!” He waits but I continue being silent, chastised and sulking. “Let us go to the doctor now. Get up.”
I try to demur but he overrides. I don’t know how to turn and get up. I don’t want to own up but he can see it for himself. He helps me stand and leads me to the washbasin. I freshen up sitting on a chair, and have a feeling this has happened before. He is off to get ready. He makes coffee for the two of us. The maid finishes as we get ready to leave.
I hobble on my right foot, but still the left one screams for attention. Finally, I have to depend on Karthik to see me to the door and into the car. My skin burns where he touches me. We go in silence, except when he calls up the office to say he will be late. His anger is palpable and I feel more hurt. I look away. I didn’t ask him to do this for me!
During our so-called dates, he had shown amazing calm and patience. Never a hint of the anger he was capable of.
After that evening in the park, as we were leaving, he said simply, “I am against all this seeing-the-girl business. My sister Urmila went through hell. I had decided then that I would never subject a girl to that humiliation. I am glad ours turned out naturally different… Now that I am decided – and I guess you are not averse to marrying me – would you mind if my parents dropped in? They are old-fashioned …trust me, it is only a formality.”
I laughed. I think I would have been more comfortable the traditional way, when the decision would have been taken out of my hands. Now it was up to me, and I was scared to decide. I nodded, and he said that he would call at night to fix up a date and a time.
They came that Friday, and I was dismayed. They were an entire platoon! My dad had suggested that we call my mother’s sister and brother for the occasion. But I had put my foot down. And here they were – Karthik’s parents, his eldest sister Usha with her husband, his younger sister Uma, and an uncle and an aunt. Plus Karthik. I looked at him appalled! He just winked and sat as if he didn’t even know me, listening to others assaulting me with questions. Nothing major – just the usual, I believe. Do I cook, besides working, what else do I do? Music? Can I sing?
I dumbly shook my head. I went in to make coffee and my dad walked in fleetingly to tell me, “See, the show of strength. Now you look like a girl with no one to back you up!”
I was irritated with him. He should have known about these things! Why did he listen to me! But before I could react, the aunt and Usha came in to help – ostensibly. I could already feel them gauging me up, and I decided then and there – Nothing doing. No marriage, never mind how I felt about him.
I avoided looking at Karthik all the while. I felt totally let down. After they all left, my dad and I looked at each other and let out a slow breath, rolling our eyes.
“That’s that! I can’t live in this menagerie!” I exclaimed.
My father panicked. “Hey, you like the guy, and that is all that matters!”
I knew his worry. If I refused Karthik, then he had to start all over again. I turned all my anger on him. “You think I can handle so many people? No way! Why didn’t he tell me his entire clan is coming? No, I cannot handle this.”
My dad was really in panic now. “No, no. It is just the four of them – Karthik, his parents and that younger sister. She is a sweet girl, don’t you think? The rest are only – what did I tell you, show of strength. But I spoke briefly to Karthik, and I am sure he is a nice guy. Why, when I was getting married, I went with a whole platoon myself. In fact, in the last minute, my relatives almost left me behind! And guess what, there your mother was, surrounded by the entire neighbourhood. We were 10 and they were 20. They won hands down.”
I laughed, and so did my father. He gently rocked my head. “Don’t let these things worry you. Who has the time to interfere in others’ lives today?”
I nodded. Yes, my dad and I were practically free of all relatives.
That night, when Karthik called, I gave him a piece of my mind and told him to call the whole thing off. “But why! They are my people, and they wanted to see you – after all that I told them about you…they just love you. They will be heart-broken.”
Of course he was lying, but I let up a bit and asked, “What about you? You won’t be heart-broken?”
“What if I am? To please my parents, I will marry a girl they select. But you, what will you do? You won’t find many handsome men like me, with my kind of patience to wait for your yes,” he said, sounding dead serious, the big imp.
I almost put the phone down then when he cackled at the other end and said, “Tomorrow, beach, and I will tell you if my heart will break or not. And, please, no bike. I will pick you up.”
I laughingly agreed, but not without misgivings.