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Sameer tried with all his heart to convince his and Snigdha’s parents against their marriage. Both of them tried to make their parents understand that they wanted different things from life, from each other and that they wouldn’t work together. But no matter what they said, they couldn’t change their parents’ minds. The final verdict was that they had to get married.

Snigdha wanted to run away from everything and escape what was coming. She couldn’t blame Sameer for anything because she saw and appreciated the effort that he put into convincing their parents. But that didn’t make it any easier for her to suddenly accept him as her future husband. She regretted the fact that she had never objected to her parents’ decisions before this and had done whatever they had decided for her. Given her way, she would have liked to continue her dancing professionally, but her father had deemed that career unsuitable for a girl and she had had to get into the teaching profession. Not that she regretted being a lecturer, but getting to dance on stage would have been more satisfying for her.

But she was surprised that it was Sameer whose support was making the whole suffocating experience bearable. The more her parents pressed her to take part in all the rituals before the actual wedding, the more liberating did Sameer become. Snigdha was afraid that Sameer would demand more attention from her, but he had stopped contacting her. The only time they spent together now was during their NGO gatherings. Even at those meetings, he kept as much distance as he could from Snigdha.

Her engagement ceremony was organised on Ashtami. The mere thought of getting tied up with someone except Abir was intolerable and yet she had to do it. She had the financial ability to separate from her parents and escape, but emotionally that would have been impossible for her. Given the two impossible choices, she chose the lesser of the two devils—to marry Sameer.

Romita came down from Chennai for the ceremony. She was very happy about the wedding, just as Snigdha had feared. According to Romita, this was the best thing that could happen to Snigdha. She helped Srestha with all the preparations and was put in charge of dolling up Snigdha for the ceremony.

Jatin and Srestha invited Sameer and his family to give anjali to goddess Durga at the puja pandal near their house on Ashtami. So, the preparations to welcome the guests began at the Basu household from early morning. Snigdha’s relatives had flown in from all over the country to be a part of this occasion. It was a happy riot in their house with everybody excitedly anticipating the engagement ceremony and the wedding.

In spite of all the chatter and buzz around her, Snigdha was feeling completely alone and lost in her own house, with nobody to sympathise with her. For the last few days, she had tried to spend as much time as possible away from home to escape all the hysteria surrounding her. But that day she was not allowed to get out of the house, and on top of everything, she was supposed to be wearing a sari, and that was something she had adamantly avoided doing through all these years. She felt uncomfortable in saris, and the only times she had bothered wearing a sari had been on Abir’s request during the college Saraswati pujas.

That morning Romita was helping Snigdha drape a violet and gold kanjeevaram. Snigdha said to Romita, “Romy, I never thought you would support my parents in this. This is my life and I’ve every right to decide what I want to do. My parents are completely wrong in forcing me to do this. Yet, you are supporting them. You are my best friend, and even you don’t understand me. Where am I supposed to go?”

Romita was kneeling in front of Snigdha, straightening the pleats in her sari. She looked up and said, “Snig, I’m not saying the way your parents are pressurising you is right. But the person whom they have chosen for you is right. It’s Sameer I’m supporting. This Abir mania of yours has gone on for too long. It has blinded you. You are wrong in not accepting what is good for you.”

Snigdha asked heatedly, “Who told you Sameer is good for me? He is a good friend, I agree. But I’m not at all comfortable about spending my entire life with him.”

Romita said patiently, “That is only because you are still clutching on to the hope of getting Abir back. You know what makes me think Sameer is good for you? He respects you and your decisions. He’ll do everything he can to make you comfortable. He has already tried to set you free, in fact. Wasn’t he ready to leave Kolkata to cancel the wedding? You stopped him. If you are so intent on cancelling this wedding, why didn’t you let him go? Why did you stop him?”

Snigdha said in a low voice, “That would have hurt his parents. And, I don’t want him to stay alone in some other city because of me. He doesn’t really deserve that. I should have moved out. But then again, I can’t leave my parents alone.”

Romita gave a small smile and said, “See, you do care for him. You know he is good. I’m sure time will make things better between you two. By the way, Sameer won’t be able to look away from you today. You are looking so pretty.”

Snigdha stared at her own reflection in the mirror. She could only focus on her eyes and they were staring sadly back at her. She tried to smile, but even that made her look sad. Her cheeks tinged with pale gold, her lips matted with peach, the traditional jewellery adorning her—everything was giving her a soft and elegant look. Her eyelids lined with kajal, her eyelashes coated with mascara made her big, doe-shaped eyes the standout feature on her face. But there was no glow in them. The haunted look on Snigdha’s face made Romita feel very sad for her best friend. Romita turned her around and hugged her warmly.

The Sinhas arrived soon with their closest relatives. They went to the puja pandal for the anjali, where the Basus introduced the Sinhas to their neighbours. The Basus and the Sinhas were congratulated heartily for the upcoming wedding by all the gathered people. Snigdha impassively watched her neighbourhood aunties fawn over Sameer. Everyone seemed to forget about the puja as they gathered around Snigdha’s family to know more about her wedding plans. The priest had to draw everybody’s attention to get the process started in time. While throwing the flowers at the idol after chanting the mantras with the priest, Snigdha prayed fervently, “Please Maa, let everything be fine in my life. I want to be happy.”

When she turned around to find her mother, she saw Sameer standing right behind her. He was looking exceptionally handsome and sophisticated in his white sherwani. He gave her a nervous smile and moved forward to stand beside her. He whispered quietly so that nobody around them could hear, “Are you okay?” Snigdha simply nodded just as the distribution of the flowers for the second round of anjali started. Both of them gave anjali standing side by side for the next two rounds.

There was a puja at Snigdha’s house before the actual engagement ceremony. Sameer and Snigdha had to sit together for this puja. She was just going through the motions, but her heart was not into it. This was the first step in getting tied up with him and she was scared. She could see happy, smiling faces all around her, and it all felt highly unreal to her. It couldn’t be happening to her.

When the actual engagement ceremony began, she had to sit on a mat on the floor, while all the relatives from the two families came forward one by one, blessed her, gave her gifts, and made her eat the sweets that were kept on plates in front of her. By the end, her mouth started getting very sticky and she wanted it to end as soon as possible. The day might have been very satisfying for her parents, but it was turning out to be completely awful for her. She kept thinking longingly of all the previous Durga pujas when she had been a free bird and had gone to her uncles’ places and then gone pandal hopping with her cousins. The realisation that this year she was going to miss all the four days of puja because of the wedding preparations gave her another pang of disappointment. The next day they were going to Sameer’s house for his aashirvaad.

At long last when all the relatives had had their turn at blessing and giving gifts, she was allowed to get up and go to her room. She was very annoyed to see that Sameer’s cousins were following her to her room. She was not going to get any privacy till they left. But then her cousins too came in and her tiny niece, Riddhita, dragged Sameer into the room. She wanted to vapourise on the spot. Everybody introduced themselves to the others and kept chatting about the upcoming wedding and their plans for it.

Suddenly Sameer’s cousin, Shefali, piped up, “Hey Sameer Da, I heard you and boudi were college friends. Tell us about it. Have you liked her since then?” She smiled angelically at the surprised crowd. She had brought up the most interesting story for discussion, and as expected, everyone was watching Sameer and Snigdha with quivering anticipation now. Someone urged from behind Sameer, “Yeah, tell us what happened.”

Snigdha didn’t know what to say or how to react. She took a quick peek at Sameer who looked similarly taken aback at the sudden inquisition. Just then Romita came in holding a tray of puja prasad and saw everybody staring at Sameer and Snigdha silently. She passed the tray around so that everybody could pick up a plate and asked in a perplexed voice, “Guys, what’s up? Why are you staring at these two like this?”

Shefali answered, “We want to know about their love story in college. Come and join us. You were their classmate, isn’t it? You ought to know about it, too.”

Sameer started nervously, “There’s nothing that exciting. We were just classmates, knew each other by our names. She had her own group of friends and I had mine. She was so pretty, but she never tried to show off. She was always a very genuine person, fierce and soft, all at the same time. I always thought she was brilliant in studies, and she was one heck of a dancer. I remember that performance she gave with Abir Sen in that fest. It was amazing. I wish she had continued with her dancing. She looked so liberated when she danced on stage.”

Snigdha got a jolt on hearing Abir’s name so casually on Sameer’s lips. She wondered for the first time whether he knew anything about Abir and her. He was in their class, maybe he had noticed something or heard something. But then she dismissed the thought as she knew Sameer was too much into his studies, and he wasn’t the type who would have been interested in idle gossip.

The others looked highly disappointed to hear that there wasn’t any juicy history between them, and Shefali pressed for more information. “So, you never liked her before?” She turned towards Snigdha and asked, “Boudi, didn’t you like my brother?”

Sameer blurted out, “No, I was a crazy fan!” He laughed. “I never thought she would be interested in me. She was always surrounded by her friends. I never knew how to approach her. That day when I saw her in the party, I remembered my craze again. She was looking so different from her former self though that I could hardly recognise her.”

This was news for Snigdha. Sameer had liked her back then? What did he mean about ‘looking different’ at the party? She would have to ask him.

Shefali turned her full attention on Snigdha. “Boudi, did you know that dada liked you in college? Tell us your side of the story.”

Snigdha said, “I didn’t even think he knew of my existence. I always considered him to be a bit arrogant, always immersed in his work, staying a bit aloof from others. Never really in the thick of things. But yeah, I respected him for the kind of dedication he had for his studies. Everybody did. Our professors couldn’t do anything without him. He was their favourite. We all were in awe of him, actually. I guess, I’m flattered to know that he considered me to be talented.” She smiled genuinely for the first time that day. “He was also famous for his thousand-watt smile.”

Sameer was gazing at Snigdha intently when she turned her eyes on him. She felt staggered to find him looking at her like that in front of everybody. She had never heard anybody talk about her with so much awe. His eyes were shining brightly, and she felt herself freeze as she looked at him. For the first time, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from him. Somebody “oohed” from the back and Snigdha hastily dropped her gaze, feeling shy.

Just then her aunt came in to call them for lunch and everybody hurried out after her, leaving Sameer, Snigdha, and Romita behind. Srestha came in herself to escort her future son-in-law to the dining room. Snigdha and Romita followed them.

Romita said to Snigdha in a low voice on the way out, “See, didn’t I say he will be perfect for you? You want to take up dancing and he will support you. He’ll let you do whatever you want.” Snigdha nodded mutely. Sameer had been earning her respect more and more lately. He was not the dominating person she had thought him to be.

Later that evening when the Sinhas left, the Basus got busy preparing for the next day. Snigdha was trying to sleep when she got a text from Sameer. It said: I know today was difficult for you. All this hoopla must be suffocating you. If you want to get out for a little while, I can help you. It’s the puja and I know you don’t like wasting the puja days at home. I can take you and Romita out.

Snigdha sat up on her bed, with excitement and hope coursing through her. She could go out and enjoy Ashtami, after all, with Romita. Of course, her parents would let her go if Sameer wanted to take them out. She quickly fetched Romita from the downstairs hall, where she was entertaining Riddhita with card tricks. She pulled Romita aside and showed her Sameer’s message.

Romita looked up at Snigdha in surprise. “Do you seriously want to go out with Sameer then?”

Snigdha replied excitedly, ignoring the scepticism in Romita’s voice, “Yes, why not? He is the only person who can take me out today. Otherwise you know dad. He’ll say no, and I don’t like fighting with him. You will come, won’t you?”

Romita gave her a wide smile. “Tell him to talk to your dad.”

Snigdha typed her reply hastily: We are ready to go. Talk to my father.

For the next fifteen minutes, she and Romita waited in the downstairs hall with mounting anxiety. Finally, Jatin came in to inform them that Sameer was coming within an hour to take them out for pandal hopping. Snigdha nodded delightedly; together she and Romita dashed up to her room to get ready.

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