The stillness of the night catching up with her, the raw smell of the sleeping foliage engulfing the confines of the dark forest, Avanti ran… just ran…the crushing of dried leaves barging through the silent night, her silhouette cutting through the breeze as the cold air hit her face numbing her lips sealed tightly. Suddenly there was a loud noise and the cold replaced by heat gradually increasing its intensity. Was she falling into a furnace…? She halted and saw something burning, not very far from where she stood, the fire spread its vicious tentacles around as the acrid smell of the burning metal clogged her nostrils making her nauseous… and there was that other odour too… she didn’t know how but she was sure it was the smell of cremated bodies…the smoldering fire claiming everything in its wake. And then she heard…her baba… “…Avu…bala…” he was distressed. But she was stuck to the graveled road and her lips still couldn’t move to make her scream… her arms flailing as she tried to make her move in a last-ditch attempt to save her father… no…no… there was a lot she had to discuss with him…he couldn’t leave her. Then there was a siren… siren?
Avanti Dnyaneshwar Rane jolted up awake as the shrill buzz of the alarm pierced the silence in her room. She wiped her brows and moved her night gown that was drenched in sweat away from her body as she glanced at the glowing numbers on her clock…4AM. She yawned as she touched her chest trying to calm down her racing heart. The nightmare had returned yet again…with the same feverish vengeance… exhausting her and numbing her to the core as she tried to stop the palpitations. She had been consistently having similar ones in the initial days following her father’s accident in the plane crash that claimed his life about three months ago. Her mother and older sister Arpita were a mess but she had tried to be the strong one… the warrior as her baba lovingly called her… and had held the pieces together. Suddenly she had grown up from being the baby in the family and had tried her best to get things on track. She looked around as her eyes settled on a framed picture of her baba with his dear daughters whom he loved the most. How she missed him… she blinked back tears.
Today was the D-day… her father’s final wish… Arpita’s wedding. Baba had personally fixed the alliance a little before he had… passed. It was an important amalgamation of not just two hearts but also two families and two business ventures which were the talk of the town. Avanti knew it too well to jeopardize anything with her feelings getting in the way. The pall of gloom that had descended upon the Rane household with her baba’s death had slightly cleared with the preparations involving the upcoming nuptials. Her mother had decided to honor her late husband’s wishes and had decided to go ahead with the marriage, to Avanti’s utmost relief. She knew she had other things to worry about with this one crossed off the list. The groom had agreed to keep the celebration to bare minimum. Everyone around was happy…except for Avanti. She should have been thrilled for her sister… but she wasn’t. Guilt enwrapped her completely as her throat clogged with emotions. She shut her eyes tightly to prevent her tears from escaping the boundaries of her already reddened eyes, but all she saw was a pair of dark brown piercing eyes adorning the wet rugged face, the bearded intensity of his facial expressions causing her heart to thud out of her chest. Why did it have to be him… of all the guys in the world? How could she lust after her soon-to-be brother-in-law? She had thought she had gotten over her infatuation…
She was a hypocrite of the greatest order. On one end she pushed her blissfully careless older sister towards taking stock of her responsibilities that lay in store post matrimony while on the other end she had her mind deep into an erotic rhapsody with the man Arpita was all set to marry. Avanti shook her head as if to drive away forbidden thoughts. Her soon to be brother-in-law was a thorough gentleman whose even minutest courtesies had charmed her to nauseating heights. She had silently been in love with him for months…and it had been difficult to finally accept the reality and move on. She wondered…as she rubbed her face to drive away sleep… if she would ever fall in love again.
Avanti released an audible sigh… she had cried enough these months to last a lifetime and she would further wallow in self-pity later. For now, she had to get out of her dreamy enchantment and get on with the preparations in progress. The Rane household was filled with their close relatives and though she hated the chaos, she was glad her mother wasn’t alone. the poor woman was lonely as it is with her husband gone and daughters busy in their own world. In fact she was all set to go to their village for a few months and Avanti had personally seen to the arrangements. An equal number of relatives were put up in a hotel right beside the marriage hall and she had to call and check if they were comfortable. The bridal make-up woman and hairdresser would be arriving in an hour and she had to see to the other arrangements also before they left for the venue. Before everything though she needed that hot water shower to fire up her senses after a mere three-hour disturbed sleep.
She had just got into her loose cotton salwar kameez, post her bath to take over the kitchen supervision duties when she heard screaming and chaos. Wait… it was her mother screaming her lungs out right next door…Arpita’s room… Her breath caught thinking about the last time her mother had screamed in this manner…it was when they had received the news about her father’s demise… Wasting no more time she rushed out of her room wondering what had caused her mother distress at 4.45 AM in the morning. There was a gathering of her startled relatives outside her sister’s room, the marigold flower garland adorning the entrance now lying lifelessly, as the curious houseguests mercilessly trampled over them in their zeal to quench their curiosity…
She politely made way into the room and shut the door behind her, after shoving everyone outside. Only her sobbing mother’s frail hunched form stood bent over her sister’s table, and her maternal uncle faced the window outside moving a thin wrinkled trembling hand over his scanty hair. Arpita was nowhere in sight… Avanti glanced around the messy room littered by bedsheets and scanty clothes all around… but that was how her sister lived… in a room resembling a pigsty. She was sure the little children from her school had more discipline than her sister. The fragrance of the original Chanel coco perfume wafted through her nostrils. Her sister used only genuine toiletries and cosmetics…speaking of which Arpita’s dressing table usually cluttered with her countless little bottles of concealers, foundations and other make up paraphernalia was visibly empty. What the hell was going on…?
She walked towards her mother. “…Aai…kay jhale…?” (What happened, mother?)
Her mother glanced up startled from her stupor. “…Avu…bala…did Arpita tell you something… anything…?”
Avanti shook her head in the negative. Her sister forever averse to commitment was having cold feet last night… and she had probably been upset as well but Avanti had counselled her and all had seemed fine before she had gone to bed. However, Avanti'sinner panic now touched the roof as her mother handed over a crumpled piece of paper to her. She opened it slowly as an anticipation of upcoming dread settled in her heart.
Dear Aai and Avanti,
I can’t do this… I am leaving…
Sorry for disappointing you all as always but I have my reasons… Don’t look for me.
Love you all.
Avanti sat on the chair with a thud. Her sister had always run away whenever the going got tough but this time she had screwed up royally. Not just her life but theirs as well. She had become the quintessential run-away bride…