Keshav was all set to tie the knot with Arpita…
To say Avanti was devastated was an understatement. But she valued her father above everything and decided to help him in whatever way she could. However what also irked her was the partial conversation that she had heard in the study that day… it had shaken her to the core. Was the business that bad that her father had to apparently mortgage their house…? Her father had been a smart businessman and they never indulged in extravagance. Avanti especially was always frugal semi-consciously to make up for the splurge her sister indulged in. Her father had invested in two homes outside the city limits one in each of their names exclusively so Avanti knew her home wasn’t mortgaged or sold as she hadn’t signed any documents. She also knew the property fetched great value and hoped her father would ask her for it… she wished she could talk to her father but knew she would only increase his misery.
So, she did what she could do, with a heavy heart she played cupid for her sister and Keshav. At least that, she hoped would bring down her father’s anxiety levels. Though they liked each other and Avanti was sure Keshav was in love with Arpita, she doubted Arpita’s feelings. Arpita had been through boyfriends like change of clothes and given that this marriage was too vital for the revival of Vedshastra, Avanti took it upon herself to bring them closer…though it killed her inside. She began with arranging dates for them and often landed up chaperoning Arpita to see that she didn’t escape in the sly. Very often she had to give Keshav company till Arpita arrived from a shoot or gig and then awkwardly slip away to give them privacy. A couple of times Arpita didn’t turn up and Avanti landed up spending time with Keshav. However, it helped her gain insight into Keshav’s life. After initial reservations they spoke to each other a lot and she soon realized they shared a lot of common interests especially their love for Indian classical music and the Bollywood classics from the black and white era.
Keshav shared her love for the raaga Vrundavani Saarang and that thrilled her to no end… she always liked people who could understand and appreciate music. Though he couldn’t sing to save his life, his knowledge on the topic and many other areas was impeccable… He was well read and a very disciplined man and that was probably what had driven her to him form the go. At the end of the first month after the alliance was fixed, Avanti knew he loved the cobalt blue shade and had a large number of similar shades of clothes. She knew he was allergic to mushrooms of certain variety and avoided them like plague. She also got to know he was extremely dedicated towards his workouts and never missed them at all and most of all, he was a great employer. He was hands on with every trivial matter at work irrespective of having a well-equipped team to manage the daily affairs of his company. From what she had known from her research online and from the man himself, Novo Supremo pharmaceuticals ltd. was a family owned company passed on from his grandfather to his father and later to him… His father had died very young and Keshav had taken over the reins of the sinking ship in his hands when he was barely 19 years old. Though he didn’t mention anything, she knew he had probably struggled a lot in the last sixteen years to bring the company to heights where it basked the sunshine today… He was an epitome of hardwork and sincerity and most important of all he loved his family. He doted on his younger siblings. His younger sister Kamya was a brilliant neurosurgeon and he had twin half siblings from his step mother, Rohini Jaiswal. They were eighteen and the half-sister Nirvi was studying science aiming to become a doctor while half-brother Naman was all set to go pro in football…
Avanti had seen the proud gleam in Keshav’s eyes when he spoke about all three of his siblings just like a father, for his off-springs. He had lost his mother when Kamya was barely two and though he didn’t speak much about his step mother, he didn’t bad mouth her. Avanti hadn’t met anyone of them as yet but had heard Rohini Jaiswal had been a beauty queen in her hey days who had given up everything for the senior Mr. Goyal. These days she stayed in their ancestral property near Hisar in Haryana while his twin half-siblings recently had moved to Mumbai to follow their dreams. He had got them a house close to his to keep an eye on them while Kamya stayed in a studio apartment close to the hospital she was working in. Avanti was in awe of this man who lived for his family selflessly. She didn’t know the exact relationship between him and her father but knew Keshav respected her father a lot more than what met the eye and was helping him out of the financial mess he was in.
The biggest show of strength from Keshav was, three months ago, when he had been there for the Ranes, when her baba had died… Right from the time they had received the news of the charter plane crash that her father had commissioned to visit Germany to discuss his ongoing project with his old friends in the industry… to managing the formalities involved Keshav had been there every step of the way. The cataclysmic crash had killed all five people on board and there had been no survivors… the bodies were charred beyond recognition and had to be cremated together. Her mother and Arpita had been inconsolable and Keshav had been her rock as she had run from pillar to post with various arrangements.
Her father’s death increased tension in the volatile stock market for Vedshastra and even today three months down the line the share value wasn’t rising… A lot of small-time investors in the company were getting the jitters but were hanging in there mainly because Keshav who was the largest investor was still with the company. Avanti was grateful but knew it wouldn’t be long before he got tired too and the only way to save the company and everything associated with it was Keshav taking control over the twenty-five percent of the shares in Arpita’s name by default after their wedding. She knew he was greatly invested mainly because of her father’s latest project. She hoped the marriage would help stabilize not just Arpita’s life but the company as well… the future of the existing employees and her family depended on that.
But the annihilating turmoil last three months were already taking a toll on Keshav and he seemed to have suddenly aged beyond his thirty-five years. The ever-smiling man frequently lost his cool especially when his half-siblings flouted curfews or when Arpita didn’t seem to mend her ways. Avanti on her part played the doting sister and always defended her. Right from finding venues to date so that Keshav didn’t have to travel very far and she too had to return to get to work the next day…. To helping decide of the date for the wedding Avanti was there everywhere. Avanti once heard him talk to his sister Kamya when she entered the restaurant unnoticed by Keshav, where he was convincing his sister he was just fine and promised to get the routine ‘scan’ done. She wondered what he was talking about but couldn’t ask him considering his roller-coaster mood swings these days.
She just wondered how her life had changed in the span of last few months ever since her father had planned the alliance. Her life was simple and boring in most people’s point of view but she was happy. She had quite a few friends, mostly those whom she had ‘helped’ settle. There was Brinda the school librarian who was a widow and struggled making ends meet with her meager pay and Avanti sponsored her children’s education. She had set up a tiny fund from her salary and monthly income from the company, which footed the medical bills of the class four employees in her school. The school management had been grateful for her gesture but she had chosen to remain anonymous. Then there was her best friend and fellow singer Rahul Saxena whom she had ‘saved’ from overdosing and had helped him find a job in her father’s company as a clerk and also as a part time music teacher in the academy where she was attending. He always looked out for her and dropped her home whenever it got late. Through Arpita’s contacts she got him little filler gigs and after two years she was happy to see him less depressed. These instances gave her a great sense of pleasure and peace within. She had been avoiding most of them ever since she had to escort her sister, but made it a point to speak to Rahul regularly. He was a sane individual who gave her advice whenever she was in a fix and he had already guessed she was head over heels in love with Keshav. “What are you going to do about that, Avanti…? I think you should talk to him…” He had once advised.
“…no Rahul, I can’t do it…. I can’t ruin our existing relationship and the prospects for Vedshastra… I am not that self-centered…”
“…Avanti, I wish you were a little selfish… You are too benevolent for your own good… do you want me and Anuj to help out…?”
“…Arre no… just be there for me… I need shoulders to cry over… After the wedding I will drop by and the three of us can just… whatever… I can’t be alone that day Rahul…”
“…Yeah… don’t worry Avanti… Anuj and me are always there… you know that don’t you…?”
This was a month ago and just a day later Arpita had gone incognito. This was a date Keshav had apparently arranged specially for Arpita as a surprise and Avanti had no clue. She had examination paper correction in school and was a little delayed. She had barely stepped into her home when Keshav had called her frantically asking her to contact Arpita. Eventually unable to find Arpita she had personally gone to the restaurant to apologize. Keshav had looked ravishing and she couldn’t take her eyes off him… he was oozing masculinity from each pore of his body, dressed in an immaculate white designer jacket with black collars and peak lapels. She had mostly seen him in his trademark blue shirt and black trousers whenever she met had him or an occasional Nehru jacket but today, she wondered how she could prevent her heart from galloping away into oblivion. It was then she suddenly remembered it was his birthday… how could she forget…? She hadn’t got anything for him… and just then watching him stare somberly at the orchestra she got an idea. She rushed to the live band and spoke to the lead who instantly gave her center stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen… today we have with us a young lady who has a song dedicated to a special friend in this room… here we go…” The lead announced as he gestured to her amidst the loud applause.
The lights dimmed and she couldn’t see the audience but there was the spotlight on her. In spite of her experience on stage her hands trembled. “Hell…. Hello… everyone… I dedicate this song to a very special friend and the soon to be addition to our family on his special day…”
She felt his eyes on her as she rendered the classic ’tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi…’
Once she finished the song there was a thunderous applause and she saw him stand and clap for her. She acknowledged everyone with a slight bow and alighted from the stage. She walked upto him. “Happy birthday Keshav ji…” she wished him shaking his hand. He stared into her eyes smiling and she was thrilled to see those dimples after ages…
“…Do you know Avanti…? This was the best birthday gift I ever received… in fact even Kamya is away in Dehradoon for a conference with her senior team and she didn’t remember… or didn’t get the time. Nirvi and Naman… well we never had this concept of celebrating my birthday at all… but then this year…I don’t know Avanti…I was feeling low since morning and had called Arpita… this band was a surprise to her with her favourite playlist you gave me… but then… you surprised me… Thank you… thanks a ton…”
Her heart soared. “…hey…that’s what friends are for... right…?”
“…So, then we are friends…?” He gave her a side smile making her weak in the knees and she hoped they didn’t give away right there.
“…yes… yes… of course… tai must be on her way… I am… I am sorry…she…”
“…stop apologizing for Arpita… its time she acts like a responsible adult… I just… I just wished she had your brains and attitude…” He sighed as he looked back at the dismantling band.
Avanti had paradoxical feelings that night as he dropped her home. She was thrilled to make him happy but the very next moment her euphoria crashed when he had been unhappy about Arpita’s absence. What the hell was her sister thinking…? As she alighted outside her gate, he asked. “…uh… Avanti… may I ask something…?” He looked forlorn as he stared at the empty lane ahead.
“…yeah…Keshav ji what is it…?”
“…Does… Arpita have someone in her life…? I mean was she coerced into this marriage…?”
Her heart went out to him at that moment. “…Er… no nothing of the sort Keshav ji… actually she has these gigs she has to finish before the wedding… I mean the commitments…”
“…what about the commitment to me Avanti? I wanted to be there when she purchased the wedding saree and I wanted her opinion when I go to order my sherwani tomorrow… there is barely a month left for the wedding and she is…just not there…” he rubbed his hand over his fatigued face and she only wished she could iron out the creases highlighted on his forehead.
“.. I will bring her tomorrow… I promise you Keshav ji… she will be there… as for her saree selection… you know since baba passed… the home atmosphere… well, it’s been tough for her…”
“…what about you Avanti…? has it been easy…? you are younger than her for crying out aloud… you have been managing your career, your mother, the house and Arpita with her baggage… How do you manage…? What about your life…? Ever since we were engaged you have been around for us… what about your life Avanti…?”
She blinked away tears. NO one…not even her mother had asked her once how she was doing and Keshav always made it a point to inquire about her. He often texted her to ask about Arpita since the latter’s phone would be perennially switched off. But once she answered him, he would ask about her day and how she was holding up… a gesture that always touched her core. “…Keshavji… once you both get married… I will be free of the responsibilities… You will take over the company functions too and I will be free from worrying at that end as well… till then… I owe it to my baba to hold things together to the best of my abilities…”
She blinked away tears and turned to get off.
She halted and turned back. “…yea…?”
“…Thank you…for everything… and especially for tonight…it meant a lot…”
She nodded and smiled, her throat too clogged to speak as she got out and walked fast towards the gate. She let the tears flow only when she heard the car reverse and leave the lane.
The next day Arpita had promised to be there for the Sherwani selection. Avanti had already reached the place, a huge boutique in Dadar and it had taken her like forever to reach the venue, not to mention… she was tired to the bone. It was well past 9PM when a shame faced Avanti teared up in the boutique’s washroom. She was caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea… she was now hating her sister for the way she was treating Keshav. Didn’t she realize how lucky she was to have found someone who understood emotions so well…? She tried calling and texting Arpita again in the washroom but it was all futile and it was too late in the night for her to wait anymore. She emerged from the washroom and walked directly walked into Keshav stopping abruptly like a deer caught in headlights.
“…Um…Keshav ji… Arpita is…”
“…Stop it Avanti… that’s enough… She texted me… she got caught up in her… project…” He looked away disappointment clearly evident in his eyes. But at least her sister had the sense to let him know… The idiot could have at least texted her as well… she wouldn’t have worried so much.
“…sorry Keshav ji… very sorry…” she whispered.
“…hey its ok… why are you sorry…? And you now have another responsibility…” He spoke in an amused tone.
“…I don’t have a lot of time Avanti and half a day today is wasted… so since we are here… why don’t you select an outfit for me…?”
“…um …Keshavji… I don’t really know about all this…? Its Arpita’s forte…”
“…Nonsense… I don’t believe a word of that…come on…”
He held her hand and took her to the main area of the men’s section. For the next hour he tried on at least 6 sherwanis and she didn’t know she even had a choice, before this. Though it was around 10.30PM, Keshav was very patient and heard her out as she commented. She finally selected the bandh gala purple outfit… as he modeled it for her, her heart leaped to her throat… she just hoped she wouldn’t collapse with the rise in her blood pressure. She didn’t speak anything but she looked into his eyes through the mirror a she stood before it, and he smiled, knowing her answer. She only nodded…
An hour and a half later as he dropped her home, he stopped the car and spoke. “Avanti… there is something I had been meaning to ask you….”
She was way too sleepy but still tried to keep her eyelids from shutting. “…What is it Keshav ji…?”
“…Uh… did your father give you any kind of a tiny notebook for safe keeping…?”
Now that woke her up completely. “…Um…no… actually if its anything linked with work…he never involved us… so…no idea… why…?”
“…Actually Avanti… uh… that book is very important… and shouldn’t fall into wrong hands… I didn’t find it anywhere when I picked up his research material last month from his study…. can you try searching it in his study…or anywhere else in your house…please…? It’s a tiny black bound book…”
She was too stunned to think and barely whispered in affirmative as she got off the car.
That night she couldn’t sleep a wink…