The black covered small book troubled her all next day… Avanti came home early from school and plunged herself into searching for the black book as she called it now… As she moved in her father’s study looking from cupboard to cupboard trying to locate the supposedly missing book, her eyes fell on the innumerable patents her beloved baba had obtained following his research. His sole aim in life was to develop something for the well-being of people. He would often get nostalgic talking about his past… his journey and off late he had been totally involved in the new project. She knew nothing about it and probably her father had his reasons for not sharing it with her. But she had once heard him slip and he had told her something to the tune of ‘wonder drug’. Was that the reason Keshav had heavily invested in Vedshastra…? Of course, he was a businessman and wouldn’t let any opportunity pass…besides it helped her father’s legacy to stay afloat so far given the circumstances. The man was even ready to settle down for the sake of the project…it must indeed be of great value.
As she kept looking through the innumerable files and folders, she saw her father’s neatly written notes on the post-its which he meticulously loved to place in neat order in his files. Tears flew down her cheeks as she hugged one of them and cried her heart out… she couldn’t grieve her father enough as she had to be the backbone of the family and take care of everything else…she just didn’t have the time. But today looking at the only remaining souvenirs of her father’s lifetime of research, she couldn’t contain it anymore… Her mother had gone to visit her brother in lieu of the upcoming wedding and Arpita was as usual away on a gig. Only their long-time cook was in the kitchen starting the preparations for their dinner… so no one would notice or hear her venting out. She cried for her father’s unfulfilled dreams wondering if it ever would… she cried for her sister’s apathetic attitude towards her husband -to-be and finally she cried for her unrequited love… Keshav never left her mind and she never even crossed his…
She didn’t know how long she sat in that dark room curled up with her father’s folder in her arms… How she missed him, his comforting words, his appreciation of her music. She had stopped her classes after he passed, tentatively till the marriage was done with. Rahul was annoyed but he understood. Day before yesterday evening was the first time she had sung after her father’s demise…for Keshav. She walked towards a framed picture of her father remembering one of his favourite raagas Malkauns and soon she was singing a small bandhish…koyaliya bole ambuva… the one she had won her first state title at the tender age of 8 years… Her father had thrown a party for his friends and relatives. Her eyes teared up at the memory as she hummed the aaroh and avroh of the raaga but instead of the memory of her father’s elated face she saw the beautiful eyes that had captured her heart irrevocably. Why did that man have to intrude her thoughts day in and day out…it was so wrong to lust after her soon-to-be brother-in-law. She hated herself and her non-compliant heart.
There was a soft knock at the door and she jerked up from her stupor. Who was it…? It was 7PM and the cook must have long gone. Did her mother come back suddenly? She wasn’t expected before tomorrow evening… was it Arpita? But she never knocked and just barged inside and she hated the study. Avanti straightened up and switched on the lights as she moved amidst the clutter to answer the door. She opened the door with a creaking jerk only to stare at a wretchedly handsome Keshav in his trademark t-shirt jacket combination leaning against the door jamb. He looked at her and frowned…she was immediately self-conscious…oh God she must be a crying mess. She hadn’t even bothered to change from her simple outfit of black trousers and white cotton blouse from school and it must now be ruined and her face…oh no. She quickly turned around and went through the motions of picking up the strewn folders and files. “…Um… Keshav ji …what brings you here…? Um…I was just winding up… I searched for the black book as you had asked but nothing…”
“…Avanti…?” She heard him softly behind her. She stopped and stood straight her back to him. “…Avanti please look here…” He whispered.
She turned around and saw he looked… sick. His eyes were red rimmed and now that she saw him clearly, he looked haggard. “…Um…Keshav ji are you OK…?” she saw him drive a hand through his hair and it was… trembling… what was happening…? He sighed as he staggered behind and before she could realise, he swayed against the wall. She rushed and held him tightly around his abdomen before he could hit the wall but she was no match to his height and strength and they collapsed together on the floor. The clutter of files softened the blow and she held her hand protectively under his head before it hit the floor. He immediately moved away from her and groaned holding his head. She rushed to the kitchen and brought a glass of water along with a wet wash cloth. He was still lying on the floor and she crouched towards him, helping him to sit up against the table. He was breathing heavily and his eyes were shut. She pressed the wash cloth on his face and he groaned again…was he in pain…? Her heart was breaking seeing him so vulnerable. She touched the glass of water to his lips. “…Ke…keshavji…please have some water…” She whispered and he gulped a couple of sips.
He slowly opened his eyes and struggled to speak. “…Mo…mobile… call…Ka…Kamya…”
She nodded and searched his jacket pocket and found his phone…it was locked. She held it up to him to unlock it. He squinted at her and whispered. “…p-o-w-e-r-o-f-m-e-d-i-c-i-n-e…”
She was surprised but typed in the letters and the phone unlocked immediately. She scrolled through his contact list but he touched her hand stopping her midway. “…Spee…eed Dial…2…” He struggled panting even finding it difficult to hold up his head.
She nodded, her hands now trembling in worry as she pressed 2 and the green dial button. She held the phone towards him but he said. “…Spea…eak…pl…please…” and his head fell back again on the table behind as if it didn’t have any muscle tone. She held the phone to her ear as she heard the ringing across.
“…Hello Bhaiyya… what’s up…?” A chirpy voice answered on the other end.
“…Um…hello…th…this is Avanti… Arpita’s sister… um Keshavji here is… unwell… he just collapsed… Hands… trem… trembling and he is breathing heavily…”
“…oh ok… relax Avanti… just ask him something to check if he remembers…like ask him…what he ate today morning…ask him what is the name of my hospital…” Kamya spoke strictly like a doctor. Avanti switched on the speaker mode and relayed the question to Keshav.
He lifted up his head and spoke. “…I didn’t …. Eat any…anything…other questions…shut up Kamya…”
“…Ok ok big brother… I knew you were up to no good… Ok…Avanti…?”
Avanti who was watching the banter wide-eyed was startled. “…Um…yea…?”
“…my idiot brother hasn’t eaten anything so can you handle that…? Immediately… so that the metabolism gets on track…?”
“…yes… of course…” She replied.
“…Ok and one more thing…Avanti…”
“…remind him to take his medicines after he eats something… that’s the most important aspect… got it…?”
“…yes… don’t worry…I will see to it…” Avanti spoke as she continued to look at Keshav who was now openly staring at her with drooping eyelids… Could the guy be sexier…? He looked hot even when sick…she was losing it.
“…Uh…and Avanti…?” The voice on the phone spoke and Avanti was back to the present.
“…hey its cool…” she said and disconnected. She then turned to Keshav. “…Keshav ji… are you up to it to walk to the dining table or the living room…? I will help… or else I will get the food here…”
He didn’t answer, just rested his head back on the table. She didn’t waste any time and ran to the kitchen. Luckily dinner was ready and she quickly served him roti, mix vegetable sabji and varan bhaat. She took the plate back to the study and picked up the little table which her father had fancied during one of his trips abroad. Since it was kept away inside one of the cupboards it was clean and she kept it before him and the plate on it. “…Um…Keshav ji… please eat something…”
She patted his shoulder and he opened his eyes slightly. But he just looked at her with hooded eyes and shut them again as if he had no strength left in his body…what was happening…? she couldn’t understand but she knew it was important for him to ingest food. She realized she had forgotten to get a spoon along but she couldn’t waste any more time. She took some varan bhaat in her fingertips and took it close to his mouth. “…Um… Here Keshavji please have this…” To her surprise though his eyes were shut he opened his mouth and took in the food. She fed him some more and gradually even the roti sabji. She then helped him have water and went back to the kitchen to get him some hot milk. Back to the study, she helped him have a few sips of milk and reminded him to take the medicines. Why was he under medication…? She wondered. He slowly opened his eyes and looked at her.
“…Avan…Avanti… medicine…in car… dashboard… gre…green box…”
She again nodded and taking his keys from the jacket pocket made a quick trip to the car to get the medicine box. By now he was sitting better and color had returned to his face. She finally was relieved and realized her breathing had settled too. He selected a strip and held it out to her as she removed the tablet for him. She again helped him take it and he rested back again putting the little box in his jacket. But this time he was breathing normally.
She went to the guest bedroom adjacent to the study and prepared the bed. She then got back to the study and sat next to him. “…Keshavji… you can’t go home like this…. Why don’t you stay back in the guest room…?”
Fortunately, he didn’t refuse and she helped him stand. As they shuffled towards the next room, he lost his balance and hugged her tightly sideways. She was walking along the wall for support and suddenly was sandwiched between him and the wall as she faced him… Their bodies touched and he tried to stabilise himself pushing the wall behind her. Her heart stopped beating as she felt his warm breath on her face. She looked up and at that moment he opened his eyes. He stared at her unabashedly and then specifically at her mouth. His eyes narrowed as he focused through the slits as he lowered his head and her heart was in her mouth…there was a buzz… his phone couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate moment to buzz getting her out of her rivière. He looked away and held up his hand to stop her, as she moved to help him stand. With a hand on the wall for support, he shuffled his way into the room and shut the door. It was then she actually let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding. What the hell was all that…?
She walked around the house checking the locks and the alarm and it was then it struck her… how did Keshav enter the house…? Did he have the alarm codes from her father…or had the cook left the door ajar…? No… the cook wasn’t careless… nonetheless, she had to ask Keshav the next day… and most important of all…she had to keep her distance. She was rapidly slipping into quick sand and she had to save herself before it got too late…
She waited up to 11PM before for Arpita to arrive but the excitement of the day had taken a toll and she got back to her room upstairs and fell asleep… she had the nightmare again. Her father calling out to her for help… Somehow, she felt it wasn’t a cry to help him from the wreckage but to help him extricate the business from dire consequences… She just wished she knew how to. She went back to sleep with a determination to speak to Keshav about the company and see if there was anything she could do. He was slogging his guts out to the point of sickness and he needed a break as well. But the next day morning by the time she walked downstairs to his room to call him for breakfast, he was gone. She however received a text from him. ’Hey Avanti…thank you for everything… owe you one!’
She smiled and went about her routine. Arpita hadn’t come home last night and she was worried. She texted her sister and finally after an hour Arpita replied.
’Had to rush to Shimla for an ad shoot… good opportunity can’t let it go… please manage back at home Avu…’
Avanti was getting angrier by the day. How could Arpita be so irresponsible and throw everything away for some side tiny bit role in an ad film…They had discussed this umpteen time and Arpita often fought with her father over this. She argued that she didn’t have much time left in her profession given her age and her father insisted that she settle down. Avanti knew about Pramod, Arpita’s ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up from time to time and they always got back again. She wondered if Arpita was still seeing him after their last break up a few days before Arpita’ engagement to Keshav. He sister had sworn she didn’t meet him but now Avanti had her doubts.
Avanti had applied for a leave of absence from school for two weeks considering the preparations for the wedding and a little time out for herself after the marriage. So, she had to work harder to complete the syllabus and prepare the question paper bank for the little ones. She barely got to speak to Rahul as well… rest of the time at home went in searching for the elusive black book and often wondered what was in it…? And what did Keshav mean by falling into wrong hands…? Was there something serious that she didn’t know…? But questions only gave rise to more diverse questions and no answers. Fortunately, Arpita was at home the next few days and she even went out with Keshav a few times. Avanti was happy for her sister…finally! She hadn’t seen Keshav after their rendezvous that evening at home and he hadn’t texted her either. Though her heart fell, she thought it was all for the best.
Three days before the wedding Avanti was at home in the evening and Arpita rushed in from a date with Keshav, all in tears. It was supposed to be their last date before marriage. Fortunately, their mother was away with their uncle for getting some last-minute things and the next two days were to be busy with mehandi and other rituals. Their relatives were expected to arrive tomorrow and Avanti was constantly on her toes. “…Tai…tai thaamb… (wait)… kai jhaale… (what happened)? Why are you crying…?” Arpita didn’t bother to reply and just rushed into her room banging the door behind her.
Avanti tried her best to talk her sister to open the door. She was worried if their mother saw Arpita like this she would have a nervous breakdown. It was with great difficulty she had stabilized after her husband’s death….and Avanti didn’t know why but her mother didn’t approve of Keshav for Arpita. She was going through the motions only to fulfill her husband’s last wish. Avanti did what she could think of at that time… she called Keshav.
“…Uh…yes Avanti…? All Ok…?”
“…You tell me Keshav ji… Arpita is crying her eyes out… what happened. Between you two… did you guys fight…?”
“…Why don’t you ask her Avanti…?”
“…if she would answer the door, I would have asked her… what is it Keshav ji…?”
“…Look Avanti… I respect you and your decision to stand for your sister…I know you care but there are limits you can’t cross… this is strictly personal…Ok…?”
She felt like she had just been subtly slapped. “…oh…ok…I get it… I am sorry to have bothered you Keshav ji…I won’t call you again…”
“…what is it now…?”
“…did you find the black covered notebook…? We are running out of time…”
“…Sorry…Keshavji…I am really very sorry…I tried my best…everyplace I could check… actually baba wasn’t someone who concealed anything or hid from family… so… I don’t know anything…Maybe if you could tell me something about the project…”
“…leave it Avanti…thank you for trying…” He abruptly intervened and disconnected.
Her head was reeling with the mounting pressure… she felt the walls closing in on her from all sides…exactly the same feeling she got in her consistent nightmare. She held her head and walked into her room. The next day Arpita got her tea and breakfast as she was speaking to the caterer and once, she finished the call, she held her sister’s hands. “Tai…what is it… why are you so upset…do you want to share…?” She knew Keshav wouldn’t like it but she also knew her sister better than him. Arpita couldn’t keep turmoil inside her…she projected herself as very strong-headed and stubborn but Aavnti knew her sister…she was a weakling.
“…Avu… what happens when you are told something… disastrous… I mean… possibility of a disaster actually… and you can’t do anything about it but still go for it…?”
“…Tai…you aren’t making sense…” She was starting to worry. Arpita wasn’t someone to mince words.
“…Avu…there is something… uh… Keshav…he has this… uh… leave it… just tell me… how important was this alliance for baba…?”
“…Look tai… I know this marriage was important to save the company…baba’s legacy…our legacy… but all said and done, you are more important. So, if you are…”
“…No…No…nothing of the sort Avu… I am definitely getting married… It’s just that… Avu…I am scared… of the future… you know me right…?”
Avanti couldn’t get it…what was her sister indicating…? there was definitely something she was hiding…did Keshav threaten her…? Arpita never kept anything that troubled her, from Avanti… it still struck her weird that her sister wasn’t talking as she saw Arpita stand up and go to her room lost in thought. Was anything wrong? Did anything happen between Keshav and Arpita…? Just then her mother got back from the temple and the relatives too started to trickle in. The following two days passed in a jiffy with the beautiful bridal mehandi adorning Arpita’s hands as well as the other ceremonies being performed as per her father’s wishes. Avanti couldn’t help but notice the somber look on her sister’s pretty face… and it irked her to no end when Keshav refused to answer her calls or reply to her texts… She saw her own little mehandi design… simple patterns yet intricate in their own way…just like her life right now. She hoped that just like eventually the colour of mehandi faded away, her sister’s troubles too would go away as she blended into her new life.
Today as she held Arpita’s crumpled letter in her hands her eyes filled watching her mother and uncle discuss the repercussions of the wedding not taking place…the biggest being they stood to lose everything they had… She had just found out a couple of days ago, her flat bought as an investment by her father wasn’t of much value and they couldn’t stay there as it was too far from city limits… What would they do now…?
“Avu bala…?” He mom called out.
“…there is only one solution to this mess… we have to talk to Keshav… just…just make a phone call…I will talk to him…”
Avanti was terrified at the prospects of enraging Keshav. He was already upset with Arpita all these months and also with her for the last few days… how would he take this news…this betrayal…? However, she did as her mother said and handed over the phone to her.
“…hello Keshav beta… we have a problem…” Her mother moved towards the window and spoke to Keshav all that had transpired. After a while her mother moved towards the centre of the room still speaking on the phone. “…ok beta I will send her… you can hand over the parcel to Avanti….” She disconnected the call and said in a neutral voice. “…Avu you have an important task at hand… Keshav says he had a parcel for us that was to be given to us during his marriage to Arpita…but he… still wants us to have it… He insists he will hand it over to you alone. So, can you go and get it…? He will be… at hotel Radisson… at their café right outside our lane…in half an hour…”
What the hell was going on…? She had to meet Keshav especially now to do damage control… the onus was back on her now… she pinched herself just to check if she was living another nightmare. For once she wished she did…
She reached the café and found Keshav waiting at a table with a rolled-up paper tied with a ribbon. She apologetically looked at him. “…I… I am sorry Keshav ji…I don’t know what to say…”
He seemed calm but was it the lull before a storm…? She couldn’t tell… but something was brewing behind those eyes and it definitely wasn’t the coffee kept before them. He handed over the paper roll to her. “Open it up Avanti you have to see it before I say my piece…” He spoke in an uncaring voice.
She untied the ribbon and unscrolled it… it was a document… no an agreement… Oh God he had repaid the mortgage for their home. The title was all clear now… In her mother’s name. She looked up… her vision blurring with her tears. “…oh God Keshavji… this means so much… I don’t know how to repay you… given the circumstances, you still…Thanks… thank you so much…”
“…Don’t thank me yet Avanti…I am not at all surprised at Arpita’s behavior… absolutely disgusting… but I respect your late father too much to humiliate you all or take any drastic measures… But at the end of the day I am a businessman and have to take care of my… finances. So… I intend to do just that… now how it will happen is in your hands…”
“…What… my hands…? What do you mean…” she had started to panic. Was he going to pull the rug… pull out his investment from Vedshastra…?
He took out another stamp paper agreement… and placed it before her. “… I suggest you read it carefully and think about the repercussions of the outfall and then sign it…”
She read the heading ‘CONTRACT’. What was he up to…? “…Um…Keshav ji what is it…?”
“…Well…it’s a contract… a marriage contract between the two of us…”
WHAT? “…What the hell… what is going on Keshav ji…?”
“… Do not act coy before me Avanti… I totally despise you sisters… One is a whirlwind of trouble and the other only knows to cover up for her sibling after the damage… so do this damage control now…your sister has left behind a lot of damages as she played tyrant and now its your turn to do your job as always… cover up for the ramifications…pay for her…”
Avanti felt as if he had slapped her. “…Go to hell Keshav… I am not going to sit here and take your crap…”
“…Let me tell you Avanti you don’t have a choice here… The company is going down if this doesn’t take place not to mention your family will be hounded by creditors, the moment I withdraw my support… so I give you ten minutes to think it over… The marriage will definitely take place today… only the bride will be different…”
“…I am not doing this…” she raised her voice amidst her tears. Was this the same man she had thought she had fallen in love with…? “…how dare you even think of all this… You got an agreement ready so early in the morning…?”
“…I have my means…” He said calmly as if nothing had happened. “… Look Avanti… I am only asking you to stay married for a year… that’s the time I will need to complete the project and finish the first round of trial… or if we get that black bound notebook it will be even faster… After that you will be free to leave, with the company intact… you may sell your shares if you wish to… nonetheless you will be a wealthy woman and more so your mother can spend the rest of her life in peace… the decision is up to you… or you can leave without signing and call off the wedding publicly… tomorrow onward the creditors will line up outside your house…which by the way, I can initiate with ease by just withdrawing my investment…. So think Avanti and your time starts now….”
Avanti only stared at him with her mouth hanging open as tears flew freely… If she thought the last few months were filled with turmoil this took the icing on the cake. Her life, she realized… was no longer hers to keep…