This marriage is for the best…
Keshav’s words ricocheted off her ears continuously as Avanti looked at him with expressionless eyes. She hoped she was in a bad dream and would wake up soon… but alas…this was reality. She sighed and with trembling hands, picked up the pen. She grasped the cold metal as if it was her lifeboat in the current tumulus ocean of her life. But her rational mind also knew she had to do this else her family would suffer. Arpita may not have cared but her father was a prophetic visionary and he would have definitely seen the benefit of the alliance between the two families. She blindly trusted her father and his decisions and signed across the dotted line. And it was then the dread set in…
“…Um…Keshav… I have a… question…” Her voice was hoarse with crying.
“…What is it…?” The man had zero expressions on his face. Avanti wondered if she ever knew him.
“…Um… in this marriage…um…” She waved her hand to and fro between them. “…um…Will we be…sha…sha…sharing a room…?”
Keshav sighed and shook his head. “Look Avanti, I am a virile man so I wouldn’t lie and say I am not in for physical relationship with my wife… my legally wedded wife… but having said that, I am not the one to exert conjugal rights… or any kind of power on a woman. I will be ready whenever you are…” She thought she saw a hint of a smile on his face. Was he finding this funny? “… And don’t worry Avanti…you will have your own room…you will be free to live your separate life, but there are a couple of conditions…not exactly put down in the contract but I expect you to adhere to them….”
“…first… neither of us will have a relationship outside of this marriage so long as we are married to each other…” He halted looking at her.
She nodded slowly. “…and the second…?”
“…neither of us are going to reveal the reality of our marriage to any living soul… I don’t want the media or public to get wind of this…As of now only my lawyer is aware of it…” She nodded once and after a moment he spoke again. “Avanti…?” She looked up at him still shuddering and sniffling post her crying bout. “…do you… do you have a boyfriend…?”
She frowned… was he nuts…? Didn’t he realise the fact by now…? She shook her head and looked away. Wait… she had a right to ask him too. “…Keshav… do you…? Have a girlfriend…? Was that why my sister…”
“…NO… Avanti…do you know what your father’s biggest lesson to me was…? It was honouring one’s commitments and promises…He always said, ’commitment is an act not a word…’ and I know to keep my end of bargains, come what may… So, no… I don’t have a girlfriend. And your sister… I don’t want to insult your father’s memories by talking about her…” he rubbed his face which was showing signs of fatigue now that she saw intently. Somehow, she felt reassured about the fact that he didn’t have anyone in his life, that about his opinion about her sister.
She nodded and pushed her chair behind as she stood. He followed suit and rolled up the agreement. “Avanti take this…” He handed over the home agreement to her. “…Hand it over to your mother. Consider this… as a wedding gift…”
Avanti teared up as she took the paper roll and began to walk towards the gates.
“Avanti…” He called out to her as she was about to walk outside towards her car the aroma of freshly prepared coffee in the café breezing through her nostrils. “…Be there on time today… you only have two and half hours …” She didn’t react and just kept walking. As she started the car her tears began to flow yet again. What would she tell everyone…? That she was replacing her sister at the wedding? That she was a substitute bride…? This wasn’t how she had envisioned her own wedding… She turned out to be a poor judge of people and had probably misjudged Keshav. Initially she had thought he was like those rich men who thought they owned the world based on his appeal. But she knew her father better and he would never closely associate himself with shallow people so she had given Keshav the benefit of doubt. Even as she had gradually got to know him, she had realised he wasn’t the run of the mill handsome rich guy but an extremely down to earth, polite gentleman and someone who valued relationships. She often hated Arpita for the way she had treated Keshav but today as she drove towards her home she wondered if her sister had to face something like this. What had happened three days earlier…? Her sister had been upset and silent throughout. Did he offer her the contract as well…? but as far as she knew Arpita, her sister would have loved the arrangement and her freedom. But she had disappeared and instead of knowing about her whereabouts or looking for her, Avanti had to prepare for her own wedding… Oh God…baba what should I do…?
Avanti got back home and relayed the edited version of the proposal from Keshav to her mother and uncle. Before that she saw her relatives were having a field day enjoying all the delicacies doled their way without a care in the world and she realised even more how important this wedding was. None of them would come to their rescue, that was a given. In fact, the sadistic pleasure they would eventually derive from her family’s situation would increase in multiples. Even now, they suspected something amiss with Arpita missing and no one even bothered to go and look for her. No one bothered to ask her or her mother how they were holding up… these were the same relatives whom her father had helped multiple times both in cash and kind without battling an eyelid. Whenever her mother had objected, he always said, no one has ever become poor by giving… Avanti wondered otherwise watching them finish of the medu wadas in record time as if they would soon be struck by famine. But her father always believed in soul connect and told her, never feel afraid to dive into yourself…your soul will catch you… it will never let you down… soul is everything Avu…
Avanti was worried about her mother’s health and as expected she was furious. Aai hadn’t approved of Keshav even earlier but had kept her silence respecting her father’s decision. “…What the hell Avanti…? Why did you accept it…?” Her mother wailed in the closed confines of the room while her uncle sat silently in a corner. He was a henpecked husband who had never bothered about his sister or her family when they had struggled but had frequently visited them after they had made it big. But Avanti knew his presence was important to her mother…
“…Aai… relax… its… not what you are thinking…Keshav is a good guy…”
“…maybe Avu… he may be a good guy… your baba liked him… but he doesn’t give out good vibes… he is hiding something… I don’t like him and definitely not that step-mother of his…she is a vixen…” They had only met once as a family few days back and her mother obviously didn’t like the lady.
“…Aai…please calm down…”
“…NO…DON’T ASK ME TO CALM DOWN…” her mother screamed throwing away the paper roll of the agreement and Avanti was tensed about her rising blood pressure. “…I lost my husband and now God knows where Arpita is…I can’t lose you too Avanti…”
“…I am right here in Mumbai aai…I will visit you regularly…daily if you want me to…And I promise I will find tai…” She tried to convince her mother.
“…Look Avu bala I don’t care what happens to the company and the house… You are more important… We can move elsewhere on rent…I have savings…jewelry…”
Her mother was oblivious to the real soup they were in. “…Aai…Aai… please stop… no one has forced me…I am willingly doing this…please aai…I can’t let go of baba’s legacy…”
“…To hell with a legacy which is only piling up grief…it was the same legacy which drove your baba away… He had become a workaholic and it was eating away his life… And for what…? just mounting up debts…? Look Avu…just throw this agreement on Keshav’s face and break it off…” She said picking up and handing over the home agreement back to Avanti.
She had to reveal the reality softly. “…Aai…please listen to me carefully… Everything…just everything…. Will be gone… We will literally come on the roads… My salary… if my job stays after the fiasco, isn’t enough to get a good rented apartment in Panvel and God knows what is tai upto…Look aai… everything will be alright…please trust me…”
He mother turned around in a huff. “Avu… bala… we… we will go to our village… you can start something there… and I will help out…”
“…Aai…please be reasonable now… you know its not possible… and baba…”
“…Baba is not here now Avu… and I can’t see you destroy your life…” Her mother was shaking in annoyance.
Avanti lost steam as she looked at her uncle who nodded slowly. “Savita…” Her uncle finally spoke. “…Avanti is right… we have to save the situation… not just for your futures but the entire reputation of our family…”
“…No dada…I feel horrible sacrificing my daughter at the altar for the sake of living a luxurious life… I don’t wan’t material stuff… I just want my family safe…” her mother spoke softly … in tears. “…That man… he is so much older to Avanti… She deserves a lot better than him…”
“…Aai… please we don’t have much time now… I am happy aai…don’t worry about me… now please help me dress… I will call Rahul to drive us to the venue….” Her mother had sent back the makeup lady and the hair dresser, not that she was upto it…
Her mother sobbed and hugged her and in the next forty-five minutes she was all dressed in whatever they could arrange given the limitations even as the shocked relatives whispered and commented. After her mother left the room Avanti glanced around her favourite place in the world… this was her own space… she had her life built up here. every molecule around her had been just hers… She saw her special possessions, her shelf full of books, boxes of pen drives, CDs… mostly related to her favourite music albums and her own concerts, which she would miss the most. She saw a framed picture of hers with Arpita on the day of Arpita’s engagement. Her sister looked so radiant and beautiful… No wonder Keshav had fallen for Arpita… many men did. Since she was a model, she was well groomed and fit… had an enviable hour glass figure looking a lot younger than her age. In contrast Avanti was a simpleton…she wasn’t much into vanity and preferred the company of little children to men. Was this why she had failed to recognize Keshav…? The way he was ready with the papers today… it was as if he knew this would happen. Did he plan it…? Her heart stopped… No… she had to believe in her father… Her father knew Keshav for a long time and he wasn’t someone who would call a man home if he wasn’t… a good man. The thought calmed her racing heart and she felt relieved.
Her gaze then moved towards the wall covered with her most prized possessions, her instruments. There was the harmonium placed on a stand in the corner, a veena that filled the crevice on the wall, two varieties of the tanpura and finally her eyes fell on the most beautiful of them all a stone studded designer veena commissioned specially by her baba when he had been to Germany once. It had cost him a bomb but he said it reminded him of her and he had to get it after paying heavy duty for it. She smiled as she looked at the fiber glass case holding it. She hadn’t liked the tonal quality of the instrument and hadn’t gotten to restring it as per her requirement, but it had sentimental value now that her baba was no more. When he had gifted it to her three years ago, he had said, “Avu bala… when you sing plucking at the strings of the veena it connects to the soul… it brings out the purity of your heart… so if you have to reflect and look into your soul…just string the veena…” She still hadn’t completely understood what he had meant then… but that was her father.
He was the most intelligent person she had ever known and he was cryptic in his own way. As a child he loved playing treasure hunt with her. Every second day he would leave clues in steps, for her to find her gift… which usually would be a chocolate box or a favourite doll or toy… even when they couldn’t afford them. She would usually take a whole evening to do so but it gave her a strange thrill… more so because she felt she made her father proud. Her father had wanted her to follow in his footsteps and take up chemistry but she didn’t have the aptitude for science. She had been upset to hurt him because Arpita had disappointed him in every way and she had wanted to be the perfect daughter. He had then smiled and told her, “…Avu bala… follow your heart, else you will spend rest of your life regretting it… your heart is your best guide…” And she had done just that. She loved being a teacher and she loved singing.
She realized Keshav’s house was far from her school… She had to do something about it. Even by road it would be time consuming. She loved the children and not to mention her existing commitments. There was a charity fundraiser organised by the music school she attended and she had committed to that as well. It was a two-day event to be held in Hyderabad next month. Then following that she had to visit Kolhapur where her father hailed from. He had studied there and a couple of years ago when a major fire had gutted the chemistry wing of the university where he had passed out from, her father had donated a huge sum for the renovation. They were to honour him and unfortunately given the circumstances she had agreed to go…
Avanti swallowed her grief…how she missed her baba… he would have known exactly how to handle the situation. His will was the last communication and a copy of the same was kept with Keshav on her father’s demand for safe keeping. Keshav had accompanied the lawyer during the reading of the will which had bequeathed the entire wealth…whatever was left… equally to her aai, tai and herself. Keshav had been so supportive then and it was difficult to believe he was the same man she now had to face… for a complete year. If only they had found the black book…she didn’t have to get into this loveless, contractual and conditional commitment. She wished her father had left her clues, like in her childhood. But then she was no longer a child to be entertained and her father obviously didn’t know he would be gone so soon. Avanti blotted her eyes with her handkerchief as she shut the Veena’s case. She wasn’t taking much with her but she would definitely take her instruments… they gave her solace. She would now string this Veena as well and use it…. She somehow felt it connected her with her baba…. And God knew she needed him now more than anytime. As she sat into the car waiting for a grim looking Rahul to start it, she had one last look at her home… would things ever be the same…? She only hoped her family would be happy and Arpita would return home safely.
But in the poignant silence engulfing the vehicle as she looked down at her mehendi clad palms, the trinkling of green glass bangles adorning her wrists breaking the stillness….as she held her shalu close in comfort there was only one thought that crossed her mind continuously….
She was just jumping from the frying pan into the fire…