The vehicle carrying Avanti and her mother, arrived at the wedding venue, the other guests were arranged on a bus and her uncle was overseeing the arrangements. However strained her past relationship she had with her uncle, today he was a blessing especially for her mother… it was a huge relief to have someone by their side to manage everything when she couldn’t. Avanti glanced outside the car and saw the décor had gone through some rushed changes. Through the basic floral arrangements using marigold garlands and mogras along with roses were just as planned by her, the huge plaque welcoming the guests with the floral design stating ’Arpita weds Keshav’ was conspicuous by its absence. Keshav must have got it removed she thought… Her mother held her hand as she got off the car and a pensive Rahul drove away to park it in a designated slot. She walked towards the conical pandal where the floral arrangements hung giving it a festive hue. The breeze blowing around her brought with it the combination of the fragrances involving the floral scents mingled with the artificial perfume drops sprayed around by a rotating wheel at the entrance. As soon as she stepped inside the main carpeted area it hit her why she was here…instead of her sister and her heart began to race. Was she really a substitute bride…? Would Keshav keep his promise once they got married…? Would her baba have approved of her stepping in instead of Arpita…?
Her mother held her hand as she drew strength from the remarkably strong woman who had put everything aside to support her daughter’s decision. Avanti knew, her mother who always thought about the world and their reactions to her decisions and their outcomes, was showing stupendous poise at the moment and she couldn’t help but respect and love her more than she already did. Her mother led her to the central area where the pandit had already started with the rituals on the microphone… amidst the soft wedding music playing in the background. Avanti had herself chosen the music and the irony was it was being played for her wedding instead of her sister’s. Avanti looked around and saw the gathering of her relatives… what…? only from the bride’s side…? She recognised Kamya, his step mother Rohini Jaiswal and the twins. There were some of the employees from Vedshastra whom she recognised… but there was no one else from his family. Whatever….
She joined her mother and close family members for the Ganesh pujan. The beautiful silver Ganesha idol belonged to her father and he had specifically got it for this event as soon as the marriage had been fixed. Her eyes filled and she prayed to the elephant God and also her father with all her heart, to give her the strength to face any obstacle that came her way. She also prayed that she made the right decisions which would be conducive enough to save her family’s reputation… Keshav was yet to arrive… where was he? Her mother and uncle then took her around amidst the family elders for their blessings even as she heard hushed whispers about the bridal replacement. She ignored the buzz around her as she plastered a smile on her face and went about her mother’s instructed order. She knew, irrespective of her opinion every ritual meant a lot to her mother. Finally, as they approached the main location, she glanced up to the wedding pyre straight into Keshav’s mesmerising eyes as he stared at her with some kind of a strange emotion. He had worn the same Sherwani that she had selected and the pretied red turban only enhanced his appeal… NO… she thought with disdain. She wasn’t supposed to like him anymore… Her mother tugged her to the centre stage.
The antarpat ritual began where a cloth was held as a barrier so that the groom couldn’t see the bride. Suddenly she felt a tug on her shalu and looked behind to see Rahul standing with a grim expression. What the hell had gotten into him…? She raised her eyebrows and he came closer. “Don’t do this Avanti…” He whispered to a degree of hoarseness to cover the background music playing. “…He isn’t who you think he is…just stop here… we will manage…”
“…What the hell are you saying Rahul…?” She spoke clenching her teeth… agitated. Her best friend wasn’t helping her stress levels to reduce, with his behaviour.
“…I found out a few things about him in last couple of days… he is…I mean…”
“…Come on Rahul… what is it…?” she blinked away tears as her heart sank. What had he found out? She knew Rahul had a way with computers
“…He….” Rahul had just begun when the Pandit started the Mangalashtak on the microphone drowning Rahul’s voice. She only heard the last word. “…dangerous…”
Her uncle held her hand and took her closer in the mandap… the Antarpat was removed and she saw Keshav closely and irrespective of what Rahul said or didn’t say… irrespective of her foul mood or her impending fears… irrespective of her mother’s opinion of Keshav, Avanti knew that no matter what, she was hopelessly in love with him. Something about him appealed to her and it was beyond physical… He stood smiling looking into her eyes and she could feel calm seep into her heart as it settled. He always did that to her… even when they met during the arranged dates. As the Mangalashtak ended, they exchanged garlands and the couple was showered with unbroken rice… the akshatas.
It was time for the Kanyadaan and Avanti couldn’t help but let her father’s fond memories flow down her cheeks, as she remembered her beloved baba… He had dreamed of giving away his daughters with all pomp and splendour. But today as her uncle performed the ritual, her throat clogged as she reminisced her life with her father as they flashed before her eyes. Oh, how she missed him…. As her uncle placed her palms on Keshav’s, he gently gave her a squeeze and as she looked up she saw a blurry vision of Keshav nodding his head telling her…all was OK… as if. She sniffled as the Pandit said the mantras. They were then made to sit on the chairs placed there, as her uncle and aunt performed the traditional couple worship. They then performed the Kankan Bandhane ritual where Avanti tied a piece of turmeric on Keshav’s hand and he in turn repeated it with her. Keshav then sealed the ritual by placing the mangalsutra around her neck and applied the vermillion on her centre parting. She in turn applied a sandalwood tilak on Keshav’s forehead. She didn’t bother anymore to stop the unyielding tears as they flew uninhibited as they bonded in holy matrimony…even while the musicians played the famous song from the movie Dhadkan…Dulhe ka sehra…
Finally, they stood for the saptapadhi ritual where they circumambulated around the sacred fire seven times as Keshav gripped her hand protectively. She felt protected and cherished at that very moment as her hand as engulfed in his warmth. She didn’t know if he was putting up a show for the gathering as there were some people from the media as well… but at that moment she wanted to keep all her apprehensions aside and focus on the present. As the pandit reiterated the vows all she could realise was… that she was living in the moment where she was actually serious about the vows. She didn’t know if Keshav took any of them seriously… but in those instants of the rituals, the world had faded away and it was only the two of them on the stage…. She could only feel the fragrance of the garland adorning their necks and his eyes on her every move and expression….
The rituals ended and the newly married couple was led
by her uncle to the family elders for their blessings. Starting with her mother and other long-lost elders, they circled a huge group. Later they moved towards his family where a beautiful Kamya stood clad in a silk saree, beaming ear to ear. She hugged her brother and Avanti. “Welcome to family Avanti Bhabhi…” Avanti blushed…Kamya was older to her but still addressed her as Bhabhi. The twins too hugged their brother and nodded at Avanti hesitatingly. She smiled, instantly liking his siblings. She knew they wouldn’t be staying together but it was better to have good relations to make her yearlong marital life bearable. Her father always said, “you don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you… just cherish them…after all…family is family…”
His step mother was young and very pretty and today especially clad in a designer silk saree she radiated elegance. However, she was stiff and barely smiled at Avanti. She could sense cold vibes between Keshav and the woman and his grip on her hand had tightened for a few seconds. The man was mystification personified and his step mother an entirely different entity…Avanti wondered what else was in store. They all had lunch and though there was her favourite masale bhaat and aluvadi on the menu which she herself had painstakingly selected for the wedding, Avanti was on tender hooks and could barely eat. After a photo session they had the varat ritual where Avanti bid a tearful goodbye to her mother and other close relatives. Most of all she was laden with guilt for having lied to her mother about the truth behind the wedding.
They were to have a small press meet but Avanti was not upto it. Keshav asked her to relax for a while in the adjoining room provided by the wedding venue while he addressed the press. She knew how important it was to make the world believe in their alliance…especially for their sneakily unpredictable investors. She smiled for the few photo ops along with Keshav and walked into the room. Her entire body was aching and her head was splitting given the day’s excitement and she longed to put her legs up for a while. As she settled in the room there was a knock and Rahul entered the room. “Hey… Rahul…what’s up…? Why didn’t you leave…? Who is driving Aai…”
“…Don’t worry Avanti… I am going … they are all waiting… I had to talk to you first…”
“…Oh God… Rahul…what is it…? I am exhausted as it is…”
“…Avanti… just… come home with us… we will give some excuse to everyone… but just come along…”
“…What the fu… Rahul…what are you saying…? You just don’t make sense…” Her head threatened to splinter into a million pieces.
“…Avanti… this man is dangerous… This Keshav… he is the most opportunistic person on earth… he eventually will take over Vedshastra…”
“…Cut the crap Rahul… Vedshastra is sinking anyway…Keshav is the one who is trying to save it…” She didn’t know why she was so defensive but the world didn’t have to know the reality of the marriage that had just taken place.
“…Avanti… he is the once who put the company into the back burner in the first place. That research… that formula that Rane kaka was working on which eventually led to this mess… it was on the insistence of Keshav Goyal… kaka neglected every other project for it and look where it got us…”
“…Rahul…you are insulting baba now… he was a genius… he relied on his own instincts and not others’…”
“…I wish I was wrong Aavnti… but just look at the timing… How conveniently the alliance was fixed with the Rane family’s daughter when Rane kaka made some headway with the formula… how easily one daughter disappears on the wedding morning only to be replaced by the other smarter and younger daughter without battling an eyelid…”
“…Rahul…just shut up…”
“…Avanti you can lie to the world… but I know you… you have got into this mess only for your family… you are too altruistic in that regard…And don’t deny it… please…”
Avanti sighed. “…look Rahul…I can’t help what you think of everything… but the truth is… I am now Avanti Rane-Goyal and that won’t change… so please leave…” Tears threatened to spill and she didn’t want to look weak before Rahul.
“…ok fine…one last thing Avanti. Do you remember the discussion we had… about Rane Kaka… whether it was an accident or a sabotage…?”
Now that got her alert. “…What do you mean Rahul…?” She had always believed the police findings on the accident.
“…Avanti… I always felt it wasn’t an accident… just think about it… it was a private plane… the pilot was ex- air force with an enviable number of hours under his belt… there was no investigation as such and it was declared an accident… the bodies were charred beyond recognition and there was no post mortem… can’t you see here…?”
Avanti wiped away her tears. “…Rahul… it was an accident… there was no proof otherwise… I thought we had agreed to it…”
“…I couldn’t come to terms Avanti… so I kept digging…” Rahul was flustered and rubbed his face.
Suddenly the door to the room sprang open and an annoyed looking Keshav entered hands on his hips. “…What on earth are you doing here…? Weren’t you supposed to drive the car back home…? They are waiting out there… I think you should leave…” though he wasn’t loud the lethal tone of his voice was enough to fluster Rahul. He just nodded and left the room.
Keshav looked at Avanti. “… we should get going now… your stuff has been transferred from your vehicle to mine… and the rest you can bring later from your maternal home… let me know whenever you want to do it… I will arrange it…”
Avanti was still reeling with the information overload she had received from Rahul. She decided to look into it eventually and nodded as she moved alongside Keshav to their waiting car. All through the long drive she kept to one corner of the passenger seat while he was at the other. In spite of convincing herself over and again that she was doing the right thing, her tears refused to stop. What was Rahul trying to tell her…? The car dropped them to a five storeyed building in a locality which looked pretty secluded…He lived in a posh locality in Deonar… overlooking the only open space in the area which her dad often mentioned to as the gas chamber due to its vicinity to Chembur. However, the air around seemed fresh enough and she was glad to see greenery in the otherwise concrete jungle they had passed through on their way inside the lane. He held her hand as they moved towards the lift that took them to the fifth floor… it was the only house on the entire floor… really…? He rang the doorbell and a smiling Kamya opened it. “…wait bhaiyya…bhabhi… wait a moment… Nirvi…? Are you ready…? then come over…” She giggled like a school girl as Avanti watched Nirvi bringing the Aarti thaal. Kamya performed the aarti as she welcomed the couple. Nirvi then placed a kalash filled with rice which Avanti toppled as she entered the house. Kamya held her hand and took her to a massive living room. Even before she could recover from the shock of the room size, Avanti was made to sit on a huge sofa. Keshav was made to sit next to her and Kamya and Nirvi arranged a plate of rice on the centre table as Naman and his mother looked on. Kamya handed over a silver idol of Goddess Parvati to Keshav and asked him to place it on the rice plate. He then wrote Avanti’s name on it. Avanti was in tears… how did they know about the customs…? She definitely hadn’t expected it and was further touched when Kamya sat between them and picked up a tiny mirror where she saw Avanti’s face in it… oh God Soonmukh baghne…Only thing was instead of the mother-in-law Kamya was doing it. “…So, Bhabhi… officially welcome to our home… I hope I did the rituals well… actually your mother had given me the instructions when I had spoken to her earlier… I wanted to do it well… did I…?”
Avanti hugged Kamya. “…Thank you so much Kamya di… this means a lot to me… it was more than perfect… and please call me Avanti…”
The family soon left and they were alone at home… Keshav showed her, her room. It was a huge bedroom with an attached bath and a changing corner, with a four-poster bed, and a walk-in closet. Her bags were already placed in there. “This…is your room…this other door here leads to a study and across that is my room. Uh… in case someone from family visits us… which is rare…but it would be better if you emerge from my bedroom instead of yours… I have a cook and a maid who are very discreet and they only come in the morning for a while. You don’t have to worry about them… And… anything you need just let me know…”
Avanti nodded watching Keshav leave the room shutting the door behind him… suddenly she felt the void in her room and in her heart as well. Where had she gotten herself…? She took in a deep breath… she had to find Arpita… to check if she was safe… She texted Rahul to keep looking for her and promised to connect with him soon. Just as she freshened and lay on the soft bed, her phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was Keshav… why was he texting…?
‘Dinner at 8PM…see you later…’
She shook her head and picking up the remote switched on the TV… one of her favourite movie played on RomedyOne… ‘Mr and Mrs. Smith’…As she watched she couldn’t wonder…just like the protagonists in the movie was Keshav too… putting up charade…? Was the care and concern just a facade like what Rahul told her…? What was it about him that had scarred Arpita off…? In fact, this arrangement was perfect for her sister. Then what was it…? She didn’t know when sleep took over and she jolted up suddenly when she heard a knock. “Avanti…? All OK…? Come one lets have dinner…” Keshav called out and she sat up looking down at her loose track-pant and faded t shirt. This was her go-to attire on a tiring day which always comforted her. She tied up her hair in a messy knot and looked at her plain self in the mirror… what would Keshav think about her appearance…? As she let her hands fall along her sides she heard the trinkling of her bangles… she loved the sound of the green glass bangles and had always yearned to put them on… She sighed and walked towards the door. As she opened it, she saw Keshav standing in a grey t shirt with a pensive look in eyes…holding a water cup.
“…Are you Ok…? You took a while to answer the door…” He said in a tentative voice.
Irrespective of what she had heard or others thought about Keshav, she was always touched by his simple words of concern. She shook her head as a traitorous lock of hair fell over her face. Before she could move it, he raised his hands and held it taking his time to feel it in his fingers before tucking it away behind her ears. She didn’t know she had held her breath till his warm fingers left their touch on her skin. He cleared his throat and gestured her to the dining hall… attached to the living room on one end and the kitchen on the other. “ So… Avanti… lets have dinner and post that I will give you a tour of the house… in case you aren’t tired of course…otherwise we can do it tomorrow…And you can tell the cook Mrs. Sinha, whatever you wish to have… she will make it for you…uh…and…if you need…”
“…Keshav… I am fine… So please relax and let’s have dinner…” She smiled as she spoke.
She heard him sigh and smile widely as he rubbed his face, his eyes lighting up in the bright dining room lights right above him, his dimple embedded in his beard, making her heart flutter…. She had to control herself she mentally reprimanded herself. As they had a lovely dinner of roti sabji, daal rice, she felt the time pass slowly with each lingering bite that she chewed, and a year in this house looked real long indeed…