The next day arrived swiftly, faster than she could think of. Gaurav had asked her to pack her bag and check out of the hostel which she had done last evening. She packed a little handbag … well that’s all she had taken when she had run away from Warangal. She had barely slept the night in spite of the fact that the earlier night was also a witness to her insomnia. Ria couldn’t wait to get out of this place… somehow it gave her the creeps ever since she had read the newspaper last morning. Her feelings were paradoxical… while at one end she was happy to get a chance to follow her dreams, without having to bother about anyone whereas at the other end she felt guilty about what she had set to do… She decided to clamp down her thoughts. Today, she decided with a firm resolve she was not going to sweat over anything and let fate take its course.
As promised, Manek’s wife Megha, who was at least six months pregnant, met her at the hostel society gate and from there, she took Ria to a hotel room. The next hour was spent in helping Ria with her saree , the print henna on her hands and with her make-up and hair do. there were a couple of women who had been hired to help Megha. Ria wondered what the fuss was all about but deep within she was excited to dress up… for Gaurav. She didn’t know where this was going to lead to but she was sure about one thing… She didn’t have to pretend before Gaurav or to become what he wanted… She was in her most comfortable element with him. Megha, she realised was a sweetheart. She belonged to a well-off business family and had met Manek during one of their business conventions where she was spearheading the campaign for her company. Manek had apparently pursued her on a project and Megha blushed when she told Ria how few business meetings turned to an eventual marriage and Ria was in tears as she smiled. Ria was glad Megha didn’t ask anything about her in return… she didn’t know if she could reveal anything to this lovely woman. Megha kept chatting about her impending baby shower in Delhi at her parent’s place. But Ria barely focused now… it was almost time. She had butterflies in her stomach and couldn’t eat a morsel of the lovely breakfast spread in the hotel. Finally, when she looked at herself in the mirror, she couldn’t recognize herself. Megha had gone overboard…. But somehow, she loved what she saw.
Megha stood behind her and said, “Wow you look amazing Ria. Just wait till Gaurav bhaiyya sees you…”
Ria blushed as she looked down to adjust her saree and they stepped out of the hotel room. Soon they reached the temple. Ria saw that the arrangements were already made…. And was stunned to see the spread of floral decorations everywhere. Gaurav …looked like had gone beyond the basics. The marigold and roses with merging lilies were arranged in equal proportions everywhere and she loved the fragrance of the mogra gajra which Megha got for her hair and pinned it. The sacred fire pit was arranged at the centre with beautiful kolu drawn around it… it was just like in her dreams and her eyes welled up. Megha left her there and disappeared citing some work left to be done before the wedding. Her heart beat suddenly accelerated and she knew…. he was here and then heard murmurs… when she looked to her left she saw him. Gaurav was dressed in an off white Sherwani. He had a flowing red dupatta and a matching turban too. He looked like a prince…correction…. a king. But though her heart skipped a beat looking at him, this only scared Ria further and she shut her eyes trying to breathe to calm herself. She told herself…everything was going to be fine.
She felt a warm palm covering hers. “Hey… are you alright…?” a soft voice asked. His voice actually soothed her nerves. She nodded, with her eyes still closed. He said, “Ria, look at me…” She turned towards him and opened her eyes. Gaurav was looking at her with a little smile. He held both her hands as he continued, “… I know… the circumstances of a big day like this… haven’t been ideal at all. I know you may have had different aspirations; you surely would have wanted your family and friends to be there… I …er…I just tried to make this experience a little less… painful for you. I promise you Ria, I will give you everything you desire and leave no stone unturned to make you comfortable in this period of our marriage….” Hearing his, Ria teared up again and pressed her palms to his.
She said, “…Thank you… it’s beautiful …this everything here…”.
Gaurav thought this was the happiest moment of his life…. Everything looked surreal… for once he wasn’t bothered about the events surrounding the impending nuptials and he just wanted to let go…For once in his life he didn’t want to be worried about any consequences of his actions… about how his parents or extended family would react. He didn’t even know where his parents were, neither did they call him or text him after his trial. The people who mattered to him were all there. And Ria… she was stunning as a bride… far more beautiful than he had imagined and he just couldn’t take his eyes off her. But her tears… they were tearing him from within… was she sad to be in this…? Was it just desperation driving her… to be tied to him? That was a heart sinking feeling…
The rituals took place as per mixed traditions. The application of sindoor, tying the mangalsutra taali, exchange of garlands and then the pheras. They then did the pooja of the presiding deity and had the prasad. The pandit blessed them and wished them a long and happy married life. The registrar present got their marriage certificate signed and witnessed. It would take a month for it to get registered as per norms but officially he had got his bases covered. Gaurav looked towards Ria. She was speaking to Megha and looked carefree now with a smile on her face. He just hoped he could keep it there.
He hadn’t taken the conventional way of dating Ria or asking her parents or the like… even his proposal was weird. He knew he had taken advantage of a situation… he felt like an opportunist. But he just knew he was right. He felt it within… more strongly than anything else in his life. He knew that he had fallen for her so badly it was a point of no return and just hoped he could make her happy. He knew she was upset but could also sense she had feelings for him. She had faced so much the last few months and didn’t deserve the crap life threw at her. He was saving her from obvious depression….at least that’s what he told himself. In reality though…he was saving himself…his sanity. He hoped and prayed to the presiding deity that his decisions didn’t boomerang.
As a couple they met up with Manek and Megha and Keith and had a traditional south Indian lunch together. Finally, they exited the temple Gaurav held an exuberant Ria’s hands and as Keith got their decorated vehicle around, he said “…Ria…let’s visit your house and meet your parents. I am sure you would want to seek their blessings….” Ria’s smile died and he almost kicked himself for it. But he knew she valued traditions and come what may, that part was very important for her. “…Ria, you are now my wife. I only want you to be happy. I know your family is very important to you irrespective of whatever has transpired between you and you have always done everything possible keeping their best interest in mind. So, before they from others and get more upset and butt of ridicule let’s visit them, ok…?”
Ria smiled an unsure one. “Thank you, Gaurav… for… thinking about everything. I am skeptical that’s all…our last meeting was… not … it didn’t go well…”.
Hearing her address, him by his name gave him great pleasure. Gaurav got her hand to his chest and said softly, “…don’t be Ria…. I will be there with you. We shall see this through together…. So, let’s go…?” Ria only nodded her smile reaching her eyes now.
As their car moved out of the temple compound and on the road, Gaurav was lost in thought about what was to come. He had already started feeling the marriage was permanent. He didn’t want to think about a year from today. He just hoped this marriage worked out. He wanted to share his life with Ria… share hers too. He hoped it was more than a contract… a permanent commitment. He just had to play his cards well. and… he would have to keep his skeletons locked firmly in his cupboard.
His past was dark and he had to leave it buried… forever.
Gaurav and Ria stood hand in hand outside her flat and rang the bell. Everyone in the society around their building had turned to look at them as they had stepped out of their decorated car. The same people who had talked about her behind her back were looking at her with renewed expressions. Whether it was respect or what… she couldn’t say. Mr. Joshi had leaned out of the balcony so much…she thought he would fall down two floors. She had chuckled but was somber again dreading the impending meet with her parents.
Ria was shivering though it was hot. Gaurav squeezed her hand and said, “…Don’t worry I am right here with you. We shall leave whenever you want to. Just give me an indication….”
The door opened and her mother stood… open mouthed. She quickly gasped and yelled, “Aaiyyo Parmeshwara (Oh God)… what is this? POOJA… oh Pooja… just… just come here…”
What was Pooja doing here…? Ria wondered.
Pooja and her father came rushing out on hearing her mother and her heart fell. “What happened Gayathri….” her father started to ask and stopped midway when he saw them at the door. But he seemed to recover faster than her mother and said, “…Just…just come inside. People are watching…”.
They walked in and he immediately shut the door.
He totally ignored Gaurav but gave an angry look to Ria. “…What on earth were you thinking? Have you lost your mind…? Where the hell were you all these days… you ran away from such a wonderful alliance I had got for you…without a care in the world and now this…” he scolded pointing at her up and down.
“Appa….I… I… I…” Ria stuttered.
“…Just shut up ok?” Her father interrupted. He was writhing in anger as his voice rose. “…Haven’t you embarrassed us enough?… Your mama isn’t talking to us because of your stunt in Warangal… Now you have crossed all your limits. I am forced to wonder if this was your plan all along? Is that why you got rid of Vikram? You wanted to settle with this…this… man…?” He said pointing towards Gaurav. “…wait a minute… he is the boss isn’t he…? The one whom you chose over us…? Gave up our reputation and made us the talk of the town…?”
Ria felt Gaurav squeeze her hand again where he held it. She was miserable and having him by her side was the only reason she could stand the hurtful words aimed at her. She couldnt believe her parents were such poor judge of people… especially Vikram.
Suddenly her mother came to her and shook her by her shoulders, “…RIA… Nīṅkaḷ karppamāka irukkiṟīrkaḷā? you aren’t pregnant, are you?"
“N…no amma…” Ria whispered…
“Then why did you do this? You know Pooja is newly married and we were to celebrate Ganesh festival with her in-laws coming over next weeks. As it is, your scandal… that court case and engagement break up shook us so badly. We covered it up somehow. Now this… How can we explain things to her in-laws?” her mom wailed…
Ria just couldn’t take it anymore. Her folks were miserable….so was she.
Gaurav sensed Ria’s plight… his blood boiled at what she was put through. Controlling his anger, he spoke, “Mr. and Mrs. Narsimhan, we are sorry that we tied the knot in this manner. But we were scared of your reactions. Please bless us as we start our new journey….”
“…JUST TAKE HER AND GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE…” Her father yelled looking at Gaurav. Then he turned towards Ria and said, “…and you. Don’t you dare keep in touch with us anymore…. We don’t want your unholy presence in this house…” Saying he walked out of the drawing room into his bedroom.
Ria looked at her mother hopefully…,”…amma please…” she said softly.
Her mother turned around and followed her husband inside.
Pooja came towards them. She was fuming. “I just hope you haven’t ruined my life. If I have to hear a single taunt from my in-laws over this, I will never forgive you… “.
Gaurav pulled at Ria’s hand slowly and said, “…Let’s go Ria…come in…”
“…Wait… Pooja… I want thatha’s clock…just that and nothing else…”
Pooja gave her a bored look. “…Oh that… its there with your horrid clothes… I was to throw them away anyways. Take what you want…”
Ria rushed inside to her room and took the rickety clock from her cupboard… she looked around the room which held her memories… so many of them, both happy and sad… Tears flew freely as she held the clock to her chest and quickened her pace back to the door where Gaurav waited for her.
As a child and during her growing up years Ria had always dreamed of tying the knot someday and that involved people around her. Lots and lots of people. She had visualized herself as the bride with a faceless groom and had fantasized going through all the rituals…. With her parents happily doing the kanyadaan and the relatives for a change not gossiping about her appearance. She had thought of the noisy household filled with guests and at the end of her dreams she had wondered how she could ever be able to leave her childhood home.She certainly hadn’t in the wildest of those dreams thought of a hasty marriage with barely three people in attendance. She definitely hadn’t thought of the reception at her home they received from her folks. Worst of all she hadn’t expected to start a new phase of her new life in solitude. Yes, she had come along with Gaurav back to his silent house. There was no one to welcome her. Gaurav was quiet all throughout the journey from her parents’ home to his, while she kept shedding silent tears hugging the clock. Keith was nowhere around either, she assumed he must have been given the day off.
Gaurav escorted her to her room. It was beautifully made up with pastel shades. She hadn’t seen her room during her visit the earlier day and didn’t want to ask either. She was too nervous about the whole scenario then. To her surprise Gaurav had got her few clothes too which were hung in her wardrobe. He had handed a card to her and said, “…uh…Megha helped me buy some clothes for you. But I wanted you to have your choice. So, feel free to buy whatever you want….” He must have sensed her discomfort and had said, “Look Ria…, I know you are very upset about today. Just give them some time. They will come around. … Uh… are you hungry? Keith has prepared dinner before leaving for the day. I shall serve it whenever you want to eat…”
Ria looked up into those beautiful black eyes full of concern and smiled. “…Thank you for all this. It’s beautiful. And I am… not hungry… just… um… sleepy. Um… I shall have some milk though…before sleeping. Um… that’s ok…?”
“…This is your home as well from today Ria. Feel free to do as you wish, ok…? Milk is in the fridge. Let me know whenever you want something…. Other days you can ask Keith. He will be at your service…”. He smiled as she nodded and Gaurav immediately left the room. She heard the neighboring door click close indicating he had retired to his room. She wondered if she would meet him again that day. She didn’t feel like having anything that evening and went to bed early. She had barely slept for about an hour but was suddenly wide awake…slightly disoriented with the new surroundings and as waved of anxiety surged through her she couldn’t sleep. She just lay there on the bed wide awake in the dark. A few minutes later she heard footsteps outside her room. Her heart was beating fast as she peeped toward her closed door. She saw the footsteps halt outside her door through the crevice under the closed door. He stood for a while and then moved away. She didn’t know if she was disappointed or relieved and soon sleep and exhaustion claimed her.
Somewhere in the night she was woken up by some sounds. She thought she was dreaming probably due to the unfamiliar surroundings, yet again. Before she could get her bearings, she heard. ‘…. no… no… just leave …. (muffled sounds) … no … (crying sounds) … please don’t… no….’.
Was it a movie playing? Ria wondered. She got up and walked towards the door slightly opening it to avoid the noise and peeped outside. But there was no light or any sign of the TV playing and it was then she heard it again. The sounds continued coming for a while and she realized it wasn’t a movie at all. It was Gaurav who was making those sounds. Was he having a nightmare…? She wanted to go to his room and check if he was alright but didn’t know what she would say or if he would like her interference. She got back to her room and shut the door locking it, as she got into her bed… sleep miles away. As she lay anxious with tear-filled eyes, her heart breaking over her helplessness to help Gaurav, wondering about the man who was now her husband, the sounds ceased. Within a couple of minutes, once again she heard footsteps outside and like earlier, they stopped outside her room. She thought of switching on the light and checking things out. But then once again, the footsteps moved away.
After twisting and turning for an hour or so she fell asleep… somehow believing her search for the perfect life partner had actually ended…
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