Padma walked back quickly to the palace, knowing there would be a search party out for her if she delayed any further. Her beautiful memory was now pushed back to a mind’s corner like she always did. She barely remembered the boy anymore. Occasionally though, those pitch-black eyes seated on the brown face came back to torment her once in a while. But these days her heart fluttered whenever she thought of them.
Shaking her head, she passed through the hole in the wall back into the dandelion bush and was glad for the bright morning sun that had dried up traces of her immediate rendezvous.
Standing on the pavement, she looked at the now camouflaged wall. She knew what she had to do tonight. She had the invite in her inbox. Though her email was monitored, no one knew she had another account she operated secretly with Aarti’s help.
There was a party in the neighboring province. A new nightclub was being launched, and though Padma didn’t drink, she wanted to let her hair down and groove to the music for once. She had convinced Aarti to accompany her and through her had purchased a low black dress and make-up as well. Aarti had been against the idea initially, but Padma had been persuasive.
She once wanted to feel ‘life’ without being upping her guard all the time.
The cake cutting ceremony was to get done with by 8 PM after which Aarti and she would escape from the secret place in the garden to the groves. The vast estate ended on the hill slope that let to the lone mountain road. Aarti had arranged for a motorbike to be placed there. There was nothing a wad of cash couldn’t do; she had told Padma. The thrill of coming alive… shot down every other apprehension. Padma couldn’t wait for the evening.
The palace named ‘Devi Bhavan’ was partly built by the Marathas and the British. It eventually was handed over to the ancestors of the current King WamanRao Raje following a pact signed with the British. Today monarchy no longer existed in democratic India; however, the honorary kings performed specific duties towards their subjects. They held court and helped absolve local grievances, and also pursued philanthropy. Like many palaces in the country, Devi Bhavan was also built in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, distinctive domes and turrets, and exceptional works of art from different corners of the world. The three-storey palace also had several courtyards, two durbar halls, four Hindu temples, presided by different deities, and even an inbuilt state of an art swimming pool.
However, Devi Bhavan wasn’t outsourced to corporates for upkeep or converting to a five-star hotel, unlike many other palaces. Though Padma’s mother had once come up with an idea of converting a part of the massive palace as a B and B, the King had vetoed the same. A rarity, but he had been concerned about Padma’s security. The queen had given in as well.
Today’s bash was being held in one of the durbars. The Belgian crystal chandeliers had been mounted high and polished, to be lit up in the evening. In addition, the King had arranged for an exhibit of a collection of antiques, weapons, statues, and manuscripts for the visiting guests. The second floor housed all the exhibits that weren’t touched for the last couple of years. Padma’s mother had collected more than half of them. Padma only hoped to get through the evening unscathed.
The first floor of the palace was entirely residential. The King’s quarters lay in the east wing while Padma had moved to the west wing last year. The East wing housed too many memories of the late queen.
The room adjacent to Padma’s was empty while the next room, a spare one was used by Aarti whenever she stayed back, which was more frequent than not ever since Keshav had returned. Padma knew Aarti had feelings for Keshav, but the latter didn’t reciprocate.
That evening Aarti helped Padma drape the offwhite georgette saree. It was specially ordered for her and adorned with golden sequins. The blouse was sleeveless and low back, and she had let her hair fall cascading down her back. The make-up was light with just a touch of rouge and kohl. Like her mother, Padma had a broad lower jaw and large eyes. However, unlike her mother’s natural black, Padma’s eyes were speckled with brown hues. She loved horseriding and swimming and had developed a good physique not to mention the right curves. She often read romance books that Aarti smuggled into the palace.
As she stared at her profile in the mirror, Padma wondered if she would ever have the kind of romance she had red in books. She didn’t know if she even had the right to ‘want’ it…
Padma often wondered if romantic love ever existed. But whenever she thought of it, those sobbing black orbs from a decade ago danced before her mind’s eye. She failed to understand the reason, though. She pushed those feelings away as they only caused heartburn. She didn’t know who he was or where he was… was he even alive?
The bell-ringing indicating the start of the bash brought her back to the present.
“Wow, Padma you look hot and sexy…” Whistled Aarti as she admired her.
“You look amazing yourself Aarti…”
Aarti blushed turning a shade of crimson, matching her baby pink salwar kameez.. Padma knew Aarti wanted to get closer to Keshav.
Though they all played together as kids, the dynamics had now changed, especially since Keshav had returned.
“By the way…” Padma whispered though the maids were out of earshot. “…Is the bag ready?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, it’s all arranged. Wait for my signal, and we shall make our escape.”
Padma walked ahead and moved towards the Durbar, followed by Aarti and the maid entourage.
Evevryone stood applauding and Padma looked around wide-eyed at the show of opulence that she despised. Her father walked towards her in his royal grace and taking her hand led her to the bejeweled satin covered couch.
Once everyone settled there was a cultural program to entertain and Padma could feel all eyes on her. She hated that they made her uncomfortable. Her mother would never have agreed to this, definitely not in the name of tradition. Suddenly there was silence and Padma heard heavy footsteps.
She didn’t have to look up to see who it was. The MLA of the nearby province, Koini, Rajendra Majumdar strode in with his cortege. He was her father’s perennial nemesis, and there had been many instances of exchange of words over the development of the provinces. Both the provinces shared the breathtaking Dabhosa water falls and the MLA always butted heads with her father against the use of resources for tourism. He had also been against the fort restoration and had fought tooth and nail with her late mother. Padma hated the guy since her parents often stressed and argued because of him.
That evening he walked in with a massive bouquet held them up to her. On her father’s nod, she accepted them. The MLA’s obnoxious perfume made her gag, and she wanted nothing more than to flee…
“A very happy birthday to the beautiful princess Padmavati Raje. God bless you, child, with the best of everything… You were a gift from Devi maa, and we hope you live up to the large expectations the people of your province have from you….”
He laughed over his statement and walked towards the food counter.
The large three-tier cake was wheeled in and Padma cut the cake amidst singing and clapping.
The King took the mic in his hands and stood, calling for everyone’s attention.
“With Maa Bhavani’s blessings, my daughter Padmavati is officially the crowned princess from today. At the same time, I have decided to arrange her marriage with a very eligible boy who will help her with the duties of a queen after her coronation once she turns 21. So Keshav, come up here please…”
Padma watched with her mouth hanging open, and she felt Aarti stiffen next to her as Keshav who looked equally bewildered walked in dressed in a beige-colored Shervani. Keshav looked handsome, but Padma couldn’t help that she had no feelings for him besides friendship. He stood smiling as the King continued.
“… meet Keshav Chitnis, my future son-in-law. He is a post-graduate….” The King drawled on, and everyone clapped and congratulated Padma and Keshav.
The rest of the hour was a blur, and Padma made her excuse to drag Aarti out of the Durbar.
Petrichor earth invited her into her fold
Under the rhapsodic sanguine firmament
Her heart set on renewed voyeur
Hope is just a sunshine sliver.