There were two cars in front of theirs, and two following close behind – her own little motorcade of sorts, carrying her to her new home. Still sniffling quietly, she was huddled in her seat, beside the man she was married to. Her heavy lehenga shimmered whenever they passed under a street lamp.
The cars cruised along quietly in the early hours of that winter morning, and so did her thoughts. I am married now. She felt her stomach flutter every time she reminded herself that.
She raised her eyes, as they reached a huge society gate, and drove through it one after the other. Finally, they took a turn and eased into a halt before a multi-storey building. The veil of darkness had begun to lift off the world outside, but the gloom inside her still refused to budge.
Soon, there was a horde of groggy-eyed women rushing towards her from inside the building, jostling to have a look at her. Someone pulled open the door of the car, and held her gently by the arm. Blinking back her tears, she climbed out of the car cautiously as some little girls held up her lehenga from the ground, mesmerized.
Ahead was her new life, waiting for her. She breathed in a lungful of cold morning air, and stepped forward. She was ready.
Ready to deal with it.
Inside the house, after the couple had gone through the rituals, she sat among the crowd of women as they tugged, and prodded at her clothes, and jewelry. Her head was throbbing from exhaustion, and their vulgar jokes were making it worse.
She might have collapsed there if her mother-in-law hadn’t come to rescue her from the old crones who clearly weren’t finished with her yet. She whisked her off to her new room, and left her there to rest.
The room, she couldn’t help noticing, even in that drowsy state, was unabashedly decorated for a fierce night of lovemaking. The very walls seemed to be dripping of lust. The sight of the bed, though, delighted her beyond she could tell. So, without thinking much, she flung herself on it and closed her eyes. A relief she hadn’t experienced in ages washed over her as she drifted off to an immediate sleep.
Many hours later, probably five, maybe six, she woke up totally disoriented, with her throat dry, and stomach rumbling, crying for food. She glanced around for water, while trying to smooth down her crumpled lehenga and peel away rose petals from it.
A sharp rap on the door almost made her jump.
“Hey, you up!” beamed Sooraj, peeping in, dressed in a track jacket and lower. He stepped inside, and closed the door softly behind him.
“Yeah…” She cleared her throat, and began fumbling with her hair, trying to press them down in place. “Hi!”
“Was about to bring in tea.” He handed her a glass of water. “Or, you’d like coffee?”
Anything. Just about anything! “Tea will do,” she confirmed, “and… something to eat… if that’s no trouble.”
A moment later, he returned with tea, and a tray full of snacks, biscuits, and dry fruits. Then setting them on the side table, he left her alone to eat. A kindness, she acknowledged as she pounced on the food like a starved prisoner. Only when she had washed it all with the cup of tea did she breathe again.
Later that evening, having changed into comfortable clothes, she was keeping her stuff in the cupboard, when Sooraj came back. He lent her a hand, and both of them set about unpacking her bags, and arranging things around. In between, he tried to make a conversation, but she didn’t reciprocate much, mostly nodding and limiting her replies to monosyllables.
Never before had she felt so awkward talking to a man. But then, she never had to be inside a man’s room, before he was inside her heart. Perhaps, she should have given him more time during the courtship period, she thought. It would have been a lot easier for her to manage things with him now.
The last of the relatives, her mother-in-law’s sister-in-law, had left by the time it was dark outside, but not before ordering her to have sex without protection. Well actually, she told her to make a baby that very night, but that was what the implied meaning was. Wasn’t it? And, as if going by her plan only, they had an early dinner afterwards, and soon enough, she found herself pushed back inside the dreaded room.
The same bed she had so loved in the day now looked sinister. She was sitting on it, curled up inside the blanket, her mind racing in circles. Why the hell is he taking bath in this cold?” she thought, irritated, well aware why someone on his first night, might like to do that.
Okay, come on, focus girl. Focus! She breathed, and began to rehearse. “Listen Sooraj,” she whispered to her imaginary husband, “it might be our first night, but we need to know each other first before we could…” Hell,no! Not so direct. That’ll only… And the creak of the door broke her thought. She stared at the opening door, holding her breath. He came out, smelling of lemons, but fully clothed. And she let loose a sigh in relief.
“You wanna shower?” he asked, rubbing his hair with a towel.
“No! I’m okay, and it’s… cold,” she replied. “Listen… Sooraj…” She quickly assumed the solemn tone she used in her team meetings.
“Yes, Kriti.” He walked towards her.
“I think… ” she started, but froze right there as he kneeled down and took one of her hands in both of his. “I’m sorry Kriti,” he said, giving her hand a light squeeze. “I couldn’t bring you a gift tonight. It… got delayed. But I promise you’ll have it tomorrow.”
Gift? Oh, right, the first-night gift! She hadn’t even thought about giving him one. “That’s… okay. I didn’t bring you anything either.” She forced a smile.
“You didn’t need to,” he said, looking at her intently. “You… are my gift. And the best of them all.” Then he got to his feet, and circling around the bed, went over to his side. She was still looking at him suspiciously, when he turned to her. “I can take a different blanket if you wish.” He smiled. “But please don’t ask me to sleep on the floor on my first night.”
“Floor! No!” she blurted, and immediately bit her lip, regretting. But, what else could she say?
“Thanks!” He blinked, and slid inside the blanket by her side as she squirmed to the edge of the bed, widening the gap between them. “You must be tired,” he said, “plus all this sudden change in your life. I can’t even pretend to imagine what you must be going through right now. But I’m here to help you adjust. Just tell me if you need anything. Okay?” She nodded, and then he turned over the other side, and switched off the light. “Good night, Kriti!”
She woke up with a start the next morning, and quickly glanced at her left. He wasn’t there. Yawning, she stretched, and her eyes fell on the wall clock.
“Eleven!” she clapped a hand on her mouth. Fuck, fuck, fuck! She threw back the blanket, and hopped to the bathroom. This was one thing her mother had begged her to avoid. Getting up so late. For the first few days, at least. And there goes my first impression into drain, she thought, splashing cold water on her face.
She came out looking around furtively, but her mother-in-law pulled her in a warm hug. “She is here!” she announced to the women sitting in the drawing room, as Kriti turned towards them.
“Didn’t let you sleep the whole night? Did he?” one of them cried out, and they all laughed.
“They are our neighbors, Kriti. I’ll introduce you.”
Later, she had the afternoon to herself completely. So she took out her laptop and checked on her work emails. Then having replied to all the congratulatory messages on WatsApp, and Facebook, she turned on some music, and began arranging her books on the shelves.
It was only in the evening, once she had taken bath, read for a couple of hours, watched a few episodes of Friends (yet again) and talked with her mother that she finally felt his absence.
She fiddled with her phone for some time, fighting an urge to call him. It wasn’t as if they had never talked over the phone but it was always a formal affair, moreover, she had never contacted him first. So finally, she decided to just leave him a message instead, asking him where he was.
He called back almost immediately. He was done, and on his way back, he told her. That, to her surprise, cheered her up a bit.
To pass away the time, she got up and made a round of her new home. It was a four bedroom flat on the eighth floor of the building. The two couples living in the house occupied two rooms, and one was a guest room. But she hadn’t yet seen the last one.
A cool breeze ruffled her hair, when she pushed the door open. She looked inside. It was an empty room. Probably the biggest in the house. The large windows captured all the sunlight they could, and the place was bathing in the reddish hue of the setting sun. She walked across it, and stepped out into a small balcony overlooking the society playground where children were playing. This is such an amazing room! Wow! A perfect place to…
The doorbell rang, and she turned back and headed towards the door. The door was already open when she reached, and her dad-in-law was standing there. He was guiding four men carrying a huge piece of packed furniture towards the same room she had just come from.
Curiosity got the better of her as she followed them inside the room, and stayed there while they unpacked and assembled it. It was there that Sooraj found her, staring at it, when everyone had left.
“That’s your gift, I was talking about.” He was standing in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe.
She wheeled around in excitement, grinning ear to ear. “A TT TABLE!” She looked at him in surprise. “How did you… ”
“I talked to your brother.” He shrugged. “And it was one thing I had been planning to buy myself. Made perfect sense to do it now that I have a partner to play with.”
“You talked to Avi?”
“Yeah… he was sure you’d like this more than a piece of jewelry. Poor kid. Doesn’t know women.” He smiled. With effort, he tore his eyes away from hers. “I was told you’ve missed meetings just to finish games, and won tournaments back in school too. You seem exactly the opponent I was looking for.”
“An opponent now, from a partner?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah! As long as you stand across that table.” He fished out a TT bat from one bag, and held it out to her. “With this in your hand. You are an opponent. Yes.”
She snorted. Then swaying, she came closer, and snatched the bat from his hand.
“Let’s see if your brother was exaggerating,” he challenged, as she sauntered back to her position.
Then, the play began. And the sound of the Ping-Pong ball ricocheting wildly off the table, walls, and the floor, filled up the room. They were like two people possessed, determined to crush each other. And for the next three hours or so, their world consisted only of the nine-by-five feet of the blue field between them.
“So what do you think of my game?” she asked him once they were back in the room after dinner. She knew by now that he was a more accomplished player than she was, in that his backhand smash was dead accurate. But he was clearly out of practice.
“You can do better if you move around a bit more…”
“Now, come on!” She patted his back. “Breathe. Let go of your ego, man.”
He laughed. “Okay. You won fair and square. And seriously I can’t believe I have such an awesome player as my partner.” He held her by the shoulders.
“Ahem. Partners again?”
“There’s no table between us anymore.” He grinned. “I’m gonna cancel that club membership now. I never used it, anyways. And if I had known you played TT like that,” he said, “I would’ve begged for our courtship to be reduced to a day.”
She lowered her eyes, as a tide of guilt rose inside her, and went away to sit down on the edge of the bed. Sensing her discomfort, he changed the topic, “Your brother said you love reading too.”
She nodded, and raised her eyes again. “Yes. A lot. You?”
“Well, I used to read a lot too before I got into a job, and then came a long dry period. But I’ve recently started reading again after watching Game of Thrones. I simply love the books it is based on.”
“Seriously?” she asked, “No, I mean I love the series on TV. It is something incredibly unique. But, reading those thick books after that. Don’t they have like thousand characters per page? Plus the show anyways is ahead of the books.”
“I don’t know…” He gazed ahead dreamily. “There is something… immensely satisfying in the books. You’ll have to read them to know that.” He then showed her the map of ‘Westeros’ he had pasted behind the door of his wardrobe, all circled, and marked.
“You know these are imaginary places, right?” she said, trying hard not to laugh. “And won’t really add to your knowledge of Geography.”
“Yeah. Mock me. You too,” he said, as he closed the door.
“No Sooraj… it’s actually… kind of adorable.” Then she held his hand. “And, thanks so much for the gift. Can’t tell you how much I love that.”
“No need to thank, really. If I lose one more game tomorrow I am gonna dismantle the bloody table and throw it in the park below.” Laughing, they jumped on to the bed. And they never really noticed when the night flew by outside their window, and the morning arrived as they lay next to each other talking.
The following day sped away fast, as they shopped and made final preparations for their honeymoon. They were to leave for Bali the next day.
The evening was spent in checking the lists, packing bags, and collecting ticket printouts for the flight and hotel bookings.
Post dinner, they went through everything one last time, before calling it a day, utterly exhausted.
“What’re you doing?” she asked, crawling across the bed to where he sat leaning back on a pillow.
“Pics.” He angled his phone towards her, as she settled right beside him. “The places we’ll be visiting in the next few days.”
He had the picture of the hotel swimming pool open on his phone. “Do you swim?” she asked.
“Yes! That’ll be fun, swimming together.”
“Right. Seems like we have a lot more in common than we know.”
That sent her brooding for a few seconds. “All my fault,” she muttered, looking at her hands.
He turned his head to her. “We’ve had an arranged marriage, Kriti. And, you had the right to open up at your own comfort. Or, not at all, for that matter! It’s nobody’s fault, least of all yours.”
“No Sooraj.” She shook her head. “You’ve no idea. I could’ve managed our courtship better, if I wanted…”
“Forget about it. Will you?” He took her hand. “We’re married now. And we’re talking. That’s what really matters.”
“Right,” she agreed, and they sat there quiet for a minute. “Sooraj…”
“The room, the TT room,” she asked, “is it like spare or you have some plans for it?”
“Plans? Umm… No. I mean it is… the TT room. Isn’t it?”
“It is.” Her face lit up. “Can we redesign it, if it’s alright?”
“Sure. What do you have in mind?”
“We can turn the room into a kind of study-cum-play area.”
She sat bolt upright, facing him. “See, it’s a room with a lot of space, and natural light, so we could make a fairly large library there with shelves fixed on, maybe two walls. A heavy study table where the window is, with upholstered chairs. Only two… no… three at the most. A leather couch will sit at one corner, plus a recliner beside the table for leisure reading.
She was dreaming with open eyes. “We can keep one wall clean where a basket could be fixed for basketball. It’ll be fun putting the ball through it whenever we need a break from study. Then there is already the TT table. And proper carpeting would stop the noise.” She looked back at him. “What do you say?”
“It is. Isn’t it? I’ll contact some interior designers, and see what they have to suggest.”
“Perfect! We’ll do it first thing once back.”
“Great! Thanks so much!” She sighed, and leaned back again, still thinking.
He slumped back on the pillow by her side, and wrapped an arm around her. “That’s an amazing idea, Kriti. It’ll be our go-to place. You are such an amazing person.”
She shook her head, smiling. “You haven’t seen the worst of me, Sooraj. You don’t know me yet.”
“I like what little is revealed to me. And I’m all ears, if you want me to know more.”
She considered him for a moment, and said, “I’ve had bad habits.”
“Like what? Picking your nose?” He chuckled.
“Smoking.” She drawled, giving him a look.
“Oh! Do you still smoke?”
“It’s settled, then.”
“I…” She hesitated for a second, and then let it out. “I’ve had boyfriends.”
“Now that is one bad habit.” He laughed. “I’ve had none.”
“I’m not kidding, Sooraj.”
“Nor am I.”
“It doesn’t bother you, honestly?”
“Honestly, no. It was all in the past. You are in my arms now.” He winked at her. “And I’d have been shocked if a girl like you never had a boyfriend.”
“A girl like me?”
“Yeah! You want me to tell you how beautiful you are?”
Her lips curled up in a smile, and she said, “Sooraj, can I be honest with you?”
“Absolutely, my lady.”
“My last relationship. It was serious.”
“Now you’re scaring me.”
“So serious, we wanted to get married.”
Her words hung there heavy between them. “When was this?”
“Four years back.”
“My father didn’t approve of it.”
“Well. He turned out to be a lower caste. Whatever that means.” Her tone grew solemn. “Something we never even bothered to ask each other. But it was all my father was interested in. Not his education. Not his love for me. Not even his riches. And he was way richer than us. But somehow he was socially lower to us because of his caste.”
Sooraj sighed. “You guys didn’t protest? Fight for it?”
She smiled ruefully. “We did. Til we couldn’t, anymore. Things went from bad to worse as both families kept arguing who was higher. Then it kind of became physical, and we had to part ways. We couldn’t handle… all that… you know, violence.”
“Do you still think of him?” he asked hesitantly, his voice thick with concern.
She looked at him. He noticed moisture in her eyes. “No. I was past that stage long ago, Sooraj. Don’t worry. His getting married six months later helped immensely too.”
His face relaxed a bit, as he sighed with relief. “But you still feel bad about the whole affair.”
“Not because I couldn’t marry him. No. But because somewhere in all that chaos, I lost my father too.” She was struggling hard not to let the tears spill from her eyes. “You know, Sooraj.” She sniffed. “He had never let anyone stop me from doing anything, ever. Driving. Parties. Trips. Ours is a conservative family, but he fought with them all to give me the kind of exposure girls in our families can’t even dream about.” She paused for a moment, and breathed. “I couldn’t believe he was the same man, when he almost hit me. Well, getting a slap wouldn’t have been so bad though. I was dead stubborn, I agree. But what hurts me the most is that he never, even for a second, trusted my choice. He never even met him once.”
A tear broke free from her eye, and rolled down her cheek slowly. “I was under so much stress during that time. Convincing everyone, arranging meetings. Hearing insults. But, he never came to calm me down, hold me, and hug me the way he used to.” She pushed down a lump in her throat. “I didn’t even look at him when I left that house. I know he was crying, but… I didn’t.
“You know.” She glanced at him. “When I agreed to marry the person of his choice. No one bothered me even once. And things went so smooth. No convincing needed. No questions asked. And look at how my father loves you. He hardly knows you. But, then, you are the same caste. And I guess that’s enough of a certificate.” She paused. “It just feels so…”
“Unfair? I know,” he said.
She suddenly realized what she was saying. “I’m sorry, Sooraj. Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not about you. You’re a wonderful person. In fact, I regret that I didn’t meet you or talked to you enough before marriage. That was a mistake. I think I was still holding that grudge. That was so bad on my part. I’m so so sorry…”
“Hey.” He lifted her chin, and cupped her face, brushing away the tears with his thumbs. “You need not be. It’s okay.” She sank her face into his shoulder, as he rubbed her back. “Trust me, everything will be fine,” he whispered in her ear, “I’ll set it all right. Promise.”
She nodded, and raised her head from his shoulder. “I’ll just be back,” she said in a voice gone hoarse.
When she was back, her face was clean of tearstains. He handed her a glass of water. “You better?”
“Come on, let’s catch up on some sleep.” He patted the bed, glancing at the clock. “We’ve to wake up in three hours.”
“Did I bore you that much?”
He laughed. “Hell, no! I could listen to you all day and night. Just thought sleep would do you some good.”
“Thanks.” She climbed on the bed, and lay down with her head in his lap. “I’m good.”
“Then, let’s continue.” He caressed her hair. “Were you done with your bad habits?”
She broke into a smile, and whacked him on the knee. “Hey!” she said, turning over to face him, “I’m not that bad. Okay! And I didn’t tell you this but I tend to swear a lot when provoked.”
“And I’ve always had a thing for girls who swear. God, they sound so powerful… so… sexy!”
“Really! No one on the receiving end ever confessed that to me. I’m pretty sure I was disliked for that.”
He shrugged. “What can I say? I like you.” Then brushing away a strand of hair from her eyes, he said, “You know, the way things were between us before marriage. I doubted you’d turn up in the end. In fact, I was prepared for a last minute call off.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I was such a moron. If I were you, I wouldn’t have tolerated such behavior. Seriously. Why did you?”
He looked away a moment and then back at her again, “Because I wanted to marry you. Ever since I first saw you and talked to you.”
She held his hand, and brought it to her lips. “Thanks, Sooraj. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel right now. You’re such a good man.”
“Hey!” he exclaimed, “I call you sexy, and all you have for me is ‘good’. That’s unfair.”
She laughed, her dark eyes dancing. “So the good man Sooraj wants to be called sexy. Okay. Then show me your sexy side Sooraj. Come on! And I’ll call you -”
In a flash, he got down and planted a soft kiss on her lips. Startled, she looked at him. “Sooraj…” He reached for her again, and shut her mouth. Reluctant at first, she slowly opened her mouth for his tongue, and he kissed her long and deep.
He paused just for a moment to let her breathe, and find approval in her eyes. Then he eased out from under her, and slipped down gently kissing her neck. She clasped his hair, as she felt him down below while his hand was sliding quietly up her waist, under her T-shirt. The tips of his fingers hummed against her satin-soft skin and sent shivers up and down her whole body. It was hard to tell them apart now, arms and legs tangled together in a perfect fit. Her desires had almost gotten the better of her, when she felt his hand grabbing her breast, and she stiffened, and immediately jerked out of her trance. “No Sooraj! Wait… stop… ” she said, trying to push him back.
“No,” she heard him whisper, his eyes unrelenting, full of hunger. She winced slightly as his grip tightened, his thumb working, now gentle now rough. She swallowed, her pulse quickening. His eyes were pinning her down, daring her to defy him. Sighing, she lowered her head back in surrender, as her resolve weakened. And when he pulled her T-shirt up after that, she kept her eyes closed, and let him, without protest.
“Please…” she gasped as she felt the wetness of his mouth, “… switch the lights off.” He raised his head, and took his time, his gaze sliding very slowly down from her eyes, past her curves, to her navel, drinking her in. Then he reached out an arm and flicked the lights off.
Half an hour later, they lay on the bed entwined, his arm anchoring her to his chest. She was feeling it rise and fall rhythmically with her hand. “Kriti.” He looked as she turned her eyes slowly up at him. So graceful, he thought. “I know the three magical words spoken at such times don’t really count. But I love you. I do.”
“Please don’t say anything. Really.” He took her hand and kissed it. “I think we should get some sleep now, or else we’ll miss the flight. And I don’t want to miss it. Can’t afford to miss it. Not now.” He winked.
She checked her phone for time. “If we sleep now, we’ll not be able to get up.”
“No, I think we can…” he began, but she put her hand on his mouth.
“Actually, we could still use this time to do something… productive,” she suggested, her finger scratching a circle around his chest, awakening his skin.
“Don’t tell me you’re talking about TT. Because I am totally spent.” He grinned.
She raised herself on an elbow. “I know you’re spent.” Then sitting up, she moved her leg over and straddled him. “But I am not. And, it’s my turn. What d’you say?” she said, switching the lights back on. He stared at her, words failing him, as she loomed above him, naked and authoritative. “Or you’d still like to catch on some sleep?”
“Oh!” He found his voice back, as she started swaying slowly on top of him, “fuck… the… bloody… sleep!”
© Sundaram Chauhan