"But, grandpa, why aren't the Princess and Prince meeting each other?" Ishaani whined, her eyes sparkling with an annoyed curiosity that ushered him out of his thoughts and he looked at her, surprised.
He smiled and lifted the child in his lap. "There is always a right time for everything, child. And our Princess and Prince will meet when the time comes."
The child looked confused, but chose to ask another question instead. "They know each other already, don't they?"
"Of course they do."
"How did they meet then, grandpa? Do you know that?"
A wistful look passed through his eyes. "I know everything." His trembling voice tried to hide a painful bitterness that crept into his heart suddenly at the words he said, but years of experience had taught him to suppress the wrong emotions at the right time that would do him no good.
"Grandpa," Ishaani asked, now looking at him curiously once again. "What happened then?"
He looked down and sighed. How did they meet?
Another horde of the long lost memories daunted him as he closed his eyes for a while to reminisce all that had happened all those years ago.
"Grandpa." Ishaani stirred him by his shoulder, and he opened his eyes, smiling solemnly. That impatient girl! She was exactly like the woman she was named after.
"Wait, Ishaani," he said, while the child rolled her eyes at him. And as he finally travelled back in that lost lane of the memories, the first thought hitting him back was marriage.
"Marriage?" Ishaani's voice jerked him out of his thoughts, surprising him that he had said the word aloud.
"Yes. It was the day of the Marriage." He smiled before taking the little child on the same journey that still had its relics carved in his fading memory with the same vivacity as all those years ago. His absence in the ceremony didn't mean he didn't know its details. He knew about the marriage better than anyone. Better than her family. Better than anyone else. And he felt guilty for it, for no outsider was supposed to know that.
The mild music flew in the evening air, the fragrance of the fresh flowers adorned the mansion profoundly, glittering lights embellishing the marbled exterior like a bride garnished royally for her wedding day. The light murmurs of the guests reached the quiet room steadily.
The quiet room.
They say, a man's life begins with the first breath he takes in this world... but mine began when my breath had ceased in that moment. I still remember the moment... when my eyes fell upon her for the first time all those years ago. I'd stopped breathing from that instant and from there, my life began. But it changed me forever. I remember that precise moment when I'd stopped breathing, but my life truly had begun. I felt dirty, inadequate... unworthy of someone for the first time in life. Found myself inferior for the first time in front of someone who defined another meaning of goodness as if she was everything and I... nothing. From that moment, I forgot of any existence of my previous life, and if I remember anything from that moment is, it's her only. Ishaani .
He smiled fondly as the years long gone by flashed in front of his eyes like the blinking fireflies beginning to dance in the seclusion of the grey night: all still fresh as the snowflakes in the winter morning and none blurred in the slightest.
Fifteen years had passed, he thought, when he had set his foot for the first time into this mansion and had discovered the matters of life so great and mystifying that anything beyond them did not truly hold his attention. The world was a curious place: everything here gave you something to learn, to cherish and to hold closer to your heart although at the most terrible prices that made you ridiculously ache for having them. One might not take the worldly things when they depart to another realm, but everything they learnt here was what determined their survival. That's what he had found here in this mansion. It was a world in itself and had given him a life of another world altogether: lessons to learn from the little mistakes earning him undeserving punishments, taunts of the family members, friendships of the family's kids, but most of all the guidance and love of his Mota Babuji, his father figure and guide. His father considered him God, and he had no reason to contradict the well established belief. If God truly existed, He would exactly be like his Mota Babuji.
But above all, he had found his biggest treasure hidden in the chambers of this large mansion. The treasure that had changed him upside-down, inside-out the moment he had witnessed her. He remembered himself unmoved by the grandeur of the palace-flike place his father had brought him into when he was nine; all he remembered was that he had found a princess in here. The most beautiful princess among all the stories he had ever known. Couldn't she be an angel descended from the heaven itself?
His smile widened at the thought of her as he sighed pensively, his eyes staring at the horizon that still carried the splendid red glow of the sunset after the sun had already retired a long while ago. She was a princess and he was just a fool that often dared to think what he knew was impossible even in his wildest of the dreams. Hoping for the utmost impossible that his heart burned so deeply for was but a fool's hope. He would not run his thoughts there again, for never a servant had been allowed to what his heart desired the most.
"What are you reading?" he asked, noticing her arched eye-brows- an indication of her sadness- as he sat beside her.
"The More Loving One. Auden."She turned and looked at him, and smiled looking at his confused expressions. "Well, Auden is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and this is his poem."He nodded his head.
"What was it that made you sad?" he asked. She was afraid, he could tell, but why he had no idea.
"Oh, it didn't make me sad, no. I was just wondering about something... I was..."
"Wondering about what?" he asked, hoping she would provide him a proper answer instead of playing in silly riddles.
"The poem talks about unrequited love... and the pain a lover goes through when their feelings are not returned. I wonder if my love isn't returned as well?"
His smile suddenly disappeared and he looked at her with unease, but after a while composing himself, he spoke. "Why are you worried, then? I'm sure you haven't found anyone for now." He chuckled, mischief in his eyes making Ishaani glare at him immediately.
"Shut up, Ranveer!" she cried, irritated with his carelessness towards her feelings. "You don't take anything seriously, do you? But the day you do fall in love, and your feelings aren't returned, please let me know. I'm sure you'll understand my fears then perfectly," she finished, and giving him a look of disapproval, she left.
"I'm sure you'll understand my fears then perfectly," he repeated her words softly to himself. Her fears. He understood she wasn't mad at him but Baa's words of her never finding true love had affected her deeply, and it was his fault of not taking her seriously that day.
"Ranveer!" a voice from the distance drawled his name. "The rituals have begun and you are needed there."
His chest clenched, and he closed his eyes as if to chase away the ache that suddenly erupted in his heart. He couldn't face her. "Coming!" he answered, without looking back. Finally the time had come and he was needed there.g
His eyes once again measured through the tall buildings that represented something his heart burned more for: an ambition that kept bubbling within him for years without the knowledge of anyone in the world, including his parents, but he knew he had to defeat these demons and fight for a life that his parents deserved, and he too. But wasn't its cost too high for that? He couldn't leave her at any cost either, for the day he did, he knew he would have no life anymore to live.
"Aren't you coming, Ranveer?" the voice again called him and he was rudely sprung out of his thoughts. "Always lost in the daydreams." The last sentence was a taunt his father often used for him.
"Coming, Baba!" He paced towards the exit door and past the passage connecting the mansion to the servant quarters, and within moments, came out towards the large entrance of the house filled with the guests and the members of the house welcoming them.
"Ranveer!" His father's voice made him halt in his place and he turned back, smiling. "Don't forget what I have told you. Do not cross your limits today, alright? We are not allowed to do that! Baa already... you know what I mean, right?"
He nodded his head and left. "We are not allowed to cross our limits! Now what's that supposed to mean?" he wondered to himself and at no response shook the thought off and left.
He came into the hall. The wedding hall was decorated with the most garnishing of the flowers, little lights decorating the hall magnificently and the Mandap waiting for the bride to be brought down, the handsome groom and Panditji already occupying their places. His eyes flitted from one place to another in anticipation of discovering someone he knew, but finding no familiar face at once. Familiar. Yes, he knew them all, still he didn't.
"Ranveer, thank God you have come! We've been looking for you for so long!" The kids from the house dragged him in a corner as he eyed them all suspiciously, while all their eyes stared at him in hope and anticipation that frightened him for the very good reasons. These kids wanting him in their team could not surely be a good sign.
He raised his one eyebrow. "What is it?"
One of the boys opened his mouth to say something but was immediately hushed by another. "Motu, shut up! We are not discussing food over here. It's more important than that and not your business to start with!"
The boy scoffed and looked annoyed but gave in as his brother now looked at Ranveer.
"Well, brother," he said, placing his hand on Ranveer's shoulder. "You remember we had had a deal?"
"Don't tell me you've forgotten what we planned five days ago."
Ranveer shrugged his shoulders. "I don't-"
"Of course, you do remember," he said, looking at Ranveer balefully. "You were our last hope; you know that, don't you?"
Ranveer shrugged off the hand from his shoulder. "Have you gone mad, Devarsh? These kids... you want them to have the damn alcohol along with you? This Disha, Pratiek and you yourself! Look at your faces, children. I'm not going to help you! Baa will cut my throat if she finds out."
Ever since Devarsh saw Ranveer drinking a local liquor, he'd wanted one for himself. Then Pratiek and Disha wanted to join too. It was a suicide mission, Ranveer told them already but they wouldn't listen.
"Exactly, you are supposed to secretly supply that to us," Devarsh said slowly as if tiniest of the increase in voice would land him up in jail. "And we're all above 18, plus, you are not a child yourself either."
"I know," Ranveer answered. "But for Baa and Mota Babuji you're still their kids. I want to take no risks when it comes to... And I didn't agree to anything. It was you who assumed I did! I never made a promise."
"You were appointed to take care of us, Ranveer!" Devarsh spoke again. "What use of a friend is when he can't help you in your hour of need?"
"I am not going to do it, get that?"
Devarsh opened his mouth to say something, but...
"What's happenings, kids?" Suddenly a burst of loud noise from behind their back stopped their ever heating wiles and they all froze, more in surprise than in fear. Looking back, a surprising sight met their eyes, their nervous smiles flying in the air.
"Mom!" Devarsh broke out.
A woman clad in the lavender coloured net saree, her cheeks flat with each form of cosmetics possible, hair pulled up in a secured bun and her eyes glaring with heavy mascara, came into view while her face contorted in anger gave a comical look to her otherwise speaking features. All standing there supposedly having hard time in controlling their laughter hid their faces as she advanced towards them, her designer saree uselessly casing over the marbled floor.
"Devarsh! Pratiek! What are you twos doing here?" she cried out at the boys. "I asked you boths to bring me an apples juice."
"Mom," Devarsh said. "But you were on the dieting, remember? And you already have had enough for a day today."
She looked embarrassed and immediately shrugged it off. "Yes, but don't you sees, boys, I have lost 4 KGs in just 15 days? It was my plans already till the marriage! I'm already so thin." She made a weird pose as she said that and others looked away, snickering to themselves in embarrassment. "And so, I was feeling quite weaks. I needed something to cheer me up!"
Devarsh looked at others awkwardly and sighed. His mother certainly had the knack to embarrass them like that as she did this regularly most often. Soon their eyes drifted to Ranveer who looked sympathetically at them.
"Ah, Chaitali Kaki, you do look so thin and young but have you seen Kaka?" he said and Chaitali's expressions dramatically turned solemn as if saddened by the mention of her husband's name.
"I knows, Ranveer!" she said sadly, playing with the corner of her saree's pallu. "He doesn't look after him at all! Never. All the time I have to remind him of that."
"Exactly! And he doesn't even look like he's your husband. And look, he really has no shame." He pointed towards her husband who seemed to be hiding in a corner from someone with a large bowl of sweets in his hands, while others, following Ranveer's gaze, nodded in agreement.
"Mitesh!" Chaitali growled, frustrated. "He wills never change! I told him not to eats anything extras! He has gained 6 KGs since last one week. Ughhh!"
"That's it, Chaitali Kaki!" Ranveer said, and Devarsh joined him as well. "Go and look after your husband. Otherwise, you know-"
"Yes, Mom. Please go and surprise dad!" Devarsh said.
"I knows! I knows," she said suddenly, her expressions dramatically horrified. And saying that, she left; the bells in her saree now ringing behind.
"Thank God!" Pratiek now spoke.
"Shut up!" Devarsh cut him short, and looked at Ranveer, his eyes imploring. "Ranveer, please do something, yaar!"
Ranveer looked irritated and sighed. "I'm not the one willing to be murdered by Baa and be bad in front of my Mota Babuji, alright? I'm not doing it for you!" he said, emphasizing too much on 'not', and began to leave.
"Not even if I help you and Ishaani patch up?" Devarsh said and Ranveer immediately halted and turned back.
"What?" he asked, trying to sound casual, but sure that sudden flutter of his heart had given away the matter between him and Ishaani .
"Let's not pretend that we don't see it," Devarsh said while others nodded in agreement. "Ever since that incident 3 days ago, she's not talking to you, is she?"
The air grew tense and Ranveer looked at him pensively, and after contemplating over the matter for 10 seconds, he shook his head and smiled. "You don't have to worry about that," he said, now pretending to be more confident than he truly felt. "I already have a plan." A mischievous smile formed on his lips that did not delight the trio before him in the least. "I'll handle her on my own."
"Ranveer, how could you!" Pratiek complained. "You were our friend first!"
"Wrong," another voice broke, and this time Disha opined. "More than anything, he is the servant of this house, and that's what he's doing! Working for Baa and following her orders!" Disha began eating the apple that remained in her hands and looked sideways as if not worried of the storm that might approach them anytime soon.
A grim silence followed her statement as Devarsh and Pratiek stared at Disha in disbelief, their gazes momentarily passing to Ranveer who stood silent, and slightly embarrassed. But was he? They did not know.
"Did I say anything wrong?" she spoke again and this time loudly as if still unaware of the tension that her words had created.
Devarsh hushed her immediately. Calling Ranveer by that name was not allowed at all in the Parekh Mansion. And only God knew the punishment the speaker was to undergo if someone was caught him being called by the name. That was considered to be a taboo. Taboo for what reason, they did not know, but they never used this word for him. Everyone hated it for some reason... and especially Ishaani . Devarsh prayed in his head Ishaani hadn't heard anything said here right now. But sometimes, prayers weren't answered that way.
"Oh, she's here!" Devarsh whispered and everyone looked up, all aspects of Ranveer's thoughts being consumed by the sight as he finally looked at her for the first time in the evening. He felt his heart suddenly beat wildly, his breath cease in his chest, his mouth open in awe and his eyes staring at the direction she descended down from. Her hair streamed across her right shoulder elegantly, while her pink coloured Lehanga followed gracefully across her feet as she took her steps down to the main Hall. She looked exactly like a fairy.
"She looks so beautiful!" he perhaps heard Pratiek say as the three others left while Ranveer himself remained frozen, his eyes staring at her in pure reverence, unblinking. How could one be as beautiful as she was? So perfect. So kind. Her whole being radiated her goodness, kindness and a life that she had learnt to live with for so many years despite all trying to crush her down. She was an inspiration to all those who knew her, but people rarely bothered with her. Yet she was content in what she had.
His heart clenched once again as he stared at her from behind a pillar, and she descended down. A memory of the past flicked back into his mind- the most pleasant one of the day he has seen her first. Just like this she had looked at him, and he had lost himself, his existence and perhaps even the memory of his life before that. She had looked just the same. So innocent, so serene. How could he not love her when love was all that she was made for?
And as she descended the stairs, he hid himself behind the curtains that failed to do their job and she rushed to him, and grabbing his hand dragged him out of the corner like she always would whenever she was alone. The world must have lightened up with the way she laughed. But it wasn't her usual happy laughter that soothed him, it was defeated and broken.
"Where have you been all this while, Ranveer? I needed you!"
He looked sideways, not wanting to look at her. "I-- I was busy with the things at home," he answered slowly.
She shook her head and made him turn towards her. "It's so unbelievable, no? It's the wedding day finally!"
She didn't look too happy, but as he smiled, her own lips curved into one.
"Come on! They are waiting for us!"
"They're waiting for you," he corrected. "I'll be taking a look around the place lest someone needs something."
She left and Ranveer looked at his attire, a decent looking blue Sherwani doing its job fairly as Baa had warned him not to look too bad in front of the guests. He did look decent enough not to insult her or her class in front of the guests.
Ranveer busied himself in the chores and the rituals of the marriage began. The bride was already brought down, her eyes red but the glow not going amiss by anyone. The Pheres took place as the couple moved around the sacred fire seven times, each presenting a vow to keep the marriage, love and respect in the relationship intact. The groom then gently tied the Manglasutra about his wife's neck and filled her Maang with the red coloured Sindoor, a sign of her being married from this day on. Ishaani looked at the couple as her eyes formed a couple of tears at the sight of her sister and anger surged through her, making her clutch her Lehanga rather tightly. Ranveer stood in a corner beside her, occasionally eyeing her guiltily, as if wanting to say something but nothing was heard from him. Long before he could say anything to make her feel better, he saw Panditji declare the couple to be the husband and wife as they stood up to take the blessings of the elders. The next rituals were followed closely, the end coming too soon as the time of the couple to depart drew nearer.
The farewell of the bride, as expected, was tearful and took a while to let her go. As soon as Gauri had left, the house carried a dismal air, all eyes red and swollen but ironically, their hearts much lighter.
Ranveer stood out of his room, staring at the sickle moon that gleamed dimly aloft in the dark sky. A lot had happened and his body ached from the continuous works of days, but he wished for no sleep. 3 days! 3 days had passed and she hadn't talked to him except for a bit in the evening today. Slight disappointment in her eyes had hurt so much. He wondered what would happen if something ever went wrong... He sighed, his eyes not leaving the moon for a moment. It reminded him of his treasure: one that he could adore his entire life but thinking of ever owning it was but an irrational wish made out of foolishness. He shook his head, trying to get alcohol not take over his senses as it had its stupid reasons to make things romanticize and he didn't want that right now.
Not a tree whispered tonight, and he wondered if it might even rain in a while. Monsoon was approaching soon, so it wouldn't be a surprise really if it happened. But before anything, he heard familiar sounds of the footsteps and did not need looking back. It was too clear who the newcomer was.
"I want to talk to you." A curt voice broke out. He smiled to himself but did not look back. "I said I want to talk to you!" A hand harshly turned him towards her.
He rubbed his arm and angrily squinted his eyes. "Ishaani, don't be such a brute, alright?" he said and Ishaani slapped his shoulder once again, her expressions inexplicable.
"Why are you ignoring me?"
"I'm ignoring you?" he asked, his voice low. "Who has it been for the last 3 days not talking to me?"
"That- that-you earned that!" Ishaani retorted. "You don't have to become and do what you keep doing most of the times!"
"No, Ishaani," he said calmly. "You have to understand what we did was right. There was no other way to save Gauri and Pranav from the clutches of the family, and especially Baa."
"But she still had to sacrifice her love. In the end, she didn't get to live her happily ever after either... isn't it every girl's dream to marry the man she loves?"
"It is." He smiled a little bit. "It's not just that. Baa would have killed them both--there really would not have been any hope for them." Ranveer could hear the clouds rumble slowly in the distance.
"But isn't love about living and dying together? Papa always says that, and so do you."
"It is," Ranveer agreed. "But if you were at her place, what would you have done? Would you go ahead and become the reason of his death or do something that protects him and gives him a reason to live?"
"Is it so easy to move on, Ranveer, as you make it out to be? Wouldn't they have lived happily had they just run off forever... never coming back?"
"Do you think Baa would have let her be happy after her pride was assaulted by the daughter of her own family? And truthfully, it wasn't my own decision to get Gauri back, and nor hers either. Pranav decided the final thing as he realized the danger Gauri would have been in once they eloped. He wanted her to go back and marry whoever the groom her family had finalized for her. He'd already decided to let her go."
"Yes," Ranveer nodded. "And before we came out of his house, Baa's men caught them and Pranav was dragged here and humiliated. And Gauri, who didn't agree to his requests earlier, had to do it later for his sake. They both made this sacrifice, Ishaani, and that's where their love won. It's all about living for other's happiness, choosing their life before ours."
There was a long silence as neither of them spoke.
Ishaani looked crestfallen for a while before she composed herself, hugging herself gently as the breeze of the night rustled across the leaves. "Why is there so much pain in love, Ranveer?" she asked after sometime, looking at him, her eyes sparkling.
"Love isn't all about pain, but it still hurts," he said slowly, more to himself than her, and smiled while Ishaani was taken aback at the way he said his words. "Without pain there is no love."
"How will they live without each other, Ranveer?"
"Time makes you learn to live with the wounds, Ishaani . Sometimes you do move on and start a new life..." Ranveer whispered at last, a quiet smile on his lips. "What do you think of Romil? Do you think he will be a bad husband to her?"
"Oh, I think Romil Jiju is amazing," Ishaani said and smiled. "But will Gauri di ever love him back? I don't want their marriage to remain loveless."
"You never know."
Ishaani felt Ranveer's eyes flicker with something at the mention of Romil but kept quiet. She shook her head and smiled. "You didn't answer my question, though," she said, looking at him. "Is it really easy to move on?"
"Everyone moves on..." he answered uneasily.
Ranveer gulped. "What?"
"If you were at the place we are talking about, could you move on?"
I'm not even sure about that," he whispered to himself inaudibly, and thankfully Ishaani did not hear him. He cleared his throat. "Well, it depends from person to person. That's it." He hoped Ishaani would not ask any more questions, for the direction their conversation was heading to, it could not be any good for them both.
Ishaani, too, remained silent as they both watched the moon slip behind the gathering clouds that began to rumble loudly now, gradually throwing faint flashes of lightning.
"Do you know why I didn't talk to you for the last three days, Ranveer?" Ishaani spoke again, her eyes fixed at the sky.
He shifted his gaze back to her but kept quiet. She said nothing as well.
"Because you thought I had broken your trust that day. You never thought I would agree to what Mota Babuji and Baa said and let Gauri come in back again," he said at last, and she shook her head.
"You choosing your loyalty for Papa over everything was what I had expected all the time, but what I didn't expect was you taking my blame on yourself. You had nothing to do with that. You know what Baa is going to do tomorrow? I was wondering how you could do that... she'll make sure to..." her words faltered and for the first time in the evening that coldness left her eyes. "I don't like it. Tomorrow again Baa will insult you and punish you for something you haven't even done... no matter what Papa says and... I hate you for that!" she suddenly snapped and Ranveer looked taken aback.
"Ishaani," he said softly, gulping slowly. "Look, the way it was necessary for Gauri to let go of her love, what I did was just as important as well."
She turned to him and looked into his eyes. "Why?" her question pierced deeper within him, and for a while he had no answer.
"Love," he whispered after sometime, looking back into her eyes with an intensity that frightened Ishaani . He could feel her cower under his gaze but that did not matter right now to either of them.
A little gasp left her lips. "Love?"
"Love for Mota Babuji," he smiled.
Ishaani's face relaxed in a smile, too, but suddenly her expressions turned graver again.
"But Baa... tomorrow," she said in a lost voice and looked frightfully at him again.
Ranveer shook his head, amused. "Now don't you release the pools of tears from your eyes, alright?"
"Ishaani Parekh cries. Really? What are people going to say!" he chuckled. "And anyway, it's time you slept already, otherwise if anyone saw you here with me, you might join me as well tomorrow. And who will be applying that awesome ointment, then. Hmm?"
"I'll join you happily--" Ishaani said, but was cut short by Ranveer who pushed her out of the place, towards her house.
"Go now!" he ordered and smiled.
"I have made everything clear already, alright?"
Ishaani, irritated, left from there. "You'll burn in hell I swear, Ranveer!" she cursed. "And then you'll need me only." She sighed, annoyed, and left.
Ranveer smiled to himself and continued to look at her direction until the last remnants of her presence had faded, and then looked back again at the moon that mildly penetrated through the gloomy layers of the clouds.
After whatever had happened in these days, he was sure something had changed and drastically so. Life was never stable, but its rapidity in change at times startled him awfully.
And as he watched the moon play hide and seek, his thoughts glided back to his love and what they had just talked about. Pain was always a part of love and none could escape its blinding reality.
It's important for two people to be there in love, but for a love to be two-sided it's not. Even my story is the same... I have been in love with her for 15 years--one-sided love"but she has no idea about it." He sighed as his heart recounted the years that passed by her side. "But that isn't the matter... there's no hope of my love being returned... or reciprocated by any means. I have only loved her... and will keep loving her until my last breath. Baba says a person should stay within their limits, but how do I explain there is no boundary when it comes to the matters of heart and love? I'm a servant in this house, and take care of everyone. But the one who is in my thoughts all the time, it's only Ishaani and this is one thought I can never separate from myself. I don't want to. I know she will never be mine. She will never love me. One fine day, she will leave this house forever... and marry someone else... but that doesn't change my love for her; or lessen my feelings towards her. Although one-sided, it's enough to last one lifetime for me, for my love. Is it necessary that when two people fall in love, they have to marry, or have to live together? Or have their names joined together? Love is complete in itself. It establishes itself on its own and doesn't need a name to complete it. Mota Babuji always says, Love is not about owning it, but losing yourself in it.
And that's why, Ishaani , Meri aashiqui tum se hi…"
He opened his eyes as the drops of the rain fell upon his cheeks and he looked up, a few drops of tears had also left his eyes. Perhaps just like all the time before, the sky again had sensed sadness of his quietly aching heart and had decided to weep on his behalf?