The screeching of brakes from the car stopping in front of him startled and annoyed Vijay Deshmukh as he sat on the roadside with sarees on display. On a road full of pedestrians such as this, no one could drive fast enough to need to slam on the brakes. What sort of egocentric person would feel the need to announce his arrival in this disruptive manner? He recognized the license plate: TS 11 AY 1111, and his heart rate picked up. Hā uddhaṭa mulagā ithe kaśāsāṭhī marāyalā ālā? Why did this insolent boy come here - to die, perhaps?
Raghav Rao stepped out of his car, then reached in and grabbed the tiffin container. He strode over to Vijay. "Namaste, Sasurajī. How are you today?"
Vijay was not used to such an inoffensive greeting from this man. He said nothing.
"You left home this morning before your tiffin was ready. Āī asked me to drop it off."
"No need to waste your valuable time." Vijay hated that Sharada allowed this immoral man to call her Āī. He hated the thought of Raghav Rao, Pallavi's new husband - or paramour, or whatever he was - visiting his home. Pallavi - who should have been Mandar's wife - had been like a daughter to him, learning his business and managing his shop, and this man had made him hate her. He hated –
"I can spend my time any way I want," Raghav interrupted his thoughts, "because I'm rich and I have hundreds of people to do my work."
At that moment, Raghav's eye caught a figure in a luṅgī, standing next to Vijay and shaking his head. "Is that what you came here to say, Raghav Rao?" Luṅgīvālā Raghav admonished him. "Remember what you promised Āī."
The previous evening, Raghav's mother-in-law had called and asked him to visit her in the morning. When he arrived that morning, Sharada invited him into the kitchen. "Beṭā, will you do something for me?"
"Sure, Āī, what do you need?"
"I want you to take this tiffin to Vijay jī and make sure that he eats it."
"Āī, that is no problem, but do you think he will accept it from my hands?"
"Raghav, beṭā, that itself is the problem. Can you solve it?"
Raghav looked at Sharada. She never expected anything from him - that was how he knew that their relationship was not what it should be. She reached out to him with small gestures of kindness, so that he often forgot how low her opinion of him must be, but she was a fierce mother and he didn't deserve her forgiveness for what he had done to Pallavi and Nikhil and Mandar. She was as proud as her husband, but rarely put her scorn into words, and her pensive gaze never communicated that she recognized Raghav as a scoundrel. Why was she challenging him today?
When he did not answer, Sharada continued, "How does one make sure that everyone in the family eats properly, especially when some individuals are stubborn or moody? Every mother is familiar with this problem and has to solve it as she raises her children. And when her husband takes out his frustrations on his diet, she must adapt those child-rearing skills to look after that adult who does not even admit that he needs her. Tell me, Raghav, do you want to raise children someday?"
The question caught Raghav off-guard, but the answer was obvious. "I love children, Āī. Yes, I want children."
"My question is, do you want to raise children? Do you have the discipline to make sure that they will drink enough water when they go out into the sun to play?"
Raghav glanced about, and his mouth fell open as he confirmed that there was no one else in the kitchen to distract Āī.
"I am asking as a mother," Sharada said. "For Pallavi's sake, I hope that you plan to be an attentive father to your children, and you will learn the necessary skills. My mother-in-law often told me that men only marry, but women get the full experience of saṃsāra; only women know what it takes to hold a family together. May I never have to say those words to Pallavi! So, beṭā, today I want you to prove that you can be as clever and diplomatic as a wife or mother. Will you act and speak in such a way that Vijay jī will eat his tiffin?"
"Āī, there is no task that Raghav Rao cannot complete."
"Promise me that you will not give up."
So, here Raghav stood with Vijay Deshmukh's tiffin, having just reacted on impulse to the slightest provocation. He tried to get back on track.
"Sasurajī, what can I do? Āī asked, so I had to make time, hai nā? Now, my time is in your hands. If you don't take this tiffin from me, I will have to take it back to Āī, and you will be indebted to me for that time."
Luṅgīvālā Raghav tilted his head, as if unsure that this approach would work.
"You just said that you can spend your time any way you want. Vahī karo!" Vijay snapped.
"Dekhiye, Sasurajī, it's not my hard work in this tiffin. If your anger at me is misdirected at this food, it will be disrespectful to your Annapūrṇā." Raghav remembered Pallavi saying "Annapūrṇeçā apamāna hoto" when he wanted a protein shake instead of the breakfast that she had cooked, and he hoped that the saying would affect his Marathi father-in-law.
"All right, I never said you couldn't leave the tiffin and go," Vijay muttered.
Luṅgīvālā Raghav gave a thumbs up sign to Raghav.
Raghav put down the tiffin and turned. Then he remembered, "Make sure that he eats it" - those were Sharada's words. He would have to stay a little longer. He turned around again.
"Why are you doing a dance in front of me?" Vijay said in a suspicious tone. "Your task is finished. Hit the road."
Luṅgīvālā Raghav giggled and said, "Our father-in-law doesn't know that we are a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. If we wanted to dance..."
Raghav ignored him and replied nonchalantly to Vijay, "What's the hurry? I feel like spending some time with you today."
"Respectable people don't welcome a visit from someone like you."
Raghav clenched his fists and bared his teeth. This old man knew how to push his buttons. How was he going to keep his promise to Āī? If he spoke right now ... He looked at Luṅgīvālā Raghav.
"Whenever he provokes you, think of Pallavi."
Raghav remembered an incident from long ago, with Pallavi in her shop. "Think of me as a customer then. I want to know about some sarees." This was entirely untrue, but he would have to take the longest possible detour from his sincere feelings if he wanted to be civil to Vijay Deshmukh. "If passersby see my interest in your sarees, you may get more business."
Luṅgīvālā Raghav's eyes widened and he smiled at Raghav.
Vijay hesitated. Āza hyā reḍyācyā nākāta kuṇī vesaṇa ghātale asela? Who might have put a bridle through this male water buffalo's nose today? What could be the reason for Raghav Rao to keep his temper in check?
"Come on. You can show me a few sarees without scandal, can't you?" Raghav stood with legs apart, hands on hips.
Luṅgīvālā Raghav gestured to Raghav to look around. "People are watching us," Raghav said. "They'll think I'm a dissatisfied customer."
"Sit down then. What is the occasion for which you want sarees?"
Raghav hadn't thought about that. He looked helplessly at Luṅgīvālā Raghav, who replied simply, "Celli."
"Kirti is marrying that Panjabi boy, Sunny," Raghav blurted out.
Vijay's face turned red. That drunk driver Sunny had injured his son Mandar; both Sunny and Kirti had left Mandar for dead; and Raghav Rao had covered up their crimes. This mānava zātīvaraçā kalaṅka - stain upon the human race - had crossed all limits of sadistic behaviour now, if he thought that Vijay would do anything for the wedding of those two criminals. Raghav understood his reaction and scowled at Luṅgīvālā Raghav, who caught his ears with opposite hands and started to do squats.
"Sasurajī, I have no affection for Sunny, but Kirti will always be my sister." Raghav tried to mollify the older man while thinking furiously, please don't have a heart attack; please, for Āī's sake, let me fix this. He heard Luṅgīvālā Raghav say, "Celli is sorry," and took his cue, "Kirti has said sorry to Mandar, and Mandar has forgiven her. I know you are angry that I protected her, but I did take Mandar to the hospital, so please ..."
"You know what you have to say," Luṅgīvālā Raghav prompted him.
"Please forgive me." Raghav managed to say the words. "I protected my little sister the way Pallavi protected Amruta. Kirti is a better person than I am. She made one mistake, and I couldn't let it ruin her life. Please understand."
"Is that what your mā-bāpa taught you?" Vijay spat the words at him.
Raghav's vision swam with red. He was Raghav Rao, and no one - not even a frail older man - had the right to look down on his Amma or his Nānna. He didn't care about his promise to Āī anymore. Vijay Deshmukh would pay!
"Whenever he provokes you, think of Pallavi," Luṅgīvālā Raghav repeated.
Pallavi - what about Pallavi? She had endured so many insults to her character, and still she had seen him as redeemable. Even when Amma had been disgusted with his sins and wanted to be rid of him, Pallavi had never wanted to deprive him of his mother's love. He could do this for Pallavi, and prove to Āī that she could trust him.
"My Amma has apologized to you many times, and my Nānna is no more in this world, so kindly leave him in peace." Raghav heard his own words and wondered from where they came.
Vijay could not find his tongue. He had expected Raghav Rao to make a scene. He, Vijay, was the poor but honest hero who stood up to this dishonest and rich tyrant. Wasn't he? Or was he mistreating a fatherless boy?
Luṅgīvālā Raghav posed with his right hand in śikhara hasta and his left hand in tripatāka hasta, doing the abhinaya of wielding a bow and arrow. He pretended to shoot the arrow, and held his left hand in śukatuṇḍa hasta next to Vijay's chest to convey that the arrow had pierced its mark. "Sunny's parents," he prompted Raghav helpfully.
"Sunny's parents also can't help who their son is," Raghav said. "I don't want this wedding to happen, but it's Raghav Rao's sister's wedding, and I want her in-laws to feel respected. You are an expert in high-quality traditional sarees, so I am asking you respectfully - can you help me to find sarees that will make good gifts for Panjabi women?"
Vijay took out some sarees and began to show them to Raghav. Raghav tried to pay attention while the hot sun beat down upon them. Passersby stopped to listen and Raghav moved aside to let them view sarees, while he dashed back to the car for water, which he shared with Vijay. As lunchtime approached, Vijay opened his tiffin and shared it with Raghav, while Luṅgīvālā Raghav danced in the middle of the street, as if he were dancing in the rain.
Raghav wanted to get Vijay out of the afternoon sun, or at least not leave him alone, but Luṅgīvālā Raghav signalled to him that he had made enough progress for one day, and would soon overstay his welcome. So, Raghav said, "Take care of yourself, Sasurajī," took the tiffin, and got back into his car.
"Well, my delivery boy, was your mission a success?" was Sharada's greeting when he returned. Raghav proudly showed her the empty tiffin, and she cupped his cheek.
Sharada had called him "Delivery Boy" once before, to his chagrin. This time, it sounded like an honorific title. Raghav Rao always delivers, he smiled to himself.