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It was an awkward evening. She felt like a display piece of ornament would have. She couldn’t gauge whether these people were for real or was it all pretentious.
It had been a hectic last few days at school. Maya liked to remain on top of her agenda and had, as usual, worked herself tired. She had stayed back because she didn’t want to carry another twenty books home to finish off her marking schedule. Meticulously, she compiled it on her excel sheet, ready for report writing next month.
She turned the key to her rented, sparse flat to let herself in. She put her keys down on the console table and looked at herself in the mirror; all of thirty- three years old and still got the sparkle in her eyes, but her skin looked oily, sticky and dirty. She smelled sweaty too. The humid days of July in Delhi didn’t help at all.
As a routine, she walked into her clean and organised kitchen to switch her kettle on to make tea. While sipping her tea, she switched on her phone and waited for the messages to come through. There was one from her Mum, Tamanna, her friend, and one from Sanat. It read, “Coming to Delhi this weekend. Let’s meet, if you want to. It’s been long.”
She looked out of her window, at a distance, as she sipped her tea. Sanat had been her life. They had been inseparable; they had a deep connection between them. They had grown together. He had wanted her advise on everything; from college assignments to friendships to jobs to flat hunting. He was a handsome, young man and many girls had an eye on him but he had only eyes for Maya, his best friend, his true love and his better half. Maya was dedicated to him; he brought structure in her life and career.
What happened between them? It had hurt so much. The pain was unbearable and her heart had felt weak like it was glass, dangling on a string, whenever she thought of the past. But time had healed. They were in touch from time to time but only through messages on birthdays and the New Year.
It was partly her fault; she had expected too much from him. She had always thought that he would stand by her, no matter what. But, blood is thicker than water.
“I am really nervous about meeting your parents, Sanat. What if they don’t like me?” Maya had asked Sanat, almost seven years ago. They were having coffee after Sanat had finished work.
“Then we’ll move on, find someone else!” He had joked.
“It’s not funny!” Maya retorted. “What should I wear?”
“Be ready by six thirty. Don’t be nervous. They’ll love you as much as I do.”
Maya had carefully chosen crisp, cotton, mint- green, chickan- work sari to meet his parents. She teamed it up carefully with creamy pearls and delicate kitten heals. She had also bought a gift for them from her favourite gift shop, ‘Petals and Candles”. They were cinnamon, lemon and lavender candles which has been carefully wrapped in delicate, yellow tissue paper, scattered with dried flower petals before being packed away in a gift box.
She glanced at herself in the carved, wooden framed, full- length mirror. She looked radiant. Her mother came, examined her, smiled and went. She returned within minutes to give her some pearl drops to put in her ears and removed her pearl studs.
“These look more romantic and elegant whilst studs are smart and graceful. We should change according to the situation. I am sure you agree.” She giggled, gently.
Just then, the bell rang. Maya felt very anxious; as if she was going for an exam. She hurried down and opened the door. Sanat was looking nervous too, he was taking his future bride to meet his Parents.
“You are looking ravishing and beautiful as always.” He smiled as he entered.
“We are leaving.” Maya bellowed.
“Yes. In our days, it was the parents who met first then the children but nowadays it’s the other way around! Good Luck and lots of blessings to both of you.” Mr Sharma said sarcastically. He was a happy- go lucky, humorous man. He enjoyed comparing his good old days with the present digital, fast- paced life.
“Enjoy yourselves.” Mrs Sharma added.
Sanat greeted Maya’s parents briefly and they walked out. Sanat was a regular visitor of the family. He had met them on several occasions unlike Maya who had not met his parents yet.
Sanat held her hand in the car after parking the car in front of their lavish house in a posh area of Mumbai.
“Ready?” He enquired.
“As ready as I’ll always be.”
“Maa, Papa, we are here!”
His parents came out. As Maya joined her hands to greet them, his Mother gave her a quick, awkward hug.
“Welcome to our humble abode, Maya.” Mr Khanna hollered, excitedly.
“Aunty, this is for you, a little something from me.” Maya handed over her gift.
“Thank you. Come in and let’s make ourselves comfortable.” Mrs Khanna led the way to the grand living room. The décor was not Maya’s style; it was all gold and white; very modern. Maya preferred the rustic, mahogany wooden, traditional look.
“Whilst you were gone, Sanat, Mama called and invited himself for dinner. I hope you don’t mind. I couldn’t say no. He’ll be here with Mami in a while.” Mrs Khanna said.
“Maa, you could have made an excuse this time. Maya won’t be comfortable.”
“Never mind now. Have a drink, Maya.” As she was handing her a drink, Mrs Khanna, accidentally spilled the glass of white wine all over Maya’s sari, soaking it through. “Oh no! I am so sorry, Maya.”
Maya got up quickly; feeling embarrassed and started to dust her sari. Mrs Khanna took her upstairs for a change of sari. She displayed the array of saris in front of her and asked her to choose. Maya insisted she pick one for her, Mrs Khanna obliged and picked a cerise pink sequenced chiffon sari for Maya.
She smiled and said, “I’ll be back soon.” She came back with a jewellery box in her hand and gave her a pair of diamond pear drops with a matching pendant to put on.
“Oh Aunty, I couldn’t borrow these from you. We have just met.”
Mama and Mami arrived a few minutes later. They were gushing over how pretty Maya was and what a handsome couple Sanat and Maya would make. It was an awkward evening. She felt like a display piece of ornament would have. She couldn’t gauge whether these people were for real or was it all pretentious.
After dinner, Maya walked into the lounge and heard the ladies chatting. Her candles had been lit, its gentle essence, pervading the room. She stood still, behind the door as she heard them.
“What is that smell?” Mami yelled, disgusted.
“It’s the candles. The girl brought them.” Replied Mrs Khanna. “What to do, Bhabhi, I have to portray that I like them. They smell so cheap!”
“You should have seen what she looked like when she came. She was wearing rags and her jewellery seemed so plastic! She’s Sanat’s choice so I have to go along with it. I’ll train her when she comes to this house.”
Maya had tears in her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she had heard. Mrs Khanna had deliberately spilled the drink on her so Maya could wear a suitable, high-class sari. She felt light- headed and hot. By default, she turned the fan regulator on a higher number to ease her queasiness. The flames of the candles blew out and its acrid smell emanated over the room. It reflected her dreams, hopes, love and her life.
The ladies were stunned to see her.
“Come, sit down, Maya. We were just talking about you,” said Mrs Khanna, sheepishly.
“Yes, I know Aunty. I heard what you said.” Maya said confidently. “Aunty, may I go and use your room to change? It’s getting late.”
“Yes of, course. Why not? ” Mrs Khanna was not convinced that Maya had heard all.
Maya said her good byes and asked Sanat to drop her. She reluctantly confided in him and told him everything that had happened before she descended from the car.
“No, Maya. You must have got it wrong. Mami could have said those things but my Mother, no, no way.” Sanat was adamant that Maya had it all wrong. His Mother was his World. If she said the wall was black, it was. How could Maya come between him and his Mother? How could she judge her during her first ever interaction with her?
“Ask her, Sanat,” said Maya, deflated. She felt upset; her comfortable, secure, beautiful world had come tumbling down. She knew that Sanat wouldn’t and couldn’t go against his Mother. She knew how significant Mrs Khanna had been in his life.
“Sanat, I feel that we should leave at this. Let’s take a break. You should believe your Mother. You should do what she says and never go against her. Parents sacrifice a lot for their children and we have no right to trample on their dreams.”
Maya got out and closed the door of the car. She never looked back. She never took his calls or replied to any of his messages for two years. She needed the time to heal. She had been betrayed and let down. The only person, she could count on, her future husband didn’t believe her or stand up for her. She didn’t want to be his second choice.
An ugly pigeon on the balcony interrupted her thoughts. Maya looked at the time, she had only been back for half an hour and it seemed as if she was sitting having tea for four hours. Maya pondered a little more and messaged Sanat, “Yes. That’ll be nice. I am free on Saturday evening.”
Sanat was picking up Maya, like old times. She checked on how she looked one last time before going to meet him at his car. She placed her hair behind her ears and smiled at herself. The peach cream, silk, ruffle dress was looking graceful on her and her pearl drops did wonders for her complexion.
The ambience was perfect. There was soft Italian music in the background and lots of oil paintings of Italian countryside all round the depicted, rural, white brick walls.
Sanat gazed at Maya’s beauty. She was still the same; saint like gentle features. “So, why the move to Delhi? Moving out of home is a big step, isn’t it?” He asked her.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept at peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.” Maya responded, deeply.
“Sanat, I needed to at that time. I needed a new beginning.” She simplified her feelings.
“I’m sorry, Maya. I really lost out. Maa told me everything later on.” Sanat said, mortified.
They became nostalgic; they talked about old times, all the good times. Eventually, Sanat plucked up the courage to ask her, “Maya, could we turn back the clock?”
Maya was calm, as if she expected to hear this, “No, Sanat. We cannot. I have lost my respect for you. I cannot trust you or hold you in such a high regard that I used to. You doubted me. If we get together, you will always see me as a second choice, after your Mother. I cannot do that.”
“I will change, Maya. We’ll have our own house. Just give me a chance.” Now, he was grovelling and she was losing admiration for him more and more.
“Sanat, I’ve moved on.” She showed him her flawless, sparkling diamond solitaire on her ring finger.
This story was shortlisted for our June 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Kiran Manral says “Very often we are saved by those who judge us, a lovely short story that portrays just this.”
Image source: a still from short film Khamkha/ YouTube
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