“Would you like to change into something more comfortable, Teeya?” he asked. Teeya liked Rajat’s smile – it appeared honest. And gentlemanly. Of course, it was too early to really know.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Urmi Chakravorty is one of the winners for the August 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Madhulika Liddle commented, “Social norms, acceptance, compromise: what do these lead to, eventually? This story is a very good balance between an interesting plot and believable characters.”
“Teeya, where are you? Papa wants to talk to you,” Sandhya called out affectionately to her 25-year-old daughter.
Must be cosying up in bed with her nose buried under a pile of books, Sandhya surmised indulgently. Though she would invariably rant about Teeya’s insatiable hunger for reading, inwardly she felt mighty chuffed about her wide spectrum of knowledge. And the fact that she had been handpicked by one of the top recruiters while still in college, brought Teeya one step closer to her dream of occupying the top echelons in the corporate world!
Teeya ambled into the living room, her dark brown tousled curls teasing her face. Plonking herself on the comfortable recliner, she waited for her father to begin.
“So, how’s work going, Teeya? Are you guys almost done with the year-end strategizing?” asked Teeya’s father, Harish Bakshi. Harish looked much younger than his 55, thanks to his strict health regimen and the handsome annual package his job fetched. He liked to keep himself abreast of her office goings-on, more out of a sense of pride rather than one of surveillance. “And they better organise that offsite picnic this time . . .the one they’ve been stalling since last year!”
Teeya threw back her pretty face and laughed. She had a ‘wheatish’ complexion, wasn’t traditionally beautiful, but was blessed with an attractive visage and beautiful doe eyes. Her eyes spoke much more than she herself ever did! There was a certain calm and innocent appeal about her face that belied her inner ebullience, ambition and the sheer joie de vivre that defined all her waking moments.
The duo continued with their fun and banter, sharing office gossip and workplace woes.
And then it happened.
Harish mentioned a marriage proposal that they had finalised for Teeya. The boy had impeccable credentials; the family ran multiple businesses; and marrying off their only child into this illustrious circle, seemed the most foolproof recipe for her life-long happiness. Or so they believed.
Teeya was shocked! How could they do this without talking to her? Her parents – role models for many, for their liberated, progressive outlook – had so casually slapped on her, the most important decision of her life with zero consideration of her opinion! And what about Shoaib? Her colleague, her soulmate for the past three years, her best friend first and partner later – how would she now tell them about him?
Shoaib was slightly senior to her in the department – a calm, balanced person who did Business Strategy for a living, and wrote poetry or escaped to the mountains to savour life. From sharing coffee to sharing their love for poetry, nature treks, retro music and tiramisu, they had developed a bond that needed no alibi or societal sanction… a bond so deep and secure that they could spend a whole hour together, in the same room, without talking – simply enjoying a brew, watching the rains outside, or listening to music… and later, slide back into their usual animated discussions, effortlessly and organically. Their romance nested more in the cerebrum than in their hormones.
But tell she did. And its repercussions burst the bubble of a happy, united family that they were perceived to be. The fact that Shoaib belonged to a different faith, further complicated things.
“But Papa, how does it matter? It’s our life – we understand and accept each other, irrespective of family or faith. We want to spend our lives together, Papa…please don’t do this!” Teeya choked as she spoke, her usually cheerful face reduced to a teary mess, mirroring only deep disappointment, pain and betrayal.
“How can I share my life with a complete stranger knowing fully well that my heart belongs somewhere else? Isn’t that being unfair towards them?” she continued, tapping on logic and ethics as the final weapon in her armour.
“Teeya, most marriages happen between strangers. And eventually they work out fine. That’s how it is – love, trust, understanding and adjustment, all gradually happen once the bond is cemented. Your brand of fairy tale romance and marriage are best reserved for Bollywood!” Harish Bakshi’s caustic words stung Teeya.
Shoaib accepted this verdict with his usual equanimity and grace. Initially he plunged into a freefall of extreme pain, loneliness and despair. He quit his job (obviously, since Teeya was continuing with hers), went into a brief hiatus, and then moved overseas in a bid to recalibrate his entire life to this altered reality.
The marriage was solemnised with great fanfare. It was past midnight when Teeya and her husband Rajat retired to their room as the last of the guests trickled out of Verma Villa, Teeya’s new address.
Fatigued and sleep-deprived after three continuous days of rituals and celebration, they were both grateful to finally get some privacy. Teeya’s facial muscles were now aching with all the artificial smiles she had been flashing over the past few days. Her throat felt sore with the intermittent gulping down of tears. Her eyes smarted, not because of the non-stop flashbulbs or the smoke from the holy fire, but from the blinking away of those briny drops that continuously threatened to cascade down her bridal face.
As both of them shuffled their feet awkwardly, admired the wall accents, and studiously averted each other’s gaze, it was Rajat who broke the ice.
“Would you like to change into something more comfortable, Teeya?” he asked, pointing to the small changing area that was partitioned by heavy draperies. “And there’s a new set of toiletries kept in the restroom – do let me know if you need anything else,” he said with a smile.
Teeya liked Rajat’s smile – it appeared honest. And gentlemanly. Of course, it was too early to really know. By the time she had finished changing and removing the last traces of make-up and all the cumbersome jewellery, she was pleasantly surprised to see Rajat curled up comfortably on the big couch near the window. A dim bedside lamp cast long shadows on the wall. The air in the room seemed mildly perfumed, what with so many zigzagging strands of jasmine and rose adorning their nuptial bed.
“I guess we could both do with a good night’s sleep, what say? Tomorrow we have an early morning puja and then some more guests. Or would you want to have a chat now,” Rajat grinned mischievously at his rhetorical question.
“Ohh…thanks so much. But will you be able to sleep well there?” she asked in a voice, laced with immense surprise, relief and gratitude. Rajat nodded confidently. After a quick ‘goodnight’ Teeya turned off the lamp and slid under the velvety sheets. The soft bed ensconced her in a warm and welcoming embrace.
All these days she had shuddered at the thought of this night, this moment, when she would have to bear with an unfamiliar breath, an unwelcome gaze, an alien touch, scanning every inch of her body, staking a claim to it, and invading the most intimate nooks and crannies of her delicate frame. This was an experience which most girls would eagerly anticipate, await, and cherish forever. To her, this night and every single night thereafter, had seemed like a Sisyphean nightmare – something she would repeatedly experience, stoically endure, and positively hate. But thankfully, this was so different!
Teeya’s friends had suggested elopement or a secret court marriage with Shoaib but Teeya found them, an undignified and cowardly solution. Besides, her parents would have died of shock and embarrassment. As their only offspring, she felt bound to honour their wishes. Resignedly she agreed to marry Rajat, putting a permanent lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of her first love!
Teeya’s first night ended peacefully. And so did every other night for an entire month. She and Rajat slept in separate corners and strangely, both seemed happy with this arrangement. Teeya drowned herself in work in a desperate bid to push back Shoaib’s memories to the farthest and darkest recesses of her heart.
Rajat often returned quite late from work. At times, he had to attend outstation conferences or client meets. He was good-looking and had an easy-going, affable personality that made Teeya feel safe and comfortable. And yet there was something amiss, something that kept bothering her.
Wonder why he never tries to get intimate with me. It’s been over a month now and we’ve become good friends… this arrangement suits me so well… but I need to know. Has he come to know about Shoaib, by any chance? Then why doesn’t he react? Why keep up this charade? I’m certainly not game for any kind of patronage or charity!
That same night she confronted Rajat.
“Teeya, I’ve been meaning to tell you this all along but could never muster courage. Plus, the bond we’ve developed is too precious for me to squander away. But the truth needs to be told – and you, especially, have every right to know it.” Here Rajat paused, a hundred emotions crisscrossing his face while Teeya waited in shocked silence, not quite knowing what to anticipate.
“Teeya, we can never have a regular married life. I’m already committed to someone…we love each other deeply. But I promise to always respect you and take good care of you, believe me.”
“But why didn’t you marry her, Rajat? Why did you ruin three lives?” Teeya cried in despair.
“My parents never approved of our match… I tried hard but couldn’t convince them,” Rajat’s voice dropped to a whisper as he fumbled with his phone and clicked open his photo gallery. Teeya let out an involuntary gasp as she saw numerous images of Rajat with his lover – a tall, lean, athletic young man who was unabashed in his show of affection for Rajat.
Teeya suddenly saw vignettes of her married life flashing before her eyes – Rajat’s cryptic conversations on the phone, his late hours, his work trips, his complete lack of interest in her – now they all fell in place!
Teeya continued at the Vermas’ for the next six months. She needed time to rejig her life and look for a new accommodation. Her in-laws were genuinely crestfallen. Rajat, too, persuaded her to stay on but she stood firm on her decision to move out.
“Teeya, why didn’t you press harassment and deception charges against Rajat? Why did you cite mutual incompatibility as your reason for divorce?” Harish Bakshi thundered as Teeya and Sandhya arranged the things in her new home.
“Isn’t it ironical Ma-Papa, that today suddenly we’re discussing deception? Didn’t I marry Rajat out of sheer compulsion and not love? Besides, Rajat is a nice guy and we’ll continue to be friends.”
“But at least you can stay with us in your own house…why stay here alone?” Sandhya pleaded.
Teeya gave a wry smile. “Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,” she remarked. “One is spared the worry. I need worry only about myself.” She shook her head. “And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?” She looked up, her beautiful doe eyes, pools of melancholy and heartbreak. “I lost my love, I had a failed marriage, isn’t that enough adventure for a lifetime, Ma?”
Teeya’s voice held no gripe. She may have missed life’s proverbial rainbow with gold at both ends but she still had traces of stardust and sparkle in her veins. And with that, she was ready to shine on!
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Madhulika Liddle, a novelist and award-winning short story writer. She is best-known as the author of the Muzaffar Jang series, about a 17th century Mughal detective, though she also writes other novels and short stories in different genres and across themes ranging from black humour to social awareness, crime to romance.
Madhulika’s next book, due for release in September 2021 is The Garden of Heaven, the first novel of the four-book The Delhi Quartet, which covers the story of a group of interconnected families against a backdrop of 800 years of Delhi’s history, beginning with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with Partition. Madhulika lives in Noida, India, and blogs—mainly about classic cinema, food and travel—find her here.
The cue is from her upcoming book The Garden of Heaven.
“‘Perhaps there is an advantage in being alone,’ she remarked. ‘One is spared the worry. I need worry only about myself.’ She shook her head. ‘And I have learnt not to worry overly about myself. What is the worst that can happen, after all?’ She looked up.”
Image source: a still from KKHH3
Urmi Chakravorty is a military spouse and former educator-facilitator who has imbibed lasting life lessons from both her roles. A hands-on mom and read more...
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