She threw handbag on the next chair as she sat down. Crossing her legs comfortably and leaning back comfortably. Like most women, she knew how to appear feminine while pretending to be innocently unaware of her beauty.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting. I am a chronic procrastinator. Always late”, she proudly announced.
He was instantly smitten by her. Her sudden, unannounced arrival and quick delivery of dialogue gave him no time to fully comprehend his first impression of her. She seemed like a great girl. She sat down and looked around, obviously letting him to look at her.
“This looks like a nice place. Do you come here often?”
“Yes Dyuthi. By the way, I thought you saw me and left. I had been waiting for quite some time.”
“Haha, yes Mahesh. That thought did cross my mind. I have been dreading this meet!” She always expressed anxiety when she was very sure she knew she’d impress him. In fact she knew he was already impressed, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t express denial of interest. She passed it off as anxiety and fear of meeting him to buy herself sometime to try to see if she could like him.
Like any other meeting, they spoke, eat, drank and left. She offered to pay, go Dutch, chuckled when he opened the door for her and joked that she wasn’t used to chivalry. No girl is used to chivalry and even the ones, who declare they don’t like it, can’t help being impressed when they receive it.
Dyuthi wasn’t sure if she always had a problem being honest to herself or was it expected out of her, to not be smitten and act stupid. She always held back her words but that didn’t stop her from waiting for his call nor did it stop her from meeting other prospective grooms. She wasn’t sure what was to happen and she wanted to be smart about it. Or was it the hidden Gemini inside her? Constantly looking out for her prince in a shining armour even if she might already be with one?
She declared it went just “okay” and that her parents could decide. To her friends, she went into elaborate detail about his chivalry and more particularly about how he had been smitten by her. She glorified his virtues and underplayed her impressions about it. She found herself seeking the opinion and validation of her friends, that meant she wasn’t convinced herself, right? They didn’t seem very excited, so was she making a mistake? She also complained whether he’d like her the way she’d look when she woke up or if he saw her credit card statements.
Quarter life crisis brought in some maturity, she thought. Or was it her insecurity that made her to accommodate things she wouldn’t have liked some years back? She wasn’t sure. She missed the early twenties. She missed being too young and too stupid. The spontaneity of her likes and dislikes and the consequences it brought. There were tears and laughs; she had to fight to make sure she got to do exactly what she wanted. Today, just a few years later, she was free to do anything, but she was easier on others and on herself. She did many things she didn’t like and worked and lived with many whom she tolerated by choice for no benefit of her own.
The tinkling of the flower girl’s bangles shook her from her pensive state. Neela was twenty. But she seemed younger. She knew Dyuthi from her childhood. She would tag along with her mother to deliver flowers in the morning after which her mother would drop her at school. Early evening she would sit near the gates of the buildings where her mother went to do an afternoon shift of washing dishes in apartments. She would occasionally be asked to undo stitches to loosen up a blouse and get tipped for it. She dreamed of saving up all that and buying her mother a saree. She loved how beautiful some girls looked. Their glowing complexion, immaterial of their obesity or skin tone, made them look prettier.
Dyuthi had teased her for her turmeric stained face and talcum powder. She stopped using them. She knew if she had shampoo, her hair wouldn’t be so oily and would be shiny like the girls in the houses where her mother worked. But money had never been a constraint, whatever she asked, her mother got for her, if her request was reasonable. She looked up to Dyuthi and watched her study with a table and a mug of tea. She seemed very important when she was on her laptop and seemed popular when she was pacing the balcony on her phone.
One day her mother cursed her for being a girl. She said it didn’t make a difference. Her mother said, someday she would realize why it was a sin to be born as a girl. It conflicted with what she had learned in school, was it Dowry? What was it? “I won’t marry ever, if that makes it easier for you”, she offered to her mother. Her mother shook her head and said, “Marriage, itself. Not the dowry part.” She was proud of her mother. She never whined to the neighbours and over phone to everybody like the women in the apartments. She would cry a bit and scold or hit her if she came in her way when she was in a foul mood. But soon she would forget it and make a nice, hot meal and tell her how beautiful she is because of her mother’s genes. She was beautiful indeed. She wasn’t fat like the apartment ladies. She was slender and had beautiful features. Sarees draped around her so naturally like as though they were best made for her. She had a particularly lucky day that day, she stitched some buttons and zippers, massaged her mother’s bosses feet and also washed a fungus stained old tiffen box. The lady tipped her a hundred rupees and also some glass bangles. She had been collecting money for a while now. She was baby-sitting when her mother was doing her afternoon shift of dishwashing. She got two hundred rupees per month for baby sitting in the evenings. That day she went and decided to buy a saree for her mother. She picked the cheapest. It was five hundred rupees, in chiffon and comfortable to wear like her mother would. It was a shade of blue, which she thought was elegant. She presented it to her mother who shouted at her for wasting money and threatened her to return it and get money. She thought her mother was teaching her the value of money. She regretted her decision and decided that money was precious and she mustn’t spend it on frivolity that didn’t have a place in their destiny.
Just when she thought she had learned the value of money, her mother died. She committed suicide, they said. She had consumed insecticide and passed away at her workplace. Neela’s world came to an end. She pretended that she still had a roof over her head, she would also work like her mother and manage. She would eat less, and work more to support her education. She didn’t realize by not eating and staying indoors, she still needed money. She didn’t know the asbestos sheet over her head had to be paid for. Her father had another wife, she was unsure when he had remarried. She was to be a cleaner and a flower vendor, like her mother. One by one her dreams were quickly forgotten. But her life was the same. Going every morning, to each house and delivering flowers and admiring the girls who lived in a different world. Going to their houses later to wash their dishes, it was the same life. But just without the dreams.
Dyuthi went up to the door and collected the flowers for the day and paid the advance for the next month. Neela gave her some extra flowers for free. She said a bride to be must be adorned in flowers to make her prettier and seek God’s blessings.
“Was he handsome, ma? What did he say to you?” She inquired excitedly. “Don’t worry, this time, its’ all going to be great.”
“I don’t know if I like him Neela. I don’t know if he likes, I am assuming he does, because he called me after we met.”
“Of course he will like you. You’re perfect ma. But don’t speak much. Men will speak easily and leave easily also. You’re heart is pure ma. You won’t commit easily but when you do, you’re not the type to easily give up”
“I’ve learned my lessons Neela. What about you? You are wearing so many bangles and flowers these days. Are you trying to be pretty for someone?”
“Oh my god, no! I can’t. My uncle has promised to wed me off to his brother’s son. I have seen him once. He works at a restaurant.”
“Do you like him? Does he talk to you?”
“I don’t know many people. So at least I know who he is”
“I hope he will take good care of you and love you a lot, Neela”
Neela blushed and left. This was the best part about getting married, the teasing and importance she received. Some gave her gifts – clothes, bangles, nail polishes. She made the best of it. He was not very handsome, but at least he was willing to marry her. He saw her once and didn’t speak to her. He owed her uncle some money that made him obedient to him. She felt safe, marrying someone who would be under the control of her uncle. Her father would preside over the wedding. She hated him , his wife and their son, but that never stopped her from being excited when she got a chance to meet him. She didn’t belong to her a father. She would at least belong to her husband. Marriage, was all about the identity it would give to her.
Neela remembered Dyuthi in her early twenties- beautiful and confident, condescending even. A few tough years had left her considered and mellowed. She was more tolerant than before, but beautiful as ever. She didn’t look slim and glowy any more, but a calmness about her rendered more beauty. She wasn’t loud and outspoken like before, she wasn’t bold but she was brave. Neela’s former admiration bordering on jealousy of Dyuthi now turned to empathy and hope for Dyuthi.
Dyuthi waited more days for Mahesh’s call. Her parents were even uncertain than her. They didn’t want to lose her to a wrong choice again. Despite waiting, when he did call, she was short and noncommittal in her conversations. Neela’s wedding drew closer and she used to come earlier than usual. She was always in a hurry. Dyuthi was happy Neela was in love, but she envied her ability to smile carelessly and feel happy with a radiance that showed on her face. Dyuthi tried to be happy, looking happy was the secret to looking great. She let life take its flow and let go of the reins with which she controlled the direction of her life. She let herself feel whatever she did and not what she wanted to be. She no longer cared about society and what they thought. Not that she had ever taken any action based on society’s approval of it, but she did worry about it. Once she decided, she would no longer worry about it, she felt relieved. Inner happiness was subjective to what we decided to make peace with. Love? Or appearing to be in love?
When they met for the fourth time, Mahesh was already aware he was walking on eggshells. He had little time before he could convey his answer to his mother. He wanted to gauge her interest first.
“So, what are your parents saying?”
“About what, Mahesh?”
“Just generally. About your life, wedding and so on”
“Oh, it’s entirely my choice”
“And your choice is?”
“I’d go by what they say”
“Haha. Its going in circles. The first time we met, you claimed you’d leave it to your parents completely and your choice doesn’t matter.”
“Its still something like that”
“Okay. Irrespective of your choice, I agree they will have a decision that will be binding on you. But I am sure you still have a choice, however useless it maybe. I’d like to know that.”
“I haven’t thought like that Mahesh. I am just getting to you as a person”
He figured she was just never going to let down her guard; he had no interest in opening up his feelings for her as well.
“Let me put it this way, assuming your parents take the decision to go ahead with me, are you okay with it?”
“And that is going to be for any guy they decide, is it”
He laughed and let go of his prodding.
“That makes me very happy to know. At least I am shortlisted.”
“How about you Mahesh?”
“The choice is not just mine, her’s as well.”
“Oh, okay. What are your parents saying”
“Well, its not them. The choice is mine and the girl’s. Mostly if she likes me, I would marry her.”
“And that is going to be for any girl who is willing to marry you, is it?”