Kajal slapped her book on the table. William Shakespeare’s words which she usually loved to read and analyze, were dancing before her eyes for the past hour. Krunal and gone to school, and Poonam and maami were in the local temple to her utmost surprise, and mama and Pratham dada had gone to their respective jobs.
She should have been happy since she got her me time for studies, and surprisingly maami hadn’t been pestering her to do the housework like she usually did whenever Kajal was at home. Instead, Maami had prepared her favorite sabudana khichidi and given her two servings!
Irrespective of the kind of person she was maami was a fabulous cook, and that Kajal had to give it to the lady.
The khichidi helped elevate her mood a bit after the day she had yesterday. She had rushed back to the office from the studio and changed into her original clothes and did a quick job of handing over her duties to the guy who was to be in charge of her workload till she got back.
But she could barely sleep last night watching the fan wings cutting through the streetlight streaming in through the windows, making the ceiling shadow-design sprinkled with cobwebs. Krunal, who had been overjoyed at receiving an autographed cap by his favorite actor, had gone to bed gripping the object in his hands.
But every time Kajal closed her eyes, she was haunted by the citrus cologne and the warmth of KB’s body at her back, and her heartbeat accelerated. She had to grip her chest to calm herself down. She was fiercely attracted to the wrong guy, and it was interfering in her daily life. How could she?
Even now, as she tried to focus on her studies, she felt the butterflies in her stomach every time she thought of him, and that was virtually every moment. Krunal had called sometime back saying he was staying in the hostel for the duration of his final exams, and the warden had agreed to let him be. So she packed a bag for him, thankful to get something to distract her at the moment.
Yet as she got back to studying, she couldn’t… what was it about KB? She had received an email from Rugved’s office asking her to fill an employee form if she was interested in joining them. She was offered assistant to the chief writer in Rugved’s Sharanya Productions. That was what she had wanted to do. Her pay was slightly less than what she got at Rhapsody, but the work hours were less, and she had the freedom to work from home as well. This was great if she wanted to pursue a postgraduate program by correspondence later.
The giant man had been kind to her, and she had heard the staff only speak good about him. What she felt for Rugved was respect. But, unfortunately, she was drawn to KB, and she had to get her traitorous heart under control. She didn’t know why KB behaved savagely like he did both times, but she wasn’t a toy for him.
She had studied all articles she could find about KB but hadn’t heard him behave in this manner despite the web being filled with malicious gossip maligning his character. So why did he do that to her? Not that she was complaining, and that made her hate herself all the more.
The front door clicked open, and she heard her maami and Poonam enter. They seemed happy ever since they had gotten back from the village.
“Kajal, come here please…” her aunt called her, surprising her at the politeness.
Kajal walked out, unsure about the chasm of uncertainty before her.
“Come here, Kajal. Sit here…” her maami pointed to the place on the couch next to her.
When Kajal sat, she continued. “Ok…Kajal, there is a piece of good news… in fact, several good news. First of all, Poonam’s wedding has almost been fixed. If all goes well, we will formalize it on Sunday next.”
Kajal saw Poonam blush as she sat on the opposite chair.
“Congratulations tai… congratulations maami… that’s excellent news.” Kajal was genuinely happy for Poonam.
“Well, the boy is an engineer and works in a huge company in Baramati. The family is good, and the horoscopes have matched as well. The most important point is that they do not want any dowry, accept a house in Baramati where the couple will continue to live after marriage. I have agreed to the condition…” maami spoke hesitantly.
Kajal wondered how maami could be so naïve as to agree to provide a house. Of course, they didn’t have a hand-to-mouth existence, and maami had also kept aside some jewelry for Poonam. But beyond that, it was not easy. What was maami thinking, and did mama know about all this?
“…Umm… Kajal, your mama doesn’t know this as yet. And I just checked a house from a local there, and it’s a beautiful apartment.. But it costs, I mean thir… thirty lakhs….” Kajals heart skipped a beat. Maami had lost it. “…but kajal, this is a God sent alliance for Poonam, and she gets to stay independently without interference from her inlaws.”
“I agree maami, but how are you going to afford that house?” Kajal couldn’t help but ask.
“Um… Kajal, that’s where you come into the picture.” Maami straightened on the couch, and Kajal looked on confused. She didn’t have any jewelry or money kept aside. How could she help?
“you know my brother Sahu mama, right?” Maami asked, and she nodded. Sahu mama used to visit them regularly till a few years ago. He was a kind soul, unlike his sister, and was always courteous to Kajal and Krunal. Despite his sister’s utmost annoyance, he loved them more than Poonam and Pratham, getting them goodies every time he visited. Maami continued speaking, breaking Kajal’s line of thought.
“Umm… Sahu mama has been working at an estate for the last decade after his company closed down. Through the owners, he got an amazing marriage proposal for… you Kajal.”
Kajal stood up. She now began to understand why maami had been so good to her since yesterday. “What on earth maami…? Marriage and me?”
“Aga… bas jara…aikuntari ghe. (sit and listen at least).. The family is super-rich. Have you heard of the Deshmukh conglomerate? Deshmukh oils, rubber, and Deshmukh cooperative banks? They want a good girl for their only grandson. He is handsome and best suited for you. In a flash, all our problems solved.” Maami’s eyes gleamed of greed.
Kajal was angry, and the rage she had been feeling for a while rose to the surface.
“Maami… this is ridiculous… do you even know what you are saying? So you are selling me off to fund Poonam tai’s wedding? I know you don’t like me, but I promise you it’s a matter of a couple of months; I shall leave with Krunal…”
“…Of course you will leave…” maami spoke with an icy cold tone that chilled her as well. “…you will have to leave this house because we are selling it….” She looked at a stunned Kajal and continued. “…your maama had mortgaged this house ages ago. Do you think that petty pension coming your way from the police helped tide over the expenses of this house and your father’s bills? No …Kajal, your maama got the money after giving up the only treasure we had… this house. And he is retiring in two months as you know. Pratham’s job isn’t all that up to the mark, and I can’t ask him for money. So how do you expect us to run the show?”
“Kajal, for the last decade, we have given up everything for you and your brother. I know I am harsh, but if I hadn’t kept aside my jewelry for Poonam, your maama would have sold those as well… to fund your father’s bills. And now… even after we sell this house, we will barely have anything after repaying the loan. We will move into the village and build a small house for us, but Poonam’s marriage will not materialize, and your maama’s meager pension won’t suffice… do you want us to have a pathetic existence after all we have done for you…?” Maami wailed, her voice raising notches higher in pitch.
“Maami, there will be some alternative…” Kajal’s throat was clogged.
“Kajal, you listen to me now very clearly…” Maami’s tone had taken the aggressive route. “… It’s time you pay us back for what we did unless you want us to go on the roads in the next couple of months and your Poonam tai’s alliance getting canceled… it’s a tough life for all of us. Think of your brother too. Krunal has his future before him all in the dark, but a single ‘yes’ from your side will brighten it up… he can study whatever he wants to…. We all will be happy…”
“…And maami… what about me…?” Kajal’s voice cracked.
“What do you mean… you are marrying an heir to a huge conglomerate. You will be sitting on a pile of money… what else do you need…? Listen carefully Kajal, I have already had the talks. They will buy that house in Baramati, pay this house’s mortgage, and we get to retain it, but we will sell it and move to the village. They are also setting aside a huge amount for Krunal’s education so he can stay in a hostel and study and besides all that, Pratham dada will get a good-paying job in one of their factories close to our village… so can’t you see…? Everything gets sorted…”
Kajal stood rooted to the ground. Maami continued her tirade.
“…Look kajal, your mama doesn’t know about all this, so I would prefer you keep this between the three of us. Listen it’s nothing to be worried about. Women have to adjust…And in case you don’t like the guy and want to separate, you can do it after a year… and that too with a huge settlement… I have asked for 2 crores of which we get 75 lakhs and you pocket the rest. After that, you can go abroad and study and fulfill your dreams…”
Kajal was hyperventilating as tears now streamed freely down her cheeks. “Maami… would you have asked Poonam tai to get into such a marriage…?”
“Why on earth would Poonam have to do that? Her parents are living, and yours aren’t. So for a moment, forget about all of us. But what about your mama…? He did so much for you. You and Krunal would have been in some orphanage if not for him. So cant, you do this in return for your mama’s happy retirement life? He is in tremendous stress about making ends meet after a couple of months…and don’t show up with this teary face before him… you know he gets affected when you cry… stop the melodrama… you can reign like a queen. What else do you need?”
Kajal only stood crying, and her chest constricted as she thought of the handsome face who had touched her mind, body, and soul. No, she didn’t stand a chance to be with him… even if he was a great guy. But she needed time to get over her crush… yes… that’s what her feelings were. She had a crush on KB. But this marriage…
“Kajal here take this… we have to go to see them tomorrow. You can meet the guy too…”maami handed over a packet to her.
“What…? So soon? Maami my exams…” Kajal muttered.
“Skip the exams for now. You can give them later. The Deshmukhs are in a rush to get the grandson married…There is a good muhurat in ten days from now. They aren’t revealing the reason for marriage, and we shouldn’t bother either so far as the legal documents are in place. So tomorrow, be at your best behavior. And… we aren’t saying anything to your mama right now… Got it? Don’t be a big mouth and ruin everything for us. Now go inside…”
Maami walked into her bedroom, followed by Poonam and Kajal slumped on the floor sobbing on the hard ground.
Aai where are you? I need you so much now…. Please come back… she wailed, but there was no one to hear her cries.
Kajal was glad Krunal wasn’t around to see the drama unfold at home. She gave it all a thought and realized she had to sacrifice herself at the marriage altar for her brother’s future and repay her mama. It was a matter of only a year after all… in the larger frame of life; how much did a year matter?
The next day after her clueless mama left for office maami and Kajal took an Uber. Autorickshaw would be too downmarket maami had said. So Kajal had been drapped in a simple yellow with pink border chiffon saree and had matched it up with bare minimum accessories.
As they arrived outside the vast estate, Sahu mama came running to welcome them and take them into the house. Maami had a strange bounce in her steps as she walked ahead. Sahu mama held Kajal’s hand and stopped her.
“Kajal, I know this is all a shocker for you, but trust me, this will be good for you… I know this family very well, and they are a gem of a people. You will be happy… I can assure you that. But if you don’t like the boy, feel free to say no and I won’t allow my sister to pressurize you… got it?”
Kajal only nodded, blinking back tears, knowing she was walking into a lion’s den and there was no turning back.
They were welcomed into the elegant drawing room by a herd of maids, and a frail old woman whom she was told was the boy’s ajji.
Kajal touched her feet, and the woman instinctively hugged her flooding her with a strange warmth of affection she had never known. Instantly Kajal’s eyes filled, and she tried her best not to cry.
“Welcome, my child… my grandson will be here any minute now. You are far more beautiful than your picture. I hope you like my grandson and say a yes to him. Oh, there he comes.” The grandmother said.
Suddenly, it hushed around, and the uniformed maids all got away as Sahu mama and maami stood up in anticipation. Kajal turned around in the direction of everyone’s vision, and her heart missed a beat.
She watched wide eyes as KB strode into the drawing-room in his trademark suit like a lethal tiger in its regal stride, drawing out all the oxygen in the air around her.