The car dropped her home outside the gates of her housing society, and KB only nodded expressionlessly as she thanked him and got out of the vehicle. No ‘goodbye’ or ‘see you soon’ nothing, and she wondered if she had got her hopes high.
As she walked swiftly towards her house, the cacophony of the children playing in the quadrangle between the society’s buildings didn’t affect her thoughts. Instead, she teared up, wondering what went wrong. Was she hallucinating KB’s interest in her? If yes, she had been the greatest fool on earth to give in to her desires. She reflexly touched her lips which still felt sore from his ravaging earlier that day.
As she climbed up a couple of steps to reach her ground floor house, she saw the door open and many footwear outside. What on earth? The memories of the day her father had passed flooded back, and her heart thudded.
But she stood at the entrance and saw her aunt distribute sweets to the neighbors gathered, even as her mama looked on uncomfortably.
“Oh, here comes our princess…” Maami squealed, startling her, and held her hand, dragging her inside the house. “…Look, Kajal, they have all come to wish you on the engagement. I teated them to motichoor laddoos. But, of course, it’s so expensive… but then it’s not every day that your niece gets engaged to a TV star. And do you know how many gifts they gave us…?”
“…That’s enough…” Her mama interrupted and released her hand. “…Kajal must be tired. Go inside and take a rest, beta.”
That was the respite Kajal needed to gather her thoughts, and she rushed inside. However, it was not to be. Poonam caught her in the way. Holding her hand and looking around, Poonam said, “Wow… this is a lovely saree, and have you seen the number of likes your viral pics have got? I have put up mine too… I got a record number of followers…”
“…Tai, I am tired, so…” She tried pulling her hand away.
“Fine, fine… I know you are a superstar’s fiancé and all that. But don’t forget who you really are and the arrangement. Do you think someone like KB will ever fall for the likes of you? Just wearing a designer saree and makeup will not hide who you are… remember that.”
“I have not forgotten that, but it looks like you have. You had to rely on me doing this to salvage your alliance, hadn’t you?”
Poonam looked menacing as she tightened her grip on Kajal’s hand, and the glass bangles Kajal had worn cracked, causing her pain, and she cringed.
“you have learned to talk back, haven’t you? You aren’t doing me any favor… you are living and breathing because of my father… else you have heard stories in orphanages and young women’s homes, haven’t you? You would have been on the roads, both you and that parasite of your brother, and eventually, you would have landed up in some brothel. So giving up a year of your life for us is nothing….” She let go of her hand, and even as Kajal held the bleeding wound, Poonam continued her rampage. “…Don’t forget you will be a rich woman, richer than all of us put together next year, and your brother gets set in life too. So once again, Miss Melodrama, you have to thank me…” She humphed and walked away, leaving Kajal to wallow in her miseries tearfully.
She got into her room and shut the door behind her, glad that Krunal wasn’t home. She had pooled in everything she had and completed his hostel formalities that morning before going for her engagement. Maami had been too blindsided by the bling she was facing, to object to the decision. She had even lent her the extra few thousand without having to ask twice.
Kajal changed into her nightgown and tied up her hair. Her tears didn’t seem to stop. She held the saree close… it still had his citrus fragrance, and it reminded her of the moment of togetherness in his room, which had raised her hopes, taken her to a whole new pinnacle, and now she had been ruthlessly thrown down the cliff making her struggle to gather her bearings.
She was a hopeless case, she sniffled her tears away. Sharp pain in her wrist got her back to the present. Poonam was right, she thought as she applied a bandaid to the cut. She had forgotten for a moment who she really was… she was just Kajal, a simple middle-class young woman who had dreams for her brother and herself. Finally, she made up her mind. That was what she was going to focus now on, making her dreams come true, and KB was only a catalyst…
She switched on her phone, and it pinged with an email notification among the others. It was from the HR department of Sharanya Productions. They called her for an interview scheduled next morning. Kajal immediately felt better and mailed them her acceptance, hoping it wasn’t late. Instead, she got a quick reply giving her the time and the floor.
Kajal kept everything aside and inhaled deeply. She had to focus on two things at the moment, getting this job and finishing her final exams. The rest of the world, except for her brother, didn’t matter to her…
Krunal called her almost the next minute.
“Hey… how’s the hostel?”
“Tai… are you Ok?” he sounded serious.
“Of course, dear, I miss you, but I am fine. Why do you ask?”
“Tai I saw those pictures online, and I felt uncomfortable, I have become a mini-celebrity here as well, and thankfully many don’t know you are my sister… yet. But I am worried about you, tai… I hope you aren’t getting into something you shouldn’t, just for me. If so… just forget all this. We will manage like we have been doing all these years.”
Kajal teared up yet again. Her brother had become mature. “No darling, it’s nothing like that. You focus on your studies all right? Next year after you finish tenth grade, I promise you can live with me until you want… OK?”
Kunal chuckled, and his soft voice coming across the receiver sounded like music to her ears. That laughter was worth her sacrifice. He told her about his day, and they disconnected. She kept checking her messages for the next hour, but there was no text from him, except congratulatory messages from her college friends. She soon slept off holding the saree and dreaming about the handsome cryptic man she could never have.
The following day, she walked into the huge glass building of Sharanya Productions Ltd. Before she got into the stunning entrance, she looked around. The bougenveilla drapped surrounding compound wall with flower-filled bushes lining the ground beneath neatly trimmed brought life into the place. She walked into the foyer as a blast of air hit her head, tickling her neck!.
She wrote her name in the visitor book and waited for her turn. The lobby was filled with people who looked like wannabe actors or writers from the looks of them. Amidst the murmurs, she looked at the walls filled with posters of the company’s different movies or TV soaps. There was a vast podium dedicated to housing the innumerable awards won by Rugved Choudhry and the production house across categories.
Kajal smiled in awe, and finally, her eyes rested on a life-size portrait of the most beautiful young girl she had ever seen. The eyes full of life beaconed her, and she walked towards the picture.
She read the name below in beautiful lettering.
Sharanya Choudhry… eighteen forever…
Oh goodness, that meant the girl was no more? Was she related to Rugved Choudhry?
Before she could think more, her name was called, and she was asked to see the HR on the seventh floor.
Her interview was a formality and a cakewalk because she loved literature, and once they confirmed her position, she was asked to see Rugved in his office on the same floor. Soon she was sitting in his office as he attended to a call after indicating her to take a seat.
The colossal office had the looks of a typical producer’s office like she had often seen when she was with Rhapsody. But in addition to the filmy paraphernalia;lining the walls and the screaming decors, there was a huge couch too.
Once he finished the call, he plonked himself on the couch. The golden velvet cover, along with the shining brown throw pillows brought made him stand out. Rugved was immaculately dressed in a striped suit combination, and she didn’t know if anyone else could carry himself with the poise the actor radiated… well except maybe KB. No… she wouldn’t go there.
She looked around to see the same portrait of the beautiful girl, but of a smaller size, and here it was garlanded by fresh mogras. So that was the source of scent in the office. She smiled. Her aai loved mogra too and her baba made it a point to bring her a gajra every time he came home after a gap. Good old days… she sighed.
“That’s… my sister. Sharanya. I named this production house after her. She dreamed of being an actress someday.. But fate had other plans.” Rugved spoke softly, staring at the photo. Oh God… that was so sad… Kajal’s heart broke to hear of a young life snuffed out too soon. She couldn’t even fathom the grief the girl’s parents must have gone through if Rugved’s forlorn expressions were any indication.
“I am sorry to hear that…” She spoke softly.
He waved his hand and looked at her with a slight smile on his lips.
“It was a long time ago. Ne ways welcome to the company. I was told the interview is done with. So you will be joining next month onwards post your exams, right?”
“Yes and after my… marriage…” She added
“Ah… about that. Well, this job won’t be paying you as much as Rhapsody did, and now that you are set to tie the knot, is KB aware of this?”
Did she detect skepticism in Rugved’s voice? “Um… yes, of course. KB knows. He doesn’t have a problem with this.”
Rugved frowned and gave her a look she couldn’t make sense of. “Look, Ms. Kajal, I don’t know what the scene is…”
“…I beg your pardon?” what was he talking about?
“Your marriage scene. KB of all the people? I don’t intend to sound condescending, but he isn’t someone to commit to a woman. I have to say I am surprised, given what I saw the other day at the studio. Are you under any pressure Ms. Kajal? Is that man threatening you? Are you forced into anything…?”
“Sir… with due respect, I don’t want to discuss my personal life. However, I assure you that my marital obligations won’t interfere with my work. I will work hard and not give you any reason to complain.”
He looked taken aback, but the expression was soon replaced with an all-business one.
He raised his palms in mock surrender and nodded. He placed a call, and in a short while filled with uncomfortable silence in the cabin, there was a soft knock on the door.
“Come in…” Rugved spoke curtly
The door opened, and a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair walked in. OMG… Ashwin Acharya, the outstanding award-winning writer? Kajal couldn’t believe her eyes. Was she dreaming? She seemed to be doing that a lot these days.
“Come in, Ashwin ji…” Rugved gestured him to take a seat. “… this is Ms. Kajal, your newest protégé. I hope you both will share a harmonious relationship.”
Ashwin Acharya gave her an insignificant look and cleared his throat. “Rugved, which project is she going to assist me in?”
“I have thought of the new drama kickstarting next month. ‘Adhuri kahani’ The love story with a twist… What do you think? She is new, and we can do with fresh ideas.”
Ashwin ji nodded and agreed. Then, after discussing a few details, they left the room together, and soon she was out of the building.
As she walked outside the enormous building, she saw the gathered people had swelled outside the gates, and there was some uproar as people screamed about giving one chance to their script or acting talent. There were young girls with dreams in their eyes and dejection written over their faces. They probably had come to Mumbai hoping of a bright future in Bollywood but couldn’t find a foothold.
She said a silent prayer to Bappa. So her situation wasn’t bad after all.
A year from now, she could be independent, and this work experience would secure her admission to her dream college in the UK, where she wanted to pursue her Master’s studies.
All would be fine if life were a bed of roses
But then, man proposes, and God disposes.