13: Hearts of Glass
Tongues wag. They do so for various reasons but the most substantial among them is because they don’t want to adopt a state of dormancy–that’d be akin to ringing a death knell!
Over the past few weeks the busy tongues along a serene and conservative street of the upscale beachside Chennai neighborhood of Besant Nagar were having the time of their lives. They were reaping a golden harvest. From dawn to dusk, in the courtyard of the Ashtalakshmi temple along the shores of Elliot’s beach, even under the Banyan tree of the renowned Kalakshetra Academy you could eavesdrop on the following prattle:
‘The elder Mishra girl has run away and wonder of wonders she has shunned the match of a lifetime- Anand Vaidyanathan! Now who in her right mind would even consider flirting with such an option?!’
‘ The girl is definitely not all there!’ This was the foregone conclusion accompanied by a sympathetic head shake.
‘Poor Srinivas and Komal Mishra.. They have committed no sin by coming forward to take care of their orphaned niece. How were they to anticipate the ungrateful girl would pay them back this way?’
Therefore on a pleasant Spring day in April when a brand new shining ‘phoren’ sedan came to a screeching halt in front of this infamous Mishra household, the aforementioned tongues wagged and twisted themselves into a feverish frenzy.
Dressed in a simple yellow and green raw silk salwar suit with the crinkled shawl drawn over her elegant head and across the lower portion of her face so to appear as innocuous as possible, Khanak entered her former home and rushed at once to find her cousin.
She stood outside the room which not so long ago had been to her as familiar as her very own and hesitated. She felt like an unwanted intruder.
It was packed with women talking in loud voices creating a happy din, one that is so prosaic in a house preparing for a wedding.
She stood there for several moments and listened, catching random phrases enunciated in lilting tones.
“Ahhh Savitri amma..aapke haathon mein jo jaadoo hai..Dekho…Dulhan ke kesh…kitne khoobsoorat lag rahe hain na? .(there is unique magic in your hands.. Behold..the bride’s tresses..how lovely they look..don’t they?)
“Kya? What..? Tamil mein (speak in Tamil)..I don’t understand!”
A trill of amused laughter. “Never mind! You are the best Savitri amma!”
Khanak smiled too. Yes, Savitri amma was the local expert on hair design, especially when it came to braiding it with fresh flowers. She inhaled deeply, the sweet aromatic fragrance of jasmine, rose, and marigold, fresh from the fields and it brought back bittersweet memories.
“Look! The Henna’s color shows up so deep! Shreya beti, don’t you worry , you’ll have no problems holding your husband’s interest.”
So it was true, her cousin was indeed getting married. She needed to talk to her.
All of a sudden, the noise and clamor in the room was replaced by a palpable silence. Khanak could feel the crackling tension as twelve pairs of eyes zeroed in on her, in uniform disbelief.
She looked around in trepidation as mouths dropped open and scandalized whispers filled the air.
Not a soul sprung up to greet her and make her feel welcome. These were friends, neighbors, and members of her family, who at one time had been diehard fans and well wishers but were now acting aloof. They were treating her like an exile, an undesirable, a pariah. They had uniformly passed judgment without hearing a word in her defense and she thought she knew them well.
“What?! Bubbly di’s here?”
The group parted and a figure which she barely recognized flung herself into her arms and began to weep.”You came di, you came! Oh..I’m so happy! This is all that I wanted!”
“Shree! Now, now don’t spoil your makeup.” Khanak said affecting a smile, though her heart was in a turmoil. She wasn’t prepared for this. Evrything seemed too forced and artificial.”You call and I don’t come? How is it possible?” Holding her cousin back by the shoulders, she appraised her critically, looking for any signs of duress; she found none. Shreya looked eager and excited like any new bride with a glimmer of apprehension in her eyes which was to be expected. Dressed in a heavy red Kanchipuram silk sari with elaborate zari work, beautifully complemented with exquisitely detailed gold jewelry in traditional design handed down multiple generations of the Mishra family, her pretty face glowing with minimum of makeup, Shreya looked lovely and all grown up.
“How do I look di?” She asked anxiously twirling around slowly, her hands clasped demurely below her waist.
“You look stunning Shree! Just perfect! Your husband is a very lucky man!”
The bride’s bright smile faltered. “But he may not think so.”
“Why? Why wouldn’t he?”
Her cousin hesitated, then turned away walking back to the middle of the room, her upbeat habitus undergoing a drastic change.
“Because Anand is still obsessed with you Khanak, that’s why!”
There was a long pause as Khanak stood with a stunned expression on her face.
She looked at the woman who had spoken the words, hoping that she was making it up, that it was a horrible joke. But Mrs. Dutta who had a rare gift of making light of even the worst of circumstances, wasn’t smiling at all. Indeed she looked dead serious.
But Khanak wasn’t prepared to accept it, she needed further confirmation. She ran to where Shreya was sitting and pulled her around. “Tell me Shree, please tell me, it’s not true.”
Her sister didn’t say anything but Khanak could see the answer clearly in her eyes and it made her furious. How could her uncle play such a cruel game?! What was he trying to prove?
She exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! Why Shree? Why are you being forced to pay for something that I’ve done? How can chachu do this to you? This is so unfair!” Khanak’s slight figure shook with righteous fury as she marveled at how manipulative her uncle had become. Was he using his own daughter to get back at his niece..or was he offering her as a sacrifice to save his own larger than life reputation?
Shree who had never before seen this avatar of her Bubbly di except when she took to the stage to play the vengeful Kali or Parvati, became apprehensive.
She glanced around, all the ladies in the room were watching the two cousins with their eyes wide open, Aankhen phad kar as they say, absorbing the goings on with unsuppressed delight. She knew it’d be just a matter of hours before the news of the prodigal’s return would have spread like wildfire all over the community. Placing a calming hand on her sister’s shoulder she tried to hustle her out. “Di! Please..it’s not what you think. I’ll explain, lets speak in private.”
“Don’t try to pacify me Shree!” Her sister retorted, but then allowed herself to be led into a much quieter neighboring room that happened to be her own.
Her eyes panned around in surprise. Everything appeared almost exactly as she had left it, nothing had been moved or shifted…the pictures on the walls of all her idols, her gurus and her own most proud achievements; the elaborate makeup kit which she kept on the dresser containing all the powder, paints and embellishments which were used to transform her from the ordinary Khanak Mishra to the Khanak Mishra- danseuse par excellence, and the little Nataraja shrine where she had paid her daily obeisances before and after her rigorous practice sessions. She went down on her knees and genuflected before the deity having sorely missed the ritual which had become part of her daily routine.
“Yes di.” Shree’s voice interjected amidst Khanak’s musings, “papa didn’t want to keep any trace of you in the house, but mama wouldn’t let him touch a thing saying that she hoped you’ll be back some day to claim what is rightfully yours, though I think she hoped in vain.”
Khanak blinked away her tears. “Komal chachi is probably the best mother any girl could aspire to have..but as you say its fruitless to dwell on the ghosts of the past.”
She wrestled to redirect her mind back to the current problem. “Alright..don’t try to distract me now,” she said assuming a stern stance. “What rubbish did I hear out there?” She demanded pointing a shaking finger toward the room they’d just left.
Her cousin muttered, looking down as if she was guilty of a major crime. “Yes, it’s true. I am getting married to Anand.”
“Then you are being coerced into it! I will talk to chachu right now. ” Khanak retorted. “I can’t let him do this to you!” She marched to the door.
“No di…,” Shree stood in her way. “It’s true papa asked me but he didn’t force me. I said yes willingly.”
“You did?..I don’t believe it. He probably tried to show you the moral high ground. Can’t you see that it’s his ploy. You are the sacrificial goat?”
Her cousin remained unmoved.”No di..I mean it. I..I want to marry Anand.”
Khanak’s furrowed her brow in consternation before bursting out in wry laughter. “Don’t try to pull wool over my eyes dear cousin! Wasn’t it just a few days ago that you were preparing to hold a swayamvar…and now you say this?”
Shree colored, “you may not believe it, but I’ve had a crush on Anand since 5th grade. He was the best. Good in everything he undertook and a gentleman too.”
“You never told me about it.,” Her sister remarked dubiously.
“Maybe because I thought both of you were meant for each other, you with your beauty and talent and he with his brains and charisma, a perfect match made in heaven.” Shree shrugged. “Anyway..he’d never even look at me when you were around. I was always the annoying Kabab mein haddi!”
Khanak stared at her trying to sort the true meaning of what she was hearing. “You are such an innocent child!” She said lifting her cousin’s chin. “you don’t know what you are saying. Marriage isn’t a board game that you put away when you get bored. It’s a lifelong commitment. You are being victimized and you don’t even know it.”
“No..di..that isn’t true..papa said.”
“Yes exactly..papa said…” Khanak smiled grimly. “This is not happening..this is just not happening! Something smells really rotten here and I have to stop this outrage!” She declared before flinging the door open and running out.
A short while ago;
“Thanks.. I think I will take it from here. This is something I brought upon myself, so I should face it alone.” Khanak said to Shan as soon as he pulled up the black Audi in front of the Mishra digs.
With his hands resting on the wheel he scrutinized her slowly. He couldn’t help but admire the guts this girl possessed. After fleeing from a life of forced bondage she was willing to confront the lion in his own lair? To what end?
She unlocked the door.
“What if you don’t come back?”
She twisted around and he saw those luminous doe shaped eyes probing his face, as if rummaging for his true intentions. He cleared his throat. “Uh…umm. I mean what happens to our contract?”
S***! He cursed himself when he saw her gaze harden, and wished he could retract those words. They sounded harsh and impersonal, but wasn’t that how she defined their relationship?
“Don’t worry. I’ll try my best to keep out of chachu’s way.” She said, her tone matter of fact as she draped her shawl over her lovely head drawing the crinkled edge across the bottom half of her face leaving only those huge black eyes exposed.
Now who wouldn’t recognize those beauties? He wondered.
“Anyways I think chachu will behave himself today…at least I hope he will, “ she muttered before opening the door of the car and hurrying toward the house.
“Damnit!” His palm thumped hard on the horn, making him jump. “This is getting more and more contorted! I can’t let it happen! She can’t get away so easily!” He jumped out of the car and tried to hail her but she’d already disappeared inside the house..
He paced up and down on the sidewalk before choosing to venture in. There wasn’t anybody who knew him here. Besides he was in dire need for nourishment. (Khanak had rushed him here direct from the airport without stopping anywhere in between for brunch..) What did she take him to be? Her wind up monkey??
He couldn’t prevent his lips from flirting with a smile. It felt good to be ordered around for a change, especially if the person doing the ordering was Khanak.
The bungalow was nice, not huge and palatial like his old home where a kid could get easily lost and escape detection for days, but manageable. The Mishra house was a medium sized two story house with a cream facade sporting a fresh coat of paint and pretty red tiles on the roof.
There was a large garden area up front with rose bushes bordering the drive way.. but it appeared to be suffering from lack of a nurturing hand, perhaps Khanak’s. He could easily picture her, an avid amateur gardener happily pottering around the yard.
There wasn’t much fanfare or hullabaloo around like you’d expect in a traditional wedding. It seemed like the Mishras were treating it as a relatively quiet family affair. Only the two young banana plants which bordered the entryway belied that something auspicious was going on inside.
He gingerly stepped into the main hallway taking care to discard his shoes outside as he had seen others do and was immediately greeted by a shower of fragrant water.
“Vaangha!” (Welcome in Tamil.)
Brushing his pale brown linen jacket he turned to the right to find a couple of teen girls dressed in brightly colored silk pattu pavadais (South Indian formal attire,) smiling and giggling.
“Hey stop!” He shouted when they one of them dared to douse him again.
“Don’t worry, it won’t stain, it’s part of the warm welcome.” The girl giggled. She was tall and thin like a reed, and seemed to find his discomfiture extremely entertaining. “Haven’t you been to a wedding before?”
He shrugged. “Not here in the South.”
“Oh… so whose guest are you?”
He hesitated at a loss.
“I think he is with Khanak di..I’m pretty sure I spied her run upstairs just a few minutes ago.”The other girl chipped in, proving much more observant than her friend.
“Really?!” The tall thin girl stared at him, her mouth forming a big ‘O’.
He quickly hurried past, not waiting for them to alert the whole house, he didn’t want to place Khanak in any more trouble than she was already in.
So this is the place Khanak pines for so much! He thought looking around the quaint surroundings. He could easily place Khanak there. The large airy living area wasn’t loud and garish but elegant and tastefully decorated which complimented her persona to a T. He deduced the lady of the house shared many of her niece’s quirks and traits.
Suddenly he wished he had come here under better pretenses, perhaps as a… He didn’t dare continue the train of thought.
But right now the place was anything but serene. It appeared that he had landed in the midst of a brouhaha, an organized pandemonium.
He recalled attending another wedding not too long ago..that of a long standing acquaintance (there are very few ‘friends’ in the entertainment industry,) when he had secretly shuddered at the conceited extravagance of the whole sordid affair. The garishly overdone guests with their painted faces and fake smiles vying for umpteen photo ops…They were probably there for the free booze.. but what made it worse was that the bride and groom were taking the plunge for the 3rd time, making them seasoned veterans of the marriage bed; that very minor detail taking away the innocence.. instead making the entire deal crass and vulgar.
But this was situation was different…rushed yes…frenzied yes..but charming regardless.
He surveyed the crowd as they observed him with candid curiosity–one a handsome stranger who appeared to have walked straight out of the pages of GQ magazine (Shan had taken care to dress down,) while the others, most of them women, akin a large group of peacocks at a rave party.
The best part of it all was the music. He could hear strains of the lively scintillating sound of the reed instrument, the Nadaswaram in harmony with the rhythmic beats of the drum, the Thavil. It was haunting, soulful with a touch of the divine and was emanating from the back of the house. He felt his steps turn in the said direction of their own accord.
This was perfect. He just hoped Khanak escaped unscathed.
Here’s a lovely rendition of the Nadaswaram as played at a South Indian Wedding