| Illustration: Neha Jhunjhunwala
Recap: Shruti travels to Arjun’s new hotel project in north Bengal, where he finally reveals his feelings for her. Shruti tells him about the husband hunt her family has initiated and that she has to marry soon, as well as her position with Manish. Arjun asks her for time to give their relationship a chance…
Shruti, why arent you ready yet? Your father will kill me! I would have rolled my eyes had the hand hovering over my face wielding an eye-shadow brush not been poised to blind me if I opened them. I knew there was nothing that could upset my father; not today. Ma, reeelaaaax. Five more minutes.
Shush! Youll ruin everything! yelled Tanaya, lording over me and the make-up artist in equal measure. Auntie, I promise — less than five minutes! Two minutes is all we need.
I heard the door open and close again. This place has more traffic than an airport, I growled.
How can you of all people be grumpy today? It was Pritha Mashi. Anyway, I am not here for you, Im here for your mother. Didi, your horrible aunt from Malda has just arrived, and shes creating such a fuss about her hip. Can you please come and handle her?
| Illustration: Neha Jhunjhunwala
My horrible aunt? Shes your aunt too! my mother said. I heard the quibbling ladies leave, and then, Tanaya. You can open your eyes now, she said.
I did as instructed, but couldnt see anything except my misty-eyed friend standing between me and the mirror.
Do you mind? I asked.
You look so beautiful! she said, finally stepping aside to leave me face to face with the image before me.
A bride, on her wedding day.
I rose to my feet and turned around, feeling heavy in all my finery and light at the same time. Tanaya opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony. Beyond it was the lawn, on which stood just about everyone I cared for in the world. My eyes found my father, and as he spotted me too, a smile spread across his face. I lingered long enough to see him wipe a furtive tear away. I saw my mother fussing over the tricky relative from Malda. She looked bothered, but happy too. I caught sight of Kamini and my gang of friends, all stunning in slinky saris and silky kurtas. And then there was Pritha Mashi, who was helping the purohit get ready.
Finally, I felt a tingle up my spine as I let my gaze travel to Arjun. And there, standing right beside him, was Manish.
Shruti, for the life of me, I dont see what the problem is! Sitting on my couch, Tanaya was glaring at me with exasperated eyes.
Just the day before, Arjun had asked me for nothing more than time — time to explore our relationship, he said, time to convince me that what we had was special.
Yes, I had whispered in the moonlight, but as he, in his happiness, had put his arms around me, I had resisted. As much as I had wanted to get lost in that moment, I could not ignore that it also felt wrong. Like I was cheating Manish of the chance I had promised him.
You pushed him away, Shruti! said Tanaya.
Yes, but it wasnt a rejection. He understood where I was coming from.
Well, I dont.
To make the right decision, I need a clear head. I need my distance from both of them. At the time, it had seemed sound. But the next day, a few hundred kilometres away, back in Calcutta, my logic wasnt making as much sense to me — or to my friend.
But I thought you said you liked Arjun?
Yes I do, I like him a lot. But I also like Manish.
I dont know. With Manish its different. Hes so sensible, so stable, so solid. Arjun is great, but at the same time, he has more flash, more flourish — and that could easily fade with time. And the chemistry —
What about the chemistry? demanded Tanaya.
Its great, but that could fade too.
I dont know, Shruti.
The problem is, neither do I.
They are both really nice guys, and could both be great for you.
Thanks for pointing that out. It makes the choice a whole lot easier.
Spare me the sarcasm — and the self-pity. Most girls would kill to be faced by your dilemma.
Who would you choose?
No, no, nooo — you are on your own with that one. Ill only say this — while you are in town, spend as much time as possible with Manish, and decide whether you want him or not, because as soon as you head back to the hills with Arjun, even if it is for that hotel of his, the outcome is bound to be predictable.
I took Tanayas advice to heart. I had a few weeks before I had to get back to the hotel, and during that time, I spent my days at work and as many evenings as I could with Manish. But even so, I seemed no closer to a decision, and soon I began to see the anxiety creeping into Manishs eyes.
Manish, I know this is hard for you, I said at dinner one night. It was about 10 days after my return, and the air between us had been thick all evening. I found myself echoing Arjuns words. All I can say is that if you can give me a couple of months, I promise to have an answer for you.
Thats too long, Manish said quietly.
Well, what do you expect from me? Instant clarity about the man I am to spend the rest of my life with?
No, Shruti, he said, shaking his head. But in two months, there is every danger I will be in love with you. And where will that leave me if you walk away?
Once again, he had disarmed me with his honesty. Oh, Manish. Okay, a few more days then. Please?
He had reluctantly agreed.
When Arjun came back to town, I resisted his efforts to meet. I sent over the textile samples that I had sourced for the new hotel. They look great, he told me over the phone. The good news is that the furniture is arriving ahead of schedule, by the end of the week. Youll have to go back to get the workers started on the upholstery.
Next week, latest.
But you need me up there the week after that for the spa set-up.
I know Shruti, it looks like youll need to park yourself there for a while.
At first, I was deeply suspicious — it seemed to me that the upholstery could wait, and that this was Arjuns way of getting me out of Calcutta and away from Manish. But then it turned out to be good for me — in fact, just what I needed. For three blissful days, I was alone in that house. Working, thinking, no distractions. And best of all — no men.
And when Arjun finally did arrive, it was with interior designer Haamid, almost as though he was creating a buffer between us, giving me the space I still needed.
But despite every wall we tried to erect, it was impossible to stem the tide of my own growing feelings. It seemed that whatever we did together, no matter how harmless, we were moving ever closer together. Arjun delighted in cooking for us all, and soon dinners became protracted two-hour al fresco events. Even if it was merely work, long walks, or indolent evenings watching black and white films, it was magic. And even harder to resist: it felt like home.
And that was when Manish called. Why dont I come and meet you over the weekend? he asked.
Manish, I dont think thats a good idea.
Hes there, isnt he?
You mean Arjun?
Yes, Manish. It is his hotel.
So it is strictly business?
Yes, of course.
Then you must have had time over the past few days to think about how you feel about me.
Shruti, Im not winning this war, am I?
Its not like that. You dont understand.
Really? Dont I?
I cant help this situation.
No? You probably cant. But I think this has to be goodbye, Shruti.
Does it have to be like this?
I wish it didnt, he said, the sadness in his voice cutting me with guilt. I wish I had met you somewhere six months or a year ago, when your time was your own. But now, I think this is the only way it can be. The longer we try to make this right, the more wrong it will get for both of us.
Cant we at least be friends? Please?
Perhaps, Shruti, but not just now.
After dinner I headed out for a long walk. When I came back, I found Arjun waiting for me in the foyer.
Are you okay?
Yes, I said.
This area isnt the safest after dark. I wish you wouldnt go out alone.
You dont have to apologise to me, Shruti. But please tell me whats wrong.
I spoke to Manish earlier.
He wants out.
How do you feel about that?
I shrugged. I had been trying to figure that out for the past hour. I knew there was sadness that I had caused him pain, even a little bit of hurt. And beneath that, there was relief. And then, hidden even deeper, fear.
So, he said, rising from his chair to stand before me. Now the only question that remains is, do you want me?
He raised his hands to cup my face and I stopped breathing.
Do you, Shruti? Do you want me?
Dont you know the answer to that yet?
I think I do, but you have been fighting me so hard that sometimes Im not sure. I need to hear it.
I looked into his eyes, and saw the same fear, the same insecurity as I felt. And in that moment, I let go.
I love you, Arjun.
He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning forward to rest his forehead against mine.
I gave him a nudge. It would be nice to hear it back, you know.
He chuckled. You fool, of course I love you.
And thats how I found myself sitting at the mandap a mere two months later, Arjun by my side, Tanaya waving out furiously to us both. Look here, she yelled, camera in hand. Could the two of you at least try to look demure?
Arjun and I grinned into Tanayas lens. Right behind her, Kamini gave me an enthusiastic wave with one hand, Manishs hand firmly clutched in the other. I shot them a grin, too.
This was not what I expected when I had called Kamini and asked her to deliver flowers and cake to Manish, a feeble apology after our phone call for everything I had put him through, but Kamini seemed to have ideas of her own. Manish had been reluctant at first to get involved with a close friend of mine, but his reservations were worn down by Kaminis persistence and my desperate assurance once I returned and heard what had happened, that it would not be awkward, and that it was a wonderful chance to ensure that we all stayed friends. It was still early days, of course.
I turned my attention back to
Arjun. Everything okay? he asked.
I reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. Perfect.
Sure? He grabbed my hand, playing distractedly with my fingers.
As he released my hand, I felt an unexpected weight, and I looked down to see that now sitting on my finger, was the most dazzling ring I had ever seen, a crimson marquise ruby flanked by diamonds.
It was my grandmothers, he said. And since we never really had an engagement…
Arjun, its beautiful.
Not as beautiful as you.
I beamed, and I just had to share the childish glee coursing through me. I looked out at the crowd and saw Tanaya, Pritha Mashi and my mother standing together and waved my newly-ringed hand at them. Tanaya and my aunt nodded their awed approval while my mother shot me horrified, disapproving looks.
They think we wouldnt be together if it wasnt for them, I said to Arjun.
I thought I had found you on my own?
Dont tell them that.
And didnt they have a little to do with it, after all? Hadnt my marriage been arranged, against my every wish, by those three husband hunters? It was another matter that the hard part — the search for the man of my dreams — had been left to me. And then, just when I wasnt looking, I had found him.
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