Rashi looks around the room at the handloom bedspread and the curtains she had handpicked, the books she loved and the TV she hated but which her mother had insisted on installing so she could come into her room and watch her soaps in the afternoon, the CDs and DVDs she played on the loop and yes, the tanpura… Everything was so dear and familiar, but in two weeks, this would no longer be her room, her home.
Her face stares back at her from the mirror. Kohl-lined eyes, lips which curved often in a smile, a nose slightly crooked from a childhood fall and a mass of unruly curls. She was unchanged, still. But she would be a different person in a few weeks… Someone’s wife, someone’s daughter-in-law, someone’s sister-in-law and in time, someone’s mother. Would Rashi even exist after a while?
She had met Jeet, her would-be-husband only once, the day their rishta had been finalised and an engagement ring slipped on her finger. A small-town girl from a conservative family did not go out on dates with her fiancé, your love story began only after the saat pheras. But what if she discovered after marriage that Jeet and she had absolutely nothing in common? Since divorce was out of question, they would have to live together under one roof till death severed the tie.
The tinkle of her cell phone cuts into thoughts. It is an unfamiliar number and she answers tentatively, “Hello…”
The voice at the other end is equally tentative, “Rashi? This is Jeet…”
The stab of apprehension is quick and sharp, “Is anything the matter? All well?”
He is quick to reassure her. “Y-es, everyone’s fine… Everything’s perfect.”
Now she is baffled, wondering why he is calling then, but too polite to ask. He breaks the awkward silence, “I’ve heard that you sing really well. How long have you been learning music?”
Any talk of music always makes Rashi smile. “Since I was five,” she replies shyly.
She is the only one in her family who is musically inclined. And while everyone always wanted to hear her sing, no one had ever conversed with her on music. Jeet seems genuinely interested and as she answers his many questions, her usual tongue-tied reserve slowly melts, giving way to a rare chirpiness that draws answering chuckles from him.
The next morning, she is up with the crows, as usual preparing for riyaaz, when the phone rings. This time she knows who it is as she has saved the number. Jeet sounds sleepy as he mumbles, “Have you started your riyaaz yet?”
“I was about to… Why? Did I disturb you?” Her teasing tone is unfamiliar even to her ears.
“You will if I don’t get to hear you sing. Can you put your phone on speaker please?” He sounds uncertain as he makes the request, prepared to be rebuffed.
She is quick to oblige, and for the first time, sings early in the morning for another person and can’t stop smiling for the rest of the day. As for Jeet’s colleagues, they are astounded to hear him humming, “Piya toh se naina lage re…”
The next morning, Rashi waits for the phone to ring before she breaks into, “Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo …” Later in the day, Jeet is surprised at work by a whatsapp image of a flashy turquoise blue shirt. “I tried to convince buaji not to buy this shirt, telling her you would prefer a more sober blue or even a simple white, but she brushed me off saying I was boringly old-fashioned and that you were young and happening. Are you?”
Jeet snorts, “I guess I will be soon, strutting around like a peacock after marriage.”
His tongue-in-cheek rejoinder makes Rashi break into a fit of uncharacteristic giggles in the middle of a late lunch at a restaurant. “Kya hua, beta?” her mother asks, looking concerned.
“Nothing mummyji, just received a joke from a friend,” she shrugs. No one needs to know that her fiancé was now her friend.
A couple of days later, Jeet is telling the ladies in his family before they go shopping that he would like to see Rashi in gulabi pink, cotton rather than chiffons and that he hates chunky gold jewellery. No one needs to know that these are her choices which he had dug hard to learn.
Meanwhile, Rashi is learning to make gulab jamuns from her dadiji because Jeet had mentioned in passing that they were his favourite dessert. She even sits beside her brother and watches a T20 match from the first to the last over because her husband-to-be is a cricket buff but by the end of it, is bored to tears. And when they go out shopping again, she sneaks into a bookstore to buy Jumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Okay, so he reads only pulp fiction, but as a wedding gift, he is going to get a new author so they will have a book to discuss. Her new-found confidence would have surprised and impressed her parents had she confided in them.
Three weeks fly past, enjoyably. On her wedding day, Rashi stands in her room, looking around her… At the bedspread and the curtains, the books and her tanpura, her CDs and DVDs, everything that is dear and familiar. But she is ready to leave them all behind because Jeet has got duplicates of everything she loves in their bedroom, even painting the walls of their bedroom a soft rose pink before she moves in.
Looking into the mirror, she sees not Mrs. Jeet Malhotra but Rashi Malhotra. Marriage, even an arranged marriage, she knows now will not wipe out her identity because she will have a loving and supportive husband who is ready to accept her for who she is and not make her a pale shadow of someone else. Her smile blooms as she turns towards the door in her bridal finery, ready to leave her home for another home, with a husband who has over the last three weeks become her best friend.
TEN YEARS LATER…
It is 5 am and Rashi as usual has woken up with the crows, is showered and dressed for the day. On the way out of the bedroom, she turns to look at her husband sprawled out on their bed. Jeet is fast asleep, snoring softly. The ritual of listening to her morning riyaaz ended a few months after their honeymoon. Their marriage is now a decade old and doesn’t need overt demonstrations of love.
With a wry smile, Rashi makes her way to the music room which is at the back of the house so her voice doesn’t carry and intrude into other people’s dreams. As she walks towards her tanpura, her glance falls on the glass case built into the wall. It holds a collection of her CDs and video recordings of every one of her concerts. Unless he was out of town on work, Jeet has not missed a single performance and organized videographers at the event to ensure that they lived here. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her albums and singles was a scrapbook of cuttings of every interview and write-up published on her. He kept adding to it though she doubted if he read any of them.
Rashi had fought hard to make a place for herself in the fiercely competitive world of music. And she doubted if she would have come this far without her husband’s support. He may not understand Hindustani Classical music or be able to sing a single line without going off-key, he may no longer wake up to listen to her doing her morning riyaaz but no one had encouraged her more. He had fought his conservative family to allow her to pursue her passion beyond the four walls of their bungalow. He had not let her turn down a single invitation to perform. There were days when disheartened, she had been ready to quit, but he had not given her the luxury of wallowing in self-pity, pushing her relentlessly even while he offered her a shoulder to lean on. He had been an integral part of her struggle to be accepted in a world so alien to his own. And today, when she was a respected name, he smiled proudly from a distance.
Riyaaz over, she dashes into the kitchen. The pressure cooker with the dal-chawal is on the gas stove whistling merrily as kaka squeezes fresh orange juice. “I’ll whisk the eggs for omelettes,” she tells him, tucking the edges of her pallu into the petticoat at her still slim waist and walking briskly to the fridge, takes out bundles of palak and the packet of paneer.
Kaka smiles at her benignly, “Jeet bhaiya loves your palak-paneer, bhabhi. He’s going to enjoy his lunch today.”
She smiles back, “So does daddyji. But bhaiya would want sandwiches for his dabba and bhabhi who is on another one of her diets would want salads.”
“I’ll make the sandwiches. They can go into the kids’ dabba too,” kaka offers.
“And I will get started on the palak-paneer and the baigan bharta for mummyji,” Rashi tells him going back to the fridge for the brinjals.
They work companionably and over the next couple of hours, the kitchen resembles a mini factory. Prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner goes on simultaneously as more help and family members join in. Rashi is at the centre of the frenetic activity. She had, years ago, voluntarily shouldered the kitchen responsibilities and has perfected her daily routine. Caught up in the breathless whirl of domesticity, she has no time for music now. But there would be time for that later in the day. She has learned to balance both her worlds harmoniously. But there are days when she wishes she could wish away these mundane mornings.
Besides the cooking, she is also fielding one crisis after another, minute to minute. From bhabhi’s gym trainer not turning up to Jeet’s white shirt which has developed a sudden stain… From daddyji suddenly wanting another cup of tea in the middle of the morning madness to mummyji shouting for flowers for her puja… Eight-year-old Jai needs last-minute instructions for his English test while four-year-old Resha is whining for a Doremon school bag. As Rashi dashes around the house like a tornado, her eyes are drawn to the books in the living room. She sighs wistfully as she looks at them wondering when was the last time she had read any of them. So long ago… Too long ago! Her eyes rest momentarily on the Interpreter of Maladies and she smiles. Jeet had never read his gift. But every one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other novels are there on the shelves. He bought them as soon as they hit the bookstore. They were his gifts for her birthday and anniversaries. A wave of pure love washes over her as kaka calls from the kitchen reminding her that the palak-paneer needs her attention. There is no time to stand and stare…
The clock strikes 9 am and there is a sudden flurry of activity as several family members make a beeline for the door. They are on their way to work, school, gym and the mandir.
Jeet breezes past her chatting on the phone, but at the door, he switches off and turns, “Rashi….”
She walks towards him, mentally ticking off the checklist, wondering what she had forgotten? Is it his handkerchief, his bottled flask or some bank paper she had forgotten to sign?
His voice is whisper-soft, “You look beautiful in pink even when you are frazzled.” Then humming, “Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai….” her husband leaves to carry on with the business of living.
Rashi stands at the door watching his car drive away with a smile on her face till two little arms hug her legs from behind and Resha’s childish voice pipes up, “Mummy, can we play hide-and-seek?”