No Holding Back
No Holding Back10 mins 292 10 mins 292
The four windows of the car were open yet it did nothing to reduce my claustrophobic feeling. The tears were threatening to fall. I turned my face to the window to hide my glassy eyes, but my sniffle would have given away my plight anyway. From the corner of my eyes, I could see my parents exchanging a worried glance, but they didn't comment.
For the past three months, I have been avoiding going out of the house for anything even as mundane as grocery. I avoided all the places where I might run into people who I know or people who know me. So, naturally, I dreaded attending my cousin's wedding.
Nishant, my cousin, was one person after my parents who supported me when I needed the most. He was just six months old when I first met him. The chubby, toothless boy smiled at me and embraced my lean fingers with his plump ones. I know then that we were sealed for life. When three days ago he came home demanding me to quit my recluse attitude and attend his wedding, I refused outright. He spent the entire day at my house strolling around with a pouty puppy face. He rebuffed from attending a bachelor’s party, he ignored calls from his parents and Julia. Eventually, I gave in. I had to. Nishant’s smile and my parents’ sigh of relief were worthy barter to forgo my qualms.
It was not too late to call sick. I can just get off the car and ask my parents to attend the wedding. They can tell Nishant I came down with flu. He would be a drama queen and complain over the phone. But, my parents will lose the hope that they have built ever since I agreed to attend the wedding. They wouldn’t rejoice the fact that their only daughter wanted to lock her in the room and avoid everything under the sun until god knows when. I can do it for them, can’t I?
The hall was decorated with beautiful flowers and colorful ribbons. On any other day, I would have appreciated the decoration. I, perhaps, would have clicked a selfie or two. But, now all I wanted to do was find a quiet corner, where no one will bug me. Strange things life does to us. There were times when I loved attending any family gathering. I loved hearing my relatives sing praises on how Mr. Sumit Gupta’s daughter always scores well in exams, how well mannered Mrs. Lekha Gupta has brought up her daughter. It is true that you will like your surroundings only when you like yourself. What I used to enjoy now feels like could choke me to death.
“Meena.” I know that voice. It was Devi aunty, who always worried about how less her daughter Nitya was in comparison to me. Now, I am sure that she is happy. Nitya is living happily with her banker husband in Singapore. While I, Meena, is a plain divorcee.
“Oh! Poor, Meena”
This is what I wanted to avoid. I don’t want to be ‘Oh! Poor Meena’. I am not used to it. Nothing in this world is as brutal as receiving sympathy from people who in actuality are not at all sympathetic about you or your situation. “You look...” she scanned me from top to bottom. “...troubled” she said with a snort as if she is trying to control *fake* tears threatening to fall. But, I am sure in her mind she is analyzing if long sleeved Punjabi Patiala suit is acceptable for a grieving divorcee.
“I came to visit you. But, you were too upset to meet your aunty” she said touching my head. “Don’t worry, we all are with you”
Who all? I wanted to ask. No one is with you. Initially, I did think I can count on my extended family to understand my feelings until I discovered everyone just wanted stories to gossip along with their coffee. Why did you leave him? Did he leave you? Did he have an affair? Did you have problems conceiving? Did he hit you? They were everywhere holding notepads full of questions trying to pry me for answers. When I refused to give answers, they filled in the blanks for me.
Being amidst people didn’t make anything better. The settings only took me back to my wedding year and a half ago. I was happy, enthusiastic and hopeful. It was an arranged marriage, but I had no complaints. He was good for me. At least that is what I thought. I was too blind to see the signs. He was a narcissist from the beginning. I was too naive to think he had Darcy vibes. Such a naive young girl I was.
I looked at my parents shifting in their chairs anxiously while keeping their eyes fixed on me to detect any discomfort. I bit my inner cheeks trying the control the tears that surfaced. Thinking my parents are sad looking at my plight makes me guilty and that guilt makes me sadder if that is even possible in my current situation. Standing up from where I was seated, I excused myself from my parents lying that Nishant wanted to see me. My ever concerned mother offered to come with me, but I refused. “Maa, I am not as weak as you think.” Even as I said it, I wanted to believe it. Eventually, after the usual eye to eye conversation with each other, my parents let me go.
Terrace seemed like a place where I can be free of judging, inquisitive eyes. Alas! If only I can be free me from my own thoughts.
“Is this is no smoking zone?”
“It is no people zone.”
I wouldn’t have wanted to be out from where I was hiding between the water tank and the parapet, if not for the familiar voice. If it was any other day, his voice would have been the last thing I would have welcomed, but now it seemed more convivial than my own brutal thoughts.
Crossing the distance with three long hops, he came to stand opposite me leaning on the parapet. His eyes studied me with the same smug grin that I have not learned to be not provoked by in the past twenty years I have known him.
“What do you want, Khanna?”
“Who are you hiding from, Gupta? I didn’t even start my legendary pranks yet.”
“Your pranks are the last thing I am worried about.” An image of a young girl so vibrant and frivolous formed in my mind. The contrast of who I was and who I am hit a sensitive nerve bringing out an untimely choke. “Especially now, when God has played the biggest prank on me.”
“I have not known you to be a runner from pranks, Gupta. You always manage to come up with creative retaliation.”
“This isn’t the juvenile prank we mastered over the years. This is life.”
He moved forward forcing her to make eye contact with him. “How is this different?”
“Because, I can’t flip a finger at life.”
Atul Khanna loved challenges and he saw me as one ever since he moved two houses away from my own twenty years ago. He loved picking on me and I gave back as good as I got. Our cat and mouse game went for years until he left town for a job three years ago.
Our dissimilarity in personality always kept us in loggerheads. While I had my head in the clouds, Atul moved around as a cynic calling himself ‘realistic’ and became a corporate lawyer. I always thought he was envious of my happy-go-lucky attitude being the unsmiling bloke he is. His life turned up just as he imagined and mine ended up being a mess. Now, who the joke’s on?
“You don’t know what I feel...”
“I don’t and I don’t have to.” He cut me in between. “Not everyone’s problem is same, Gupta. But, their solution is.” His voice softened in a way that I haven’t known before. “Move on. Don’t beat yourself up for what is not even your mistake. Sometimes marriages don’t work. No big deal.”
“It is not as simple as you think. The society is...”
“The society is irrelevant. They are going to get new gossip soon and will move on. Only you will be stuck in the same place.” When I didn’t reply, he continued. “What are you really upset about, Meena?”
I looked up at him as I heard him call me by name for the first time.
“This is not what I had envisioned for my life. I feel like a failure. It feels as if everything I believed in my life is proven wrong.”
“Because, you chose a wrong guy to marry?”
I didn’t want to answer. I felt pathetic even to my own ears.
“You are more than an unsuccessful marriage. This is not the Gupta I used to stay up at night brainstorming ideas to trouble. She was a spitfire, never backed down. You are a... stranger. Are you sure you have not traded soul with Slow maasi?”
I chuckled at his mention of Sulo maasi with the nickname we used. She was our apathetic neighbor.
“She let us eat berries from her garden.” I said
“Because she was too unmotivated to tend to them. So, happy to let us gobble it.”
I smiled at the memories of summer spent in her garden building fort and playing the warrior princess fighting pirates Atul and Nishant.
Am I still the fearless princess or that was only a facade?
“You are everything you were. Not what you have become now. Don’t lose yourself.” He smiled looking at me.
His steady gaze held mine and I saw myself drawing a strange sense of confidence.
“I will not,” I promised to myself.
That day Atul didn’t light a cigarette. He left as unassuming as he came, but his words left huge impact on my life. It lit a new fire in me.
The change was gradual but sure. Brushing off my old files, I enrolled myself for masters. Shifting city was not the plan, but when it presented itself, I accepted much to my mother’s displeasure. New me needed a new city, I reasoned.
New life with New me wasn’t as dramatic as chick flicks made me believe. However, I enjoyed every bit of not sulking blaming myself for what happened in my past.
I began to take life as it came. I faced every obstacle as the warrior princess I imagined myself to be. Also, every time the princess in me surfaced, the face of the chubby boy and then the (moderately) handsome man he became appeared in my mind making me smile involuntarily.
Four months after I started to discover New me, when I received a call from the man whose face and words I have not forgotten asking me if I am up for making Biriyani from his mom’s recipe, I immediately agreed. Did I forget to mention I moved to the same city as him?
“Seems like you have really moved on, Gupta.” He said leaning back on the chair after devouring the delicacy we prepared together. I shrugged with a lopsided smile. He raised his eyebrow in appreciation. “Good for you.”
“No holding back now?” he asked
“Not at all.” I said confidently
“Good.” He nodded. “So, do you want to go out with me for dinner?”
I looked at him bemused wondering if I heard it right. He looked me straight in my eyes and was no way planning to repeat what he asked. It was up to me to react how I want now. I gulped unsurely.
“As in a date?” I asked
“I...” Was I ready already? “I am not sure.”
“Why, Gupta? What is holding you back?” His infamous smug grin returned as he used my own words against me.
What can hold me back from any chance at romance? One failed marriage? Senseless society? Fear?
Nothing can hold me back. Not unless I want to be held back in misery.
I squared my shoulders and answered confidently. “Nothing, Khanna.”
He studied with a mix of pride and something incomprehensible before he nodded at me. “Friday night at 8.”
“It is a date, Khanna.”
My second chance at romance may or may not be successful. But, what really matters is that I am willing to give myself a chance. No holding back. My life is what I am willing to make of it and now, what I want is to go out with Atul Khanna and be treated like I deserve to be.