‘Can I have a drag?’ She smiled and twitched the cigarette off my mouth.
The day I had met her at her place for the first time, she’d looked no less than a dream. The blue sari with sea green border contrasted with a black cotton blouse, the small gold earrings dangling off her ears and a thin gold chain round her neck - nothing but an angel.
I’d heard my mother whisper that she was pretty but wheatish. But my eyes had paid no attention to her remark; they’d remained glued on her. Which was quite strange given I had never overlooked her opinion in my life. Her parents had asked her to sit beside me. She had obeyed. Then my parents had started shooting questions at her - her education, friends, job and gobs of other futile things that I’d paid no heed to. I could see her lips move incessantly but I heard nothing. Back then I would have had shied away from accepting this but now I can tell, right in that moment, I’d decided to marry her...only her.
It was the third time my father had asked me if I would like to talk to her in person when I’d actually snapped out of my reverie and fathomed his question. I’d nodded approval. So had she. She had taken me to her room. Then crossing it, we had just stepped onto the attached balcony when I had spluttered, ‘you look like a peacock in this saree.’
Honestly, I would shoot myself thrice in the head if I had a gun right now. What a stupid fool I was! And quite inevitably, she had thought the same about me.
She had laughed out loud which only got louder with every passing moment. It had shaken me a little. And that probably had shown on my face too. She, checking herself quickly, had replied, ‘technically I cannot be a peacock, you know that right?’ A titter had escaped her lips. ‘They are male.’
I had grinned sheepishly but said nothing. In truth, I was scared to spit out something even more idiotic. I had never flirted or talked with a girl intending to please her earlier. But wasn’t that intrinsic? I had never been in love before as well.
She had leaned on the railing and raised her face towards the sky, a soothing smile crossed her lips. ‘My Mom says I look even darker in this color.’ Lowering her head suddenly, she had glanced at me. ‘But I wore this anyway...it’s my favorite color.’
‘You look very pretty...in fact you look like a fairy...who said you’re dark...’ I’d blabbered on until she cut me off saying,
‘Do you always lie to people in order to please them?’ Then she’d smirked, turning round and propping her back against the railing.
I was taken aback. ‘No-no...you’re really pretty.’ I probably should not have used the ‘fairy’ remark.
‘I’ve no issues with my complexion. But three men have rejected me just for this.’ She’d sneered, waving her hands.
‘But the fourth one won’t.’ I had smiled bashfully.
Shooting me a confused stare, she’d smiled for a brief moment and then eventually burst into a laughter. ‘Oh no, you’re not the fourth one. You’re…,’ she had started counting on her finger. ‘...the eighth actually.’
‘Eighth?’ I had failed miserably to repress my outburst of shock. She was the first ever girl I’d met in this arranged marriage setup. And she had been rejected by seven others! This fact had pushed me back in my head a little but quickly I had shaken it off. ‘They all were stupid, I’m sure.’
The sudden lines on her forehead had emanated surprise. ‘What about you? Would you like to marry a girl who’s been rejected by seven other men?’
‘I would.’ It had not taken me a second to say that. Love does wonders - so true!
‘Would you not care to know the reasons why they’d backed out?’ Her voice had never sounded sharper.
I’d shaken my head. ‘No.’
‘You do realize that you’re sounding desperate, right?’
I had thrown a meek smile. ‘I am anyway a stupid guy who’s never been gutsy enough to fall in love. In fact I’ve hardly ever looked into a girl’s eyes in my life. But ever since I’ve cast my eyes on yours, they have been fixed in there. So if now, at the age of twenty-nine, I don’t be a little desperate to notch up the love of someone I truly like, I’d be a loser. It’s now up to you to save me from becoming one.’
Well, this speech had blown my own mind. And maybe hers as well. Her mother had called mine a day later. And right then I had realized that no certificate, award and distinction had ever made me as happy as a simple ‘yes’ from her had that day. Even though my mother had suggested that we should see some more girls given her dusky complexion would raise questions among the relatives I, quite to her perplexity, had shown an unwavering desire to marry only her. In a week of time we were engaged to be married. No wait had ever seemed tougher than that of our wedding. I’d started to change. The good boy who had never been distracted in his life had lived two months between his engagement and wedding in a reverie. A beautiful dream. Or was it a beautiful lie? A facade of beauty over an ugly lie?
At least that’s what I thought on the night of my wedding.
‘You smoke!’ I cried out as she took a long drag of the cigar.
When I’d entered my room, I’d found her asleep on my bed adorned with roses and lilies in the beautiful pink lehenga she wore for the wedding. I had a strong urge to wake her but refrained and instead gazed at her angelic face engrossed in a peaceful slumber. Spending some time sitting by her, I’d walked out onto the balcony to have a smoke. In truth, I was feeling nervous. Was I supposed to wake her? And tell her how beautiful she was? And how I’d fallen for her at the very first sight? And promise to take care of her for life? Or was I to silently lie down next to her watching her sleep in peace? What would she like me to do?
Reflecting on this, I’d just lit the cigar in my mouth when she came and stood beside me.
‘Yes I do.’ A dense wave of smoke found its way out of her nose and mouth. ‘Why?’
‘You never told me.’
‘You never asked me.’ She smiled nonchalantly and added a moment later. ‘Actually I also never cared to know if you smoke.’
‘Yeah, that’s alright.’ I shrank away from the railing and turned to her. ‘But why would you smoke?’
‘I...don’t...know.’ She answered, perplexed. ‘Should I not?’
‘No...of course not.’ My senses had gone numb.
‘Yes I know. I’m trying to cut down. It’s so not good for one’s health. Actually in college I got this addiction and after that I just couldn’t quit, you know! But now…’
‘Wait. Are you so dumb as to not understand what I mean?’ My voice had gone up a few notches. ‘Why did you not tell me this on the day we met? I thought you were perfect for me, my family.’
‘Would you have rejected me had I told you?’ She straightened up.
I faltered. Would I have? Yes, maybe. Not maybe, definitely. I liked her because she fit into my idea of a perfect wife. However I decided to not be direct. ‘That doesn’t matter now. What matters is you deceived me into believing that you’re a nice girl.’
‘Nice girls don’t smoke?’ She asked, calm and composed. ‘But nice boys do.’
‘What’re you implying?’
She briefly looked at the cigar between her two fingers and said, ‘I borrowed this from you.’ She took a small drag and added, ‘Are you not a nice boy?’
I stepped back. What she said was futile, I told myself. Typical feminist thought that were being imposed on the men of our country. Then a sudden epiphany hit me hard in the face. ‘Is this the reason why the seven guys had rejected you?’
She gave a scornful laugh. ‘Yes they actually cared to ask me these questions before marriage. And were wise enough to step back before it was too late.’
‘Enough.’ I shouted. What came over me? I didn’t know. But I had no control over myself anymore. Or maybe over the pain that the broken pieces of my dream had started to cause by poking at my heart over and over again. My head tried to reason with me - it said I had to accept. But I paid no heed.
I turned to leave when she came and stood in my way. ‘You were happy to know that I wanted to marry you. Never did you ask me why. So let me tell you that now. I thought you didn’t care to know about the trivial things that were used by other men to put me in the category of ‘a bad girl’. In fact I thought you don’t judge a girl by her gender.’ She smiled. Which irked me more.
She continued, ‘I didn’t like it when you had called yourself stupid on the day we met. Because I don’t judge a man’s intellect on the scale of his innocence. Like most girls do. I thought this was the man I could love. An honest and nice man. I believed this man...this very person could help me quit smoking. I’m not proud that I smoke. It’s an addiction that, like you, has taken over me too. It’s deadly, I know. But it’s definitely not a criteria to gauge a girl’s character. It’s as harmful to you as it is to me.’ She paused.
I didn’t take my eyes off her. There was no thought running on my mind then. It had gone dumb. I knew she would say more. But instead she stayed put right in front of me, her eyes fixed on mine. And silently she finished the cigar. The hot smoke touched my face again and again. She didn’t care a bit. It was ticking me off - her nonchalance, her not caring that my dreams were being crumbled with every passing moment and her dark cruel eyes. They didn’t seem like that of an angel anymore.
She stubbed out the cigarette and took a step towards me. ‘How did it feel? Have all your fascinating dreams, meaningless expectations and baseless hopes been burnt to ashes yet? Or are they still alive?’
I was astonished. What was she saying?
‘I hope they do. Because mine did. My dreams of love, hope and trust - they all are but ashes now. I hoped to find a home. Quite same as the one I left. I hoped to find love. I didn’t need acceptance because I’d been rejected before. All I needed was a heart that would love me no matter what. That would scold me, be mad at me, push me away but never ever would it question my dignity. Does one need to be perfect for all this?’ A smile of contempt crossed her lips as a tear trickled down her face. ‘You see this face? It’s ugly and sad...I’m not a fairy...but a simple girl who never wanted to be one. Stop comparing us to an angel, a fairy, a dream.’ She turned around. Maybe to leave.
I didn’t know what I wanted yet. But somehow I wished she would stop. Because something told me she wouldn’t.
‘I want to leave now.’ She said over her shoulder.
‘Wait till the morning.’ I wanted her to stay. I didn’t know why. Was I at fault? I wasn’t ready to accept as of yet. Was morning far away? No, still…
‘I thought this was morning. But it seems it’s still far away...far far away.’ She said and disappeared into the darkness of the room.