All the Way

I was awake when the alarm rang.

I had been awake for some time, in fact, since waking up startled and sweating during the early hours of the morning. Had I seen a bad dream? Or was I just too anxious about what was to happen today? Whatever was the reason, I had been awake since, counting the minutes ticking by.

I did not venture out of my room though, or put the lights on; for fear that Ma or Baba might see them and wonder why I was up at this odd hour. It was not that I wasn’t nervous, but I didn’t really think it was such a big deal. I mean, this was not the only option I had; or was it? Anyway, now that the alarm had finally rung, I was looking forward to a steaming cup of coffee!

I could hear Ma in the kitchen. Always the first one up, she would be getting Baba's coffee ready now, even though it would be a good fifteen minutes before he came for it. Bathed, and with her morning prayers done, she would have his coffee – glass and tumbler, never a cup and saucer for Baba – waiting on the dining table, at the same place, at the same time, every day.

I should go to the kitchen, I thought; talk to Ma. She will, no doubt, assure me for the nth time that everything was going to be alright. That I was under no pressure; that it was just a formality and the decision would be mine. She would tell me that she and Baba would support me no matter what.

But she won’t be able to fool me. I would see the worry lines etched on her face clearly. I would hear all her assurances; but what I’d really listen to, would be her voice – laden with worry; and hope, that things work out for me. Despite myself. This was not the first time, but she would sure hope this would be the last.

And so, on second thoughts, I decided I'd rather not let anyone know I was up yet. I would wait for Ma to come wake me. But then Baba would know! And he would get upset if he thought I was sleeping in today. Not wanting to get Baba upset, I decided to bite the bullet and go out myself; and was promptly rewarded with the delicious aroma of filter coffee as I stepped out of my room.

“There you are!” said Ma as soon as she saw me. “I thought I will have to coax you out of bed….”

“Ma, you kept the alarm for me yourself last night, remember?” I said, hugging her; silently praying that she wouldn’t start with it right away, that she would let me at least have my first cup of coffee in peace. But I was wrong.

“Hmmm,” she said breaking out of my hug. “But now that you are up, don’t laze around. Hurry up. And remember: bath, breakfast then getting dressed. Don’t get decked up and come to breakfast like last time! All grown up, but you still spill your food like a five year old!”

I loved Ma! I really did. But, I mean, seriously?

“I know Ma, I remember the last time, and it was your favourite saree too. But, I said sorry right? I even got you a new one!” I pretended to be hurt.

But Ma knew me all too well to be taken in. “I know I know,” she said, “that is why I haven’t given you one of mine today. Your Di has sent one for you. Says this colour brings out your eyes…speaking of Di, did you know she has already met them? Did she mention…”

“Ma! Di is ten years older than I am; what does she know?” I began.

“Yes, and I am 34 years older!” Ma retorted. “Come on, say it. All this is a joke for you, isn’t it? You just don’t understand the seriousness of it at all! All your big degrees and your big salary; but what is the point? What should make you humble, has messed up your head instead!”

I sighed. “Don’t worry Ma, I have agreed this time, haven’t I? I promised…”

“Yes, I know what you promised.” She said, turning away. “God knows, it’s high time you got serious...” I heard her mutter as she handed me my coffee.

So much for a cup of coffee! I thought. But I couldn’t afford to spend any more time mulling it over. So I just took the coffee to my room; and spent the next few hours in a blur – bath, breakfast and then putting on my game face. I did like the saree Di had sent over, though, she had clearly outdone herself this time! 

And so it was that when the clock struck 11, I was as ready as I would ever be.

Baba was impressed, I could tell. When he saw me come out of my room, he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up sign. I saw him exchange a nervous glance with Ma; and he was about to say something to me, when we heard the doorbell ring.

Here you go!

The boy’s father entered first, then his mother and his sister. He entered last, eyes downcast, which he raised to meet Baba’s and smiled politely with his hands folded in Namaste.

I could see him clearly from where I was standing – behind the curtain, in my room – and the first thing I noticed was that a huge dimple appeared on his left cheek when he smiled! I felt a giggle rise up my throat. Di would’ve agreed to marry him just for that dimple, I thought. But of course, that’s Di!

I was about to text her, when Ma came in. Smiling, she planted a kiss on my forehead and said softly, “Come to the kitchen now. And look, don’t attract too much attention yet. They should notice you only when you actually go out.” I nodded and hurried after her.

Five minutes later, I waited for a lull in the conversation in the living room, and entered, holding a tray laden with coffee, sweets and Ma’s special dalwadas.

I was wondering when Ma had found the time to make them fresh in the morning, when the boy’s sister came towards me smiling. She seemed very friendly and had kept a steady flow of chatter on since they had all arrived. She took the tray from me and set it on the coffee table.

“All these years, and still the same formalities; unbelievable, isn’t it?” she said to me, eyes twinkling.

I smiled. Her affability was contagious. I would love to sit and chat with her over a cup of coffee, I thought. She seemed the sort of person who wouldn’t mind a middle-of-the-day tête-à-tête.

“These dalwadas are delicious! Did you make them, my dear?” the boy’s mother asked me.

“Ma did. I helped her.” I replied.

“Oh, they are just amazing! Rohini, you must give me your special recipe okay? These are so yum!” she said to Ma. And then she turned to me, “You must learn to make them too, my dear. After all, your Mum is famous for her dalwadas, you know!” she said with a big smile on her face.

I smiled politely, as Ma had told me to do.

“If it is alright, maybe the kids can have a chat now?” the boy’s father asked Baba. He nodded and indicated that I should take the boy to my room.

I looked up at him then, properly for the first time. He was smiling at something his sister was saying in his ear; looking straight at me. His direct gaze was startling, but I tried to ignore it, and beckoned him to follow me.

“I’ve met your sister…”

“Your sister is very sweet…”

We started to speak at the same time; then laughed nervously and fell silent.

“You were saying…?” I said after a bit.

“I’ve met your sister. At Tara’s house-warming. Tara’s my cousin. Your sister is very charming,” he said.

“Yes, she is,” I said.

I knew Di could turn on her charm on demand; and of late, even more so. She had married young; and after a decade of marital bliss, her sole purpose in life now, was to get me to experience the same. So whenever she met anyone who she thought might be perfect for me, she would get all charming and amiable. In her defence, the charm was genuine; it was only her motive that I was not completely convinced about.

“Your sister is very outgoing too,” I said.

“Yes she is, always has been.” he said with a smile. Like his sister, he had a genuine smile. And I realised, they both had the same eyes!

“You read a lot,” he said then. It was a statement, I noted, not a question.

He was looking at a pile of books on a small table next to a cane swing in my balcony where I read.

“Yes,” I said, glad he had noticed. “Do you read too?”

“Me? Oh, no, no. I don’t read at all!” he said laughing. “I mean, I read news and articles on my phone, but books are not really my cup of tea!”

“Oh,” I said.

“So, you are with BlackRobes right?” he asked.

I nodded a yes.

“Big company; important job, your sister tells me. Long hours too…”

“We do take late calls from our US offices most days,” I said, a bit defensive. “But what is important is that I like what I do.”

“Of course! Yes…but, it’s not all that safe for girls, right? Travelling alone, late at night?”

“It is unsafe for anyone, be it girls or boys,” I said. Where was all this going? 

“I know! I meant, well…You know, my sister works too. Always has. Dad is against it though. According to him, girls should stay at home. Especially educated, well-groomed girls, he thinks have the biggest responsibility – of preparing the next generation well. Plus, children need their mother most, you know.”

“Really,” I was itching to make a reply, but bit my tongue, lest Ma should be listening at the door.

“Can I ask you something?” he said suddenly.

“Sure.”

“You are successful. You earn pretty well too, more than even some men I know …..What, you look surprised! Didn’t you think your sister would mention a few important things about you? Of course, she’s mentioned a few other things too. Your thoughts on marriage, specifically…. ”

“I still don’t hear a question in there,” I said, impatient now.

“Ah, yes the question. My question to you is: Why does a successful, independent girl like you want to get married?”  

His question startled me! I mean, that was what I kept asking Ma and Di all the time. Wasn’t I happy the way I was? Why should I willingly allow myself to get into the compromises and adjustments that invariably came with married life?

“Is this a trick question?” I asked, wondering how much Di had told him.
                                                                          
He smiled then, eyes twinkling, his dimple ever so prominent. Look away from the darn dimple! I scolded myself. He is baiting you. He knows your views. He has met Di remember? Of course he knows!  But I just couldn’t get myself to look away.

Finally, sensing that I wasn’t going to say anything, he began.

“Look, I have seen seven girls before you. And all of them, more or less, have had one thing in common.”

“What’s that?”

“They were all troubled by this very same question. So I thought I might as well hear the answer from the horse’s mouth.”

Wow!

“What do you think the answer to that question might be?” I asked him.

I half expected Ma to walk into the room from wherever she was listening in and tell me to keep my smart mouth shut!

But then I realised, that it was his answer to this question that would actually make my decision for me. May be it was that simple.

“Well, you are young, intelligent, smart, interesting, well read; and you also have an excellent support system in your parents, your sister and her family; which makes you emotionally secure; not to mention your financial independence…And yet, you are sitting here, talking to me, taking a chance at a prospective alliance arranged by your family.”

“Uh – huh,” this was getting interesting. Plus his voice was calm; and as he spoke, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, rhythmically.

“You know why you are doing this?” he asked.

“Ma…” I began. But he was already shaking his head.

“No.” he said. “You know what I think? I think it’s not because of what your parents want, or what your sister wants. Not really. I think it is because of what you want...” he said.

“What I want?”

“Yes. I know you think you have it all figured out. But the truth is, you really want to know about that one thing that you know nothing about. You want to see for yourself what it is like to go all the way.” He said.

“I…”

“I’ll tell you what. I usually do not take long to decide on something I am convinced about. So I will convey my answer to your parents soon. But I will call you in the next half hour before I board my plane; unless you call me before that.”

I heard him, wondering if he really had said what I thought he had said; while he sat there smiling. Does he know his dimple is so distracting? I thought. I can’t even think straight looking at it.

And before I knew it, he said that the others would be waiting for us, and started to go out. I was too confused to say anything; and just followed him.

Outside, we found the women busy discussing the recipe of dalwadas and the men, politics. It was sometime before he actually left. And all the while, I kept thinking about what he had said.

He would take his flight in the next hour, I knew. And then he would be in the air for sixteen hours. That’s why he had mentioned the ‘half an hour’. Or less, if I called him first…  

I guess I knew then, what I was going to do. Half an hour, I thought as I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven…”


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