by Anhoni Patel
By the time she arrived in the small town, Shivani was half delirious. She had been traveling for close to two days and was in serious need of some coffee and a bath. Her black pants were dusty and her red jersey was crinkled with sweat. Her face had already turned a shade darker from the dirt and the glaring sun. Although fatigued, she was anxious to see Minaxi.
Shivani quickly stood up, determined to put her plan of action into play. She approached the pile of hard, bruised American Tourist bags lying in the corner. They were about to burst, but the soiled rope wrapped tightly around them had kept all the presents and saris safe. She grabbed the handle on a bright red bag and began to shove it towards the bedroom. As she struggled with the suitcase, she could hear her motherís high pitched voice.
For the next two weeks she would be sleeping with her parents in the small room at her auntís home. But she was used to this arrangement; her family had stayed there last year during her brother's wedding. As Shivani dragged the bag in, her motherís chattering ceased immediately. She looked up at her parents and aunt. They were glancing uncomfortably at the floor, seemingly fascinated with its scratched gray marble. In the eerie silence, she hoisted the bag onto her narrow cot and impatiently tugged at the rope.
Shivani asked why they suddenly became quiet. They gave her strange, elusive replies, and then urged her to go to her cousin. She quickly rummaged through the whiskey, trinkets and make-up cases in her bag, picked an outfit, and headed straight to the bathroom. As she hurriedly lathered herself, questions of confusion darted in and out of her mind. Is there something wrong with Minaxi? She is getting married in a week and there are a million things to do. Why were her parents acting so odd?
She emerged from her bath fresh and awake. She grabbed a shawl from the clothes scattered on her bed and made a bee-line for her uncleís house next door. She was just stepping over the faded pink and green tiles of the entrance when she heard two loud voices. Shivani abruptly halted and crept over to the half-open door. It was Minaxiís parents. They were in the midst of an argument. She willed her heart to stop thumping so her ears could have full access.
"No Surendra, our daughter has been crying her eyes out for the last two weeks and this is where I put my foot down. I canít take it any more," her mother stated angrily.
"But Nalini, we canít cancel the wedding! Itís only a week away. Itís too late!" he pleaded.
"No, too late will be when sheís 30 and hates her husband and her life. Thatís too late. Then sheíll want a divorce. What then?!"
"Listen, itís just nerves. Sheís young and scared."
"She might be young but sheís not stupid! She obviously does not want to marry this man. For godís sake, sheís been miserable ever since the engagement."
"This is not up for discussion. We have to think about others as well, you know. What about the family? How will it look? The preparations are almost finished. Iíve spent over a hundred thousand dollars on this!" Minaxiís father shouted.
"Is this about money? You would put your daughterís happiness at stake for money?" she countered with increasing hysteria.
"Nalini, you know this isnít about money. Itís about Minaxiís happiness. Itís about the family."
"If this is really about our daughterís happiness, then youíll cancel the wedding."
"Nalini!" he sighed with resignation.
Shivani stood slack-jawed. Her shirt was damp with nervous sweat. She backed out of the doorís crevice and silently tread to the other side of the house. She crept through the back door and into the kitchen. The pungent smells of fresh ginger chai and caramelized onions greeted her. She forged on towards the stairwell cursing the clacking of her sandals on the stone steps. She could hear muffled sobbing somewhere upstairs. Shivani reached the landing and zeroed in on the crying. The sounds were coming from the first room on the left. She walked to the dark reddish door and gave it a tentative knock. The crying stopped, and there was silence.
"Minaxi?" she whispered.
"Minaxi, itís me, Shivani."
She could hear the rustling of bed covers and the grating of slippers on the floor. The door quickly flew open. Minaxi appeared clutching crumpled tissues and sporting red, swollen eyes.
"Oh my god! What happened? Are you OK? Why are you crying?" she said while leading Minaxi to the bed. She placed her cousin on the lumpy mattress, locked the door and then folded her into an embrace. For several moments Shivani just rubbed Minaxiís back while she sobbed into her shoulder.
"Shi- Shivani?" Minaxi spurted.
"Theyíre going to make me get married!" she cried.
"No, íNaxi. No one is going to make you do anything," Shivani stated. She gently lifted Minaxi up from her shoulders, held both her hands and prompted her, "Come, tell me why you donít want to marry Mahesh. When I saw you two during Thanksgiving you seemed so happy. That was only a few months ago. What happened?"
"Well, after we saw you we began getting into these horrible fights. He told me that I spend too much time with you, and that after weíre married I have to hang out less with my friends. And then he just became more and more possessive."
Minaxi suddenly got up from the bed. She flung the mushy tissues in her hand into the overflowing wastebasket at the foot of the bed. She started to absentmindedly straighten out the red paisley bed spread and then looked through the open balcony onto the street. She let out a deep sigh and turned back to Shivani.
"He called me once at five in the morning, and he knew I had a final exam at nine. When I told him that I couldnít really talk because of my final, he started ranting and raving. He told me that I shouldnít bother with school because he doesnít want me to work after weíre married. He said that he was going to come home for lunch and dinner every day and that I had to have his meals waiting for him. I couldnít work, so why bother with school? Shivani, I didnít want to believe it, but he was serious."
Shivani got up from the bed, "Whoa. What century is he living in? You canít marry this guy."
"I donít want to marry him. Iíve been trying to tell my parents this but theyíre being such fascists about it. I donít know what to do!" Minaxi reached for another tissue.
"Listen, everythingíll work out." Shivani stumbled past a pile of suitcases over to her. She drew Minaxiís hair away from her sticky face and swept away the fresh tears, "If you don't want to marry Mahesh, you don't have to. I heard your parents talking downstairs, and your mom is definitely against the marriage. I think sheíll be able to convince your dad."
"Yeah. But --
"Minaxi!" her mother rasped at the door. "Come on, we have to go to Meenaís party. The whole family and all your friends will be there. You canít stay locked up in your room. You have to get ready and go."
Shivani gave her cousin a strong hug, "Weíll talk about this later. Itíll all work out, OK? Iím almost positive your marriage will be canceled. Donít worry."
"Oh, Shivani- youíre such a good friend. It makes me feel so much better just to talk about things," Minaxi finally cracked a smile. Then she went to the door to let in her mother. It was time to get ready.
There were about three hundred friends and family members gathered at Meena's father's expansive farm. Some were lounging in the shade on white plastic chairs while others were glistening in the sun and gossiping. But most of the guests were making their rounds through the maze of tables laden with piles of spicy appetizers and colorful sweets. Shivani was hovering around a table displaying several silver trays full of veggies and dips. She was stuffing a piece of crisp celery into her mouth when someone grabbed her shoulder.
"Shivani! Come meet your aunts and uncles," her father stated exuberantly as he thumped her loudly on the back.
"OK, one second," she mumbled with her mouth full.
But it was too late. Before she had enough time to swallow the celery stalk and turn around, she was ambushed by an onslaught on relatives. One by one they lined up and gave her two, three and sometimes even five hard whacks on the back. Then they transferred their affections to her cheeks, where they pinched, grabbed and pulled the tender flesh. After the painful yet lovingly bestowed physical torment, began the questioning.
"So-how have you been dear?
"Oh, Iím go..."
"When will it be your turn to get married?"
"And what else are you up to? Are you going to medical school? Engineering school? Law school?"
"None of the above!"
After they were satisfied with the thoroughness of their inspection, they showered her with dry kisses and soft hugs. Then the swarm of aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, old family friends, relatives of the family friends etc. moved onto their next victim. Shivani was about to take a deep breath and resume her munching when someone tapped her on the shoulder. What now? she thought. She turned around and met the amused eyes of Deepan.
"Thank god! Did you see that? I almost died from all that questioning."
"I noticedóGod! want to kiss you so badly right now," he whispered as he moved closer to her. His tall, confident demeanor gave Shivani the impression of a lion on the hunt.
"Hey, watch it!" she nervously laughed while taking a step back.
She quickly surveyed the crowd to make sure no one noticed the exchange. They had met at her brother's wedding and immediately began dating, but kept their relationship a secret from their families. Her closest cousins knew, but no other family members. If they were discovered, Deepan and Shivani would be pressured to get married. Shivani did not want to deal with that.
"You are not going to believe whatís happened!" Shivani said in a hushed voice while seemingly innocently leading Deepan to the far side of the long lawn.
"What?" he asked. He desperately wanted to hold her hand as they walked, but all he could do was stare at her hair as he followed her across the grass.
Shivani stopped suddenly and faced him, "Minaxi, wants to cancel the wedding! Mahesh turned out to be a total control freak. She doesnít want to marry him, but her dad doesnít want to call it off."
"What do you mean? What did he do?"
"He told her that she should drop out of school and that he didn't want her to work or spend so much time with her friends. All this bullshit."
"I don't understand, he seemed so nice when we hung out. Are you sure she's not just nervous about getting married? Maybe she just took it the wrong way. She can get a bit hysterical. You know how she is!"
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't knowómaybe she shouldn't dismiss him so quickly. You could tell that he loved her and I never saw him treat her poorly. Minaxi was really happy with him and now, all of a sudden, she's not. It doesn't make sense," Deepan said skeptically.
"Why are you doubting Minaxi and siding with someone you barely know?" Shivani blurted.
"I'm not taking sides. I'm just trying to look at this reasonably. Maybe he just freaked out. He loves her and wants to spend a lot of time with her- what's wrong with that?"
"There's a difference between wanting to spend time with someone and trying to control their life."
He just stared intensely at her for a moment and said, "I like to spend a lot of time with you too, you know. And if we ever...decided to take our relationship to the next level, and I made enough money to support the both of us- why would you have to work? What's wrong with spending time in your own home instead of an office?"
Shivani could only look back at him. She was momentarily disoriented and unable to formulate a response. A slab of fear coated with disgust shot into her mind.
"Listen, just forget about it, OK? I'm sure it will all work out. Soówill we be able to find some time alone later?" he asked with anticipation.
"I'm not sure. I have to talk to Minaxi. She's pretty upset right now. Besides, there are people everywhere. It might look suspicious if we just went off together."
"Shivani! Come meet my best friend from high school," her father hollered at her from several feet away.
"Ugh. I have to go to my dad and meet this guy. I'll see you later," she stated briskly and walked off without waiting for a response.
As she walked to her father, she glanced back to see if Deepan was still watching her. He was. She pretended not to notice and continued toward her family.
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