Early in the morning…
Nandini was up very early in the morning. She wore a traditional light blue cotton kurta and salwar, finished with her morning chores and prayers and reached the breakfast table to join dadi, dadu and Maya.
She sat beside dadi who couldn’t have enough of her. Dadi had been doting on her like she was a long lost kid, who had just met them after years of separation. Nandini too loved the attention and all the love showered on her.
“Nandini, if you need an outfit for the evening, we can go to shop at the best designer stores in Paris. You can also get matching jewellery and shoes with it. I’m going for shopping right after breakfast. You can come with me.” Maya asked her.
Nandini was a bit confused. “Aunty, I’ve brought a dress with me for the engagement and the party in the evening, but I don’t know if it is good enough…”
‘Good enough’ was an understatement. It was the best dress that Nandini had in her wardrobe. It was bought by her mom after a lot of search at the best stores in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. The place was famous for traditional Indian work and Meera Murthy thought that it would suit both Nandini and the occassion.
But after coming to Malhotra mansion, Nandini was not sure if a ‘Chandni-chowk-made-Indian-outfit’ would be good enough for the reputation her in-laws maintained. Suddenly, she was apprehensive.
“Don’t worry! You’ll look pretty in whatever you wear.” Dadi assured her with lots of love and Maya nodded to agree.
“Still, if you are not sure, you can always ask Alya. She is the fashion diva of Paris.” Maya had just spotted Alya entering the dining room in the best of designer wear and holding an exquisite clutch in her hand. Alya hugged Maya, dadi and dadu and sat down beside them. They introduced her to Nandini.
“Oh, so you are Nandini? Heard a lot about you from dadi. You must be special, haan? To just sweep her away!”
Nandini just smiled at that.
“Alya, have breakfast.”
“No dadu, I am on a low carb, low fat, strict diet. In fact, I’m fasting today.”
“Oh, for the engagement?”
“No…no… I want to fit in the Valentino evening gown that I got specially made for this event.”
Dadu and dadi laughed at that. Maya requested her, “Alya, can you please help Nandini with an appropriate outfit for the evening. She has brought one from India but she is not sure.”
“Anytime!!” Alya was willing to help with all her heart.
Manik stepped down the stairs talking on phone and was giving instructions about the event and the press coverage. His assistants were on toes to see that the orders were carried out as they had been laid down by their boss, without even the slightest changes. Manik didn’t like interference. His next call was to his secretary to whom he said that he was diverting all calls to him for next half an hour as he was with his family on the dining table.
With that he switched off his phone.
“Hi baby!” Alya stood up and hugged him, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Manik curled his hands around her for a quick hug. He found it embarrassing before his family. “To you too!!”
“You didn’t even call me last night or even since morning.” Alya complained as they sat down on the table.
Manik was dumbfounded at that! Was he supposed to call her? He didn’t do it even the last year. But then, at that time, Alya’ dad was ill and was hospitalized, so Valentine’s Day came and went without any noise. No one told him that he was supposed to call Alya and wish her. Dadu came to his rescue.
“Alya, you had to be here to see how Manik is tied up since last night. He had to receive Nandini from airport as Harshad is not here. Then he could hardly sleep. And since morning, he has been working.”
Manik nodded to agree. With that he switched on his phone, still kept on the table and sent a message to someone.
Alya asked Nandini, “Nandini, you tell me. Is it fair? I mean, even Harshad must have called you and wished you, right?”
Nandini was speechless. She wet her dried lips, taking the lower one inside her mouth and looked at Manik from the side of her lashes. He was not looking at her but his attention was totally on her. He knew that Harshad didn’t call her. He was not going to call her.
Dadi spoke on behalf of Nandini, “Leave the poor girl. She is shy.”
The family was busy in the breakfast while Maya spoke about her shopping that was pending and she had to go at this time. Alya spoke about how she was so excited for the evening and had her styled by the topmost stylist of the town.
“By the way, who’s your stylist, Nandini?” Alya asked Nandini who was sitting across the table and was observing everyone in awe. Everything they talked about was new to her.
Once again, caught at this unexpected question, Nandini shot a quick glance at Manik, almost subconsciously… but was surprised this time, to find his eyes focused on her. He was sitting with his hands folded on the table and all his attention was on her. One blink from him and she was assured that it didn’t matter.
She gained courage to speak, “Alya… I don’t have a stylist! I style myself.”
Alya opened her mouth in shock, “What?? So how do you dress up? My god… you buy things from the market and wear them, all jumbled up?? Shoes, accessories, bags…””
“Yeah!” Nandini nodded.
“No…no… you ‘must’ have a stylist. A stylist does the ‘look’ for you!”
“You know so much. Help her, na!” Maya insisted. She was a society regular too and was now a bit worried if her own daughter-in-law would look according to their style or status.
“Sure. I’ll take you to shopping and we will get the best look for you, designed by a good stylist, I personally know in Paris. Though it is a bit late, but you don’t worry, something should be done!”
Nandini lowered her eyes, nodded and didn’t speak another word. She had no idea whether she should stick to her own outfit or go with what people expected from her. She was fine if her future mother-in-law wanted her to buy another dress for the event in the evening… something that was as per their class.Alya took the responsibility of dressing up Nandu under her guidance.
When they were about to get up, Manik excused himself first. As always, he touched his elders feet. “Excuse me, everyone! I have a row of meetings lined up to brief me for the evening. See you all later!”
Alya stood up to see him off, when an assistant came inside with a huge bouquet of around twenty, long stemmed, beautiful, big red roses. He gave them to Alya.
“From sir!” The assistant said and left.
Alya grinned and turned to Manik, “You ordered them just now! I saw you sending the message to someone when I accused you of not calling me…”
Manik smiled, “How does it matter, when I ordered them? They reached you in time, is important!”
“Aww… that’s sweet!! Thank you so much, sweetie!!” Alya hugged him warmly and kissed him on his cheek, once again embarrassing him in front of everyone. But he just smiled. Everyone knew how Alya was. Open and inhibited!! So that’s how everyone accepted her.
“I must leave now. I have work!” Manik cleared his throat.
“Let me see you till the car.” Alya walked with him, before turning to Nandini, “Nandini, you get ready, we need to go to the best stores in the town.”
Nandini smiled and nodded, while Alya and Manik walked out.
Maya spoke, “They look so good together!”
“Yeah! Alya is lucky that she has Manik as future husband. He knows how to care about people, if he likes them!” Dadi agreed.
Nandini knew that she too agreed with dadi, though inwardly. She didn’t say it but since last night she had seen how warm and considerate he was when it came to taking care of everyone around him, at least when he wanted to!!
She had liked him, a lot!! Not so much that she should feel jealous of Alya. She was here for Harshadji, not him… but she secretly hoped that Harshadji was just like Manik. She was happy for Alya and Manik and she had liked Alya, a lot! But she hated Manik for being so good to Alya. It raised the bar of expectations that she had from Harshadji!
At the exit foyer, waiting for his car to arrive, Manik thrust his hands in his trouser pockets and was impatient about it.
“Manik…” Alya turned to him.
“Do you love me?”
“What??” Manik was flabbergasted at this question, right at the exit foyer, just before he was leaving for office.
“It’s a simple question.” Alya shrugged.
“Alya, you have superb timing. You know that I am getting late, I have work lined up in office, It’s a big day for the company…”
“Yeah, for us too…but we need to work for that…”
“Instead of telling me the entire schedule and it’s importance, you could have simply hugged me and said a ‘yes, I do’… if you did!!”
“Alya… please don’t irritate me!” Manik was back to his rough avatar, which intimidated almost everyone. He really did not like any messing while he went to work and Alya knew that. Even then, she was bringing up this topic, even when she knew that it would irritate him. And that made him more angry.
“Manik… I know this is not the right time. But then, you are never free. So I have to squeeze in time for us between our busy schedules. Today is Valentine’s day and everyone is talking about love! We are getting engaged today… to be married, soon!! So, I thought I’ll ask you too.”
Manik took a deep breath, “Alya, I like you! A lot!! You are a nice person, a beautiful girl who is not only intelligent but sophisticated and well brought up!”
“I know that!!” Alya was talking straight, “I am asking about love…”
“If you have forgotten, our is not a love marriage…it is arranged … and arranged marriages see love growing slowly!”
He clicked his tongue and shrugged, “Come on, Alya!”
“We are dating since 2 years, ever since your dadi introduced us and our marriage was fixed. We were waiting for your dreams to be fulfilled and I invested time in you, hoping that slowly we will grow closer. But it seems I have become another good friend of yours… our relationship has stopped growing…”
He gave her a deadly look and hissed, “You make it sound as if I planned to do all this. You can’t decide to live a relationship in a certain way… it just takes it own course!”
“Manik… I got my answer!! I just hope that this doesn’t become a life time of discussion between us!!”
He pointed towards the roses in her hand and spoke strongly, “Alya, I’m trying… my best!!!”
She sighed and lowered her gaze towards the lifeless roses in her hands !!
“I can see that Manik and I appreciate it… but I guess… This is not enough!!”