“Its not love!”
Nandini scrolled through the websites that masi had sent the links to, with a subtle shrug and a whisper, convincing herself, ‘Of course, it is not love!’
She chose a blog where the Chef had used a lot of pictures to illustrate the simple steps for beginners to prepare quick healthy meals for working professionals. The recipes looked interesting. She might not be a pro but she knew basics of cooking as she cooked poha, pasta, upma for herself. She knew a bit about baking. Her talkative nature had come as a boon too as she had spent a lot of time lurking in the kitchen talking non-stop to her ma to tell her about the events of her day.
She was quite confident that with the help of this website, Priyanka masi and ma, she would be able to learn a lot about healthy cooking for Manik in a few days. After a thorough search and contemplation, she decided to make Grilled Chicken and Mediterranian broccoli radish salad with feta cheese for today. At least on cover pic, it looked yum.
After basic preparations, she went inside the bedroom to keep Manik’s shirts that the washerwoman had brought after ironing. Instinctively, she ran her fingers over his shirts.
Even his shirts gave her those goosebumps she kept fighting with when he was around. The touch, the feel, the smell!!
Everything that belonged to him had that aura that was so Manik!
His belts, his sunglasses, his jackets and hoodies, his gadgets… his favourite Titan watch that his father had bought him when he was selected for IIT which he treasured as proudly as his medals and trophies received in sports and debates… His awards were decorated in one corner of the room. His lawn tennis racquet and his skateboard kept at the lowermost shelf of the rack holding the trophies… He had a collection of books, music and video games.
She could feel ‘him’ in each and everything that belonged to him.
Does that list include her, as well? She thought.
Did she belong to him? For, more than everything else, his touch and his scent were alive over her. She could feel him long after he was gone.
She leaned ahead into the wardrobe over the row of shirts arranged in a stack. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. Manik’s presence was not just in this room and this home. It was deep inside her. In her heart, on her mind, in every breath she took.
A helpless smile swam on her lips, making the creamy skin of her face compete with the pink colour of her ruffled crop top. She could feel her entire body and every cell inside it, smile with her.
It didn’t happen normally that a small tear followed her smiles. But it did… today!
It didn’t happen every day that she didn’t wipe her tear. Instead, she let it flow down. Not every day, you got tears of bliss.
After the final submission and approval of the same, almost by 9:00 pm, Manik left the conference room, made a dash towards his own cabin and quickly stuffed his laptop, chargers, phone etc in the bag meant for the same. He left the office immediately, without wasting any time talking to Cabir and Dhruv… or anyone else…
Half an hour later, he was at the door, with his charming smile flashed across his lips, from ear to ear. A desperate attempt to appease his wife. Nandini hadn’t been angry but when she found him chanting a row of ‘sorrys‘ one after the other, with a squishy tight hug squeezing her close to him, she was obviously not stopping him.
“I’ll quickly change and come back. We’ll go out for dinner.” He shoved the ice cream tub in the freezer.
She simply grinned and said, “Freshen up and come back but we are not going out …”
“Why?” Clueless, he shrugged, carefully inspecting her face to see any sign of anger or irritation. There was none.
“We’ll have dinner at home. I have cooked something.”
He cleared his throat, wondering what exactly she must have cooked. She didn’t cook! And when she did, it was something very basic. But he didn’t want to hurt her. She had put up with him and his crazy schedule for an entire week. And now, she had cooked something for them. Even if he had to eat junk or something basic, just for today, he could do this for her. If that made her happy, it was a small thing for him that he could do. Her happiness was all that mattered to him.
With a soft smile, he said, “Okay! I’ll take a quick shower and come back.”
She was happy. With a twinkle in her eyes, she said, “Perfect! I’ll set the table. We’ll also watch a web series…”
“Game of Thrones!” He quickly suggested before she could pick something.
But she had already decided, it seems. For all colour faded from her face when he said that. She frowned, “No!! Either Little Things or Zindagi Gulzar Hai!”
He looked at her as if she was an alien talking in Latin. It took him almost a minute to understand that she was serious. He looked here and there, trying to absorb the information and then smiled, having no way to opt out of it. It was her day and he didn’t want to do anything that put her off. Reluctantly, hating every moment of it, he smiled, “Err… ohhkayyyy!!”
She grinned when he agreed for everything that she had suggested. When he was about to go inside, the doorbell rang and with that the door knocked too. Cabir and Dhruv were getting impatient, it appeared.
Nandini rolled her eyes, clearly not happy. Manik squeezed his eyes in a request to give him a moment. When he crossed her to go towards the door, he simply bent towards her in a quick hug and whispered, “Just give me few minutes!”
She didn’t say anything and nodded. She walked away to go to the kitchen to see how the chicken was doing in the oven. It had taken her seven calls to ma and five calls to masi, each lasting at least 10 minutes… thorough research about food items on the internet… about their cooking time… marinating process… careful cutting of veggies and preparation of the sauces. It wasn’t that tricky. It just needed experience. She didn’t have that but she was learning. She was confident that it was just a matter of time when she would become an expert at it. Somehow, the efforts made her feel very happy.
The chicken and the salad appeared pretty in looks. Hope it tasted well too!!!
She folded her hands in nervousness and was jumpy in her stride, hoping that Manik liked it. She vowed to learn more recipes, cook more stuff and become a pro in cooking, especially health-food.
Manik opened the door and quickly stepped out, without asking his friends to come inside. He closed the door behind him and folded his hands as all three of them stood in the corridor between their apartments.
“What is it?” Manik shrugged, blunt and straight forward.
“Whoaaa!! Not even letting us inside?? How friends change after marriage!” Cabir raised his brows in a question. Manik smirked, trying to ignore him. One word of explanation would lead to 100 teases.
“Get lost, both of you!” This is how he always spoke. This is how he WAS when he was not trying to be nice.
“Let’s go for drinks and celebrate the completion!” Cabir suggested.
“Are you nuts?!!” Manik smirked as if Cabir had just cracked a joke.
“We won’t go alone. Take Nandini along. We’ll ask Mukti and Alya to come too!”
Manik frowned and rolled his eyes as if bored, “If there is something important, tell me very quickly… I need to go back …inside…”
Dhruv spoke, “Try to understand Cabir. Manik is a married man now! Family man! He is busy now!”
“Shut up, okay?” Manik chided him, speaking quickly and in a hushed tone, “I have been working like an ass for last 5 days… and she is not even complaining… already makes me feel so miserable…”
“She isn’t fighting?” Cabir opened his mouth in shock, “And I almost assumed that you must have been thrown out of the house, by now!!”
“No sir… Nandini is different…”
“That, I agree.” Cabir nodded, “Chal na, Manik… I am in a mess… I need help. Remember, whenever you are in trouble, you come to me for help. And I have never refused. It’s a difficult day for me – Decision time…!”
“What happened to you?” Manik was concerned.
Dhruv informed him, “He has a late night flight to Patna, 1:00 am… he is going home. He is being pressurized to get married.”
“What??!!!” Manik couldn’t believe it. On one hand, he was worried about Nandini waiting for him and here, Cabir had to drop this bomb.
“Yeah! Mom has a close friend who is from rural background. This girl was always close to mom and now she has come to Patna to live in our house for some course. My mom is completely in love with her and wants her as a daughter-in-law! Mom wants me to say ‘yes’ to get married to her.”
Manik was tired of giving shocked looks to people but this indeed was shocking news to him. This day had been tiring for him too. “Are you crazy? You haven’t met the girl. You first go and meet her… wait a minute.. rural background… what does she do??”
“She is studying Humanities. I haven’t talked to her but mom says that she wants to work with an NGO and be a social worker.”
Manik and Dhruv were looking at Cabir as if he was another alien. No wonder he was Nandini’s soul brother when it came to talking nonsense.
“Do you even know what you are talking?” Manik asked, “What she is doing and what she wants to do in future, even that your mom is telling you?? Can’t she talk on phone??”
“Can we go somewhere, sit and talk?” Cabir was getting frustrated. It wasn’t a small discussion.
Manik sighed and with his brows puckered, he turned slightly inwards to throw a glance at the closed door. He pressed his lips hard and rotated his tongue inside his mouth, before he sighed again. He didn’t want to hurt Cabir … but he had to do that… because he couldn’t do this to Nandini…
“No… I’m sorry…I can’t come!”
“Listen, I got married just a week ago and I have been working since then. I haven’t spent time with her. If I come with you now, you will find me divorced next month!”
Cabir smirked at that. He was not a kid. He didn’t mind it when Manik told him clearly that his priority was Nandini!! Period.
In fact, everyone liked it that Manik spoke clearly. If he didn’t want to come, he wasn’t making excuses on either side or behaving silly. He was clear about what he wanted.
“Okay! Dhruv and I are going for some drinks after which Dhruv will drop me to the airport.” Cabir said, before hugging Manik.
Manik patted his back and whispered, “Are you sure you want to go for an arranged marriage?”
Dhruv echoed with him, “That is what I am telling him. I mean, first Manik and now you?? I can’t think of marrying someone I don’t love.”
“I thought the same…” Cabir said, “But when I see that Manik is so happy and he got a partner like Nandini … my hopes are raised and I feel assured…”
“Listen! Don’t compare with us!” Manik was worried. He knew that Nandini and he were not a normal, regular couple for someone to generalise them. “All girls are not like Nandini…” Manik immediately spoke… and then added, “I mean, all girls are not even like my ex – … or Mukti… or Alya… previously, even I had all stupid notions about girls… but now I know that there is a spectrum and between two ends of a spectrum, a girl has several qualities and flaws to her. You can’t generalise.”
“Manik, I’m really, really, really confused… On one hand, I feel that you shouldn’t marry unless you are in love with someone and know her inside-out… On the other hand, I see around myself and have seriously started feeling that arranged marriage is not that bad. Our parents were all married in an arranged way… look at yourself… you are happy, arent you??”
“Why are you counting us, again and again??” Manik didn’t want anyone to take an example from him, for they were different. “My marriage is a unique case, you need to understand. Don’t take it as a prototype of arranged marriage. It’s a blind game… you may or may not get someone like Nandini… you may get someone like my ex- or Shobha Diwan or maybe the lady who was hitting on me… remember??”
“But Manik… you…”
“My case is different…”
Manik gave him whatever reasons, he could think of, “See… both of us were not ready for marriage at all. So, we were not expecting anything from this relationship… So.. we took a risk. That’s what it was – ‘A Big Risk’.. with lots of conditions… it’s great that it turned out to be positive for us, but there were chances that it wouldn’t have. And we would have been okay with that. We didn’t know how it would go… But you, buddy, are ready for marriage and you have a lot of expectations from married life. Similarly, the girl in question must have her own dreams and expectations… she may not like you… you may or may not like her… you know nothing about her… when I and Nandini met, something just clicked… I liked her… I was attracted…so was she… but as personalities, we are total opposites, in fact… and still trying to come to terms with our differences… also, we are both professionally qualified… she knows my work pressures…I understand that too… I know that in future, she will be busier than me…You need to make sure that you are ready for all the adjustments that an arranged marriage will ask of you…”
“But adjustments are needed in every relationship…even a love marriage!”
“That’s the catch. All other relationships are based on ‘love’ where you adjust and make changes according to people, out of love… here, you MAY OR MAY NOT fall in love with that person… and vice versa…”
“I don’t know…mannnn!!! I’m just so blank. I need few drinks. See you after I come back from Patna!”
Manik patted his back warmly and said, “All the best!!! Always remember that there is so much to marriage… much more than what we see on surface … much more than romance, adjustments or sex… Don’t jump into it just because it clicked well for me…or someone else you know… all of us are different…”
“I’ll think about it!”
“Please do!” Manik blinked once and shook hands with Dhruv, before they left him.
Manik came inside and locked the door. Nandini was sitting on the huge square shaped orange cushion on the floor. She was patting Dobby with one hand and scrolling messages on her phone with the other. She remained immersed in the phone and didn’t turn to him. He knew that she was doing it on purpose.
Manik rubbed his palm on the nape of his neck sheepishly and sat on the floor just behind her, slightly on one side. She didn’t talk to him or looked at him. He slowly touched his forehead on her shoulder and softly whispered, “Sorry!”
She melted slightly. With a smile, she put her phone down and said, “I really thought that you left with Cabir and Dhruv.”
He hated to be teased, even in this situation. “They had come to invite me for drinks. But see… I didn’t go!!”
Sweetly, she smiled and spoke in a baby soft cajoling voice at first, “Awwww… sooooo sweeettt of you!!!” And immediately she changed her tone to a stern and angry one, “As long as it is work and emergency, I can understand. It was the submission today, and it was important so I didn’t say anything. But dare you leave me for your friends… I will…”
“Ssshhhh!!!!” He sighed, resting his chin over her shoulder, moving closer, “I told them already! They will find me back in their singles’ club if they continue to disturb me after marriage!”
She sniggered, “You said that??? really??!!!”
“Hmm!!” His breath over her skin, his voice right next to her ear, his touch over her shoulder was magic. She squirmed with goosebumps rising again. He sighed and spoke taking her words, in a deep voice, “As long as it is work and emergency, I may have to go… It was the submission today, and it was important so I couldn’t avoid it. But to leave you for my friends… I’m not an idiot!!”
She was tongue-tied. Nandini Murthy not finding words to speak was a piece of news in itself! This man just knew how to make her speechless. She was still trying to come to terms with the proximity when she felt his lips moving over her shoulder and leaving a trail of butterfly kisses from her shoulder to the crook of her neck.
Her spine stiffened as she struggled with the growing unease inside her belly, difficult knots rising from somewhere deep and making her toes curl, making her heart beat rise, making every part of her existence throb under his touch. Smoothly, he slid his hand down from her shoulder, taking it at the front to hold her hand. She slipped her hand in his strong hand, making her fingers intertwine with his fingers.
He hugged her from behind, letting her disappear within the hold of his arms. She let herself rest on his chest closed her eyes. His warm wet kisses on her neck and jawline felt like hot lava dripping on her skin, burning it wherever it touched her.
Her hair was soft silk when he removed them from the path his lips chose. She was so fresh and so soft that it intimidated him. He had been working since morning. He was still in his formal wear… with his tie, blazer and shoes on, even now. He felt a bit uneasy. He didn’t want her to judge him.
“I’ll freshen up.” He whispered over her neck, before giving her another soft peck, “I need a shower…”
She smiled. Not that she was ever going to judge him. But it will take him some time to know this about her. Right now, she didn’t have the guts to ask him to skip the shower and continue with what he had started.
A silly awkwardness crept between them even now… every now and then… at times, they were too open and straightforward with each other. They shared a lot and spoke what they felt like… And sometimes, they were left tongue-tied, with nothing to say… To handle a new relationship, with a new found intimacy and unclear emotional haze wasn’t easy. It did take turns to make them feel embarrassed about so many things.
They were together for 10 days only… so much was new between them… it was normal to feel weird, she convinced herself…
“Hmm!” Fighting that weird awkwardness, she nodded and pressed her lips. At moments like these, she didn’t know what else to do.
He smiled, gave a soft parting kiss over her temple and whispered before he got up. “I’ll be back, soon!”
She blushed and bit her lower lip, tilting her head downwards fixing her eyes in her lap. He left her and got up to go inside. She stood up too, blushing profusely, and went to the kitchen to switch off the oven and take cutlery to the dining table for dinner.
Hardly a minute had passed, when she heard him cuss in pain.
“Sh*t!!! What the f*ck??!!”
Scared that she had done something, she almost ran to check on him. He was in the washroom inside their bedroom. It was dark inside. He had held the door and stood by it. Quickly, she entered and switched on the lights, “What happened, Manik?”
“I banged into something!! Shitttt!!!! What is that??? Right in the middle of nowhere??” He was angry.
Holding a side of his forehead, he turned to look towards the structure on the wall near the door. It was a new cabinet. He frowned angrily. She frowned too, with a terrified look on her face, ready to receive the big reprimand.
“What is it?? It was not there in the morning!!!”
“It’s a new cabinet…” She softly replied in a stammer, “I ordered it online…. It was delivered today… so I fixed it here…”
He was looking at her, surprised, “Here?? In the middle??”
“It is not in the middle… it is on one side of the door… the lights are right at the entrance. If you switch on lights and step in, you will never miss it…”
“But I always enter like that… I enter inside, close the door and then switch on the lights…”
“You did it because it wasn’t here…from now, you just need to change the way you enter!” She shrugged. “Now that, you know it’s there!!”
“Huhh??!! Excuse me! Why will I change the way I enter the washroom?”
“To avoid being banged on and on…” She raised her brows, making a point, “The cabinet is not going anywhere.”
He was irked, “Do we even need it??”
“Of course, we do!!” She wasn’t going to compromise on that, “Your lotions, pastes, brushes, shampoos and oils are all over the slab and bathtub and scattered all around. Its messy! It doesn’t look organized.”
“Nandini!!” He twisted his lips in anger. He was holding his forehead in his hand and she was telling him how disorganized he was.
“Manik… don’t give me those looks!” She requested, “Please? … I asked you before giving the room a makeover… trust me, these little things make life much easier!”
He rolled his eyes and walked out of the washroom, “Yeah!! I can feel my life changing already!!”
“Sarcasm??!!” She followed him out.
“Are you even bothered that I banged into it?? Do you even care that I might be hit badly?” He sat down on the bed and whined, seeking attention, “What sort of doctor you are ?”
She smiled and approached him, standing right before him, “Okay, let me check!”
“Ouch!” He whined again when she removed his hand from the site of hurt.
“Let me see…”
“Manik… it’s nothing!” She observed quite patiently. Her fingertips caressed his forehead while her eyes wandered where he wanted her attention.
“No cut… no bruise… it’s not even red!”
“It hurts so much!”
He was such a baby when he became an attention seeker. She smiled adoringly and lowered his forehead down to blow air over the hurt area in an attempt to soothe him. .. without realising that she had stepped so close to him that she was almost in his lap… when she realised it, she looked into his eyes and found his eyes on her… She sighed!
That sigh was beautiful. He could see her lips parted as she left a deep breath held in her chest. In a subtle, simple move, he pulled her down to his lap. She swayed over him, effortlessly, landing exactly where he had wanted her to… in his lap.
Throwing her hands around his neck, she leaned towards him, very subtly, very slowly, looking at his lips. He pressed his lips and hesitated.
“What?” She whispered.
“Do you think I need a shower? I’ve been working since morning. I might be smelling…”
“No, you are not! And that subtle scent that is ‘you’… I love it and prefer it over that soap water smell and artificial perfumes.”
“But you smell so good!”
She was indeed smelling heavenly. But he was good too and he didn’t know that. He was just conscious. She smiled and blinked her eyes in a naughty way. In a mischievous, deep whisper, she asked him.
“Why are we still smelling differently? Make me smell like you!”