Manik arrived by the afternoon flight, and reached Mumbai by 3:00 pm. The way he had boarded the flight in an emergency had Nandini panicking at the situation. The last words spoken by him that they will be getting married this week, added to it.
She reached airport to receive him. Nervous & fidgety.
When he walked out of the arrival gate, she found him smiling at her. In reply, she had simply smiled too. Something about these smiles was genuine, warm and infectious… they originated from one heart and compelled the other to smile too.
He was wearing a casual grey polo neck tee shirt with black denims and black jacket. Black aviators covering his eyes couldn’t cover the vulnerability in them. She had worn a mauve printed crop top with navy knot at the front with sky blue denims ripped at the knees.
He walked towards her but didn’t stop at handshake. On an impulse, he reached further, lowered himself and gave her a side hug. Warm and adoring. Surprised, she took her hand slightly up to return the small hug and quickly separated from him. He gave her goosebumps.
Till the parking area, they stayed quiet. He carried no luggage with him, except the phone and water bottle. She drove and he sat beside her, with a comfortable silence between them. None spoke anything.
They drove for nearly an hour, him observing the sea, the Sun and Mumbai traffic. She, tongue-tied, wondering what had happened and what blunder she had committed that brought him to Mumbai, suddenly.
He turned to her after some time, “What happened, you are not talking today?”
“What do I say, Manik? You finally made me tongue-tied! Tell me what happened. I’m dying to know!”
“That day you said that you won’t lie to your parents. What happened then?”
She told him the entire story about Reddys, Krishnan family and everyone whom she had been asked to meet and had met. She explained every detail and how she had to make her parents put a stop to this.
“I understand that you didn’t have time in the morning but in last 2 weeks, you could have called at least once to discuss a strategy. When you know that both you and me are trapped in this.”
“What exactly is the problem, Manik? That you had to fly all the way from Bangalore at such an emergency? A workaholic like you, dropped all work and came immediately… must be something really really big…” Her heart was beating hard.
“My grandmother is 80 years old. She is not keeping well, these days. My uncle stays in Canada and wants to take her with him. But she doesn’t want to go. She wants to see me getting married… what could we do about that? Nothing!! I was chilled. There was no girl. So even after trying hard, my parents were helpless… they were trying their best to find a suitable match for me, so that dadi could see the wedding happening. She thinks…she thinks… that once she goes to Canada, she might not come back for my wedding…ever! She thinks that she is going to die or something like that… “
“So?? Your parents will get you married to ‘anyone’… just for dadi?”
“No! Here was the catch! There was no suitable girl till now…and they couldn’t find a match so everything was going well. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Nandini Murthy decided that she would sacrifice herself for the sake of dadi! And guess what… everyone already loves her in our house.” He swayed his jaw.
“Ohhh myy Lordd!!! So my parents called your parents and they assumed that they we like each other?”
“No… they didn’t assume. You told them, very clearly!”
“And now they are planning the wedding in coming week?” She opened her mouth wide.
“Yes. Thanks to you!”
“Shittt….shittt….shitttt!!!! But I told papa that we are taking it slow… that we are still considering…”
“Yeah, but no one knew about this emergency… and madam, this is arranged marriage. It’s not love marriage that taking time will be considered. It’s enough for you to say that you liked someone… here both the families are more than exalted on that ‘liking’ part…”
“Damn!! What do we do now?” She panicked.
“Don’t worry! We’ll think of something. That is why I came here, rushing to talk to you!”
“I’m so sorry! I should have talked to you first!”
“It’s okay… let’s think patiently!”
They reached Ghosh Inn, a fine dining restaurant in one of the quiet lanes in Colaba, somewhere behind the mighty Taj. The restaurant was again a quiet, peaceful one with serene ambience. It specialised in authentic Bengali cuisine.
“I come here, whenever I am stressed.” Nandini spoke, “That is why I brought us here. Somehow, all my problems find a solution here!”
“Really?” He was impressed. Less crowd, sunny interiors, greenery due to scores of plants decorated all over the places and paintings with Bengali scriptures. They took a secluded corner street.
“My mom is Bengali. My grandparents lived in Kolkata. Every year for 2 months in summer holidays we kids, my brothers, our cousins would camp in our Kolkata house and bring the house down with the noise and chaos,” She told him fondly, “My childhood is full of memories in patches – dull ones in Mumbai and colourful holiday memories of Kolkata. Whenever I miss Kolkata a lot, I come here to meet Ghosh uncle and aunty who treat us as family and they have a wide range of Bengali delicacies to offer. Oh, by the way, do you like Bengali food ? I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask.”
“I specialise in Machher jhol and Bhapa doi.” He informed her with a grin.
“Specialise ? What does that mean ?” She asked, visibly surprised.
“It was a secret passion. You can call it as Plan B in case I failed in the MBA entrance. Actually, I was in two minds. Whether to pursue business management or go for hotel management as I loved to cook.”
“You love to cook ?” Her voice was a shriek, louder than intended, with her eyes smiling along with her lips, “You really love to cook ? Oh God, when were you going to tell me, that?”
“What’s so special about that ?” He shrugged.
“I love to eat ! Real Big foodie, I am !” She grinned.
He laughed, “I could see that. Pizza for dinner and now this Bengali treat. I could see that you have a connection with food.”
“Big connection !” She chirped, digging her fork in traditional Bengali fish curry.
“Do you cook too ?”
“Never. I get nervous when I see so many ingredients, so many spices on one table. I don’t know what to do with them. First, you need to cook something edible and then have people like it’s taste…isn’t it tricky ? I don’t think I’ll be able to pull it off, ever.”
He laughed at the way she said that. “It isn’t that difficult as you make it out to be.”
“Trust me… it IS… for me… !” She asserted and stopped speaking as she ate. He became quiet too.
They ate quietly for some time. They were different, In fact, total opposites in every thing. Yet, they had started liking each other’s company but was it enough to get married?
“Can I ask something ?” She asked.
She toyed with her spoon, looking at the flower printed on the table mat before them as if finding words to arrange them in order to form a sentence, that made sense. Finally she spoke, “How serious are your parents?”
He was expecting that question. He had always loved the way she spoke her mind. He had been observing that since the day they met first. She spoke what she had on her mind and that transparency was adorable to him. Though, for the first time, she had spoken with such seriousness. At all the other times, it was about teasing jokes, careless chatter and warm, endearing but intelligent challenges from her.
He left his spoon on the plate and sat straight to observe her before he spoke in a sincere tone, “Nandini, they are very serious.”
“That means, my parents would be on cloud nine, by now. They were already on that ride to ‘get-Nandini-married-asap’… Now, if your parents are serious, my parents will be more than happy to join them in this plan.” She was nervous and almost teary eyed.
He lifted one brow, “Tell me that you are not going to cry! Come on yaar, I told you I am miserable with that!”
She didn’t drop her tears, swallowed them but her eyes glistened. Slowly, she sniffed to hold that last tear and with a smile, she turned to face him, “Is this fine?”
He grinned and nodded, “Yes!”
“That means to say that if we don’t do something drastic, they will get us married?”
He spoke, in a genuine voice, “Nandini, please don’t get me wrong. I think you are the most amazing girl I have ever met. You are beautiful and you are lively. So much fun to talk to. I like you. Really like you. But like we discussed that day… we are neither similar, nor agree on one thing. In fact, we are total opposites in everything. Also, we have distant dreams which don’t cross each other any where. I’m sure our ideologies and philosophies in life will clash too. Why should any of us sacrifice our dreams, ambitions, career or values in life for a stranger? We don’t even know each other.”
She nodded, “I stick to what I said that day. I agree with you, on that.”
“Otherwise, you are amazing. The most genuine, cute, pretty girl.”
Creases on her face inverted to form relaxed smiles after that, “Thanks. Do you always talk that effectively with girls ?”
“I wish I did. My parents wouldn’t have to take the matter in their hands.” He spoke in a careless, matter-of-fact kind of way making her giggle all over again.
She sipped from her masala lime and became serious again, “My parents ! They are too much… God, they need serious therapy.”
He chuckled at the way she said that.
She began to narrate. “Every few days, they want to have a talk with me. They refer to this file of humongous proportions. They pull out data of 15-20 men… it keeps increasing every day and they keep adding more profiles in it, scaring me. They are just selecting guys, all the time…asked me to short list 8-10 guys…”
He was serious when he looked at her, this time. He drew a deep breath waiting for her to complete her essay.
She continued, “Eight or ten, can you believe it ? Out of 15-20. To be honest, I didn’t want to meet ten new boys, for God’s sake. See, I love to meet people and talk, but that does not mean that I will meet ten prospective boys and convince them to not marry me or reject me. Come’on, that’s too much.”
“I told you that day. Even my parents are doing that!”
She heaved a deep sigh, “So, I had to tell them that I like you! What a blunder!”
“It might be a lie on your end but on my part, I really like you Nandini!” He spoke, surprising her. “I’ve said that before.”
“Not lie for me too. We do like each other, but not enough to marry, I suppose??”
“Or… probably… enough to not consider other people for the same?” He replied.
“What does that mean??” She was surprised when he said that.
He spoke focusing on her face, with a fixed, serious, meaningful look in his eyes, “You need to listen to me carefully… That day you rejected my suggestion, even without thinking about it…Right now… Today… think first and then decide… don’t jump to a conclusion…”
“What are you trying to say, Manik?” She asked cautiously.
He took a deep breath, ran his tongue over his lower lip and declared, “I don’t think it is such a bad idea, afterall!”
“We keep harping on and on… again and again… about we are in the same boat. We understand each other as we have similar problems, future dreams and career aspirations. I guess, no one else will be able to understand us as much as we do… and no one will ever give us the space to pursue our individual lives, the way we will give each other.”
“So?” With a puckered brow, she stayed glued to his face.
“As far as I have understood, this drama is not going to end. Every few days, new boys for you, girls for me… meeting people… thinking how to ask them to refuse… someday our families might win and then, they will force us to marry someone we don’t know… and then… he or she might not understand us… both of us, at the least, are not looking forward to any relationship… both of us are simply not ready for anything like ‘love’… and none of us has any expectations from marriage…”
By now, she had realised what he was saying and what he meant by that. She gulped the huge lump of saliva in her throat and whispered his name, “Manik…”
“Marry me, Nandini Murthy!”
She was about to open her mouth in shock, “Wha…” But before she could complete it, he placed his finger on her lip. When she stopped speaking, he withdrew his finger, back to him.
He opened his palm before her, asking for her hand and repeated again, “I’m serious. Marry me!”
She placed her hand in his palm, even though she was not sure about it. Her eyes appeared moistened, holding tear droplets. Her throat was aching. She whispered, “But, why? Why should I marry you?”
He smiled and then chuckled. “You should marry me because when you are with me, you can be what you want to be and do all that you wished to do after rejecting the idea of marriage – travelling, exploring the world, experimenting with your career, following your passions, holidays, fellowships, studies, endless hospital duties and odd working hours… practically everything… I will never stop you, question you or try to control you… I will never interfere… I will never ask you to change… you will be independent… Stay just as you are without any pressure of having to change anything about you. Without any pretences… Do what you wish to do, I’ll never question or judge you.”
She pressed her lips in uncertainty. What he was saying made sense. Meeting new guys and getting married to someone totally unknown or possible creep appeared a cringe-worthy proposition.
Manik, on the other hand, was likeable, was quite understanding and she had met him thrice.
Most importantly, her parents liked him and as per the criteria laid by her parents, he was perfect. And she was perfect as per his parents.
When he found her quiet and thinking about it, he smirked on it, “Nandini Murthy … I’m giving you an offer…it’s once in a lifetime offer!”
“Yes… That day you said that every person is a package, accepting or leaving is our choice. Same goes for relationships. I’m giving you a complete leeway into a relationship… live your life as you want it to be, no holds barred… “
She stared at him speechlessly. The offer was incredible. Too good to be true!!
All this while, she had had a tough time, fighting her parents to delay her marriage. At the same time, she didn’t want to hurt them too. Whereas, Manik’s proposal was too tempting. On top of that, Manik was amazing himself.
She tilted her neck and asked, “And… what do I have to do in return, to accept that offer?”
He replied, “You need to give me ‘exactly’ the same independence that I am giving you! That’s all!”
“That means that I will not ask any questions or stop you from doing anything that I don’t like?”
“Precisely YES!! … No interference in personal life, no questions, no nagging, no fighting…like some typical wives do… I can work, I can sleep, do whatever I want, I am not answerable to you… most of all… no emotional drama, please… I hate…”
She interrupted him, “I know what you hate about marriages… you told that in detail ..15 days back!”
“Yeah!” He nodded.
“Relax! I have neither time, nor energy for emotional stuff. I have no strength left for any relationship and that was why I was avoiding it.”
“Me too. We won’t get that luxury with someone else. With me, you can stay inside your shell and do what you want… And let me be…inside my shell…”
“Hmm!” She nodded, thinking about it, “Marriage… but on our terms? Our conditions?”
“Isn’t this what our parents are doing? Selecting criteria that suits them?? Isn’t this ‘EXACTLY’ the concept of arranged marriage? Staged to suit some people? The difference here will be that previously, our parents were arranging it for us. This time, we will arrange it as per our convenience.”
“But Manik…” She was not convinced. “I hope this is not impulsive…”
“No, it is not. I am thinking about it very patiently. And I’m giving you time too… to think about it. If you refuse, no offence taken, I will go back to Bangalore, and I will tell my parents that it didn’t work out. You tell your parents that I was a douchebag and now you are not sure about me, anymore. What will happen? At max, they will be upset, angry, sad… then they will accept it…Then?? Again the drama? ” He shrugged, making a point. “Think about it!!”
She thought for a long time, toying with the spoon in one hand and other hand in Manik’s strong, warm hand. Finally, she replied, “Manik, I’m amazed at my luck. It can’t be that good!”
He grinned, “So, you accept my proposal?”
“What is there to not accept? To get so many perks in an arranged marriage, I admit that I had zero expectations when my parents were searching grooms for me… I would have been tired, or emotionally blackmailed by ma and pa and would have married someone I don’t even connect with… But.. with you, I know what you are trying to say and you know what I am feeling! That’s more than enough for me…”
“I thought so…”
“Other than that, as none of us is prepared for a relationship. So, I’m absolutely fine with this ‘arrangement’… since you are giving me everything that I have ever wanted… since there is no one else who would do that… or even try to understand me… and since there is no other option left… I think accepting your offer should be a good decision.”
He smirked, “You won’t regret this decision. You are crazy, you know that… I promise that I will always cherish your spark, your spontaneity, your craziness, your attitude…always… I will understand your mood swings…”
“Sounds so good…” She sighed, and then laughed with it, “Though I must say that you do make it sound like a business deal!”
“All arranged marriages begin like business deals. Parents find the best match as per their criteria and match the kids. Everything from skin colour to money earned and qualifications is calculated. Big deal?!”
“We are doing the same… but the specifications are ours…”
“As well as theirs! They chose us, remember?”
“So, basically, we are just giving our own definition to the word ‘arranged marriage’… different from our parents… here we have our rules, our regulations… and if you want, our own time period too!”
“You want to do fellowships in Chennai and UK, I want to join Omega in LA… you want to settle in Austria… our dreams don’t match… whoever attains their dream first, can move on, if any of us wants… the other will not stop!”
“Okay!” She shrugged coolly.
“We’ll be together as long as we feel like… if things go in an unplanned direction… any of us can take a call or a decision to move away or move on… there will be nothing like ‘together’…we ARE and we WILL remain independent of each other…that’s the key…”
“But…” She pressed her lips in uncertainty.
“Manik, I’m scared… Is it going to work?”
“I don’t know Nandini. I’m skeptical, even when I suggest it… I’m not sure, either… I’m not sure how it is going to turn out but I’m sure about one thing – that if it doesn’t go well, only you will be able to understand …. you are exactly in the same position as me…”
“Hmm!” She nodded.
“It’s a real marriage… so you have equal and every right on my money, investments, properties…”
“That’s offensive… I didn’t even think about money. I can earn my own,” She was mildly upset.
“Come on… I know that… I just had to make it clear. All legal rights, all financial and social rights that come with marriage…everything that a woman gets in a relationship will be yours in case we separate or don’t want to stay together. We will be legally, socially, validly getting married. All I ask for, is – that I need my independence.”
“No other girl will do that.”
“But I have one condition.”
“Independence doesn’t mean infidelity. It will not be an open marriage. You cannot flirt, date or sleep with any other woman.”
He chuckled, “Rest assured about that. I will remain loyal. I won’t cheat or lie in that aspect.”
“I won’t do that too!”
“To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me, Nandini… from my side, you are free to flirt, date or sleep with anyone… and if you really find someone you fall in love with… just let me know… we will get divorced…”
“But… What if one of us falls in love with the other ???”
He smirked sarcastically, “Marriage makes people fight with each other, hate each other… not fall in love…it’s hard to live with another person… people grow out of love, when they marry… Even those who get together in a love marriage, might develop differences and sometimes they separate!”
“There is still a possibility… My question remains the same – “If at all, one of us falls in love with the other”…this arrangement is not going to work…it will bring with it lot of complications…”
“All the complications of love and marriage that scare us – complaints, questions, expectations, disappointments, insecurities, fights…”
“Yes! And that will happen ONLY when one falls in love and the other doesn’t…”
“Exactly!! … so… we will take care not to fall in love…then…”
“How is that possible? You can’t stop feeling what you do!”
He thought seriously for a moment. Then he replied, “That will be really difficult if one falls in love and the other doesn’t. It’s okay if both of us do… or none of us does… maybe, we don’t fall in love at all… But when one of us does, the other should not be asked, expected or be obliged to respond to love, just out of courtesy… that will be pathetic…”
“Exactly, my point! Then what?” She asked.
“I would prefer to walk out with a broken heart, instead of stopping you from achieving your dreams and dragging you back.”
“Same here! I don’t want to be the reason of any failure of yours. I don’t want to come between your dreams and you!”
“So, one who falls in love, will walk out?”
“Let’s set a few ground rules … one who achieves his dreams and ambitions is free to go wherever the job takes him…. one who falls in love, and knows that the other doesn’t should move away too…”
“Will we get divorced when we shift to different countries?”
“No. We will not get divorced. At least, not till we want to marry someone else. So, we will simply move to our choice of work, IN CASE we get an opportunity…If we don’t, it’ll stay as it is… I think we should plan and focus till we achieve our dreams… and move to our place of choice. If we have to separate for that…we will evaluate after 5 years… IF we miss each other and feel that we should get back together, we’ll see what happens then!”
She nodded, “Perfect!”
“I know it sounds a bit sick to you!”
“No it doesn’t. In fact, it sounds practical. These days, couples separate even before first marriage anniversary. Even love marriages don’t sustain. I loved your approach, in fact. It suits me… so much! We have set rules and regulations and we are getting what we want… our parents get what they want… your dadi will be happy too…she will get to see your wedding… she got what she wanted… in fact, in this relationship, everyone seems happy as they are getting what they asked for!
“Uff! Finally, I’m relieved… It’s better than playing this blind game of arranged marriage with any other person with no perks assured.”
“Exactly!! It’s going to be so relaxed… following our dreams and passions and life, just the way our plans were before the marriage…with no change in life, after marriage… “
“With no expectations.”
“No interference, no rona dhona, too…”
“Manik, it’s going to be tough … we are so different, we are total opposites… that we are bound to clash and fight if we crossover to each other’s space.”
“No. We will respect our boundaries and stay off limits from other’s space.”
“How will we manage? We have lot of flaws.”
“Let’s ignore the flaws for now and move ahead with just 2 positive qualities in each other. It’s important to focus on positives if you want a peaceful life together.” He said, “I’ll start. The two positive qualities in you, which I loved are… that you are innocent and honest… and you are cute too…”
“Thank you! That makes it 3 qualities in me…” She grinned and giggled, “Anyway, I’ll count yours – You make me laugh and you are a good cook… I was already floored, that very moment, when you said that you cook.”
He laughed loudly at that, nodding disbelievingly, “You are crazy.”
“You just said that you will cherish my craziness!”
“I will!!” He leaned forwards towards her, looking deep into the oceans of her eyes, “Shall I take it as a ‘yes’ for my proposal ?”
Making a fist of her right hand and faking a light punch at his chest, she said, “Of course, I’ll marry you. Did you really think I’d let go of such an amazing offer…”
“Cool!” He grinned, “Let’s say our own vows then…before our parents make us say the traditional vows…”
She laughed and said, “Okayyy!! So, you begin.”
“No… you begin. “
“Alright….Mmm… So no encroachment of personal space…”
“No crying, creating a scene… asking for explanations…”
“You are free to do whatever you want to do… without anyone stopping you… You can play video games all day… you can sleep all day, when you are not working… you can eat all day, whatever you want and park yourself in front of TV watching sports…marriage will not tie you down, even if you want to work all day and night…I will not crib like typical wives do…”
“And… You can travel the entire world… you can explore life… you can pursue your passions… you can explore different professions…I will not stop you…. I won’t ask you to cook, clean, take care of the house… or my family or relatives… nothing is your responsibility… you are as free as you were in your parents’ house…I will not behave like a creep like some husbands so… “
“I will not comment on your friends, way of life, habits or decisions…”
“I will not order you to do things for me… I will not blame you for anything going wrong in our lives…”
“Don’t expect me to run around doing your chores, searching your files, keys, wallet, tie etc etc..”
“Don’t expect romantic talks, getaways, dinners, gifts from me…”
“Don’t expect me to stay up late, waiting for you, in case you decide to work late…”
“Don’t expect me to listen to your problems regarding maids, relatives, neighbours, colleagues, patients…
“We will stay out of each other’s way…”
“We will respect each other’s privacy…”
“We will add more to this list as life goes on…”
“Perfect!” He grinned happily.
“Perfect, for me too…” She was all smiles too…as they recited in reverse order, all that they had always hated about love and marriage… And promised not to do any of them…