Had it not been the early 90’s, had it not been the Indian hinterland and had it not been the unlucky lad; this incident wouldn’t have been. This Diwali was going to be special. Ritwik was excited about going to his hometown, Lucknow. Though he was excited about meeting his family and friends; that was not the main reason for his anticipation. His parents were starting the bride hunting festival for him. With three interviews already lined up, it all augured well for him. Ritwik jumped on to the moving train from Delhi, offloading the knapsack from his back with such swiftness that all those who were there had to look up and notice.
This buoyance was not without a reason – a beneficiary of the just liberalized India, Ritwik knew that he was the ideal bridegroom for every sweet thing and her parents. His income was in 6 figures – hefty annual package not a meager monthly salary; he had travelled across half the globe to the New York city for work – he was carrying a bunch of “I Love NY” t shirts to give to the wide eyed relatives, he had recently bought a car and lived in an apartment next to the golf course, besides he belonged to locally reputed family. He knew many marriageable girls in the city of Nawab’s would be vying for him.
The train journey was uneventful except for the heated discussion in the coach on the next general elections and how the politics would play out on caste lines. Though Ritwik couldn’t contribute much, he nodded his head vigorously several times as speakers were making their pointers so vehemently that he felt compelled to. People presented such fine analysis, deep sociological understanding and keen nose for political wind that Ritwik couldn’t help comparing them with the foreigners he has just met on his trip abroad. Most of them wouldn’t be able to tell who the governor of their state was. “If world was to suddenly adopt political insight as the indicator of a nation’s progress rather than other socio-economic parameters, India could find itself leading the world”, mused Ritwik.
Ritwik’s mother couldn’t control her tears on seeing her son after almost a year. Ritwik was also pleased to meet his younger brother, Roshan, who seemed to be uninterested by his arrival and just said “Hi”, before adding not to remove his things from the ‘almirah’ in the room they would be sharing. But Ritwik did not mind his brother’s aloofness. Roshan was not someone to show emotions even though he was caring in his own way. He was a practical person with loads of commonsense which prevented him to be drawn to any useless discussions or emotional outpourings. He used to listen to conversations without seeming to be interested in what’s being said; then sometimes he would suddenly make a very precise point or sharp conclusions before coldly waking off – allowing the lesser mortals to chew on what he had professed. Unlike Ritwik, Roshan never showed any promise in academics and joined father’s hardware shop even before he finished college.
During the course of the next few days, Ritwik was shown profiles of lot of girls but these were from the rejects pile. The three shortlisted ones were already kept aside. Mom informed Ritwik, “Roshan would be in-charge of taking you to meet the three girls in the final shortlist. He doesn’t want to show their profiles to you right now. He will show them to you just before the meeting. He will also accompany you to their houses. We have already met them, now it is up to you to choose the one.”
“All that is fine, but I want to have a look at the final shortlist. Why this mystery”? – Ritwik.
“Roshan says that is better for you.”
“What does he know about all of this? He is an idiot.” said Ritwik, starting to get agitated.
Just then Roshan entered the living room and Ritwik charged at him. “Hand over the details of the three prospects to me”, demanded Ritwik.
“Ritwik, I do not have any issues with that, but I was only hoping that this would help you take the best decision for yourself. I am only trying to help you.”
“And exactly how this suspense is going to help me?”
“First, change your tone! I am not doing it for myself.”
After a momentary silence, Roshan continued “This will help you in not prejudging any case and keeping an open mind when you meet them. I will share their details few hours before the meeting so that you can prepare yourself. It will also keep your interest level high. You have to believe me on this.”
All the three meetings were scheduled just after Diwali, on the next three successive days.
Ritwik’s mother couldn’t keep her excitement under wraps and broached the topic as the family was preparing to go out to fire the crackers.
“Ritwik, all the three girls are from highly placed family but the family from Mirzapur is the wealthiest.”
Roshan casted an anguished look at her mother but the arrow was out of the bow.
“Mom, I am not going to accept a single rupee of dowry, so family status doesn’t matter to me”, said Ritwik in an uprightly manner.
“Ritwik – we are not some destitute who are salivating for dowry, but gifts and jewelry received in a marriage indicates the worth of the groom. We have to do some things for the society even though we might not believe in it.”, said the mother, convinced that dowry was an only a necessary societal ritual and not a social evil. “Anyway kids should not concern themselves with these details. Your father is very good at negotiating. You meet all of them with open mind.”
“Mom” – Ritwik started to protest.
“Mom, I am fully aware of the enormous responsibility I have. I will also broach this topic, when we visit the prospective families.” declared Roshan with great pretended earnestness.
“Roshan, I think you will jeopardize my chances by such foolishness and as I said dowry is not the criteria for me. I am here to find my soulmate!” Ritwik.
“Do not worry brother! I know I have to sell you well. At the hardware store I have sold three toilet seats to households with only two washrooms”, assured Roshan, before walking off to the garden with the crackers.
Next couple of days went very busy. Ritwik was excited, nervous, happy and circumspect all at the same time. The first two meetings were in the city.
Pooja was a very quiet homely girl. Ritwik recalled seeing Pooja at the chemistry tuition of Prof. Pandey. She was a year junior to him and her batch started just as his ended. Ritwik recalled seeing her usually bent on her knees tying the tube lock around the front tires of her cycle. Apparently the young girl has blossomed well! During the conversations Pooja came close to tears few times talking about leaving her family and moving to different city.
Ritwik was not sure if she was the eclectic companion he was looking for, but he did like the laddoos, which he was told were prepared by Pooja but smelled as if they were from ‘Brijwasi’. He decided to keep Pooja on standby. “You did well by keeping her in contention Ritwik”, said Roshan, “I have done some preliminary inquiry about her. She is a quiet but nice girl. You might have to come back to her after you have met others. Lot of times we end up purchasing the same shirt we see first, though we might go around the bazaar to see what others have.” Although Ritwik didn’t like the comparison, he decided to let it pass.
Vivacious would be a mild word for Swati, the daughter of this ‘Lal Kuan’ based family. She seemed to be genuinely excited about meeting Ritwik. She seemed to be completely smitten by the prospect of moving to a cosmopolitan city like Delhi. She asked him about the places to see in Delhi and must-go-to restaurants. Joy was visible in her eyes, when Ritwik described about Narula’s – the restaurant. Ritwik felt more like a city guide than a soulmate after 20 mins of the intimate talk. Ritwik suspected Swati is more eager about the prospect of moving to a bigger city that about marrying him. Finally Swati asked him on his chances of moving to Mumbai, as it was another city which she wanted live in, conforming the worst. When Ritwik narrated his encounter to his brother, Roshan simply added that hers’ is a politically well-connected family. “Their second cousin is sitting MLA and first cousin a corporator, who is also facing an attempt to murder charge. As far as I am concerned this is the best proposal. With their influence they can help me in procuring government contracts for the civil contract business I am planning to start”, he elaborated.
So it all came down to the last maiden. On the day after ‘Bhai-dooj’ Ritwik and Roshan set off for Mirzapur. They decided to drive down to the town. On the way when they stopped at a dhaba, Roshan took out one page bio data of Pinky along with two photographs - one close up and another showing the full girl. Munching the delicious paratha, Roshan said, “Check this, bhai”. Though the bio data was thin with not many details except that she had completed her bachelor’s in commerce, Ritwik was blown away. It would be wrong to say that there was no other beauty like hers’ but it was also true that Ritwik had not personally known someone so beautiful. The vulnerability of her face and petite frame made Rtiwik long for her, to protect her, to be her savior. Ritwik didn’t eat much and remained recalcitrant during the drive. His eyes fixed on the distant horizon, coming to terms with what he had seen and what he was going to see.
The hospitality showered by Pinky’s household was immaculate. Their wealth was obvious. The house was a huge bungalow with a front lawn and a garden at the back. Women wore expensive clothes and heavy jewelry. The visitors were offered tea and told that Pinky was getting ready. When Pinky came to the garden, where all were having tea, Ritwik got up and said “Hi”. The sight of the potential bride made Ritwik’s resolve of marrying her stronger. If Pinky was impressed by Ritwik, she didn’t show it. She sat there saying nothing much; few perfunctory smiles on the jokes cracked by her ‘bhabhi’. As the conversations were not ceasing and seeing the discomfort of his brother, on not being able to chat with Pinky in private, Roshan proposed that the couple be allowed some private time. Pinky’s mother proposed that Pinky and Ritwik can continue to chat in the lawn while the others can move inside. Reading his brother’s thought Roshan interjected, “Perhaps both of them can go outside and talk. Being totally devoid of our presence they might open their hearts. There should be some coffee shop in the town”. Seeing the reluctant look on her mother’s face, Pinky, for the first time spoke with some force “That is a good idea, we can go to Royal Café”. Forced by this request Pinky’s father nodded his head.
Both of them hardly spoke in the 15 minutes’ drive. But Ritwik used this time to firm up his strategy on how to impress the girl next to him and cajole her into marriage, because he knew this is what he all wanted at this moment. Seeing her tiny fingers placed firmly on her lap gave him an indescribable feeling. He wanted to reach out and place them between his larger palms and squeeze them softly, he almost felt dizzy by the thought.
Ordering two coffees, Ritwik started on a philosophical note telling what he wanted from life. Pinky listened attentively but without much interest. Seeing the conversation not going in the desired direction Ritwik suddenly said “Carpets of Mirzapur are famous world over”, attempting to change the conversation.
“Why are you saying that now? Here?” Pinky said in a slight peevish tone, suddenly coming out of her shell and deciding to take the matters in her hand.
Shocked with the change in demeanor of the thus far demure lady Ritwik replied, “Just like that – it is the most famous product of Mirzapur - that is why”.
“How very unfortunate – you say it while sitting with me”, said Pinky, with a mix of mischief and sarcasm.
After a brief eerie silence, Pinky announced “I cannot marry you Mr. Delhi. You can’t expect to land in someone’s life suddenly one day with that horse-like hair and an eager face, hoping to coax an unwilling person into marriage. “
“I was invited by your parents”, Ritwik protested.
“That is because they wanted to get rid of me before I elope with my boyfriend.”
“Do you really expect a girl of my beauty to be not taken?”
“And what about your parents?”
“Does it look like I care? I am waiting for my boyfriend to find a job and then we will get married”, said Pinky with determination.
Ritwik didn’t reply and kept looking outside from the glass window of the café into the busy street of Mirzapur. With scores of bikes, cars, rickshaws, autos, pedestrians, cows, dogs and pigs in few square meters; there couldn’t be a more chaotic scene but Ritwik was not noticing anything. He was looking through them into the potholes on the street. His life suddenly seemed like the dirty water that filled these potholes.
His eyes must have betrayed the emotions, for Pinky said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you. You must be a good person. I mean - I hardly know you. I was blunt. But I do not know how else to handle it. I have told you my decision, now it is up to you how you take it”.
Determined no to prove himself a bad loser, Ritiwik said “It is fine. At least you were honest. I have always felt girls should be allowed their choice”, he added with magnanimity, colors returning to his cheeks.
“In fact my boyfriend is in Delhi, looking for a job. He is an engineer. By the way, can you pass his resume to the concerned people in your company? You might prove to be lucky for me!” said Pinky almost beaming now.
“Oh-Oh… hun, why not? I am always eager to help”.
They drove back to the house.
Rtiwik made hurried retreat from their house saying goodbye to the Pinky’s parents and pulling his brother into the car. As the car reached the big iron gate, Pinky case dashing towards the card. Ritwik would see the broad smiles on the face of Pinky’s parents in the background as Pinky plunged her tiny fingers into his. As he took the document from her hand he noticed the name of his victorious rival on the resume. He tossed it on the back seat the car and drove away swiftly.
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||You really know how to play with words. Character sketch is pretty good. Loved the 'tiny fingers' contradiction. Very well written.||