She stood in her balcony, looking down at us playing cricket. I was fielding at the boundary, but neither were my eyes at the ball, nor my mind in the game. I had positioned myself at a spot from where I could look at her straight. A rude shout from the captain made me realize I had missed a catch and amidst all the scolding, I saw her smiling at me. I was glad, I had managed to grab her attention.
This was the best month of the year for me, August. The month after my quarterly exams got over, and she had her vacations.
She was my best friend Vaibhav’s cousin, settled in the USA. She would visit his family every year for her summer holidays. Just for a month. But for me, August, in all true sense, was like beautiful rains after scorching summer.
I fell for her the very day I saw her. I was ten, she was nine. Vaibhav had brought her along to play and there she stood, in a cute frock speaking with an accent I couldn’t understand a word of. But her voice was so sweet, that whatever it was she spoke sounded like music to my ears.
And I had continued to be in love, or have a crush on her, as people termed it later. That day, when I missed a precious catch ogling at her, I had just completed the first tests of my Tenth Standard. I considered myself adult enough to tell a crush from love.
I was sure it was true love. Why else would I wait, every year for August, the rains and that little time she visited? Unlike my other friends, who met their girlfriends every day , spent every moment with them, why didn’t I fall in love with someone else, when there were so many beautiful faces around.
And I knew that she knew. Though I never mustered the courage to talk to her, or communicate with letters, I often dropped subtle hints with my eyes. While she was around, I almost stayed at Vaibhav’s all the time and I was certain she was smart enough to understand. But I was scared to kind of confess my love or utter the three magical words, honestly I was worried of what my parents would say. Or how her parents would react? What if they all blew up a little thing like my declaration of love and made matters worse? I somehow decided to wait, I still had time.
By college, I had made up my mind. The fact that no other woman could replace her in my heart was enough indication for me that I was in love with Shruti. I wasn’t in love with just her attractive looks. She was much more than a pretty face. Whenever she came to India, I noticed her speaking impeccable Hindi, dressing traditionally for family functions, displaying respect for elders, all with her shy and calm demeanour. In short, she was everything I wished for, a blend of both modern and traditional values.
From the information I had collected from Vaibhav, I had only four months to plan and execute my proposal. She was visiting them that summer, the same time when I was to finish my graduation. I had performed well academically, I had a few job interviews lined up. Plus, the last time I had met her, I had been a little more obvious, and to my absolute delight, she had held my gaze and coyly smiled back at me. That had been an encouraging hint and I had started planning since then. All would now fall in place…at least that’s what I thought.
I was in for a massive shock when Vaibhav informed me that they were travelling to America that year, for Shruti’s wedding.
I stood rooted to the spot, at that moment, I realized what heartbreak felt like. I mean, for some time, I couldn’t hear what he was speaking, I could feel my eyes brimming up with tears. Stifling them, I heard myself asking, “Isn’t she a bit too young for marriage?”
“Yes, she is,” he agreed, “But the boy’s family is filthy rich, based there since ages and running a successful business. They liked Shruti and it was all arranged pretty soon. They are lucky to find a match like that guy.”
Perhaps it was something about my expression, that Vaibhav sat me down and spoke kindly, “Come on Akash, we could all see that you had a crush on her, but…”
I stopped him midway, “It was not a crush, I sincerely loved her. Why do you think I never had any girlfriends? I was saving it all up, for her.”
He calmed me down, “Then you should have spoken about it to her Akash. But even if you had, I wonder if she would have agreed. She is a timid girl, very obedient. I don’t think she would have stood up to her parents to marry you.”
It took me some time to recover and put Shruti behind me. After all, I had been in love with that lady for more than a decade. I had found the remedy in immersing myself in my work completely. My father had not been keeping well and being the only child, there were a lot of responsibilities up my shoulders.
I was still in touch with Vaibhav, he had been my best friend at one time. From random conversation, I had gathered that she was happy and now blessed with a son. A young mother, I thought, but then I deliberately pushed all thoughts about her away, she was another man’s wife now. I had nothing to do with her.
As I pushed thirties, my parents, or rather everyone I knew started the Great Indian Bride Hunt for me, without my knowledge. Though I had refrained from the discussion many a times, I now gave in. My parents were right on their part, perhaps getting married would help me forget Shruti and commence a new life. The prospect of falling in love was scarce, so I was prepared to give arranged marriage a try.
Now arranged marriage wasn’t that simple an issue. There were horoscopes, family background, the boy’s salary, the girl’s looks, parents on both sides, uncles, aunts…numerous factors to take care of. I had my conditions, ladies had theirs. For me, I wanted a girl very unlike Shruti, I wanted someone who was mature, independent, bold enough to take her own decisions. I didn’t want her to just bow down to her parents’ wishes and get married. The ladies on their part pretty much preferred men who chose to stay away from their parents, which in my case was impossible.
Thus the hunt continued; weeks turned to months and months to years. With my father passing away, my mother had turned a bit of an invalid. She was lonely and expected me to be around. I refused long term offshore assignments thanks to which my promotions and increments took a beating. To cut a long story short, it turned out, I had a complicated horoscope, personal responsibilities and not a very attractive pay package. They had kind of written me off the arranged marriage market.
So here’s another August, just like every year and here I am, on the wrong side of thirty, unmarried, living with my mom, but madly in love, yet again.
It so happened that on one of these days, on my way back from my jog, I decided to drop in at Vaibhav’s place. His parents were old, etiquettes demanded I visit them.
Shruti opened the door and ushered me in. That I was stunned was an understatement, I had to exert a lot of control to stop staring at her and behave normally. She looked beautiful as ever. We exchanged pleasantries before Vaibhav and his family could join us and Shruti introduced me to her son Shlok, a tall and handsome teenager. I wondered where her husband was, perhaps he had not joined them. I didn’t wish to meet him, I felt a tinge of jealousy even after all these years.
Shruti had brought back some old memories, I smiled when I thought of that time. Waiting desperately for her summer vacations, monsoons, trying to catch a glimpse of Shruti, on her balcony or in Vaibhav’s kitchen, gazing at her from far, my heart fluttering every time she returned the gaze… To my surprise, I didn’t feel the least bit bitter or sad, she had gifted me some of the best moments of my life. It was my fault that I couldn’t complete my love story, what wrong had she done after all.
The next day I met her again, she was walking back home. I waved at her and she waved back. We talked freely now, it was for the first time in twenty five years, I realized with amusement. As we stopped at a tea stall, I happened to enquire about her husband and all she said was, “We are not together anymore.”
Though I wished to know why, I didn’t prod. She was entitled to her privacy and I could see she was uncomfortable.
We met almost every day now, we had exchanged phone numbers and had fixed up a time for our morning jog. She was so much fun to talk to, witty and well informed. In between talks, she happened to tell me that she wished to find a job and settle some place else in the U.S. As Shlok had his holidays, she planned to take him around India, for a change.
Though she talked rarely about her marriage, I managed to figure out that the man had wronged her in some way and she had been unhappy. I narrated my arranged marriage misadventures and both of us laughed at how perfectly matched horoscopes could end up ruining a marriage.
I often found Shlok standing at the balcony, while we returned together and from the way he looked at me, I had a feeling he disliked me. He looked at me with disdain, I waved at him once, he quietly moved inside without waving back. Perhaps, he didn’t like me getting close to his mother, or perhaps it was his teenage attitude. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure he hated me.
It was Vaibhav who told me what had happened. He offered me a lift to work the other day when it rained cats and dogs, I think he did that deliberately because he had noticed my growing friendship with Shruti. Shruti’s husband and in-laws had been very dominating and being rich, they had never respected her family. She wasn’t allowed to meet them very often and that answered my question as to why she hadn’t been to India all this time. Though they had let her complete her education, going to work was a strict No-No. Her husband had been initially good, but after a few years of marriage and a kid, he had started getting bored of her. His infidelity and love affairs had brought her to the verge of depression, but for Shlok and his future, she had stay put.
But matters got worse when two years back, he, along with a few friends, was accused of raping a young domestic help. Shruti had been forced by the family to lie in court that her husband was with her when the incident occurred, but she had put her foot down. They had threatened her with dire consequences if she spoke the truth, but Shruti had stood her ground. She refused to lie and walked out with Shlok.
Shruti had stayed with her parents and started her life from scratch. She had no money or job of her own and she didn’t wish to burden her parents. She had managed to find work somehow, and was now a single mother, who couldn’t provide her son with all the luxuries he was used to. Her husband’s family was powerful and influential, and with no proper witness, he was soon acquitted. But he decided to punish Shruti by snatching Shlok away from her. The family wanted the son, he was the scion of their wealthy business and Shruti couldn’t let him grow up in that environment anymore. Her coming to India was an escape route, Vaibhav mentioned. She had a degree and some job experience, she was determined to work, be financially independent and bring up her son on her own.
As we almost reached my office, Vaibhav spoke, “Years ago, you had mentioned you loved her. As her family now, I wish to tell you that if you are still interested, we are okay with the alliance. But it’s okay if you are not willing anymore, you will always remain my friend, no hard feelings.”
It’s been just a few days since this conversation happened, but all I think of now, is Shruti. With her courage and integrity, she has bowled me over. I had always believed her to be too timid, but now I understand, she is the bravest of all, someone who has sacrificed her marriage and a rich, comfortable life, to save an innocent person. More than love, I respect and admire her, she is bringing up her son single handedly, determined to stand on her own feet but refusing to burden anyone, or give up on life.
I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or sad. I’m just someone who once felt something bigger than anything else I’d ever felt and when I lost it, I honestly believed I would never have that again. But… I was 22 then and life is long. And I’m feeling things right now that I haven’t in a long, long time.
I wish to give her the life she deserves; I want to fill her life with happiness. I now realize that she is the kind of woman I had been looking for and I am ready to accept her with all her responsibilities. I want to bring her home, have my kids with her, grow old with her and spend an eternity with her by my side.
She hasn’t been making it easy though. The day after Vaibhav talked to me, I confronted Shruti. She heard me patiently as I slowly and gently poured my heart out to her. Little tears of joy trickled down her cheeks, when I told her that I had planned to do this almost fifteen years back. A lot had changed after that, even my love for her. It was stronger, deeper and I wasn’t letting her go away again.
After what seemed an eternity, she answered, “I always knew you loved me Akash, I always waited for you to confess, but you never did. The sad part is, now that you have finally proposed, I have to say no. I can’t marry you Akash.”
I tried to coax her, but she interjected, “Akash, I am a mother now. It’s been a bumpy ride for Shlok , I separated him from his father, then brought him to India…It’s not easy for him and if I suddenly get married now, he will think I deserted him too. He has only me, Akash, I can’t let him feel lonely and ignored. Forgive me.”
Shattered and broken, I moved around like a zombie, having lost all faith in love and life. Somewhere deep in my heart, I knew she was right to a certain extent. That boy Shlok disliked me and it wasn’t simple to suddenly accept a step father, at his age. My love remained unrequited, or so I thought, till two days back.
But then, guess what, I am gearing up for my marriage next week, I am out shopping with my mother. My love finally found a way and Shruti said yes. It’s August, I knew something good had to come my way. It was a series of missed calls and a Whatsapp message from an unknown number on my phone yesterday that has played cupid. So here is the message…
“Hi, I’m Shlok. Have been trying to call you, you seem busy. Anyways, of late, I have been seeing you with mom a lot and from what I could make out from the conversations at home, you wish to marry mom and she’s refusing because of her concern for me. Let me assure you sir, I have absolutely no problems with you marrying her. She thinks I don’t know but I am pretty much aware of what my father did. My mom has been suffering a lot since long, she has migrated to India to keep me safe. I believe she is entitled to a lot of love and happiness which you can provide her. I told her this yesterday, but she still thinks I am a kid. So sir, please come home tomorrow, let us be friends. Let me show her that I genuinely like you, so that she gives love a second chance.
PS: You can tell me what I should call you after you guys get married.”
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