As the dappled rays of the sun fell on her beautiful face, Vikram smiled at her.
“Even the sun has fallen in love with you, Sunaina. How can you blame a poor mortal like me, then?” He caressed her raven black hair with a gentle hand, his eyes aglow with admiration.
“Shush, Vikram! Words like that tempt the gods. I could not bear to be parted from you, ever,” she whispered. Their love had gone through so many tribulations, but it had only enhanced its quality.
Vikram and Sunaina had gravitated towards each other in college. At first, they had admired each other from a distance, and it took days for them to meet.
Rani, Vikram’s best friend, and the only girl in his gang was the one who spurred him towards the spritely Sunaina.
“Go, Vicky, she admires you already. I can see it in the way she looks at you!” Rani’s words had thrilled his very heart, but the boys in his gang scoffed.
“Sunaina? She is a cold fish. She has never allowed anyone, except Rithwik, to get close to her.”
His interest was piqued.
“Apparently a close family friend. Their parents were neighbours a long time ago and the two have grown up together.”
Rani shook her head.
“I have seen Sunaina with the other boys in college. She has shown no interest in any of them. However, our handsome Vikram has caught her eye.”
After a cat-and-mouse game, where the two tested the waters by striking up an innocuous conversation in front of all their friends, sparks flew. They soon had eyes for no one but each other.
However, the most formidable obstacle loomed before them – a family feud that had its origin in a fight a decade ago which had members from both their families sparring in a bar. The outcome was a couple of deaths and a hatred between the families which rivalled that of the Montagues and the Capulets.
“Let us hope that we do not end up as the modern Romeo and Juliet,” joked Vikram to his Sunaina, who gazed at him in horror, admonishing him for being so flippant about a matter so significant. “We need to keep our love under wraps for the moment. Our families will not hesitate to draw blood if they know of it.” Her words, uttered in a low tone, struck deep within Vikram’s heart. He took her soft hand and pressed it, remarking, “My love, if the need arises, we will elope, get married and hide ourselves away from our families for all time.”
In college, their love story was known by very few, mainly because they met alone in extreme secrecy. Most times, they were surrounded by their friends, and since both were popular, Vikram being the college Chairman and Sunaina the Arts Secretary, they were expected to work together in harmony.
It is not known how the first spark arose, that insidious little piece of gossip that crept into Rithwik’s ears. At first, he froze and roughly cuffed the boy who had mentioned it.
“Don’t you dare link Sunaina with any boy, especially not that arrogant Vikram who thinks he is the cat’s whiskers,” he hissed. “She is too intelligent to even look at him. She knows of the dreadful feud between the two families. There is no way she would upset her parents in any way.” He paused and glared at the cowering boy.
“If I hear this rumour from anyone else, I will know whom to blame. You had better watch out if you don’t want your bones broken!”
That threat was enough to shut the timid boy up and for a while, no more rumours came up. Too many students were aware of the power yielded by both feuding families.
Then, one day, another rumour surfaced. And then, another! This time, it was not a lone voice but a larger number who had seen Vikram and Sunaina at a movie theatre, sitting in a dark corner, more engrossed in each other than the movie playing on screen. They would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that a few other students turned up and one of them noticed the couple in the corner. He pointed them out and soon, several pictures were clicked which soon made their way to Rithwik’s phone.
All hell broke out that evening. When Sunaina reached home, her parents were waiting for her, their faces thunderous. Even before she could say anything, her father sprang up and dragged her by her arm.
“Father, you’re hurting me,” she whimpered.
“I could hurt you even more. “ His face was crimson and his eyes bloodshot. Her mother did not even try to stop him, even as tears rolled down her eyes.
“Ma, Papa, what have I done? Why are you treating me like a criminal?”
“Ask Rithwik, you senseless girl! He knows exactly what you have been up to.”
She suddenly noticed that Rithwik had come into the room, mobile in hand. His eyes blazed as he handed it to her.
“What were you doing with that traitor, Vikram, in the movie hall?” he asked, his eyes unrelenting.
“Watching a movie, of course! What else does one do in a theatre?” she retorted, as Rithwik scrolled through the pictures till he stopped and held a particular one out, holding it close to her face.
“Is this how you watch a movie?” he sneered.
Sunaina’s heart sank as she took the picture in. Vikram had his arm around her, and they were looking into each other’s eyes. The picture spoke volumes of their love.
Her father grabbed the phone from Rithwik. He glanced at it, and then handed it over to his wife who burst into convulsive sobs.
“Is this how you behave in public? Like a wanton woman? Do you know what society labels women who behave thus?” Her father was so inflamed that he had spittle coming down the sides of his mouth. Her mother’s sobs continued like a litany, adding to the tension in the room.
“Papa, I love him.” Sunaina’s voice rose to a crescendo, cutting through her father’s harangue. It stopped him mid-sentence as he stared at her, aghast that she had said something so unbelievable. For a moment there was silence, and then he grabbed her by the arm again.
“Stop right there! Are you standing there and telling me that you are in love with this… this upstart? Have you any idea what his family would do to you if you married him? They would cut you into little pieces… exactly what we would do to him if he stepped into our world!”
Sunaina’s face paled and tears began rolling down her eyes.
“Papa, we love each other. Can’t you understand how important that is? How can families come in between when two people want to spend their lives together?”
Her father let out an exasperated sigh, and then dragged her across the room to her bedroom. He shoved her inside with force. As she stared at him tearfully, he shook a finger at her.
“Do not try to cross me in this matter. Forget about this man. He will never be in your life, not while I am alive.” He slammed the door and shot the bolt from outside. He turned to his stricken wife.
“You will not open this door and let her out. She needs to come to her senses. And soon!” He strode out, his back like a ramrod.
Sunaina’s mother sank into a chair. “Rithwik, what do I do? Both father and daughter are equally headstrong. I am petrified of what will happen because it will be painful for all of us.”
Rithwik caught the older lady’s hand.
“Aunty, let things be. I am sure Sunaina will understand what her father means once she thinks over it.”
Sunaina’s mother shook her head, sorrow in her eyes.
“If I know my daughter, she will not let this go, and neither will her father.” She covered her face with her hands.
Months went by and both father and daughter moved into an uneasy truce. Rithwik would accompany Sunaina to college and keep a watchful eye over her. It was almost impossible for her to meet Vikram but since both had friends galore, they managed little ploys to throw Rithwik off the scent.
“Vikram, the situation at home is unbearable. Papa watches me like a hawk all the time. Ma has no say and Rithwik is like a shadow, sticking to me the moment I leave home. I am at the end of my tether.”
Vikram smiled at her. “Sunaina, I can understand what you are going through. It would be the same at my home, except that no one knows about you yet. That is my trump card. When we make a move, only one set of parents will know the circumstances.”
Sunaina smiled as she asked, “When do we make this move?”
“As soon as your father gets a bit more complacent and feels that you have reconciled to his decision.”
A few more months went by and slowly, Sunaina sensed that her parents were relaxing their vigil. She went to college as usual, wrote her exams and put up a happy front.
“Time to make our move, my love!” Vikram’s face was grim because he knew that it was time to test their love and their luck.
“On the day of the last exam, tell your parents that you have an end of the term party. Keep a bag packed which you can smuggle out two days before that.” He gazed at her expectant face, smiling as he smoothed an unruly curl off her forehead.
“The moment the exam is over, we will make our way to the railway station. I have bought two tickets to Mumbai. Our new adventure will begin once we board that train.”
Sunaina was aware of a feeling of trepidation as she looked at Vikram, her face mirroring her anxiety. There were so many pitfalls ahead of them. Would they survive them all to live together finally? She needed to keep away from Rithwik. He could read her thoughts and he had a naturally suspicious mind.
“Here we are finally!” Vikram’s face lit up as he ushered Sunaina into the tiny one-bedroom flat that a friend of his had found for them in the outskirts of Mumbai. “It’s tiny, but enough for us to settle in initially.”
Sunaina’s eyes widened as she looked around at the cosy little place she would soon call home. “It’s beautiful!” she breathed. “I love it. I can’t wait to do it up.”
She sank into a chair, the tension easing off her bones. The past two days had been nerve-wracking, and when she bade farewell to her parents on the last day, it was with a fluttering heart and mixed emotions. She knew that she would not see them in a long time, if ever, and the love she bore them brought tears to her eyes. She hurriedly lowered them and turned away so that they would not notice.
The drive till the railway station was agonizing. She kept turning around to see if anyone was chasing them.
Vikram kept reassuring her that they were safe.
“By the time they realise that we are missing, we will be halfway to Mumbai. So, take it easy, love!”
Now as she sat back on the chair, she sent up a silent prayer. “Dear God, please keep us safe and make our parents relent.”
That evening Vikram’s friends trooped in. Sunaina was astounded that he knew so many people in Mumbai.
“Remember I did my schooling here… fifteen years in the same place does wonders in the friends’ department.” He smiled as he drew her forward to introduce her to them all.
“This is Sunaina, the love of my life,” he announced. One by one, he mentioned all their names to her. Ram, Deepak, Mihir and Daniel – they were all friends he had grown up with. Ram was a taciturn young man, Deepak and Mihir were the life and soul of the party, pulling the others’ legs. Daniel was a handsome lad with green eyes, but he was reserved.
There were three girls, Reena, Advika and Suvanti, all of whom came and gave her a bear hug. “I can’t imagine that our old pal has given up his bachelor status finally,” smiled Suvanti. She was a pretty girl with long lustrous hair and sparkling eyes. Reena and Advika were sisters, and their parents were old family friends of Vikram’s parents. Both attractive in their own ways, they were taken aback when he told them that he and Sunaina had eloped because of the feud between the families.
“Gosh, that’s pre-medieval, isn’t it? Feuds and enmity and stuff?” Advika could not believe her ears. Reena nudged her, as she countered, “Guys, don’t worry! We must all make a pact not to mention this to our parents or to anyone. We do not want anything to blight this relationship.” She turned to Vikram.
“You both need to go through a marriage ceremony now that you have taken this step.”
“We will register our wedding this week itself,” said Vikram. “I hope you don’t mind, my love. We will have a proper ceremony later when we have settled in.” He gazed at Sunaina, his heart in his eyes. His friends cheered as the to-be bride blushed.
Exactly two days after, they went to the registrar’s office. They signed and exchanged garlands, waiting for Ram and Mihir to sign as witnesses. Vikram threw his arms around Sunaina and picked her up, twirling her around.
“Time to begin living our lives,” he whispered as she smiled back at him and whispered, “This will be the best period in our lives. I am so happy!”
It was a new life for Sunaina. Back home she had had servants galore who cooked, cleaned and ran errands. Here she had to switch the gas stove on for the first time. Her cooking skills were rudimentary, but Vikram savoured every dish she made with all the love capable in her heart. Not once did he complain when she burnt the vegetables because she was boiling milk at the same time. Multi-tasking did not come easy to her but her brand new husband’s adoration made her determined to conquer all the areas she was not naturally good at.
When did things begin to change, the cracks start to show?
Sunaina had begun taking tuitions at home while Vikram found a job as a clerk in a smallish company. He was not happy with his job but with his qualifications, he realised that he could not find anything better. Sunaina had always been better at academics, and she enjoyed teaching. She had around six students who lived in the neighbourhood and even though the money that came in was not much, she put her heart into simplifying concepts for her students.
Vikram’s friends came around often. They helped as much as possible, bringing potluck so that Sunaina would not have to cook too much after her tuitions in the evening.
Vikram’s unhappiness with his job was a sore point. He would come back home with a headache but since Sunaina was busy with her tuitions, he would have to wait before he waxed eloquent about his dreary day. Sunaina dreaded hearing him speak of his job, the atmosphere, his colleagues and his boss, all of which he detested.
“Vikram, why don’t you look for another job?” she asked one day.
“Do you think jobs grow on trees?” His reply was brusque. Very unlike the loving way he had always spoken to her! However, he soon realised that he had hurt her, and he came back with an apology and a bunch of roses.
“I am sorry, Sunaina! I will look out for another job. I don’t like the person I am turning into.” Sunaina smiled at him in relief. This was more like the old Vikram with whom she had fallen in love.
However, the tirades did not stop there. Vikram slowly began to make snide remarks on her cooking, her interest in television serials and her lack of concern for him. One evening, when he came home from work and found her watching television, his face turned ugly and he sneered,
“Obviously you have no work, right? Here I come home after slogging all day only to find my princess lolling about. Can’t you at least wear something nice and greet me with a hug?”
Sunaina’s eyes filled with tears of frustration.
“Vikram, what has got into you? I have finished all my work, cooking included. This is my only entertainment. I do not even go out of the house. Why do you grudge me this?”
“Cooking? Is that what you call your culinary disasters?” he scoffed as he strode into the bedroom.
The atmosphere got further vitiated when friends came over. Ram, Mihir and Deepak were regulars, and they always came accompanied by Suvanti and Advika. Reena had a hectic job and often she could not make it. Daniel was also busy, but he tried to make time to be with his friends.
One evening, as they were all sitting together, Vikram smiled at Sunaina.
“Why don’t you fry us some groundnuts to have as a snack with our drinks?”
She nodded and rushed to the kitchen. Suvanti followed her in.
“Sunaina, you have shadows under your eyes. What is the matter. Is everything fine?”
Sunaina nodded, but her lips started trembling as she turned the groundnuts over the flame. Suvanti caught her hand and made her stop.
“Is it Vikram? Has he started his tantrums all over again?”
“What tantrums?” Sunaina asked.
“Well, when he was growing up, there were periods when he used to turn moody, and it was difficult for anyone to get along with him.”
Sunaina’s eyes widened. She knew how difficult it was to please Vikram nowadays. She gazed at the other girl, desperation in her eyes.
“Suvanti, I am at my tether’s end. I have no idea how to handle him.”
Suvanti smiled at her. “Don’t worry, I will help you. You just need to ignore him and let him get over these black moods.”
The sirens sounded very close. Vikram sat on the sofa, his face as pale as a ghost’s. Reena and Suvanti sat by him, the latter holding his hand. His other friends were also in the room, their faces set. There was an air of tension in the rooms.
Advika was in the bedroom with Sunaina, a Sunaina who lay on the bed in silence, eyes close, looking more beautiful than she had ever done. Her white bedsheet was stained with blood, which had dripped down from the deep gash on her wrist. It was as though she was sleeping, but Advika’s eyes were red-rimmed. Her heart bled for the gentle girl who had, in a fit of desperation, slit her wrist, and paid the ultimate price for it.
The policemen strode in, big burly men headed by an Inspector who was short and portly, but with an air of authority. It was believed to be a case of suicide, but evidence had to be collected, after all. While the policemen scoured the bedroom, the Inspector questioned Vikram and all his friends, one by one.
“Why did she cut her wrist?” was the main question to them all. The answers were all similar.
“She was suffering from depression.”
Vikram’s friends were heartbroken for their friend and rallied around to save him from police questioning. There was no talk of his black moods or his frustrations.
The death was declared as one of suicide because there was no evidence to prove otherwise.
Vikram was deeply anguished. He had loved Sunaina with all his heart, and still did. How could she have done this to him? Despite his moods he had never physically assaulted her for he was always mindful that he had spirited her away from all her loved ones.
A month after Sunaina had been cremated, there was a knock on Vikram’s front door. Vikram opened it, a gaunt shadow of his old self. He smiled wanly at the person who stood outside.
“Come in. I was hoping for some company this evening. Where are the others?”
“Oh, they are all busy with something or the other. I was the only one free. Hence, I decided we could have a quiet evening together.”
“Sure! I was not looking forward to spending the evening alone. I am glad you are here.”
Suvanti smiled at him, as she placed a gentle hand on his arm.
“I knew that you would be feeling lonely. Come sit by me.” She led him towards the sofa and they both sat down.
As they sipped their drinks, Vikram’s eyes were reflective.
“Why did she do it? What instigated her to do something so final? She knew how much I loved her.”
Suvanti gazed at the suffering man. She could not hold back her words.
“I think it was selfish of her to do this to you. She was so lucky to have had you in her life.”
“I think I drove her to this with my moods. She tried her best to adjust to them, but there were times I went too far. If only I had been gentler with her, and shown her how much I loved her.” His anguish brought tears into his eyes. Suvanti caressed his cheek as she said, “Let’s forget Sunaina for the moment, shall we? Let’s pretend that you and I are in love, are meant to be together.”
For a moment there was silence. The next moment, Vikram turned to her.
“What on earth do you mean, Suvanti? She was my true love, and I can never see anyone in her place. Especially not you! You are my dearest friend, after all.”
“Oh, I know, but I want to be so much more to you, dearest Vikram,” cried Suvanti. “I have loved you forever, long before Sunaina came into your life.”
A shocked Vikram stared at her, trying to get his mind around her words. Finally, he burst out.
“Suvanti, I could never see you like that. You are my best friend, almost like a sibling.”
“Dammit, Vikram, I am not your sibling. I love you more than Suvanti ever did. You are like a flame in my heart, burning me from within. Why do you think I did all this…?” she stopped suddenly, her cheeks turning red as the real import of her words hit Vikram like a thunderbolt.
“What… what did you do, Suvanti?” His face changed as he grasped her roughly by the shoulder. “Tell me, what have you done? Did you hurt Suvanti in any way?”
“Of course not! How dare you accuse me of something like that? She committed suicide because she was stupid enough not to appreciate you. Don’t blame me for her actions.”
She did not meet his eye and his heart sank as he sensed that she was lying to him. He stood up with a jerk, turning away even as his heart bled for his lost love.
“Go away, Suvanti. I do not believe you. Just leave,” he muttered, gritting his teeth. “Go before I do something I regret.”
Suvanti sprang up, pulling at his arm, trying to get him to look at her.
“Vikram, I love you. I have always done. I did this for you because Sunaina was never good enough for you. I was… am the right one for you. Together we will be the happiest couple ever.”
In desperation, she put her palms against his flushed cheeks.
“Look at me, Vikram. I have gone through hell to get you back. Even when I slit her wrist, I was only thinking of you, only of you.”
Vikram’s face blanched. He pushed her away violently, as tears gushed out of his irate eyes.
“You… you inhuman creature! How could you ever think I could love you?” His voice broke halfway. She moved towards him, her hands clawing at him in desperation. He shuddered at the enormity of her evil deed. As the thoughts whirled about his inflamed brain, he looked at her with detestation. The face he had thought beautiful, that of a friend, now repulsed him, filled him with intense hatred. There was only one thing he could do.
When he walked out of the room, his face was calm, almost dispassionate. There was only one thought on his mind. He had reached a dead end in life.
So had she!
Inside the room, the fan shuddered with the weight of the body that swayed below it in a last-minute struggle for survival before the darkness took over.
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