Ik mujh pe karam ho… Tu hi mera sanam ho… Teri mujh pe nazar ho, Sahiba! Mera Mann, kehne laga…
The silken voice of Falak Shabir was echoing inside the brand new BMW X1 Rudra’s father had bought for him as a wedding gift. The car was cruising through the highway, preceded and followed by few more cars and minivans carrying the Rathode clan. The already shining vehicle was glowing even more in the morning sunlight, a welcome relief for the marriage party. They had stopped over just outside Kanpur for getting the vehicles decorated with flowers, ribbons and sparkles. Rudra’s car was done up in 100s of dutch roses and pink satin & net dupattas, which were now swaying with the wind on the tunes of an absolute melody. It was one of Laxmi’s favorite songs.
Between 4 months and 15 days before marriage
Laxmi loved bollywood movie songs, especially the mushy mushy ones with romantic lyrics and silken voices, mostly male. Atif Aslam, Mohit Chouhan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Neeraj Shridhar… they were all in her favorites list. She especially loved the songs where the men became emotional and proposed their lady love in the most ‘sufiyana’ andaaz. She was an unpredictably extreme girl. One side of her was the aggressor self, the one who wanted to emerge out of the family, go out there and enjoy life, make a name for self. While the other side was soft and tender, who would submit to anyone who offered her a comfort she so much desired. She had grown up to become one of the most loved little girl of the Thakur family. But at the same time, she was the eldest one, which caused her to get caught between being an example for the younger ones to receiving all the grace from elders.
For 15 days after the rokka, neither Laxmi nor Rudra called or messaged each other. No one noticed too. Slowly, Rudra’s father started sending him to Kanpur often. They had found a new site where they could start a project in partnership with the Thakurs. Reason was simple, strengthening the family and business ties with their Samdhis. Often the ladies from either side accompanied Rudra. His duties often oscillated from discussing business with Tej Singh to ferrying the ladies to the markets of Kanpur and Lucknow. They involved him, not just because he was the groom but also because he, amongst all the Rathodes and Thakurs, showed patience to deal with the ladies and accompanied them for their shopping spree. Often, Laxmi accompanied them.
Couple of initial meetings with Laxmi were usually just eye contacts. She would quietly accompany her Bua or Mami and settle in the back seat of the car. All Rudra could do was to steal glances of her in the rear view mirror and quietly drive. It was getting some kind of a weekly routine for them. Neither of them were enjoying nor complaining. But it suddenly changed that day. He was at a construction site when he got a call from Laxmi’s number. Reluctantly he picked, but it was not her.
“Ji buaji, namaste” He could recognize the voice.
“Pehchaan liya? Suno humein zara Lucknow jaana tha. Lachhi ki chudiyan leni hai. Jaante hai aapko duur se aana padta hai. Par agar aa jayenge to achha rahega. Agar Kanpur mein ho to aa sakte ho?”
“Ji buaji, zaroor. Aap jab boliye, main aa jaunga.”
“Kal aa sakte ho?”
“Kuchh pareshaani ho to…”
“Nahi nahi, pareshaani kis baat ki. Thik hai, aa jaunga. Kitne baje?”
Rudra had to wake up at 3 in the morning in order to be there in Unnao by 9. In fact he couldn’t sleep at night. He obviously hid the fact from Bua that he was in Jhansi and not in Kanpur. But it didn’t matter now. What was important was that he had to go and take them to Lucknow. Strangely, Bua had asked him to come to Sankat Mochan temple and not their Haveli. But how does it matter? He had thought. As he reached, Bua and Laxmi were standing outside the temple. What he saw… he couldn’t believe.
Rudra got down and opened the back door of the Scorpio. To his surprise, she asked Laxmi to get in and shut the door. “Thodi duur jaake aage wali seat pe baith jaana.” And then she turned to Rudra. Smiling, she said, “Aapko pata hai? aaj is mandir mein ek bahut badi pooja hai. Par bhala aap jawaan logon ko pooja mein kaisi ruchi? Isliye aap Laxmi ko Lucknow le jaiye. Use apne pasand ki chudiyan dilaiye. Main yahi rukungi. Par dhyan rahe, 2 baje tak pooja khatm ho jayegi. 2 baje se pehle aapko use yaha chhodna hoga.”
Rudra was flabbergasted. Was he in his dreams? He was so stunned that he could not utter a word. “Kya hua Kanwar ji? Aise kya dekh rahe ho? Jao jao…” And she burst out laughing. Rudra turned to Laxmi to see if she also echoed the same feeling. Surprisingly, she was calm and just looking downwards. It was indeed a dream, only a one he was living right now.
As usual, the journey started in a quaint manner, with no one saying a word. Finally, Rudra pulled over and turned back.
“Aap aage aana chahengi?” Rudra said.
“Kyun?” She was quick to retort.
“Aise hi. Nahi aana chahti hai to koi baat nahi. Aapki bua ne kaha tha aage baith jana. Ab aapne unki baat maan ke humare saath Lucknow chalne ka faisla kiya hai to unki ek aur baat bhi to maan lijiye na. Aa jaiye aage”
“Nahi!” Said Laxmi. But this time she was smiling. “Aap chalaiye gaadi. Jab humari marzi hogi to hum aa jayenge.”
“Jaisi aapki ichha. Waise ek baat bole? Bura na mane to?” She nodded. “Pehli baar dekha aapko salwaar kameez mein. Aap bahut khoobsurat lag rahe ho.”
“Are you flattering me Rathode sahab? You better don’t. Ye kaam nahi aayega aapke”
“Bilkul nahi. Main sach bol raha hu. Dil se nahi hota to main bolta nahi.” There was a momentary pause. Rudra was still looking in her eyes, gazing through what he thought could be his future. Laxmi was indeed beautiful. But more than that, she had this truthful innocence in her eyes. She was going to marry a man who she did not love. He didn’t know if it mattered to her that he loved her. But she was still prepared to walk ahead. She had hopes in her eyes, hopes of a better life. Just that she was not sure if Rudra could give her that.
“Chaliye rathode sahab. Chudiyan nahi dilayenge?”
“Bilkul, par tab jab aap aage aakar baithengi. Nahi to nahi.”
“Ziddi hai aap. Maanenge nahi?”
“Aapke aage nahi chalna chahta hu main. Aapke saath chalna chahta hu. Aap saath rahiye, safar aasan ho jayega”
It was Laxmi’s turn to be surprised. After thinking for a while, she extended her hand out so that Rudra could help her in the front seat. “Jaisi aapki ichha. Ab haath dijiye?”
The conversation meandered from Rudra’s college life to Om’s commissioning in the Army. Though Laxmi never ever gave a feeling that she could like Rudra, he was at least happy that she was talking normally to him. In Lucknow, they settled for the Cafe Coffee Day at HazratGanj and continued the conversation. By now Rudra knew Laxmi was a talkative person. All he had to do was to keep feeding her topic after topic. As she continued to speak, occasionally asking questions to Rudra, several cups of Latte had been ordered without either of them realizing the time. And then the mobile buzzed. It was Bua, asking them if they were done with the shopping.
It was Rudra’s best day since he met Laxmi. On their way back, he asked her what they were going to tell Bua. And she just leaned out of the window, swaying her pink dupatta in the winds “Keh denge, samay nahi mila…” and she started laughing. “Agar puchhe ke kyun nahi mila?” Asked Rudra. “Aap sawal bahut karte hai Rathode sahab.” and she started laughing again. “Kya karu, sawal aate hai par jawab hi nahi milta”
Wedding day, Unnao, Uttar Pradesh
The vehicles of the baraat made its way inside the Kothi one by one. Thakurs had rented a castle like Kothi as their wedding venue. It was shining in the bright sun light. Rudra was welcomed by the family elders and led inside along with other members of his family. Many small and big traditions followed. Time went so fast that in no time, Rudra was sitting in the front row, enjoying the lavish ladies sangeet function. Relatives from both sides were performing on their favorite numbers. But there was no sign of Laxmi. He tried asking Ajju about her but he had no idea. Asking any one else didn’t make sense. It was best to assume that Laxmi was inside, getting ready for the wedding. The plan was for an evening mahurt for phere & kanyadaan followed by the reception. One of the over enthusiastic brothers picked up a mike and started singing ‘Beintehaa’ by Atif Aslam in the worst possible manner. But it was enough to push Rudra back to the past.
They met few more times after their Lucknow trip. But strangely, Laxmi always cut herself off every time he dropped her home. When they met, they spoke of life, of love, of Rudra’s college life, foreign trips, of Om… but after reaching home, Laxmi hardly called. Her reply to messages were often delayed and generally disjointed or confusing. In their last meeting, Rudra had asked her if she was ready now, and if there is any thing he could do to make her happy… and she had replied saying “I will be foolish to not marry you. But I don’t know if I have the courage to stand and face this marriage.” It was one of the many confusing sentences Laxmi had uttered. All Rudra could say was that he is not a typical Thakur to force his wife to confine to his way of life. But he was an emotional man indeed, and he may not be able to be the same guy again, should Laxmi refuse.
Rudra was getting ready for the ‘phere’ when Ajju came in and handed over a chit. Before he could ask, Ajju was gone. He opened it. Ummeed pe duniya kayam hai was written on it. He had never seen Laxmi write any thing. But he assumed it must be here. What did she mean? Is she running away? Is he telling him that she still harnessed hopes to run away and marry Om? Is he around to take her away? Or did she just gave hope to Rudra? He felt as if he was being dragged away, chained and gagged. Seconds later he realized it was his mother, making him wear gold chains over the beige sherwani. Some one put up a pagdi and sehra on his forehead. Then he felt some one was holding his hand and pulling him away. Where are they taking me? Laxmi, is gone he thought to himself. Minutes later he was sitting in the mandap. A girl came and sat besides him after a while. She was clad in a very heavy red lehenga and had the dupatta over her head, covering her complete face and neck until her breasts. Who have they brought in? Is it Laxmi? I’m sure she is gone, he thought to himself. The Pandit was blabbering some thing. He merely followed. A lady came from behind and shoved a ring in his hand, which made him realize this was an engagement and not the phere. He turned towards the girl who had already extended her left hand out. He took a deep breath and held it.
It was her!