By Simar Malhotra
The Rhea Mehra that her close friends and relatives knew was compassionate yet stoic. Often her faint smiles and expressionless nods would deem her aloof, but the moment the shell broke and the protectionist in her relaxed, her loving nature oozed. A Yale graduate, she stuck to the stereotype of being a fuzzy, investing most of her time writing for magazines. So when adventure-enthusiast, computer science geek Abhimanyu clockedinto her life, it wasn’t a surprise that she was swept over. Abhimanyu came from Mumbai. His family, the Kumars, owned hotels there. Not sharing the same interest, Abhimanyu had decided to develop his own business combining social entrepreneurship and technology. The two met in a summer workshop on social entrepreneurship in New Delhi.
It wasn’t untrue that Abhimanyu was attractive. His intellect was magnetic. His humor was compelling. And his confidencedizzying.It was unusual for Rhea to admit it, for something like this had never happened to her before. This feeling of void, this strange ache in her stomach like a suction. She had always been on the slightly colder side when it came to her own emotions, trying to keep herself protected from the unnecessary tension and tears of romance. But lately a weird kind of a feeing had enveloped her. She felt like dressing better for the workshop, made alterations to her schedule to stay a little longer only to watch him leave. Her short mental prayers became three seconds longer as a wish to be noticed by a special someone was added to the list.Butterflies that she hadn't much experienced in her teen years were tickling her stomach now in adulthood. And all these symptoms led the way to a single source. She really had to fix herself before things got worse.
But they did get worse.
Because he did notice her.
As days passed, Abhimanyu continued to tease Rhea with casual flirtation. He mysteriously knew minute details about her which he dropped just to enjoy her flabbergasted reaction. Unsurprisingly, in time, romance bloomed.
In the first year they were together, Rhea and Abhimanyu did what most other couples did — went to the movies and lunch dates.But being the adventure enthusiast that Abhimanyu always was, he also used to take Rhea skiing in the tallest mountains of the Himalayas, scuba-diving in the Arabian Sea and camping in the Ranthambor forests. Rhea hadn’t ever lived the way she was living now. Always having prioritized school, then college and then work, she’d never given play a chance. Being with Abhimanyu made her happy; she was more alive with him than she was with anyone else. Rhea’s familydoted on Abhimanyu, for they knew too that he did, in fact, bring out the best in her. He became her brother’s personalized cricket coach, a guinea pig for her mom’s occasional culinary expeditions and a constructive critique to her dad’s new business ideas.
He never gave Rhea a reason to frown about apart from his sudden visits to Mumbai. These trips were so abrupt that the only information Rhea ever got was a text message.
Sudden plan to go home. See you in a week. Love ya.
He also never gave a detailed account of these trips. He was either “just chilling” or “trekking with friends” or “helping Dad out”.And unexpectedly, on the day of his return from one such trip, he brought back a ring with him.
Almost instantaneously, the families met, matched janampatris, and decided on a date for the wedding bells to ring.
It was on the night of the sangeet that Rhea noticed something was off. As the bride and bride-groom, Rhea and Abhimanyu sat on thrones while their close friends and family presented their love story in the form of a musical. Rhea noticed that Abhimanyu’s smile was plastic, and the way he was tapping his foot underlined preoccupation.
The moment all performances ended, Abhimanyu’s brother, Aryan, strode to his side and whispered something into his ear. Abhimanyu nodded. His expression remained unchanged. The same plastic smile adorned his lips but the muscles in his neck tensed.As Aryan left, Abhimanyu got up to go only to be stopped by Rhea. She held on tightly to his fingers and took his support to stand up in her 20 pound lehenga. Taking the lead, she beamed past the big throng of people, intermittently praising and thanking them for their dances. Rhea walked Abhimanyu to the end of a secluded corridor of the hotel. There was confidence in her gait. Resolve in her grip on his fingers.
She looked right into his eyes and said slowly, “We’re getting married tomorrow. I sometimes wonder if it was too sudden or not --”
“Hey, hey --” Abhimanyu tried to interject.
“No, let me finish. I know there’s a lot I have to still learn about you. But you have to let me into your life!”
Her eyes glistened and she pursed her lips together tightly.
Abhimanyu understood Rhea’s inhibitions and knew that her hidden complaints were justified. A part of him was drowning in shame and guilt, but the other had to play concealer.
“Rhea, I truly love you,” he spoke into her ear. She could feel his breath on her skin. It was funny how it still burned her. She could feel his heart thumping against her. But that wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
Abhimanyu prayed his fear couldn’t be discerned and that his conscience would stop pricking him. He felt so helpless in that moment, so weak. And Rhea’s proximity only made him weaker.
“I want you to know something,” he whispered finally. His voice was soft yet purposeful.
“I’ve never told you this, but my grandmother is in a rehab facility called Ashray. There’s no place stauncher to my identity and it’s there where you’d truly find me.”
Rhea listened carefully, still not entirely sure about the rationale behind the content of their conversation.
“Just remember that, whatever may happen, I love you. And everything is for the greatergood,” he said and kissed her gently.
“What do you mean whatever may happen?” Rhea asked, worry ostensible in her voice.
“Nothing. All is well. Let’s go back, you’ve a long day ahead of you,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and walking her back to the sangeet hall.
The big day arrived.The marigold flowers that adorned the hotel were replaced with orchids and lilies. The mild scent of the flowers added a tranquility that contrasted with the previous night’s festivities. Rhea woke up to incessant pounding on her door.
“Yo, sleeping beauty, you need to wake up for haldi now! Get up up up!” cried Areena, barging into Rhea’s room.
“Hey, thanks Areena! I really need to learn etiquette from you,” Rhea teased, making her way out of the bed.Rhea tried to forget about last night’s tension and hoped to begin today in discontinuation with yesterday.
“As everyone else is getting the flour and turmeric and whatnot ready, I’m here at your service,” Areena winked, pulling out the hanger with a white sari from the cupboard for Rhea.
The haldi ceremony started soon afterin Rhea’s room itself. The bride and the bride-groom had independent ceremonies, for according to folklore they were not supposed to meet on the day of the wedding before the ritual itself. Rhea’s maternal grandmother started singing old folk marriage songs, hitting spoons and plates for rhythm and inviting all other women to join. As the music grew louder, one by one, all close relatives, including her maternal and paternal aunts and uncles, applied a turmeric and flour paste to her skin. They sprinkled water and showered her with orange flowers, blessing her with a lifetime of happiness and luck. Nostalgic, Rhea’s mother couldn’t believe she was marrying her daughter off. In her white sari and ecstatic smile, she tried to find the little girl who never used to leave her mother’s side, the school head girl who could be perpetually relied upon and the young leader who did her parents proud.
In the mean time, Rhea’s father returned to the room, dancing to the beat of the music. He casually went to Uncle Ajay, his best friend and Rhea’s godfather, and said cautiously, “Have you seen any of the Kumars today?”
Uncle Ajay turned around with a jerk and said, “What do you mean?”
“I haven’t seen any of them today. It’s odd.”
As he turned his gaze towards Rhea, he found her staring at him. Her stomach clenched. She wanted to vomit. The smell of the paste was making her nauseous now.
In a jiffy Rhea got up from her chair, much to everyone’s surprise. She tried smiling and mouthed ‘Sorry’ to those who asked her where she was going.
In the corridor, Rhea’s father ran after her.
“Rhea, where are you going? Stop!” he shouted.
Rhea kept walking in the direction of Abhimanyu’s room. She needed to see him now. Rhea’s father caught up with her and said, “Are you going to Abhimanyu’s room? You know it’s not auspicious to see him right now, right?”
“Papa, I have to see him.”
When they arrived in Wing A of the hotel, where the Kumars were staying, they were received with dead silence. There was no sound of music or any chatter of people.Uneasiness swallowed Rhea. She knocked on Abhimanyu’s door. Once. Twice. Thrice. She tried to breathe. She couldn’t lose herself at this point. She could see her father sweating, trying to pacify her when it was he who needed the most pacification. Uncle Ajay soon followed.
“What’s happening?” he asked, urgency in his tone.
“I… I don’t know. He’s… he’s not opening the door,” Rhea said meekly.
A house-keeping staff member crossed their path.
“Excuse me, please. Could you open the door with the master key? I forgot mine inside,” Rhea asked. Despite the mental turmoil, she was glad she was still coherent.
She walked into the room followed by her father and Uncle Ajay. It was the same model as Rhea’s, only this one was cleaner. Way cleaner. There was not a piece of clothing lying outside, not a single crease on the bed sheets, not a speck of dust anywhere. It was almost like no one lived there at all. With her sari tailing her and turmeric paste on her hands and face, she marched into the wardrobe area and flung open the cupboards. There was nothing. She walked into the bathroom only to find brand-new soaps, sealed shampoo bottles and unused towels.
Uncle Ajay and her father remained in the bedroom, her father too stunned to say anything.
“We have the wrong room,” said Rhea nonchalantly.
She walked outside and knocked on all doors that were occupied by the Kumars. No one answered the parents’ room nor did a response come from Aryan’s room. Their guests, however, were still in their rooms.
When she returned to Abhimanyu’s room, her mother, her brother and Areenaall had gathered. Her father had regained his composure; he tried calling Abhimanyu, only to find the number ceased. Her mother was crying and Areena was trying to console her. Only yesterday everything had been okay. This seemed like a hideous joke.
Rhea tried to remember the previous night’s conversation. He’d said he loved her. He’d said all would be well. And then suddenly something clicked. “He… he talked about his grandmother. Her rehab in Mumbai.”
Rhea’s father looked confused.
“What are you talking about? Which grandmother?”
And then things came back to her. That’s the place he could truly be found.Fear, excitement, hope, despair rushed to her.
“I have to go,” she said tentatively.
“Where are you going? Let me come with you,”Areena exclaimed.
“No, I have to go alone,” she responded.
Rhea wiped her face clean with one end of her sari. She went outside and sat in the first taxi lined up.
“I have to go to Ashray Hospital, please,” she told the taxi driver.
With her loose, unkempt locks, white sari blowing in the wind, she almost seemed like a widow. Even to the taxi driver it seemed like something was wrong. He drove in quiet instead of making the usual small talk. As she stared out of the window, tears streamed down her face silently, smudging the kohl that lined her eyes. Nothing made sense. Abhimanyu couldn’t run away, could he? She couldn’t even begin to think about the embarrassment her family would go through. This was the day of her wedding and here she was looking for the bride-groom in an unknown city.
As they pulled up in front of Ashray hospital, Rhea realized she hadn’t any money. The driver gauged this from her helpless expression. He smiled and said in Hindi, “It’s okay. Consider it my contribution to help you in your troubles.”
Rhea thanked him wholeheartedly and ran up the stairs to the gate. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She didn’t know what to expect.
“I’m looking for Abhimanyu Kumar,” she said to the receptionist.
“I’m afraid we don’t have anyone with that name here,” she responded.
“Maybe a Mrs. Kumar?” Rhea asked impatiently, her pace increasing with her anxiety.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“She’s looking for me,” came an old, haggard voice from the distance.
Rhea turned immediately to see an old woman making her way to the reception on a wheelchair.
“He’d told me you would come,” she said gleamingly.
“How do you know who I am?” Rhea asked, not being able to distinguish between confusion and suspicion.
“You are Rhea, aren’t you? Amir told me all about you,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Who is Amir? Do you mean Abhimanyu? Are you his grandmother?”
The old lady shook her head in amusement.
“Yes, Abhimanyu for you I guess. No, I am not his grandmother. My children abandoned me. I was sick andtaking my last breaths on the streets when he brought me here. Since then he has visited me regularly and we became each other’s only family.”
Looking at Rhea’s dumbfounded expression she took out an envelope from under her shawland gave it to Rhea.
“Here, this is for you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s from Amir. He left it here for you before leaving.”
“Leaving? Where did he do? We are getting married today. He has to come back!” Rhea cried.
“He never tells me, but he’ll come back. He’ll have to come back for you. After all he loves you so much. Go on, open it.”
She opened the envelope. It contained a letter.
If you’re reading this, what I was worried about has happened. I must commend your cleverness though.Let me reintroduce myself to you. My name is Amir Ali and I’m an ISI agent from Pakistan. I was on a mission in New Delhi. It entailed following suspects behind the Peshawar attacks. I was merely doing my job, when I fell in love with you…
Amir was a secret agent. During his time on the field, he fell in love with a girl in New Delhi. Because it placed well with his façade, he continued his relationship. Then he was suspected by Indian authorities and she became a person of interest. His conscience couldn’t allow him to let her become collateral damage. So he stayed longer to protect her. As the suspicion grew, the chances of the girl’s family getting involved increased too.The ISI couldn’t care less for another few fallen Indian bodies. But he couldn’t allow that to happen. As a Pakistani, he could never marry a Hindu, not even if his profession demanded. So the only credible way out of the cycle of suspicion was taking this step. Aryan, Abhimanyu’s mother and father were all ISI field agents who helped him in the process of detaching the girl’s family from this vicious loop of crimson hostility. The rest of the guests were puppets. When Aryan came the night before, it was to tell him that the ISI authorities were on their way to recall them to Pakistan for the joke they’d made of the agency. Even if they survived brutality of the ISI, it was unlikely that Amir would be permitted to return to India anytime soon. For now, it was essential that Rhea’s father called the police to file a report about the ‘Kumars’ going missing. He must tell them all he knew about them. The sorrow and confusion must all be real.
Till then, you need to know that I’ve never met a girl as beautiful, resolute, intelligent and endearing as you. I apologize for what I made you go through. I cannot justify my behavior by saying it was to save you. It wasn’t. I was selfish. I should have known that my profession doesn’t allow for emotion. Know that at no point did I ever mean to hurt you purposefully, that never did I stop respecting you and that not once did I stop loving you. You’re the best thing that happened to me, Rhea. I’ll love you forever.