So I struggled into my muga mekhela-sador again and went to Raghav’s engagement party. I didn’t want to dishevel my clothes and my hair – carefully tied into a knot at the base of my neck – before I got there, so I hired a cab. I felt a little odd, dressing up like this to go to Raghav’s house. I had only been there a couple of times earlier, both times with our study group at b-school. Given the apprehension with which Raghav’s mom apparently treated me, he had never deemed it prudent to invite me home alone.
And here was I today, all dressed up, going to Raghav’s house to see him get engaged. It was a small party, just for family: I and a couple of Sonali’s friends (“She does have friends, then,” Mandakini had said spitefully) would be the only people there who were not related to either the bride or the groom. There would be no one whom I could whisper with, sotto voce, while a solemn ritual was in progress, no one whom I could talk comfortably to when it was over. I dreaded going, I was sure I would be bored and awkward: yet Raghav wanted me, and that was reason enough to go.
I found an unexpected ally: Amit, who had come down from the US for the wedding. I had met Amit twice before, and while I didn’t exactly approve of his smugness and his prejudices, I couldn’t help liking him. He was short and very fair, with curly brown hair, and eyes that constantly twinkled with mischief. He seemed busy, at first, in moving things around and directing the photographer; but soon he came and sat by me, and barely left my side all evening. He claimed he was also shy and uncomfortable with the forty odd people who had somehow crowded into the flat: I suspected he also guessed that I was lonely and awkward and felt sorry for me. He also made sure to ply me with food and drink and ensured that I sampled all the various sweets, despite my feeble protests.
I didn’t get to talk much to Raghav and Sonali themselves – apart from the perfunctionary ‘Hi’ and ‘Congratulations’ – until sometime before I left.
“So,” I said, when everyone else had moved off and were conversing in groups and I found a gap to talk to them, “how are the bride and the groom?”
Raghav grimaced. “Very tired,” said Sonali.
“I can imagine,” I said sympathetically. “And this is just the beginning.”
“Yeah,” drawled Raghav. “I wish we were eloping.”
“You’ll come for the sangeet, won’t you?” asked Sonali – she seemed to have already learned to ignore what she didn’t want to hear from Raghav. “Usually it’s a women’s affair, held at the bride’s place, but we’re having a mixed bash, including the groom’s party as well. We’ll get mehndi and there’ll be a dance floor and cocktails…”
“Very progressive,” I commented, and Sonali smiled smugly.
“Hey, have you heard from Prabhu or Mallika?” Raghav cut in. “Are they coming?”
“Actually, I spoke to Prabhu yesterday. He wanted to know all about the wedding… and about Sonali.”
Sonali simpered. Raghav asked impatiently, “So is he coming?”
“I’m afraid not. He…”
Raghav interrupted me. “What about Mallika?”
“No, she’s moved to Bombay too, you know.”
He looked surprised. “Oh? When?”
“Just a couple of weeks ago. It was rather sudden.” I looked around to make sure that no one was near, and then spoke in a low voice. “It was kind of an elopement, really. Mallika’s parents were at her, they’d almost arranged her marriage to some guy… They were even asking her to quit her job and stay at home till she got married…”
“What?” Raghav looked livid.
“Yeah, can you imagine? I felt a little guilty when Prabhu told me… I hadn’t been in touch with her, you know. I was always better friends with Prabhu. Well, he told me Mallika was scared she wouldn’t be allowed to get out of the house…”
“Because she is in love with Prabhu?” Sonali interrupted.
“Yeah. Mallika’s Muslim, you see. Her parents wouldn’t hear of her marrying a Hindu.”
“Oh, she’s Muslim?” Sonali’s eyes grew big and round.
“What happened next?” asked Raghav impatiently.
“Prabhu asked her to come to Bombay. He was afraid they’d ill-treat her, or try to marry her off by force… She hesitated, but she finally agreed. And one morning, instead of going to work, she went to the airport and took a flight to Bombay.”
“Just like that?” asked Sonali, her eyes growing even wider. “With no luggage?”
“Well,” I said slowly, trying not to laugh, “I think she had a change of clothes – and probably a toothbrush – in her bag, that’s all. She reached Bombay and then sent in an email to her boss, to resign, and one to her brother, telling her what she’d done.”
“Didn’t they try to bring her back?” Raghav demanded.
“Well, she changed her phone number and everything, so they could only get in touch through email. Apparently her mother begged her to come back, but Mallika insisted she was marrying Prabhu. And then her parents said she had disgraced the family, and that she was dead to them, and all that nonsense.”
“Good for her!” said Raghav.
“How can you say that!” breathed Sonali.
We both ignored her, while I nodded appreciatively. “Exactly. Now in effect, she’s rid of her family, she’s living with Prabhu, and I’m sure she’ll soon find herself a new job.”
“She’s living with Prabhu?” repeated Sonali, her eyes growing round again.
“So, are they planning to get married soon?” asked Raghav.
“Yeah. Well, Mallika was all for taking some time. She said, now that she had escaped her family, there was no need to hurry Prabhu into it. But Prabhu insists that they should do it soon. Prabhu’s talked to his parents and told them what happened. They’re not thrilled: neither about having a Muslim bahu, nor about the way it happened, but well, they’ve come to realise that they don’t really have a say, and they’re coming around and trying to accept it graciously. Prabhu says they are even talking about having the wedding in Cochin…”
“So, is that what they’re doing?”
“No. He wants to get married at the registrar’s first, as soon as possible, to be safe. They can do that in a couple of weeks: you need a month’s notice, you know, and they put in theirs as soon as Mallika decided to go to Bombay. So he’s suggested to Mallika that they go down to Cochin afterwards and meet his parents and relatives, and maybe have a traditional wedding if his parents insist upon it.”
“Did you talk to Mallika?”
“No, I called him late last night, you see, and Mallika was asleep. I hadn’t known that she was in Bombay. He apologised for not letting me know, but I don’t blame him at all, with everything on his mind… I was just wishing I could have helped. Mallika was in Delhi, and I could have talked to her, or met her. I had no idea things were so bad…”
“Don’t blame yourself, kiddo,” said Raghav, patting my head. “You couldn’t have done anything. And I think they’ve managed pretty well.”
“Yeah, haven’t they? Anyway, I’d actually called Prabhu to ask whether he was coming down for your wedding. When I told him I was meeting you today, he asked me to apologise for him, and hoped that you’d understand.”
“Of course I understand,” Raghav smiled wryly. “He needs to see to his own marriage right now, not worry about mine…”
I had called a cab to take me home from Raghav’s. Raghav gallantly offered to drop me home, but his house was still milling with guests, and I refused. I pleaded work the next morning, and left right after dinner, at around 10 o’ clock.
It was a day for talking to b-school friends. Rizvi called while I was in the cab, wanting to learn more about Raghav’s wedding.
“I received his email, last week,” she said, “inviting me. I was so shocked! I mean, it’s all out of the blue, isn’t it? But I just replied with congratulations. I saw the girl’s name on the invite – Sonali, isn’t it?”
“Yes. She’s Amit’s sister. You do remember Raghav’s friend Amit?”
“Yeah, he told me. He called me today, in the morning. He apologised for not calling earlier, but said everything happened quickly.”
“Yeah, it did.”
“So, who is this Sonali? Have you met her?”
“Will it be awkward to tell her that I’m on my way back from Raghav’s engagement?” wondered Mandakini. “Will she be hurt that she was not invited?”
“I don’t think so,” said Miki. “She knows I’m better friends with Raghav. I don’t think I need to lie.”
“Yes,” I said aloud. “Actually, I’m just on my way back from their engagement right now. It was a small informal event, just family were invited… and me.”
“Oh, what’s she like?” asked Rizvi excitedly.
“Well, she’s sweet,” I forced myself to say. “She’s small and pretty and cheerful and polite.”
“And how did it all happen?”
“The usual, you know. Amit had gone to the US, and Sonali was lonely, and she talked to Raghav, and they hit it off.”
“It must have happened in a hurry. I had never heard of her until I saw the invite.”
“Yeah, I think it did happen rather fast. But again, they’ve known each other for years.”
“I still can’t quite believe it… Raghav, getting married, to someone I don’t know… I’d always thought that, you know, you and Raghav...”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Had everyone expected us to fall in love?”
“Really?” I said aloud. “No, that was never in question. We had always been friends, and just that.”
“But you always seemed so right together. I had hoped… but anyway, are you going to the wedding?”
“Is that a question? How could I miss Raghav’s wedding?”
“Oh, good. I wasn’t too keen on going alone… He’s asked me to come to the mehndi, too, will you go?”
“Yes, I plan to.”
“Great. Let’s meet up and get there together, then.”
And even though Raghav was my best friend and I would be at his wedding no matter what, it was comforting to learn that Rizvi would be there too.
“What should I wear?” she asked. “What are you going to wear?” And we discussed that most important issue until I reached home.