[Issue 9 / May 2014]

It should've been me sitting next to him, in front of the altar. It should've been my fingers touching his elbow as he pours ghee into the dancing flames. How ethereal he looks, with the glow from the sacred fire on his face! Such a solemn expression he wears as he glances periodically at the purohit to confirm that he's performing the rites of the homa correctly.

He hasn't seen me yet. He did look in this direction once, but how would he have recognized me from that distance, especially in these clothes?

I hate her already, that woman, sitting cross-legged next to him, her left knee touching his right. A terrible green, her saree, the colour of a toad – I would've chosen a different colour.

All the necessary rituals are complete; I know by the mess of haldi and kumkum on her face, the rice grains in her hair, and the yellow haldi-stained thread around her neck announcing her newly-married status. Really, Shekhar, this woman?

I hadn't thought he would go for this type. Angular, tall and bony.

Could he have chosen her himself? Nah, no way, the coward. She must be his mother's choice. I see his mother, diamonds flashing at her ears, moving amongst the guests, a smile plastered on her face.

What would she say if she knew I was the girl her son used to talk to on the phone late into the night? That I was the one he would hasten to meet instead of being around when they had guests for lunch? That I was the reason he refused to consider any of the eligible girls of their caste she had paraded before him in hopes that he would marry one of them?

She disapproved of me, hated me, without having even met me. And now, look at the ways of fate. She's showering me with so much respect.

She looks across at us from time to time with a reverential look on her face. It makes me want to giggle. But that just won't do. My face must not reflect my thoughts. I shoot a glance at Mataji, sitting next to me. Mataji in her spotless white saree and a sandal paste-bindi. How does she do it, her face passive and beatific no matter what goes on around her? That was what drew me to her. Her face – so peaceful, and those eyes, so kind... I feel at peace when I am with her – such a contrast from those dreary months of confusion, distress and disappointment... Mataji brought me back from the brink, and I want to be like her. Placid and calm.

But I can't take my eyes off that woman, Shekhar's wife. I feel like staring, staring, even though it makes me hurt. I hate her, I hate her.

No. I mustn't hate. She hasn't done anything to me, and even if she has, I shouldn't hate. Mataji wouldn't hate anybody. But Mataji—would Mataji know the high of loving a man, and the pain of losing him, and the rage, the rage…the RAGE that comes with looking at his wife?

I am breathing too fast. It mustn't show. Relax. Close your eyes. Breathe.. in....out...

I recognize so many people at this gathering without having even met them. That must be his Ooty uncle, the one with the enviable library I hoped to see one day. And that is definitely the US aunty and her husband. And those are his cousins – the ones who like trekking. "Let's join them sometime," Shekhar had said. And that of course is his grandmother, his favourite Ajji – she's come to pay her respects to Mataji. How sweet she looks in her blue kanjeevaram saree, her snow-white hair in a bun, the creases on her face so deep. Mataji says something to her, and Ajji looks confused.

"She can hear in only one ear," I whisper to Mataji. "You'll have to speak louder."

Ouch. That was careless of me. I 'll have to watch what I say. Mataji doesn't say anything, but she gives me a searching look as she hands me the plate of fruits and flowers that Ajji has handed to her.

I place the plate next to my chair, beside the other offerings.

I spot his cousin. Ramya? Divya? I can't remember. We ran into her once in Cafe Coffee Day. Her mother is bringing her to meet Mataji. Will she recognize me? That wouldn't be too good. She bows to Mataji. She furrows her brows a little, stares at me. There, she thinks I look familiar, but she can't place me. How can she? We met briefly, and I was in jeans that day. And today...

Phew. She leaves, but not without throwing me another look over her shoulder. Her mother stays, though, talking to Mataji.

How alike they all are, Shekhar's mother and her sisters. "You'll make out the difference between them soon enough," Shekhar would say. No, I won't—not any more. It'll be her, that woman, his wife–she’ll be the one who takes note of the slight differences in their walk or their hair or their voices, and learn which aunt is which.

She'll be the one who'll stay in Ooty-Uncle's old British bungalow and soak in his library.

She'll be the one who'll learn the names of his fun cousins, and go to the Himalayas with them.

She'll be the one who'll hold his adorable niece on her lap and tell her stories.

She'll be the one who'll know in which ear to speak to Ajji, so that she can hear.

She'll be the one who'll sleep next to him on his bed, use his bathroom, and share his toothpaste.

She'll be the one who'll have his children.

As for me–if I go through with my initiation next week, I'll never get married, and I'll never have children.

Fate. That's what it is.

Mataji told me, "You'll be tested before your initiation." It has been months since I joined, and there have been many tests. I thought I'd passed them all. Incidents that tested my fortitude. People who tested my tolerance. Situations that tested my ability to endure, and things that tested my faith in the life I wanted to lead—a life of selfless service.

Nothing fazed me. Nothing. Not even Amma visiting me at the Ashram, pleading with me to reconsider—threatening, cajoling, guilt-tripping–she couldn't conceive how I would leave a good job, a carefree life, and opt for the hard, stark ways of Mataji's Ashram. I couldn't make her understand the kind of peace I had with Mataji. "You're running away from something," Amma told me again and again. And yet I persisted until her protests wore out. She gave up. I had no doubts. No second thoughts. I knew I wanted to go ahead with this.

And then today—this. A week before my initiation. Why, why, why? Why did Shekhar's mother have to be a follower of Mataji? Why was she so adamant that Mataji attend the ceremony and bless the couple? Why couldn't Mataji have chosen any of the others to go with her? Why me?

Somebody brings us glasses of cardamom-spiced lemonade. I want to toss it all into my parched mouth. But that'd never do. I've got to sip.

Come to think of it, what I want now is not lemonade, but a cool beer.

A beer? It's been months since I’ve craved even coffee or tea, and now—beer? I thought I'd gotten over all the tamasic ways of life, crossed over into a completely different world. I thought by donning these white robes I would start my life again–a clean page, pure and white, free of all disappointments and sadness, and...

I want a beer and I want to have Shekhar's children and...

"Akka, are you all right?" asks someone.

I feel tears running down my cheeks.

"It's the smoke from the homa," I say. "My eyes are sensitive..." I dab my eyes with the end of my saree. Mataji glances at me again. She can read my thoughts. I'm sure of it. She'll know. Is that why she brought me here? Could she have known about Shekhar? No way, how could she? It’s a coincidence.

Oh why don't my tears stop?

I should never have broken up with him. Should've given him a little more time to convince his mother. I waited for years for him to summon the courage to go against his family's wishes and marry me. What were a few months more?

No, I did the right thing. How long could I wait? I had my self-respect.

But I loved him. I still love him. I do.

No, I did what I thought was best. I thought it would scare him into action. I broke up with him, and then waited for him to come running back to me. I waited, and waited–he never came.

Turned out well, I suppose. Shows that he was a coward. Yes, I did the right thing, and I'm not going to regret the past.

I'm going to get initiated into Mataji's Ashram next week.

Oh come on, who am I kidding?

The homa is over. They are standing up. They're coming down now from the dias.They’ll start talking to the guests and meet Mataji. Will I be able to take it?

He's walking among the guests, looking so good in the dhoti with the shalya over his shoulders, his movements awkward, endearing. He hasn't changed at all. He smiles at someone. Talks and laughs. His crooked canine tooth–I can see it from here, or am I just imagining it? How I loved it.

His wife is laughing too. Gummy smile. Why is she sticking to him like that?

There, his mother is walking towards them, and she's bringing them to us.

Breathe deep. In…1,2,3,4, hold, 1,2, out…1,2,3,4,5,6… hold, 1,2, In...

He's seen me. And he's gone as white as the cloth over his shoulder. Now he's gone red. He’s avoiding my eyes as they come close and bend down to touch Mataji's feet. She blesses them. They straighten.

I look at him. He glances at me for an instant before lowering his eyelids again.

That glance, oh that glance—I feel it all over again. The wave upon wave of tenderness and love. I feel hot and flushed and I cannot breathe.

All I need to do now is make a sign, one of our private signs to tell him that I still love him—oh, yes, Shekhar, I do, and I'm ready to be back with you and I'll wait until the end of the world for you because that's what I need. That's what I want.

And I know, Shekhar, I know that look on your face so well–I know that you'll come running back to me...

A sudden movement... his wife folds her palms to me.

His wife. Shekhar's wife.

Seriously, who am I kidding?

His wife smiles. I smile back. Barely. I feel no emotion towards her.

They turn around. I stare at their backs. I twist the pallu of my white saree and shift in my seat. This saree is itchy.

I can't wait to change.

*

Shruthi Rao lives and writes in Bangalore. Several of her stories have won awards (Sunday Herald Short Story Award, Unisun-Reliance TimeOut short story contest, Tagore-O'Henry contest) and an award-winning children's story has been converted into a picture book (The Story Lady.) Her stories have been included in print and online anthologies (Two is Company, Helter Skelter New Writing) She also writes for Deccan Herald, The Hindu, Complete Wellbeing and Women's Web.