She asked, “What if I don’t come?”
Manik rested his hands on his waist and looked back at her eyes. For a moment, he didn’t reply. When she didn’t move away, he heaved a deep sigh, and said, “It’s absolutely your choice. If you want to come to Innsbruck, you are more than welcome. I promise you will have no problem in that place. Not from my end. But if you are comfortable here, in our home, or maybe any place else that you want to go, I will have no objection. It’s totally up to you.”
She kept looking at him for a long time with raging emotions warring inside her. What to say? Was she doing right? Will he agree? But didn’t he say that he had no problem?
She cleared her throat and hesitated before she said, “I want to say something.”
“Hmm? Tell me…” he nodded, waiting for her to share what she wanted to tell him. His stance was serious and tone grave. He looked like someone who meant business and not beating around the bush. He was straight-forward and direct. He expected her to be the same.
She cleared her throat, “Actually, I never wanted to get married, again. I am a fiction writer but I am not confident enough to write a book. So, I have found out some courses in English Literature and Creative Writing. One course is in Kerala. I was working as an accountant in a tax firm to pay my bills and saved some money for the fees.” She stopped speaking after filling in the information for him.
He thought for a moment and asked, “You want to join there?”
She nodded, “Yes. Since we decided that none of us wanted this marriage, I thought I will do this course and pursue writing seriously.”
He nodded as if he had understood well and turned around to go to his almirah to take out his blue shirt and beige trousers that he needed for the day. With that, he said, “I have no problem.”
She couldn’t believe it. For a moment, she stood still like a statue and then asked, “Seriously?”
“Yeah?” He shrugged, “Why? You don’t trust me?”
“No… I mean…”
“Don’t worry, Nandini. I mean it when I say that I don’t mind whether you want to come to Austria or not!”
She sighed, wetting her dry lips with her tongue, “Thank you.”
Manik shrugged and went inside the washroom to take a bath and freshen up. Nandini sat on the bed and wondered how her life had brought her on this unexpected turn. She didn’t know where to go from here. She had lied to him about the course in Kerala, actually, she had picked up whatever place was farthest from here. She had decided even before marriage that she will do anything to stay away from him.
He didn’t mind it, either.
The first half of the day passed in the kuldevi temple visit and some traditional rituals with the relatives. By lunchtime, it was time for Manik to leave. His parents, relatives, Aman and his chacha’s family everyone insisted that he should stay.
“I would have planned it if I could. You all know that.” He descended the stairs, checking his jute wallet for passport, cards, ticket and other travel documents. A helper brought his luggage down. It was only one trolley bag. Manik continued, “I have surgeries lined up from tomorrow. Come on, people, no one told me that I would be getting married on this trip. Or else, I would have planned accordingly.”
His dadi touched his cheek and patted him softly before hugging him warmly, “Manik, I miss you. Someday, you need to take special leave for your dadi.”
“I promise!” he hugged her warmly and promised her that he will be back soon.
He met all the relatives one by one. Nandini stood at one corner and saw him meeting his relatives. He was so different when he was with his family or relatives. Yesterday night and today morning, the guy in the room, with her, looked like someone very serious, mysterious, with hundreds of layers over his heart and mind that no one could easily decipher. He didn’t speak a lot. Instead, he remained distant or aloof. He was weird. He was trying hard to keep his guards on before her.
With his relatives, he smiled and hugged, and pretended to be the nicest son of the family.
‘Obviously! They are his family. Everyone is different when their family is around.’ She thought.
His dad was on the sofa talking to his uncle when he called Manik, “Manik, did you fill the forms that I asked you to finish before you go.”
“Forms?” He shrugged cluelessly.
Dr. Malhotra was irked, “Manik, how can you be so irresponsible? There were forms where we need to get Nandini’s surname changed from Murthy to Malhotra and get her passport updated. Then, apply for a Schengen visa for Austria. Insurance and other formalities.”
“Oh, that?” Manik walked up to him, and pressed his lips, “Dad, I want to talk to you about something.”
His mother and dadi came forward too. Other relatives were busy eating, some gossipped and chuckled at silly jokes, some casually chatted around near the sofa. But at least half of a dozen of them were still focused on Manik and his dad. Nandini stood far off near the stairs. Manik cleared his throat and said, “Nandini has a course in Kerala and she wants to pursue Creative Writing and English Literature before coming to Austria.”
Superna and dadi didn’t understand that but Dr. Malhotra nodded and said, “That’s good. Which course, exactly? May I know?”
“One minute…” Manik turned around, surprising Nandini, in fact, taking her by shock. He walked up to her and stood facing her, with a confident nod of his neck.
He said, “I’ve talked to dad about you. Come there, and tell him.”
She winced and squeezed her eyes, and whispered, “What?”
“What- what?” He pressed his lips and stared at her, clearly annoyed, “Tell him about the course that you want to pursue.”
She shrugged, “I… I… “ She couldn’t speak anything over a dried throat, out of nervousness. She fiddled with the loose end of the pallu of the pink and silver sequined saree that she wore for the rituals. In this attire, he noticed that she looked like a fairy, who claimed that she was a witch. And now, she had made him look like an idiot before everyone. He wished he could strangle her. Or at least, pretend to do that to scare her. To teach her a lesson. Until she apologized.
“Really?? There is no course. You bluffed… right??” His eyes were nearly shooting daggers at her.
She squirmed, “I… I spoke whatever came to my mind, to avoid coming to Austria.”
He closed his eyes once, trying to fight his anger, irritation, and frustration, and nodded hopelessly. With a soft murmur, he said, “You could have said that it was a lie. I would have done something.”
She meekly murmured, as low as an inaudible whisper, “Sorry.”
He huffed and left a huge breath of air, “Don’t worry. I’ll do something.”
He came back to his parents where they were sitting and by now, almost everyone was staring at them, clueless about the developments and what they actually talked. Manik spoke to his father, “Forget it, dad. She is not sure.”
Dr. Malhotra nodded, “Okay. So, what about the papers?”
“I’ll finish them and send them by mail. Don’t worry, I’ll do all the procedures from Austria.”
“Sure?” dadi asked.
“Sure, dadi. It will take 15-20 days.” Manik assured her and hugged her again.
The driver informed them that the car was ready. Dadi smiled and touched his cheek. She was not going to drop him to the airport due to health issues. She and bua and all others stayed back with other relatives. Dr. Malhotra, Superna and Nandini were supposed to go to the airport to drop Manik at the International airport for an evening flight to Austria.
Manik hugged his parents and before he turned away to go, he came to Nandini to say bye. She looked at his eyes expectantly, and asked in a whisper, “You said… you’ll do something.”
“I’ll do something to ensure that you reach safely, there.”
“Austria?” She looked at him, terrified.
“Yes. Pack some woollens and jackets, “ he spoke in straight, slow, mysterious words, as seriously as he could, “It’s cold at this time of the year. And it will only get colder.”
She could feel her spine stiffening at the way he looked at her and said that. She replied, “I can’t come to Innsbruck.”
“You might be a witch. But I am not Dracula. I won’t eat you up.”