The first year at business school is a mad whirligig of events - papers to write and exams to appear for, socials to agonise over, fetes and nites to spend sleepless, coffee filled nights over - for Ankita, meeting Vishal added to it all. For Vishal, she breezed into his life that fine day when they were still new at school -there he was discussing the nuances of Dilip Vengsarkar's batting style, when she appeared, running headlong down the stairs, her mass of tangled curls bobbing up, then down, while the rest of her struggled to hold in place, an awkwardly heavy, checkered blanket. He watched her as she moved her arm, first the left, then the right…. But it was no use, one corner of the blanket insisted on trailing along the ground behind her, much like a bridal veil. So it was that he went up to her, barely smothering a smirk, and knightlike hoisted the blanket on to his own shoulders and asked , " Where do you want thls? " - he had done this kind of thing before for his sisters and older cousins, but she would always remember, to her eternal chagrin, stuttering in sheer confusion. She had studied in " co-ed" schools and had grown up in Delhi , yet this gesture had her flummoxed. And so Vishal became one of the first men of his batch to enter the women's hostel, without suffering the ignominy of having a sentinel announce his arrival with a stentorian " Man on Floor" which was the unwritten norm to be observed in such cases.
Her room was still in a state of expectant unpreparedness, with her books and cassettes spread ungainly over the blank bare bed, and he read Dire Strraits, Simon & Garfunkel on some lapels and even a compilation of Lata's and he knew they would be friends.
Neither Ankita nor Vishal actually knew when it was that they made the transition from friends to the stage where each could think of the other as " my boyfriend or my girfriend " . But it was that they soon became a part of languorous conversations before the TV or at Daddu's ; it happened that when Vishal went missing, they always asked her, and before long, Vishal had to put up with teasing references about her, while Ankita's dreamy reveries by the window were always treated with indulgence… or the conspiratorial smile/wink.
By the time, they had moved into the 4th semester, Ankita no longer lingered in the lobby before making a dash into the men's hostel, wary of catching the Gurkha's eye, and Vishal took to assuming a "man of the world" look while guys around him talked of girls. And they assumed bashful, self conscious looks when people stared at them just that second longer, when nudges grew more pointed and deliberate seating arrangements made for them. And soon questions of impending matrimony began to be heard.
And so it was at Daddu's that Ankita and Vishal talked of marriage. Both had seen photographs of each others' families. Ankita knew Vishal was the eldest and only son of parents who doted on him. They lived in a sprawling, officious bungalow, as his father worked in the state civil service. As they talked of their parents, Ankita felt a frisson of unease run through her. Seeing Vishal's, mother, bovine and somnolent under the weight of all her Rajasthani finery, she had felt thankful - appreciative of her own sweet natured, ever unprotesting mother, whose one source of sustenance was keeping her family happy and together.
In countless Hindi movies and in innumerable conversations with her mother and aunts, she knew that in India, marriages were alliances between families, forged after endless confabulations, involving all the male elders and female know it alls who had seen it everything. Photographs were scutinised, scanned for blemishes, most were returned to senders and some were circulated among the family for approval. The family background ( an all encompassing word that included culture, economical status) was an important issue - did the women work, were they fleshy and well rounded for that was an indication of a family, blessed by bounty, what kind of reception was accorded to the boy's family at the " mukh dekhi", was the girl sufficiently demure; did she peek through her pallu that reached over and under her nose - views were exchanged on these, then the pundit called and a "muhurt " (auspicious day) was decided on. Then all the excitement began - the thrill of a new trousseau for the bride to be, silky, glistening banarasis, jewellery made under the mother;s eagle scrutiny and the men of the family absorbed in long conversations over the telephone with the contractor who would supply food, the pandal wallah, nephews and cousins were pressed into service. Yes, a marriage was a big occasion, parents prepared for it the day a daughter was born…. a lifetime of planning metamorphosed finally into a stupendously heavy family album.
Ankita too knew that it would happen to her someday, when she would like her mother, aunts, female cousins settle into the languor of domesticity. But being the younger sibling of a family that extended to cover cousins in their fifties and neices who were older than her, Ankita relegated the prospect of marriage to the farthest realms of her mind. It would happen, but much later… now she set her eyes on getting herself placed in a good company ( an MNC). She would work for a few years before she would marry someone she loved. She had not bargained on meeting Vishal.. she had grown fond of him and would marry him, of course,….but she wanted to savour the independence first of being a working woman, all on her own, making a niche on her own before she took on another identity.
She tried to explain all this to Vishal, having studied history she was suitably elonquent but it did not have the intended effect on Vishal. To him, it was all so logical. They would marry as soon as the convocation was over, she would of course work…but she must ensure that she was located in Bombay, where he hoped to work, and twice a year they would have to spend some time at the family home in a village, miles from the city of Jaiselmer, where across the horizon stretched long acacia trees, women trekked miles in search of water, and the telephone never worked and the bathrooms did not have flushes. Vishal considered himself a man of sufficiently modern views - of course Ankita could work, but to become a career woman ….those sort who went on tours with their bosses, whose children were left in the care of ayahs and who made it a habit to spend long hours in office….well, his mother did not actually care for such "types".
Ankita lost her temper for the first time. Of course, she and Vishal had had their tiffs, but those would blow over soon. But to Ankita, this was serious, she would not give up a lifetime of hope, the promise of being independent just to become a wife and a mother - whose very existence was secondary, whose fragile happiness was so very dependent on others. She had seen her mother hurt, weeping, angy at being sidelined by a triumvirate comprising of an old crony aunt, a spinster aunt who was the family's universal adviser and the long nosed " witch widow" who made her periodic appearance from their village home, almost every year. She could well imagine Vishal's mother in such a role.
Their arguments revealed the cracks within, differences that had been superficially papered over during a two year period that covered term papers, exams, social events, weekly trips to the movies now manifested themselves, looming large and indissoluble. They were never going to work it out, Vishal realised, his parents would have willingly accepted as their bahu a girl of his choice, but they would never accept a woman with a mind of her own.
They went to great lengths to keep up appearances, so no one would know. After the convocation, Vishal tried hard to make the lump that kept swelling in his throat disappear, while Ankita threw herself into the celebrations with a wild frenzy.
Soon it was time to go home, … for a welcome break before beginning a new life as working young adults Goodbyes were said, photographs and addresses exchanged….it was all over so fast, so soon that no one noticed Vishal crying into his pullover and Ankita holding on to him, willing herself to hold on for a few seconds longer at least, to a past they had willingly let go.