Ishani was relieved when the prolonged pain of her parting with Chirag began to fade away. It was the fourth week since her divorce with Chirag had been finalised, and she no longer had to bear the name of Chirag Mehta along with hers. The long, lingering pain was beginning to vanish as time passed and she could think more clearly now. She spent her nights thinking, sometimes weeping to herself, and some nights, she could hear the soft tunes of the piano from the hall below spiral into her room. It felt as if Ranveer knew of the thoughts that haunted her and could conjure the music from them, a magic that required no tricks.
Tonight was one of those nights she could not find herself falling asleep, and she turned and tossed on the bed, wondering why no more tears fell from her eyes. She was spent completely. She knew she was, but there was enough anguish within her to make her chest ache and render her sleepless for nights. Her mother visited RV mansion regularly and often dined with them. She was accompanied by either Gauri or Devarsh and Prateik, both of whom could not stop feeling uneasy in the house. Ranveer showed no emotion at all regarding their presence. No unpleasant emotion at least, and Ishani was glad of it.
She would be lying if Ishani said she truly expected Ranveer to be the same support for her he used to be years ago, but when he came home that night, after dropping her home and bringing her mother along to stay with them for as long as she wished, Ishani was beyond thankful. He talked to her more and for a long time, didn't let her stay alone. They spent more time together, sometimes either reading a book or watching a movie. No matter how tired they were, it became a regular routine that neither of them wanted to break.
She hadn't told him of her insomnia yet, though, considering it wasn't something he could help her in. So, Ishani stayed in her room, replaying her old life, filling the gaps with wistful wishes and hopes that weren't completely lost. She hoped her father would forgive her some day and himself too.
But what troubled her tonight wasn't just her own miseries. She thought of Gauri, her cousin. Her closest cousin who had been as lonely as she was and met with the same fate she did. Gauri told her of Pranav, the young man she'd been in love with, and lost eventually to save his life.
"He hasn't changed a day," she told Ishani. "It seems we're still there."
Ishani was silent and allowed Gauri to continue.
"You should see, Ishani, he still loved me."
"You loved him too."
Gauri nodded. "How could I ever imagine my life without him?"
Life was insane; sometimes cruel. But it gave second chances too.
"Did you talk to him about where you're supposed to go from here on?"
"He wants to meet me tomorrow." Gauri gave her a teary smile. "I don't know what's in store for me. Whether he wants me back in his life or not."
A lot had happened and Ishani knew better than to hope, but she nodded her head, and quietly prayed for her cousin's brighter future.
The next time Ishani and Gauri met, Gauri had visibly changed. She looked prettier than before and a blush adorned her cheeks. It was the kind of blush make-up could not justify. However, she kept her happiness to herself, probably considering Ishani wasn't ready to hear cheerful tales of the renewal of her old love. It wasn't after a fortnight that Gauri seemed a little unsettled, much to the surprise of her aunt, Falguni. Ranveer wasn't home yet and her mother and Gauri were to return home tonight. Before leaving, Gauri took Ishani in a corner and handed her over an envelope.
"This is for you," she said. "It's from Pranav," Gauri added at her cousin's quizzical look.
"What's in it?" Ishani asked, furrowing her brow. The look on Gauri's face told it wasn't something pleasant.
Ishani opened the envelope to be met with an unfamiliar but neat, cursive handwriting. As she glanced at the corner below, she found it to be signed by Pranav. Her heart skipped a beat, more out of fear than excitement and she began to read.
You must be wondering why am I writing to you when I have met your sister several times. But believe me, if it was something I could say out loud and not feel ashamed, I would have seen you in person. Gauri agrees with this too. A lot of it would not matter to you perhaps, and you can call me selfish, but I cannot go on feeling guilty all my life."
Ishani read the first paragraph with a baited breath and the length of the letter told her there was much more to it. In the next several minutes she read the entire letter, but the words that caught her attention were these. And she read them again and again as if to make sense of what she'd witnessed.
"I want you to know that I was one of the reasons Chirag came into your life as a lover."
She further read:
"It was unplanned and unwitting, to be honest. I didn't mean to interfere in your lives once Gauri was married to Romil, but for months my life was a meaningless mess. I wasn't sure where I was going and whether I had a life anymore to live. So, one day, I contacted Ranveer. He told me of the further developments in Gauri's life and how she and Romil were living in the Parekh Mansion. I came to know more of Ranveer. Some days he was inconsolable from grief and tragedy. We met often. And one day, while he was heavily inebriated, he told me how miserable he was. How your father wanted him to go away from your life so that Chirag and you could come closer. It happened shortly after you'd returned from Hrishikesh. I was empathetic towards Ranveer and it made sense why he didn't scorn me.
You must be wondering where I and Chirag come into picture. Here's the thing: your father wanted Ranveer to help Chirag to win you over and make you fall in love with him. He wanted Ranveer to stay away from you, too, because as long as he was in your life, you might never even consider falling in love.
I was there the whole time. I watched him unwillingly take the responsibility in his hands because he was too indebted to your father and had no concrete evidence to back up his claims that proved his dislike in Chirag. As it turned out, Chirag had connections and your family's trust.
It didn't make too much sense initially but then one day, Ranveer approached me, seeking my help to get Gauri to move on from me. "She needs to move on and you know that," he said. I knew it was true. He made me do things that you would have disapproved of and when you found out about my involvement, he made me take Chirag's name. He asked me to say that Chirag taught me the importance of love, moving on and all the things you would love to hear.
It was scandalous at best and made little sense. It made no sense because Ranveer was basically giving his own character to Chirag to adapt and copy. I watched Chirag's transformation before me. I must say I liked Chirag and was still unsure of Ranveer's dislike for him. I took it as his jealousy instead of a gut feeling.
However, I really was happy for both you and Chirag and hoped you'd have a good life together. I wished you happiness even though I deeply empathized with Ranveer.
But as life would have it, I was wrong! Chirag didn't learn to be like Ranveer to become a better man. Whatever his purpose was, he ended up hurting you. I would never have known this had I not returned to Mumbai and tried to contact Gauri - to check on her. When I look back now I realise, you deserved so much better. I'm not in a position to judge or say anything personal to you, Ishani, but as someone who has had his contribution in the turn your life took, I want to apologise to you. For everything. For not seeing through the treachery of Chirag and falling for his lies. It pains me to see that I played an integral role in getting you and Chirag closer.
Perhaps a lot of it wouldn't matter to you, given the time passed. Perhaps it would open some old wounds and hurt you a little… maybe more. My sincerest apologies for that."
Ishani sighed, closing her eyes, visualising the parts Pranav had mentioned. Her father forced Ranveer to go away from her life? Did her mother know? Did she approve it? Didn't her father know Ranveer was the most important person in her life.
Yes, that's why.
It became more clear that no matter what people said, Ranveer's parents were always right: Despite all the love showered upon them, the pretences of respects shown, they were just servants to the rich.
It was the second month since Ishani had talked to Ranveer, and the third week since she saw him. He didn't talk to her anymore. She'd been perplexed at the sudden change in him and uncertain of why he would distance himself all of a sudden. He didn't answer her phone calls. Whenever they met, he acted like she didn't exist. Ishani knew Ranveer was upset at her closeness with Chirag. He'd sensed she liked him even before Ishani could admit it to herself and expressed his displeasure at their friendship. Ishani tried to explain to him that she had a life outside of this one, too, but Ranveer didn't answer her. He went on to working his own way.
That was two months ago. She saw him regularly but he wouldn't speak to her. If he answered her queries, they were nothing more than mono-syllables, designed to irritate her more. It continued until, tired and exhausted, she stopped making an effort to talk to him and let him be. He had to understand that she couldn't live in this house forever. She was going to go away sooner or later. He was pleased when she told him she had dropped the idea of going to the USA for her further studies, but shook his head, disappointed, when she mentioned Chirag was the reason. That was months ago and it seemed like forever.
For days, she couldn't care less about Chirag or his dates. When he found out the cause of her miseries, he asked her to give Ranveer some time. "He's your friend," Chirag said. "I'm sure he's finding it hard that you'd be going away in a few months. If I were him, I'd be just as miserable."
Ishani did give him some time, but to no avail. Ranveer and she gradually grew more distant; to the extent she was numbed by his absence. Every time she saw him, an unpleasant sensation housed itself within her, and she found it better to stay away from him. It wasn't until that rainy night in late August she spotted Ranveer below her window that she felt comfortable enough to look at him without feeling ashamed or guilty. He stood there, and even from this distance, she could clearly see he looked tremendously anguished. Her heart broke and she took a deep breath and quickly walked to the first floor. Her father stood there and looked at her curiously.
"What happened, Ishani?"
"Papa, Ranveer… he's there in the rain. I mean, it's not safe. He hates rain. He might fall sick."
Her father was more composed than she liked him to be and said with a smile, "I know. I'd called him to see if the preparations of the engagement were going well." A blush crept on her face.
"But, Papa, Ranveer-"
"I'm sure he's gone back to his room. Now, go and sleep. You must be awake early in the morning. We'll need you and Chirag for the Ganpati preparation, remember?"
Ishani nodded. Unlike previous years, this year Chirag was going to bring Ganpati home, and not Ranveer. Ishani and her mother had argued with her father on the matter for days and were left defeated.
"Chirag is going to be our son-in-law very soon. Shouldn't we start this relationship with something as auspicious as this?" He looked at Ranveer who stood there silently for ten minutes. "Do you have a problem with this, Ranveer?" Ranveer looked at Ishani and her father. He didn't dare look at her mother and then shook his head. It was settled.
Ishani returned to her room and was surprised not to find Ranveer there anymore and hoped he was back in his room. The next day, she visited his house and winced at not finding him there again. His mother, however, stood there, cooking in the kitchen.
"Kaki, Ranveer. Where's he?"
She didn't look in Ishani's direction as though she hadn't heard her at all. Ishani had to repeat her words to get a cold response from her. "He must be busy looking after you people. He's far more devoted to you than us."
"I don't understand-"
"Of course you don't," Ranveer's mother said in a rather mocking tone.
"Kaki, please do tell me where he is! I've been trying to talk to him for so long and-"
"I don't know where he is at the moment," the quick response came. "I don't keep tabs on him."
"Could you please tell Ranveer that I'd been looking for him?"
Ranveer's mother nodded but said nothing. Ishani still didn't see Ranveer for several more days, and when she did, she wished she hadn't seen him at all. What changed him so much all of a sudden? The abrupt changes in him hurt her the most and she wished she knew why he chose to be the way he'd become. But there were no answers to her questions.
It was the first time when Chirag invited Ishani in his house. "My friends from Boston want to meet you," he said, but at the last moment, their plans were changed. A phone call came and told him that they'd be staying a little longer wherever they were. Ishani didn't know where. They talked for hours. Ishani felt Chirag's hand caress hers, sometimes her cheeks. He brought his face closer to hers and Ishani pushed him away. "I'm sorry I'm not comfortable, Chirag."
"Come on! You're not comfortable with kisses?"
Ishani blushed. "Well…"
"How are you going to do when we're married?" He again brought his hand to her shoulder and Ishani stood up and walked towards the window. It was then she heard a loud snap. Chirag was on the floor and Ranveer beat him up black and blue. In spite of her words of protest, Ranveer continued smacking Chirag's face, mumbling the words she could not understand. Chirag managed to counter some of his punches but were ineffective against the harsh blows that Ranveer gave him. She had to scream her guts out to quiet him. "What are you doing here?"
"I want to take you home."
"I'm not going anywhere with you!"
"Ishani, he's not the right man. Believe me."
"Go away, Ranveer." When he didn't listen, Ishani dragged him down to the first floor and looked at him as though she'd never been so disappointed with him before. "What do you even think of yourself, Ranveer? Who are you? Why are you doing this?"
"You must understand. I only want to see you safe and happy but he's not the right man."
"Is that why you're stalking me?"
"I'm not stalking you!"
"Then what's wrong with you, Ranveer? Seriously? How are you so changed? How can you not see papa loves Chirag? Papa approves of him. Your judgement can't be better than Papa's."
"I don't have a proof right now but believe me, I don't want you to-"
"You don't want me, what? You know, Ranveer, I so much wanted to talk to you but I think for whatever reason you stopped talking to me, let's continue it that way. I think we're better off like this. I can't tolerate you repeatedly insulting the man I love."
He visibly cringed at her words and quietly walked out of the house. They didn't speak afterwards. Her mother noticed their changed attitude towards each other but said nothing. She observed. When one day she confronted Ishani, Falguni was met with a defiance she'd never seen in her daughter before.
It wasn't over until the night of Ganesh Chaturthi the secrets were spilled and facts were out in the open. Her colorful world took only one moment in descending into a ceaseless carnival of pain and agony that refused to relieve her for the rest of her life.
Ishani had collapsed on the floor, the letter still clutched in her hands. She felt as if a gargantuan stone had been placed on her chest that didn't let her breathe. She struggled to think straight. What was she? A child walking on a fragile frosty lake that cracked at the smallest pressure applied, devouring her in its darkness and coldness. She should have seen it coming all those years ago. Oh, how she believed Chirag loved her. She'd seen his behaviour change. From the rough American to the warm boy next door that stole her heart.
I watched Chirag's transformation before me.
She'd been a fool to believe Chirag had changed for her. Because of her. Because he loved her so much. From being told by Baa that she would never be loved by a good man to Chirag changing just for her. It was glorious. Who didn't like tenderness, attention and love? It crushed her further to realise that her father had ensured Ranveer didn't talk to her. But as she thought of it, he'd kept her away from seeking Ranveer on perhaps all occasions.
She might throw up. This had to be a cruel, cruel lie. Her father couldn't do this. Her father couldn't do this at all. The thought that Pranav might be lying came to her mind momentarily but was gone right away. He had no reason to lie. When she read his letter again and again, it filled the gaps she hadn't considered before.
But one thing became completely clear: the man she fell in love with wasn't Chirag. It was a false reflection of Ranveer.
She'd been too blind to see this.