Of late Aditi had started looking over her shoulders, as she felt uneasy whenever she was alone. She did not know when the feeling had crept in her, almost like a finger trailing up her spine. The overcast sky and the feeling of gloom that it brought with it did not help in the least. She hated the monsoons, hated the idea of being cooped up at home, in her musty little room with its pink walls that had been painted specially for her.
What a glorious childhood she had had! Born to an opulent family, she was the youngest of six, all boys before her. So when she was born, her parents had been ecstatic. “Our little ‘Gudiya’ – may your dainty feet never touch the ground, lest they be soiled!” said her eldest brother Som, who was so addicted to Hindi movies that his conversation was all movie-like.
Her grandparents were no less happy. Her grandfather twirled his still luxuriant white moustache, which hadn’t gone down in history unfortunately and smiled “This girl will bring happiness to the family. Look at that wide forehead and those sparkling eyes!”
And so Aditi grew, secure in the fact that she was the centre of attraction within her doting family. Her parents passed away in a road accident, but she was never allowed to feel lonely. Her brothers teased her, harassed her and often made her cry. But one little scratch on her, and they would come running with Dettol and band aids. No one from outside the family was allowed to tease her, and no one dared to do so as they were all petrified of the six burly brothers who could beat them up if they uttered her name.
Aditi had a large circle of friends, all female. They would go out once a week and paint the town red, within limits, of course. A shopping spree followed by a movie, where they gorged on popcorn and nachos, washed down with ice cold Fountain Pepsi. She looked forward to these outings, when she could be amongst peers, and let her hair down, and not be treated like a little princess.
Mohit was the one guy friend she had, and that too because he was Prithvi’s younger brother. Prithvi was a close friend of Shyam, brother number three, who was the charmer of the family. Shyam’s boisterous nature made him popular, and the fact that he had money to spend did not hurt either. Prithvi would often bring Mohit along and since he was closer to Aditi’s age, the two of them would play together.
As they grew up, the two started experiencing a kind of excitement when they saw each other. They lived for moments when they could sit together and talk about every topic under the sun. Love crept into their tender hearts as they surreptitiously held hands and exchanged innocent kisses, unaware that a storm was going to descend on them.
“How dare you trifle with Aditi’s feelings?” roared Som, brother number one.
“Is this how you repay us for having let you into our home?” the melodrama was unmistakable.
Her other brothers did not bother to speak. They picked Mohit up and threw him out of the door, where he landed unceremoniously on a bed of roses, bruised and unrepentant. Prithvi too landed a kick on his brother’s backside, as a result of which he was allowed to remain a friend of the family.
But that did not last long. Prithvi came in like a thundercloud the next day.
“What have you done with Mohit? He did not come home last night!”
The brothers looked at one another. Subash, brother number five, shook his head.
“We haven’t seen him after he landed on the rose bush!”
“We assumed he had gone home. He never came back here!” added Atul, brother number four.
“We would have broken his bones if he had, anyway!”
Aditi was distraught. Her best friend had disappeared and she screamed at her brothers who looked suitably sheepish.
“How dare you decide my life for me? This is your fault! I want Mohit back right now!”
Her screaming made the rafters shake, and her brothers, who had suffered her tantrums earlier, meekly made their way out to tried locate the missing boy.
Gauri, Som’s wife, tried to cajole Aditi to eat lunch, but she refused.
“I will eat only after I see Mohit safe!” she said stubbornly. Her lip stuck out and there were tears in her pretty eyes.
“How could they do this? They threw him out of the house, and out of my life!” She lay back on her bed, sobbing heartbrokenly. Hours later, when her sobs had subsided, there was a commotion outside her door. Her brothers stood there shamed.
“Aditi, we are doing our best to look for Mohit. Please come and have dinner!”
Aditi shook her head. Her insides were heaving, empty as they were. But she would not give into this beastly behaviour.
“I am not hungry! You go and eat!” she said resolutely.
“I will eat only with Mohit!”
They went away, and they tossed and turned all night, as hunger pangs tore at their insides as well.
There was a sudden knock at the bedroom door, and Aditi’s eyes flew open. She opened the door, and there stood Mohit, looking none the worse for wear.
“Hi, Aditi!” he smiled, as Aditi threw herself at him in delight.
“Oh, am I glad to see you!” she murmured, as she hugged him tightly. Mohit hugged her back, as his voice broke.
“I thought I had lost you forever,” he said, “However, I do not want to encounter that rose bush again. I feel like a pin cushion at the moment!”
Aditi giggled. Now that Mohit was back, her spirits had risen. “Come, let’s go and raid the refrigerator,” she smiled, “I am ravenous!”
And so they went downstairs and filled up a plate with rice, chicken curry and potato mash, and sat down on the stairs to eat, giggling below their breath.
The next day, Aditi was back to her normal self. The family was relieved to see that she had eaten at night. Now they could also eat without feeling guilty. Aditi did not mention Mohit, and no one asked about him either. “Mohit will remain my secret,” she whispered to herself, “He is mine forever!”
Every night, after the family was in bed, Mohit would make his way to Aditi’s room. They would sit and talk, as they had always done earlier, and Aditi would then fill up a plate of food for him, and they would polish it off together. Every morning there would be a dirty plate in the sink, and the cook would smile, saying, “Aditi Baby seems to enjoy a second dinner in the middle of the night!” No one ever suspected that there was a second person sharing that midnight meal as well.
“Are you looking a little rounder than before, Aditi?” asked Gauri. “Really?” countered Aditi innocently. She had no intention of mentioning where the extra weight had appeared from. Mohit remained her little secret and it was amazing that he still managed to come over without anyone realizing. Her grandmother was worried about the dark circles under her eyes. “Are you not sleeping well, child?” she asked her, “Is college getting too hectic for you?”
“Not at all, Achamma,” she said airily, “It is just that I prefer to study at night. And we have so much to cover with our exams around the corner.” Achamma clucked disapprovingly, but Aditi gave her a bear hug.
“I’ll be fine, Achamma, Don’t you worry!” she smiled.
The monsoon had set in full earnest. The rains poured down relentlessly, and puddles formed in potholes on the road and the days were cloudy and gloomy. Aditi had never liked the idea of getting wet in the rain. Even as a child, when most of her school friends had gamboled in the rain, getting wet and squirting water at one another, she would stand in a corner on the school verandah and watch from a safe distance. She had never liked the colour grey, and rain clouds made her spirits plummet.
That evening when she walked inside home, a conference was going on at home. Her brothers sat in a circle along with her grandparents. She heard snippets of their conversation.
“It’s time we started looking out…!” “Will she agree?” The voices were hushed, and the moment they heard her footsteps, the conversation stopped.
“Are you discussing me?” she asked pertly. Her brothers smiled, and Gauri came towards her, “Did you get wet in the rain?”
“No, you know I don’t like the rain!” she smiled, “So what were you discussing about me?”
There was a silence, and then Subhash cleared his throat. He was the one who was mostly the spokesman.
“Actually, we were discussing that it is time to look for a boy for you. Another six months and you will be a graduate.”
Aditi looked at them, their eyes filled with love and concern for her.
“I already have a boy in mind!” she declared, “Mohit and I always knew that we were made for each other!”
There was a stunned silence. The same eyes mirrored disappointment – shock. The silence continued. Mohit had not been mentioned in the house after that rose bush incident. Aditi looked at her brothers, who were very quiet. Her grandfather gestured to her, “Come here, child! Come sit by me!”
Aditi sat down by him. The silence still continued. Her grandfather looked at Subash, who said tentatively, “Aditi, we thought you had got over Mohit. He does not come here anymore!”
How little you know! Aditi thought to herself.
She said aloud, “That is fine. I am sure he still loves me. And I will not marry anyone but him!” Now put that in your pipe and smoke it, she thought to herself. A sudden knock at the door startled them all.
“Let’s discuss this later!” said her grandfather, as Som went to answer the door.
That night when Mohit came to her room as usual, she looked prettier than ever. Her mirror revealed a glow on her face, the glow of love. “Mohit, oh, Mohit!” she whispered, “you and I are finally going to be together!”
Mohit smiled at her, in his endearing way.
“I love you, Aditi!” he said softly, “we are made for each other.”
Aditi described how she had mentioned his name, and how her brothers had fallen silent.
“Little do they know that we have been meeting every night! And now that I have spoken your name, I am sure they will fall in with my wishes.”
The next morning she was up with the lark. Life had turned very exciting. She hummed as she changed for college. She knew she looked her best that morning. As she walked towards the dining room, she could hear snatches of conversation. “… tell her right now!” “How do we convince her?” As she walked in, the conversation ceased.
“What is it that you want to tell me?” she asked, “does it have to do with Mohit? And what I said about him last night?”
They looked at one another. Som said hesitantly, “Listen, Aditi, you cannot marry Mohit. He has disappeared. No one knows where he is.”
“Very funny!” she chuckled, “Mohit is very much here. I see him every day.” She did not say ‘night’ for fear that they would take it in the wrong sense.
“Aditi, child, you are wrong!” added her grandmother, whose forehead was knotted with worry lines, “Mohit has not been here since that day!”
Aditi took her by the hand. “Achamma, I promise he is fine. He has not come here because he is intimidated by all of you. But all that will be resolved once we get married,” She moved towards the door, “and now I need to go to college. I am already late.”
It was that evening that she felt a sense of unease. As she looked over her shoulder, she felt shadows brush by her. The clouds hung menacingly and she could hear the pitter-patter of the rain drops outside. She shivered involuntarily, wishing that Mohit would come earlier than usual. She went in for a shower and put on her prettiest dress, hoping that it would lift her spirits.
As she sat before the mirror, the heaviness returned, and her spirits plummeted once again. Why did this evening hang so heavy on her hands? She went and peeped over the banister of the stairs. Her brothers were all gathered around the dining table. Some serious discussion was taking place. A feeling of lethargy stole over her, as she went to lie down on her bed, trying to think only of Mohit.
“Aditi, my darling!” the voice startled her. There stood Mohit, a luminous smile on his handsome face.
“Mohit!” she squealed, and jumped up and ran into his arms. He held her in his strong arms and she could hear the beating of his heart.
“Mohit, I have been waiting for you all this while!”
“I know, Aditi, I just couldn’t get away,” he smiled.
“Come downstairs with me. My family is discussing our wedding. Let’s go and join them,” Aditi pulled at Mohit’s arm.
“All right, you go ahead. I’ll follow you, Aditi. You will have to prepare them first. I will be right behind you, as I always am!” There was a smile on Mohit’s face that warmed her heart. She couldn’t wait to go down and tell her family that she and Mohit were ready to get married.
“Don’t take too long, ok? I want you to see their expressions when I tell them about you,” she smiled back.
She danced her way down the stairs, a song in her heart. As she burst into the dining room, a number of surprised faces looked up at her. Som stood up and came towards her.
“Come, Aditi, and sit down! We were just about to call you down!”
“I know, Som Baba! You were discussing my wedding, weren’t you?” she trilled, her heart in her eyes.
Her brothers looked at one another, and then at her grandparents. Her grandfather smiled gently at her, “We were discussing you, child!”
“Mohit is upstairs. He and I were waiting for this moment to make the announcement. We want to get married, Achachan,” she turned away from her grandfather and smiled at all the loved faces around her. But the reaction she expected did not come. There were no angry faces, or happy ones, just blank ones, as though what she had said had not reached them.
“Aren’t you all happy for me?” she insisted, “Mohit and I have always loved each other. Don’t you want me to be happy?”
She turned towards the staircase and called out, “Mohit, come downstairs. Everyone is waiting for you.”
There was a silence as they all waited. There was no sign of Mohit. Aditi called out again, and then again, this time with a note of panic in her voice. She walked towards the stairs, wondering where Mohit was, but again, there was only silence, on the stairs, and in the room behind her, where her family waited.
Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her grandmother stood behind her, and she turned to her, a desperate query in her eyes. “Come, my child.” She led her back into the dining room.
“Mohit will be down in a moment,” she said, her voice shrill. The number of eyes looking back at her unnerved her, and she desperately wanted Mohit by her side to hold her hand and tell them that he loved her.
“Mohit will not come down those stairs, child!” the words were like stones thrown at her heart, “He cannot come down those stairs!”
Subhash held out a newspaper cutting that she took with nerveless fingers, a cold feeling coming over her. Mohit’s face stared out of it, with the gentle smile she had always loved. There were two dates below, and she stared at them in disbelief.
“No, no!” she whispered, “this cannot be!”
She crumpled the obituary and threw it from her, a scream coming from deep within her tortured soul.
“No, Mohit is upstairs. He has been with me every night!” She turned to her brothers in a rage.
“What is all this? Are you trying to turn me insane?” The next moment, she collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Her family looked at one another in deep sorrow. Their minds went back to the day when Mohit had been thrown out of the house. They had left him lying there, and closed the door after them. At dusk, when they went outdoors, the women screamed, and the men stood transfixed by the scene before them. Mohit lay in the rose patch, a knife through his heart, as a figure stood over him. In the gloom, their hearts had turned to ice, as Aditi had turned to them, smiling, and said in a sing-song voice, “Now Mohit will always stay with me. He will never leave me, for we are made for each other!”