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Archana looked down from the window of the kitchen and saw Savita Aai hollering at her from below, where she was standing with her friends. Archana switched off the gas and went to the balcony.
"What is it Aai?" she asked.
"Come down!! Now!" commanded Savita. The onlookers looked on with eagerness.
"But what is the matter?"
"Come down!" she shouted angrily. Expecting the worst, Archana readied herself for another confrontation, got out of the house and started walking down the stairs. She met Savita Aai below.
"What is it Aai?"
Savita pointed to the vegetable vendor standing with his cart. "Go and buy vegetables."
Archana looked at her with a confused expression. Aai had called her for THIS? "But Aai.. I just went to the market recently.. we have vegetables at home.."
"I said buy from him! His are better!" commanded Savita. Confused and somewhat annoyed by such behaviour, Archana walked to the vendor and started looking at the vegetables.
"So now you can see!" she heard Savita talking to the neighbours. "It's not like she doesn't listen to me or my family members don't care about me. She is under my thumb, I am the person who still decides everything in my house. Everything is just as it always was."
"Hmm.. I don't know Savita Tai.. we hardly see you with your children these days while Archana is always with everyone.. so we just thought.."
"Your minds do a lot of overthinking." Laughed Savita. "Look how everything is so normal. Arey that girl is just a caretaker in the house, neither me nor my family has accepted her, after all my family still loves and respects me as they always have always done.. aye you.. buy brinjals!"
Archana did not know whether to laugh or be offended at Savita Aai's act. While she found it amusing the way Aai was commanding her to prove to her friends that she still held the reins of the house, she also felt bad that Aai was speaking disapprovingly about her in public, which would ultimately lead to more speculation in the chawl.
Then another thought struck her- what did this say about Aai's state of mind? By all this- who was Aai really trying to convince- the chawl women, or herself?
She took the vegetables from the vendor and told she would get the money from above. As she was walking up, she decided to humour Savita a little. She went to her with a scared expression on her face, then said in a small voice, "Anything else Aai?"
"Nah, go now.. make brinjals for me today."
"With more spices or less Aai?" holding her pallu to her mouth nervously.
"More.." said Savita. "I like it that way.."
"But I don't know how to make it that way.. what should I do now Aai?" asked Archana meekly, looking as if she would burst into tears any minute now. One of the chawl women started sniggering.
Savita shifted uncomfortably. Archana was really overdoing it now, people would start suspecting. "Go above and start your work, I'll explain things to you there." She then turned to the chawl women and shook her head. "Nothing her Aai has taught her, I have to only teach her everything, what is to happen to my son?" she wondered aloud. Archana tried to control her laughter as she walked away from there, while the other women consoled Savita Aai, saying their daughters-in- law were equally bad.
She came inside the house a few minutes later, and saw Manav in deep conversation with Vedant, who was nodding his head.
"So this is how the money is to be deposited, eh?" he asked Manav thoughtfully. Manav nodded. "In all probability, I'll be going to the bank myself the day after tomorrow to pay the instalment amount for the loan, but in case I can't, this is the way you're supposed to deposit money in the bank account after you fetch it.. did you understand everything?"
"I guess so.." Vedant scratched his head. "So right now I'm supposed to go and get the money first, right?"
"Not now, in the afternoon while returning from school. The person is an old friend of mine, I sold some spare parts to him. Take the money from him carefully, he might give cash."
Vedant nodded. For this first time his brother had endowed an important job to him. He felt proud that he was considered old enough to take the responsibility now, and hoped that he would not mess up things. Manav on his part, hoped for everything to go well too. He was a little scared of giving this responsibility to Vedant, but then again, Vedant needed to know of such things in case Manav was admitted for a long period at the hospital after surgery. These days, Vedant had become a loyal companion to Manav, helping him in any little work like fetching buckets full of water, taking calls for him, or if nothing else then sitting near him while studying and talking to him in the breaks, and somewhere Manav had started feeling that maybe he had grown up, become responsible and could be trusted.
"What for do you have to pay an instalment to the bank?" asked Damodar Baba, sitting down next to Vedant. Archana handed him a cup of tea.
"It is the instalment for the loan I had taken to buy the garage." Manav explained. "The garage got burnt, but the loan is still to be paid, remember?"
"Oh yes yes, my bad memory!" laughed Damodar.
From a corner, a loud 'humph' was heard. "He must still be in his hangover!" said Savita Aai, frowning. "Or still thinking of dialogues for that stupid play that he is writing for that stupid NGO where that stupid girl works!"
"Get a dictionary and find some new words." Said Damodar dryly.
"You get a job!" fired back Savita. "You only know how to freeload. Nothing else! If at all, you just caused a greater mess."
"Say clearly whatever you want to say!" said Damodar in irritation.
"You know well what I am saying." Aai replied back. "There are financial problems in the house, but you are doing nothing in regards to them!"
"What are you doing with regards to them, by the way?" replied back Damodar.
Savita looked on in anger, debating on whether to tell them or not. Archana hurried to speak. "Aai helps me with the household finance.. lots of help."
"I don't need a lawyer." Said Savita irritatedly. "And I especially am not answerable to this drunkard. First he never did anything. Now he has gone ahead and hired a lawyer and done a court case on Manjusha. Always creating more trouble for everyone but never helping regarding the financial state of the house which is most important. And then he asks Manav not to worry!"
"You don't know anything, so don't speak. Manav will not have to pay a single penny for the court case."
"Wow, in that case, tell me as well how you intend to pay the lawyer in case you lose the case?"
"We will not lose, and when we win I will pay my friend. I have promised the lawyer a share from the compensation we receive for our defamation. He is my old friend, so he agreed for this."
"Yes," said Baba proudly. "We attended many theatre workshops together in old days. But he didn't turn to theatre fulltime like me."
"Smart fellow! By the way, what if we lose?"
"We will not lose!"
"Bah!" said Savita, throwing her hands in the air. "Last time in the case against Ajit also Manav said the same thing. Then in the divorce case against this Maharani also he said the same thing, and now you have started your we will not lose lines. And that friend of yours, I doubt he has fought a single case in all these years.. but just bcos he is your fan, so you think he is the best lawyer in the world!"
"Can you please stop fighting?" asked Manav . He didn't like to be reminded of his failures all the time.
"I didn't start it, he did!" shrieked Savita, pointing a finger at Damodar. "There is no point in going ahead and doing a case against Manjusha and I've said that countless times. Not only will it take a toll on the financial state of the house, embarrass us in front of neighbours since I am not included in the defamation case, only the two of your are, but will also make Manjusha and gang more furious. We don't need more enemies from the Karanjkar side now!"
"You don't look good speaking about peace and stuff when you've hardly done anything to help the situation, rather you are always creating more trouble. You say I do nothing for the financial state of the house, well, you do nothing to maintain harmony in the house. So don't lecture me. Anyways I guess there is no point in talking to you about all this. It's all about your ego and personal enmity for you. You don't care about anyone."
Savita stared at Baba angrily, having the urge to throw something at him. This drunkard was such a pig, she thought. He had never done anything for his children and yet had the audacity to make such remarks on her. In her mind, Savita thought that even in her 'cold war' with Manav, she was doing more for him than his drunkard father had ever done.
"Get lost!!!" she shouted finally. "You are better when you are dead drunk! At least you don't make decisions that ruin us then!"
She flounced off angrily inside the house. Baba gave an angry smirk and looked at Manav, Vedant and Vandita who looked subdued. He placed a comforting hand on Manav's shoulder.
"Beta you trust me na?"
Manav nodded slowly, swallowing hard. "I do.. but Aai's words make sense.."
"And yet he will not support me!" shouted Savita, coming out momentarily. "He is angry with me so he will not support me inspite of the fact that I make sense! And yet I'm the one who is accused of bringing personal issues into the graver issues of the house everytime. Huh!"
She walked off again. Manav looked guilty. "It's not like that," he told Baba, with Vedant listening intently. "It's just that I too want to see the Lokhandes punished for good this time. I can't live the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I'd done the court case for defamation and not been scared of the repercussions. I know victory is difficult but truth is that all of us live in hope."
Baba nodded with a smile. "I'm glad you see my point. It's exactly that- you should not have a reason to regret later in life, you should be happy to have tried your best at least, it's another matter that sometimes this 'try' extracts more from us than what we can give it.."
Baba looked lost, and Manav wondered whether Baba was speaking of his failed years as an actor. He had done all to pursue his passion for the performing arts, but in all of it, his family had suffered.
Baba noticed Manav looking at him and smiled. "We have the hearing in two days. Remember?"
Manav nodded. "Both Archana and I are ready."
"Good. I will speak to my lawyer friend today. We will rehearse our statements- he will tell exactly what is to be said in court."
There, at the other end of the house, Aai was trying to stop her hot and angry tears from coming out of her eyes. She did not wish to cry. But it hurt her that even her good intentions were looked on with such doubt now in this house, bcos she had been manipulated people in the past. And when her useless husband fought with her, not one of her children supported her. She hated everyone these days.
She turned to look. It was Archana, standing meekly by the door. "Aai, I am sorry for all that he said.. I know you don't mean bad for Manav.."
"GET LOST!!!" shouted Savita. She moved ahead and shoved her out of her room. "The last thing I want right now is sympathy from you!" She shut the door on Archana's face.
Archana stood looking at the door, feeling genuinely bad for her mother in law. Vandita who had come there after hearing to her mother shouting, spoke to her. "You go, I will handle her. She will get more angry if you try and talk to her." Archana nodded with a small smile, cast one last look at the door and went away.
She tried hard to concentrate in office, but somehow she couldn't. The scenes kept revolving in her mind- Savita Aai giving money for Manav's treatment, but not trying to mend things with Manav herself. Savita Aai worrying for Manav, but not talking to him herself. Savita Aai trying to convince chawl dwellers that everything was alright in their house, but making no efforts on that front.
Maybe it was simply a case of not wanting to bend. Savita Aai really didn't want to end the matter by accepting that she had been wrong in the past about the way she had played with the lives of Manav, Shravani, Archana and Sachin, she just wanted everyone to forget it and herself tried to brush it under the carpet since she wanted everything to go back to the way it had been in the past. Unfortunately her relationship with Manav would never heal unless she had a true, candid talk for once. He was after all, way too hurt and felt betrayed by her. He didn't have a big ego and did not demand a sorry, but he did need a reassurance. Afterall Aai's present good acts could not wipe out all she had done wrong in the past unless she accepted them and rectified her mistake.
"Khyaalon mein, khyaalon mein.."
Archana smiled as Pony came to her desk with a cup of coffee and some papers. She kept the papers on the desk. "Please draft a letter similar to this one, we have to dispatch it quickly."
Archana nodded and took the paper. As she worked on her computer, she asked Pony. "Pony you know this area well, don't you?"
"I do." said Pony. "Why?"
"My brother in law works somewhere near here." said Archana. "The one who left home. I met him at the mall the other day."
"Oh-kay!" said Pony, understanding everything. "You want to find out about him?"
Archana nodded. "I think my mother in law knows something about him too, but I don't have the courage to ask her.."
"Hmm.." Pony thought hard. "Did he tell you anything about his job?"
"Umm.. not much, but he had an identity card tied to a blue ribbon type of thing round his neck."
"Yes, his work starts in the evening around 6.30."
"Bingo!" said Pony. "He must be working in the BPO nearby. You know na, at the other end of the road?"
Archana nodded. Yes, it did seem likely. She had seen people coming and going out of that call centre with similar looking identity cards, and they did work in shifts- evening shifts, night shifts etc. It was worth trying there.
"I'll go and ask the receptionist if there is a Sachin Deshmukh working there," said Archana. "Although I'll admit it does look unlikely. Sachin left home to marry a rich girl and she left home too. He never wanted to work in Tarun's office or help Manav in managing the garage- he felt it was beneath him, keeping in mind his qualifications. How come he is okay with taking up a job in a call centre now? And what happened to that girl? I don't recall seeing a wedding ring on Sachin's finger, plus he was so polite to me, he would have definitely called us to the wedding at least."
"Lots of questions.. well meet him and ask yourself, but for now, you need to concentrate on the court hearing tomorrow." Archana nodded. "Will you come with me to the court Pony? You know all the woman harassment rules as well as the NGO protocol in handling such cases, you could help if they cross question."
Pony sighed. "You just keep asking for favours. You never give me treats." Archana made a pleading face and Pony laughed. "Don't worry baby, I'll be there for sure."
"Here's the money." Manav handed a wad of notes to Dharmesh Jaipurwala, who took it from his hands at once and started counting it. Manav raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"10,000 rupees!" said Dharmesh happily. "Not bad, not bad at all Manav! You made all this by selling spare parts to your friends?"
Manav nodded. "I put up a board outside the shop, it helped me get some more customers from my chawl and then I repaired their vehicles here itself, plus there was a friend to whom I supplied a good amount of the spare parts too. I've deducted the service charges, rest of the money is yours."
Dharmesh hung on for more. "This investment is reaping more than I had expected." He said with glee. "I had not expected that you have contacts enough to sell some of my goods."
"I have used up whatever I had." Manav said. "Now if I get some more customers through whatever little advertising I am doing, and through my mechanic friends who went ahead and opened their own garages, then I might be able to sell some more. But in no way can I sell the whole of this stuff." He pointed to the goods stored in the garage.
Dharmesh nodded. "I know, it's too much. Let the stock remain here anyway, sell as much of it as you can, while I find someone who will agree to take possession of the goods. Even if I have to stash my profit and sell the goods now, I will be okay with it. At least I will recover the cost price."
"Hmm.. alright.. I'll see what I can do.. though I must tell you I will not be in commission for a few days.."
"I will be admitted in the hospital. I have a surgery to undergo."
"Oh!" said Dharmesh. "I know about that."
Manav looked surprised. "How? I don't remember telling you about it.."
Dharmesh looked here and there, trying to avoid Manav's gaze which refused to leave his face. Finally he spoke. "Actually, I did a little background check on you.. you know.. enquiry..?"
"No, don't get me wrong.. I just wanted to make sure I was not trusting the wrong person with my goods and deals, plus I was a little inquisitive, I mean, you were the supervisor of Girishji's garage, he treated you like a son, you are evidently still on good terms with those who worked in his garage earlier- they trust and respect you.."
"So I was just wondering why you were removed from the post of Supervisor at all.." said Dharmesh.
"I was made Supervisor on a trial basis." Said Manav flatly. "Girishji couldn't handle all the work anymore, and my own garage had got burned in an accident. He wanted me to take charge of his garage till my own opened up again."
Dharmesh looked around the ramshackled garage they were standing in. "And I see that your own shows no signs of opening up soon.. so why were you removed from that post?"
"What do you have to do in this?"
"Oh nothing!" said Dharmesh cheerfully. "I just figured out, from what I've heard, that you have some sort of clout over Girishji. The other mechanics told me that he treated you much better than them, his daughter was a good friend too.. so maybe you could put in a word for me and request him to take my goods.."
Manav interrupted. "The keyword here is WAS. I HAD a clout on him, and I WAS a good friend of his daughter. Not any more."
Dharmesh's eyes widened. "Don't tell me it is what I think it is..!"
Manav looked away. "He wanted me to marry his daughter. I refused, and both of them didn't take it well. Girishji removed me from the post of Supervisor soon after, gave all authority to a relative and left Mumbai. I'm being frank with you so that you drop all expectations on this front."
"The foolishness people do in youth!" cried out Dharmesh. "Why couldn't you marry her?! Half our problems would have got solved!"
Manav frowned at Dharmesh's reaction. "My personal life is none of your business." He snapped.
"I guess right now it is. Fine, I'm sorry, calm down now." Said Dharmesh. He separated a few notes from the bundle Manav had given him. "This is the rent for your garage cum storehouse, and this," he took out two 500 rupee notes, "is the commission for the goods you sold. I promised you a 10% cut, remember? And now, listen to what I'm saying. Manav, I need to sell all these goods to Girishji, by hook or by crook. I can't sell all of it in bits and pieces and spend extra on these storage charges."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"I want you to convince Girishji." Said Dharmesh seriously. "Convince the old man to buy all these goods, or get to him through the daughter. I don't care how, just convince him to take all these goods back. I'll give you a 30% cut on it.."
"Are you trying to bribe me?"
"Not at all." Said Dharmesh honestly. "I am trying to make you the middle man in the situation, and make Girishji understand since my pleas to the Supervisor are falling on deaf ears. Anyway, it's all a case of miscommunication- I sealed the deal when you were the Supervisor, and then when you left the post, the deal fell through. I just want to revive the deal. Plus you yourself said that the quality is better than the existing brands. And then again, I'll be paying you, officially. A 30% cut on this stock means.."
"Almost Rs. 20,000." Manav murmured. Money worth two months of bank instalments. Money worth two months of household expenses. Money which could pay the twins fees for the next quarter. Not a bad sum at all. But most importantly, a chance to go higher in life, a chance to mend things with Girishji. But would he listen?
"Yes," agreed Dharmesh. "Apart from that, if you manage to convince Girishji to buy spare parts from me regularly in the future, then I'll also involve you in my spare part business, you have a nice little place of your own and I can sell the spare parts from this shop, plus you do seem to have some technical knowledge, contacts and the reputation of a nice honest man, with a soon to be relaunched garage. Maybe together we can invest in your little garage? All of it works to my benefit. I'll give you a 20% cut on whatever more spare parts you manage to sell."
Dharmesh looked at Manav, and was pleased to see that Manav seemed to be thinking over it. After all, he really needed some sort of alternative occupation when he was recuperating from surgery- he wouldn't be allowed to go and slog in the garage so soon after surgery. Dharmesh continued in a softer tone, "Please help me Manav. You know my condition. I had taken a loan when I got such a big contract cos I would sure I could make a huge profit, only to find out that the Supervisor of Girishji's garage had changed by the time I could supply my goods. Now you need to help me in getting rid of them.. we are selling some of the spare parts little by little but it is frankly not enough, I need to get rid of this whole stock and soon. From what I have heard, Girishji has always treated you like a son. He must like you immensely if he agreed to get his daughter married to you. Such relationships do not break so easily."
Manav finally spoke, "I don't think Girishji will listen to me. We have more or less no equation remaining now." He confessed. "Please do not pressurize me on this issue, I am a married man and do not wish to complicate my marriage, plus I doubt it would be correct to interfere in Girishji's and Shravani's lives again- that girl needs time to get over me, something I didn't give her last time. I don't want to repeat my mistake now. Regarding helping you, I will try and sell the rest of your goods though.. let me fish out some more contacts through my friends.. I will try approaching independent and small mechanics who might want to buy cheap spare parts..but please don't keep any expectations regarding me convincing Girishji.. I really don't have a 'clout' over him anymore."
Dharmesh smiled. "Do whatever you can. Beyond this I will not force you.. but think over it in leisure.. the offer is open from my end.." Manav nodded. As he watched Dharmesh walk away, darkness settled in his heart as he thought of his mentor, his godfather who had done so much for him, and whom he had failed to repay back.
The morning of the defamation suit hearing finally dawned. And as Savita Aai had predicted, it turned out to be a complete dhamaka.
The Deshmukhs lawyer, Damodar Baba's old friend was confident of putting up a brave show. The Lokhandes, not to be outdone, had engaged one of the top lawyers in the city to save Manjusha from the accusation of 'defamation of Manav and Damodar Deshmukh by making a false complaint of woman harassment'.
Both the sides and lawyers seemed fully prepared. Manjusha had with her her friends and of course, her evil Aai, brother and her simpleton husband Vinod. The Deshmukhs on the other hand had their key witness Archana and Pony on behalf of Archana's NGO alongwith a few neighbours to testify for their behavior . A third group comprised of Sulochana Aai and Manohar Baba who stood with worried faces, awaiting the worst.
The Deshmukhs lawyer, Damodar's old friend, surprisingly turned to be a gritty fellow even with his creased coat and unkempt grey hair. He grilled Manjusha thoroughly, questioned Archana, Manav and Damodar with sensitivity and lay down some important points in front of the judge with the help of Pony- chiefly resting on Archana's testimony.
Archana spoke slowly, yet with a firm demeanour, sticking to her stand that her husband or father in law had never harassed her, and on the contrary had been very good to her all the while, even when she had left home. She did not bend even when the defence lawyer questioned about the moral atrocities that Manav did on her by sleeping outside home, which she vehemently denied, much to the shock of the Karanjkars.
"All that brothel fiasco is rubbish." She said stoutly. "That was all a misunderstanding."
She tried not to face her brother as she said it all, since he had started giving her stoic, angry glances thinking she was lying. He testified that the complaint had been done only cos of Savita Aai's behaviour towards Archana which he had himself witnessed on a number of occasions. However he was silenced pretty soon by the lawyer, who recited the complete list of accusations made by Manjusha in her FIR to the police- physical violence, threats and mental torture by Manav Deshmukh and his parents- something which Archana denied vehemently. "Exaggerated nature of the complaints- dragging in Mr. Manav and Damodar's name falsely- why did the FIR not stick to the true nature of the complaint if the reasons were so genuine!" remarked the lawyer. "No involvement of either Mrs. Archana or her parents- they were not even aware of the complaint made. Even if the complaint was genuine and not a vendetta to seek revenge, yet we cannot ignore the catastrophe that has been unleashed- an elderly man being thrown in prison and his son being hit for no reason, defamed, and all this when he was suffering from brain tumour!"
Manav vinced. He had argued against this point, not wanting his illness to be brought in to seek sympathy from the court. But he had been over ruled by his father and the lawyer, saying people did even worse things to win court cases, and a bit of sympathy was always useful. Presently he could see their argument working- the lady judge seemed to be very affected. For once even luck had favoured him by sending a female judge.
The defence lawyer spoke, outlining that the good side had to be seen- the intention of Manjusha's complaint had been only to make sure that Archana would be safe- since Archana had not taken any measures to safeguard herself against her saas and was suffering- a claim that the Deshmukhs' lawyer rubbished by saying that Archana had been seeking help from her NGO who counselled and advised such women. He called on Pony to testify for the same.
"One night before her divorce, Archana called me and told me everything." Pony said coolly. "She said she wanted to go back to her husband and wanted advice on what to do regarding her saas' behavior. I told her very frankly that she needed to talk it out with her husband first whether he was willing to support her regarding the troubles she was facing- this is just the kind of thing we advocate in our NGO's- to have an open proper talk before jumping to the legal route straightaway. Later, we even called Mr. Manav to the NGO and our head Mrs. Ruhia explained everything to him properly. Ever since then, he himself has looked into the matter and we have had no complaints against Mrs. Savita Deshmukh at all. Her behaviour has been civil since then. Archana had been trying to handle the issue herself before Manjusha jumped in the middle and almost ruined things. Archana is happy today thanks to the involvement of the NGO, not bcos of her Vahini's complaint. This is the protocol we follow in our NGO's. Making a police complaint and throwing the whole family in jail even before knowing who is truly guilty, consulting the other party, talking it out, or in the absence of physical violence is suicidal. It literally signifies the end of the marriage- which husband will accept a wife who caused his parents to be thrown in jail. Careless complaints like Manjusha's may be justified by saying that they were made only to protect the lady in question and might not be punishable legally, but they are not appreciated by us- such complaints not only lead to unnecessary defamation of innocent family members and complications, but also led to mental harassment of Archana, since the complaint was made without her knowledge, even when she was trying to approach the matter differently. Even Manav can file a case of mental harassment against Manjusha for throwing him in jail in his present medical condition- even if her intentions were genuine, since he was innocent!"
The Deshmukhs' lawyer banged his desk. "Point to be noted my lord!" he screamed excitedly.
"Do you want to talk to your Aai?" Manav whispered as they were walking out of the premises of the court. The case had been adjourned since no conclusion could be reached inspite of the heavy debate in court.
"No, I just want to go home quickly." Archana whispered back. Though she said nothing, Manav understood that she wanted to avoid any confrontations with her Aai or her brother. "Let me go and talk to Kaka, then we will go back together. Excuse me Pony." Said Manav and went to escort his Baba's friend to a taxi. He told them that though the defence had put ahead some very strong points, yet they had managed to create a good case in court today, and he was hopeful of a positive outcome and a good compensation. "Let's see where it goes." He said. "They might try to prove that you and your Baba have harassed Archana in the past, and that she was lying in court. We must be prepared. Anyways, I'll leave now. Bye Damodar. We will meet in the evening for the street play rehearsals." Manav nodded and folded his hands in a farewell Namaste as Damodar Baba waved his friend goodbye.
Archana meanwhile was standing by the gate with Pony, waiting for Manav when she saw Manjusha walking towards her, fury writ large on her face. Archana straightened up and tried to look the other way, but Manjusha came and stood in front of her.
"I can't believe what a selfish woman you are!" said Manjusha in a steely voice. "In front of the whole court you painted me out as a villain today."
"Vahini, behave yourself please.." said Archana, trying to look away.
"Behave myself? It's you who needs to learn to behave! Sheesh, what an ungrateful woman you are Archana! Your brother and I spent money on you taking care of you when you were being rejected right, left and center by guys, we supported you when you left home and this is what you have done to us! Today you have favoured that penny worth of mechanic over your blood! Shame on you!"
"He is my husband!" said Archana, her voice rising in defence.
"Bah!" cried out Manjusha dismissively. "That scoundrel, good for nothing and his downtrodden family! They have made life hell for you, me and my family and you say they never harassed you? Well what about those days when he was sleeping around? Forgotten how much you cried in those days? Doesn't that count as mental torture? Hah! Two faced liar!!"
"It's true I was very hurt during those misunderstandings." Archana admitted. "But even in those days I found more solace with him than I have found with you in the last six years of my life, with your mouth that emits venom every time it opens- by constantly reminding me what a burden I am to all of you. If anyone has tortured me it's you and your family and not him. Above all, your brother almost led me to suicide by trapping me in a brothel. Now THAT is mental torture."
Manjusha looked up in bewilderment. "What are you saying.."
"The truth.. but then again, you knew it long back, didn't you?" asked Archana coolly.
Manjusha's mouth was left open in horror. "What rubbish! Just you wait! Just you wait for six months and then see the truth for yourself! I hope Manav leaves you after he's done with you, then you come home knocking on my door and I'll make sure you don't get a place to stay anywhere in the city. I separated Vinod from your selfish parents, I'll make sure to safeguard my kids against you too! Just waiting for that characterless man to leave you high and dry!"
"VAHINI! Don't utter rubbish!" said Archana, her blood boiling. Pony came to her rescue. "Let's just go from here Archana, no need to give such disgusting people more value than they deserve. They can only think ill of others all the time."
"Yes, go, go to your ungrateful husband, go to him, leave us to our fates here! It is a mistake to do anything for anyone these days."
"MANAV HAS NOT DONE ANY WRONG!" Archana shouted. "I know all the filth you and your brother have done against him, so don't try to paint me as the bad one here. And don't expect any change in my stand due to your rant or about how 'good' you are. After all that you've done against me and Manav, this is actually a very small price to pay, so thank your stars that you are my Vahini, or else.."
"Else what? What will you do? What can you do? Rather I'll make sure you have no brother to return home to now." asked Manjusha gritting her teeth. By then her Aai, Ajit and Vinod had come there. Manav too interrupted in between the two ladies and tried to drag Archana away. "No use messing with her." He said, giving Manjusha a dirty look.
"See you in six months Archana, depending on whether or not Manav comes out of the hospital on his own two legs! We'll see what you do then!" called out Manjusha cheerfully.
Manav tried to hold a visibly shaken Archana, as she stood trembling with rage. He held her with both his arms and then looked at a horrified Manjusha, whose eyes had filled with angry red tears. Rasika came running towards her. "Let's go Archana," Manav whispered.
"Witch!" Archana whispered, looking down on the ground. "Witch!"
Manav put one hand on her head and then looked at Vinod, who seemed very embarrassed by all that had happened. He asked Pony to take Archana to take a taxi. But she refused to go and instead turned to look at Manjusha again.
"By the way, are you aware that if tapes of your conversations with your Aai or your plotting with Ajit regarding my defamation is submitted in court, you can be severely punished for the mental torture you have caused me- hundred times more than Savita Aai? Are you aware of what will happen if I testify that I almost committed suicide thanks to your plans?"
"Shhh.. Archana enough!" Manav tried to control her. "Pony take her away."
Pony nodded, almost hypnotized, but still enjoying the catfight. She assumed that thanks to Archana's statements, Manjusha must have peed in her sari.
"So be careful Manjusha Vahini, of what you speak, who knows when anyone might record what you say?" Said Archana, knowing very well that Manjusha knew how Manav had recorded a confession out of Ajit earlier. She derived satisfaction out of the scared look of Manjusha and of the thought that she would always live in constant fear now. "And don't threaten me! And next time, spare me the lecture of how obliged I should be to you and Vinod Dada for spending on me when I was being rejected by guys. You have NOT done any charity there, I WAS LOOKING AFTER YOUR DAUGHTER PUNNI AND PACKING TIFFINS FOR YOU, ALL THAT WHILE, WITHOUT THE SALARY OF A GOVERNESS! " Archu fired. "ARCHANA COME NOW!" said Manav firmly and dragged her away. He saw Vinod staring at them disapprovingly. Archana did not wait to talk to him and flounced off to sit in the taxi.
"This was bound to happen." Said Vinod, shaking his head. "For the last six months this girl has been fighting with Manjusha for your sake, this was bound to happen. I am shocked though that she is so blind in your love now that she thinks Manjusha and Ajit tried to frame her as a prostiture. What rubbish!"
"Do me a favour." Manav said in an icy cold voice. "Don't make a police complaint on Archana this time- complaint of assault. Please."
Vinod looked shocked. "She is my sister!" he said indignantly. "I would never do anything against her. You don't have to advise me."
"I have to.. bcos where your in laws are concerned, anything is possible." Manav turned once to look at Manjusha who was crying with her head on her mother's shoulder, and strode away from there. Vinod sighed and walked to Manjusha.
"Stop crying now Manju, it's enough.."
Manju shook her head. "That girl.. that girl.."
"Why did you talk to her?" asked Vinod irritatedly. "Really, I am fed up with you being a motor mouth on occasions. Hadn't I told you to avoid any confrontations with her?"
"Go on, scold me some more!" Manjusha cried bitterly. "But let me tell you, I have no relations with your sister today onwards. Don't talk to me if you talk to her. Choose one amongst us."
"Don't worry Beta, we will take action.. I am not going to leave her easily.." said Rasika, hugging Manjusha.
Vinod was shocked. "What are you going to do?"
"Vinod, I don't like that tone.." said Rasika in a warning voice.
"And I'm not liking your ideas." Finished Vinod. "Let me make myself very clear Manju, Archana is my sister. I will not tolerate it if you do anything to hurt her."
"And what about what she did today, first in court and now? Slapped me in public view!" said Manjusha bitterly.
"It's the same thing as earlier." Vinod said, shaking his head. "First you dragged Manav in a police case rather than dealing sensibly, leading to a reaction in the form of a defamation suit by the Deshmukhs. And now you spoke extremely ill about Manav leading to this outburst from Archana. Forget Archana, even I was shocked at what you said- how can you wish so ill of someone, let alone Archana's husband? And why the hell do you always instigate her?"
"So you won't support me.." Manjusha wept.
"It is impossible to explain things to you.. Manju, just keep this in mind- if anything happens to Archana, I will hold you responsible. I don't care who is wrong and who is right here. Archana is my sister and her well being matters to me. Drill that thing very clearly in your brain- if you don't like Archana, don't keep any relations with her, in fact I won't keep any too, but if you hurt her, it will be the end of our relationship." He turned to walk away but was just in time to hear Manohar Baba saying,
"He is petrified by the mere thought of action being taken against his sister, Manav had to actually see his family in prison!"
"Then nothing!" said Manav grimly to an anxious Vedant and Vandita. "Both of you don't have any other work or what? Always interested in adult talk!"
Vedant made a face. "Dada, I don't like it when you say this, we are grown up now!"
"Not so grown up! Go now!" he brushed them off. Archana had been very quiet ever since they returned and he wanted to talk to her in peace.
The children made a face and walked away. Manav picked up a cushion and went to sit a little closer to Archana, who looked very serious. She noticed him staring at her.
He shook his head. "Nothing. Just that.. you amaze me these days. For a moment I thought it was Aai in action."
She said nothing.
"Do you want to talk?"
"There is nothing to say, except that I positively, absolutely, totally hate that witch. I loathe her and I hope I have to never come face to face with her again." Said Archana with her jaws clenched.
Manav took her hand and kept it on his lap. He held it in both her hands and hoped that she would calm down.
"Don't do that."
"Do what?" he asked.
She pulled her hand away, much to his amazement. "My hand hurts." She said, biting her lip. "Ever since I slapped that witch my hand hurts. Granted that she deserved every bit of that slap, but still, I shouldn't have hit her so hard. Now my hand is stinging."
She held her hand tenderly with the other hand, and was surprised to see that Manav had an amused smile on his face.
"How can you be like this Archana?" he asked, sounding intrigued. "Fiery tigress one moment, and a vulnerable kitten in the next?"
She frowned at his words, and was about to say something when she heard someone coming.
"Where is she? Where is she?" came a voice and the next moment Savita Aai burst into the room. "I came to know what happened in the court. And I.. Arey move na!" she said dismissively, shoving Manav aside so that she could sit next to Archana. "Why are you chipkoing to her so much? Reserve all this stuff for the bedroom, right now let me talk to her."
Embarassed, Manav moved away quietly while she sat next to Archana. To his shock, Savita took Archana's hand and kissed it hard.
"Muah muah muah!!" she kissed her hand. "Yayyy! You slapped Manjusha with this hand!!! Wah meri bahu, kya chauka mara! Today you have proved that you are eligible to be the daughter in law of Savita Deshmukh, otherwise I was thinking why has God given me such a cow for a daughter in law! Haha! Vandu told me about it! What a slap! What a slap! Wish I'd been there, I would have given her one too!"
"It's good you were not there." Said Archana demurely. "Her words were very unpleasant." But Savita was too happy to pay heed to her words.
"See this is the way matters should be settled! This is the way we settle things at the chawl! Why waste time running around courts! Ha! I wish I'd get a chance to slap that woman too someday! That woman deserved it since long back! Haha! Today we shall celebrate! Oh yes, we shall!"
Manav wondered if his Aai had gone mad. But the twins were more than willing to play along. "How shall we celebrate, Aai?"
"Let me think- oh yes- Paneer Kolhapuri, Rasmalai, Dal makhani! Are wah wah wah!" said Savita, smacking her lips gleefully.
"Wow Aai!" cried the kids happily, and even Manav smiled. "You will make all this?"
"Why will I make? This girl will make na!" Archana looked at her dumbstruck. "Aye listen, make Paneer Kolhapuri today, and Rasmalai too.. loads of it.. I will eat it all today." Said Savita.
"Some things never change." Muttered Damodar Baba from his corner. "Even now you will make the poor girl work."
Savita got annoyed. "You had to speak in the middle and spoil my good mood." She fumed. "Arey let me be happy for a few minutes for the slap, I don't think anything positive is going to come out from this court case other than this anyway."
"Uffo! I said my friend is doing everything!" started Baba but got only a large 'hmph' from Savita Aai. "Drunkard is still stuck to his misconceptions."
"Fine!" he admitted defeat. "But if we win the case thanks to my very capable lawyer friend, then you will never comment on my drinking habits. Do you promise?"
"I don't make deals with bevdas like you." Scoffed Savita. She turned to Archana. "Make all that stuff okay?" Archana nodded and Savita flounced back to her room, singing in a loud voice.
Late at night, Manav lay in bed thinking over the events of the day.
Nobody knew where the court matter would go- today, arguments in the court had been strong on both side. Legally, Manjusha had done no wrong in making a complaint of she suspected that a woman was being harassed even if she wasn't- she could not be imprisoned for it, and a defamation suit was the only way to strike back at her, for having punished two innocent people as well through her complaint. The matter was complicated and no one knew if they would end up winning or not, but one thing was certain.
The Lokhandes would not take the whole episode lightly. They just wouldn't. A court case they could still deal with, the whole thing was like a game of chess for them anyway- but the slap? No way. He still shuddered to remember what Ajit had done when Manav had hit him- his garage had ended up in ashes even before it could start.
He stopped himself from thinking negatively. No, he would be there for Archana. He wouldn't let any harm come to her.
He looked sideways at the figure sleeping next to him. The silver light from the open window was falling on Archana, a few strands of hair resting on her face. She was sleeping soundly under the covers, her breathing slow and gentle, perhaps completely unaware of the worries going on in his mind.
This girl was mad, he told himself. What was the need to go all the way and argue with Manjusha, even slap her? It was anyways not going to change anything, and now Vinod too would break all relations with her- Manjusha would make him do it. But then again, somewhere he couldn't blame Archana. It was the sort of thing he too would have done if someone had spoken ill of Archana- in fact he had done it in the past already.. broken the nose of that guy.. now what was his name..
But there was a difference- he told himself. He loved her. He had loved her since as long as he could remember. While she..
Shucks. What was really the need to come back in his life anyway, he thought. Really, what was the need? Why couldn't she have divorced him and moved on with her education and job and perhaps later got married to a nice guy, someone like Satish, as her mother had planned for her? Why did she have to come back to struggle in the muck, build things from a scratch, appease his family members, take a stand against her own family, and ruin everything for herself knowing that it was Ajit and Manjusha who had attacked her earlier- when she had a much better option of leading a princess' life. Now like a bull she was charging at those matadors for him, not knowing that in doing so she might be laying plans for her own wrath. The Lokhande family was vicious and dangerous, and Manav regretted not having listened to the practical advice of his Aai and going along with his Dad's incredibly optimistic ideas. The Lokhandes hated him, true, but they had always hated Archana more.
Archana's cell phone rang, interrupting his thoughts. He saw Archana pouting in her sleep, so he quickly picked up the phone and walked out of the room. It was Pony.
"Hello?" he whispered.
There was silence at the other end. "Archana..?"
"She's sleeping, can this wait till the morning?"
"Oh, yeah fine. It's nothing actually.. I was just feeling.. i don't know.. weird.. after all that I witnessed at the court today, I felt like talking to her to make sure she was okay.."
"She's okay." Manav whispered. "At least on the surface."
"Great then." Said Pony. After a silence she spoke again. "Look Manav, just take care of her yaar, she has left her family for you now, I doubt things will ever be the same between the Karanjkars and her anymore.. I know not everything is normal between both of you.. but please.."
"Don't worry.. I'm there for her." He assured her. He hesitated for a moment and then spoke again. "I didn't know Archana tells you everything about both of us."
"Oh not everything and certainly not everytime, only when she needs good, unbiased advice- even if it's at 1 o clock in the night. Really, she has done that earlier! Since I am not so close to you or her family, I see the opinions, pros and cons of both the warring factions and advise her. It's another matter though that she convinces me to let her do what she wants to do most of the time- returning to you, for example. I'll be honest and say that I thought it was a foolish idea- I mean, men don't change, but this girl with her rose coloured glasses felt that you were a good man inspite of the fact that she believed you had cheated her. But of course she wouldn't listen to me! She trusted you far too much- in a different way than you expected her to, though- she had faith that you wouldn't cheat her in the future, she trusted your goodness, your love for her, that you would support her and take good care of her even with Savita Aai in the picture, and eventually win over her parents one day. She was ready to blindly place her life in your hands! And then when news of your illness came out, there was no stopping her, of course. But hey, why am I telling you, you know all this anyway."
"I do." Manav agreed, gazing into the darkness. "But somehow I feel I understand it better now." He remembered the day when Archana had come back to him, and he had been disappointed thinking she had come back only bcos he was sick, and how he had scoffed that she had realised her love in 13 days after signing the divorce papers. He had been terribly disappointed to know that she still trusted the words and evidence of Ajit but not him, and had come back with the misunderstandings intact. Now Pony's words echoed in his mind.
"..But of course she wouldn't listen to me! She trusted you far too much- in a different way than you expected her to, though- she had faith that you wouldn't cheat her in the future, she trusted your goodness, your love for her, that you would support her and take good care of her even with Savita Aai in the picture, and eventually win over her parents one day.. she was ready to blindly place her life in your hands!"
Pony's voice brought him back to earth. "What do you understand better now?" she asked inquisitively.
"That there isn't any ONE definition of trust." He said solemnly. "And it's amazing how this trust, this faith which we sometimes dismiss as emotions, blind faith, foolishness etc etc- it goes on to give so much strength to people.."
"Manav, now I'm feeling worried for you, are you alright?"
Manav smiled warmly. "Don't worry yourself Pony. Go to sleep. Good night."
With this, Manav disconnected the phone leaving Pony wondering what was wrong with this couple, and why she always ended up being a late night counsellor for both husband and wife in this love story. Shaking her head, she lay down on her bed. She had had enough for one day.
Manav on the other hand, walked back into his room, closed the door and tiptoed to his bed.
Archana had not stirred even an inch. He lay down next to her, his head resting on his arm, looking at her sleeping peacefully and trying to control the gush of feelings within him. He couldn't arrange his thoughts properly, neither did he really want to- and yet suddenly everything seemed so much less complicated and pellucid. He simply brushed away the strand of hair lying on Archana's pale face and tucked it behind her ear. In the silence of the night, he watched her till he fell asleep.XXX
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