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"You look worried" said Shashi as he settled on the bed. He reached for his reading glasses before picking up his book from the bedside table and turned to look at his wife who hadn't responded to his statement. He observed Garima lifelessly repeat her nightly routine. She combed her hair and tied it into a tight braid before applying some face cream. She got up from the dressing chair and smoothed the creases on her nighty, removed the three rings that adorned her delicate fingers and gingerly placed them inside the jewel box.
"What is troubling you, Garima?" he asked again, this time more seriously.
She turned around and looked at him with a sombre expression, then gave him a weak smile before walking to the bed. She leaned back on the pillows and pulled the comforter securely around herself.
"Have you taken your medicines, Shashi ?"
"Yes I have. Now tell me, what is the matter?"
Garima sighed loudly before replying, "Its nothing really, I was just thinking about some things Madhu Jiji said."
"God Garima, you cannot be serious. My sister has a good heart but her mouth, it is incapable of saying anything that isn't bitter or negative. And it doesn't help that she talks so much... what did she say today? Was she here?"
"Yes, she dropped by for tea in the afternoon and asked where Khushi was. I told her she was in office, but it seems she had seen her with Arnav in his car a while back, during her office hours. I asked Khushi later, she said she got done early at work and the two of them had briefly visited the farmhouse."
"So was it the same old drivel again? How we are not raising our daughters well, how we're not protecting' them, how we got lucky but that doesn't mean our daughters will also be lucky in love?"
In response, Garima sighed in resignation and leaned to her right to place her head on Shashi's shoulder. "I don't care about others Shashi, I can handle them. But Jiji... she is one of our own, and I hate to see her upset and lose faith in us like this."
"She is not losing faith in us Garima, she is just doing what she thinks is right. And what do you propose we do, listen to what she says and become the kind of parents we vowed never to be?"
"We have already become the kind of parents we never wanted to be, Shashi." was Garima's tortured whisper, the tears stung in her eyes before she could stop them. The grim and hurt expression on her husband's face only increased the pain in her heart, she hated herself for making him doubt himself.
"Garima,-"he began, his voice trembling, but Garima stopped him before he could continue. Placing a hand in his, she said hurriedly, "I'm sorry Shashi, I didn't mean it that way. I just hate what we are doing to Khushi... on one hand we are forcing everything on her professionally, on the other we are fighting everybody to make sure she has personal freedom. I feel like such a hypocrite." she anguished. "If we have decided to trust her choices, shouldn't that apply to everything she does?"
Shashi seemed to have collected himself now; he replied after a long minute. "Yes Garima, what we did makes us hypocrites. What makes it worse is we allow her freedom in her personal life because we think that's right, but when she wanted to choose her career, we arm-twisted her into doing what we thought was right for her. I hate myself for it, yet I am not ashamed. I know Khushi, she can handle emotional blows and will even come to us with her problems. But she has too much pride to approach anyone for help were something to go wrong professionally... god forbid she is unable to fend for herself in future, that obstinate girl will starve to death before asking us for anything. I just had to do it, and I will do it again if I need to, no matter how much it makes me despise myself."
At that Garima roared, "No way in hell, Shashi. I supported you this time because I saw reason, but if it were up to me I would allow my child to make her mistakes and learn from them. But if you think I will let you do it again, you are mistaken. How can you say such a thing Shashi? When we ourselves fought against everyone and decided for ourselves, how can we deny that to our own children?"
"We did that because we didn't have a choice, and we had a lot of responsibilities to shoulder that we couldn't neglect. I would have married you on day one, we weren't living together for the fun of it."
"I knew you would have, Shashi. Without a doubt. But you weren't ready for marriage then, and neither was I. We were both penniless and had a family to feed and a lot more we wanted to do in life before we got married. And you, I knew you would have taken up the responsibility of being a husband too seriously and worked yourself senseless. I wanted us to be each other's strength, not weakness."
"And you have always been just that, Garima. My strength. I don't know what I would have done without you." he said sincerely, pulling Garima closer to himself, unconsciously trying to reassure himself of her presence.
"I have supported you through everything in life, Shashi. Every move, every decision. But if you try to impose your decision on Khushi one more time, be assured I will not be by your side. I cannot bear the burden to depriving my child of the luxury of making her choices one more time." she said softly but firmly.
"We'll see when it comes to it, okay?" Shashi said after a long pause, hoping to end the discussion. He felt tired, exhausted, just like he felt most of the times these days. The desolate look that seemed to have taken a liking to his daughter's face offered him no respite. Garima sensed his despair and in that moment forgot everything other than the all-consuming need to relieve him. She gave his hand that was now entwined with hers a gentle squeeze, and said when he turned to look at her,
"It feels like yesterday, doesn't it...when we were trying to convince Madhu Jiji, Dadi and my parents of our decision to live together. I have never been that scared in my entire life."
"And I have never been that sure of any other decision in my life. We were in love but penniless, with nothing to support ourselves and our families. Your family made sure you went to bed early and every weekend they would whisk you away to your Mausi's place. I remember that one time I couldn't meet you for three months, though you lived just five minutes away from me. That is when I decided, it wouldn't work this way. We couldn't just keep stealing glimpses every now and then for the rest of our lives. I wanted to you in my life. You had to just say the word and I would have married you."
"I know, Shashi. I know." she said with a soft smile, reminiscing the times that were trying, yet gave her the most beautiful days of her life.
"And coming back to Jiji and her taunts, don't beat yourself up over it. Jiji just says all of this, but we have seen what happens every time she actually meets Arnav. She behaves like he is her long lost son... Arnav bitwa this, Arnav bitwa that... last time she was here she made malpua especially for him. And then later she comes and complains like this. The woman is confused and I suggest you don't think about this any more." Shashi said emphatically.
"You're right, Shashi... I was just disturbed, her words were particularly scathing today. She is the only close family we have left, I hate to see things sour between us."
"Jiji was comparatively easier to handle, you remember my grandmother?"
"Your grandmothers. Your Dadi was okay, perhaps the only one who didn't think we were committing blasphemy. Your Nani on the other hand, her talent for melodrama was unparalleled. The woman would faint at the drop of a hat, and then cry her lungs out when she woke up. Whenever we had a serious discussion, I would have to work on curbing my giggles that erupted every time she said -"
"Haye Re Nandkisooore" Shashi completed it for her before they broke out into peals of laughter.
Hearts plagued with doubts and guilt, as they held hands and waited for sleep to come to them, they sent a prayer for their daughters and hoped their decisions were the right ones.
He felt his stomach begging for mercy as he downed his seventh cup of coffee in less than three hours. His eyes were itchy and droopy now, and he felt exhausted, but he still hadn't completed what he had set out to do for the night. He decided to ignore his tummy and get himself another cup of coffee. He walked to the kitchen and warmed some water in the microwave as he fetched a sachet of instant coffee from one of the cabinets. He just needed to push himself for another half hour and he would be done, he thought to himself as he stopped the microwave just before the beep, lest it wake somebody up. He emptied the sachet into the glass and was about to stir when he heard his cellphone buzz in his pocket. Who could be calling him up at this hour, he wondered and was surprised to see the caller ID.
He was greeted with a rather excited "Chote!"
"Di! What are you doing up at this hour! Is everything okay?"
"Wow you are clearly very happy to receive my call"
"Di, please, this is no time to be sarcastic. Its not like you calling me up at this hour to chit chat is a common occurrence. First tell me, is everything okay? Is Jijaji with you?"
"Haan meri mummi, all is well. I just woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, no reason. And now I am unable to go back to sleep. And there is nothing on TV. So I thought I'd call up my nocturnal brother and catch up with him. Though it seems he isn't in a mood." she said trying to sound hurt.
"Di please, no late night drama. I was just concerned, you know I always have time for you. Kaisi ho Di?" he said as he pulled out one of the chairs on the dining table and sat down.
"I am well, Chote. Oh and I might be doing a concert tour in the UK in a few months. I hope it works out Chote."
"The UK? God you have wanted to give a solo performance there for the longest time! Last you went was as a part of Pt. Kumari's group, right?"
"Yes Chote, and since then I have dreamt of performing there. When Didi sang the taraana, I saw the audience slip into a trance... it was like we were all consumed by this cloud of pure joy. I want to be able to recreate that in my way."
"And you will do just that Di. It will work out, don't you worry. I'm sure Jiju must be just as excited about this."
"Ya, pretty much." she said awkwardly. "So how is Khushi, Arnav? I couldn't meet her the last time I was there."
"Di? Did you just call me Arnav? What is the matter? I knew something is wrong! Did Jiju say something to upset you? Did he-"
"God, stop right there. Nothing of the sort. It is just... your Jiju isn't particularly happy with the fact I may I have to travel abroad right at the time his mother plans to visit us. Honestly, when I got a call from the organisers, I was just too excited about the prospects and totally forgot about Mummiji's impending visit. That was enough to upset your Jijaji. And perhaps justifiably so."
"Kya justified Di? It's not like your mother-in-law visits once in a blue moon. The woman is here every other month, you have to do all the work while Jijaji just enjoys being mollycoddled by her. You should really go this time, only then he will know what a nightmare she is to take care of." barked Arnav.
"Chote please! That is no way to talk about your elders, and you're talking about family here!" she admonished, albeit weakly.
"Oh please Di, you respect her enough for fifteen people, give me a break. If she is family she should behave like one."
"She isn't that bad..."
"Di please, quit trying to get me to like that woman. You are her daughter-in-law and perhaps you are obligated to love and respect her, don't expect that of me. I behaved myself around her for the longest time before I gave up, you know I tried hard."
"Aaah, lets drop this for the time being Chote, I don't want us to spoil our moods. In any case, nothing is fixed yet. You tell me, how are you? And Khushi?"
"Khushi is fine Di... she is holding up pretty well. And I am good too, just that I am neck deep in work."
"You are always neck deep in work, Sinha makes sure of that!" she teased.
He wondered if he should tell her about his plans to take up a case, but dropped the idea. He didn't want to get anybody excited till the time he was absolutely sure. He knew his Di would begin a series fasts and pooja-s the second he would tell her of his plans, and he was really in no frame of mind to handle all that; he'd rather she spend her prayers on her UK tour. He decided to talk about things more pleasant.
"So Di, this whole weekend Aakash was really sick. We were-"
"Wait, what? Why are you telling me only now? Is he-"
"Di! Let me finish! So, yes, he was running a fever and everything. And, guess who was here the whole time for him?"
"Yes. She was here throughout the weekend. She accompanied me when we took him to the doctor. Oh I have never seen her this worried for anyone other than Khushi."
"That's brilliant, I can imagine Aakash grinning even in his feverish state."
"Tell me about it. But, heres the icing on the cake. It seems she took the day off today to be-"
"Payal took off from the clinic?" she squealed before he could complete.
"Yes, she took off and was with him all day. She left only after I returned. Nani is all praises for her and the look on Aakash's face is priceless. Would you believe it if I told you he was humming during dinner?"
"Oh I believe you. Aakash... is he the same no nonsense boy who wouldn't even pay attention to women in college?"
"Oh yes. And his grin was extra wide today. And he is keeping something from me, I can feel it."
"Please don't trouble him too much to get him to talk, okay?"
"Di! You make me sound like a bully. I am a lot more subtle. I just use simple, old fashioned blackmail." he smirked
"Don't be so smug. And stop smirking."
"What the! How did you-"
"Know that you were smirking? You forget I am your elder sister."
"Never, have you ever let me forget the fact you are elder to me? You call me Chote for God's sake!"
"It is an endearment. But I will admit, I do love to rile you up by calling you Chote in front of others." she replied stifling a yawn.
"Di, you should go back to bed. It's quite late now and I see you're feeling sleepy again."
"You just want me to put down the phone." she was in a mood to be petulant.
"Di-" he raised his voice.
"Fine, I'll stop. Just tell me how Aakash's health is now, and I will say goodbye."
"He is fine now Di, he may even join office tomorrow."
"Thank god for that, I will just go to the Narasimha temple tomorrow. Goodnight Chote!"
"Of course, you will find any reason to visit temples. Now sleep well. Goodnight." and with that he cut the call. His coffee was cold now and he didn't feel like having it anymore, talking to his sister has helped him take a break and refresh himself. Feeling a lot better now, he walked back to his study to finish his work before calling it a day.
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