by Celin Jay
Arti placed the white china bowl of freshly cut chrysanthemums on the glass topped table and looked around the room with a critical eye. Cushions with small elephant motifs nestled in the two arm chairs and sofa. Curtains with tiny floral print were tied back with plaited jute tassels. A very vivid coloured painting of women weaving baskets adorned one wall. The floor was of dark polished wood and shone dully in the light of the two lamps which hung from brackets above the windows.
Her parents and younger sister Rati were expected in an hour. Some more guests were expected a couple of hours later. Rati’s colleague at college and his family members wanted to meet Rati’s family to get acquainted and fix the wedding date. Since the location of Arti’s house was mutually convenient for both sides it was agreed upon that they meet there.
She hurried to ease the safety latch of the outer door of her residence as she saw a taxi coming to halt near the entrance. She waited for her sister and parents to get out of the car but was mildly disappointed to see a very old lady being helped out of the vehicle. She pulled the safety door shut, slid the bolt and went to the kitchen to check everything. The sound of the doorbell drew her out to the main door again. She looked at the small group outside and realised with horror that the guests for later had turned up earlier than her own family. “Arti Mathur?” someone asked to confirm. She nodded and looked down at her faded jeans and shirt in dismay. She stepped aside to let them in and pulled up the rear. As everyone settled themselves in the small hall Arti greeted them one by one with folded hands. There were Prakash, his grandmother, father and elder sister.
The grandmother looked worn out after the journey and Arti suggested that she could rest awhile in the guest room. Prakash accompanied his grandmother while Arti went ahead to show the way. Both of them helped the old lady settle among the crisp cotton sheets. Arti slipped a thin pillow beneath her head and opened the windows to let in fresh air. The lull of the afternoon and the chirping of birds among the vines in the flowerbed were making the occupant of the bed extremely incoherent and drowsy.
Arti’s parents and sister turned up as she was serving chilled raw mango juice to the guests. From then on it became easier as her mother and Rati took over and the general chatter lasted till the guests left.
Rati transferred stacks of cups and saucers from the tray into
the sink, ran the water for a bit and turned to look at her sister. “Didi, last month Prakash moved into an apartment on the fourteenth floor in a building two blocks behind the one having your office. Yes, that one which took ages to be built. He is looking for someone who can change the four walls into a home. I had told him about you some time back and today he liked what he saw here. So....., what do you think of Prakash, didi?” she asked arranging the washed cups on the draining board.
Arti looked up from the bowl of shelled peas, “I think my opinion is redundant when you both have already made up your mind but he does remind me of papa.” She washed the peas and put them in the strainer to drain. “So, how is your thesis coming along?”
Arti’s father produced a pack of cards after a celebratory dinner and the family settled down on the thick carpet with cushions at strategic positions. The buzz of the phone from the lobby silenced the light banter and the three of them looked at Arti who was peering at her cards through horn rimmed glasses. Laying her cards face down she looked apologetically at her parents and sister and padded down the corridor.
“Hello” she said into the receiver and the instant she discovered the identity of the caller, made to call Rati. “Arti, wait, I wanted to talk to you,” Prakash continued. Her face became sickly pale as she held the receiver to her ear. From the corner of her eye she saw Rati coming towards her. Wordlessly she detached the receiver from herself and held it out to her sister and dashed off in the direction of her room.
Burying her face deep in a pillow she cried silently till her heart had pumped out the last drop of pent up flood waters. She felt her sister gently disentangling her spectacles from her rigid fingers and stroking wet hair away from her forehead.
“Didi, we felt you have mourned for Nitin bhaiya and the baby long enough. For the past one year Mama and Papa have been worried sick about you, wanting you to start living again. Prakash joined college as professor last year and is my thesis guide. He has been wanting to meet you ever since he saw your photographs taken last Diwali with Mama and Papa. He knows everything about you and........ he is waiting for your reply.” Rati extricated her sister’s tear ravaged face from the depths of the wet pillow and whispered into her ear, “Make up your mind fast and remember my doctorate is at stake here.”***