“Don’t”, I whispered.
She looked at me with questioning eyes. In that bridal dress and makeup, she looked prettier than I had ever seen her. I was her best man, her best friend, while all I wanted to be was the man waiting for her at the civil court.
Vidya and I grew up together, almost. Our families lived just a couple of blocks away. Her father worked in the same company as my father, and we spent many weekends and holidays at each other’s homes. We grew up like cousins. Then one fine day, our parents decided that we were no longer kids. Lines were drawn, at times overtly, at times covertly.
I guess they were right about us not being kids anymore. Because we were not outraged by our parent’s behavior. We just laughed it off as silly concerns. Our friendship grew through the school years, and beyond. Then came the day when she told me she was in love with Nasir. I had waited for three months for the right words, the right time, the right mood, the right setting … waited to tell her that I loved her. And on that day, when things couldn’t possibly have gone worse, I said the right words – only they were right for the occasion. I said them in the right tone, with the correct expressions. Even Vidya couldn’t tell I was lying.
Her conservative family went berserk at the news. It was hard, trying to hide my sadist satisfaction, and a dark hope. Was I trying to get back at them for not trusting me with their daughter, even as friend? Or was I just being a good friend – thinking of her best interests. Whatever it was, I stood by her. I became the bridge between Vidya and her family, between two generations, between two world views. Nasir, I knew subconsciously, was a great choice for Vidya. I was the first one from her side to meet him, and his family. I was the one who accompanied him to Vidya’s place. I became his counsel, his ambassador, his translator – although I wasn’t exactly translating a language.
This, while I was nursing a deep wound, and blaming myself for wasting crucial time. Would it have made a difference, if I had said it first, I kept wondering. Hope does not know logic, and that is why I could gloss over obvious details: like they were going around for a while, or the way Vidya talked about him, or the way he looked at her. Yes, I had never picked up the signs. Was it because, I thought Vidya possibly couldn’t antagonize her family, and ruled out Nasir as any serious threat to me? Was it because I was complacent — secure in a knowledge that her family would accept me readily as Vidya’s husband, even though they didn’t trust me otherwise?
My confidence was not misplaced, as I realized later, when the tale took a bizarre twist, after Nasir met with her family. Her parents, finding nothing wrong with the guy, or his highly-educated, and liberal family, were left with no real reason to oppose the union — save the religious differences. Vidya’s father met me the very next day, looking weary and helpless. It was then that he asked me point blank: “Do you love Vidya?”. I looked at him aghast, trying not to let my eyes betray the truth. “Uncle, I’ve never looked at the relationship that way”, I lied.
“Beta, I would have been so happy had it been you”, he said after what seemed like an eternity.
The vindictive part of me wanted to laugh a contemptuous laugh, and ask him what made him change his mind so soon. But I had never seen him like this: shoulders dropped, eyes lowered, spirits crushed. I didn’t say a word.
“There is still a chance, beta. I’m sure Vidya would be happy with you. You can talk her out of this, you know! No one but you can”, he added softly.
What do you do about such a proposal? I knew that Vidya won’t be able to go against the wishes of her family if it weren’t for my strong support. I knew that her father, looking helpless and resigned to his fate, knew that too, as he made the last gambit.
God, I wanted Vidya badly.
“Uncle… Vidya loves Nasir. I’m sure they’ll be happy together. Isn’t that the only thing that really matters?”
I looked at him, as the last shed of hope vanished from his already colorless face. He didn’t say much after that. I hope he didn’t watch the dark hope dying on my face, too.
“Don’t what, Ajay?”, she asked me, as I kept looking past her, lost in my own thoughts.
“Don’t trouble Nasir too much, the poor soul”, I told her as I patted her on the head.
“Shut up, whose side are you on, anyway?”, she said, as we started driving towards the civil court.
As I looked at Vidya, smiling and carefree, I realized what I had needed all along. I matched her smile.
[Slightly modified version of an old exercise for a writers’ group. The exercise was to write a story where the central character needs/wants something badly]