It is ten fifty five post meridiem. The Purana Garden is deserted at this hour, except for the lone cow sitting near the gate. A couple of lamps are gloomily awake, casting a dull yellow light over the fawning garden. The tire-swing I am sitting on squeaks a little, as I gaze at the glimmering lights and cacophony of band-wallahs in the far distance, outside the metal fence, beyond the Sisodias (Number 84) and Jain House (Number 85). The source of this revelry is of course a grand Indian wedding. It is kartik ka mahina, and Delhi and the whole of the North is revelling in aura of weddings. Tomorrow, I am going to be a part of this madness, in my titular role as the groom.
The prospect of your own marriage gives you a new perspective on things. Suddenly, it’s not a fantasy any more. It’s quite real, and somehow, quite scary at the same time. Don’t take me wrong, I want to get married. But for some reason, it just all-
The swing squeaks again as I get off of it in one swift jump. Yuvika steps into the garden, bundled in a maroon shawl. Her best friend Rhea is only a step behind her; the former wears an expression of relief as she spots me, while the latter knots and un-knots her fingers. At few yards away, Yuvika breaks into a trot and hurries up towards me. Before I know it, I have scooped her up in a hug, smelling her hair.
‘Hi.’ I breathlessly say. She merely locks her arms around my neck in response.
‘Okay, you guys have just one hour.’ Rhea impedes. ‘She needs to be back home by 12, no matter what.’ I sigh.
‘We’ll meet you at Gala Cinema at 11:55.’ I answer. She doesn’t seem very pleased about it, but she has no choice. She nods, glances around, and walks away. Yuvika still holds fort in my arms, her breathe undulating against my throat.
‘Bae?’ I ask. She lightly punches me in the stomach and I guffaw. She hates being called bae.
‘Look, not that I don’t like this, but are we really going to stand here for an hour?’ I softly ask. She looks up at me, eyes all big. I kiss her nose.
‘The swings?’ she asks.
‘The swings.’ Our hands interlace, and we amble towards the set of rusty old swings. These swings have proved to be an integral part of our love story. This was where we first met, fifteen years ago, during a neighbourhood game of hide & seek. Both of us hid in the same spot, behind the rose bushes. Both of us were the first ones to be caught, and both of us emerged with scratched palms and knees. And so, while Yash Bhatnagar, the seeker, sought other hidden kids, Yuvika and I sat on the swings, eating melting lollies on a hot summer day. Seven years later, we kissed in the same garden, whilst trying to fit onto the same swing and collapsing in a giggling mess. It was during the afternoon, with no one but strays to watch us. Our names are etched on the bottom of our respective swings’, a romantic act of delinquency right after the kiss.
She sits on the right swing, the one with the blue tire. Blue that has long given way to patches of black. I take the brown one. I am still holding her hand, when I notice the mehendi adorning her palms and forearms.
‘Looks like the mehendi ceremony went well today.’
‘You should have seen Ma. She literally started break dancing on the dance floor. Her choreographer taught her some crazy moves.’ I can’t help but laugh at her sarcastic tone. She rolls her eyes.
‘The groom’s name is in there. See if you can find it.’ Under the strained light, she offers me her right palm. I stare at it idiotically- it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Finally, in the crease, next to a checked design, I find it.
‘Karan.’ I say out loud. She smiles, and then pulls her hand away, settling comfortably into her tire.
‘You look exhausted.’ I note, sitting still on my creaky tire. She begins to swing lightly, almost effortlessly. Her swing makes no noise, that bastard.
‘Isn’t that good? It means I am an active part-taker in my wedding preparation.’ she answers.
‘Yes, but where is the bridal glow?’ She stops the swing abruptly and looks at me.
‘I could ask you the same. Where’s the bridegroomal glow?’ I snort.
‘Firstly, there is no such word as bridegroomal. Secondly, grooms don’t glow, they radiate.’ It’s her turn to snort. Only, she sounds like she’s choking.
‘If you say so.’ she laughs. I make a face, but get immediately caught by the infectious laugh.
‘Should we go get some tea?’ I ask a couple of minutes later. My hands have begun to turn cold. Yuvika nods.
‘Tea would be nice.’ We set off towards my car– Yash Bhatnagar’s actually, we couldn’t risk being seen together by either of our families just a day before the wedding– and before I can protest, she jumps onto the driver’s seat.
‘Please?’ she asks, holding out her hand for the key. I click my tongue.
‘Yash will have a fit.’
‘Let him. I promise to drive in an orderly fashion.’ She purses her lips. I sigh and toss the keys at her. Barely have I settled into my seat, and the Duster zooms to life. So much for orderly fashion.
‘You’ll kill me before I even get married.’ I mutter. She winks and throws off the maroon shawl, narrowly avoiding a Chetak parked on the side of the road. When she first began driving five years back, I had to shut my eyes and pray to God. Today, I know that shutting my eyes is probably the worst mistake I could make. At least looking at the road might help me scream in time.
We arrive at Rony Te Sunny da Dhaba, an establishment run by two jolly Punjabis, Rony and Sunny Kukreja. Rony and Sunny are not brothers, unlike what their last names suggest. They are, in fact, best friends, whose surnames brought them together, one after the other, in their attendance records in school. K. Rony, and K. Sunny.
‘Do chai, Sunny.’ I call out, with a sigh of relief after getting out alive from that car ride. Sunny looks a little taken aback on seeing us out together. It is, after all, the night before our wedding. But he doesn’t say anything, except a ‘yes boss!’ and motions to his Raju to prepare two cups of tea. Yuvika and I sit down at the rackety wooden table across from each other.
‘Does Mrs. Karan Arora sound nice?’ I ask, playing with the silver bracelet on her wrist. She murmurs something about how Yuvika Saxena sounds better, and how she doesn’t want to change her surname after the marriage.
‘Mother-in-law isn’t going to like the sound of that.’ I tease. She glowers. I can see that she’s already transforming into a headstrong bahu.
Our teas arrive piping hot, straight from the bartan to the mitti ke kullar. I blow lightly at mine, while Yuvika takes a quick sip. She prefers her tea boiling hot, while I take mine warm. A gentle cool breeze wafts underneath the asbestos roof, and I wrap my palms around the hot kullar. Yuvika’s hair dances around her face, just as uncontrollable as her. I have an urge to brush it off and kiss her, but the dhaba wasn’t the place to do it. Then again, it was the night of spontaneity. I gesture with my finger for her to lean in towards me. She raises an eyebrow, and repeats the motion. Uncontrollable. I lean in obediently.
‘I want you to finish your tea quickly.’
‘So that I can undress you a little bit in the car.’ That does it. She almost drops the kullar. Eight years of dating, and she still loses her calm with a mere sentence. I sit back up straight. She bites her lower lip.
‘Only if I get to drive.’ I shake my head, feigning disinclination. She furrows her eyebrows.
‘Picture this: you’re driving. And I put my hand into your shirt. You promptly hit another car, and we both die. Does that sound nice?’
‘No.’ she meekly admits, and sips her tea. I triumphantly smile from above my kullar. She mutters a ‘creep’ underneath her breath and I laugh.
Five minutes later, we are back on the road, and this time I get to drive. I scan the alleys for a parking spot, and find one right after an abandoned petrol station. I take quick scan of my watch– eleven forty– and turn towards Yuvika.
‘Hi.’ she smiles.
‘So basically, the last time I get to make out as a bachelor?’
‘Hey. I love you.’
‘I love you.’
At exactly eleven fifty five, we park in front of Gala Cinema. Rhea is already stationed here, pacing around in front of her car like a misplaced panther. I appreciate her worry. She is making sure Yuvika doesn’t get into any mess.
‘Thank you. For today.’ Yuvika says, as we stand next to the duster, holding hands. An overhead street-light flicks eerily. I stare at her palms. Karan.
‘Send me pictures.’
‘Don’t smile too hard. You look like a monkey when you do.’ She punches me again, lighter than ever, but so much more painful. I force a laugh and then, pull her into a hug. We stand like this for a minute, until Rhea softly calls out her name. I step away.
‘I will always love you.’
‘And I will always love you.’ She stands up on the tips of her toes to kiss me one last time, and then hurries away to Rhea’s car. Rhea looks at me, nods, and then turns away.
I lean back against the Duster’s bonnet, folding my arms on my chest. I don’t look at the other car, as I hear it come to life.
‘Zahid?’ I hear Yuvika call out. I turn my head to see her looking out from the window, tears streaking her face. I don’t respond.
‘I think Yuvika Zahid Khan would have sounded the best.’