SHIVIKA – TEMPTING MR OBEROI
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Shivaay finds out he has a sister
Annika Mishra sighed satisfied as she paused reading and placed the book on the table. She leaned back against the high sofa and breathed deeply, imagining herself to be the protagonist of the book, someone who was loved beyond all measure, someone who would be cherished and treasured by her husband. She wished to be a wife to someone who would want to return home each night to her.
What would it be like to be such a woman? What would it be like to welcome such a man into one’s heart? Into one’s life?
She chuckled. If only others knew that Annika Mishra, sister to Elite number 12 Akshat Mishra, who was considered too proper and well-behaved to think of anything impractical. How would they feel when they learned that she entertained deep-seated and certainly unladylike thoughts about fictional heroes. She sighed again with self-deprecation. She was well aware of how silly she was, dreaming of the heroes in her books. It was a terrible habit, and one she had harboured for far too long.
It had begun when she had first read Romeo and Juliet at age twelve and followed her through heroes great and small—from Odysseus and Hamlet and Tristan to the dark, brooding heroes of gothic novels. It didn’t matter the quality of the writing— Annika’s fantasies about her fictional heroes were entirely democratic.
She looked at the ceiling and closed her eyes. She conjured her hero into the vision, she, seated at a loom, he, standing strong and intense in the doorway to the room. His physical appearance came easily—it was one that had been used again and again in her fantasies for the last eight years.
Tall, towering, and broad, with thick dark hair and green eyes that seemed to hold your gaze captive. A strong jaw, softening when he smiled—that smile—a smile that held the equal promise of wickedness and pleasure.
Yes…they were all modeled on the only man about whom she’d ever dreamed—Shivaay Singh Oberoi, Elite Number 6. One would think that after so many years of pining, she would have given up her fantasy…but it appeared that she had fallen for the man quite squarely and most regretfully, and she was doomed to spend the rest of her life imagining him the Antony to her Cleopatra.
She laughed outright at the comparison. For one thing, Annika had never laid a man low with her beauty—something Cleopatra was reported to have been extraordinarily skilled at doing. Cleopatra did not share Annika’s ordinary brownish black hair and ordinary brown eyes. Nor could the Queen of Egypt have ever been ignored or been called too smart and boring.
The same could never be told of Annika.
But for now, As she sat in her solitude and cozy place, She imagined herself to be the fierce and beautiful Egyptian queen and Mr Oberoi to be the dashing and clever Mark Antony. Him approaching her with appreciation, love and desire evident in his eyes… His lips just about to touch when…
Voice : ANNIKA!
Annika sat up straight with a start, nearly toppling her book from the table. The door to the library flew open, and her sister Gauri bounded in, all energy and excitement.
Gauri : There you are, Annika! I’ve been looking for you.
Annika took one look at her sister’s bright, eager face and couldn’t help but smile. Gauri had always been a charming, ebullient force—immediately adored by all who met her. At twenty, Gauri was the belle of the Kolkatan Elite—and the nickname The Perfect Elite 12.
Today, she was bathed in the diffused sunlight of the library, swathed in chiffon the color of tulips, her sweet, loving smile perfectly framed by her wavy black hair. Annika could easily understand why the Elite adored her sister. It was hard not to love Gauri.
Even if her perfection could be rather trying at times to a much older, much less perfect sister.
Annika (smiling warmly) : Well! I guess that the inevitable finally happened then?
Gauri blushed prettily and threw herself on one of the chairs opposite Annika. She gazed at her dreamily.
Gauri : Can you believe it? He finally proposed. After one year of dating… But still. I didn’t expect one so soon from him. Isn’t he wonderful?
He, in this case, being Omkara Shergill, Kolkatan Elite Number 5 and now, Gauri’s future husband and Annika’s brother-in-law.
Young, handsome, wealthy, and position, the aspiring doctor had taken one look at Gauri at a function and become quite thoroughly infatuated. A whirlwind courtship had followed the whole year, and the man had arrived at Mishra Nivas that morning to ask for her hand in marriage. Annika had been barely able to contain her amusement at Om’s nervousness; for all his status and wealth, he had been obviously eager for Gauri’s answer—a fact that had only served to endear him further to Annika.
Annika : Why wouldn’t I believe it, Sweetheart? I’ve had the whole year to observe him and he loves you, Gauri. Just as much as you love him. He is young, wants to be a doctor and his family is Elite number 5.
Gauri : Oh Annika, I wouldn’t care if he wasn’t part of the Elite. I just love the man.. Not his status, nor the wealth or anything else. I’m just glad I’m marrying Om.
Voice : An Elite number 5. You are going to be so happy, Gauri beta!
Both women turned in surprise at the statement, spoken in a shrill pitch of barely contained excitement from the doorway of the room. Annika sighed as she recalled what had sent her into hiding earlier in the day.
Ma : Isn’t this wonderful news, Annika? Gauri is to be married. I can’t believe Gauri will be the Shergill’s bahu. There is so very much to do! A wedding to plan! A betrothal function to host! Menus to design! Invitations to send! Not to mention Gauri’s clothes! And jewellery! Oh! Gauri!
The utter bliss on their mother’s face was rivaled only by the utter terror on Gauri’s. Annika bit back a smile and entered the fray to rescue her sister.
Annika : Mumma? Om and Gauri have agreed for marriage only today. Don’t you want to give them some time before you start planning?
It was as though she had not spoken. The older woman pressed on, her volume becoming more and more earsplitting.
Ma : AND YOU, ANNIKA! We shall have to start deciding clothes for you too. There won’t be time later.
Oh, no. Mrs Sunita Sandeep Mishra was many things, but a reliable person to choose a dress for her elder daughter was not one of them. If Annika did not provide a distraction for her mother soon, she would be destined to attend her sister’s wedding in a multi-coloured monstrosity complete with matching jewellery.
Annika : Mumma! We’ll deal with all of that tomorrow. Why don’t we hold a small celebratory dinner today?
Her mother’s eyes lit up even further, if that were possible.
Ma : That’s an amazing idea. It will be family only, of course—because we must hold the official announcement for later, with the press conference—but I think a dinner tonight is just the thing! Oh! So much more to do! Oh my love, Gauri!
And, with that, she left.
In the silence that followed their mother’s departure, Gauri sat stunned by the scene that had just taken place. Annika couldn’t help but smile.
Gauri : Who was that woman?
Annika : That was our beloved mother, ecstatic that she can finally plan a wedding. After all, Both Akshat and I haven’t been obliging so far.
Gauri : How long do you think she’s going to be like that?
Annika (shrugging) : Your bidaai?
Gauri : And how soon do you think that can take place?
Annika (chuckling) : Two months? Maybe three.
Gauri groaned and bent, touching her hands to her head.
Gauri : I can’t handle that.
Gauri groaned in anguish as Annika dissolved into laughter.
This was going to be an extraordinarily entertaining time.
This was going to be the most painful time of her life.
Annika stood at the corner of the sitting room, where, after dinner, the entire family had resumed showering Gauri and her fiance with well-wishes. Dozens of candles cast a lovely soft glow over the room’s inhabitants, transforming the space into an intimate scene. Ordinarily, Annika adored events that could fit into the sitting room, for they were typically cozy, happy occasions that made for warm memories.
Not tonight, however. Tonight, Annika was ruing the moment that afternoon when she had suggested a small, intimate dinner. Tonight, everyone, even the family portraits seemed to be mocking her.
She swallowed a sigh and forced a smile as her aunt Sheela approached her, beaming. Annika knew exactly what was coming…knew, too, that it was unavoidable.
Annika : Sheela maasi! What’s the matter?
Sheela : Kuch nahi beta. Just saw you standing here and thought of talking to you.
Annika smiled and nodded. They looked at the happy couple for a while before Sheela maasi turned towards Annika once again.
Sheela : I’m so happy Gauri is getting married. My sister had been so worried that none of her children would fulfill her wish. After all, Once Sandeep Jijaji left us, What else could your mother live for other than making sure her children are well settled. You and Akshat certainly never cared about her.
Annika forced a laugh that came out a little too loud as she cast a desperate eye around the room in search of someone, anyone, to save her from a seemingly endless string of rude and impertinent family members.
In the three hours since the guests had arrived for dinner, Annika had had some variation of this conversation with twelve different people. Dinner had been particularly difficult, considering she’d been sandwiched between Om’s opinionated grandmother and a particularly callous cousin, both of whom seemed to believe that Annika’s unmarried state was well within the bounds of proper conversation.
She was beginning to believe that there was not a single person in either the Shergill or Mishra families with even a modicum of tact. Did they really believe that she would take no offense to being consistently reminded that she was a spinster? It was really too much.
Seeing no salvation in her future, she settled for waving down a footman with a tray of sherry. Sheela Maasi gasped.
Sheela : Annika! If you drink like that in front of everyone, People will think you’re accustomed to it.
Annika (confused) : But maasi! I’m accustomed to it. They serve wine in every function that I’ve attended.
Sheela : But that’s for the men and not for the women. No one wants to marry a drunk. Once you’re married, Do what you like.
Annika stared at her aunt like she was mad. What did marriage have to do with liquor drinking? A vision flashed through Annika’s mind, a pleasing fantasy that ended with Sheela Maasi doused in sweet red wine. Shaking herself from her reverie, she carefully set down her glass and returned her focus to her aunt, who was still speculating on Annika’s spinsterhood.
Sheela : Also, Don’t you think you are a little too busy? I know you’re running a NGO but by now, It should be running by itself right? The management should be perfect. Why don’t you use your money elsewhere? Improve your posture and figure. Maybe then, We’ll be able to catch you a husband.
Annika had to escape before she did serious damage either to a member of the family or to her own sanity. Without meeting Sheela Maasi’s eyes—she could not guarantee that she wouldn’t say something thoroughly nasty to the horrible woman—Annika made her excuses. She didn’t care that her explanation made little sense, what with dinner long over; she simply had to flee.
Holding back tears, Annika escaped to her brother’s study—the nearest room where she knew guests would not disturb her. Guided by the moonlight spilling in through the enormous windows that lined one wall of the study, she made her way to the sideboard and retrieved a glass and a bottle of sherry before moving to a large chair in the far corner of the room that had long been a sanctuary for Mishra men.
It will have to serve the purpose for an Mishra female tonight, she thought, letting out a long, slow breath as she poured herself a glass of sherry, set the crystal decanter down on the floor, and threw her legs over one arm of the chair, making herself comfortable.
Akshat : Why are you sighing, My sister?
Annika gave a little start, turning in the direction of the imposing mahogany desk at the other side of the room. She saw the shadowed figure behind it and smiled broadly into the darkness.
Annika : You startled me.
Akshat : Well, You entered my hide-out.
Akshat Mishra, Elite number 12, rose and moved across the room to seat himself in the chair opposite Annika. Akshat swirled a glass of scotch lazily as Annika drank deeply and relaxed in the chair with her eyes closed, enjoying their companionable silence.
Akshat : So, What’s the matter?
Annika : Sheela Maasi.
Akshat : What did the goose tell now?
Annika (in a reproachful voice) : Akshat!
Akshat : Come on, Leah! You think of her the same way.
Annika shook her head as the name made her smile. Akshat was the only one who called her by her middle name.
Annika : Think be the key word here. I would never have told it out.
Akshat : That’s your problem. You’re too well-behaved. So what did our dear, valued aunt do to send you fleeing to a darkened room?
Annika sighed, refilling her glass.
Annika : The same thing that all the guests have repeatedly mentioned this evening. She simply was more curt and rude about it.
Akshat : Marriage!
Annika : I swear, If I had known a night like this was coming, I would have said yes to the first man who asked me.
Akshat : The first man who asked you, Leah, was a gambler who thought you came with a huge dowry. He simply wasn’t worth it. Nor were the others. None of them deserved you. Do you disagree?
Annika couldn’t tell lies so she shook her head.
Annika : No! I don’t really want to be married to any of them. But I wish to be more than Annika. An Annika who does more than just follow the rules.
Akshat : So break them.
Annika (snorted) : What?
Akshat : Break the rules, Leah. I don’t see why you haven’t done it before.
Annika : We are part of the Elite, Akshat. I can’t simply do what I want.
Akshat (laughing) : Leah! We are part of the Elite. That’s not a privilege nor an honour. It’s simply good fortune. Don’t worry about our status. You’ll not tarnish it by breaking few rules.
Annika : And what would I do?
Akshat : I don’t know. What would you like to do?
Annika : Drink in a local pub?
Akshat : That sounds fun. Then?
Annika : Smoke? Gamble? Fire a pistol?
Akshat : All that sounds reasonable, as long as you do it a bit discreetly. Especially the gambling part. Why do you want to fire a pistol anyways?
Annika : It sounds like it could be fun.
Akshat : Anything else?
Annika : I want to go to your club, the men’s only club.
Akshat : Now see, That’s where I would tell you to stop. My membership will be revoked if you were discovered.
Annika : Calm down. It’s a moot point. I am not about to attempt to sneak into your club. Or do any of those other things, either.
Was that disappointment in her tone?
Akshat : I’m sorry to hear that, Leah! A risk or two doesn’t hurt anyone.
The comment, spoken carelessly as he moved to leave, landed heavily on Annika’s ears. She simply nodded as her brother whispered his goodbyes and exited the room.
She sat for a long while, listening as the sounds of the Nivas quieted, guests leaving, the family retiring to bed, the servants clearing the rooms that were used for the dinner, all the while playing the last moments with Akshat over and over in her mind and wondering, What if?
What if she could live a life other than the staid, boring mockery of one that she currently lived? What if she could do all the things that she would never dream of doing? What was to keep her from taking such a leap?
She had always done what was told of her. She was well-mannered and donated to good causes. She had had a good education and was learned. But it didn’t seem to matter.
At twenty-eight, no one much thought about her. Her reputation had been impeccable for years—for all the years that it had mattered that she retain such an untarnished name. It wasn’t as if she were about to traipse off and completely destroy that reputation, anyway.
Everyone knew Annika Leah Mishra was the perfect girl next door, just not perfect for them.
What would she do if she could change it all?
She storde purposefully to the desk and removed a sheet of paper and took a pen. considered the list of things that she would do…if she had the courage.
The first answer was obvious and, while she hadn’t wanted to share it with Akshat earlier, she felt strongly that she should be honest with herself and commit it to paper. After all, it was the only item she could think of that she truly dreaded never being able to complete.
Setting the nib to the parchment, she wrote, her script strong and certain.
She looked up as soon as the words were written, half-afraid that she would be discovered writing such a thing. Returning her attention to the words on the paper, she cocked her head to one side. It didn’t seem enough, did it? “Kiss someone” didn’t seem to capture exactly what she meant.
Biting her lower lip, she added one word.
Annika let out a long breath—one that she hadn’t known she was holding in. No turning back now, she thought to herself, I’ve already written the most scandalous thing.
The next few items came easily, born of her conversation with Akshat.
Fire a pistol
Gamble (at a gentleman’s club)
She thought some more and then added some more points.
Dance every dance one night
Fencing. Sounded so weird in the list. But few men she knew seemed to enjoy it. And so she thought she would try it too. Too bad there was only a teacher for men right now.
There in the darkness, she allowed herself to admit that all those years of standing on the edges of ballrooms across Kolkata had taken their toll. She loathed being a wallflower, but she had never been able to lift herself out of that position. And, in the eight years since her coming out, she had become so comfortable as a witness to the elegance of society that she couldn’t imagine actually being at the center of it. Of course, she would never be at its center. The women at the nexus of the ton were beautiful. And Annika was too plain, too boring to be considered beautiful. Blinking back tears, she scrawled the next item on the list.
Be considered beautiful. Just once.
It was the most unlikely item on the list…she could only remember one time, one fleeting moment in her life when she had even come close to achieving the goal. But, thinking back on that night long ago, when Shivaay Singh Oberoi had made her feel beautiful, Annika was certain that he hadn’t perceived her that way. No, he was just a man who did what he could to make a young girl feel better so that he could escape to a midnight tryst. But in that moment he had made her feel beautiful. Like a Goddess. How she wanted to be that girl again; how she wanted to feel like Goddess Annika again.
Of course, she couldn’t do it. It was just a silly exercise.
She folded her list, tucked it inside her fingers and made her way out of the study. She began to ascend the stairs to her room when a small giggle stopped her.
Gauri (whispering) : Om! You shouldn’t be here.
Om : You’re my fiancee. My love. I don’t think anyone will object.
Gauri : Maybe not, But my mother will sue us. She doesn’t want anything to hamper this wedding.
Om : God! But she has two other children.
Gauri : Yes.. But…
Annika knew what Gauri had left unspoken.
What are the odds that either of them will marry anytime soon?
Om : Akshat will marry. He’s just not ready yet and you know what I’ve told you about Annika.
Annika leaned in further to learn what he had told.
Om : Annika is too reserved, too passive. Unless she’s ready to show herself, No one is going to want her.
Gauri : Annika needs to let herself loose. But I’m afraid she never will.
There was a long pause as their words—so lacking in malice and still so painful—echoed around Annika, suffocating her with the heavy weight of their meaning. And all at once, she could not seem to catch her breath and it took all her strength to not bawl her eyes out.
Annika closed the door quietly, blocking out the sound of them giggling as they moved on to more pleasurable matters.
If only she could block out the memory of their words.
Passive. What a horrible word. What a terrible sentiment. Passive and plain and unadventurous and destined for a boring, staid, utterly uninteresting life. She choked back tears, leaning her forehead against the cool door and considering the very real possibility that she was about to puke.
She did not want to be that woman—the one of whom they spoke. She had never planned to be that woman. Somehow, it had happened, however…somehow, she had lost her way and, without realizing it, she had she chosen this staid, boring life instead of a different, more adventurous one.
It was enough to drive a spinster to drink.
Of course, she’d done enough of that tonight.
It was enough to drive a spinster to action.
She produced the folded piece of paper she had folded there only minutes earlier. Fingering the rounded edges of the square, she considered her next move.
She could go to bed, drown herself in tears and sherry, and spend the rest of her life not only regretting her inaction but—worse—knowing those around her believed her passive.
Or, she could change.
She could begin the list.
She would begin with an item that was a challenge. An item that would set her squarely on this new, bold, un-Annika-like course.
Taking another deep breath, she pulled open the door to the study and stepped into the darkened foyer of Mishra Nivas, no longer caring if she stumbled upon Gauri and Om. In fact, she barely registered that they were gone.
She hadn’t time for them, anyway, she thought as she hurried up the wide marble staircase to her room. She had to change her outfit.
Annika Leah Mishra was going out.
PRECAP : Annika meets Shivaay
SHIVIKA – TEMPTING MR OBEROI