I don’t believe it. It is six thirty in the morning. In Ooty. And he wants to go for a walk?’
Ragini looked up incredulously from under the blankets. Her husband of seven days was already putting on his shoes.
‘Get up, get up’, he urged her, gently tugging at the blankets.
She dragged herself out with great reluctance and plodded into the bathroom to brush her teeth wondering what she’d gotten herself into. Apparently the two months of courtship over Skype hadn’t revealed much about the man she was to spend the rest of her life with.
She’d wanted a honeymoon in Thailand . Her parents were ready to get them the tickets. She had never been abroad and had always envied those photos that her friends put up on Facebook. But Laksh had already booked the honeymoon package online from Seattle.
‘ India has so much to offer’, he’d said. ‘And you are going to live in the US for the rest of your life. So let us go to this quiet resort near Ooty. I need to relax, not sightsee and take photos for Facebook’.
And as she did for everything else in life, Ragini silently agreed without even putting up an argument.
Just like she had done two months ago when her father and that marriage broker finalized her marriage with Laksh. Sealed her fate without even asking her opinion. Not that she expected anything else from life. She was twenty two and like every other girl in her extended family she always knew that she would have an arranged marriage. During those three years in college, she didn’t even bother to look at a man because she wanted to spare herself the heartache that was certain to happen since a love marriage would never be allowed .
Today, on that crisp September morning, she walked side by side in silence with the man who was now her husband. They had spoken to each other everyday on Skype those two months. Laksh was not an email person, he had no time to read her long emails or reply to them in more than three lines. So she sat in front of the webcamera everyday, dressed in her best and spoke to the stranger halfway across the world.
‘What is your favourite dish? Who is your favourite hero? Which movie did you watch recently?’
Long silences and awkward smiles had punctuated their conversations. There was so much she wanted to tell him, so much she wanted to know about him, but there was something that stood between them like a huge wall. The knowledge that her parents were just across in the next room made it even difficult for her to communicate freely with him.
There were times she did not understand his accent. He made jokes and she laughed politely though she couldn’t understand them. She shyly displayed her wedding clothes and jewels in front of the camera, asking for his opinion, approval.
The wedding happened two days after her came to India. He had just one month leave and they had no time to waste. The day after the wedding her visa papers were filled and they applied for an appointment at the US consulate. If all goes well she could travel to Seattle in six months. The first time he touched her, she cringed. He had been understanding enough that night.
‘ It is ok, Ragini. Sleeping with someone you hardly know just because you married him is as bad as a onenight stand with a stranger. Let’s wait’,
he smiled reassuringly and rolled over to the other side of the bed. Ragini had said a silent prayer in thanks and drifted away to sleep.
At breakfast that morning, in that beautiful resort ,Laksh didn’t even look at the menu card.
‘One masala dosa, one sambar vada’, he ordered and looked at Ragini.
‘ Same’, she whispered back, afraid to even open the menu card. And for the next five days, he ordered the same thing for her without even asking.
The resort was around 20km from Ooty, individual cottages spread out on lovely rolling downs. It was literally the middle of nowhere. Their phones worked only in certain spots and there was no TV or internet in the rooms. Laksh seemed to love the place, but Ragini was terrified. There was nothing else to do there except talk to each other. She was afraid that she would run out of topics to talk to him and he would be bored of her even before they left.
They stayed in the resort for the rest of the morning. Laksh walked up to the resort’s library and picked out a book. He took his Kindle from the suitcase and gave it to Raginj,
‘ Here, have a look at my library. I’m sure you’ll love those books’.
She held the device in her hand awkwardly. She had no idea how to use it. She looked at Laksh helplessly. He had already sunk into the couch with his paperback. She did not want to display her ignorance to him, so she played around with the reader, hoping to open something.
The next day a car picked them up for sightseeing. It was a beautiful day and as they drove through the tree lined roads, Ragini felt a sense of elation. They visited all the tourist hotspots that day, the Botanical Gardens, the Rose Garden, Doddabetta. But much to Ragini’s disappointment, Laksh took more pictures of flowers and clouds. She wanted pictures of herself so badly, something to post on Facebook to show her friends. But other than a few photographs of themselves , Laksh seemed more interested in clicking nature. She fought back her disappointment and carried on.
Every minute of the honeymoon seemed to last a long tortorus hour for her. In the evenings Laksh took her to the game room and handed her a table tennis paddle.
‘Come on, let’s have a match’, he said all excited.
She didn’t dare tell him that she had never played the game in her life. She feigned a headache and went back to their room instead.
When they passed political posters in the village, Laksh started off on an elaborate analysis of what was ailing Indian politics and began comparing it to American politics. She tried her best to follow what he was saying, but she couldn’t understand what exactly he was getting to. So she just nodded along, not offering her opinions, lest she anger him with a counterpoint.
She thought of how her life in Seattle would be in a few months. She wondered how she could manage to spend the rest of her life with him when they were poles apart and she couldn’t even go through this one week alone with him. She tossed and turned in bed that night, unable to sleep.
Maybe her visa would get rejected, she hoped. And then she quickly wished that thought away. She would have to live in her in-laws’ place longer if the visa was delayed. Which was worse, she wondered. Living with one total stranger in a strange land or a family of total strangers in a familiar land.
One day before they were to return to Chennai, Laksh said he had a surprise for her. She smiled and looked around the room, mildly excited. Maybe he had bought her a gift. But he grabbed his camera and backpack and threw her her walking shoes. ‘ Wear these,’ he said ’ I’m going to take you to heaven’.
A Jeep was waiting outside with a tribal man sitting inside.
‘We are going to trek up to Pakasura malai today’ , said Laksh excitedly.
‘It has the most awesome view and there are some ruins of Tipu Sultan’s fort’
Ragini gaped helplessly. She had her period that day, there was no way she could trek, and certainly not up a mountain terrain that needed a tribal guide. She tried to tell Laksh, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper ‘ Yes, let’s go’.
The forest was filled with birdsong. Their guide was walking up ahead, armed with a strong stick. He looked back every now and then and signaled them to follow him. The dampness of the trees engulfed them. They could hear a waterfall somewhere in the distance.
Laksh looked at her and smiled ‘ Heaven, isn’t it?’ he said .’ We’re halfway there. Another hour or so and we’ll be close to the clouds’
A strong cramp suddenly caught Ragini’s stomach. She stared at Laksh and screamed. ‘No, Laksh, no. This is hell. Do you know that I have been walking up this rocky path with gut wrenching stomach cramps? Do you know that I am terribly tired and hungry?’
The torrent of tears was unstoppable. ‘I hate trekking. I hate waking up so early every morning to go for your walks. I hate the dosa you order for me every morning for breakfast. I don’t know how to operate your Kindle. I can’t understand half the jokes you make. I do not think that your American politics is better than our Indian system. I have absolutely nothing in common with you.’
Six days of pent up feelings broke the dam and burst out of her.
‘Why don’t you ever take my photograph? Do you not like me? I know it was a mistake. We shouldn’t have ever gotten married. You are already bored with me. We don’t know a thing about each other…’ , her voice trailed away as she wept.
Laksh stood there, in the middle of the forest halfway up the mountain. totally stunned by this outburst.
‘Ragini, he said softly, ‘ I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t know that I hurt you so much in the past week. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ He looked down, feeling ashamed of himself, staring blankly at the grass below his feet. It seemed like the birds had stopped singing suddenly and silence of the forest engulfed them.
‘Yes, we hardly know each other. But this is what an arranged marriage is all about. We have the rest of our lives to get to know each other, to fall in love, Ragini. Talk to me. Tell me what you feel. Unless you communicate, how will I know what you feel? ’ His voice quivered .
They stood there just staring at each other for a long minute.
He slowly reached out to her and kissed her forehead. ‘We only had a wedding Ragini, now we have to make it a marriage. And fill it with love’
The block of ice in her heart melted. For the first time since in those two weeks, she didn’t cringe at his touch. She kissed him back.