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Sunday, 3 August 2014

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 Short story:

The unexpected fiancée

Akbar felt depressed even before he’d seen the girl. She’d be a pretty face with no personality. He waited for the tea trolley that would signal the arrival of the girl, as he talked with the parents. The creaking wheels of the trolley became audible. Akbar looked towards the door out of sheer habit as it opened…

And nothing could have prepared him for the sight that met his eyes. He stared in disbelief. Of all the gin joints in the world, he thought, with a sudden grin. Did she know that she was to be paraded in front of him? There she was, Khayyam Zafar, the terror of the 90s and his arch-nemesis from college, pretending to be the demure little bride-to-be. But he knew what a harpy she was.

And let the games begin, he thought smugly. He got up when she walked in and greeted his mother pleasantly, but she didn’t spare him a glance, as if she didn’t care who she was being tied to for the rest of her life. She was still oozing sexy. Her warm skin tone and high cheek bones and that mouth…was her most misleading weapon, he reminded himself. She had a nasty, sharp tongue in there somewhere.

Desperate

As she offered him his cup of tea, he said under his breath, ‘You must be pretty desperate to get married.’

Her hand jerked, nearly spilling tea on him, their eyes met and imperceptibly, hers widened. With a hiss better suited to the harpy she really was, she said, ‘You! Is this some sick joke?’

‘You tell me, KK?’
‘Don’t call me that.’

And she offered him a plate. Akbar burst out laughing. He couldn’t help it. It was so damn funny! Still grinning like the Cheshire cat, his eyes full of mirth, he addressed her parents, ‘Uncle, Aunty…I’m so happy to see K…Khayyam, after all these years! We were in college together.’

She glared at him.

Her father gushed, ‘How wonderful! We should give them a chance to catch up…let’s move there.’

Privacy

Her father moved towards a couch two feet away, but apparently that was all the privacy he was willing to accord to them.

Akbar turned towards Khayyam, ‘I quite see through you, KK. You’re contemplating marriage to the most…what was it again?…morally bankrupt man with pedestrian creative instincts. You have an agenda and I want to know what it is…or have you changed from the rebellious firebrand you were, to a desperate girl who just wants to snag a husband?’

She looked angry but said quickly, ‘I know what this may seem like but we have to go through with it, for now and…’

‘Why’s that?’
‘Why’s what?’

‘That I have to go through with this? I have a perfect opportunity to get even with you. Why would I not take it, KK?’

‘Look Akbar, if you go through with this…farce, you get more satisfaction out of it. You get to show people that you won in the end. I was no better than all those girls in college who drooled over you.’

He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and said, ‘Keep talking, KK.’

Calming breath

Khayyam took a deep calming breath making a great show of it, which, he secretly thought was completely uncalled for, and said, ‘You’ll be the hero, and I’ll be the weak-minded girl, who falls for brawn and not brains…’

‘You’re doing it again, KK.’
‘Fine…I’ll be the girl who falls for you.’

He smiled and nodded. ‘Now you’re talking. I like that angle, KK. And I can see you really want this. Why though?’ She didn’t reply. That had to be a first, he thought surprised. Her face looked stricken and then she shrugged and said, ‘It’s just that my…parents want this and…’

Devilish look

Akbar looked at her squarely now. There was a flash of panic in her eyes, but she looked back at him steadily, wearing a false plastic smile. But there was a strange expression on her face that he couldn’t place, almost as if she were…pleading?

The moron knew, Khayyam thought. He was grinning at her with that same devilish look he’d used on the girls in college. His eyes were dancing as he whispered, ‘what a falling down, you’ve had KK, actually visibly anxious to get married. At your age I can understand the desperation…’

‘I’m the same age as you…’ She began but he interrupted smoothly, and with obvious relish.

‘But for a man to be 28 and unmarried is nothing out of the ordinary, but a woman to be 28 and unmarried…tsk, tsk…desperate…and sexually frustrated.’

‘Shut up, you juvenile…’
‘You want a ring on your finger?’
She fumed but desisted from another attack.
‘This is going to be so much fun, KK.’ The satisfaction in his voice was hard to miss.

Khayyam knew she’d committed herself to voluntary torture. And boy, did Akbar Rasul know how to vindicate himself.

Bouquet

She got the first dose of it the very next morning. There was a huge bouquet waiting for her on the centre table. Red roses--so clichéd and…gag…over the top, just like the man who’d brought them.

‘Khayyam, Akbar is here to take you out for lunch.’ Her father beamed. Akbar stood up as she entered and said with a mocking smile, ‘Hello, again.’

Her father was still overtly cheery, and Khayyam smiled at him lovingly, ‘If you’re okay with it, Abba.’

‘Yes, yes. Go ahead.’ He practically shooed them out of the room.

‘You’re such a hypocrite! All sweetness and stingless with your parents, and for the rest of humanity you’re nothing but…KK.’

‘Well, at least I’m not clichéd.’

Red roses

‘What? You don’t like red roses? There isn’t a woman in the world who doesn’t like red roses…but then you’re not a woman are you, KK? Which is why, instead of saying thank you nicely, you’re complaining.’

‘Would it kill you to have some style, Akbar? You’re still stuck in the romance of your graduate days.’

‘Darling, I don’t know who you’re calling style deprived, because this man in front of you is a class act. See this thing I’m driving? It’s called a Mercedes, in case you didn’t know. It’s synonymous with class.’

‘I bet your clothes are branded and your shoes are Italian.’
‘You sound accusatory, KK.

Are you still stuck in the romance of your graduate mentality of equality, fraternity and some such s...?’

‘Stop calling me that or I swear I’ll…’
‘You’ll what? Not marry me? Break my heart and walk all over it?
Oh, but wait…that’s you if I refuse!

But do tell why exactly, you want a ring on your finger so bad that you’ll even succumb…pitifully I may add, to your arch enemy?’

‘That’s not your concern. What we’re going to do about this engagement however, does concern you. My plan is…’

‘Whoa, hold it right there, KK. Your plans don’t feature in this gig, okay? You begged me to put that ring on your finger…’

‘I did not beg you!’

‘Yes, you did, with your big brown eyes, and it was heart wrenching, KK, truly. But what you’re going to do is behave like a devoted fiancée, you’ll be pleasant and accommodating, you’ll dress up nicely…to please your future husband, and you’ll thank me nicely, when I give you roses…until the time I decide to call off the engagement in a couple of months.’

Relieved that he understood the plan, Khayyam said, ‘As long as they’re not red.’

‘You have to have the last word, don’t you?’
‘So it would seem.’

Resented

Akbar had to hand it to her--she didn’t lose her cool, or show how much she resented his power over her. Why though? What was hanging over her head that she’d expose herself to his humiliation and taunts so easily?

But then, he thought smugly, that wasn’t really his problem, and he was going to take full advantage of the situation because he hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.

The very next day Akbar made their engagement official with a diamond ring the size of which made Khayyam flinch. It was the most vulgar and ostentatious thing she’d ever seen and it weighed a ton.

As he put it on her finger, he said with a charming smile that fooled everyone but her, ‘I chose the ring myself because I know exactly how much you like this kind of thing.’

And she couldn’t say a single thing but smile with clenched teeth as he laughed cheerfully in her face.

Spoilt brat

Akbar clearly recalled the first time he’d seen her in college. He’d been besotted with this dusky beauty until she started speaking so vociferously about the marginalised and feminism and saving old buildings. And then she’d gone head to head with him on his architectural project for the prestigious Punjab Student of the Year Award.

Then she shot him down in front of all his friends, and all the girls who worshipped the ground he tread on. Calling him quite a few epithets that were probably true and a few that weren’t…‘Akbar Rasul, you’re a depraved, grossly over-confident, spoilt brat.

And if you think your charming little act is going to work on me, you’re sadly mistaken. I’m not your average bimbo, so why don’t you take your hand of friendship somewhere else, and start planning your vulgar sky rises?’

Akbar decided what better way to pay back than to have their old classmates intimated with this latest development? He took her out for dinner, conveniently forgetting to tell her about their friends being there.

She hesitated for a moment when she saw them, and then she walked in with her head held high and that same plastic smile on her face that he was beginning to recognise as her pitiful new trademark.

Poor KK…Where the hell did that come from? He shook himself mentally and followed her, determined to enjoy her come-uppance.

‘Oh my God, it’s true!’
‘Khayyam! What the…?’
‘All that time in college you made us believe…’

Undertone

Akbar said in an undertone, ‘Sweet, sweet vengeance, KK! Now go look happy.’ He shoved her lightly towards their table.

He laughed and joked with his friends, who made suggestive jokes about how he’d ‘tamed’ Khayyam and he made no effort to stop them. In fact, he laughed every time someone suggested she’d actually had a torch burning for him since college. Khayyam gradually fell into a dignified silence, embellished with that plastic smile, as the jokes became more aggressive. Akbar was intrigued beyond measure. What had happened to her?

‘So Khayyam, you’ve sold out too. What happened to your dreams of fighting for women’s rights and joining the UN? You’re ending up marrying, just like…what was it you said you’d never be…any average bimbo?’

Sudden urge

And they laughed. Khayyam tried to shrug, but Akbar could see Alia’s words had hurt her. Mubashir added, ‘And Akbar’s bimbo at that? The man you called an example of everything that was wrong with the youth of this country!’

Khayyam smiled. Suddenly, Akbar had had enough. ‘You’ll have to excuse us, guys, Khayyam and I have to go somewhere. We should do this again.’

Why did he feel this sudden urge to protect her? Her face was rigid with the control she’d been exercising. Now that he’d embarrassed her and got even, why did he feel…defeated? Her hand felt small and delicate in his as she walked by his side.

She exuded a strange aura of strength, and yet he could sense the vulnerability that had never been there before. She slipped into the passenger seat and stared ahead rigidly. Had it gone too far? Had he?

‘Khayyam…’

‘It’s KK, remember?’ She said icily, and then added with irritation, ‘What does it even mean?’

He smiled. ‘It’s pretty lame. Not knowing was the punch…if I tell you, I lose the edge--so I’ll tell you, as a peace offering. It’s Kosher Khayyam.’

She nodded and gave a mirthless half-laugh. ‘I see. Standing up for causes, self-righteous…yeah, it is lame.’

‘Khayyam…I’m sorry about tonight. I should have stopped…’

‘I can pay my debts, Akbar, and I paid mine with you tonight. I can handle whatever you have to throw at me.’

‘Still the tough firebrand somewhere inside, I see.’

Passionate speeches

He smiled but she didn’t. And Akbar wanted to know how, or who, had extinguished the fire in Khayyam. He remembered her passionate speeches and walks for something or other. Now she seemed to be fighting some invisible constraint that kept her from incinerating her opponents with her biting barbs.

After dropping her off, he went straight to his mother to get to the bottom of things. And she told him exactly why Khayyam would let him go to any lengths to stay engaged to him.

Akbar had eyes only for Khayyam that night.

It was likely the last time he was going to see her now that she had no reason to pretend to be the obedient and dutiful daughter. She was going to go back to her actual mission of saving the world. She’d probably tell him to deliver on his word and call off the engagement. And Akbar felt a sudden tug at his heart.

He’d always admired her will and tenacity but now, he felt a deep respect and…oh, hell, he thought with disgust and an aching heart, who was he kidding? He was in love with her.

And wasn’t that just peachy? She hated his guts; found him lacking in everything--morality, depth, maturity, style--and he’d gone and fallen in love with her. He toasted his stupidity in silence.

He wanted to bait her one last time, for old time’s sake, so he ventured lightly, ‘You know I’ll let you keep the ring if you’ve become attached.’

Still smiling, she shrugged and said, ‘But then I’ll have to keep you too…and your charade.’

He didn’t want a charade.

Khayyam watched Akbar from under her eyelashes. Akbar Rasul had changed, and it was a change that made him even more devastatingly attractive. She knew what he’d done for her brother.

She’d been an activist too long and her brother had been victimised, and then out of the blues, he was being championed by one of the best human-rights lawyers in the country. It hadn’t taken much to convince the lawyer to tell her the truth about Akbar’s generosity.

And then he ventured, ‘We could stay engaged…for real.’
‘Okay.’
He looked stunned…then irritated. ‘That’s it? Okay?’
She tried not to smile and looked at him innocently, ‘What did you want to hear?’
He looked uncomfortable and hesitant. ‘I don’t know…’

‘Let me explain the obvious to you, Akbar. Even though you’re not the last man on earth, I’m volunteering to wear this atrocious ring.’

He stared at her for a second too long, and then slowly, his eyes lit up and he said, ‘You always were good at volunteering for noble causes.’

Concluded

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