Hiten turned the lights off and went to bed. The next day was to be the biggest day of his life. He knew he would not be able to sleep right away; thoughts of all kinds would gnaw at him.
Munna had asked him to rethink. There’s no need for that, is there? he thought. It was the most straightforward thing in the world. He had been planning it for a long time, living it over and over in his head. He could see the familiar series of actions unfolding in front of him, like rewatching a movie, like logic, like destiny.
This is what would happen the following day: at 7 pm, he would meet his wife-to-be Mrunal at the nearby bus station, they would take a bus to Malad railway station and elope to Gandhidham via train, where an acquaintance would help them start a new life. The thought of it made him giddy; in his mind, he was an idealistic young man who did the right thing regardless of what the society thought, and he saw this as a chance to prove it.
It was inevitable that people would get hurt. Two families- his and hers- would get the shock of their lives. They never in their wildest dreams would have thought their obedient children, brought up in such decent households, capable of this. But Hiten knew that they would come to accept their decision in time.
He considered the probable roadblocks. Her family had always been the priority for Mrunal. What if when the time comes, she does not have it in her to go through with it? Quite possible, he thought, girls are known to be overly emotional when it comes to their family. He prayed to God for her to not back out.
What if her family had already come to know of their plan? His friend Munna, who he had confided in, lived in the same chawl as Mrunal. What if Munna had unwittingly spoken of it to the wrong person? The entire chawl would be waiting for him with sticks and rods. He made a mental note to call Munna the next day to ensure nothing of this sort was happening.
Similar negative possibilities popped up in his mind one after another; after he had given each a thorough consideration, he thought of the elopement again and shortly fell asleep with a faint smile on his face.
The next morning, he awoke earlier than usual, freshened up, and prayed for a successful day. Sunlight poured into the room through the drying clothes and half-open curtains. He went to the window, opened the curtains, and looked outside; a cool breeze marked the peaceful morning. He felt upbeat. He had tea and walked to his uncle’s house.
The door was ajar as usual. His uncle was watching the news on TV. His aunt was preparing breakfast. He looked for Priti, his 6-year-old niece, of whom he was very fond. His aunt informed him that the day before, she had gone to her maternal grandparents’ house with her mother. What a pity, he thought. He would have really liked to see her once before going. He reminded himself that he would have to get used to not being able to meet his loved ones. It was a sacrifice demanded of him. He straightened his back and tried to think of something else.
After lunch, he left for Munna’s place. He’d called him earlier and learned that his fears of the night before were completely unfounded. Nobody knew. When he entered the chawl, there was nobody suspiciously eyeballing him as he had envisioned.
Munna was leaning on one of the parked bikes outside, engaged in conversation with his friends. When he saw Hiten coming, he flashed his eyebrows, smiled, stuck out five fingers meaning five minutes, and moved his attention back to the conversation. He had a large circle of friends, and he was always with somebody, up to something. Hiten loitered around.
It was afternoon and people were inside their houses, taking a nap after a heavy meal. The sun was not harsh and he was thankful to providence for that; hot afternoons, more than anything else, brought him down. But it was good now- the weather was merciful, people were resting, the whole atmosphere gave off a cozy feeling. He wanted life to stay as it is. The thought of the big change that lay ahead unsettled him.
When he went back, he saw that Munna had taken leave of his friends and was waiting for him.
“Is she coming?” Hiten asked him.
“Yes, I’ll just have my sister give her a call. Are you still planning to go ahead with it? I thought better sense would have prevailed by now.”
“Of course, I am. Today’s the day; I cannot decide to not go now.”
“Yes, you can. Just call it off, brother. You’re not a kid anymore. You’re playing with multiple lives. You have ruined her life once.”
Hiten did not respond. He knew he had been in the wrong then. Munna was referring to the time Mrunal was caught talking to Hiten on the phone past midnight. He would call her at odd times despite her repeated refusals. Eventually, she stopped making a fuss thinking nothing will happen and as time passed by she got increasingly laxed. So one day she was caught and her parents saw the dirty messages as well. Being extremely conservative, their faith in her was rocked.
Mrunal had saved his contact as ‘H’, so he was not identified but severe restrictions were put on her. At first, she was not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied by her mother. After a few weeks, extracting a promise from her of no more mischief, her parents permitted her to visit female friends and go on small errands like grocery shopping.
Munna’s sister called her and invited her to their place. She was not a friend of hers but they got this arrangement in place so she could meet Hiten.
Mrunal was anxious as she left for Munna’s place. Since the day Hiten had told her of the plan, she had lived in a state of daze. All she could think of was the life ahead, the life after elopement- this temporary life before that felt artificial. If only this stupid fellow would have planned for an earlier date- or surprised me on the day itself! she thought.
Since they met so infrequently and even then, for such short periods of time, she came to have a very romantic view of him. He seemed to say and do just the right thing. It had been more than a year since they were together. They had first met in tuition classes and back then they would spend more time together. But before they could get to know each other well, she got caught and they met less and less and for lesser time.
After the midnight phone call incident, her parents found a boy for her and arranged her wedding. His name was Nagesh and he was thought to be a dimwitted man-child. As much as she loved her parents, she could not do this for them. This is when Hiten suggested that they run away. She was shocked. Not that it hadn’t crossed her mind, not that she had not expected him to bring it up, but to hear those words, to even consider it with the kind of lives they had led until then, to think what it would do to her parents. If she had an alternative, she would have readily taken it. But as things stood, she would have to do it. He rose even further in her estimation.
They were seated in the upper room. Mrunal was a well-built girl with a round face and full lips. Hiten was thin with an oddly shaped longish face. Munna stood in a corner and watched with interest. They are not right for each other, he thought. Earlier yes, they were compatible, but now there seems to be a world of difference between them. Until then, Munna had repeatedly asked Hiten to back out.
“Running away is not the thing to do,” he would tell him. “You will drag your family’s name through the mud.”
But he was thinking of Mrunal now. He could clearly see that she would suffer in the end, no matter what happened. He wondered if she had an inkling of that. She sat cross-legged with her hands in her lap and listened intently to what Hiten was saying. Her face alternated between a smile and a nod.
He remembered her from tuition classes as a sweet, well-behaved, plain girl. The shame and struggle following the midnight phone call incident had given her an additional dimension, however. He could see that she had matured a great deal. On the other hand, Hiten had stayed the same- carefree and foolish. Can she not see that? he thought. Looking at his face then you would not have been able to tell he was running away with a girl that day.
Soon their conservation was over and Mrunal headed back home. She had a funny feeling. In her understanding, when something this big was about to take place, everything happened on a grander scale. Every moment leading up to it was intense, every action and word felt monumental. There was none of that here. This normalcy gave everything a surreal touch.
She returned home to the sight of her mother stacking up clothes to pack. Two Indian-style luggage bags lay at the side- one for her and one for her mother. Mrunal had planned a visit to their hometown that day with her mother. This she had done so she could prepare for her elopement without anybody getting suspicious. Her plan was to keep everything ready, send her mother on a chore just before seven, and quickly get her stuff and leave.
“Go and make tea. Nagesh is coming,” her mother said to her.
“He is? Why didn’t you tell me earlier!”
“He just called. He is going to see us off at the bus stop.”
“What! How come?!”
“What how come? Such a rude girl you are! He always behaves so nicely and you never seem to care! Learn to be grateful or you’ll suffer terribly at your in-laws’.”
She went to the kitchen. Think calmly, she thought all you need to do is find a way to sneak out. Anyway, this fellow is a donkey, there should be no trouble. Just need to be a little careful, that’s it.
The bell rang. Mrunal went outside and found Nagesh greeting her mother. Mrunal asked after him and his family. Her mother soon took his leave to make tea.
“How come you decided to come?” She said to him when her mother was out of earshot.
“Oh I just thought it would be nice to see you once before you go,” he said, reddening.
“I’m not going abroad. And I am only going for a week.”
“What still? Shouldn't you be enjoying your ‘last few days of freedom’? Don't you have better things to do? Idiot!”
Nagesh did not answer. He settled down and waited for her mother to return. Waste of time, she thought and went upstairs to pack.
“Come down, daughter. Nagesh has come from so far to see you and you just leave like that,” her mother said from downstairs, politely.
“Just a minute, mama. Need to check the luggage.”
She looked outside the window. The sky was turning red. It was much cooler now. This was probably her last Mumbai sunset, she thought. The city had treated her well enough. Her parents had also done a good job. But it was all past now. Past already.
By the time she was done with packing, it was fifteen to seven. Downstairs, her mother and Nagesh were watching TV. Her mother, under the impression that they were leaving by the ten o'clock bus, was in no hurry. Mrunal, though, only had fifteen minutes left.
“Mumma, a pair of my jeans is with the tailor. Should I go and get it? I will need it for this trip. It’s the only decent pair I've got apart from the one I'm wearing.”
Her mother looked outside. It was dark. She sighed and told Mrunal she would go.
When she had left, Nagesh swiftly closed the door and awkwardly tried to move close to Mrunal. Mrunal laughed in his face. “Look at you! Do they teach you this in school!” She moved away from him and went upstairs.
“I’m in college,” he responded, following her.
Yeah yeah, she said and started looking through the room to see if she had forgotten anything. There was a sudden movement and she felt something soft on her cheek. Almost instantly she swung her arm hitting him on the side of the head.
“Stay within your limits, you! We are not married yet.”
Then came the horror. He touched her somewhere he shouldn’t have. She slapped him and moved away. She was in disbelief. Raging, she said to him, “Screw you. I am going. I am running away tonight.”
“What are you saying! Are you mad?”Mrunal did not bother to answer. She did one last check of the room. “What is going on? Tell me”, ‘please’ he almost added.
She ignored him. Done with her preparations, she picked up the luggage bag and went downstairs. Nagesh followed her out of the house. He looked around, confused, then ran in the direction her mother had gone in.
Mrunal walked at a brisk pace. The women and the children of the chawl went about their business. Some acknowledged her but nobody said anything. The bag, which she was carrying on her shoulders, was unexpectedly heavy but she was not thinking of that. When she was about to reach the main road, she halted, let the bag fall to the ground and dropped onto it. She was breathing heavily. She looked at her hands. A red mark ran across her palms.
She looked at the road while she rested. It was full of buses overflowing with people. Magic, aren’t they, these buses, she thought. You get in and go to the place of your choosing. Nobody asks you anything. Nobody tells you what to do. Freedom, she thought. She would soon be lost among these masses of people, alongside the one she loved. She imagined them- Mrunal and Hiten - sitting in one of these buses, she looking at him, he keeping an arm on the window and looking outside. Just like this guy. This guy? Her brain froze.
It was Hiten sitting on the bus! Her eyes automatically went to the bus number. Not our bus, she thought mechanically, not going to the railway station. She did not know what to think. After what felt like a long time to her, she stood up and rushed to the road to catch another glimpse from behind. She looked until the bus went out of sight. Then she walked back to where her bag was.
She looked at her hands again. The red mark was gone but an indentation had remained. Her vision became woozy and when she came to, she found herself looking at the road again- first in a blur and then in striking clarity. An insane amount of people loaded onto these vehicles going God knows where living God knows what lives.
She stood up, picked the bag, and continued to the bus station. Munna was seated there, looking lost. He only saw her when she had reached the bus stop. She kept the bag down and sat on the seat.
“We were waiting for you and then he just left,” he said, uselessly he knew. He did not look at her. Buses kept coming and going, people kept coming to be gobbled up by buses. When some time had passed, he stood up to leave. For the sake of closure, he told her what Hiten had said to him just before getting onto the bus- maybe they could plan it next week.
Manish Bhanushali is based out of Navi Mumbai. He is a virtual reality specialist by profession and likes writing short stories and taking long walks in his free time.