As they walked hand in hand, Suma thought they looked every inch like a much-in-love ‘just married’ couple. She looked exuberant - red bangles jingling on her wrist, henna on her palms and bright red vermillion adorning the partition of her hair. She looked at Mahesh and smiled as they climbed the steps to the sub-registrar’s office. As she bent down to gather the pleats of her saree that she was so not used to wearing, Mahesh rolled his eyes, a smirk on his scrawny face. Entering the small office room, he seated Suma on the wooden bench and approached the counter to submit his form.
Sitting on the bench, Suma brought her palms together and smelt the still-fresh aroma of henna on them. She smiled as she thought about her wedding with Mahesh two days ago. She had never thought she would have a simple temple wedding.
Her elder sister had had a grand wedding. Their small house had been decorated with colourful blinking lights and flowers. Her parents had organized a feast for their relatives who had come from villages far away and for the people in their chawl. What a celebration that had been! The younger of two daughters, Suma had always been the apple of her father’s eye. Her father had brought her a pink and orange ghagra that had been way beyond his means. She guessed it must have cost more than her sister’s wedding saree and was secretly pleased about it in a way only siblings can understand!
For her own wedding however, she had to be content wearing the plain red saree she had worn when she had left home. Mahesh had brought her the auspicious red bangles for the wedding and that somehow brought her more happiness than an expensive saree could have.
Mahesh had promised to buy her clothes today, and as she looked at him, she saw a nervous boy who was yet to be man - chewing his nails, unshaven, with his hair falling all over his face. She ran her hand across his hair, putting stray strands in place and he looked at her and smiled, perhaps for the first time that morning.
‘Nervous?’ she asked him.
‘Very’, he replied reaching out to take her hand in his.
They sat in silence again and he absently drew imaginary concentric circles on the bright orange ball of henna at the center of her palm.
‘Everything will be okay. Baba loves me the most. I am sure he will forgive me and accept us,’
‘I hope so,’ he nodded breathing out long puffs of air, trying to relax.
‘Your parents are coming too, aren’t they?’ she asked.
‘Let’s hope so.’
‘Token number 7, Ramesh Babu…’ called the clerk and a man sitting behind them hurried inside the sub-registrar’s office.
‘What’s our number?’ asked Suma.
‘So we have ample time. I hope our parents will be here by then.’
‘This could have been done later, there’s so much crowd today and heat is unbearable,’ he sulked.
‘Bear with it for a little while, Mahesh, once the marriage is registered no one will try to separate us.’
‘A temple wedding is sufficient proof that we are married, Suma. Don’t you trust me? Do you think I will run away?’
‘Shhh…stop behaving like a child,’ she said landing a light slap on his thigh.
‘I agreed to this drama, but why did you have to call the parents? Anything could go wrong. What if your father takes you away?’
‘We are already married, he will never do that, trust me.’
They sat in silence again, each lost in their own thoughts, unmindful of the noise around them. She wondered what her parents would say. She had called them up in the morning to tell them that she had married Mahesh and she was registering their marriage later that day.
‘Ma, will you come? Will you bring Baba? Will you both forgive and bless us?’
Her mother had slammed the phone down without saying a word. She tried to imagine what would have happened after that. Would her mother have wailed out loud cursing her daughter? Would her father be angry with her? Would he understand? Would he turn up to bless them? If they forgave her, they would surely come.
She wondered what Mahesh was thinking, but dared not ask. He could be quite temperamental - sweet and cuddly one moment, and angry for no reason, the very next. He was already unhappy with her decision to register their marriage and had been quite unhappy with the thought of meeting both the set of parents. He had slapped her couple of times yesterday, but it had been her fault, hadn’t it? She hadn't served him lunch in time and had burnt the daal too. With time she would learn to cook and do it in time too, she promised herself.
But that was not why she had insisted on registering their marriage. She had seen what had happened to her friend Urmi. Urmi had married Shravan secretly and one fine day, he ran away. By the time a pregnant Urmi traced him out, he was already married again, and she had no proof she had been married to him. Shravan had even refused to recognize her. She trusted Mahesh enough to know he would never do that to her, but she didn’t want to leave anything to chance too.
‘Token Number 15…’ she heard the clerk calling.
No sign of the parents.
Her eyes had almost welled up with tears, thinking they wouldn’t come, but then she saw her mother. Her eyes flooded anyway, but this time there were tears of happiness. She stood up, her knees wobbly, her heart racing, and eyes looking out for her father. Her mother walked up to her, and even as Suma turned to give her a hug, her mother landed a hard slap across her face. Everyone turned to look at her.
‘How could you do this, you ungrateful, selfish girl?’ she thundered. ‘Didn’t you think of us? Didn’t you think of your father? Do you know how shattered he is? I had warned him not to give you so much freedom. But he loved you the most. He trusted you completely. We have done so much for you and this is how you reward us? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You don’t exist for us anymore.’
Suma stood as if she had turned to stone, cheeks burning red with shame and pain.
‘Aunty…’ Mahesh stood up, interfering in between.
‘I’m not even talking to you, you ba***d. Shut your mouth or I’ll slap you too.’
‘How dare you….’ screamed Mahesh, tightening his fist and threatening to punch her face.
‘You will hit ME?’ screamed her mother, ‘Come, let’s see how you do it,’ she threatened. ‘This is the rascal you chose over your parents?’ she said accusingly to Suma before storming out of the hall.
Suma threw a shocked looked at Mahesh and ran out after her mother. Her father was waiting in the corridor outside with a few men from their chawl. One of them signaled for Mahesh to come out and he reluctantly joined them.
‘Baba…’ cried Suma, falling at his feet, ‘forgive me Baba, I shouldn’t have…’she sobbed, ‘but I love him.’
‘What did you see in him, he cannot even respect your mother, tell him to ask for forgiveness,’ said Bhaskar kaka, their neighbour.
‘Mahesh, ask for forgiveness, please…’ she begged her husband.
Mahesh waved her off with a flick of his wrist, making a grunting sound of refusal.
‘Where will you keep my daughter? Do you have a home or do you live on the street?’ asked her father.
‘I’m not a beggar to live on the road,’ he barked back, ‘I know how to take care of my wife.’
‘Mahesh…’ screamed Suma, shocked at way he was speaking to her parents.
‘Don’t chide me,’ he said turning to her, and gritting his teeth, ‘tell you parents to stop talking to me like that.’
Mahesh walked away and stood at a distance, refusing to look at them. Her father got ready to leave, his men in tow.
‘Baba, Ma…can’t we forget all that and be civil to one another?
‘Ha…you marry a scavenger and expect us to be civil?’ mocked her mother.
‘Ma, I beg you,’ she prayed.
‘Exactly…that is what he will make you do!’
Everyone stood in silence once more, while Suma crumbled to the ground crying, burying her face in her hands.
Just then Mahesh’s parents walked in. They spoke to Mahesh for some time in hushed tones, and then walked to Suma. Suma saw them and immediately stood up, covering her head with her saree and bowing to touch their feet.
‘No need for all this drama,’ said Mahesh’s father, ‘Where is the girl’s father?’
Suma led them to her parents, ‘Baba, Ma, these are Mahesh’s parents.’
‘You register the marriage or do whatever you want, but first register that land in your daughter’s name,’ said his father.
Suma too stunned to say anything, looked blankly at Mahesh.
‘What land?’ asked Suma’s father.
‘Mahesh told us that after he marries your daughter, she will inherit a part of her ancestral land. I want you to register it in my son’s name jointly with your daughter, or we will not take her home.’
Suma looked at Mahesh for an explanation, while he stood silently without a word.
‘Hahahahahaha…’ roared her father in laughter, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Who told you I have any land? You fool, you tricked my daughter in to marrying you just for some imagined property? Well, she has nothing.’
‘Suma, you don’t exist for us anymore. Rot in hell, for having married this cheat,’ cursed her mother, hurling expletives, and spitting in the direction of Mahesh, before all of them, walked away, leaving her alone with Mahesh and his parents.
Mahesh’s eyes had turned red with rage. ‘How dare you spit on me, you lowly woman,’ he screamed, and ran after her mother but Suma managed to stop him and pulled him back. In anger, he grabbed Suma’s hair and pushed her to the adjacent wall. ‘Didn’t you tell me you had ancestral land in the village, you bi**h?
She hit her head and crashed to the floor writhing in pain. ‘I said my relatives have a house in the village…Mahesh, I never said it belongs to me, she said amidst sobs. ‘Why are you behaving like this? Did you marry me only for this?’
‘Why else would I marry you?’ he mocked. ‘Go back to your parents, or go to hell, I don’t care, just don’t come back to me,’ he said walking away, his parents running to catch up with him.
She lay on the floor for quite some time, warm blood trickling out of her nose and head. She felt too dizzy to get up, but kept glancing at the corridor to see if either of them - her parents or Mahesh would have a change of heart and come back to take her.
Her eyes blurred with tears as she replayed Mahesh’s voice in her head, ‘Sumi, I love you so much…’ Hadn’t he been gushing with love until a few minutes ago?
She replayed her father voice calling out to her, just like he did every time he left home, ‘Ladoba…what do you want today?’
She strained her ears aching to hear their voices so filled with love. Love for her.
Would no one ever call her name again?
And then she heard the clerk call, ’Token number 22…Mahesh and Suma…’