Circling the WagonsArnav Singh Raizada had a pain in his head and one in his rear. The events of the last hours had made him furious. For a while, he had given in to that fury, his mind blanking out as his viscera took over. But it was Aman’s calming presence that finally allowed the blind rage to come off his eyes and make him start to think things through. It was time to start planning and strategizing. After all, he hadn’t gone to Harvard just to get a degree in business and finance. He’d also gotten a degree in wheeling, dealing, and pulling the rug out from under his opponent’s feet, and he’d come through with flying colors. Witness the little empire that he’d built in four years time, and the intimidating reputation that he’d garnered while doing so.
He picked up the phone and dialed. He was just putting it down, when there was a knock at the door and Akash walked in, closing the door behind him.
‘Where’s Khushi?’ Arnav said, gesturing for him to sit down.
‘I sent her home, Bhai. I called Payal and told her to take care of her when she gets there,’ Akash informed him. ‘Told her also to take care of the Guptas should anything like this happen there.’ He hesitated and then offered a sympathetic, ‘she’s better, don’t worry, Bhai.’
‘Thanks, Akash,’ Arnav said quietly.
Akash hesitated a minute and said, ‘I think you need to talk to our in-laws, and ...’
Arnav nodded. ‘I’m having lunch with Uncle,’ he said. Another knock on the door, and Aman walked in without waiting for the usual ‘Come’.
‘I tried the courier, ASR,’ he quickly got to the point. ‘They paid in cash. No trace of who sent it. They couldn’t even remember if it was a man or a woman,’ he said.
Arnav nodded. He hadn’t expected anything less. ‘Aman, I’ll be out for lunch for a couple of hours,’ he said.
‘I’ll handle it,’ said Aman, reading his mind. The three of them left the cabin together.
Arnav sat at his table, sipping on a glass of water, waiting for his future father-in-law to show up. Soon enough, he spotted him and waved him over, standing respectfully until Shashi had sat down.
‘So, Arnav babua, I’m sure you didn’t call me here just to enjoy my company,’ he said.
Arnav swallowed. This was going to be harder than he thought.
‘What is it, Arnav?’ Shashi could see the unease in the younger man’s eyes. ‘Is it about dowry...?’ his voice trailed off.
‘What?!’ Arnav choked. ‘No! No. Dowry? No,’ he said emphatically. ‘I don’t believe in those customs,’ he said. ‘If a man can’t support his wife, he shouldn’t marry in the first place,’ he muttered.
Shashi was surprised and pleasantly so, but that still didn’t explain why Arnav wanted to meet with him, that too, away from the house.
They ordered their food, and Arnav began. ‘Uncle. You know that I never believed in marriage. But, Khushi, she’s made me see things differently,’ a small, tender smile tilted his lips, before he got back to the conversation at hand.
‘I have enemies, Uncle. People that will do things to hurt me, and now they might try to hurt Khushi. Until we’re married, please look out for her, uncle,’ he said, looking straight at Shashi.
‘What happened?’ Shashi asked.
‘Someone sent pictures from my past to Khushi. She was upset.’
Shashi was not unaware about his son-in-law-to-be’s not-so-pretty past vis-a-vis women. But then again, as long as it did not affect his daughter's present and future he was willing to let it go. He believed Arnav was marrying Khushi for all the right reasons, in fact, he was sure of it. There was anger in his eyes at someone, anyone trying to hurt his titalya’s happiness.
They ate in silence for a bit, before Shashi said, ‘do you know who it is?’
‘Not yet, but I’m working on it,’ said Arnav grimly.
‘Do that.’ Shashi nodded approvingly. He didn’t doubt that his son-in-law would bring down the wrath of the heavens on the person who tried to harm a hair on his daughter’s head. ‘But do it soon,’ he paused. ‘And don’t worry, Arnav. We’ll take care of her.’
The relief he felt in that statement was something that he hadn’t even prepared for. Knowing that uncle would take care of his Khushi when he wasn’t around was enough for him.
Wednesday morning Khushi was walking along the road. She’d cooled off after her initial fury at the pictures of Arnav with other women. Actually it was more like jealousy, she realized. Payal had known what had happened and helped her see the light of Arnav’s love again. She looked at her watch and realized she was running late. Picking up her pace, she was almost at the corner, when she spotted the white car. She stopped in her tracks, and slowly backed into the nearest store, which happened to be a music store, she hid behind a fortuitous life-size cut out of a shirtless Salman Khan. She peered beneath his arm and watched as the car slowed down to a crawl and stopped. She waited. The car waited for a few moments, before speeding away. Letting out the deep breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, she finally flagged down an auto and made her way to work.
Arnav was reading through the report once again. Why had Shyam come to AR that day? He really didn’t have any work with him, so why had he been here? He said he’d given Khushi a ride, and yet Aman’s report didn’t show him as having any business to be in that part of the town. What was he missing? He raked his fingers through his hair, frustrated at himself.
Then he turned back to his real work.
It was about half an hour later, that he got a call from his brother-in-law. He’d arrived the night before, he knew, but hadn’t met him yet, as their schedules seemed to be slightly off.
‘Jeejaji,’ he said, with just a little hesitation in his mind.
‘Saaley Saab, congratulations!’ he could hear Shyam’s smile down the phone.
‘Thanks, Jeejaji,’ he said. He had to be mistaken, he thought. His Jeejaji was one of his best friends.
‘Listen, I’ve a meeting with a client at two in your area. I was wondering if you would like to have lunch together? I’d like to hear more about your wife-to-be!’ Shyam said. If only you knew how much, Saaley Saab, he thought.
‘Sure, we can do that,’ Arnav readily accepted. ‘Let me tell Aman to make the reservations at my club, and I’ll call and confirm.’
‘Sure thing,’ Shyam said. ‘I’ll see you later then.’ Time for the second volley, he thought gleefully.
They met at the small, exclusive club for lunch. Shyam was already there waiting for him, sipping on a vodka martini - shaken, not stirred. He didn’t know however, that a martini - especially a vodka martini, actually tastes better stirred. Ah well, he’d always been such a James Bond fan!
Arnav slid into the seat across to him. An attentive attendant was by his side instantly waiting for his order.
‘A single-malt on the rocks, please,’ he said.
‘Which one, sir?’ the attendant asked.
He flipped open the wine list and handed it to Arnav, who closed the leather-embossed list and handed it back to him. ‘Do you have the Bruichladdich? The anniversary edition?’
The attendant nodded reverently. The 135th anniversary edition of the 35-year-old whiskey was definitely available. ‘Yes, of course, sir.’
‘Thanks,’ nodded Arnav. The attendant walked away.
‘Whiskey for lunch, Saaley Saab?’ Shyam had watched the whole interchange with interest and not a little jealousy. To be able to order a glass of whiskey from a bottle that went for about Rs. 25,000 without blinking an eye must be nice, he thought.
‘I needed a break,’ said Arnav.
‘I never heard of this one before, though,’ Shyam raised questioning eyebrows.
‘It’s one of my favorites. From Islay. Beautiful place, bleak and beautiful,’ he said.
‘You’ve been there,’ Shyam stated.
Arnav nodded. ‘It’s the peat moss that give the whiskey its distinctive flavor when its burned in during the malting process,’ handing out a small lesson to Shyam on whiskey making.
Whiskey lessons aside, that wasn’t what Shyam was there for. So he went straight for the jugular, ‘so tell me about your Khushiji, Saaley Saab? How did you decide to get married to her?’
It was only later when they were having dessert that Shyam started fidgeting in his chair. Arnav noticed it and raised an eyebrow. ‘Is something the matter?’
‘I .. ‘ Shyam hesitated, looked at the table, then away. Finally he looked back at Arnav who was still staring at him with an expectant look. ‘Saaley Saab, have you thought about a prenup?’ he blurted out - but it was a planned blurt, of course.
‘What?’ Arnav was shocked! ‘A prenup? Why would I do that?’
‘Look, I know you care about her and she cares about you. But she is after all, a middle-class girl. And if, God Forbid,’ he said fervently, ‘something should happen, you should be protected, Saaley Saab. I am thinking of your future and any possibilities. It’s always good to hedge your bets,’ he finished, hoping he didn’t sound too pushy.
‘Jeejaji, a prenup presupposes the notion that our marriage won’t last,’ said Arnav. ‘I’m not in it just for a short period of time. I want Khushi to be my wife forever,’ he frowned. ‘I’m not having one, Jeejaji,’ he said with finality.
‘It’s better to be safe than sorry, Saaley Saab. I know you’re probably wondering why I brought this topic up now, but .. this is the only time you have to think about it. You know I’ve always regarded you more like my younger brother, than my brother-in-law and I have only your best interests at heart. So think about it, Saaley Saab,’ he said, his heart pounding wondering if Arnav would take the bait.
‘Okay, Jeejaji. I’ll think about it,’ Arnav conceded although with misgivings.
‘Good!’ said Shyam and wisely let the topic drop at that point.
Arnav returned to work, his mind in a whirl. The conversation with Shyam bothered him. A prenup? With Khushi? No way was he going to do that. It was strange, he thought. In a few days he would be marrying her. As long as they had been dating everything seemed to be fine. And now, when he was ready to take the next step forward, things were happening that he wasn’t prepared for. The photos, Shyam’s insinuations that the relationship wouldn’t last and what was it that was bothering Khushi so much? Granted they hadn’t had much time together in the last few days, but .. he still needed to find that out.
He dialed her extension and said, ‘Khushi, my cabin, right now!’
She looked up at his cabin. She had to tell him of her unease. This was the best time.
Khushi stepped out of AR’s offices, tired after an exceptionally busy day. Aman had kept her running around after so many things. Work had suddenly piled up and she was having difficulty concentrating. Arnav and she had barely spent any time together lately, she thought. Even today, he was still busy when she left, but she had to return home today. No late night dinner for them. He really was working late, trying to get everything in order, before he took time off for their wedding. But she was glad she had finally told him about her discomfort about his brother-in-law. Strangely enough, he hadn’t been as dismissive of her as she’d thought he would be. Wonder why?
So wrapped up in her thoughts was she, that she didn’t notice the white car that stopped beside her. Shyamji! Again! Oh no! she thought in dismay.
‘Khushiji!’ he looked delighted to have met her.
‘Shyamji,’ she said wanly, trying to curve her lips in a smile.
‘Come, Khushiji. Let me drop you home,’ and he swung open the door for her.
Just then, drops of rain started falling, gathering speed.
‘Get in, Khushiji,’ he urged. ‘You’ll get wet! Then what will I answer to my Saaley Saab?’
She sighed. Not again! But she slid into the passenger seat and clipped her seatbelt on. It was better than waiting in the rain for an auto. At least she was dry, she consoled herself.
Shyam sighed in contentment, the smell of Shalimar delighting his senses once more. He had so missed it. Which is why he now had a bottle of it in his bag, for his Rani Sahiba, of course. A little self-deception didn’t hurt anyone.
‘So, congratulations, Khushiji!’ he smiled at her. He shifted the gear and accidentally on purpose brushed against her leg.
She shifted her leg away, with a little shiver. ‘Thank you,’ she said eyeing him warily.
‘How about a cup of tea until this storm passes?’ the smile was kind.
‘No, I’d rather go home, thank you,’ she said.
‘Khushiji, you are soon to become a part of the family. And I didn’t even get to go to your shagun. So have a little pity on me, huh?’ he smiled winningly at her. Actually, he hadn’t been able to stop smiling since she got into the car.
‘Okay,’ she nodded, not quite knowing how to say no to him. He was after all, Arnavji’s brother-in-law. She didn’t have a way to refuse him outright, as he hadn’t really done anything.
He pulled up happily at a shop and they ran inside. Ordering cups of adrak-waali-chai, they sat in uncomfortable silence on her part, blissful silence on his.
It wasn’t until their teas arrived that he prepared for his volley number three.
‘I met Arnav for lunch today, you know,’ he said.
‘Oh!’ she said.
‘Don’t you want to know what we talked about?’ he asked, strangely a little serious.
‘About us?’ she guessed.
He nodded looking away. ‘You do know I am a lawyer, right? He wanted to discuss the prenup,’ he said in a soft voice, still not looking at her.
‘A prenup? What is that?’ she looked at him, not quite sure she should be having this conversation with him, but unable to walk away either.
‘A prenup is an agreement a man and a woman sign before getting married, which says what each one will get in the event of a divorce,’ he looked down at his tea, almost as if he had the biggest interest in it.
‘What?’ she voice came out in a whisper.
He hid his smile at that. He was right. She was the weakest link. Good Bye! ** He turned it into a pitying smile and said, ‘tell me Khushiji, how long have you been dating Arnav? A month?’ he’d already got this information from Arnav earlier, so he knew it was pretty accurate. ‘Didn’t it surprise you that he would agree to marry you so suddenly, when all his life he’s been saying he’s not interested in marriage?’
She stared at him horrified. The ugly clouds of doubt had gathered in her mind. This was true. She knew it to be true.
He sighed, a deep, resigned sigh and held her hand. She was too shaken to even register it.
‘Khushiji, there is something I should tell you,’ he said firmly, as if he’d just made up his mind about it. He paused for effect and then said, ‘you are marrying into the Raizada clan, Khushiji. You should know about them. Both Anjali and Arnav get their inheritances only if they marry by the time they are twenty-eight. Anjali married me just before her twenty-eighth birthday.
‘Everyone thinks we have a wonderful marriage. But it’s hard being married to someone, knowing they married you only to get their own inheritance.’ He stopped, sniffed and continued. ‘Anjali doesn’t even want children, it would ruin her size-zero figure and she’d have to stop wearing those net sarees that she is so in love with. That’s what she says.
‘And Arnav? If he doesn’t marry, his deadline runs out. You fit the bill, Khushiji. You come from a traditional family and your sister is marrying Akash anyway. Once he has his inheritance, if he wants to...’ he left the sentence unfinished. No more was needed. The seeds of doubt had started to sprout in her mind. He could see it in her eyes. Shyam Jha had finally found his mark!
Arnav had sat thinking over his conversation with Khushi.
Was it - and he fervently hoped he was wrong - was all this connected? The timing was too ... perfect .. he thought. And only a few people had known at that point that he and Khushi were engaged.
Shyam was one of them.
But why would his happily married brother-in-law try to break him and Khushi up? None of it made any sense to him. He slammed his laptop shut, putting his elbows on his desk, clasping his hands together and resting his chin on them.
This was all getting too complicated!
Author's Notes:Circle the Wagons:
When the pioneers in the wild west of America would be attacked by Indians, they would put their wagons in a circle with the women and children in the center, thus defending themselves from all sides. This maneuver today is used to mean - taking a defensive stance, gathering all your resources and making ready to defend no matter from which direction the attack comes or how many enemies there are.
** The Weakest Link is a game show originating in Britain. As each contestant is eliminated the host used the tag line ‘You ARE the weakest link. Good Bye!’ to the departing contestant.