(Published in The Punch Magazine)

Pappan gets out of the car and hands the keys to the valet, feeling privileged and satisfied in a way he has never before. For the first time ever, he has driven the Mercedes outside his uniform, as if the car was his own. It felt different to not have Muthalali sitting behind, with his over-powering, imperious aspect breathing down the neck.

Muthalali was a man of abundant abuses.

Pappan deeply resented Muthalali’s arrogant nature and he frequently entertained foolish ideas of bumping him off some way or the other, but he swallowed the recurring rancor thinking of his father who was Muthalali’s original driver for decades before he died, and Muthalali took Pappan in as his driver almost as if it was the only way to be employed, despite his graduation degree. As though Pappan’s family was pledged to Muthalali’s life forever. It wasn’t a thought he particularly relished, but today, he was a man on an important mission assigned by Muthalali. A task that he knew could have unimaginable consequences in their lives.

Pappan walks towards the lobby of the hotel with the confidence of a man who knew why exactly he was born and how to accomplish his goal. He nods at the usher at the door who has no suspicion of him what so ever. Inside, Pappan allows himself for a pat-down, something he isn’t used to, but knowing that big places demanded big practices, he lets himself go through the procedures.

He looks around, unsure of which way to proceed.

‘May I help you, Sir?” A honeyed voice behind queries.

Turning around, he sees a young woman’s face framed in brown curls, flashing a smile that he has seen only in tooth paste advertisements. What strikes him immediately are the pink lipstick and an extraordinary pair of eye-lashes. That a woman so beautiful would address him as ‘Sir’ is inconceivable to him, and in his dazed state, he holds the invitation card out to her. Vivek weds Sandhya.

“This way to the banquet hall, Sir,” she says, showing him the way. He looks down a long, carpeted corridor, and quickly appraises the people around. Their unerring haughtiness grates on his skin and he shudders with disdain.

It is all surreal. This task he is on, this setting, this woman, and this festering nervousness. He feels like a hit man on his first outing of contract killing, teetering between determination and doubt. With sweat threatening to break out from every pore in his body, he walks towards the banquet hall along with a waft of perfumes from people coasting down with him. He detests their affected presence and the feeling of meagerness they inadvertently leave in him as they pass by.

With stealth lining his eyes, he scans the area soaked in miscellaneous varieties of snobbery. He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.

He pulls out an envelope from his pocket, and walks towards a young woman with a tray of fried snack that had little sticks poked into them.

‘Sir, chicken lollipops?” she asks as he approaches her.

He picks one, surveying her face carefully. And before she moves away, he grabs her hand suddenly and the tray falls to the ground, scattering pieces of fried fowl on the carpet. All attention gather to where he stands, like iron dust to a magnet.

“I am sorry,’ he says, as the look of horror on the woman’s face freezes and she stands heaving. He is grateful to her for not raising an alarm.

“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to. I just wanted you to give this envelope to the bride,” he says in an attempt to calm her and defuse the tension.

“It’s… a gift cheque… from a friend who couldn’t make it to the wedding,” he stammers to the perplexed woman. “I am his driver.”

The woman doesn’t seem convinced, but she takes the envelope warily and turns to go towards the bride, who, unaware of what was happening at the other corner of the hall, stands gushing beside her tall groom, her hennaed hands locked in his.

No one in the hall knows that she is faking her feelings. She is far from being in love with the man she is hitched with. She has nothing new to give this man. Her love, in all its physical and spiritual dimensions, has already been spent for another man who dumped her for his family. But she can pretend love for a lifetime and her husband will not catch a wind. She knows it. But what she does not know is what happened to the other man after they split unceremoniously. Theirs was an unequal love. And such love often remains inconclusive.

In a moment of panic, Pappan turns to flee and vanish before someone gets suspicious, but stops upon remembering Muthalai’s stern words. “Don’t come without getting her.”

Wedding receptions are such tedious occasions, Sandhya thinks fretfully. She can’t wait for the evening to close and for the guests to leave. Not because she has anything to look forward to beyond it, but she is genuinely tired and all she wants is to plonk in the bed and sleep.

But life is on a cusp and the night will not end in a hurry.

Sandhya unlocks her hand with Vivek and moves towards a hostess for a soft drink. Pappan hopes that the woman with the envelope will use this opportunity for his errand, and much to his relief, she does, and Sandhya opens the envelope with a calm befitting a bride.

Laden with anxiety, Pappan scratches the invitation card with his thumb nail and the embossed gilt on ‘Vivek’ begins to wear. Anything could have gone wrong with the plan, actually. The woman whose hand Pappan grabbed could have created a scene and got Pappan caught red-handed, she could have chosen a wrong moment to hand the envelope, and Sandhya could have passed it to someone standing nearby without opening it. It takes nothing for the best laid plans to go awry. But Sandhya opens it as though she is programmed for it, and pulls the note nestling in it.

“Jaan, how can you get married when I am still waiting for you? Mahesh.”

With feet trembling under wobbly knees, Sandhya darts towards the woman who brought the message to her and together they look around as though trying to spot somebody. Her pounding heart threatens to tear her wedding finery and fall out in a lump. From the verge, it calls out a name it has never forgotten. MAHESH. The name could have clambered from the chamber of her heart to her mouth and spilled out any moment. She fights hard to not cry.

There is only a slender line that separates foolishness from naivety. And disaster strikes when that line blurs and sets one up on a path to self-ruin. It often happens unconsciously, the impulse driving the disaster materializing almost instantly. Then, nothing, not even the finest of destinies can stop tragedy from happening.

Sandhya finds Pappan lingering near the door, his uneasy but eager expression betraying his intention to sweep her out of the hall in a flash.

Pappan gears up for the moment. It is a moment that will settle a lot of things in his life too.

‘Where is he?” Sandhya asks, her eyes exploding into countless flickers, each one reflecting an urgent question from her past, present and future.

“Come with me. He is waiting for you.”

“Who are you? And why should I believe what you are saying?”