It was with great difficulty that I managed to stay put in my wedding saree. For some reason, the gold embroidered silk felt rather coarse against my skin and the pins set to hold the pleats together in place kept falling off. I couldn’t shake the anxiety that at any point, I would slip and ruin my saree’s beautiful architecture.
Save the constant discomfort, I have no other clear memory of the wedding. Fortunately, the wedding reception that followed required much lesser bridal sacrifice – a chiffon saree was neatly wrapped around my body by my mother-in-law who ensured everything stayed well in place. Besides, it was a beautiful reception. All our guests looked happy, well-dressed and well-fed. I suppose that was all it took to make people happy. Both mine and his – Yatin’s – families had done an excellent job of presenting the most picture-perfect string of Parsi rituals. Our wedding festivities had everything one could imagine at a wedding like ours: daughter of a businessman who happened to be a recently graduated lawyer, marrying into a family of reputed litigation lawyers. From one villa at the tiny peninsula of Colaba in Mumbai city to another. A number of our relatives made it a point to “ooh” and “aah” about how lucky I was to be just within the walking vicinity of my maternal home. I smiled coyly back for their entertainment. My in-laws also welcomed some of the most revered litigators and judges in the country to bless the newlyweds a lifetime of happiness. With our Parsi lineage, ‘lifetime’ was rather a certainty.
I often think about my wedding reception, usually with some degree of fondness. I remember sitting on the altar with my new husband, smiling at the faces of familial strangers, and posing for pictures with them. I remember admiring the rows of roses clinging to the walls on either side of the banquet. The red and white roses smelled fresh and looked beautiful, and brought with them memories of the terrace garden I used to tend to as a child. Most fondly, I remember my friends laughing and teasing my husband about married life woes, filling him in with anecdotes about me. My parents, though, were barely around, choosing to spend their remaining time and energy on honouring all the guests. I didn’t know why they even bothered – wedding receptions were traditionally thrown by the groom’s family; mine could have instead spent some more time with me.
It was only on the night of the wedding reception that it hit me that I was someone’s wife. That I was Yatin’s wife who had to stay at Yatin’s house and sleep on Yatin’s bed. In the quiet corner of Yatin’s – our, room, I allowed myself a moment to process. The mirror in front of me showed a twenty-three-year-old woman, staring at her reflection. I remember my eyebrows were not creased together in a frown, so I must have been happy. Peaceful, at least, despite the heavy jewellery no human should be allowed to adorn, tugging at various body parts. I had more gold clinging to my face and neck than I had years spent on this planet. I wondered when my husband would come in. I took out my make-up bag and applied some more mascara on my lashes. Then I removed the red bangles gifted by my mother-in-law and let them fall untidily on the four-post rosewood bed next to a rosewood dressing table. The red bangles lay scattered on the pristine white sheets, finally exposing their fragility. White and red. That banquet hall, Yatin’s room, my attire, everything seemed to be composed of two primary colours: white and red. Colours of purity. Sacred colours signifying a marriage that I was hitherto unfamiliar to.
The next morning, I woke up on an unfamiliar king-sized bed at dawn to the sound of someone opening and shutting the timid drawers of a heavy rosewood chest. I opened one eye and saw Yatin’s face through my squint, twisted in worry. Within seconds, the memories of the previous night came flooding onto my mind. It was only a few hours ago that we were eating pulao and sali-na-gosht from the same plate to embrace a custom called dahikoomron in front of our wedding guests. We had playfully fought over the last piece of chicken – much to the amusement of our parents, who were happily cheering us on. I didn’t even like chicken all that much. Surely, my parents should have known.
“What are you looking for?” I asked him, blinking several times to force my eyes open.
Yatin’s head quickly tilted towards me, and his expression registered surprise at the sight of my visage. I supposed it would take him a while to get used to having me in his bedroom, a little longer to accept my presence fully. “Oh, just need to get back to work. It’s been, like a week of wedding plodding and work can only wait so long. I had kept, like, some important papers in my room. Um, our room, sorry. Can’t find them.”
“Oh. What time is it?” I asked, my voice groggy. I turned my head towards my left and noticed that Yatin’s side of the bed hadn’t been slept on.
“Uh, it’s five am,” Yatin scratched his beard. He had a nice beard, that man. It brought out the colour of his dark brown eyes. “It’s when I wake up, actually. Sorry, we couldn’t, uh, talk last night. I was exhausted, you know. Anyway, dad is expecting you in his office at like, noon, so feel free to sleep longer, if you like. Some relatives would be coming over for breakfast, so you can eat with them, I guess.”
“Right,” I could hear the disappointment in my voice. I didn’t even know what I was so disappointed about, just that I was. My husband didn’t notice. I wanted to ask him where he would be having his breakfast, but I decided against it. His habits and routines would soon all be as familiar to me as my own.
Yatin got up and walked towards his wardrobe. He rummaged through the shelves urgently. I got up and switched on the bedside lamp. In a minute, he seemed to have found whatever it was that he was looking for. I saw him take out a stack of papers on top of his pile of shirts and smile at himself. I turned towards my left so I didn’t have to face him and closed my eyes. He did not say another word before leaving his bride alone in his bedroom.
I tried to go back to sleep but it evaded me. The red rose petals on our bed that I had pushed aside from my corner to sleep last night failed to calm my nerves. Did my husband not want me? Why was there no mention of a honeymoon? Why didn’t I ask for one? Was it a mistake to agree to get married this fast? For a pleasant company, the rose petals didn’t offer much advice. I picked them apart, letting my mind torture me with questions I couldn’t answer. So much for aromatherapy.
At 12 noon sharp, I found myself dressed and determined. My mood had shifted for the better at the excitement of working in the chambers of one of the finest legal minds in the country. I was a married and employed woman – how strange was that? Did it all happen in just a matter of months? It seemed like only yesterday that my parents had spoken to Yatin’s for our marriage prospect. Smiling to myself, I walked the five-minute distance from my new house to my new office.
Once I reached the office building, an old security guard by the name of Nitigya pushed a large register towards me. I opened it, accepted a pen, and wrote my name and address on its yellowing pages. The watchman rang someone up, spoke for a few seconds, and signaled me to enter the building. I thanked him and walked straight ahead.
Ramin Akhrotwala’s office occupied about a quarter of the second-floor area of the high-rise building, yet it was undoubtedly one of the most prestigious places for a litigation lawyer to find herself in. The office itself wasn’t much to look at, with beige walls and an old woman seated at the front (rosewood) desk. The atmosphere, however, felt laced with possibilities. The receptionist congratulated me on my wedding and showed me inside. I thanked her and walked into the corridor of the main office. I knew my way around – I had interned in this very office two summers ago, though the interiors seemed to have changed quite a bit since.
I found my father-in-law’s cabin and knocked twice before opening the door. Ramin and Yatin appeared to be immersed in an old book of Supreme Court judgments. Neither man acknowledged my presence. An office peon fetched me a glass of chilled water. I thanked him and sat down wordlessly. The chamber was not as large as it had seemed earlier, but it looked intimidating still, with every available space filled to the brim with art, books and sundry objects. Stacks and stacks of books filled three whole walls of the room. On the fourth wall, behind where my father-in-law and Yatin stood, I could see part of a painting. Some kind of modern art. It appeared expensive. I wondered if I would be given my own chamber soon.
“Ayesha, welcome to the family,” Yatin’s father finally said after what felt like several minutes. I got up from my seat and smiled in response. “But this,” – he gestured towards the chamber – “you know, is our real family. Me and my sons have worked very, very hard all these years. My wife, of course, had to give up her practice after Yatin was born. But, no. We don’t expect you to give your practice up at all. In fact, we encourage you to keep working always, yeah?”
I nodded. From the corner of my eye, I saw Yatin turn a page of his book.
“Ayesha,” he continued, carefully picking up and handing me a yellow manila envelope that rested on his table. “These are some important documents. Can you go with the driver and deliver them to our client? The address is written on the back of the envelope.”
He then looked at me expectantly. Immediately, I took the envelope from his hand and examined the address. It was in Mulund, far away from Colaba. When I looked at him again, he was already on his mobile. I turned my face towards Yatin, who continued to remain absorbed in whatever judgment he was reading. His concentration was indeed admirable. I pushed the chair back into its former position and left the cabin. I took the driver’s number from an office staff and stepped out of the lobby, urging myself to plaster a pleasant expression on my face the whole time. It was the longest minute of my day, and I had just sat through hours-long wedding functions the previous evening. Once I was inside the safety of the office car, only then did I allow myself to think – what just happened? Was that all? Had they run out of secretaries or did my husband not want me around anywhere?
“Happy one-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin kissed me softly on my lips.
“Happy one-month to you too,” I smiled, inhaling his musk fragrant after-shave. I wished he would kiss me properly, with his tongue in mine. However, after many feeble attempts at changing his mind on what he proclaimed were ‘his way of doing things’, I had given up on the idea that Yatin would ever be okay with anything other than a perfunctory kiss. I had also given up trying to convince my husband to be intimate with his bride more frequently than once a week on Saturday nights. “It is the only day I am truly rested, Ayesha,” he had said when I had tried to bring it up. “And you know I can’t do this unless I am relaxed and have whiskey in one hand and you on my lap.”
I had laughed and pretended to understand, but honestly, I thought it was the whiskey in his right hand more than my waist in his left that made him ‘relaxed’ enough to sleep with me. Why bother at all?
That evening, as I laid the dinner plates out, making sure they were all within the boundaries of the embroidered beige coasters, I wondered if I needed to be the one to always set the table. My mother had said I would know when it was time to be less formal, but time, it was cunning: it always fooled us and we always let it. How else could I explain how years of my life were shorter than a month at this house?
“Ooooh, why’s there a vegetable on this fish?” Baman, my brother-in-law, asked as soon as he entered the dining hall. He pouted at the stir-fried capsicum I had added to the pomfret fry.
“You try it with the fish, Baman. It will taste good,” I said, trying to keep my voice as polite and perked up as possible. On the day our families had met for discussing the wedding nuptials, Yatin’s mother had specifically mentioned they wanted a “happy, cheerful daughter-in-law”. It was an odd standard to keep up to, but I needed to try.
“No, we don’t do that here,” Baman responded, picking at his food. He ordered a servant to bring back the dish with no capsicum in vicinity. “And throw all the bastards away in the dustbin!”
I blinked several times, trying to ward off tears of frustration that had formed their way into the corners of my eyes. I wanted so badly to reprimand him, make him feel guilty for throwing the capsicums that had taken me time and effort to prepare. He could have at least asked for a separate plate! Wordlessly, I moved over towards my seat at the opposite side of the rectangular dining table and served myself some rice.
“The mens rea is not proved in this case, son,” I heard the booming voice of the head-of-the-family as he approached the dining room, Yatin in tow. Father and sons had been quite busy working on a high-profile case involving the kidnapping and subsequent killing of a local politician’s daughter.
“You know dad, the thing is, the servants always, like, know something,” Yatin said. A rather generic statement, in my opinion. The father-son duo pulled out their chairs and readied themselves to eat. I walked towards them and served both some rice on their plates. Yatin absent-mindedly put a ladel of dal on his side-bowl, his mind clearly on the case.
“I am confident we will know more after our cross,” Baman said between mouthfuls of fish fry.
“When is the cross prep? Can I join?” I asked my father-in-law, trying to tone down the excitement in my voice. My job so far had been to ensure all folders were in order, list of dates maintained, and district court online portal scanned daily for order dates of ongoing cases. I was not even sure I knew anything of the case other than what was written in the newspapers. I suspected the summer interns knew a lot more. “I am sure one of the clerks can take care of the photocopying work I have tomorrow,” I added for good measure, tucking my hair behind my ears.
All three men tilted their heads upwards where I stood and regarded me in silence. They appeared to have frozen on spot. I wondered if I had said something wrong. Was it too soon? And suddenly, more than ever, I missed the neutral presence of my mother-in-law in the house. Where was she anyway?
“Sweetheart,” my father-in-law was the first one to recover. “We have lots of people coming in to the office tomorrow. We need you to attend to our guests, make sure they have tea, coffee, whatever. That’s how we do things here. I’m sure you understand.”
No, Ramin, I did not understand, I wanted to lash out. Instead, I pulled my chair out from under the table and sat down to eat dinner with my husband’s family.
“Happy two-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin landed a dry kiss on my lips. Had it only been a few weeks since I had been married? A tiny speck of my lipstick stuck to his lips. I swiftly wiped it off with my index finger. His skin looked so rough. No wonder he had thought of keeping a beard. He did not have it two years ago, when I first saw him and secretly wished I were his wife. The beard hid the ingrown hair on his cheeks. His shaved face, what I remembered of it, felt odd, out of place, like sandpaper pretending to be a glossy page of a magazine.
“We don’t need to wish each other every month, babe,” I said. “It’s not like we are twelve. Or is that your family’s way of doing things too?” Without meaning to, a snicker had escaped my throat.
“What do you mean?” Yatin asked, his tone sharp.
“Nothing, I am sorry,” I apologized, sitting down on our bed. I took out my mascara and applied a coating of it on my lashes. What day was it today? Tuesday? Or was it Thursday already? It was difficult to keep count when each day felt the same. Was this all it was ever going to be – was this really the rest of my entire life? Oh God, how many years did I have left?
I closed the lid of my mascara container and put it inside my make-up bag. Even after two months, most things in our room looked exactly the same, save an extra rosewood wardrobe for me. Same curtains, same bedspread, same table and chair, even the same photo frames and medals collected by my husband during his school days, now placed on the rosewood chest of drawers. My mother would have thrown mine by now. I had tried to get the white sheets replaced with colourful ones two weeks ago, but Yatin seemed rather attached to white. I picked up the newspaper that was lying carelessly on the bedside table. My eyes landed on a news item on the front page.
“Yatin, is this the kidnapping case where we are representing the defendant?” I enquired.
“It says in the paper that one of the servants confessed to seeing our client the night of the kidnapping,” I pulled the chair next to the dresser and sat down. “Is that what happened in court?”
“Oh. What’s going to happen now? Do you want me to look up past precedents or something?”
“What past precedents?” Yatin finally broke his monotone. He adjusted his tie in front of the mirror and asked, “Do you even know what we are looking into?”
“Uh, no,” I responded, slightly taken aback at his hostility. “But you know, Yatin, I topped criminal law in college and…”
“This is not college, sweetheart.”
“Yes, but I have spent two months doing whatever you expect freshers to do. If I were to reach your level in my fourth year, I need to be able to be more involved than this, right?”
He looked at me then, his expression unreadable. I was certain he could hear my heartbeat in the deafening silence of the room.
After what felt like an eternity, he took a long, deep sigh and said, “Babe, it’s Saturday. Let’s just go to the party, enjoy ourselves and call it a night, yeah? Would you mind making that whiskey cocktail again – with apple juice and honey? It was, like, really good the last time, so.”
“Happy six-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin planted a kiss on my cheek. I gritted my teeth out of reflex. By the sixth month of our marriage, my irritation towards my husband had reached its peak to the point that every single thing he did irked me. He could be breathing next to me and I would want to suffocate him with a pillow. Just to get a fraction of the frustration off my chest, once I had almost slapped him in the middle of the night!
“In yesterday’s meeting, all these interns kept yapping loudly in the corridor,” he continued nonchalantly, sounding so much like his father that I was caught off-guard for a second. That was all. No other follow-up on the monthly anniversary greeting, no sir. My husband was a man of few words, most of which he billed in large amounts to our clients. For someone who talked for a living, he sure could have put a little more effort into communicating with his wife.
“Yes, we do have too many interns this time,” I said. “Remember back when I was an intern, and you used to call me that – ”
“You know how much that disturbs dad, right?” Yatin cut me off. “Please can you make sure those pesky interns are silent. We have a video-conference scheduled at eleven today.”
“I will see what I can do,” I replied while applying moisturizer on my face. I looked beautiful, not that Yatin would ever acknowledge it.
“Oh, there’s the lunch meeting today at Taj,” he said, adjusting his shirt collar. “Only Baman and I are going. But, like, you know that. You are so efficient sometimes I don’t know how I did any of my scheduling before you.”
“Hmm…Maybe your secretary did?” I ran a comb through my hair. From the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up his briefcase that was lying aimlessly on his side of the bed.
Then he turned around and raced out of the room, his ‘lawyer mode’ on. Was I mistaken or did we not both go to the same office around roughly the same time? Shaking my head, I picked up his wet towels and last night’s worn clothes and shoved them inside the laundry basket. Then I made the bed, straightened the pile of Yatin’s vitamins strewn across the dresser, and closed the doors of the bath and the wardrobe. Now, was that so hard? My mother-in-law seemed to have taken in a permanent shelter elsewhere, leaving me alone to pick up after her three children.
I walked towards the window and lifted the curtains to let the cool monsoon air enter inside. Yet, despite all my efforts, I felt suffocated. Like the air was coming in, but it was continually failing to fill my oxygen-deprived lungs. I closed the window shut and walked towards my dressing table. Then I paced around the room a few more times until I was back in front of the mirror, staring at myself. I liked looking at it; the mirror made me feel less alone. At the moment, it reflected a woman with apparently not much to offer to the legal world other than to scare off interns and arrange for tea and coffee at important meetings. Was that all they saw in me? Did my education and years of burning the midnight oil at law school not matter? Or was this some kind of test where they would ask me to do ridiculous secretarial work for months before finally rewarding me with a modicum of professional respect?
The face reflecting off the mirror did not reveal anything about the rising agony inside of me. For all their reputation of being brutally truthful, mirrors certainly hid a lot. When my husband and I made love, they did not reveal the disgust my internal organs felt each time Yatin laid on top of me. Whatever we did all those Saturday nights, it sure wasn’t love we were making. But entitlement came easy to my husband. He didn’t need to be bothered with the responsibility of caring for a marriage arranged by his beloved parents. Nine months ago, when my mother had asked me if I had anyone in mind for marriage, I had not thought twice before mentioning to her that yes, I did once have a raging crush on a first-year associate I had interned under – a man, who until he met my parents, had clearly forgotten about the existence of some summer intern in his father’s chambers. Even now, I was simply supposed to wait around, looking for scraps, and be delighted at whatever crumbs of affection he had left to offer. Yatin didn’t ave to make an attempt to earn my love and affection on any given day, he didn’t need to introspect if he even deserved half of it, he just needed to have my love handed to him on a silver platter, with unpleasant capsicums discarded at will.
And why couldn’t I say no to him? I was a lawyer, after all – my meaningless job couldn’t take away my degree – and I definitely knew my marital rights. I could say no, then why didn’t I? Instead, I let him do things I didn’t want to be done to me. I allowed him to kiss me when I didn’t want to be kissed, bark orders at me when I didn’t want to have to work under him, and entertain his friends when he didn’t once suggest to meet mine.
I closed my eyes, letting my anger wash over me. My eyes fell on the 0.54 carat diamond ring on my left hand. Without a second’s thought, I slid it off my finger. My ring finger felt… free. A second passed. Then two seconds… And then, a minute… How quickly had the minute passed, and yet how good had that single minute felt. Beads of perspiration landed on my face and chest, threatening to upset my careful composure. I found a remote on the window-sill and turned on the air-conditioner. I had had my minute. It was now time to put the ring back on. Yet I held on to it a little longer, examining the platinum band and the square-cut diamond, now glinting under the rays of the sun that had escaped from the window. It must have cost the Akhrotwala family at least fifty lakhs. Despite Mumbai’s exorbitant prices, if I sold my wedding ring, I could afford rent for years. I sat on Yatin’s bed and stared at my ring for five whole minutes at the end of which I just knew what I had to do.
I suppose I had known it for a while now.
I made the decision to file for dissolution of my marriage under the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936. I could almost predict what would happen next as easily as I could predict what my husband would want to have for breakfast tomorrow (poha and watermelon juice). I knew he wouldn’t ask me to reconsider, but my father-in-law would. In the end, however, they would all give in. In about three to four months, the judge would grant us our freedom. Local newspapers would go berserk ruining my reputation with claims that I was just another girl who wanted to make some quick buck off a shotgun wedding. My parents would cut off ties with me almost instantaneously. Not that I would expect anything less from them.
With all my streedhan, I would be able to make an initial deposit for renting a new apartment. I could choose some place in Andheri, far enough from the south side of Mumbai, but somewhere I could easily be able to commute via the local train to and fro work. I could apply for a job at Shailesh Sarabhai’s chambers – a well-known nemesis of my in-laws and the only person I knew in the city who would allow me to step a foot inside his office after my divorce. In the interim period, I could stay at the women’s hostel in Colaba, or ask one of my friends for help in arranging for my accommodation.
I felt a rush of happiness, so steep that I couldn’t help a grin. My heartbeat was fast, eager. I took a few long sips of water to steady my breath. My ring shone so bright under the rays of the sun that I had to close my eyes. In all my excitement, I didn’t even hear Yatin back walk into the room.
I turned my neck around so quickly it hurt. The bottle of water in my hand felt cool against my skin. Very soon though, I would be able to drink hot water again, just like I preferred. I clutched the bottle tightly in my right hand. My throat felt parched.
“Ayesha, dad’s asking if you would like to join us in the court today,” he said, walking towards our wardrobe and gently prying it open. My gaze fell towards the topmost shelf, where my wedding saree lay, covered neatly in a dry-cleaning bag. I had not taken into account the cost of my wedding saree – how had I forgotten about it? I had spent hours at my designer’s, trying on multiple wedding outfits before selecting the one. Everyone at the wedding had agreed that my saree was indeed beautiful. But then, it felt more fitting inside a bag than it had ever been on me.
“Tell him I will be downstairs in just a minute,” I said, getting ready to apply my mascara.