On top of the stage, the applause was deafening. Cameras flashed constantly and the lights were bright and blinding. Rajveer Singh, superstar, smiled charmingly as he received yet another award tonight. The smile was fake, but it was still killer as the reactions of his fans showed. None of this was unfamiliar for him. He had forgotten many years ago how to smile a genuine bright smile from the heart. Yet, somehow, tonight his mind wandered. His journey of the last ten years had been nothing short of spectacular - from the sleepy, backward village of Kuldhara to the heights of Bollywood where he ruled over billions of hearts. This was the dream, wasn't it?
And yet, something felt empty. He was lonely, lonelier than ever tonight. It was three years tonight since his mother had passed away and that pinched, because the truth was he had lost her many years ago when he ran away from home to come to Mumbai. She had never forgiven him. All for some unknown girl! This wasn't justice!
Rajveer found himself getting angry again. Somehow, in the last few days, his thoughts went back to that girl again and again. He didn't know where she was, how she was, and barely remembered who she was. Yet, she was the reason his mother had disowned him. How many times had he tried, going back to Kuldhara to apologize to his mother and bring her with him to Mumbai, but she had refused to even see him. Each time, he had returned from the door, unable to step into his own house. Now, since his mother had passed away, he had the keys to the house along with all other ancestral property, but he hadn't been there since.
Rajveer struggled to remember her name - Meenawati, Mithila, Meenu, Meenakshi...something like that, he couldn't remember. Yes, he had been technically married to her, but for God sakes he was six when that happened. Six! And she was probably two. Just because their parents decided their relationship was desirable, it did not mean he could be burdened with that responsibility. It just wasn't fair! Not to mention, entirely illegal. And so, as he grew up he realized that the artificial relationship wasn't something he was going to be shackled by. His dreams and ambitions were more important. And he deserved a chance to find a life partner he loved and desired. He had done the right thing - not just for himself but for the girl too, he believed - by refusing to honor the so-called relationship. But he had not anticipated the price he would have to pay for his freedom - his mother's love and his only family. The success he worked for eventually did come to him and the peripherals of fan, fame, money and glamor followed. So many claimed to be friends, lovers and well-wishers, but none were real. The emotional void in his life had only grown bigger with time.
A few times in those years, he had thought about talking to that girl - that so-called ex-child-wife of his - or at least finding out where she was. After all, he hadn't always hated her. She had even less of a choice in the matter than he did. He imagined that maybe she would be able to talk sense to his mom. After all, it was her welfare she placed more importance on than her own son. But he never got around to doing that.
Somehow though, tonight the same thought returned to him. He wanted to call her, not that he knew where to call her. But even if he did, what would he say?
And more importantly, why would she care?
She was probably married with four children now, as women her age in Rajasthan were expected to have. He *had* spoken to her twice, but that was long in the past. The first time, he was sixteen. His mother wanted him to get his bride home as she had come of age. Rajveer had refused, saying he wanted her to finish her studies. Twelve was no age to be a daughter-in-law. Her parents had refused though, so he had himself picked up the phone and instructed her to continue studying and study as much as she wanted. Somehow his words worked on both her and her parents. The second time was five years after that - the night before he left for Mumbai, the night he finally decided to unshackle himself from old superstitions, backward rituals and everything that stood in the way of his dreams. When he told Radha he wanted to go to Mumbai, she had foolishly asked him to take his child-bride along. He had refused to acknowledge any such relation. She vowed never to talk to him again if he did. He vowed he would never accept that child-marriage. He had picked up the phone in front of his mother and informed his child-bride of his decision himself, as if to make a point. It was all a touch filmy, Rajveer now thought. But as he left the next day, he had sincerely believed his mother would come around and see his point. He was the pampered child she loved so much. He was all she had, right? And yet, he was wrong. That day, he had walked out and was never able to return again. All for a girl who didn't even have any objection or anything much to say in response to his decision.
(One month later)
As the dusty road from Jaisalmer wound into Kuldhara, Rajveer could feel a duststorm inside him. Being only 120 kms away from his home during the previous week's shooting had made him restless. He yearned for the comfort of his childhood, for his mother's lap, for that feeling of being wanted - not just applauded and desired. And so he had come home, hoping that the air would still carry his mother's scent and bring him some peace.
The car stopped and Rajveer emerged. The big haveli still looked the same. Slighty worn with time, but still the same scent of home. As he reached the door, Baburam, the old servant who had literally raised him, recognized him instantly. Baburam started to say something but then stopped, only guided him inside and ran in, perhaps to get water. Maybe he wanted to apologize, Rajveer thought to himself, for all those years when he would turn him away from the doorstep. He had always repeated his mother's question, if he was willing to give up his vow against the child-marriage, and Rajveer always had the same reply. Today though, that question had finally disappeared and Rajveer was welcome in as the owner. Only it wasn't a home any longer.
Rajveer wandered into the living room. Everything looked the same as it was ten years ago. A large portrait of his mother - the matriarch - hung on the wall and Rajveer was automatically drawn there. Her eyes still radiated with the power of her will.
"Rajveer beta, would you be staying here? Shall I get your room readied." Baburam asked, returning with tea and snacks. Rajveer looked at him and nodded.
When he eventually got there, Rajveer was surprised looking at his room. It looked the same as he remembered, actually better. The curtains were fresh and of his favorite color. There were flowers, and a huge portrait of him hung on the wall. It was recent, as were many other pictures of his around the room, though they were all from magazines and posters. They all belonged to superstar Rajveer. For the first time that evening, he smiled a bit. Maybe his mother didn't hate him like he feared.
"Who takes care of the haveli?" Rajveer turned and asked Baburam.
"Ummm...caretaker bitiya...she only takes care of everything. Actually, she is a doctor...she treats everyone in the village and works at the charitable hospital of your father. But your mother trusted her and she has been taking care of the upkeep here for very long."
"Hmmm...okay. Maybe I should meet her before I leave." Rajveer thought to himself.
The next morning, Rajveer woke up early but fresh, having slept better than he had in a long time. He walked towards the balcony to get some air, when his eyes fell on the girl in the garden, supervising the gardener. Dressed in a simple yellow sari, she looked more innocent, more beautiful than anyone Rajveer had ever seen. She had a faint smile as she talked, and Rajveer couldn't decide if she was more beautiful or the garden she seemed to have maintained in this desert. Absentmindedly as he stared at her, his hand hit the vase kept on the coffee table in the balcony, breaking it. He screamed in pain as the glass broke and his hand started bleeding, but he forgot the pain as he saw her turn towards him, hearing his cry. Their eyes met and for a second Rajveer thought his heart stopped. He felt like he could taste hope and joy, but being distracted and unbalanced, he slipped, hurting himself for a second time as he fell on the other elbow, possibly spraining it.
"What happened Rajveer beta?" Baburam called making Rajveer turn back. He hurriedly came towards Rajveer with the first aid box, keeping the tea he had brought on the side. Rajveer though turned back towards the garden, wanting to see the girl one more time and saw that she had turned to run indoors too.
"Who's that?" Rajveer asked Baburam, who was trying to remove the glass pieces while his own eyes kept darting back to the garden.
"That...uhh...that is caretaker bitiya....I told you yesterday. Now come inside. See how much blood..." Unwillingly Rajveer came inside, prodded both by Baburam and the fact that the girl had disappeared from the gardens.
"What's her name?" he asked, but didn't get a response.
"Rajveer beta, did you...I mean in the city where you live, I mean...you didn't bring your wife along from the city to show her your house?" he asked after a couple of minutes
"I am not married, Baburam kaka."
"You were married as a child...."
"Kaka! Don't remind me of that sham! I hate that wedding, that girl and everything to do with that incident! It took away my mother and everything I had! I want to forget my past!" Rajveer screamed, all his anger returning to him.
"Then why did you come back here? Isn't this your past?" Baburam replied, almost equally enraged.
"Yeah. Yeah, I will not stay here. I am going to sell this house and everything here."
It was evening by the time he returned. After the argument with Baburam that morning, Rajveer had felt restless and wandered out. He went everywhere in the village and around he could remember from his childhood, but nothing felt soothing anymore. Even though his mind kept going back to the face of the yellow sari girl, the peace he had felt last night was gone. Something nagged in him. He felt like he had walked away from the life here years ago of his own will, and now he was no longer welcome back.
Tired, he sat on the sofa in his room, staring at the pictures of himself that reminded him of his success. Yet again, he thought of the girl, his child-wife, from the past. Was she happy, he suddenly thought? It was strange that he had never considered this question before. He had almost assumed she was somewhere, living a life of contentment that she would have always wanted. But what if that wasn't true? What impact had his one-sided decision of their mutually intertwined lives had on her? Her family was just as backward and rigid as his own, as far as he could tell. And she was a girl! Did she have to pay a price as well? Did he justice to her by abruptly calling off the relation?
The disturbing chain of thought was interrupted with a knock on the door. The girl from the morning was standing at the door with a file in her hand. Her red and golden sari was simple, and she wore no jewelery or any traditional ornament, yet she looked as beautiful as any traditional bride, Rajveer thought. He heard her anklets as she walked towards him. Her eyes said something, but Rajveer couldn't read them. He tried to search her eyes in an attempt to understand when he noticed the sindoor on her forehead. She was married!
Suddenly, it felt like cold water had been splashed on his face, and Rajveer stood up. What was he thinking? And why? This was some village girl he had never met or talk to. He didn't even know her name! Why did it feel like a jolt of electricity to discover that she was married? Of course she was, she looked over 25 and this was Kuldhara, not Mumbai.
"You had asked for the papers and accounts of the haveli" she spoke, pulling Rajveer back from his thoughts to the reality, and held out the file to him.
"Umm...papers...yes..paper...thanks." Rajveer hesitated as he looked at the file she placed in front of him , suddenly unable to look in her eye.
"Is it necessary to sell this haveli?" she asked, and Rajveer suddenly had no response. "The people here...they have been working for many years...even after Ma..I mean after Maajisaa's demise, they are very loyal...their jobs..."
"I don't want to take away anyone's jobs. If the new owner doesn't keep them, I will give them enough compensation so they don't have to work again." Slowly he was getting his composure back, and the worldly wise superstar was returning. "You...you can keep your job here."
"My job...no thanks, you fired me from my job a while ago..."she said, confusing Rajveer, and continued "...anyway, I just wanted to know why. I thought it was about money, but it's probably not..."
"Money doesn't matter. I just want to move on from the ties of the past. I am superstar Rajveer you know."
"Hmmm...I know." she began to leave, but Rajveer stopped her. "You...I don't remember you."
"I know" she said
"What's your name?"
"Meenakshi." she replied, and something stirred in Rajveer, but he couldn't place a finger what.
"And you're the doctor at our hospital?" he asked
"Yes. And I also was taking care of running this household while you were away. So I managed the finances. But I have included the accounts and also signed the papers you'd need to transfer them to the next person. They're all in the file!"
"You won't be staying here....for the job I mean?" Rajveer felt a sense of desperation he couldn't understand.
"No...my job is done. It is time for me to move away from the past as well." Meenakshi said and walked past Rajveer in the opposite direction as he looked at the papers in the file. Meenakshi R. Singh, read the signature on the first page. The file dropped.
"Meenakshi" He said as he swiftly turned back and caught hold of her hand, locking his right elbow in hers as his hand was still bandaged. She stopped, and their gaze met.
He stepped closer, now only inches away from her face, his arm firmly interlocked with hers. She didn't resist or move away or even look away. She was comfortable, confident, standing next to him being touched by him as if she belonged there. He knew then, he really knew.
They stood there - Rajveer and Meenakshi - for several seconds. He didn't feel any anger, any restlessness, and sense of injustice. Her eyes had no questions, no accusations. There was passion, devotion and innocence, but it was too deep for Rajveer to fully comprehend. What there was, overwhelmingly, was peace and compassion. Suddenly, Rajveer felt he had come home.
"Meenakshi Rajveer Singh!" he said.
And then, he smiled. He really smiled.