Short story: The lock and key game

It had all been too new to him. He had spent much of his life pleasing teachers and professors and bosses and it had been easy. Score marks, turn in assignments, bring in fabulous results. But this, this was new to him.

She sat at the dining table. The ceiling fan creaked noisily in their silence. Her silhouette sipped tea against the massive window. Her long hair was stringy and hundreds of shiny beads of water emerged from it as she gently tossed her hair about. He wanted to go over and bury his nose in her freshly washed hair. He didn’t know what freshly washed hair smelt like but he knew he liked the fragrance. He smoothed down his cotton Kurta and tried to focus on the newspaper, stealing glimpses at her.

A few months ago, in a remote suburb of Mumbai, he had been stealing glances at her. Her hair wasn’t wet then. It was neatly braided with a gajra pinned into it. She had worn a saree — probably her mother’s. ‘Should I ask her about that saree?’ he asked himself. But he kept silent.

She got up and walked to him, gently lifting his emptied cup she asked, “Would you like some more?” she asked signalling toward the empty cup. He shook his head, “No,”
She gave him an awkward smile as she turned to go to the kitchen.
“The tea was lovely though. I’ve gotten used to sugary water that I used to make. It’s nice to drink a ‘kadak’ chai.”

She laughed gently and went into the kitchen. He wondered what he could say to her to make her smile like that all the time.

He had seen her smiling like that in her parents’ tiny Mumbai flat. She was being quizzed by her in-laws to be. Her each answer cemented her fate as a Soonbai in the rich family. Her horoscope was a perfect match. And the boy had loved her picture. The quizzing was just a formality. Of course, her mother had worried the night before. “They are quite well off. Why do they want our daughter? What if they ask for dowry? They will want a fancy wedding, who will pay?”

She hadn’t thought about these things. She was thrilled that she was about to marry a handsome man. She had thought arranged marriage to be ridiculous but she was happy with what it had spewed out for her.

Back in her brand new kitchen, she looked at the freshly bought vegetables. When life gives you lemons, she thought to herself as she sorted them. She’d have the maid cook fish curry. Sundays are meant for fish, she thought.

He decided to step out a bit. The house was too small and he kept bumping into his new bride. He could sense awkwardness in her and that made him awkward. He walked into a mall, listlessly sifting through things, killing time until lunch. ‘We should both come here,’ he thought. He didn’t know if she liked shopping.

Lunch as always served sharp at one in her parents’ home. On Sundays lunch would be followed by siestas. She smiled. It was almost 1.45 and he wasn’t home. “Should I call his cell?”, “Should I eat something?” she asked herself.

She didn’t know the answers. It was like visiting relatives during summer vacations. You never felt home and never knew what the right thing to do was.

She decided to wait. Fifteen minutes later the bell rang.

Her husband stood holding a few shopping bags. She looked through the keyhole at the man she was to spend her life with. Could she love his sheepish grin? He was handsome, but could she ever be comfortable with him the way her mother was around her father?

She straightened up apprehensively and opened the door. She smiled as she let him in.
“I brought you something,” he said to her.
‘Screw that, can we just eat,’ she thought but she asked to see what it was. That is what is expected of a good wife.

He handed her one of the bags. She opened it. It was a Teddy bear. She tried to keep from giggling.
“It’s sweet, thank you,” she said, putting the Teddy away.

She wanted to know what was in the other bags but her husband was at the dining table.
He waited as she heated the lunch. He wondered if it would have been rude to ask her what was on the menu. He could smell fish.

As she served him rice, fish curry and a piece of fried fish, he swallowed his disappointment. He disliked fish. He could eat it but he didn’t enjoy it enough for it to be on his Sunday lunch. He opened his mouth to speak but she looked at him with such anticipation, he muttered, “delicious!”

She had noticed the scrawny cousin of the groom. He was fidgety. She had wondered if he was married. As they finalized the match and started to leave, the scrawny cousin was the only one who thanked her parents for their hospitality. He is sweet and earnest, she had thought.

After two months, she was a bride. It was a small ceremony upon the groom’s request. They would have an elaborate reception later.
“We are not happy either. Our only son wants a quiet wedding,” her ma-in-law to be had announced.
She caressed the padar of her Shaloo, a traditional Marathi bridal saree. She admired her mehendi-laden hands, and she smiled into the mirror. It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Why did something feel incomplete?

And just then, her sister came running in. ‘Tai, your wedding is off,’
She looked wide eyed as her sister said something about the groom running away. She felt dizzy and everyone around her scurried to save the face. People gathered around, trying to figure out a solution. Her mother sat in a corner, her head in her hands. Relatives gossiped in muffled voices.

The small wedding, the distant dates, the lack of intimacy, it was all clear. The groom had intended to elope. She didn’t mind his eloping so much, but she hated the ambiguity surrounding her dreams. What was to happen to them?

“Is it ok with you?” they asked her. She nodded.

Minutes later, she was seated by the scrawny cousin who was holding the mangalsutra. She stole glances at him, and wondered if he was forced into this to save the day. But she was too devastated to tell. She was too tired to think. Fate will handle this, she told herself.

As she lay in bed next to her husband, she decided she was still quite tired.

“You were forced into this. You are not bound to me and you don’t have to live with the burden of someone else’s cowardice. We can end it,” she said dryly, as if talking to the fan.
“What?” he turned to his side, his face distraught with worry, “You don’t want to work on this?” he asked
“He ran away, his family had to make something up to save the day, and they decided to put you up to this. I appreciate what you did for me, but there’s no pressure. You have the right to live your own life,”
He looked at her, puzzled.
“I am not an abala naari. I don’t need a husband. If you think you’re supporting me by torturing yourself, don’t bother!” and she turned her back to him.
Suddenly, he sprung up. “Torture!”

She looked at him cast a long look at her and walk out of the room. She wondered if she had done the wrong thing by bringing it up.

He sat at the dining table. He had a lot to say to her, but didn’t know how. He wanted her to know that he had been unable to take his eyes off her when he had accompanied his cousin to see the bride. He wanted her to know that he had felt jealous of his lucky cousin. How could he tell her that when his cousin ran away, he wanted to beat the shit out of him for bringing a tear to her eyes? And how could he possibly tell her that when his aunt suggested that they find a replacement groom, he had volunteered? His mother wasn’t happy, but he was thrilled. And even though he was just filling a position left vacant by his cowardly cousin, he felt like he was the luckiest man in the whole world.

But how could he say that to his new bride? She had dreamt of a life with another man and he was just an outsider who was forced upon her. Did she want out? He shuddered at the thought.

It was like he had the best lock in the world, but a bunch of hundred keys… He was determined to try until he found the right key to the door to her heart.

Inspired by Kaurwakee’s photograph

16 comments for “Short story: The lock and key game

  1. June 20, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    It’s so touching, almost got a tear to my eye. Love it. You write brilliantly Shakti 🙂

    • June 22, 2011 at 7:52 am

      Thanks, Chandni… For a writer, touching the reader on some level is the ultimate goal… I am so glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Rishika
    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Lovely read!!

  3. June 21, 2011 at 3:05 am

    wonderful write up, sad and also inspiring.
    usual tales of the arranged in our society.

    very nicely written.

  4. June 21, 2011 at 3:33 am

    You’ve really tried to prove that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words 🙂

    Beautifully written.. loved it!

  5. June 21, 2011 at 3:57 am

    vivid, the pain comes thru. Dukh, daaru aur tajurba likhne seekhata hai. Had to read it twice. Now you realize the # hashtag.

    • June 22, 2011 at 8:12 am

      As always, your comment puts me on cloud 9. Thanks a ton Anaggh 🙂

  6. June 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

    loved it.

  7. June 22, 2011 at 3:41 am

    Well Crafted !

  8. June 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

    thanks 🙂

  9. June 26, 2011 at 5:01 am

    See. This is exactly why you should write stories.
    I like the little twist you introduce in the middle.
    And it just ends brilliantly.
    And please bake another batch of cupcakes for R. She inspires you like no one does.

  10. February 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Loved it. Absolutely loved it. Got lost in a few places there because I’m not familiar with Indian (I presume) culture but I loved the ending. “It was like he had the best lock in the
    world, but a bunch of hundred keys…”

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