It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
- Frederick Douglass
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After about 15 minutes of fumbling around the block, I've finally found the building I had been looking for, and I fiddle with my dupatta as I ring the doorbell, fervently hoping that it is the right flat. I always knew moving out of my small hometown into a city this big would be a challenge, but I hadn’t realized just how much it would affect me. For someone who never even had stage fright or problems talking to new people, I hadn’t been able to communicate at all since the time I had stepped out of the train an hour ago.
“Kimaya! You're here, at last! What took you so long, beta?” Shyama Kaki says as she envelopes me into a motherly bear hug.
“Kaki! Thank god this is the right flat! I got lost in this society and wasn’t able to find the building!” I say as I return her hug. The familiarity with which she holds me is comforting and instantly soothes my nerves.
“Never mind; you're here now. Come, I’ll show you the room and then you can change and freshen up.” She says as she takes the larger of the two suitcases and walks into the house.
“Okay,” I say and follow her inside with the other suitcase and my handbag.
Inside the room, she points to the cupboard where I can keep my clothes and mentions that Kaka has ordered a new study table which they plan to put up next to the window so I can study in peace inside my room. Then she asks me to freshen up and change while she made tea and snacks for me, and I lock the door after her.
As I plop down on the bed, I take a deep breath and exhale loudly. At least I'm here now. I’ll figure out the ways of this house and by the time college starts, I’ll be completely comfortable. I hope they don’t mind my presence. I change into a pair of pajamas and a long top, go into the bathroom with the face-wash I have in my handbag, wash my face clean of all the oil and muck gathered from the journey, and go out into the living room to a waiting cup of tea and pakoras.
“Why don’t you rest for some time, Kimaya? Your Kaka will be back from work only after 9. Viraj will be back from school in an hour but I’ll ask him to not disturb you. You must be really tired from the train journey. It must have been at least 12 hours, no?” she asks after we finish the tea.
“Yes, Kaki, I am very tired.” I say.
“Go and sleep. I’ll wake you up before dinner.” She says and pats my arm. I nod gratefully and walk into the room – my room – and fall asleep almost as soon as I put my head to the pillow.
It has been a week since I moved here, and after the first few hours with Kaka, Kaki and Viraj which were a little awkward, we had all fallen into rhythm with each other. I wake up early as per my habit and help Kaki with preparing the breakfast as well as packing lunch for Kaka, and then for Viraj. When Viraj comes home from school in the evenings, I make it a point to not only play with him but also to help him with his homework and studies. After a week of this idyllic pattern, I notice Kaki suddenly going into a flurry of preparations, and I'm not able to figure out why.
“Is someone visiting, Kaki?” I ask her as we are in the middle of frying boondi for making laddoos.
“Did we not tell you? Neil is coming back from America tomorrow night! After 8 years my baccha is coming back!” she says and I notice the way her voice cracks with happiness.
I had almost forgotten about Neil, Viraj’s older brother. My older brother, too. The last I saw him must have been at least 12 years ago, when I was a kid. I worked my brain to try and remember how he looks, but failed. Then I gave up and focused on preparing the sweets instead.
Shyama Kaki and Harish Kaka have gone to receive Neil Dada at the airport, leaving Viraj in my care. I cannot seem to fall asleep, even though it is well past 3 in the morning, and wonder what is taking them so long. And then I remember Pa having told me that international flights always fly in this late. I miss Ma and Pa. I wish they could be here with me. I would have fallen asleep so easily had Pa been here to sing something nice.
“Maya Didi! Wake up! Look who’s here!” Viraj says as he shakes me awake.
I sit up with a jolt, wear the dupatta across my chest and walk out of the room.
“Hi,” says a tall, bespectacled man wearing blue jeans and a smart white t-shirt, and it takes me a second to realize that this handsome man with the adorably short-cropped black hair is Neil Dada.
“Hi,” I say, and am surprised at the shyness in my voice.
“Kimaya, can you help me in the kitchen, beta?” Shyama Kaki calls from the kitchen and I hurry away from the piercing gaze of Neil’s honey colored eyes. Neil Dada’s, I correct myself and adjust my dupatta unnecessarily.
“Dada,” I call out to hand him his cup of tea.
“Neil,” he corrects me, and I nod and turn hastily to hide the blush I can feel rising in my cheeks.
In the two weeks that Neil has been back home, he has spent more time showing me around the city and taking me to places that used to be his favorites before he left and talking to me about his time here and in America, than he has with his own family. The way we speak with each other, we feel like friends rather than cousins. And then again, we aren’t really cousins. The families only consider each other to be related because our grandfathers had considered each other brothers since the time they used to live next to each other in their ancestral village. But does believing someone is your brother really make them your brother? Does it really make you related? Because if it does, then what Neil and I are doing is completely wrong. But then why does it not feel wrong to us? Why do we enjoy each other’s company so much? Why do his worldly ways inspire and evoke me so much? Why does he love the way I keep adjusting my dupatta out of habit? Why do I keep wanting him around all the time? Why does he take my hand and it feels like everything is alright?
“Here, these will look great with your grey dress.” He says and places a pair of earrings in my palm. I forget about everything that is going on in my head as I look at him and he smiles that mesmerizing smile of his. I would give the world to be the reason behind that smile.
“Thank you,” I say as I look at the silver jhumkas and then back at him.
He places his palm against my cheek as his honey eyes bore into mine, and I place a palm against his chest as he leans in.
“Neil,” I say, look down and swallow hard my urge to not stop him. I do not know what he is about to do, but I don’t want to stop him.
“I'm sorry,” he says, takes his palm back and continues, “put these on. I want to see how they look on you.”
I put the earrings on, and am transported to another world by the way he looks at me as if I'm the most precious thing he has ever seen. ‘Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you're magic.’ The quote crosses my mind, and I shut my eyes to push it away.
“You look beautiful,” he says as his eyes drink me in, quietly shifting from this jhumka to that every once in a while, but mostly staying locked on my face. I look down and fiddle with the corner of my dupatta as I try to stop myself from blushing.
I realize it isn’t necessary to touch someone to know you're one with them; sometimes the eyes will do more talking than words and touch ever can.
“Let’s go home? It’s getting late.” I say.
“Like they’re going to worry as long as you and I are together.” He says and chuckles. I realize he’s right. To them, we’re cousins hanging out with each other. It makes me think how devastated both the families would be if they were ever to find out what Neil and I feel for each other. I get up from the bench and start walking towards home.
“We’ll figure it out, Kimaya.” Neil says when I open up to him about how I feel about our relationship considering the way the families are linked.
“How, Neil? We’re cousins, for god’s sake!” I say.
“No, we’re not.” He says firmly, and I can feel his desire to put his arms around me, but I take a step back.
It’s been two weeks since college has started, but the tension between me and Neil hasn’t faded away. We don’t spend as much time together, partly because I'm at college half the day, we don’t go out as much, and even when we talk, the fear of where we are headed is palpable. Shyama Kaki and Harish Kaka don’t suspect anything, and are rather glad that Neil and I are getting along so well with each other. Their guileless trust makes me feel horrible for what I'm doing, and yet, it is impossible for me to not be involved with Neil.
This is the first time I've ever felt so wanted and cherished by another person. The way I feel complete when I'm with him and the way it feels like the world is alright and nothing can go wrong as long as he’s with me is something I never knew I could feel. I want to give in to my desire to touch him, I want to see if he, too, wants to hold me as badly as I want to hold him. I don’t know what to do when he holds me, but I want his arms around me. I crave his touch. And yet, we know we shouldn’t do this and we try to keep our distance from each other.
I've given up thinking about him and have tried to immerse myself completely in my studies, and have taken up various extracurricular activities only so that I won’t have the time to be around Neil or to even think about him. I've finally fallen into the routine of helping Kaki in the kitchen as she wakes up, going to college, coming home only at night, helping Viraj with his homework and study, going into my room, reading, listening to music, sometimes sitting at the window, and then studying again. Somewhere amidst this routine, I've lost my sleep; and somewhere between trying to stay away from Neil and admonishing myself for letting this go on for so long in the first place, I've lost myself.
It has been a year since Neil came home. He now works at a multi-national firm, and I'm devoted to my college and other activities. Kaka and Kaki have noticed the difference in me and Neil both and I know they’re trying hard to figure out what went wrong, but how can they understand that their children made the blasphemy of falling in love with each other? And so, Neil and I continue to stay away from each other, talking only when absolutely necessary, killing ourselves each day over how different it would have been had our families not considered each other relatives. But the question that had bothered me first continues bothering me – are we really related if we aren’t related by blood? Does believing someone is your cousin actually make him your cousin?
“Maya!” Neil says as he bumps into me in the corridor between the living room and our bedrooms.
“Kimaya,” I correct him and try to walk away, but he holds me by my arms, refusing to look away, refusing to let go, and I can feel my walls breaking down. I find myself feeling something after all these months, and I don’t want to stop. How can one person hold so much magic and charm over you?
“Kimaya,” his mother calls from the kitchen.
“Coming, Kaki,” I call back, still looking at him, and feel his arms drop away from mine as he lets me go.
It’s just another night – me, the window where I sit, the darkness of the room, the black sky, and the soft music crooning in the distance. Only today, the need I feel for Neil overpowers every other feeling and need I have ever felt. And I know it isn’t possible. If I dare to take a step towards him, I’d be putting my entire family up on a pedestal. I mean I know we aren’t actually related by blood, but it is still true that our families have held close ties with each other for generations and at one point in time, when we were both kids, I had regarded him as an elder brother. And my parents have sent me to live with them only because they know that these people are family and I’ll be taken care of. Nothing wrong can happen with me here. And I know I and Neil haven’t spoken with each other in months together, and it was my decision to stay away from him. There is no chance that he will disrespect my decision. But even then, in some unknown hope, I get off the windowsill, unlatch the door and leave it slightly ajar, then go back to my place on the windowsill.
How desperately I wish that Neil would walk in through that door, tell me he is in love with me, and hold me in his embrace. I bring my knees up, rest my arms against them, and lean my head back against the window frame. The music remains soft, but something about this moment, this arduous desire for Neil turns the music into something utterly seductive. I can feel emotions rise within me that I had felt only when I had bumped into him and he caught me and hadn’t let me go until we heard his mother in the kitchen. But right now, he’s free to walk into my room. His parents are fast asleep, as is Viraj, and no noise is loud enough to wake them up.
And then I hear the faint click of the doorknob turning and open my eyes. There he is – Neil, wearing a checkered flannel shirt over a grey-blue vest which is neatly tucked into his light grey jeans. He smiles, I smile back, and I feel something within me tense. He quietly shuts the door and locks it behind him. I find myself slipping off the windowsill and walking towards him.
“Are they asleep?” I ask him as he stands only inches apart from me.
“Yes, they are.” He says and almost closes the distance between us.
“I was hoping to see you tonight.” I say and step forward. When he doesn’t flinch, I put my arms around his neck and close the distance between us.
“I hoped you’d leave it unlocked.” He says as his arms curl themselves around my waist and he glances back at the door.
“Well, it isn’t unlocked anymore.” I say and feel my breath become heavy with desire.
“Hmm. I'm glad.” He says and presses his lips to mine. They’re so soft and warm against mine that I don’t even realize when my lips part and give way to his tongue, and all I know is I have never in my life felt more ecstatic.
His touch sends shivers down my body, and I surrender to my instincts. I have no idea what I’m doing or how, but I know its good enough for him when our breaths become hot and heavy against our skins and I hear him moan slightly. I have never known pleasure like this before and it gives way to so many desires I never knew existed. All that we want in this moment is to give in to our desire of consummating whatever relationship we share.
He eventually pushes me down on the bed, and his weight on me is the most amazing thing ever. He is heavy and I want that weight on me. Then he overturns us so I’m over him, his hands holding me firm and crushing me to him. We’re completely entangled with each other and are touching in every place and manner possible without disrobing ourselves. We never take off our clothes, but we don’t try to disentangle ourselves either.
In the middle of the heat and passion, we also let our emotions unfurl and run free. He tells me about his past relationships, I tell him about that guy in school that I’d had a crush on. He tells me that the reason he went abroad for his higher education is because he feels suffocated in this house and he is planning to move there permanently. I tell him I had always known I was supposed to do what my parents would ask me to do and that I’d never have a say in my own life. We share funny incidences with each other, we share stories of heartbreak – his from relationships, mine from feeling like I've let my parents down – we share stories of small triumphs, and we talk about the dreams we hold for our futures. We laugh, we cry, we kiss, and we know we’re in love.
“I love you,” he rasps against my ear as he trails kisses down my neck and I moan in pleasure.
“I love you,” I say in a tearful moment as our eyes meet, and I pull him to myself and kiss him.
This passion that I feel, I never want to lose it. It makes me feel the most alive I've ever felt.
There is no way we can stay away from each other, and there is no way I can ever be with someone else.
“Kimaya, your parents are coming home in two days. We have found a suitable groom for you.” Shyama Kaki says as I'm in the middle of lifting a spoonful of rice to my mouth.
My eyes dart to Neil’s, and even though we don’t utter a word, we know it’s time to bring our little secret to light. It has already been in the dark for over a year now, and if it stays there any longer, I'm going to get married off to someone I don’t even know or want.
“Dude, mind yourself!” Neil says in a low voice as he catches Suresh staring while I place the cup of tea and plate of biscuits in front of him, and my dupatta slips off my shoulder.
“Oh, I'm sorry!” Suresh whispers as I come back up and I almost laugh at his increasingly deepening blush before I catch the look on Neil’s face.
I can read the battle in his eyes. I am his. The family links us as cousins. He protects me because I'm his; the family would boast of their son as being protective towards his sister. It is too strong a battle for me to bear, and I abruptly turn away and walk into the kitchen with a lowered gaze.
“What’s the matter?” Ma asks me as soon as she sees the defeated look on my face.
“Nothing. I don’t want to do this, Ma. Can’t you convince Pa of that?” I ask, placing the tray back on the counter.
“Is something wrong, Maya?” She asks again.
“No, Ma, but does something have to be wrong for me to not want this?” I fret and pick up a bottle of water from the refrigerator.
“Fine. Deal with this for today, and I’ll try not to put you through this again.” She says.
“Fine.” I say and lean against the counter to steady myself. Endure it this once. It’s only a matter of time.
“Maya, what the hell are you doing in here?” Neil barges into the kitchen.
“Neil?” Ma questions his manners.
“They are planning her wedding outside.” He announces solemnly with his eyes stuck to the floor and walks back out.
“Ma?” I look at her, breath quickening, and rush out into the living room.
“Neil, it’s time.” I say and am about to reach for his hand when he withdraws it to himself. I look up into his eyes.
“No, it isn’t.” he says.
“Yes, it is. I'm not marrying someone else.” I say loud enough for the words to reach Pa but not the others. Pa looks at me quizzically as expected and I lower my gaze before turning it to Neil.
I put my hand on the armrest of the chair and glance at Pa before making another move. Neil swiftly takes my hand and I see realization dawn upon Pa’s face which he is quick to hide.
“I'm sorry, Pa, but I can’t do this.” I say, rise from the chair, and fold my hands into an apologetic Namaste to Suresh and his family.
Pa and Neil both follow suit as Ma watches from the kitchen door, gaze lowered, and hands folded into a somber Namaste. Harish Kaka and Shyama Kaki are too taken aback to respond.
Left dumbfounded, the family rises stiffly and, nodding a cursory Namaste to our family, walks out the door.
As Pa walks after them and bolts the door shut, Neil stands firmly on my left, arm around my shoulders, and I know I’m not facing the impending storm alone.
“What the hell do you think you're doing?” Pa barks as he approachses us, “are you not ashamed of yourselves? Maya, how could you do this? He is your brother! And you! Do you feel no shame looking at her like that?”
Pa was about to slap Neil when I interjected and stood in front of him, “Pa! Stop it! Just listen to us, please. We tried to stop you from calling those people home to see me, but you did not listen! I tried so many times to tell you about us but you wouldn’t hear any of it. Please just hear us out, Pa. Please.”
“Fine. Speak.” Pa says and sits down in the chair he had taken earlier.
“Pa,” Neil begins only to be interrupted by my father.
“I'm not your Pa.” he says, his eyes screwed shut.
“But you are mine,” I say, kneel down next to him, take his hand into mine and continue, “Pa, I love Neil.”
“Dada. He is your elder brother.” Pa says.
“No, he isn’t. We’re not related by blood, Pa. I know – we know – the families think they’re related to each other, but Pa, we’re not. We’re two separate families. What if grandpa hadn’t thought of his grandpa as a brother and made this into a family? What if you and Kaka did not regard each other as brothers since your childhoods? Would this have been a problem then?” I try to reason with him.
“But it is like that, Kimaya. We do consider each other brothers, and this is a family. You both have regarded each other as brother and sister when you were kids. How could you even think of it this way? Kimaya is still a kid, Neil, but you are not. Did you not have the sense to stay away from her? Do you not have the brains to understand that this is wrong?” Pa yells.
“This may look wrong, Kaka, but it isn’t. We aren’t related by blood, if that is what is bothering you. And I don’t even remember what we thought of each other when we were kids. If she used to call me Dada, it’s because she was asked to and there was no way we could have known we aren’t really cousins. And honestly, I don’t even remember spending much time with her when we were kids. But I do know that right now, there is nobody else who can understand me the way she does; nobody else I can spend my life with.” Neil says as he too kneels down next to Pa, beside me.
“Is that why the two of you spent so much time together when you came back, Neil?” Kaki asks.
“Yes, and that is also why we didn’t speak to each other for almost a year – because we did think this was wrong. Because we did think of how the families would feel about this.” Neil says.
“And then what happened? All of a sudden you decided you don’t care about the families?” Kaka yells.
“No; we realized we care about ourselves. We realized we couldn’t go on with life like that. We had lost so much more than just sleep and peace of mind – we had lost ourselves when we decided to stay away from each other. We realized we love each other.” Neil says.
“We understand that it is really difficult for you all to understand this situation, but please, please just try to look at it from our side. We are in love with each other, Pa; Kaka, Kaki, Ma – please try to understand us.” I plead.
“And if you still can’t, then we respect your decision, but then we won’t be a part of either of the families anymore.” Neil says and makes me get up by taking my elbow and continues, “but I won’t just stand there and watch her plead like that to anybody.” I look at him and my eyes well up, but I refuse to deny what he said.
“Is that how this is going to be, now?” Pa asks.
“Yes,” I and Neil say together.
“Then you both are no longer a part of my family.” He says and walks away into the kitchen, taking Ma with him.
“Kaka, Kaki?” I look at them, the tears at the brink of my eyes ready to spill over any second.
“No. This is absolutely wrong. And this will have such a bad effect on Viraj. Unlike you two, we do have to think about him, too.” Kaki says.
“Happy birthday, Nilaya!” my parents and Neil’s wish our daughter on her 1st birthday.
It is amazing how animatedly they play with their grandchild but refuse to look at their own children. They want everything to do with the grandchild their children have borne them, but god forbid that anybody ever finds out that Nilaya is Neil and Kimaya’s daughter, who were supposedly cousins who committed the world’s greatest blasphemy by falling in love with each other.
The way they shunned their own children for doing something that did not fit within the boundaries that society has set really makes me wonder if it is blood that makes us related, or if it is loyalty that does. Did Neil and I defy the loyalty our grandfathers had held for each other, or had we defied our blood relations by choosing to walk away from our families because they could not understand that we were in love? Or is it ultimately love that defines relations, and not blood or loyalty or belief?
Maybe we were wrong, maybe we were right. Whatever the case with that may be, we shall continue to live our life with our daughter, and hope that someday, the way her grandparents look at Nilaya, they will look at us, too, and understand that love overpowers us all.