Nick of Time tells the story of Alehya who returns in a state of bliss to Chandigarh after ten years to attend her childhood friend Shagun's wedding only to realise that her future husband is a man she hates, well almost. We bring you an excerpt from the upcoming book.
We hadn't spoken a word to each other in the past one hour and the only thing I did was to listen to one loud Punjabi remix after another. I decided to be the magnanimous person who would break the silence.
'You don't have any other music?' I asked him.
He looked at me incredulously, like he had just realized there was someone else sitting in the car with him.
'Kya?' he said.
'Tumhare pass koi normal music nahi hai?' I asked again.
'Normal, meaning? This is not normal for you?' he asked, looking even more surprised.
'Dude, if I listen to one more Punjabi remix, I'll lose it. You don't have English music?'
'No,' he said curtly. 'This is all I have.'
I had a nasty suspicion that even if he did have any other music, just to torture me, he wouldn't play it.
'Your music taste is like that of a truck driver,' I said. I bit my tongue and looked at him, fearing his reaction.
'Excuse me?' he said with a scowl on his face. Just as he said that, a truck passed by us, blaring the same 'Billo Rani' song that was playing in the car earlier.
I couldn't help but laugh out loud. 'My point exactly!'
'Very funny,' he said blandly. 'Truck driver music, huh!' Hemuttered under his breath and then increased the volume by several notches.
I ejected the CD and tried to browse through the various radio stations for some good music. Almost all the channels played some variant or the other of loud Punjabi music. I settled for a station that was playing old songs.
'What the . . .! How can you listen to such old, pakau songs!'
'It's better than your 'Billo Rani',' I replied defensively.
'So boring! I'll fall asleep while driving.'
'You said I could change the music myself, so I did. Now bear with it.'
'So pakau. Jaisi personality, waisa music,' he taunted me.
'Ok, truck driver!' I fought back. I wasn't going to let him ruin my trip.
'How old are you?'
'I know! You'll never improve.'
'Hello. There is nothing wrong with me. What's there to improve?' I asked, getting even more irritated with him now.
After a pause I added, 'But I hope you have improved. Hopefully, you are a better person than I remember.'
'What do you remember, Alu?' he asked me, very irritated. 'In fact, what do you know about me at all?'
'Nothing. I don't even want to know,' I retaliated.
'Neither do I,' he said defiantly. 'I'm here for Shagun. She means something to me and if she means anything to you please don't create any more scenes during the wedding.'
'Why would I?'
'Because you are an attention seeker and it's your habit.'
'Attention seeker? What is my habit?' I asked, completely surprised.
'This,' he said, pointing accusingly at me. 'Doing drama and seeking attention.'
'What rubbish! What drama have I ever done?'
He began to say something . . . perhaps something to do with our childhood . . . but then stopped.
'Never mind. You won't get it,' he said softly.
'Why won't I get it? What won't I get?'
He just started ignoring me again.
'Weaky, I'm talking to you.' I tried to bug him with the childhood nickname that I had created for him.
He looked pissed at me, 'Shut up! Don't you dare call me by that stupid name! Moti!'
'Dude, you CAN'T call me Moti any more!' I yelled back.
'You may not be "Moti" but you're still "Aloo",' he jibed.
Unfortunately for me, a huge Aloo was what I was like when I was younger. Vicky had then twisted my nickname Alu into Aloo, just like I had twisted his name Vicky into Weaky.
'Don't call me that!' I said. The familiar feeling of being harassed by him began to bubble up.
'I can call you whatever I want, brat. You're still a brat. Really unbearable.'
'You don't have to bear me, okay. I did not want to travel with you. I'm doing this for Shagun. I just can't understand how someone like her can marry you,' I said blatantly.
'What do you mean by that? You don't think anyone can like me? Anyway, what would a cold-hearted person like you know about anyone else's feelings. You're not smart or nice enough to understand it.'
I was shocked and a little hurt to hear what Shagun's future husband thought of me. 'That is just mean. You know nothing about me any more to say anything like that,' I retaliated.
'I know you well enough. Let me prove it to you. Tell me something, tera koi boyfriend hai?'
I knew if I told him I was still single he would make fun of me so I said, 'Haan, Weaky, hai.'
'Liar. Tere jaisi pakau Aunty ko koi bardasht nahi kar sakta.'
I knew I could never really lie convincingly and he knew that too.
'It's true. Hai,' I fought him off.
'Puneet,' I said, without batting an eyelid. It was my boss's name. I had had a passing crush on him, so it wasn't entirely false.
'Are you telling the truth?'
'Yes I am. Anyway, having a boyfriend has nothing to do with whether I'm cold-hearted or not,' I said defensively, speaking up for all single people in the world.
'You are lying. I can hear it in your voice. You're still single,' he accused.
'What does being single or not single have to do with any of this?'
'It just means you haven't gotten over your fear of everything in life. I guess fear of life itself. You just don't know what it's like to swallow your BIG ego and pride and make your heart vulnerable to another person's whims. You don't have it in you to live that way or feel that way. You need to give your heart away to someone to know why people love people they think they can never fall in love with. It's illogical. And clearly you're still too calculating to understand how to be illogical.'
I knew he had taunted me indirectly but, instead of thinking about myself, I found myself asking, 'Do you love her?' I could at least feel camaraderie with a man who loved Shagun. She deserved to be loved.
He looked at me intently. I felt like it was the first time he was really looking at me. I couldn't make out his expression behind his shades.
'I think I do.'
'Wrong answer. You should've said "Yes".'
'Yes, I do love her,' he repeated.
Earlier in the day Shagun had also told me that she loved him.
There was no way to separate them now.
'Did you seduce her or something?'
'Maybe. It's none of your business actually,' he said with a straight face. 'Why is it so difficult for you to believe that she can actually love me?'
'Because it is difficult to love you,' I said, without understanding why I had said it.
'How do you know that? Have you tried?'
I faltered for a second. 'No,' I said meekly.
'Then maybe you should try. That is what this whole journey is about. Shagun wants you to understand that it is not too difficult to fall in love with me.'
'I'm trying,' I admitted defensively.
'Don't try too hard,' he said cockily. 'You might actually end up falling in love with me!'
'You wish,' I said, exasperated.
Why did she have to argue so much about every single thing? I had a splitting headache by the time we sat down for lunch.
'I remember this place. Haveli is my favourite restaurant on the DelhiChandi highway,' she said excitedly.
She was very childish sometimes; or maybe I just had the memory of the seventeen-year-old Alehya imprinted in my head.
I was comparing everything about this Alehya to the girl I used to know. I remembered her being more ambitious, livelier and somehow more hopeful. The girl in front of me now looked confused, lost and bogged down by everything in life. But it was nice to see her dropping her defences every once in a while.
'Good. Why aren't you so agreeable all the time?'
'Because not everything is as agreeable as food,' she said, as she pounced on lunch. Clearly, her appetite had not been overly affected by her weight loss. 'So, what is our plan for the day?'
'It's actually very simple. We'll go to Shagun's place, pick up her stuff and then go back to Chandigarh,' I said sarcastically.
'I feel bad for you -- you have such a long way to drive,' she said, trying to be nasty to me.
'Driving is all right, but putting up with you throughout that drive? Now that takes a lot of patience.'
'Abhi tu shaadi kar le! Then I'll come and visit Shagun every few days, stay over at your place and irritate you like hell,' she said with an evil glint in her eyes.
Once we had lunch, our journey to Delhi was quite uneventful.
We reached Shagun's house and Alehya picked up all the stuff that Shagun wanted. We didn't argue again for a while.
'You're suddenly very quiet,' I remarked on our way back.
'I was thinking about your "cold-hearted" comment. It's not true. When I love someone, I'd go the whole way for him. Do anything for him.'
'Ya, but who can love a pain like you,' I said, pitying the person fated for such misfortune.
'There are masochistic people in the world, you know. I'm sure there is someone out there who will fall in love with me,' she said without any conviction.
'It's not so difficult to fall in love with me either, you know,' she said, mocking me. 'You almost did when we were kids.'
I cringed. I knew she would bring that up.
I could not counteract her statement. I did have a crush on her all those years and, instead of expressing it properly, I'd gone and done the most foolish thing ever. I'd kissed her!
'That was my hormones acting up,' I said, putting up the only defence I could think of.
'Hormones, my foot! You lurrrrveeed me!' she declared, frustrating me further.
'Shut up, Alu,' I said ineffectively, trying to put up resistance in the face of mounting mortification.
'You know, Weaky, denial is the first form of acceptance.'
'I did not LOVE you!' I defended myself further. 'I had a passing crush on you. I never dreamed of spending my life with you.'
'Still, socha toh! It's not your fault. I am awesome and beautiful,' she said arrogantly.
'Theek hai. Socha,' I admitted. 'And I'm lucky I had the time to rethink it and I realized you and I would never have been good together.'
'Tu kaise jhalli type ki hai! I'm classy and my standards are high.
'I don't like girls like you any more,' I said haughtily.
'Really! Classy ka spelling bhi pataa hai?'
'Besides all that is in the past. Now I'm marrying the nicest girl of them all,' I said, trying to get the conversation to a topic that she couldn't argue about.
'I have to give it to you! You have an excellent taste in women.
First me, and then Shagun.'
'Yeah, I know. It's one good way of looking at it. Console yourself with the fact that you had your chance but ruined it.
Shagun took her chances and she is happy.'
'It was the best thing I did. I would never dream of marrying you. You're unbearable. I would have shot you and killed you or something.'
'Yeah, although I'm a gentleman, I would have killed you too.'
'So just be glad that we are not together.'
'I am,' I said loudly.
'So am I,' she said equally loudly.
'Call it even then,' I said, trying to broker some peace between us.
She thought for a bit and then said, 'Okay.'
'No fighting until the wedding,' I said.
'Ya, okay!' she responded somewhat reluctantly.
'And after?' I asked, surprised by her silent agreement.
'No fighting if you keep Shagun happy. Your murder if I hear one complaint about you.'
'Done!' I said, agreeing, as the Chandigarh city limits came to sight.
At least today had not been a complete waste. Shagun would be happy with the progress Alehya and I had made.
Excerpted from Nick of Time (Rs 150) by Komal Mehta with the permission of publishers Penguin Books, India.