Chapter One: Kitni Baatein

Ananya grimaced as she took a sip of the beer, lowering the dark bottle. She leaned back against the counter, resting an elbow on it as she scanned the room.

 

She could hear the halting refrain of Cupid Shuffle joined by a chorus of voices, smushed together as they twisted their bodies to the music. There was a sizable number of people on the dance floor, but most of the people hovered on the edges, murmuring in hushed tones as they threw glances over their shoulders, their heavy gold jewelry glittering in the dim light.

 

She took another sip of the beer, wondering why she was here. She had attended more than her quota of weddings over the last couple of months as her college friends- or rather, acquaintances- got married.

 

They were all the same. Extravagance was mandatory, weddings held in hall with vaulted ceilings and crystalline chandeliers. There were the endless horde of relatives and friends to congratulate the couple, decked up in finer jewelry than the bride herself, their saris spinning a colorful weave as they milled about. And heaven forbid there be anything less than seven course meals with seven different cuisines, an ice cream bar juxtaposed with a street vendor paid to make garma garam jalebis on the spot.

 

And of course, there was the open bar. It was packed with people leaning over the counter, shouting at the bartender over the music, balancing drinks as they lifted them over the tops of other people’s heads.

 

She briefly mused how many of these people the bride and groom actually cared for. Hell, she was probably not among them.

 

She could see their exhausted smiles in the distance and felt a flash of pity for the bride as she shook hands with yet another well wisher, nodding to the relative, who patted the groom heartily on the back.

 

Ananya shook her head, rolling her eyes at the show. She was about to turn away when she saw the groom’s hand sneak down, squeezing the bride’s as she tilted her gaze up to look at him.

 

She hastily looked away, spinning back to the bar. She nodded to the bartender, who gave her a pitying look as he handed her another beer, popping the lid off.

 

“Ananya?”

 

She groaned inwardly, recognizing the pompous voice. She slowly spun around in her chair, smiling politely at the portly woman. She wore lipstick reminiscent of the dark lipstick worn by villains in daily serials, crisply outlined by pencil. Her neck had disappeared under heavy necklaces, the rich silk of her sari collecting in her elbow.

 

“Alka Aunty! It has been so long since we’ve met, hasn’t it?” Ananya asked. Alka smiled, leaning forward for a hug. “Come on beta, you have to hug me na? We’re practically family, you call me Aunty. Chal, come on, give me a hug.” Ananya restrained the urge to snort at the overstated affection, giving her a brief hug.

 

“You look beautiful, beta.” Alka Mehra quickly appraised her with a raise of her perfectly plucked eyebrow, before her lips pulled up into an insincere smile. “So what are you doing now?” She enquired, not hiding the intent in her voice.

 

“Thank you, Aunty.” Ananya responded, equally disingenuous. “I’m currently working on my second novel, actually,” Ananya waited for the familiar response, mentally check marking the box when she saw the flicker in Alka Aunty’s eyes.

 

“Accha? Haan, your mother had mentioned that you were doing some writing as a side job… but you studied… engineering, hai na?” Ananya heard the unasked query in her voice, her eyes glimmering with the gratification of gossip.

 

Ananya bit back the sharp retort that flew to the front of her mouth, forcing the smile back onto her face.

 

“I did, Aunty, and I also completed two years of med school,” Ananya found wry satisfaction in the flash of surprise that crossed Alka Aunty’s face that was quickly masked. Alka Mehra hadn’t expected her to be so direct about something considered so… embarrassing. “But I left because I found my passion in writing.” She finished, realizing she had lost her audience. The pause lingered for a moment too long before Alka snapped back to her, tearing her gaze away from whatever had caught her attention with a false smile.

 

“I am sure you will succeed at whatever you do, beta. My blessings are always with you,” she said distractedly, glancing over Ananya’s shoulder. “You must excuse me, I will just go and say hi to Dr. Mishra, yes?” She said, bustling towards the doctor midway through her obligatory good wishes.

 

Ananya barely resisted the urge to roll her eyes, lifting her beer bottle in a goodbye to the retreating back.

 

“Was that Miserable Mehra?”

 

She whirled around at the familiar voice, sighing with relief at the sight of her friend. She wrapped her in a quick hug, looking her over appreciatively.

 

“It was. Damn, Poo, you look good!” Pooja winced at the nickname. “Seriously, that ridiculous K3G reference?” She asked, squeezing herself onto Ananya’s stool. Ananya handed her the bottle and she took a sip, her mouth twisting in distaste. “Jesus, what did you get? BudLight? This stuff tastes like yeasty water.”

 

“Didn’t want to add to the cost of this thing.” Ananya said, setting the bottle down to the side as she nodded to the packed room.

 

“Tell me about it. This wedding must have cost Mihir and Archana a fortune.” Ananya snickered at Pooja’s statement, lifting her hand as the diamond band caught the light.

 

“Dekhna, tera bhi haal yehi hoga in eight months.” Pooja shook her head, taking another sip of Ananya’s beer. “It almost makes me want to elope. Almost.”

 

“Speaking of which, where’s your puppy? Bechara didn’t get up after he fainted from your beauty?” Pooja shot her a glare, rolling her eyes.

 

“I’m happy to be her puppy.” A male voice interrupted. Ananya averted her eyes as Aman dropped a kiss on Pooja’s lips as he whispered an endearment, handing her a glass. “See, this is alcohol. Not that thing you have there.” Pooja tilted her head at the beer bottle, sipping the drink Aman had brought her as she leaned into his hold. She paused for a moment, setting her drink down.

 

“What did Alka Aunty want?” She asked, even though she knew the answer. Ananya snorted, running her hand over the rim of the bottle. “What else? Asking me a question without asking me what she really wants to hear. She knew, she just wanted to hear me say it.” Ananya shook her head, exhaling. Pooja reached over, squeezing her hand.

 

“Don’t listen to them, Anu. You know how they are. If it’s not this, it would be ‘shaadi nahi kiya?’ or ‘bacche nahi hue?’ or whatever else they can pick at.” Pooja gave her a sympathetic look, and she sighed. “I know, Pooja, it’s just… I don’t know why they get such satisfaction from it. It’s as if hearing about my ‘failures’ makes them happy!”

 

“You are not a failure!” Pooja said sharply. Ananya shrugged and took another sip of her beer, looking out at the dance floor.

 

“It’s all about perception.” She said. Pooja opened her mouth to retort but Ananya cut her off, straightening herself with a faint smile. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Whatever they think is their problem.”

 

“Yes, it does! It affects you, Ananya. Either stop letting it bother you, or give it back to them!”

 

“She does have a point, Ananya.” Aman broke in. Ananya resented the frustration in Pooja’s voice and the placating tone in Aman’s.

 

She took a deep breath, forcing her voice under control. “Do you think I wouldn’t have if I could have?” She asked, holding her gaze for a second before turning her eyes back to the bottle. Pooja gave her a long look, sighing.

 

“Pooja?”

 

A voice called tentatively from behind them. Pooja glanced up, her face breaking into a smile as she stood up to hug the man in front of her. A woman stood by his side, shoulder length hair framing her face.

 

“Anand! It has been way too long since I have seen you!” She cried, drawing back to look at him. He was bulky, with longer hair that fell in ringlets to his shoulders. Ananya recognized him as the lead of the impromptu Indian acapella group on campus. She knew Pooja had shared an introductory literature class with him, and she had taken a creative writing class with him as well.

 

And he had been friends with…

 

“It’s been a year, I believe. We last met when you came to my concert in Chicago.” He shot a glance at Aman, and Pooja quickly backtracked, gesturing towards them.

 

“This is my boyfriend, Aman. And you remember Ananya, right?” Anand reached out to shake Aman’s hand. He turned to Ananya in surprise. “Ananya? I didn’t expect to see you here.” He drew her into a hug, before pulling back. “Are you just in for the wedding?”

 

She shook her head. “No, I moved here two months ago. Papa had a heart attack, and… I came back from New York.” Anand squeezed her hand, conveying his sympathies. “I hope uncle is okay now.” He paused, his voice becoming sharper, “you’ve been out of touch for… so long.” His gaze was piercing as it settled on her. She swallowed, not missing the subtle defense of his friend. She shrugged, looking away from his gaze.

 

“I needed change.” She said simply. He stared at her for a moment and then nodded, then gestured to the woman beside him, giving her an indulgent smile.

 

“My girlfriend, Natasha. And Raj is joining us as well.” Ananya’s heart skipped a beat when she heard the name. She shook away the thought.

 

There were millions of people with that name.

 

But there was only one that they both knew.

 

She pushed down the stirring of uneasy anticipation in her stomach. Natasha gave them a grin and a little wave, her entire face lighting up as she looked up at Anand. Anand gave her a warm smile, before turning back to the group. There was a brief silence, before Anand looked back at Ananya, his grin broadening.

 

“Ananya Iyer, you finally wrote that book!” He said. She felt herself smiling back, and he pulled her into a tight hug. “Congratulations. You deserve it. You wrote such fantastic stories in that class, I always wondered why you were majoring in chemical engineering.” He said.

 

She smiled wryly, “I don’t know why I did myself. But at least I can live off of it.” He laughed, understanding the difficulty of a creative profession. “I know, I know, I wish I had majored in finance or something so I wouldn’t have to work as a barista to finance my-” He broke off abruptly as he realized something, his eyes widening.

 

Ananya was about to respond when her words died on her lips. Her heart had leapt into her throat at the sight of him. She felt the floor drop out from underneath her, feeling the sudden urge to flee.

 

It was him.

 

She wasn’t prepared for this. But it was too late, and she was stuck.

 

“Hey, sorry I’m late. Your girlfriend and I were working for hours last night on analyzing that sequencing and I took a nap and didn’t hear my alarm.” He said, handing Anand a beer. Anand took it awkwardly, his gaze still on Ananya as he shifted from foot to foot. The man turned to the group with a smile. He leaned in towards Aman, giving him a handshake and a warm grin.

 

“Hey man! I haven’t seen you in a while.”

 

She felt Pooja turn to look at her, but she ignored it, pointedly staring into the depths of her now empty bottle.

 

He hadn’t seen her.

 

Yet.

 

“And I…” He trailed off, finally seeing her. He froze, and the room seemed to slow around them. She could feel his eyes on her as the group fell silent. She brushed a piece of hair behind her ear, drawing her courage up as she looked up at him with a wave.

 

“Hi Raj.” He stood stunned for a moment before he collected himself, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. His eyes were inscrutable even as he offered her a smile.

 

“Ananya. Wow, it’s been a long time.” There was a long pause as they looked at each other, exhaling slowly.

 

He towered over her even more since she was sitting down, his form lanky and slightly disproportionate. His hair was still short at the back but fell onto his forehead at the front. He had shaved before he had come here, and she could still smell the familiar, spicy scent of his aftershave.

 

“I don’t understand. We can work this out, we can-”

 

Memories tumbled forth, reminding her of the last time they had spoken. Rough, angry words echoed in her mind as they stared at each other.

 

“No Raj, I can’t deal with this anymore. I’m sick and tired of fighting. I need space.”

 

“What are you saying? That we should break up?”

 

“Yeah, maybe.”

 

The memory made her eyes burn, the image of him staring at her with an expression of hurt and anger imprinted in her mind. She blinked rapidly, trying to rid herself of the words that had stayed with her for three years.

 

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I don’t want to hear your apologies. I don’t want any of it. You said we were done, and I have accepted that.”

 

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

 

She sucked in a breath, two sets of memories swirling together until she couldn’t distinguish the pain from the joy.

 

“You’re it for me, Ananya Iyer.”

 

“You guys know each other?! It certainly is a small world, isn’t it? How do you know each other?” Natasha interrupted the silence, looking between the two with an astute gaze. Ananya looked away and Raj cleared his throat.

 

“Yeah, we do know each other.” He said, still staring at her. Ananya didn’t respond, her knuckles whitening around the bottle. She felt the sharp tug of guilt once more, unable to meet his eyes.

 

Anand chuckled awkwardly, placing a hand on his girlfriend’s back.

 

“It’s always… nice to see people after a long time, isn’t it? Makes for… interesting conversation.”

 

The rest of the group took his cue, laughing along, but Raj and Ananya remained silent. Ananya felt Pooja glancing at her from time to time with a concerned gaze between the conversation. She gave her a brief smile and Pooja reached for her hand, squeezing it gently.

 

But she was even more aware of Raj’s shuttered eyes on her the entire conversation, not even leaving her for a second.

 


 

“You haven’t said much.” Ananya glanced up from picking at the sticker on the bottle at Pooja’s voice. “I haven’t needed to say anything.” She responded, nodding to the vibrant conversation between the other people. She could still feel his eyes on her from time to time, before they pulled away when someone called for his attention. Pooja considered her for a moment, debating whether or not to continue their aside.

 

“You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to, Ananya. I’ll come outside with you if you prefer. I know he hurt you and-” Ananya immediately lifted her head.

 

“You think he hurt me?” She asked, disbelief tinging her voice. Pooja’s eyebrows crinkled in confusion. “You holed yourself up for months after you broke up, Ananya.” She said gently, by way of explanation. She saw Ananya stiffen, swallowing audibly as her gaze darted away. “I wanted to kill him for hurting you so badly.” Pooja said. The words sent guilt piercing through her, sharpening under the ferocity of Pooja’s affection. Long suppressed memories assaulted her, her gut tightening.

 

Pooja contemplated pushing Ananya harder, but knew she would only withdraw further. Ananya’s eyes were fixated on the ground, and Pooja saw her draw a deep breath before she finally looked up.

 

“He didn’t hurt me.” Ananya said, almost speaking to herself. Pooja’s brow furrowed, wondering if she had heard Ananya correctly.

 

“He didn’t hurt me.” Ananya repeated more forcefully. “What?” Pooja asked. She shrugged, going back to the sticker even as Pooja continued to stare at her incredulously. It was as if she had said the earth was a cube. “What on earth are you talking about? You were devastated when he-”

 

He didn’t hurt me.” She suddenly realized that she was the only one talking, her voice ringing more loudly than she had anticipated. She felt the group’s eyes on her and flushed, acutely conscious of Raj’s gaze.

 

“Why don’t we go out and dance?” Natasha asked, breaking the tense silence. The group looked between each other. Anand shrugged, taking her hand, and the rest of the group followed behind him.

 

Only Raj and Ananya remained behind.

 

“Are you guys coming?” Aman asked, turning around to glance at them. Raj glanced at Ananya and she shook her head. Pooja stared at her for a moment before grasping Aman’s hand, leaning into him as they slipped into the crowd.

 

An awkward silence settled upon them. They nursed their drinks, the tension steadily growing. Raj shot an occasional glance at her over the rim of his glass, curiosity getting the better of him.

 

Her long hair had been twisted into a braid, swung over a shoulder. Her caramel skin contrasted beautifully with the pale yellow of her Anarkali suit. Her eyes were framed by thick, dark lashes, and she had lined them with a swipe of kajal and nothing more.

 

She was still as serious as she had been when they were in college, her dark eyes guarded. She had always been cynical. He remembered that it took a while for her to relax, but when she did…

 

He shook his head, trying to make the memories that had sprung up vanish.

 

He couldn’t let himself go back there again.

 

He cleared his throat and she looked up. He found himself speechless for a moment, the dark eyes pulling him back into a sea of recollections.

 

“You wrote a book.” He said finally, breaking the silence. That brought out a tentative smile and she nodded. He could hear the pride when she responded.

 

“I did.” He smiled back at her, and she knew he was genuinely happy for her. He always had been. “I dropped out of med school to do it too.” She surprised herself with the words. She hadn’t ever voluntarily wanted to offer the information, knowing that it would only be received with a haughty raise of the eyebrow.

 

But she knew that he wouldn’t react that way.

 

His hands slipped on his glass in surprise. Impish satisfaction glinted in her eyes at his response.

 

“You dropped out of med school.” He stated. Her smile widened and she nodded, shrugging.

 

“I did.”

 

He stared at her, opening his mouth and then closing it. “You dropped out of med school.” She bit her lip, the grin hurting her cheeks. He considered her for a long moment, disbelief replaced by respect.

 

“Damn. That takes guts.” She felt a bubble of happiness at his approval, unable to hold the smile back. He remained speechless as the information sank in.

 

He suddenly turned to her. “I would have given anything to see Ma’s reaction to that.” Her smile waned at the unconscious slip, a reminder of what had been. He seemed to realize and stiffened, his mouth snapping shut.

 

“It would have been hilarious if I hadn’t been the object of her ire.” She offered. She held her breath, wondering if he would take it.

 

“I can almost hear her breaking into sobs about how she never had a daughter for herself.” He said wryly, a smile tugging at his lips. She laughed aloud and he turned to look at her. She laughed from her stomach, little gasps escaping every so often. He could feel himself reciprocating, deep chuckles spilling out from him.

 

“How did you know?” She asked between laughter, her shoulders still shaking. “Wild guess.” He stated, and she dissolved into yet another round of laughter.

 

“That’s exactly what she said. She went on and on about how she never had anyone who would do anything for her, then burst into tears when I pointed out that it’s my life and she said she had raised me and given me so much, and then wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. She speaks to me now, but I don’t think she’s forgiven me quite yet.” She laughed, but sadness slipped out from behind her words, her smile no longer reaching her eyes.

 

She fell silent, the argument replaying in her mind. She felt the deep ache at her mother’s disappointment, one that still lingered eight months later.

 

“I thought I would get to see you in a white coat, Ananya. I thought… I would be able to proudly point to you, and say ‘woh meri beti hai'”

 

She blinked back tears. She could still see the tears that had pooled in her mother’s eyes, disappointment piercing every word. She had craved that pride for so long it hurt, and she had wished more than anything that she could muster up even the slightest enthusiasm for medicine. She had wanted to run into her mother’s arms at that point and cry and apologize for hurting her, promise to go back.

 

But she hadn’t. It had taken all her strength to walk out of that door and follow her dream instead of her mother’s, to not pick up the phone and call her as the days turned into weeks.

 

But Amma had showed up at her first signing, holding out a copy towards the end. She could see the silent apology in her mother’s eyes as she reached out and ran a hand over her head. She pressed her lips together, realizing that her lashes were wet with tears.

 

“You didn’t go back to med school after that?” He interrupted her thoughts quietly, his gaze fixed on her.

 

She shook her head, smiling faintly. “I didn’t want to. I was tired of it. I told her this was my choice. She wouldn’t let Appa follow me as I walked out.” Her voice hitched, and he heard her swallow. His chest squeezed, her pain pulling at him too.

 

She let out a breath, shaking it off. “Anyway, she came to my first signing, and… she said she was proud of me. Not in so many words, but… I know she is. She only wants the best for me.”

 

She muttered the last words more to herself, but he had still heard them. He glanced at her, pushing down the familiar irritation.

 

She turned her face to him, giving him a watery smile. “You always told me I should stand up to her. I finally did.” She said with a shrug, casual indifference that wasn’t quite convincing.

 

He stared at her for a long moment, even as her eyes avoided his. They followed her finger instead, tracing the lip of the bottle. He recognized the refrain. It was an argument they had had time and time again, but had never actually solved it. Angry words swam to the front of his brain, a series of slammed doors and frustrating conversations that seemed to go around in circles.

 

He looked away, unable to face the reminder.

 

He settled for the diplomatic answer instead, carefully keeping his voice light.

 

“She’s your mother.” She nodded. They slipped back into quietude as the music changed to a slower melody, the strains of the piano ringing in the room as the lights dimmed.

 

“I’m sorry.” She said. He wouldn’t have heard her if he hadn’t been listening to the silence. He stiffened, the pain still just as strong as it had been three years ago.

 

She was looking at him, but he didn’t want to look at her.

 

“I’m so-“

 

“You don’t need to apologize, Ananya. It’s the past.” He said curtly, cutting her off. He could feel her uncertain, apologetic gaze on him, taken aback by his sharpness.

 

He knew he didn’t mean the words as he said them, saying them out of necessity. He had wanted to hear an apology for three years and yet he couldn’t hear those words, not yet.

 

He should have moved on by now. He knew it was childish to harbor resentment for something that had happened three years ago, before there were consequences and responsibilities.

 

But he couldn’t help it.

 

He didn’t have the capacity for romanticism anymore.

 

She regarded him for a moment before acquiescing, not trying to apologize. He stared out at the swaying couples, a deep longing tugging at him. He turned back to his glass, staring into the unfinished amber liquid.

 

“I didn’t mean to. I just…” She whispered.

 

He forced himself not to react, not acknowledging her words. The ache settled deep in his heart, relentlessly pushing its way to the surface. He had locked those memories in a closet at the back of his brain years ago, condemning them to darkness.

 

He knew she was waiting for a response, wanting him to tell her it was okay, that he understood. He could feel her hopeful gaze on him but refused to look at her, pretending to be engrossed in the music.

 

She sighed heavily, realizing he wasn’t going to give it to her. He took grim satisfaction in breaking her hope.

 

But there was no fulfillment, only the emptiness that she had left him with.

 


Song: Kitni Baatein

Film: Lakshaya (2004)


Note: I hope you enjoyed the first chapter! This is my first attempt at an original story — so it’s slow going. You can follow the blog using the buttons on the right side, either through WordPress or by email.

I will warn you — since I’m a student, and I’m taking a summer class, my updates will depend heavily on how much coursework I have to complete. I hope that is okay.

Please check the About page for notes on updates and a quick summary of the story. Chapters can be accessed through the index, and there is a playlist included that I will modify as the story progresses.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

— MN.

88 thoughts on “Chapter One: Kitni Baatein

  1. MN,

    This is the first story of yours I am reading, other than the brief comments you have left on other FFs I follow. And I must say, you have me hooked!!! What a beautifully written first chapter!!!

    I absolutely adore Ananya’s guts. Even imagining the drama that would have ensued in the Iyer household after her drop out from Med school, makes me nervous. (Note to self: Despite what your mom and MIL try to drill into your brain, hold steadfast to your determination of not forcing your or their dreams on your daughter!) But, at the same time, I wonder what makes her feel a bit like a failure despite having already published published a book, and winning tacit approval of her Amma.

    And Raj! I love him already ☺

    Once again, brilliant writing. Off to read the next chapter ☺

    Love

    Anu

    This is the first chapter, but I already want Ananya to toss the diamond ring and start dancing with Raj right away. Such is the connection you have established between them that I don’t even want to know the guy who is in the running for her affection.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Apologies… clearly I had misread the part about the whose diamond caught light. On reading chapter 3, it is obvious Ananya had no other serious relationship. So the ring was Pooja’s. Silly me ☺

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Anu, love the Note to self: Despite what your mom and MIL try to drill into your brain, hold steadfast to your determination of not forcing your or their dreams on your daughter!

      I keep telling myself that with both my children.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really really enjoyed reading it…I wish it wasn’t fiction tho…I’d love to meet ananya in real (isf she exists) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ur mind…OMG is soo creative to come up wid such marvellous characters. U shud really publish these as books 🙂 😉😊

        Like

  3. Beautiful start………It is such a pleasure reading your work………….I am glad you have little time to write another story……………

    Like

  4. Hi.. Just came across your story.. Really wonderful concept and very well written..
    Looking forward to read further story..

    Like

  5. Meena, came across your blog link from Meera’s River comments…

    It’s a nice story you have here… Its intriguing enough for a first chapter without actually giving away much of the past equations.

    The 1st chapter was simple yet highlighting the character aspects of Ananya. She is strong enough to take a stand but evudently has done so after having given in a lot of times before. She is someone who broke a loving heart and yet nurses a broken heart from the same, without letting the him know of it. She loves her parents, and most certainly her ‘acquaintances’ else she wouldnt be sitting there in a wedding function.

    She is concious of simple intimacy around her, whether its cause she misses what she had and longs for it, or is just embarrassed is to be seen.

    Your Raj, seems like a mature level headed person, tho his little vanity in the end (crushing of hope), seems like something he needed to get off his chest, rather than a mean impulse.

    Interesting.. Looking fwd to reading more!

    ..Rashmi

    Liked by 1 person

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