SNAKES AND LADDERS
With the end in sight of a game the longest snake latches its fangs on your piece. While opponents are merrily climbing the tallest ladders!
Oh God deliver me from the do-gooders!
That should have been my prayer. Right after the one about steering clear of all emotionally challenged men like my Ex.
The Haveli built along the lines of a palace was a living fossil of the times when Zamindars reigned overlords in Bihar. Marble maidens with exaggerated bust and booty sizes frolicked in water fountains. More arched windows and domed roves than any eyesore I had seen outside of movies.
The landscaped gardens dotted with colorful sun umbrellas and the gigantic swimming pool feature with water slides in eye catching colors made my eyes light up. Please, pretty please… my inner child begged gleefully for a swimsuit and unlimited pool access.
This place could have easily passed for a five star holiday resort with no demands from the authorities to inspect its papers.
Instead they would have saluted and fawned over it as nauseatingly as the durban who ushered us into its stately interiors.
Had nobody bothered to inform the man we were well into the sixty fifth year of independence?
Inside the house the light was dim and it took me time to adjust.
The house was cooler at the least by five degrees a welcome relief from the tropical grill roasting the earth outside. It smelled invitingly fresh and airy.
The click of boot heels when they struck the stone floor echoed. Only my footfalls clad in sneakers were muted as if wanting to be inconspicuous.
“Virata is here,” Virendra announced. “Should we surprise him?”
My heart stopped.
“Veer, you might want to consider breaking um this news gently to your brother.” Prithvi was at his most tactful. “These um delicate matters of the heart ahem require uh precise timing.”
… And resumed beating.
Prithvi opened a door striking a pose awaiting us to precede him.
Even seated on a dainty green sofa edged with gilt Rajveer Singh my ex-husband’s stepbrother made quite an impression with a gory scar running down the side of his right cheek. Hooded eyes, hollowed cheeks, aquiline nose and a stubborn cleft jaw composed a face that horrifyingly compelled one’s eyes to stare transfixed.
Gray eyes studied me warily. He arose.
“Maithili! Don’t tell me. Let me guess,” he begged making me frown.
Don’t tell him what?
“You have lost weight because you are making a documentary to raise awareness on the medical condition called anorexia.”
“Raj Bhaiya this is what happens when you skim through headline news and don’t read the rest of the newspaper carefully. You have missed her article on The Malnourished Indian Woman.”
I was surprised Veer had read it and whether I wanted to or not I melted.
Though only a business duffer like me could have bagged this bargain offer from the Man Upstairs to buy two brothers and get these two ex-brothers-in-laws for free.
“Veer a word of advice- stay away from the activist type of woman- she is the most dangerous of her species.” Rajveer cautioned.
I sneered to let Rajveer know he was persona non grata. He and I might have bonded over our mutual hatred for my ex but that was eons ago.
“This joke ends right now or I guarantee I will keep you bound in litigation for the rest of your natural lives.”
“Oh dear! Are you in- what is it called- a snit?” Rajveer chided. “How on earth did you recognize her Prithvi?”
I eyed myself critical. I had not lost that much weight. To hear him tell one would think I had been fading away.
“Oh I tallied the nail marks on men she scratched, tooth marks on the man whose arm she bit,” Prithvi replied eyes twinkling.
“You are the only woman in my acquaintance who gets these unusual ideas. Do you know this makes you downright unpopular?” Rajveer chided.
“While on the subject of my unpopularity I can confidently wager the last person Mr. Virata Rai wants to see in this world is me.” I glared baleful lips thinning.
Veer started at that blunt statement.
I ignored him. If he had his head buried in the sand that was his outlook but a divorce made the lie of the land abundantly clear to a reviled ex-wife.
Virata was marrying Aadrika Diwan. It was being marketed as The Celebrity Event of the Decade.
The Indian edition of Vogue had just published mind blowing pictures of the bride-to-be in couture designed by the top ten designers of the country.
I had not seen the wedding invite but I would think the card had Virendra’s name in its RSVP section.
How much more factual had it got to get?
And my family thought I had issues dealing with realities.
“I have to refuse on matter of principle.” Rajveer replied. “No matter how lucrative this offer there is something called loyalty.”
I was not fooled. A profit raking mogul like Rajveer did not invest in losing propositions.
The name of the Goddess at whose altar he worshipped was Sri Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Terms like Principal, Compound Interest, Investment and Return on Investment liberally peppered his limited vocabulary.
So far as I could tell things were working well.
Rajveer took charge summarily. “Alright gentlemen I will look after our guest while you update Virata on this new development.”
Prithvi and a subdued Virendra promptly arose to leave.
“Watch your backs gentlemen and keep tabs on all weapons in your possession. You never know when what you own might be used against you.”
“Damn but I have missed your brand of dark humor.” Rajveer chuckled indulgent.
I would not have confessed it for the three worlds but I had missed him too. Melancholic money shark and I adored Mr. Scrooge despite such obvious flaws. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
He regarded me thoughtfully. “Are you going to meet him looking like something the cat dragged in?”
“I didn’t ask to be dragged in.” I thought that bit apparent.
He shrugged dismissive. “Queen Sheba thought it important and the rest as they say is history. Cleopatra had Marc Anthony on bent knees begging for mercy…”
“And your point is?”
“I thought you would like a visual of Virata begging on bent knees but I am just a man. What do I know of these things?”
“I can’t believe I am letting you talk me into this,” I muttered under my breath as I followed Rajveer down labyrinthine stone corridors.
Without a map and with my sense of direction I had no hopes of getting out on my own. If only they had not confiscated my smartphone with its inbuilt GPS feature- a gift from my paranoid father.
“Does this place have- like- its own pin code?”
Rajveer grinned hearing me grumble. “Aadrika, Virata’s fiancée, was Miss India and Miss Universe. I hope you are not feeling insecure or threatened?”
Who was he kidding?
He knew I was a woman and hence bequeathed with my chromosomes a tendency to drown in my own insecurities. I did not need anyone to ax my own tree. It was the one thing I was quite capable of doing and actually brilliant at on my own.
He flung open double doors.
I followed him to a lavishly appointed sunshiny yellow and gold bedroom. A vaulted ceiling seemed to be flying away.
The color palette of the room fired it to muted gold in the sunshine filtering through gauzy curtains spanning from floor to ceiling.
A canopied four poster bed dominated center stage. The seating area consisted of sofas and high back chairs in soft creamy leather. Through the French windows I could see a stone balcony and possibly steps lead down from there to the manicured gardens one rarely saw outside of the pages of Parks and Gardens.
To think I had once been mistress of this.
Thankfully I had not known. God in his infinite wisdom never distributed combs to the bald or I would not have a righteous leg to stand on.
Elizabeth had felt thus at first sighting Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley.
We women are pretty shallow creatures impressed by lurid displays of power and wealth.
“In through there you will find a bathroom and closetful of clothes,” Rajveer waved airily.
I was lagging a paragraph behind him still trying to take it all in. “Double doors for a bedroom?”
“Wasteful huh? Does it help overcome your aversion if I inform you we are the largest employer in the state?”
“Just show me the way out!”
“The biggest donor?”
I turned only to have him grab me by the arm and swivel me about.
“You are not going to break my mother’s heart. She handpicked those clothes for you. Come on, just this once, be nice.” He coaxed.
Psychics claim in the instant you learn to die for love you master the art of living. Let me tell you those fatheads know nothing.
I touched my wet cheeks surprised.
But to hear Rajveer at last acknowledge his mother so naturally, so easily I was left trying to swallow the hard lump in my throat.
The bedroom door shut behind Rajveer. The man moved with a speed and grace I would give my right arm for.
“You are not going to lock me in,” I banged the door certain on that one point and I did not care who heard me shout.
“I will never forgive you,” I threatened. Even to my own ears I sounded about as menacing as a declawed kitten.
“Maithili,” Rajveer drawled, implacable as always, “you are breaking my heart.”
“You do not have one,” I muttered.
Damn, to borrow Rajveer’s favorite word, I wanted just one go at the architect who lured with inviting windows that did not deliver on their promise to open.
Finally resigning to my fate or rather the fate my abductors had in mind for me I decided to fall in with the plan Rajveer had outlined.
In our fractious past I had always worked with Virata in a contentious atmosphere. Maybe if I stroked him the right way…
I had to close my eyes tight to block out the mental visual that promptly followed on cue. Poets describe love as spiritual and here ever so often I had to drag mine out of the gutter.
The walk-in closet made my girlie mouth water.
My ex mother-in-law might never miss an opportunity to thumb her nose at me.
But when she pulled out the stops she really went the extra mile. I stared awed at the trousseau she had assembled.
On second thoughts I hesitated before stamping her with my wholehearted approval.
For whom did you see wearing heavily embroidered lehengas on the street?
Or jewel encrusted sarees?
Or toting designer bags that could have done double duty as diaper bags?
As I saw it there was nothing in there I could wear which would not make me feel like I was participating in a fancy dress competition or walking the ramp for a fashion designer.
This would be right up Aadrika’s street; an ugly thought raised its head.
I should confess I had made it an academic pursuit to study everything about Aadrika on the public domain. This is how ijealous is wired.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” I murmured pulling out a black and gold lehenga choli. It beat other contenders hollow. The blouse actually covered me from chest to midriff even if it did leave the back bare.
The bathroom was the size of a two bedroom flat in Mumbai, maybe larger.
It was all in marble.
There was a Jacuzzi with control panels that looked out of a sci-fi movie.
The shower area cordoned off by a transparent glass wall simulated the look of a waterfall. Double vanities His and Hers decorated with ornate light fixtures and backlit accented mirrors. White, fluffy towels monogrammed with Virata’s initials in gold thread. I did not miss either the flat screen TV or the electric fireplace with a couch invitingly positioned just before it.
The door flew open banged on the wall and the resounding boom I daresay awoke all the resident ghosts.
I spun about under the waterfall shower with a terrified yelp a hand on my heart subconsciously affecting terrified virgin meets the rapacious lord of the manor pose. It was too much to hope that he was not looking my way.
With a scream of genuine outrage and sheer horror to have all my bodily insecurities exposed I lunged for a towel.
My foot skidded. I flew backwards my hands futilely clutching the fluffy, white thingie. If I was lucky I was going to hit the back of my head and go into a coma…
I am positive he took a flying leap. His body smacked in mine mid-air. Now I would die twice as faster.
I landed on the wet floor on my back and cushioned his fall. So heavy was the impact we did not skid an inch on the soapy, slippery floor.
We were plastered head to toe with the towel and my hands sandwiched in between. I could feel the erratic thumping of my heart against the fist of a hand.
Gradually I became aware that my sorry neck was not broken.
Virata’s right hand with fingers splayed was fastened about my head and neck an effective shield with the elbow digging in my back. The left slapped against my bare bottom held my lower body pressed against his.
I opened my eyes.
His gray eyes were fixed on the hand trapped under my head. He wants to avoid eye contact, I thought.
Levering himself to his left he lifted his torso apparently in an effort to arise.
His open mouth blew a draught of cool breath on my face.
I am at a loss to explain how that could be a turn on but for me it was. This once there was no fear I was going to babble and give him an easy walkover.
I was breathing all wrong and my vocal chords were choking me.
A lock of black hair fell on Virata’s forehead. His patrician nostrils flared with each inhale and exhale. He breathed in my face harshly fighting for control over self, caging me within the circle of his arms. His chiseled mouth was closeted by deep lines of stress. The stubborn jaw was tightly clenched. The jut of his jaw was achingly familiar.
I felt his fingers slowly unclench. The mad save had cost him. He pulled his hand free wincing and shaking his fingers experimentally to see if they still worked.
“Damn,” the oath was a painful hiss. I saw his forehead furrow.
“Now right through there… You newlyweds are going to adore the bathroom or I will eat my hat.”
The smug, cloying way the man’s tongue rolled out the syllables pierced through the fog.
I reflexively clutched fistfuls of Virata’s jacket lapels. It was some soft blue gray material.
Our gazes collided.
“Don’t you dare move,” I hissed horrified.
Gray eyes dripped icicles. If Rajveer was not such a tightwad I could have been raking in the green.
The sort of man he was Virata Rai did not take kindly to commands. He arched an elegant eyebrow eloquent even in his silence. He tilted such that his knee braced on the floor intending to arise leaving me to give a floor show to floor them all!
A girl giggled. “If they find their way out of that garangutan bed, that is.”
“Yeah where did you buy it Bhanu,” another asked,“Was some sultan holding a garage sale?”
I could have apologized. I would have apologized but the obtuse man made me so spitting mad I clutched him about his waist and yanked down with all my might.
His eyes told me he was not amused. He slapped both hands on the bathroom floor palms down determined to expose me or die trying.
“You naughty girls! Aadrika your friends keep teasing me-”
“Pay no attention Bhanu they are jealous of your exquisite taste.”
Some womanly intuition spurred. I did not question its warped logic.
I reared up and kissed him smack on the mouth. It was a surprise tactic to disarm. There was no finesse to it, no art I could boast of.
I had kissed Virata before and been at the receiving end of his critical review. Then he had accused me of trying to hit and run.
He nipped at my bottom lip. Not to draw blood but a painful reprimand to teach a lesson about who was in control here.
I was the person wronged.
It was my life that his meddlesome family had spun out of control.
My instinct was to bite him back harder but I hesitated at the feel of his soft lip between my sharp teeth. The cool sweet taste of his mint and male flavor against my tongue threw me off kilter.
My fingers digging in his scalp tensed reluctant to release him from their hold. He was not going anywhere. His mouth opened over mine forcing me to grant access to an openmouthed kiss. I had aroused the fiercely competitive warrior with a compulsive need to win.
I moved my mouth in counterpoint to his lost in the incredible tugging pleasure of his tongue seeking mine.
It was as if someone poured a bucket of cold water over my head.
I opened my eyes startled.
The shower was still trickling. It had not shut completely. And the fog I mentioned before?
Well it was the steam condensing around us on the transparent glass walls.
Apparently we could still be seen and to the innocent bystander it was plain as the nose on her face that her fiancé was going at it cats and dogs with another woman christening the bathroom so to speak before she even got a chance to use it.
I released Virata’s neck from my death grip and deliberately hit the back of my head to the stone floor to knock some sense into it.
“Bhanu-Get-The-Hell-Out-Of-Here.” Virata did not turn his head to command in a menacing tone of voice. His laser like eyes were boring twin holes in mine.
His was the anger of the righteous who had been ill used and sterner men than
Bhanu whoever he was would have jumped to attend.
I saw the party trail out even a dazed dragging her feet Aadrika. I think it was her. The glass walls made it hazy to see her delicate featured face but her fine figure was singular.
Such women gave dignity another level of elevation.
Had it been me and had it been my man I would not have been intimidated by anything.
I would have gone at him hammer and tongs and when the dust settled he would have known he had been in a fight.
Virata waited head turned for the sound of their footsteps to fade away.
I? I could have died from the ignominy of my position.
Finally he turned to look my way.
Each feature on his face had sharpened and turned a swarthy shade of red. I wanted to squirm under his hooded glare.
“Of course it’s polite when you say it.” I grumbled.
Sometimes I doubt my own sanity.
Ravana had the same problem, the guy who carted away Goddess Sita in the Ramayana. He should have laid arms and surrendered at the first chance offered. How much proof does one person need that all the odds are stacked against him?
At this point Virata should have unleashed a weapon range of the caliber of the Vajra, Lord Indra’s thunderbolt. I had been deliberately provocative.
I waited for a tongue lashing- that never came.
Belated it struck to investigate what had his undivided attention.
“Eek!” I think I screamed. “You- you Pervert!”
I pushed him off me to retrieve the towel now soaking wet and tuck it under my arms half sitting up but did not dare arise. My traitorous legs felt incapable of supporting any body weight.
“Pervert?” He took umbrage at my choice of epithet. He arose to his daunting height of six feet two.
No knocking knees to contend with on his part: life was so unfair.
“You were looking!” I could feel my cheeks on fire.
Just that one word and spoken in an imperious tone.
If he were my size I would have clobbered him.
“How dare-?” Even as the words slipped past my lips I flinched knowing the whole thing was going to blow in my face.
Lucky for me there were no assassins on his payroll.
“You are such an aggravating woman.” He denounced over my head reaching for the shower and turning it off.
“You drive me crazy wanting to…” He raised his hands and fisted them as if fighting for control, “… like prickly heat under my skin.”
The prickly heat was accompanied by a hiss and clenched teeth action.
A trickling background sound of water quieted and then an ominous silence filled the bathroom.
He suddenly slapped the wall hard, spun around and came at me. He bent to loom over my face in so fine a rage such that I cowered.
“I would be a pervert if I forced you. And I never!”
He let that sink in.
“Pshaw!” He gave a disgusted exclamation rising up.
“So I saw you naked. What do you expect me to do? Pretend to be blind so as not to outrage your “overrated modesty”?”
He asked turning as he stalked to the bathroom door making elaborate quotation marks with his hands for emphasis.
I willed for the drain to open up and suck me in.
“Besides you have nothing exceptional I have not seen before. But yeah the women before- they had class!”
He slammed the shower door shut having hurled that illuminating home truth to my face.
The sound of water squelching from his black patent leather handmade designer shoes and a trail of water puddles followed him.
Team Virata 2
Home Team 0
That was how the score board looked to me.