Gaurav’s back was beginning to hurt.
The rough texture of the bark was reassuring at short intervals of time but having sat on a branch for almost an hour now, it was beginning to poke at his back and legs, leaving scars he knew would stay. He would keep coming back again and again, and he would sit on that same branch in the same position, with his legs extended in front, and it would hurt later.
It was good, good that he still felt something. Pain was better than feeling numb.
The green leaves smelt fresh, even in the middle of the night. They felt smooth under his fingertips as he ripped them leisurely, trying to give his hands something to do. The banyan tree was one of many in his small village, and the only one he frequented visiting. Especially on the worst days, the ones where it felt like the world was against him.
He tried to pretend like he was numb to all that was happening to him. He tried to store the pain away in little boxes in his mind. But the deep ache he felt in his stomach when he remembered why he was sitting on the tree in the first place never went away. Rishabh. It was always because of Rishabh.
Stupid, perfect Rishabh. Sometimes he wished that they had never met. That the day when Rishabh’s family came to his house to say hello, he should have just sat in his room and not come out. That would have saved him from the heartbreak he was going to face tomorrow.
He wished every day that the moment that they met had not been as perfect as it was, that they hadn’t hung out every day since, that they had not even become friends. That would have put him in a very different position. Maybe Rishabh would be sitting next to him on the branch. But everything had gone wrong.
Gaurav had fallen for him, even though he shouldn’t have. Even though he knew that nothing would ever happen between them. And now tomorrow, his fate alone would be sealed. He pulled at the branch above him, wanting it to fall on him and kill him then and there.
That was when he heard it.
At first, he thought he was imagining the sniffling.
Pallavi couldn’t stop the tears that were running down her face.
She knew that crying would not make it easier, it would not transport her out of the situation she had found herself in. It would only amplify the fact that she had lost all hope, which is why she was resorting to crying like a baby. She knew it all, but she couldn’t help it.
She wished she could run away, be anywhere but here, do anything but what she had to do tomorrow.
She was just sixteen, a young girl fresh in high school. She had come back to her village for her summer vacations, the smell of freshly planted vegetables and flowers enveloping her in the feeling of home that she never seemed to feel back in the city.
She had come for some relaxation, as she came every year. She had not come to throw away her life.
She was to get married tomorrow, to a guy who she had only seen in passing, a neighbour and possibly a distant relative of her family. This was common in her village. She knew many of her female cousins who had gotten married the same time she was starting middle school and had given birth to at least three children by the time she reached high school.
This was something that seemed so far away, something she would remain untouched by. Child marriage. She had learnt enough about it in school, drawn dozens of posters about it, recited speeches and performed skits. Everyone had come to a common consensus that it was horrible, and that it should stop happening. Then all of them had moved on with their lives, never once thinking about the young girls and boys who may be getting married at that very moment.
It was something that was romanticized in movies, something that was a constantly used plot device in books, a fantasy, an impossible event.
Yet, here Pallavi was, only a few hours away from tying herself to a man she would have to spend the rest of her life with. And instead of fretting over her jewellery or gushing over her future husband’s perfect face as she was expected to, she was sitting on the branch of the banyan tree farthest from her house.
The rustling of leaves stopped her tears immediately.
She was not alone.
“Hello?”, a male voice called, seeming almost as if they were sitting right behind her.
“Are you okay?”, he asked, a hint of concern in his voice.
She realized that she had not exactly been very quiet while she was crying.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Pallavi replied, and she could sense that he did not believe her. But he went silent again, and she knew there must be a reason for him to be on this tree at this time of the night.
“Are you okay?” she asked, throwing his own question back at him.
A moment of nothing.
“No, I’m not. And I don’t think I ever will be,” he said, and she felt the sincerity in his voice. She felt bad now for denying her sadness.
“I feel the same way,” she said, wiping off the tears that were sticky on her cheeks now.
Gaurav couldn’t stop the bitter laugh that came from his throat when she agreed with him.
Another forlorn, hopelessly lost soul. She was the first person he had ever encountered on the tree he was currently sitting on. No one ever came to this tree. That was the reason he tended to make it his quiet spot each night.
“Why were you crying?” he asked.
A moment of silence, only interrupted by the chirping of crickets.
Just when he thought he had pushed too hard by asking her about something that was clearly personal, he could hear her clearing her throat.
“I – I’m getting married tomorrow. To someone I don’t know. I don’t want to get married. But I can’t disappoint everyone I know,” she said.
It was slightly cold after the light rains, but the chill he felt after hearing her words had nothing to do with the weather.
“He might be a nice guy, for all I know. But how can I be sure that he is not going to hurt me or be terrible to me?” she kept going.
She was getting married tomorrow. Which meant that she was Rishabh’s wife-to-be.
“You – you are Pallavi, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, how did you know?” Pallavi replied, a hint of shock in her voice.
“I – Rishabh is one of my best friends, and it’s his wedding tomorrow. So, I figured you would be his – you know,” Gaurav said.
“Oh, believe me, I know,” she said, with a snort in the end.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Rishabh is a great guy, and the best friend anyone could ever have. He would never hurt you, at least not on purpose. I think you should give him a chance,” he pushed out of his teeth, no matter how much it hurt.
He may not want Rishabh to get married, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t put his best friend’s happiness above all others. He had been doing it for years, after all.
“Wait. Why can’t you believe that you’re saying this? I thought he is your best friend,” she asked, and he scoffed in response.
“Since you are getting married to him tomorrow anyways, and you don’t know who I am, maybe I should just tell you,” he said.
He meant it. He hadn’t formally introduced himself, and he wasn’t planning to. Plus, he needed to get it off his chest before it gave him a heart attack.
“I – I am in love with him. I have been, for a very long time. I know nothing can come out of it. But after his marriage, I’ll see even lesser of him. I didn’t want things to change.”
Pallavi didn’t know what to say.
"I hated you in the beginning," he continued.
"Don't worry, I don't hate you right now. I used to because I thought you were not good enough for him, that you were taking him away from me. But now that I realize you're just as confused about this as I am, it makes me feel a bit better."
“You’re probably right,” she said.
“About me not being good enough for him.”
She could hear him shifting in his position.
“I don’t believe that anymore. The fact that you have to marry him without even knowing him well enough makes me realize that you are braver than I could ever be. Look at me. He is getting married tomorrow, and the many years I knew him, I never told him how I felt. And I never will,” he said.
A warm feeling spread across her body.
“It means a lot, you know, coming from his best friend,” she said with a smile.
A long pause.
“It’s up to you, in the end. If you want to marry him, I will support you. And if you want to throw your veil in the fire and run, I’ll run with you. Don’t worry. Do what makes you happy. If you feel like you can give him a chance, stay. I can’t say for sure that you won’t regret it, but you won’t know unless you try,” he said finally.
She could feel tears in her eyes, but these were ones of happiness. She had found someone to support her. Someone who trusted her to make an important decision by herself.
“I am Gaurav, by the way,” he said, deeply exhaling after those words.
“Thank you, Gaurav,” she replied, tears beginning to run down her face again.
They sat in companiable silence for a while, after which she heard him climb down. She stayed there for a few more minutes, making her decision. She got down soon after him, sneaking back into her house and lying down, covered in leaves and dirt.
Rishabh could not move.
He held his breath as his best friend and future wife climbed down the tree one after the other, being careful to stay hidden behind the leaves on the lowest branch.
He was stuck there, not knowing whether to cry, laugh, scream or yell. He did not know whether to curl up into a ball or march into their houses, demanding an explanation for what he had heard.
Gaurav had stood up for him, as he knew he would. His love confession had come as an unwelcome surprise, but he knew that it was his mistake for not seeing what had been so obvious.
It was true, he did not know Pallavi that well. He had also stormed around in anger after finding out that he was getting married but had soon come to accept it. He should have gotten to know her more, understood her feelings.
But he had been an idiot. A terrible one. The worst part of it was that others were about to pay the price for his idiocy. Gaurav and Pallavi were about to have their hearts broken.
There was only one thing he could do. It was crystal clear, but still his stomach sunk at the prospect of the disappointment his family was going to display at his decision. But they would have to deal with it. After all, it was the lives of three innocent children that were about to be destroyed. He couldn’t let that happen.
Carefully, he got down from the tree.
He was going to go home and wake up his parents. They would wake up Pallavi’s family, and everyone was going to come over to his house.
He would explain that he couldn’t get married to someone he didn’t know well enough, and he couldn’t make someone’s life miserable. He would then ask Pallavi whether she wanted to get to know him. It would be Pallavi’s choice.
The same day, as soon as the sun comes up, he would go to Gaurav’s house, and he would tell him he had heard everything last night. He would let Gaurav kiss him and let him tangle his fingers in Rishabh’s hair. Then depending on Pallavi’s decision, he would kiss him back, or he would let Gaurav go.
He knew that he was taking a massive risk with his actions, but the people directly affected by it would end up happy. And that was all that mattered.
For the first time in a long time, Rishabh smiled.
He knew in his heart that he had made the right decision.