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Strips of smooth desert land whip past either side of Ankita’s face. Billows of heat seem to rise out of the frying, browning land; she wonders how her surroundings are not yet dead. They quietly burn and wilt from Rajasthan’s heat, but somehow never stop growing. Ankita averts her eyes from the long strip of road that she knows so well to see the scattered carpet of bronze grass and the occasional sign of life scurry by. She squeezes her eyes tight and a maze of wrinkles become visible on her forehead; now unveiled because of her unusual lack of powder. She sighs, grips the wheel to bring back her control, and latches onto her steel focus once more, remembering that she must keep her eyes on the road.
Ankita no longer has the day’s blessing, for the sun had left her long ago. The only light she has is that of the glittering city ahead, but even the city only shows itself through mere dots of twinkling hope on the horizon. The time it took for the purples and yellows of the sleepy sky to drift into an inky landscape with no beginning or end, she was not aware. She was only aware of her thoughts, which were somewhere else entirely, back in the sheltered three-room house of her parents.
His name was Chandramohan. Chandramohan Chatterjee. The thought of it made her want to drive faster than she already was, the memories made her clench the wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Exactly six days ago, as Ankita’s parents were excitedly thrusting his photographs in her face while claiming that he was as attractive as the moon and had wise eyes that reinforced his intelligence, Ankita refused to grant the pictures a single glance. She had heard it all before, and they had heard her well-developed arguments against arranged marriage an inordinate amount of times as well. Nevertheless, Ankita’s parents refused to compromise and were convinced that their daughter was merely being finicky. They truly believed that the boys that she had previously received proposals from simply weren’t smart enough or handsome enough for Ankita’s fastidious taste. However, after meeting with his parents, they were convinced that Chandramohan was an excellent find, possibly the best that they would ever come across. His family seemed to possess all the qualities that Ankita’s parents were looking for. With their eyes sparkling and their wrinkled hands gripping the photographs close to their hearts, they smiled to each other and meticulously begin planning out Ankita’s future that she was so blissfully unaware of, sealing the fate that she so ardently dreaded.
After the meeting between Ankita’s parents and Chandramohan’s parents had been completed successfully, Ankita’s parents continued to discuss the possibilities of the pair at great length. They did so secretly, waiting until Ankita had fallen asleep to whisper with each other in the opposite end of the house until the wee hours of the morning. The more they discussed, the more confident they became that the idea was splendid. Soon enough, the next phone call from Chandramohan’s family came. They were requesting another meeting with both families, this time including Ankita and Chandramohan. Of course, Ankita’s parents heartily accepted, and they agreed to meet the Chatterjees for lunch the very next day. As glad as they were that the process was going so smoothly, Ankita’s parents knew that the toughest part was yet to come. They had exactly one day to break the news to Ankita that the three of them would be having lunch with the boy from the photograph that she refused to glance at, along with his parents. In one day, they had to accomplish the impossible ordeal of convincing her that this lunch was a blessing, and that it would be worth giving up the dogmatic belief that she had stuck to ever since her childhood days. They exchanged words that were positive, attempting to gain the confidence that the conversation with Ankita would go well and that she would somehow be able to mold her thoughts to conform to theirs.
When Ankita’s parents broke the news to their daughter, trying their very best to connect with her and to make the proposition seem appealing, the reality that they had attempted to suppress with fruitless optimism came forth as thunderously as a storm. They had hardly finished speaking when she stood up before them, with the regal yet furious countenance of hers which she always wore before she went off on a rampage, and used her wildly passionate words to break their hearts. Layers of tolerance that Ankita had built up over many years of listening to her parents’ cheerful discussions of the possibilities of arranged marriage, which she wholeheartedly believed would result in her eternal misery, exploded in her parents’ faces that night in their bedroom. It had never gotten this far with the other ones; Ankita never had to meet one of the families, so she had been able to retain her calm in the past. However, her parents were now requesting something so completely out of the realm of Ankita’s tolerability that she could no longer be rational. Once she had emptied out her heart and relieved herself of these burdens, she stormed out of the room, leaving her parents hushed in their chairs, and with that, she left the house. She ran faster than she had ever run before, to the house of a friend her parents weren’t aware of. She borrowed his car and drove away. She left that stuffy old town that her parents had raised her in, driving on roads she did not know.
Ankita rolls down the window, hoping that the wind will rid her of these thoughts. She tries to ignore the expressions on her parents’ faces that she saw as she ran out the door; she tries to forget about the excuse they will give Chandramohan and his parents for why the three of them will not make it to lunch tomorrow. However, these thoughts vanish as the city lights become brighter and start developing into clear shapes and buildings. Ankita shivers with nervous excitement as she sees the broad city landscape that she has only heard stories about from her older friends and cousins; it now lay in front of her, welcoming her in. All her domestic troubles seem so petty and insignificant as she gazes up at the towering buildings that envelop her. Basking in the glory of the success of her most impulsive decision, Ankita notices “The Corner Coffee Shop” among several other restaurants, bookstores, and other quaint shops on either side of the road. Since it’s the only place that seems to offer food at this late hour, she decides to go in to have a quick cup of coffee; after all, she has to break out of her comfort zone at some point. Being sure not to disturb anyone who is also awake at such an unseemly time, Ankita parks outside the coffee shop very carefully. She is surprised at her own timidity in this city, considering how bold she was back at home.
Ankita warily approaches the shop, completely aware of the black pavement under her shoes, which would be fairly clean if it wasn’t for the trash of unconcerned people, and the smell of smoke that she’s uncomfortable with. When she walks inside the coffee shop, she first takes note of how small it is. However, it has a pretty cozy ambiance, with the dim lights and the wide couches that are worn out from use. There are two girls chattering comfortably on a table in the back; they seem to have emptied their mugs long before. A short boy stands behind the counter with a faded blue apron, half-asleep with his head tilting dangerously from his propped up hands. The only other person in the shop is a man about Ankita’s age. He is sitting on one of the couches with a cup still full of coffee, untouched because of how engrossed he is in his book. Upon hearing the door shut behind Ankita after she entered, his eyes shoot up with a slight element of surprise. However, it disappears when she takes note of him. Ankita doesn’t have the heart to awaken the barista, so she walks towards the couches and collapses a couple seats away from the man who is reading, closing her eyes, becoming immersed in the quiet comfort, and shedding the day’s worries away. After a few minutes, the man who is reading gently closes his book and shifts seats so he is sitting on the couch next to hers. Ankita is quite surprised by this forward action, and feels slightly uncomfortable. She is debating whether or not she should leave the coffee shop when he begins speaking to her.
“So, do you come here often?”
“Why do you ask?”
“No reason, you just don’t seem to be from around here.”
Ankita narrows her eyes at this remark. He is a stranger, but she still takes offense to his judgment.
“What makes you think that?”
The man smiles, and then chuckles softly. This aggravates Ankita more.
“Well, it just seems as though you’re running away from someplace and you chose to come here. You know… big city, quaint coffee shop late at night…it makes sense doesn’t it? Besides, you seem exhausted.”
“I’m sorry, but couldn’t I say the same to you? We’re both in the same circumstance, aren’t we?”
He smiles again, even more amused now at Ankita’s obvious agitation.
“Yes, you very well could say that. What did you say your name was, by the way?”
“It’s… Ankita. What’s yours?”
He pauses for a few seconds, studying her face. Ankita raises an eyebrow, awaiting his response. She isn’t too sure what her opinion is of this man; he is a stranger, and a mysterious one at that, but he didn’t behave like a stranger should.
“Well? Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”
He remains silent for a couple more moments, and his hesitation is evident. However, his smile returns, and he answers.
“It’s Chandramohan. Chandramohan Chatterjee.”