Every once in a while, when books transported me into unknown worlds, I gathered impossible dreams from them and weaved my own little fairy tales. Through them, I opened magical portals that led me into lands where life was a long, thrilling adventure. But in reality, my life was filled with nonstop misadventures that never seemed to end.
What was currently happening promised to be the perfect recipe for a disaster. I shouldn’t have agreed to this. But was there even another option?
I winced as one of the hired beauticians worked on my untouched eyebrows. I had never felt the need to trim them. Two others were waxing my legs and arms, respectively.
“Hurry up! We don’t have all the time in the world. The party begins at eight.” Neeru Aunty snapped at the beauticians.
It was only six now. What was the hurry?
Once she completed shaping my eyebrows, the beautician set out to work on my hair, trimming them into layers and styling them. My hair felt soft like silk, courtesy of the multiple hair treatments I had sat through. I might have loved this experience if the very thought of what awaited me in the next few hours didn’t make my knees go weak.
Whenever someone entered the room we were in, through the open door, I glimpsed servants hurrying past carrying flowers, fruit bowls and vessels, getting things ready for the party. Parties at Malhotra Mansion were not new to me. Never had I been a part of such celebrations, nor had I wished to be a part of them.
Ever since I remembered, Malhotra Mansion, situated in the city of dreams Mumbai, has been my home. When Grandmother was alive, the cosy little bedroom on the second floor had belonged to us. The day after she died, I had been asked to shift to a small bedroom in the annexe attic. My old bedroom had been converted to one of the four guest bedrooms in the mansion. That was three years ago.
According to Grandma, if God hadn’t been so cruel, my life would have been different. I would have inherited the Malhotra Group—or the Venus Group as it had been once called. When my father had founded it twenty years ago, it had been a small-scale textile industry. Within ten years, he had turned it into a public limited company with profits increasing manifold every year. But tragedy struck in the twelfth year of its existence.
Ratan Malhotra, the son of Grandma’s sister, had become the major shareholder of the Venus Group after the untimely death of my father. He renamed it overnight to give it a face-lift after the scandalous death of its founder.
Apparently, plagued by losses, father had taken the shortcut to escape from his troubles. I only have vague memories of that fateful day at the resort in Bali. But sometimes, I still woke up in the middle of the night, choked by tears and guilt weighing like lead inside my chest. Survivor’s guilt. I should have died along with my parents. Hadn’t they planned just that?
“I owe a lot to Ram bhaiyya. You will continue to stay with us. I will take care of you from now on.” That was what Ratan Uncle had told me on the day Grandma passed away.
Of course, he took care of me. I was packed off to the annexe the same day. From then on, the Malhotras, who were renowned Scrooges, forced me to earn my keep. Once I returned from college, I became their all-round help. I had to step in for whatever was the pressing job at the time. These days, I was a part-time gardener one day; on another day, I was doing chores in the kitchen and on yet another, I would be housekeeping. I ate food with the other staff and hardly found time to study.
When Grandma was alive, after she fought yet another time with Neeru Aunty, she would curse me and blame me for my parents’ death.
“You are an unlucky girl, Chandni. Else, why would my son kill himself? Ever since you were born, his business started to fail. You shouldn’t have wandered out that day; you should have died with them.”
The very next minute she would apologise and cry.
“Devil take my tongue. That wretched Neeru gets on my nerves every single time. If my Ram had been alive, he would have raised you like a princess,” she would say as she wiped her own and my tears.
I had grown up wearing hand-me-down clothes of Lavanya, the only daughter of the Malhotras, and cherished playing with her discarded toys. We were good friends in childhood and had remained so until money induced disparities started corrupting the bond we shared. The glue that bonded us was Grandma. But the bond started to weaken due to the quarrels between Neeru Aunty and Grandma.
Grandma’s fights with Neeru Aunty were always on the same topic. According to Grandma, the Malhotras were living off the efforts of her son. In retaliation for this accusation, Neeru Aunty treated Grandma like trash. She never missed a chance to humiliate her in front of her guests, after insisting on Grandma’s presence at her kitty parties. Neeru Aunty loved boasting about how she and her husband were taking care of Ram Khanna’s old mother and daughter. After each fight, their hostility increased. I often begged Grandma to not attend them. Grandma, however, found peace if she could hurl a few insults back at Neeru Aunty whenever she got an opportunity. She loved keeping scores.
Caught in between, I found solace in my books and studies.
“You got your father’s brains, child! Didn’t he singlehandedly build the Malhotra empire? You make me proud.” Grandma had hugged me tight when I got the 9th rank in the 12th board exams. My rank had helped me land a seat in my dream college in Mumbai. That too with a scholarship provided by a charity foundation that had tied up with the school I attended.
Neeru Aunty hated that I had gained admission into the same college as her daughter. Grandma had passed away during my final semester in college leaving me completely at the mercy of the Malhotras.
Luckily, Ratan Uncle had stepped in when I graduated with a high rank and granted me one of the educational scholarships given by the Malhotra Group for talented students. The scholarship helped me enrol for an MBA course in the same college. But after class, Neeru Aunty made sure I helped in the kitchen, ran errands and cleaned bathrooms and toilets while Lavanya, who was my classmate, roamed around the town partying. By the time the day ended, I would have energy only to crash into bed.
Somehow, I managed to do all the college work early in the morning and studied during lunch hours. My friends, Vani and Shweta, who knew my predicament helped me with assignments and exams whenever possible.
College would have been fun if Lavanya wasn’t a bitch of the highest order. Taking a cue from her mother, now a days, she didn’t lose a chance to insult me in front of our classmates. She would hurl snide comments at me randomly and she would often make me carry her things. If somebody questioned her, she would say, “Oh she is used to that. After all, she is our servant.”
It didn’t help that the Malhotras, who used to be filthy rich, were now going through a very bleak period financially. But they always tried to prove to the outside world that all was well. Neeru Aunty had by now relinquished all hopes that her ageing husband would revive their slowly dying business. She had pinned all her hope on Lavanya.
“She has to marry into a rich household. That’s the only way.” That had become her mantra nowadays.
Lavanya was beautiful and would certainly snag a rich man as a husband. She had the looks and with a mother like hers, who paraded her like some hallowed jewel, she was not far from landing herself a priced groom. But it was an almost open secret that she was a drug addict. Last night, she had gone out with her friends and had to be hospitalized after a drug overdose.
The media had got scent of the news and had hounded the Malhotras for an update.
“What rubbish! Lavanya is fine. I don’t know where you guys get your info from. She will be the hostess for her birthday party happening at home tonight. We will be sending pictures to the media and posting them on our social media handles as well.” Ratan Uncle had declared to the media right from the courtyard of the Malhotra Mansion today morning as I was leaving for college.
When I arrived at the mansion after college, Neeru Aunty had simply told me what had to be done.
“You will take Lavanya’s place at today’s party. She will be at the recovery centre this whole week. Be ready to pay back all the kindness we have showered on you.”
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