“What’s the scene like out there?” Avani asked, looking up as Shraddha walked into the room and sat down on the carpet next to her.

“Everyone’s having fun. The DJ is playing old SRK songs. In fact, some people are having too much fun, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t. What do you mean?”

“I saw Teeni pour whisky or some such spirit in a half- empty two-litre Coca-Cola bottle. They’ve been passing it around. Some of them are definitely super wasted.”

“Oh god, are you serious? I told Ravi to make sure his friends behaved themselves. Honestly, they act so gawar, rowdy, wherever they go. I told Ravi so clearly, so many times, not to let them do that here.”

“It’s not...that bad, to be fair. They’re just dancing.”

“For now! It’ll only escalate. You don’t know them, Shraddha. You can’t take them anywhere. I knew we shouldn’t have invited them here to our family home, with everyone here.”

“They’re here now though, so just don’t think about it.”

“How can I not! They’ll make fools of themselves and us, in front of everyone. They’ll only get rowdier the more they drink – ”

“Okay, okay, relax, Avani di! I’ll go find Ravi Jiju and tell him to control his friends.” Shraddha got up and left promptly. When she returned a few minutes later, Avani was still breathing hard. Shraddha asked tentatively, “Is anything else bothering you? Are you nervous about getting married or something?”

“No, I’m not nervous about getting married or something!” Avani snapped at her younger cousin. “We’re already married! We’ve been married for two years!”

Shraddha stared wide-eyed at Avani, and then at the two other people in the room, the girls applying mehndi on each of Avani’s palms. They didn’t look up, probably accustomed to being treated as invisible beings.

“Kisi ko kuch bolna mat. I’ll tip you extra for keeping your mouth shut,” Avani said to them shortly before turning back to Shraddha. “What? Are you just going to stand there? Don’t you want to know what happened?”

“Are you going to keep yelling at me or will you calm down?”

Avani smiled despite herself. This is why she liked Shraddha the most in their family. Shraddha was twenty-five, and didn’t care that she was five years younger than Avani; she wasn’t a pushover. Even though she would have been dying to find out more details about this juicy new revelation, she focused on her self-respect first.

“Come sit,” Avani said, nodding towards a spot next to her.

Shraddha lowered herself to the floor again. “Don’t make me get up again for a while. The baby’s kicking like crazy.”

Avani’s eyes darted to Shraddha’s belly. She wished she could rub it, but the fresh mehndi made it impossible. “Don’t you want to know? This has been my big secret for two years.”

“You’ve been married for two years? How is that possible? Tell me everything.”

“Everything ... will take a long time.” Avani looked at her hands. She was going to be immobile for at least two more hours. She really shouldn’t be talking about this in front of strangers, and yet, she couldn’t hold it in any longer. Besides, the mehndi girls would probably not even understand most of what they were saying in English. Avani didn’t have the energy to care anymore. She was exhausted to the bone. “Well, there was this whole thing with this other girl...”

“Jiju cheated on you?” Shraddha whispered sharply.

“Shh! And yes, not only cheat, like, once or twice by mistake. He had a full-fledged affair with this other girl he used to work with. Actually, technically, I was the other woman. When I found out, they had been together for two and a half years. And we had been together for two years. So she came first. She was cheated on; I was cheated with.”

Shraddha was stunned into silence.

“And, oh, you’ll love this – the way I found out was hilarious. I mean if it weren’t so tragic, it would’ve been hilarious. So, get this – I never trusted him in the beginning, right? He’s reasonably good-looking, not in a traditional way, but he has money and is successful. He wouldn’t be so cute without those things, right? So, when we first met, I was twenty-seven and he was twenty-six. Still young and dumb about relationships. He seemed like a player from the beginning. Super flirtatious, too focused on sex. And I, in my situation, thought that if I gave him whatever he wanted now, I could eventually get him to become serious about us. I wasn’t really going to waste too much time on someone who just wanted to dick around and have fun.”

Shraddha didn’t interrupt.

Avani continued, “So I did the whole thing with him. Clubbing, crazy sex stuff; he was obsessed with blow jobs, so I had my work cut out for me.”

Shraddha’s eyes widened to a point where they were at risk of popping out of their sockets.

“I’ll spare you the details, but it was...a significant amount of work. But, like, I wasn’t exactly easy either. You’ve gotta have mystery; so I gave him the hot and cold treatment. I was pretty high maintenance, and he had had to earn everything he got, you know? Anyway, after all of that, we finally fell into a rhythm. Maybe six to eight months after we first hooked up, we finally became official. Like, exclusive. Met each other’s friends and everything. Still kept everything off social media though at his insistence, because we didn’t want our parents to find out. I didn’t find such behaviour suspicious, because many people I knew would do the same. I wasn’t exactly dying for my parents in Jalandhar to find out about my boyfriend in Delhi.”

“And all this time, he already had a girlfriend?”

“Yep. That wasn’t really real though; it was long distance. They met maybe once every six months, but apparently, they talked on the phone a lot. Like, several times a day, so she was fully invested. I knew of her existence. Really pretty girl, who once worked with Ravi – I followed her on Facebook. But it wasn’t until much later that I asked her for her number. I called her and asked point-blank if there was something between them. And she denied it. She said nope, he’s all yours.”

“But didn’t you say ...?”

“Yeah, there’s more drama to the story. Fast-forward to two months later, she calls me out of the blue. I don’t answer, because Ravi had told me that she was a little crazy and was obsessed with him. So, I blocked her on WhatsApp. But then, she messaged me on Facebook, and spilled the beans. Well, actually, all she said in the message was that she had lied to me when I called her earlier, and she felt guilty about that, so she just wanted to tell me the truth, that yes, something had been going on between them. They had been together for two and a half years, and that they had broken up just a month before I called her. And so, I called Ravi, and added her to the conference call. Everything came out then.”

Avani paused to release a long breath and the words she had held close to her chest for two years came pouring out of her. “Apparently, she knew of me as his friend’s girlfriend. So, she never questioned my presence in his life. Also, she was, like, twenty-two at the time – this is two years ago. Ravi was twenty-eight, and I was twenty-nine. This girl just sounded like this naive, idealistic kid, who got caught in his web of lies and had her heart broken. He had told her that I was crazy and suicidal, that I had tried to drink phenyl on three different occasions, and so she stayed away from me. And he’d told me that she was crazy and obsessed with him, so I stayed away from her... for the most part. But I ended up calling her when I had this nagging gut feeling I couldn’t shake off, and she called me two months later with the truth. That was all it took for this mess to blow up in my face. That two-hour-long conference call was brutal.”

“How did you go from that to marrying him?” Shraddha asked in disbelief, clutching her belly, as if seeking support from her unborn child.

“Okay, don’t judge me!”

“I’m not judging! I’m just trying to understand.”

What Do You See When You Look In The Mirror?

Excerpted with permission from What Do You See When You Look In The Mirror?, Nikita Singh, HarperCollins India.