Meanwhile, Pom and Papu were busy trying to keep up with Palash and Girish’s repartee, which was gradually devolving into something like a business deal. They heard Girish assert rather strongly, “Listen to me, Palash. I like your son, and I am sure my daughter will like him too, but you have to keep in mind that Mishti might not want to settle for a life in Phulpukur. She has a mind of her own, and I will not be able to convince her otherwise.”

Palash demurred, “Girish, Pom lives in Kolkata, he has his own apartment out there. In case they like each other well enough to get married, Mishti can live in Kolkata.”

Raja was even more confused; he had hardly ever seen his father bending back so much to give the other person space. Palash must want something more than the money that this marriage deal was sure to bring in.

Two attendants entered the room with trays laden with Mughlai parathas and an assortment of local sweets. The conversation lulled; in the early morning rush to get to Diamond Harbour, the boys had skipped breakfast, and now they happily dug into the hot parathas.

“Thankfully, my father did not say that I have made all of this, to extol my culinary skills,” a cheerful voice sneaked into the room. The three boys looked up to see a pair of amused eyes measuring them up.

“This looks so much like a swayamvar sabha. I must say I wasn’t really expecting three young men to pick and choose from,” the girl said as she stopped in front of them.

Dressed in a casual salmon- pink salwar kameez, she was imp-thin with hair as black as dark winter nights tumbling down her shoulders in an insane riot of curls. The warm honey of her skin reflected the joie de vivre of a sunny personality; on the whole she did not exactly embody anyone’s idea of a blushing bride-to-be.

“Why only pick and choose?” Raja’s eyes danced with mischief. “You can mix and match too!”

The girl spun around to face Raja. “That’s wicked, deliciously wicked,” she said, her initial surprise followed by a tinkle of laughter. “I like your style, whoever you are, and I choose you,” she pointed at Raja dramatically. “You will go well with these two in the mix and match section.”

“Father,” she focused on the increasingly contrite looking Girish, “I have found myself a harem it seems; please sign the deal with the head honcho there,” she indicated Palash. “And get these boys for me.”

Palash nearly gagged on his food, Raja and Pom rolled with laughter, and Papu looked completely nonplussed.

Desperately seeking to infuse some sanity into a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand, Girish tried to stop his errant daughter. “Mishti, not all the boys are up for grabs...”

Mishti did not let her father finish, “Are you saying they will not be cost effective?” She paused, apparently contemplating the complexity of the situation. “Hmmmmm...If I can have only one, I think I will settle for him,” again she pointed at Raja.

Palash was struck dumb with consternation; this wasn’t going well at all. But before he could react, Papu jumped into the fray. “You can’t have him,” he said with a mournful wail, pulling Raja into a bear hug and refusing to let him go, “he’s mine!”

Palash’s jaw dropped to the floor, he could scarcely comprehend what was happening.

While Raja was being smothered in Papu’s embrace, Mishti took a quick call, “It seems this is a ‘buy one get one free’ deal! Suits me fine, I’ll take it,” she turned a happy face to her father.

Girish could hardly contain his dismay, “Even two is not cost effective,” he used Mishti’s lingo to pay her back. “One is,” he pointed at Pom. “And only that one.”

I love being objectified, Pom thought with a trace of bitterness as he became the target of Mishti’s undivided attention.

“Father chose well,” Mishti declared, eyeing Pom. “The proverbial tall and handsome guy with light eyes thrown in for good measure.”

Heaving a sigh of relief, Papu let go of Raja....Thank god, Pom was the chosen one! His relief, however, was short-lived: Palash looked angry enough to throttle him with his bare hands.

“Come, let’s go out to the terrace,” Mishti insisted. “All three of you,” she said, catching their unsure glances. “You look more like a package deal to me than anything else. Let’s leave the oldies to settle their scores...they won’t need us around while they sort out the business side of this deal.”

The view from the terrace was breathtaking: the blues of the river Hooghly stretched out to the sheltering skies, a smattering of fishing boats bobbed up and down on the gentle waves, the delicate smell of distant jasmines wafted in the breeze.

Pom was so beguiled by the beauty of the setting that he became even more speechless than usual but Raja could not be impressed so easily. He was chomping at the bit to question Mishti about her less than exemplary behaviour.

“I can sense the queries buzzing around at sonic speed inside your head,” Mishti said to Raja, her smile lighting up her face with a gamine charm.

Raja made up his mind: he definitely liked this quirky girl. “You’re quite a hoot, you know? All those histrionics, you pulled them off quite well too. But jokes apart, tell me, are you really interested in an arranged marriage for yourself?”

Pom turned around and focused his attention on this rather unusual girl, keen to hear her answer. Mishti looked at him with a steady gaze and took her time to answer Raja’s question, “Yes, I am.” She did not seem to be in the mood to expand on that; her attention had now turned to Papu, she looked at him and then at Raja, “Are you really a couple?” she asked, her eyes glittering with excitement.

“No such luck, Raja won’t have me,” Papu replied, eyeing Raja wistfully. Both the brothers ignored him, having eyes only for the girl. Papu moved away in search of some more food.

Now, Pom was insistent, “Why would you want to opt for an arranged marriage, Mishti? Why not marry a boy of your choice, someone whom you actually know, instead of risking it all with a stranger? We are not living in the dark ages, in case you haven’t noticed?” His disapproval was obvious.

Mishti started pacing up and down the terrace, wringing her hands in agitation, “Dark ages or not, believe me, I’m caught in a gothic nightmare. I am the mistress of all I survey, yet still a prisoner in my father’s castle. You think I don’t want to have my way? Settle down with the man of my choice? If only you knew,” she took a deep breath, and resumed her monologue.

“Every time I come close to liking anyone, that person is mercilessly vetted and inspected by my father and his goons. Few people have been able to fulfil the requirements set by my father. Forget about boyfriends, I don’t even have proper friends. My father intimidates them all,” she said ruefully.

“The only way to leave this gilded cage is to marry the boy of my father’s choice. And frankly speaking, right now, at least visually I am rather appreciative of his taste.”

Pom felt his face heating up as Mishti looked at him with unabashed appreciation. Raja enjoyed his brother’s embarrassment; this girl didn’t hesitate to speak her mind; but there was a niggling doubt: “Your father has goons?”

Mishti looked out to the river, “You guys have no clue, do you? Why do you think your father is so eager to forge a link with my family?

“Palash Bose will be a major political figure in the next local elections, he will be contesting as a candidate for Shyamol Sathi. We all know that he is immensely popular in this region, so odds are that he will definitely win. But Palash Bose knows Raktokarobi will not go gently into the night and fears that the fight will get nasty, which is why he wants my father’s henchmen to build up an impenetrable network of intelligence and security around him.

“Don’t be taken in by my father’s jovial personality,” Mishti continued. “He hasn’t founded his empire by being pleasant to people.” She gestured towards the river, “Nearly all the traffic on these waters is controlled by my father, he is ruthless in decimating his competitors, and now he has none.

“Palash Bose knows having Girish Sarkar as a close relative will be a significant step towards realising his electoral aspirations. My dad did a thorough background check on Anupam, and found the boy to his liking. Besides, when Palash Bose becomes the local MLA, Dad would have significant political clout by proxy, and probably turn some of his black money white.”

Mishti scanned the faces of the two brothers, both registering identical levels of surprise and dawning comprehension.

When confronted with complex problems, Raja would often draw up a game of mental chess, trying to sort out issues on an imaginary chequered board. At that moment, the chessmen skittering around aimlessly in Raja’s mind finally synchronised themselves in one fluid movement; he marvelled at his father’s astute moves. It was crystal clear why his father had been so desperate to bring Pom down from Kolkata almost at a moment’s notice, and why he was bending over backwards to oblige Girish Sarkar.

Arms akimbo, Mishti threw out a challenge to Pom. “I want to get married as quickly as possible,” she announced like she was the mistress, ethereal yet powerful, of the river that flowed behind her. “And I do not have any problems in marrying you!”

The Shotgun Wedding

Excerpted with permission from The Shotgun Wedding: A Novel, Suchandra Roychowdhury, Aleph Book Company.