[Book excerpt] No Stags Allowed: Love and relationships in corporate life
In his debut novel, No Stags Allowed, journalist and author Raviraj Verma, immerses the reader in the story of our lives – the vagaries of adjusting to corporate life, even as we balance our relationships.
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Rajat is an ambitious, small-town millennial, burdened to be the only child to his parents. He moved to Delhi to become a millionaire overnight but ended up running the corporate rat race. While struggling with his social skills and trying to crawl out of his shell, he met the girl ‘Sakshi’ who spiced up his life adventures and eventually became the last missing piece of his jigsaw. In the pursuit of love, Rajat periled his childhood friend, family and everything that made sense. Did he claim his love? Did he become a good son? Or did he settle the beef with his buddy? His life took the most meaningless turn on the most dramatic night of his life, his wedding.
A thrilling fiction novel by first-time author Raviraj Verma, No Stags Allowed is the story of our times as we transverse through the vagaries of adjusting to corporate life, even as we balance our relationships. The author has won awards for his short stories and dramas, and marks his debut as a novelist with No Stags Allowed. He works with AajTak.in.
We present an exclusive excerpt from No Stags Allowed.
No Stags Allowed | Rs 225 | Paperback | RedGrab Books
"Congratulations, my boy... congratulations." Shalini didi entered the room followed by her cheerful voice, with her arms wide open towards me. I gave her the hug to greet her in. "Thank You so much didi. Namastey Mama ji, namastey Mami ji." I greeted her parents too. Shalini didi was no doubt more excited than me or anyone else in the house, "So, how do you feel? Butterflies in stomach? Isn't it?"
I smiled back.
"I know, I have gone through this. But you are a lucky one. Anjali...Hmmm..." she rolled her eyes with the compliment. Again, I had nothing but to smile. "I always knew there was something between you two, you dark horse..." she poked her finger in my belly this time. I gave her a nervous laugh in return. Mami came in to save me from the torture. "Stop pulling his leg, let him rest today, he will be distressed enough tomorrow", she said.
"No way mummy, nobody is resting tonight. Tonight is his last night with us", Shalini Di dodged the resistance.
"What do you mean by last night?" I said "I am not dying. And I am not going anywhere, Anju will be the one joining our family."
"I don't care, I have not travelled 600 km to come here and sleep. Tonight, we are all going to make this a memorable night." Shalini Di said and everyone laughed for no reason. Di, along with my other cousins, gathered around me and started their nonsense leg pulling. Afterall, they had a valid reason to do so. All of my close and most of my known relatives were present in my house to witness the 'Rajat weds Anjali' encounter about to happen tomorrow.
I, am Rajat, by the way. I am a senior copywriter at an advertising firm in New Delhi. This is my hometown, Bahraich, where I used to live with my mother until 'that' happened seven months ago. A lot has changed after that but let's not get to that now. Speaking of me, I am just 29 and have hardly accomplished anything in my life. But being the only child has made me kneel against my family's will. I wanted to establish myself a little better in life but mom wanted a helping hand on an urgent basis. My suggestion to hire a maid was overruled without any hearing. Being a mediocre in my career was hard enough on me so I decided to be a duteous son. I am getting myself enslaved with a lifelong commitment of co-operation, adjustment, liaison and progeny of course. The only term that goes in my favor, is the partner I am about to get. For someone like me, Anjali is nothing less than a jackpot. Apologies for the bad analogy. What I mean is, Anjali is a great girl. We have been friends for a really long time now. I remember carrying her on my bicycle to our school everyday. She made her getaway to Mumbai just after school while I spoiled some more years here, to get a masters degree in English language. Then I left for Delhi to start with nothing and I still have the most of it. Mom was trying to trick me into getting married, since the day she found me smile-texting someone on phone, and that was years ago. I tried my best to duck the moves played by my mom since then, but soon realized it to be a Tom and Jerry game, with no escape. I accepted my submission when finally mom asked me to espouse Anjali. Unlike every other decision I made in my life, I hope this would be the right one. The celebrations tonight, are the upshot of that decision. I was gathered by the females more as all the male members of the family were gathered in the garden outside. Tonight was the night before the marriage so everyone had the ticket to the liquor fountain. Marriages in small towns like Behraich are nothing less than a liquor festival for the family. Speaking of which, I believe that people in my family drink more than they breathe. Just like there are separate funds for defence, education, automobile and other sectors in the union budget of our country, my wedding function had a separate budget for liquor arrangements.
Pradeep mausaji jumped into the scene and dragged me from Shalini Di and others. "What are you doing with the girls tonight... Be a man with us" he said, trying to keep his feet on the ground. Two other uncles of mine joined him and handled me a glass full of some random whiskey.
"Thanks uncle, but I’ve had enough," I said.
"Are you seeing this Pradeep ji? Your son refused my glass", one of my drunk relatives complained to mausaji. Mausa ji turned to me, "How can you behave like this tonight? Do you know who he is?" again trying to keep himself straight."It's nothing like that mausaji, I just said that I am drunk enough."
"No... you can't say no to your elders. Don't shame our upbringing." he said. I had no choice but to accept the glass. Everybody cheered and I gulped a mouthful of whiskey.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. The call was from an unknown number. Before I could answer the call another random uncle snatched the phone from my fist, "Throw it... for tonight at least."
"Sure, I will, but can you please give it back to me. It may be important" I said.
"Important more than us? Are you seeing this Pradeep ji?" he said again.
"Okay, Okay... Just keep it" I surrendered. My entire family was enjoying it to its fullest. My mom was waiting for this day for a very long time. I took a moment to sync with the vibes. I looked at my mother sitting on the sofa inside the house. She was wearing a peach color saree with a daffodil flower in her hair. I had insisted her not to wear the show-off necklace but it was complimenting the glow on her face. She looked like a queen. More importantly, she looked very happy. Not just my mom, everyone around me was happy. Drinking, eating, chattering...!
'Why are they all so happy? It is me who is getting married' I asked myself. 'Fine, at least everybody else is happy.' I answered myself with an exhale.
I heard my phone ringing again. I searched for it and found it resting next to the plate full of roasted peanuts. The call was from the same number again. Before I could answer the call this time, I was caught again.
"You are busy with your phone", Mausaji himself busted me this time. Thankfully, Nikki came in for the rescue. Nikki is the 'brother from another mother' of mine. His actual name is Narendra, but he is much known as 'Nikki'.
"Mausaji, this call is from his boss. He will be reaching here by tomorrow morning to attend the wedding. We must let him talk." Nikki said to mausaji in my defence and signalled me to leave. I followed his mute command immediately. I isolated myself to take the call.
"Hello, am I talking to Rajat Kumar?" he asked. I answered affirmatively.
"This is Rakesh from FedEx. I've been trying reaching you sir. You have a delivery. I am waiting at your main gate."
"Oh, I am sorry for that, I'll be there in a second." I said and came out to accept the delivery. This must be another wedding gift but it was just a regular sized box from an unknown sender. The box was so light, as it was empty. Out of curiosity, I opened it. There was a paper inside. I checked it to be a train reservation ticket dated for tomorrow. I had no idea what it meant. I checked the box again. I turned it over and a plastic straw dropped out of it, twisted in round shape, like a ring. Now that was something I recognized.
I skipped a beat and felt like a bolt of electric current ran through my veins. I think I knew the sender very well. I had thought that I was over the grudge but it followed me. Can a gram of plastic and a piece of paper ruin your wedding? Maybe it can.
"Everything okay?" Nikki came by, with a glass of whiskey in one hand and roasted cashews in the other.
"Yes. Of course." I tried to fake a smile.
"You look distressed." he said. He could always tell. "Must be the adrenaline." he answered himself. I had to smile again.
"Okay, let's go. Shalini Di is on a hunt for you."
"I'll join you guys in a minute. Just want to breathe in some fresh air, to clear my head." I said.
"Do you want me to stay?" Nikki asked.
"No I am fine." I said and gestured to him to leave.
After being alone, I rested myself in the nook to look at the silent night sky. The peace outside was a juxtapose to the havoc inside me. My phone buzzed. I checked the whatsapp message. Anjali had sent me a picture of her mehandi. 'That's beautiful' I ended my reply with a smiley, of course the one with hearts crafted in the place of eyes.
'Oh come on. Be honest.' she texted.
"Of course I am being honest. You look beautiful anyways." I replied, though, I didn't mean it. Before you judge me, let me tell you I wasn't getting married against my will; it's just, Anjali was much-much more excited than me and that certainly was killing me. She was asking me to be honest on a matter of Mehndi design, being unaware of the true fraudulent. 'Anju, there is something important I need to tell you.' I texted her.
'We have a lifetime to share stuff.' she replied.
'No, I want you to know this before we get married.'
'What's wrong Rajat?" she replied, sensing the solemnity.
'I can't text you all that. Call me when you are not surrounded.' I texted and exhaled a deep breath. I was again calling trouble for myself. I have done that a lot of times. This could be another, might be the worst.
Anju called sooner than I expected. Before I could answer the call, my privacy was compromised.
"Am I a stupid to travel over 600 km and watch you lullabying your fiance." Shalini Di yelled at me this time.
"Sorry di. Just give me 5 minutes please."
"Give it to me." she said and snatched my phone. "Hi Anju! Sorry to interject but tonight, your lovey hubby belongs to me. So, no more phone calls." she said and disconnected.
"From now on, you'll do only what I ask you to do." she added and took me in.
I had no choice but to follow her command. I had already lost control over my life, one night is no big deal.
'Rasta hamara takna, Darwaza khula rakhna....'
"Come on." Shalini di said and tried to drag me to the 'performance area.'
"Not a chance. I don't see any logic in exhausting myself to express my exhilaration. You all must continue." I said and took a corner while others chose to dance in the hall.
"Hey Raje! Everything okay between you and Anjali?" Nikki came in to ask.
"Why? What happened?"
"Anjali is calling me and asking about you."
"Asking what?" I asked desperately.
"Things I don't understand. She sounded troubled." Nikki said.
It was indeed my fault. I needed to talk to her and unload myself. All eyes were on me and my phone was in custody. I needed a diversion, so I came up with a plan.
"Listen bro, I need your help." I almost whispered.
"What am I helping you with?" Nikki asked suspiciously.
"First, I have to escape this nonsense." I said and jumped up to join Shalini di. Everyone's attention was shifted towards me, not because I was the groom, but because they knew what a sloth I am. I hardly move my body for nonsenses like dancing. They all synced their clapping with my sway. The enthusiasm didn't last long as I stepped on di's foot and sprained my ankle intentionally.
"Ouchh..." I said loudly to establish my pain. Everybody jumped in to rescue me.
"What do you think you are doing?" Shalini di asked me while sharing my weight.
"I am sorry, that's why I don't dance. I think I should go and rest now. You all must continue," I said.
"Okay, let me apply a crepe bandage first." she said.
"Don't worry, Nikki will do that for me." I said and Nikki received my signal. He transferred my load on himself and took me to my room.
"Okay, you can walk now." he said after closing the door behind me.
"Thanks, now take this." I said and started untying the 'kangana' from my wrist.
"What? Wait! Are you out of your mind? You can't take that off. It must be on your wrist till you..."
"Stop talking and take this..." I said and pulled his wrist to tie the bangle.
"What are you trying to do?" Nikki grabbed my shoulder this time
"Shhhh....! I want you to be my decoy. I will be back in an hour." I whispered.
"What?" Nikki whispered in return, "Where do you need to go at this time?"
"I have to meet Anjali. It's really important. Just take this bed sheet and wrap yourself completely."
"No Rajat, no way. This isn't a Karan Johar movie where you sneak out just before the night of your wedding. This is serious. I can't let you... "
"Nikki...!" I interrupted, "It's a matter of life of death for both of us." I said, looking right into his eyes. He didn't reply. I got his silent approval.
We share the same chassis so it wasn't a that bad idea. I tucked him in my bed and took his mobile with me. I exchanged my clothes with him as well and added a cap to my apparel to stay obscured. It took me not more than a minute to sneak out of my house.
I was being an idiot, and idiots do stuff like this. The street was quieter than usual. Anjali’s house was a couple of blocks away from mine so I started walking. Only the cigarette and pan shops were still operational at that time of night. I had no time to waste. I reached Anjali's in the next 5 minutes. Her house was illuminated but silent. Maybe the bride side wasn't as alive as the groom's. After reaching her door, it appeared to be a bad idea to come see her. Being uncertain, I dialled her number with Nikki's cellphone.
"What now Nikki?" she replied.
"Hi Anju, it's me." I said.
"Rajat. What's happening? You said you wanted to tell me something important and then you..."
"I am sorry", I interrupted. "That's why I am here."
"You are... where?"
"I am outside your house." I said.
"Is this a joke? What are you doing here?"
"I am here to talk, now come out."
"I can't. My main gate is locked already and most of us are sleeping."
"Then open the lock and come out." I insisted.
"Wait. Let me see what I can do." she said annoyed. I waited for a little more and then heard the lock hurtling.
Anjali opened the gate silently and signalled me to get in. She chose to wear a crop top with jeans. Her hairs tied strongly with one strand loose. She looked divine. "What! No, I can't come in." I whispered.
"Just shut up and follow my lead." she growled.
I stepped in and she directed me to go upstairs, I acquiesced.
"What are you doing there beta?" my to-be mother in law came in. I took no time to stash myself behind the guava tree.
"Nothing mumma, I was just checking the lock." Anjali replied to her.
"Good. There is jewellery in the house. Lock it good and give me the keys." she said and took the keys in her custody.
"Now come in and slip into your bed or you would regret having dark circles in your wedding pictures." she said and took Anjali with her.
I was left hiding next to the stairs, clueless. 'Congrats Rajat, you managed to get yourself locked in your fiancé’s house on the night before your wedding.' I gibed myself.
"Are you okay now?" Shalini di walked into the room where Nikki was 'being me'.
She stepped in and sat next to him. Nikki was lying face down and had himself wrapped properly under the bed sheet.
"Well, I can understand what you must be feeling. There was a time when I was nervous just like you. Don't worry everything will be fine." she said.
"Mmm Hmmm" Nikki hummed.
"Yes exactly. You know, I was really worried about how would I manage in a Brahmin family with a 'Janeu Dhari' husband, but it took not more than a week and your jiju started showing his true colors. Mummy ji used to be a nag initially but now I have got her inside the bottle." "Hmmm.." Nikki continued.
"Are you not talking to me?" she asked and tried to pull the sheet. Nikki remained silent.
"I get it. You are mad at me because I took your phone." she answered herself.
"Hmmmm Mmmm" Nikki hummed negatively.
"Come on, talk to me." she said and wiggled him this time. Nikki held his sheet tighter.
"Isn't he asleep yet?" My mom walked in to join. Nikki started to muck sweat now.
"He must be tired. Let him rest." Mom said and sat next to Shalini Di.
"Am I an idiot to travel 600km and come see him resting in bed?" she complained.
"No, you are here to help me. Now go and get me the medicine box. He needs a crepe bandage." Mom said and managed Shalini Di to leave finally. Nikki felt a bit relieved. "Are you okay beta?" Mummy asked, "Now get up, I've got you your milk. It's chilled, the way you like it."
I was in a somehow similar situation. I stepped out of the garden but the gates were locked. The only way I could go was upstairs. I heaved myself to the terrace where the oldest man of the family was stalked on a loose bedstead.
"Shakuntala...!" he said in his weak trembling voice. I preferred watching from a safe distance.
"Shakuntala... I know you are awake. Come here and give me the blanket." he said again. Of course, there was no Shakuntala. Maybe he was just dreaming.
"Shakuntala, the weather is chilly. Please give me the blanket." he insisted. The blanket was lying on the armchair next to his bedstead.
I was an intruder in his house already, so what's the harm in giving a blanket to an old chilling man? I thought of myself and walked towards him silently. I took the blanket and slowly passed it next to his forehead. He grabbed it and slipped it under his head.
The next movement he jumped out of his bed like a young deer and picked up his walking stick in defense.
"Who's this? Who is here?" he said as loud as he could. I got no time to escape. I was caught but still not busted. Because of the dark and his losing eyesight, he was aiming in the air. "Shhh... Dada ji. It was me, Anju... See." Anjali calmed him down. She appeared right on time. I took two steps backwards. She tucked him back into his bed with the blanket this time. "What do you think you were doing?" She turned to me and muttered.
"I was helping the gaffer. He was asking some Shakuntala to give him the blanket."
"Shakuntala dadi died years ago. This is how he remembers his beloved wife."
"Wow, that's so... Romantic", I took a pause to reply.
"You care about Romance, at this time? You were about to get busted."
"I know. By the way, what are you doing here? Isn't anybody looking for you?" I asked. Anjali gave me a look in response. "Sorry, I think, I must answer you the same question." I completed.
"Exactly, but not here. Follow me, and stay quiet."
"You don't want milk?" Mom asked Nikki. "It's okay, but do tell me if you want anything else."
"Here, give me your ankle and I'll apply the bandage." Shalini Di was back with the medical box. Nikki slipped his leg out of the sheet.
"I think it was your left foot", Di said. Nikki immediately switched the leg.
"Hmmm, I don't see any swelling. Are you sure you are in pain."
"Mmm Hmmm" Nikki hummed.
"Recent times have been rough on him" Mom said, "I think he needs to sleep with his mom one last time tonight." Mom rested herself next to him while Shalini Di continued to apply bandages on his ankle. He was getting all the attention I deserved, but still, I could say he wasn't happy with me at all.
"Is this your store room?" I whispered to Anju. "Yes. Since we are locked inside, this is the safest place where we can talk."
"Good. It's suffocating, but comfortable." I said and hopped onto the quilts. "Rajat please. Get to the point." she insisted. I exhaled as affirmative. "See, Anjali! Since we have decided to spend our lives together, I don't think I can keep any secrets from you." I said being earnest this time.
"Rajat, I am now getting worried."
"There is nothing you need to worry about. I just want to be honest with you."
"Enough of this foreplay Rajat. What is it?" Anjali said annoyingly.
"Actually, there is a girl. I mean... there was a girl. We used to work together in Delhi. She was my... my friend. I never mentioned her earlier because I thought... My point is, nothing else matters if we trust each other," I said and stopped.
"Baby, I know you think you are explaining yourself, but you are not."
"I know," I said and exhaled.
"If you want me to be aware of your past flings, then it's so sweet of you. But since you have chosen this odd time to speak up, then it must be something... you know, worth taking the risk," she said.
"I don't know where to begin with?"
"How about you begin from the beginning."
"It's a long story Anju."
"You are locked here till dawn at least. I think I have enough time." Anjali said and settled herself comfortably. I began...