Ria tried calling Vikram for the tenth time but his phone went straight to voice mail every single time like it did in the last half an hour. As she looked at herself in the full-length mirror she thought about her relationship with Vikram… if one could call what they had a relationship. She had never met or spoken with her in-laws after the engagement, so basically knew nothing about them. She usually never bothered about Vikram and it never made any difference to her if he called her or not. She was always busy with her work anyways. He probably expected much more from her… more than lending him money or just being present as an arm candy at his corporate event, but she couldn’t. It had been crystal clear on their one and only proper date and that had been a traumatic disaster. Even their couple of lunch meets before that hadn’t yielded any breaks in their communication block. They were never a regular couple as some of her friends said and she always thought it was because their marriage was an arranged one. Did he deserve a benefit of doubt before she declared her decision? But she was never attracted to him… neither did they have anything in common. Somehow she felt the feeling was mutual… And she even loathed him at one time. How could a marriage based on such a fragile foundation last? Speaking of attraction she had never felt the pull for anybody before, never like the way she was enamoured by Gaurav… NO, she couldn’t go there now. She was irritated because… she couldn’t wait to call off her wedding, she was supposed to feel guilty wasn’t it it?. Appa-amma would be angry, so would many of her relatives. But she couldn’t ruin both hers and Vikram’s lives anymore…
She looked around her room as she waited for Gaurav’s summons and walked to the window. She looked outside welcoming the light sunrays on her face and smiled. She heard giggles and looked down at the little playground. Small kids were running around and having a great time. They looked well taken care of and contented. She saw some women and Kalyani as well watching over them. They looked at ease and their facial expressions from her place, didn’t reflect their inner turmoil. She was further in awe of this man who had changed the lives of these women. She longed to meet each of them and learn their stories…if they told her. She hoped to use her professional skills to ease their pain in some way. She was sure she would learn a thing or two from them in turn.
She also wanted to meet the horses… she loved them. She always thought they were remarkable and magnificent creatures who had no qualms about carrying a human on their backs… they were an epitome of humility. Did they have time for that stud farm visit? She didn’t know if she would ever get to return to this place…
In about ten minutes there was a knock on the door. She somehow knew it was Gaurav even before she answered the door. As she looked up into his eyes, she found those troubled blacks bored into hers intently. He looked handsome in his navy blue full sleeves shirt and black trousers. He had worn his office shoes to complete his formal look. He cleared his throat. “We need to leave right now once I check your wound. Uh… Shamala was busy tending to a member… We will grab lunch on the way before I drop you at your residence”, he said.
Ria nodded and went inside as he followed her holding a first aid kit. He changed her dressing which was just covering her wound area now… not speaking a single word, the awkward silence just stretching. “um… Sir… Thank you for the help with the money transfer… I will return it as soon as I…”
He held up his hand quieting her and looked away his face devoid of emotions. What was wrong? He seemed so different today. Almost close to the bossman that he was. Something was troubling him and she just wished she could help him just like the way he had done her. She wondered if it was just her imagination playing games with her head or was it him playing the Jekyll and Hyde transformations turn by turn… He held her polythene containing her tote bag and they left her room together. He held the elevator doors open waiting for her as she was slow, the pain still present though it was considerably less today. She didn’t take the painkiller today as it made her reflexes slow down. Today she was to call Vikram and needed her senses and wits intact. She shuffled into the lift and leaned against the wall shutting her eyes and panting…
“Is it bad? You should have taken the pain killer…” He said softly, his eyes hooded with concern.
She shook her head. “I…um…I am much better and those meds dull my senses… so…”
He nodded slowly and looked away. As they exited the elevator on the ground floor, they were greeted by a few women who came to greet their ‘dada’. Gaurav’s face instantly transformed into the serenely handsome version, where he acknowledged all of them. She was surprised he knew all their names and even enquired little details. He then instructed Mr. Pradhan to take care of some of the issues they discussed and turned to hold her arm. She was grateful for the support as her leg was throbbing now and she probably would need the painkiller after all… They bid goodbye to Kalyani and her team who hugged her in turns and she felt she had known them for ages. She promised to return someday soon and she was again provided with a wheelchair but this time it was a smiling Keith who pushed her along. Gaurav had disappeared by then and met them at the car… Soon they were on their way to the main city. Keith was driving and Gaurav sat next to him this time on the passenger seat. Ria missed his closeness and her heart fell as she realized this was their last journey together. Soon they would both get on with their work and their respective lives….
As they passed the horse farm she wanted to ask Gaurav to halt for a while but her leg was troubling her and he too was engrossed in his mobile furiously typing. She didn’t have the heart to disturb him and just watched the beautiful farm fade away to the distance as they took the gravelled village road.
Ria must have dozed off when she was awaken with a jerk. She looked around and checked the time. She had slept for over an hour… without pain medication! She really must have been sleep deprived. They had lunch at a hotel where they halted to use the washroom and stretch. Gaurav didn’t speak a word all the while except to ask what she preferred to eat. She ordered sandwiches and tea and Keith and Gaurav ate some vegetable combinations along with rotis. He spoke to Keith about some accounts and money transfers as she shut herself out of it… Something was definitely amiss today… Gaurav seemed to be taking additional efforts to avoid her. Just as they were leaving for the car Gaurav stopped her and handed over a box. “Ria, this is your prescription and medicine. Complete the five-day course. You are healing well but it’s important to complete the course of medicines. I have also added a ten- day course of multivitamins….” Ria took the box and looked at him as he continued, “…. Uh… Ria I suggest you take the next week off till Friday. You need your rest. And….” he held up his hand as she started to protest, “….it will be a paid leave and exclusive. It won’t be included in your holiday list. Just…. recover and …get well soon” he said the last part softly as Ria had butterflies in her stomach. She nodded and turned towards the car. They rode in silence.
As they reached her housing society, Keith drove right inside the colony up to her building, following her directions. She had never been so conscious in in her life as she had looked around… The car had tinted glasses and so even though people gave the car a second look no one probably recognised her in it. It was afternoon and few people got out at this hour… thank God. As the car came to a halt, she got out slowly taking care not to put more weight on her injured leg. She refused help but Gaurav didn’t reply and helped her climb up to her house on the first floor. Another time she would have felt awkward being seen with an unknown guy. But ever since she had made a decision to break up with Vikram, she stopped bothering as to who would see her. But again… appa… how would he react? Her hands grew clammy. All that pep talk of bravery back in Parijath seemed to be useless at this juncture as reality dawned. She took her home key from her tote bag… Oh God she had totally forgotten about her set of keys and wallet in the bag. Gaurav was thoughtful enough to remember… She shuddered at the thought of visiting the Joshi’s for the spare keys where they would want the gossip…Oh God. Or even worse if she had to break open the lock… taking in a deep breath she held the keys and tried to open the lock; Gaurav took the keys from her trembling hand and did it for her. Her house was untouched after she had left two days earlier. Two days…they seemed like a lifetime. A lifetime where her life had… changed.
She sat with a thud on the couch in the drawing room. The climb to the first floor had sapped her energy. Gaurav walked inside into the kitchen and got her a water bottle. As she drank, he said, “Ria, you are not in a position to… ok listen. I will send dinner today and all food for next few days till your parents arrive. Do you want a nurse? I can arrange that as well.” Ria out rightly refused and he finally relented after she agreed for the food.
As he left shutting the door behind him Ria wanted the same light headed feeling she had since morning when she was thinking about her breakup. Instead she felt her heart breaking. She realized why… she was falling for Gaurav and she couldn’t do anything about it. If only she knew what was troubling the guy…
That evening to her surprise Gaurav himself got her dinner and they ate together at her little dining table. She was glad she had dressed well… not that she bothered about it where he was concerned. He had seen her at her worst but still she felt ecstatic on seeing him tonight. She was dressed in her favourite cotton light blue sleeveless short kurta and loose white salwar. She didn’t miss the once over Gaurav had given her as he had entered her house. she hadn’t been able to reach Vikram as yet and was in a way glad… she didn’t want to ruin her mood. Keith had put together an elaborate meal of her favourite curd rice and mix vegetable sabji with thin and soft phulkas. She served the mango pickle her mom’s trademark recipe. They ate in silence and though there was no small talk she loved the company…feeling comfortable as if he understood her totally. It was like,… she didn’t have to justify anything and just be herself. Did that mean he felt something too? That she wasn’t wrong about her intuitions? Otherwise why would he do all this for her…? He could have just sent Keith or anyone else… couldn’t he?
The dessert comprised of kulfi and she loved every bit of it. As she took a bite of the kesar kulfi, she remembered the last time she had been to lunch with Vikram. It was one of those two rare times they had met up during her lunch break. He was always critical about her dressing sense and figure and didn’t fail to comment subtly though. Somehow she would feel uncomfortable to eat. “Ria you should watch what you eat. You are fatter than when I saw you last time…i.e. I think a fortnight ago.” Ria got back to the present and stared at the kulfi.
“A penny for your thoughts Ria…” Gaurav said with what looked like a smile. Ria saw that he was very relaxed unlike in the afternoon when he had come to drop her home. He was dressed in black full sleeved T shirt and track pants. His barefoot look made him very homely and… desirable.
Oops…. don’t go there Ria.
“Um…I love kulfi …thanks so much… for everything. I also want to apologize…” she said looking at him earnestly.
Gaurav stopped eating and stared at her. He gave her the same intense look which made her insides quiver. She controlled her tremor and continued, “… I always misunderstood ….um… I was always angry at… you. I thought you were being mean by making me work more… um… but I know that whatever your reasons were… deep within you are a wonderful person…” she looked down and felt herself blushing. She continued looking at the melting kulfi the sweetness still etched on her tongue, “…if the last two days were any indication… you are the most caring and compassionate man… I have ever….”
Suddenly the chair next to her shifted back with a screech, startling her, breaking her melancholic tirade. She looked up and saw Gaurav breathing heavily as he stared at the wall in front. “I… I should get going.” He said with his voice cracking without looking at her. She filled the steel boxes in the tiffin bag he had carried and handed it over to him. As he reached for the door he stopped with his hand on the knob and without turning around he said, “Take rest this week. Don’t worry about work… we will manage. Just… take care of yourself”. And the next moment he was gone.
Ria stood rooted to the floor… what…what the hell had happened? One moment she was euphoric and the next moment the bubble had burst… No… she wasn’t wrong. Gaurav definitely felt something… but why did he run away?
What was wrong with him? Gaurav thought as he drove back to his place after the dinner debacle at Ria’s. All he wanted to do when he had seen her today was touch those cheeks sans makeup…so pure just like her heart. And those arms…in her sleeveless dress…oh God he only wanted to drag his finger on their length. He knew she had developed feelings for him. It troubled him and almost caused a panic attack. But wasn’t that, what he always wanted? He was in love with her and had almost stalked her for the last three years, tormented her in office… He knew what she tried to tell him. Her words were like a balm to his broken heart. He longed to just be around her… she had felt so good in his arms last night as she had fallen apart. He didn’t want to leave her bed at all… But would she still have feelings for him once she knew his past…? His very dark past…? His past had only brought in misery to everyone in his life. He knew he had made up his mind to not let her go but then she wasn’t his in the first place, was she? She was an intrinsically pure soul and he would be that drop of rotten ink that would spread in her clear water changing its colour….
No… He didn’t deserve her… he thought as tears rolled down his cheeks, blurring the road spread before him… threatening to drown him in his misery.
Ria was an innocent in all this, she was full of life. He had thought he would get her riled at work and forget her. Especially her being angry would have made it easier for him to dislike her. But that never happened. In fact, the last two days he spent with her had made him happier than he ever was in the last few years. In fact, he had lost control more than once and it was very scary… given his past. Even Keith and Parijath inmates were taken to her… they liked her, he could see. But she definitely didn’t deserve his tainted baggage. What was he thinking? Ruining her life? Crushing a bud before it got a chance to bloom? She would never ever bloom with him… He would destroy her… He was cursed… just like his father had told. In fact if she knew his past she would be on the top of his list of haters…. God knew he had many of them.
He wiped his cheeks as he drove, he had to do something. He couldn’t ruin yet another life. She was engaged to another man for crying out aloud. He decided to nip everything in the bud…. though the thought was unbearable. Last week, he had decided to transfer himself to their head office branch in Kolkata making it firm in the early hours of morning in the hospital day before yesterday. Somehow later he had drifted and thought he stood a chance to be with her… but now he would go ahead with those plans. Ria would soon forget about him and move on.
He was filled with these thoughts as he reached his home…hitting his workout with a vengeance… tears of agony mingling with his sweat as they streamed down his body… as he gave up hunched. As for him…. he was sure about one fact… he would never forget Ria. He would never forget the beautiful feeling of being in love with her, of holding her in his arms… She had been the Band-Aid for his injured damaged heart and he was all set to rip it out.
Years ago when he had to rebuild his life back in Mumbai, he had been a train-wreck and had slowly got on track… he only hoped he could recover from the pain this time….
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