Nikhil woke up with a start, something that he has been doing lately instead of his usual waking routine that involved a sequence of transitions from states of blissful oblivion to states of increasing awareness of reality. This reality feels more confounding to him each passing day. Being jolted out of sleep was annoying at the start, but it is slowly evolving into a habit. He has woken up with the same feeling of being incomplete, the same fading memories of wanting to scream but not being able to, the same helplessness he woke up with the previous morning. Today however, it seems that the feeling is more well-formed as compared to last few days. Is he losing his voice, he wonders. He thinks of giving it a try, a scream is a perfectly normal way to meet a new day. Almost on the verge of execution, he sees the futility of the undertaking and retracts.
Possession of a resounding voice that grazes the territory between being firm and being benevolent gets you far. This fact is exemplified by the bosses, or to be precise the singular form of the word as in the case of Nikhil and to be even more precise, Megha. In contrast, Nikhil is soft-spoken and economical with his words. It has its benefits in the corporate world, especially when you are in the lower hierarchies and you have an immediate boss who highlights the drawbacks of being loud and garrulous in every presentation. He has been doing a lot of these presentations with her lately. However in the world beyond offices and presentations, being less endowed with a resolute voice is construed as a lack of confidence. People who know him would contradict on the bit about confidence and may tell you his story from another time and another setting as an argument. For some reasons known only to him, he never talks about his past and forbids others too.
Megha woke up with a start too. The first thing she did, as she did every morning and even the ones when she didn’t wake up with a start, was to look at the time and feel relieved that she got up on time. It’s been five years since she moved out of the flat and life of Mayank. There were many memories of those glorious love-filled days that haunted her and usually managed to ruined her mood, but the morning alarm tops the list. Mayank used to set morning alarms every ten minutes as he deferred getting up. It took her a few months to figure out the reason why she always got up in a foul mood. The morning alarm had to go. As a repercussion of shunning the alarm, she wakes up worried every morning. This waking up with a start and wondering if its too late is better than waking up to thoughts of Mayank. Also, she doesnt mind because it induces a sense of urgency and keeps her going through the rest of the day. What she minds though is the fancy ideas HR has started coming up since last quarter. Today is ethnic theme and she has two emails from HR reminding her to wear a saree and setting up an example for the team and the office in general. Mention of the team reminds her of the latest problem she is facing with her star performer.
She remembers that fateful day when she had to choose between three candidates that applied for the opening in her ever dwindling group. The attrition was partly her fault with more parts accredited to the changing decisions by upper management making her focus on new technology every six months. She remembers how she went against the consensus of the interviewing team and picked up Nikhil. Even though handsome and looking sharp, the guy carried a graceful calm as he struggled to answer her questions. She saw in him the composed and methodical person she aspired to be. The merit of her decision has been proven in the two years as Nikhil has grown in stature and given more and more responsibilities. The only thing that bothers her is his growing reticence. Never combative, his sagacious contrapuntal views has always helped her develop perspective. With his diminishing vocals, she senses how her voice has acquired a louder tone as if to create the balance. She must have a talk with him soon.
She looks gorgeous in the Saree she is wearing as part of the ethnic dress day, but tall women always did look pretty to him. In her case however, there are additional attributes that make him fall in love. The dark sunken eyes, along with the dark circles around make them look cavernous in which the surreptitious lover within him longs to hide. To add to the charm, she always flaunts pairs of dazzling and dangling earrings, which moved in opposite directions to her hair. Her face and the unpainted lips makes you anticipate that they will break into a smile any moment, except they never do. When amused or in a good mood she ends up laughing, a laugh that he wants to capture in both audio and visuals. There were times when he reprimanded himself of these thoughts, and then there were times when he listened to the reprimands, especially when she started speaking.
The almost grating, stentorian voice makes him wince, makes him wish that mankind never learnt to speak. The villain in his love story is sound of the voice. To fight it he has no choice but to embrace silence. If only he could communicate without talking and make her learn the art too. It is not going to be easy, he thinks as he lies in his bed late nights. The silence of his room reverberates with the muffled yet rebellious urges to scream. The resentment of the silenced keeps gnawing at him, longing to be free of the shackles and join the discordant cacophony of the loved one. He must have a talk with her soon.
The office air was filled with rumors of more organizational changes as Nikhil walked in the next day. He was greeted, or rather his path was blocked by an animated group of four; to whom his appearance seemed to have stoked the animation further. With eagerness that none of them showed in their work, they jostled to tell him about the newly acquired knowledge, or the lack of it.
Most of his colleagues steered clear of him, most of the time, and he knows the reasons. He knows because this knowledge was transferred to him by a guy who was done with his knowledge transfer and was ready for the goodbye mail when fate brought him face to face with Nikhil.
Rajiv had joined few months back, he was smart and appeared intelligent. Nikhil couldn’t be sure because during his short tenure, they never interacted outside the discussion rooms except for the parting conversation.
“I have always wanted to tell you this, and to your face!” Rajiv had said with passion which was quite unbecoming of him.
“Can it wait, Megha wants me in her office to discuss a mail she needs to send.” He had almost sounded apologetic.
“No it can’t wait, because today’s my last day in office and you know that, you are such a snob. Everyone knows that, you included. What I want to tell you though is that they know you are the spy for Megha, and that’s why her favorite. They also know why you keep distance and fumble to speak even a single word when accosted.”
“And what exactly is your theory explaining the fumbling,” he had tried his best to make the conversation jovial.
“It’s because you are always listening, nothing escapes you, not a word. The only talking you do is in her office,” a wave of triumph passed over Rajiv’s face.
“Good luck, for future,” Nikhil remembers to have said before walking away.
This conversation plays again and again in his mind. Not because of the ludicrous allegations but because of the insinuation that he might be a favorite. Maybe he should report things about his peers to Megha. If only he listened. The sound of human voice has been on a declining curve of his tolerance. Even the music he enjoys now is void of vocals. He put on his headphones and set about replying to the mails received over last night. With growing responsibilities and stature you get closer; with respect to mails and meetings, to people ignorant about technology but good at writing. The phone buzzed and it was Megha, she wanted help with replying to a few tricky ones. He could understand her plight, she was one of those people who he was just describing about, but the ones she had to reply to were further up the mail ladder.
“Good morning Nikhil, I am fed up with the Israel team.” Megha always spoke as if she had rehearsed before.
She looked her usual self today without the saree, but the tormenting voice had a nasal tone. Maybe it’s the onset of another round of cold and flu, he hoped. Of all the variations in her voice, this one was his favourite, it was the perfect mixture of being husky and cute.
“Yes, I know,” he replied and fidgeted trying to avoid looking at her breasts.
“Is something wrong,” she looked worried.
“No, why do you ask, do you have a cold coming?”
“Dunno, are you being weird for a reason? Is it because of the reorg rumours. I checked and it seems this time it’s mostly about trimming the middle management, every unit does that once in a while and to be honest I wonder why they didn’t do it before.”
“Ok, so the team remains intact, that’s good news.”
“Yes, but what’s wrong with you these days, you have been keeping quiet during discussions and when you speak it always seems to be coming from a Nikhil so distant that you can talk to him but cannot discuss a thing with.”
“I am in love with you,” he blurted out.
“What..” she didn’t complete.
He looked down as if in shame, or probably to hide the jubilation of finally being able to say it. However, the implications immediately dawned upon him making the jubilation short-lived. He had violated the sanctity of professional relationships in general and a great synergy if not a partnership in this particular case.
“Why would you say such a thing, I am your manager, do you realize.”
He looked up to find Megha fuming as she continued.
“Is this a joke?” she waited.
“Say something, you idiot.”
“I find you pretty, especially your eyes,” there was no going back now, he had heard how the heart takes over the brains, but witnessing it for himself was a new experience and he was loving it. The remnants of the defeated brains was imploring him to stop if he didn’t want to be reorged out.
“What the fuck, Nikhil. Stop it. This is so grossly wrong and ridiculous, I don’t even know how to deal with this. You, of all people. Why are you doing this.”
He looked blank, he felt blank, was there more to say. He knew he had to rehearse.
“Come to think of it, I can’t even fire you,” she looked exasperated.
“Maybe I should go, maybe I should resign. Sorry.”
Megha suddenly looked more composed, probably because of the “resign” word, or probably because of the sorry. He would never know. She looked at him but beyond, as if lost.
“This is the same way Mayank proposed. What’s wrong with you men, just say that you love the girl and then leave.” The voice now appeared to be coming out with a hint of sobs. The eyes were misty but managed to hold back the tears.
“Why would you love your senior, both in terms of hierarchy and age, it’s so not like the sensible and composed Nikhil I know of. Why would you even find me pretty, no one does, everyday I wake up I am a little more ugly. Mayank didn’t even give me a call since that day.”
Tears were rolling down profusely now and he had no idea how to deal with it. Not only was he confused whether she likes the fact that he loves her, or whether she is thinking of retention and not reacting to her true potential. One thing was certain though, she is still obsessed with Mayank.
“Don’t cry, I will stay,” he managed to say while he worked out whether he was heartbroken or just relieved.
Megha kept crying and he decided it was cue for him to leave. He walked straight to his cube, packed the laptop and left the office at a brisk pace.
Next day he decided to call in sick. The day after he got a call from Megha which he didn’t take. That followed a message asking him to get his ass back to office along with a wink emoji and a heart, which was so unlike her. She must be desperate. His suspicion was confirmed when after a few hours she sent a sterner message saying he better be done creating the presentation if not replying the mails. The absence of the voice was so heavenly that he couldn’t even sulk properly. He didn’t feel like replying to mails or creating ppts, instead he read the emoji message once again.
The phone buzzed yet again. Even in vibrate, it made considerable noise; enough to irritate his sensitive ears. Nikhil knew it was high time for a new one, a new car too, a new house, a new beginning, rather a lot of new beginnings. Was there something like a new love, he wondered. Isn’t it always the same love that extends and encompasses a new lover that you acquire. Is one individual capable of love in more than one way, or is one assigned to experience only a fraction of the big vision of love that exists. For that matter, the millions of people in love all over the world might be in a way experiencing parts of the same universal feeling. If that is the case, then why does our first love feels different, feels special. One plausible answer is that first loves are unsurpassable because they are novel. Why then does he feel devastated at not being loved back, when the novelty is gone and he has fallen in love yet again.
The phone buzzed again. It was GD on his will-keep-calling-you till you take the call spree. He never gets it that the other person might not be interested. Nikhil didn’t want to talk, or rather hear a voice. The last few days have been peaceful, so peaceful in fact that he has doubts about his broken heart. Instead of answering the call he messaged back, “what is it.”
The reply contained more of swear words than of information that was sought for. A second one contained the information, “#@!$, it is my birthday and treat, there would be babes.”
For some reason, this message gave him purpose to get up and go to office. He would have to go for the party in any case.
There was however no explanation on why GD, as he called his friend from school days, college days and for a year, office days, celebrated birthdays like a kid. He would cut a cake, ordered by himself, and would spend a lot entertaining people he hardly knew. He insisted that everyone must drink like crazy while himself not touching the poison. Sameer had a theory explaining this behaviour. GD is a religious fanatic in hiding, he would say with eyebrows slightly raised and his tone slightly modulated, and religious people don’t booze on their birthdays, instead they visit temples in the morning and prayed before retiring to bed. Sameer used to be religious once which makes him the expert on these matters, and he might be right. This theory goes for a toss when you meet GD. There is not a soul in this world more blasphemous than GD and glad about flaunting it.
There was a message from Sameer too, insisting that he come tonight and how it’s been ages since the three of them got together. Sameer is a sensible guy who knows WhatsApp is the choice medium of communication when it came to Nikhil. Shruti did choose Sameer over him for his sensibility. She would be there too and she loved to talk to him, for some reason, or perhaps because of the residual love that always lingers around exes. She was the only person whom he loved to hear, even if she talked about inane stuff, even if it was about Sameer.
Thinking about Shruti made him think about Megha, she hasn’t mailed or messaged since last week. It was also strange that no one bothered to call him regarding the projects he was involved in. Maybe they have already gotten rid of him, Megha must have informed HR about his proposal and how inappropriate and inconvenient it was. It was still a surprise how they managed without him, they must have had help from outside. It was great to work in a team of mediocres but you get frustrated with yourself. It’s the same with people who achieve their dreams only to realise they didn’t aim too high, mediocrity goes both ways.
Nikhil entered the office with mild trepidation. His anxiety was fuelled further by the strangely silent and soothing ambience compared to the rumor-filled and noisy environment he witnessed the last time he was here. His moment of silent solace was brutally destroyed by the high-pitched voice of the woman in HR who never talked to him, and thankfully so, till this day.
“Hi Nikhil” she almost squealed, “can you come with me to the conference room, you have an important meeting scheduled for now.”
It struck him immediately, this is how the HR deals with employees getting laid off. They won’t let them enter the cubicle area. He was now sure of his guess at what might have happened.
“Can I go and check my mails before I join you guys?” he asked to test his theory further.
“No, this is very urgent,” she put on that I can do urgent-and-important face and said, “you are required to go now.”
“But, how did you set up this meeting when you didn’t know if I was coming” It was an earnest question, one that baffled him too.
“Oh, we are taking all members of Megha’s team directly in, as they reach the office since yesterday.”
He was now sure of what this was about and it calmed him, he hated it when things were not black or white. There was also a triumphant feeling building up, he is getting fired for love. Even Majnu couldn’t have managed to do better if he was a software professional. But Majnu didn’t do the training on sexual harassment which he was forced to attend last month. There has to be a trial, and questioning before the verdict. So this might be about the details, he couldn’t think of anything to say in his defense except that he is in love.
“Come in,” said Sumukhi, the HR director. She had that fake smile that irked him more than her sing-song voice. He was reminded of his sorry state of life every time he met these people pretending to be happy and doing a good job of it.
“Hi Sumukhi” he said, but it came out like a question.
“Hi Nikhil, you must be aware of what has been going on the last few days, you being one of the people directly involved. We in HR are doing everything so that you don’t have a tough time going forward”
“No, I am not aware of anything. I have been on vacation last week.” he said to test the waters. But he knew from the tone of her voice that the decision has been made. How the fuck would HR help me with getting a new job.
“Ok, it’s good that you are hearing from me before unreliable sources. We don’t want you to be prejudiced by gossip. Let us start at the beginning. How would you describe your relationship with your manager”
“You mean Megha”
“Yes, but let’s use the word manager for the sake of being objective”
“I love her” he intended to say it with utmost objectivity, but it came out like a resounding statement.
“Yes we know you were her favourite, but do you think being favourite affects your performance, and say focus”
He didn’t understand this conversation any more, is Sumukhi trying to defend him? Shouldn’t it be the other way round, is she playing good cop, the bad in waiting.
“I don’t think Megha has favorites, and definitely not me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, would I?” there was more than a tinge of hurt as he spoke.
“On the contrary, I have talked to all your colleagues and they seem to concur, they all know about your relationship with Megha and they also know what has happened”
“Oh! but how do they know”
“I had to inform them, obviously”
“Why would you inform them, shouldn’t it be discussed in the internal committee as the training showed”
“Internal committee? What are you saying, the decision was made at the top”
“But the top never heard my side of the story, did they?”
“You are making this very difficult for me Nikhil, even I wasn’t consulted. I am equally pained by the decision”
“You are not pained by anything, you didn’t even know me well before today. Can I talk to Megha, this seems so unfair”
“What do you mean talk to Megha, she had been let go as part of the reorg”
Nikhil felt like being hit hard with a tennis ball. He didn’t know how to react.
“We are in the process of restructuring the team, with team-leads taking the verticals. You seem to be capable but you are not popular”
“Where is she now, is she ok”
“What? Who? Oh you mean Megha?” She paused.
“Yes of course, who else”
It was now Sumukhi’s turn to be perplexed.
“She took it well, she understands the politics and the perils of being in mid-management”
“Can I talk to her. Is she in the office”
“No she left yesterday, and we have requested her not to talk to employees. I would advise you not to contact her either, there is no point”
Nikhil had taken out his phone and was already dialling the number. It however said switched off and a wave of panic swept over him.
“Did Megha leave her mail id or do you have her address”
“No, and stop there. Why are you being so dramatic”
“I need to talk to her, are we done here”
“Yes, you will hear more from us in the next few days, till then keep working on the projects you were working on. It doesn’t take long for matters like this to settle down.” Sumukhi seemed relieved to be done with the meeting.
Nikhil had other ideas on the subject of settling down and kept dialing Megha’s number, quite frantically too, as he left the room.
The phone battery was now on the verge of dying. Nikhil gave up on Megha and decided to head for GD’s house. As if on cue it started ringing. With a triumphant fumble he took the phone out of his pocket and was in between a sentence to Megha when he saw the caller. It was two years back that he had a phone conversation with Shruti, a call he wasn’t very keen to remember. She had done most of the talking, even answering the questions she had posed to him. Breaking up over the phone had its advantages though, one could feign attention and understanding of the seriousness of the situation by simply keeping quiet. Both of them knew the relationship was doomed after Shruti met Sameer and her benchmark standards for the ideal, or probably an acceptable boyfriend changed from GD to Sameer. Nikhil simply didn’t stand a chance. That phone call was Shruti’s idea of making it official, women tend to put everything in words. There is a reason why they are good at writing poetry, at least Shruti was or must have been, everyone said so. He never understood what she wrote.
“Hi Nikhil,” she sounded unsure this time.
“Hey what a surprise. Did you break up with Sameer?” The words came out as if on reflex. His thoughts immediately went back to Megha, battery was at 3%.
“You going to the party?” She sounded curt but not irritated as she got whenever he mentioned Sameer.
“Yes, GD will kill me otherwise. Sameer is coming too, you?”
“Yes I will be there,” she paused before continuing “yes, see ya.”
She disconnected. It felt strange but he had gotten used to Shruti acting weird. Love makes people act as if they are possessed, which is true, in a way. He thought.
GD was waiting at the door with a grin.
“I got the place to myself for the night, as a birthday gift. Ha! Who’s the genius now!” He smirked complacently.
“You are, always been. Happy birthday!”
“Where is my gift you happy-birthdaying fucker.”
GD’s habit of hugging always bordered on embarrassing. He would act all emotional after the hug, and look for its effects.
“I have got some good stuff for the night, will make it memorable for you guys.”
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around.”
“Yes, but you people are useless. You must be thankful that you got a friend like me, and more thankful that tonight’s my birthday.”
“Yeah sure. Do you have a charger.”
By the time Nikhil managed to unearth the charger from the mess on GD’s bed and got his phone charged till 60, he could already hear the music in the hall and sounds of conversations, dominated by the booming voice of GD. Whiffs of barbecued chicken seeped in and made him realize how much he was starving.
Sameer and Shruti arrived late. By then he must have had a few rounds of beer and chicken kebabs, one of the few things that GD was good at. He didn’t remember or recognize most of the people in the crowd but pretended otherwise. With the phone charged, he had made three more attempts to contact the switched-off Megha, mostly as breaks from the loud voices as people tried to talk over the music. Shruti looked pretty and demure as always and Sameer looked bright. There was no denying they made a great couple.
The cake was cut with birthday song, sung most loudly by GD. He was now asking people to dance, a girl with ample breasts and curves joined readily. Sameer was good at dancing and he was pulling Shruti who seemed to be resisting. He gave up a little too quick and joined the dance crowd. As usual, only a few were dancing to the music, GD’s amply endowed girl was good though. She had a pretty next door girl face, someone with whom you could start a conversation without thinking twice. Shruti, who was now walking towards him, always looked stern, forbidding, like the girls with whom you would practice a conversation before venturing into it. She sat next to him and sighed softly.
“Hi Shruti, you are looking pretty.” He said without taking his eyes off the dancing girl.
“Thanks, I see what you see. She is not pretty..” Shruti said slowly and without inflection, also not looking at him.
“But you are,” he said now looking at her.
“You know I like this about you, telling a girl she is pretty with a straight face, clinically, without emotions.”
“Facts don’t go with emotions, and once you state them you don’t linger, with things like emotions. You have no use for facts in the future.”
“Yeah, you never have future plans. Didn’t we break up over future.”
“Yes, you wanted answers and I didn’t even understand your questions. Sameer apparently did.”
“You know, every coin has two sides. Every decision has its pros and cons. You may lack vision, you may be shallow, emotionless,”
“We are not breaking up again, are we?” Nikhil chuckled.
“See? You may lack seriousness, but I loved you. Loving you was satisfying, there were you lost and unloved and I came to your rescue. To love is taking an initiative. Its a conscious effort, a deliberate and therefore fulfilling endeavor, and if there are any shortcomings it is solely your fault. You are the one responsible, for all it’s goodness and all its faults.” She was saying this with her typical earnestness, the pauses making it apparent that she was feeling her every word.
“Shruti, what are you trying to say, you rescued me? From what?”
“To love is to gain,” she continued ignoring my interjection, “you gain the attention at the least. Attention is the most definite confirmation of your existence. Isn’t life all about establishing ones identity. To love is to distinguish yourself, stand apart from the crowd.”
“Did you read a book? Are you going to cry? Wait, are you going to propose?”
“With Sameer the role has reversed.” She continued looking at me, but ignoring my words. Her eyes were red, maybe she was going to cry, or maybe she had one too many beers. He realized how close they were, he could almost see the red veins in her eyes.
“He is the one who loves me, I love him too but I can feel his love, something I never experienced with you. Being loved is comforting, but feeling the love is almost like being forced to accept something involuntarily. Even if you won’t accept, there is no getting away from acknowledging it. Over time it consumes you, sapping your existence little by little. What am I if Sameer stops loving me, I shudder at the thought. Sometimes I feel like running away from all this.”
Thoughts of kissing Shruti, given how close their faces were, went up in the air with the last sentence.
“Are you crazy? Sameer is such a nice guy, you won’t get a better one.”
“I am not saying he is any less, forget it Nikhil, you never understood me.” She kept looking at him and he felt drawn towards her lips.
“One must not spend more than 10 mins at a stretch with your ex,” GD screamed, or it felt like it, startling them both.
“I need to borrow your ex,” he said to a perplexed Shruti and dragged me up.
“Riya wants to go on a road trip. Let’s go to Kasol, our long pending trip.”
“Who is Riya and why should we take her along.”
“Riya is the girl who you been ogling when you were not leching at your ex.”
“Oh, is she your latest girlfriend?”
“Latest yes, girlfriend or not we will figure out together. I don’t want to get into another doomed relationship, it’s my birthday and I am getting old and soft.” They both laughed.
“Well I don’t want to be kebab me haddi between you two,” Nikhil said when the brilliance of the road trip idea struck him. He wanted a break, and lots of malana cream.
“Well, you can bring your manager woman if you want.”
“What?! How do you know?” He was shocked, more with himself than GD. He had completely forgotten about Megha, and immediately checked his phone. Nothing.
“There are no secrets between friends, remember? You told me before passing out last time, both about your manager and that there are no secrets between friends.” GD tried to smirk but ended up laughing.
Sameer joined them looking flushed from the dancing and announced that GD has finally managed to find a decent girl for himself. Riya and Shruti were chatting, one pretty the other sexy.
“You know, let’s make some joints.” GD suggested breaking Nikhil’s line of thought on the girls.
He woke up without a hangover. Instead, he actually felt nice and refreshed, maybe he drank too much water during the night, that did the trick sometimes. He checked his phone for messages, there were none. Call records showed the attempts at calling Megha, and Shruti. He always did that when high. There was a long message he had sent to Megha on WhatsApp which he quickly deleted. Maybe he should write a decent one, and then GD called.
“Pack your bags, we start after lunch.”
“Are you serious, I cannot go.”
“You can, and you are,” he said with unfounded finality and disconnected.
Maybe he told everything to GD after the joints. In any case, Kasol was tempting.
to be continued…