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.
Megha woke up with a start and just when she was about to check the time, it dawned upon her that she doesn’t have a job anymore. Partly disappointed and partly relieved she went off to sleep again, but only for a moment before she was shaken awake by Ma.
“Waking up early is a healthy habit,” Ma was saying with a loving face that didn’t go well with the admonishing tone, “also, it gives you a glowing skin.”
Megha tried to remember the last time she was woken up this way, only to stop in her tracks. Why is it that when relationships die, their memories get a new life. Ma was looking with concern, the look which always made everything alright.
“C’mon you lazy bum, get up and do something to your face.” This came as a surprise, different from her usual doting talk. Maybe Ma was getting tired of her hanging around, she too was getting tired of doing nothing. The least she could do was to switch on her phone, she thought, but for what, she wasn’t looking forward to anything at all.
“All you do here is sleep, maybe you are good for nothing besides the working for an MNC. It’s a relief though that you got fired right at the time for Pooja’s wedding. I hate going alone and listening to your aunts pestering about you. By the way, Pooja is two years younger. That’s all I can do to help you prepare for the onslaught. This time I am going to enjoy a wedding..” She seemed to have second thoughts on whether to end her sentence there or go on.
Megha knew what was coming next and got up to end the impending tirade. Of the numerous cousins from the various branches of the family tree, Pooja was the one who adored her. She had the next-door girl looks but was always dreamy. Her conversations with Megha invariably started with so many things that she planned to do and ended up admitted how she looked up to Megha for finding an ambition in life. She had been so excited to meet Mayank and even more so when she discovered there were living together. Late that night, she had messaged Megha on how lucky she was, and how brave, unlike herself, who had nothing to aim for in life. Maybe her life was really not worth it. Pooja, with the dreamy eyes and depressive talk was getting married, while Megha, the brave and the one with luck was without a job, without love and getting ugly every other day.
The drive to the wedding turned out to be longer due to the extra traffic that is characteristic of the wedding season. Out of ideas to pass the time, Megha switched on her phone and the notifications popped up. Her heart skipped a beat seeing a mail from Mayank. It was formal, after saying how sorry he was, it went on to enquire whether she would be interested to join his firm. Mayank had offered her a job after they broke up and she had naturally ignored him. Even now she was pissed off, not because of the offer but because of the impersonal tone in the mail. To make it worse there were messages from Nikhil changing from formal to very personal as she read one after the other. He wrote as if they were in a relationship, and had a fight for which he had to apologize to make it up to her. What’s wrong with this guy, she wondered, he is brilliant, handsome and younger to her. She must be the worst choice he could have made. She thought of writing something to him when the phone rang with a call from Nikhil.
“Megha, where are you. I have been trying your number since ages. You can’t just go off the radar without telling me. Are you ok?”
Megha couldn’t believe the audacity in his voice and the way he was talking, as if they were a couple for years. Even Mayank had this hesitation when he talked to her after a break of few days.
“Nikhil, what’s wrong with you. I have left the job, well, got fired, but then it doesn’t change anything between us. Actually, now that we are professionally not connected, there is no reason why you should be calling me up.” She did her best to sound calm and stern.
“Please don’t shout,” Nikhil implored, “you maybe gone from office, but I am still in love with you, I cannot stop thinking about you, even when high, which is what I am now.”
“Nikhil, stop calling me, ok? I already have too many problems in my life and don’t want to take up your case,” she managed to get the desired finality in her voice, “and I am not shouting.”
“What problems, I could” he was saying when Megha disconnected.
She couldn’t believe how a person could be so oblivious of reality, especially when reality is having a voice and not a feeble one either, telling him where he stands and facing what. Is he really in love with her. She had never been like this or knew anyone who had behaved so in the matter of love. Maybe one needs to go beyond the psychological norms to be truly in love, there has never been a logical explanation of why one falls in love with a particular person out of millions, maybe you need to be a little psycho to be in love. How she wished Mayank was one instead of this Nikhil.
Shaking her head vigorously as if to shake the creeping idea of her falling in love with Nikhil out she looked sideways at Ma who turned to look at her.
“Stop doing that, you will ruin your hair. Also, stop snubbing off every guy who shows interest, you are running out of age and options.”
“Ma, stop it. Why have you become so desperate for me. I will find a guy and get married, don’t worry. There are weird guys falling for me without reason or tact. What I really want is a break.”
“No, what you want is a nice, decent guy who you meet in this wedding and who you can present as an answer to the questions that you will be showered with.” Ma seemed to be enjoying the scene already.
The wedding, like most weddings was full of color, noise and lights, and people. Pooja was excited to see Megha, an unexpected guest that she was. The groom looked handsome and did his best to smile charmingly at Megha. Wondering why is it that all couples look perfect for each other at their wedding, Megha told Pooja and her groom what a perfect couple they make.
Pooja seemed really happy talking to Megha, but that didn’t last long because stage time was rationed by the event management people with the cameras and drones. Watching Pooja’s reaction they got interested in Megha and were asking her for an interview to which she said no even after being promised that her interview will definitely make it to the final video. Looking at Pooja from a distance though, made her realize that she didn’t look like a girl in love, as she imagined true love to look like. Maybe her expectations were high considering the marriage was not an arranged one. This was the biggest achievement in Pooja’s life, the first love marriage in the Bansal family.
“Doesn’t she look like a princess, and so happy,” said a voice disturbing her thoughts and now holding her firm as if to stop her from running away.
Thus trapped, Megha faced the first of the aunts of interrogation. Even though Ma had prepared her for this, the unrelenting aunts did manage to make her realize what a failure she has been. With the victim floundering to their satisfaction, they collectively moved on to solving Megha’s problems. This was worse than the questioning because now she was clueless and was not expected to take part in the discussion about the merits and faults of each solution.
Zoned out, she managed to eat her lifelong quota of paneer tikkas that the guy in red turban and a mischievous smile kept bringing and would have gone on and on if Ma didn’t come to rescue. Thus saved from aunts and paneer, she didn’t look back and kept walking till she was blocked by a guy looking at her amused.
“Sorry, let me not stop the lady on her march” he said, sliding sideways.
She laughed. “You were watching me run away from the aunts?”
“Aunts, ah, the reason why we humans, after having reached the pinnacle of evolution are still evolving.”
“Very funny, do I know you,” Megha said scanning the family tree in her mind.
“I am a friend of the groom, which side are you from?”
“Cousin of the pretty bride, I am Megha,” she said extending her hand and midway not sure on whether to go on or retract.
“Sameer,” he said taking her hand and as an after thought added, “you are pretty too.”
“Thanks, but I am not in mood to flirt. Also you seem to be the type who has had much success in the field.”
“Not really, and I am bad at the lost art of flirting, my girlfriend says so,” he said winking.
“Ah, good for you. Maybe like all girlfriends she has gone past that stage. Why do you say it’s a lost art.”
“Well, the pretty ladies are never in the mood for it,” he winked, “do you want to have a drink, they are serving veggie drinks like fruit juice and jal-jeera here, and I have a bottle of whiskey in my car.”
“Sure, but are you safe. Show me the picture of your girlfriend” she said, meaning exactly that.
“Yes, of course. Background checks are now done on insta, here you go”. He handed his phone to her and watched with renewed amusement as she scrolled more than she should have.
Satisfied, she said, “she is pretty”, and then “wait”, wtf how do you know Nikhil.”
“Wait, oh my god, are you the famous Megha, the manager with loud voice, I mean the sexy one,” he said checking her out for the first time.
“Stop doing that, and yes I am Megha. What else did Nikhil tell about me.” She couldn’t decide whether she was shocked, irritated or simply interested in knowing more.
“Not here, let’s celebrate serendipity with signature, whiskey!” and they left the wedding behind.
The drive to Kasol was as uneventful as any drive is, Nikhil never understood the writers who claimed the journey being more enjoyable than the destination. Shruti subscribed to that philosophy and he had to agree against his wishes just to get over the journey without arguments to make it worse. Poets are easy to impress, they tend to see things in you that make you proud of yourself. GD and Riya sat in the front taking turns at driving while Nikhil had the whole backseat to himself. He would however be glad to share the seat for a conversation. Megha’s phone was still switched off, and he felt utterly hopeless. Riya was one of those women who had no scruples in PDA, of which there was plenty. GD seemed to be in his seventh heaven, finally to have found someone who didn’t overthink.”Can you guys focus on the road,” Nikhil interjected, startling them both.
“Of course we are, we run the same risks as you do, stop being a voyeur,” GD said with a grin.
“Nikhil, do you think we make a good couple?” Riya asked looking back with all earnestness.
“Not for long, if you don’t look ahead when you drive,” Nikhil tried to keep panic out of his voice.
“I think I have found my soul mate.” GD announced.
Nikhil waited for the laugh that should have followed. GD however looked serious, dazed, but serious. Riya was looking at the road with acute concentration, as if in anticipation of something. Were they expecting him to say something, maybe they have had this conversation before and now testing the theory on a third-party. Who would have thought GD to be saying a sentence with soul mate in it. It was inconceivable, one needs to have a soul to be able to find a mate for it. Soul and such subtle concepts went with GD as olive oil on parathas.
Given the line of thought possessing him and realisation of hunger, Nikhil concluded that the best response would be to keep quiet.
“I am not so sure,” said Riya deciding to break the silence, still looking straight at the road. “I don’t buy into the concept of soul mates. My motto is to do the best you can do given any situation, and I think you and me don’t have to make an effort to do our best when together.”
“Now that’s more like it,” GD said and they kissed.
Maybe he has finally found what he has been looking for, Nikhil thought. At that moment as he watched the public display, Riya seemed like the female version of GD, and being of the other sex she was more articulate. Riya may indeed be this soul mate. With these thoughts Nikhil fell asleep.
Kasol looked beautiful with its greenery dazzling the eyes, the river doing more, mountains and unpolluted air of Himalayas that would give a high to anyone. Why then do people come here to get high, he wondered. Instead, it would be exhilarating to go on a trek. Hopefully, with half of the honeymoon over in the car, the lovebirds will be game for a trek.
“What, trek to which place and why. We have done our share of traveling while you slept like a king. I am just gonna get high and love,” GD said with a wink.
“Ok, suit yourself. I might go on a trek. Don’t leave before I am back.”
“Good luck and don’t die. May the Malana cream guide you on the right path.”
“Amen” chimed in a fresher and a smiling version of Riya.
Finding people who were interested in going for a trek was easy. Everyone seemed friendly. Most of the tourists were wearing tee shirts with images of Shiva printed in psychedelic colors. The makes and the designs of bongs in the shops would amaze the most creative. Almost all of these shops were selling bandage rolls, which later he found out was for the use in chillum, the primeval bong. He met two guys from Israel while wandering around the banks of the river in the late afternoon sun. They offered a smoke and they were friends. It reminded him of the childhood days when strangers became friends as soon as they were offered a chance to bat in the match. These guys were travelling together after their mandatory military service, and were eager to talk while Nikhil was more than willing to listen. A vacation in Kasol is a must do for most Israelis, they said, it beats any other destination on earth. Nikhil couldn’t agree more, the sound of the river, the cream taming his nerves and the stories of a foreign land made the trance get the better of itself.
GD and Riya were not in their rooms when he returned, nor were they among the people gathered around the bonfire. As soon as he took his seat someone passed a hot chillum and he dragged hard. It was by no means the most efficient way to smoke a chillum, he was told few hours later. You are supposed to suck as if you were drinking the smoke rather than breathing it. Thoroughly blown out, he checked his phone to see his messages being changed to already read status by Megha. He jumped up from his perch and dialed her number, there was so much he wanted to tell. Her voice sounded louder than the usual or maybe his senses were perked up. In any case he was so happy that he forgot to check when the call got disconnected. After trying many times with no luck he gave up and joined the bonfire happiness.
Next morning he was woken up early and went off on the trek after breakfast, unaware of how his and Megha’s had gotten together the night before. The rest of the trip is a blur, from exhaustion, excitement and exhilaration. Back in his den, he tried calling up Megha to no avail. The HR people were being desperate, and he started thinking about going back to work. Maybe they will give him a promotion in their desperation. The office however will remind him of Megha, he needs a closure for his life to go on. For no reason, whatsoever, it made her think of Shruti, the only woman who he could talk to without caring what he said. She was experienced enough to be a loveguru, Nikhil had always found the concept of male lovegurus ridiculous and he has sufficient proof from FM radio.
Shruti seemed surprised when he called and said he needed advice, she gladly agreed to be of help. Nikhil saw a call from Sameer that he missed when he was talking to Shruti, but Sameer was low in priority for now.
Shruti, in her red top and pair of ripped jeans looked different and somewhat defiant.
“Hello bachhe, tell me what advice do you seek from your guru,” she said stifling a grin and looking very happy.
Nikhil might have been looking otherwise because her face took a turn for the serious.
“Hi guru, I am troubled in the matters related to the heart, and the mind,” he said trying to be cheerful.
He went on to describe how he proposed to Megha and her reaction, how she was still recovering from her break-up, and how she is snubbing him off.
Shruti listened patiently like a true guru and said, “She is definitely the wrong person for you to fall in love with. With your nature and stunts, who would declare his love to his manager in her own office, you need someone younger and more gullible for such antics.”
“It wasn’t a stunt, the words just came out involuntarily,” Nikhil said a bit meekly, but she waved him to keep quiet and went on, “I am not done yet.”
“From what you say about her looks and break-up, she seems to have had her share of guys with words spilling over their adrenaline filled hearts, of course it didn’t impress her. You need a woman who still has her delusions intact, like I was when you did the same to me.” She said looking a little stern.
“I know she is not the perfect match,” Nikhil said with exasperation, “I don’t this kind of advice, tell me how to pursue this unlikely match.”
“I don’t think it would lead to anything good, Megha already seems to have sorted this out herself.”
“Shruti, never mind advice, I will sort out my affairs myself. I know it was wrong to fall in love with Megha, but it simply happened, every great love story seems to the other people to be in some measure a mistake on the part of the lovers.”
It was Shruti’s turn to be exasperated but before she could say something, the phone buzzed with a call from Sameer.
“Don’t tell him I am with you,” she said with a lot of urgency.
“Hi Nikhil, guess what, I made friends with your lady-love and I agree with you, she is pretty and so much fun. I told her all about your confessions, you remember that night?” He said laughing heartily.
“What, when and how? You met Megha and you two are friends now? I don’t have words, what did she say. Where are you, I am coming over.” He said looking at Shruti who was shaking her head vigorously to say no.
“I can come over, let’s talk over beer,” Sameer sounded excited too.
“Did you tell Shruti that you met Megha?” Nikhil asked looking at Shruti.
“No, and don’t tell her, she is acting weird these days, let’s meet at hangover,” he said and disconnected.
“Are you acting weird with Nikhil? Is everything alright?”
“None of your business,” she said smiling weakly, “you want advice, I don’t. Just don’t tell Sameer I was here, I wonder why he didn’t tell me about his meeting with Megha.”
“Fine, suit yourself. Sameer is a nice guy, don’t screw it up,” Nikhil advised without thinking.
“Yeah, I know. Good luck with Megha,” she said getting up to leave.
Sameer was already with a beer and looked in high spirits when he saw Nikhil.
“Man! I couldn’t believe she was Megha and you owe me a treat, not this one though. This is for narrating the events of that fateful wedding night. We finished a bottle of whiskey, your girlfriend is a guzzler,” he said with a wink and proceeded to narrate the conversation and how he made Nikhil look more mature than he was and how he had found true love in her.