Thursday, 21 June 2018

part 21 : Pehchan


After some struggle, phone calls and enquiries, Riddhima finally spotted Dilip mama at the airport.



"Hello uncle," she introduced herself, "you look very different from the photograph in Armaan's living room."



"Well…..even you look much younger and prettier than I had imagined," he grinned.




Amused by his comment, she wondered what Armaan had told him about her, "you had more hair in the picture," she stared at his bald head.



"Haa!" He caressed his shiny scalp, "that's the fashion these days." A clever Dilip hid the truth about his chemotherapy induced baldness. He knew Armaan would question him too, but he would find a way to navigate away from the truth there also.



"Aap kaafi dilchasp hain uncle," chuckling she helped him into the car and drove off to Armaan's apartment.



"So what has Armaan told you about me?" Dilip laughed and sat on the passenger seat, "oops….I almost forgot, we drive on the right side here."



"You mean left side?" Riddhima gave him a quizzical look.



"No right side," he argued and then laughed aloud, "this is THE right side, US is on the WRONG side….got it?"



"Armaan was right….Americans do have a different sense of humor than us," Riddhima laughed back.

"I am a pakka Indian bhai….so don't call me an American," Dilip mama stretched his neck to look outside the window of the car, "Hai mere desh ki dharti…….it's been ages since I came to India….it's really changed…..but not really," he exclaimed as he relished the musty, warm and odorous air of his homeland.



Armaan's uncle was definitely a unique personality, thought Riddhima- as mysterious and sometimes inexplicable like his nephew.

……………………………………………………………………



Dilip had his fill of home cooked Indian food thanks to Riddhima's culinary skills and hospitality. He was surprised that Riddhima was very familiar with Armaan's apartment- almost as if she lived there!



"So, Riddhima beta, how is everyone at home?" Dilip settled on the couch after a hearty lunch.



"Uh," she hesitated, "t-they are all fine."



"Oh," he sensed the hesitation in her voice, "well….looks like you know Armaan and his place quite well…..aisa lagta hai jaise tumhara ghar hi ho," he tried to divert her attention, but was taken aback by her response.



"Jee uncle….ab main yahan hi rehti hoon," she lowered her eyes guiltily, "I am a paying guest here."



"Kya hua beta? Looks like I am unaware of quite a few things here. I know Armaan found out the truth about his relationship with Shashank. That must have hurt a lot. How is my boy doing now?" A confused Dilip tried to make sense of Riddhima's statement and rambled inquisitively.



After a considerable pause, she sat down across from him with her hands folded on her lap, "uncle….I think you need to know everything." Slowly, she narrated all the events at the Modi household, her life, how Armaan had supported her through her parent's demise, her husband's betrayal, Armaan's heartbreak and her resolve to leave the Modi home forever.



"I can't believe that in the six months Armaan has been here, so much has happened….jaise tum dono ne apne zindagi ke saare gham in 6 mahino mein hi dekh liye ho," Dilip's voice cracked as he felt sorry for his nephew and the woman sitting across from him.





"Shayad bhagwan ne Armaan ko bheja issi liye tha……hum sab ki aankhein kholne," tears rolled down her eyes as she recalled how Armaan had helped her at every step, right from encouraging her to complete her degree, to being her sole support after her parents died, to recognizing the truth about her husband and now giving her shelter when she was virtually homeless. His presence in their lives also opened the Pandora's box of a well guarded secret of Suaryabhan's infidelity.





"Armaan hai hi aisa….jahan jaata hai sab ke dil jeet leta hai," Dilip replied proudly, "but sadly, he couldn't win the heart of his own flesh and blood."



"Nahin uncle, aisi baat nahin hai….everyone except….except," she paused, "except Abhimanyu adores Armaan in that house….they are just scared to say anything against Abhimanyu."



"Looks like that man has quite an influence on everyone…..but why would he betray a beautiful woman like you?" Dilip shook his head, "some men will always be pigs!" He recalled how Abhimanyu's father, his estranged friend, whom he had forgiven just a few months ago, had done the same to his sister.



"Uncle…..I would rather not talk about him….aap bataaiye….kya aapke liye chai banaaun?" She wiped her face with both palms and stood up.



"Beta," Dilip stood up and touched her shoulder, "I am glad you trusted Armaan. Achcha hua tum yahan aa gayi. I know Armaan will take good care of you."



"He is my best friend in this world," she smiled tearfully.



Dilip smiled inwardly and thought, "I am not sure my nephew thinks you are just a friend."



"Jee…aapne kuch kaha?" She asked



"No…no beta….come sit with me…..tell me more about yourself," he urged her to sit down again.



"Ok…..but uncle you know everything about me….tell me more about yourself." She smiled.



"Arre beta…I am a boring, old, single man….let me tell you about Armaan instead…..tum tho jaanti bhi nahin hogi wo kitna badha badmaash hai," Dilip roared and then pulled out an album from his bag, "let me show you his pictures."



"I would love to see them, " Riddhima came closer, eager to view glimpses from his past. The enormous collection of photographs was proof that Dilip mama was obviously very fond of his nephew. He had photographed Armaan's life right from the time he was in his diapers to his graduation from college.





"How cute! So sweet! Oh my God! Oh no!" Riddhima exclaimed as she saw various poses of little Armaan- naked in a bathtub, pulling another girl's pony tails,  licking his birthday cake with his tongue before the candles were blown out, kissing a blonde girl at his high school prom , a very handsome athlete dressed in his football uniform.



An astute Dilip noticed the expressions on Riddhima's faces change from happiness, shock, amazement to sadness mixed with a cringe on her face especially when he was surrounded by other women or too intimate with them. Even though a self proclaimed lifelong bachelor, Dilip was very adept and reading women and their feelings. Again, he smiled inwardly and thought, "best friends? NAAA! Yeh friendship se kuch zyaada lagta hai mujhey. Lagta hai aag dono taraf lagi huyi hai."



"Aapne kuch kaha uncle?" She caught Dilip uncle gazing at her face while she perused through the album.



"Kuch nahin beta…..here….you can keep this album safely somewhere….after all it belongs to Armaan…main kya karoonga iska?"



"Sure uncle," she complied.





"Achcha beta….I would like to meet Shashank one day…..can you take me there?" Dilip asked.



"Jee…wo uncle….I…I," she was at loss for words, "I don't want to go to that house again."



"Ok…I understand…..I will go myself…..maybe with Armaan."



"Uncle, I don't think he will go," she replied.



"Hmmm…..Ok….let me think what I can do then." Dilip tapped his chin and rested his head on the couch.



Their conversation was interrupted by the unlatching of the front door. In stepped, a very sweaty, out of breath and a beet root red Armaan with his guitar case, "IS ANYONE HOME?" He shouted impatiently.



"Oh…Armaan…you are here?" Riddhima got up quickly.



"Yes of course I am here Ms chauffeur-I-will-pick-you-up-in-the-evening….na apna phone answer karti ho…..aur itni dhoop aur garmi mein mujhey walk karke aana padha! GALTI KI TUMHEIN CAR DEKAR!" Armaan whined and gnashed his teeth at her.



"That's what happens when you criticize women drivers," she was unperturbed by his outrage and patiently waited for his reaction to Dilip mama's presence.





"Arre arre….yeh bachchon ki tarah ladh kyun rahe ho?" Dilip sprang from his seat and stunned Armaan with his sudden appearance.





"M-Mama?" Armaan's guitar case slipped off his shoulder; he stared at his uncle with disbelief and then glanced back and forth between a smiling Riddhima and his mama, standing with his arms wide open to welcome his nephew into his arms. 



"MAMA!" Armaan ran and hugged his uncle. Both men laughed and cried together, slapping each other's backs; Armaan still shell shocked by his uncle's sudden appearance, 'aapke baal mama?" Armaan released himself and glanced at the bald head.



"I joined a seniors basketball league……ab Michael Jordan jaise khel tho sakta nahin hoon….dikh tho sakta hoon na? Iss liye baal shave kar liye," Dilip lied again, laughing heartily.



"Oh mama……you looked great with those hair," Armaan shook his head, "any ways…..any slam dunks? Or rather, did you impress any senior aunties on the court with your hoop skills?"





"You rascal!" Dilip punched Armaan playfully, "I don't need to impress women…..women need to impress me….you know how picky I am?"





Armaan forgot his heat exhaustion and anger towards Riddhima's callousness, "thanks Riddhima," he smiled at her sheepishly, "so that's why you needed the car?  I-I am sorry I lashed out at you. "



 With raised eyebrows, she folded her arms, "Apology accepted……but I have still not forgotten your comment about women drivers."





"Sorry," he touched his ears in apology, "you are the best woman driver in the world."





"No, I think she is the best woman in this world," Dilip placed a protective arm around Riddhima and grinned, "a woman who could teach my nephew to be JUST friends with women, is special indeed….kyun Armaan?" He purposely winked at his nephew, who shuffled uncomfortably on his feet, hoping that his uncle would not blurt out the truth about Armaan's feelings for Riddhima. Riddhima was amused by his statement and wondered what he meant.





"Y-yes of course," Armaan cleared his throat and avoided eye contact with Riddhima, "mama….how come you lost so much weight?"



"Basketball…..and lots of other exercises off and on the field!" Dilip winked again and laughed heartily.



"Mama!" Armaan muttered, "kabhie tho sharam kiya karo."



Riddhima smiled at the two men and then decided to leave them alone, "aap log baat kariye…..I will be in my room….call me if you need me.'





………………………………………………………………..



MODI HOME:



Atul and Rahul sat at the dining table, sipping their afternoon coffee in silence.



"Yaar Rahul, the house is so dull and lonely without Riddhima," Atul finally spoke.



"Papa….papa…..chachi kahan gayi hain?" Little Kavya jumped into his father's lap, "Main unhein bahut miss kar raha hoon. Mere guitar hero bhi nahin aate aaj kal…..kahan gaye sab?"



"Beta," Rahul touched his nephew's hand, "chachi has gone to meet her friend…..and guitar hero has gone back to America."



"When will they come back?" Kavya asked impatiently.



"KAVYA BETA!" Anjali wheeled out of her room, yelling as always, "beta andar jaakar homework karo."



"Nahin mujhey chachi chaahiye….wo hamesha help karti hain homework mein…..aapko kya pata homework mein kya mila hai? Aapne pehle kabhie help hi nahin ki," Kavya flapped his hands defiantly and refused to budge.



Kavya had touched a sore chord; self pity had made Anjali so self centered that lately she had even ignored her son's basic needs. Riddhima had been like a foster mom to Kavya, and in his innocence he had spoken the truth- the bitter truth. 



"Aao beta…main help karti hoon," she replied tenderly this time. Atul nudged his son to go with his mom. Anjali held her son's hand and wheeled back with him to her room.



"Even poor Kavya is missing Riddhima," Atul sighed.



"And Armaan too…I feel bad for him bhaiyya," Rahul sounded dejected, "I guess it was dad's fault….mom never said anything all these years, but it explains why mom and dad were always so distant…it's almost like they were never there for us, and now poor Armaan…he didn't deserve that rejection."



"You are right Rahul. We should have stopped Armaan at that time. Mom says he has moved back to the US. I wonder if we can find his number….we should at least call him….kyun?" Atul asked.



"NO ONE IS CALLING THAT BAST**D!" Abhimanyu overheard his brothers and walked in, "pagal mat bano tum dono."



"Abhimanyu yaar," Atul stood up, "Armaan is our brother….wo bhai hai hamara…..at least we should give him a chance…..he's a nice guy….apni jaan par khelkar hum sabki jaan bachaayi thi usney."



"Bhaiyya! Uffo! Don't you guys get it? That was all his chaal! Chaalbaaz hai wo….kamina hai saala!" Abhimanyu barked, "he was a bad influence on all of you…especially Riddhima!"



"NO BHAIYYA!" Rahul stood up this time, "I don't believe it….I know bhabhi very well. She would never leave us all unless she was really hurt…..you really hurt her feelings."





"Abbe Rahul," Abhimanyu scoffed, "tu abhi bachcha hi hai….you won't understand…..kal agar Muskaan kisi aur aadmi ki baaton mein aakar tujhey chhod kar chali jaati hai, tho tu kya karega?"





With a deep sigh, Rahul looked away from his brother, his idol, "I think bhaiyya, I will first question myself. Why did Muskaan leave me if I loved her so much? Maybe bhaiyya, you never loved her…..or you just took her for granted…..I don't think I would ever do that to my Muskaan."



"Romeo kahin ka!" Abhimanyu gave him a dirty look, feeling slighted, "since when did you learn to talk back to your older brother?"



"Abhimanyu! Rahul is right," Atul intervened, "I think we need to go and get Riddhima back. She needs to know that we all still love her and want her back in this house."



"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" Abhimanyu retorted, "wo apni marzi se gayi hai, aur apni marzi se aayegi!"





"Beta…..Atul is right," an ailing Shashank emerged from his room after overhearing his sons, "we should all go and bring our bahu back.  Abhimanyu, don't make this an ego issue. Bring her back. She is your wife. Abhi tho sirf 2 din huye hain, zyaada waqt ho jaayega tho log baatein karne lagenge."





"Give it some time; itni jaldi nahin karo usey wapas lane ki," Padma joined in the conversation.



"But why mom?" Atul asked, "why is she staying at a friend's place when we are all here. And who is this friend?"



"An old friend of mine," Padma replied curtly, "Right now, both Riddhima and Abhimanyu are angry. It's best they don't see each other for a while. If they are meant to be together, no one can stop them."





"Padma, yeh kya bakwaas hai? Modi ghar ki bahu itne din bahar rahegi tho kya kya sawaal uthenge samaaj mein? We are not an ordinary family. People would create all types of stories." Shashank complained, "let me go and bring her back. Wo meri baat kabhie nahin taalegi."



"NAHIN SHASHANK! Aap kahin nahin jaaenge." Padma stopped her husband, "aaj tak maine aapse kuch nahin maanga, bas wafaa maangi thi, wo tho aap de na sake, bas aaj meri ek baat maan lee jiye…..leave RIDDHIMA ALONE! SET HER FREE! If she is meant to be our daughter in law, she will be back. And yes Abhimanyu, I agree with you, Riddhima apni marzi se gayi hai, aur ab wapas aayegi tho bhi apni marzi se. I DON'T WANT ANY MORE QUESTIONS FROM ANYONE…..PLEASE GO BACK TO YOUR RESPECTIVE ROOMS!"



If anyone had doubts about who was in charge at the Modi home, Padma's bold statement had made it clear that as long as she was there, no one could confront or object to her decisions. Shashank and his sons were well aware of the fact that she had always placed her family's interests ahead of any personal gain. Her words, "wafaa maangi thi, wo tho aap de na sake," stabbed him in his heart, rendering him speechless.





All the men stood with bowed heads, silent and passive.



"I think, I will join the office once again." Shashank stunned everyone with his announcement, "I've received several calls from work that things are not going well. I think I need to come out of retirement and take charge again."



"But why dad?" Abhimanyu was frustrated, "main hoon na."



"Abhimanyu, you have too many personal issues to deal with. I have received several complaints regarding your inefficiency at work these days. I HAVE NO CHOICE!" finally, Shashank spoke up against his middle son, "Rahul…..kal se tum mere saath office chaloge."



"Yes dad, I would love to go but I have applied for an MBA also. Agar mera admission ho jaata hai tho…" Rahul hesitated as Abhimanyu gave him another dirty look.



"Jab admission ho jaayega, tab chale jaana…..abhi mere saath kuch seekh loge tho achcha rahega. I would rather be your mentor than Abhimanyu teach you the wrong ways of doing business."



"DAD!" Abhimanyu stood all alone in the vast room as his family silently retreated from the living room, "ARMAAN…YOU SCOUNDREL….YOU HAVE RUINED MY WHOLE LIFE!" He shattered all the coffee cups on the table, riled and enraged, his hand bleeding from the glass, but no one stopped to turn around.



……………………………………………………………………………………………………..



ARMAAN'S PLACE:



After Riddhima left to give them privacy, Dilip sat Armaan next to him, "so nephew, looks like these past six months have been more eventful than the 27 years of your life."



"Mama, you are right. I have gained and lost a lot in these six months. Gained a friend like Riddhima but lost all faith in humanity. Became the star music student at the academy, but a rejected, illegitimate son of one of the most prominent persons in this city…..ironic isn't it?" Armaan's wavering voice could not hide his pain.





"I know son," Dilip placed his arm around Armaan, "it's my fault. I should have told you everything before you came to India. Maybe I was expecting too much from Shashank. That element of pleasant surprise I was hoping for turned out to be the most unpleasant shock of your life. I am ready to pay penance for my mistake beta…..I will talk to Shashank."



"NO MAMA!" Armaan sprang up from the couch and walked towards the window, "No….you don't need to do anything. I have spent 27 years without a father; I am sure I can live the rest of my life without his presence in my life."



"Armaan, I have known Shashank since we were kids. He might be weak, but he is inherently a good person. Most likely, he buckled under pressure from his family. Shayad akele mein tum se mile tho alag baat ho."



"Mama…if you love me, you will do nothing of that sort. Aapko meri kasam!"



"Kasam?" Dilip was flabbergasted.



"Yes kasam! I don't want to talk about Mr. Shashank Modi anymore….aap bataaiye mama….how come you are here in Mumbai?" Armaan turned around and smiled at his uncle.



"Well….I have decided that I move back to India, for good."



"Really? That's great mama! I am so happy you will be here with me." Armaan was ecstatic.



"I know you would be surprised but I plan on living in Nainital."



"Why Nainital? You haven't been in touch with anyone from there in years."



"You are right. I haven't been in touch with my family, but I have been in touch with one person." Dilip grinned mischievously.



"M-mama?" Armaan's eyes widened, "is it that woman you loved in college?"



"Beta I loved her….in school, in college….in job, in retirement…I have always loved her and still do."



"But I thought she married someone else," Armaan was perplexed.



"We Maliks specialize in falling in love with married people, kya karein? Hamari fitrat aur kismat mein hi yeh likha hai," Dilip chuckled, "except in my case I loved her before she got married…..and now she is a widow……soch rahan hoon ab usey bataa hi deta hoon ki I have always loved her…….teri nai generation ki tarah nahin hoon ki shaadi shuda se hi pyaar kar baitha……by the way does she know you love her?"



"M-ama," Armaan shushed his uncle, "dheere bolo….deewaron ke bhi kaan hote hain."



"Jaanta hoon…jaanta hoon….lekin bhaanje jee, what is this friendship-wendship? Since when did YOU start believing in friendship between the opposite sexes?"



"Mama," Armaan lowered his voice, "that's the only way I can be close to her….uska dost bankar."





Both Armaan and Dilip now faced the window in the living room. Engrossed in their conversation, they did not notice, Riddhima tip toed out of her room for a cup of water. She would have ignored their conversation but the mention of her name caught her attention. Hiding behind a curtain, she froze in her feet, crushing the lacy material of the curtain with her fingers as she overheard the most inconceivable and mind-boggling conversation of her life.





"Armaan nephew, we all know that's a bunch of bull! Yes, you and Riddhima were probably friends at one point, but now the equation has changed. You are living together under one roof. For heaven sakes, how long do you expect to keep this platonic relationship alive?"





"Till she is ready," he replied softly, "it's too complicated right now."



"Kitna pyaar karte ho us se?" Dilip provoked him.



"Khud se bhi zyaada."



"Kab tak intezaar karoge uska?" Dilip asked.



"Jab tak is shareer mein jaan hai, aur dil mein dhadkan," he replied.



"Then why are you waiting my boy?"



"Mama…..I am afraid I might lose her forever then."





His heartfelt words pierced her heart like a honey laced arrow, her limbs too numb to move, with goose bumps all over, she stood stupefied, swept away by the depth of his feelings for her.



…………………….to be contd……Riddhima's response to Armaan's confession………………………..


Bheegi

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