Sunday, 24 June 2018

part 24 : Pehchan


When I saw you, I was afraid to meet you

When I met you, I was afraid to kiss you

When I kissed you, I was afraid to love you

Now that I love you, I'm afraid to lose you….



ASHA WOMEN'S HOSTEL:





After registration, Riddhima walked to her room on the fifth floor of the women's hostel.



"Ouch!" She jumped as she felt something slimy fall on her as soon as she unlatched the door, 'AHHH!" She yelled as she saw a lizard crawl off her arm, disappearing into a corner behind the bed. Her heart raced at a million times a minute; she hated crawling bugs, and loathed lizards ever since she was a child. Her dad and older sister had always helped shoo lizards away from her room when she was a kid. She had been shielded at the Modi home, too impermeable a place bugs or lizards.



She stood frozen at the door, pasty white, too scared to step into the old, dingy hostel room with peeling paint and more lizards around the fluorescent light on the wall. There was a whole family of them, feasting on the mosquitoes huddled around the flickering tube light. Stiff and tremulous at the same time, she shut her eyes and cried out aloud, like she used to in childhood, "didi! Papa! Bachao!" Hoping to hear someone rush to her rescue, she stepped back into the hallway and opened her eyes.



There was no one! The dimly lit hallway with mustiness in the air with no person in sight was a harsh reminder of her present state. This was just the beginning of her battles with adversity. If she had to fight for her survival, her identity and self confidence, she would have to embark upon the creepy creations of nature before tackling her husband and her past.





'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself……. fear is only as deep as the mind allows…' Quotations she had read in her school suddenly made sense; with a deep breath and new determination, she hesitantly stepped inside the room again, with eyes open and vigilant footsteps, she picked a broom from the corner and with all the courage she could muster, she opened the window and shooed away the creepy crawlers one by one with the magic wand as her best friend.



"I have to clean up my own mess," words she had spoken to Armaan just a few hours ago came to real life. Tucking her dupatta around her waist, she was a woman on a mission- scaring her fears away with her broom, dismantling the cobwebs in the nooks and corners of the room, scrubbing the floor, dusting the sparsely furnished room to make it habitable for the next few months or however longer it would take her to become an independent person.





It was the longest and loneliest night of her life. Having been sheltered all her life, either at her parent's home or her in law's home and a few days under Armaan's roof, she had never been in a place like this hostel. Even though, there were single women like her in the neighboring rooms, they were all strangers. Barring the warden of the hostel, she knew no one in this large, old building. Would she ever be able to make friends here? Armaan, her only source of comfort since she had left the Modi home, was not a knock away any more. Even if she missed him, which she did, ever since she had left his place, there was no way he could come up to soothe her like he did the other night at his apartment. Holding the pillow close to her chest, she recalled their few intimate moments before they parted. She touched her wrists where he had passionately kissed her. Although, miles away, he still had the knack of calming her nerves as she slipped into slumber dreaming about him.





NEXT FEW DAYS:



After conquering her reptilian and arachnid nightmares, Riddhima felt more settled in her new home. Fortunately, the warden of the hostel, Ms Keerti Shah, was a kind hearted lady. After hearing Riddhima's plight, she hired her as a manager of the cafeteria run by the Women's hostel to provide affordable hot meals for it's residents. Riddhima had skillfully hidden her identity as the daughter in law of the famous Modi family from the warden.



"I think Riddhima, I have a job for you. We need a person who can manage the staff of the kitchen. I have a feeling you would do a great job." The warden smiled at her.



"But I have never worked before ma'am."



"Yes, you have. Did you not live in a large joint family? If you could manage the whole household there, I'm sure you can manage the staff here. Let's give it a shot." Keerti smiled again, "in exchange, you get free meals and free boarding at the hostel…..how's that for a deal?"



"Thanks ma'am. I am not sure if I deserve the job but I'll try my best."



"Ek baat bolun Riddhima," Keerti raised her eyebrows, "in life, you don't always get what you deserve, but you get what you negotiate. Remember these words of wisdom and you will never fail to achieve what you want in life….OK, let me introduce you to the staff now."



"Thanks ma'am. Aap se milkar na jaane kyun apni didi ki yaad aati hai."



"You can always call me di like a lot of other women do…..not didi, that's too old fashioned," Keerti chuckled and led the way to the cafeteria.



"Yes, di," Riddhima chuckled back.



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



RIDDHIMA's ROOM AT NIGHT:



After a long and hectic day at work, she settled down with her computer to continue with her online education, when a much awaited phone call brought a smile on her face.



"Main jaanti thi tumhara hi phone hoga," she leaned back on her pillow with a restful smile.



"Itni raat aur kaun deewana tumhein phone karega?" Armaan drawled on the other line, "I miss you Riddhima. Haven't seen you since you left. Kyun itna tarsaa rahi ho in aankhon ko?"



"Sorry Armaan. It's just been crazy. Hostel, work, studies….I am sorry. How about we meet on the weekend?"



"Can I see you before that?" He protested.



"It's going to be hard Armaan. Cafeteria mein hi poora din nikal jaata hai."



"I have an idea. As a manager you can arrange for live entertainment in the cafeteria. I'll be happy to provide my services for all those women. Bechari waise bhi hostel ka pheeka khaana khaa khaakar bore ho jaati hongi. I can add some spice to their boring routine. Tum kaho tho poore din wahan cafeteria mein gaana gaa sakta hoon."





She couldn't help laughing at his outrageous idea, "you are crazy Armaan. The last thing all these women need is a man crooning for them while they have their meals in peace. "



"Ok, I can provide other kinds of entertainment too." He chided with her.



"Like what?" She was curious.



"You really want to know?" He grinned mischievously, "I can be a great pole dancer…..and then the rest I am sure you all are smart enough to guess."



"ARMAAN!!!! Dilip mama was right. You definitely have a naughty streak in you." She scolded him.



"Ha, ha, ha," he burst out laughing, "abhi tumne dekha hi kya hai Riddhima madam. You have only seen the shareef Armaan so far….ab badmaash Armaan ko bhi dekhna……main ek shareef dost par badmaash premi hoon."



"ARMAAN!" She turned red and whispered, "sharam nahin aati phone par aisi baatein karte huye?"



"Why are you whispering? Is anyone else there with you?" He chuckled.



"Nahin baba. It's just that no one has ever spoken to me like that," she bit her lower lip.



"Get used to it," he teased her again, enjoying every moment of their banter, wishing he could see her face change various shades of pink and red as he pulled her leg.



"Armaan…Good night….I have a long day tomorrow." She knew that given a chance, they could talk all night, but she would have to sacrifice those pleasures for now, "Good night."



"No Good nights till I get to see you," he sighed.



"Lekin Armaan hum abhi kaise mil sakte hain?" She asked.



"Just come over to your window."



"What? Tum hostel ke neeche ho?" She was shocked.



"I am sorry, I couldn't control myself. Our meeting was a fate, becoming your friend was a choice but falling in love with you I had no control over.......please I want to see your face. Make sure you wave with a dupatta, so I can tell where you are…..please," he insisted.



Elated to the core, coyly, she walked towards the window and saw him standing outside the tall iron gates of the hostel, scanning the building for a view of his beloved. As his eyes searched for her one window amongst rows and columns of similar windows, she waved the dupatta and then tied it to the window frame. His gaze rested on her flowing dupatta, and there she was, standing at the window, her face glowing radiantly against the street lamps lighting the outside of the brick walls of the hostel.



He waved back at her and blew a kiss. She returned the kiss gently, propelling it towards him with her lips. He placed his lips on his phone, "Riddhima…are you still there?"



"Hmmm," she murmured on the other line.



"Leave that dupatta there. Even if you are not there, I'll know where your room is."



"OK," she smiled and waved back again, "Good night now," she said reluctantly. Her heart ached for the man standing on the street. No one had ever loved or craved for her that much; Armaan had changed her whole perspective on love. How she wished, she could be with him at that moment with no barriers or hurdles between them.





"Itni jaldi nahin," he gazed up at her, "pehle mera naya gaana sun na padhega."



"You know I can't say no to that. After all, I am your number one fan."



"Yeh dooriyan…..Satati hain dooriyan, tarsati hain dooriyan……..Fanah ho sabhi dooriyan…..,"he sang in his deep melodious voice, making it impossible for her to hang up. It was his voice that had first attracted her to him; even now it had the same mesmerizing effect on her, sucking her into his magnetic chords, raising her spirits and soul to a new pinnacle of love and liberation.



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



AT NIKITA'S PLACE: NEXT DAY



Abhimanyu, slouched on a sofa with a drink, yelled in a partial drunken state, "Nikita darling….come sit with me. Aaj kal tum bhi bahut bhaav dikhaati ho jaane man. No one loves me the way you do. Sweetheart come here."



A disenchanted Nikita plastered a fake smile on her face and sat next to him, "Abhimanyu, I have to go to work. Why don't you come to the office with me. Waise bhi aaj kil wahan dikhte nahin ho."



"Sweetheart, these days my dad is in the office. He and I can't work together. He is too old fashioned. Suddenly, he wants to be in charge of that place once again. Na jaane buddhe ko kya ho gaya hai?"



"Does that mean you are not the boss anymore?" Nikita asked nervously.



"Come on sweetheart," Abhimanyu pulled her into his arms, "office mein chaahe jo ho, yahan tho hamesha main hi tumhara boss hoon….come on baby….don't leave me." With a sluggish slur, Abhimanyu slumped further and fell asleep as Nikita quietly slipped away from his arms to rush to the office.



"Oh God! How can I get rid of this drunkard? Biwi iski chhod kar gayi hai, museebat meri aagayi hai. Looks like I will have to figure out what's going on in the office myself. Agar sach much Abhimanyu is not in charge any more, why should I waste time on him?" Nikita locked the door and walked away to her car.



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





AT A BARISTA CAFE IN MUMBAI:



"Riddhima beta!" Padma spotted her daughter in law at the door, "Kaisi hai beta," she gave her a big motherly hug.



"Theek hoon mummyji," Riddhima smiled tearfully, reciprocating the warmth of her mother in law, "Aapko dekh kar bahut khushi huyi."



"Mujhey bhi. I am glad you called me to meet you here," Padma kissed Riddhima's cheek, "pehle se kitni dubli ho gayi hai." She complained.



"You are like my mother….maa bhi hamesha yahi complain karti thi," Riddhima laughed.



"Kaash main teri maa hi hoti," Padma laughed back, "in fact, just consider me to be your mother from now on….not your saas."



After ordering coffee, they settled around a table, away from the crowd.



'Armaan kahan hai? Wo nahin aaya? I hope he is taking good care of you," Padma sipped the froth off her cappuccino.



"Wo….wo mummyji," she lowered her gaze, "I've moved out from his place. I-I am at a working women's hostel now."



"Arre yeh kab hua? Why did you leave his place?" She was stunned, "and he let you go?"



Deeply embarrassed, she hesitated, blushing as a result. An astute Padma stared at Riddhima, trying to put two and two together, "is everything alright between you two?"



"Jee…jee…yes of course," Riddhima turned red again, "aisi koi baat nahin hai." She clarified.



Raising her eyebrows silently, Padma knew her speculation about Armaan's feelings for Riddhima had always been right. From the moment he had walked into the door, she had caught him throwing several lovelorn gazes at her beautiful daughter in law. Initially, she had found it awkward but as she had come to know him, she had found him to be a thorough gentleman, never the one to take advantage of his friendship with Riddhima. After seeing Riddhima's reaction, she was certain that Riddhima harbored feelings for him as well. The fact she left his place was proof of their love for each other. She smiled inwardly and thought, "ab Shashank ko will change karne mein koi problem nahin hogi……Abhimanyu bhi divorce ke liye raazi ho jaayega phir."



"Kya hua mummyji?" Riddhima asked awkwardly, "aapko Armaan par koi shaq hai kya?"



"Nahin beta," Padma smiled, reassuring her, "of course not. I know he genuinely cares for you," giving her another inquisitive look.



"Ghar mein sab kaise hain?" Riddhima evaded her mother in law's curious gazes. She was well aware of Padma's mind reading abilities, and, even though she was more a mother that a mother in law, it would be too awkward to tell her that she had fallen in love with her step son.





"Should I say the truth?" Padma sighed, "well the truth is….everyone is finally waking up. Bahar se dekho tho lagta hai tumhare jaane ke baad hamara ghar bikhar gaya hai, lekin sachchayi yeh hai ki tumhari tarah ab sab apni pehchan dhoond rahe hain. Tumhare daddyji ab office jaane lage hain. He has decided to handle the company affairs himself. Rahul has applied for his MBA. Atul has applied for a loan to start his own restaurant business."





"Really?" Riddhima was pleasantly surprised, "daddyji ki tabiyat kaisi hai? I thought the doctors didn't want him to work."



"Doctors were wrong! I think work is the best therapy for Shashank. Since he has gone back to work, he has more confidence; he is more active and spends less time sulking about our past. I am happy he is working," Padma chuckled.



"I am happy for Rahul and Atul bhaiyya. How is Anjali bhabhi handling this?"





"Anjali has changed a bit too. Since Atul announced his wish to open a restaurant, she has developed a kind of confidence she never had before. I think she was always insecure in our house because Atul stayed home. Even though, poor guy stayed home for her and Kavya, she is happier to see him finally step out of the house. This gives her more time with Kavya and less time to complain. Tumne bhi uski aadat bigaad rakhi thi. Kaavya aur ghar ko tumne itni achchi tarah sambhaal rakha tha ki Anjali ke paas bahut faaltu time tha. She spent all those idle hours in self pity, comparing herself with you and bitching about everything. She has now realized that a faithful and trustworthy husband is better than any handicap in life."



The color faded on Riddhima's face, "that's so true mummyji…..sab kuch hote huye bhi mere paas kuch nahin tha…..chalo mere jaane se Anjali bhabhi ko Atul bhaiyya ki value tho pata chali," she gulped her coffee to conceal the cracks in her voice.



"Everyone misses you Riddhima…especially me," Padma placed her hand on Riddhima, "perhaps Abhimanyu misses you too….but of course he will never admit to it."



"Mummyji….jis insaan ne mujh se kabhie pyaar hi nahin kiya, wo kyun miss karega mujhe?" Riddhima asked irately.





"You are right beta. Abhimanyu has only loved himself since childhood. Aajkal wo saara waqt us Nikita ke paas hi rehta hai."



"I hope he has genuine feelings and not just playing with her. Hope they can be happy together," Riddhima replied, hiding her tears. She couldn't believe that she would wish that for the man who had given her so much pain.



"Beta," Padma had tears in her eyes, "tum bahut achchi ho. Really, Abhimanyu didn't deserve you. Itna sab hone ke baad bhi tum chaahti ho usey khushi miley."



"Mummyji…..I need to go now…..cafeteria mein meri shift shuru hone waali hogi," Riddhima picked her purse, ready to leave.



"Cafeteria?"



"Hmm," she nodded, "that's my new job…..please come and visit me at the hostel….aapse milkar dil halka ho jaata hai."



"I will beta," Padma kissed her forehead, "bhagwan tumhein wo sab khushi de jo hum na de sake."



"Mummyji….please don't blame yourself."



"I can't help it beta….I hope I can make amends for the damage I have done to your life. If I could mastermind your marriage to my son, I am sure I can orchestrate the divorce too," Padma caressed Riddhima's head and walked out of the coffee shop, determined to talk to her husband about the will.

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





BACK AT NIKITA'S PLACE:



The loud ring tone on his phone woke Abhimanyu with a jolt, "Hello! Who's this?" Abhimanyu, still inebriated, yawned into the phone.



 "Abhimanyu jee….ek bahut badhi khabar hai mere paas."







"Oh Shailendra? What do you want from me now?" Abhimanyu whined irately.









"Nothing jee…nothing….I just want you to be happy…..jaante ho wo Armaan abhi India mein hi hai!"





"What? I heard he left for the US." Abhimanyu was stunned, his stupor diminishing as he heard the big news.





"Nahin jee…..he is very much at the music academy….and to top it all, your wife, my sister in law, Riddhima, is living with him!"



"Kya bakwas kar rahe ho?" Abhimanyu yelled angrily.



"Have I ever given you wrong information?" Shailendra asked calmly.



"If you are right again, I will kill that son of a &*$@@!" Abhimanyu slammed the phone and dragged himself off the couch in search of his car keys, "how dare he live with my wife!"



……………………………………………………………………………………………………



BACK AT THE HOSTEL:



"Hey….is that you Riddhima?" Muskaan saw a familiar face in the cafeteria.



"Oh..Muskaan….tum yahan?" Riddhima's face lit up on seeing a familiar face, "what are you doing here?"



'What are yooou doing here?" Muskaan stressed.



"I live here…and work here too," Riddhima replied softly, "no one here knows who I really am," she whispered, "I mean I am Riddhima Gupta here..not Modi."



"Got it! Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me. Waise, I work here too. I am the counselor here. What e fun! I wish I knew you were here. Rahul and I have been trying to find out about you. Rahul's mom is a tough nut to crack. She refuses to tell anyone where you are. Aisi kya baat hai?"



"She is very protective of me," Riddhima replied softly.



"I am lucky then. What a cool mom in law! Achcha yeh batao, tum theek tho ho na? How are you managing without any help? Rahul told me you have refused any financial help from the Modis too?"



"Haan Muskaan….yeh meri ladhai hai. Mujhey khud ladhni hai," Riddhima nodded.



"Well….I am very proud of you. I've never liked Abhimanyu. How I wish you were married to someone like Armaan. After all, wo bhi tho us ghar ka beta hai na…..tho kya hua agar najaayaz ho tho."





Riddhima turned a crimson red again; even though she liked both Rahul and Muskaan, she was not sure if she should divulge her little secret about Armaan and herself. Abhimanyu was capable of harming Armaan if he found out about them; it was best to remain quiet for now.





"Muskaan…..let's not talk about me…..tum aur Rahul kaise ho?"



Muskaan and Riddhima sat down over lunch and spent a good hour sharing their stories, Riddhima's goals, Muskaan's work at the hostel and Rahul's new avatar, away from Abhimanyu's shadow. Muskaan even introduced Riddhima to a number of women with similar stories like hers- unfaithful husbands and loveless marriages. Commiserating with other single women turned out to be a good way for Riddhima to share her sorrows and insecurities. It was heartening to see so how many women had started with 'nothing but a bagful of sorrows,' but were now independent with good paying jobs, some even ready to move out to their own places.



…………………………………………………………………………………..



Late one night, Armaan parked his car and walked, whistling and humming towards his apartment, "yeh dooriyan…..satati hain yeh dooriyan," when he saw the lights outside the hallway of his door, pitch dark.



"What happened to the lights here?" He groped cautiously. As he stepped forward, he was stunned by a heavy punch on his face, knocking the wind out of him.



'AHHH!" he fell flat on his face, facing a pair of shiny black shoes. Before he could react, he felt one of the shoes pinning him down to the floor.



"Only a coward would attack me in the dark!" Armaan growled, "turn the lights on you coward!"



Next, he found himself blinded by a bright flash light on his face. Armaan struggled to look away at his offender; it didn't take him long to realize that it was Abhimanyu shining the lights at him.



"What do you want?" Armaan grabbed Abhimanyu's leg and pulled him down. The two men wrestled one on top of another, rolling down the hallway floors. An agile and able bodied Armaan was soon able to overwhelm Abhimanyu and had him pinned down underneath, "fight like a man Abhimanyu……not like a chicken!"



"Where is my wife? Riddhima kahan hai?" Abhimanyu coughed, desperately trying to free himself.



"Why do you want to know? She doesn't want to see you anymore," Armaan dusted his hands and got up, finally releasing his captive.



"Because I am her husband and she belongs to me!"



"She doesn't belong to anyone!" Armaan yelled back.



"She is still legally married to me. I have a right to know where she is!"



"I think you lost all your rights when you cheated on her."



"I want to check your apartment. I know you have been hiding her here."



"Yes, I have been hiding her here," Armaan scoffed, "there you go….go ahead and check," he threw his door open and let Abhimanyu in. A belligerent Abhimanyu walked in yelling for Riddhima, "RIDDHIMA! KAHAN HO TUM? RIDDHIMA! I KNOW YOU ARE HERE!" He searched every room, corner and area in the apartment, but was disappointed to find no one there.



"Where is she?" Abhimanyu scowled.





"If she wants to meet you, she will find you….don't waste your time looking for her," Armaan replied, "and now leave my place because I don't have time for men like you!"



"You Ba****d! I will make sure you leave this country as soon as possible!"



"It'd sound corny, but remember tumhara baap bhi mujhey is desh se nahin nikaal sakta," Armaan pushed Abhimanyu out of the door, "and if you harass me or Riddhima anymore, I will make sure your reputation and position in society will be ruined forever. Forget Riddhima, because she doesn't need you anymore!"



"Kya lagti hai wo teri?" Abhimanyu wiped his bleeding lip.



"Wo hi jo tumhari kabhie nahin lagi."



"Kya rishta hai tera meri patni se?"



"Wo hi jo tumhara kabhie nahin tha Riddhima ke saath!"



"You son &*%^*()@@@@!!!!!" Abhimanyu, flustered by Armaan's answers, cursed him and turned to leave. His cell buzzed in his pocket as was about to turn, "Shailendra…..this time you were wrong!" Abhimanyu growled.



Armaan froze when he heard Shailendra's name, "so…it's Riddhima's own jijajee who has been an informant all along?"



"What? Asha women's hostel?" Abhimanyu asked with a frown, walking away to his car, "she better be there this time!"



Armaan panicked when he heard the hostel's name on Abhimanyu's lips. He ran after him, but was too late as Abhimanyu had already sped off.





He would have to warn Riddhima of the impending danger coming her way, but to his dismay, she never answered her calls, "Oh God Riddhima, why are you not answering your calls? That evil man is on the way. I can't let that happen."



…………….to be contd…….
will Armaan reach Riddhima before Abhimanyu does??

Bheegi

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