Friday, 5 April 2019

Intro & part 1 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

~Introduction~

"Happy anniversary beta...." the words fell like a loadful of heavy bricks upon his hollow heart ...."thank you daadu" he replied his baritone voice woven into studied calm syllables, deceiving none of his inner turmoil, n he added after a pause "she is in the shower, let me pass the...." he was interrupted by the deep voice on the other side matching his own, except the evident weathering edge to it, indicating the age difference of about five decades .....

"absolutely not....let her get ready for the special day, um sure u have planned it well....just convey my wishes to her....god bless u both beta...." he half let out an unheard sigh before replying, "i will daadu...i hope you are keeping well...." a light hearted laughter followed, which threatened to turn into a bout of relentless coughing, as the old man managed to hold it somehow n said

"yes i am....perfect....just waiting to cradle another great grandchild in my arms before i close my eyes forever....don't think i sound like those conservative thoughtless oldies, but i hope its a boy, just like you Ormaan...."

Armaan swallowed hard shutting his eyes momentarily as he heard his name pronounced with an 'O' phonetic , the typical bengali way of pronouncing words starting with the letter 'A'.....putting aside the image of the face which flashed inevitably each time on being addressed this way, he replied before his silence caused a suspicious delay, in the same maintained tone



"Dadu....how you ramble on mindlessly.....kali ma promised me nothing less than a life of 100 years for you...." hearing the old man chuckle he went on, the additional tinge of concern in his voice hard to notice as his tone appeared as unmodulated as ever, only a note softer.....

"you please take care of yourself dadu....n pay my regards at home....." the long distance call was terminated by the clicking sound on both sides, leaving a smile on either face...a grim one set on Armaan's lips, and one full of remorse on the old wrinkled face of his dadu, his baba's father.....Armaan stood for several seconds looking at nothing but thin air ahead of him, n that was the end of any display of reaction or emotion from him, as he moved towards the closet, fetching his set of fresh clothes to change into after the shower.....

hearing her hum in the bathroom, he sighed thinking of what she had demanded as a gift for today, the day of completing 5 successful years of marriage, to put it in the most euphemistic way.....he moved to the opposite end of the room, opening the door to his separate bathroom......

***************

"A last minute client reassignment???did Ritu mention why???" she paused leaning forward on the plush leather chair in her decently furnished downtown office hearing the answer from her secretary, frowning more as the reply did not satisfy her in the least...."anyways, I will take this up later, now did u say the file was on my desk???...the second one in the right side pile???"

fishing out the red binder she finished off "well much as i hate to be unprepared, with no prior study of the task, i don't think its appropriate to ask them to reschedule for an appointment Molly....send them right in.....i am certain i can manage for this once...." Deactivating the speaker button, as she was going to open the file, her cell beeped.....

"hey beautiful!...Navy Pier, 6PM, dont forget to leave office in time, um not gona entertain your usual 'got stuck in the rush hour traffic' excuse.....love you...." she smiled deeply shaking her head as she read the text....the sound of a knock made her look up and she saw a petite well dressed lady, apparently in her mid thirties, walk in......she got up from behind her desk smiling professionally n stated "Ridhima Gupta...."

as they shook hands her new client replied with a wide smile of her own, "I am Lovely.....just like my name!!!" as she fluttered her eyes with an affected attitude and an almost annoying emphasis at the pun intended, Ridhima was in half minds; part of her could hardly avoid the mock retort at the tip of her tongue,  provoked by the lame introduction, while the other part of her felt diabetic, unable to endure the sweetness of that smile.....there was but one consoling thought, she could not possibly be the first one subjected to this witless attempt at humor.....

the professional in her however, waived aside the irritation trying to ebb its way to the surface her n compelled by the demands of her position she was about to return the courtesies of the 'Lovely lady' with a smile herself.....when the very next moment she heard her door again n they both looked up to see the back of a man who shut the door behind him gently.....

Ridhima's face which had half curved into a smile a second ago, now switched expression, she narrowed her eyes at the unyielding air of familiarity about him, and as he turned around her eyes in contrast to the previous moment widened....she stared into the hazel depth of his unwavering gaze....while he took a couple of uncertain steps forward, as if unwilling to close in on the distance, they both heard the next words breaking that moment long silence in the room "that Ms. Gupta is my darling hubby.....Armaan Malik...."

****************

~Part 1~

She felt a paralyzing sensation take control of her limbs, rendering her incapable of movement and reaction, hearing the name she had tried to bury into the inaccessible recesses of her heart desperately for the past five years. This moment of confrontation she felt had shoved the truth at her, plain n straight- her efforts had always been in vain. The pounding of her heart asserted how her vulnerable instincts may have been dormant, but never dead as she had made herself believe in every moment of realization of painful betrayal she had faced at the hands of the man standing before her.

Armaan meanwile felt all efforts of upholding his defining poise facade suddenly threatening to crumble under the pressure of the moment. WAS IT REALLY HER? The whole existence of his past revolved around that one face, the one name, RIDHIMA GUPTA. Was there a remote chance he might be hallucinating?

If not, he couldn't see for the life of him, what he ever did to be cornered by his haunting past this way, or any other way for that matter. Why was any of this even happening? God, what is the game plan here? he thought desperately, seeking divine intervention, I thought you have been entertained enough at my expense, not this. Undo it, NOW!

Of course contrary to his wish, and in conformity with his better logic, the world around him apparently did not dissolve, worst of all she still stood her spot, staring at him, her look blank. Perhaps it was her lack of reaction which at that second snapped him out of the enveloping surge of emotions, and before anyone could have really noticed, his face hastily wore the usual expression, stoic and untouched, the surface impenetrable as he turned away to look at his wife, who had missed out on the stunned silent musing between the two people other than herself in the room, if there had been any tell tale signs at all.

Relieved at no detection by Lovely, he turned again, looking back at Ridhima, and said, his voice as unfathomable as his expressions, "Ms. Gupta, pleasure to meet you!" His words finally brought her out of the clouding senses. She continued holding his gaze, but her eyes were now beginning to gain an expression of the unspoken words- the hurt, the questions, the shock, as the encounter finally deliberated its presence.

Then, she suddenly became aware of the silent yelling inside her head. An inner call made her pull the reigns tighter on herself, never quite knowing how, and she gathered her failing defenses, to not let herself be witnessed as a weakling, pitiable and abandoned. In fact, she amazed herself next, by extending her hand forward, in return to his gesture, her action remaining appropriate for the moment professionally, but unfaithful to her heart, as she replied at long last,

"I sure hope the feeling will become mutual...eventually, Mr. Malik." Turning back she shot Lovely what she hoped could pass for something resembling a smile, while inside her, it felt like a war raged, as she desperately wanted to see his reaction to her words, but knew it would do her no good. Trying to freeze the rush of adrenaline she added "Please make yourselves comfortable"....

Lovely let out a laugh, which sounded almost inappropriate, but somehow, strangely enough, it was obvious to Ridhima, that her message or intent had totally been lost atleast on at least one of the two people facing her. I can not believe he dumped me for this woman, she started to think, this giggling mindless weird...stop it, she chided herself, and almost let out a sigh.

 No Ridhima, NO! You are for them, as for all others who sit before you in this office, a mere professional hired to design the interiors for their house. They are your clients, and a a happily married couple- A COUPLE! He is married, don't forget that now back to work. She snubbed the discomfort and restlessness his presence was causing her, and proceeded with what she was sure would prove to be the longest hour of her life, yet.

***************

He lay straight on his back, the moist softness of the grass beneath him failing to offer its usual comfort. What a wonderful anniversary gift, he thought, running the events of the day in his mind He could not help but marvel at his ironical luck. She had made him promise to let her design his house once upon a time, actually just a few years ago. Nonetheless, it felt like another lifetime; they were still in graduate school, him a Psychology major, while her concentration was Interior Designing in the school of Art and Architecture.

Armaan stared at the cloudless night sky. As an intrigued child in his early years, he had spent night after night counting those tiny shining specks, in the hope of knowing how many there were, someday. But it did not take long for life to teach him, that everything he ever wished for was a quest as impossible as this one. He could go on forever, just to tell himself he was getting closer, but reality stuck, he would never quite attain what he was hoping for.

Nothing had ever been straight or easy for him, but this certainly was the limit. How long would he have to be at the receiving end? It is the story of my life, he mused in resignation. He could not remember a moment he had felt emotionally secure for as far back as he could delve into the past years. Gain had always been far overshadowed by loss.

Ma, Baba, Ridhima...inevitably he had been kept away from people he craved to never be separated from all his life. Baba left him first....his juvenile mind blamed it on fate; and Ma, that indeed was something which could not have been undone, no options or alternates had ever existed there. Ridhima...he gave a fond smile as the name left his lips soundlessly. She happened to him like a miracle, when they met at a common elective photography class. It had been the sole exception to his miserable life, in fact those months spent with her were the only ones which had made him chance the belief that it was not abnormal to want to live life and happily so. Alas! It had been a fatal blow for whatever little of optimism or hope had survived within him. Separation from Ridhima had reestablished the truth. His life a mere debt on him, something he would repay all of his living years.

And Lovely...he gave a small smile, another irony. She was his solace, not quite the way a wife is meant to be. In any case, she made him content with the thought that his life had not been an utter waste. While giving consent for this matrimonial proposal, he had not been unaware of what he was calling upon himself. But he had resigned in the face of obligations, accepting it as fate yet again. God wanted him to repay his family in a noble way, by being there for Lovely, as a professional, and as her emotional support.

In a concerted effort to go on with his unsatisfactory life he had immersed himself in his work, and in taking care of her. The facts remained unknown to everyone at home, except daadu, who had a year after the wedding accidently stumbled upon the medical evidence. He, before the truth could be brought forth, had been sworn to silence by Armaan. Why then, he thought ferverntly, had his path crossed Ridhima's once more? A past he would rather he never had to face again. Why me God, when will i finally be redeemed, he questioned without much hope, knowing he would not get an answer, just like always.

***************

"Gappu you can quit rubbing it in now? She is tired, let her rest." Hearing his mother defend her sister, Gappu shifted the accusing look on his face targeting Ridhima to a nasty one intended for Anjali as he protested. "But mum, she promised to come and we waited for her for over an hour." Before Ridhima could answer in her defense, Anjali cut him off mid sentence "WE???" Gappu kicked himself mentally for saying more than he had to, then trying to sound as convincing as possible he answered nervously "yes...we...there was...er...another friend from school with me, you havent met her mum...HIM i mean..."  he emphasized the correction hastily, biting his tongue for the second slip in his effort of not being caught, as Anjali narrowed her eyes slightly not convinced by his reply marked with several gaps.

Presently, Ridhima interrupted coming to his rescue "Di, why are you getting angry at him. He is right. It is entirely my fault. The least I could have done is call him to inform that I would not make it." Turning to him before her elder sister could prod deeper into the issue she added "Gappu, I am terribly sorry, it was just..." she paused thinking for the appropriate word as images of the unexpected events of the day flashed through her mind. "Something came up, unannounced but crucial, I could not over ride it, and I forgot to leave you a message," she resumed smiling ruefully at him, holding her ears she appealed "I am sorry???"

Gappu smiled inevitably, then moving forward he gave her a hug saying "Beautiful women! I can never say no to them!" as they both grinned breaking apart, Anjali shook her head and spoke, clearly not pleased "Why do I even bother playing the peacemaker here? It always ends with you both pairing up against me." Rolling her eyes she made her way out of the Ridhima's room muttering in an undertone, as the two of them giggled at each other and yelled in chorus behind her "Good night, love you!" She turned to give them a last look from where she stood, just outside the door, then smiling at them with a sigh she said "Strangely, I love you creeps too. I think its way past bedtime now, sleep well."

Gappu opened his mouth to speak, turning back to face Ridhima several seconds after his mother left, but stopped. Narrowing his eyes, his lips still parted awaiting the forgotten words, he realized she wore a different look, and not a familiar one. "Maasi???" he finally spoke, in a tentative way. It was rare for him to address her like this, the traditional Indian way to address his mother's sister. She was his aunt indeed, but less than a decade elder to him, since Anjali and Ridhima though sisters, were a good 13 years apart in age. Consequently, what the two of them had was a bond closest of friends are known to share, they had grown up together as playful pranksters and inseparable siblings, she having been a mere 7 year old when he was born.

Now he saw her continue gazing at nothing in particular, not even whinning about him calling her Massi, as she always did, complaining it made her feel like an old graying spinster in the family. He knew something was not right with her. Putting his hand on her shoulder to get her attention, he was successful this time as she looked at him. "Massi..." he repeated softly, "what happened?" As she shook her head he spoke before she could begin with any excuse "Only facts, no cock n bull tales, not before me at least." She sighed looking away, then muttered just audible enough for him to hear, "I will tell you Gappu, when the moment is right."

Then turning back to him, she fumbled trying to pull on a genuine smile, and said "so who was this HER, u transformed to HIM before Di?" Gappu thought for a long moment before deciding to give her time. He knew she would tell him whatever was bothering her eventually. He never did believe in pushing people to spill the beans, it had to happen out of her own conviction not his pursuation. He replied "I wont tell you. Your penalty for not showing up at Navy Pier as planned; and before you plead innocence on grounds of inescapable circumstances, I will give you a chance for repentance anyways. You come to pick me up at the reharsal hall tomorrow and meet her, she is my lead lady in the musical. What say?"

Ridhima nodded her head enthusiastically and he shot her a mischievous side smile. Stretching his arms next high over his head he mumbled trying to stiffle a yawn, "Time to crash." Then moving forward he ruffled her hair in brotherly love n said in an earnest voice "I hope you are fine..." As she blinked in affirmative with a small smile he kissed her cheek lightly "Sweet dreams beautiful!" saying so he retired for his bedroom adjacent to hers.

************

" I can't remember why we fell apart
From something that was so meant to be,
Forever was the promise in our hearts
Now, more and more I wonder why not.....
Do I ever cross your mind, anytime
Do you ever wake up reaching out for me
Do I ever cross your mind anytime
I miss you
Still have your picture in a frame
Hear your footsteps down the hall
I swear I hear your voice, driving me insane
How I wish that you would call to say
I miss you "

She slammed shut her laptop to stop the song from playing any further. Brian McKnight, their common favorite she remembered distinctly with rising bitterness. This could not have been timed any worse. The world around and everything in it seemed to be conspiring against her all at once. Of the five thousand songs in the hard disk playing randomly on the shuffle mode, it had to be this melancholy track of lost love.

Unable to rest her mind, after tossing in the bed for about twenty minutes, she had decided sleep was not going to offer her any respite from the endless chain of thoughts. Pushing off the comforter, she had drained the bottle of water resting on the bedside chest. Then walking to the washroom she had splashed her face over and over, a refreshing sensation to begin with, but gradually a chill had started to prick her soft skin and she had stopped only when the bashful splashing was turning to icy pangs of pain hard to bear.

Then walking back into the room, she had tried getting involved with pending design assignments, but the memory of his face refused to desert her. The agitation was only heightened by the song that had started to play, and presently she got up from the desk dragging her feet to the glass window covering the length of an entire wall of her room in the three bedroom downtown apartment, overlooking a panoramic view.

The Chicago skyline against the night sky was a stark outline, a shining crescent in the background of the highest blue and yellow spires of the Sears atop its majestic 110 storeys. A shimmering reflection of this real picture was like a still shot in the unperturbed waters of Lake Michigan, the absence of ripples being an unusual sight in the windy city. She smirked at her thoughts...UNUSUAL! It was an understated adjective to describe the day.

Five years after they parted ways wordlessly, four years after she moved from London to Chicago with her elder sister's family, three years and three quarters of the fourth year after joining the famous Radolph Associates as a junior design intern, over two years after she turned twenty three, a year after she was hired as a permanent member on the firms senior design team, and about a couple of months after she turned down the tenth proposal for marriage, he had reappeared in her life.

Standing by the window she rest her tired body against the cool surface of the glass in a limp fashion. Then running her fingers through the lose strands of hair she looked upwards. Why now, she wanted to ask but what was the point? There was no dearth of questions that had remained unanswered. Starting from his unannounced disappearence one fine summer morning five years ago...Chirag, his room mate in the dorm at Cambridge had told her about his return to India. "He is getting married" he had informed her and she had refused to let him tell her any more details. That was more than she needed to know.

Had she expected him to tell her himself? Technically he owed her no explainations since they were just an edge past being casual friends, nothing close to a committed couple status. Ethically however, he had wronged her gravely. There had been this strange attraction she felt for him, and he had indicated a reciprocation, subtle though it was, she was in no doubt that he ensured the attention he paid her would not pass unnoticed. While she had been busy living the fantasies of the day he would confess his feelings to her, he had, oblivious to her knowledge at that time, been apparently occupied with planning his life with a certain someone else. And this she learned from a third person. Was she therefore, not justified in closing the matter with a preference to stay ignorant about the 'who' and 'why' details?

She had spent plenty of time in retrospection post that summer, initially analyzing what they had shared, and why it had not turned out the way she had anticipated it would all along. Unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion, Ridhima altered the trail of her thoughts, and started working her way methodically out of the misery of looming rejection. She reiterated as often as she could, that there had been nothing of consequence for him to consider or for her to label 'lost'. The intricacy of her web of thoughts was however not that easy to resolve.

Unlike him, she was an extrovert, making friends where ever she went. Not surprisingly therefore, she hardly bothered herself to keep count of people she met through the course of her life- there were but few who left the lasting impressions, others were fading memories, and remaining were already forgotten. Most encounters in life were meant to be abrupt ending stories, memories of which were rarely, if ever, revisited. Once in a wile you were likely to hear an old song, or smell an old perfume which reminded you of a certain someone. It would bring back an air of nostalgia, occasionally it could moisten your eyes; then you would snap back to the present and the routine would take control. That was life, was it not? At least that is how it was meant to be.

But Armaan...there were times she feared it might be a mental disorder she suffered from, for she refused to lose thread of this abandoned chapter of her life. It would be anything but honest to not admit that. Moments spent with him in the eight months they knew each other, overshadowed all the wonderful times she had spent at Cambridge. He was an enigmatic personality who eluded her understanding of men. But when her female instinct had insinuated a rare spark, she had willingly accepted the virtual bonding as the real essence of her life. It was like a piece fell in place when she met him, it seemed she had been waiting all her life for someone just like him.

She could still recite the dialogues they had exchanged over the months in grad school, for she had replayed those scenes in her head reluctantly, during the waking hours of the day and inevitably, in her dreams occupying her nights, innumerable times. Her frustration after he left had made her promise herself that she would move on in life. She did manage it successfully for intervals, but never too long. It was like a recurring trauma issue. She did however, pride herself for the nonchalance she could portray. In fact with passing months her act of a perfect life had started to feel real; the thoughts of him never quite left her, but she had started to believe they were blending into the times forgotten.

More often than not came moments when she would not want to let go, even though it was obviously against her better judgement. But then it would be a new day again and she would tell herself her life was replete with God's grace in an enviable way- loving family, great career, close friends; she had achieved her dreams quite young. There was nothing to complain about. She had only gained in life, Armaan had never been her personal property to begin with, how could she whine over having lost him? And so she had survived, believing she was closer than ever to forgetting her past. Now, HE WAS BACK. Slowly she slid against the wall, sitting in a bundle, hugging her knees. It had been along day. She did not know where any of this was headed, but it had, from the looks of it, only just started.

**************
NJ

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