Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Part 9 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid


"Wasn't that fun?" Ridhima smiled, Ritu's excitement was infectitious, and never fading as far as shopping was concerned.



"You have no limit do u Ritu, and today apparently neither does your card."Ritu shot her a mysteriously triumphant look.



"What?" exclaimed Ridhima narrowing her eyes.



"I must have forgotten to mention Ridzi, its Chirag's card!"



"Why did I not guess?" Ridhima replied in a laid back voice rolling her eyes upward. "Where to next Mrs. Richie Rich?"





Ritu chuckled, then grabbing her arm said grinning, "Food court! I'm famished. Ridzi this is so amazing, we have to do this more often. I feel like we are having girls time after like ages."



Ridhima's smile faded slightly, but she pulled it wide again for Ritu's benefit. They got seated at a table inside P.F.Chang's. Picking up the menu, though she needed it not at their favorite Chinese chain eat out, she thought how right Ritu was. She had been avoiding all social calls for many months now. Not that she had intended to, not from the start of this withdrawl phase at least. Infact when Armaan left, after the initial shock she had felt defiant, deciding to move on, this time for good. But it hadn't been real. Not anymore than his presence which she felt around her all the time. Gradually she lost the defiance, following a consequential retreat from much activity telling herself initially that she needed a while of solitude, which with time gained permanency in her life.



She knew nothing was the same, it had not been from that fall in London when she first saw him. If only she could delete the whole phase and be what she had been prior to that. Ridhima Gupta, 22, living life for the love of it, doing everything she did simply cause she wanted to, and in her heart harboring the dream of every girl at that age- to meet the man of her fantasies and live happily ever after. She expected to find him unexpectedly when she went for a party, or when they had Indian nights, during camping trips or at ball room dancing classes. Sometimes she would humor incredible imaginations of meeting him if her car broke down in a snow storm, or of a random guy she would accidentally spill her coke over at the movie hall.



Even so when she was informed, more often than not about certain someones who admired her, or when she was asked out directly, she mostly refused. Why? She couldn't say but she didn't feel them click as she imagined she should feel. And then it happened, the spark, the moment, the first sight, when she had caught him staring at her. It seemed like he had been willing her for something and though she turned away frowning the intensity of his gaze was hard to resist and she had looked back, acknowledging him and seeing him smile in response had filled her with a strange sense of content. And so it had began.



"Start with the usual Ridzi?"



She snapped back to now and saw a girl waiting for the order as she stood beside their table. In a moment of realization she felt herself faintly smiling, she nodded hastily lifting the glass of water to her lips and heard Ritu say,



"We'll go with the crispy green beans for now, and double pan fried noodles with Chang's spicy chicken for main course. Let that come like..." she looked at Ridhima in question so she replied, "Give us 20 minutes after the appetizers." The girl nodded with a smile and left.



"Ridzi!" Hearing the sudden hushed excitement in her voice, Ridhima followed Ritu's gaze.



"What?" She said, turning back to face Ritu unable to figure what had caught her attention. Ritu shot her a hopeless look and whispered in a reproaching voice,



"WHAT? Can't you see that hunk in white? Hes showing more interest than can be passed for as casual. In fact I am certain now I saw him at least at the last three stores we visited if not more. Ridhimaaa...I'm talking to you girl, are you going to say something?"



"Sure, whenever you're done with your part, or need a break, I'll fill in with my talk. And just for records, you're now officially married. Even if you've been taken over by Satan himself and have suddenly stopped loving Chirag for whoever that jerk in white is, don't even dream of ditching him, at least not till he clears off the debt on the card you've been tossing around at every dam store tonight." Ridhima replied in practical sarcasm. Ritu jerked her head at her making a face.



"Quit the worthless humor Ridzi. Its not me, its you hes been stealing glances at. I'm certain. OMG hes just staring here now with no intention to hide it anymore Ridzi, this is so exciting!"



And saying so, much to Ridhima's horror Ritu waved at whoever this stranger was. Wide eyed, in instant reaction Ridhima turned around hoping none of this was happening. It was. There he sat, a guy in white, staring at her indeed she thought as their eyes met. He smiled at her warmly in that brief exchange, but it made her frown, and she turned back to the table.



"Cut it out Ritu, please. I'm in no mood to entertain Chang's customers to free drama."



Before either could say another word, the girl serving them brought the starting dish. "Here you go ladies, enjoy the beans. Twenty minutes and I'll be back." With that she left them alone again.



"Be a sport Ridzi. He seems like a nice guy."



"Nice guy? You're the one who's certain he's been stalking us, now hes gawking shamelessly, thats your definition of a NICE GUY?"



The girl serving them was back again, sooner than they expected. "Excuse me miss, " she started looking at Ridhima who had to work at appearing unaffected as she looked back with raised eyes, "That gentlemen over there would like to buy you both drinks. He suggested the Red Lush wine for you, " she paused putting the wine glass before Ritu, "and the Red Soft and Tangy for you" For a moment Ridhima was too shocked to see the glass of wine being placed before her, yet it did not need her to turn around and see who this generous gentleman was. Then she heard Ritu speak,



"That is so courteous of him. Please thank him on our behalf." Ignoring Ridhima's incredulous look she added on an impulse, "Actually, why don't you ask him to join us, he seems to be seated alone, unless hes waiting for someone of course."



The girl nodded, with a wide smile of comprehension and left before Ridhima could utter a word. She spoke however the moment she was gone.



"RITU...what the hell was that about?"



"What? Stop behaving like those uptight maidens from the seventeenth century Ridzi. The man is a thorough gentleman."



Ridhima shook her head in frustration now. "Gentleman? Nice? Have you lost it? His persistence is unnerving and you call that his charm?" she said in angry whisper.



"Ridzi you're over reacting. What are you getting mad at anyways, the fact that hes interested in you, or that he shows it with all due courtesies?"



She did not get her reply, as at that moment a deep set voice interrupted them.



"Hello ladies. May I express my gratitude in being received so graciously by two such gorgeous women."



"Save it for elsewhere, you're going to be more than just disappointed with the charms here."



Ridhima stated in a flat voice. Then lifting her glass of water she sipped again. She could have sworn Ritu wanted to kill her that moment, but she did not feel any guilt inside. She initiated nothing, but she was also not about to take this in the stride.



"Please, don't mind my friend she takes her time with strangers. I'm Ritu. Wont you have a seat."



Ridhima was almost tempted to say a no on his behalf, but much to her disappointment he did just the opposite, taking the seat next to Ritu, facing her. Ridhima concentrated on unwrapping her silverware. Out the corner of her eye she did not miss his smile as he spoke.



"Pleased to meet you Ritu, I'm Vivek." Then turning to face Ridhima he added, "I apologize to make this uncomfortable for you Miss..." He paused waiting for her to complete. Ritu opened her mouth to play the intermediate again, but not soon enough this time as Ridhima spoke first.



"Miss none-of-your-business. But don't bother about the inconvenience, I don't intend to keep you guilty about it another moment." With that she got up. "Excuse me please." And she left. Without so much as a glance at Ritu. She was bound to not be pleased, and would have to be faced later. For then Ridhima could not stay on the table another second.



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

"Ammy be reasonable. Its just for a week. You want him to have to back out for something as trivial?"



"Chirag I did not say no. He can stay with the family in Kolkota. Daadu will take care. Rahul and Muskaan are also home for Durga Puja. With me is such a bad idea, my schedules and locations vary unpredictably."



"How the hell did they let you graduate in psychology dude? I thought you knew the boy enough. He isn't a 'me', he is so 'you'. Generation gap, communication gap, cultural disparity, a language he doesn't know...have you forgotten how alien the feeling of being on a new land is and among complete strangers? And for him to have to go through it when you are so close by, is it so hard for you to be of help to people anymore?"



"Chirag you don't understand..."



"I do. I understand more than you ever credit me for. Listen Ammy, he will be married to your niece in few years time, will you refuse to see the boy because he is your beloved's nephew?"



"Chirag! Where the hell are you dragging this?"



"I'm not, you are. Ammy I learned my lesson a year ago. I want to keep Ridhima out of this as much as you do cause I want to be nowhere in picture between her and you anymore. But this is about Gaurav. Have you completely lost the ability to think without a bias? Please Ammy, its but for a week, while they arrange his dorm space, he just stepped into the program later than usual. He was skeptical about the whole thing, but when I mentioned your name as a tentative option he jumped to the idea. Now he's excited not just about the camp, but about seeing you, its like this admiration he holds for you, placing you on a higher pedestal than the usual lot of us. He knows nothing he should not, and it would considerate of you to leave the kids out of that which we rendered inevitable for ourselves."



Several moments of silence followed. From Chirag it signified a relentless streak, offering no escape. He knew if he spoke and softened Armaan would grab the chance without a second to it. It wasn't what he intended, and it wasn't what happened.



"Alright. I'm not in Kolkota these days, but within Bengal. I'll take a week off." It took Chirag all of his self constrain to not yell in glee. Instead he said,



"I'd hate for you to break his spell Ammy, just because you refuse to let go of an obstinate whim, I'm glad you opt for the better. You wont regret this I promise."



Somehow Armaan didn't need Chirag to spell out the 'this' he would not regret nor what it was that he promised him, he knew it was beyond what the word claimed. But he knew just as well he had no choice, he was rarely left any.



"Hmm" he grunted resigning to the situation. But inside he knew it wasn't plain resignation. Unless he refused honesty to self, it was evident there was more than a resigned obligation here. It was...partly wishful; or even more that than the former? I adore the boy and I've missed them all so much he argued in his head...especially...He wondered how much of this set up she alreday knew? And how much of her consent it had. It was undeniable chance to...He was interrupted.



"Thanks man! A week off can't kill whoever your mysterious employers or clients are anyways."



"Hmm..." Again, thought Chirag, if hes affected half as much as I hoped for, hes doing a wonderful job of letting nothing on. Perhaps his reaction nerves were never quite activated...birth defect? Rolling his eyes he spoke again



"Er..Ammy, I definitely need a contact number now, you can give me whichever it will be for the next fortnight. I mean his family...They will want to know and I'm answerable so..."



This had to be a plan. Atleast there was no way it could all be as innocentally incidental as it was made to appear. Relentless scheming, Armaan conceded, Chirag had left no loopholes, except if Armaan was to turn him down with a blatant no on the whole idea. And he had already missed that chance, with all but a weak resisitance to say the least.



"Give them the home number. We will be staying there." He spoke aloud, in his head the conflicting emotions was charging up for a battle. Chirag interrupted again.



"Awsome! I'll email you the ticket but just so you have a rough idea, he's arriving 6AM, next Wednesday, IST, Delta Airlines at the Netaji Subhash Chandra..."



"The international airport, I got it. Leave something for the email dude." Armaan interrupted shaking his head at how Chirag at memorized the details. But... "Wait...I thought you said the plan was to be confirmed only after I gave my assent, what's with the ticket?"



In his rising optimism, Chirag made haste in trying to not allow Armaan any chance to change his mind, ironically he gave him just that now. He slammed his fist into his forehead.  It wasn't that he expected Armaan to speculate nothing fishy, it was more about making it impossible for himself to be questioned about it. He chuckled uncertainly, making time and thankful that phones could transfer only sound, not images of those in conversation.



"Ahem...Do you wish for me to lie?" he asked tentatively.



"No. I want facts."



"He asked me about the chances and I told him to go ahead and buy the ticket."



"What if I had refused?"



"If you really need me to answer that one Ammy, I knew you wouldn't...eventually. Don't ask me how next." Chirag said, and they both chuckled despite themselves a second later.



"Well thank you, I appreciate the honesty. I guess I don't make much of a mystery of how easy it is to talk me into stuff." Armaan retorted. Chirag could almost see him smile, it made him happy.



"Don't claim all the credit, my argument was reasonable and I presented the case well."



"Yeh whatever...listen, I need to go. Email me the details right away. Infact, can you pass me Gaurav's id too"?



"You got it. Ammy...a quick one...Do you miss us?"



"Yes." He said quietly. "And end of rapidfire. Sleep well, I know you will after killing my peace."



"You know me well then. Take care mate. We miss you too."



He heard the tone as the line went dead, and then he heard the front door open.



"Honey you're home? Guess what, I was just talking to Ammy and..."



"Chirag I had a long day and I'm hungry. And...Armaan is not going to be the best topic of discussion over dinner, leave him for another time."



With that she walked towards the kitchen. He frowned and followed her with his narrowed eyes. then turning back he saw the mass of shopping bags dumped all over the couch and shook his head with a grin.



"Steals my heart, owns my credit card...and the woman is still scowling? What is a man supposed to do?" he muttered. Then ruffling his hair he followed her into the kitchen. He was on cloud 9. Tonight anything you ask for sweetheart, he thought smiling.



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

Putting the receiver back onto its hook, Armaan held onto it for a couple long moments.



"Ridhima..." the name escaped his lips in a whisper as his thoughts went to her, yet again.



The sound of a knock brought him out of his reverie as he realized the queue outside the PCO was getting longer. He gave a weak apologetic smile to the man who was waiting next in line after him on his way out of the stall. It was early morning and h did not have to be at work until an hour later. He decided to take a walk. It was the environment of Shantiniketan that had drawn him to itself since the moment he laid eyes on it at the age of 6, It had grown on him in subsequent years of visits while his Daadu was a senior Professor of music at Vishwa Bharti. His favorite spot was Chatimtola, for some reason he felt a strange sense of calm to sit there under a particular local Saptaparni tree for hours and do nothing but think...in rare moods he wrote.



Much about the tree brought him a sense of peace, even though it wasn't an ideally shady option, most of all the fact that it was evergreen. He felt a settling comfort in knowing that he could come back to it again and again as many umber of times as he wished, and it would be there for him. Then sense of an everlasting support had been rare for Armaan, and with this trees he felt that attachment. Now walking through the gates of Chatimtola, he found his favored spot, and as always it transported him back to the early days.



He remembered how Daadu had explained that graduating students from Vishwa Bharti received leaves of Saptaparni. When he asked why he was told it was tradition, but in later years he believed it had something to do with the other name of he tree, Alstonia Scholaris. He liked to fancy the idea that graduating with the leaf were signs of being a true scholar and it dwelled inside him like a secret dream; he never had been the one to express much of what went inside his head.



When he did seek permission to apply to the school for his undergraduate degree, Daadu had supported him wholeheartedly, ma and baba would have if they had been there, muski had been happy simply cause he was, kaki was not interested enough to express an opinion, and kaka...Armaan kept out of his way as much as he could, since the day he had learned facts from ma as she lay on a hospital bed, in her last moments before the cancer took her away forever. He was 12 at that time, far too young to have borne the loss of his second parent, the knowledge of an altogether new found identity made it no easier. He had learned baba was not his real father. He was his kaka's and ma's son, the same kaka who was also responsible for the accident which his killed his baba two years preceding his mother's death.



The immediate effect would have been daunting, but for the loss which engulfed him, the haunting sense of being an orphan overwhelming. But as time passed the gravity of facts seeped through and his tender years lost what little of childhood he had possessed until then. If he had been considered the meek child of the house before, between him and Muski, he added to the accolades. He could now have passes for almost a mute, speaking only when spoken to, never an irrelevant word.



Undergrad in Shantiniketan however, revised much in his thinking. The outdoor teaching pattern, one of its kind in the world, did him potential wonders as his amorphous thoughts began taking form and he gained on inner confidence. Among his best memories from those three years of study in philosophy, prime were his regular trips to the Tiger Hill top, the drive higher via Darjeeling exhilerating no matter how many times he did it, alone or with friends. He would go much before sunrise to watch the moon dip down beneath horizon, going lower, below the height of the hill top he was on, and it was a sight that warmed him on the inside, so much that he would forget about the freezing cold around him.



Then the sunrise followed soon after, its first ray hitting the tip of the peak of K2 across from it on the opposite west side forming a pinkish light spot on the snow white surface. The glow would then grow  like a petal of a flower changing colors from pink to orange to yellow both on the snow clad top of K2, and on the east side facing it where the sun was rising from among other peaks, which appeared lower only before the majesty of the world's second highest mountain peak across them. The Nathula pass seemed less of a international territorial border in those moments early morning, and more like the path to heaven he wished to travel someday. He felt a captivation to the scene like none other.



The reality however was never far, Kolkota was all of 180 Kms away from school, and so was the home he wished wasn't his. His love for Daadu and Muski would bring him back, each break, and just before leaving he would plead to them to visit him at school instead for the next one. But that was one thing Daadu remained firm about, holidays had to be spent at home, with family. It was during second year that he decided he would go further away, to a place which would help him grow out of the ghosts of his past.



He decided to get a Masters, education he knew was one thing he would not be refused even if that meant going away from home and he exploited the knowledge of this fact. Final year in undergrad was marked with preparations to act upon his decision and at last he was all set for Cambridge. He didn't know if it was the right step, but he had to get away this once, and while Daadu asked him to reconsider only once and never again, Muski tried every way possible to make him stay on. Eventually she too gave up, for the sake of a happiness he was seeking from this odyssey. And he reached London, a fine fall day which seemed to have dawned only to herald a new phase in his life. And thats where he met Ridhima.



Armaan sighed as her name crossed his mind again. Leaning against the trunk of his tree, he liked to think it was his, he looked upwards at nothing. His mind went back to his conversation with Chirag, to those he left behind in Chicago...to her. He had pushed until later an analysis of his acceptance to having Gaurav over, and now he knew there was no more escape. He could tell himself all that he wanted but the truth was singular. He had been unable to resist the temptation to reopen a path back to the one he loved. Despite having left her himself, despite having decided he would never revisit any of what was past both physically and in his head, despite having immersed himself so completely in work, offering his voluntary services at Shantiniketan free of cost, despite having severed all links there were not even sharing his contact information.



But one real chance to repair the link, and he had done nothing much to resist it. Just like those few random times when he called Chirag, unable to fight the urge to not do so. He did not dare call her directly, he knew not what to say, or what was left to say. In a moment of impulse he had decided to come back to India forever, and no amount of remorse in retrospect could give him the courage to face her ever again. He remembered the conversation they had share prior to this reaction, over and over, and realized he had lost himself the one chance he had. But it had been a weak moment, Lovely's death, Ridhima's confrontation, and a guilt inside he could not subdue.



Overhearing Ritu and Chirag's conversation had just been the spark, his mind had already been searching an escape and in that second he said what came to him, words he could not reel back upon later. Not that he didn't wish to, it was what he wished for more than anything else, but he could not overcome the fear and so it remained. When Chirag explained the scene of Gaurav's suddenly planned visit, Armaan initially had been at a loss of reaction. But it had seeped in, and he had been unable to say no. He could not face Ridhima, had not been able to in a whole year the despair growing worse each day.



But interaction with Gaurav would be altogether different. He was her nephew, and there was much more to the relation than just a common bloodline. He recalled at this moment his first encounter with the boy at the florist, and it made him smile. The evening that had followed flashed through, and Armaan shut his eyes, the memory of her face as she laughed sitting next to him a still image in his head. His smile deepened greatly, and several seconds past he opened his eyes. The scene before him seemed to have become better than what he remembered it as from the moment before he closed his eyes. Running his hands through his hair he shook his head vigorously. Then looking ahead at nothing he muttered,



"Why now God? I don't understand what it is in my life that holds you back so much, you refuse to lose interest and refuse to let me be..."



Sighing he glanced at his watch, it was almost time for him to go. A first year student had booked an appointment for counselling for 15 minutes from now and he did not want to be late. Just before leaving he turned around to face the tree, moving closer with a solemn look he spoke to it, caressing the bark with his thumb,



"I love her still...and always will...did I tell you her name? Its Ridhima. I wish she could meet you...maybe..." He stopped. Then turning around abruptly he walked away.



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

"Sweetheart...at least tell me how was shopping?"



Ritu had been silent refusing to answer his questions, the mention of Ridhima's name had drawn him a sharp look from her, and added to her reaction to the mention of Armaan made him guess the evening had witnessed another thwarted effort from her. Ritu now shot him a glare, then replied,



"Is it hard to guess from my mood?" Chirag shook his head lightly as she turned back to the food. Then walking up behind her he encircled his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder he mumbled,



"It would be easy but I'm confused between the two sights, the look on your face, and the countless shopping bags outside."



Ritu tried to free herself, but when he would not let go, she simply turned around in his arms to face him, frowning hard.



"If you fear the bills, I can pay them myself, I don't need you to..."



She couldn't speak more as he kissed her, quick, yet firm and full on her mouth. Her anger changed to surprise, and before she could react he lifted her off her feet and took her back to the living room. Putting her on the couch he winked at her and said in a cheeky voice,



"I know this will be hard for you to follow, but stay put, I'll be right back." and she saw him go towards the kitchen, her curiosity taking over.



He returned a couple of minutes later with a bag of Doritos and another packet in his hand, which she recognized as the one containing their wedding albums and video dvds, the combination of them puzzled her further. Chirag spoke, sparing her further thought to the confusion.



"That is for your hunger...for now, we can go eat out in a while if you wish too. But before that theres something else." He snuggled next to her and opened the album.



"I never got around to asking you which ones your favorite Ritu?" She raised her eyes but since he did not pay attention to her reaction she looked into the album herself. It was opened to a beautiful portrait photograph of her. "I think that must be it..." he quipped, then looked at her for confirmation.



"Why do you think so?" she asked drawn by this new curiosity now.



"You look gorgeous, and thats all girls care about when approving pictures!" he replied grinning in mischief. She narrowed her eyes, then stuck out her tongue at him his smile beginning to reach her.



"Its not my favorite, and thats a bad criteria anyways. I always look good in all the pictures." she stated with a smug authority.



"Aawww...really now? What about this one?" It was a picture with her mouth opened wide as Gappus stuffed a huge piece of cake into it. He broke out laughing and she elbowed him in the ribs grinning herself now.



"Whatever! Thats not my favorite either anyways."



"Yeh apparently not, for obvious reasons." He said between chuckles as she made a face at him. Then taking the album out of his hands she turned a few sides up and down until she came to a page with the two of them, where they had not posed for a photograph, but had been caught looking into each other's eye. Her cheeks were infused with a blush, an effect of more than just make up, while Chirag looked caught in the moment.



"Thats my favorite," she claimed happily, looking at him with a cheerful smile. He smiled back at her, warm and deep, pulling her into a hug he kissed her hair and whispered,



"Love you honey."



"Love you too," she whispered back, then added looking at him, "What's your favorite?"



"Anything with me and you my lady...it always looks perfect." he said in a dramatic way. She gave him a side smirk at his cheesy attempt and flipped through a couple of pages before she quipped again,



"Thats all you got albums for?" He shook his head, then flipping through the pictures he came upon one of him and Ridhima. He stopped, then opening the packet next to him he took out a much smaller, older album and flipped through it, pulling it out of Ritu's sight as she frowned. Then he smiled, at whatever it was that he saw in the picture before him. He lowered the album and placed it next to picture from their wedding. Ritu's frown deepened. It was an older photograph, she guessed some 4-5 years old, of him and Ridhima.



"Chose one?" he asked in response as she looked at him for explanation.



Ritu looked at them. Neither had a striking difference in terms of essential features, and they were certainly dressed for a photograph in the more recent one, the old one looked like something clicked at some random moment with nothing to occasion it. Ritu looked carefully, the recent one was picture perfect, and yet something about the older one was captivating, she concluded it was their smiles, they had not posed, it was a natural emotion reflecting on the glossy sheet. She looked at him and he was waiting for her response.



"This one," she said at last pointing to the old one, "Its a natural"



"Its from the day Armaan and Ridhima went for their first unofficial date. It took me all night to talk him into asking her out for a casual coffee, cost me a B on the homework due next day." Ritu frowned, but he continued, "She said yes of course, and when they got back she came over to collect some papers from our room. It turned into a much longer fun filled evening as she cooked us dinner, and we ate home made Indian food after ages. It ended in the crazy photo session before Armaan dropped her back."



Chirag paused and looking at Ritu he saw she was still frowning but her look had softened. He gave her a faint smile and continued.



"You're right Ritu, this picture is definitely better, and much more natural, because we did not have to smile in effort for the camera. My happiness on our wedding was boundless, it was the most special day of my life, and Ridhima was thrilled beyond words you know it. But we both missed the one person who should have been there, as my best man for the evening, and the man of her life. No one can fill his void, neither for me as my friend, nor for her as the man she loves. And the love will come back into her life, trust me."



She looked at him, his expression solemn and voice low but steady. Slowly she lowered her eyes to the picture of them from years ago, then looked back to him and asked in a whisper, "You promise?"



"I do..." he said with a smile of relief an pulled her into a hug again. "Trust me..."



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



"Kolkota..." he stated, the intention in his tone a contradiction to the nonchalance in his actions as he occupied himself with untying the laces of his soccer studs.



"Kolkota? I thought you said it was going to be London." He looked up at Anjali as she asked what he had expected and hoped she would.



"Yeh mum. Kolkota. It will be an ideal peer assistance experience. London is replete with football fanatics, without me having to go and instill the love of the game among people there. The challenge is in invoking the passion among those who have missed it for the most and are ready to try a new something. Kolkota my coach said, is a city of rare Indians who can think beyond the expected realms of cricket, a non trivial number of them actually aspire to play professional football. If a revolution has to be started, I can't wait to be a part of it. I volunteered for India, over Britain, and they found me a spot.



Gappu rattled off the defense of his choice of city without having to give much thought, he had done enough of that with Chirag in the last one week until they were certain it was an impeccable line of reasoning. His focus however lay elsewhere, as he observed keenly out of the corner of his eye the reaction of his real target. Ridhima. He allowed himself a grim inward smile satisfied to see the subtle response from her, subtle but very much prevalent. A sudden drop in the fast rhythmic motion of her hand chopping away the onions, the instant after he spoke the prime word 'Kolkota'...that until she recovered some seconds later to resume the chopping, but at a much reduced pace. He could have sworn that despite a likely clouding of thoughts in her head at his words, and an altogether unrelated task of chopping onions at hand, he held Ridhima's undivided attention from that second on. Still engaged in removing his essential gear he pleaded in his head that Anjali would not rest the case just yet. Oblivious to real facts though she was, Anjali obliged speaking again,



"What about boarding and lodging. The peer mentor program can find you a spot for that as well? At such a short notice? You're leaving in less than a week Gappu. London we could manage at a midnight call, but you don't expect your dad to fish out links in a city he has never been to himself?"



 Bull'e eye mum, he thought in his head. Getting off the couch he walked in Ridhima's direction and pushing his weight upwards with the grip of his hands on the counter he seated himself atop its surface facing her and said,



"The tickets are booked mum. And Chirag is getting the stay thing worked out for me with his buddy, for my initial houseless week."



Grinning he picked up the jar of iced lemonade from the shelf placing it to his lips. In his head he did the backward countdown of five, and when Ridhima remained quiet, he knew he hit the nail. She must have made a fair guess as to which 'buddy' of Chirag he was pertaining too, since she did not yell at him for drinking right from the jar yet again. Nor for gulping down the lemonade without a break, he grinned as  replaced the jar on the shelf, somehow it had tasted more refreshing today, than it had in a while he thought. He was hopeful about this whole idea, so was Chirag, it was their only shot at it anyways and he couldn't thank his coach enough for having selected him for the international soccer camp.



"Chirag's buddy?" Gappu wanted to hug his mother for this one...



"Yes mum him," he said nodding his head "Armaan Malik, remember from a year ago? Minnie's uncle and Ridzi massi's old mate from grad schol, right beautiful?"



Check three, she did not tel him off for calling her 'massi' either, instead his claim was sudden for her expectations and caught her off guard momentarily, before she nodded her head slightly, meeting neither's eye.



"Oh yeh I recall, but...He went to grad school with you? How come I haven't hear a mention of that Ridzi?"



Both Gappu and Ridhima shot her a wide eyed look, Ridhima getting caught in too much she wasn't prepared for, and Gappu loving his mother more with every passing minute. He believed for once how they said mothers could sense the need of their children, Anjali was going to excel at the job. Unintentionally she had played her role in the plan better than if he had actually tailored it for her. He now looked at Ridhima, hiding his anticipation the best that he could. She would not have noticed anyways, she was much too flustered within by now.



"Grad school...uh Cambridge...I mean he was a year ahead of me Di..." Anjali's expression seemed to seek more detail, before Gappu could spill anymore redundant facts she quickly added, "We were like occasional friends. I met him again in Chicago when he signed up as a a client with our firm..."



"And?"



Ridhima shifted her gaze uncomfortably to her hands and feet at Anjali's continued effort. Does Di know anything, she wondered, and Gappu, this jerk speaking without knowing anything.



"Ummm yeh then he turned out to be Minnie's uncle so I met him outside work a couple of times. Thats all Di..." she said in a soft voice hoping Anjali would believe she had nothing more to add about her association with Armaan.



"Ridzi?" Anjali shot her an exasperated look "I'm asking what kind of a guy is he? I mean you were helping him out at his place last year I remember when he went through the tragedy, you must have known him enough to hold a basic positive or negative opinion about him right? Do you approve of Gappu staying with him? India is a new land for him, it will not be an easy spot in these months of rear summer early fall, and Kolkota as a destination gives no more solace. I'd get some relief in knowing he is at least among the right people."



Gappu smiled spontaneously, then wiped it off as Anjali looked at him the next second, "Stop smiling. I haven't said yes yet. And I won't unless Ridzi backs you up on this."



He nodded with a forced solemn expression. If Ridhima had not been caught in an inner turmoil she would have noticed how he was no longer pleading his case, instead he left it all to her, to defend his choice, HER CHOICE rather, and approve Arman. He crossed his fingers behind him, although he had this intuitive faith she wouldn't let him down.



"If there's no alternate then...I mean it took him tremendous effort to get selected for this program. Its...It should be fine Di. Armaan... I mean Chirag is taking responsibility, I trust him."



Anjali nodded but Gappu was slightly disappointed. That was such a convenient escape, and here he had hoped to hear her opinion of Armaan. So much for over optimism, with everything going his way in the conversation, much more than he ever thought it would, he had hoped to hear something more.



"And you said they will have a dorm spot for you a week after that?" He nodded in response to Anjali's question. She was not going to stop him he knew, but she seemed unsure of the whole plan. He jumped off the shelf and taking her by her shoulders made her sit on the nearest couch. Then kneeling before her he said,



"Mum its India. I hear of it from dad and you, and see it as captured by a mere lens, do I not have the right to make a real visit to the place I belong? Kolkota may not be what London or Chicago is, but its where I have to be to make a difference. Coach said our dorms will be in the vicinity of SAI stadium...the national stadium in the city, its where the Indian team comes to play. Isn't that exciting? We may get to play with them too. And the locality is the best in all of Kolkota, its a suburb, I think on the east side, called Salt Lake City. Posh, safe, and football loving...I can't wait to be there."



Seeing Anjali give him a slight smile, he knew his enthusiasm was working its way through. He smiled himself. Then getting up he walked back to Ridhima again and resting his arm lightly across her shoulder he added in a softer voice,



"Armaan is a great guy, and I promise to take care. I'm going cause it matters most to me to make something happen, for love to blossom..." His eyes met Ridhima's for a brief second before he averted his gaze and added quietly, "For love of the game..."



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



NJ

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