Friday, 3 May 2019

Part 14: Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

"You and me...?" She whispered the words which were predominant in her mind once again, and Armaan paused hearing her. She had hardly spoken much, he noticed now. Frowning thoughtfully he stated.

"Us."

The word was a sentence speaking for itself; she gave a slow smile. It had ceased to surprise her long ago, but it never failed to touch her. She spoke in hopeful innocence.

"Was it us?"

"Would you have been single for 6 years if it wasn't?"

The small smile froze. She swallowed the hurt at being reminded. He had not intended it so, it was just her need to have asked him the question that prompted his impulsive reply. Nonetheless he regretted the choice of words immediately. Before he could correct himself however she spoke up, the rising warmth in her tone was lost again. 



"Why would only I be single if it was US?"

"I was single Ridhima, except on paper. "

The sympathy that had been growing within her suddenly vanished at his quiet words. Except on paper? That wasn't exactly an insignificant fact. He was legally married for heavens sake, did he just conveniently forget that? Or was he simply overlooking the societal significance attached to not being signle ON PAPER? In another life if she had been truly herself she wouldn't have possibly cared. But time and bitterness had made her touchy, or perhaps it was just this moment. She felt exasperrated.

"And you think that is of no consequence?"

"I think its you who has to decide that."

"Why are you so hard to talk to?" 

He hated himself at the sudden rise in her pitch, frustrated at being incorrigible with her, to make matters worse he did not understand his own impulse in digressing from what he really had to tell her. She was possibly the only one who ever brought out unexpected reactions in him, not always for the good he thought now cursing himself mentally. What was his impatience with her about?

"I'm sorry Ridhima, I'm just...trying to..."

"You're just trying to get me mad Armaan. And you're doing it dam well. Are you utterly incapable of giving straight answers?"

"It was us." He said in firm quiet words, "Always."

"Well I'm oblidged, thank you very much." She lashed back hoping to make that sound sarcastic but it sounded more bitter, and broken. Couldn't he just have said that in the first place? Sometimes she wanted to strangle not him but herself for having fallen in love, and that with him.

"Ridhima I know its not my edge to remind you of how delayed my confession is, but if I am calling you now, after 6 long years, can you possibly be skeptical about how serious I am?"

"Would it hurt your ego to have to say it more than once?" She retorted. Pausing she took a deep breath, there was no denial of his composed reasoning. If only it did not make her feel any more vulnerable than she already felt. She spoke again talking his tongue,

"Armaan its hard to just wipe away a past and start pretending it never existed. If your call signifies how serious you are, does my chance to let you explain mean nothing?"

"It does. I can't even begin to tell you what I went through waiting for your call the past few hours." He admitted quietly more as a reminder to himself and she knew he could have never meant it more, sighing he said, "I think I'm just desperate for you to understand me and too impatient to give you time for it. Like always. I'm sorry."

She never knew how he did this, one second she would be lose her temper and the next second she would regret it. It was not always an unreasonable temper, but he made her feel guilty about it just the same. To give herself something to do she took another swig at the bottle she had allowed to roll onto the passenger seat, running her hand through her hair.

"I can't change what is past Ridhima, anymore than you can wipe it away." He said, "But its my word for what really was against what the papers state."

"And you know I will inevitably take your word Armaan," she said in resignation, then added after a pause. "But it doesn't lessen my anguish."

He remained silent this time, she did not sound like she was done and besides the fact that he did not want to frustrate her further, he really wanted to hear her out.

"You never said you loved me, and though hearing it from you mattered, what I cared for much more was how you implied it in every possible way and so it never hurt. Not until you left. Then it mattered. Every gesture which had indicated the unsaid words suddenly seemed hollow and I wondered how relevant what we shared had ever been to you. All the times of telling myself until then that it was love seemed unreasonable and I found myself questioning my own integrity at having committed my heart to a man who never claimed anything more than friendship." Armaan was almost thankful for her pause, it wasn't about learning how grave his mistakes had been, it was about the evidence in her voice of how heavily she had paid for them.

"That is the way you are, you just come across as one who wouldn't do or say things thoughtlessly, the reckless one is me. Making my happy conclusions and not pausing to consider what if it was otherwise. Not even after you just left, without a word. I did not let fears surface and reasoned you had completed the last term and something must have been unavoidable for you to have missed even the final commencement. But when Chirag said you had gone back to marry I...I just didn't know what to think. Whether it was betrayal or a rejection, or a misunderstanding, I just knew I had lost...and with time it seemed to not matter why or how I had. All that mattered was the heartache I could not escape. Ridhima Gupta was suddenly a miserable girl, full of nothing but self pity...I felt an alien lead my life..."

She stopped and they both knew why. There were several silent moments, she let her eyes wander to her surroundings aimlessly trying to blink away the tears which had returned, taking a swig at the bottle again only to realize it was empty. She let it fall out of her hand, sighing. Armaan was distracted this time, enough to have noticed neither the pause nor the sigh. Absent mindedly he spoke up.

"I was going to propose you the eve I formally graduated."

Her lips parted but remained speechless. His confession today had been unexpected for her, for how and when it came, but not for what it was. Somewhere her faith in the existance of this love had been unshakable no matter how hard she tried to shurg it off as a wishful illusion over the years. But that he had actually planned to propose her...she could not decide what she wanted to think. It did excite her an inkling, the thought of a proposal; she was almost back to the moment it had been planned for, a fantasized blur forming in the eye of her mind. Her expression softened at what could have been, but then the words rang loud in her mind, 'could have been' not 'had been'. The difference between the two scenarios had defined her life in the years after him, without him. Armaan suddenly missed hearing anything at the other end, not even the assurance of her steady breathing. It made him hold back the air he had inhaled to hear anything at all on the other end.

"Ridhima?" His voice was clear, more than a whisper; she sighed. Both of them realized she had been holding onto her breath. On an impulse he quipped,

"Would you have said yes?" She was caught off guard but only for about a second, even as she blushed deep.

"Would I have been single for 6 years if I had to say no?" She shot back at him, marvelling her own wit to have comeback with that. He chuckled at the response, inevitably, and hearing him made her smile, blushing a crimson red. She couldn't have believed when she woke up this morning that she still had a heart in her which could flutter like that of a teenager in love.

"I love you Ridhima,"

He said it sincerely as if reading her mind and she knew it had been as spontaneous as her own flow of thoughts. In the moment which became solemn again she found herself wondering if he was going to propose next. Then she was glad that he wasn't sitting before her to see how furiously she was blushing and she kicked herself mentally for entertaining the juvenille thought. Had she not seen enough action for a day? But then it was 6 years they were making up for. 6 long years, which had seemed even longer. An instant pessimism kicked in and she wondered contrary to her thoughts of seconds ago if he would propose her, ever again. The man was in love with her, but the man had been married once, lost his wife and turned a widower at less than 30 years of age, the man was righteousness personified and not for nothing. Could the man be expected then, to ever again consider proposing? A pang of pain inside snapped her out of the thought. 

"Tell me Armaan, please..." She did not have to mention what. He did not have to ask.

"It was the night of the last final when Daadu called. I knew later that he waited even that long only so I would get done with writing the papers. He said I was to catch the next flight back, it was at 4AM, 5 hours from when I answered the call. He added I should pack and get along anything I considered significant, it might be a while he cautioned me, before I could go back and get anything I left behind. I knew from the gravity of his voice that the while would be a while indeed, I didn't think it meant as long as forever."

"You packed and wrapped up everything in five hours?"

"Thirty minutes actually."

"Huh?"

"I packed in thirty minutes, spent the remaining four hours thirty minutes partially in my dorm, some 20 minutes outside your locked door and most of the rest at the airport debating on whether I should call you then, or explain in person until after I got back. Chirag, done with his finals a couple of days before me was in Scotland for the next five days with his cousins and I don't remember cursing him anymore than I did that night for not being there. I concluded I would have to come back and explain myself in person not just to you, but to him as well. And I left." Pausing just a bit he added ruefully, "I should have paid heed to Daadu's advice about not leaving behind what mattered."

He paused and Ridhima asked after a thought, "Why didn't you come see me in the library? You knew I'd be there if not in the dorm, I still had my last paper to write the morning after next." He nodded slowly, then shook his head at himself, they were on the phone.

"Yeh I don't know why I did not. It was just, I mean I was planning to propose in a week, instead I had come to tell you I was leaving, and other than the fact that I did not know what to say about why I was leaving and for how long, I also couldn't decide whether or not I should make a hasty confession before catching the flight. I just didn't know what I would say to you, about my feelings, about what you meant to me, about having to go. There were little things I would have wanted to sit down and tell you, how hard it would be back home knowing I could not knock on your door any time of the day or night if I needed to see you, and that if I didn't do it you would, that I would miss trying to get my three pointers right at the morning practice everyday while my eyes never stopped searching for you knowing you would come for your regular jog, that someone like me who preferred to keep to himself and his room had for the past several months taken to studying in the library, even cafeterias, which swarmed with students forever just to study with you...I stood outside your door and wondered what life had been like before I met you, how I had survived and how the hell I would survive now, what would it be like to go days without a glimpse of you, it struck me how much you had become a part of my system and the pain of missing you started to grow even before I stepped out of your dorm..." Armaan paused almost reliving the moment of one of the greatest dilemas of his life. One of the greatest, not the greatest itself.

"I realized I could not explain any of this to you without telling you I loved you, and I thought you might get upset with the sudden confession or with my departure or with both, and you still had an exam to go...Then I thought I'll leave you a note, but when I picked up a pen to write on a scrap I didn't know what to write. There was so much to be said and what could I say in a note? - "Ridhima I love you but I have to leave for now its a family summon - a family you haven't known to exist." I could not leave a note or a voicemail explaining what my home was like, the home I wanted to make you a part of. I didn't have it in me to face your reaction, I told myself it was time I lacked not guts. I just decided you would understand, then I thought what would you understand? What did you know that you had to understand, you knew me, and yet you knew nothing about me. You did not know the firsts, you didn't know who I really was at all. The Armaan you knew was the only bright side of me there ever had been. And I struggled to think if there was a way I could exlain within minutes and expect you to understand and accept the whole dark side. I knew there was none." Armaan paused just for a bit before resuming,

"I told myself this was happening to give me a chance to go back home and talk to Daadu about you before confessing. Family or not, Daadu would support me and so would Muski and I cared about no one else. I justified telling myself you deserved it only the best way, the proper way. I looked at your door, not knwoing it was the last time I did that, and dragged my feet away. I told myself you were in Cambridge for a whole year and I would come back to visit you, explain everything to you and propose you, make it a special moment cause you were special like no one else. I left Chirag a note instead with my Kolkota number and a PS to not say anything to you until I talked to him. I could bring myself to call him no more than I could call you." He paused hearing a sound, then he realized she was soundlessly crying. He gave a tight grim smile, he had cried over this memory so many times, there were no more tears left inside him. Sighing he said,

"Ridhima...please honey...you're going to have one of your horrible migraines if you continue crying...do you wish for me to stop?"

"No," she said instantly in a choking gasp, "No, please don't stop Armaan. I'm...I'm not crying...I mean..." She wiped her tears on the sleeve again and said, "I wont now. I promise." When he didn't speak she added quietly, "You're not making me upset Armaan, I...its just hearing all this from you..." She paused breathing deeply to steady her voice then whispered, "Armaan I've been frustrated at myself all these years to have not moved on, I even tried initially but it would just not happen. When I couldn't run away from it anymore I just resigned knowing I did not wish to run away as a matter of fact. But I couldn't explain why it was so impossible to forget you, us, our love. People fall in an out of love all the time don't they? Why was it so hard for me?..." she paused again..."I love you Armaan," He raised his brows, "I always considered it was deep mature love, but I'm only just beginning to understand how deep," she gave a soft chuckle and a fleeting smile flashed on Armaan's lips, "I know now why I waited 6 years for you, and I think I would have waited forever if..."

"There isn't an if anymore Ridhima."

"You wont ever leave me again?"

"Not even if you beg me with your life."

She broke out laughing, yes she was feeling like a silly teenager indeed, his mature love wasn't enough, she wanted to hear him say all the romantic cheesy lines she had always thought she despised. She possibly was still going to scorn hearing them any place else, but from him they sounded neither cheesy nor lame nor juvenille. They were nothing but love, a love she knew she could never get enough of. Armaan smiled hearing her laugh. If there was one wish he could be granted this moment he would want to be there, with her, sitting before her watching her laugh, the same laugh which started it all. Yes, it was the same he knew, he could feel his nerves easing out and he knew Ridhima's laugh was just as heartfelt. I love her, he thought hearing her laugh still, then getting the phone off his ear he pressed his lips to it on an impulse, "I love you so much" he breathed against the cell soundlessly his smile small but deep. He stared at the phone for a bit until he realized he couldn't hear her laughing anymore. Hastily he lifted it to his ear again.

"Rid..."

"Arm..."

They started together, then paused smiling.

"What if I decide to leave you this time?"

She teased him speaking up. He frowned at her words, she was joking he knew, but what if she had to...somehow? What did he have to hold her back with anyways, his love? No, he couldn't lose her again. He had to do something this time, and quick. Something after which no one could take her away from him ever again. Cuatiously he asked her,

"Why would you do that?"

"What if I found someone special? I could certainly find someone who woud do better than making me wait 6 years only to offer a dry confession on the phone."

He frowned harder at this but as a slight giggle escaped her, he shook his head clear. Of course she was joking, but that did not change facts. He had to make it permanent this time, their relationship, permanenet and official. He made a mental note to go back to this later, not like he considered anything else could distract him from the thoughts of her anymore. To humor her for now he had a thought. In a solemn voice of obvious regret he claimed,

"I don't think I have the right to stop you from that Ridhima, if that is what you really wish for," he paused to ease out his growing grin so she couldn't detect it in his voice. Ridhma was shocked, he couldn't be serious, no he couldn't possibly even take her seriously on that. Even so she felt her heart sink at his words. She opened her mouth to tell him he had all the rights, only he did, but he spoke up before she did, "Your someone special though...god save him after I hunt him down." She closed her eyes in a rush of relief breathing in deeply. Then she jerked open her eyes. Dam she would never beat him at mind games. So much for loving a psychologist. Aloud she siad with as much indignation as was possible,

"Yeh right. I'll find a big muscle footballer for myself, and then I'd love to see you hunt him down."

"Big muscles...honey are you forgetting I was a basketballer, well built then and now..."

"Who never gave trials for the varsity team out of shyness and has been out of practice for over half a decade now I bet?" He made a face not replying, he couldn't cause she was right, he had shied away from the trials.

"I thought you preferred basketballers though, over footballers?" He said in a last disgruntled attempt to say something back. She grinned.

"Gappu changed my opinion I guess." He rolled his tongue inside his mouth and she added, "But there is an EX- basketballer I still fancy enough to date."

"Wow...I'll remind you of this preposition when I come back to Chicago."

"I didn't say it was you I....WHAT?" He would have fallen off the bed at her sudden exclaimation except that he was already on the floor. "You're...coming to Chicago?" She whispered in disbelief, fearing what she could expect in reply.

"No I'm not. Not for now anyways. There's...there's stuff I have to take care of." He said as casually as he could and she couldn't help but feel disappointed. "I'd prefer anyways if you came to Kolkota first." He added quietly, and it took her a second before she blushed with a slight smile spreading on her lips. He was inviting her to visit his home. Maybe he would propose her someday. She had meant it when she told him, she really could wait a lifetime, especially now.

"Ahem..." he cleared his throat trying to decide what to say wondering if he had hurt her with the mention of Chicago.

"You haven't completed what you were telling me Armaan," she spoke and he rubbed a thumb lightly over his temple.

"Yeh," he paused, making a second mental note - Chicago.

***********************
Chirag lay flat on his back staring up at the ceiling while his fingers unconsciously stroked Ritu's hair as she slept calmy her head on his chest curled up by his side under the comforter. She smiled even in her sleep, she had been so ever since he broke the news to her. He was still finding it hard to believe, and harder still to believe his own disbelief at it. Armaan and Ridhima...why as he taking forever to let the truth sink in. They were together now, would be literally and soon, as they had always been meant to be. Enough had gone wrong between the two of them, everything that possibly could ever go wrong between two people who loved each other. Now the situation, which could not get worse anymore, had taken a U-turn, time was changing for them and he knew it would not ditch them this time. Somehow he knew.

His mind went back to six years ago. He recalled having called Ammy the moment he had gotten back and found the note awaiting him. Something had felt so wrong as he read it that unable to check his rising apprehension he had called him at what must have been the early dark hours of the morning in India. And when he had heard his voice he knew his fears had not been unfounded. He knew just as well that he had not woken up his friend despite the bad hour, Ammy had sounded exhausted but wide awake. And then he had told Chirag he was getting married the next day.

For several moments Chirag had been stunneed and his mind had screamed he was just dreaming, this wasn't real. But a small voice inside, and Ammy's low voice on the other end of the phone had defied that, he had to believe it was true. But how could it be. He had tried to be calm with Ammy and ask him, then he had been frustrated to know, in his desperation he had yelled at his best friend and called him names, accused him of alot he never believed himself and then slammed the phone down on him. It had taken him half a bottle of Vodka and several long hours all by himself to finally believe it was all happening.

And then he had had to face the hardest part of this truth, - informing Ridhima. He didn't know when he had cursed Ammy more than in the moment he had told her and she had walked away listlessly hearing only half of it. He had known she would not let him tell her the remaining details and he didn't know whether to be relieved to be done with it, or pull out his hair at being so helpless. He had drunk dialled Ammy that night again and said alot he did not remember and didn't want to.

Time had passed, he did not see Ridhima again over the summer as he found a job in Chicago and moved as quickly away as he could from London. Like Armaan he had not had the guts to face her again and left without a word to her. He told himself she would not mind it, perhaps it was better this way for him and for her. He had talked to Armaan a few times and had told him he was moving to Chicago. Armaan had stopped reacting, to his pleas, to his coldness, to his yelling and to his attempted indifference. At last Chirag had decided to give up on everything as well and move on in life.

Until Armaan had called him one unexpected morning in Chicago saying he needed his help severaly for his wife and that he was coming to the United States. Chirag had wondered what he was going to learn from life this time. And Ammy had come, Chirag learnt about Lovely, her condition her illness and Ammy's decision to settle in Chicago until she would be fine. He had talked of nothing else Chirag decided he would never ask him again if he would ever learn the whole story it would be when Ammy wished to tell him all of it.

For then despite being cold with Ammy to begin with, he had been deeply relieved inside at having his friend back, and he knew it would be for quite a while, patients in Lovely's condition never fully recovered. Three and a half years later he had got a call from a certain Ms. Sharma, and Chirag could have never guessed she was the one who would share his name in a couple of years. Chirag sighed now looking at Ritu as she snored ever so slightly. Kissing her forehead lightly he remembered how hard they had tried to get their two friends back together after Chirag had explained facts to Ritu for as much as he knew himself. He wondered now as he always had why he had not hesitated for a second before trusting her with the information which Ammy had shared with no one except him and he concluded as before, somethings were just meant to be.

So were Armaan and Ridhima he thought in his mind. Why was he uneasy then?

Vivek...yes Vivek Khanna he thought grimly. He had sat in his study for an hour by himself while Ritu had cooked them dinner, recalling the only time in his life he had seen Armaan Malik lose himself to a temper. It had been after he received some mail from back home in India and when Chirag had dropped by at his place that evening he had found Armaan furiously pacing the floor of his office. Some photographs had been scattered on his desk, all of the same man whom Chirag did not recognize. A paper lying besides them said in bold "Patron: Vivek Khanna"; even the name had rung no bell in his head.

Cautiously he had asked Ammy who had not until the moment he spoke noticed that Chirag had been in the same room. He had said in a voice that was alien to Armaan Malik of all the people in the world, a voice of loathing and anger, he had said it was the guy his sister had fallen in love with. Somehow he had not seemed pleased about it at all, in fact that was a rather mild way of stating facts. He had been outrageous and had asked Chirag to leave for the evening, that he would bring Lovely over to his clinic the next day for her regular check up. Chirag had left deeply puzzled, but the next day Armaan had been himself again, and then the same forever after; Chirag had forgotten the name and the connection very soon.

But it had come back today, again. And not in a way that made Chirag feel comfortable about things at all. If Ammy had been that unnerved about this man for his sister, he wondered what would happen if he learnt about him showing interest in Ridzi. Muskaan was married to a certain Rahul Grewal now, and Chirag remembered how he had thought that name was not what he expected it to be reading it in Gappu's letter. Vivek apparently was still single after Muskaan, and now he was buying drinks for Ridzi. Chirag closed his eyes shut. There was too much of a mess here. He crossed his fingers and prayed in his head that Ridzi would have told Ammy by then how much she loved him. If she confessed back he knew, nothing in the world would trouble them again, Vivek, or anyone else for that matter.

"Get some sleep sweetheart," he heard Ritu mumble beside him. Kissing her forehead more for his own assurance than hers, he closed his eyes and tried to follow her advice.

*********************
"I flew back home on the scheduled flight as per the plan," Armaan resumed, "It was the longest flight of my life I thought, and yet the shortest as well. It took forever to reach Kolkota and I was having a hard time imagining what had compelled Daadu to make that call. He hadn't told me, I never asked. It was the shortest too, I wanted it to last forever, it was this apprehension I had that the fantasy life I had been leading in London was going to end. I had not been home in four years and much as I missed Daadu and Muski I couldn't say I regretted for a second to not have gone back. It had been the whole idea of moving out of the country for higher study, to get away, as far away as possible from the home which reminded me of every painful memory I had."

Armaan paused and Ridhima tried to imagine what kind of home would make a person wish he never had to return to it. She had lost her parents too early to have loved them, yes she missed them at school events when all other children were pampered by heir mum and dads. But Anji Di, Atul jeej, and Gappu for almost as far back as she could remember, even the faint image of her Daadi, yes she had certainly always been extremely fond of her family and her home. Sighing soundlessly she concluded she would never quite understand him enough on this. Armaan's words brought her out of her thoughts.

"When I reached back home, I realized I had been wrong when I had thought before leaving that house four years before that things could not get any worse. They had gotten worse, I would say the worst possible but I've stopped underestimating how wrong things can go in the Malik Niwas. When I hugged Muski at the doorstep she broke down, I thought initially it was just from having missed me, but she cried through the late hours of the night no matter how hard I tried to hush her down. When she finally exhausted herself enough to doze off towards the early morning hours I thought I would never sleep again. She had not spoken a word only cried on, and I had been unable to leave her alone to ask Daadu what was wrong. Kaka and Kaki were not at home that evening, for that I was thankful. I can't explain Ridhima what it was like to have seen Muski in that state, shes so full of life and..." Armaan sighed, "Shes completely you in so many ways, she was that night like you were a while back, maybe worse." Gappu had said the same she remembered, Muski was just like her, Ridhima gave a tight smile, maybe it was fated for people like them to suffer so. Had Muski too fallen in love? It was as if he read her mind again.

"Over the next 48 hours I knew my life would never be the same again. Muski had fallen in love." Armaan paused and Ridhima heard something in his tone as he spoke the next words which she had never heard before not expected to hear from Armaan Malik, a harsh steely voice which just about hissed. "Fallen in love yeh, with a man who anything but deserved her." Ridhima frowned hard. Wasn't Rahul then...

"She fell in love with a senior from another college she met at a football game, he was the captain of the opponent team, she was cheerleading for her own. He made her the usual promises over time and they went as far into the rituals as the families meeting up. Everything went smoothly as the boy's family agreed not only to the wedding but also to merge the family businesses. That perhaps had been the only motive in Kaka and Kaki's mind in agreeing with Muski's choice cause the family business which had been falling apart since Kaka took over, was barely surviving on the goodwill built in the past several decades of its existence. The silly girl she thought her parents were happy for her happiness and love, but while they were trying to make the last bet on their heavily debt ridden business, the boy she loved was even deeper into the gamble. His folks made the last move after the couple was engaged and the whole city knew about the wedding. They placed their condition for the wedding on the stage where the rings were exchanged. They proposed my marriage with Lovely."

"Lovely..." Ridhima whispered as her mind overworked at various possibilities of what may have followed.

"She was the guys sister...or so they claimed then. I learnt much later that she, Lovely, had been the daughter of an extremely rich Punjabi family and the Grewals had been their trusted employees until Lovely's parents died in an umtimely car crash, after which they moved the main office into Kolkota. I've never found the proof, can't even say I have tried hard enough to seek it but I feel like they must have had something to do with the crash which killed Lovely's parents, I feel more so in knowing that the will announced them, the Grewals as Lovely's guardians until she married and even after that if she agreed to let them be so. That they could play games was not hard to see, they just had to get Lovely to sign the power of attorney in their names. How hard could that be, only if they could marry her off. Their condition was hence, explicit and without an option. I don't think they faced much opposition from Kaka and Kaki over the proposal either, Muski was...senseless in love but she still said it would be my decision, Daadu said the same but neither of them had much of a say and Daadu called me the first moment he could. For once he did not have a master plan, he called hoping I would come back and have one."

"And so you agreed to marry her?" She concluded in a whisper.

"No."

She should have been content with his reply, instead she was puzzled. He said no to the marriage? Even though his sister...she shook her head. There was no way she would ever completely understand this man. "You refused?" She asked uncertainly.

"Daadu told me all of this the morning after my flight landed in India while Muski was still asleep and it freaked me out. But I told myself to stay calm, forced myself to do it when my nerves felt a wreck, and I walked away without answering him. An hour by myself and I decided to go talk to Lovely and explain to her that I loved someone else, and that I would not want to ruin it for her as a girl or her family by turning her down. Its of great significance in Indian traditional families, a boy turning down a girl's hand especially after the a public announcement of the same had been made and whatever the situation may have been, I didn't think it was fair I did it that way. I thought I would explain and then ask her to turn me down instead. I couldn't care less about that. Only it wasn't that simple cause..."

"Cause of her illness..." Ridhima suggested a second conclusion and this time Armaan nodded on his side.

"Yeh. The Grewals would not allow me to see her outside the house, for obvious reasons, so I went to see her at her place. When I told her I loved you she...she had an attack. She hurled every single thing in her room at me and for several moments I was too shocked to react but when a vase crashed just an inch from my foot I rushed to stop her. I was furious and a man, it was easy to overpower her physically but as I pinned her hands behind her she fainted in my arms. I just lost it after that, getting frantic about how I would explain this. I fixed her into her bed and left the house stealthily. I couldn't sleep a wink that night again, neither did I see her glaring symptoms. Somehow, being a professional doesn't make you eye every crazy act with suspicion. I cursed all night wondering if she was insane and how the hell were they expecting me to marry her, I never believed for a second that my words would be so literally close to facts. When I went to the breakfast table sleepless from the night, guilty of what may have happened to her, and hopeless about the way my life was going I got another shock as Kaki shoved the paper in my face cursing me." Armaan paused for a bare second. "The local papers were splashed all over with pictures of me and her and her bedroom."

"The papers?" Ridhima said incredulously, an edge of anger in her voice didn't miss Armaan, and in a strange way he felt content hearing it. "How could they just print something like that in the papers?" Armaan sighed. She really did not know society, least of all a conservative one.

"Traditional families, big families, Indian families, and a city like Kolkota. I don't know what less could be expected if someone maybe a prying relative or househelp would provide the papers with gossip like that Ridhima. It was a bait tempting as ever, a win win situation for the media. Daadu believed me, surprisingly so did Muski, I had expected her not to somehow, it had been my greatest fear when I saw the headlines. She was in love and engaged to the boy and the only thing to stop her wedding was my decision. I did not expect her to understand, but I obviously underestimated her love for me. Even minus Muski though my worries were still countless and the answers to them few or none. I felt an upheaval in my life with not a soul I could share my problems with."

"I wish you had thought of me Armaan," she whispered, and he didn't know whether to be pleased or not.

"Ridhima you were unaware of the existance of a family, you  think I was in a state to describe one in such a mess and call it mine, before the girl I loved?" Ridhima could finally see a fair outline of where this narration was headed.

"That evening I met Rahul Grewal, Muski's brother in law to be. When I heard a Grewal wanted to see me, I could all but refuse but he didn't leave and forced his way to my room. I was so completely out of my wits I punched him in his face." Ridhima gasped and Armaan shut his eyes at her reaction. It was exactly how he reacted himself everytime he remembered his first meeting with his only real support in that mess.

"He took it from you?" Ridhima whispered and Armaan sensed a disapproval, and a camouflaged fear in her voice. Gritting his teeth he wondered if she now thought he was a violent man as well. He looked yet again at his Baba's pciture before him. If only he had been more like him, but genetics could not be defied completely. Somewhere in that moment, in those days...he had acted like his biological father. Armaan shut his eyes again.

"Armaan?" Opening his eyes to her voice he tried to remember what she had asked.

"Yes, he took it from me," he said quietly, recalling her question, "Without so much as a flinch." Ridhima found herself flinching at his reply. Somehow she really was discovering much about him than she could have bargained for in too little time, her head was reeling with revelations.

"I think thats what stopped me from hitting him further. I turned my back on him told him to get out of my room but he stood his spot and told me he was Muski's best friend. I had to give in and I think I can never do anything for him in my life to repay him for all that he did for me after that moment." Unconsciously Ridhima reached for the empty bottle by her side, only to chuck it away again, disappointed that it was still empty. Instead she swallowed hard at her dry throat.

"He laid the whole picture before me, about Lovely's real past and relation with his family, about the intentions of his parents, and then the biggest catch. His elder brother had disappeared from the family already under a different name unknown to Rahul then, securing as much of their fortune as he could before any investigations could be provoked by the attention this case was getting. His parents would be disappearing soon as well, the moment they could get Lovely's sign on the documents, if situation absolutely compelled then even without them. I realized then the significance of them having suggested a date for my marriage with Lovely before Muskaan's wedding, passing it off as the correctly found auspicious dates. I felt the air knocked out of me but before I could react anymore, Muski passed out at the door of my room and we realized  she must have heard us."

"Armaan who was..."

"Let me complete Ridhima...please..." She heard his voice and knew he was right, the sooner he would be done with this the better.

"Hmmm," she muttered, then just because she suddenly felt he would need it she added quickly before he could talk, "I love you..."

He felt the knots all over his body start to loosen up and he paused for several moments to take in her words. She had heard so much she wondered if she cared to hear anymore. She would have gladly asked him to stop, and never mentioned it in her life again, but Armaan was determined to get it off his chest this time, it reminded her of what he said about having had no one. She stared at nothing wondering if she could still ask him why he had not trusted her to share his pain, she wondered if she could trust herself to have understood so much at that time. The years of separation had been such tribulation for her, Ridhima knew there had been one huge benefit involved, she was no longer the naive sensitive girl she had been. She had faced her share of problems one of the hardest ways and grown up. For the first time in her life Ridhima actually found herself willing to believe all that had happened may not have been for the obvious good, but it had happened the right way. She loved Armaan and only him from the moment she had experienced the feeling itself. But the years had made her value him in a very strong way, perhaps she would have dwindled in her relationship with him at that stage, perhaps not, but now was different. She was learning some harsh facts, but nothing he could tell her today or ever after now would ever change her heart.

"Thank you..."

She heard him whisper, and how much he meant it was evident from his voice. She felt herself swell with pride at being his support, she wished he would always need her the same way, and even when he didn't need her she hoped he would let her be there for him anyways. She needed him, and that would never change.

"The doctor said it was low BP and high stress," Armaan resumed without a warning, "and I knew it was the blunder of having loved the wrong man. I couldn't believe the quiet almost lifeless form before me was the sister I had grown up with, who would give up her smile to nothing. It broke down my spirit like nothing else had, I blamed myself for having ever left the country. As she regained consciousness Rahul grabbed her hand even before I could and I saw the love in his eyes. I knew why he had taken my blow, I knew why he was ready to side up against his family, he may have been her best friend, but I knew from that look in  his eyes that she was much more than just a best friend to him. I left the room without another word and after informing Daadu and I locked myself in Baba's study, an hour there and I walked back to Muskaan with at least one clear idea in my head. I saw Kaka Kaki by her side and for the second time that evening I felt out of my wits. Somehow hitting Rahul earlier had caused such deep regret that I could keep my hands to myself. But I told them to leave and when they did the next moment I was the only one not surprised. I had never thought I would see regret in that man's eye, the man who was my dam father, but I did then, and have seen it ever since. I ignored it, it didn't matter to me anymore. I asked Rahul instead if he would marry my sister, he consented after an uncertain look at Muskaan who said nothing, and Daadu left the room nodding at me before he did. That was it. It was the first time in my life I had taken charge of the family as the man of the house, and I wondered later in the night if it was something I should feel happy about. I discovered the word happy had left my life that day. It was the third consecutive night I did not sleep, and  after that it became a such a routine that I wouldn't even notice. Rahul and Muskaan had a court marriage, true to his prediction, his parents fled the city in the cover of the night, I have wondered since that day if perhaps Rahul too was not their real son. I have been unable to ask him, and I guess I don't really care. When Rahul got back home that night he was worried, and he seemed like he wished to talk to me. He did, when it was just him and me. He asked me if I could marry Lovely, he said she was like a sister to him, he said she was suffering from a severe mental illness, and he said he had married Muskaan before asking me this because he didn't want me thinking it was his condition to marry Muskaan. I told him to go back to bed although I knew neither of us would be sleeping yet another night. Then I thought Ridhima, all night long. And that I think was the toughest night of my life."

Armaan paused and this time when Ridhima held her breath Armaan knew it. It had been the night which decided they would not be together. Armaan stopped, he had to wait until he was certain she could hear him out, just perhaps try to understand him for the decision he had taken.

"I think I can guess ahead from here," she said unexpectedly instead, "Armaan I've just...waited for the moment you would confess so long...everything else becomes insignificant compared to having you with me...I had always known it would be so if you came back, you would apologize and I would give in cause theres nothing I want more."

She paused and Armaan tried to shove away his unhappiness at her words, she was giving him her forgiveness, her acceptance, her love...it was unfair of him to expect...anymore.  But if he ever thought she could read his mind, he had certainly not believed it as much as he did at her next words.

"I never thought I would say this to you, and I dont know if I can humble myself to say it ever again," she paused and he frowned trying to read her tone, "I want you to know Armaan, and don't believe me if I ever revert from this in moments I get mad at you," paused again, "You took the right decision."

Armaan raised his eyes from the floor he had been staring at without realizing his mouth hung open. He wondered, no disbelieved completely that he was hearing her right. And yet her words, in her own real voice echoed in his head refuting his doubts about imagining any of it. He felt the relief he had craved for since that night, and he realized how obvious it was that only she could have given it to him.


"Ridhima..." he started, with alot he wanted to say on the tip of his tongue, but not finding words for any of it, "I love you..." he whispered instead, settling with the same words which were never sufficient yet the only ones to get anywhere close to letting her know what she had done for him. "I love you..." he repeated much softer almost to himself and she slowly smiled. He wasn't the only one she had rid of a burden there, she concluded feeling giddy with how light her mind suddenly felt. Yes he had been right then, and she had been right now in letting him know that. And yes, she loved him too.

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

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