Wednesday, 28 August 2019

part 1 : Crossroads

They were driving through the vast, green countryside in complete silence. Armaan was still looking bemusedly at Riddhima a few moments after her stern announcement. He finally drew breath to speak, but she raised a finger just as he opened his mouth.

Riddhima : "Not a word. Not one word."

Armaan turned away towards the window, and couldn't help smiling to himself. It took him a moment, then, to straighten his expression and he turned back to face her. Riddhima sat with her eyes fixed resolutely on the road ahead. He thought for a moment, and then raised his hand. She saw him do it from the corner of her eye, but chose to ignore it. Seeing that she wouldn't so much as stir in response, he began waving his hand in the air, and cleared his throat.

Armaan : "Ahem...Miss?"

Riddhima : (Closes her eyes with an air of controlled exasperation. Turns to look at him) "What...?!"

Armaan : "Um...can I ask you a question?"

Riddhima : "Not really giving me a choice there, are you?"

Armaan : (Grinning) "No. So where are we going, exactly?"

Riddhima : (Turns back to face the road) "Pune"

Armaan : "Kyun?"

Riddhima : "Tumhe pata hai kyun, Armaan."

Armaan : (His grin falters and fades) "Aur tumhe pata hai ki main nahin jaana chahta."

Riddhima : "Haan...Par yeh bhi pata hai ki tumhara jaana zaroori hai."

Armaan looked away. Riddhima glanced at him, and raised a hand as if to touch his hair, wanting to reassure him somehow, but stopped short, and took a deep breath.

Riddhima : "Dekho Armaan, chahe jo bho hua ho, this is not the time to hold onto grudges and past resentment. If not as a son, then at least as a human being. We both know the man's spent the last three years trying to make it up to-"

Armaan : (In a low, quiet voice, without looking at her) "Three years don't stand for much against the twenty four he ruined for me..."

She could see that he didn't want to talk about it. With a sigh, she decided to let it be.

Riddhima : "Hum ja rahe hain. Uh...I mean, tum ja rahe ho. I'm just carting you till there."

Armaan : (Turning to look at her again) "Why? Oh wait...NOT because you care...(in a softer voice) Then why, Riddhima?"

Riddhima : (Disconcerted, but straightens up and says coolly) "Dr.Armaan, if you want us to get to Pune in one piece, please mujhe bina distractions ke gaadi chalaane dijiye. Varna aisa na ho ki Billy uncle ke saath humein bhi ICU mein bharti karana pade."

Armaan smiled slightly and was about to retort when he spotted a traffic patrol jeep a few yards ahead. Just as he saw it, his foot hit something hard under his seat. A half empty glass bottle. Vodka, he thought. The bottle Rahul left here to hide from Muskaan when I dropped him home last night. "Patient ne gift ki hai. Itna khush tha ki kholke khud hi ek peg laga gaya. Ab main to peeta nahin, to main kya karoon iska? Ghar bhi nahin le ja sakta. Muskaan ne dekh li to usne to khoon hi kar dena hai mera. Dekhte hi shuru ho jayegi, tu to jaanta hi hai use. I'm telling you, biwis these days...! Pati par do paise ka bharosa nahin! Tu rakh le na yaar. Nahin, sirf abhi ke liye, kal subah le jaunga. Pakka."  A sudden glint in his eye, Armaan bent down as if to fix his shoes and uncorked the bottle, letting the liquor flow. He dipped his fingers in it, straightened up, smiled gleefully at Riddhima and smacked her lightly on the shoulder with the same hand.

Armaan : "Dr.Riddhima...!! That is a fabulous idea! I mean, aapka time bhi bach jayega aur energy bhi. Kya baat hai! Let's do just that, then, shall we?"

Riddhima : (Half curious, half-terrified of what that glint in his eye could mean) "Wha-"

Armaan leaned in close to her, whispered "ICU ahoy!" and jammed his right foot onto the accelerator.

Riddhima : "AAAAAAAAARGH...!!"

Armaan : "Wheeeeeeeee...!!"

Riddhima : "ARMAAN...!!"

Armaan : "Haan...?? Did you say something?"

Riddhima : "Gaadi Roko...!!"

Armaan : "Hm...??"

Riddhima : "STOP THE DAMN CAR!"

Armaan : "Aaah. Okay!"

The car screeched to a halt as he released the accelerator and Riddhima jammed the brakes. After a moment of stunned silence, just as she turned towards a shamelessly grinning Armaan, the air was pierced by the sound of a siren. She was confused at first, and then remembered the Traffic Patrol Jeep they had just whizzed past in full throttle. She looked at him, ready to rip him to shreds, when there was a knock at the window and she turned to find a middle-aged man in uniform staring severely down at her. Letting down the window, she smiled nervously at him.

Riddhima : "He-hello, sir...wo"

Armaan : "Arey Riddhima...tum ghabra kyun rahi ho? Itne bhale aadmi hain yeh to. Chalo, sach sach batao inhe, tumne subah gaadi mein chadhte chadhte kuch nahin piya. Hai na? Kuch bhi to nahin! Come on..."

Riddhima : (Turning towards him with fire in her eyes, gritting her teeth) "Maine kuch nahin-"

Armaan : "Wahi to main keh raha hoon...! Sir, kuch nahin piya isne...really!"

As he said it, he kicked the bottle under his seat and his mouth took on the shape of a perfect 'O' as it came rolling out. The Traffic Officer looked first at the bottle, then at him, and then finally at Riddhima.

Traffic Officer : (Calm as water)  "Let's go."

* * *

I can't believe I'm sitting in a police station...for this! Riddhima made sure she was sitting as far as she possibly could from Armaan on the wooden bench the Traffic Officer had directed them to.

Armaan : (Cheekily) "A little more right please, Dr. Riddhima. Need to breathe here...(inhales heavily) Need air, please..."

Riddhima gave him a scathing look and made to shift to her right, except that the bench had ended and she hit the ground with a thud.

Riddhima : "OW!"

Armaan let out a snort, but then immediately straightened his face. "Arey Dr. Riddhima...!! Aap kahin nazar nahin aa rahi...(in a soft, sing song voice) Dr. Ridhimaaaa...Oh Dr. Ri-"

Riddhima : (Through gritted teeth) "I'm fine, Dr. Armaan. Thank you."

She raised herself up to the bench again, and one look from her was enough to stub whatever Armaan was about to say. She placed her head in her hands. What did I get myself into?! Somebody help! She mouthed the last word softly, and then someone spoke from directly above her. "Help, did you say? Because you're going to need it."

They looked up simultaneously to see a tall, burly, sour-looking police officer standing over them with a file in his hands.

Armaan : (Also nervous now) "He-hello...(smiles nervously, receives no response, straightens his face) I mean, good afternoon, sir."

Riddhima : (Exchanging a glance with him and then looking up at the police officer) " don't want any trouble, really..."

Officer : "Oh, but trouble sure seems to want you, doesn't it? And pretty often too..."

Riddhima was confused.

Officer : (Indicating the file in his hand) "I have here your past records from the database, Dr...Riddhima Gupta, is it? Yes. And it says here that this is your third offense. What's more, by a happy coincidence, Dr...uh...Mallik here has been charged with you in every single one of them. Don't fancy the law much when you're together, do you?"

Realisation had dawned on Riddhima right after the first sentence, so that by the time he finished speaking, she was already lost in a reverie. His voice seemed to be coming from very far away, as some other sounds came echoing across the seas of time. Nearly five years ago. A very loud shriek of a car horn, screeching tyres, and an ominous sound of breaking glass. Riddhima jammed the breaks of her car and stepped out.

Riddhima : "Oi!"

She was standing just outside a parking lot, looking at the rear of her car which had just been smashed by the car right behind it. She had been having a disastrous day, and this was the last straw. The door of the other car opened, and Armaan stepped out. He saw the damage he'd done, and grimaced apologetically.

Riddhima : (Looking at the bits of shattered glass on the ground) "You have got to be kidding me...What the-?!! HEY...!!"

Armaan : "Ooh. Um...I'm really so-"

Riddhima : "Oh, no you don't...After that, a paltry apology is not going to do. I mean, what, were you driving blindfolded?!"

Armaan : (Still apologetic, but a little less so after her outburst) "Dekhiye madam, I didn't mean to-"

Riddhima : (Not in much of a mood to listen) "Oh, you didn't- he didn't mean to, you hear that? (she says to a man standing by. He gives her one freaked out look, and positively scoots.) "Now doesn't that just undo it all? You didn't mean to'!!"

Armaan : (Losing patience now) "Hey, what is your problem?! It's my first day at work. I was late for the evening shift, was just heading for the parking lot in a bit of a rush. Lost control of my car as I turned...! Look, I know I should've been more careful, and that's why I'm-"

Riddhima : "That's why you're what? Arguing with me?!"

Armaan : "I'm trying to apologise! I'm even willing to pay for what I damaged! Jeez, if you'd only let me talk-"

Riddhima : "Oh, so I'm not letting you talk?!"

Armaan : (Now sarcastic) "Oh no...No no. That's just how I speak, isn't it? Half-broken sentences that make little or no sense. Priceless, when it comes to communicating with people who talk like you. Which is basically, well, a lot."

Riddhima : (Mouth open in indignation) "Ek to meri gaadi thoki, upar se attitude de rahe ho?!"

Armaan : "You know, that sounds almost odd coming from miss I'm-so-mad-I-won't-LET-you-apologise!"

By this point, cars had begun to pile up and honk because Armaan and Riddhima were entirely blocking the entry to the parking lot. They were glaring at each other, imparting silent vibes of pure hostility, when one man stepped out of his car. "Oi! What's the hold up?"

Armaan : (Seizing the opportunity. Airily) "Oh, nothing at all. Nothing at all. Just another beautiful evening, when I took a fancy to this lady's car and decided to wreck it. Whee."

Riddhima : "Oh, shut it, will you? The nerve of some people...!!"

The stranger looked first at Riddhima, then at Armaan, and cautiously backed off. The cars kept piling up. Then, sirens sounded, the police jeep showed up and took them both, still arguing, to the police station. They were led in by two constables.

Riddhima : "It's HIS fault! Why am I being dragged in here?!!"

Inspector : (Having had a word with the constables who brought them) "Because you, young lady, were part of what caused the hold up. Now, I'd like some ID's please."

Riddhima : (Glaring at Armaan as she hands the inspector her ID) "Good thing I have a respectful occupation, at least. I'm a doctor, I'll have you know."

Armaan : (Exaggerated) "Really?! Wow! A miracle, that is! Something we actually have in common! My word...!!"

Riddhima : (Confused) "Wha-?"

Inspector : (Having examined Armaan's ID first) "Here you go, Dr. Mallik."

Armaan : (Grins as he sees Riddhima's eyes widen) "I know! Life's a howler, isn't it?"

Riddhima : "'re such a...brat!"

Armaan : "Oh, well spotted! Didn't take you too long to figure it out either, did it? And I thought a brain was one of the things we didn't have in common..."

Riddhima was as angry as Armaan was cheery. The Inspector cleared his throat.

Inspector : "Now, this is a minor offense, and the first for both of you. I'm letting you off with just a fine for now, but next time...(to Armaan) drive carefully, and...(to Riddhima) find a better place to fight."

Armaan snorted, and Riddhima was outraged at the insinuation.

Riddhima : "I did not-"

Inspector : "Yes, yes. Of course not. Now, good day...and goodbye."

They were led out of the main gate, and giving each other one last parting look, Riddhima glaring and Armaan grinning, they turned and walked away.

There was an acute silence as Riddhima came back to her present. The Officer was looking at her expectantly, as though he had just asked a question and was waiting for an answer.

Riddhima : (Bursts out) "The first time was HIS fault! I was dragged in for no reason whatso-"

Armaan : "Whoa. No reason, huh? Held up a dozen cars, she did, sir!"

Riddhima : "I held up...?!! I'm telling you sir, he rammed my car! It was him! All him!"

Armaan : "Oh, come on! You were like a raging bull that evening! I swear I could see you snorting smoke out your nose...You'd have rammed me if the police hadn't come to my rescue...!!"

Officer : "All right! All right! So I see we have a slightly sensitive issue here. Moving on...the second time. It doesn't speak of any dispute here. What was that about?"

Armaan and Riddhima fell silent. They looked away, determinedly avoiding each other's eyes.

Officer : (Looking from one to the other) "What'?"

They looked strangely disturbed. Right then, a voice rang out from the entrance. "Hey...!! Don't I know you two?!"

All three of them looked up to see another officer, the ACP, standing at the door and beaming at them. Armaan and Riddhima's eyes widened in recognition.

ACP : "Oh man...!! What was that, two years ago? What're you guys doing here again?!"

Officer : (Thoroughly confused) "You know these two, sir?!"

ACP : (Cheerfully) "Know them? Damn right I do! Bunch of crazy kids. Brought 'em in here myself. (Laughing) The guy had candles all over an empty parking lot in the middle of the night! Cranky old man living next door woke up to some very loud, not to mention completely off-key singing, saw these two from his window and called us in. Had them charged for nuisance. Some sight these two were! Practically glowing. I couldn't keep a straight face myself, looking at them. Reminded me of my own young, reckless days...!! (Seeing the Police Officer looking more confused than ever, he chuckles) He had just asked her to marry him, of course...!!"

Officer : (Expression going from confusion to downright disbelief, he looks at Armaan and Riddhima) "You two are...?!!"

Armaan took a deep breath. "Yes. My name is Dr. Armaan Mallik, and she is...Dr. Riddhima Gupta Mallik, my wife."


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