Thursday, 29 August 2019

part 2 : Crossroads

The Officer was staring at them, open-mouthed, while the ACP continued to chuckle. Armaan and Riddhima were determined not to look at each other.

ACP : "So, what'd you do this time?"
Officer : (Recovering a little) "Uh...speeding, sir. On the highway. She was driving. We found a vodka bottle in the car, did a DUI but she's clean. They were going pretty fast though. Could've killed themselves, and a dozen more people along the way."

Armaan : "That was a mistake, sir, believe me. I was...I was the one fooling around...I - we're sorry. Really."

ACP : "That's quite a serious traffic offense, I'll have you know. (Smiles) But I can't put you behind bars for it. (To Officer) Fine 'em, and let 'em go. (His phone rings) Oops, gotta run. I've got my own marriage to take care of. (Chuckles jovially, and winks at Armaan) Great to see you two. And although I do hope to see you again, I want a police station to have nothing to do with it next time, hm? (Beaming at them) Chalo, pay and get going now..."

Armaan : (Turning towards Riddhima, still not looking at her) "Uh...mera wallet..."

Riddhima : (Pulling herself together) " sec."

She fished out his wallet from her bag and paid the fine. Exiting from the main gate, they set off for the car, entirely silent. They had both found themselves thrown off balance a little, in the police station, with such a tangible, solid reminder of the past they had both been struggling with for the last seven months. It was so strange, seeing and feeling those things again, all the while being aware of their being gone. It was such an odd sensation...nostalgia, regret, pain, sadness...all at once. And yet, these were happy memories, perhaps the happiest of their lives...

Lost in these reflections, they reached the car and finally looked at each other across the roof, standing before their respective doors. As his eyes met hers, Armaan felt a lurch in the pit of his stomach as he saw reflected in them so many things unsaid...Riddhima felt it too, and looked away immediately. She couldn't let herself go again. Not now. They were both silent, a little awkward, and a little tense. She knew she would not be able to bear the stillness much longer, and began to look for the car keys in her bag, for something to do. One of the police jeeps behind them started its engine, breaking into Armaan's reverie, and he watched as she finally found what she was looking for, and bent down to unlock the car. Slightly flustered, she put the key in and turned it. But the door wouldn't budge. She tried again, and then again, only to find the door quite firmly jammed. Armaan watched her struggle, and his face broke slowly into a smile until he was positively grinning.

Riddhima : (Looking up) "Bohot hassi aa rahi hai, Dr. Armaan?"

Armaan : (Completely unabashed) " see, Dr. Riddhima, what we have here is a living example of what I like to call Providence. In other words, Bhagwaan bhi nahin chahte ki tum mujhe Pune le jao."

Riddhima : (Standing up straight) "Well, I'm going to get you there anyway, because that's where you should be, whether Bhagwaan likes it or not. So..."

She gave the door a sharp jerk as she said the last word, and it gave way.
Riddhima : (Looks up with a wide smile) "I'd say Providence wants your butt back in that car."

Making a face, Armaan sat back in the car, and they drove off. After a few moments of silence -

Riddhima : "Galti tumhari hi thi, by the way..."

Armaan : "Huh?"

Riddhima : " din, parking lot mein..."

Armaan : "Oh, not again, Riddhima. For the thousandth time, you were in a foul mood pehle se hi. And you so overreacted. Don't deny it, you know you did."

Riddhima : (Grudgingly) "Alright fine. I did a little. A little. (Armaan snorts) But I did you a favour, after all."

Armaan : "Favour?!"

Riddhima : "Aur nahin to kya...warna hum dobara kaise milte?"

She had almost smiled remembering it, but her smile faded as she finished the sentence. Armaan looked out of the window. He could see it rolling before his eyes, clear as crystal. That same day, as he had rushed from the police station to Red Cross Hospital for his first day of internship, and found himself staring into the most forbidding, stern face he had ever had the misfortune of coming across. The Dean there was known for his almost fanatical emphasis on discipline. And turning up for an evening shift late at night was not the best way to make a good impression. Armaan hadn't even needed to hear the words, it was written all over the Dean's face. The man had handed him an envelope with an air of supreme indifference, pointed curtly at the exit, turned around and stalked away.

It was so long after the application procedure had already been finished that it had been nearly impossible to find a hospital with a free internship slot. After nearly a week of running around all over Mumbai, he had finally found the only remaining hospital with a single empty slot, grabbing at it before someone else did. And so he had stood on the morning of his first day of internship, facing the rather impressive building, slowly reading off the huge board that proclaimed its name: ""  He had met the senior doctors, and worked hard through the day. The ambience of the hospital had taken him by surprise. Unlike other hospitals he'd been to, this one had something bright and positive about it. It made him feel at home, and he loved it. All this had been running through his mind as he headed for the locker room at the end of his shift. And that's where he had crashed into her. 

"You...!!" they had both nearly shrieked, simultaneously. Armaan looked positively mutinous, the sight of that Dean's face having swum into his mind's eye as soon as he realised who she was. And she'd had to face an equally bad dressing down from Dr. Kirti for being late on her first day, which made the sight of him no more pleasant for her.

Riddhima : "And just what are you doing here?"

Armaan : "I happen to work here now, thanks to you and your stupid car. (Riddhima opens her mouth to retort) Oh, I know. I know. But it's your fault I'm here. So zip it."

She had looked as if she could burst with all the things she wanted to say to him. But she didn't seem to find the right words to sufficiently vent her fury, and had spluttered till he interrupted her.

Armaan : "Yeah. Sure. Ok. (Suddenly assuming an airy, casual tone) So, whose life did you wreck today? Hm? Or are you still prowling for the right target? Someone who suits all your sadistic fantasies? Come on, you can tell me..."

Riddhima : (Gritting her teeth, then swallowing her anger into sarcasm, and smiling) "Oh, I think I just found him."

Armaan : "Really? My word, that was quick!"

Riddhima : "I know! (Smiling even wider) See you around, then..."

Armaan : (Also smiling) "Bring it on..."

He was still smiling as he returned to the present, looking out at the countryside while Riddhima drove on. As they sat in silence, lost in their own worlds of rememory, it suddenly struck them how strange it was that they could recall every little incident that had brought them together, but neither could remember when they had fallen for each other. It had just happened, on its own. Like they had nothing to do with it. And that had been the beginning of another journey...

A car whizzed past them suddenly, distracting them from their thoughts. A group of teenagers were evidently having the time of their lives. And there was no Traffic Patrol jeep nearby to interrupt them. Riddhima sighed as the heaviness of present reality set in, once again. She looked at the sky, which was already turning a deep, dark blue.

Riddhima : "Looks like your little joyride cost us the day, Armaan. Aaj raat kahin rukna padega...(almost immediately spots a small highway inn up ahead) Oh, hey...there..."

They pulled in, parked the car, and made their way towards the entrance. Finding the reception unmanned, Armaan rang the bell on the desk, and a middle-aged man appeared from behind a door.

Man : "Good evening, sir."

Armaan : "Good evening. We need a room...uh...two rooms, for tonight."

Man : (Checking his register) "I'm sorry sir, room to ek hi hai. Aap chahein to main extra bedding ka bandobast karwa sakta hoon..."

Armaan looked at Riddhima, expecting her to object, but she just gave him a silent nod, and he instructed the man to send over the bedding as soon as possible. They were given a room on the ground floor, right at the corner of the building. Armaan used the keys he had been handed by the Man to open the door and stepped in. He turned around just in time to see Riddhima smacking her forehead with her hand.

Armaan : "Ab kya hua?"

Riddhima : "Bag gaadi mein reh gaya. I'll just get it..."

She went all the way back to the car, and fetched the only bag she had brought for the trip, containing her things as well as Armaan's. She reached their room and turned the knob to enter, but the door wouldn't open.

Riddhima : "Armaan...?"

He came towards the door and tried to pull it open from the inside, only to find it tightly shut and unwilling to move an inch.

Armaan : (Musingly) "Really, what is it with you and doors today??"

Riddhima : "Armaan, bakwaas band karo aur darwaza kholo!"

Armaan : (Turning the knob over and over) "No, seriously, it's jammed!"

Riddhima : (Under her breath) "Great. Just great."

Armaan : (Looking around and spotting a huge window at the back of the room) "Riddhima, yahaan peeche ki taraf bohot badi khidki hai. I think it opens into the backyard. You could try..."

By the time he'd finished, Riddhima was already on her way. She asked the man at the counter to go help Armaan with the door, made her way to the backyard, found the right window, and stepped nimbly into the room.

Armaan : (Standing at the window, smiling) "Chalo, good that we're on the ground floor. Yahaan aas paas koi seedhi bhi nahin hai. Kahin upar hote to tumhe pipe se chadh ke aana padta."

As he said the words, a spark of memory stirred in them both. Their eyes met for a second, and then a knock on the door made them look around. The Man had arrived with help to open the door, and Armaan immediately made his way towards it to assist them from inside. It took them nearly half an hour to wrench it open, and another half hour to fix it so that it wouldn't jam again. The extra bedding was then brought in, which Armaan arranged on the floor at the foot of the bed. Once the helpers left, Riddhima washed her face and climbed into bed.

Armaan switched off the lights, turned around, and was momentarily spellbound. She was curled up in the white linen, eyes closed, her face glowing softly in the silver moonlight streaming in gently through the window. He kept looking at her, until reality came crashing down upon his bliss, unbidden. He lowered his gaze to his own bedding on the floor, closed his eyes for a second, and lay down to sleep.

Riddhima opened her eyes, and looked out of the window through which the moon peeped in. What had stirred vaguely in her mind a while ago was clearer than ever now, right before her eyes. Armaan was awake too, and was looking out of the same window, thinking the same thing. They looked at the dark sky outside, and it seemed to come alive with the memory playing on both their minds...

Armaan had just returned from a month long medical camp. He had rushed to his apartment from the airport, dumped his bags in the living room, and driven straight to Riddhima's house, dying to see her. She could still hear echoes of the doorbell that had made her heart skip a beat almost two years ago. He's here. She knew. But the door had been opened before she could even get off her bed, by her Bua, here for a summer visit.

Armaan : (A little taken aback by the sight of someone entirely unfamiliar) "Um...Riddhima...?"

Bua : (Looking very suspicious, narrowing her eyes) "Aap kaun?"

Armaan : "Main...uh...Armaan...Dr. Armaan Mallik. Uske saath Sanjeevani mein-"

Bua : "Tum doctor ho?!"

She looked him up and down, her expression denoting clear disbelief. Armaan became a little self-conscious. He was travel weary, clad in a dirty shirt and worn out jeans, and hadn't shaved in three days...

Armaan : (Fidgety) "Ye -, agar aap use bula deti to..."

But Riddhima was already there, panting heavily, having sprinted down the staircase at full speed. She met his gaze, and he saw that her eyes were lit up with so much joy at the sight of him, that he almost reached out to caress her face like he always did. She, on her part, wanted to run to him, to give him the world's tightest hug...but then both eyed the Bua-barricade, and calmed themselves down.

Bua : (Curt) "Jaanti ho ise?"
Riddhima : "Um, haan. Haan Bua, yeh Dr. Armaan Mallik hain. Mere saath Sanjeevani mein-"

Bua : "Haan haan, pata hai. Jo bhi ho. Yahaan kyun aaya hai?"

Armaan was quite affronted, and was about to retort when Riddhima silenced him with a gesture to keep quiet.

Riddhima : "Er...wo...files, Bua. Files lene aaya hai. Hai na, Armaan?"

Armaan : (A little uncertain) "Uh...haan. Haan haan, of course. Files."

Riddhima : "Right. Just one minute, I'll get them."

She disappeared into the house, while Bua stood there staring at Armaan intently, like she had x-ray vision to see right through him. It made him extremely uncomfortable.

Riddhima : (Reappearing, still out of breath) "Yeh lo. This blue one is particularly important, okay? The blue one."

Armaan : "Right. The blue one. Okay. Thanks. I'll...( turning sideways to leave, but lingering, hoping Bua will leave. She is, however, rooted to the doorstep, determined to see the back of him) see you at work...then. Okay. Namaste, Auntyji. Chalta hoon..."

Facing the closed door, he took a deep breath, hung his head sadly, and went back home. Flopping down on his bed miserably, he suddenly remembered what Riddhima had been saying before he had left. He sat up and opened the blue file. It contained a single sheet of paper with a scribbled note in her handwriting : 'Missed you. Hate that I can't be with you just now, but I will be, soon. I love you.' Armaan smiled. Damn it, so do I. And that's the problem...He sighed and lay back down, covering his face with the note. "Riddhima..." he whispered, and fell soundly asleep with the lights still on.

It was completely dark when he opened his eyes. Something had woken him up. A sound, perhaps. Thinking that he was probably imagining it, he closed his eyes again. And then he heard it. Coming from his open window. Burglars. He reached towards his left to switch on the lamp, but there was no electricity. "Sodding power cut!" he breathed. Running his hand around the side table, all he could find to defend himself was his basketball. He picked it up, and stood cautiously beside his bed. He watched silently as the curtains at the window moved, and a dark silhouette nimbly hopped into the room.

Armaan : "Kaun hai wahaan?"

The figure stood absolutely still.

Armaan : "Who is it? (Receives no response) Dude, if you're a burglar, go away before you get hurt...(Still no response) Look, I have...I have a basketball, and I'm not afraid to use it! Seriously!"

And right then, the figure burst out laughing.

Armaan : "I sware - what...who - Riddhima??!"

Riddhima : "Haan, Riddhima. Hahaha...this is way cooler than I thought!"

Armaan : (Throwing aside his basketball and moving forward, brandishing his cellphone for light) "Tum pagal ho gayi ho kya?! It's - (squints at his cellphone) two in the morning, what the heck are you-?! (Moves towards the window) And how did you - did you just climb that pipe?!"

Riddhima : "What, you think you're the only one who can do these things? (Armaan's expression is a hilarious mixture of incredulity and admiration) I saw you for two seconds, after a whole month of not having been with you. A woman can get desperate, you know."

They looked at each other, and burst out laughing. "Come here, you..." Armaan said, and took her in his arms. They stood like that for a few moments, and then he moved his head back.

Armaan : "I want to look at you properly, and Bhagwaan chooses right now to cut the damn electricity. What a day...(raising his hands and cupping her face. In a soft whisper) Man, I missed you..."

Riddhima : (Just as softly) "I missed you much..."

She moved slowly closer, and captured his lips in a soft, gentle kiss. A moment later, the lights came on all of sudden, startling them apart. Armaan chuckled, then looked at his watch again.

Armaan : "It's pretty late, you know."

Riddhima : "One month, Armaan. I'm not leaving so soon!"

Armaan : (Recalling all the times she has pointed out how late she is and how she'll get in trouble) "Who are you?"

Riddhima : (Laughs) "Riddhima Basket Gupta. And I'm not leaving. Ab chalo..."

Armaan : "Kahaan?"

Riddhima : "Wahin..."

She took his hand, and led him to the other side of the room. This was her most loved corner of his whole house: a groove in the wall, a huge glass window looking out upon the vast open sea glistening in the moonlight; and a cosy little seating arrangement on raised ground, fitted with a soft white mattress and fluffy cushions of deep maroon. Armaan sat leaning against the cushions, legs outstretched, and Riddhima lay resting her head on his chest, his arms wrapped securely around her. They watched the waves lash about in the silver glow of the night, and fell slowly asleep.

She opened her eyes the next morning just in time to see the sun rise. Armaan was already awake. He whispered, "Good morning..." softly into her ear, and gave her a light kiss on her forehead. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

Riddhima : "Mm...(yawning) I should get home before dad wakes up. Or worse still, if Bua comes into my room. (Getting up) She has a habit of doing that every morning since she's been here. Bobs in without knocking, brandishing her pooja ki thaali like a machine gun. Utho aur aarti lo varna goli maar doongi. (Setting her hair right, as Armaan begins to laugh) She's on a mission to teach me how girls my age should behave, you know. Old patriarchal wine in an even older bottle. Ugh."

Armaan : (Still laughing) "She doesn't know what she's up against though, does she?"

Riddhima : (Chuckles) "Not yet, Dr. Mallik. Not yet...(moving towards the door) chalo, I'm off..."

Armaan : (Was about to head for the window through which she came) "Ooh. I forgot that this is my house, and you sneaked in. That makes the pipe a one-way, and you get the benefit of using the front door to leave. A benefit I do not have yet, and will probably continue not having for quite some time to come.(Grinning) Imagine Bua's face if someday she walks into your room with her thaali, and finds me walking out instead...hahaha..."

They laughed all the way to the door. Once there, she gave him a hug, kissed him lightly, turned around, and left...

Soaking in the remnants of the lived, felt memory, the Armaan and Riddhima of the present, lying in the hotel room, closed their eyes with a sigh, pulled themselves out of yesterday and braced themselves for another, very different tomorrow.

Loads of Love and Cheers!


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