Friday, 30 August 2019

part 3 : Crossroads

Riddhima opened her eyes and found everything around her ablaze with the sunlight streaming in through the window. She made no effort to sit up, and kept looking at the clear blue sky outside. Something of the memory still seemed to linger there. A few sounds told her that Armaan was already awake, and in the bathroom. With an effort, she pulled herself out of the cosiness of the bed and took a better look around the room. The place was a mess. Armaan's clothes from the previous day were strewn all over his still messy bed spread on the floor, her bag was open, and some of his other clothes were hanging out after having been sifted through to pick a set for the day. She put her hand on her head and muttered under her breath : "Some things never change, do they?!" Straightening up, she tied her hair in a quick bun, and got to work, picking up his clothes, folding them neatly, and keeping them in the bag. As she picked up a pair of jeans from the bedspread, he came out of the bathroom and stopped in his tracks. Realising what she was doing, he smiled inspite of himself.




Armaan : "Some things never change, do they?!".

Riddhima : (Seeing him smile, she softens for just a moment, then recovers and looks away.) "Evidently not. Why God created the art of folding is something that will never make sense to people like you. Untidy morons, that is."


Armaan : (Still smiling) "That would be true, yes. What will also not make sense to me in particular, incidentally, is why you have to put that art to practice every time you see clothes within a mile from where you're standing. Hm? (Riddhima glares) Naah. Another one of Mother Nature's mysteries completely beyond us lesser mortals."

Riddhima : (Exasperated) "Oh, shut it, will you?!"


Armaan : (Snatching his shirt from her hands) "Quit folding then!"

Riddhima : "Armaan...!!"


Armaan : (Pointing with his finger) "My bed, my shirt, my choice."

Riddhima : (Snatching back the shirt, and gesturing exactly the way he did) "My bag, my car, my rules. Now, zip it!"



She turned away, took out her own clothes and went in for a bath, giving Armaan one final glare as she closed the door.


Riddhima : (Voice echoing from inside the bathroom) "Mere taiyar hote hi hum nikal jaenge. Aur mujhe tumhari taraf se aur nakhre nahin chahiye, haan Armaan...Armaan...? Armaan...?!"


Armaan : "Yeah yeah, whatever. Main to bas-"



Suddenly struck by an incredibly brilliant albeit incredibly juvenile idea, he tip-toed to the bathroom door and silently bolted it from the outside. Once ready, Riddhima tried opening the door, which would not budge, again.


Armaan : "Arey Riddhima...kya hua?"


Riddhima : (Struggling with the door) "Urghh...yeh darwaza...!!"

Armaan : (Very happy with himself, grinning) "I told you, there's something with you and doors today..."


Riddhima : "Shut up Armaan, I'm trying to- (her eyes widen with sudden comprehension as she hears his tone) Wait a minute. Armaan, tumne-?? Man, how old are you?! (Armaan grins even wider) No seriously, are you out of your mind?!!"

Armaan : "Me? Oh no, no. Not yet. You seem pretty close to that yourself right now, though."


Riddhima : "ARMAAN DARWAZA KHOLO! ABHI!"

Armaan : (Winces as she shouts the last word out) "See, this is exactly what I mean. What is with you? Jab main keh raha hoon ki mujhe nahin jaana, aur mere na jaane se kisika nuksaan bhi nahin ho raha, toh why do you want to boss me into doing what I seriously don't want to do?"


Riddhima : "ARMAAN...!! (Calms herself down. She knows she cannot reason with him on this issue, but the least she can do is control her decibel levels which are clearly making things worse) Okay...okay Armaan. Tum theek keh rahe ho. I shouldn't force you, I'm...I'm sorry. Just open the door, and I promise I will leave you alone. I won't force you to go to Pune, I'll...uh...be nice to you, I'll even let you leave your clothes in a mess all over the floor for as long as you like...and I'll..."

Armaan : (Following her tone) "...and I'll be the next Queen of England. Riddhima, jhooth to kam se kam thoda realistically bola karo..."


Riddhima : (Abandoning all restraint) "ARMAAN ...!!"

Armaan : (Yawns) "I'm sort of sleepy now. I think I'll take a little nap while you spend some serious time with yourself. Hm."


Riddhima : (Ear against door) "Ar-Armaan...? Armaan...?!"



She knew he wouldn't answer. Furious, she swung her arm to give the door one hard bang. But instead of the wood, she accidentally caught the metal doorknob and cried out in pain.


Riddhima : (Wincing) "Aaah...!!"



A single moment of absolute silence, and then the door flew open to reveal Armaan. He'd heard her cry out. When he opened the door, he found her nursing her left hand, now marked by a fairly deep gash that was bleeding profusely.


Armaan : "Oh crap...!! (Holding out his hand) Idhar aao..."



But Riddhima smacked his hand away and began hitting out at every part of him she could possibly reach.


Riddhima : (Punctuating each word with a hard smack) "What - is - wrong - with - you?!"


Armaan : "Ow-ow! OW! Get off me...!!"



She finally stopped, slightly out of breath but far from satisfied, and then winced in pain again.


Armaan : (A little wary, trying to stay beyond arms' reach) "Um...dressing..."


Riddhima : (Gives him an icy look, and turns away) "No thanks."

Armaan : (Still wary, but he can see the gash bleeding, and it is making him impatient) "Riddhima please meri baat maano, main-"


Riddhima : (Assuming a casual, sarcastic tone) "Do excuse me, Dr. Mallik, but just out of curiosity...which part of the phrase 'No Thanks' do you not understand?"

Armaan : (His eyes are still on the gash, and his thoughts only on how much it must be hurting. He becomes a little more firm.) "Riddhima-"


Riddhima : "Nahin chahiye mujhe tumhari madad, Armaan-"

Armaan : (Now absolutely stern) "That's enough! You've spent the last fifteen minutes asserting how you're the adult here...and now would be a very good time to start behaving like one.(Stunned into silence, Riddhima looks at him. He speaks in a low, quiet tone.) You're losing blood, and that wound needs to be dressed. You know that as well as I do. You also know that you can't do it with one hand. So, I'm going to do it, (seeing her readying for a retort) and you're going to do exactly as I say. Ab chup chaap yahaan sofe par baitho, come on..."



Riddhima sat down, and was for a moment surprised at her own obedience. But before she could say anything, he knelt down in front of her with the First-Aid kit and held out his hand. She looked at it for a moment, and then looked away, keeping her injured hand to herself.


Armaan : (Shaking his head, almost smiling) "Dard ho raha hai, par attitude gaya nahin ab tak..."



He reached for her hand and took it in his, firm yet careful of not hurting her more. He then began wiping her wound gently with an antiseptic. She winced as soon as the soaked cotton touched her skin. And right then, she felt the hand clasping hers become ever so slightly tighter, reassuring, compassionate, as if to tell her that the pain was momentary and it would all be okay in the end. She looked at Armaan. His face was lined with concern. She could see it. When he finished, he looked up to meet her eyes, and in that one split second so much welled up inside her all at once that it took all the strength she could muster to stop herself from giving in to tears, letting herself go. She stood up abruptly.


Riddhima : "I'm hungry. I'm...I'm going to go get something-"


Armaan : "Nahin, tum ruko. Baitho...main jaata hoon. (Distracted from her chain of thought, she looks at him intently. He smiles) I won't run away, I swear."



When he left, Riddhima kept looking at the closed door for a few moments, then turned around and walked slowly towards the bag lying open on the bed. Sitting down, she fished out a small dark green notebook and a pen. This little thing had been her companion through so much. But today, eventhough she was feeling so many things at once that she could barely contain it, she didn't know what to write, how to begin, what to say. Slowly and deliberately she penned down a single line, a question, and found that it was all she could manage.

'How did we let it get this far?'


Closing the diary, she put it back in the bag, and looked out of the window.


* * *



Riddhima had been looking out of the window for what seemed like hours when she began to wonder why Armaan wasn't back yet. Just as she was thinking of getting up and going after him, the door opened and he walked in with a little tiffin box in his hand.



Armaan : (Beaming) "And just guess what I found..."

Riddhima : "What? (Noticing the tiffin box) And what's that?"


Armaan : (Grinning) "It's what I found. Breakfast. And guess what it is."

Riddhima : "What?"


Armaan : "Have a look for yourself..."

Riddhima : (Takes the tiffin box, very curious, and opens it. Immediately, her face lights up.) "Aloo ke parathe...!!"


Armaan : (Grinning wider than ever) "Yeah! I went to the reception to ask where I could find some food. Desk par to koi nahin tha, par uske peeche ka darwaza khula tha and I saw this sweet old lady standing in front of a steaming hot tawa. Reminded me of Ma when I was a little kid. It was such an endearing sight that I couldn't help it. Maine knock kiya, aur unhone mujhe andar bulaya. She looked at me a little suspiciously at first, but then I gave her my brightest, most innocent smile and asked her, "Auntyji, aap kya bana rahi hain?" And she totally melted. Then I told her she reminded me of my mother, and that was it. Itne pyaar se unhone mujhe tiffin mein chaar parathe pack kar ke diye, aur main le aaya! These parathas have so much more than just aloo in them. Aunty put her heart and soul into making them for us..."


He trailed off, suddenly seized by a sense of deja vu. As Riddhima sat down with the tiffin-full of parathas, he lost himself to the memory that had stirred in him. He could hear his own voice echoing from somewhere across the sands of time...


"Kya hua, Riddhima? Is everything okay??"


Riddhima : "Yeah yeah, I'm fine. But I need your help. Urgent!"



Armaan was standing at the Nurses' Station. Riddhima hadn't come to Sanjeevani in three days. And all the word he'd had from her was a couple of messages saying that things are hectic at home, and Padma aunty's severely ill. The last message he'd got from her was on the previous night, saying that there had been a huge showdown with Bua, and she wouldn't be coming for another couple of days.


Armaan : "Par hua kya hai??"


Riddhima : (Hears how worried he is) "Armaan, pehle shaant ho jao. Sab theek hai, kuch nahin hua. Bas chhota sa crisis hai, aur mujhe tumhari madad chahiye."

Armaan : (A little reassured) "Okay. Bolo...?"


Riddhima : "Okay. I need you to help me...cook."

Armaan : "Come again?"


Riddhima : "Yeah, you heard right. Mujhe khana banana hai."

Armaan : (Caught somewhere between sighing with relief, frowning with incredulity, and laughing) "You're joking, right?"


Riddhima : "Oi! I need your help, all right? All I've ever done in the name of cooking in my entire life is making frequent cups of coffee, you know that. But now, Mum is so ill she can barely stand for too long, and my house is full of people. People are not really a problem, actually. My house is full of Bua, is what it is. She doesn't spare Mum an iota of understanding or respect. Last night, she crossed a line, and I couldn't take it anymore. So..."

Armaan : "So...what?"


Riddhima : "So...I gave her a piece of my mind like never before. You should've seen her face, she looked like she'd stab me with the fork in her hand. I swore that mom would do no more housework till she's better, and if it's such an issue then, well, I'd do it."

Armaan : (Closing his eyes) "Oh great..."


Riddhima : "Main kya karti, Armaan...?!"

Armaan : "No, no! You didn't do anything wrong! You're totally right, and I'm not just saying that because I love you. Seriously. You stood up for Padma aunty, and for yourself, and I'm completely with you."


Riddhima : "Bas. To fir meri madad karo. The other housework I can manage, but cooking is a problem. You're a fabulous cook, everybody knows that. So tell me simple stuff I can make, so that I'm able to manage a decent meal and ensure that the kitchen doesn't go up in flames. Okay?"

Armaan : (Smiles) "No problem. Duty nahin hoti na meri, to main khud hi aa jaata..."


Riddhima : (Also smiling) "Pata hai. But you know what, I really want to do this on my own. Itne dino se Bua ke taane sun sun ke apne aap se bharosa uthne laga hai mera. Not in the terms she uses, of course. Sasural jayegi to kya karegi and all the rest of that bull...ahem...no, not all that. But for myself, just to know that I can survive without people having to do things for me. I'm a big girl, and I should know how to take care of myself in every way, na?"

Armaan : "Have I ever told you how proud I am of you? I mean, I know I begin to sound like your mum myself when I say that, but nevertheless..."


Riddhima : (Chuckles) "Yes, you have. And yes, you do...hehe...ab chalo, batao kya karna hai?"

Armaan : "Okay. Abhi 12 baje hain, right? Which means we don't have too long before lunchtime. Just a little under two hours...hmm...(thinking hard, and finally coming to a quick option)...ghar mein aata hai?"


Riddhima : (Running to check) "Uh...haan, aata hai."

Armaan : "Aloo aur pyaaz?"


Riddhima : "Umm...yep, hain."

Armaan : "And basic spices like salt and pepper...maybe a little laal mirch and dhaniya powder?"


Riddhima : (Scrambling to the spice cabinet) "Check. Check. Check. Yep, all here."

Armaan : "Perfect. Toh tumhara aaj ka lunch hai, Aloo ke Parathe."


Riddhima : (Nervously) "Aloo ke Parathe it is, then..."

Armaan : "Don't worry baba, it's simple, quick and totally yum."


Riddhima : "I'm not so sure about the 'yum' bit. Just as long as they're edible..."

Armaan : "Riddhima, you've taken this up yourself, right? And you know the reasons why? This is not an ego battle or just a means to make a self-righteous statement. Tumne khud hi kaha, you're doing this for your mom. And you want to do it on your own, for yourself too. You know, I started cooking when I did, because I had to. Because I've been alone for a long time, and that makes you develop self-sufficiency in more ways than one. But there's something about that self-reliance that's wonderfully liberating. You said it too, knowing that you can take care of yourself is quite a feeling. I learned to revel in it, so that now when I cook, I love it! It sets me free, because I know why I'm doing it and I believe in that reason. I do it for myself, dil se, which is what I'm asking you to do now. Do it with your hands and your heart. Nothing can get in your way then...nothing."


Riddhima : (Smiles) "Have I ever told you how proud I am of you?"

Armaan : (Chuckles) "Yes, you have. Now let's get to work..." 



He guided her through it, with simple steps which she jotted down on a notepad. There was an announcement for him in the ER, hearing which he wished her all the best and left, quite as nervous as she was. Riddhima took a deep breath, and set to work boiling the potatoes, kneading the dough, following his steps to every minute detail. With trepidation, she made her first paratha, which was a disaster. She called him again, and they burst out laughing. He gave her some tips, and she began her second paratha. Following it up, she made a total of eighteen and was rather proud of herself eventhough only two of them were round the way she liked, the rest being more or less shapeless. And she had no idea how they tasted.

Lunchtime was announced in Sanjeevani, and Armaan found himself staring at his plateful of sandwiches without eating a crumb, thinking about Riddhima and the Aloo Ke Parathe she must be placing before Bua at that very moment. He kept wondering how things had finally turned out. After a few minutes of such preoccupation, just as he was thinking of giving her a call himself, his cellphone rang out with a message. It was from her, just three words : 'I Love You.' He smiled, put it away, and dug into the sandwiches. Lunch, finally.


He got home a little late that night, there having been three consecutive cases in the ER just as he had been about to leave. Unlocking the door he took a deep, exhausted breath, stepped in, switched on the lights, and nearly shrieked. Riddhima was sitting happily on his window ledge, swinging her legs.


Armaan : (Hand on heart) "Are you crazy?! (Moving in and closing the door) And give that pipe a rest, will you? Jeez...!!"


Riddhima : (Grinning) "Sorry, but I just..."



She walked across the room, and put her arms around him in a warm, tight hug. They stood like that for a minute, and then she moved back and fished out a little steel box from inside her jacket.


Armaan : "Yeh kya hai?"


Riddhima : (Hesitates a little, then smiles) "Well, I cooked for the first time in my whole life. How could I not keep some for the man who made it possible? Hm?"

Armaan : (Taken aback, and really touched) "You seriously...?!"


Riddhima : Yes. This is Riddhima Basket Gupta's first official paratha. And it is for you. It's not extraordinary, but it means a lot to me, so..."



She broke off a piece and fed it to him. He closed his eyes as he ate, then opened first his right and then left eye.


Armaan : "I'm alive! (She gives him a sharp whack on his shoulder) Ow! Haha...no, honestly, it's brilliant!"


Riddhima : (He takes a piece and feeds it to her) "Mm...you know, that's actually not bad!"



And they sat down in their beloved corner, looking out at the glistening waves, and feasted on the parathas in the moonlight...


"Armaan...? Armaan...!!"


He snapped back to present reality as Riddhima called out his name.


Armaan : "Huh?! Oh...haan..."

Riddhima : "Tumhe bhookh nahin lagi kya? These are really yum!"



Armaan silently nodded his head, and sat down to eat. The past is behind us, he said to himself. But it wasn't, and he knew it. It was all around them, no matter where they went and how far they tried to run from it. It was always with them, because it lived and breathed within them. And he knew that it would remain that way, even on the road ahead.





Loads of love and take care,

Nandini 

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