Saturday, 31 August 2019

part 4 : Crossroads

I hope he's okay. I hope he's all right. Riddhima's mind reverberated with those words like a chant. She hadn't heard from Armaan in two days, he hadn't been taking her calls or answering her messages. She spent her time at the hospital trying to handle cases and not worry too much about where he is. He had finally messaged once that afternoon to say that his friend's mother had had a stroke, they had called him for assistance, and he would come in to Sanjeevani for the evening shift. She had waited, but he hadn't turned up. Once her shift was over, she had driven to his house and found a big fat lock on the front door, which didn't exactly ease her nerves. Telling herself not to panic, she had made her way home deciding to wait a few more hours. He had messaged in the afternoon, maybe he was still caught up with his friend's mother. She had reached home, got dressed for bed and lay down with her cellphone clutched tightly in her hand lest he should call. She hadn't realised when she had dozed off into an uneasy slumber, and then suddenly her phone had rung out. It was him. She had picked up, and he had frantically asked her to come to some place and
disconnected before she could so much as open her mouth. Terrified, she had snatched her car keys from the side table and set off at a run. I hope he's okay. I hope he's all right. She kept saying it to herself as she drove into the alleyway he had called her to, and stepped out of the car. The place was completely deserted. There was no sign of him anywhere. Beginning to panic now, Riddhima called out his name a couple of times, without any response. It was two in the morning, and the alleyway was ominously dark, the only source of light being a slight halo-ish brightness coming from around a bend just a few steps ahead.


Riddhima : (Frightened, trying again, louder) "Ar...Armaan...? Armaan...?? Ar-"


There had been a sound. She could swear she'd heard it coming from around that same bend. Now positively terrified, she took a deep breath, gulped, and began walking cautiously towards it. She was alone in the middle of the night in some God-forsaken alleyway, but all she could think of was Armaan's voice from the call. He was here, she could feel it. And she prayed as hard as she could that he was okay. Finally, reaching the bend and bracing herself for whatever might be around it, Riddhima took the turn. She stopped in her tracks, stalled by sheer amazement at the sight that greeted her eyes. She stood facing a parking lot filled from end to end not with cars, but with candles. It was the most beautiful, albeit bizarre sight she had ever beheld. Little shimmering flames on long, graceful white candlesticks as far as her eyes would go. Looking a little more carefully she realised that there was a gap between the two central rows, forming a path of sorts which began, as her eyes traced it closer and closer, exactly where she stood. Her heart was beating faster and harder than she had ever imagined a human heart could, as she slowly stepped into it and began walking, spellbound, wondering where the path would lead her. She followed it on through the lot to the other end, where the candles petered out into just two rows still marking her way onwards. Raising her eyes from the breathtaking candlelight for the first time, she looked ahead and saw the two rows finally widen into a circle, and exactly at the centre of this circle stood Armaan. There was a smile on his lips, and a light in his eyes of a kind she had never seen before. It was like the glow of all the candles put together had concentrated within them and lit them up, just for her.

Armaan : (Soft, but clearly audible in the silence) "Good morning, Dr.
Gupta. You look stunning today."

Riddhima : "I look- I'm in my nightclothes, Armaan..."

Armaan : "And you're beautiful..."

Riddhima : "I'm...thank- (blushing, but then remembers why she's here in the first place) Oi! Wait a minute. What I really am right now, actually, is totally mad at you. I mean, where've you been for two whole days?? And what in Heaven's name was that phonecall about, haan??! D'you know how scared I was?! I swear, mujhe itna gussa aa raha hai na Armaan..."

Armaan : (Smiles) " I know, I'm sorry. Although, I have to say, you don't actually look that gussa..."

Riddhima : "I- well...(looks around as though the sight is self-explanatory)...what...what's going on?"


Armaan walked over silently to where she stood.


Riddhima : "You know, if this is your idea of apologising for the vanishing act you've been pulling, then...(he stands right in front of her looking deep into her eyes, and she loses the thread of her sentence)...um..."


Armaan : (Softly) "Yes. In a way. And something more..."


Riddhima : (Voice reduced to a whisper) "What...?"


Armaan : "Have you noticed where we're standing, Riddhima?"


Riddhima : (A little confused, looks at her surroundings more carefully this time. As her eyes travel over this end of the parking lot, which opens onto the main road, her heart skips a beat as she realises where they are) "This is...this is where we crashed!"

Armaan : (Smiles) "Yep. This is where we met three years ago, on this very day. I wanted this to be the place for what I want to say to you tonight, because this place is what sparked off our crazy, beautiful roller-coaster ride together. And now that I'm...I couldn't think of a more perfect place."


Riddhima's heart beat faster and harder than ever, as Armaan took her hands in his and took a slight, steadying breath.


Armaan : "I've...been alone for most of my life, Riddhima...with my eyes always set on a future I etched out for myself, on my own. I was so used to being like that for so long, that I never imagined there would come a time when I would be so madly and irrevocably dependant on someone else's happiness...that one day, just one look into her eyes would make me lose my balance...that one smile on her face would become for me a substitute for morning sunshine...that one tear in her eye would hurt me like a physical blow...I didn't believe things like that could happen, least of all to me. But they did. Because three years ago a girl crashed into my life...and I never realised how and when she became my life...(Riddhima's eyes are by now brimming with tears) I know you always say that I talk a lot of nonsense a lot of the time, (she smiles) and that I do crazy stuff to make a simple point. Well, I am crazy, so that stays...(he glances around the lot, as does she)...but, I'm going to make my simple point simply today. So here it is, Basket. Without saying anything else, just one simple question..."


As he spoke, he took out a little black box from his pocket and opened it to reveal the most beautiful ring Riddhima had ever seen: a thin platinum band curling into the shape of two tiny leaves with a small, brilliantly illumined diamond, set right in the middle. Armaan went down on one knee, holding up the ring in his right hand.


Armaan : "Riddhima Basket Gupta...will you marry me?" 


It was as though they were suspended in time. And then Riddhima felt it all like a rush, as the tears came down without her being able to stop them...


Riddhima : (Almost a whisper) "Yes..."


He took her hand in his, and gently placed the ring on her finger. When he looked up, she saw that there were tears in his eyes too. He stood up and took her into his arms, lifting her off the ground in a tight, passionate hug. Finally setting her down after a few moments, he moved his head back and raised his hands to wipe her tears away. They moved slowly closer, and sealed the moment with a soft, gentle kiss. When they broke apart, there was so much joy and excitement brimming in them both, that they didn't know what to do with themselves. They wanted to scream, and yell, and jump, and proclaim their happiness to the whole wide world.


Armaan : (Holding both her hands in his) "Basket, I'm so so so happy that I could...urrgh, I don't know...!! Let's...let's dance!"


Riddhima : (Laughs) "Dance?! Where? And to what?!"


Armaan : "Right here! Let's dance to the moment, Riddhima! (Yells out loud) The most beautiful moment of my whole life...!! You want music? I'll sing, then...I don't care how badly...come on...!!"


He pulled her towards himself and swirled her around, singing at the top of his voice. Riddhima was laughing, light-headed and happier than she had ever felt in her entire life. And they danced to their hearts' content, as she joined in the singing...


A little light came on in the house just across the street from where they danced. A few minutes later, their voices were drowned by loud sirens, as the police arrived in response to the house-owner's call...




Riddhima could still hear the sirens echoing as she opened her eyes, and realised that she had fallen asleep in the car. They had left the highway inn immediately after finishing the Aloo ka Parathas, and Armaan had taken the wheel instead of her this time. They had driven on for quite a few hours before she had dozed off. What had woken her was the lurch the car gave as it came to a halt in front of a Dhaba. She looked askance at Armaan, and he turned to face her.


Armaan : "I'm hungry again. And thirsty too. So, shall we?"


He stepped out of the car, gesturing for her to do the same. She rubbed her eyes and followed him, beginning to feel her own stomach give an ominous rumble of emptiness. They sat down at a table, and a well-built and rather well-fed man placed two empty steel glasses before them. He leaned a little closer to pour in water from a jug, and Riddhima wrinkled her nose while Armaan held his breath. As soon as he left, both exhaled heavily at the same time.


Riddhima : (With a grimace) "That was nasty..."


Armaan : (Also grimacing) "The man needs a bath. Like, now. And so does his shirt. Eurgh."


Riddhima : (Looks at him, eyebrows raised) "You know, you're like the last person who should be talking about personal hygiene right now. The T-shirt I was folding this morning wasn't any better..."


Armaan : (Highly affronted) "Oi! Now you're just exaggerating. And are you forgetting who does the laundry at home because you're always too lazy to do it? Hm?!"


Riddhima : (Mouth open in indignation) "I am not...I'm always ready to-"


Armaan : (With a laugh) "Riiiight. Sure you are. Hahaha..."


But his laugh trailed off and faded, as his mind began soaring back across the oceans of time'




He inserted the key in the door, and pushed it open with all the strength he had left after such a long, arduous day. Riddhima followed him in, just as exhausted. They had both been punished for being late that morning by Dr. Kirti, and had had to do a double shift in the ER. A major bus accident nearby had left them with barely enough time to breathe all day. But now they were finally back home. Armaan hung the car-keys on the key holder hanging just above their picture from the wedding. They had been married for almost four months now, and were as happy and at peace as anyone could ever be. But tonight was sheer exhaustion. He flopped down on the sofa and leaned his head back. She followed suit, and rested her head on his shoulder.


Riddhima : "Armaan?"


Armaan : "Mm...?"


Riddhima : "Aaj khana banane ki baari kiski hai?"


Armaan : "Um...meri..."


Riddhima : (Under her breath, but quite clearly audible) "Oh, thank God..."


Armaan : "Haww...!! (Riddhima chuckles) Oh, but in case you forgot, which you obviously did, aaj Tuesday hai. Kapde dhone hain. Aur laundry duty to meri bilkul bhi nahin hai."

Riddhima : (Makes puppy dog face) "Armaan...?"


Armaan : (Shaking his head) "Oh, no...no way Basket. I'll do the food, but no laundry. Absolutely not."


Riddhima : "You know, I think it's actually your turn today..."


Armaan : "Achha? Like last time? And the time before that? And the time before that too? Seriously?"


Riddhima : (Defeated, and thoroughly disgruntled) "Achha, fine! I'll do it. Huh. (Throwing him a sidelong glance) Yeh to hai meri izzat is ghar mein..."


Armaan : "Cut the melodrama, woman! Kaam karo, kaam. I'll get dinner done..."


He stood up and began to walk towards the bathroom, and so did she, simultaneously. And as soon as he saw her trajectory, he broke into a jog, reached the door first, and shut it before she could even realise what happened.


Riddhima : (Mouth open again, this time more out of incredulity) "Ghar mein do bathrooms hain, you know...!!"


Armaan : (Voice echoing from inside bathroom) "Precisely. Aur tum doosra wala use kar rahi ho. Because you're such a sweetheart..."


Riddhima : (Banging once loudly on the door in frustration) "Armaan...!!"


Armaan : "Gosh, Riddhima, a man has a right to pee in peace after such a long day. Honestly..."


Riddhima : "Urrghh...!!"


She turned around and stalked away into the bedroom, to use the other bathroom. Once they were both freshened up, Armaan made his way to the kitchen and began chopping up the vegetables for dinner. Riddhima, far too annoyed even to accept his invitation of doing the tasks together, entered the laundry room and heaved a deep, exasperated sigh at the sight of the massive pile of clothes awaiting her attention. She braced herself, and got to work. One by one, she picked up the clothes and put them in the washing machine, taking care to hold Armaan's boxers at arms' length with the absolute tips of her fingers before dropping them in. She then took down the carton of washing powder and put in two spoonfuls for the wash. Eyeing the size of the pile, however, she put in one more. And then one more, just to be sure, after which she finally put the carton away.


Armaan was stirring the sabzi, when a scream made him drop his spoon into the broth, and run in the direction of the laundry room.


Armaan : (Frantic) "Riddhima??! What hap-"


And he opened the door to find himself staring at a most extraordinary sight. Riddhima stood with one hand on the lid of the washing machine, unsuccessfully attempting to keep it shut while the entire little room was filled with the white foam leaking from it. With her other hand, she was trying to reach the main switch directly above the machine, also entirely in vain since it was far beyond her arm's reach. It took all the strength Armaan had in him, to keep himself from bursting out laughing.


Riddhima : (Seeing him) "Armaan...!! Khade rahoge ya madad bhi karoge meri...?!!"


Fighting to keep a straight face, he waded through the foam towards the machine, reached for the main switch and shut it down. There was complete, stunned silence. He was still holding back the urge to laugh, and Riddhima was very, very embarassed. She straightened up, smoothed her T-shirt with her hands, and turned around to leave. But as soon as she turned, her foot slipped. He grabbed her hand to help her keep her balance but could barely even keep his own on the slippery floor, and they both fell face-forward into the foam. Two cries of "OW!" rang out simultaneously as they hit the floor with a loud thud. Slowly, they raised themselves into a sitting position, facing each other. They looked at each other for a few seconds, and then burst out laughing so hard it became impossible to stop. She hurled some foam at him, and then he wiped his face and hurled some back at her. They splashed around in the white froth, laughing heartily like the rest of the world didn't matter; couldn't matter, as long as they were together. The laughter slowly faded as they came closer, and lost themselves in each other's eyes. Armaan put one arm around her waist, drew her gently towards himself and captured her lips in a passionate kiss. He slowly lowered her to the floor and they disappeared into the foam, their arms wrapped around each other...




"Riddhima? Riddhima...?!!"


She came to her senses with a start. The table was already laid out with lunch, and Armaan was looking at her expectantly.


Riddhima : "Uh...yeah, um...right."

The past can never be behind us, she thought. This road trip had thrown up so many memories already'memories that made them smile, and then sigh as they returned to the heaviness of present reality...

But as they settled down to eat their lunch at the little Dhaba, neither of them knew that this trip was about to bring all the way up to the surface, the most painful memory of all.



Loads of love and Cheers!

Nandini

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