Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Final part : Crossroads

Armaan and Rahul sat in a quiet corner of the Sanjeevani Cafe. Armaan had been staring at his mug of coffee for nearly ten minutes, without having so much as touched it.

Rahul : "Dekhta hi rahega ya piyega bhi? Hot coffee mangayi thi, cold coffee ho jayegi. Chal, pee ab."

Armaan : (Looking down at the table, very softly) "Rahul..."


He wanted to cry out. He hated himself. Hated himself. Riddhima had been alone, all this while...dealing with everything all by herself while he was far away, wallowing in his own cruel delusion. He wanted to know how she had managed through all this time. How she'd lived so long without anyone by her side. How had she been coping? Was she okay? But there were too many questions. It was disorienting him. He looked at the table, then at the ground, searching desperately for words, for coherent speech, for strength...and then he looked back up at Rahul, beseeching, willing him to answer, to understand...



Rahul : (Looks at him, and takes a deep breath) "Jawab jaanta hai tu. Wo theek nahin hai. Kaise hogi? Chhod ke to aise chala gaya jaise bahut bada ehsaan kar raha ho uspe. You can never be happy with me. Matlab sach bata, tera dimag to nahin kharab ho gaya tha?? Riddhima ko chhod ke jayega tu ab?! I mean, who the heck were you to decide? Do log hain, to faisla sirf tere haath mein kyun? Aur agar tujhe lagta hai ki tujhme bahut akal hai, aur kaun kaise khush rahega yeh tu akele decide kar sakta hai na, to tu bahut bada ullu ka pattha hai. Seriously. (Notices the people around them, who have begun to stare. Then looks at Armaan, sees the expression of sheer anguish on his face and softens) Dekh yaar...I'm...I'm sorry. I know it cant've been easy for you either. I know what she means to you, and it has to have been some completely warped product of that delusional head of yours, that made you break your own heart and leave her like that. It's just that tu...tu bas aise hi chala gaya. Aur wo bhi tab, jab yahaan teri sabse zyada zaroorat thi. Tujhe saalon se jaanta hoon main, and I was worried, but I knew you'd handle it somehow like you always do. But Riddhima...Armaan, I've spent the last six months watching her wilt right before my eyes. She's been doing what I'd have expected from you : working, trying to keep herself occupied with anything that'll keep her from thinking about you, and not talking to anyone about what she's going through. Delhi bhi jab gayi thi to phone pe baat hoti thi meri ya Muskaan ki kabhi kabhi usse. And we knew that she was still hurting, and hurting bad. When she came back, she was even worse than before. Mujhe Sid se pata chala ki tu Conference pe aaya tha, aur bina kuch kahe chala gaya. I think that's what really did it. That you came, and you passed her by. And well, she's been a complete recluse since then. Pehle Sid se baat karti thi, phir wo bhi band kar diya. He kept trying, but she was resolute. And then he had to leave too. All the pain, all the resentment, all the regret, all the bitterness...she's been handling it all alone, and without ever saying a word."


Armaan's heart sank with Rahul's every word. There were no words or phrases that could have described how he felt right then. Language was too small a vehicle to encompass his despair, his hatred for himself, his guilt...He looked at Rahul again, wanting to say something, to talk...but nothing would come. Nothing but a single question that seemed to him so painfully inadequate even as he articulated it : "What should I do?" Rahul looked back at him, feeling the misery in his eyes, and spoke very softly.


Rahul : "D'you want to hear the truth, Armaan? I've been trying for six months to find a way of helping her...helping you both. And a few days ago I nearly gave up, hoping and praying with all my heart that God would show her a way to heal...and then you came back. This is the way it's meant to be, Armaan. I know it is. Is baar jo karna hai, wo tujhe hi karna hoga. And if I can do anything, anything at all to help, I will. I don't know what you should do, but I do know that the last thing I want you to do is give up. Samajh raha hai tu?"


Armaan sat still and completely silent, his eyes unfocused for a few moments. And it took just that little space of time, for him to make up his mind.


14th June, 2010

Rahul is right. I destroyed her world, and I am perhaps the only one who can mend it. Whether it is a world I am destined to be a part of myself, or not, is a question I cannot answer. But I know what I want to do now; what I've always wanted to do. I want to see her happy. And I'll do it right this time.

* * *


June 15, 2010

Something's different about him again. I can't figure it out. We've been working together again for a while, and never exchanged so much as a syllable until yesterday in the Fire Escape. But now, he's suddenly begun talking again. Talking, like nothing ever went wrong. Like everything's good. Everything's normal, like it once was. And it's so strange, because I don't know how to feel about it. There are times when it irritates me, makes me really angry...and there are times when it makes me smile, inspite of myself. And then it often comes to a point where it seems almost insensitive. After everything that's happened...what's it all about? What's going on in that head of his?


Riddhima looked up, as the memories that entry evoked rose up in her mind's eye, clear as crystal. She remembered it so well, her confusion at the sudden transformation in Armaan's demeanour. And she hadn't even been able to understand why it had irritated her. Because he wasn't making a show of extra happiness, or pulling crazy stunts like he used to when trying to make up for mistakes during their internship days. This was different. He was...normal. He would smile as he wished her good morning every day, speak to her as he would to everyone else in the hospital, work on patients with her without getting fidgety or awkward, would bring her a steaming cup of coffee during the break and go away without lingering the least bit, would discuss cases with her perfectly reasonably...and the tension that had strained their every meeting since his return, seemed to thin out ever so little, every time. It had seemed to make even her more comfortable in his presence, until she had become conscious of it, and reached a level of irritation she could barely contain. And then one day they had run into each other in the Fire Escape again, and she had vented out all her annoyance. That was when Armaan had said that he felt she still cared for him, somewhere deep in her heart. It had made her snap, and she had told him to rid himself of any such illusion.


Riddhima : (in a low, firm tone) "I have nothing to say to you, Armaan. Nothing left in me to give you. I died six months ago, and everything I had ever felt died with me. I've learnt how to survive on my own by now. And that is the way I want to be. (A tinge of bitterness makes its way into her voice) Don't even think, for a second that I still...(falters, drops her gaze to the ground, then immediately looks up again) Your being here makes no difference to me anymore, Armaan. Main tumse yeh pehle bhi keh chuki hoon. I don't care where you are, or what you do. And you have absolutely nothing to do with my life. So if you will please...excuse me..."



A soft thud broke into Riddhima's reverie. She looked up, and saw that Armaan had fallen asleep by the window. Getting off the bed as softly as she could, she picked up the only blanket lying on it and made her way towards him. She covered him gently with it, and knelt beside him on the ground. He looked so peaceful...she raised her hand to touch him, but stopped halfway, straining against an invisible something that still held her back. She looked at him again, listening to his soft, deep breathing, feeling it caress her cheek ever so gently...and somehow, in that one moment, that something didn't seem to matter anymore. She completed the movement and placed her hand on his forehead, very lightly so she wouldn't wake him up. She stayed that way and kept looking at him for a few moments, and then sat back on the ground. As she did so, her foot touched upon a hard object, which she immediately understood to be the origin of the sound that had snapped her out of her memories. Armaan's diary had fallen off without his realising it, and lay on the ground right beside her. She picked it up, and kept looking at it for a few moments, after which she heaved herself up and placed it gently beside Armaan, couched between his arm and the windowsill so it wouldn't fall off again. She adjusted the blanket to cover him properly, stood up, quietly made her way back to the bed, lay down, and finally closed her eyes to sleep.

* * *


Riddhima opened her eyes to lamp-light, dim and warm in the otherwise dark room. One look at the skylight told her that the sun had already set and night was falling fast. Raising herself up on her elbow, she saw that Armaan was already awake, and was still sitting by the window. She also realised that he must've been awake for a while, because she found herself covered in the same blanket she had covered him with.


Riddhima : (Touching the blanket) "Thanks..."
Armaan : (Smiles slighlty) "Good morning...uh...evening. No wait, night. Yep, good night."


Riddhima sat up and stretched. The air seemed to be more or less rid of the tension it had been rife with when they had first walked into this room. Both of them felt a lot more level after the tumultous afternoon. She looked at Armaan again.


Riddhima : "What's the time?'"

Armaan : "Um...(consulting his watch) just past 9."

Riddhima : "Gosh, how long have we been sleeping?"

Armaan : "Well, I woke up nearly an hour ago. And I'm hungry, so I've ordered us some dinner too."

Riddhima : (Getting off the bed) "Good. Then we'll set off tomorrow morning. Shouldn't take us more than two hours to get to Pune Sanjeevani from here..."


Armaan's smile faded and his expression hardened. She folded the blanket and kept it away, and went to wash her face and freshen up. A few minutes later, a knock and a courteous announcement of  "Room Service" brought the dinner, and they sat down at a little table to eat. Ten minutes into the meal, Riddhima felt as though the air was becoming tense again. She looked up and realised that Armaan had barely eaten a morsel.


Riddhima : "Tumhe to bhookh lagi thi na? It's pretty good, why aren't you eating? (Receiving no reply, she sets down her spoon) Armaan...?"

Armaan : "Riddhima main...main tumse pehle bhi keh chuka hoon. Mujhe...mujhe Pune nahin jaana..."

Riddhima : "I don't believe this. We're nearly there, aur tum phir se...Armaan please-"

Armaan : (Getting up and moving away from the table. He produces a bag he has borrowed from one of the bell-boys, and begins taking his things out of Riddhima's bag and stuffing them into it) "Riddhima please...I don't want to go. I really don't. Main kal subah vapas Mumbai jaa raha hoon. (Stops and turns to look at her) Please don't make me do this. Please."


Riddhima could sense the quiet desperation in the last word. But she had known it would come to this on the very day they had set out. She had agreed to be the one to take him to Pune because she knew that she was perhaps the only one who could. Because she knew that this was something Armaan had to do. Something he should have done a long time ago. And she was going to take a stand now. This had to end.


Riddhima : "And why don't you want to go to Pune, Armaan?"


It took just the one question. Armaan was stunned. She had never asked him that question before. No one had. And that was perhaps why he didn't know how to answer it.


Armaan : "You...you know why..."

Riddhima : (In a calm, level tone) "Yes, I do. But I want to hear you say it, Armaan. I know about your relationship with your father. But most of my knowledge has come through other people...through Rahul, Billy uncle himself, and from my own conjecture...I could only ever glean a tiny portion of it directly from you. And that too after nearly two years of being with you, trying to break through the knots and complications you've established around that part of your heart for so long...but no more. No more. I want you to answer that question. Why don't you want to go to Pune, Armaan?"

Armaan : (Struggling, doesn't know what to say or how to say it) "Because I...(voice rising higher, his senses seeming to give up on him)...Riddhima please..."

Riddhima : (Unmoving. Still in the same level tone) "Why don't you want to go to Pune, Armaan?"

Armaan : (Closing his eyes) "Because I don't want to see him! I just don't want to see him!"

Riddhima : "And why don't you want to see him? Do you hate your father, Armaan?"

Armaan : "I...(beginning to pace, trying to find a way out)...I..."

Riddhima : "Do you hate your father, Armaan?"

Armaan : (Loudly) "No! I...I don't...but I...I don't know...!!"


Something finally seemed to give way, and he turned around to meet Riddhima's eyes for the first time.


Armaan : "I don't know, okay? I don't know!"

Riddhima : (Can see the turbulence and struggle of so many years in his eyes. Softens.) "Armaan...Billy uncle's your father..."

Armaan : "Do you think I need to be told that, Riddhima? I know who he is, damn it! I know he's my father. Seventeen years, Riddhima...seventeen years...I lived in that house with him, and that part of my life is imprinted on my heart like a brand of iron that never ceases to burn. He was a successful businessman, I eventually found reason enough to think he loved my Mum, and I'd like to believe he even loved me for a while. He was an alcoholic. Till I was fourteen, I spent evenings like I was in a prison cell, bound by a straitjacket. I don't know if I can ever explain what that feels like. An hour before he'd come home, Mum and I would straighten the house up. Nothing should be an inch out of its right place...I should keep quiet, lest he should find something offensive in my speech...he'd come home, and it would take nothing more than a drop of water spilled from my glass to set him off. It was always the same thing...the same boundless circle of bitterness and grudges held for years together, and all of it would come out on Mum. She wouldn't let it reach me, ever, and it hurt so much to see her insulted every single day of her life. And then dawn would break, and bring with it a new man. He'd apologise, genuinely, and be as warm as warm could be. It was like he was two different people. And I didn't know which of them I was supposed to see as my father. I loved one and loathed the other. His business suffered a huge loss, and things got worse. Mum would ask him at night if he wanted dinner. And that would be it. How dare she? It's only 9.15, and he never eats so early! What is she trying to prove? That she has the power in the house? That she runs it, kicking him around everyday and force-feeding him? It went on like this for years. And then Mum died. Where do you think that left me, Riddhima? Constantly torn, alone, and uncertain about everything...aaj wo baahar nahin gaye, thank God, aaj ka din theek hoga...aaj wo baahar chale gaye, vapas ayenge to kaise mood mein honge? Kya karoon ki kuch gadbad na ho? Kya karoon ki wo mujhe kuch na bolein? Mum wasn't there to guide or shield me any more...and her death had been a blow to him in a way that made him so bitter and so reclusive that he closed me out. Shut me completely out of his life. And the only time he'd speak to me beyond the few words we exchanged through the day, was when he was drunk. He would rant and yell...and I could do nothing about it. You know Riddhima, agar aisa tumhare saamne roz shaam ho na, to ek waqt aata hai jab subah ki achhaiyan nazar aani bhi band ho jaati hain. Hating a person is easy. Loving a person is easy too. But being in a position where you don't know which of the two defines your relationship with someone...that's something else. Something else, Riddhima..."

Riddhima : (Eyes by now moist with tears) "I can never lay claim to understanding how you must have felt through those years, Armaan. I can only imagine it...but I can sense how much pain, how much anger, how much resentment has been bottled up inside you for so long. I've felt it through the years I've spent with you. I've even felt happy seeing your load seem to lighten with time, when you seemed to have found that life can be beautiful too. But the scars have never left you. And more than anything else, it's because you've never let them. (Armaan looks at her, eyes widening, as though about to retort) You haven't, Armaan. Because you've kept that part of your past inside you, and never let it out. Never let someone else be privy to how you felt through it all, like you did today. Tell me honestly, don't you feel any different now, after having said all of that out loud? (Armaan looks down, and then away, but doesn't deny it) You've been doing what Billy uncle did when your Mum died, through all these years, Armaan. You've pent up the pain, and shut the whole world out. And you kept your own eyes averted from that part of you for the longest time, until that one phonecall at Sanjeevani brought it right up to the surface again. But people change, Armaan...they really do. And eventhough I don't know him well, I can sense an acute longing in Billy uncle. Everytime I've met him, whether it be when he came to Sanjeevani just after our internship began, or when it ended, or at our wedding, and then when he heard that I was...He's been trying to reach out to you for nearly four years. And he loves you. (Armaan makes as if to walk away) He does, Armaan. And so do you, no matter how much you keep denying it to yourself."

Armaan : "Four years don't stand for much against those seventeen, Riddhima-"

Riddhima : "And do you plan on spending another seventeen years living under the shadow of those past, before you let them go? Kya kar rahe ho tum, Armaan? Apne saath, apni zindagi ke saath...Four years may not be a fit mathematical equivalent to seventeen, but it is a start...To struggle for something you love, knowing that you've lost it with your own two hands can be more painful than anything imaginable, Armaan. And I don't think anyone could understand that better than you..."


Armaan stood in absolute silence. He was spent, exhausted. Staggering to the couch, he sat down, his expression unreadable.


Riddhima : (Moving towards him, worried) "Armaan..."

Armaan : "Please let me be, Riddhima. (Looks up into her eyes) Please."


Riddhima nodded silently, and went and sat on the bed with her back towards him. Armaan switched off the lamp, cloaking the room in complete darkness. Riddhima never realised when she fell asleep, and when she opened her eyes, the sun had already risen. She sat up, and turned to see how Armaan was doing. But the couch was empty. She looked at the table. His bag was gone. She sat in stunned silence, taking it all in when her cellphone rang out, startling her. It was Rahul.


Riddhima : "He...hello?"

Rahul : "Riddhima! Gosh, we were all so worried, tum log theek to ho? Do din ho gaye and that Pune Sanjeevani chap called and told us you're still not there yet! Is everything okay? Main kal se tumhara aur Armaan ka phone try kar raha hoon. Always out of network coverage area. Thank God you picked up, though. Armaan ko bhi phone kiya maine, jab laga to usne uthaya hi nahin. Tum log ho kahan? Hello? Riddhima?"

Riddhima : "Haan Rahul, wo...beech mein thoda speeding ka panga ho gaya tha. Then we had to stay at a highway inn. Abhi I'm at an inn again, not very far from Pune."

Rahul : "You're there, matlab? Armaan bhi vahin hai na?"

Riddhima : (Closes her eyes) "Nahin."

Rahul : "Nahin matlab?"

Riddhima : "Armaan yahaan nahin hai, Rahul. He's gone"

Rahul : "What?!!"

Riddhima : "He's...(opens her eyes, a look of realisation in them)...I think I know where he is, Rahul. I know where he is."

* * *


The corridors of Pune Sanjeevani carried an acute sense of subdued activity, as Armaan walked slowly through them, making his way towards the I.C.U. He found Nikhil waiting for him at the door. They shook hands, and exchanged a hug, after which Nikhil briefed him about Billy's condition and led him to where he was. He left Armaan at the entrance to the room, with a soft and reassuring pat on his shoulder. Stepping inside, Armaan looked up ahead. Billy lay on the bed, covered up to his shoulders in white linen, with a saline drip extending from his arm, a quietly beeping monitor directly to his left, and a respiratory tube in his mouth. He was under heavy drugs, but was more or less conscious as Armaan walked quietly towards him. Billy's eyes were open, and when Armaan reached him and looked into them, he could read a million emotions his father's lips were not in a condition to articulate right then. He sat down on the seat just beside the bed, completely silent, slowly reached for Billy's hand, and gave it a gentle press. He felt the tears well up in his eyes as Billy returned the pressure, ever so feebly. They remained that way for minutes, hours perhaps...Armaan didn't know. All he knew was that in that one silent moment, there was closure. And there was a new beginning.

* * *


Closing the door behind him as quietly as he could, Armaan stepped out into the corridor again. Billy had fallen asleep, and he meant to grab something to eat in the meantime. He had begun to walk towards the canteen when his eyes found the bench just across where he stood, occupied by one solitary figure. Riddhima sat looking at the ground, her arm resting on the side. Armaan kept looking at her for a few seconds, then quietly walked over and sat down beside her. There were no questions, no statements, nothing at all. They just sat there in silence, two figures on a white bench.

* * *


It was time. Billy was already on his way to Mumbai Sanjeevani in an ambulance, under Nikhil's supervision, and Armaan and Riddhima were to follow. Their bag lay on the back seat of the car, Riddhima sat looking out of the window on the passengers' side, and Armaan took the wheel. And they set off, both experiencing an inexplicable sense of sadness, like they were losing something...as though something was slipping through their fingers like little grains of sand. It was over. Riddhima had fulfilled her promise, Armaan had made his peace with Billy, and this was the last lap. It was over. And yet...

They drove on for a few hours, the despair that gripped their hearts growing stronger as they neared Mumbai. And then, all of a sudden, a puff of smoke clouded the windshield, the engine relapsed into complete silence, and the car jerked to a halt.


Riddhima : "Kya hua?"

Armaan : (Undoing his seat belt) "Pata nahin, check karta hoon."


He stepped out, and decided that the first thing to do was to move the car over to the side of the highway. As he began to push, Riddhima undid her own seat belt, got out of the car and began to help him. The engine seemed to have given up, and no matter what they did, the car wouldn't start again. Any vehicles they attempted to hail for help rode on by, their cellphones had no network coverage, and the day wore on to dusk and then nightfall, with them still looking desperately for a solution. Armaan sat down on a milestone just beside the car, his head in his hands. Riddhima still stood looking at the cars passing them on the highway, hoping one of them would stop for them. But none did, and she turned around to look at Armaan.


Riddhima : "Ab kya karein?"

Armaan : (Swears under his breath once, then calms himself down. This is not the time to lose control) "Uh...Nobody's going to stop for us now. Especially not in the night. Everybody's become weary of hitch-hikers aaj kal. Why they don't see the car on the side of the road is a question I have no answer to, but well, it is what it is. Par wait...(something suddenly strikes him) Dad ko Mumbai drop karke Ambulance kal subah isi highway se aayegi, in the other lane. Haan...and they'll stop for us, for sure. So then..."

Riddhima : (Nodding) "Hm. So then the only thing left to do is spend the night in the car."

Armaan : "Unfortunately, yes."


Riddhima nodded again, and Armaan stood up to make what arrangements he could. He cleared the back seat by placing the bag in front, balanced against the steering wheel, so that Riddhima could lie down. For himself, he pushed back the passenger's seat as far as it would go, leaving a little space for her to rest her legs, and lay back after closing the door and locking it securely.


Armaan : "Um...good night."

Riddhima : (Hesitates for a fraction of a moment, softly) "Good night."


They closed their eyes. But Armaan couldn't sleep. He tried and tried for what felt like hours, but it was impossible. He finally opened his eyes and turned to look at Riddhima. She was fast asleep. Turning back forward, he shivered slightly. It was quite cold even inside the car. Reaching for the bag on the seat beside him, he unzipped it and tried to pull out his jacket, but it seemed too tightly stuffed in with the other clothes. He began to pull the bag towards himself, trying to make as little noise as possible, but when he rearranged his fingers for a better grip, it slipped from his hand and some of its contents spilled over onto the floor of the car. He had just begun to put it all back in, when something caught his eye : Riddhima's diary bookmarked with a pen, and a little brown envelope he recognised very well. He picked them up, looked at the envelope, and then slowly opened the little notebook in his hands.

* * *


Riddhima opened her eyes. The sky was the clear, dull blue of pre-dawn, awaiting the rays of a new sun to give it life. It took her a few seconds to realise that she was alone in the car. She sat up, and looked out through the windshield. Armaan stood leaning against it, with his back towards her. Unlocking the door, she stepped out and walked slowly towards him, wondering if he was okay.


Riddhima : "Armaan...?"


He turned to look at her, and she stopped in her tracks. His eyes were brimming with tears, and looking at her in a way they had never done before. It frightened her, for a moment.


Riddhima : "What's wrong? (Receives no answer) Armaan, kya hua...??"


She stepped closer to him, and asked again. "What's wro-" But the words were lost as her eyes found what he was clutching in his hands. Their diaries, hers as well as his. And the Divorce papers. Armaan lowered his gaze to them too, and held up his own diary. Riddhima looked on, as though in a trance, as he thumbed through its pages, stopped at what was evidently the last entry, and held it up to her eyes. It was dated the same as her last entry, and was just one line scrawled across an empty page : 'How did I let it get this far?'

As she read it, something seemed to give way inside her, and she finally gave in to the tears she couldn't hold in any more. And it all came out.


Riddhima : "You know Armaan, when I found your note on the window-ledge that morning, I didn't know how to react. I think somewhere, deep down inside, I had already seen it coming. I had seen and felt you move away from me ever since...ever since the accident. But somehow, I never thought you'd just...leave. Go. Just like that. And all I'd have left of you would be a piece of paper, only to be joined by another piece of paper that laid it out in writing that we were no longer a part of each other's lives. I lied to you about the Divorce papers, because I wasn't ready...wasn't willing to acknowledge what they meant...and because you came back. I never thought you would, and yet I knew you would. And you came. And I didn't know how to react again. I had so much...so much to say to you. But I couldn't. Just like I couldn't after the accident. I had seen your pain in your eyes, Armaan. I saw it every single moment of every day, after that night. But you...you built this glass wall around your heart, which I couldn't penetrate. And my own pain was so much to deal with, that I gave up. Gave up trying to reach you. Because we were in it together, Armaan...and we needed to go through it together. Be with each other. And we couldn't do it. We couldn't do it."

Armaan : "I...I didn't know what to do...!! I've been alone for a long time, Riddhima. Been swallowing my pain by myself, as best as I can since I was a little boy. Jab tumhe dekha, tumhara dard dekha, to I was...I was at a loss...I knew I should be doing something to help you...but I didn't know how or what. I didn't know how to make it all better, the way I wanted to. And I was terrified too...what if my attempts went wrong? What if they made your pain worse? And then I saw you in the caf one day, with Sid. You were smiling...smiling after what seemed like years. And I thought that...that having me around wears you out. That perhaps it would be best if I were not around to cast the shadow of my own pain on your every moment. Then maybe...maybe you'd heal. Heal like you could never heal while I was still here..."

Riddhima : "I know, Armaan...I saw you take that road right before my eyes. The way you spoke to me, the way you sat outside my room and wouldn't come in, the way you wouldn refuse to look into my eyes...I could see it. You decided to distance yourself from me so I wouldn't crumble under your misery. And although I tried to reach you, I didn't try hard enough. Because what I was going through was too much for me as it is. Aur us beech hum itne door ho gaye...but Armaan, every relationship finds itself at crossroads like these. The mark of its strength lies in making the right choice. But we both made wrong choices. You went away, and I didn't try hard enough to stop you. When you left, I was stunned...and so angry...so angry, not only because you left me alone to deal with my pain, but also because you isolated yourself to deal with yours...tumne socha bhi kaise, Armaan, ki hum yeh ek doosre ke bina kar sakte hain?! That's why the pain never went away. Because we weren't together to share its burden...haven't you ever wondered why we always find ourselves at crossroads, face to face, no matter how far we try to run away from each other? We've spent the last seven months just waiting for each other. For that one message, one phonecall, one word'hum dono mein itni himmat nahin thi ki ek kadam khud badha sakein. And this is where we are today. Standing face to face in the middle of nowhere, with one rundown car, and two broken hearts. Why did we let it get this far, Armaan? What happened to us?!"


When she finished speaking, Armaan broke down completely. "I'm sorry, Riddhima. I'm so, so sorry..." She looked at him for a few moments, then walked over to him, raised her hand and gently touched his face.


Riddhima : (Voice choked with tears) "I know you are...I've always known it."

Armaan : (Barely able to speak) "I...I don't know if I can ever..."

But Riddhima didn't let him go on. "Shh...no, you don't have to say anything. Just promise. Promise you'll never do that again...that I'll never have to stay alone, without you, again. Promise..."

All the floodgates collapsed as they enveloped each other in a tight hug, and held on to one another like a drowning man holds on to a life-cable. The only words that were then heard, came in a soft mumble from Armaan : "I promise..." and everything seemed to melt away. All that mattered to them was the comfort of each other's presence after what felt like several lifetimes of sheer emptiness. Everything finally felt right. After seven months of turbulence and pain, there was relief, and peace and love...They leaned back, and gently wiped each other's tears away.


Armaan : (Arm around her waist, smiling tearily, in a soft voice) "Let's go home."


Riddhima smiled back at him through her tears, and they stood there, silhouetted against the rising sun, looking towards a new day, a new life, a new journey.



.::Epilogue::.

The silence that usually pervades the atmosphere of a hospital was suddenly broken by the shrill ringing of a telephone. The Nurses' Station being strangely unoccupied this morning, the ringing persisted till the caller eventually gave up. The hospital resumed its air of muffled activity, while one solitary figure paced up and down in front of a pair of closed doors, engulfed in silence of another kind. Armaan was breathing fast, and heavy. He couldn't remember ever having been this tense in his entire life. And this was such a strange variety of tension, too. Mingled with trepidation, excitement, and a very sublime sense of joy and levity'albeit a little guarded, just yet. There was another shrill ring, this time of his cellphone.


Armaan : "Hello?"

Billy : "You have got to change your cellphone, and soon. Seriously. Tab se try kare ja raha hoon, ek baar bhi nahin laga. Nurses' Station pe phone kiya to vahaan koi uthaata hi nahin. Matlab kaisa hospital hai yaar tumhara?!"

Armaan : (Trying to find some little space to speak in the midst of the outburst) "Dad...dad...DAD! Listen to me, for heavens' sake! My phone's been switched off all this while. Abhi abhi on kiya maine."

Billy : "Aaah. To...to kuch pata chala?"

Armaan : "Dad, agar pata chala hota to aap ko bata nahin diya hota maine? Matlab aap bhi kuch bhi kehte rehte ho...I don't know...and I'm so nervous..."

Billy : (His smile can be heard in his voice) "It's okay beta...sab sahi hoga, don't worry."

Armaan : (Taking a deep breath) "Thanks, Dad. I just-"


The door opened as he was speaking, cutting him off mid-sentence. Dr. Kirti stepped out, beaming, and Billy and Armaan heard at the same time the words they'd both been yearning to hear for what felt like an eternity : "Congratulations, Armaan. It's a girl!"

* * *


Pitch black. The silence broken only by the sound of a gentle, muffled voice, singing very softly. Riddhima opened her eyes slowly, tentatively. Getting used to the initially blinding brightness, she found herself looking at the most beautiful, most endearing sight she had ever seen. Armaan sat on the bench with his back against the wall, cradling his baby girl in his arms, and singing to her in notes just barely audible to Riddhima from this distance away.


Armaan : (Singing so softly, it's almost a whisper) "Asmaani...rang ho...pyar ki...boond ho..."


Riddhima couldn't keep the tears from welling up in her eyes. When Armaan looked up, and saw that she was awake, his face shone with a joy so true and so pure, that it seemed to fill the room with light. He stood up carefully, walked over to the bed, and slowly handed Riddhima the tiny, fragile little form that was their daughter. He sat on the bed beside her, one arm around her shoulder, and one hand gently resting under the baby's head. Riddhima held her little treasure, resting her head against Armaan's shoulder, and heard him sigh softly. They were a family. And he was the happiest man alive.


 nandini

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