Sunday, 1 September 2019

part 5 : Crossroads

They finished lunch, and set off on their way. Seeing that Riddhima seemed a little tired, Armaan took the wheel. His surmise proved to be quite accurate, since within a few minutes she fell asleep again. He looked at her leaning back against the seat, eyes closed, the wind lightly blowing her hair about...and smiled. Not quite feeling like taking his eyes off her, however, he didn't notice that he was distractedly heading towards a pick up truck parked on the side of the road. He glanced forward just in time to swerve out of harm's way, and brought the car back in the right direction. He looked at her again. The sudden jerk hadn't woken her, and he sighed softly out of relief. But when he looked forward again the scene in front appeared to melt away, and reformulate into another scene that his memory threw up from the deepest corner of his mind...

It was well past mid-night, and he was driving through the streets of Mumbai. He kept glancing left and right, trying to spot any sign of what he was so desperately in search of.

Armaan : (Under his breath) "This is insane. Insane. Where am I going to find Vada Pav in the middle of the night?? Where??!"

And right then, his eyes found a whole row of brightly lit up carts in a bylane up ahead, evidently still in business. In his relief and excitement at the sight, he didn't notice the Mini-van parked just ahead on the side of the street in a manner that didn't leave enough room for his car to pass through. He saw it just in time and screeched to a halt, his right headlight barely half an inch from the Mini-van's bumper. He heaved a huge sigh of relief, snatched up his wallet from the dashboard and decided to make a run for it. He reached the first cart, completely out of breath.

Armaan : (Panting) "Paanch...uh...nahin ruko...chhe...vada pav...pack...jaldi...!!"

The vendor looked at him curiously, but did the needful and handed him a neatly wrapped packet of six vada pavs. Armaan paid quickly, and rushed back to the car.
Back home, Riddhima was slowly pacing up and down the living room. As soon as she heard the click of the lock, her face brightened.

Riddhima : (Whispers) "Finally!"

Armaan walked in with his little bundle of treasure and saw her come towards him, positively glowing.

Armaan : (Musingly) "You know, I don't remember you ever looking this happy to see me."

She threw him a glare, and held out her hand for the packet. He sighed and handed it to her, watching her as she took it and beamed at it.

Armaan : (Eyes wide, eyebrows raised) "Seriously...?!"

They headed for the dining room where she opened the package and dug in, too impatient for crockery or table etiquette.

Armaan : "Whoa...whoa...easy, you'll choke!"

But Riddhima wasn't listening. She chomped away happily, and rather messily, at what she had been craving all day, finishing her first, then second and then third vada pav in a matter of minutes, and beginning on her fourth while squinting into the packet.

Riddhima : "Tum kitne laye the?"

Armaan : "Six. I'm feeding two people here, so I figured I might as well be on the safer side."

Riddhima : (Nodding, mouth full of vada pav) "Mm..."

Armaan couldn't help breaking into a smile. It was so worth it, he thought, watching as a very happy and very pregnant Riddhima ate away like these were the last vada pavs left on the planet. She smiled back at him as she finished her fifth, and placed her left hand on her protruding belly with a sigh of absolute satisfaction. He smiled even wider, and took out his handkerchief.

Armaan : "Happy, my Sloppy Jane?"

Riddhima : "Hey...!! Who're you calling sloppy?!"

Armaan : "Oh no, no. You're not sloppy at all. The stuff all over your face and dripping down your neck is all my doing, hai na? (Riddhima makes a face) Yeah. You've got muck on your face...(begins dabbing her face gently, wiping it with his kerchief. She holds still, albeit grudgingly. He keeps on at it, and then suddenly stops)...damn it, you're so beautiful..."

Riddhima looked at him as though fearing for his sanity. He chuckled and continued dabbing.

Armaan : (With one last dab) " There. All done, my Sloppy Jane!"

She looked at him, and then both of them laughed softly. He placed his hand on her head and gave it an affectionate squeeze, then ran his fingers through her hair, and finally rested his palm on her cheek.

Armaan : (Softly) "I love you. So much..."

She moved forward to give him a soft kiss, and he wrapped his arms around her.

Armaan : (Still speaking very softly) "This is one of the most beautiful phases of my whole life, Basket. And I know I'm as happy as I am, because I get to share it with you...I'm finally going to have a family, Riddhima...we're going to be a family. And I'm the happiest man alive. (Overwhelmed, he hugs her tighter, then moves back, cups her face in his hands and says barely audibly) Thank you..."

Riddhima : (Stands on tip-toe and plants a kiss on his forehead, then says softly, with her right hand on her belly) "We love you too, much...!!"

With tears in their eyes and smiles on their lips, they stood there for a few minutes, warm and cosy in each other's arms. Then he sighed. "Chalo, time for bed," he said and she nodded. She stepped into bed first, he tucked her comfortably in and then carefully climbed in himself. He lay down and put his arm around her waist, gently resting his hand on her belly. Within a few minutes they were both asleep, dreaming of the future and all the love and happiness it had in store for them together...

Armaan took a deep breath as he drove on. They were fairly close to Pune now. But his mind was still coursing through recollections of those beautiful days...

Riddhima was due in a month, and had already been home on leave for a month and half. Armaan would go to the hospital in the daytime, and make sure he called her every chance he got just to ask her how she was doing, if she'd had something to eat, if she was feeling okay. All turns for all housework were now his, on his own insistence. He'd do the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry all by himself, allowing Riddhima only to give him company as an observer, if she insisted on helping out. One evening, he had come home to find the table laid with take-out from every imaginable restaurant in the city, and she had said that she wanted him to rest a little and have a peaceful evening instead of running all over the house getting things done. "You don't have to kill yourself because I'm pregnant, Armaan," she had said very seriously. It still made him smile just thinking about it.

Then one day, he had had to assist Dr. Kirti in delivering a baby. For the first time in his medical career, he played an active part in bringing new life into the world. And the experience was so magical that he walked with a skip in his step and couldn't stop smiling the whole day. The expression on the father's face when he had announced to him softly, "It's a boy!", the tears in the mother's eyes when she had held the tiny, fragile form in her arms...Armaan had seen a miracle, and couldn't believe that he was going to be a part of a miracle himself in less than a month...he couldn't wait to get back home and tell Riddhima how beautiful it had been...

She was reading a book in the armchair specially picked out for her by him, loaded with cushions and fluff, and drinking a glass of juice he had left in the kitchen for her, when he reached home. She was so engrossed in the book that the bell startled her, and her glass fell to the floor with a clang, spilling the juice that was left in it onto the floor. She smacked her forehead with her hand, and decided to open the door before mopping it up. The first thing Armaan did as soon as she opened the door was envelope her in a warm, tight hug. When he leaned back, she noticed the glow on his face.

Riddhima : "Kya baat hai, aaj kuch special hua kya?"

Armaan : "Haan...!! But tumhe kaise pata?"

Riddhima : (Pulling his cheeks) "Tumhari shakal pe likha hai. Bada bada. Ab batao, kya hua?"

As he recounted the experience, he could see everything he had been feeling all day mirrored clearly and beautifully in her eyes.

Armaan : "It's funny how the happier I am, the more I feel like doing something crazy. But since we can't afford too much craziness right now, let's do what we always do when we're this euphoric. Let's dance, Basket!"

Riddhima : "Naah. Not now Armaan, please...I was feeling too lazy even to get up and open the should be happy you're not spending the night out on the porch, really."

Armaan : (Reaching for her hand) "Pleeeease...just one dance! The three of us, together..."

Riddhima smiled, and gave in. He placed both his arms around her waist, while she rested hers against his chest. They swayed slowly to the silence, and then he began to hum softly. He took her right hand in his and slowly twirled her around, as she giggled. He twirled her around once, twice as they moved slowly towards the armchair. He twirled her around once more, and then again, never realising when they reached a pool of spilled juice, and her foot slipped...everything was over within a matter of seconds, but all notions of time seemed to dissolve as he saw it happening right before his eyes, as though in slow motion. He lunged for her in an attempt to break her fall, but slipped himself and hit the ground hard. He had closed his eyes to brace for the blow, and when he opened them, he heard a moan that made his heart stop beating. He turned around. Riddhima was curled up on the floor next to him, hand on her stomach, her face contorted in excruciating pain. For that one moment, he didn't know what to do. He couldn't speak, or even think. She moaned again, even softer this time, and it felt like someone had stabbed him right in his heart...the pain shook him back to his senses. He blinked.

Armaan : (Barely able to speak, in a terrified whisper) "Ri-Riddhima...!"

No. No, no. No no no...He shook himself. He had to get help. He had to get her to Sanjeevani. Getting back on his feet, he put his arms gently under her, lifted her off the ground and carried her as fast as he could to the car. His hands were shaking so violently that it took several attempts to get the key into the door before he could open it and place her on the passengers' seat.

Armaan : "It-it's going to be okay, Riddhima...I'll get you to Sanjeevani. It'll be okay, I'll be okay..."

He closed the door and rushed to the drivers' side. It'll be okay, he kept saying to himself too. She'll be alright. It'll be okay. It has to be. He drove as fast as he could, caressing her forehead softly and reassuringly with his free hand every few seconds. "Sab theek ho jayega Riddhima, I promise...just please hold on...bas kuch der aur...we're almost there..." His attention was divided painfully between her and the road, and he was trying to concentrate hard on his destination. Then suddenly, she let out a soft scream, the most painful yet, making him turn to look at her with terror in his eyes. And in that one moment when his eyes left the road completely, a goods truck directly in front of them slowed down, their car still hurtling towards it in full speed, and all he remembered was the sound of a deafening collision, after which everything faded into complete and absolute darkness...

The car screeched to a halt. The jerk woke Riddhima up this time, and she opened her eyes to see Armaan leaning against the steering wheel, breathing fast and heavy, and blinking rapidly as though trying to drive away something only his eyes could see...

Riddhima : (Leaning towards him, worried) "Kya hua, Armaan? Are you okay??"

Armaan : (Looking anywhere but at her, trying to calm his breathing) "I'm...I'm fine, I just...Riddhima, can we stop somewhere? I need to- I need to rest a bit, I'm...I'm tired, I really...can we stop somewhere? Please?"

She heard and felt the urgency in his voice. Not asking him any more questions, she nodded.

Riddhima : "Okay...okay, sure. Let's...let's find someplace. Should I drive?"

Armaan : (Breathing slower and deeper now) "No, it's okay, I'll...I'll drive. Let's..."

His voice was drowned in the revving of the engine, as they drove on for a few minutes until they spotted an inn up ahead.

Riddhima : "In here. Come on..."

They parked outside, and walked to the reception. She kept glancing at him every few seconds, but he still wouldn't look at her, and just went about arranging their accommodation. Since they didn't know how long they'd be staying, they took just one room and headed towards it in complete silence. Putting her bag on the table, Riddhima looked at Armaan again, and opened her mouth as if to say something, but stopped herself when she saw the look on his face. He didn't want to talk, she could see it.

Armaan : "I...I think I want to sleep for a while. Just rest..."

Riddhima : (Nodding) "O-Okay, sure...I...I think I might take a nap too. Right..."

He walked over to the couch and lay down with his back to her. She stood there struggling with the urge to go over to him, give him a hug, ask him what was wrong...but she knew how he was at times like these. Over all these years, this was still one thing they hadn't been able to bridge. Armaan always closed up when he was upset. Shut her out. And after a long time of trying, and trying some more she had learnt not to push or question too much. And so, she let him be and walked over to the bed. Thinking of writing a little in her diary, she took out the little notebook and pen, and lay down. But then she realised how tired she was herself and closed her eyes to take a nap, the diary stashed under her pillow for writing in whenever she woke up.

Armaan opened his eyes. Turning his head a little, he saw her asleep on the bed, and slowly heaved himself into a sitting position. He bent forward, and sat for a few moments with his head in his hands, eyes closed, trying to push out the images that wouldn't leave his mind. He stood up, and walked over as quietly as he could to the bag on the table. Carefully, he pulled out the jacket right at the bottom of his pile, and from the inside pocket drew out a little maroon notebook. This little thing had been his companion through his best and worst times, right from when he was a little boy. From the experience of living in a dysfunctional family, to finding peace in solitude, hard work, friendship and then love, and finally discovering that life could be so beautiful in so many ways...his little diary had been witness to it all. He sat down by the window, opened it, and tried to write. But nothing would come to him. He didn't know what to say. Abandoning the attempt, he then began leafing through its pages, over earlier entries that spoke of his life the way it had been, and of his life the way it had become. He stopped at the entry that followed from his chain of thought, born out of the pain that just the memory of the incident still caused him...

He could remember it so clearly, waking up in the morning and finding himself on a bed in Sanjeevani, Rahul sitting by his bedside. Rahul had seen him open his eyes and stood up and moved towards him, to stop him from doing what he knew he was going to want to do.

Armaan : (Trying to get up off the bed, saying in a broken, soft voice) "Ri-Riddhima...Riddhima..."

Rahul : (Holding him firmly by his shoulders and pushing him back onto the bed) "I know, I know Armaan. Tu please uth mat, I'll tell you everything. (Armaan still tries to get up) Armaan please , meri baat sun, tujhe araam ki zaroorat hai, just relax, wo theek hai. Tu please let ja, main tujhe sab batata hoon. Please..."

Armaan : (Isn't in much condition to force his way up, finally relents) " she okay??"

Rahul : "She's okay, Armaan. The accident wasn't too serious, thankfully. You guys collided with the truck, but the driver saw you coming and turned away a bit, just in time, so that you only scraped the side and veered off the road into the bushes. The seatbelt and airbag made sure your injuries weren't too serious. Lekin..."

Armaan : "Lekin kya??"

Rahul : (Taking a deep breath, bracing himself) "Lekin tab tak Riddhima ki haalat already kaafi kharab thi. The truck-driver brought you both here, and Dr. Kirti handled Riddhima's case personally. They had to conduct an emergency surgery, and she's now stable, but...(Armaan knows what is coming, looks down and closes his eyes)...but we couldn't save the baby. I'm...I'm so sorry Armaan..."

Rahul didn't know what to say. Seeing Armaan and Riddhima lose everything right before his eyes caused him more pain than he could ever articulate in words. He had already seen her, but hadn't been able to bring himself to talk to her. He hated himself for it, but just the look on her face had made his courage fail him. He had then come to Armaan to see if he was doing okay. Having to tell him what had happened was the worst thing he had had to do possibly in his whole life, but he knew it had to be done, and that it would perhaps be better for Armaan if it were done by a friend. Rahul watched as he kept sitting with his head bowed and eyes closed. He knew he wouldn't say anything. Armaan never did, at such times. Placing a hand on his shoulder, he sighed softly, and left him alone to his thoughts.

After a few moments, Armaan opened his eyes and heaved himself off the bed. Making his way through the corridors, he kept looking into every room to see if she was there. Finally, he came to a halt at the last door before the General Wards began. He pushed it open, and stepped inside. She was sitting on the bed, looking in front of her at nothing in particular, with empty eyes. With a stabbing pain, he realised that tears flowed from them constantly, dripping onto her robe, but the expression on her face never changed. Hearing him come in, she turned her head and met his gaze, and looking into those eyes tore his insides apart. He went slowly and silently towards her, stood beside the bed, and enveloped her with his arms in a tight hug. He couldn't bring himself to say a word. He didn't know what he could say to reassure could he, when there was no reassurance in sight for his own pain? He couldn't lie to her...but he wanted to comfort her, to tell her that things would be okay, life would move on and they'd be fine. But the words wouldn't come. And so, he tried to put as much as possible of what he wanted to say into the hug instead, holding her to his heart as they cried together in their pain, cried for each other, cried for their broken dreams...

She had fallen asleep after a while, and Armaan stood up and went over to the window. As he had been looking out at the road, flashes of horrific images from the previous night had overcome him. He was suddenly overwhelmed by so much pain and so much guilt that he couldn't take it. He had turned to look at Riddhima, and the emotions that had then welled up in him were so unbearable that he had rushed out of the room...

Armaan looked up from his diary as he heard Riddhima stir on the bed. He was leaning against the window and could only see her out of the corner of his eyes. He didn't want her to be worried, and attempted to rearrange his face so that it wouldn't betray his inner turmoil.

When she woke up, she saw him sitting at the window with his diary open in front of him. She could see clearly the effort he was putting into appearing calm and at ease. Inspite of that, even from this distance, he seemed so disturbed that it worried her even more. But she knew he wanted to be left alone. The sight of his notebook reminded her of her own diary, which she then fished out from under the pillow. She sat up silently, and placed it on her lap. She had only begun to write in it about two years ago, inspired by Armaan and his little companion through his most fulfilling as well as his most turbulent times. She caressed the cover gently. These pages held so many memories within them...happy, sad, heart-warming, heart-breaking...they were something she always turned to for comfort whenever she needed it. And today, she turned to them again, opening the diary and beginning to leaf through its sheets.
* * *

7th December, 2009

It's over. It's all over. And I did it. When I opened my eyes this morning and found myself on a hospital bed, it all came crashing, in a rush of visions. What happened last night, what I did, what I could have done...should have done...

She didn't want to dance, but I kept telling her...I kept telling her...

And in the car, I looked away...I looked away...

I saw her, a few minutes ago...there was so much pain in her eyes...everything that I can feel in my own heart, clearly mirrored on her is pain of an intensity I can never, ever describe in words...pain of a nature I hope no one else will ever have to live through...and it's all because of me...I am the reason for her pain...and I can never forgive myself for it. Never.

* * *

December 7, 2009

I'm still taking it in. Last night, our most beautiful dream shattered to pieces...and I don't know how to cope with it. I don't know. I woke up today to so many faces looking down at me, so many doctors, nurses I've seen before during my rounds of the ER. This is the first time I saw them from here, down below, laid out on a bed, covered in bandages, hurting...and there was no sign of the one face I yearned most to see. When I opened my eyes, there were just two thoughts on my mind, my baby and Armaan. And I was numb with pain, fear, despair...and he wasn't there. Where was he? Was he okay? And then he came. He came to me and gave me what I needed most of all, what no one else could ever have given me. He didn't say a word, or ask me anything...he was just there. With me, holding me tight, saying so much without saying anything at all...after hours of groping in the darkness for answers...why me...why us...why my baby...of feeling like life stood still and would never move again...he came, and brought with him my first ray of light. Everyone had been asking me if I was okay, and I had had no answers to give them. I could never even have attempted to describe what I went through, was still going through...and he was the only one to whom I didn't have to. Because he was going through it too. He was there. We were together. And that was it. I shattered to pieces last night...and I don't know how to cope. I don't know. But that one moment, when I let it all out in his arms, gave me the strength to try. I will try. I will.

December 8, 2009

Something's wrong. Armaan spent all of last night by my side, holding onto my hand. But when I woke in the morning he was gone, and didn't come back until around lunch-time. Something's different about him. He's talking very little, won't look at me, won't answer my questions right...he keeps an eye on me constantly, but from a distance away. I miss him when I wake up from a nap, wonder where he is, and then see his reflection on the glass in the corridor, sitting on the bench just outside but not coming in. I don't understand what's happening. What do I do??

* * *

15th December, 2009

It's getting worse. I don't know what to say to her, how to comfort her. I have to do something. Mend things, make them all better. But how? How do I even look into her eyes, knowing that she's in this condition because of me? There are times when I think I'm wrong in thinking so. But then I see her, and that night comes rushing into my memory in vivid detail. I see everything I did wrong clearer and clearer every time. And I can't get it out of my head. When I'm with her, I can see that my misery and uneasiness rub off on her too. I'm not making anything better, I'm making it all much, much worse. I'm hurting her, and I know it. But I don't know what to do...and I'm scared. Scared of hurting her even more if anything else I do goes wrong...I have to let her heal right. I have to stay away from her, so that I don't draw her into the darkness that pervades my own heart...she needs brightness, happiness, and I can't give her any of it...I'm only increasing her pain. She's become a recluse after that night. I can see that she hesitates to talk to me, and doesn't even talk to anyone else. Muskaan, Dr. Kirti, Rahul...everyone's tried to get her to speak out her heart. But she's closing up. And that's frightening me even more...that being with me is making her become like me. I'm always there for my friends, and anyone else who needs help, a shoulder to cry on, or just a patient ear. But somehow, I've never been able to talk about myself that way to anyone. Riddhima was the first person, the only person who drew me out. In these three years I've spoken to her like I've never spoken to anyone before...but there's still a part of me that reacts on reflex that way to pain. Now it's happening to her too, and I have to stop it...because bottling it all up will destroy her. It'll destroy her, and I can't let that happen...I can't lose her...

* * *

December 23, 2009

Armaan's hurting, really bad, and I can see it. He goes around the hospital behaving like he's totally okay, and doesn't need anyone to help him deal with this. But his torment is etched on his face. And he won't talk about it, at all. I know he's always been like this...but he needs to let it out now, more than ever. This family means the whole world to him, and I hate to see him so broken. He needs me. And I need him too. But I can't reach him. It's like something's given way, and we're drifting apart. We're both hurting the same way, but have very different ways of dealing with our pain. And it's creating a breach. I don't know how to stop it. At home, he sits so quietly sometimes I don't even realise that he's in the same room. We talk very little in general, because he knows where any conversation will eventually lead and wants to avoid it. When we do talk, it's begun to lead to fights...fights over little insignificant issues. We're both holding so much inside that it's becoming unbearable, and this is the only way it can come out. Things have come to a point where I actually find myself hesitating to approach him with anything. I wasn't even being able to talk to anyone else about it...Rahul, Muskaan, Dr. Kirti...everyone was being so supportive but I kept closing up, and I didn't know why. And then yesterday, after another argument, I finally reached breaking point. I wanted to yell, but held it in for as long as possible, and made my way to the canteen. That's when I ran into Sid, finally back from his Lonavla medical camp. He saw me and knew something wasn't right. I needed a break from my surroundings, he could see that, and took me to a coffee shop nearby. And for the first time in a long time, I spoke my heart out. Dr. Kirti always said that doing so would make me feel much better. I was still hurting, but it did make the weight lift a little. And that's something I'll always be thankful to Sid for. He's giving me so much support, although he doesn't realise that Armaan is in as much need of it as I am. My pain won't go away, I know...not as long as Armaan is so visibly, tangibly broken, so distant from me and everyone he loves, and so determined to present himself to the world like he's handling everything just fine on his own. I have to make this work if he won't. I have to try harder. What is happening? This is Armaan...why is he pushing me away? Why?

* * *

3rd January, 2010

She smiled. She smiled for the first time in nearly a month. I was watching her sitting in the canteen, from behind the door. She was eating lunch with Sid, and she smiled! It was the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long, long time. It's happening, slowly...she's beginning to come out of the shadows. Sid's drawing her out, giving her the support and positivity she needs. I can see her depending increasingly on him, and I think it's really helping. Things at home are worsening everyday. Bitterness and resentment have made their way into everything we do together. I can see very clearly now, that she's happier without me dulling whatever brightness still remains in some corner of her heart. And I finally know what to do. I will make things better for her, even if it comes at a cost to me. I'm the reason for what went wrong, and I'm the one who has to set it right. What I'm about to do will hurt her, I know it will, but it's the only thing I can do...and it'll be better for her in the end. Much, much better...I love you, Riddhima. More than anything else in the world. And I will do whatever it takes to see you happy...I love you, and I hope you'll understand someday why I have to hurt you to let you heal...I love you, Basket...

* * *

January 11, 2010

He's gone. I woke up this morning to find his bed empty, things gone, shelves cleared out...all that was left of him was a note lying on our little corner by the window. 'Riddhima, I hope you'll understand someday why I have to do this. Things have gone from bad to worse in the last one month, and I know I'm the only one to blame. I'm sorry, Riddhima...for everything. Everything. I have to go, because I know you will be happier without my misery dragging you into the darkness all the time. I know that Sid will take good care of you. He's a gem, and I know he'll be there for you in a way I never was, and perhaps could never be. Take care of yourself, Basket. Goodbye. I love you.'

He's gone. Just like that. Gone.


Take care and Cheers!


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