ONCE AGAIN

I looked at the clock- it was two thirty in the afternoon- about two hours to go before the funeral.  My head ached from  lack of sleep but strangely my eyes were wide awake..! I slowly rubbed my temples….!

There was a knock on the door. “Come in “ I said. It was Saraswati, our Finance Manager. I looked at her questioningly. She had a chequebook and some papers in the folder that she placed in front me. “Sir, this is the accident insurance claim papers and this cheque is for the funeral expenses” she said pointing at the spot where I was to sign. I signed the papers and put the pen down. Saraswati hesitated before she asked me “Sir.. we are leaving now. We will pick up the wreath on the way… We can hand over the cheque to Rohini madam’s husband after we pay our respects”   “Are you coming with us?” she seemed to ask me without actually asking.

“Please carry on Saraswati. I will go later.. maybe to the crematorium. Where is it ? Besant Nagar?” She nodded and went out.

I could not believe it- it was only a month ago that I had signed a letter informing Rohini about her promotion from Research manager to Team Leader and today I was signing papers relating to the group accident insurance for employees and the funeral expenses cheque on behalf of the company…!

I had met Rohini less than a year ago when I was sent from Mumbai to this office in Chennai. Our company had acquired the firm and one of the casualties of this acquisition was the regional head for Chennai. I was sent in his place and ask to set things right.

Understandably, there was a lot of apprehension about my arrival as people feared that they would, like their Regional head, lose their jobs. I spent the first month trying to learn about the operations of the Chennai office and what the team there was like.

It was while I was at it that I discovered Rohini. A wonderful researcher, she was the proverbial “light under the bush”. She had worked for the company for about five years but had not been able to go beyond the managerial level. A brilliant statistician she could work wonders with data giving clients as much information as they needed to come to a decision. She was also, I discovered soon very honest- she never manipulated data whatever be the temptation. A bad score for a brand was a bad score…!!

Within a couple of months, I realized that she was an invaluable asset to the organization. I started involving her in the more important projects. A stickler for perfection, she was her own worst critic…! She worked on a number of drafts before allowing a report to leave her outbox. Her team adored her despite  constantly grumbling about the way she drove them…!

Rohini became one of the key people that I began to rely on. We bid for the best of projects and got them. People told us that we were a “deadly combination” when we negotiated deals- she would argue from the methodology angle while I could convince the client about the strategic implications of the findings. It called for a lot of hard work often late into evenings and on weekends…! But we enjoyed it…!!

Actually, I don’t know now what it was that I enjoyed more- the challenge of putting together a good winning proposal or the opportunity of working with Rohini. She was a chatterbox constantly jabbering about this and that while she worked. I, on the other hand  am basically a silent person. She played music as she worked. It used to distract me initially but soon I got used to having Kishore Kumar or Asha Bhosle singing in the background during our late evening discussions.

I had never worked so closely with a woman in my team. I generally avoided them. But somehow, I never thought of Rohini as a woman. She was to me a very valued colleague and  a good friend. Though she was only about three years younger than me, there was a very girlish quality about her-  the way she laughed and perched at the end of my table and the way she used to cover her mouth with her palm after making some indiscreet remark about someone ( which was quite often). She used to tease me about my reserved nature. “Why are you so standoffish?” she asked me once. I did not realize that I was like that .. actually no one other than Zoya had mentioned it ever!

An extremely sociable person, Rohini pulled me out of my room and into the lunch room to eat with others. I used to feel uncomfortable at first ( as others did I am sure) but slowly I began to get used to it and that was I guess one of the first steps in my acceptance there among the others. From the office lunch table, she moved me into her dining table at home. The perceptive person that she was, she sensed that my need to be constantly engaged with work was as much to fight my loneliness as it was to actually work.

I met her husband Ashok and her fifteen year old twins- Vinod and Vijay. It was a very close knit family. Ashok was an architect who worked out of home managing much of the home situation with support from his mother who lived across the street. Rohini by her own admission was an erratic mother and housekeeper. But it was clear that the twins and their father adored her..!   I don’t why but I suddenly felt a stab of jealousy after watching them together .!

I had come back home wondering how it would have been had Zoya been alive. Would we have been like Rohini and Ashok? What would our kids have been like? But the day I had buried Zoya seemed more than the ten years that it actually was. We  had hardly spent two years together when she had left me for the other world…

I had never told anyone about Zoya – not even Rohini. People in the office may have  speculated if I was a bachelor, widower or a divorcee..! I suppose  Rohini may have wondered too but  she was too sensitive to pry  into my past…! There were times when I almost told her about my dead wife but somehow, the words stopped at my lips.

It was not until two months ago that I managed to tell Rohini about Zoya. We were at a team  retreat at Mahabalipuram.  Dinner was over and people had retired for the night. I sat on the veranda by the beach looking  at the sea. The moon was up and the beach was bathed silver in its light…! I was in a contemplative mood and was startled to suddenly find Rohini by my side. “What are you doing here all alone Shoaib? “ she asked me. “I could ask you the same question “ I said with a smile. “I came here looking for my phone. I remembered leaving it behind on one of those tables during dinner” she said waving her Nokia C7 at me..

“Come, lets go in.. it is quite late” she said.  “No, it is okay. You go if you want to” I said. “ I want to but I wont go leaving you alone like this moping in the dark” she said sitting down beside me. We sat together for I don’t know how long before I finally said “ I miss her. She was the most beautiful woman in this world.. I remember moonlit nights like this when we used to make love.  I remember her lovely hair, her laugh, the softness of her skin and her touch on my body” I murmured almost to myself. Rohini did not say anything but I could feel her presence near me. We sat like that side by side by for some more time.

I don’t know why but I was suddenly very aware of her as a woman. I noticed for the first time her dusky skin, curly hair and the outlines of her breasts under the T-shirt she was wearing over her pyjamas. I longed to touch her and feel the softness of her lips under mine. Somewhere in my mind there was a madness taking control of me merging the identities of Zoya and Rohini into one. I wrapped my arms around myself and looked away into the sea. She sat across the steps looking at me strangely.

It was probably dawn by the time we left for our rooms. We had not spoken much but  a lot was communicated.  I felt a bit awkward meeting her again on Monday morning in the office. Though  Rohini did not hint in any way about what had transpired between us that night.I felt that I had probably crossed some invisible line in our relationship

I became conscious now about others. I imagined people staring at us when we were together. It was really strange because, such thoughts had never crossed my mind ever before despite the close proximity and the long hours which we had worked

Rohini did not remark about this change and went about her work as before. We worked together on the research proposal for the Government of Pondicherry discussing points this time over email. When it was time for the presentation, I asked Rohini to go alone. I was afraid of being alone in a sea side town with her. I could not trust myself….!!!!

So, for the second time in my life, I was sending a woman very special to me , alone on a journey. Zoya had travelled alone during the fifth month of her pregnancy to Aligarh when she had had that miscarriage which resulted in her death and now it was Rohini whose bus had fallen off a bridge..!!

What a wretched man, I must be- I had lost a love, found a friend, messed it  up and lost her too!!!

“Sir, it is three thirty now. We should leave soon. The body is expected to arrive at the crematorium by four thirty” said Arumugam my driver.

“Okay. Lets go” I said getting up  .

The last funeral I had attended was in my capacity as  husband of the deceased – this one I was not sure…

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THE JOURNEY ( part 2)

The train chugged along and  with it moved  Swati’s  thoughts. She tried to block them out , but somehow, they kept intruding into her consciousness.

The year was 1996… Swati has just joined the MBA program. A brilliant student, it was not surprising that she had made it through the All India Entrance Exam.  But what was surprising was how Priya by her own admission had sort of “wandered into” the program.

Both the girls were so different and yet so similar! Swati was from Delhi and  the daughter of a IAS officer. A very honest man , her father had raised her to be strong on values because of which she  had a tendency to see the world in just two colours – black and white! Priya was the daughter of a Professor of English from Dharwad in Karnataka.  An aspiring poet, her father floated through life in a liquor induced haze. Having lost her mother to cancer at a young age and her father to liquor, Priya formed her own sets of values which ranged from shades of light grey to jet black!

An air of vagueness always seemed to prevail in room no 104 of the girl’s hostel. Priya who was a wonderful artist and painter was usually lost in her world of art while Swati was the proverbial absent minded professor with her head buried into books or throwing her things around looking for something she had misplaced. Swati’s  vagueness was  however restricted only to her day to day existence. In her work she was  sharp witted, analytical and extremely logical. Though  Priya’s art reflected her clarity of expression her answer sheets and assignments usually did not. ,It was left to Swati to help her through these. One was high on intellect while the other was brimming with talent.

Swati was extremely protective about Priya and could tear to pieces with her acid tongue , anyone who made fun of her best friend! Priya on the other hand always wondered how someone who was as intelligent as Swati could be such a sucker for sob stories- giving loans to the lady who did their laundry at the hostel ( which were never repaid) or buying lunch for any passing beggar who said that he had not eaten a meal.

Priya looked up from her berth at Swati and thought with a smile about how Swati had picked up a drunken beggar from the road all by herself and  tried to take him in an auto rickshaw to a government hospital nearby for treatment. That idiot had not even realized that the fellow was twice her size. Swati was very small built – hardly five feet and  gave the impression of a school student who had walked into a college by mistake! An innocent girl from a metro and a worldly wise girl from a small town, they perfectly complimented each other. Life was  bliss until that last semester.

It was on a cool December afternoon when she first met him. Swati remembered the day clearly. She had gone looking for sponsorship for the annual student’s seminar at the corporate office of a  multinational firm. Someone had directed her to him- Vikram Roy- Senior executive Public Relations – it said outside his door. She was mesmerized by his dimpled smile and deep brown eyes! It had never happened to her  before..!

 That evening he called her at the hostel number and asked if she would come out with him for a movie next Saturday. Swati was surprised. No boy or man had ever  noticed her. They usually thought she was a school girl ( that is when they registered her presence). She had often wished she was like Priya, tall willowy and mysterious!

 One date led to another and soon she was going out regularly with Vikram.

 It took about a month for Priya to realize what was happening to her friend.- subtle changes in the way she dressed, her distraction ,her obsession with the phone and her sudden disappearances….

 And finally the cat was out of the bag. Swati and Priya spent four hours one night discussing Swati’s love!  “I can’t live without him” confessed Swati to Priya.

  “When do  I get to  meet him?” asked Priya teasing her friend. “Oh anytime… ! “ promised Swati.

 But somehow it did not happen until the exams were getting over. It was the last exam and after that the plan was for Swati and Priya to meet Vikram for a movie. After the movie Vikram had promised to take the girls out for dinner. “ Hope it is somewhere nice. Remember it is the first time Priya will be meeting you. And please be on your best behaviour. I want her to approve of you” threatened Swati.

 But that meeting never took place – at least not the way it was planned! Just as she emerged out of the examination hall, she found her uncle, Dr. Iyer  waiting outside  “ You Appa had a heart attack. Please pack your things. You have to leave for Delhi immediately” he said gently.

 Swati went through the next hour in a daze. Priya helped her pack. Suddenly she remembered the date with Vikram. She handed the tickets to Priya and told her to go for that movie with Vikram and tell him about the latest development in her life.

  Tears trickled down her cheeks as Swati remembered the events that followed thereafter.

Appa had to have an emergency by pass surgery. Thankfully it went off well. She had been so grateful to have Priya with her – or so she had thought then! Priya had come to Delhi after a week and had spent some time with her.

 “So did you meet Vikram ?” asked Swati the day Appa was discharged and Priya was getting ready to leave. “Yes.” said Priya. “And…? “asked Swati expectantly.

 “Swati he is not for you..! You are fool to trust him. The moment he realized that you were not going to be around he started coming on to me. He called me a couple of times after that asking me if I would go out with him” said Priya.

 To say Swati was shocked was an understatement. She tried to contact Vikram but he seemed to avoid her calls. Her heart ached and she went through her days pouring out her feelings in letter after letter to Priya. Priya’s letters were strangely curt and Swati was hurt that she was not being more understanding.

Meanwhile, it was time for her to join work as a management trainee at the bank in Chennai. Priya  had not taken up a job saying that she needed to be home with her father for a while.

 Three months passed by …..

 And then she saw it one day on her desk- the invitation to Priya and Vikram’s wedding! She thought she was going mad. She made a colleague read it out to her just to be sure that she was not hallucinating! She felt that she was plunging headlong into a deep valley. Her only prayer at that time was that she should keep her sanity.

 She immersed herself in her work  clocking in over twelve hours daily, dropping on her bed exhausted at the end of the day.

“Nothing like work therapy” she thought wryly…

A phone was ringing in the background- Swati pushed her hand into her bag trying to locate  her mobile in the mess inside!  “Hello” she heard Priya say. Surprising , that they should both have the same ring tones…! She closed her eyes going back to pretending sleep.

“No Vikram that is not fair. I had taken off from work and come all the way to Hyderabad just for this. Why are you changing your mind now? Please.. don’t do this” she heard Priya plead. “Okay fine.. whatever but don’t deny me my child” said Priya her voice breaking into a sob.

Swati could no longer pretend sleep. She opened her eyes and looked at Priya. Her body was shaking with sobs. Before she realized it , Swati had switched on the light and walked over to the opposite berth putting her hand on Priya’s head. “ Hey Priya what’s up? What is this about your child “ she asked.

“My son Anush lives with his father Vikram. Has been  living with him for the last two years – ever since we separated” said Priya.

“But shouldn’t you get custody since you are the mother?” asked Swati naively.

“It is complicated Swati. You see, after I separated from him, I met another man. Now Vikram says that I cannot have Anush if I am with Dheeraj. His lawyers are threatening to prove that I am a woman of “loose morals” or worse  someone mentally unbalanced” said Priya  in despair.

Swati spent the next two hours of the journey listening to the horrible story of Priya and Vikram’s marriage- violence and infidelity seemed to be the main themes..! Priya poured out her heart to Swati as the night disappeared into dawn.

It was with a start that Swati realized that her station had come. She quickly gathered her things and gave Priya a hug before moving towards the door. Priya followed her out of the coach. She was getting down at the last station.

Priya spotted her immediately on the platform even before Swati did- a sleepy eyed  just- turned- thirteen girl still in her pyjamas standing with a tall man wearing thick glasses. The Albert Einstein hair was a dead give away!

“That is Sakshi- aka Minky and that is Sunil” said Swati pointing at them.  “Aren’t you going to introduce us? “ asked Priya.

Swati hesitated before she said firmly “ No Priya. Don’t mistake me, I don’t  hate you any more but I don’t think I can let you into my life again. Too much has happened between us. What we shared in college was beautiful and let us keep it as a happy memory. Our presents are too diverse to intersect. God be with you!”

The train whistled and slowly pulled out of the platform.. ! Swati looked on at Priya standing at the doorway waving at her….. The Journey was  over!

THE JOURNEY ( part 1)

It was just about two minutes left for the train to depart when Swati boarded it! The traffic had been terrible ! She had never realized that it would take so long to get to the station. “But thank god I made it” she thought to herself as she worked her way through the 2nd AC compartment looking for her seat. After going through almost half the length of the coach she found it.

In the ensueing confusion of putting her suitcase under the seat while managing to keep her balance on the moving train she did not notice her.  But the moment she settled down she found herself staring straight at her- the same big eyes, curly hair and dusky complexion, quite plump now ( fat?) and therefore not looking so tall.

“Hello Swati!” said Priya with a smile.

Swati did not know what to say. She pushed the window curtain and tried to  look out of the window into the darkness outside.

“Please Swati, ….Say something” said Priya her eyes filling with tears.

Swati looked at her with contempt. “Do I know you?”

“What do you mean? We were room mates for two years in our post graduation. You had helped me through so many difficult subjects coaching me  you have  looked after me when I had fallen ill…and I was with you when your father had that bypass surgery..” said Priya looking at Swati pleadingly.

“So what further support do you need from me? “ asked Swati

“Look Swati I had tried to contact you, speak to you, but you had not answered any of my letters or taken my calls” Priya.

“ What do you want to tell  me after these fifteen years? That you are sorry? “ asked Swati sarcastically looking around for the TTE to see if she  could exchange this seat with another. Ah! There he was .

“No madam. Train s full. Besides, both of you are ladies and both are in lower berths. So what is the problem ?” he said as he checked their tickets.

Swati sighed as she settled down on her seat thinking of  how she was going to handle this disturbed night on the train. The phone rang. Minky was on the line “Amma are you on the train?” she asked. Like all twelve year olds she was worried that her Amma may have missed the train and her thirteenth birthday tomorrow. “Yes Sweetu. Is daddy home?” She needed to talk to Sunil, if nothing but to atleast calm her nerves. “Daddy is in the bathroom. He said to ask you what time your train would arrive tomorrow morning” “Six o’clock. Ok Good night. See you tomorrow”

“ Your daughter? “ asked Priya.

Swati turned towards her and said “Yes”. This woman obviously had kept tabs on her life. Otherwise how did she know that she had a daughter? It was about time she confronted her. She could not keep running away from it…

“ I have a son who is thirteen” said Priya attempting a smile.

“Listen Priya I have no interest in your life. I am very satisfied with mine and by God’s grace doing well despite having shadows like you in my past. I have learnt some bitter lessons but they have helped me. Today I know who to trust and who not to. My humble request to you is to let me get on with my life. We are like two diverging tracks. If you try to get them together all you will get is a derailment- an accident! Now let me sleep. I have had a busy day at work today and I have an equally busy one planned for tomorrow” said Swati settling down on her berth spreading the bedsheet and making her bed. She then picked up her hand bag and made her way to the bathroom.

“ Why are you taking your handbag. You can leave it here. I will look after it” said Priya.  “ No Priya. I have learnt not to trust you with anything. You may find something in my bag that you like and take it with you” said Swati moving towards the bathroom! She could hear Priya sobbing as she left the cubicle.

Inside the bathroom, Swati looked at the mirror.. The laugh lines that usually made her look cheerful  made her look gaunt and haggard now. She took out her toilet kit and found her tooth brush. Just as she opened her tube of toothpaste she was somehow transported back to those days in Bombay.

“Hey come on move yaar…I have to apply this eyeliner properly! How long are you going to take to brush your teeth” said a thin and tall girl to another shorter one who was standing on her toes trying to see her full face in the mirror as she brushed her pearlys  “ My teeth are my asset. I am not going to neglect them. Get lost Priya..! Go somewhere else and find a mirror” “ you idiot Swati…. You have splashed water on me! Why do you stay up so late and study? Every day, you wake up late, miss breakfast and rush to class looking like Albert Einstein” “Darling Priya, I would rather be Albert Einstein with my hair awry than be all groomed like Miss India and get lousy marks” said Swati her mouth filled with foam!

The train jerked and Swati was suddenly pulled out of her thoughts. She washed her mouth and combed her hair and went back to her seat hoping Priya was asleep. No such luck.. she was up with her eyes looking read and swollen.

“ I never knew you could be so cruel” said Priya

“Learnt it from you my dear.” Said Swati her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“  Swati.  Please let me explain….!”said Priya. “ If you have a problem with your conscience then it is yours. Please don’t burden me with it…” said Swati switching off the lights.

She was hoping that some other passengers would occupy the other two seats soon  breaking this terrible privacy!