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…