I reach the office for lunch with Shelley, enjoying the breeze despite the heat!
The new one-ways and the flyovers flummox me at some points, making me jittery, and I am forced to focus on the present dilemma – of getting to the office.
The receptionist seems new, but she recognises me and informs me that Karthik is out on a call. I inform her that I have come to meet Shelley. She calls for Shelley, who comes out in five minutes, ready to leave for lunch. We go away from the usual eatery, fearing being crowded over by known faces.
“How are you?” she asks as we settle down. “I miss you so badly at work. There are more men in the team now than women, and it just doesn’t feel the same,” she confesses.
I smile at her reassuringly, scared that I will start blabbering soon myself. She sticks to the safe topic of changes at work, and I try to visualise the room, wondering why I am not there.
I don’t know if she is deliberately keeping other topics at bay or is genuine in talking of indifferent things. But it does help me relax.
Finally, as we hit the dessert, she asks me about work. “I am so glad that you have taken this step, to get back to work. I rarely see Karthik these days – ever since he became the MM, he is very busy. But whenever I do, I ask him why you are not back at work and he just shrugs.”
I feel a jolt, but keep my smile on. “It hasn’t been easy. When did he become the MM?” I ask, risking it.
“You were in the hospital at that time, I think. Didn’t he tell you after that?” she asks gently after a pause.
I look down. “I don’t know, Shelley…whether I know or not…”
Shelley puts her hands on mine. “I know, hon, it hasn’t been easy for the two of you… You must move on,” she tells me earnestly.
“Why, Shelley? Why hasn’t it been easy? Why am I not working?” I ask again.
“Oh poor baby! You have gone through much… Don’t think of it…just let it be…you will be fine in no time… See, it happens sometimes, life gets overwhelming…But you will be fine…just trust time. Come back to work…distracting the mind will help.”
I remain silent, wondering what in life overwhelmed us. “Shelley…I can’t see what the problem is…I can’t remember…”
She takes my hand in hers. “You are right, there really is no problem. Just that, the mind makes mountains of molehills. I am so glad to see you come out of it!” she says. Just as I think she has not realised that I mean it, she adds gently, “Brain fever, Kalpana. Don’t stress your mind.” I look down, realising that is what I was in the hospital for. “Has been a stressful period for all of you, isn’t it? Just give it a break. It will come back, I am sure. Start afresh… Yes, that’s right…” She moves on to practical matters in one smooth stroke. “There are no vacancies here right now. I spoke to our current manager – Maheswari has moved on, you know? But I also spoke to Maheswari and she said she knows someone who is looking for a finance person. Your profile is just right, she said. So mail me your resume and I will forward it to her.”
I nod and tell her to keep her ears open for any more openings.
“But meanwhile, why don’t you do some refresher course so that you are up to date? It has been a couple of years, right? Hey, in fact, I never thought you would come back to finance. I remember you were so passionate about getting into interior designing. You can probably shift fields right away. I tell you, I am so fed up with number crunching, I wish I could get out. But I need the job,” she adds wistfully.
I smile and respond enthusiastically. “That definitely is a thought. Might as well start something new rather than be stuck with playing around with the numbers!”
I drop her back and she invites me in. I follow her, for old times’ sake, and see a few familiar faces though many seem to have quit. Those who know me seem surprised to see me. It is embarrassing not to know what your crime is, so I have an ambiguous expression on my face.
I visit my old room and meet the person who has replaced me. Shelley orders tea for me. Shelley switches her system on and chats with me as she gets some things done. Suddenly she asks, “Doesn’t Karthik doesn’t know you are here?”
I blush to my roots. I don’t know how to respond. “I forgot to mention it to him,” I say lamely.
Shelley laughs. “Don’t worry! He knows now. The receptionist seems to have told him. He is coming over here now. What a pleasant surprise for him!” She is thrilled as if Karthik and I were courting each other!
And I! How do I feel? All that I had eaten for lunch seems to settle at the pit of my stomach and is starting a merry-go-round ride. I smile wanly, looking for escape routes. Then I get up and say, “I will meet him in his room. Is it the same as Narendran’s?”
But before I can get out, he is there. I am literally trapped between Shelley and Karthik. I don’t know how to describe the expression on his face. It seems to be a combination of disbelief, that moved on to being hurt and then became disbelief again before vanishing behind a mask. All in a few seconds, though to my befuddled brain, it seems like eternity.
He steps beside me, and silently leads me out with a hand on the small of my back as I turn around to say bye to Shelley. Shelley shows thumbs up, the silly woman. She winks and I wink back, though, honestly, it was to blink the tears back.
He silently leads me all the way to his room, and to my overactive mind, I feel like a prisoner being led for interrogation, unable to meet anyone on the way though many call out a bye.
It is a struggle just to maintain my equanimity.