Two Years

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Chapter 29

Is Something Brewing?

The Tiger balm is a constant companion. A persistent headache runs like an undercurrent in my days. Field work takes me out to the sites I am working on, but thoughts manage to find chinks and besiege my mind at unguarded moments.

In this gloom, Kavitha’s mail in my inbox one fine morning leaves me confused. I am elated, joyous, but also feel the burden of connecting again. I can feel the warmth in her words as she almost takes off from where we left. She always had better memory for details, and she quickly tells me the life story since she left Calcutta for higher studies. She asks the inevitable question – what have I been up to. It is that which makes me unhappy.

The laptop comes midweek. I try to set it up, but the many questions it asks have me confused. I appeal to Vijay and he agrees to help me get it up and running. An inner voice tells me I didn’t try hard enough, but I ignore it, looking forward to the day Vijay would come home.

I am at my table, preparing for a meeting when Madhuri walks into the office, looking particularly elated. She has been on a high and has pointedly ignored me. Though hierarchically I am supposed to be reporting to her and getting her approval for my work, she has been out of the picture throughout and I work directly with Pratap.

Madhuri deigns to pause by my table and tell me, “This evening, if you have time to spare, please drop into the Rastogis’ house.”

Just then, Pratap also joins. He pulls her leg, “Madam, dark horse! Happy birthday!”

She blushes and thanks him, and I wish her too.

“Well…” Pratap says and waits.

Madhuri looks at him puzzled. “Well what?”

“Aren’t you inviting us to dinner? How can I let you off without getting a treat?”

Madhuri laughs and tries to wriggle out, but Pratap insists, and she is compelled to invite Pratap and me. I try to excuse myself, and Madhuri is about to accept, but Pratap simply overrides it. “Now that I have made her invite us, you can’t let me down!”

I look at Madhuri’s inscrutable face and say, “I will drop in.”

She is gracious enough to say, “I will expect you.”

Pratap says, “There, that settles it.”

I roll my eyes at him behind Madhuri’s receding back. But the shameless man simply laughs and goes his way.

She has been cagey about her work, making sure she locks up her drawings as she leaves. Though that is normal practice, in her, it seems more like a wish for secrecy.

My visitors arrive. Madhuri comes over and welcomes them warmly, though I have this sneaking suspicion that she laughs at them behind their backs. There is something terribly simple about Laksmi, Subramanian’s wife.

Today, their five-year-old is also with them. The boy, Abhishek, is pampered and a brat; but I love him still. Lakshmi is very careless with the boy, and when she brings him to the site, my eyes are always on him because of the inherent dangers. Though Lakshmi frets about imagined dangers all the time, she seems oblivious to the real ones pose.

They have come to invite us for the house-warming, both the morning ritual as well as the evening party.

After the Manis leave, we leave to see Madhuri’s work.

When I reach there, I am stunned. It is an amazing décor, speaking volumes of class. She has brought us at a time when the western sun casts fantastic shadows, enlivening the place. Even as we admire and the sun sets, she switches the lights on, anticipating the effect on us. Pratap hugs her warmly and all of us congratulate her.

After going around, we are about to leave when Vijay arrives too. Madhuri has invited him, no doubt. Pratap and I leave, promising to meet Madhuri and Vijay at the dinner venue, a four-star hotel.

But I see them again before leaving office. Madhuri pointedly asks me, “Did you like it, Kalpana?”

“Yes, of course. Didn’t I tell you back there?”

“I was telling Vijay that if he likes the way I have done their office room up, I could do it for him too. What do you say Vijay? You just have to say yes, and I think we can do it within the budget too,” she says, turning to him. He is the customer, so I keep quiet, waiting for him to respond.

“Where are you going? Home? Not joining us for dinner?” Vijay asks, not responding.

I tell them I was going home to freshen up.

“Okay, then. Wait for me there. I will be there in a while to take a look at the laptop, and we can head for the hotel together,” he says, looking at his watch.

I nod and leave.

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