A Strange Encounter
I step out of the house with my Scooty keys in hand. I am already late for work. Can’t imagine how I spent the morning wallowing in self-pity.
The dusty cover on my two-wheeler throws me off-balance! Karthik must have covered it when I was in the hospital. Trust him to do that – care for the machine more than the rider.
I dust it with a rag cloth and then try the button start. No luck. I try kick-starting, no luck there either. I try to put it on reserve and try, still no luck. I walk around it, wondering what next. I open the petrol tank, and can see the liquid in there. With a sigh, I go in and rummage through the drawer where I keep my documents and take out a receipt from the dealer. Is my bike due for service? I call up the service centre and they agree to have it picked up shortly. I try to extract a promise for same day delivery, but they play it safe.
The service guys come in the next half an hour. I tell them to give me an estimate before starting work. They ask me how old the bike is. Five years, I tell them. I bought it in 2000. They nod and say, “How long have you not used it, madam?”
“A month or two max…” I cannot remember.
They look at it thoughtfully. “The petrol tank looks like it has rusted. Seven years is a long time, madam. Maybe you should buy a new one.”
Otherwise, their expressions convey, it is going to need an overhaul. Right enough, they call me in two hours and tell me it maybe be better to buy a new one. “But it has been working fine!” I protest. “We can get it back in good condition,” they assure me. But the cost is formidable, whereas, for a few thousand more, I can get a new one.
Luckily, this service centre is attached to a dealer and I can get a good deal right away. I decide to go right away and complete the deal.
As I catch an auto, wondering why my bike is in such a state of mess, I remember my days of cycling. From cycling to upgrading to riding the scooter, I must have used a two-wheeler for close to 13 years now – a passion that I associate with Kavitha, my friend from school days in Kolkatta. It was she who taught me to cycle, and we were crazy about it till we parted – me, to come to Chennai from Kolkata.
On shifting to Madras (as it was called back then), the craze subsided since I didn’t have company, but the skill came in handy when I started riding the Scooty to work. Five years…wait a minute, why did that guy say seven years? God, the computer has made me completely dependent on it to even remember dates!
I look at the new models and pick up one that I will get at the earliest. Nothing is more stressful than dealing with the autos in this city! On my way back, on an impulse, I decide to visit my father’s house before I go to work. Maybe it needs cleaning. A few minutes in my old room should calm me. Every second I am idle, it is a tiff between Sukumar and Karthik in my head.
The fading colour on the outside wall screams for new paint. So soon? What are these strange clothes hanging on the line in the balcony? Have I come to the wrong house?
I go up uncertainly and stand outside the door with the key in my hand. Someone seems to be living here. I ring the bell.
A stranger opens the door, with a child on her hip. She looks at me blankly, then beams and says, “Oh! Please come in! I didn’t know you were coming this way…”
I smile back, mechanically, uncertainly. Who is she? How does she know me…some relative? Hmmm…dad did let out the house, did he, before going to stay with Vedant in the US? Why had I forgotten that!
I step in and am shocked to see the state the house is in. Toys scattered around, all the lovely walls smudged with crayons. She looks at me apologetically and says, “He just doesn’t listen! But your husband has been so kind. He says, kids will be kids… We will make sure we will leave the house spic and span.” She smiles again at me. I nod, thinking this is how my house will be when I have a child. I return the smile warmly and pat the child.
I step out and catch another auto to return home. I don’t have the energy for anything more. I have to get out of this zombie state! When did I last step out? It seems like ages, feeling fresh air on my face.
I don’t haggle with the auto driver as I would normally when we reach the house. I let myself in and sit down heavily. Something nags me…I should be worried about something, but I am not…what is it?
I call up work, hoping to catch Shelley, my colleague in finance. But a recorded voice says it is the wrong number. My card confirms the number. I rummage through Karthik’s drawer for his card. There it is – Karthik Subramaniam, Manager-Marketing. Marketing manager? Since when? Why didn’t he tell me? My heart sinks. Why hadn’t he shared this news with me?
I stare at it for long. Then finally, the number comes into focus. It is the same as what I had been trying, but there is a 2 prefixed. I try this number and ask for Shelley. I am grateful when I hear her voice.
“Hi Shells,” I greet, ready to tell her that I am cutting short my vacation.
She asks hesitantly, “Kalpana? Is that you?”
The question surprises me. “Yes of course,” I laugh. Why is she sounding as if it can’t be me!
“How are you? Been quite a while…” her voice tapers off.
“Hmmm…how long? Don’t tell me you miss me!” I joke.
She laughs doubtfully. “What did you expect?” she asks, but there is an odd quality to her voice. “So you are back in circulation?”
“Yes, house finally free of guests,” I say, hoping she wouldn’t have heard of the fiasco at home. Karthik wouldn’t be telling her this exactly, would he?
“Good. So…what are you up to these days?”
“Can you imagine, I just booked a new bike! So tell me should I join work this week? How are things there?”
“You want to rejoin?” she asks surprised.
Rejoin? Before I can respond, she continues, “I don’t think there is a vacancy right now here… Hey, listen, it will be lovely catching up. Why don’t we meet and we could discuss options?”
Frowning, I agree to meet her on Friday. What does she mean by vacancy?
I sit back, mulling over my conversation with her. It tells me many things, and yet, nothing that I can make head or tail of. I lean back and feel the breeze from the fan blow on my face, trying to not think even as thoughts clamour for attention. Too much noise upstairs!
I get up after a while and go to the kitchen to fix up something to eat, picking up a book to keep all thoughts at bay.