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Romita pushed Snigdha to take the passenger seat beside Sameer, while she herself got into the back of Sameer’s car with Neelu. She had asked Neelu to come with them and he had agreed immediately. She had discreetly made some plans for Neelu; besides, he was the only other person who knew everything about Sameer and Snigdha. Also, Neelu had had a crush on Romita since the first day they had met on Snigdha’s birthday party, though Romita was not aware of that. Sameer assured Jatin and Srestha that he would take good care of their daughter.

Snigdha smiled at Sameer as he started the engine and eased the clutch to put the car into motion. “Sameer, thank you so much for doing this. You don’t know how badly I needed to get out. Mom and dad have been hysterical these last few days.”

Sameer answered without looking at her, “Yeah, I know that. I couldn’t get you out of this marriage, even though I promised that I would. I feel guilty about letting you down. I’m just trying to make up for that. I can at least try to make things a little easier for you.”

Snigdha was stunned at these words and said slowly, “It’s not your fault, Sameer. I don’t hold you responsible for it. I know you tried. It’s my fate now. You can’t do anything about that. But thanks for giving me the space I need.” She saw Sameer smiling at this and she herself couldn’t help smiling.

Nobody said anything for the next several minutes and the radio channel that Sameer had turned on continued playing happy and peppy songs. Snigdha was feeling good for the first time in days. The streets, houses, and shops were beautifully decorated with twinkling fairy lights, colourfully dressed people were thronging the streets, puja pandals of different shapes and sizes had been erected on the streets. The Durga idols could be glimpsed as they sped past several pandals. The street food vendors filled the roads, dhaakis played the drums. Snigdha couldn’t hear the sound of the drums inside the car; she pulled down the glass to hear the uplifting sound of the drums and turned the AC off. The happiness and fervour of Durga puja was floating in the air and it filled Snigdha with happiness as she sat taking in the sights and sounds of another Ashtami night of her life.

Romita was humming along with the songs on the radio, but she suddenly stopped and asked Sameer, “Where are you taking us, dude?”

Sameer said, “College Square. I love the things they do with lights every year. Do you want to go somewhere else?”

Romita replied hesitantly, “Uh! Sameer, if you don’t mind, can you drop Neelu and I at Taratala?”

Snigdha and Neelu turned sharply at the same time to look at her. Snigdha said incredulously, “What? You want to be with Neelu? What do you mean by that?” Neelu couldn’t believe his luck—Romita wanted to be alone with him! He hadn’t even plucked up the courage to confess his feelings for her.

Sameer said with a laugh, “Of course. But from the way she is gaping at you and Neelu, I don’t think you have divulged anything about this to your best friend yet.”

Romita gave a shy smile, but didn’t elaborate. Snigdha kept badgering Romita about her and Neelu’s relationship but Romita waved the matter off. “I’ll tell you later.”

At the Taratala crossing, Romita and Neelu got down. Snigdha watched them stand and whisper with each other through the wing mirror. Slowly their reflection started receding as the car sped forward. She couldn’t stop thinking about Romita and Neelu. She had no idea that they were interested in each other. She couldn’t wait to pounce on them once she got them alone. She couldn’t believe they would hide such an important thing from her.

Sameer had to stop the car at the next traffic signal as it turned red. As they sat waiting, Sameer noticed some policemen strolling at the front, checking the cars. Snigdha didn’t have her seat belt on, so he asked her to fasten it lest the traffic police fine them for it.

But Snigdha couldn’t manage to pull the seat belt from the holder; it had got stuck. Sameer saw her struggle with it and bent over Snigdha to help her. He got the belt out with one hard pull. He pulled it over her body and buckled the belt quickly. Sameer took care not to touch her in the process as he didn’t want to make Snigdha uncomfortable. But Snigdha was startled at his proximity and Sameer felt her stiffen in her seat.

Suddenly, she realised that she was going to spend the night alone with Sameer. They were going to be alone for the first time since Sameer had confessed his feelings for her. This thought made her self-conscious. Suddenly, she was not sure whether she really wanted to be there.

Sameer felt Snigdha’s anxiety. “Sorry, Mini. I just wanted to help. I didn’t want you to get uncomfortable.”

Snigdha saw that he really looked apologetic and forced a smile on her face. “No, it’s okay. I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

On the way, she kept shooting furtive glances at Sameer, trying to understand what he was going through. Since the time their marriage had been arranged, he had stayed away from her. He had understood that she didn’t want this marriage and had fought for her with their parents. He had never forced her into accepting him. And, today he had sort of rescued her from the suffocating excitement at home. She knew he was a good friend, but she had no idea whether she would ever find it in her to accept him as anything more than that. Sameer deserved so much more than Snigdha felt she could give him. She felt guilty about bringing so much pain in Sameer’s life. She wanted to move away from him so that she didn’t hurt him more than she had already done. And, he was giving her all the liberty to move away. Yet, there she was with him, in his car, going pandal hopping.

Snigdha asked him softly, “Sameer, I’ve hurt you badly, isn’t it?”

Sameer was taken aback at the question. He looked at her for a moment and then replied cheekily, “I don’t remember you hitting me yet. How would I get hurt?”

Snigdha chided him softly, “Sameer, please be serious. I want to know what I’m doing to you.”

Sameer looked at her askance. “Yeah, I was sad when you said you didn’t believe in love. Then our parents went ahead and fixed our wedding. At first, I was afraid you would blame me for the whole thing. I was thankful that you trusted me then. I do love you and I want you to be happy. But you won’t be happy with me and I’ve failed to cancel this wedding. So, I’m just trying to make this work for both of us. I tried very hard to curb my feelings for you, but I couldn’t. But I’ll never bother you with my feelings again. Seriously, that day when I said you would get a punishment on losing the bet, I had not imagined that my presence would become a punishment for you.”

Snigdha was speechless. She was under the impression that Sameer had overcome his feelings for her on her refusal and that’s why he was trying to cancel their wedding. But she didn’t think Sameer was doing it for her, that he was sacrificing all his happiness for her. Romita was right; Sameer did care for her. But then again, Abir had cared too, and yet had left her without a farewell. Could she really surrender herself completely to somebody again?

She asked contritely, “Sameer, what if I can’t ever manage to get comfortable with you? I’ll end up hurting both of us. I shudder to think of the future.”

Sameer replied soothingly, “Let’s not think so much right now. We will tackle the future when it comes. Let us enjoy tonight. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we are spending the night together.”

Snigdha smiled at this. “I’m glad, too. Right now, I don’t have a better friend than you, not even Romita. I’m glad you decided to bring me out tonight. I really didn’t want to spend the entire puja sitting at home.”

They smiled at each other indulgently.

Their first destination was the College Square puja. The queue outside this pandal every year had to be seen to be believed. It was a sea of crowd that descended on this part during the pujas. Every bit of the road leading to College Square was clogged, with the traffic police working extra hard to handle the crowd. Sameer had to park the car near Muhammad Ali Park. They walked the rest of the way and managed to join the queue near the fifth gate of Calcutta Medical College. The crowd swelled behind them, with people pressing on them from all sides. The line moved forward at snail’s pace.

Near the third gate of CMC, the crowd was shifted to the left side of the road. An extremely rowdy group of boys was creating a racket behind Sameer and Snigdha. Sameer got nervous at the sight of those boys. He pushed Snigdha to make her move ahead in the crowd; he wanted to put some distance between her and those hooligans. Safety was always at a risk in the middle of such a maddening crowd, since all sorts of people, from all strata of society, convened here. Suddenly there was a huge push from behind and Snigdha was swept away from Sameer. For a while, Snigdha couldn’t see where Sameer was. She hung back and let the crowd move ahead. A strange anxiety rose in her as she failed to locate Sameer in the crowd.

It was a few minutes before she saw Sameer’s head bobbing up and down in the throng of people. He was frantic when he caught sight of Snigdha. He fought his way forward through the crowd and seized Snigdha’s hand when he reached her, determined not to let her go again.

“Mini, are you okay? I’m sorry I let you go.” His panic was evident in his deep, honeyed voice. He was tensed and his eyes looked troubled. Snigdha smiled reassuringly at him, smoothening out the creases on his forehead with her fingertips. “Relax, Sameer. I’m fine. This happens in a crowd and I know how to handle myself. Don’t spoil your mood over this.”

Sameer tightened his grip on her hand and said, “You are my responsibility. I can’t let you out of my sight again.” Her slightest touch had jolted his senses into overdrive. “Now I kind of realise why uncle gets so paranoid about you.”

Snigdha grinned at him. “Sameer, you are indeed behaving like my father—overprotective. But sweet.”

Sameer was simply happy that she didn’t pull her hand free from his grip.

After another hour of pushing and jostling, the lake in front of the pandal loomed in front of them. The sight was spectacular. Huge birds, a Spiderman, boats, and angels were constructed with bamboo sticks, and twinkling fairy lights were wound around those sticks. All these lighted structures were put up on the water. Many people in the crowd pulled out their cameras to click pictures. Sameer too clicked pictures with his mobile, all the while keeping a firm hold on Snidha’s hand.

Slowly the crowd wended its way around the lake to reach the huge, palatial pandal, which resembled a Kashmiri boat house. The idol was placed at one end of the pandal. The craftsmanship on display in the pandals during the pujas was astounding. But they were not allowed to linger in front of the idol for long. The volunteers were pushing people out through the exit gate opposite the entrance. Once they got out, the crowd thinned out considerably.

Sameer asked, “So where next?”

Snigdha replied excitedly, “Muhammad Ali Park. Going there is a ritual of sorts for me. You know, I love riding that huge Ferris wheel they put up every year.”

Sameer looked startled at this. “You ride that beast of a Ferris Wheel? Woah! Don’t you get dizzy?”

Snigdha smiled impishly. “Oh, yes! But I love that dizziness. It’s such a heady thing. The air rushing past as you fall steeply. Oh, Sameer, let’s go there.”

Sameer was ecstatic to see that Snigdha was letting go of her inhibitions at last and was enjoying herself. He said enthusiastically, “Let’s go,” and pulled her forward.

They started walking towards Muhammad Ali Park. On the way, they saw a makeshift stall where one could burst balloons with rifles. Snigdha jumped in excitement; she was good at shooting. Srestha and Snigdha had shooting competitions during pandal hopping every year. She pulled Sameer towards the stall and took up one rifle lying on the counter while Sameer paid the stall owner. She managed to burst five balloons out of the seven that she was allowed to burst, and she won a packet of hairpins and a plastic tray—cheap things to win but satisfying nonetheless. After her turn got over, she urged Sameer to try it out, too.

Sameer burst all the seven balloons, astonishing her. She said, slightly awed, “Wow, Sameer! You are brilliant.” In reply, he gave her a huge smile—a smile that Snigdha couldn’t resist. It warmed up her heart.

Sameer gave his prize—a pretty glass bowl—to Snigdha. She protested at first, but later accepted it.

After they jostled their way out of the next pandal, they were feeling ravenous. “Sameer, let’s grab a bite. I’m hungry.” Snigdha led the way over to the food stalls that surrounded the Muhammad Ali Park pandal.

They went inside a stall selling hot kachoris. “What do you want to order, Sameer?”

Sameer looked at the people sitting on benches around the stalls, devouring delicious, unhealthy food. He said hesitantly, “Umm, Mini, you eat. I don’t eat such oily stuff. I’ve my abs to maintain, you know.” He grinned sheepishly, a bit embarrassed.

Snigdha was taken aback, but then she pleaded, “Oh, one or two kachoris won’t hurt. Maybe you can work out for half-an-hour more tomorrow. Please. It’s such a killjoy to eat alone. Besides, snacks eaten during the pujas taste extra special. At least, my mother didn’t force you to gobble all her naarus and nimkis. How will you get out of that, if she forces you?”

Sameer looked torn. He shook his head. “I haven’t eaten all this for so long. I guess, one won’t really matter. And, thanks for the warning about the naaru. Or maybe, on second thoughts, I’d better eat them. Just to keep my mother-in-law happy.”

Snigdha admonished him, “You are impossible sometimes. You really know how to flatter my parents unconditionally!” She added gleefully, “Wait, then I’ll go and order. You go find seats for us.”

As they sat eating the hot kachoris with dal and red chutney, Sameer mused, “You know, this was such a revelation.”

Snigdha looked perplexed. “What do you mean?”

Sameer answered, “I had no idea I could give in so easily to your request. I generally don’t compromise with my food habits.”

Snigdha blushed and didn’t look up at him. She just mumbled, “Oh!”

After finishing the food, they headed towards the Ferris wheel counter. They got their tickets and went to stand in the queue. She was quivering with excitement. “Have you ever been on a Ferris Wheel before, Sameer?”

Sameer said, “Yeah once, with my school friends. It wasn’t a good experience. I didn’t know you like such extreme adventures.”

Snigdha replied, smiling proudly, “Where’s the fun in doing regular stuff? But if you are uncomfortable, you don’t have to come.”

Sameer said adamantly, “Nope, I’m coming with you. I better learn to take care of you while you get into your madness.”

Snigdha could only gape at him in surprise. “You are not going to stop me from being crazy? Instead you’ll get crazy with me? Is that what you mean?”

Sameer winked at her conspiratorially. “Something like that.” Snigdha rolled her eyes at him.

When they were ushered in, Sameer and Snigdha got a seat together in the same cabin. As the wheel slowly started going up, Snigdha felt the familiar thrill building up inside her. She looked at Sameer and gave a huge smile. Sameer was looking at her with an amused expression. Their cabin got to the top and then it fell. The air whooshed past her and she felt her insides becoming empty. She emitted an exhilarated cry and grabbed Sameer’s hands, who was looking slightly pale.

Later when they were returning home at 4.30 a.m. Snigdha said sincerely, “Sameer, thank you for this night.”

Sameer looked at her fondly and replied, “Thank the heavens I brought you out today. Otherwise I could never have seen this carefree, childish side of yours. I’m just so happy.”

Snigdha found herself caught in his intense gaze again. She felt her thoughts get muddled. She wanted to ask Sameer something, but couldn’t quite remember the question.

As a car gave a loud honk from behind, both of them were jerked back to their senses. Snigdha hastily inhaled some fresh air to recover her equilibrium. She suddenly remembered her question. “Why did you think I looked different that day at the party? I had dressed up a bit, I know. But is that what you meant? Did you really like me when we were in college? You never told me that.”

Sameer said sheepishly, “Yeah, I liked you back then, respected you a lot. You juggled so many things together and were still brilliant in everything. But that day at the party you looked so shaken and forlorn, different from the happy girl I remembered. Back in our college days, you smiled a lot. You have become bitter now and more pessimistic. Why is that?”

Snigdha replied slowly, “I guess life has gotten to me at last. People change with time, so have I. It’s nothing major really. I’m just honoured to know a brilliant student like you had paid attention to me back then.”

Sameer said sardonically, “I’m paying attention to you even now. And, I’ll love to do that my whole life.” He gave a hollow laugh.

Snigdha felt her happiness ebbing away as suddenly as it had come. She didn’t respond.

Sameer dropped her home soon after that.

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