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“Bend down a bit more and keep your back straight,” barked Daniel.

Snigdha was standing in the fourth row, and yet Daniel had spotted the tiniest mistake that she had done in the three-minute routine. The instructors of Flickerz Dance Academy had hawks’ eyes. No wonder they always turned out such fabulous dancers. Snigdha was immensely glad about the opportunity she was getting to learn from such dedicated dancers.

Abir would have been so jealous if he knew where she was standing at that moment. But this was a depressing line of thought. Abir and she had dreamed of joining this place together. She quickly started looking around the room in search of some other topic to think about. Daniel was restarting the music, she would have to focus again. She readied herself.

The music piece on which they were practicing filled the room. All the students started the side walk in a slow pace, in keeping with the music. The music kept progressing, and this time Snigdha did her steps perfectly. When they ended with a free fall, Daniel didn’t have any complaints against her. Instead she got an appreciative nod from him, which filled Snigdha with joy. She was matching up to the standards of this institute. That was a very satisfying feeling.

They were given a break for ten minutes, before being summoned to perform individually. Everybody utilised this time to drink water and cool off a bit. Snigdha went to fetch her water bottle from her bag which was kept in a corner of the room. She took out her bottle and squatted on the floor. Rachit sat beside her. He was five years younger than her. When he had first learned that she was a lecturer, he had been convinced that Snigdha was pulling his leg. He had never seen a college lecturer being that cool a dancer. But now after almost two months, they had become good friends.

Rachit said, “I’m scared.”

Snigdha replied, “Yeah, me too.”

Rachit laughed at that. “What are you scared of, prof? You will be brill as always.”

Snigdha smiled indulgently at him. “So will you be, Rachit.”

Just then Daniel called Rachit to the dance floor. Rachit got up nervously and walked to the center of the dance floor with a scared face. But when he started dancing his nervousness vanished and he did the steps flawlessly. Snigdha loved his strong, graceful movements. Slowly the others were also called forward. Snigdha sat, waiting for her turn. There was so much to learn even from seeing these people practice. They were all so good.

As she sat admiring her fellow students, she thought of Sameer. It was completely because of him that she was here, living her dream. They were currently practicing for a dance show that they were putting up a few weeks later. She would be taking the stage again. The mere thought was so exhilarating. It all came down to Sameer. He was turning the negative phase of her life into something so positive, so hopeful. He was coming to pick her up after the class. When Sameer had sought her permission to come and pick her up that day, he had sounded so enthusiastic that she couldn’t refuse. These days he didn’t offer her lifts anymore even while returning from the NGO meetings. She preferred it that way. So, she was surprised that he had suddenly wanted to come that evening.

After the class ended, Snigdha stood at the entrance of the institution, waiting for Sameer to come. Suddenly Rachit asked her from behind, “Snigdha, what are you standing here for?”

Snigdha said, “My fiancé is supposed to pick me up.”

Rachit said excitedly, “Oh! Special plans for the evening huh?”

Snigdha shrugged. “Nothing like that. He is just dropping me home.”

Rachit said, “Okay. Bye then. Enjoy the evening.” He waved and went off towards the car parking area.

Snigdha wondered whether Sameer really had something special planned for her. He always did stuff like that and she did enjoy his plans. He was so unpredictable most of the times. The next morning, they were leaving for the camp at Bogula. Maybe he had to discuss something about that. This seemed very likely. But if she was honest with herself, she was waiting for another surprise.

A few minutes later Snigdha could see Sameer in the distance, zooming towards her on a bike. This sight surprised her. When did he get a new bike? The powerful and splendid vehicle seemed to be built for complementing its rider. Sameer was looking so breathtaking and strong bent over the handle slightly. He came and halted in front of her, grinning slightly, astride a new shiny, black bike.

His grin widened when he saw her gaping at him. He asked with a crooked smile, “Like my new bike? I wanted to show it to you.”

Sameer was looking expectantly at her with such an infectious glee on his face that she felt a frisson of excitement run through her. “I didn’t know you were getting a new bike.” The enthusiasm in her voice matched the excitement on his face. “It looks fast. Great choice. When did you buy it?”

“Last week.” He winked. “I know I’ve a good choice.”

As she stood there, Snigdha’s eyes were suddenly drawn towards a group of girls standing near them on the road. They were ogling Sameer and giving her nasty stares. She hurriedly got on the bike. “Let’s go,” she said, placing her hands over Sameer’s back and staring pointedly at the girls.

Sameer happily pressed the start button and zoomed off with Snigdha. Snigdha had a last look at the disappointed faces of those girls before her view got obstructed by a bus. She felt her heart leap when Sameer asked her, “I didn’t make you wait too long, did I? “

“No. I’m good.”

The wind whipped across her face and she felt alive and excited. She pulled out her hair band and let her hair blow in the wind behind her. As Sameer increased the speed suddenly, making her lurch forward, she clutched Sameer’s shoulders to steady herself. The adrenaline rush was making her heart swell with joy.

When Sameer stopped the bike at a traffic signal, he asked her, “How are your rehearsals going?”

Snigdha said happily, “Everything’s just great. I always had trouble doing that free fall before. Now that I’ve got the technique right, it has become so much easier.”

Sameer said concernedly, “But Mini, please be careful. Don’t hurt yourself trying to do all these stunts. You can be so careless when you get excited.”

Snigdha smiled. “Stop thinking so much. It’s fun, not dangerous. I can take care of myself. By the way, have you packed for tomorrow?”

Sameer replied, “Mom packed for me actually. She always does. You can replace her in the future though.”

Before Snigdha could say anything, the traffic light turned green and off they went again.

They had to halt at another traffic signal. Sameer was eyeing a gorgeous white BMW standing beside them. “You know, Mini, I want one of these. I could give an arm and a leg to get one of these beauties.”

Snigdha frowned. “Uh huh.”

Sameer turned around to look at her on hearing her sullen tone. He raised an eyebrow quizzically. “What?”

Snigdha shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “Nothing.”

Sameer grimaced at her, “Please, Mini, don’t insult my eyesight. Why are you looking so put off suddenly?”

Snigdha squirmed under his probing eyes. “The way you described yourself just now is so unsettling. Why did you have to say such a stupid thing?” She was twisting her fingers, trying not to look at him as she replied.

Sameer burst out laughing. “That was just an expression.” But he sobered up quickly on seeing the discomfort on her face. “Forget it, okay?” He continued in an attempt to perk her up again, “Hey, if I ever do acquire a BMW, will you go on long drives with me? Just imagine us in a BMW. That would be such a statement.” He got a slightly dreamy look in his eyes.

Snigdha’s eyes jerked up to stare at him, startled. What could she say? “Maybe. I don’t know,” she stammered. She was scared of picturing any sort of future with Sameer. She could see a hurt look flit across his face. He nodded once and turned around to look at the road ahead. Soon the signal turned green and Sameer started the bike.

When he pulled over in front of her home, she said, “The bike ride was wonderful.”

Sameer suddenly got very serious. “I was afraid you wouldn’t ride with me. After all, you don’t take lifts from me anymore.”

Snigdha mumbled, “You know I prefer some distance, Sameer.” Her discomfort was visible on her face.

Sameer replied wistfully, “I know. But what to do? I can’t stop hoping that one day you won’t want any distance. “

Snigdha squirmed, knowing that she was hurting him. She said in a low voice, “Please. I need some time. You said you won’t expect anything from me. Why are you saying all this then?”

Sameer shrugged. “Sorry, Mini. I’m human. I too have some dreams, you know. You feature so strongly in them. I just feel sorry for myself because I don’t feature in yours. I just wish I did. That’s all really.”

Snigdha was lost for words. He had never said anything about his dreams or his needs before. He always gave priority to her wishes. His sweet face was looking so desolate that she felt her heart sink horribly. All the joy she had felt a few minutes back was gone now. She had known this moment would come one day, when Sameer would get fed up with her. She said, without looking at Sameer, “I know I upset you. But…“

Sameer spoke up before she could complete whatever she had to say, “I’m not trying to rush you into accepting me. Relationships are not built in one day. Take your time.” He didn’t wait any longer and left, while Snigdha kept standing outside her house, staring at him as long as he was visible on the road. When he had gone beyond her eyesight, she slowly went inside, feeling thoroughly depressed.

She knew Sameer was not wrong. He had every right to have expectations from his fiancée, from his wife. But she was not suitable for fulfilling those expectations. Abir had betrayed her, but she couldn’t bring herself to betray Abir by accepting Sameer. Moreover, she didn’t love Sameer the way she loved Abir. She cared for Sameer, for his pain. She empathised with him, but couldn’t make herself do anything to erase Sameer’s pain. She was so filled with Abir that there was no place left for Sameer.

The next morning, she was sitting beside her student, Reshmi, on the bus. They were on the way to Bogula. Sameer was sitting at the last seat with his friends from the NGO. Snigdha didn’t have the heart to confront Sameer about whatever had happened last night. But as she saw him chatting and laughing with others, she couldn’t detect any trace of stress in him. He was behaving as if nothing had happened between them last night. But Snigdha herself couldn’t forget how hurt he had looked. His words had cut her so deeply. Yet, here was Sameer pretending to be his jovial self. She knew she should talk to him, but she was afraid of spoiling his mood further. So, throughout the journey she stayed away from him, stealing occasional glances at him, though she didn’t see Sameer looking at her even once.

“Ma’am, wake up.” Reshmi pushed Snigdha slightly to wake her up; she had fallen asleep on the way. They had reached their destination.

As she opened her eyes, feeling a bit disoriented, her eyes fell on Sameer. Sameer was passing by her seat. He looked at her fleetingly before following the others out of the bus. Snigdha felt a sharp stab of disappointment. If he was going to behave in such a detached way, she wouldn’t talk to him.

Mukul Ghosh, the local leader of Bogula, was waiting at the bus stop to welcome them with a group of young men at his side. He was going to help raise awareness about the initiative that Dreams of Light had taken. He would lead them to the underprivileged children who needed medical help in the area. They were also sponsoring education for the five most deserving students in Bogula.

They were put up in the houses of the people who had come to receive them. Snigdha got to stay with Reshmi in the Kundu household, while Sameer was invited to stay in the Ghoshal house. The Kundus were a family of four. They welcomed Snigdha and Reshmi very warmly.

Rittika was the unmarried daughter of the Kundu household and her family treated her like a burden. It pained Snigdha to see how little respect she got from her own family. Rittika was shunned and ridiculed by her own kid brother, but she couldn’t protest against any injustice. Snigdha felt very bad at Rittika’s condition. Rittika was a very plain and sweet girl and she talked very less. On seeing her condition, Snigdha realised how lucky she herself was. Her parents loved her and she had friends like Romita and she had Sameer. This thought startled her. No matter how much she wanted to deny it, she actually had him. She had always been a loved and protected child. Her future too held lots of love for her and it was up to her to accept it. Why was that so difficult? She had the answer—because she was holding herself back. It’s not that she didn’t like Sameer—she liked him too much, she knew that. But she was scared of falling in love again and getting hurt. Was Sameer likely to hurt her, that was the question. But then Abir too hadn’t been likely to hurt her. She was scared. She wanted to ease up on Sameer, but self-preservation was stopping her. Though Sameer was not even looking at her right then, Snigdha knew he would become his ridiculously happy self again if she accepted him.

That evening a meeting was held at the local club to discuss their activities for the next two days. It was attended by all the local leaders. They would visit the local school the next day and talk to the principal to find the best students of Bogula. Throughout the meeting, Snigdha was getting restless to go and talk to Sameer, but he was so deeply involved in all the discussions about the political state of the local area that she didn’t get any chance to speak to him alone. She felt frustrated and slightly annoyed at the end of the meeting when they were all escorted back to where they were staying.

That night even after everyone else had gone to sleep, Snigdha felt wide awake and restless. She was feeling suffocated inside the house, so she decided to go out for a nighttime stroll. She got out of the house through the rickety back door and headed towards a small pond nearby. As Snigdha neared the edge of the pond, she saw Sameer standing there, looking lost in thought. All the enthusiasm he had shown earlier in the day seemed to have vanished. He was looking very disturbed right then.

Slowly she approached him and called out his name softly.

Sameer turned around and looked genuinely surprised to see Snigdha there. “What are you doing here alone at night?”

Snigdha said with a small smile, trying to dissipate the tension emanating from Sameer, “I’m not alone. You are here with me.”

Sameer got irritated, “Well, that’s just a coincidence. Don’t tell me you came here knowing I’d be here. You would have run away if you knew I’d be here.” He turned his back to her and continued to stare at the dark water broodingly.

Snigdha kept looking at him, again at a loss for words. She said a little later, “You know that’s not true. I came to Bogula only because you were coming.”

Sameer snorted. “You came to Bogula because you also believe in the work that our NGO is doing. It has got nothing to do with me.”

Snigdha replied heatedly, “Yes, but mom and dad have let me come only because you are here.”

Sameer said sarcastically, “There! Your parents! You would have thrown me out of your life, if your parents had let you.”

Snigdha was shocked. “No. I won’t ever do that. Why are you behaving like this with me? What did I do?” Sameer’s words were like pinpricks.

Sameer continued heatedly, “You didn’t do anything at all. It’s all my fault actually. I shouldn’t have come here tonight. I’ll leave you in peace then.” He started moving away.

Snigdha called after him, “Sameer, please stop. Don’t go away like this.”

Sameer turned. “You wanted space, distance. So now I’m giving you that. Go back inside. It’s not safe to be outside at night.” He strode away without a backward glance.

Snigdha stood there thunderstruck. How was she supposed to calm him down? She had no idea Sameer could have such a bad temper. She stood there for a long time feeling lost, before heading back.

The next morning, a team of six people visited the local school to meet the principal. Snigdha was in that team. Sameer went with a few others to interact with the students. When Snigdha came out of the principal’s room to drink some water, she found Sameer playing football with the kids on the school ground. She understood nothing about the game, but she felt good seeing him play with such gusto.

Sameer was trying to pass the ball to a kid when suddenly he slipped and fell down with a thud. Blood gushed out of his palm. Everybody stopped playing and gathered around him, looking terrified. Snigdha rushed forward. Sameer was sitting on the ground, cradling his right palm. A shard of broken glass had pierced his hand. Snigdha kneeled in front of him and tried to tug the glass out with trembling fingers. But she couldn’t move it. Sameer gave a loud howl when she applied a bit more pressure. She said to the kids, trying to hold Sameer steady, “Please, go and fetch the doctor from the principal’s office.” She looked up at a kid standing beside her. The kid nodded and ran inside. Sameer was bleeding profusely and Snigdha was afraid of pulling the glass out herself.

Dr Nishit Manna came out running a little while later. He was also a member of the NGO team. He sat beside Sameer, and with an almighty pull, removed the glass stuck in his palm, which made Sameer scream out really loud. There was a deep, red gash on Sameer’s palm. It made Snigdha feel dizzy. Dr Manna said worriedly, “You need stitches, Sameer.”

Snigdha took Sameer to a rundown clinic in a rickshaw. On the way Snigdha sat holding his arm firmly, afraid that he would fall or something if she let go.

Sameer looked at her and said through gritted teeth, “You should have let somebody else come with me, Mini. You look as if you might faint at any moment. I’m fine. It’s just a cut. A stitch would seal it.”

Snigdha mumbled, “Just a cut? Don’t insult my eyesight.”

Snigdha was appalled on seeing the unhygienic condition of the clinic, and the laidback attitude of the surgeon present there made her even more nervous. It was a real pity that Dr Manna was not a surgeon and they had to rely on the dubious doctor on call. There was no other place where Sameer could be treated immediately.

The surgeon came in and took a seat beside Sameer. As Snigdha saw the doctor take out a needle from his box, she swayed on the spot. The surgeon cleaned the wound at first, making Sameer wince horribly. He clutched Snigdha’s hand very painfully with his good hand, but she found the painful pressure really steadying. Sameer shut his eyes tightly when the doctor took the needle close to his palms. Snigdha instinctively sat beside Sameer who then hid his face in her shoulders. She closed her own eyes and felt Sameer shake violently while he was being stitched up. “Why are you stitching him up without anesthesia, doctor?” she asked faintly.

The doctor replied, “We don’t have any procaine left in our stock and it’s not available in the village medical store either. He has to tolerate this.”

Snigdha mumbled, trying to calm Sameer by holding his arm firmly, “This is so irresponsible of you. Now please be gentle with him.”

When it was done, Sameer looked very pale. The others had come by then. They advised him to go back at the Ghoshal’s and rest. So, Dr Manna and Snigdha accompanied him back, while the others went back to the school.

Sameer’s clothes were soaked with blood and so was Snigdha’s. The doctor left after settling him in. Snigdha rummaged in his suitcase for fresh clothes. She took out a clean white shirt and some loose khaki pants. The boy in that house, Deben, helped him change, while Snigdha ran back to the Kundu’s to change her own clothes.

When she came back, Sameer was lying on the bed, looking very pale. The doctor had prescribed some painkillers for Sameer. The person who had volunteered to get the medicines was taking too much time to bring them, and Snigdha was getting restless. She sat near Sameer’s head and gently swept the perspiration off his forehead. His breathing was ragged. Snigdha couldn’t wait anymore for that man to arrive with the medicines. She whispered gently to Sameer, “I’m going to tell Deben to bring your medicines. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Sameer nodded slowly. She got up quickly and left the room, searching for Deben. She found him outside and said to him urgently, “Deben, Sameer needs these medicines fast. He can’t take the pain any longer. Please, go and get them.” She took out some hundred-rupee notes and handed them to him along with the prescription. “I’ll give you more later, if you bring the medicines fast.”

Deben nodded gleefully, fetched his cycle, and went out. Snigdha hurried back to Sameer. He was looking worse, making her feel even more helpless. Both their phones were out of signal, so she couldn’t even call the doctor. She kept stroking his head which was getting steadily hotter. He was getting a fever. She asked the lady in that house for some water to give him a cold compress until Deben’s return.

She felt a bit relieved once Sameer took the pills. He fell asleep shortly after that, but she kept sitting beside him. When Sameer’s lunch was served, Snigdha woke him up and helped him sit up. He was looking a bit better after his sleep. The pill seemed to have had its effect. She asked, “How are you feeling, Sameer?”

Sameer mumbled, “Better.”

She sat beside him and began feeding him with her fingers. He ate slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on her. Snigdha felt a warm glow unfurl deep inside her whenever their eyes met. She didn’t feel uncomfortable under his intense gaze for now.

Suddenly Sameer started coughing, alerting Snigdha. She patted his back softly. When the coughing fit passed, Snigdha made him drink some water. She asked anxiously, “Are you okay?”

Sameer said, “Got lost in your face, sorry. I choked.”

Snigdha blushed and chided Sameer, “Eat carefully, please. You are sick right now. This is not the time to get romantic, Sameer.”

Sameer said wickedly, “You are blushing. I was wrong. You do care for me. Thank you for being there with me today.”

“At least the medicine has brought back your good mood.” Snigdha smiled.

Sameer asked, “Was my sullen mood disturbing you?”

“Yes, it was. You were sad and I don’t want you to be sad. You look great while smiling. That’s the way I like you.”

This made Sameer flash his irresistible, dimpled grin for her. “Done, Mini. I’ll always smile for you then and no more bad moods. Promise.”

Snigdha too smiled warmly in response to his promise. Just then the doctor came in with the other NGO members to check on Sameer. Snigdha got up to make room for the doctor, but Sameer clutched her hand and forced her to stay with him.

The next evening, they boarded the bus and headed back to Kolkata. This time Snigdha sat with Sameer to help him out. His palm was still bandaged and he seemed to need Snigdha’s help for every little thing. Snigdha was only too glad to help.

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