Abir said, scratching his chin, “Let’s include some sort of aerial along with contemporary. We have to stand out.” He added reassuringly seeing the blank look on Snigdha’s face, “We’ll help you with the aerial part, don’t worry.”
Snigdha was busy scrutinising Abir’s face though. His eyes still got scrunched up when he concentrated hard on something. She could see that Abir was thoroughly excited about the upcoming dance festival. He was having animated discussions with Daniel about their act, but her mind was not on the discussion.
Abir waved his hand in front of Snigdha’s face. “Earth calling, Snigdha!”
Snigdha was startled out of her reverie. “What!”
Daniel got irritated with her callousness. “Snigdha, please concentrate. We are discussing something important here.”
Snigdha mumbled apologetically, “Sorry, Dan.”
Abir squeezed her hand slightly to comfort her. When she looked up at him, he gave her a small smile. “It’s okay, Snigdha. Relax. Is everything all right?”
Snigdha nodded. “Yeah. What were you saying about the aerial act?”
Abir voiced his doubt, “Will you be comfortable with aerial? You haven’t done it before.”
Snigdha considered the matter for a while. “I’ll need training to pull it off convincingly. I need to work on my isolations also.”
But Daniel was confident. “Don’t worry about that. We will work on you. There’s time.”
They started work on their act soon. The choreography, costumes, and the technical aspect were being looked over by Daniel and other senior instructors of the institute. Snigdha and Abir spent the next few weeks rehearsing together every evening. Sameer came to see Snigdha rehearse on some of the days.
One evening when Snigdha came back home from the rehearsal, she was backfooted by Srestha’s sudden inquisition. “Mini, why didn’t you tell us Abir is performing with you in the dance festival?”
Snigdha blurted out angrily, “Who told you about that?”
“Sameer. He at least seems to have some responsibility.”
Snigdha replied, trying to keep her cool, “Mom, this is one decision I’ve taken for my life. I’ve done everything according to your advice. But I need to decide this for my own. I do respect your concerns, but you have to trust me on this. I didn’t tell you because I knew you would overreact and I don’t want to deal with this. I need to focus right now. Anyways, it’s not a big deal.”
Srestha said, “Well, I’m okay with it, but talk to your father. He’s mad to know about Abir. Why do you have to dance with him again?”
Snigdha said, exasperated, “Mom, can’t I take one single decision on my own? I’m not a two-year-old kid. We are working so hard for this festival. Now you are saying all my hard work will be wasted if dad doesn’t agree to this thing?”
Srestha put up her hands in a gesture of resignation. “Talk to your father. I don’t want drama at home before the wedding. It’s better to stay clear.”
Snigdha slowly trudged up to her father’s office with growing dread. He didn’t look up from his file when she entered the room. She called tentatively, “Dad?”
Jatin fired straightaway, “Mini, you said you’ll stay away from Abir. Just because we let you dance again, it doesn’t mean you can become irresponsible.” He still didn’t look up from his file, but there was menace in his composed voice.
Snigdha screamed, “Abir? You are concerned about Abir? This is about me, not him. I want to do something for myself, I want to get something for myself, something that will make me proud. And, he’s just part of that process, but he’s not everything. You want me to back out of success because Abir is involved in it? You can’t see anything beyond your stupid prejudice, not even my happiness. Dad, don’t be like this, please. You are hurting me.”
Jatin suddenly got up from his chair and stood in front of Snigdha. He said in a hard voice, “I don’t want to hurt you, Mini. You can take part in this dance festival, but not with Abir.”
Snigdha replied, equally adamant, “If it was someone other than Abir, would you have had any problems then?”
Snigdha said, “Good. Then forget Abir is there with me. Just think your daughter is going out there to win hearts. If you respect me and my decisions even a bit, do it for me. I’ve respected your decisions all my life. I expect this much respect from you in return. And trust me, I’m doing this only because my instructor thinks Abir would be able to bring out the best in me. Don’t read too much into it.”
With that Snigdha walked out of the room, without waiting for any reply from her father. She knew that as long as Sameer was supporting her, her parents wouldn’t be able to stop her from participating in the festival. And her father couldn’t possibly hurt Abir without arousing the Sinhas’ suspicions. She knew her father would never jeopardise her relation with Sameer. At least, that’s what she desperately hoped for.
The next day when they were done with the rehearsals, Abir suddenly asked her, “Snigdha, would you like to go on a dinner with me tonight?”
Snigdha couldn’t refuse, though her heart started drum rolling. For the last few weeks, the two of them had managed to get along fine—rehearsing, chatting about everyday life, about the dance festival, about their act. All the instructors, especially Daniel, were going gaga over their chemistry.
Snigdha didn’t know what to expect from Abir anymore. There was a time when she could talk to Abir nonstop for hours, but now when they were going out alone after all these years, she couldn’t understand how to fill the silences that crept up between them. This fact saddened her, their lost camaraderie a painful ache in her heart. On one hand, she was fighting with her father for Abir, and on the other hand, she was getting awkward in Abir’s presence.
They were sitting across from each other at Hot Grill, waiting for their dinner to arrive, when Sameer called up Snigdha. Snigdha told him she was having dinner with Abir. They talked for some time on the phone and all the while Abir stared at Snigdha, trying to read her expressions as she talked to Sameer.
When she put her mobile back in her purse, Abir stated, “You look so happy with Sam.”
“Yeah, I am. He’s a great guy.” Snigdha felt apprehension stirring within her. Where was this conversation going? His impassive face was not giving away anything.
Abir continued, “Did you ever tell him about our past?”
Snigdha was shocked at the question. “No.” Her eyes seemed to bulge with fear.
Abir smiled. “I thought so, too. Relax, okay? I’m not going to tell him anything. I know how much you overthink everything. You must have thought I’d spill out the beans?”
“Yeah, I did. But thanks for not telling him.”
Abir asked, “Why do you want to keep him in the dark? He should know the truth, don’t you think?”
Snigdha said defensively, “No, he doesn’t need to know.”
Abir smirked. “Why? He doesn’t trust you or what?”
Snigdha got furious, “What the hell do you mean? Of course, Sameer trusts me. I just don’t want to hurt him unnecessarily. Our past doesn’t matter now. What is the point of bringing it up then?”
Abir said impatiently, “But the past matters, Snigdha because it really might not be the past.”
Snigdha sat dumbfounded, staring at Abir. At long last, she managed to find her voice. “What are you implying?”
Abir said almost in a fearful whisper, “Are you really over me? Or are you doing this for your parents’ sake?’
This was the exact question Snigdha wanted to avoid ever since she saw Abir at the airport. What was she supposed to say? She still cared too deeply for Abir.
Snigdha took a deep breath to get a grip on her self-control. “Abir, I honestly love Sameer. I want to marry him. I know what my father has done to you, and I’m sorry for that. But Sameer is my life now.”
Abir bent over the table, frowning deeply. He asked in an accusatory tone, “Then why is our photo still saved in your mobile? Why did you cry the day I arrived? I thought Sam would keep my secret. But he has spilled it all I see.”
Snigdha replied defensively, “I badgered him to tell me. He didn’t want to tell me at first. You don’t need to read too much into my mobile wallpaper. You were a part of my life and I respect that part. Our memories are precious to me. It’s nothing more than that.”
Abir still looked sour. He said acidly, “You are deluding yourself.”
Snigdha replied calmly, “No, I’m not deluded. I’m completely sure about Sameer. I’m not denying you mean a great deal to me. I cherish our friendship. I’ll always do that. You will be a part of my heart, my existence. But we have moved on now. You have your life. I’ve mine. I’ve committed myself to someone else, and trust me, I did it of my own free will.”
Abir closed his eyes as if in pain. When he opened them again his eyes were burning. He asked slowly, “Who told you I’ve moved on? I’m still stuck in the past—stuck on you.”
Snigdha felt her heart clench painfully at these words. The pain on his face, in his voice was too much for her. She couldn’t tolerate his pain. She wanted to get up and hug Abir, but how would that help?
Abir saw tears pooling in her eyes. She quickly brushed her eyes with the back of her palm, so as not to attract unwanted attention from the people around them. He hurried to say, “Snigdha, please come back to me. I’ll convince your dad. Back then I was a nobody. Now I’ve established myself. I’ve a much more prestigious position than Sam. I can keep you happy. You know we are meant for each other.”
Snigdha closed her eyes tightly, as if she could turn all this into a nightmare by doing so. A few months ago, this moment would have been a dream come true. Now she was walking away from this. She said slowly, her voice shaking badly, “Abir, please don’t do this to me. You ruined everything before and now you are trying to ruin everything again.”
Abir said scathingly, “I ruined everything? How can you say that?”
Snigdha said, trying to hold her tears back, “Why didn’t you ever tell me how my father was treating you. I wanted to spend my entire life with you. I wanted to share myself with you. Yet you couldn’t share something so vital with me. You went away and left me bereft. I know under what circumstances you did that. But didn’t you need me when you were in so much trouble?”
Abir asked, getting agitated, “What would you have done if I had told you?”
Snigdha said, “I could have talked to my father, tried to make him see sense. I wouldn’t have felt as guilty as I do now every waking moment. He is letting me do this dance with you after I talked to him. If you had just confided in me, things could have been so much different.”
Abir said, looking thoroughly deflated, “I never wanted to sour your relationship with your parents. I know how much you respect them. But you are right. I should have told you. I think somewhere deep down, it was my ego that stopped me from telling you everything. I wanted to win over your father on my own. I didn’t want your help. The fact that he hated me snapped my self-confidence. I was too used to people falling all over me. Now when I see Sam, I realise where I went wrong with your father. I retaliated to his dislike. I should have been patient like Sam, should have tried to convince him peacefully. Then suddenly dad passed away and I had to leave.” He gulped once. “I lost all my confidence. I was scared to hurt my mother; she was already so broken. My brain had stopped working properly. I was lost. I didn’t know what the right course of action was.” He extended his hand across the table to grab Snigdha’s hand, but stopped at the last moment. “But things can go back to the way they were before, if you take me back. I can make everything work out this time.”
Snigdha said adamantly, “No, nothing can be as it was. I can’t leave Sameer. He loves me. I can’t hurt him.”
Abir said desperately, “But I love you, too. I’ve loved you longer than he has.”
Snigdha said, “You are so selfish sometimes, Abir.”
Abir said in a steely voice, “Yes. I’m selfish. I want you and I don’t care about hurting anyone else.”
Snigdha replied scathingly, “Didn’t you want me all these years? Why didn’t you come back when I was sitting here, pining for you? Why did you leave without telling me? You left again after telling Romita at that party that you wanted to meet me. Even then you were not sure about talking to me. Ego was more important then, what if it becomes important again? What if you leave me again? Sameer is your friend. He cares so much for you. Yet, you are saying you don’t care about his pain!”
Abir sat silently for a long time. The dinner was served, but they didn’t touch their food. They had lost their appetite a long time back.
Snigdha got up at last without eating anything, ready to leave. Abir got up, went up to her, and asked, “Just give me one answer. Are you really ready to spend your life with Sam? Then why did you agree to participate in this dance festival with me?”
Snigdha said calmly, “This is an opportunity for me to get international exposure. You are someone I’m comfortable with. I didn’t see any reason to let go of this chance.”
Abir paid the bill for their untouched dinner and as Snigdha was getting in a cab to go home, Abir asked her, “Do you still want to do the act with me?”
Snigdha looked at his face and saw the resignation there. It was hurting her, but the way Abir disregarded Sameer’s emotions made her realise more clearly who her priority was. “Yes. But only if you can manage to respect my decision. I know you can do that. I trust you”
She got in the cab, closed the door behind her, and the cab zoomed off into the darkness, engulfed by the rushing traffic.
As her cab made its way through the crowded street, she sat contemplating her own decisions. She had craved for Abir for more than four years. Now Abir himself wanted to have her back. But ironically, since Abir’s return she had never felt any compulsion to go back to him. She was way too much in love with Sameer. Sameer bound her and liberated her, all at the same time. Sameer had done way too much for her to deserve anything less than her complete dedication. She was immensely sad for Abir, that was true; she wanted to do anything she could to make him happy, but not at the cost of Sameer’s happiness. Sameer had given her a new life and she would give her life to keep the smile on Sameer’s face. His cherubic face was her life now. She couldn’t even think of disrespecting Sameer by considering any other man. Yes, Abir was too important for her even now, but she was absolutely confident that Sameer was the man for her. If she swayed even a bit due to any emotional weakness, she would feel like a cheap slut. She was proud and immensely relieved to have made her decision known to Abir—but saddened at the same time for hurting him again. She believed that Abir deserved better. She prayed fervently for Abir to get everything he was missing in his life.
She smiled weakly when Sameer called her up on the way home. She received the call and spent the rest of the journey talking to him.