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Snigdha and Romita stepped down from the car when it rolled to a stop in the parking space of the Spring Club. The driver took the car away to find a parking spot, while the two girls looked at each other. Romita could see how tensed Snigdha looked, with her eyebrows slightly scrunched up. She took Snigdha’s hand in hers, pressed it, and said comfortingly, “I know how you are feeling. But please remember you had other friends in college, who were fond of you, who stood by you. Do you really want to do the same thing to them that Abir did to you? No, right? You can’t sever ties with everybody else because of one person.”

Snigdha replied in a dead voice, “I’m fine, and don’t worry, I won’t let anybody understand what I’m actually feeling. You know I’m a pro at that. Let’s go. I won’t give you any chance to complain.”

At this Romita said, taken aback, “Complain? I brought you here so that you can have fun, not to discipline you or something. If you are going to pretend to be happy and not let yourself be actually happy, we are going home right now. I don’t want you to try any harder.”

Snigdha gave a dry laugh and pulled Romita forward. “Maybe I’m being pessimistic as always. Maybe I’ll have fun once we are with our friends. Come on, let’s go inside now.”

Both the girls crossed the tiled path and reached the entrance of the club. Bollywood music was coming from inside. The guards at the door checked their invitation cards and ushered them inside. The front hall was lit very brightly and there were pretty flower arrangements around the room. A huge Ganesha idol was placed at one corner of the room and Snigdha prayed silently before crossing the hall and stepping into the courtyard where the party was in full swing.

As soon as the door swung open, they saw lots of people milling around. Some people were standing in groups, talking and laughing with each other, holding drinks in their hands. They couldn’t find any of their friends immediately and started looking around while walking through the crowd. A stage was erected in the middle of the courtyard and a DJ was standing there playing songs at his console. At a far corner, buffet tables were laid out and the people serving the food were standing behind those tables in white uniforms. At the opposite end was a makeshift bar, which was crowded at the moment.

Just as Snigdha and Romita were heading towards the bar to get a drink, someone grabbed Snigdha’s hand from behind. Snigdha turned around to see Ashish and Pam smiling at them. Ashish accused Snigdha with a smile, “Never thought you would become once-in-a-blue moon girl.” Pam pushed Ashish aside and came forward to hug Snigdha and Romita.

Pam drew back from Snigdha and scrutinised her before saying in a delighted voice, “Wow, you look gorgeous! Curls suit you and a red mouth! How did your style become so bold?” Pam was the fashionista in their batch, and during their college days she always used to scoff at Snigdha for her lack of interest in fashion. For regular classes, comfort had always ruled for Snigdha, and Snigdha knew how much this had bugged Pam. Pam looked at Romita and asked, “How was your London trip?”

Snigdha felt guilty for being so out of touch with these people and said sincerely, “I missed you both so much. God! Ashish, you look so grown up with your specs! And Pam, see ultimately, I’m living up to your expectations. I didn’t let all your fashion advices go to waste, at least for this you have to forgive me for being so out of touch.”

Pam immediately squeezed Snigdha’s hands. “Hey girl, it’s okay. Just don’t forget us, and stay in touch from now on. Let’s go and get some food, what say?”

So, all of them went to the finger-food counter beside the bar and ordered some snacks. Snigdha hadn’t expected to feel so genuinely happy to see her old friends. It was as if a dead part of her being was coming alive slowly. The smiling faces everywhere, her friends, and the fact that Abir was nowhere to be seen were relaxing her. She asked Ashish about their other friends and Ashish said, “I called Rachna, Gunjan, and Deep. They are on their way. Actually, Deep has flown in from Mumbai just this morning for the party.”

They continued discussing all their old friends and old memories while catching up with some more of their college acquaintances. Suddenly the DJ stopped playing the music and the emcee for the evening got on the stage with a mic in her hands. She welcomed them all and announced that the dance would be starting in a short while. Before that some red and white masks were going to be handed around. It was a masquerade dance. There would be a pair of identical masks—one for the ladies and one for the men. The ladies would have to pick their masks from one counter, while the men would pick theirs from another. The two people having the same masks would become dance partners. At the end of the night, the best couple would be crowned. Cheers erupted around them at this announcement.

As the emcee instructed them to pick up their masks, everyone started moving towards the designated counters. Snigdha and her friends went and stood in the queue that had formed in front of the mask counter for the ladies. She had not seen Abir anywhere and was feeling relieved as well as sad about his absence. Somehow, none of her friends had mentioned him yet and she was glad about that. Meanwhile, she was feeling very excited about the dance. She hadn’t anticipated that she would get to dance, or that she would feel good about it. The party was turning out to be much better than her expectations and she was glad that she had come. When her turn came, she picked up a mask that covered the area around her eyes and her nose. It had red feathers at one end and it looked quiet pretty.

After Snigdha, Romita, and Pam chose their masks, they headed towards the center of the courtyard, which was to be transformed into a dance floor, all the while comparing their individual masks. The emcee was now asking them to start looking for their partners. Soon everybody got busy in trying to locate their dance partners. Snigdha was also trying to find her partner when someone came up behind her and whispered softly, “Snigdha!”

Everything inside Snigdha came to a standstill at the sound of that husky voice.

She whirled around and her loose curls whipped the person’s face. Her heart started hammering inside her chest as she looked into the black, tapered eyes that were looking down at her intensely through the slits of a mask. Abir Sen was standing a few inches apart from her after so much distance.

The music began playing in the background. Abir took his mask off and put it inside his pocket. His exceptionally handsome face seemed unreal to Snigdha even after so many years.

He delicately took Snigdha’s right hand in his left and slid his other arm around her waist. He began moving with the music, making Snigdha move with him. They were moving in a synchronised pattern with their bodies pressed together, flowing with the rhythm of the music, as if their movements and their bodies were coordinated with each other. The other couples were dancing around them, but Snigdha couldn’t feel their presence. There was nothing except Abir around her, within her. His presence, his touch was making her giddy. She couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from his face. Snigdha could hardly resist the urge to move the fringe of hair falling into his eyes, just like old times. She was drinking in his sight—as if he was water to a parched person lost on a hot, sandy desert.

Soon the song ended and there was a brief pause. Abir asked her, “How are you?”

Snigdha had no answer to that. Her senses were too overwhelmed to come up with a rational answer—at that moment she was the happiest girl in the world, though she didn’t know what would happen when he would leave her again. “When did you come to the party? I didn’t see you,” Snigdha said, her mouth dry.

The next song began and Abir started manoeuvring Snigdha around the dance floor again. “Some ten minutes earlier. But you didn’t answer me.”

Snigdha said honestly, “I don’t know.” She had never been able to lie to the person standing in front of her. She could lie to everyone, but not to him. Somehow, he had always pulled the truth out of her. And, at the moment, Snigdha really didn’t know how she was.

A puzzled look came into Abir’s eyes as he looked at Snigdha, but he didn’t say anything else. Snigdha asked while twirling with Abir, held tightly in his arms, “Are you staying in India now?”

Abir continued staring at her, trying to assess her emotions. “No. I’ll be leaving in a few days.”

Snigdha felt her heart contract painfully; unconsciously, she gripped Abir’s hand more tightly. She lowered her eyes, lest Abir saw her pain reflected there—the way he always could.

Abir could feel Snigdha’s body tense up. He whispered softly, “I’m hurting you again.” He loosened his hold on Snigdha, but didn’t let her go entirely.

Snigdha could hear the pain in Abir’s voice, but wasn’t able to make out its implications in the wake of emotions swirling inside her.

Suddenly Snigdha felt someone tapping her shoulders urgently. She turned her head to see Romita standing there, looking very worried. But before Snigdha could say anything, Abir took his hands off Snigdha. He smiled widely at Romita and asked jovially, “Hey, Romy! How are you? Heard you are a businesswoman now.”

Snigdha turned her head sharply to look at Abir. How did he know?

But Romita gave him a tight smile and said curtly, “Abir, please excuse us. I need to talk to Snigdha privately.” She grabbed Snigdha’s hand tightly and pulled her away from the dance floor to a relatively empty corner of the courtyard. Romita put her hands on Snigdha’s shoulders, trying to read her face, and said urgently, “I never expected you would dance with Abir tonight. Are you fine? Do you want to go home? Or we can exchange partners. Or…or if you want, we can give this dance a miss.”

But what Abir had asked Romita a few minutes back had struck Snigdha and she was busy contemplating that. He knew what Romita was doing, which meant he kept tabs on his old friends. Then he had to be aware about Snigdha’s life as well; maybe he hadn’t completely removed her from his mind. Or wasn’t it so? Maybe he wasn’t interested in keeping up with her news. She didn’t know what to think anymore. If she wanted her questions answered, she would have to ask him directly, but she didn’t know whether she was up for it. When Abir had not bothered about her, she didn’t want to show her concern for him. She didn’t want to confront him and didn’t want to confess that his absence hurt her. She liked keeping her emotions to herself. As she remembered that he was leaving India again, she realised that trying to spend time with Abir would only torment her some more. So, she decided to avoid Abir.

When Snigdha suggested they should go and have dinner instead of dancing, Romita readily agreed. They headed towards the buffet counter. Some people who were not interested in dancing were scattered around the food counter with loaded plates in their hands.

Snigdha asked morosely while having dinner, “Do you think he is waiting to dance with me again?”

Romita sneered, “Yeah, right, that jerk is waiting for you! Just eat, Snig.”

Snigdha said quietly, “Wasn’t it rude, how I left him alone in the middle of the dance floor?”

“You are impossible!” Romita rolled her eyes. “Fine, wait here. I’ll go and tell him you won’t dance anymore. And, honestly, let’s just leave. You look bad.” Then she dumped her plate of food on an empty table and stomped off towards the dance floor.

Snigdha was waiting for Romita when she saw someone wandering nearby. He seemed to be searching someone. On looking carefully, she realised that the person was Sameer Sinha. Sameer had been the genius in their batch, the geeky nerd. In spite of being classmates, they had always been mere acquaintances. As Snigdha continued to stare at him, she realised that he had changed drastically—at least in the appearance category. He had been a tall and bulky guy. But in the last few years he had acquired a chiselled body. His sharp jaws and puppy eyes were being complemented by a funky haircut now. He was looking dapper in a brown jacket over a white shirt and blue jeans. His fitted shirt was accentuating his toned frame. He was cute in spite of his ruggedness. He had a certain boyish charm that was very attractive. She continued taking in Sameer’s tall, dark, and handsome looks while trying to distract herself from her wild urge to run back to Abir.

Sameer’s eyes suddenly fell on Snigdha and he approached her uncertainly. “Snigdha, right?” When she nodded in approval, he smiled shyly. “You are still just as beautiful. Umm…do you remember me? I’m Sameer. We were in the same class. I was…” Sameer abruptly stopped speaking, looking uncomfortable.

Snigdha was surprised to be complimented by Sameer like this. They had never been friends. She tried to hide her awkwardness with her casual reply, “Thanks. I thought you were looking for someone. Am I right?”

Sameer said, “Actually, yes. I was looking for Romita. She was supposed to be my dance partner. But she went somewhere and I can’t seem to find her.”

Snigdha said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! She came to meet me and then I dragged her here for dinner.” Right then she saw Romita returning. “Hey, there she is!”

Romita approached them, looking relieved. “Sameer, there you are. I was looking for you. Sorry, we have to leave.”

“Is something wrong? Why are you leaving so early?” Sameer’s voice was filled with concern.

“No, no. Everything is fine. My mom called. Something important has come up at home,” Snigdha lied to Sameer then turned towards Romita. “Let’s go and tell the others.”

Before going to find their friends, Romita apologised to Sameer again. Pam, Ashish, and all their other friends were similarly surprised when they told them they were leaving. After promising the others to keep in touch, Snigdha and Romita came out of the club and headed for their car.

Once they were on their way home, Snigdha asked Romita in a dead voice, “What did Abir say?”

“He said he’d like to meet you only…only if you want to.” Romita looked nervously at Snigdha’s face. “He’s staying at the Regent Palace for the next two days.”

Snigdha nodded once. She didn’t know what to do. Years back, Abir had promised, “Won’t leave you for anything.” But he had left without any warning, and since then there had been no contact between them. She came to know of his departure from Ashish. When she first heard that Abir had left for the Brown University to do his masters, she couldn’t believe it. For months, the world felt unreal. She waited for him to come back or to call and explain. But there were no calls, no messages, and no explanations. Everything that Snigdha had felt with Abir, every moment that they had spent together was proved false. Trust was wiped clean from her heart.

Then why did he want to meet her now? Nothing else was left to be discussed.

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