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“Mom, I’m leaving. Come and lock the door,” Snigdha hollered while walking out of the house. She was leaving for work. Romita was staying at home with her mother and both the ladies had ordered her to return early. But as she set off for work, she was busy thinking about the initial step that Abir had taken towards her. She didn’t know which would be prudent—following her head or her heart. The last night she hadn’t slept at all. The perfume that Abir had used, coming off her body and her party clothes—she had hugged those clothes all night—was invigorating her as much as his thoughts were.

On the way to college her car stopped at a traffic signal for quite some time. Through her car window, Snigdha had a clear view of the footpath where a slum had sprung up. As she sat waiting inside her car, feeling tired and grumpy, she suddenly saw two little slum kids—a girl of about eight and a boy of about twelve—playing together. They were running around and screaming and laughing. Suddenly the girl fell down and scraped her knee. The boy saw her crying and ran towards her. He helped her up and made her sit on a nearby bench before examining her bruise. Just then the traffic light went green and her car surged forward.

This scene flooded Snigdha’s mind with a memory from her past.

Snigdha, Romita, Ashish, and Abir had gone for tuition. Their professor held classes in a tuition centre near their college. That day they reached the centre a little early as college had ended before the scheduled time. So, the four friends were standing outside the room allotted for them, waiting for their professor to arrive and unlock the door. They were discussing that day’s classes and notes, when all of a sudden Singha began feeling dizzy and her stomach began painting. She tried to ignore the discomfort initially, but the pain steadily began to build up. Singha wanted to sit down but there wasn’t any place to sit. She didn’t want to get her friends worried, so she kept trying not to show her discomfort. But she was feeling very hot and was sweating. Her forehead was getting covered with beads of perspiration. The others didn’t notice anything and continued chatting.

Abir looked at her in the middle of their conversation. “Snigdha, maybe we should do those graphs again. We know our data is wrong, what’s the point in plotting the wrong values?” Abir stopped speaking and frowned, “Snigdha, what’s wrong. Are you sick?”

Snigdha managed to mumble, “My stomach’s paining.” She wobbled slightly as she said this and Abir hastily held her arms to steady her. He asked Romita to give Snigdha some water.

By this time, Snigdha’s head had started spinning and she was finding it extremely difficult to keep standing. When Romita handed Snigdha her water bottle, she drank some water, but immediately started feeling nauseated. She slumped helplessly in Abir’s arms, trying not to throw up.

Seeing Snigdha’s condition, Abir decided to take her home. So, Ashish and Romita went outside to hail a cab as Snigdha was in no condition to travel in a bus or auto.

When the cab arrived, Abir told the others to attend the class and inform their professor about what had happened. Then keeping a firm hold on Snigdha, he walked her outside, and helped her get in the cab. But when the cab started moving, the vibration of the moving vehicle and the stale air and heat inside it became too much for Snigdha to bear. When Abir saw her looking even paler, he pulled the window glass completely down.

Slowly the rushing air managed to ease her up a bit and when Abir put his arm around her to hold her close, she put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Abir wiped the perspiration off her face and stroked her head.

After they reached Snigdha’s home, her mother helped her inside. She made her lie on her bed and went downstairs to call their family doctor. Meanwhile, Abir stayed beside her, sitting on the edge of her bed, holding her hand.

When the doctor came, he examined Snigdha and said she had food poisoning. Her father was not at home and Srestha didn’t want to leave her alone in such a state. So, Abir brought her medicines and left her house only when she could sit up a bit without feeling dizzy.

For the next three days, Snigdha rested at home as per the doctor’s suggestion. Abir came everyday to meet her after college. He brought along all the notes for her. He also filled in her practical notebooks for her even though Snigdha vehemently protested against this.

Snigdha’s car suddenly jerked to a halt at the next traffic signal and she broke out of her reverie. She was going to compromise with her ego this time. She wanted some answers and she was going to get them. She told the driver to turn the car around and take her to the Regent Palace. She was going to meet Abir and talk to him face-to-face.

Within forty-five minutes Snigdha reached her destination. She entered the lobby of the hotel with mounting trepidation. Her hands were turning cold with nerves. She approached the reception counter and asked the lady sitting behind the desk about Abir Sen. The lady looked up the register quickly. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, Mr Sen has checked out this morning.”

Snigdha felt her insides shrivelling up. She stared at the receptionist for a moment before asking in a shaky voice, “Are you sure?”

The lady said, “Yes, Ma’am. He left an hour ago.”

Snigdha gulped, nodded once, and quickly got out of the lobby.

As she sped away from the hotel, she felt broken and crushed. Abir had tried to pull her close and pushed her away again. She felt like banging her head on the wall for falling prey to her heart again. This second brutal rejection from Abir, as if she was nothing significant and not worth a second thought, was too much to take.

Snigdha realised she wouldn’t be able to work in this state of mind. She didn’t want to return home early to get deluged with unnecessary questions either. So, she called up one of her colleagues and informed her that she wouldn’t be coming that day. Later, she went to the flea markets of Gariahat to do some shopping in a desperate attempt to cheer herself up. She was not going to give into any sort of Abir-related depression again.

The whole afternoon she roamed the streets of Gariahat, looking at the colourful displays of dresses, accessories, handbags at the various stalls lining the footpaths of Gariahat. She bought several new tops and leggings for herself and Romita. She even got matching earrings to go with all the new dresses. Snigdha got into fights while bargaining ruthlessly with the stall owners, trying to drown the hollow ache searing within her.

Whlle she was passing by Jojo’s, the owner saw her and dragged her in for lunch. This was one of her regular haunts and she was on very good terms with the people there. But in the wake of everything, she had lost her appetite. She tried to dissuade the owner from feeding her, but they wouldn’t let her go without making her eat her favourite chicken roll. While eating her lunch in silence, she tried to find some reason for Abir’s behaviour. He had looked concerned and loving at the party, just like before. He had said he would be staying in Kolkata for a few more days only last night then why had he left in the morning? Maybe some emergency had occurred back home.

But somehow, she couldn’t quite believe all the innocent reasons she conjured up for Abir’s behaviour. He had himself wanted to meet her. There definitely had been a chance that Snigdha would go to meet him. If he had hoped to meet her again and reconnect then he should have left a message for her with the hotel people or with some common friends. He could have taken her number and called her directly. But he had not done any of that, which confirmed her fear that he didn’t care, that he was playing again. His behaviour last night and his actions this morning were drastically contrasting. Snigdha was left with even more puzzling questions than before.

On finishing her lunch, she paid the bill and decided to take a stroll on the streets to while the time away. While passing by a shop selling hot chicken momos, she stopped to buy some for her mother. As she headed towards the car parking area an hour later, she checked her face in the glass wall of a sari shop to make sure her face was looking calm enough to keep her parents from getting suspicious.

Later in the evening, as she was entering her house, she could hear voices issuing from the downstairs hall. Some guests seemed to have arrived, though she couldn’t place the new voices. She felt glad about having guests, as it would keep her mother busy and would prevent her from asking about her day. While the driver was leaving after parking the car in the garage, she heard a male voice coming from inside and got stunned—it sounded like Sameer Sinha—the guy she was checking out last night and who had complimented her.

What was he doing at her place? Curious, she went straight to the downstairs hall and saw her father sitting with Sameer and an elderly couple who looked as if they might be Sameer’s parents. Empty plates and glasses were strewn on the glass table in front of the sofa. Her mother and Romita were nowhere in sight.

Her father smiled when he saw Snigdha and introduced her to the guests. “Mini, come here. Meet our guests. Mrinal uncle.” Jatin pointed at the bespectacled old man sitting beside Sameer. “Do you remember him? I used to tell you stories about our school days when you were little.” Her father continued after she took a seat beside him, “Mrinal, this is my daughter, Snigdha.” He gestured towards Sameer’s mother next and said, “This is Rimsha aunty and their son, Sameer.”

Sameer smiled at Snigdha, his eyes twinkling merrily, and Snigdha returned his smile a little uncertainly.

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