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Sameer’s father turned out to be an old family friend of Jatin’s. They had lost all contact after college, when they both had moved out of their hometown. All these years later they had met again while working on the same construction project—Mrinal Sinha too was into the construction business. Jatin had invited his old friend and his family to their house and Mrinal had arrived at Snigdha’s place with his wife and son in tow. Everybody was pleased to learn that Snigdha and Sameer knew each other from their college days.

Sameer and Snigdha exchanged numbers that evening. Sameer called her quite often in the following days, and soon these calls became regular. Sameer was working for Chemtech Pvt Ltd as an industrial chemist. He was also involved with Dreams of Light, a local NGO, working for the welfare of kids under the age of fourteen. Snigdha was impressed to know about Sameer’s social work and she too volunteered to join the organisation. Once every week, Snigdha went to visit various orphanages with the other NGO workers. Each time, they took books, toys, clothes, and all sorts of things for the kids. She enjoyed interacting with the kids. The genuine smiles that spread on the faces of the little ones on receiving some love gave her a deep satisfaction. The realisation that she could contribute in making lives better, in whatever small way, gave her a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Within a few months, Snigdha was deeply involved with the working of the NGO. Along with Sameer, she took on the responsibility of collecting funds for the events and medical camps the NGO held for kids in remote villages once every year. That year they were slated to go to Bogula for their annual camp in September. As a preparation, both Snigdha and Sameer started approaching different companies, institutions, and people, who they thought could contribute financially. Snigdha discussed the matter with the principal of her college, and they decided to collect some money from the college students. The principal thought it would be a good way to make the students socially aware. Snigdha’s student, Reshmi Mondal, volunteered to go with them for the camp. Sameer managed to get a substantial donation from the company he worked in. Both of them arranged for donations from their local clubs and their parents too donated generously.

Snigdha and Sameer were returning home from an NGO meeting one Saturday, when they decided to go and have one last cup of coffee. They were waiting for their Mochas when Sameer suddenly asked her, “Snigdha, do you people go outside Kolkata during the puja holidays?”

Snigdha replied, “No. Durga Pujas are best enjoyed at Kolkata. I don’t know why anyone would want to go out of West Bengal for the pujas. But why are you asking this? Are you going somewhere?”

Sameer hesitated. “Actually, I was thinking we could go for a family picnic or a small tour after the pujas. What say?”

Snigdha looked unsure about the idea. “I don’t know whether mom and dad would agree to go. Our relatives generally come to visit after the puja for Bijaya Dashami. Even I go to my maternal uncle’s place for bijaya and stay there for a few days. I don’t know whether my parents would let go of the chance to meet the relatives.”

But Sameer sounded confident when he said, “Don’t worry about your parents. I’ll get them to listen to me. I just want to know your views on the matter.”

Snigdha was surprised at first, but then on thinking about it she realised Sameer was indeed right. He did seem to have an uncanny hold over her parents. Her parents were always displeased if she went out with her friends too much, with the exception of Romita and her cousin, Neelu. But strangely her parents had no such aversion for Sameer. They let her attend all the NGO-related work with Sameer without a second question. They seemed to trust Sameer too much. She said sceptically, “I’d like to go for sure. But how can you be so sure about my parents’ reaction? My mom and dad have a mind of their own. Even my grandmother can’t make my father change his mind about things. You think you’ll manage this feat?”

Sameer gave her his disarming, lopsided smile with a confident gleam in his eyes. “I know they will listen to me. They like me, don’t they? They have to say yes for this tour, you’ll see.”

Snigdha folded her arms, leaned back on her chair, and said confidently, “I know my parents. They will never go.”

A mischievous smile was playing at the corner of his lips as Sameer replied, “Miss Mini, are you challenging me? I’ve a habit of winning. I don’t lose.”

Snigdha said, getting irritated, “Why are you so arrogant? Everything’s not going to happen your way, and okay, I challenge you. Let’s see who knows my parents better.”

Sameer was grinning now. Snigdha couldn’t help noticing how alluring and cute he looked when he grinned like that. Sameer leaned forward a bit. “Excellent. But when you lose you will get a punishment. You can’t back out of it later.”

Snigdha frowned. “What punishment?”

“I’ll decide that later. Let me plan my moves right now.”

Snigdha narrowed her eyes meanly. “Done. Let’s see how you manage to win them over.”

Sameer nodded with an air of great confidence and extended his hand towards Snigdha. She took it boldly and they shook hands firmly.

After leaving the coffee shop, Sameer took Snigdha home. Whenever he came to drop her home, Sameer made it a point to meet her parents. Srestha was watching television when they arrived that day and Jatin was busy with some office files. Srestha was the first to see Sameer enter with Snigdha. She welcomed him gladly. “How are you, Sameer? Come inside and have a seat.”

Sameer smiled and said, “Thanks, aunty, I’m great. Getting an opportunity to work with your daughter has been a fantastic experience.”

Snigdha was taken aback at the praise and stared at Sameer. When Sameer saw her staring at him, he grinned and raised his eyebrows questioningly. But Snigdha shrugged and didn’t comment. Together they proceeded to the downstairs hall and sat side by side on the sofa. Srestha went to call Jatin from his office situated at the back of the house.

Once they were alone, Snigdha turned to Sameer. “Did you mean what you just told mom or was that a part of your strategy to win them over?”

Sameer leaned towards her. “What do you think?” he asked mischievously.

Sameer’s gaze was making her uncomfortable. She could feel the air between them tense up. She said with a mocking smile, trying to ease the situation, “I think you were just trying to impress her. What can be so great about working with me?” She was not going to get intimidated so easily.

Sameer frowned, but didn’t move away from her. “Is that what you really think?”

Snigdha could hear footsteps approaching them and hastily backed away from Sameer. He too seemed to become aware of his surroundings as he straightened himself up. Before Snigdha got a chance to reply, Jatin came in with Srestha and engaged Sameer in a conversation. Snigdha excused herself and got up to leave. She could feel Sameer’s eyes follow her as she left the room.

She kept thinking about Sameer’s behaviour all the way up to her room. The way his puppy-like eyes had twinkled with intensity as he had looked at her was making her uncomfortable even now. She got into her bathroom for a quick wash and found herself thinking about another set of black eyes that crinkled at the corners as they stared at her.

In their second year of college, their HOD arranged a week-long trip to Puri and Bhubaneswar. Snigdha’s parents refused outright as soon as she told them about the trip. She was miserable since all her friends were going together, while she was staying back alone at home. All her friends, even Romita, failed to convince her parents. When everybody from their batch submitted their names for the trip and their HOD saw Snigdha’s name missing from the list, she called Snigdha up to know why she was not going. On hearing that her parents were not allowing her to go, their HOD, Mrs Bakshi, stepped in and talked to her parents. She finally managed to convince her parents that their daughter would be safe with all her friends and professors. At long last she was going and she was over the moon about it. That was the first time she was going for a vacation with her friends, with Abir.

On the train they had a blast playing truth and dare, endless rounds of dumb charades, and antakshari. The challenges for the dare ranged from asking for money from their co-passengers on the train to dancing to songs played on the mobile phones. Later Sanjay and Madhu came around to hand over the packed dinners to everybody. Snigdha opened her packet to find a vegetarian meal inside. But she was strictly non-vegetarian. She couldn’t eat a single meal without egg or chicken. She told Sanjay about it, but there weren’t any more non-veg meals left. Professor Shom, who was in charge of the food, was very sorry about it. There was no pantry in the train from where some food could be arranged for her. She felt embarrassed about causing all these troubles to their professor and for disrupting all the fun. So, she decided to eat what she had got.

She stared at her food morosely and was about to take a bite when Abir extended his own non-veg packet towards her and gestured her to take it. Snigdha knew Abir was as much a non-veg person as she was. So, she simply shook her head, refusing to swap the food.

Abir tried to tug her packet out of her hands, but she clutched to it tightly, refusing to give it up. Snigdha was afraid that the food might spill out of the packet because of all the tugging. She hissed through gritted teeth, “ABIR-STOP-IT. YOU-DON’T- HAVE-TO-EAT-MUCK-FOR-ME.”

Abir let go of the packet and began tickling Snigdha’s neck, making her fidget on her seat, giggling. She hurriedly kept her food packet on the seat and clutched Abir’s hands, trying to stop him. “Abir, let go.” Taking this chance, Abir swiftly wrenched his hand free from her grip and picked up Snigdha’s packet. Then he sat down opposite Snigdha triumphantly.

Snigdha let out a long breath in a huff, crossed her arms and legs, and leaned back. She turned her face away from Abir, looking at the outside world zipping by. She complained moodily, “That was not fair.”

Abir sat beside her then, placed his hands on either side of her face, and made her turn towards himself. He looked steadily into her eyes. “Exactly. It’s not fair that your first trip with your friends should start with a disappointment. I know how much you are expecting from this trip and I’ll make sure it lives up to your dreams. So, please don’t complain and eat it.” He continued holding her and the warmth in his words, in his eyes made it impossible for Snigdha to look away. She felt her heart pounding and her face growing hot. Just then someone sniggered. “Shom Sir is coming this way.”

Abir abruptly let her go and went back to his seat. Even then Snigdha couldn’t slow down her breathing. Professor Shom approached Snigdha. “Did you have your dinner then?”

Before she could respond, Abir spoke up, “Sir, we have exchanged our meals. I’m okay with veg, don’t worry.”

Professor Shom looked from one to the other, noticed the untouched food beside them, and asked sceptically, “Then why haven’t you eaten yet?”

Abir said with a smile, “Snigdha was talking to her mother on the phone. We’ll get started on the food in a bit.”

Professor Shom nodded. “Well, all right, don’t keep the food uncovered for long,” and then he moved away with a hurried “goodnight”.

But Snigdha still resolutely kept refusing to touch the food. At last Abir had to say, “Let’s share the non-veg stuff then. Is that acceptable?”

Snigdha looked at Abir and nodded. They ended up eating from the same packet that night.

Later they made their beds on the seats and lay down. Snigdha turned her face to see Abir staring fixedly at her. The dim light of the night bulb was casting shadows across his handsome face and she found herself craving to stroke his face, to move that mop of hair falling on his eyes. They both continued looking at each other. As her eyes started getting heavy with sleep, she felt a strong urge to go and curl up against Abir. That was the first night she dreamt of him, saw his smiling face moving in and out of her focus.

The next day when they reached the hotel in Puri, Romita and Snigdha got to share a room. The sea beach was very close to their hotel and they decided to go there in the evening. When they returned to their room after lunch, Romita asked her with a teasing grin, “So you and Abir, huh? Were you planning to keep it quiet from me?”

Snigdha looked up at Romita in surprise. “No, of…of course not. Don’t be silly.”

“You are blushing, okay? You can’t keep this quiet, you know.” Romita pulled out her phone from her purse, pressed a few buttons, and extended the phone towards Snigdha. “Have a look.”

Snigdha curiously took the phone from her. The screen was displaying a picture where Abir was cupping Snigdha’s face as they looked into each other’s eyes. Snigdha’s eyes widened in surprise. She turned to glare at her friend. “When did you take this photo? I’m deleting it.”

Romita swiftly snatched the phone from Snigdha’s hand. She said indignantly, “Hey! What are you getting angry for? This photo is for you only. It will be a good memory for both of you later, you’ll see.”

Snigdha just flopped down on the bed and turned her back on Romita. She said, getting miffed, “You are blowing things out of proportion.”

Romita said, “Am I now? I don’t think so. Anyone can feel the intensity between you two. You were so lost in him that you didn’t even realise when I clicked the picture.” Romita sniggered.

Later that evening when they went to the beach, Snigdha was blown away by the huge rushing waves of the Bay of Bengal that was spread out under the darkened sky. The sea appeared very mysterious and unfathomable to her. The others wanted to stroll along the beach, but she preferred sitting on a chair outside one of the shacks that dotted the sea beach, just looking at the waves crashing on the sand with an almighty lurch and then receding again.

She was sitting there, watching the water and feeling the fierce wind on her face when Abir materialised beside her, pulled her up from her chair, and dragged her to join them. When Snigdha protested he said, “It’s not safe for you to sit there alone. We can come here some other time and then you can sit as long as you wish to.”

Snigdha didn’t protest after this, and that evening he constantly walked beside her and never left her side. Romita looked at her pointedly, grinned, and tried to give them space by walking a bit farther from them. Snigdha couldn’t help smiling to herself every now and then. She knew her face was revealing everything she felt because Abir often used to say, “Your face is like an open book, Snigdha. It’s not always good to let others know your true feelings.”

But through that entire trip she was not bothered about hiding her feelings. They both sought each other out amidst all their other friends and spent as much time as possible together. Every night when Snigdha lay on her bed, going over that day’s memories, Abir stood out clearly in her mind, while everything else felt a bit jumbled up. Every touch they shared, every smile they exchanged replayed themselves in her mind in the darkness of her room as Romita continued to snore softly beside her.

When they returned to Kolkata and were about to leave the Howrah Station, Snigdha stopped Romita and pulled her aside. “Romy, send me that picture you took on the train the other day.”

Romita smiled widely and obliged.

Snigdha still used that photo as the wallpaper on her old phone.

She went down to join her parents and Sameer again. As she entered the hall, she saw Sameer tucking into large pieces of tandoori kebabs and chatting with her parents, completely at home. She felt slightly resentful at this sight. Her mother made the kebabs only for her. No one, not even her father, was allowed to eat a single piece. Then why was Sameer eating them?

Just then Srestha looked up and beckoned her to join them. She answered her unasked question, “I asked Sameer to taste my kebabs. See, what a sweet boy he is! He was getting late, but still he stayed back on my request.”

Snigdha looked at Sameer and saw him smiling. He said, “Thank the heavens I stayed, aunty. Otherwise I would have missed your kebabs. You can give any professional chef a run for their money. Why don’t you give MasterChef a go?”

Srestha smiled at him fondly before saying, “I’m glad you like it. These are Snigdha’s favourites, too.” Snigdha knew Sameer was trying to flatter her mother, and she stuck her tongue out at him when her parents weren’t looking. Sameer replied with a hurried wink.

Jatin suddenly said, “Mini, Sameer is planning a small trip during the puja vacation. I think we should go. It will be fun.”

Snigdha was aghast at her father’s words. They never went out of Kolkata during the holidays. What did Sameer say to convince them? Earlier when Sameer had mentioned the trip to her, she had really been eager about it. But she had been sure that her parents would refuse. She had never expected them to get excited about it. The amount of indulgence they were showing towards Sameer was making her uncomfortable and nervous now. Why were they treating him so special? She had never seen her parents give so much attention to anybody, except her. Somewhere deep down she was starting to feel jealous of Sameer for becoming this important to her parents.

Sameer’s voice jerked Snigdha back from her thoughts, “Why are you so quiet? I thought you would be regaling your parents with all the stories about our camp preparations.”

Snigdha said in an irritated voice, “I’m feeling tired. I’ll tell them later.” She was fond of Sameer, but right then she wanted Sameer to leave, so that she could ask her parents all the questions plaguing her.

At long last Sameer left. But when he was tying up his shoe laces on the doorstep and both her parents were inside—Jatin attending a business call and Srestha packing some of the kebabs for Sameer’s parents—Sameer said with a twinkle in his eyes, “Wait for your punishment. But before that I promise to give you a good trip.”

Snigdha replied matter-of-factly, “I’m not scared of you or your punishment. You are so good at buttering people, my God! And, I thought you are innocent!”

Sameer gave her a naughty smile. “I am innocent, baby. Let’s go for lunch tomorrow. I’ll teach you some of my tricks then.”

Snigdha was not sure whether she wanted to accept the invitation. But she did enjoy his company and she was free the next day. “Okay, I’ll go. But where?” Even as she said this, she wondered if her parents would like her going out with Sameer without any work.

Sameer said with a smile, “I’ll let you know tomorrow morning.”

Snigdha nodded.

When he had left and her mother had locked all the doors again, Snigdha thought of talking to them. “Sameer wants me to go for a lunch with him tomorrow.”

Srestha said, getting delighted at the news, “That’s good. He’s a nice boy.”

Jatin was watching the news; he also nodded his assent.

Snigdha didn’t know anymore what to make of her parents behaviour. So as soon as dinner ended, she went upstairs to her room and fell into a fitful sleep, without asking them anything.

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