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The ringing phone woke Snigdha up at six in the morning after a few weeks. She pulled out the phone from under her pillow and stared at the screen with half-opened eyes. The bright light from the screen was hurting her eyes. It was Sameer’s call. She was half-astonished and half-irritated with this early morning call. She said, “Hello,” groggily.

Sameer said from the other end, “Happy birthday, sleepyhead.” There was such sweetness in his voice that Snigdha was forced to smile despite her irritation. She thanked him, her senses becoming a bit more alert.

Sameer said, “I wish I could see you right now. You must be looking so cute with your messed-up hair. I wish I was there with you.”

“Hmm.” Snigdha’s self-consciousness was evident from her voice. These days Sameer often talked to her in a mushy way, making her uncomfortable. She got the distinct impression that he enjoyed her discomfort. Lately, she was thinking of avoiding him, but Sameer seemed to be stuck on her.

Snigdha kept quiet for a bit. “I didn’t expect you to remember my birthday.”

Sameer said brightly, “Am I likely to forget my favourite girl’s birthday? I knew you were tired yesterday, so I didn’t call last night.”

Again, Snigdha didn’t know how to respond to that. His considerate nature always took her by surprise. “Will you meet me today then? Or will you be busy?”

Sameer asked, “Do you want to meet me?”

“Yeah. It’s always nice to meet my friends on my birthday. I just wish Romita could be here too.”

Sameer said, “We will definitely meet today, and sooner than you expect. If you let me, I would spend the whole day with you.”

Snigdha asked curiously, “Are you waiting outside my gate or what?”

Sameer laughed. “Why? Do you want me there?”

Snigdha said in an exasperated voice, “No, silly. You said you’ll meet me sooner than I expect, so I thought you are standing outside or something. You never really do what I expect.”

Sameer replied, “What exactly do you expect from me?”

Snigdha said with a hollow laugh, “Like that matters? You have your own life, your own priorities, so what I want you to do is an irrelevant topic. It’s just that I don’t understand you.”

Sameer said, losing the playfulness in his voice, “I’m not a complicated person, Mini. You just have to focus on me a bit to understand my feelings. That’s what you don’t do. Even while spending time with me you keep thinking about something else. What is it that you keep thinking about? Tell me what you want me to do, so that I know where I’m going wrong.”

Snigdha could sense the discussion getting in dangerous waters and said hastily, “You don’t have to do anything my way. Just be the way you are. I like you that way. Sameer, I need to get up now and get ready for work. We can talk later.”

Sameer laughed. “You are evading me again. It’s okay. You can’t keep doing that for long. See you later.” He disconnected the phone.

Snigdha put her phone away and tried to go back to sleep. But she couldn’t stop thinking about what Sameer had said. She didn’t know that he noticed her silences. She was unhinged for a while, thinking that he wasn’t fooled by her pretences. For some reason, she didn’t want to tell Sameer anything about Abir. She was sure Sameer wouldn’t understand her pain or her negativity. She wondered if Sameer had ever been in love.

She knew Sameer was interested in her. But she didn’t want to encourage him in anyway. So, she tried to avoid tricky discussions. When she had discussed this with Romita, Romita had said, “Sameer Sinha likes you? Really? All the girls at that party were dying to get his attention that day and you are saying you don’t know what to do about it. Dishy dudes like him are not available every day, Snig. What are you holding back for?”

Snigdha had replied, “Romy, do you remember Abir? You said he liked me. I thought he liked me. But how did that turn out? I was just an idle time-pass for him. What if the same thing happens with Sameer? What if I end up being dumped again, if I try to indulge him?”

Romita had sighed. “Look, Snig, there are billions of people on this planet. Do you expect every one of them to turn out the same way? Moreover, your parents are friends. We didn’t know where Abir came from. What the hell did we know about him, except that his parents were doctors and had shifted to the States, leaving him behind to complete his graduation? We visited his boys’ hostel hardly a few times. How do we know what he got up to in there with his roommates? We just took him on his words. But Sameer is different. We know where he comes from, and I think a person’s background is important.”

Snigdha had replied heatedly, “How can you say that? Whatever Abir might have done, he was not a liar. He didn’t have any feelings for me, big deal. That doesn’t make him a bad person. Maybe I mistook his friendship for something more.”

Romita had shot back at her scathingly, “Really Snig, I don’t believe you. After everything you are still defending him? Whether your Abir was a saint or a thief is not our issue. He’s gone now. Sameer is our interest NOW. Don’t push him away. Don’t do that.”

Snigdha had asked timidly, “What if Sameer also hurts me?”

Romita had replied after a brief pause, “Give him a chance. Give your life another chance and see where it takes you. You can’t barricade yourself in your room in the fear of having an accident on the streets.”

Snigdha had accepted defeat in the argument. “You are right. I’ll try.”

Romita had said soothingly, “You do that. I’m sure this time everything will turn out fine.”

So Snigdha had decided to go along with her life and see where fate took her. But that hadn’t prevented her from loving Abir. The way she had cherished Abir’s presence, respected his opinions, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make herself feel that way for Sameer. She couldn’t make herself trust Sameer completely. She liked his company, but as a friend, a close friend.

When she went down for breakfast that morning, her parents came forward and hugged her. Jatin handed her a present. She eagerly removed the wrapping paper to find an iPhone X inside. She was delighted with her gift. She had had her eyes on that phone for a long time and finally she had one for herself.

Snigdha asked her mother with a huge grin, “Are you going to tell dad off for giving me such an expensive phone today?”

Srestha looked hurt. “I don’t fight with your father unnecessarily. It’s your birthday gift. Let me inform you that it was I who gave your father the idea to buy this phone. I knew you have been eying it for months.”

Snigdha gave her mother a tight hug. “Oh, mom, you are the best! Thank you.”

Jatin handed her a new SIM card. “Put this in and tell your college people that you are not going today.”

Snigdha sat on a chair to insert the SIM in the iPhone. She was perplexed. “Why would I do that? I’ve some pretty important classes today. I can’t let my students suffer just because it’s my birthday.”

Jatin shook his head adamantly. “Reschedule your classes. You never take any leave. One day won’t destroy the career of your students. Mrinal and Rimsha boudi have organised a Satyanarayan puja at their place for your birthday. We have to go there.”

Snigdha was stunned with this news. She stammered, “Un…uncle has done what? I don’t want to go there.”

Jatin put his hand over Snigdha’s and said, “Mini, if they can think so much for us, we should respect their efforts. You can’t back out.”

Snigdha’s temper flared up. “Dad, when have I ever backed out of your decisions? But why are they doing this? Who does all this for outsiders? Can’t you see all this is becoming very intimate? I don’t like this. I don’t like strangers doing anything for me. Why didn’t you refuse when they told you about this?”

Jatin said placatingly, “You are overreacting, Mini. Listen to me, Mrinal and I were very close friends, and so were our parents before us. They think of you as their daughter, the same way that we treat Sameer as our son. There’s nothing wrong in this. You have lived in a nuclear family for too long to accept anyone getting close to us now. But this attitude is not healthy. They are very good friends, almost like family. Get used to them.”

Snigdha continued shouting, “No, I won’t. They are outsiders and that’s what they will be. I don’t want them holding pujas for me. You can treat Sameer any way you want. I couldn’t care less. But I won’t let them mollycoddle me.”

Jatin was going to say something when Srestha placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him. She said, “Mini, we have already agreed to go to their place, we can’t deny at the last moment. That will be embarrassing. All the arrangements have been made. If you don’t want, we won’t let this happen again. Just come with us this time.”

Snigdha could see her mother’s point. She got up from her chair, nodded once, and went up to her room, fuming. She didn’t know why she was so angry. She liked the Sinhas. Then why didn’t she like the fact that they were holding a puja for her? As she pondered over this, she realised what actually was bothering her.

It was her parents’ drastically different attitudes towards Abir and Sameer that was bugging her. Whenever they had seen her spending too much time with Abir, they had scolded her. She had not been allowed to go out with him. Once Abir had treated all his friends at KFC on his birthday. But she hadn’t been allowed to go. Sameer was a different case all together. She couldn’t tolerate this biased behaviour. She had wanted her parents to accept Abir the way they had accepted Romita. But they had never done that. They had never misbehaved with him, but had never said a good word about him at his back either. She knew now her parents were correct, but still she couldn’t control the resentment inside her.

Maybe Abir had sensed their dislike and had decided to sever all ties with her. This possibility had never occurred to her before. What if it was true? No, even if that was why he had left, he should have at least told her before leaving. Nothing really justified what he had done.

But now she had to think about the puja at the Sinhas’ place. She had no other option but to attend it. Maybe there really was no sinister motive behind all this show of love. Or maybe this was Sameer’s plan. That was definitely possible. That would explain what he had said about meeting soon. But even this possibility was a reason to get alert. This had to be another attempt to impress her. She had promised Romita to let life take its own course, so despite all her misgivings, she decided to go for the puja without any more arguments.

Before getting ready, she decided to call Sameer and ask whose decision it was to hold the puja. She picked up her phone to call him, but then at the last moment decided against it. It really didn’t matter. No matter who had organised it, it was going to be awkward for her. Even if Sameer had actually done it, she wasn’t going to be impressed. She didn’t want anyone to interfere in her personal life and Sameer was doing just that—trying to get too close.

Instead she called Sulekha Banerjee, her colleague at N.C. Girls College, and told her that she wouldn’t be going that day.

Sameer was waiting outside for them when they finally reached his house. He rushed forward to welcome them and extended his hand towards Snigdha to wish her again. He was beaming. “Happy birthday, Mini. Welcome! Did you like the surprise?”

Sameer was wearing a white panjabi with a churidar pant. In spite of her surly mood, she couldn’t stop herself from appreciating how cute and enchanting he looked.

Snigdha and Sameer let the elders get ahead of them while they hung back.

Snigdha said in a dull voice, “How many times are you going to wish me? You should have told me about this in the morning. I had to take another leave from work and our HOD won’t be impressed about it.”

Sameer frowned as he looked at her. “You are upset about this puja.” He continued looking at her sullen face. “My mother wanted to hold this puja for ages. When she came to know that today is your birthday, she decided to do it today. She always craved a daughter; she regards you as one. She wanted to make you happy. Why is that bothering you? And seriously, being absent at work for one day won’t make them fire you. Cheer up.”

Snigdha didn’t know how to respond to this. She couldn’t tell him her reasons for being upset—that she wanted Abir to do all these things for her, not Sameer and his family. When Abir hadn’t done anything, she didn’t want anybody else to do it either. She didn’t want anybody else’s attention.

Snigdha kept quiet and followed her parents inside.

Sameer followed her and asked in a low voice, “What the hell is the point of all this, if you keep sulking?”

She continued ignoring Sameer. When she entered the puja room, Rimsha was arranging the offerings on plates in front of the small throne where the black, round stone representing Lord Vishnu was kept. The priest was arranging the other ingredients for the puja. Rimsha gave her a huge smile when she saw Snigdha. “Many happy returns of the day, Mini. I’m so happy you came. Come, help me,” Rimsha beckoned her. Snigdha tried to forget her unease and went forward to touch her feet. She could show her irritation to her parents, to Sameer, to Romita, but she didn’t want to be rude to Rimsha—the habit of being absolutely polite to elders was ingrained in her.

Rimsha asked Snigdha to light some earthen lamps and decorate the downstairs hall with them. Sameer also followed Snigdha out of the puja room as she walked out. He said brightly on their way downstairs, “Light blue suits your skin. I could keep staring at you the whole day.”

She looked pointedly at Sameer. “I can walk alone. You don’t need to follow me.”

Sameer said in an innocent voice, “I’m only trying to help you. What if you can’t find the lamps? You don’t know your way around here.”

Snigdha couldn’t disagree with that and nodded. But she found the lamps on the table in the downstairs hall. The problem was that she couldn’t find any matchstick to light them with. Sameer took out a matchbox and handed it to her. She looked at him suspiciously. “Why are you carrying matchboxes in your pocket? Do you smoke?”

Sameer said with a smile, “No. I was lighting the candles earlier. Why? Will it bother you if I smoke?”

Snigdha replied hastily, “What you do is none of my problem. I was just curious.”

Sameer smiled widely. “Whatever you say.”

For some reason, Snigdha was having trouble lighting a matchstick and that was irritating her. Sameer stood for a while, watching her in amusement as she struggled with such a simple task. Then all of a sudden, he slid his arms around her from the back and held her close. Snigdha dropped the matchbox in surprise and stared at Sameer with widened eyes, but Sameer didn’t look at her. He grabbed her left hand and made her pick the box up from the table. He took her other hand and made her strike the box with the matchstick. When the stick was alight, he helped her light the lamps.

When the task was done, both of them looked at each other, each one feeling the other’s breath falling on their faces. Snigdha mumbled, “Let me go.”

Sameer didn’t oblige. He brought his face even closer to Snigdha’s and whispered, “What will you do if I kiss you right now?” He seemed to be glowing.

Snigdha felt her head getting messed up.

Just then Jatin’s voice floated through the air, “Mini, where are you? Everybody is waiting for you.”

Snigdha jerked Sameer off her and ran towards the puja room without looking back. She hadn’t anticipated this.

She was sitting in the front, just beside the priest when Sameer came in. Rimsha told him to sit beside Snigdha. Snigdha couldn’t make herself look at Sameer when he took his place beside her. When they were asked to close their eyes and repeat the chants after the priest, she took the chance to sneak a glance at Sameer, knowing no one would notice. But Sameer was also staring at her, his eyes sparkling with some suppressed emotions. She quickly looked away embarrassed and closed her eyes.

For the rest of the day, Snigdha didn’t leave her mother’s side even for a second, afraid of going anywhere near Sameer. Sameer too didn’t try to get her on her own again. But when they were getting in their car, Sameer handed her a birthday gift. She couldn’t refuse it in front of the others.

That night when Snigdha told Romita what had happened, Romita said excitedly, “Then you should have let him kiss you.”

Snigdha switched the phone off without any reply. She stared at Sameer’s gift with a feeling of doom. The moment she had set eyes on the gift, dread had settled in the pit of her stomach. It was a customised, thick, rectangular slab, on which a picture of hers was imprinted. She was laughing carelessly in that picture with a giggling, little girl in her arms. She remembered the day when Sameer had taken that snap of hers in an orphanage around Behala. She had been busy playing with the kids and Sameer had been busy clicking pictures. There was a small message beneath the imprinted picture. It said: Happy birthday to the girl who makes everyone happy. Let’s turn this one moment of happiness into a lifetime of happiness.

She didn’t know how she was going to react to Sameer the next day. How would she get him off her back? She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to run back to Abir, so that he could tell her what to do. She had never imagined Sameer could do something like that. She had to make Sameer see some sense. She felt panicked thinking about the way Sameer had held her, as if she was his property. The wall of loneliness she had built around herself was full of Abir. Abir was very much a part of her, in spite of his physical absence. Snigdha couldn’t let anyone remove that loneliness, remove Abir from within her. She had to hurt Sameer—that was the only option. She pulled out her old phone and stared at Abir and her photo for a long time before falling asleep.

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