the agony of staying away…
Avanti watched her music-school group actively indulge in antakshari as the train sped across Pune junction… they were on board for the last four hours and had a scrumptious dinner organised by the school. Avanti too had carried parathas and chutney neatly packed by Mrs. Sinha who had insisted she have home cooked food at least when she travelled… Avanti barely had a few bites and she handed the tiffin box to the group who gladly ravished the delicious parathas. She was too engrossed in her thoughts which only single mindedly followed their own radar… her husband… and she only missed Keshav more.
He had hardly spoken to her today morning as he had insisted on dropping her to CST station, though her group had arranged for a bus which could have picked her up. But as Keshav and she were about to leave home, he was called with an emergency at Novo Supremo and had apologetically looked at her.
“…Uh… Avanti…I am so sorry but there is this important thing I have to personally take care of in the company and I have to…go…so…”
“…Hey it’s alright … I will take a cab… just relax …ok …?” She had been a little disappointed but knew he was stressed already and she didn’t want to pile up on his miseries. The subtle breeze blowing around her with the scent of the jasmine flower plant in their compound courtesy D’Souza aunty, always alleviated her mood and now she smiled at him. Keshav starred at her even as the shadows of the nearby tree danced on his face and initially hesitated… but gently raised his hand and held a lock of her hair which had escaped the clutch she had contained them in. He tucked it behind her ear and she closed her eyes, slightly trembling in the warmth of his touch. He had moved the back of his palm on her cheek barely touching her and she had never felt more cherished and revered before.
“…Take care of yourself and… call…or…text me… I mean… if you aren’t busy…” He looked away.
“…I will… call you Keshav…and don’t forget to eat on time… and take your medicines and…” and at that moment she didn’t want to leave at all… He had nodded chuckling as she had got into the taxi which their driver had arranged for her drop.
Even now as she sat with her head leaning on the window as she watched the passing scenery, she kept touching her ear and cheek still feeling his touch… she had really lost it. It was only 5 hours now since she had last seen him and she yearned to hear his voice. She had removed her mobile phone umpteen times to call him but had almost speed dialled him and then disconnected immediately before the call could connect. She didn’t know why she hesitated… Some of the senior members of the group had teased her when she didn’t join them in their fun filled games and gossip… but she had only smiled and nothing at the moment seemed to impress her.
“…Hey Avanti…” Rahul joined her as he sat on the opposite berth.
“…Hi Rahul… so what’s up…?” She was happy to see Rahul in his regular avatar. She had missed her friend terribly but then he often read her mind and she was a lousy liar. She didn’t want him to find out the truth about her marriage…even now she had to be careful. He hadn’t taken the topic about her baba’s accident again and she was in a way glad about it. She had decided to do it in her own way once back from Hyderabad. She was happy he was here with her…it made the melancholy bearable.
“…Avanti, you look distressed… what’s bothering you…? Fought with Keshav is it…?”
Oh God here he comes again. “…Why do you think of something so absurd…?”
“…Come on Avanti…I know you very well. You don’t tolerate deceit and Keshav…” Rahul looked around to see if anyone was within hearing reach and lowered his voice further as he bent forward and continued. “…I know the circumstances of your wedding to that man, Avanti. My heart bleeds when I see you try… put up a smiling face before the world while I know your heart is bleeding inside…”
“…Rahul…it isn’t what you think…Keshav is a wonderful husband… a great guy…” she replied with her heart thudding. She hoped her traitorous tears didn’t give her away.
“…Oh really…? Then why does he work late in office… you come to office but leave separately… and why does he not have the same charm as a newly wedded husband…sorry Avanti the charade fails to do its job… nothing … nothing about you two projects itself like a happily married couple from any angle…”
Oh, that got her annoyed now. “…So, what are we supposed to do Rahul…? Dance around trees in Vedshastra premises, or kiss and hug each other in front of the employees…? Rahul for God’s sake, we are struggling to save Vedshastra from sinking…” Rahul shook his head and started to speak but she held up her hand. “…wait Rahul…just listen to me… you know nothing about my husband… but then I have not given anyone the right to badmouth him…”
Rahul held up his hands and gave her a side smile…his typical expression whenever he was annoyed with her. “…fine… whatever… I can see that you are desperately waiting for his call but the man hasn’t even texted…has he…? But you are my bestest friend Avanti and Rane kaka was someone I had high regards for. I can’t see you burn out and perish… I will be watching your back…”
“…Rahul… you don’t…”
“…Avanti… it pains me to see you hurt like this…pinning for someone who probably doesn’t feel the same…”
Though it hit closer home, Avanti knew it was futile arguing with Rahul so she changed the topic. “…could you track Arpita tai…? Any leads…?”
He shook his head in the negative. “…No…her phone is switched off still and since you insisted against it, I haven’t gone to the police… they could have kept her phone on surveillance. She hasn’t connected with any of her agencies or past work mates from the list you gave me… it’s like… she has disappeared from the face of the earth…”
Avanti’s heart fell. She had been angry with her sister but now she was worried. “Rahul… do you think she is ok…?”
“…Don’t worry Avanti…if anyone can take care of herself its Arpita. She just puts up this act before us… do you know…? I spoke to so many of her colleagues, discreetly though… and everyone vouched for her professionalism and commitment… can you believe that…?”
To say Avanti was stunned was an understatement… open mouthed she starred at Rahul as if he was an alien. Arpita and responsible…? Just implausible… But if what Rahul had found was true then that meant her sister had been making a fool of everyone… especially post her engagement. But why…? Why did she do all that…?
“Avanti…?” Rahul called out rousing her from her thought brigade. “…there is one more thing…Pramod is not missing. He is heavy on weed on a daily basis these days… I checked…he is totally wasted. There is no way he is in touch with Arpita…”
Avanti placed her palm on her head. She and her baba had always resented Pramod for his nasty habit of narcotic abuse. But Arpita had been hell bent on seeing him…. however now Avanti was happy… at least Arpita wasn’t involved with him. Small mercies were welcome too… she just hoped her sister was happy and living her life wherever she was.
The next morning, they reached Begumpet and within an hour Avanti settled into her hotel room she was twin sharing with a younger trainee from the music school. Fortunately, the girl kept to herself since Avanti was in no mood for small talk. There had been no text from Keshav… she had hoped he would do it last night and had eagerly checked her phone the moment she had woken at dawn in the train. Didn’t he even remember her once…? And here she was thinking about him, all her waking hours. Nonetheless she texted him about her reaching the hotel safely. Though she hated to agree, Rahul was right… Keshav probably didn’t reciprocate her feelings and as she blinked away the tears in her room, she hated herself for falling for the man…in spite of knowing the repercussions. She deserved the heartbreak… but then it hurt like hell. She clutched her chest and took in deep breaths. It was like she was in this dream from which she didn’t want to wake up from…. A dream where Keshav belonged to her body, mind and soul. She shook her head and as she did her pranayama, she started to feel better… this was an important event and she had to see it through. That morning they had a luncheon with the event organisers and the involved NGO heads in a nearby restaurant and Avanti decided to focus on interacting with the dignitaries.
The luncheon was a beautiful mouth-watering spread of the traditional Hyderabadi biryani and other special dishes doled out by their speciality culinarians for the occasion. Though the aroma had others swooning over the buffet, Avanti was not in a mood. It was a huge struggle to get through every passing minute and she often found herself lost in thought and more often than not blinking back tears as her throat clogged with emotions even, she couldn’t pin point. All she wanted to do was rush back to Mumbai and cry her heart out… She often found Rahul watching her closely and she had to take care to hide her emotions. Later that evening they were treated to a small cruise on the Hussain Sagar Lake… seated in the heart of the city it was the largest man-made lake in Asia. The heart shaped lake circumvented by open spaces on all four sides, was extremely picturesque even as its surroundings twinkled in their distant splendour. Avanti for those moments forgot her agony and smiled looking around as the evening breeze blew her hair across her face…she just wished Keshav would be with her to tuck her unruly locks away… NO… she wouldn’t think about him.
As she stared at the huge Buddha statue, she began to wonder… As per the story, it was installed because Buddha was a humanitarian who told the whole truth to the people. Would her moment of truth ever come…? Would she ever know the truth behind her father’s death…? Arpita’s disappearance and most of all Keshav’s intentions…? His feelings for her…? She felt the extra cold breeze on her face as she stared at the serene face of the statue and realised she had been crying. Thank fully the lights in the cruise were dim and she could hide them away. She wiped her face and turned back to join the others in the story their tour guide was entertaining them with. That evening after dinner Rahul and she walked around the hotel campus. It was a simple three-star hotel with basic amenities and very clean. They walked towards the little children’s play area and sat on the bench as she checked her phone for the nth time.
“…Tomorrow we are going to the Ramoji Film city… you know for the picture ops… the organisers wanted you to sing a bandish in their specially erected pandal… but then Guruma was strictly against it… she said…” Rahuls voice swayed into the background as she checked her phone yet again. Why didn’t Keshav bother to text as yet…he had read her message from morning… was he alright…? The scene from the last two times he had been sick flashed before her eyes and she clutched the phone to her chest. “…why don’t you call him…?”
She suddenly looked at Rahul frowning. “…wha…what…? Sorry I missed what you said…”
“…that’s exactly what you have been doing ever since you boarded that train yesterday… just call him Avanti….”
“…you are telling me that Rahul…?”
“Avanti… how I feel about Keshav is immaterial. I can’t see you miserable… I have to call Anuj so am going for a stroll right around here… just call him OK…?” He stood and patted her on the head as he walked away.
Avanti stared at her phone as if she was seeing it for the first time. Taking in a deep breath she clicked his number and waited as the call went through. He answered on the first ring and her heart stopped. “Hello Avanti…?”
“…yea… hi…” she struggled to speak as her throat clogged yet again.
“…Avanti… are you…Ok…? Your voice is…”
“…I am fine… did you have dinner at home and take your medicines…?”
“…Yes, I did…did you have dinner…?”
“…yea…” She barely whispered as tears started to have their free way down her face.
“…Avanti… are you… crying…?” He sounded worried and she swore at herself.
“…No… no not at all…it’s the weather… Ok… then…catch up tomorrow…”
“…Avanti…wait…are you really… alright…?”
“…Yes… goodnight… bye…” she disconnected without bothering to hear a reply and switched off her phone. Holding it close to her chest she started to sob.
“…you are in love with him, aren’t you…?” Rahul came back to sit next to her. Did he hear her conversation? She didn’t reply and continued to cry holding her mouth to muffle the sounds. “…Avanti… come here…” he held her free hand and she clutched his palm as she hunched and cried her heart out. He rubbed her back and spoke. “…Avanti… you should tell him… you have been in love with him even when he was engaged to Arpita and now… Avanti… I don’t know what to say to you… does he feel the same…? I know he likes you though…”
She straightened up and rubbed her face with the back of her palm. “…Rahul… I don’t know anything now… and yes…I love him… I hadn’t expected it to happen but even if I try, I can’t stop being in love with him… Rahul…thank you for being there for me… and by the way…? who was the asshole who said love was beautiful…? It’s a bitch… its extremely painful Rahul…”
“…Hey Avanti… just remember I am always there for you no matter what… but I still feel you should talk to Keshav about your feelings… I know I don’t like him and don’t approve of him given his grey shades but then… for your sake…I will stop my crusade against him…I promise…”
She smiled amidst her tears feeling grateful to have a friend like Rahul. They walked back to the hotel and by the time she slept she was feeling a lot better than since last evening.
The next morning, she was back to her chirpy self, at least some of it… and she had a round of early morning rehearsal with her group after which they returned back to the hotel by 10 AM and were to leave in an hour for Ramoji studio. Avanti was in a better mood but as she got back to her room to change the feeling of despair once again began to settle in her heart… was Rahul correct…? Should she tell Keshav…? How would he react…? Would she lose the lovely friendship and camaraderie of the last few days…? Could she take the risk…? As she finished combing her hair, she realised she couldn’t go to Ramoji Studio…she didn’t feel like it and it would be difficult to fake her enthusiasm when all she wanted was to be left alone. She called Rahul and told him she wasn’t in a mood and wanted to rest for tomorrow’s performance. She was the lead singer so it was imperative she didn’t tire herself to the bone… Rahul agreed and asked her to take rest. Her roommate bid her goodbye as she left and Rahul texted her to take rest as soon as the group left the hotel.
She had just emerged from a bath and dressed in her loose track pants and t-shirt when the hotel intercom rang. Surprised, she answered it.
“…Hello Ma’am. This is the reception. There is someone here who wants to meet you….”
Avanti checked the time…who on earth wanted to meet her at 11AM in the morning in a new city… oh God was it any organiser wanting her to attend the Ramoji event for the photo shoot…? No, she wouldn’t go… “…Um hello…? I don’t know anyone here…whoever it is… I am in no mood to…”
“…ma’am sorry… but he says he is your husband…”