The long journey of around 30 miles from Charles de Gaulle airport to outskirts of the city along with heavy traffic was covered with Manik’s indifferent silence, Cabir’s nonsensical jokes and Nandini’s innocent questions about Paris and France, in general.
Cabir and Nandini bonded really well. She asked, he answered. He cracked jokes, she laughed! Manik stayed quiet and serious. He was neither interested in jokes or questions. He had his own issues to deal with.
“Manik, it’s late tonight. Drop me home before!” Cabir requested.
“Come home with us. The driver can drop you later.” Manik turned to Cabir and raised a brow, signifying that he didn’t want to go alone with Nandini. Cabir nodded as if he had understood but instead of agreeing with him, he argued, “I have an early morning meeting tomorrow. I need to sleep early, Manik!”
Nandini observed them and smiled but she didn’t speak anything. Manik tried hard not to look at her in the rear view mirror and succeeded for a long duration. But when he gave up for once, he saw her in the rear-view mirror and found her smiling cutely. Quickly, he turned his eyes away.
He knew that it was going to turn awkward after Cabir left, but he couldn’t argue more with Cabir. Manik dropped Cabir at the lane towards his apartment. Nandini stepped down too, to sit at the passenger side of the car. She took out a long grey shrug from her hand bag. It was a full sleeved shrug. It covered her beautifully, adding another layer to her stylish dress.
“Okay, bye Nandini. It was really nice meeting you!” Cabir was about to stretch his hand towards her when he was taken aback to see her approach towards him with a warm, affectionate hug.
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Her hug said it all. Cabir grinned and curled his arm around her in a brotherly-friendly hug and placed his hand on her head.
“It was so nice to meet you, Cabir.”
Cabir was overwhelmed. “Same here! Anytime, you need anything, just know that I am a call away.”
“I know!” She nodded her head side to side with a genuine, warm smile.
Manik neither had energy, nor patience for this new found friendship, which he was hating by the way. He pressed the horn of his car to alarm them, making Cabir smirk, “Go!”
“You’ll be there tomorrow?” She asked Cabir before opening the door of the passenger seat.
“Yes!! I’ll be there…” Cabir assured her.
Nandini sat beside Manik and nodded slightly to tell him that she was comfortable and he could start driving now. Before this, the journey had been difficult for Manik. But after Cabir left and they were just the two of them in the cramped space of the car, it became a near torture.
He couldn’t look at her, he couldn’t talk to her and now, he knew that he shouldn’t think more about her too. She was a forbidden fruit and he had to stay away!! He kept talking to himself as he drove towards the house.
‘Harshad doesn’t even want to get married to her. They have no connect. These were Harshad’s words. He hardly knows her. Then why am I feeling so guilty?’
‘Should I talk to her? No… I shouldn’t! … But why not?? I met her before Harshad. She hasn’t even met Harshad. She doesn’t even know Harshad properly… well I hope so!’
‘Dude, they have been talking casually over mails and chats since 2 years. They are in a relationship since almost an year… they chat, they send messages, mails etc… they may be close… but no… Harshad said that he doesn’t like her…”
Nandini turned her neck to look at him and asked, “You don’t talk??”
It was sudden and expected. Manik couldn’t compose himself to pull him out of his thoughts so quickly. “Err…actually…” His trance was broken and suddenly he found himself searching for words.
“No, it’s just that, I noticed that you were not talking since a long time… in fact, ever since we left the airport.”
“Err…” He didn’t know what to say.
She interrupted him and kind-of relieved him, “It’s okay! I am fine with silence!’
With that she turned her neck to immerse herself in the view outside the window… soaking her soul in the lighting… fast vehicles… historical places… people!
Manik turned to look at her and frowned. ‘How stupid is that!! She has no mind of her own. Can someone be so quick to adjust with people… She was fine with Cabir’s jokes… Now, she is fine with my silence. …I’m so sure, she is totally fine with Harshad’s nonsensical talks too…She suits Harshad!!’
‘But Harshad is going to dump her!!! Oh Shittt!!! I need to tell her… Maybe she really accepts people as they are… quickly adjusting to them… She is too sweet and innocent… I can’t subject someone to a humiliation of this kind, even after I know about it… No… I need to tell her… ASAP… ‘
‘Is my mind messed up?? As I told Cabir… I need sleep and rest… I should wait for the morning… NO… I should tell her right now…she has been talking to Harshad and still doesn’t know anything about him… how frivolous… how insensitive he can be… he roams about with 20 girls at a time… he sleeps around with random females… does she know that? …Of course, Not!!!’
‘Am I being too quick?? … Too judgemental??… why does it bother me if someone is close to Harshad? … May be they have a bond … Is it okay to drag myself in their personal thing… dadi has chosen her… now, it should be ideally between him and her…. or between them and dadi…’
‘But… She is soooo cute!’
‘No, Manik…don’t think like that… It’s something ‘Off Limits’…’
‘Not my fault… I met her and liked her much before I knew that she was the one chosen for harshad… I would have liked her anywhere else too… wherever I would have met her… It’s not like, I’m trying to mess with my cousin’s fiancee’
‘Still!! It’s neither acceptable… nor forgivable…’
‘What am I doing?? I am getting engaged to Alya tomorrow… An arranged marriage that I agreed for, 2 years back… we have been dating… we go out for lunches and dinners… Alya is perfect… She understands me… She trusts me… I can’t play with her feelings and trust… I shouldn’t be thinking like this about another girl… that’s wrong… that’s cheating… that’s totally immoral !!’
“Phewwww!!!” He left a huge breath of air in exasperation and looked ahead at the signs that passed. Home was near, hardly 5 minutes away and it was a huge relief. Nandini was not talking anymore and looking outside the window. That was another huge relief.
Now, he just wanted these last 5 minutes with her, hopefully the last 5 ‘alone’ moments with her to pass quickly…before he delivered her safely at home, under his dadi’s wings and step away from all the drama and the nuisance.
This ‘infatuation’ had to find an end!!
He had decided that… Firmly!!!
When the car turned inside the huge black metal gates of Malhotra mansion, Manik was sure he heard Nandini sigh!!
She was like another normal girl, after all.
He shrugged to finally smile… This was usually the effect their mansion created on anyone who visited them. He had never seen anyone unaffected or indifferent to their home. People desired it… people lusted for such an abode… people hoped and dreamt to live in such a place some day…
When he turned to Nandini to watch her response, he was confused to see a look of shock, straight out of a horror film, and certainly not awe on her face. The sigh from her was of disbelief and denial.
He couldn’t stop himself from asking, “What happened?”
“Malhotra mansion.” He had no control over the subtle pride that accompanied his words when he spoke of their house which was also a symbol of their status, accomplishments and achievements. It was another shock that for the first time, he had seen someone getting so uneasy with that!
Nandini gulped a good amount of saliva and stared at him with eyes wide opened. Her dark black almond shaped orbs fixed on his eyes with a few fine lines of worry creeping on her pretty little forehead.
She nodded, vehemently… completely shocked and zapped!!!
“What happened, Nandini?”
She turned to look away, cleared her throat and spoke in a low voice, “I knew, you guys were rich… but…”
When she turned to look at him again, her eyes were moist. She continued, “But, I didn’t know that ‘this’ is what they call ‘rich’ in Paris…I’m sorry… but I’m from a very humble background… I think, dadi did a mistake…”
If only, his heart knew that the decisions his mind made were supposed to be obeyed like everyone else did! But alas, his mind was no master over his own heart which wanted to rebel! For the first time in his life, Manik Malhotra had no control over the devil in his chest who had forgotten it’s normal rythm to beat when this girl was before him. She was about to crumble like a paper doll before him and the man who was always in control of situations, felt so powerless that he couldn’t hold or support her, even after wanting to!
He wanted to hold her hand and console her …to tell her that dadi did no mistake in recognizing a diamond among pebbles… Dadi had seen her, known her and liked her… and only then, she had selected her… He wanted to give her a shoulder to lean on, but it was not his place to do so!
Her eyes were lowered at the bag in her lap as she fiddled nervously with it’s strap. He nodded side to side, as if to jerk away all the crazy thoughts in his mind and said, “Don’t worry!! We, Malhotras, don’t even count money when we classify people as ‘rich’ or ‘poor’… it’s much more… your knowledge, your values, your dreams and how you achieve them, your purpose in life and the love you have inside you, defines richness…”
She was speechless!!
She raised her eyelids and looked at him for a long moment, before she whispered to ask, “Are you sure, Manik?”
Did she just say his name? And was it his name really… that sounded so perfect!
He smiled. “Very sure!! Now, come out of the car and let’s go inside. Everybody including dadi, has been waiting for you since evening.”
She smiled too, very softly and hesitatingly, and stepped out of the car. He retreived her luggage and carried it.
“Manik…” She called him when he walked away.
“Yeah?” He turned back.
“I’m so glad to meet you.”
It must have been a co-incidence that the clocks in the vicinity rang for 12 times to welcome the new date. It was midnight. The one that would eventually culminate in the Valentine’s Day! A day that was going to be very important for both of them.