He quickly ruled it out. “No, I’m not in love with you!”
She smiled and turned her face away, as she closed her eyes for once. Then she turned back to him with the smile retained on her face. “Good! Because neither am I!”
It would have broken his heart if he didn’t expect this reaction from her. But, somewhere deep down in his heart, he had feared something exactly like this.
What if he had confessed when she asked him whether he loved her?? Would she confess it too?? Or tell him to get lost??
Will she be able to accept it, if at all, she loved him?
Her eyes, her smile, and everything about her spoke volumes to him. But he was not sure. He was not sure if she really didn’t love him or was refusing to accept it, just like him. Maybe, she was scared to fall in love again, thanks to the previous complicated relationships she had been hurt in…or maybe, she was in love with him but scared to confess, just like him.
One thing he was sure about, was that she cared about him… A lot…
But then, she cared about her friends, family, extended family, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, helpers, patients… everyone… she even cared about a street puppy… she felt deeply about everything around her … So, how would he know if he was any different from ‘all and sundry’ around her?
Was he something more? Someone special?? And, even If he was special, did she realise that he was special for her? He wasn’t sure if that care meant anything anywhere close to love.
It was soooo disheartening to think of her affection as something generalised. For, he didn’t want anything less than love from her!
He looked at her keenly as she quietly stirred her coffee. She appeared prettier as she had woken up fresh after the beautiful night. Her curly soft hair, tied at the nape of her neck in a loose bun, her cheeks soft as baby skin and her eyelids drooping over her eyes. Anger and irritation had brought about a silly glow on her face as now her skin appeared pink due to flush of blood. She was cute, by every means of the word and she knew it.
Once again, he weighed the possibility of telling her how crazily he was in love with her.
But, he couldn’t. He tried again, but he couldn’t.
One-sided declaration could be detrimental to his self-esteem if she rejected him once again. Everything special they had between them, still had chances of redemption. If it went out of hand, even that chance would be lost.
Declaring love to someone, in verbal form, as a string of three letters woven together may appear simple but it is not. Not for everyone. Sometimes, you are in love with someone for years, live with him for years and yet never be able to say it directly. Speaking about it also appears to reduce it’s enormity. Sometimes, it is love at first sight and you are forever confused about it’s authenticity and depth. Whatever the reason, it is never easy.
No one is stupid. Everyone is just scared. So was he…
Scared of being judged. Scared of being rejected. Scared of being considered silly, mushy and emotional. And most of all, scared of losing that warm relationship, that cosy companionship with Nandu, which he really cared about, in case she didn’t feel the same about him. At least, she cared about him.
And, he cared about her. He cared about everything they had between them. He could never lose it, at any cost. That was his ray of hope and sunshine through the mist.
He had never been impulsive. He took time for things to unfold.
He swayed his jaw and walked towards her till the space between them was reduced to less than hand’s distance. She squirmed and stiffened, hating the possibility of another fight, just because she had said that she didn’t love him. It might have hurt his male ego.
It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t speak about it. She was not even sure what she exactly felt for him. She adored him but she had been denying it, till now. She had always been wary of going too fast. Her previous impulsive acts had made her repent big time.
This time, it had just been 10 days.
Her friendly nature and how easily she trusted and got along well with everyone was enough to scare her of assuming other feelings of affection, appreciation and admiration as love. And when he said that he didn’t love her, even she found it safe to dismiss ‘love’ at the quickest.
She didn’t want to believe that she was falling for him, this soon. That she will be heartbroken, once again. It was easy to assume that she was never in love with him and he never cared.
She looked straight in his eyes, fearing an outburst from him. Preparing for her answers. Unable to read him and his eyes, this time.
Ironically, they were both in the same boat. They had always been. At every step. Even before they met and since then right from their first meeting to now…
Sometimes, when someone is standing opposite to you, it is easy to see and understand him. But how do you see a person who is standing right next to you, in the same space and same situation?!
He leaned towards her and rested both his hands on the slab behind her by each side of her waist, thus trapping her between the slab and him, without even touching her. Lowering his face to reach her level, he looked right through her, straight in her eyes. His own soul piercing eyes intimidated her. He spoke in a serious, grave, apologetic tone, slowly with an impact on each word, “Good for me, that even you don’t love me. Otherwise, my responsibilities and duties would have increased, you know – duty to make you feel comfortable, duty to take care of you and the biggest responsibility to keep you happy. All that you heard, that I was talking to Cabir, was not in good taste and I know that you want to believe that those were my views about arranged marriage and our marriage. So, I’ll give you the pleasure of winning and accept it, that yes, those are my views about our marriage. You already know about them and you can’t expect them to change in 10 days!”
Her moistened eyes glistened due to tears in them. She was hurt and disappointed. But at least, they didn’t fight. He wasn’t defending himself anymore and she wasn’t accusing him of pretending. They had accepted everything the other wanted to believe.
She didn’t speak anything. He continued, “Now, what if I tell you that yes, I have been pretending to be nice and caring? What if I tell you that in reality, I’m a monster who just knows how to break hearts? Will you be able to forgive me?”
She took a moment to absorb what he was saying. Then, she squeezed her eyes slightly, trying to fight the tears in her eyes, and replied, “I always say that you cannot be held guilty for your opinions. That’s ‘you’… I can either continue to talk to you or stay away from you, depending on your choices and opinions. I can’t expect to change them. You didn’t have to pretend because I already know what you feel about the entire marriage thing. We have always talked like mature people. We didn’t need to fight.”
“I’m sorry!” He lowered his eyes with that.
She had already softened. His apology melted her the very next moment. She couldn’t see anyone troubled around her. Definitely not him.
Though hurt and deeply disturbed herself, softly she asked, “Please don’t do that again. I can manage things on my own. You don’t need to be my saviour. You don’t need to pretend that you care. And if me or my habits irritate you, please let me know.”
“Sure!” He could hardly murmur. It was just one word or one sentence replies from him.
He neither wanted to increase or complicate the lie, nor did he want to fight about who was right and who was wrong. For now, it was important to come on a common ground and talk, something that they had started to lose a while ago. She didn’t take much time to understand him again, once he accepted that he was wrong.
That was something weird. He couldn’t believe it that he just did that – Accepted that he was wrong, even without being wrong, at any step.
Love is sadist. It makes you do everything you would have never done otherwise or even imagined in your weirdest dreams. But love has it’s own rewards too. The rewards which eventually wash off ever pain and hurt.
He got his reward too. She furrowed her brows slightly said, “I’m sorry, Manik. I shouldn’t have over-reacted.”
If she could behave non-chalant, as if it didn’t bother her, he could do that too. There was no point explaining more. He shrugged. “Not your fault. Anyone in your situation will think like that.”
“So, we are good? Everything between us…”
He moved his lips in a careless twist, “It… IS… strictly physical…”
She was hurt. It was not just physical for her. She was in love with him. Something she hadn’t accepted till now. And she didn’t know if she will ever be able to do that.
He could notice the changing expressions of her face. But he was yet to read them clearly. He stepped closer and held her face in his hands. Before she could speak more, he firmly pressed his lips over hers in a quick kiss. Taking a deep breath and moving his face away, he asked, “Why? Did you feel something else?”
Her mouth went dry, “Errmmm… No!”
“I hope you always remember the deal and the conditions!” He had to do this to stay around her, appear sane and not make her push him away. She was otherwise mature and bold, but became overwhelmed and vulnerable when they were too close for comfort. If he pacified her today, something else will disturb her stability tomorrow. She was still not secure about them. And he didn’t want to rush into things. She didn’t want to rush into things, either.
If time was the healer and made them feel secured about each other, away from hurt and heartbreak, then they had all the time in the world. But none of them wanted to lose the other.
She sighed. “I can never forget any rules… I know what you always felt about this marriage.”
He was quick to use her words and this situation for his own benefit. He immediately said, “You always felt the same!”
She frowned and slightly nodded, “No… noooo… I mean… I …,” She paused. And then, she was tongue tied, before she stammered, “Manik… I… do remember the conditions… all of them… but … “
He carefully observed her face and nodded with her, staring at her eyes and lips, waiting for a reply, with a look on his face that said that he was waiting for her to say something more and that he understood her. But she was so sure that he didn’t.
“Manik… actually… I always felt like that… but you know… it’s not just … me…I mean…”
He was waiting for this confusion to drown her. It had to happen, whether she loved him or not. The way he channeled every word of hers towards her, she was confused about what she wanted to say to him and what she didn’t. He used this wordlessness and confusion in his favour and shrugged, stepping away and leaving her.
He turned around and left the kitchen, carelessly, going towards living room, “Nandini …why don’t we do this…Let’s leave this discussion for a while… we’ll talk about it later.”
He had learnt a lot in these 4 years of working in business and corporate sector. If things are not going well, let the management stay confused. And more than that, it is important to know – Nothing is more effective in solving a problem or argument, than to leave it for some time. Discussions and talks complicate issues when there is no clear-cut protocol. Giving proper time and patience to an issue, prepares you to deal with it.
Manik did the same. Nandini sighed in relief when he left the kitchen and stopped struggling to find words to explain herself. She wondered how and when did the discussion shift from him to her.
Wasn’t she upset? Wasn’t he discussing stupid things with Cabir? Wasn’t she angry at him and asking him not to pretend anymore?? How and when did he get an upper hand at this argument and she was left speechless??
It was all because of her confusions! She decided. Never to stay confused. Always be confident and strong.
She followed him outside. Manik went towards Dobby’s bed and pointed towards him as he said, “This boy seems hungry. Have you forgotten to feed him today?”
Another thing that solved many problems was to divert attention and be involved in something else. He had learnt all that in management classes. He used every trick in the trade to divert Nandini and to keep her busy today. Guilt over-rode every other feeling and Nandini almost whacked herself.
Issues and discussions and arguments can take a back seat, while basic necessities came to fore. For next fifteen minutes, Nandini served and fed Dobby but her mind was still around the fight in the morning, his apology and her response to his question. Manik couldn’t move his eyes away from her while he made coffee, in the mean time.
Nandini’s coffee had become cold as she had forgotten to drink it when they talked. Manik made 2 cups and placed one before her without saying anything. She picked up the cup and said, “Coffee?? You?”
“It’s not a special gesture for you. I was making it for me so I made an extra cup for you. And, I do drink coffee in the mornings when I feel like…”
“You do?” She was surprised as she hadn’t seen him have coffee in the morning till now.
“Yes, I do! You don’t know me, Nandu. We’ve been together for just 10 days!” He reminded her, this time.
She shrugged and sipped from her cup, sat on the couch and opened the newspaper. He sat on the dining table chair and opened his laptop.
By afternoon, Nandini had bathed Dobby, cleaned his wound and dressed him, cleaned the washroom after Manik used it and took a long, relaxing bath immersing herself in the warm water in the bath tub. While scrubbing and cleaning in a slow process, she tried to shun away all the weird thoughts that kept troubling her. On one side, the last night wasn’t leaving her body and senses and on the other, Manik’s ways to avoid the fight tortured her. Did he really mean it, everything he said to Cabir?? He said so… But why would he do that, if he didn’t mean it?? His eyes and gestures spoke something else. Her heart spoke for him… Her mind was too messed up right now. She didn’t know how to deal with Manik anymore.
Till yesterday night, she had some feelings for him which she was not clear about. They were bordering between deep adoration and love. Today, a little clarity emerged in her thoughts about him. Now her feelings bordered between love and hatred.
She loved him so much that she hated him for not loving her in return. She hated to be tangled in this mess with him. Why couldn’t life be easy? Why couldn’t relationships be simple? Black or white. Good or bad. No… They had to sticky, greasy and so difficult.
What if she told him that she loved him?? He was going to laugh at her!! That was the impression she must have made on him… silly, mushy, emotional fool… no…no… she can’t risk losing the teeny bit of respect, if at all, he had for her…
Manik had opened his laptop again. This time, he was on the bed with laptop before him. When she walked out of the washroom, brushing her hair with the white and pink hand towel, her half-wet hair spread on her shoulders, leaving droplets of water on her back. The entire mane cascaded down like a ruffled bunch of silk.
He appeared to be lost in his laptop, but when she entered the bedroom, his eyes moved only for a fraction of a second and then refused to leave her.
When she turned around to face him, he moved his eyes away and focused on his laptop screen. She came back marching towards the bed, almost in irritation and reached for his cup of black coffee kept right before him on the bed. Before she could pick it up, he held her wrist in the air and stopped her.
“Manik… you can’t keep a cup full of black coffee on the bed.”
“Nandu… it’s my side of the bed and I can do what I want to do….here.” He spoke in exactly the same tone.
She frowned, “It will spill over the bed.”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Manik…it will leave stains on the bedsheet…”
“Big deal?? Get it washed or buy a new one!” He shrugged, as if it was a petty issue.
“You are doing it purposefully to irritate me!”
“Go and mind your own business…”
He swayed his jaw and rotated his tongue in his mouth. “You have only seen the nicer side of Manik Malhotra, which was ALL fake. Now you will witness the monster side!”
“And you…” She narrowed her eyes and glared at him, “You have only seen the cuter side of Nandini Murthy. You will now realise that I have darker side too!
This really made him want to chuckle, out loud. For once, he wanted to tease her that he was dying to see the darker side of her. But this was neither the time, nor situation for such teasing. So he tried to stay sober and stared back at her. “We’ll see!!”
“Fine! I’m going… never knew you were so mannerless, when you tried to pretend to be such a gentleman!” She left him with the coffee cup, still worried about it spilling over on the bed and irritated at how it will make her work harder to get rid of the stains.
“Good for you! By the way, give me your passport, before you go out and watch stupid TV shows.”
She stopped in her tracks, right at the door, opened her mouth wide and returned back, “Stupid shows?”
“Mushy? Emotional? Silly shows…” He pretended to think, “I have more adjectives for those shows that you love…”
She made an irked pout, “Tch…tch… I don’t even feel like fighting with you… by the way, what did you ask? Passport?”
“Don’t tell me now that you don’t have a passport!” He gave her a tired look.
“Of course, I have a passport. I have never travelled out of the country, but I do own one…”
“Great! Saved me a lot of work…”
She came back towards the bed and rested her knee on the bed, asking with a tilt of her neck, “May I know what you will do with my passport?”
He shrugged, “What does one do with passport? I’ve finalised a location for the trip and few hotel deals. I’m getting the bookings done.”
This time she turned around the bed and came towards his side, and sat facing him, “You must be kidding me!! Bookings?? Trip? Are you out of your mind? We have been fighting since morning!”
He shrugged casually, “So??”
“So… just because you decide to put up a fight with me, I’m not going to spoil the leave that I am getting.”
She stood up and started to go, when he held her wrist and brought her back, “Listen… Nandini. I applied for a leave for ten days telling them that I recently got married. I am entitled to get a wedding and honeymoon leave. So, dare if you try to spoil the break that I am getting!”
She smiled, “Breaking news – Manik Malhotra doesn’t like to travel. I know that!”
He grinned widely, in reply, “But Manik Malhotra does love to sleep. I’m getting a 10 days break from work. It’s a jackpot. I’ll get the bookings done. Once we reach the destination, I’ll sleep all day and you roam around the city. Because I know that Nandini Murthy does love to travel.”
“Unbelievable!!! You will sleep all day?? And I will roam around the city?? Is that what you call a honeymoon?”
He winked, “If you want, you can join me and sleep all day!”
She raised her brows, “Pathetic joke! I’m not coming. You are getting a honeymoon leave, right? Take inspiration from ‘Queen’ and go to your honeymoon alone, like Kangana.”
He laughed loudly at that, “You don’t listen to what you speak. Do you??”
She was not amused. She grit her teeth and spoke nearly chewing the words, “Manik, you are free to go wherever you want. It was my mistake to ask you for a break. Now, I don’t think that we can go together. We can’t even talk to each other properly.”
He shrugged, “Talking is not a criteria to decide whether to go together on a trip or not. We can stay quiet and not talk. I will listen to music and you read your book. We will stay away from each other. But at least, we will get the much needed break. Once we are back, you will join a hospital and I have loads to handle at work. Both of us will be very busy and we will not get leaves for long. So, we can use this time… and we will do our own things on the trip? Does that suit you??
She nodded, taking a long pause and then whispered, “Leave me alone.”
He blinked once and then sighed before he spoke in one single word… low… measured… deep…