When Nandini walked out of the HOD’s room at Hinduja, she was drained. Both mentally and physically.
It was a challenging day. She had driven the car around the entire city, visited four hospitals and nothing had turned in her favour. It had been disappointing. To top that, the last offer was for Chennai.
She had always wanted to go to Chennai because the fellowships that she had been looking for, were mostly based there and she wanted to work with some eminent doctors in Chennai. But it was before her marriage. Now, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to live alone, anymore.
Without Manik?! It wasn’t difficult but still…
She knew that she could manage it. Even Manik would manage it. But did they really want to do that? She was confused.
The HOD said that it was for a year. But if she joined fellowship post this stint, then it will be a year or two more. Roughly 3-4 years. If Manik didn’t get a transfer to Chennai, it was going to be very difficult for both of them.
Hell! She didn’t even know whether his office had a branch in Chennai or not… How can she expect him to leave a career here and follow her to wherever she fancied going…
It had been a tiring day. She sat down over the plush couch in the visitors’ lounge in the hospital and took out her phone to call her ma. Swarna picked up after two rings. She told her that she was at the neighbours’ Mehendi ceremony and also told her that she will talk to her at night.
This was so suffocating. Nandini was used to telling her mother about every small thing that happened in college. All good and bad stuff. All happy and sad things. Even the details about her friends and sometimes about patients too.
All her tiredness would wane off when she reached home after a busy day. She talked and talked while her mother cooked food, ironed clothes or cut vegetables. Nandu spoke about everything that happened through the day and lurked around her mother like the cute lamb around Mary, in the nursery rhyme.
Since she had come to Bangalore, she stored things to tell ma but then when they talked, she would forget everything. They would just exchange pleasantries about how they were and how was everything else at home. Once or twice, she had called ma from the market to rant about the hospital hunting stuff and how Manik was always busy.
She wanted to do the same today. But now, when her ma was not free, Nandini felt more dejected. She buried her face in her palms and struggled with her mind to stay calm. She wanted to scream to let off that steam, but she couldn’t. She wanted to talk to someone.
Next, she opened the phone again to send a message to Manik.
Manik had been collecting his laptop, phone etc, after winding off the last batch of emails. The recent developments at the office front and then Dhruv’s stupidity had caused a massive headache to him. All he wanted to do right now, was to go home, have a refreshing cup of tea, eat like a hog and sleep.
A message from Nandini made him smile. It read – ‘I just got free.’
He typed – ‘I’m free too. Planning to go home.‘
‘Can we go out? Somewhere else?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Shall I come and pick you up?’
‘No. Meet me at Church Street.’
Manik sent the last message about the place where he would wait for her. He sighed, impatient now, to see her after a day full of nuisance. Nandini read the last reply and smiled. She didn’t know why but she wasn’t missing her mom, anymore.
Manik and his messages gave her the same warmth that her older home gave her, once!
Nandini parked the car at a dedicated parking area off the lane from Brigade Road and walked to reach the Starbucks Coffee at Church Street. Manik was standing on the pavement, outside Starbucks. looking away towards the road.
A wide smile spread on Nandini’s lips when she spotted him from far. Only Manik could look so ravishing even after a long day at work. He had worn a navy blue shirt paired with beige trousers and with a sleek fit navy blue blazer drawn up till his elbows. He was leaning by a pillar…and…
And…what??!!! He had a cigarette in his hand!!!
The smoke was escaping in delicate twirls of fumes from the cigarette between his fingers and his mouth. She had to check twice to see if she wasn’t mistaken. It was shocking.
When Manik turned his face to her, he smiled warmly, with his lips turning up to form a bow, from ear to ear. His infectious smile could send any unassuming heart to a dizzying spell. Nandini reached near him and responded with an awkward, uncomfortable smile. He stopped smiling when he found her confused, smiling in a silly hesitant way. He raised his brows, spreading his hands sideways in cluelessness.
She reached near him and couldn’t stop herself, “Eeewww!!! You smoke?? Why didn’t I find it out in 11 days??”
He frowned, looked at her, then his hand and rubbed half the smoked cigarette at the edge of the nearby dustbin and threw the butt in it. Throwing a huge breath out, as if to clear his lungs, he said, “You didn’t notice in 11 days, because I don’t smoke… I mean… not regularly. I am not an addict and I stay away on most days…except when…”
With her keen attentive eyes fixed on him, she adjusted the strap of her handbag over her shoulder and waited for him to complete his sentence. Raising her brows and studying his face. She looked so beautiful doing this. She had worn a sky blue saree and modest heels, hair left open and she was carrying a small handbag. It wasn’t just the looks. Everything about her was exceedingly adorable. He kept observing her for a moment, huffed and turned around to walk.
She quickly followed him, asking him to complete, “Except when?? When do you feel the urge to smoke?”
This time, he visibly puffed air but didn’t tell her that – ‘except when I am stressed‘…
Instead, he kept walking beside her and nodded as if disappointed, “Wow! Is this the first question you ask me when we meet after a long day??…especially when…”
“Especially when?” Once again, she cutely repeated to ask.
‘especially when I was dying to meet you since morning…’ He wished he could say that. He didn’t, yet again.
Instead, he rolled his eyes and said, “Nothing!! I don’t smoke… it’s just a one-off thing…once in years…” And then he changed the tone, to a slightly irked one, “Can we leave this topic now?”
She frowned and nodded as they walked ahead on the pavement on Church Street. Given a choice, she would have hugged him when she saw him first. She had missed him so much through the day. When she saw him, she felt like she didn’t need anything else or anyone else in this life. He was her ultimate destination to-go-to. She would have thrown her arms around him and marked his face with kisses. But she did nothing like that.
Instead, she had questioned him about the cigarette without even thinking about it. She observed his body language and the way he had talked to her.
‘Why did he become so uncomfortable about the question regarding smoking? Is he stressed?’
They strolled along the street, watching the shops and the public, in general. She felt better when she window shopped the junk jewellery at the trinkets stores at the pavement. Something about jhumkas brought her smile back. She observed so many but bought nothing.
He thought about her too. It had been a tiring day for her. She had to attend two interviews. Immediately, he felt bad for her.
“How were the interviews? You went to two hospitals, today?”
“Not two… I went to four hospitals!” She informed him and then, she started telling him about the hospital visits and then she didn’t realize when she was back to her original self … as they walked around, she kept talking on and on about the hospitals, the details of interviews, the doctors she had met, the interviewers, the posts and the HODs of each department… how the Bangalore traffic nearly killed her… but it was still better than Mumbai traffic…
He kept listening to her, walking quietly beside her. After the mad nuisance in the office, her voice appeared like a sweet melody. Her innocent experiences, crazy takes about simplest of things, unbiased opinions about the people she met and cute mistakes… everything was adorable. Her detailing was funny and cute… Her takes were hilarious… He realised that he could listen to her forever… she could go on talking and he would go on listening… for their entire lives!
She loved it that he was listening to her patiently. Just like her mom did, once. He didn’t ask her to shut up. He kept walking quietly and she could unload all that she had gathered throughout the day.
After some time, she felt weird, because even after a long time had passed, he was mostly quiet, “Manik…”
“Hmm?” He raised his face, which had been towards the ground while walking. He looked at her now, with his lips pressed together.
“Are you bored?”
He frowned. “What?!!!”
“I mean… you are so quiet?”
He spoke nothing in reply to that as they were taking a turn and he was looking at the traffic. He curled his arm around her back as they crossed the road. A gesture, so protective that she was touched. They had walked a long way. They took a turn for The SkyWatchers, a fine dining, rooftop restaurant, located at the terrace of a nine-storeyed high-end hotel.
They chose a corner table, overlooking the Bangalore skyline at night. The streetlights spread before them, the moving cars on the road ahead, the cool breeze, the stars in the sky and scores of plants and foliage in designer terracotta pots arranged around them gave a perfect serenity to the ambience. Soft light live music being played in the background added to the calmness, the place exuded.
Manik sat facing her and picked up the menu book to read it. Nandini turned around to let the surroundings sink in and loved it immediately.
“Such a beautiful place!” She whispered.
“Read about it in the newspaper, the other day.” He said, with his eyes on the menu book.
She waited for a few minutes for him to turn to her, but when he didn’t, she called him, “Manik…”
“What?” He asked, without raising his eyes.
“What are you reading so keenly in the menu book? Do you have an exam, regarding it?”
He couldn’t stop smirking at that. He folded the book and kept it back. “I always love it when you decide to speak nonsense.”
She frowned, “Was I speaking nonsense, all the while??”
He rolled his eyes and twisted his lips, “Come on! I don’t mean that… I mean… Nooooo!!!”
“You were not even listening!” She complained, frowning more.
“I WAS!! Nandini …please?? Don’t start fighting now!”
She winced. “This is too much. Do I always fight??”
“I didn’t say that…” He tried to explain, taking his hands sideways, clueless on how to explain.
She was sad, “But I am not even fighting. I just wanted to know, if you were bored while I was talking.”
He sighed. He hated to see her sad or worried.. or even upset for anything. Leaving a huge breath, he asked, “Will you believe me if I said that ‘No… I was not bored!”
“I will believe you. Then, why were you so quiet?”
“Because I am always quiet! You know that!”
“No. Sometimes you talk more than I do…”
“That is when I am in a good mood…”
“And you are not in a good mood today?” She asked with concern, fixing her eyes on him. She was slowly learning how to corner him. And she had done that successfully, right now. This man was a challenge to her. She was relieved that this challenge was proving to be manageable, now.
“Err…” He swayed his jaw and puffed air out with a huge effort, trying to avoid her eyes and shrugged awkwardly. “Nandini…”
“So I was right? It was a bad day for you too! And you smoke sometimes, when stressed??”
He raised his eyes to meet hers, clearly embarrassed. “How do you know?”
“I guessed. A lot of people do that. “
He didn’t know what to say next, so he honestly confessed, “I’m surprised that you read me so well. I don’t know what to say.”
She was not smiling anymore. Sadly, she just murmured, “Don’t say anything… let’s order food, eat and go home…”
“What happened?” He asked in an apologetic tone, “Are you angry?”
“Manik, I won’t lie. Yes, I’m angry and very upset. I think we liked each other instantly because we were honest with each other right from our first meet. We were so open…about everything… And it hurts me that we have started keeping things to ourselves, now…”
“It is not like that…,” He tried to defend himself, but she interrupted him.
“It hurts me that I was talking on and on about how I had a terrible day and you kept listening, without any word. You had a terrible day too. I know that you don’t like people speaking around you constantly and disturbing your train of thoughts. You told me that once… but still I kept talking and you were quiet.”
“I was quiet because I was listening to you…”
“You neither asked me to shut up. Nor you shared that you had a bad day too.”
He was irked slightly. Trying his best to not sound harsh or rude, he managed to speak in a tolerant tone, with pain in his eyes, “What do you exactly want from me, Nandu?? When I asked you to shut up, as I did in the plane, you were shaken, hurt and upset. You fought with me so fiercely. When I keep listening to you, you feel hurt again. What do you want me to do?? Can’t you see that I came all the way, just for you? Even after a really terrible day, when all I wanted was to go home and sleep, I came here. Because ‘you’ wanted to go out…”
Herealizedd that he had spoken more than necessary when he saw the fading colours from her face. She was nearly in tears. She stood up, visibly shaken, fighting the choking lump in her throat, “Very well! I’m so sorry to have asked you to do this favour for me.”
“I didn’t mean it…” Remorseful, he held her hand and said, “I’m sorry!”
“I don’t even feel like eating anymore. Please?”
“Sit down!” He didn’t leave her hand and didn’t let her move from the table. His eyes were so poignant that she felt stirred. She was standing right now and not wanting to attract undue attention from other tables, she slowly sat down and sighed.
“Let’s go, Manik.”
Her hand was still in his hand. He stretched his other hand too, before her. She gave her other hand in his hand too. He held both her hands, across the table and said, “We’ll go back. Only after you’ve heard me…”
She wet her dry lips with her tongue and waited for him to speak. Her hands in his hands refused to let go of the support they had from him. So, even when he had held her lightly and lovingly, she didn’t have the heart to withdraw her hands from him. He intertwined their fingers, before he started speaking.
“I’m sorry for making you feel so miserable. It’s my fault… but I want you to know something. Firstly, I was NOT getting bored when you were talking. Yes, I had told you once that I hate people constantly blabbering around me BUT always remember, that for all means and purposes, from now on, this DOES NOT apply to my wife. She can talk as much as she wants. And I don’t tolerate her… I love to hear her!!! Do you get that?”
She sighed, turned her face away and then returned her gaze to him, “But Manik…”
“Let me finish…” He interrupted her, “I apologize. Yes, it was a bad day for me too. I can’t extend it more by fighting with you… so you got to listen to me…”
“Nandini, we are clear from day 1 that you and I have a different personality. I generally talk less, you generally love to express. Similarly, when in stress, we have different coping mechanisms. I realised that I wanted to see you smile, so when you asked if we can go out, I agreed and came here…You didn’t force me, I didn’t do a favour to you. It was a choice. I wanted to come!! It was a favour to me, as I wanted to see you happy… I feel relaxed when I see you happy… When you were talking, I realised that you had a bad day too. And also that your coping mechanism is to eject it out of your system by ranting about it and sharing it. So, I was listening… I didn’t ask you to shut up, because I wanted you to feel better if speaking about it helped with that…”
“But I had no idea that you had a bad day too. Your coping mechanism is to internalise it and make a strategy or plan to overcome it. I externalise it and rant it out.”
“Exactly! No one is at fault.”
“Okay, you don’t speak much about your issues. You had spoken about it to me in that plane journey that you like to solve your issues on your own and I shouldn’t interfere… So Great!! You go ahead and smoke it out, when things go out of hand…”
“I’ve never shared my problems with anyone, before. Not at home… not in college… not even in my earlier relationships. Talking about problems makes me feel uncomfortable…”
This time, she strengthened the hold of their hands and exerted firm pressure on his hands. The light touch had become stronger now. With that, she said, “I won’t force you to tell me if you are not comfortable. I won’t even interfere, ever…I’m sorry…”
“Nooooo!! Please don’t say so… it was just a small thing that blew up. You know about that project lost… Cabir had called and spoke about it, the next morning of our wedding…” he reminded her.
With that he began telling her about that project lost and how it had impacted his stand in the company, about Shobha Diwan, about MD… the Artemis conditions of working with them, if he was not involved… about next project being given to Dhruv… and how Dhruv had behaved…
“My God! So much happened! And you say that a small thing blew up?”
He shrugged, “I’ll handle it… Idiot Dhruv had to complicate things… or else it would have been easier…”
The waiter arrived to take their order. They detangled their hands and picked up menu booklets to order. He murmured, flipping the pages, “They only serve fine dining menu… no junk!”
She rolled her eyes, visibly annoyed and said, “So what!? I eat healthy food. It’s not like my mom always allowed me junk. I was a good girl in Mumbai. I was simply taking liberties here.”
“Not anymore!” He shrugged with a visible smirk on his face. She frowned at that. He folded his menu book and kept it back signifying that she had to order and he was not helping her. She frowned again and ordered, “Okay… so, we’ll have butter chicken and tandoori roti with green salad and curd…”
He smirked when the waiter left. “We are definitely changing…”
She squeezed her eyes, “You are deviating from the topic. We were talking about your office…”
“What about that?”
She was serious. “I’m sure, you didn’t speak anything in your defense.”
“Is there a point in speaking about facts when you already know that people will not believe you?”
“Yes!! Even when no one listens, you need to speak the truth that you hold at your end. You need to put forth your defense…”
“I’ll do that. I will write a detailed email to them and explain my stand.”
“Manik, please…please do that very clearly…” She was worried for him, “Please don’t use any special methods here, like you did with me. And, please don’t go on to accept it as your fault.”
He was touched with the care her words displayed. He wasn’t used to people caring for him. So, for a moment, he was quiet again, observing her pretty face displaying concern for her with a subtle crease between her brows and lips pursed together. Her hair blew in the breeze and she was troubled, before she took them all and moved around to rest at one shoulder, exposing her beautiful neck on the other side.
It was long back when he stayed with his family, his mother, father, maasi, his sisters made him feel that he was loved and cared for. But it was last when he was a teenager. After that he left the ancestral home and the care it provided. Since long, he was on his own. During college and then PG and after that the job-All the while, he was used to facing his problems alone and never discussed them with anyone. People around him, friends and colleagues were happy with that. They never asked him to share his problems, nor did he take any efforts to do so. This concern and care, he hadn’t seen in a long time.
“I won’t do that!” He assured her and then added, “Please don’t worry.”
She sighed in relief, “I won’t. As long as you promise to not mess it up. Sometimes, I find you so complicated that it scares me!”
“Scares you??!! Madam, you have no idea, what ‘scaring someone’ means…”
She blushed because his eyes and words said that he meant it for him. “When did I scare you?”
“The way you stood up a while back? I was truly, literally ‘scared’… I mean, what was that… Manik, let’s go home. I don’t feel like eating anymore…” He imitated her.
She giggled, “Thanks for holding my hand and stopping me. I am so famished. I would have regretted.”
“See, caught you there.” He teased her. “And I knew that you will stop and understand.”
“How can you be so sure?” She was impressed.
“Didn’t I tell you that we are changing…it’s slight and subtle… but I can notice the changes.”
She glared at him in fake anger and said, “I AM changing, mister… no one is changing for me!”
He laughed at the way she said that, “My… my!! Since evening, I’ve noticed one more thing …very clearly…”
“What?” She was curious now. His observations were not only interesting, but were ‘bang-on!’
Leaning forwards on the table, resting his elbows over it, he fixed his gaze on her and spoke in a deeply stirring, husky voice, “I’ve noticed that we are falling in the trap of expectations and complaints. Aren’t we?”
This time, she smirked and spoke in an animated, exagerrated tone, “If we are, then it is really serious!! We are doomed. It will lead us towards more fights, more complaints… more expectations and lots of heartbreaks…”
He laughed more. “Awww… this ‘nonsense’ I love to hear… Nandu”
She teased him back, “And do you know, what I love about you?”
“That my husband was such a hot property among women in office! Ooohhh…I’m so jealous!”
“Shut up!” He was embarrassed.
She immediately changed her tone, “Really! Let these women meet me once… Shobha Diwan and that Artemis girl… I will treat them so well that they will not look at another man like that… in their entire lifetime… not even their husbands.”
He laughed at her sudden fighter stance. “Silly you are! No thanks… I’ll handle them myself…”
She kept teasing him. The way she giggled and laughed changed the mood completely. She cracked jokes and pulled his leg. Most of the time, he let her have the fun and sometimes, he replied back, by his own teases for her, making her blush and squirm.
It had become a pattern these days… He found himself laughing and talking more when he was with her. She was an addictive remedy for all his grievances. When she smiled, all problems appeared petty, all issues felt silly.
He wasn’t bothered about anyone, anymore!
Her hand in his hand was enough for him to conquer the entire world.