Cremona, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, boasting of an enormous cultural heritage and a socially rich legacy, woke up to a lazy winter morning to witness the sunshine tearing through the darkness of the receding cold night.
The ancient Gothic architecture, the unique pattern of similar-looking buildings, and the deserted narrow lanes with stoned pathways welcomed the natives and tourists alike to bask in the warmth, beauty, and the simple laid-back attitude that the city promised.
Every morning, Dr. Mrinalini Sengupta began her day with Bharatnatyam, the Indian dance form that she had been learning since she was eight years old. This ritual was nothing less than meditation for her. It helped her enter a state of trance where no trace of negativity, stress, or worry touched her. It was necessary to cleanse her mind and push the despair away from the inner circle of her thoughts for the peace that she needed for her profession.
As a psychiatrist, she met with different patients every day, each with a unique set of problems. They discussed their issues with her to free themselves of their nagging, troublesome thoughts, without realizing that they were unloading their baggage on her. On her part, she tried to listen as patiently as she could before she guided and treated them. However, she was yet to learn the process of ‘clinical detachment’ – a defence mechanism to deal with the myriad of emotions arising out of empathy towards her patients.
It added to her pre-existing personal struggles. Every night, her nightmares would grow their ugly tentacles, threatening to envelop her and suffocate her. Every morning, she needed to cut those arms to be freed. She woke up tired, having fought her own demons of fear at night.
Every day, the patient consultations, one after the other, poured hundreds of doubts in her mind to tangle with her thoughts and form a mess of their own. It was important for her to stabilize her thoughts before she started another day of an unforgiving routine, and before she claimed her role as an anchor who helped in connecting wandering minds to the bodies they belonged to.
Bharatnatyam worked to bridge every gap. With each piece of music, her poised steps landed gracefully over the floor, simulating a divine connection between the mortal being and the higher power, uniting and aligning her with the forces of nature.
She danced for twenty minutes, but every hope for peace came crashing down when she felt more anguished with every move she made. Usually, it calmed her, but not today. Today, her mind was neither in sync with the music nor with her feet. It coursed through a different journey of its own, following and tracing a time-graph of the past decade. Rudra Raghuvanshi’s hoodie with ‘R’ on the back, Madhumita’s enchanting smile when she won the beauty pageant, Bernando’s vague fascination for Madhumita, Nancy’s giggles on her own stupid jokes, Peter’s helpless cries, Ritusmita’s strictness, their parents’ carelessness guised as chilled attitude with the girls – all flashed before her eyes, one after the other as a slideshow. And then, everything was replaced by a dark screen, followed by the visuals of Madhumita’s bleeding body, on the school floor.
Mrinalini felt restless. And distressed. After all, Rudra Raghuvanshi was back in the city, just like she was back from New York.
‘Why?’ she wondered.
‘Is it really a random coincidence, as I prefer to assume? Or is it a planned move?’
‘What does he want from me?’
‘Does he know me?’
‘Does he know that I remember him?’
Even a vague thought suggesting that he might know her gave her goosebumps over her arms and nape of her neck. Did he think about her? Ever? A part of her brain speculated.
‘No.’ Immediately, the other part of her mind refuted that thought or even a possibility of anything like that.
The ways of the human mind are mysterious – it takes hardly a few seconds to weave imaginary threads connecting people, places, incidents, situations, or circumstances, whether they exist or not. Only to contradict itself the very next moment. It can debate with itself and play a question-answer session all on its own. It can speculate and refute, build hopes and quash them, form castles of random impossible stuff and name them fantasies…
Such is the human mind.
‘Of course, this is a fantasy too… Rudra Raghuvanshi doesn’t know me…
Or maybe he does…’
They had never crossed paths despite attending the same school. They had never talked to each other. Not even once. He was a class senior to her, in Madhumita’s class. When she was in 4th year of the IB diploma programme in high school, he was in the exit batch of 5th year of another course.
‘He was, in fact…’ Her mind wandered again. Mrinalini deliberately stopped her mind from thinking more about him. The last thought trailed off, leaving a painful stab in her heart. Furious tears formed and stood at the margins of her eyes. She knew that she needed to hold both – the disturbing thoughts and her tears – if she wanted to concentrate on her dance moves. The reflection of the intricate hand movements and graceful postures in the tall, human-sized mirror in her room held her attention for some time. But not for long. Soon, the memories breezed back with a vengeance, creating complex knots to dwell between the recesses and folds her brain allowed.
There is no point in running away from the truth. The earlier we accept it, the easier it becomes to deal with it. She completed the sentence that she had hated to believe.
‘Rudra Raghuvanshi was, in fact… Madhumita di’s best friend. And my sister probably loved him.’
But, so what if Madhumita loved him? The entire school loved him, too. He was the teenage rockstar. He played enchanting music and had a band of his own. Perfectly using his charismatic personality, he would charm his way through attendance registers and get special considerations from teachers. He won inter-school competitions for St. Joseph’s High School. It was natural for the teachers, the principal, and almost all the students to be in awe of him. All – meant‘all’- including Mrinalini and Madhumita.
Though, something unexpected happened one day. For the first time in her life, Mrinalini had been jealous of Madhumita. Only because of Rudra. She was never going to forgive him for that.
The sound of music stopped, and her feet followed. Mrinalini turned around to find her older sister, Dr. Ritusmita Sengupta, standing at the entrance.
Ritusmita was a confident, smart, and dependable doctor, known all over Cremona as one of the best gynaecologists in the town. She was tall – around five feet and nine inches – beautiful, and petite with an athletic body, thanks to the regular exercise and a healthy diet that she religiously followed. She didn’t look like she was in her early forties. Her dedication towards her patients was unmatched. So was her love for Mrinalini.
Ritusmita was the only family Mrinalini had, after her mother, father, and sister, Madhumita, passed away. Ritusmita and her husband, Dr. Debojit Bannerjee, took care of her as parents do. After Madhumita was killed, they sent her to New York to study medicine and ensured that she received the best of everything that she needed and they could afford.
“Aren’t you getting late, Pihu?”
Mrinalini was given several names. Ritusmita called her ‘Pihu.’ Debojit, whom she called dadababu (brother-in-law in Bengali), called her ‘Mrinu.’ Her friends called her ‘Mini.’ She hated them all. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, though. ‘Mrinalini’ was a complicated name. It had been a topic of harmless jokes among friends and relatives that such a long and difficult name belonged to a simple, short girl of five feet and two inches. She hated them even more for that. Not a lot of people could correctly pronounce her name. Her friends and people who didn’t know her well, especially non-Bengalis, almost always fumbled with her name and struggled with the ‘r’ that came after M.
“I was about to get ready.” Mrinalini opened the knot in her dupatta,tied on one side near her waist.
“Are you fine, Pihu?” Ritusmita asked, studying her face.
“Of course! What happened to me?” she asked and shrugged, trying to appear calm. She even tried to smile for Ritusmita. But Ritusmita wasn’t naive to be fooled by fake smiles or tailored gestures. She continued to probe, “Pihu, I was at the reception of your clinic yesterday when I heard people gushing about ‘him’ taking an appointment with you. Is that true?”
Mrinalini nodded, appearing nonchalant. “Yes.”
“Why? Why does Rudra Raghuvanshi want to meet you?”
“Seems to be a professional reason,” Mrinalini replied with a shrug. She had been speculating too since her manager and staff informed her about the esteemed musician’s request for an appointment with her.
“Why you? There is no dearth of doctors in Rome, where he lives. Or here in Cremona. Why did he choose you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does he know…that…” Ritusmita asked cautiously, leaving the last part unsaid.
Mrinalini shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. How would he possibly know about our plan of action?”
“Will you be able to deal with him?” Ritusmita asked.
“Yes, di,” Mrinalini tried to appear confident. She raised her foot to rest it on the chair and removed the ghungroos from her feet, one by one. She then set them delicately over the glass table in one corner, right next to the pictures of Ritusmita, Madhumita, and Mrinalini – taken during their happy times. In one picture, all three of them were dressed in the traditional attire before a public performance of Bharatnatyam.
“I’m worried about you,” Ritusmita said. “You don’t look in the right frame of mind since yesterday. You skipped dinner last night. I think you should refuse to meet him. You don’t need to go through the pain.”
“I’m not stressed about meeting him.” Mrinalini lied. She went back and curled her arms around Ritusmita, resting her face on her sister’s shoulder. A familiar scent from Ritusmita’s starched cotton saree reminded her of their mother, who used to wear similar sarees, sometimes wrapping the saree in a Bengali way, especially during the festivals.
Ritusmita was no less than a mother for Mrinalini. In her arms, every stress, every burden felt a lot lighter. A hug from her sister provided the comfort that Bharatnatyam, meditation, and yoga together couldn’t.
Rudra Raghuvanshi scrolled through social media posts of the doctor he was meeting today.
His manager, Trevor Dsouza, a tall guy of five feet and eleven inches, with blonde hair and blue eyes, noticed that his boss was not paying attention to the detailed plan he had laid out regarding the marketing and publicity of the new music album. It was nothing new. Trevor was now used to the inattentive stance of his boss when it came to album promotions.
“Sir.” Trevor cleared his throat sufficiently loud to gain Rudra’s attention.
“Yeah?” Rudra replied dryly, without lifting his eyes from the phone screen or stopping his thumb, and kept scrolling through Mrinalini’s pictures and posts.
“Isn’t she the psychiatrist you’ve booked an appointment with?” Trevor asked.
This time, Rudra turned his eyes towards his manager. He didn’t speak a word. The long pause was enough to intimidate Trevor.
“Sorry, sir.” Trevor lowered his eyes to focus on the papers spread on the coffee table. He should have been careful, he knew. Rudra didn’t like questions. He never explained what he was doing and why. He never clarified any of his actions and never discussed his plans with anyone. He simply listened to what others had to say, asked for a schedule, details of the agenda, mode of execution of every plan, and then went ahead to do whatever he liked. This was just a glimpse of how he preferred to be in the professional set-up. To try to step inside Rudra Raghuvanshi’s personal space, was out of question. A clearly restricted domain. Trevor reminded himself about this little detail.
“Sir, this is an important leg of the promotion and publicity. The company is spending a bomb on the plan. You are supposed to travel to six cities for this tour.” Trevor moved his pen over a few loose A4 size sheets spread between them.
“When does it start?”
“Next month, sir.”
“Not possible,” Rudra declared.
“Sir?” Trevor was gaping at him, tongue tied.
“Trevor.” One word was enough. One small word, spoken patiently and nicely, with a soft smile on Rudra’s face conveyed to Trevor that he was wasting his time in further discussion. Rudra was not interested. And he was not even rude when he refused. He was always, by default, calm and composed. He never lost his temper. He neither yelled at people nor hurled abuses. He used a few words or gestures to communicate his instructions, and the world around him understood.
“Good.” Rudra stood up with his attention back to his phone and started to walk away. Being taller than Trevor worked in his favour when he wanted to intimidate him. Standing straight, one hand holding the phone and the other in the pocket of his denim jeans, his neck slightly bent towards Trevor and eyes fixed on him, Rudra asked in a pleasing but firm tone, this time, with a wider smile, “Anything else, Trevor?”
“No, sir,” Trevor said. He had worked with Rudra long enough to know that it was impossible to know what this man was thinking. Not that it mattered much. As long as his salary was deposited in his account on time, he hardly bothered about delving further into Rudra’s personality and behaviour. And it wasn’t just him. There had been no one who could claim to know Rudra Raghuvanshi. Not even his family and friends.
Rudra was a famous singer and musician. He had an enormous fan following, counting in millions, on various social media platforms. Most of his songs turned out to be chartbusters, topping almost all the music lists. To earn such a huge following, accolades, riches, and reputation at the age of twenty-nine needed hard work and discipline that Rudra had never shied away from. He had maintained it since teenage. People loved him, claimed to know him, and followed him on every social network channel and in person. His unassuming smile and modest behaviour added to his handsome features, enviable height, and strikingly good looks. His followers were mainly girls of all ages. However, it was a pity that Rudra appeared to be unfazed by this craze and mania. His staff was often overwhelmed by the attention they received because of him, but Rudra had remained down-to-earth. They wondered why he was never carried away by the aura created by his fans. They had heard that the appreciation didn’t affect him during school days either. It didn’t affect him even now.
Rudra walked away, leaving Trevor to collect the papers. Trevor made a thin stack of them and carefully tucked them in a file. After taking three steps towards the door, Rudra turned to face him.
“Don’t fix any appointments for the evening.”
“I know, sir. You have an appointment with the doctor.”
Rudra smiled and walked out of his home – the massive Raghuvanshi mansion, famous for its monumental size and architectural design. It was said to be an old medieval era masterpiece, a duke’s castle, now converted into a mansion with modern amenities. To boast owning such a magnificent mansion in Cremona, was a privilege. Rudra’s parents reminded this little fact to him at least three times a day. Not that he cared.
“Hello, Trevor. I need to speak with Rudra,” said Rachna Raghuvanshi, Rudra’s mother, walking inside the living room.
Trevor turned to her and greeted her. By no standards, attire, or attitude, Rachna looked like Rudra’s mother. Her elegantly wrapped blue silk saree had retained its crease even after half-a-day’s work. Her signature floral perfume; well-styled short curly hair carefully set around her shoulders; subtle, classy makeup; the muted lip shade; and her high heels had Trevor guess that she was coming from a social event. She was holding a file in her hand.
“Ma’am, Rudra sir has left,” Trevor informed her.
“But he was here… tch… anyway, when will he come back? And where did he go?” Rachna handed the file to her personal assistant, who was already holding three bags for her, and demanded the details from Trevor.
“No one knows about that, ma’am, until sir decides to share it. We don’t even know which car he has taken.”
Rachna smiled and said, “Tell me one thing, Trevor…”
“I’m his mother. I have no choice but to tolerate him. But how do you deal with this guy?” She couldn’t hide how annoyed she was.
“If it wasn’t for the offensive amount of remuneration he paid to the staff, I’m sure all of us, the helpers and I, would have either left him or maybe joined him for the psychiatric consultation,” Trevor responded with a smile. Rachna shook her head with a sigh, and smiled, eventually.
Mrinalini read the letter thrice, and her grin simply widened every time. It said that the clinic had received an appreciation and an award from the Government of Italy for the charity camps she had conducted in the last few months, for the homeless and the destitute suffering from psychological disorders.
She had been working hard for the underprivileged sectors in and around Cremona, to help in the execution of the existing government schemes at a private level. She was passionate about her work. Since her return from America, around six months ago, she had been conducting mental health camps all over Cremona on a non-profit basis. Two awards, five paper presentations in Italian and international conferences, and regular coverage in newspapers had made her a coveted name in the field of psychiatry. Her patients rooted for her. Her staff loved her. And now, this letter was an added feather in her cap.
The rest of the day passed on a pleasant note. Routine consultations and therapy resumed. The appointment for 4:30 pm with Rudra Raghuvanshi went unhonoured. He didn’t turn up.
It was counted as a highly unprofessional attitude if a patient cancelled an appointment without prior information. The clinic staff, attendants, nurses, receptionists, and pantry boys, previously enthusiastic about meeting their music idol, were disappointed. Most of all, Melissa, Mrinalini’s personal assistant, felt let down. The young and bubbly ‘just-out-of-college’ intern, who was always a level more excited than others about meeting the famous people, couldn’t believe that her ‘rockstar’ had failed them. The staff left at around 6:00 pm, the regular closing time of the clinic.
Mrinalini was writing notes in the last patient’s file. She had always been particular about documentation of cases on the same day and never kept things pending for the next day, even if it delayed her.
Patients’ records reminded her about the cancelled appointment with Rudra Raghuvanshi. In a busy clinical practice, a cancellation was normal from both sides. But this was a case of ‘no show’ without informing the clinic. It was clearly rude.
‘Maybe he never intended to come. There are hundreds of leading psychiatrists in Italy. And all over the world, as di said… Why would he come here?’
She put her pen down and stood up to go out when a subtle knock on the glass door almost startled her. She went out of her cabin to check.
‘No. I am hallucinating again. Or is he really there?’
His overwhelming aura was everywhere. A towering height of six feet and one inch, straight posture, black hair falling over his forehead, toughened grim expression on his face, and an unpretentious gleam in his vulnerable eyes summed up Rudra Raghuvanshi. The taut jawline and the one-day-old stubble enhanced the ruggedness of his debonair looks. A stunner to look at, Rudra hadn’t changed even a bit. He looked the same as he did twelve years ago. The only difference was that he was now a grown-up man of twenty-nine, leaving behind the charming young boy of seventeen, somewhere down the memory lane.
“Dr. Mrinalini Sengupta?” he asked. His voice was husky, with a velvety texture added to the gravity in each word. Mrinalini found her eyes widely open, fixed at him. Her mouth slightly parted to heave a sigh, for he had taken her name correctly.
Exact pronunciation at the first go. Without messing or fumbling with it.
Buy The Masquerade here – https://amzn.to/2DbbKNR
Read Chapter 3 –