Hello dear friends, Hope you are having a good day! I'm here to announce the giveaway winners of The Masquerade. It has been delayed as there were Covid19 restrictions and we couldn't manage to get the courier services streamlined to deliver books at different places. As many of you have already bought the book, in case the winners have the book, they can message me, I will include their names...
Twelve years is too long a time when spent away from people you care about. Too short, when asked how well you remember them.
‘Was he even there? In flesh and blood?’ Mrinalini wondered. He could very well be another hallucination of hers. She had been getting them more frequently these days. The frown on his face, the confused look in his eyes, and his pursed lips told her that he might be there. Standing right before her.
‘For a long time, he had been…just her…’
‘Uh…what?’ she asked herself but received no reply. She had no relationship labels to give him. No definition. No appropriate tag for the permanent occupant of her thoughts for most of her life. It was impossible to categorize and name the space in her life that belonged to Rudra. Except for the fact, that almost every deep-seated emotion in her heart, positive or negative, began and ended with him.
If stalking on social media was not counted, then she was looking at him after over a decade. It was only natural to forget to reply to his question. She also forgot about any other welcoming gesture. In fact, she stood like a statue with her eyes fixed at him. He slightly wiggled his brows, made a quick pout, and cleared his throat to distract her. Instead of asking anything else, he repeated her name in a questioning tone. “Doctor? Mrinalini Sengupta?”
“Yeah.” The realization finally hit her that he had taken her name twice, thankfully without making it sound like a tongue-twister.
To keep a straight face while going through a mess of countless emotions inside was a difficult task. But Mrinalini was used to it. She aced every instance when her facial expressions had to defy her feelings. She even smiled while replying him.
He turned his head halfway around to look at his staff of two, probably bodyguards, standing right behind him, and dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Once they left, he turned to face Mrinalini before introducing himself in a poised tone. Stretching his hand towards her, he said, “Hello, I’m Rudra Raghuvanshi.”
‘Yeah? Did he really think that he will have to introduce himself?’
She nodded to acknowledge it and accepted his hand for a handshake. “Dr. Mrinalini Sengupta.”
A strange warmth swam across his eyes as he smiled. She returned the smile, absolutely hating the fact that it was already 7 p.m. He was two and a half hours late. Her staff had left, and she was alone in the clinic with only a guard outside. It was a tricky situation. Entertaining a client at this time, even if he was Rudra Raghuvanshi, was reckless. She couldn’t take the risk to suggest that she could compromise on timings, schedules, and safety for anyone in the world. It would appear desperate.
If she shunned him away, chances were high that he may never return. Seeking an appointment from her clearly meant that he wanted to talk. ‘Why? What did he want to talk about?’ she thought. Sending him away would ensure that she may never be able to hear his side of the story.
Rudra craned his neck to look around and noticed the empty clinic. With a subtle shrug of one shoulder, he politely reminded her, “Ma’am, I have an appointment.”
The tone, the pitch of his voice was just perfect. Soft and poised.‘Of course!’ Mrinalini remembered how he was famous for his cultured ways and sophisticated mannerisms, along with an unprofessional attitude. In school, he used to manage green checks in attendance registers using his charming ways. These days, he got through his lack of professionalism, unpunctuality, and erroneous decisions with his polished, suave style. People who knew him vouched for his urbane manners and grounded personality.
Mrinalini had read a lot about him. Tabloids, gossip columns, and internet news portals regularly featured how he was a delight to interact with, and how considerate and soft-spoken he was with everyone around him. His alluring personality, along with all the scandals and controversies surrounding him, kept him in the news all the time. She knew how sophisticated he behaved, especially when he wanted people to dance to his tunes. Unfortunately, she was not one of them who would happily do that. She was aware of his tricks.
Mrinalini replied with a smile, “Actually, you ‘had’ an appointment.”
He shrugged carelessly, looking around, and said, “Am I a bit late?”
“Not ‘a bit.’ You are ‘very’ late,” she replied with a dignified grace in her tone.
He pursed his lips together as if in regret, shrugged again, and spoke in a balanced, calm voice, “I’m sorry. I’m coming directly from a shoot. Can you please ‘reschedule’ my appointment?”
This was interesting. She had hoped for a plea and a request to take him in. On usual days, celebrities threw tantrums demanding special privileges. Nothing was odd-hours for them. Nothing was impossible. Uncomfortable about such consultations, Mrinalini would finish them at a stipulated time and never entertained them after-hours. She was used to dealing with an intimidating, dominating behaviour from the rich and the famous. They expected others to break rules and go out of their way to accommodate them.
Rudra did nothing like that. In fact, he apologized for being late and was now patiently requesting her to reschedule the dishonoured appointment. He even went ahead and offered to pay for the damages, if any. Mrinalini politely refused. It was enough of a surprise for her that he was willing to visit again.
‘How unlike a celebrity!’ the silly fan inside her gushed, feeling proud. ‘How unlike others. How wrongly the media portrayed him…’
Deep inside her skull was a brain with a logical streak. A brain that speculated a lot more than everyone else. A brain that reminded her about how people fake their personalities and behaviour as per their convenience. They are different with different people. No one is as they look or act. People are just too quick to judge each other according to their suitability.
Celebrities go one step ahead in this facade. They adorn and shed personalities as per their needs. With millions of eyes gauging their words and actions, why would one believe that a celebrity would naively display his real self before the world? Why would they invite unnecessary judgements and opinions, as if they weren’t loaded with them already? It was safer to keep a smokescreen and let the world believe what they wanted to believe.
Her mind was on a duel with itself, as usual.
‘Whatever!’ It was dangerous for fans like her who wanted their stars to be near perfect creations of God. They already believed in a larger-than-life image of their favourites. Rudra wrote inspiring words, and his music motivated millions, giving hope to people like her. He helped her retain her faith in the goodness of the world and, indirectly, in him.
Right now, he was in her clinic, reaching out to her. She had to find out what made him contact her after so many years and what exactly he wanted from her. There had to be a strong reason behind this.
‘Ohh! Does he want to influence me? Does he know that my family is planning to reopen the case against him?’
When he smiled, his eyes narrowed, thankfully reducing the flash of bright sparkle his orbs radiated. His eyes mirrored the subtle smirk on his lips. He raised his brows and waited for a reply from her.
It was hard to resist his charm. Already a fan of his music, his personality, and his mannerisms, Mrinalini didn’t take much time to form an opinion. ‘He is not fake. He seems to be a nice, genuine man, often misunderstood by people who don’t know him or feel jealous of him.’
‘No, Mrinalini…no…forming opinions this quickly is against your training and your profession,’ Immediately, she corrected herself and stepped behind the low reception desk to boot the system, unaware of the subtle smirk Rudra sported. Pushing away the useless thoughts cramming the spaces in her mind, she sat down on a chair and moved the cursor on the desktop computer screen with her gaze fixed on the roster listed before her. He leaned against the brown, teakwood reception desk and rested his rear over the low top. Well aware of his presence this close to her, she tried not to allow the scent of his cologne overwhelm her.
“Sir, should I fix an appointment for tomorrow morning?”
“I’m afraid, I have a shoot tomorrow morning.”
“Is it okay for tomorrow evening?”
“Umm…No, we have a pre-launch party of the music album tomorrow evening.”
“Day after tomorrow? Morning?”
“Shoot again in the morning.”
“Day after tomorrow, evening?”
“Charity baseball match with local newspaper staff at that time.”
One by one, she listed out all the available spots for the month, inwardly appreciating her receptionist for the challenging job she handles. To deal with difficult clients at the reception desk was as strenuous a task as dealing with little kids throwing tantrums. On second thoughts, kids behaved better on most of the days.
Mrinalini didn’t have the patience or the time for this pain, and it was not even her job. But she continued as she had Rudra Raghuvanshi before her. The last person in the clinic was obligated to assign an appointment, anyway.
Further attempts to settle at a slot met with more excuses from him. For instance, he was going to Rome for a day; he had his parent’s anniversary celebrations to attend; his friends were visiting Cremona for a weekend; he had work commitments; one day was his dog’s birthday; his dog was getting vaccinated, etc.
‘So, he is doing this deliberately.’ She knew the trick. And so did he. Flustered, she raised her hands in the air and said, “That finishes the list for the next 30 days. You seem to be too busy.”
“Hmm.” He sighed and stood up, twisting his lips. She stood up from her chair, too. Slowly rocking his head back and forth, he said, “I happen to be busy. What do we do about that, ma’am?”
“Give me a suitable time when you are free to talk.”
With unmatched confidence in his tone, he replied persuasively, “Now?”
She wasn’t sure if she had ever heard a request as polite as this one. Also, she was not sure if someone had tried to trick her in such a sweet and compelling way before. ‘So, this is how he does it?’
Stiff posture, eyes focused right on his subject, and a heavy baritone added to the effect he created with his graceful words. His face remained taut after that one word—’Now.’ He was determined that he wasn’t going to speak more. He didn’t need to. One word was enough from him to intimidate her. Such was his confidence even after being two and a half hours late.
Mrinalini observed him for a long time. A fan like her would have taken only a moment to sway towards his way. But she was aware that inside her clinic, their relationship was different than ‘fan-and-icon.’ Here, she was the doctor and he, the patient. Any change in this dynamic would be disastrous. She looked right back in his eyes, ignoring the fact that he was almost a foot taller than her, and in a soft but firm voice, she replied, “But, sir, these are not our working hours.”
His face lost the subtle smirk as his eyes darkened. He had obviously not expected a ‘no’ from her. No one ever refused him. Not for anything. A pretty, young girl refusing his request was serious. It was a challenge to his charisma.
Seconds later, the smile returned with a vengeance. Nodding in acceptance of his first defeat, he tried again. With raised eyebrows, a disarming smile, and a confident, velvety soft voice, he asked, “Why don’t you make it an exception for today? I’m sure you can do this. For me?” With that, he added a pressurizing ‘Please.’
The arrow he had shot hit the intended spot. Mrinalini felt her heartbeat quicken when he requested her to stretch her working hours today. For him. The man she had wanted to meet once in this lifetime. The one she fancied talking to. The man she had consistently admired. Her favourite was requesting her to make some changes in her routine for him. Just for him. With a ‘please’ added to his request.
His mannerisms were daunting, his weapons – a warm smile and soul-piercing eyes. Eyes, that possessed the power to hold her hostage to his wishes and demands.
A ‘yes’ was on the tip of her tongue. It was so hard to say ‘no.’ But she had to refuse. She said, “Sir, I will certainly take your request and do an ‘exception,’ …uh… ‘just for you.’ But tomorrow morning? We are normally open every day from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Tomorrow morning, I’ll get the clinic opened for you as early as 6:00 am. Will that be fine with you?”
This time, he grinned. To refuse him was a dare. To refuse him twice was a double dare. He didn’t expect it. Never. She knew she had to turn down his unreasonable request if she expected him to respect her. However, there stood a high chance of him turning away to never return. But there was not a single chance that he would ever take her for granted if he did come back.
He didn’t appear to be in a mood to lose the game so soon. In fact, he had started enjoying it. He thrust his thumbs inside the front pockets of his denim jeans and let the remaining fingers rest over the fabric, drumming over it. “But I have a shoot tomorrow. I’ve told you that in the mornings, we shoot for the album.”
“We have your schedule in our system. Your shoot will start at 10 am. So, you can come in the morning, 6 am?”
“I’ll have to get ready before that. I’ll be late on the set.”
“Is that even a problem? Aren’t you ‘always’ late on the sets?” she asked matter-of-factly, with her brows raised to enhance the effect.
This time, he laughed candidly. “Who told you so? It’s a rumour.”
She grinned. “We do our homework, sir. Basic research about ‘every’ patient who seeks an appointment with us is mandatory.”
He laughed more. “Impressive. Do you realize that you are refusing ‘me’?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You must know that not everyone manages to impress Rudra Raghuvanshi. You just did.” He found himself listening to her, almost agreeing to her arrangement and looking forward to the next day.
“Thank you. See you tomorrow morning.” She smiled without acknowledging the compliment.
He smiled too. It wasn’t pleasing for Rudra, but it wasn’t disheartening, either. “See you tomorrow, then. This is the first time someone has shown me the door, so politely and so nicely.”
“I’m sorry, again. I didn’t mean to offend you. But that is how it goes,” she apologized, genuinely feeling bad for her star. For a moment, she wished she could behave like a teenager and gush at meeting him, stop him from going, and talk to him right away, but she knew that she couldn’t do that. She shouldn’t.
He walked out of her clinic, leaving her alone with her musings. Nothing was more unfortunate than looking forward to talking to someone but having to send him away instead. To talk to Rudra, to meet him someday had been a dream for her. She used to fantasize about him. And he had lived up to her expectations. He had been polite, well-behaved, and sophisticated, just as people wrote about him. And as she had imagined him to be. He definitely looked more handsome than his appearances on TV and social media.
He remained on her mind long after he was gone and she couldn’t stop admiring his down-to-earth attitude and his stunning looks – a tall, lean, and muscular built; athletic, agile gait and straight posture; his eyes, the most defenceless feature attracting attention to his boyish looks; a canopy of soft, ruffled hair falling on his forehead; an incredibly attractive smile enhancing his glazed physical attributes, as if a dash of chocolate over a cream-cheese muffin.
The loyal fan inside her was thrilled to see her favourite musician. The silent follower and well-wisher couldn’t have asked for more. Since school days, she had wished for nothing but the best for him. In return, she had yearned for a look from him. Or maybe, a smile for her.
One fine day, she was told that she had to hate him. She had tried to do that for years but eventually failed. She could never hate him.
When she was informed about the appointment that he had booked with her, she was numbed. She didn’t know how to react. Happiness to finally meet him was blunted by nervousness. Excitement marred by sadness. How she really felt about him, how she was supposed to feel, and how Ritusmita and Debojit wanted her to feel about him, all contested with each other.
She was convinced that she had to do this to find closure, but was she even prepared for any closure? No. She wasn’t ready for his image in her mind to be tarnished. She wanted her star to keep shining in the sky like an invincible force prepared to take the world down. She decided that she had already had her closure. She wanted nothing else. She was sure that Madhumita’s death was not his fault. He had never been the culprit in her eyes, and he would never be.
He left her clinic, and she wasn’t sad. In fact, she had made it easier for him to go. He might not come back tomorrow. Probably, it was good if he didn’t come back. She didn’t want him to be proved wrong at any step. She didn’t want to know his truth.
Senguptas, as a family, had gone through an extended mourning phase. For twelve years, they had grieved for the loss of their girl, Madhumita, blaming Rudra for her untimely death. However, there had been no proof against him. Neither police nor the doctors investigating the circumstances of Madhumita’s death claimed of any clue directly related to Rudra. There had been no evidence except a few people who had seen him at the site. The eyewitness, Mrinalini’s best friend, Nancy Verghese, had died in a drowning accident a couple of months later, and the case was closed. It was opened and closed twice, before this. And now, it was about to be reopened, once again. After twelve long years.
Mrinalini wished she could stop this development
She was ashamed of the fact that her heart was more with Rudra than her own people. She believed that he had been a victim of circumstances, for he wouldn’t commit a murder.
‘He would never do that.’ She was firm.
She had her own theories – He was a good guy. He wrote soulful music, and his voice touched every bleeding heart to soothe it. He had been a role model for many people like her; their hope during the dark times; an inspiration when they felt low. His songs brought life to dull schedules. His smiles lit up bad days.
‘No, he couldn’t be involved in my sister’s death. Or Nancy’s death.’
It was unfortunate that Madhumita had died in weird circumstances. So did her witness, Nancy. Ritusmita blamed Rudra for both. But Mrinalini never believed it. She didn’t even believe the gossip that Rudra and Madhumita had a secret affair.
She was not sure if Rudra knew that he had a secret admirer in her, who defended him in his absence. Or that the gorgeous, tall, stylish girl in his class had a younger sister in a class junior to theirs. There was no reason for him to ever know about her being an indirect witness of the crime committed that night. A fact that she had always tried to forget. Instead, she focused on being a witness to his growth as a singing star all these years.
She had been proud of his success. She had celebrated when his albums hit the blockbuster charts. She would often check his increasing follower count on social media and visited his fan-clubs to read posts by crazy fans. She collected his music, even when she was in New York. She would download his songs on her iPod to listen to them on loop when she studied or went for running marathons. His music was a slice of life. It was all about love, endurance, and peace for her.
When she returned to Cremona, she had hoped to bump into him, someday. She wanted to see him once before they met in court. She was aware that he mostly lived in Rome, but her hopes never dimmed as Cremona was his hometown. His parents lived here. But she had no idea that they would meet like this. This soon.
‘Does he really need me for psychiatric treatment?’ she wondered. ‘Will I be able to help him if he needed counselling?’
‘At what cost?’ The load that he expected to shed off from his chest was bound to find a home in her heart.
‘Am I prepared for that? Or is it a trap? An attempt to meet me before the trial began, to convince me that he is innocent?’
Gorgeous during the day, Cremona became dark and mysterious once the sun bowed down on its toes, losing all its radiance before the mighty seduction of the nightfall.
The long, deserted lanes of the central city; the tall silhouettes of the church; the narrow pathways with tailing shadows of looming, stoned buildings, all stood as silent spectators to noir stories unfolding around the quaint neighbourhood.
It was one of those days when Mrinalini worked till late. When she set foot outside the clinic, it was so dark that the silhouettes of buildings merged with the darkness of the sky, stretching their stature in the vertical dimension. The already tall buildings appeared scarier and intimidating. She had to squint to rule out the presence of a shadow, looking at her from behind the pillar.
‘There is no one. Relax.’ She convinced herself, while her heart played with its beats and pattern. The nippy air, the swishing sound of the roadside plants, the dried leaves fallen on the ground, trying to take flight in the breeze, and the deserted road was enough to send a shiver down her spine. Even the moon appeared to be scared to peer out from behind a handful of clouds.
Mrinalini balanced her handbag on her shoulder and started walking, taking decidedly long, quicksteps. She consciously chanted to herself how she wasn’t going to let fear overwhelm her. How it was not new for her to walk around in this area. The locality, the city, the lanes were familiar to her since childhood. How she preferred walking as compared to taking the car; hence, she was on foot today. It wasn’t a conspiracy against her.
Moments later, she heard footsteps behind her. ‘Maybe the guard or a random passer-by?’ her brain reasoned with her. To confirm the same, she turned around.
A wave of anxiety ran through her and concentrated at her spine. She turned around and resumed walking. ‘It must be my imagination.’
It was nothing new. Vague sounds, unrelated to anything concrete, would hound her every time she was alone. She had tried to be logical about it, struggled to assign a source to these sounds, tried to understand them, but failed. She even tried to negate their existence. She would close her eyes or divert her mind to ignore them, but nothing worked. The sounds often returned stronger.
Once again, Mrinalini tried to ignore the faint sound of footsteps, quite close behind her, apparently following her. The forsaken narrow lane was eerie like a graveyard, with no man, animal, or bird around. It was dead silent except for these muffled sounds behind her. Once again, she stopped, prayed to God for strength, and gathered all her courage. The sound stopped as well. She turned around again.
This time, she quickly turned about and broke into a run. The steps behind her picked up pace in track with her. She didn’t dare to turn around anymore. She wet her dry lips with her moist tongue and raced ahead. Her only aim, right now, was to reach the main road. A few steps more to be covered in this empty lane before the next turn. Once she got through the main road, she would cross it to enter her neighbourhood – a relatively safe area.
Her quick steps matched with the other set of quicker steps right behind her. Strong, masculine, faster steps, she guessed. She didn’t stop. She didn’t turn back. She just ran.
Within two minutes, she crossed the deserted lane and took the intended turn. There it was, the main road – well-illuminated, fairly-crowded with vehicles moving in both the directions.
Mrinalini was panting by now. Tired, but relieved. An old couple taking an evening walk, hand in hand, crossed her. A man following his dog on a routine stroll recognized her and waved towards her. She had never paid attention to this guy before. Today, she took a deep breath of relief, smiled, and waved back. Deep down, she was still terrified and sweating heavily despite the cold weather.
Once again, her shoulder blades were aching badly; an excruciating pain from between her shoulders radiated down her spine. Things were getting weird, and she had almost no dots to connect.
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