‘Triiing,’ the alarm rings. I wake up slowly. Then I suddenly remember little Aditya sleeping in his bedroom. I hurry into his room to see his face in repose and a feeling of deep love and contentment washes over me.
More than a decade back, when I was in my twenties, I came to Delhi for my first job. This was the first time I had moved out of the comfort of my home and the big city had made me feel lonely. This was when I met Abhishek.
Abhishek was a successful executive with a bright future. He knew I was young, unsure and inexperienced. He took me under his wings, guiding me and mentoring me. Whenever I was in trouble, I knew that I could rely on him to bail me out.
It started innocently enough. There were some tight deadlines in our project. So the two of us sometimes used to stay back late in office. On such occasions, we often ended up having dinner together and talking about our work. One day, I was explaining a particular piece of code I had written, when he smiled at me. I paused in the middle of the explanation I was making to ask him, ‘What are you smiling about?’
He replied casually, ‘Talking to you makes me smile.’
I was pleased by what he said. But at the same time misgivings assailed me. Our relationship was moving towards something beyond normal friendship between colleagues. Was he just playing with me and trying to get me to fall for him? But in a strange way, even though I knew that it was not a good idea, I could not help falling more and more in love with Abhishek and I pushed aside these negative thoughts.
A year passed like this. The performance appraisals happened and then one day he called me to a meeting room and said, ‘You have been promoted.’
‘What can I say? I am overwhelmed.’ I said joyfully.
‘Let us celebrate – have dinner with me,’ he said.
‘I would love to… but please….’
Before I could finish, he looked deep into my eyes and said, ‘You do…. please me. Now no excuses. I will pick you up from your house.’
I was disturbed because I was aware that Abhishek was expecting something from me – I had known that from his voice. He came to my home to pick me up. When I opened the door, his eyes glowed on seeing me. ‘Wow!’ he muttered huskily. ‘You look ravishing,’ he told her, This was the first time he had given me such a deeply personal compliment. My heart skipped a beat and then started racing madly. Before I could respond, he continued, ‘I have reserved a table at 7:30. We are running late. Let us go.’
Over dinner in a charming little restaurant, Abhishek praised the way I was doing my work in office. We did not hurry our meal and it was almost ten when Abhishek looked at his watch and said with a sigh of regret, ‘Time to get you back to your home. A pity, I was enjoying your company.’
I was also enjoying his company. I looked at him and felt a little lurch in my heart. He was attractive, he was always there for me. But why did he go out of his way to help me and seek my company? Having helped me with my career was it ‘payback’ time now?
I was rather quiet on the way back as I mulled on my sudden doubts. When we reached my home he turned towards me. ‘Madhu,’ he murmured and I glanced at him from under my lashes ‘Madhu,’ he said again, this time teasingly. ‘Stop worrying about it… just let it happen.’
‘What?’ I asked him, a trifle hostilely.
‘You know what I am talking about,’ he said.
I looked at him straight in the eyes and asked cuttingly, ‘Is it pay-back time Abhishek?’
He drew a sharp angry breath, ‘No it is damn well not! I ought to slap you for that!’
‘So long as we know where we are,’ I said vaguely, turning away.
He caught my arm and shook it, frowning down at me.
‘We both know that it has nothing to do with payoff. I am insulted that you should even suggest it.’
I sighed. ‘I am sorry. But how could I be sure?’
‘Not between us,’ he said harshly. ‘You mean too much to me for that sort of game.’
I lifted my eyes to his face, probing his expression. ‘Abhishek….’ His arms came round me in a violent, convulsive movement and he held me against his shoulder, stroking my hair.
‘Don’t you really know Madhu?’ He laid his cheek against my hair rubbing it softly forward and backward. ‘When you smile I feel like kissing you. It is becoming a torture working so closely with you in office every day, when all I want to do is love you..’
‘Give me time…’ I said. But something in my face must have betrayed my own physical longing for him because he leaned forward and kissed me. It was a light kiss at first and then we were kissing with a strange hot need which shook me to my roots; I was not only accepting his passion but returning it in equal measure and we both knew it. In no time our exchanges blossomed into to a physical affair.
About six months later, he got an onsite opportunity. It was a long-term assignment and he would need to stay in Holland for a period of five years. I was happy for him, but at the same time sad that he would go away. I looked forward to the day when I would also be able to join him in Holland. The future looked rosy.
Then I discovered that I was pregnant. I was deliriously happy. I called him up in excitement. But his response was unexpected. He was furious. He said, ‘I expect that you will ask me to marry you now. The extent women will go to, to trap us in marriage.’
I could not believe that such hurtful phrases were pouring out of his mouth. Our discussion left a sour taste in my mouth. He would answer very late to my messages and sometimes not at all. I was devastated. How could the person who seemed to be my ideal soulmate change so drastically? I had been trying to call him but he was not picking the calls. Finally, a few days later, he called back, ‘Madhu, I suggest you abort the baby,’ he curtly said.
I was shocked and then furious. ‘How could you even suggest such a thing? It will be murder,’ I raged.
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘At this point it will be difficult for me to marry you. Aborting the baby would be the best solution right now.’
‘Well, you could always come back.’ I said tearfully.
‘What are you saying, Madhu! Are you crazy? You know I cannot do that. Just because you are irresponsible and do not give a damn about your career does not mean I can do the same.’
I disconnected the call then. He did not call me back though I hoped he would. As we were now in different projects, there was no occasion for us to interact professionally.
I became very depressed. I could not eat. I could not sleep. My instability made suicide seem a romantic and courageous solution to my distress.
On hearing the news of my pregnancy, my mother came down to visit me. She wanted me to keep the baby. I fell into her arms and cried buckets of tears. She simply held me in her arms and waited for the storm of tears to subside.
‘You have a whole lifetime ahead of you. This one mistake need not destroy your bright future. I’m here for you and will help you in whatever way I can. I will take care of the child. I am so glad that you chose life and did not go for an abortion.’
One day in the evening after office, she forcibly took me to the cinema. Halfway into the movie she felt queasy and had to leave the theatre and go home. She insisted that I finish watching the movie. I was not paying any attention to the movie but was rather wallowing in my misery. Suddenly I came out of my reverie to find people running towards the exit. I became aware of the acrid smell of smoke. The theatre was on fire. There was a mad rush to the narrow exit on the far end of the hall. People were pushing and falling on each other to reach the exit. There was a haze of smoke in the room and I began to cough and splutter. I could feel the heat beneath my feet. The smoke and heat were too much for me… I felt that overpowering suffocation. Suddenly someone was wrapping a piece of cloth round my face. Urgent hands were pulling at me. ‘Quick! Run! Run with me.’ I was being dragged through the heat and it was almost unbearable. I was outside in the cool air and then being helped into a car. A male voice was saying, ‘Don’t worry you are safe now with me. I am Vishal. Tell me where do you live? I will take you home.’
I was in bed. My mother made me lie down to take rest. Vishal seated himself by my bed, like a guardian angel, as if determined that, having saved my life, he would continue to protect it.
After he left, in the comforting warmth of my bed, I discovered that I was not ready to die even though I had thought a few hours back that life was not worth living. I had desperately felt the need to see Abhishek and to spend time together. Yet I realised at that moment that we really were not compatible. My loneliness had moved me to make some very poor decisions.
Vishal and I soon became good friends and he became my friend philosopher and guide. When he came to know that I was pregnant, he supported my decision to keep the baby. He was a pillar of strength in my most difficult times.
My baby was born prematurely. It was not surprising considering the stress I had gone through. My mother and I doted on little Aditya.
When Vishal stood looking at my son, I saw the regret in his face and I said: ‘What is it Vishal?’
Then he looked straight at me and said, ‘He is a grand little thing, but there is one thing wrong with him.’
‘What’s that Vishal?’
‘He ought to be mine.’
This was an oblique way of proposing a more committed relationship. But then again I was assailed by doubts. How much did I know Vishal? Would he also be a good father to my child? I was the mother of a defenceless child. I could no longer afford to let my heart rule over my head and make mistakes in my life.
In the meantime, the IT bubble had burst. I heard through common friends that the client in Holland had stopped the project and all employees from my company would come back.
It was a Saturday. I was at home playing with my baby, when the doorbell rang. I opened the door to find Abhishek standing at the doorway. I was shocked to see him, but invited him in politely.
He sat down awkwardly staring down at the baby. Then he said, ‘So this is my baby?’ I simply nodded. There was an awkward silence. Clearing his throat, he asked, ‘What’s his name?’
‘Aditya. But how does it matter Abhishek? You abandoned me ten months back. Don’t tell me that you have suddenly started to care for us.’ I said bitterly.
Suddenly he took me in his arms and said, ‘I am sorry Madhu. I have missed you so much. Please take me back. I cannot live without you.’
I felt dizzy at his sudden appearance and at his proposal. I was also extremely furious. I pushed him back so hard that he nearly fell down. ‘Am I a doll for you to play with? You will love me whenever you want, and throw me when you get bored and pick me up again?’
He kneeled down on the floor and with folded hands said, ‘Yes – beat me – I do not deserve you. But I love you Madhu… I was a fool to leave you. Take me back Madhu.’
Tears were streaming down his face. I softened a little on seeing the regret on his face.
‘It isn’t possible. It is out of the question. I have changed – and not in a way to bring me closer to you.’
‘I can’t see any change in you.’ He hesitated. ‘We could have more children, you know. I could put up with more children for your sake.’
My heart hardened again. ‘I couldn’t do it, Abhishek. I already said it isn’t possible.’
‘Perhaps I didn’t make it clear, Madhu. I was suggesting we get married. I am asking you to marry me.’
He said it pompously as if he was conferring me a great benefit. I laughed aloud.
‘A marriage proposal isn’t something I feel passionately grateful about Abhishek. I can’t think of any good reason to marry you and I have one very good reason against. I don’t want to. Also, I am engaged to another person now. I am sorry I cannot go back to you.’
It had been difficult to get rid of Abhishek but finally he had gone.
But in the evening, after I had settled down Aditya, I was again filled with doubt. Aditya was not Vishal’s biological child. Would he be able to love him in the same way that he would love his own child? Would he not think of my previous lover every time he saw Aditya?
Next day Vishal took me out for dinner . Over dinner, he told me about a job he had been offered in Mumbai. ‘It would be a great opportunity for me,’ he said.
‘When would you go?’
‘I would need to join in three months’ time.’ He hesitated and I found myself holding my breath. ‘Would you consider living in Mumbai Madhu?’
Would I? I could get away from Abhishek if I moved to Mumbai with Vishal. But to commit myself utterly and so soon….? I laid my hand over his on the table.
‘Let me think about it. Give me a little time, will you, Vishal?’
‘I’ll give you all the time I have. I was sure you’d say no. You’ve made me ridiculously happy by not just saying no.’
Next evening Vishal had come to meet me. He was playing with Aditya when the doorbell rang. It was Abhishek. He pushed passed me into the drawing room as soon as I opened the door.
‘What’s going on?’ Abhishek asked truculently. ‘Who is he?’
‘I think you can be more polite Abhishek. This is Vishal. And why have you come?’
‘Oh come off it! Six months back you were telling me you were desperately in love with me. You begged me to come back to India.’
Vishal interposed, ‘I think you have said enough.’ I sagged with relief at Vishal’s intervention.
‘Enough? I haven’t even started,’ Abhishek retorted angrily, ‘I don’t know what game you two are playing..’
‘It’s no game.,’ Vishal told him softly ‘I love Madhu and she loves me and that’s all you or anyone else need to know.’
‘She is mine. Why don’t you back off?’
There were two men fighting over me like dogs as if I was a piece of meat they both wanted. I felt disgusted. I looked coldly at both of them and said, ‘Oh back off both of you. Both of you make me sick. Please go home and leave me alone.’
Both Abhishek and Vishal tried to see me. Both pledged their love for me. I was amused by the irony of life. At one point of time, nobody wanted me. Now two men were fighting for my love. However, who did I love?
It had been two months since I last saw Vishal. Though he tried to see me, I had avoided him. The departure for Mumbai was less than a month away. Finally, I reluctantly agreed to meet him. He rang the doorbell in the evening. Aditya was sleeping peacefully.
‘I am not coming with you,’ I said, moving out of his embrace. ‘But you have guessed that already, haven’t you?’
He looked sad. ‘I know you are not. But I cannot guess why.’
‘I am sorry but I do not care enough for you to uproot myself and follow you all the way to Mumbai. I love you, but just not enough. I love my son more and want to focus all my attention on bringing him up.’
He just would not accept it. ‘We could try six month’s separation. You could see how you felt after that.’
‘I shall still feel the same.’
I knew I would never see Vishal again after this evening. Neither did I want to see Abhishek. I cried a little after he left. However, I knew I had deliberately mapped out my life on these lines. Aditya cried out in his sleep. I hurriedly picked him up in my arms. With a lot of hope, I rocked him. He was my world and I would be there to help him, guide him and support him for as long as he needed me. He was my universe, my life. We completed each other. He was the one who had after all made my life beautiful.