Bangalore, One working day in the month of May, 2006
Sushant was seeing Malini after a gap of almost six years. It was a merely coincidental encounter.
It had not even been a month that he had joined the new company. On that particular afternoon he had spotted Malini from a distance in the neighbouring food court, waiting in queue for his turn to pick the pre ordered lunch pack. The queue, quite normal for this hour was long and he was almost near the counter. However in his excitement of meeting an old friend after many years, he opted out of the queue and ran straight to the other corner where Malini was standing in a group. They exchanged glances but Malini seemed to have missed him.
Sushant thought to himself: ‘Maybe she is busy and with associates. Let me wait for a few minutes.’
Watching her from a distance, he waited for her to be alone.
Even after a long gap, Malini still looked the same. She looked very young, hardly twenty-five, though he was aware she wouldn’t be less than thirty. She was petite as ever, slim to a fault and very fair. She seemed to move like doll when she spoke with articulative gestures: charismatic, smart, elegant, flirtatious and witty with a sophistication custom-fit for corporate job.
Sushant’s excitement surged as soon as he spotted her alone. Briskly walking for about twenty meters, he gently called out her name. She turned back, with an expression that lacked recognition.
Sushant, offering his hand for a shake, said in a raised voice clearly marked with nostalgic warmth:
“Hey Malini, long time buddy.”
The enthusiasm was met with a rather uninvolved, inattentive smile from her end.
Sushant still in the spell of excitement enquired, “Hey, all OK? Now don’t tell me you don’t remember me.”
She nodded with a practiced indifference. “Yeah, I remember. Good times, we had in Helsinki.”
Like many others in this new company, it seemed Malini was also in a hurry. She excused herself, “I gotta run now. Have a meeting.”
Sushant tried to speak, but she stopped him, said a quick bye, and left the hall.
Sushant stood still for a moment, faintly smiling for some strange reason, almost experiencing an emotion on the threshold of disbelief. He was more bewildered than unhappy. He was fond of her dearly during the period of their life together in the faraway deserted land, where mere acquaintances had a natural inclination to fast turn into close friendship due to dearth of human beings and more so if they belonged to the same country.
Helsinki, September 2000
Sushant was from Odisha and Malini from Kerala. Both of them had been sent to Finland on an IT project. During their initial days in the distant country they often wondered “Why on earth have we to stay in Finland”.
But soon, their fleeting friendship had turned into strong and mutual liking for each other. In over the next half year or so, they had become inseparable like cotton and fire. Companionship kept their hearts warm in a far-flung cold country and they grew to love this place on the coast of Baltic Sea.
On a Friday as the clock stuck 5 PM, Sushant packed his bag and headed straight to Malini’s desk. Not finding her, he enquired with a colleague who informed him that she had already left for the day. He tried calling her but the phone was unreachable. He decided to look for her at Bar Rytmi, a peaceful Finnish styled bar which they often visited together to escape the clubbing crowd in other bars and clubs.
Entering the bar he looked around the dimly lit place for a free chair, hopefully in a corner. Once he became accustomed to the light of the room, he noticed that almost everyone seemed to be in groups. The entire bar appeared unbothered and had got set in an enchanting aura, typical of Friday evenings. There were mirrors on all the walls, roofs and everywhere. You could see more reflections than real people, which captured the alluringly beautiful women willfully trapped in the tamed and amorous arms of their partners. Sushant felt like an outcast.
He looked up but could not escape the passionate reflections. It was a large mirror, which seemed like a sky filled with images of goddesses of love and their impassioned lovers.
Sushant stood still for a moment, lost and searching for her at the same time. But suddenly something appeared in the roof-mirror, as if a lambent lightning had stuck the sky. It almost burnt his hopeful eyes. He closed his eyes; only to reopen them after a moment to witness the images of a man and a woman kissing each other, sitting on a couch with high backs and arms. He could not tell for sure who the man was but could clearly identify the woman.
He hurried back to his hotel room.
Back in his room, he paraded the length and breadth like a zombie in great unrest - guessing, thinking and considering the diverse possibilities. His mind was replete with fluctuations like a lake being cast with a pebble every moment. One moment he raged like a hurt bull and the other moment he went numb. He felt the urge to return to the bar and slap her face in public. Next moment he would failingly decide to ignore her.
“Who is she to me anyway?” He pondered as he unconvincingly tried to console himself.
Laying on his bed, he tried to focus on his breath in an effort to fall asleep. But he just could not sleep.
Finally he decided against doing anything; not even pose a question to her. Malini meant nothing to him.
Days passed by. Autumn was pushed away into a rigid storage of past by frosty Scandinavian winter, which suggested to be the harshest this year. Beneath the veil of normalcy, the warmth of the friendship had got frozen and buried.
To avoid meeting Malini, he spent time alone pretending to be busy. He did not meet her even once. He did not even know what her state was or what people said about her. In any case, she appeared very normal even sans his company.
Infrequently their paths crossed, being in the same office. She would look at him, calmly, indifferently, as if he hardly existed for him or look straight through him like he had turned into a piece of transparent glass, and then look away.
He was upset and dreadfully perplexed, and could not help but notice her. He still admired her, was ready to accept that it was a bad judgement on his part, even willing to acknowledge to himself that he had seen someone else.
Now and then, your heart needs a little extra time to understand what your logical mind has already grasped. In a few weeks, Sushant had persuaded himself to say: ‘She does not need me anymore.’
Sushant liked to believe that his fervor for Malini had cooled down by the time he was leaving Finland. He could never understand what Malini was. Was it friendship? Or love, or jealousy, or just a coincidence?
One day at their workplace, Malini declared, “Sush (as he was fondly called by Malini), I’ve got a new assignment. I am moving back to India.”
Sushant thought to himself, ‘This was bound to happen one day.’
He continued in Helsinki for four more months, till the end of his project. After she left he often amused himself elsewhere, alone or with others either in a bar or theatre or in society, though he always preserved a certain liking for the girl he had met.
After all there was hardly anything serious between them. Theirs was a friendship born out of convenience. They were mere convenient friends.
Mumbai, One fateful day in the month of August, 2014
He had turned thirty-nine a few days back. With a larger forehead and few streaks of gray hair, a little overweight body and an excess of bad cholesterol and deficiency of good cholesterol and with that matured look that faintly reminded of a handsome youth, Sushant looked a little older than his age and was undeniably growing older, a little bit daily. In the pursuit of success, he’d neglected his health. However he still looked more attractive than most of the men of his age. Still a bachelor and much richer, he did not care much of his looks; these traits certainly added to his manly charm.
He looked upwards to the tall roof of the banquet hall at Taj Maratha, the venue for this year’s Young Achievers Award. The function had ended but he decided to stay back a while to fully soak up this special moment of achievement. He had worked very hard for this day. He wanted to prolong this moment.
Few people came to meet and congratulate him. Then they also left.
He was alone in the large hall. It was a private time for recollection of the past and the price he had paid to reach his current position.
But there was someone else, a lady who was also waiting to meet Sushant.
Once he was alone, she hastily arranged her dress and hair and started walking slowly towards him and gently tapped him on his back. Sushant turned back.
It was a young, very fair, pretty, slim woman in her thirties. Sushant clearly remembered the face which had not changed much. She seemed a little more refined, more sophisticated, more desirable; some improvements with age for the better.
There was no chance of being mistaken. Some faces remain in your mind even after death. He could have sworn that it was her and yet he did not want to accede.
How could he forget Malini!
He did not know what to think and what to say but he kept his face devoid of any expression, just a practiced plastic smile.
He continued to look at her calmly awaiting for her to start the conversation, with a face which did not seem to recognize her. In these years, he had developed that reserved assurance of a man who is successful and sure of himself, who is confident of handling any situation.
She finally said breaking the uncomfortable silence and greeting him with a little smile:
“Hello Sushant. Congratulations!”
Not meaning to be rude, he replied in a tone meant for strangers, very nonchalantly with a smile, practiced over years:
“Thank You. And what's your name ma’m?”
A little embarrassed and with a little movement of surprise, she responded with a blush clearly showing on her face and an agitation in the tone:
“Have I changed so much that you don’t even remember me?”
He noticed the agitation in her voice, and instinctively wanted to turn away his eyes; but with a strong resolve he intentionally kept them fixed upon her every moment without showing any remembrance, or confusion, or excitement, or forgiveness. Now, she was looking away from his eyes, into another direction.
She was a strong woman and quickly collected herself. She tried her best not appear offended at being looked at in such aloofness. She was surprised but she was indeed quite diplomatic, and always in control of her appearance and emotions. Despite years of practice, it was not that easy this time.
Not appearing to offend her, he pretended an apology. “I am getting old. Sorry, but I am unable to recall.”
She answered, quite calmly now, “It’s alright…” Then she suddenly stopped, quite unsure what more to say.
Like most successful people in this world, it seemed familiar for Sushant to be in a hurry. He excused himself, “It was nice meeting you ma’m. Have an appointment, gotta run now.”