A peal of insane laughter. “Gotcha! You and your dirty little secrets!”
Yes it was Shan’s neighbor, who having designated herself as his unofficial girlfriend had conveniently pocketed a set of his house keys.
She was looking at both of them right now with a wily smile plastered on her painted face, standing, no leaning against the studio door seeming at any moment ready to tip over and land on her face.
I need to get those keys back! Shaan thought.
Horse had her pinned to the ground in a jiffy and appeared to be wondering whether she would make decent breakfast material.
“Get this bloody monster off me!” She shrieked.
Shan ignored her. Horse needed to polish his aggression skills. Lately he had become too soft after being overly babied by Khanak.
“What in Hell are you doing here at this hour?! He demanded while reluctantly letting go of his dance partner. Kabab mein haddi had to drop in at this time! Just when I felt I was attaining a different plane with Khanak.
“I came to spy on you both and caught you in the act!” Tish said while staring in terror at Horse.
Shaan let out a sharp whistle. “Come here boy! You won’t find much meat on those bones!”
Khanak nervously twisted the ring around her finger so it wouldn’t appear as conspicuous.
“Tish, please let me explain..it’s not what you think. We were just practicing.” She said.
“You don’t need to go around explaining anything Khanak..you have done nothing wrong!” Shaan blurted out in frustration. All his efforts seemed to have come to zilch.. Khanak was continuing to treat him as an offhand acquaintance.
“ Yes..yes, you don’t have to explain or cover up anything, ’cause it’s all there in front for me to see! You cheats!” Tish’s thin arms oscillated around in rampant disharmony like naked branches of a tree in autumn. She tried to get up on her wobbly feet and would have fallen hadn’t Khanak caught hold of her. “Let go of me…you are as guilty as he is!”
“I’m sorry but you are wrong Tish..” Khanak said holding on to the struggling woman trying to appear calm and controlled though inside she was experiencing a major storm.
“Damn it Khanak! You live with me in my house and whatever we do here is our business and no one else’s!” Shaan hollered.
When Khanak stared at him flushing crimson, he returned her gaze directly without blinking, wanting to convey to her that he was tired of this charade, that he was ready to come clean as long as she was willing to give him a fair hearing.
“Dekha? I told you so..yahaan kuch toh gadbad zaroor hai!” (There’s something definitely wrong here.”
“You are drunk and not looking very pretty! You better go home and get your beauty sleep!” Shan snapped at Tish, something quite uncharacteristic of him but he was having a rough time.
“How horrible of you to say so Shaan! You men are so mean and nasty!” She exclaimed looking peeved; the carefree glamorous mask lifting to reveal the sadly confused child- woman inside.
Khanak drew her in her arms and this time she wasn’t pushed away.
“I’m sorry Tish. I didn’t mean it to sound the way it did.” Shaan said.
“It’s fine..all fine!” Tish waved it away casually. “By the way that reminds me why I am here!”
She laughed. “I wanted to get some pure alcohol fix. Wonder why people throw parties when they can’t even keep their guests happy! But I know you aren’t one of those Shaan! Do you still have some of that wonderful Vodka from last year?”
“I don’t and even if I did you can’t have a single drop! You are as is sozzled up to your gills! Where is that loser brother of yours?”
“Loser!” Tish cackled holding her stomach. “How right you are Shan! Loser is a perfect description for the A***H*** MCP! Tell me really which brother would drop his sis at a party where she knows nobody then take off without even telling her?”
I should probably sack the idiot! Then I wouldn’t have to suffer seeing him mess around with Khanak! “I’ll call Tarun, you go on home.” Shaan said removing his cell phone.
Tish grudgingly accepted Khanak’s shoulder upon realizing that she couldn’t take two steps without feeling that the world was coming to an end.
“I’m really sorry Tish..Shan and I…”
“Hey hey! Take it easy! I’m really not bummed out at you. Do what you want! I don’t care! He has never ever looked at me, it was always I throwing myself at him and everybody else.”
Khanak didn’t know what to say…to her Tish was the perfect example of a poor little rich girl caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and she was certainly not gaining anything by having a guy like Tarun as her brother.
They took the elevator and thankfully Tish wasn’t too trashed to not remember her apartment number.
OMG! Khanak paused at the door stunned at the sight that greeted her.
“Won’t you come in my new friend? Do you mind me calling you that? You see I don’t really have any…” Tish turned around attempting a lopsided smile.
Khanak hesitated before stepping inside and skirted around a beer bottle. It was a wonder that Tish hadn’t fallen over.
The place was a cleaning woman’s mission impossible or vice versa depending on the level of her enthusiasm toward her line of business.
Clutter everywhere, heaps of clothes and shoes on the floor, chairs, tables and even on the flat screen TV. Fashion magazines, empty coke and beer cans littered all the other available spots. But the worst of all was the stink, making Khanak hold her breath to prevent from gagging on the odor of rotting food and alcohol. Yet Tish seemed very much at home.
She dived headlong on to the divan moaning. “Oh my head!”
“I’ll get you some coffee; Khanak said walking towards the kitchen and was greeted there by a scene quite similar if not worse. She opened the refrigerator and found it blank of anything even remotely nourishing.
“Thanks! Black is the way I like it.” Tish said taking a tentative sip and promptly threw up.
Khanak ran into what was probably the powder room and came back with a towel she had dampened with some water.
“Hey…look who’s here!”
It was Tarun standing there next to his unfortunate sibling looking smartly sloppy in his crumpled red silk shirt and black pants. His handsome face was marred by a dirty leer which made Khanak shudder in disgust.
“Has our lovely neighbor lost her way darling sis?”
Tish giggled -the upchucking had helped. “No, she’s here to help me. Look she made coffee too! Btw…just an FYI,” her voice dropped to a hushed whisper. “There is something going on between our Ms. Ice Age here and your Mr.Hot Shot!”
“I think I’d better leave…” Khanak said.
Tarun grabbed her arm before she could get to the door.
“Let me go!”
“Not so soon!” His alcohol laden breath fanned her face making her choke. “Sweetheart! So your secret is out! I was wondering all along what Shan saw in you.”
She struggled harder but he held on tight. He possessed a dancer’s lean strength. “Hey, itne nakhre kyun? I know it’s all pretense.. Knew it from the beginning.” He thrust his face within inches from hers. “So what have you done to him that he hardly comes clubbing anymore? He used to be such a party animal, never going home before 4 in the morning, but now… There must be something! Are you bedding him..are you one of those girls who grants favors for money? Then why not for me too baby? I can pay you pretty well!”
“Shut up you bastard!” Her raised hand was caught before it reached its destination.
His sneer made his face look ugly. “All you girls say that. But then you come to heel. Don’t think Shan cares for you, he doesn’t. He has girls like you for breakfast. He only cares about his beloved Jhankaar! He’ll keep you only as long as you give him what he wants then he’ll move on. Only Tash…only she has been able to keep his attention, though I have no clue what she sees in that SOB! But if she finds you with him, you are all but finished.” He said drawing his fingers across her throat before breaking out into a derisive laugh.
“You disgust me! How dare you talk like that about your own boss? Shan is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met and and…” She kicked him in the shin and ran to the door.
He called out after her. “If you give Shan even a hint of what happened between us, I’ll be your worst nightmare come true!”
She bolted down the corridor toward the elevator, then blindly ran down the stairs when it didn’t respond to her desperate buzzing. She turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction when she heard approaching voices. She wanted to put as much distance between herself, Tarun and the rest of humanity.
How can he? Is that how he thinks of me? Is that what everyone thinks?…No! It can’t be true!
The door which led to Shan’s floor opened with an ear-splitting crash jarring her entire body.
She uncovered her ears as the reverberations died down and slowly trudged down the hallway. She wasn’t worried about what people said or thought anymore. Those days were long gone. Gone the day she ran away and ceased to belong. She became a nobody. An orphan without a name or roots.
It was something else that was bothering her, something that Tarun had said that she didn’t wish to think about.
About Shan and Tash.
“She is the only one who has been able to hold his attention..”.
But wasn’t it only natural for two of the brightest stars of the stage to come together?
Then why? She hesitated in front of the door of Shaan’s apartment before continuing past.
Why? Why do I feel like someone has jammed a knife into my heart and is twisting it slowly?
Why should it affect me so?
“But I can’t help it!” She cried turning to the wall and hugging it in anguish.“Just the idea of him looking at someone else the way he looks at me, of him holding her in his arms..of..of putting a ring around her finger the way he did on mine…”
She examined her hand. It was there, a bright and shiny reminder of her pain. She moved to pull it off but couldn’t bring herself to accomplish the task.. It was like wrenching her heart out. “OMG..what am I going through now?”
You are in love..
“No it can’t be..I’ve barely just met him.”
Love happens…and before you know it, you have fallen so deep that you can do little to save yourself.
“No..that isn’t true!”
Yes it is true. And you’ve known it for awhile..or why would your heart sing when you hear his voice or your nerves tingle when you feel his touch? It’s your mind that has been stubbornly denying the truth and now it knows it too!
She closed her eyes tight but her conscience couldn’t be silenced. It had given her a sound explanation and diagnosed her symptoms very well. But she wanted to know something more before throwing in the towel and accepting defeat.
She cautiously approached Shaan’s door.
It shot open and Horse burst out dragging Shaan right behind him. “Boy you are growing stronger by the day!” He exclaimed laughing.
Woof!! Woof!! The pup strained at the leash upon discovering Khanak, his tail wagging furiously.
She bent down to pat his head. The purpose was also to hide from Shan. She wasn’t prepared to face him.
“Khanak are you alright?” He said looking at her with concern.
“Yes..I am and ..and so is Tish…her brother…” Khanak replied, still looking down, her voice soft and subdued.
“What about her brother! Did he try to get fresh with you?” He demanded furiously.
“No..he did not.” She said looking at him and thinking–He’s just concerned because he feels responsible..nothing else. He’s just being himself. I shouldn’t read too much into these things.
Horse yanked at his leash. He wanted to go for his run on the beach.
“Oh..ok! But somehow I don’t believe you are being completely truthful. You better keep an eye on that chap..He thinks any girl is game. I’ll see you soon.”
Khanak nodded watching the pair race for the stairwell. She then rushed inside, homing towards a stack of magazines which she had seen in the studio. They were the entertainment monthlies devoted solely to the performance arts. She recalled having seen the likeness of Natasha on one of the covers.
Her hands shook when she found what she was looking for. She opened the magazine and found an article about the accident, but her eyes locked on the picture which accompanied it.
Tash and Shan were standing arm in arm smiling posing for the cameras.They looked perfect together..she with her beautifully made up face, brown hair, grey green eyes in figure hugging silk and he dashing and suave as always in all black.
“The Eternal Couple..’
Khanak closed the magazine with a snap and laughed. How much more odd can it get…instead of feeling warm and giddy with happiness I am experiencing a profound emptiness. As if I’m not down enough that I need some more wretchedness! That I have to deal with the angst of seeing him everyday knowing all his gestures are just out of compassion and not love?
…and then when she comes back?
She sank down to the floor and wept her heart out.