15: Line and Sinker
“Dadi ma I love you so much!” Shantanu exclaimed as he hugged his grandma early the next morning.
“I love you too beta. What’s the matter? What have I done to deserve this special attention?” She asked with a smile.
“Why? Can’t I hug you like Megha does all the time? I’m also your ladla am I not?” Shaan said pretending to look miffed.
“Of course my son, you are just like Megha for me only slightly bigger. I was just asking as I’m not used to being carried around every day!” She said as Shaan had now hoisted her up.
Her grandson laughed. “Sorry. I’m so happy today that I want to tell it to the entire world!”
“Tell what? Please put me down now before I have a heart attack!”
Shan obliged with her instruction then began pacing the floor. “Umm… How do I say it?”
Dadi ma’s astute eyes twinkled. “That you are in love? Don’t hesitate. Just say it son. Get it out from your chest. So when are the wedding bells?”
Sorry for my idiosyncracies. But I’ve realized that readers come to my blog to read my stories and not otherwise. So I’ve decided to continue to post HAA (Human After All). It is a soap opera. But heck don’t people love them still?
She lay on the forest floor, dead for all practical purposes. Her body deathly still and cold, her face pale and grey, her lips cracked and blue. She looked like a waif in her thin white dress of muslin. Her feet were bare. Even nature had given up, the gentle breeze sweeping the dry leaves on to her, covering her up to blend her in with itself.
The only thing to suggest there was life still, were her breaths. They barely managed to stir the air above her face and each successive one was followed by more prolonged pauses. But she did not want to give up yet. Her soul still clung to her body hoping for some reprieve. After all what wrong had she done? Therefore she remained, her ears straining for approaching humanity that they may stumble across her and save her ebbing life. She was too young to die.
And just before her brain slipped into unconsciousness, hope arrived in the form of the sounds of a trotting horse and therefore a rider. She listened as the horse protested being reigned in. The rider who had obviously seen her jumped down and strode towards her, his stride full of youthful confidence (maybe it was her wishful thinking). She heard the swish of his long cloak as it swung in rhythm with his stride. Hmm a nobleman! He paused. Then she heard the leaves crackle as he bent down to examine her face closely. She hoped he liked what he saw and was willing to give her the breath of life. Her diminishing heart beat quickened as she felt his warm breath caress her cold cheeks. Several moments passed yet she did not feel the warmth of his lips on hers.
‘What in hell are you waiting for? Get on with it! Have you forgotten the basics of Life Support?‘ She wanted to scream.
Khanak paused in the middle of typing her note and reached for her cell phone. She was thinking—It’s probably Dr. Krishnan reminding me of the presentation I have to make at the Charity hospital meet tomorrow. Dr. Krishnan was so like her father–diligent, conscientious and straightforward. She was indeed very lucky he had accepted her as his partner.
But it was a number she didn’t recognize. Someone had infiltrated the mobile network yet again. One more scam. The nerve! Wonder what it is now?
Dear Doctor Aunty…
Khanak sighed with relief. A message from Megha! But as she read on a frown formed on her brow.
She had to go over it several times before realizing its implication. How did he get my number? Oh yes! Her mother had informed her that Shantanu had called home using her cell. Clever. Very clever. Megha wants me to fix her teddy and her chachu is acting as the courier! What an idea! To use a little child for his own ends!
But then why is my heart racing?
Because I want to meet him too or else how will I deliver my thank you note? Even though I know that’s just an excuse… Khanak’s heart flipped over in her chest. Her cheeks burned. Damn him! I won’t reply right away or he’ll think I am eager to meet him. I will later tonight. I’m sure he’ll be up late.
The bedroom door suddenly banged open causing her to almost fall off the bed. It was Palak standing there with her mouth wide open as if bursting to say something but waiting for her permission for some unknown reason.
Khanak closed her laptop and briskly thrust her mobile under the pillow. Palak possessed the uncanny ability of finding out everything before Khanak did herself and then revealing it to Dad and Mom! That just won’t do!
She spoke in as calm a tone as she could muster; “Now what’s the suspense about?”
“What a sweet boy and so handsome too.”
Khanak kept her gaze trained on the TV seeming intent on the cricket match.
“Khanak I am talking to you!”
Khanak turned to her mother. “What ma? Agreed Sehwag is sweet. But why would you call him handsome? What happened to your standards? Even dad was quite good to look at before he lost all his hair.”
To which she received a nod from Pramod. “Yes. Your mother used to say she married me only because I vaguely reminded her of Warren Beatty. I guess the reason she’s still bearing with me is because now I faintly resemble Yul Brunner. Yes?” he grinned teasingly at his wife who glowered in response.
“You look more like Amrish Puri minus the voice dad. So don’t flatter yourself;” Palak chimed in. “Didi please! Itna bhi bholi mat bano! You know very well who mom is talking about.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Khanak said trying to maintain a straight face.
“Beta;” Her mother approached her with a smile. “I was talking about you friend, the one you’ve never mentioned; Shantanu. Shantanu Khandelwal. Such a nice boy and so well-mannered too. What do you think Pramod?”
11: You’re too Good to be True
Shaan was mystified when he saw Khanak plop down in front of him. Then he laughed. Obviously she was putting on an act. His future wife was not only a good doctor but seemed to have aced it in theatrics as well. Their life together was bound to be full of fireworks and definitely not boring. “Okay Khanak you can get up now. I can tell you I’ve seen a lot of actors and your faint compares with the best of them.”
When she didn’t respond he sighed. “Alright. You win this round. I didn’t know we were playing a game but if we are then I accept defeat.”
She didn’t stir.
Shaan felt the prick of sweat under his collar. He glanced to his side and caught a young couple at an adjacent table watching him with keen interest and snickering.
“Khanak!” he urged his companion in a harsh whisper. “I don’t think it’s good for your reputation to draw attention to yourself in such a manner even if you want to teach me a lesson. Particularly in a place where everybody knows who you are!”
“Sir, lagta hai madam behosh ho gayee hain. Kya mein paani laoon?” said a very concerned looking cafe attendant.
That Khanak could have passed out hadn’t once occurred to Shaan. “Yes please bring some water.” Then he grabbed her gently by the shoulders and propped her up against the back of her chair. She moaned softly but her eyes remained closed and her head lolled to one side. Shaan was shocked to see her face drained of color. She really didn’t look well at all. When he sprinkled water on her face she briefly opened her eyes and muttered something unintelligible under her breath.
“Shayad unko hospital le jana hoga. Should I call the ambulance?”
“Uski koi zaroorat nahin. I can take her there faster.” Shaan said hoisting Khanak gently in his arms. He then walked out of the cafe and proceeded towards the Emergency Room which fortunately was only a block away.
His burden felt as light as a feather. Her skin silken and fragile. He anxiously examined her face. It looked very pale yet somehow peaceful as if she were asleep. Shaan would never have believed he’d find her this close so soon and certainly not under such circumstances.
He arrived at his destination to find it jam-packed. But the crowd was unlike what he had ever encountered before. It was a gathering of sickness in various forms and shapes. Crying babies and children with their anxious parents. Women and men. Wives and husbands. Grandmothers and grandfathers. And those with no one to share their sorrows with. He noted his agitation escalating rapidly.
10: Hide and Seek
He is still alive. Khanak sighed with relief and tried to will her heart to slow down. She read the note again slowly this time. Then again and again. He calls me his innocent love. How dare he! I’m neither innocent, nor am I his love. ‘May I always be the man in your dreams.’ Man in my dreams? How can he stake a claim on my dreams or me for that matter? She almost wished she had prescribed rat poison. But then she would have been staring at a suicide note instead and nursing her cold in a miserable jail cell.
In frustration she banged her hand against the desk then yelled out in pain. She had struck a sharp edge. Tears sprouted from her eyes. Of pain, anguish and doubt. She stared at the cut in her hand then grabbed some tissue to stem the flow of blood. The wound in my hand will stop hurting soon, she thought. But not the one that he has inflicted upon my heart. He is treating me like one of his random girlfriends. He probably has several to whom he dashes off pretty notes. They probably follow him around like lost puppies and he chooses to award them with his attention like favors for good behavior. But I’m not one of them. I have my own identity and my own life.
But why is he so bent on upsetting it?
Aaachooo! She sneezed again. Her head had begun to ache and feel heavy. She was pretty sure she looked more like a patient than a doctor at this time. She had skipped her sari today. Instead she had opted for a simple salwar suit and just run the brush through her hair. She hadn’t even felt like wearing her usual minimalistic makeup. She had never felt so rotten.
Akshay stepped out of the bathroom and was pleasantly surprised when he saw Megha and Khushboo together. It had become such a rare occurrence that sometimes he wondered if Khushboo was indeed Megha’s mother. He smiled when he saw his life’s most precious gift sitting on the dressing table in her school uniform, her legs tucked underneath her, staring wide eyed at her mother as she expertly applied her makeup. Khushboo, who always enjoyed an audience was explaining each and every step to her and even letting her hold her precious brushes and tubes of face paint.
9: Stoking the Flames
While sitting in the back seat of the car on the way back home Shantanu looked out of the window at the rain drenched city that was winding down after a long day. It had been a similar day that had brought Khanak in to his life and today when he felt almost certain that he wanted her to stay for keeps, it was raining again. It must be a good omen he thought with a smile though he had never considered himself superstitious. Yet now he was willing to believe in anything.
He mused over what had transpired in the clinic. Meeting Khanak on an equal footing (even though he had to concoct an excuse to see her) had injected into him a tremendous zest for life. He felt invigorated and steeped in enthusiasm for the future that so far had seemed bland and quite ambiguous. Now all his doubts had vanished. They had been replaced with an immense tenderness and ardor for her so much that he wanted to take her in his arms and cherish and shield her from all the miseries of the world.
He was sure the feeling was mutual. He had seen it in her eyes though she had tried to conceal it under a veneer of anger and irritation. She seemed tentative and he understood why and respected it. But at the same time he wanted to break her resolve and that had to be pretty soon. Now that he was sure of his feelings, he couldn’t wait to take it to the limit and make her his.
Khanak rushed back to the clinic for the last appointment of the day. She knew she was late but one of her patient’s indigestion had turned out to be a heart attack and he had to be rushed to the hospital. That happened to be one of the reasons why she avoided booking her late appointments. She didn’t like to keep her patients waiting. To make matters worse Deepak had waylaid her when she had stopped to get a cup of java at the hospital coffee shop. She had spotted him there loudly castigating one of the attendants for serving him dark mocha when he had asked for white chocolate. The poor man obviously in awe of Deepak’s name tag and scrubs didn’t bother to defend himself instead he literally dissolved in front of the screaming doctor.
Was Deepak creating a tamasha to give the curious onlookers an ugly demonstration of his power? That no matter how badly he behaved he could get away with it like some small time minister who had forgotten that the very people who had voted him in could as easily vote him out?
Khanak thought she had slipped out unnoticed when he suddenly materialized behind her and tapped her on her shoulder. She reacted heatedly; “Don’t you dare touch me Deepak. Don’t think that working with me gives you the right to do so.”
“Hey aren’t we touchy here! I’m sorry Khanak but whenever I want to talk, you just run.”
“What kind of talk?” she said not bothering to stop.
7: Immune to Love?
Shantanu searched the hospital discharge papers looking for Khanak’s card. He couldn’t find it. He saw that he had a follow up appointment set up with his surgeon the following afternoon and not with anyone else. He called her clinic which happened to be right beside the hospital and the phone was lifted by someone who appeared to be her secretary.
“Hello. This is Dr. Agarwal’s office. How may I help you?”
“Uhhh…I need to make an appointment.”
“For whom sir?”
“Umm.. have you seen her before?”
“Yes… Uh actually no. I am a new patient. It’s just that she is so popular, I feel like she’s my doctor.”
“Hahaha! That’s a new one. Your name and age sir?”
“Ah..ummm….” no Shaan no deceptions this time! “Shantanu Khandelwal, old enough to be a father to half a dozen kids but yet to start. I’m 29.”
“Oh! Then Dr. Agarwal cannot see you. She doesn’t deal with infertility issues.”
“No you are mistaken! I think that part of me is working very well!” Shaan said with an embarrassed laugh. “I actually wanted to see her for something with begins with an ‘h’ and ends with an ‘ache.’
There was a slight pause on the other side of the line. Then the woman said; “Sir just a headache? Have you tried some over the counter medicines?”
You guessed wrong but I won’t tell you so. “Ah! Would I give you a call if those things had worked? This ache has been bothering me continuously for the past week and it gets worse every day. I am in so much pain!” Shaan groaned aloud for added effect.
“I’m so sorry to hear that. May be you should go to the emergency room because Dr. Agarwal won’t be able to see you until day after tomorrow. I could check with Dr. Krishnan though.”
6: She Can Do Magic
Khanak stopped smiling when she saw Shaan staring back at her as though he was studying a masterpiece in a gallery. She was unprepared for the directness of his gaze and seeing him in this state, alert and coherent for the first time, threw her completely off her moorings. She looked away to try and recoup. But when she turned back she found him gazing around the room with an utterly lost and bewildered look on his face. She glanced inquiringly at Nurse D’Souza who simply shrugged her shoulders. Khanak thought for a moment then smiled at her nurse and gave her a conspiratorial wink.
Nurse D’Souza promptly read Khanak’s mind. She said directing a pitiful look in Shantanu’s direction; “I think Mr. Khandelwal here needs brain surgery. His mentation has been fluctuating a lot. I’m afraid something’s direly wrong. Do you agree doctor?”
“No! I’m perfectly fine! I don’t need surgery of any kind!” Their patient declared loudly.
“So what was that you were doing just now Mr. Rajkumar? Pretending?”
Shaan flushed. He had been caught in the act again. He saw Dr. Agarwal looking at him, her beautiful eyes saying quite clearly; GOTCHA! I am smarter than you think!
You certainly are not as bholi bhaali as you look, he thought. There seems to be a wily brain floating around in that pretty skull of yours. Beauty and brains– a deadly combo. No wonder Dr. Deepak is crazy about you. Now why don’t I like that? Shaan pursed his lips sensing a pang of envy.
Meanwhile Khanak was back to being a bunch of nerves, her sensation of triumph short lived. She tried very hard to feel indifferent while examining Shaan but that was proving to be more difficult than she had anticipated.