Ends of a Beginning.

For Maithili, it was a different day at the office. Looking at the most important task of the day in her ‘to-do’ list, she felt a pang of both nervousness and excitement in her. She had worked hard for her presentation that she was to give that day in the meeting. It was a good opportunity for her to get promoted, as well as get noticed by the officials from the headquarters, who were going to be present in the meeting.

As she entered the conference room with her boss and few other associates, her heart started to beat faster. But this much nervousness was normal for her. Her boss introduced her to the senior officials who were present in the room that day. She was greeting everyone in the room with smile until one name made her uncomfortable.
“Maithili, that is Aviral Das, the co-executive of our organisation. He’ll be the one to judge your presentation today.”, boss whispered.
The name was familiar. And so was the face. But Maithili had her doubts. She chose not to meet him personally as it would create a wrong impression on him, if he doesn’t turns out to be the one she thought he was.

The presentation was perfect. She got her share of appreciation in the after meeting party. She had forgotten about Aviral, until she found herself standing in front of him.
“That was one helluva presentation, Mili.”, said Aviral.
It had been a long time since someone called Maithili that.
” Hi, Aviral.”
That face took Maithili into the past, she had long forgotten. Back in college, the duo was inseparable. They knew each other since school days, but became best of friends in college. Life drifted Maithili from everyone she knew, including her best friend, Aviral.
“So, wanna hang out sometime?”, Aviral asked, bringing Maithili back from her thoughts.
” Yeah. Whenever you say.”, said Maithili.
There wasn’t much for her to say, though she wanted to. The life she wanted to go back to stood in front of her having Aviral’s face. That was not possible, she knew. However, the idea of catching up with an old friend didn’t seem bad to her.

Aviral recognised Maithili as soon she entered in the room. But he wasn’t sure if Maithili, or her Mili, would want to meet him, or anyone from college. Mili had snapped ties from everyone after college. Rumours had it that it was due to Sushant, her then-boyfriend turned into husband, that she was made to cut everyone loose from her life. And that was the last thing Aviral knew about his best friend. It had been 5 years since then, and he did everything to contact Maithili in the mean time, but failed.

Aviral had feelings for Maithili, which he decided to confess before the end of their college, but with Sushant in the picture, Aviral decided to keep his feelings a secret. Her withdrawal broke his heart, but he still wished her well, and hoped for their paths to cross someday. That day was today.

It was 8 at night and Aviral was standing at Maithili’s door, with a bouquet in one hand & a box of chocolate in other. He had already made his mind to meet everyone in Maithili’s family. Maithili invited him for dinner, as meeting somewhere outside would’ve led people gossip at work. Also, it was Aviral, or “A-viral” as she called him in college, with whom she wanted to talk just as she used to back then.

Aviral didn’t had to wait much. Maithili opened the door. Dressed simply in peach coloured salwar-kurti, she looked dazzling to Aviral.
“Hey. You look lovely. These are for you.”, he said, handing Maithili the bouquet & chocolates.
“Thankyou.”, Maithili smiled. “It feels nice to have you here. Come. Sit.”
“I can smell the dinner, Madam.”
“And I heard your stomach growling even before you entered. Don’t worry, the dinner is ready. Let’s have it first.”
“Hahaha. Yay! Food.”

Aviral watched Maithili as she served him the food. Since he expected other family members to be around, he was surprised not finding anyone else at the dinner table. For some strange reason, he felt not asking anything to Maithili unless she tells herself. Maybe because it was her turn to tell things. The turn that was due since last 5 years. Maithili knew she had a lot of explaining to do, and of all the people, Aviral deserved it the most. But she didn’t want to spoil their dinner. There was an awkward silence between the two. Except for passing on food, & exchanging quick glances, the duo didn’t talk while having food.

“God! I am full. One of the best dinner I’ve had in recent times. Thankyou for inviting me, Mili.”, Aviral said after he was done.
Maithili smiled. “That’s fine.” She cleaned the table & went into the kitchen to do the dishes.
“Need help with anything?”, Aviral asked.
“No. Just wait. I’ll be with you in a while.”
Aviral looked around in the meantime. There were photos of Maithili with her parents, whom he recognised, & a kid, whom he didn’t recognise but guessed him to be her son. She looked happy in all those pictures. What he couldn’t help but notice was absence of Sushant’s picture in the house. Even in other frames, he was nowhere to be seen.

Maithili came from the kitchen with two beer bottles in her hand. She wanted to live like her old days, no matter how short. Or she just wanted to live for a while.
“Join me once you are done investigating.”, she joked, opening the caps of the chilled bottles.
“I am done.”, Aviral replied as he came towards the table. They both sat in front of each other.
“So how are you, Viral?”
“I am fine. Spreading the virus of my charm everywhere. You say? How are you? How have you been all these years?”
”I am fine.”
“Are you seeing someone? Or got settled?”
“I am a happy bachelor, you see.”
“What about that girl from college you were into? There was a gossip. I wanted to confirm, but I guess I left too early.”
Aviral smirked at her question. She was asking about herself. “Yeah. I am still into her. But there was already someone else. So… Anyway. Tell me about you.”
He found it hard to wait further. He knew Maithili had a lot to say. He held her hand.
“You know what I am asking, Mili. You know what you need to tell.”
Maithili took another sip of the beer. Her eyes welled up.
“I don’t know where to start. You’ll have to ask me.”, she said.

“Okay. Why did you leave us all?”
“It was a stupid mistake. I was blind in love. Everything I did was to make Sushant happy. He didn’t like me gelling-up with other people, especially you. I thought it was love but it was not. It took me a lot of time to realise how alone I had become.”
“And you didn’t even try to get back to us, not even once?”
“Initially I didn’t. I felt guilty for cutting everyone loose and didn’t had the courage to face you all. But once I started to feel scared, I tried to reach for help. Just that it didn’t work out. I am sorry.”
Maithili started to cry. Aviral pacified her.
“Scared? Of what? Mili, tell me everything.”, he asked.
“Scared of Sushant. Everything was fine between us initially, until I caught him cheating on me. I confronted him but he refused to say anything. He came home drunk one night. I was shocked & angry, but he was too drunk to notice. When I expressed my displeasure the next morning, he slapped me. That was the first time I realised that I have made a wrong choice. I should have left him that day itself, but he apologised & I melted. The next day was worse. I don’t remember how many times he slapped me before I fainted. But by the time I regained my senses, I found myself tied to the bed, naked. He had raped me. I felt the pain. I saw him drinking. I tried to get up, but he didn’t let me. He raped me again.”

Aviral froze. Maithili was in his arms, crying like a child, still narrating her side of story.
“It was like he wasn’t the man I married. He was someone else, who forced himself upon me. I was unable to walk the next morning, but when I did, I made sure it was out of his life. I came back to my parents & soon filed for a divorce. By the time it got finalised, I was pregnant. I took up this job after Ishan was born. He is the reason I live for.” Maithili was looking at Ishan’s photo on the wall.

Aviral was in tears. He couldn’t take his eyes off Maithili. It was hard for him to imagine what she went through. Maithili calmed herself. A burden was lifted off her chest, and she felt free. Wiping away her tears, she tried to change the topic of their conversation. “So why didn’t you marry, Aviral? And who is that girl?”

Aviral couldn’t think of any lie. Or maybe he didn’t want to. He decided to tell Maithili everything, no matter the outcome. Afterall what she has suffered until now, she has the right to decide what is best for her and her son. If after hearing him, she decides to cut him loose again, then so be it. “That girl was you, Maithili. I was in love with you since our first year in college, and I had made up mind to tell you so on the day of our farewell party. but you were already with Sushant, so I decided not to tell you anything. I wish I had, but that doesn’t matter anymore. You were happy with him. I am shocked after hearing what you just told me. I tried to find someone like you but couldn’t, or maybe I didn’t try enough. I still love you, Mili. I don’t know why I am telling you this, but some truths aren’t meant to be hidden. I don’t know how you’ll react to this, but I still want to spend my life with you, as much as I wanted it since I started to love you.”

Maithili stared at him wide-eyed. Aviral decided not to face her anymore. He stood up & left. Maithili was unable to believe what she just heard. By the time, she realised that it was all real, Aviral had left. She tried to call him but he didn’t pick. She was unable to sleep the whole night. She expected him at the office, but her boss told her that all the seniors were leaving the same morning. Maithili knew what she had to do.

Aviral was ready to catch his flight. As soon as he picked up his luggage after the announcements were made for his flight, he heard his name in familiar voice.

“Don’t leave me, Aviral.”, said Maithili from behind.

 

The completed picture.

“It must be somewhere here only. It has to be.”, said Soumil, to himself. Searching through a pile of pages, he was looking for some important documents that would be needed at work the next day. Manasvi gave him a tough look every time he asked her for help.

“When I tell you to keep your papers organised, you don’t listen. Now, suffer.”, she said, annoyed.
“I will keep them in order from the next time, but please help me today. It’s important.”, Soumil pleaded.
But Manasvi was in no mood to heed. “I am gonna sit here, laugh & watch you suffer. Neither you keep your things properly nor you let me organise them for you. You’ll have to learn. I am not going to help you.”

The sternness in her tone confirmed that she was determined to make Soumil learn his lesson. Soumil sighed. The pile wasn’t even letting him turn on the fan, that would’ve blown away all the papers. The yellowish tinge those papers had irritated him more. He was not very fond of things that showed signs of ageing. Maybe that’s why he never bothered to keep his things organised once they were no longer in use. Despite Manasvi’s insistance, he never discarded the old stuff, but never bothered to keep it properly either.. However, right now he wished if he had listened to his wife earlier.

He opened the cupboard again, thinking he might get lucky finding those papers lying just like that in some corner. Giving in to his stupid thoughts, he started searching the cupboard. His hands suddenly froze as he found his marriage album kept in the most ignored corner of the cupboard that was opened once in a decade. He didn’t remember the last time he laid his hands on it, but he hadn’t forgotten how it felt on touching.

“Should I make you some tea?”, Manasvi asked from the kitchen. The strong wave of memories took Soumil along with it. Forgetting all about the papers he was looking for, he starting turning the pages of the album. He was unable to recognise himself in the photographs. How much life has changed since the time those pictures were taken.
“Do let me know if you want something to eat. And please, finish off this mess soon. I need to tell you something.”, Manasvi said from the kitchen.

Soumil didn’t reply. He experienced a certain anguish in him, which he thought was dead till today. The pain it triggered left him teary eyed, but numbed him too much to close the album & put it away. He kept on turning the pages, reminiscing the past in fragments. He was happy in his present, but the edges of his broken dreams were still sharp enough to make him bleed.

Manasvi came into the room when Soumil didn’t answer her for long. She found him lost in thoughts. She guessed the reason & felt guilty for not helping him earlier. Had she helped him, he wouldn’t have found the album while looking for papers. Silently, she arranged all the papers in sequence, finding the ones Soumil was looking for, organising them properly in folders.

Soumil came out of his thoughts when he felt Manasvi’s hand on his shoulder. Hiding his tears, he closed the album & locked it in the drawer. “Sorry, I was just…”, he felt his voice breaking. “Here. Take this. I found the papers you were looking for.”, said Manasvi. Soumil didn’t look at the papers. He kept them at the table and went out of the room. Manasvi went to the kitchen & made some tea for both of them.

Sitting on the garden swing, Soumil was thinking of Payal, their marriage & how much he changed after her death. He wondered if he’d been alive if Manasvi wasn’t around. He missed Payal, or maybe he missed how he used to be when he was with her, but it didn’t make him love Manasvi any less. She was different from what he expected. Never did she feel jealous or irritated if Payal was mentioned. He wondered what she saw in him when he was all broken and already someone else’s, & how hard it must be for her to realise that she isn’t his first love. It was Manasvi’s love that helped him heal with time, & made him realise that it’s okay to grieve over what one has lost.

As Soumil opened his eyes, he saw Manasvi standing in front of him. “I made you some tea.”, she said, handing over the cup to him. “Are you okay? I am sorry for not helping you with the papers. I should have.”
“It’s fine really. No problem. You found it anyway. My job is done.”, Soumil replied jokingly, trying to ease the situation.
Manasvi was still serious though. “You’re okay, right?”, she asked again.┬áSoumil pulled her close & kissed her forehead. “Yes. I am. Nothing can be wrong with you by my side.” Manasvi was in his arms, smiling.

“I have to tell you something.”, she said.
“Yeah. Go on.”
“I am pregnant. You’re gonna be a father soon.”
Soumil’s happiness knew no bounds. He smiled radiantly & kissed Manasvi┬árepeatedly.
“I love you. And I want a girl.”, Soumil said excitedly.
Manasvi laughed.

“And we’ll name her Payal.”, she declared.

The Ride.

“MESSAGE FROM RAUNAK.”

The display read, as soon as Soumit turned on his phone. “Are you sure about this?”, the message read. Soumit would’ve replied, but the phone turned off as batteries ran out. Disappointed, he took out power bank from his bag & put his phone on charging. The next moment he saw outside. The traffic jam was as it is. The look on the cab driver’s face indicated that the jam won’t clear any soon. Tired, Soumit rested his head against the seat & dozed off.

He saw Manjari in his sleep. Her face wet in tears, and eyes speaking everything that her lips sealed. Just like the last time he saw her. She looked beautiful. “Please”, he heard her say. Soumit woke up with a jerk. He dropped the idea of napping. The traffic hadn’t moved an inch. the cab driver noticed his uneasiness. “It’s gonna take time, Saahib. The traffic here is always this bad, sometimes even worse, but there is no other route to the place you wish to go. Have patience, Saahib.”

“Hmmm. Okay.”, Soumit said. He didn’t feel like saying much.┬áThe noise in his head was way more loud than the noise outside, and that was what tiring him more. The cab driver tried to strike conversation with Shoumit.

“Can I ask you something, Saahib?” asked the driver. The question distracted Shoumit from his thoughts. At that moment, he would’ve used everything to stay distracted. He didn’t mind the talk.

“Yeah. Go on.”, said Soumit.

“This place I am taking you to, is this your home?”

“No. Why?”

“Just curious, Saahib. I saw your desperation to reach this place, outside the airport. Its far & always full of traffic. Other cab drivers don’t usually prefer coming on this route. People either meet up at some place else which is easier to reach. they go this far only if they live there or have some important work. You said you don’t have your home there, so it must be something really important you are going this far for!”

“It is important. It’s not home or family. I don’t live in this city. but I am here to see someone. I used to come here regularly. This problem of traffic jam isn’t new to me. But I still wish if I could reach there earlier. Just for today.”, said Soumit.

“If you don’t mind, Saahib, the person you are here to see, is this a girl?”, asked the driver, noticing Soumit’s expression in the back mirror, doubting if he has struck a wrong chord.

Soumit, on the other hand, didn’t mind. He perceived the driver to be talkative, but since he was polite, he didn’t mind opening up to him. “Its okay. I don’t mind. You are right. It’s a girl. The girl I love. Its been a long time since I last saw her, so that is why I am being a bit uneasy.”

The cab driver smiled. “Let’s hope the traffic clears out soon then. She must be waiting for you too.”

“No. She doesn’t know that I am here. Its been quite a while since we talked. But I hope she gets happy when she sees me.”

The cab driver was startled at first. He looked at Soumit & sighed.He didn’t mean to probe Soumit’s personal space or make him uncomfortable. Soumit noticed his smile fading away.

“It was my fault. She asked me to stay. She was willing to be with me, even when the difficulties of my life would’ve complicated her life too. But I was unsure and scared. All she ever asked for was our togetherness, and I failed her. I have broken her trust, I’ve realised. But I hope it’s not too late to make things right.”

“You have come this far, Saahib. It won’t go in vain.”

There was no holding back for Soumit. He wanted to tell someone how he was feeling about everything right now, but without being judged. The cab driver’s words made him express more freely.

“We met during my difficult times. She held my hand even when I was lost, and she was willing to be lost with me. Maybe she saw the strength in me to find my way. All she wanted me was to keep holding her hand. But I chose isolation over her. She would’ve waited for me, had i asked her to. But I was scared. And we drifted apart. It took me a lot of time to realise her worth. I hope I get her back.”

“Fearing is justified, Saahib. Life is funny & unpredictable. It changes us with it. But Saahib, very few people stay with us, no matter how bad life gets, and they do so only because they want to. Your decision doesn’t makes you a bad person, Saahib. You were right. But sometimes, you should let those stay who want to, & let those go who wish to. That is how love is.”

Soumit sighed. The traffic cleared, so the cab driver started the engine. “We’ll reach there soon.”, he said. Wind started playing with Soumit’s hair and made him miss Manjari more. His phone was back to life. He turned it on. There were a few messages from Raunak. He replied to his first message only. He scrolled his contact list & stopped at Manjari’s name.

The cab stopped. “You have reached, Saahib.”, said the cab driver. “Let me help you with unloading your luggage.”

“Its fine. I’ll manage. Here, take your fare. Keep the change. And thankyou for everything.”, said Soumit. It wasn’t just the ride he thanked him for.

The cab driver smiled. “She is your soulmate, Saahib. Don’t let her go this time. Become her soulmate.” Soumit smiled and the cab driver speeded off.

Soumit turned & entered inside the gates. He rang the doorbell.

The nameplate behind read, ‘Manjari Sharma’.