SPLAAASHHHH!!! “You ASSHOLE!!!!” The morning had hardly been good. The bharta (“who likes bharta anyways?!”) had taken long and gotten burnt. Rajiv wouldn’t be happy at lunch and it won’t be a good conversation in the evening. And now THIS!! IT was raining and this lunatic on the bike had just splashed water on her new suit. Thankfully it had drenched her legs near the knee. After cursing the biker, she hurried up the escalator to the Patel Nagar Metro station. It was 9.30 a.m. already and she had to reach office. Some new dude from Bangalore had been promoted as her new Director and was particular about documentation, something the Delhi team had never cared for much. “We deliver, damn it!!”, she thought to herself as she stood in the line waiting for the Noida or Vaishali train. She had to get off at Barakhamba, so anything would work.
As the train trudged along, she somehow found herself in it. Imagine packing a 100 soft toys in one small box.. that’s how it looked. Didn’t feel that way however.
She looked around to check the people around her. A practice, she – and many women in Delhi Metro – had developed to find “safety spots”. Many guys don’t seem to have their brains in the heads… and where they have them, it has very uncomfortable impact for women like Anika! There was one Uncle looking “creepy” guy on the right at the 4 o’clock position. But he was strategically blocked by another dude who was busy listening to his music. “Good! he is out!” Two smelly women around, but hey, no issues there. All safe!
She started thinking through that shitty Requirements Document that she had been working on. “Oh! I still need the final version of the requirements from Carol. She is always wishy washy!” Carol was the lead for the Institutional selling business in Denver. Anika had liked her predecessor, Mike Whitaker. He knew what he was doing!!
She didn’t realize when the train trudged away from the Ramakrishna Mission station. And also felt, strangely, that she hadn’t been pushed around much despite the crowd. She then realized that the guy standing next to her was almost enveloping her in his presence and had sort of created a safety ring around her. His eyes were deep, as she looked up. He smiled back and winced his lips almost as if saying “It’s ok, just take care. It was needed”. Anika didn’t like it but what the heck. It gave her enough time to go back into her run down of the day’s work.
The crowd emptied at Rajiv Chowk and she breathed a bit. It was almost as if all the air was emptied out as people pack the train.. and now it was back to real air again. The churidaar was feeling uncomfortable still. Wet clothes never seem good. The umbrella was wet as well and was an additional thing to carry along.
It was now that Anika realized that the guy seemed to be impacted by her presence! Their arms were brushing – which she always hated – but strangely there was this feeling of “knowing”. No! Its not attraction.. its just a feeling that one has a certain comfort with someone’s presence. As the announcement for the Barakhamba Road came, she positioned herself on the right side of the train car. He was behind her. Whatever!
It wasn’t until she was standing next to the building elevator that she realized that he had followed her! She glanced secretly at him and then brushed it off arguing that he could be working in the same building. Only when he followed her into the office was she a bit annoyed. Anyways… she quickly swiped her badge and walked into her work area, as he went off to the reception and asked for Sunny Malhotra. Asking for the Technical VP. “New recruit maybe”.
Later in the day he was taken around and introduced as “Venkatesh”. “You can call me Venky”, he said with a broad smile to everyone in the room. Why did Anika feel as if he was trying to tell her that? He looked at her when he finished his sentence and smiled. She smiled back. Quid pro quo for his help in the train.. that’s it, she reasoned and went on.
The client was a Food Products Company in Denver, Colorado; and the project tethered on the development phase with the design phase missing its deadline with the damn requirements not yet finalized. She needed someone strong on the technical side to cut short the development time, to enable them to still make the final “cutover” date.
Venky was an easy going geek. He knew “his shit” really well. Or so Anika and her colleagues realized very soon. And her prayers for the miracle were answered when he was assigned to her project as Development Lead. He started attending all the meetings and slowly she got to know him better. He was married and his wife was still in the US. He had just come back from Dallas. She was studying at SMU but couldn’t finish her Masters, when he lost his job. They decided that she would take a room on rent and finish her Masters while he looked for a job in India. So, here he was!
The next two weeks were really tough. The client was breathing down everyone’s neck and the US office was completely screwing the happiness of the team. Many late-nighters were happening.
It had been a busy day and the final design requirement had just come in; and made some of the coding already done, redundant! The code needed a change to accommodate the new elements and it wasn’t so easy. Venky and two other developers had been closeted since the afternoon. No respite. Anika was in and out and trying to make sure they were on the right track. Finally Venky, totally frustrated, just went out down to the street to get some fresh air. Anika followed too as they went out discussing the ramifications of the changes on the depreciation module.
The chai waala was still there. He ordered two chais. Went to the nearby panwaala stand and asked for a single cigarette. “Am too wired up.. need a release”, he complained to Anika apologetically. “You know what, even I won’t mind one”, Anika said. She didn’t smoke but today she just felt like it. They sat down with chai and discussed work and their personal lives as well. Anika told him she had been working in the company for the last 10 years and had enjoyed her stable, though workaholic job. Rajiv was a re-seller for high end servers. IBM basically. And was also doing a lot of value added stuff. So the household was stable. Rajiv and Anika met in their MBA school. “We had a love marriage”, she remarked as she puffed the last bit of smoke hurriedly on the side of her mouth. Venky smiled and said “That’s awesome! I like love stories.” and laughed aloud. Anika was intrigued so couldn’t resist – “Why so? Love can happen in any marriage. Right?”
“Well, marrying is such a strange thing that we enter it thinking that it is all about love.. but in the end it becomes more about how well you can function along with each other. So..”, puffing out thoughtfully and pausing “… I find it very interesting that someone can stake life on the basis of love”.
“Huh?!”, Anika retorted, offended; “then what do you base such a life on if not love?”
“Dunno”, whispered Venky as he extinguished the cigarette under his toe and walked off.
They were quiet until they reached the elevator. Venky was thoughtful. So was Anika. A silence created by an offending exchange, when one suddenly sees things that one has tried to brush aside. Life had become just a routine. Stability and Rohan’s (Anika’s son) good performance in school notwithstanding, life had lost the zeal really. But was that necessary? This is life, not the college romance going on afterall!
In the next few weeks, the team went over the hump of the changes that had everyone worked up. Things were on cruise control again. One day, Venky took off. “the project is easier now, so its ok I guess”, Anika had reasoned.
A few days later, while working late Anika wanted to go for another chai session. Venky came along. He was listless now. The deep eyes he had were hiding behind a wall. He wasn’t the same.
Anika sensed something was amiss. She patted him on his back as they walked out and said cheerfully “So buddy what’s up?! Any more life’s theories?” Venky looked and just gave a worried half-smile. One of those where you smile, but you’d rather not.
Chai ordered, he sat down with his head in his hands. Without much thought, Anika put her hand on his head and stroked it while asking with concern “All ok, Venky?” He kept his head still. “You can talk if you want to”, suggested Anika. “Its ok if you don’t want to, but I will keep it to myself if you wanted to buddy”, hurriedly throwing in the disclaimer!
He lifted his head, his eyes were moist. “Latha is not coming back”, he said. Anika didn’t get it. “What do you mean, not coming back?”
“She wants to take up a job and work there itself.”
It was obvious that there was an existential crisis to Venky’s marriage.
For no real reason, as the chill grew in the night, and the Delhi fog enveloped Kasturba Gandhi Marg, Anika took Venky’s head and put it on her shoulder and patted his head. No one said anything.
“Do chai, saab!” shouted the chaiwaala.. and that disturbed their togetherness.
That night, Anika felt very uncomfortable with herself. Nothing had happened. Venky was just a friend, but their silent togetherness had created a strange bond. Intimacy doesn’t need sound nor loud confirmation. It is most pronounced when no one knows about it and yet there is a dialog going on. One that only two on a road full of people can hear.
And it was this intimacy and closeness that Anika and Venky developed. They knew what the other was thinking and could anticipate each other’s arguments in any meeting. Their personal situations were known to both. The was no attempt at creating any “wrong” relationship. Yet, there was a deep bond.
One night after a chai and smoke session, as they walked back to the office, Venky stopped and held Anika… and kissed her. He didn’t know why, and she didn’t know why she did not resist. And as if no one acknowledged the act.. they simply walked back to work.
Many days went by as they tried their best to behave “normal.” But they both knew they had to do something to push it all apart. It was a beautiful bond. Strangely, bonds between two beings in this world are evaluated by social norms, and not their depth. In any case, this wasn’t something that either would have wanted to discuss with anyone.
That night, while Anika was standing at the water cooler, Venky came up to her and declared “I am moving back to Dallas.”
“Huh! Why?” Anika asked.
“Latha and I spoke, and we thought it was best that I go back and look for a job there.”
“Hmmm, I think that would be a good idea. At least you would be able to get your life back on track”, Anika said with the air of a counselor. She was now at an arm’s length to the Anika who was unknowingly in love with Venky.
After a month, Venky quit and moved back to Dallas.
Anika’s routine was still the same. Just that, now she didn’t go down to have chai. Even when someone in her team invited her to. That pavement held a special importance for her and it was her own sacred place which she didn’t want to disturb again!
Many months passed. The project was delivered. She was promoted in that year’s annual review.
Another new project has started and she was in the kickoff meeting. As she gave the initial talk to the team and the new Project Manager started his presentation, she noticed he was really low key and listless. Kanan was a sharp guy. She took him aside after the meeting and asked him. “Hey Kanan, what’s up??!! You need to put in more effort than this!! What happened, is something wrong?”
He replied almost fighting back tears “You remember that guy Venky? He had joined us for a few months? Hardly spoke to anyone.”
“Yes”, Anika said with an act of aloofness.
“He died in a car accident last night, while he was driving from work in Dallas.” Kanan said with tears. “It seems his car skidded and he hit a large truck…. it was instant. Gone!”
Now, the barriers between the two Anikas came crashing down!! She immediately sank into the chair next to her. No words. No tears.
That night, when the team was busy at work, she made a trip to the chai waala and had a smoke. She cried like a baby. But no one saw. Sometimes privacy is accorded by places where hundreds are around, with none known.
The fog was heavy. She trudged back as the latest item number blared from the radio of the nearby shop. She stopped for a moment at the spot Venky had suddenly kissed her… looked back.. and down at the spot as if trying to mark it with a mental memorial, and resumed walking to the office.
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