HAND IN HAND – Chapter 9


The Reunion Of A Story


“Ganesh, is that your name?” Surbhi checked her phone, after dumping her luggage into the trunk and got in the car. “Yes, madam, I am Ganesh. Please put seat belt. Traffic police will catch.” the chauffeur tried to be as polite as possible, while struggling to put his words carefully into a structured sentence. Surbhi thanked the heavens that Ganesh was able to pull off some decent English and she wouldn’t have to refer to Google every time she needed to speak. “Wow, Ganesh. You speak really good English. Where do you learn?”

“Shalini madam teaches me, sometimes,” the chauffeur was trying to concentrate hard on the slow moving traffic while trying to not make mistakes. The guest was from America. There were chances she could reprimand him for a small grammatical mistake. “She teaches when I take her in car.”  “That’s nice.” Surbhi smiled. Relieved that the conversation ended, he turned to the road ahead as the signal turned green.

“I think jeeju is right. These people seem to be really good. Who is considerate enough to take time off to teach their driver in these days?” Surbhi thought to herself. As the car crawled through the evening traffic, Surbhi was amused at how the auto-rickshaws – that was what those three wheelers were called apparently, she’d seen them in many movies – squeezed through in between cars and glared at the drivers whenever they had close encounters. After about an hour and a half of the lights and honks, Surbhi was told they had arrived at the place. “I will bring luggage, madam” Ganesh offered as Surbhi stood near the trunk waiting for him to open it. “Oh, that’s fine, Ganesh. Thank you. I’ll take it myself. There are only two suitcases and a backpack.” Ganesh didn’t know what to do.  The size of the suitcases seemed intimidating. “Madam, it is heavy. Please wait. I will help.” Ganesh offered again. “Alright, then. Park the vehicle. I’ll wait for you. We’ll take them together” Surbhi sat on one of the suitcases. The way she spoke to Ganesh, it reminded him of Shalini madam. It was rare to find people of such high stature to be down to earth and friendly. He quickly got into the car and left to the garage.

Waiting for him to come back, Surbhi spent a while, checking the architecture. “Very tasteful. The name-plate read ‘Singhania Mansion’. I don’t know if these people are related to Mr. Arrogant. Guess I’ll have to find out. It’s been a while. I should go back to the bags. She went in front of the porch to find her suitcases missing. She was just about to shout out, when she saw Ganesh walk to her. “Madam, all luggage is in front of door.” Surbhi chuckled, “Thank you very much, Ganesh, for not listening to me.” He smiled, apologized and left.

She walked to the door, and rung the bell. The door opened slowly. A woman, probably in her early fifties, in a traditional yellow salwar-kameez, long auburn hair running to mid back length, an olive skin tone, and a wide smile. Something inside Surbhi told her, their relationship would be much more than what she hoped it to be. Next to her, stood a young girl sharing the same skin tone, but jet black hair of about collar bone length, wearing a loose orange half-sleeved tank top that read, ‘World’s best sister’ and a pair of sky  blue faded denims and translucent loafers.

The trio exchanged glances for a while, before Neha offered Surbhi to help with her baggage, without exchanging a word. “Namaste,” Surbhi tried to sound not too stupid. Even Indians wouldn’t use those phrases these days. Neha and Shalini were definitely in for a surprise. They had a very different set of expectations for this NRI. They took a while to respond. “What happened? Why are you guys so surprised?” Surbhi couldn’t take anymore of the confused look on their faces. Neha broke the silence “Uh, nothing, really. Hey, I’m Neha, and you must be…”

“I’m Surbhi Kapoor, from New York. Hi Neha, nice to meet you” Surbhi gave her a hug as though she knew Neha from aeons. This place, somehow felt home to her. She did not know why, but she did not discard the thought. “And you must be Shalini Aunty, right? Ganesh did tell me about you.” Surbhi realized that Shalini wasn’t even looking at her.

The last thing Shalini registered was ‘Kapoor’. She froze at that. Surges of adrenaline, emotion, grief, sadness, memories, traveled throughout her. Neha and Surbhi did not understand what was happening. Surbhi shook Shalini by her hand. The cloud of memories dissolved as she was brought back to the present. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was… just… Anyway, welcome to our home, beta.  Have a seat. Neha,” Shalini made Surbhi comfortable in the black well-cushioned sofa. Neha quickly brought her a glass of water from the kitchen. As Surbhi lifted the glass to gulp down the fresh, clear water, her eyes fell on to a life size canvas portrait that was hung on one of the walls to the left. It gave her the shock of her life. She choked on the water, and all the water in her mouth ended up as a splat on the glass coffee table. She coughed for a while. It took her a few seconds to regain herself. Neha ran to the kitchen to get some tissues. Shalini ran to Surbhi’s rescue. “Are you alright, Surbhi? What happened?” Surbhi stopped coughing. Taking a tissue to wipe her mouth, she took the rest of the tissues, “I’m so sorry. Don’t worry, I’ll clean this up.” “It’s alright. Just leave the tissues on. It’ll soak the water up. What happened to you?” Neha was quite curious. Surbhi wasn’t sure how to bring the topic up. “I drank the water too fast. I choked on it. Not a big issue, Neha. Thanks for asking. By the way, Aunty, that’s a really nice portrait.”

The portrait seemed magnificent, in every sense. Shalini, clad in a green saree, with a lot of embroidery on it, was seated on a cushioned arm-chair that almost seemed like a throne. Neha, dressed in an elegant Prussian blue anarkali dress that brought out the princess in her, stood to Shalini’s left. Karan was in a black pinstripe three piece suit, standing with his left arm resting on a chair. The three had a royal look on them. Karan’s clean-shaven face, well groomed hair that seemed to be black with hints of auburn, the toned body and the firm composure, somehow captivated Surbhi every time she looked at him. There was only one thing missing, a smile. Even in the picture, she could make out that despite Karan’s achievements; there were voids he refused to fill. Looking at the portrait, where Karan and Neha stood by Shalini on either side, Shalini understood what Surbhi was trying to imply.

“Oh, that’s my son, Karan. He’s the founder and CEO of Pegasus, a software firm. Do you know him?” One could easily notice the pride Shalini carried in every word she uttered about Karan. And Surbhi very well knew why.

“I’ve heard of him, yeah. I’d seen him at a conference few weeks ago.” Surbhi did not really feel comfortable revealing about all that happened between them. Relationships seemed a sensitive topic in this family. She had placed her foot in the soft spot once without knowing earlier and had seen its dire consequences. She wouldn’t risk it again, at least, not in the first fifteen minutes of their encounter. “Aunty, I need to freshen up and make a call to my sister.”

“Sure, Neha, show her the room.” Shalini went to the kitchen to get a mop to clean the table. “This is the guest room. That’s right opposite to Bhaiyya’s room” Neha gave a brief tour of the ground floor of the house. “It’s the closest to the kitchen. So, at night, if you need anything at all, do feel free to use the kitchen. You freshen up. I’ll show the house around to you.” “Thanks, Neha. I’ll be back in a jiffy,” Surbhi headed into her room and all her luggage found its way on to the bed.

“I wonder what happened when she looked at the portrait” Shalini murmured as she carefully pushed the soaked tissues into the bin. “What happened, ma?” Neha walked in to lend a hand.

“I don’t know. Must be the dust outside. She’s not used to this weather, right?”

“No, ma. I’m not talking about her. What happened to you, when she walked in? You seemed lost. Your eyes welled up. You didn’t respond for a while I was scared for a moment.” Neha was quite concerned.

“Oh, that…” Shalini stammered to find words. “It just reminded me of an old friend with the same surname, Neha. It’s been a long time since we’ve moved here.” Shalini made sure their eyes didn’t meet.

Neha would never ask questions beyond this point. She remembered a conversation with Karan a few years ago.

Bhaiyya, why doesn’t ma talk about her family or friends? Whenever that comes up, she seems completely lost, yet she doesn’t talk about it. She just avoids all questions.” Neha would be the first to get disturbed seeing her mother in pain.

Karan sat down next to her on the steps, put an arm around her. He wiped her tears. “Neha, after… dad” Karan would never acknowledge Sharath as his father, but if his sister wanted to, he would not interfere with that. “After he left, we moved here. Do you know why ma did that? So that we can make memories that are worth living with. And she left everything she had; her family and friends, put her entire life behind and started over, for us. Not everyone is capable of that kind of a sacrifice. Maybe when those memories come back to her sometimes, she feels sad, she feels lost. She probably misses her old self in this unknown city. And if she doesn’t want to talk about it, I think we should honor her point of view…”

Neha knew it was only a matter of time; Shalini would eventually get back to her normal self. She left for her room to clear up the books that had piled up in her cupboard.

At the dining table, Shalini set up everything, before she sent Neha to call Surbhi for dinner. Neha was about to knock on her door, when it opened. A simple white kurta, coupled with white pajamas, she looked Indian in every sense of it. “Wow! You look really pretty,” Neha complimented her. “Oh, thanks Neha. You looked beautiful in that portrait back there,” Surbhi returned the favor. “I mean, even now, you’re cute, but that was something totally different.” She somehow couldn’t let go of that portrait.

“Well, let’s have dinner. Bhaiyya has work. He won’t be coming until midnight. Guess you’ll meet him tomorrow.” Neha kept the conversation going.

Dinners usually went quietly in the Singhania Mansion, but tonight, there was a new charm, with words and expressions being exchanged across the table, thanks to their new guest. “I wish I could have met your son, Aunty. I mean, I’ll be staying at your house, and it would be nice if I had met all of you. Neha was telling me he’d be late today.” “Oh, don’t worry, you can meet him tomorrow. And it’s for the better. After the day’s work, he’s usually cranky at night. He doesn’t even talk to us properly.  He’ll be fresh in the morning, and hopefully more cheerful,” Shalini shook her head as she narrated about her son, while sipping into her tea. “Oh, cool,” Surbhi tried to seem not too poky about Karan. And she had seen him in his bad times. Morning was probably for the best. She wished everyone good night after some more talk and left to her room.

“One of the very few times we’ve had dinner with this much of conversation, right ma?” Neha chuckled as she picked up the plates. “True, otherwise, with or without Karan, it’s almost pin-drop silence.” Shalini’s experience told her, Surbhi was the kind of person who could add her charm and make hers and the lives of those who surrounded her, more lively, wherever she went. “Neha, it’s getting late, you go sleep, I’ll wait till Karan comes.”

“Okay, ma. Just call me if you need anything. Good night, take care.” She hugged her mother and left for her room upstairs.

The next day morning, Karan made sure he had all his papers and files before he left for work. Just then, his phone rang. “Ah, right on time, late by exactly an hour” Karan exclaimed as he picked his phone. “I’m really impressed by your sense of timing, Mr. Barney.”

“Was that sarcasm?” asked the voice at the other end.

“No of course. Your inability to comprehend sarcasm happens to be one of my most prized possessions. But yeah, I was just about to leave.” Karan slipped the watch on to his hand.

“Whatever, don’t rub it in. I was caught up with some work. How are things going?”

“They’re going well. We start work next week. What’s up with you? When are you coming? “

“Honestly, brother, I have absolutely no idea. By the way, I couldn’t find your girl at the airport. She’s not coming. Or, probably she’s already there, dude.”

“What nonsense? Will you stop that ‘my girl’ stuff? I shouldn’t even have told you anything. Moron.”

“Oh, you are one. But, have you considered the probability of you meeting her soon?”

“What rubbish? We don’t even know if she is coming. All she replied to the mail was, ‘Thanks for the video’. And you want me to consider… Never mind. Pointless arguing with you.”

“You never know dude. I can picture her serving you that dark bitter coffee of yours, one day, soon” the voice at the other end taunted him.

“Okay, now shut up. I’ve had enough people talk about my coffee. And don’t forget, you too drink the same kind.”

“Haha, alright. I’ll call you back tomorrow. Have fun. Bye.” The call ended.

Having talked to his best friend gave him half the energy to survive the day. He packed his files and left the room. Finding no one in the kitchen, he sat in the hall on one of the sofas and immersed himself in the newspaper.

A few minutes later, Shalini walked into the kitchen and got everything ready for Karan’s breakfast. Surbhi was up and ready too. She walked into the kitchen and wished Shalini, “Good morning, Aunty.”

“Good morning, beta.” She was in a hurry. She poured a dark black, thin liquid into a mug.

“Of course, black coffee. How can I forget?” Surbhi murmured to herself. “Huh?” Shalini heard her say something.

Surbhi kicked herself for the faux pas. “Oh, is that coffee?” She somehow covered it up.

“Yeah. Surbhi, I’m sorry I’m asking you to do this. Can you give this to Karan? He’s sitting in the sofa. I’ll make his breakfast by then,” Shalini was frantic.

“Definitely, it’ll be an opportunity to talk to him, too.” Surbhi willingly took the mug from Shalini.

She had agreed to give him the coffee, but as she walked towards the hall, an unknown fear, shrouded her mind. The thought of him throwing another mug to the wall stopped her in her tracks. He was reading the newspaper. Maybe if she left the coffee on the table, he wouldn’t realize. She took another step. But how long would she hide from him. She was going to stay as his guest for some more time, and would eventually have to face him. She decided to be brave and talk to him.

“Mr. Singhania, your coffee,” Surbhi’s voice almost cracked.

“This guy is crazy,” Karan thought to himself. “He had to talk about her in the morning. Now I start hallucinating.” He shook his head in disbelief.

Surbhi, was in her own world, thinking she wasn’t loud enough. She cleared her throat. “Mr. Singhania?”

Karan looked up to realize he hadn’t been hallucinating. Eyes met. Not a word was exchanged. Yet, a conversation happened, unknown to them both. Each of them could perfectly read the other’s eyes as though it was a book kept open. Shock, surprise, happiness, a whirlwind of emotions swept them off their feet. Karan tried to get up. The newspaper he was holding went under the mug as he got up. Surbhi lost her grip on the mug and it fell to a loud shatter, soaking the newspaper to a dark brown colour. The sound shook them back to reality.

“Of course, as always” Karan covered his face with his hands in disbelief.

“What happened? Is everyone alright?” Shalini hurried to Surbhi’s side. “Nothing, ma. The mug slipped from my hand. And this must be your new guest. Miss ?” He waited for her to answer.

She could not believe he acted as if he did not know her. But she played along. “I’m Surbhi Kapoor, from New York. You must be Karan Singhania. I looked up on the net for you. I’ve heard you’re an estabilished business man.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Kapoor” Karan hurried out to get a change of clothes.

“This’ll get interesting,” Surbhi smiled to herself before helping Shalini clean up the mess.

“Damn, he was right…” he muttered, pressing his fingers against his temples as he shut the door behind him.

To be continued…

Karthik K R

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