“What is the worst emotion that a man can be forced to live with?” Parthav quipped.
“Fear.” Asmita handed him a cup of warm Bournvita milk.
“Fear, yes! Many people are engulfed and throttled by fear.” He said, taking the cup from her. “But, actually Guilt is the most difficult emotion to live with.” Parthav reflected.
“Do you feel guilty?” She asked, her eyes overcast by a rush of sadness.
Parthav looked at her blankly as if the question had failed to register, but he knew too well where this conversation was heading to.
“I am not guilty because I have been honest. Rati knows about you and you know about her. So, what’s the big deal?”
Asmita sighed. Engaging with Parthav in a debate was always so tiring.
“It depends on what you have told her, Parth. It totally depends on her version of the story, as to whether she holds you guilty or not!”
Parthav put down the mug and raised his hands in exasperation. “There are no versions, Asmi. I have been true to both of you. You know that I will not marry you. Rati knows I will marry her as soon as her divorce comes through and she and I are striving for such a future of togetherness.”
“I wonder what makes her so casual about us – how can a woman not feel jealous or insecure, when she knows that the man who will marry her is staying with another woman?”
“Rati is a mature woman. She has seen the highs and lows of life. She is above the petty and the obvious. She has more things to worry about right now.”
Inconclusive conversations made Asmita unsure and gloomy. She got up from the side-stool and moved away from Parth. Just then, she didn’t want to be around him. Lifting the covers of the bed, she climbed in, wondered what she was doing here, spending all her time with Parth, when she knew there was no way they had a future together. She shook her head and corrected herself.
She was here because of her hope in the future. She would make things happen. Her thoughts did a somersault and she asked herself, what if her hopes were false, and the future more obscure than she imagined. What then! She tossed and turned, awake and troubled, lonely and lost, until Parth joined her and in the sweet slumber after their lovemaking, she laid her doubts to rest.
The one who remains aloof is craving the most for company. Parthav was more forlorn than reticent and he needed a companion, and confidant, which he found in Asmita. They had met at a friend’s place and discovered common interests-books, travel, movies, and good food. Parthav was a nice and homely guy, but a loner. Asmita was peppy, generous, kind, and single. She complemented Parthav’s quiet temperament and her kindness reached out to the poignant aspects in his life.
Parthav soon revealed his woes. His high school sweetheart, married young and moved overseas. Rati now had a preschooler son, but was going through a tough divorce. Parthav had met Rati last year, during her annual visit to India, and their love interests were rekindled. Rati had filed for divorce the year before and they decided to get back together as soon as she got the divorce, and the custody of her son. They planned to marry and settle overseas.
Asmita was awe-struck by Parthav’s almost cinematic story of a love that had withstood the travails of time.
Some women have it in their destiny and some the disposition to fall in love with the men who are not right for them. Asmita knew about Parthav’s love interest. She knew that one woman was fiercely fighting a legal battle with a single ray of hope at the end of the corridors of the court of law, and that beacon was Parthav, the man-in-waiting. Yet, adoration for her friend and the unrestrained amount of time that she spent with him touched the wrong strains on the strings of Asmita’s heart.
Bows and arrows were never meant to be child’s play and the innocent Cupid was playing with just the wrong toys. The cherub struck a honey-tipped arrow when Parthav fell sick and Asmita moved into help him recover from debilitating levels of bilirubin. Parthav, lonely and lovesick, was grateful for the care and the home cooked food. He suggested that Asmita moved in with him. Asmita agreed, thinking this was a good beginning, and probably the extended companionship would make Parthav reciprocate her feelings. Cupid withdrew, arrow firmly planted in place, ignorant that he had messed it up once again.
When two people are thrown together and one of them is already in the throes of love, it is a matter of time before the vibes catch on with the other. Parthav also developed an inclination towards Asmita and though he could never proclaim it, he was as much in love with her as she with him. The duo took to travelling and exploration and inadvertently explored so much more of each other.
On a star-studded night, they lay on a hand-spun cot, in a canvas tent, on the white beaches of a bellowing river. The water swelled and rose with the mighty rain and Parthav’s heart was filled with anguish, as vast as the mountains that beckoned the rain-laden clouds to lay their heart bare. He looked at the fulfilled countenance of Asmita lying against his shoulders and he was filled with intense remorse.
“Asmi!” He whispered.
“What do I do? What would you do if you were in my place?”
“I would let my heart decide.” She answered softly.
“My heart goes one way and my promises the other. You know I am not a man to break promises.” His anguished voice rent the clouds and they rumbled in sheer pain.
“Let it be then as it is. Let the difficult decisions for the last.” Asmita responded for she knew his idealistic streak too well.
“Will you take a walk with me?”
“Till the end of time!” She mimed as the torchlights caught the glint of a tear drop in his eyes.
They walked hand-in-hand under the rain and made love in a marooned wooden boat.
And so it was with most of the time they were together. They relegated the difficult decisions to the background and loved each other as if there was no tomorrow. While Parthav waited for a future that was yet to arrive, Asmita lived in dread of what lay ahead. Parthav wished time to put on roller-skates; Asmita hoped to freeze it then and there. They both lived in delusional worlds and continued to live together, until their yearnings and misgivings started taking a toll on their relationship.
The fear of separation gnawed at Asmita’s mind. She had occupied a space that Parthav had set aside for Rati and she would have to vacate this space. Parthav’s involvement with Rati, their daily phone-calls, his growing sensitivity towards the troubled aspects in Rati’s life and her own awareness that she was “the other woman,” led Asmita to the brink. She clung to a limited edition love life, but became more open towards the idea of finding a partner for life.
The admiration in his eyes sent a mild shiver down her spine. Asmita acknowledged his intense look with a smile. She wondered about the depth in his hazel eyes and thought that he is probably approving his childhood friend’s choice of a woman. She warmed to the idea and decided to be at her best during this trip, making Parthav feel proud of her. Maybe his friends’ could convince him that she was just right for him, she thought, and then she smirked at the extreme ideas that entered her oft troubled mind.
Major Somnath was from Parthav’s hometown and now an officer in the Indian Army. Parthav and Asmita were on a weekend trip to a cantonment town and Major Anirudh Somnath was hosting them in the armed forces guest house. The old-world charm of the establishment, tinged with the romance associated with men and women in uniform, was extremely alluring for Asmita. She was ecstatic about the weekend and the special attention that she received from Anirudh made her quite weak in the knees.
When they retired to the guest house to get ready for a party in the Officer’s club, Asmita could not contain her excitement. She hugged Parthav and suggested they shower together. Parthav responded to her spontaneity. As they tore clothes off each other, Parthav’s cell phone rang. It was a long distance call. Rati sobbed into the phone about another set of woes in her drab life.
Asmita disengaged herself from Parthav’s arms and went on to shower alone. The warm droplets of water touched her skin; a searing rage warmed her insides, and rose in to her eyes. Her mind blurred, conscious only of the pitter-patter of water on her bare back and the drone of Parthav’s voice in the adjoining room, whispering sweet nothings into his cell phone. She listened first intently and then she stopped listening, and she stopped thinking. The water washed away the warmth that engulfed her and the blur that blinded her. A thought arose that said that the time had come.
Parthav had two left feet. He never danced and this frequently agitated Asmita who would give up an evening of dancing just to be at his side. But that night was different. When Anirudh requested her for a dance, she obliged and then they were unstoppable. They danced and took deep drags of rum and coke and danced again, and then as she danced with other officers, not even once glancing at Parthav. The revelry continued into the wee hours of dawn, their energy still inexhaustible. The group drove to a nearby tea-stall for bread and omelet as the sun broke its first rays through a lavender skyline. Anirudh and Asmita stood holding hands, with Asmita’s head on the Major’s shoulder, oblivious to the presence of Parthav.
When the group reconvened that evening, Parthav was quiet and distanced. He had no choice, because Asmita and Anirudh were bonding as if they had only one evening to share a whole lifetime of experiences with. From the recesses of his heart, a voice told Parthav that he should let Asmita choose another path, a path that moved away from him. But Parthav was disconcerted with the sudden isolation of Asmita. There was this sickening feeling of being left alone, of being stranded, of a vision of aloneness, and there was this sense of foreboding. Parthav wasn’t sure whether the apprehension was related to him or to Asmita, because at that point in time he was unsure of both – the circumstances in Rati’s life and the intentions that drove Anirudh.
Like the Moon that mesmerizes with its pearly glow, but on close encounters is a mass of jugged rocks, the enchantment of pursuit wanes, as soon as the challenge is eliminated.
It had been more than a month since Asmita had moved out of their shared apartment. Parthav had engaged himself in sports and work, but he was more frequently trying to connect with Rati over web chat or phone. Until then, Rati was the one who would call Parthav or send him an email. Now Parthav was desperately reaching out to her, trying to escape the loneliness and the exasperation that surrounded him. Things were moving slowly at Rati’s end and she was struggling to maintain the balance with a job, a child, legal proceedings, and Parthav’s demand on her time.
Initially, Rati enjoyed the attention that Parthav claimed of her and she was happy that Asmita had moved on. Things become awkward when chatting or taking Parthav’s calls at odd hours corroded her well-planned schedule. Parthav’s incessant inquiry on the divorce was becoming a bone of contention. At the crossroads at which Rati was standing she was short of both, time to flirt and answers to give. Rati’s need for him had been replaced by his need for her and she was stifled by the role-reversal.
That evening Rati was in conversation, with herself. She was summarizing the workings of her heart and mind. Parthav’s distant presence in her life was becoming claustrophobic. Why, then did Parthav fascinate him so much, just a few days before, Rati mused, as she gently swiveled the wine on her tongue!
“He was your sounding board, the shoulder you cried upon, just when you wanted to,” said the voice within. “For a woman on the verge of a divorce, he was the boost to your sagging confidence and you were pleased to explore that there could be another life with another man. When Asmita arrived, you vied for his love and the challenge amused you with its savagely sweet promise of contest and victory. You won some, you lost some, and now you are the sole victory. But this is not your game!”
Rati could not trust Parthav to wait for her and she was not sure if she wanted a future with him. She made up her mind that night and with the last swish of wine, she let the dreams of distant love be just that – distant!
Asmita and Anirudh met over weekends; sometimes she took a bus to the cantonment city and many times Anirudh drove down to meet her. The freshness of their affair and the romance of waiting, unveiled an all-new perspective of love for Asmita. She craved for Anirudh’s company and when they met, it was a wild, inhibited and adventurous rendezvous. She couldn’t help but compare the change that had come over her; with Parthav she was docile and pleasing, endearing to his finer sensibilities, but with Anirudh she was free and unleashed, matching the ferocity of his raw masculinity.
They were driving down to a weekend getaway. They drove on a slim road, flanked by mustard fields, the wind teasing the swaying stalks. The azure sky bent down to caress the brown of the earth. The mild whizz of the car was subdued by the smooth baritone of Anirudh’s voice relating tales of gallantry. In this idyllic setting, the sensuality of the man she was driving down with was bearing down on Asmita. The gay abandon of the natural surroundings, lowered her defenses.
She placed a light hand on his arm and indicated him to pull over. Anirudh braked. She moved up to him and kissed him on his lips. “Marry me!” she whispered hoarsely. “Let me a part of this amazing life that you lead.” The way he held her face and softly moved it aside, wasn’t lost on her. She waited as he rummaged for words.
“Marriage! When did this come into the picture?” Strangely his expressions were sincere and his voice sounded more concerned than surprised.
“Right now. I mean, don’t you think it would be nice to start a life together. It’s not that bad an idea.” Asmita tried to regain her composure.
“Asmi, if I have ever misled you then it was unintentional. When we met, you were with Parth and it never crossed my mind that you would get romantically inclined with me.”
“I left Parth for you!” Asmita’s voice betrayed her disbelief.
“Come on, Asmi! You didn’t even know me. How could you leave Parth just like that? You were a couple.” Anirudh accused.
“What about these weekends; of all the time that we have spent together. Why do you think I was with you, soldier?” Her exasperation was evident.
“We were having fun. I never knew you had other ideas!” Anirudh was getting impatient.
Asmita looked blindly ahead into the windscreen. The blood rushed loudly in her ears, deafening her. She could hardly hear what he said next.
“Moreover, I will be going away soon on a special mission. Marriage is not on the cards, at least for a year. I really admire you and like you. You are fun and intelligent…”
“Please drive me to the nearest bus stop.” Asmi cut short his rambling, wanting to make it easier for him. The less he spoke, the less it would hurt her.
In a world that prides itself on the chastity of its women and ignores the waywardness of its men, her love remained unrequited.
“I am leaving tonight.” Anirudh told her on the phone.
“Good luck, then, and take care.” Asmi fought to keep the sound of tears from entering her throat.
“You are wonderful girl, Asmi. It will all work out well for you.” A pause! The silence threatened to terminate the conversation.
“Should I wait for you?”
“No, no!” The stillness bore down on them.
“Why?” she asked.
“Love across the distance harbors only pain and longing. You deserve better.”
Silence regained control.
The mating sounds of crickets from beyond the window, rent the stillness in her room and her heart, reminding her of an evening in the rain, in a marooned boat.