Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Walk the Line - Chapter 18 - In the Past

Shyam Manohar Jha stood by the bus stop, a newspaper in his hand, ostensibly reading it. From the corner of his eye, he saw Khushi come out of the office and wait on the sidewalk. Every day for the past week, he had been waiting for her. Every day, she stood on the sidewalk and a blue car pulled up in a few minutes. She would get in the car and leave. It was her father’s car, he found out.

Dark clouds had gathered, and the smell of an impending storm was in the air. Khushi stood waiting for her father. She didn’t have an umbrella and the storm clouds were dark and angry. She hoped her father would get here soon. Her cell phone chimed. A second new phone in three weeks! Her father was calling.

‘Yes, Dad? Where are you?’

‘Khushi, I’m sorry dear, but I’ve gotten tied down in some urgent stuff. I will be leaving late. Just take a cab and go home, okay?’

She sighed. ‘Yes, Dad,’ didn’t he know how difficult it was to get a cab without calling for one? She’d tried calling him earlier but had only reached his voicemail. She turned off the phone, and started walking towards the bus stop.

A familiar black car slid to a stop next to her. ‘Khushi,’ she heard the call. She watched Shyam get out of the car, smiling at her.

‘Hi,’ she responded.

‘Don’t tell me. You’re looking for a cab, right?’ he laughed.

‘Yes,’ she said, smiling.

‘Well, I guess with the rain coming down,’ and right on cue a few drops started splattering down, ‘can I give you a lift again?’

She wondered what to do. There weren’t any cabs right now, and besides she didn’t have an umbrella. And Shyam had been kind of nice to her. She stepped into his car.

‘Thank you so much,’ she said, belting herself in. The rain started pelting down as they drove off.

‘Khushi, you never called me,’ he said, glancing over at her.

‘Actually, I ..er.. I never got a chance,’ she mumbled. ‘But really, it’s very kind of you to give me a ride today, too.’

‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘traffic is slow. Why don’t we wait out this shower and have a cup of coffee?’

‘Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get home.’

‘And here I thought you wanted to thank me,’ he smiled again.

‘Oh, well, okay then,’ she said. I guess a cup of coffee is the least I can do.

He pulled into the next coffee shop they spotted. Running in from the rain, they found a pair of free chairs.

‘What would you like?’ he asked her.

‘Just a regular coffee please, with milk and sugar,’ she added.

He came back a little later holding two Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee, handed one to her and settled himself in the chair opposite.

‘So, Khushi, tell me,’ he began. ‘How have you been?’

‘I’ve been good.’

‘You couldn’t be otherwise,’ he said, his voice dropping into a caress. She shivered a little and looked out the window at the streaming panes. Somehow, that slightly intimate tone in his voice made her uncomfortable. He laughed shortly, and looked down at his coffee cup with an almost embarrassed expression in his face. ‘Thing is, Khushi, I …er.. I kind of like you.’ He looked up to see her with her eyes widened. ‘I mean… you’re a beautiful girl, so that’s just natural. And I was kind of hoping you would call’. He raised guileless eyes at her, looking into her eyes.

She dropped her own, veiling them with her thick lashes.

She’s really beautiful, thought Shyam. He wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but held back. She was like an unbroken horse, skittish and nervous. First he had to allay that fear. ‘Look all I wanted to say was what I felt.’

She gave a little smile. ‘Oh look,’ she exclaimed. ‘The rain has stopped.’

‘So it has,’ he responded making no move whatsoever. ‘Khushi,‘ he stopped, ‘can I have your phone number?’

She hesitated a bit, and then gave it to him. After all, in three weeks they were leaving for the US. What harm could it do?

‘Thank you, Khushi,’ he said almost gratefully, as he fed it into his phone.

‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I just resigned from my job’.

‘Why?’ he was surprised.

‘We’re moving. To the US,’ she was wondering why she was telling him so much. Perhaps in an effort to get him to back off, after all, he had been really nice to her.

He looked shocked. ‘US?! Why?’ She raised her eyebrows. He shook his head, ‘I’m sorry, that’s a really personal question. I shouldn’t have asked.’

‘It’s okay. Reasons are really personal though,’ she said.

‘I understand.’ They drank their coffee in silence and then he said, ‘Shall we go?’

She nodded. They drove to her house in silence.

‘Khushi,’ he said, as she unlatched her seat belt.

‘Yes?’

‘I was wondering if you would like to go out for coffee before you leave? Kind of like a farewell?’ he smiled.

‘Thanks, I’d like that,’ she responded, inwardly cursing herself for being such a wuss and saying Yes when she really wanted to say No. ‘Thanks again,’ she said, before getting out of the car, and going inside.

He watched her go, his eyes unreadable. Then he took out his cell and dialed.

‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘We don’t have a window now.’

‘What do you mean?’ screamed the voice on the line.

‘If you need anything done, it has to be done within the next two weeks.’

‘I am away, or did you forget?’

‘No, I haven’t. Why do you think I called?’

The line clicked. He looked at the phone in disgust, slammed it on the dashboard, and drove off.

***

Khushi had handed in her resignation, and with time on her hands, she was all alone. She hadn’t had any calls on her phone so she was relaxed, too. She missed hanging out with Debs and Annie, but what was she to do? She had heard that Annie’s marriage was in a month – how long ago was it that they had come to see her? She rarely went out now. It seemed so pointless. Her eyes reflected the bleakness that had become a part of her life at this point.

Her cell ringing startled her. She picked it up but didn’t recognize the number. ‘Hello?’

‘Khushi?’ It was Shyam.

‘Shyam, you?’ she was surprised.

‘Ya – I was wondering if you would like to go out for coffee, maybe tomorrow’?

She thought for a moment, well, why not? She didn’t have anything better to do anyway. ‘Sure.’

‘How about that place we went to the other day? About ten in the morning?’ he said.

She looked at the phone, wondering if she was doing the right thing. ‘Okay,’ she said. Just then the doorbell rang. ‘There’s someone at the door. I’ll see you tomorrow’, she hung up.

The house was empty, so she ran down the stairs. She opened the door to a courier. ‘Miss Khushi Kumari Gupta?’ she nodded, ‘Sign here please’.

‘For me?’ she asked. She was puzzled, but took the package he extended to her. It was a flat document envelope. She took it to her room and opened it. Glossy 8x10 pictures fell out – pictures of her in the last few days! She was horrified. Someone was sending her pictures of herself, the few times she had gone out. She sank on the bed, shaking with horror. The envelope was still in her hands, and she could feel something inside it. She shook it out. A card, and printed on it was, ‘Khushi, I can’t stop looking at you, my beautiful.’ She shuddered. Taking the whole bundle, she tore them into bits, tiny, tiny bits, choking on sobs, unaware that tears were streaming down her cheeks. Deep racking gulps of air, she couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t happening to her! She sat on the bed, her knees drawn up, her arms wrapped around them, rocking back and forth. Trying but failing to hold the tears. For a long time, she just sat there, staring blindly out the window, the tears drying on her cheeks.

That night, she couldn’t sleep. All she wanted to do right now, was leave this place. Go away somewhere. Hide from this, this person. She didn’t know what they wanted from her. Why? Why were they doing this to her?

***

The next day, she was waiting for Shyam at the café a little before ten. Big dark glasses hid her puffy eyes. Her hair was tied back in a tight ponytail, the pulled back hair giving her face a fragile look. He stood looking at her for a while before heading towards her.

‘Hi’, he said.

‘Hi’, she responded shyly.

‘So what would you like, a regular coffee, like last time?’ he asked. She nodded. He clicked his fingers and a waiter came over. He placed their orders and sat back. ‘So, how is it going?’ he asked her.

‘It’s fine. Just a few more days, and then we leave,’ she said.

‘That soon, huh?’ he was looking surprised. They chatted for a while and then Khushi said, ‘I should be going. I’m keeping you from your work.’

‘Oh, no worries, Khushi!’ he laughed. ‘What’s the point in having a whole office full of staff and not being able to take some time off?’

‘Really?’ she smiled. ‘So what is it exactly that you do?’

‘I am an entrepreneur. I run my ..’ he paused ‘… own business, but in partnership with a couple of other people.’ He shrugged nonchalantly.

‘Oh,’ she was genuinely interested. ‘What kind of business?’

‘Export. Import. That sort of stuff. Leave it, Khushi. I don’t want to bore you with shop talk,’ he said. ‘Where in the US are you going to?’ he made a quick topic change.

‘I don’t know really. I mean of course, we have relatives there, Mama is from there, so lots of people on the West Coast as well as the South West’, he had noticed a strong hint of an American accent in her English whenever she spoke. ‘We’ve been there quite a few times, so…’ she shrugged her shoulders. The question bothered her. She had purposely been vague with her answers.

‘I notice you have a slight American accent,’ he said.

She smiled, ‘Obviously. Mama is from there, so…’

He nodded. They had finished their coffee and she said, ‘Well, thank you so much for the coffee. But I really should be going.’

‘Can I give you a ride?’ he asked.

‘No, thanks,’ she smiled to lessen the blow holding out her hand. He shook her hand and then stood aside politely for her to pass by.

She came around him, and was blocked by a tall broad shoulder. Head down, she eased herself by him and walked away.

The broad shoulders stopped for a moment. That perfume. So familiar! He looked after the girl walking away in jeans and a flowing kurta, ponytail. Was it her again? He started to turn around.

Shyam followed Khushi out, brushing by the same broad pair of shoulders.

Somebody brushed by ‘broad shoulders’ again. He turned around once more but she had vanished!

***

Outside, Khushi hailed a cab and headed home. Her mother was waiting for her in the living room. ‘Where’ve you been, Khushi?’ she said. ‘We were worried about you!’

‘We?’

‘Yes, Payal’s here. You were supposed to be at home to let her in.’

‘Ma…’ she protested, ‘I needed some air, so I went out.’

‘Khushi,’ her mother stroked her hair, shaking her head at her. ‘You can’t do that. Not until you’re safe, my love’.

‘It’s killing me, ma. I feel suffocated!’

‘I know. But it’s just for a few days more’, she soothed her daughter. ‘Just a little more patience, darling’.

She nodded her head and went upstairs, stopping to pop into Payal’s room.

‘Hi, Jiji!’ she said.

‘Khushi!’ her sister came running to her, hugging her close. ‘How are you?’

The tears sprung into her eyes. I’m like a leaky faucet these days, she thought. ‘Not good, jiji.’

‘Mom and Dad told me everything,’ said Payal. She was searching her baby sister’s eyes. ‘Khushi, do you even have an idea who this person is?’

‘No, jiji. I’ve wracked and wracked my brains thinking about it, but ..why me, jiji?’ she softly started crying again. Payal hugged her, rubbing her back, not knowing what to say.

The next package arrived the very next day.

Khushi was sitting in the living room, idly sketching on her sketchpad. Mom and Payal were in the kitchen, when the doorbell rang. ‘I’ll get it,’ she yelled, going to the door.

A courier stood there, ‘Miss Khushi Kumar Gupta?’ A painful knocking began in her chest. ‘For you, ma’am. Please sign here.’

Her hands shook as she signed the receipt, took the package and ran to her room. Still trembling, she opened the package. Out fell a box. Inside was the most skimpy pair of lingerie that she had ever seen. Silky, lacy and in red, it was barely there! The card read ‘I’d love to see you in this’. She screamed and dropped the card. Payal came running into the room.

‘Khushi, what’s going on?’ she said, and then gasped as she saw what the box contained. ‘Oh my god!’ she exclaimed. ‘Oh god, Khushi!’ she held her sobbing sister in her arms, her own eyes streaming with tears.

It was a long while before Khushi calmed down. That night, there was little sleep in the Gupta house.

The next day, Khushi decided she needed some air. The house was suffocating her.

There was nobody at home and it was around eleven in the morning. She took a cab to Connaught Place hoping that the bustling crowds would clear her mind. Some thing was niggling in the back of her mind. It seemed like someone was following her. She figured in a crowd she would be safe. She was standing before a coffee shop debating whether she should go inside or not, when she felt a prickling on the back of her neck. A big white SUV swung by, and her eyes were drawn to it. She couldn’t see inside the tinted windows. But as it passed by, the driver suddenly braked, and then moved forward again.

She didn’t know that the driver had braked almost by instinct. He didn’t know what it was that had made him brake, but he did. He shook his head and looked in the rear view mirror. He saw her standing by the coffee shop, one person in a milling crowd. He couldn’t see her face, only her back. He could have sworn it was her again, the girl with the legs. He shook his head, and took his foot off the brake, his eyes on her, as a man tapped her on her shoulder. He had moved ahead, he didn’t get to see her face as she started turning around.

She felt the tap on her shoulder and jumped, eyes wide, startled. It was Shyam!

‘Hey!’, he said, a beaming smile on his face. ‘Imagine bumping into you here!’

‘Shyam, wow! What are you doing here?’ she was glad to see someone outside of her family, now that she practically had no friends. ‘Are you following me?’ she blurted out the thought that was upmost in her mind.

He looked embarrassed for a second, but smiled charmingly at her again. ‘No – I was going to that store, and I saw you on the sidewalk. Thought I’d say hello’.

She smiled.

‘Coffee?’ he said, gesturing to the store. She hesitated a bit before nodding her head. ‘Do you mind waiting here?’ he said, ‘I’ll get us some, it’s really crowded inside.’ She nodded again.

A few minutes later, he came out with two Styrofoam cups. The headed down the street talking. She was waiting for the coffee to cool down a little before taking a sip.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘my car is here,’ gesturing to the now-familiar black car. ‘Can I give you a ride somewhere?’

‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll get a cab’.

‘Are you crazy? You won’t get a cab here at this hour. Let me just give you a ride to the nearest cab stand at least?’

‘Okay,’ she said, albeit reluctantly. She got into the car and took a sip of her coffee. The bitter acrid taste of black coffee felt good in her mouth.

They talked desultorily as he maneuvered through the stop-and-go traffic. She was feeling so sleepy, she thought. Must be all these sleepless nights she was having. It was getting so hard to focus. She tried to reach across and tell Shyam, when saw him glance over at her and smile. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t articulate. There was something wrong with her! The coffee fell on the floor as she flopped into her seat, her head lolling as she fainted dead away.

10 comments:

  1. OMG how will I survive till the next update!! It was really gripping!!! Loved it! Can't wait for the next update. Awesome work Madhu!! Thnks for the pm!

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  2. Whoa Whoa Whoa . Madhu .. Puhlleeeejjjj . Cliff hangar here to .. Et u 2 Brutus ..

    Gosh .. edge of seat stuff .. absolutely brilliant ... every time she went for coffee .. i was expecting this .. & then Bam .. when i thot it was just me . U did it ..

    PUHLLEEEEZZZ update soon

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  3. OMG....arnav was the prospective groom?!! m confused :S

    now shyam's finally spiked her coffee...oh god, interesting n scarfy stuff *i m weird i know* *lol*

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  4. i thought she would be off to america before anything bad happened! and now.. :(

    cant get to the next update fast enough!

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  5. I love the way Arnav and khushi keep bumping into each other and seeking each other out without knowing............
    Aggggggggg shyam the rat has laced khushi coffee now is it???

    Liza

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  6. First of all, I have a feeling that the man in the SUV, was ASR... Don't know why, but had it from first encounter... And second, is Khushi mad???? Why would she go out and accept anything from shyam when she's going through all that???? Creepy Shyam!!!!

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  7. Omg is she nuts? Ok the guy in the suv ... arnav got to be, but 3rd time lucky for shyam cos she didnt think twice about accepting a dtink from someone who a said he 'liked' her, turns up everytime her dad doesnt pick her up ...actually for a minute I thought shashi had had an ' accident'... girls debs is right no one meets like this its too much of a coincidence...oh yes I have an awful feeling that gauri might be rani sahiba, but they maybe into something worse than modelling , human traffic...

    but the stofy is awsome you should keep writing you havd a great style. Thank you for you story I know it takes a lot of effort to write, to post aswell return comments.

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  8. Oh dear... shyam got into her ok book, by being nice to her a few times... she even gave him her new number...considering the numver of 'grooming cases ' in the last few years im beginning to think we should be adding it to school curriculums. I know th7s is just fiction but it could be happening right now.

    Ok the other guy is definitely Arnav, he has a white SUV, ... her guardian angel.

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  9. Actually has Arnav made the connection yet?

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  10. oh no oh no.... he is going to kidnap her

    oh n that was Arnav... i had a strong feeling that the person on the bluetooth was arnav the first time...when people came to see annie

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