Here's something for all my readers. The first six chapters from 'Rightfully Wrong Wrongfully Right' for free. Hope you enjoy reading them. 😃
RIGHTFULLY WRONG, WRONGFULLY RIGHT
Chapter 1: The Crazy Mad Scientist
‘Hmm! A move to Luxemborg in my fifties should work. Assisted suicide is legal there!’ The tragic thought was voiced in the most casual manner by the thirty-year-old man with a scholarly face, squared jawline, long and narrow nose and arched eyebrows. His black hair fell below the collar of his T-shirt in a rakish style, making his dark eyes behind the narrow rectangular glasses appear even darker and mysterious. His face was a combination of high cheekbones and sharp angles. No would dare call him a ‘chocolate boy’ with a face like that.
He sipped hot tea from a cup in his hand. It was strong with a sweet aftertaste. Someone on the street below lit a match. A flash of light and then darkness! Balance restored.
‘A life that plans for death is more intelligent than a life that denies the inevitable end!’, the man said to his audience. The man was Dr. Viraj Dheer, a scientist and inventor, laureate of several national and international awards. And his audience was a trio of shifty sparrows on the balcony rail framed by the sun rising on the Mumbai horizon behind them. Viraj leaned over the rail and threw some of the lightly toasted bread on the ground. ‘Here you go patsies!’
His audience responded with quick hops and soft chirps. Sitting back Viraj studied the ocean from the balcony of his 1BHK, sea-facing apartment at Juhu.
Even at five thirty in the morning, traffic noises were loud and the smog hung heavy over the sea, making the city look like a large tent made of over-washed sheets. Human chatter surrounded Viraj—the milk man’s sharp call to the watchman of his building, the clinking sound of tin as a woman carrying a bunch of tiffin’s hurried past on the street, strains of radio music and bhajans that escaped through open windows and doors of nearby houses, the low and laborious sound of a ship horn coming from a cruise boat anchored at some distance in the sea.
The sparrows chirped and hopped around him. ‘You should be out looking for worms! Don’t get used to this multigrain bread. I won’t be around for long.’ He tossed some more bread. ‘Netherlands could work too. The flying time to get to any of those places is probably the same.’ Viraj shook his sneaker-clad foot. The fatter of the sparrows pecked at the crumbs that had fallen around his feet.
Viraj wasn’t depressed nor was he terminally ill. He was a brilliant but practical man who had made a deathly decision a long time ago. When I feel there is no more to achieve, no more to know, no more to give, I would rather switch the lights off. It might be interesting to find out if there is something beyond death.
Viraj shifted to a more comfortable position in the cane chair; his eyes behind the narrow glasses were gleaming and alert. The Crazy Mad Scientist!—a moniker that was actually a curse used by his late abusive father when describing Viraj, his younger son. People built hills out of moles; Viraj had built a life around a moniker. Finishing his tea, he got to his feet. The sparrows flew away, except for the fat one. The fat one raised it beady eyes at Viraj and then looked down at the crumbs. Giving Viraj a final you’d-better-not look, the sparrow resumed eating.
‘Your love for food will get you killed!’
The morning breeze chilled Viraj’s body. He felt alive. Viraj yanked off his loose T-shirt. His torso was buffed and he had washboard abs. With muscular arms and a taut stomach, Viraj’s body looked more like a marine’s than a scientist’s. Weak and frail bodies came with their own tagline, ‘You shall be kicked, trampled and beaten.’
Tossing his T-shirt on the floor, Viraj got down to do his pushups. Twenty minutes later he rested breathless, with sweat dripping down his chest. He saw a few faces in the windows of apartments across from his balcony. A middle-aged woman smiled at him flirtatiously even as she watered her plants in a pink nightgown with a white chunni around her neck like a hangman’s noose. Viraj swung his gaze few feet away from the flirty aunty, to the balcony where a girl in her early twenties did her stretches. The girl was none other than the flirty aunty’s flirty daughter! Her tight black capris and hot pink tank top clung tightly around her curves. Stretching her arms up, she bent forward and touched the tips of her shoes revealing much of her cleavage. While in that position she looked up and gave Viraj an eerily familiar and flirty smile. The fruit did not fall far from the tree!
Viraj got to his feet, grabbed his T-Shirt and went inside his apartment. Being watched was his most hated thing, second only to talking! The only talk that interested Viraj was discussions on colonization of mars or quantum phase transitions. Unfortunately there weren’t many people talking about it.
In his teenage years, Viraj had a few ‘normal’ adolescent traits—gawking at girls, especially the older ones, listening to nineties pop songs, flying kites and playing ‘kanche’, oiling the hair and combing it in different styles. The quintesstial ‘normal’ -sometimes he’d look up at the sky and holler, ‘One day I will own you!’ Unfortunately the ‘abnormal’ in his life always overshadowed the ‘normal’ for his father was a violent, and unemployed alcoholic. Poverty was their reality. His father was the type of man who felt that he deserved the best but never lifted a finger to achieve it. The only time he lifted his hand was to strike his wife and his younger son.
Viraj’s elder brother who sucked in studies but excelled in mohalla cricket could do no wrong in their father’s eyes. His father’s favorite dialogue was, ‘Bada sala Sachin Tendulkar banega aur yeh chota ration card katega!’ Ironically, now Bhai (as Viraj calls him) sells life insurance while Viraj made a million by the time he was twenty-one by selling his design of a toy that dispenses medicines to kids.
Viraj’s father didn’t live to see his success though. He had died of massive brain hemorrhage, quite contrary to the end that was expected—liver damage or getting hit by a truck as he roamed around drunk on the streets. Viraj had learnt of his father’s death and cause of it much after it had happened. He had been surprised. He never thought his father had any brains.
‘Omelette is ready and your dinner is in the fridge,’ called out Viraj’s mom from the kitchen. Kripa Dheer in her early fifties was small in frame. A thick bun of white hair hung over her nape and she always wore the plainest of cotton saris. Placing a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, she beckoned him. Her smile showed more of her lower gum than normal. One day, in a drunken stupor, Viraj’s father had hit her repeatedly in the face with a rolling pin and broken her jaw. Since they were poor back then, their visit to the local quack didn’t help much. After all, he was no cosmetologist. So even though he mended her jaw, her lower lip continued to hang loose on one side.
Viraj had offered to have a cosmetologist, a rich man’s cosmetologist, fix it now. But his mother preferred her loose lip as it was—a reminder of what she had been through. .
‘Maa, you don’t have to come here to fix me breakfast every morning,’ said Viraj as he chugged the juice.
‘I live close enough to do this.’ She held out the plate to him. ‘Stop overfeeding the poor sparrows. Their feet and wings won’t be able to support abnormally big bodies.’
‘How is Keshav sir?’
‘The usual, can’t control his sweet tooth. Binged on gulab jamuns at dinner, had an uneasy night. He will probably wake up around ten,’ she grumbled while wiping the counter clean.
‘Who made the gulab jamuns?’ Viraj asked, cutting into his omelette.
‘Stop overfeeding your sparrow!’
‘Sit on the table and eat,’ his mother ordered. ‘How is your work coming along?’ She followed him to the table.
‘It’s boring!’ Viraj grunted, brushing his hair back.
‘You need a haircut.’ Kripa patted her son’s head and grabbed her purse from a nearby cane chair.
‘I could walk away from my work.’
‘They’ll sue you!’
‘What do I have to lose?’ Viraj shrugged chewing.
‘All the money they have given you!’ she reminded him, walking to the front door.
‘Like I said, what do I have to lose?’ Viraj gazed at her with his usual solemn expression.
His mother sighed. ‘One day you will find your drive back. Something or someone will help you finish what you started!’ She opened the front door, giving him a final warning, ‘Don’t binge on gulab jamuns..”
‘Hope your boyfriend feels better!’ Viraj called out.
‘You just love teasing me, don’t you?’ Her smile reflected the contentment within.
Viraj put his plate in the sink. ‘What? Not every woman is cool enough to find a boyfriend at fifty five.’
‘See you tomorrow!’ his mother said, closing the door behind her as she left. Viraj headed for a shower. He had to get to his lab. She’s right. It’s my drive that’s lacking. His genius mind had begun to bore him. As the cold water poured down his skin, he closed his eyes and whispered, ‘Luxemborg, you might be seeing me sooner than I had thought. Much sooner!’
Chapter 2: Desperado
‘Soon of course! Are you not bothered? Talk to him ASAP, Nik! You’ve got to save me!’ The words might sound like a plea but they were delivered like an order of the Empire. And it was ordered by the young woman clad in a light pink designer suit with a ruffled silk cream blouse, teamed with silver Ferragamo high heels. Her perfectly French manicured right hand fisted tightly in front of her chest. Her other hand adorned with intricate diamond-encrusted ring and bangles rested in her lap. Gayatri Dutta!
The order was being issued to an equally insurmountable force, Nikhil Chandel. He was the 33-year-old M.D. of Diamond Design Inc.. His persona was very much like the immovable carbon atom structure of the diamonds he imported and exported. However, there were a few chinks in his molecular structure and Gayatri was one of them. And unfortunately for him, she knew it.
Nikhil picked up his cell and glanced at the time. ‘Can’t do it now Guy, I have to head home for Advey’s swimming class.’ Nikhil was talking about his three and half-year-old stepson who was now as much his own child as one could ever be. Advey’s mother, Sneha Gupta, and Nikhil had married a few months ago. Corny as it may sound, Sneha and Advey made Nikhil a better man. Nikhil’s show-no-emotion-feel-nothing days were now a distant memory. The cover was more or less the same, but the book had been rewritten.
‘Your son is adorable! But aren’t you the one teaching him swimming?’ Gayatri crossed her feet and swung her chair. Though Nikhil shied from showing obvious signs of pride, Gayatri did notice how his lips eased on the side and his eyes shone at the compliment she had just given Advey. Old Singham was now the new Prem. Gayatri had an inherent love for Bollywood movies.
Most NRI’s had their children watch Bollywood movies with the same vengeance the Zealots indoctrinated the children in their community. The NRI parents were promoting their culture and the Zealots their cults. The children were screwed up one way or the other but at least the NRI kids knew how to dance.
‘Your nephew is adorable!’ Nikhil began gathering his things from his glass desk.
Gayatri pouted, shifting in her chair. ‘But you have to help me, Nik. You have to talk to Dad!’
‘What is he telling you to do now?’
‘Same thing, get married ASAP! I don’t even get to choose the guy!’
Nikhil rolled his eyes. ‘It can’t be that bad!’
It’s worse! Much, much worse! Gayatri stayed quiet.
‘Fine, I will talk to him. Come home. We’ll have dinner together. Let’s discuss this a bit more.’
‘Your Hitler—’ Gayatri was about to continue, but seeing Nikhil’s cooling- expression, she said instead, ‘I mean your wife, doesn’t like me much. You should ask her before you invite me?.’
‘Can you blame her? In the last five months since Sneha and I have been married, how many times have you come over to our place? In fact, the one time that you visited, you completely ignored her.’ Nikhil reminded her and he wore his jacket.
Gayatri grimaced, stretching her neck as if she were straightening a crick. Conceding weakness did not come easy to Gayatri. ‘I just feel very awkward around her. I messed up a few things. I know it happened a long time ago but—’
Nikhil logged off his computer. ‘The past is in the past, Guy. Don’t carry it around; it’s nothing but excess baggage.’ He picked up his cell. ‘If you promise to try and get along with Sneha and Vey, I will help you.’ He gave her one of his rare smiles.
Gayatri got to her feet and smoothed out her skirt. ‘Only if I had an actual biological brother.’ She clucked her tongue.
Nikhil raised an eyebrow. ‘Emotional blackmail. Some things never get old.’
‘Whatever!’ Gayatri walked to the door. ‘I guess I’ll see you when I do… Probably in Amsterdam, married to some guy with a belly bigger than a Halwai who sits outside his shop making jalebis.’
‘Nikhil called out. ‘Fine! I will talk to him. However, in the meantime let us have the pleasure of having your Majesty for dinner.’ Unseen by him Gayatri smiled. Definitely the new Prem. Old Singham was unyielding! Nikhil walked over and stopped in front of her. Playfully, he pressed her nose to the side.
Gayatri grabbed his finger. ‘Oww! Stop!’ She met his eyes grudgingly.
‘You can’t avoid my wife forever you know. You might end up avoiding me, Guy.’
Gayatri’s kohl-lined eyes widened and her lips, outlined perfectly with a fuschia Urban Decay gloss, parted. ‘You and Sneha are now a package deal?’ Since she was ten, Nikhil was always around. Though not part of the family, he meant more so than those with whom she shared her last name. ‘Your wife has you wrapped around her little pinky!’ She grumbled, hiding the fact that a big part of her felt envious of Nikhil for having found rock solid love, and friendship with a woman who would always have his back. They were the perfect family. Gayatri pressed her lips. I could gag!
‘Come home with me and I’ll surely talk to Sir Dutta tonight. Promise!’ Nikhil’s father had died when he was very young and Gayatri’s father who had been an old family friend had taken Nikhil under his tutelage. My dad found the son he never had and Nikhil found himself a father of sorts, Gayatri had thought then.
Gayatri glared. ‘And you called me the emotional blackmailer!’ Nikhil shrugged. ‘Fine, I’ll come for dinner and even be nice!’ Gayatri crossed her arms, staring down at the carpet.
Nikhil smiled at her affectionately. ‘Deal. Let’s go. I’ll text Sneha.’ Retrieving his phone from his suit pocket, he walked towards the door. Gayatri followed him to the elevator. They waited side by side.
‘Just hope it’s not contagious!’ Gayatri mocked.
‘What?’ Nikhil asked.
‘Whatever you and Sneha have caught. Just hope it is not contagious!’ Gayatri rolled her tongue against her cheek.
Nikhil reached out and tugged Gayatri’s sleek ponytail.
‘Owww!’ Gayatri smacked his hand.
‘Yes, it’s contagious.’ Nikhil let go of her hair. ‘We got it from Nandini and Aditya—’ He stopped short. ‘Sorry! I didn’t—’
Gayatri did not let any awkwardness show on her face. She would have made a good poker player. ‘I’m cool!’ she retorted staring at the metal doors. Once upon a time, Gayatri was nearly engaged to the country’s most eligible bachelor, Aditya Sarin. Aditya had dumped Gayatri for his homely and pretty neighbor, Nandini Sharma. Coincidentally or maybe because life had a sense of humor like AIB, Nandini was die-hard friends with Sneha Gupta, now Nikhil’s wife.
A few months ago, wanting to avenge herself for being humiliated, Gayatri had plotted against Aditya and Nandini and tried to break their marriage. That is when Sneha and Nikhil (Gayatri’s brother for all intent and purposes) had stepped in to curb Gayatri and her devious methods. Sparks had immediately sizzled between a recently divorced Sneha and Nikhil. Sneha and Nikhil had been quick to marry after they met and her son, Advey, from her previous marriage made it a perfect trio.
Nikhil had forced Gayatri to see the ugliness of her obsession in trying to humiliate Aditya. As both the couples—Nikhil and Sneha, Nandini and Aditya—moved on, Gayatri had stayed back in India but kept her distance from them. Nikhil had tried to reach out to her several times as had Sneha, but Gayatri had never returned the calls until today. Because today, I’m desperate!
Gayatri realized Nikhil was watching her. With forced flippancy she exclaimed, ‘Aditya and Nandini should be quarantined on an island!’ She added a wink for effect.
‘True!’ Nikhil shook his head.
In less than an hour they were at Nikhil’s apartment. He used his keys and led Gayatri in.
‘Dad!’ exclaimed Advey and jumped down from the sofa. The open book on his lap slipped off and landed on the floor. He ran to Nikhil who was quick to put aside his laptop bag so he could swoop him up and throw him in the air. Advey chortled and Nikhil’s eyes crinkled in response. Nikhil caught Advey and tickled his sides. ‘Got you, kiddo!’
Advey’s chuckles reverberated straight through his tiny ribcage.
Nikhil pressed a kiss to the toddler’s plump cheek and then instantly turned Advey upside down. Advey shrieked in delight as Nikhil laughed.
Gayatri felt a warmth rise inside her as she saw her usually cold-as-a-cod brother morph into a doting father.
Nikhil straightened and lowered Advey to the ground. ‘More, Dad, more!’ Advey grabbed Nikhil’s leg and pleaded.
Nikhil ruffled Advey’s hair. ‘Later! Let’s get you changed. It’s time for a swimming lesson!’
‘Wimming lessons, Bua!’ Advey suddenly woke up to the fact that there was someone else in the room apart from his Dad. Wobbling on his chubby legs, he launched himself on Gayatri.
‘Whoa!’ Gayatri caught Advey without losing her balance and pecked his cheek. He wriggled to be put down. Gayatri obliged him, but only after kissing him on his other cheek.
‘Wimming lessons! Bud!’ Nikhil reminded.
Advey gave them a beatific smile and stripped his pants right down.
‘Vey!’ Nikhil chuckled.
‘You’re a hoot, Vey!’ Gayatri clapped her hand over a mouth. Going up to him, she pulled his pants up. ‘Aren’t you the cutest?’
‘No pants! Wimming lessons Bua!’ Advey immediately pulled them down again and this time he tried to wiggle his feet out of the pant legs.
Amla, his nanny, came to their rescue. She picked Advey up with his pants and underpants hanging around his ankles. ‘Shame, shame, Adi baba! Bad, very bad!’
Amala marched away holding Advey in her arms, his pants trailing across the room
Nikhil loosened his tie. ‘Have a seat, Guy!’
‘Sure, if I can find my way to the sofa without falling!” Gayatri muttered stepping gingerly over tiny cars and dinosaurs toys littered all over the carpet.
‘I’ll be right back. I’ll have the cook bring something out for you!’
‘Just some coffee would be fine!’
‘Sure!’ Nikhil went up the stairs and disappeared into a room at the end of the hallway.
Another door opened and Advey came running out in a pair of red-and-blue swimming shorts. A pair of blue swimming goggles flapped in his hands. He stopped and looked at Gayatri. “Bua, Daddy?”
‘In there!’ Gayatri pointed in the direction of the kitchen. Advey took off again, his bums all puffed up and funny because of the swimming diapers. Father and son! My dad’s favourite combo except he never got a son, he got Didi and me! At least didi always does as told. A familiar ache arose in Gayatri.
A manservant brought a tray with a blue and white Khurja pot and matching cups from the kitchen. He placed the coffee in front of her.
‘Thanks!’ said Gayatri, taking a cup.
The doorbell chimed. Gayatri stiffened. Must be Sneha! Squaring her shoulders she pasted a forced smile on her face. Sneha was one of the rare people who could cut Gayatri to her size with her piercing looks and mind-reading techniques.
Someone came into the living room.
What the fuck?
CHAPTER 3: MOSCOW MULES
‘Uh…hi!’ Nandini raised a hand slower than a railway track phatak. Nandini took the seat that was furthest from Gayatri. The smile on the faces of both the women were similar; the difference was in their eyes—Nandini’s were nervous and Gayatri’s frigid.
‘How are you? Long time!’ Nandini was never one to hold a grudge or silence.
‘Good! And you and…’ Gayatri trailed off awkwardly. She hated the guilt that broke out in her upon mentioning Aditya to Nandini. A damp vamp I am! That was one limerick Dr. Seuss would never use.
‘We are good!’ Nandini smiled even as she played with the strap of her handbag and then shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
Gayatri tapped her feet incessantly. Savdhaan India please frame me for murder, if that is what it takes to get away from this half-assed barrel of goodness, Ms Nandini.
Nikhil emerged out of his room carrying Advey like a sack over his shoulder. Advey hung upside down. Nikhil stopped short when he saw the two occupants in his living room—Gayatri and Nandini. His expression was that of petrified victims in horror films seconds before they were slayed.
Eggjactly Nik! Gayatri smiled acknowledging his horror with a smile that seemed sweeter than a packet of Splenda.
‘Where’s Sneha?’ Nandini blurted.
‘Good question!’ Nikhil eyed the front door as though he were calculating how much time it would take to get out should he make a run for it.
Don’t you dare! Gayatri narrowed her eyes at Nikhil. Advey looked up and loudly squealed, ‘Maathi!’
Just then the doorbell rang. Nikhil went to answer it.
‘Literally saved by the bell!’ Gayatri muttered.
‘Aha! Full House! Everyone’s here!’ Sneha said, stepping into the living room. She had a laptop bag slung over one shoulder and a wide purse in her hand.
‘Let’s leave these two here, go for dinner and make our own movie!’ Nikhil whispered into Sneha’s ear.
“Tempting, but I’ll pass!’ Sneha giggled and shot a warning glance at her husband.
Gayatri noticed the ardor that lit Nikhil’s green eyes. They twinkled with affection for the five-foot-something girl whose spine and spunk probably outdid an army.
‘Lou birds!’ Nandini called out.
‘Shudd up, Kul-Nandini!’ Sneha went up to her son who was engrossed on ‘Mathi’s’ phone. ‘Hey, Vey! Where’s the hug for Mom?’
A distracted Advey gave Sneha a half-hearted hug. Suddenly the phone was taken from his hands. Surprised, Advey looked up as Nikhil held the phone in his hand now. Advey screamed ‘Mom!’ as he flung himself at Sneha who lifted and embraced him in a heartfelt hug. He then planted a big kiss on her cheek and gazed at Nikhil with his lower lip jutting out. The pleading puppy look combined with his innocent light brown eyes worked like magic. Nikhil handed the phone back to Advey. ‘Like mother like son! Always pushing my buttons.’
‘Then stop throwing the buttons in our face!’ Sneha retorted, unloading her bags on the sofa. She smiled warmly at Gayatri. ‘You are here! Finally!’
‘In flesh and blood!’ Gayatri’s smiled gingerly.
Sneha turned to her best friend, sister and first love all rolled into one. ‘So Adi is back tomorrow?’
‘Yup! Tomorrow afternoon. How did the meeting with the Bhatias go?’ Nandini asked. Sneha and she had opened an advertising firm a few months ago. They now boasted of one big client and a few small ones. Being a boutique company Sneha and Nandini were choosy about the companies they pitched their work to.
‘It went well. Preeti impressed them. Have set up another meeting for next week. You should be there for that one. They will be sharing their ad budget in that meeting,’ Sneha informed.
‘Sure! Send me a meeting invite, I’ll add it to my calendar,’ Nandini agreed.
Gayatri felt out of place during all this work-talk.‘I just got a text. I have to go.’ She held up her phone to show them the message.
‘Nonsense! Ignore it! You are staying for dinner. Nikhil hardly gets to see you. We hardly get to see you.’ Sneha flashed a big smile. She gave Nikhil the ‘back-me-up-here’ look.
Nikhil quickly came around and gently placed his hands on Gayatri’s shoulders. ‘You are staying, Guy.’
‘But…I had…’ complained Gayatri even as she watched Nikhil take her phone from her hand.
‘We boys will leave you girls alone while we go and brave the wild waters of the west! C’mon, Vey, it’s pool time!’ Nikhil said.
Advey dropped Nandini’s phone at once and wiggled his bum off the sofa. ‘Later gators!’ He trotted away behind his dad with some swagger.
Gayatri clamped her lips in what she hoped resembled a smile. Now what? Will they force me to draw blood and be part of some shitty sisterhood?
‘Drinks anyone?’ Sneha asked gazing at Gayatri.
Gayatri gave a polite smile, still not used to this disarming Sneha. The Sneha she remembered was a fire-breathing dragon.
‘Moscow mules! The one Nikhil taught you!’ Nandini chimed in.
‘Make that two!’ Gayatri nodded.
‘Make that three! I’ll make one for myself too.’ Sneha gave a thumbs-up sign and headed for the bar in the dining area.
‘Make yours light, you crazy cow!’ Nandini called out to Sneha while winking at Gayatri. ‘Sneha’s a one-drink-wonder. The last time she got drunk we all discovered Nikhil’s flair for poetry,’ Nandini giggled.
I’ll need ten. Gayatri straightened her ponytail.
‘So how have you been?’ Nandini was an effortless conversationalist. She was genuinely interested in everyone’s business!
‘Just been busy with work,’ Gayatri fibbed.
‘Where do you work?’
Gayatri bit her lip, caught in her own lie. ‘A few projects here and there!’ She brought back her I’m-better-than-you look. ‘Have been traveling a lot, between Amsterdam and Mumbai.’
‘Of course, you have family there, don’t you?’ Nandini asked. Gayatri nodded.
Sneha entered the room right then. ‘Nik was telling me about the situation with your dad! Marriage mart ready?’
Gayatri drew in a sharp breath. Nikhil, you idiot!
‘Gayatri’s dad wants her to move back to Amsterdam. He feels that she is doing nothing constructive here.’
Sneha, you are a bigger idiot! Gayatri’s hands fisted as she positively bristled at having her Achilles’ heel exposed to the two women she would never want to appear weak in front of. In her head a GIF kept playing on loop—a GIF of her dropping a piano on Nikhil’s head.
‘Gayatri could come work with us,’ Nandini blurted.
Sneha and Gayatri simultaneously erupted in a resounding ‘No!’
Like Tihar jail was never free of criminals, Nandini never lacked ideas. ‘She could work with Nikhil.’
‘Pass!’ Gayatri took a long swig of her drink. Then glancing in Sneha’s direction, she said, ‘No offense meant!’
‘None taken!’ Sneha shrugged.
‘Hmm, maybe you could start something new?’ Nandini quipped.
Gayatri gave a brittle smile. Another long swig of the drink! ‘Not an option. Dad won’t allow it.’
‘Why?’ Sneha asked.
‘Because he won’t…’ Gayatri felt a knot in her chest and took a deep breath. In for a penny, in for a pound. ‘Dad doesn’t trust me. I haven’t been successful in a few ventures he started for me.’ She sat back, gently stroking her bracelet, a distant look in her perfect almond-shaped eyes.
‘So what? Everyone has more downs than ups. All it takes is one big successful “up” and all the “downs” are ancient history.’ Nandini spoke passionately in her defense.
Now I’m a sad vamp! Gayatri raised her glass. ‘This is nice! But when do we have dinner? I’m starving!’
‘Sorry! Let me grab some snacks.’ Sneha jumped to her feet and went towards the kitchen.
‘I’ll be right back!’ Nandini excused herself and followed Sneha.
Finally by herself, Gayatri slumped her shoulders and leaned back in her chair. The drink was strong enough to loosen her tongue. ‘Maybe I should just fucking marry whoever Dad wants me to marry. So what if I don’t get to choose my spouse?’ She twirled the glass in her hand. ‘So what if the man turns out to be a jerk? Why fight the inevitable? I’m used to jerks. At least I’ll have money, because Dad would never pick a ‘nobody’ for his rich bitch!’ Gayatri sat up straight and finished the rest of her drink in one gulp. The minty drink did nothing to erase the bitter taste in her mouth. She rose to her feet and walked to the windows of the high-rise apartments that overlooked the Pali Hill neighborhood.
Unknown to Gayatri, Sneha had witnessed her tortured confession.
CHAPTER 4: JAI SHRI KRISHNA
Sneha retreated and then came back again into the living room, this time announcing her entry. ‘Appetizers are ready! I’ll set the table in the dining room!’
‘Why the dining room? We can just eat here.’ Nandini returned from the restroom.
‘Because I paid fortune for that damn thing!” Sneha retorted.
Nandini chuckled. “I have to make a call!”
Gayatri, why don’t we move to the dining room?’ Sneha suggested.
Sure mom! Gayatri followed Sneha into the formal dining room.
‘You have a seat. I’ll set the table,’ Sneha offered.
‘Don’t you have servants for this?’ Gayatri asked pulling out a chair.
Sneha smiled as she opened the drawers on the side armoire. ‘Nikhil and I like our privacy. Thus we manage the household chores ourselves. Less traffic in the house you see!’
‘Hmm… this is a nice table!’ Gayatri trailed her fingers over the carving on the chestnut colored, mahogany dining table; it was crafted with rosewood and walnut veneers with brass accents all over for an imperial look. ‘It’s big and formal for sure!’
Sneha’s gave her a wry look. ‘I did go overboard. It dwarfs the room! Wish I had thought of that before I bought this beautiful monstrosity.’
Gayatri swiveled her head a few times studying the room. ‘Decrease the length of the chandelier hanging over it, place a few long mirrors on the facing walls and get a smaller armoire. The room will look bigger and the table smaller,’ Gayatri suggested tucking her hair behind her ear.
Sneha thought about the changes Gayatri suggested and then peered around as if visualizing those changes. ‘You are right. That could work!’ she exclaimed. “I’m impressed!”
‘Ouch!’ Gayatri gracefully linked her arms in front of her ‘I’m a jack of few things but master of none!’ Wow I’m over-sharing!
Sneha paused for a momet, her eyes gleaming. Slowly she took a seat opposite Gayatri. ‘Have you ever run a facility, managed operations… a biggish office?’
‘I did manage a few of my dad’s offices. What do you have in mind?’ Gayatri asked, arranging the napkins in origami style.
‘That neat!’ Sneha pointed at the napkin.
‘One of those innumerable lame classes I had to take when I was young,’ Gayatri replied dryly.
‘No woman should ever have to do anything.’ Sneha said quietly.
‘Slip of tongue! Classes I took and thoroughly enjoyed!’ Gayatri made a quick recovery. ‘You were asking earlier about some operations?’
‘Hold on! I think I heard Vey and Nik come in!’ Sneha abruptly exited.
‘What did I do this time?’ Gayatri shrugged and resumed setting up the table.
By the time Nikhil, Nandini and Sneha came back in the room, the table had been laid out.
‘Very beautiful, Gayatri!’ Sneha remarked noticing how Gayatri had used some potpourri from a nearby vase to decorate the napkins and the table.
‘I was bored,’ Gayatri smiled.
‘Did know that a shark can smile Guy!’ Nikhil teased her.
Gayatri rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, they can. Haven’t you seen Shark Tale or yourself smiling?’
Nandini chuckled loudly. ‘Oh I saw Shark Tale and I loved it! She continued in her animated voice, ‘It was hilarious! De Niro as Don Lino and Jack Black as Lenny! OMG! They cracked me—’
‘I was forced to see it and hear most of it because a kid next to me on a flight was dumb enough to forget his headphones!’ Gayatri interrupted, her tone dripping with sarcasm.
‘Oh!’ Nandini decided to shut up and instead fiddled with a napkin on her lap. Just then the servant wheeled in a trolley loaded with food.
Nikhil cut a piece of idli and put it into his mouth.
‘You eat idli with a knife and fork?’ Nandini noticed.
‘He evens eats paranthas like that!’ Sneha remarked.
Smiling, Nikhil continued to eat.
Dad eats like that! Gayatri thought as her hands hovered over the knife and fork by her side.
Sneha leaned over and pushed Gayatri’s napkin closer to her. ‘Go for it!’ She gestured at Gayatri’s hand.
‘Thanks!’ Grinning, Gayatri picked up a piece of chicken 65 with her hands and ate it.
Nandini and Nikhil both watched the exchange, the former with a raised eyebrow.
‘Nik, I was thinking, why doesn’t Gayatri manage the lab?’ Sneha voiced.
Nikhil continued to look down at his plate, hiding his frown. Gayatri turned her gaze towards Nikhil and Sneha.
‘The lab?’ Nandini asked. Sneha nodded.
Nikhil continued to frown at his plate.
‘Frowning at your food won’t make the question go away Dad!’ Sneha affectionately addressed him like Advey did.
‘Please tell me what lab are you all going on about?’ Gayatri asked.
‘The lab where Viraj is overseeing the making of Adi and Nikhil’s dream project. Adi’s dad’s started it. He discovered Viraj and his idea’ Nandini replied.
‘So then basically this Viraj started it!’ said Gayatri, wiping some crumbs from the side of her mouth.
Nandini became quiet and went back to breaking some of her idli and dropping it in her bowl of sambhar. Few drops of sambhar spattered on the white tablecloth near her plate.
‘It’s okay! Leave it!’ Sneha said, trying to pacify a visibly horrified Nandini. Gayatri simply rolled her eyes.
‘You are talking about the lab where Viraj and his team are working on a new kind of top secret battery and in which Aditya, I and eleven other investors have nearly invested all of our money in. Including Gayatri’s father. The project which might reduce some of us to paupers if it is not implemented within the next 6 months.’ Nikhil said, his voice even throughout.
‘Yes! The lab, which is falling apart because of myriad management issues. Every two to three weeks the manager of operations keeps resigning or is fired because Viraj is worse than a stereotypical mad scientist. He is simply impossible to manage. A lab with a scientist who is nowhere close to beginning phase two of the project when he should have been completing the final one—phase 3 which involves testing!’ Sneha reminded evenly.
‘Why is he hard to manage?’ Gayatri asked her interest piqued.
‘Because he is borderline insane. Works odd hours, impossible to get through to and zero patience with people, including his financiers.’ Nandini said pointing at Nikhil with her spoon, ‘Actually, Nik is the only one Viraj can kind of stand.’
‘I’m not sending Guy in a war zone.’ Nikhil pushed his plate away from him.
‘Ask her, don’t decide for her!’ Sneha persisted.
‘No, Sneha! End of discussion!’ Nikhil put down his fork.
‘Her dad is one of the investors; he would probably feel good about his daughter overseeing something he has invested millions in,’ Nandini suggested.
‘True!’ Sneha concurred.
Not in a million years! Gayatri focused on her food. What are these two up to?
Nikhil pushed his chair noisily and stood up. ‘I’ll make sure Vey has his dinner and then I’ll join you guys back.’ He planted a kiss on Sneha’s cheek and left the room.
Nandini gaped at them. ‘That is how you fight, a kiss on the cheek?’
‘So I’m guessing this is not how all couples fight?’ Gayatri smirked.
Nandini shook her head. ‘Heck no! Most of us do it the good old-fashioned way. Shout, slam doors, don’t answer calls, cold vibes in bed. Even a few broken plates!’
‘Ignore her!’ Sneha snorted ‘Nik and I are not fighting, we are just disagreeing!” Sneha got to her feet. “Think it’s time to feed Dad some dessert.’ She winked and left.
Alone in the room, Gayatri and Nandini exchanged strained smiles and went back to eating.
Nandini put her spoon down with a loud clink. ‘Why don’t you call up your father. He won’t say no to you. Use him as a leverage to convince Nikhil to work at the lab.’
Gayatri immediately shook her head. ‘Let’s leave him out of this.’
‘What? No! Dads always help us daughters out.’
Not mine, bimbette! ‘Pass!’ Gayatri accidentally dropped her napkin on the floor, but quickly bent down to pick it up.
‘C’mon! He’ll help! We’ll call him right now!’ Nandini reached over and grabbed Gayatri’s cell.
‘No! No! Give it back!’ Gayatri tried to get the phone back but in vain.
‘Oh look, you have missed call from him!’ Nandini squealed hitting the call number. Gayatri could only stare in shock.
‘It’s ringing. Here, talk. I’ll put you on speaker,’ Nandini gestured excitedly.
‘How dare you!’ Gayatri hissed, suppressing the urge to slap Nandini.
Her father answered. ‘Hello Gayatri!’
‘Hi Dad!’ Gayatri leaned forward.
‘When are you coming back home?’ her father’s sternness came through even on the call.
Gayatri grimaced. ‘About that Dad, I was thinking…umm maybe…umm…’
Her father made an impatient noise with his tongue. ‘Hurry Gayatri, I don’t have all day. What is it this time? Another rich bloke or another bad business idea?’ The words were accompanied by a mocking chuckle.
Nandini lost her buoyant smile.
Gayatri saw pity in Nandini’s wide eyes.
I hate pity! And that too from her! ‘Dad, I was thinking of overseeing the lab where the new project is being readied. I just—’
‘Pagal ho gayi ho? Absolutely not! Get this crazy idea out of your head right now!’
Nandini started to get up.
Gayatri tossed an angry glance at her. ‘Sit down!’ she ordered. Nandini sat down looking guiltier than a terrorist caught with a live bomb.
Gayatri’s father wasn’t done yelling. ‘You stay away from that project. Am I clear, Gayatri? It has cost me millions. You will not screw this up too! Am I clear?’ her father hollered.
‘I heard you!’ Gayatri’s face turned a dull red. Her nails dug in her palms.
‘Good! Now get back here to your mom. And stop bothering Nikhil, he has enough on his plate with work and a new family.’
‘Fine!’ Gayatri glared at Nandini who studied the ceiling, then her fork and then the wall.
‘Jai Shri Krishna!’ Gayatri’s father added.
Gayatri stayed quiet.
‘Jai Shri Krishna, Gayatri!’ His voice was curt and demanding.
‘Jai Shri Krishna!’ Gayatri ended the call. She turned to Nandini, ‘Are you happy now, Princess? Are you done humiliating me or do you and your damn husband have more in store for me.’ She stood up and flung her napkin on the table.
‘Don’t curse Adi. And I was only trying to help!’ Nandini spoke quietly.
‘More food!’ Sneha entered with a dish in her hand. Nikhil followed behind, with Advey piggy-ridding on his back. Gayatri walked up to them, her face reflecting her emotions far too clearly.
‘Thank you for your hospitality.’ She looked at Sneha squarely in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m in no mood for food or…’ she glanced over her shoulder pointedly at Nandini and concluded, ‘…or the present company.’ Gayatri exited the room, her head held high, shoulders taught. Sliding Advey down Nikhil went after Gayatri.
Sneha put the dish on the table and decided to question the ‘present company’. ‘What did you do?’
Nandini shrugged as she pulled up Advey who was trying to get on her lap. ‘Nothing! Don’t look at me like that. It was her father!’
Sneha sat down, her mouth puckered. ‘Her father? Then why did she give you the evil eye.’
‘Maybe I look her like dad!’ Nandini avoided Sneha’s eyes and reached for the Hyderabadi biryani Sneha had just placed on the table.
Sneha narrowed her eyes. She recalled Gayatri’s father with his florid face, double chin, weak jaw line, over-exposed pores around his nose and under his eyes, and the white hair spotting his ears and temples. ‘You look nothing like him! But I know you did something because you are stuffing your face with food and reeking of guilt, Sethani!’
Sneha waited for Nandini to finish the morsel that was twice the size of her mouth.
‘We need to help Gayatri!’ Nandini said handing Advey what he wanted—her cell phone.
‘I was trying to!’ Sneha sighed. ‘Why do you think I convinced Nikhil to let her manage the operations of the lab?’
‘Good, so you have a plan?’ Nandini sat back.
Sneha raised an eyebrow. ‘So you did do something!’
Nandini winced. ‘Yes, but with good intentions!’
‘As always!’ Sneha helped herself to some biryani.
‘Aren’t you going to stop Gayatri from leaving?’
‘Only Nik can convince her to do anything!’
Advey, who was sitting on Nandini’s lap all this while, turned around and planted a big kiss on her chin and then snuggled against her. Nandini hugged him tight. ‘I so badly want one of these. Where can I get one?’
‘From your vagina!’ Sneha quipped. Nandini and she exchanged a look and then burst into laughter. Advey laughed along without understanding a word of what had been said. Sneha leaned over the table and tickled him under his chin. ‘Buddhu!’
‘So if Gayatri doesn’t listen to anyone besides Nikhil, how will we help her?’
Sneha flashed a grin. ‘By doing what we do best!’
Nandini nodded. ‘Ah! You put the fear of god in her and scare the crap out of her?’
‘Yes Ma’am!’ Sneha raised her glass of water. And you emotionally blackmail her, kulta! Milk it!’ Sneha squeezed her fingers.
‘Aha good times!’ Nandini said dreamily.
Sneha reached out with her glass and the two best buddies clinked their glasses. ‘The best!’
CHAPTER 5: COUNTRY WANTS TO KNOW
Squatting on the floor, Gayatri rolled up her yoga mat. Beads of sweat, like water drops on oiled skin, lined up her forehead and upper lip. Sunlight came through her window and lit up the room, highlighting her unmade bed and the purple chair laden with clothes from the night before. There was a knock on her door.
Frowning, Gayatri grabbed a loose singlet and pulled it over her sports bra and calf-length tights. The single knock had now altered to a series of staccato beats.
‘Hold on man, what’s the—’ Gayatri trailed off on seeing the visitors, ‘this is unexpected.’ She leaned at the door.
‘Hiee!’ Nandini waved at her.
‘Morning!’ Sneha nodded pulling the shades out of her hair.
‘Morning!’ Gayatri did not open the door fully, purposely blocking the entrance.
‘May we?’ Sneha asked.
‘You are more than welcome!’ Gayatri spoke stiltedly. In spite of all the good endorphins slamming inside her after a workout, she was finding it hard to forgive the stunt Nandini had pulled on her the other day.
Sneha stayed where she was, a polite smile on her face. ‘It has to be both of us!’.
Gayatri wiped her forehead. ‘Sure!’ she grunted, leading them in.
Sneha and Nandini entered the hotel suite that served as Gayatri’s place to stay whenever she was in town. They stepped into a tiny living room dominated by a red-and-beige sofa set and a metal coffee table. Behind the living room was the bedroom. On one side of the living room was the bathroom with gray marble floors and on the other side a small kitchenette full of shiny stainless steel appliances.
‘Sorry about the mess!’ Gayatri said standing behind the sofa, still uncomfortable with what could ensue.
‘What mess?’ Nandini whispered, eyeing the tidy surroundings.
‘Beats me!’ Sneha said looking around for a place to park her oversized handbag.
‘You haven’t seen a mess yet! Check out our Schummakers’s car’s glove compartment sometime,’ Nandini snickered hinting at Sneha’s love for speed.
‘I have a kid,’ Sneha reminded her.
‘That can be your excuse for only so many things!’ Nandini shot back.
‘So what brings you here?’ Gayatri asked sliding the door shut between the bedroom and living room.
‘You!’ Nandini blurted. Sneha grabbed her hand and pulled her down onto the sofa next to her. ‘Hey! I was going to sit,’ Nandini protested as she brushed the hair off her face. She was spying on something lying on the kitchen counter. ‘Oh my god, cupcakes! May I?’
‘Sure!’ Gayatri murmured.
Nandini slipped off the sofa heading for the cupcakes!
‘You are such a Jughead!’ Sneha quipped.
‘Sneh, come here, you have to check out these amazing cupcakes. You must!’
Slightly irritated, Sneha still got to her feet and went over. ‘Wow!’ she exclaimed admiring the tiny pink, green and blue cupcakes sprinkled with silver balls and edible confetti. Sneha and Nandini each took a bite. ‘These are amazing.’
‘Umm…I could finish this whole tray in minutes! Where did you get these from, Gayatri?’
‘A sweet lady on the second floor, Mrs Perez. She gets them from somewhere. I just order from her,’ Gayatri replied still standing.
Nandini grabbed the tray and placed it on the coffee table between them. ‘Hope you don’t mind!’ she said.
‘Go for it. I’ll simply order some more from Mrs Perez,’ Gayatri replied graciously.
Luckily for Gayatri, Sneha or Nandini did not explore her fridge or the contents of her kitchen sink.
Sneha came straight to the point. ‘Nandini told me about yesterday’s conversation between your Dad and you.’
Gayatri pursed her lips.
‘Which would have not happened if she,’ Sneha pointed accusingly at Nandini, ‘hadn’t butted in.’
Turning back to Gayatri, Sneha said, ‘You need to focus on the real problem and it is not Nandini.’
‘Why do you let your dad rule your life?’ Nandini asked .
Gayatri acted as if she had not heard her question.
‘Ya, why do you, Gayatri? You are educated, intelligent and confident. You have the right to make your own decisions. You are an adult for god’s sake!’ Sneha did not mince her words.
Gayatri gritted her teeth. ‘What I do or don’t do is only my business.’
‘Why fight small battles and loose big wars,’ Nandini spoke up again.
Exasperated, Gayatri looked at Sneha. ‘What is she talking about?’
Sneha smoothed her skirt over her knees. ‘Look, as a profession we make ads. Advertising is about knowing your market, the product and your audience.’
Bull! Gayatri’s resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
‘We’re constantly observing people. Consciously or unconsciously!’ Nandini added.
Sneha took over. ‘We think you do annoying things simply because you want attention. That is a childish way of facing your problems. It’s time to grow up! Take responsibility, make your decisions but do it right!’
Gayatri, who was trying to keep calm all this while, was getting pissed off. ‘You might be Nikhil’s wife but that does not give you the right to talk me like that.’ She fought to came her voice even.
‘Nik is worried for you too. Especially after the stunt you pulled with Aditya several months ago. When you drugged him and took compromising pictures of you two hoping to break his and Nandini’s marriage.’ Sneha used the brahmashashtra. And it worked.
Gayatri lost it. She slumped down on the couch and her face, free of makeup, was tinged a bright red. ‘That was stupid. I have already apologized for that,’ she mumbled.
‘And it’s all forgotten and forgiven,’ Nandini quickly added.
‘Aren’t you tired of all this? Don’t you want an actual career? Have a purpose in life. Earn a regular paycheck?’ Sneha grilled.
Nandini smiled sweetly at Gayatri. ‘Making big decisions is scary and going against your family is even scarier, especially when you have played by their rules most of your life.’
Exasperated, Gayatri covered her face with her hands.
‘Cmon Gayatri, this is your last shot. If you don’t do something now, even Nik won’t be able to convince your dad anymore. You will have to move back to Belgium or wherever he is and get married to a man of his liking who could be a complete jerk for all we know’
‘Or a terrorist!’ Nandini whispered.
Sneha and Gayatri gaped at Nandini.
‘What?’ Nandini put her palms out. ‘Don’t you guys read the papers? ISIS is recruiting in Europe and they are looking for brides.’
‘Thank you, Arnab Goswami!’ Sneha smirked.
Nandini blew a rasberry. ‘I don’t have the whole nation calling me 24/7, wanting to know things.
Sneha shook her head. “What will I do with you Sethani?”
‘I have to take a shower!’ Gayatri said dismissively getting to her feet.
Sneha crossed her arms. ‘Perfect. And then we will take you to see the lab. Seeing won’t hurt.’
Gayatri appeared unconvinced.
‘What do you have to lose? Remember,’ Nandini held out both her hands as if weighing things, ‘lab or bride, employee or terrorist?’
Gayatri gazed at Nandini’s hands and expression for few second. And then she burst into a chuckle that soon blossomed into ‘doubled over body shaking kind’ of laughter. Sneha grinned and said to Nandini, ‘Kulta, you are certified crazy! Stop it!’ She knocked Nandini’s hands down
After a few Gayatri sobered as she wiped her eyes. ‘My dad will never agree, Nikhil also said no,’ she said glancing at Nandini, ‘even your husband will disapprove.’
Sneha shook her head. ‘Gayatri! In your whole argument not once did you mention yourself. Dad, Nik, even Adi…and you? What about you? What do you really want to do?’
‘I want, I want...,’Gayatri trailed off. My dream is stupid enough in my head, I’m definitely not saying it out aloud to these two.
Nandini turned to Sneha. ‘Oh my god, she really does not know what she wants to do.’
Gayatri felt like she had swallowed nails. Sneha did not ease up. ‘You are not getting any younger! None of us are!’
Gayatri grimaced. ‘I need to take a shower.’
Sneha retorted. ‘You need to get a job. A job that will exhaust you, drive you up the wall, pull you in several directions and yet leave you with immense satisfaction and earn the respect of others. Like you absolutely deserve! Go take a shower and then we are going to the lab. On that list of people making decisions for you, add my name.’ Sneha sat back, her lips clamped tight, her expression determined.
‘Temporarily, of course. Right, Sneha?’ Nandini added smiling.
Sneha shrugged. ‘Ya, of course, I can carry other people’s crap only for so long. We are going to make you Miss Independent for real, Gayatri!’
Gayatri slack jawed stared at Sneha. Nandini waved her hand. ‘She can be scary I know, but she is right. Please come with us!
Gayatri studied her manicured nails. ‘I can take a look at the lab, I guess.’ She capitulated.
Sneha and Nandini nodded.
‘Why are you both doing this for me?’
‘Because you are family...to me!’ Sneha replied, easily as she hunted for her cell in her bag.
‘And if Sneha is in, I’m in! We are like the “har tyohar dhamakedar”. Buy one get one free, package deal!’ Nandini continued.
CHAPTER 6: TACKLE YOUR BOSS
Two hours later, the three women pulled into the parking lot of a warehouse-like structure that was all fortified glass and steel on the outside. Short, bushy trees added a splash of green to the austere white exterior and also concealed the entrance and exit doors of the structure. The parking lot housed a few cars and a motorbike.
‘The lab?’ Gayatri asked stepping out of the car.
‘The lab,’ Sneha remarked doing the same from the driver’s side.
‘Wish it was more colourful,’ Nandini added getting off from back. ‘It’s so pennnhh!’
Sneha and Gayatri exchanged an amused look. The three walked towards the main entrance.
‘Allow me!’ Sneha said, swiping a card through the machine next to the door. She swiped the card twice and then keyed in a seven-digit code. ‘Security’ was all the explanation she gave. The green light blinking on the door handle indicated that code worked.
‘In you go!’ Nandini pulled the door open.
‘Thanks!’ Gayatri walked inside a large hall with an unnamed reception. The walls were painted a light shade of green and the inside of the building was as quiet as the outside. Gayatri noted the large double-paneled metal doors on either side of the empty foyer.
The metal door opened on their left. A tall, bespectacled man came out on a hover board. His attention was on the tablet in his hand. Not slowing down, he headed straight for the doors on the other side. Extending one foot, he swiftly kicked open the other set of metal doors and disappeared behind it.
Gayatri peered at Sneha and Nandini. ‘What was that?’
Sneha shrugged her shoulders that were wrapped in an indigo-colored silk blouse. ‘That was the crazy scientist. And he was not even at his weirdest!’
Deep in thought, Gayatri pursed her lips. She was expecting the crazy, mad scientist to be different—someone older, with greying hair, owl glasses, faded and mismatched shirt tucked in worn trousers. The tall, lean man who had just passed by appeared close to thirty, with dark hair that fell to his shoulders, looking more of a rake than boor.
Nandini looked at them quizzically. ‘What’s so weird about a man on a two-wheeler? It’s India!’
The three went in the same direction as the scientist. They entered a long, sterile-looking corridor. As they walked on, they saw rectangular glass windows with light gray walls on either side that eventually revealed rooms fitted with large machines, computers on portable tables, all sorts of charts and graphs drawn on whiteboards, littered steel tables and people in lab coats wandering between them. The place smelled strongly of bleach and grease.
‘If it looks like a lab and feels like a lab, it must be the lab!’ Gayatri murmured looking closely through the glass in order to get a better sense of what the people in coats were doing.
‘Why don’t you wait here? We’ll be right back,’ Sneha said to Gayatri.
‘Where are you going?’ Gayatri asked, seemingly reluctant to be left alone.
‘To negotiate or beg, whatever it takes!’ Nandini replied confidently.
Nandini and Sneha disappeared behind a door to their right a room with no windows.
Gayatri felt left out. Bored, she walked the entire length of the corridor. At the end of the corridor she came upon a door with a sign ‘No Entry! With or without a badge.’
Needless to say that piqued her curiosity. Gayatri put her ear to the door, trying to decipher any sounds she might hear. All of a sudden the door opened from the other side and Gayatri lost her balance. She made a garbled sound as she fell face down. ‘Oof!’ Instinctively, she put out her hands to hold onto something but her fingers closed on air. The person she fell on did nothing to help her. ‘Ughhh!’ Gayatri felt her cheek smash into a corduroy-ridden thigh as her knees scraped the floor. Her startled face was inches away from the stranger’s crotch. Gayatri let herself tumble completely. Rather the floor than someone’s genitals! Stunned she lay in an inelegant heap on the floor with her legs bent awkwardly. She felt the cool air on her thighs and realized that her skirt had nearly ridden up to her bum.
The man who she fell on had taken a few hurried steps back to protect a cylinder in his hand. The man on the hoverboard!
Mortified, Gayatri sat up and quickly straightened her clothes. Her dark eyes shot a furious look at the idiot who had caused her to fall. ‘Are you freaking blind?’
The man’s expression wasn’t even remotely apologetic. ‘You could have broken this.’ Reverently, he held out the cylinder in his hands.
Gayatri shot to her feet. ‘Really? THIS ONE?!’ She grabbed the cylinder from his unsuspecting hands and raised it above her head ready to hurtle it on the floor.
A strong arm wrapped itself around Gayatri’s waist and turned her around.
His other hand shot to Gayatri’s fingers clasped around the cylinder. He was much taller than her and even though she was in heels he towered above her.
‘Oh no, you don’t!’ Gayatri bent her wrist and dropped the cylinder in her other hand. Simultaneously, she turned her back to him and drove her heel in the man’s foot.
‘Damn it!’ The stranger reacted by pulling Gayatri forcibly against him as he tried to reach the cylinder she now held in front of her. ‘Don’t drop it!’ The man yelped.
Gayatri instantly registered three things—as her body pressed against his from head to toe, she realized that the man’s loose clothes covered a tight, hard body; he smelled of clean musk soap; thirdly, the man was totally oblivious to their proximity.
‘Give it to me!’ The man again made an attempt to grab the cylinder.
‘Ha!’ Gayatri bent her waist and leaned further, moving the cylinder further away from the man. ‘Get it, buster!’
Bending down, the man with his sneaker-clad foot swiped Gayatri’s feet off the floor with practiced ease. Gayatri lost her balance again. The man deftly caught the cylinder with one hand as he outstretched the other hand to stop Gayatri’s fall.
‘Gayatri!’ Sneha’s horrified voice caused Gayatri to freeze.
The stranger used Gayatri’s surprise to put her back on her feet, clumsily of course. Gayatri’s mouth felt dry and her heart felt like it was bouncing around in her rib cage. SHIT! She had an audience.
Sneha wasn’t alone. Nikhil, Aditya and Nandini were there too. All their faces held similar expressions of shock. ‘It was all his fault!’ Gayatri took a step forward and stopped. ‘What the—’ The infernal man still had his arm wrapped around her.
With an impatient push she freed herself. ‘I, I was...only trying...’ The tough expression on Nikhil’s face caused Gayatri to fumble.
‘Good news!’ Sneha was first one to break the silence.
‘Ugh!’ Gayatri floundered. Her hair and clothes were a mess and her usual composure had evaporated faster than liquid nitrogen.
Nandini stepped around Aditya and Nikhil and came forward. ‘Yes! We have just settled the matter with Adi and Nikhil. Congratulations!’ She took Gayatri’s limp hand and shook it lightly. ‘You are this lab’s new manager operations.’ Nandini slyly pinched Gayatri’s palm forcing her out of her stupor.
‘Oh! Thank you!’ Gayatri flashed a relieved smile. ‘I’m won’t disappoint—’
‘NO!’ Came from the man holding the cylinder.
The emphatic word resounded like the crack of a whip. Everyone looked at him.
Gayatri swallowed anxiously as realization hit her.Shit! The mad scientist I just tackled is the boss. I’m so effing stupid.
‘No?’ Sneha moving curiously towards the man who still had the cylinder hooked under his arm.
‘To her,’ the man said pointing at Gayatri, ‘working here. I am going out. I will be back by 3.00 p.m.’ He turned towards Nikhil and said, ‘I want everyone gone by that time.’ Having said that the man coolly weaved his way through those standing at the door and walked out.
‘Nice going, Gayatri!’ Nikhil crossed his arms and glowered. ‘Dr Viraj! He owns and runs this lab. He was the only one you needed to impress!’
‘But I thought you all were the bosses around here. Aren’t you financing all this?’ Gayatri’s blurted.
‘Viraj’s word is what carries weight here. Rest of us just hop around like a bunch of bunnies trying to keep him happy!’ Aditya said gruffly over Nikhil’s shoulder.
Gayatri closed her eyes. I just blew my last chance. She turned to Sneha. ‘Can’t you do something? Please!’ Gayatri hated the plaintive timbre in her voice but she was desperate.
‘You should have been more tactful around Viraj instead of wrestling with him,’ Nikhil answered with his usual hard-to-read expression.
‘Why don’t you guys sort it out? Nandini and I should be leaving,’ Aditya interrupted.
Nandini nodded. ‘Good luck!’ she said, looking at Sneha and Gayatri.
Nikhil waved a quick bye to Aditya. ‘I’ll call you!’ said Nikhil.
Sneha waited for them to be out of earshot. ‘Nik, can I speak with Gayatri alone please?’
Nikhil peered at them. ‘Sure! But not in his office. Talk somewhere else please.’
So this is the I’m-so-mad-I’m-so-important scientist’s office? Gayatri gave the room a closer look, wrinkling her nose in the process.. The office was an unexpectedly small room. It had a square window with stained glass and had an attic-like feeling. A desk drowning under strewn papers, styrofoam cups full of pen, pencils and markers placed haphazardly all over the room. The room smelled of dust and reeked of neglect. On a smaller table shoved in the corner of the room was a precariously placed lcd monitor hooked to a keyboard. Under a table was a worn red-colored plastic stool—the kind tea vendors keep around their thela. I wouldn’t even use this room to store my shoes.
‘Let’s go outside,’ Sneha beckoned her. The two walked out of the building. Gayatri leaned against Sneha’s car, adjusted the purple hobo bag on her shoulder.
‘Beg, grovel, do whatever you have to do to change Viraj’s mind. You have an MBA degree in advanced management, so you definitely possess the skills for this job. But what you are lacking is a common sense and drive. And you have to figure a way out of this yourself. No one is coming to rescue you except your dad, with a wedding planner on one side and a groom on the other.’
‘That’s a little harsh,’ Gayatri mumbled.
‘But true. If you can convince Viraj to hire you, Nikhil will convince your father to let you stay here. You know Nikhil considers you family.’
‘I’ll try and talk to Viraj.’ Gayatri gave a Sneha a weak smile.
‘Without tackling him, please. Currently, there is no one more precious to Nikhil than Viraj.’
‘Please!’ Gayatri scoffed.
‘Oh, I’m important to Nik but only when he is thinking from a certain part of his anatomy. It’s a joke. Smile.’
Gayatri bit her lower lip and looked evidently anxious.
Sneha patted Gayatri’s shoulder. ‘FYI if Viraj says yes, then you will be the fifth operations manager to be hired in the last two months.’
Gayatri’s jaw dropped. She recovered quickly though. ‘What happened to the other four?’
‘Number one was fired because he bought chairs. Number two for-’
Gayatri held up her hand. ‘Hold on. Chairs?’
‘Viraj allows no chairs in his lab. He feels that sitting down hampers efficiency.’
Gayatri felt a slight hysteria flood her body. ‘Okay. And the second manager was fired because?’
‘She put a coffee machine and snack vending machine in the break room.’
Gayatri quickly added, ‘The scientist is against food and beverages too.’
Sneha bobbed her head. ‘And he is against break rooms.’
Gayatri smacked her forehead aghast. ‘Oh teri!’
Gayatri fumbled. ‘And the third?’
Sneha winced even as she said, ‘He caught him talking on his cell twice during work hours!’
‘Really! Wow! And the fourth manager?’
‘The fourth quit on his own and that too within a week!’
Gayatri leaned back on the car, her face raised to the sky. ‘And this is my only option.’
Sneha pursed her lips. ‘You are missing the bigger picture. If you snag this job and by some miracle are able to keep it, by default you become irreplaceable. Currently, Viraj is their new god—Nikhil’s, Adi’s and your dad’s. It’s simple. What Viraj wants, Viraj gets.’
Gayatri sighed. ‘So what should I do? How do I get that man—’
‘That I do not know. That is your problem to solve,’ Sneha said with a sense of finality. ‘I have to get to agency now.’ She gave Gayatri a thoughtful glance. ‘Are you coming or staying?
As Gayatri ran her eyes over the road ahead, her brow furrowed. ‘Staying. Definitely staying!’
Sneha opened her car door. ‘Will you be able to get back to the hotel on your own?’
Gayatri nodded. ‘Yeah! I’ll take a taxi. I know the way back.’
Sneha started her car and cautioned, ‘Please don’t blow up the building or kill the man!’
Gayatri’s smiled wryly. ‘And please don’t forget to pray for a miracle.’
Neither of them knew that eventually a tragedy would do the needful.
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