Mrunmayee gazes at her reflection in the mirror and cringes on realizing that the pink top would have suited Nandini more. She needs to lose a little weight around the shoulders, and it fits a little too snugly over her ample bosom, making her look like she might spill out any moment. She had tried on a deep purple kurti earlier, which on the other hand, had fit her just fine. But there was something about the pink top that allured her. She had overheard Nandini talk about it with the sales person in charge and had immediately asked him to hand it over to her to try on.
It's funny how our desires often tend to circle around the whims and fancies of others rather than the self. One school of thought has a convincing explanation that this is because we live in a society that makes us want to be pleasing to others more than the self--a rather selfless trait, so to think. But then there is this other theory which eventually concludes that we do all of this to please no one but the self...because praise and compliments are what the devil thrives on, and we are in no significant way any different.
Mrunmayee changes back into her sari and walks out of the changing room with nothing but the pink top in hand surprising the sales person who goes inside the trial room to collect all the discarded choices mentally cursing all womankind for their indecisive nature.
“Is something wrong? You look as pale as a ghost,” she asks a flummoxed Nandini who seems to be now lost in a whirlpool of mixed emotions.
“It's nothing. I actually remembered there is some other place that I need to be.” Nandini pauses and then hastily blurts, “Your husband said he would be here in ten minutes.”
“Are you sure you are okay? You do look a little flushed,” asks Mrunmayee, still a little confused.
“Oh yes. I am perfectly fine. Just need to catch up with a few friends and make up for a busy week. You have a great anniversary.”
“I can understand,” she sighs. “Neil, my husband, is constantly swamped with work too. It's only weekends that we get to spend quality time with friends and each other.”
Then watching Nandini fidget with her purse she bids her farewell, not wanting to delay her anymore.
“It was lovely meeting you. Thanks for all the trouble. I'll keep in touch...”
“Sure.” Nandini smiles feebly. She says goodbye to Mrunmayee and rushes away from the scene.
While on her way out of the mall, she senses an acrid distaste in her throat and an urgent need to throw up.
Nandini rushes to the nearby washroom. A sense of relief floods through her body, to find an unoccupied cubicle. As she flushes out the bitter taste of bile from her system, she wishes she could do the same to the equally bitter hatred that she has been harbouring towards the woman for all these years.
The fascination...the admiration...the marvel...the novel appreciation for this lady disappears, just like the keen interest in befriending her. Mrunmayee's neatness...fashion sense...organized behavior...feminine etiquette, all seem suddenly so fake and manipulative now.
It is ridiculous how biased bias can be. Everyone, at some point in life, encounters it--in the bitterness of defeat, in the envy of success, in the happiness of someone we consider less worthy. It is absurd how envy makes people pick up pointless and baseless faults in those they had once appreciated. What is even weirder is how some choose to cleverly mask it, like a zit concealed with loads of makeup, unaware that with time it is sure to wear off and reveal its ugly self.
Nandini does not wear makeup. Somewhere down the line, she had lost faith in all things made up.
Now confined within the four walls of the bathroom cubicle, amidst salty tears and faded memories, she recollects all those times she has promised herself not to fall weak. But when has life been predictable? It has its own plans, that only time can unfold…
Neil had not recognized her voice, though there was a sudden pause on hearing her speak.
But Nandini, how could she not know it was him??
The smell of phenol and the restless foot tapping of the women waiting outside does not allow her to stay in there for a long time--the limitations of a public restroom.
Dabbing her eyes dry, Nandini scurries out of the phenol and makeup scented atmosphere and steps out into the long corridors which would further lead to the exit of the plaza.
As she crosses CBTL on the way out, flashes of the past come to life before her downcast eyes as if the clean mopped marble flooring is a plasma screen featuring her life in motion picture. She tries hard to push away the scenes. But the pause button fails to please her, and the reel only manages to play faster. No amount of pushing any button in the dark recesses of her mind manages to eject this relentless recording, and she is forced to go back to that day she confronted Neil…their last meeting, as if it just happened yesterday.
It was exactly a month after Sharvari's wedding.
“Byomkesh Da called yesterday. He and Protima Boudi want to meet us regarding the children. Debojit has grown up into a fine young man, and I am sure he will keep Nandini very happy. It would only be wise to say yes,” Mr Mazumdar discussed with his wife over dinner.
Something about the Joshi wedding had evoked a sudden sense of parental responsibility in them. It was as if the differences between husband and wife had decreased, and their daughter had become the focus of their joint attention. Nandini did not know whether to be happy or sad about it.
“And it's not like Nandu can find a good boy for herself like our Appu did. With her shy and timid nature, we would have to wait for a hundred years before someone comes and professes his love for her,” he grimaced.
Aparna had married Atul after three years of clandestine courtship. At first, her decision had raised a huge hue and cry at the Mazumdar house. However, all had gone well after Atul had convinced them that he and his wife would live separately after marriage, instead of with his parents in their humble home. The loan for the house had already been sanctioned, a fact that Aparna had confirmed before she agreed to marry him. Atul's poor parents had been distraught over their only son's decision, but they had bestowed their blessings on the couple anyway. However, neither Aparna nor Atul had tried to persuade them to attend the marriage, acting totally indifferent to the hurt they caused to their breaking hearts. Mr and Mrs Mazumdar had not even noticed their absence. They were only too pleased at their daughter's organized planning that had roped in a worthy groom who would dance around her little finger.
However, with Nandini next in line now, they were worried. They believed their younger daughter's reserved nature and self righteousness were uncharismatic traits, unworthy of attracting any male attention without their help.
Nandini wanted to scream at them, tell them that they need not worry, that she had already found a very good match for herself, someone much better than their stupid Debojit Chatterjee. Instead, she ran off to her room and cried all night. She could not wait for Neil to take the lead anymore. She would have to confess to him; she was so sure the idiot was too shy to ask her out.
She had caught him stealing glances at her at Sharvari's wedding. Over time, he had grown to be so fond of her. Nandini had grown to be a close friend. If Sharvari and Adarsh could realize they were in love with each other in such a short time, surely Neil too must have recognized his feelings for her, she thought. Weren't the endless conversations between them proof enough that they cared? After all, love is often revealed by the mundane gestures of day to day life. You don't need to scream out your feelings. When it's love, you just know…and Nandini knew!
However, it was only when she spoke to Neil that she realized how little...
“B..ut…but Nandu,” he stammered, startled by her sudden confession, “You n...never told me...”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “I thought you always knew. Neil, I have had feelings for you ever since I realized the meaning of love, and somewhere down the line, I thought you understood…and reciprocated.”
Neil did not know what to say. It was true that he and Nandini had become good friends over the years. It was Nandini's constant phone texts and cheerful calls that helped him through a rough day at his new job. She would be the first one to wish him on birthdays and other occasions, sometimes even before family. He would counsel her, guide her, advice her. She would in turn listen to him rant about his seniors, complain about his team and justify his dilemmas. Nandini was aware of Neil's weakness—his lack of strength when it came to making decisions. She believed he too harboured a silent love, just like the one she had been hiding in her heart. Neil knew that Nandini had learned to face her own demons in life. It was this truth that always made him feel protective towards her, and the fact that his friendship meant the world to her, meant a great deal to him.
“Friendship? Is that all there is between us??” she asked. She had never believed in an overt display of affection. If Sharvari and Pari could have guessed her feelings for Neil years ago at fifteen, how could Neil be so blind even after all these years?
Looking at his flustered expression, she could not stop the tears from streaming down her face. “Neil, my parents want to get me married to some man I don't even know. I can't imagine a future without you. In my thoughts, I am already Mrs Nandini Neil Joshi since the day I fell in love,” she panicked.
She covered her face with both her hands as if she had mustered all the courage in her shivering body to say all that she wanted. Neil was now staring at her in surprise. He had never heard Nandu speak with such conviction before. Where did she hide all this passion, all these emotions?
“Nandini, I know you are a very sensible girl. I have always respected your maturity. If you think with a clear mind, you will see that I am not the best guy to be in love with.”
“You are perfect for me...” she was still sobbing.
Neil wanted to hold her trembling body. For a moment, he felt a strange attraction for her vulnerability. He wanted to calm her down, hold in his arms and console this graceful creature who was so enamoured by him. He was tempted to fall in love with her.
But would that kind of love be strong enough to break the shackles of rigid orthodox? Would her passion help her surpass the permanent sea of mediocrity he was living in? Could this affluent 'Malabar Hill' girl be happy with a middle class 'Shivaji Park' boy like him? Neil felt like he was at both ends of these questions. He could imagine an uptown girl challenging him in the same tone someday. He could understand how much it would hurt then. But he could not make up his mind…he had felt his emotions scatter especially after the confusion that had set in lately.
Too many doubts were subconsciously creating havoc inside his head. He wanted to ask her how, where, and when it had all happened. However, his heart was posing other questions. Was he guilty of sending out mixed signals? Or had something changed between them? Was he really afraid to confess his feelings? Or was he facing an emotional dilemma between the head and the heart? Had his heart never felt a thing for this girl baring her soul in front of him, or was it having second thoughts of late? He wanted to ask a lot of questions…to Nandini…to himself…to his conscience. But he was too embarrassed to find out the answers.
“No, Nandu, it's not possible. It's never going to work out.”
“B...ut Why not?” She was being adamant now.
Again, he controlled the strong urge to tell her the truth.
“Neil, I love you!”
She had finally said it. She had mustered up all the courage inside her to utter the three golden words she had rehearsed saying in front of the mirror so many times before. She felt a strange weight leave her shoulders--a weight that had been pressing upon her all this while as if the entire world was balanced on its tender support. She felt relieved yet apprehensive, nervous yet excited, tense yet happy, brazen yet bashful; a flurry of young emotions created ripples within her as she caught his gaze and lowered her eyes almost instantaneously.
The air above them had suddenly started feeling heavy, the tension palpable.
“N..Nandu, you don't understand,” Neil stammered, indecisive whether to continue or not.
A pregnant pause later, he let out a defeated sigh and said, “There is someone else...”
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