This short story is selected as Story of the Month April’2016 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The Taj Begumpet, Hyderabad
The strains of the mellifluous violin spread through the lobby. As she stepped out of the lift, she could see the elderly gentleman eyeing her,looking for a hint of appreciation. She nodded with a smile,leading him to nod back a warm thank you, playing away ,all the while. She looked at her watch . It was half past eight and it would be another half an hour before her colleague turned up to pick her from the hotel.She had always done this routine at the Taj in Hyderabad,whenever she visited the city for work. She had a happy feeling , as generally, things turned out well, whenever she found the gentleman in the morning ,in the same place ,with his violin.
It was going to be a busy day, with back to back meetings,a quick hello to a old school friend and then the 7 pm flight back home to Mumbai. In between, she hoped to get some gifts for her two daughters back home,a ritual ,she never missed while travelling. She proceeded to the check out counter at the reception and paid her bills, handed over her overnighter to the bell boy and purposefully walked towards the breakfast area.
She was greeted warmly ,asked for her room number ,which she absent mindedly muttered ,while glancing through the headlines of the Deccan Herald. She looked up to see the breakfast area swarming with people, getting ready for a hard day’s work . The Hotel staff seemed busy as well. She glanced around to find a quiet place amidst the hustle. The attendant took her to corner two seater which overlooked the beautiful gardens of the hotel. She got up to look over the breakfast menu, picked up an assortment of fruits and sat down, busily glancing through the newspaper .
Suddenly she remembered, took out her smartphone from the handbag and dialled her mother, who was staying over at her place to look after the kids . Her mother dutifully reported that they had been packed off to school ,the maids were playing truant as usual and that she had to go shopping for groceries and veggies before they got back. She smiled at herself as she blew a quick thank you kiss to her mother. Next port of call was hubby dearest of 15 years,who generally never bothered to check his phone. A quick good morning message and an update on her flight timings ,garnished with the familiar , love ya!!!.She was sure , she would get a thumbs up emotion sometime later,during the day,as always. Another matter he didn’t bother to reciprocate.
She got busy with her fruit plate when suddenly she heard a pleasant baritone. “This is all you have for me,I don’t like to sit with strangers”. She looked up to find him, flirting away with the good looking attendant .
The attendant smiled back ” Sir,this is all we have ,at the moment . If you are fine and the lady is ok ,please make yourself comfortable”. While this was happening, all she could do was try and budge into the conversation,but they were in a different world, oblivious to her.
The girl was clearly enamoured and nervous. He looked in mock disgust and patted her on her arms with an air of resignation. “Will have to do with this ,I guess”, he concluded and plonked himself down opposite the occupant with his eyes drilling into her . After the attendant had left,she felt a hint of irritation and blurted out “Not that I would mind normally, but did it occur to you or the girl over there that I might be waiting for someone?”.
He looked up and smiled “No” .”You mind” and he shoved his fork into her fruit plate and picked a watermelon piece, chewed on it ,while looking at her intently. She was now completely flustered, got up instantly , murmuring “This is the limit “while starting to collect her things from the table. He kept looking at her with a hint of a smile and finally said “Ok,Please listen, I am sorry, didn’t mean to bother you . But today’s a nice day,I am going to do something I’ve never done before and that calls for happiness. So please don’t mind. I won’t trouble you. I”ll be on my way soon, I promise” he implored with her , keeping his smile intact.
He called the attendant and ordered an omelette and a plate of fruit. He looked at her. He thought she had a pretty face, blemish less and pleasant,nice sharp nose and full lips, wavy shoulder length hair ,of average height and build,she was an attractive woman. She found him gazing at her with his hands cupping his chin, the trace of his smile, not leaving him.
She looked at him. He was reasonably tall,well built ,with greying hair . Not classically handsome,but he had a nice personality. He smelled nice and had kind eyes, she felt instantly. She suddenly felt comfort in his casual behavior. She looked at her smartphone looking for her husband’s elusive message,and relaxed.
“Hmmm,the worries of the world rest on our shoulders,is it”,he remarked.
She looked at him and smiled” Not at all,things are not as bad” she remarked,as he nodded ,his hands still cupping his chin. She found it rather cute.”And are you generally as mad as you are this morning “ she asked him. He smiled ,relaxing back against his chair. ”No,well it takes a lot out of me to get this mad,but then I indulge myself sometimes. I am quite a serious fellow otherwise.”
The attendant was back,quizzically looking at him. He whispered a quick thank you and gratefully looked at the spread. He passed the fruit plate to her “I insist, sorry for being a nut, but I just felt like it”. She started to protest,but thought against it, muttering a quick thanks, trying to suppress a smile.
“So ,busy day today?? He asked .
”Yes,it looks like”.
”Hmmm,I had a meeting in the morning today,which got cancelled”, he remarked. ”Nothing much to do for now,just while away some time,before I meet someone in the afternoon and take the flight home”.
She nodded,as her phone started to ring. It was Aayush,her colleague. She picked up the phone to find out that he could not make it, as something had turned up at home urgently,for which he had to rush back immediately. He offered to send someone else,but she refused.She told him,that she would manage and reach the client’s office by 11,as stipulated and she would handle it on her own. Aayush cut the phone,promising to call back soon.
“So that does it,seems I have some time on my hands.My colleague,is not coming to pick me up ,so I will have to figure out a way to reach my client’s place.I guess ,I will tell the reception to arrange for a cab “.
”Haven’t you heard of Ola or Uber, you seem to the manor born”, he let loose.
She looked at him for a minute and remarked ”Yes,why didn’t I think of that”.
He finished his omellete, poured himself a coffee and sat back. ”You know I have to buy something for my daughter, or else she’ll kill me if I go home without it. If you have the time,can you join me, so I have some able guidance?.I would have probably sent some pics to my wife, but she wont expect me to do something like this, so I would like to keep the surprise.”
She looked at him incredulously “Strange,even I wanted to shop for my kids,If its not too much of trouble for you,I’ll join”.
”No sweat” he said as he quickly got up”Lets go” and started promptly walking towards the reception,looking back to see , if she was following him. She felt a flush of embarrassment and excitement. She was following a man , whom she had met twenty minutes back and she didn’t feel a thing. She waited for him as he settled his bill, looking at the elderly gentleman , still playing his violin, giving her an all knowing smile.
“That’s done ,lets go” he hauled his suitcase and rushed to the exit . She picked up her one nighter and followed suit. Outside, as the heat started to swell up,he looked at her and smiled” My chauffeur is around the corner, not much time”.
She nodded. She looked at him,while he was busy checking his phone, whistling away. Was it Moon river,or something else? Sounded very familiar. She looked at him. The grey of his hair,looked good on him. He seemed to be happy and content with the world. He felt like someone she knew,from the past. He looked at her ,catching her glancing at him”Ok,what?,he asked cheerfully. She furiously nodded otherwise.
A car stopped in front of them as she looked at it intently. The driver ran out ”Saab,aap kab aaye.Bulaye nahin, is baar ko”.
He patted the man on the back and shoulder ”Time nahin mila, Ahmed. Kaisa hai tu,bache sab theek?”.
”Haan saab, Allah meherban hai, chaliye”. He then proudly gestured towards her”Hamari Dost hai, Ahmed”.
She smiled politely at Ahmed as he rushed to take her bag. As Ahmed was busy, settling things at the back of the car,he opened the door for her “After you” ,as she adjusted her sari, gingerly getting in. He went to the other side and sat down. As Ahmed settled down ,in the driver’s seat , he remarked “Ahmed,woh mall mein chalenge , kuch samaan lena hai, zyada waqt nahin hain”. Ahmed nodded and sped off.
He explained ”I like familiarity.I have been coming to Hyderabad ,for some time now. I happened to travel with this guy and liked him very much. He is a nice guy, so I make sure I call him ,whenever I am here. He’s quite resourceful and helpful as well”.
”Yes ,I can make out,the way you mentioned chauffeur,I was expecting a black Mercedes,instead of this vehicle”,to which he responded ”Cmon ,a car is a car,I wont be any less a rockstar because I am taking you for a ride to the mall in an Indigo”.”Sure”,she smiled.”Anyways”,he asked”Where is home”,”Mumbai” she replied”What about you?”.He looked at her and drawled”The Capital” to which she retorted “oh ok”as she looked out at the city passing them by.
They entered the mall entrance,as she glanced at her watch.It was 9.30 A.M ,and things had just about woken up.He surveyed the area,with his hands on his waist and looked back at her.”Looks like it might take time for things to get stirred up,you mind a coffee!!!”.She marked 11 am on her watch and looked at him.”Don’t worry,we’ll get you there in time”.”Hey,you don’t need to arrange that”,she touched his arm.He quickly took her hands in his own and remarked ”Ma’am ,its my duty,no worries please”.She felt strange.He seemed so familiar.When he had stood ,with his hands on his waist,earlier ,she had felt something familiar then,and the same feeling now.
They walked into the Barista enclosure which was now bristling with cackles of the coffee machine.”One regular cappuccino for the lady and a black coffee for me, he smiled as he led her to a small round table. ”So ,what’s a beautiful lady,doing in Hyderabad, with her kids back home. Hubby looking after them?”.
She flustered for a moment”No , my mom helps out, hubby is generally travelling , so not much help there. He tries to pitch in ,whenever in town,but he’s all at sea ,most of the time.
”Ditto”, he exclaimed, as he hit the table with his palm. My daughters look at me ,as If I am a guest,who gets to sleep with their mother”
She laughed.”Not too far away from it,our case”
As the shops opened,they started walking towards them .She found a nice little shop which had dresses for kids.As they walked in,the earnest owner,an elderly lady ,came to them.”Shopping for your daughters,are you?I have a nice collection,I’m sure you’ll like it”.She pointed out to him ”He will do the honours”, to which the lady added ”Sir,you are in charge today under the supervision of your lovely wife, it must be a nice change”. He looked at the lady and then at her and smiled with his eyebrows raised.
She felt shy ”No,its not what you think,we….”and before she could complete,she found him picking up a nice blue frock as he held it out for her to see. She looked at it and politely frowned.
“Do you have a thing for blue?”to which he replied in the affirmative. She pulled out a nice one with beautiful frills on the top and the middle. The colour was bright and he instantly liked it. “That’ll fit the elder one perfectly ,I think “and promptly displayed her photograph to her.
She took the phone and looked at the photograph.”Beautiful,she is”.
”Ya,she goes after her mother”, he absent mindedly retorted while looking through a few more.”So this stands selected”,he grandly announced.”Her bestie’s party next week,so while she’s shopping for it with her mom,this option is my contribution, thanks to you,ma’am”.
”The pleasure is all mine” she smiled.
As he paid the bill,she glanced at her watch,it was almost half past ten.”I think ,I need to rush now,or else,I will get late”.
She had been messaged by Aayush,that the meeting was on,and that it would still take him some time to meet her. ”Hitec City ,it is”,she remarked as he called Ahmed on the phone,to rush to pick them at the mall exit.
As Ahmed came in,he shook hands with her ” Thank you for your time,it was really nice of you “ he looked calmly into her eyes.
She felt a shiver “Don’t mention it,thank you for asking me. I had a nice time as well”.
”This is my card, my mobile number is at the bottom. Do keep in touch ,whenever you happen to be in Mumbai”. He gazed at the card ,whilstling ”Software Consultant,hmmm” as he handed over his card to her. She looked at the card and looked up “Strategist and all,eh”.
He shrugged ,smiling away.”Do take Ahmed’s contacts. You can use him whenever you are here” to which she remarked ”I will,for sure”.
He held her hand and patted it a couple of times,starting to say something,but stopping there and looking away. She waited for a few seconds,and then sat in the back as he instructed Ahmed to drop her and pick him on the way back. He waved at her as she looked back and waved back,as the car sped away. She felt strange,a sense of emptiness.She smiled as she recollected the encounter. Her smartphone beeped,she opened the message,it was from an unknown number.”Ever wish,you get a second chance to meet someone again for the first time?”.
She raised her eyebrows,and looked around.”Is it you”,she replied.
Pat came the reply”I don’t think I messaged you,must be some one else”. She laughed out aloud.
The meetings and side discussions had gone on for over 3 hours. Most of the things seemed to have been sorted out. She met the client’s core unit for the final time,finalized actionable and deadlines and thanked them for their time. She had had umpteen cups of green tea and biscuits and by now was famished. She stepped out of the building, remembering to utilize the UBER application to requisition a cab service. She hoped to call her childhood buddy and meet up with her, before she rushed to the airport.
As she absent mindedly set about checking out her number,to call,she felt a tap on her head.She swirled around,to find him with his hands on his waist,looking at her.And before she could say anything,he led her to Ahmed and and the Tata Indigo.”You must be hungry,I sure am. Lunch it is then”.
She looked at him in amazement.”I can have a schedule right,how can you just kidnap me out of here?”. He looked at her and in feigned hurt,opened the car door.”Ok,I am not holding you,but I am going for lunch anyway”.
She smiled at him and shut the door. As they sped off ,she asked” How did you know , I was here?.”
“Easy” he said,”Ahmed told me where he dropped you.I had nothing better to do so picked some stationery and books for the children and came back here .I checked the security register,to find out which office you were visiting. Went to the reception ,showed them your card,to find out if you were in,to which they confirmed ,yes ,so I waited “
“You are really something”.As they moved into the famous Shangai Chef,for their lunch.”That ,I am,very tenacious”.As he ordered a fairly sumptuous spread,he said ”Ok ,I have to be honest.What were you bothered about when you checked in last evening”.She looked at him and said “So you were there,it was my husband ,and we had our usual arguments.Sometimes,I feel,he takes things so much for granted,our life,our children ,even me.”.He looked at her and said ”I do understand,I am guilty of it as much,but I am figuring out that the things that one takes for granted are things some people pray for.I am sure he knows that,heart of hearts.Only that it takes time for realization to set in.So be patient,it will all turn around”.She ruefully smiled”I do hope it will,it wasn’t like this always”.
As she looked out of the window ,seeing the city run like only it can,she slowly said “There is so much to marriage.I had a very romantic view of it.I still do,but increasingly it is like running on a conveyor belt.Keep running or else you will fall off.I don’t know the last time we really had fun.The last time ,we went out for dinner,the children were on our phones,playing games,I was so tired,I almost fell asleep while my hubby was busy watching the television over my head.I felt so empty that day”.And now this .I am hauled out of nowhere into this warm cosy place by a total stranger”.
“Smile at a stranger and see what happens”he surmised with a smile.He put his hand on hers and softly said.”Remember the good things.All that was nice and fun about him and you and the both of you together.Talk about it,may be, it will rekindle a lot of things.The textures could be different ,but make no mistake,the colours will endure.Do things that surprise yourselves.You remember me telling you ,this morning.I am going to do something I have never done before.That gives you a raison d’etre.Its too small a life,to fall prey to this regimented disaster,we have ordained for ourselves”
“Amongst the many things ,I have done today,which is out of the ordinary,is the fact that I got to meet you.I in fact insisted that I be seated opposite you.The attendant only helped me ,courtesy my considerable charm” he smiled.”Now from there on ,till now,call it an accident or a plan,I am happy ,I walked this journey ,because I had a whale of a time.”
She looked at him,tears swelling at the corner of her eyes.”Thank you,may be ,you have given me a ticket to life,going forward.I must do a serious rethink.There is a lot probably that I see,but I ignore,because I want it a certain way.”she said.
It was 4. 30 pm by the clock.”I think I should leave or I will get late for the airport”.She looked at him and said,”I think,your shirt loves the food more than you did”He looked down at himself and sure enough ,he found stains on himself.He slapped his head”My wife hates me for this.I never pass a chance, when it comes to this”.Having said that,he walked to the bathroom to clean,whatever he could.She looked at him,smiling an indulgent smile.Some things never change,she thought.
On the way to the airport,her eyes started to involuntarily close,lulled into a light sleep, to the soft strains of the Shammi Kapoor classic-Raat ke Hum safar ,which Ahmed had unwittingly played on his car stereo. She dreamt of a full moon night,a light breeze and a sweet smell of a familiar fragrance. With a start ,she woke up to find her head on his shoulders,as he looked indulgently at her. Embarrassed,she pulled away,setting her hair straight,as she looked out of the window.
At the airport,she got down. He got out with her as Ahmed took her bag. He looked at her and smiled. She couldn’t bear to look back, fighting back her tears. He enveloped her in a hug,as she smiled a grim smile. She whispered a quiet thanks. “You go on in. My flight to the Capital is sometime away. I’ll go around and be back in a bit. I know ,I will get to see you ,sooner or later. The world is a small place” he smiled.
He promptly jumped into the car and waved and the car raced away. She stood there,for what felt like a life time,as she slowly walked into the terminal.On the check in counter,her smartphone beeped .It was her friend messaging to check ,if she was free. She didn’t bother to respond. Maybe later. She would have to figure out an excuse. The phone beeped again, she looked at it expectantly but was quickly disappointed. It was Ayush messaging her to apologise for the inconvenience and that things were not still sorted at his end. She would maybe call him later to check.
She walked into the plane later,settled herself ,reminiscing of a wonderful and strange day she had had,she was thankful for the small mercies.She couldn’t help but smile again.
The phone beeped again.She opened the Message. It read ”From a stranger,to someone I cant stop thinking about,quite a journey in course of a day”.
She felt a tug in her heart and responded” Is it you?”to which pat came the reply” I don’t think I messaged you,must be some one else”. She laughed out softly,keeping the phone to her chest closely, as the plane started moving on the runway.
Later @ 10.30 P.M
She tucked the kids into bed and went into the drawing room,where her mother was busy watching TV. She ran and hug her mom and nuzzled her head. Her mom smiled inquiringly,but wisely did not ask anything. She sat on the couch and let out a deep breath. She looked at the clock.It was getting late. The man of the house would be back soon. She had a lot to talk to him about,and she would make sure, he wouldn’t go off to sleep while she spoke. As she thought this, she involuntarily let out a laugh.
Sure enough, the bell rang.She ran to the door to open it. There he was ,weary and tired but the smile was steadfast and looked familiar. She continued to look at him as if in a trance. Whistling his favourite Moon River tune,he slowly put his hands on his waist and remarked”Are’nt you letting me in?”
“Oh Sorry”,she apologized as she gave way to him. He went in and plonked himself on the couch. She got a glass of water and looked at him lovingly, as he slowly sipped the water. She ruffled the grey on his hair indulgently, as he closed his eyes,content. And then she spotted it.
“I think, your shirt loved the food more than you did”,she mocked him.
” Sure” he said “The lunch was great, and the company even greater”as he squeezed her hand.”I brought her the blue frock” he enthusiastically remarked to which she clapped and held out a salute. They then looked at each other and laughed. Strangers turning into lovers once again.
Outside, Mumbai’s lights had started dimming. An end of another eventful day, in the life of the financial Capital of the country.
Ashish Arvind Nayar