"Here, Neha. Getting up now?’ Nishant tapped on my shoulder and I had to open my eyes – reluctantly. The jet lag had really caught up with me this time. It is two days since I came home but I am tired, disoriented and out-of-sorts. I will have to go to office tomorrow and get back to the routine. But all I want to do is loll in bed and mope.
‘Neha, wake up.’ Nishant again. He had made tea and had brought the tray to the bedroom.
I sat up and gave him a wan smile. I don’t want tea. I have become used to coffee in the last three months’ stay in USA. But I can’t say this aloud when Nishant is trying so hard to please me.
‘What time is it? Already 8 o’clock?’
‘Don’t worry. I am going to make an omelette soon. You take rest. You look tired.’
‘No, no. I have taken enough rest. I will get up now. It will be back to the grind from tomorrow.’
But again fatigue must have overcome me because when I opened my eyes again, the maid was busy sweeping and Nishant was nowhere to be seen.
‘Sahib has gone out for tennis. He said you were not to be disturbed’, the maid told me.
Feeling guilty I got up. Everything was in proper order. Bright sunlight flooded the hall but I was about to get a headache.
The phone rang. Ma-in-law was calling. She was asking questions, telling me about the happenings of last three months and also wanted to know every detail of my project in America. I was doing my best to keep up but it was an effort. She understood after a while and rang off after advising me to take more rest.
She is a good soul. She and Daddy are eagerly waiting for their grandchild but she was happy about my project. ‘I am not just doing a job, I want to make a career,’ I had told her in our first meeting and she had approved. Now their patience is running thin, I feel.
I sat down on the sofa and was about to doze off again when the phone rang again. Natasha – this time, my accomplished sister-in-law.
‘Mom said you were not well. So I just wanted to check.’
Wow! Quick work.
‘No, I am fine. It is just that I am still feeling jet lagged. How did Mom know that I was not well? We were chatting a few minutes ago.’
‘I know but Mom is anxious. Don’t worry. Sleep well, eat well. Let me know if you want anything’ and Natasha rang off.
They are all well-meaning, good people but I feel smothered by their attention. I asked the maid for coffee and checked my mail. Nothing much except a few messages on WhatsApp welcoming me back to office. Thank God!
This project in USA has really been very instructive. An eye-opener, in fact. It gave me time away from the office here and I could see how things work at the headquarters. I understood for the first time what client interaction meant. Marketing, sales talk, clients – these things were never on my radar. I have been an out-and-out operations person, immersed in technical and scheduling details.
At HQ I could also read the reports filed fortnightly from our office here and the scales dropped from my eyes. I thought I was shouldering the entire operations burden but the dispatches of our boss hardly ever mentioned my name. Rupa, however, was everywhere. Rupa this, Rupa that! Rupa made this plan and Mehta forwarded it; Mehta suggested that and Rupa fleshed it out! On and on, they went. Accounts and design guys get a mention now and then but operations people – never! Poor, mousy Neha! She might as well be invisible. And the shocker – this project assignment was a reward long overdue to me. Mehta had made it out to be a largesse necessary to buy peace!
I am not given to dramatic gestures and inviting attention to myself. Histrionics is not my cup of tea. I have been toiling away confident that the bosses knew the worth of my work and how crucial it was. I have never demanded anything. So why was buying peace necessary? The bosses have their sights on something else altogether. Self-projection and impression management are more important. They are out for themselves – work and organization be damned – and I have been so naïve! I have been purposely side-tracked.
I have wondered occasionally at the quick rise of Rupa through the ranks. She joined two years after me and is already two rungs above me. She travels frequently, has an expense account and is invariably a part of all top management meetings. She has picked up the managerial style in a big way. She does not think twice about cutting short my presentations and diverting the agenda to some other areas, usually favourable to her. There is no end to malicious gossip about her rise but I have not paid attention to it and she too, is oblivious to it. I have felt stymied but have ignored the feeling so far. Now I realise that it is deliberate, a part of a plan to marginalize me.
My time in USA also gave me time to ruminate over the lack of zing in our marriage. Everything is so predictable, so boring. I do my work, Nishant does his and the day is over! On weekends we talk about our routine, about work and about members of our extended family. Everything is as it should be but where is enthusiasm and passion? Has Nishant missed me in the last three months? I bet he did not. We chatted and skyped regularly but without any feeling of loss, without any desire to be with each other. We came together the night before last but it was a kind of compulsion; no spontaneity behind it.
In our HQ I have been observing numerous romantic entanglements and non-stop exchange of flirtatious messages. All the women there were so smart! Dressing up, latest fashions of clothes, accessories and hair-dos – each one was into it and looked so fetching irrespective of the tension of the job. And what sense of humour!
I am so drab in comparison. Nishant must be finding me boring. Where have we lost the verve in our relationship? I used work to get over my disappointment in marriage but I am a failure there too. A failure twice over!
I greeted Nishant a shade warmly after he came back from his game.
‘I am disturbed about going back to office tomorrow’, I told him.
‘Eh, how come? You and not raring to go to office! Is it possible?’
‘I know but my time in US has opened a new perspective….’ my voice trailed off. Nishant did not pursue the matter nor was it the right time to tell him about all that I had found out.
I made biryani. Tried hard to be normal but the feeling of dread would not go away. They have taken advantage of me in the office. Mehta has betrayed my trust – my mind kept repeating the message.
When Nishant suggested an outing – a long drive out of the city, I accepted with alacrity. Maybe the change in surroundings will hold my inner demons in check. Nishant probably realised that I was heading towards a crisis. He was not saying much but he was observing me all the time.
We started at 5 p.m. Nishant had a place in mind and it was a secret. It was indeed a nice spot – not too far and yet not very crowded. A rare combination. There was an old, big temple and a nice garden in front of it. The temple was in black stone with some carvings on the walls. It seemed bigger as few people were about. ‘It is no moon night today’ the priest explained.
We sat down on the stone parapet and gazed about. The priest’s house was behind the temple. It must have been a bare room at first but now additions – some quite make-shift – had been made from every side. It was now a warren of small rooms, each with people, especially children, inside. Children were running out of some rooms, getting into others, chasing each other, dancing in the open space. I could count at least half a dozen of them and they were having a romp.
Smoke was coming out of one room. A man came on a motorcycle, parked it and disappeared in it. He emerged after five minutes carrying two children one of whom wanted a bike ride. The child’s mother came out to restrain him but his father started the bike quickly. The lady appealed to the priest – her father-in-law probably who said nothing. The lady stood there dejectedly and took in the surroundings. She cast a glance in our direction.
I realised with a start that I was so engrossed watching all this that in the last fifteen minutes I had not spared a thought for the office or project. It felt good. Nishant was looking into his phone. I wanted to just sit there. We get a spectacular view of the city from the three balconies of our flat but life on the seventh floor is lonely. We do not see people. Observing them as they go about their daily business is so relaxing!
‘Nehatai! It is Nehatai, no?’ That lady had come near and was shyly trying to catch my attention. My mind was wandering. I came to with a start. She knows my name? How come?
I looked at her closely. She continued to look at me anxiously and then the penny dropped.
‘Tara! Tara. Oh my God!’
She smiled. She had a lovely smile which lighted her whole face. Nishant looked up curiously.
‘Nishant you remember my old house in Itawari? I had shown you once. Tara is my friend from there.’
I turned to her.
‘Tara! It must be twenty years! You remember how we used to play hide-and-seek in the ground behind our quarters? I miss the delicious bhakri-pithala your mother made.’
‘Oh, Tai! You remember that?’ Tara was delighted.
‘Of course.’ Tara was the watchman’s daughter and was attached to me. We got along tolerably well but other girls in the society did not like it. ‘When you went away suddenly, I was lonely for quite some time but then we moved away from there.’
‘My father arranged my marriage quickly. He talked of a connection and within a week I was married off in our village. This is where I came and have been here ever since.’
Tara looked content. She caught hold of a child nearby and said he was her youngest.
‘So how many children do you have?’
Four! In these days! She looked trim.
‘Two boys and two girls. The girls are older and have not come back from school.’
Tara’s husband was introduced to us. On an impulse, I bent down to touch her father-in-law’s feet. Tara took me to her kitchen while she made tea. Nishant had some perfunctory talk with her husband.
Kitchen and one room made up Tara’s house.
‘My husband has three brothers and two sisters. All the brothers stay here. Mamanji looks after the temple. We run the laundry here. Other brothers have rented out some parts of the premises to shop-keepers. One is soon going to start a second hand car business here. The temple is famous and every day devotees line up. On special full moon days, a proper yatra is held here. We are all kept on our toes then.’
‘So yours is a joint family.’
‘Sort of. But our kitchens are separate. It is best that way. My husband does not get along well with his brothers who have cunning wives. But we take care and see that children are free from these tensions. Mamanji insists on that.’
‘I see. That makes sense. Your children have the best of both the worlds!’
‘Yes, you can say that. As an only child my life was dull and lonely. My children do not have those problems. They are secure and confident.’
Save the motorcycle, TV and shining utensils in the kitchen, Tara did not have anything. Her neck, hands were bare and her saree ought to have been retired long ago but she looked happy. When I described my career, the recent trip abroad, her eyes widened. She congratulated me without a trace of envy. ‘I always knew you’d go places,' she told me.