It was the time of the drought, days dry and bothersome, with a wisp of a wind that blew mud into one’s face. Nikhil went into this like a man who has been beaten down, shoulders drooping with the weight of his disappointment, not really clear why he was disappointed in the first place. He faced the bother of the drying up of his expectations and hopes, wilting in the harsh sun of reality, burnt to a crisp and then blown away by the mere wisp of the wind that scattered the last grains of sand on the coffin that carried his happiness. He became a complete automaton, moving mindlessly through his routine, as efficiently as he ever was, in fact more than ever. His eyes downcast and his feet shuffling as he made his way from day to moronic day.
He made sure that he did not bump into Sanaa again, avoiding any possibility of meeting her. He came in early into office, often taking the stairs and left very late, when the building was completely deserted. Her phone calls and messages went unanswered, methodically deleted, almost as if he was erasing the temptation to call or write back. Once or twice, he saw Sanaa coming into his office, obviously searching for him. He almost ran away, afraid to face her, somehow terrified at the prospect of a further reality check. One day, he passed by the coffee shop and saw her with Mark, heads bent towards each other and she suddenly burst into laughter. Feeling guilty, almost as if he was spying on her, he hurried away but not before she saw him and stopped laughing, waving at him with an enthusiasm he simply did not feel. He nearly ran away and it took days for him to put the shadows of that memory behind him.
And then one day, he saw her. It was his usual late hour, the building deserted and almost completely dark. As he made his way across the foyer to the main doors where the security patiently waited to lock up after him, he saw a movement in the shadows. She came out of the darkness, like a wraith floating towards him. For some moments, he thought that his countless imaginary visions had come to life, somehow given life by his desperation. But he soon realized that this was real, she wasn't smiling like the visions, in fact her eyes were troubled and worried but determined. As if she had resolved to face him that day no matter what. He dropped his eyes, afraid to look, afraid that he might show more than he wanted to reveal. He continued walking, pretending she was not there, until her voice stopped him in his tracks, cold and haunting. He waited, frozen and unable to move, until she came to his side. As she stood next to him, a sliver of light fell across her face, bringing a radiance that rivaled even his imagination.
He stood, trembling like the victim waiting for the axe to fall, until she touched his hand haltingly. His arm suddenly seemed to warm up, as if drawing warmth from her touch. He forgot all else and his focus zeroed in on the spot where her fingers lightly lay, just above the wrist. It seemed like forever before she spoke. She simply said his name “Nikhil …” and waited. He suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath from when she had touched him and exhaled slowly, afraid that a sudden breath would make her disappear. There was pain in her voice, a tentativeness that seemed to reach out and touch his dry and dusty heart. But his nerves were stretched taut to the point of breaking and somewhere between his heart and stomach; a hollow pain started that deepened with every passing moment. He could neither find the voice to reply nor a gesture that would suffice. He simply stood there, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. Finally, the pain in his stomach grew to the point where he was going to fall and he broke contact and moved towards the door, leaden feet dragging behind one another. As he stepped outside the door and drew a deep breath, the pain seemed to catch in his chest, sharpening to a point that seemed to pierce right through him and he fell to the floor, his eyes seeing an ink pool of blackness that was spreading by the second.
He woke up on the sofa in the office lounge, Sanaa peering over him with a mug of water, suddenly aware that his entire face and clothes seemed to be soaking wet. A couple of the security guards were hanging in the background, anxiously looking at him. A grin appeared on their faces as soon as his eyes opened and they retreated, happy to be back in safe territory at the main door. Sanaa looked white as a sheet, terrified at what, he was afraid to even guess. At his eyes opening, she sat back, just looking at him, a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth and wrinkling her eyes at the edges. That smile somehow seemed to say it all and he found himself smiling back. Her hand somehow found itself in his and they simply sat there, hand in hand until a cough at the door broke them apart guiltily. The security guard had come to ask them if they would be going home and that broke the moment. Reality came flooding back like a tidal wave that destroyed their castle of sand.
Memories of the past, that day at the coffee shop and the sense of betrayal that he had felt at what happened, flooded in and his face clouded up. He became stiff and formal, almost wanting to put some distance between them. Thanking her for the help, he asked her if she would find her way home. He could see that his politeness was drilling into her. Something similar to pain showed in her eyes and her lips quivered with an unstated emotion. She did not reply and simply turned and walked away. Nikhil wondered why he felt like he had just turned down the best thing that could have happened to him when just a moment ago, self preservation had dictated his actions. He made his way home, thoughts in a whirl going round and round, running and re-running the past hour in his mind like an editor searching for a vital flaw in a shot. From any angle that he saw it, he realized that he had deeply hurt Sanaa. As he ran the events over and over in his mind, a curious interpretation took hold of his mind as he began to think of her meeting with him as a way of simply ending their so called ‘friendship’. A troubled and sleepless night ensued and a distraught and mind-weary Nikhil found himself at the doors of the lift the next morning.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Sanaa coming towards the lift and turned, somehow hoping that she would have forgotten the incident and would be willing to make amends. But it was not to be. She saw that he was there and without breaking stride, moved towards the stairs. Nikhil sank further into the morass he had dug for himself, his confused mind blaming her for all that was happening but at the same time, feeling like he was the lowest of the low microbes that existed on the planet, a bane to all life. He could not focus on anything at all that day and for the first time in his neat and disciplined life, he made a row of mistakes at work. The last straw came when during a presentation, the figures that he had furnished were simply wrong. His boss, quick to anger, but never at him so far, rose to the occasion fabulously calling him a string of names that sent everyone in the room scurrying out like a pack of rats when the light is switched on in the kitchen.
Nikhil walked back to his office on numbed feet, mentally and physically dragging himself there. Once in, he simply sat there, shell shocked that he had let something like this happen to himself. His thoughts whirled from childish revenge on his boss to his shame at having to face all his colleagues the next day. He groaned and put his head down on his hands, wishing that he would just wake up from what seemed to be the worst nightmare of his life. Moments passed and all noise seemed to be receding when suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Sameer put his head in and asked ‘I brought some coffee. Would you want some?’ Nikhil could not refuse and he found himself sipping on the sweet dilute coffee of the office, staring at some insignificant speck on his desk.
Sameer broke the silence again and asked, ‘What’s happening to you, Nikhil?’ And instead of following this up with a comment or further questions, he just let the question hang in the air between them, thick with the tension of uneasiness. Nikhil remained silent for some time, unsure of how to answer and then just when he was about to make a polite statement that nothing was the matter, Sameer added, ‘It’s about Sanaa isn't it?’ Nikhil looked up at that, eyes staring crazily like the boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. After a couple of denials which were politely but insistently brushed aside, Nikhil’s defense broke and he simply asked Sameer, ‘What should I do?’ Sameer’s only reply to that was to ask him if he felt that Sanaa was worth all of what he was going through. Nikhil instantly rose to her defense without being aware about it, talking about how great and genuine a person she was and how she was the best thing that could have happened to him. He finally stuttered and stammered to a halt when he saw Sameer smiling at him. Sameer’s only reply was, ‘So, if that’s how you feel about her, then why are you doing this to yourself?’
Nikhil’s insecurities and worst fears came to the fore and he explained how she was friends with Mark and how she was laughing and chatting with him. He continued about how she had come the day before and how she had tried to put an end to their friendship. At this, Sameer stopped him and simply asked how he knew what she had come for. Nikhil’s mind had reasoned this out completely the previous night and he launched into his argument, like the prosecutor who knows that he is going to nail his witness. When he finished, Sameer asked him, ‘If she had come to end it all, then, why would she have been sitting by your side when you woke up and why would she have held your hand?’ Nikhil found that he was unable to answer and stared down at the speck on his desk, wishing that it would somehow open up and swallow him, as realization once again took hold of him. Sameer went on patiently explaining how it could have been that Sanaa had come to clear up their misunderstanding and to make sure they were back to their normal selves. And then finally, Sameer asked, ‘What is it that she means to you anyway, that you are so tied up in knots about this?’
Nikhil could not reply, searching for words to express how he felt and failing miserably to find a normal way to explain it. After a few minutes of the desperate silence, Sameer said, ‘If she means that much to you then shouldn't you be reaching out to her? To tell her how you feel and to make amends for the hurt you caused her last night?’ He continued, ‘Sometimes, all that it takes to mend a break or a crack is the right word and more importantly the right gesture. But then, you have to reach out and make sure that you are heard or seen. If the both of you remain miserably locked up in your own worlds, then you will probably lose her for life. Is that something you could live with?’ A few minutes later, Sameer left, restating the need for Nikhil to do something about the situation. Nikhil sat there, thinking about all that he had heard. The more he thought about it, the one thing that he grew more and more convinced about was that he could not stand losing Sanaa.
Suddenly finding a resolve that bordered on madness, Nikhil stood up and went out of his room. He made his way across the cubby holes, oblivious to the whispers about his “bad day” and the “hiding” he had got. He walked, nearly ran up the stairs to Sanaa’s floor. He walked into the area of the office where she usually sat. Not finding her there, he asked and found that she was in a meeting. He debated waiting and finally, walked towards the conference room. He stood before the door of the conference room, hand raised to knock, when the door suddenly opened and she stood there, a file in hand, hair in disarray, as if she had been running her hands through it. Her eyes widened in shock on seeing him there and she simply stood rooted to the spot. Nikhil on the other hand, went through a transformation at the sight of her. The sun came out from behind the clouds and for the first time that day, it felt like a beautiful day. They stood there, just looking at each other, when from behind her, a chorus of voices asked to be excused out of the conference room. They simply stood to one side while the room emptied itself out.