Abhimanyu sat slumped in a corner watching the proceedings before him in a disinterested manner. There sat his parents with Mike and Maya discussing in grave voices as though mediating on world peace. He refused to be pulled into the discussion. If they wanted to decide on all details regarding his surgery or even his career after that, then so be it.
Time to time, he could see the look of furrowed brow concern thrown at him by his mother. He had taken enough of her tongue lashings in the last few weeks to know that she was on the verge of disappointment when it came to her superstar son. His father though, had been as emotionless, as could be expected. He was simply focusing on the surgery going smoothly with all logistics in place.
The niggling, dark voice in his head began to get into its stride. Abhimanyu absently, gingerly felt his knee to touch the very recognizable area of his injury. Even when he walked, he realized the instability from the absence of that rubber band-like ligament holding his knee together.
Everyone in the room though was looking at it as if the surgery was a magical solution and boom everything would be okay. He could simply wheel out of the hospital and go straight back to the tennis courts and start winning Grand Slams again. It was all so easy, right?
To be fair, atleast he still had this core support system visibly in his corner. Andy, his coach, had made it pretty clear that his reputation could be linked only to fit players. He refused to come to India, happy to give hollow words of inspiration remotely.
As for Rags, she could keep her holier-than-thou attitude to herself and stuff it. What a hypocrite she turned out to be. Sure, he might have crossed a line when it came to marriage. But a wife is supposed to be by her husband’s side come hell or high water. So, when he truly needed her, where was she?
Ragini Malhotra bent, quickly touched the last step of the Hanuman Temple and kissed her hand, while battling the dupatta to cover her head as a pair of sunglasses perched precariously. She made her way to the small stall where all devotees had to deposit their shoes while in the temple, clutching on to a small box of brown, caramelly pedas. Thank god, this one place still seemed to offer her peace and a sanctuary of anonymity. Although it was amply aided by the dupatta and the sunglasses which had now stubbornly found its’ way back to her eyes, even at half past seven in the morning, snorting derision of passersby notwithstanding.
She was still not sure what she had prayed for – to keep her the hell out of what was turning out to be a long drawn media circus or just for Abhimanyu to be okay and get on his feet to dominating tennis world again. Just the thought of Abhimanyu made her wince and she shook her head to stop thinking about him, about them.
Ragini’s kohlapuri slippers clacked along as she made her way over the ancient stone floor of the vast temple compound towards the car parking lot. The Hanuman Temple was one of the earliest memories of her childhood in Delhi, be it the scattered doses of her family’s generosity of feeding the poor people who gathered there or being lifted by her father to ring the high temple bells or just the rare indulgence of getting intricate mehendi on her tiny hands by one of the innumerable henna artists who sat there in the evenings. The place remained special for her and still had the ability to calm her down, even in this time of unprecedented turmoil.
As she sat in the driver’s seat of the car, she cursed the weather. At that early hour in the morning and half an hour of being in the outdoors, her father’s worn out Hyundai Santro had transformed into a stifling furnace. With the breeze at a standstill, her patiala salwar’ airiness was of little help. She took off the dupatta flinging it to the adjoining seat and tied her hair up in a casual bun with her favourite wooden pin stuck in the middle.
She withdrew her mobile phone from the glove box to check for the time and felt her breath stop short for a moment, blinking at the 5 missed calls from the one phone number staring back at her. Before she could think any more, the display lit up again with the same caller name: ABHI’S MOM.
She felt like a deer trapped in the headlights but knew there was little choice beyond answering the call.
“Hello”, she managed to gulp out.
“Hi, beta! How are you?”rang out Mona Walia’s voice, loud and chirpy, even at that early hour.
“I am fine, Mom”, said Ragini. For her, the transition from Mona Aunty to Mom had not been too big a hiccup when she married Abhimanyu.
“Ritu told me you are back in Delhi for a few days. If you were home sick, you should have just called me or come home, beta,” Mona seemed to be admonishing her. Ragini knew the news of her being back in Delhi would have travelled faster than she herself did, thanks to the close friendship between her mother, Ritu Malhotra and Mona. The two women had been close friends since the time they had known the Walias.
“It’s not like that, Mom. I was able to take a few days leave and just thought a change of scene would do me good”, Ragini tried to excuse herself, wriggling in her seat, inexplicably feeling guilty. In anxious anticipation of the response, she started fiddling with the car key which she had managed to put into ignition to switch on the cold blast of Air Conditioning. Driving while on call with Mona was not a safe idea and she waited to finish the call from the car.
“Delhi, a change of scene in that weather?” she snorted, evidently aware of the heat wave engulfing the city despite it being the conventionally rainy month of July. “Beta, atleast give me a half decent excuse.”
Ragini rolled her eyes realizing yet again that Mona was not to be fooled easily. She decided to maintain a minute of silence to draw her out into revealing what the call was about.
“Anyway, you know Koko is scheduled for his surgery in two days, right?” she said, finally coming to the elephant in the room, or the call in this case. Mona was the only person who called Abhimanyu by a name most people associated with a dog. A name even his father, the distinguished Dr. Dharam Walia, refused to use for him, sticking to the full version of Abhimanyu.
“Very few people in India are not aware of it, Mom,” she said, calmly acknowledging the situation which had been troubling her for some time now.
Abhimanyu Walia, or Abhi to Ragini till about a year back, was the first lawn tennis super star produced by India, who had won multiple grand slams. However, a few months back, what started as a minor ligament stretch in the right knee had turned into a full ligament tear along with meniscal tears. He had taken some time to acknowledge the need for the laparoscopic knee surgery which would mean a long recuperation and gradual healing back to health. The surgery was scheduled two days later on Friday at Lilavati Hospital in his home town of Mumbai. The orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. De Villiers was a world-class specialist flying in from South Africa, especially for the surgery. Try as she might, these basic details had not escaped her through the high-pitched tenor of the Hindi news anchors her mother sustained on.
The media had hinged on to this story like a leech. Since the day Abhimanyu’s team had released the statement of him undergoing surgery, the story had become bigger than any political or business story. The story had all the elements –suspense of the surgery result, prayers of the millions of fans, drama of the estranged wife and pain of the process itself.
“Yeah, he really is India’s darling na”, said Mona adoringly. Ragini held on to her patience. Mona had always been indulgent when it came to Abhimanyu. Since the time his successes started piling, she had become his biggest fan and cheer leader. In her eyes, everything about Abhimanyu was perfect and he could do no wrong. Ragini had been surprised when she had sided with her in their conflict, which had probably irked Abhimanyu even more. At this moment though, she could almost imagine Mona beaming with her eyes shining, while staring out in the distance.
“Mom, can we please come to your point?” Ragini said, pulling Mona back into the conversation at hand.
“Ah, yes,” Mona cleared her throat and came out of her reverie. “So I just wanted to check with you, when are you coming back to Mumbai to be by Koko’s side in this difficult time for him? He needs his wife with him. Atleast that will be one less thing the media can hound him about”
That’s when the penny dropped for Ragini. The knot that had been coiling up in her stomach seemed to explode. This, she realised, was what she was fearing. Mona could be persuasive and her own protests did not stand a chance against her determination. But then, Ragini was no pushover either. Especially not after what had happened with Abhimanyu.
“Mom, I am afraid I am not coming to the hospital to meet Abhi…manyu after his surgery. You know our marriage is over and I refuse to be a part of this situation”, she finished, mentally patting her back for standing up to Mona.
“Now now Ragini, let’s be adults about this. Have I ever treated you any less than my daughter?” she asked, with her emotional blackmail knife sharp for the plunge.
But Ragini had her own weapon in the arsenal. “Has Abhi…manyu treated me right as a wife?” knowing exactly how Mona felt about the situation.
“Let’s not split hair here”, Mona said, conveniently side-stepping the accusation about her beloved son. “You need to be here for the surgery and we will be presenting a united front to the world. That’s it.”
Ragini felt like she was a thirteen year old once again, in the Walia kitchen, with Mona having announced the final decision on a bickering fight between her and Abhimanyu. However, she was no longer thirteen, she reminded herself and this was the time to show up with her spine intact.
“I will have to think about it, Mom”, she finished the call.
She backed out of the parking lot carefully, on to the beautiful broad road. She crossed Rivoli theatre. Looking at that theatre always made her smile. Even the renovation and changeover to the premium chain of PVR cinemas did not take away from its legendary roots as one of the blue film theatres in a prominent location. As a kid, her school bus would cross the theatre and seeing the posters of the new movies set the roots for her sexual education.
As she crossed over to Pragati Maidan, she opened the peda box on the passenger seat and took one. With the rush hour yet to commence, she indulged in some mulling over the decision that she was yet to make, while driving her way back to her parents’ house in Mayur Vihar. She bit into the toasty, moist sweetness of the peda, and considered her options.
If she chose to stand her ground, she would come across as snooty and completely disinterested in her husband’s (legally, he was yet to be ex-husband) life. While being true, the media would brand her as evil and make her life miserable. They could also end up camping outside her parents’ house ruining the peace she had come here to seek, and pulling her parents into this circus. Sure, she still loved Abhimanyu, but for all practical purposes she needed to maintain her distance from that good-looking, charming snake.
If she decided to go for the surgery, then the media would parade her as the goody-two-shoes. They would also start their usual obsession of will they or wouldn’t they reconcile and get back together? More importantly, she respected and had always liked Mona and wondered if she should do this just for her. She knew it would make Mona happy while Dr. Walia would not really care one way or the other. As for Abhimanyu, who knew whether he wanted to see her or not. After she had walked out on him almost a year back, he never tried to get in touch with her.
Lost in these thoughts, she startled when a car honked behind her. She looked up to see the light had changed to green. Changing the gear quickly, she manouevered to the loop flyover above the currently empty parking lot of the grandiose Akshardham Temple.
Soon enough, she came to the ONGC Enclave cooperative society in which her parents had moved to, after years of living in Bombay. She waited for the watch man to open the heavy grey colour chipped painted gate, while she looked lovingly at the amaltas trees with their pretty drooping yellow flowers on the side.
This house was a labour of her parent’s love and effort. Having worked all his life for the government oil refinery ONGC, Ragini’s father Shiv Malhotra had always gotten company accommodation in great localities. He had the wisdom of persevering for his own flat back in their beloved city Delhi when some of his colleagues started the construction for an ONGC employee’s cooperative society. While the area had yet to develop when they bought the flat, today it was pretty upcoming and on every successive trip Ragini felt that it had progressed by leaps and bounds.
The society was close knit with a lot of older folk, most of them being the original flat owners and erstwhile ONGC employees. Even though Ragini hadn’t lived in this house for long, going from the garage to the flat, even at five to eight in the morning, meant a quick bend of her head and saying Namaste to three aunties out on a morning gossip session and two uncles coming back from a round of grocery shopping. It was a relief to see the active post retirement social life her parents seemed to be enjoying here. Her father was also convinced that nobody from the society would tattle any juicy gossip about her to the media, which made it a safe haven for her.
As she climbed the stairs, she heard the ominous strains of the screeching Hindi news channel Aaj Tak floating to her ears and she could catch phrases like “Tennis ka raja” “operation hoga safal” “kahan hai ardhangini”. Ragini braced up to face another far more sinister battle.
There was no need for her to ring the bell as the wooden door was turned inward while the second screen door was not latched. She took a deep breath and made her way in. Immediately, she was greeted by a pointed look from her mother.
Ritu Malhotra, now 59 years of age and recently retired was every bit the matron of the house. Small and puny at a height of five feet and two inches, she was known to intimidate her two children – Ragini and Umang and quieten her husband Shiv Malhotra to choosing ignorance over confrontation. She was still in her usual night wear of the white cotton sleeveless maxi gown with a floral print. Before Ragini walked in, she was sitting on the muddy brown coloured rexine couch staring intently at the Aaj Tak prime time repeat telecast on TV and shaking her head in disapproval.
On the screen in jarring tones, the voice over continued to shout out about Abhimanyu’s planned surgery, whether he would be back to his tennis prime, his recent slump and the disappearing act by his wife. Ragini quietly walked in, with an attempt to ignore Ritu, who would have none of it.
“So, are you happy now? Do you see poor Abhimanyu’s condition?”, asked Ritu, each word dripping with acid.
“Last year, Forbes magazine named him in the top 50 paid Sportsmen in the World, Mumma. So, let’s not play up sympathies and call him poor”, riled Ragini.
Ritu’s eyes began to spit fire and her eyebrows wiggled with anger, “Now look here Ragini! You know I am not talking about money. A wife’s place is with her husband and you had no business leaving him. Everyone makes mistakes and you need to forget it and go back. His life is on the line and you are gallivanting here”, she finished finally running out of steam.
Ragini was not impressed. “A ligament construction is quite a common procedure. As usual, you are blowing things out of proportion. If you don’t want me here, I will go back to MY flat in Mumbai but I am not going back to Abhimanyu and you can’t make me”
Ragini stormed off through the dining area to her bed room. She would not cry, not after the months she had already allowed it to consume in her life. She looked up at the wall mirror hanging next to the bed. She walked to it purposefully, opened her long hair which had till now been constricted in a bun and started plaiting it. It was a peculiar habit that she had picked up while growing up, but one that she often turned to as her own brand of meditation.
As she plaited her hair, she noticed her father Shiv Malhotra settled on the dining table right outside her room, calmly reading his newspaper along with a cup of sugarless tea and a Marie biscuit. To an uninitiated spectator, it might look as though he heard nothing of the exchange, but she knew him well enough to know that he had seen it all, filing it for a better time to talk to her and to Ritu about it, separately.
If it was not for her striking resemblance to Ritu, Ragini sometimes wondered about the possibility of being a step child or adopted. Since the time she could remember, her view always differed from Ritu. The most explosive conversations, arguments and fights were fought between them, be it on the first time to wax or the styling of her hair or even the flavor of her birthday cake. The last straw was when Ritu stopped talking to her after she walked out on Abhimanyu, breaking that vow only to reprimand her for the act. The only reason that this house still seemed like a safe haven was her father.
Dinner was a morose affair that day with a heavy silence engulfing the house. Ragini had spent the day listlessly roaming around the house, checking in on her team at work, considering a final return date to Mumbai and stubbornly refusing any possible contact with the news or her mother. The last time she had intentionally checked the news was when that photo of Abhimanyu with some Bollywood star had hit her eye.
She finally made her way to the dining table. Her mother had her ways to show her displeasure with Ragini and food was one of her most able weapons. Today, in deference to their argument, the table was laden with her hated curry of bottle gourd or lauki with chapatis, salad and a bowl of curd. While never lavish eaters, the Malhotras had toned down their food habits and seemed to have pared their diet down to the basics since the time they became empty nesters. Not wanting another conflict, Ragini sat on one of the six polished wooden chairs and wordlessly began to serve herself. It looked like her mother was agreeable to the status quo or her father had had a word with her to maintain the peace. Shiv looked from his wife to his daughter and shook his head but continued to eat in silence.
Once she had eaten, Ragini rose to keep her plate in the sink. The kitchen was long with a grey double door refrigerator, a microwave oven on the shelf and just about enough space for 2 or 3 people to work together. There were multiple rows of drawers and cupboards which opened in different ways and were stocked with all possible spices and staples. Ragini still scowled in distaste at the jarring red and green color combination that her mother had chosen. At the end of it was the steel wash basin with an attached heater for the cold winter months. The modular kitchen in the house stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise sparsely furnished, pastel-toned flat.
As she turned back, she saw her father coming towards her. She stepped aside leaving him enough space to pass through but he kept waiting. When she looked up, she saw the weariness in his eyes of yet again being caught between the two head strong women in his life. After half a lifetime of arbitrating such conflicts, they still seemed to impact him. At 62, most people would consider him fit and active, but age was beginning to show its impact on him in the bald patches showing on his head through the grey hair, the pace of his walk and the folds of his skin.
“Ragini, come let’s go have Choco Bar”, he said with the first hint of a smile the house had seen that day. “It’s anyway dark. No one will recognize you”
While Ragini knew this treat would come at the price of an honest chat with her father, she could not say no to a childhood guilty pleasure. Especially not after the horror of the dinner she had endured.
They walked in companionable silence to the neighbourhood grocery store which was their go-to place for milk and other staples, including ice creams. From past experience, Ragini knew the shop aunty had no clue about her apart from the distinction of being Malhotra sahab’s daughter. With the two Choco Bars in hand, they stood a little outside the shop to enjoy the vanilla, milky cold goodness layered up in a thick yummy cover of chocolate. The stifling weather seemed a little better with a Choco Bar in hand, mulled Ragini.
“So, what’s going on with you?” asked the all-too-knowing Shiv.
There was little Ragini had been able to hide from him, most of her life. Ritu had always been the bad cop whereas Shiv was the quintessential good cop. Shiv inspired confidence in her and she usually turned to him when in need of a sounding board. Giving in to her instincts, she thought she might as well tell him about the battle currently being waged between her head and her heart.
“Papa, I really don’t know what to do,” she started with a definite relaxation of her shoulders in the relief that she was able to talk to someone rational. “My heart tells me that there is no reason for me to be anywhere close to him after what he did. Then my brain tells me that he has been my best friend till what happened last year. This would just be an ode to that friendship. If he was in my place, he would have been by my side to see the surgery through. And in his case, it’s more than just a surgery. It’s his entire career”, she finished staring vacantly into the distance, looking up as Shiv gave a surprised guffaw.
“Raginiiii, you always surprise me bacha. Here I thought it would be your brain telling you not to go even as your heart urged you to be there”, he shook his head, still grinning. She was still unsure as to what in her dilemma was so funny, but her father’s laughter had always made her smile. This time was no different, as she felt a hint of a smile creep up on her. She bit off another chunk from the Choco Bar and slurped up some of the vanilla filling, waiting for her dad to process what she said.
“Answer two questions for me and for yourself. It might help untangle the knots a bit. Which decision would you regret more – going to see him or not going? Also, think about it. What can you change easily – your going or your not going?” he asked neatly breaking it down for her.
She pondered over that and took her time with it, especially because the answer made her uncomfortable.
“The way you put it, you just make it sound easy. I don’t think there is harm in just popping over and showing my face. But, Papa, you know Abhimanyu’s mom. I don’t want this to be an invitation to be sucked into any hidden reconciliation campaign. What if my being there sets a process in motion and where do I draw a line. I just…” she stopped mid-sentence losing steam.
“I have raised my daughter to be a strong individual. You will know when it’s enough and you have it in you to draw a line. You have done it once with Abhimanyu and despite what your mother says I am proud of you for walking out on him. You know the doors of this house are always open for you. Remember what I have always taught you – make your decision, stand by it and don’t regret it afterwards. Go, meet Abhimanyu, Mona and Dr. Walia and walk out with your head high for doing the right thing,” he said, patting her back as they started their short walk back.
Yet again, one chat with her father seemed to open a door of possibilities. She could be by Abhimanyu’s side and yet know where to draw the line. Right?
The surgery was scheduled for an afternoon slot of one p.m. giving her ample time to fly out at a civilized hour like nine a.m. Even for that flight she needed to be up by 6:30 to barely make it out of the door in time for a 45 minute drive to the airport. Her mother, falling back to an old habit had two slices of buttered toast and a cup of tea ready for her to gulp down before the drive. Both Ritu and Shiv got into the car as Ragini took to the wheel with Shiv being the designated driver for the way back.
Ragini remained silent most of the way. She was determined to leave her home in peace. Shiv and Ritu chatted pleasantly enough about their morning walk route that they planned to follow for the day and the groceries that they might need to buy on the way back.
Being a light traveler, even at the end of a two week long trip, Ragini had just one medium sized purple suit case to be checked in. As she made her way out at the Departure gate, she gave a quick stiff hug to her mother and a lingering warm one to her father. Shiv kissed her forehead and with a last parting look, she went in.
Completing the security check after waiting at a long snaking queue, she was just picking up her brown leather hand bag from the security check when her phone rang. She looked at the display to see that the little pest was calling.
“Hello”, she said tentatively, unsure of what to expect of him this time.
“Didiiiii! I can’t believe you would go back to that bastard. Especially after what he did. What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just ask for a transfer back to Delhi?” he literally squealed into her ear, as Ragini kept the phone a few inches away from her ear. Umang, her younger brother by three years, seemed to finally have gotten wind of the fact that she was going to meet Abhimanyu.
“Are you done, Umang? Look, I am just going to visit him since he is getting operated. It’s not like I am moving back with him now or ever. Anyway, you know how Mumma gets when it’s something about Abhimanyu. I didn’t see any other way out”, she said, trying to conveniently palm off the decision on her mother.
“Since when have you ever done what Ma asked you to do?” Umang snorted. He always saw through too much, the little monkey.
“Ok fine, you got me. Look Umang, I need to get this done. I am nervous and scared but I need to do it for my own conscience. I am doing it for myself rather than for Abhimanyu, if that makes sense to you”, she tried reasoning with him.
“It is your call didi. I am the only one at home who has seen how broken you were one year back. I do not want to see you like that ever again. So, you tell that Abhimanyu Walia, that he might be a hot shot in the tennis world but I have my eyes on him. He better not mess with you, again”, he finished with all the false bravado he could muster.
Ragini smiled. With Abhimanyu out of her life, these two men, her brother and her father, were her world. It was a reassuring thought that they were looking out for her.
When Ragini had walked out of Abhimanyu’s house, at a moment of weakness she had broken down on a phone call with Umang. She had been very surprised when he turned up the next day at the hotel where she crashed till the time she figured out another accommodation. Her parents had come to Bombay too some days later but she had managed to pull herself together by then. Not that it made much of a difference as her mother had mostly used the time to convince her to go back with Abhimanyu.
While Ragini had always looked out for Umang and protected him from bullies in school, off late the roles seemed to have been reversed. It was funny how the two siblings seemed to be taking turns protecting each other from the same guy a decade and a half later.