“Manikkk!!” She called him.
He turned around and shrugged in a questioning look.
“Long drive, tonight?”
He couldn’t stop grinning at that and nodded hopelessly.
At 8 pm, after dinner.
To say that Manik was looking forward to the long drive that she had suggested, was an understatement. He had texted her in the evening that he will be picking her from her home at eight pm.
Of late, she had been paying attention to what she wore when she was around Manik. Whether it was a dinner date in Miami or the welcome party at the community hall, she paid extra thought to her presentation. Nandini wondered why she was thinking so much about how she looked. He was ‘just’ Manik, right?
It wasn’t a similar case before. He had seen her in the worst of unkempt looks, tomboyish behaviour, messy attires, loose T-shirts, and old pyjamas, and nightwear. But something had been changing gradually and inevitabley.
Now, she wanted to look pretty; she wanted to look gorgeous and desirable.
She wore a black, monochrome tunic in suede and paired it with black peep-toes, and silver danglers and silver bangles – around six, in one hand.
As decided, he had been waiting outside his car when she walked out of her house. The untold spark in his eyes couldn’t go unnoticed when he first set his eyes on her. He didn’t say anything. Simply admired her look by his subtle trademark smile and a blink of eyes. She bowed her neck, feeling thrilled. He looked extremely ravishing himself, in a white tee-shirt and blue denim. He was a charmer by default.
He took the driver’s seat and she settled beside him when she got a call from her cousin Navya. She turned the screen display towards him, showing him the caller id and made a cute squeeze of her eyes with a sweet request, “I need to take this call. Please?”
He smiled and gave her a go-ahead using his hand. He knew everyone from her family. He knew that Navya was her first cousin, her uncle’s daughter, and she was very close to Nandini. She was pregnant for four months and was not keeping well, lately. For the past one week, she was not even reachable. Nandini had been trying to call her.
Nandini answered the call and stepped out of Manik’s car to talk to her cousin. “Navya, where have you been? Everyone in the family is worried about you. We have been trying to contact you.” Nandini spoke impatiently.
Navya replied in slow, calm words, “I know, Nandini. But it wasn’t easy to answer calls. It wasn’t easy to contact you.”
“Why? What happened? Where are you sounding so low?”
“Nandini, there is something very important to talk to you. I’m not good. I want you guys to come and rescue me from this hell.”
Nandini was shocked at this statement. She didn’t have any response to this. Nor did she have any experience in dealing with such sensitive matters. She only knew that her sister was in trouble.
“Hold on, sis. I’ll take the phone to mom.” She turned to Manik, who was still on the driver’s seat and putting her hand over the speaker of the phone, she whispered, “Manik, can you please wait for some time. It’s sort of an emergency.”
“No problem.” He sighed.
“Just a few minutes.” She whispered.
He nodded to confirm his earlier statement and signaled her to go ahead. Nandu almost ran inside to give the phone to her mom, while talking to a nervous, upset, dejected Navya, who told her that how her husband was mistreating her and harassing her since the beginning of their marriage. But of late, he had become more violent and abusive. He had beaten her today, despite the fact that she was pregnant.
“What a lowlife?” Nandini was disgusted. She was angrier, that she was helpless at this moment or else she would have hit back at that loser herself. She was stunned to hear the ordeals Navya had been facing in her marriage.
Nandini gave the phone to her mom. Naina talked to Navya patiently and spoke to her about Harshad, who was actually Ram Murthy’s choice for Navya. Navya was a small-town girl from India and Ram, Nandini’s father, was the one to fix her match to Harshad, his business associate, living in San Diego.
Everyone from Navya’s family had happily agreed to the alliance. It felt like a match made in heaven. After that whatever Navya faced, was suffered by her alone because Harshad was a man with evil inclinations and a violent personality and he made her reduce contact with her family. He made sure that she didn’t share her problems with them.
Ram Murthy was home too. He felt sorry and blamed himself for Navya’s state. He promised her that he will come there immediately and rescue her. Nandini’s mom too consoled her and asked her to be brave till they reached there.
Nandini was extremely upset. She had no idea how to help Navya in her fight. She talked to Navya for a long time, consoled her, tried to make her feel better, and promised her that she would stay with her … forever!
“I feel so lucky to have you, Nandu. You are an angel.”
“Don’t say like that Navya. I’m already feeling so bad that you didn’t feel confident to share your suffering before. You could have talked to me, na?”
“I was feeling so low, Nandu. I should have taken this step, much before. I always knew that he was aggressive, he was mean, and he didn’t love me…”
“Always? means? Since when?”
“Since always, Nandu. Right from the day, we were married. He never loved me, ever.”
“How can you say that so confidently?”
“You can feel it if a man loves you. A girl can sense it.”
“Mmm? How?” Nandini asked slowly.
Navya sighed and said, “He takes care of you. He considers your likes and dislikes. He gives you a say while making decisions and doesn’t impose himself on you. In fact, you can judge a man’s love, his care, in the way, he makes love to you. Someone who cares for you is gentle, considerate, and comforting. He doesn’t hurt you, neither physically, nor emotionally.”
Navya’s words automatically diverted Nandini to think about Manik. Every trait that she listed out, described Manik for Nandini. He was exactly what Navya had been saying.
Nandini closed her eyes and remembered how he made her feel so good. Even a thought with Manik in it felt so pleasing. She felt so proud of him.
‘Goodness – Manik!!!’
She suddenly remembered that she had asked him to wait for her and then when she brought the phone, inside, there was so much going on that she almost forgot about him. Now, when she was talking to Navya, she realised her blunder.
“Navya, I’ll talk to you later. Okay? Mom and dad will come to pick you up, tomorrow.” She quickly disconnected the call and made a dash to go back downstairs and out of the house.
Manik was standing out, with his back leaning at his car. He was leaning at its door, his legs crossed at the front and hands folded at his chest. She couldn’t read the blank face and was terrified, feeling extremely guilty about making him wait.
‘How could she forget about him while talking to Navya. This was just not done. How irresponsible and cruel of you, Nandu’
She hated herself for doing this. She stopped when she reached before him and tilted her neck, nervously, hoping for forgiveness. “I’m sorry, Manik? What I did was inexcusable, so I am not giving any excuses. Am I allowed to offer an apology? Please? I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t reply to this and stared deeply into her eyes.
She went on after this, feeling more upset, “It was so stupid of me to ask you to wait. You couldn’t go back to your home too. You were stranded on the street and I was comfortably sitting inside, talking to Navya. I’m such an idiot. I’m so so sorry.”
He still didn’t reply to her. He was simply listening to her offering apologies to him.
“Manik. Please say something, na? I am really feeling horrible. I made you wait for so long…”
“One hour and thirty-four minutes!” He completed the sentence for her.
She was already feeling bad. Now, she was in tears, “One hour and thirty-four minutes? Really??”
He nodded, “Precisely.”
“Oh God! I’m so so irresponsible.” She pressed her lips with this.
He enjoyed the way she was trying to apologize and make amendments. The nervous look on her face almost compensated it for him. Since childhood, he had always seen Nandini bossing over him and ordering him to do things for her. This was a different Nandu. And he was loving it. The change was interesting. He wanted to grin right now but he kept a straight face, till she kept speaking.
When she stopped speaking, he unfolded his hand and ran his index finger along the silver bangles in her hand. The bangles moved over each other, making a tinkling sound. She moved her eyes sideways to look at what he was doing and it seems her bangles had caught his fascination. She looked at him. His eyes were on the bangles and his finger caressed those fine pieces of jewellery.
Then, he lowered his hand to take her hand in his own, and in a husky voice he spoke.
“If you are feeling so bad, I can tell you about a few ways to compensate.”