“May I come in?” Siddharth asked again, with what Shikha thought was an uncertain smile.
She recovered enough poise to nod and point to the chair next to her, but she still felt dazed. He turned the chair so that he could face her, and sat down.
He looked very much the same. She remembered that he was a fitness freak. He was dressed casually in slacks and jeans. His celebrity status didn’t seem to have affected him. But then, one never knows, she thought.
“What can I do for you?” she asked coldly.
“So formal?” he asked with a brief smile.
“What else do you expect?” Suddenly, Shikha found herself getting angry and resentful. If ever she saw him again, she wanted to appear blasé and cool, and the way she was feeling now, she could definitely not put on that front . She was caught unawares and didn’t get enough time to get into the right frame of mind.
He became serious. “I came here for a meeting with the PWD Department. They are our clients. Thought I’ll look you up. I met Lavanya when I went for the alumni meet” he paused and then said “I want to tell you how sorry I am – about your father and husband”
“Thanks”, said Shikha. “Nice of you to come”
Then Shikha said “You should have called. What if I wasn’t here?”
“I was afraid you would refuse to see me if I called you”.
She looked at him then, straight into his eyes and said “Yes. You are right there”.
“How are you?” asked Siddharth looking very solemn.
“Have moved on”, Shikha said, trying to sound cheerful.
“I can see that. Good”.
“And you’ve become a celebrity, eh? Congratulations, Mallu’s pride and India’s envy” said Shikha grinning at him
Siddharth laughed and she joined him. “You haven’t changed , have you?”, he said.
That sobered her. “I have. I have changed. One hell of a lot”
“Sorry, Very insensitive of me”, he said. Shikha shrugged.
“Ok. Guess I should be going,” said Silddharth getting up. Shikha followed suit. And then he said something which made her angry. “Can I see you again? Will you keep in touch?” he asked earnestly.
“What for, Siddharth?”
He said nothing, Just stood there looking at her.
“What’s the idea?”
“Nothing dishonourable, if that’s what you mean”, he said. For once she saw him low on confidence, and she felt happy.
“I didn’t say anything to mean anything”, she said in a steely voice
He looked away, then back at her, hesitated and looked away again. Abruptly, he faced her squarely and said in a quiet, steady voice.
“Shikha, will you believe me if I tell you that - I still love you?”
“No” said Shikha, looking at him. He held her gaze, and seeing a derisive expression creep into her eyes, he looked away.
“So what do you want to do now? Propose to me?” Shikha asked, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
“Yes” he said. He seemed dead in the earnest.
She was caught off guard and looked up at him, startled. And then she looked mad, really really mad, and so he added hastily “Though I didn’t intend to do pop the question at the first meeting”.
“How can you - -What do you think I am - - ” Shikha stammered, fuming.
“I’m sorry Shikha. At that point in time, I thought that was the best thing to do”
“Oh Oh! And at this point in time, you think this is the best thing to do, eh? That’s famous, Mr Siddharth Cherian Padickalveedu. Is it your celebrity status that makes you think that you can play fast and loose with me? And what if at another point of time in future, you feel dumping me again is the right thing to do?”
Sidharth kept a poker face and said “Say whatever you wish, Shikha. You have every right to, and I deserve it”.
“Oh yes you do. That’s the only right thing you’ve said so far”, she snapped. And throwing a venomous look at him, she asked slowly and deliberately, in a tone that made him wince. “Have you forgotten that I’m a widow now. What will papa Padickalveedu have to say about the most eligible bachelor in India marrying a widow?” she sneered.
Siddharth refused to be provoked. “No” he said, his voice serious and well under control, as though he had come prepared for this query. ”I haven’t forgotten. It changes nothing for me”
Shikha shrugged disgustedly and threw up her hands in a gesture of indignation and irritation. Suddenly, she was angry. So very angry that it made her deadly quiet. He discarded me so unceremoniously – as though I were an inconvenience in his scheme of things. And now he proposes to me, because it suits him! What does he think he is? What does he think of me? As though I was waiting for a move from his side to jump at another chance of becoming his wife? Does he realize that his decision three years back had triggered off a series of events which were the most painful ones in my life? How different my life would have been if this man had the guts to marry me, she thought bitterly. And now he has the nerve to propose to me, as though erasing the past was as easy as deleting a selected text from Microsoft Word! How dare he!
“But it changes everything for me”, said Shikha harshly. “Listen, I’m back on track now and am happy and peaceful and contended. Please leave me alone and don’t destabilize my precarious normalcy, ok?”
He nodded and said, “I understand. I’ll leave now. Give yourself time, Shikha, and think about it”. Did she see a plea in his eyes? “And give me a call when you change your mind?”
“'When'?” asked Shikha sardonically. “Lack of confidence was never one of the tragic flaws in your character, eh Siddharth?”, she said rather nastily.
“Ok. I used the wrong word. I meant ‘If’ ”
Shikha shook her head in disbelief and looked away, out of the window. A few dried leaves were being blown in circles by a mild breeze. She watched them fascinated. The breeze which moved them must have stopped, for suddenly they lay they still – innocuous. I’d have hardly noticed them if the breeze had not disturbed them, she thought, irrelevantly. And even as she watched, they were blown away.
Then she heard Siddharth’s voice, as though coming from far away. He sounded subdued. “See you Shikha. Take care”, he said. She looked back at him with a small smile. He seemed to study her face as though trying to read her thoughts, and then turned to go. With his hand on the handle of the half glass door, he paused for a moment as though reluctant to leave. Then he turned around abruptly and looked at her with that irresistible twinkle in his eyes, and said, “Tomorrow is another day”.
He then walked out of the cubicle without looking back, without giving her time to respond.
Shikha couldn’t concentrate on her work after he left. Disgusted with herself, she packed up her laptop and books and walked towards her room. How dare he, she thought over and over again. What cheek! What a preposterous thing to do, to walk into her cubicle and propose. Quite shameless! Did he think she’d grab at the proposal after the heartless way he had ditched her? What the hell does he think he is?
Shikha was furious by the time she reached her room. She sat down at the study table, removed her watch and chain and opened the drawer to put them inside.
Her eyes fell on the handkerchief and it rattled her. She stared down at it, her mind going back to the day it came into her possession. When we two parted, in silence and tears, half broken hearted, to sever for years, pale grew thy cheeks, and colder thy kiss - - . She couldn’t remember the rest. It was a poem she loved as a college going girl. Was long forgotten. She marveled at the way it surfaced. Shikha tried to recall the rest of the poem. She could recollect only a few lines here and there and they came in a jumble. In secret we met, In silence I grieve………… Long long shall I rue thee, too deeply to tell. ….
Long, long shall I rue thee, too deeply to tell, she repeated the last line to herself.
Then she heard the alert tone of a text message coming into her cell phone. That’s mama, she thought, reaching for her phone. She wants to know if I am free to talk now, I guess.
But the message was not from Rani. It was from a number that was not saved in her phone. She opened the text message which said: This is my number. Give me a call me 'when' my ice maiden thaws. Siddharth Cherian Padickalveedu.The audacity of the man, thought Shikha with a smile, as she saved his number.