‘To be honest, I never thought that I would ever feel this for anyone and fall in love again. I know this is what every teenager says after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m no longer a teenager, nor was I at that point and I am not heartbroken either. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or depressed. I’m just a person, who once considered someone to be greater than everything else and when I lost the person, I boxed up myself. But… I was 21 then (and foolish; PERHAPS) and life has been too long and dreary. What I’m feeling right now is something that I have been alien to for a long, long time, perhaps too long.’
Afreen read the page for a second time. She didn’t like what she had inscribed emotionally. Her pen began its journey from the last line, running through the heart of all the words. But, it came to a halt as it reached ‘perhaps too long’. She read again what was still left on the page of her diary dated 13th February 2018.
The next day, the entire world was set to celebrate the grossly marketed day of ‘love’. Afreen was virtually feeling loveless, lost and marooned for the first time, in years- nine years to be precise. ‘Time’ she thought had healed her, just to prove her wrong in one of the rarest occasions.
She always wanted to be alone in these years. ‘Nothing succeeds in success.’ She had always been a staunch believer and an honest observer but a rude executor of this notion ever since she heard it from Prof. Rakshit. But, even such pragmatism seemed to be losing its grip over her in the past few weeks. Arvind Kumar, her junior was turning out to be too enticing. She could feel her knees going weak whenever he was around. Arvind was a fresh recruit; hardly 23, yet he had an aura around him which seemed to cast a spell on her. Afreen never felt so attracted to any man in the last eight years as he felt for Arvind. It often intrigued her. Arvind was the only thing she liked about Kolkata. She never wanted to get transferred here. But, her boss in Hyderabad used the last card in his sleeve- unexpected salary hike and promotion as a ‘Project Manager’. Afreen grabbed the offer with both her hands. She hated the work culture here, until Arvind joined her team. Confident, handsome, chivalrous, with an exceptional sense of humour and wit- which were more than enough to make any woman fall for him.
Afreen sat waiting, hoping against hope that he would call her or send her a message as the world would start falling in love all over again at the stroke of midnight.
They often worked late night in the office to accelerate the project and to give it a better shape. Working late was nothing new to her. But, for the first time, someone volunteered to stay with her and she didn’t refuse. Such proximity was changing the demography of her life but she did not resist. She could see the passion in Arvind’s eyes- it was an unusual experience. ‘Who would expect such a young guy to love his senior- that to someone so rude as she was.’ Initially she had doubts. But, she couldn’t remain skeptical for long. The ice began to melt. Over the last month and a half, she was left in a dilemma whether she had observed celibacy for this youth all these years. Noone since Prof. Rakshit spurred the lady in her.
She looked at the watch- half an hour was left.
Keeping the diary beside her pillow, Afreen drew her ‘MacBook Pro’ near, tapped on a secret folder and typed her password ‘AI&Rakshit’. The folder opened with only one picture, clicked about eight years ago with a 0.5 VGA camera. The pixels disintegrated and started running away from each other as she opened it. Yet, one could not miss the bright smile of a girl, who was hardly a match the bespectacled Afreen Hussain, Senior Project Manager, IBM – popularly referred to as the ‘BITCH’ by her colleagues.
But Afreen wasn’t looking at herself. She started walking back in time with her eyes fixed on Prof. Rakshit- her first and her desperate crush. The picture was taken on the last day of their college trip to Ooty. It was Valentine’s Day back in 2010. She was a first-year student of M.Tech, desperate to secure a better job than what she was offered during the final years of her B.Tec. She never allowed her mind to divert before, for she was on a mission to prove to her ‘Abba’ that he wasn’t wasting money on her.
Unlike the others of her class, she was always focused. But, Afreen broke her own codes for the first time and let her spirit soar loose during that trip. Even after a week, she was sitting unmindfully in the class, ruminating those moments.
“Afreen I don’t think you should be too concerned about how Divyani looks after her marriage. That she is hereafter her marriage proves that she wants to break rules and make someone out of herself. I feel too proud of her.” Afreen turned pale in an instant and looked at Prof. Rakshit. It amazed her, how seamlessly the man could decrypt human thoughts. Afreen was always in a fix what impressed her most, his ‘AI and Neural Networks’ classes or the person himself. While the other girls of her age were falling for either the boys of her class or seniors, she had hardly ever looked at them. She was bowled over by this 44 years old professor- younger and more charming than anyone she had ever met.
‘Can’t he read my mind?’ But the Professor never did justice to her earnest wish. Afreen stood up while the whole class looked at her in absolute surprise. She had never been in this situation in any class. “Sorry, Sir. HEADACHE.” She nervously stressed on the last word. The ringing bell rescued her from further discomfort. Prof. Rakshit left, throwing a queer glance at her.
Afreen started walking towards the canteen. She was stressed that day. She had no idea how her father came to know about her affection for Prof. Rakshit. The result was detrimental beyond imagination. She was now to choose between marriage and career. Her father made it loud and clear that he would not tolerate such imbecility and Afreen would be married off with the first man available. So, she could not help but look at Divyani, trying to decipher her thoughts. Divyani was lucky, but Afreen knew that marriage would put an end to her dreams for sure. Without her father’s support, she would have never been able to stand up against others to become the first lady from her family, to study in an engineering college. How could she go against him? Yet, for the first time in her life, she let her emotions run wild for a ‘Man’- the smartest and the wisest, the man of her dreams.
How could she choose between them?
She felt Divyani’s hand on her shoulder and looked at her face. “I know it’s tough to stomach, but you will have to. He is near twice your age.”
Afreen gave a queer look at her. ‘How on earth…’
“Don’t try to hide it from me. Being your best friend, I know everything. I am always there by your side. I know it’s tough but, you will have to look beyond, you have a bright career ahead of you.”
‘Did she inform Abba?’ It struck her instantly.
“Rakshit is in a relationship with Madam Vijaylaxmi…” It seemed as if someone poured liquid iron into her ears. Afreen looked at her with a blurred face in utter disbelief. She should have cried, rather howled- but she did neither. She looked fixedly at the sandwich on the table for long. ‘Divyani, I have something to confess.’ She whispered to her, pronouncing each word carefully. She had to make a choice and she finally made one. Divyani became livid with rage by the time Afreen finished what she had to say. “We need to go to Madam Vijaylaxmi. Come with me. You have to be brave now. Can you?” Afreen nodded vaguely.
Next afternoon Afreen was standing at the corridor on the second floor looking at a disgraced Prof. Rakshit, leaving the campus- suspended indefinitely on the charge of molesting a certain Afreen Hussain. Before getting into his car the Prof. looked upwards straight at her. Afreen shivered, ‘How on earth did he know where I am!’
She could read his eyes- ‘WHY?’
Afreen tried her best to put up a stoic face – but her eyes were blurting out thousands of emotions with every glance. Rakshit’s car left the campus. The boys were delighted. They seemed relieved to see their common competitor leaving, disgraced.
Rajat came and stood beside her. “You can count on my support.” He placed his hand on hers. In a flash, Afreen released her hand and slapped him in front of everyone and shouted hoarsely-
“I DON’T NEED A MAN IN MY LIFE.”
Afreen closed the tab. She had enough of the picture as she had enough of men. Ever since that day, she had never allowed her mind to distract; never allowed any man near her. She was unusually rude to them always. In these years she cared for nothing but her work and strangely; she loved to be hated by her colleagues.
Afreen looked at the clock and sighed, it was about one o’clock. She switched off the lights and went to bed. No message came from Arvind as she had expected. There was no doubt in her mind that Arvind loved her. ‘Then, why didn’t he wish me?’ She was feeling like a teenager in love- expectant, jittery, sighing deeply, since things didn’t turn out as she had anticipated. But, she didn’t cry. It was against her nature. She closed her eyes to picture Arvind’s face. But, Prof. Rakshit’s grieving eyes came to haunt her again, as if he was unwilling to release his claim over her- the claim which he never made.
The next morning set in just like any other morning in her lonely flat. Once again Afreen got ready to dawn in the role of a ‘Bitch’. She prepared her breakfast. The pick-up car came at 9 o’clock sharp and took her to the office.
Afreen called her team to her cabin for the customary meeting at the start of the day. Arvind was absent. She felt dismayed. But, with only ten days left before the deadline for the project, she was at her rudest best. She never compromised with her work and didn’t feel any urge to do otherwise even today.
“Call Arvind and tell him to come. I will not tolerate such irresponsibility.”
When everyone left her cabin, she sat before her laptop. ‘Anger is the worst enemy of prudence.’ Afreen never let anger get the better of her, barring a few incidents for which she had to repent later. But, today she was ‘ANGRY’. ‘Does he love anyone else? Has he gone on a date?’ Her mind went unnaturally off route with such questions. She picked up her phone and placed a call to Arvind. There was no response. The automated reply confirmed her even in her third attempt that Arvind’s cell phone was switched off. She kept on staring at the computer screen but was hardly aware of what was displayed there.
“Madam, Arvind’s cell is out of reach.” Mandira opened the cabin door a little and said.
“It’s switched off. Don’t lie. Now, go back to your desk and start working.”
Mandira looked at Afreen’s grim face and shut the door without any further word. “BITCH. She will never get a man.” Mandira said loud enough when she returned to her desk. The whole team heard it. But, no one protested. In the last four months, they had it all. No one had any doubt regarding Afreen’s efficiency and skills. But, Afreen was too rude to garner any sympathy and support from anyone but Arvind. “I don’t know why Arvind speaks so highly of her and takes her side. If he wants to use her as an elevator, he should better reconsider it a million times.”
Back there in the cabin, Afreen was trying her best to kill time. Arvind never directly or indirectly hinted at his feelings for Afreen. Neither did he ever approach her. But, Arvind’s warmth and care rekindled the lady in Afreen who seemed to be coming out of hibernation after all these years. She was convinced that he loved her. During that college trip, Prof. Rakshit had once told her the basics of observing a person and to process his or her thoughts. Over the years Afreen practised it to near perfection.
At around one o’clock Afreen received a mail notification. Her heart skipped a beat as she went through it,
Kindly overlook my absence. Quarantine the viral ‘Bitch’. I wish to visit China with the lady hidden inside you. I have also planned a three hours journey from neighbouring Vietnam to Washington, to explore ‘The Post’. Will you accompany me? Waiting eagerly at City Centre 2.
Afreen blushed, yet she felt comforted. She wasn’t wrong. The mail would appear vague to others, but she couldn’t overlook the unmatched wit. She was on a ‘date’- for the first time in her life. She looked at her wristwatch and hastened to the washroom. Mandira knocked on the door, “Madam, I have made the report.”
“Tomorrow. I am taking the day off.”
Mandira gaped as she saw Afreen entering the washroom in haste. ‘Is that Bitch going on a date too?’
“I’ve spent the best day of my life. I never endorse this opulent public celebration of love. But, honestly it felt great today. I don’t regret for what I have missed all these years.” Afreen said in one breath as she sat on the sofa in the drawing-room of Arvind’s house.
“It’s my pleasure.” Arvind sat opposite to her. He insisted Afreen to visit his home once. “I still have a surprise for you.” Afreen didn’t deny him. For the second time in her life, she broke all her codes. Ever since she reached City Centre 2, she gave in to Arvind; jubilant, delighted and relieved. For the first time in her life, she tasted Chinese cuisine. Her movie date, ‘The Post’ kept her engaged. Inside the theatre, she sat holding Arvind’s hand while her head rested on Arvind’s shoulder. She felt like a lady once again. It was different from her lonely life.
Arvind too lived alone in his ancestral house in North Kolkata. The exterior of the house was hardly appealing, but once they got inside Afreen felt comfortable. Though, she initially hesitated a bit to be alone with him. But, her infamous mind confirmed her that she was safe. “Why do you stay alone?” She asked him gazing fondly at the room.
“My mother died when I was six. I studied in a residential school in Burdwan and then went to college. My maternal uncles brought me up. Though, at present, we are sitting here in my father’s house. I renovated it and shifted here last year.”
“What about your father?”
“He died six years ago.” Arvind looked away and added, “He committed suicide.”
“Don’t be. Thank God he did so. He was a shame to me and my family. Bloody pervert! He lost his job for his nature. I feel ashamed to be his son. That’s why I use my mother’s surname. I didn’t want to keep any trace of him in the house. But my aunt, who is like my mother, insisted that I should at least keep his picture in the house. She was the only person who always stood by him and would insist that all of us were wrong in our judgement.”
There was a sudden silence in the room. None of them said a word for a while. Finally, Arvind stood up. “Oh! That old pervert is spoiling everything once again. You wait for five minutes. I won’t take long. Make yourself comfortable. I have a surprise for you.” Arvind trotted to the other room.
Afreen looked around the room. She had never been to such a traditional Bengali house. She stood up and started walking from one corner to the other marveling whatever she saw. She went down her knees near the bookshelf. The collection was laudable.
Suddenly, she shivered to see a set of books. It was on AI, a priceless collection. She always wanted this collection, but she never managed to procure it. She opened the cabinet door and stood up with a book. But, the book fell off her hand just as she was about to open the first page. Afreen froze with fright, for what she saw before her was the last thing she would have expected in her life. Even in her death bed, she wouldn’t have made any mistake to recognise the face, those sparkling eyes and that charming smile. Prof. Rakshit was staring at her from the top of the cabinet. The book, bearing his name and signature was lying on the ground like a shattered flower vase. “My father,” Arvind announced from the door. Afreen had no doubt about it. Suddenly the lights went out. At the very next moment, Arvind was standing beside her with a heart-shaped cake, with a red candle burning in the middle. “This kept me engaged all this morning.”
Afreen couldn’t take her eyes off that smile even in this darkness. It kept engaged for more than eight years. Notwithstanding her desperate effort, Prof. Rakshit was still at the heart of her life. But the man was dead- committed suicide. She knew what led him to this, who led him to this. Tears rained down her cheeks. She was glad that Arvind had switched off the lights.