The bubble actually burst… Anand didn’t return… at least for the next six months or so, there was no news from his end. No calls, no texts… nada. I was used to get incoming text alerts and without even looking at the phone I would know it was him, for all the years that he was here. There were usually jokes and memes and some were so silly they would just make me laugh because I could visualize him narrating it in his way. I missed my friend terribly… especially whenever I was all alone. Most of the time I was swamped with work and buried in piles of notes and textbooks. I had reading glasses at an early age much to thatha’s dismay and I wondered if my glass’s prescription number had skyrocketed given the amount of reading, I was doing, all that when I was not staring into my phone waiting for a text or email. What on earth was preventing him from keeping in touch was something I couldn’t fathom. To my utmost dismay we got information of most of the pass outs as to what they were up to but nothing from Anand. Though students and staff occasionally remembered him for his jesting nature, they barely spoke about him anymore as if out of sight was out of mind… but the main reason was no one knew anything about him at a personal level. I didn’t know what held him from contacting me… I thought I was his close friend if not the best. I had no one to talk to except the beautiful goddess Meenakshi and even there it was difficult to visit with my work schedule. We had to think about our post graduate areas to take up and prepare for the entrance exams too which would commence after internship. I didn’t know what lay in store for me but I had the confidence that Lord Vishnu had something in His mind for sure. Off late I was finding myself greatly inclined towards Endocrinology… and the urge only grew when I visited the Sundareshwar temple across the courtyard during my visit to the Meenakshi temple. Watching the Shiva Linga… and reading about it aroused a lot of my interest in the mythical stories surrounding the same. I wasn’t exposed to this in my home town because we were supposed to be staunch Vishnu followers and the Shiva followers were always touted to be our opponents. But here, I was free of those bondages and could let my thoughts and imagination take flight.
Finally, the day of my birthday arrived and I found myself visiting the Goddess… I saw her wedding depiction in the pillars and that’s when I remembered my visit last year. It was one of those times when Anand had accompanied me and had treated me to my favorite goti soda. I loved the pop sound whenever the bottle was opened and Anand had actually teased me for days, imitating my expressions. Today as I stared at the beautiful portrait of the Shiva-Parvati union…I missed Anand all the more and couldn’t control myself. I never cried over something like this except once when I had spoken about my family to Anand. The months of pent-up emotions gave way to tears breaking the shackles of my lids and the hot lava had just flown…
“…So Soumzie… Goti soda…?” Anand walked with a different bounce in his steps and though I was annoyed at his nerve I nodded a yes. Once again, he chuckled and held up his hand against his mouth as if he was trying to control his laughter and then when I finished the soda, he showed me a pic of mine with a funny expression as I had watched the vendor remove the seal of the bottle. I tried to snatch the mobile from him and he made me run behind, as I panted and wheezed off my exercise deprived body after him. He was tall and with long strides he reached the end of the road in a jiffy. I had already given up and I made my way to him huffing and stood before him with my hands on my hips. My face must have accused him, for he held up his hands in mock surrender.
“…What the hell Anand…? Not a single call or a text…? Do you know how worried I was…?”
“…Whoa…whoa… chill Soumzie…I was busy… and to my defense my lips were sealed for the world…” he gestured the action of his pincer grip across his kips.
I shook my head and started to walk as annoyance took over the thrill of seeing him again after months. He followed me and held my arm turning me around. I stared at him and it was then I realized the guy had lost weight… was he sick…? My heart fell at the thought… He had dark circles beneath his eyes now that he had wiped off the ridiculous water paint he had applied across his face. “…Are… are you alright Anand…?”
He held up his hands and turned around. “…As always I am flawless…” I rolled my eyes. He was just the same. But I was glad he was back.
“…How long are you back for now…?” I asked knowing very well he wouldn’t tell me anything about why he wasn’t here, even if I pestered him.
“…surprise… surprise… I will be working in the hospital now… for the next year…See…? I am all yours now…” He chuckled and made a little dance and I shook my head.
We walked to the campus in total silence and I knew he was far from alright. He only remained silent when he was extremely disturbed. How I wished he could unload some of that burden…
The next few months passed in a jiffy and now that my best friend had arrived not a day was dull. I met him every day during my hospital posting irrespective of my department. I didn’t care if tongues wagged about the two of us. Anand guided me a lot about the functioning of the hospital and even though he was an RMO, he knew all the ground realities and the doctors only too well. That helped me in my interactions with the doctors and the patients too. Annie was pissed off with me and openly voiced her displeasure about meeting the unreliable guy. “…You are going to hurt yourself Sou… big time… take it in writing if you want to… Rishabh told me how that jester had messed up with the lives of countless young unsuspecting gals and treated them like doormat… and given your background shouldn’t you be suspicious…? Do you know anything at all about him…?” Though I was angry I couldn’t help but wonder about the partial truth in her statement… I knew nothing about his personal life. I decided to follow my heart and let the matter slide under the carpet.
Soon, our final exams got over with and we were to start our internship. My first placement was in Thanjavur which was quite a distance from Madurai and my heart fell only because I wouldn’t get to see Anand. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that… but on the day before I left for Thanjavur, he told me to focus on the best surgical unit the facility had. Apparently, the best in the state. As usual after that I never heard from him for the next three months till I returned to campus. I had the next six months panned out for me in two other cities and the story repeated itself… I couldn’t even return after the first three months given the distance and the tight schedule and Anand didn’t bother about returning my calls or texts. I wondered if this was what Annie had spoken about. Fortunately, Annie and I didn’t share any placements so I was good… at least she didn’t get a chance to say, ‘I told you so…’
My last posting of three months was in our hospital itself and I knew I would meet him daily. It was the last time I wanted to check out if he felt even remotely for me like I did him. Even if he didn’t like me in that regard, I didn’t want to lose a friend and wanted to convey that to him. I was okay to have him as a friend for life… and I also knew it was wishful thinking. I had to return home after three months and I didn’t know what awaited me there. My mom’s phone call frequencies had increased and she dropped hints about the guy they had selected for me… apparently some IAS officer’s son who wanted a doctor bride. Something about the horoscopes being perfectly matched…. Her tirade would go on every single time. I promised to look into it once I returned. I knew I had to try getting a job in any hospital or medical facility here before I could talk to my parents about studying further.
Even after two weeks of my placement in the hospital, Anand was nowhere to be seen… I causally took up the topic with my colleagues but no one seemed to know anything about him. The guy knew how to zone out everyone. He didn’t have a social media account at all… who on earth these days didn’t have it and someone as well informed as him didn’t… that was surprising. I had spoken with my mother that morning and was feeling terribly low. I wished he was here so I could vent out and then focus on my work. Anand wasn’t there but, in his place, there was a new RMO, Dr Raj Mahadevan. He was a new kid on the block to be precise but was definitely a looker. And he tried his best to have a conversation with me. I didn’t know if I had to pride on the fact but then… I saw how so many young doctors and students of the fairer sex thronged for his attention but he chose to speak with me. I didn’t have an iota of attraction for the guy but then he had to sign my reports and I felt there was no harm in having a chat with a good-looking guy. He was the quintessential sight for the sore eyes.
My placement at the hospital went off smoothly… at least better than expected and though I occasionally saw Anand… he was in the night shift throughout… can you beat my luck…? He only waved to me or gave me a two-finger salute as he rushed towards God knew where, whenever we crossed paths. Meanwhile I went out on a couple of dates with Dr. Raj and he seemed like a thorough gentleman in every sense of the word. But I landed up discussing Anand with the guy, since he knew Anand and I didn’t know if he was upset… he didn’t show. If I wasn’t attracted to him, I couldn’t help it, could I…?
In the final month of our internship, Annie dropped a bomb…well …not a bomb exactly but a good piece of news. She was marrying Rishabh and they were to both try for admissions to medical colleges in the US for their post graduate studies. Rishabh father was pretty influential where documents were concerned and fortunately the couple had the blessings of their parents. I was very happy for Annie, my first friend in the campus. The engagement was a week after our internships got done with, since our batchmates from other cities had to get back and I got an excuse to extend my stay. My mom was obviously upset but she knew Annie and agreed to let me especially since I told her I was going to wear the only traditional outfit I had with me. She even had the nerve to tell me it would be a trial run for my supposedly upcoming engagement.
Dr. Raj asked me if I would become his date for the engagement party as Annie and Rishabh had asked everyone to come with a plus one. There was cocktail and dance scheduled post the ring exchange. I knew Anand wouldn’t be invited, besides the fact that he was on duty, Annie and he didn’t see eye to eye, especially after the gift fiasco. It was to get late tonight returning to campus so I agreed. Later that evening dressed up in my pavadai daavani (half saree) a compulsory gift from my mom during my last visit home and accessorized it with an imitation jewelry set which again was insisted upon by amma. Obviously, her daughter couldn’t get robbed, could she? I had even gotten my unruly hair blow dried at Annie’s insistence and adorned the traditional mogra malais…in my hair… though I wished Anand could see me at least once… would he like it…? I shook my heard driving away my vain thoughts.
The dress choice was a bit odd given the events coming up later but I was not to stay longer and Dr. Raj too had agreed to leave the venue early. To give him the credit he looked awesome in his grey bandhgala and his beard made him far more endearing than he actually was. We entered the venue and I looked around wide eyed at the preparations done… it was elegance personified as the couple took center stage engulfed by their folks. The ring ceremony took place to a grand applause as the couple exchanged the diamonds and the floral garlands. Soon it was time for cocktails and the DJ played the latest remixes as everyone gyrated to the blaring out of sync tunes. Now this wasn’t what I liked and so I nudged Dr. Raj to leave the auditorium. It was a four-star hotel quite away from the campus and the hostel and it was already dark outside. Personally, I wasn’t comfortable being out with him or any other guy that late. However, he wasn’t paying any heed and even proceeded to shake a leg with our colleagues and other doctor professors who were invited. I was getting irritated and just as I was wondering what I had to do Dr. Raj walked up to me and holding my unsuspecting hand pulled and dragged me to the dance floor. I hated to dance but tried to keep up. Right then as everyone crowded to gyrate to the beats, I felt a hand at my hip touching my exposed flesh making me cringe. I knew it was my date for the evening and tried to shake him off. But he got closer and before I knew what I was doing I pushed him off causing him to lose his balance as he fell.
Everyone around us stopped dancing and some helped him up and to my utmost chagrin I ran out of the auditorium. I stood in the hotel lobby and within a couple of minutes a fuming Dr. Raj arrived. Before I could explain he began. “…How dare you… Ms. Sreedharan… how dare you…?” His voice rose in intensity inviting attention from the passing hotel crew and guests. I looked at him sheepishly as he continued. “…why on earth did you do that…? It was just a dance…”
“…Look…Dr. Raj… I am sorry but I… I wasn’t comfortable…”
“…Fuck… comfortable…who do you think you are…? Some princess who has descended from the skies…? Have you even given yourself a second look…? Why did you agree on this date with me…? Three meetings and you never let me touch… or even hold your hands…” I stared at him as tears gathered and threatened to flow, wondering what had I done so wrong. “…Do you know how frustrating it was…Ms Sreedharan? I have fended off attention from pretty young gals just to stay loyal to you… goddamn… you are such a dimwitt…”
“…That’s enough Dr. Raj…If I were so bad… why did you pursue me…?”
“…oh, cut the crap Soumya…” I could see he was really angry now as he spewed venom. “…I wouldn’t have given you a second glance if not for that jester… my childhood buddy Anand… he pestered me…and then… I liked you… your richly religious Iyengar background…just like mine… your innocence…” He kept talking but I had zoned out already.
What the hell…? Anand…? I sat on the couch in the lobby staring at the floor even as my date walked away leaving me all alone. I had become a spectacle and at that moment I wanted nothing more than the blurring floor to crack open as I sunk into its depths.
I didn’t know how long I sat there stilled by the shock of what I had heard. Why Anand…why? What did I do to deserve this…? After a while I felt a warm palm on my hand accompanied by my favorite citrus scent. I didn’t say a word as he helped me up and supported me as I stumbled. We walked out of the hotel lobby into the waiting cab….
I was distraught but at the same time as I watched the passing cars from the passenger seat window, I had to hold it together. It was time we had that long-awaited talk…
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