Hold On To Me: Part I
Hold On To Me: Part I45 mins 10.1K 45 mins 10.1K
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is
to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with
the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel
that all is as it should be- Anne Frank
“Gurgaon? But why? Can’t you handle their operations from Mumbai itself?”, I had exclaimed, looking utterly dejected.
“Aliya, if there was something I could have done, I would have”, Neel had replied. “Let’s just go with the flow. Am sure everything will fall into place. We had been apprehensive before moving back to India too”, he had said, putting his arm around my shoulder.
Not knowing what else to say, I had just looked away....
I remember this conversation vividly. We had been standing side by side in the balcony of our Juhu apartment, looking on as the waves had splashed against the rocks. The frenzy of the sea had matched my tumultuous emotions.
...“We knew we would have to move sometime. Mumbai was never going to be permanent”, Neel had continued. “Thankfully it’s not Timbuktu.”
Finding me uncommunicative, he had given up and walked away,“For God sake Aliya, get out of this morose mood.”...
...“Wow! You are going to love Gurgaon. None of the arrogance of the domestic help there!”, Roma had said when I had told her about the move.
“But Roma, I am too tired of making new friends every three years. Mumbai had been our longest posting and look how well we connected.”
“Come on Aliya!!!! It’s not like we are on different planets. It’s just an hour or so away. Plus, long live FaceTime!”
“Hmmmm, I guess we can try it. Though you know that I hate this over-dependence on digital interactions”,I had complained.
“Anyways, a person like you is bound to attract the right kind of people”, Roma had laughed. “In my case, it would have been totally different. You know how people feel threatened with me around.”
That had made me smirk. “Just because you are my friend, you say that! Ask the ones who can’t stand me too.” We had both giggled at a shared joke.
Roma had been there everyday to help me pack. Her exuberance had rubbed off and I had decided to give the move a chance.And then, it seemed as if time had just flown and I found myself in Gurgaon, bag and baggage and family and dog.
Leaving Mumbai had been difficult - the tears, the goodbyes and the boxing up of all that had once been resplendent in our home. Trying to make semblance of this new situation, this new abode, seemed a herculean task.The kids had started school and Neel was already making waves as the CEO of ARTECH. As one of the pioneers in information technology, the company enjoyed a privileged status in the Indian media. Whatever happened at ARTECH, was known to everyone- the mergers, the layoffs, the scandals, and the topnotch players of the company, were regulars on Page 3 in the metro papers. They talked about how Neel’s visionary approach would help steer the company to even greater heights. His success as the head of the South East Asia operations was a much talked about topic. The photograph published in HT City read, “Neel Kapoor, CEO, ARTECH and wife”.
WIFE!!!!!! Adding fuel to the already blazing fire, was this infuriating feeling, that my claim to fame was being the wife of this successful man. They had spent so much time finding out about his background, what makes him tick etc., the least they could have done was check on my name. Hadn’t they heard the common saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman’; and that too, usually the wife- the one who sacrifices her life, her career and her dreams, in order to build the foundation of the man’s career.And it seemed I was just an add on - the extra baggage he came with!!!!
Shaking this feeling of inadequacy off, I started opening up the boxes. The balcony windows were open and a gentle breeze was blowing outside. Instead of the salty sea breeze in Juhu, the fragrance of frangipani wafted in. The oppressive North-Indian summer was on it’s last legs and the monsoons were setting in, bringing with them, a cool pleasant breeze. The golf course next to the complex added to the verdant vista. Mumbai was a strong contrast to this green metropolis. Away from the main road, which was always buzzing with traffic, Centre Park was one of the premier residential complexes in Gurgaon. With an influx of MNCs, posh living spaces were being continuously added, to cater to the affluent lifestyles of the corporates. The complex had ample green areas and a well planned layout. The apartments were huge compared to the restricted living spaces of Mumbai.
‘But Mumbai is Mumbai’, I thought nostalgically.
“Hello!” The voice on the other side seemed muffled. “Hello? Sorry, can’t hear you”, I said, disconnecting the call.
The bell rang and I opened the door to let in the maintenance crew.
“Thank God you are here. Lots to be done. We can start with the paintings. I’ve listed them down according to which room they go into”, I said, passing on the list to Raghu. Raghu was the head of maintenance for our block. The advantage of staying in Centre Park was, having a full battery of support staff. As soon as the container arrived, the complex concierge had assigned him to help me. He had offered his help a bit too eagerly. I thought it was for a good tip. But when I tried to give him something , he had politely declined.
“It’s our job”, he had smiled.
“Raghu, it’s a just a little something. I appreciate the help.”
“It’s ok Madam. If you insist, we do have a Diwali fund. It’s there for when any of us need a little extra help. You can hand it over to the concierge.”
This exchange had livened my mood and I hoped that such experiences would make me settle down faster.
I had already briefed Raghu about the drilling jobs required and while he and his team got busy drilling holes, I started opening the boxes in the living room.
The furniture had already been placed and only the boxes needed to be unpacked. With Neel busy at work and kids settling into their new school, I knew that setting up the house, would be my sole responsibility.
“Madam, do you know about the bazaar?”, Raghu asked, when the drilling stopped.
“Yes, I did get a flyer in our mailbox.”
“It’s become a yearly event now. It’s very nice and everyone from this area comes for it”,he added.
The monsoon fete, was also something I was looking forward to. If it was anything like the Mumbai Society Culture events, I knew it would be worth it. In Mumbai, there had been no
dearth of activity, from kids’ movie shows in the condominium auditorium, to Diwali Fiestas, something or the other had always kept them happily occupied.
The ring of the phone broke my reverie.
“I can’t hear a word. Can I call you back?”
There was no response and then the line got disconnected. I looked up the caller id on the phone and called back.The phone rang.
“Pick up! Pick up!”
It kept ringing and there was no response.
‘Whoever it is will call back!’, I thought to myself and got back to sorting out the bookshelves.
Raghu and his team were busy fixing the chandelier.
“Raghu, how do I find a good live-in maid? I need someone who can cook and housekeep”, I asked.
“ Madam, it’s a little difficult, especially now that government rules have stopped the immigrants from working in homes. But let’s see. The part-timer, you had spoken to, will start in a day or so.”
Well!!! That was something that made me feel more relaxed.
‘How dependent we have all become on help!! And that’s what they take advantage of’, I thought to myself.
The phone rang again and before I could reach it, it went off.
I continued settling our mammoth collection of books. Books brought our family together and trips to book stores were the highlight of every holiday trip we took. While my collection included art, history and picture books, Neel and the girls had added their
compendium of fiction, thrillers and graphic novels. Sorting them out and arranging them in order was going to be an uphill task. I took a deep breath and started.
There was a flurry of activity behind me and I turned to find Shiloh sniffing around.
‘ Now here is someone who always makes me smile!!!! I wonder why I am not as easy going with Neel and the kids when they go crazy???’, I mused as I sat down to hug our golden retriever.
Shiloh had come into our lives when we had just moved back to India five years ago. The kids had been unsettled and to help them feel at home, Neel had surprised us all by bringing this fluffy bundle into our lives. Had he consulted me, I would have outrightly refused. And it definitely was not easy!!! I don’t react well to surprises and my reactions can sometimes be very disheartening. Neel knows that about me and in hindsight, well, it was good that he didn't consult me.
“I have nothing to do with this dog!!!”, I had screamed. “How can you get it home, when you know that I hate having animals around me? Seems no one in this house cares about what I want!!!”
“Come on Aliya! This is a bit of an overreaction. We have enough help here, so it shouldn't be a problem.”
Neel had looked hopeful. The girls had already been besotted with their new playmate. “Mom, please!!!!!!”, Savi had pleaded.
“We promise you won’t be hassled. We will take turns looking after him. And when we are out, Asha Didi will handle him”, Niamat had run over to hug me.
I had stormed off to my room, and through the closed door, squeals of joy had sneaked into my room and made me fret even more.
Asha, our live-in maid, had brought my dinner to my room while my family had been busy making “Shiloh” feel at home.
Days had passed and it seemed that Shiloh too had learned to stay out of my way.
“Neel, do u think he knows that I don’t like him?’, I had sheepishly asked once. “Obviously!!! Your body language says it all and even that poor thing is scared!”, he had laughed. Ignoring the sarcasm, I had continued with my chores....
One morning, when everyone else had been out, and I had been busy pruning a bonsai in the balcony, I had heard a soft whimper.
Behind the table had been this little four-legged being, craving my attention. Imploring brown eyes had tugged at my heart and for a split second, there seemed to have been a little connection.
That tiny connection was all that Shiloh had needed and after that, there was no looking back. Shiloh followed me everywhere. I had been won over, but I refused to have him snuggling up next to me.
“Give an inch and the whole family takes a bloody yard!!!!”
Neel and the girls had laughed.
Sheepishly, I agreed that Shiloh had helped make the transition smoother. All our energies got diverted towards him, making us forget what we had left behind in New York. We missed our friends, but Mumbai had become a happy place for us.
They say that the best way to make friends in a new place is through kids and pets, and that was how Roma came into my life. I had met Roma while walking Shiloh along the promenade. Roma lived in the same complex and we had connected over dogs. Roma was a typical Mumbaikar, married to the scion of a well known construction company. Her life revolved around her husband Ram, Arjun her twelve year old and the adorable Yorkshire Terrier,Bruno....
Roma, with her exuberance and her good samaritan attitude, had taken me through Mumbai and it’s complexities. From kids groups and book clubs to movie dates and market scavenger hunts, life with Roma had been fulfilling. Savi and Arjun had became inseparable and Niamat had always tagged along with them, like a love-struck butterfly. Roma’s motto “A happy woman makes a happy wife and mother”, became the tagline in our friends’ circle.
As I got back to reality, I wondered what would make me happy in Gurgaon.
“Seems like you have been very busy today”, Neel said, as he scanned the living room. The room was strewn with boxes still, but with photographs, paintings and all the collected artefacts in their respective places, the room emitted warmth and comforting familiarity. The girls were busy settling up their room. Their day had been good and both seemed happy with the welcome they had received at school. Vasant Hill came with great recommendations and as luck would have it, the girls got admission easily. There were quite a few children going from Centre Park and the school had assured their full support in helping the girls settle.
“Neel, I was wondering if we should ask Asha to come and work for us here. I heard it’s not easy finding a live-in maid here.”
“Why don’t you call her tomorrow and check if she is willing. Then we can see how to proceed.”
“ Will be super if it works out!!!! I don’t think I could go through training a new one.”
“How was your day?’, I asked.
“Well, it’s going to be tough. Attitudes here are different. Most of the people have been in this office for years and they don’t seem too eager to have someone new coming in and telling them how to turn things around.”
I felt a little selfish wallowing in my own problems and not thinking how tough it was for Neel too.
“Let me show you something”, I pulled Neel towards the balcony.
We could hear the girls arguing over which cupboard to take. With his intermittent barking, Shiloh seemed to be adding his own two bit to the commotion.
As we stepped out of the balcony door, a light breeze, with the ubiquitous fragrance of frangipani, caressed us. As far as the eye could see, lights shimmered, giving the landscape a surreal feel. Neel and I stood there, taking in the faint din of the city. Though
silence surrounded us, it seemed that subconsciously we were both reaching out and talking to each other.
“I think I have found my little corner here”, I told him.
We turned around and looked at the area. I could see Neel visualising the place. He knew how important it was for me to have my own space; a space where I could paint; where I could reach a zen state; a space that was truly mine.
“Where do you think you will keep the easel?”, he asked.
“ Just imagine the easel here and a little day bed here and a rack with plants and some of my art supplies.”
“A couple of comfy chairs here and it will be a great place to chill out in the evenings too.” Neel seemed convinced, “ When the maintenance crew comes tomorrow, ask them to connect a couple of speakers out here.”
“I think we will be okay here”, I leaned closer and kissed him.
“Oh wow!!! What happened to you”, he asked, happily surprised.
“No!! Seriously!!! I know it’s tough on you guys when I am all riled up. I guess I just need to make a little extra effort.”
“ Aliya, it’s tough on you! I have work to go to, deadlines to meet and the girls have their school. For them it’s easier to fit in”, he said holding me closer. “ It’s tough for you, having left your life and your friends. If there was anything I could do to make it easier, trust me, I would”, he said, sincerely.
“ You know, it feels really nice when we get to speak to each other. Like I always said, we can go through everything if we are connected. With so many issues to look into and not prioritising, we tend to take it out on each other”, I smiled back.
We stood there for a long time, hand in hand, lost in our own world. The sky was resplendent with countless stars and a sense of promise swirled in the air, intertwined with the fragrance of frangipani.
“Neel, I am going for the monsoon fete today.”
“Enjoy! It’s definitely the break you need”,he had said, kissing me, as he had left hurriedly for office.
Savi and Niamat had left for school earlier, while Neel had decided to go late to work. The morning had been a relaxed one, with him helping me set up the bar and dining areas. Jagjit Singh’s sublime voice had kept us enthralled and I had been pleasantly surprised when Neel had taken me in his arms and swayed to a romantic song.
The part-timer, who was supposed to turn up, hadn’t and rather than waiting for her any longer, I decided to go down to the fete. Making sure that Shiloh was comfortable, I locked the door and pressed for the elevator.
A blast of cold air hit me as the doors opened. The elevator was already occupied and as I entered, I was captivated by the cool aura of the woman inside.
“Hi!”, I smiled, a bit too exuberantly, “I’m Aliya and we have just moved in.”
“I’m Kavita and I’ve lived here since God knows how many years!!!!!”, she replied with a wry smile.
Tall, at almost 6 feet, Kavita’s face had a calm radiance. Fair, with a translucent complexion; her deep brown eyes; her loosely tied hair; made her look ethereal. She wore a white Lucknowi Chikan Kurta, with beaded bracelets adorning her wrists. She stood there looking slightly distracted.There were hints of aloofness in her persona so I decided to keep myself from yapping away with her.
“See you around sometime”, I smiled and got out as soon as the doors opened on the lobby level. I looked back, expecting a response, but the doors were already closing. The elevator headed back up.
‘Strange. Wasn't she also getting off?’, I thought to myself, before heading out to of the building.
The walk to the main park was a short one. The signage was clear and the path leading up to the fete was vibrantly decked. As I reached the park, I saw the array of stalls stylishly arranged all around the lawns. Groups of women were scattered all over, with their crease-free outfits and oversized bags. It seemed as if I walked into a magazine shoot!!!
I felt a little odd in my jeans and kurta.
“Welcome to this world”,said the voice behind me, almost startling me. I turned around to find Kavita smiling sardonically.
“There you are! You just disappeared on me”, I said, slightly annoyed.
There was no response from Kavita, so I decided to let it be.
“I wish I knew that this was a dressy affair”, I continued, laughing. “ Isn't this supposed to be a fete?”
“Aliya, the rule here is, that every opportunity you get, you show off your latest glasses or your newest ring!!!!” Kavita shrugged and disappeared into the crowd.
‘What is with this woman? She seems friendly for a bit and then just goes off!’
I was a bit annoyed- with Kavita and with this throng of china dolls.
I traversed through the crowds and started browsing around. There were stalls selling fresh produce, candles, prepackaged meals and a whole lot more. The potpourri stall looked interesting and I decided to get some bags made for the wardrobes. While the man at the stall was busy preparing the bags, I went on further and picked up some candles. The prepackaged meals looked tempting and I picked up enough to make my life easier till I found household help.
One of the women standing nearby walked over. Dressed to kill, she looked at ease in her off-white Linen tunic and Roman sandals. Her hair was held back with her Bulgari sunglasses. She could well have been a walking-talking advertisement for a radiance
cream, with her peaches and cream complexion and her carefully lined eyes. The smile, though very wide, was warm and seemed genuine.
“Hello! You seem new here.”
I smiled and extended my hand, “I’m Aliya and I’ve just moved into D”.
“Ah! I am on the 24th floor of Tower F. Oops, I’m Sara”, she rummaged through her oversized Ferragamo and handed me a card. “Send me a text and let’s connect. If there is anything I can help you with, just ask”, she beamed. “Sorry need to rush off.”
Sara walked back to the group she was with and started talking to them animatedly. The rest of them looked at me as soon as Sara had finished saying whatever she was, and smiled. I smiled back and went away, trying to look for Kavita, but she was nowhere to be seen. Carrying all my packages, I decided to head back home.
“So! How was the fete?”, Roma’s face filled the screen.
“Was quite an interesting affair. Lots of lovely stalls.”
“Met anyone interesting”, she continued, almost as if she was conducting an inquiry. “Wow! You have a list of questions or what”, I laughed. “Yup! Met two totally contrasting women. One of them seems to be very friendly, while the other one seems interesting, but slightly aloof!”
I gave her a full on, minute by minute description of what had happened. Roma added her own two bits to my experience and then went on to give me a long spiel about how to settle in faster. Much that Roma’s overprotective nature bothered me, I could not help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for her friendship.
“Forget this now! Let me show you the apartment”, I said, interrupting her. Changing the camera mode, I did a 360 degree turn in the living room. Roma was ecstatic when she saw the familiar pieces, all in place. Room by room, I gave her a full tour and a detailed description of what the settings would be like.
“The apartment is really lovely. I can already see you settling in”, Roma said as I moved the phone around.
“Wait till you see the balcony! I have big plans for it.”
Shiloh hovered around me, wanting to see where Roma was. He absolutely adored Roma. “Shiloh”, screamed Roma delightfully. “ How is my baby doing?”
Shiloh barked excitedly and I positioned by phone closer to Shiloh. He scurried around trying to find Roma in person and then came back and looked quizzically at the phone and barked.
“Poor guy can’t seem to figure out where the rest of you is.”, I laughed.
“Bruno is out for a walk, otherwise this would have been quite a barking session”, she added.
After a nice long chat with Roma, interrupted by Shiloh trying to add this own two bits of barking to the conversation, I went back to arranging the kitchen myself.
My phone buzzed. There was a message from Neel.
‘Dinner out tonight. Kids and you too. Sending car at 1900. Love.’
I replied in the affirmative and went over to check on what I would wear for dinner. The morning exposure was enough to educate me about the dressing sensibilities here. ‘Blacks always a safe bet’, I thought, taking out a sequenced tunic with tights.
Neel had not given any details and I wondered whether I should call him to check. But then again, I dismissed the idea, not wanting to disturb him at work. It was almost time for the kids’ arrival, so I went back to settling the kitchen.
The bell rang and Shiloh ran to the door. As I opened the door, the kids rushed in and started playing with Shiloh.
“How about a hug to Mom first?”. I made a sad face and caught hold of them. “Dinner’s out today, so make sure you guys finish your homework early.”
Niamat sat down next to me and gave a full review of her day. Savi added her little bit to it. “Mom, I made friends in the bus today. Some of the girls in my class stay in this complex. Can we please meet them sometime?”, Niamat pleaded.
“Okay. Let’s settle down first and then we start meeting up people”, I replied.
“I also made a friend. He lives in the building next to us. We are in Art class together and when I told him that you are an artist, he wanted to come and see your work”, Savi added shyly.
I felt a little apprehensive. Savi was at a stage where she made an extra effort to impress. She was almost 16 and my little tomboy had blossomed into a beautiful girl. Niamat however, was still lost in her own world with dolls and playdates.
“I would like to meet the parents before we start organising any playdates. Now let’s get on with lunch and then the two of you can finish of your homework. And don't forget, we have to go out for dinner tonight”, I said, moving towards the kitchen.
“Mom! You have told us already. Please stop repeating”, Savi said, rolling her eyes and then laughing.
“OK! I wont repeat. You girls never listen the first time and now its become a habit. Anyway, there’s something really special for lunch today!”, I told them as they followed me to the kitchen, and got busy checking out the packaged meals....
“Mom! We will wait for you downstairs”, Savi called out as the girls banged the door shut. I was late - had totally lost track of time while setting up the kitchen; Shiloh needed to be settled too. The girls had finished their homework after lunch and were ready on time. The excitement of going out was clearly visible on their faces as they left the house.
Making sure everything was okay, I rushed into my room. Quick lipstick touchup and I was all set to leave. Leaving the lights on, I hurried out of the door and locked it.
The main elevator seemed to be stuck on the 36th floor. I went out through the service door and pressed for the service elevator.
The phone buzzed. There was a message from Neel, checking my status. I replied as I stood waiting for the elevator. ‘Just waiting for the elevator. The girls are already down.’ The service elevator also seemed stuck, so I went back to the main elevator, with hope that it would have moved past 36.
Thankfully, it was on it’s way down and as it reached my floor, the door pinged open. “Oh Hi! Seems we only meet in the elevator”, I smiled as I entered, to find Kavita in the elevator again.
In her usual composed manner, she smiled, “Well, we can rectify this. How about I drop in for a coffee tomorrow morning?”
“Sounds great”, I was a little taken aback. Since I was the one who had just moved in, shouldn't she have invited me over? The house was still not settled and without any household help, I wasn’t ready to receive visitors.
Dismissing the irritation, I told her about my failure to find any help. “If you know anyone, please share the contact. Worst case, I will try and get the woman who worked for us in Mumbai.”
“Sure, will keep a lookout”, she replied.
As we stepped out of the elevator, I said a quick bye and rushed to the car. As I turned to wave, I realised we hadn’t confirmed the time for tomorrow.
“Kavita, About tomorrow........”, I said loudly.
Expecting her to turn, I waited. Kavita hadn’t turned. I could see her walking towards the lawns.
“Kavita!”,I called out one last time.
As I was getting late, I decided to let it be.
‘The woman is hard of hearing or what?”, I thought irritably as I sat in the car.
The dinner turned out to be a nice affair. Neel’s school friends had invited us to one of the newest restaurants in the hip and happening Cyber Hub. The restaurant they had chosen, was abuzz with activity. The restaurant specialised in new age gastronomy and it’s ambience reflected a chic Indian-ness. Turned out we had some common friends in Mumbai and there was no shortage of conversational topics. The kids too had company and I was quite touched by this gesture to welcome us. The food had been
amazing and overall, the whole evening had been great. We parted with a plan to catch up again the following week.
On our way back Neel drove. He had let the driver off. Savi was lost to the world, with her headphones on, while Niamat had crashed out the moment we sat in the car.
“I went to the fete this morning. Quite interesting! Also met a couple of women.”
Neel looked at me, indicating that he wanted me to continue.
“Seemed nice. Though one of them seems to have some kind of superiority complex or something. I felt as if I was being judged!”, I grimaced.
Neel laughed out loudly. “All these experiences add spice to life. So now we will have some story or the other every time you meet these women.”
I smiled and told him about the friends the kids had found, especially the artist, who Savi seemed enamoured by.
“Time to buy a gun!”,Neel winked.
I laughed, “Whoever dates our girls is going to be in for a tough time, especially since you are showing dictatorial tendencies.”
‘Hi Sara. This is Aliya. It was lovely meeting you yesterday. Let’s connect soon.’
I put my phone aside after sending the message and started settling our bedroom.
The room looked vibrant with picture frames up on one wall. The rustic four poster bed and the antique Portuguese chest gave the room a colonial feel. Neel’s bags lay in one corner and I decided to let them be and attacked my bags fervently. I was a stickler for order and could not bear the thought of my clothes lying in bags. The sooner I settled my wardrobes, the sooner my zen state would return.
“Let Neel come and settle his stuff!”, I laughed out loud.
Raghu had called and told me that he was busy with some elevator servicing issues.
I settled Shiloh in the study and put on some music. The soothing voice of Jagjit Singh reverberated around the house. Music had a calming influence and I hummed my way through settling my clothes.
Time flew and when the bell rang, my reverie was broken and realised I had been working non-stop for two hours. I lowered the volume and went and opened the door. I had totally forgotten about Kavita’s visit.
“Come in! The house is still a mess, so please turn a blind eye to it”, I smiled apologetically, letting her in.
“That’s okay. I can see that you have been busy. It’s shaping up well and you seem to have settled in”, she said as her eyes scanned the room.
I wondered why Shiloh had not come out of the study. The bell always made him excited. “Let me just check on our dog. Please make yourself comfortable”
I entered the study to find Shiloh lying down with his head resting on his front paws. He seemed too quiet and it worried me.
“Shiloh, are you okay?”,I asked gently petting him. He whimpered and turned his head.
It seemed odd, but I dismissed it for tiredness.
I came back to the living room and found Kavita standing by the balcony, looking pensive. Her eyes looked distant and there was a melancholic air around her. She seemed oblivious of her surroundings. I wondered if she was ailing or was it a deep-set trauma that made her look the way she did. She was beautiful. But there was a tinge of paleness to her beauty.There was something I could not put my finger on. Having just met, I didn’t want to pry into anything.
While I was in my jeans and kurta again, Kavita wore a beautiful paisley angrakha. The off- white suited her. I marveled at her demeanour and how she carried herself.
“What can I get you?”, I asked, going up to her.
“Nothing at all. I just came over to sit and chat and to get to know you. If there is any help you need, let me know”, she smiled back.
“Then let’s just sit and chat. I have been so busy setting up the house, that I have hardly had the chance to sit and just relax.”
“How long have you lived here? Your family?”, I asked, trying to take the conversation further.
“I have lived here for years! My husband died some years back and my daughter is settled in the UK. She comes once every two years to sort out my things. My son is in the US”, she replied, smiling ruefully.
“And what do you do Kavita?”, I asked.
“I just float around here and there. I used to write, but that was ages ago. It was when I had stories to tell. There’s nothing much to tell now. What about you?”
I told her about my passion for painting. “I have had a couple of exhibitions in New York, when we were there. And then it seems I got too busy with the kids and our social commitments in Mumbai. Or I guess, it’s just what people call an artist’s block! But funnily in my case, it’s gone on for 5 years!”, I said laughing. “I do hope to get into a better routine here. I used to feel grounded when I painted regularly.”
Kavita started talking about her writing- about how the people she met, the places she visited, had shaped her skills. Her husband had not been very happy about it.
“According to him, my writing reflected what was happening in our lives and he did not like this supposed invasion of privacy”, she grimaced. “But writing made me feel free. I could always leave everything mundane and go into the world I had created. My characters came to life and what I could not achieve in my life, I achieved through them. My dreams became their achievements.”
For a moment it felt as if our souls had connected. I could feel her yearning, her sense of loss. My friendship with Roma had started on an upbeat note. It seemed Kavita and I were connecting over some sort of despondency.
“Is that one of your paintings?”,she asked pointing to the painting near the entrance.
“One of my first”, I replied, as she got up to have a closer look. It was a landscape; a tranquil valley scene, with trees, mountains and meandering streams. Birds dotted the horizon and the sky was painted in hues of burnt gold and red. Kavita seemed totally taken in by it.
“Would you like to see some more?”, I asked, excitedly.
“No! Not today. I’ve got to go”,she said abruptly. “It was nice spending time with you.”
As I went up to kiss her goodbye, she quickly turned around and walked towards the door. Even though I found it strange, I let it be and went ahead to open the door.
“It was lovely meeting you. I met Sara yesterday too, so let’s meet up together sometime”, I said.
She smiled distantly and left. After I closed the door, I realised that we hadn't exchanged numbers.
‘I’ll ask Sara or Raghu for the number’,I thought. “What a lost case!”, I murmured to myself, before getting back to my chores.
Shiloh had been a bit lethargic the whole day, so when Neel got home, I shared my concerns, “Neel, Shiloh seems a bit off. Don’t know whether it’s the change in water or something more serious. Please try and arrange an appointment with some vet.”
Neel noticed it too. “Have you changed from Pedigree to something else?”, he had asked. “No. Could be something that he ate while playing in the park”, I replied, trying to recollect what exactly it was that he was gnawing at that morning.
“I’ll fix the appointment for tomorrow morning”, he said assuringly.
The next day, once Neel left with the girls, I called Raghu.
“Anything on the maid?”, I asked.
“Madam, the woman who was supposed to come called and said she couldn’t. Give me a few days and I will try and find someone else.”
I also told him that I was off to the vet with Shiloh and that he could come to finish up the remaining jobs after an hour or so. I pressed for the elevator. It was on the 36th floor again. With a listless Shiloh in my arms, I waited. It pinged and the doors opened.
I smiled at Kavita as I entered the elevator. “Ah! so we meet again. Uncanny how we seem to be meeting every time we are using the lift.”
I could see Kavita looking at Shiloh. “He seems dazed”, she said.
“I have no idea what happened. Taking him to the vet now. By the way, I don't have your number. Maybe you could give me a call on mine and I will save it.”
I rattled off my number and as soon as the doors opened, I said bye and rushed to the car. The visit to the vet didn't help much. All statistics seemed fine. The doctor prescribed some medication for indigestion and asked me to keep a check on his temperature.
“All tests seem fine. Let’s just hope it’s a passing bug”, he assured.
Once home, I settled Shiloh in the library and put on some music. Leaving the doors open, I started settling the balcony area. It was time for my art supplies to come out of the boxes!!! As I was setting up the rack, my phone rang.
All I got was static.
“I have told you that I can’t hear a thing. Was it you who called yesterday too?”
There was no sound at all. I cut the phone irritably. Once the rack was set and the easel in place, I sat down and chatted with Roma.
“I don’t know but I have been feeling really low since yesterday”, I moaned. “Even Shiloh is unwell. He was fine and then I found him totally listless. And to top it up, I am feeling sad for Kavita. The poor woman lives all alone.”
Roma was furious, “Listen Aliya! Much that I want you to make friends and settle down fast, I would suggest you stay away from this Kavita woman! From whatever you have just told me, she seems like a crackpot. Settling in can be tough and you don’t want some depressive soul to dampen your mood further.”
I laughed. “Roma! The poor thing seems to be all alone. She sounded helpful and her stories seem interesting. I forgot to ask her last name. Maybe we can google her and see what all she has written”
“Just because she is, or was, a writer??? Aliya, just for once try doing what I tell you. Don’t start moaning about her. And don’t make every lost case your cause!!!!”
“Anyways, I am thinking of meeting up with her and this other woman I told you about”, I said changing the topic to the latest Mumbai gossip.
The next couple of days seemed to rush by. Shiloh’s health had improved and it was a big relief for all of us. He was back to his usual self so when Neel and the kids had left, I decided it was time to take him for a walk again. There was a slight nip in the air and the fresh morning air would help bring back his exuberance.
Shiloh was on a leash as I didn't want him scampering around unattended. As we walked around the complex, I saw Sara jogging across the park. She waved but didn’t stop.
The phone buzzed and I saw Sara’s name flash.
“Babe! Sorry I didn't stop to say hi. Am following Dr.Tang’s Fitness First and it specifically says never to lower the momentum. Catch you soon. Okay?”, she said breathlessly, not losing the momentum in her speech too!!!
“Sure! Buzz me and we will have coffee soon”, I replied, before the call got disconnected. As we walked around the block, I saw Kavita in the park. I was about to walk towards her when Shiloh saw a squirrel and tried to sniff around after it. Not wanting him to leave my side, I decided to finish walking Shiloh and then head in her direction. By the time Shiloh finished chasing the squirrel, and checking under God knows how many bushes, we walked across to where I had seen Kavita. There was no sign of her, so I decided to head back up.
Raghu came over to finish the pending jobs.
“Raghu, What floor is Kavita on?”, I asked.
“Kavita Madam? Why do you ask Madam?”,he seemed surprised.
“Just that I forgot to ask her when we met”, I replied.
“Ah, you knew her then. It’s all kismet”, Raghu sounded sad.
“Sad that she is all alone. I didn't know her earlier. I just met her, so I wanted to know what floor she was on. I forgot to ask her.”
Raghu looked flabbergasted. “How is that even possible? Kavita Madam? Are you sure?”
I was shocked by Raghu’s response. “She did say her name was Kavita and I have met her in the elevator a few times already. She even came home a few mornings ago.”
“But that’s not possible! Kavita Madam died five years ago! She lived on the 36th floor. But now, that house is just locked. No one stays there. She had a son and a daughter. Her daughter has come back twice, but nobody lives in their apartment anymore”, Raghu trembled. His shock was enough to scare the daylights out of me.
I did not know what hit me. Seemed as if someone had just thrown me off a bungee platform. My mind went numb and I fell back onto the sofa.
“Madam, it was the most tragic accident I have ever heard. She died the day her husband was cremated. His death was unexpected and everyone was in a state of shock. When his body came home, you can’t imagine the scene.”
I trembled as Raghu continued. Tears ran down my cheeks.
“The family had taken the body for cremation, and after sometime, Kavita Madam ran out of her apartment and got into the elevator. She had been uncontrollable. She had not realise that her dupatta was stuck in the elevator. When the elevator came back up on the 36th floor, her daughter and some of the family members found her strangled, with shreds of the dupatta around her neck and some pieces stuck between the door and the elevator shaft.”
I grabbed my phone from the side table and punched Neel’s number.
“Neel, please come home right away! I need you!”, I cried into the phone.
Shiloh looked dazed too. Raghu ran into the kitchen and got me some water.
The only other person I could think of was Sara.
“Sara! I need you urgently. Please come over immediately”, I said as soon as she answered the call.
“What happened? I was.....”, she started.
“Just come. I will explain”, I interrupted, before disconnecting.
I felt totally drained. My head pulsated and I held on to it as I paced around the room. Raghu stayed with me.
When Sara arrived, Raghu told her everything.
Sara trembled with fear.”How is this even possible? Are you sure you are talking about Kavita? I didn’t know her well, but we had all been shocked when we heard the news. Am sure you read about it in the papers. Her husband was in the army. He was killed while visiting the troops in the Draas sector.”
“Why would I make up a story?”, I cried.
The bell rang and Raghu let Neel in. He was surprised to see Raghu and Sara trying to pacify me.Raghu told him what had transpired and Sara took out her phone. She googled Kavita Singh and the immediately Kavita’s image filled the screen.
I screamed and couldn’t stop trembling. “She is the one I have been meeting everyday.” Shiloh whimpered. Neel tried to pacify me. He now had a petrified Sara and Raghu to deal with as well.
“I am sure Shiloh sensed it. No wonder he lost his bearings”, Neel said, pacing up and down the room. “How the hell do we sort this out?”
Just then the phone buzzed, startling everyone. Neel answered it.
I asked for the phone and looked at the number. “I have been getting calls from this number, but no one ever says anything.”
“Are you sure it’s not just your imagination playing tricks on you?”, Neel looked a bit skeptical.
“You really think I’m going crazy??? Why the hell would I imagine something like this and that too about a person I have never met!!???”, I screamed.
Sara gave me a tight hug and said she she believed me. Neel also held onto my hand and tried to calm me down.
I burst out into tears,”I really don’t know how to end this. I can’t stay here, especially not alone. There is no one here during the day and that’s when I have been having these encounters. I can’t believe she is dead. She was as real as you and me!!!”
“I believe you. We will find a way around this. Sara, Raghu, please don’t discuss this with anyone at the moment. Let’s see what happens.” Neel let Raghu and Sara out and came and sat down next to me. Shiloh put his head onto my lap.
In that moment, I felt safe and secure in a bubble. ‘I wish it’s just me going crazy and not Kavita actually coming into my life’, I prayed.
“Please try and be normal. Don’t let the girls get any inkling about all this. I will also check if we can move out asap”, Neel reassured. “Let’s also try and find out what all this is and why has she only connected with you.”
“Neel, I don’t want to find out anything. Let’s just move away from here.”
“Calm down. Everything will be okay. I’ll take off work for a few days and stay with you. The girls can carry on with their routine. Let’s also try and get Asha down.”
I sat there not knowing what to do.
When the girls got back, they were surprised to see Neel at home. Neel told them that I had lost a very dear friend of mine and was in a state of shock. “Please don’t bring up this topic and try and be supportive. I will be home with Mom for a few days till she settles down”, he told them.
The girls hugged me and I burst out crying. I felt secure. I had read somewhere that there are no coincidences in life and that everything that happens, has a reason. Was this a way of making me appreciate my family? Was it for me to realise how lucky I was? Why did she come to me? All that I had read in books and seen in movies flashed in my head.
She hadn’t harmed me or my family in any way. Then why was I so scared???
The signals had been there- Shiloh’s odd behaviour, the chill in the air every time Kavita was around, my energy being sapped out.
Out of the blue Roma called. Neel spoke to her and told her everything. “She is in a state of shock”, I heard him say. “That would be fabulous!”
When the call ended, he told me that Roma was coming to Gurgaon.
“There is nothing we can do now, so I suggest just try and divert your mind”, Neel said reassuringly.
Roma arrived and that brought cheer back into the house. Shiloh’s excitement knew no bounds and the girls too were happy. Neel relaxed a bit. He knew how important Roma was to me. It had been difficult for him to work from home. There were a lot of issues that needed his attention.
At five feet, Roma was a packed bundle of exuberance. Her jet black hair was always held back with a scrunchy and her deep black eyes, gave the impression of never-ending depth. Roma’s whole demeanour had a vibrant and warm feel to it. Having her over came as the best possible thing in the cold dark situation we had found ourselves in.
Sara and Raghu had both checked on me, but I wasn’t into meeting anyone. I refused to take the elevator.
Neel had been on the phone sorting some issue. “Good News! All sorted out and Asha will start working from next week. Her parents were a bit hesitant, but I assured them that she can visit them every three months for a week.”
“You see! Everything seems to be falling into place”, Roma piped in.
Yes, everything was falling into place. Yet, Kavita was in there, in the back of my mind. There had been no encounter- maybe because I always had someone around.
I even wondered whether it had really happened or was it my mind that was driving me crazy.
“Roma, do you believe me?”
“Com’n Aliya! I really do! There has to be a reason behind this. And believe me, you aren’t the first to have such an experience. Even in today’s rational world, there are things which are beyond human comprehension.”
Sara called and said she wanted to come over. She mentioned it was urgent and that I should just hear her out.
When she arrived, she got into a detailed description of why such encounters happen. “I spoke to a friend, without giving her any details and she referred me to a psychic. He is quite well known world over for his tarot readings etc. I called him and we spoke about your predicament. It didn't surprise him at all. He mentioned he has dealt with such cases earlier. Fortunately he is in Delhi at the moment and he will come over this evening itself.” I was touched by Sara’s concern. We hardly knew each other, but nonetheless, she reached out genuinely. I knew for sure that this was one bond that would only strengthen with time.
That evening Roma decided to take the girls out for a movie and dinner. We planned it in a way where they would only come home once Neel called her. Sara was to come over with the psychic around 5:30. As Raghu knew about the encounter and had also known Kavita, Neel asked him to join in.
“Aliya, just relax and let’s see how this progresses. I am here and I know for sure everything will work out fine”, he said.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. No words could convey what I was going through and how grateful I was for the ones who loved me and stood by me.
The bell rang and Neel opened the door for Sara.
The man who walked in with Sara was immaculately dressed, unlike the impression I had formed of a psychic. He was 6 ft tall, with a closely cropped beard. His bulky physique was in total contrast with his childlike, friendly face. His light eyes and peppery hair, added to his charm. He must have been in his late forties. “I’m Dr. Vasudevan. Sara has given me a brief idea. All I can say is that there is nothing to worry. We’ll handle this together”, he smiled brightly.
Shiloh bustled around excitedly and after greeting the newcomer, came down and settled down near me. Dr.Vasudevan started by telling us about how the soul lives on, even when the body perishes. He spoke about souls being reborn, souls finding salvation and about some that get caught up in a vortex, that prevents them from moving on. He went on to explain about the presence of energy.
“If you are wondering why you were chosen, all I can say is that no one can be certain of the reason. Most likely that Kavita’s soul must have tried to reach out to others, but failed. With you, because you were also in a state where you were looking to reach out to someone. So let’s just say, she was in luck.”
I felt the blood drain from my face.
“There is nothing to fear. This cross dimensional connection happened because there was a mutual need of being understood. In no way have you or your family been harmed or adversely affected.”
“What about Shiloh falling ill?”, I asked.
“Now animals can sense the extraordinary. Their senses are heightened. Sometimes humans can also sense. There are instances when you feel as if something brushed past you or like someone has called out to you. We dismiss these as our subconscious mind’s games. People who have had out of body experiences also confirm the theory that the soul can travel. So how can we say that the soul dies when the body perishes?”
What Dr. Vasudevan said made some sense and I could see that Neel too was quite intrigued. Forever the sceptic, he had always thought of Tarot, Past-Life Regression, Energy Healing etc. as mumbo-jumbo.
“So, what next? How do we get this to stop? How do we ensure that this doesn't happen again?”, he asked.
“Well, it’s really simple. Aliya needs to break the connection. I am not going to mislead you and tell you that theres a lot to be done and money to be paid for this and that. All that is just a hogwash”, he replied.
He looked at me and continued, “ You do believe in energy. Don't you?”
I nodded and he continued,” I could sense that the moment I entered the house. Your mind has the power to change the course of things.”
I nodded again. He was quite right. All the books that I had read and some of the discussions I had been part of, all talked about how everything was made up of energy or prana. The Chinese called it Chi. The mind could be trained to heal too.
Dr. Vasudevan realised that he had gotten through to me and continued, ”As the sun sets, you need to write down Kavita’s name on a piece of paper and burn it. You will also need to ask her to break the bond and prod her towards moving on. Once she leaves this plane, only then will she move forward towards ultimate salvation.”
“Are you sure she will go away forever?”, I asked, my voice quite shaky.
“I hope so Aliya”, he said assuringly.
He gave Neel a CD. As Neel put on the CD, Vedic shaloks filled the air.
We decided to move to the balcony. It was my special place and I knew I would feel comfortable there. I placed an empty plate on the table. Neel went in and got a paper and pen. As the sun started setting over the horizon, I did what Dr. Vasudevan had said. My hands trembled as I wrote Kavita’s name down. I could hear Raghu reciting a prayer under
his breath. Sara stood further away, quietly observing the proceedings. Neel was by my side and I could feel his support.
“Any thought that comes to your mind while this is being done, make sure to remember it. It could be a message”, Dr. Vasudevan added.
With my eyes closed I thought of Kavita. I urged her to break the connection and to move on. In my heart, I also thanked her for helping me realise how fortunate I was.
Slowly, I lit the match and took it to the paper. I put it in the plate and closed my eyes. The intensity with which I prayed, shook me. All I wanted was to break the connection and help her move on. Kavita’s face flashed in my head and the I felt as if I was exploding out of my own skin. As I opened my eyes, I thought I saw a faint silhouette receding from the balcony towards the setting sun. I was not sure whether the others also saw it.
I looked at Shiloh and could see that he was looking in the same direction too.
“Did you see anything?”, I turned around and asked everyone.
Raghu and Sara nodded a negative.
“I really don’t know what I saw. For a split second there was a heaviness in the air, but then it sort of just disappeared”, Neel said in a slightly dazed manner.
“Aliya, there was a strong energy field around us and even if none of us saw anything, if you did, we believe you.”, Dr. Vasudevan said.
“It felt as if I was exploding out of my own body”, I cried.
“In your own sub conscience, there must be something that’s constantly holding you back. Maybe its time for you to let go too. We all carry baggage that not only weighs us down, but also those around us. After all, we are human. Easy to preach, though!”, he smiled. “We all need someone to connect with. In her case too, she just needed someone to relate to. Just because physically she doesn't exist, we cannot ignore her existence. She connected with you. Don’t know if she has ever connected with anyone else. We can only pray that her soul finds it’s path.”
I understood what Dr. Vasudevan had explained. Commercially, there was so much of the new-age philosophy, all trying to teach people holistic living. Every time someone read a book by Robin Sharma or Mitch Albom, or heard a spiritual discourse, I was sure, like me, they too would have vowed to be more positive. But the drudgery of daily routines and complexed living in metros, was sure to make them forget all the theories about positively changing life. We were human after all.
“I can’t thank you enough Dr. Vasudevan”, I said, as I went up to him. “I also believe that there are no coincidences in life. This was meant to happen. Not just for Kavita, but for me and everyone else involved. It has made me realised that in my journey, I am not alone. When I needed support, I got it, not only from my close ones, but also from people who I hadn't met before. It’s like there is someone who is always watching over me.”
“Let’s hope it’s over”,he said. “And really there is nothing that I have done. I just guided you. You are the one who broke the connection.”
Neel put his hand over my shoulder and I knew that everything would always work out for me. I thanked Raghu for his unrelenting support.
“Raghu, whenever Kavita’s children visit next, please let them know that I would like to meet them”, I told him.
Neel’s gratitude was boundless. “ Dr. Vasudevan, we will always be indebted to you. And to you too Sara and Raghu!”
Raghu simply folded his hands and smiled. For Sara, I had no words. As I hugged her tightly, I burst out crying.
Sara laughed and hugged me back, “All’s well now Aliya! Let’s start living from this moment onwards. Welcome to Gurgaon!!!!”
And just like that I felt a calm descend over me. There was nothing that could be done to erase this episode from my life. However, it was time to turn the page.