Lemon Tea15 mins 431 15 mins 431
The year 2003
XLRI- MBA Sales and Marketing program required a two-month internship and 22-year-old Naina Talwar had secured a placement at Xerox India, Gurgaon, Haryana, at a stipend of 25 thousand Rs per month. Girish Paranjpe, 32-year-old, strikingly handsome man with a clean-shaven look, crew-cut hair, crisp shirts, cotton pants and matching ties every day, looked every bit the corporate sales managers are made up of. He was zonal head; S&M for Xerox corporate sales and he knew the 7 P formula for marketing better than Booms and Bitner. He had a desk poster of Philip Kotler on his workstation and numerous quirky quotes painted the wall of his cabin. To the right of his chair was a soft board with photographs of a woman and a small boy pinned on it.
Naina had joined his team as an intern after a rigorous interview with Girish. He could never let an incapable intern be in his team. This is not to say he expected them to be a star already. He sought young talent with 3 D’s- discipline, dedication, and determination and Naina was every bit of the D coupled with looks that do not strike first when you meet a person. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful or pretty by the usual notions of prettiness. Tall and athletic, shoulder-length wavy hair, thick black-rimmed eyeglasses full lips, Naina’s fair skin was flawless but there was something else that struck when people met Naina. It was her voice, her attitude and how she carried herself. Her attire neat, tidy, apposite, well-matched accessories and shades of gloss, her voice well-modulated and clear, her English impeccable, and her attitude which won her the internship at Xerox India within the first five minutes. Coming from an army background family in Delhi, Naina had something in her which set her apart from the crowd.
“What leads to a communication problem?” asked Girish looking at her resume on his laptop screen.
“That we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply. That we think that the other person does not have what deserves attention and we let our eyes and mind wander. You see, we all have something to offer only if we stopped by to listen” answered Naina, her eyes piercing his eyes and stirring something in his heart.
A week later into his team, Naina had established herself as an erudite management trainee. XLRI brand added the extra icing and Girish was awestruck. The admiration, though, was mutual. The free-spirited, ebullient, and young Naina naively fell to the pizazz Girish exhibited.
“Why do you prefer your tea without sugar? Are you diabetic?” asked Naina pouring two heaped spoonfuls of sugar in her lemon tea.
“Life is already so sweet, why do you need added sugar?” Girish winked at Naina spreading a smile on her face. “You know Naina, when you smile, your eyes smile too,” added Girish quickly turning her face soft pink.
As they started spending more time together over her Marketing Project-Lifetime Plans of the Solution Companies, the line between personal and professional started to blur. His occasional pat on her shoulder, the brush of his hands against hers while handing documents, the graze of her hair as she hovered over his laptop screen and the sound of their breath when they stared at the sales figures closely on the screen, finally ended under the sheets where she held him close to her bosom and rustled in his ears- “I love you Girish. I have been in relationships before but I never felt the way I feel with you. I know it sounds cliché but don’t leave me ever.” A tear fell on his hairy chest and he held her against his heart with all his might. The ‘I love you’ of Naina was fragrant with commitment and for Girish, it was saddled with worry but sincere nevertheless. He knew he was off-limits. Naina at 22 was aware but couldn’t care less for the marriage vows. He was married to Riti and had a 2-year-old autistic son. What makes the third person come in between and work her way to occupy the space reserved for the spouse only, is an enigma, baffling and splintering at the same time. When ‘I love you’ mean differently to the two people involved, the relationship is bound to wreck soon. Sex is hardly a strong element to hold relationships together. The smartphones haven’t become so smart to hide the infidelity that has crept in the marriage. Riti was all that Naina wasn’t. She was simple, sober, stay at home and invested in her son and husband. She didn’t care much for glamour and glitz of the corporate world and preferred her math’s tuition classes at home anytime over the mad race of the world outside. Her calculations didn’t go wrong as she connected one dot to another and found out about Naina and Girish. What happened next was Riti meeting Naina and Girish together with her two-year-old son. She held her sleeping son in Girish’s lap and asked just one question, “Are you with us or with her?” Girish’s answer tore Naina heart into a million pieces while shattering him into billion pieces from within too. She packed her bags the next day and landed at Delhi airport for a flight to Kolkata and then on a train to Jamshedpur. As she passed through the departure gate, she saw Girish waving at her. He walked briskly and approached Naina with a gift and a card. Teary-eyed they hugged and parted forever. Later, in the flight when Naina opened the card it read - “If life could give me one more chance, I would show you how sincere my ‘I LOVE YOU’ meant.” Naina screamed silently all throughout her journey. Her co-passengers gave her swollen red eyes a concerning look but moved their eyes away when they saw deep love bites on her neck staring back at them from her purple spaghetti top.
Naina never got over Girish because she had resolved not to. She just pretended it was all over. She carried him wherever she went, whatever she did and every moment she breathed. Her headspace and heart space was ruled by Girish and his memories. Time passed by and Naina was campus placed. Her business acumen soon pushed her high up in the career ladder. Despite repeated attempts from her parents, Naina turned her life away from marriage. And while her pay package grew, her business deals hard locked, her wounds became deep and almost a part of her existence. She managed to track Girish all this while.
She was 37 now and 15 years had passed between then and now. He was now Sales head, Asia operation, Xerox India, Gurgaon. In times of social media and instant connectivity, it isn’t difficult to keep an eye on the significant past or present of your life. One message could ignite the old flames, who knows. Naina had typed that one message several times and saved it as a draft. Somehow, she never felt Girish responsible. Or was she too blind? Did she blame Girish? Yes and NO. Love is the most glorious form of self -harm that people afflict on themselves and falling in love with a married person is equivalent to suicide. Love blinds you to comfortably forget the distinction between right and wrong, the good and the bad, vice and virtue and married/unmarried. Naina was so consumed and crippled by her own feelings that to see any logic or rational, Riti or 2-year-old Aryan was out of question. She had let her feelings submerge under the waves of career, ambition, and professional life and here she was, leading the sales team for Teletech International, returning after a few successful deals.
The Uber car screeched in front of Naina’s apartment. “Madam, we have reached,” said the driver, Ramalingam.
His grating voice jolted Naina from her reverie as she wiped her moist eyes. Any moment of leisure threw Naina back to Girish, sometimes remembering him with love and most of the time with hurt.
She had returned after a 6-month long trip and her 2-bedroom studio apartment in Bangalore, otherwise immaculate and organized, bore a dusty look. Every piece of furniture had a layer of dust settled and the commode had some clogging issues due to which it looked like a public urinal. The self-proclaimed obsessive-compulsive gave a weary look and dragged her suitcase from the living room to the bedroom leaving behind the wheel prints on the unswept floor. She generously poured the Harpic along the rim of the commode while holding her breath to ward off the stink. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she called her maid Latha to let her know she is back but maidservants have their own way of addressing someone else’s urgency. “O Ma! I will come tomorrow. You were gone for long, I have three houses now, that also in the evening when you are back. If it is okay you tell me otherwise you can look for someone else.” The Kannadiga accent laced with the nonchalant attitude of Latha piqued Naina as she clutched her iPhone 10 between her ears and her shoulders and blurted- “Okay! You come after 7 pm. I don’t have time to waste looking for someone else.”
With jet-lagged eyes and droopy shoulders, Naina trudged to pick up the dusting cloth and the broom as the clock struck 3 pm. Waiting has never been in Naina’s dictionary. With her, it was exactly ‘perfect or doesn’t exist’. She somehow couldn’t handle ‘in between, relax, hang on, it is okay’. This worked well for her job as Corporate Sales Head, Teletech International and her enormous amount of success could be attributed to her ‘sense of perfection’ in everything and ‘do or die’ attitude which her teammates resented. At 37, Naina had secured for herself a flourishing corporate career, an affluent lifestyle, a personal studio apartment in Purva Riviera, Marathalli, Bangalore, a steel grey Swift Dzire, weekly spas, regular manicures, and pedicures, ayurvedic facial in an uptown parlour for her already gifted good looks, parents well-taken care in Delhi and a lonely wounded heart.
3 hours went by and Naina had put everything into a sparkle, including the commode. “It would be a shame to use it now,” she laughed to herself. It was 6 pm by then and she felt hungry. Saturday’s have either been ‘Mainland China’ or ‘Punjabi by Nature’ with friends or the comfort food- Maggie at home. Over a bowl of steaming Maggie, Naina sat on her satin-covered floor bed and dragged the suitcase over the hand-knitted, turquoise coloured Artemis rug. She opened her suitcase and started arranging things back to where it belonged when her hands touched the gift-wrapped Gucci watch and a card which read- “let’s seal this deal…will you marry me? – Raunak”. The black dial and the golden frame of the watch shone and so did the message scribbled in golden glitter.
Raunak had made an impressive entry in her life in New York during the client meet. He, of course, represented the client- Capital Group, headquartered at New York. Naina had done her homework well and her best sales pitch was ready. There was no chance of refusal for this deal of products that Naina led. Few high-profile meetings at JW Marriott Essex House, Central Park over unending cappuccinos and working lunches sealed the deal though it remained unclear as to what worked for Naina. Raunak handed her the signed copy of the deal, bashfully looking at her, his hands touching hers under the file and teased, “Here is the deal and my heart sealed with it.” Naina had expected this coming. The concoction of her charm, quick wit, intellect, and smartness hardly failed. Later, Naina went around traversing the globe from the US to Germany, to Hongkong, Singapore and finally back to India. Raunak and his feeling followed her during her travel and Naina welcomed them. Why shouldn’t she? A 35-year-old, single eligible bachelor from IIM Calcutta, placed with Capital group in New York, geeky-looking, stylish demeanour, and a voice to fall for, Raunak was truly a man to live for.
The phone beeped as Naina scrambled to find it under the heap of clothes... “Hi Naina! At least you should have messaged me that you have reached safely. I was getting worried. Listen, we have played hide and seek enough for 6 months, and I think I need to fly to India and talk to my parents. Before that, I need to talk to you. Should I get my tickets done? I love Naina and you know it far too well. Love-Raunak.”
She gave the message a sombre look and put it on silent. It was 9 pm and the bleary-eyed Naina walked to the bathroom for a hot bath. As she sank in her warm bathtub smelling of Roman chamomile, she felt her back arch and her neck squirm with desire. She felt his hands crawl up her thighs sending tingling sensation all over her body. Her lips quivered in anticipation. Just when she saw his face that her eyes opened. Her breathing was heavy and she rushed out of the bathtub. The soft pink towel wrapped her porcelain skin as she tried hard to hold back her tears. When it became unbearable, she knocked herself against the white tiled wall, trying to hold herself from sinking in the little pool that flowed from her eyes. It pained her. She felt it in her stomach, the same pain when Girish had turned his back on her. Raunak had awakened what lay hibernated over the long 15 years of winter. A small green leaf had sprouted, hope and love melted the icicles of frozen feelings.
Naina pulled herself like she always did on nights when the pain became unbearable. Dressed in her pyjamas, she poured herself a glass of Merlot and sat with her laptop. She had to respond, take charge, and come alive again. She had been dead for long. She liked Raunak though she had not reached the stage called LOVE yet. She wondered if she ever would. A bright red diary lay on her table next to the lamplight. Holding her silver Parker pen Naina started to write
“I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or sad. I’m just someone who once felt something bigger than anything else I’d ever felt and when I lost it, I honestly believed I would never have that again. But... I was 22 then and life is long. And I’m feeling things right now that I haven’t in a long, long time. Raunak is the name. Girish was the name and I need to LET GO.
Moments later, Naina silently stared at the email, messages that she had written to Girish in these years and never sent. Her draft folder contained her life. Before she could select all and press delete, an email alert caught her attention. An old acquaintance from Xerox days, who was on her friend’s list on Facebook had mailed her- “Girish Paranjpe lost his son to arrhythmia two days back. I got to know today and thought I should let you know -Supriya.”
Naina stared at the words in disbelief. She logged on to Facebook and typed G. Facebook put Girish Paranjpe name first, the way it had for 15 years. Messages of condolence spread his entire FB homepage. Her eyes fell on the picture of Aryan all of 12 or 13 years, on the swing with Riti in the front and Girish behind. The mind and the heart wandered fast until exhaustion took over Naina and she dozed off on the rug next to her laptop, half-empty glass of wine and the phone with 15 missed calls from Raunak.
Next morning Naina woke up with a lurking headache. The restless night had ended but her heart was running a marathon. She looked at her phone - 18 missed calls and 5 messages from Raunak. As she washed her face with cold splashes, she saw her haggard eyes and in those eyes, she saw a bright life ahead. “Isn’t it what Raunak means?” she smirked to herself.
Putting her laptop to charge, Naina opened her Gmail and other accounts. It took her exactly five minutes to sort out her life.
“Girish, I heard about Aryan. I am so sorry for this loss. I know how you feel for I have gone through it myself. Life is giving us another chance, shall we? I am waiting.” She typed– Girish.Paranjpe@gmail.com and clicked- send. She picked up her phone and deleted unread messages and missed calls from Raunak, blocked his number and flipped the phone on the bed. Leaping into the kitchen to make tea, for the first time in 15 years, she added sugar to her lemon tea.