Like every Indian stuck at home for the last month, I too was bored. But, I accepted the purpose for the greater good. My parents were both 55+. If not for myself, I was scared of the two most important things in my life.
I missed my friends Arav and Sohail. We do video chatting and all once in for a while, but the very damp atmosphere of the lockdown seemed to stick us in a zone of voluntary paralysis both in the mental and physical levels. I missed my girlfriend Rashmi too.
Rashmi wasn't the typical girlfriend who would call you every three hours. No, she, too worked in an MNC and valued the personal space. I call her once every two days reminding her to stay safe and take care of her parents too. In our last call, she was tired of the home-cooked veggies and how she wished she could have a plate of Mutton Biryani in front of her.
The same wasn't my situation. For the first time in years, I realized how my mother prepares a far better chhole bhatoore than any of the big restaurants in Mumbai. The class of Glucon D my mother holds in front of me meets my thirst way more than a bottle of soft drink ever did.
There was no case of COVID positive till now in our 12 storey apartment at Bhuvneshwar.
I often speak to my colleagues in Mumbai since the work@home thing. I feel bad about the situation over there. Thankfully, I could escape before the virus got into its full form in the city.
For the first time ever, I realized the importance of my birthday place Bhuvneshwar. I craved for it, to smell it to rest in its cucoon in peace no matter what fate brings upon.
Now I realize, Anjali was always right when she said a mother in a torn saree is still a mother and an other in a silk gown would always be an other. I used to laugh at her views on life.
Who's Anjali? I chuckled by myself as I thought all down the memory lane.
Anjali and I were classmates in school. She has always been a sharp student. The first class first type that elders speak of. Initially, I was jealous of her. We enrolled in the same college and then my jealousy took the form of fun.
They say when you can't beat someone with your hook, you use the crook. I guess I did the same. Anjali was short and chubby and wore the so-called old fashioned dresses. She had huge rimmed glasses on her eyes. And since I didn't know anyone else in the college, she used to seat with me. I took advantage and took her favors when I needed to bunk a class or pass an exam. She always helped me out.
The time started having new friends. They all teased me, 'What is someone like you doing with someone like her?' and 'Don't tell me she's your girlfriend or something!' they'd laugh. 'Not in a million years. Just my passcode.' I'd laugh back in response. For the first time, I felt I beat Anjali. It was like long-awaited revenge. And in the college 'first-class first' girl was a mere sense of joke.
Anjali didn't change. She went on with good grades and kept sitting with me despite me showing the reluctance and evident taunts from my new friends. She'd call me every now and then to know if I was reading the notes she prepared. I felt irritated and often rejected her call. In the holidays, she'd bring homemade 'rosogulla' for me. She knew I loved those. And her mother was an expert in this field. Even though I wanted those, I'd not. Not in front of my smart-ass new friends.
I remembered once I met an accident while driving a friend Chetan's bike. I fractured my ankle badly and injured two pedestrians in the process. I was admitted to a government hospital in Mumbai. The two pedestrians belonged to a particular caste and within hours, the whole hospital was filled with the powerful people from that community wanting to know who hit them. All my friends left one by one. My parents were too far to do anything. But, as much as my anesthetic eyes could perceive, Anjali was there. Everyday.
Those people would threaten her and she'd just apologize in front of me. It was a few years later that I came to know that Anjali spent a good chunk of her scholarship to compensate and thereby shut the mouth of the affected patients.
The day I recovered, she was there too. So were my 'smart-ass' friends who didn't fail to make me realize how worried they were. Anjali stood at a corner, unacknowledged as we celebrated.
We passed college and coincidentally got a job in the same company. My friends teased again 'She seems like your soulmate brother..' I laughed back. '..and a pain in the ass that has no cure..'
It was in that company that I met Rashmi. She was a fair, slim, and modern girl from Mumbai who anybody would get attracted at first sight.
It was then that I decided to use Anjali again to set us together. Anjali looked a little surprised initially but then obliged. She seemed happy for me and Rashmi. But, then Rashmi started disapproving of her company in the trio. She said her friends on Facebook commented shit when they saw our groupie a week ago.
Slowly, I started avoiding Anjali again. It didn't matter to me anyway. I had a good job and a beautiful girlfriend.
But, Anjali still didn't stop talking to me. She'd often show me her paintings that never made sense to me earlier. But, slowly I started realizing her talent.
'You know Anjali would be an amazing painter someday.' I told Rashmi casually.
'But, she'd still remain the same ugly girl faced with unrequited love..' Rashmi laughed.
Unrequited love! I was shocked.
'Give me a break Raghav, as if you don't know. Even a blind could see her overwhelming feelings for you..poor girl! I hope she gets her fellow nerd of a life partner soon..' Rashmi laughed.
But, that was the day it hit me! Could this be true? Nah.
And then it was the deadly clutch of Corona visiting India. Three cases in Mumbai were already detected. My mother cried from Bhuvneshwar.
'For my sake, Raghu! Come back! I don't need you to do a job. Your father's pension is still enough to feed us all our lives. Come back, my son!'
It was a big dilemma. The project I was working on needed me on site for at least fifteen more days unless they find a suitable replacement. Leaving that would be leaving the job.
I discussed the problem with Rashmi. She was from Mumbai. Maybe she could act as my replacement!
'You're crazy! Now, I doubt if you even love me Raghav! Your mother did an emotional drama and there you were vesting the danger on me. No Raghav. I already spoke to the boss and I'd be on work at home from tomorrow since my project supports it. Don't be that selfish Raghav!' she left my cabin angrily almost bumping into Anjali who was just walking in.
As if in a split second, Rashmi turned back again. 'But, whatever you do, I still love you and as free advice.. what I said the other day..you can check the results today.. ' Rashmi said motioning to Anjali who has no idea what was going on and left.
'Raghav, any problem? Why was Rash..?'
'Nothing. Just her mood..' I didn't want to discuss things with anyone right now.
'So, are you leaving for Bhuvneshwar this week?' she asked. 'It isn't safe here, you know. I've my ticket for the day after tomorrow. Besides, the government could put a lockdown any time now.' she said.
I sighed in frustration. 'No Anjali. My group needs me on site for at least fifteen more days. I can't leave till I find a replacement..'
'Is that why you approached Rashmi?' she asked realizing what had happened.
Before I could say anything, my phone rang. My mom again. 'Excuse me! I'll talk to you later.'
Few hours later, I was suddenly called by my HR in his office. It would definitely an order not to even think about leaving Mumbai in the next 15 days!
But, what turned out was something I never expected.
'But, Sir you're sure it's fine if I leave?' I asked surprised as Mr. Kirloskar granted me the right to work at home from Odisha.
'No problem. This new project would mostly be based on IT. I've spoken with Halder and he'll call you tomorrow. You all will be communicating through the web. Don't worry.' he smiled.
At that moment, I was too happy to think about anything. Why? How? When?... These things were out of my mind as the fresh sweat of relief drenched me. I took the next flight to Bhuvneshwar.
And today, here I am. Safe and sound.
I got a call from Anjali a few days after I reached asking me if I and my family were doing good.
She didn't call me after that.
For some strange reason, I was missing her! I realized that was the result of me not realizing what a big portion of my life I spent in her company.
I decided to call her. She must be back in Bhuvneshwar too.
She didn't answer the first time. I called again and this time the phone was answered but nobody spoke.
'Anjali!' I called her name. My heart pounding in unknown anxiety.
'R..Raghav! Is that you?' it was her but in a very frail voice.
'Yes. But, you're okay? Uhm.. You're in Bhuvneshwar, right?' I asked only to get silence from the other end.
I heard some Marathi words from the other end. What's going on?
'Sorry, Raghav! I was just having a medicine. How are you? And your parents?' she said barely sighing.
'Anjali, where are you? Are you still in Mumbai?' I asked. 'Come on! Answer me!' I was impatient now.
I heard her cough. 'Yes..' she cleared her voice. 'They won't let the patients travel, you know..?'
'Patients!' my heart jumped. 'Anjali, what happened to you?' I shouted.
She chuckled scoffing a little. 'This Coronavirus may relieve you of your pain in the ass forever Mister..' she chuckled. 'It's been 12 days already and my symptoms hadn't reduced a bit, Raghav..' she said. 'Feeling bad for my parents. They are crying a lot, you know..' she said and I knew by her voice that she was crying.
My heart was pacing hard. 'Why?' I could barely utter. 'Why didn't you come to Bhuvneshwar?'
'... because my project needed me on sight for fifteen more days at least..' she chuckled through her tears.
'What? But, you said you had your ticket..' the frustrated rage in my tone faded suddenly as I realized something.
You can test what I said the other day...
I couldn't hold myself strong anymore as I realized what had happened. I sat down on the bed stoned as the memories of past invaded my mind.
I'm an idiot. I always was. How couldn't I ever think the way I'm thinking right now?
'Raghav, you didn't tell me how you are? Take care of your parents too, okay..' her voice rang on the other side.
Her voice was smooth but I knew mine won't. I don't remember when I cried the last time. But, tears were rolling down my eyes.
'Raghav, listen.. Unless the pandemic subsides, don't even think of getting out of town or traveling and yes, stay away from your bike..' she chuckled but her chuckle made her throat crack and she coughed. 'I've always wanted to tell you this but I never could but now that I might have no more time left. Let me tell you. You are a very bad driver..' I felt her smile and inhale with all her strength.
'Anjali..' I called wiping my eyes.
'I... I've taken a lot of favors from you all my life. Could you please do me one more..? Please..' I said not being able to wail a little.
'Live for me. You have to beat the virus Anjali. For me. Please..', I said breaking into tears.
'Raghav, you.. !..'
I disconnected the call breaking into loud tears.
But, I had to stop wipe the tears soon as I heard my mother's voice approaching my room.
'Raghu... It's Rashmi! She says she's been calling for quite some time but your phone is busy..!' mom said holding the phone for me.
I smiled at her and took a few steps back.
'Mom... Tell her that the result is definitely positive on both sides..'