I walked into the conference room but was surprised to be confronted by an empty hall. I looked at my schedule again. Yes, the press conference was supposed to happen today. Few minutes and few calls later realized that party leaders have canceled the meeting and as usual I was the last person to know about it in spite of heading the PR department. I sat down on the last chair trying to think about what to do and how to utilize the next 2 hours. It has been a rare opportunity for me to be alone and free since my RV party started the election campaign. With no plans for the next 2 hours, I didn’t know where to go.
“Pranav, is that you?” The voice brought me back to earth from my thoughts as it always did. I turned around to find Sanjana standing at the door. She looked still the same from my memories and still had the same effect on me.
“Hi, Sanjana, it is nice to see you. What brought you here? The leaders in CCP still paying to spy on our events?” I tried my best to keep in control of the fake antagonism towards her due to her party loyalty.
“Yes, Pranav they do,” she replied with a hint of sarcasm as well as an acceptance of the fact that their party was fading very fast in front of the RV party’s success.
“Well, there is nothing to record here today. The conference has been canceled last minute as our Netaji suddenly decided to fly to London and left us poor people uninformed,” I stated the truth.
“I don’t know if I should be sad or happy about it. Sad that no one in our party came to know about this or happy about the fact that I can spend the next 2 hours trying to do some creative work instead of preparing the stupid responses my leader would have needed after this press release from yours.” She said with utmost honesty.
“Are you saying what my leader says is stupid or that your leader’s responses are stupid?” I still chose to maintain the sarcasm and despise I had for her party and her leaders.
“Well, all I can say is that with the quality barbs being exchanged between our parties these days, it doesn’t leave enough space for us creative people to come with new or creative ideas.” She decided to stick with politeness and connect to the common bond we PR people shared being the outliers of political tussle.
“Would you like to have some coffee? This hotel has a nice shop on the roof. Promise we don’t have to talk work or politics.” I coughed up the courage to ask and respond politely to her honesty.
“Yeah, sure! Unless you are afraid of me stealing more of your campaign ideas!! Honestly, I need to kill the next two hours before Ashish picks me up. You know Ashish right, my husband?”
“Of course, I remember him. After all, he was my junior before you even joined the college across the road from mine.” I hoped she didn’t pick up any scorn in my voice.
“Oh yeah forgot that. Let us go then.”
I looked at my watch and saw I still had just under two hours to kill. Since I had asked the question now it would seem impolite to say no. “Sure, I also have a couple of hours to kill before I pick up my daughter from her music and dance class.”
We started walking towards the elevators, deciding to complete the journey in silence. Entering the elevators and being this close to her was something I was not prepared for at all. It had been almost 14 years since last we stood this close together. Back in college and under very different circumstances. I hoped she wouldn’t remember that. We exited the elevator, settled down on a table, and ordered our own poisons. Then both of us looked around not sure how to start the conversation.
“So what are your party’s plans on seat sharing in the coming election? Is it all done?” I tried to break the silence.
“Who is spying now?” She asked with a smile in her eyes. Then continued as she saw the discomfort this question caused me. “You know, in spite of being a national party, we have been going downhill over the past decade. Nowadays we depend a lot on our local allies to make up the numbers. You won’t believe how much our party is bending backward for them. I have lost count of the number of times I had to redo my campaigns just because some local leaders from the allies had some personal and usually stupid objection to it.”
“Well, I can relate to it. With our party’s increasing dominance at the national level, even our allies have started creating hurdles in the campaign. While our party leaders still want to keep the alliance together, these parties' insecurities are driving people, in similar positions as me, crazy.” I agreed.
“Yeah, I have been wondering that for the past few months about the tones of the campaign you are running. Right from college days, I used to find your campaigns to be very creative. But for the past few months, I don’t see the same juices flowing.”
“Guilty!! At the same time, maybe it is because juices from your party’s campaign are flowing like a river. CCP campaigns have turned over a new leaf in this election. Is it because of the brilliant PR Manager they have hired last year?”
“Avoiding to accept your fault and changing the topic through flattery. Seems like you are becoming a better politician yourself instead of just a PR Manager.” She replied, “I had always wondered how the college leader who used to go out of the way to help the poor and backward students with so much fervor and used to initiate social causes even at that age, moved in the money-making side of politics?”
Her tongue in cheek reply and the follow-up question struck a chord in my past. I looked up and decided to share something I had never shared with anyone. “Yes, my ideals died and reality kicked in as soon as I completed my masters. My father’s health ended his career abruptly and I had to take over the responsibilities at home. I started working part-time and completed my higher studies in Marketing. Joining the PR team of a political party once things stabilized at home was my way to stay connected to at least some of those ideals. It was a good-paying job to take care of my parents and my daughter’s future.” I replied with a tinge of regret and complete honesty.
“Hmmm... You know the ideals you used to talk in the college rallies are what inspired me to join this field. When I joined college I used to hate politics and all things attached to politicians and political parties. Your speeches and actions to support the student causes were what showed me a different side of politics. I lacked the courage to be a leader and public speaker like you, so I chose the other way to be in the background of politics. I completed my studies with only this purpose in my mind.” My honesty was able to get some honesty from her in return. It brought a smile to my face.
“And since we are being honest, I have a confession to make.” My breath stopped but she continued. “My first venture into a political campaign in college was an idea I stole from the campaign you were planning for your student party. I came to know about what you were planning in your college through Ashish when he came to my college fest. I decided to steal the plan and use it for my party. Even though it didn’t do much good for my union. The campaign you guys came out finally was so inspiring that we were washed out in the elections. I always wanted to apologize for that though, as it would have ruined your original plan.” I took a sigh of relief as soon as she completed as we were not heading into that area of conversation.
“Well then, I have a confession too. I knew Ashish was planning to leak this information to you and your friends in the union in order to impress you. I wasn’t completely honest about it. The idea I told him was something we had considered but already dropped. So I didn’t mind that he was going to share my idea with you. Our new campaign had already been planned and kept well hidden. In fact, I had hoped back then and am honestly surprised that Ashish gave me credit for the idea. I had always imagined that he would use the idea and tell you it as his own to impress you.”
“He tried but I saw through it,” she replied with a sheepish grin and we both burst out laughing.
“Listen we have been talking work and politics for the past 1 hour, let us stick to our plan of no political talk,” She surprised me again by changing the topic.
“What do you want to talk about? More flashbacks of our college days or something else?” I asked.
“How about some more honesty and confessions?” Before I could reply she continued. “I will go first! I used to have a big crush on you when I joined college. You were doing your masters in the opposite college but we used to hear a lot about your leadership. I was in awe of your stories before even I laid my eyes on you. I made sure nobody was aware of it during your visits to our college for the rallies. And when you jumped in front of us girls during the police lathi charge I had really gone hook, line, and sinker. Here was a guy who had opposing political views but was not only willing to support our cause but also willing to risk his own safety to protect the females.” She confessed with a sheepish grin and pausing to make it my turn to respond.
I weighed about how honest I could be and then forced myself to stop thinking and focus on being honest. “I knew about your crush on me. Just like you had your spies in our college I had my share in yours. I came to know about this new girl in the opposite college, who used to ask around about me and seemed to have a crush on me even before I laid my eyes on her. Once I did lay my eyes, I was sharing similar but much deeper feelings about her the way she was about me.”
“Really!! I thought my feelings were well hidden from everyone, most of all from you. I used to make it a point to be far behind in your rallies and avoid any conversation with you in fear that you will see through my façade of hating your party. How come I didn’t realize I was so obvious to you or that you shared the feelings?”
“Like I said the feelings were similar but deeper from my side. While I knew you had a crush on me it was something much much deeper for me. I had never felt like that about any girl back then like I did about you. And yes when I jumped in front of the police charge it was not to support your cause or to protect the females. It was for you as I couldn’t see you get hurt in front of me and not do something about it.”
“Then how come you never confessed or proposed me? Or for that matter allow Ashish or any other guy to impress me?”
“Well in college my priority was different and as a leader of my party, I couldn’t be seen falling for a girl from the opposing party. Then like I said life caught up with me as soon as I moved out of college. When I came searching for you again in a couple of years you were already in a relationship with Ashish. Even with all his faults, I knew he was a good guy and will take care of you better than my family situation would allow me to.”
“Hmm…You know I waited for any indication from you throughout my first two years of college and decided to move on only when you left after completing your masters. After refuting all advances for a couple of years from all guys, I finally caved into persistence from Ashish. I never knew whether you even liked me and the disappearance act after college just reinforced my decision to move on. As you said Ashish is a good guy and never gave me a reason to regret the decision.”
“And I don’t blame you for it. I never expected or gave you an indication that I wanted you to wait for me.”
“You know I was pretty excited when I heard from Ashish that you got engaged and your marriage was scheduled. I really wanted to attend your wedding, and actually, that news only helped in my decision to accept the marriage proposal from Ashish. I was very disappointed when we didn’t get the invite from you to your wedding which was just 2 months after ours. In fact both me and Ashish decided not to bother inviting you and your batchmates from college just because of that.”
“ Hahaha…But I did attend your wedding. And that was one of the reasons you never got invited to mine.” I replied.
“Really? How come I again missed you? From my wedding that is. And we have seen the video multiples times after that but never saw you anywhere”
“Like I said I did keep track of you and Ashish and used to come to know about each stage of your relationship. While I got forced into an early engagement and plans of marriage due to my father’s health, there was still a candle burning in the corner of my heart that things will not work out for you and Ashish. So I came to the wedding uninvited, stayed right at the back, and ensured I was never captured by the roving cameras.”
“Oh…do you ever wonder whether our lives would have been different if you had some courage?”
“No, I don’t wonder. Do you?”
“Sometimes. I have a happy life nothing to complain about. Ashish has been a wonderful friend to me and father to our kids. He is even close to my family more than me and takes care of all the needs of my mother after dad passed away. He gives me the freedom to pursue my dreams even though he really looks down on politics. We have our once a year holidays, enjoy the festivities with both families around. So actually I don’t have any regrets.”
“But?” I persisted.
“I had always wondered if I had someone like you in my life how different it would have been.” There was a wistful look in her eyes for a few seconds but she switched it off again.
“Enough about me tell me about your wife, Shikha was it? And how old is your daughter? You still living with your parents?”
“Yes, I still live with my parents, and my daughter, Simran, will turn 7 next December. Work is good and very seasonal as per elections across the country. So it gives me a lot of time to spend with Simmi, go on holiday and help her to pursue all her interests. She is special and very talented when it comes to creative things. So my greatest pleasure is to take her around to those classes and events.”
“That’s nice. And your wife Shikha? And don’t be surprised I know the name I also did follow you a little till your engagement.”
“Well, Shikha is happily married and settled in Canada with her husband and two kids. Her son is a similar age to Simmi.”
“I don’t understand,” she prodded.
“I never married Shikha, we parted ways in spite of our engagement and it was very much peaceful parting. We are still friends on FB and talk sometimes.”
“Why? As in why didn’t the marriage happen?”
“Don’t think I am telling you this out of any ulterior move or to weigh you down. Like I said I came to your wedding. In those few moments, I realized what you meant for me and realized that I will never be able, to be honest, and truly in love with any other girl. So once I went back I explained to Shikha and we parted ways as she understood me completely. My parents were heartbroken but my decision to adopt a daughter kind of pacified them to some extent. Now when they see me really happy with Simmi, they overcome their urge to harass me into marriage. Though, I do hear my mum sniffle a little bit whenever her side of family questions her about my decision.”
“Pranav, are you kidding me? You are wasting away your life just because of some feelings you had for me in college? And if you are waiting for me then it’s even stupider as I am very satisfied and happy with Ashish.” Her face showed anger, sadness, and all kinds of mixed emotions.
“Few points I want to correct. I am not wasting my life but really living the life I want for myself without lying and being dishonest to a girl who would have given up on everything in her life just asking for my love in return. A love I would have never been able to give. It wouldn’t be fair to her and I don’t want to push any girl in that position. Secondly, I am not waiting for you and I never did. For me, it was always important just to know that you are happy, not necessarily with me. If being with Ashish is what you wanted and made you happy, then my love is not selfish to wish that it doesn’t work out between you two and that you come to me running. I really wish and pray every day for your happiness. And one more thing, when you asked if I wonder about a different life, the complete answer is - no. I don’t wonder, I know. I know my life would have been very different and maybe even happier if you had been with me. But I am the happiest when I know you are happy. The fact that I am able to give the best life possible to my daughter without ruining her mother’s or any girl's life is like the icing on the cake. I honestly don’t regret any decision I have taken or anything which happened in my life due to circumstances”.
With this, I gave her my best possible smile and got up. As I left I could see her finally smile too and accept that she is happy for me. I just managed to wipe my tears before exiting the lift and walking towards my car to pick up Simmi. The coffee was never touched by either of us.