Some things never changed.
Change was the demand of the Universe. Indeed, it was, and yet few things ruptured the precious Law and remained eternally the same. The sun in the morn with the darkest hue of orange sheared itself apart from the horizon to shine brilliantly over the planes of the Earth every day. Or the rain that tumbled down recklessly in its asperity as the monsoon gained its momentum every July. Or a child's face bursting into the biggest fits of giggles at the familiar face of its mother peering at it. Or the melancholy of a poem that made the reader's heart melt everytime his eyes fell upon the scintillating heap of the words.
And just like that, some habits never changed either. Like a lover keeping the faded photograph of his beloved in the pocket of his shirt after years have passed past their painful parting. Or a smile that passed his lips ever so lightly at her sight everytime, making him wonder if things would ever change at all. Or an ache that stung the very core of his soul everytime the realization of the truth dawned upon him: that everything had changed, and yet it didn't. Or his sole desire for her to know what he had longed to say forever and yet he couldn't.
Some things indeed never changed, no matter how many years had passed.
The cool morning of September rolled over, inciting the prying shafts of the sun within the room that lay disheveled, papers and files littered across the floor as if left in depravity of the carnival for the night. The clock chimed 6 in the morning, as he sighed in contentment for having finished the work before he boarded the flight tonight. All that he had come back to Mumbai for was done. Finished. And it was the time to go home. The thought today seemed bizarre; for there was a time he assumed this distant city to be his home, his ultimate destination after he had travelled through the world after witnessing its eternal wonders. But today, it was as strange as everything in the world around him. He didn't belong to it.
Stretching himself and getting to his feet, he stalked to the corner of the balcony that overlooked the sea from this distance as the sun glistened on the burnished surface of the solitary water gleaming with a welcome air. His weary eyes devoured the sight with great avidity which would become a part of his memories in a few hours. He had spent his whole life in this city, but now it was all a memory. As the light prickled his eyes in baleful denotation, he turned himself back, rubbing his temple that began to throb suddenly at the sensation of the tingling light on his eyes.
2 hours later, he descended the stairs and headed towards the car as the driver opened the door for him, flustered at his sudden appearance. But what caught his attention now was a little child trotting beside his mother, whose face remained concealed from his sight because of her hair falling on the side of her shoulder, covering her face. She trudged away, holding her child's left hand in hers while he seemed to be arguing over something she would not approve, and the stiffness of her steps only proved her own stubbornness on the matter. He couldn't see her face, but he didn't need that to know her name, and nor to know the address where the mother-son duo lived, for every night the jovial voice of the young child would reach his own room as he addressed his parents, sometimes disemboweling the life out of himself. He felt his eyes riveted on her fading form, his lips trembling while his fingers clutched the metal door of the car tightly. His lips involuntarily turned into a curve of smile as the child pouted at his mother as he unwillingly sat in the car, while receiving a glare from her in return.
It was the routine from a month that she appeared every day when he left for the office before his associates joined him from two blocks ahead, distracting him from the miserable sensations that passed through him after he left the gates of the mansion, but today there would be none of them, for all had left one hour earlier to prepare for the final meeting that would be held in the afternoon today. And the moment she disappeared from his view, he turned back and gave a smile to the driver in an attempt to conceal the agitation that had suddenly sprouted itself up, taking himself apart piece by piece.
The car slunk slowly towards the office building, leaving him with the thoughts of the past that lingered behind as a part of the memories with him. He could see the familiar damp roads taking him to the familiar destinations while the clammy trees covered the sides densely. It was strange to pretend to be a stranger where he had lived for years and years only to return as a stranger now...
"What do you want?" he asked her as she stared at him, her eyes imploring.
"You won't do this to me, right? You can't let me get married to Chirag, Ranveer. I don't want to marry him!"
Things were never the same after that moment. Something had changed the moment he had turned away from her, knowing the consequences of his promises to her and her father, his Mota Babuji.
The road smelled of the fresh grass and rain while the vehicles on the lonely road often passing with a honking sound created an unpleasant disturbance which he still did not like as an interruption to the calm atmosphere of the road. He had never admired it. The driver kept quiet, now perhaps tired from the narration of his drivels for one whole month that he himself had got used to and took slight amusement as they still kept him glued to the soil which he had long left behind.
"I will miss it, sir." The driver's voice interrupted his thoughts and he looked up from his laptop. "I will miss dropping you to the office and taking you back to your apartment. When will you return again, sir?"
The man gasped and shook his head in despair. "I really loved my job when you were here, sir. No one has been kind like you did to me. RV. What does this mean?"
RV. He sighed. "Isn't the two letter long name enough, sir?" RV asked, making the man gasp in surprise once again at the mention of "sir".
"No, no! I was just being curious about you... like everyone is. Had heard about you from the boss for so long, so couldn't believe when I actually saw you, RV sir."
RV smiled. "I am flattered," he answered, recalling a past without RV that had been a hollow mess. His thoughts again travelled to another realm of the memories, refusing to grant him freedom under the painful uproar of the reckless emotions.
"Ranveer! Ranveer!" She loped towards him excitedly in his room, panting, while he smiled wryly at her, trying not to give away the tumultuous explosion in his heart. She tossed herself at him as she wept in his chest for a few minutes before she ultimately looked up. "Ranveer..." Her eyes gleamed. "Papa has agreed. I wanted you to be the first person to know this."
RV shifted in his place, trying not to invite the thoughts that finally began their way back to him while leaving him little more lifeless as the hour of his departure drew nearer. He didn't want to return back to his older self anymore.
And yet, the unwelcome thoughts suddenly claimed him as the memories cast themselves in front of his eyes in brutal vivacity, his mind completely consumed by the rapidly changing scenes in his head that had torn him apart from her like a freely falling winter leaf. It hurt.
And what had happened after that moment was one of the things he could never forget. Ishani had refused to marry Chirag because she had believed they would never get along well. It was insanely amusing to see her fight with her family not to get married to him until her father had come to Ranveer.
"You have met Chirag, right?" he had asked.
"Yes, Mota Babuji."
"Would you do me a favor? Please?"
Although "favor" had made sense to him, he had hoped perhaps it was not coming after all. "Ye-yes?"
"Please make Ishani fall in love with Chirag. Please!"
Ranveer had felt his soul crush as the words had suffused themselves in his heart, but all he had managed to do was give a small, half-hearted smile that his Mota Babuji had taken as an assurance from his side. "I will do it," he had answered after five minutes of contemplation, concealing the tears that had proclaimed their existence on his face at the moment of his declaration.
"Good. I know you will." He had received a loving pat on his shoulder while his heart had wished to stop feeling the hollowness that had been created by the continuous saddling expectations from him that, he wondered, he would ever be able to fulfill... or die before that.
And thus had begun the descent of his life. He was given the time of three months and so three months it was. When he had last seen that glimmer in her eyes which held that warmth for him which he always sought after the world felt too cold and broken for his poor soul. But from that day, this comfort was taken away as well. It was inevitable, indeed, and he had admitted it, however miserable the thought had felt. Yet it was not a comfort to know he had lost his love... because he used to be a servant. Nobody cared about the servants, his mother always told him, and he never denied she was wrong.
Chirag was a good man, yes. At times in his own selfishness Ranveer often wished it wasn't so, maybe. Maybe if he were rich, he would have a chance. But no... Ishani wasn't the one who loved him back, then. He never had a chance.
As the time had passed, Ishani and Chirag had drawn closer and his mission was accomplished.
"My story is about the third person, Maa," he told his mother. "Ishani's hero would be someone else, but I will unite her with her Prince Charming... that's how this story will conclude. The perfect love story." His voice had lost its strength after these words as he had stared at his mother with unshed tears in his eyes, who remained as broken as he was on one of the days when he was close to completing his mission.
"But you didn't have to do this, Ranveer. Let's go from here."
He had shaken his head and smiled. "There's one last thing to do before I let go of the Parekh family."
RV closed his eyes as bitter tears of suppressed anguish threatened to burst out any moment, leaving him more vulnerable when he needed to remain strong for one more day. He recalled how the incidents post Ishani's confession had passed in a jiffy when the quick function was arranged for the engagement ceremony, Ishani overly excited as she had run to him to inform that her father, miffed with her stubbornness earlier, had agreed for her marriage with Chirag.
The mildest expression he could have drawn from his condition in that moment was that something within him had died that instant. He couldn't move, he couldn't say anything. All he had done was give her a weak smile to hide the inflammation of his soul. And thankfully, he was successful that day and after that as well.
Ishani was happy, he told himself everytime emotional weakness dominated his senses, and this pain was worth it. But how long? Perhaps he would break down long before Ishani got married. His resistance had begun to fall apart under the burden of the ceaseless anguish that only made him long for her to know what he truly felt for her. But it didn't matter anymore.
"The day you'll get married, Ishani, either I'll be the happiest or the saddest soul on Earth," he told her one day, and Ishani had smiled, assuming his words to be forming due to their friendship and his care for her, completely oblivious to what had just happened to him.
And he had done the toughest thing in return: smiled at her. "You will miss me when I'll be gone." Her statement was a question; and he had parted his lips to speak the truth but had fallen silent once again.
"Yes." Ranveer felt too tired to make a joke of his condition anymore.
"If it wasn't for you, Ranveer, maybe I'll never have known Chirag could be so nice."
"It wasn't like that... Mota Babuji wanted me to do this for you both... and I..." he had stuttered while Ishani had taken him in a tight embrace.
And then had come the day.
Ishani was dressed in a red Lehenga that made her look like an angel descended from Heaven. He had never seen a more beautiful bride in his life before. The smile on her face never wavered and it widened as she entered the Mandap, her family excitedly surrounding her. He saw the rituals from the distance in a corner, tears flowing down from his eyes relentlessly while with the moments passing, his heart had perhaps forgotten to even beat.
And as he was about to leave the marriage hall, a tap on his shoulder had stopped him. It was Ishani.
"Where have you been?"
Ranveer kept quiet.
And before he could make an excuse, Ishani had taken him in her embrace. "I'll miss you, Ranveer." Her tears had soaked his shirt and with a sigh, he had pulled himself apart.
"Chirag, please take care of Ishani," Ranveer had said, looking at Chirag while his vision remained blurred with the flowing tears. He couldn't pretend anymore. Chirag had nodded his head and smiled.
Ranveer had wondered whether someone had sensed anything was wrong about him... he wished no one did. But there was one person who knew it all. As soon as Ishani had left and he had returned to his room, sounds of the footsteps were heard at his doorstep. He had tilted his head to find Falguni, who stood with an expressionless face there.
And all that he remembered from that conversation today was that she had said a simple "thank you" and an apology but he never understood why. Not until now. The house had fallen silent after Ishani had left, and he had spent the rest of the night drunk, unable to believe he still existed when the whole world of his had yearned for a long awaiting burial of his being that refused to go on for a single day anymore.
Yet, death was not a pal he was supposed to embrace. He remembered seeing Ishani twice after her marriage. First time when she had returned home for the Pag Phere and the second time to make her final announcement. And that was the last time he had seen her.
She had come into his room, a pensive smile on her face, and he, too, had somehow managed to smile back even if his eyes would have deceived the look on his face, he was sure. But thankfully, she didn't notice.
"Ranveer, I need to tell you something," she had said, not looking into his eyes, as though ashamed. He hadn't dared to even nod his head as a fear had clawed its way into his heart.
And then she had declared that stained his numb soul with the splotches of blood.
"Chirag has decided to move back to Boston. We're leaving for there in two days."
She had stared at him as if to know if her decision was right or wrong, but this time he hadn't bothered to hide away his tears that reflected the bleeding of his own broken heart. Once again, a part of him had compelled him to let her know of his truest feelings one last time, for if not today, she would never know. But once again, he had refused to give in to the irrational pleads of it. Two days later, Ranveer had seen Ishani off, somewhere knowing that he was seeing her for the last time. Not realizing it was indeed the last time he saw her.
Nothing remained the same afterwards. Ishani haunted him ruthlessly. And amidst all, Baa had become more tyrant and cruel on the servants, one day abusing his mother maliciously.
His mother pleaded and pleaded in front of him and it was then did he realize his own blindness. Apologies wouldn't suffice for the agony he had put his mother through in the last two weeks, but as a part of his redemption, he had decided to walk away from the Parekh Mansion as soon as possible. Things had once again changed forever from that moment. His Mota Babuji had stared at him with guilty eyes and taken him in a tight embrace while he hadn't hidden his tears either. Only if he knew he would never see his Mota Babuji again...
How years passed, he could not tell. He remembered very little if his struggling years where he had taken an oath to give his parents a respectable life so that no Baa ever humiliated them; so that his own feelings were never thrown in a corner without any consideration. The only details he remembered vaguely were his parents asking him to get married. Not wanting to burden them with anymore troubles, he had agreed for the marriage. He remembered meeting the girl two times as she had already said a yes without even seeing him. But then, who really would deny marrying one of the renowned businessmen of the region?
A small question of their past had led him to disclose about Ishani, without mentioning her name, as the conversation had closed on their second meeting. On the third "date" he had forgotten to turn up. And that evening he had received a message on his phone that the marriage had been cancelled. She hadn't given any explanation and he hadn't fretted over any. There were two other instances in which his family had repeated the same mistakes that had ended in the similar unnecessary disasters. It took them three years to realize he didn't want to move on and they had let him be.
And so it was, here he was today, back to Mumbai again after the exile of more years than he could count.
The first thing he had done was visit the Parekh Mansion as soon as he was free from the work on the 5th day of his arrival to Mumbai. The Mansion was not the same anymore although its physical glow hadn't faded even after all these years... but something was amiss. The evening was calm with nearly no servants in his sight.
And as he had set his foot into the Mansion, the familiar face of his Falguni Maa had welcomed him and he had touched her feet. The pride, surprise and elation on her face hadn't gone amiss as she saw him in the grey three piece suit, completely opposite to what she had seen him all his life. But time changes everything.
The atmosphere, he had realized, had turned darker as Falguni and he had taken the seat on the couch. The years seemed to have flown away quickly as he noticed the white strands of her hair, the wrinkles on her face and the clarity of her kind heart. An awful reminder that she had grown old in this span of time. None of the people of his time worked there anymore and the house looked more deserted now. All the kids had left for the higher studies and now were settled abroad along with their families, Gauri was happily married and the family had grown somewhat closer since last couple of years. However, the conversation halted at the mention of Ishani. Falguni had stared at Ranveer for a few moments, the calm on his face being unable to deceive the experiences of the old woman anymore.
"No one could have loved her the way you did," she had said while Ranveer sighed, taking a deep breath to keep his thoughts coherent. So Falguni Maa knew.
"It doesn't matter, Falguni Maa. She's happy, and that's what matters the most." He smiled.
"You found someone?"
He shook his head.
He had smiled, a smile of resignation.
"Ishani is in Mumbai," Falguni said, and Ranveer looked up.
Despite knowing the truth that she lived in his neighborhood, he slowly nodded his head and smiled.
"She used to ask about you after you left, Ranveer. And when she returned back, she was mad at us all for letting you go. She had spent three nights crying before we made her understand you needed to move on in your life as well."
"Did- did you tell her...?"
"No. She doesn't know anything about your love. We never broke the promise you made us take."
Ranveer sighed again. "Thank you."
"Will you meet her before you leave?"
Ranveer felt lump rising in his throat and tears burn in the corners of his eyes. He shook his head. "No."
"Maybe she would be happy seeing you after so many years?"
He ignored the statement. "Does she ask about me even now?" Why he suddenly asked this question, he could not tell, but the possibility of the answer was frightening.
Whether he was to take this "sometimes" as a relief or not, he did not know. The truth of fading away from her life, her memories ultimately had turned him insane the day she was married. So, had he truly faded away now? Despite this relief, he could not deny that the pang of his unrequited love still stung with the intensity of a thousand spears piercing through his flesh. He gulped.
"I think it's how it was meant to be."
Falguni withdrew her face away from him for a moment and then looked back at him, relaxed in a pensive smile. "Your Mota Babuji wanted to see you before he passed away. He missed you the most, Ranveer."
"I wish I could have been here... but I got to know of it too late."
"It wasn't your fault. He knew you weren't in Mumbai anymore."
Ranveer looked down, a drop of tear leaving his eye, and smiled. Never had he thought for life to be so painful where he would have lost every one he loved. With a bittersweet ache in his heart, he stood and gave Falguni a hug.
"Will you come back to Mumbai again?"
He couldn't form the words, so he only shook his head with a constricted smile.
"I'm sorry, Ranveer," Falguni said again. "We couldn't give you anything for your loyalty..."
"It's not needed, Falguni Maa. I must leave now."
"I wish you all the luck, Ranveer. May you find happiness again."
"Sir, we've reached." The driver's voice jolted him out of his thoughts. RV stared around to find the familiar large building of the office instead of the Parekh Mansion in which he had just visited in his thoughts. He stepped out of the car and sighed, his insides still burning with the sensation of leaving the city in a few hours.
But what happened next ran another dagger over his heart as he sauntered over to the cabin of Mr. Batra, the CEO of Batra LTD., and his good friend, also the sole reason he was in Mumbai in the first place. Before he could knock at the door, the sound from inside froze his heart.
It was her.
"Sir." He heard her voice ring for the first time in years as he stiffened in his place, his grip on the doorknob tightening. "Could you not be more kind on us? He's just returning today, you know."
"Ishani, that's why I'm saying that. I had a surprise for you... only if you and Chirag could join me for the dinner tonight it would have been great."
"Actually, I wanted you to meet someone."
RV's heart raced wildly. Mr. Batra must not mention his name!
"My very good friend. RV. He's leaving in the evening today."
RV sighed, relieved. Ishani did not know RV. He was just a name she would read in the newspapers and forget as soon as the paper was out of her sight, carrying no remnant of the name's memories anymore. Suddenly his phone vibrated, him being thankful the phone was on the silent mode since last night. It was Mr. Batra.
"Hey, my boy! Where are you?"
RV steered himself away from the door. "I... I'm on my way."
"I hear no sound of the car."
"It's- it's the flat tier right now," he answered without any elaboration.
"Oh, need I send another car to you?"
"No. I'll manage."
RV disconnected the call, and placed his phone back in the pocket of his coat. And as the door opened, familiar smell of hers that never left his memory filled the hall and he pushed himself aside in the nearest room to avoid the new trouble that could have been caused due to his carelessness. He saw her walk on from behind the ajar door as the old memory of his first meeting with her floated back into his mind. Just like this, he had seen her for the first time which had led to their unbreakable friendship from that day. When his heart began pulsating on a higher rate, he remained oblivious, but it steadied when the sounds of her footsteps faded and he was restored back to reality. He would see Mr. Batra and his questions soon enough.
As the evening melted into the first benevolence of the night, RV sank into the chair, weariness of the day striving to demolish his sanity eventually. In the next 20 minutes the car would arrive and he would be returning back from where he had come. With the time drawing nearer, his heart only ached to see her one last time and sear the memory of her smiling face in his mind forever. His feet would very well have led him there had a tune not slugged his heart once again. The faint sound of piano reached him gently, making him long for the music to continue, for it undoubtedly came from her. Ishani didn't know how to play piano, he recalled, but also realized that she must have learned it during their years apart. The miniscule gaps in between the tones spoke of her essence as though a part of her remained incomplete, tarnished by a pain words could not truly express. He stood up, and shuffled his feet little closer to the other side of the balcony as a soft smile claimed his lips, slowly blending with a trickle of tears on his face for the first time in years.
The cold wind stroked his face while the simple, elaborate music continued to gnash his heart. And yet, he enjoyed this slow painful game.
"You are a masochist," she would often say, whenever she witnessed his anguishes caused by his sacrifices for her. Masochist perhaps he was. If the cost of keeping her close to him was this pain, he wasn't afraid.
For a moment he wondered if he ought to take a chance and dare a knock at her door. If for nothing else, perhaps for the old friendship they shared for one and a half decade. How would she react if she saw him today? Perhaps her face would lighten up in the brightest of the smiles and she would take him in her embrace. Perhaps she would take some time to realize it was him... her childhood friend; for people told him he had changed immensely in appearance. Would Ishani think the same? Perhaps no. Perhaps she would feel the happiest knowing RV was none other than him? Wasn't that one precious response from her worth an attempt? The music, changing in the notes, continued but by now, the sadness of the melody was replaced by the feeling of a heart-wrenching romance that made his soul shatter once again.
To the answers of his questions, what his heart told him was "no". No, he mustn't tread the same lane again. He had never let her know of his feelings for the fear of pushing her into the chasm of unbearable guilt for breaking his heart. His one moment of weakness would cost her the happiness and peace for which she had yearned for her entire life. No, he couldn't let that happen. And so he made his final decision. Never to see her again, when she had moved on in life and was happier. The music now suddenly stopped and he could hear the sounds of her faint giggles, sign of what, he did not want to admit. He spun around, feeling the pang of the unfinished music sting him as he realized just like everything about her, this unfinished music would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Amidst his thoughts to ease the pain, thankfully, the sharp sound of the car broke out and he, looking stupefied for a moment, regained his senses, little flustered. The helpers carried his luggage and tucked it in the dickey of the car, RV following them shortly. For the last time he glanced back at the house in which Ishani lived as the last embers of the light from the mansion died out, leaving behind an impenetrable darkness. Could this be anymore ironic that the woman who once promised to be by his side whenever he was in pain had no inkling of his existence anymore?
He had talked to Mr. Batra, who along with his other associates, would be waiting for him at the airport. He looked at his watch and hurried towards the car as the vehicle finally glided away, leading him away from the past once again.
The flight took off as RV bid adieu to the city of Mumbai, this time meaning it with all his heart. He hadn't realized when in this one month Ranveer had again taken birth within him, making him unbearably vulnerable all of a sudden. He stared out of the transparent orbs that remained plastered with the thin mists of the condensed fog, leaving little for him to look at. A soft sigh left his lips as the month gone by replayed back in his head and so did the regret. Regret of the lost love. He had again lost her without even having her in the first place. He had again said her goodbye without even meeting her. He had again shed few more tears without even crying today. He had again made his heart bleed without any weapon inflicting a wound upon it.
And money never changed the fate. He gave his parents an honourable life, but at the end of the day he had lost it. When he had returned back, it was too late. And yet he smiled.
For despite all, he remained content that the sacrifices made years ago had not been in vain. And he? Not everyone got their happy endings. Not all fairy tales came to a happy end. Some had to remain incomplete for the sake of those who still believed in them so that people wouldn't fret, thinking they couldn't relate to a story for not having witnessed this magic in their lives. As RV finally opened his heart to the old feelings, all came swarming back, hitting him mercilessly one by one with the belief of what he had been to Ishani all these years.
Perhaps if he were rich, something could have changed between them. But Ishani wasn't the one who valued money over a heart, and she hadn't loved him. This visit proved it again.
And thus, these "whatifs" and "perhapses" never ceased to be. But now he realized he was a stranger to her. Just like he had expected when he had decided to visit Mumbai. She didn't know RV and Ranveer didn't exist anymore. Before the end of time, he wondered, if they would meet again? If not in this lifetime, then perhaps in another and she would love him as well?
An entire decade had passed in search of his answers, he realized, and countless were more to go.