A/N - as always, thank you for your patience with this slow writer! The story in this chapter continues from where we left with Imlie recollecting her interactions with Aryan, and Aryan sharing some important information with Arvind.
The air in the car was suddenly thick with an awkward silence. Imlie twisted the end of her dupatta between her fingers, trying hard to think of something to say.
After a few moments of quietness, he spoke.
“I’ll…. wait here until you’ve entered the building”
With that, she recognized that the conversation was over.
“You don’t need to, Mr. Rathore. I should be okay. Thank you for dropping me home. Goodnight”, she said as she unbuckled her seat belt and started out of the car.
“Goodnight, Ms. Narayan…. good luck with your paper” he added after a small pause.
Imlie offered a small smile and climbed out of the car.
She scrambled towards the building entrance without looking back, determined to not let on her disappointment at the conversation ending abruptly. In her rush, she didn’t notice that Aryan waited until she disappeared into her building anyway, before driving off.
Imlie absently walked out of the elevator and towards her apartment door, her thoughts still trained on the conversation she’d had with Aryan. The mention of his father had immediately changed his demeanor, the hurt on his face evident. Was that the source of his grief he’d mentioned earlier?
She couldn’t exactly claim to understand what it felt like to lose a loving parent you once had, but she did know how it felt like to not have both parents growing up.
The first ten years of her life had been spent without a father, even though Satyakaam was always around as a father figure before he officially married her mother and adopted Imlie as his daughter.
Her Dadda had been more a father to her than her own biological father, whom she didn’t even know. Satyakaam was the only father she knew and needed. She was the apple of his eye and could do no wrong in his opinion. He was always so proud of her and wanted the world for his little girl.
Even the thought of losing her Dadda made her throat catch. As she went through the fleeting emotion, her heart ached for Aryan who was living through this loss.
No wonder he’d made the most profound statement about dealing with grief. It sounded like something her Dadda would say to her. The empathy he’d extended to her in that moment had washed over her like cool water, soothing the scalding wound that had been opened mercilessly by Aparna’s words.
A smart, shrewd businessman with a high EQ? Must be an alien!
Imlie chuckled at the thought as she unlocked her apartment and stepped inside, her mind replaying the encounter with Aryan in the office.
Tonight, he’d appeared as an unexpected but much needed support after a very tough day, and for that she was thankful.
What she couldn’t stop thinking about was how he made her feel. The man sent sensations down every nerve ending in her body whenever he was in the vicinity.
She walked into the bathroom to freshen up, settling in front of the vanity, and looked up in the mirror. Her eyes were still swollen from all the crying and burnt a little, but her attention was focused on the grubby kohl lining of her eyes.
Transfixed, her fingers lifted of their own accord and touched her cheek where Aryan had dabbed the streak away.
She closed her eyes and recollected the moment, feeling his presence close to her, his scent swimming through her senses.
Her stomach did a flip flop, and she gulped a mouthful of air. When she opened her eyes, she saw a deep flush spread over her cheeks. Her lips twisting into a smile, and she shook her head at herself.
Just the thought of the man made her insides curl.
It had been a while since Imlie felt any excitement, and what Aryan made her feel was nothing like anything she’d ever felt before, and to an extent…. that scared her.
She splashed cold water on her face, more to cleanse her thoughts than to cleanse her skin and dabbed her face dry with a towel. Just as she stepped out of the bathroom, her phone rang.
She smiled again when she saw the name on her phone screen.
“Imlie! I’m so sorry I missed your calls earlier. Sh…Shiv was visiting…and I didn’t realize my phone was not on ringer. Are you okay?”
“Shivraj ji? What did he want?”, Imlie asked ignoring Rupi’s question.
A pause. Imlie could almost hear Rupi chewing the inside of her cheek as the wheels churned in her head trying to figure how to answer Imlie’s question.
Shivraj was a sensitive topic for Rupi, like anyone’s estranged husband would be.
Imlie waited patiently.
“He…he just wanted to talk. Apologize.” Rupi answered after several seconds, discomfort evident in her tone.
“I know what you’re thinking. I am skeptical too. But he has been really consistent with his apologies recently”
“What about his mother?”
Imlie heard Rupi let out a long sigh.
“She…still has to come around”
“I can hear the disapproval in your silence!!”
Imlie smiled apologetically.
“It’s not disapproval, Rupi Didi. I’m just worried for you. You and Shivraj Ji have been through this cycle a few times. Until his mother understands that having kids is a decision that only you and Shivraj Ji can take as husband and wife, things are not going to change really. We both know he has no say against his mother.”
“You’re right. No number of apologies can fix the situation until his mother’s mindset changes. I cannot go back to that house.”
Imlie didn’t miss the dejection in her voice, immediately feeling guilty. She didn’t mean to snatch away the ray of hope that Rupi thought was finally surfacing, a potential to save her marriage.
Rupi and Shivraj’s marriage had been an unsteady boat at best. There was no question that they both cared for each other, but Shivraj’s inability to take a stand for their relationship and draw clear boundaries with his family, especially his mother, had damaged the trust Rupi had in him.
In the 3 years of their marriage, Rupi had separated from him twice, coming back to live with her parents, Aditya Kumar Tripathi’s uncle and aunt.
She had tried to give the situation several chances, but her mother-in-law’s insistent nagging for grandchildren was something she couldn’t reconcile with. She wasn’t ready to be a mother, and that concept was beyond comprehension for her mother-in-law.
Rupi was a successful interior designer, her name well established in the upper middle-class society of Delhi. She was a busy woman and had made a name for herself all on her own. She wanted to continue building on her career, and having kids was not on her list of priorities. She didn’t know if she wanted kids at all.
This endless tussle had had a disastrous impact on her relationship with Shivraj.
“Shivraj Ji has always been on the same page as you, hasn’t he? He supports your professional dreams and doesn’t care about having kids either?”
“Yes, he’s always been supportive…. behind closed doors”, Rupi finished that last part in a low voice.
“And that’s where lies the issue. He is unable to stand up to his family.”
Rupi didn’t say anything in response. This wasn’t a new issue. Imlie and Rupi had mulled over this several times, Imlie providing emotional support and guidance to her some of the times, or just a shoulder to cry on at other instances.
They’d bonded over grief, a solid female friendship to stand by each other when everything else around them seemed to be crumbling.
“I’m sorry things look so bleak right now, Rupi Didi. They will get better, I promise!”
Rupi stayed silent.
“Rupi Didi? Are you okay?”
“I…I just don’t know…. how long to fight for this, you know?”, Rupi finally responded, her voice constricted from effort to keep herself from breaking down.
Imlie’s eyes welled up. Rupi was a wonderful woman – smart, compassionate, loving. She deserved more than life was serving her.
“As long as your heart allows you to”
Rupi smiled at Imlie’s mature-beyond-her-years remarks.
“Well, it’s not a decision I’m going to make tonight!”, Rupi said pertly, finally pulling herself together. “You called me all those number of times, and your text sounded urgent too. Is everything okay?”
The calm on Imlie’s face started to evaporate, despair replacing it.
“Yeah, I was calling because…. because Maa wanted to meet me”
“Aparna Chachi?? What did she want from you??”, Rupi exclaimed, her protectiveness over Imlie immediately in play.
“That’s what I was hoping to ask you when I texted. I didn’t want to meet her without knowing what it was about. I wish we had been able to talk earlier”
“Oh!! I’m sorry I missed your calls and texts Imlie, but I have no idea what this is about. Did you end up meeting her?”
“I did. She was…. insistent”
“I don’t like the sound of this. Tell me everything!!!”
A few minutes later, after Imlie had narrated the conversation with Aparna, and Rupi had hurled some choice words for her aunt, Imlie decided to say what was on her mind.
“Rupi Didi, what’s bothering me is…why now?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s been over 2 months since our divorce was finalized and I left that house. The divorce proceedings took another 6 months before that. She made superficial attempts to keep me from ending the marriage all that while. Why does she care now? What has changed suddenly?”
Rupi pondered over Imlie’s questions.
It was true that her aunt was never fond of Imlie, always feeling that an undeserving girl had been forced into her son’s life, and he could do much better than that. Aditya’s embarrassment aside, Imlie leaving was a dream come true for Aparna.
Imlie’s doubts weren’t unfounded.
“That’s a good point, Imlie. I don’t know where this is coming from…but I’m going to try and find out”
“Thank you Rupi Didi. That’s what I was hoping for. You’re the best!”, Imlie sighed with relief as she said that.
After a few minutes, Imlie ended the conversation, exhaustion taking over her. It had been a long, rather draining day and all she wanted to do was curl up in her bed and sleep.
The opinion paper will have to wait until tomorrow morning, she thought as she dragged herself to the bedroom.
Aryan drove around for some time after dropping Imlie home, his mind at unease about how he’d reacted to the mention of his father’s death. This was their first normal conversation, and her question was entirely customary. Yet, as soon as he was reminded of his father, he couldn’t continue.
He still couldn’t deal with the agony the memories brought him. The loss of an idol, a mentor, a friend…. his best friend, it was too much to bear. It was a void he felt every second of every day.
Could one ever get over such a loss?
Aryan swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat and forced his attention back to Imlie. How he’d wished the conversation hadn’t ended the way it did. This was completely on him, wasn’t it?
He was finally getting to know her, and he’d wanted to know more. More about her life, her dreams, her…. wait a minute.
Was I imagining it or was she particularly evasive on the topic of missing her first internship?
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel for a minute as he racked his brain, then punched in a number on the car’s console to place a call.
“I need you to do a background check”, Aryan spoke in a dark, business-line tone.
He paused as the person on the other side responded.
“She works as an intern at Bhaskar Times. I want to know every detail of her life from her childhood to date”
One more pause.
“Send me the information as soon as you have it”
With another jab to the console, he ended the call.
It’ll be one less mystery soon.
“This is the last time I’m letting you win”, an exasperated Arpita glared at her husband and threw the Scrabble coin in his direction.
“Letting. Me. Win?” an amused Arvind challenged her with raised eyebrows, knowing fully well that he was playing with fire.
His wife, whom he loved very much, was a sore loser and that was a known fact in the family.
“Of course! Bork is not a word! I allowed it, effectively letting you win”, Arpita retorted, jabbing her index finger on the game board.
“You allowed it….” Arvind made finger quotes in the air emphasizing allowed “…because I showed you that it’s a valid political slang and was even used in National Scrabble Championship”
Arpita glared at him.
“Fair play says we stick to words commonly known”
Arvind knew he should let it go before she hurled something at him but riling up his wife was his favorite thing to do.
He moved away from the table before he presented his next retort, in preparation.
“Fair play also says you take necessary steps to improve your vocabulary so you can win…. for once”, he added the last words for extra effect.
And the desired effect it had on Arpita.
She threw another Scrabble coin at him and turned away, huffing.
“Owwwww!!!! What the…!!!”
Arvind turned around to see a confused Aryan rubbing his temple where the coin had hit him.
“I’m sorry my brother, didn’t mean for you to be the victim!”, Arvind managed in between splits of laughter.
“Did Didi lose another game of Scrabble?”, Aryan asked as he walked into the living room and flung his jacket and bag carelessly on the couch.
“Arvind cheated!!”, Arpita pouted.
“I did not!”
“Bork is not a valid word!!”
“It is too!!”
“Alright kids, time out!!”, Aryan bellowed, his arms raised between the couple as if he was referee preventing two wrestlers from breaking each other’s jaws.
The three of them looked at each other and broke into a fit of laughter, settling on the couch eventually.
“Di, when will you stop being a sore lemon?”
Arpita smacked Aryan’s arm, frowning at him.
“I am not a sore anything! I just…like to win”
“Of course! Is that the reason you used to hide all my toys every time I beat you at Monopoly?”
“You deserved it! You were so spoilt, getting your way with everything!!”
Aryan made a show of a dramatic gasp.
“Me? Spoilt? Never!”
“Yes, you were! Papa always sided with you….”, Arpita stopped mid-sentence, realizing what she’d just said.
Aryan’s expression transformed into a somber, tired one.
Second time in the day.
Arpita looked at her brother regretfully and covered his hand with hers.
“I’m sorry Aru. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay Di, I’m really tired. I’m going to go change”, Aryan gave his sister a reassuring smile and pushed himself off the couch.
“You won’t eat dinner?”
“I’m not hungry”, he shook his head as he gathered his jacket and bag, heading towards his bedroom.
Arvind quietly observed this exchange without interrupting. After Aryan left, he gave Arpita a comforting look.
“I’ll go talk to him. Don’t worry”
Arpita nodded as she saw her husband follow Aryan into his broom.
Arvind knocked on the closed door of Aryan’s room and waited.
“Didi, I’m okay I promise!”, yelled Aryan from inside without opening the door.
“It’s me, Aryan”, Arvind smiled and said patiently.
The door flung open immediately, Aryan giving Arvind an apologetic look.
“Sorry Jiju. I thought it’s Di. She sometimes wants to…. have an emotional talk when I don’t, you know…”
Arvind chuckled as he entered Aryan’s room.
“Her hearts in a good place”
“I know, I know. Take a seat please. I’ll be back in a moment”, Aryan gestured to the couch in his room and then disappeared into the bathroom.
Arvind settled on the couch as he examined the case file on Uday Singh Rathore that was sitting on the coffee table. He was the only one Aryan had confided in about the investigation into his father’s murder.
Aryan was convinced something was amiss and Arvind had supported his doubts as a dutiful confidante. He had promised Narmada and Arpita that he’d mentor and help Aryan with everything after his father-in-law’s death. However, there hadn’t been much to help with, except providing moral support as Aryan found no leads in the case for the past five years.
While Arvind didn’t think Aryan’s suspicions were baseless, the continued lack of evidence had made him question whether it really was a murder or Aryan being unable to accept that it was a mere accident. A very unfortunate accident.
Which is why, when Aryan told him about the sudden appearance of Mahesh Dubey, he was at least a little taken aback. He hadn’t expected any progress in this investigation.
Now that there was a lead, he wanted to support Aryan in every way, including keeping this under wraps from his mother-in-law and wife. They were too emotional about the topic and both Aryan and Arvind had agreed that it wouldn’t do them any good unless there was anything concrete to share.
One would argue that Aryan was the most emotional about it, but Arvind recognized this was his life’s mission and nothing could deter him. He understood that the outcome of this investigation is what will bring him peace, one way or another.
He was brought out of his ponderings when Aryan pushed open the sliding door to his bathroom. Changed and freshened up, Aryan took a seat next to Arvind.
“How are you Jiju?”
“Good. We are reviewing the financials for Rathore Textiles this week, so it’s been a bit busy”
“Anything of concern? Bhaskar Times has kept me so occupied. I’m sorry everything else has fallen on you”
“None at all. It’s the standard annual audit. Just a lot of paperwork, nothing else”
“How’s Bhaskar Times?”
“So much mismanagement before we entered the picture. No wonder the company was going under”
“Well, it’s in the right hands now. I am sure you’ll do good with it”
Aryan smiled, then looked at his father’s case file on the table.
“I got some more information today”, he nudged his chin in the direction of the file, indicating what he was referring to.
“The PI called me this morning and told me that Mahesh Dubey arrived in Mumbai on a flight from Indonesia under an alias and he’s staying in a run-down flat in Virar. The alias he was traveling under is Ravi Kant Shahane. They dug a little more into the Indonesia connection and found out he has been living under the same identity in a small village near Jakarta for the past 2 years”
“And what was he doing there all that while?”
“Working odd jobs at a local business. A smithy to be precise”
“What before that?”
“We don’t know yet. The flat he is staying in Virar is owned by a guy who drives freight trucks”
“Just like he used to?”
Aryan nodded. “Just like he used to”
“Maybe we should look into this guy?”
“The PI is already on it. Also, I’ve asked him to investigate his connections while he was in Indonesia. Someone must have been helping him with the fake IDs, money, job…”
“That’s smart. Maybe that will be the key to finding where he was before Indonesia”
Aryan nodded again. They paused for a few seconds, reflecting on the sliver of information that had trickled in so far.
“I have a good feeling about this Jiju, we are finally getting somewhere. I am going to find out who snatched Paa away from us and they will have hell to pay”
Just then, there was a clink of bangles at the door. Both men turned around to see Arpita standing at the helm of Aryan’s room, a tray of food in her hand, and blood drained from her face.
PRECAP: Imlie finishes her opinion paper. Aryan and Arpi exchange some words.