Sunday, October 5, 2014

the gift

11:17am It was a usual Sunday morning; he had not yet started the drudgery of the routine life when Arjun heard his wife grumbling in the kitchen. Not unusual for the woman to let out her steam this way he thought and walked out towards the courtyard. In a moment he understood the reason for his wife’s troubled grumblings. At the gates, walking purposefully towards his house was his father, Ramlal who lived by himself in the village and tilled the ancestral land for a living. The sudden unannounced arrival of Ramlal was a reason for worry even to him, financially in dire straits as he himself was. He wondered why on earth “pitaji” as he would address Ramlal would want to come in like this. The wife was grumbling aloud and wondering if Pitaji had come for some sort of financial assistance. He looked the other way, pretended not to hear his wife and went ahead to welcome Pitaji. As he was freshening up, he couldn’t help but wonder to himself “what could have brought Pitaji to the city like this? This month I am unusually tight as far as my finances go. The eldest son needs new shoes, yet I cannot spare the money to buy them and he goes to school each morning ashamed of his torn shoes. There is not enough money to even buy the complete dose of medication for my wife who has been ailing since long. And if at this stage Pitaji were to ask me for money or financial assistance, what would I reply to him. Of all the times Pitaji had to choose this once to come here” With these thoughts running in his mind he went ahead and served the frugal roti and achar breakfast to Ramlal and quickly moved away avoiding direct eye contact, lest the look in Pitaji’s eyes give him a hint of what was to come. There was an eerie pregnant silence in the entire household. After having partaken of the frugal breakfast, Pitaji signaled for him to come and sit next to him. Shifting, uncomfortable and nervous as a cat he walked upto Pitaji and sat next to him, still avoiding a direct eye contact. Pitaji got up from the kitchen stool and perched himself comfortably on the rocking chair next to the mantle. Completely at ease with the situation, probably unmindful of the turmoil going on inside him. After a while, Pitaji called out to him and said “listen arjun..” and he looked up as a cornered rat looks up pitifully at the cat who is about to pounce on it. Pitaji continued “ beta, you know it is difficult for me to take out time like this to come and visit you. Tilling the ancestral land keeps me busy day in and day out. However, I do not plan to spend the night here, I shall leave by the night train. But the purpose of my visit was…..” and Pitaji paused a while. His ears were craned to hear the next sentence, what finally would be the purpose of Pitaji’s untimely visit to the city. “ beta its been two months since you have not written to me. You go into a shell like this only when you are worried. I know you are.” Pitaji took out a bundle of 1000 rupee notes from the pocket of his Kurta and placed it in Arjun’s hands and continued “ keep this, you may need them. We had a bumper paddy crop this year and the potato crop also promises to be good. I have no financial troubles as of now. You look weak and tired. Eat well and get good rest. Also look after Sita and your liitle one.” Before he could show mock refusal, Pitaji scolded him lovingly “ beta take it, Bahut bade ho gaye ho kya. Rakh lo’ He could only mutter ‘ nahi to” and took the bundle that Pitaji had so lovingly placed in his hands. And his mind went into a flashback when Pitaji would place a One rupee coin in his hands everyday to send him off to school. With this Pitaji blessed him and left and he was left staring into nothingness long after Ramlal disappeared into the horizon. and he was left holding what Ramlal gave him. Memories

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Vivek Pradhan was not a happy man. Even the plush comfort of the air-conditioned compartment of the Shatabdhi express could not cool his frayed nerves. He was the Project Manager and still not entitled to air travel. It was not the prestige he sought; he had tried to reason with the admin person, it was the savings in time. As PM, he had so many things to do!! He opened his case and took out the laptop, determined to put the time to some good use. "Are you from the software industry sir," the man beside him was staring appreciatively at the laptop. Vivek glanced briefly and mumbled in affirmation, handling the laptop now with exaggerated care and importance as if it were an expensive car. "You people have brought so much advancement to the country, Sir. Today everything is getting computerized." "Thanks," smiled Vivek, turning around to give the man a look. He always found it difficult to resist appreciation. The man was young and stockily built like a sportsman. He looked simple and strangely out of place in that little lap of luxury like a small town boy in a prep school. He probably was a railway sportsman making the most of his free traveling pass. "You people always amaze me," the man continued, "You sit in an office and write something on a computer and it does so many big things outside." Vivek smiled deprecatingly. Naive ness demanded reasoning not anger. "It is not as simple as that my friend. It is not just a question of writing a few lines. There is a lot of process that goes behind it." For a moment, he was tempted to explain the entire Software Development Lifecycle but restrained himself to a single statement. "It is complex, very complex." "It has to be. No wonder you people are so highly paid," came the reply. This was not turning out as Vivek had thought. A hint of belligerence crept into his so far affable, persuasive tone. " Everyone just sees the money. No one sees the amount of hard work we have to put in. Indians have such a narrow concept of hard work. Just because we sit in an air-conditioned office, does not mean our brows do not sweat. You exercise the muscle; we exercise the mind and believe me that is no less taxing." He could see, he had the man where he wanted, and it was time to drive home the point. "Let me give you an example. Take this train. The entire railway reservation system is computerized. You can book a train ticket between any two stations from any of the hundreds of computerized booking centres across the country. Thousands of transactions accessing a single database, at a time concurrently; data integrity, locking, data security. Do you understand the complexity in designing and coding such a system?" The man was awestruck; quite like a child at a planetarium. This was something big and beyond his imagination. "You design and code such things." "I used to," Vivek paused for effect, "but now I am the Project Manager." "Oh!" sighed the man, as if the storm had passed over, "so your life is easy now." This was like the last straw for Vivek. He retorted, "Oh come on, does life ever get easy as you go up the ladder. Responsibility only brings more work. Design and coding! That is the easier part. Now I do not do it, but I am responsible for it and believe me, that is far more stressful. My job is to get the work done in time and with the highest quality. To tell you about the pressures, there is the customer at one end, always changing his requirements, the user at the other, wanting something else, and your boss, always expecting you to have finished it yesterday." Vivek paused in his diatribe, his belligerence fading with self-realization. What he had said, was not merely the outburst of a wronged man, it was the truth. And one need not get angry while defending the truth. "My friend," he concluded triumphantly, "you don't know what it is to be in the Line of Fire". The man sat back in his chair, his eyes closed as if in realization. When he spoke after sometime, it was with a calm certainty that surprised Vivek. "I know sir.... I know what it is to be in the Line of Fire........" He was staring blankly, as if no passenger, no train existed, just a vast expanse of time. "There were 30 of us when we were ordered to capture Point 4875 in the cover of the night. The enemy was firing from the top. There was no knowing where the next bullet was going to come from and for whom. In the morning when we finally hoisted the tricolour at the top only 4 of us were alive." "You are a...?" "I am Subedar Sushant from the 13 J&K Rifles on duty at Peak 4875 in Kargil. They tell me I have completed my term and can opt for a soft assignment. But, tell me sir, can one give up duty just because it makes life easier. On the dawn of that capture, one of my colleagues lay injured in the snow, open to enemy fire while we were hiding behind a bunker. It was my job to go and fetch that soldier to safety. But my captain sahib refused me permission and went ahead himself. He said that the first pledge he had taken as a Gentleman Cadet was to put the safety and welfare of the nation foremost followed by the safety and welfare of the men he commanded... ....his own personal safety came last, always and every time." "He was killed as he shielded and brought that injured soldier into the bunker. Every morning thereafter, as we stood guard, I could see him taking all those bullets, which were actually meant for me . I know sir....I know, what it is to be in the Line of Fire." Vivek looked at him in disbelief not sure of how to respond. Abruptly, he switched off the laptop. It seemed trivial, even insulting to edit a Word document in the presence of a man for whom valor and duty was a daily part of life; valour and sense of duty which he had so far attributed only to epical heroes. The train slowed down as it pulled into the station, and Subedar Sushant picked up his bags to alight. "It was nice meeting you sir." Vivek fumbled with the handshake. This hand.... had climbed mountains, pressed the trigger, and hoisted the tricolour. Suddenly, as if by impulse, he stood up at attention and his right hand went up in an impromptu salute. It was the least he felt he could do for the country.

Friday, June 29, 2012

dedicated to the "dads" .. and some moms too

Things i tell my daughter, instead of "Papa," she’s gonna call me "Point B," because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me. And I’m going to paint solar systems on the backs of her hands so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, "Oh, I know that like the back of my hand." And she’s going to learn that this life will hit you hard in the face, wait for you to get back up just so it can kick you in the stomach. But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air. There is hurt, here, that cannot be fixed by Band-Aids or poetry. So the first time she realizes that Wonder Woman isn’t coming, I’ll make sure she knows she doesn’t have to wear the cape all by herself because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal. Believe me, I’ve tried. "And, baby," I’ll tell her, don’t keep your nose up in the air like that. I know that trick; I’ve done it a million times. You’re just smelling for smoke so you can follow the trail back to a burning house, so you can find the boy who lost everything in the fire to see if you can save him. Or else find the boy who lit the fire in the first place, to see if you can change him." But I know she will anyway, so instead I’ll always keep an extra supply of chocolate and rain boots nearby, because there is no heartbreak that chocolate can’t fix. Okay, there’s a few heartbreaks that chocolate can’t fix. But that’s what the rain boots are for, because rain will wash away everything, if you let it. I want her to look at the world through the underside of a glass-bottom boat, to look through a microscope at the galaxies that exist on the pinpoint of a human mind, because that’s the way my papa taught me. That there’ll be days like this. ♫ There’ll be days like this, my papa said. ♫ When you open your hands to catch and wind up with only blisters and bruises; when you step out of the phone booth and try to fly and the very people you want to save are the ones standing on your cape; when your boots will fill with rain, and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment. And those are the very days you have all the more reason to say thank you. Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away. You will put the wind in winsome, lose some. You will put the star in starting over, and over. And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute, be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life. And yes, on a scale from one to over-trusting, I am pretty damn naive. But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it. "Baby," I’ll tell her, "remember, and your papa is a warrior, not a worrier, and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more." Remember that good things come in threes and so do bad things. And always apologize when you’ve done something wrong, but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining. Your voice is small, but don’t ever stop singing. And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your father.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


They were on their way to the post where they would be deployed for next three months. The batch being relieved, was waiting anxiously for their arrival so that they could fall back to safer confines of their parent unit. Some would proceed on leave and meet their families. They were happy that they were to relieve a set of comrades who had done their job.

It was a treacherous climb and the journey was to last till the next evening. Cold winter month with intermittent snowfall added to the torture.

If only some one could offer a cup of tea, the Major thought, knowing completely well that it was a futile wish.

They continued for another hour before they came across a dilapidated structure which looked like a small shop. It was locked.

It was 2 o'clock in the night and there was no house close to the shop where the owner could be located. In any case it was not advisable to knock any doors in the night for security reasons.

It was a stalemate. No tea boys, bad luck.

The Major told the men to take some rest since they had been walking for more than three hours now.

Sir, this is a tea shop indeed and we can make tea. We will have to break the lock though. The officer was in doubt about the proposed action but a steaming cup of tea was not a bad idea. He thought for a while and permitted for the lock to be broken. The lock was broken.

They were in luck.

The place was a shop indeed and had everything required to make tea, and also a few packets of biscuits.

The tea was prepared and it brought great relief to all in the cold night. They were now ready for the long and treacherous walk ahead of them and started to get ready to move.

The officer was in thoughts. They had broken open the lock and prepared tea and consumed biscuits without the permission of the owner. The payment was due but there was no one in sight.

The Major was not however moving out without doing what was to be done. He took out a Rs 1000/- note from his wallet and kept it on the counter, pressed under the sugar container, so that the owner sees it first thing when he arrives in the morning.

He was now relieved of the guilt and ordered the move.

Days, weeks and months passed. They continued to do gallantly what they were required to do and were lucky not to loose any one from the original group in the intense insurgency situation.

And then one day, it was time to be replaced by another brave lot.

Soon they were on their way back and stopped at the same shop, which was today open with the owner in place. He was an old man with very meager resources and was happy to see eight of them with the prospect of selling at least eight cups of tea that day.

All of them had their tea and spoke to the old man about his life and experiences in general, selling tea at such remote a location.

The poor, old man had many stories to tell all of them, replete with his faith in God.

"Kya Baba, yadi Allah hota to kyaa aap ke jaisa 'Allah kaa bandaa' is haal main hota, said one of them"; moved by his poverty and faith in God.

"Nahin Sahib, aise mat kaho, God actually exists.

I got the proof a few months back.

I was going through very tough times because my only son had been severely beaten by the terrorists who wanted some information from him which he did not have. I had closed the shop early that day and had taken my son to the hospital. There were medicines to be purchased and I had no money. No one would give me a loan from fear of the terrorists. There was no hope, Sahib.

And that day Sahib, I had prayed to Allah for help.

And that day Sahib, Allah walked into my shop.

When I returned to my shop that day and saw the lock broken, I thought someone had broken in and had taken away whatever little I had. But then I saw that 'Allah' had left Rs 1000/-under the sugar pot. Sahib, I can't tell you what that money was worth that day.

Allah exists Sahib, he does.

I know people are dying every day here but all of you will soon meet your near and dear ones, your children, and you must thank your God Sahib, he is watching all of us. He does exist. He walked in my shop that day. I know he did."

The faith in his eyes was unflinching.

It was unnerving.

Seven set of eyes looked at their officer and read the order in his eyes clear and unambiguous, 'Keep quiet.'

The officer got up and paid the bill and hugged the old man.

"Yes Baba, I know,God does exist - and yes the tea was wonderful.

Seven set of eyes did not miss the moisture building in the eyes of the Major, a rare sight.

Friday, November 25, 2011


He was graying at the temples, early signs of baldness showing up on his usually luxurious hair. With horn rimmed glasses fixed on the bridge of his aquiline nose, Rajat Shukla pondered over the contents of the day’s newspaper, probably trying to find the meaning of this mystery called life from the fine print of the newspaper. At 46 years , Rajat Shukla remained a bachelor, not that he was worried or felt out of place amongst his peer group, he considered himself happily single and loved his pet German Shephard Dog, Ceasar as much as one would love his own child, his only faithful companion for many years now. No ones knows why Rajat Shukla remained unmarried, and at his age, he did not even feel the need for a female companion. Rajat kind of accepted this situation fiat accompli probably thinking to himself that since he could live his life so far for 46 years without feeling the need to be married, what is another 12 to 15 years more. He could do without being married anyways. These were possibly the thoughts running through the mind of Rajat Shukla, as he kept himself engrossed in the pile of newspapers that he subscribed to every morning when he was jerked back to the realm of reality by the mellifluous rendition of ‘ik onkar’ on his Blackberry Bold ringing on the centre table in front of him. Picking up his cellphone, he adjusted his bifocal glasses, and peered into the screen trying to recognize the caller who had broken his early morning countenance. Unable to place the number which was flashing on its screen,he put the handset to his ears and said a bored “hello”. Getting no response from the other end can be a frustrating experience for most, especially when one has least expected the call. His “hello” turned from bored to curious to frustrated to exasperated in a matter of seconds. ‘Hello papa' a scared and worried girl’s voice answered from the other end. ‘Hello, who is this?” replied Rajat. “ Papa its is me, Payal”. She was scared, confused and at her wits end and needed to talk to her father. “Look here, Listen to me” is all that he could manage to speak before Payal’s inconsolable sobbing drowned his usual baritone. Payal was hysterical over the phone. “ Papa I am so sorry please forgive me” was one sentence that was being constantly repeated in between the sobs. Payal went on “ Papa , it has taken me a lot of courage to make this call, please don’t hang up on me . I wish I could understand what you had been telling me so long. I wished I had a bit more faith in your upbringing Papa, I should have listened to you and I shouldn’t have come here Papa.”
Clarity of thought was usually the USP of Rajat Shukla, and at that moment he could have kicked himself for not being able to guess the situation right away. Age probably had slowed down his oft quoted “OODA” cycle. Getting his mind back to the conversation, Rajat blurted into his handset ‘whats the matter Payal? Its all going to be fine. Just go on and tell me what is bothering you.’ ‘Papa, you were right and I have been wrong always. I got misled by people and let you down. You had warned me Papa, that its not a safe world out here and I did not listen to you then. This isn’t a place for people like us Papa. These top models put up a façade of hard work,and glamour Papa. You cant achieve everything by sheer hardwork here in this industry, you also need to compromise on your principles, that I am never going to do.” Payals sob had now turned into an incessant rain of unseen tears which Rajat could visualize streaming down her kohl lined eyes and smudging her carefully applied make up. Rajat now was able to perfectly comprehend Payal’s state of mind and the protective paternal instinct in him took over ‘Payal where are you now beta, you ok na baby?” he spoke with a concern in his voice which surprised him. ‘Papa please forgive me, I want to come back home Papa, I promise you I will never do anything like this ever again” Rajat now calmed himself and spoke ‘ Payal you are my brave girl beta, and brave girls don’t cry this way. Everything is fine baby. You know Papa can never be upset with his baby. You just come back home right away my child.’ Payal says ‘Papa, you have forgiven me na ,’ ‘ yes of course my baby just come back home’ ‘Thank you Papa, I love you’ were the last words that Rajat Shukla could barely hear before the line went dead. He sat up straight now, thinking to himself. Who was this Payal, what did he know about her anyways. He could now make out that Payal had left home after a fight with her folks to try her luck at being a model and was now disillusioned. But he did also understand this much that the identity of this Payal was actually an immaterial fact. What mattered more at that moment was that she was someone’s daughter just like his would have been had things not been the way they were and this Payal could only think of one man in her times of distress. The first man she ever knew. Her hero, her father. For one brief moment Rajat Shukla became the father of a stranger in distress and the realization dawned upon him that had he at that time spoken the truth to Payal that he wasn’t infact her father and that she had dialed a wrong number then probably Payal would never have been able to pick up the strength to make that call to her father ever again. With these thoughts running in his mind he carelessly picked up the remote of the television and clicked a few random buttons, not out of interest but out of a sheer need to distract himself when his fingers paused at a familiar Kishore Kumar voice singing ‘ Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai.. kabhi ye hasaye kabhi ye rulaye’. As he pondered over those lyrics, Rajat Shukla learned something more. No matter what you have seen or experienced in life, there is always that one moment which remains forever etched in the recesses of the mind.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another Man's Wife

She is getting married. In a couple of weeks, she will be another's wife. What a strange thought. For six years, I thought she was mine. I could not imagine another being closer to her than I was.
We were 'an item,' a couple. Friends addressed greetings to us jointly. When somebody invited me to an engagement or a wedding, they felt obliged to add, 'Why don't you get her along as well?'
People I didn't know too well would ask, 'When are you getting married?' and the 'you' was plural -- it referred to both of us. Now if I meet them, I would have to say, 'She is married,' and there would be an embarrassed silence. It's like a divorce even though no marriage had ever taken place.
I rehearse explanations: 'It didn't work out.' 'Her parents were opposed to it.' 'Our horoscopes didn't match.' 'We decided to break up.' 'We are no longer together.' I practise attitudes: Flippant and unaffected. Dry and detached. Bemused but resigned. But, frankly, if I met myself, I wouldn't be convinced.
The thing for me to do is 'move on.' I've heard that phrase often in these last few months. Mostly from her. She means it sympathetically, but it infuriates me. You ask beggars at a traffic signal to 'move on.' Or passengers in a bus. Makes me feel I'm part of a long shuffling queue going nowhere. If I dawdle too long to look at a face I like, the line behind me bristles and says 'move on...' Move on -- life is a ticket for a day in the amusement park. Move on -- we have to see all the rides. Aren't you going to check out Matrimony? I hear it's okay -- that's where all the crowds are... And then there's Parenthood... that's pretty scary and not much fun. Don't bother with Romance, it's too long. You'll feel sick at the end of it and then you can't finish all the others. Move on... it's not a great park, but it's the best around here.
But she's right: I must move on. Even I can see that.
I must move on, but where are my options ? I am 29. Six years with her have given me the aura of an 'unavailable' man. I smile civilly at women and have short polite conversations. I don't want to 'romance' any more... there's something distasteful about entering that particular rat race again. What if I try to flirt and get rebuffed ? I don't want that... it would hurt. Again.
Options, options... I had done French at college. I could take it up again. I could paint, I used to be good at it. Photography? Music? Bridge? I spend hours imagining what it could be like. I don't want to do any of these. I just want her back. That's not an option though.
I registered at a matrimonial website. Don't ask me why... I don't have any desire to marry right now. Maybe it was just curiosity, wanting to know what an 'arranged marriage' would feel like. She is having an arranged marriage. She met her fiancé through a matrimonial ad in a newspaper. I keep asking her for details about him. I want to know why he is getting so easily what I have desired for so long. I want to know whom I'm losing her to. 'He's okay,' she says. 'I think he's nice.' She can't tell me more, she doesn't know him enough. She's marrying a pleasant stranger.
I wanted to see if I could do that too. I chatted with some of the 'aspiring brides' I met at the website. It's difficult to exchange even a few lines. The medium is too impersonal. Or maybe I am too distracted. What does knowing a person's hobbies tell you about her? I can't form a judgement based on lines on the screen. I pretend to get disconnected and terminate the conversation.
I had a 'date' with a 'candidate' from the website last evening. Instead, I went to watch a friend go paragliding. Halfway up the hill, I felt out of breath and out of place. Miserable. Lay down on the bare slope of the hill, beaten by a murderous sun, and watched the gliders take off from above. One by one, the friendly, quiet people who had climbed up the hill with me were stepping into the sky.
I have decided to take up paragliding.

a cute love story

It was a lovely December morning in the hottest city in the world. All right, so that was a little unfair. Chennai is not the hottest city in the world. But it certainly is the city with the most uncomfortable weather among the cities that I have lived in. And I've been around. But I digress.
I was in the company bus on my way to work, as usual trying to catch up with my sleep. On this particular day, a girl got on the bus, came to my seat and sat down. "Good Morning," she said. I looked back at her through half closed eyes, replied "Good Night," and then proceeded to return to my half hour nap before the bus reached the office. Unfortunately, I was woken up by a punch in the arm.

"Wake up, bozo!" She was looking at me with a big smile on her face. "I'm not sitting next to you to listen to you snore."

Half-heartedly, I opened my eyes and turned to her. "What's up?" I asked.
Preeti Mehra was tall, good-looking and slightly tomboyish. She was also my best buddy. "Come on," she said. "Don't look so disappointed. You'd rather sleep than talk to me?"

"I talk to you everyday, Preeti."
"You also sleep everyday."
"It's not enough."
"So you've had enough of talking to me, eh?"
You can't argue with a statement like that, so I had to give up. I grinned and said, "OK, sweetheart. What's on your mind?"

"I wanted to tell you what happened yesterday. Can you guess?"
"Anurag called you last night."
"How did you know?" She was stunned.
"Oh, he asked me for your number yesterday."
"And you gave it to him?"
"What else could I do? And stop complaining. You've been drooling over him for weeks now. He must have thought he had a chance."

Preeti was the kind of girl who would openly ogle at every other guy she saw. And yet, she would not respond to any advances of a romantic nature. She'd happily join a group of boys to go to a cricket match, but if asked out to a movie, dinner, or even coffee, she'd never say yes. She defined 'Hard-To-Get'.

"You like putting me in these situations, don't you?" she said.
"No. That's not true. I love putting you in these situations!"
That invited another punch in the arm.
I had known Preeti for a year. We'd tell each other about our joys and our sorrows, our victories and our defeats. I'd tell her about all my crushes and she'd scold me for being silly. She'd drag me to classical music concerts and I'd add them to the list of things she 'owed me' for.

And though I never let it show, I must say that she punched pretty hard.

~*~ It was 12:00 am and my phone was ringing. "Hello," I said, as I picked it up.
"Happy Birthday!" It was she.
"You're supposed to throw me a surprise party, sweetheart. Not just call to say Happy Birthday."
"Well then open your door, dumbo!"
So I did and found her, cell-phone in hand, at my doorstep -- with what seemed like half the population of my company. My roommates were supposed to be working late that night. Now I knew why. I blew a lot of candles (seemed like much more than 25), cut my cake, got kicked in the behind, and got painted with the cake's icing. If Preeti had had her way, she'd probably have preferred to use a paintbrush and a can of paint. But I bribed her with a copy of the book "Lord of the Rings". She'd borrowed it from me three times already. I thought it was about time I gave her a copy for herself.

We chatted for an hour after everyone had gone. "I think it's time I left," she said finally, trying to stifle a yawn. I nodded. I dropped her home in my roommate's car. As she was getting out of the car, I stopped her.

"Hey, Preeti."
"Hey, don't get senti on me now!" she smiled. "Are you trying to worm out of that gift you promised me?"
"You know, it's interesting how I'm getting you a gift on my birthday."
"That's just because you're stupid," she grinned. "And you better get me that book, or I won't return your copy."
"Hey, that copy was a gift to me from my dear friend Preeti Mehra. I can't let you keep that."
She wasn't falling for that. "Your dear friend? And what about me? Am I not dear to you?"
"Very smart. That won't work with me. I'm not one of your Love Crazy suitors. Why do you need the book anyway? You've read it umpteen times already."

"That is besides the point. You are getting me the book. We both know that." She smiled that wide confident smile of hers. "Good night." And she got out of the car.

I sat there for some time, just thinking. Our conversations were always like this – a little joking, a little teasing and a lot of demanding. But somehow, I felt that something had changed since the moment she had turned up at my door that night. I was still in my reverie when a paper ball landed on the windshield. I craned my neck out of the window and looked up. She was standing in her balcony.

"What are you still doing there?" she whispered loudly.
"Waiting for you to start a paper-ball fight," I whispered back.
"We can do that tomorrow. Go home now. It's way past your bedtime!"
"Ok, mommy," I grinned back. "I'm going home now!"

~*~ I'm an extravagant gift-giver, and it is definitely going to be my downfall some day. I made her wait for it, but finally bought her the book. That, and half-a-dozen other omnibus collections of various authors, including a copy each of `The Complete Works of Shakespeare' and `The Complete Short Stories of Charles Dickens'. All I got for it was an "I told you so."

I started spending a lot of time at her place after that. Mostly because I wanted to read all those books, and she wouldn't lend them to me.

"I'm not as stupid as you, ape-man. I'm not falling into the same trap I laid for you. Plus, you dog-ear your books. You're not doing that to these masterpieces. So if you want to read them, you read them here. And if you want to mark your place, use a bookmark."

So that's what I did. She'd even make me wash my hands before I touched the books. It was as if they were sacred.
"Need I remind you that it was me that bought you the books in the first place? For my birthday!"
"So? They're mine now."
"Well, then. I've been meaning to ask you this for a long time. Where exactly is my birthday gift?"
"It was in your tummy at one point of time. It's probably been washed into the sea by now."
"Remember the cake I baked you on your birthday?"
"You what? You can't bake cakes!" That was a mistake. She looked hurt. "You baked me a cake?" She didn't say a word. She just shrugged. I was stunned. "But you never told me."
"You didn't ask." That was typical of her.
"It was fantastic! And you wasted most of the icing on me!"
"The cake was for you, dumbo."
"How long did it take you to make the whole thing?" It had been a two-layered vanilla-chocolate cake with three flavors of very creamy icing. She had done all that!

"Well, the chocolate cake took an hour and fifteen minutes, and so did the vanilla. Then cutting them up and putting them together took another 15 minutes. Each flavor of icing took 20 minutes for preparation, and then putting it on the cake took another half hour. Cleaning up the mess took an hour."

She seldom claimed the credit for anything, but once she started bragging, there was no stopping her. However, I wasn't thinking about that right then.

"You spent over five hours on that cake?"
"A little over four hours preparing it, and an hour cleaning up. Yes."
I was speechless. I didn't know how to react. She hated cooking.
"I forgot to mention," she continued, "the hours I spent the week before that, practicing. Even the birds wouldn't touch the first three cakes!"

I couldn't help but ask. "Why?"
"Because the first one got burnt, the second one was only half cooked, and in the third one, I forgot to add sugar."
It was just like her, to try to divert the conversation. "I mean why did you spend so much time on baking me a cake?"
She looked at me like I'd asked her why the sun rises in the east. "For your birthday, stupid. Of course, I also wanted to beat every gift you've ever got me. Try beating this one." She was grinning like she'd won the world championship.

As far as I was concerned, she had. I'd never spent a week making her anything. I'd never even spent an hour making her anything. Getting her a gift normally involved me taking her to the store, letting her choose and use my credit card. Suddenly, I felt cheap. "Thanks," was the only thing I could say. "Thanks a lot."

"Hey. Are you getting senti on me again?"
I was.

~*~ I was still mulling over my feelings for Preeti the next day at work when my boss asked to speak to me.
I went over to his cabin and he started with the usual greetings, asking how work was going and whether I was comfortable. He then told me that the company wanted to send me to New York for a couple of years. Normally, this wouldn't have made much of a difference to me. I could work anywhere and didn't have too much love for visiting places foreign. But right then, the first thought that came to me was that I'd be away from Preeti for two whole years. Twenty-four hours before, I'd have been disappointed to lose her company. But right then, I was devastated. That was when I knew I was in love with her. I'd had crushes before. Lots of them. But this was different.

"Do you have any problem in going?" my boss asked, since I hadn't responded.
"Not really," I replied. What else could I say? That I was in love, and couldn't bear the separation?
"When do I have to leave?"
I had a month. ~*~ "Wow! New York! Great! I've heard it's a fantastic city! Did you know it snows there in winter?" Preeti was obviously very excited about my going. She didn't seem to share my disappointment on what I now saw as 'separation'.

I had not decided then if I was going to tell her how I felt. We'd known each other for a little over a year, and we were very close, but beyond some mild flirting, the relationship had never got even close to romantic. That was, of course, until I found out she had spent a week baking me a cake. It's funny how small things seem to make such a big difference.

"What happened?" she asked. "You don't seem very happy."
"Oh," I replied, "it's just that it's so sudden, that's all. And you know I was never all that interested in going to America."

"What an idiot. Go see the place. I've heard the women there are amazingly beautiful." She had a sly smile on her face. I wanted to tell her I didn't care if I laid my eyes on another woman again, if she wasn't with me. But I didn't.

I realized that I only had another month with her. She'd rejected every guy who'd asked her out ever since I'd known her. I didn't want the same to happen to me, and I didn't want to make it awkward between us. I didn't want to risk that month. I wanted it to be the best time I had ever spent with her. After I came back from the US, I might not even get to meet her again. Two years was a long time.

We ate out almost every night. We visited some of the best restaurants in the city. She also helped me shop for warm clothes, formalwear, shoes, toothpaste and a million things I'd never have thought of on my own.

"You need to buy a nail-cutter." My roommates and I shared one.
"I've prepared a list of must-have medicines that you should carry."
"Your iron won't work in the US. No point buying one here as you need one that works at a hundred and ten volts and has flat pins. You can buy one at a K-Mart or Wal-Mart as soon as you get there."

"You need at least two pairs of formal shoes and at least ten pairs of dark socks. The East Coast has a formal dress code. And you won't do your laundry more than once a week or two."

"How many ties do you have? And which trousers do your blazers go with?"
"Better get a haircut before you leave from here. Knowing you, you'll postpone the first haircut for too long."
She'd call me up at one in the morning to tell me to add 'one more item' to my list.
And with every passing day, I was falling more deeply in love with her.
The month swept by quickly. The day I was supposed to leave, I asked her to come with me to the airport. "Of course, dumbo. You think I'd let you go just like that, or what?"

After packing my bags for me and checking the lists for the hundredth time, she finally pronounced me "Good to go."
We reached the airport four hours early to beat the rush, because it was an international flight. She got a visitor's pass to sit in the waiting area while I went ahead and checked-in my bags. Preeti had got a spring balance from somewhere and so we knew my bags were well within the weight limit. I finished the formalities and came to sit with her. We had only a few hours before I had to go for my security-check. We decided to get something to eat at the food court. And all the time, the one thing that was going through my head was that, after this, I wouldn't see her for at least another two years.

"Hey, Champ. Why so glum?" She saved 'Champ' for special days. Normally, it was just 'dumbo', 'bozo', 'ape-man', 'matchstick man', 'weirdo', or if she was very irritated with me, 'nutcase'.

"I don't want to go," I said.
"I don't want you to go either."
"No, you don't understand." I couldn't hold it in any longer. "I can't stand the thought of living without you by my side."

She stared at me. There was a strange look in her eyes. I couldn't read it.
"I am madly in love with you, Preeti."
At this, a sound escaped her lips that sounded like a cross between a sob and a laugh. "Well, dumbo, you've picked an absolutely fabulous time to tell me about it!"

A tear escaped her eyes. It was all I could do to stop myself from wiping it off her cheeks.
"How long have you felt this way?" She seemed amused, though she was definitely crying. I didn't know what to make of it.

"From the day I found out you had baked me a cake."
She laughed. "That's all it took? Well, bozo, I guess a way to a man's heart is certainly through his stomach! Hold it. A month? You waited a month? You were the one who kept saying that if you really liked a girl you wouldn't waste a day in telling her!" She was smiling widely now. It looked funny, with her eyes all wet.

"Well, I was confused. How did I know how you'd react? In fact, I still don't understand your reaction. I thought it would change things between us. You've rejected every guy who ever proposed to you!"

"That's because I'm in love with you, you overgrown idiot!"
"What?" Somehow, I'd never expected her to say that. She was in love with me? "How long have you been in love with me?"

"Ever since the day you offered to carry my suitcase for me."
"But that was the first day I met you!"
"I guess I was always a sucker for chivalry."
"All this time you've been in love with me and you never said anything! Then you go and complain that I waited a month!"

"You guys are so bad at reading a girl's mind."
"You women are so good at keeping your thoughts a secret! Even Einstein couldn't figure you out."
"Einstein was a nerd. Casanova, on the other hand, understood us very well."
"I love you."
"I know."
That moment, my dear friends, was magic. I looked into her eyes and took her hands in mine. Physical contact for us had been limited, until then, to a punch in the arm, a slap on the back of the head, or giving each other a 'high five'.

"You realize, don't you," she said, "that this is our first date?" Leave it to her to notice the little things.
"I really don't want to go." I'd always maintained that love is a bucketful of emotions. I wasn't exactly delighted to be proved right.

"Don't worry. I'm coming there in a couple of months."
"How? On a dependent visa?"
She laughed. "For that, I'll have to wait, won't I? I've got a project in New Jersey."
I couldn't believe my ears. "What? When did that happen? You never even told me!"
"Well, I wasn't sure you'd propose before you left. And I couldn't exactly sacrifice you to those New York women, could I? I had to watch out for myself. So I went on a project-hunting spree. There is an opportunity coming up for a project in about two months. Someone is coming back to India, so I'll be taking his place. They want me there for a little less than two years." She was beaming. "I realized I had struck gold!"

"And if I'd not told you how I felt? When were you planning on telling me about it?"
"Around a month before I reached there. I had to make it look natural. Or you'd think I was desperate."
"Well, you are desperate!" This was incredible. All I'd done in the past month had been to mope around, listen to sad songs and write her letters that I never intended her to read. "You've been scheming all this while! How come you didn't lay a trap for me a year ago?"

"I tried giving you hints, dumbo, but you just wouldn't pay attention!" She was laughing. "You're the only guy I ever spent any time with. Wasn't that a big enough hint?"

That was true. She would happily join a group of boys to go to a cricket match, but I now realized, only if I was one of them.

"What if I had rejected you?" I was extremely flattered that she'd been crazy about me for a year. My ego was swelling.

"You must be kidding!" she was clearly amused. "I get proposed to every few days. You are the one who's been rejected more times in the last year than I can count on two pairs of hands!"

She really knew how to burst my bubble.
"Hey," she said softly, "don't look so dejected. I said 'Yes', didn't I?"
I grinned. "Yes, you did. And you've made me a very happy man. But you know what would make me even happier?"
"If you learn to cook as good as you bake cakes."
So she punched me in the arm again.