A man challenges another to a bet over a woman…
“Great Aakash, very impressive,” Mr. Torani, the CEO, said, “Mark shares the same sentiment.” He turned to his overseas client, who nodded. Both walked up to the front of the room. Aakash, who had just finished presentation for his new project, stood smiling as words of appreciation ringed across the room. Bharat, his counterpart for the western region, stood beside him.
“I loved your campaign strategy, its smashing,” Mark said. Aakash’s smile widened.
“Bharath, I expect similar standards from you,” Mr. Torani said. Sameera Raghuraman, the deputy CEO of the company, joined him.
Bharath felt his lips were glued together. His throat went dry. The cold perfumed air of the room seemed like the hot wind of the desert. He listened to the crackling chairs and watched rest of the board members leave the room. The door swung in and out several times. His folded hands moved to his hips, then folded again, “Right… sure sir.”
“I am a bit apprehensive by the slowing economy, but Aakash, you really know how to spring a game-changer,” Mark closed his sleek ThinkPad. “Did you see that Samayraa, Wow!”
“Thanks,” Aakash disconnected the cables out of his laptop. Bharath turned off the projector and wound the cable.
“Lunch, Mark,” Sameera slid her right hand into Mark’s arm. Her long fingers with nails painted in scarlet red dug into Mark’s jacket. He smiled. She smiled back and looked at Aakash and Bharath. Aakash pursed his lips and then rolled his tongue over the lower lip. Sameera raised her left eyebrow with a subtle shake of her head. Ever so slowly, her eyes moved from Aakash’s flat chest to his waist, where a gold pin held his silk tie. Aakash pushed up his Calvin Klein leather belt, which secured his no more than thirty inch waist. She then shifted her eyes to Bharath’s broad shoulders. His prominent chest had always pulled her gaze like a rising stock market pulls investors. Finally, she signed off with a parting smile to both the executives.
“Excuse me, I need to go for a media interview,” Mr. Torani said. He extended his hand to Mark, who shook it with the ferocity of an arm wrestler. Sameera clung to his left arm.
“Spare the old man,” Aakash said under his breath. Bharath did not react.
“See you guys,” Mark walked out of the room. Sameera flung her long hair and waved her right hand fingers. The door squeaked back leaving Aakash and Bharat behind.
“Fucking beauty, she is, what a woman,” Aakash glanced at Bharath.
“Successful too,” Bharath said, handing him the cable and adapter, “Let’s go.”
Both left the room.
Aakash flipped a rubix cube a couple of times during a traffic signal. It was something he carried since he was six. Though he had never solved it, he never stopped trying. He kept it back on a ten-year-old spiral bound book. When other boys in teens ran after a soccer ball or thumped the leather ball to all parts of the ground, Aakash arranged stamps and postcards from all over the world. His mother wanted him to play but he never cared about his non-existent physical self.
All he cared about was his mind.
“Wow, Aakash you did it once again,” Sid said, raising his glass of wine. Aakash flashed his teeth. Besides Bharath, four other guys had joined him for the dinner at the Oberoi.
“Now I believe he made money in college by selling his methods of studying,” he said.
Aakash grinned. He had once finished a book on semiconductors with a speed often seen with a bestseller mystery novel.
“If anyone has known presentation skills, it’s him. The same stuff we had been trying to sell for years. He did in twenty minutes.”
“You know what guys; I am leaving for London next week. Torani wants me to oversee this project,” Aakash waved to the waiter.
“Lucky bastard, you!”
“But I still think Aakash, you manipulated the data, you may get into trouble,” Bharath said. Aakash gave him a skewed smile.
“Give me a Bruschetta with tomato salad and a Pizza Margherita.” Aakash said, “You guys order whatever you want. Rich man pays.”
A waiter cleared the table that was getting over crowded with empty bottles of wine and whiskies.
Bharath sat in silence, listening to the heaps of praises thrown on Aakash. The group of six had occupied a table near to the entrance of the restaurant. From a glass wall, he watched men and women entering the hotel lobby. His eyes moved from their stylish clothing to their footwear, from esoteric paintings to the glass panels displaying jewellery marked with mocking prices. In between, he allowed the music to soothe him. He continued to sip his beer as others around him rattled off one continental dish after another. When the waiter approached him, he shook his head.
“Come on Bharath, have something,” Aakash said.
“It’s fine, I am not hungry,” he said.
“Not hungry or you can’t read the menu.” Laughter picked up around the table. Aakash clapped a few high fives.
Bharath held the glass with a vice like grip. Then he let go.
“You think success is only about belching out-of-the-box ideas, speaking in accented English, impressing white men and dining in these high end restaurants?”
Aakash raised his eyebrows. “If it is not then what?”
At first Bharath did not know what to say. “It’s about honesty and saying only what you can do,” Bharath said, after a ten-second silence. He had learnt only one path- the honest, uncompromising one, though he was unsure how far it would lead him.
“Oh, I am sorry, I forgot one- the most important- impressing chicks like Sameera.” Aakash went for another set of high fives.
Bharath put down his glass forcefully. “I never do that, maybe…”
“Or you can’t?”
Bharath wiped condensed water on the exterior of the glass. “Excuse me, I need to leave,” he stood up.
Aakash moved fingers over his stubble.
“Hey buddy, cool down, I agree to what you say, honesty, hard work, dedication works in life. Maybe it hasn’t worked for you so far in your job, but…” Aakash rolled his eyes around, “Can you show me if it works on a woman?” Two guys sniggered.
Bharath stared at him.
“Look Aakash, I don’t want to…”
“Why not?” Aakash slapped his hand on the table. A wine glass fell over. Red wine spread on the table like warm blood. “You say a lot about my methods, why don’t you show us what you are capable of?” He looked round the table. Everyone nodded.
“Come on Bharath, what he says is fair enough,” one of the guys said.
Bharath put his hands on the hips. Aakash slumped back on his chair. “Let’s see what this Bollywood star can do.” He pulled out his blackberry and stabbed it a few times.
“Okay, I am going to call that bitch Sameera and you are going to invite her to a date for an Italian dinner. Easy for a man with self-confidence, honesty and what did he say…?”
“Aakash, this is not a joke.”
“It is not!” Aakash stumbled over. “Date that girl and you win,” he rubbed his goatee.
Bharath lowered his eyes. He counted his pulse. It was fast, furious and thumping.
“Okay, incentives. I’ll help you in your presentation. And free coaching for success. Otherwise, I’ll drop the London project.”
“Come on Bharath, show him!” the chorus picked up.
Bharath strode off.
“A real man is one who can say what he believes, without worrying about going with or against the tide,” Bharath’s deceased father had told him. He was a government officer, who rode a bicycle to work when his colleagues drove cars. Bharath studied entire nights but his grades did not move higher. His father never complained, nor did he, for the lack of sports shoes or denim jackets. He never left his dreams to become dirt. Dreams of getting success someday, to become a confident man who can achieve what he wants.
What if you land up in this situation? I wish he had told me, Bharath thought as he entered the lift next morning. “Sameera is high flying, influential and I hope she’s got nothing against me, what is the harm? Aakash helps me or not, I don’t care. But I can’t let them know how nervous I feel in front of women,” he thought aloud.
He saw Sameera breezing past in a pencil skirt with a striped top. “How does she manage to look so good every day?” he thought, watching her from the back.
A minute of nail-biting and scribbling purposeless lines on a notepad followed. Bharath opened and closed his mailbox, tried to start his presentation and then picked up the phone, only to put it back. He then lay back, closed his eyes for a moment and got up.
“Hi, may come in,” he said, opening the door of Sameera’s cabin. She was filing a nail with the phone receiver hanging precariously on her left shoulder. Her eyebrows moved up as she saw him.
“Wait,” she said.
Sameera put down the phone. She brought out a small mirror. After a quick check, she said, “Come on in.”
Sameera leaned forward. Bharath walked in. His eyes moved from her hair to the glistening pendant an inch above her cleavage. She watched his pregnant lips. She waited. Her left eyebrow moved up. Bharath felt tightening of his muscles. “Would you, I mean… care to join me for a dinner?”
“Aahh, no… it’s a polite invitation for a dinner,” Bharath interlocked his hands. He moved his eyes off her. She grabbed the mouse and moved it around.
“Fine, but I’ll drive,” she moved her finger over the falling hair.
Bharath watched Sameera move out of the car park. Her maroon, clinging dress with sequins gave him a kick. Her walk, timed to the beat of an inaudible music, mesmerized him. He swallowed a slug of saliva. He prayed to pass the next two hours. “They asked for it, I did it,” he thought, “I’ll just be myself.” He walked behind her.
“So, any special reasons for this?” she said. Bharath pulled a chair for her. He was a few inches away from her shiny black hair. Her perfume intoxicated him.
“My friends thought, well…I am not comfortable with women, especially good looking ones, I mean, beautiful ones.”
“What else? Stupid male ego again,” she laughed. Bharath waved for the waiter.
“No… sorry, I really…I, you know I mean actually… admire you,” he said. His heartbeat increased. ‘What have I said?’ he added in his mind.
“Admire? Wow? I thought men only care to fuck.”
Bharath felt as if his tongue had rolled inwards. He moved his eyes sideways. He expected someone to watch them- as a part of the bet. If someone has, he would end this drama right here, he firmed up his mind. He stood up and turned back to look around. He spotted a guy. He exhaled.
“So, if you wish, we can end this?” he said.
“You won the bet? What will the loser do? Kick the boss? Send me a porn MMS?” She rolled her eyes.
“Please, I am sorry for the inconvenience,” he said.
She laughed and took a long sip of her drink. “Are you a Hotel staff?” Bharath’s face turned white. ‘How did I get into this?’ he thought.
“Relax; I am not a guest or a passenger. I am your date, and I am loving every moment of it. Why do you want to end this? You will win only when I will give you a certificate of satisfaction,” she said, looking straight into his widened eyes. He noticed the long eyelashes that forced him to check if he were really with her. “You are, just be there,” he told himself.
Bharath recalled the day he joined the Smart Inc. In every meeting, he would struggle to forge the meaning, but fail to grab it. He would be scared to ask questions fearing someone might mock him. That was two years ago. He has to end this. Her words eased his clouded mind. A silence of ten seconds followed in which Sameera finished her drink.
“Okay, thanks,” he said, exhaling.
“Shall we dance?” she said, standing up. She reached out for his hand.
‘No way! Oh God! Save me,’ Bharath shouted silently. His eyes closed. ‘I am dead. What should I do? Dance? With her?’ Moments of indecision passed. Sameera stood with her stretched hand.
Sameera had waited enough for him to get up. She gripped his right hand with a force that would leave imprints. She led him to the dance floor like a pet. Bharath moved as if his legs were tied together. He watched other couples moving their bodies to the popular Bollywood number. Visual of the movie song flashed before his eyes. He tried to grab a dance step.
“Relax, just do what I do,” Sameera shouted. She started twirling like a trained Bollywood actress. For a moment, Bharath thought he was watching a movie. Her perfect, lilting movements seemed to have washed her body in a magical lure. The tempting yet heart throbbing moment blinded Bharath.
He found the dance easier than he had expected. He forced his rigid waist to shake. Soon, his inhibitions melted. He could see the admiration in Sameera’s eyes. ‘Just a few more minutes,’ he thought.
Sameera pulled his right hand to her waist and pushed her body forward. Next instant, her lips were brushing against Bharath’s. He pushed her back. He walked towards the exit.
Bharath stood at the bus stop trying to control the turbulence in his mind. He would rub his arms, look at his watch, rub his hands against his nose or scratch his head. Nothing seemed to work. Cold winds before the rain swayed him. Thunders jolted his heartbeats every few seconds. His eyes scanned the traffic in the heavy rain that had begun to pour as if to douse the fire inside his heart. A few showers hydrated his face. He wiped it.
A familiar car stopped a meter away from him. The door opened. Sameera held his arm and pulled him inside. She drove off.
“I thought no man could resist me,” she said.
“Stop the car, please,” he said, “Here is the money for the restaurant bill,” he threw a couple of thousands on the car’s dashboard.
“The date isn’t finished. We are going to my place. We’ll order something,” she said.
“Please drop me at the next Metro station,” Bharath said. His voice resembled that of a caged prisoner.
“Relax”, she said, taking a minute to pronounce the word. She held his hand and massaged it. Bharath found it soothing. After stroking for a while, she clutched it tighter and then let it go. Veins, muscles or nerves inside his body, whatever were resisting, silenced. He pressed his back against the seat. His body felt the cool lavender rich air. He closed his eyes. All he could hear was falling rain drops – noisy, but with each passing breath, turning into music.
Ten minutes later, the car stopped. Air had got cooler. Noise had gone down. Bharath opened his eyes. His hair still had a few raindrops clinging. A hand pressed against the back of his head. He felt the same sensation that had shaken him earlier. This time he liked it, more than anything he had liked before. He slid hands over her hair, then her arms, waist and finally to her legs. The more he touched her, the more he liked it.
An hour later, they stood on top of a building, watching the skyline.
A year later.
Aakash parked his Honda city in front of a bungalow in South Delhi. He folded his glasses and walked towards the entrance. A speeding car stopped his stride. He turned to look at the driver. “Some rich, spoiled brat.” He had a sense of déjà vu. He scratched his clean-shaven chin to strike an imaginary irritant away. He walked in.
“Hi Aunty, Mom told me about it,” Aakash said. He leaned forward to hug the lady. “How is Ishika?”
“Upstairs, she hasn’t eaten for two days,” she said.
“I am sorry aunty,” Aakash said, “You know I planned a fifteen day trip, only for this marriage,” he exhaled. He hugged her again.
“Go and meet her.” The lady with short hair walked inside.
Aakash and Ishika had spent their childhood together in Delhi. Their mothers were sisters. For a few years, both the kids were in the same school. Aakash loved Ishika as much he loved his career. He had led her to college on the first day; he would accompany her whenever he sensed a risk. Once he had run into a boy double his size for her.
“Hi brother,” Ishika ran down the stairs and hugged Aakash. He clutched her tight. She burst into tears. His eyes closed. He patted her back and hair. When he opened his eyes, he saw a magazine lying on the lower shelf of the table. He kept staring it.
Thirty seconds later, both moved apart. Aakash helped her sit down. His eyes were trying to read something when he was in embrace with her dearest sister. He picked up the magazine.
“CEO of Smart Inc. India tested HIV positive,” it said, “In a candid interview, businesswoman of the year Sameera Raghuraman accepted she is HIV…”
Aakash’s eyes widened, and then contracted as he flipped pages.
“She was the one who refused you, right?” Ishika said. Aakash did not react.
Aakash’s head flooded with memories. In the same house, two years ago, Sameera had turned him down as Aakash and Ishika’s parents listened in disbelief. Aakash closed his eyes. Sameera, wearing a cleavage popping spaghetti dress had walked out of the house, leaving her father with much to explain. The then free spirited Aakash did not care for her reasons.
Aakash dropped the magazine. Ishika held his hand. “Forget her. I heard about struggles. How’s your job now?”
A uniformed man brought a tray of drinks and snacks.
“I am doing fine. What happened? Why did he say no?” he said.
Ishika checked the fading paint on nails. “I don’t know. We had been going out for two months since we met. He was so kind to me- just what you always wished. He would never hold my hand until I did. He always pulled a chair for me, never allowed me to spend anything,” she cleared her throat. “We always watched movies of my liking. We never argued. He didn’t like to dance, but he took me to pubs, always protected me, as if I were his most prized possession.”
“Last weekend he called me and said he can’t marry me,” Ishika said, “He did not give any reason. I called him several times but he kept repeating the same. Mama and Pa requested him, but he returned the gifts and the ring. All the invitations were sent, flights were booked. Papa is still trying to manage all the guests who have come in for the marriage.”
Aakash pressed his teeth together.
“You know I had almost given away myself…it was he who pulled out at the last minute,” she breathed hard through her wet nose. Aakash pulled her closer. Ishika’s sobs grew louder.
Aakash meshed his hands and then rubbed the thumbs. His eyes steadied. His jaw tightened. “Tell me his name. Where does he live?” He stood up. His right foot landed near Sameera’s face on the magazine cover.
Aakash waded his way through the Delhi traffic to reach the eastern end of Delhi. He stopped at a signal. A young girl, not more than ten, asked for money. Aakash looked at her mud brown hair, which had dirt clinging to the ends; her cheeks had roughened due to lack of nourishment. His eyes moved to the background. On footpath, a mud drenched woman was nursing a newborn. Two other kids were looking at her. He pulled out his wallet, found Indian currency among dollars and pounds and handed over ten hundred rupee notes to the girl. The girl looked at the money, as if checking the authenticity. Aakash smiled and gave her the box of chocolates he had bought for Ishika. The girl ran off.
The name of Ishika’s fiancé had spawned visuals of his life prior to the turn. The windscreen changed into portal, events of his days in Smart inc. and the last year of his life unearthed. The day he joined to the day he became the smartest guy around. Days of bulldozing all comers to the day he landed in London, to the day he left Smart Inc. Days when he was on road and platforms to the day when he found his first real success.
Aakash pulled into a narrow lane, wide enough to allow only one car. He parked and walked out. He knocked at a door.
An old lady opened the door. He walked behind her into the living room. The décor reminded him his old house of the nineties, where his family lived for a year in a Delhi suburb. That was the only time when a financial crisis hit his otherwise affluent father. He sat down. A photograph of a man not over forty hung on the opposite wall. He knew it was Bharath’s father.
“Aakash, is that you? What a surprise? I thought you were in London? Or New York?”
Aakash tightened his fists. “Yes, I stay abroad. But you stay here. Then why did you do this to my sister?”
“Oh, I didn’t know, really…” Bharath lowered his eyes. He took several breaths and turned to a chest of drawers. He brought out a paper.
“Answer my question, you bastard,” Aakash stepped forward and grabbed him. “You know what she means to me. Tell me, why?” The paper in Bharath’s hand fluttered with his shaking arm. Aakash noticed a photograph of Bharath with two girls. He let him go. He moved back.
“I am sorry, please accept her, she loves you. Please marry her,” Aakash said, folding his hands.
“Sit,” Bharath said.
“You have changed a lot Aakash. Good for you,” he said, “I hope you have reached where you wanted to.”
Aakash brought his eyebrows together.
“I have not changed. And this is good for your sister,” Bharath said, “You know what is this?” He held out the paper. “This is the reality of life. Unlike your presentations, which predicted bloated profits and unassailable targets, this tells you exactly how much longer you will live. Remember the bet?”
Aakash took the paper in his hands. Somewhere in one of the rows was written.
HIV : Positive