Joined: 01 January 2009
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Joined: 01 January 2009
Joined: 01 January 2009
Subpart 1THE LAYERS OPEN
It was the end of yet another tiring evening. People were returning home from work, and the locals were jam packed. The hustle and bustle at the station just seemed to define the city that Mumbai is- forever running, forever on its toes.
In the midst of all this, Archana sat on a bench on the platform, all by herself. Unaffected by the alternate silence and noise that occurred when a train came on the platform, she sat alone, trying to think.
Her thoughts went over what had happened that day. As promised, Vaishali had got Varsha's account hacked to see if they could get any info from it, since Varsha hadn't been replying to any of their messages or mails. What this step had revealed had shocked her.
Varsha's account was empty. There were no mails, no messages. Everything had been deleted, save for a last mail from Varsha's bank.
It told that her bank account had been indefinitely sealed as requested. Other than that, there were simply no other mails. Her FB account had the same fate- it has been blocked. They could get no info from it. The software engineer, a friend of Vaishali's, dug around some more, retrieved old mails and finally concluded that Varsha's email account, social networking id's, bank accounts- everything had already been hacked earlier. By whom- this no one knew. Varsha probably was not using anything now. Vaishali had also managed to contact her friends who had been going to London with her. All of them had said that Varsha had never boarded the flight to London and they had not been in contact with her at all. The detective employed by Tarun in New Delhi said that Varsha had been working in a mall in Delhi as a salesgirl, but for the past few days no one had seen her there. She did not live in the hotel where she lived earlier- she had vacated it sometime back. There was no other info about her. No person in her surrounding areas could recall having seen her recently.
Which led to bigger questions- if Varsha was not working in London, but actually in Delhi as Manav had repeatedly told them all, then how was she surviving without any money? Where was she? How would they contact her now? And why wasn't she contacting them now, via net, letters, phone calls or any other mode? She had stopped calling at home too for god-knows-what reason. Why was she troubling them so much? Or.. or.. was she in trouble herself.. and hence unable to..
Archana closed her eyes. She stopped herself from thinking of the worst.
The loud whistle of the train could be heard, followed by the mad crowd behind it. An exasperated Archana closed her eyes more tightly, trying to ignore the noise and force her mind to think. Where was Varsha? Why was she silent? How could they call her or contact her if she kept hiding in this manner? And if they couldn't contact her, how could they help her out of the mess she was in.
Really, why was she silent? Was she in trouble? Was she being forced to stay silent? If her account had been hacked, her bank transactions been monitored, it means someone had been after her all this while. Who could it be? Someone from the same fraud organisation that had trapped Varsha in the drugs scandal- Prasanna job agencies, or whatever the name was? But why? Why Why why?
Question, questions and more questions. No answers.
And in the midst of all this, there was Manav.
She had been told by Tarun, Baba, Manav and Vaishali that Manav had helped Varsha escape from jail illegally and flee to Delhi. At that time she had not believed it. But today she had sized up that things were definitely not right- Varsha was not in contact with anyone in the whole wide world, she was not working with her friends in London, Manav was in trouble and talked to someone called Shinde Bhau about Varsha, Tarun had hired detectives who had reported about Varsha, Atya had even gone back to Delhi with the hope of being able to find Varsha there. It all indicated that these weren't lies made to help exonerate Manav from being absent at the day of the court hearing against Ajit or losing the evidence- there seemed to be a bigger story. Proving Manav's innocence in the brothel fiasco was no longer the main concern of people here- the more important thing was to save both Manav and Varsha from the police- she seemed to have had fled and Manav had helped her escape. And now both of them seemed to be in trouble.
Now someone had been trailing Varsha. Someone was there bcos of which Varsha was maintaining a silence. If the same person knew about Manav's involvement too, then would Manav suffer as well? Oh lord, keep Manav safe from all this now- she cried to herself. He didn't deserve to fall in any more trouble just cos he chose to help others. The fact that Varsha being lost ruined all hopes of Manav's innocence (in the brothel fiasco) ever coming out was a different issue altogether, one which seemed lost now in the bigger picture (Note: Manav had said he lost the proof of his innocence while trying to save Varsha that day). She had reasons to believe that he had not done anything to cheat her, unfortunately now she had no way to bring this in front of her parents. There were so many loopholes in the story, that she would never be able to explain to her parents cos she did not understand the whole story herself. All she had now was just a faith born out of an understanding of the character of the person she loved, and she highly doubted anyone would ever accept it.
Why was God doing this, she asked herself as she looked at the ground with tearful eyes. No, why blame God, she told herself, all this wouldn't have happened if she had trusted Manav earlier and talked to Varsha to come back home= in those days she used to call, now she wasn't even in contact. At least Manav would not have to live under constant humiliation. The harassment complaint would not have been made if Varsha had been there, she would have vouched for Manav's story and innocence beforehand, matters would have never got ruined to this level. Now Varsha was lost, and if she wasn't found, Manav could end up in trouble too.
All this is happening bcos of me- thought Archana, trying to push tears away from her eyes. If only she had trusted Manav earlier.. if only..
There was no use in crying over spilt milk though. The damage had been done.
Manav looked here and there frantically, trying to locate her on the streets.
Almost 9.30, and yet Archana had not come home, he thought worriedly. Why? Why was she so late? She was always at home before he came back, then today? He had called her night school- they had no extra classes. The newly started night school bus had gone on time, she had boarded it, was what the watchman had told. Then why hadn't she reached till now, he wondered. Even Vaishali was not picking up the phone.
In the end, he decided to go to the night school and check out for himself. There was no need for it, though. As soon as he entered the Dombivili station, he saw her where she was sitting, on the bench at the other side of the platform.
She looked totally lost, and he couldn't believe it was her. Really, what was she thinking, staying up at the station at that time all alone. He really wanted to go and shake her hard. From across the tracks, he shouted from the top of his voice, calling out to her, but she did not listen. She looked lost, sitting there all alone.
Manav was amazed. What had happened to her suddenly? Had something again happened bcos of which she was down in the dumps? Had she got into a fight in her Aai's home.
He looked on both sides of the track, then got down and crossed the track to reach her. She did not notice when he came and sat near her. Finally, he shook her arm.
She came out of her thoughts, and stared at him without blinking.
"What happened?" he asked with concern. "Why so late?"
She looked away from him and faced the ground. "Yes, I've been very late.. wasted a lot of precious time.."
He looked confused. "What? I'm asking why didn't you come home today?"
She shook her head. "Nothing.. I just wanted.. to think.."
"What happened now?"
She gave him a weak smile. "I trouble you a lot, hai na?"
He seemed scared by her tone and her voice. Cautiously he asked her, "Archana what happened?"
For a moment, she did not say anything. Then she slowly said, "Manav, I wanted to say something.."
She seemed unsure of how to say what she wanted to speak, and he waited till she composed herself. Finally she muttered, "I just want to say I'm sorry, really sorry Manav, for not believing you.."
"I know you didn't lie to me about Varsha."
It was as if everything seemed to have suddenly stopped around them. Manav could not believe his ears. A hundred accusations had been made against him time and again. He had got used to hearing himself being called a liar. Was it really Archana saying that she believed him this time?
He touched her lightly on the shoulder, as she continued looking at him with tear filled eyes. "Archana, what has happened? Did you.." a thought struck him suddenly. "Did you get in touch with Varsha?"
She looked down, shaking her head slowly. He felt disappointed.
"Varsha is not here." She said slowly. "No one knows where she is, and no one knows if we shall ever get to meet her again." She looked up at Manav. "I know now Manav, that Varsha is not in London, just like you said. She's not working at that company there, just like you said. She doesn't contact home, just as you said. And even though I have no clue where she is, it would be foolish of me to still accuse you of lying about her, when all that you've said in the past is coming true in front of my eyes- the drug scandal you and Varsha are caught in, the police investigations- everything."
Manav slid into the seat behind her. He did not say anything. Somehow, he felt Archana needed to speak. He sat listening to her silently as she told him about everything she and Vaishali had come across recently.
"It's all my fault." She said. "If I had listened to you then, and tried to talk to Varsha.. in those days she used to call home.. darn! I missed out a good opportunity to find out the truth! Now Varsha is.. lost.. and you are in danger of being caught by the narcotics team for having helped her escape.. I know what has been going on between you and that inspector Shinde, I heard your talks with Atya." she looked at Manav tearfully and in a choked voice said, "I'm so sorry Manav.. sorry for everything.."
He gulped, not knowing how to say something without making her feel guilty, she looked too regretful anyway. She continued speaking,
"I was too mad at you in those days, angry that you had cheated me, let down all the expectations which I had pinned on you, of coming out clean against all the accusations made against you. I hated the sight of your face and didn't want to even listen to your version of the story, especially when I came to know about you and Shravani.. it burnt me to the core.." she continued speaking. "The mere thought of it disgusted me.. I didn't want to even think about the possibility of your words about Varsha being true, I thought you were just cooking up a story about Varsha's disappearance, cos you didn't show up in court after making tall claims of unmasking Ajit in front of all- in all this, I ended up ruining everything.."
"Do you think I'm not aware of all this?" Manav said finally. "I know everything. I understand everything. In fact, the reason I have never blamed you for everything is cos I understood what you were going through.. there were just too many misunderstandings between both of us at that time.. and you really don't know me well enough to trust me then.. somehow things didn't work out the way they should ideally have, in real life, nothing 'ideal' happens anyway.."
She sniffed hard, still looking down. Nothing Manav said could make her feel better today. "I should have given you a chance.." she said regretfully.
"You gave me chances." Said Manav, looking away from her. "You gave me a chance to prove my innocence when the rest of your family hated me to the core. It was just that.. luck didn't favour me.. I blew up the chance.. and quite obviously you felt cheated and used. I can't really blame you for not believing the whole of the Varsha story after that, along with how I lost proof of my innocence, till date I have nothing major to support my words."
A train passed, and both of them were again immersed in silence. Slowly the station returned to its normal hum, and all attention seemed to be centred on them again.
"I gave up too soon."
She looked at Manav's grave expression, startled by this confession.
"I gave up too soon." Manav repeated. "At that time Baba kept egging me to fight on. But I think I just got disheartened by everything- the divorce hearings, your behaviour towards me, and then Satish's proposal.."
Archana was horrified. Oh god- Manav knew of it! He knew that her parents had wanted her to get married to Satish even before their divorce had been finalised, that they had taken away his honour of a son in law long ago. She closed her eyes in shame, feeling she would never be able to face Manav again. It was the worst moment of her life.
Manav realised he had spoken too much. So he let it off and continued matter of factly. "And then the financial problems, family problems, my health problems- everything came up. I didn't care at all about proving the Varsha story true in front of everyone. I felt I had enough problems of my own.. even Atya asked me why I wasn't trying to tell you about Varsha now that you had returned, and I said I didn't really care anymore. Tarun and I tried to find Varsha, but I don't know.. maybe I had lost hope by then.. somewhere I thought she would return eventually but the police matters would be settled by then, her efforts to exonerate herself would yield some results, and our relationship was anywhere over as it is.. I hadn't known the muck would only thicken and the police would actually get more involved with time.."
"Why are you making me feel more guilty Manav?" asked Archana, on the verge of breaking down now. "You know you have done as much as you could do, beyond that everyone has a tolerance limit- you're human too."
"You're human too." Said Manav softly, holding her hands. "And humans make mistakes. Humans cannot see the future and predict things. So don't punish yourself now by repenting for not doing this or that earlier. Your actions are understandable with regards to the circumstances then. Sometimes there are no rights and wrongs, a lot of it lies in between. We live mostly in these grey areas due to our circumstances and weaknesses, and that is what makes us human." He looked at her keenly, hoping for her to say something. She didn't. Only a single tear flowed down from her eye. "I won't be able to forgive myself if anything happens to Varsha or you.."
They sat in silence for sometime. Finally Manav spoke. "We should go home now."
She didn't really want to go home. She wished they could keep sitting over there, with him holding her hands. She always felt so comforted when he did something like that. At that moment, however, no words came out of her mouth. She nodded and got up. The walk back home was quiet, with both of them lost in thoughts- Archana immersed in guilt and worry and wondering how things could be set right and about Varsha, and Manav thinking about his confession to Archana. He didn't know from where it had come up, all these days he had never even thought of it at all- the admittance that yes, maybe he could have changed things had he not given up then. Did he have the desire now to go back and make a try again? Well honestly, he did not know.
Manav tapped the table anxiously as he waited for Dharmesh Jaipurwala to pick up the phone. It was close to 10 and he hoped the spare parts seller wasn't asleep. He knew he was calling late, but then again, he had been too busy the rest of the day to call him. He hoped he would pick up the phone soon, he couldn't call again after sometime. These days even making phone calls was such an effort- he could never read the contact names on the screen. A number of times he had even called up the wrong people. His eyesight was really getting bad now, he told himself for the umpteenth time- it had started affecting his work in the garage. Maybe it was time to..
Dharmesh did pick up the phone finally, and after the initial greetings, Manav told him about how he had used up some of the spare parts belonging to Dharmesh, stored away in Manav's garage, for which he would pay via the people who had used them. He also told Dharmesh that a friend of his, who had started a small garage of his own, needed cheap spare parts, and if it was okay if he supplied them to him.
"Not a problem." Said Dharmesh. "In any case, my talks with that Supervisor of Girishji's garage have gone nowhere. The guy is absolutely refusing to budge from his stand and take my goods. I talked to Girishji once and he said he would look into the matter- but then I think he talked to his Supervisor who succeeded in convincing him. One of these days I would like to kick that Supervisor's butt hard! He is just messing things for me, the goods are rotting in your garage and not making the money I spent on them, and then again, the rent of your garage is so high.."
Manav listened to his story patiently. "So what about the goods then.."
"Um yeah.. where was I.. yeah.. you can sell the spare parts if you know of any customers.. just make sure to maintain a record book or something because I'm very particular about transactions.. I have a complete list of everything stored away in your garage.. I won't miss anything."
"I will." Promised Manav.
There was silence before Dharmesh spoke again. "And I'll give you a... hmmm... a 10% cut."
A 10 % cut- Manav wondered. Was it good enough or was he settling for something too small- Dharmesh after all was a true blue businessman. "Thankyou." He continued anyway. "Please send me a rate list for the goods, both MRP and whole sale prices."
Archana came out of her office and started looking for a taxi to go to the station, from where she would go to school by the train. It was just beginning to get dark. She was so lost in her thoughts that she did not notice that someone was following her, until the 'someone' actually came and stood in front of her.
"AJIT?!" she exclaimed in shock. She looked around quickly. "What are you doing here?" she asked sharply.
"Archana, we have to talk."
"Not now." Said Archana, ignoring him, and pretending to look busy in trying to stop a taxi. "I have to go to school and I'm already late."
"Come, I'll drop you to your school. We can talk in the car."
"Ajit, no." She said, wondering why her heart was beating so fast and why she had broken into a sweat. This was the same guy who had been invited into her family functions a few days back. She had been completely at ease interacting with him. They had all trusted his words everytime.
Now however, as her faith in Manav was slowly building up, it was also translating into a negative impression of Ajit. Even though she had not thought of Ajit all these days, it was obvious that if she felt Manav was right, Ajit had to be the wrong one. And if Ajit was wrong and trying to trap her, she had no interest in listening to his nonsense.
She tried to stop a cab, unfortunately it was heavy traffic and none of them stopped. Ajit was getting frustrated. "Come on Archana, I'll drop you to your school, why are you acting so difficult? Has that Manav brainwashed you against me by a few hugs and kisses?"
She gave him a dirty look, then turned to walk to the station. All the way Ajit kept following her, trying to speak.
"Manjusha Tai told me that you are filing a court case against her. There are strifes in the Karanjkar house bcos of you. Ultimately when your Aai said she would still support Manav in his treatment, Tai and Vinod Jiju separated from the house. Rightly so! Your family members take both of them for granted always."
Archana had no interest in defending her family members at the moment. Her only interest was to get away from Ajit's venom. She spotted a bus which she knew would stop near Dombivili. School can take a backseat for one day- she thought and quickly got into the bus. Ajit got in as well. She sat in the seat meant for ladies and invited another gentleman to sit next to her too, saying that it was okay. Anyone was better than Ajit.
Ajit lost his chance to talk to her again. He was slowly getting frustrated of everything now- he didn't like it that she was behaving all hoity toity and making him run after her. But truth was that he had no other option right now. It was important to convince her if he needed to help his sister and his mother. His sister had come up with the plan of sending the Deshmukh family to prison when his own plan of breaking the marriage had failed. She had felt it would be a sure shot plan to break up Archana and Manav, unfortunately, it had backfired on them. They had never thought that Manav would make a counter complaint with Archana supporting him. Now it was important to talk her out of this madness.
Archana got down from the bus at her bus stop and started walking home. Ajit followed her.
"Archana, I have never been more embarrassed in my life. I will never forget this day, and what's more I am going to tell your Dada about your behaviour to me. Let's see what he says then."
"Look Ajit," Archana said, facing him squarely. "I do not wish to speak to you, and that too on this topic. Please go."
She started walking again, and Aji t followed. "I know you are doing all this to please Manav. But is it worth it Archana? That man cheated you, you know that too. He is a shameless womanizer who trapped you in a brothel. For his sake, you are hurting your parents, your brother, everyone- you are filing a court case against your sister in law. It will hurt the reputation of my mother too- you know very well that she is standing in the coming elections. Have you no shame?"
She did not say anything, she simply kept reminding herself not to even think along Ajit's words- that he was only trying to provoke her. "Fine, don't listen to me." Ajit extended a CD. "I didn't want to do this, but I have no other option now. This is your husband's reality. It's a video- if you have the guts then open and see it- it will show you what your characterless husband really is, though I must tell you that you won't be able to sleep for nights afterwards."
Archana froze in her tracks. For a moment, she looked ahead, wondering if she should at least SEE what Ajit had with him. What could be in that CD..?
Then, as if coming back on earth, she took the CD from Ajit's hand and with a quick twist of her wrist she threw it in the nearby drain.
Ajit pulled her by her arm, almost making her scream with pain. "How dare you?!" he growled. "You just ruined that important piece of evidence!"
"I wouldn't have seen it anyway." Said Archana. "Get me 1000 other evidences to prove Manav is the cheapest guy on the planet and I won't see it. Whatever he is, innocent, guilty- WHATEVER, I've accepted him now, so it doesn't make a difference to me. And now let me go!"
"Not before you agree to take the court case back." Said Ajit through clenched teeth, tightening his hold on her arm. Archana bit her lip. "Ajit you're hurting me." She said in a warning tone, very scared now. "Leave my arm or I'll shout."
He didn't do anything. Archana's gaze turned more fiery. "LEAVE, OR I'LL SHOUT. NOW!!"
He left her arm as he realised that people had started staring at them. Archana mouthed a few curses mentally, gave him a dirty look and kept walking ahead, faster now. She really wanted to go home soon. She hoped fervently for someone to be at home who could throw Ajit out. Baba would be out at the bar most probably, Manav would be at the garage, Vedant at the library.. awesome! No men in the house! Hopefully if there were some other people in the chawl compound and not just little children playing, maybe she could request them to drive Ajit away.
Ajit followed her to the house. He saw Archana going to the neighbour's house, then coming out, opening the lock of her own home and getting in. This meant she was alone at home, thought Ajit and started climbing the stairs, thinking hard. His evil smile only widened.
He knocked on the door and said in a voice as smooth as silk. "Yuhoo Archana, won't you let me in."
There was no answer. As expected, he thought. He knocked once again, and was taken aback when the door opened suddenly.
"Yes?" asked Savita in a demanding voice.
"You.." Ajit was taken aback. "What are you doing here?"
"I am the owner of this house, where else would I be?" Said Savita. Ajit's eyes searched for Archana. "Where is Archana?"
"What work do you have with her?" she asked flatly. He could see her peeping from the kitchen with an anxious look on her face. Savita noticed it too. She yelled at Archana. "What are you doing time pass for? It is time for my evening tea! Will your mother come and make it for me? Get inside!" Archana darted into the kitchen at once.
"I want to talk to Archana."
"She won't talk. And now you get lost."
"You can't talk to me like that!"
"You will stop me?" demanded Savita, pushing him on the shoulder. "I will say what I want, you cannot stop me here!"
Ajit's eyes darted to the kitchen again, and he made one last attempt to move past Savita and get to Archana, but that turned out to be a mistake. With all her might, Savita pushed him and he stumbled on his feet. And then she shouted in the loudest voice he had ever heard.
"You will come in this house? You will trouble the daughter in law of this house? You *#@*!%^#*, get out before I throw you out." She physically pushed him out of the door. Ajit had not imagined a woman like her to have that sort of strength. He was out in the corridor now, and he could see neighbours opening their doors and coming out after hearing Savita's words. "What happened Tai?" a woman asked.
"This man is troubling my daughter in law." Savita explained. "He followed her home all the way from school inspite of her repeatedly asking him to go away. He even hurt her on the arm. Thankfully I was just in the neighbouring house and both of us got inside and locked the door, but then he even tried to forcibly get into the house. Ae you! Get out now!" She took out her slipper and started shooing him out by hitting him on his back.
"Bloody hell!" said a woman of double the girth of Savita. Ajit felt nervous. What was she, a sumo wrestler or something? He started edging towards the stairs. "I'm out of here." He said casually, stepping down the stairs. "You are mad women, I don't want to deal with you. I can always talk to Archana another time."
"Shameless to the core!" said a woman with a disgust.
"Let's teach a lesson to such Romeos, lusting for married women in this manner and troubling them." said another woman taking out an umbrella. The women on the ground floor blocked Ajit's route.
And then it was as if time stopped for Ajit. He didn't know how many sandals or stones or shoes or sticks hit him- on the head, on the back, on his shoulder. He simply got to his knees and kept shouting for them to stop, but the anger of a crowd of riled women was unimaginable. He couldn't even hit them back, and their energy ceased to decrease, infact more hands seemed to join in. After what seemed like eternity, he was let off with a torn shirt, and several bruises on his back, hands and face. He tottered about, trying to remember where he had left his car.
Savita looked angry and tired too. At the end of the commotion, as the crowd began to disperse, she wore her slippers and started walking up the stairs. She entered the house where Archana was waiting anxiously for her. "Your tea!' said Archana in a small voice. Savita nodded. She needed her tea badly. She sat as Archana brought tea and biscuits for her. "You should have given him 2-4 slaps there itself." She told her roughly. "He wouldn't have dared to follow you till here."
"I was alone at that time.. plus you never know what could have instigated him more.. I thought there was no point in showing heroism there." said Archana. "I thought best would be to get home quickly."
Her reasoning made sense, but obviously Savita didn't want to admit that. She took one sip of the tea and made a face. "Useless girl!" she said loudly. "Doesn't know how to make tea! Doesn't know how to run the house! Doesn't know how to deal with a stalker! Honestly, what do you know? Apart from dressing up and looking like an innocent lamb and brainwashing my son what else do you know?"
Words from Savita Aai's mouth had never seemed sweeter to Archana. Obviously Savita didn't want to admit that she had done something nice for Archana today and actually helped her. She offered the plate of biscuits to Savita. "Eat biscuits along with the tea, then it won't seem half as bad." She said. Savita murmured some more about how Sulochana had taught her nothing, about how she had no shame, about how there were a hundred and one things that Archana had done wrong, about the sweets she would distribute the day she left, etc etc.. As Archana worked in the kitchen, she listened to Savita's rants with an amused smile on her face.
And that was the first of the many times when Archana felt proud of her couth and rough mother in law.
"HE FOLLOWED YOU TILL HOME?!!?" said a bewildered Manav. A subdued Archana nodded quietly. "He tried to convince me that I was making a mistake by returning to you and sticking up for you, cos you were terrible. He had some more proofs too- some videos this time of your.. umm.. characterlessness. He was trying to provoke me."
"I knew it!" Manav banged his hand on the table. Archana looked around to see whether the children had heard. They had not. Manav tried to lower his voice. "I knew that creep would do something like that, I knew he would not stop. Worse still, he actually had the nerve to.." he looked angrily at Archana's arm. Thankfully there was no bruise on it. "I'll break his bones." He mumbled to himself.
"He pretty much got punished for it.. today itself.." she said. "Don't think about it now.."
Manav did not say anything. He stared at the darkness angrily. Archana looked at him for sometime, then silently massaged his arm. "What is that for?"
"Umm.. to calm you down?"
"I don't need it." He said angrily, pulling his arm away. "You should have called me. I would have taught him a good lesson. And from now on keep a cell phone with you at all times." A minute later, he looked at her again. "What was in the CD?"
"I don't know.. I didn't see it.."
"Where is it now?"
"In the drain outside the chawl. I threw it there when he was forcing me to take it."
He kept staring at her.
"Why are you so surprised?" asked Archana. "Did you expect me to fall for his provoking? Hadn't I told you that I've come forever now, despite all proofs against you? So what difference would a few more proofs have made?"
"You've actually fallen for his provoking a few times earlier, so I.."
"I was confused earlier." Said Archana glumly. "But now that I've sorted out these issues with myself and know my priorities, there is no confusion. His proofs don't matter to me even if they are true by any chance."
He stayed silent for a while, reflecting on her words. Then slowly he said, "Even if they are true by any chance' means..? You don't think they are true..?"
She did not say anything, but continued to look down at her hands. He spoke up again. "Archana, I had been meaning to ask you, why did you go around finding about Varsha and the whole of this story? Why is Vaishali hacking and digging deeper about all this? I thought you were pretty convinced about everything beforehand, right? Then why this sudden suspicion of a different angle in the story?"
"I thought I knew everything." Said Archana. "I thought I pretty much understood what was going on, but then realised I had comprehended it all wrongly."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know.." she confessed, looking very vulnerable and confused. "I came back to you when everything was against you, I came back cos I wanted to be with you even if you had a bad past- I'd accepted it all, but later, I felt it was nothing like that.. that you.."
Manav waited with bated breath.
"That you are not guilty." She said finally. "And I won't be able to explain why I felt so- I just know you can't do that, you aren't at all the sort of person who can cheat anyone- so honest, so caring, thinking of others before yourself, thinking of EVERYONE before yourself- you cannot dishonour any woman in the way you were accused of.. you can't cheat anyone.."
She kept looking down at her hands as she spoke, and Manav simply stared at her, unable to believe all that she was saying.
"So I wanted to find out how much truth was there in all that you had said in the past and found out that everything you had said about Varsha was true. I know you will call me an emotional pendulum again for suddenly trusting you." Said Archana. "You will ask me how I got this magical insight. You might not even believe me, bcos I have gone back to not trusting you many times earlier. You might not believe that I genuinely want to bring the truth out.. but still.. I had been meaning to tell you this since a few days, that.. no matter what people think of you, no matter whether the truth comes out or not, you will always have a state of respect in my heart- I know you cannot be wrong.. too bad this realisation has come a little late though.."
She stopped speaking suddenly, looking into the darkness. Then she whispered, "A lot late actually. The realization came after almost everything got ruined."
She suddenly got up and walked into their room. Manav watched her go, not knowing what to say. What was this game that destiny played with him all the time? Now she trusted him, at least she said she did believe he couldn't do anything wrong, even if she knew nothing about the whole mess. He still couldn't believe that she had said something like that to him.. oh.. this better not be a dream now.. he was pretty sure it was, and in a few minutes he would again wake up to find himself in the world which always pointed fingers at him.. at that moment however, he simply tried to let those magical words sink in.
"I trust you Manav.."
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A sleepless night later
For the outside world, it was if everything was the same. Manav and Archana were the same, their daily routines, their actions were the same.
But reality was that both of them were fighting a battle of their own- trying to figure out what should be their course of action.
Archana was immersed in guilt about not having believed Manav earlier, and the consequences of her action. Time and again, she wondered how everything could be reversed, whether there really was a way to set things right again. Would there be a day when Manav would truly, truly forgive her? Would he ever come to trust and depend on her wholeheartedly? Would there be a day when he would actually be proud of her? How could she convince him, ask him to give her just one more chance?
She didn't know and thinking hurt. So she tried to divert her mind by the only thing she knew to do well- taking care of Manav's family- now HER family. For starters, she tried to coax Damodar Baba to quit alcohol. The thought came to her mind when she saw Manav bringing him home one day in a drunken state, unable to stand or take care of himself.
"I've tried heaps of times," Baba told her. They were sitting on the porch where he read the newspaper every morning. "It doesn't work. It just doesn't work. Depression is tough to fight."
"What are you depressed about?" she persisted. "You've a wonderful family who loves you, respects you, so many friends.. what are you depressed about?"
He only shook his head in despair. "You won't understand.. how it feels to be.. so useless.. and unsuccessful in everything in life.." he said sadly.
She didn't know what to say to that. These days, she too felt very useless and unsuccessful, and terribly guilty on top of it.
"I know my habits make everyone worried." He accepted. "And believe me, I've tried.. but.." he trailed off.
Archana sighed. Maybe it was not an easy task. But it couldn't be left. Alcoholism was dangerous and especially the country liquor that Baba consumed could end up even taking his life. She thought hard about what to do.
"Baba, is there any good play coming up?" she asked. "I am in the mood to watch one."
"I don't know," he said, turning the pages of the newspaper. "I have not been aware of what is going on in the theatre circuit.. do you like Marathi plays?"
"I have seen only one till date." She said, smiling. "And that was yours. I became your fan then on, I guess."
Baba beamed with pride. Archana continued. "Baba, can you write as well?"
"I have never written a play till date." He confessed. "Why are you asking?"
"We need a script for a street play." She told him. "NGO's like mine use street plays to educate people about social issues. But we cannot afford to pay for it. Some of my friends who are going to perform are struggling with ideas and dialogues. I thought maybe you could help, considering you have been part of theatre for so long."
"Hmmm.." Baba thought hard. Then he smiled at her. "Alright, I will try and see how I can help, street plays are an entirely different territory. Maybe I can help with the dialogues and stuff- I used to write my own dialogues earlier when I was not satisfied with what was given to me. I'll visit your NGO in the evening today."
Archana smiled. She took the empty tea cup from Baba and got up. She would have to talk to her senior and request him to let Baba write the play. Should I tell him now?- she thought. Not now, let him come to know by himself that the street play is on awareness against alcoholism.
That was about Archana.
Manav on the other hand was in a different sphere of thoughts. Things had been happening so fast these last few days.
First Archana did not trust him. Repeatedly she turned him down and even demanded divorce. He heard about her marriage plans and totally lost hope of saving his marriage. And then, when he had accepted fate, she had suddenly returned when she came to know he was ill, claiming that she had always loved him even though he was a cheat. And now she said she trusted him that he wasn't a cheat.
He thought about everything she had said yesterday. It was quite clear that her trust on him had not developed bcos of the truth of Varsha's story coming out, rather it was the other way round. It seemed to have been a slow realisation for her, one that had taken lots of time and effort to accept. His words about Varsha's story coming true strengthened his stand in the brothel fiasco , but was really no proof actually, since they were independent events- just cos he had been right about Varsha did not really mean he was innocent in the brothel fiasco. However, her faith had strengthened due to the truth coming out. He wondered if it would last- for someone who had been dragged till the divorce court, trusting and relying again did not come easy. He had started doubting any small hints of positivity.
Her words rang in his ears. "It doesn't matter to me whether you are guilty or not, I have accepted you for what you are." Even if the trust would not last, Archana wasn't going away. A smile came up on his lips as he remembered Archana trying to avoid Ajit and prevent him from instigating her. She was indeed trying her best- he thought. She was trying her best in fitting in his family, she was trying her best in trying to save their marriage, she was trying her best in everything. And now that she had started trusting him, she had herself tried to uncover the truth of Varsha's disappearance to understand it all better. She seemed determined to stand by him, whatever the scenario might be.
Today she had faith on him, not the blind faith born out of love and attraction, but rather she now understood him better than she did in those initial days of matrimony. She wanted to be with him in every circumstance, and would do anything to bring the truth out and keep her husband's respect intact.
Wasn't this what he had always wanted from her? Hadn't he always wanted that she support him while he got proof of her innocence? Hadn't he always wanted that her faith should work as a catalyst to urge him to rub away all the accusations meted on him? It had not been possible in those days, since misunderstandings had been severe, and her faith had not been so strong- he had eventually ended up losing hope. Today however, things were different. She was there to support him, no matter what- or at least that was what she said. He did not know how long their relationship would survive, he reminded himself that she had initially come back for reasons of sympathy, and their family problems were still intact- but maybe.. just maybe.. if he succeeded in bringing out the truth- would it change everything?
As he sat alone in his garage, surrounded by Dharmesh's spare parts, he thought about this new probability and about Atya's words to utilise the precious opportuinity he had got due to Archana's return, and resurrect his marriage for good. He was afraid of dreaming now, it hurt when dreams broke, but maybe.. maybe if he found out Varsha, then.. her family would accept him? And maybe he could find out the evidence that had been lost due to Varsha's fiasco?- slim chance of that happening, he told himself, but anyways, fact was that they HAD to find Varsha to save their own necks from the police.
Maybe.. Archana and him could really be a team this time?
"Lost in thoughts Dada?" Manav smiled at Vedant, who came and sat next to him. From the past few days, the boy had been behaving a little differently, a little.. grown up. Not only did had he started helping Manav in the little tasks in the house, but he also talked more to him these days. He did not try to shut himself up in his books, like he earlier did, and frequently talked about medical matters also. Thanks to him, Manav had been having things considerably easy.
"Nothing as such."
"When is Tarun Dada coming back?"
"He said he would come back in time before my surgery," said Manav. "I hope he does. It would be a real morale booster."
"He will surely come back, after all, both of you share such a Pavitra Rishta," giggled Vedant. Manav gave a lopsided smile in return. "You have to go to Juhu to meet the lawyer." Vedant reminded him.
"I don't want to go." Manav admitted. He hated going through the whole discussion of the counter complaint again and again. It reminded him of Manjusha and everything they had had to undergo. "Besides I feel sick."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, I am." Manav admitted. "But my head feels heavy. I am feeling very tired today."
Vedant looked concerned. "I'll come with you to Juhu today- Vahini will come directly from work I guess." Manav nodded. After a pause, Vedant continued. "Dada, maybe it's time for you to stop working now." He advised. "You really don't look upto it now."
Archana gazed at the long stretch of water in front of her. The rays of the sun sparkled on the water of the sea, making it look beautiful. As she stood barefoot in the water, holding her sandals in her hand, she felt immensely relaxed. She breathed in deeply, taking in the scent of the sea.
"Why does the water of the sea look blue?" Vedant murmured aloud. He had his trousers folded till his knees and was fooling around in the water.
"Bcos of the reflection of the sky?"
"And why does the sky look blue?"
Archana sighed. "I don't know." She confessed. "Go ask your brother.
Vedant shrugged. They had come to Juhu to talk to their Baba's friend- the lawyer for their court case against Manjusha. Unfortunately he was busy, so Vedant and Baba had suggested that they spend time at the beach till he got free from work. So there they were- whiling away time at one of the most popular sand beaches of Mumbai.
Vedant sped away after a while to get something to eat. Archana too got tired of strolling aimlessly in the water. She came and sat on the sand, and having nothing to do, started collecting sand from both sides and made a hill out of it. She used both her hands to smoothen out her hill and removed the pebbles and thorns from it. She didn't notice when Manav came and sat behind her.
Since morning, they had talked about everyday things just like always, but not about the most important confessions and innermost feelings that were within them- strange as it might seem but at this juncture they felt uncomfortable in pouring them out to each other- it was as if their silences were communicating and trying to end the struggle within them and eventually reconcile. As they sat together on the sand, Manav started speaking, "What is this?"
"This is a house?" he asked, his eyebrows raised. It looked more like a dirt hill to him. However, he tried to suppress a smile as he watched Archana adjust a leaf on top of the hill by its stalk. "And that I suppose is the flag on top your house?"
She giggled and nodded. He smiled and continued to watch as she collected small pebbles and started decorating the 'house'. Suddenly a ball came from nowhere and hit the 'house', which collapsed.
"Sorry Aunty" a little boy apologised.
"It's alright." She said somewhat uneasily.
"Ball please, Aunty?"
"Here." She said, throwing it back to him. "And please don't call me Aunty."
"Okay Aunty." Said the boy and ran away with the ball. Archana grunted under her breath.
"Sorry, your house broke." Manav said. Archana who had already started scooping sand from both sides replied back. "It's okay, I will make it again."
"Look over there." Manav pulled her away by the arm. A big wave came and the sand hill toppled over. Archana looked disappointed. Manav looked at her as if asking, "Now what?"
She quietly bent down and started making it again. Manav couldn't help marvelling at her patience. The real life parallelism of the situation amused him. He got up and started looking for some large stones and bricks. He brought them to the site and made a fence of sorts, so the waves wouldn't be able to cause as much damage the next time.
Both of them sat peacefully on the beach, looking at the sun setting into the sea. Finally Manav talked to Archana.
"I couldn't sleep last night." He admitted.
"Me neither." She said.
"I was.. worried.. for lots of things.. and so much has gone wrong too.." she looked at him. "I have disappointed you terribly.. I guess that guilt will not go easily.'
He found himself unable to reply back. Try as he might, he just could not speak. Her words of her trust on him kept ringing in his ears. It was weird that at this juncture, both of them could not open their hearts to each other. Maybe the distances had reduced, reduced considerably in fact, but the last stretch, the most difficult one was yet to be covered.
He looked down, then looked back at her. "Maybe things didn't work out bcos we were never together.. not just physically.. but also..all this while.. it's as if we were just fighting our battles one person at a time.. we weren't.. together."
She looked at him, each word touching her more than ever. He didn't say anything more. It was as if the silence said everything that was left to be said.
Finally he got up again. "Let's walk about a little. I'm tired of sitting."
"We'll get wet." She said. The water would surely be colder now, she thought. But still she took her sandals in her hand and was surprised to see Manav offering her his hand. Nothing more was left to be said now.
She took hold of his hand silently and got up. He glanced at Baba and Vedant- they were hogging at the food stalls, with Vedant exclaiming loudly how unlucky Savita Aai and Vandita were not to be part of such an unexpected outing.
Together Manav and Archana walked on the beach, leaving their footprints on the wet sand. Manav recounted the whole story of what had happened the day when Varsha had got caught in the drug scandal, and how he had subsequently lost evidence of his innocence. Archana listened, for the first time, the whole story from Manav's mouth himself. At places Manav wondered whether she was still believing whatever he was telling her, especially when the story shifted from Varsha's drug scandal to how he had lost evidence after that, but he continued anyway.
"And what was the evidence?" asked Archana.
"It was a recording- in my cell phone. I lost my cell phone sometime back, remember?" she nodded. "It had Ajit confessing to everything."
It took some time for her to digest everything. Ajit and confessing? It sounded too far fetched, and if someone had told her this a few days back she would have instantly said it was rigged. However the new Archana couldn't even think of doubting Manav anymore.
They walked for some more time, unable to bring their emotions in front of each other, but still talking about lots of things, and primarily about Varsha. Manav told that there was a way by which they could reach her.
"It isn't easy though." He admitted. "I need your help for that."
"I'm ready." She said immediately. "What do we have to do?"
He told her about Abhimanyu Karmarkar, the criminal lawyer who had promised to help Varsha. "His firm is collecting witnesses against their case for Prasanna job agencies, which has been accused of many such drug scandals. They promise jobs to gullible people in foreign lands and use them in their drug trade. Varsha may not be talking to us now, and we may not be able to contact her, but Abhimanyu would definitely be knowing where she is. We have to get to Varsha through him."
"But how can we contact him?" she asked.
"If I am not wrong, Abhimanyu and Varsha first met since their families wanted to hook them up. This means someone or the other from your house must be having contact details of either Abhimanyu or his family."
Archana tried to recollect. "Abhimanyu Karmarkar.. Abhimanyu.. yes.. this match was brought to us by a relative who knew the family well. I will have to ask Aai if she still has the contacts of Abhimanyu's parents, or maybe I'll ask that relative.. through them we can contact Abhimanyu. Oh I hope Varsha is alright.."
"She must be alright Archana," said Manav, looking at the setting sun in front of them. "She would have definitely sent a message otherwise. By ANY means, ANY how. She is a smart girl."
DELHI, 7.30 PM
A bell rang loudly, once, twice, thrice.
"Coming!" The door opened suddenly and she started shouting. "How many times do you press the bell? I am not deaf!"
"Madam you should come fast, we don't have time to waste!" said the milkman arrogantly, as he poured out milk in the container that she held in front of him. "Come sooner next time!" he said, twirling his moustache, and then he was off.
"Who was it?" asked Abhimanyu as he came out of the bathroom, towelling his hair. He laughed at the figure in front of him- scattered hair, hands covered with flour, dirty apron- she looked like a mess.
"Thank god I did not marry you Varsha Karanjkar!" he said loudly. "Thank God I rejected you!"
"Excuse me?! You DID NOT really reject me! I asked you to reject me, bcos I did not like you! By the way, why are you feeling lucky for having rejected me?" asked Varsha as she wiped her hands on a napkin and set the milk to boil.
"Bcos," said Abhimanyu with a smirk, "After living with you for almost three weeks, I know well now that you would have been an extremely bad wife!"
Varsha gasped. "How dare you!!!"
"Yes!" he said, sitting on the sofa and drying his hair. "You don't know how to cook, clean or sew; you can't manage the house by your own, heck, you know nothing!"
"Well I never had to do all this in my house." Answered back Varsha, as she made chappatis quickly. "Aai and Archana Tai ran the house. I worked in the office and they let me relax when I came back."
Abhimanyu made a sorry face, "Wish I'd got a proposal for your Archana Tai instead.."
She was shocked and threw an apple at him in rage. Abhimanyu caught it and started eating it. "This will suffice till you manage to make dinner. I know it will take 2 hours or more."
"You know what- you're a male chauvinist pig!" she shouted at him.
"Don't shout at me, concentrate on the chapattis, don't burn them today." He started clearing the table.
Varsha murmured under her breath. 3 weeks with this guy in this little house out in the boondocks- it was a wonder that she was still alive.
Alright, to be fair, he was good, and helpful and decent- no doubt about that. But he was boring, dumb, ugly to look at, and took an obvious pleasure in making her angry and she didn't know why. She was always left fuming in the midst of their exchanges.
She looked at the chapatti in front of her- not yet round, she thought and groaned. At home, she had never valued Archana Tai enough, who always set meals on time and took care of the house so devotedly, she had always taken her for granted- now she was realising how difficult it all was, and what a blessing Tai had been for all of them.
In some ways, her dark days had really been a period of reflection and realisation. Being away from home and in trouble, she had realised why her mother worried about her so much- the world was not really a safe place. Being forced to quit her job at the mall and live in confinement (or protection, as Abhimanyu called it) and run a house for both of them, she had realised how difficult it was to run a house. Being away from her family, not even being able to talk to them, she had realised how much she missed them. Every night she cried thinking about how much she must be worrying her parents by not talking to them, and even wondered if they would think that she had forgotten them after going to 'London'.
Often she had asked Abhimanyu to let her talk home- contact her Aai, Baba, Archana Tai, anybody and just about tell them that she was alright. But she herself knew it wasn't possible. Drug scandal was a serious issue. Ever since news had leaked about her being a prime witness in the case against Prasanna job agencies, she had been followed at every corner- even attacked and threatened once- told that they would inform the narcotics in Mumbai about her escape if she did not take her testimony back. That was when Abhimanyu's law firm had sent both of them to this small farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. They had told her that here she would be safe, under the false identity of Niharika, till they worked on her getting an actual bail in Mumbai. No one knew her here. There were few facilities, but she had consented to stay anyway. She had no choice.
She had accepted all of it, and requested that the Narcotics should not come to know of her escape from Mumbai- she knew it would spell trouble for Manav. The law firm had promised her that they would not let any harm come to Manav or her and even arrange for an official bail, but for that it was important for her to abide by the rules too- not call home, or try to contact anyone and stay in hiding. The men from the agency who were out for her would not leave a single stone unturned to trace her out, and then it would spell doom for all involved.
Everyday she prayed to Ganpati Bappa for some way to end all this soon. She feared that by the time she reached back home, her family would start hating her, Manav Jiju and Tai too, if she led Manav Jiju to trouble. She feared that everyone had started hating her already. Her only consolation was that her Tai was with Manav Jiju- that was what Manjusha Vahini had told her once when she had called home- that Tai had returned to Jiju. She was happy that her sudden departure and Manav Jiju's inability to go to the court hearing that day had not ruined chances for her Tai's happiness.
"Hey Varsha!" she turned when she saw Abhimanyu standing next to her. "You know none of the things that I would expect a girl of your age to know, but you know very well how to shed tears like a typical girly girl."
Varsha tried to smile and blinked her tears away. What would she have done without Abhi? She hated him, but he was the only one whom she really and truly trusted here- he was already doing a lot to make sure that she was safe and he was the one who consoled her every time she was down. He was boring, and ugly and dumb and a male chauvinist- no doubt about that, but her parents had been right when they had thought he was trustworthy. She bit her lip. "I want to go home.." she said, trying to hold her tears.
"You'll go home soon." He said, feeling less confident than he made himself out to be. "I promise you."
Belated PR anniversary to everyone!
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