“So relieved to see you Rajani! How’s Anisha?” Pakhi asked even as the others gheraoed her. “I was so worried. I sent so many texts and even called you. But you didn’t respond.”
“She still has fever…”
“You shouldn’t have come to office.” Aditi looked at her critically, “You clearly aren’t going to be of much use.”
“I’m fine Ma’am. I really am. I…”
“You should have stayed with your daughter.” Tanya was disapproving.
“She doesn’t want me.” Rajani said dully. “She only wants her father.”
“So he’s at home?”
“Yes. If he wasn’t I would have stayed back. No point in both of us taking leave right?”
“Okay enough talk, now get back to work.” Aditi hustled them. “And Rajani quantity is not important, quality is. Do less work but don’t mess it up, understand?”
“Yes Ma’am, I will take care.” She promised.
“You shouldn’t have come!” Pakhi dropped by at her seat at the earliest opportunity.
“I…I had to come,” She raised tortured eyes to her, “I had to breathe…”
Pakhi looked helplessly at Riteish. “I wish there was something we could do to help you.”
“It’s okay.” Rajani shook her head. “I made my choices and I have to live with them.”
“It’s not fair! You should try to convince your parents….” Riteish exhorted in a low voice.
“You think I didn’t try? Even Aditi Ma’am spoke to them. And if they don’t listen to her – a representative of the ‘society’ they are so afraid of – why would they listen to me?”
“Who’s this society they are so worried about? Riteish butted in. “My cousin was having a bad time at her in-laws all of us went and sorted it out. First time he raised his hand, he was thrown into jail, and since then he’s straightened up and thinks twice about even raising his voice.”
“Good for her. But my parents aren’t like that. They are simple god-fearing law-abiding citizens who don’t like to get entangled in any trouble.”
“But you are their daughter!” Pakhi protested.
“Aren’t you your parents daughter too?” Pakhi flushed as the barb hit home. She went back to her seat. Rajani looked at her retreating figure regretfully.
“Rajani,” Riteish said.
“Please Riteish, just drop it will you?” she said wearily. “I cannot see any options and talking isn’t going to solve anything. And worse I will just end up hurting you guys…” she choked up and stared determinedly at the blurry manuscript.
“I’m sorry,” feeling terrible Rajani accosted Pakhi just before lunch, “I shouldn’t have…”
“Don’t be a goose,” Pakhi gave her a quick hug, “You didn’t say anything wrong! But I’ve been thinking,” she looked excited, “perhaps we are going about this the wrong way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like my parents too were initially not supportive but now they are completely on my side. They are ready to take me back. In fact they are begging for me to come back home, I only don’t want to go back before I’ve proved my worth. But that’s not important,” she waved it away, “perhaps if you took the first step, walked away from your in-laws, your parents would relent…”
“But where would I go?” Rajani despaired. “That too with an unwell Ani?”
“You could find a PG.” Pakhi wasn’t ready to give up on her idea so easily. “Wait until Anisha is better and then…”
“Who will look after Anisha during the day…”
“We’ll find a crèche…”
“If only there was a crèche for me,” Rajani laid her head on the table.
“I’m going out for lunch, should I get something for you?” Riteish asked.
Rajani shook her head. “Thanks.”
“Did you get lunch?” Pakhi asked.
Rajani shook her head without meeting either of their accusing eyes.
“Get a thali for her,” Pakhi ordered Riteish, “and before you have your lunch.”
He strode off.
Rajani’s broken trapped expression tore at Pakhi. She cleared her throat and nudged Rajani, “I think Riteish has a crush on you.” She whispered theatrically.
Rajani stiffened. She flushed and then paled. “I…I didn’t…”
“Run away with him!” Pakhi exhorted her eyes dancing.
“Pakhi!” Rajani was scandalized. “He’s married, you know that.”
“Yeah so what.” Shrugged Pakhi. “Shweta and Harsha can team up. And we’ll watch the fun.” She winked. “Can you imagine, Shweta lolling about on the sofa watching TV while your MIL runs about fulfilling her wishes?” To her relief, Rajani’s expression cleared and she giggled.
“That would be fun!” she admitted, catching her breath. “If only…”
“You just have to say the word and Riteish will do anything for you!” Pakhi exclaimed.
“Oh! I am right!” Pakhi crowed. “Has Riteish said anything?”
Rajani’s expression gave her away.
“Oh my! I was just shooting in the dark on a hunch. But this is so cool…”
“Nonsense!” Rajani was anything but cool. “He’s crazy…”
“Exactly! Over you.” Pakhi chortled.
“Oh please Pakhi,” Rajani rolled her eyes, “Please don’t encourage this nonsense. Life is complicated as it is. I’m married, he’s married this isn’t right!”
“But what if you weren’t? Would you have…?”
“But we are aren’t we?” Rajani intervened hastily. “We shouldn’t forget it. I for one wouldn’t be able to live with the idea of having broken up a relationship to set up my house.”
“But what if his relationship is broken? He wants out?”
Rajani looked at Pakhi half-hoping half-dreading. “Did…did he say anything to you?”
“Lots.” Pakhi admitted. “Especially when you were on maternity leave.”
“Oh then.” Rajani was disturbed at the way her heart fell to her shoes. “Things have improved since then. He told me so.”
“Yet he confessed his feelings for you?” Pakhi said perceptively.
“I didn’t say that!”
“You don’t need to. Your face is pretty expressive. Better learn to control your emotions and expressions – one of these days, Harsha will guess for whom your heart beats.”
“Well,” Rajani’s lips twisted, “perhaps he should know that for his heart certainly doesn’t beat for me.”
“What happened?” Pakhi was alert.
Rajani blindly shaded the corner of her manuscript. “Something is going on. Harsha’s changed. He’s different.”
“Maybe it’s because of Anisha? He is a doting father isn’t he?”
“Ye…es. I can’t really fault him there.” Rajani was forced to admit. “In fact, sometimes I am jealous.”
“On weekends, I take care of Ani the whole day, bathe her, feed her, play with her take her to the park. But once her father is home, she has eyes for no one but him. She clings to him and refuses to let him even go to the washroom. There is nothing I can do to tempt her away from the door where she bawls her head off until he comes out. Even now when she is unwell, she wants only her father. I feel so isolated and rejected…as if she doesn’t care for me either. I may as well walk away leaving her there. But…”
“But when I think of my MIL’s carelessness and callousness,” she shuddered.
“Yes of course.” Pakhi said consolingly. “I am sure she misses you too when you’re aren’t there.”
“I wonder.” Rajani was dejected. Not a good wife, not a good daughter-in-law and not a good mother either. She may as well not exist.
The stairs in her dream were getting steeper and steeper and the prospect of jumping off more and more inviting.