Cafe By The Sea- Part 1
2014, London, UK
Lekha was happy! From the moment she had laid eyes on the new born, she could not possibly feel anything else. She had decided a name for her daughter days before the little one arrived. She called her Deepshikha. Lekha’s husband, Dheeraj, gladly approved the name. He was the “husband” and like many other things, did not have much say in the matter.
Lekha was in the maternity ward at the St. Mary’s Hospital in London. She was in a two room suite which was occupied by the Duchess of Cambridge not too long ago. Sixty three hundred pounds a night was not a big sum for Dheeraj, a well-established investment banker in the City of London. Dheeraj loved his wife and no price was too high for her comfort and safety.
It was nearly five in the evening when the last guest of the day said his goodbye and left Lekha with a bouquet of white lilies. It had been a long day of congratulatory texts, calls and personal visits by all sorts of people - friends, cousins, relatives, in-laws, out-laws (some friends of her husband from banking community were being investigated for insider trading).
Lekha eventually had some time to take a good look at her daughter lying in a cot, cuddled in an assortment of white pillows and blankets. The baby adamantly kept her eyes shut and lips sealed already wary of what she might see or say. She was a sweet little cocktail with equal parts of Lekha and Dheeraj. She had Dheeraj's broad forehead and slightly extended jaw and Lekha's pale skin and thin lips. One look at her and Lekha knew that it would not be long before Deepshikha will have men swooning over her. Once again she had that feeling of happiness and pride wash over her.
Despite all the celebration, there was a nagging feeling of discontent within Lekha. The reason for which kept eluding her. She felt like she wanted to talk to someone, but not sure whom. In her mind she quickly ticked the names and faces of everyone she loved or cared about and was convinced that every one of them had either called or visited her. She finally gave up the quest, thinking it was just her tired mind playing tricks. She was too excited to sleep. She needed to read a book to calm her nerves. Dheeraj had brought some books from home which were stacked on the pedestal by the bed. She quickly scanned through the titles – Atlas Shrugged, Tuesdays With Morrie, Angels & Demons and other such diverse books of diverse topics. Nothing appealed to her tired mind till she reached the last book in the stack. A book she had not noticed before. "Poems For Life"- pristine in its white cover embroidered with golden leaves, the book looked untarnished. She carefully picked up the book. Tucked between the cover and the first page lay the delivery receipt from two years ago. She had a vague recollection, that she received the book by courier on a busy Monday morning and stashed it away in the book shelf. She thought Dheeraj must have ordered the book in another one of his spiritual quest "to find meaning to his life". He often complained that he was losing touch with his inner self. For lack of better options, she started flipping through the pages till she stumbled upon a poem with the last four lines highlighted in yellow. Lekha realised that Dheeraj did not order that book. Within the highlighted lines of the poem, Lekha found the face and name she was hunting for. The face and name she had stashed away in an unknown crypt of her memory much like the book itself. The name - Nirbhik. The face - a blurred memory.
2009, Mumbai, India
Lekha was brought up in the posh neighbourhood of South Mumbai and went to an elite school. Her father was head of Indian operations of a large multi-national bank while her mother was a principal of a college in Mumbai. Though not pampered, Lekha had a comfortable and fortunate life. She got her first dog when she was ten, her first boyfriend when she was sixteen and her first car when she was eighteen. Unlike the dog and the car, the boyfriend did not last long. Lekha passed high school with flying colours. She did not have much trouble enrolling in to a college for an undergraduate degree in sociology. She was determined to follow in her mother’s footsteps and make a career in academia. But college days can be heady times. Somewhere in the LBDs, shots of Tequila, joints of weed and string of meaningless relationships, she lost her way. She passed college by the skin of her teeth. That is when she realised she had hit the rock bottom and needed to take a step back and stock of her life. She needed to get away from Mumbai and her hedonistic lifestyle. At least for some time. Her mother requested her maternal uncle in London to send the necessary documents to apply for a visitor visa to UK. Lekha left for London as soon as she received one. That was in the winter of 2007.
Soon after arriving in London Lekha met Dheeraj through a common friend. Dheeraj could not help being impressed by Lekha’s beauty and poise. Then at the cusp of womanhood, Lekha was an epitome of beauty. She had straight black hair, oval shaped face, soft pale skin, thin lips, high cheek bones and a petite neck. Her body was slender like that of a ballet dancer. With a chic sense of fashion, Lekha was irresistible to most young men who laid their eyes on her.
Very few men could complement Lekha the way Dheeraj did. Dheeraj in essence was every woman’s dream come true and Lekha always knew she would never settle for anything less. Educated at St. Columbus, Delhi, Dheeraj moved to London right after finishing school. An intelligent student coming from an affluent family, Dheeraj quickly collected couple of fancy college degrees in London, one of which was a coveted MBA from a prestigious business school. Six feet tall, with broad shoulders, chiselled face and an athletic physique, Dheeraj was copy book prince charming. A man who could mix a cocktail, sweep a woman of her feet or play squash with equal ease. A man of fine tastes, his interests ranged from skiing on the Austrian Alps to volunteering in his local community school. From Alan Greenspan to Khaled Hosseini, from Tibet to LA, he was a well read and well-travelled man. After seeing each other for almost six months Lekha and Dheeraj decided that they were just perfect for each other. The respective families wasted no time in meeting and setting a date for marriage. Lekha and Dheeraj were to tie the knot in the December of 2009.
Lekha returned to Mumbai towards the end of 2008. Finding a job during a financial recession was no easy task. But after struggling for a month she got a job as a customer support executive. Her heart was not in the job. But she only had to survive a year and then move to London and try continuing her studies. So that day in February disappointed with herself yet resolved to put her life back on track, Lekha walked into NWG Customer Support Ltd.
NWG Customer Support Ltd was a customer support department (a.k.a call centre) for the famous NW Group- involved in banking, finance and investment solutions. Located in a desolate corner of Bandra Kurla Complex, in Mumbai, the customer support department was far removed from the City in London, Wall Street in NYC or Central Business District in Singapore. The office with rows of twenty something men and women sitting with their headphones glued to their skulls looked like the set of a cheap Indo-American sitcom (in 2009 anything Indo -American had a call centre involved). Though looking ravishing in her Harvey Nichols dress, Vero Moda shoes accessorised by a Burberry bag (the last two being birthday presents from Dheeraj), Lekha was a fish out of water among all the not-so-posh employees at NWG Customer Support Ltd.
After a quick round of introduction with HR and signing infinite number of forms, Lekha was shown to her desk and more importantly to her headphone. She was informed that she would be a part of a new team accompanied by one other customer support executive. Around eleven in the morning she was summoned for her first training and that is where she met Nirbhik. At her first glance she realised that in her twenty three years long life she had never laid eyes on someone so ugly. She tried to find another word to describe his repugnant face but the only the word “ugly” kept echoing in her mind. Lekha had been pursued by many unfortunate looking men, but Nirbhik surpassed all of them. But she was pleasantly amused, by the fact that even such a face can stir a range of emotions. First she felt a deep sense of sympathy for Nirbhik, which was quickly overcome by a sense of guilt that she found him so despicable, then by a sense of relief that her children would never look like him and at last a feeling of frustration when she realised that Nirbhik was the other member of her team. On a closer look she realised that Nirbhik was not really ugly, just too plain, tad unsophisticated and devoid of any kind of swank. A sharp contrast to the man she was in love with. She settled down for the training with the uncomfortable presence of Nirbhik by her side.
The first day rolled into a week, and week into a month and a month into three. Much to her surprise Lekha started finding something oddly interesting about Nirbhik. Though they could not have been more different, Nirbhik’s unsophisticated way of life started looking maverick and his lack of swank, iconoclastic. Despite his ordinary looks, inconsequential job, practically non-existent social or personal life, he seemed extremely comfortable in his skin. Most of the time his lips were frozen in a limbo between a smile and a laugh. He was indeed Nirbhik (fearless). Not the kind of fearless who would say ‘up yours’ to a rude customer but the kind who could look life straight in the eyes and say ‘bring it on!’ Nirbhik mostly kept to himself. Did not talk unless talked to. He was oblivious to Lekha’s charming presence. Lekha who was not used to being at the receiving end of indifference found it both disturbing and refreshing. When not attending customers, Nirbhik seemed to stare in to infinity. Lekha wondered how a person who had so little in his life could possibly have so much to think about. She knew that Nirbhik was good at his job. Lekha amused herself by thinking the only reason people calling from half-way across the world were so impressed by Nirbhik was that they could not see his hideous face.
After three months Lekha took it upon herself to break the ice with Nirbhik. Maybe his complete lack of interest in Lekha was a welcome change. She had enough of cheesy men trying to ask her for a dinner or drink or simply get her into bed. She could really use a friend at work, especially a work she did not particularly like. On a Friday after work she tapped on Nirbhik’s shoulder and said with the widest smile she could garner after a long day’s work ‘Hey! If you do not have any plans for the evening, would you like to catch up for a coffee?’ Nirbhik seemed to look through her for a moment before giving his hesitant consent. They went to a café called Café Coffee Day at Bandra Bandstand. It was cosy little café overlooking the sea. They took a table by the glass wall through which they could see the sea outside. Over coffee Lekha managed to make a slight dent in Nirbhik’s well-preserved reticence. They exchanged some customary questions about her family, siblings and hobbies. Lekha voluntarily shared the news of her impending marriage and some tit bits on Dheeraj. Nirbhik absorbed everything with a strange mix of indifference and equanimity on his ordinary face. Lekha collected some basic facts about Nirbhik.
Since that day Lekha almost started liking Nirbhik’s company. The coffee sessions became more regular. Occasionally extending to a dinner or movie. Lekha liked Nirbhik’s wry sense of humour and penchant for trivia. He knew the longest word in the English dictionary, why the small bone which holds the skull is called Atlas, why Marlon Brando refused the Best Actor Oscar for Godfather and many such unimportant and irrelevant trivia. But despite their blooming friendship, Lekha always found something annoying about Nirbhik. Lekha was a stickler for social norms and cherished the finer things in life. She found Nirbhik’s non-conformist ways rather frustrating. He always said the wrong things, wore the wrong clothes, and ordered the wrong food. Always a misfit everywhere he went. He did not know cappuccino from latte, Lee Cooper from Levis, and definitely not Sauvignon Blanc from Chenin Blanc. The sheer simplicity of his life was appalling. He did not strike as a man who took himself or his life seriously. Lekha saw Nirbhik as a person whose feet were definitely on the ground, but head nowhere near the clouds.
By the end of July of 2009, Lekha pre-maturely quit her job for a better offer with an HR department in a bank. Her friendship with Nirbhik continued uninterrupted. Her office was not far from Nirbhik’s. They religiously met at least once a week at their usual café by the sea and exchange notes on their respective lives. Lekha had been lately feeling achingly poignant knowing she would soon be travelling half way across the world, albeit to a man she loves. The uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the life beyond Indian borders made her apprehensive. Nirbhik, who had never been anywhere beyond Mumbai and Pune seemed more enthused by the idea of Lekha moving to London which Lekha found quite rude and insulting at some level. She knew she had no reason to feel that way. Nirbhik only pleaded guilty of being a well-wisher. He was happy to fill her up with all the trivia he knew about England. Everything from Guy Faux Day to red telephone booths to Tower Bridge.
After many years, in which her life seemed to have swung out of control, Lekha finally felt confident of herself. Slowly and steadily she had put together the pieces of her professional and personal life. She had a good job, a loving boyfriend in Dheeraj and a good friend in Nirbhik. But all her new found self-confidence and worldly wisdom did not prepare her for that Saturday morning in that café by the sea.
It was a Saturday in the November of 2009, a little after two o’clock in the morning. Lekha had just finished chatting with Dheeraj on Skype when her iPhone buzzed. It was a text from Nirbhik (he never called) requesting her to meet at eleven o’clock at their usual place. Lekha had lately got busy laying the groundwork for her marriage preparations and did not have time to meet Nirbhik. She was happy to give her unhesitant consent. They usually did not meet on weekends. Lekha had a hunch something was amiss. But then again with Nirbhik nothing was ever right…
(Please continue to Part -2)