Neel pulled up a chair and tapped his fingers impatiently on the desk of Abhishek’s cubicle , waiting for his friend to finish the skype call with the UK office. It was already 12.30 pm and he wanted to get on with his plan ASAP.
“Thank you. I will wait for the status report. Have a good day ahead ! ” Abhi pulled out the headphone and smiled at Neel.
“I am all yours … Will you be my Valentine ? “ He winked at Neel.
“Shut up ! Lets go to the Explorer conference room and call up Doll. We just have about 30 min and after that she will leave for her multimedia classes”.
Neel had booked the Conference room from 12.15 pm to 1 pm. They sat down at the head of the big oval table . Neel took out the new dual sim mobile phone and admired it for a few seconds.
“Nice one ! “ said Abhi “So you want to inaugurate the new phone and the new sim card by calling up your lovely wife … ! You lucky man … ! When will God smile on me ? God , please God, send me a lovely wife , just like Doll - as my Valentine today … “
Neel kicked him .
“You remember your lines ? “ Neel said.
“Yep” Abhi closed his eyes , put on added base on his voice and said “ Hi Doll ! You do not know me but I know everything about you … “
“Be careful and do not overdo things, she is , you know ….. very sharp …”
“Hmm, but you underestimate me , my friend ! You will see my voice modulation and acting prowess now … and then do not blame me if she is so scared that she refuses to go to the movie hall with you tonight .... “
Neel smiled. He wanted her to be scared. He wanted to hold Doll’s hands and assure her, to hold her closely in the movie hall and then after dinner , in the white bed ….
Neel worked in SoftWorks Ltd. as a team lead for the last four years. He led a team of 25 people and was an expert in designing software applications. He worked hard and due to his expertise and initiative, he was promoted two years back , just after his marriage to Doll. His parents , who lived in Calcutta gave all the credit to Doll !
“Our daughter-in-law has brought you luck and prosperity ! Take good care of her !” His mother had said.
Doll had completed her Bachelors in Fine Arts from Institute of Fine Arts , Varanasi and after marriage, when she came to Delhi, she joined a 2 years Masters Course in Multimedia and Animation. The course fees was heavy and Neel had talked to a bank for the loan , but Doll refused.
“I have my personal savings – the one which I had saved when I sold some of my paintings in the Habitat Art Gallery and in the painting exhibition in Calcutta three years back. I propose to do freelance work – sketching, painting, graphics etc. I will manage my fees. Thanks for the offer, but I really want to do this on my own ! “ Doll had told Neel.
Neel had felt a tinge of disappointment. After all , he was the husband. He could have done this much for his wife. Doll was really talented. Her paintings and sketches adorned their small 2 BHK rented flat in Noida . The white washed rooms, otherwise so ordinary, looked so trendy and ethnic because of her paintings. Whoever visited their house praised Doll’s creations profusely and usually demanded a painting from her ! When Neel returned from office, he usually found Doll busy with her paintings and sometimes he felt that instead of talking to him, Doll craved to complete her painting !
Being the only daughter-in-law, Doll was the apple of the eyes of her in-laws. Neel’s mother called her up everyday and talked about each and every detail. They wanted Doll’s decision for anything they did or planned to do. They relied on her wisdom and clarity of thoughts. On weekends, when Neel was at home, after talking to him for a few minutes, his parents always wanted to talk to Doll. And their conversation went on and on till Neel called out Doll’s name loudly , under some silly pretext so that the conversation could end.
“Finish all your talking before I come back !” Neel snapped . “ Tuesdays Thursdays and Fridays , when you have classes, you come back at 8 pm and then become busy with fixing dinner and then your paintings and these phone calls ! When do I talk to you then ?”
“But Neel ! They are your parents ! It is our duty to talk to them … “
“Well finish all your conversations when I am in office …. You know that if I do not tell you what all happened in office , I feel suffocated … “
Doll smiled , put her arms around Neel’s neck and kissed him on his cheek. Neel became putty in her hands .
But today … Neel had a plan … his smile was sly . Abhi was his aide. Abhishek – his dear friend. They had been together from school , then college and now in office.
He dialled Doll’s cell number from his new dual sim cell phone.
He had bought the phone a week back and got the Sim card yesterday. SoftWorks had sponsored the cell phone and the sim card and all the calls from this sim will be re-imbursed by the office. Doll did not know this number. He suddenly felt excited. The phone rang.
“Hello ! “ Doll’s voice.
Neel put the speaker on. Doll must be getting ready to go for her classes.
“Is that Doll ? “ Abhi masked his voice and tried to speak like Amitabh Bacchan.
The other side was silent for a few seconds.
“Yes. Who is this ? “
“You will not recognize me , but I know each and every detail about you …. “ Abhi’s baritone voice was crystal clear.
“Who are you ? Do I know you ? What do you want ? “ Doll sounded anxious.
“I want you …. Just you …. “ Abhi tried to suppress his laughter.
Silence again. Will Doll disconnect the phone ?
“Hello Doll ! I know you stay in Noida Sector 44 with your husband Neel. And you go for your classes in Multimedia three days in a week , in South Extension … “
“Who are you and why have you called me up ? “
It seemed Abhi was enjoying his acting. He closed his eyes and in the same baritone he continued ,“I also know what you did in your last semester in your college in Varanasi …”
Neel pinched him , snatched the phone and put it on mute.
“What is this ? This is not in the script ! And what do you know about her last semester? All rubbish … “ He scowled. “ As per the plan , tell her that I am in danger and if she does not come to Wave Cinema at 7.30 pm , I will be … “
“Hello …. Hello …. “ Doll’s voice was worried.
Abhi sat up, mouth a took the phone and unmuted it.
“Hullo… yes… hullo “ Abhi looked at Neel and mouthed a soundless “Ok ! Ok !” , he gestured.
“I … er…. Your husband Neel … “ Abhi faltered
“I know who you are … “ Doll said .
“You do ? “ Abhi’s false voice cracked, he looked at Neel enquiringly.
“Why did you call me up Sunilda ? I had told you to forget about me…. and the last semester in college … “
Abhi was silent. Neel leaned towards the phone.
“Sunilda, I knew that you will find me wherever I am , our relationship is based on love, true love.. You are an artist and you said that love never dies , it is omnipresent, just like air … even if you cannot see it, you live because of it … “ Doll whispered.
Was she crying ? Were there tears in her eyes ? Neel felt numb.
“Sunilda, You know, I think about you everyday, every night your voice rings in my ears , but I had promised that I will never let you know …. Sunilda, are you there ? Sunil da ..”
“Yes… “ Abhi croaked.
Neel was sitting like a statue.
“Why did you call me up Sunilda ? You know I am happily married. Neel is a very good husband, takes care of me … he is very nice… I am trying… Sunilda , trying so hard to forget our days together, our talks, our love … why did you have to make me go back to the same place again …. Why did you do this to me … tell me …. “ Doll sobbed.
Abhi tried to give the phone to Neel . Neel shook his head and whispered
“Abhi, continue… I want to hear more …. “
Abhi was perplexed. He could not look at his friend. He went near Neel and squeezed his shoulder.
“Sunilda … “
“Yes, Doll ..” Abhi talked as if in a bad dream.
“I also know why you chose this day to call me up. Today is 14th Feb, Valentine’s day. Five years back you had proposed to me on this day. I still remember the red rose which you had given me and on your knees , you professed your love for me … You know, I still have that dried rose in the story book you gifted me - Love Story – by Eric Segal … You remember Sunil da ?”
“From where did you get my number ? “ Doll asked
Abhi looked at Neel and questioned him with his hands .
“ I … Well …”
“Hmm… Sandhya must have given it to you. I met her a few days back. Sunilda … it seems a flood of memories have swamped my mind … Can we meet Sunilda … just for once … today ? It will be our last Valentine’s day together … Will you meet me Sunilda ? “
Neel put his head on his hands . He could not think further. He had told Doll that they will go to see the evening show movie today at Wave Cinema… where he will hold her hands and ….
Now Doll wanted to meet her Sunilda ! Well, let her meet him … Neel will see till where she can go .. he nodded his head towards Abhi . Abhi waved his hands “No, No …”. Neel’s look was cold . He nodded his head determinedly at Abhi .
“But … Ok ….“ Abhi said hesitatingly.
“Today Neel and I will go to see the evening show at Wave Cinema. During the interval, in the pretext of going to the rest room, I will come near the elevator. Please be there Sunil da … One last time … your grey eyes still haunts me …. and your strong arms …. “
Neel put his hands on his ears . He just could not hear any more.
Abhi disconnected the phone abruptly.
“Neel …. I … er… I don’t know what to say … I never imagined that things will turn out to be like this , my friend… “ Abhi tried to console Neel.
“Abhi, I want to be alone for some time …. “.
Abhi went out of the conference room. He will keep an eye on his friend . God, give him strength to handle this …
Suddenly Neel wanted some fresh air . It was lunch time. Everybody was busy chatting and strolling in the lawn. It was a beautiful sunny day. It was bright and sunny and there was a little nip in the February air. Life is a farce, Neel thought. After three years of getting married , Neel felt that he knew Doll well enough … Ha ! Well … so she loved her Sunilda … and what about Neel ?
“Neel ! Are you Ok ? “ Sanjay , his boss was passing by. “You look so pale . Did you have your lunch?”
Neel nodded. Doll had packed his favourite pasta in white sauce for lunch. But he did not even want to look at his lunch box.
“I am OK” Neel said. Sanjay nodded and went to his seat.
Neel sat through the rest of the day as if in a daze. Abhi came to him several times on some pretext or the other. Neel understood. No, Neel was strong enough to handle his life.
He looked at the two movie tickets in his wallet. He gave a wry smile.
“Happy Valentine’s day , Neel ! “ he said to himself mockingly as he rode his motorcycle.
It was 5.30 pm. He parked his bike and as per his habit , looked up towards the balcony. Doll was standing there , smiling at him. She waved and went to open the door. Neel walked up the stairs with heavy feet. It seemed as if there were infinite steps to go to his first floor flat.
Doll was standing at the door. She had worn a deep red chiffon sari with small golden dots. Her black curly unruly hair was clasped with a clip. A red bindi adorned her small forehead. Big kohl rimmed black limpid eyes looked adoringly at him. Her full luscious lips were shining with the red lip gloss. She was looking breathtakingly beautiful. Neel wanted to look at her for ever. He wanted to hold her …
“Well ! Where is my red rose ? My Valentine ? “ She smiled. The dimple went deep inside her right cheek. She was the most beautiful woman in this world.
Neel gave her the rose which he had bought in the morning.
“Neel , are you fine ? You look a bit pale … “ Doll sounded concerned “If that is so, let us cancel the movie… we can enjoy music at home … “
Neel looked at Doll. She has dressed up so beautifully for her Sunilda. She knew that red suited her the best.
“No, I am fine … . Just a bit tired … that’s all … Let us go to the movie and dinner “ Neel said .
The movie interval was vital for her and her Sunilda. Neel will not let her down.
“Are you sure ? “
“Ok. Wait for a few min , I will powder my nose and leave in a moment".
Neel sat down on the sofa. He saw “Love Story” by Eric Segal on the table. He took the book in his hands and slowly opened it. A dried rose was there ….
Doll came back “Lets go … “ Then suddenly saw the book and took it and put it back on the shelf.
“You were reading the book ? “
“Uh… yes … I had read it when I was in college “ she said.
They were on time for the show. It was a mushy love story. Doll watched the movie in rapt attention . She laughed , cried and clutched Neel’s hands when the villain scared the heroine. Neel’s mind did not register the story. A series of scenes seemed to pass in front of his eyes. He was waiting for the interval. When Doll will go to meet her Sunilda, he will send her an sms saying that he was not able to come. Doll will be disappointed, his lips curved in a mirthless smile.
Doll wiped her eyes with her handkerchief.
“The movie is very touching … lets see what happens at the end … “
She kept her handkerchief in her bag and settled back in her seat.
“Doll … the movie will start in about 7 minutes…”
“Er… Do you want to go to the rest room… ?”
“No … I am comfortable…. “ Doll linked her arms into Neel’s and put her head on his shoulder.
Does she want me to go away, so that she can talk … ?
“Should I get some popcorn ?”
“ No … I have prepared chicken Biriyani … let us have dinner at home… I don’t want to have anything now … I am saving my hunger for the biriyani …”
Doll smiled and looked at Neel. Her teeth shone, her red lips looked inviting, her clear complexion and soft hands were exquisite ….
Neel was confused.
Doll heated the chicken Biriyani in the microwave and served it with raita.
Neel was not hungry.
After dinner, Doll put on her soft cotton pink nightie, combed her hair and lay on the soft bed with her book.
Neel tried to read the unfinished Agatha Christie.
“Doll … “
“Hmm… “ she continued reading ..
“Is Valentine’s day special for you ? “
“Yes. Very special “
Doll put her book down and closed her eyes , preparing to sleep.
“Why ? “ Neel asked softly
“I met Sunilda on this date … “
Neel was shocked. Here it came… but … so casually … ?
“Sunilda ? Who ? “ Neel’s voice trembled.
Doll kept her eyes closed.
“Yes, my only love Sunilda … How I love him … put off the lights … I am sleepy “
“You love him … ? “ Neel repeated like a parrot and put off the bedside lamp’s light.
“Yes. But he is a dumbo. He bought a sim and wrote the number in the pad kept on the shelf and then called me up to ….. I don’t know what he wanted to do … I had saved the number in my cell phone ” Doll’s voice was sleepy.
“And tell Sunilda’s friend Abhi that when he is nervous, his voice gives him away … I have packed chicken Biriyani for him … give it to him for the nice attempt at acting … ”
Neel took Doll’s cell phone and saw the call list .
He saw “Neel” with the number of his second sim.
Doll took away her phone and snuggled close to Neel .
“The rose inside the book is the one which Sunilda gave me on our first Valentine’s day after marriage .. I am sleepy , have a presentation tomorrow … will have to leave early … Happy Valentine’s day , my sweet dumbo Sunilda ...“
14th Feb 2013, Belvedere, Calcutta