“Increase the flow of the air conditioner, it’s too hot in here.” He said, as he loosened his perfectly-knotted tie and dabbed his delicate face with a fine cotton handkerchief.
The chauffeur complied.
In less than a minute, the car’s air conditioner was working overtime, spewing jets of icy-cool air on the driver’s face.
“Please turn the vent towards me. It feels like my skin is on fire.” He said, this time fanning his face with his sleek, pink palm.
Nidhi, seated next to him in the rear seat of the car was only minutes away from shivering. A frail, delicate young woman in her late twenties, she sat there with the work-papers in her hand. While she tried her best to appear busy with the reading, she never missed out an opportunity to sneak a glance at him, from the corner of her eye.
As soon as her eyes fell on the goose-bumps of her thin arms, she reached out for her laptop bag placed on the front seat of the car, pulled out a floral-print shawl and wore it around her arms and neck.
“Are you feeling cold?” He asked in a tone that seemed to threaten with the unacceptability of ‘yes’ as an answer.
“No, no, I’m fine. Don’t worry.” She smiled. That smile came naturally to her face, as she saw him look into her eyes.
“Good”, He said and dug his eyes again into the business newspaper he had been reading.
Rahul. A senior manager with the Gurgaon office of a multinational consulting firm. Currently en route to Hapur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, to hold discussions with a client.
He was accompanied by his junior Nidhi, who worked in the consulting team he led.
They had started from Delhi at 7 in the morning and were expected to reach the client’s office by 9.30 a.m. As was always the case with Rahul, even this schedule had been tightly planned. They were to get started with work immediately as they reached the client’s office, work incessantly till the next day, and finally wind up the assignment by next evening, and return to Delhi.
It was a Tuesday morning, about an hour since they had started. In this hour-long journey, which seemed like a lifetime, she sat there witnessing him yawn for the ninth time. “Poor fellow,” she thought to herself. Being in the same work-team with him, she knew exactly how hard he worked. For at least the last couple of weeks, he was barely sleeping. He would work till the wee hours of morning, and urge his team members to leave much before him. When they, particularly female colleagues, thanked him for the gesture, he would casually look up from his computer, look squarely in their eyes and say, “Don’t be too happy. It’s only so that you can reach office by eight tomorrow morning. See ya.” After several such instances, they had even stopped thanking him. This man wasn’t worthy of any emotional talk, they realised. However, despite this realisation, many women simply hadn’t stopped trying.
Exceptionally good-looking, Rahul had succeeded in creating flutters right from the day he had joined the firm. Though extremely popular with female colleagues, his tip-lipped smile and disdainful eyes made him almost unapproachable. There was not one woman in office who hadn’t tried to be win his confidence, but in vain. Their slightest pass to try and get close would evoke an immediate reaction – his favourite one, of unmistakable contempt. Despite his customary rudeness, they silently wished to be part of his team, however mundane the assignment. That way, they could at least have a reason to have him around. For a man of this type, that was enough.
Nidhi, however, was different.
She had been with the firm for almost three years now. Rahul was only two months senior to her in terms of their joining dates. With his academic profile and outstanding professional performance, he had very soon catapulted to the senior manager position, while most others of his rank, including Nidhi, remained at most, a Manager. She had never really tried to woo him or attract attention. She knew he was far too good, far meritorious and almost unreachable.
The differences in the two were stark – she came from a modest background from which only her persistent hard work and relentless academic pursuits had brought her into this earlier-unknown life of financial independence. On the other hand, Rahul belonged to an affluent Punjabi family, known for their chain of fine-dining restaurants in Delhi. The only son to his parents, there was nothing he didn’t have. He drove to work in his father’s Mercedes and transformed into a complete professional as he entered the office premises. It was after much persuasion that he had agreed to travel to the client’s office in a rented Innova and not in his own car. “You will end up looking like a snob,” he had been advised.
But the airs of being an ‘heir’ never really left him, or perhaps he never really let go of them. He exuded exclusivity that successfully kept most colleagues away. Those who didn’t notice the Mercedes and tried to get friendly, the Omega on his wrist and his dark brown Louis Vuitton wallet did the trick. In short, people just stayed away. His attitude, however, did not come without a cost. If it was not for his exceptional performance at work, his peer reviews so far would have been enough to get him out of the firm, and that too, in a rather insulting manner.
Even in terms of physical appearance, Nidhi and Rahul were no match. However taciturn Rahul may have been, he was complete head-turning material. A fair-skinned Punjabi boy, immaculately dressed, he was every young lady’s fantasy. Nidhi, on the other hand, had a wheatish skin tone and a small built, with a very ‘no-frills’ sense of dressing. She dressed to feel confident, not to look good. That naturally, wasn’t the perfect recipe for being popular in office. She didn’t care anyway.
Her thoughts were disrupted by the sound of him yawning again. “Poor baby” she thought. She knew pretty well that he hadn’t slept the whole of last night. He had been in office till 4 a.m. He worked too hard and she felt sorry for him. She had always felt differently for him, right from day one. The very sight of him evoked in her a strong sense of longingness, something she knew was meaningless, at least for this man. Plus, her goals in life were so different – she had to work hard, pay back her parents’ home loan and buy herself a car. Even when she was being completely rational, she chose not to feel guilty about her craving to observe him quietly, to not let go of even the slightest opportunity of looking at him. “No taxes for admiring him, Nidhi!” She would often tell herself.
She looked at her watch – they were still at least forty-five minutes away from the client’s office. Once again, she silently looked at him from the corner of her eye, only to find him in deep sleep. He lay slouched in the car seat, his loosened satin blue necktie swinging on his left shoulder and to top it all, his mouth open. She was overjoyed. At least she could sit by herself and admire his features, without him knowing. “He’s sleeping like a child. If only I could tell him.” She thought; then dismissed the impractical thought. By now, his neatly back-brushed curly hair was all ruffled and he reminded her of some Greek-God. She laughed at her own thoughts. This man had driven her nuts, except that he was a nutcase himself.
She shook in her seat as his phone rang suddenly. He woke up in a frenzy. Upon realizing that he had in fact, fallen asleep, avoided looking at her in the eye. As he pulled out his I-phone from his pocket, she could see the picture of a woman flash on his screen. The woman looked stunning in a golden-border silk saree, a string of large south-sea pearls running around her slender neck. This woman had to be his mother. Now she understood where this man had acquired his facial features from.
“Yes Maa,” he said, still in half-sleep.
“Rahul, this is not right. You left so early, didn’t even wake me up. You haven’t even slept, have you?” She could hear the woman’s frantic voice from the other end. Probably Rahul had not realised that Nidhi could hear every word of what was being said, given the high volume of his handset and the particular angle in which he was seated. A very careful man usually, he was too sleepy to comprehend it.
“Doesn’t matter Maa. I’ll call you back?”
“No, don’t hang up like that. First tell me, how are you feeling now? Did you take your morning dose of antibiotics? Your stomach is still upset, is it? Drink lots of water, understand? It can cause dehydration, and you don’t want it again. Do you?” She kept on ranting.
“Kya Maa? What are you saying? I’m not a child anymore, just let me be.” He said in a tone full of irritation and helplessness.
Upset stomach? Nidhi laughed to herself. So this man is not as God-like as he thinks! She sealed her lips tightly to avoid laughing out aloud. As she kept thinking about the antibiotics and the upset stomach over and over again, a loud chuckle escaped her lips.
He suddenly jerked his face in Nidhi’s direction, with an angry expression in his eyes.
“I’ll talk later Maa,” he said in rather assertive tone, as he hung up the call and looked at Nidhi again.
“What’s the joke?” He asked.
She was thoroughly embarrassed. She had been caught red-handed, laughing at her boss. What should she tell him now? He was staring at her with the most gruesome expressions she had ever witnessed on his face.
“Would you want me to ask the driver to stop by at a pharmacy? Probably that’s why you’ve been feeling so hot!” She suggested for want of anything else to say in her defence.
Rahul was stunned. What had his mother done? Nidhi had heard all about the loose-motion tale and it was so bloody embarrassing! So inconsistent with the kind of image he had created around himself.
He continued to stare at her, till her eyelids drooped. In less than a minute, her head was also hung down, as she stared at the stripes on her trousers. She could not look him in the eye anymore.
But one thing was for sure, he was still staring at her and she knew it. Like a silly little girl who had just been taken to task for breaking a glass, she looked up at him with guilty eyes, her head still hung low. The minute her eyes met his, she saw something unusual.
His eyes were twinkling like that of a little boy, amused and boisterous. She continued to look into his eyes. Something strange happened. As if in a dream, she found him laughing out aloud, his head thrown back, revealing shapely pearl-like teeth and a sharp, extremely masculine jawline. She was taken aback – it just did not look like Rahul’s laughter. Did he have what it took to laugh, in his body? He surely did as he continued to laugh with jerky abdominal movements. Seeing his taut belly move rhythmically with his uncontrollable laughter, she was suddenly reminded of his upset stomach and in no time, she was giggling too.
They continued to laugh, their eyes meeting every now and then. Not a word was said, till Rahul broke the funny silence.
“What did you hear, first tell me that.” He demanded, as he placed his warm palm on her slender fingers.
Nidhi closed her eyes in unprecedented pleasure. She had run out of words. And laughter too.
The longingness this man had always evoked in her now knew no bounds.
This would be the most exciting assignment of her life. That was certain.