Rakesh observed Vidya as she scanned the final results list and let out a whoop of joy. Her name was first, as always. She turned and hugged her dear friend, Surbhi, who pushed her away, still scanning for hers.
After Vidya slipped out of the crowd he moved to the front, knowing he had missed the first place again. Yes, he was second. When people around congratulated him, he just nodded gravely and got teased for his modesty. She, on the other hand, was clearly excited and grinned as she thanked those who congratulated her, feeling absolutely on top of the world.
She gloated when Rakesh’s eyes met hers. Yet again she had overtaken him, pushing him to second rank. He congratulated her with ill-concealed resentment and went his way.
Fate had stitched their lives together in a strange way. The two had been in school together, and except for a couple of times, Vidya had always maintained her first rank while his own shifted from second to lower and back. Had it not been for being so close behind, he may not have cared about how much he scored. But the fact that just a few marks separated their ranks made him want to bring her down. She coolly, and with apparent indifference, maintained her lead. Any heights he touched, she seemed at least a point or two ahead. The only time she fell behind was when she contracted chicken pox. But in the next term, she had made up and scaled higher.
When the two separated after twelfth to pursue engineering degrees in different institutions, he didn’t slacken because he kept track of her performance and continued to compete. He had no clue if she knew about it, but achieving seemed to come naturally to her.
The two then worked in different organizations and he almost forgot her. Till the two entered the premium MBA institute at the same time. They had to smile at each other, but that was the limited extent of acknowledgement they allowed the other.
And now, as they completed the two years degree, he was second again.
They met during the graduation dinner. Though he did not sit next to her, he found himself listening intensely every time she answered a question. He couldn’t stand the arrogance, the confidence, the ambition that oozed out of every word she spoke. Needless to say, she had been offered the highest salary by the best company during campus interview. His own offer was not bad, but still less than hers.
After dinner, he was glad that this would be the last time he would be seeing Vidya. She was going to Mumbai while he was heading to Delhi.
Step by step, he moved up in life, his job finally taking him to the US. He married a simple sweet girl, had two children and felt he was doing well in life. When he did think about Vidya, he permitted himself a smile. How immature and childish he had been, he thought. Sometimes he even thought he should reach out to her. In these days of social media, it should not be tough, he thought, and scrolled down the contacts list in the groups common to both. But he could not find her name there.
“She does not want to be part of any group,” the admins of both the groups explained when he asked. He could not find her in Facebook or even LinkedIn. When he searched for her online, he could not find any details about her. Of course, her second name would have changed, but still…
As the urge to meet her strengthened, he decided to probe deeper. “She is in the US, on the west coast. She is wary of sharing her details. Will check with her and get back,” Surbhi responded when he asked if there was a way he could contact her. He waited eagerly, which surprised him, and was elated when Surbhi personally messaged him Vidya’s number. He was on the east coast but travelled to California often. Though Vidya lived in a city not on his customary route, it was not a very big distance to traverse. He called her with great apprehension. “I am in your city… Can we meet?” he asked after the preliminary small talk.
“Hmm… Why don’t you join us for dinner? Getting away becomes difficult. And today being Sunday, need to prepare for the week ahead,” she said with candour.
“Sure… Whatever suits you,” he replied.
“Sorry to intrude… You must have a busy schedule,” Rakesh apologized as he sat on the plush sofa of the posh house Vidya and her husband, Shubh, lived in. Shubh handed him a drink and the two men discussed their respective jobs as Vidya brought snacks. She seemed distracted as her children, duly introduced, demanded her attention. There seemed to be elders in the house too, to whom she needed to attend. Shubh, of course, kept him entertained.
“How long are you here?” Shubh asked as they moved to the dining table for the meal.
“I am taking the early morning flight tomorrow to NJ,” Rakesh said.
“What a pity. Do you play tennis? You could have joined me for a match in the morning… Next time when you are here…”
“Probably. Do you play too, Vidya?” he asked as she finally sat down.
“Me?” Vidya looked up startled. “Absolutely no time…”
“I also find the work pressure challenging. Where are you working these days?”
Vidya’s eyes alighted on him for a fraction of a second before sliding away. Shubh offered salad. “Vidya’s hands are full. My parents are here and need medical attention. And, of course, the children… Dropping them, picking up, managing their extra-curricular activities… Only she can manage all of it so efficiently…” he said laughing.
“While you play tennis?” Rakesh asked with a smile. Shubh looked at him doubtfully, and then, seeming reassured by the smile, laughed sheepishly. “After work, I need some diversion.”
Rakesh nodded and turned his attention to the food. The couple spoke to him – Vidya, about old friends; Shubh, about many things. But Rakesh merely nodded and replied to the point. Something seemed to die within him. He realized that it was merely a response to that which had died in Vidya – her competitive, fighting spirit; it had kept his own fire for achievement burning through those years. Even in her absence, somewhere the thought that she was trailblazing kept him on his toes.
After dinner, he excused himself. “I have an early morning flight…”
Shubh shook hands. “Look us up when you are here next.”
Rakesh turned to look at Vidya. Her eyes seemed to plead to the contrary. “I don’t come to this part of the world much,” he replied to Shubh without taking his eyes off Vidya.
The relief in her eyes evoked pity. He nodded imperceptibly, acknowledging her pain, and left, never to hear of her again.