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February 14, 2015

Her Greatest Love Affair

Text by Amrita Chowdhury. Illustration by Salil Sojwal

Her days are filled with brand presentations, brainstorming sessions, exciting deals and romantic gestures. But, amidst the craziness of all the interactions, Tarini Gupta longs to reach out to someone who gives her peace and understanding. Author Amrita Chowdhury scripts a modern-day love story exclusively for Verve

Tarini Gupta whizzed into her office, already feeling rushed. Monday mornings always left her dizzy. But an important Monday like this? There was barely time to gather her papers and her thoughts, let alone a cup of coffee. The client would be here soon.

It was an important presentation. The branding visual redesigns for an up and coming internet start-up – what it would not deliver in terms of client fees, it could provide in terms of visibility. If the investors liked the design, they would burn marketing rupees on television and billboards in an attempt to carve a name in a fast moving space. She hoped it would win her an award. It certainly was different from the rest of her portfolio of large clients, where creativity was limited to incremental changes. As an upcoming junior partner in a leading design firm, her next step up depended on bringing in both money and kudos.

Tarini picked up her portfolio, straightened her mid-calf red pencil skirt and cinched the belt of her chequered red and white jacket. Working for a design firm, it was important to present a professional but edgy image. She breathed out, exhaling her anxiety. Would they like her designs? She would be on show, for sure. Even Ram Chandran, the founder of her firm, was sitting on the presentation today.

Her iPad gave a mini beep. There was a red rose waiting for her on WhatsApp, with a ‘Rock on, Baby’ message. Tarini smiled. Rahul was big into e-gestures. This one she had needed. She typed the ‘Heart’ icon and sent the message to her husband of two years. Then squared her shoulders, shook her silky straight hair and walked out of her office.

‘Well done, Tarini’, Ram smiled at her a few hours later, as the client and his investors shook her hands.  The boardroom was strewn with papers and coffee cups, still overly warm from the projector which was humming softly as it shut down.

The decision was still to be announced, but there were enough effusive smiles and excited discussions to indicate that she could have clinched the deal.

‘You’ll send us the deck right away?’ Jai Mittal, the rather dapper investor in a sharp suit, asked cocking his head at an angle.

‘Of course Jai’, Tarini responded. ‘Will make the few changes based on our discussion today, and send it across this afternoon.’ Alacrity was important — she could not afford a bad impression at this crucial stage.

As she walked back into her room, she quickly switched on her iPad, typed ‘Woo Hoo! Went well’ and sent the message to Rahul. Almost immediately, the screen lit up with a ‘Knew you’d shine Honey-bunny’ message, leaving her feeling warm.

Tarini was still wired from the meeting, and the prep that had gone on for days. Her small team headed downstairs for a smoke break, and she stood for a minute at the window in her high rise office and squared her shoulders against the haze of the day and the sweeping panorama of Middle Mumbai buildings. Then, she went to her desk to log on to Facebook for a quick respite before editing the presentation.

The photo of Rahul and her from a weekend party had already gathered 171 likes and 22 comments, mostly a string of single word superlatives like ‘Super’ and ‘Gorgeous’. They did look very trendy – she in a glittery bandage dress, in red again; him in an open collared fitted shirt and linen jacket. It had been the opening of Trggr, a new microbrewery in her neighbourhood, just a stone’s throw from the smart apartment complex in Khar where they lived. It had been a group outing, and a bunch of young men­ — some from Rahul’s law firm, others from his college in the UK — and their wives had gathered for a usual casual Friday evening — high on booze and general chatter. Tarini scrolled down the pages, saw some comments by Rahul on the walls of mutual friends, added her own messages and exited. It had been another crazy weekend, Saturday filled with another brunch, followed by a formal dinner at the house of a client of Rahul. Sunday had been taken up in doing pre-prep for her Monday meeting.

It took her an hour, perhaps, still on an adrenalin rush from the meeting to finish the document and send it to the client. Then she gathered her handbag and walked across the corridor to the other end of the floor, where Serena Mathews, their Head of Legal, sat. The two of them caught up for meals on occasion, and today Tarini had blocked a late lunch in their calendars. She was really looking forward to a catch-up. The whirlwind weekend, the multiplicity of snatched chats, made her long for a deeper conversation.

She knocked on the open door, and Serena, a pleasant faced, plump woman smiled and walked up from behind her desk to give Tarini a giant hug. ‘Darling, heard your great news! Congratulations.’

‘They haven’t announced it yet’, Tarini smiled back.

‘A matter of time’, Serena thumped her on the back. ‘The grapevine tells me.’

‘Ready for lunch?’

‘I am so, so sorry darling’, Serena made a face. ‘Something’s come up. I have to rush to Ariana’s school, and just need to finish some things before I head out.’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘Rain check?’

‘Of course’, Tarini smiled and walked back to her room, stopping by at her assistant’s desk to order a sandwich and coffee. She hadn’t brought her usual dabba, given the lunch plans.

Instead, she spent her lunch hour at her computer, again on Facebook, sending the photos to her two besties. Ritu, who had just had a baby six months back, had posted a string of cute pictures of her pink-cheeked cherub in fluffy outfits and bonnets. Mehek, who was on an extended honeymoon of sorts, having quit her job to follow her husband on his work trips across Asia, had posted a clinging picture of herself atop some fancy highrise in Seoul. Tarini scrolled through the photos, added comments, sent some cutesy messages to both.

Then she logged onto Twitter. She had built quite a following of late, posting quirky thoughts on design and economy, and new happenings in the city. She posted a mini review of Trggr. Vowels were passé, she thought, as she composed a sentence, half thinking if she should avoid any vowels in the sentence altogether. Instantaneously she got four retweets. From Rahul, but of course. How the guy found the time to be perennially switched on in the middle of his demanding work as a newly minted partner in a legal firm specializing in international law was a wonder. The other retweets came from the proprietor of Trggr and a couple of Rahul’s friends.

WhatsApp pinged on her phone at the same time. ‘No lunch with Serena?’ She had told Rahul about her lunch plans. ‘Got cancelled. She had to rush to school.’  She typed on impulse, ‘Coffee?

Impossible, she knew in the middle of the work day, with sluggish weekday traffic.

Wish I could. For a quickie’, the response came immediately, followed by emoticons for kisses.

‘Hey Tarini’, her boss, Bon Biswas said walking into her room, and Tarini shoved her phone away, suddenly red in the face, hoping he did not guess what she was texting.

‘Yes Bon?’ Arinban had become Bon many years ago, and the name had stuck.

‘That was well done today’, Bon nodded. His grey curly hair bobbed. He was not one for effusive smiles. ‘Now, let’s speak of the next assignment.’

Tarini felt like groaning. She wanted to bask in the glow of work well done, of an assignment almost won. She wanted to wait at her computer or by the phone, for news from Jai that he was indeed handing her firm his account, as all indications went. Now Bon already wanted to speak of the next client.

She maintained her calm façade and said, ‘Yes Bon’, and settled down to take notes as Bon pulled a chair and started describing the brief from a manufacturer of steel casings for water pumps.

By evening, Tarini was exhausted. The rest of the afternoon had been consumed by a brainstorming session with her team on the new brief. There had been a text message in the middle. Rahul asking if she could hit ‘Buy’ on a stock from her account as recommended by his broker. She had done that immediately — the broker usually had sound tips. She posted an Instagram of herself at work, titled ‘In a sombre mood’, which had garnered some comments from her friends by the time she left work.
As she sat back in her car, ready to be driven through evening traffic, she sunk into the plush seat and started typing on her iPad.

Darling, I must tell you…’ and all the thoughts of the past couple of days, impressions of people she had met, the insecurities she hadn’t been able to express, the little brush off given by one fancy woman at the weekend get together, her innermost feelings, her desire to escape for a weekend to Italy, all came tumbling out in one long email message. It was her secret addiction, her secret communiqué. What kept her going.

She hit the send button, even as her car swung into her driveway.

Monday nights were quiet time, an evening to cocoon indoors rather than go out for yet another event or dinner that seemed to punctuate their social calendar. Tarini stepped inside her living room, taking in an oblique view of the sea between buildings and felt at ease. There was something about that sliver of sea that made her feel at home in Mumbai. She had studied in Delhi, her parents lived in Delhi. She had moved to Mumbai on work, sharing a small flat with friends while rising up the ladder at her design firm. She had met Rahul at a party thrown by a mutual friend, had shared a few laughs and in one incandescent moment, decided she was in love. It had been a whirlwind courtship. Rahul, then on the partnership track at his law firm, had wooed her with all the precision of a timed game plan. They got married in a haveli outside Delhi, honeymooned in the Maldives, and Tarini had settled into married life. A glittering one, at that – busy as their work lives were, they managed to carve time out for friends and the incessant parade of parties.

Tarini stepped into the shower, relishing the warmth of water sluicing down her body, and emerged dewy skinned and refreshed, donned a jersey dress to lounge in, and wiped away the moisture off the mirror to put kohl into her large eyes — eyes that were expressive today; eyes that had let out a lot of emotion in an email; eyes that awaited a response. In the craziness of interactions, Tarini simply longed to be heard.

She made her way to the kitchen. Their housekeeper had left some chicken casserole and chapattis. There was a new WhatsApp message from Rahul — he was on his way home.

The door opened soon enough, and Rahul walked in, still looking fresh, just his stubble highlighting the end of the day. They sat with a drink on the couch, cuddled for a few minutes. Tarini breathed in his presence, discussed their plans for the week, the dinner dos they had to attend, a gala fundraiser that his firm was sponsoring, the latest news from around the world.

After an early dinner, Rahul switched on the television and brought out his laptop. ‘Just one document I need to complete’, he said, already lost in his world.

‘Of course’, Tarini mussed his hair, kissed him on the cheek and went to the bedroom to settle into the downy mattress, her own laptop in hand.

She surfed the web for a while, checking out villas in Italy, put a post on Facebook about longing for a holiday, which immediately got 22 likes including one from Rahul.

Finally, she logged into an email account for Mishtu1234, and started typing a letter.

I hear you, darling’, she wrote. ‘I long for the things you long for as well…

That longing was for being heard. For the slow burn of romance, not the one of courtship and cocktails, rather one of soft conversations, to express broken dreams and unsaid desires, little hurts and big misses of life. The intimate heart to hearts that in her busy, extremely social life of likes and retweets, messenger chats and Instagram posts, she could never have.

The only way was to reach out, beyond friends, beyond husband. From the one person who loved her most, and whom she loved back most. Mishtu. Herself. Her pet name from ages ago. This was her greatest love affair – something she could not get from anyone else. Time. Peace. Understanding. Simply being heard.

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