A Forbidden Fruit

September 9, 2020, Mumbai "Even a dog wouldn't eat such food". The words were a sharp edged dagger that cut straight into her heart. Momentarily stung by the venomous hatred in them, Priti recovered just about enough to retaliate. "But this dog eats this food everyday". The counter reaction was swift and fierce. Sankalp picked up the casserole and his plate in both hands and hurled them towards her. She ducked just in time only to see fine bone china land on the mosaic floor and break into pieces, its contents_ crisp perfectly oval idlis scattering all over. And, on the floor, all over, on the walls lay the hot piping sambhar dish,  remnants of her tireless efforts of the last five hours. "You bastaard..." The words birthed and died before it could escape her lips as she watched with mortal horror and a deep sense of stupefying loss Sankalp get up and storm out of the dining hall, out of the house itself. For a long time after her husband had gone, Priti stood there, a mute statue, in limbo, eyes struck in space, arms and legs immobile before slumping into the L shaped sofa. Just another regular day in the Srivastava household had begun. *** September 9, 2020, Delhi Monday morning blues? What was that, wondered Viraj. The 39 year old eased into the driver's seat and tuned on Radio FM. The next moment the car was cruising  the highway. Viraj lip synced along with Kishore Kumar 'Mere Sapno ki Rani...'with much gusto. The next 30 minutes were pure bliss as Kishore belted out one romantic number after another. By the time Viraj parked his car and headed towards Tower B of Boulevard Avenue, towards the lift that would carry him to his seventeenth floor office of Oracular Thinkers, he was in the best of spirits, absolutely gung ho and waiting to meet the day's challenges headlong. Barely 10 minutes after he had stepped into his cabin and was perusing some urgent files, his intercom buzzed. "Sir, boss wants to see you". Boss meant Mr Subhendu Mishra, Group Director. Now what would that be, wondered Viraj as he got up and made his way towards the row of cabins down the corridor, the no man's land from where the senior management operated. *** "Come in Viraj, make yourself comfortable". Viraj greeted his boss and respectfully  sat on the opposite chair. As did so he shot a surreptitious glance at the man seated across the oblong shaped mahogany table that shone brightly under the reflection of an exquisitely ornate green and yellow coloured table lamp. Subhendu cradled in his left palm a cutesy all wool Mickey Mouse. Even though he was a week short of his 60th birthday,  Subhendu Mishra was a child at heart. Known in the office as someone with very eclectic tastes (his detractors labelled  them impractical and immature!), the 62 year old marketing wiz kid was what one may call a non-conformist, someone who believed in moving away from the tried and tested, in dallying with the unfamiliar and esoteric. He waited for a minute more and then setting aside the mouse, he looked at Viraj, a broad smile framing his cherubic visage. "So Viraj, you must be getting bored here, don't you? How about a new city, a new project?" Always straight to the point, thought Viraj as he wondered what was on his boss's mind. "You see, we have decided to open a pan India chain of play schools. Upstairs has decided to appoint you as Project Head-India for this. You need to proceed to Mumbai immediately and get things rolling." Subhendu noted the stunned look plastered all over Viraj's face. In a voice suitably modulated and placatory, he continued, "See Viraj, we all know ours is a financial solutions provider company. That's what we are reputed for, that's what we have been doing, and quite successfully at that for the past 24 years. But now things have changed. And now, the management has decided that we expand our horizons. As you know education industry is booming and the management  feels that one can mint a lot of money in this. So, this new vertical is an endeavour in that direction.  And who better than you, a proven HR expert and managerial virtuoso to take charge of this new 'baby'. In fact when the manager asked me to suggest a name to head this project, I suggested your name." As Viraj looked on, his face wearing a totally bemused expression, Subhendu fired the final salvo, "You take charge immediately and fly to Mumbai right now. Here's the complete DETAILED PROJECT REPORT (DPR). I have already asked Nina. She has booked your tickets. You may rush home and start packing. Your flight leaves in three hours. All the best". Viraj opened his mouth to protest, to say that education industry was new to him, he had no fig of an idea what it was, how it works, what kind of hiring is required et al. As if reading his mind, Shubhendu replied, "We all learn Viraj, don't we? But  remember, make  sure the learning is fast. The company is looking to expand its horizons. Not just money but a lot of reputation is at stake. Everyone's...the company's, mine...YOURS..." The extra edge and long drawn syllabic emphasis on YOURS was not lost Viraj. His sharp mind knew what that meant: this was Subhendu's baby, his pet project. He couldn't afford it to fail. And with that Viraj knew that not just his  career path, his future in the organisation lay hanging by a very fragile thread. His boss had in effect passed a binary threat: Make this project successful, or else you will be fired. Eveb as he pondered the monumental quagmire that had befallen him, Subhendu had gotten up and was shaking hands with a still very stunned Viraj. As Viraj walked back to his cabin, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Didn't just know how to react. All he knew was that in Financial Orcales, the company he had been working for the past 18 years, there was no management. Management meant the lone owner, 79 year old Lal Bhal Tandon,  a man suffering from a debilitating illness and with almost two feet in the grave. And hence, by proxy, boss meant only one person, the rotund beer guzzling, flower worshipping and Rabindra Sangeet aficionado with a proclivity for children and all things coloruful. As he entered his cabin, the phone rang. On the other end was Nina, the all purpose Facilities Manager. She had called to say that his tickets were on the way. And that she had booked  him into the plush company guest house and that her Mumbai counterpart, a certain Ms Braganza would take charge of his hospitality there. Viraj mumbled his thanks, then sank into his chair, wondering what lengths would he have to go to satisfy the puerile fancies of not just his boss but de facto owner of Financial Oracles. *** September 13, 2022, Financial Oracles, Mumbai Seventy five interviews, close to 50 man hours expended, over 200 cups of black tea and not one single candidate selected for the all important position of Head-Mumbai of Tiny Trotters. It was nearing end of Day 4 of his stay in Mumbai and Viraj Kapoor, the 44 year hot shot financial wizard had given up all hopes of hiring the right candidate. And with dissolved all his resolve. He had accepted the fact that there was no recourse but to take the morning flight to Delhi, and lay down his papers. Better to resign that be booted out, his rationale. His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the door. He looked up; it was Nancy, the temp assigned to assist him. "Sir, I know it's late but there's one more  candidate. Would you like to meet her? Shall I usher her in?" Viraj lifted his head and in a gesture of extreme indifference replied, " Ok, send her in." What's one more when you have already interviewed and rejected close to a hundred, he mumbled to himself before sitting up straight. *** "Sir, may I come in?" Yes, please have a seat, said Viraj, his eyes still glued to the pile of rejected applications before him. So engrossed was he in his own thoughts that he forgot that a person was sitting opposite him. And when he lifted his face and saw her, he was tongue tied. No, in his mind she was no conventional beauty. Definitely not the high cheek boned classical beauty in the Aishwarya Rai mould. Not even a slim trim version of her. On the other hand, what he noticed was a  woman in a pastel green salwar suit with a red dupatta draped around the left shoulder, a strong,  dusky face with full lips the colour of the first rays of wintry dawn. "Good morning, please introduce yourself". "Good morning. My name is Priti Singhal and I am..." He didn't hear anything after that. Viraj from thereon was hooked on to her eyes, and the luxuriant jet black full head of wavy hair that sat prettily on her perfectly jaw lined face. He watched her as she enumerated her qualifications, the various accolades and certificates she had garnered by way of excellence in service. He continued to gape at her, his eyes rivetted on hers, her lips, at her smile which, whenever she effected, miraculously changed her face from a  dusky hue to a deep red sunshine glow. And when she finished speaking, all he said was, "When can you join?" To that she replied that she would need a day's time to think over. That was it_ the interview over in under 5 minutes. As she prepared to leave, he rememberd something and quickly tore a piece of paper from his note pad, and scribbled his number. "Here, please take my number. I will wait for your call". God knows why he said so, god knows what business had he to give his private number. How would Viraj Kapoor ever know that this was the first wrong turn he was taking in his life, a turn that would cost him very dearly not just in the days and months and years to come, but for the rest of his life. *** September 13, 2021 Time: 4 pm After her interview got over, Priti hailed an auto and was now headed home. She checked her watch. It was 3.20 pm. Another 40 minutes before Sankalp would be back for his post lunch siesta. As the three wheeler whizzed through the busy Western Expressway, she settled back and went through the events of the day so far. She had got up as usual around 6 in the morning, and then made tea for herself. Sankalp, as was his wont  was asleep. He would not be waking up up until 11. Then, a quick bath, a hurried breakfast, and he would be headed out for his beer bar, where he would be till 4. At 4.15 pm on the dot he would come back, have his lunch, and sleep till 7. Fifteen minutes later, he would get up, have tea, and head to the bar where he would be until closing hour, which was 3.30 am. At around 4 in the morning, he would for the final time take an auto back home until the next afternoon for the routine to follow itself. In the morning as she was sipping her black tea, (no sugar, no milk; her third cup of the morn), Priti quite serenditpiously happened to glance at the small corner advertisment on the left hand corner of the second page. It read: "Wanted trained & experienced teaching head to take charge of Mumbai Head of new chain of pan India play schools. Walk in interviews at..." Priti re-read the advt. again. The position called for a minimum of ten years of experience and the remuneration promised was "above industry standards". After the fight with Sankalp, Priti was a  shattered soul. It wasn't the first time he had attacked and insulted her. But she resolved it definitely be the last time. And for that to happen, she knew she had to become financially independent. She had to step out and start working. She had to be the old Priti, the confident, strong, independent minded free spirit that she saw prior to her marriage. Her eyes fell on the interview day. Something stirred within her. This was her golden chance. She was all that the company was looking for. Bright, well educated, held the requisite qualifications, was friendly, resourceful and an outstanding team player. Priti knew opportunity had come knocking her doorway. Her eyes fell on the wall clock. It was 10. 30 pm. The interview timings were 11 to 6 pm. She  had taken the call. And attended the interview. But something else had also happened during its course. She had fallen in love with Viraj! *** For the umpteenth time that evening Priti reprised the entire conversation she had had with Viraj. In her mind's eye, she played the video of the entire five minutes in minutiae. His handsome ruggedness, his slow yet sure smile, the twinkle in his eyes, his words, so deep and soothing, his voice, immersed in niceness and kindness. Plus, his walk, so sanguine as he got up from his chair and held the door of his cabin open for her. And his parting words, "Was a pleasure meeting you. Hope to meet you soon". How genteel his mannerisms. Or, was there something more to it? Did he mean he was looking forward to meeting her in more personal terms? Were his words alluding to something---the way he looked, that shy yet hesitant beguiling smile and that slight pressing of her fingers as the two shooks hands? Was it what it was- a mere ending of a formal meeting, or, the hint of the start of something more, something much more, and deeper. She had to know. She had to somehow find out. For the next fifteen minutes, her brain kept battling with her heart? What to do? What should she do? Should she find out? Should she call him? And then what? Why? How? And if so, what then? Finally, the heart won. She picked the phone; made the call. How was she to ever know it was going to go all wrong? "Hello, is that Viraj? 'Yes, it is. Who's this?' "It's me, Priti. I met you today...for the interview..." 'I know. Have you called to tell me that you have accepted the offer, haven't  you?' "No, Viraj, I have called to tell you that I like you a lot. And I want to meet you again". "Ugghh!...what did you just say? Are you saying that...? "I'm saying that I like you. Want to know you better at a more personal level". "But...but...I'm married!" Viraj cut the phone call. He couldn't believe what he had just heard. True, he too found Priti very attractive. There was a searing pain in her eyes that pulled him like a magnet. He wanted to know what that was. He was curious. The phone pinged. "Can we at least be friends, please! I don't want to lose you." Viraj thought for a moment. Then, he picked up the phone and called back. And thus began a torrid six month affair. March 23, 2022 "It's over". Priti stared at the terse text message. Her world went dizzy and dark. She felt as if the ground below her feet had given way. Her mind turned dizzy and totally disoriented. She stabbed the phone keys. The next 25 minutes were pure madness. She called, she texted, called, texted. "Pleeez puck up the phone....pl call...please speak to me....pleeez...pleez...pleez..." Finally, she received a text message. It was Viraj's. "I am sorry. Whatever we shared was beautiful. But, it's over. I am at the airport. Have checked in. I am leaving for Delhi. Will never come back. Going back to my family. You too go back to Sankalp. Take care. Bye." Priti eyes turned into stones. Nothing registered. She just stared into the phone screen. Her mind just couldn't understand what was happening. One day before she had shared six divine hours with Viraj. The two had checked into an out of town fancy resort. Had the time of their lives. Viraj was his usual bubbly self. All loving and caring. He had smothered her with oodles of love, gifted her kisses galore. Ditto, she! The two were madly, passionately in love. Viraj was insatiable. So too, she. Their mantra: food, sex, love. Had been so since the two fell for each other. But what had happened now? Why was Viraj behaving this way? Why was he severing all relations with her. He has a family, she knew. A wife, and a kid. Ok, that hadn't stopped him, so why now? How would he have known, how would she have known this was a wrong turn? Priti's scarred mind just couldn't fathom what was happening. All she knew was her world had ended. And so would her life.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!