Illusion of Love

Illusion of Love

Chapter 1: Chook goes the train.

The wind ruffles her silky black hair, and the loose tendrils settle around her heart-shaped, flawless face. Rhea looks beautiful today. Dressed in a floral dress, she stands tall under the alcove. Her almond-shaped brown eyes glance at her wristwatch, tapping her long fingers against it. Rhea chews her lower lip. A nervous tic she resorts to when stressed. Not only is she gorgeous, but, possesses a heart of gold with brains to match. It’s no surprise that she has caught his eye. 

As a force of habit, he notes the time and location in his red notebook. 

09-August-2017 10.30 AM 

Steam it by café. 

Floral dress. 

Waiting to meet ______

He waits in the café, sipping the espresso as he watches her through the window. His cap is pulled low, preventing any chance of recognition. His stubby fingers beat a tattoo on the table as his nostrils flare. He doesn’t know who Rhea is meeting as he hasn’t found a way to install the surveillance software to track her. She glares at her phone, her brow furrowing. He scrawls a note in another diary, a blue one, his action log.

Imperative to hack her laptop and phone to ensure surveillance of texts and other social media.  

He closes the diary and places it in the ever-present backpack. Parts of the scouts’ training. Always, be prepared. He is ready to leave at a moment’s notice in case Rhea moves out. She speaks animatedly on the phone, and her eyes light up as she hangs up, a smile trailing her rosy, luscious lips.

So the meeting is still on. His fingers massage his temple in furious circles. 

He shifts in the chair, surreptitiously clicking her photograph, leaning against the café wall. The shutter drops just in time as she enters the café. A goofy smile brightens her face, lost in a reverie. The fake beard he sports, itches. His hands, eager to peel it off, but it’s a necessary devil.  

After ten minutes, a tall and handsome young man walks in. He stands and scopes around. Spotting her, he raises a hand in greeting, and she responds by waving. He walks over to the table. 

“Rhea? Hey, I’m Jay. I’m so sorry. I got held up by traffic,” he says. 

“Hello, Jay. I’m Rhea. Glad you could make it.” 

They shake hands, and he joins her at the table. 

So, this is a date, after all. This situation must be remedied. He watches their every move like a hawk. 

“One Bombay masala sandwich,” he orders, beckoning a server over. Might as well eat something.

 “I’ll call you soon,” Jay says as Rhea bids him farewell with a brief hug after an hour.

Should I follow Jay or Rhea? What to do?

“I’m headed home. I’ll wait for your call,” Rhea says.

Jay, it is

Jay walks briskly towards the railway station. He follows him, pulling the cap’s beak across his face and sunglasses over his eyes, obstructing his face. The humid sun acts as his accomplice in furthering his disguise. Jay, consulting the train schedule, stands at the edge of the platform in anticipation. He swirls his phone around. A shy smile plays on his lips. Despite being a Sunday afternoon, the platform is crowded. He finagles a place behind Jay. As soon as the train whistles in, there’s a flurry of activity. He seizes the opportunity and swings his shoulder into Jay. The intensity causes Jay to drop his phone on the tracks. The train is almost at the platform as he steps aside to watch. Out of the crowd’s way. 

“My phone! It has fallen on the tracks,” yells Jay, panicking but in vain as people around him jostle and push to get through the train’s doors. Jay watches in horror as the train tramples it, smashing it in smithereens. After the train departs, he climbs down on the tracks to check if he can salvage it. But the phone is a goner. 

Watching Jay pump his fist into his other hand, his face lights up with joy. 

“Darn it! I’ve lost Rhea’s number!” Jay closes his eyes as his fingers pinch his glabella. His watcher’s smile gets wider.

My work here is done. Problem solved. A good day! 

He whistles as he steps out of the subway, leaving a distraught Jay with his broken phone. 

While walking back home, he puzzles over the conundrum of hacking Rhea’s laptop. 

Should I hack her email, or should I install the key-capturing software? The latter option is better and it will make her other passwords also accessible. I can control with whom she corresponds. I wonder why this didn’t strike me earlier. What a fantastic day this is turning out to be! Everything is falling into the right place.

He hums tunelessly. 

Every breath you take.

***

Chapter 2:  Pot simmers.

With the laptop sorted and just the tampering of the phone left, he takes a break for lunch. His mother stands at attention by the table. 

“Would you like some more?” she asks. Her face is drawn, her voice, fearful. 

The sour odour of her fear brings a smile to his face. “No, dearest mother. I’m done. You did well today. I’m glad… for you.” 

His voice is low as he stares at her. Her hands quake as she clears his plate. Holding it to her chest, she turns, eager to make her escape. 

“Mother dearest, today for dinner, I want to eat prawn curry,” he says, catching hold of her wrist as she is about to leave. 

“But… but the smell of seafood makes me queasy,” she stutters, eyes downward. 

He increases the pressure on her wrist, digging his thumbnail into her skin. She bites her lip, flinching.

“Mother… mother, when have your afflictions ever bothered me? Please, ensure the prawn curry is ready by 8.00. Piping hot, with rice. Understood?” 

He twists her hand, applying pressure at the joint. 

Pain streaks across her face as her breath quickens. “Yes. I’ll get it ready.” 

“Good to hear that, Ma. So nice of you to care.” 

As soon as he releases the tight vice-like grip, she scurries into her sanctuary, the kitchen. She rubs her throbbing wrist with her other hand. Under his watchful eyes. 

He moves to the sofa, thinking about Rhea, mulling over his obsession with her. His secret phone is full of candid pictures of her. Of the letters, he has written to her. Of the life, they will lead when she is his. His phone is a virtual shrine to her. An altar to her beauty. 

There’s only one glitch in his perfect love story: Rhea, as of now, is unaware of his love for her. His undying love. His love that can fill oceans. His love that can cause tsunamis if unleashed. But soon, his love will engulf her, and they will live happily after her. When she will be his. 

Very soon.   

***

Chapter 3: Averting disaster.

“Why hasn’t he called, Shruti? He promised he’d call me.” Rhea’s voice betrays her disappointment as she twirls the wire of the headphone around her finger. “Do you reckon I should call him?” 

“A resounding no! The ball is Jay’s court, and he should have called you. You are not desperate to make the first move, Rhea. There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” replied Shruti. 

Shruti’s response warms his heart. 

Now that’s how a friend should respond. Well done, Shruti!  

He increases the volume in his headset. A simple hacking of Rhea’s phone enables him to overhear all her calls. 

Their further conversation becomes vapid, and he loses interest as he listens to it with half an ear. He is congratulating himself over the way he’d handled the Jay situation. Removing the obstacle that could have waylaid his plans. 

I shouldn’t be cocky, though. Jay could try another means of contacting Rhea. I must stay vigilant and examine all the potential avenues of communication. 

He scrutinizes Rhea’s email, even checking her sent folder! She is active on social media, and he spends a copious amount of time mucking through her posts to finish his initial investigations. 

Rhea isn’t dating anyone else after the disaster with Shekhar That boy, Shekhar, was fun to fix. I enjoyed ensuring he will never contact Rhea again. Oh, how she cried over that weasel. He was not worth even a single drop of her tears. Good riddance. 

Just one blip. I’m not in favour of her wearing shorts. When we get married, I’m going to ask her nicely to stop it. She will love me so much that she will just throw those pairs–and every other one–away. 

He smiles at the thought. Just a while more. It will get settled for good. Very soon.

His mind wanders over the exciting possibilities of being with Rhea. Of holding her in his arms with her arms tightly embracing him. Her head against his chest. Her breath tickling him.

Ah, heavens. I can barely wait now!

A delicious shiver runs across his spine. 

Then his stomach rumbles. 

Ma, is the prawn curry ready? Or do I have to teach you another lesson?” he calls out to his mother. 

***

Chapter 4: In search of love.

Rhea is frustrated. It feels as if the entire universe is conspiring against her. She has gone on several first dates with none, clicking. At this rate, she will never find her soulmate. 

“I know one has to kiss many frogs before you find the prince, but I’m sick of the frog taste in my mouth, Shruti Why is nothing working out? I just cannot seem to catch a break,” she complains to Shruti. 

“What happened to your last date, Gaurav, wasn’t it?” asks Shruti as she idly dips her French fry in the ketchup. 

“God knows! He seemed as if he was the one, Shruti. So funny, so attentive.” 

Rhea lackadaisically stuffs her mouth with the fries and chews mechanically.  

Oh, I know what happened to poor Gaurav. He had a series of accidents that have left him as a vegetable. A vegetable whose goose will never be cooked. Ha. 

He chuckles, watching them eat –rather, watching Shruti eat with gusto while Rhea plays with her food. 

“When am I going to find my soulmate, Shruti?” Shruti places a hand on Rhea’s.

Well, you have already found him, dearest Rhea. You don’t know that yet. 

He grins into his coffee and bites into the Bombay masala sandwich. 

“Oh, Rhee, it’s going to happen soon! Then you will look back at these days and laugh,” Shruti consoles. “Did you catch the latest episode of our favourite show?” 

***

Chapter 5: Feelings of matricide.

“No more dates. I’m taking a break. I’ve to finish the gazillion prep books. The entrance examination is just around the corner, and while I’m more or less ready, a little more revision never harmed anyone! If I can ace them, then it’s just a breeze to get into college! I cannot mess this up, Shruti. It’s my ticket to a good university!”

“Rhea, you will crack the entrance exams. I’ve never seen someone more dedicated than you. Then you will be off while I’ll twiddle my thumbs here, working for my father.” Her tone conveys her despondency. 

“Hey, Shroo, think of it in this way! You already have a job and I’ve to struggle to get one. Get rejected by several companies, be humiliated by them, work for peanuts, and then maybe, just maybe, get a decent job that will slowly suck the life out of me. 

While you get to sit in an air-conditioned office shuffling papers, working for your dad, and eventually own the company. I’ll always remain an employee, but you will be an owner. Maybe then you can give me a job. What say?”

They laugh uproariously. “Hey, I need to go. I’ve reached the library! Bye Shruti!”  

He makes a face on hearing their conversation. Silly cows. What’s the big deal? You appear for the entrance; you clear it. But thanks to it, Rhea is staying at home and is one step closer to being my girl. And THAT makes me pleased as a punch. 

He steps into the dining room, a spring in his step. Not finding his mother waiting for him at the table, his jaws clench. 

“Where’s lunch? Mother dearest, I’m hungry. And I’m waiting… you know, I hate waiting. It’s already a minute past one pm.” 

There is no response, nor is Mother in her usual hideout–the kitchen. He stomps to her room. Flinging the door open, he finds her lying on the bed, asleep. 

“Mother dearest, where’s my food? Wake up!” He shoves her aggressively, yet his voice is calm, measured. 

“I’m feeling dizzy because of the fever that I can barely stand straight. I’ve placed your food on the table. Please, can you serve yourself today?” Her voice slurs, petering off. 

“Mother dearest, your health doesn’t bother me. My food must be served to me at the table. Now.” His voice’s timbre barely changes, but it speaks volumes. 

His mother’s attitude dissipates his bonhomie, replacing it with red-hot fury. He bends over her and rolls her over until she rises from the bed. Using the walls for support, she reaches the dining table. He sits at the table. His eyes narrow, watching her. Heat emanates from her as she places a plate next to him. Her eyes are closed, and she sways while walking. 

“What is this, Ma? This plate is cold. You know I like my plate to be warm. Is it so difficult to heat it in the microwave before serving it to me? How lousy can you be? If you’re incapable of doing these tasks, let me know, and I’ll fix the situation… and you.” 

His lips press into a thin line. A vein in his forehead pulsates, and in one swift motion, he throws the plate on the floor. Its sharp shards spread everywhere. The crash is deafening. 

“Mother, get me a fresh and warm plate, and once you’ve served me, clean up this mess. Fast. Twelve minutes have passed since one pm. You’ll pay a penalty for this mistake, mother dearest.”

His voice is menacingly quiet, but it quivers with suppressed rage. His mother retreats and resurfaces with a heated plate. She serves him, and then she cleans up the mess on the floor, ensuring no pieces remain on the floor. 

He enjoys the food. Relishing each bite. His face not showing the fury it had experienced. After the debris is disposed of, she stands behind him. Waiting for his next instruction, leaning against the wall, and praying she wouldn’t fall. 

***

Chapter 6: Drowning in her maternal feelings.

She is scared, and she has never been so petrified. She is tired of it. But she knows her options are limited. He will do the unthinkable if she doesn’t cooperate. Or obey him. He has made that very clear to her.

One wrong step from her side, and he will ensure she will regret it for the rest of her life. He will take away from her, snatch from her, her reason to live. And it is that fear that keeps the other fears at bay. It kept them under control. It was that fear that gives her the strength to listen to his taunts and bear the physical pain. 

If she can tolerate it, then everything would be okay. Everyone would be safe. 

But she is tiring, and she isn’t sure for how long her strength will pull her through. But her maternal instincts aren’t letting her quit. They propel her forward. 

To be a victim as long as she can prevent someone else from being one. 

But the one fear plagues her. Dominates each waking thought. 

For how long? How long could she take the abuse physically? What would happen if she fails? 

What will happen to her?

***

Chapter 7: Just at the corner.

Rhea maintains a radio silence in her social interactions–she has barely spoken with anyone, including Shruti. She is focused on her academics, with the examinations a fortnight away. He is pleased with her dedication and single-mindedness. He has several plans that he cannot wait to execute.

He has planned everything. On the day of her last entrance test, he is going to express his feelings to her. Obviously, after she finishes writing the test. He isn’t a monster! 

He will wait for her outside the premises. Once she is out, he will rush her into the waiting car. Where he will pour his love out to her. 

And they will be together forever. 

I won’t have to stalk her phone or laptop anymore, as I will have the real deal, Rhea, in my arms. And then, we will get married and…” 

He exercises his self-control over his emotions. 

I need to stay focused. I must ensure that I’ve made the arrangements. I’ve to book the pandit. What else would I need? Rings, yes, and some other pooja stuff. Let’s make a list. I’m so excited. So close to my dream being realized. 

He rubs his hands with glee, his face beaming.  

His love is going to change its status–it won’t remain undiscovered anymore.

It will be out in the open.

***

Chapter 8: Unlocking of secrets. 

Ma, can you oil my hair? My head is so heavy! Full of examination thoughts, I think it will explode!” 

“Okay, Rheyu, but what nonsense you spout. Let me fetch everything. Come onto the terrace. It’s well-light and warm there. We can sit there and talk while I oil your hair,” her mother replies. 

 “Ma, tell me the story of how you met papa?” Rhea asks, holding her mother’s hand. 

“How many times do you want to hear that, Rheyu,” her mother teases with a smile. 

“I love listening to it, Ma. Each time I hear it, I feel close to papa. I can barely remember his face. Or his voice, for that matter. He died when I was so young. I don’t want his memory to fade.”  

“Oh, he was so handsome, Rhea. And such a good person at heart. He used to call you his Rye-Girl. Each day after reaching home, he’d bounce you in the air. You’d squeal with joy while I used to stand there, my heart in my mouth. Our entire house, every corner, used to be full of laughter. It would echo everywhere.” Her mother’s hands massage the warm coconut oil in Rhea’s head. Pausing. “He loved us so much! I still miss him dearly.” A deep sigh escapes her. 

Rhea places her hand over her mother’s slick ones. “It must have been tough for you, Ma. To be widowed at such a young age, when your husband died from a heart attack with a toddler. How did you manage everything?” Rhea asks. “And when did you meet papa? How did he propose to you, I’ve never asked you that question, right?”

Rhea turns around to face her mother; her excitement is palpable. 

“Sit straight and let me apply the oil properly. Rhea, else it will drip onto your dress and stain it,” she admonishes. She waits till Rhea is in the proper position before continuing. “Yes, I was 23-years old and had a young child with little to no parental support. I procured a job in my husband’s office on compassionate grounds. Your father used to work in the same office. Slowly and slowly, we got close to each other, and then Vinod asked me to marry him. He took me out for tea and proposed over vada pau! By then, I had fallen in love with him.” She smiles, lost in her reverie. “I needed a life partner and a father figure for my child. I quit my job when I fell pregnant with you. Vinod was over the moon when he heard about it. You were his princess. And I, his queen. After a few short glorious years, we lost Vinod in a BEST bus accident.” 

Her mother’s fingers massaging Rhea’s head started kneading, increasing their intensity as if to match the anguish inside her heart. 

“Ouch! Ma, you are hurting me!” Rhea cries out. 

Her mother is shaken out of her stupor. “I’m so sorry, Rhea. I didn’t realise I was hurting you. I think we have finished. Let’s go inside and have some food.”

Rhea watches her mother rushing inside. Her reaction is puzzling, but Rhea shrugs it off. The upcoming tests still occupy her mind.  

***

Chapter 9: Positive thoughts. 

It’s finally the day of her last entrance exam! 

“I’m fed up! Oh, so saturated. I’m looking forward to having my social life back, Shruti. I spent the last fortnight revising and writing. Repeatedly. I’m happy it’s almost at the end. I’ve to tolerate it for just a few more hours. Then I’m free!” Rhea, cribbing to Shruti.

“Let’s plan to watch the new movie. I’ve been waiting for you, Rhea. And then we need to go to Fashion Street for shopping, and whatnots!” Shruti’s joy is contagious. 

Pau bhaji at Canon’s and kala khatta at Ali’s! But now I need to concentrate. This entrance is the toughest, and it holds the highest weightage. The others were a trial run, and this is the finale. I’ve to crack it. Then I can relax. Oh, how I need to relax! And focus. So, I’m off. Bye, and wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Rhea. I’ll see you tomorrow.”  

It’s time to leave for the test centre. Rhea has to catch a bus from the corner junction. And that has already put her off. She prefers trains, but this time around, the centre was not accessible by train. So Rhea has to board a bus–the red-devil, no less, to reach. She calls out to her mother. 

Ma, I’m leaving for the exam. Bye, see you soon!” 

Her mother rushes out from the kitchen, holding a plate full of pooja items.

“Wait, Rhea, wait. I’ve to anoint you with this red tikka. Have the curd and sugar. It will protect you and keep your stomach calm. You get acidity, na?” 

She holds out a glass bowl of sweet curd to Rhea, who takes a small spoon from it, rolling her eyes. 

“Take some more and finish it, Rhea. You know it’s good for you.”

“But Ma, I don’t like the taste. It makes me gag,” she responds with a shudder. 

“Just like your father.” She taps Rhea on her head with affection. “Call me once you finish the exam. All the best.”

***

Chapter 10: Of squashed watermelons and fading thoughts.

He is waiting for her at the bus stop. He knows of her dislike for buses. Aware she’d leave the house earlier as she is unfamiliar with the timings and routes. Already a large crowd has gathered. A thread of immense irritation runs through it as buses are plying late. Rhea reaches the stop. Her eyes, seeking her bus number on the kiosk’s hoarding. She looks relieved to see it’s still there.

Rhea is such a worrywart. She has verified the bus number’s existence gazillion times, but will still confirm its presence

He, in a convincing disguise, plans to board the bus with Rhea and wait outside the centre. He has planned to borrow a car from a friend’s garage, which is located conveniently next to the centre. He adjusts his backpack, rummaging to confirm his secret phone’s presence.

Rhea is lost in her world. Her attention alternates between revision and keeping a lookout for the bus. He pats his pocket, realising he is out of cigarettes. He has enough time to get one from the corner shop. He dashes over to the shop and asks for his favourite brand, but the shop doesn’t stock it. It sets him off. He purchases a substitute brand while dissing the guy, who is unfazed, used to this level of daily verbal violence. 

While he is busy venting, he hears the sound of the bus arriving. Turning around, he sees it picking up speed in anticipation of crossing the green signal before it turns red. He starts running; his backpack flapping against his back. 

I’ve to board the bus with Rhea. 

It appears to him that the bus won’t make it to the signal while it’s green, so he lowers his speed, giving himself time to breathe. But the bus driver doesn’t seem to be in any mood to slow down and intends to cross it. 

The driver sees a man running towards the bus, not bothering, instead he steps on the accelerator, propelling the crowded bus ahead. The bus’s front wheels have just cleared the signal when he feels a lump under the mid-section wheels.

Everyone around him starts screaming. “A man is under the bus. Stop! Stop!” 

The bus driver’s heart grows heavy as beads of cold sweat appear on his forehead. He pulls the bus to a halt amidst all the cacophony. 

He feels the bus crush his legs as he trips from the footpath, losing his balance. He had thought, mistakenly, that the bus won’t be able to cross the green signal, but it did. 

A memory bubbles up. 

Vinod, standing at the footpath edge, looking to cross. And him pushing Vinod in front of the oncoming bus. 

Now I know how he must have felt. Darn, this isn’t even Rhea’s bus! It’s the 107 number bus. She is still at the stop. I must go back to the stop before she boards the bus. Today, I’m going to propose to her. Today she becomes mine. 

It’s his last thought before the rear wheels of the red devil bus crush his head. 

***

Chapter 11: Revelation.

She rings the doorbell and waits impatiently for her mother to open the door. She is quivering with excitement. Finally, the examination is over, and she can relax. There’s so much she wants to share with her mother. She taps her foot. Tap. Tap. 

Her neighbour opened the door. 

“Oh. Hello, aunty. What a surprise to see you,” Rhea exclaims. Noticing the neighbour’s wan face. “What’s wrong? Where is Ma?” 

She rushes inside. Her mother is lying on the sofa. She runs to her. 

Ma, what happened? Are you okay? Is something wrong?”

Her mother stays silent. “What happened, aunty? Is everyone okay? Please!” Rhea asks the neighbour, who takes Rhea’s hand in her own and leads her to the sofa. 

“There has been an accident, beta. Your brother tripped and fell in front of a bus.” She pauses. “He didn’t make it, Rhea. We lost Ashutosh,” she breaks down crying. 

Rhea stares at her, her mouth agape. This was the news she wanted to share with her mother. How a man fell in front of a speeding bus! But then her bus had arrived, and there was a major hustle to board it. All the thoughts of the accident fled her mind. 

She couldn’t believe it was Ashutosh. She couldn’t imagine that she witnessed her brother die. Half-brother, but she loved him like a real sibling. 

In deep shock, Rhea stares at her mother lying supine on the sofa with her eyes closed. Her aunt fetches a glass of water for Rhea, and along with it, hands over a backpack to Rhea. 

“Ashutosh was carrying this bag, Rhea. The police returned it.” 

Rhea takes the bag. Her eyes are vacant, and she looks at it without really noticing it. A mobile chimes inside, and she opens the flap to retrieve it. It isn’t her brother’s phone. The phone stops ringing, so she leaves it. Deep in the bag, Rhea notices two diaries, red and blue. She is about to take one out when the mobile rings again, the number is unknown.

 She retrieves it and is surprised to see her photograph as a wallpaper. 

I’ve never seen this picture of mine.

Puzzled, she gazes at the ringing mobile in her hand. She wonders what to do. She looks at her mother. Her mother opens her eyes at the sound of the mobile trilling. She looks at Rhea. A mixture of fear and relief in her eyes. 

***

One year later.

The waves swallow the flowers as Rhea watches, standing at the edge. Shruti frowns, observing the serene expression on Rhea’s face. 

“How could you forgive him?” Shruti asks, perplexed.

Rhea turns to her and takes a shaky breath. “It wasn’t easy, Shruti and I struggled with it. When I went to the yoga retreat, they taught us, we need to let go of what ails us. To break free. That we forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves, the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we are. It takes practice, but we can get there. I had to get there. For my sake.”

“But he was your brother!”

“For Ashutosh, I was an object of his desire, and not his family. He didn’t consider me as his sister.” 

“And aunty didn’t stop him, either.”

Ma was trying to keep me alive. Crossing him meant losing me. She is also a victim. Ashutosh’s diaries revealed everything. His jealousy towards papa. How he pushed him in front of oncoming traffic! So much pain, so much festering anger. His fixation with me. He thought it was love. It was an illusion of love. A twisted illusion.”

“Yet you pray that his soul attains peace.”

“Forgive, and move on.” Rhea gazes at those same waves as they lick her feet, retreat. 

Forgive and forget, she whispers.

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