Swarglok, Feb 14th
Rati was at her usual spot on the balcony, watching Bhoolok below. Kamdev had heard mortals complain that their womenfolk wiled away time watching meaningless soap operas. While wives of the mortal realms entertained themselves this way, his wife entertained herself….by watching them.
It was that time of the year. Mortals called it ‘Valentines’. A day to exchange gifts and declare undying love for one another. A tad too commercialized for Kamdev’s liking, but then, all was fair in love and advertising, wasn’t it?
“Rati darling, ask for whatever you want, and it shall be yours,” Kamdev announced impulsively. One had a reputation to maintain, especially when one upheld the official title of ‘Lord of Love’.
Rati pointed down to the mortal realms. “There is a couple there. They fight all the time and now they want a divorce. But they are perfect for each other. Make them reconcile and that will be the best Valentine’s Day gift ever.”
Kamdev sighed. What was he getting into? “Fine. When I return, please make me your special Aloo Paranthas!”
Bhoolok, Feb 14th
“You got us Escape Room tickets for Valentine’s?” screeched Gowri. “Do you believe that that will save our marriage?” she asked incredulously.
“It’s a Couple’s Escape Room. I got these tickets for free. Besides, counselling isn’t covered by insurance,” Rajesh shrugged nonchalantly, much to his better half’s chagrin. She muttered ‘cheapo’ under her breath.
“Welcome to the Escape Room!” a man greeted the couple with great panache. “I’m your guide for the day. My name is Kusumashara Athanu Manmatha Dev. You may call me Dev for short. I will explain the rules as we go. Once you enter the Escape Room, the objective is to play games and unlock the partitions to escape. The games are designed to strengthen your mutual understanding.”
Gowri interrupted Dev. “How long is this for? What do we have to do?”
“Ever so impatient!” muttered Rajesh under his breath, earning a death-glare from his wife.
“The game is approximately two hours long! The grand prize is a staycation at the Taj. If you choose to exit at any point, you forfeit!”
“Two hours seems to be a long time,” exclaimed Rajesh. “Just like our marriage!” snapped Gowri.
“Listen Gowri. I’m trying. I can’t help it if there is only one person keen to save our marriage!” complained an exasperated Rajesh.
“Well, you should have tried harder earlier! You know what? I will play along. If we win this challenge, I will give it another shot. If we lose, sign the divorce papers and let me go!” Gowri spat out vehemently.
“Fine!” snapped back Rajesh.
Dev looked up to the heavens. Rati was watching from the balcony. She gave him an encouraging thumbs-up. The things she made him do! The next time, he would just gift her something innocuous like flowers, or chocolates. Issuing a blank cheque had clearly been a mistake.
Kamdev did have an option to shoot his famed arrow at the couple, to make them fall madly in love, instantly. He chose not to. Instant solutions bore long-term side-effects. His arrows could incite attraction and infatuation. But true love? That had to be built on the foundation of mutual trust, respect, and communication. And clearly, the couple in front of him were lacking in all three departments.
“Welcome to the first task! This room is divided by make-shift partitions. Each partition is secured with a lock. You need to complete a task to obtain the key to enter the next partition and so on and so forth. When you complete all the tasks and reach the main exit, you win the challenge,” explained Dev.
“First challenge coming up. Here is a locked suitcase that houses the first key. The combination is a date special to both of you.”
Rajesh experimented with a number. The lock remained stubborn. Gowri furiously punched in other combinations. Like birthdays and their wedding date. The suitcase refused to open.
“Remember this is a Couple’s Escape room. Think of the dates that are important to you as a couple,” reminded Dev.
“Do you remember the first day I met you? You were dressed in blue. You had left your hair open, and you wore a butterfly-pendant necklace. I can’t remember the date, but I remember you,” said Rajesh dreamily.
Gowri’s voice softened. “It was 24th April 2010.” She entered 24042010 and the suitcase snapped open, revealing a shiny key inside. Rajesh, remember what happened afterward? You took me out for ice-cream and ended up colliding with a waiter and spilling juice all over your new jacket.”
“I was so smitten by you; I couldn’t take my eyes off you. Mummy was so mad that I ruined the jacket.”
Gowri was rudely awakened from her reverie. Mummyji was the villain of the piece. As always. Almost immediately, her mask was back on. She unlocked the partition wordlessly and entered the next section of the room.
Dev switched on the lights. The couple let out a collective gasp. The walls of the room were dotted with their framed pictures. “How did you get our pictures?” Rajesh demanded.
“You signed an agreement providing us free access to your social media. We took these pictures from your Facebook and Instagram. It was in the terms and conditions. That’s also how we obtained the date you met!” replied Dev smoothly.
“Who reads the fine print?” sulked Rajesh. He made up his mind to change his privacy settings the minute they got out of there. Gowri was oblivious to this exchange. She walked along admiring the pictures and caressing them softly. The first photo was from when they had begun dating at college. The couple looked incandescently radiant.
“Who are these people?” Rajesh wondered aloud. Neither of them looked remotely happy anymore. What had time done to them?
“Do you remember you were so nervous while proposing to me? You got down on one knee and said, ‘Will you be my awfully wedded wife?’” giggled Gowri. Rajesh smiled. Her eyes were shining, after a long time. He reached out to touch her face. She looked startled. She muttered an excuse and brushed his hand away.
“You need to select the first letter of each of these venues in the photos and rearrange to form a word,” explained Dev.
“Let me see. The first photo is at Shaw Mall. The second was at a Party. Then there is one of our Engagement. Us playing Charades. This one is at the Indoor stadium. Then our wedding at Aishwarya Mandap. And this one at Leroy street. If I arrange the first letters of the venues, I get ‘SPECIAL’.” Gowri giggled like an excited child.
“Well done! Here is your key!” Dev handed them the key to the next partition.
“Wait. You dedicated a poem to me once. It was titled ‘Special’,” exclaimed Rajesh. “Yes, I did,” admitted Gowri, blushing. “And now you don’t even want to talk to me,” he said accusingly. Dev did a facepalm. The moment was ruined.
“Whose fault is that? Did you communicate? Did you stand up for me? Did you support my career?” Gowri began her angry tirade.
“Well, you aborted our child. We are even now,” screamed back Rajesh. Gowri paled. She recoiled as though she had been slapped. She brushed away an angry tear and walked up to Dev. “I can’t do this. Can I leave now?”
Dev spoke in gentle tones. “You guys need to take a moment. You have come this far. Do you want to throw this all away? Who knows what awaits you at the destination?”
Gowri agreed reluctantly. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
Rajesh was ashamed of his outburst. “I’m sorry I lost my temper and made you cry. Let’s go to the next challenge.”
Dev sighed loudly with relief, startling the couple. Rajesh muttered to Gowri. “Poor guy. His Rozi Roti depends on it.” “Actually, my Aloo Parantha,” chuckled Dev.
The couple maintained their uneasy truce as they crossed through the next partition into the third task. There were asked to sit at the opposite ends of a table. They were each handed a questionnaire on their and their partner’s preferences and asked to complete it. For the next few minutes, the only sound that could be heard was the scratching of pen against paper. They handed in their completed forms to Dev.
Dev started to read out the questions and answers. “The first question was, ‘what is your partner’s favourite colour?’ Gowri, you wrote blue for Rajesh. Correct!” He then read aloud Rajesh’s answers. “Rajesh wrote lilac for you. You claim it’s yellow.”
Rajesh scowled. “From when did your favourite colour become yellow? Wasn’t it always lilac?”
“People change,” Gowri insisted.
“Nonsense! You just did this on purpose to lose,” accused Rajesh.
“Well, if you want to know, I can’t bear to look at lilac anymore. In my cupboard, there is a box of lilac mittens and onesies. The ones that I bought for the baby. And now, the sight of lilac makes me sad.”
“You wanted the baby?” Rajesh looked shocked.
“When I tested positive, I didn’t process it too well. My career and my promotion were at stake. You didn’t give me any time. You just started celebrating. I felt cornered.”
“I slowly warmed up. The day I thought I was ready, I went shopping. I was going to tell you. And then the bleeding started. I sat sobbing on the bathroom floor with the lilac onesie clutched to my chest.” Gowri burst into tears.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” demanded Rajesh, his knuckles pressed against the table all white.
“You and your mother accused me of engineering an abortion. That hurt. I said I was OK. I pretended that I didn’t care. But I wasn’t OK!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” confessed Rajesh. More silence. His heart ached. He reached out to comfort her. This time, she didn’t brush him away.
Dev cleared his throat. “Let’s go to the next question. ‘Who is your partner’s best friend?’ Gowri you wrote that Arpita is Rajesh’s best friend.”
“You are wrong,” said Rajesh sadly. “You are my best friend Gowri. Or at least were. Over the past year, you bottled up. You would not talk to me. I was lonely and bitter. Yes, I have spent time talking to Arpita. She provided emotional support. But I have never seen her more than a friend. Neither has she.”
“I thought you both were having an affair!” burst out Gowri.
“I would never cheat on you.” Rajesh interlaced his fingers with Gowri’s. “If only we hadn’t let this puddle become an ocean. I’m sorry I messed up.” Suddenly, the room began to tremble. The forms on the table started flying everywhere. A vase crashed to the ground.
“Earthquake!” screamed Dev.
“How do we get out?” yelled the couple in unison.
“We can’t. The only way out is to complete the last task-the obstacle course,” disclosed Dev in panic.
“Are you crazy? I will sue this place for flouting safety!” yelled Gowri.
“Only if we get out of here in one piece,” reminded Rajesh. On an impulse, he grabbed Gowri’s hands. “In case we don’t make it out, I want you to know that I love you. I’m sorry for hurting you. If I have a life left to live, I want it to be with you.”
The trembling stopped. Dev grinned from ear to ear. “That was only a simulation. Congratulations, you have qualified for the final obstacle course.” The couple looked at him indignantly.
Rajesh was upset. More than the earthquake, Gowri not returning his declaration of love, bothered him. They unlocked the last partition. The ultimate section of the room housed an obstacle course comprising of a set of monkey bars.
“Gowri, you need to climb over, while Rajesh will walk under.”
“I’m afraid of heights. Let him climb instead.”
“Not allowed. Only you. This is a trust thing! He will catch you if you fall,” insisted Dev.
Gowri shuddered. Heights were not her thing. Rajesh hoisted her up. She began the reluctant climb on the bars. Her hands trembled. She made it halfway. She just couldn’t look down.
Rajesh kept calling out. “Great job Gowri. I’m here for you. Go on.” Dev counted the seconds. Going by his track record, this was Rajesh’s cue to mess up. And there it was.
“You didn’t say ‘I love you’ back.”
“Really Rajesh? You want to do this now?”
“In the past two hours, we have talked to each other more than we have for the whole year. So yes, I want to know.”
Gowri was about to retort back when she lost her balance and toppled over. Rajesh was quick to catch her and the couple collapsed onto the floor in an entangled heap.
A loud clanging sound was heard, and a red light flashed. “I’m sorry, you have lost the challenge,” Dev regretfully informed them.
Rajesh’s brow creased. This was the end. They had lost the challenge. But hadn’t they lost, the day they stopped talking to one another? He squatted on the floor and kept his head between his hands.
The exit door swung wide open. Gowri looked at the two options in front of her. Five steps to her husband or five steps to the door. Five steps in each case, but two different outcomes, two different futures. She took a deep breath.
“Rajesh, we both made mistakes. It’s not going to be easy. But this Escape Room, however nonsensical it might have been, reminded me of why I fell in love with you in the first place. I want both of us to do better.”
“Over the years I lost my best friend. I need him back. I will give our marriage another chance. Rajesh, will you remain as my awfully wedded husband?”
Rajesh looked on, stunned. Dev cleared his throat and mumbled, “You might want to act before the lady changes her mind.” Rajesh jumped onto his feet and embraced Gowri. Dev winked towards the heavens.
“Congratulations. You didn’t win the Taj, but you found each other. Now, here are some feedback forms,” said Dev.
“Goodbye!” The two had already made their way out of the door.
Bhoolok, one year later
“Gowri, we have circled this place for over an hour now. Even Google maps has given up. Perhaps they shut down because of COVID?” said Rajesh apprehensively.
“Poor Dev, he was such a nice guy. I really wanted to thank him for saving our marriage. Anyways, can we grab a bite on the way back?”
“We just ate!”
“Hey mister, I’m six months pregnant! I’m craving a burger.”
“As my queen commands!” grinned Rajesh.
“Husband, there is another couple that may need your intervention! Do you think you can work your magic again? Please, pretty please?” Rati called out to Kamdev.
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