Monday, 24 October 2016
A Chance Encounter
“Excuse me!” I heard a female voice calling out to me, as I turned my steps away from the reception desk in the plush office of Star TV in Tardeo, Mumbai. I had arrived here only a few minutes ago to enquire the whereabouts of my friend Kaushik, but the lady at the reception couldn’t offer any information except that she could set up an appointment for me with an HR executive of the company where possibly I could gain some clue. Having sought the appointment for the next day, I had just turned to leave when I heard this female voice call out after me.
I turned my head and saw a young lady walking up towards me with a hint of a smile on her face. From the Identity Card she wore around her neck, it was evident that she was an employee of this organization. As I looked at her, I had an inkling that she looked familiar but was unable to recall if I had met her before! I began to wonder what it would have been that she wished to speak to me.
The lady walked right up to me and said, “Sorry, I was passing by the reception while you were speaking to my colleague there and I overheard you. You were enquiring about Kaushik, right?”
“That’s very right, do you know him?” I impatiently enquired, seeing a ray of hope in finding some information about my long lost friend.
“Well, I am Manisha, and I do know Kaushik...in fact, quite well!” she said with a faint smile.
Yes, that was it! The name! And it all connected back immediately. Manisha… I had heard the name from Kaushik himself, so many times. And not just the name, Kaushik had shown me a few photographs of her too, and that’s how she looked so familiar to me now!
“You are Manisha! I do know you… I mean I have heard about you from Kaushik and seen your photos too!” I quickly said, “You guys are …” I questioningly looked at her with a smile, but she abruptly cut me off there!
“I know what you are thinking; we were together sometime, but no longer! But I am surprised that Kaushik has spoken about me to someone”, she said, the smile vanishing rapidly from her face.
“Look, whatever it is, you know my friend Kaushik, and I need to know more from you. We have to talk”, I hurriedly said, in an attempt to impatiently get more information.
“Your ‘friend’? Are you a friend of Kaushik?” she asked with a quizzical look on her fair face. Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t still introduced myself being too anxious to get some clue on Kaushik!
“Oh my God! I have heard about you so much from him! What a way to finally meet you!” the smile was back on Manisha’s face after I had introduced myself to her.
“Yes, we need to talk about this. I also need to know answers to a lot of questions, but it can’t be here! Let’s meet today evening at 8 at “Love & Latte” in Bandra… do you know the place?” Manisha glanced at her watch and firmly said.
There again! “Love & Latte”! I had heard about this place also from Kaushik few times, though never had visited there myself. Everything seemed to suddenly connect so very mysteriously, I started feeling goose bumps, standing there right away! I simply nodded at Manisha, my eyes fixed on her face trying to fathom her expressions and connect it to what she had said just then!
“Well, see you then in the evening, I got to go now.” Manisha waved at me and turned back. With a swing of the glass door she disappeared inside the busy office of Star TV. As I entered the elevator, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken her phone number. Well, I was almost sure that she would come to ‘Love & Latte’ that evening, but just in case. I stepped out from the plush building onto the crowded streets of Mumbai with a myriad of thoughts crossing my mind!
What answers were Manisha looking for? Was there a further mystery to Kaushik now? Manisha’s eyes had lit up when she had heard my name and immediately had connected my long-standing friendship with Kaushik. After years of search, I had finally found some clue to lead me to Kaushik, but deep down I felt something uncomfortable about Manisha; one would call it a gut-feel but I wasn’t able to place a finger on it!
Back in my hotel room, I couldn’t rest my mind one bit! The hours seem to drag and the clock hands refused to move faster! After my chance meeting with Manisha in the morning at the Star TV office, I was together excited and anxious! I knew I was on a hot lead now and was growing more desperate to find Kaushik! Though the similarities felt uncanny, first the Star TV office, then Manisha and finally ‘Love & Latte’… it was so true and so well connected to Kaushik that I didn’t have a choice but to tag them together in a clue to trace out my long lost friend!
“Something is brewing brother, and it’s more aromatic than this fantastic coffee! In fact it whiffs of a romantic aroma, so don’t even hold it back!” I teased Kaushik, as he shyly turned his eyes away and put down his coffee cup! We were sitting in the comfortable lounge of “Dhuan Coffee & Grill” in Andheri, indulging in our after-office catching up, when Kaushik just let slip this brief information on Manisha!
“Just a colleague”, Kaushik had started off describing her, but drawn into the exciting conversation that ensued, I could well gauge that my friend had already grown a strong liking for this ‘beautiful colleague’ of his at the Star TV office!
The introvert that he was forever, I knew Kaushik to always keep his emotions to himself and it was upon us, his friends, to always draw it out from him! And I for one knew how much this sensitive friend of mine had felt hurt after the ‘Ankita-episode’ during our college leaving days. Though most of our close circle of friends refrained from mentioning it with Kaushik or discussing it otherwise, we felt for him and waited for him to get over with it. And after these many long years, I was indeed happy to see Kaushik shyly smile at the mention of another girl and it took me no time to gather that he had probably found his ‘special one’ finally!
As I urged him on, Kaushik opened up his story gradually, “We work in the same team here. I am in the camera team while she is with the scripting team, and we do a lot of stories together. And that is probably how we found interest in each other!”
“Well, to start with we used to be working together on projects and that’s how got to spend a lot of time together in the office and outdoor locations, but lately we often catch up post our work time also. You know ‘Love & Latte’, the coffee-shop at the corner of Turner Road? That’s our favourite haunt! It’s a lovely place, where you can sit and spend quiet moments over lovely coffee… I will take you there sometime!” Kaushik excitedly said.
“I will come with you only if you introduce me to Manisha!” I laughed out, “then you guys can enjoy your ‘quiet moments’ and I will sample out the coffee there!”
“Oh yes…you and your love for coffee! As always...” Kaushik took a dig at my weakness for the aromatic coffee flavours and we two had a hearty laugh together!
“But seriously Kaushik, it’s been ten years now that you have kept yourself away after Ankita left, and that’s not fair”, I don’t know why I suddenly brought up Ankita in this happy moment and I could see my friend flinch. But I continued, “You should think of settling down now and since you have found someone…”
Kaushik suddenly looked up at me, and cutting me off, said, “But there are issues which we need to sort out…only then can we…” his voice trailed off and his eyes shifted from mine.
“Its fine my friend,” I leaned forward and put my hand on his shoulder, across the table, “things will sort out”. Kaushik looked up and smiled. “Am sure they will whatever they may be!” I reiterated.
After this hearty meeting with Kaushik in 2006 during one of my visits to Mumbai and the regular routine of meeting up with him, once again did we discuss Manisha, which was about a year later. And it was then that Kaushik had showed me her photographs. They were taken during one of their outdoor projects in Lonavala and Manisha looked truly elegant in the pictures in her semi-casual outfit! I could not help but appreciate my friend’s choice and luck and wished him well! Kaushik had not divulged much regarding any ‘issues’ that may still have been there about their relationship, and seeing my friend quite happy with his life, neither had I probed much!
I reached the crossing of Turner Road and Waterfield Road in Bandra West, and checked my watch as I stepped out of the cab. Still ten minutes to go before it struck 8pm! I looked up at the coffee shop across the road… “Love & Latte” the dark brown signage boldly spelled out in artistic cursives. I walked up the steps of the café and took a place at a quiet corner, where we could talk in peace. As I waited for Manisha, my heart throbbed with anxiety! The flurry of questions in my mind was making me impatient.
Why did she have to choose this very café to meet me? What led to the break up between the two of them? What answers were Manisha seeking for so many years? And most important of all: What has become of my dear friend?
But the answer to all my questions presently lay with Manisha! And I just hoped that she would come! The menu card blurred in front of my eyes as I sank deeper in such thoughts, but suddenly I was shaken by a light tap on my shoulder.
I looked up to see her standing close to me, with a faint smile on her face. I stole a quick glance at my wrist watch… it read 8pm sharp! Yes, Manisha had come!
Coffee and clues
Manisha looked demure in a simple yet elegant suit, much in contrast from her formal attire of the morning. She stood tantalizingly close and the fragrance of her perfume hit me as I tried to rise from my chair to greet her. She stepped back for a moment with a smile as I mumbled, “Hi... thanks for coming!”
She nodded in acknowledgement and said, “Not here… come with me” and gestured to me to follow her. Soon we were seated at a table neatly tucked away beside a pillar towards another corner of the coffee shop. The pillar beside us was artistically decorated with carvings from what seemed ‘medieval art’, but gave us better privacy and shade from the anyway dim lights of the lounge of ‘Love & Latte’.
As if to echo my thoughts, Manisha said, “this was where Kaushik and I mostly used to sit. You can say it was his favourite table in this coffee shop”. The table was open on its three sides and the fourth one was lined to the pillar width, and I could sense that if a couple wished to sit closer to each other they would just need to turn one of the chairs at right-angles! ‘A very thoughtful and smart usage of the pillar and the layout’, I admired mentally. But sitting across the table with Manisha, I felt a tinge uncomfortable and almost wanted to ask her, ‘we could have met just anywhere, why here?’, but just held back.
“We could have met just anywhere”, Manisha said, startling me! “But I thought that this would be the best place”. I questioningly looked at her, thinking how she was able to read my thoughts in sequence.
She smiled and said, “This place is so much full of him, and so much of our memories are connected to this place, this table and even the coffee here!” I looked straight into her eyes, but they were lost, as if searching for someone else far away!
“Good evening, could I take your order please?” the gentleman in the coffee lounge approached us with a pleasant smile! I had the menu card in front of me, but my mind trailing somewhere else, hadn’t been able to scan through it properly to make a choice. I picked it up once again, but Manisha lightly forced it down on the table with a nod at me.
“Do you still make the ‘Sinful Glass’ here? And those chicken puffs?” Manisha quickly asked the waiter. I guessed that this also must be some of ‘their’ favourites from this coffee shop, so I kept quiet and let her proceed. It was evident by then that ‘Love & Latte’ today was making her reminiscence her days with Kaushik and I silently let her indulge in the emotion.
Having placed our order for cold coffee and some short-eats, Manisha excitedly turned to me, “You must try the ‘Sinful Glass’ here. It’s one of their signature cold-coffees and truly sinful to taste!”
“One of Kaushik’s favourites too, I guess?” I asked her smilingly.
“Yes, and mine too!” she smiled. “You too love flavours and variety of coffee isn’t it? Kaushik did mention about it few times. He had wanted to bring you here sometime, but I guess…”
“Yes I know, but it was me who couldn’t find out the time. Had I come earlier, I would have met you then!” I smiled back at her.
Manisha suddenly grew serious and put down her glass of water on the table. Turning to me she said in an earnest voice, “I don’t know where Kaushik is…but I need to find him!”
Looking into her eyes I sensed a world of emotions, but I was dumbfounded at her answer!
“What do you mean Manisha? Tell me everything about it. I also have been searching Kaushik for years now.” I grew impatient once again.
“Yes sure. I will tell you all that I know”, Manisha said very slowly, her eyes glued to her lap where her folded hands lay.
As we sat in that dim corner of the posh coffee lounge of ‘Love & Latte’, Manisha started to speak her heart out about herself and Kaushik.
“The first time I met Kaushik was during an outdoor project in Lonavala. It was 2006 and I was just a year old in Star TV then. I guess Kaushik was already working with the Camera Team in Star TV for a couple of years by then. That was the first project where I was deputed from the scripting team to work along with Kaushik’s team.”
As Manisha spoke on, I started making mental notes of the sequences. I broadly knew the phases when Kaushik had come from Delhi to Mumbai, having completed his professional course in ‘Electronic Media Production and Management’ from the famous ‘Jamia Millia Islamia University’; the media companies that he had worked with and finally when he had joined the Star TV group.
Working with Star TV was a dream for Kaushik and I can’t forget how happy Kaushik was when he joined them in 2004 in their Camera Team. The private celebration that Kaushik and I had had with our all-time favourite ‘biriyani’ at the ‘Tigers’ Restaurant in Bandra, still echoed in my mind!
“I was staying in a Working Womens’ Hostel in Andheri and Kaushik was put up in a PG accommodation in Bandra.” Manisha put down her cold coffee glass on the table after taking a large sip and continued. “Project after project we continued working together. Studio work, editing, scripting, along with occasional outdoor shootings, it was indeed a very exciting time for me. I was learning a lot in my work at the same time enjoying it too. Working with Kaushik was so easy and fun; I never realized how effortlessly I was able to blend different aspects and requirements of the media sequences of the shoots. He used to guide me, explain to me the concepts and techniques of our work and make me feel completely at ease. I just didn’t know how time flew when I was with him!”
Manisha’s eyes radiated in the memory of her happy days with Kaushik and I began to feel connected too. I remembered how my friend Kaushik had spoken of his time spent with her, when we had met at “Dhuan” around the same time. What similar feelings they had shared!
As I took a bite into the chicken puff which was already going cold, Manisha continued, “It was within a few months that we began to feel really connected to each other. You know how it feels! I was skeptical initially and Kaushik too was hesitant, but I guess we needed each other so very badly. It was our long walks along the Bandra-Bandstand and Worli-Seaface that probably brought us closer. And of course ‘Love & Latte’! Kaushik just loved its name from the first time he found it out. And this became our quiet destination whenever we weren’t out for those long walks.”
My mind suddenly went back to a picture seen years ago during our initial days of college, when Bijoy and I had once stealthily followed Kaushik on the Jadavpur-Golpark stretch in Calcutta, only to find him walking hand-in-hand with Ankita! ‘I guess my friend always found happiness and love in long-walks’, I smiled to myself!
“What are you thinking?” asked Manisha as my eyes met hers suddenly.
“Nothing” I smiled at her, “please continue”. I chose to keep this little connection of my thought to myself.
“We never really had any fairy-tale romantic dates. I guess Kaushik didn’t quite fancy those, but he was romantic and expressive in his own unique ways. We never quite felt when our relationship changed its colour from a liking for each other to a strong longing to be with each other”. Manisha lowered her eyes and her fingers toyed with the rim of her glass as she spoke in a very slow and soft tone now.
“You know, I wasn’t sure of myself and about a relationship initially, but it was Kaushik who instilled the faith back in me. I had been through rough patches in life…broken dreams….and....a….broken marriage too….. It was only for Kaushik that I ……………………….”
Manisha’s voice choked and I could see her lips quivering as she clenched her glass on her lap tightly. Surprised that I was with this sudden revelation, I remained totally quiet and tried to fathom the intensity of their relationship.
A long pause ensued and I could see Manisha trying her best to fight back the unseen tears. I continued to remain quiet and let the time for Manisha to regain her composure. Suddenly, she looked up and directly into my eyes. I saw her large expressive eyes fighting to hold her tears yet reach out in earnest as if to say, “Please, bring my Kaushik back!”
I nodded my head lightly as if to give her some assurance and comfort for the moment, and waited for her to continue again.
“Kaushik never had an issue with that. In fact during the time when you could say we were getting serious about our relationship, I was in the phase of the final formalities of my divorce. The paper-work and court matters were almost done and it was only a matter of time that it would be over. But that period of more than a year had been extremely stressful for me. I had almost lost my own self, and had it not been for Kaushik……” Manisha slowly continued her story but her voice trailed off once again.
“Manisha..?”… She looked up at me as I called out to her in a soft voice. “Are you ok to continue, or should we leave it for another time. I really do not want to stress you with this.” I tried sounding as polite as possible.
Manisha quickly composed herself and seemed to just wave off my concern and continued, “I’m just fine… Life was actually cruising along well though we were cautious to keep our relationship away from the eyes of our colleagues. You know the unnecessary gossip and talk in the office; both of us just didn’t want that.”
I nodded, my mind again drifting to all the stories and gossips of our college days, mostly about the ‘first couple’ of our class, ‘Kaushik and Ankita’! While Kaushik would get so diffident at those stories, Ankita would handle them with sheer indifference and élan!
“It was from early last year that I started sensing something amiss about Kaushik. It seemed that he was stressed almost all the time. Albeit work had increased, he was taking care of more projects by then. His travel had also increased, and our time spent together grew lesser and lesser. I used to miss him and long to be with him, but even when he was in Mumbai, he seemed always pre-occupied”.
I made a mental note of things as Manisha kept speaking. It was in November 2007 that I had met Kaushik in Mumbai last. He had just been back from an outdoor shoot project at Pune and had met me the very next day. I also remembered that he had looked stressed and tired that evening. Upon my asking, he had brushed it off saying, “You know how stressful continuous work and travel can be. And we work to strict deadlines here! It’s nothing, just some rest over the weekend and I’ll be fine!”
And surprisingly from early 2008 he had started avoiding my calls or meeting me during my visits to Mumbai. I had found it weird initially but later had thought that maybe he was truly busy with his work and travel. Now what I heard from Manisha seemed to link up somewhere. Yes, the facts corroborated well indeed!
I just heard Manisha mention ‘Pune’ once again! “What did you say just now?” I asked her quickly.
“It all started after Kaushik came back from a visit to Pune, towards the end of 2007.” Manisha repeated.
“He was shooting a documentary film based in Pune location, and that was his first ‘outdoor’ on that project. He seemed so disturbed that it was showing up. I had enquired few times, but he always maintained that it was work-related and there was nothing to worry.”
As Manisha finished, I shared with her about my meeting with Kaushik in November 2007, the very next day after he had returned from Pune.
“There must be a connection somewhere on this, and we must find that out”, Manisha sat up straight. The firm resolve seemed to flare up once again in her, as she looked at me for an affirmative. I nodded in response.
“And then there was this sudden friend of his with whom he had started interacting. It was also around the same time.” Manisha seemed to remember some more information suddenly!
“Which friend…?” I quickly asked, being almost certain that the ‘friend’ would be from our college and I would surely know.
“Devapriyo..!” Manisha said out the name.
“Devapriyo..?” The name didn’t sound any familiar and neither was there any such person in our college who could be called Kaushik’s friend!
“Are you sure? … Is it ‘Debashish’ by any chance..? May be you are confusing the name?” I quickly asked Manisha, almost certain that it had to be ‘Debashish’, none other than our very own ‘Debu-bhai’! May be Kaushik had lost contact with him for a long time and then reconnected suddenly!
I recalled that during these years, we four fast-friends had indeed got scattered far and wide and had even lost the ‘virtual connect’ with each other! Life is surprising at times!
“You know, we have a very close friend from our college days called ‘Debashish’, … in fact we four were very close to each other, very fast-friends you can say! I am sure it is this ‘Debashish’ only, with whom Kaushik would have connected.” I hurriedly said to Manisha, trying to clarify any confusion that she may have on the name.
“No. It is ‘Devapriyo’, and I am dead sure about the name. Kaushik used to say that he was a childhood friend, from his school. This guy is a doctor now and stays in Zurich. He had come down to India and somehow connected with Kaushik”.
Manisha’s statement was very clear and it cut out any confusion regarding the name and identity of Kaushik’s mysterious ‘friend’ in this context. I was suddenly silent.
Manisha continued, “And anyways I know of your circle of ‘fast-friends’ from your college. Kaushik had mentioned to me about them: You, …. Bijoy, …. Debashish, …. Shefali …., and …………Ankita !”
My jaw dropped at the mention of the last name, and my heart skipped a beat at the manner in which Manisha said it! ‘’and …….Ankita!” came after a short pause and had a queer punch in the tone. I looked up and saw Manisha’s eyes narrow and her jaws steel for a split second!
Removing the empty tall glass, which hitherto had contained the ‘Sinful glass’, to the other side of the table, I cleared my throat and asked. “So what’s about this ‘Devapriyo’ guy…?”
“Nothing really, except for a few matters which did not tie in well at that time. First, despite all his busy work schedules, Kaushik flew down to Calcutta for a weekend to meet this friend of his. Second, thereafter suddenly his calls, text messages and emails with this same friend suddenly increased. Third and the most disturbing of all, I still have a strong gut-feel that Kaushik was secretive about his sudden interactions with his long-lost friend. I mean, I never got any convincing replies from Kaushik about him, while it was quite evident that there was some material discussion going on between them!” Manisha said it all in one breath!
I could sense that the ‘firm and resolved’ Manisha of the morning was back and the demure lady who met me today evening has slipped back somewhere within. Even sitting there, I could not help marvel at the awe-inspiring personality of this beautiful and strong-willed girl-friend (or may be ex-girl friend!) of my dear friend!
“That is quite odd really”, I spontaneously said. “Even I have never heard about such a friend of Kaushik. Surprising that he never mentioned about ‘Devapriyo’ to us during our college years and even after. I am getting quite curious to find out more about him”.
“Yes we must. We need to know what transpired between the two of them and what did it lead to?” Manisha said in a strong yet earnest voice.
“’We’! ….. What is she thinking?”
Once again as if to read my thoughts, Manisha leaned forward across the table and asked almost in a whisper, “Will you help me in searching out Kaushik? I guess I can’t do it alone….”
I sat speechless, and looking at Manisha slowly nodded my head as if in a spontaneous affirmative. A myriad of thoughts crisscrossed my mind in an attempt to confuse me!
Before I could realize, Manisha had stood up. She glanced at her watch and quickly said, “I have to go now. It’s late already and if I don’t leave now I will not reach my hostel before closing time. Thank you for your assurance… I hope you will not fail me!” She looked at me for a brief second and stepped up to leave.
“Hey Manisha, just a second…” I stood up and called after her quickly. She turned her head and removing the strands of hair from her face raised her eyebrows at me.
“Could I have your contact number please, … you know, just in case…if I need to speak to you…” I said a bit hesitantly.
Manisha smiled faintly, “you know where to find me…..see you soon!” With that and a wave of her hand she was out of the coffee lounge in a flash.
Standing there, I could hear the brisk taps of her heeled footwear on the wooden stairs of ‘Love & Latte’ as she went down and disappeared into the Mumbai night traffic!
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