Akash stared at the laptop screen, blinking his eyes every once a while. The paragraph didn't quite read right. He pulled back and stretched, bringing his hands over his head, yawning. This was getting nowhere. He looked around. The patio was empty, save a couple of foreign tourists hunched over their coffee cups and cigarettes slowly smouldering on the ash-trays. He stared at the door of the patio, watching the stewards walk in and out, going about their daily chores. It was off-season, or so he was told, but he wondered how these guys managed to have the same look of urgency on their faces, day in and day out. Oh well...
He closed the machine shut and got up to leave. He was about to stuff it into his sling-bag when she walked in, or rather, out into the patio and took the table on the far side near the railing. It was a beautiful sight, the scenery behind her, that is. He sat down, not knowing why he did that. This was a rather unusual face herearounds. You didn't find pretty young girls walk into a country side resort at this time of the day, alone. And she looked familiar too. She was wearing an off-white shirt and jeans, hair let loose, falling quite gracefully on her shoulders. She pulled out a book from her bag and continued to read. That's funny. He hadn't seen her before in the vicinity. Must've checked in just now. He sat down slowly, opened his laptop again, booted it, and stared at his draft, and stole a quick glance toward the girl again. "Oh, come on Akash, you didn't drive all the way here for a romantic encounter," he chided himself, shaking his head and smiling.
She threw him off-guard by suddenly staring back at him. Like a deer caught in the head lights his face flushed as he hurriedly tore his eyes off her. Oh boy. Did he see her smiling from the corners, or was it just his imagination? He didn't want to embarrass himself again. His fingers ran on the keyboard and he didn't look up for a while.
She was gone by the time he looked up again. He was both relieved and mildly surprised. What, she just sat there on the patio to read a couple of pages and leave? He quickly closed shop and rose. As he walked past the lobby to the corridor on the left that led to his room, he furtively threw glances around to catch a glimpse of her, but she wasn't there.
It was close to 8 pm when Akash wiped the lager foam off his lips and placed the mug on the bar counter. His tummy was growling and he headed to the buffet. There were three others ahead of him, and the fourth one in front of them. Her.
A while later, food plate in hand, he walked to the dining area. Almost all seats were taken. His eyes roved around and he found one empty seat, opposite her. Oh well, if it was meant to be.
"Uh, excuse me, is this seat taken?" He asked. She shook her head.
He smiled courteously and sat. She just flashed a quick 'doesn't-look-polite-if-I-don't-smile' smile and went back to her food.
They ate in silence for a few moments.
"You know, I'm curious. Is this place normally this crowded?" Akash said, hoping to start a conversation.
"Well, does it matter?” She said. “Why would you want to know that? Next thing, you’ll want to know about me. And then we’ll go our ways. How would all this matter at all?"
She continued chewing and looked straight at him, making him squirm.
Well, he started this conversation, and if it had to end, he'd better end it as gracefully as possible. He smiled, nodding his head.
"Know what? You’re right.” He then muttered an excuse and left. He didn’t bother to see her reaction. In her words, would it really matter?
He found a spot on the far side, and sat down. He watched the large LCD screen up on the wall, some news report showing in it. He thought about the girl. Was he rude? Maybe he was, but so was she. That evened it all out. He shrugged and went back to eat.
She rose after five minutes. Probably for a refill of her plate. Instead, she walked to him.
"Look, Mr. Akash, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. If I..."
He looked around and then at her. "It's ok, really" his voice a level above whisper.
"No, I really am sorry. I shouldn't have spoken like that."
He stopped eating and looked at her. She smiled apologetically. This whole thing had started on a wrong note, and he wasn't very comfortable speaking at that moment. But then she sounded genuinely sorry, and he couldn't help smiling.
"No problem. Please sit…umm"
"Deeksha. Hi." He smiled, wiping his lips with a paper napkin. That broke the ice and she relaxed.
He was done in a few moments.
"Dessert?" He pointed to the dessert counter.
They took the same table he'd been dining on.
"So, Mr. Akash, what..." She started, but he interrupted.
"Oh, ok," She laughed.
"Akash, were you really curious about the crowd here?"
He dug a spoonful and slipped it into his mouth, shaking his head.
"Not really. I just was bored to death seeing old, tired foreigners. So, a person such as you was a welcome break. So..just some small talk, maybe, “ he said taking another bite.
"That was honest." She took a mouthful from her bowl, smiling at him. Her eyes were searching, he wasn't sure what.
"At least, if you meant that to be a pick-up line, I'd say it was the most honest line I've ever heard." She laughed again.
"Umm, no, I don't think that was meant to be one."
"Really, now?" The smile was with a twinkling eye now.
"Uh, huh," He replied, wiping off the last scoop.
"That was fast," she said, looking at his bowl. "Seconds?"
"No, thanks..I'm done."
They sat on the patio, looking out into the darkness and up into the stars.
"A mystery writer. Hmm, that's interesting," She said. He shrugged, smiling.
"I love mysteries."
"So, what are you here for?" He asked, finally.
"Actually my parents and sister Akanksha are going to join me tomorrow. We're here for a cousin's wedding in the nearby town."
He wondered why they chose to stay at a resort and not at a relative's house. But then it was a small town, and sure there'd be a lot of guests. He guessed they just wanted to save the hosts some trouble. They remained silent for a while, gazing out again.
"So, why have you come a day in advance – alone?” Akash said.
“Just wanted to explore the place. Won’t be possible with your parents shouting a thousand instructions, and a sister chewing your brains, hmm?"
Akash laughed. “Right.”
“So, do you work some place?” He asked.
Deeksha nodded. “I’m in the media.”
"Wow, a journo. Television? Which channel?"
"Oh no no, am not a journalist, and neither I am from the TV media."
"Oh, print then."
"No. But Akash...let's just leave it at that, hmm?" She looked at him, searching his eyes again. He didn't know what to say, and just shrugged.
"I mean, it's not that I don't want to tell, nothing wrong with it. It's just that.."
He raised a hand quietly. "I know. I understand. Let's just leave it at that."
They made small talk for a while – her sister, the Bangalore weather, traffic, cultural scene, the IT scene etc. Then she fixed her gaze at him.
"Have you published anything before? I mean...are you a full-time writer?" She pulled back a strand of hair from her forehead.
"No, actually this will be my first. The story was picked up by a publisher who ran a contest. It was for a novella, but I guess they liked it enough to want a full length book. So, they paid me an advance and.." he didn't quite know how to continue. He stopped to find words. She looked on.
"I took a break from work, and planned to complete it meanwhile. I had a lot of leave accumulated anyways. It's almost done. A matter of a few days now. It's only the first draft, not the complete book. Let's see how it goes." They both smiled. "It's a process. This is just the beginning."
Deeksha nodded. It was getting colder. They turned to walk back to the lobby.*********
Akash sat in the lounge, and looked at his wrist. It was nearly 10 am. And there was no sign of her. They'd decided on having breakfast together. He pulled the morning's newspaper and flipped the sheets absently.
He finally rose and went to Deeksha's room. He knocked a couple of times and waited.
"Yes sir, may I help you?"
Akash turned. It was the lobby manager.
"Uh, nothing, just checking in on a friend," Akash said.
"Nobody’s taken that room yet, sir."
Akash chuckled and stepped back to read the room number again. "Really? No, there must be a mistake. 207 – yep, this is indeed it."
The manager smiled patiently. "Sir, we have it in the records. Perhaps you’d like to see?”
Akash shook his head absently. “no, it’s ok.”
“Thank you, sir.” The manager left.
Akash stood there for a moment, feeling like a total idiot. Well, this was some meet-cute situation. The cheek. He let out a deep breath and turned back to leave.
He wandered aimlessly in the hotel for an hour or so, pretending to be aimless, but actually trying to spot her. He was due to check out the next week – but what the hell, he felt like checking out that very instant. She could've at least called him. Then he realized they'd not even exchanged numbers. Then again, there wasn’t a need to. They'd decided to meet in the morning anyway. And in any case, he wasn't the kinds to rush things, so he hadn't consciously asked for her number. But this was weird.
Akash completed his manuscript the following week and headed back. Driving down the beautiful Ghats, his mind raced back to his trip, the resort, Deeksha, the entire thing. That day soon after she'd disappeared, he'd tried to locate a wedding hall in the town since Deeksha had mentioned about her cousin's wedding. But he learned there were no weddings scheduled that entire month. A lie, obviously. He wondered why she'd lied to him about herself. And of course, there weren’t any parents joining her at the resort. Another lie. He smiled to himself and wondered about this brief yet mysterious encounter with this girl. He decided to forget her. After all, his real goal was the book, not her. He pursed his lips and continued driving.
But by the time he drove into Bangalore, he just couldn't get her out of his system. He decided to visit all the newspaper offices just to track her down. He chuckled at his own silliness, but then nothing was silly enough for the heart, once it was set on somebody.
The publisher and editor, Govind Rao, gave Akash a couple of months to come with the final draft of the book. Some changes were in order. Rewriting was a pain, but then he had decided to bring his book to the shelves, and nothing could stop him now. It was close to three months since his visit to the resort, and he hadn't tracked Deeksha yet. It disturbed him. Obviously she'd lied about her profession as well. There was no one by that name in any newspaper office, or TV station. She'd lied to him about her name also in all probabilities. And to think he was graciously stupid enough not to take down any detail from her - her email ID, her phone number, nothing. All he knew about her was, her name, and she was in the media. And there was no saying if all this information was true. And if she had just planned on checking into that resort for just 24 hours and then disappear, what was the need to lie? It was almost like she'd come to the resort with the sole purpose of meeting him and leaving him flummoxed. So much for being a mystery writer.
She'd said she was neither from the print or the television media. But what about radio? He'd not looked into that option. It was a crazy idea but then, there was no better explanation.
After another week of unsolicited visits to most radio stations in town, he entered the office of the 6th radio station feeling quite like an idiot by now. But it was the writer in him that was goading him on to track her now. He'd otherwise, almost given up on her.
"Uh, I'm looking for Deeksha?" He told the security guy, who sized him up for good measure before barking a short and curt, "From?"
"Oh, me.. I'm a friend." He tried sounding as convincing as possible. Yeah, if you were a pretty RJ, pretty much everyone was your friend. The uniformed bully snorted.
"Sit there," he growled at Akash, and then growled into the phone.
Akash sat there, twiddling his fingers, and looking around. The place looked bubbly, with young sound engineers and executives walking around, looking busy. Cool, he must try writing a story about these guys sometime, he noted.
She stepped out a couple of minutes later.
Akash rose, now not just feeling like an idiot, but also like the jack-ass you saw on Cartoon Network when Jerry pulled a fast one on Tom. This was not Deeksha. At least it wasn't the Deeksha he met.
"Deeksha?" He cleared his throat, wondering why he was even asking the question.
"Yes? That's me?" She looked puzzled.
Akash looked at the bull-dog behind her who was now almost rising from his seat to bounce him out of the station. The puzzled expression on her face hadn't changed in the last two minutes.
"Look, err..Deeksha, I'm extremely sorry, but is there another Deeksha here, working in this station?"
He couldn't believe he was reducing himself to this.
"Another Deeksha? What do you mean? I'm sorry, I don't think I know you. Is there a problem?" She asked, all the while waving quickly at her hovering colleagues, her puzzled look slowly rubbing off on their faces as well, as they noticed him. She then bit one of her nails from a corner of her mouth. In a funny sort of way.
"I'm sorry..I..I thought. I mean, I met this girl some time back, " he chuckled. " Umm, she was Deeksha too. " Like that explained everything.
The RJ waited.
" And...I don't know anything about her, except her name, and that she worked for the media. I 've been at the TV stations, and newspapers. In vain. So....uh, I kind of hoped it was the radio." His eyes pleaded, hoping she'd buy his story and offer him an alternate solution.
She didn't reply. She looked in his eyes, almost through him, making him more uncomfortable by the minute. He looked at her hair. Wavy, and she'd dyed it like those models in the L'Oreal ads. Auburn..that's what they called the color, right? Or was it chestnut? Shit, this wasn't the time to think of hair dyes.
"This other 'Deeksha'. Didn't she tell which radio station she worked for?" Deeksha asked, rubbing her nose with her index finger.
"Look, I don't even know for sure if she works for the radio. Come to think of it, now I'm not even sure if she works for the media at all..I..." By now Akash realized there was no point taking this any further. He managed a quick apology and stumbled out of there.
As he descended the stairs of the building, his mind raced. He had to think. What more could he gather from her appearance? She did resemble 'his' Deeksha, in some ways, but...how does that help? From her talk? He raked his memory hard. Think Akash, think. Snippets of their conversation, of what they spoke at the resort ran through his head like a movie reel, whirring up the past in front of his eyes.
"Yeah, the traffic gets pretty bad by evening. But I have no problem. I stay close to work."
"...Akanksha has this nasty habit of biting her nails, it looks funny, but irritating it is..."
"...You know, once there was this guy who'd stalk her no end. No, nothing of that sort, but he would call her innumerable times, and..."
"..But sometimes it gets to me when.."
He stepped out of the building. Then it hit him hard, like a sledge-hammer. “….biting her nails…”.That was it. That was his only chance. And he just knew he had to take it.
He turned and raced up the stairs again, pushed the door of the radio station and barged in.
Bull-dog bared his fangs this time, but Akash pleaded with him to call Deeksha out one last time.
“What’s it now, mister?” Deeksha asked, not amused anymore.
"Do you have a sister called Akanksha?"
The girl’s expression changed suddenly.
"How do you know Akanksha?" She almost snapped.
Akash didn’t reply, but smiled. Which irritated her even more.
Deeksha grabbed his elbow and walked him out of the office.
“Listen, whatever your name is..”
“Akash. I don’t know if this is your idea of a sick joke, but..”
“Akanksha is no more.”
He let out a small chuckle, and also frowned. “What?”
“You heard me right. She’s dead.”
“Then I’m sure we’re talking about the wrong person. Sorry to have wasted your time.”
He turned to leave.
“Wait. Don’t you think it’s rather dumb of you say that now, after having met me? Has it occurred to you that we both know this person, and you came asking for her specifically – to me?”
Akash ran his palm through his hair and sighed. “But, you just said…”
“Yes. That’s what’s bothering me as well. How could you have met her?” Deeksha said, her face still tense.
“When did she die?”
“Two years ago.”
An involuntary whistle escaped his lips. “Do you have her picture?”
Deeksha thought for a second. “Wait.”
She browsed her cell phone, punched a few keys and turned the display towards him.
Akash looked at her, and reluctantly took the phone from her. He looked at the picture on the screen and felt breathless for a minute, the color draining from him. Deeksha waited for him to say something. Akash could feel her breath, coming in short, quick bursts. He looked at the display again and back at Deeksha, handing the phone back.
“She’s the one.”
Deeksha’s eyes filled up quickly, and she sank to the staircase, holding the rails. Akash slowly knelt down beside her and said softly, “you ok?”
Deeksha nodded and wiped her tears. She looked at him, and her eyes filled up again.
Akash slowly sat down beside her. The staircase felt cold.
They looked back. It was Meera, Deeksha’s colleague - peeping out from the door.
“Yeah,” Deeksha said, trying to mask her choked voice. She turned.
“Rocky wants you in. It’s about the …” Meera stopped when she saw Deeksha. She stepped out, closing the door gently behind her.
“Hey..whassup sweety? Why’re you crying?” Meera said.
She then looked at Akash who just smiled weakly.
“Akash, Akku’s friend.” Deeksha looked at Meera and introduced.
Akash sighed secretly and smiled again. Meera smiled back. “Hi,” she said softly.
She then turned back to Deeksha. “Why’re you crying, baby? What happened?”
“Nothing, I just..,” Deeksha cleared her throat and rose. Akash got up as well.
“Listen, I’ll just be back ok? Stay here.”
The women disappeared into the station.
They stood at the roof-top. It had rained, and the lights below them glistened in the wetness. Just like Deeksha’s eyes.
“This is unfair,” Deeksha said, her eyes still red.
Akash didn’t reply.
“I mean, she’s my sister, damn it. Why doesn’t she appear in front of me? We both left so many things unsaid at the time this happened. Why can’t I see her?”
Akash almost felt guilty for having stolen that privilege from her. But then, it was Akanksha who chose to be visible to him, and not her.
“Maybe she will, Deeksha. Maybe, I don’t know..maybe I have this thing of…”
“Seeing spirits?” Deeksha asked. “have you seen spirits before?”
“But, maybe it has manifested late in me, you know.”
“oh come on.”
The conversation was heading nowhere.