That pain was a blast from the past. Shyam had experienced it as a fourteen year old when he had had his first crush on a schoolmate. A dull sort of an ache in the general vicinity of the heart but one that he couldn't place a finger upon or draw a circle around. Neither Then nor Now ' twenty five years later.
Then, he had been convinced it was love and would last forever. It didn't. And he effortlessly moved on to other girls and other relationships. Now, he struggled to convince himself it was just a crush and would eventually pass. And was frightened there would be no one to move on to this time. His temples had turned a very light grey and that grim color was spreading slowly and purposefully onto the rest of his head. He shaved extra-close every morning to keep the white in his stubble buried till evening. His belly had decisively won the gymnasium war years ago after conceding only a few initial battles. And as he parked his white Chevrolet Optra in his reserved parking space under the office building at precisely 9.25 am every weekday he dreaded the prospect of the elevator being out of service lest she saw him sweaty and breathless after having to climb those four short flights to the office.
Her name was Sameera. She was twenty-four ' maybe not the clich'd 'young enough to be his daughter' age, but close. Not that it made a difference for she was unabashed in her flirtations with him which she had commenced promptly after joining the firm as his Executive Assistant. But that was as far as she'd go. It was quite obvious she had already drawn a line between them ' a clear invisible line. This far and no further, boss. Why indeed would she ever cross it, a lovely woman in the pink of health and the prime of life? A woman who fitted so fetchingly in size twenty-six low-slung Levis and white Reebok jerseys that showed off so very tantalizingly her brassiere lines stretched taut over her smooth white skin. Shyam never asked her what she did after office hours. Nor did he try to seek that information surreptitiously. It wasn't that it would be difficult for him to find the facts, but that he would find the facts difficult. Although she never mentioned it, there probably was a man in her life ' maybe even more than one for these were permissive times where women like Sameera ruled boardrooms and bedrooms with equal 'lan if one believed certain magazine surveys.
Her first few weeks at Alpha Exports had passed in a feverish barter of generous compliments, meaningful glances and coquettish smiles with him. And by the second week he started feeling that pain that exacerbated during subsequent weekends. He still took his long solo drives out of town on Saturdays but he had never felt so lonely since his affair with Tara had ended eight months back. If only Sameera were to take the seat next to him in the car, her delectable perfume freshening up the plush interiors, a Bryan Adams number playing softly on the MP3 and miles upon miles of sylvan countryside running non-stop outside. They could make sparkling conversation, guzzle beer, tell each other dirty jokes if she was game and maybe pull over to the side for a quickie if it all got too amorous.
Shyam understood women. Something about Sameera warned him that he ought to be careful of overplaying his hand with this one. But time was running out for him and he was canny enough to know it.
Exactly one month after she joined his firm, Shyam went for broke.
'Let's celebrate last week's order from Russia this evening, shall we?' Shyam proposed one Friday afternoon in his cabin. That the Russian firm was a very regular customer that placed far bigger orders on Alpha Exports throughout the year was not unknown to Sameera.
'What do you have in mind, boss?' She said with a smile and chewed the end of her ballpoint pen.
'How about dinner at Milano's? They even have live music,' he said. 'Err'do you like violin?' he added hoping to deflect attention from the fact that he had just asked her out.
'I like Continental food more,' she replied matter-of-factly. 'Will the others be joining us?'
'No. Just the two of us. I've had plenty of dinners with all of them and besides, having completed your first month at Alpha today, you deserve an exclusive treat, don't you think?' He chuckled nervously. 'Hope that's okay with you.'
She paused and then nodded.
'What time, boss?'
'Let's leave by seven tonight. And after dinner I could drop you home.' He was about to wink at her but blinked and rubbed the corner of his eye instead. 'If you wish.'
'Seven is fine, boss.' She threw a chummy smile at him as she pulled the door and left the room. Shyam punched the air in triumph.
Milano's was an exquisite restaurant specializing in Continental fare and located on a quiet tree-lined street that turned away from one of the busiest avenues of the city. The sole musician, a violinist, had just taken his position at the far end of the restaurant beside an ornate little fountain when the boss and the subordinate walked in. Sameera was dressed in her Friday casuals and her stunning five foot four frame was played up nicely by her feline gait as they approached their reserved table near a window. A quick dab of make-up in the office restroom minutes before they had left was enough to impart a just-out-of-shower glow to her chiseled face. Her burgundy hair fell in a disciplined chaos just below her shoulders. Shyam had had his second shave of the day in the private restroom attached to his cabin. Their congenial body language and soft happy conversation easily conveyed the impression to onlookers ' and many heads did turn to look at them ' that here was a rich and successful middle-aged man who had just netted a pretty young thing.
The violinist, a striking man in his fifties with slicked-back white hair and dressed in a black tuxedo, began the evening's performance with Bach's 'Cello Suite No.2' while they ordered French food and a bottle of wine.
'What beautiful music! And what an elegant man!' Sameera remarked gazing at the artist with admiration. Shyam turned to look at him and saw a dismal loser who had never hit big time.
'So tell me about your family, boss,' Sameera said after listening quietly for a while.
'What do you wish to know about my family?' Shyam asked.
Sameera rolled her eyes and pursed her lips.
'Wife, kids, siblings. These qualify as family if I am not very mistaken.' She smiled sipping her Chianti from a tall-stemmed glass.
'Well, I'm divorced.' Shyam jumped at the first chance to tell her.
'Oh! I am sorry.'
'No that's okay. It happened more than five years ago. By mutual consent, if I may add.'
'And'you have'kids?' Sameera's words came out slowly this time.
'One son'Nishant. Eight years old. Studies at a boarding school in Ooty.' Pride crossed his face like a bright white cloud over a blue summer sky.
They tacitly changed the subject and talked shop till the waiter returned with their dinner. For all her pencil thin figure, Sameera was a hearty eater. There wasn't even a token protest from her when the waiter laid generous helpings of Matelote on her plate.
'Could I ask you a personal question, boss?' Sameera asked between mouthfuls of the luscious stew. The musician was playing 'Wedding March' now and the fine food they were enjoying seemed suffused with the mellow notes of his instrument.
'Be my guest.' Shyam grinned.
'How old are you?' she asked. 'Don't tell me if you don't wish to.'
It's hard to avoid giving an answer when a factual query comes gratuitously bundled with a cop-out option like that.
'I am thirty-nine.' He said.
'Wow! So next year you'll be hitting the big Four Oh, boss.' Sameera said and immediately bit her lip and looked down.
'That will be this year in October actually,' Shyam stated. The corporate intranet of Alpha Exports listed every employee's birth date for everyone to see.
'On the other hand thirty-nine is rather too young I think,' she said giving him one of her playful smiles and running her fingers through her stunningly glossy hair.
'Rather too young for what?'
'Rather too young to be the Managing Director of a sixty crore turnover company.'
'Well, I've been a go-getter all my life, Sameera,' said Shyam. He spent the next quarter of an hour giving her a snapshot of his distinguished career in the import-export industry. Sameera listened with great interest while the violinist played another uplifting melody in the background.
'So how about you?' Shyam eventually asked.
'Pardon?' She looked up from her plate.
'You haven't told me much about yourself,' he complained.
'Haven't I?' There was a dash of mischief in her voice. 'Wasn't it you who interviewed me for over ninety minutes just a month back?'
'Come on Sam, that was professional.' He leaned back in his chair.
'Oh well' Sameera told him about her parents, her decision to study law followed by business management and anecdotes from her first job at a multiplex chain. Shyam nodded from time to time.
'So you are currently staying with'?' he finally came to the point.
'Alone. I have taken up a one bedroom apartment on rent. Love having my own space.'
'That's good. One should get independent ASAP,' Shyam appreciated, expertly concealing his delight.
Here was a single, outgoing and attractive young woman who was so obviously impressed with him, who lived life on her own terms, lived all by herself and whose career path went through his well-appointed cabin. How easier could things get? He had conquered more difficult territory in the past. A no-strings-attached after-hours relationship could be sparked off with immediate effect. If this were the last such liaison in his lifetime, Shyam felt he deserved it all the more.
Gautam would be staggered, he thought. Shyam's old friend headed a chain of car dealerships in the same city. It was only a couple of months back, over Black Label and seekh kebabs, that Gautam had given him the phone number that had disgusted Shyam at the time.
'At our age it's rather difficult to find women who'd be willing and able,' Gautam had explained. 'We're past our prime my friend. But there's plenty of good stuff available out there for hard cash,' he laughed. 'I can still get any woman I fancy Gautam. Maybe you're getting old,' Shyam had countered. His personal charm and worldly success had unfailingly worked with women in the past and he believed only ugly, insecure and desperate men paid for sex. 'Still, I suggest you keep this number,' Gautam insisted. 'She calls herself Julia. A bit expensive, mind you, but worth every rupee,' he winked.
The dinner was winding down and Shyam hoped Sameera was sufficiently awed by him not to refuse his offer to drop her home afterwards. Just as she would step out of the car and turn to say good-night, he would invite himself into her apartment for a coffee. It was a practiced drill.
Dessert was La Tarte Tatin and Shyam quickly asked for the cheque after the last morsel was consumed and the china cleared. Just then his cellphone buzzed. Somebody senior from DHL was at the other end. Shyam spoke briefly and authoritatively and placed the phone on the table. He paid by MasterCard and elaborately inserted a very generous tip ' in cash ' into the leather-bound folder. As they were walking out of the place, applause went up in the restaurant for the artist and Shyam smiled to himself.
Out on the porch, Shyam towered over the valet as he handed him the parking stub. It was while they were waiting for him to bring the car that a slim twenty-something man dressed in faded blue jeans and a denim shirt suddenly materialized out of the darkness on a motorcycle and stopped before them.
'Why, is that you Sameera?' he asked flicking up the visor of his helmet.
'Hey! Nitin. This is a surprise. What are you doing here?' Sameera asked.
'I was on my way back after the late shift. Need a lift home?'
'Well if you're going my side of the town, I guess I'll join you. But first let me introduce you to Shyam. Boss, this is Nitin. We used to work together at CineMart. And Nitin, this is Shyam, Managing Director, Alpha Exports.'
Shyam watched the exchange with growing consternation but managed a feeble smile and a soft 'hello' without extending his hand. His sharp mind didn't take long to figure out that this little coincidence was anything but that. For chivalry's sake, he still insisted he'd drop Sameera home. She refused politely and thanked him for the lovely dinner.
'We'll manage, boss'no sweat. Have a great weekend. Seeya on Monday.'
The young twosome sped away on the bike and Shyam pictured them laughing their heads off at him with the wind in their fresh faces. He felt the niggling ache in his heart rapidly fizzle away without making him feel any better for it.
With a sigh he dipped his fingers in his shirt pocket to hold a tip ready for the valet when it occurred to him that he had left his cellphone behind. He hurried back inside to his table where their waiter was laying fresh cutlery. Seeing Shyam approaching, he smiled broadly and picked up the cellphone from the table.
'It happens all the time, sir,' he said handing over the device to its owner.
Shyam frowned for an instant. Then he smiled back dryly and thanked the waiter. As he retraced his steps towards the door, Shyam realized that the music had stopped ' the old violinist was gone. It had been replaced with staccato fragments of dreary conversation among the last few diners and Shyam's ears caught a few snatches as he walked out.
' The falling dollar is bad news I say' 'and so I went in for a bypass' 'use the fork, Ronny' 'but money can buy you anything man' And this time there was boisterous laughter from a table behind him as he stepped out onto the porch once again.
The valet had still not brought his car back. Shyam waited a few seconds and then scrolled the directory on his cellphone for a number he had never called before that evening.
'Hello.' A husky female voice answered.
'Hi, am I speaking to Julia?' His voice didn't quiver.
In the distance, he saw his car turn a corner and approach the porch slowly. The bright headlamps blinded him even as he continued to negotiate softly over the phone.