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I was riding my bike at a breakneck speed. The speedometer had touched a seventy. I didn’t care. I was accelerating mindlessly. I would slow down and then speedup at each familiar bend in the road. A car was speeding and I was right behind it. Thoughts were racing in my mind.

Blessed are the parents who look forward to a parent teacher meeting. I have never been so lucky. Every visit to my son’s school turns out to be more dreadful than the previous. No matter how much I am in command at my job, the son’s teacher makes me feel like l am good for nothing, worthless actually. Arav is a notorious kid but to pull up the parent each time he misbehaves…….this is not done. Almost every week I am invited to the school to be reprimanded by the class teacher. At times I feel so helpless that I begin doubting my upbringing. Am I such a bad parent?

I was returning from one such visit. This time Arav was caught playing with slime. A girl’s parents had complained. The principal had threatened to expel him. What to do about this boy? I was rushing back to office. Staff had assembled for the monthly meeting which was postponed because of this unexpected call from school. After the meeting we had to attend a funeral. My colleague’s mother passed away. Inspection was to begin next day. Preparations were incomplete. Sharad’s parents were arriving in the evening. Had to pick them.

My heart was galloping The car swerved out of the next bend  and speeded up. I also swerved and speeded up.

The car sped ahead and my bike landed with a big thud into a ditch. With an equal force it bounced back on the road. Within a fraction of a second I was thrown off the bike. My purse was flung across the pavement and chappals flew in the air. When I gathered my senses I found myself sitting limply with eyes closed in the middle of the road. It was noon. The sun was high. When I finally opened them I was blinded by the sharp sunlight. Some commuters had crowded around and the road had turned a chock-a-block with traffic. A few pedestrians helped me to my feet but as I tried standing up I gave out a shriek. With their hands under my arms I trudged slowly towards the sidewalk. A man offered me a chair. As I rested I felt for the shoulder sling bag containing my wallet. It was in place. I sighed.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked gently offering me water. He looked sensible.

I simply nodded. I was not at all okay. My whole body hurt, my hands and feet were trembling, my eyes blurred and I needed time to gauge the damage my body was subjected to. I moved my hands over my face and head. There were no injuries. He handed over my belongings and offered to drive me home. I nodded again. I was in no condition to drive.

‘You are one lucky girl!’ he exclaimed. ‘With such a terrible fall no one would have survived.’

I was listening.

‘The bike’s handle is jammed. It is not safe to drive.’ he said starting the bike.

I just stared not knowing what to say.

‘I am a mechanic. I can fix it for you.’ he said pointing to a shed that resembled a garage.

‘Yes please.’ I cried in pain grabbing my foot. It was beginning to swell. One of the toenails had come apart. It was bleeding.

‘You need to see a doctor immediately. Come. I’ll help you. There is a dispensary three shops ahead. You finish with the doctor and meanwhile I will repair the bike.’ He made sense. As it is a visit to a doctor was a must. Painstakingly we walked to the clinic. There were four patients in waiting. He whispered something to the boy at the reception and left. The boy scanned me from top to bottom and let me in without any delay. The doctor examined, bandaged my toe, prescribed some x rays and medicines and told me to relax. But when I opened the bag to pay him, I was shocked to find my wallet missing. I was at a loss for words. The doctor understood my predicament and asked me to pay later when I come with the x ray reports. I thanked him for his kindness and walked out of the clinic all muddled up. Tears were trickling down my cheeks. My mind wandered off…..

What a day! Everything was going wrong. It all began with the teacher threatening me to rusticate Arav followed by the near fatal accident, the injury, the breaking down of the bike and now the loss of wallet. What more could go wrong. On the brighter side I had bumped into two complete strangers who had gone out of their way to help.

I wiped my tears as I saw the man holding onto the bike ready to drive me home. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart and politely declined his lift.

‘I will manage.’ I said. I have lost all the money in this chaos after the fall, so I cannot pay you anything for the repairs.’ I cried.

‘Never mind.’ he said smiling.

‘But I will return soon to pay.’ I promised.

‘Drive slow.’ He cautioned as I drove away.

A week went in misery. I was quite shaken after the accident. However the x rays were normal. The medicines cured the pain. The wound was healing. I was yet to resume work. I was feeling good…good enough to visit the two angels. It was time to pay back.  

I was going to work after long. Sharad offered to drop me to office. On the way I got down to meet the mechanic. I spotted him oiling a motorbike. He greeted me warmly and enquired about my wellbeing. I thanked him wholeheartedly and paid him for the repairs, almost double the amount. He took it after a lot of coaxing on my part. I was overwhelmed. Without waiting for him to change his mind, I took quick steps towards the doctor’s clinic. I had one more favor to return.

The boy was on the phone. I interrupted him and requested to see the doctor briefly. The doctor was pleased to find me in high spirits. I expressed gratitude and paid him double the fees in an envelope. I felt light as if a burden was off my head. I came out of the cabin. I noticed another woman far younger than me in a lot of agony and pain. The accident had taught me to be considerate. I sat beside her and asked her sympathetically.

‘You look troubled. Are you all right?’

‘My bike skidded. Rotten luck.’ She spoke with an effort. There was distress and anguish in her speech.

‘How?’

‘I don’t know.’ she was in no mood to converse.

‘Where?’

‘Right at the turn.’ My body stiffened.

‘Are you hurt?’ I asked eagerly.

She seemed not to hear me and just pulled up her torn sleeves. Her whole arm was skinned. I gasped.

‘Then?’

‘A good samaritan rushed to my help.’ I almost leapt out of the chair.

‘What happened?’ she asked seeing me getting jerky.

‘No, no nothing. Please continue.’ I urged.

‘He offered me a glass of water.’

‘And he volunteered to fix your bike?’ I completed.

‘How do you know?’ It was her turn to be surprised.

‘And he suggested you see a doctor?’

‘Yes!.’ she replied her eyes widening.

‘And he led you to this doctor?

‘But……..’

My hands were shaking violently. I quietly opened my wallet, pressed a five hundred rupee note in her palm and walked out. The sun was burning hot, like a fire.

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The baby was sleeping peacefully in the cradle. It was healthy and pink. Suman’s eyes were fixed on the infant. She was gazing at the baby with a lot of love and tenderness. She still could not believe her eyes. She tried picking the baby in her arms but she felt a surge of pain in her lower back. Her arms went limp. Her body was drained out of energy. There was no strength left. The birth had left her exhausted but the baby would bring back life and vitality. She knew. It was nothing short of a miracle. She had clung onto hope even when the doctors had given up. And why shouldn’t they? After three unsuccessful pregnancies, she was finally blessed with a little underweight but well developed, adorable infant. She was desperate for a child. Last few years had been a nightmare. The first had been a miscarriage and Suman took a lot many days to recover from the loss but the second time she conceived, her hopes raised and the previous loss was not on her mind at all. The family of two was all prepared to welcome the newborn when the news of a stillbirth came as a big blow. Suman was no longer herself and great amount of compassion and cajoling went into reviving her. The third time Suman was expecting, she had little hope but as days passed, she began looking forward to the baby and her motherhood instincts came alive. But fate had something else in mind. It was a routine ultrasound in the twenty fourth week that revealed the possibility of a malformed baby. World came crashing down for Suman and she went into a self imposed exile, shunning each and everyone who tried to console her. Life had been unfair in many ways and these setbacks had taken a heavy toll on her health. But now was the time to rejoice. She was willing to forget, forgive and move on.

Shashi arrived just then. He glanced at the baby and then smiled at Suman.

‘Isn’t he perfect?’ asked Suman gratified.

‘More than perfect. God has been very kind.’ replied Shashi.

‘Yes and what did the doctor say?’ she asked a little worried.

‘Everything’s just fine.’

‘Nothing to worry.’

‘Absolutely nothing!’

She relaxed a little.

‘You need to take care of yourself.’

‘Oh, that I will.’

‘No. I’m serious. Your health requires immediate attention.’

‘Now that the baby is there, I will be all right.’

‘You don’t understand Suman. The doctor is really concerned. You have lost quite a few kilos. Look how frail you have grown. You aren’t able to sit by yourself. It worries me to death. How will you tend to the baby?’

‘Doctors fret for no reason and don’t you worry. Come here. Close. I want to show you something.’

Shashi leaned over the baby.

‘Look at its tiny toes. Don’t they resemble yours? Even your middle toe is larger than the big toe. Isn’t it? Just like the baby’s.’

‘Hm. Seems so.’

‘Oh course it is! And see his ears. Aren’t they slightly small? Yours are small too but these are real weeny.’

‘Suman you need rest.’ he said urging her to stop. ‘You may inspect the baby when you have rested enough.’

‘There is nothing wrong with me.’ she continued heedlessly. ‘And how can you miss the mark on its butt? None of us have one.’ she was talking with all the more excitement.

‘Come on it’s one of those extraordinary creations of the Almighty. Who are you and me to question? Be grateful instead.’

‘Yes…but..’

‘Enough! For heaven’s sake, close your eyes and relax.’

‘Grateful I am, a thousand times grateful but Shashi please answer this one and answer honestly. Will you?’ she pleaded.

‘What?’ he asked sternly.

‘The hair. Such fine silky hair.’

‘Indeed!’

‘No, the shade of the hair.’

‘What about the shade?’ he was losing his cool.

‘It is a beautiful shade.’

‘So..’

‘What I mean to say is…’

‘I fail to understand you. I am calling for the doctor.’ he cried in desperation.

‘Isn’t it a different shade all together? None of us have hair even closer to this shade.’

‘You are never satisfied. You are overthinking. Let me give you a pill.’

‘I don’t need any pills. Shashi, I believe you know it too, but you won’t admit it.’ she spoke trying to study his face.

‘I don’t have the faintest idea of what you are talking.’

‘Don’t be so damn silly, you very well know what I am arriving at.’

‘Know what?’

‘Come here.’ she said.

‘What?’

I said, come here.’ this time louder.

He came and stood beside her, his face turned away.

‘What have you done, Shashi?’

No answer.

‘Shashi?’ she screamed.

‘Suman, please calm down, let me explain.’ he spoke meekly.

There was a pause. Shashi fumbled for words. He didn’t know what to say. He only kept staring at the serene face of the infant. Suman suddenly felt strength in her muscles. She sat upright on the bed. With one hand she clutched onto the side of the bed and with the other hand she seized Shashi’s wrist and gave it a yank so that he was now facing her. The excitement and tremors in her voice had disappeared. Instead there was a frightening stillness and alarm. In a very firm and cold tone she asked, ‘What happened to Pramila? Wasn’t she supposed to deliver the same night?’

He finally spoke, softly, so softly that only he could hear.

‘She did….a stillborn.

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Captain woke up earlier than usual. He had a solid reason to do so. The day held special significance for him. The tall, handsome officer was scheduled to meet his lady love on this day. He took a last long look at the photograph, held it close to his heart before sliding it into the pocket of his tailored blazer. The photograph was not required. The gorgeous face was etched in his memory. He glanced at the watch. An hour to go before he would be face to face with the loveliest dame he had never met. Time was ticking slowly but his heart was pounding rapidly. Never had he felt so nervous. He lit up a cigarette to calm his nerves and as he began puffing, a myriad thoughts flooded his mind.

He vividly remembered the day his attention was caught by a headline in ‘The Daily’, ‘Euthanasia: The right to life vs right to die’. As he read the article, he was engulfed with an innate sense of admiration and respect for the writer. The piece bore the nuances of an established, extraordinarily intelligent mind. Every argument was well stated and outrageously bold to evoke discussions in the literary and medical fraternity. Quite naturally, his eyes went hunting for the owner of the writeup. He was disappointed at the mention of ‘Anonymous’. A day passed and when curiosity got the better of him, he contacted the editorial team for the writer’s name and address. He was surprised when the writer turned out to be a female by the name of ‘Aafreen Abbas’. Aafreen epitomises ‘courage and beauty’. He was more than determined to know her. He wrote to her and what started as a mere introduction, metamorphosed into an exchange of letters taking their friendship to another level.

He soon found her to be a versatile authoress with a high literary standard and a smooth flowing style. Besides she was an exceptional human being with an honest and compassionate heart. Every piece of correspondence from her brought him immense joy and lifted his spirits instantaneously.

He had had many female acquaintances and relationships that lasted only a while but this lady had stolen his heart and he was in no self doubt that this relationship was meant for keeps. At times it amazed him that mere words could have such a magical effect on him, because he considered himself to be very pragmatic often to the exclusion of intellectual and artistic pursuits.

For months they had been writing to one another and it was time they met. A couple of times that they did decide to meet, unlikely circumstances made it impossible. Either he was outstationed for trainings or she was away at the launch of her new book or busy giving a book review. At his behest they had exchanged photographs and he was not in the least disappointed. Infact her first look had taken his breath away. Aafreen looked stunning. She had a pale complexion. The skin was so light that when you looked closely you could actually see the veins beneath. The eyes had a light colour and complemented her dark wavy locks beautifully.

As he strolled into the restaurant with mixed feelings of nervousness and excitement, he realised how much he had yearned for this moment. With a queer sort of uneasiness, he glanced all around till his searching eyes rested on the face that had captivated him for so long. She looked up from the book she was holding and their eyes met. The face was so arresting that he found himself locked in that moment of time. With great difficulty he walked upto her and as gentlemanly as he could asked for her hand to land a kiss. The softness of her hand made his whole body tingle uncomfortably. And as he leaned closer he caught a whiff of her expensive french perfume. She was dressed in splendid black that reflected elegance and sobriety. In actual, she may be thirty but looked no more than twenty five. He was twenty nine but how did that matter. She had large velvety eyes with a spark that possibly nobody matched, but there was something about her body that gave her a slight edge over other women. It was sinuous, silky and exceptionally flexible. His mind was going crazy and he was having a tough time reining in his distracted thoughts. On the contrary, Aafreen appeared very tranquil and assured. They ate in silence, so unlike the lengthy conversations they had had in the past through the letters. The few times that they spoke, it was Aafreen who took an initiative and he preferred she do the talking. That way he got enough time to absorb and revel in her beauty. She was a perfect blend of looks and brains and he quietly thanked his stars for blessing him with a companion so true, so real and so special.

As the time was ticking, the Captain felt more at ease. He was happy to know that she was serious about their relationship and was undoubtedly enthralled by his handsome personality. He was observing her keenly. The subtle movement of her slender fingers, the dancing of her eyeballs, the curl of her lips and the provocative smile that may breakout into a laughter any moment ascertained the fact that she was in love. He had managed to create that first impression. He always did. He had the knack of winning over women and today was no exception.

The rendezvous was coming to an end. It was time to act. If everything went as per his expectations, he would seal their friendship today. He had well thought out how it would end. On the pretext of pulling out a handkerchief, he slid his hand into the pocket of his blazer and felt the ring. He smiled nervously. His heart was almost in his mouth. This was a first time for him. Such a situation had never occurred before but then there was always a first time for everything, he told himself. He felt better, in control.

Aafreen picked up her handbag and opened it to place the book, an indication that it was time to take leave. Captain felt the urgency. It was now or never. Very abruptly, he sprang from his chair, (he could have done it more gracefully, he thought) drew the ring from his pocket and exclaimed loud and clear enough so he did not have to repeat.

‘Aafreen, since the day I have known you, I have fallen in love with you. I have never experienced so much of warmth and tenderness from a woman. You have affected my life for the better. You have filled my heart with joy and love. So much so that I dream about you all the time and I wish to marry you. Will you marry me?’ he rattled off everything in one breath and kept looking into her eyes anxiously.

Aafreen’s eyes broadened. She smiled till her lips fell apart. She finally spoke softly, yet firmly, ‘Are you sure about this Captain?’

‘Yes dear, I have wanted this more than anything in my life.’ he replied, his heart fluttering.

‘I still feel, we should give ourselves some more time.’ a glimmer of worry showing on her face.

‘There is nothing to wait for, I have given it a good thought.’ he spoke earnestly showing off the ring in his hand.

‘But this is about my life, your life, our life.’ she asked, incredulous.

‘Precisely! That is exactly my point. No one can stop us from living the life that we want. I have made up my mind and nothing can dissuade me from changing my mind.’

‘If this is what you want, so shall it be Captain!’ she gave in smiling.

‘May I?’ overcome with emotions, he reached for her hand.

‘As you wish!’ she choked, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.

He gently slipped the ring into her finger and waited silently.

Aafreen was too dumbstruck for words. Her eyes moistened. ‘Excuse me, but I need to use the washroom.’ she said, almost in tears.

‘Sure.’

‘Will you help me with the chair please?’

‘Of course dear!’ he replied, pulling her chair.

‘No, no, the other one.’ she said pointing to a wheelchair in the corner.

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Debu climbed down from the bus. I was anxiously waiting. I ran forward to help him with his bag and bottle. It had been only a week we had moved to Gurgaon. The place was new and so was the school. Debu had displayed a lot of reluctance and tantrum when he understood he had to leave behind his school and friends.

‘How was your first day in school?’ bringing in as much cheer in my voice as I could I asked the question that I had decided to hold back.

‘Nothing great!’ he replied with an air of indifference.

‘Did you make any friends?’ I asked sounding excited.

‘I didn’t know we make friends in a day!’ he retorted rolling his eyeballs.

Debu is only seven but this boy can snub you to the point of tears. Refusing to shut up I continued.

‘And how is your new teacher?’

‘Hm. Good!’ Thank God! So something was good. I got my smile back.

Next afternoon was unlike the first. Debu alighted from the bus waving at the child in the window. He was all smiles. Seems he had had a fine day. He threw himself onto me exclaiming, ‘Ms Khambatta is a nice woman.’

‘Ms Khambatta?’

‘My class teacher!’ he replied casually.

Oh! So Ms Khambatta is the name of his class teacher. I said to myself. It is difficult to get Debu to talk. He will talk only when he feels like.

It was wednesday evening. We were enjoying dinner.

‘Miss shouted at one of the boys today.’ Debu was speaking between mouthfuls.

‘Why?’ My husband was listening.

‘He has a bad handwriting. Miss says it looks like roaches crawling.’ he was giggling.

‘Really! That’s a hurtful thing to say.’ he had stopped eating.

‘Maybe, and mamma, how about packing some crackers and sandwiches in the lunch box tomorrow?’ It seemed more like an order than a request.

‘Debu, tomorrow is not a friday.’ I reminded him gently. As per our mutual understanding fridays were reserved for his favorite snacks and junk.

‘I remember mummy but Hagrid says rolls and rotis take a lot of time to finish.’

‘High grade?’

‘Not high grade daddy! Hagrid! Rubeus Hagrid!’ he cried among peals of laughter.

‘And may I ask what is that supposed to be?’

‘You know nothing daddy. Hagrid is a Harry Potter character. Miss Khambatta resembles the character sooo much that everyone calls her so.’

‘Oh and how does Hagrid look?’ I asked thoroughly amused.

‘Ugh…he looks like a giant, an ugly giant and his hair looks as if noodles are sticking out from all over.’ he was up from his seat and making all sorts of faces.

‘Devansh! This is not acceptable. You ought to show some respect.’ my husband spoke sharply glaring at him. When furious, he called him by his actual name and before he could preach him any further Debu ran to the television set to watch his favorite pokemon series.

Thursday was uneventful. Debu was busy with football after school.

Friday evening Debu’s cousin had dropped by. He’s a lego freak and the lego bricks were all over the living. My husband was still at work and I was on a work call from home.

The boys were engaged in an interesting conversation and I was happy to see them by themselves.

‘You should have seen Samarveer’s face.’ Debu was chattering. I was half listening.

‘I wish we also had Miss Khambatta.’ his cousin joined in.

‘The whole class was watching. Only nobody stood up.’

‘Miss called you?’

‘No. I was the only one who raised my hand.’ he was talking excitedly. I paused in the middle of the phone call.

‘Then?’ he asked placing the blocks gingerly.

‘Miss was very proud of me. She asked me to come in front of the class.’ I was intrigued. I hung up saying I will call shortly.

‘What is this about?’ I asked gently without giving them a feeling of intrusion.

‘Auntie, please listen to this.’ I was more than happy and curious to join them.

‘Mummy no one was ready to do it.’

‘Yes, and what did my little brave boy do?’

‘Miss Khambatta gave us a math problem to solve.’

‘So were you able to solve it dear?’

‘Of course mummy! But Samarveer got it all wrong.’

‘Aw..so you helped him right? That’s like a good boy!’ I spoke delightedly.

No mamma! Let me finish.’ he seemed a tad put off.

‘Okay..okay. Go on.’ I said encouragingly.

‘Miss was angry. Very angry.’ I could see his eyeballs bulging out in astonishment. I kept quiet holding onto my restrain.

‘She shouted, ‘Can’t you solve such a simple sum?’

‘Then?’ I stood still.

‘She looked at the whole class and asked, do you want to have some fun? and we all nodded.’

‘What sort of fun?’ I began to get edgy.

She asked, ‘Come on, who is going to slap Samarveer?’

I froze. My fingers tightened around the phone.

‘Debu….you?’ with great difficulty, the words fell from my mouth.

‘Yes mummy! It was me who raised a hand.’

‘You mean….’

‘It was me who walked upto Samarveer and slapped him.’ his face bright with pride and joy that left me open mouthed.

I was too flabbergasted to say anything and the boys ran away squealing leaving me weak in the knees. I was quite shaken and it kept playing on my mind. My husband was upset too but he shrugged it as a one off incident. Debu was a child but to go about spanking other children… and his teacher…..We are conscientious parents and dead set against any kind of physical harm or humiliation. I had a conversation with Debu the same night.

Another week flew by and  Debu had many tales to tell about Ms Khambatta but none were alarming or those that required my immediate attention and I felt a sense of peace. Debu had befriended a whole lot of girls and boys and we never felt more at home until…

It was a pleasant morning. I was in the kitchen packing Debu’s lunch. My husband walked in grimly after waking him up for school.

‘Debu used the word ‘bloody’. I stopped flipping the omlette.

‘To you?’

‘No. In his sleep.’

‘And where the hell did he get that from?’

‘I haven’t the least idea? I thought maybe you can tell me.’

‘You mean to say I go about using this language…’

‘Look! That’s not what I meant..’

In this moment of time Debu walked in for his glass of milk.

‘Debu beta, I heard you uttering a bad word in your sleep.’ his father asked trying to keep his calm.

‘What daddy?’

‘It’s too bad to repeat, beta.

‘Stupid?’

‘No’

‘Idiot?’

‘No No’

‘Moron?’

‘No, I cannot say the word.’

‘Bloody’?’

‘Devansh,’ he said, snapping the words out, ‘I forbid you to use it.’

‘But daddy, it’s cool. Everyone does. Miss Khambatta uses even a better one than that.’

‘What? Which one?’ I asked almost spilling the glass of milk.

‘Very dirty. Yucky! I cannot say that and mamma when she says it, we all shut our ears.’

My husband took up this matter very seriously. He lost no time in drafting a note in Debu’s almanac requesting for an appointment with the teacher. We promptly received a reply asking to wait back after school the next day.

We rehearsed the entire conversation. We had no intentions of offending the teacher but we had to put across our concerns as tactfully as we could. We entered the school premises at dot fifty past one and went right up to the reception asking to meet the grade two class teacher.

A minute later, a rather plump, fair and a cute looking woman came looking for us.

‘Are you Devansh’s parents?’ she enquired pleasantly.

‘Yes ma’am. We would like to meet his class teacher.’

‘You are talking to one.’ she smiled.

‘No ma’am, Ms Khambatta.’ I was getting nervous.

‘Ms what?’

‘Ms Khambatta, a giant like lady with noodles in her hair….’ the words slipped out before I could stop myself and my husband squeezed my arm tightly. There was a pause and I watched her face waiting for the answer.The woman looked up at us as if it was some kind of a joke and said slowly.

‘Sorry ma’am. I do not understand what you are talking, but we do not have anyone by the name of Ms Khambatta!’

I

.

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By Satya Nadella Microsoft’s CEO, with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols Genre : Non Fiction

I am immensely fascinated by the geek and nerd communities. So when I read about this book ‘Hit Refresh’ authored by Satya Nadella, an ace technology evangelist, a humanist and a conscientious leader with a forever broad grin and a serene, monk like look I made sure that it find a place in my little library.

As I began reading, I discovered the book to be a beautiful revelation of human values, technology and it’s profound impact on billions of lives. As much as I was overwhelmed by the content I was awed by the individual ‘Satya Nadella’ and so to not say a word about him would be most unfair.

The man is a quintessential life long learner. He knows his priorities too well when he gives up his green card to have his wife beside. He genuinely believes that men and women should get equal pay for equal work and minces no words when he says ‘If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask’. His humane side shows when he openly shares his struggles about being a parent to a special child and that his first lesson in ‘empathy’ comes from not dialling 911 but just going and picking up a crying child on the street. It’s wonderful to know what goes into being a CEO when he says, ‘Ideas excite me, Empathy grounds and centres me and I want to be in a place that would have real impact.’

The book speaks about his personal journey, Microsoft under him as a CEO and the lurking dangers of fourth industrial revolution. Every chapter is well researched, well crafted and intense. Especially the chapter ‘A Cultural Renaissance’ is a brilliant account of the three Cs – The Concept, Capabilities and Culture and the three leadership principles of Clarity, Energy and Execution. Another chapter that left me awestruck was ‘Friends or Frenemies?’ How simply he puts across that one can find a buddy in the fiercest of rivals. With an ease and generosity he talks about the contributions of his family, peers, colleagues, bosses, counterparts, rivals, thus glorifying every individual along the way. The unwavering transparency and vulnerability in his writing wins you over and again. His passion and undying quest to constantly innovate and evolve for a better tomorrow is palpable.

As an alien to this industry I was completely blown away by the incredible social companions-chatbots like the Cortana, Zo, Xiaoice, Siri, Alexa, the tremendously captivating devices such as the Hololens, Google glass, Snapchat spectacles, Xbox, Skype translator, Kinect, Minecraft and of course the revolutionary technologies of Artificial intelligence, Mixed reality, Quantum computing, Collaborative robots(co-bots), Haptics and more. The story behind Minecraft acquisition brilliantly highlights the growth mindset and the leader’s conviction in each of his employees.

The book leaves us with countless brain tattoos. Some of my favorites are….

Put team first.

Build ‘hope’.

Leader must learn from external opportunities and internal capabilities and connect the dots much early.

No one CEO can effect renaissance. It takes all of us.

To be a leader, your job is to find rose petals in a field of shit.

Work hard with heads down and eventually good things happen.

Respect your competitors but don’t be in ‘awe’. Go and compete.

Build partnerships before you need them.

Transformation has to come from within to make change sustainable.

Learnings from shortcomings can actually be the thrilling moments.

Challenge conventional thinking more.

Unlearn old habits to learn new skills.

Be bold, Be right, Be your own man.

He is brutally honest and scary when he makes projections about future such as –

Computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence by 2100.

How do we make technology work for us and not against us?

Why do I exist?

Why does Microsoft exist?

These soul searching, existential questions do touch upon his spiritual side but then he also speaks about the timeless values of empathy, education, creativity, judgement and accountability to be cultivated in our kids to stay relevant and that goes on to show how extraordinarily clear, tangible and an inspiring a leader Satya Nadella is!

Do grab a copy of this book if you feel the urge to Hit Refresh!!

Till then Sir, we will wait for your memoir that you have reserved for dotage!

P.S. :Following books found a mention by Satya Nadella. I am sure they will be worth a read.

      ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Dr. Carol Dweck

      ‘Young Men and Fire’ and ‘A River Runs Through It’ by Norman Maclean

      ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder

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‘What? Havelock islands, did you say? Rachel couldn’t believe her ears.

Yes! Havelock it is!

‘But won’t it be a little heavy on our budget?’

‘Don’t worry honey. I have it all figured out. Get on to that travel agent right away. First class.’

Rachel was dancing all about. How much she yearned for these yearly retreats. This particular year she was sceptical about any such trip because of the dwindling business but her husband’s brain was a chock full of ideas and this time too he had surprised her. She only had to wait for him to spill over and she didn’t mind waiting.

Soon they were amidst loads and loads of bags and baggage. Rachel had checked and rechecked the luggage until she was doubly sure.

‘Don’t you forget the tiny blue bag?’ Chris reminded her.

‘How can I not remember dear?’ she said with an all knowing smile.

Two days later they were sprawled on a warm sandy beach, soaking in the bright sunshine and marvelling at their fortune. When they got enough of the tan, leisurely they dressed up and strolled in for a luncheon. They were just in time. Waiters had laid out a splendid buffet for guests. He threw a quick glance. All kinds of people were milling around..the blacks, the whites and the browns. They were rich and classy with refined manners. Cool, refreshing, complimentary drinks were being served. Ten different salads were on a platter to choose from. A large table was placed in one corner and Chris’s eyes twinkled at the diverse array of seafood. Crab soup, oyster sauce, fried prawns, lobster rolls…a delicious smell titillated his taste buds and his mouth began salivating almost to the point of dripping. Rachel was close behind. Chris walked up to the manager who was overseeing the arrangements and with all courtesy he could muster he exclaimed, ‘What a remarkable day!’ the manager gave a big smile.

‘Such fine weather!’ he continued. The manager nodded in assent.

Chris continued undaunted. He knew how to have a way with people. ‘The food looks delicious but can I make a request? he asked softly. The manager raised an eyebrow.

‘Meet my wife Rachel. She devours fish and meat in any form. However once she happened to eat shellfish and a chronic outburst of hives caused her to choke. What a dreadful experience it was!  Since then she has taken upon herself to moving towards a plant based diet and would appreciate a vegan meal.’

Leaning closer he whispered with a chuckle. ‘A secondary interest is shedding those extra pounds.’ The manager did not show any particular interest towards Chris.

It was a torture for Rachel to simply ignore the delectable barbecue and comply with Chris’ wishes but she gave in every time. There was no point arguing.

‘Certainly! What would you prefer ma’am?’ he spoke for the first time addressing Rachel.

‘Smashed chickpea and avocado salad sandwich’ she said desperately hoping for him to refuse.

‘Sure ma’am, grilled?’ left her disappointed.

‘Yes and a simple miso soup to go with it?’ she asked with yet another hope.

‘Please be seated. It should not take too long.’ he remarked.

‘How kind of you and not an iota of meat or fish, I repeat. Thank you!’ she added gratefully.

He acknowledged and sauntered slowly down the slope towards the kitchen.

Chris was amused by his wife’s presence of mind and gave her one of his sweetest smiles. She walked away nonchalantly to a table in the farthest corner. He did not care a penny for this kind of nonchalance. He had ulterior motives in mind. Chris happily followed her with a large plate loaded with practically everything on the buffet.

Rachel was noisily munching onto the sandwich. Although she would have preferred a hot and spicy minced meat filling for a sandwich, this wasn’t bad either. Chris was eating voraciously like never before. He belched loudly and looked around. The place was overly crowded. He mentally made a note of a couple of servants lingering nearby. He felt assured and with a subtle nod of his head he signalled to his wife. She was anxiously waiting for this moment. In an exaggerated fashion, she half rose from her seat, spat out the half chewed last bit of the sandwich into an empty plate and gave out a cry that called for everyone’s attention. All heads turned in their direction. The servants were the first to arrive.

‘My tooth!’ she screamed. ‘Chris I lost my tooth.’ she cried again.

Chris widened his eyes and bent forward to take a closer look. Quite a few guests gathered out of curiosity and stared disgustingly at the gooey mass on the plate.

‘Calm down dear.’ he said offering her a tissue to wipe off the drool sticking out of her big mouth.  The next he got his hand on a fork and began picking on the bolus. By now the manager had rushed to the spot and was watching gravely.

When Chris had no doubts, he put aside the fork and grabbed a pair of chopsticks and deftly pulled out a tiny piece of something and carefully placed it on a napkin.

‘There is nothing to worry as far as your tooth is concerned darling but this little thing needs immediate attention.’ he said frowning and examining the miniscule object.

‘And what the hell is that supposed to be?’ spoke Rachel half relieved and massaging her jaw from the outside.

Chris’ expressions had changed by now. ‘Could you care to explain what is this mister?’ he asked turning his gaze towards the manager. The manager took a moment. He knew exactly what it was but was too shocked for words.

‘Allow me to explain. Rachel dear, there are no two ways about this being a piece of bone. I need to see the owner this instant. You were well informed about my wife’s trepidation for  allergies and you have been utmost reckless in your duties.’ he said curtly partly addressing his wife and then the manager.

‘Oh my god! I think I have got it Chris. Yes! It is the same feeling. I know the itch. I very well know it and it’s going to get worse. What do I do? For God’s sake what do I do?’ Rachel shrieked and jumped out of her chair and began pacing.’

‘There you go. We ought to rush her to the room. Send for the doctor immediately. Slightest delay can be catastrophic.’ he was screaming his lungs out

The manager was flabbergasted. He well understood that any attempts to intervene on his part could further blow up the matter. ‘I’ll call the doctor right away’, were the only words he sputtered.

‘Don’t you dare come in the way. It is all because of you. You are responsible. If anything goes wrong, I shall strangle you. I shall see you in the court. I am going to sue you…’ was his parting threat, loud and clear for all to hear.

The lunch was ruined. There was a stunning silence followed by murmurs among the crowd. All the colour had drained out from the manager’s face. With a hung head he hurried to make the call.

Minutes later Chris and Rachel were laughing their bellies out.

‘So you lost your tooth eh?’

‘For an instance I actually thought so!’

”Oh come on..’

‘No! I mean it Chris. The bone pierced into my gums. Next time you better come up with a better idea. I cannot afford to ruin my teeth and gums.’

‘A ‘next time’ might not arise.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, you have given a spectacular performance! Simply superb! Didn’t you notice the reaction on their faces? Not a doubt! Not a doubt my dear! And you take my word for it. The manager will soon be at our feet pleading and begging for mercy. That is the moment I am waiting for!’

‘We should demand for an extended stay or maybe double the compensation or….or… perhaps ask for a free lifetime membership to this exotic island!’

‘Is that all? Don’t think so petty. You are soon going to be a millionaire. Behave like one. I am not going to settle for anything less than a million dollars!’

‘Oh Chris! You are fabulous! Did you say ‘A MILLION DOLLARS!!’ You are a genius. That is going to be the biggest catch ever…’

‘And don’t you dare open your mouth. Let me do the talking. It is not going to be easy but I have it all rehearsed. They are going to find me a hard negotiator. You watch..Ok, get ready. They should be here any moment. Infact I can already see some folks heading toward our cottage. The manager it is and I guess the other two gentlemen maybe the proprietor and the attorney. They seem to have given it a good thought, so it seems.’

Rachel hurried to the bed and began rubbing ice pack all over her exposed arms and neck and slipped into an expression exhibiting pain and misery. Chris prepared himself for the long conversation that was to take place. Rachel was biting into her nails and her one eye was twitching badly but Chris was as cool as a cucumber. This was not his first time. He was accustomed to such dealings. This was the part he loved the most. To be honest he looked forward to and relished it every bit. So when he heard the knock, he sprang to the door and opened it rather quickly. The men walked in with grim faces and Chris did not miss the remorseful look in their eyes. One of the men appeared particularly different and before he could make any presumptions the manager began..

‘The management extends an apology …’

‘This is no time for apologies.’

‘This tiny piece of bone is the root cause of all trouble, right? Sir.’

‘What else could it be? Are you here to interrogate mister?’

‘Please don’t misunderstand. What I came to ask is, are you sure you found it in the bread?’

‘I’m afraid, we did.’

‘But it is so unbelievable! In the history of fifty years we have never made a gaffe like this one.’

‘Are you trying to say that…..’

‘I am not saying anything. I am only asking if by chance have you forgotten something at the table?’

‘No chance.’ he still felt himself to be the master of the situation.

Rachel’s ears pricked. Her face had gone white.

‘How about asking your wife?’

‘Can’t you see? My wife is not in a position to answer your questions.’ he said turning to his wife who looked as if she had seen a ghost.

‘Chris…’ she tried stopping him.

‘Nonsense! Rachel let me handle this.’ he continued stubbornly.

‘But Chris…’ she cried. He was in no mood to listen.

‘There is no need to raise your voice, Sir.’ And at this point of time the manager swiftly pulled out the tiny blue bag from his coat pocket and held it high in the air for all to see.

At the sight of the bag Rachel gave out a loud scream and collapsed.

The room suddenly became very quiet. All stood motionless.

Chris who had held his ground till now began to waver. He felt a trickle of sweat on his back. He still cleared his throat to say something but thought better of it.

One of the men came forward and held out a card, ‘Inspector Dominic, Serious Fraud Division’

Dear readers,

I feel it is my moral responsibility to share the actual incident with you. It so happened that we as a family were holidaying in Cochin and put up in one of the finest hotels. During lunch we had ordered for a vegetable biryani. We were in for a surprise when a piece of bone landed into our dish and we decided to play along. We made a big row about it. We were pacified only when the manager promised us free lunch with a complimentary dessert. We are absolute non vegetarians but nonetheless enjoyed the flavour.

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It was a tiny village. Infact calling this place a village would be preposterous. It was an uneven piece of land with no defined boundaries, no proper structures, no trees, no rivers and no hills. The place was inhabited by only a few families and largely by bachelors from the air force. Air force station being adjoining the village, many airmen stationed at the base lived in clusters and that is what had given the place a peculiar shape and form. You could see a few  houses erected haphazardly and that was it. There was a well miles away and the men and sometimes women walked the distance to fetch water. Groceries and vegetables were available in the weekly market held on sundays for two hours.

Our present one room house in the city was on the verge of collapse and when the second wall gave away we were in the open. My mother refused to stay a day longer in those shambles and cried and cried till my father brought us here. It was scorching heat by the time we reached the place. We were six of us. The next day we began going to this Zilla Parishad school. The school was run in a cemented room in shifts. We had one teacher who ran multiple classes. The strength of each class ranged from two to ten boys and often we sat and learnt with a third, fifth and seventh grader.

My father woke up every morning at four, attached huge plastic cans onto his bicycle and rode to and fro to fetch water. It was an arduous task and two such trips brought in enough water to last a day and night. If he fell ill or went on outstation duty, it meant going without water. At such times he made extra trips and stored extra water. No matter what, it was against his principles to send us or mother to draw water. When I did insist he would say in a booming voice, ‘Your job is to study. You are not to waste your time and energy on these mindless errands till I am alive.’ We kept quiet. We would always keep outside the house a spare pot of water filled for the passersby and the servicemen who had odd working hours. Then he would help my mother in the kitchen to cook, wash and prepare us for school. My granny was eighty and half blind. She needed help too. I was the eldest with a sibling three years younger. The youngest had just begun schooling. My father was a man of few words with immense strength. He was a stickler for discipline. He cycled a lot. He cycled to work daily. It took almost an hour to office and an hour back home. By the time he returned it would be late evening. He insisted on strict adherence to time and studies. We were home before he arrived. It was an unsaid rule. We studied till late in the night, ate and slept. This was the routine. Mother was also equally hard working. She slogged all day. With three growing boys and no help at hand, she was one busy woman. We never saw her sitting idle. But when she had the migraine attacks, she would be rolling on the floor holding her head. The whole day would pass in agony. At such times we often went hungry. It was only when father returned that he would cook rice and we would eat.

Days were tough and we were still getting accustomed to the newness of the place, school and people.

My father was not particularly happy with the school master. He was an impudent, ill mannered fellow who forever chewed on tobacco and spat unceremoniously everywhere. There was never a clean spot in the school. He spoke with tobacco tucked in a corner of his mouth and we had to strain our ears to comprehend every word that fell from his mouth. His hair smelled of eucalyptus, at least I thought so and he was into a habit of constantly pushing behind his ears the lone strand of hair that popped out every now and then. He barely taught. It was the older students like us who read or sang or dictated to the boys from junior classes and sure enough that is how the school ran. In the beginning my father tried to intervene, sometimes sternly and often sweetly but the master would either look down upon him with a cold, arrogant glare or laugh out loud splattering brown saliva all over.

One fine day he came home agitated and exclaimed, ‘I do not wish any sons of mine to pick up such bad habits.’ And although we went to school he took upon himself to educate us. He would personally take Math, Science and Languages. As a result all three of us did exceptionally well in academics.

Months passed and examinations were round the corner. We were working hard and our father was also putting in extra effort. I being the senior most was assigned more responsibilities. I was spending more time in school doing revisions with the low graders, correcting their books and if need be even writing down question papers and updating records. I never shared this with father because had he known, an altercation would have definitely ensued, even leading to a brawl maybe. So on the pretext of extra studies I continued coming late and father though grumbled, permitted me this liberty as far as I showed results.

Now it so happened that that particular day father was early from work. He was travelling the next day and would be gone for two days. So he was earlier than usual to fetch water and fill the drums to stock up the water reserve.It was late in the evening almost dark and he was cycling hard in the direction of the well. From a distance I spotted my father’s robustious figure pedalling vigorously and heading straight towards me. Before I could turn away, hide or concoct a story, he had halted just a foot away from me, drenched in sweat, panting and his fiery eyes boring into mine. The heavy steel pot slid from my hands and trundled along the gravelled path wetting me all over. The noise made me tremble. With a shaky voice I tried explaining but my words drowned in my sobs. He now knew what delayed me in school.

He did not utter a word, he was not even listening. He looked dangerous and a feeling of discomfort was creeping in. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited with a pulsating heart. After what seemed like really long, I heard the whirring of the tyres and the swerving of the bicycle. And when I finally dared to open my eyes I saw my father pedalling off in the opposite direction like never before. I was feeling terribly sick.

Father had not yet returned. It was very late, close to midnight. The neighbour had brought in a news and gone. Mother was getting restless. She was pacing the tiny room. I was in bed pretending to sleep but wide awake.

It was early morning when my father entered the house. No sooner did he step in my mother began questioning. I lay huddled beneath the thin blanket trying not to stir and afraid not to make a sound.

Mother was blabbering non stop but my father did not pay any heed. He quietly changed, washed and asked for a cup of tea. Fretting she put on water to boil, added the tea leaves and sugar and poured it into a cup. My mother had long back resigned to his silences. He spoke only when he wished to and so she asked, this time gently.

‘Where were you the whole night?’

No reply.

‘Do you even care?’

He looked up. Encouraged she continued.

‘The neighbour had come last night.’

He raised an eyebrow questioningly.

‘The master has been behaving weird she says.’

He kept sipping.

‘It seems he had gone into the fields to attend nature’s call and somebody caught him unawares and thrashed him black and blue.’

He paused and slurped his tea.

‘Yes! He was found in a semi conscious state sputtering gibberish.’

He stared at her, an indication that she continue.

‘He has no clue who could have done it. I believe a thick shawl was thrown over his head before he was walloped with blows and punches. Villagers think it is some kind of black magic. Poor guy. I doubt if he will be out of bed for another three months. Exams are around. What will our children do without him. He was really taking pains for them. Wasn’t he?’

My father had finished his tea by then. He put the cup down and said slowly, ‘Nice tea.’

Then he walked across the room and lay his back on the cot and closed his eyes. He had not slept the whole night. Only thing she noticed were the tiny wrinkles forming in the corners of his mouth.

‘Something is not right. Will this man ever behave like a normal human?’ she said to herself.

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Rama was jumpy today. The postman had visited them in a long time. When one is locked away in an isolated place like this with nothing to do most of the time, one is constantly looking for entertainment. Even an animal who has astrayed, a visit by an unknown bird, or a cart passing by at times can be a great source of amusement. Rama’s days were often mundane. When Rameshwar is around, Rama exhibits an unexplained sense of energy and zeal. You will find her hovering around him all the time monitoring his every movement, commenting and suggesting. Rameshwar never asks for suggestions nor does he pay heed to any of her comments but as a dutiful wife she makes it a point to establish her presence and need. Rama finds immense pleasure in being useful to the family. She is a fine cook, better than most and she loves to cook and feed. She puts her heart into every meal, be it a normal sambar, chutney or the usual idlis. I always wonder how women can whip out the same curries and veggies for days without getting bored. Rama is a classic example of this. She attacks any recipe with the same excitement and novelty and serves with an unmatched fervour. She sincerely believes that a way to a man’s heart is through his mouth and follows it to the tee. She feels it a crime to waver in one’s household duties and ensures that she never falter.

Like every other day Rameshwar had left home at fifteen past ten and Rama was still hanging near the door seeing him off till he was completely out of sight. Each day she waited patiently that Rameshwar may turn back and wave but he never looked back and she never lost hope. As soon as she lost sight of him, she went limp, dragged herself to the lone rocking chair in the verandah and flopped into it. She felt the strength drain out of her. She had a long day ahead to be spent all by herself. Momentarily she closed her eyes and let herself drift into the day’s events. She was a good thirty minutes into this mood of pensiveness when a distant ring of a cycle bell broke her reverie. With crinkling eyes she glanced in the direction and spotted Naga the postman riding his bicycle effortlessly leaving a trail of dust behind. From a distance he resembled a scarecrow wearing a cap placed crookedly, an extra large wrinkled uniform and a khaki bag dangling to his side.

A sudden change came about in Rama. Her body stiffened, colour coming to her face, eyes widened ,a curl of her lips, she felt a surge of energy within her as if ready to take on the day. The listlessness and fatigue she had experienced a while ago had vanished. Swiftly she gathered the coffee cups and plates with leftover idlis and dashed to the kitchen. She returned in no time with some home made murukku and cool raw mango drink. Naga had parked his bicycle by the time Rama placed the tray on the table. She knew right away that the day was going to be eventful providing her enough recreation to last a while. Naga was covered with dust from top to bottom. The Vellore heat was simply unbearable. He was drenched in sweat especially the underarms, neckline and forehead. Initial greeting surpassed and Naga reached for the drink without waiting to be offered. He finished it in one go and helped himself to the savouries. Rama watched him intently not feeling it right to disturb him in the middle of eating and drinking. Naga was halfway through the plate and when he gave a barely audible burp, Rama felt satisfied. By now Naga was settled, he looked at Rama for the first time with a half smile and slowly pulled out a postcard from the bag. Rama eagerly took it and began examining it. Seldom the postman dropped by and seldom letters arrived. Naturally Rama was intrigued and held the card as if a prized possession. She was going to savour it bit by bit. By the time she looked up Naga was on his way pedalling. Rama was about to say something but pursed her lips, smiled at herself and plonked on the chair to read the contents of the letter.

The letter was indeed addressed to Rameshwar and the sender was a Mr.Rao….Rameshwar’s childhood friend. The letter went like this…..

Dear Ram,

It’s been long we met but not a single day passes without your thought. I hope that is the case with you too.

It gives me immense pleasure to break the news to you that Shramana has delivered a baby girl in US. As you very well know how difficult it is to find a nanny over there we need to be present by her side to look after them. Although Murthy has a month long vacation we cannot afford additional travel expense.

So I write to you to accommodate Murthy for some days till we return. I know I can bank on you at such times. He will be arriving next week.

Wishing you health and wealth as always.

Your friend forever

Mohan

Rama read and reread the letter. Not a mention of her, she was a little disappointed but nevertheless the news caused her great delight and anticipation. Not the news that Shramana had delivered a baby, certainly not. The fact that they were about to have a guest lifted her spirits no end. And that too the guest would be living with them for  a good number of days. She couldn’t wait to share this news with Rameshwar and impatiently began waiting for evening.

Rameshwar took the news in his own stride. He was  a man of set habits and principles and such an intrusion from an outsider was most unwelcome. He grumbled but seeing Rama’s overflowing excitement he acquiesced on certain conditions which he stated very sternly. She was not to get overfriendly with strangers out of habit, she was not to exceed her monthly rations by extravagant cooking and will not coax him into an extended stay but let him depart at his will. Rama happily complied.

Next morning Rameshwar had just emptied his first cup of filter coffee when Murthy knocked on the door. He arrived with an explanation that his parents’ travel was preponed and so he had dropped in a little early. Rameshwar received him with a forced smile and as much warmth as he could gather but Rama was simply uncontrollable. She did not know where and how to begin and kept chattering non stop and moving in and out of rooms until Rameshwar glared at her to contain her excitement but to no avail. Murthy’s untimely appearance had left her with no time for preparations and that drove her crazy.

Murthy was a young lad of perhaps nineteen years with thick wavy hair and a perpetual grin. He was taller than she had imagined and possessed a lanky disposition that gave him a somewhat awkward walk. However he seemed a high spirited young man with boundless energy and a zest for life. Rama liked him instantaneously.

He was still clutching onto a giant jackfruit. A long suitcase and a sac lay beside him.

Rama soon took charge and led him to the living. By the time he was done with the hot breakfast, Rama tidied up the spare room, swept it spotlessly clean, spread starched, unused sheets and towels and not only dusted the inbuilt closets but also helped him stack his clothes and belongings.  Afterall, he was here to stay.

Meanwhile Rameshwar had left for office and it was the first time Rama did not mind seeing him off. She had many things on mind and had a lot to do. She was a busy woman.

Murthy turned out to be a companion beyond Rama’s expectations. To Rama’s sheer joy Murthy was a foodie. He was an adventurous eater and forever willing to try Rama’s most unusual dishes. Murthy had a tremendous appetite and Rama loved to feed him. Murthy had only to mention a dish and Rama went out of her way to prepare it. Rameshwar detested payasam but since it was Murthy’s favorite Rama presented it in all variations of rice, millets, vermicelli with white sugar, brown sugar, jaggery, coconut milk and cashew paste. She poured her heart into every dish thus transforming the simplest meals into a feast. The delectable meat and drumstick stew that she cooked for supper even left Rameshwar marvelling at his wife’s culinary skills.

Honestly, Murthy was such a handy boy. He helped Rama in making beds, washing up, watering the plants, buying groceries. He also lent a helping hand in the kitchen shelling peas, crushing coffee beans, grinding dosa batter. Rameshwar was pleased as he had less to do in the kitchen but he was most elated when he was spared  the toughest job of cutting open the jackfruit. Murthy separated the edible buds of this juicy fruit with such precision and so skillfully that the husband and wife were nothing short of thrilled at his talent. Days were so busy that Rama did not even find time for afternoon siestas. Murthy engaged her in games of noughts and crosses, card tricks or if nothing his non stop chatter never ceased.

Time passed surprisingly quickly with Murthy. It was time for Murthy to go. Despite earnest protests from him Rama packed bottles and bottles of pickles, powders and a variety of chips for him to take along. On the day of his departure she also stuffed in freshly prepared lemon rice and curds.

Rama had been sulking all night. Rameshwar otherwise stoic by nature too expressed sorrow as he was leaving. Strangely he was on leave to see him off. Whatever it be he had developed a fondness for the lad and the boy had actually been a son to Rama. With an aching heart they bid him farewell.

Murthy was gone.The fellow had brought in cheer and good humour into the lives of this middle aged forlorn couple and they couldn’t fathom how much they were going to miss him. lt was as if the house had lost its charm and spirit. Murthy had cast a spell that would take time to fade.

Rameshwar held his distraught wife by the shoulders and turned to go in. Just then the familiar ring of the cycle bell made them stop and look back. It was the postman again. Rama went forward and received the letter. She ripped open the envelope and read it anxiously. As she was reading  Rameshwar noticed subtle changes in her face. Her eyes widened, her mouth began to twitch, her cheeks turned scarlet, her ears fluttered and the letter fell from her hand. Rameshwar walked slowly, picked up the letter and began reading it….

Dear Rameshwar,

I am writing this letter to inform you that our visit to US is cancelled. We are not going so there is no question of Murthy coming over to stay at your place. You may have been waiting in anticipation. Sorry for the delay in correspondence.

Hope this letter finds you in good spirit.

Your friend forever,

Mohan

Rameshwar looked up from the letter and stared at Rama . He found her jittery and self absorbed. He quietly led her to her bed. He helped her with her feet and gently caressed her forehead. Then he soundlessly walked out of the room. A smile was floating on his lips. Rama would take days, probably months to recover from this experience and it will only do her good. Afterall she was a lonely lady….his wife ….Rama.

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Natasha was watching from a distance. She was not mistaken. It was Monica. She had caught only a partial view in the mirror and it was enough to bring back old memories. She had not forgotten that face. Some people are difficult to forget and Monica was one among them. The face still demonstrated the same arrogance and attitude. Natasha was done with her haircut and waiting to pay. Monica’s face was being readied for the mask. After years they had crossed paths in a high end salon and Natasha was still contemplating whether to make a conversation or not. Finally she decided to hang on and dug into a magazine while waiting for Monica to finish.

Thoughts flooded Natasha’s mind. She was skimming through the magazine but her brain had wandered far off. She detested Monica for reasons unknown and sitting all by herself she was trying to figure out why. She could have walked away ignoring her presence but she was curious about her whereabouts. Long time had elapsed and nothing mattered now. She was flipping the pages when Monica spotted her and and reached her even before she had time to react. In her trademark style she threw her arms around her and greeted in such an ostentatious manner that half a dozen beauticians stopped in their tracks and threw a glance in their direction before continuing with their unfinished tasks.

Five minutes later they were seated in a lounge in the salon.

‘Oh my god! I still can’t believe it’s you Natasha. I had least expected to bump into you. What a pleasure!’

‘I know it’s been too long. I am delighted too.’ added Natasha mendaciously.

Monica looked stunning in a lime yellow chiffon. There was no trace of crow’s feet or turkey neck that develop with time. Every strand of dyed hair was in place. Hands were fuller and rounded and it looked like every feature was tended to with utmost care and attention. Natasha felt a pang of envy fleetingly.

‘An all greens cold pressed juice without ice’ Monica was instructing the girl in attendance.

‘And a cold coffee with a dash of cream for ma’am, right ?’ flashing a smile, Monica ordered for Natasha in an ‘I’ve known you all my life’ fashion.

Old habits die hard. Monica makes it a point to let people know that no one knows them better than her and this is what irritated Natasha then and again now.

‘Hey! You look great! Just a little plump.’ This was Monica’s way of complimenting albeit in a subdued manner. ‘And what a coincidence! It was only last week that I happened to meet Vikram. He mentioned to you didn’t he?’

‘ Oh yes! He did.’ lied Natasha. I must ask him about this meeting, she thought.

‘He was all praise for you. But Natasha I genuinely feel it is you who is more fortunate to have found a husband in Vikram.’ Monica was speaking excitedly.

‘Really?’ asked Natasha with a fake surprise.

‘Indeed! Vikram still exhibits the same old charm and wit. A brief encounter with him and it made my day.’

Natasha feigned eagerness. Monica continued.

‘He hasn’t changed a bit. He helped me load all the shopping bags into the car boot and also drove me home. How chivalrous! You are one lucky girl.’

‘I know’ laughed Natasha agreeably. Her own laugh sounded silly to her.

‘I’m sure Rishi’s a fine husband too. Is he still with the multinational ?’ Natasha asked with an intent of changing the subject.

‘He is, he is, but not with Barclays any more. It is so unlikely of Rishi to stick around  with a firm for long. He’s been travelling a lot and presently working as a consultant.’

‘I see’ nodded Natasha.

‘As far as I am aware Vikram has always been a stable guy. His calm composure and an ability to tackle any perilous situation with an aplomb makes him stand apart from the rest. I will always remember the night of your birthday that he spent tending to my ailing mother. I cannot explain how assured I felt with him around.’

Natasha stopped herself from spilling the coffee. Now she knew why Vikram had cancelled the dinner date at the last minute. This revelation unsettled Natasha and she sensed a faint hint of malevolence in Monica’s words. She tried her best to suppress her emotions and blurted,

‘Of course, isn’t that what friends are for? Rishi would have done the same, I’m sure.’ she said sounding very close to tears.

‘Maybe, but it’s different with Vikram. He never misses an opportunity to help. He’s so dependable. He possesses a sensitivity that is rare to find in men. How gracefully he had mended our relationship when Rishi and I were on the verge of a breakup. I have still preserved the long, handwritten letter he wrote to me then. It made me feel so special and subtly addressed the issue as well’, she said casually but Natasha did not miss the element of slight contempt in her tone.

Vikram and letters! No way! She knew Vikram too well. He was gentle, certainly but he had never scribbled a note in his lifetime. Forget a letter.

She felt it futile to raise objections but there was a growing disdain which was proving difficult to control.

‘Isn’t this place a little far for you?’ Natasha again tried broaching another topic.

‘It is! Perhaps quite a distance, but I like the hygiene and attention here. Moreover it was Vikram who led me to this parlour. He had categorically stated how happy you are with the treatment here and ever since I have been a regular.’

A feeling of uneasiness began creeping in. Vikram had kept her in dark about being in touch with Monica. She was losing all restrain.

‘So when was the last you met Vikram?’ Natasha asked upfront.

‘Only a week back, didn’t I mention? 11th august.’ retorted Monica, ‘Seriously Natasha, he never misses the day. It is you who forget.‘

11th august was Monica’s birthday. Yes, but why should she remember? And Vikram who is so reckless with dates, calls her. Impossible! She will definitely get to the bottom of this. Natasha was simmering. She felt a slight tremor in her fingers. Her body stiffened. She is normally not a scheming person .That is an odious thing to do but hate can drive you to do the unimaginable. A fantasy began gripping her. In the spur of the moment she was a transformed person. An idea flashed across. A plan began to take shape. A sense of exhilaration and excitement filled her. At times we ourselves don’t realise our tendency to switch temperaments so quickly. One moment she was fuming and the next moment she felt elated and in control. For the first time she spoke as if in charge.

‘Forgive me for being so careless. However let me you in on a secret. This is something I have been preparing for and I must say it is a sheer coincidence to have met you. There couldn’t have been a better time. I’m sure you have been enlightened about Vikram’s promotion.’ she was watching her closely.

‘Oh yes! How stupid of me to have forgotten to congratulate you?’ an out and out lie.

‘Never mind. To celebrate this occasion I have arranged for a surprise party tonight and invitations have gone to the closest of his friends.”

‘Hey! that’s really sweet of you.’

‘Thanks but nothing would please him more than to have you beside to cherish his achievement.’ Monica’s face began showing colour.

‘Thank you …….but….’

‘No buts ! I am in no mood to grant you excuses. I command your presence !’ said Natasha cheekily.

‘Well…I would love to….’

‘And you have to bring Rishi along.’ she spoke cutting her mid way. ‘We would be delighted to meet him. Especially Vikram will have the time of his life. All his old buddies will be joining in and I have made exclusive arrangements for great food and exotic drinks.’

‘How tempting!’

‘You will come, won’t you ?’ she asked earnestly.

‘Well, if you insist.’

‘And what about Rishi? He will come, won’t he ?’

‘Leave it to me.’

‘Oh! You give me so much joy by accepting the invitation at such a short notice. It is just that ……’ she hesitated.

‘Yes, please speak your mind.’ Monica urged her.

‘It is just that I have an unusual request to make.’

‘In friends there are no formalities. I am all ears.’

‘Oh nothing ! Just things…’ she added pretentiously.

‘What things ?

‘You know it.’ Natasha was enjoying every bit.

‘What do I know ?

’Nothing at all, it’s only for your own good, you see.’

‘What is for my own good ?’ she was almost on the edge of her seat.

‘I shouldn’t have started this in the first place.’

‘Now since you’ve started you better finish it.’ said Monica, a hint of anger showing.

‘Well…If you say so…’

‘Go on.’ she said raising her voice. She felt sweat breaking out all over her body.

Natasha hitched her chair closer to the table and leaned forward to speak summoning all her courage and in the most sinister manner.

‘……If you could ask Rishi to go a little easy on the booze. The last time he got drunk, he was a whirlwind in bed.’

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