It was just another day at the office for everyone – except Sanjay. To him it was a day of exultation. He couldn’t get on with work – not after that call from Maya...
“Sanjay, it’s me, Maya... I need to see you.” She’d sounded terse and upset.
“Sure Maya. What’s wrong, you sound terrible.”
There was a pregnant pause. “I have left him... my marriage of four years is over...”
Sanjay had consoled her, the best he could over the phone and promised to meet her for dinner.
There was a trace of a smile on his lips as he hung up. He couldn’t believe his luck. It had all gone down exactly the way he’d planned. It had taken him an entire year of careful planning and execution, but this was so worth it. He wished that he’d seen the look on Ashutosh’s face when Maya had walked out on him.
He got up from his cubicle and casually sauntered over to the cabin at the end of the room and knocked.
“Come on in.”
He walked in and revelled at the satisfying sight of the broken man at the desk. His eyes had a vacant look. It was the look of a man who had lost everything.
“Hey Ashutosh... we have a meeting with the client in ten minutes...I just came to....what happened man, you don’t look so great?”
“Sanjay, I’m just not up for this meeting today. Could you please cover it for me?”
“Sure, but what’s going on, Ashutosh?”
He spoke as if in a daze, “Maya wants a divorce. I screwed up”.
“No way! What happened?” Sanjay feigned shock and surprise.
“It’s a long story. We haven’t been happy for a while now. And yesterday, she just lost it and said she wanted out. I was totally blindsided. But a man’s got some self respect too – I told her to go ahead and do whatever she chose to – I should’ve reasoned with her and stopped her, but I didn’t. I screwed up man.” He buried his head in his hands and wept.
To Sanjay, it was the culmination of a year-long wait. He tried his best to put on a look of genuine concern but it was tough considering how much he was gloating inwardly.
“Oh my God, I’m very sorry Ashutosh. I never imagined there was trouble between you guys. I’m stunned. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Thanks. I appreciate that. You’ve always been a great friend – all through these years.... But this, I’m afraid, is something that Maya and I need to figure out.”
“Well, for all that its worth, I still believe that you guys can resolve your issues and get back.. Don’t give up. And don’t worry I’ll cover for you here at work.”
“Thanks, I know you’ve got my back.”
Sanjay couldn’t help smiling as he walked out.
“I sure have your back, you jerk, and a gleaming knife in my hand too – to stab it with!’’ he muttered to himself .
Sanjay and Maya had been neighbours, school mates and college mates. They had even briefly dated at college.
It all started when they joined their Management Post Grad Course and Ashutosh came into their life. Ashutosh, the blue-eyed boy of family and friends, who had a certain way of making people go crazy about him. His boyish charms had girls swooning all around. But it was Maya who caught his attention – the bespectacled, studious Maya, who had absolutely nothing in common with Ashutosh. There was an air of mystery about her which he found enticing.
Maya, though indifferent at first was undeniably attracted to his wild ways. She’d always preferred the predictable, practical and ‘play-it-safe’ types. Ashutosh was nothing like the men she knew. She was dangerously outside her comfort zone, dating him, but with him she discovered a new side to herself which she seldom knew existed. They surprised everyone by going steady for two straight years and on the last day of their course, they’d announced their engagement.
It was an agonizing two years for Sanjay, watching his beloved Maya fall hopelessly in love with the college Casanova. The fact that he still nursed romantic feelings for her made it all the more worse. But what with Maya having eyes only for Ashutosh, he never could act upon his feelings. So the happy couple courted, got engaged and finally got hitched. Ironically, Sanjay was the desi version of the Best Man at their wedding, always beside the couple , smiling , joking and inwardly seething.
Ashutosh and Sanjay worked for the same Company. It was a torment everyday to see how blissful Ashutosh was in his married life. Sanjay was wrong when he assumed that his feelings for Maya would go away once he saw her married. To his eyes she just looked all the more beautiful. He still had all those feelings for her that he couldn’t confess to his own soul. He sometimes felt that he was a sick person to allow such distasteful thoughts into his mind. He’d considered moving jobs, but guiltily realized, he couldn’t bear to be parted from Maya. He was simply too content being in the fringes of her life as a good friend – going over to their place often for dinner, hanging out together and watching movies, almost as if they were still in college.
The threesome would have had a weirdly idyllic existence until trouble brewed in the form of a work promotion. Their Boss was promoted and moved to Germany. He chose Ashutosh over Sanjay to replace him, when it was evident that Sanjay was more deserving of the two. To Sanjay, it was the last straw – Ashutosh had screwed him both personally and professionally. He had taken away the love of his life and just when Sanjay had found solace in his career , Ashutosh had yet again brutally snatched away his opportunity of getting promoted , by all his glib talking and sucking up. That was his tipping point.
He spent every waking minute, thinking of revenge. He knew it wasn’t easy, derailing someone’s life, just like that. Life wasn’t as portrayed by the saas-bahu serials, with their devious scheming and plotting. He had to come up with something prodigious.
The idea came over him one evening over dinner at Maya and Ashutosh’s place, when Ashutosh was casually showing her photos of their boss’s send off party on his phone.
“This is Varuna , the new recruit to our team. She’s our business analyst.’’ It was a picture of an incredibly attractive woman in her mid twenties.
“Wow! She’s what you men would call an ‘item’ – a nice treat indeed for your team,” joked Maya as Ashutosh playfully punched her.
Sanjay joined the laughter but the seed of an idea was sown in his mind. Over the days that followed the tiny seed put forth roots, proliferating into a gargantuan tree and a nefarious plan was hatched. Sanjay would play into Ashutosh’s history of lasciviousness to create a scandal involving him and the pretty new recruit. Such a scandal would ruin him both professionally and personally. A simple but brilliant plan. All he needed to do was to kick up a few rumours at work and the gossip grapevine would do the rest. The harder part was convincing Maya. She wasn’t as gullible as his colleagues. If only he could convince her that some hanky panky was afoot.
The next evening Sanjay called Maya.
“Hey Maya, is Ashutosh home? He isn’t answering his phone.”
“Not yet. What’s up?’’
‘’Not home yet?’’ Sanjay paused.
“Yeah , why?’’
“Oh, nothing.. I just thought...”
“I saw him leave office an hour ago. In fact, Varuna and he were in the middle of a heated discussion. Probably that’s what delayed him. No problem Maya. I’ll try calling him later. Bye!’’
A few weeks later, he was at lunch with Ashutosh and Maya. As Ashutosh excused himself to attend to a call, Sanjay casually remarked – “I guess it is Varuna on the phone. She’s such a great person, you know. Puts in long hours, doesn’t complain when Ashutosh dumps work on her, even during weekends. I’d say they make an awesome team. No wonder Ashutosh enjoys working with her so much... mmm...this palak paneer is delicious, Maya.”
Maya simply smiled but there was a hint of a frown between her eyebrows. Ashutosh finished his call and joined them.
“Who was it?’’ Maya asked curtly.
“It was Varuna, from work.” Ashutosh looked somewhat surprised at the question. “ And by the way, I need to go to Hyderabad this Friday. Got a client meeting arranged.”
“Oh yeah, that new client.it would be great if we could make them extend the service agreement.. Varuna is flying down with you, right?” Sanjay asked innocuously.
“Yes of course, Sanjay. Didn’t I tell you so already?’’ Ashutosh sounded irritated.
Maya just chewed on her food looking thoughtful.
Sanjay carried on with his charade at work too – dropping smutty bits here and there about Varuna and Ashutosh’s clandestine behaviour – but was always careful not to go overboard with his suggestive hints. He also made sure that the origin of such stories couldn’t be traced back to him. A sassy office romance between the married boss and his attractive colleague was an irresistible piece of fodder for the gossip mills. People were quick to nod their heads and say ‘I always knew it’ and ‘I told you so’- conspiratorial glances and furtive nudges were exchanged whenever the two were seen together. Sanjay marvelled at the ingenuity of his plan.
Sanjay and Maya were at the movie theatre, waiting for Ashutosh to get some coke and popcorn.
“Going by reviews this movie is a total washout. I don’t understand why you want us to watch it so badly,” Sanjay joked.
Maya just rolled her eyes at him. “You and Ashu both are the same – senseless gore and violence is what turns you on! Anyways you don’t have a choice, everything else is housefull.”
“I’m actually surprised Ashutosh agreed to come along for the movie today,” he said nonchalantly. “Varuna looked so exhausted this morning after getting back from their Hyderabad trip that she slept at her desk all day, can you imagine? I suppose both of them would’ve worked on the details of the deal all night. Poor fellow, just look at him, Maya, he looks dead beat and you’re making him endure this ridiculous movie,” he said jokingly.
Maya gave him a chagrined look. She was confused. She had been having a niggling feeling about Ashutosh lately. She just couldn’t understand why she felt there was something more than a harmless workplace friendship going on between Ashutosh and Varuna. It looked like they were spending more and more time together, both on and off work. She simply couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that Ashutosh’s relationship with Varuna wasn’t completely platonic.
Just then Ashutosh came back with the popcorn and they followed him to the movie hall.
Sanjay and Varuna were waiting at the conference room the next day.
“Where is Ashutosh? The clients are almost here.” Varuna sounded irritated.
“Uh-huh...calls from my phone aren’t going through. Mind if I use yours to call him?’’ Sanjay asked.
“Go ahead, ask him to hurry.” Varuna busied herself with some papers.
Sanjay pretended to dial Ashutosh knowing well that he was at his dentist’s. Sanjay had already called him a while back and Maya had answered his phone. She had told him that he would be delayed by an hour. Sanjay knew Maya would be waiting outside the dentist’s room. And that Ashutosh’s phone was with her. It was time for the master stroke .He quickly typed out a short text message from Varuna’s phone – “Can’t wait to see you. Love, Varuna” , sent it to Ashutosh and deleted the copy of it from her sent folder. It was a risky move but he couldn’t clinch his story without incriminating proof.
Ashutosh walked out of the dentist’s office and walked towards Maya. She was looking at him strangely. When he asked her if she was alright, she simply nodded and walked away.
Sanjay was seated across Maya, a steaming cup of tea in his hand.
Maya was pacing the room restlessly like a caged animal. She walked over and sat down with a sigh.
“What the hell is going on between my husband and that bitch?’’ Maya's patience was at its lowest ebb and she was ready to burst.
Sanjay knew that she was serious. ‘’Look, Maya. There is nothing going on between the two of them. Just a little bit of healthy flirting, I'd say.”
“Flirting? Healthy flirting? Really Sanjay . . .” she rolled her eyes in disgust. “That's what you men call it? There is nothing healthy about flirting, Sanjay, not for a married man. Healthy flirting is a term introduced by perverted men who want to lend legitimacy to their extramarital dalliances. Flirting invariably has a sexual connotation to it.”
She got up from her seat and walked around the room gesticulating and muttering something to herself. Suddenly she stopped, turned back, looked at Sanjay and asked, “Did my husband sleep with her? You are his friend. Did he ever tell you anything about it?”
Sanjay paused dramatically before replying. He carefully weighed his words. It was now or never – “’Maya, this is extremely difficult for me. Sanjay is my friend. He’s a great chap as far as I’m concerned. But the fact is, he’s been acting strange of late, and though I hate to admit it, there have been rumours going around in the office as well. Whether he’s in an extramarital relationship, I cannot say for sure, but as your best friend , I would ask you to be honest and confront him with your suspicions . He may either blatantly deny it or accept his mistake and beg for forgiveness – I don’t know. But In any case, I want you to have an open mind, and decide if you can ever trust him again. You have given him your entire life in a platter and if this is how he reciprocates, then I think you have a serious issue.’’
“Oh Sanjay, how did it come to this? I feel hardly know him anymore.’’
Sanjay held the sobbing Maya for a long minute, saying nothing. It was a wonderful feeling, holding her in his arms and taking in her musky scent. She pulled away from him and spoke in a decisive voice ‘’ I won’t let him get away with this.’’
Ashutosh knew something was very wrong the moment he walked in through the door and saw her packed suitcases in the hallway.
Maya stared at him, a deadpan expression on her face.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Sanjay was on his way to the restaurant to meet Maya as promised. He was exhilarated. It had been smooth sailing all the way. He realised that even God was on his side. Why else would things happen the way they did? Him and Maya –they were meant to be. Now with Ashutosh out of the picture, he could start all over with her . He had to move cautiously lest she get suspicious of his intentions.
He saw her waiting for him at the table in the corner. She looked almost ethereal in her grief. He simply wanted to take her in his arms and console her. She spotted him and gave him a wan smile. Sanjay donned his best look of sympathy and said tenderly – “I’m terribly sorry Maya, that it had to end this way.’’
“My whole life has fallen apart, Sanjay! I don’t think I can trust anybody anymore. I feel so lost,” she said tearfully.
“Come on Maya, don’t say that. You do know that I have always loved you, right?’’ he asked softly.
She looked into his eyes for a long minute .Sanjay thought he’d never seen her look so brave and beautiful. She reached over and clasped his hands and leaned across over the table. Her breath was mixing with his and his pulse quickened. She whispered softly, “I know what you did, and it disgusts me, you bastard.’’
He recoiled, as if shot. Maya leaned back and folded her arms across her chest, a look of pure loathing on her face.
She raised her hand and waved at someone across the room. A few minutes later company arrived – Ashutosh and Varuna. Sanjay froze.
“A friend indeed, huh? Ever wondered how marriages last through the years, buddy?’’ Ashutosh asked scornfully. “It’s based on trust and open communication.”
“You pervert, probably you didn’t know, but I’m a happily married woman expecting my first baby,” Varuna hissed. “You will be hearing from the HR shortly. I’ve lodged an official complaint with them.’’
Sanjay couldn’t discern a word of what they said. He kept staring at them in an abyss of silence – it was the story of love's labour lost, all over again for him.