Chapter 2

[To Read Chapter 1 read here]

Rohan 

It was a Saturday evening and Avantika was in her last meeting. I asked her if she could drop me off halfway home. She agreed easily as she said, “No problem. It is on my way home.”

I would like to make it clear here that Avantika was neither a very friendly person nor a friendly boss—she was just a bossy boss.

But then, she was full of life. Smart, savvy, sexy—yup, I said it—and sensitive. She was always on the move and getting things done. It was a common sight to see her deftly handle three or four things at the same time. She could be a brand ambassador for multi-tasking.

When I first met her, I was overwhelmed by her. Undoubtedly so.

She came from a humble background and made it to an Ivy League college on her own merit. With her diversified work experience, she had risen to a senior management position. Her work ethic was influenced by plenty of hardship, coupled with global exposure to the assorted work cultures of Manhattan, Mumbai, and London. I never ceased to be amazed by her energy and dedication. She had two personalities that contradicted each other—one when she was dealing with a deadline and one when she was not. When she was not dealing with a deadline, she had a ready laugh and a sharp wit. Many times, I didn’t know whether she was joking or serious. She also had a God-given gift of bringing down a conversation with a thud and saying the most outrageous things with a poker face. She taught me to live with a sense of humor, instead of walking about the office with a long face. This was new to me from her initial impression of “Bossy Boss” she engraved on my mind.

My immediate senior was not there, so I was reporting directly to her and learning to survive in a very fast-paced work environment.

However, she wanted me on her team and tried her best to make me feel comfortable with her humor and unique knack for soothing feelings after the turmoil of our team meetings. That was how she was able to leave a long-lasting impact on everyone every time, be it for better or worse.

To be honest, I had never met anyone like her. At thirty-two, I was still struggling to gain a foothold in my profession; quite unlike my other friends, who knew where both their personal and professional lives were headed. I had been hopping from job to job and had yet to create that long-lasting impact in a single job that would help build a solid base for my career. When I met Avantika, she was one of a kind, and I couldn’t help but marvel at her.

She was so unlike the ladies I had met so far; so unlike Neha, my college sweetheart, who didn’t know if she was coming or going. Right to the end, I failed to see the shallowness that underlined the sweet, vacuous expression that I had once found charming.

To my own peril, I ignored the warning bells that told me ever so clearly that Neha was not the right girl for me. And sure enough, before I knew it, she pulled the carpet out from underneath my feet by announcing her sudden departure over some petty issue, just a few days after our marriage was announced.

She did not have the decency to explain why she did what she did. Moreover, she behaved as if nothing had changed for her and she continued to maintain a relationship with my folks. I was upset, humiliated, and furious with her, as well as myself for not recognizing her personality. Precious years of my life had been wasted.

After that very public humiliation, my parents predictably did what good Indian parents do. They rounded on me and demanded an explanation as to where my life was heading. Of course, it wasn’t anything too subtle, and that also added a hint—a veiled threat cum demand—handing over the responsibility of choosing of my bride to them.

It was easier to do that than to argue. My mom was a cardiac patient, and I desperately wanted her to be happy. As the third youngest child of four, and the only boy at that, I had been cosseted and bullied in turn.

I had a happy enough childhood. In fact, it was the quintessential Rajput family upbringing— firm about tradition, but high on togetherness and camaraderie. My two elder sisters were married within our community. The third one was pursuing her MBA, and was dutifully awaiting her turn to marry after I obliged everyone, that was.

So here I was, working for boss-lady Avantika, and impressed as well as confused by her.

It had taken me a couple of months to learn to deal with her, but eventually, we were fairly comfortable with each other. So much so that I could slip into her cabin with ease and get my work done, with a little help of my charm, which I was sure Avantika had noticed.

The entire floor was taken up by our division. Avantika had a big corner office along with an adjoining secretary chamber. A little terrace, attached to her office on the eastern corner, accommodating a small seating arrangement.

The east side of the section had rows of cabins for the sub-divisional heads who worked on Avantika’s team. The other side of the office had rows of cubicles for managers. I occupied one of them. In between were the desks for staff and other professionals.

Near the entrance towards the north side, we had a small pantry and a couple of rest rooms. Since I had never seen Avantika using any of these rest rooms, I guessed boss-lady had one all to herself attached to her own cabin.

Her office was equipped with a large L-shaped desk and chair. The cabin was well decorated and synchronized in a classic European theme. A neat seating arrangement filled one corner. One wall was full of books, the other contained file cabinets, while a third wall showcased pictures of this hugely successful woman posing with global dignitaries of various sorts. The effect was one of understated power. There were some beautifully shot pictures of Avantika and her son. She adored her baby boy; that much was clear. But where was a picture of her with her husband? Something seemed odd and incomplete here.

***

I did enjoy her aggressive, but nevertheless, safe driving skills when we traveled together to Pune. Avantika behind the wheel was an apt metaphor for who she was — a woman in control of her car, her emotions, and her life. She took her risks, but they were on her terms. And she usually landed on her feet, unscathed. In short, she was a control freak.

Her controlling nature initially made me uncomfortable. But I learned quickly enough to get to the other, softer side of this woman by sharing her sense of humor, and even gently making fun of her. Her die-hard love for Bollywood biggie Salman Khan was a huge surprise, and I just loved to tease her about it.

Little things revealed the chinks in her armor. The secrets she hid so ferociously—her vulnerability and her care and commitment to those in her vicinity. But then, a smile here, and a little gesture there to accommodate others gave her away for what she really was—a deeply passionate, caring, and over-sensitive lady.

***

Boss-lady had asked me to arrange a meeting at her residence. It was a common enough practice with her, arranging meetings and working from home once in a while. I guessed it was more to keep an eye on little Aarav without disturbing his schedule. Whenever she had a nanny problem, she brought him to the work. He played quietly in a little corner of the cabin that she had created for him. On such days, all her meetings were arranged in a conference room located to the northeast of our floor.

That time around, though, her meeting plans went well with mine. I had planned on staying overnight at a friend’s home. She lived in the same area and meeting at her residence the next morning would fit perfectly with my itinerary.

Unexpectedly, I heard her voice. “Rohan, are you ready?” I came back to the real world from my virtual one, where I was engrossed in taking down some data and planning for my next analysis.

Instantly, I stood at attention, my previous thoughts forgotten. “Yes, ma’am,” I said without thinking.

She did have that effect on me.

“Great. Let us walk down to the lobby,” she said, picking up her handbag while the office boy handled her laptop and lunch box.

Walking next to her, I smelled her perfume and heard the tick-tock sound of her stilettos on the hard lobby floor. I had no clue what perfume it was—floral, fruity, woody—maybe all three. But it was probably a classic; the kind that lingers in both your nostrils and your memory.

Absent-mindedly, I took the seat next to the driver, thinking she would drive today. To my surprise, the driver was new.

I looked at Avantika, who was arranging her laptop on the backseat.

“I hired a new driver, as the other fellow was taking too many days off and, most of the time, he didn’t inform me in advance.” She smiled. “You can shift here, if you wish.” She pointed to the empty space next to her.

“I am fine,” I said.

My refusal was quick, far too quick. I hoped she didn’t notice it. But I didn’t want anything to give away the turmoil within me.

On our way, we spoke about the clothes and brands we wore. I also told her that I was going to take advantage of my friend, a store manager, who would help me exchange some clothes or pick up new stuff at the employee sale price.

She was smiling, as usual. I wondered why she smiled at me whenever I explained something to her. Was it an admiring smile or a caring smile? It was a little strange. I was probably talking a bit childishly. I hoped she didn’t mistake me for her boy. I didn’t like the thought of that. Oh, watch out, boy.

Brushing aside my idiotic thoughts, I pulled out my phone and showed how I was helping my sister pick out a sari. She took the phone carefully and saw my sister, who was posing with a yellow and blue sari.

“Oh, she is pretty. So good looks run in your family?” said Avantika while handing over the phone.

I blushed from her comment and the way she admired my looks.

To ease the situation, Avantika told me stories about her college days in India. I couldn’t stop laughing when she was narrating the stories with all the dialogues.

This was a different Avantika, real and natural to herself, shedding her corporate image. I discovered her simplicity and the hidden girl behind that image. She was becoming more comfortable in my company. She was more natural. I started liking this Avantika.

She narrated a girlish story of a dress exchange and a major fight with her cousin with all laughers and tears …So much emotion was associated with those memories.

“My father also does not approve of exchanging dresses among my sisters and cousins, and, of course, the fights that usually follow afterwards. He always tells my sisters not to do so, but you know girls.” I smiled as I said this.

Avantika just looked into my eyes and batted her eyelashes. She was a bit mischievous.

She dropped me off at the Andheri Bridge, which connects the east and west parts of the Andheri suburb in Mumbai. She lived in Andheri West on the Yari Road, while my friend lived in Andheri East.

Andheri is one of the largest suburbs of Western Mumbai and much of this area is busier than the rest of the city. In Mumbai (Bombay), the suburbs extend along the local rail tracks from the south towards the north and the east. The Municipal Corporation has divided the suburb on these rail tracks into the eastern or western part of the station, such as Andheri E & Andheri W, Bandra E & Bandra W, Kandivali E & Kandivali W. Each one of them is the size of a small town itself.

In the eastern part of the Andheri suburb, there was the MIDC industrial area that is now converted into a commercial sector—SPEEZ (software export zone)—and a few residential colonies. The western side of the suburb contained small residential colonies/areas named like Four Bungalows, Seven Bungalows, Lokhandwala, and so on… Varsoa Beach was the western part of Andheri, which was near Avantika’s home. Along the beach, some part of the coast was covered by creeks, a patch of mangroves, and marshland.

I took an auto-rickshaw, India’s favorite three-wheeler, to my friend’s place.

Alok was at work. His wife, Ash, welcomed me at the door. Both husband and wife were my classmates during my management studies in Pune.

The evening was a riot. Alok joined us later and we drank, ate, laughed, and pulled each other’s legs in ways only old college buddies could.

Naturally, it was a trip down memory lane as we recollected the good old days and, inevitably, the conversation turned to our favorite topic—girls. Ash rolled her eyes in exasperation at what she protested was guy talk, but gamely joined in.

I got a few updates on what each of our classmates was doing, while Ash and Alok didn’t seem to tire of asking me endless questions.

It was a big group we had in college, and a close-knit one. We put together our combined stash of phone numbers and called some old buddies. We were in luck. Some responded and we talked—it was an evening to remember.

It was past 2:00 a.m. when we decided to call it a day. That heady mish-mash of excitement, chatter, and vodka-based cocktails made it real tough to put on the brakes. But I had to. There was no choice. It was going to be a busy day with Avantika and possibly a stressful one as well.

Alok protested that the next day was Sunday; surely boss-lady Avantika would not begrudge me a day off? “No,” I explained. “I have to work this Sunday to compensate for the unscheduled day off we had due to bandh(strike). You remember?”

I was always uncomfortable with this unscheduled bandh (closer), usually called by the local political party to mark their protest in the city against a ruling government over some issues such as a price war, scams. It was a perceived political issue to mark the score. Although most “bandh” are peaceful at times, the violence might erupt, depending on who was involved. Like we all knew, a bandh was the accepted way of protest in India. Offices tended to remain closed if the employers sensed a danger to their employees’ lives. Of course, the employers expect the employees to make up or compensate for their unscheduled day off.

***

The next day, Sunday, I got up with a start at nine o’clock. There was no time to lose unless I wanted to risk further annoying Avantika by being late. Besides, we had a serious subject to tackle, and I definitely did not want to risk starting off on a negative note.

I put on my clothes in a jiffy, even though I did linger a while over the absolutely delicious chhole and paratha brunch complete with ghee, white butter, homemade pickle, and creamy curds laid-out by Ash. Like any true-blue northern Indian would tell you, there was just no way you turn down a paratha and ghee meal, especially when it’s home-cooked and served up hot. Besides, I had been living in my rented guest digs for the last seven years, and ghar ka khana, home-cooked food, was rarer than a blue moon.

I ended up pigging out, but now I absolutely had to run.

It was going to take me over half an hour to get to her place, although, strictly speaking, the distance between east and west is not much. But the Mumbai traffic has a will of its own and I hoped and prayed it didn’t give me a hard time; not that day, at least.

***

Around 10:45 a.m., I called Avantika, but there was no reply. Next, I sent her a text message to tell her when to expect me. Still, no reply. That was so not like her.

I sent another text to inform her of my arrival time. No reply. Now I was annoyed.

Close to 11:00 a.m., I reached her building complex. It was an impressive residential complex with seven luxury high-rise buildings with around thirty-five stories each.

The security checks were stringent. A call to her apartment confirmed that she was indeed expecting me.

Bemused, I compared that strict policy on entry/exit to other housing societies; it was unlike most of the housing societies in Mumbai. Very few high-profile housing complexes had such restricted and inflexible security systems. That was the state of India’s financial capital; a big, bustling city with a rising crime graph too, but then Mumbai is Mumbai.

The lift transported me to the twenty-fifth floor. I marveled at the neat precision of the building layout. Trust Avantika to inhabit a neatly manicured environment.

I found her apartment door ajar; yup, the number was correct. It was her home indeed.


Inside, amidst a higgledy-piggledy heap of toys was little Aarav. Only half his attention was on the toys, as he was closely following the antics of Tom and Jerry on TV. Jerry was hammering Tom with a saucepan to a background score of cymbals and drums, something that sent Aarav into peals of laughter. Like most little boys, he found violence hysterical. Madam Avantika would probably frown at that stereotyping, but hey, I was a little boy myself, once upon a time.

Aarav glanced up to look at me and then ignored me royally.

He had enough on his plate—watching cartoons and building a bridge with blocks. I couldn’t help but smile. It seemed that multi-tasking was infectious, and inherited.

I sensed quickly enough that Aarav was not about to call out to his mommy, so I rang the doorbell in hopes of being received.

A maid materialized in a few seconds with a polite “Namaste.” She asked my name and pointed me to the sofa. I settled myself on it and looked around.

It was a beautiful home; spacious and sea facing. The furniture was expensive, but otherwise, the interior was Spartan. I loved the view. I stood on the balcony. I got an eyeful of the picturesque mangrove forest to the north, even as a cool breeze from the sea assailed me.

I re-entered into living room. Although her apartment was elegant, the walls told a different story. They were, after all, integral parts of Aarav’s creativity. I traced his artistic journey from the post-toddler years’ squidgy lines, to present-day images of trees, clouds, a little boy, and slices of pizza.

I looked outside the balcony. Although the sky looked largely empty of clouds that day, that is, no sign of rain, which was unexpected of a Monsoon day. There was a morning breeze that kept me cool. The sea was reaching its high tide and water breaking on the shore was making a faint noise. I thought the seashore would be smelly during monsoons, with fish and sea mess. But this was not the case. On the contrary, the breeze was a refreshing one.

I knew for a fact that Avantika had many visitors on a regular basis. A lot of people were staying with her. She loved the buzz of a messy, happy home, and the laughter of loved ones. That vital bit of information came from who else but good old Wendy.

It gave me a deeper insight into the lady who was now my boss, en route to becoming a friend. Long before she metamorphosed into her present role of a single mom and boss-lady, Avantika was part of a large, bustling household, with the security and friendship of many.

Quite a contrast to the life she led now; one with little room for encroachments on time and space.

My reverie was broken by Avantika’s booming tones. “Baku, has someone arrived from office?” she demanded of her maid.

Presently, she emerged from one of her rooms and found me seated on her sofa. She seemed happy to see me. I told myself to get a grip. She was just being polite and professional.

Her avatar or demeanor was far from official. Clad in casual three-quarter-length capris and a loose, sleeveless top in a soft, girlie peach, she was a far cry from the intriguing boss-lady who occupied so much of my mind-space these days.

Her shoulders were bare—oh lordy, that was a sight never seen before—casual, relaxed, and feminine. I was so used to her sharply tailored business suits at work that her new look had me stumped.

She made herself comfortable on a sofa opposite me. Casual pleasantries over, she turned a firm eye on Aarav. On a center table rested a cup of milk that Aarav had no intention of finishing.

She pulled the little boy into her lap and, in a gentle, but no-nonsense tone, told him to finish the milk. All the while, she was talking.

That was such a new setting and a whole new facet to her. Had I not seen it myself, it would have been hard for me to imagine the tough taskmaster in this mild, mothering role. She teased her son after he finished the milk. “Now, show us your muscles. I bet they have become strong and big just like Chota Bheem’s (a popular Indian cartoon character; the name inspired from a mighty superhero in Mahabharata, a Hindu epic) after drinking your milk.” She gave his muscles a gentle squeeze and Aarav preened for a minute, then suddenly remembering a stranger’s presence, shyly hid his face in her bosom.

She gently tugged at Aarav and asked him to look up and greet me. But he was as willful as he was reluctant, and firmly refused to engage with me.

Wow, I thought. Here’s someone who doesn’t listen to Avantika or give a hoot about her disapproval.

Avantika led me to her home office, the same room from where she had emerged. But as soon as she showed me this little home office, she excused herself.

It was a neat little space. There were two workstations in the corner, a low Indian-style seating arrangement, a Lazy Boy chair, and a smart little sofa. Behind the workstation was a shelf that contained books ranging from western classics to modern fiction and non-fiction as well. Like I mentioned before, it was a day full of surprises. So many spiritual titles from Hindu culture—from Kundalini to Brahmavidya to the Seven Secrets of Shiva, to an unabridged copy of the epic Mahabharata. I couldn’t imagine Avantika being interested in such matters. Clearly, the collection indicated a much developed taste and passion for reading. And there I was, thinking that only business, profit, and branding mattered to her.

Aarav came hopping in with his blocks and showed them to me. Now, my next task was to build a castle for him.

Recently, I’d done it for my friend’s kid, so I quickly assembled it while Aarav helped me with handing out blocks.

I instructed him to fix the remaining block and its position before getting up.

Next, I spied several photos featuring Avantika in her younger days. She looked so very pretty, relaxed, and soft. I especially loved one of her posing with her hair down, and a smile that was mirrored in her eyes so deeply, it was as if she was in love with the photographer.

Unexpectedly, I felt her presence. It was her perfume again. She was standing right behind me, watching at me staring at her photo. For some reason, she was tense and breathing heavily from rushing around.

I was a little embarrassed at being caught gazing at her pictures so blatantly, but she seemed to be unconcerned. Not too much, anyway.

To ease the tension, I asked, “When were these pictures taken?”

She replied easily, “Almost fifteen years ago. Let me show you some more pictures,” and left the room.

Before she left, she asked Aarav to tidy up the place and leave the room.

She returned, armed with a couple of albums. Some were taken in her college days, some during her work-life, and a few with Aarav. She was way prettier in those days, although she still looked much younger than her age. Perhaps it was the expression in those pictures that arrested my attention.

She kept up a steady stream of conversation, explaining the backdrop of the pictures, the people, and situation associated with of each of them.

In one of the pictures, I saw Avantika teaching a class. She looked very engrossed talking with one of the students. In the background, there was writing all over the board. It seemed like some university in the United States with students who had all colored skins. Avantika smiled at me and explained that she had a teaching assistantship during her university days where she taught a couple of undergrad classes for two years.

She mentioned to me, “I love teaching and that is one of the reasons why I give so many presentations all the time…” She smiled and said, “Of course, overlooking those yawns and hidden smiles at times…” As usual, she was her best when being humorous, especially when she involved herself.

After learning about her family through the photo albums, we settled down to work.

But it was as if a barrier had been broken. Perhaps we knew each other a little better that day.

Avantika sat on the low seat, while I chose the Lazy Boy chair. I could just visualize her reading in her free time on this sinfully comfy chair.

It was difficult to concentrate on the work at hand, as my mind wandered again and again to her low neckline, which was ever so visible from my angle. Man. That was just so bloody distracting. And of course, disruptive to my peace of mind. Why on earth did women wear such clothes?

After a few minutes, Avantika moved to her office chair, as if she could sense my discomfort.

I just hated her being able to read my mind with such ease. She knew I could read hers as well.

We both knew what the hell was happening, that strange connection that was hard to define—chemistry.

Thinking alike is no fun at times. It just complicates everything.

She took the discussion forward, moving smoothly from one topic to the other. It was as if we were desperately clinging on to something to avoid the obvious.

I asked her to print the agenda. She indicated that I could use her laptop to do so while she double-checked the facts in a recently printed newspaper article. I bent over to give the print command. There it was: a sharp, clear whiff of that utterly delectable Victoria’s Secret body lotion (I figured that out and its smell later when I helped her choose her dress for PR work). It drove me crazy for a few seconds.

Luckily, Avantika did not notice my reaction, engrossed as she was, circling the important points in the business article with a pencil.

Soon, she handed me the print out. We resumed our discussion. It was a focused negotiation on target and goal. She was tough, uncompromising, and demanding. I was soft and persistent. No, I told her; it was my way, not her way.

Suddenly, Baku, her maid, entered the room with a tray of coffee and snacks. Time for a little break. Aarav took the cue to come bouncing in. Otherwise, he had been busy. There was just so much to tell Mommy and, like all little boys do, he started meddling with the food.

I smiled. By that time, I was used to all that. We had two kids at home: a niece and a nephew. My two older sisters had one brat each. They were the joy of my life, although a couple of years ago, I was extremely uncomfortable in their loud presence. Today, I was used to them. After all, most of my vacations in the last few years had been spent playing with my sisters’ kids.

But to Avantika, it did not seem to matter much; Aarav jumping around and demanding to be heard. He came closer to me. I took the cue and picked him up and made him sit next to me. He felt safer with me in that situation; otherwise, Avantika would have shooed him away. I put my arms around him. He smiled at me. I looked at Avantika. She was turning her face toward the laptop screen to hide her smile. She was used to getting her work done in this din.

We finally concluded the discussion. I had managed to convince her of my course of action on my terms and conditions with a smile and a joke.

I took a final sip of coffee and got up to leave. Avantika’s so-far grim expression eased into a grin. “Rohan, you are one sweet negotiator. I mean, you have managed everything your way.”

We laughed together.

It was time to leave, and we both got up from our chairs.

Outside, in the dining area, there were three elderly people sitting around the table. I figured out that the elderly gentleman was her father, but it was difficult to place the other two ladies.

So they had been at home all the while.

Avantika asked me to join them for lunch. It was a formal invitation, issued without much thought or will.

I would have loved to have joined her, had she and Aarav been by themselves. But not in that setting, no.

I declined politely and walked to the door.

Even as I waited for the elevator, I heard Avantika issuing her standard instructions, although they were in her native tongue. I could make a wild guess what she was saying. She was just demanding some food and I heard a couple of names—appam (rice bread from southern India) and gobi (cabbage).

It was the boss-lady as usual. Even at home.

***

The next day, Avantika didn’t come to the office, as she was traveling on business.

I found this out from Wendy, who had now become a good friend of mine ever since she had sensed my growing closeness to the boss. She seemed very happy with that development, as Avantika was known to be an aloof person; very quiet and keeping to herself.

That had helped create an aura of mystery around her, but it seemed Wendy could see past it.

I glanced through my email. Wendy had sent me a message about a possible business trip to Hyderabad with Avantika, tentatively scheduled for the next week.

I called out loudly to Wendy, “Hey, can you not find someone else to go with MB?” Monster Boss was our secret short code for Avantika.

“Of course not. It was sweet revenge, since you forgot to get my candy.”

“Well, just wait; I will see you,” I mock threatened her as we both laughed.

“Sure; see me with a box. Well, no, make it two boxes now,” she demanded.

Wendy D’Souza was a sweet colleague—easy going, reasonable, and well suited to her role as secretary to the division head. She had been with the organization for over two decades now and was well versed in its culture. She understood its structure and knew the pulse, especially that of our department. Moreover, she had been with Avantika ever since she took over.

Wendy had worked briefly in New York City when her husband was transferred there for couple of years and understood the global business culture that went with Avantika’s work style. With two grown-up kids and a well-settled life, Wendy did not have higher career aspirations and looked to retire from the same department.

She had managed to create a comfort zone for all in this fast-paced, ever-demanding set-up. She played shock absorber when things went wrong from either side.

I went over the travel itinerary mentioned in the email.

“Horrible, horrible,” was all I could mutter under my breath.

A flight out at 6:00 a.m. meant almost no sleep the previous night. I was so nervous about angering Madam again that I could barely sleep. After a stressful flight, we reached Hyderabad at the unearthly hour of 7:30 a.m. and headed straight to the hotel. There was no time to change clothes, as we had to go straight to the business conference, where we worked maniacally throughout the day.

We spent the whole day standing, working, and talking mindlessly to promote the business and our product. It had not been an easy task.

I cursed Avantika for that kind of schedule. She was busy in a meeting the previous day, so it was her idea to travel together the next day. She worked like a maniac and expected the same from everyone else.

To know the answer, read the story…

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