Prashant was a bit anxious today for this coming meeting. Smoking his Classic Milds at a nervous speed on the stairs of his office from where he can look down upon the parking lot. A self-made man, he headed the digital marketing division of his company started in zest about a decade back with his friends. Today they command a good position in the market so there is simply no need for Prashant to feel this nervous energy before a meeting that he hasn't felt in a long time. Not even last week for the meeting to pitch for a leading FMCG giant. And today's meeting was actually professionally insignificant, atleast from their side. Interestingly what set the ball rolling for this one was another chance meeting during that last week's pitch.
His chain of thoughts was suddenly broken when he saw this Ola cab stop at their parking. Right on time he thought, his wait was finally over, a wait to resolve some unfinished business, that he has been doing for over 2 decades and not just today! Once again the edginess in his temper today came back; he needed to really get hold of himself. He was not a school kid or a teenager to be acting like this. He actually did not know if it was really her in the cab or her at all, just a guess from the time. He threw away the cigarette ignored for a while, still burning well into its butt.
He went inside his office and told his junior that someone was coming to meet him, so bring her to the meeting cabin once she arrives. After a few splashes of water on the face, he felt ready both inside and outside to meet this almost stranger. But that composure changed when she entered the cabin and looked at him with those same deep eyes sans the anger and tears he last remembered. Even before the introduction was made, in his heart Prashant knew that the old classmate he incidentally met during that last week meeting, told him the truth. This was Anubhuti, another classmate of his but a little more than that, best friends, his crush, perhaps love too had he really known the meaning of the word at that age. But whatever names the relationship you want to give, she was the one he had an unfinished business since long and that is why this meeting today was so important to him. She might not remember him today but he remembered everything that happened between them till the last incident that changed everything forever - as their handholding had ended so did their friendship.
Prashant would've gone deep into his thought had Anubhuti not broken it with her introduction. She was senior manager in a leading content marketing platform, that was after this leading FMCG company for their profitable business. She thought that the deal was secure as she had met an old classmate in the communication department there. But then he told her that they had appointed a digital communication agency and they will only decide about going ahead with their platform if they find the agency purposeful and they will only deal with them afterwards. So here she was meeting the head-digital marketing to explain the platform and its benefits. But what she didn't know was that there was an ulterior motive to this meeting too. Their mutual friend in the company Karun knew about their friendship and had recognised them both while meeting them. So when he told Prashant about her, he was very eager to meet her and it was decided that this meeting would be set up like this.
As her presentation rolled on, Prashant’s thoughts kept going back to their school days. They were both good at studies since kindergarten, and yet enjoyed games and recreational activities equally. It wasn't as if they only spent time with each other, they had their own friend's circle amongst their respective genders. Afterall this was still mid 90s and a boy and girl seen constantly together was scandalous to many. But coming from open-minded families they never really had any hitch about being friends with opposite gender, be it with each other or others. With time though they had grown accustomed to each other more than anyone else, from sharing tiffin in the group to going back home together. His house was on the way to hers, just a block away. In primary school they had the same ‘Dai-ma’ taking them back home with other kids on the way. The practice had continued even after there was no ‘Dai-ma’ or other students accompanying them now that they were in junior school.
Anubhuti broke his wandering thoughts once again, as she asked him a question on what she was just explaining, thinking he was not really paying attention, a classic case when a customer is simply not interested. But Prashant had already done his background research on the product and answered it to her satisfaction that he understood what she was explaining. Once again this took Prashant back to those days when due to his distracted nature and slow handwriting he missed class notes and he would go to her house almost every evening to copy them from her. An exasperated Anubhuti seeing him being distracted and slow would herself take up the copy and copy the notes for him, so they could just get on with some play before it became dark and he had to go home with his aunt downstairs talking to her mom. More than her though this evening ritual had become an irritation for the boys group Prashant was part of. He would miss their evening cricket and football matches and they really started teasing him for his friendship with her. After all even though liberalisation had opened the economy for a few years now, minds of people were still closed about a girl and boy being close friends. Murmuring taunts of P loves A could be heard in the school corridors whenever they met or just stood nearby coincidentally. Even his best friend Pradeep who wholeheartedly supported them had actually indicated that he at times felt left out, specially when he would share more food with her in his tiffin and not him!!!
After completing her presentation, Anubhuti asked him if he found the product interesting and how would he like to proceed further. At this Prashant realised, that even before he had gathered his thoughts on how to deal with their unfinished business, this meeting had come to an end. Now the nervous energy before the meeting was again back in Prashant. Despite being a communication professional for over a decade, suddenly opening up and talking at a personal level was not his forte. He tried stalling her stay by apologising for not offering her coffee or tea before and asked if she would like one and they can discuss some nitty-gritty though he had got everything completely. But she politely refused as she was not really big into drinking tea-coffee and also had a personal commitment approaching. But she said would be happy to discuss way forward or any doubts he had over email if he needed time to sort his mind out. Prashant realised that she was actually in some hurry but also that his lack of concentration had miffed her. He realised she hadn't really changed much after all these years, still very perceptive about others thoughts. She could specially read him like her text books and yes getting irritated easily was something of a weakness they both shared. Both these qualities perhaps were instrumentals in what eventually happened between them.
With time he had grown more attracted towards sports as with many boys of that age and he slipped in rankings, no more 1-2 between them anymore. She held on to being top of the class almost unchallenged then. But that didn't really bother him, atleast not more than the fact that now in junior school class they couldn't sit together due to difference in roll numbers and sitting arrangements between boys and girls in the class. But whenever he got to spend time with her it made him really happy, he even enjoyed playing girly games with her just like the sports he played with the boys. Memories of games they played brought a silly smile to Prashant's face even today. As little kids they played so many scenarios of husband-wife with her toy kitchen set and his bag, of course they had grown over those with time but there still was an unexplained intimacy in their games like antakshari even when they played among group of friends.
By now Anubhuti was rather frustrated, she had been standing silly before this guy with her hands extended for a parting handshake and he was lost in his own world. She withdrew her hand and said a semi polite bye; thinking to herself, clearly this was their last meeting. Even if they do get this client, of which the chances she thought were slim, she would request TL to assign some other manager to this account. She wouldn't be put through such disdain once again, big client or small. How ironical it was that when she first saw him, she actually felt she knew him, a long lost friend perhaps he reminded her of. It was now the turn for her chain of thoughts being broken when he called her standing from his desk.
Prashant realised this was his last chance, if nothing but of just a closure for what had happened between them all those years ago. Things for which he felt truly sorry, and since years he has been trying to find her just so he can get that one chance of redemption. So to prolong their time together, Prashant asked her if he could accompany her downstairs till she gets a cab or something as he was going down as well to get a new pack of cigarettes. Although she said it was not at all necessary as her ride was already there, she did not object to him walking down with her, opening doors for her with complete civility and attentiveness missing so far.
For Prashant, his birthday was never something he really wanted to celebrate in a big way, only 3-4 close friends, including Anubhuti were invited at his home with his family celebrating it all together. That year though leading up to his birthday, things were not very bright, they had grown further distant somehow. Half yearly results saw Prashant slip beyond top 10, and the taunts regarding them together among peers had grown sharper. What was worst is that he felt these things had made her cold towards him and that made him bitter. However, as his birthday drew near he invited her as always and she too accepted happily. For once he thought things would be better between them from now on.
But as things turned out that birthday and the day after, it ended up being the worst, one that changed many things in his life, including a resolve to never celebrate his birthday ever again. That day the weather like his mood had turned cloudy and gloomy and things became worst as the day rolled on. The drizzling that had started since morning kept making return appearances and that made it difficult for his friends to appear for his birthday. What was worst for him that even Anubhuti hadn't come who lived the closest. It was almost 8 o'clock, late even for ending such a party in those days and he hadn't even cut the cake despite everyone in his family asking him to. Finally he had lost all patience and just went out to call her from her house. It was big step as a kid his age going alone out at that late time, but he did not stop for anyone as tears and anger threatened to spill out.
It felt like a lightning strike when upon reaching her doorstep he found the door locked. He felt betrayed, she had gone out but not for his birthday, it was not that she got stuck in rain. Atleast she could've shown up just for a minute when she was going out with her family, he thought, but no why would she waste her time. The idea of her giving no importance to him broke barriers of his anger. Just as he would've made a fool of himself by doing something rash in the middle of the road, his best friend Pradeep's hand was on his shoulder calling his name, saying sorry that he got stuck with rain and muddy road.
Prashant was shaken out of his reverie finally by Anubhuti saying her ride was here. Shocked he realised they had already reached the building gate and a Honda City car was approaching them, driven by a smart looking guy of their age. Anubhuti smiled at the guy and turned to Prashant and said thanks for your time Prashant, you need not worry now as my husband is here to pick me. Even though we did not reach a deal today, look forward to a positive outcome of our meeting. With that she opened the passenger side door and sat in the car that had already pulled up before them.
As they drove away a stunned Prashant realised he had blown away his chance of closing the unfinished business just like in all those days till their school session was over after the fateful next day of his birthday. That day he had cornered Anubhuti at the first chance he got and had harshly asked what was so important for her that she missed his birthday. He thought it was her ego that was coming in between them, while infact it was his own bruised one that was making him so angry to notice that she was already tensed about something. He didn't even wait for her reply, and slapped her across her face – a slap that had come from sheer frustration and anger. It was first time he hit a girl and that too Anubhuti. She stood stunned; her beautiful eyes that always had expressed joy of her heart only had tears of hurt, anger and disgust in them. Seeing this change was the first strike for him, what came next were her words that cut him deep. She said, listen Prashant, I don't think we can be friends anymore. You have broken everything. There is no need to worry about attending each other's birthday anymore, as let us not call each other for them. No need to come to my house anymore, I won't bother you either. Saying this she stormed out of the empty class and school. Somewhere deep down Prashant regretted slapping her, the guilt of it still pained him and made him promise to himself never to hit a girl again But that time his ego didn't let him go after her or apologize or talk to her in days to come. His ego didn't even let him go towards her house for a long time.
As the holidays progressed, he started missing her. The feeling of guilt also crept up but not enough still to overcome his ego and allow him to go to her house and talk to her. But one day his aunt brought news that broke the barriers of his ego. Anubhuti's family had moved out of town as her father got transferred somewhere. She was surprised to know that they didn't even meet once before going away and Prashant was clueless about all this. Hearing this Prashant ran out of house like mad only stopping before her doorstep. This time there was an even bigger lock on the door, indicating a permanency to her absence.
That night after his father came home for his weekend and Prashant was lying on bed with him, he told him everything that had happened as his father was more of a friend than a strict father and he could speak anytime anything with him. His father listened to him patiently as always, he was soothing in his approach but did reprimand him for his behaviour. In the end he asked, do you love her? Prashant was still much young to realise the true meaning of that word, but through his emotional turmoil he felt that if his father said so then it must be it. He assured him that he will help him find her if she didn't contact him, and once they were of age, he will arrange their marriage. A flutter of hope that those words had kindled in him remained unfulfilled till today. His father had died much earlier than he came of age, just about a year after this incident. The hope had over time turned into a deep regret that he had lived all these years.
It wasn’t as if Prashant stopped living or he never fell for a girl once again. But he never stopped his quest to find that one chance to meet Anubhuti and express his regret for what he happened between them. But today when the chance had finally come, he blew it once again. The rekindled hope of closing an unfinished business and seeking redemption after so many years had finally died forever.