Saturday 15 August 2020

Aseema Sulakhe, Short Story 2020 Longlist

An Old Spark

Chapter 1

She gazed at the entrance of the duplex cottage. It was a quaint one with a beautiful garden and a white wooden table laid out with four embroidered chairs on the lush green lawn. It would make for a perfect evening tea she thought to herself. As she made her way inside through the vintage gate, she noticed the key placed on the table with a note under it that said,

Wish you a very special stay Vedika and Dev. Champa Akka will get in touch in case you need anything. She's the best we have and will arrange almost everything for you guys!

Best, Roy

Too bad Dev won't be able to enjoy this beautiful place. She still remembered their last fight. It felt like yesterday. Both of them were supposed to celebrate their third anniversary at this beautiful cottage in Coorg. But, fate had some other plans. She took the keys and trotted inside the house with her luggage. The pictures online had not done justice to the mesmerizing beauty of this place. The furniture complimented the overall aura of the cottage. The curtains were in the shade of pink with a tinge of gold. The sunlight shimmered through the huge French window highlighting the couch that had a modern touch with cream coloured skin and navy-blue cushions that matched the opposite wall that was adorned with beautiful artwork. There was a painting of a woman with a face that was beautiful yet she showcased illusory confidence in her eyes. No jewellery, no make-up but yet she had this fearless look. No regrets. Vedika made her way to have a look at the kitchen. It was simple. Nothing fancy. But had all the basic amenities. Anyway, Vedika couldn't cook any of the fancy dishes. Dev always did that for both of them.

She made her way up the staircase and saw the door to her room left half-open. She entered the room as she urgently had to go to the loo. She stepped in the washroom and decided to have a hot bath. She had travelled a long way and was tired. Also, the thoughts. She needed to feel fresh again. She took a good one hour and stepped out with a bathrobe around herself. She put on some music and started unpacking her stuff. She found the book she had brought along with her. There was a balcony attached to the room. Vedika, still in her bathrobe stepped out and saw a mahogany recliner laid out which faced the valley and would give a spectacular view of the sunset, she thought to herself. She settled down and picked up from where she had left the book. It was a book about the story of a woman on a solo vacation, escaping from life who finds solace in the company of a stranger. Touché! But it was nevertheless entertaining and had some steamy romantic sequences.

"Vendy?! Is it really you?", she turned around in surprise at the familiar voice. 

Chapter 2

Vedika replied, "Oh my God Samrat! You almost scared me! Have you rented the other room?". She got up and walked over to the edge of the balcony which was adjacent to the balcony of the other room.

"No... I am a psychopath killer and I was waiting for you", he joked.

"It's amazing to see you Vendy!".

There was an awkward silence that made Vedika realize that she should probably put on some clothes.

"Listen, I'll get dressed and we'll catch-up, okay?".

"Yeah, sure. Come over. I'll make some masala chai".

"Just what I needed! Will be there in 5", Vedika beamed with joy as she was actually thinking of going out for tea and some snacks.

He turned around and made his way inside and down the wooden staircase to the kitchen in his cottage. He couldn't help but smile at the weird coincidence. He had rented this place on the suggestion of his close friend who had convinced him that on this solo trip he was destined to meet someone and fall in love. Guess that's not going to happen, he said to himself. Vedika and he used to work together at BNY Mellon's Mumbai office. Vedika was there only for a year and had joined as a fresh graduate. Samrat was a year senior to her and was still working for the same organization. Vedika had quit just after a year and had started working for a rural microfinance startup. She was never made for the corporate world and had the guts to chase her dreams. That's what he had always liked about her. They had kept in touch over the years. She was a good friend to him. A friend he had started falling for but soon realized that she was in a relationship and had given up the ghost. 

Chapter 3

Samrat fetched all the ingredients, found some lemongrass in the garden and tea powder. He had the tea up for brewing on the stove when he heard a knock at the door.

"Hey! Got some cake for the High Tea, Sire!", Vedika said mimicking an English accent.

"Ha-ha. Since when did you become so cordial my lady!", Samrat retorted with a smirk and led her in.

That was Samrat. Rarely did he speak without sarcasm.

She was wearing a white and blue flowered top with black lounge pants. Her hair was pinned up into a bun with a few strands lining her face.

"You haven't changed one bit! Guess I have to put up with you for the next 7 days!".

"But I am glad it's not some creepy guy or else would have had to leave this wonderful place".

"'re staying alone? I never imagined you for someone who would go on a solo trip".

Vedika's expression changed and she wondered about how much to disclose. Maybe she should save it for later. It was too personal.

"Actually, Dev had some urgent office work and had to leave for Delhi so couldn't make it. I did not want to cancel the wonderful cottage, so decided to come alone. But yeah, I guess now I am going to ruin your solo trip as well," Vedika said teasingly.

"Ha-ha. That's not going to happen. If you irritate me, I'll just get my bike and leave. Afterall, Coorg is a wonderful place. Especially at this time of the year."

Samrat got the tea and each of them grabbed a piece of the sponge cake and settled down on the couch.

Vedika was taken aback but played along. "Of course, I am mostly planning on spending my time indoors, taking naps, cooking, reading and relaxing. So, wouldn't be bothering you much".

Samrat smiled. "Cooking? Really?".

"Of course. I have become a very good cook and can easily beat you in a cook-off".

"Ok then. Let's do this. Dinner will be a cook-off. Up for it?"

Vedika wasn't someone who could turn away from a challenge and so she readily agreed.

"Deal. And the one who wins will make breakfast every day".

She knew she was pushing her luck but she did not want to cook for the rest of the 7 days and she thought that she could easily beat Samrat as the tea was above average but could have been better she thought. All she had to cook was one dish. Piece of cake. At least, so she thought.

"Game on," said Samrat.

Chapter 4

"So, tell me how's the new job treating you? Do you regret leaving BNY?", asked Samrat.

"No way! This job is great. I get to work on the ground and solve REAL problems. I am very happy. The work culture is pretty chill too. The paycheck isn't great but then that was part of the deal. So, it's cool. I am working on this new project with Niti Aayog and there's so much to learn! Also, I am working on a start-up idea on the side. Just hoping it works out well".

"Great! Are you in touch with anyone else from the office?".

"Very few people. My roommate, and then there's Debashish. And You. You know, there were very few people that I actually liked there. How is your life? Do you still spend your weekends in the office and cancel on your hot dates?" Vedika teased.

Samrat always used to crib as to how he had to spend every weekend in the office and how he lost on some great 'opportunities'.

"Ha-ha. It's a lot better now. Get some time to go on dates now".

"Aha! So, is there anything serious?", she probed.

"Nah. You know how it is."

The next few hours just passed by and it was time for dinner.

"Hey, as we are going for a cook-off, I think we should go and fill up the pantry", suggested Samrat. He was clearly excited to cook.

Vedika did not really want to go shopping. She hadn't even thought of what she would make. But they had to eat something and she agreed.

They checked what was already available in the kitchen and they found butter, a few spices and some vessels.

So, after making a mental note of all the things they needed, they left for the nearest market and found really fresh vegetables. After about 40 minutes, they returned and Samrat had shopped like a crazy person. Vedika had no idea how many people he was going to cook for. Vedika had quickly seen an easy recipe for pasta online and thought it would be enough to save her face. She had almost given up the thought of winning after seeing the amount of prep being done by Samrat. Can he really make something using all of this? she thought to herself.

They decided on a time-limit and Samrat said, "You have 30 minutes to make the most delicious meal of your life. Your time starts now!".

"Relax MasterChef!", Vedika said rolling her eyes.

They got to work and after 30 minutes, Vedika's red sauce pasta looked just edible enough with no garnish whatsoever. She also thought she had burnt some of the garlic. On the other hand, Samrat had made Chicken Stroganoff with steamed rice that looked really appetizing and quite the MasterChef style.

They sat down on the couch with the food a bottle of wine that Vedika had brought with her.

"Whoa! Pinot Noir? This must be pretty expensive! Were you planning on using it for a special occasion?", remarked Samrat still looking at the bottle.

"Yeah, actually it is our 3rd anniversary today. But Dev and I had a stupid fight and he left for work and I came here", Vedika said as she tried to force a smile.

"Oh! Sorry to hear about that but I think you should call him! At least wish him".

"No, it's too late for that.", she said as she stared into space.

"I mean he'll be in a client meeting and will only be free after 11 so maybe I'll call him after that. Or maybe I'll drop a message now."

With that, she fished out her phone and sent a short text wishing Dev and asking him to call back as soon as possible.

They had their dinner in silence. To lighten the mood, Samrat started, "I believe after the neck to neck cook-off both of us agree that I have won this round. So, I will be getting the Immunity Pin and you will be making breakfast tomorrow".

"Ha-ha, neck to neck? Really? I am not a sour loser. Your dish was way better. I am glad we were able to finish the burnt garlic pasta! When did you learn to cook so well?".

"Just, my roommates don't know anything apart from Maggi and I am following a diet so I usually cook all of my meals."

"That is great!".

They had finished half of the bottle by now and were laughing very hard reminiscing some old anecdotes, bitching about their bosses and everything under the sun.

"Oh my God, it's almost midnight! I should probably get going. It's way past my bedtime. Goodnight Samrat! I had a great time tonight and a delicious meal! All thanks to you. We'll clean up the dishes tomorrow, okay?".

With that, she hugged Samrat and gave him a peck on the cheek. Samrat turned a little red but thought maybe the wine got to her. He bid her goodbye, shut the door and made his way to his room.

In his bed, Samrat couldn't help but think about Vedika. The way she laughed and spoke with such passion about her work. It was magical. He realized he still had a crush on her. But she was going through a tough time and he decided to not act on his feelings as it would totally be out of line. His mind wandered off to the dishes and he couldn't help but go down and washed everything himself. After washing the dishes, he was somewhat sleepy and walked up to his bed and dozed off.

Chapter 5

Vedika woke up around 6 AM. She was an early riser. She slid her room curtains and realized that it was still dark. She thought she could go for a run and catch the sunrise. She quickly got off her bed and headed to the washroom to freshen up. Within 15 minutes, she was dressed in a black tank top and skinny joggers and sports. She pulled on a jacket as it would be really cold outside. Before leaving her room, she tried to peep from her balcony into Samrat's room but the door was closed. She almost thought of waking him up but then thought maybe it wasn't her place to do so. She jogged down the stairs and out of the house latching the door behind her. She could see Samrat's kitchen top with all the dishes washed up and stacked neatly.

Dev had this habit. He had to clean up and couldn't bear the thought of dirty dishes lying in the sink. She made a mental note to actually make a nice breakfast and thank Samrat. She actually thought it was really nice of him to say all that he had said last night.

The cool morning breeze felt wonderful against her face and she lapped up and started off with the run. As she got away from cottages, the road narrowed and she could see it passing through a village. She had heard that the coffee plantations were nearby and thought it would make for a wonderful view around sunrise. She passed a few women chattering outside their mud houses while drawing beautiful rangolis in their front yards. It was beautiful. The sun had just begun to rise as she made her way up the twisted road. She could now see the plantations from a distance. The workers were gearing up and some of them were already in the fields. She slowed down into a walk and observed the workers. Most of them were women. She always thought that women were the underappreciated assets of the rural economy. She had worked with similar women and their journeys are truly inspiring. She reached a point from where she could see the village and the sun shining over it. It was breath-taking. She pulled out her phone and took a picture. She wondered how Dev and she used to enjoy such moments. For the past year, it felt as if they had lost something. Something beautiful. She sat down for a few moments and calmly stared at the bucolic scene unfolding in front of her eyes.

She looked at her phone and it was almost 7:30! She got up and began her downhill journey. On her way back, she passed little school kids and waved at them. They beamed and waved back excitedly.

She reached the cottage and saw Samrat sitting in the garden sipping tea.

Chapter 6

"Hey there! You're already up! I thought you were not a morning person", Vedika called out to him.

"I am not. I just thought I should try something new. Having tea amidst nature and all", he smirked.

"Cool! I hope you have made extra chai for me", Vedika teased as she walked over and pulled a chair for herself.

Samrat rolled his eyes and signalled that there was an extra cup inside.

Vedika got it and poured herself the steaming adrak ki chai. She could smell the ginger and lemongrass. She sipped and exclaimed, "Wow! I guess it's the surrounding nature and all, but this tea is fabulous!".

"You're welcome", Samrat smiled. It was genuine. He was quite happy to see Vedika enjoying the tea.

They sat for a while in silence and finished the tea.

"Hey! So, as you already know, once I make a commitment, it’s impossible for me to break it! So, as per our bet, I'll make some breakfast for both of us!".

"Any special preferences?", asked Vedika.

"I don't have such high hopes from you. Anything that's edible works for me", Samrat hit back with his sarcasm.

"Don't underestimate the power of a common woman!", Vedika laughed.

"Oh God! You are such a movie maniac! Stop with the drama and get going. I'm hungry", said Samrat trying to be nasty but he just couldn't do that to Vedika.

"Fine!". Vedika got up and pushed through the door and entered the kitchen. Samrat could see her through the window. She was trying to find the utensils and looked like she was about to make eggs.

Samrat was suddenly feeling drawn to Vedika. He didn't know if this was just the holiday getting better of him or there was something more.

Vedika had taken off her jacket and was very meticulously preparing everything. Samrat just couldn't stop himself from admiring her. She looked really attractive.

Just when he was staring at her admiringly, she looked up through the window and smiled at him. Gesturing him to come inside.

Samrat got up and tried to wipe that silly smile off his face as he entered the cottage. He entered the kitchen and to his surprise, Vedika had prepared masala scrambled eggs and was getting the toasts done. It smelled really good in there and Samrat suddenly felt a lurching feeling in his stomach which he didn't know whether it was there because of his crush or because he was really hungry. He helped with the dishes and they settled down on the sofa. Vedika had made a beetroot smoothie to go with it. To Samrat's surprise, it was delicious and they hungrily gobbled up and finished all the food.

Chapter 7

Samrat insisted on cleaning up the plates and Vedika though not in the slightest mood to do the dishes, obliged to his request. They cleaned up and Samrat stacked the dishes while Vedika cleaned the kitchen counter. Samrat was so elated after the sumptuous breakfast and cleaning the kitchen!

"I have worked really hard! And I haven't heard any appreciation yet!", she crossed her arms and looked at Samrat. Her arms looked perfectly toned. Her collarbone looked really seductive with sunlight shimmering on her face and neck.

"Oh! I am sorry. How could I be such a pig?", Samrat walked towards her and gave her a hug. "Thank you for the amazing breakfast!", he said into her ear.

Vedika felt a tingling sensation take over her entire body. She was shocked about what her body was asking for. She had been trying to suppress this feeling but it was out in the open now. Stronger than ever. She wanted to kiss Samrat. Samrat moved back but was still standing close to her. She noticed his lips. His dishevelled hair. She wanted to touch his arms. Pull him closer to her and just feel the heat of his lips on her.

Vedika was staring at him too long and Samrat didn't know what to do. So, he nudged Vedika to bring her out of a trance she seemed to be in. "Hey, You okay?", he asked.

Vedika felt a rush of emotions and pulled Samrat closer to her. Their faces were now inches apart. Vedika moved her fingers over his hair and pulled his face closer until their lips touched.

Samrat couldn't deny this embrace and pulled Vedika by her waist. He touched her face and softly kissed her. This made Vedika go weak in her knees and she held on tighter to him for support. Their kisses got really passionate as Vedika pushed him onto the couch not breaking their embrace for a moment. As things started to heat up, Samrat suddenly realised the situation that they were in. He broke their passionate embrace and asked, "Do you realize what we are doing?".

Vedika's headiness had descended and she replied, "I don't care. I don't want to think about anything right now".

Samrat was a little disappointed. He realized that this was just a sudden rush for her and nothing more. He backed off and patiently said, "Vendy, I know Dev and you are going through something but please think before you go somewhere from where there's no coming back".

"Dev is not coming back Samrat. It's over."

"What are you saying? I am sorry but you need to figure all of this before anything happens with us. I wouldn't want to be a mistake that you regret later".

With that, he got up and backed off. Vedika was still sitting on the couch.

"I think I should go now", she said and she got up, picked up her jacket and left the cottage.

Samrat was not very happy but he knew she needed some time to think. So he closed the door after her and made his way upstairs.

He fell on his bed and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 8

Samrat woke up and it was almost 4 in the evening. He had hardly gotten any sleep last night and felt good now. Until all the thoughts came rushing in. He realized that it wasn't a dream and all of that had actually happened. He picked up his phone and sent a text to Vedika.

Hey, are you okay?

Just then, he heard a door open and got up to check. He saw an old lady who looked like the care-taker.

"Oh Sorry Sir, I thought both you and Madam left. So, I came to clean up".

"Madam left?", Samrat exclaimed.

"Yes, she seemed quite in a hurry and looked very worried Sir. I think there has been a death in her family".

"Oh, okay.".

With that Champa Akka left, leaving behind a worried Samrat who felt awful about thinking of someone close to her dying.

He quickly called up Vedika but she didn't pick up. He tried some more. But no reply. He didn't know what to do so he just sat down on the sofa and waited. He cleaned up his room a bit but still, there was no response from Vedika.

As much as he wanted to be there for her, he knew there would be other people to take care of her. Dev. Dev would be there, he thought to himself. Samrat now let it sink in that probably it was the last he would see of Vedika. And maybe it was for the best. 

Chapter 9

It had been 3 months since the Coorg episode. Samrat had got to know that it was Dev who had suddenly had a cardiac arrest and had passed away that day. Vedika and Samrat had some common friends. They hadn't spoken to one another since that day. Samrat wasn't sure if he should even try to contact Vedika anymore. She must be devasted, he thought.

Chapter 10

Vedika was browsing through her phone. Deleting old pictures of her with Dev. She came across the photo that she clicked in the coffee plantations of Coorg. And all the memories came rushing back. She thought about the fight between Dev and herself. Vedika was furious that day. Dev had apparently gone behind her back and had sold off her start-up idea to a potential investor. Vedika never wanted to do that. He made that decision for her. But she couldn't let that happen. The idea was her baby and she did not want to sell it to anyone!

So, she decided to get rid of the problem. She secretly replaced Dev's hypertension pills with anti-depressants and this aggravated his condition and he went into a cardiac arrest.

That day, she was about to reveal her deed in front of Samrat. But luckily, she realized and got out of there at the right time. It would have created a whole new set of problems for her.

She brushed aside these thoughts as she got dressed up to go to her first client meeting. Her baby was now a reality and she couldn't wait to grow her dream! She thought of that painting she had seen in the cottage.

No regrets.

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