Familiar Strangers.


Her eyes, they didn't reveal much, even though they were the first thing you noticed in her 2 by 2 inch display picture. Her tweets, they made you feel that 140 characters were all you ever needed to weave magic with words and make sense of life's esoteric puzzles. Following her was easy, accomplished with the mere click of a button. The quest before him was now to ease his way into her life, to charm her with his words. And when he did, they took a virtual walk together in the cold crispy air of London's famed Hyde Park. She let his words flow over her, whisper into her ears and enrapture her soul. She let his words in, and in doing so, she let him in.

She counted the days when he would return to Mumbai and she could put a face to those lovely words. They knew only each other's minds and souls - not mundane details like what they did and how many years they had spent on the planet. Yet, she was certain that he would be young and beautiful. A man who understood her thoughts so well and wooed her spirit with such unparalleled sensuality had to be the man she would love.

The day dawned cold and bright when they would meet. He wanted to let the mystery live a little longer, and asked her to wear a blindfold. She had a penchant for intrigue and obliged with pleasure. Evading the cops and curious glances of passers-by, he led her blindfolded, trusting self to his car and his world. What happened then changed her world.

***

She would read a random story and wonder, "Is this what he was like when he was younger?" There is so much to wonder about when you know so little about a person. The very dearth of facts acts like a drug, pulling you ever closer, until all the information erupts in your face and leaves you with a choice - to accept a lifetime of boredom, untouched by mystery or to spin greater mystery out of the facts you are now privy to. She had looked forward to the time when she would be faced with that choice. How delicious would it be, to hold in her hands a fate so heart-stopping, a fate that would undoubtedly affect him irrespective of his willingness?

As the car caroused along the highway, the miles rushing up to meet them with unspecified joy, Anika tried to restrict her smile to respectable proportions, well aware that the curve of her lips would be heightened with the blindfold cloaking most of her face. "Will you tell me your name now?" she ventured, suddenly feeling ridiculous. What did she look like, sitting there with her clasped hands, wandering lips and hopeful words? And then he trailed a single finger along her arm and all doubts were silenced. "Rudra." That was a nice-sounding name, she thought. It wasn't so ordinary that you didn't want to be associated with it and not so exotic that you had trouble recalling it. He already knew her name of course. That was her Twitter handle. @Anika. "I like your name," she informed him. He chuckled, a sound that reminded her of the numerous waterfalls that appeared suddenly along the Mumbai-Pune expressway during the monsoons and disappeared with as much haste.

The music he played was soft and lyrical, the kind she listened to when she wrote. "So where are we going?" she asked, basking in the glow of the sunshine that seeped in through the closed windows. "A special place," was all he said. She had not told a soul about this encounter. Anyone who got a whiff of it would obviously doubt her sanity. And yet, if you really sought the novelty of adventure and the edge of magic, the lure of something transcending the barriers of probability, you couldn't help but throw caution to the winds. "What do you think of the music?" he asked, the intonations of his deep voice connecting with different fibres of her being. "It has oriental influences," she responded. "Yes. You do know your music well," he said and she could hear a smile in his voice. Music had been one of the several themes they had conversed on. His fingertips began teasing hers and she mustered the courage to tease him back. The tiny wisps of contact send shockwaves through her body, and she took a deep, steadying breath, her body turning hot and cold as she wondered where it was that his eyes lingered. That had to be the worst and the most tantalising part of being blindfolded; not the inability to see but the inability to control where the other person's eyes wandered. "Why are you blushing?" he asked lazily, withdrawing those teasing fingers. "I'm not," Anika protested, as her face heated up further. Rudra laughed. "It suits you. Makes you lovelier somehow," he murmured and her heart skipped a beat. She experienced a sudden, desperate need to tear the blindfold off and finally get a look at the man who had drawn her into this intoxicating web.

All too soon, the car stopped. The crescendo of anticipation and excitement in Anika’s heart had reached its climax. All the feelings that had led up to this unreal moment now quivered on the edge of revelation. “I’ll remove the blindfold once you’re seated,” Rudra said softly, as he opened the door for her and rested one light arm on her waist as he guided her along what seemed to be an uneven pathway. Presently, she could feel the blaze of the morning sun on her face and she was glad for the summery yellow dress she wore. The fresh, salt-tinged scent of the sea reached her nostrils and Anika smiled in delight. “Are we at a beach?” The sea would go a long way in settling the overactive butterflies in her stomach. “Indeed we are.” The cool breeze wafting in from the coast blunted the effect of the scorching sun somewhat. And then, they reached a shade of some sort and Rudra turned her around to face him. The touch of his surprisingly cool hands on her bare, sun-warmed shoulders made her feel quite light-headed. He leaned in close to untie her blindfold and the woody notes of his perfume brushed against the sensitised skin of her neck. She blinked a few times to adjust to the sudden light and then looked up into the unseen face that had featured in so many of her thoughts over the past few weeks. The sight that met her eyes nearly sent her reeling.

“Rudra!” She exclaimed. This was Rudra Iyer, a colleague from work that she was vaguely acquainted with. In fact, she might not even have known his name if not for the fact that he sat right across from her, a few rows away. Non-existent shadows clouded her vision in that sunny brightness as she tried to reconcile her reserved colleague with the man who had wielded so much passion with his words. Even though he was over six feet tall, Rudra Iyer seemed to shrink in front of her as he faced her doubt and barely veiled disappointment. “Yes, it’s me. But let me explain. Will you sit at least?” Still wrapping her head around this sudden turn of events, Anika sat down on the carpet spread below the beach umbrella and noticed for the first time, the chocolates, the wine and the flowers. She sighed. A strange sadness threatened to envelop her now as she felt the much-awaited revelation pale before all her expectations. Undefined though they had been, nothing could have prepared her for this. Rudra Iyer, the reclusive copywriter, known for his brilliant bursts of creativity and his general dislike of humanity – he was the man behind those intense messages and those beautiful verbal images he had drawn. “So was it all a plan? You followed me on Twitter with this end in mind?” she asked, trying valiantly not to sound accusatory and knowing she had failed when she saw the slump of his shoulders. “Wow, this is clearly not how I thought this moment would play out,” he said dryly. He sat down before her and reached for her hand, but she recoiled. Taking a deep breath, he sat back and scrutinised her, as though wondering which words would cajole her best. “Anika, you intrigue me. You always have. But I don’t do social interaction very well. Now the written word, that’s a different story altogether. Twitter happened by chance. I didn’t plan any of this. Everything just took on a life of its own once we began talking.” She stared at him, trying to read beyond his words, read into his erudite eyes and his insolent stubble. Had she ever really noticed him? Anika was in client servicing and she never interacted with the creatives department. There were other members in her team who did that. Her role was limited to interfacing with the brands that approached the agency. And with a job like that, she had to adopt an effusive, extroverted personality even if that wasn’t entirely true. No, Rudra Iyer had barely registered on her radar. Yet it seemed that she had featured prominently on his.

“Why did I intrigue you? Before we began speaking on Twitter?” she wanted to know. Rudra smiled. This was something he had expected. “I saw beyond your mask. The chirpiness, the unruffled attitude – it was all so normal and agreeable. Yet when no one was looking, there was restlessness in you that called out to me, a desire to get away, be swept away by adventure. That’s when I went looking for you on Twitter – to get a glimpse of your thoughts and see if what I felt was just the product of an overactive imagination or a lucky insight into the real you. Your tweets – they are out of this world. They wrap around me like silken threads and charm me with their frank sensuality.” Anika’s breath quickened as he spoke and suddenly, she had no trouble believing that he was indeed the one she had walked in Hyde Park with. Everything fell into place now. She had heard about Rudra going on a holiday around the same time that that had happened, though she had obviously made no effort to gather details. Yet, to fasten all those vague fantasies onto this man, no longer a fascinating stranger but someone she saw everyday; it seemed impossible. “I can’t do it,” she thought mournfully and realised that she had spoken out aloud. “I’m sorry Rudra. I think this is where our story ends. Real life is very different from Twitter. And I didn’t expect my existing life to collide so violently with what I imagined would be absolutely new.” Rudra stared at her, the hardening of his jaw telling her what she needed to know. “So you’re discounting everything that we shared? Simply because you already know I exist?” Anika sighed. “It just doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel that way about you. I felt that way about the man I exchanged those messages with.” “But we’re one and the same,” Rudra said with barely controlled anger. “I’m sorry,” was all Anika could say before she picked up the discarded blindfold and retraced those steps, this time with eyes wide open.

***

Monday morning would bring with it enough work to distract her from looking across the rows at the tall, lean man who rarely spoke and rarely smiled, Anika hoped. What she hadn’t counted on was the void that the sudden cessation of their messages would cause. And the way it messed with her focus on work. For the first time since she had joined Diffusion, Anika found her well-relied upon mask slipping and it frustrated her no end. Furtively, she watched Rudra Iyer type furiously at his computer and swivel in his chair with a pen in his mouth as he waited for a brainwave to strike. She watched him drum his long fingers on the desk as he sipped on endless cups of cappuccino and unbutton the top of his shirt as the day wore on. She found herself unconsciously licking her lips, leaning forward as she wished she could discern more details. She found herself scrutinising every woman he spoke to, on the rare occasions that he did. And then sometimes, when he suddenly looked right back at her, she hurriedly turned back to her computer screen, guilt causing her face to flush crimson. A few days after this tortuous situation, Anika had to fill in for a colleague on leave. “Follow up with the TBZ campaign. Rudra has to submit the creatives by 6 PM,” Brijinder, her boss told her. Her heart skipped a beat on hearing Rudra’s name. Finally, providence had conferred upon her an excuse to speak to him and get a closer look. She attributed her garish curiosity to the fact that she had woven so much fiction around the blurriness of the details regarding the man behind those messages.

Anika waited until after lunch to enquire about the creatives. Rudra watched her skirt-clad figure approach from afar, the kitten heels making her sway in a manner that had him gritting his teeth. He knew she was replacing Kiran today. He was prepared to face the moment with absolute nonchalance, even though the unfair disaster of their ‘date’ still churned up untold fury in the pit of his stomach. “Rudra,” Anika said and he hated himself for enjoying the sound of his name on her generous lips. “Are the TBZ creatives ready?” Don’t be distracted by the way the end of her braid teases the nape of her neck. Or by the slight quiver of her lips that betrays her nervousness, he told himself. “I’m done with one print ad. But we need to give them two more options at least. That’ll take me a while.” Anika wrung her hands, wondering how to deal with the hard-nosed Rudra. “The clients will call us at 6 PM. We need to give them a brief of the three options. Can you at least come up with the ideas for the other two?” Rudra regarded her unemotionally. This was his chance for revenge, small-minded and hardly satisfying though it would be. If he refused to cooperate, Anika’s ass would be on fire. But he would also be guaranteed her unending ire. “I’ll try. Check with me again at five.” A few moments of silence passed as both of them gazed at each other, perhaps trying to read into each other’s eyes the inspiration that lay behind those glorious words. Then, as though snapping out of a trance, Anika stepped back. “I’ll do that,” she said and turned on her heel, oblivious to his hungry stare that watched her until she was back at her desk and still within sight, as she had been in all those days that he had stolen glimpses of her, dreaming of one day ripping off that mask and tasting the inky sweetness beneath.

***

“Will you walk with me?” he had asked her, from across the oceans in a faraway street in London. She had granted her excited acquiescence, curled up on her bed at home, the evening sunshine paling against the glow in her heart. He had described the nip in the air, the wind among the leaves and the playing children that sent the sand flying. Then, he had decided to rest awhile on a wayside bench and soak in the fresh scent of the dewy grass and imprint the mellow beauty in his memory. It was then that he had slung a virtual arm over her shoulder and leaned in to sniff her hair, making her heart skip a beat as she nearly felt his breath lift a few wayward strands. She should have found it strange that he had exhibited no curiosity about her appearance, but then that had just been their way. Theirs had been an exchange that didn’t require the burden of cursory details. Or so she had thought. As she absently scrolled through the messages that now spoke of passion gone wrong, Anika wondered why exactly she had reacted so adversely to Rudra. Was it that she was repulsed by him? Far from it, given the way he seemed to capture her attention in the last few days. No, what had unsettled her had been the sudden imbalance in their relationship; prescience and deliberation on his side and innocence and naiveté on hers. What had made their connection so magical, in her mind at least, had been the blindness on both ends, the strange attraction that was based only on words and imagination. And yet, if she considered the twist in events that Rudra had suddenly forced her to confront, the new storyline would read something like this: This intense, reclusive and incredibly talented man, who couldn’t spare a word or a moment for most people at work, had inexplicably become enamoured by her, Anika Roy. He had observed her for days, weeks perhaps and divined facets of her personality that she rarely admitted to her own self. He had gently nudged into the soft layers she kept hidden from most, with a single instrument – words. He had taken her on the finest flights of fantasy, cast an inimitable spell on her mind and aroused her with his thoughts. Anika found herself smiling as she contemplated this brand new story. It might not have been the story she thought she had been reading but it wasn’t any less beautiful. Decision made, she stood up and made her way to Rudra Iyer, who presently had his legs crossed on the neighbouring chair while he doodled on a notepad. He looked up, surprised. “It isn’t five yet.” “No,” Anika smiled. “But I thought you’d like to have coffee with me.”