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Book excerpt: Intermission

Shashi Tharoor   June 27, 2012
First Published: 11:25 IST(27/6/2012) | Last Updated: 11:25 IST(27/6/2012)
Chapter 14

WHEN VARUN SEES Sweety in the elevator, nearly twenty

days after their last conversation, he feels a strong desire to

take her in his arms and kiss the pink crescent of her

mouth. The force of the desire surprises him; he recognizes

in it something primeval, something that lies at the heart of

human creation. They are alone in the narrow space and he

can reach out and touch her face, the face that smiles at him

with what seems like genuine joy. Instead, he puts out a

hand tentatively, a little awkward, but when the hand is

accepted and he feels the soft pressure of her fingers, the

handshake grows more confident.

'Welcome back.'

'Thanks. It's good to be back. You know, I actually missed

Trafalgar Towers.'

'And Trafalgar Towers missed you.'

'Umm . . . So, how have you been?'

'Ah, well, you know, the usual routine.'

As their brief journey together comes to an end, Varun

panics. He will be sucked into his work, she will be consumed

by other demands. She will be lost to him again and he will

continue to struggle with the uncertainty that has become a

part of his life.

'Busy today?' he asks.

'Not really. My husband is away. The girls are in school.

So I am back to my routine. I am going to pick up some

vegetables and should be free after that till Sanya-Manya

come home.'

For a moment, Varun Sarin is utterly happy. In the same

moment, Sweety realizes that she has extended an invitation.

For Sweety, this is when something changes between them.

Varun Sarin is no longer a kind, inoffensive neighbour but

a man she wants to invite into her life. She does not know

what the invitation entails but the feeling she has is akin to

the thrill of standing on the edge of a forest, looking at the

dense cluster of mysterious trees ahead. She senses danger

but instead of flinching from it, she thrills to it; there is an

inexorable desire to forge ahead.

At the Safal vegetable shop, Sweety sorts through a pile

of potatoes, absently tests the tomatoes for firmness and

snaps the edges off thin green fingers of okra. She cannot

concentrate and is glad that she can get through the chore

without much exertion.

Varun Sarin smiles through a meeting with his team. He

is indulgent with a subordinate who has missed a deadline,

not as sharp as usual with Varsha, who has not yet made a

flight booking for a business trip, and very efficient in

signing the papers put before him. He calls Sweety just

before noon.

Through the crackling air space, they find an opening. A

simple telephonic conversation becomes suffused with

magic. Their voices conjure up a new world in which there

are only two inhabitants. This secret world gives them a

liberty they cannot take in public, a license to whisper

words that Varun has only thought about and Sweety

never dreamt that she would want to hear.

'I missed you. I waited for you to get back,' he says.

'Me too.'

'Strange.'

'Why?'

'I don't really know you but I feel so comfortable talking to

you. That day, in the park, I told you things I had never

shared with anyone. I hope it wasn't uncomfortable for you.'

'No. It wasn't. I feel comfortable with you too.'

'I just want you to know that I don't want anything from

you. I mean . . . I know you have responsibilities, other

people to take care of. I don't want to impose on your time

or anything.'

'It's okay. We are just talking, na?'

'Right!'

Even as he says this, Varun knows that he wants more

than 'just talking'. Some days he is aroused just by her voice

in his ear. Sweety knows that they are not 'just talking', that

this is the beginning of a courtship that cannot have a

conventional ending.

They keep telling themselves that they do not intend to

deceive. But concealment is a given in what they have

begun to share. Nobody knows about their conversations.

And they are careful not to let these interchanges impinge

on their other lives. They maintain a silence on the nature

of their marriages. Both are aware that the real topography

of a marriage is known only to the two people who traverse

its rocky terrain and sometimes they themselves are

confronted with unknown, unexpected twists and turns.

Varun is careful not to probe too deeply the small details -

how often do they make love, who initiates it, do they fight

about money, who says sorry first. Sweety unwittingly

discloses some of this in the course of their conversations

and this is how Varun interprets the nature of her

relationship with her husband. He satisfies himself with

the assumption that she is not very happy, she is not loved

in the way she deserves to be, but she is a loyal, dutiful wife.

He is aware that he has given the impression that his

relationship with his wife is distant, that the ardour of the

early days of their marriage has cooled off. Sweety does not

question it further. They maintain an amicable but casual

façade if they see each other in public. They schedule their

conversations, forgive each other's lapses in answering or

returning calls and, despite the inherent restrictions of the

medium, build a connection that transcends the words and

sentences that ebb and flow through the lines.

Varun dreams of making love to Sweety. He imagines

himself touching her skin. He knows they will be wonderful

together. If and when they do make love, it will be more

than an act of physical intimacy. It's not the mere act of

possession that he desires but the chance to express himself

in the language of the body, to use the vocabulary of touch

and feel.

'This isn't enough,' Varun says during one of their

conversations.

'What more can there be?' asks Sweety. She can guess

what is on his mind, but she can't still openly acknowledge

that there could be anything more between them. She has

managed to console herself that they are not doing anything

wrong. So far.

'Can't we be together for just a while? So that I can see

who I am talking to? So that I can look at you properly?'

'No, no. That is not a good idea. If anybody sees us

outside, they . . . they won't understand.'

'I know. I know. What can we do?'

'I am going to Jaipur next weekend for a friend's wedding.

Just me. I am leaving the girls with my parents. Jaspreet . . .

Jessie, who lives in London, is getting married to this British

guy and they want a traditional Indian wedding in a palace.

I haven't seen her in a long time and it's not too far away.

There are three of us going from here, college friends. We

are planning to take a Volvo bus or a car.'

'How long will you be there?'

'Three days. We thought we'll have a good time, you

know, do some general masti, away from our family

responsibilities.'

'I see.'

It is at this moment that Varun decides to schedule an

offsite visit somewhere nearby for the top team at

TechKnowlEdge. He calls an impromptu meeting and tells

them they have been working too long and too hard and

need to go to a different place to think about how they can

take their company to the next level. Strategic thinking

happens best when you remove yourself from day-to-day

tactical work and retire to a scenic secluded spot. He can

think of no place better than Jaipur.

15

THE MONSOONS HAVE been kind this July in Jaipur. The

rains have driven down the temperatures without affecting

normal life. Peacocks call to each other in the gardens of

the Rambagh Palace Hotel. The trees glisten a newly minted

green and flowers droop gently. Through the huge glass

windows of the room in which the TechKnowlEdge team

is meeting, Varun looks out on a scene that resembles an

impressionist painting and tries to bring his mind back to

the discussion


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