In perfect sync: Read an excerpt from romance writer Milan Vohra’s Our Song
Oh please, please, don’t let it break down. Not here. Please, not now. Ragini prayed as the auto rickshaw teetered dangerously to the left and spewed out a noxious black cloud of smoke. The three-wheeled vehicle hiccupped alarmingly as the driver brought it to an abrupt halt and heaved himself out of his seat. He attempted a few lethargic kicks on the pedal to get it to start; then shrugged as the engine sputtered and died on him. Ragini stared, aghast, first at her watch and then at the long empty stretch of road behind and ahead of her. The famous thirty-five-kilometer-long elevated road gave you a bird’s eye view of some of Bangalore’s ugliest residences in the city before it led you into the corridors of power. This was the route celebrated industry heads and premiers from every country that ever did business with India clipped down on in their ultra-luxurious vehicles. This was the super highway to the biggest names in information technology and pharmaceuticals – the two industries that had put Bangalore on the world business map. A thirty foot drop below this elevated road, in a parallel far-removed universe, the city’s cacophonous traffic crawled and stalled and crawled some more, moving inch by tedious inch past innumerable potholes and traffic signals.
Another six kilometers and I’d have been there. On this sweltering May afternoon, there wasn’t a hope in hell she was going to find an empty cab, forget the cheaper transport, an auto. Not with the hefty toll that vehicles had to pay at the end of this stretch.
Worse, there was just no way she could wiggle out of the meeting at Livin’On Pharmaceuticals. It wasn’t every day that a mega company like that came looking for someone to compose a special song for their silver jubilee celebration.
Ragini dived into the auto rickshaw’s back seat, grabbed her kitschy bag, slung it across her chest, thrust a couple of big notes she could ill afford to part with into the driver’s fist and started to walk. There was something in the way her strappy slippers touched the road. A kind of rhythmic shuick shuick shuick suction sound. Ragini was able to push thoughts of the harsh sun beating down upon her as the sound fused into an upbeat march in her head. Twenty minutes later, the march had slowed down to a painful dragging of her feet. The flimsy hundred-rupee footwear wasn’t meant for serious walking. Any minute now, the straps threatened to snap. Already, a motorcyclist with a leery grin and a car with music blaring so loud she’d heard it a mile away, had slowed down to offer her a lift. But these were not times to risk a lift with some random stranger. Ragini shifted the sling on her bag so its weight could rest mainly on her bum and kept her gaze fixed on the endless stretch of road ahead.
Ten minutes later when the flimsy straps on her slippers had also given way, Ragini decided that was it. There was no way she could take any more. Her bare feet stung from the heat rising off the road. Biting back angry tears, Ragini ran to the edge of the road, looked down at the drop below, the two flimsy bits of faux leather with the broken straps in her hands and screamed out loud in frustration. Well, something had to give! That good loud arghhhhhhhhh felt better. But… ooops. One of the broken slippers slipped right out of her hands, free falling all the way down. Not to the side of the road as Ragini prayed it would. Of course not, that would be asking for too much on a day like this, wouldn’t it? The slipper had taken a course of its own buffeted by the wind and hit a speeding biker right behind his helmet. The rider looked up, waving his fist furiously at the road above. “Sorry!” Ragini mouthed aghast as she shrank back from the parapet on the road, embarrassed as hell. The poor man. What must he be thinking? And then anger at her situation welled up again. Why. Why. Why did these things have to happen to her? Why did this one big opportunity to make money composing music, maybe even writing a song that touched people’s hearts have to be so jinxed? She looked at the pathetic remaining slipper still in her hand, the pink soles of her feet starting to blister as she hopped from one foot to the other, leaning her weight over the edge of the elevated highway again. Dangerous, yes of course, but she needed to do anything, anything to get her feet off that burning hot road. The only way was to balance on tiptoe on the one remaining slipper, taking a little support from the short wall running parallel to the highway. Just for a few seconds. Breathe in Ragini, hold it now, exhaaaale... get your mind off this unbelievable situation…. Look down... Mind over matter…
Ragini talked herself into relaxing, remembering how the scene below with all the cars moving at slow speed reminded her of that old ‘Frog’ game she had been hooked on years ago. She had just about found the ‘dabba’ that passed for her phone when she felt a strong pair of hands grab her by the waist and lift her away from the edge she’d been leaning on.
“What the hell do you think you’re up to?!” Ragini screamed. The man who’d lifted her up was still holding her up in the air with that strong grasp, breathlessly spat out the same words at her. “What the HELL do you think you’re up to?!”
“Who? What…? What do you think you are...?” Ragini hissed at him. “Put me DOWN.”
“It’s nowhere near as exciting as you might imagine,” he said through clenched teeth, continuing to hold her mid-air, as he stepped away from the wall.
“What do you think? I make a hobby of coming to places like this and practice my slipper-shooting skills?” For a minute Ragini thought he might have seen her ghastly display of temper a few minutes before. “Put me down first.” She tried to keep her voice flat, even as her heart still raced. What a fright he’d given her. He looked vaguely familiar. Maybe if she wasn’t looking at him from this peculiar mid-air position, she could figure out where she’d seen him. The man lowered her to the ground, without letting his grasp on her waist loosen. Ragini stared at the man closer. It wasn’t every day that you might run into a dark-eyed, dark-haired, definitely-not-Indian guy with flecks of gold on his eyelashes. That strong cleft in his chin looked Latino, but he had an almost forbidding expression that made him look more Saxon. Except for that dark hair. Where did she know him from? Ragini knew she did.
He was staring at her too, with open curiosity. “Is this a Bangalore thing?” he drawled, each word enunciated with a crispness that could only be British. “To throw your footwear before you throw your body onto oncoming traffic?”
Ragini’s eyes widened as realization dawned. It must have been his bike screeching to a halt, while she’d been gathering herself at the edge of the elevated road. The sound of the bike braking abruptly had registered in her subconscious while she’d been standing there, with her back to the speeding traffic. His gaze was fixed on her bare feet, curling to handle the heat. Ragini moved to take his arm off hers. “You tell me. Is this a kinky expat thing? To drive up to unsuspecting women on the middle of roads and frighten them witless?” Ragini shot back. She stared hard, noticing the way he threw his head back, his very tall frame, six foot three inches easy, had a tautness running through the simple white shirt and perfectly fitted jeans.
“Not really,” he replied, “I save it only for the barefooted ones.”
“You’re Andy…” Ragini exclaimed, “Andy Zot!” then bit her lip with embarrassment. “I mean, I…could be wrong, but aren’t you Andy? I’m sure…you look just like this guy who used to be in my school.”
“Andy what? What did you say?” he blinked.
“Forget that,” Ragini laughed sheepishly. “Er…did you ever study in Shimla?”
The sentence came out funny seeing as she had started doing a little on-the-spot dance, shifting, jumping from one foot to the other.
“You’re quite something, aren’t you?” the man’s lips curled in amusement. “I’ve known women to switch topics easily, but this is the first time I’ve met someone who can go from wanting to kill themselves one minute to social chit chat the next.”
“Oh, come on. Get over it,” Ragini said impatiently. “Not every girl you see leaning over a huge drop on a highway is necessarily looking to jump off it.”
“Glad you clarified that for me,” he said dryly, “I will let you go back to enjoying the view then.” He turned towards the bike parked on the side.
“Just tell me, won’t you? Are you Andy?”
“All right lady, I will. If you tell me first what you’re doing barefoot on this highway.”
“Not exactly barefoot,” she shot back, pointing to the apology of a slipper she was standing on tiptoe on. “Besides, I asked first,” she added quickly, never ready to concede too easily. Been there, done that – too long. The last few years, if there was anything she had told herself again and again – do not let anyone intimidate you. For the most part, she’d succeeded.
“Fine. I’ll answer that on one condition,” he said, casting another concerned look at her balancing act on the slipper.
Ragini frowned, as if to ask what.
The man lifted her off her feet as effortlessly as if she were a waif of a thing, when in fact Ragini had always bemoaned the very Indian size 12 curves on her five-foot three-inch frame. “Put me down. Right now. RIGHT NOW.” Ragini pushed and fought him and to her surprise he did. With effortless ease, he had deposited her on to the pillion seat of his bike. Ragini had no knowledge of motorcycles, having consciously stayed away from all two-wheelers for most of her life. She shuddered just looking at this big rugged one.
The man stood looking at her circumspectly, as if even now, he thought she might make a sudden dash to leap off the precipice of the road. “I’m Andrew,” he said, “And…yes I was in Shimla. For some time. A very brief period,” he added in his crisp British accent, as crisp as the Shimla air. “But I don’t remember changing my name to Andy. Zot, did you say the last name was?”
“Umm…yeah…I probably got that wrong,” Ragini murmured. She couldn’t possibly tell him that Andy Zot was eighth grade crush language for ‘Andy’s Hot’, now, could she?
(Excerpted with permission from Our Song by Milan Vohra, published by HarperCollins India in 2019)