A Facebook Story

Originally Posted on April 26, 2018

Part 1:

The college canteen, usually abuzz with teenagers, looked a bit deserted today. Sure, the smell of fried samosas was still wafting from the kitchen. But Madhavi, the vivacious, rich girl wasn’t particularly happy. The boring lecturer wore that hideous tight pair of jeans and the jokes that he tried to pass off gave a license to the boys and girls to laugh out aloud. Madhavi’s quicksilver temper was another topic that always found a way to disgusting posts on the FB. But today the messages being circulated in the class rubbed salt into Madhavi’s wounds. Her flashy clothes never went down well with boys while the girls made bucketful of fun of her exaggerated mannerism that she thought was Page 3 material.

Madhavi’s shatterproof ego was not easy to puncture. But she couldn’t take this from Ritika in the canteen. Amit and Jayant kept circling around the girls and Ritika was busy lapping up their attention.

“Arrey, Ritika, FB is going crazy with comments on your exotic dress,” the flamboyant Amit ventured.

“I actually counted; 105 likes in a single day!” Jayant, the geek, prompted.

Ritika wore a false expression of boredom and just winked at the boys. “And what about Madhavi’s sartorial sense?!” She let out an impish laugh, staring at her.

Madhavi was livid but managed a wry smile “Oh yes, guys, Ritika is all set to go for the ‘Miss India’ contest!”, and stomped out of the canteen.

At her posh home in Alkapuri society her resentment grew. He mother Vaishali sensed the situation but decided not to jump in. Rohit’s sudden demise had left her shaken but she carried on gamely – for her daughter’s sake. Madhavi on the other hand probably missed the attention that her Dad lavished on her.

Madhavi shut herself in her bedroom and fell into her bed, sobbing softly. What was she doing wrong that her FB friends did not notice? With all the money that she had at her disposal it should be fairly simple, she thought. And Ritika? That skinny little dumb girl? Who does she think she is? Aishwarya Rai?

Dinnertime was somber. Vaishali was poised and ready to comfort her daughter at the slightest excuse but Madhavi ate her dinner quietly.

Night came early. But the soft music in her bedroom was just like sprinkling a handful of rose petals on a face that was burning with pain. Madhavi opened her laptop one last time before falling asleep. Who knows? Some friends may have liked her over the evening.

“Bullshit.” She muttered aloud on seeing an Amazon ad exhorting her to buy a pair of shoes.

No likes, no comments, no nothing. She let the laptop remain open in one corner of the huge bed and tried to sleep.

Madhavi had this uncanny flair for generating controversies on the FB. She was not exactly a beauty, perhaps very charming, but her refusal to tolerate nonsense did not go down well with her friends.

“Madhavi beta, it is 8 o’ clock. Like to get up now?” Mom’s soft knock on her bedroom door woke her up in the morning.

“Oh sh…t!” Madhavi straightened herself on the bed and looked at the open blank screen of her laptop. She instinctively tapped the laptop to wake it up.

Her FB page was still open. One friend request for her! Oh wow! Who would send her a friend request at night? Some new friend from the U.S.?

She hastily gathered herself, tied her dishevelled hair into a ponytail and drew the laptop closer to her.

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She checked. It was someone called Gaurav; Gaurav Seth to be precise. Looked pretty handsome in that dark blue suit. Didn’t reveal his whereabouts except that he was an IT professional from Vadodara.

Who could this be? Not anyone she could remember.

Whoever it was, she felt good about it.

Stranger? So what? Go ahead and accept his request. Who knows? She started humming an Arijit Singh number.

That unsavory episode from yesterday now appeared distant. Who cares?

“A good thing happens only when its time arrives,” her Dad used to say. Dad too was a distant memory now. Dad had been indulgent but didn’t have enough time to spend with his darling daughter and his wife.

Happy days now, thought Madhavi, thinking of the new friend request. Too early? No, maybe her time had arrived.

Madhavi’s perked up demeanour didn’t escape Vaishali’s notice. What had happened overnight?

After Madhavi left for her college, Vaishali walked into Madhavi’s bedroom to tidy it up.

Her laptop was still open on the bed. As she came close enough Vaishali couldn’t contain her curiosity and peeped into the laptop that whirred into display mode like an obedient child – Madhavi had been careless about using passwords.

There, stretched out on the screen before Vaishali, was a profile of Madhavi’s new ‘friend’. Gaurav Seth.

“My god,” Vaishali exclaimed. Is he the same Gaurav Seth? How can that be?

The same blue suit, the captivating smile, the golden pen peeping out of his left pocket; a master cheater, conman to the hilt. He had sent a friend request to Madhavi.

Vaishali frowned. The memory returned.

At Madhavi’s insistence, one Sunday, she had accompanied her to the birthday party of one of her best friends at Tana Riri Continental. Rohit, as usual, stayed away on the pretext of some meeting.

Vaishali joined the young girls for the impromptu dance number but soon got tired and sat at a table, looking on indulgently at the girls, more so at her daughter, resplendent in her bright red dress bought specially for the party.

Madhavi saw through the corner of her eye that Mom had gotten tired and quickly fell out of the circle of dancing friends and joined Vaishali, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“Everything ok, Mom?”

“Yeah, yeah, go ahead and rejoin the dance, dear,” Vaishali gestured towards the swirling, churning group of girls.

“No, thanks, I think it is enough for the day.”

Soon a beaming Food and Beverage Manager materialized from nowhere and stood between the two chairs:

“Shall I get you some cold drink, mocktail or something?” he asked.

To say that he was charming would be an understatement. Vaishali, in particular, was practically swept off her feet by this dashing young man. As he came even closer she read his name on his lapel – “Gaurav Seth, F&B Manager”.

“Thanks Gaurav, we are doing fine” Vaishali managed a shy smile at Gaurav while Madhavi watched the drama, amused.

“No, no, I insist you must have something. This lovely girl has been dancing non-stop for the last half an hour,” Gaurav’s response made Vaishali a bit jealous. Madhavi nodded her head in approval upon which Gaurav hailed a steward milling around and picked up two large glasses of mocktails.

Turning to Madhavi then, “You dance like a professional dancer, er…”

“Madhavi… I am Madhavi” was her involuntary response.

“My god, this Gaurav boy is just too dangerously charming,” Vaishali thought and cast an admiring look at him. Gaurav’s searching eyes surveyed almost everything, for he cast a mischievous glance at Vaishali.

As the steward placed the mocktail glasses Madhavi was quick to thank Gaurav. The inevitable session of selfies followed.

The party ended but not the spell that Gaurav had cast on the two women. It lingered on for Vaishali.

The attention from Gaurav was balm for her troubled mind. Rohit had always been extremely busy in his diamond trade.

Once home, Vaishali raked up all the means at her command to track Gaurav down. Her heart was pounding as she looked under “Find Friends”. Gaurav Seth’s name flashed up and his sketchy profile showed he was single and lived somewhere in Makarpura. Without losing time she sent him a friend request.

The ‘friendship’ thrived, and Vaishali could imagine it going on to another level. But any greater intimacy was fraught with risks

“Too early” she thought. Instead, both of them carried on their conversations through FB and occasional phone calls.

On Rohit’s sudden demise Gaurav not only failed to show the courtesy of offering condolences to her but stopped communicating all together. He virtually disappeared from her radar, FB, phone, everything.

Vaishali was dumbfounded. She even enquired at the hotel if he had hopped on to another job somewhere but no one had any clue. He had simply disappeared from the face of the earth.

Vaishali was distraught. She had money, recognition in high society, but no Gaurav any longer. The relatives and friends offered inane advice. “Now you have to gather all your strength and focus on Madhavi. She needs you. May God be with you.

“But what about me?” thought Vaishali. “I need someone too. Where is my Gaurav?”

That was two years ago. Now Gaurav had reappeared, in an avatar that she was not sure she liked.

Madhavi returned from college with a spring in her step.

“Poor girl,” thought Vaishali. “Her joy is going to be short lived. That Gaurav is a fraud.” But how could she warn her daughter? She couldn’t exactly confess that she was looking at her FB page.

“She is a mature girl. She will learn the hard way.” Vaishali’s mind was racing. Should I confront her? Should I not? I will contact that bas….rd and ask him to stay away from my daughter.

“Lunch is on the table, beta.”

“I had some sandwiches with friends in the canteen, Mom.”

And who are these friends, Madhavi? Hope that conman is not one of those.  But why is Gaurav not chatting with me? He has time to chat with this girl, but not for me. Where is he? Why is he trying to woo my own daughter now? My lovely Madhavi will find many younger boyfriends. Who is Gaurav anyway?

Madhavi waltzed into her room and checked her FB page. Has Gaurav responded to my acceptance of his friend request?

There were some odd posts from worthless friends but no response from Gaurav.

A mild depression enveloped her but she brushed it aside and strode into the kitchen.

“Want some coffee, beta?” Vaishali tried to engage her in conversation.

“Don’t worry Mom, I will do it myself.”

Madhavi kept thinking about Gaurav. May be he will respond later tonight. Sure hope so.

Madhavi went to bed earlier than usual. Vaishali noted the lights dim in Madhavi’s room and she too flopped into bed, wondering what the morning would bring for them. Hope something goes wrong to sever the new friendship bond between the two of them.

The morning brought fresh hopes.

Madhavi jumped out of her bed and checked her FB page.

‘You are now friends with Gaurav Seth’, Facebook announced.

“Whoa!” Madhavi let out a scream.

Vaishali, waiting in her adjacent bedroom, took the cue and rushed into Madhavi’s room.

“What happened?”

“Oh, Mom, all ok. Why are you barging into my bedroom like this?” Madhavi sounded mildly annoyed but there was no missing the general happiness in her voice.

“Sorry, I thought you screamed.”

“You are getting nightmares, Mom. Relax”

“Ok, ok” Vaishali tried to steal a glance at the laptop screen for some telltale signs but Madhavi’s presence deterred her. Madhavi’s cool composure said it all. Vaishali sighed and exited the room.

With the intruder Vaishali exiting the bedroom Madhavi sprang to her bed and typed out a message to Gaurav.

“Hey Gaurav, how are you? Where the hell are you? You are looking dapper in that blue suit! Write to me! Have a lovely day.”

She resisted the temptation to write to post on his wall lest her forever-jealous friends throw a spanner in the works.

With Gaurav safely locked in her heart, she hurried to the college.

Vaishali saw her daughter leave the house, almost skipping with joy, as she got into her car. She raced to Madhavi’s room as soon as the car was out of sight.

“Hmm…” Vaishali sighed. What can you do about your own daughter who steals your man? Aha, I know, Gaurav had designs on Madhavi the day we met at Tana Riri Hotel. Why the hell did he keep our relationship alive for so long and then decide to disappear?

Her mobile phone buzzed. It was a message from Madhavi.

“Mom, I won’t be home for dinner tonight. Going out with friends. Take care.”

Take care! Is this the care you are taking, Madhavi? But the poor girl has no inkling about me and Gaurav. Any more thoughts about this affair would confuse her more. Her head started spinning with pain. She went back to the kitchen and made a steaming cup of cappuccino and sat in the balcony, looking at the little garden in the front.

What if I send a new friend request to Gaurav now and remind him of the moment we shared? He might be happy to know that I have forgiven him for his silence and might enter my life again. After all Madhavi is too immature to sustain such an intense relationship right now. And what about her studies?

No, wait. He might spill the beans to Madhavi. That would be suicidal, Vaishali. Don’t do it.

In the afternoon she drove up to Tana Riri and casually enquired if they had any idea about the present location of their F&B Manager called Gaurav.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry but he has not left his new address with us.” The Barbie doll receptionist responded, plastic smile in place.

The next few days went by in agony. Vaishali couldn’t figure out her next move. “By now the conman must have met Madhavi several times. God!”

She was tempted to check Madhavi’s mobile phone but that would be too risky and besides, the girl was never separated from her mobile phone, it was practically a part of her body.

February 14, Valentine’s Day.

Vaishali was sure Madhavi would meet Gaurav that day. Spying on her would be her best chance.

Madhavi came home too early on the eve of Valentine’s Day. What is she up to, Vaishali thought.

Madhavi carried packages of dresses that she must have bought for the big day. Sure, something is cooking. Vaishali’s heart was pounding.

If only she could find some way to wean her daughter away from her paramour. Her feelings must not be hurt permanently. She will find another nice young man of her age. She has to. But let go of this one.

Madhavi shut the bedroom door softly as she entered. This time she carefully closed the laptop and kept it on a desk in the corner.

It was already getting dark and her bedroom lights streaked through the lower frame of the door.

Vaishali made herself a smoothie and positioned herself strategically to keep an eye on her daughter’s bedroom. She even tried to eavesdrop but the hum of the air conditioner muffled all sounds from within.

She opened her own laptop and tried to browse, keeping a vigil on the door for the slightest movement. If she could find out where they planned to go, she could follow them.

It was 11 pm. Madhavi’s bedroom light went off. Vaishali too felt drowsy but she tried to sit up and stay alert. What if that bas,,,rd calls late? She kept dozing off in her chair.

Around midnight she was woken up by a bright light coming from under her bedroom door. In the stillness of the night she could hear someone walking in her daughter’s room.

“How did he enter the bedroom; from where?” Vaishali drew closer to the Madhavi’s room.

She heard the footsteps clearly now. “My god, right under my nose, you silly girl. And how dare he?!”

She thought she heard the scrape of a chair, but no sounds of talking.

Vaishali quietly opened the bedroom door and entered.

There was no Gaurav. Madhavi herself was seated at on the chair in front of the open laptop.

Madhavi’s movements were strangely jerky but she had managed to open the laptop with Gaurav’s FB page open.

Vaishali was terrified but she concluded that something strange was going on and decided to stand right behind Madhavi to see what she was doing. Her daughter didn’t even notice. Just behind the desk there was a large mirror and it was strange that Madhavi couldn’t even see Vaishali’s figure standing just behind her.

Madhavi’s eyes had a glassy look and she was mumbling some gibberish while typing on Gaurav’s FB page.

Madhavi’s inability to note Vaishali’s presence, her glassy eyes suddenly put everything in perspective. Madhavi was in a state of ‘sleep walking or somnambulism, just like her father. The disorder often made the patient get up at night, walk around, even do things that they would otherwise do in a normal state, and then go back to sleep. The next day they would have no recollection of anything that transpired during the sleepwalking phase.

Madhavi, in her anxiety to find a friend and admirer had registered on Facebook with a fake profile of Gaurav Sethi, using his picture taken at the Tana Riri hotel that day.

Vaishali put her arms around her daughter and hugged and kissed her.

“It’s late beta, you must be tired. Let’s go back to sleep.”

Madhavi, looked uncomprehendingly at her mother, got up from the chair and allowed herself to be led to her bed. Vaishali knew what to do, she had done this for Rohit so many times.

She took Madhavi back to her bed and lay down next to her, stroking her hair until she fell asleep. With Rohit, that was the only time she could cuddle him back to sleep. Rohit’s bouts of sleepwalking had remarkably diminished.

Night after night, the loving care that only a mother can shower helped Madhavi get over her fixation with ‘likes’ on the FB.

No one cared any longer where Gaurav had gone.


Part 2:

The Hunter and the Hunted

Originally Posted on March 6, 2019

Time is the greatest of the healers. The chasm between the mother and her daughter that had threatened their lives in an inexplicable manner had begun to close. The winter in Vadodara was a bit harsh for the quintessential Vadodarites who got a chance to showcase their warm clothing at social events.

The high profile socialite Vaishali rued her loneliness, not that Rohit would have been a great companion. But like many self -made Gujarati businessmen, he had his own life style – with the attendant thrills of organizing drinks parties in the Prohibition State of Gujarat, sharing ‘locker-room-jokes’. Vaishali could never figure out how a loving husband could be living a life of recluse of sorts from her.

The onset of spring brought a series of music concerts to the city. The Arijit Singh concert was a sell out before Vaishali knew. Strangely, the event escaped the attention of Madhavi – the die-hard fan of the singer- being too busy with her final exam. Vaishali had given up all hopes of getting a ticket to the show when her friend Satyasheela came to her rescue.

“Let us catch up there in the foyer of the auditorium then” Vaishali gleefully thanked her.

Sardar Patel Smruti Hall looked like a beehive, swarming with people of all hues – young and old. After all, Arijit Singh, the heartthrob of millions, was to perform. Satyasheela Zaveri was waiting for her near the staircase, smiling, and holding two tickets in her hand.

In the melee they had to shout to have a meaningful discussion.

Satyasheela loved to talk about her charity work for the under-privileged children. For the wife of a jeweler that she was, it would be easy to dismiss her social pursuits simply as snobbish. Her work had still not attracted the attention of the media and she did her best to spread the word around out by word of mouth. Like any other compulsive socialite, regardless of the topic under discussion, she steered the conversation to her pet project – educating the underprivileged children in unconventional ways, under a tree, in the public park, under a staircase and similar inconceivable settings. Her sincerity was unquestionable.

She, along with her husband, also had a novel business of organizing “Refresh Tours” conducting international tours to truly exotic places.

Sure enough! She handed Vaishali a bright colored pamphlet of ‘Seychelles’ along with the ticket for the show.

“Oh another of your exotic tours!” Vaishali was all smiles as she took the ticket and the pamphlet.

“No, this one is different, Vaishali. Just clean heavenly white sandy beaches with crystal clear water around”

“Oh I am not a beach person, having grown up in Juhu in Mumbai.

“But this is so lovely, Vaishali. You must come, dear” the onslaught from Satysheela was relentless.

“Oh, well…..”

“Nothing doing, you are coming. I have already added your name to the group” She closed the topic with a wave of her hand.

“But where the hell is Seychelles?”

“It is a heaven, a country of clusters of beautiful small islands near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, only 4 and a half hours flight from Mumbai’ Satysheela gushed as if she were already on the beach at Seychelles.

“You will love it” it was more of an order of sort from her than hope.

The Arijit show was a hit. His hit number “Hamari Adhoori Kahani” moved Vaishali to tears. The show ended very late. Vaishali hurried home to find Madhavi still studying in her room. She did not dare disturb her and quietly flopped into the bed, dreaming of Arijit Singh singing with her on a Seychelles beach.

The Mumbai-Mahe early morning flight was full, virtually crammed with young couples on honeymoon. Apparently Satya sheela had been able to rope in only about 5 people for the tour.

Good to have only a few people – Vaishali preferred it that way.

“Seems to be a popular destination. Why I never heard of before? Satysheela sure has a way of discovering exotic places”, thought Vaishali as she struggled to fight drowsiness while trying to avoid staring at the lovebirds cooing in each other’s ears.

What would Madhavi be doing now? The poor girl has taken her studies very seriously this year. Hope she rests well before the actual examinations commence.

“Ma’am., would you like to have some light breakfast ?” the smiling flight attendant jolted her out of her slumber.

“No no. It is all right. I am fine. Just some wine please” Vaishali excused herself and treated herself to her favorite Red Wine. The cabin lights dimmed soon and everyone, including the lovebirds, curled up in awkward postures, hidden under the warm blankets.

The capitol of Seychelles Mahe, geographically situated only 7 degrees south of equator, looked like straight out of a picture post card. Lush green hill dotted with Goan style houses together with some tall new hotels jutting out into the sky. On arrival, Vaishali tried calling Madhavi before they were all herded into the waiting ferry and anxiously waited for her to respond. No luck.

The one-hour ferry ride to the Praslin Island was a bit rough, with big waves lashing at the ferry, making it sway sideways. Tiredness, lack of proper sleep and the swaying of the ferry made Vaishali nauseated but politely she declined the offer of air-sickness type of bags offered so thoughtfully by the crew. She warded off the nausea well for the ferry journey this time but made a mental note to pop in some anti nausea pill on the return trip.

Wow! The island was truly pristine; the waters were crystal clear and blue – far cry from the muddy and stinky water at the Juhu beach. No wonder she had started hating the sight of a beach.

The resort of Creole was tucked away next to its private beach. This was pure bliss. The staff mostly consisted of local, trained people who spoke broken English.

Vaishali and other tour guests huddled together at the breakfast table the next morning and shared their experience with liberal “wows”, “Oh my God it is so lovely”, “right place to retire”

“You look like an Indian. Are you from India?” Vaishali asked a steward.

“Yes, ma’am I am from Pune”

“Oh great then you can cook up some Indian dishes for us, can you?”

“My pleasure Ma’am. I will tell the chef – also an Indian.” Vaishali’s eyes lit up.

At lunch they requested the Indian Chef to come up and take special orders.

A tall strapping Punjabi man appeared dutifully in front of the group.

“Yes, what can I cook for you, tell me “ Arjun Dinda smiled at the group.

And off he went and soon brought with him crispy parothas, chutneys, biryani and black daal!

That was enough for the group to go bonkers. The next four days were surely going to be fun.

After the meals Vaishali quietly slipped a bill of Rs 100 of the Seychelles currency in the hands of the Chef making sure that he would churn out rotis, sabzees and daal for the group for the next few days.

The waves were crashing literally at the feet of the tourists in the restaurant. Small boats anchored near the beach were gently rolling on the benign waves. Vaishali’s dream of singing with Arijit Singh on the virgin beach flashed by in her memory as she struggled to keep her loose hair in place.

“Hey, come on let us get into the pool!” Satyasheela shouted at the group.

“Let’s goooooooo….” Everyone ran and plunged into the nice warm pool water. There were a lot of Europeans with family but no Americans!

A little boy was too scared to jump into the pool. His Dad’s gentle push wouldn’t do.

Out came a young boy of about 20 from the pool bar, lifted the kid and brought him to the bar. Listening to the soft beats of the song on the music system the kid’s face lit up and laughed heartily.

“Oh my God but this is a Bollywood song!” Vaishali was stupefied. Even the features of the young boy betrayed his Indian lineage.

“Arey suno”, Vaishali instinctively lapsed into Hindi “ Are you Indian?” She asked the young man.

“Yes, ma’am. I am from Pune” he responded with a bewitching smile.

“Wow, What brings you here, young man?”

“I am here as an intern from a Pune college of Hotel Management, My name is Vilas” The young man was obviously blurting out more information than demanded.

“That’s so amazing! Anyone else with you in this resort?”

‘We are three of us doing internship that is a compulsory part of the hotel management course”

“So lucky you guys. Any more Indians? We have met that Indian Chef this morning in the restaurant”

“Well, he too is a part of the student group under the guardian ship of our F & B manager, Raj Malhotra” The boy obviously was lapping up all the attention from strange fellow Indians.

“Why don’t you introduce us to Raj Malhotra then?” Who knows Raj may make our stay more rewarding! – Vaishali thought.

‘Here he is, maa’am” the boy pointed towards a handsome man in smart resort uniform walking towards them.

Vaishali turned her head and saw Raj Malhotra and promptly let out a soft scream, her jaws dropping “ Oh no, Gaurav Seth? Impossible!”

That was Gaurav Seth. How could she be unsure? The same captivating smile.

“Hi, I am Raj Malhotra, ma’am” he extending his hand to Vaishali.

She was too dumbfounded to extend her wet hands and gave an incredulous look. “Raj? Gaurav?”

“Excuse me ma’am?” the look of bewilderment in his eyes was intriguing but endearing for some reason.

“Aren’t you…. “

“Yes I am Raj Malhotra – the F & B manager. Welcome to Creole Resort”

What was wrong with Gaurav? How can you change your identity and behave strangely with people you have known for ages?

“Hi Raj.” Vaishali changed her stance, the happy days of companionship with Gaurav back in Vadodara flashed by.

Her hopes were rekindled at this opportunity of discovering the man of her dreams. Give him some time, lady; he will come through.

“But what are you doing here, Gau…. Raj?”

“Well I just told you” Raj guarded himself against the bold approach of this charming woman.

“No I mean, when did you come to Seychelles?”

“I have been here for the last three years? Why do you ask, ma’am? Do I know you?” Was Gaurav hiding something from her? Or he had just forgotten the happy time? May be he spent happy times with many women there.

“Well, yes… I mean no. So nice to see so many Indians working here and you in a very responsible position “ and promptly extended her hand – perhaps her touch would remind him.

“So nice to meet you. Yes, so many tourists pour in here from India regularly. It is always a pleasure to serve you. Is everything ok? Feel free to tell me if you need something special.” Raj Malhotra rattled out the usual Hotel Staff-lines

“Very impressive’, Vaishali couldn’t figure out if he had really forgotten her or was putting on a show. Why had he changed his name? Why did he disappear from Vadodara? Where had he been hiding all these years? Or was he just a doppelganger of Gaurav? But how can Gaurav’s doppelganger be an F&B manager as well? “Something is definitely wrong, you master cheater”, Vaishali frowned.

“Come on Vaishali we all are leaving for our cottages; are you coming?” someone from her group hollered at her

“Do you stock nice old vodka? Meet me at the table with a glass of vodka, I will be back in ten minutes” She almost commanded to the F&B manager and rushed back to her cottage.

Gaurav or Raj must be nailed down. He is no doppelganger of Gaurav. He is Gaurav Seth. And he thinks no one would know all the way here in Seychelles. A mixed feeling of relief and anger draped her mind.

She went back to her cottage, had a quick shower, applied the most alluring of perfumes on her body and donned the best dress that she had brought along for some party and rushed back to the restaurant bar.

The F&B manager was nowhere around the bar. Disappointed, she positioned herself on an isolated table and looked around.

There he was, striding towards her with a tray of vodka of her choice, smiling ear to ear.

Vaishali took a deep breath and worked out a strategy in her mind to ferret out the truth from him.

“Sit down’ she nearly commanded.

The man looked around and sat down on a chair next to her, ensuring that there weren’t any people at that hour of early evening in the bar.

Vaishali smiled and took a sip.

“So Raj .. or whatever your name is” She oozed confidence of a detective about to interrogate a suspect; “ tell me the truth”.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, the truth about your identity”

“Well? “ The man looked away from the prying eyes of the charming lady.

“Look, I have no problem with your working here. I just need answers”

“What answers?”

“Don’t be so evasive, Gaurav. I have known you since the days you were working at Hotel Tana Riri in Vadodara, remember?” She looked straight in his eyes

“I am Raj Malhotra, the F&B manager and that is it” retorted the man firmly “ Why are you questioning me?”

“No you are not, Mr. Gaurav Seth. You are a fraud. If you don’t come clean I will go and report it to the management right now” Vaishali’s eyes spewed fire

“Can I get you something for you and the guest, Sir?” asked a polite steward passing by

“No thanks, Dilip.” Raj waved him off

“Now?” Vaishali was firm

“It is now close to dinner time and I have to go, if you excuse me” Raj Malhotra hastened to get up from his chair, glanced at Vaishali and strode out.

It was strange.

He was Gaurav and now he knows I scooped him out from nowhere. But why am I doing this? How does it matter to me? The episode of fake identity that Madhavi assumed has nothing to do with this guy. Come on Vaishali. Leave him alone, will you? Confusion compounded in Vaishali’s mind. Suddenly she sensed a splitting headache. Was it that drink that he brought for her? Did he know I was to confront him? Is that why he spiked my drink? Oh God.

She ran back to her cottage. No one noticed her. Into her bed, she held her head that had begun to spin uncontrollably.

Should I call Satyasheela? What will she tell her? No no, I am fine.

For some inexplicable reason she started recalling similar situation the night before Rohit had suddenly passed away. The way he described his headache was strikingly similar to what she was feeling now.

She popped a pill to calm her mind so she could think clearly. But she had to confront him once more. There was definitely something fishy about him, his identity and the way he disappeared from Vadodara.

Slowly she made herself a cup of strong black coffee, excused herself from joining the tour group for dinner and fell asleep early.

The recurring dream this time showed Gaurav ready to pounce upon her, laughing derisively.

She thought she heard the doorbell ring. But was it the dream?

No. The doorbell rang second time, third time. She froze, unable to get up and open the door. What if Gaurav barges in? Should I call the reception? She checked the time. It was 10 PM.

Suddenly a rush of courage “What the hell? Let him come”

She bolted towards the door and opened it. The cool breeze from the garden made her shiver a bit.

There he was, standing at the door, “I want to talk to you. May I come in please?’ implored the man.

For Vaishali it was more of ‘get it over with’ feeling than fear now.

“Sorry Vaishali, “ some dry leaves swept into the cottage as he took his seat on the chair next to the bed.

“Now then…” Vaishali nonchalantly sat next to him on the bed and motioned him to start talking. The suspense of the truth to be unraveled by Gaurav virtually wiped off all the fear from her mind.

“Look, Vaishali, there is no need for me to reveal my identity to you but I feel I owe it to you, having spent some wonderful time together in Vadodara” the man started off, clearing his throat

“Go on, Gaurav. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, pause” Vaishali commanded

“Be patient, Vaish. It is a long story. The fact is I am Raj Malhotra, not Gaurav Sheth…..”

“Master cheat, you are …”

“Vaish please…” he pleaded

Vaishali took a sip of water from the glass and nodded to him

“Whether I am Raj or Gaurav – you think I am – I still love you, my Vaish..” and instantly got up from his chair bent over and gave Vaishali a long passionate kiss.

Vaishali felt a sense of awkward guilt as she let him kiss her unabashedly. She loved it. Someone had kissed her after a long long time. The memory of the amorous rendezvous with Gaurav came alive.

“Ok, let me start from the beginning” the emboldened man straightened himself once again on the chair

Vaishali was surprisingly more at ease now, looking at him with a strange mixed feeling of love and hatred.

“I am Raj Malhotra, from a small town called Ludhinana in Punjab. A mischievous child who detested studies I realized my looks alone were a license to achieve whatever I wanted. I could not go beyond matriculation and ended up as a waiter in a three star hotel in Ludhiana. The high society atmosphere in the hotel acted like a aphrodisiac to my confidence. I became a darling of the staff and regular customers alike.”

“Soon the realization dawned on me that I could not make the kind money that I hankered after, in the role of a waiter at this restaurant. I wanted to be at least an F&B Manager somehow.”

“It is a long story but let me tell you briefly that I used my drive and my contacts to get me a fake Diploma of Hotel Management in the name of Gaurav Seth and decided to get out of that little town in search of greener pastures. Landed up at Tana Riri – the 5 star hotel in Vadodara as the F& B Manager. Life was good here, making new friends …..”

What kind of friends?” Vaishali interjected.

“Friends like you, Vaish” straightening her hair instinctively.

“Raj, but why did you leave Vadodara suddenly without leaving a trace?”

Raj’s face showed lines of discomfort for the first time and Vaishali drew even closer to him.

‘My bad luck, Vaish. Some people jealous of my rise and perhaps my attractiveness falsely implicated me in that infamous episode of spurious liquor and I was on the run. Once again I thank my luck that I had been working there under an assumed name of Gaurav Seth. No one, including the police had a clue as to who I really was” Vaishali discerned some faint signs of insincerity in his voice for the first time.

“Oh my God. “ Vaishali looked out of the glass window and recalled the horror of that time when Rohit suddenly passed away.

Something didn’t make sense.

Raj pressed her hand reassuringly “It is all right Vaish. I am telling you the truth”.

Raj continued, “I even knew your husband who was one of our regular customers there. Such a fine magnanimous man…”

“Did you?”

“Yes, but not as your husband”

Vaishali’s eyes narrowed to unlock his mind.

“But you could have given me your contact details after fleeing Vadodara, especially after Rohit passed away. I could have helped you.”

“Vaish I was too scared. A Punjabi working under a fake name in an alien region with no real friends around.”

“Let bygones be bygones, Vaish. Can we make a new beginning?”

Vaishali was startled by the sudden change in his voice and an outlandish proposal.

The proximity of a handsome man, ready to submit to all her desires made her uneasy.

“Look, Raj, I appreciate your courage in coming over and tell me the truth but let us not rush into anything.” Vaishali found herself telling him.

“I understand, Vaish. Let us sleep over this tonight. What are you doing tomorrow? Can we go on a hiking trip of the national park here?” He made sense after a long time, Vaishali thought

She decided to feign sick and let the group go elsewhere without her. Then Raj and She could go on that hiking trip.

“Call you in the morning. I will join you after breakfast when everyone in the group has left the resort.”

“Lovely, see you tomorrow”. Raj shot out of the cottage in a hurry, making sure no one had spotted him.

So much had happened during the day that it was difficult for Vaishali to think clearly. The thought of walking hand in hand with the man of her dreams was too strong in the end.

She did not remember when she finally fell asleep.

Madhavi’s call woke her up early in the morning. It was still 7:30 in the morning here but back in India it was 9 AM.

“Yes, beta. How are you? Did you see my missed calls to you yesterday? Where were you? Are you all right” Vaishali asked a volley of questions in one breath.

“ Yes, Mom, I am absolutely fine. Don’t worry about me. How are you doing? Enjoying?”

“Oh it is lovely out here. How are you preparations for the exams going on? Are you eating well, dear?”

“Mom, here is some disturbing news. Take it easy Mom but the long awaited investigation report by the CBI is out now. It is now clear as to why and how Dad died. “

“Oh my God” Vaishali felt dizzy.

“Mom, are you all right? Listening to me?”

“Go on, Beta”

“Remember that Gaurav Seth, Mom? He has just been named as the mastermind of the spurious liquor case that took the lives of many reputed citizens of Vadodara that includes Dad. He used the bar of Tana Riri hotel as the front for supply of spurious liquor that he supplied in the garb of foreign brand and no one had a clue”

“Oh no….” Vaisahli screamed

Her mobile phone slipped from her hand, landing on the soft bed next to her. The line got disconnected but she did not care now.

Vaishali’s world suddenly came crumbling down. She lay in the bed staring at the ceiling. Gaurav or Raj caused the death of her husband who loved to party in 5 star hotels and treated his friend with expensive foreign liquor on a regular basis. Now the murderer was right here and she is to go with him on a hiking trip today! It was disgusting. The police would never find Gaurav because there is no Gaurav. It is Raj Malhotra right here! How silly and cruel it can get?

The killer had this temerity to ask for a new beginning with her, sharing all her wealth!

She got up suddenly, made herself a strong cup of coffee, quickly showered and put on her best alluring dress for the hiking expedition. She had resolved something.

She walked up to a nice isolated coffee joint some 2 kilometers away from the Resort and waited for her prey as decided last night. It was turning a bit warmer now. She sat there, alone at a corner table sipping a cappuccino and kept glancing impatiently at the entrance of the Coffee Joint.

No sign of him yet. Did he chicken out? Or someone informed him too about the case?

Raj Malhotra had been shaken up after the meeting with Vaishali last night. Did she buy his story of being falsely implicated in the spurious liquor case that had rocked Vaodara? He wasn’t too sure.

What if she informs the police? All the hard work that he had done after the escapade would come to a naught. After all the police may be looking for Gaurav Seth but why take a chance?

He too made a plan, took a leave for the day and walked up to the Coffee shop as decided. His prey must be waiting there.

It was warm at about 10:30 in the morning but still comfortable.

He entered the Coffee Shop and saw Vaishali, seated at a corner table.

“Hi..” he smiled feebly.

“Hi Raj” Vaishali smiled back at him, rather mischievously.

“Let us go” he said. Vaishali left the unfinished coffee at the table, paid and walked out with him to hail a cab.

No one spoke. Raj pressed her hand and smiled without looking at her.

The entrance to the national park was situated right at one of the isolated beach. The crudely fashioned steps led to the interior of the park that boasted of rare varieties of tropical trees. The hill almost jutted into the sea making it look like a thin peninsula. The steep hike had not become as popular as planned so the number of tourists was minimal. Most tourists who visited Praslin Island were more interested in the pristine beaches than hiking on this treacherous hill.

This time Vaishali held her hand out to Raj for a change and he liked it. The air turned crispier as they climbed higher. With the sea all around it was a spectacular sight. There were arrows showing the different routes one could take. The rustle of leaves of the tall trees around gave an eerie feeling as they kept climbing further up.

They sat down at a landing. One could see the sea roaring on one side and it was beautiful. She snuggled close to him, as the breeze got a bit chilly. He had a strange smile on his face. Vaishali sat down on a large stone. Right behind her was a steep hill. He took his mobile phone out of his pocket and found a place in front of her to snap her up.

“One minute, love” She straightened her dress for the shot as he waited. They could hear the roar of the waves several hundred feet below.

Raj bent to peer into his phone and suddenly Vaishali’s vengeful heart cried out, “This is it, this is it!”

Raj took several snaps of her in different poses.

“Ok, Raj dear. Now it is the turn of taking a photo on my phone. Stay where you are“ and purposefully with great determination walked toward Raj to hand her phone to him. She smiled at him for the last time and pushed him off the cliff with a jerk.

Before Raj could realize his body hurtled down the hill into the ocean hundreds of feet down below, the mobile phone falling onto the soft wet ground next to Vaishali.

“Good bye you master cheater” as she flung the rest of his belongings with him into the ocean.

Raj went into oblivion, not Gaurav. They may still be looking for Gaurav back home.

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