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 ‘’ Mumbai airport sucks. I’m sick of waiting…!’’ Kiara moaned and stretched her lovely, slender frame. A few waiting passengers looked their way in disdain. She rolled her eyes at Rishaan, who simply shrugged and looked away. Kiara could really be annoying at times.

‘’Baby, I’m getting some coffee, want any?’’ he asked trying to change the topic.

‘’Airport coffee? No way!‘’ Kiara made a face. Her angelic face distorted.

Rishaan sighed and walked away, glad to be away from her for a while. He was getting sick of her constant whining. He hoped a weekend at Goa might cheer her up. She was all wound up after their engagement party.

It had been a spectacular affair at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. Kiara’s dad Mr. Gupta, business baron and CEO of the K.R Group, had ensured that all the who’s who of Mumbai were invited. There’d even been a few film stars. Fancy food. Champagne. Dancing. Amidst the entire hullabaloo, in an obscure corner sat Mr and Mrs.Sharma bewildered by the tomfoolery around them. Mr. Sharma making polite conversation with the few who bothered to acknowledge him as the groom’s father and Mrs Sharma smiling nervously around at everyone in general and fidgeting with the end of her heavy Kanjeevaram saree. At some point in the party Rishaan Sharma had glanced in their direction and with a pang realised how much out of place his parents felt at their own son’s engagement…

He spotted a starbucks and sat down at an empty table. There was time for a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich as well. Their flight was an hour late. He had just placed his order when he spotted her seated across his table sipping coffee and reading. It was actually the book that caught his eye – ‘The world of Fatwa’ – by Arun Shourie. It was an unusual book to be reading in a place like this. He checked her out in much more detail. She must have been in her twenties, a pretty young thing dressed somewhat like a hippie. Messy hair that made her look like she was just up from bed, no makeup except for some carelessly applied kohl under her almond shaped eyes, smudged but sexy nonetheless. She had on a floaty fringed top and flared jeans and some odd looking pieces of jewelry.

As he sipped his coffee, he found himself staring at her every few minutes. There was an air of mystery about her which he found enticing. She finished her coffee and was opening her shabby backpack to take out her purse. He found her tugging hard at the zipper which wouldn’t open. The bag was overstuffed and the zipper was probably stuck.

‘’Here, let me help you with that.’’ Rishaan impulsively walked over and before she could protest, taken her backpack and started working on the stuck zipper.

‘’Excuse me, what are you doing?’’ her voice was somewhat rude.

‘’Just trying to help.’’ he said. Suddenly the zipper gave away and the backpack opened. Rishaan gasped at the sight of wads of currency notes stuffed inside. Numerous piles of 1000 rupee notes tightly packed. He involuntarily dropped the backpack.

The girl didn’t bat an eyelid. She calmly bent over and picked up her backpack. She gave him a vicious look and walked away, leaving behind some cash for her coffee.

It took Rishaan a minute to recover from what he’d seen. He’d assumed that her backpack was probably stuffed with books or clothes – but such a lot of cash? Wasn’t there some kind of rule about carrying cash while flying? Something isn’t right here, he thought. Then he sighed and walked back to the waiting area. He couldn’t be bothered about other people’s strange whims when his own life was nearing a peripeteia.

Kiara gave him an exasperated look. ‘’Took you so long to grab a coffee?’’

Their plane was ready to board and Rishaan was spared the onslaught of Kiara’s fury.

As he settled down in his aisle seat and Kiara next to him, she wondered aloud ‘’ I hope it’s somebody nice in the window seat and not any smelly guy. Why couldn’t you let me do the booking Rishaan? I could’ve booked us in business class.’’

‘’Kiara, Keep it down, will you? I just wanted to surprise you with this trip, which is turning out to be a big mistake!’’ Rishaan chided.

‘’Ohh,honey..Don’t be mad!’’ she purred looking at him with her big brown eyes and gave him that very look that had made him fall head over heels in love with her, the very first time they’d met at their Business school, a year ago.

She had been perfect in every way – right from the pearls around her neck and the pinkness of her rosebud mouth, her tinkling laugh, flowery scent and perfect curves, envied by other girls and leered upon by the guys. He pursued her relentlessly until she agreed to go out with him. He turned on his charm full throttle, fawned and fussed over her until she could resist him no more. Thus began a year of love – of long walks, romantic dates and candlelight dinners. That she was a rich heiress made no difference to him then. His friends cautioned him about their familial differences and that he might be mistaken for an opportunist and a parasite. But he was obstinate – Maybe he loved her so much because she was good for his ego and made him feel good about himself. She was his trophy- girlfriend.

After going steady for a few months, Rishaan was introduced to Kiara’s family. Mr and Mrs Gupta welcomed him although begrudgingly with open arms into their world of sophistication. Everything in their life was spectacular – be it their sprawling mansion or their pretentious parties. The Guptas detested anything that was ordinary. When Rishaan’s family finally met the Guptas to discuss their future, Rishaan couldn’t help but notice the subtle frown on Mrs Gupta’s face or the patronizing tone of Mr Gupta while addressing his parents. That was when Rishaan began rethinking his relationship.

Then a month ago Mr Gupta had announced that Rishaan would be heading the Dubai branch of his Company after their wedding. In short, he would have to quit his present job, which he loved, to helm his father in law’s business interests abroad. It meant relocation – leaving his parents behind. Suddenly it was all very overwhelming. Their flamboyant engagement festivities had left him befuddled as to whether he really belonged in their world. But he was in neck deep and there wasn’t much he could do except play along.

He was on the brink of a breakdown and the Goa getaway was something he was looking forward to clear his mind.

‘’Excuse me, the window seat’s mine.’’ It was the girl from the cafe.

He watched her as she deposited her backpack in the overhead locker and thought about all that cash stuffed inside. As she squeezed into her window seat, her lemony scent filled his senses

Rishaan saw Kiara’s perk little nose scrunch up a bit as she critically surveyed the girl’s attire.

As the flight took off on its two hour journey, the girls fell into regular banter, as women usually do.

‘’Diya…. what a pretty name!’’ Kiara crooned.

‘’ This is Rishaan, my fiancé.’’ He heard her say. He somehow felt uncomfortable being introduced as her fiancé.

‘’Oh, how nice.’’ Diya replied eyeing Rishaan curiously. They continued chatting.

Sometime into the flight Diya got up to goto the washroom. Kiara had fallen asleep. After fidgeting for a few minutes, Rishaan got up and followed her. The entire flight was dark with many passengers dozing off on the evening flight. He caught her by surprise as she came out of the tiny washroom cubicle.

‘’Ohh! Sorry, all yours now.’’ She said almost walking into him.

He caught a whiff of her fruity fragrance and smiled. ‘’You better be careful with that expensive backpack of yours.’’

He realised it was a wrong opening line as he saw her narrow her eyes at him and whisper ‘’That’s none of your business, Mr. Fiance -to-the-rich-chick!’’

‘’For someone who dresses like a hippie you do have a sense of humor, not a very classy one though.’’

He saw her aquiline nose flare at the insult.

‘’Look, I don’t have to take this crap from you , so just bugger off and stop hitting on me with your fiancé right by your side!’’

‘’Come on, I was just pulling your leg. We could be friends. You look like an interesting person.’’

‘’Really ? What makes you think so?’’

‘’ I’m usually a good judge of people.’’

‘’And yet you’re engaged to a pretentious snob..’’

‘’Hey, that’s my fiancé you’re talking about. You watch yourself.’’ Rishaan retorted angrily. He might be rethinking his relationship with Kiara, but couldn’t let anyone speak disrespectfully about her.

‘’Exactly. She’s your fiancé. So watch yourself before you go hitting on other girls.’’ She said and stormed away.

Rishaan was surprised at the inexplicable way he was drawn to this strange girl who unlike Kiara was flawed in every way. She was unconventional and untouched by sophistication of any kind – a polar opposite of Kiara. Yet what he felt for her was almost a primal instinct of raw attraction. He’d never experienced it before. He went back to his seat in a pensive mood, torn between his loyalty to Kiara and his attraction to Diya. The sleepy Kiara slipped her hand into his and snuggled upto him.

In the middle of the flight, Kiara woke up to go to the washroom. When she returned, she was too lazy to push her way into the middle seat. And with Rishaan readily offering to shift seats, the seating arrangement changed. With 20 minutes still remaining for the flight to land, a sleep starved Kiara took another power nap, this time holding Rishaan’s right hand more firmly. Rishaan’s other hand, though, nervously moved to touch Diya’s. Her heart skipped a beat. Diya pulled her hand away. But a defiant Rishaan held her wrist again, this time firmly and more reassuringly. The changing behavioral dynamics between the three perhaps gave out a foreboding of what was to come in Goa.

When the flight landed at the Dabolim Airport, Rishaan felt uncanny…his excitement seemed replaced by an unknown fear that he found very difficult to decipher. Kiara, refreshed after her long sleep on the flight, was bubbling with excitement as they got into their waiting cab. He saw her exchange goodbyes with Diya who left without a glance in his direction and wished he could have gotten her number somehow. Pursuing Diya was a lost cause, he decided.

It was Rishaan’s first visit to Goa. The closest he’d come to experiencing the place was through Mario Miranda’s amazing cartoons on the vistas of Goa. He sat back and enjoyed the drive to their hotel in Panajim. Goa was an intoxicating mix of cultures – Portuguese, British and Indian. He revelled in the sights, sounds and smells of a state high on culture and feni.

‘’What a great choice of a hotel… I love it!’’ squealed Kiara throwing her arms around him and giving him a big kiss.

‘’And now a nice hot bath to get the awful flight smell off me!’’ she said.

Kiara emerged out of her bath looking resplendent. ‘’Want to hit the beach? Diya says Miramar is a lovely beach and has some great dining options.’’

Rishaan was all ears. ‘’Diya? Your friend from the flight?’’

‘’Yes, she stays at Hotel Viva Grande, a few minutes walk from here.’’

He somehow cheered up after that and they had a lovely time at the beach. After a really heavy dinner of Lamb Vindaloo and Sorpotel and many glasses of feni , Rishaan decided he needed to walk off all the extra calories he’d consumed.

It was around 8.30 in the evening and the streets were still abuzz with fervent activity. He walked past the hotel where Diya was staying and wondered what she was upto.

He sauntered upto the receptionist and asked for her.

‘’I’m sorry sir. We don’t have any guest staying with us under that name.’’ She said checking her computer screen.

He thanked her and walked out slightly puzzled. Suddenly he spotted her on the other side of the road, speaking animatedly with a man. For the first time it occurred to him that she might already have a boyfriend. But on closer inspection, this guy looked nothing like a boyfriend. He was clearly a thug. Not the right sort for her to be mixing with.

‘’Was she in some kind of trouble?’’ He wondered.

Their interaction ended with Diya handing over her backpack to him and walking away with an angry, almost determined look on her face.

‘’Why would she handover all that money to that guy?’’ He wondered.

Rishaan on impulse ducked into a shop nearby and waited until Diya passed him and went back to her hotel. He didn’t know what possessed him, but quickly started to follow the guy she was talking to. He was walking really fast and Rishaan had trouble keeping up.

He suddenly stopped at a decrepit old building and went inside. Rishaan decided to wait. He could sense that something was wrong here. The man came out after a while but the backpack wasn’t with him. Instead he carried a brown duffel bag and strode determinedly towards the beach front. Rishaan followed. The man next stopped in front of a busy cafe and paused for a minute looking all around. Suddenly the night air was split by the screeching of police sirens. Almost at the same second, Rishaan saw the panic in the man’s eyes and saw his hands reach into his shirt. Rishaan froze.

There was a defeaning explosion . Rishaan felt a blinding pain and felt himself thrown up hard against something. He passed out.

He woke up in a hospital room. His head hurt and his hand was heavily bandaged. A sleepy looking policeman sat by him. Seeing him awake, the policeman, quickly came closer and asked ‘’ Are you okay, bhai? Let me inform the Commissioner.’’

A few minutes later, a much distinguished looking police officer came in.

‘’ How are you feeling Mr Rishaan? Don’t worry, we’ve informed your fiancé. She’s on her way to see you.’’

‘’Thanks but what happened?’’

‘’There was a bomb blast at the cafe and you were hurt.’’ He said it in a matter-of-fact manner.

Rishaan felt the bile rise in his throat as he mouthed the next question -‘’ Sir, how many more people…’’ he couldn’t complete his sentence.

The police officer took long pause before answering.

‘’Just one person dead and one injured- that being yourself. Obviously the only casualty was the guy who blew himself up.’’ The policeman explained.

‘’But, it was a busy cafe and I actually saw a crowd outside the door!’’

‘’Someone warned us. We got a tip off call about a blast happening at the cafe near Miramar waterfront at 9 pm. So did the cafe owner. The crowd you saw outside were customers being evacuated. Thankfully everyone cleared the blast radius in time, except you.’’

Rishaan was silent. He was thinking about Diya. He felt repulsed at the fact that he had been attracted to a terrorist. He considered giving the police information about her but simply couldn’t. His head hurt and he groaned.

‘’ You may have to come to the station later for some identification. Beware of anything you tell the media. Anything else you want to tell me?’’ he asked sternly.

Rishaan shook his head wearily.

Sometime after the policemen left, there was a knock at his door. He assumed that it would be Kiara. The door opened and Diya walked in looking nonchalant.

His eyes dark with anger and disgust met hers. They spoke nothing for a long minute.

‘’Why are you here?’’ he asked coldly.

‘’To explain myself.’’

‘’I’m not interested in the details of how you became a terrorist. I shall report you if you don’t leave this very minute.’’

She cringed at the word ‘’terrorist’’. But continued ‘’ You are entitled to think of me as you please, but I somehow feel I owe you an explanation. My name is not Diya and I am from UP, Ayodhya to be precise. That name rings a bell, right? I lost my parents in the rioting that happened as an aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. I was five then,unable to comprehend all that savagery around me that destroyed my family. But I was fortunate enough to be adopted by a family who gave me a new name, a new identity, a new religion. But somehow childhood had lost its innocence. I grew up with bitterness in my heart. A few months back I was contacted by an old acquaintance from Ayodhya – He too had lost his family in the ‘92 riots. We corresponded online for a while. It felt good to open up to someone who could finally understand my pain. It was he who brought up the idea of retribution – a payback in some way. To hurt society the way it had hurt us. He wanted to know if I was upto it.  Avenging my parents’ death would give me closure he said. I agreed to help him. I knew I was going wayward – I knew it was a terrible mistake, but still I did what he asked me to. I was to be the ‘courier’ who would carry cash from his ‘source’ in Mumbai to another ‘source’ in Goa. And that’s exactly what I did. But somewhere along the way I realised that killing a few innocents wasn’t the closure I wanted. To this day, I’ve been following two faiths – the one my parents gave me and the other my foster family gave me. Neither of them advocate violence in any way. I realised my folly although a bit late. I couldn’t backout and risk being bumped off either. So I went ahead with the plan – dropped off the cash and tipped off the police and the cafe owner. But you, somehow got in the way and ended up here. I’m really sorry that you had to get hurt. That’s my story.’’ She concluded and looked at him expectantly.

Suddenly the door opened and a teary eyed Kiara walked in. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Rishaan was overwhelmed. ‘’ Diya, I’m not really sure of what to say.’’

‘’ I understand. I just wanted to say goodbye before I left.’’ She said softly and left the room.

‘’Rishaan , what’s going on?’’ a puzzled Kiara asked.

‘’Kiara , we need to talk.’’ He said.

****************

Rishaan  watched her come out of the Hotel dressed in her usual hippie style. He walked over to her.

‘’Hi.’’  She said smiling. ‘’ looks like I’ve been forgiven.’’

‘’ I was curious to know what your real name is. Why don’t you tell me over a cup of coffee?’’

‘’Want to go to the cafe at the waterfront?’’ She asked him with a smile.

‘’ Oh the one your friend almost blew up? Sounds okay, but let me do a thorough pat down check on you first.’’ He joked.

Under the darkening Goan sky, their their lips met in a tremulous first kiss.

***********************

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