A few seconds earlier
“Mehak would always be a part of my being and I'd continue to love her till my last breath.
We were meant to fall in love but not be together, I know that very well - after all Mehak is ………
I can never do anything to hurt her.
I had never planned on falling in love with her – strange are the matters of the heart; I am surprised that a bit of harmless flirting and an extremely good camaraderie would turn into an all-consuming love - but in love I am.”
These were Karan’s last thoughts before he drifted off to a much needed sleep.
31 years 6 months earlier
Karan was just over thirteen and Saurabh six when their parents, Rishabh and Parineeta Rong, passed away when their car crashed 40 feet down near Teesta Bazar, about 16 kms from Kalimpong. They were driving back from Gangtok to Darjeeling. Saurabh was too young to comprehend the reality.
The Rong Group owned 9 Tea Estates in Darjeeling and employed close to 5000 workers. After the demise of Rishabh and Parineeta the management of the group fell into the hands of the Trust and both Karan and Saurabh were put into St. Paul’s Boarding School in Darjeeling.
Rishabh and Parineeta’s death had very contradictory ramifications on Saurabh and Karan. Saurabh had turned into a complete introvert and was completely withdrawn and focused only on academics with a very limited social circle; Karan on the other hand had learnt to mask his pain with a very cheerful exterior. He was gregarious and had a large group of friends. He brought forth his pain through creativity and was an active member of the Drama Club.
Both the brothers were inseparable and Karan was there for Saurabh as an elder brother, as a friend and as a Parent – as much as he could be.
27 years 10 months earlier
Four Years later, after completing his schooling, Karan was selected into IIT Kharagpur – he majored in Mechanical engineering. On his return, as he was already 21, Karan took over a 50% controlling stake in the Rong Group – Saurabh’s share was still being managed by the Trust.
Saurabh moved back from the boarding school and Karan was appointed as his legal guardian.
With his background in Mechanical Engineering, Karan introduced changes in the Processing Plants to increase efficiency and reduce wastage. With this increase in output and profit, the Rong Group was able to introduce health schemes for all its 5000 daily wage workers.
Saurabh was also noticeably happier and more cheerful, at sixteen he now had a girlfriend – Mehak Randhawa – she was studying at St Helens. Saurabh had met her at the Chowrasta on a misty Sunday morning. She was in the tenth grade. Mehak had managed to reach out to Saurabh and broken his protective mould.
It had become a Sunday ritual – Mehak and Saurabh used to spend together at the Loudon Hill Tea Estate – this was the flagship Tea Estate owned by the Rong Group and this is where Karan and Saurabh had their house. The estate was named after the First war of Scottish Independence – the famous battle in which Robert the Bruce of Scotland had his first major military victory against the British in 1307. The hilly area near Darjeeling probably reminded the original Scot planters of their home terrain and the tiny hamlet near Glasgow. Even today, the name of the Loudon Hill Tea Estate in Darjeeling keeps a little bit of Scotland in India and commemorates and perpetuates the famous Scot victory.
Despite being nine years younger to him, Mehak got along very well with Karan. In him, she saw a friend. Karan loved her gregarious nature and her cheerfulness – what she was within – he was just without; deep inside he was in pain and had never got over his parents untimely death. He was incomplete too – one of the most eligible bachelors in Darjeeling – dividing his time between work and Saurabh, Karan did not have any time for a meaningful relationship.
20 Years 10 months earlier
At the end of his final academic year in school, Saurabh went to Kolkata to St Xavier’s to pursue his Bachelor’s in Economics. He used to be back in Darjeeling once a month to meet up with Mehak and Karan. And Mehak continued her Sunday ritual at Loudon Hill. Two years went by – Mehak and Saurabh were still going strong and Mehak and Karan were even closer friends. With all his focus on work and the welfare of his employees, the only time Karan got was the Sundays, which were almost always spent with Mehak. And he found himself drawn to her – her innocence, cheerfulness, her bluntness and forthright views; her beauty, her hair falling across her face her bosom heaving up and down, her slim waist flowing into her curvaceous hips. She sparked in him emotions which he had long ago learnt to subdue. There was chemistry between them that they couldn’t deny but both knew that it was not right.
Mehak could see the effect she had on Karan – he was a very close friend, maybe more than a friend; she felt for him in a way that she could not explain. “I can’t say I love him, but then I really like him. With Karan I am myself – I am free, I can talk about anything knowing that he shall never be judgmental. And I am sure that he of all the people shall be there when I need him and that I shall be there for him too; but then do I love him too? Everything is not Black and White – there are shades of grey…… I have the greys for him”, she found herself thinking. If there was absolutely something she was clear about - it was about her love for Saurabh.
18 years 11 months earlier
After finishing her school, she moved to Kolkata to her parents. Her father, Dr. Tejinder Randhawa, was the most sought after Cardiac Surgeon in India and was a Consultant at Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences. Simi, her mother, ran a NGO for street children. They stayed in Shakespeare Sarani, hardly 10 minutes’ walk from St Xavier’s. Mehak was elated to be back in Kolkata – back to Saurabh, back to her parents.
Karan suddenly found that he really didn’t have anything to do on Sundays – he started dreading the emptiness. To cope up, Karan bought a share in a Theatre and started actively producing and Theatre performances. And thus Darjeeling Dramatics was born.
Saurabh was in his final year, when Mehak also joined St Xavier’s. It didn’t take time for Tej and Simi to make out that Mehak was seeing someone; but when they got to know that she was seeing Saurabh Rong, a Lepcha – they forbade her from seeing him anymore. Simi was hell bent that Mehak shall only marry a Sikh. Both Saurabh and Mehak were heart broken and didn’t know what to do.
It was a cold December morning; at 5 am someone started ringing the doorbell incessantly. Karan got up from his sleep, “who the hell could it be, so early in the morning”, he thought. When he opened the door, he was shocked to see Saurabh and Mehak.
“What are you doing here – at this time? I hope everything is alright”, Karan asked.
“We have run away Dada and we want to marry”, Saurabh replied.
Karan slapped Saurabh across the face – it was as if a reflex action.
“My parents won’t let me see him, you have to help us”, cried out Mehak.
Karan was seething with anger. “You shouldn’t have run away. Saurabh, you are turning 21 in two months and Mehak, you are just eighteen. Legally you may be adults but you clearly lack the maturity. I do not doubt your intentions or your feelings, but the actions are not right. Either of you could have called me – I would have met your parents, Mehak”
Tears were rolling down Mehak’s eyes and Saurabh could not look into Karan’s eyes. He pulled both of them in and brewed some tea. The tea had amazing citrus and honey flavours. There was a pin drop silence in the room. Saurabh and Mehak drifted off to sleep on the couch itself – they had been driving the entire night. Karan couldn’t help notice how beautiful they looked as a couple.
In the following Feb Saurabh was turning twenty one and would inherit his part of the Rong group.
16 years 4 months earlier
The sound of the car in the driveway woke up Saurabh and Mehak. Karan was immaculately dressed in a black suit with a pink shirt and a black tie. He asked them to be ready in the next hour.
They drove to Bagdogra Airport to take a flight to Kolkata. The 3 hours of drive and the break at Girudhara for some refreshments was of utter silence. The trio landed in Kolkata at 3pm from where they directly went to Shakespeare Sarani to the Randhawa’s residence.
Mr and Mrs Randhawa were relieved to see Mehak. Karan had called them early in the morning itself in order to put them at ease. He apologized profusely about the actions of the young couple so much in love. Tejinder reminisced the time when he had fallen in love with Simi thirty years back. He was struggling to set up his practice as a doctor and Simi hailed from a rich background. It took time but they had together managed to convince Simi’s parents and seek their blessings.
Tejinder was thus more forthcoming than Simi and took a liking to Karan’s openness and maturity.
It took a week for Karan to convince Simi of the alliance.
A Roka was done and it was agreed that the marriage would only be solemnized once Saurabh settled into a job.
Before returning to Darjeeling, Karan pursued a series of meetings with the management of Nandikar Theatre. He was a promising and upcoming name within the Theatre community and they agreed upon a collaboration to invest into Darjeeling Dramatics.
Saurabh stayed back in Kolkata to finish his graduation after which he pursued his Master’s in Business Management from IIM Kolkata.
On turning Twenty One he gave management control of the Estate to Karan.
After completing his MBA, Karan started working at Ernst and Young. In two years his marriage to Mehak was solemnized. It was a grand affair with a presence of Who’s Who from the Medical Fraternity and the Tea Industry.
12 years 11 months earlier
Within eleven years of taking over his share of the Rong Group and Management rights for Saurabh, Karan had expanded to 18 Tea Estates and 10000 employees. The group ran a school for its employee’s children and provided scholarship for college for 10 children every year. Darjeeling Dramatics was also receiving rave reviews from Critics – he had performances running in Kolkata and Delhi to packed audiences.
Saurabh and Mehak moved back to Darjeeling an year after their marriage. One day Saurabh commented, “Dada, you are Thirty Two, what are your plans for marriage?”
“I haven’t found the right girl yet”, said Karan.
10 years 4 months earlier
In the last two years the Rong Group under the joint leadership of Karan and Saurabh saw Year on Year sales growing by 40 percentage. Karan was the brains behind all the operations and Saurabh was spearheading all the Sales efforts.
Karan was very active in promoting his Darjeeling Dramatics and was scheduled to fly to Chicago on the coming Saturday to meet up with a few Theatre companies. His dream was to perform in Chicago and he wanted to explore the opportunity. Karan planned to be in Chicago for a month.
An impromptu meeting came up and Saurabh had to rush to Kolkata to meet a prospective client on Thursday morning – he was scheduled to come back on Sunday.
The same evening Karan and Mehak were sitting next to the fireplace having dinner talking about the growth plans for the Group and Karan’s planned meeting in Chicago. The conversation turned towards Karan and why he didn’t have a girl in his life. “I have always liked you and been attracted to you”, said Karan. He bit his tongue. Mehak got up and left immediately. Karan’s statement had stirred something in her – some distant but very familiar feelings.
Karan too was in a state of shock. An hour later, he was still on the dinner table. He heard a shuffling noise behind him and turned around. He found himself looking directly into Mehak’s eyes. And his lips were on hers. Karan hadn’t ever been a relationship but he had his share of women. He had never felt like this before. One kiss and he knew he had completely fallen for her – as if their souls had connected and they were just meant to be.
They broke apart as suddenly as they had come together.
“This isn't right; this never happened,” said Mehak.
Karan nodded in agreement.
With a great restraint both of them returned back to their respective bedrooms. However, neither could a sleep a wink that night.
A noticeable Tension was in the air the following morning; both Karan and Mehak couldn't comprehend their feelings and didn't really know how to react. Just before leaving for office, when they were at the doorway, passions fuelled and another long kiss ensued. This time there hands were exploring each other with a fervour which was new to both of them – the chemistry was undeniable; they however, again, broke apart as suddenly as they had come together.
Immediately after lunch, Karan drove down to Bagdogra, straight from the office, to board his flight to Kolkata – he had an early morning connection to Chicago.
Karan was disturbed throughout the flight and he kept dreaming of Mehak throughout – she was on his mind. He could still smell her favourite perfume – Pure Poison from his clothes; or so he thought.
Mehak too was in a state of stupor. Karan was Saurabh’s elder brother, but what he had made her feel was something very different.
They both in their own ways endeavoured to put the matter aside by ascribing it as an event where the situation had got the better of them.
Matters of the heart are beyond comprehension.
10 years 2 months earlier
Karan and Mehak found themselves chatting, talking and Skyping every day and the feelings became more and more evident and pronounced. A month passed and they realized how much they had fallen in love and how impossible it still was.
They restrained their feelings and for a few months were actually very good friends – two people who loved each other and knew their limits – or so they thought. As much as they wanted the things to be normal, they weren’t. Deep inside both Karan and Mehak knew that they were in love.
Due to the predicament they were in there was a perpetual emotional upheaval – from the brewing cauldron of these emotions one could at different times inhale scents of love, friendship, resentment or indifference.
But, as was destined - it had to happen and one fine day, happen it did.
Mehak snapped out of it and told Karan to move on – that she did not feel anything for him; that she never had.
He was totally broken.
In spite of knowing that it was the right and only sane step that Mehak had taken, being a victim of his heart’s desire, Karan tried his level best to reason with her – he literally tried to smother her with his love.
He loved her without care and with complete abandon – but then Karan knew that he wasn't asking anything in return; as long as he knew that she loved him or had loved him even for that brief moment, he was contended.
3 years 11 months earlier
Karan started rummaging through the drawers in Mehak's room - desperately trying to find it. He came across her purple polka dotted lingerie and was immediately drawn back to the nights where the bodies had but barely touched; the souls however had consummated their love. He threw the lingerie away and continued to search for the stuffed bear he had sent to Mehak along with the flowers and the sketch he had made of her. All Karan needed was a closure - he knew that Mehak was about to come back soon and he had to find the bear and the sketch, he was sweating and his heart was throbbing. The door to the room opened; Karan jumped to hide behind the curtains and fell.
His head hurt badly and he got up on the floor, next to his bed - it was a dream; so vivid; Karan's heart was still throbbing and he was covered with sweat. He opened Whatsapp and saw Mehak's profile pic - couldn't help smiling; couldn't help crying.
Karan knew that he may possibly never get a closure and such dreams shall not leave him alone. He cognized that thoughts of Mehak with every passing moment shall always continue to haunt him and that loving her with complete abandon was his folly.
He recollected the last time they had really spoken - Mehak had taunted him; "come and tell me in 10 years if you still love me", she had said.
In Mehak, Karan had also found his best friend - for the first time in years it was just him, no mask no show. And in turn Mehak had loved him for what he was. "You have taught me how to love, what real love really feels like", she had said. Now that she had moved on, Karan was struggling to grasp the reality - in losing her he had lost his soul mate and his best friend.
In the immediate aftermath of his breakdown, which interestingly lasted for close to 2 years, Karan had contemplated suicide on many a occasion - dying seemed to be the easiest way out, but he had promised her that he wouldn't. Life was not easy, depression and despair had become his family. From being a high achiever to a mediocre performer, drowning his sorrows in the intoxication of alcohol and carnal pleasures - he was doing everything possible to keep himself preoccupied, to keep himself from thinking of Mehak.
1 year earlier
"If Mehak had died it may have been easier to come to terms with the reality of life than with the morbid reality of her just walking away - I still love her but am no longer a part of her existence; I feel everything, but am dead to her; a ghost from her past, I know she sees me but I remain invisible", Karan told his shrink.
"Leave me alone."
"Live and let Live."
"Do you want me to be left hanging?"
He had just wanted to know that she loved him - these statements from Mehak had pierced Karan's soul. He knew that she was right; she was the stronger one between the both of them and this separation needed to happen. It was the day she had snapped. He had to find a way to be with her while being without her. He created an email address for Mehak shortly after they parted ways and started writing to her almost every day - this was the only way he could retain any sense of sanity; she was a part of his life in ways Mehak could never understand.
Karan had told Saurabh that he had been running the show for close to 15 years and he needed a sabbatical – he wanted to pursue his interest in the theatre as a full time activity and he wanted to do so in the States.
There was a big row between the brothers as Saurabh could not see Karan go – he blamed Karan for abandoning him.
Nine years on, he was living in Chicago; he had moved to the States within a month of Mehak’s decision. Karan was working as the Creative Director with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Nine years on and he was still writing to her, sharing his life with her. He had come to terms with the reality that as much as he tried to move on and let go, she would always be a part of his being and he'd live the rest of his life loving her. He loved her so much that nothing really mattered to him any more - not Mehak, not her indifference - only his love. Today all he wanted was for her to be happy, for Mehak to keep smiling.
It had been nine years since he had visited Darjeeling. Saurabh now owned one of the largest tea estates there. Before leaving for the States, Karan had bequeathed his share of the Estate to Saurabh; Darjeeling Dramatics had died a slow death within a year of Karan’s leaving.
In these nine years Karan had picked up the phone to call her a million times, and kept the phone back – he followed her on Facebook on a daily basis and checked on her casually whenever he spoke to Saurabh. On his bed side table was a bottle of perfume – Pure Poison.
Saurabh had noticed the distance between Karan and Mehak, but could never really put a finger on it. He presumed it had to do with the ugly way Karan had parted – when he was leaving for Chicago.
At thirty five, Karan had started his life in Chicago all over again – he had come to the States with only his personal savings – most of which he blew up in women, alcohol and drugs in the first couple of years.
He had been direction-less and adrift for close to 3 years after coming to the states.
It was one of his flings who noticed his creativity and got to know of Karan’s history in dramatics and introduced him to Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
There was no looking back.
Theatre gave to Karan, at least a part of the sense of purpose he was missing.
Even though it made him sad he could not let go of Mehak, because it was the only thing that had ever made him truly happy.
1 month earlier
As a part of a Cultural Exchange in the Steppenwolf Theatre and Nandikar Theatre from Kolkata conceptualized a Play, Anonder Shohor (City of Joy) to run in Kolkata for 6 weeks followed by a run in Chicago for another 6 weeks. Given his background, Karan was appointed the lead Program Director for this project. He was scheduled to fly into Kolkata a month before the Theatrical Début.
After Thirty Hours of being in flights and Airport Lounges, Karan stepped down at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport.
At forty five, with greying side burns, iridescent eyes, peppered stubble and wind tossed hair; he was a handsome middle aged man. Tears rolled down his eyes - it was almost close to a decade that he was back to Kolkata. "Amaar hridoy o aatma, duita ekhane (My heart is still here; so is my soul)", he thought.
Saurabh had been very persuasive, but Karan was equally adamant. Saurabh had been insisting that Karan visit Darjeeling - Karan had declined citing his busy schedule. "Leave me alone."; "Live and let Live." was echoing in his ears again and again. There was no way that he would let Mehak be uncomfortable. He had not spoken to her for the last decade - and as much as he wanted to, he was not going to now.
He checked into the Taj Bengal and met up with Sudipto, the President of the Nandikar Theatre for dinner. Karan was a total foodie - he enjoyed his Roshun Sorsher Macher Jhol (Garlic and Mustard Fish Curry) and Pinacolada at the Poolside. Sudipto Ghosh reminded Karan of his teacher Mr Banerjee - a Khadi Kurta and a Satchel Bag across his shoulder with black rimmed spectacles. Karan was always in awe of the creativity and simplicity of the Bengali culture - it was as if genetic - something that cultural evolution made dominant with each passing generation.
Karan was very tired and after dinner immediately went to his room. He was asleep in no time. His head was throbbing, throat was parched and he was gasping for air. The dream was haunting him again. He got up with a start. There was a message on his phone from Saurabh. "Mehak is reaching Kolkata on tomorrow for some meetings; I shall be following the day after. Love you Bro and looking forward to meet you." Mehak was going to be in Kolkata tomorrow. "Can I meet her? Should I meet her? What do I say? How would I face her? What face do I put on? Does she still feel for me? Would I be able to keep my composure", Karan couldn't comprehend the emotional turmoil that was tearing him up from within.
Karan rushed down the Business Centre and printed 2500 pages of emails he had written to her over the last 10 years. It took over five hours for the print job to finish.
He was still in a deep slumber at 10 in the morning when his phone rang. It was Mehak. He picked up the phone as if in a trance. She asked him to meet her at The Bridge at the Park Hotel for lunch. It was raining heavily - Karan hadn't moved for the last one hour. All of a sudden, as if he was being controlled, he got up and jumped into the shower. He was ready and he realized there was so much he had to tell her - there was so much bottled up for the past ten years. Incidentally, today it was exactly 10 years to the date when she had challenged his love for her. He picked up the printouts and put them in a Carry bag. He walked out of the Hotel - still in a trance, drenched in the rain. His stomach was in a tight knot.
A car passed by and went through a pothole, splashing water on him - he snapped out of his trance. An unknown fear gripped him - he had no choice but to meet her - he didn't want to give Saurabh a reason to doubt. Karan hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to The Park Hotel. Traffic was bad and he was stuck at the Cathedral Road for almost 20 minutes. He was reminiscing the times they had spent together - not once did he doubt that Mehak had not loved him.
By the time he neared the Hotel, it had stopped raining and the sun was out - he looked out of the window and saw Mehak getting out of her car on the other side of the road - she took his breath away.
The traffic in his lane was not moving and he saw Mehak walk into the hotel - she looked stunning with her burnished complexion and kohl-black hair flowing over her shoulders. It was a pleasure to see her feminine grace and her effulgent, molten-brown eyes were as expressive as ever. She donned a black dress tailored to accentuate her curves. Her full lips reminded him of the decade old kiss that had changed everything. The breeze blowing towards him smelled with the fragrance of Pure Poison. Karan was in love all over again.
Karan wasn't sure even now about what kind of conversation would they have, but he was sure that he would not burden her with what he felt. He had started writing something for Mehak while on the road - he crumpled the paper and threw it on the seat next to him.
He fumbled in his pocket and gave the first note he could get his hands on to the driver. He opened the door and rushed to cross the road. The taxi driver seeing a 1000 rupee note shouted out, "Babu, āpani āmākē khub bēśī ṭākā diyechhen (sir, you have given me too much money)". Mid way Karan turned back and said, "Aaj tomaar bhalo din; anando karo (Today is your lucky day; enjoy)".
"Babu", the driver screamed with horror across his face. Karan turned to see the truck speeding towards him. He didn't have a chance. The truck braked hard but skidded on the wet road. His body was dragged for almost 50 meters and the bag he was carrying the emails in was flung far across the street in a corner, to be immediately picked up by the Rasta Cheles (street urchins).
The taxi driver handed over the 1000 rupee note and the crumpled piece of paper to Mehak, as she stood sobbing next to Karan's body.
"If the flame is my love then I’ll like a candle, burn till the end; until there is nothing left. And when the flame is extinguished with the wax completely consumed - my feelings are but smoke that is now one with the universe - and one day I am sure you'd inhale it too."
1 Month from today
The Jhaal Moori stall in the street corner across The Park Hotel uses pages from the longest love letter ever written, for making the Kagoj Thala (paper plates).