Chapter Fourteen - Mansi

Mansi continued walking trying her best to get the image out of her head. However, it was stuck in her mind - the look he had on his face. Though she tried to convince herself that she did not care, she could not stop herself from wondering. She hated the fact that it made a difference to her, she hated that the look gave rise to an unsettling feeling inside her. What was it in his look? Curiosity or Loathing? And, who was he to give her that look?

Walking in trance, too deep in her thoughts, she did not realize when she reached her room. She opened the door and walked inside; without switching on the lights or changing her clothes she got into the bed. She was too tired to do anything. Her neighbour's face flashed in front of her as she closed her eyes to relax. And, in that vision, after careful observation did she notice the expression in his eyes. The expression that betrayed what his attitude suggested; the expression full of care and concern! She opened her eyes as the thought crossed her mind. She sat up straight in bed, wondering. Was it really possible that he cared for her? He had tried so hard for so many days to pretend to be unaffected by her, ignoring her on purpose. What had changed now? She wanted answers; she needed them for putting to rest the weird feeling that had started rising in her. A feeling she did not particularly hate. 

She sighed and got up from the bed. She switched on the lights and walked to the kitchen. She was hungry. She made quick snacks and tea and then she changed into comfortable clothes. She took out the book she had kept under her pillow. She had been reading the book for a month now, her interest slowly decreasing in the story. She never liked reading much. She hated how people read stories and pretended to be a part of it; tried to live and breathe the characters of the story as if it were not a book but a part of their life. If her life was ever made into a book, she knew it would be the one she would have hated. She hated her life. She hated that her mother had given birth to her despite the unfavourable circumstances. Mansi’s birth story was not a secret to her. Mansi’s mother had told her that she had been born out of wedlock. It made her an illegitimate – a bastard. She could not, however, hate her mother because she knew her mother loved her immensely. She hated herself for being who she was, for being an unnecessary burden on her mother since her birth. She did not know her biological father, she never tried finding about him, and she did not want to know who he was. All that mattered to her was that he was a coward; the one who had abandoned her mother and had forced her to marry a man twice her age. The man – so called father of hers had died before the blur image of the man could be fixed in her memory – a permanent photo that would be a part of her life. Unfortunately, her step-father’s face turned into a permanent photo.

Mansi put the book aside and opened the door of her room. She was having difficulty in breathing. She took in a deep breath, trying to compensate the decreased supply and increased demand of oxygen. The serpent was awake and had raised its hood. It had become a part of her, the fear; even though she knew she had nothing to fear. However, whenever her thoughts went back to her step-father she felt the chill run down her spine. Like every other girl, she wanted to lose her virginity to someone special but her step-father had ruined it for her. Mansi stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. She rushed towards the stairs, her vision blurred. She did not want to cry, not in front of so many people. She did not want to cry alone in her room. She did not want to cry, period.

She wiped the tears that threatened to flow. She climbed down the stairs and walked out of the chawl. She did not know what time it was, she was not wearing a watch. She did not know where she was going, she just walked aimlessly – being a part of the crowd, yet being completely lonely. She looked around; her feet had found their way to the park. It was crowded. Suddenly she realized she was not wearing sandals. She had walked out in her pyjamas and t-shirt. She wrapped her arms around her as the evening breeze tickled her skin. 

She walked away from the park, towards an unknown road. A road she had never taken before. She walked aimlessly amidst strangers, a very few looked her way. She felt exposed in her pyjamas but she did not want to go back to the chawl. She continued walking until she reached a deserted road. A thought crossed her mind, scaring her momentarily. The thought that she did not know where she was and she had no money with her. This fear was momentary because the very next second she found herself trembling with emotions. She started shaking as tears streamed down her cheeks. She walked to the side of the road and sat under a tree, her knees pressed hard against her chest. She let the tears flow. This was the only way she knew of dealing with her fear. Dealing with the hurt her step-father had left her with. She tried to distract herself after the tears stopped. She believed that the moments after the tears stopped were the hardest to cope with. Those were the moments when she felt empty. She thought about Manish Kumar. She thought about his protectiveness towards her. She wondered how it would be, working night shifts with him. 

She had to speak to Uncle about it; had to tell him that she had decided to allow Manish to work night shifts with her. Her thought train came to a halt. There was nothing left to think. She tried to channelize her thoughts on the little things that made her happy. She had memory flashes – she walking out of the bathroom, her wet hair tied in a towel and he watching her. She smiled. Then, she got up suddenly realizing that she had a long walk back to the chawl and most importantly she did not know the road. She walked a few steps in a direction only to realize that she was most probably walking towards a dead end. She turned around and started walking in opposite direction. She saw a few people on the road and she relaxed. Then – she saw it. A cab – the cab – his cab..
She waved hysterically, willing him to look in her direction. He was driving away from her. She did not even know his name. She continued waving and he stopped the cab, he had perhaps seen her in the rear-view mirror. He put the cab in reverse gear and drove back to her. She relaxed. She was happy to see him.

“What are you doing here?” he questioned looking at her. 
She felt exposed as he watched her in her pyjamas and t-shirt. 
“Get in” he said opening the front door of the cab. She got in surprising herself that she was ready to ride shotgun with him while dressed in pyjamas.
He put the cab in gear and started driving. 
“It’s not safe; you should know it better.” He said without looking at her. She turned to look at him, what did he mean by ‘she should know it better’?
She shook her head when she realized that she was over-reacting. It was just a general statement. He misunderstood her shaking head gesture and the expression on his face changed. His face was so damn expressive, she thought as she caught the change in his expression. He was looking straight at the road.
A long awkward silence stretched between the two. She wanted to break the ice but she did not have the pick. She did not know what to say without being labelled stupid or rude.
“What’s your name?” she blurted out.
He looked sideways at her.
“Next time if I want you to stop for me, I should at least know what name to shout.” She said, surprising herself with a smile on her face. He smiled too.
“Rohan” he said.
“Mansi” she replied. He nodded and took a sharp turn. They had reached their chawl. 

“How much do I owe you? I will pay later.” Mansi said as she opened the cab door.
“I had to come back to the chawl to freshen up, I gave you a lift instead of riding alone, you do not owe me anything.” He said with stern expression on his face. Behind the veil of the expression, she saw hurt peeping out from his eyes. He was so fragile, more fragile than she was, she thought. He was someone who needed to be kept safe; some place where no one would hurt him.
“Thank you” she said climbing out of the cab and closing the door behind her. He got out too. She waited for him as he locked the cab and walked to her side and then they started walking together towards the stairs but he stopped suddenly as he saw a familiar face. She saw as well, the face of a woman – a smile on her lips and mischief in her eyes. He walked towards the woman and Mansi was left standing alone, feeling stupid. Who was she kidding? This man was far from fragile. He was a womaniser. Mansi turned around and walked towards the stairs without looking back, without realizing that Rohan had noticed her walking away, without realizing that he kept staring at her, without realizing that moments later he followed her footsteps, alone.

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