+ The Story So Far

#11 That Night With The Ludo Champ

I could hear those voices in my head. My imagination was quite vivid – a TV reporter was flashing in front of my eyes, reading out the news about my suicide – ‘Suvreen Goyal, a 26-year-old girl who worked in an IT company, cut her wrists and killed herself. Since she was living alone in a 1BHK apartment in Block D of Famous Height 2 in Koregaon Park, nobody got to know as she bled throughout the night. Her parents were informed about this tragedy when they reached Pune…’

Parents – it was their thought that snapped me out of it.

Three weeks – all it took Karan were three weeks to get over me and get into someone else’s pants. I was blocked from BBM, Facebook, Texts and Calls already. A common friend told me about his new affair. When I insisted, she gave me her Facebook password to check his profile and the pictures he had posted with his new girlfriend. The smiling faces in those pictures felt like they were looking at me with pity, making me feel worthless. Karan’s  Facebook status never changed; it still said ‘In a Relationship’. The only thing that changed was the girl.

Living in constant anxiety is like being possessed by some evil force. You lose control and do things that you never imagined you would do. I would refuse to get up from bed in the morning and call the office to tell them I am sick. Then I would stay at home all day to throw things around in frustration, cry for hours and sometimes would randomly keep jumping on the floor for no reason.

On that December night, I was still staring at one of those pictures. I finished the last bit of rum in the bottle and wiped my tears. Sudden dizziness reminded me that I haven’t eaten since morning. I got up frantically and began to look for my slippers.

“I should not die, I can’t die. Not now! This can’t be it!” I kept whispering to myself.

It was 4:14 AM when I walked out of the apartment without my jacket, not giving two hoots about the December cold. A few steps away from German Bakery, a tea stall was run by an old man. Along with tea, he sold idlis and kandha poha that were prepared in his home and he would carry them in big containers. He served them cold and the taste wasn’t that good, but hungry individuals would flock there early morning, making it a landmark of sorts in Koregaon Park.

When I reached there, the old man was still setting up the stall. I asked for two idlis and I began having them as soon as I got the plate in my hands. After finishing the first idli, I looked up and noticed a familiar face waiting for the tea to get ready. When the fumes coming out of boiling tea moved away from his face, I recognised him. He was a fellow resident of Famous Heights 2. I had always seen him wearing polo t-shirts, an office ID card around his neck along with a fucked up expression on his face. I went back to finishing off the second idli in my plate and then immediately felt an urge to smoke.

I asked for a cigarette and lit it up. While smoking, I recalled the moment when I first met Karan. I had walked up to him to ask if he had an extra cigarette. The conversation began when he offered to light it for me.  I was mesmerized by his long hair and dense beard. My hands began to tremble and tears appeared in my swollen eyes again when I thought about our first kiss that happened a week later. It was in an auto-rickshaw. We were drunk that night and he was only getting irresistible. Once we started kissing, I was not willing to stop. I didn’t let him go home that night. I dragged him into my apartment and had sex with him until sunrise. I couldn’t stop weeping. Just couldn’t.

“Fourty-five rupees,” the old man said and I realised that I wasn’t carrying money.

“Uncle… I forgot my wallet. I live nearby, I’ll get it quickly,” I said.

“Where exactly do you live? When will you come back?” The old man looked slightly annoyed. Maybe my swollen eyes and unkempt hair made him doubt me.

“If you don’t mind, I can cover for it,” fucked up face said and took the last sip of his tea.

Before I could react, he pulled out cash from his pocket and paid for both. While he counted the change, I noticed the name on the ID card hanging around his neck. It said Rihaan Bakshi. I thanked him with a fake smile and turned to walk back to the apartment. He was walking parallel to me, but slightly away. I wanted to be polite and talk to him on our way back but my headspace didn’t allow me to.

“I’ve heard dark chocolate helps when you’re in pain,” fucked up face said midway.

I looked at him and he was unwrapping a pack of dark chocolate.

“I’ve had a bad day too,” he said and offered the chocolate, “I don’t mind sharing.”

I kept staring at it for a few seconds, then took a big piece from that bar and stuffed it all in my mouth. Complex emotions and chocolates definitely have some divine connection. I was surer of it as soon as the chocolate began melting in my mouth.

“What makes your day bad?” I asked in muffled voice due to my stuffed mouth. In the usual scenario, I wouldn’t have invited this conversation. Maybe, I needed a distraction or maybe he earned my respect due to the chocolate.

“It’s been a year that I am working in a call center here. I’ve been performing well all this while, except for the last two months. Today, I was asked to sign a CAP letter.”

My face shape-shifted into a question mark.

“CAP… it’s an abbreviation for Corrective Action Policy. The letter said if I don’t convince enough British people to buy their phone connections in the coming month, I will have to leave the job,” he explained.

“Oh. This explains your bad day and your fucked up face,” I immediately clenched my fist for saying it out loud.

He nodded. Thankfully, he didn’t react to my fucked up face comment.

“But at the end of the shift, I was given this pack of chocolate for talking well to the customers over calls. My team leader Ishan and I even laughed about it. In the same day, they appreciated me for being nice to their customers but threatened to take away my job if I don’t fool them enough into buying their product,” He smiled and shook his head. “Anyway, what makes your day bad?” He asked.

I kept staring at him. I knew if I tell him the reason, I will start crying again. I looked away without saying anything.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me,” he said. I liked the fact that he didn’t push me for it.

“You seem drunk,” he said, taking the conversation forward.

“I’ve had half a bottle of old monk,” I said and he scoffed. “What’s so funny?” I asked him.

“Just recalled something silly I was told about old monk a year ago when I was new to this city,” he said, “he called himself SmokeUp Supreme.”

“With that name, I have no doubts about the silliness,” I said.

We reached the main gate of Famous Heights 2 and saw a girl getting off a car. The car zoomed off immediately and the girl could barely walk past the gate. She got on her knees and her curly hair covered her face.

“You okay?” Rihaan asked, walking closer to her, but hesitated to touch her.

“Don’t judge me, guys. I am not as drunk,” she slurred and tried getting up only to get back on her knees again. She was clearly drunker than I was. She puked a little and I rushed to hold her hair while she did that. Five minutes later, she felt slightly okay and got up to walk.

“What’s your name? We’ll walk with you to your apartment,” I said.

“Roo…” she paused and sighed, “I am Roohi. I’ve recently moved here in Block E,” she said.

“Come, I’ll…”

“Thanks. I’ll go. Don’t worry,” she said and walked off.

“I hope she safely reaches her apartment. These old buildings don’t even have elevators,” Rihaan said. He then parked himself in the only non-broken society bench.

I occupied the other side of the bench while still being unsure if I wanted to talk more to him. I looked at him and noticed he was blankly looking at the big tree across. One observant look and I could make out that he had not had a haircut for a while now. His beard wasn’t maintained well and he looked slightly shabby. If he took care of himself, he would look much better. Of course, the fucked up expressions weren’t helping either.

“It seems you’ve come from a long shift, don’t you feel sleepy?” I asked.

“I was. But my flatmates are having a smoke up party upstairs. With the kind of noise they make, it’s difficult to sleep.”

“Then you should not be living with them,” I said.

“I know. Every night I sleep with this thought of moving to some other place, but when I get up, the alarm is already ringing and I have to rush to the office. On weekends, I just don’t want to move an inch. Then on weekdays, I regret not moving my ass to look for a new place during the weekend. The cycle continues. It’s like… I am getting used to this sad life,” he said.

“So you just suffer and choose not to deal with this?” I asked.

“I have a defence mechanism. A few days before moving here in Pune, my grandfather stopped me from packing my bags for a minute and sat me down to tell me how to deal with the sad times. He asked me to think of my best childhood memories – things that once made me extremely happy. I took his advice. Now, when I feel unhappy, I find a quiet place and recall happiest childhood memories. In fact, that’s what I was doing a while back,” he said.

“…and it works?”

“It does most of the times. Maybe you should try. You might end up feeling better about whatever it is that you’re going through. You have any happy memory?”

“I do. Playing Ludo with my friends, cousins and parents have always made me happy,” I said with a bit of excitement in my voice.

“Then you should think of all the great Ludo matches from your growing up years. Try to relive them,” he said.

“Fuck thinking! I have Ludo set upstairs. It’s been sitting in my wardrobe for ages. You want to come up and play it with me?” I said.

He laughed.

“Don’t laugh. I am serious. Let’s go play!”

After insisting more, he hesitantly got up and silently followed me to my apartment. Maybe, he didn’t have anything better to do.

“Sorry, my place is a mess,” I said as soon as we entered my apartment.

“Compared to the garbage bin that my flatmates Irbaz and Chayan have turned my apartment into, this looks like a paradise,” he said.

I walked into my room and rummaged through my wardrobe to find the Ludo set. When I reached the hall again, I noticed him observing the screen saver on my computer. Random pictures of Karan and I were flashing on it. I walked straight to the computer and moved the mouse to stop the screensaver. The moment I did that, Facebook image of Karan and his new girlfriend appeared on the screen. I exhaled loudly, looking at it. Aggressively, I plucked the power cord to switch off the computer.

“Hey, this seems like an interesting book,” he said after a few seconds of silence, pretending that he didn’t notice the pictures. His effort to make this less awkward almost made me smile.

“Everyone is reading this Sarhansh guy these days,” I furthered the pretence, “someone at work suggested to read this author’s work.”

He nodded, picked the book and turned it a couple of times to observe its cover and placed it back on my computer table. In the hall, I opened the Ludo set and put it on a stool that we placed between two chairs. He was right. The excitement of playing Ludo after long was distracting me from the pain. I chose the blue pieces and he chose the pink ones. I started rolling the dices and in no time, the game was on. While playing, we talked about maintenance issues in the society, he told me about his workplace at Yerwada and I told him about my job in the software company. He was from Indore and was two years younger to me. He had this beautiful innocence that I would hardly see in people around me.

Like always, I was winning. One of my pieces was about to reach home and the other was about to enter the safe zone. I rolled the dices and I got a two and one, which meant one of my pieces reached home. I rolled the dices again and got one on each. This made my last piece two blocks away from getting into the safe zone.

“I am going to win this!” I excitingly said.

“Only if I don’t remove this piece and send it back to the starting point,” he said.

“You need an eleven to do that. You’re not getting that lucky, okay,” I said.

He shrugged and rolled the dices. I crossed my finger and half-closed my eyes. He got a six in one dice and five in another. He looked at me and grinned. I couldn’t believe his luck.

“Yes!” He punched his fist in the air.

He picked his pink piece and began jumping it over each block just to tease me, reaching towards my piece to remove it.

“This is cheating. No!” I shouted.

“I am playing fair and you know it. Six, seven, eight, nine…” he kept moving his piece towards mine.

“No!” I said louder and hit the Ludo board from the bottom, tossing it in the air.

The pieces and dices on the board went flying over his head. He couldn’t process for a second what just happened. His mouth was open and the pink piece still in his hand. The rest of the pieces were now at random places in the hall. Looking at his expression, I burst out laughing.

“I won!” I said, raising my arms and laughing louder.

“If this is a part of your Ludo’s rule book, you’ll never lose in this game,” he said.

The pink piece that was left in his hand kept making me laugh harder. He was hoping to remove my piece and hoping to win the game. Now the only thing left was that little pink piece and he looked absolutely adorable holding it.

“I never knew I am playing with such a great Ludo player,” he said and I continued to laugh, “I mean, you should have not been named Suvreen. Your name should have been The Ludo Champ,” he said.

While laughing, I realised how much I needed this. To laugh my heart out, to feel okay and to feel the world is not over yet. I was relieved a little, all thanks to the guy sitting right in front of me. Emotions took over. Moisture appeared in my eyes while I was still laughing. Yes, I felt relieved, but there was something else that I craved to feel in that moment.

“You should call your friends and relatives. Instruct them to save your phone number as Ludo Champ and not Suv…” he couldn’t finish his sentence because I quickly leaned extremely close to his lips. He stopped talking but kept looking into my eyes. I gave him a peck on his lips and I could feel his breath on my neck. My desires took over and I pushed the stool between us to get on top of him and sit on his thighs. I closed my eyes and began kissing him passionately. He began responding in no time and started kissing my lips just as intensely. I felt his hands gripping my waist and I began to gently suck his lips. The heartbeats got faster and the breaths started getting heavier.  Just when I was immersing myself further into it, he gently moved his face away. He looked into my eyes again while catching his breath. I ran my finger through his hair and leaned in again.

“Wait,” he softly said and I stopped.

“You don’t want this?” I whispered.

“I do. But do you want this?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” I said and gripped his hair and leaned in.

“Maybe you’re vulnerable and this is not what you really want.”

I stopped and got off him the moment he said that.

“If you don’t find me desirable enough, you can be straightforward about it. You don’t have to say bullshit to get away from this,” I raised my voice.

“I first noticed you a year ago on the same bench we were sitting. You were with your boyfriend. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. That guy who everyone called SmokeUp Supreme was with me that day. He told me that you’re out of reach and I should not be even thinking about you. I’ve always found you desirable since,” he said, “but I am assuming you’re going through heartbreak and I want to make sure you’re not doing this out of vulnerability.”

I stared at him for a few seconds and stormed towards my room. I took a few deep breaths, hoping the anxiety would go and in the process tears appeared in my eyes. I sat on my bed and started crying again. My face was covered. I heard his footsteps reaching my room and then going back after a few seconds. I thought he was gone. However, ten minutes later, when I reached the hall to check if the front door is locked, he was still there. I saw the Ludo board back on the stool, the pieces were arranged and he was looking for the last one that was missing from the blue set.

“Got it,” he softly said as he picked the blue piece from the floor, “let’s play one more game.”

I kept staring at him, not knowing how to react.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to worry about what just happened. Let’s just play,” he said and handed over the dices to me.  

I took the chair and half-heartedly began rolling the dices. After a few turns, he broke the silence.

“I have a cousin sister who’s nine years elder to me. She was the most cheerful soul that I knew. She would always pull my leg, play pranks on me and was always up to some or the other mischief. But, you know, when I was sixteen and she was twenty five, I noticed a sudden change in her behaviour. She just wasn’t the same person. She stopped talking to people, stopped being the cheerful soul that she was. A lot of times I used to notice her spacing out in the middle of our family gatherings,” he said.

I stopped playing the game while listening to him, but he reminded me to keep rolling the dices.

“In one of those family gatherings, I confronted her. I asked her why she has changed so much. She didn’t tell me the story, but she took a promise from me. She said that whenever I kiss or have sex with a girl, I must make sure that she’s not doing it because she’s vulnerable. She asked me to promise her that I’ll never take advantage of a situation where a girl’s having a weak moment in her life. She told me that I’ll possibly save a girl from making a series of damaging mistakes if I stop her from it,” he said.

“Did you ever get to know what exactly happened to her?” I asked.

“Much later, a friend of hers told me that she was in love with someone and the guy betrayed. And then, in an attempt to make herself feel better, she ended up having a series of affairs. It was her attempt to reclaim the happiness and acceptance that she once felt in her relationship. With every failed attempt; with every guy just taking advantage of this situation and leaving, her pain kept getting intensified,” he said.

“…and you think I was about to do that same?”

“I don’t know. But when you kissed me, I recalled her promise and couldn’t go further without knowing if it’s vulnerability or something else,” he said.

I was silent for a while. I kept playing the game, kept moving my pieces and kept thinking. The only noise that could be heard in the hall was of the wall clock ticking and dices bouncing on the Ludo board.

“I am not able to take this rejection. I am addicted to feeling loved. Maybe I would have made the same damaging mistakes as your cousin did.”

He allowed me to think for a while in silence. The game was still on.

“This situation you’re in Suvreen, it’s a freefall. Gravity is doing its job. Now you get to choose if you want to keep falling into the pit or touch the bottom and bounce back,” he said.

“I’ll shut up and bounce,” I attempted to joke.

He nodded, smiled and rolled the dices.

“You’re a wonderful guy. I would love to see you more often… maybe as a friend,” I said.

“Now this is a problem. Once you treat the girl how she should be treated, it doesn’t take much time for her to friend zone you,” he made an ugly face.

“That wasn’t the intention, okay! Why would I friend zone you when I clearly…”

“Suvreen, I am just joking. I was just distracting you because I wanted to remove this piece of yours,” he was winning again and this time I was competing like a real Ludo Champ would do. We played a few games and laughed our hearts out that night.

That was the beginning of many such Ludo nights. He always called me the Ludo Champ after that. However, what he did for me over those Ludo games, it was him who was the real champ that night. Stopping me was the right thing to do. However, that wasn’t the only night we kissed. The night when we kissed again and didn’t stop was an ‘explosive’ one. However, that moment and that tragedy deserve another story.

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