Manspotting

By Ritu Bhatia

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Falling madly in love is probably the best distraction from bad feelings. My existential angst was put to rest, temporarily, when I met Vikram at a press conference. While ‘beautiful’ is a term usually used to describe a woman, that’s the word that came to mind when I first saw him: his skin glowed, his shoulders were broad and well-shaped, and he had a perfectly sculpted face. His laugher boomeranged in the spaces he inhabited and his larger-than-life personality made everyone around him seem small and insignificant.

Vikram was the director of an international biotechnology company focused on developing gene-based predictive tests and treatments for all kinds of diseases. It was the beginning of the era of personalized medicine; a couple of years after scientists had mapped the human genome or DNA. The company Vikram worked for was customizing treatments for diseases caused by a single gene mutation, such as sickle cell anaemia and Huntingdon’s disease. ‘The right treatment for the right person at the right time’ was their tag line.

Perhaps my background in microbiology led to my fascination with the potential of genetics, to change the future of medicine. A paper had commissioned me to do a story on the issue, and set up an interview with Vikram. But I hadn’t bargained for the effect he would have on me – his good looks threw me off track completely. I found it hard to concentrate on what he said about genes and medicines.

All I could think about was how to avoid meeting his eyes or touching him by mistake. Would he sense how attracted I was to him? I was terrified of being caught out. I needn’t have worried though, since the chemistry was mutual. He kept shuffling his papers, changing his position and bursting into inappropriate laughter during our discussion, and by the end of it, we were trapped in a glorious bubble of lust and longing.

A week later he called to suggest lunch. We talked about other articles I could pitch, over tandoori fish at Moet’s in Defence Colony. I made a show of listening, crushed by the wedding ring I had spotted on his finger. All I could really hear was the pounding of my disappointed heart and a reproachful voice in my head: Did you really expect a man like him be single?

I suffered one more long work meeting before I learnt that Vikram was single. He said he wore a wedding ring out of habit, even though his marriage had ended when his wife had left him eight months earlier. A divorce was underway, and Vikram was struggling to raise his eight- and ten-year-old sons by himself.

“She didn’t want the kids,” he said, sadly. Despite the suggestions of relatives and friends that he put his boys in a boarding school, he was adamant about keeping them at home with him. “They are my biggest asset,” he insisted.

We fell into a relationship almost naturally. Vikram was passionate about me in the manner of a Mills & Boon hero, plying me with red roses, chocolates and lots of loving attention. I basked in the cocoon of safety and contentment that romance bestows, convinced that Vikram was the Universe’s gift to me, miraculous proof that love was life-changing.
He stood before me in all his glory, radiating the vitality and energy that was absent in me and triggering my yearning for life itself. I spent the first few weeks of our relationship gasping for breath, feeling like I was walking on air, and believing that I had only skimmed the surface of emotions till this moment in time.

The only problem was that he wasn’t free to be with me in the manner I needed. Managing his high-powered job and young sons was far from easy. Once I got to know him better, I realized how misleading his confident manner was. He struggled to do justice to his role as a single dad, and felt as guilty as a single mother about it. But he was helpless to change the situation, since his job was demanding and involved regular travel.

Meeting his kids’ needs was clearly impossible, despite the retinue of maids and drivers he employed. Yet, he refused to consider the possibility of sending them to a residential school.
“They will live with me till they are old enough to do otherwise,” he said emphatically, every time the topic came up.

The boys were sweet and innocent, in the way children are. I was fond of them, in the manner of an aunt, and smiled through kiddie mealtimes and storytelling sessions, though my sense of discomfort was acute. I was stifled by the pressure to respond in a motherly manner, to step in and take over where their birth mother had left off. I told myself that mine was a temporary reaction, which would dissipate over time.

But I couldn’t control my expectations of Vikram. I wanted him to be mine, and just mine. I wanted to go to the movies, and dance all night with him. It hurt me that he didn’t show up at my front door with containers of hot dal and chicken. After all, he had a cook and driver. Surely it wasn’t that hard to organize a meal for me, once in a while? But Vikram was too frazzled with his kids and his job to respond to my needs. He wasn’t interested in commuting between his place and mine. The only way I could enjoy the benefits of his company, was by living with him and his children.

From Chapter: Love, Again

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