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At the annual award night of SPEED AUTOMOBILES, a prestigious commercial vehicles dealer company, Most of the awards had been presented to the winning employees and it was finally the turn for the most coveted and sought after award – The Platinum Award.

Gripped to their seats sat top ranked managers and directors with voices in their heads screaming, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” While Mrs. Jyotheendran had already booked a taxi to Guruvayoor temple and promised Lord Krishna that she would roll her husband around the main shrine at least three rounds if he bags the award, Mrs. Balachandran with inadequate confidence in her husband’s talents had offered to light 11 gheelamps at Sri Azhamala Devi temple if Mrs. Antony gets doomed against her wish of taking the platinum award home. Approximately 20 inches tall and 10 inches wide, that piece of fake platinum placed on a tall round table on the dais occupied by high official business magnates, trembled in the motley vibes of the crowd in front of it.

“And the Platinum Award of the year goes to….”

The hollow cheeked Managing director in crisp white Safari suit, with his bald head brilliantly covered under the long patch of hair from the left side of his head, across to the right, unintentionally giving it a black-and-white striped appearance between hair and scalp, paused stereotypically to arouse curiosity– innocently unaware of the inner fury he was creating in the crowd.  

“to…..?  Any guesses?”

The M.D asked the unsettled crowd.

The nominees chanted their own names a hundred times as their wives confirmed it in their hearts a thousand times.

“to…..?”

Pause again.

“to…..Mr. Rajagopalan!!!”

Employees at SPEED had not seen Rajagopalan after he had resigned a year back following the death of his 14 year old son and joined a much more prestigious company to a higher position. And at SPEED, weirdly, the tradition was to announce the annual awards of the current year, at the end of the following year.

The internal chaos of the auditorium came to a standstill as Rajagopalan walked into the auditorium through the arch-shaped entrance, in style. A complete gentleman in his early 40s, wearing a glazing, elegant navy suit that aptly featured the manliness of his tight abs and toned muscles, neatly trimmed silver hair on the periphery of his baldness, and a disarming smile that instantly made Mrs. Jyotheendran  forget about her offering at the Guruvayoor temple. A line of pot-bellied colleagues jaw-droppingly watched Rajagopalan as he walked past them to the dais.

Jaw-droppingly, because the last time they saw Rajagopalan he was as pot-bellied and ugly as they were now; least conscious of his sagging cheeks that extended to his loose double chin in a way that hid his neck, excessive perspiration and unkempt nails.  Rajagopalan had changed. And the difference was like that between day and night.

Bright confetti cannon fired across the stage as the vice president of the company handed over the award to Raj. Wide applause panned from left to right enriching the auditorium with a positive vibe which that piece of fake platinum, now in Raj’s hands, seemed to enjoy. As Raj walked down the dais, his colleagues observed the ladies with wide smiles congratulating him from either side. Among them stood a pretty lady in plain bottle green crape saree that perfectly complemented the golden floral-print blouse she wore. Raj exchanged a smile with her as his colleagues recalled how he used to stand among them, breathlessly tucking in his heavy pot-belly as attractive women walked by.  

The idea of peace seemed like sailing away from Raj’s male colleagues as they now, inevitably, wanted to know how. When aerobics, gymnastics and VLCC failed to help people attain that ideal body shape, Raj’s gradual yet fast weight loss attracted all of his colleagues’ attention.

Raj stood in the center; people enclosing him like a ring and raising that curious three letter word- HOW?  The effortless smile with which he had been avoiding this question seemed not to work anymore. “Just like that”, raj excused and added, “Naturally”

“Selfish Bull Shit!” One of the colleagues whispered silently, making sure Raj heard it.

Raj had never understood why most women hesitated to reveal their age. According to him, with age came wisdom, and with wisdom came a condition called Love- a condition where one transcends beyond the self  and sees a sublime visual from the top, like that seen from an airplane, where man appears as tiny and busy as ants, keyed like a toy in the direction he has been inwardly motivated to go.

Yet, a higher age is often looked upon as a disgrace and women escape trickily when questioned about their age while men mostly lie. At this juncture, Raj chose to escape. Honesty, didn’t for a split second, seem like the best policy. Because he knew it would expose some grey shades in him; Grey only for the refined and polished class of people but beautiful to the noble savage.

Raj’s departure after the award night hadn’t released his colleagues from their curiosity about his strange weight loss. They discussed it at breakfast, lunch and supper; at home and office.

“Remember how Raj behaved when his son’s dead body was brought home that night?”

“He didn’t move an inch from that couch, but his wife was unconscious in the other room”

“Didn’t he cry?” enquired Seema.

“No! Not a single drop!

“There should be an extra compartment in men’s brains” Seema imagined, “-one where they could suppress those emotions which normally make one cry. How else could they hold within such intensity? But it’s not an inborn compartment, because children, whether boy or girl, cry. This compartment, in boys, forms at some curse-worthy point”

“That’s because boys were given superman toys when girls were given pretty Barbies” Alex reasoned.

“No, there has to be something more to it. Why don’t they cry as often as women do? Isn’t crying a kind of rejuvenation? A kind of Catharsis? They should at least cry in the bathroom once in a while, I feel”

“Well, that needs a deeper thought”

“But how did Rajagopalan turn handsome” Satheesh questioned, breaking the conversation, but bringing in a focus now.

“We should first talk to Mrs. Rajagopalan, the one who lives with him”

Soon they planned to hit up Mrs. Rajagopalan.

Five inches and nine feet tall, with flabs, which she never wanted to hide, stretching the cloth around her waist like tires, straight long hair and a face that glowed without the help of facials. Her feet were clean without pedicure, and palms soft without manicure. Tears streamed down Mrs. Rajagopalan’s cheeks, wetting her high-necked Maroon cotton Kurti all the way till her bosom, as her son’s dead body was laid before her.

“I think he’s alive. Please check properly, please”

She requested to the men around her.

“No, Jayalakshmi”, broke down the ladies around, “He’s gone.”

‘The pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow’- this quotation laminated largely and hung in his room had let Gokul bear his otherwise unbearable knee ache. And one day, out of losing control over the trust in the quote, when Gokul complained about his aching knee, Mr. and Mrs. Rajagopalan had attributed it to their son’s excessive football craving. From then on, Gokul, the ambitious footballer regained his faith in the quote and never complained about the excruciating pain, hoping that it would turn into strength some day.

But unavoidably, one fine day they diagnosed cancerous cells in Gokul’s knees. It had spread to other parts of his body, uncontrollably. Gokul deteriorated as quickly as a flower wilted. There suddenly was no tomorrow for him to feel the strength he had saved up as pain. But despite his poor health, Gokul made it a point to tear apart the lamination from the wall, into scraps.

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,

I’m begging of you please don’t…..”

-Dolly Parton’s famous music track  played on the loudspeaker as they dialed Mrs. Rajagopalan.

Mrs. Rajagopalan was a woman who often tried to understand the statement ‘a woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets’, but failed every time.  She believed she could proudly narrate all her life incidents to anyone, for they were all morally correct. And her smiles were never voluntary. She smiled only at those who truly made her smile. During mosquito bites, when Raj concentrated like a tiger concentrated before preying, bringing his hands painstakingly closer to the insect, little by little, and stopped for a second, holding his breath, before slamming it into flat debris, Jayalakshmi only fanned her hands against it or fluttered a little, for the same effect of getting rid of the mosquito.

At the risk of sounding shallow, Raj’s colleagues, after some initial chit-chat, asked her how her husband had turned handsome.

Abruptly, without much thought, Mrs.Rajagopalan replied.

“An increased release of Oxytocin has resulted in a higher level of Dopamine in his brain. It acts as a neurotransmitter in his brain now”

“I don’t think she has pulled through Gokul’s death yet” Satheesh mouthed silently as Mrs. Rajagopalan continued.

“Oxytocin changes the brain signals that are related to social recognition via facial expression- due to activity in the Amygdala- a part of the brain that plays a role in processing emotional stimuli”

“Okay ma’am, you take care” said Alex, and hung up gesturing “poor lady”

Inside the long conference room, sales managers dispersed as Rajagopalan reclined after winding up the meeting.  After making sure that everyone had left, he quickly checked his reflection on the mobile screen and perfected his well maintained circle beard which covered his chin and continued into a moustache that wrapped around the lips. He believed it gave him an edge of virility which the previous stubble failed to give.

He put back the mobile phone on the table as he saw, through those white translucent voile curtains, Soniya walking towards his room. Sweaty palms, shaky knees, flushed cheeks and tongue-tied, Raj was in this same state when he first saw her-  year back.

After Gokul’s death when food turned Jayalakshmi’s worst delight, it had become Rajagopalan’s only source of solace, an obsession, an excessive indulgence that helped him stuff down his feelings.

When a tiny bowl of curd rice easily mileaged Jayalakshmi for a day, Rajagopalan rummaged through shelves, drawers, and tins and raided the refrigerator for more food, although he wasn’t hungry. He had just dined heavily at his wife’s maternal home- four Parathas with Malabari chicken curry after a strange starter- an elaborate South Indian meal. It wasn’t hunger that he wanted to suppress; but a longing, an unending crave. He compulsively gulped a tin of condensed milk in one stretch, and binged on a family-sized bag of spiced tapioca chips just to balance out the surplus sweetness of the former. Then he lolled in the dark, in complete lethargy, regretful and self-loathing. Because of the huge difference in the way they grieved, Rajagopalan swelled as Jayalakshmi shrunk. And the space between them, held together earlier by Gokul, widened day by day creating an air of unfamiliarity.

Moving to the new office, Rajagopalan had stockpiled caramel popcorn and spiced puffed rice in his desk, to eat secretly when gluttonously full after regular meals. It was as he bent down to open the confectionary tins that a pair of feet appeared in front of him; neatly pedicured, evenly toned and graciously slipped into a V-strapped rose gold footwear. With puffed rice stuffed in his mouth, the pot-belly laboriously sucked in and conscious of appearing composed, Rajagopalan ascended, to face Soniya- the lady in Royal blue cotton Saree assigned to join as his assistant at work. Like the usual moments of instantaneous romantic identification between two individuals, the time-space spectrum of the moment when their gazes locked, did seem to slow-down and gloss, paranormally. The bold headings of moral science chapters sealed in their heads by school teachers slowly faded in the new found fuel of life.

He put back the mobile phone on the table as he saw, through those white translucent voile curtains, Soniya walking towards his room. With sweaty palms, shaky knees, flushed cheeks and tongue-tied  Rajagopalan lifted a textile bag from the floor and presented it to Soniya.

“Plain bottle green crape Saree and a golden floral-print blouse. Just as you wanted it”

“The Platinum Award is yours I’m sure” Rajagopalan smiled as Soniya assured.

Rajagopalan’s colleagues sat in the office hoping to discover something from what his wife had told them. ‘Oxytocin and Dopamine’, Satheesh googles as others gape into the computer monitor. And the result page that appears is titled ‘How your brain functions when you’re in love’. They patiently read the page which starts – ‘Oxytocin is a love hormone that fuels romance….’

After reading the article, all they wanted to do was call up Mrs. Rajagopalan. But she didn’t pick up and hence the caller tone played Dolly Parton’s track fully this time.

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

I’m begging of you please don’t take my man

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

Please don’t take him just because you can

Your beauty is beyond compare

With flaming locks of auburn hair

With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green

Your smile is like a breath of spring

Your voice is soft like summer rain

And I cannot compete with you, Jolene.

He talks about you in his sleep

There’s nothing I can do to keep

From crying when he calls your name, Jolene

And I can easily understand

How you could easily take my man

But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.

You could have your choice of men

But I could never love again

He’s the only one for me, Jolene.

I had to have this talk with you

My happiness depends on you

And whatever you decide to do, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

I’m begging of you please don’t take my man

Please don’t take him even though you can…

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