Akash and Muskan are meant for each other. When they miss a chance to meet each other the first time around, destiny keeps throwing them together again and again.
The room was comfortably dipped in darkness when a figure slunk in through the door and came to stand by the bed. The person watched the sleeping body on the bed for a few seconds before snorting softly and pulling open the curtains. Sunlight poured in, bathing every inch of the room in warm yellow, and still the man on the bed slept on. The man’s friend, who had crept in earlier, grabbed his shoulder and shook roughly.
“Akash, get up, you kumbhkaran!”
The sleeping man, or Akash, squirmed around and covered his face with the blanket. “Go away, Harry,” his muffled grunt was heard from beneath the sheets.
“It’s half past ten, you idiot!”
It had the desired effect. Akash sat up with a snap, blinking rapidly and looking slightly disoriented. “Wha– half past… shit, I’m late!”
His friend, Harry, laughed as Akash sprung into action, jumping down from the bed, pulling out a t-shirt and jeans from his closet and practically flying into the bathroom to take a shower. Akash would never change. His profession did not suit him, late as he always was for work.
The studio was small by normal standards and was situated in a side street where parking a car was a big issue. The constant flickering of lights as the light-men set up the area and the heat from the bright lights irritated Muskan and gave her a headache.
“This is too much, yaar,” she said in exasperation. “Where’s the bloody photographer?”
Muskan was a fashion designer. She was straight-laced, professional at work and had no patience for unpunctuality. Her friend, Nancy, who was the model for this particular shoot, was comparatively more chilled about everything.
“With our luck, he’s probably dead in a ditch somewhere,” she joked.
Muskan looked at her in shock. “That’s not funny, Nancy. He’s a photographer. He should understand the meaning of time management. If you’re not punctual, then –”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Nancy, cutting her off. “If you’re not punctual, then you don’t understand time management, you’re not serious in life blah blah blah. You and your philosophies, Muskan.”
Muskan huffed and checked her watch. She had really wanted to meet this photographer because they were working together for the first time and she always made it a point to personally acquaint herself with people she worked with. But if she waited another five minutes, she would be late for her meeting and she couldn’t allow that.
“I’m off,” she announced, causing Nancy to look at her in surprise.
“But you haven’t met the guy yet,” protested the model. “Don’t you want to tell him what kind of photographs you want, what kind of angles and lighting…?”
Muskan grabbed her bag. “He knows. We’ve spoken on the phone, Nance. I gotta go, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She was out of the door before Nancy could protest anymore. The other woman just did not want to be left alone with the studio crew as they waited for the photographer. Muskan smiled and tried not to feel sorry for her friend as she hurried down the stairs of the rundown building that housed the studio. She almost crashed into a man who seemed to be in a similar hurry to go up and each mumbled a quick sorry to the other before going their own way.
The man was none other than the photographer – Akash. He burst into the studio, panting, and shouted, “Sorry, everyone. I’m here. Let’s get to work.”
The movie theatre was crowded with people. It seemed everyone wanted to see the new Khan movie that had recently come out. Akash lounged on the sofa with his friends, exchanging jokes and jabs as they waited for the movie to begin. Harry sat beside him, his eyes on his mobile phone but his ears paying full attention to their rowdy group of friends. Through the crowd, a familiar face caught Akash’s eye. He shifted around in his seat to get a better view of that face.
“Oooh, never pegged you as one to check girls out,” Harry teased. He was looking up from his phone and his eyes followed Akash’s to the woman at the popcorn counter.
Akash rolled his eyes but kept his gaze on the woman. She was holding a can of coke, a tub of popcorn and was laughing with her friends.
“Think I’ve seen her before somewhere.”
Harry snorted. “If you’re gonna use a line like that, use it on her. Spare me the horror.”
Akash turned his head to look at his friend briefly before finding the woman with his eyes. She was moving away towards another auditorium and Akash felt mild disappointment at knowing they wouldn’t be in the same auditorium.
“It’s not a line,” he said to Harry absently. “I have seen her before.”
“If you say you saw her in your dreams, I’ll kill myself.”
Akash ignored him and continued as if Harry hadn’t spoken at all. “I just don’t remember where.”
A large body blocked his view and he found himself standing up to keep the woman in his view. She was pretty but she wasn’t exceptionally beautiful to warrant such attention from any man. So, Akash didn’t understand the pull he felt towards her.
As if sensing that she was being watched, the woman looked up with a small frown, her eyes quickly sweeping the lounge area. And through the crowd and the distance between them, their eyes met and locked with each other. At first, she was surprised and then she became speculative as she watched Akash, as if she was trying to remember something. Eventually, she shrugged and gave him a tentative smile.
Thoroughly confused but not wanting to seem rude, Akash smiled back at her. Who was that woman?
The auditorium doors opened and her friends pulled her in. Harry waved a hand in front of Akash’s face, breaking him out of his stupor.
“Let’s go, Romeo, movie first, obsessive girl-ogling later.”
Akash scoffed and punched his friend on the shoulder as the group of friends made their way into the auditorium, playfully elbowing people as they pushed ahead.
Muskan sat in her favourite spot in the garden, a cosy little bench directly facing the lake. The cool morning breeze blowing through her hair and the sight of the ducks in the lake calmed and inspired her. Her sketchbook was open in her lap and she lazily sketched one design after another, imagining the dresses come alive before her eyes as she drew them. She frequently took breaks, letting herself close her eyes and breathe in, letting her eyes roam over the lovely green landscape and letting herself enjoy as she worked.
Across the lake was a man photographing the family of ducks floating on the surface of the water. Muskan absently watched him turn this way and that as he tried various angles to shoot from. It was when he lowered his camera from his face that Muskan did a double take. She knew that man. He was standing a bit far but she was pretty sure that it was the same guy from the movie threatre last week. She felt a strange pull in her gut as she watched him. He was speaking to a beggar boy now. He turned away slightly and knelt down, bringing his camera in front of his face and Muskan guessed that he had convinced the little boy to pose for him.
Her sketchbook lay forgotten as she stared at the duo, her eyes soaking up the wonderful scene before her. The boy looked really happy as he turned this way and that, silently obeying the hand gestures and commands the man threw at him. At one point, he laughed out loud at something the man said and the sound somehow carried over to Muskan. She found herself smiling as well.
When the so-called photography session was over, the man gave the beggar boy some money and rumpled his hair. Then he turned his camera to the lake again. He moved the camera around, taking in the entire landscape through his lens and Muskan quickly looked away. When she peeked at him again, his camera was lowered and she felt a jolt at seeing him looking straight at her. It seemed like he had recognized her as well.
She saw him look around and realized that maybe he was looking for a way to get to her side of the lake but Muskan knew this garden like the back of her hand.
He would have to walk quite a bit before he reached the part from where he could circle back to her side. He looked at her again and she shrugged. Maybe they were being too forward with each other. Maybe they shouldn’t even look at each other like that. They barely knew each other. Muskan had seen him once. Technically, twice or more, if she listened to her gut instinct telling her that she had seen him before the threatre. But that still didn’t mean she could allow him to approach her. He could be a creep.
Maybe he was thinking the same thing. Maybe not. But Muskan saw him shoot her an embarrassed smile. He rubbed the back of his neck in uncertainty and relaxed only when she gave him a small smile. He nodded and turned away. She watched his retreating back for a while before returning to her sketchbook. After a while, when she looked up again, he was gone.
Muskan and Nancy were looking at clothes in a shopping mall. Nancy kept up a constant chatter while Muskan silently perused dresses.
“… and I told her modeling jobs are not easy to come by. I work hard for a living, you know.” Nancy held up a dress for Muskan to see. “What about this?”
Muskan shook her head. “The design’s too loud. I want something subtle, something elegant.”
Nancy coughed and mumbled “thief” under her breath. Muskan narrowed her eyes at her friend and flicked her on the arm. “Hey,” she cried defensively. “I’m just looking for ideas and trying to get inspired. My designs are not stolen!”
Nancy smirked. “Got you.”
Muskan huffed and flipped her the bird. Nancy laughed and wandered off to another shelf where a dress caught her eye. “I’m trying this one out,” she told Muskan before disappearing into the trial rooms.
Meanwhile, Akash and Harry were in the trial rooms as well. Akash was standing outside a stall on the other side of which stood Harry, checking himself out in the mirror.
Akash grumbled, “Dude, you took eleven t-shirts in there. Eleven! Are you buying for the whole family or what?”
A shirt flew over the top of the stall door and landed on Akash’s head. He threw it on the floor and glared at it as if it was the very spawn of evil. Harry’s voice echoed throughout the trial room as he replied, “Have patience, little grasshopper. The fruit of patience is sweet.”
Akash slapped a hand to his forehead. “If you don’t come out in five minutes,” he warned. “I’ll leave without you.”
“What’s the rush here?”
“Man,” sighed Akash glumly. “I promised Mrs. D’Souza I would click photos of her dog, Chocho.”
Harry laughed, his loud, clear voice echoing again. “Since when do you photograph domestic animals, Akash?”
“Mrs. D’Souza is my neighbour, yaar. I couldn’t refuse when she asked.” Akash banged his fist on the stall door. “Remember you have five minutes, loser. And stop laughing.”
He left, Harry’s guffaws following him outside the trial room.
Akash wandered the ladies outfits section aimlessly as he waited for his friend. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a great looking pair of legs and he stopped in his tracks. Holding his hands up before him in the imitation of a camera, he slowly moved them up the woman’s body to rest on her face.
A soft curse escaped his lips at the sight of his mystery woman. She was standing in front of a mirror, holding a dress to her body as if checking how it would look on her. She noticed him in the mirror, standing behind a shelf and staring at her. She looked torn between being surprised at seeing him or being happy. It eased Akash up a little – at least she wasn’t frowning or calling the cops, claiming Akash was stalking her.
Not knowing what to say or do and slightly embarrassed at being caught staring at her, Akash ultimately pointed to the dress she was holding up and made a face. The woman was initially confused but caught on soon and Akash watched as she put the dress back in its place and held up another for his inspection. Akash wrinkled his nose, silently conveying that this dress was no better.
He decided he was enjoying the game a little too much. His heart fluttered when she picked another dress and judging by the way she tried to fit the dress around her properly, Akash could tell that she really liked it. It was a lovely dress, designed in hues of blues and greens, and it would definitely look stunning on her. When she looked up at him, he grinned and gave her a thumbs up.
In the trial rooms, Harry, after finally trying out all eleven t-shirts and settling on the ugliest one, was coming out when he bumped into a soft someone who was leaving as well. She was all dark hair and brown eyes and red lips, and she immediately started apologizing for not seeing him coming. Harry cut her off, not at all interested in her apologies.
“It’s perfectly okay,” he said. “We had to meet. ‘Twas inevitable.”
She looked confused, so he elaborated roguishly, “You’re a woman, I’m a man, you look beautiful, I look like Hritikh Roshan… see? It’s fate. We’re perfect for each other.”
Her brown eyes widened at his blunt attempt at flirting and she stared at him for a few seconds before bursting out into a laugh. “Idiot,” she muttered under her breath, shook her head and turned to leave.
“At least tell me your name,” said Harry, taking a chance.
She stopped and turned. “Nancy,” she said, her voice deliberately throaty. “Nancy Alvares.”
When she left, Harry placed a hand over his heart. Damn!
Gaining confidence from their non-verbal conversation, Akash had just taken a step forward to approach the woman and speak to her for real when someone called her.
“Come on, Muskan, let’s go.”
So that was her name. Muskan. She looked at him longingly for a second, then walked away reluctantly, giving him a small, half-hearted wave. Akash stared after her, disappointment heavy in his stomach. When Harry came and waved a hand in front of his face, Akash blinked and glared at him.
“Oh, so you’re done now?”
Harry grinned, Akash’s sarcasm not lost on him. “Come, Chocho must be waiting for you,” he teased.
Akash growled under his breath as Harry dragged him to the cash counter to pay for his t-shirt.
A few days later, both men were at Akash’s house. Akash was sitting with his camera in hand, looking at photos he had recently snapped and Harry was smiling away dopily at his laptop. Curious to see what he was smiling at, Akash leaned over to see the picture of a familiar face on Harry’s screen. Harry was chatting with her on Facebook.
“Nancy Alvares?” said Akash.
Harry looked up in surprise. “You know her?”
“She’s a model. I did her photo shoot a couple of months ago. Where did you meet her?”
“The mall. I went on a date with her,” replied Harry proudly.
Meanwhile, at the same time in Nancy’s house, Nancy was showing Muskan Harry’s Facebook timeline.
“Isn’t he cute?”
Muskan nodded wistfully. “This is nice. You meet once, you go on a date.”
At this end, Akash was telling to Harry, “And in my case, you keep meeting each other and still don’t get a chance to say a single word to one another.”
“What do you mean?” asked Harry.
“There’s a woman…”
“I keep bumping into him time and again,” Muskan was telling Nancy.
“And I just know her first name. Muskan,” said Akash.
“And I don’t even know his name,” said Muskan. She noticed a photo in Harry’s friends list and started. “Hey! That’s him. Oh my gosh, that’s him!”
Nancy shot her a strange look. “Muskan, this is Akash. Our photographer.”
Muskan was shocked. That’s the guy who was late that day, the one she never met because she was in a hurry. They had spoken on the phone a couple of times after that day but they mostly coordinated by email.
She suddenly remembered one more thing. He was the one she had almost crashed into when going down the stairs. That’s why she had the feeling that she had seen him before. Maybe that’s why he recognized her in the movie theatre as well.
“Akash Sinha,” she said in an awed whisper.
“So this is your dream guy,” teased Nancy.
Muskan blushed. “Yeah, well, he’s not punctual though.”
It’s like, now that she knew who Akash was and was hoping to run into him again, she saw him everywhere. She saw him in anyone who was strutting around with a camera in hand. Once while she was walking out of an ATM, she saw a guy standing with his back to her, clicking photographs of the traffic and, heart beating wildly, Muskan ran to tap him on the shoulder. He turned out to be someone else and she walked away feeling incredibly stupid. She had his phone number, sure, but she didn’t want to call him and seem too eager. That was not her style, but it took a big effort on her part not to just dial his number like a normal person.
Akash wasn’t faring any better. Since he didn’t know Muskan’s last name, he couldn’t search for her on Facebook or any other social media website because there were a lot of women with the same name running around, Muskan being a common name. Whenever he would hear the name Muskan, he would spin around to check if it was his mystery woman but it never was. He was beginning to feel like an idiot, turning at every mention of a female name.
Harry, meanwhile, was going on dates with Nancy and their relationship seemed to have progressed to them calling each other girlfriend and boyfriend. Akash tried not to be jealous but he was and he couldn’t help it.
Then one day, Harry dragged him to a bookstore on the pretense of wanting to get a book for Nancy’s birthday when in reality, it was all a set up for him to see Muskan again. Nancy had obviously told Harry about her friend Muskan who had a crush on Akash and Harry immediately remembered Akash having the hots for a woman named Muskan, and so both Harry and Nancy hatched a plan to make their friends run into each other again.
Nancy directed Muskan down the aisles and Harry pushed Akash until all four were in standing in the same aisle in the bookstore. Both matchmakers conveniently disappeared once Akash caught sight of Muskan loitering some distance away, looking rather bored as she perused the bookshelves. He was pleasantly surprised to see her there and, wondering if she was real or not, he kept staring at her until she felt his gaze on her and looked up. Her eyes widened and her lips curved into a surprised ‘O’.
There was no way in hell that Akash was letting her go this time. He took a step towards her when a particular book caught his eye. He pulled it out with a grin and held it up for Muskan to see. The book was titled, ‘Have We Met Before?’
Muskan read it and laughed. She held up a finger to indicate that she wanted to play along. Her eyes roved over the books on the shelf until she found what she was looking for and pulled out a book to show Akash. This book was titled, ‘Destiny Plays A Game.’ His grin widened. It was true, and rather obvious that since they kept running into each other, destiny had a big hand in it and perhaps they were meant to be together.
Harry and Nancy watched them from the adjacent aisle, peering through the gap in the bookshelves as their friends engaged in a silly non-verbal conversation. Nancy was giddy and holding back a squeal and Harry was smiling from ear to ear. Finally, his friend would stop pining and be happy. He told the same to Nancy, who giggled and punched his arm.
“Don’t be mean,” she whispered. “Look.”
And they looked as Akash held up another book. It was a beverage recipe book and its cover featured a big cup of coffee. He pointed at the cup of coffee, then at Muskan and at himself. Muskan understood what he was trying to say and she spoke to him for the first time –
She walked towards him and Akash met her halfway, both of them smiling foolishly and neither caring about it at all. They were together and that’s all that mattered. Later, they would shower Harry and Nancy with gifts of gratitude but for now, they had a coffee date to go on.