Murali took a hot shower, which rejuvenated him from his Monday morning blues. He wore a formal dress - a cream shirt, dark brown pants, and a light brown tie. He sprayed almond cologne and went to the living room.
He hadn't slept well the night after moving to his mother's home. The wall clock showed half-past eight. He had time for breakfast before his office opened. His stomach growled as he hadn’t eaten well the previous night. He went to the kitchen, prepared a slice of toast, and sat at the dining table, contemplating his loved ones' behavior.
Murali hadn’t expected Vasudev would behave that selfishly. How could he give up such a beautiful girlfriend to please his mother and for the sake of an inheritance? How could he marry a girl chosen by Payal, when he was already in love with Meera?
Murali had refrained from looking at girls after Falguni died. He developed a friendship with Pratibha because she looked so much like Falguni.
His mother had said she would find some beautiful girls for him. But Murali hated her suggestion. He loved only Falguni and her lookalike, Pratibha.
“Hello, brother." Vasudev entered, smiling.
“Good morning." Murali finished chewing his toast. "Are you leaving for work?”
"Yes.” He poured a glass of orange juice and sat opposite Murali. “Good luck to you. It's been two weeks since you attended your office.”
“Are you feeling better now?" Vasudev said. "You don't seem to be fully recovered yet.”
“Yes,” Murali said. "I’m perfectly all right.”
The doorbell rang. It must be Payal, Murali thought. “Is it Mum?”
"I think so." Vasudev placed the juice glass on the table and walked towards the door.
Murali heard Payal’s voice. She had spent the night with her 'date'. A cold shiver went down Murali’s spine, and his heart raced. Payal indeed behaved irresponsibly and never bothered about her sons' feelings. Vasudev was thick-skinned. But she knew Murali was sensitive and should've tried not to hurt him; she shouldn't have behaved so selfishly.
He controlled his surging emotions. It was his fault that he fell ill and returned to his former home. But he hadn't expected he would meet Pratibha at his new place and end up like this.
He decided to avoid his mother and leave for his work silently. After she walked into her bedroom, he washed his hands and then hustled out of the living room.
The dog, tied to the balcony railings, started to bark and wagged its tail. Murali waved for it to be quiet. He slid behind the wheel of his car, started the engine and headed down the main street.
His mind clouded with the image of Vikram. Murali swallowed. He had remained absent at a time when the project needed him. Will Vikram remain silent about my two week's absence? What reason should I give him if he asks? I've told him about suffering from cold and fever. Did he believe me?
Murali’s pulse quickened. He would stick to the reason he had told him and avoid concocting a story. He shouldn't get himself in trouble by lying to him.
The sun rose on the horizon. The morning traffic was heavy and Murali waited with patience at the intersection. A few youngsters with their backpacks stuck to their backs waited for the traffic lights to turn green. When the lights turned green, a green city bus honked at the vehicles to clear the way.
Murali parked his car and hustled inside his office. A few co-workers also hastened to enter the building, holding their bags.
On his way to his cubicle, he peered into Vikram’s office. He was seated on a chair, staring at the computer screen. Murali decided not to meet him and invite trouble that early in the morning.
He approached his desk and placed his bag on it. He switched on his computer, the desk lamp and then sat.
After opening his email application, he went through the messages he had received in the last two weeks. His team members had written him citing their inability to solve a few design problems. They had sent a copy of their messages to Vikram. And that was the reason why Vikram was angry at Murali.
A one-on-one request from Vikram caught his attention. It was at ten o’clock; another twenty minutes to go. Murali spent the next fifteen minutes replying to his teammates' messages and then walked to the meeting room.
Vikram was already seated at the table. He stared at him without a smile and without any sign of cordiality.
Murali needed to clear the air. “Hi, Vikram.” He smiled.
“Hey, Murali,” Vikram said, his voice raised.
Murali was hurt. He hadn’t expected Vikram would sound so harsh. He dragged a chair as near to Vikram as possible and sat.
“Are you all right now?” Vikram said, plastering a smile on his face.
“Yes. I’m feeling okay now.”
“What really happened to you?”
Did Vikram guess that Murali had lied?
"I have told you already.” Murali swallowed. "It was a cold and a fever."
“I don't think you need fifteen days for the common cold,” Vikram sounded a bit friendly.
Murali straightened and composed himself. He gathered enough courage to speak. ”It started with flu but I also suffered from viral fever. The doctor suggested I rest well.” He needed to calm Vikram’s nerves. “I’m sorry, Vikram. It was not my intention to remain absent. I took time off because of health issues. I hope everything is all right with my team.”
“Did you go through the emails?” Vikram said.
“Yes, I did. I'll address their issues this week, and don't you worry.”
“The customer wanted the design review last week. Without you, I couldn't schedule it.”
“What if we arrange the review this coming Friday?”
“Are you prepared? We've only four days to go.”
“Yes, we can do it.” Murali sounded confident. "You go ahead and schedule the review. I can handle it without any hurdles."