Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Samarpan----Chapters 21-25

Chapter 21

Give yourself a moment…in a place where you are apart,
Surrender in the solitude…the burdens of your heart.

Yash started after her but found his wrist held by naanimaasi, "No, Yash…not now. Let her be."
"But naanimaasi…she needs to know the entire truth. She needs to know that I knew I was wrong as soon as I met her again. She needs to know that I didn't think ill of her…not for a moment." Yash's face contracted with pain.
"And she will, Yash…But now is not the right time. I know her. She has had a shock…and the first thing she will do is retreat so far back that you won't be able to reach her. It's the way she heals herself. Trust me, Yash…You'll know when she is ready."
"She will hate me, naanimaasi. I didn't want her to know it this way." Yash was devastated.
"No, she won't….Aarti can never hate anyone. You wait here. I'll go and check her out…After that we need to talk." Naanimaasi patted his arm and strode toward the staircase.
Yash couldn't stay back and followed her, but stayed on the last step. Aarti's door was not seen from there. He heard naanimaasi knock on the door. After a few seconds Aarti opened the door and stood there, her head bowed.
Naanimaasi held Aarti by her arms, "Are you OK Aarti?"
Aarti nodded slowly but didn't look up. Naanimaasi tried again, "Look beta, Yash had his reasons. You will understand when he…alright…fine…you don't want to talk about it. I won't. (silence) Go to sleep child…Call me if you need anything. OK?...Aarti? (silence)"
Yash turned and banged his fist against the wall, resting his head on the arm…completely distraught at the turn of events. What had he done? She was so happy…so contented. And now…He made her become like this again. "Dear God, help me make it right."
Naanimaasi came down slowly, worry lines prominent on her wrinkled yet elegantly beautiful face. She held Yash's arm and walked with him to the living room. She made him sit next to her and then turned to him, "Now, tell me all. What is this all about Yash? For heaven's sake son, you know me only a few days. Why would you buy this house and not keep it? Why would you be so generous to me? God knows, this is an expensive property." She got up and walked toward the water jug kept on the side table, but turned half way, as if realizing something, "By any chance did you do this out of pity for us? Because if you…."
"No, no…naanimaasi…not at all." Yash jumped up; walking up to her he poured water for her in a glass. He then sat her down and pulled a single settee in front of her before sitting himself. "I did it because I didn't like seeing some unscrupulous man take advantage of you after cheating you. I have felt connected with you since the day we first met, naanimaasi. I did it because I love you and for no other reason." He took a breather and then continued, "It's only later that I found out that destiny brought me here to you…to Aarti."
"Destiny? I don't understand, Yash. Aarti did mention that your parents knew hers."
"Naanimaasi, I first met Aarti the day she entered this world…. My mother, Gayatri, and Shobha Aunty were best friends. My parents were there when Shobha Aunty met with an accident and then died after giving birth to Aarti. I and Aarti have met a few times subsequently." He then related to her the periodic interactions between him and Aarti through the years.

Naanimaasi was amazed at the decree of divine providence. She had known this young man was special when she first set eyes on him….but who would have known that he was so tied to her Aarti. She had to know what he really felt for Aarti before she proceeded further…though she was sure her instincts were right. She had caught him looking at Aarti with worshipful eyes on more than one occasion….the look that a man reserves only for that one special woman…the look that Raj had for her.
She gazed at him with eyes brimming with affection, "Yash, thank you so much for baling me out. You are right…If I had known you were staying with us under deception, I might not have accepted your help. I might have viewed it as charity. But son, I have to know why couldn't you see at first sight the honesty and simplicity in my Aarti's eyes?"
Yash looked at her with tortured eyes, "That's just it, naanimaasi….I did. But then I chose to ignore the voice of my heart, because reminders of bad experiences from my past got the better of me. I have been deceived by greedy and manipulative girls in the past….That had made me cynical and overly judgmental. Unfortunately, my shortcomings made me be unfair to Aarti….When I saw her keep that piece of jewelry, I thought my worst fears were confirmed and that she was like others. I came back next day because I badly wanted to prove myself wrong. I knew I was wrong the minute I met Aarti again. However, I had already projected myself as a poor man. I feared she would turn away from me if I told her I had concealed my true identity. I didn't want her to think ill of me…I value her opinion of me, naanimaasi. I want to get to know her more. I was thinking of telling her everything when this house problem came up."
Yash paused and waited for naanimaasi to say something. She looked at him, "Why Yash? Why is it important for you to have Aarti think well of you? As far as I can see, that is not much reason for you to stay back here."
"It is Naanimaasi." He looked at her, wishing her to get the message. But the old lady wasn't backing off.
"I am afraid I don't understand. Why should it matter what she thinks of you and how much you know about her? She is just another girl…right?"
"No, she is not just another girl…." He slid down on his knees and fisted her hands in his, "She is my girl." Looking into naanimaasi's twinkling eyes, he confessed, "I love Aarti. I love her with my whole body, soul, and spirit. Just seeing her smile fills my day with happiness. Please give her to me naanimaasi. I promise I shall always keep her happy."
Naanimaasi loosened her hands and cupped his cheeks, "Who am I to question destiny, Yash? I couldn't have found a better person as my Aarti's life partner. However, the decision lies with her. I won't go against her wishes."
"Then allow me to introduce her to our fate…to make her understand that we were meant to be."
"It's not easy Yash." Naanimaasi sat back, "You don't know anything about her. You have no idea how they damaged my little girl."
"Then tell me," Yash implored her. And she did. She told him everything she knew about Aarti…everything she had learnt from Radha. She told him about her so-called family, her childhood abuse at their hands, her low self-esteem because of their archival beliefs, her father's denial of her existence, her cathartic brilliance in academics and art, and her love for nature.
"She is lonely Yash…always has been. I can do so much…be so much, but I cannot be her companion. I cannot fill the void in her life…the void that has been there forever. She needs a friend…she needs a family…she needs her soul mate…she needs you. Take her Yash…help her, love her, and, most importantly, cherish her."

Naanimaasi told Yash to let Payal continue sleeping in her room. The bed was big enough, and there was no point disturbing the child. She asked him to go and sleep it off and not to worry about Aarti. She will be fine.
Yash went back to the outhouse, but couldn't sleep. All he had learnt about Aarti's growing-up years had pierced his senses…her unhappy past eating into his soul. He couldn't even begin to imagine what a dismal life Aarti had led in her father's house….yet she had survived it all. She had not let bitterness take over her being, which was still soft and gentle like the early-morning fresh breeze. He recalled naanimaasi's words, "You know Yash, apart from the incessant flow of mental and physical abuse, the worst they did was to take away her self-worth. They made her believe that she is the cause of all ill-happenings around her. Because of their constant drilling, she really believes she is a curse to people she comes in contact with. As a result, she has built this shield around her. Even I have not been able to penetrate that shield. The sad part is she has it not to protect herself from the world…but to protect the world from her!!"
He got up and walked outside….His gut feelings told him that he and Pari had weakened that shield before this unfortunate revelation happened. He berated himself for hurting her so badly. She had come to trust him…and he broke that trust. Can she forgive him? He shook himself…Of course, she will. Aarti doesn't hold grudges….She forgave even her father. She will forgive him too. Inadvertently, his feet carried him to the kitchen door. He had to see her…now. He needed to know she was fine.
He heard moans as soon as he took the bend toward her room…she was having another nightmare. He opened the door and walked swiftly to her bed. She was tossing about, moaning and crying at the same time. And then he heard her say "Yash" before tears trickled down again. Just like the other night, he got up on the bed and cuddled her to himself. She was all sweaty and teary faced.
However, the moment he gathered her in his arms, she calmed down. "Shssh!! It's OK, Aarti. I am right here. It's just a dream. You'll be fine…I promise."
"Don't leave me please….Everyone leaves me…Yash, don't go." She mumbled against his chest.
Tears cascaded down his face, "Never…I will never leave you my love. I am sorry I hurt you…I am so sorry." He kept on talking and caressing her, till her hands clutching him loosened and she fell into deep sleep.

Yash had freshened up and was now having his morning cup of coffee with naanimaasi in the kitchen when Aarti walked in. Payal was still asleep.
"Good morning Aarti! There's tea in the kettle. Pour yourself a cup and come and sit with me." Naanimaasi was extra chatty, knowing the awkwardness that would exist between Yash and her. Yash took a peek at Aarti. Outwardly she looked as calm and serene as always…but there was definitely something brewing inside. He wasn't sure what. He tried to find the right words to talk to her….but failed.
Aarti bent and hugged naanimaasi, giving her her usual morning kiss before turning toward the kettle, "Good morning naanimaasi! (A pause and then)…Good morning Mr Scindia! I hope you slept well."
Naanimaasi almost spit her tea out, even as Yash literally gawked at her back. Here he was tripping over words for the right opening, worrying whether she'll ever talk to him. And she casually throws Good morning pleasantries at him!! Wait a minute…she is back to Mr Scindia configuration. What's going on?
Aarti smiled at naanimaasi and sat down beside her, "Naanimaasi, please pass me those cookies. Mmm!! Aunt Anna excelled herself with these. I must ask for the recipe."
"Oh! I have it written in my diary. We'll try it someday. Err Aarti….about last night…" Naanimaasi had no clue how to approach this effervescent Aarti, who was behaving absolutely contrary to what she had expected.
"Oh yes, last night….last night I got what I never even asked for." She took a sip of the tea and looked out of the window.
"Aarti…please child…you shouldn't be disappointed. He…"
"Disappointed? C'mon naanimaasi, why should I be disappointed? After all I got a fortnight off without even asking."
"WHAT?" Both Yash and naanimaasi ejaculated at the same time and looked at each other.
Aarti completely ignored Yash and grinned brightly at naanimaasi, "Yes! Can you believe it? The audit went so well that Aunt Anna granted me this leave last night…on her own. Now I can do so many things I was planning to do."
"Like what?" Naanimaasi had to clear her throat twice before she could say anything. As for Yash…it seemed cat had got his tongue. He simply stared at Aarti. What the hell was going on? She was completely ignoring him. Is she punishing him or something? Will she then ignore Payal as well? He soon got his answer as he heard running patter of feet as Payal made her appearance. She stood at the door, a little confused, and then she saw Aarti and ran to her, climbing on her lap. Her little arms wound tight around her neck, as Aarti hugged her. Payal rested her head on Aarti's chest and passed Yash a smile. Aarti kissed her, and burying her face into her hair murmured "Good morning my angel."
"Good morning Pari!" She extended her hand to naanimaasi who covered it with both of her own, "Good morning badi nani! Good morning Papa."
Payal sat up, "Papa, can Pari help me with my brushing?"
"Of course, princess! But you need to ask Pari." He tried to catch Aarti's eye, but she refused to look his way.
"Come…let's go Payal. Let's get ready fast. Today you and I are going to have a lot of fun." Aarti picked her up and walked to the back door.
"Really? Where are we going Pari?"
"Emm…let's see…we shall go for a movie and then we'll play lots of games in the mall and then we shall have all the ice creams we can eat. And then…(breaking off and whispering) the rest is a secret Payal."
"A secret? Wow?...Is papa also coming?" She whispered back. Payal was all excited at this unexpected treat.
"Your father is a busy man Payal. He has so much work to handle that he forgets about little things…!!!" She paused near Yash's chair and felt him staring at her. Before he could get up, she stepped away. "Let's make this a girls' day out, OK?"
"Will badi naani also come?"
"No angel…she has a meeting of grandmothers to attend to today."
Before opening the door, she spoke with naanimaasi who was shaking her head in utter perplexity as she kept the empty cups in the sink, "Naanimaasi, I am meeting Sameer in less than an hour. It'll take a few minutes. Could you please take care of Payal till then? I'll come back for her after picking up the scootie from Brownies."
"You need not make a detour. I'll have someone bring it home." Yash spoke for the first time. "You and Payal can take the car. The driver will take you wherever you wish to go."
Aarti could feel two pairs of eyes waiting for her response….Payal's and naanimaasi's. The last thing she wanted was for Payal to get upset over anything…so she looked at Yash and nodded. She gasped inwardly as she took in his appearance….He looked tired and unslept and had a pleading look in his eyes. She felt an unmistakable painful twisting in her chest. Her eyes stung as she turned and walked out. Yash didn't follow them.

Aarti met Sameer and conveyed her inability to help him with the ruse. Before getting up she said, "Sameer, we might not meet again. But there's something I wanted to say to you. If you want your grandfather's trust, show him that he can trust you. Believe me, he has put that condition so that before he closes his eyes finally, he is satisfied that you are on the right track…which you certainly aren't now. There's still time. Prove to him that you can rise above your present image and be the responsible grandson he craves for. I am very sure once he sees the dependable side of you, he'll drop the marriage condition…which he put so that you take charge of your life. That's all I had to say Sameer. Rest is up to you. Goodbye! Have a good life."
She had reached the door when his voice stopped her, "Aarti." As she looked back, he smiled, "Thank you. You are a helluva girl you know that. I never really deserved you….But you know what? In a few years' time I'll make myself deserving for someone like you." She smiled and nodded as he winked and raised his thumb in a good luck gesture, "Goodbye!!"
Yash was nowhere to be seen when Aarti got back. Payal was playing on the lawns with mali kaka and naanimaasi. They said their goodbyes to naanimaasi who looked speculatively at Aarti. Before getting into the car, Aarti turned and hugged her grandmother, "Don't worry so much about me, naanimaasi. As long as I have you I shall be fine. I love you."
"I love you back. Take care child…and enjoy yourself." She kissed Aarti and stepped back.
"I want a kissy too," Payal's torso was half out of the car window. Naanimaasi laughed and gave her two loud smooches, which made her giggle in pleasure.
Aarti took Payal to a Fairy tale movie running in the mall multiplex. They had a whale of time watching the movie, giggling and whispering and sharing popcorn and cola. After the movie got over they waited till they were the last ones left before making their way out, chatting amiably when suddenly Payal broke free from her hand clasp and ran down the steps, "Papa!! You have come." She flew into his arms. Aarti joined them and stared at Yash, who managed to look a little sheepish, "I...actually, I was waiting outside for quite some time. When you two didn't come out, I got little worried."
Aarti nodded, "We are fine Mr Scindia….We just wanted to avoid the crowd, so…" She looked up, "Thanks for coming. Payal was missing you."
"Aarti, I wanted to…"
"Lunch? Let's go for lunch….Payal is hungry. There's a quaint restaurant on the second floor…They are serving kids' special today." Aarti stepped forward and led the way, leaving Yash no option but to follow. He looked at her back, at her beautiful hair, and wished again that she give him a chance to explain. Naanimaasi was right…Aarti had withdrawn from him…had gone so far back that he was finding it difficult to breathe. But then? Had she really? If she had, would she be the same with Payal? If at all, she and Payal seemed more thick today. As they reached the restaurant's entrance, Aarti brought her hands back and tried to bun up her hair. As if on cue, his hand lifted and held her hand, stopping her from doing so. She raised her eyebrows at him in surprise and then let down her hands, letting the hair be. During the meal and then later at the Games World, Payal kept the chatter going. She was excited, elated, ecstatic, and in seventh heaven. Her favorite two people were with her…this had to be the best day in her little life. She had no clue about the tension between her papa and Pari…and they on their part maintained a cool exterior.
Back home Yash excused himself to make some calls. Aarti took Payal to her room. There Aarti unveiled her surprise….a complete drawing kit for little beginners. She had noticed Payal's habit of doodling everywhere and had remembered her childhood days. Payal was thrilled. Could any day be more perfect? She sat on Aarti's lap on the bed, as Aarti pulled out the drawing book.
"Pari, draw me the Ganeshji that you draw in your copies. My new drawing book should also have God's picture first…right?"
"Right Payal…OK now. Hold the pencil. We shall draw Ganeshji together." Radhama had taught Aarti how to draw this particular posture of Lord Ganesh when she was very small and had told her to draw it before she began a new journal. Aarti was following the ritual for as long as she remembered. She held Payal's hand and stole a glance at the little darling….and couldn't help but smile at what she saw. Payal's brows furrowed in concentration, the tip of her tongue peeping out between her lips, as she followed the lines Aarti's hand guided her to. Her eyes widened in glee as the image completed. She turned and gave a loud kiss on Aarti's cheek, "We did it! We made the Ganeshji, Pari…We made it together. I am going to show this to papa when he comes…Now what should we draw?"
It was dark when Pari's head started drooping in sleep. The day's exhaustion had taken its toll. Aarti hurriedly went down and came back with some soup. She made Payal have it. By the time she kept the bowl on the table and turned, Payal had dropped off. Very quietly Aarti removed all the stuff from the bed and made her more comfortable. She then covered her with a duvet and went down. Yash…no, Mr Scindia…needed to be told about Payal. He hadn't shown his face ever since they had got back. She peeked into naanimaasi's room. She wasn't back yet. She then went to the kitchen, hoping to make some tea for herself and collided with Yash who was coming out. She clutched onto his shirt front as he held her waist to steady her. For a moment she breathed in his familiar fragrance…and then as reality descended she stepped back, "Sorry Mr Scindia, I…"
"That does it Aarti….You say Mr Scindia one more time and I don't know what I am going to do." He held her hand and pulled her toward the living room. She didn't protest. He made her sit on the sofa and knelt in front of her, bowing his head, "I am sorry Aarti…Forgive me please." He waited, but she didn't say anything, so he pled again, "Please Aarti….shout at me, punish me, but don't go silent on me. At least give me a chance to explain."
"You lied to me."
He nodded, "I didn't exactly lie…but I let you believe what you assumed. That's a disguised lie. I know it was wrong of me."
"It was unfair of you."
"I wanted to know you better Aarti….When I met you, I found you to be special and different….very different from the greedy faces of my past. I wanted to make sure that my fate was not deceiving me again. I wanted to be sure you were exactly how my heart told me you were."
"It was so…so...unfair of you." She repeated.
"Aarti, I told you I wanted to get to know you as you were….and not as someone who is influenced…"
"By your money? You don't get it…do you Yash? The money is not the issue here….You are."
"Aarti, I don't understand."
"You say you wanted to know me better…Fine. I accept. But what about me? Shouldn't the same rationale apply to me? Shouldn't I be allowed to know you as you are? I thought you were my friend….I thought I knew you a little. As it stands…I don't. You saw me as I am…. I was honest with you. But you chose to hide yourself from me. You are a stranger Mr Scindia….a man I don't know…I have not met. And if you have come to know me a little, you'll know that I don't talk to strangers." She looked away from him as a couple of treacherous tears escaped her eyes.


 Chapter 22

Forgive yourself for not being at peace.
The moment you completely accept your non-peace,
your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace.
Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace.
This is the miracle of surrender.

Yash was left stunned. He hadn't thought it this way at all. But then he was thinking general….and this was Aarti. Her thoughts had the same innocence as Payal's thinking. Not like his thoughts…which were tainted by the past deceptions. He mentally slapped himself for not understanding this simple logic. It struck him at the same time that what he had done was nothing short of a crime….In spite of her past fears, she had braved the first steps into building a new relationship with him because he gave her the promise of security. He pulled her out of her safe zone and she let him, because she trusted him to protect her insecurities, and when she started to believe and felt secure and comfortable, he pulled the rug from under her feet…and couldn't even break her fall. Now she doesn't know what is real and what is an act. She feels she is in a limbo and unsure of whether she has the ability to trust the right.
He reached out and brushed the tears away, cupping her chin to turn her toward him, "Look at me Aarti. This is me…your friend Yash. Nothing has changed. I have not changed. I am the same person you met in Brownies that evening."
Aarti shook her head, "How can you say that? You gave a completely different background of yourself. You made us think you were needy and destitute, yet with lot of character. I had such a different image of you. Now I don't know what to think. We made you work around the house like some menial worker when all the while you had the ability to hire a hundred hands to do the tasks. You became something you are not…and I thought that Yash was real. How can you now say I know you? I never met the real you."
Yash held her arms and pulled her down next to him on the carpet. She slid down without resistance, drawing up the knees and circling them with her hands, her fingers twisting agitatingly.
Yash gently placed a hand on her fingers, calming her, and spoke, "Aarti, trust me when I say that you did meet the real Yash. You are the first person who met the real me in a long, long time. Aman was the only other person with whom I could be completely myself. And that is what I am with you….myself. You made me become the Yash who existed before he got buried under layers of cynicism, pessimism, and distrust. You made me meet myself again, Aarti….You made me believe again. You resurrected me."
He had her attention. She peered up at him and stared unflinchingly into his eyes. Her gaze was searching. There were multiple emotions flickering in the dark, intense flames of his eyes. She saw pain. She saw uncertainty. She saw sincerity. And she saw something else, something more profound, more complex than anything she had noticed in him before. Something that both exhilarated and frightened her. Something she was completely unable to decipher. She suddenly felt breathless. Yash saw the play of emotions in her eyes and wondered what she was thinking, desperately wanting to solve the mystery behind the eyes that he had come to read well…but was unable to at that moment. So all he did was give himself a mental shake, smiled, and continued, "As for those jobs around the house….believe me, I loved doing them. They made me feel as if I was fixing all the broken, ramshackled, and tumbledown things in my own life. And there was a lot broken….trust me. I couldn't be there for Aman when he needed me the most, but I could be there for you and naanimaasi…That helped me Aarti. It's almost as if Aman sent me to you when he asked me to come here with his ashes."
She dropped her hands, and turned toward him, sitting crossed legged. He did the same and scanned her face. There was concern. Compassion. A query. He understood. "Aman wanted me to scatter his ashes in all the places we trekked. That's why I was here." He saw her eyes welling up, "Don't be upset, Aarti…. Remember, you told me to let him go? That he will always remain in my heart as a feeling of forever? I did that and felt myself at peace…And then I knew that wherever Aman is, he too would be at peace."
Aarti looked down and drew patterns on the palm of her left hand, thinking. Yash waited, not once lifting his eyes from her bent head.
Then when he almost gave up waiting for her to say something, he heard her murmur tentatively, "Are you very rich?"
"Yes, Aarti. I am."
"Very…very rich?"
"I am not….naanimaasi is not."
"It a non issue to me, Aarti."
"Maybe…but what if this issue hurts naanimaasi?"
"Aarti, what are you trying to say?"
"Only that tomorrow if something happens….I lose my job, naanimaasi falls sick, or we are robbed….Will you come running each time to help us?" She stared at him, "Financially?"
Yash stared back. Skepticism was writ large on her expressive face. He took her hands in his, "Aarti, in case of any such probabilities, even if I come forward to help you, it'll be because I am your friend and naanimaasi is someone I consider my own. Not for any other reason…and certainly not to prove that I have the power to help you. I would never dent your self-respect or do anything against your wishes. I promise I will not do anything without consulting both of you…I will never hold back anything." Her expression of uncertainty hadn't changed, "You don't believe me still….How can I make it up for this blunder? Tell me Aarti…I'll do it."
Aarti looked at their clasped hands, believing him yet timorous, contemplating whether to pull back her hands yet liking them where they were…sensing the known feeling of being in safe haven creep back in. Tentative but not entirely unsure now, Aarti lifted her eyes to his. Yash tightened his grip, as he tried to read her eyes…He saw confusion and a little hesitancy, but he also saw the familiar warmth and amiability. That gave him much hope. He hadn't lost her…Thank God! His eyes glistened as he blinked, and then whispered with a poignant, unguarded, childlike honesty, instantly melting the rest of her reservations, "Thank you Aarti. I won't let you down again I promise."
There was a moment of tranquil silence when both stayed thus, cross-legged, knees touching, hands clasped, just pondering…and then Yash's heart stuttered in his chest as he heard her say his name, "Yash?"
He resisted the urge to take her in his arms as a happy wave surged through him on hearing her call out his name as before, "Yes Aarti?"
"I am hungry."
For a fraction of a second, Yash was completely taken aback…"Dear God! What am I going to do with this child woman?" Her endearing innocence made his heart constrict with the strength of emotion that coursed through him. And then he answered himself, "Love her…love her so much that all the love of this universe falls short in front of my feelings for her."

Yash jumped up and extended his hand. She took it and got up. He walked with her to the stairs, "Aarti, you go up and check on Payal. I shall be in the kitchen. I'll dish out something for us."
"You will cook?" She looked at him wide eyed.
"Hmm!! My Lady seems surprised. You are looking at one of the best camp cooks of Nainital hills, Miss Aarti. Aman would have vouched for it, had he been here."
"But…you don't need to Yash. Garima has made dinner."
"We'll have that tomorrow. Now go and have a peek at our princess, even though I am pretty sure that at this very moment she is dreaming of meadows, birds, squirrels, and a certain mountain fairy."
Payal was as she had left her…sound asleep. Aarti bent and kissed her and then stood looking at her. The little girl had stolen her heart completely. Everytime she cuddled her, she felt this warm flow of love fill her entire being. Everytime she wished her to be her mother, something inside her melted. She felt Payal's need in her guts….the same need that she felt all her own life…the need that had left her empty and unfilled. Aarti had often wondered how her life would have turned out, had her mother been alive. Would her father have talked to her, played with her, tucked her to sleep, and loved her? She knew the answers to all were a resounding Yes. Naanimaasi had told her all about her mother. She had abundance of love in her. It was that love that made her sacrifice her life for her baby.
She was going to miss Payal a lot when she left. In a matter of few days, the child had filled her life with sunshine. She may not be able to give Payal what she wants, but she can at least try to make her life wholesome…not vacant like her own. She will have to talk to Yash. He will have to consider what his daughter needs.
By the time Aarti went down, she smelt an appetizing aroma emanating from the kitchen. She peeped in. Yash was busy chopping vegetables; a pan with a sauce stood simmering on the stove. A glass serving bowl in front had an assortment of salad vegetables and spaghetti…ready to be tossed. She could smell garlic bread from the microwave. Thirty minutes and he was more than half way through. That was quick.
"Need any help?" Aarti stepped inside the kitchen in amazement.
"Thanks Aarti…All under control. By the time naanimaasi comes, I'll be done. By the way, I called her. She will be home in another ten minutes." He paused in his chopping and looked up. "You are just in time."
"For what?"
"For your tea…I made you miss it earlier." He wiped his hands and after making her sit on her usual chair gave her a cup of tea.
As Aarti sat sipping her tea, she observed him. Now that the germ of the idea had entered her head, she couldn't get it out. How will she say it? What will Yash think? Will he be upset with her? But then he had said they were friends…and that nothing had changed. Whatever it is…she will have to do it for Payal's sake.
Naanimaasi came in saying, "Aarti are you making some…?" and then stopped short, "Oh my God Yash! What are you doing?"
Yash was busy stirring the pan and probably thinking about Aarti so didn't think before responding, "Cooking for my girlfriend."
"WHAT?" He jerked his head up at the exclamation spluttered by Aarti and smiled sheepishly as he realized what he had said.
He kept the napkin he was holding on the counter and walked upto the two ladies, one of them looking very confused. "I am sorry. Err…I mean my friend and my girlfriend." He winked at naanimaasi and hugged her, "What say girlfriend?"
Naanimaasi grinned knowingly, yet couldn't help blushing cutely. She knew Yash had very deftly covered up the faux pax. Aarti smiled, "Since when is naanimaasi your girlfriend?"
Yash walked back, tossing his reply, "Oh, ever since she caused ripples in my heart and gave me my love for safekeeping. I am her slave ever since." He dropped the spoon he was holding as he heard her tinkling laughter. He turned to find her shaking with laughter, with naanimaasi chuckling heartily, " So sorry. I didn't mean to (giggle) make fun of your love story…but naanimaasi seems to have brought out the romantic in you (grinning). You are being medievally poetic."
"Oh yeah, wait till you fall in love and then you'll know." Yash smiled at her.
Her laughter immediately died down, "Never! That will never happen." She got up to lay the table. Yash tried to say something, but stopped when he caught naanimaasi's eye. He nodded silently.
There was magic in Yash's hands. He had churned out a delicious meal within the constraints of limited time and limited ingredients. He soon made Aarti smile congenially again as he regaled them with some anecdote or the other. After dinner, they sat out on the steps with coffee as naanimaasi reminisced about her life with her husband Raj. She found Yash sneaking glances at a clueless Aarti many a times…and wondered how he will get through the impenetrable shield.

Aarti was ready by six in the morning. The shanti puja culminating her mourning for her father was scheduled for half past six at the nearby temple. She had informed naanimaasi in the night when she went to say Goodnight. Naanimaasi had wanted to accompany her, but Aarti requested her to stay back, since Payal was sleeping with her and would be upset if she woke up and did not find either of them. She knelt beside the bed and gazed lovingly at the little angel. Left to her, she could sit and watch Payal for hours. Just her presence had brought such a peaceful aura and joy into her living. She kissed her angel savior, adjusted her covers, and went down.
Naanimaasi was busy with her morning prayers in the mandir, so she arranged her puja thali, and after taking naanimaasi's blessings opened the front door. Yash stood there leaning against the stone balustrade, reading the newspaper. For a moment she goggled at him. He looked pristine and dashing at the same time in a white kurta-pajama. He sensed rather than saw her before straightening himself, "Good morning Aarti!! Ready? Good…let's go. Have you taken everything that is required?"
She gaped at him, "You are coming too?"
Yash walked upto her and took the thali before turning back toward the steps, "Sure I am. We'll buy the flowers from the mandir and pick up the sweets en route."
Aarti was totally speechless. This was so unexpected. She had woken up just after 2 am and had been unable to sleep after that. With Payal in her arms, she had sat ruminating about her father. The only real memory she had of him was his shouting at her when he found her in his room and then the wound, which still throbbed whenever she was under mental trauma…just as it was throbbing now. She stared at Yash's back, taking comfort in his presence as they walked toward the car. Tears rose unbidden in her eyes, feeling herself taken care of and not abandoned. She knew she was unprepared for this emotional storm that had risen since the night and which she was still fighting. She didn't know whether she could ever come out of the feeling of her father's rejection, but Yash's being there helped her for now.
Yash didn't leave her side even once. Through the entire puja he sat beside her, helping her when she faltered out of sheer emotional distress, steadying her hand when it trembled while offering the flowers. He was impressed by her knowledge of the mantras and there pronunciations. After awhile the pandit understood and just told her which mantra to chant, and she did…without his prompting. After everything was over, Aarti closed her eyes and prayed for her father's and mother's souls, "Take care of baba, ma. Forgive him…for he loves you very much….Baba, I am so sorry that I was the cause of all your unhappiness, but I am happy that you are one with ma now. You gave me this life…I am but a fragment of you. You shall always be in my prayers." Tears streamed down her face as her lips moved soundlessly. Yash watched her silently and when she stopped, he just gathered her into his arms. And Aarti cried….she clung to him and she cried. He just held her tightly and let her have this breakdown. She needed it.
After she calmed down, he held her by the shoulders and walked her to the car. He didn't go home but drove toward the mountains, allowing her nerves to settle down. Aarti stared blankly out of the window. It's only when they began the climb that she realized where they were and turned to look at him with a slight frown. He smiled, "There's a little cafe at the next bend. They make the most amazing South Indian breakfast. I thought after my cooking last night, you would be in dire need of some good nourishment."
"Why? What was wrong with your cooking? I am still alive…am I not?" She teased. He threw his head back and laughed, "That you are my friend."
He stopped the car in front of a pretty cottage and rushed to her side to open the door and extended his hand to her, "May I have the honor to treat the mountain fairy in one of her abodes."
She smiled prettily and kept her hand on his, "Yes you may, but on one condition. That we bring Payal and naanimaasi here tomorrow."
He tucked her hand in his arm, holding it there, as they walked, "Aha…but tomorrow we might be someplace else."
She stopped, 'Where?"
"That's a surprise."

They chatted amiably while having their breakfast. Yash spoke about his family and about Payal.
He had a faraway look as he spoke about a baby Payal, recalling the days when he had to take a daily lesson from his mother or dadima regarding his little one's feedings, diaper changings, oil massage, bath, health concerns….not to forget what each gurgle, each sound, each cry indicated. He wanted to do everything for Payal.
Aarti listened with rapt attention and then suddenly asked, "Yash, what happened to Payal's mother?"
He paused in his stirring of the coffee and then looked up. He knew he had to tell her some day. But somehow, he didn't want it to be today….not when he had just managed to bring her out of her blues. However, he had no option as he looked into her clear eyes, "She left a few days after Payal's birth…. (a pause) We divorced."
Aarti was quiet for awhile, looking out at the mountains. He would have given anything to know what she was thinking. But nothing would have prepared him for what she was about to voice. He was shocked when she turned to him and said, "Yash, don't get me wrong when I say this. I have thought about it, especially when I consider Payal's wish. She wants a mother…she needs a mother. I think you should marry again!!!"


 Chapter 23

Love is an attempt at penetrating another being,
but it can only succeed if the surrender is mutual.

"What?" A muscle in his jaw twitched, distracting her for a moment.
He stared at her twinkling eyes, as she animatedly explained herself, "Yes Yash! It's really very simple. See, Payal wants a mother. It's her biggest wish." It was…before she met you, Yash thought to himself, as she continued…"And that can only happen if you marry…so I think you should get married."
Yash looked down at the cup and closed his eyes for a brief second, taking a deep breath to ride over his initial shock. When he next raised his eyes it was to find her staring at him expectantly; the directness of her expressive gaze instigated a rush of feelings that deluged his senses. She looked very pleased…as if she had just found the answer to the deepest mystery of life. Looking at her eager face, he didn't know whether to shake her into awakening or just take her into his arms and kiss her senseless…In fact if she continued with this cuteness any longer, he was more likely to lose control sooner. In the end all he said was, "I think you think too much." He gestured for the bill and took out his wallet.
"But Yash…"
"No." He got up and strode to the exit. She frowned and ran after him.
He had reached the car when she stopped him by holding his hand and turning him around. It was quite evident that she was not giving up on this brainwave. "Yash, think about Payal."
"I am thinking about her. She doesn't need a woman to come into her life and play act the role of her mother. She has her dadi, badi dadi, badi naani…and above all she has you."
"But Yash…"
"No more buts…subject closed." He began to turn toward the car but stilled as he heard her say grimly, "Just a minute Mr Scindia." He watched fascinated at the color rising from the base of her throat to her cheeks, as a vein throbbed invitingly in her neck. She was angry…and she looked absolutely beautiful. God, he loved her so. From her gorgeous silky haired head to her pretty little feet, she was utterly and entirely divine. Yash gave himself a mental shake and focused on what his endearing problem solver was saying. Hands on her hips, she glared at him, "You are just being stubborn. Why? Can't you see how Payal longs for a mother?"
"Not any more, Aarti. I haven't ever seen her as happy as she is now…with you."
"But I am not going to be around forever Yash….You will go back to your life in Bhopal. Then? Then what?"
"We'll see about that when the time comes."
She persisted, "But Yash, why aren't you giving this a thought? There is someone somewhere who will be a good mother to Payal."
He took her by the arms and pushed her against the car, his voice low and deep underneath his breath, "Because genius, that someone somewhere also has to become my wife first in order to be a mother to our princess. And I know for sure that it is impossible to find someone who will be interested in only me and Payal and not for the status and money?"
"That's not true….You are being preemptive and judgmental. Of course there must be someone." She gulped, not giving up.
"Yeah…right." He threw his hands up and took a step back.
"Look at me Yash. I am there right in front of you. I adore Payal…and I like you for who you are….so there will be someone who…." She stopped, her hands and back pressed against the car body as Yash suddenly moved closer and trapped her by putting both hands beside her. That look again!… Oh, what that look did to her. Her breath caught and time seemed to stop. Unnerved and upset by her pounding heart, she waited….not knowing what she was waiting for. A part of her brain had cautioned when she was pushing him…Did she go too far. Was he offended?
A sudden gush of wind blew her hair across her face. In a trance he lifted a hand to tenderly brush back the few playful strands. He then slid his fingers through her hair and held them there so that the warmth of his hand pressed against her scalp. Her heart raced at the intimacy of the touch as he brought his face closer and closer, and whispered softly against her ear, "Follow the thought my sweet friend, and tell me what you find?"
Before she could wrap her head around what he meant he dropped his hand and straightened up and then reached out to open the car door for her, gesturing her to sit with an inscrutable, enigmatic smile. She glided in gracefully and proceeded to give him a royal ignore for the entire ride back home.

"Naukuchiatal? Today?"
"Yes child….Go up and pack for about three days. We'll leave after lunch. Chris and Anna too are coming. They'll be here in another couple of hours."
So this was the surprise Yash was talking about. A short vacation. Why didn't he tell her in the morning then? That's when she remembered that she was not talking to him. He had tried a couple of times in the car, but she had deliberately put the ear phones on, cutting him out. Aarti knew she was behaving in an immature manner, but he had left her with no options. Why couldn't he just give this a little thought? Now, as she cuddled Payal while rocking her as they sat watching TV in the living room, she felt bad for behaving badly. Yash must have his reasons. Maybe he still loves his ex-wife. Maybe that's why he cannot even think about another woman taking her place. Aarti felt a pang of something at the thought but brushed it away.
Naanimaasi had gone to her room to look into her packing after informing her. Yash had suggested this trip the previous night after Aarti had left them early to go to her room. After all the tension-filled hours of the past few days, Yash wanted naanimaasi and Aarti to get away and relax for a few days….His friend owned this beautiful resort on a hill, a little away from the town of Naukuchiatal. After naanimaasi agreed to the getaway, he called up the Browns. They were nodding a yes before he even finished. He called up his friend and booked half the resort, which wasn't much occupied anyway, since it wasn't peak season yet. He asked Prateek to arrange for the security for the house before going to Naukuchiatal in the morning and seeing to all the arrangements in the resort there.
Aarti finished her packing, which was interspersed with drawing lessons for Payal who lay sprawled on her bed on her tummy doodling merrily. When she found Aarti had finished, she dragged her down to the outhouse to pack her little pink-colored Minnie mouse suitcase. Yash found them sitting on the floor with the suitcase open in front and the clothes stacked besides it as Payal directed Aarti which clothes to put. As he watched them, he realized how in tune they were with each other's thoughts and actions. Aarti never behaved adult with Payal…There's was a very natural, uniquely symbiotic interactive relationship….almost as if they always knew each other. Suddenly Payal slapped her forehead in an exaggerated annoyance, "Oho Pari…I forgot the drawing book in your room. I'll get it in a minute." Before Aarti could say anything, she threw a "Hi papa!" and ran out.
Aarti scrambled to her feet, feeling awkward after the manner in which the morning had ended. Before she could get two words out, his phone rang. He gave her an apologetic smile and stepped out to take the call. Aarti turned back to pack. She was done in a couple of minutes. Payal dashed in, miraculously balancing the drawing book and boxes of colors. Aarti unburdened Payal and put the things on the table. As she put the box of crayons, she noticed a maroon journal lying there. She stood staring at it. Payal noticed her brooding and asked, "What happened Pari?"
"Nothing Payal…I had a book like this once."
"Really? What happened to it?"
"It got lost."
"Papa never loses this book. It is his favorite. He reads it everyday."
"Hmm!!….Payal, I have some work in the kitchen. Ask papa to put your drawing book in the bag. OK?"
Aarti turned to find Yash standing on the threshold staring at her strangely, "When did you lose it?"
Aarti was perplexed at this sudden query, "Lose what?"
"Your book."
"Oho…the book. Actually I didn't really lose it. Someone took it and forgot to return it." She heard naanimaasi call out for her from the kitchen window. So she smiled at Payal and walked away.
Yash looked at her retreating back…Was he overreacting? Could it be possible?
He felt Payal tug at his hands, "Papa, see my new drawing book and colors. Pari gave me. See…she taught me how to draw a house with a chimney and a garden."
Yash took the book and sat down on the bed as Payal accommodated herself on his lap. He flicked through the few pages absentmindedly with Payal providing a running commentary about the background of each drawing. He was about to close it when he saw the Ganeshji's line drawing. He froze as he stared at it. Even if Payal hadn't told him, he knew Aarti had drawn it.
Slowly he stood up and walked toward the journal and picked it up. There on the front page was the replica of the image. He didn't need any more proof. A part of Aarti's soul was in the journal and it was fated that he be the protector. He didn't feel surprised anymore…only understood the Why of destiny's game plan. Everything was crystal clear. Why the pain in the written words always seemed so personal to him? Why he found his peace and tranquility in the pages of the journal? It was because they had been touched by Aarti and held her feelings in them. She was always with him…Even when he was unaware of her mortal being, he was connecting with her each breath, each heartbeat, each thought. He knew her before he even set eyes on her…and that's why she seemed so familiar that first night…and that's why he couldn't let her go. In the view of this awareness, all that Aarti had written became more clear in the context of her sad life….Her writings may have been her catharsis, but to him they were cries of help. His eyes settled on a short poem…..

I broke a mirror…Was it yesterday?
I hurt him…and he walked away
There I stood amid the shattered glass
Diamonds fell all around me like shards
The silence deafened
The chime hollowed
My skin cut the edge
The silver back stained my blood
A pain well deserved

His eyes spilled over as he looked out of the window at nothingness….his heart aching for her pain. "Never again my love…never again. I won't let your fears break you anymore."

They reached around five in the evening. Prateek was in the lawn, where he had arranged for tea and refreshments. The elders settled down on the sofas, grateful for a cup of tea. The two-hour journey had tired them out. Yash had driven at an easy pace, taking breaks a couple of times for everyone to step out and stretch their limbs. He loved having Aarti's calm presence beside him. It seemed so right…This is how it was meant to be. Payal, on her lap, had chattered for awhile but soon had fallen asleep in the safe cocoon of her Pari's arms.
Completely refreshed from her sleep, Payal was in no mood to sit around. She urged Aarti to take her for a walk. Aarti turned to Prateek, requesting him to accompany them. Prateek, who was feeling a little awkward in her presence, soon felt at ease with her friendly manner. Payal was chasing butterflies as they took a stroll around the gardens. He tried to apologize, "Err, ma'am I am sorry about the other day. I…"
"It's OK. I understand." She smiled at him. "You love your brother a lot, isn't it?"
"He is the best brother in the whole world. I am nothing without him. You know ma'am…" He broke off as Payal came and stood in front of him…hand on her hips. "Why do you keep calling her that chachu? She is Pari."
"Oops! Sorry sweetheart." He turned to Aarti and asked shyly, "May I call you Pari?"
"Of course…and is it OK if I call you Prateek?"
He nodded with a smile, "Come…I'll show you the lake." He held Payal's hand and took them through a little path to a projection in the hill. The semi-circled ridge was well barricaded. There were a few stone benches placed here and there for the sightseers to enjoy the view. It was indeed a majestic panorama. The lake far down below was surrounded by dense forested hills on all sides.
Aarti breathed in the fresh air and looked below at the mystique and picturesque lake, which seemed to have a story of its own. She asked Prateek, "Why is it called Naukuchiatal?"
"The lake has nine corners; that's why it is called nine-cornered lake or 'nau-kuchia-tal.' Unlike other lakes, this one is nourished by an underwater spring. As per legends Pandavas came here during their banishment period. You know Pari, the locals here believe that whoever manages to view all nine corners of this lake in one glance attains nirvana…salvation, that is. It hasn't been done so far."
Aarti was completely taken in with the misty charm of the surroundings. It was breathtaking and a soulful feeling being here in the lap of the nature. She was so engrossed that she didn't realize that Prateek had moved away with Payal. As she looked at the lake she was completely mesmerized with the play of the nature she was witnessing. Inadvertently she spoke softly, "Poor clouds…they tiptoe in to catch a reflection of themselves over the waters, but the naughty mist refuses to move…It is blinding their view."
"That's beautifully put Aarti" She turned around to find Yash giving her that look again. "Only a poet could have thought that way."
She looked down again, as Yash joined her, "I am no poet Yash. Whatever I felt, it kind of slipped out."
"I know Aarti…Words are your close friends…They emote for you."
"Why do you say that?" Aarti had this strange feeling that her wall was crumbling and instead of feeling the fear of exposure she felt secure in his intoxicating presence. Dear God! What's happening? It has to be this place.
"I know you Aarti." He reached out to caress her cheek with his index finger. Her skin prickled in a delicious way as she sneaked a glance sideways at him. He was looking below now so she took the chance to look at him. He was a handsome man…and he was a good man. He had a blue shirt on…His hair was messy at the moment, the wind causing a few fringes to fall on his forehead, giving him a vulnerable look. A thought crossed her mind…he needs someone to care for him, to look after his needs, to see to it that he always stays smiling. He is always looking after everyone…It was time someone was there for him.
"I am sorry about this morning. I behaved badly."
"No, you didn't. You were thinking of Payal. I appreciate your concern."
"But I still maintain that you should marry."
"For yourself Yash…You are right. The one who loves you will automatically love Payal. You have to think about completing your family Yash…for Payal…for your own self."
"You really wish this?"
"I do."
"Then I have a condition."
"What is it?"


Chapter 24

Surrender means giving up the tension of the little vortex you believe yourself to be
 and realizing the deep power of the ocean you truly are.

Aarti was totally unprepared for what Yash said next, "I will marry the person who has your complete approval….the one you feel is the right one for me and for Payal. Otherwise forget we had this conversation."
He watched as an array of emotions flit across her expressive face…from curiosity to shock to disbelief and finally ending with incredulity in a span of few seconds. She opened her mouth twice to speak but couldn't. Yash took her hand and made her sit on a bench and sat down next to her, "You don't have to be so surprised Aarti. It's a very rational condition."
Aarti finally found her tongue, "No, it isn't. You have known me for only a few days. How can you trust me to decide your life for you? Do you even realize what you are asking of me?"
"I most certainly do," Yash's face was serious and solemn as he fisted both her hands in his. "And since when has number of days got anything to do with knowing a person? I feel I have known you forever Aarti…In the same way, my heart here believes that you know me more than anybody else…maybe even my family."
Aarti was shaking her head before he had finished, "No, Yash. No. I am not the right person. You have this misplaced faith in me. Please understand...I…I have ruined lives…I cannot do anyone any good." She looked at him with tortured eyes, imprisoned in her beliefs, "I have never been good for anyone. My life is a curse on people who come close to me. I make people go away…How can I then make someone come close to you? Keep me at a distance Yash…don't let me touch your life so directly."
Yash's eyes had clouded as he fought to maintain composure. Naanimaasi's words reverberated in his mind: You have no idea how they damaged my little girl. Dear God! She was right. She could only sever them from Aarti's life physically…but they still ruled her psyche to a large extent. He knew she needed to let that out…give in to her fears one last time. He also saw what she didn't: His Aarti was letting him see her in the raw. She was letting him in, and she was letting him see a side she had guarded zealously all her life. She may be intending to ward him off, but there was no denying that in doing so she was thinking about him all the time…which meant what happened to him affected her. This was a good sign. The condition he put will make her realize her worth in other people's existence. He will ensure she realizes her importance in his and Payal's lives….that they cannot do without her. He will ensure that the voices from the past cease to influence her present…their present. And, this would be the last time she would speak and think such melancholic thoughts, he promised.
He got up, pulling her with him, and walked till the barricade. He held her shoulder by one arm and pointed to the mountain in front with the other. "Do you see that solitary, small patch of purple and pink flowers, Aarti?" She nodded mutely and he continued, "Look at them carefully. In spite of the intimidating mountain behind and the big bushes and trees surrounding them, they still found their spot and a will to grow roots. They didn't give up and fought for their place under the sun against all odds. They didn't wither away…no tears and no heartbreak, nothing but a strong conviction to live and spread joy. And now see…they are a beauty to behold. Anyone looking that side will first look at them and marvel at their resilience."
He turned her to him and held her by her arms, "You my sweet friend are the flower who has the strength of a mountain and beauty of an angel. You can never harm anyone. You only know how to spread happiness…in spite of the hell you were made to go through all your life." She looked at him stunned, "Yes Aarti, I know something about your life in your father's house. Naanimaasi told me. This is what I am telling you…That hell couldn't dent the beauty in you and you survived intact. On the other hand, look at me…a few hard blows had made me bitter and cynical. So much so that I let that sourness taint my perception of you that first time." He smiled and cupped her cheek, "Yet it was the touch of your smile and your gentle heart that broke away the fragile shell of my false facade. You make people want to become good Aarti. You made me get my belief back…Why only me? You made a rake like Sameer mend his ways, by simply being yourself. How can you say you are a curse? You cannot take to heart what a few misguided people thought of you, because they were weak and shortsighted to see the purity of your soul."
"But Yash…" Aarti was not entirely convinced. She wanted to believe, yet something was holding her back. Yash could see that. A lifetime of fractured existence had left deep cracks. He knew he had to keep on trying to make her believe.
"No more buts Aarti. I am very clear as to what I want. If you want me to marry, then be our guardian angel. Decide for us. I am handing out the reigns of Payal's and my life to you. Our victory, our defeat, our smiles, our sorrow all are in your hands now. I trust only you. Do what's good for us. If you want to see us happy, give us that one person who loves us unconditionally. Otherwise just let us be."
"Do you have someone in mind?" Aarti had no idea what made her give in. She wanted so much to surrender to the faith Yash had in her but found it hard to surpass the layers of inbuilt barriers that had been there for as long as she could remember. Nevertheless, she needed to do this. All of a sudden, to uphold his faith became very important…more than her fears…more than her insecurities. All of a sudden, it was important that she redeem her life's purpose by helping give Yash and Payal what they needed. He had given her a goal. She had to at least try….She owed him this much for the trust he showed in her, and, more importantly, she owed it to herself.
Yash turned away from her toward the mountains with a triumphant smile. "Maybe I have."
"Who is she Yash?" That pang again.
"Someone who has been very close to me….someone I have known a long time."
"Are you in love with her? Why haven't you asked her to marry you yet?" Her heart sank deep and felt agonizingly crushed as she put in the query and waited for his answer.
"Because I am not sure about her feelings. Also, after my mistakes of the past, I don't trust myself to do the right thing."
"Hmm! When do I meet her?"
"Maybe you have already."
Aarti stared at his back for a while and turned toward the resort as she heard a series of loud "Pari!" coming closer.
She turned to see him staring at her. Yash's chest constricted as he saw the hurt look she wore. Just the premise that there was someone in his life had made those beautiful eyes reflect such pain. Her eyes…which were the windows to her soul…were so wide, he felt as if an innocent, lost little girl was gazing at him….expecting him to deny the existence of the recipient of his affections. Instead he asked something that was on his mind for awhile, "Why don't you ever ask me about my past? Don't you want to know what went wrong in my marriage with Payal's mother?"
"You will tell me when it is the right time Yash. I'll wait till then."

"Look Pari, I made a friend." Aarti met them on the path back to the resort. Payal was dragging someone. As they came closer, Aarti beheld the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. She was tall, had very fair and creamy complexion, possessed exquisite features and an hourglass figure, and carried herself very well. She was dressed in black trousers and an orange-colored chic top.
Payal reached out for Aarti's hand and introduced them as she had observed the adults do, "Naina Aunty, this is my Pari….Pari this is Naina Aunty. She is also from Bhopal."
Aarti smiled amicably, "Really!! What a coincidence? Hello, Naina. Glad to meet you."
"Glad to meet you too Aarti. I was going to the sunset point when I came across Payal. Your daughter is such a friendly girl."
Before Aarti could respond to that, Payal started pulling her, "Come pari…let's call papa."
Aarti turned to Naina to excuse herself, only to find her staring behind her…and then in the next moment she had rushed past her with a "Oh my God! It's you."
As Payal and Aarti gawked open mouthed, Naina went and hugged Yash tightly. She then proceeded to tip-toe and plant a kiss on Yash's cheek, "Yash! Fancy meeting you here. This is a real surprise."
"Hi Naina! It's a small world. Prateek told me you were here with your parents. When did you get back from London?" Yash tried to catch Aarti's expression, but couldn't as her face was well hidden in the shadows of the twilight.
"About three weeks back. C'mon I have lots to tell you. By the way who are you with?"
Yash strolled toward Aarti and Payal, "Naina, meet my daughter Payal, and this is Aarti."
Maybe because her senses were all alert at this new development, and again maybe it was all her imagination…whatever it was, Aarti saw Naina's face conveying veiled shock and confusion; her lips stood slightly parted and her eyes narrowed as she spoke, "So you married again. Funny, Seema maasi didn't tell me."
Yash smiled, "No Naina. I am not married. Aarti is a very close friend."
"Oh dear! My bad. I shouldn't have assumed. Sorry Aarti." She beamed her apology.
Aarti nodded her understanding, mouthing "It's OK." She was wondering how long Yash and Naina had known each other, when the latter spoke, "You know Aarti, we have known each other a long time…in fact since I was young teenager. Our families know each other since ages. My maasi is the doctor who attended to Arpita during Payal's birth."
Naina hooked her arm into Yash's as they walked back to the resort with Aarti and Payal beside them. Near the entrance she turned to Aarti, "If you don't mind Aarti, I would like to spend some time catching up with Yash. We haven't met since he got married suddenly."
"Of course! Please carry on. I have to go and look up my grandmother and uncle/aunt." She looked up at Yash, "I'll take Payal with me."
Before Yash could say anything, Naina chimed in, "Oh, let me take her. I would like to get to know Yash's little princess. Come Payal…tell me all about your friends in Bhopal."
Payal immediately ran to Naina and started her chatter about Piyush, Sana, and Gauri et al. Yash nodded at Aarti who smiled at him brightly…too brightly, Yash noticed…before turning toward naanimaasi's room.
They spent a quiet evening in naanimaasi's room, too tired to go anywhere. It had been a long day. Chris and Anna also joined them and they had dinner together. Yash called to let them know that he and Payal were going out for dinner with Naina and her parents to a restaurant run by one of their close relatives. He asked Aarti to join them but she declined, pleading exhaustion. Yash understood exactly why she had refused. He wondered what was going on in her mind as he switched off his phone.
Aarti settled the elders in their rooms, kissing them goodnight, and went to her room. She freshened up and changed into her nightwear…white pajamas with a soft pink long T shirt. She brushed her hair till they shone, thinking all the time about the eventful day. Unable to sleep, she went out and walked up and down in the veranda for awhile and then came in, sitting down on the sofa with her journal, but couldn't bring herself to write. Finally, she admitted to herself: she missed Payal…and she missed Yash. She recalled what he had said to her about the girl he had feelings for: Someone who has been very close to me….someone I have known a long time. Was he talking about Naina? It seems very much so. Yash knew before they met Naina on that path that she was also staying in the resort. And, he and Naina go back many years. She was pretty sure that Naina felt strongly toward Yash…her intuition said so. She had liked the girl. She was warm and friendly and extremely attractive. Any man would be interested in her. She also seemed to want to know Payal better. Aarti knew she should be happy for Yash and Payal if what she thought was true, but why did her heart feel so heavy then? She picked up her pen.
Yash found her there fast asleep, the journal sprawled across her chest, as he entered after a couple of knocks went unanswered and he found the door open. Payal had thrown a tantrum on their way back that she wanted to sleep with Pari. By the time he carried her from the parking lot, she had fallen asleep. He put Payal on the bed and removed her sandles. He then went and slowly removed the journal and turned it around. His soul filled up as he read what she had written…..

You left…she left….and I felt so alone
I look up at the night sky and ask myself why
I realize then that it's cause I had never known
What it meant to be cherished
Until I was cherished by her and by you
It always was so hard to be close to anyone
Yet it's so easy to be close to you.

No matter if you choose to stay or leave
I now know I won't be alone
Cause for a moment in time
All my pain you felt as your own
And just for that one moment
I felt belonged…I felt I was home

Yash bent and picked up Aarti and carried her to the bed. As soon as he put her down, Payal turned toward her and snuggled closer. Aarti shifted and her arm went around Payal….both at peace. Yash stood looking at them for a long time. Before leaving he bent and whispered, "I choose to stay my love….always and ever"

Aarti woke up just before the first light. She dressed up and then put few pillows around Payal, tucking her in. She hoped she wouldn't wake up till she got back. By the time she reached the viewpoint, the sky behind the mountain ranges was plastered with soft pastels. The birds sang flurries of lilts around her, welcoming the dawn and a new day. As Aarti stood watching the far-off mountain, the wind blew from behind her, the nip making her shiver and the draft sweeping her long hair across her face. She gathered her hair and was about to bun them up when she felt the familiar touch of Yash's hand on hers, stopping her…and then the very next moment felt a jacket engulf her in its warmth from behind. She looked back and smiled and was about to thank him when he shook his head slightly and put a finger on her lips, turning her face back toward the ranges with the slightest pressure of his thumb on her chin. Silently they stood watching as the sun began to rise from behind the mountains in the far distance. Aarti was enthralled as the pink and orange hues of the sunrise slowly disintegrated, and the sun gradually turned the sky into a brilliant azure.
Aarti turned to find Yash staring at her…his limpid, dark eyes held her gaze with the now-familiar mysterious expression. A shiver of something went through her…and it had nothing to do with the morning nip. Yash just couldn't take his eyes off the breathtakingly serene beauty of her visage. He wanted to know every line of her face, every mood in the profound depths of her lustrous eyes. Everything about her was enchanting. Everything without her was vapid and lifeless. Yet she knew not…understood not...that his presence was complete only when she was beside her. There was a shuffle behind them and a voice rang out, "There you are," breaking the spell that had bound them still.
Naina came closer, "Darn it Yash! I overslept. I am sorry. I promised I'll be here with you for the sunrise and I didn't make it." She looked at Aarti, "Good of you to be there to give him company."
So he had come here to be with Naina….Aarti knew she should be happy that Yash was doing exactly what she wanted him to do….take interest in someone and then maybe marry her. Then…oh, why then did she feel robbed? As if the moments that were hers a few seconds back were no longer hers…that they had mistakenly lost their way and had come by her, and now were snatched back by the reality. To her horror, she found her eyes welling up...and she hurriedly excused herself, mumbling something about Payal waking up and dashed away…not looking back even when Yash called out.
Aarti and Payal were ready by nine. Yash had planned a day on the lake…boating, angling, and just enjoying the captivating beauty of the idyllic ambiance the environs offered…flowers, rare butterflies, and Himalayan birds. He didn't want naanimaasi and the Browns to overly tire themselves. They were to come back after lunch and then spend the evening around a bonfire with some folk music by a local troupe.
Aarti was chatting with Prateek in front of her room. Payal sat before them on the stairs to the lawns drawing flowers. They were waiting for others to join them. Just then Uncle Chris walked up to them in a hurry, looking properly flustered, "Aarti, where do I get a bouquet of flowers?"
Aarti smiled, "Look around Uncle Chris, we are surrounded by flowers."
He stood with his hands on his hips, 'Don't mock me child. You know your Aunt Anna…"
"…hates picking flowers from a blooming garden. I know…I know." Aarti grinned.
"For God's sake Aarti, do something. I can't show her my face till I get her the bouquet. You know that." Uncle Chris was all red by now in his consternation.
Prateek was baffled, "What's so special about today that you have to give Aunt Anna flowers? Is it her birthday Uncle?"
"There's nothing specifically special about today, Son," Uncle Chris said. "Every day is special when you are in love. Your Aunt Anna loves flowers…always has. On the first day of our courtship, she had made me promise that come what may, I'll begin her day with a bouquet of flowers. They put a smile on her face." He hooked his thumbs into the suspenders and balanced on his toes up and down as he pronounced regally, "The Special Anna smile…only for her Chris. No one has ever seen that smile, except me. I have been earning that smile for more than fifty years now…every single day." He boasted even as he beamed from ear to ear.
Aarti giggled at her uncle's pompousness. He was such a darling. Where romancing Aunt Anna was concerned, he refused to come out of his teen years. She turned to Prateek, "Could you arrange for one Prateek?"
Prateek had already taken out his phone, "Pari, you take Uncle Chris to the lounge and have a cup of tea. By the time you finish, the flowers will be here."
Uncle Chris kept his rendezvous with his conjugal ritual, and everyone left for the lake soon after. Naina joined them for the day, as her parents were busy with some acquaintances. Aarti enjoyed the day out amid the charismatic, tranquil beauty of the lake and the varied magnificence of the flora and fauna on the banks. Payal stuck to her throughout and was an enthusiastic learner as Aarti pointed out to her flowers and bushes and birds and butterflies. Naina walked with Aarti and Payal for awhile, getting along well with both of them, but soon gave up keeping pace with the enthusiasm of the duo and stayed back with Yash, who was mostly tending to the elder trio. After lunch Yash took Payal and Naina for horse riding as Aarti stayed behind. She looked with longing at the threesome whose laughters rang into her ears as they took the bend in the trail. She was happy for Yash and Payal. Yet, a sense of loss engulfed her...something like an echo of intense pain clutched her. These contradictory feelings were confusing her…as if she was stepping into unchartered waters not knowing how to stay afloat….

Aarti met Yash as she came out of naanimaasi's room after getting her medicines, which she had forgotten. Yash was on phone but cut it as he saw her. Everyone was around the bonfire listening to some superb music and having a relaxing evening. Uncle Chris especially was in his best jovial mood, pulling up all the ladies one by one for a dance.
Aarti smiled as she approached him. Yash smiled back and they turned to walk back together toward the fire.
"Did you have a nice time today?" Yash asked.
"Hmm! Yes, I most certainly did. I cannot thank you enough for this vacation Yash. This is a beautiful place."
"Aarti…," Yash spoke hesitantly, "About this morning…. Naina had mentioned in passing last night something about wanting to watch sunrise, but she wasn't the reason I was there. I was going for a walk when I saw you."
Aarti halted and faced him, "Yash, you don't need to explain anything to me. We are friends, remember? In fact if you haven't yet invited Naina to watch sunrise with you, then I suggest you do it now."
"Aarti?" He was baffled.
"She is a nice girl Yash. I agree with your choice."
"Choice? Aarti, I think you are mista…" He couldn't complete as Payal came running and pulled Aarti with her.
"Where were you, Pari? I want to draw the fire. Teach me."
Aarti sat Payal on her lap and made her draw a fire and then told her how to color it. She soon got engrossed in talking with Aunt Anna. She didn't notice Payal complete the coloring and get up to show it to Yash and Naina who were sitting on the other side. Yash gave her a kiss after praising her and then got up to take a call as Payal passed the book to Naina. She took it absent mindedly as she watched Yash walk toward the garden. She had been wanting to talk to Yash since morning but someone or the other always had his attention. She thought this was the ideal moment, so she carelessly kept the book and got up…without realizing that she had kept the book very close to the fire. Aarti happened to glance at Payal at the very moment that the little girl let out a loud wail. Sparks had fallen on the book, and the corner had caught fire. Aarti made a dash toward the book just as everyone turned. Reaching the book she slapped the fire down with her hand.
"Aarti! Leave it…you'll burn your hand," Uncle Chris shouted.
Yash came running, as Aarti put off the fire and turned to hug Payal, consoling her all the time, "Hush darling, hush!! It's OK. Don't cry princess…please don't cry." Tears streamed down her own face.
Payal sobbed against her neck, "All my drawings got burnt Pari…all."
Yash came and hugged them, "No princess….Pari saved them. See. Only the corners are burnt."
That's when Naina passed the comment, "Oh, c'mon Payal…They were just a few pages of drawings, right? Nothing important. You must not cry for such a little thing. I'll buy you a new book."
Naanimaasi immediately looked at Aarti. Aarti got up slowly, picking up Payal in one arm and holding the drawing book with the other. She extended her hand with the half-burnt book in front of Naina, "You think these are just drawings? Just few strokes of pencil and haphazard coloring? Nothing…you say!! Do you have any idea how valuable they are to Payal? To her father? To me? They may be mere "nothing" to you Naina…but to Payal they are her masterpieces, which she saw getting burnt in front of her eyes. Have you ever seen anything precious burn in front of your eyes Naina? Have you? I don't think so. That's why you don't know what my Payal is going through…."
Everyone stood stunned in silence at this unexpected verbal onslaught. Aarti clutched Payal to her and rushed toward her room. Yash didn't know what happened and was numb as he strode after her. Naanimaasi caught him by the stairs, "Let them be Yash. Go after sometime. Let Aarti calm down Payal on her own. She needs to do this." She looked up at a puzzled and tortured Yash, "Nobody did it for her."
Tears fell as naanimaasi told Yash about Aarti's paintings, "They burnt all Yash…Radha could salvage only one. Aarti never picked up a brush after that. She couldn't let Payal go through the same pain. Today Aarti defended Payal in the same manner Shobha would have, had she been alive. Today a mother defended her daughter Yash."
Yash was left reeling grappling with the enormity of Aarti's loss and the rawness of her pain.


 Chapter 25 

Surrender is a necessary aspect of allowing the inevitable to happen without struggle
and unfold in perfect harmony just as intended.

Yash sat down on the step with a thud, his face buried between his hands in abject sorrow and helplessness. Dear God, he cannot even think about it…and she has borne it day in, day out. Naanimaasi sat beside him and ran her hand on his head. She spoke in a sad voice, "No Yash, don't let this upset you so much. You have to be her pillar and not a reflection of the miseries she has gone through. Take inspiration from her. They did everything to break her, Yash. She never revolted…neither did she ever wish ill on them. But there was somewhere a strong reservoir of resilience in her that she could always dig into and bounce back. They could take everything away from her, but they could never take away that strength." Yash kept his hand on hers and turned toward her, listening raptly. She was looking far away into the darkness, as she continued, "The day I went to get her, she was being beaten right, left, and center for defying them. She had refused to marry and told them she was going to Bhopal for a job. When I ran to her, she was down on the floor, broken and bleeding…but unbowed. She was not pleading…she was not crying. I had met her for the first time; even then I felt this great pride surge through me at seeing such quiet dignity. Radha told me later that even she was amazed at her willpower and endurance to stick by the decision she had made. As if some force was helping her. As if that force was invisibly being her strength."
Yash whispered, "That was me. I had offered her the job and advised her to save herself from being pushed into a relation that did not have her consent." He stared at naanimaasi with haunted eyes, "She listened to me naanimaasi…She did what I asked her to do, even though we hadn't met each other."
Naanimaasi smiled through her tears, "I am not surprised Yash. You two have an undeniably strong connection. Aarti too will soon realize it." She got up, "I better get back to others. You go and see what's going on with those two. And Yash…," he gazed at her, "Don't look so sad. If you appear distressed about her reactions, she will not open up to you. She will want to protect you from her woes. I made that mistake with her. I was so scared to upset her that I let her be. She is instinctively protective of people she loves…and she does love you. Only she does not know it yet. If she thinks that her past is upsetting you, she will keep you away from it."
Yash nodded. He ran agitated fingers through his hair as he walked the corridor to her room. Outside he took a deep breath and was about to knock at the door when he heard Payal giggle. Intrigued he pushed the door, which opened, and he peeped in. He couldn't have imagined a more endearing sight. They were sitting on the bed facing each other on their knees in a kneeling position and doing a high-five with big smiles on their faces. The drawing book lay between them. He walked into the room dazedly. Nothing had prepared him for such a cheerful scene. Normally Payal took some time to come out of a deep hurt. A few months back the little boy of a client had banged and broken her favorite doll when he was visiting with his parents. It had taken Prateek and him more than a day to get her to smile.
The moment Payal saw Yash, she ran and jumped into his arms, "Papa…papa…my drawings are going to become more beautiful. They will not stay burnt like this."
"Really!! And how so?"
"Pari says we'll make a col…cola…." She turned to look at Aarti for help.
"Collage." Aarti came up to them with a smile.
"Yes, collage….We will stick my pictures in a beautiful shape….and then…and then…Pari?"
"And then, sweetheart, we shall frame it and call it Payal's World." Aarti's eyes shone as she looked up at Payal's excited face.
"Yes papa…like we have paintings in our home. But I will have to make more drawings. So much work to do." She sighed and frowned as if she had the world's labor on her head, "I will have to start tomorrow. Pari and you will help me. Now put me down…I have to go to our room and get my pajamas. I will sleep with Pari. We have lots to plan."
She ran to the door and then stopped suddenly, turning to look at Yash, "Papa! Will you be lonely in the room? Then you can also come and sleep with us. It will be fun…Pari, you, and I."
Yash didn't dare look at Aarti, who had turned toward the bed, as he responded, "Not today princess…. I am very tired today….maybe another day. Now go and get your night dress."
Yash turned to Aarti, who was clearing the bed, and said softly, "Aarti…thank you."
She stilled and straightened up, "For what Yash? I didn't do anything."
"Yes, you did. You are the reason both Payal and I are smiling after a mishap. Without you, I wouldn't have known what to do. I get very helpless when Payal is sad. But you not only made her cheerful but also ensured she begins drawing with more enthusiasm. That was a miracle."
"No Yash…not a miracle." She braved a smiling look at him, "What you say is miracle I call it love and belief. Payal just needed to know that in spite of such a grave tragedy she is loved and that she has our faith…that if something goes wrong, then there are solutions as well. She needed to know that what she lost was precious but she can re-create and remold those creations. She can…period. Payal needed to know that…and she needed to know that now." She looked away, "Otherwise it might have been too late. When one takes a fall, if you don't get up sooner, you never do."
Yash's face contorted in agony as he heard the finality in the last words. He couldn't help himself as he placed a hand on her shoulders and turned her, "Aarti…I was so scared for Payal. I hate to see her heart break like that. But you were there for her, and pulled her right back up. Is it OK if I hug you? I need the hug."
Aarti looked at him, unable to hide the pain that had resurfaced after so many years and was still as excruciating.… She only had to close her eyes to feel the heat of the fire that burnt away a part of herself and recall the smell of the burning colors. Without a word she stepped forward into his stretched arms as he engulfed her in a secure and warm embrace. Despite the made-up excuse that led her to be cradled in his arms, he could not help but feel at peace in the feeling of her…her warm body pressed into his, her delicate jasmine perfume swirling around his senses, and her soft, silky tresses brushing against his cheek as he protectively and instinctively shied her away from her past. Within no time Aarti's trauma ebbed, and her demons rested, as she felt calmness surround her for the first time after the evening's accident. She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes…letting the warmth of his arms and the rhythmic beat of his heart take her to a place of serene tranquility. This is miracle…she thought!

Yash had planned for a short trek for them the next day…starting from the lake into the mountains and back to the camp he had set up near the lake. The Browns and naanimaasi wanted to go shopping and then relax in the camp after a boat ride. Prateek stayed back with them. He was by now totally in love with the adventurous and affectionate trio. He felt completely at ease with them and enjoyed their company. He was also completely taken in by the person who had his brother's heart and didn't yet know it. He simply adored the way Aarti spoke and behaved, as well as the way she gently smiled at all his narrations. Surprisingly he found it so easy to communicate with her…something he couldn't even do with his parents and brother. They loved him and indulged him. For them he was always their chote, but Aarti made him feel multiple emotions. She was sometimes a friend and sometimes an elder sister. He just couldn't wait for her to become a part of their family. He knew his parents and dadima would love her as much as he already did. It was about time this family felt complete.
Naina's parents left for Nainital early next morning to attend the wedding of a distant relative. Her mother belonged to a Kumaoni village and so had lot of relatives in the region. Naina stayed back. In the morning she knocked on Aarti's room. Aarti opened the door and was surprised to find Naina at her doorstep, looking pretty and elegant in khaki shorts, black sleeveless hoodie shirt, and sleek boots. In front of her Aarti felt drab in her jeans, kurti, and sneakers.
Naina smiled, "Good morning Aarti! I wanted to have a chat with you before we leave."
Aarti smiled back, "Good morning Naina! Come in please." They sat down, and she poured tea for them from the teapot the waiter had left in her room a few minutes ago. "I was about to come to you, but got delayed as Payal was tired and wanted to sleep some more."
"She slept here? With you?"
"Ah, yes…Err Naina, I am really sorry about last evening. I shouldn't have said those things to you. They were totally uncalled for. I…I have no excuses for my misbehavior. Please forgive me."
"It's OK Aarti. Just chill. No hard feelings. It's just that I couldn't get what the big deal was. Anyway, I did feel bad for the kid. She was howling so badly. That's why I have come to you. I want to make amends with her…spend some time with her… for Yash's sake. He is so attached to that girl. But she sticks to you all the time."
"Oho, of course! I'll tell her to be with you today. Tell you what? You, Payal, and Yash can have a head start. I'll follow after awhile." Aarti wondered whether what she was thinking was right….that Naina was very much interested in Yash. Well, that made Yash's path clear. He had to mean Naina when he told her yesterday about the girl of his dreams: Someone who has been very close to me….someone I have known a long time.
"Great! Thanks Aarti…that'll be smashing. I can then talk to Yash also. I have been dying to tell him about my feelings." Naina sounded euphoric.
"Feelings?" Aarti suddenly felt her mouth go dry. And then there was that familiar painful twisting in her chest as she anticipated Naina voicing her doubts.
"Yes. Well, I can tell you this. I have been in love with Yash for like forever. The boys I date in London stand nowhere near his personality. After finishing my graduation when I came back to India, I heard Yash was to be married that same day. It was a very hurried affair because of his grandmother's health. Maybe if I was around, he would have married me. I lost him then. However, I have my chance now…He is available, and…"she leaned closer and whispered, "I think he fancies me." Aarti's heart sank deeper as Naina continued brazenly, "So I am going to propose to him today. That's the main reason I stayed back."
Aarti didn't know what to say, as Naina looked at her for a response. She mumbled softly, "Good luck to you, Naina! I sincerely wish you all the happiness."
"Thanks Aarti." She got up. "See you at the trek."
Aarti didn't get into the same vehicle as Yash…as Naina slipped in next to him. He stared at Aarti, who looked everywhere but at him. He wondered what had got into her. However, Payal refused to travel without Aarti and pranced after her in the other vehicle. At the trek site, Yash had arranged for a horse to accompany them, primarily for Payal…who refused to get on it alone and wanted to walk with them to start with. All four of them began the trek.
After only a few meters, Aarti exclaimed, "Oh dear, I am carrying naanimaasi's medicines with me. I forgot to keep them in the camp. She will need them as soon as she gets there." She looked at Yash, "You all carry on. I'll leave the medicines at the camp and catch up with you."
Aarti's behavior perplexed Yash. It was evident to him that she was making this up….Aarti couldn't lie to save her skin. The question was why was she doing this? He stepped forward, "You give me the medicines. I'll go."
"No Yash. You are needed here. I promise I'll be back in a few minutes. And I promise I won't get lost. I'll follow the arrow marks." She waved at Payal and looked meaningfully at Naina before turning back. At the bend she looked back to find Yash staring at her.
Aarti gave them ten minutes before starting back. After sometime she looked up and saw them. But wait a minute…were they arguing? It seemed so…Naina held tightly onto Yash's hand and was gesticulating animatedly, even as Yash tried to say something. Aarti froze as she saw Payal go toward the edge, unnoticed by them, and then disappear. There was a scream…Yash jerked his head and wrenched his hand free from Naina. He looked toward Aarti. That's when she realized the scream was hers. She was already running. By the time she reached there, Yash had slid sideways and was looking down into a ditch. Payal had slipped and fallen into it.
Yash was trying to talk to Payal, who was wailing loudly in fear and pain. Aarti crossed Naina, who was keeping to the path and trying to see what was going on, and reached Yash, "Is she hurt?"
Yash was agitated and frantic and scared, "I don't know Aarti. She is not saying anything…only crying. I am going down to her."
"NO." Aarti stopped him in the nick of time. She was calm as she turned his face to her with her hand on his cheek and made him look into her eyes, "Yash, look at me. You need to go back and get help...get a rope or something. I am going down to her. I promise nothing will happen to our princess. Do you trust me?"
"I do….I know if you are there nothing can happen to us." He had calmed down the moment he saw her, composed and sedate, next to him. "I am throwing the backpack down. It has a first-aid box, torch, chocolates, biscuits, and a knife…in case you need to use it. I'll be back in no time. Take care Aarti. You both are precious to me." Yash looked at her for a brief second and then pulled her to him in a quick hug, planting a kiss on her forehead before getting up. Before he had even turned back up, Aarti had slid down. He heard her hiss in pain and yelled, "Are you OK?"
"I am fine Yash…just go." Aarti assured him. There was no point telling him about the rock that was jutting out and had gashed her in the back. She landed next to Payal and in the next moment had gathered her in her arms. She had to make her stop crying first. She kept on talking softly to her…kissing her and rocking her all the time, till her sobs receded into soft hiccups. She then looked around. The ditch was deep but narrow; it was much darker below. Just a hint of daylight filtered in. She had to check Payal's injuries. She opened the backpack and took out the torch and the first-aid box.
She tried to pull back Payal from her, but she refused to let go and clung tighter. Aarti held her closer and said, "Payal, you are my brave angel, aren't you?" After a few seconds, she felt a nod on her chest. "OK, then, you will have to help your pari here. I have to see where you got hurt. Will you show me? I have some medicine here and Band-Aids too. After I have put the Band-Aid, we shall have chocolates and I'll tell you a story."
She waited and then heard a low voice, "What story?"
"Hmm! About a little princess whose mumma and papa loved her very much and who was turned into a dove by a bad witch."
Payal sat up, "Really! And did she become a princess again?"
"Of course, she did. Her mumma tricked the bad witch into giving back her princess. But all that later…First, show me where you got hurt."
Aarti switched on the torch as Payal showed her, "Here…here…here…and here." Thankfully there were just some bruises and scratches but no deep cuts or broken bones. Aarti looked up and saw one side of the ditch covered with grass. Payal must have slid down from there…and the grass would have cushioned her fall. Aarti thanked God for sparing her, and applied the medicine gently after cleaning with an antiseptic lotion. She then tried to sit as comfortably as possible, considering her back was bleeding and paining badly. She cuddled Payal to her and handed her a chocolate, and then began her story. She was half way through her narration when she heard voices, and then Yash's voice echoed down, "Aarti…are you both OK?"
"We are fine Yash. Just tell us what to do?" Aarti stood up with Payal in her arms.
"Right…I am coming down a rope. I'll take Payal first…and then you."
As they looked up, they saw Yash coming down. He jumped the last couple of feet and the next moment had hugged them to him. "Thank God…you are both OK. Princess, you are the bravest girl in the whole world."
"And pari?" Payal spoke against his neck.
"And pari too." His eyes glistened in the dim light as he looked at Aarti, who smiled back tremulously.
He took Payal first and handed her to one of the five rescue officials who had accompanied him. Naina was nowhere to be seen. If Yash had bothered to notice, he would have seen her near the camp tent as he rushed back up. He then went down for Aarti. The moment he put his arm around her to tie her to him, she let out an involuntary gasp and then sucked in her breath. He looked at her alarmed, "What happened? Where does it hurt? For God's sake Aarti…tell me."
"I am fine Yash…really. It's just a scratch." She forced a smile, "I'll see to it when we are up. Now stop being a worrywart and let's go….Payal must be getting fidgety."
Payal ran to them as soon as they reached up. Yash grabbed her in his arms and turned to Aarti, "Now tell me."
"Give me your shirt Yash." Aarti was standing with her back to a tree.
"Please Yash…not here…Those men are looking." She whispered.
He put Payal down and took off his shirt. He went to her and turned her back to him. Her kurti was drenched in blood and was torn from just below her left shoulder blade till her waist. He could see the long cut. "Oh my God! Aarti, it must hurt bad. You…"
"Yash, please. I have survived worse. I am more worried about Payal. She needs a doctor as soon as possible." He stopped arguing and gently made her wear the shirt. What he felt for this woman, he couldn't even begin to fathom. She was gentle, caring, brave, and beautiful…and always thinking of others...putting others before her. So selfless…so guileless…so wonderfully perfect in every which way. With every smile of hers a piece of him deserted to rest in her. She looked at him. He smiled gently for her…always for her.

Naanimaasi and the others met them at the hospital entrance. Yash had asked them to reach there directly. Aarti refused to let the doctor tend to her till he had declared Payal absolutely fit. Naanimaasi and Aunt Anna held Aarti's hands as the doctor cleaned and stitched up the three-inch cut and then covered it with a wide plaster. Yash went and got a kurti from the nearby market for her to wear. She was released soon after with advice for precaution and dressing.
Back at the resort, everyone had something to eat and then retired to their rooms. Yash assured naanimaasi that he will be around Payal and Aarti…and that she can take over in the evening after taking some rest. He spoke with his parents and then instructed Prateek to make arrangements for them to leave the next morning. Payal had fallen asleep in Aarti's room. Aarti sat next to her on the bed…still groggy and shaken from the experience. Yash sat on a chair next to her, holding her hand. She asked him to go and rest…that she was fine. But he refused outright. Aarti saw the weariness in his posture and something like an echo of pain that made her shift closer to him. An instinctive move….as unrehearsed and as natural as breathing. Their gazes locked…Their eyes communicating on a level that needed no words. She seemed to sense the unspoken but lacked the experience to know what it was or the skill to communicate her awakening senses. Yet she knew for sure that something had changed that day….in her.
There was a knock and Naina came in. "Yash, I want to speak with you."
"Not now Naina."
"No Yash…it has to be now. I cannot keep my life on hold any longer." She completely ignored Aarti and Payal.
Yash got up and went out, not wanting to disturb the sleeping Payal and Aarti.
Naina followed him outside and immediately turned on him, "Yash, you know I have always liked you. I have waited for you all these years."
"That's not true Naina…and you know that. You have led a very colorful life in London. You are here because you thought I was footloose and single. And since your parents have given you an ultimatum to marry and settle down, you thought I was the best choice. That's why you followed me here after convincing your parents that I was interested in you."
"That's not entirely true Yash…I may have focused on you for parental reasons. But I do like you. At one time I only dreamt of being married to you."
"I am sorry Naina…I really am. But you were never in contention. I am happily bound to someone. In simple words I am unavailable."
"It's that chit of a girl in there, right? What the hell does she have Yash? Just because she played a superwoman on the mountains, she…"
"You will never understand Naina…so forget it."
"Why Yash? Why are you hankering after people who are not even related to you? Even that kid is not your daughter, yet you…"
She couldn't complete as Yash shut her up in a deathly voice, "Stop right there Naina. And leave."
Naina turned on her heels and walked away. Yash turned toward the room to find Aarti standing there with a shocked look on her face.


To be continued..........

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