One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, and cruelly mocked,
but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.
but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.
Yash closed his eyes in pain. These thoughts that a ten-year-old Aarti penned down were so much in line with what she was made to believe about herself almost from the day she had begun comprehending her environs. Yash didn't really need to read the diaries….The content in them were after all just an extension of what Radhama had told him about Aarti's life till Naanimaasi brought her here. Radhama was the only person who was privy to the silent, obscure, humiliating life Aarti was subjected to in her dadaji's house. A few months after their marriage, Yash had visited Radhama in her village, to know more about Aarti's life. Aarti could never speak ill of anyone and Naanimaasi couldn't give him the details, and he needed in-depth knowledge. Aarti's nightmares gave him sleepless nights, literally as well as figuratively. They always ended with her clutching him and making him promise he won't leave her.
Yash looked out of the window. A slight drizzle had begun. It reminded him of the long rainy night in that lantern-lit small room when Radhama had narrated the unbelievable story of an innocent child who received a lifelong sentence for just being born….for even coming into being.
"Satya!! Stop it, Satya!! Calm down. Leave the doctor's collar…it's not his fault. The doctors tried their best."
"How dare they say my Shobha's gone, Suraj? She is fine. She was fine throughout this…this pregnancy. I personally took care of her. So how can they just say…."
"No, she was not fine?
"What do you mean doctor?"
"Mr Scindia, if Mrs Dubey had come to us in the first six weeks, we would have told her not to continue with this pregnancy."
"She had a heart condition….and I believe she knew it. I am surprised she still went ahead and took this risk. Her blood pressure was abnormally high and she was hemorrhaging when she was brought in. We were lucky to save the baby."
"What the hell are you saying doctor?...No, Suraj this man's talking nonsense. My Shobha would never risk her life. She loves me too much and knows how much I love her. It's that damned baby. I never wanted one…but since she wanted it so bad I couldn't say no. I should have got it aborted as soon as it came by."
"Satya, please…take a hold of yourself. Shobha is dead…she is gone. It's no one's fault, my friend."
"It is…it is that wretched baby's fault….it's because of her I lost my Shobha. She is a curse."
"Don't say that Satya…just look at her. Nurse, please bring her here…See, how beautiful she is. She is your daughter…your flesh and blood."
"NO!!! She is nothing to me….She killed my Shobha. I am never going to set eyes on her…ever."
In the end, Suraj Pratap Scindia had to call Satyendra's family and arrange for them to come and take both father and daughter away with them to Hoshangabad. Satya's brother, Brijendra, rushed over with his wife, Reena. Subsequently, Suraj spoke with Satya's employers and arranged for his transfer back to his home town. It would be some months before Satya got back some hold on his life. He would spend most of that time in converting his entire room into a kind of a mausoleum for Shobha. He hung up life-size pictures of her, kept intact all her things, and even displayed them as they used to be before. Her clothes still occupied the closet, the dressing table had her cosmetics, and he arranged her side of the bed each night. It was as if his wife had not gone anywhere…..as if she would walk in any moment and continue the life they shared.
Aarti entered her so-called home in her aunt's arms. Reena had just put her in the crib that once belonged to her daughters when the family received the news of Satya's grandmother's passing away. The old lady was suffering from throat cancer, which was in the terminal stage. The doctors had given up long back. One of the mourners remarked how the newborn turned out be a curse for the family, bringing tragic catastrophes with her birth and being responsible for the death of her own mother and then her father's grandmother. This tone was soon picked up and passed across the entire clan. Satya's sister, Maya, and his mother were more than ready to join the unjust lament and deem the baby a jinx. They always had a thing against Shobha and were very antagonistic toward her importance in Satya's life…The same antagonism now shifted toward the innocent day-old baby. Her being a girl didn't help the little one's cause either. Radha, nanny to Brijendra's two children, was ordered to ensure that "that girl" stay away from all the customs and rituals, which as time passed by also included all the festivals and religious functions….a diktat that would hold till she grew up and left that house.
Brij and Reena watched helplessly as the little one was subjected to unfair dealings of the worst kind. They had two daughters of their own and as such were aware of their family's archaic thinking. They wanted a better future for their girls, away from the norms of this orthodox society, so Brij had wasted no time in accepting the job in the United States when it came his way and were to leave in a couple of months' time. He tried to protest when Radha was asked to get the store room in the backyard, which was next to the servants' quarters, ready for the baby, but was shut up by his mother who untruthfully told him it was Satya's orders. Actually, they wanted the cursed child to stay out of the family realm; they very well couldn't tell him that. So they told him that it was a practical move since Radha had to in any case take care of the baby, it was better the baby be put up close to her. Satya had washed his hands clear of the child, saying, "Do whatever you wish to. Leave me alone with my memories." Brij had even approached his father, who refused to get himself involved in the affairs of the women of the house, as he called them.
Brij tried to contact his Shobha bhabhi's family, but was told her mother had suffered a heart attack on hearing the news of her daughter's death….and that her sister was tending to her. Given the circumstances, Brij couldn't do much. His brother seemed totally detached from the baby, which he at the moment naively thought was because he was still mourning his wife's death. So he tried to be of as much help as possible before leaving for the States. He got the room ready for the baby and filled it with all she would require for a year. The girls stacked their old books and toys for her in one almirah, instructing their Radhama to give those to their little sister when she grew up. Brij arranged for medical care, paying in advance for all the required vaccinations and introducing Radha to the doctor, arranging for their interactions as and when required. When the doctor asked for the baby's name, they faced a fresh problem. None in the family was ready to arrange for any ritual, even a cursory one, given the family was under mourning for a year and as such could not indulge in any religious rites. He, Reena, and the girls took the baby to the temple, hoping the priest would suggest a way out. The baby needed a name. As the priest came with the Aarti thaal to bless them, the baby reached out from her aunt's lap and grabbed the thaal, toppling the sindoor in her hands. The priest laughed and said the little one had chosen her name….she wishes to be called "Aarti." That was the beginning of a very interesting relationship between little Aarti and the priest, who loved to talk. In the later years, Radha would be worrying sick looking for Aarti, only to find her sitting on the temple steps listening to some or the other stories narrated in full flair by her Pandit dadu. They were such an unlikely pair: One who could talk endless, and the other who would listen and only express with her eyes and gestures.
Brij left with a heavy heart, folding his hands in front of Radha and extracting a promise from her that she wouldn't leave Aarti till Satya bhaiya had come around or till Aarti was old enough to take care of herself. Radha held Aarti close to her and gave her solemn promise that she would do everything to bring up the little girl the way her mother Shobha was.
Satya continued to shun his daughter and blame her for Shobha's demise. He could never forgive her for snatching Shobha away from him. He refused to even look at her and instructed Radha to ensure she was kept away when he was in the house. The only responsibility he undertook was open a bank account in Radha's name so that she had access to all the money required to look after Aarti. His family too soon realized the reason for his resentment and refused to involve themselves in improving the fractured, almost nonexistent relationship between the father and daughter. For them Aarti was a curse, who was to be tolerated because she was born into the family. Over the years they would belittle her for every little thing, calling her names and even putting her through physical abuse if she ventured in places that were not meant for her. Her dadi's main mode of punishment was to shut her up in a dark room and leave her there for hours, an act that resulted in nightmares that Aarti suffered with even after she got married.
"No, no Aarti. The alphabets start with A….B comes after A."
Five-year-old Aarti was asked to write the alphabets for her admission test to Class I. What the teacher did not realize at that point was that Aarti was already forming words and short sentences. She had mastered the alphabets when she was four…having learnt them from Pandit dadu's (the priest's) twelve-year-old granddaughter, Malti, who liked the quiet girl and would drop in on her way back from school and teach her. Two days after teaching her about phonetics, Malti was surprised to find Aarti writing…BABA and MA. She was showing her knack for language already. Radha had spoken so much about her baba and ma to her that those words were the first things that came to mind when she tried using the knowledge Malti was imparting. Soon she picked up three-/four-word sentences.
The fact that Aarti was not yet put into any school was pointed out to Satya by none other than Suraj and Gayatri Scindia. They had come to attend a marriage in Hoshangabad with their sons Yash and Prateek and had decided to meet their old friend, Satya. Actually, Gayatri was keen to see how her friend's daughter was doing, as Satya had ceased to be in touch with them. He had still not come back from work, so Radha was summoned by Aarti's dadi to get Aarti. Aarti came trailing behind close to Radha, and when Gayatri called her, she clutched on nervously to Radha. No amount of cajoling would make her come out from behind Radha. Gayatri asked the family as to the class she was studying in, and was met with blank looks. Suraj and Gayatri were taken aback when they were told Aarti didn't go to any school yet as she was rather short of intelligence and hardly spoke. Gayatri had just got up to go near Aarti when they heard Satya's voice, "Ma, there's a car out front. Who has come?"
Only Yash noticed the little figure back off fearfully as her scared eyes came into view, and the next moment she had sprinted out through the door. Without thinking twice Yash followed her.
"Wait! Aarti….wait." As she abruptly paused in her stride, she tripped over the threshold of her room. Her hand shot out to grab something and found Yash's hand as she gripped his index finger tightly. He pulled her straight.
"Whoa! Be careful. Why did you run away? Ma wanted to meet you."
In response the little girl went and hid behind the door, her head down looking at the floor. He smiled. So she was shy. He went and knelt in front of her and extended his hand, "Hi! My name is Yash. Will you be my friend?"
He wanted to laugh out loud when he saw her shaking her head vigorously, even as she put both her hands behind her. He looked around and saw some picture books lying about as well as a couple of notebooks. He picked them up and saw pages of alphabets and numbers written in very neat handwriting. Then there was a new one that had BABA and MA written many times. On a page there were crookedly drawn figures of a man and a woman….written beneath them were sentences, "This is baba…….This is ma."
"Beta, your parents are calling you." Yash looked up to see Radha by the door. He saw two eyes peeping at him from behind her, as Radha tried to coax Aarti to come in front, "Aarti, come out beta….He is a friend. Don't be scared of him. He is leaving. Won't you say goodbye?"
Yash stood up, "It's OK. Let her be. Goodbye Aarti! See you sometime." Saying that he reached out and patted her head before stepping out of the door. That's when he heard…a faint, soft and sweet voice, "Goodbye!!" He smiled and walked away.
Yash walked in the living room to find his mother visibly upset, as Aarti's dadi repeated what she had said earlier, "She really won't be able to keep up with other children in school…that's why we have someone coming home to teach her. Poor girl! She is just not bright enough."
"That's not true," Everyone jerked their heads at him as Yash spoke, "Yes ma, Aarti knows more than kids her age. I just saw her notebooks. She is writing sentences in English, as also the numbers. She is very intelligent ma."
That's when all hell broke loose as Satya's mother whined to her son that she was being called a liar, making Satya turn to Yash, asking him to apologize for being rude and lying.
"My son never lies, Satya….Don't you know anything about your daughter? Don't tell me you are still carrying your prejudices. In any case she should be in school at her age."
"Don't preach as to what I should do Suraj? I think you better leave now." With that even the semblance of relationship broke. Having totally turned his back to his daughter, he really had no knowledge about her and expected the family to do the needful. After Suraj and his family had left, Satya was very angry at his family….He admonished his mother and sister about how this could have ruined the family's reputation: Today Suraj had pointed out the slip-up, tomorrow someone else could. One good thing came out of the Scindias' visit though: Satya got Aarti admitted to a school through a friend.
Aarti liked to visit her father's room when he was away. She loved to run her fingers through her mother's bangles on the dressing table and look at their pictures. Radha had always presented the good side of her parents….telling her stories about how much they loved each other, how her baba took care of her ma, how he brought her things, and so on. Aarti never understood why her father never asked for her and why he always shouted at Radhama even if he so much as sensed she was around him. In school she looked longingly at the parents who came to drop her children. She ached for an interaction with her father. She would peep at him from behind the doors and pillars but would be too scared to show herself, knowing it would make him angry. She got her answer when she was seven.
Her father was away again on office tour. Maya found Aarti in the room staring at the pictures.
"What are you doing here? Do you think by looking at those pictures you will get your mother back? Oh no, foolish girl….Your mother won't come back because you were a curse to her life. You killed her. She died when you were born."
Aarti's head shot up in shock as tears welled up. Maya was thoroughly enjoying herself now.
"I know I know…that must have shocked you, but it is true. Your baba hates you because you took away the woman he loved very much. He can't bear to look at you because you remind him of that cursed day. You took away his happiness, Aarti. You are a bad girl."
Aarti turned and ran all the way to the mangrove at the back of the house. It was her favorite spot….and it was her sanctuary. She spent most of her time here….Alone she would talk out loud to the trees, to the birds sitting on the trees, and to the squirrels who came close to her for the nuts she carried for them. Dubeys were one of the most affluent families of the town and owned a huge estate. Behind the house, apart from the mangrove they had a vegetable garden. The gardener had planted few flowers for Aarti in one corner when she had hesitatingly asked him once why flowers cannot grow with vegetables. She didn't tell Radhama what she had learnt that day about herself, but the little girl understood her father better now. She began to idolize the kind of love he had for her mother.
Over the next few years she began to comprehend her life as a burden on everyone as she was constantly made aware of her jinxed life by not only her dadi and bua but also any relative dropping by. Soon Aarti started believing what was being said. By the time she was ten, she blamed herself for her mother's death and became more submissive, subdued, and silent. She truly believed she deserved to be hated and withdrew more into her shell. Her self-worth had hit its nadir even before she had touched her teens.
She focused all her energy in writing and studying. At school she always scored very high in the exams, but never participated in anything else. She hardly communicated with others, but if someone came to ask for her help in studies, she was always forthcoming. She may not have any friends, but she was liked by all because of her kind, soothing, and helpful nature. When she was seven, she first started writing her diary. It was Malti who had presented her one for doing well in one of her exams. She was also the one whom Aarti turned to when she finished one and wanted another.
It was her tenth birthday…not that it mattered to anyone in that house. Radha did what she did every year…took her to the temple and bought her some sweets. Back home, Aarti wanted to look at her mother's pictures. Radha told her to come away soon as her father was due back. Aarti forgot to keep track of the time. It was too late when she heard her father's voice in the corridor. She frantically looked for a place to hide and finally stood behind the pillar in the room, not realizing her reflection could be clearly seen in the huge dressing table mirror. Satya entered the room with some books in his hand. He stopped short as she saw Aarti in the mirror….First time he actually saw her…she was a split image of Shobha. The familiar rage built up in Satya as he howled loudly and threw the books in hand at the mirror. Aarti watched in horror as one book went and hit the wall clock and the others the mirror. The mirror broke and splinters flew here and there, one of them coming and getting embedded in Aarti's chest through her skirt top. Satya then abruptly turned, kicking away the chair in his way and stormed out of the room and of the house. Radha and others came rushing in as they saw Aarti coming out from behind the pillar, in shock, tears streaming down her face, and the front of her top soaked in blood. By the time Radha reached her, she had fainted.
As always, not once did Aarti blame her father for the incident. She blamed herself for being bad and breaking his rule. He had every right to be angry. She was not supposed to be where she was, so naturally she hurt him again. No wonder he hated her. She deserved to be hated. Next day she made her diary entry:
I was bad again. I am a very bad girl. I hurt baba again. He hates me…I deserve to be hated…..
Be lamps unto yourselves.
Be refuges unto yourselves
Surrender yourselves unto love
And then awaken to yourselves.
Be refuges unto yourselves
Surrender yourselves unto love
And then awaken to yourselves.
"What is this bitiya?"
"Pandit dadu, it's something I made for your birthday."
"Open it, dadu…even I am dying to know. This time Aarti didn't show me as well."
It was still early morning, but the May sun was already very hot. Panditji was sitting with Malti on the shaded staircase at the backside of the temple, discussing the guest list for her marriage when Aarti had walked in holding the wrapped package. She stood aside quietly for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb their discussion, when Malti had noticed her. Malti could sense Aarti's presence anywhere. They shared a unique relationship….Malti was the younger girl's only friend as well as mentor, and a seven-year difference in their ages had never come between their closeness.
Panditji unwrapped the package to behold a painting of a staircase, going from the ground below up to the heavens. On the lowest step sat a little girl, with the priest keeping his hand on her head in blessing, even as Gods raise their own hands in blessing to him from over the clouds into which the steps disappear. His eyes glistened with unshed tears as he finally looked up from the painting, even as Aarti waited in silent excitement for his reactions. Seeing his tears, the innocent girl assumed otherwise. She lifted a finger to wipe away the escaped tears.
"I am sorry, Pandit dadu. You don't have to take it. I'll make you another one."
"By all means do that bitiya, and I am sure I shall love that too as much as I love this one. This is beautiful." He patted her head. "God resides in you, Aarti. There's divinity in your creations. A pen and a brush create as sweet a melody in your hands as the flute does in Lord Krishna's hands. A day will come when the whole world will sit up and take note of your talent. My blessings are always with you. Wait here…I have something for you."
As Panditji went up to the temple, Aarti looked at Malti raising her brows in question.
"He went and got it for you the day after your board results were out and you had topped the state. But then he had to leave for Indore to do some puja there. Have you filled the Class XI forms, Aarti? (On seeing her shake her head)…I thought so. We'll do it tomorrow, OK? (More softly) Look at me Aarti…After my marriage, I will not be able to follow up with these things. You have to learn to take charge of your life. Don't let up on your studies." She was about to say something more when Panditji came back. He held a small statuette of Goddess Saraswati in his hands.
"This is for you, bitiya. Keep Saraswatima with you always, and she will guide you. And if she is busy…" saying with a twinkle in his eyes in response to Aarti's oft-repeated question over the years as to what would happen if Gods are busy elsewhere, "she will send you someone to show you the right path always…just as she sent Malti, and also that young boy all those years ago, after which you could go to school."
Aarti smiled and bent down to touch the old man's feet, "Thank you, dadu. I shall always keep her with me." Years later Aarti would give the statuette to Payal on her first day in Class 1, repeating the same words as Pandit dadu. "Maltidi, I'll go now. Radhama has fever. I have to buy medicines for her."
"Good bye Aarti. I hope you remember I want a portrait of you and Radhama for my wedding gift."
Malti had introduced her to the world of paints. After that day five years ago when Aarti was caught by her father in his room, her grandmother had forbidden her entry into the main house. Her father had returned a week later, only to announce that he had taken an oversees project and would have to stay abroad a lot. Aarti missed the pictures more than anything else. She missed looking at them for hours and seeing the love her parents had for each other. When the itch got bad, she walked to the mangrove one day with her school drawing book in her hands and sketched her parents as she remembered them in those pictures. It became her favorite past-time after that. When she was not studying or writing, she was sketching. It would be some months before Malti discovered the filled-up drawing books in the cupboard after Radhama complained that she was buying almost a book a week, "Do they teach only drawing in school these days?" Malti had cried and laughed and hugged Aarti at the same time, marveling at the talent of her eloquently silent friend. Knowing her was like digging into an endless treasure trove…the more one dug, the more precious the jewels turned out to be.
Aarti was waiting for the shopkeeper to get the medicine from the top shelf, when she heard a car stop and someone walking up to the shop with a "Be right back" tossed at someone in the car. Aarti shifted more toward the corner as he came up, turning away her head…a very familiar reaction to someone who knew her. Very slowly she withdrew her arms that were on the counter to herself, as her long silken hair shifted and covered her face. To the young man who had come and was awaiting his turn, it looked as if the girl very gracefully folded into herself. Her subtle, delicate actions reminded him of the touch-me-not flower, who is expressively articulate and at peace amidst trees, flowers, and birds but at any human contact withdraws into herself. He smiled and whacked his head at the back…if only his friends had heard his thoughts. They wouldn't have believed he possessed such poetic vocabulary….come to think of it, neither did he. God, what's with this place and shy girls! Weird…now why would he recall a certain encounter with a little girl more than a decade back. Maybe being in this place brought back that memory. He jerked his head toward the shopkeeper who was addressing the girl now.
"Here you are, bitiya. Make sure Radha behan eats something before she takes the dose. OK?"
She nodded and thanked him. After paying the exact amount, she clutched onto the medicine packet along with the other one and swiftly turned away, without realizing that the action caused her yellow dupatta to fly and slide across the face of the newcomer. Aarti hurried away.
As soon as she turned to enter the bylane to her house, she noticed him. The man was following her for some days now. He was everywhere…in front of the house, the school, and the mandir…places she most frequented. He frightened her, but she didn't have the heart to bother Radhama with her fears. In the morning, mali kaka had dropped her to the mandir on his cycle, but now she was by herself…and the stretch to her house was little deserted at this time of the day. Aarti looked here and there, scared and not liking the look in his eyes. As soon as she took the next step, he came and stood before her. Aarti clasped the packets closer to her as her eyes stared at him in fear. She took a step back, and he stepped forward…another one, and another…He was enjoying the snaring game, as his face stretched in a lascivious leer. Aarti backed off till her back came upon a tree. The man reached out to touch her face as she shut her eyes with a whimper and turned her face toward the tree. The man grabbed her dupatta off her. The next moment he was gone…as she heard the voice from the medical shop mouth a few profanities, and then there was sound of slaps. There were more voices…including a girl's who shouted.
"Leave him Yash…Why in the name of God do you have to involve yourself in this mess? What if they know each other?"
"What the hell do you mean?"
"Was she resisting him? No…right? She didn't even shout. You just saw her and jumped out of the car assuming…."
"Stop it, Tanya. She is scared."
"How do you know?"
"I know because…Never mind. You all go and sit in the car. I'll be in a moment. (A pause) OK…alright…Don't look at me like that. I won't hit him again."
"You!!…Apologize otherwise I am going to call the police."
The man begged for mercy and apologized profusely.
"No to me you rascal…to her. Apologize to her. And after this don't even dare show your face again."
The man apologized to Aarti who kept her face turned and ran away, swearing to himself that he would never come near the vicinity of this girl. He had no idea she had such dangerous friends.
The man called Yash turned to her.
"Please take your dupatta."
He waited till he saw her shakes dying down. Then very slowly she lifted her hand, without turning, as he stepped forward to keep the dupatta in it. As she adjusted her dupatta, he asked her, "Does this road go to your house?" As he saw her nod once, he continued, "Fine, you go…I'll wait till you turn toward your house." She took a couple of hesitant steps when he stopped her again.
"Wait! Listen, I am not sure how to tell you this. (He paused as she waited with her back to him) Next time you venture out on your own, keep a pepper spray or something with you to defend yourself against such creeps. Not every time will there be someone to save you….You will have to learn to take care of your own self. Also, you must shout and ask for help. You just saw how my friends misunderstood your silence."
As he turned to wave at his friends who were calling him, he heard a barely audible, soft voice, "But you didn't." Before he turned back toward her, he heard her add, "Thank you." He turned to see her walk away from him. For some reason, a sense of loss engulfed him, before he shook himself and turned toward the car after lifting his hand in a wave to the girl who had looked back at him before going out of sight, her hair flying across her face.
Malti got married and moved to Kerala where her husband worked. Aarti was conspicuously missing during the rituals and only turned up after the ceremonies were over, just before the bidaai (send-off) ceremony. Radhama told Panditji and Malti that the Dubey family had gone to attend a wedding in a nearby village and will be back late in the night. Since, it was a client's daughter's wedding, at the last minute they took Aarti along to avoid any questions. Malti was very disappointed but she believed Radhama, who had no other option but to lie, as Aarti had refused to be part of such an important event of Malti's life. She feared her presence would be inauspicious and cause some mishap to occur. No amount of cajoling and assurances would deter her to budge from her decision. Before her bidaai (send-off) ceremony, Malti called Aarti to her room.
"Aarti, come and sit with me. I missed you during the marriage. Such an important occasion of my life, and my little friend couldn't be here with me. (Sighing) Anyway, I have something to say to you." She cupped Aarti's chin and lifted her face to see her eyes welling up. "Don't cry my sweet Aarti. Promise me you won't cry when I leave."
Aarti shook her head, "I will cry…..I will miss you, and I will cry."
It took immense self-control for Malti to hold back her own tears, "OK…then promise me something else. Promise me you will finish your studies….Hmm!!" She saw her nod once as she kept her head down, drawing patterns on the bedsheet with her fingers. Malti continued, "Aarti, now listen carefully to what I say. I know you think your parents' marriage was perfect and that what they had you can never have. I want you to think and be open about this….There is a special someone made for you too Aarti. He is waiting out there…waiting for the divine signal that will bring him in front of you, so that he can give you all the happiness that you deserve. At that point your heart should be able to recognize your soul mate. It might scare you a little, but take that leap of faith….trust him. Don't lose yourself so far away that when it comes to giving yourself to him you won't be able to find yourself. Don't shy away from love when it comes to you. There is no way to know love other than by the standards you, and you alone, create for yourself. As I've already said, it's a scary thing, but it is worth the risk. Do you understand what I am saying?"
Aarti was silent, and Malti prodded gently after awhile, knowing she hadn't much time. The women will come in any moment to take her away for the ritual.
"I am sorry Maltidi…Once again I cannot promise you what you ask of me. You forget something…I was born a curse. I…"
"Aarti!!...NO…How many times have I told you, you shouldn't blame yourself?"
"I am just stating a fact, Di. Everyone I love leaves me and goes away. I make people go away…and I think that is for the best that they do. Given this fact, do you think I would even allow myself to let love come near me?" Aarti continued, probably the most words she had spoken in her life to someone, as Malti listened horrified to all the bottled-up emotions of her young friend, "Even if I fall in love, I can never surrender myself…samarpan to someone is not in my fate, Di. I won't be a curse to anyone's life, especially if he is one I happen to love. It will be too selfish of me if I do."
"Wait a minute, Aarti. Did you deliberately keep yourself away from my marriage?"
"Yes Di, "Aarti nodded, "I am so sorry…but there was no way I would have allowed a risk of letting anything go wrong."
Malti was absolutely appalled at realizing the depth of damage caused to Aarti's psyche. As she saw her mother come in to take her away, she had time only to give Aarti a tight hug and whispering, "I love you Aarti. Remember when in doubt, listen to your heart…it'll guide you…always."
"You must be mistaken, Aman."
"I am absolutely sure, Yash."
"For God's sake Aman, you are talking about Tanya. We have been together for more than a year. I know her. She would never betray me."
"I don't want to hurt you, Yash. You are my best friend and you know me…I'd never lie to you. Go and see yourself. They are in the last green room behind the stage."
It was the last day of the intercollegiate fest that Yash and Aman had come to attend from Bhopal along with a group of boys and girls of their college. Yash had just won the best debater award and wanted to show it off to Tanya. That's when he had run into Aman, who couldn't let his friend be in the dark anymore about the ways of the girl he so trusted. Yash went near the room and heard Tanya say, "Of course, I am a free bird, Sahil. You don't have to worry about Yash. He is an OK guy, but too righteous and serious for my liking." The boy with her mumbled something, and she laughed sarcastically, "Isn't it obvious why I am with him? He is loaded. Whatever I ask, he gets me. He is my personal genie. Not many girls in Bhopal can boast of that."
Yash turned quietly and walked away.
Surrender is a power tool for listening to the voice of your spirit
and following its directions
and following its directions
Holding me up…..when I am weak
Helping me find what it is I seek.
Catching my tears….when I cry
Pulling me through when the tide is high.
Just being there….through thick and thin
Protecting my heart from within
You helped me to begin.
Aarti wrote these lines on the first page of her new journal the night Malti left. This was by far the thickest journal she owned, which Malti had gifted by saying, "…to make up for all those I won't be able to give in the coming years. By the time you finish this, I am hoping there will be someone in your life to give you another one to fill." A few years back Malti had advised her to segregate her diary writing from the poems and thoughts that she scribbled. She had bought her a journal asking her to pen the creative writings in it. Subsequently there were two more. Aarti had given the filled-up journals along with the painting that Malti wanted to her as her wedding gift.
Malti left a vacuum in Aarti's life which no one could fill. What she shared with Malti could not be shared with Radhama, who in any case could not give much time to her anymore. Dadima and Maya kept Radha busy in the main house, saying the girl is grown up now and doesn't need twenty-four-hour watch. They fired the cook and put Radhama in charge of the kitchen. When not in school, Aarti spent more and more time in the garden and the mangrove, either studying or sketching and writing. Her food would be on the side table when she would come back.
She ran to the mandir after the last board exam of Class XII got over. Radhama had told her in the morning that Panditji was not keeping well for some days, but since her exams were going on, he had told everyone not to tell her. In his room she went and knelt beside the bed where he lay. He opened his eyes on hearing her voice.
"Pandit dadu, I am very angry with you."
"I know bitiya…forgive me please. If I had told you earlier, your exams would have been spoilt."
"What is wrong with you dadu?"
"How does it matter bitiya? My time has come. My God has summoned me."
"Please don't leave me."
"Don't cry bitiya. I shall always remain with you….in the stories we shared, in the bhajans we sang together, in the shlokas I taught and you learnt. I will live again when you teach them to your children….Now wipe your tears, and read me the Gita. It's on that shelf there."
Fifteen days later Pandit dadu breathed his last while listening to Bhagwad Gita's tenth chapter being recited by Aarti. As the family gathered around the priest, Aarti turned to have one last look at her Pandit dadu and quietly walked away. She never went back to the temple. Malti came looking for her when she came home for a couple of days to attend the shraadh ceremony. She found Aarti watering the kitchen garden and her bua standing with her hands on her hips and passing her usual caustic comments.
"Did you hear what I said? The mali has gone to his village for a month. Now that your godforsaken schooling is over, you can make better use of time by looking after the garden instead of sitting in one corner of it and scribbling. In any case you have no place to go anymore. That priest is also gone. I told him so many times not to let you be close to his family, but he wouldn't listen. Now, look what happened. The curse got him too." She started to walk away but remembered something and turned. "Another thing, apply besan lep on your face each night. We want you to look presentable when the proposals start coming in. Bhaiya wants to see you married as soon as possible. Just pray that not everyone has heard about your curse."
It was the last bit that rattled Malti more. She knew what she had to do before she went back.
Aarti hardly registered anything. She was still too deadened. She had spent the first three days after Pandit dadu's demise clutching the Saraswati statuette to her and sitting in one corner of her room, silently shedding tears till Radhama had mildly scolded her for being exactly what her dadu didn't want her to be. She had then got up and walked to her painting corner and began painting at a feverish pace. Even Radhama couldn't help but marvel at her little girl's depth of emotions when she saw the finished painting: The Gita lay open at the tenth chapter, as a pair of reading glasses lay on it (exactly like Panditji's). Next to the book lay a brush and a pen as a girl's hand reaches across to pick them. On the upper right side, a haloed, smiling Panditji stands against a bright light, his hand raised in blessing. This was the only painting Radhama would be able to save when Maya would get all the others burnt along with the painting materials in a fit of anger a couple of years later…The reason? She had found Aarti busy painting in her garden-tending time. Many more years later, this would be the painting Yash would return home with from Radhama's village, too numb to even begin to analyze the pain Aarti would have gone through, since she never painted again after that incident.
Malti met Aarti on the day she left and gave her a list of the names of colleges running degree courses on Fine Arts. She told Aarti what was to be done after the results were out. She also met the school's principal and apprised him of Aarti's helpless plight. He promised he would help his brightest student. The results came out and were as expected: Aarti had once again topped the state with record-breaking marks in her stream of subjects. The school and the town facilitated Aarti separately. The entire family was called and honored.
Satya got the news in Muscat where he was presently based when his father called him to ask him about Aarti's further education. His only reaction was to look skyward with empty eyes. The mirror image of Shobha swam in front of his eyes as he closed them in consternation….the pain hadn't eased a bit. Not ten minutes back he had signed on the dotted lines for an extension of three more years. He wasn't yet ready to go back. Somewhere a sense of discomfort had found its way in when he had heard how his animalistic anger had made the girl bleed. With much difficulty, he had stopped his feelings from expanding on those lines. He wasn't prepared to walk the path that in his opinion was the cause of his spending this godforsaken life without Shobha….No, he couldn't soften. His father called again after a couple of days when the word spread that the family had decided to end the girl's education and get her married off, after which there was immense criticism. The elite of the town, as well as the political class, started putting more pressure, saying it was a matter of prestige that a girl from their small town had brought laurels to the town and that it was a matter of shame if her education is cut off because of the family's archaic notions. In any case the girl was under age. No one came to know of the hands of Malti and the school principal behind the leak. The press too got a wind of it and wanted to speak to Aarti, but Radhama stood between them and her. She refused to let them come near Aarti. The family had to bow down to the pressure. Thus, Aarti got a chance to complete her graduation.
In college too, as was in school, people soon learnt to leave Aarti alone. In the first year, she was exempt from any sort of ragging because of the academic reputation she carried. The seniors not only respected her credentials but also her quiet, dignified bearing. On her second day in college, a couple of senior rowdy boys had accosted her in a lonely corridor and had tried to rag her by trying to make her dance with them. She had dug into her bag and had sprayed them with a homemade spray. It had taken the boys almost a week to get back into circulation. Ever since the kind man had advised her, Aarti carried that spray she made herself at home. When he had mentioned it, she had no idea what a pepper spray was. She had thought about it a lot before finding an answer. She had then taken an empty perfume bottle from Malti and filled it up with red chilli powder solution. After spraying the boys she had ran as fast as she could and into another group of senior girls. It had taken those girls some time to make the scared girl speak a few coherent words and explain what had happened. After that incident, an unspoken decree had been passed by the seniors that Aarti was not to be touched.
Arpita was a Commerce student in the same college. She was also one of the most popular girls in the college. She was beautiful, stylish, smart, and arrogantly selfish to boot. She came from a humble background but dreamt big. Her father was a retired university professor and mother a school teacher. She was a late, and only, child. Her parents always tried to do the best for her, but their best was never good enough against her ambitions. Her beauty had made her insufferably conceited, and none but her own opinions had any value to her. She also possessed the ability to manipulate people with her guile. Her only weakness was Rahul, her classmate and boyfriend. She was very possessive of him.
Though they were in the same year, Aarti's path never crossed Arpita's till a day before the end-term exams of the final year. Aarti had made her mark in college academics as well. Students would make a beeline toward her and her notes during the exam times, and she would gladly help. For a girl who hardly spoke and who was as shy as a fawn, almost always keeping to herself, she was amazingly articulate and lucid when it came to talking about course subject matter. Rahul had noticed her when she was softly explaining a topic to a couple of girls, as he crossed the Fine arts classroom a day before the exams. He was intrigued at seeing the mouselike girl speak so animatedly. Unknowingly an amused smile had crossed his face, which was noticed by Arpita who was further away talking to someone. As Rahul moved away, Arpita came to check on his object of interest. She confronted Aarti when the other students had moved out.
"Hey…you…what's your name?"
A startled Aarti stammered, "A…Arti."
"OK Aarti. I won't repeat this. Stay away from my boyfriend."
"Don't act innocent with me. I just saw Rahul smiling at you."
"I am sorry. You must be mistaken. I didn't notice anyone."
"You didn't?...Well then, take this as a warning. Keep away from him."
Aarti nodded. As she moved away, a couple of books fell down from her hands, one of them her journal. Arpita noticed the scribblings, as the notebook lay open. She snatched it from Aarti unceremoniously and started browsing through the almost-complete journal. Aarti tried to raise her hand hesitantly a couple of times but couldn't muster enough courage to take it back from her.
"Oh my…so you are some kind of a writer as well. This seems good stuff."
Just then Rahul came back and smiled congenially at both of them.
"Hey Arpi, I need to talk with you." He looked at Aarti, "Hi there, I am Rahul."
Aarti just nodded and extended her hand toward Arpita who asked Rahul to wait for her in the canteen, and then turned toward Aarti, "Look…it's obvious my boyfriend has some interest in you. Just to ensure you keep within your limits, I am going to keep your precious writings with me till the exams are over. You will have it after that." Arpita walked away leaving a tearful Aarti staring after her.
As it turned out, Aarti never got back her journal…till a few years later and from a totally unexpected person. Arpita had no idea that with one gesture she had set motion the wheels of destiny in the lives of two lost souls…..a wrongful act of this day was going to set right the wrongs to follow a few years down the line!!
Professor Sharma, the Head of the Department, called Aarti to his office a fortnight after that incident. She had just come out of the classroom after her last exam, "Aarti, a very high-profile school in Bhopal is looking for someone to take over their Arts Department and oversee the entire art-based makeover they plan for the school building. You know murals, collages, etc. They are offering a handsome salary plus living accommodations. They approached us first because the owner, senior Mr Scindia, is a patron of our chain of institutions. I had forwarded your resume. They have short-listed you. Mr Scindia's son is coming here for personal business this weekend. He wants to interview you before leaving on Monday. Please be here at 10 am that day…OK?"
Aarti was stunned and did what she always did…nodded mutely. The professor smiled affectionately at his favorite pupil, "No, no Aarti…only nodding and gesturing won't help. For the interview you will have to speak up and answer clearly what you are asked." He gave a few more tips to Aarti and wished her the best before waving her off.
Aarti entered the gates of the house in a daze. She was surprised to see her dadi beckon her inside the main house. She stood rooted and stared at Radhama who stood a little behind dadi with a pained expression. Her bua hurried up to her and whispered loudly as she caught her wrist and pulled, "Can't you see ma is calling you? Dear God, you look all disheveled. But then we have no time to dress you up. He will have to see you like this only."
Aarti was dragged inside the living room by Maya where a middle-aged, balding man sat conversing with her dadaji. Aarti was introduced and made to do namaste, as the man literally ogled at her. Feeling self-conscious and adjusting her dupatta, Aarti looked here and there for Radhama who had vanished. Her dadima walked over and sat beside her. She then held Aarti's hand in her own and squeezed a warning as she cleared her throat and smilingly addressed the man, "This is our sweet granddaughter Aarti. Isn't she beautiful? She is also very talented and efficient….just perfect for you Yadavji. She will fill up the emptiness Subhadraji left in your life and give you your heir."
Yadav nodded gleefully, "Your family is well known. I trust you completely. It's a Yes from my side. I shall go and talk with my family and set the date."
Maya spoke up, "We have spoken with our panditji. There's a date three weeks from now. If that's not too soon for you…"
"No, no…I am fine with the date. Right then…I'll take your leave and give the good news to my family."
Radha hurried toward Aarti, as the others went to see off the would-be groom. She took the shell-shocked Aarti to her room and made her sit down, giving her water and talking to her soothingly…asking her not to worry…consoling her that her father will stop this once he knows. Radha was soon summoned by Maya outside. She could hear Maya passing instructions to Radha to keep Aarti from going anywhere from henceforth and to take care of her looks. She heard her say that they just now had a talk with her father. He would be flying down a week before the marriage.
For the next four days, Radha saw Aarti withdrawing from her too, as she spent most of her time in the mangrove writing her diary. She had not spoken a single word ever since that afternoon of charade. It was as if she had accepted her doomed fate. Radha knew it was time she take a step if she had to save the daughter who was hers yet not. On Sunday night, Aarti kept the diary on top of the previous ones in the cupboard and requested Radhama to burn them once she went away. She also told Radhama that the next day she had to go to the college once for a few minutes, as she had promised someone she would be there.
Radha took her to the college on the pretext of taking her to the temple. She waited in the college reception as Aarti went up to Prof. Sharma's office. She knocked and went in as the professor gestured her to come in. He was on phone with someone.
"Yes, Mr Scindia…fine…She has just come in. Please hold on. I am passing the phone to her." He covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Aarti, "He is on his way back to Bhopal as something important came up. He would like to ask you a few questions on phone. Be confident, Aarti. This is a big opening for you, child…All the best." Prof Sharma blessed her by patting her head and walked out. Aarti held the phone to her ear and gulped once or twice before mustering courage to speak.
"Go..od morn..ing, Sir!"
"Good morning Miss Dubey. Please don't be nervous. You come highly recommended by my staff. I just want to know a few things and the job will be yours. I…did you want to say something?" (And again after a pause when she kept quiet) Miss Dubey?"
Aarti stared at the wall in front, thinking, "How did he know I want to speak? I didn't say a word. (Aloud) Sir, I am so..rr..y. I can...not take the job. I am so so..rry."
He heard a sharp intake of breath as if the girl was trying to stifle a sob. Under normal circumstances, he would have thanked her and kept the phone down. But something stopped him from ending this conversation.
"Why Miss Dubey? Is the salary not good enough?"
She shook her head.
It didn't occur to either that a silent communication had happened just now. There wasn't a break of even a fraction of a second as one gestured and the other understood.
"They are getting me married."
"And you don't want to."
She shook her head again.
"Why don't you tell them that?"
"They won't listen to me…they never have."
"They will have to if you are brave enough to face them. You are an adult. This is your life. No one should stop you if you decide for your life."
He paused and waited. Silence. The most eloquent silence ever…her breaths providing the eloquence. Why was he doing this? What was prompting him?
"Look, life is precious…and it's ticking away every second. You have to make a choice today….whether you want to spend your life drowning because you couldn't convince yourself that you are the one who is in control of this life or believe that you can so easily save yourself by standing up. You have to decide whether you want to be saved or remain unsaved forever….(long pause)…Miss Dubey?"
"I am listening, Sir."
"Good….I shall remain hopeful Miss Dubey. I hope to talk to you again…say after two days…Hmm! Remember what I said. Don't give up on yourself."
"Thank you, Sir. Good day, Sir."
"Goodbye Miss Dubey…Bhopal awaits you."
Yash stared at the phone for a few minutes and then kept it down. He looked out of the window, thumb and fingers caressing his chin, reflecting. Now, what was that? That was so uncharacteristic of him…passing unsolicited advice. He had never done that to Prateek also. He asked the driver to step it up and opened the briefcase, taking out the large notebook he was reading since the previous night.
"I will not marry."
Aarti had entered the main house on her own after years, walked into the living room brushing aside Radhama's restraining hand, and faced the three elders with a bravado that was as false as the people in front of her. She braced herself, a certain voice in her head egging her on, and repeated, "I shall not marry that man. I am going to Bhopal to work."
The first blow split her lip as she fell down. It was her dadima, as the other two stood up in support. "Is this how you pay us back for putting up with a curse like you? (Slap)" As Maya held Radhama back, she punctuated her diatribe with slaps and more slaps, "It's my fault that I let you be all these years and not shown your place (slap). We put a roof over your head (slap), gave you food, gave you education…so that one day you will turn around and disobey us? How dare you, you murdering, good for nothing…."
"STOP IT!!!" Dadima's hand stayed in air as they all turned toward the voice at the door. "If you lay one more finger on Aarti, I shall see to it that you rot in jail for physical abuse."
They all looked stunned as the little woman rushed to Aarti, who was being held in her lap by a crying Radhama.
"It's OK darling…I am your naanimaasi. I am here to take you with me," She nodded at Radha who smiled through her tears in gratitude and relief. "I am so sorry I was too late to stop this atrocity. Radha, help me with her." Very gently she stood up Aarti and held her tenderly even as she turned to her grandfather. They all knew who she was, having met her during Satya and Shobha's marriage. "I am taking my granddaughter with me. If I had known earlier what a hell-hole she was in, I'd have taken her long back. Thank God Radha called me and told me what you were about to do with the child. You all should be ashamed of yourselves…torturing a young girl like this."
"She is our son's daughter…We have all the rights to…"
"No, you don't…From today I take from you all the rights of Aarti. You can convey the same to that lowlife son of yours."
It took Radha all of half hour to pack Aarti's things. Aarti sat in the car in one corner, huddled to herself, as naanimaasi held her hand and talked about Nainital and a new future…..
Surrender to your new awareness
and let love unfold the purpose of creation to you.
and let love unfold the purpose of creation to you.
The Tata Sumo slowed to a halt in front of a quaint, smallish double-storied house of dark wood and stone with colonial exterior, situated at the end of a long, graveled path. Stone steps led up to an arched doorway with a mahogany double-door entrance. The ground floor was ringed with covered arcades and surrounded by flower beds and ornamental hedges. Sweet pea and honeysuckle grew over the fretwork columns to envelop the loggias and walls, covering the large windows, and hanging in long tendrils from the arches. On the first floor were open balconies, protected by balustrades of stone fretwork and overlooking the lake. Two lush green lawns surrounded by flowers spanned on both sides of the pathway.
Aarti looked out of the car window. For a girl who had never stepped out of her closeted existence of Hoshangabad, the house looked like a palace straight out of the story books she had devoured in college library. Her eyes grew big and an involuntary smile played across her lips as she viewed the flora surrounding the house. She clutched Saraswatima's statuette in one hand and tightened her grip on Radhama's hand with the other. This is how she had travelled the entire way from Bhopal. After her initial attempt at trying to befriend Aarti, naanimasi had let her be. She instinctively retreated when she saw Aarti cringing away as close to the car door as possible. They had checked into a hotel that evening after getting a doctor to look at Aarti's injury and then had left the next day by road in the hired vehicle that naanimaasi had traveled in from Nainital. After a one-night stopover at Kanpur, they reached her house by afternoon. Before leaving town, Aarti had called Prof. Sharma from the hotel room and requested him to convey to Mr Scindia her inability to go to Bhopal as she was moving elsewhere.
After her meager luggage was brought in, naanimaasi took Aarti around the house. Radhama stayed back in the kitchen with the in-house cook, Garima, to help out with the lunch. After almost two days of being together, Aarti still avoided any physical closeness, though she had given in to monosyllabic communication with the petite old lady with a serene, sunny, and cheerful disposition. Aarti had never known anybody from her mother's side. Whatever she knew about her mother was from Radhama. She was contemplating whether to ask the nice lady about her mother as they entered the loveliest room she had set her eyes in when she spoke.
"This is your room, Aarti. Your mother stayed here whenever she visited me. She used to love this room. Come here…see from this window you can see the lawns, the flowers, as well as the lake. Shobha loved to sit here."
Aarti had fallen in love with the house as soon as she had stepped on the graveled path. The ground floor had naanimaasi's room, a small mandir, the living room, the kitchen, and the dining hall. The first floor had three bedrooms and a small lounge.
"Aarti…welcome home, beta!" There was silence as Aarti stared out of the window. Naanimaasi tried again, "Aarti?"
"Thank you, naa..anim..aasi."
The old lady's eyes glistened as she heard her call her by that name for the first time, "This is your home Aarti. This is your room. How do you like it?"
"I don't know…I never had one."
"What, child? A room?"
She shook her head, "No…a home."
Naanimaasi turned away as tears fell. Aarti had not moved from her place by the window. She wanted to have a fill of the view that her mother so loved.
Life fell into a routine of sorts. Naanimaasi was careful not to impose anything on Aarti. She let her initiate everything. Initially Aarti would put all her queries through Radhama, but after a couple of weeks she hesitatingly started approaching naanimaasi if she needed to ask something because Radhama herself was lost in the new environs. Aarti was reluctant and fearful to step out of the house. She stayed confined in the room. She had no idea what naanimaasi liked and what would upset her, so she played safe. All of Radhama's assurances were of no use. She got her a journal, and Aarti began to put her thoughts into words again.
Aarti wanted to explore the gardens, but she feared trespassing and didn't know which area was out of bounds. What if she goes out and naanimaasi got angry…very angry…and started to...no, no she is not like them. But still!! She was coming down the stairs for breakfast that Saturday morning, almost a month since she moved in, when she heard naanimaasi talking to Radha, "I need some flowers for the vases. I haven't had time to fill them…and today some friends are coming to visit us. They want to meet Aarti. I have so much to do, when will I…"
"May I help?"
Hearing the soft voice naanimaasi turned with a big smile, "Will you do that for me Aarti? I hope I won't be imposing on you."
Aarti was confused now. For the first time in her life someone was requesting her to do something and not ordering. She shook her head, "I can get the flowers."
"Oho…thank you, thank you. You are such a sweetheart." She beckoned Aarti to the kitchen window. "In that shed over there, you'll find scissors and a basket….and Aarti (as Aarti turned after reaching the door)…please go wherever you feel like and pick the best flowers. The garden is yours."
Aarti nodded and proceeded toward the shed with a light spring in her step. Naanimaasi stepped back from the window and smiled even as she winked at an astonished Radha. No one was surprised that it took Aarti more than two hours to come back inside.
In the evening, Naanimaasi knocked at Aarti's room with armful of shopping bags. Aarti rushed forward to help her.
"These clothes are for you Aarti. This time it was my choice…next time onward you will buy yourself. My choice may not be good enough for you. I have called my tailor tomorrow. He'll take the measurements for whatever has to be stitched. Please wear a dress and come down. I need your help with the starters, beta. That Chris is a hog, even at this age."
Aarti stood stunned looking at all the gorgeous dresses and sarees spread on the bed. She finally managed to move herself and pick up a turquoise blue churidaar suit.
Chris and Anna Brown were old friends of naanimaasi and Aarti's naanima. Originally from England, their parents had settled down in Nainital, and they too never went back. Their only daughter Maggie was married and settled in Simla. The old couple ran a snack & bakery shop called "Brownies" near the Tibetan market. Chris was a burly, red-faced, jovial man, still completely bonkers over his blue-eyed wife of forty years. The happy-go-lucky couple came as a surprise to Aarti, who had never seen old people behaving so lovingly and being so full of fun. When Aarti was introduced to them, Chris stepped forward to hug her, but stopped himself just in time when naanimaasi shook her head and held up her hand in a stop gesture. On naanimaasi's request, Aarti sat with them and listened to the friendly chatter and leg pulling. Try as they might, the Browns couldn't extract more than a nod or a shaking of the head from her. When the time came to lay the dinner, she got up to go to the kitchen to help Radhama and Garima.
Anna turned to naanimaasi, "Neema, her eyes….they have such an empty, hollow look in them. As if she is lost in a vaccum. What's wrong with the child? Can we be of any help?"
"It's a long story, Anna….I am partly to blame for this condition of my granddaughter. I should have asked after her more often. When I had recovered from Shobha's and Runa's death, I called Aarti's grandparents. They told me that she had migrated with her father to the US. I had no reasons to believe they were lying. They made her life a living hell. They tortured her and deemed her a curse…and now my little girl is scared to even come close to me or to anybody and form any bonding. She stays aloof and maintains her distance."
"What? The scoundrels! How can anyone harm a little girl? What did they do, Neema?"
"Shshh, Chris…not now. I'll explain later. I wish I knew how to make her open up to life." She sighed sorrowfully as they went quiet for a while, before Chris broke the silence.
"I know," He was almost bouncing up and down in excitement. "I know how to bring her out."
"Now, now Chrissie….this is a delicate matter."
"Alas!! You have no faith in me Annabel Brown…even after forty years of marriage and five years of hanging outside your balcony." Chris pouted dramatically as Anna rolled her eyes and naanimaasi smiled. Just then Garima came in and called them for dinner. Another shock awaited Aarti when Chris announced he won't take a bite till the lovely young lady joined them at the table…giving Aarti no other option but to comply. In Hoshangabad, Aarti had always eaten alone. Here also naaninaasi never formally asked her to join her for a meal. However, the reason for an option never arose as she would come and sit at the dining table only after Aarti had seated herself.
Before leaving, Chris turned to Aarti, "Will you work for us at Brownies, Aarti? We are badly in need of a manager and an accounts supervisor. Both of us are getting by the years and finding it difficult to manage these days."
Aarti looked taken aback and shook her head, looking confusedly at her grandmother.
"You don't need your granny's permission, child. It's your decision. Whatever you decide, she will abide by you." When Aarti still hesitated, he patted her head, 'It's OK. You take your time. We shall wait."
It would be more than six months and after relentless persuasion by Chris and Anna before Aarti would brave the proposal. She had often wondered later that what was it that had made her say Yes to the Bhopal job immediately and equally hesitant to Uncle Chris's offer. It was only when naanimaasi had fallen ill and the Browns had rushed to help her, knowing she didn't know anybody, and stay with her till her grandmother got back on her feet that Aarti felt secure enough in their presence. That's when she had questioned her decision of not stepping forward to be of assistance to the nice couple who went out of their way to be with her and naanimaasi in their hour of need. After all one should always be kind to anyone who needs help…Two kind men had taught her that. They had helped her at times when she had given up.
Radhama had left for her village after three months when she got the news that her brother's wife had expired and he needed her help with his little children. It was very emotional goodbye for her. Aarti was the daughter she never had…and in some corner of her heart she would always remain her daughter in every sense. Aarti was heartbroken but as always withdrew into herself. Radha broke down when Aarti put the lone painting of hers in Radhama's hands and said, "Remember me when you see this." (When Yash would visit Radhama a few years later, she would insist he take the precious art with him and motivate Aarti to paint again.)
Two days before Radha left, Naanimaasi had called Aarti's college in Hoshangabad to find out about her results and was connected to Prof Sharma. He gave two bits of news: One, that Aarti had topped the college, and second, two weeks after they left, Aarti's father had met with a road accident here in Hoshangabad while he was on his way home from the airport. The windscreen of the vehicle had smashed with the impact and a massive glass piece had flown in and pierced his heart. He died on the spot. The professor also added that Satya's mother had suffered a paralytic attack on seeing his body. Naanimaasi didn't tell Aarti about her father, but informed Radhama who smiled sadly, "Isn't it ironic ammaji that catastrophe should befall the family when Aarti is not with them? Just goes to prove that God's justice is always silent. Now, which curse will they blame? The truth is till Aarti was with them, they were safe from all curses."
Three and a Half Years Later…..
"Naanimaasi, I'll be late today. We have audit next week. I have to get the accounts right. Uncle Chris forgets a lot these days and keeps misplacing the bills."
Naanimaasi walked toward the stairs with Aarti's lunchbox as she came down, "I know. Anna was furious the other day when she found the laundry bill inside the envelope instead of the letter she wrote Maggie and asked him to post. Thank God she opened it as she had something important to inform Maggie and had forgotten to write." They both smiled. "Here, I made biryani today. Chris's portion is in the lowest container."
Aarti smiled, "He'll be thrilled. He so loves the biryani you make….Bye, naanimaasi. Take care."
"You too, darling. Try to be back before dark."
As naanimaasi waved at her granddaughter, she thanked God for the day Aarti finally let her in enough to share a beautiful friendship. At least she conversed with her these days.
It had taken Aarti more than two years to trust her. Aarti had begun to loosen up after she joined Brownies. She had begun to spend a lot of time with her grandmother, who told her about her mother's childhood and growing up. She liked her job…and she liked Chris and Anna, who had self-appointed themselves as her Godparents. But all the progress had been cut short because of that good-for-nothing Prashant.
Prashant was naanimaasi's husband's cousin, his uncle's son. He was also the only living male relative from her in-laws' side. At forty-one, he was a childless widower as well as a philanderer and a wastrel of the highest order. He had been eying this house for long. Many years ago, while pretending to help her with the legalities of the property, he had cheated her into signing a document that said she would move into an old-age home at sixty-five years of age after willing the house to him, her only relative. When he heard about Aarti, he had come to meet his bhabhi. He had met Aarti, who was going to work, near the gate. Aarti had just stepped away as far as possible and hurried off. She had to come back after awhile to take the accounts file that she had forgotten. As she was about to step into the living room door, she had heard Prashant saying, "Oh, come on bhabhi…all your problems will be solved if I marry that pretty granddaughter of yours. We can all live here happily ever after." Aarti didn't wait to hear what naanimaasi said as she stepped back and rushed out.
Naanimaasi didn't know what had gone wrong. Aarti retreated into her shell and the fear was back in her eyes. For almost two years Aarti would just go to work and come back to her room. She hardly spoke to naanimaasi. It's only when naanimaasi was at the end of her tether trying to find a gateway that she found Prashant trying to harass Aarti in the lawn. She had threatened him with dire consequences if he so much as came near her granddaughter. She was shocked to see Aarti break down sobbing at her feet after Prashant had stomped off saying she had not seen the last of him.
Things became better after that. The duo never spoke about what had happened. They just began afresh. However, the empty look of Aarti's eyes never went away.
Aarti had come to get some papers from the front desk when she saw him. He was completely covered in dust and mud and had a tramplike disheveled look: thick beard, unruly hair, and torn clothing. Aarti's heart went out to the poor man who was eying the snacks counter hungrily. She waited as he requested for a hamburger in a deep voice. Maansi, the girl behind the counter, handed it to him and asked for the payment. He kept the burger and put his hand in the back pocket…probably to get his wallet. Aarti watched as his hand came out clean and then he ran through all his pockets. Finally, he looked up at Maansi who was giving him the look with crossed arms, "Ah…I am sorry I seem to…"
At that point Aarti decided it was time to help the poor man who was so clearly impoverished and broke. She stepped forward with a smile, "It's OK. You can have the burger. Consider it on the house."
He turned to look at her. Whatever she was going to say next got stuck in her throat as she stared at a pair of eyes that gazed fixedly back at her with an intensity that stirred her soul. Aarti took an involuntary step back.
The energy of surrender accomplishes much more than the energy of control.
Aarti’s first reaction was, “He seems offended.” But then she surprised even herself by standing her ground. For some reason the stranger didn’t scare her, and even as she stared back, unable to look away, the slightly indignant look in his eyes turned speculative. The transition was so quick that Aarti wondered whether she was mistaken. It seemed he was about to say something. That’s when Maansi came out from behind the counter.
“C’mon Aarti…any other day, but not today.” She whispered and looked at the man, whose only reaction to her not-so-hushed remark was a slight furrowing of his brows as he kept his eyes on Aarti.
“(Sighing) Anna ma’am has asked me to maintain the sale accounts of the shop till the audit, lest you face a problem. Chris Sir sneaked out two platters of patties and quiches and the entire tray of choco chips pastries for his Bridge session today, and she found out. She was very angry.”
“Alright...I’ll pay for the burger.” She looked at the man whose eyes had not wavered from her face during the short exchange of words. “Sir, don’t worry. It’s OK. Please have your burger.”
“Do people eat alone in your house?”
“Excuse me?” Aarti and Maansi looked at him in surprise.
“You did say, this is on the house….I may not have money on me, and I have been eating alone for some time now, whenever I managed some food that is. If the kind lady joins me for a bite, then I would like to thank her properly for her generosity.”
Maansi pursed her lips and snickered as Aarti looked at her confusedly. She didn’t know what to do. This had never happened to her before in all the three years she worked here and during all the times she helped some hungry person.
“I…I…don’t know. I…have work to do.”
“Please ma’am. I promise I’ll behave. I just don’t want to eat alone. Not today…on my birthday.” That melted whatever reservation Aarti had.
“OK. I’ll sit for awhile. Please have a seat. Err….Happy Birthday, Sir!!”
“Yash Scindia….that’s my name.”
Yash turned quietly and walked away. Aman saw him coming and opened the car door. Without saying a word, Yash slid in the front seat. Aman had already kept their luggage in the car. He just got into the driver’s seat and drove away from there, toward the road to Bhopal. He knew Yash would need some time to absorb Tanya’s betrayal, so he let him be. He knew his friend too well, and he knew his habit of bottling up things that hurt him. He liked to be left alone during those times. They were childhood friends and very close; even then there were certain corners in Yash that Aman too could never reach. He thought he wouldn’t be able to get a word out of Yash till at least a few miles, so he was surprised when Yash asked him to stop the car. Aman looked out…The place seemed familiar. Of course, it was the place where Yash beat that man the other day and saved that girl from being molested. He followed Yash, who had walked up to the tree.
“That day Aman….I knew that girl had nothing to do with that man, even though Tanya and you all were not sure. But my heart told me she was innocent. I just knew….Why then…(pause)…why then didn’t I know that Tanya was never in love with me and was only after my money?” Aman instinctively realized that Yash needed to vent out and made himself stand still as his friend fisted against the tree in frustration, “Why was my heart blind and deaf to her? I should have known Aman…I should have known. The signs were there…but like a fool I ignored them. Fool…fool…Dammit!!!”
“Calm down, Yash. Don’t blame yourself. You were true, and you were loyal to your commitment. She may not realize today, but someday she will know what she really lost.” Aman kept a hand on his friend’s shoulder and turned him. “Yash, take this as a new beginning and think positive.”
“I trusted her, Aman,” Yash whispered chokingly.
“I know, and she broke the trust. So? Should this be the end of the road?”
“Never again pal…never again. How can I trust a girl again?” Even as he said the words, an image of a girl with hair blowing across her face came to him. He shook his head and looked at Aman who was saying something.
“I don’t know much about all this, Yash…but I believe ma when she says there is someone out there who is made only for you, with whom your soul will connect immediately, and when that happens, you won’t need to ask such a question.”
Yash nodded and walked toward the car, turning to look at the end of the lane before passing it by. Now why had he stopped here? Was it this place or was it Aman’s words that the storm in him had already subdued?
With college over, Yash and Aman went one last time to Nainital for their annual trekking trip. They had been coming here every year for the past eight years. Initially, they had come with their school group and had loved the entire experience so much that they went back promising each other that they will come back each year. Their parents had needed some convincing, but they agreed when Aman’s uncle, who ran an adventure camp in Nainital, took their responsibility.
The tranquil mountains, thick forests, and the winding landscapes along with Aman’s serene, relaxed company helped Yash to leave the unpleasantness of the broken relationship behind and look forward to going abroad for his MBA. He and Aman talked long and in-depth about their future. Yash wanted to come back and take Scindia Enterprises, the business his father had given his blood and sweat for, to new heights. The company was already leading in the fields of Real Estate and Education. Yash wanted to make forays into the Health Care and Hospitality Management areas as well. He wanted the latter to be established for Prateek to take over after he finished his education. Aman had stayed back at his grandparents’ house in Bhopal to complete his education when his father moved to Indore to expand his textile business. Of late, Aman’s father was not keeping good health. Being the only son he would have to go back immediately to Indore and take over the business.
Both knew they might not be able to come back to Nainital for some years now. As he looked at the far-away mountains silhouetted against a moonlit sky on their last night in camp, Yash mused, “Aman, this place is special. I have always found my answers here…of course with some help from you (both friends smiled at each other across the small fire of twigs and branches)…I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to come here without you.”
“Of course you can and you will….You never know you might meet that special someone here only.”
“You mean my soul mate? Divine connection and all that…eh?” Yash laughed.
“Aha…never laugh at providential decree, my friend.”
While doing his MBA in New York, Yash didn’t lack female attention. He was handsome, classically good-looking, and possessed an attractive aura that was akin to a magnetic pull. Girls naturally got attracted to the enigmatic Indian. And when they found out he was wealthy, the interest of some of them would double, and they would pursue him relentlessly till they hit upon the wall that he had around him. Yash soon learnt to keep to himself and focus on his studies. One girl, Deepa, managed to get past the wall and that too because she and Yash had one acquaintance in common: Aman’s family. That and the fact that she apparently didn’t seem interested in him in a romantic manner tilted Yash’s decision to accept her hand of friendship. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Deepa was an over-ambitious girl from Indore. Her father owned a small saree shop in the crowded Kapda market. Many years back her aunt, her father’s sister, had migrated to the States with her husband. Deepa wanted a taste of freedom in a foreign land before she was tied down to matrimony as was the future of girls in her community. So she persuaded her aunt to sponsor a yearlong diploma course in the US and emotionally blackmailed her simple parents to fund her expenses. Having met Yash and knowing the family he came from, Deepa’s decision was made: She wanted Yash, simply because he had the means to afford her needs. However, he was a hard nut to crack. The only way to get to him was to attack his strongest virtues, his sense of righteousness and integrity.
It was Sudhir Nayar, Yash’s classmate and friend, who tipped him off her moves when Yash was about to leave for Deepa’s aunt’s house for dinner. Deepa had insisted that he come as his uncle and aunt were very keen on meeting this good friend she had made.
“Stay away from her, Yash. She is trouble with capital T….No, no hear me out first.” Sudhir held his hand up when Yash shook his head and looked to be about to defend Deepa. “She bragged to Brian’s girlfriend how she is going to ensure that a marriage proposal from your family reaches her parents even before she went back home. Also that she has the perfect plan to trap you. Brian called me up this morning. You still don’t believe me, do you pal? (the last on seeing Yash’s skeptic expression)….OK, let me come with you. I bet she is alone in that house.”
And she was. Deepa had opened the door in a provocative dress, and was taken aback on seeing Sudhir with Yash. She couldn’t face Yash’s direct questions; her flimsy excuse as to why her uncle/aunt had to suddenly leave town on emergency bit the dust when Sudhir pointed out that that was not true as he could prove that her relatives were out of town for the past three days to attend a wedding in another state. Yash’s disgust was written plain on his face.
Yash returned home after three years and wasted no time in easing out his babuji’s professional responsibilities. Within a couple of years he carved a niche for himself and emerged out of his father’s shadow as a shining beckon in Bhopal’s corporate world. He was enterprising, hardworking, honest, fair in his dealings, and admired and respected by anyone he came in contact with. Suraj Pratap Scindia was a proud father in every which way. Scindia Sheraton, the first of the Scindia chain of five-star hotels, gained popularity in no time. Two years after returning from the States, the foundation stone for Revati Devi Scindia Cardiac Center was laid by Yash’s dadima after whose name the hospital was to be named. The same evening Suraj Pratap threw a party in the hotel to celebrate thirty years of Scindia Enterprises. The celebrations were cut short as the family had to rush home after a phone call. Yash’s dadima had suffered a heart attack. Through the night the family kept vigil. They breathed easy only when the doctor declared the critical period over in the morning. As soon as she was allowed to, Revati Devi called for her elder grandson.
“Yash, when are you going for that visit to Hoshangabad?”
“I was supposed to leave today, dadima…but I am cancelling it for the time being. You get well first. I am not leaving you till then.”
His grandmother smiled weakly, “I still remember that little Yash who would silently follow me everywhere holding the end of my saree aanchal. Don’t worry about me, beta. I am not going anywhere before welcoming your bride over this threshold.”
“Dadima, don’t….I think I know where this is going. You are not the one for dramatic dialogues otherwise. In any case we have been through this a few days back.”
“I hadn’t had a death scare then Yash.”
“Dadima…please don’t say that. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Then do your dadima a favor. In Hoshangabad, go and meet that girl I told you about. Remember? The one I met in the village for the wedding of the sarpanch’s daughter. This girl had come with her parents as part of the boy’s entourage. I spoke with her parents, Mehras…very decent, educated, down-to-earth people. I have no doubt the daughter of such a culture-conscious couple will have all the good upbringing needed for a daughter-in-law of our family. And to top it all (with a wink Yash couldn’t help smiling at) she is beautiful and fashionable and modern…In my opinion, she is ideal for you.”
“Dadima, you are incorrigible…You always were able to make me do stuff I never wanted to…like making me eat Karela.”
“Indulge me, Yash…I promise I am offering you sweets this time.”
Yash reached Hoshangabad on Saturday evening. He had a dinner meeting with few officials regarding a hospital he wanted to put up. Next day after visiting the site, he went straight to Prof. Mehra’s house. It was evening by then. He liked the Mehra couple. Dadima was right. They were simple people. After a few minutes, Mrs Mehra got up and brought her daughter with her. Dressed in a saree, the young girl was indeed beautiful. Yash stood up in a polite gesture.
“Yashji, this is our daughter, Arpita.”
“Namaste, Mr Scindia.”
“Yashji, our daughter is a highly accomplished girl. She has been an all-round student in college and is admired by everyone. She plays guitar and can sing well. She is also very good with household…”
“Ma, please…You don’t have to recount all that. I am sure, Yashji is getting bored. (Turning to Yash) Sorry…ma gets carried away.”
“No, no…it’s fine. She is your mother and obviously loves you very much.”
Mr Mehra turned to Arpita, “Why don’t you show Mr Scindia around the house? Till then your ma will arrange for the tea.”
Arpita got up and smiled invitingly at Yash, who was already finding the entire set-up very awkward. He looked at Arpita, searching for the connect Aman was so sure about but felt nothing. Arpita showed him the house and in the end took him to a small library cum study.
“Yashji, this is my parents’ favorite place.” Just then her phone rang. “Oho! Please excuse me. I need to take this call.”
Yash nodded and looked around as Arpita went out. His roaming eyes fell on a maroon-colored journal kept on the center table. He opened the first page in a bid to flick through it. As he read the first lines, a jolt of strange yet familiar realization passed through him. He read…and he read again.
Holding me up…..when I am weak
Helping me find what it is I seek.
Catching my tears….when I cry
Pulling me through when the tide is high.
Just being there….through thick and thin
Protecting my heart from within
You helped me to begin.
Helping me find what it is I seek.
Catching my tears….when I cry
Pulling me through when the tide is high.
Just being there….through thick and thin
Protecting my heart from within
You helped me to begin.
To be continued..................