Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Samarpan----Chapters 13-20

Chapter 13

When you surrender and release the illusion of control, you begin to free-fall toward your destiny of a grand reunion with your original self;
a self uncorrupted by the world’s false lessons of fear and control;
a self that you seek in your soul mate.

As naanimaasi and Yash approached them from the opposite ends of the lawn, Aarti tried to squirm out of Sameer’s tight grip, but he held on forcefully. Yash was about to speak up but naanimaasi beat him to it. He looked at the little old lady in surprise as she took the other man to task.
Naanimaasi threw down the handbag she was carrying and stepped up to Sameer in anger, her pretty fair face turning as red as a beetroot, as she put her hands on her hips and looked up at the younger man, “If you don’t get your filthy hands off my granddaughter pronto, I’ll let loose my hounds on you.”
Aarti jerked her head up in astonishment at the mention of hounds, but naanimaasi didn’t even look at her, as she continued, “Once the hounds are done with you, I am going to step aside and let the cops come and collect what’s remained of you and take you to jail for trespassing on my land. I called them as soon as I saw you.”
Sameer immediately took his hand off Aarti and stepped back, “C’mon Granny, you must be joking. In any case what do you have in the name of a hound? A poodle?” He tried to laugh it away.
“If you want to call four Dobermans and two Alsatians that, it’s your funeral. You want to meet them? They are back there, awaiting their afternoon meal.” Naanimaasi shrugged but didn’t lower her glare.
“You are bluffing old lady….You won’t do that.”
“Try me, young man. You want me to whistle for them? Hmm!!!” She cocked one brow, daring him.
Yash looked on, arms crossed…amused to the core…enjoying the spectacle of the spunky old lady bluffing convincingly and making a fool out of the rascal. Gosh, he loved this nani/dadi of Aarti already. Having been at the back of the house, he knew there were no hounds, or for that matter any other animal. He saw Aarti looking at her grandmother with wonder as she rubbed her hands. He could make out red weals appearing where the scoundrel had held her. His fists clinched at his sides, and he stepped forward between naanimaasi and Sameer.
“You don’t have to bother ma’am. Why trouble the hounds when I can do the needful?” Looking straight into Sameer’s eyes he spoke quietly, his tone hard and laced with unspoken threat, “YOU...Out…Now. I won’t have you troubling these ladies anymore….If you are not out in thirty seconds, you will have to deal with me before the police come.” It was naanimaasi’s turn to notice the handsome stranger. She was about to ask Aarti who he was when he turned around, smiled, and winked…Naanimaasi’s eyes rounded with surprise.
Sameer’s cockiness was slowly turning into deep alarm at the perceived threats, “My God, Aarti…you have a mafia family.” And then in a much conciliatory tone, “Look, all I wanted was for us to get to know each other better. I know you like me.”
“NO, She Does not.” Once again the two voices spoke in unison.
Aarti looked at her saviors in amazement. They hadn’t even been introduced to each other, and here they were…talking in chorus! She shook her head in confusion and realized it was time for her to intervene before those two caused some real damage. She went near her grandmother, bent, and picked up the bag. Opening the zipper she took out the jewelry box. Turning around she extended her hand and gave the box to Sameer, saying softly but firmly, “Mr Singhania, it’s my fault that I didn’t stop you myself earlier from assuming wrong. I am not interested in you or your gifts. Here, take this back. My grandmother was on her way to return it to your parents. Please understand that you are wasting your time on me. Please leave.”
“Fine, I am going for now…but only because you ask me to and not because of them. I’ll see you soon…very soon.” He all but rushed toward the gate, turning to look twice toward the end of the lawn, half expecting the army of hounds to make an appearance.
“Hounds? Cops?...What was all that naanimaasi? You have been watching too many of those Hollywood movies on TV.” Her pain forgotten, Aarti was looking at her grandmother with eyes dancing with mirth, a half smile playing on her lips as she remembered how naanimaasi had bamboozled Sameer.
“Nope…just something Raj taught me…to think on my feet, just so people are not fooled by my size.” She smiled and then looked at Aarti worriedly, “Are you alright, my child? Did he hurt you?”
Aarti went and hugged her, “With you around, who’d dare hurt me? I am fine. And you…you were fantastic. Raj nanaji would be proud of you. I love you, naanimaasi….so much.”
Naanimaasi closed her eyes in bliss as tears fell…This was the first time Aarti had said those words. She quickly wiped her eyes and turned toward Yash, who had missed nothing, “Aarti, who is this?”
“Oho…I am sorry. He is Mr Yash Scindia, naanimaasi. He is repairing the swing for us.” Yash looked at Aarti, waiting, but she wouldn’t say more than that.
He folded his hands in Namaste and greeted the old lady, “Namaste, ma’am!! Miss Aarti here omitted to mention that she very kindly fed me last night when I didn’t have any money on me. And today she refused to take the dues, but offered me a job so that I don’t feel offended.”
“Yes, that’s very much like my Aarti. Well, Mr Scindia, thank you very much for coming to our help. That was very chivalrous of you.”
“Entirely my pleasure, Ma’am…and may I say I thoroughly enjoyed the dressing down you gave that rogue. I salute you.” Yash touched his index and middle fingers to his temple in a saluting gesture. “Now if you will excuse me I shall go and finish my job….” Turning to Aarti he said gently, “Please put some ice on your arm. It’s red and must be hurting a lot.” With that he strode away.
Naanimaasi looked at his back reflectively, “Hmm! A gentleman…very rare to come across one these days. I wonder!! I certainly do wonder!!”
“What naanimaasi?”
“Nothing child…come, let me attend to your hand.”
Aarti put an icepack on her hand and sat on the dining table to finish her work. After giving her the icepack, naanimaasi had disappeared. It was almost lunchtime when she heard laughter and then saw naanimaasi enter the kitchen through the back door along with Yash Scindia. He bent down and whispered something and her grandmother giggled merrily. Aarti stood up in mystification at such ease between the two people who had just met. Naanimaasi breezed into the room and announced, “Aarti, what a wonderful person Yash is. He also mended that gap in the fence …and he has promised to come back tomorrow and look at the attic staircase and see what to do about that branch that’s almost entering through your room window. And now…(she rubbed her hands in happy satisfaction) we are going to have lunch…together. You know Aarti, he wasn’t coming in; it’s only when I said you would also wish the same as it is already lunch time that he agreed. Yash, the washroom is at the end of the corridor. Why don’t you go and wash your hands?”
Yash smiled and nodded, mouthing a thank you. Naanimaasi went into the kitchen calling out for Garima. Aarti began collecting her papers as Yash started for the door behind her. Just then a sheet escaped her hands and fell down. As both bent to pick up the paper, their heads banged against each other.
“Ouch,” they exclaimed. Yash’s hand immediately lifted to check on Aarti’s forehead. “Are you alright? I am sorry.” She jerked her head away from his hand and stood up, stepping back a couple of steps. She didn’t say a word, but her hands trying to gather the files were trembling. Yash stood up slowly, wanting to say something, but thought better of it as he sensed her withdrawal. He was almost at the door when he heard her low voice, “Excuse me!” he turned around to see her approach him tentatively. He waited as she nervously twisted the fingers of both hands around each other, looking at a point on his left and chewing on her lip, and then asked gently, “You wanted to say something ma’am?”
She nodded, “Yes…I…actually, Maltidi says…I mean they say that if heads get banged accidentally, one should always nullify the bang with another one, otherwise….”
“Otherwise?” Yash knew what the otherwise was, having got it many a times from Payal, but he wanted her to speak out. He was finding her discomfort at trying to make the childish request very cute.
“Otherwise we’ll grow horns,” She looked at him wide eyed, very sure he must think her insane. She couldn’t understand the look he had on, so she backed away, lifting her hand in a stop sign, “On second thoughts, forget it. That was stupid.”
“Oh no, it wasn’t,” Yash said as he stepped forward, “My dadima says the same thing.”
As she tilted her head sideways, he brought his forehead and touched her. Her hair smelt of strawberries. He breathed in with closed eyes…her fragrance lingering on as she withdrew and walked away.
Aarti was quiet through the meal. Naanimaasi and Yash kept the conversation going, as the former questioned him about his family and home.
“So, who all are there in your family Yash?
“Everyone….babuji, ma, a younger brother, and my dadi…but they live far away…in Bhopal. I have a three-year-old daughter.” He looked at Aarti and saw that that bit of news had piqued her curiosity as her hand stilled while breaking the chapati, and she finally looked toward them…waiting.
“Really? What’s her name?”
“Payal….she is with my parents at the moment.”
“Why? Where is her mother?”
“Payal and I have only each other….She lost her mother when she was born.”
They heard a clutter and looked toward Aarti to see she had dropped her spoon on the plate, knocking the bowl of dal over onto the table. Her soft apology came immediately, “I…I am sorry. I wasn’t…I…” Naanimaasi had crossed over to her in no time, grabbing a paper napkin as she went. “It’s OK Aarti….Don’t fret child. In any case, I intended to wash the cover tomorrow. You have the meeting on your mind…Such things happen when one’s mind is preoccupied.” As naanimaasi continued to gently pacify Aarti while cleaning the spot, Yash looked at Aarti. She had gone all white. What had happened? They were talking…and she was listening. Was it something he said? Yash was at a total loss as to what had caused her this much distress?
Naanimaasi saved the situation by talking nonstop and arranging for another plate for Aarti, seating her next to Yash, as they continued their meal. She knew what she had to ask of Yash and only pray that she had judged him right…His answer…the right one… was imperative to put Aarti at ease. Very casually she asked, while passing him a chapati, “So, Yash…do you miss your daughter?”
Yash instinctively sensed that he was being judged here….He didn’t know why he felt that, but he did. Maybe because of naanimaasi’s pointed gaze while putting the query…or maybe because he felt rather than saw Aarti becoming still as she waited for his answer, the glass of water in her hand.
“I miss her very much Ma’am. I love her a lot. We can’t live without each other. She is always on my mind wherever I go. Unfortunately, I had to leave her back when I came here for work. Things haven’t gone well in my life…but my luck seems to have changed, now that I have met you.” Aarti glanced sideways to see he was looking at her…She immediately reverted her glance, but not before he noticed that the distressed look was replaced by relief.
Naanimaasi looked at him with genuine concern, “You said you have a job now, so why don’t you get her here?”
“I plan to, as soon as I get a place to stay. I have been asked to vacate the room I was staying in within two days.”
Yash had just passed the last bit of remark offhandedly, just to stay within the image…although why he was still carrying the charade he wasn’t sure. There was a transparency in the two souls who sat there that could not be denied, yet he wasn’t able to completely let go off his bitter past…especially his wrong choices. He hadn’t met such genuineness in a long time….absolutely no pretense, and certainly no duplicity, although he was pretty sure by now that Aarti’s life hid some grave misery. Yash was finding it unable to justify his actions to himself….Was he expecting her to falter? Or, was he just apprehensive that she will distance herself more if she knew he wasn’t who she thought he was? He saw how straightforward she was with that Singhania guy. He was brought out of his reverie as he heard a sudden gasp come from his side. He looked at Aarti, who was looking at her grandmother as if she had said something that was totally unexpected. He realized that naanimaasi in fact had said something to him.
“I beg your pardon, what did you say ma’am?”
“You heard what I said Yash…You can shift into our outhouse till you are able to make arrangements of your own. I showed it to you when you were working on the fence. It just needs a little bit of cleaning up and will be as good as new. I’ll have someone look into it tomorrow morning itself. What do you say?”
“I don’t know ma’am. Are you sure? You don’t know me at all. Also, the rent….”
“Ah balderdash! I know a good person when I see one…As for the rent, you don’t have to pay me in money. On your off days you can help me with the repair works…God knows, there’s always something going wrong in this place. Plus, your presence will give me a sense of security. I don’t trust that cad Sameer to give up on Aarti so easily.”
He looked at Aarti, waiting for her to say something. She took a deep breath and turned toward him, “Please say Yes, Mr Scindia. Naanimaasi is right. This arrangement will solve your problem as well. You haven’t yet begun your new job. You won’t get your salary before next month. You shouldn’t be staying without your daughter for that long. She needs you.”
In the end Yash had agreed. He had to. How could he say no to those earnest, kind, trusting eyes? She was clearly worried about Payal. He had no idea where this was going. Twenty-four hours back he was not even aware of the existence of Aarti…and now, as he sat sipping a cup of coffee in the hotel balcony, he accepted that he cannot let her go, not even if….No, he shook his head; he will not think negative. This time it felt right in a different way…in a very personal way. It was as if all his life he was waiting for her to show herself. Isn’t this what dadima also told him on Payal’s birthday? He still recalled her words clearly: “You will find her…when the time is right. She is waiting for you.” He closed his eyes and felt this peace surge through him in a long, long time. Even though he knew next to nothing about her, yet he was profoundly aware of her essence. This awareness was warming him from within…inspiring him to break out of his shell.
Yash suddenly remembered something and wanted to read it again. He got up and went inside, keeping the cup on the center table and picking up the journal lying there. He knew where the poem was as he flicked through the pages. She had written it…but it could have been for him. He sat on the bed and read it for the nth time:
I don't know where this ride is taking me,
I don't know when to let go.

All I know is I'm in it for the journey,
To give me more and more.

I chase for dreams I don't know what for,
I try to be something I don't even know.

I look for things I cannot find,
I believe more in my heart than my mind.

I pray for the night to find my sun,
I want to fly before I run.


Chapter 14

Surrender to what is…and not what was.
Say “yes” to life
And see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.

Aarti raised her brow in query as naanimaasi finished her call after a few "hmms" and "it's OKs" and lastly "If I am late, Aarti will be here" and joined her at the breakfast table. She picked up a paratha and looked at Aarti, "That was Yash. He has to meet someone and will be a little late in coming. Please guide him to the attic beta. He knows what to do. I'll come back with Chris and Anna after the Mass. Don't worry about lunch. I have instructed Garima. You just relax. I know you are dying to go to your favorite spot after a hectic week. There is enough time for you to unwind before Yash comes."
Aarti nodded. It was Sunday…and still very early in the morning. Every second and the fourth Sundays naanimaasi joined the Browns for Morning Mass and the other Sundays they joined her for prayers in temple. It was a ritual they were following for years. Although Aarti had joined them a few times, she preferred to stay away and let those three have this time to themselves. With her around they were forever tripping over each other trying to pamper her. Even after three years, Aarti wasn't comfortable with all that attention.
Aarti picked up the sling bag containing her journal, writing material, and packet of nuts and seeds and walked naanimaasi to the gate. She waved to her till the car was out of sight before ambling toward her meadow, which was at the backside of the house. It was a small patch of grass surrounded by tall trees and stretching upto the lake. Since it bordered nanaimaasi's estate, and was away from the main road, it had a privacy that the birds and squirrels enjoyed. Aarti had chanced upon it when she started exploring during her long walks a few months after she came here. She had immediately fallen in love with the place. She loved to come here and be one with the nature. Even the birds and the squirrels were used to this quiet girl's visits, who would not only become part of their peaceful existence for awhile but also carry food for them.
She went and spread the seeds on one side of the meadow even as the birds came swooping down. By the time she sat down to write, keeping her things and a bowl of nuts nearby, the place was chirping with pecking birds. This was how Yash found her….deeply engrossed in writing as birds flew around, and a squirrel not far away fiddling with a pencil that had rolled over and another one busy digging into the bowl of nuts.

Naanimaasi had called Anna and told her that she would have to miss the Mass and meet them outside the church as she had an appointment with someone. She had then asked the driver to take her to Mall Road.
Yash had just got down from the rented car in the parking lot of the offices of Mishra & Mishra Legal Services, the premier law firm dealing in lands and estates, when he saw an oldish bespectacled man seeing off naanimaasi in her car. By the time he reached there, she was gone. He was slightly perplexed as to why she needed to visit a lawyer, and that too so urgently on a Sunday morning, but then shrugged the feeling off as it being her personal matter as he approached the reception and asked for Mr P. Balsara. The lady there pointed to the same gentleman whom he had seen with naanimaasi and who now stood talking to a couple. Mr Balsara was the top legal mind in Nainital in the field of real estate. He waited for the gentleman to be free and then approached him.
"Mr Balsara?"
Yash extended his hand, "Good morning Sir!! I am Yash Scindia. I spoke to you last night."
"Of course! Good morning, Mr Scindia. Come let's go to my office. I am sorry to have kept the appointment on a Sunday…but I had no other option as I have a flight to catch in the afternoon. I'll be away for a few days."
As they turned to go toward the lift, someone came out of it and rudely pushed Yash aside as he rushed out looking here and there. Yash just gave the man an annoying look and proceeded to press the lift door back for the older man to step in. Once they were settled down in the office, Yash discussed at length about their position vis-a-vis the land deal. Mr Balsara pointed out all the legal loopholes based on which they can present their case against the petitioner. He assured Yash that his associates will take care of all the paperwork before he came back. Later, they sat exchanging pleasantries over a cup of coffee. Yash thought it over and then asked casually, "Mr Balsara, when I was parking my car, I thought I saw Mrs Neema Gupta."
"You know her?"
"Hmm! Yes, I do. One of the finest persons I have come across. I was privileged to visit her beautiful house yesterday."
"Unfortunately, she might have to let go off the house in another six months or so," the lawyer sighed.
Yash couldn't help asking, "But why? I thought that house was hers."
"It is. However, her present financial condition doesn't allow her to maintain the huge property any more. Poor Mrs Gupta…Her own brother-in-law swindled her. Today, their relationship is sour because of that fellow. He is a crook of the highest order." Mr Balsara looked up at Yash, disgust writ large on his normally professional countenance, "He is the same man who pushed you outside the lift awhile back. Prashant is the only living relative of Mrs Gupta apart from her granddaughter…who is actually her sister's grandchild. There was a time after her husband's death when she and Prashant were still on good terms and he helped her and her sister settle down. During that period he made her invest more than half of her savings in some worthless schemes, and used her money for himself for the lucrative ones, taking her signature under false legal pretenses. She was naive and trusting, so was conned. She got by all these years because she was alone and she had some fixed deposits that were in her name…the last of which was encashed about three months back. Ever since her granddaughter joined her about three/four years back, her responsibilities have increased. She was banking on these fraudulent investments to see both of them through. Now she knows she has nothing. Only a messiah can help her now…because Prashant was here yesterday talking about getting hold of the house. He is like a hungry vulture waiting for her defences to be completely down. I wish I could help her. She is one of the most respected persons around here." He rubbed his fingers on his temple, clearly upset by the unfairness of it all.
Yash looked speculative and asked only one question, "In your opinion how much is the estate's worth?"
He sat for a little while more and then got up, "Thank you Mr Balsara. My brother Prateek will take it from here regarding the court case. My number is with you if I am required."
As he opened the car door, he remembered something Mr Balsara said. Yash closed his eyes and whispered, "Where were you four years back, Aarti?"

Yash parked the car a little away from the house and walked up to it. The gardener told him where Aarti would be. He decided to go looking for her instead of waiting around.
As he reached the opening to the meadow, he stood mesmerized at the serene sight before him. "Mountain fairy," he whispered. There was no other way to describe how at home and at ease Aarti looked in this fairy tale ambiance. She was writing something. From this distance he couldn't make out. As he took the next step, a small twig came under his foot and snapped. Immediately the birds flew away, causing Aarti to look up….At the same time the startled squirrel toppled the bowl over itself, jumping back stunned, and then scampered over to the base of nearest tree, stopping to look back toward Aarti. As he watched, Aarti burst into peals of laughter at the squirrel's antics. The melodious sound of her abandoned laughter reverberated in that small enclosure and enthralled Yash, making his heart skip a beat…She looked breathtakingly beautiful. In that instant he knew…he knew that he would give his life to keep that happy look on her…not for a moment, but for eternity if possible.
Yash stepped back several steps, out of sight, and then called out softly, "Miss Aarti! Ma'am. It's me…Yash." He came to the opening again and saw she was up on her feet, hurriedly keeping the notebook and other things inside her bag. Turning around she saw him and was profusely apologetic, "Sorry…sorry…I am so sorry. I completely lost track of the time. I should have been home when you came. I…"
"Miss Aarti, it's OK. No harm done. Plus I needed this walk….Hmmm! This is a beautiful place." He looked around exaggeratedly, although what he really noted was how the look of unease was back on her face.
There was the same look on his face as he looked at her, Aarti noted….the same searching look. What was he seeking? For some reasons, this man evoked strange feelings in her. She felt compassion and admiration at the way he was dealing with his life and felt an odd sense of security when he was around, yet at the same time she wanted to go far away from him. She just couldn't discern the multiple sensations that went through her because of that look. "I should stay away" was her instant reaction as she increased the distance between them by walking quite a few steps ahead. Yash followed at a leisurely pace, watching her long hair dance and fly behind her in liberating sweeps.
Back at the house, Aarti showed him the attic railing and went to her room to keep the bag and freshen up. She came out of the washroom, just as the phone rang. It was naanimaasi.
"Aarti, we are running a little late. Anna has some shopping to do. We should be home within the hour. Please hold back Yash till we come."
"OK naanimaasi."
"Right beta…oh, Anna wants to talk with you."
Anna came online, "Aarti, do you want anything from the market, child? I have some nick-nacks to pick up in the Burra market. You mentioned something the other day in the shop…What was it?"
"A musical shop bell…I was thinking it will be nice if we have one. It will make a customer feel nice while walking in and also give Maansi and others a prewarning of sorts."
"Wonderful thought my dear. I will see to it. Here, Uncle Chris wants to talk to you."
Aarti smiled, walking out of the room with the handset and sitting on the stair step outside, momentarily forgetting Yash working a few steps above. Uncle Chris was such a kid at times. He had to talk because the other two had. He always pulled her to be in his team, complaining that the two nagging old women harassed him for every little thing.
"Aarti, put that wine bottle in the fridge. I am going to need it when I get back. These girls are getting crazier by every passing old day and making me crazy too."
"Now what did they do Uncle Chris?"
"What did they do? They hurt a little girl's sentiments…that's what they did. You remember Maira…Hunts' daughter? Well, she was sharing her chocolate bar with me when these two swooped down and dragged me away. Hummph!!!"
"Err…Uncle Chris, did Maira offer you the chocolate?"
"Of course…I mean yes…in a way. She had her chocolate in one hand and held my hand with the other and then she tugged my hand and smiled as I stood talking to her father. That means a Yes…right?"
Aarti grinned, "Hmm! Maybe…then maybe not. Tell you what uncle….you be good, and I'll sneak you a big chocolate bar after lunch…only for you."
"You are my sweetheart. I love you. See you soon."
"I am right here." Aarti switched off the phone and looked outside the glass window, smiling. She almost jumped off her skin when Yash spoke from behind, "You should do that more often."
"Excuse me?"
"Smile…It suits you," And before she could weave in two words, he continued, "Now let's look at that branch."
"Yes, of course," Aarti took him to the window in her room where the Oak branch was scraping against the glass.
Yash peeped out, taking in the situation, "We'll have to cut the branch. Is there…"
"NO!" Yash swirled around as he heard the firm denial. Aarti's face reflected agitation, "No, Mr Scindia. It's a young branch. Cutting it off will hurt the tree. I won't let you do that. Is there no other way?"
Yash spoke soothingly, almost as if to a child, "This is not a young plant that we can change the direction of its branches. It's a fully grown tree. Once the branch has caught a direction, it'll grow that way only. I think you know that."
"So what do we do?" Aarti looked at him trustingly, expecting him to do the right thing.
"What we do is cut the branch in such a way that it doesn't hurt the tree. We'll cut it a distance away from the trunk. That way it'll heal faster and…"
"And at the same time there'll be enough space in the crevice for the birds to build a nest." He explained, fascinated at the swiftly changing emotions in her eyes.
Yash nodded with a smile at her childlike relief. "I promise I'll be gentle. Now, all that I need is a saw. It'll be better if I get to the tree from the balcony and then climb down later. Is that OK?"
Aarti nodded and went to call the gardener. As he waited, he looked around the room. It was simple yet aesthetic in its decor: The walls were painted in peach; there was a bed in the center, on one side of which there was large bookcase, almost reaching upto the wall, and on the other side there was a study table, on which stood a statue of Saraswati and a couple of notebooks. There wasn't any sofa. Yash wondered where she normally sat and got his answer as he looked at the window sill on the other side. A cushion and a book lay there. As he looked at the picturesque view outside, he heard footsteps coming up. Aarti came in with the gardener, who handed him the saw. Yash asked him to stay near the tree just to ensure no one comes by. As he prepared to get to the tree, she walked up to him, "Please be careful." He looked at her concerned face and closed his eyelids once in silent acquiescence. She stayed at the window till he finished. Yash came down just as naanimaasi and the Browns entered the gate.
Naanimaasi introduced Yash as a friend who is going to stay at the outhouse for awhile. While the greetings were on, Aarti came out and was immediately engulfed by Chris in his trademark hug. It was only when Anna smacked his arm with "leave the poor girl…she can't breathe" that he let go. Aarti went and hugged Anna. As they all turned to go in, naanimaasi told Yash to join them for lunch.
He was a little hesitant, "Thank you, Ma'am, but I cannot take advantage of your hospitality everyday. If you don't mind, I'll take your leave."
Naanimaasi gave him her most stern look, "I am not asking you Yash. I am telling you. You know where the washroom is." Saying she walked away, throwing her arm around Aarti and whispering something to her. Aarti looked back at him and in the very next moment was pulled aside by Chris, as the ladies went in. Yash walked by the duo and heard Chris whisper, "Hey Aarti…thanks for paying for the stuff I took from the shop and keeping it from Anna. She would have had my hide if she knew I was sneaking food away. But what could I do? I had lost my game and those hogs wanted a treat there and then."
"You are welcome, Uncle Chris, but please let it be this one time. I don't like to hide things from Aunt Anna."
"I promise I won't do it again kiddo…Now where is my chocolate? And is that handsome young man your boyfriend?"
Yash was about to step inside the house, when Chris's not-so-loud remark reached his ears. He couldn't help looking back. Aarti's eyes had gone round and she was shaking her head vigorously….unable to utter a single syllable.

The Browns stayed till the evening tea. Yash was completely taken in by the congenial, happy old couple. He could clearly see how they adored Aarti. He was also alert toward naanimaasi's tension, which he saw playing in her eyes whenever her eyes fell on Aarti. Yash marveled at the old lady's resilience. Not once did she let it show what a grave turmoil she was under.
They all went to see off Chris and Anna at the gate. After the goodbyes were over, and they had left, Yash turned toward naanimaasi, "Thank you so much Ma'am. I should also go now."
"One minute Yash," As he waited, "Firstly, I'll be happy if you call me naanimaasi like Aarti does…Ma'am sounds very formal and schoolmarmish. Secondly, your rooms are ready. You can move in tomorrow itself."
"Thanks Ma'a…I mean naanimaasi. I'll call you and…."
"What's this bhabhi? You are keeping a paying guest? You should have let me know…I would have been happy to oblige." Prashant's voice cut through whatever Yash was going to say.
Naanimaasi immediately turned to Aarti, "Aarti, go inside!"
As Aarti walked away, Prashant tutted, "Tch, tch! C'mon bhabhi, for how long will you keep my future wife away from me."
"SHUT UP Prashant. Don't you dare…I warn you."
"You warn me?" He pointed a finger at naanimaasi and laughed, "When you know very well that…"
He couldn't complete what he was saying as the very next moment he was punched to the ground.


Chapter 15

Surrender can be likened to making the leap and just letting go
with a sense of calm resolve that you will safely land as intended.

Yash saw red the moment he heard the disgusting man call Aarti his to-be wife. Since morning he had heard and seen enough to know that the lowlife was out to take advantage of naanimaasi's and Aarti's helpless situation…a situation they were in because of him. He was about to pick Prashant up and continue teaching him a lesson he wasn't likely to forget when naanimaasi stopped him by holding onto his arm, "No Yash! He is not worth it."
Prashant picked himself up, protesting furiously, "How dare you? Who the hell are you?" He looked at naanimaasi, "Bhabhi, now you are harboring ruffians in the house…is it? Don't think you can threaten me. I will have what is mine. You won't be able to stop me."
Yash walked up to Prashant and grabbed him by the collar. His voice was deathly quiet when he spoke, "If I see you near this house or near these ladies, I swear I shall see you behind bars before you even blink. That's a promise, Prashant. Get Out."
Prashant straightened his collar and turned to look at his sister-in-law angrily who returned his stare blandly, "You heard what Yash said. You have cheated me off my husband's hard-earned savings Prashant…I'll rather die than sell his house to you or let you even come near my Aarti. Even if you were the last man living, this house will not be sold to you. So, go and get a life. Just leave….And don't let me set eyes on you again. Next time I just might have to lodge a police complaint."
Prashant walked away, looking back once at the man who was now escorting the old lady to the house. Who was he? Not to worry. He would soon find out. But first he had to think of the next course of action, since it was evident that bhabhi had not cracked or weakened even after knowing she was facing bankruptcy. When he had seen her in the morning in the Mishras' offices, he knew why she had come. He had assumed that full knowledge of her financial woes would break her and she might reconsider her opinion regarding the house and the girl. It was apparent that he had assumed wrong. Well, he still had an ace up his sleeve.

Yash held naanimaasi by the shoulders with one hand and gripped her hand with the other as he walked her inside the house. The moment she had seen Prashant walk away, she had sagged against him…her strength giving away. No words were exchanged as Yash held her. Her shoulders drooped as she walked….and she was unnaturally quiet when they stepped inside. Yet, the moment she saw Aarti hurrying from the kitchen toward her with a glass of water in her hand, she straightened up and left Yash's hand, giving a bright smile to her granddaughter, "Aha…I needed this. Trust you darling to know exactly what I wanted. How about a cup of tea, Yash? Aarti makes wonderful tea."
Aarti made naanimaasi sit on the sofa and knelt in front of her, "I'll get the tea, but first tell me, are you alright?"
"Of course I am, child. That rascal could never upset me."
"Why was he here, naanimaasi?"
Naanimaasi glanced at Yash before cupping Aarti's face in her warm hands, "It was nothing child….He just wanted to discuss about some bank notices. He's probably in trouble, so…Anyways, you don't worry your sweet little heart. I can handle him….Now go and get that tea. Also get those ginger cookies we baked with Anna."
The moment Aarti left, naanimaasi turned toward Yash, "Yash I need a favor. Aarti…."
Yash sat next to naanimasi and took her hands in his, "Miss Aarti won't know what happened, I promise. I won't ask you what was all that about, naanimaasi, but if ever you need me I shall be around." Naanimaasi smiled, her eyes glistening. She saw a lot of Raj in this young man. Also the fact that even though he hardly knew Aarti and yet had defended her honor twice in two days had not escaped the old lady's experienced eyes. Nor did she miss the look in his eyes whenever he looked at Aarti. If only he had a good job and stability…Naanimaasi sighed and looked toward the kitchen.
In the kitchen, Aarti watched the water come to a boil as she recalled what she had seen from the sitting room window. She saw Yash punch Prashant and some words being exchanged later. What kept playing on her mind was what happened after Prashant walked off. Never had she seen naanimaasi so low and so dispirited. Something was wrong…very wrong. She had had that feeling since afternoon…ever since lunchtime. Naanimaasi was holding back something, Aarti was very sure. She decided she would give naanimaasi a couple of days before broaching the subject.
Yash thanked Aarti for the tea and got up. He turned to naanimaasi, "If it's OK by you, may I shift in tonight itself? My things are already packed. I can join my work early tomorrow then."
"Of course, Yash. Aarti, give him the keys to the outhouse."
Aarti nodded and went to fetch the keys as Yash turned to wave a goodbye to naanimaasi who mouthed a smiling thank you. She looked much relaxed knowing Yash would be around in the night. She couldn't tell him that she was scared that Prashant just might try something drastic after what had happened.

Aarti peeped out of the kitchen window and saw lights in the outhouse. Almost an hour back she had heard the gate creak and knew he had come. Garima had taken the evening off as naanimaasi wasn't feeling up to a proper dinner and wanted to retire early for the night. Aarti had insisted that she go and freshen up and watch TV in the room while she makes some soup. She let the curtain fall back and walked toward the stove. She poured the soup into a bowl and arranged some bread and boiled vegetables on the plate and took the tray to naanimaasi's room.
Once naanimaasi had eaten and taken her medicines, she tucked her in, promising her that she will go down immediately and have her meal. Naanimaasi spread her arms for a goodnight hug. Aarti hugged her and wished her goodnight. She was about to get up when naanimaasi asked, "Has Yash come?
"Yes naanimaasi."
"Hmm! I wonder if he has eaten anything. Goodnight beta! Switch off the light before you go."
Aarti went to the kitchen and stood before the counter, thinking. Then she arranged another tray of soup, bread, and vegetables and placed a bottle of water on it. She carried the tray to the outhouse, stepping out from the backdoor. She kept the tray on the table in the front veranda and walked up to the door. Thrice she lifted her hand to knock but couldn't bring herself to do it. She rubbed her hands against her kurta, took deep breaths, and lifted her hand again, only to drop it with a sigh.
"I am right here."
Aarti swirled around so fast that she missed her footing, slipped on the footmat, and went flying into Yash's arms who had miraculously appeared from behind her. His arms secured her against himself, breaking her fall, as she clutched onto his shirt, her eyes shut tightly. Yash blinked. Her sudden nearness caused him to suck a breath as a shiver of intense awareness ran through the entire length of his frame and he felt the hard stutter of his heart, even as he tried to breathe through it. A few strands of her hair had flown across her cheeks, brushing into her eyes; he couldn't stop his fingers from reaching out and freeing her lovely face from the strands by lightly brushing them behind her ears. Aarti opened her eyes slowly, as if coming out of a fog, and found herself gazing into his concerned ones.
Her name on his tongue had an intimate touch that caused ripples down Aarti's spine. The unknown stirrings sending a jolt of electricity through her heart.
"Are you OK?"
She nodded.
"You are trembling so much," he whispered. That's when Aarti noted where she was. She shivered again and backed away, terrified of the feelings his proximity had suddenly evoked.
Her voice was unsteady as she spoke, "I..I am sorry. I s..slipped. I brought some din..ner for you. I…Goodnight!!
She turned abruptly and walked away. She had taken a few steps when his voice halted her, "Aarti…wait!!"
In her agitated state, Aarti didn't even notice that Yash had let go off the formality, as she waited for him to approach her. She couldn't bring herself to look at him. Her heart was still pounding against her chest.
"I am sorry I startled you…I was on the other side of the lawn making some calls when you came."
Aarti didn't speak…her eyes fixed to the ground. She looked up at his next words.
"Aarti!...May I call you Aarti?" She nodded and he continued, "We met under very unusual circumstances, so didn't have a proper beginning. Now that I am going to stay here and we are going to…."
He looked at her confused expression and decided to be direct, "What I mean to say is, Can we be friends?"
She stared back surprised. He held his breath, waiting, but what she said hit him like a blow, "I don't know…I have never had a friend. Probably because I am not a right person to be friends with. I might end up disappointing you."
"Why don't you let me decide that? For the time being let's just say that I would rather have you as a friend than any other. So…What say? Friends?"
Aarti looked down at his outstretched hand and nodded. Very slowly she lifted her hand and put it in his. Her hand was cold. Yash's long fingers automatically covered them. "Good! Now that we are friends…let's eat. I am so hungry. What have you got?" He pulled her toward the table.
"Err…Mr Scindia. Hold on please. That's for you."
"I would like it if you call me by my name. We are friends…remember?"
She nodded and looked at their handclasp. Yash let go off her hand reluctantly and asked, "Have you eaten?"
"No, I was going to."
"Would you mind if I join you?"
Aarti felt she was on a roller coaster ride. Things were moving too fast for her and she felt dazed, a little out of breath. Within a matter of few minutes she had ridden multiple waves of strange emotions…none of which had found shore, leaving her oddly unsated. None of it made sense to her, except that she couldn't say no to him.
Yash knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn't letting her think. His instincts told him she needed that…she needed a little pace in her existence. He saw her now, flushed and hesitant; so, he offered her the choice, "It's OK if you don't want me to. I don't want you to do anything against your wish."
"No...no. It's nothing like that. I…I would like to have dinner with you…though it's not much of a meal. I and naanimaasi take it easy one or twice a week."
Next few minutes were a blur for Aarti as Yash immediately went and picked the tray and waited for her to lead. In the kitchen, he kept the tray on the small coffee table and helped her in filling her plate. As they ate, he kept the one-sided conversation going. He told her that Payal was joining him on Thursday for her vacation. He narrated her a few antics of his daughter, which brought smiles on her face. Soon he found himself talking about Aman. With intense satisfaction he noted an expression of keen interest replace the haunted look as she found herself getting involved in his trekking stories with Aman.
She interjected once, "You are lucky to have such a good friend."
"Yes, I was." Yash nodded grimly.
As she looked askance, he answered, "He died of cancer a few weeks back." There was a long pregnant pause and then, "God…I miss him!" For the first time he felt his heart give in to the grief, as he fought to blink back tears.
Aarti's heart went out for him. He looked so sad…. Her natural compassion took over and she didn't think twice before reaching out her hand across the table and putting on his, "I am so sorry Mr Scind…Yash. I am sure wherever he is, he is looking down at you and feeling proud of how you are moving on with your life…for you and for your daughter. I may not have had friends in my life…but I know this much…that a friend is a feeling of forever in the heart. He will always be with you. Let him go…because he would want you to."
Yash was stunned, not because of what she said but the words she used in the end. He had read similar words in the journal. That was the first thing he did, after he had helped her clean up and wished her goodnight…take out the journal from his briefcase. He found what he was looking for.

I am not alone, for I can still feel you here,
Not close by…yet very near
I walk the extra mile so that the grief is easier,
And because you would
want me to!
Whether we are close or lives apart
I know I should let you depart
Because a friend is a feeling of forever in the heart
And because you
would want me to!

It was as if the girl who wrote the words shared a part of her soul with Aarti. Yash clutched the journal to himself as he walked toward the window, staring out. He should be feeling happy. He felt closer to Aarti tonight…She was opening to him…had let him in a little. Yet, he was not happy. And he knew why? It was guilt…guilt for deceiving those trusting eyes…for being dishonest with her regarding his identity. He had come so close to telling her the truth tonight, but couldn't. He couldn't because what he had to do was most important now. Naanimaasi and Aarti would never allow him to do what he was going to do if they knew his identity.

Aarti had already left for work by the time Yash came to the house in the morning next day to take naanimaasi's blessings. She had a left a hand-written note for him, which simply said, "All the best for the new beginnings!!"
Aarti didn't see Yash for the next two days, as she worked late and he too came in late from work and would keep to the outhouse. It almost seemed as if he was avoiding her.
On Wednesday, she was busy checking some invoices in her office when Maansi came in, "Aarti, did you read the newspaper today?"
"Not yet…Why?"
"I was going through it during my tea break when this caught my eye. You never told me that your grandmother was planning to sell the house." Maansi pouted.
Aarti's heart sank as she all but snatched the paper from Maansi. It was an ad calling out for buyers to state their bid for the property. Naanimaasi's name and phone number were given below. After Maansi left, Aarti stared at the opposite wall. She felt numb. So this is what was worrying naanimaasi. She was going to lose the one thing that had memories of her life with her husband…The gift of his love...their love! Her days of happiness were stored in every nook and corner of that house. It was a living memorial of her vibrant past.
Aarti couldn't help but stare at the obvious….once again because of her someone's life was going to be filled with an unavoidable void. She took a deep breath and muttered, "No…not this time. Not if I can help it." She picked up the phone directory to look for the number. She was flicking the pages when the phone rang.

Chapter 16
You are free to choose what you surrender to,
 but you are not free from the consequences of that choice.

Aarti picked the phone and was about to hang up on hearing who was on the other end when the person coaxed her to listen. She nodded in the end and said, "I'll be there in half an hour."
She would have to talk to the bank person later. She picked up her bag and walked out to Maansi, "I have something urgently to see to, Maansi. Please hold the fort till Raman gets back to the front desk. He is at the backyard looking at some deliveries."
"Sure. When will you get back?"
"I don't know. I might go home straight from there if I am held up. I have a request, Maansi."
"Naanimaasi is due to visit Aunt Anna in the evening. I was supposed to join them but I may not be able to. Please don't tell any of them that I know of the advertisement."
"But why?"
"Please Maansi. Just do this favor to me. I am going to try to keep back the house for naanimaasi. She will be very sad if she knew that I was upset over the news and trying to do something about it. You know how much she tries to shield me."
"(Sigh) Aarti, it's so difficult to make out who loves who more between you and your grandmother. Go on, my friend…your secret is safe with me. Just take care of yourself. OK?"
Aarti nodded and walked out to her scootie. She drove to Mall Road and parked in front of Cafe Coffee Inn. As she entered the cafe, she saw Sameer Singhania walk up to her. He led her to a corner seat and sat opposite her.
"Thanks for coming Aarti. What will you have?"
Aarti shook her head, "Nothing. Please hurry up and explain what you were saying on the phone. I have to go."
Sameer ordered two cups of cappuccino anyway and settled down in his seat, "Aarti, firstly I owe you an apology. I know I came on you too strongly. I should have known that a girl like you would never fall for all that rich-man wooing tactics. You see I have never been rejected by any girl before…and your denial came as a surprise as well as a challenge to me. I should have known better. I sincerely apologize for my foolhardiness."
"It's OK…I accept your apology. You were talking of a favor on phone."
"Yes, I need one from you. Please listen to what I have to say." Sameer looked at Aarti. His future depended on her nod. If dadaji had not cornered him with that stupid stipulation about his will, he wouldn't be sitting here. He took a deep breath and continued, "Aarti, I am the only heir of the Singhanias. My grandfather is the legal solo owner of the entire Singhania empire. He didn't even trust my father with the business. A couple of months back dadaji was diagnosed with a terminal disease. The doctors say it's a matter of five to six months."
"Oho! I am so sorry Mr Singhania. This must be tough on your family." Aarti was genuinely sympathetic.
"Yes, it is. Anyway, coming back to the point, the other day my grandfather called the family to his room, where he told me that I will get a share in the property only if I married within two months and that too with a girl he approves. He will sign on the dotted line of the will on the day of my marriage. If I don't follow his conditions, he will hand over my share to charity." Sameer paused as Aarti waited, "Aarti, you fit the image of the girl he wants to see as my wife. Would you…?"
Aarti got up, "Sorry Mr Singhania. Marriage is no joke. How can you even…?"
Sameer held up his hand, "Please don't get upset Aarti. Hear me out first. Please sit down."
Aarti saw the look of desperation in his eyes and sat down.
Sameer ran an agitated hand across his forehead and looked at her, "Look, I promise you this situation won't be a permanent thing. It will be just a marriage of convenience till all this is over and dadaji….Well, what I am trying to say is it's just a matter of few months. You will be free to leave after that. Please Aarti….help me out here. I'll give you anything you want in return."
Aarti looked at him, a desperate idea forming in her head. Sameer hung onto the hope he saw in her silence. "Anything you want…anything….I promise."
Aarti rose and turned to leave; she took a step, and then said, "I'll think about it."
Sameer sprang up, a ray of hope lighting his face. After all she had not rejected the proposal outright, "OK Aarti. I'll call you next week. Thanks."

Aarti walked out of the cafe in a daze. She drove back to Brownies and parked the scootie. That's when she saw naanimaasi's car in the parking lot. She circled the shop and walked to Browns' little house situated at the back of the shop. She had neared the kitchen window when she heard naanimaasi's soft sobs and Aunt Anna trying to pacify her.
"Don't cry, Neema…please. Hush! You have faced setbacks earlier also. This is just another one…You are a strong lady. This won't break you. When it's time, you and Aarti will move in with us. Everything will be fine in the end."
Naanimaasi's words came out jerkily, "You don't understand Anna. I failed Raj…and I failed Aarti. I couldn't keep back the house he so lovingly built for us. And Aarti? I brought her here to give her the comforts of a home…the security she never had…the home she never had. How will I tell her that once again she is homeless? How will I face her?"
Aarti turned right back and walked away from the house, away from Brownies. Unmindful of the dark clouds gathering above, her heart heavy, she walked all the way to the house, thinking and contemplating the pros and the cons. As she reached the bend to the house, she saw movement at the corner of eyes. She turned to see Prashant straightening up from the tree he was leaning on. She walked on hurriedly, suddenly realizing she was alone on that stretch of road. There was a distant rumble of thunder as it threatened to rain anytime.
She heard Prashant call out, "Aarti…wait!...Wait up. This is about your naanimaasi."
Aarti halted in her stride, her hand inside her sling bag, and turned, "Naanimaasi?"
He stood a couple of feet away and nodded, "Yes. Don't you think you have some duty toward her?"
"What do you mean?"
"Aarti, she is about to lose the house. That house is more than just a house to her; it's a memorial…I don't have to tell you what the house means to her. Very soon someone will buy it and turn it into something else. Already there are rumors that someone wants to build a mall here. They'll change the look of this place."
"Why are you telling me all this? I don't want to talk to you." Aarti started backing off.
"I am telling you all this because you have the solution to her problem. I have enough to look after that house in our lifetimes…but bhabhi won't allow that. She is too stubborn. She is fond of me but at the moment she is a little angry with me. She thinks I am after the property, but she is so wrong. She is my only relative…my brother's wife. Raj bhaiya was like a father to me. I want to be there for his wife. You will marry and go away soon enough. What will she do then? Live at other people's mercies? You won't want that would you?"
Aarti shook her head automatically as she stared at him. Prashant took a couple of steps forward, misreading her expressions, and continued in his silky voice, "So tell me what's wrong if we marry and stay with her? It will be a solution to all her problems. She will have her house. Plus you will be near her. Think about it Aarti. This is the only solution…What do you say?" He reached out for her as she stepped back.
"NO!! You are lying. You cheated naanimaasi….She dislikes you. She wouldn't want me near you. I have nothing to say to you."
"C'mon Aarti…I will make you very happy, I promise. I am not that old you know." He couldn't mask the lascivious look at the thought of her as his wife and grabbed her hand. The next moment he felt something sting his eyes, as Aarti sprayed the chilly concoction on him.
"What the hell? You b***h."

Aarti ran as fast as she could and reached the house. She flung the gates open and ran looking behind. The very next moment she rammed into something hard. As she felt the familiar aroma of his after shave, she whimpered and clung onto him, quivering like a leaf in a storm. A worried Yash encircled his right arm around her waist and held her head protectively with the other, even as rain fell, "Aarti, what's wrong? What is it?" He tried to see her face, but she wouldn't let him and snuggled deeper into his neck, too scared to realize what she was doing…only knowing that she was safe.
"Aarti? What is it love?"
"Who? Who scared you?" He looked toward the gate through the now-pouring rain and thought he saw something orange flash across as he tried to peer through. "C'mon inside Aarti. You are soaking."
He rushed her inside. Only when they were within the comfort of the interiors that Aarti became aware of her surroundings and realized she was still fisting his shirt as he held her lightly. She let go immediately, shocked at her behavior and looked at him with wide eyes, "I am sorry Mr Scindia…so sorry. I didn't realize…I am sorry."
"I am sorry…"
"Aarti…shush!" He stepped forward and put a finger on her lips. "Quiet! Now go up and change. You'll catch a cold if you stand around in those wet clothes. You can save all the sorrys for the later."
Aarti nodded and obeyed. On the first step, she looked back…apprehension writ large on her face.
"Go on, Aarti…. I am right here. I am not going anywhere."
Satisfied she went into her room, dried herself, and changed into a light pink churidaar suit. Yash looked up as she descended…She looked ethereal and as fresh as a daisy with morning dew droplets on it with her still-damp hair clinging to her forehead and cheek. She had a slight smile on her face. The fear hadn't completely gone from her eyes and the haunted look still lurked in their depths, yet she was trying to put up a brave front. Yash gulped as a surge of emotions washed over him. It was apparent that she was so used to hiding her feelings that it had become a second nature to her. He would have to gently coax it out of her as to what happened earlier. Before that he needed to ease out her tension.
Aarti came and stood in front of him, "Mr Scindia, I..."
"That does it," Yash brushed past her and strode toward the kitchen. Aarti didn't know what had happened. She stood still for a stunned moment and then hurried after him. He had the gas stove on and was putting the kettle on it. He looked around and found the cups even as Aarti rushed to give them. He started opening the overhead cupboards one by one.
"Mr Scindia, the tea is in…" She shut up as she saw he had found the container, completely ignoring her feeble attempt at directing him. She thought for awhile as he cluttered around and then ventured to ask very softly, "Why won't you talk with me? Why are you angry? What did I do Mr Scin…" That's when it struck her, and she looked up to meet his amused eyes as he stood against the counter, arms crossed, face serious.
Aarti would never know why and how it happened. The moment she realized he was teasing her because she didn't call him Yash, she let herself flow with the game... Turning her back to him abruptly she stated seriously, "This is so unfair Yash…so unfair."
It was Yash's turn to be confused, "What? What happened?"
She went and sat at the coffee table, looking away from him, "Not what happened, Yash…What will happen?"
"OK…What will happen?….When?"
"What will happen when you get sick? When Payal comes tomorrow, she'll know that that her papa got sick because of me…because he wouldn't change out of his wet clothes because he was making tea for me…Oh, by the way I take half teaspoon of sugar and not two. So, where was I? Yes, and then she will not be friends with me at all. Like I said, it's so unfair."
"No, no Aarti, you are mistaken. Payal is a very friendly girl. She won't…," He clamped up as she suddenly got up and strode past him to the kitchen door. Taking an umbrella from the corner stand, she held it in front and opened the door with the other, waiting…still not looking at him. He nodded and walked up to her, took the umbrella, and stepped out after mumbling "two minutes." He had gone a few paces when he heard it, her tinkling laughter. He smiled. At least that made her lift her mood, which was his intention all along. He changed and went back. The storm had not let up. In fact it had intensified. As he entered the kitchen, he saw Aarti was on phone talking to naanimaasi.
"I'll be fine, naanimaasi. Please don't worry. Yes, yes I'll ask Garima to sleep in." She turned her face to look at him, as he kept the umbrella and came up, "Yes, he is here. One minute." She extended the phone to him, "Naanimaasi wants to talk with you."
She gave him the phone and walked to the cupboard to take out some cookies. Yash held the phone to his ear, "Good evening naanimaasi! Is everything alright?"
"No Yash. I am stuck at the Browns' house. The storm uprooted a tree some distance away. It has fallen across the road stopping any vehicular movement. It's getting dark and the storm is not looking to ease up sooner. Chris and Anna refuse to let me out of the house. I am a little worried for Aarti."
"They are right. You should stay there. Aarti is fine. I am with her. I'll go only after the cook comes in."
"Thanks beta…And Yash, one more thing. Aarti is very scared of dark. Tell her to keep the torch and candles and also the lantern with her, in case there's a power failure."
Yash assured the concerned grandmother to rest easy and sat at the table where Aarti waited with the tea.
"She is worried for you."
Aarti agreed, "She worries too much at times. I understand why."
"Is that why you didn't tell her what happened earlier?" She stared at him for a moment and nodded…and then said softly, "Yash, please don't tell her about today…please."
He looked at her worried face, "I won't…..considering I don't know what happened. (A pause and then) What happened Aarti? Who was that man?"
She closed her eyes as if wanting to shut away the scene that was constantly playing in her mind….along with her meeting with Sameer. Two proposals in a day…both being the potential solutions to retaining the house for naanimaasi. Can she do it?
She took a deep breath and responded, "It was Prashant."
Yash's eyes flashed in anger, "Did he harm you? Did he?"
Aarti looked down at the table, drawing patterns on the cover, trying to think what to say. Suddenly she felt his fingers under her chin, as he lifted her head, "Aarti, please tell me."
"He was repeating what he has been pestering naanimaasi about…that is about…about marrying me." He still held her chin, but she couldn't look into his eyes.
"And? Aarti I asked you…did he harm you?" He took his hand away.
She was shaking her head vigorously even before he finished, "No, he didn't. (A pause and a deep breath later) I did."
"What? What did you do?" He tilted his head as she dipped hers down and answered slowly.
"Well…I carry this chilli spray. I kind of sprayed it on him. He…he was in pain…and mad…very mad. That's when I ran." She glanced up through her lashes to find him gaping at her round eyed. She watched fascinated as a slow grin spread across his face that turned into a large guffaw of laughter and ended with a chuckle. She smiled.
"Goodness me, Aarti. You surprised me there. But surely you mean a pepper spray."
"No, a chilli spray. I make it at home. This is the first time I got to use it. Many years back I was in a similar situation, on a road to where I lived, near a tree, and someone rescued me. I remember being too scared to move. He was an angel. After he beat the man away, he advised me to either shout or use a pepper spray in such situations. I didn't know what a pepper spray was. I thought about it and came up with this home-made thing."
Yash had a sense of deja vu as he heard her. It was as if he was there. He froze for a second as his mind processed the memories. He stared at Aarti and then asked, "Aarti, where were you before you came to Nainital?"
She looked toward the kitchen door as Garima entered, so missed his expression when she answered him, "Hoshangabad."


Chapter 17

Surrender is faith that the power of Love can accomplish anything
even when you cannot foresee the outcome.

Yash inhaled sharply and closed his eyes for a moment. The entire incident of meeting the girl in yellow flashed across in his mind…the medicine shop, the long hair, her delicate gestures, and the voice...the same soft voice that later thanked him for rescuing him from that goon. His eyes flew open to find her looking at him curiously. Is it possible? Is that why he found her voice so familiar when he met her the first time?
“Is something wrong Yash?” Aarti had listened to Garima telling her that she was taking the vegetables to the dining room to cut so that she could watch her favorite TV serial on the TV placed there before turning her attention back toward Yash. She found him lost elsewhere. She sensed a change in him…a change akin to suppressed excitement that reflected in his eyes. Was it something she said? She raised a brow in query when he remained silent.
Very deliberately he picked up the cup and took the last sip before asking casually, “Really? Hoshangabad? I’ve been there a couple of times. Which part of the town?
“Jawaharnagar…it’s near the highway.” Aarti reached across to take his empty cup and put it on tray.
“And this incident you mentioned….How long ago was that?” He took the tray from her and got up…almost sure now what her answer would be.
“Hmm! About eight years back.” She picked up the plate of cookies absentmindedly as she reminisced about the incident that was imprinted in her mind. She was walking ahead of him when she stopped abruptly, causing Yash to almost bump into her, even as she whispered, “Yash.”
“Yes Aarti?”
She kept the plate on the counter and turned to him, “His name was Yash too. I heard his friends call him. Later I made Pandit dadu offer prayers in his name.” She looked at him wondrously, “What a coincidence? That another Yash was there when I needed someone to save me…just as you were there today.”
“You offered prayers for me?” Yash had similar wondrous expression on his face. Just to realize that he was in her prayers once was too overwhelming for him. Maybe that’s why he was saved from further deception by Tanya.
“Not you Yash…the other…” She paused as realization set in and she lifted her eyes to stare at him. “It was you.” It was a statement.
Yash nodded, “It was me.”
Time stood still as they gazed into each other’s eyes, savoring the feel of this new-found knowledge. Any more words would have spoilt the moment, so they chose to be silent. In a daze Yash lifted his hand and lightly brushed away a wet strand that had stuck to her cheek, and the spell was broken. Aarti turned toward the counter, and Yash walked toward the umbrella.
“Yash?” Yash turned, his finger on the button of the umbrella, waiting, “Garima will take your dinner.” He nodded. Naanimaasi had refused to listen to any alternative meal arrangements. He had to agree to the old lady’s affectionately stubborn insistence. Yash knew he would never be able to repay the unconditional trust and affection he had received from her. However, he would always be there for her…it was a promise he had made to himself.
He had just taken a step toward the door when her voice stopped him again.
“Do you know anyone in Hoshangabad?”
“Payal’s mother belonged to that place.” He looked at her. She nodded. He was about to turn again but stopped and looked at her, “Also, my mother’s best friend’s family live there. Aunty died long back. We had gone to their house once when I was a kid. Ma wanted to meet her friend’s daughter. I remember this little shy girl. Anyway, ma and babuji lost touch with them. About four years back, ma called to invite them for my marriage when she heard the bad news.”
“Bad news?”
“Yes. Mr Satyendra Dubey, ma’s friend’s husband had died a few days back….an accident I believe. When ma asked about the girl, they said that she was dead too.” Yash looked down for a few seconds, shaking his head at the games providence plays, “It was really sad. (sigh) Now I better go. I have some work to do. I…Aarti, are you OK?” She had gone white.
Aarti abruptly turned and walked toward the fridge. “I…I am fine. Goodnight Yash!”
Yash looked at her back speculatively. He had an uneasy feeling that something had upset Aarti. He shouldn’t have told her such a tragic story. She was much too sensitive. He didn’t want to intrude further than he already had so wished her goodnight and stepped out.

Aarti went to the living room and stared out at the pouring rain. Yash’s words reverberated in her mind. “Mr Satyendra Dubey died”…He died…He died…He died. Aarti couldn’t think straight as she was sucked right back into the vortex of the past, her hand rising up and resting on the middle of her chest. She ran up and flicked through the journal that she had when she left Hoshangabad. She found what she was looking for…Prof Sharma’s number. Prof Sharma answered on the second ring and was very happy to hear from his old and favorite student after so long. He soon realized that Aarti was agitated and wanted to ask something.
“What is it Aarti? Did you want something?”
“Sir, when did my…my…my father die?” She bit into her lip, waiting.
Prof Sharma was shocked at the sudden query, “About a week after you left child. He was on his way home from the airport when the accident happened. You should know…He was coming for your marriage. But Aarti, I thought I conveyed the message to your grandmother when she had called me regarding your results.”
“Oho…sorry for disturbing you, Sir. Goodnight Sir!”
Aarti went blank as she kept the phone down. He was really gone. It had happened again….If it were not for the marriage, he would not have come. He would have stayed wherever he was, and he would have been safe and alive. They were right…they always were. Even naanimaasi hadn’t escaped her curse…The dark thoughts came in a gush, engulfing her in their familiar depths. Among them echoed Sameer and Prashant’s proposals. Aarti curled up on the bed. When Garima came with her food, she refused saying she wasn’t hungry. She half heard Garima as she explained that her husband was running high fever, so wouldn’t be able to sleep in, but if Aarti needed anything, she should call her on intercom and that she would come immediately.
The storm continued raging. Yash was working on his laptop, typing out the last of the letters regarding the deal when the power went off. His first thoughts were of Aarti. He checked his mobile for time….it was 1:15. Switching off the laptop, he put on his slippers and grabbed the torch and the umbrella and slipped out. Naanimaasi had given him a spare key for the kitchen door. He checked the kitchen, dining room, living room, mandir, Garima was nowhere.
He was at the top stair when he heard the cries. The sounds were coming from Aarti’s room. He rushed inside. She was on the bed tossing and turning and twitching. He knew instantly that she was having a nightmare. He neared the bed and stood horrified as she moaned and sobbed, “Please bua…please leave me. Please don’t hit me…it hurts. I won’t take the mithai…promise (whimper)….Please…(sob…sob) NO…NO…not there.” Yash gathered her to him as she beat into his chest…” Not in that room, dadi…It’s so dark…so dark….”
Without thinking twice, Yash flicked off his slippers and climbed into bed with her, pulling her to him. He held her tightly and rocked her, “Hush! It’s OK Aarti. No one will hurt you…I promise. Never again. I promise…Shshh!! It’s OK love…I am here….” Aarti clutched at him, and she pressed her quaking body to his frame. Slowly her moans quitened and shivers ebbed as she breathed evenly against his cheek. He kept on rubbing her back and talking to her in a soothing voice till he was sure she was asleep. He stayed awake, staring at the rain beating at the window. Who were these people? What had they done to her? Yash felt an uncontrollable rage building in him at the thought of someone hurting her. Did she go through this every night? If it’s tonight, then what brought it on? So many questions….So much to learn. Yash knew it was time to talk to naanimaasi. He couldn’t delay it any longer. He will push for the deal tomorrow itself, as soon as Prateek lands. He felt Aarti nuzzle for a place in the crook of his neck and having found it mumble his name “Yash.” A lone tear escaped Yash’s eye as he tightened his grip.

The rain finally stopped as the first rays of dawn started to peek through the leaves of the oak tree outside the window. Yash eased Aarti off him. She was sound asleep. He covered her with the duvet and dropped a kiss on her cheek before tiptoeing out. He went to his rooms and freshened up. There was so much to do today. Most importantly, Payal was coming. He ran his fingers through her picture kept on the bedside table, “Come soon princess. Papa and mountain fairy both await you. We need you…She needs you.”
He was gone before Aarti woke up. Aarti heard the phone ring from afar as she struggled to come out of the layers of deep sleep. She sat up rubbing her eyes and groped for the phone. It was naanimaasi, “Good morning Aarti!! Did I wake you up?”
“Good morning naanimaasi! It’s OK. I should have woken up hours ago….I am already late. When are you coming home?”
“People are working on that tree. I should be home soon. Are you OK beta?”
Aarti closed her eyes in pain thinking about what she had learnt the previous night. Her eyes teared up involuntarily. He was her father after all…the man who had loved his mother madly and the man who gave her this life.
“Aarti…are you OK?” her silence alarmed naanimaasi.
“I am fine…I think I caught a cold. I’ll go and freshen up naanimaasi. I should be in the lawn when you come. The grounds would be a mess after the storm. Mali kaka will need help.”
“OK….but be careful. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”
Aarti stood up unsteadily. It seemed ages since she had last slept so deeply. She felt strangely warm. She stood biting her lips, thinking, when her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten in almost twenty four hours. She made her bed and went to the wash room. She hurried down in an aqua green churidaar suit hoping to catch up Yash before he left. She wanted to know about the time of Payal’s arrival and was a little disappointed when Garima told her that he had left, but perked up on being told that he had insisted on making breakfast for her. Garima smiled as she pointed toward the dining table. Aarti took off the domed lid to find a sandwich with a smiley drawn over it with sauce. She smiled and sat down to eat.
Aarti pondered over the previous evening. The knowledge about baba’s death had put lot of things into perspective. Baba had to leave because he couldn’t stay in the same house with her, even though all of ma’s memories were in that house. She wouldn’t let history repeat with naanimaasi. The decision was already made…that’s why fate had sent Sameer. It may be the wrong thing to do but if it was right for naanimaasi, she would risk it. Aarti called Sameer and told him she’d meet him the next day. He told her he was out of town and would be back on Sunday. They tied up a meeting for Sunday evening at the same cafe.
She got busy working with mali kaka after calling up Aunt Anna and Maansi that she was taking the day off. The lawns were filled with leaves and broken twigs and flowers. As mali kaka was busy salvaging the plants in the flower beds, she directed her attention to the lawns. Naanimaasi found her in the front lawn covered with leaves, which she had stopped brushing off long back. Naanimaasi smiled at the cute spectacle she made and hugged her. She felt something amiss as soon as she did.
She cupped Aarti’s face and looked into her eyes, and knew she was right. Something was wrong. Aarti’s eyes were a mirror to her soul. They could never hide anything.
“What’s wrong Aarti?”
“Naanimaasi, will you take me to the mandir? Please.”
“Sure…just give me few minutes.”
They went to the mandir. Aarti prayed for her father’s departed soul. As they sat on the mandir steps for a breather, Aarti put her head on naaninmmasi’s lap.
“Naanimaasi, I know that baba is no more.” She then told her how she came to know. She sat up to find her grandmother in tears.
“Why didn’t you tell me, naanimaasi?”
“It was too soon child…You were not ready for it, and then as the years passed I somehow never could find the right moment to tell you.” The old eyes looked at her apologetically, “I guess I was being a coward and little selfish too. I wasn’t ready to see you without your sweet smile. Please forgive me Aarti.”
“No, naanimaasi…please. As long as I have you, I shall be fine. You have to know that.” She took naanimaasi’s hands and kissed them one by one, “You are my everything…my ma, baba, brother, sister, friend, family. As long as we have we have each other, we shall never be alone. You taught me that. If I am living and breathing like a normal human being today, it’s because of you. I promise you won’t lose anything because of me. My happiness lies in your happiness. I love you, naanimassi.”
They hugged and then wiped each other’s tears before getting up. Back home they had lunch. Naanimaasi told her about her financial condition and her decision to sell the house if she got a good person as a buyer…one who would want to keep the house as it is. Aarti was clearly devastated at seeing naanimaasi trying her best to be positive about the situation bur kept quiet. After lunch, naanimaasi went to her room to take a nap. Aarti went to the back lawns to find mali kaka, but he was not there. Assuming he had gone home for lunch, Aarti went back to cleaning. In one corner of the lawn there was a jasmine tree. There was a carpet of white flowers surrounding it now. Aarti had just raked in the flowers and made a pile when a gush of wind came and blew them away, covering her dress and hair in the process. “Great!” She thought, “One hour of work gone with the wind.”

As she stood with her hand on her hips, she heard a soft gasp, “Aha…” Slowly she turned around to find the cutest little girl standing there in a blue frock, eyes wide, and hand on her mouth, blinking. Aarti smiled and blinked back at her.
“Wow! Mountain fairy. Papa was right….You are beautiful. But he didn’t tell me one thing.”
“What didn’t he tell you, Payal?”
“Oh, Wow! You know my name…You really are a fairy.”
Just then Yash, who was watching them from afar walked upto them, “Of course she is. And what didn’t I tell you?”
“That she has flowers growing on her.”
Aarti went and knelt in front of her, “Oh, I don’t grow flowers on me. It’s the windman’s fault.”
“It is?”
Aarti nodded, “He wanted to play with me, but I wanted to work, so he played this mischief on me.”
“He did?” Payal was completely taken in by this smiling fairy who spoke her language.
“Hmm! He planned to blow all the leaves too on me, but then you came…and…” Arti’s voice lowered to a conspirational whisper.
“And?” Payal whispered back.
“I told him my savior angel was here, so he better go somewhere else and blow, otherwise my angel will stop him from coming here. He went away scared.”
“Hee…hee…I scared him.”
“You sure did my savior angel….By the way my name is Aarti.” She extended her hand and smiled. Payal immediately kept her hand in hers and smiled back. She then looked up at her father, “Papa, is it OK if I call mountain fairy, Aarti.”
“Payal, you know you shouldn’t call elders by name.”
“Then…what should I call her?”
Aarti waited, a half smile playing on her lips, as the father and daughter duo discussed what she should be called.
“Hmm!! I think it’ll be best if you call her Pari.” Yash finally declared.
“Yes…yes… Pari. Come Pari…let’s play.” Payal dragged Aarti past her father, before Yash held out a hand to stop them, “Whoa, young lady…stop. You need to eat something first and let Pari go and clean herself….OK?”
He looked at Aarti, “You go ahead. I’ll get her settled in and then we’ll come over and meet naanimaasi.”
Aarti nodded and brushed herself before going in. As she crossed the living room, she heard naanimaasi on phone. She peeped in to see her smiling. Her eyes had her old twinkle back as she wrapped up the call, “I am ready to sign anytime, Mr Balsara. Yes…of course…tomorrow will be fine.”
She saw Aarti and rushed to hug her. Aarti looked at her quizzically, “What’s it naanimaasi? What got you so excited?”
“I got a buyer for the house, Aarti.” Aarti’s heart sank. Was she too late?


Chapter 18

Surrender the past to the present.
Let all that buries deep in your heart come to the surface and be healed.

“Who is the buyer naanimaasi?”
“Mr Prateek something. I missed his surname. He is here only for the weekend and wants to sign the deal tomorrow itself. Mr Balsara says he is a person who loves this town and wants to settle down here. Most importantly, he wants a house like this, which is a home more than anything else. The gentleman has no intention to go in for any changes. Do you realize what this means child?”
Aarti was too numb to react, so she just shook her head.
“Aarti, it means our house will remain as is…and since they are such good people, I am sure they will let us come and visit it sometimes.”
“What if they don’t? Why are you assuming so much naanimaasi? Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Alright…if you are so skeptical, I’ll ask before signing. But Mr Balsara has assured me they are nice people and want the house to remain in its present state. They fell in love with it when they saw the pictures. I wanted such a person to move into this house ever since I made up my mind. Raj’s gift of love will not be taken down but will be maintained properly; that’s more than I can pray for under the circumstances…..Now go and freshen yourself.”
Aarti went up to her room slowly. Her mind was a maze of thoughts circling to break free with a solution. She changed into a red and black anarkali suit, brushed her hair till it shown, and put on some lip gloss and kajal. By the time she walked down, she knew what she had to do. This would hurt naanimaasi a little, but in the long run she will be at peace. Prashant’s motives might have been a suspect but what he said was true: Once she is married, naanimaasi will be left by herself in some strange house with strange people. She will be so unhappy. No, she couldn’t have that…no way. She had overheard naanimaasi telling Aunt Anna once how much she looked forward to marrying her off to a good man and that her only wish was to see her settled down. Aarti knew then that she had to marry one day even though she didn’t wish to ever, only because she couldn’t take that wish away from the one person who had given her a home and so much love. And she couldn’t take that home away from her as well. This is the only solution by which naanimaasi would retain the house as well as see her married. She will tell naanimaasi about her decision before the night was out, she decided.
Aarti closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she entered the kitchen she was smiling. Naanimaasi was busy putting finishing touches to the gajar ka halwa. She looked up when Aarti entered, “Beta please pass me that bowl of raisins….Hmm!! You look beautiful.”
“Thank you naanimaasi. Is the halwa for Payal?”
“Yes…Yash told me how much she loves it. I am dying to meet the little girl.”
Aarti smiled and sat on the counter watching her grandmother garnish the bowl, “She is a darling, naanimaasi…so cute…so adorable. We are friends already. If the weather stays dry, I’ll take her to the meadow tomorrow. She will love the birds….Oh, naanimaasi guess what she calls me?”
“What?” She put a spoonful of halwa in Aarti’s mouth.
“Mmm…heavenly!!” Aarti rolled her tongue on the halwa, savoring the taste before answering, “Mountain fairy! I have to ask her why…..Yash asked her to call me Pari…and (looking out) here she comes.” Aarti craned her neck out of the window to see Payal prancing about on her feet and pulling Yash’s hand as she dragged him.
There was a soft knock and then the little head of Payal peeped in, breaking into a merry smile the moment she spotted Aarti. She squealed “Pari,” ran toward her, and hugged her. The very next moment she stepped back and looked at Aarti, “Wow Pari…we match. I am also wearing red frock. Papa bought for me. Isn’t it pretty? Am I looking pretty like you?” She did a little twirl as Aarti knelt down and held her hand, “You look enchanting…like a little princess…papa’s princess.” She looked up to find Yash giving her that strange look again…the look that always made her insides feel strangely mushy, and she frowned in puzzlement. Yash couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful vision. Ever since he had seen her in that shop, he had asked himself many times why he was drawn to her the way he was…..why just being with her and seeing her smile filled his heart with a happiness that he had never felt before in his life….why just a look from her made his heart do multiple flips inside him, just as it was doing now as she looked at him with a quizzical look. He shook his head slightly and smiled. She immediately returned the smile, more in relief that everything was normal…At that moment, with her smiling at him, Yash accepted what his heart already knew…He accepted he was in love…irrevocably and unconditionally in love. That smile was the answer to all the unexplained feelings she evoked in him.
Aarti suddenly realized Payal was tugging at her dupatta and looking beyond her, whispering, “Pari, who is she? Your dadima?”
“Uh, no Payal…she is my naanimaasi. Why don’t you say hello to her?”
Payal looked at Yash, who gave her an encouraging nod. She stepped forward and touched naanimaasi’s feet, “Pranam naanima..aa..ni…maa…mi…” Unable to pronounce she looked helplessly at Aarti. Naanimaasi bent forward and took Payal’s hands in her wrinkly ones and said, “Just call me badi naani sweetheart….. Oh my, you are prettier than I imagined!”
Payal grinned through her little pearly teeth, “Papa says I am the best.”
“And he is right too,” Naanimaasi grinned back. “Come let’s go to the other room. I have to feed the fishes. You can help me.” She looked down as Payal slipped her hand into hers and looked up wondrously, “You have a room where fishes live? Wow! But they need water to live.”
“Oh…I have a separate little house of water for them.”…. “Really? How many fishes are there, badi nani?”…. “Umm, about fifteen. They are very colorful.”…. They went out chatting.
Yash turned to Aarti, who was taking down glasses for the lemonade, “What’s wrong Aarti?”
“Wrong?...Nothing’s wrong. Why would you think something is wrong?” Her hand shook a little as she poured the lemonade for them and cola for Payal.
“Your eyes clearly say something is bothering you. We are friends…remember? You can tell me.” Yash knew she was hiding again. Her trauma of previous night had hovered constantly in his mind through the day.
“I am fine Yash….Really I am.” Aarti assured him when she saw his look of disbelief. How is it that he read her so well? They only knew each other for a few days and yet it seemed like ages. For some reason she trusted him not to hurt her…ever. “Please help me with this…err…friend!!” She smiled teasingly, making him smile back as he took the tray from her.
They all spent a wonderful evening together, chatting, playing with Payal, and then having dinner. After dinner, Payal wanted to see Aarti’s room. Yash and naanimaasi were engrossed in a discussion as Aarti took Payal up. Payal’s eyes went big and round as she saw all the books. She went and jumped on the study table chair to have a closer look at the idol of Saraswati, questioning Aarti about it, and then opening the journals kept on the table one by one….talking nineteen to dozen all the time as Aarti very patiently kept up with her chatter. Aarti took her to the window sill from where they saw moonlight dancing on the lake far away.
Yash found them sitting on the window sill, Payal cuddled up on Aarti’s lap. He spent a moment looking lovingly at the two of them bonding when he heard Aarti ask, “Payal, why do you think I am the Mountain fairy? Who told you?”
Payal looked up, “Badi dadi told me about you, so when papa came here I asked him to find you…and he did. He found you. Will you give me my wish?”
“Wish? You think I can grant you a wish?”
“Badi dadi says if a child is good and listens to all elders, then Mountain fairy listens to her.”
“What do you want Payal?”
“I want my mumma. Please give me my mumma, Pari.”
Yash stood there stunned. He had no idea. Payal had never mentioned a need for a mother. It shook him to realize that whatever he did was never enough. Payal still had a lack in her life.
Aarti had instinctively tightened her arms around Payal and dropped a kiss on her head. She was silent for a moment and then said, “Payal, you are a special girl. Your mumma loves you very much wherever she is. God took her away because she was needed somewhere else…to help someone. But mumma gave you a big job before she left. Don’t you remember?”
Payal shook her head, “No, I don’t remember.”
“That’s because you were a little baby then. She wanted you to take good care of your papa and give him lots of love. If you do that, God will be happy and whosoever you want as mumma, God will make her your mumma.”
“Really? If I ask God to make you my mumma, will God do that?”
It was Aarti’s turn to be stunned. That was totally unexpected. She had no idea how to respond to that. Thankfully Yash called out for Payal, making Aarti heave a sigh of relief.
“Come princess…it’s time for bed. Say goodnight to Pari.”
Payal turned and held onto Aarti tightly and gave her a loud kiss, “Good night Pari! I like you.”
“Goodnight my savior angel. Sleep well.”
Yash held Aarti’s eyes for a moment before nodding and leaving. He had just stepped out of the kitchen when the phone rang. Balancing Payal on one arm, who was already half asleep, he took out the phone. It was Prateek.
“Bhaiya, I am standing outside the gate. I have the papers.”
“Take the lane next to the hedge Prateek and come toward the back of the house. There’s a gate there. The outhouse is right next to it. Come there.”
By the time Yash changed Payal and put her to bed, Prateek was in. He turned to his brother, “All ready?”
“Yes bhaiya. Now tell me what is this all about. Does babuji know?”
“Yes Prateek, I am in touch with him ever since I decided on this. Now listen carefully to what I am going to say…OK?”
Aarti stood staring out of the window, thinking about Payal. By some quirk of fate, they both shared a common tragedy…of losing their mothers at birth. Fortunately for Payal, she has a father like Yash and a loving family. Her respect for Yash was increasing day by day. Even though he had nothing, yet he worked hard to give a good life to his daughter and at the same time was on such good terms with his family. The way he spoke about them, it was evident that he loved his family.
Aarti turned away from the window and realized she was only delaying the inevitable by standing here when she should be down talking to naanimaasi. She was on the last step when she heard the phone ring in the living room and heard naanimaasi pick it up.
She heard her say, “Don’t you call here again. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Is it Sameer, naanimaasi? Wait…I have to talk to him.”
“Please naanimaasi…I’ll explain in a moment.” Aarti spoke into the phone, “Yes Sameer…Yes it is about that…No, it’s OK. Saturday will be fine….. No, please don’t say anything to them before we talk it over….Yes…OK….Goodnight.”
Naanimaasi strode over and stood in front of Aarti, whose eyes were fixed down at the carpet, “What was all that about Aarti?”
“Naanimaasi I was going to talk to you tonight. But I wasn’t sure how you’ll take it. It was all very sudden. I…”
“Aarti, speak up child. You are scaring me. What have you done?”
“Naanimaasi, Sameer asked me to marry him…and…I…I am going to say Yes.”
“What nonsense? What craziness is this Aarti? You can’t marry that nincompoop…that moron…that…”
“Naanimaasi please calm down. I have thought it over. He is not that bad you know. He says he li…likes me. You always wanted me to marry a prince. Well he is sort of one….” Naanimaasi sat down on the sofa with a heavy heart as Aarti knelt in front of her, “He says he will keep me happy. He is…ri.. rich and he can give me everything I…I never had. That’s why I don’t want you to sell the house now. I want to be married from here. Please don’t sell the house…please, naanimaasi…please. Say something naanimaasi…please.”
“Don’t do this Aarti. He is not the right one for you. And since when have you become money minded?” Naanimaasi made one last-ditch effort. “No Aarti…there is a good man out there for you, one who will truly love you…and that love will make you happy.”
“True love is not for me, naanimaasi. This is the best I can do with my life…I am sorry if I hurt you…” With that Aarti ran up, brushing past a shocked Yash who stood outside the door with an empty jug in hand. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. A few days back he wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had pointed at Aarti and told him she was marrying for riches…but not today. He turned toward naanimaasi to find her crying silently. He rushed to her and sat before her, “Naanimaasi!”
She gave him a vacant look, “Did you hear what she said Yash? I don’t know why she is doing this. She is ruining her life. This is not her…this is so unlike my Aarti.”
“Naanimaasi, I don’t know what to say. If Aarti really wants to marry this….”
“No Yash…I know Aarti. I don’t understand why she took such an impulsive decision….and that too now….when she knows my financial condition. More than that she is in mourning of four days…I know that. That’s why her behavior baffles me.”
“Mourning? Why?”
“Yesterday she came to know from you that her father had died after she left Hoshangabad. In our community daughters mourn for four days and on the fourth day they do the shraadh. Aarti told me she wants to follow the rites for the peace of her father’s soul. ”
“From me?...Oh my God! Satyendra Dubey was her father!! She is Aarti Dubey.” Yash closed his eyes and slumped down… a blurry vision of a five-year-old Aarti hiding behind a lady’s back crossed his mind. As per his mother, he had met Aarti a few hours after she was born and she had slept holding his hand. “She was always in my life.” He thought. “I won’t let her go now. Something is going on with her and I shall find out.” He couldn’t tell naanimaasi who he was yet. He took her hand and walked her to her room, promising her that he will talk to Aarti and try to find out what was really in her mind.
“Tell her to think rationally Yash. She might listen to you. But please be gentle…She has gone through hell in life. I don’t want her to do anything she doesn’t wish to. If she really wants this marriage, I won’t stop her.”
“I’ll do my best naanimaasi…you go to bed. Goodnight!!”
Yash came out of naanimaasi’s room and called up Prateek, telling him that he was held up and that he should stay the night at the outhouse. He will be over in awhile. He pocketed the phone and went up. The door to her room was open. She was standing by the window. He walked to her.
“Go away Yash…I want to be alone.”
“I can’t leave when my friend is so sad.” Yash held her shoulders and turned her to him. Tears streamed down her eyes. He tried to wipe them away, but she held his wrist and shook her head, “Let them be Yash. I deserve this pain and these tears. I am a bad person.”
“No, you are not. Confused yes…but not bad at all.” He held her chin and made her look up. He stared at her for awhile. “Aarti, you don’t have to marry Sameer to save the house.”
She looked at him surprised. He wiped away her tears. “Don’t look so surprised. I told you earlier also…your eyes speak volumes. They told me loud and clear that Sameer must have made a deal with you. I won’t undermine your decision Aarti….I know there’s a reason behind it. But whatever it is, one thing I know one should marry only for love. If you don’t love him…”
“I can’t love anyone…ever. So it doesn’t matter whether I love him or not.”
“Aarti, what…” She took him by surprise by agitatingly pushing him away.
“You don’t know me…you don’t know anything about me. ….I bring misfortune on everyone and take away the one thing they love the most…..I won’t let naanimaasi go through this loss because of me…I will do whatever is needed to be done to make her stay in this house for as long as she lives…Do you hear me? Anything? Even if I have to sell myself.”
“Aarti…calm down. You are not talking sense. You are nowhere to blame for this situation. If anyone has to be blamed, it is Prashant…not you.”
“NO. It’s me…all me.” Yash staggered back a step as he heard her say, “I am a curse Yash…I was born a curse.”


Chapter 19

The deeper you surrender to existence, life, and nature,
the more loving, more understanding, and more insightful you become.

Yash felt all blood drain from his face as he stared at the resigned belief on Aarti's face. Dear God, she believes what she says…she really believes it. But why? He clenched his fists in abject misery as he felt the agony reflected on her face almost like a physical blow to his self even as the wild frustration in her eyes turned to intense pain…and then she turned away from him once again.
"Don't Aarti….Don't do this to yourself. Why do you….?"
"Go away Yash….Just go."
"No, not before you tell me that you will consider what the buyer has to say tomorrow before you decide on agreeing to this marriage. You can't ruin your life because someone may have once called you a curse or some such nonsense. I won't…."
Yash stopped abruptly as Aarti turned to him angrily, "You won't what? Let it happen? You can't stop what's not in your hands. In any case why do you care? And why should you? Just because we are friends doesn't mean you interfere in my life. You have no right to do that."
Yash was completely taken aback at her outburst. He lifted his hands in an apologetic gesture…and without a word stepped back, turned on his heels, and walked away…realizing it was best to leave her alone for the moment. He was about to take the bend toward the staircase when her soft voice stopped him.
He swirled around to find her standing in front of the door, fresh tears spilling over as she slowly lifted her hands to hold her ears, "I am sorry Yash…so sorry."
He strode across and gently pulled her hands down and held them, as her head dipped low and she mumbled again, "I am sorry. I don't know what came over me. I don't know why I was angry with you. I was so mean and rude to you…I really am a bad person."
Yash put a finger on her lips, "No you are not. Look at me Aarti."
She bowed her head lower in guilt and refused to meet his eyes.
Yash had this sudden urge to pull her into his arms, hold her close, and absorb all her pain into his body….not letting her go out of his sight ever. She was the sweetest person he had seen. She had gone from being angry with him to being sorry within a minute. She couldn't even sustain an anger. However, all he did was take her back to her room and sat her on the bed. He then knelt down, still holding her hands, and tried to peek at her face, as she kept her head bowed.
"Err Aarti…you can look at my face you know. Your scolding hasn't changed me into an ugly alien."
She immediately looked up, her cheeks wet and eyes glistening, "You are not ugly."
"Really?" Yash wiped her tears with his thumbs, "Then what am I?"
"You are nice."
He smiled, "Nice as in here (pointing at his face in a circular motion) or as in here (poking his chest on the left)?"
She smiled back, "Both."
"Hmm! So you think I am handsome." He got up and stepped back.
"I didn't say that." Aarti was getting embarrassed at the turn the conversation was taking, unaware that that Yash's intent to distract her was succeeding.
"You don't think I am handsome? Hmmm!! Then why do the girls at work eye me I wonder?" He looked on amusedly as she got up hastily and glared at him.
"What do you mean by eying you?"
"Stare at me….and even wink sometimes." Aarti's mouth fell open. Her expressions of innocent outrage pleased Yash and a warm feeling spread inside him. Aarti had just given him his first ray of hope even though she had no clue why she was feeling annoyed at the prospect of some girls making a pass at him.
Aarti walked to the door with a pout and turned to him, "You really must go now. Payal is alone."
Yash ambled across to her and leaned at the door, "No, she is not. My brother is with her. (A pause and then) Are you still angry with me Aarti?"
She shook her head, "No Yash, I am actually angry with myself….at this helplessness I feel because of who I am." She was quiet for a few seconds, contemplating, and then having decided stared out of the landing window before speaking, "Three years back I had given up on life when I thought I shall have to marry the man my family chose for me. I had to turn down a job offer because of the marriage, but the gentleman who interviewed me on phone advised me to decide for my life…that I have the right to. He told me that it's up to me to make a choice….whether I wanted to drown because I couldn't convince myself that only I am in control of my life or believe that I can save myself by standing up for myself. It's up to me whether I wanted to be saved or remain unsaved forever. That day I had decided to save myself…and God sent naanimaasi to me. Today, I again stand at a similar cross-road, but this time I have to drown so that naanimaasi can stay afloat. I owe her this, Yash. This time it's not about me or my life. I wish I could make you understand why I have to do this."
She waited for awhile and then turned toward him. He was looking at her with a strangely dazed expression, his eyes shinier than before.
He sucked in a deep breath and straightened up, putting his hands deep inside his pockets lest he did something to shock her, and said, "I understand Aarti…I really do. And I respect your decision. All I am asking you to do is wait for the buyer to make his offer tomorrow. Maybe he has a proposal that will suit naanimaasi. At least do this much for yourself?...Please Aarti."
She nodded her acquiescence. Yash walked past her with a pleased smile. At the top of the flights of stairs, he paused and then looked at her, "You know Aarti, the entire sum of this God-given existence is the magic of being needed by one special person, and the magic becomes all the more enchanting when you realize that the destiny had a hand behind this conspirational hide and seek of need. You think you are helping someone in need….when all the time she was the one helping you. She was the one…the chosen one."
"Yash? What are you saying? I don't…"
"Very soon, Aarti…very soon. Goodnight!!"
Long after he had gone out of her sight she still stood there trying to figure out what he had said. Then with a sigh she turned toward her room. Somehow the tomorrow didn't seem so ominous any more.

"Aarti….Shobha Aunty's daughter…I found her ma. She is alive….not dead as they told us," Yash was on phone with Gayatri. Even though it was a little late in night, he knew his mother would wait for the call. He had gone back to find Payal cuddled up to Prateek….both of them fast asleep. There was no sleep in his eyes, as his heart and mind were completely filled with Aarti's thoughts and his memories of their encounters in the past, so he went out in the lawn. Multiple emotions ran through him….above all a sense of deep peace for having found the one person he always sought subconsciously but whose existence was always an unknown enigma. He was always tied to her….That's why each time after interacting with her, he was so deeply affected. It was as if destiny had now decided to connect piece by piece the jigsaw puzzle of their life by unraveling her identity and was now giving him a nudge to take the final step.
"Oh my God! How could they say such a thing about their own child?" Gayatri was shocked. "How is she beta? Who is she with?"
Yash told his mother everything. Not that he knew much, but he hoped to find out as much as he could before he told Aarti who he was. Knowing her, he knew she would clamp up on him initially. He just hoped that she had understood him enough to give him a chance. He asked his mother one thing that was running in his mind.
"Ma, Aarti was very upset about something today and she took all the blame on herself…for no fault of hers. She thinks she was born a curse…..that she brings misfortune on people's lives. Why ma? You were there when she was born. Do you have any idea? Why has she been made to think so bad of herself?"
Gayatri's hand shook as she shifted the phone from one ear to the other, "Poor girl! That means they never let her forget and blamed her all her life." Yash waited as his mother, who was obviously shaken up, took a breather. "Yash, Shobha died while giving birth. Satya, Shobha's husband, blamed his newborn daughter for the loss and deemed her a curse. I and your babuji tried to make him see sense, but he wouldn't listen. He said he would never set his eyes on the child. I now believe he never did….and that we were lied to when later we enquired after her and Shobha's in-laws told us that Satya had migrated to Gulf and had taken Aarti with him. Oh God, how will I face Shobha? She would have wanted me to take care of her little girl."
"You can do that now….(after a short pause) Ma, I love Aarti….I love her so much. We were meant to be…always. I am going to marry her."
Gayatri's eyes welled over at her son's happiness. She recalled him standing near Aarti's crib the day she was born, staring at her, as she slept holding his finger. Closing her eyes, she prayed to herself, "Thank you God, for giving my son his love and returning me the daughter I thought I had lost." Aloud she said, "Yash, you have made me a very happy mother. God bless you! When do I get to meet my bahu?"
"Soon enough ma….She is completely unaware of this connection between us and about these feelings, but I know they are there. Even she hasn't forgotten anything about our past meetings. I have to get through to her first."
"What about Payal, beta?"
"Payal already adores her. They hit it off as soon as they met each other. Like I said, this was meant to be, ma. I am not leaving her…ever….Even if she tries to push me away, I'll make her believe in our destiny…..and I'll have her samarpan.
"May God be with you Yash!"
Yash kept the phone in his pocket and looked at the index finger of his hand….This time he won't let go, he promised himself.

Prateek Scindia entered the gates of naanimaasi's house along with Mr Balsara exactly at 10 A.M. Yash had left for work, taking Payal with him. He couldn't have let her stay back and recognize her chachu. Aarti had wanted to take Payal with her to the Brownies, so he told her that he will try to take a couple of hours off in the afternoon and they can have lunch together. Payal was the hardest to convince. She was glued to Aarti the moment she had seen her in the morning and refused to let go. It was only when Yash told her on the sly that he wanted to buy a gift for Pari and so needed her help that she agreed.
Naanimaasi, Aarti, and the two gentlemen sat down with the papers after they had tea and refreshments. Prateek was too nervous to indulge in small talks. It was left to Mr Balsara to make up for his social lack. Aarti sat next to naanimaasi and held her hand, which was gripped tightly by the latter as she tried to maintain an outward calm and spoke up, "Mr Scindia, before we proceed, I have a request."
"Yes ma'am…anything?" Prateek felt a great deal awkward than he was letting off. He had never made a deal on behalf of his brother and father, and that too by proxy….and certainly never where personal feelings and future relationships were involved. Yash had told him everything in the morning. When he met Aarti, he instantly knew she was the one for his bhaiya. There was an inner beauty in her that reflected in the manner she conducted herself…the way she was around her grandmother, the way she spoke, the way she smiled to put him at ease. He loved her instantly and couldn't wait to take her home as his bhabhi. He came out of his reverie to concentrate on naanimaasi's request.
"Mr Scindia…"
"Please call me Prateek."
"Oh…OK…Prateek, this house was built by my husband and…well...I have many memories attached to it." She looked at Aarti, who nodded smilingly urging her to continue. "After it is sold, may I visit it sometimes? I mean I won't disturb…"
"Sorry to intervene ma'am…but if you have not decided upon your future living arrangements, then I have a request to make." As the ladies looked on wondering what he was about to say, he straightened up. For some reason that gesture reminded Aarti of Yash. She shook her head and focused on what he was going to say.
"Actually, I am buying the house for my grandmother who wants to eventually shift here…this town being her birthplace. However, she has commitments in the village where she stays and cannot think of moving out before four to five years. So she can't come… I mean, not now…I mean…you understand what I am saying?"
Prateek was flapping and he knew it.
Naanimaasi was confused, "So…does that mean you are not buying it now?"
"No, no…I didn't say that. Of course, I am buying it now. What I am trying to say is since none of us are planning to come here in the near future, we would like it if it stays occupied."
"So, you want me to look for a renter?" The young man had completely befuddled her. Naanimaasi looked at Mr Balsara for help at the same time as Prateek turned to Mr Balsara with pleading eyes.
Mr Balsara cleared his throat and spoke, "Mrs Gupta, what Mr Scindia wants to say is that he and his family would prefer it if you agree to stay back in the house as before. That way the house will be kept maintained. The other point is that they will put in a house maintenance allowance each month in your account for as long as you stay here. I think this is a perfect arrangement, Mrs Gupta…you should take it. I spoke with Mr Scindia's grandmother. She insists that you only stay back, because the personal care you will give the house, no other person will. This means they want the status quo to be maintained…nothing changes. What do you say Mrs Gupta?...Mrs Gupta?...Mrs Gupta, say something please."
It would be an understatement to say that naanimaasi and Aarti were both stunned and speechless. Aarti was all prepared to buy time from Mr Scindia so that she could speak with Sameer….and naanimaasi had mentally prepared herself to move out at the earliest. Not in their wildest imaginations had they envisioned such a proposal.
Prateek looked at them nervously. Why weren't they saying anything? Bhaiya would skin him alive if he messed this up…well, not exactly skin him, but certainly a blasting and the silent treatment would be in order…No, no…anything but the latter…He hated his brother going silent on him. He needs to push this….
"Err…Ma'am, the allowance is negotiable …and we would like to hire more people to help you with the maintenance...Of course we shall pay their salaries….Please say yes Ma'am…please."
At last naanimaasi found her voice, "Where do I sign?"
Aarti hugged her even as Prateek and Mr Balsara broke into relieved smiles and shook hands.

Aarti was in her office, bent upon the printer, when she heard distantly the newly installed musical bell. The door to the inner office opened and there was a pitter-patter of tiny feet. In the next instant the little figure of Payal barged in with a shout and hugged her, "pick me up…pick me up!" As soon as Aarti picked her up, she gave her a loud kiss and tilted back with a grin, "I missed you."
Aarti kissed her on the cheeks and smiled, "I missed you back."
"Papa missed you too."
Aarti looked around Payal's shoulders to find Yash leaning against the door with a smile, "Hello Aarti!"
"Hello Yash!"
"Pari!" Payal turned Aarti's face to her with her palm, "I said papa missed you too…He told me in his office when I asked him."
When she found Aarti looking confused, she slapped her forehead in exasperation and said, "Uffo Pari! You didn't kiss papa for missing you."
Yash saw Aarti go all red with consternation as she struggled to say something to Payal. He stepped forward to take her from Aarti's lap, "Get down princess! You are a big girl now. We came here to take Pari out for lunch…remember?"
"Oops!...Come Pari…come…" She tugged at Aarti's hand, dragging her out.
"Payal, one minute." Aarti looked at Yash, "I wanted to take Payal to the meadow and show her the birds, so why don't we pack a hamper from here and go? I'll take the rest of the day off and stay with Payal. You can then go back to work."
"Yay…a picnic. Yes papa…let's go." Yash nodded at Aarti. Although he knew everything had gone exactly as he had planned with the deal, he wanted to hear it from Aarti….and what better place than the meadow….Aarti's meadow…..the Mountain fairy's meadow.
At about the same time as Yash, Aarti, and Payal were on their way to the meadow for their picnic, a man stood at the gates of the offices of Mishra & Mishra Legal Services, waiting for the clerk he had bribed to bring him the details about the deal struck with Neema Gupta that morning. Prashant wasn't going to accept defeat so easily.

Chapter 20

Surrender is nothing but sacrificing one's life or suffering
in order to change what needs to be changed.

"Wow! So many cakes….That's a Teddy bear…and that's a tea pot…that's a castle...What's that Pari? There are so many animals on it."
"That's a farm house. Let me see how many animals Payal can name."
Aarti was kneeling beside Payal in front of the big cake counter. The little girl was completely wonderstruck looking at the different shapes of cakes in the kiddies' corner and had her nose and hands pressed on the glass. Yash had left to them to pick up stuff for the hamper and retreated to the table where he had sat the first day with Aarti, telling them he had a couple of calls to make. Aarti got up to speak to Maansi and saw the girl literally ogling at Yash, mouth agape and eyes travelling up and down. She had just seen Yash, as she was in the wash room when he and Payal had walked in. It was Raman who had had directed them inside.
Aarti narrowed her eyes and cleared her throat. "Maansi…Maansi…close your mouth."
"Oh my God Aarti! What a hulk? Where in the world did you find him?"
"You have met him Maansi…Remember the evening he came in all muddy? He had lost his wallet, and you tried to send him away." For some reason Aarti felt she needed to emphasize that last bit. Maansi had not taken her eyes off Yash…which piqued Aarti who stepped toward the left so that she was between Yash and Maansi. However, the latter was not giving up. She turned toward Aarti, "Ooh, I was so rude to him that day. I must apologize." Just then Payal tugged at Aarti's hand, asking her about a certain animal she couldn't name.
"You decide on what you have to take Aarti. I'll be back in a minute." Aarti had knelt down again and answered Payal's queries absent mindedly, as she watched Maansi pour a cup of coffee and walk toward Yash.
"Here you are Sir. A nice hot cup of coffee."
"But I didn't ask for any. Did Aarti…..?" He tried to look at Aarti but Maansi was standing in between.
"Oh no, she didn't. I got it for you. It's my way of apologizing for being rude to you the other evening." Maansi smiled her best smile and batted her eyelid. She proceeded to sit down and put a casual hand on Yash's hand lying on the table, "I am sorry…Say you forgive me Sir….Please."
Yash sneaked a peak at Aarti and almost laughed out loud. Her eyes breathed fire and her lips pursed in angry scowl as she focused a deathly glare on Maansi. Apart from the warm feeling of love, something else stirred within him, a thrill, a passion, while watching the raw emotion of jealousy play across her face…and she didn't even know it. Didn't know that her walls were momentarily down, making her seem so vulnerable, so exposed, and so...close. His Aarti had fire in her…he just needed to stir it.
"Yash…call me Yash." He put on his most charming smile. "Maansi?...Right?"
Maansi was thrilled, "You remember my name? That's so sweet of you. I am.…"
"Maansi! Please come here. We are ready to place an order." Aarti had stood up. Her composure was back, as she whispered something to Payal. The next moment Payal had flown across and plonked herself on Yash's lap…"Papa, let's take the animal cake…There's cow, there's cat, there's duck…." As she regaled Yash with the new animal names Pari had taught her, Maansi got up reluctantly, excusing herself. Yash smiled at the little ruse, looking over Pari's head at Aarti and holding her eyes in a penetrating gaze for a moment before she looked away.
Payal held Pari's hand as they stepped into the meadow. Yash followed them with the hamper and a sheet Aarti had picked up when they stopped at the house for a few minutes. Naanimaasi was having lunch with the Browns, celebrating the occasion. They were supposed to come back home for another round of celebrations in the evening. As Yash spread the sheet, he saw both of them walk toward the other corner talking in hushed tones. He watched as Aarti took out a fistful of seeds from a packet and scattered them. She then bent and made Payal fist up as much seeds as she could, and then holding her wrist taught her how to scatter. By the time, Payal scattered the third time…this time on her own…the place was streaming with birds. The little girl was delighted as she knelt, pulling Aarti down, watching in awe all the different kinds of birds pecking at the seeds. Aarti kept pointing at various birds and telling Payal their names.
Yash sat watching them. At that moment his world was perfect. Aarti looked back and passed him a happy, contented smile….as if her thoughts walked the same path as his. There was such a huge difference between how she was presently and how she was when he first met her. Yash only had to close his eyes and recall how just a few days back she was so quiet, so reticent, so noncommunicative, and so reserved…like a rose bud too scared to bloom. He had to literally prod in to get two words out of her. And now, she was at least talking freely with him…and smiling…allowing herself to be happy. It was enough for him. He didn't want to make her do anything she didn't want to…God knows, she had had enough of people running her life ever since she was born…worse still attacking her self-worth. He wanted to know all about her…He shall have to talk to naanimaasi soon….maybe tonight. Yash decided that he will tell them everything after dinner. Naanimaasi and Aarti will be upset…but he will make them understand why he kept quiet for so long and hopefully they will not be mad at him for long.
He saw them get up and walk to the lake….Payal being unusually soft in her banter. Maybe the ambiance of this place had made her channelize her mood accordingly or maybe she was mimicking Aarti's serene behavior, given that birds were sensitive to sudden sounds. It was amazing how his little girl had taken to Aarti. Though she was always a friendly girl, even Payal drew her limits with people at some point…and only he would know when she did that. But, it hadn't taken even half a day for her to let Aarti in all the way….a pure soul instinctively recognizing the purity of the other. From his vantage point, he could see how those two were made for each other. He gulped as Payal jumped clapping softly and laughing as she saw something…maybe a fish…and then she threw her arms around Aarti's neck, who had stooped down beside her to give her a bunch of daffodils. Aarti gathered her little form to her and kissed her before handing her the flowers.
Payal took the flowers from Aarti, planting kisses on her cheeks before running across to Yash. She slid next to him, talking incessantly, telling him about the birds and the fishes. She gave him the flowers and he hugged her. As she chatted on, he nuzzled into her hair and glanced across at Aarti. She had a faraway look on her face as she saw them together…her eyes glistening. She had the most expressive face he had seen. He knew exactly what was going through her on seeing him with Payal….How many times she may have wished for her own father to spend some time with her? What kind of man was he that he wouldn't even want to look at his only daughter? What kind of man lets his daughter be tortured and abused and wouldn't do anything to stop it? What was Aarti's fault?

Yash gestured at Aarti to come closer and sit, even as Payal beckoned her with her tiny hands. Aarti smiled and sat down, reaching for the hamper. They had a happy, relaxed meal. The squirrels came down for their share of nuts and sat their sniffing. Aarti put a finger on her lips for Yash and Payal to be still. She then held out little pieces of cake in her hand. The squirrels hopped forward tentatively, picked the pieces, and then ran off. Payal was ecstatic. She wanted to feed the squirrels too. Yash had to explain to her that they didn't know her yet so wouldn't come to her…but since they were friends with Pari, they were not afraid of her.
After they had eaten their lunch, they shifted under a tree for shade. Aarti sat with her back to the tree with Payal on her lap. She felt a little conscious as Yash came and sat down beside her, their shoulders touching. These were strange feelings….She had never felt so comfortable and so much at ease with any other man…well, any man other than Pandit dadu, Prof Sharma, and Uncle Chris…yet, sometimes she felt odd kind of stirrings whenever Yash looked at her and touched her. She admitted she liked his company. He always let her be herself. She didn't need to be on guard when he was around. His smile made her want to laugh with happiness, and his laughter made her smile. Of late she was experiencing these random moments when she would pause in whatever she was doing and go off to a place in her mind where there was calmness, tranquility, and warm peace…and then she would see his smiling, teasing face.
Payal turned to Aarti, "Pari, tell me a story please."
"Hmm!! What kind of story does Payal want to listen to?"
"Angel's story?"
"Emm…OK." Aarti glanced at Yash. He was busy texting someone.
Aarti shifted a little as Payal cuddled into her, causing her to be off-balance and making her head fall on Yash's chest, who automatically lifted his hand to steady her. They smiled and then Yash went back to his texting, and Aarti turned her attention to Payal.
"Once there was a little girl called Radha. Her papa and mumma loved her very much."
"What was her mumma's name Pari?"
"Well…it was…hmm! Aashima. Her name was Aashima."
Yash halted his texting and turned slowly to stare at Aarti as she continued with the story.
"One day Aashima was cleaning Radha's study table when she found five fresh daffodils in the drawer."
"Like these Pari?"
"Hmm…exactly like these. So, she asked her daughter, "Why are these flowers here?" Radha said, "These are the flowers you gave me for my birthday, mumma. Remember? I kept them there."….."But Radha, your birthday was last month, "Aashima said, "…and these flowers are still fresh." Radha touched the flowers and said, "Yes mumma, they are fresh because every night the savior angel comes and makes them right." Aashima was surprised. She had never heard of such a thing before. So she asked, "Really? Are you sure that she is an angel?" Radha smiled and said, "Yes mumma. She is an angel and her name is Palak. Before I came to you, I was also an angel….Your angel. I used to watch over you. When God asked me, I chose you as my mumma. I and Palak were friends then. Now I am your baby and she is my savior angel. She watches over me."
"And then what happened Pari?"
"Then, Aashima believed that her little princess was only her savior angel…one who saved her from sadness and tears."
Yash too was engrossed in the story by now. He turned his head toward his girls. The light breeze blew a few strands of Aarti's hair across his face and he smelt jasmine. He made no effort to remove them. Payal had rested her head on Aarti's chest, the slow, steady beats of her heart lulling the little girl toward sleep. She murmured sleepily, "Pari, you said I am your savior angel."
"You are, sweetheart." Aarti dropped a kiss on Payal's head while rocking her.
"When God asks me, I shall choose you as my mumma," This time it was a statement…not a wish.
Aarti stilled and took a quick look at Yash. He was reading something in his phone. She breathed a little easy that he hadn't heard. She didn't notice the visible tremor in Yash's hand.
Payal was asleep within seconds. Aarti closed her eyes and thought about the past few days. Her existence had never seemed happier. Yash and Payal had enriched her drab life with their unassuming, giving, and selfless presence. Her last vision before sleep consumed her was of Yash and Payal hugging and calling her to join them.
Aarti opened her eyes to find herself against Yash's shoulder, his left arm around her….her own hand resting on his right hand which held Payal, who was now on his lap. She jerked herself up and looked at Yash to find him staring at her with a soft smile. "Hey there!….Had a good nap?"
"Why didn't you wake me up? Oh dear…I am so sorry. This must have been so uncomfortable for you. Sorry…I shouldn't have… sorry…I…" Yash shut her up by placing a finger on her lips. "You apologize too much….I think I shall have to delete that word from our vocabulary, otherwise throughout our life I shall have to hear it."
"Throughout our life?" Aarti looked at him with sleep-induced confusion. Thankfully at that point Payal stirred and sat up, rubbing her eyes, saving Yash from answering to the faux pax. He really needed to mind his words around Aarti. The last thing he wanted was to scare her off.
They packed up and walked back to the house. It was still early in the evening…enough time for them to freshen up and get ready for the evening. Aarti knew all the three elders would still be napping. In the kitchen, Yash kept the things and took Payal from Aarti.
At the door he turned to her, "Aarti, after dinner tonight I have something important to tell you and naanimaasi."
Aarti nodded and waved at Payal…who gave her a drowsy smile from her father's shoulder.
Yash opened the door and looked back once again, "By the way Aarti….in your story, you never said what Radha's father's name was? By any chance was it Ajay?"
Aarti didn't get a chance to respond as a very flustered Garima entered grumbling as to how she had overslept and how much there was still left to do for the evening snacks and dinner. Aarti overcame her shock at Yash's query by telling Garima she would be down in a few minutes to help her. Before Yash stepped out, he caught Aarti's inscrutable glance and wished he could decipher what that meant…yes or no?

"Aunt Anna this is the first time I have tried out your recipe of chocolate mousse. Is it OK?"
"Almost perfect Aarti…Just put a tablespoon of coffee along with the butter when you melt the chocolate."
"Right. I'll remember that. Thanks Aunt Anna." Aarti was a keen cook and loved to learn new things from Aunt Anna.
"Why is it called a mouse, Grandpa? Does the mouse also love it?" Payal was sitting next to Chris. They had gotten along like house on fire as the evening had progressed. Her chirpiness matched Chris's exuberance for loud fun and both of them were soon great friends.
"You are bang on, moppet….My! But you are so intelligent. Even your Granny there didn't know that." He made his eyes big and grinned, making Payal giggle with her hand on her mouth. "How did you know that the three Mouseketeers had a pet mouse who loved chocolate, so they named this dessert chocolate mousse?"
Anna rolled her eyes at her husband, who winked at her, as she turned to naanimaasi, "Neema, I shall have the Scindia family in my prayers from here on for coming to your rescue. They were really Godsent, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to save the house…." She bent forward to hug her friend, "We must leave now. We'll arrange a get-together at our place the next weekend." She opened her arms for Payal, "Come here and give your Granny a goodbye hug and kiss, sweetie." Payal immediately jumped off the sofa and ran to her. Having done what she had to do she turned toward Aarti and raised her arms, "Pick me up Pari…I am tired."
Aarti stayed back with Payal, who was now drooping on her shoulder, to supervise Garima with the kitchen closing. Yash and naanimaasi walked with the Browns to the gate. They chatted there for awhile. By the time they came back in, Garima had left and Aarti was walking up and down the living room carrying a fast-asleep Payal. Yash took her from Aarti and turned to naanimaasi, "I have to speak to both of you…it's important."
"Does it have to be now beta? And if it has anything to do with your paying for the accommodation or leaving here…forget it."
"No, naanimaasi…it's something else…and I cannot delay it any longer."
"OK, but first go and put Payal to bed in my room."
Aarti followed Yash. The moment they put Payal down, she started fidgeting. Immediately Aarti got up next to her and started patting her, while Yash got up from the other side. Payal turned and pressed herself to Aarti's warmth. Yash rested his head on his elbow and gazed at them. He had a peaceful smile on when Aarti looked up and gestured him to leave and that she will follow a little later. Yash got down quietly and waved at her before leaving….He carried the beautiful vision of Payal and a smiling Aarti with him.
As soon as he stepped into the living room, he knew he was in trouble. Prashant stood there with his hands on his hips. There were a number of photographs thrown on the center table, and naanimaasi had one in her hand. The photographs were all of him and his family, including a few of his and Prateek's. She looked up, shock writ large on her face.
Yash stepped forward, "Naanimaasi, I can explain…Please just listen to me once."
"Why Yash? Why?" The old lady looked devastated.
Prashant sneered at Yash, "What can he explain bhabhi? He is Yash Scindia, the elder son of the Scindias, one of the richest families of Central India…and now the owner of this house….What next? A claim on Aarti?"
Yash turned to him and raised his index finger, "Don't you dare take Aarti's name with your dirty tongue, you scoundrel. I swear I won't spare you if you do. Stay out of this. This is between me and naanimaasi."
Naanimaasi had sat down with a thud. Yash went to her, and kneeling down took her hands, "This is what I wanted to talk about naanimaasi…explain why I didn't tell you earlier who I was."
"Why Yash? I trusted you. Aarti trusted you…Oh my God…what will this do to her? For the first time I saw her so happy and so much at peace."
Prashant butt in, "I told you so bhabhi. I told you not to trust outsiders, but you wouldn't listen. If only you had trusted me with the house and with Aar…"
"Get out Prashant." Naanimaasi looked up, her eyes steely even though they were glistening with unshed tears. "And I mean it. If you stand there another minute, I shall have to let Yash have his way with you. Just get out."
Prashant glared at Yash, "You stay away from her." Seeing Yash get up, he marched off in a huff, unmindful of a light shuffle behind the pillar just outside the door.
Naanimasi looked at Yash, "Just tell me one thing Yash…tell me that Aarti and I were not wrong in trusting you."
Yash's eyes welled up and he laid his head on her lap, "No naanimaasi, you were not wrong. I could never hurt you. I love you." He looked up, "Believe me naanimaasi, I was scared that if you knew who I was, you would refuse to sign the house deal, and then the house will be taken over by someone with ill-intentions. I know for sure that Prashant had about five buyers ready who would have lied to you about their noble ideas regarding the house. This house is yours naanimaasi…it was and it shall always be. It's your home. The papers are still in your name."
Naanimaasi raised a hand and cupped Yash's cheek, "I believe you. But you came to know about the house later. Why didn't you tell Aarti before that? Why did you let her believe that you were a poor man?"
Yash looked down, "It's something I am very ashamed of naanimaasi." He sucked in a breath and ran his hands through his hair, "Being rich can be a curse sometimes naanimaasi. I have been deceived a number of times in my life by girls who were after my money. When I met Aarti, I found her to be totally different. I wanted to get to know her better, but was afraid of being deceived again so I…."
"Did you really suspect Aarti might be a gold digger?" Naanimaasi was incredulous.
He nodded guiltily, "I became doubtful when I saw her keeping the jewelry given by Sameer."
There was a soft gasp, startling them. They both turned to find Aarti standing there with a shocked look on her face. Before they could get out a word, she turned and ran away.


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

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