Surrendering to faith releases the spirits within and heart is liberated to feel.
Payal whimpered in her sleep and squirmed. Aarti patted her a couple of times. Payal turned toward her and threw her foot on hers, drifting off to deep sleep again. Naina's angry voice was disturbing the little one…Aarti waited for a few seconds, but the voice only shrilled louder. It was evident they were having an argument. Aarti's whole body ached as she untangled Payal and got down from the bed, painfully ambling to the door to close it.
She had reached the door when she heard Naina retort in anger, "Why Yash? Why are you hankering after people who are not even related to you? Even that kid is not your daughter, yet you…."
Aarti stood frozen, staring at Yash, who cut off Naina in a quiet tone laced with anger, "Stop right there Naina. And leave…."
Naina turned on her heels and walked away. Yash turned toward the room to find Aarti standing there with a shocked look on her face. He stood still. How much had she heard? He took a tentative step forward, "Aarti…." She raised one hand to stop him. He saw her expression change from shock to confusion to, surprisingly, annoyance.
He tried again, "Aarti, Please listen. I…."
"Wait here Yash." Her pain forgotten, she strode toward Prateek's room, knocked, and went in. Within seconds she came out, followed hurriedly by Prateek with his laptop, and turned to him, "I have to talk to your brother. Stay with Payal. Please call me when she wakes up."
Prateek nodded obediently looking bewildered as he saw a furious Aarti turn toward an equally dazed Yash, catch his arm, and drag him to his room. Yash had often thought about Aarti's reaction when she learnt about Payal….sad, distressed, tearful. But nothing…absolutely nothing…had prepared him for an angry response. Once inside she turned and closed the door. She stood with her back to him for a few moments, taking deep breaths.
"Aarti, I know you are upset. Your back must be hurting you. Come here and sit down…and then we'll talk." He wanted to sound conciliatory, but it came out as pacifying, as he felt her stiffen under the hand he had kept on her shoulder. She turned and glared at him, deliberately glancing at the hand, making him drop it and take a step back. His breath caught in his throat. She looked glorious in her anger. Her eyes flashed fire. It had shocked him to see her stand there after Naina left…but her reactions did him in….unpredictable, unexpected, and oh so sensuous and so breathtaking. His skin tingled, his heart raced, his senses stirred as desire flooded his veins, leaving him breathless with its intensity.
Aarti stepped forward and poked his chest with her right index finger, planting the other hand on her hip, "You….you should be ashamed of yourself."
"I…I know Aarti." He took a step back, drinking in her beauty.
"She…she…how dare she insinuate such a thing about you and Payal? And then she has the gall to say she loves you…Ha! She has no clue what love is." Another poke…another step back.
"She was…uh...in a way…emm…right about Payal. Err!! Aarti, why don't you sit down?" Yash kept his face straight with difficulty. The urge to grin was almost overpowering. She looked so adorable when jealous and angry. He tried to smile, but thought better of it at the last moment.
"Right?...Right? Is she blind? Can't she see the love between you and Payal? What you both share? What Payal means to you? And you…you let her talk to you like that? How could you Yash Scindia? How could you?" She spread her palm on his chest, narrowed her eyes, gave him one final shove and halted, waiting.
He blinked, trying to focus on what she was asking, his heart shuddering with the ripples of her touch….the fiery passion in her eyes. Every fiber of his being yearned to pull her to him and capture her lips in a searing kiss. His adorable Aarti had fire in her, and she was fighting for them….innocently…unknowingly…possessively. Curbing down cravings that would have shocked her had she known, he searched the quagmire of his mind for the correct response. When he spoke, all that he could say was, "You're angry."
He closed his eyes the moment he had said it, feeling like a vocabulary-challenged idiot. Dear God…she will be the death of me.
"Brilliant deduction!! Is that all you have to say? Of course, I'm angry. What do you expect?" She threw her arms up in the air, wincing as a stab of pain shot through her back.
He reached forward then and took her hands. This time she let him guide her toward a sofa. He sat her down and knelt in front, still holding her hands, "Aarti, I understand you….your anger. I am sorry I didn't tell you this earlier and you had to find out this way. But you have to know that what Naina said was partially correct." His hold tightened, as he looked her in the eyes and said, "I am not Payal's biological father." He felt her fingers curl inside his and saw her eyes soften, which were the only indications that she had registered the information but she didn't say anything, as she continued to look into his eyes…into his soul. He continued, "Naina knows the truth because her aunt was Arpita's doctor. Don't let her ramblings upset you…. I know her. She is all bark, and no bite…We have known each other for long, and well, she wants to marry me…so…."
That hurt…and somehow made her more agitated, "Yash I am only concerned about you and Payal. No one…absolutely no one…has the right to say such a wrong thing about you and your feelings for Payal. Not even Naina. I don't care whether she is your childhood pal…I don't care whether she proposed to you…I don't care if you…if you (she glanced down, her lips quivering) have feelings for her. (A pause and then) No, strike that one out." She bit her lip and looked up, horrified at how mean she sounded. "Actually I do care; how you feel toward her is important."
"What are you saying?" He interrupted, "I never said I had any feelings for her….I mean not in that sense. She is an acquaintance I have known for years…that's just it."
Her eyebrows snapped together and she frowned, trying to ignore the warmth that was fast replacing the chill that had set in ever since Yash had spoken about the girl he loved, "But you said so. You said the girl you have in your heart is someone you know for a long time and that I might have met her….and also that you didn't know how she felt. That's why I absented myself in the trek. You two needed to talk, and I was getting in the way, and she asked me…."
She stopped, as if having an epiphany, and a long pause later looked up, "She is not the one." It was a statement.
"Nope…she isn't." He smiled.
"Then who?" Her brows were still furrowed, thinking. He itched to straighten them. But then she looked so cute.
"Someone I have known since the first day of her life in this world. That day she gave me her hand…and I still hold it." He looked at her hand in his and then at her. She was staring over his head and was oblivious to the connection…yet.
Aarti felt she was in a maze. She had the feeling that Yash was deliberately holding back…wanting her to find her way to the person who holds the key to his and Payal's life. The question was why? What was the need of this word puzzle? She chided him, "That's not fair Yash. You entrust me to find the right person for you…but you won't tell me who she is."
"I won't push her Aarti….That's a promise I made myself." He glanced at her and smiled, "So, my sweet friend, it's all up to you. Keep following the thought and let me know when you reach the end." He shifted as she slid down next to him. He reached back and pulled a couple of cushions and placed them behind her.
There was a long silence, as both collected their thoughts. Then Aarti directed a look at him, "I am sorry Yash."
"Sorry for what?"
"For misunderstanding your feelings for Naina and for flying off the handle. I couldn't understand how you could be in love with someone who didn't think Payal to be yours, who doubted your commitment and love for her…That's what got me so rattled and I took out the anger on you."
"You don't ever have to be sorry over being angry with me. Always remember that." He stated firmly.
She looked down at her hands and whispered, "Yash, may I ask you something?"
"Of course Aarti! Anything."
"Something is wrong with me these days. I never would get angry earlier. But, now, if anybody says anything wrong about you or Payal or naanimaasi, I get angry. Yesterday I shouted at Naina. I even physically hurt Prashant the other day. You remember?" His lips curved into a smile at the memory, but instantly sobered when she turned to look at him with trepidation, "Am I becoming bad?"
He was quick to shut her up, "Of course not! You were only standing up for people you are concerned about. That's not being bad…That's a very instinctive reaction. You are doing what someone should have done for you when you were growing up. If you care for someone, you are bound to defend them and protect them, sometimes angrily even…that's very natural. That anger is justified."
She pondered for a few moments. What she whispered next caused his heart to constrict in pain, "Yes, now I understand why baba got so angry with me that day when he saw me in his room." There was a tremor in her voice. "It was my tenth birthday. I wanted to look at ma and his pictures…to take their blessings. I overstayed in his room and he saw me. He must have thought I was there to harm ma's pictures and things. He loved ma so much. (Sigh) No wonder he broke the mirror in his anger, and I got…." She stopped and touched the scar. Yash's eyes followed her fingers, and he remembered her poem. He was sure now that this particular incident, more than others, had left deep scars in her….physically and emotionally.
"No Aarti…that was different. I am sure if he had cared to think, your father would have known that you would do no such thing….Caring for someone does not mean that you are unfair to others. So don't ever blame yourself for whatever happened that day. Your father shouldn't have gotten angry without hearing you out….and he certainly shouldn't have hurt you." For the nth time he wished he had met that gentleman once in his lifetime.
She nodded. How could she tell him that her father had never spoken with her? Instead she said, "Yes, just as I shouldn't have been angry with you before I heard you out."
He waited for her to say something about what he had just told her about Payal's identity. When she maintained her silence on that, he reached out and took her hand again, "Aarti…I just told you a very important fact about Payal and my life. I am a little intrigued that you didn't react as I probably expected you to. You seem more upset with Naina's insensitivity than with what she blurted out."
"Why Yash? Should it matter? Just because I found out that Payal doesn't share the same blood as you, should it change the way I perceive both of you? As far as I can see, nothing has changed and nothing will ever change. You are her father and she is your little princess…always and forever. Ties of heart bind you…and those ties are much stronger and go much deeper than any other…even blood ties." She covered their handclasp with her other hand, rested her forehead on it and whispered, "I should know…I have been at the other end of such a relationship."
Yash couldn't stop a few tears from escaping his eyes. He should have known that Aarti will never judge his and Payal's relationship. He not having sired Payal was just a piece of information to Aarti…not something to be dwelt over. Blood relations had failed her….Outsiders who loved her kept her afloat. She understood the emotion of love much deeply than him. Yash's heart swelled with his own love for her….He still had so much to learn about her. Just when he thought that he had understood her fully, she surprised him some more with the depth with which she understood relationships. He freed one hand and gently gathered her to him. He held her hand to his heart as she rested her head on his shoulder.
After a few silent, companionable moments, Aarti said softly, "Tell me Yash."
Yash's heart soared and he understood…How could he not? This was the first time she had wanted in….desired to reach out to his past. Her closeness, the understanding, the longing to help, all of which he heard in her voice, opened that innermost chamber of his heart to her. She lifted her head and turned to him as he began unfolding his life. He told all, every little detail, right from the beginning when his dadima spotted Arpita at a village wedding and deciding she would be perfect for him to the day Arpita ruthlessly walked away from her infant daughter's life without even sparing her a glance….all because, for her, money was the means to all ends. Payal was her ticket to that money. He told her the story of how it happened…the long, hard story which only covered days but seemed to extend through years as his heart hardened and cynicism set in. He told her of Tanya and of Deepa and all those other women who tried to bed him just so he gave them his name. He told her of those hours of the day and night on the rack of uncertainty, of fearing failure toward the little child he took as his own, of trying with the force of mind and soul to banish that one thing which had not claimed him yet, but which stood there beside him, not retreating…waiting. "What Yash?" She asked. "Hatred Aarti." He stated, "For long I was scared that my distrustful nature toward women will turn into hatred and indirectly harm my little girl."
Aarti listened in silence at the unfairness of it all. She understood what he meant when he mentioned distrust. After all she herself had visited its deep end many a times. When your trust is repeatedly broken, the realization is not just that this person cannot be trusted, but the real problem which heralds in the pain is, "Who can I trust?" This then becomes an even greater pain. You trusted someone who let you down. The pain is continued because it has created a fear that you will never be able to trust anyone ever again, and without trust, you can never rest or breathe freely.
She held his hand tightly and listened in horror at the injustice he and Payal suffered at the hands of the unscrupulous woman and her lover. What kind of people were they? Not only abandoning the baby they created but also using the little one to further their selfish interests. Thank God Payal didn't suffer the fate she herself had…Thank God she never lacked love and security…Thank God for Yash and his family.
"What made you marry her Yash? Was it only because dadima wanted you to?" Throughout his narration about Arpita, this one thought had bothered her.
"No Aarti…Dadima never pressurized me. She had left it to me to decide after I had met Arpita." He knew where this was leading. Suddenly he was apprehensive.
"So you liked her when you met her…liked her enough to say Yes immediately." Something was still bothering her. She couldn't really pinpoint what.
"It's a little complicated. I don't remember much of that first meeting, but something else is etched into my heart and mind and which eventually motivated me to agree to marry her." He turned then…and saw many questions in her eyes.
"Her writings. At least that's what she made me think at that time…that they were hers." He saw her perplexity, "In her house in Hoshangabad, I came across this journal. It held a beautiful treasure…poems, anecdotes, thoughts. I went through them…and felt this instant connection….as if I knew this person…as if this person was extending her hand to me. It's very difficult to express my feelings Aarti…I am not as good as you with words. But her written words touched me. Arpita said she had written them. She made it look as if writing was her passion. Later I came to know that she had used that journal to get through to me. She was a clever girl and knew instantly that the writings had softened me. She gave me the journal."
"And you still have it."
"I do Aarti…Those writings helped me through the worst moments of my life…they stopped me from keeling over and plunging into darkness. The journal is an eloquent word portrait of this person's soul. They kept me connected with her…." He paused for a second, holding her gaze, "...With you."
Yash stood up and stretched his hand. She took it and got up. She didn't know why her heart was beating so loudly and so fast against her ribcage that it almost seemed like it was beating right next to her ears. He took her to the bedside table, bent, and picked up the maroon-colored journal kept there. He turned and gave it to her. She looked at him, almost forgetting to breathe. He whispered, "You alone can break down the wall behind which I tremble, you alone can remove my mask, you alone can release me from my shadow world of panic, if you choose to……Please choose to."
Aarti froze, staring at his beautiful, warm eyes, feeling a knot in her stomach and a pounding in her chest as her pulse thundered in her ears. She knew that the journal was hers before she had opened it. She remembered every word she had written in her life…and it seems he did too, at least in this journal. She opened the first page and saw the Ganeshji drawing. She ran her fingers over it and then turned to the last page, where the words he just spoke glowed at her. Her shoulders began to heave up and down and the stored tears streamed down her face. He just stepped forward and took her in his arms. She had no idea why she was crying. She was confused and relieved at the same time. There was that feeling of homecoming again. Dear God what was happening to her? What was destiny telling her? She pressed herself to him and vaguely heard his soothing words asking her to let go…that he was there…that he shall be there always. She couldn't define what she was feeling…what she had been feeling for some time now. Just as she started to feel safe and warm in his arms, out of nowhere Maltidi's words of long ago entered her head, "There is a special someone made for you too Aarti. He is waiting out there…waiting for the divine signal that will bring him in front of you, so that he can give you all the happiness that you deserve. At that point your heart should be able to recognize your soul mate."
Aarti stilled and looked up, just as a sleepy sweet voice spoke from behind, "I want a hug too papa."
The condition of an enlightened mind is a surrendered heart.
Yash and Aarti turned to find Payal standing near the door, rubbing her eyes. Aarti moved away even as Yash opened his arms for his daughter and picked her up. Curling a hand around his neck, she extended the other one to Aarti, "Pari, come here. I want a hug from you also." Aarti's emotions were in total disarray. How did the journal find its way to Yash? Does that mean that girl who confiscated her journal and Payal's mother are the same? Of course, they are. Arpita….Payal's mother. Aarti felt herself in a spin. She felt a tug…a little fist had pulled her sleeve. She moved and put her arm around Payal as she felt Yash's arm go around her. Payal looked at both of them and gave a huge toothy smile. Unnoticed by them, Prateek stood at the door, watching the blissful sight. He wiped the tears that jostled to roll down and quietly closed the door. He hadn't seen a more complete family.
They stood thus for awhile. Yash could sense the stiffness in Aarti. As he chatted with Payal, he felt her darting confused glances at him. He knew she would have questions and would take some time to assimilate all the information. The list of coincidences had increased, and it will be sooner rather than later that she will begin to wonder about this preordained connection. In fact something had changed just before Payal came in. He had sensed her retreat. That meant she was becoming aware of her feelings. Now as she tried to wiggle away from the embrace, he tightened his hold and pulled her closer. No….not anymore…not ever. If he had his way, he will lock the door to that shell for eternity and won't let her venture near its vicinity. There's so far he would allow her to step back now…just enough to get her bearings.
That was the moment Payal chose to bend and plant an open-mouthed, noisy kiss on Aarti's cheek and nuzzle into her neck, "Can I call you mumma now?"
Startled Yash and Aarti looked at each other. The sudden, innocent query hit them hard, the longing behind it slashing through their defenses and tugging at their hearts. Aarti gently disengaged herself from his embrace, and this time he let go. She felt she was being deluged in an ocean of emotions that she didn't even dare to dream of till now…but which felt so wonderfully correct. She hugged herself in consternation, trying to subdue the tremors.
Yash was the first to recover…somewhat, "Wh…what? Princess, where did that come from?"
"Uffo papa!" She slapped her palm on her forehead and shook her head in the trademark Payal gesture of exasperation, "You think I don't know anything. But I know. Sana told me."
"Now what did Sana tell you?" Sana was a year older to her, and her best friend and guide of all occasions. Yash was wary of Miss Sana's adultlike attitude at times.
"She said she saw her papa hug and kiss her mumma, and then they told her she was her new mumma."
Yash stole a glance at Aarti. Her face was down, and she had her arms around herself. He was at a loss of words after this piece of argument.
"Pari?" Payal was not letting go. "Can I call you mumma?…Please. Then I too will have my mumma."
Aarti bit her lip, calmed her nerves, and then straightened herself. Without looking at Yash, she reached out and took Payal in her arms and sat down on the bed, ignoring the spasms of pain that shot through her back.
She cupped the little one's cheek and smiled. Something tightened in Yash's stomach, as he heard her soft voice, "Angel, will you listen to what I say?" Payal nodded. Aarti tucked a wisp of little curl that had escaped Payal's pony tail behind her ear and dropped a kiss on her forehead. She was acutely aware of Yash's tense stance beside her and braced herself to focus on what she was saying, "There is a difference between Sana and you, sweetheart. Sana's papa and new mumma were married…. Hmm! Just like Dadaji and dadima are. That's why papa calls dadima, ma."
"You mean they are Mr and Mrs Scindia."
"Absolutely….And like Grandpa and Granny are…."
"I know…I know…Mr and Mrs Brown."
"Right!…Oh my! You are so intelligent." Payal grinned. Aarti looked into her eyes and smiled back, "But sweety, your papa and I are only friends. Like you and Sana are."
"But he hugged you and he kissed you on the head." Payal's voice was low as she dipped her head.
"That's because I was sad…and papa was trying to send away my sadness."
"So I will never have a mumma." Her defeated voice and woebegone expression broke Aarti's heart.
"Of course you will." Aarti tried to sound cheerful, "Tell you what. Before your school begins, you will have your mumma. I will find her for you."
Payal hugged her. Aarti dared a glance at Yash, who mouthed a "Thank you" and smiled…The very next moment Payal sprang back with a happy squeal, "Pari, I have an idea. Why don't you marry papa? Then you will become Mr and Mrs Scindia, and I can call you mumma." Aarti stared at the persistent little doll. Now what? Just then the phone rang…giving her the precious seconds to think out her response. Yash muttered, "Saved by the bell," and picked up the phone. It was his mother. "Yes ma! She is fine. Yeah, she's here…one sec….Payal, dadima wants to speak with you. Badi dadi is also there." Aarti heaved a sigh of relief as Payal jumped off and took the phone from Yash's hand and plonked herself on the sofa.
Yash caught Aarti just outside the door. She had thought it better to sneak out while Payal was busy on the phone. "Aarti wait!" She turned as she heard his voice "Thank you for that. Honestly, sometimes I just don't know what to say to her. She is growing up, and there are millions of queries. I know I should have stopped her…but then she stumped me there. That must have been embarrassing for you. I am sorry. I'll make her understand, I promise." He was rambling, and he knew it. He just wanted to ensure that Aarti was fine. The journal connection had rattled her. He wanted to wipe away the mayhem he saw in her soulful eyes. He hated to see her so off balanced and confused.
Aarti was already at the end of her tether. It was an eventful day thus far. She felt wobbly after the physical and emotional roller coaster ride she was on since morning. Her head was in a muddle at the moment. There was so much to think…so much to introspect…Her emotions seemed to be caught up in a twister, and the man was all apologetic about Payal. What is he thinking? As if anything about Payal would embarrass her. Why is he alienating her from Payal's case by apologizing? She lifted her chin and said slowly, in case he was having an old-man moment and couldn't keep up with the conversation, "Yash, Payal. Could. Never. Ever. Embarrass. Me. Do you get that? I understand her…and I understand her needs. I know exactly what she feels and why. Is that clear?" Yash nodded meekly, making a conscious effort to breathe. If she was feisty and fiery earlier, then this quietly aggressive annoyance made all sensible thoughts become vapor.
He came closer and said softly, "I am sorry Aarti. That was a mistake. It won't happen again. There is no doubt that you understand Payal more than I do." He saw her weary look. "We need to talk…but we'll do that later. You go and rest now. I'll be with Payal." He reached across and ran his knuckles down her cheek. It was an innocent act of tenderness, but the touch caused more quivers to the turbulence already wreaking havoc in her. What was it about him that made her feel naked right down to her soul? She did not move and did not speak for a poignant moment as their gazes locked. And then she turned and walked toward naanimaasi's room.
"His eyes spoke volumes…they were warm, gentle, and mischievously lively at the same time. That's what attracted me to him first. (Sigh) My heart would go crazy whenever he looked at me…in a very special way."
"Is that how you knew that you loved Raj nana? When he looked at you in that special way."
"Mmm!!...I must have fallen in love on that first day of the trip, in the train, when I saw him laughing and bonding with those poor boys who had boarded the train to sing and earn some money. I saw him make them sit down and treat them to samosas and tea. This when his other friends were either playing cards or trying to flirt with the girls of our group."
"You were on a college trip to Darjeeling, weren't you?"
"Yes…and Raj and his friends were on their college-ending getaway, before all of them went their ways."
Naanimaasi had a faraway smile on her lips as she reminisced about her first rush of feelings for the love of her life. She and Aarti were sitting on the balcony of naanimaasi's room, sipping their second cup of tea and looking at the sun setting behind the mountains. Naanimaasi had begun the conversation when she sighed and recalled a similar view in the mountains of Darjeeling. "However, the sunrise has special memories for me…. I still remember how exquisite it was…the allure of seeing the Kanchenjunga peaks waiting in the dark to come alive with the first rays of the sun. I saw it three mornings in a row with Raj, as our friends would be too lazy to wake up that early…and on the last morning Raj said those three magical words after we had watched the sunrise together…hand in hand…."
Naanimaasis's voice faded….as Aarti closed her eyes and the sunrise she had watched with Yash flashed through her mind vision. She could almost feel him, his warm presence behind her, his breath on her cheek as she turned to him, and the tingling feel of his thumb on her chin. Her eyes flew open as an electric awareness shot through her entire being. She tried to focus on what naanimaasi was saying and then asked what was uppermost in her mind, "Naanimaasi…how did you know you were in love?" Her fingers tightened around the cup handle, her eyes fixed on the splash of the colors in the sky, as she waited for the answer.
"It was not a particular moment Aarti. Throughout that trip we continued to bang into each other everywhere. It's only later that I came to know that Raj was making those meetings happen. We became friends after few such meetings. I felt so safe with him…so complete… and then out of nowhere these feelings came. I remember being confused. In fact I even asked him whether he felt the same. He told me he did and that I was on his mind all the time…and in the next instant, he had rushed off to help this old lady cross the road. I saw him talk with her and then both of them laughed…I had never seen a more caring, compassionate, and cheerful man.That's when I realized that I loved him...that I had been in love from that first moment." She smiled musing over the vivid memories.
Aarti kept her cup, got up, and knelt beside her grandmother, putting her head in her lap. Naanimaasi lovingly caressed her head, "What is it my child? Something has been bothering you."
"Nothing naanimaasi. I am fine. It's just that when I hear of the love you and Raj nana shared and the love baba and ma had for each other, it makes me wonder whether everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has the ability to be the happiness in someone else's life…to give him the peace and love that he so deserves." Naanimaasi smiled inwardly as her naive Aarti gave herself away unwittingly when she spoke the last words.
"Don't sell yourself short, sweetheart. You are everything a man might wish for in his life partner. Ah, my child…your heart recognizes someone as its soul mate, isn't it so? I know you so well. Don't turn your back to him Aarti. No…don't shake your head. Just listen to what I am saying and then decide. Only once in your life you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You are able to tell him things that you've never shared with another soul, and he absorbs everything you say and actually wants to hear more. You can be yourself and not worry about whether he will judge you….that's because he likes you for who you are. The things that seem trivial to most people such as a piece of writing, a visit to the temple, or even sharing a sunrise or sunset become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. In his presence, you find company in solitude…..you find you're quite content in just having him near you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend who is also your soul mate and who will trust you no matter what. Love has found you my sweet child….Now all you have to do is seek and break all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it…and you have, isn't it? Let go of the past child…embrace the new beginning." She paused and turned Aarti's face to her, "Look at me Aarti." Finding tears glisten in those lovely eyes, she thumbed them away, "Shhsh! It's OK my child. It's OK to be vulnerable to what you are feeling. Don't let it scare you. Don't stop it…let it flow. Accept it…accept this beautiful gift of destiny. This feeling is all that matters in the end….surrender to it and let your lips form the words. Don't look back Aarti…not now."
"Naanimaasi, I…I think I….," With a sudden sob she got up and whispered, "I am sorry…I can't…I don't have the right to. Please excuse me." She bent and kissed her grandmother's cheek and left.
Neema Gupta looked out at the darkness setting in and whispered, "Give her strength Raj….the strength to hold onto her faith….just a little more."
"I saw her half an hour back Anna. She had gone to check on Payal. She told me she'll be ready in ten minutes and come down." Naanimaasi was worried. Aarti was upset when she left after their talk in the evening. Is she sitting and brooding?
This was their last night in Naukuchiatal. They were all going to spend a relaxed evening and have dinner at a lakeside campsite. There was going to be music and boat rides and generally lolling around. The get-together was arranged by Yash's friend who owned the resort; his entire family was going to be there to give them company. Payal was very excited to go on a boat ride at night. At the moment she was sitting on Uncle Brown's lap in the vehicle and putting him through a questioning session regarding what the fishes do at night, which he was trying his best to answer, looking frequently at his wife for help. Everyone was waiting for Aarti to make an appearance.
Yash kept his phone and turned to naanimaasi, raising his brow. She shrugged. Just then the phone rang.
"This must be her." It was.
"Aarti, what happened? We are all down….in the parking lot."
A pause and then, "Of course! I am coming."
Yash came to her, "What happened naanimaasi?"
"I don't know Yash. She just said she wants me up there."
"You stay here. I'll go and check on her."
Yash knocked at Aarti's door and stepped in when it opened. Only the bedside lamps were on. In the dim light he saw Aarti standing with her back and saying, "I am sorry naanimaasi. I just couldn't zip up my kurta. My back hurts if I try. Please help me." She gathered her hair in front. That's when Yash saw. The zipper was open till the waist. He turned on his back.
"Err Aarti, it's me. I didn't reali…" Yash gave a start as Aarti yelped an "Oh my God!" and ran behind the window curtain.
"What happened Aarti? Did you hurt your back?" Worried, he rushed to her.
"Stop right there Yash. Nothing has happened. My back hit the window jamb. What are you doing here? I thought it was naanimaasi." Aarti's embarrassment was palpable. Stupid…stupid. She just assumed it'd be naanimaasi at the door.
Yash took a deep breath and spoke gently, "Aarti, naanimaasi would have had to come all the way back up. I thought I'll come and see what's keeping you. I am sorry…I didn't know that you …that…" He stopped.
There was silence for awhile, and then, "It's OK Yash. I panicked…..You can go now. I'll manage."
Yash contemplated what to say and then decided to be direct, "Aarti….don't get me wrong. If I go down, I'll have to tell everyone what happened. I don't want anyone to talk about you over this."
"What are you saying Yash? I don't understand."
"What I am saying is if you don't mind I'll do it…I'll zip up your kurta. Trust me Aarti. I promise I won't see. If you want I'll switch off all the lights and then I won't be able to see you…I will blindfold myself if you say so….(silence) Aarti!!...Say something….Hey, I am sorry…so sorry…I guess it's a bad idea…I.." He stood rooted when he heard ripples of soft laughter coming from behind the curtain. She was so adorably unpredictable. Aarti chuckled, "And how do you plan to find the zipper in darkness? That is after you have tripped over the sofas and the stools and the lamps."
Yash smiled, "Yeah, when you put it that way, it does seem a silly idea. I guess it has to be naanimaasi then."
"No Yash…wait. I have already delayed everyone a lot. There are people waiting for us at the lake. OK. I agree to your idea. But keep the lights on. Just close your eyes. I'll tell you when to extend your hand for the zipper."
"OK Aarti. My eyes are closed. You can come out now."
Aarti peeped out and saw him standing with his hand on his eyes. She stood for awhile, taking in his sight. He looked handsome and endearing in a black shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black trousers…very sincerely barricading his eyes. Aarti shook her head, admonishing herself for staring. What was wrong with her? She walked up to him and said softly, "Yash, I am right in front of you. You can…"
"I know." His voice was a little more than a whisper and hoarse, "I sensed you."
Aarti felt his cool fingers touch her skin as he searched for the zipper end. The small of her back contracted involuntarily. A shiver of something ran down her spine, and she gasped softly. His fingers paused and then moved again. Very slowly…very gently…he pulled the zip up. Then he felt for the shoulder cords and tied them up as well. He kept his hands on her shoulders and leaned in close to her ear, "Aarti, you can open your eyes now. You are decent enough."
"How did you know that my eyes were closed?" She turned around to find him opening the door…his back to her.
"I know you Aarti…Take your time. I am outside."
She came out after a few minutes, looking beautiful in the marine blue anarkali suit, to see him standing with his back to the railing, arms crossed, "Thank you Yash." She looked at him with such innocent gratitude that he felt a warm tenderness engulf him, "No Aarti…I have to thank you."
"For trusting me."
It was a wonderful evening. They listened to local folk songs, chatted, went for boat rides, and made the most of their last night of the vacation. Yash's friend's family were a cheerful lot and very energetic. They had arranged for some games….which were enjoyed by all. Uncle Chris was as usual in his elements. Aarti sat out most of the games because of her injury. Her eyes kept wandering toward Yash. This was the first time she had seen him so animated and laughing so much. He looked so happy. Many a times she saw him pass glances at her. Obviously he was worried whether she was hurting. He was such a caring friend to have. She got up and walked to the water front. What nanimaasi had suggested was not far away from her mind. She was right on one account for sure….Yash had come to mean much more to her than a mere friend. He understood her as no one before. She felt so belonged when she was with him.
She stood in half shadows and watched him….They were playing a game of antakshri, the relay game of songs, as they waited for the dinner to be laid. It was Yash's team's turn. Yash turned and suggested a song to naanimaasi…but Payal got up and insisted that her papa will sing. He tried once to reason it out with her, saying he doesn't know how to sing. But she was adamant. So Yash sang, holding Payal's hand, completely out of tune, forgetting the words…But he sang…for his daughter. When he finished, Payal clapped jumping up and down. And when he gave his daughter a boyishly triumphant smile, that's when Aarti knew…she knew then that she was hopelessly in love with this wonderful, gentle, kind-hearted man…the kind of love naanimaasi told her about. He was the one…now and forever. As if on cue, he looked up and his eyes locked on hers for an intense, unabashed stare. He got up slowly and took a step toward her. Words spoken two days ago floated back to her: "Someone who has been very close to me….someone I have known a long time"…And Aarti took a step back.
Until time surrenders, I wait my love with baited breath.
Aarti took a step back….and another…and another…till she was completely in the darkness and close to the end of the wooden platform extending into the lake. In a trance she saw him jump the low hedge and stride toward her. Something cold ran down her cheeks. He had reached the bank when she realized she was crying. She whipped around, hurriedly wiping the treacherous tears. She loved him but she couldn't say it. She couldn't even let him know without hurting him. He loved another…he wanted another. If he knew, he would blame himself for making her fall in love with him…and he would feel guilty. No…no…he can't know. She won't let him go through this. And if he sees her face now, he would know…he knows her too well. And then she would lose his friendship as well. He would…
She steeled herself to regain her composure and to prevent herself from spilling more tears at hearing his beautiful voice. She hoped her own voice didn't betray her pain and longing and love, "I am fine Yash. Just fine. Have they laid the dinner? They must have. We better go. Payal must be hungry. We must not delay. We have an early start tomorrow... Oh, I think naanimaasi is calling me." She turned quickly and meant to go past him. His hand shot out and caught her wrist. She stood with her back to him, wanting to luxuriate in his touch and savor it for now…just once…this once. She sensed him turning and come closer…his closeness and warmth made her body tingle with a feeling that was excruciating and pleasurable at the same time. Oh dear, what was she going to do?
Yash held her by the shoulders and turned her to him, "What is it Aarti? What's wrong?" Everything is wrong Yash…My heart beats for you, but I have no right to feel this love. You belong to someone else. In any case everyone I love always leaves me…I make people go away Yash. Why should you stay then? You and Payal too will go away one day. And I will be the one ensuring both of you leave and begin a life with the one who is meant to be. I will keep my promise and find her for you.
Yash shook her lightly and then cupped her chin and tilted it, trying to peer at her face in the semi-darkness. Aarti heard his sharp intake of breath as his thumb encountered wetness, "You are crying. Why?" And without any preamble he pulled her into his arms. "Is it because of the journal, Aarti? Did it bring back bad memories? Did I hurt you anyway?"
He felt her shake her head against the crook of his neck, "No…no. You could never hurt me. It's nothing. I am being rather silly." She lifted her chin as he looked down, "Actually I realized something."
"What Aarti?" She stepped back…she needed to maintain a distance from the warmth of his embrace if she had to get one coherent word out.
"Something naanimaasi told me today made me realize how some things are fated in this life. I was thinking about that when I recalled the moment when Arpita snatched the journal from me. I remember trying to take it back, but just couldn't…and all the time she held it against her body, pouring out some gibberish about her boyfriend being interested in me." She turned to Yash, "I know it sounds silly Yash, but if she married you a few weeks later, and Payal was born seven months thence, then that means she had already conceived Payal by then."
"Yes…I guess so. What's your point?"
"Yash…think! That means I met Payal before you did. Well, not exactly met…I mean…you know what I mean." He nodded…waiting…as she joined the dots. "And the journal was so close to her…that same journal she gave to you, ensuring my presence in your life…just as she gave Payal to you, in a way."
Yash waited with baited breath, anticipating her realization…how she was meant to be in his and Payal's life. Aarti sniffed and said, "This was meant to be Yash."
Finally. "Yes, it was." He whispered.
He couldn't believe what she said next. "Do you not see Yash? Our meeting at Brownies and then becoming friends was all destined to happen. I was meant to meet you and Payal so that I could bring the girl you love into your life…and complete both of you. I will keep my promise Yash. I will find her. I will not let down this connection we have always had…It was there for a reason." Looking at the water expanse in front she whispered, "I will bring back love in your life…and then maybe I'll be able to redeem myself for what I did to my parents." He couldn't believe that she had come to such a roundabout conclusion. Darn it! Why is she finding it difficult to look at the obvious? It was time he did something.
"You did nothing to your parents…so don't even go down that lane. Do you hear?" She nodded…unconvinced. Some things are too deep rooted. "OK Aarti. I have complete trust in you. I know you will get me my love. But I want a promise. Promise me you will tell her that if she loves me too, she will not leave me."
"If she loves you, why would she want to leave you Yash?"
"I don't know…you tell me," he asked pointedly. Aarti stared at him puzzled and then looked away, mumbling, "I promise I'll make sure she will never leave you….We better go now," saying she started to walk toward the camp.
Yash stretched his hand in front, barring her, "One second Aarti…I have not finished yet. You have one week to find and convince her. After that…"
"I'll abduct her." Saying, he took her hand and strode toward the camp. Aarti was too shocked to react.
A surprise awaited them when they reached Nainital and entered the gates of naanimaasi's house. Yash's parents were sitting on the lawns under a large garden umbrella, sipping tea. Garima stood chatting with Gayatri. Payal slipped down from Prateek's arms and ran toward them, shouting, "Dadaji….dadima!! You came….you came. I didn't tell anyone." She flew into her grandfather's arms, "Dadaji, I kept the secret. I didn't even tell pari. Where's my prize?"
Suraj Pratap chuckled, "I knew you would sweetheart….I knew it. High-five?"
Payal giggled as they did their high-five, and she got her prize. She hugged the packet to herself as she was passed onto her dadima, who kissed her and caressed her and fussed about her bruises.
Yash laughed, as he walked up first, "So only Payal knew about this surprise."
His father's face crinkled into a smile as he hugged his older son, "Yes, Payal and Chote." Prateek grinned as he too hugged his parents.
Gayatri smiled, "We were worried about Payal and Arti after yesterday's accident…and couldn't help coming over."
Yash introduced everyone. Gayatri stepped forward and clasped naanimaasi's hands, "We apologize for enjoying your hospitality in your absence. Our timing was off…we thought you would be here. Then, Garima and your mali wouldn't let us leave without meeting you. I hope you don't mind. The accident rattled us. Also, I wanted to meet you and Aarti so much."
Naanimaasi responded by embracing Gayatri and saying, "Please don't be so apologetic Gayatriji. It's my honor to have you here. Yash talks about you so much. You have two wonderful sons." She turned to Suraj Pratap, "Namaste Suraj Pratapji! Welcome to my humble abode."
"Please call us Suraj and Gayatri, ma'am. After all you are Gayatri's friend's aunt, and our elder." Suraj Pratap said humbly.
Browns were introduced next. Uncle Chris's friendliness washed away any awkwardness in no time. Aarti stood at the periphery, her hands clasped in a namaste gesture, completely overwhelmed at this surprise. Gayatri stepped around and went to her, even as Yash and Payal reached her.
"Dadima, this is my pari." Payal went and hugged Aarti around her thighs and leaned her head against her waist. Aarti said namaste, and her hand then automatically went around Payal. Gayatri smiled, her experienced eyes not missing anything. She looked at her son, who hadn't taken his eyes off this beautiful girl…Shobha's daughter. Gayatri stepped forward and surprised Aarti by embracing her gently, careful not to touch her back, tears rolling down. She wiped her eyes and pulled back, staring at Aarti for long, and then murmured, "Shobha!" She heard a soft voice beside her, as naanimaasi said, "She looks exactly like her mother, doesn't she?"
"Yes, she does." To Aarti, who stood perplexed, "Your mother and I were best friends…till the end."
"I am so happy to meet you, Auntyji. Apart from naanimaasi, I hadn't met anyone who knew my mother." Aarti was simply overpowered by strong emotions. Why didn't Yash say anything about this ?
Gayatri reached out and cupped her cheek, "You are Shobha's daughter, Aarti. Her daughter is my daughter. Call me Ma…it'll make me happy."
"And I insist you call me Babuji." Yash's father came forward and kept his hand on Aarti's head, blessing her. Aarti wanted to bend down to touch their feet, but Gayatri wouldn't let her, saying her back will hurt her if she does. Straightening up she said with a tremor in her voice, "Babuji…Ma!!" She paused, fighting to hold back tears that threatened to swamp her. "I…I am ….Thank you. Please have a seat. I'll go and see about lunch."
"No beta…don't worry about lunch. We'll go to the hotel and have it. You all must be tired after the journey."
"But…" Aarti looked at naanimaasi, who was already taking Gayatri's hand and turning her toward the chairs, "Firstly, you all are not going anywhere to any hotel. You will stay with us in the house. No…no…I won't accept any excuses. If you take me as your aunt, then you won't disappoint me. Secondly, Garima has prepared lunch. We shall all have it together….here in the lawns."
Then Uncle Chris cracked a one-liner, and everyone laughed and moved under the umbrella. Aarti slipped away and, once inside the house, ran up. In the safety of her room, her knees gave away and slowly she dropped to the edge of the bed, tears falling freely. The next moment she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and hugged him around the waist, crying all the time. He pulled her up and folded her into his arms and let her press her face into his neck, emptying her bittersweet vulnerability into him. He knew exactly what had brought this on. He didn't say anything…just held her head pressed into him, the other hand around her shoulders.
Soon her sobs receded and she pulled away from his sodden collar, "I should stop this. This is (sniff) getting to be a habit. Sorry Yash. I…it's just that…I am not used to so much of happiness." She stopped and looked at him. What could she say? How does one explain this feeling of abstract fulfillment?
Yash poured a glass of water and made her drink it. He then pulled her toward the window from where they could see everybody. Taking her hand in his, he said, "Aarti, see that little crowd? Each one of them loves you and looks on you as their own. They love you for who you are. This is not the time to look back at the emptiness that was….Look in front and see what you have. There is love…and there are relationships that will make you forget the pain that relationships of past gave. This is how it's going to be hereon. The voids are filling up…Rejoice in this new beginning Aarti. If ma knew you were alive, I know for sure she would have brought you to live with us. She and Shobha aunty were very close."
"Why didn't you tell me Yash? Why didn't you tell me they were such good friends?"
"You had too much on your platter Aarti. You had just come to know about your father. I didn't want to upset you more. Of course, I would have eventually told you."
She nodded, "I understand."
Yash moved toward the door, "You freshen up and come down. I'll see to the guest room."
"No Yash. Let me. I want to make sure babuji and ma are comfortable. I'll be down in a few minutes." She was smiling again. It gave her immense happiness to say those two words: babuji and ma.
Yash grinned, "I can see how thoroughly spoiled they are going to be in the next two days. Right…we'll do it together."
The phone rang as Aarti was about to go down. It was from an unknown number.
"So you are back, Aarti. Good. I was waiting for you."
"Who is this? Is this some kind of joke?"
"No joke darling. Just wanted to hear your voice. I'll call again."
The phone went dead, as Aarti stared at it. Someone's idea of a sick joke or…!! Aarti shivered in revulsion at the lecherous intent of the voice.
"Aarti!! Where are the sheets?" Yash's voice came from the stairs.
"Coming Yash." She composed herself and went down. No point telling Yash about the crank call…He will only be worried unnecessarily.
It was a happy lunch….Yash's parents blended easily in this new ring of friendship and relationships. Time and again they glanced fondly at Aarti. They couldn't wait to ask Shobha's aunt for Aarti's hand for their son. Suraj had had a chat with his wife the previous day, and both of them had decided that it's time they get Aarti home to where she belonged. They were waiting for Yash to give a nod. They had respected their son's feelings when he said that he won't pressurize Aarti into anything. He was waiting for Aarti to take the first steps…Well, they understood the logic. But where's the harm if they expedite the matters? That's the main reason they were here.
The Browns left after lunch. Prateek went to drop them. Aarti settled babuji and ma in the Guest room. Payal was already drooping in her dadima's arms, so Yash went and put her on their bed. He had a meeting with the lawyer regarding the land deal. Before going he told Aarti that he will take her to the clinic for dressing in the evening.
Aarti went to her room and read for awhile. But there was too much on her mind, so she just went and sat at the window sill and stared out. She had a promise to keep. But how? Who will tell her about Yash's life? She sat up…of course, his mother. Ma would know. At an opportune time she will ask ma about the girl in Yash's heart…the one he had known all her life. Aarti shut her eyes painfully as her mind conjured images of someone else laughing and talking with Yash…loving him…taking care of him; someone else cuddling Payal and teaching her all the things she wanted to teach her….someone else whom Payal will call "mumma." Oh God, it hurt…even thinking about it hurt so much. Yash was right when he said her life is filled with love and people who care…but he was wrong as well, cause she knew how lonely life will once again get once he and Payal go away….lonely, empty, and silent.
The phone was ringing. Aarti had fallen asleep on the window sill. She sprang up when she heard the ring…Yash.
"You look so beautiful when you sleep. I am going to enjoy waking you up when we are together."
The same voice…It sounded familiar. And he was watching her. Aarti moved away from the window. "Look, I don't know who you are. But if you don't stop calling me, I'll go to the police."
"I am sure you won't do any such thing darling. Not if you don't want any harm to come to your loved ones, especially that little girl."
Aarti's blood ran cold, "What do you want?"
"You…and what was taken from me. I will call you back."
Aarti threw the phone on the bed, as if it burned her hand.
"Pari!!" Aarti spun around. Payal stood there, confusion writ large on her little face. "Are you angry?"
Aarti ran to Payal and caught her in a hug, "Oh my baby…I won't let anything happen to you."
"Pari, what happened?"
"What happened Aarti?" Yash had come in and heard Payal.
"Papa, pari is shivering."
She felt Yash's cool fingers on her forehead, "I don't think there's any fever. Even then I'll ask the doctor to check you properly. We have an appointment in half hour."
"I am fine…really. Sorry for upsetting you, angel…I had a bad dream." She wouldn't look at Yash when she addressed him, "Yash, I'll be down in a few minutes."
She could hear laughter coming from the Guest room when she came down. Telling Yash anything was not an option. She couldn't put him in danger. This man sounded dangerous. Aarti was thinking whom to go to in case these calls turn out to be more than empty threats. Who was he? His voice sounded muffled, but familiar. Could it be Prashant? But then she would have recognized Prashant's voice.
"Huh!!" Aarti started as she saw Yash in front of her.
"Earth to Aarti! I have been calling you for awhile now, but you were far away. Is everything OK?"
She forced herself to smile, "I am fine Yash. Quit worrying so much. I was only thinking about you and your mysterious girl, about whom you won't tell me anything. But you don't know your Aarti? I am stubborn too….I have a thought and I'll follow it and I am going to save the poor girl from any kind of abduction."She winked and went past him, "Let's go."
"Garima, did Prashant come over when we were not here?" Aarti just couldn't shake the feeling that it was Prashant, given what the man on phone said about her and what he lost.
"Yes didi. He did. But the security didn't let him come in. He had called earlier, just after you left, and was asking about you."
"Oho!! Don't say anything to anyone yet, not even to naanimaasi. There are guests in the house. I wouldn't want anyone to worry. I'll handle this. OK?"
They were in the kitchen after dinner, closing up for the day. Aarti came out to find Gayatri walking toward her, "Aha, there you are Aarti. Come out and take a walk with me, child. I always do this after dinner."
Yash looked out of the living room window and saw his mother and Aarti chatting and walking. He heard laughter and smiled. And then immediately frowned. Something was off with Aarti. She hadn't been herself ever since they came back. Although she was trying her best to hide it, but he knew her too well…she was faking. All the way to the clinic and back, she was wound up tighter than a coiled spring…darting glances here and there…easy to startle. What was it? Edginess…yes, definitely that. Maybe a bit scared too. Throughout the evening she was distracted...at the same time not letting Payal out of her sight. Something was definitely going on with her. He suddenly recalled Payal's words as they came out of Aarti's room in the evening: "Papa, pari was angry with the phone. She threw it on the bed." He looked around. There it was. She had left her phone on the center table. He picked it up and checked back on the calls. Two calls from the same number…a landline number. Who had called? He was almost sure that the calls had something to do with her tension. Payal shifted in her sleep; he picked her up from the sofa and took her to the Guest room, where his father was working on a file as he waited for his wife to get back from her routine walk. Yash contemplated talking to him, but thought better of it. He couldn't trouble him till he was sure. He will talk to Aarti the first thing in the morning.
Aarti grinned as Gayatri spoke about Yash's panic attacks regarding Payal. "The first time he rushed to the doctor was when he insisted on learning how to make her burp after a feed. Some milk came out…and he thought she had vomited. He refused to listen to us, saying it's been awhile since he and Prateek were babies and so I and dadi are out of touch. After a few such incidents, Dr Sanyal, Payal's doctor and a very senior pediatrician, scolded Yash and gave him an hour-long lecture about babies. He then gave him a book, which became a Bible for Yash. He would consult it for every little thing. *Sigh* I would so wish he had a wife to be there with him, but he was adamant about marriage issue."
"Why didn't he marry the girl he loved, ma? Did she refuse?"
Gayatri stopped and looked at Aarti, "Which girl are you talking about? There was a girl in college. After she betrayed him, Yash was never interested in any girl."
"What about the girl he knew from childhood?" They climbed up the stairs to the house.
"From childhood? You must be mistaken Aarti," Gayatri stopped outside the door, "There's no such girl. I would know if there was." She reached out and touched Aarti's cheek and smiled, "This reminded me…Did you know Yash met you the day you were born? No? I found him standing near your crib…your finger wrapped around his finger. I had just come away after saying my final goodbyes to your mother before they took her away. Your father was in no state to do the paperwork, so babuji was helping him…..Aarti, what's wrong?"
Aarti's face had gone white. She whispered, "You were there when…when…my mother died?"
"Oh my God! You didn't know? I am so sorry." She took Aarti to the living room, "Here…sit down."
Aarti held her hand, "Ma, tell me about it." And Gayatri did. She told her the events leading to her birth and her mother's death. She then held Aarti to her bosom as she cried, "Shhsh Aarti! Don't cry. Never think yourself to be motherless again. I am there now. You will be the daughter your babuji and I always craved for."
Yash watched from the door and then quietly slipped away to his room. He couldn't sleep and paced up and down. There was a growing uneasiness….as if something not very good was about to happen. Try as he might, he couldn't shake the feeling away. His last thought before he finally got into bed was, "Tomorrow we talk Aarti…no more games…no more skirting…no more hiding. I know how you feel about me, even if you haven't yet realized it; it's time you know what you are to me and how much I love you. Maybe then you won't keep anything from me. Because now if you are keeping something from me, that means you are scared for us. Tomorrow…."
"Good morning everybody! Naanimaasi, where is Aarti?"
"Good morning Yash! She hasn't yet come down. I had an early-morning pooja today. Normally she helps me out, but today she didn't. I guess she overslept. She was really tired last night."
Naanimaasi and the senior Scindias were having their morning cup of tea in the kitchen when Yash walked in. Payal was still asleep.
"But even then she is never so late naanimaasi. I'll go check on her."
Yash ran up. Something was wrong. He could feel it in his guts. He pushed open the door to her room. It was empty. She was not there in the room. He checked the washroom and the balcony. No Aarti. She had simply disappeared.
Surrender to your new awareness
and let love unfold the purpose of creation to you.
and let love unfold the purpose of creation to you.
Yash ran his fingers through his hair out of frustration, trying to calm his frazzled nerves. Maybe he was overreacting. There was no need to panic. There has to be an explanation…a proper rationale…to where Aarti has gone without telling naanimaasi and why her phone was switched off. He leaned against the wall, hands in pockets, and closed his eyes…thinking of the various possibilities. The fact was where Aarti was concerned, reason didn't work…only instincts did, and the beats of his heart. And his heart said something was wrong. His eyes flew open and he straightened up….looking around properly now. Her bed….it was unmade, duvet on the floor. Her pajamas were half on the chair and half on the floor. The dustbin was upturned and the contents spread out. Aarti was anything but untidy and shabby. He looked around for something that would give him an indication where she could have gone in a hurry, and rested on a journal on the corner table. It was open. There was a message on it. It was evident that she had scribbled hurriedly what he read now…and what was meant for his eyes: Whatever happens, keep Payal and naanimaasi safe. Check calls to my number. And a little below: I found her Yash…...Please find me.
He picked up the journal and turned around, running out of the room, checking his watch. It was 8:05 am. How long is she gone? Who took her? Why couldn't she come to him? Or call him? So many questions, but first he had to find the numbers from where she got the calls.
He entered the kitchen as three pairs of eyes looked at him. He pulled a chair and sat next to naanimaasi and looked at her, taking her hand in his, "Naanimaasi, she is gone. But I promise I shall find her before the day is out."
"Gone? Yash, she must have stepped out for some urgent work. Wait, I'll call Anna. Maybe she has gone to the Bro…."
Yash passed her the journal. She read it and started shaking violently as Yash turned and took her in his arms, "Calm down naanimaasi. I need you to be strong for us. I told you I'll find her, and I promise I will. Did she say anything to you last night that would give us some clue?"
Naanimaasi shook her head, "No Yash…everything was fine. She even told me that she will get the morning pooja preparation done and that I should sleep for a few minutes more…and I did. I got up later than I would have."
Yash looked at Gayatri, gesturing her to take over. She came and sat next to naanimaasi, talking to her soothingly, trying to be positive even though Aarti's disappearance had scared her stiff. She asked Garima to get a glass of water. Yash signaled his father, and they moved out of the kitchen door, "Babuji, you know the Police Commissioner here. I am sure he will help us in tracing these calls."
"I am on it….Yash! Do you know who it could be? It's clear she was coaxed out after she was threatened with Payal's and Neemaji's lives."
Yash shook his head and then saw Garima standing at the door, looking at him tentatively, "Do you want to say something Garima?"
She stepped out, "Yash bhaiya, it may not mean anything. But yesterday, after dinner, didi was asking me regarding Prashantji."
"What was she saying?"
"Whether he called…or he came. I told her that he came once after you all had left and even called once to ask when she would be back."
"Prashant!!! Of course…it has to be him. Why did it not strike me? I won't leave that scoundrel. He has gone too far this time." He started to walk away when his father stopped him, "Hold on Yash. Don't do anything stupid out of anger. Let us first make sure it is Prashant, and not someone else. Then only we can take the next step."
It was then that Yash's phone rang. It was from an unknown number.
"Hello! Yash Scindia here."
"If you try to contact the police, she will die." The voice was muffled, as if someone was talking through a cloth or something…trying to disguise his voice.
Yash put the phone on speaker and moved away from the house with his father, so that naanimaasi didn't hear anything. "Where is Aarti? Who are you?"
"You are in no position to ask questions Yash Scindia."
"What do you want?"
"Tch…tch! Have patience. Let the banks open. I'll call you at ten. Be ready. Remember, No Police. If I even smell trouble, she will pay the price."
"Wait!" But the line was cut. He checked the time. It was almost nine. One hour…he couldn't do anything before that.
He turned to his father. He was already dialing the commissioner. He waited for his father to finish and then asked, "How long babuji?"
"About an hour or so Yash. I am passing him this number as well. He is contacting his people. He said once we establish the identity of the caller, the police can close in on him. In any case, we shall have to wait till the kidnapper contacts again and then find a way to get through to him without letting him know, so that Aarti is not harmed." Suraj Pratap paused and then kept a hand on his son's shoulder, "Yash, you have to be prepared for the worst, son."
"No babuji. Nothing will happen to her. Nothing." There was a determination in his voice that shook Suraj Pratap. Please God, be with my son. He has only just found his love…please allow him this happiness.
Yash went up to Aarti's room. He cleaned it, made the bed, and then sat on it holding her picture in his hand. Her words resonated in his mind: I found her Yash…...Please find me. He closed his moist eyes as few tears trickled down his cheeks, "Just hold on my love…hold onto my love. A little while more. I'll find you…and then I'll never ever let you go out of my sight."
"Papa!" He wiped his eyes and turned as Payal climbed onto his lap and buried her face sleepily in his neck. "Where is pari, papa?"
Yash held his daughter tightly, "She has gone out for a very important work. She will be back soon."
"When papa? I wanted her now."
Yash turned her face to him. "I also want her now princess. Tell you what. I'll go and get her. It's going to rain, and she might get late because of it. Is it OK if I go and leave you with badi nani, dadima, and dadaji?"
"Alright!" She slipped down. "I'll be a good girl."
He scooped her again and kissed her, "You are such a sweetheart. When I get pari, we'll have a surprise gift for you."
"Really? Wow! Can I tell everyone?"
"Sure." He smiled through misty eyes as she ran out of the room and whispered, "I'll get your mumma back for you…for me…for us. We both need her so badly." He looked at his watch. Time to go down.
The sky had darkened as he went down. Naanimaasi, Prateek, and Suraj Pratap were in the living room. Gayatri had taken Payal for her bath. Naanimaasi was tense but calm. Prateek came and hugged Yash, "We'll get bhabhi back, bhaiya." Yash nodded grimly.
Just then the bell rang, and Garima ushered in the Commissioner of Police Varun Sirohi, along with a junior officer. After the introductions, Yash asked, "Any news, Sir?"
"I think we have him Yash. The phone numbers point to Prashant Gupta alright, as you all suspected. The landline number belongs to a grocery shop close to where he lives. The grocer is being questioned at the moment. The mobile number belongs to a junior executive in his office. The phone was reported stolen last evening. The number he used today is registered to him. But we can't nab him yet, till we are sure where he has kept Miss Aarti and that she is safe."
The phone rang exactly at ten. It was from a different number than the earlier one. Yash put it on speaker. "Five crores! Pick up the money and go to the public booth in the ground floor of the Axis Mall. You will get your next instructions there at exactly fifteen minutes past 11 o'clock."
Yash stared at the phone….If this were not such a serious matter, he would have found it very funny. Obviously the man watches too many low-grade gangster movies.
"Yash Scindia!….Cat got your tongue or what? Don't forget I have a man pointing a gun at Aarti at this very moment. She is unhurt and alive for now, but her time in this world will depend on you."
"Don't you dare hurt her. I want to talk to Aarti first. Till I hear her voice and know she is fine, you won't get a paisa."
"Oh! So you doubt me. Fair enough. I'll call you back in five minutes, and then you can hear her."
After exactly five minutes the phone rang. Yash grabbed it, "Aarti!!"
"Yash!!" Even though the voice had a small slur, it was clearly her. His knuckles turned white as he tightened his fingers.
"Are you OK love? Have they harmed you?"
"I am fine….just very tired. I have this feeling of forever surrounding me….scattered and abandoned and encaged and starry winds looking at me…with memories of no one but my soul mate. Follow the thought and…." Her voice faded away as the phone was snatched from her.
A gruff voice came over, "She is fine…just a little disoriented because of the drug; that's why she was talking nonsense. You get the money or she won't be fit to even speak that." And the line was cut. Yash sat down numbly, as Prateek took the phone from his hand and checked the number, "It's again a different number bhaiya."
"I know…and a different voice." He stared down for awhile, not saying anything. Everyone waited. When he looked up, there was a twinkle in his eyes. He squared his shoulders and got up, and then walked up to naanimaasi. He took her hands in his and said softly, "I know where she is being kept naanimaasi."
"You do? But how?" Realization dawned, "Oho! Aarti told you. Is my baby OK, Yash? How did she sound?"
"She is fine naanimaasi. They have taken her to the mountains. I know where. They drugged her before taking her up there. But she was very much in her senses when she spoke with me. She managed to fool them. They thought she was talking gibberish because of the drug." He smiled and then said, "You have one smart granddaughter there. I am so proud of her." He looked at Prateek, "Do me a favor Chote? Get my backpack ready. Make sure it has the first-aid box, a blanket and sheet, and some food and drinks. Meet me at the turning near the Brownies in thirty minutes." He turned back to naanimaasi, "Please give Chote a change of clothes for Aarti. I can see a storm coming. She might get wet. And also her medicines….she hasn't had today's dose."
Yash walked over to where the commissioner and his father waited to hear what he had to say. He then took the blessings of his parents and naanimaasi and hugged Payal before stepping out. He went straight to Prashant's house and rang the bell. The moment Prashant opened the door, he whacked him. Before Prashant could get up, Yash was on him with a few more blows, thrashing him nice and proper. Prashant shouted, "Stop! Stop! Why are you hitting me? What have I done?"
Yash pulled him up by the collar and threw him over the sofa and stood over him menacingly, "I told you to stay away from Aarti. You stepped way beyond your line this time Prashant. I am going to end your story today."
Yash socked him again and picked up a wooden chair, which made Prashant cry out, "Don't…please don't. I didn't kidnap her."
Yash laughed and kept the chair down, "I didn't mention any kidnapping, did I? You said it."
Prashant narrowed his eyes, wiping his bloody lips, as he said, "So you know. Good. Now I'll go with you to the bank to take the money…..the money that I lost out on because of your meddling with the house deal."
"In your dreams Prashant."
"Yash, if I don't call my man by 11 to tell him that you have left the bank with the money, he will shoot Aarti."
"That won't happen, because you are calling him now to tell him that you have the money and that you are leaving town in two hours, so he should come here fast if he wants his share." Yash threw the phone at him, just as the commissioner and other police men, who were waiting outside, barged into the room. Prashant realized his game was up and made the call. He tried to have a final go at Yash before he was whisked away, "I won't tell you where she is. You will never find her. If I can't have her, neither will you."
Yash smirked, "You are more stupid than I thought…and so is your man. Aarti has already told me where she is right in his presence. Do you think I would have risked her life and accosted you if I didn't know where she was? Another thing Prashant….if I find she was harmed in any way, I'll get into the jail and kill you. I promise."
Prashant told him with utter resignation, "She is fine. My instructions were to treat her well. I was going to marry her today after I got the money and then leave the country. But you messed up everything. Damn you Yash Scindia."
The storm had already hit the area. Yash told the commissioner that he knew the trail to the abandoned cabin where Aarti was. He would trek it faster in the slippery conditions if he was alone as he knew a shorter route. As the police took away Prashant, Yash ran to his car….It was time to go to Aarti.
Sitting on the thick branch, with her back uncomfortably resting on the trunk, Aarti waited for the storm to abate, as strong, howling winds and heavy rains pelted all around her. She was relatively dry and safe here, with the heavy foliage of the tree protecting her. She had hurriedly climbed the first thickly leaved tree she saw when she had ran out of the cabin, with the goons not far behind. Tree climbing was not new to her…she had done it many times in the mangrove in Hoshangabad. The gardener's grandson and granddaughter, twins and of her age, had taught her how to when she was ten or so, before they were accused of loitering and shooed out by buaji. She remembered her favorite tree and her favorite branch on which she had worked upon so many sketches and compositions.
Aarti tried to peer down, but the heavy rains made the visibility poor. She couldn't go down yet. What if those two men were still around? She had seen then twice from her vantage position on the tree when they had come looking. But, for the past two hours or so, they were not to be seen or heard. In all likelihood, they were in the cabin, waiting for the storm to get over. After the phone call with Yash, she had feigned drugged unconsciousness, so they hadn't tied her again. Then they were distracted by a phone call, allowing her an opportunity to make a run for it. She shut her eyes in pain and rubbed her wrists, which hurt after being tied for so long. She hoped that Yash remembered their conversation of a few days ago and got her message:
"Yash, did you and Aman always trekked on one route?'
"Oh no! It was never the same. Aman used to chalk out the route, which was always different, except…"
"Except for the beginning and ending. We always started from the same base camp and always ended our main trek with a rest in an abandoned cabin."
"Yeah, a perfectly made log cabin…but it was abandoned as many years back the authorities officially deemed that area dangerous for trekking after a bad storm cut off all the safe trails. We always spent our last night there. The last time we were there, Aman had hung up a wind chime made of stars in a corner of the cabin..."For the winds and the stars to remember us by," he said. He was crazily sentimental in many ways. And then when we sat out under the skies, he told me I might come across my soul mate there. Back then I had scoffed at him for being foolishly romantic…but I am not so sure now. (sigh) Aarti, that was the last place where I scattered his ashes."
Her soul mate…Yash. What a fool she was not to have understood the meaning of those looks, the possessiveness of his bearing, the familiarity of his presence, and the love in his eyes. Aarti hugged her arms around her drawn-up knees and whispered for the nth time, "He loves me." The truth had finally struck her when she went back to her room after her talk with Ma the previous night. She recalled Yash's words, "Someone I have known since the first day of her life in this world. That day she gave me her hand…and I still hold it," and everything fell into place. He had meant her. He had always meant her. Only she couldn't get it. Her insecurities about herself had surrounded her in a fog of ignorance. If Yash wanted, he could have broken through…but he didn't. He let her find her way through that fog…and when she did, she was dazzled by the brilliance of his feelings, which were always there for her to see…if only she were not so blinded. She had almost ran out of the room then…wanting to be with him…wanting to tell him about her love…wanting to pick up Payal and tell her that her mumma has come. She had felt so free…free to love…free to give love. She wanted to hug them and tell them that she loved them for giving her the right to love them…that she will love them as they had never been loved before…that she will cherish them in her heart till eternity.
But she had somehow curbed her urge and had waited for the dawn to break. Somewhere during the night her exhaustion had taken over, and she had fallen asleep…only to be woken up by the persistent ringing of her phone. She had squinted into the phone to see it was 4 am. She had known before she had switched it on that it was the sinister caller. He was very specific in his threat: "Listen carefully. You have two minutes to come out of the side gate. If you don't, then I promise you that your grandmother and that little girl will not see tomorrow's sun."
"No, please don't. Why are you doing this?"
"I have no time for explanation. If you love them, then for their sake a few hours away from them won't harm you. Your two minutes start now…and yes, keep the phone switched on and bring it with you. I don't want you calling or texting anyone."
She had sprung down from the bed and hurriedly changed into the only clothes that were lying on the chair in front: the green kurti and jeans in which she had traveled the previous day. There was no time…but she had to leave a message for Yash. She had less than a minute when she grabbed the journal and sat on the floor, writing in the phone's light as she didn't trust the caller to be watching the window if she put on the light.
She had run out after carefully closing the front door. Outside the side gate she had just taken a couple of steps, when someone grabbed her in the dark. Alarm and fear exploded in her as survival instincts kicked in, and she yanked and twisted against her captor's fierce grip. But her puny efforts failed against his brute strength as he roughly pushed her inside a van standing there. The very next moment a pungent-smelling cloth was slapped against her nose. She clawed at the hands fisting the cloth. A wave of wooziness washed over her. Her limbs suddenly refused to move as she collapsed on the seat. In the dim light she saw Prashant as he instructed his goons to take her to the mountains. The vision narrowed to a pinprick of light and then darkness. She never saw Prashant reach out and take her phone, switching it off.
She came to senses feeling dizzy and with a feeling of being on a swing, and realized she was on a horse on a narrow path in the mountain. She tried to get up but the man walking next to her once again pressed the chloroform-dipped rag against her face. When she regained consciousness next, she found herself sitting on the floor in the corner of a wooden cabin, with her hands and feet tied. She saw there were two men, hefty and dangerous looking. However, apart from looking at her once, they let her be, conversing with each other in a local dialect. She looked around the wooden cabin and found herself staring at a wind chime. Though rusty and dusty, there was no mistaking the various-shaped stars that hung and created music as the winds passed through them. That's when she knew where she was. Soon after, the phone rang…but the men had to step out as the reception inside the cabin was not clear. They came in and untied her saying she had to step out to receive the call from Yash, warning her that they will kill her if she dared say anything about her whereabouts. Her hands and feet free, she knew it was her only chance of escape….and she acted on it after she spoke with Yash.
Now, sitting on the tree, as she waited for Yash to come, she had a lot of time to reflect on her life. She found it was easier to separate her past from the present if she just kept her faith. She knew now that she is not a curse, but a boon for the people who loved her…who waited at home for her to come back. Their selfless and seamless love had shown her the way. They needed her as much as she needed them. The darkness of the past may hover over her, but she will not look back any more…not any more. She too had a home now…she too had a family to love and be loved in return.
"Aarti!!...Aarti!!...Where are you?...AARTI!!!"
She opened her eyes as the most beautiful voice in the world penetrated the layers of sleepy haze. She woke up with a jerk as the voice seemed to recede farther away, "Yash!!...Oh my God, Yash! Yash, I am here." She shouted as she tried to get down from the tree as fast as she could. The rain had slowed down to a drizzle as she stepped away from the tree and ran toward the cabin, "Yash!!...I am here. Yash!!" She had no idea where those men were, but if they were in the cabin, she had to warn Yash. She ran and came to the clearing in front of the cabin.
"YASH!!" Absentmindedly she noted that no one came out of the cabin…so the men were gone. Or were they? She noticed a movement across the clearing, behind the tree line. She stood rooted and then the familiar sight of Yash came in her line of vision. Everything was blur after that…none knew who moved first, as they both ran and met half way. Aarti flung herself into his open arms, as he buried her into himself.
Yash was terrified when he didn't find her in the cabin. His agitation turned to panic within seconds, as he shouted for her. He had just entered the forest when he heard her. He ran back and saw her…her hair flying all around her, her hand stretched toward him. One whole day…one terrible, empty day without her. That was how long Yash had not seen her beautiful face…a period that had felt like a soundless collision between eternity and infinity. And now she was here…safe...in his arms. He pulled her against the solid wall of his body, not wanting even an inch to separate them…and she complied, pressing herself to him, trembling…the shock of the past hours finding a release in his arms.
She sighed as Yash reined kisses all over her face, whispering her name all the time and mumbling his gratitude to God. "Oh Aarti…I was so scared…so scared. Thank you God. You are safe now…Oh God, I could have lost you. Aarti…my sweet Aarti." She let him relieve his tension, instinctively knowing that he needed to do this. He pulled back a little and searched her eyes, his own dark and fathomless, a look she now recognized as passion. He then cradled her face in his warm hands and kissed her. Aarti had no idea what she should do, but she gave back as her heart commanded. Her arms lifted and wound around his neck on their own volition. As he deepened the angle of the kiss, she felt something unlocking inside of her being…felt herself surrender to him. Suddenly she felt light. She felt liberated. She felt really alive for the first time in her life. He was always the air she needed.
He was breathing fast when he pulled away, gazing at her with such love that she forgot to breathe for a moment. His long fingers caressed the side of her face lovingly, tucking the stray strands of hair behind her ears even as she felt shivers run down her spine because of his gentle touch.
"Wow!!" She whispered.
He chuckled, "Wow? Is that all you have to say my love?"
"I think my brain stopped functioning there. It needs a kick start."
"Or maybe a kiss-start? Hmm!!"
She blushed furiously and hid her face in the crook of his neck, as he laughed and gathered her close. Together they walked toward the cabin….savoring the moment for the time being…just thankful to have found each other.
The decision to kiss for the first time is the most crucial in any love story.
It changes the relationship of two people much more strongly than even the final surrender;
because this kiss already has within it that surrender.
It changes the relationship of two people much more strongly than even the final surrender;
because this kiss already has within it that surrender.
Aarti saw the ropes and the bottle of chloroform on the rag the moment they entered the cabin, and an involuntary shiver ran through her…What if? Wordlessly Yash turned her in his arms and held her. She slid her arms around him, finding safety in the heaven of his arms, knowing she need never be afraid again. Thus they stood, enraptured in each other's touch and holding each other tightly, bodies pressed together…their souls merging in the silence of the moment. A sudden gush of wind made the wind chime clink and clang louder, making Aarti tremble with unknown sensations as she realized the intimacy of their position. Yash felt the tremor and shifting his hand to her waist pulled her closer, wanting only to absorb her fear and feel her. The telltale signs of the kidnapping made him recall his own terror during the horrendous hours when she was not there in front of her…safe and smiling. The quivering of her body, her breath upon his cheek and neck…they told him all. He hugged her tightly till she steadied and calmed down…trying his best not to let her know about his own fears. She sighed, liking the feel of his body against hers, and whispered against his neck, "Yash, I am fine….really. Relax. Everything is fine. I am not scared anymore. It's just that seeing the ropes and that rag I remembered their slimy touch and realized what they could have done if…."
"No! Aarti…Never." A strangled cry escaped Yash's lips, and his arms about her tightened as all the pent-up fears of the past hours burst out in a physical release at her words….the hold that he had kept on his emotions, trying to keep a brave front for naanimaasi and his parents, not knowing what they had done with her, trying to keep going with her smiling face in his heart and mind, and holding onto his faith that he will find her safe, yet all the time petrified for her. His chest constricted with the surge of fearful emotions of what could have happened, and his eyes stung as he wrapped his arms around her in a stronghold. Her heart fluttered like a caged bird and she inhaled sharply, quietly, as his arms tightened on her injury. She understood what he must have gone through, fearing for her and blaming himself for not being there for her.
Aarti turned her face to look at him and gasped at seeing his tortured eyes and the pain they reflected. She wanted to calm the raging storm of guilt within him, but didn't know how. She didn't even feel the tears that ran streams down her cheeks as she parted her lips to say something…anything…that would abate the turbulence she felt was consuming him. But the unspoken words lost their way for good as Yash bent his head and captured her lips in a demanding kiss, feeling her, asking her to give, absorbing her essence, as his breath came hot and heavy and in short spurts against her face. This was no way like the gentle kiss they shared just a few moments back. This was the kiss of life for a drowning man who feared he had lost sight of the shore…and not believing that he had found it. His lips moved desperately over hers, nipping her, sucking her as his kisses became urgent and fervent. Aarti clung to his wet body, as the raindrops from his windswept, tousled hair slid and mingled with her tears. His hand pressed on her injury and she whimpered inadvertently, grasping his shoulders. That little cry of pain pierced his brain, clearing the haze and bringing an abrupt end to the passionate kiss, as he pushed her away and looked at her with horror. Turning he banged his hand against the wall, breathing heavily, and whispered, "Dear God, what am I doing?"
For an eternity neither spoke…as the wind howled outside and the wind chime danced in its own melody. Aarti raised her hand toward him, wanting him to look at her and see that she was fine…that she understood. But he turned and strode to the backpack lying at a corner, not looking at her.
"Yash!" She spoke softly, trying to rein the tremor in her voice, "It's OK. I…" She stopped as she saw his back stiffen and his hand clutch a packet he took out.
He kept the packet on the backpack and stood up, looking out of the window "You are all wet. Naanimaasi has sent clothes for you. You change. I'll go out and get some wood to get the fire going. It'll be dark soon and the rain is picking up again. It's not safe to foot it back now. We will have to spend the night here. I'll call up babuji and let him know." He went and picked up the ropes after throwing the bottle and the rag out of the window. Aarti willed him to look at her, not knowing what to say; instead, he walked to the other end, opened a rickety cupboard above the fireplace, took out an axe, and turned to go. At the door he stopped and said in a soft, low voice, "Those men won't come back. The police would have nabbed them by now. So, don't be scared. I won't be far. If you need anything just give me a shout." And then he walked out, without a glance at her.
Aarti stood still for awhile, staring at his back, as he reached the end of the clearing and turned toward the woods. She raised her fingers to her lips, which felt swollen and very much loved. She reflected on what just happened and then nodded to her own thoughts. She knew what she had to do to relieve him of his misery. Walking up to the backpack, she picked up the packet and took out the towel naanimaasi had put in.
Yash called his father and told him about his decision. His father agreed and advised him to stay put in the cabin, and that he will arrange for a chopper to pick them up soon after the first light. He also spoke with nanimaasi and told her that Aarti was fine and not to worry about her. He didn't speak much and cut the phone off soon. Remorse was eating him up…How can he face Aarti after what he did? His sweet Aarti…When he should have been gentle with her and treated her tenderly, he had scared her more by practically assaulting her with his fears…Hasn't she suffered enough that he too had to go and impose his emotions on her? Oh God! What was wrong with him? He brought the axe down hard on the branch he meant to cut in pieces, mouthing profanities. The angrier he became with himself, the faster his hands moved, till he heard a cloud burst somewhere and realized he better hurry before the intensity of the rains increased. He gathered the pieces of wood and tied them up. He then took out his shirt and put the bundle in it and then hauling them on his back he tied the sleeves across his shoulder and waist. The rest he carried in his arms. These should see them through the night. But first, he owed an apology to Aarti.
He stepped into the cabin and stood stunned. The place was clean. A sheet was spread out in front of the fireplace. The blanket and sleeping bag were placed on one end of the sheet, along with his change of clothing and a towel. The old wooden table by the window had a bunch of wild flowers placed in the middle. Around the makeshift arrangement were a couple of large fern leaves, on which lay their dinner: sandwiches and cakes and a bottle of lemonade. He dumped the wood in the corner near the door and finally looked at the far corner where she stood. In a white salwar-suit, she looked ethereal. She had brushed her hair and put them up in a bun, which made him frown and which in turn made her smile. He tried to speak but then changed his mind and turned to pick up the wood. Taking the necessary stuff from his backpack, he soon got a fire going. He went and picked up his clothes and then looked at her. She walked to the door and stood looking out. Yash changed into a fresh pair of jeans and a blue-and-white check shirt. She must have sensed he had finished, because she stepped back and closed the door and turned to him.
Yash stood mesmerized as he saw the beautiful vision walk to him, the light from the fire illuminating her angelic face in a breathtaking glow, as shadows of the night crept in to curtain the windows…He stared unblinking…his eyes drinking in the exquisiteness of her face, her eyes, her lips….that's when he recalled what he had done, causing him to lower his eyes. He tried to apologize but she put a finger on his lips and then reached out for his right hand. He watched intrigued as she separated his index finger, kissed it, and then wrapped her hand around it. She then looked up at him and saw regret…uncertainty…hurt…an agonizing pain as he shifted his gaze away. But she kept a hand on the side of his face and forced him to look at her. One touch…and his eyes revealed the emotions he possessed only for her…love...tenderness…concern…respect….and a passionate desire, much more profound than a mere physical pull. Her eyes glistened with crystal dews as she lifted the entwined fingers to her heart and said softly,
"Your eyes were what I recognized first, the day I entered this world
I reached out for your hands, the hands of my beloved.
The day we found each other in this life
A love beyond love…bound in life beyond life.
When everyone left me and went away
you kept coming back…and saved me the day
You gave me the reason to be
Because you are you…I am me
I am because you are."
I reached out for your hands, the hands of my beloved.
The day we found each other in this life
A love beyond love…bound in life beyond life.
When everyone left me and went away
you kept coming back…and saved me the day
You gave me the reason to be
Because you are you…I am me
I am because you are."
Tears welled in his eyes and spilled over as he looked down at the precious woman holding his finger…This time, he promised, he will never let go. This is forever. She kept her free hand on his chest and tiptoed to come close to his lips, and whispered against them, "I love you, Yash Scindia…with all my heart and soul," and then kissed him…her lips soft and smooth on his quivering ones. He stood spellbound at the beautiful gift of her words and confession, savoring the feel of her sweet lips moving on his, when he felt her nip and then take his lower lip between her teeth. Stunned he looked down and saw her wink. With a groan, he bent and took her lips in a searing kiss, completing what she had started. Reaching behind, he freed her hair and ran his fingers through them. Laughing and crying simultaneously they explored each other's lips and face….reveling in the sanctuary of each other's embrace and love.
They broke the kiss and stood with their foreheads touching. Aarti looked into his eyes, which brimmed with love now, and smiled. He kissed her deeply on her forehead and said huskily, "I breathe for you Aarti…you are my life. I cannot even begin to express how much I love you."
She didn't say anything for awhile, content to lay her cheek against his heart and listen to his heartbeats.
"I am very hungry."
And he laughed, happiness rippling through his entire being.
Much later, they sat on the sheet, watching the flames…Aarti curled contentedly in the protection of the warmth of Yash's arms, her back resting comfortably on his chest.
"Aarti! Why so quiet? What are you thinking my love?"
"Payal…I was thinking about her? Like you, she never gave up on me."
"No she didn't." He dropped a kiss on her head, "Our princess recognized her mumma the day she met her."
"I love her so much, Yash. God took away my mother but gifted me a beautiful daughter instead. Today I feel I am the luckiest woman alive….all because of you and my savior angel." Aarti had never dreamt of happiness…because she firmly believed that "being happy" was not meant for her. But Yash and Payal had changed all that in no time. They pulled her into their fold and demanded she create a new universe of their own with them…their paradise. They had made life come to life for her.
He tightened his arms around her, leaned, and whispered in her ear, "Marry me."
She turned her head and snuggled into his neck, "I will, but I have one condition."
He cupped her chin and turned her face to him, trying to read her eyes and knowing immediately that this was important to her, "Anything…just name it."
She sat up then, moving away to look at him. There was a lifetime of pain reflecting in her eyes as she extended her hand, palm up, and said, "Yash, promise me that if ever it comes down to it, your love and responsibility for Payal and any child that we have in future will precede your love for me….always." He looked at her and kept his hand on hers, nodding once. He felt the tension ebb from her as she relaxed and crawled back into his arms.
"Aarti, don't get me wrong love, but I have to say this. You do not have to atone for your father. He hurt you badly by not being there for you. Don't let his shortcomings affect you so much. He did what he had to do."
She was silent for awhile and then spoke, "You know Yash, my father saw me only once and that too in a mirror. That agitated him so much that he…." She paused touching her kurta where the scar was and sighed, "You may not comprehend this, but I understood him…and I understood his love for ma. She was the reason for his living….When ma chose me over her life, she chose to take away his life as well. I don't blame him for looking at me as the cause to what he lost. His love was dead because I was alive…. It was that simple. How could he then have anything to do with me?"
"That's all very well Aarti. But he should have looked at it positively. You were the living dream of the person he loved so much. He should have treasured you and not deem you a curse. He was wrong to have put the love for his dead wife over his responsibilities as a father. In the bargain, he became the reason for the curse your life became."
She upturned her face and gave him a watery smile, "Now you know why I put that condition."
"You trust me that much?"
She reached up to peck his chin, "And more…I trust you to do the right thing, as you always do."
"I didn't do the right thing when I took out my fears on you by kissing you like that. I shouldn't have scared you. But when it struck me that I could have lost you or worse didn't reach in time to stop them from harming you, I lost it Aarti…I lost my restraint. I am so sorry."
She turned in his arms and cupped his cheek, "No, Yash. No. There is no need of an apology…and certainly not for letting me in."
"But I hurt you Aarti."
"That's just it Yash…What you thought hurt me in fact made me so happy."
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying that what you did was the right thing."
"Assaulting you was the right thing?"
She smiled shaking her head, "You didn't assault me Yash…you loved me… you expressed your need for me. And you didn't hide behind the veneer of false strength. You gave me your vulnerability ….you shared your fears. That means so much to me. I wish my father had trusted me with his fears."
"Aarti, don't hold yourself responsible for his actions."
"And you don't hurt yourself by holding yourself responsible every time you think you have hurt me…OK?"
"I don't know what you mean." He shifted his gaze.
"No? Then what's this?" She turned his palms and showed him the blisters, which were turning deep red. "This clearly shows you were being angry with yourself." She bent and kissed the palms. "If you ever do this again, I am going to be very angry with you."
He grinned, "I love it when you are angry."
"Yup! You look so adorable…the tip of your nose goes all red." He pressed her nose affectionately. She made a face and turned toward the fire.
Their silence communicated for awhile as they sat watching the flames crackle and dance their way to cinders. The rains poured incessantly outside…their pitter-patter creating a separate melody. Yash sighed in bliss and cradled her closer to him, if that was possible. However, she straightened and sat up cross legged, holding his hands, "Yash, will you give me something if I ask it?"
"Just name it darling. What's it you want?"
She gazed deeply into his eyes, "Your patience Yash. No, no…hear me out please. I am not saying you are not patient with me. You are. You are a blessing to me. (A pause) Yash, howsomuch I try to steer clear of them, there are memories that chase me all the time. I shall try my best to break away from the bad memories, and try not to let them cast a shadow on our future, but I can't promise you when. I need you to love me and be patient thorough my dark days…and nights."
He pulled her on his lap and kissed her lightly, "Take all the time you need my love…we have an eternity with us. I am there with you all the way. We shall see this through together…as long as it takes."
Emotions swamped her and tears blurred her eyes as she hugged him and thanked God for sending her this wonderful man. In that moment, after long, tortuous years of loneliness, self-flagellation, and low self-worth, she ceased her resistance and completely surrendered to his love and the will of God. She understood the whys and hows of their connection. She understood her destiny.
He slowly eased her off him and got up to unfold the sleeping bag. He then picked her up even as she cuddled up to him and burrowed in closer to his chest. He held her close to him, not wanting to let go. She shivered as his warmth left her when he lowered her on the sleeping bag. He quickly zipped up the bag. After putting the last of the wood in the fireplace and adjusting the fire, he came and lay down beside her, covering both with the blanket.
He looked lovingly at the serenity of her countenance, reaching out to brush back the ever-errant stray lock from her forehead and cheek. He then leaned over to place a gentle kiss on her forehead, and whispered, "Goodnight, my darling!"
She smiled in her sleep and reached out to take his hand, tucking it firmly beneath her cheek, holding onto his wrist. He kept his own hand on hers and gazed at her till sleep took over….with dreams of a new tomorrow…a new beginning….together. Together is a wonderful place to be in.
To be continued..........